Tag Archives: Washington University in St. Louis

A Christmas Carol (my story–not Dickens’s)

With the arrival of the December holidays, we’re surrounded by the sounds of holiday music.  Much of this music celebrates religious holidays, but some of it has become beloved secular songs.

I’ve always loved holiday music, ranging from traditional Christmas carols to more elevated music composed by serious composers.  I especially relished singing Christmas music with my high-school and college choral groups.

My high-school experience was memorable.  Our school chorus was invited to sing carols in the plaza of the Chicago Sun-Times building. We joyously sang at this site on Michigan Avenue adjacent to the Wrigley Building, just north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. What a fabulous time we had, singing a number of well-known carols in the freezing cold while bundled-up passers-by watched and listened. (Sadly, the Sun-Times building was demolished around 2004, and its plaza is now occupied by an enormous blot on the riverscape along the Chicago River: the 92-story T…. International Hotel and Tower, built by our twice-impeached former president.) 

As a college student at Washington University, I joined two choral groups that sang holiday music with the St. Louis Symphony.  First, as a member of the university’s Women’s Chorus, I sang with the symphony in “L’Enfance du Christ” (“The Childhood of Christ”) by Berlioz.  By my senior year, I was part of the wonderful university Choir. We did a lot of singing, including a holiday-timed presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.”  Singing these two pieces, as well as Brahms’s “A German Requiem,” with the St. Louis Symphony created some of my favorite WashU memories.

The holiday season and its music also revive a memory from my much younger childhood.  When I was about eight, my parents shopped for a piano so I could learn how to play.  I remember viewing a handsome model at the Lyon & Healy store on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago, where the salesman had a great sales pitch.  He told us this piano was worth a great deal more money than L & H was asking because it was designed for a wealthy pooh-bah who’d returned it to the store only because he wasn’t happy with some feature or another.  True story or not, my parents scooped up this gorgeous piano, and it became a highlight of our otherwise ordinary living room.

Mom immediately set about arranging piano lessons for me.  Somehow she came up with Rachel G., a woman whom I remember as a rigid unsmiling taskmaster (taskmistress?), lacking in patience, whose lessons became a dreaded part of my existence.

At first Rachel G had a fairly kind approach.  She introduced me to classical music in very simplified form, and I did glean a basic knowledge of composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Bach in child-designed sheet music.  Truthfully, I didn’t retain much of their biographical information, but I painfully made my way through the simple arrangements of some of their most famous melodies.  I later progressed to slightly more advanced arrangements of major classical pieces, like the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s “Faust” and the theme from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor.  Remarkably, I’ve saved almost all of my sheet music, shuttling it around the country during numerous cross-country moves, and I still have them, decorating the piano that now sits in my apartment.

One day fairly early in our relationship, Rachel G brought a new and very simple piece of music for me to learn.  It was a well-known Christmas carol:  “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  The front cover of the sheet music, with a cover price of 30 cents (a 25-cent price is crossed out), portrays a Dickens-era group of four carolers, led by a man in a top hat and bright plaid coat.  In big letters, the cover notes that it includes one of six different “Carols you love to sing and play.”  Inside, we read that this carol was the creation of Phillips Brooks and Louis H. Redner and that Walter Lane arranged the very simple collection of notes and lyrics.

Phillips Brooks was the Episcopal rector of a Philadelphia church (later rector of Trinity Church in Boston) who was inspired to write the words of the carol by his visit to the city of Bethlehem in 1865.  Three years later, he finally wrote the words, and just before Christmas, he asked Redner, the church organist, to add the music.  Redner later recalled that the simple music was “written in great haste and under great pressure….Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music…would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” 

My parents weren’t members of any church, Christian or otherwise.  They—especially my father–were pretty casual about religious observance of any stripe, including their own.  My grandparents, who’d emigrated from Eastern Europe, were probably unfamiliar with American Christmas carols, but my American-born parents never objected to my singing them. 

Still, my mother, usually reticent, seemed disturbed by Rachel G’s selection.  I think she viewed the carol as a religious piece of music, and she disliked the idea of my playing religious music in our home.  Before my lesson began, she uncharacteristically spoke up.  I don’t recall the exact words spoken by either my mother or Rachel G, but I could grasp the tense tone of the conversation. 

Looking back, I suspect that Rachel G was most likely Jewish, so her choice was somewhat curious.  But I’ve concluded that her choice was based on the music, not the words.  Its super-simple musical arrangement was clearly suitable for the level of my ability.  So, as a conscientious music teacher, she stood her ground. 

In the end, Rachel G must have soothed my mother’s concerns because I went on to learn, haltingly, the music of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  I still have the fragile paper copy of the sheet music.  And I still love to play its beautiful melody in my still halting fashion.

When my family moved from Chicago to LA when I was 12, my parents sold our gorgeous piano, and our fortunes never led to the purchase of another one. That ended any possibility that my piano skills would ever improve.  I grew up to deeply envy skilled pianists who undoubtedly had more benevolent instruction and a piano literally at their fingertips.

The carol I learned to play, thanks to Rachel G, has endured.  When I viewed “Christmas in Connecticut,” a fan-favorite Christmas movie that appeared on TV last week, I watched star Barbara Stanwyck romanced by star Dennis Morgan.  In one delightful scene, he charmingly plays “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on her piano while she’s trimming her Christmas tree. 

“O Little Town” lives!

Beavers? Seriously?

Here’s a piece of news to chew on. A recent study of beavers’ teeth may lead to decay-resistant teeth for humans.

Although beavers never brush their teeth, and they certainly don’t drink fluoridated water, their teeth are protected from tooth decay by the iron that’s part of the tooth’s chemical structure.

If you looked at a beaver’s teeth, you’d notice that their iron-rich coating gives the teeth a reddish-brown or orange color. Apparently orange is the new white.

Researchers found that the pigmented enamel on beavers’ teeth is both harder and more resistant to acid than human tooth enamel, even when treated with fluoride. This discovery could lead to a better understanding of human tooth decay, as well as improvements in current fluoride treatment.

Tooth decay in humans is a major public health problem, even in this era of fluoride treatments. The American Dental Association estimates that dental care in this country costs $111 billion a year, and much of it is spent on cavities and other tooth-decay issues. According to the World Health Organization, up to 90 percent of children and nearly 100 percent of adults worldwide have or have had cavities.

The research team, led by Derk Joester, an engineering and materials science professor at Northwestern University, discovered that small amounts of an “amorphous solid” rich in iron and magnesium are what make rodent teeth resistant to acid. “[We’ve made a] big step forward in understanding the composition and structure of enamel—the tooth’s protective outer layer…,” said Joester.

Researchers included Jill D. Pasteris, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. She calls their findings a great example of “the structural-chemical novelty [we’re] still discovering in natural, biomineralized materials” like teeth and bone.

Looking at the teeth of beavers and other rodents, the researchers used powerful technology to map the enamel’s structure, atom by atom. They subjected the teeth to acid and took images before and after. The journal Science published this unprecedented imaging study of tooth enamel in February.

Some of the details of the research are pretty technical, but you really should give a dam about the results. Although a beaver’s teeth are chemically different from our teeth, they’re not structurally different, and the results of the study may lead to stronger tooth enamel and better fluoride treatments.

This news is especially encouraging in light of what we’ve just learned about the sugar industry. The industry has for years covered up proof that reducing sugar-consumption prevents tooth decay. The San Francisco Examiner reports that researchers at UC San Francisco have found documents revealing how the industry worked with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to avoid condemning sugar, trying instead to develop alternatives (like a vaccine to prevent tooth decay).

Buried in an archive of industry documents discovered at the University of Illinois was a startling document. It showed that a sugar-industry group acknowledged as early as 1950 that sugar causes tooth decay. But, according to the UCSF researchers, Dr. Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt, the sugar industry influenced NIH to steer scientists toward developing alternative approaches to tooth decay instead of focusing on the damage done by sugar consumption. (The study is published this month in the scientific journal PLOS Medicine.)

Does this remind you of the tobacco industry and its efforts to suppress scientific evidence that smoking leads to cancer and other illnesses?

The damage caused by sugar is finally getting attention from scientists, and efforts to cut back on its consumption are gaining ground. Last November, voters in Berkeley imposed a tax on sugary drinks, and a majority of San Francisco voters approved a soda tax (it didn’t become law because it required two-thirds to pass). [My blog post, “Gimme a Little Sugar,” published on 10/2/14, focuses on the damage done by sugary drinks and by sugar in general.]

Three SF supervisors have just renewed their efforts to restrict the consumption of sugary drinks in San Francisco. But even if efforts like these succeed, we’ll still face the problem of tooth decay for years to come. So paying attention to beavers’ teeth may prove helpful.

Let’s snatch victory from the jaws of tooth decay. If we start by Leaving it to Beavers, our descendants may someday sport decay-resistant teeth just like theirs.

Go p(nuts)! PB is actually good for you

Peanut-butter lovers of the world, rejoice!  This humble legume, in the form of an easy-to-eat spread, has recently earned some noteworthy praise.

First, one of the food industry’s harshest critics, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has just celebrated the virtues of peanut butter.  In the October 2013 issue of its publication, Nutrition Action, CSPI notes that peanut butter–a lunchbox classic and a staple in 90 percent of U.S. households–is loaded with unsaturated fat, vitamin E, and magnesium, and it supplies some copper, fiber, and zinc as well.  (Some must steer clear of PB because of peanut-related allergies, but most of us can eat it with abandon.)

True, CSPI acknowledges that there’s one small problem with peanut butter:  it’s also loaded with calories. Most people probably eat about 250 calories’ worth in the typical sandwich.  According to CSPI, that’s much more than the 50 to 80 calories in the equivalent amount (roughly 2 ounces) of turkey, ham, or a quarter cup of tuna.  These alternatives also offer more protein:  10 to 12 grams as compared with the 7 or 8 grams in peanut butter.

For the 90 percent of us who relish eating peanut butter, CSPI suggests some new ways to trim the calories.  For starters, there’s powdered PB.  It’s made by slow-roasting and pressing peanuts to remove 85 percent of the oil.  You just mix the powder with water and stir.  According to CSPI, the result is a creamy texture and rich peanut taste for just 50 calories per serving (with roughly the same amount of protein as regular PB).

Two other new products are whipped PB (fewer calories but less protein) and Better ‘n Peanut Butter (defatted peanut flour, mixed with PB and sugars, also cuts both calories and protein).

Traditionalists might want to stick with “natural” PB or even oldies like Jif and Peter Pan.  Happily, none of them have trans fat any more.  Just watch out for the new “artisan” varieties that add chocolate and other sweet ingredients, upping the usual 1 or 2 grams of sugar all the way to 9 grams.  Who needs it?  If you crave PB infused with chocolate, go for broke and have a candy bar instead.

But wait, there’s more good news for peanut-butter lovers!  In addition to CSPI’s focus on PB as a healthy sandwich-filler, the medical community has just declared an even more significant finding.  A study announced in September by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (along with Harvard Medical School) revealed that girls ages 9 to 15 who regularly ate peanut butter or nuts were 39 percent less likely to develop benign breast disease by age 30.  Although benign breast disease is noncancerous, it increases the risk of breast cancer later in life.

Over 9,000 U.S. girls were part of the study, which began in 1996.  The researchers followed the girls until they were 18 to 30 years old.  This study is significant because it’s the first one that actually recorded what the girls were eating during their adolescent years (instead of relying on their recalling later what they had eaten years before).

The senior author of the study is Graham Colditz, M.D., a disease-prevention expert at Washington University’s School of Medicine.  Professor Colditz is an epidemiologist with a longstanding interest in cancer prevention, particularly among women.

According to Colditz, the findings in the recent study “suggest that peanut butter could help reduce the risk of breast cancer in women.”  He recommends that girls snack on peanut butter or nuts instead of reaching for high-calorie junk food and sugary beverages.

Wow!  Lots of great news about peanut butter!  I feel totally vindicated.  My instincts were right all along.

All those mornings making countless peanut-butter sandwiches for my daughters may have actually led to their staying healthy longer.  My choice to eschew fillings like bologna and head cheese (what was that stuff anyway?) probably didn’t hurt either.

A personal reminiscence about PB:  When my husband had a month-long sabbatical in Paris during the 1980s, we brought a jumbo jar of peanut butter from home because we knew it wasn’t readily available in France.  We wanted our small daughters to have a familiar food to eat while we otherwise attempted to live like Parisians.  I can still see myself in our tiny Paris apartment, spreading peanut butter on scores of French biscotti so our unfamiliar surroundings would feel a little more like home.

Like almost everything I’ve done (and still do) for my daughters, it was worth it.

Thinking about peanut butter has, not surprisingly, made me want some.  I’m ready to munch on a PB sandwich right this minute.  Want to join me?