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Friday, September 9, 2022

When Nitrous Was the Life of the Party

Nitrous Oxide: Getting out the Word

In the late 1960s, my friends and I had our own countercultural version of Sam Malone's Cheers. We'd get stoned in one another's cellars. (Even when parents weren't around, ground level and higher were too risky--too much detectable evidence.) Our transgressions were  pretty much limited to passing around a joint and occasionally braving a psychedelic. Not exactly the stuff of dope fiends. 

But an occasional infiltrator in our world--let's call him Andy N.--had a funkier idea. Five years older than the rest of us and with alarmingly short hair, he put it to me this way: Let's you and me break into your father's dental office and lift some of his nitrous oxide. What's a nineteen year old to do? My response ad nauseum was that my father, Dr. Wigdor, was strictly a local anesthesia dentist.  Nitrous, he insisted, had too much baggage. Why risk patients throwing up, manifesting mood swings, and  chasing dental assistants around the office?

A Nitrous Soiree ( the gas dispenser is on the far left)

Nitrous oxide, a.k.a. laughing gas, made its popular debut in 1799 via  British physicist Humphry Davy (1778-1829).* It was first synthesized by Joseph Priestly in 1772, but it was Davy who became synonymous with the gas thanks to his extensive research into its mind-altering properties and his penchant for publicity. An obsessive scientist and inventor, he synthesized a slew of compounds and discovered sodium, potassium, calcium, strontium, magnesium, and other elements.

Through public demonstrations, Davy unleashed a mini-craze that launched nitrous party time, especially among London's intelligentsia. (Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge [a lifetime opium eater] were among the party animals.) You could experience the stuff via silk bags, bladders, and an air holder/breathing machine of cast iron with metal and wooden mouthpieces. Later on, Davy built a portable gas chamber. Not sure if he ever brought it to social gatherings.

Davy also explored nitrous' potential as an anesthetic in surgery, which his experiments confirmed. For puzzling reasons, the gas went underground for two generations. That robbed the world of general anesthesia, which would have eliminated untold suffering. Finally, nitrous  re-emerged around the time of ether's discovery in1846--just in time for the Crimean War and America's Civil War. 

As for me, kudos to the gods, technology, and Dr. Wigdor for saving me from laughter by gas.

Nobody captured altered states during the 60s and 70s more persuasively than R. Crumb.

*The Following paragraphs were inspired by The Age of  Wonder by Richard Holmes.


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Accounting for my (Lapsed) Judaism

Debits on the left. Credits on the right
This post celebrates the 80th birthday of  Dick Asebrook. He teaches accounting at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 

I guess I'm one of those secular Jews. Many factors are to blame, but none more so than my Bar Mitzvah itself. For me, the run-up to that great day in June of 1963 was nothing less than an Old Testament ordeal, given my growing teenage disinterest and  incompetence with  Hebrew. But I grunted it out. The payoff: reading  a portion from the Book of Numbers enumerating bulls, rams, sheep, and goats for distribution to the righteous. Sour grapes (mercifully not Manischewitz):
my friends got all the juicier portions like the Abraham/Isaac sacrificial showdown and the Red Sea beatdown. (I'm not doing well here with the Seventh Commandment--Thou Shall Not Covet.)

Here's some Book of Numbers bookkeeping:

Each half included 337,500 sheep and goats, 36,000 cattle, 30,500 donkeys, and 16,000 young women [Oy!]. From the half that belonged to the soldiers, Moses counted out 675 sheep and goats, 72 cattle, 61 donkeys, and 32 women [Oy Vey!] and gave them to Eleazar to be dedicated to the LORD. Then from the half that belonged to the people, Moses set aside one out of every 50 animals and women, as the LORD had said, and gave them to the Levites.

More Accounting Karma
Fast forward twenty years and I'd begun my forty-year vacation as a writer/editor at UMass Amherst's Isenberg School of Management. Call it chance; call it Divine punishment--more than half of my friends turned out to be accounting professors, most of them former CPAs. How could I resist their company? A
ccountants have more fun. Unlike other academics,  accounting professors, seldom talk accounting in social settings. That's because, Professor Asebrook remarks, they have better things to discuss.

Anderson Cooper Regrets
Earlier this year, I was perplexed to learn that Anderson Cooper, my favorite (non-Jewish) news anchor, had suffered from a chronic case of Bar Mitzvah envy. Anderson explained that during his wonder years, most of his friends were Jews and, forgive the verb, Bar Mitzvahed. Poor Anderson was the odd man out. My  advice to him: Be careful what you wish for.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Queuing for Cones: We All Queue for Ice Cream

On an August afternoon in Hadley, Massachusetts, temperatures soared above eighty degrees in the shade.  (Who would be crazy enough to stand in the shade?)  Not the sturdy souls queued up for twelve or so minutes in the scorching sun for cones and sundaes at Maple Valley Creamery's  ice cream stand. Why endure such torture? Is it the decline of the neighborhood ice cream man? Or the ironic, dubious tradeoff of hellish heat for conic comfort?  "The wait sucks, but it's worth it to get it straight from the cow," remarked one wincing customer. 

Social scientists and engineers have sought to improve efficiency in lines.  But there isn't much to be done at stands like Maple Farm's, which sport only one server. (Perhaps acrobatics by trained bovines might distract customers from their predicament.) That places the challenge squarely on the consumer. Malia Wollan, in the New York Times, recommends several research-based tactics: distract yourself with a book or music; look at the unfortunates behind you and feel superior; and, conversely, consider your shared predicament with others an opportunity to embrace "community." 

Then again, miscreants pursue a seamier solution: They cut.  Here's a memorable tactic in a clip from Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm.




Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Healthcare's Word of the Day: " PERFECT!"


Not sure when it began, but today's bon mot among health care providers and their minions is "PERFECT!" "Bend over on the examination table; open wide;--PERFECT! Thanks for completing that five page form--PERFECT!" Next time you visit your cardiologist, urologist, or GP be on the lookout for perfection. Like Covid and the common cold, "perfect" has gone viral.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

APB: Where Is Sarah?


Lovely design, but its message fails to do justice. The Punch Brothers and Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) are both best of class on America's vibrant "Neo-Acoustic" music scene.  But so is Sarah Jarosz, whose name (get out your magnifying glass)  appears on the poster just south of the headliners. That name suggests an appendage, an afterthought. True, the Punch Brothers and Watchhouse have substantial followings in the Northampton and national markets.  But Jarosz, who has toured and recorded for over a decade, enjoys a similarly strong  critical and popular following. And over the long haul,  her exceptional songwriting may well set her apart--some of it earning a place in the "Great American Songbook."

The poster, then, offers a less than ideal cohabitation of function and form. In concert, all three musical acts should fare better on that account. So peruse the poster and don't miss this exceptional concert.

Where Is Sara? Don't know--Greek to me.
Where Is Sarah? Not sure--Greek to Me


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Mitch McConnell Goes Native


President Zelensky with Republican Senators McConnell, Collins, Barrasso, and Cornyn

Picture this: Mitch McConnell and Republican acolytes on a diplomatic  mission in sport jackets without ties. The visitors stayed true to their fashion statement throughout their unmemorable visit to Ukraine in May. Shame on me. I had wrongly reckoned the Senator from Kentucky and neckties to be inseparable. No more stereotyping Mitch as an exponent of that near-extinct fraternity of grown-up Fauntelroys who wear ties in their homes. (In fairness, back home Mitch periodically campaigns in shirtsleeves.)

No blame either on the Americans for trying to fit in Kyiv. When the Russians launched their invasion, Ukraine's savvy president Volodymyr Zelensky closeted much of  his wardrobe--trading up/down for his now iconic olive green tee with its  Ukrainian armed forces insignia. Overnight, tees became de rigueur  for Ukrainian officials, (who have conformed to a T in their nonconformist look).

Consider the larger-than-life Klitschko brothers and their expansive tees. Vitali (6'7'' ) has been  Kyiv's mayor since 2014.  Both he and his brother Wladimir (6'6") are former world  heavyweight champions. For the brothers, the tees  may be a sartorial step up from their ring days.


Vocal critics of  Zelensky's wardrobe have been few and far between. Financial commentator Peter Schiff has been an exception. He has taken considerable flack for pronouncements like " . . .doesn't the President of the Ukraine own a suit?" 

Schiff and his fellow travelers have missed the boat. The "Zelensky look" conveys a simple message: We are fighting for our lives. This is no time for sartorial  niceties. Perhaps in the spirit of compromise, the Americans did lose their ties but not their suit jackets.  Should they try again, they might begin with  the "Zelensky Tee." You can buy your own at this enlightened t-tailer.