I recently stumbled upon a book by novelist-historian Kevin Baker titled America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World. Baker tells the stories of a stunning variety of American visionaries without whose genius our lives would be much the poorer.

Consider what the skylines of the world’s cities would look like were it not for Elisha Graves Otis’s invention of the Safety Elevator. “Safety” is the operative word. Passenger and freight elevators had existed long before his, but the perception was that they were dangerous. However, in 1854 a dramatic demonstration of the safety of his elevator, at P. T. Barnum’s world’s fair in New York, secured Otis’s place in history. At the end of an astonishing free-fall performance Mr. Otis proclaimed, “All safe, ladies and gentleman, all safe!” And with that, orders began to pour in. Otis's custom-built elevators were installed in stores and other multi-story buildings in Manhattan and beyond, and it wasn’t long before Otis became a household name around the world.

Incredible inventions and achievements from the massive to the minuscule have enhanced our lives, from the building of large-scale projects – the Erie Canal, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge – to a plethora of smaller-scale developments such as dry cleaning, air conditioning, the dishwasher and even the lowly safety pin, which have enhanced our lives in ways that we have long taken for granted.

As I began to read America the Ingenious, I wondered if any African Americans would be included. So I was heartened to read, not too far along in the book, the following advisory: “You will find among our inventors a relatively small proportion of women and people of color. This is because both were prevented, for many years, from filing patents, by law, and then by social custom and persecution.”

Because of the enormous success of the film “Hidden Figures” I thought I would bring to your attention a somewhat hidden figure who is still very much with us. Patricia Era Bath, born in 1942, is a pioneer in the field of ophthalmology. Her name was unknown to me until I read about her in America the Ingenious although she is probably behind the success of the cataract surgeries many of you have had performed and that will be on my schedule in the not too distant future.

Baker writes: 

Patricia Era Bath grew up in an almost unimaginably different world from ours today and is a living embodiment of how far African Americans have managed to push past the barriers imposed by the old Jim Crow system. She would overcome them all and invent a revolutionary new procedure and device for removing cataracts with lasers.

“Her parents instilled in her the idea that she could do anything she put her mind to. When she was still a sixteen-year-old high school student, she took part in a summer cancer research project run by Yeshiva University and the Harlem Hospital Center. While there she developed a mathematical equation to predict the rate of growth of a cancer – work that so impressed one of the doctors running the program that he included it in a paper he presented at a conference in Washington, D.C.

“She achieved a long list of prestigious firsts, all while completing a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keraprosthesis at Columbia University. But her most resounding contribution was her invention of the Laserphaco Probe for cataract removal.

“At the start of the 1980s, cataracts could still be extracted only through a difficult and extended surgical procedure that basically involved grinding them down – if they could be removed at all. Dr. Bath conceived of doing the job faster, more easily, and more safely with lasers.

“Performing the most basic research proved difficult because most laser technology in the United States was reserved for military research. Dr. Bath went to Berlin in 1981 to find an available laser.

“After five years of work she developed the Laserphaco, a sort of ‘three-in-one’ instrument consisting of ‘an optical laser fiber, surrounded by irrigation and aspiration tubes’. The laser probe is inserted into a one-millimeter incision in the eye, where it vaporizes – ‘phacoblates’ – the cataract and the lens matter, almost painlessly, and in just a few minutes. What remains of the cataract lens is then washed and sucked out of the eye by the irrigation and aspiration tubes, leaving it clean to insert a new lens.

“By 1988, Dr. Bath had earned three patents on the device, making her the first African American doctor to earn medical patents. Today her invention is used around the world.“

I would be surprised if anyone reading this has heard of Dr. Patricia Era Bath. Except for athletes and politicians, the media tends to overlook the many individuals such as Dr. Bath who have made significant contributions in a variety of fields.

It is a miracle, considering the enormous forces needed to get a motion picure made by a major studio, that the film “Hidden Figures” has become a reality. And despite the naysayers who dismiss the story as fiction, the film is enjoying extraordinary success in this age of razzle-dazzle special effects, animated fluff, and “50 Shades” dreck. It has picked up Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps you have not needed cataract surgery. But if and when you do it is possible that a figure not quite so hidden, Dr. Patricia Era Bath, will have been responsible for the fact that the removal of your cataracts, rather than being a painful ordeal, was a safe, speedy and essentially painless procedure.

Posted on Saturday, February 11, 2017 at 5:03PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference


Why is it that hindsight is always 20/20? Why does it take us so long to recognize things that seem so obvious in retrospect?

My husband and I recently watched the Netflix series “The Crown” that begins before the death of Britain’s King George VI, in 1952, and follows the events surrounding the accession to the throne of his daughter, the current queen, Elizabeth II.

Episode 1 begins, jarringly, with the king coughing up blood in the bathroom sink. We soon learn that he has lung cancer. Yet despite that terrifying diagnosis, he is seen smoking in every scene. And even after one of his lungs has been removed, he carries on smoking while indulging his love of hunting and boating, wheezing and choking until the bitter end.

And he is not the only smoker in the royal family. The queen’s grandmother, Mary, is seen puffing away every time she’s onscreen, even on her death bed, near which an ashtray is overflowing with cigarette butts. 

(Elizabeth II has never smoked, which may account in part for her longevity, although it is said that the Queen Mother, who lived to be over a hundred, smoked into her eighties.)

Humans have been smoking for thousands of years. Wouldn’t you think that common sense might have told us, before Surgeon General C. Everett Koop decided to do so in 1984, that setting dried leaves on fire and inhaling their smoke into the lungs might be doing us bodily harm?

Yet it was several hundred years before scientists decided to examine the situation. For the first several decades of my life cigarettes were everywhere – in restaurants, on airplanes, in offices  just about everywhere except church sanctuaries and public school classrooms. No sophisticated actor in a movie was seen without a cigarette, often in a sleek, metal holder. Television doctors proclaimed the health benefits of one brand of cigarette over another. When we see old videos of those commercials now we find them laughable but also pathetic in their naiveté.

I was one of the millions who got sucked into the joys of smoking myth. At the age of fourteen I stood in front of a mirror in my cabin at Deerwood Music Camp determined to teach myself to blow smoke rings. Smoking was cool, but blowing smoke rings was really cool, a further degree of sophistication. And there was a fellow camper, from New York City of course, who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and used her pinky finger nail to remove a particle of tobacco from the tip of her tongue before exuding a thin column of smoke. Her style was to be emulated. She was probably all of fifteen.

We smokers did crazy things in order to satisfy our cravings. For the thirty-plus years that I was a church organist, I would sneak down to the ladies room during the Sunday sermon to have a smoke. And on Good Friday, when there was a sermon for each of the Seven Last Words, I got more than the usual amount of exercise running up and down from the choir loft.

Early in Episode 3 of “The Crown,” the name Donora is mentioned. I wonder, Donora? Is there another Donora besides our Donora? One of the characters had said, “Donora, Pennsylvania, somewhere near Philadelphia.”A second character corrected him: “No, Pittsburgh.”

They were indeed referring to our Donora. But why?

The 1948 Donora Smog was an air inversion that created a wall of smog that killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 more. It was referenced in “The Crown” because a similar but much deadlier smog was bearing down on London.

The Great Smog of London, among the deadliest environmental disasters in recorded history, occurred between Friday, December 5 and Tuesday, December 9, 1952. “Four thousand people died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were sickened by its effects.

The Smog was the result of “a period of cold weather, combined with anticyclone and windless conditions and collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal – that formed a thick layer of smog over the city.

 “During the day on December 5, the fog was not especially dense and generally possessed a dry, smoky character. But when nightfall came, the fog thickened. Visibility dropped to a few meters.

“The following day, the sun was too low in the sky to burn the fog away. That night and on the Sunday and Monday nights, the fog again thickened. In many parts of London, it was impossible for pedestrians to find their way at night because the fog was so thick people could not see their feet.

 “The weather changed on December 9 as wind swept in unexpectedly, and the killer smog vanished as quickly as it had arrived.”*

In England a series of laws, including the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, were enacted to avoid a repeat of the disaster. These acts banned emissions of black smoke and decreed that residents of urban areas and operators of factories must convert to smokeless fuels.

The Donora incident is credited with triggering environmental safeguards in the United States, including the Clean Air Act of 1970.

It took a while longer for the public and the medical community finally to acknowledge that inhaling smoke from cigarettes was taking a toll on our lives.

It is difficult for us to imagine today how pervasive cigarette smoking was in everyday life until relatively recently. I was a pack a day smoker, thought nothing of it and had plenty of company.

I am lucky to have reached this point, unscathed so far, after polluting my lungs for more than thirty years with the poisons emitted by cigarettes. I finally saw the light in 1978.

It’s too bad the members of the British royal family during the reign of King George were not able to benefit from the enlightenment that was to arrive a few decades later.


*All quoted material is taken directly from Wikipedia.

Posted on Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 3:38PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment | References9 References


I did not watch Barack Obama’s farewell speech on the night he delivered it. The mere mention of it brought tears to the brim. I was afraid that if I watched in real time as he and his family arrived for his swan song, amid the tumultuous cheers of a loving crowd, I might be sent keening and wailing into the night.

A few days later I listened to the speech on my iPad, in bed, early in the morning. And I watched the last few minutes, my electronic tablet perched on my lap.  Being at a remove from the proceedings, via YouTube, diluted the immediacy, the terrible reality of the occasion.

I’m not much of a weeper. I’ve never wept while reading a book, nor have I been brought to tears during a movie – except for one, “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Geraldine Page. My strong reaction to the film was unexpected. The tears erupted and lasted a while. It must have been that the sad plight of Page’s character reminded me of things that had happened in my mother’s life. Charlie was so startled by my outburst he later quipped that he was worried he might have to douse me with a bucket of ice water.

My reaction, was, I believe, the mourning in advance of my mother’s death. When her time finally came, many years later, after a long and stressful decline, there were no tears. I was prepared. And although I had been terrified all my life at the prospect of her demise, when the time finally came, relief was what I felt, for her and for myself.

An occasion on which I unexpectedly erupted into tears was when I addressed the orchestra to bid them adieu upon my retirement. I’m sure my colleagues were shocked to see this person they probably thought of as a cold fish burst into tears, helplessly blubbering thanks for four decades of friendship and music-making. Although I had made the choice to retire, I knew that my life would never be the same. And that has proven to be true.

My reaction to Obama’s valedictory might not have been so extreme if he were being replaced by a normal person. But he’s leaving us to a mean child who, by contrast, has never learned how to be a decent human being. Even those who despise Obama must, at some level, agree that he is a fine gentleman who has borne his challenges with dignity. If they were expecting an angry black man in the White House they must have been sorely disappointed. Did we make a pact with the devil? And is this the price we now pay?

Our country is about to be handed over to a perverse and ignorant man who knows little and feels no need to learn. And he has no interest in the effects of his behavior on his targets as he oozes contempt for the best, and for the weakest among us.

I am bereaved, I am disconsolate, I am sorrowful for what we are losing. And I will keen and wail into the night until, on some distant day, my tears are finally spent.

Posted on Monday, January 16, 2017 at 5:53PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment

MEAL KITS, Part 2: Fresh in: 30

Meal kits have become a multi-million dollar industry in a few short years. The target audience are millennials who either don’t have time to shop and cook, or who don’t know how to cook because their parents never learned to cook. They must hark back to their grandparents generation to pick up their family’s culinary tradition.

I’m not in the target group, far from it. But I like the idea of trying foods and combinations that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I recently finished my third set of Blue Apron meals. (See “Ponderings" October 12.)

Not wanting to be left out of the act, and in an effort to compete with Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Terra’s Kitchen, Marley’s Spoon, Peach Dish, Home Bistro, and many others, the Giant Eagle, specifically the Market District, has jumped on the meal kit bandwagon. Their Fresh in: 30 line can be found in the Market District stores and at a few Giant Eagles such as McIntyre Square, where I first noticed them.

The meals offered at the moment include (in alphabetical order):

  • Falafel with Tabbouleh and Tatziki: Garbanzo beans, fresh Mediterranean vegetables, bulgur wheat, Greek yogurt, panko bread crumbs, diced cucumbers, fresh dill and lemon.
  • Pork Piccata with Fresh Pappardelle Florentine: All-natural pork tenderloin medallions, piccata sauce, chicken stock, fresh pappardelle pasta, spinach, cherry tomatoes and capers.
  • Sirloin with Parmesan Risotto: All-natural sirloin steaks, Brussels sprouts, diced onions, diced butternut squash, Arborio rice, chicken stock, Parmesan cheese and beef gravy.
  • Spicy Thai Curry Noodle Bowl with Chicken: Marinated chicken breast, Asian vegetable medley, bamboo shoots, Asian Thai spicy curry sauce, rice noodles and fresh cilantro.
  • Sun-Dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Salmon: Salmon fillets, sun-dried tomato panko bread crumbs, jasmine rice, squash and tomato medley and marinara sauce.
  • Vegetarian Stuffed Portabella Mushrooms: Portabella mushrooms, vegetable stuffing, goat cheese, sun-dried tomato panko bread crumbs, arugula, roasted tomatoes and fresh lemon.

Two additional Fresh in :30 offerings, Chicken Alfredo and Garlic Shrimp Linguini seem to have fallen by the wayside.

The available selections won't be found in every store. The placement of meals must be determined by demographics. I’ve seen the Falafel only at the Waterworks.

I have tried three Fresh in: 30 meals, two of which I’d give a B-minus rating, one a C-minus. The ingredients provided, for the most part, weren’t terrible. But, in my opinion, the meals were unexciting, a little too cautions. Certainly the foods described were in the boxes, but there wasn’t much in there that I couldn’t have easily purchased myself, nor was there anything I hadn’t prepared in my kitchen over the years other than fresh pappardelle.

Our first Fresh in: 30 dinner, Pork Piccata with Fresh Pappardelle Florentine, was the most interesting only because of the fresh pasta. The box also included six little squares of pork to be pounded thin, a bag of baby spinach, a bag of lemony piccata liquid, a tiny bag of capers, and a small bottle of broth. The meal was flavorful but offered nothing new to us other than the pasta, and there was an awful lot of liquid left in the skillet at the end of the meal to be poured down the drain. Not sure why. Maybe I misunderstood the directions.

Whoever dreamed up the Sun-Dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Salmon must have thought that tomatoes three ways would be a good idea. Can’t have too much of a good thing, right?. Wrong.

When I plan a menu I try to be careful about redundancy, that is, not to serve the same ingredient in more than one element of the mail. Here, the tomatoes three ways included barely detectable sun-dried tomatoes in the Panko (I had to check the list of ingredients to reassure myself that they were in there); small plum tomatoes to sauté with the zucchini and yellow squash that looked like it had seen better days; and marinara sauce on which to place the salmon. There must be more interesting yet cost-effective ways to present a salmon filet.

A personal preference with which you may disagree: I don’t think that pink salmon on a bed of red sauce is a particularly attractive combination. And why was Jasmine rice chosen as an accompaniment to fish with marinara sauce?

The Sirloin with Parmesan Risotto was promising. The vegetables and risotto were quite good. But the meat was so chewy that on the second night I struggled through the second piece of sirloin and broiled my husband a hamburger. (We’re small eaters, so the dinner for two was enough for us for two nights.)

I’m guessing that when you consider the price charged for these meals for two, around $16, the company isn't about to include better quality beef.

The Market District would do well to give its customers credit for having more adventurous palates than the meals they’ve put together so far.

With Blue Apron and a hundred other meal kit companies breathing down their neck, the Market District would do well to perk up its Fresh in: 30 program, or abandon it.

Posted on Thursday, November 17, 2016 at 11:31PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment


As a few of you know, on March 3, 2016 I wrote on a small piece of paper, “Trump will be our next president,” put it in an envelope in my file cabinet and thought of it occasionally as the campaign proceeded. Just in case you think I’m clairvoyant, have a crystal ball, possess above average intuition, or am just terribly astute, I should tell you that in 2008 I wrote on a similar piece of paper headed for the file cabinet, “America will never elect an African-American president.” So, I’m batting .500.

Why did I predict what I did about Trump? For one thing, I truly believe that some things are just destined to happen. My husband thinks I’m full of hot air, but I really do believe in Destiny.

Although I’m pretty sick of the word narrative, you’ll be reading it several times in the following paragraphs.

When Hillary Clinton lost to Obama in 2008, there was an existing narrative that after Obama had completed a term or two, Hillary would automatically run for president, and win. Who thought that? And why? Was it her birthright to become president? Was it her reward for being defeated by Obama? There seemed to be a foregone conclusion that she was going to occupy the Oval Office. That gave me pause.

On July 5 I wrote in this space:

Nothing is happening right now that gives me hope. We have a choice between two painfully flawed candidates. Many months ago I asked my husband, “Don’t the Democrats have anybody else to run for president?”

Evidently they didn’t, and we’re seeing the results now. I’m not a Hillary hater, but it seems to me that someone with less baggage and more charm might have come to the fore.  Hillary is brittle and unspontaneous. Nothing about her makes me think, “I like that woman.” My husband says, "She's competent."  I say, "Competent is boring."

And I'm now questioning even her competence having just heard the FBI report on her email activity, which was described as “extremely careless.” That doesn’t exactly bespeak competence.

I’m sorry, but I don’t give two hoots about whether we have a woman president just so we can say we do. I would like for us to have an excellent president.

My choice, misguided as it may be, would have been Joe Biden. He’s a sympathetic figure, an affable, back-slapping kind of guy who, notwithstanding a tendency to utter an occasional verbal clunker, is liked, and he knows plenty about domestic and foreign policy and as much as Hillary does about the presidency. He has been the best vice president a president could possibly want.

What can I say about Trump that hasn’t already been said? It’s obvious that his success is based primarily on his ability to give voice to the rage of millions of disaffected white people – the ones whose idea of cultural activity is tailgating and target shooting – who will never get over having an uppity Nee-gro in the Oval Office.

The Republican Party has only itself to blame for this unlikely turn of events. They've spent the last eight years doing everything they could think of to undermine Obama while the gods were about to pull the rug from under them. Whoops!

I’m no big fan of George Will, but on November 9 he wrote:

“The Democrats offer a candidate as familiar as faded wallpaper. The party produced no plausible alternative to her joyless, strained embodiment of arrogant entitlement.

I don’t hate Hillary. I voted for her. But like many, my vote was really against Trump, not for Hillary. Quite frankly, I’ve grown weary of the Clintons as have many of us. After having to put up with his shameful behavior in the 90s it would seem to me that both of them should have sought to maintain a lower profile. But no. Here they are again, on stage far too long.

Seems to me there was an awful lot of wishful thinking going on during the campaign. The Post-Gazette’s Tony Norman, whose pronouncements I usually agree with, wrote, on November 4, “Next week, America will elect its first woman president while kicking an orange-tinged strongman to the curb.” Really?

And he was one of many who jumped to this conclusion as I was thinking, in the words of that presidential candidate of yore, Herman Cain, "Ain’t gonna happen.”

The narrative was never allowed to die or even be questioned. Hillary was going to be the next president. Most women would shun Trump and vote for Hillary. Didn’t happen. Blacks and Latinos would come out in numbers equal to their participation in 2008. Didn’t happen. Obama was new, he was handsome and smart, and he generated excitement, at home and abroad. My husband and I were in Copenhagen one evening during the 2008 campaign when Obama spoke on television. The crowd was enthralled.

To all of you who didn’t bother to go out of the house on Tuesday because “I just don’t like Hillary,” thanks a whole bunch. I hope you’re happy with the result of your decision. Nothing like standing on principle.

Despite what the narrative would have had us believe, plenty of women like Trump just fine, in fact a lot of them were probably turned on by his naughty-boy talk. They probably think he’s “dreamy.” They wouldn’t tell you that, but there it is.

And plenty of others, male and female, are devious. They look you straight in the eye, tell you one thing and turn around and do the opposite. Remember the Bradley Effect? That’s when former L. A. mayor Tom Bradley, who happened to be African-American, was running for governor of California against a fellow named George Deukmejian. So many voters at exit polls said they had voted for Bradley that he seemed to be a shoe-in for the office. George Deukmejian became California’s 35th governor.

The media bought into the Trump-Clinton narrative, and it’s really funny now to hear them contorting themselves in an effort to explain why it didn’t work out the way they thought it would.

Sometimes, Destiny has the last word.

Posted on Monday, November 14, 2016 at 12:14PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment
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