Poverty in the United States

Happy Mandela Day to all the readers. In keeping with the spirit of Madiba, today is meant to be a time to share your expertise or volunteer to improve the lives of others. This is especially the case for the 45.3 million people (many of them are children) currently living in poverty in the United States. Poverty can be described in absolute terms by citing federal poverty level guidelines for 2015 ($15,930 for a family of two; try living on that amount of money as a single person in New York City) or by comparing income between different groups. In the case of women, a recent Huffington Post article cited a report that retired women are twice as poor as retired men for a litany of familiar reasons. Together with a 2012 Infographic about Poverty by the Numbers in the USA, an image crystallizes of a country where we have much to be thankful for, but where much remains to be done.

Tea and ingenuity (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch

Visionaries with great products and effective marketing skills deserve our praise. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are two examples that readily jump to mind. The business acumen and drive of these two men have led to the near-ubiquitous use of their products in homes from Norwalk to Nanjing. While each man can point to logistical and personal struggles in making their respective dreams come true, they were fortunate in the sense that the launch of Apple Computers and Microsoft software happened in relatively prosperous times.

What would it take to launch and/or expand a business in the midst of an economic recession? Innovation is undoubtedly an important ingredient of the recipe for success, as demonstrated by revolutionary discoveries made during the years following the Great Depression at Bell Laboratories. Jon Gertner, author of “ The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” quoted Bill Gates: “My first stop on any time-travel expedition would be Bell Labs in December 1947.” Indeed, the Boston Globepraised Gertner’s book, which describes the New Jersey-based think tank that churned out inventions such as “the transistor, the radio telescope, the laser,” and of course “our entire modern communications infrastructure.” Post-depression America also benefited on a smaller scale from entrepreneurs who had to figure out ways to survive in harsh economic times without the backing of AT&T or “angel investments.”

Time travelers in search of such entrepreneurs can navigate back to October 1929, when the Wall Street stock market crash heralded the start of the Great Depression. One couple, the Bigelows, suddenly had to deal with the financial shock of the husband’s (David, Sr.) job loss and reduced revenues from the wife’s (Ruth Campbell or RC) decorating business. After more than three decades of mastering the decorating business and faced with the knowledge that the market no longer required her services, Ruth Bigelow came to the realization that she had to reinvent herself.

She decided to go into the food business. Her son, David Bigelow, would later recall that his seventy-year-old father and fifty-year-old mother had to dip into their savings to launch the business (in 1945). The production and/or distribution of Chinese seasoning and tapioca kept the fledgling business afloat for its first three years; however, Ruth also had other ideas percolating in the back of her mind.

She had always loved tea and toiled away to perfect a brew blended with orange peel and sweet spice.  One of her friends delivered this favorable feedback: “Ruth, your tea caused nothing but constant comments.” Ruth, who had been searching for a label to describe her delicious brew, thought that “Constant Comment® was an apt description of her tea’s popularity and promptly adopted the phrase.

The Bigelow couple then embarked on an uphill battle to market the tea. Grocers were skeptical about their product and sales were slow in the few stores willing to stock the tea. Ruth and her husband did not give up. They designed a colorful label and Ruth started placing small ads in newspapers directing prospective customers to stores selling her tea. Nevertheless, lack of consumer knowledge and demand had the potential to spell the death knell for their product.

A pivotal moment came when they followed the advice of a food broker, who suggested selling their teas to department stores, gourmet, and gift shops. Another epiphany came when Ruth remembered that a customer had immediately purchased her tea after smelling its unique fragrance. As a next step, the Bigelows filled a jar with tea and a label inviting the customer to “open and take a whiff.”

Sales representatives reported back to the Bigelows that “Constant Comment” ® tea sold at a brisk pace in stores carrying the whiffing jars. The ensuing years brought prosperity and the Bigelows moved their growing business to Norwalk (also highlighted in a 1954 article by The Bridgeport Sunday Post; see exhibit at the Norwalk Museum).

The hurricane of 1955 halted that prosperity. Bridges gave way to the raging waters and the back wall of the Bigelow building also collapsed. David Bigelow recalled in his book, My Mother Loved Tea (a copy is available at the Norwalk Museum), that his aging father was faced with the reality of having to start over once again. Luckily good relationships trumped self-interest. The Bigelow couples’ vendors told them, “pay us when you can.” This open credit policy enabled them to bounce back quickly and Ruth later launched a nationwide ad campaign that played an important role in the early success of “Constant Comment”® tea.  Subsequently, the business was moved to Fairfield in the 1980s.

While the next two generations added over 120 varieties of tea, colorful labels and other innovations to the brand, Ruth continued to experiment by adding tea as an ingredient to many of her recipes as a way of increasing demand for her product. Her“Constant Comment”® holiday punch (orange and pineapple juices, lemonade, ginger ale and freshly brewed “Constant Comment”® tea topped off with orange sherbet and garnished with mint leaves) remains a crowd-pleaser to this very day. Other tea-infused delights that built upon her ideas include Earl Grey Royal cream puffs, green tea ginger teacakes and pomegranate muffins incorporating the flavor of the Bigelow®Pomegranate Pizzazz® tea (Recipes can be found in My Mother Loved Tea and athttp://www.bigelowtea.com/).

Now in its third generation, this family-owned business continues to thrive in Fairfield, CT, Lexington, KY, and Boise, ID, producing over 1.6 billion tea bags annually.

Ruth passed away in 1966 after a protracted battle with cancer and her husband died a few years later at the age of 92. Let us all toast the ingenuity and persistence of an entrepreneurial couple with a cup of Ruth’s favorite brew.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to the Bigelows for reviewing this post. The family also provided images for one-time use. Please direct queries regarding permissions for image reproductions directly to the company.

Female scientists

International Women's Day

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone. I wrote a series of posts about female scientists that appeared – you guessed it – in the Norwalk Patch. I am reposting the links here for your reading enjoyment.

1. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-1-0

2. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-2-0

3. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-3-0

4. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-4-0

Zarah and Shireen (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world…

( John Lennon, 9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980)


Zarah left the doctor’s office in a daze, with only the iPod-sounds of the ex-Beatle in her ears as a consolation. The brown leaves on the street reminded her of nature’s constant rhythms and the pumpkin spice latte warming her hands spelled normalcy. However, her life was never going to be the same again. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and had listened in silent shock to her doctor’s voice detailing care and referrals to specialists. Now she understood that the varied tumors collectively termed breast cancer, consisted of subtypes that were defined by the presence or absence of cellular biomarkers e.g., estrogen receptor-negative (ER-), progesterone receptor-negative (PR-) and HER2/neu-negative. The basal-like invasion of her best physical assets was known as triple-negative breast cancer, i.e. a frequently aggressive tumor lacking all three biomarkers. She remembered an aunt who had the disease and worried about her daughter. Would an Angelina-Jolie-like intervention or potential vaccine save her youngest child from her own uncertain health outcome?  It was time to reach out to the specialists at a premier New York institution. It was also time to call her family.


Shireen, a Pakistani woman from a disadvantaged neighborhood, was experiencing similar emotions. Shireen and her father, Ali, spoke Urdu and just enough English to successfully operate the falafel stand on the edge of Zarah’s neighborhood. She did not wish to explain the family’s narrow escape from the Taliban and only wanted to improve her circumstances in her adopted homeland. Her journey from the Swat Valley in Pakistan to America was not marked by the accolades afforded another women’s rights champion from that region, Malala Yousafzai. The activist fervor of her youth had been replaced by the sobering reality of crafting a life filled with mastering a new culture, immigration paperwork and economic unknowns in the land of opportunity. The fact that she had no health insurance to take care of the searing pain in her breasts contributed to her stress. She waited until a kind neighbor agreed to accompany her to a doctor.  The neighbor had read about an empathetic doctor who focused on cancer care for poor patients. Given the autumn chill and her personal circumstances, she could use empathy after puzzling over the doctor’s diagnosis. A patient navigator translated the bad news. She had been diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a disease accounting for about 80% of all breast cancers. This meant that the tumor had spread from the milk ducts to the surrounding breast tissue. Shireen appeared dazed and distracted in the elevator. She ignored the stranger next to her who was humming a John Lennon tune. The neighbor would have to help her understand the complex treatment and her father would have to use his savings to help pay the medical bills. Like Zarah, she was determined to head to a premier cancer institution to seek additional medical opinions.

The oncologist

The oncologist was a tech-savvy humanitarian graduate from an Ivy League university. She worked at the premier cancer institution and her electronic medical records were as impeccable as her academic credentials. She wanted to arm her patients with the latest facts about breast cancer. She was also a believer in the use of artificial intelligence aka IBM Watson, to process ever-increasing mountains of medical data in order to personalize care. The computer had been a Jeopardy! TV quiz show champion and, according to some reports, could accurately diagnose disease and suggest appropriate management. The Watson dashboard flashed the medical histories of her first two case studies: Zarah and Shireen.

The human spirit (first appeared in The Norwalk Patch – a tribute to adventurer, Barbara Hillary)

The Hollies may have serenaded “The Air that I Breathe”, but polluted air can be detrimental to the lungs.  According to Kurt Straif, head of The International Agency for Research on Cancer’s section that ranks carcinogens, the risk of cancer (depending on location and level of exposure) was found to be similar to that of breathing in second-hand tobacco smoke. Add air pollution to other known risk factors predisposing individuals to lung cancer, and one begins to understand some of the possible reasons why non-smokers such as Dana Reeve, activist and wife of Christopher Reeve, perished from this disease. Treatment strategies have been outlined by the American Lung Association and recent discoveries on ways to break through cancer’s shield have led to the development of promising immunotherapies for lung and other cancers.

However, these facts may provide little comfort to a patient diagnosed with an illness that accounts for about 27% of all cancer deaths (American Cancer Society). An initial shocked reaction may eventually be replaced by proactive participation in disease management, scouring the Internet for newsworthy clinical trial results, and cooperating with the FDA to create better treatments for lung cancer. Survivors may also seek social support online via sites such as cancer.im. On the other hand, they could channel their inner adventurers and ski to the North and South Poles.

Lung cancer survivor, Barbary Hillary, decided to defy the odds and undertook these arduous Arctic journeys in 2007 and 2011. Barbara’s preparations and trip to the North Pole were vividly recounted in a 2007 USA Today article. Successfully crossing the same regions as the polar adventurers, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, placed the retired African-American woman in a league of her own. Her tenacity in the face of medical challenges and age can serve as an inspiration to everyone.

The importance of literacy for peace and empowerment (and the impact of women)

An infographic from UNESCO (Institute for Statistics) spells out the importance of literacy for peace, development, poverty eradication, empowerment, health, and gender equality.  Approximately 776 million people in the world are still nor able to read or write. The situation is especially dire in the Muslim world, according to one report: 40% of Muslim world’s population unable to read or write: Study Thirty countries participating in the study reported that gender parity for adult literacy is estimated to be achieved in 2015. However, much more remains to be done. Dr. Bruce Wydick’s (University of San Francisco) infographic shows the ripple effect of educating girls in poverty.