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My wife is a daily reader of obituaries because she always learns some interesting bits of local, national, or personal history about the decedent. I am the opposite. Reading obituaries causes me to check my pulse.

Some weeks, however, the pace and nature of the obituaries can’t be ignored.  I’ve been intrigued for days about the passing of  conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, who died very suddenly at age 43 walking home from a local bar. I was glad to see this account because it could help nip conspiracy theories in an election year that is already generating its share of sideshows. Breitbart was a Zen master at driving the Left crazy and exposing their worst practices. When I heard that Matt Taibbi, Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone and a firebrand in his own right (left?), had written this provocative headline and account (very bad language alert), I was prepared for the worst of where this country was in terms of politics and personal destruction. To his credit, Taibbi captured why Breitbart successfully got so far under his skin and offered grudging admiration for his fearlessness. For that (and because too many never read beyond the headline), Taibbi (and his family) were repaid with digital mischief and angry death threats. It is a sad coda, because it underscores how badly we continue to treat each other over political disagreements.

If you need further proof, just plug in “Rush Limbaugh” as a search term on Twitter. This week, Rush has generated a firestorm of anger, hate, and threatened advertiser boycotts following his taking the Congressional testimony of “reproductive rights activist” Sandra Fluke to its logical economic and marketplace conclusion, converting $3,000 in annual contraception costs into sex as an occupation. While I am agitated myself at the transparent attempts to spin the Obamacare provision of requiring religious institutions and employers to pay for health benefits that is against their religious tenets into a personal right to have an employer pay for contraception, and the use of this young woman as a political prop, I am troubled at how this has now devolved into a war of insults and righteous indignation. I may not agree with Sandra Fluke, but how is calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” even in exposing the absurdity of her case, going to advance the strong “on its own merits” case against this provision? Here is Limbaugh, in his own unapologetic words, making his points again. As Taibbi and Limbaugh learned this week, it is painful to be a lightning rod.

Co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with late husband Stan, Jan Berenstain passed away this week.

Co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with late husband Stan, Jan Berenstain passed away this week.

That brings me to the first obituary of the week, which is the local loss of Doylestown, PA-based Jan Berenstain, creator with her late husband Stan, of the wonderful, long-running Berenstain Bears children’s book series. There was a time when our older kids were younger that I under-appreciated the Berenstains’ books, because there were just so many of them.  I had the impression that they were cheap and mass-produced and Mr. Rogers corny. Then, I read a few of them to my boys at bedtime. Each one was lovingly and intricately illustrated in a style whose graphic consistency corporate brand managers could learn a ton from. Didn’t hurt that they had a Random House editor and mentor by the name of Theodor Geisel. The stories were always engaging , humorous, and each one taught meaningful, universal life lessons and the importance of  family, friends, neighbors, and respect for one another. The inherent decency is easy to dismiss, but as evidenced above, we are in desperate need of it in the adult world. Jan Berenstain will be sorely missed, but thankfully, she and Stan, in addition to building a model marriage, a joint career, and an entire industry, managed to also balance a family life, and have two sons, Michael and Leo, who are carrying on the Berenstain Bears brand and business.

I was also amazed to learn of another local loss. First, I was amazed to hear about the sudden passing of Davy Jones of the Monkees fame, then to discover his long-time local connection.  This link will take you to a phone interview by the King’s College radio station in Wilkes-Barre, on Friday, February 24, just days before his passing.  Jones talked about his PA ties, having seen a house for sale in Beavertown (Snyder County) in 1986, where he split much of his time between there, Florida, and the road (touring). Mike Sisti, who works with Newton on new business development, confirmed all this, having run into Jones in a Selinsgrove “pub” but didn’t know it was a brush with fame at the time. He wondered who was this guy in the heart of PA Dutch country calling everyone “mate” and was stunned to learn he’d met a Monkee. Biography just reran an earlier feature that included Jones’ purchase of an old country church in Beavertown. He wanted to revive the beautiful building and said “Everybody has to have a dream.” From his King’s College interview, you can tell that Jones was full of life and still living his dream until his heart gave out last Wednesday.

Hug your spouse and kids every day. Multiple times. Treat with respect even those with whom you adamantly disagree. Think and live large. Carpe diem!

Update: We all live in Internet time and before the day finished, Rush Limbaugh decided a personal apology was in order for Sandra Fluke. The blogosphere and twitterverse were buzzing about the squashing of free speech, but I really believe that Limbaugh recognized that he’d allowed his anger to get the better of him, losing sight that he had misdirected some pretty ugly invective at a young woman.

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The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia Must-See.

The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia Must-See.

If the question is “May I take photography inside of all your marvelous medical oddities, curiosities, and maladies?”, the answer is a definite no. But actually, my question is “Can I blog about Philadelphia’s infamous Mütter Museum?”, and I’m just going to plunge ahead, not waiting for an answer, and beg forgiveness later.

If you are a Philadelphia area resident and you have never ventured to 22nd Street between Market and Chestnut, to the College of Physicians’ amazing, disturbing, and eye-opening (and in some cases, oozing) Mütter Museum, you owe it to yourself to put it on your New Year’s Resolution list. A visit will cure you of thinking hypochondriacs are crazy, it will give you new respect for the medical pioneers who have helped us achieve the healthcare available to us in the 20th Century, and it will create empathy for some remarkable people who have had to endure some physical handicaps, indignities, and challenges that underscore the strength of the human spirit.

If you are from outside of Philadelphia, I have good news for you — the Mütter is now available to you every Monday via its very own YouTube channel with a video minute starring its current curator. I would like to salute the Museum’s marketing team for its social media inventiveness (you can also connect with the Mütter via Facebook and Twitter). They are leveraging digital and social to connect in an educational and entertaining way with a wide audience of museum members, followers, and potential new converts. Marketing creativity has long been a strength of the Mütter, however. A good many years ago, a former curator was a semi-regular guest on David Letterman’s show. Earlier this fall, the Mütter premiered an art film by identical twins, the Quay Brothers, who were likely drawn to the collection by the saga of conjoined twins Yang and Eng. The museum really understands that its halls are filled with exhibits that are offbeat at best, off-putting at worst, and that it needs to play to its strengths, but with 365-days-a-year unconventional outreach.

As great as the new YouTube channel is (deep, too, with around 100 videos), you need to visit in person to get the full Mütter experience. The Soap Lady needs to be seen in the flesh (or in all her saponified glory). There are several preserved ovarian cysts that are (I’m not exaggerating here) larger than our Butterball Thanksgiving turkey for 12. Then, there is the mega-colon (also preserved and on display) from a man whose bowels’ nerves were contributing to the worst constipation problem anyone could ever possibly conceive of (until you see it on display). Perhaps the most amazing thing I learned was that the Hahneman of yesteryear found nothing they could do, so they discharged the poor man (not the hospital’s finest hour).

The Mütter is a tourism treasure of the City of Brotherly Love and needs all the love it can get. Here is a holiday card in the form of a very entertaining Gamestop commercial from Christmas season 2010 that has nothing to do with the Mütter, but as you’ll see, everything to do with the Mütter:

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The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

Every New Year, the Mummers return to amaze, entertain, and ultimately mystify. They are the greatest show on earth that most outside of Philadelphia (and sadly many in the Delaware Valley) seem to pay little attention to.  The parade is thousands of Elton Johns and Lady Gagas in full feathery regalia. An American Idol competition for marching bands and street choreographers. A city-wide spectacle unfolding block by block up Broad Street.

So why aren’t the Mummers front and center in selling Philadelphia tourism? It’s complicated. The City seems to be annually challenged to make the Mummers Parade a profitable enterprise. Because it falls on the New Year’s holiday, the cost of services escalate (and that’s even when the weather is cooperative). Ironically, at a time when the City is packed with people, many businesses prefer to stay closed for the holiday to making money when the opportunity presents itself.

Separated from the parade, the Mummers seem to lose a lot. A single string band is festive, and “O, Dem Golden Slippers” is lively, but a small representation merely hints at the pageantry and year-long sweat and toil by volunteers and performers to pull off each annual parade.

Not surprisingly, the Mummers haven’t translated well to the web. Lots of sites (like this, this, and this), some selling and supporting the uniquely Philadelphian Mummers enterprise, but none capturing the Mummers experience. A somewhat better repository is YouTube with clips of individual club performances. However, that underscores how hard it is to distill the essence of Mummery.

For years, the local TV stations have taken turns providing Mummers parade coverage and playing hot potato. It is always a LONG day of endless commentary and a thankless job for anchors assigned. Only CNN with its 24/7 filling airtime model might be up to the challenge.

Seeing the parade up close and personal, as it unfolds, is the only way to take in all things Mummers. Once, a friend invited my wife and I to watch the parade from the eagle eye view of the Union League. We were warm, had great food and drink, but it was antiseptic. The Mummers parades I remember best were all ground level, strolling along Broad and around City Hall, enjoying both the string bands and the crowds cheering them on. It wasn’t always family friendly thanks to public drunkenness, but it is hard to be judgemental when carrying your own hip flask to help ward off the all-day cold.

Maybe Philadelphia is holiday’d out, with so much devoted to the July 4th Freedom Week celebrations.  Maybe the Mummers are too much of a peoples’ parade of neighborhood clubs and volunteers to be managed cohesively by city officials. Maybe the competition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans has its own holiday), the pageantry of Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers, and Disney theme park parades, and ever-more-elaborate music videos make the Mummers pale to a jaded public.

However, more and more people are attracted to Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve celebrations at great restaurants, bars, and music clubs, with city-sponsored fireworks, and by attractive hotel packages. In 2012, according to recent reports, the city might even be host to the NHL’s national audience tv event, the outdoor Winter Classic. Capping it all off with a full day of Mummery would seem to make Philadelphia a destination city for the entire New Year’s Holiday. The Mummers are a live event and a street event — the city should start planning for 2012 and how best to integrate the parade into making Philadelphia  and the Mummers synonymous with New Year’s memories for visitors from near and far.

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Our current news cycle, which closely follows our current economic cycle, hasn’t exactly been uplifting. That is why when the live coverage of the rescue of the long-trapped Chilean miners occurred the other week, people were jubilant. It was a great moment of humanity and teamwork and technology yielding miraculous results. A continent away, it still felt great.
However, reading Daniel Henninger’s excellent commentary on capitalism in the Wall Street Journal made me aware that the incredible nature of those events are a lot closer than most of us realize. Henninger’s economic point, that innovation is what we get from private enterprise, not government regulation, is one we’ve recently made ourselves. His geography lesson is what is inspiring, because two of the companies most responsible for the resecue of the miners are from the Keystone state.

Center Rock made the drill bit that rescued the Chilean miners.

Center Rock made the drill bit that rescued the Chilean miners.

The incredibly tough drill bit that cut through all that hard rock is a product from Berlin, PA’s Center Rock. The rig, and the crews who ran it, were from Schramm of West Chester, PA

Schramm's rig and crews rescued the Chliean miners.

Schramm's rig and crews rescued the Chliean miners.

Much has been written about the smarts, the skills, and the generosity of both companies. And much more should be, because both companies are in-state gemstones in an unglamorous industry that is overshadowed daily by green and digital technology news. Solar, wind, and renewable energy are marvelous goals, but while we are getting there, we need to remember that coal, oil, gas, and nuclear are proven energy technologies that need to continue to sustain us, both in terms of power and in terms of jobs. Here’s hoping that Center Rock and Schramm receive well-deserved boosts to their bottom lines for the roles both companies played in saving the lives of those miners.
In the midst of the Chilean rescue story euphoria, I found myself unexpectedly moved by an even more personal story of technology and perseverance with a Pennsylvania link. Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I read a profile about Hugh Herr in the November issue of Discover magazine.

Hugh Herr is an amazing inspiration story of literal reinvention.

Hugh Herr is an amazing inspiration story of literal reinvention.

His story is so personally amazing and inspiring on so many levels that you owe it to yourself to read all about it. It should be required reading for every student in every school in the country. Herr, a PA farm boy and also an avid outdoorsman, lost both legs in a mountain climbing trip that turned into a human survival story. Handed another chance at life, he more than seized it. Formerly a high school student with mediocre grades and no interest in science, Herr mentally, physically, and literally reinvented himself through smarts, passion, and hard work. He went to college and subsequently for advanced degrees at some of the nation’s top science schools in order to teach himself how to engineer truly world-class prosthetic limbs. As if the physical challenges Herr faced weren’t enough, he overcame academic hurdles through ongoing education and a thirst for knowledge. In 2011, his company iWalk will release to the general public the fruit of his labors, the PowerWalkOne, the world’s first robotic ankle-foot prosthesis. Like the products of Center Rock and Schramm, it deserves to be an enormous success. Perhaps it is time to rename the Keystone state, the Diamonds in the Rough State. Be inspired and go out and create your own PA business success story.

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