Sunday, January 28, 2018

candle studies: the sad tale of beeswax the air cleaner

It saddens me to write of beeswax and negative ions once again, but it fits at this juncture of candle studies and I’d like to dispense with it. Claiming that beeswax candles emit negative ions is much like claiming that paraffin candles are toxic: there is no scientific evidence. And if ions are not about science, then what are they about? Although some seem to be backing off the claim, I ran into it so often— coupled as it was with the mantra that paraffin is toxic—that it teed me up once again. Fortunately, I did find one well-researched article.

But at least two beeswax candle companies of some size still use as part of their spiel the old saw that beeswax emits negative ions that clean the air. They use it as advertising. They use it to tell you why you should buy a beeswax candle rather than any other type of candle. I contacted both companies to find out what they had to back up the claim. One of the companies responded after two emails and one voice message. In an email, they told me they had nothing to back up the claim. Specifically: I have found some articles outline the benefits of negative ions, but nothing that shows that they are produced by beeswax. Yet on their website still they say: Beeswax is 100% natural and a renewable resource that actually cleans the air by emitting purifying negative ions.

I contacted the other company via their website contact form. A week later I sent a follow-up email. A week later I called. The person who answered didn’t know how they know that beeswax candles emit negative ions, but told me that a person who did know would call me back or email. It’s been a week. I’ll call again.*

I also tried contacting a “wellness” blogger who has written more than once about the air-purifying qualities of beeswax candles, specifically this negative ions jazz. The only way I could find to contact this person without having to go on Facebook was through leaving comments on posts, so I did that, submitting comments weekly for about three weeks. I asked that they please share the study that shows that beeswax produces negative ions. After a while, amid the deafening silence, I wondered: why am I pursuing this?

At a certain point, it becomes not about whether a beeswax candle shoots out negative ions or not, but about why we believe what we believe. For a while, I believed the negative ion story. I was just starting out making and selling beeswax candles and I used the claim about negative ions because others were using it and it seemed to work as a selling point. But then I questioned it. How did I know that beeswax candles emit negative ions? Because somebody said so? Wouldn’t it be better to know from the actual study that revealed it? And that’s when I discovered there was no such thing. That’s when I discovered there was just this mindless, chanting, repetitive loop. And I was part of it.

By this time I had customers telling me about beeswax and negative ions. Indeed, the claim seemed to be common knowledge, at least among some. Rather than refute it, I decided to do this: Well … there doesn’t really seem to be any evidence to back it up, that I can find … but, still, some do claim … and, by the way, I burn beeswax candles all the time and my house is really clean!

How lame.

At a certain point, I suppose it is about respect.

This time around, when I ran up against the claim after having been reading about the chemistry of candle combustion and the various waxes that exist in the world, several questions came to mind.
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions that clean the air, how many beeswax candles burning for how long does it take to clean the air in a room, say, 100 feet square? Does it matter if/how the room is ventilated? Does it matter if there are pets in the room? How about electronics? A giant screen TV? In general, what factors might diminish or enhance the effects of the beeswax candles and their air-cleaning qualities?
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions, do candles made from other waxes emit negative ions?
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions and candles made from other waxes do not, what is it about the make-up of beeswax, or the way that beeswax combusts, that makes it different from all other waxes? If it’s about the way it combusts, does the type of wick come into play? And wouldn’t air currents be a factor?
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions, does the wax’s level of refinement affect the number of negative ions emitted? For instance, does highly refined or bleached beeswax emit more, fewer, or the same number of negative ions as unfiltered beeswax?
At some point it is about logic.

It was then that I began wondering how those who make the negative ions claim know it to be true, and, if they don’t know it to be true (for how could they?), why do they believe it to be true?

I know it to be true because I believe it to be true.
I believe it to be true because I want it to be true.
I want it to be true because

Meanwhile, I read an article in The New Yorker by Jiayang Fan, “Buried Words, Han Kang and the complexity of translation.” The last sentence is:
A flame is an ephemeral and fragile thing that can serve at once to memorialize the dead and light the way for the living.
I turned to watch the flame of a beeswax candle. What I saw was an ancient light. What others see is an air cleaner.

* Update January 30, 2018 – I have heard from the other beeswax candle company and wanted to make clear that they did respond last week, it’s just that their email did not reach me. They sent the email again, and new leads develop. They pointed me toward an article in the May 2004 newsletter of Dr. Jonathan V. Wright’s Nutrition and Healing newsletter, giving me this link to follow: In the article, they said, Dr. Wright writes about a study commissioned in Japan by Akio Sato through which it is discovered that all candles emit negative ions, but beeswax does so in unusual quantity. Unfortunately, this candle company was unable to uncover the actual study, just this one article about it, but many years of testimonials from their customers, as well as their own experience, have proved to them that the negative ions claim is true.

The link took me to the home page for what is now Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld’s Nutrition & Healing website. (The disclaimer at the bottom of the site reads: Health Disclaimer! The information provided on this site should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this site. Readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The information and opinions provided here are believed to be accurate and sound, based on the best judgment available to the authors, but readers who fail to consult appropriate health authorities assume the risk of any injuries. The publisher is not responsible for errors or omissions.

By searching the site for “beeswax,” I came up with a few articles, including the one from May 2004, “The proof is in: Breathe easier with beeswax.” In order to read it, though, I would have to pay $79 for a subscription to the newsletter—no! Wait! Just $37! I am older than 55! Still … I decided to try other avenues first and googled Akio Sato. I found a pro wrestler, a baseball player, and three politicians. I googled Dr. Jonathan V. Wright and found him at the Tahoma Clinic, near Seattle, Washington, where he is the founder and medical director. I sent him an email via the clinic’s contact form.

So, the search for truth and original source continue. Connections fire in the brain. I have just started looking into soy wax, which was in development in one lab or another throughout the 1990s, entering the candle market in the early 2000s. It was developed for The Body Shop as a healthy and affordable candle alternative to paraffin and beeswax.

Friday, January 26, 2018

candle studies: paraffin, toxic? a long look at emission studies followed by soot

After reading a bit of the literature and research on paraffin candles and their emissions while burning, I am not the least bit worried about burning a paraffin candle, not that I am likely to, being partial as I am to beeswax and now bayberry wax, but if for some reason the beeswax and bayberry dried up and the power went out and I needed light, I would set a match to the paraffin candles left over from my paraffin-candle-burning days. One thing must be clear: These are unscented candles. Scented candles make my eyes itch, my nose tickle, and I always end up sneezing. Many scented products have this affect on me. And research bears out that scented candles are a culprit of sorts—their emissions consistently showed higher levels of this, that, and every other thing you’d rather not have building up in the air you breathe, and scented candles are more likely to produce soot. But nothing I read led me to believe that unscented paraffin candles would harm me in any way as long as I burned them responsibly, meaning out of drafts, keeping the wick trimmed, keeping the flame away from flammable material—all the usual cautions.

That said, I have only read what I could find for free online, and at a certain point I had to stop, so I have not covered the whole gamut of what may be out there. But, with that said, those who I see claiming that paraffin candles are toxic are not linking to any research I have not read (if they are linking to any research at all), and, that said, I am not a chemist. Understanding some of the terminology and numbers and particulars in these studies is beyond me. But, thankfully, some parts are written in plain English.

Candles and Incense as Potential Sources of Indoor Air Pollution: Market Analysis and Literature Review” is an EPA report from January 2001. Its conclusion, after dealing with the problem of lead wicks, which were banned in the U.S. many years ago, is this:
Lead wicks aside, consumers are also exposed to concentrations of organic chemicals in candle emissions. The European Candle Association (1997) and Schwind and Hosseinpour (1994) conclude that there is no health hazard associated with candle burning even when a worst-case scenario of 30 candles burning for 4 hours in a 50 m3 room is assumed. However, burning several candles exceeded the EPA’s 10-6 increased risk for cancer for acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, and exceeded the RfC for acrolein. Once again, the RfC and EPA’s 10-6 increased cancer risk guidelines are not designed specifically for indoor air quality issues, so these conclusions are subject to interpretation.
The studies mentioned were conducted with paraffin candles.

The EPA paper also introduces us to soot.
Black soot is the product of the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels. … ¶ Scented candles are the major source of candle soot deposition. Most candle wax paraffins are saturated hydrocarbons that are solid at room temperature. Most fragrance oils are unsaturated hydrocarbons and are liquid at room temperature. The lower the carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, the less soot is produced by the flame. Therefore, waxes that have more fragrances in them produce more soot. In other words, candles labeled “super scented” and those that are soft to the touch are more likely to generate soot.
We’ll return to soot later.

I found two abstracts of studies conducted in Italy, funded by the Associazione Cerai d’Italia. The first, “Emission of air pollutants from burning candles with different composition in indoor environments,” looked at the emissions from different paraffin waxes in “container” candles, which I took to mean a candle contained in a jar or cup. There isn’t much to the abstract, but there is this:
It has been found that wax quality strongly influences the air pollutant emissions.
The other abstract, by the same researchers, is “Emissions of air pollutants from scented candles burning in a test chamber.”
Burning of scented candles in indoor environment can release a large number of toxic chemicals. … This paper investigates volatile organic compounds emissions, with particular reference to the priority indoor pollutants identified by the European Commission, from the burning of scented candles in a laboratory-scale test chamber. It has been found that BTEX and PAHs emission factors show large differences among different candles, possibly due to the raw paraffinic material used, while aldehydes emission factors seem more related to the presence of additives. …
The Schwind and Hosseinpour study mentioned in the EPA paper comes from Germany. It has the unwieldy title “Determining and Evaluating the Emissions of PCDD/PCDF, PAH and Short-Chain Aldehydes in Combustion Gases of Candles.” For what it’s worth, PAH is “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” and PCDD/PCDF is “polychlorinated dibenzo para dioxins/polychlorinated dibenzofurans.” But please don’t quote me on that. The study looked at waxes, wicks, emissions, and toxicity.
Even with an assumed “worst-case scenario” and allowing for governmental limits and specifications, the toxicological evaluation arrived at the result that the examined candles do not cause any additional health risk.
Beeswax, paraffin, and stearin candles were tested, nine of each type burned simultaneously with controlled air turbulence. This study seems to have the most information but, unfortunately, it’s not information I fully understand. For instance:
Although the beeswax used for the candles showed higher PCDD/PCDF and chlorophenol contaminations than paraffin and stearin waxes, the PCDD/PCDF emissions in the burn tests, with 4 femtogram/g of wax burned, are the lowest (refer to Table 4). The conditions of combustion in the candle flame were apparently suited to reduce PCDD and PCDF. The corresponding emission values for paraffin and stearin candles range slightly higher.
And here is Table 5, a beautiful mass of indecipherability.

The conclusion, though, is clear.
The measuring program has shown that the burning emissions of the examined candles do not represent a potential health hazard to the candle user. The burn emissions of the examined paraffin, stearin and beeswax candles show no significant differences with respect to the pollutant classes examined. Candles made from paraffin are toxicologically just as innocuous as beeswax or stearin candles. These conclusions apply also to the three wick types used.¶ It should be noted, though, that exclusively noncolored candles without decorative additives were used …
The next study is odd. What I found is something like a series of progress reports on a study called “Soybean Candles for Healthy Life and Well Being.” The study, conducted from 2006 to 2010, was sponsored by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (part of the USDA) and was directed by Ruhullah Massoudi, a chemistry professor at South Carolina State University.
This project is going to study and address the health problems associated with the use of petroleum based candles and the possible use of its replacement by soybean candles that is claimed to have no harmful emissions.
Nowhere in the document did I find citations for the idea that petroleum-based candles are associated with health problems or that soybean candles have no harmful emissions.

Under “Goals / Objectives”:
The second objective is to address the economical feasibility of replacing a renewable source like soybean for petroleum source, which is not renewable and depletes and depends on foreign import. Beyond that, using soybean would bring a healthy economy to our farmers by producing more and better products.
Under “Project Methods”:
Apparently, this research is necessitated because of the health problems related to the use of petroleum based products. By replacing paraffin wax with soy wax in candles, an estimated 60 million pounds of soybeans would be required for annual candle production. This requirement will have a direct economic impact on soybean farmers as well as a health and environmental impact in this country. The burning of soy candles in homes and cars address the real issue at hand, which is the health of American and global consumers. The burning of paraffin candle gives off more toxic fumes than soy candles which may be harmful to individuals.
Not a conclusion, mind you, but a project method. And who is burning candles in their car?

Under “Impact”:
Economically, paraffin candles produce carbon which is ruining the furniture, walls, cloths, which is expensive to clean or remove the effect. Therefore, the overall impact of this project is beneficial for the entire population of the world, nations and governments to have healthy and productive generations. Considerable adverse health effects including cancer, asthma, and dermatitis as a result of burning paraffin wax candles in enclosed limited areas have been reported. The composition of emission products are identified by using a GC/MS system equipped with a NIST Library of compounds. The chromatogram of emission products of paraffin based candles were tested for hazardous emissions. In support of published reports the petroleum based candles produced various alkanes, alkenes, toluene, benzene (a carcinogen) and some other chemicals whereas the soybean candle was completely clean. Apparently, petroleum based candled produce chemicals that are health hazards and producing chemicals that should be avoided. Our presentation of results had a great impact in scientific community, general public and candle making industry all over the globe. This resulted reflections of world media causing enormous publicity for the university, and public awareness. The American agricultural economy would greatly benefit by the production and burning of soy wax candles instead of paraffin candles. …
Indeed, this study garnered “enormous publicity.” Any article about how your romantic candlelit dinner is now toxic stemmed from this study, and the number of times sentences or parts of sentences have been lifted from it without qualification and presented as fact by so-called wellness bloggers and beeswax and soy candlemakers, all to promote their own “healthy” product, is legion. Fortunately, not everybody swallowed this study whole. NPR took a slightly more critical look and talked to Massoudi. The European Candle Association refuted the study outright, and the National Candle Association issued a clarifying press release.

So about now I’m thinking this whole “paraffin is toxic” thing was just something cooked up by the soy folks to boost sales. It played extremely well and continues to play well, in part, I suppose, because any product derived from crude oil is an easy target. It is easy to imagine and easy to believe that a product related to gasoline and kerosene and diesel fuel is toxic, harmful, dangerous. And I guess also it is easy to forget that millions of people over several decades have suffered no harm from burning paraffin candles. At the time of this “soybean candle” study, candles made from soy wax had been on the market a dozen years or so.

There is another study that people tend to lift from that takes us right into soot, and soot has captured my imagination. “Characterization of Scented Candle Emissions and Associated Public Health Risks” is a 1999 Master’s thesis by David Krause. The best I could find was an extract of the paper, but it has the key elements, including the bit about diesel soot. After analyzing emissions from 91 paraffin candles, some scented and some not, Krause states:
The possible impacts on public health from consumer use of scented candles may include increased risk of cancer, neurological and behavioral deficits and acute aggravation of existing respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Most of the risk, he says, comes from the soot that scented candles emit to a much higher degree than non-scented candles. He draws a similarity between diesel soot and candle soot as they “share the same physical and many of the same chemical properties which are believed to contribute to both toxicity and carcinogenicity.” There are existing reference points for diesel soot; there are no such reference points for candle soot. So Krause draws a similarity between the two in order to apply the one’s reference points to the other.
Due to the current absence of information on scented candle emission toxicity, and its numerous similarities with diesel exhaust, it would be prudent to tentatively adopt the recognized toxicity values for diesel emissions until specific testing can be accomplished.
He goes on to say:
When the unit cancer risk for diesel exhaust is applied to exposures to candle soot, the estimated increased cancer risk for a lifetime exposure, would range from 9.7 x 10-5 to 3.0 x 10-4 for the lowest emitting candle to 1.5 x 10-2 to 4.7 x 10-2 for the highest emitting candle, using the range of unit cancer risk of 2.9 x 10-5 to 9.0 x 10-5 per m g/m3.
If you can tell me what those numbers mean, please email me at

In his summary, Krause lets us know that:
Use of scented candles may contribute significant quantities of pollutants to the indoor environment, especially soot, benzene and lead. Dozens of other compounds were identified in individual candles, but their contribution to occupant risks were not characterized in this limited scope risk characterization. Due to the variability in candles and their respective emission rates, great uncertainty would exist in a generalized risk assessment.
Krause’s “Black Soot Deposition: How It Impacts IAQ” (Indoor Air Quality) was published in 2001 by The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society Journal. It is readable and clear as it addresses an increase in the number of complaints about soot build-up in homes received by the Florida Department of Health in the 1990s. Krause explains what soot is (“a product of incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels”) and explains that a blue flame indicates complete combustion, a yellow flame incomplete combustion. It turned out that the soot people were complaining about could be traced back to candle usage, and, in particular, the use of certain types of candles and, as well, the manner in which candles were allowed to burn.
In effect, burning one of these candles can be equivalent to burning 100 candles at once. It also was determined that a candle placed in an air draft can increase its soot production by a factor of 50.
Krause does not differentiate by wax type—all his test candles appear to be paraffinic. But here is his list of what to avoid in a candle:
Candles poured into glass jars or ceramic containers.
Soft wax containing unsaturated hydrocarbons.
Aromatic (scented) wax containing volatile aromatic hydrocarbons.
Thick, long wick or one with a wire core.
Soot deposits on the mouth of the jar.
High, erratic flame when burned.
Visible soot emitted from an erratic flame.
Located in an air draft created by a fan or a/c vent.
Pillar candle with signs of uneven burning or thick, erect wicks.
Multiple wick candles with thick, erect wicks.
And here is his list of what to look for in a candle if you wish to avoid excessive soot:
Hard wax containing mostly saturated hydrocarbons.
Thin, braided wick that curls over when burned.
Low aromatic properties.
Tapered and votive candles with thin wicks.
Those that have a low, even flame when burned.
Initially, soot circulates in the air, potentially inhaled. Eventually, though, soot particles deposit themselves here and there about your home and accumulate on certain surfaces. Soot build-up is described as black streaks on walls, curtains, blinds, or carpets. Krause explains that soot is attracted to cooler surfaces due to thermophoresis, and that soot is also “attracted to electrically charged surfaces … ” … and I ask you, how could this not lead me to think of negative ions being attracted to positive ions? Have you ever heard the story about beeswax candles emitting negative ions that clean the air … ? Could this explanation of what soot does—its attraction to electrically charged surfaces—be at all related to this malarkey about beeswax, negative ions and clean air?

Excuse me, alleged malarkey, and, stop me now, because if I get off on that tangent, this will never end.

In conclusion, I did not find any evidence that an unscented, well-made, high quality paraffin candle burned responsibly should for any reason detract from your romantic dinner party nor potentially kill off your lover unless, of course, someone gets too excited and knocks over the candle, setting the tablecloth aflame, and blooey, that’s it. I do think there is enough evidence to be suspicious of candles that are not well-made, that are made of low-quality wax, that are scented. But, if the emissions, whatever they are, of a particular candle you are burning aren’t bothering you, why worry? Open a window once a while. Make sure you get plenty of fresh air. And if you notice soot building up in your home, make some changes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

candle studies: paraffin, an attempt to distill

It is difficult to draw up a classification of petroleum waxes that could not be subjected to criticism.
And so begins Chapter 5 in The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes (Warth), and, hoo boy, some things do not change. Paraffin (petroleum waxes) and criticism still go together. After reading what Warth had to say about paraffin, I read about paraffin online. For a while my chapter on paraffin was dubbed “Paraffin: The Deadly Dastardly Villain of the Wax World” and/or “Paraffin: The Pariah of All Candles.” (Sarcasm intended.) That so many are so compelled to label paraffin “toxic” reminds me of the story about beeswax and negative ions (that clean the air!) as well as the story about that Christmas bayberry candle putting gold in your pocket. Which is not to say there is no wisp of truth to the matter of paraffin and toxicity.

But talking about paraffin as one distinct product is like talking about soy wax as one distinct product, or, for that matter, cereal or cheese. There are endless permutations. Paraffin can refer to any of the wax that is found in crude oil at any stage it is in as it is refined to one degree or another through one method or another. The various classifications, or grades, of paraffin mainly differ in hardness, oil content, and melting point, all of which lend it to different uses. But, according to my old friend Warth, its characteristics also differ from the get-go.
Pennsylvania and Mid-continent oils contain a high percentage of paraffin wax; California oils are almost wax-free. … Differences in the physical characteristics of the paraffin waxes can often be ascribed to the origin of the crude.
This reminds me of beeswax, as the scent and color of beeswax is directly affected by its origin, specifically by the flora the bees visit. As crude oil is the ancient remains of various organic materials, it makes sense that its specific characteristics would vary by where it is found.

I doubt I fully understand the refinement of crude oil, but it seems basically to involve a lot of distillation, which reminds me of whiskey, and both whiskey and oil are stored in barrels, but perhaps similarities end there. The American Petroleum Institute has on its Website a fairly succinct description (complete with video) of current-day oil refining, but when it comes to refining paraffin, I’ll go back to my old book for a description. (Today’s process, though making more use of solvents, may be similar.)
A wax distillate containing 80 per cent of oil and 20 per cent of wax is distilled over at 315º to 425º (600º to 800º F). This distillate is chilled and pressed to give: slack wax containing somewhat less than 50 per cent of oil and more than 50 per cent of wax; spindle oils with pour point of plus 6º to 7º (20º F). The slack wax is chilled and sweated to form scale wax which contains 1 to 6 per cent of oil, 99 to 94 per cent of wax, and foots oil, made up of lower melting point wax plus oil. The scale wax is then refined to paraffin waxes of different melting points, leaving a slop oil of little or no value.
All this talk of sweating and chilling makes me think of people in saunas during winter—they heat up, sweat, jump in snow, chill out, repeat—but also, again, of beeswax. When beeswax is first scraped off the comb, it contains a percentage of honey. Through successive steam or hot water baths the honey is washed out, leaving behind a lesser percentage of honey. When I am processing beeswax—melting it in a pot with a bit of water and then straining it through cloth before pouring it into a mold—there is always some slum gum left on the cloth as well as on the bottom of the cake of wax that remains in the pot. Like slop oil, slum gum has little or no value. All things of value—the honey, beeswax, pollen, propolis from the beehive; the gasoline, kerosene, diesel (et al.), and paraffin from the crude oil—have been removed.

The refining of paraffin can go on and on by various measures and means resulting in several different products used in several different applications. I saw somewhere that food packaging is the number one use for paraffin. Candles come in second. I enjoyed this article about paraffin’s use with food, and here’s an odd thing: Beekeepers in New Zealand using paraffin.

But the pressing question, of course, is which of these various paraffins is used to make candles? In general, that paraffin, often just called candle wax, fits a standard general definition: it is a solid mass of hydrocarbons that is colorless (or translucent), odorless, tasteless. It can be of varying quality, melting point being one measure of quality as usually the lower grades of paraffin have a lower melting point than the higher grades. (I have seen various ranges of melting points for paraffin so hesitate to give one here, but, generally speaking, the range seems to be around 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.) Also, your cheaper paraffin candles most likely are not high grade paraffin. But, then again, just because someone slaps a high price and fancy label on something, well, you know: meaningless. And nowadays, one must also consider that most paraffin candles have been doused with scent and that can affect how a candle burns and what it leaves behind in the air and on your stuff. (I have read nothing about the affect of the dyes used in candles.)
Coming Soon to a Highly Aromatic Theater Near You:
Black Soot Deposit!
Due to the refining process that oil goes through to get to paraffin and that paraffin goes through to get to all of its possibilities, I understand why some think paraffin is not a natural wax. But, in my book, it is. It exists down there in the oily depths of our planet (as well as in shale and peat), and maybe we shouldn’t be pulling so much of that stuff up and out of the earth, using it willy-nilly, but we are and have been since the mid-1800s and even if we try to slow it down, use less oil, less gas, turn to alternative fuel sources, which I’m all for, as long as oil is being dredged up, why not use every bit of it? Why not use paraffin for candles? They’ve been doing it for years!

Ah. So maybe you’ve heard. “Paraffin is toxic.” Sounds like one of those statements we better question.

Dum de dum dum.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

an ode to the tribune & tom skilling’s weather page

One reason I love the Chicago Tribune, digital edition, is for Tom’s Weather Page*, officially known as “Chicago Weather Center,” a name I would not have known if I had not just checked.

Today’s “Chicago Weather Center,” also known as “Tom’s Weather Page.”

Tom Skilling is a legendary Chicago weather man. My memories of him go so far back I cannot even remember who was doing the weather on Channel 9, WGN-TV, before Tom Skilling. That’s where it started, Tom Skilling on TV, and then one day the Tribune printed this full back page of Tom’s weather and I can’t imagine the paper without it. Even though I went for years without the paper. Thank goodness I have finally dragged myself into the world of digital subscriptions. Brought to you by some of the world’s finest newspapers.

My Trib subscription costs $7.96 every four weeks and I’d say it is one of the best deals going. Every day I get an email with a link to that day’s digital paper. I open it up and it looks just like a paper newspaper. I flip through the pages, sample stories. Oh! Click on a story and it opens up, is easier to read, in full, without page jumps.

After a few months I realized I could make clippings. Tom’s December 30 weather map was so beautiful and so chock full of weather that I wanted to clip it and send it to my sisters. I thought the map would make a great jigsaw puzzle and I wanted to tell them that. So I started playing around with the different buttons at the top of the page and realized I could not only download the whole page—any page!—I could make a clipping of any part of the page. What a wonderful thing. I clipped the weather map and sent it to my sisters. I also chose it as the background screen for my laptop.

A thing of beauty. Tom’s weather map, December 30, 2017.

Soon I was clipping the weather map every day to use as my laptop’s background image. National weather patterns and what I would call weather oddities became a part of my day, every day, lingering throughout the day as I looked at the map again and again. Today, if I were doing the weather, I would say:
It’s a beautiful day. The cold has lifted, moved on, drifted south, and even though it is colder here than in Mississippi, my guess is right now it feels colder in Mississippi.
Then I would show you Tom’s weather map.

Tom’s weather map, January 18, 2018.

Which I think you would appreciate more if you were looking, really looking, at this map every day. For instance, yesterday’s lowest temperature. If you were looking at the map every day, you would know that the daily low temperature has mostly been way up in Minnesota near Ely or over near the top of Maine. But today, or yesterday, I should say, the nation’s lowest temperature was in Cassville, Missouri. The southwest corner of Missouri. Fourteen below zero and colder than anywhere else in the nation. How’s that for odd? And the hottest temperature was a mere 83 degrees in San Bernadino, Caifornia. Lately, the hottest temps mostly are in California. One of the things that struck me about the December 30 map was the location of the nation’s hottest and coldest temps. The distance between the two spots and the disparity in temperature. And yes, I know: Hawaii and Alaska are not on the map.

I met Tom Skilling once. I was at the WGN-TV studios during the noon news, waiting to do my spot for the Evanston Animal Shelter. This was something I did one summer, once a week taking a dog or cat or both from the shelter down to the studio for the Adopt-A-Pet spot. One of my favorite episodes was “With Extra Toes, Who Cares if the Eyesight Goes Bad?”

One day I was waiting in the wings holding a cat and even though I remember there always being a health segment before Adopt-A-Pet, here came Tom Skilling walking off the set toward me. Or, to be sure, toward the cat. He petted the cat and commented on how pretty, how cute she was, saying all the usual cat-lovin’ stuff, and he told me about his two cats, Vortex and another with a weather-related name I can’t remember (blast my holey memory!), and I just stood there in awe but also thinking wow, he’s just like he is on TV, and then it was over.

Of course there’s more to the digital Trib than the weather. There’s news, sports, editorials, opinion, letters, columnists, comics, business, puzzles, cars, travel, technology, the arts, the theater, books, obituaries, this-day-in-history bits, something I guess we call “lifestyle,” “home,” “health,” real estate, jobs, the nation, the world, politics, each in its own section, well-delineated but connected, and I guess to me it seems kind of nostalgic. I sense a long-standing continuity to it all. And the ads don’t move, don’t speak, don’t take over your computer.

I’ve started reading the paper backwards, starting with Tom’s weather page and flipping back through articles, sections, comics, puzzles, one by one, and this is the way my mother read the paper—she started with the back page and moved forward. And being able to make clippings—well! My parents were always clipping interesting items from the paper, saving them, sending them on, mostly sending them on, I think, always something that might interest the receiver. I have a faulty memory of my dad sending me many articles about honeybees, but of course that was my mom, as my dad died three years before I had any interest in honeybees. But on the corner of his desk there were always articles piling up to be sent en masse to one of his daughters. I still have an envelope full of articles from 1987. Most of them are about Andre Dawson.

There are other ways to get your news and weather, to share your news and weather, some reliable, some not so much, and on that note we’ll turn to Josie for a final look at the conditions out there.

* As noted on the page, those who contribute to Tom’s Weather Page are WGN-TV meteorologists Steve Kahn, Richard Koeneman, Paul Merzlock and Paul Dailey, plus Bill Snyder.

Monday, January 15, 2018


In July 1972 my dad took us to see the Tony-Award-winning musical “Purlie” at the McVickers Theatre in Chicago.

In 1970 “Purlie” had won two Tony Awards. In 1971 Melba Moore, one of the show’s Tony Award winners, was nominated for a Grammy. Her debut album had her contending in the “Best New Artist” category. (She was beat out by The Carpenters.) “I Got Love,” from “Purlie,” was on Moore’s debut album as well as the original Broadway cast recording. When I pluck a few songs from my teen years, one I get is “I Got Love.” My sister Jennifer loved it. Played it often, played it loud. The entire Broadway cast album was also played, at family dinners and such, and once it caused a stir as an uncle visiting from elsewhere made use of the n-word while commenting on it. He said what he said not, I think, in a malevolent way, if that is possible, but in his own jocular, ignorant way. His comment was stupid, someone pointed this out, he shut up, dinner went on. So did the music.

When I think of “Purlie” I think of this dinner, I think of “I Got Love” blasting in the back room, I think of the other great songs in the show. But if you ask me the story “Purlie” tells, I come up with a blank. I am this way about a lot of musicals.

It being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I decided to listen to “Purlie” and this got me wondering about its story and origin. It was written as a play, “Purlie Victorious,” by Ossie Davis, and in 1961 it had 261 performances on Broadway. (Here is a review of a more recent production.) Davis translated the play into a movie, “Gone Are the Days!” It came out in 1963. (Here is a review.)

In 1970, the musical took stage. The musical was televised in 1981. Fast-forward to 2005 and a new musical production. Now people were feeling a bit uncomfortable with the show. Maybe not so much with the story (told in the reviews I have linked to and the actual movie and musical are below thanks to YouTube), or with the songs, but with the comedy of it. As described by Davis, it was meant “to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence.”

Well. Gone are the days.

Here is the movie.

Here is the televised stage musical.

Now I’m going to go listen to all those great songs again, maybe play “I Got Love” a little too loud.

Friday, January 12, 2018

some unabashed personal observations on a president who calls certain countries “shitholes”; and, thank you, rachel, for your vision

I once knew a man from Haiti. We were both motor route drivers for the Chicago Tribune—we delivered newspapers from our cars. His name was Jean, he was a few years older than I, and he was fussy, liked things his way, and, in his way, was rather bossy. His skin was very dark, he stood tall, erect, he never hurried. I could not understand him very well when he spoke, but as far as I know we had no problem with each other, were pleasant to each other, got along fine as we prepped our newspapers, loaded our cars, drove off separately into the night to do our jobs.

Jean and I worked alongside three men from Guatemala. These guys always came in together and worked together on several routes. They were brothers, or maybe cousins. We called one “el jefe” as he seemed to be in charge. Whenever a route was down, meaning either there was no permanent driver for it or the driver had not shown up, Felipe (“el jefe”) was on it. Unless, of course, Jean got to it first. Often who got the extra route would involve some heated discussion. Me, I always just did my route and went home. It took a while for me to understand that most of the other drivers were looking for as much work as they could get. The Guatemalans were all shorter than I, and quick. They conversed in Spanish. After a while I let them know that I could understand a bit of what they were saying, and that seemed to amuse them. We got along pretty well.

These men and all the route drivers, that job, the whole scene of delivering newspapers starting in the garage where we all showed up in the middle of the night to roll or bag our papers to being on the road, tossing papers as close to front porches as possible or hustling down an alley hurling papers onto the back porches of three-story apartment buildings in all kinds of weather, came back to me first with the news of the Salvadorans who are being told to leave the U.S. No, they are not Guatemalans, but my mind drifted to Felipe et. al. (Here is an editorial on the Salvadoran subject.) Then, reading about the mudslide in Montecito, California, in the L.A. Times, I saw this photo of a newspaper delivery person. The photo, taken by Sky Gilbar for The Times, was in a slideshow. The caption read: Newspaper deliveryman Rudy Corona of Santa Barbara, walks out of mud and debris with his dogs after his car became blocked.

Then this morning, as I learned of an American president asking why would we want Haitians here, my old co-worker Jean came to mind.

A clipping from my digital Chicago Tribune delivered electronically January 12, 2018.

How an American president could say such a stupid thing as is quoted in this article and many others is beyond me.

I understand that many will excuse the president’s words in any of the numerous ways we have become accustomed to, but I am steadfast in my belief that Donald Trump speaks his mind, and his mind is an unholy mess.

Since the Trump Debacle began, I have not felt able to adequately describe the impact of this presidency on my ability to be an American, which is, after all, part of my identity. I have lived with presidents I did not support, some of which tried my respect, but this is not that at all, and this is not then. This is living now with a president who attacks this country relentlessly. He inflicts suffering every day. He threatens Americans, he denigrates Americans, he calls us liars, he holds us hostage—it is unfathomable. Yet, like a mudslide, there it is.

Trump’s presidency has affected me to the core. It has changed my perception of many I know. It has changed my perception of where I live. For the world, there will be broader, graver consequences, but every day I am conscious of the changes this presidency has brought to my own daily life.

I cannot help but spend whole parts of days thinking how sad, how misguided, how foul is this presidency and thinking that the responsibility for it lies with those who voted for him. Donald Trump is, after all, who he is, and he has been plainly who he is for many years. But where he is—No, Donald Trump would not be where he is without the votes of nearly 63 million American people. Yes, I know, his main opponent got more votes, but if not for each vote he did get Donald Trump’s every inane remark would not be news. His every stupid, illogical, factless and tactless tweet would not be news. His every foul, ignorant comment would not be news.

More than a year ago I was mocked by friends who were Trump supporters for expressing similar feelings of sadness and dismay. By my choice, I no longer have those friends. I remember being sent a ready-made graphic about how if “we” survived eight years of Obama, “you” can survive four (or was it eight?) years of Trump. I thought that was so stupid, on so many levels, but first—isn’t it about more than survival? For the average American, isn’t each day about a little bit more than just surviving? About more than just having what you need to be alive one more day? For some, I know, it is not. And there is no need not to be grateful for mere survival—it can be the greatest thing, especially when the nutty leaders of the world are bragging about the size of their nuclear buttons—but for most of us and surely, as a country, isn’t life about more than stark survival?

More than anything Trump is a killer. He is a killer of thoughtfulness, intellect, wisdom, compassion, spirit, scientific inquiry, fact, hope. He is the incessant dripping faucet—the sound you cannot stop that grates more and more until you manage to tune it out but all the while the costs build and build and one day you get the water bill and say “Oops. I should have done something about that leaky faucet.” And Donald Trump is like the creep who blocks your path as you amble along peacefully. The creep teases you and taunts you and won’t let you move forward and there’s no purpose to it except he’s getting your attention. Another word for the creep is “bully.” How not to engage? How to keep moving forward?

My friend Rachel Biel, of Paducah, Kentucky, began a recent blog post with this: I want to move from the house that I live in.

Well, this past year, I have had the same feeling. I’ve wanted nothing more than to get away from a place where people believe a man like Donald Trump makes a great world leader. (Both Rachel and I live in so-called red states, and the U.P. is especially red.) But Rachel and I are different. You see, she does not want to leave Paducah. She does not want to get away, flee, find a better place, a more politically comfortable place. Rather, Rachel wants to build a place in Paducah where she and others from Paducah, as well as from around the country and indeed from around the world, can come and feel welcome. She sees her home in that new place, and she sees that place as a spot where people from various cultures and walks of life come together to learn from one another, to share with one another. A place people come to be inspired and to inspire others. Rachel describes it also as a place for people to leave from in order to explore the world. She describes it as a cultural center, a cultural exchange, an eco-village, and please, Rachel, save me a spot at the table.

I am one of the least multicultural people around, until I think of all the multicultural spots in which I have spent much of my adult life, like the garage where I rolled and bagged newspapers. The university I worked at. The social service agency I worked for. The cities I’ve lived in. The restaurants I’ve enjoyed. All a mish-mash of people from different places, different countries, some born in America, some recent immigrants, some (I imagine) undocumented immigrants, some students and professors on various visas. Different languages, different customs, different religions, different colors, different foods, different life experiences, and, even here, in this incredibly white Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I think of the slightly foreign (to me) Finnish inflections and customs and experiences that are a part of everyday life.

But I wasn’t raised in a multicultural setting, and I didn’t go out looking for it. I just went out looking for a job, for a place to live, and there it was. However trite to say it, that is America: a conglomeration of people, cultures, languages, and skills. And Donald Trump, judging by the crap he tweets and says everyday, strikes me as so ignorant of that fact that I wonder if he is even American. If so, I marvel at how limited his experience is. How limited his education is. And I wonder how he can not know and cherish who we, as Americans, are. He strikes me as one of the most unAmerican men I have ever had the displeasure of having to listen to.

Yes, Rachel and I are different. I knew this from the start. She was raised in a multicultural environment and has always sought it out to the point of creating it. We met at that social service agency. I worked in the office with mostly white folks. Rachel worked in and managed a store the agency ran. The store involved folks of all color. It was intended as a place where people could sell their art and craftwork or sell art and craftwork imported from other countries, usually their home country, and people from all over the world, now living in Chicago, were part of that store. Rachel knew these people, was friends with some, worked with all, and seemingly got along with and so enjoyed this wide array of cultures—it overwhelmed me. I was intimidated by it. Managing the store, keeping it organized, seemed to me somewhat of a nightmare. I served as an assistant in certain aspects of paperwork and sometimes manned the cash register. The store—there was nothing tidy or neat about it. Not that the store wasn’t clean—it was—it was downright beautiful with all its different colors and textures and aromas and delightful surprises. So many interesting things. I guess what I am saying is that it was not sterile. Rather, it was crazily alive. And that can be frightening. Rachel’s ability to create this space, to nurture it and manage it, seemed a skill I couldn’t quite grasp.

Rachel and I left the social service agency, went our different ways, and didn’t keep in touch. When we reconnected a few years ago, our affinity, differences, and respect for one another was apparent. If I had to put it in three nutshells, I would say Rachel is a leader, I am a follower. Rachel’s convictions make her feel strong, my convictions make me feel vulnerable. Rachel is a doer, I am a muller.

Rachel is also an artist and an entrepreneur. She has created two websites that bring artists together. One in particular—the one I am familiar with—is Artizan Made. It promotes a wide variety of artists and craftworkers from around the world. Rachel is also a prolific writer. She tells her life stories freely, tells you of her beliefs and how she comes by them. She shares the work of so many others. For the past twelve years, she has done this via websites and social media from her home in Paducah. After Trump’s election, she created a Facebook header that portrayed her as a blue dot in a red state. Now she wants to move from the house she lives in, but not from Paducah. She wants to create her vision—a vision she first had many years ago—right in place.

A part of me does to Rachel’s vision what I often do to my own: Get excited, cut it down. Label it: Pie in the Sky. Believe it: Unattainable. And if somehow attainable: So what? To what value? Why do I react this way? I wish I knew. I see the value in everything Rachel is talking about, and I have had visions, dreams, if you will, of my own, and I have chased them or, rather, plodded after them with a measure of success and a measure of oh, so this is reality, this is the sacrifice, this is where it all falls short, falls apart—but in the end, why be a naysayer? Why be a party pooper? What is to be gained by that? Especially in the face of an American president who calls other countries “shitholes” and who gauges the value of people by where they are from. Following his example, someday whatever the value is of being American will be greatly reduced. Maybe that day is already here. Maybe that is what is troubling me. That this part of me that identifies as “American” is, has already been, or is becoming worthless. Unless, lo and behold, we find a way to survive Donald Trump.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

candle studies: ozokerite & gunplay maxwell starring in “Wax of the Wild West”

When starting this candle studies series I had no idea it was going to lead to an American outlaw killed in a classic gun battle in the middle of a dusty street in the Old West. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Wax. Enter Gunplay Maxwell, ozokerite, and the wax mines of Utah.

Photo with caption lifted from “The American Ozokerite Company,” Will C. Higgins, Eighth Biennial Report of the State Mine Inspector of the State of Utah 1911-1912.

At the time of our story, ozokerite (also known as ozocerite) was found in only two places in the world: about 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Boryslaw, Austria, which is now Boryslav, Ukraine. It is a naturally occurring earth wax, or mineral wax, first mined in 1854 in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. A fellow named R. J. Kroupa, described as “one of the prominent engineering chemists of the United States” in Higgins’ report, visited the wax mining operation in Austria, and his description, included in the report, reads in part:
The ozokerite is found in the shales and sandstone with oil and salt water. The mining is all done by shaft work, and at the time of my visit was at a depth of about 800 feet, since that time they have gone down to a depth of 1,400 feet in shaft mining and about 3,000 by drilling.¶  The wax, as extracted, comes in a brecciated form, mixed in shale and sandstone. The lump form of wax, as a rule, is soft, and is something like butter half way hard. Part of this wax oozes into the drifts from the crevices in the walls and fills up the drifts charged with oil and gas. Sometimes this exudation of wax comes so suddenly that the miners have to leave the mine, and afterwards the oil has to be pumped out. At one time a large body of this soft wax, called at the mines ‘Blassen Wachs’ (Blow Wax) filled the drifts, shaft and house, over night, to a depth of 800 feet.
Kroupa also described the initial refinement process, which sounded familiar.
All the wax hauled from the shafts is sorted and the brecciated matter is placed in large cast iron caldrons containing hot water. The wax was skimmed from the surface, remelted, and cast into wooden tubs.
Higgins described ozokerite as “a residue formed by the receding of oil from the fissures, leaving a certain amount of paraffine in the cracks and crevices … ” Does this mean ozokerite is paraffin?

In a report a few years later by Heath M. Robinson (“Ozokerite in Central Utah,” US Geological Survey Bulletin 641, 1916), Robinson states that “[Ozokerite] is a mixture of hydrocarbons in various proportions, the exact nature of which is a subject of dispute. Some authors consider that it is composed of members of the paraffin series; others place its chief constituents in the olefin series.”

Either way, ozokerite has a melting point ranging from 154 to 190 degrees, which was much higher than the commercial paraffins of the time, which, according to Higgins, had melting points no higher than 130 degrees. Both Higgins and Robinson list the many uses of ozokerite, which included everything from phonograph records to waterproofing surfaces, to wax paper and dolls, to candles (Robinson: “Candles made from ozokerite have qualities superior to those found in other candles” and Higgins: “The illuminating power of such candles is stronger than that of others, while they drip but little and never lop over when exposed to ordinary atmospheric heat”). It seems whatever one wax can be used for all waxes can be used for, depending on some of the finer points such as melting point, specific gravity, solubility. Ozokerite proved especially useful for insulating electrical wires. It could also be converted to the highly refined product ceresin.

Both Higgins and Robinson expressed optimism for the future of Utah’s wax mining industry, though one a bit more effusively than the other. Higgins:
Comparing the Utah to the Austrian ozokerite field even the layman can see the wonderful possibilities possessed by the former. At Colton, near which place almost inexhaustible deposits of ozokerite exist, the field is so extensive that an industry could be established that would make our state as noted and famous for the production of this commodity as it now is in its yield of gold, silver, lead, copper, coal and other minerals.
Robinson tempered his optimism with reality.
The first prospecting of this region was done in 1886. Since that time mining and prospecting have been carried on at irregular periods, for litigation has prevented continuous development. Exact figures for the production of the field are not available, and at the time of the writer’s examination all the mines were inactive.
Inactive mines, litigation, opportunity waxing and waning. Maybe not so surprising to learn that one fellow laying claim to an ozokerite mine in Utah was the outlaw Gunplay Maxwell.

Gunplay, born in or near Boston in or near 1860, was thought to be an educated, intelligent man, but he spent most of his life in Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada robbing banks and stage coaches, stealing cattle, getting in gunfights, shooting folks, getting caught, spending time in prison, changing his name (everything from James Otis Bliss to William H. Seaman), trying to get in with Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, shooting morphine or some such into the veins of his arms, drinking, gambling, marrying (whether or not he was already married), and generally making his way through a somewhat messy life. For a short while or two, Gunplay was a deputy sheriff. For another short while he was a mine guard for a Utah coal mining company, whose workers were on strike, and as well a bodyguard for the company’s lawyer—a man who became his lawyer and who subsequently helped Maxwell dodge a bullet or two, so to speak. But Maxwell’s seemingly legitimate jobs always appeared to have angles attached to them that helped his illegal pursuits. From what I’ve read, I would say he was a dirty, double-dealing, scheming kind of guy. He died in 1909 around 50 years of age after being challenged in a saloon. There was a gunfight in the middle of the street. Maxwell was shot dead. Whether it was high noon or not, I do not know. These Wild West tales do seem to get a little … wild.

Lifted from where it is attributed to
The Garland Globe, September 4, 1909, Garland, Utah.
The headstone pictured at FindAGrave tells a different
story of Gunplay’s death, but I’m sticking with the one
in the Globe.

Maxwell also was a founder of the Utah Ozokerite Company. Here’s a notice from Mineral Wealth, Vol. 6, March 1, 1905 (page 164).
The Utah Ozokerite Company, has been incorporated with a capitalization of 300,000 shares of $1 each. The incorporators are C. W. Shores, Grand Junction, Colorado; C.L. Maxwell, Scofield, Utah; B.F. Caffey and H.A. Nelson of Salt Lake, Utah. The company will mine mineral wax and ozokerite near Colton, Utah. The company’s headquarters will be at Salt Lake.
It’s an interesting group. C.W. “Doc” Shores was a lawman, C.L. “Gunplay” Maxwell was an outlaw, and Caffey and Nelson were saloon keepers. What brought them together in a wax mining venture? Did it have anything to do with the 1897 robbery of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company’s payroll at Castle Gate? (See pages 116-119 and 138 of Whispering Smith: His Life and Misadventures, by Allen P. Bristow.)

Well. So. Litigation. Outlaws. Robberies. Idle mines. But somehow, somewhere down the line Utah’s wax mining industry came together and wax was indeed mined until 1951. Now all that’s left are the dusty trails, and ozokerite just ain’t what it used to be.

Ah, but once:
In some instances the walls are almost as smooth as glass, and can be followed for considerable distances before a break is encountered. The veins are from three to thirty feet in width, and carry an average value of three per cent ozokerite. The ozokerite exists in the crevices and fissures in the vein matter, and is easily distinguishable, being a glossy black shading off into deep browns or a pronounced yellow. In places in the vein the ozokerite occurs in solid masses ranging from two to six inches, or even a foot in width. This requires to be melted to be rendered marketable, and is practically 100 per cent pure. (Higgins)
[Ozokerite] cuts easily, somewhat like hard cheese, but does not adhere to the knife. (“Ozokerite Deposits in Utah,” Joseph A. Taff and Carl D. Smith, US Geological Survey Bulletin No. 285, 1905.)

Selected Readings: Gunplay Maxwell
Who was that masked man?, D. Robert Carter, Daily Herald (Provo UT), June 3, 2006.
Gunplay became a creative convict, D. Robert Carter, Daily Herald (Provo UT), June 10, 2006.
Gunplay followed path of lawlessness to the grave, D. Robert Carter, Daily Herald (Provo UT), June 24, 2006.
Jones Exhibit. (Sketch of life of C.L. Maxwell …), Industrial Relations: Final Report and Testimony, Volume 11, United States Commission on Industrial Relations, 1916.
Gunplay Maxwell – Utah Gunfighter & Outlaw, Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, August 2017.