“Chicken Soup, Perfume, and the Dunked Minister – Easters of Days Past”

Written by Henriette J. Runte

Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old! …

Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old!


My mother is the religious one in my family. She belongs to the Reformate church, which is the only branch of Protestantism that exists in Hungary and Romania. My father is a Catholic, but not a very good one. When asked by my mother to teach me the Lord’s Prayer in Hungarian, my father taught me a rated R version that resulted in my mother not speaking to him for weeks. For those who speak Hungarian, his version of the prayer began with, “Mi gatyák, aki a kosárban…”

My mother has always taken religious holidays very seriously, and Easter has always been second only to Christmas in her book. On Easter, my mother has always taken it upon herself to feed her friends and neighbors, as well as the poor and unfortunate. As a result, she has always cooked for days before Easter.

The year I turned 5, she decided to initiate me into this tradition, only everything went wrong.

My mother had prepared a gigantic pot of chicken soup and placed it on a wooden board under the window to let it cool off. She proceeded to further busy herself at the stove with the preparation of the other dishes. I went to the sink, which was right next to the window, to lick out some bowls that had been used to make the desserts. I took one wrong step, landed with my foot partly on the wooden board the chicken soup was resting on, lost my balance, and fell into the pot, with my behind first.

The pot was so huge, that I slipped in all the way to my waist and got caught. Apparently, I only let out one little scream and then fainted. My mother pulled me out of the soup as soon as she could, but my poor bottom still cooked into the soup for altogether too long.

What made matters worse was that I was wearing nylon panty hose that quite dramatically melted into my flesh.

The story turns funny in a second, so please keep reading.

The ambulance was called, I was taken to the hospital and saved, but my mother insisted on bringing me back home, trusting only herself to take care of me. Now, you have to know that in the late 1970s in Romania, the way they treated severe burns was to clean the wound thoroughly and press sterile gauze, dipped in iodine into the wound. As the skin grew back, the gauze pieces would slowly peel off.

So, you see, I returned home, wrapped from the waist to my knees in gauze dipped in iodine and could only rest on my stomach.

And it was Easter!

But it would turn into not only a memorable Easter, but also a joyous one.

My father, the not-so-good Catholic, has always been a very good father. And he was not going to let me be sad on Easter.

In Hungary and Romania, one interesting Easter tradition, for kids especially, is the practice of locsolás. On Easter Monday, excitement about spring and ancient fertility rituals mix into the religious celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Little girls and women paint eggs, mainly by attaching little flowers and leaves onto the eggs, tightly wrapping them inside old pantyhose, and cooking them in water with red onion peels or red beets. They also prepare obscene amounts of cookies and pastries.

On Easter Monday, little boys and men are supposed to go visit every woman they know. Men start early in the morning with the “less important” women in their lives, and mostly time it so they are with family and close friends for mealtimes. The evening visits are reserved for the most special women, and these visits tend to be a little longer than the others.

As a little girl, I kept a special diary of my Easter visitors, and compared how my list developed from year to year. The boys and men who came by our house would put their name down in my book and would maybe draw a little something, or write one or two lines.

According to tradition, the men recite a poem to the women and ask if they may water them. In the villages, the watering sometimes means throwing a bucket full of water over the head of the woman in question. But most of the time, a few drops of perfume are used instead. The gentleman callers are then rewarded with colored eggs. One of the best know poems that men tend to recite goes something like this:

„Én kis kertészlegény vagyok –
Virágokat locsolgatok.
Azt hallottam, hogy egy rózsa
El akar hervadni.
Szabad megöntözni?“

Translated, this means, “I’m a little gardener who is watering flowers. I heard that a rose was wilting. May I water it?”

Other poems are more humorous, or poetic, or personal. It is up to the man to decide on his particular poem. Some men write their own poems and come up with a new one every year.

How many different perfumes mix atop of your head on Easter Monday, and how long your list of callers gets is a particular point of pride, especially for little girls.

So, back to my burned behind (-:

As you may know, my father was the National Olympic Weightlifting Coach in Romania. On the Easter when I was burned, he had all his athletes come and call on me on Easter Monday. He recruited neighbors, friends, everybody he knew. There was a line of boys and men outside our house that year, which cheered up even the little girl in considerable pain, lying on her stomach, with her bandaged backside in the air.

Of course, stories tend to forget about my poor mother, who in light of my funny, heroic, extroverted father, gets ignored. So here are a few lines about my dear mother as well. You can imagine the feelings of guilt she was coping with that particular Easter. Nevertheless, she finished her cooking. She prepared hundreds of colored eggs. And, she set up a system to disinfect all the visitors’ hands and maintain hygiene around her severely burned daughter.

And to top it off, she served everybody a bowl of soup!

This cheered me up the most. Knowing that people were eating my butt soup just cracked me up inside!

Not the article about Easter you were expecting? Well, welcome to my world!

Once we moved away from the Carpathian Basin, my Easter experiences became less spectacular. But I do still have one or two stories about Easter that you might enjoy.


Skipping forward to the first Easter experience my kids had in the US, I will tell you about the year we visited my dear friend Deborah in Dallas.

My parents have been living in the US for over 40 years now, but Easter at their house is still more reminiscent of the Carpathian Basin than of anything real Americans do. So, one year, when our twins were 5 and our little one had not yet turned 1, we went to celebrate Easter with a childhood friend of mine in Dallas, so the kids would finally experience a real American Easter.

The part of Easter I was looking forward to the most was Sunday Mass at Sunrise, because that is something that I had shared with my friend Deborah when we were growing up. My parents felt a little estranged from churches in America when we first moved to Texas from Romania. There were too many branches of Protestantism to pick from and ceremonies were way too jovial and loud for their cultural taste. My parents have since found a Methodist church where they feel very welcome and comfortable, but during our time in Texas, my church experiences were limited to going with Deborah to her Presbyterian church. I particularly enjoyed Sunday Mass at Easter. The church always organized a lock-in on Saturday night. We watched movies, talked, ate junk food, and spent the night in the church. Then, on Sunday, we were expected to get up at the crack of dawn and go to mass. The services on Easter Sunday at Deborah’s church, with the sun coming up and the minister finding just the right words and sentiments, always appealed to me. These were some of the most religious moments of my early teens.

I really wanted my kids to experience Deborah’s church on Sunday, but with three little ones – four, actually, with Deborah’s son – we just didn’t make it that early. But the church was organizing an Easter Egg Hunt and many games and activities, so we headed out as soon as we could.

What struck me as different from the way I remembered things was that the eggs that were hidden were basically reusable plastic egg-shaped containers filled with various types of candy and chocolate. I found that quite progressive and environmentally friendly.

We used the choochoo train that was set up for the occasion. We blew soap bubbles and played the games.

Then, we wandered over to the dunking booth. In case you are not familiar with dunkin booths, they are big containers of water with a seat on top. The objective is to hit a lever on the side that makes the seat drop into the water. Different volunteers, some more prominent than the others, sit on the seat, and people try to dunk them, making them sink into the container of water. Often, dunking booths are used to raise money for a cause. In this case, it was simply a fun way of bringing the community together.

Many people sat on the seat and got dunked, but whenever the minister sat atop the dunking booth, somehow no one managed to make him sink. My kids took turns trying. Deborah and her husband and my husband tried their luck. I just watched. I’m not a particularly good thrower, so I just stayed out of it.

They announced that it would be the last round and the minister volunteered to sit one final time atop the dunking booth. I said that I would give it a go this time. I took the baseball handed to me. No one thought I could do it, but with my first shot, I dunked that minister good!

It was very funny. The minister, completely soaked from head to toe, came to meet us and to have a chat about the different ways Easter is celebrated around the world. It was all very light and pleasant and very comforting and uniting.

Afterwards, I had to think about how strange life is sometimes. Until that moment when I dunked the minister, Easter somehow always carried the gravity and drama of what had happened to me at Easter when I was little. But leave it up to the good ol’ US of A to add a little cheer to it all.


By the way, did you know that Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday are national holidays in Germany, a secular country. And yet, in the US, although “In God We Trust,” only Easter Sunday is observed, with very few exceptions like the White House Easter Egg Roll or days off due to Spring Break.

In Hungary and Romania, including the Carpathian Basin, where I was born, Easter is also celebrated and recognized nationally as a public holiday from Friday to Monday, both Friday and Monday being official days off from work.

In France, Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, is not a public holiday, because the day does not call for celebration. However, Easter Monday, which marks the Resurrection of Christ, and the end of Lent, is a day of rest, a day when all public offices are closed and the people are given the day off from work.

I have only spent one Easter in France. I spent 7 summers researching at the theater festival in Avignon, countless summers in Paris, studying, taking groups of students on university exchange programs, or just vacationing, and many summers traveling around the country, visiting my host family in the Nantes region, or enjoying the beaches of the Vendée or the beautiful landscapes of the Dordogne area or the South of France. But almost all of the time I have spent in France has been in the summer. But I did live in Besançon for a year and taught at the Université de Franche-Comté, and that is the only time that I experienced a French Easter.

There are only two things that seemed particularly interesting to me. One was the fact that all church bells seized to ring on Thursday before Good Friday. Out of respect for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, all church bells fall silent until Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection. The ringing of church bells in France is quite present, something you cannot easily ignore. There is almost an eeriness to when they fall silent. When they are rung again on Sunday, there is a sense of awakening, of rediscovering the sounds of Christianity. You have to experience it to really know what I mean.

My other observation about Easter in France is actually an erroneous one. The year I was there, Easter fell on one of the last days of March, and children were already getting ready to play April Fool’s jokes. French kids cut out colorful little fish, symbols of Christianity, and place them on the backs of the adults they are fooling. I was not familiar with the tradition and was fooled. When I discovered the fish that had been attached to my back, I didn’t quite understand. I found especially confusing why such a prank would be played on Easter Sunday, of all days. To this day, I find it strange how the Poisson d’Avril somehow mixes religious fervor and April Fool’s antics.

It is perhaps in Germany that I have had the most experience with Easter, because this is where I had my children and where I had to decide on the Easter tradition my family would observe.

Good Friday is a holiday here, and we use it to color eggs. We spend the whole day painting eggs and reading our favorite Easter books. My youngest daughter’s book, Magical Easter Eggs, is of course among them. (-:

On Saturday, in Germany, you are allowed to burn any access wood or shrubbery in your back yard. Some friends of ours have used this opportunity to organize an annual bonfire, which serves as an excuse to have a huge party. Over the fire, the kids roast Stockbrot, which is dough wrapped on sticks. Once cooked through, the little breads slide off the sticks and can be eaten. They are often dipped into butter. There’s also a barbeque and a potluck buffet, so enough to eat and drink for everyone. This party has become a part of our Easter tradition.

Easter Sunday is reserved for family. We set a table with ham and fish and cheese and bread rolls, the works. Of course, the highlight is on the colored Easter eggs. To begin the breakfast, we each select an egg. Then, in pairs of two, we take the pointy part of our egg and try to break our “opponent’s” egg with it. The winning egg then goes on to the next round. The person who selected the egg that breaks last is the winner. This is called Eiertitschen, and the King or Queen of this family Easter egg battle boasts about his or her victory all year!

The way we eat our Easter eggs is also special. The eggs are pealed, cut in two, and then the yolks are removed. You put a little bit of the following ingredients inside the two egg-white halves: oil, mustard, mayonnaise, vinegar, as well as salt and pepper. And then, you carefully squeeze the egg yolks back in. All this is done with your hands, no particular etiquette to follow here. The final bites are also placed in your mouth by hand.

After breakfast, the kids go out in the yard and look for hidden chocolates. Traditionally, neighbors also place chocolates and little bags of goodies into each other’s yards, so the “hunt” is always worthwhile. Older kids sometimes find a book or another small present hidden as well.

On Monday, we always go for a long walk. Otherwise, we spend the day at home, together, doing nothing in particular.

And those were my Easters of Days Past and Present. I guess the only two traditions I miss are Easter Sunday Mass at Sunrise from the US and the Easter Monday tradition of men reciting poems and watering women in exchange for colored eggs from the Carpathian Basin.

And with that, I wish you all Happy Easter, wherever you are and however you are celebrating (or not).

Written by Henriette J. Runte

Language and Science

Written by Chad Cowan

As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

T.S. Eliot begins the “Wasteland” with a line that has always stuck with me, “April is the cruelest month.” Now a resident of the cold northeast where he lived, I understand better than ever the sentiment. Although, I would argue it is March that has proven cruel this year by reminding us of winter’s doldrums. The last two months have been filled with work and colds and dark mornings and dark afternoons, but I see the beginnings of spring. At work, we are busy making plans for more social outings, including a company-wide event. At home, we are packing to go away for two weeks of glorious vacation in the Bahamas. Together these efforts combine what I seek in life, purpose, and joy. It has taken me years to realize that joy is not a private matter but found amongst those we love and those we live with and are together with. A hard truth to come by for a dedicated introvert. So, let’s hope some fun together will bring joy and make April seem less cruel.

As I have been reminded, this blog should speak about how my career path uses writing and language, so to business then. I am a scientist by training and now by mindset. In science, our greatest hope is to discover something worth communicating to others, be it a simple innovation or a deeper truth. As a native English speaker (if we as American’s can claim this), it has been my great fortune that the language of science is English, otherwise I may never have made progress in my chosen profession given my lack of facility in any other language. The reasons for English becoming the language of science are many and not worth re-hashing, but as of today, most if not practically all scientists communicate in a common language. We seek to share our insights and the problems we set ourselves against with the likeminded and learn from those who tilt against their own windmills but have inadvertently solved some of the riddles we seek to puzzle through.

As a result of our common language, I have travelled the world as an academic scientist and attended conferences on almost every continent (Antarctica is missing from my travels). It has been my pleasure to exchange information freely with scientists everywhere I’ve gone because we’ve agreed to communicate in a single language. Science and the community it fosters, transcends nations, cultures and creeds. In a way I have never witnessed in any other endeavor, except sports, it unites us. In my lab at Harvard, we had people from all over the world working together on a common problem. The same was true in the lab next door and the one across the country in California. In the company I’ve founded, it is the same. People from all walks of life gathered around a common purpose and united in their ability to exchange information in a common language.

A final digression, I have taught many scientists over the years how to ask questions and design experiments that will help them understand the answers. The most important lesson I have imparted to those I have worked with the longest is that the best scientists are often also the best at telling stories. As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

My last words of wisdom for my students, is that whether we tell others stories or not, we are always telling ourselves a story. To make sure the facts as we have collected them agree with the story, we tell ourselves before we tell others. In other words, be willing to rewrite your own story rather than fall in love with the first draft. Otherwise, you may do the world a disservice and communicate a fiction versus a description of the wonderful world around us.

Written by Chad Cowan

Late Fall / Winter Reading with a Scientist

Written by Chad Cowan

Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do and it remains my number one past time for relaxation.

Late fall and early winter are very busy times for me, both at work and at home. First at home, we have two birthdays to celebrate and multiple holidays. My youngest son, Ellery, joined the double-digit club and turned 10 this October. Ellery has mild autism, and he is deeply fascinated by giraffes. We have gone “all in” with his obsession and his room and much of his learning seems to center on giraffes (or other animals).

Last year at his birthday, his two large stuffed giraffes, Super Doctor Mummy Raffie and Tall Neck, were married by his grandfather a sea Captain at a lovely party attended by friends and family members. This year, the young couple was expecting, and we threw a baby shower for his 10th birthday party. We celebrated the arrival of “twin” baby giraffes with cake and had several baby animals join the party for people to hold and play with. A good time was had by all.

This event was followed by Halloween, which we have perfected if the objective is to collect enough candy to eat until Christmas (we may have over done it and gotten enough to last until Easter!). Next up is one of our favorite national holidays, my lovely wife Lindsay’s birthday. More cake, more stuffed animals, and good times.

Then Thanksgiving, which we hosted for 18 people and made sure we had all the family favorites, turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts, asparagus, green beans, pies, cake and of course ice cream. On the horizon is our yearly trip to New York City. We plan to visit the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum this year. We usually catch a show but were unable to come to a consensus on whether to see the Rockettes or a Broadway play so may skip it this season. Finally, we will spend Christmas in the British Virgin Islands on a sailboat with friends.

At work, we just achieved 95% of our corporate goals for the 2022 (hooray!), finished a private financing, completed our performance management reviews, and set new Corporate Goals for 2023. We welcomed our 50th employee to our rapidly growing team and are moving to our new office and lab space. We’ve been so busy, we’ve all agreed to have our holiday party sometime next year when we can finally catch our breath and celebrate what we’ve been able to accomplish!

The two most selfish things I do every day are exercise and read. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do and it remains my number one past time for relaxation. According to my Kindle app, I have read for 207 weeks in a row, with a current consecutive streak of 146 days. This year on Kindle I have read 37 novels. I read anything and everything, but still have a soft spot for science fiction and fantasy novels, my favorite sci fi novel this year was “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson and favorite fantasy series was the “Age of Madness” trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I have to give a nod to a trilogy that I found unbelievably entertaining, “The Scholomance” series by Naomi Novik. I have recently begun reading more non-fiction books and some that made the list this year include, “How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg (a delightful book about using math to make better decisions), “Algorithms to Live By” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (more of the same), “Popular” by Mitch Prinstein (which takes a hard look at the neuro-and socio-biology of popularity), and “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky (which integrates psychology, neurology and sociology to help understand human behavior). All in all a good year of reading.

Reading also is one of the main ways our family gets together. We still read either poems or passages from books at every dinner we sit down to. We have recently made this a bit more light-hearted for the boys’ sakes and two family favorites are a book poems, “Throw the Damn Ball: Classic Poetry by Dogs” by R.D. Rosen et al. and an updated field guide to the birds of North America, called “The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America” by Matt Kracht. These have been huge hits as they are hilarious and irreverent. Caution, they both should come with language warnings as they use some very off-color descriptors to good effect.

Finally, I read almost every night to my youngest son, who in addition to autism has profound dyslexia. I want to make sure he learns to love the joy of stories and books and for several years his mental sophistication has been well ahead of his reading level, so rather than have him pay the price I am delighted to read books of all levels for his enjoyment. We just finished the entire Rick Riordan Greek Myths multibook series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus and the Trial of Apollo). I am proud to report that we co-read the last book together (I read a page or two, he read a page or two), a major step forward in his literacy. Perhaps more enjoyable, has been listening to him read aloud the books we read every December in the run up to Christmas. Just last night he read us, “The Little Fir Tree” by Hans Christen Andersen. It is amazing to see another reader blossom before my eyes.

Written by Chad Cowan

The Read-aloud

Written by Henriette J. Runte

When we engage in writing and reading, we retreat into our mind. We reflect. We imagine. We explore. We reach a state of relaxation that rivals the results of any of the popular forms of meditation. But humans are social beings, and we enjoy sharing what we love. Just like meditation, both writing and reading can be shared. Today, I’d like to write you about the beauty of reading together, aloud.

Writing and reading, mated for life, hand in hand, and yet so alone.

When we engage in these two solitary activities, we retreat into our mind. We reflect. We imagine. We explore. We reach a state of relaxation that rivals the results of any of the popular forms of meditation. But humans are social beings, and we enjoy sharing what we love. Just like meditation, both writing and reading can be shared. Today, I’d like to write you about the beauty of reading together, aloud.

My husband and I started reading together – to each other, aloud – when I was pregnant with our twins and no longer mobile enough to go out or engage in any activities. Watching a movie together got mundane and made us only long for more adventurous, social, or athletic pastimes. Reading next to each other made us feel somehow remote. We had already explored every discussion topic imaginable. We needed something that we could do together that didn’t involve much movement and still allowed us to escape the monotony of our brooding.

A friend of my husband’s had just given him a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. I looked into the book and started reading, but my brain was clouded by pregnancy hormones and my body tired from the extreme weight gain; I only made it through the first few pages before needing one of my numerous daily naps. My husband took up the book a few days later and found it thrillingly touching from the beginning. One evening, he wanted to read a passage from the book to me, thinking I would find the language interesting. My husband is a physician and expresses limited enthusiasm for literature and the arts. He loves to accompany me on my discoveries, but he rarely takes the initiative in this area. If he felt the need to share a passage of a book with me, I most certainly had to listen. Because reading a passage out of context makes little sense, my husband started reading the book to me from the beginning. Lying cozily cuddled on the couch, with my head on my husband’s lap, I felt like a child during a bedtime story. The energy I saved through this comfortable position allowed me to make it through more than the first few pages. When my husband’s voice grew hoarse from reading, I took over. By then, we were sucked into the story and couldn’t put the book down.

I was fascinated by the way Jonathan Safran Foer plays with language, recreating accents and grammatical mistakes. I loved the attention he pays to history and the importance of our ancestral heritage. I marveled at the way he strings characters together, the way he transcends time, and the way he tackles the question of cultural identity. My husband found the book incredibly entertaining, in turns philosophical, touching, and even humorous. We loved the book’s exploration of the topics of personal and social memory. We were touched by the way the book handles the idea of guilt. We enjoyed the light sexual tones. And we were fascinated by the changes in mood and tone.

We took about four weeks to finish reading the book. We had to stop many times to laugh or cry together. We discussed passages in detail. We read and re-read the particularly beautiful ones. We talked for hours about the messages and the questions the book brings to light. It was a beautiful month of our twin pregnancy that was filled with excitement, closeness and true cerebral connection.

We watched the movie once we finished the book and felt a sense of disappointment. It’s not that the movie is badly done or that the acting isn’t good. It had more to do with the experience itself. We enjoyed the movie passively. Sitting next to each other in a dark room in silence, the only thing left for us to do was to take in the images and the sounds, and hold hands. Of course, we could talk about the movie afterwards. But the experience just wasn’t the same.

I’m not one of those academics who scoffs at the movie version of a literary piece. I quite enjoy movie adaptations of books. Oftentimes – most of the time, in fact – I find that the movie adds another level to the book and a new way of enjoying and exploring specific aspects of the story. But I consider Everything is Illuminated a literary masterpiece, a novel that sets a milestone in literary history and will be remembered as one of the greats of the early 21st century. And as far as literary masterpieces go, I guess I do believe the movie version can never compete with the written word.

What set our reading of Everything is Illuminated apart from our previous literary pleasures was that we read the book together. The experience came at an interesting time in our lives, as we were preparing to become parents, as we were setting ourselves up to read to our future children. Perhaps we thought it would be the last time that we could pamper each other with such attention or take the time to discuss and marvel over a book together.

With the birth of our twins, time became very precious and, unlike during the pregnancy, we were never at a lack of things to do. We read to our children from the get-go, like you’re supposed to, but we stopped reading to each other.

Now, here’s something few people know about me. As a child, I hated reading. Truly! My dad read to me every night when I was young, and that, I loved! I learned to read at an early age but never really developed a taste for books. My father kept reading to me (in Hungarian) until he defected from Romania when I was 10. The three or so years that followed were filled with turmoil and hardship, and I only remember reading two books. They are Hungarian books, so they will have little meaning for most of you, but I will give you the titles anyway: Egri csillagok and Pál utcai fiúk. I remember my mother going to great lengths to get me excited about books. She bought me young adult books about a girl named Csöpike. She asked her friends what their children were reading. She even tried to read to me aloud, but her voice was serious and had sad undertones, which first depressed me and then made me angry.

In the US, my dad took up reading to me again, this time in English, but his accent soon outgrew me, and I politely discouraged the activity within months of our arrival in Texas.

I did start to read poetry with my first best friend in Texas. We enjoyed reading Emily Dickinson poems, because they were for the most part short, and because we liked the idea of a female poet who never got married. The poetry of Robert and Elisabeth Barrett Browning made us dream of the future love affairs we were hoping to have. We also read Shakespeare, because his sonnets made us feel smart and sophisticated. It would be important to point out that all our reading was done aloud, to each other.

In high school, I was really into theater and acting. I devoured plays, but always in preparation for a scene or a theatrical piece we were putting on. Delivering the lines was always part of the enjoyment, so again, the texts were read aloud.   

It wasn’t until college that I read alone, to myself. I wanted to go for a degree in performing arts and creative writing, but my immigrant parents insisted I major in Human Biology and Pre-Med. I did as I was told, but escaped the fate of becoming a scientist by committing to reading; after completing the degrees required by my family, I went for a PhD in French literature. As if to show a certain solidarity with my parents, the Literature Gods punished me for my choice. In my graduating year, there were about 900 books on the PhD reading list! This cruel practice has since been changed, and the list has been shortened! But I still had to abide by the old system to complete my degree.

Through my PhD, I learned to read fast, mainly in French. I learned to read academically. I learned to make a science out of it. Reading became a job.

If I think back to the years between my PhD and my first pregnancy, I don’t think I read one single book for sheer pleasure. I always read as part of my research or to prepare the classes I was teaching.

It strikes me as very odd that I was never conscious of this fact until now.

When my husband and I read Everything is Illuminated to each other aloud, I rediscovered the ritual that originally connected me to literary pleasure. For me, reading aloud has always been synonymous with enjoyment, marvel, coziness, and well-being. 

So, I read to our twins as soon as they were born.

I would spread a big blanket on the ground, place the little bundles that were my new son and daughter on either side of my head, accept the jealously insistent snout of our huge dog on my tummy, and I would read.

I read to them the favorite Hungarian books of my infancy, taking great care when turning the crisp yet smooth brownish pages. I read to them the German books of rhyme of my husband’s childhood; the twins’ great-grandmother, my husband’s grandmother gave us shiny new editions of these already in the pregnancy.  I read to them the French children’s books I bought myself during my studies in Paris, Besançon, and Avignon, already then dreaming of the time when I would become a mother.

Ironically, I had no connection to American or English-speaking children’s books. It was my dear friend from Chicago – we call her Aunt Patty at our house – who brought us a suitcase full of books when she came to see the wiggle worms shortly after their birth. She introduced Dr. Seuss books into our home. She initiated us into reading Goodnight Moon every evening. She brought us The Rainbow Fish and The Going to Bed Book, and many others.

We read a lot. All the time.     

Once our twins were old enough to read themselves, I started reading the books together with them, allowing them to take turns to read a paragraph or two, and taking it upon myself to read the bulk. With the birth of our third child, the twins interestingly started reading to the baby on their own initiative.

Now the baby is also old enough to read. She’s now eight, and the twins are twelve. And the kids have reached a maturity where reading can go outside of the tight sphere of children’s books and books for early readers. We select the books together and truly look forward to this shared activity. My husband reads mainly science fiction and fantasy books with them. I stick to classics, best sellers in fiction and non-fiction, and to the lesser-known gems I discover in book stores or through recommendations. The twins have decided to learn French at school, and I’m counting down the days until I can introduce them to the myriad of amazing books written in this beautiful Romance language.   

When I read to the kids, I really ham it up. I come up with different voices for the characters. I use foreign accents whenever the story allows it. My Texas and my Italian accents are particularly popular. My husband delivers more serious readings, but he is passionate about the books and his enthusiasm rubs off on the kids and draws them in. The kids try to emulate our reading styles, but, for the time being, fail, for the most part. Naturally, I encourage them to experiment and to always lend special meaning to the words they bring to life with their voices. On the other hand, I find myself desperately clinging on to the title of best reader, because it makes me feel needed and like I am still their mommy.

I paint an idyllic picture of family fun while reading together aloud, but it’s not always smooth sailing. When it’s their time to read, the kids often protest, at times rather vehemently. Their reading slows down the process and even leads to the occasional fight between them. And this is now, after years of working hard to establish this family ritual. It was even more of a struggle in the early years. Tears were shed, questionable deals made, and the occasional ultimatum pronounced.

We have insisted on reading aloud with our kids not only because we find it enjoyable. Of course, hearing their little voices and their own little interpretations of the text is wonderful, and it is thrilling to observe how they improve over time and become better, more expressive and confident readers. But there are many other benefits to reading aloud with them.

First of all, the kids feel involved in the process and pay significantly more attention. This allows them to develop listening skills that will help them in school and in their relationships with others. They learn to listen not only to adults but also to other children.

Secondly, they practice pronunciation, intonation, voice control and projecting their voice, and they learn to notice how their audience is reacting to their words. This contributes to their general presentations skills. This allows them to become better negotiators and develops significant leadership skills. By the way, these benefits don’t only apply to the kids; mom and dad can use the practice in this area as well. 

Thirdly, they improve their vocabulary and comprehension skills by immediately being able to ask for clarification. Having a large vocabulary in one language has a synergetic effect and improves their potential to learn foreign languages. Using vocabulary that goes beyond basic, every-day words makes them more eloquent and better at expressing complex thoughts and sentiments. Being able to immediately discuss difficult transitions in time, plot, or character lends clarity to their reading and increases enjoyment. 

In addition, they gain experience in discussing difficult topics. They learn to tell a story. They get the chance to talk about their own feelings, and it allows them to hear your perspective on things. This is incredibly helpful in discussing some of the social dilemmas kids have to confront and deal with. For example, we tackled early age difficulties with anger management by reading  Knut hat Wut in German and The Anger Gremlin in English. Love that Dog helped us work through some of the sorrow of losing our family dog, the one whose snout accompanied years of reading together. 

Our read-alouds have multiple benefits. We relish the time we spend together, and we take delight in the books we are able to discover as a family. Every book we read together is fun and entertaining, and most have meaningful messages, interesting topics, and great literary value. But some stand out above the rest.

A few months back, a friend gave me a copy of The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. I started reading the book by myself, but realized after a few pages that I had to share even the first reading with my children and my husband.

Kelly Barnhill’s book is sheer poetry. The language lulls you, and pierces you, and has you feeling every new development. We read and re-read passages, taking in the beauty of the author’s word constructions. The language itself is touching and gentle, even when conveying pain or danger. The plot is exciting and doesn’t cease to surprise you. The suspense is thrilling and keeps you binge reading. The multiple perspectives allow you to delve into the story and the characters from many different angles, thus provoking discussion and reflection.

The kids had many questions and many ideas for how the story should go on. While reading, we wrote in our heads dozens of alternate endings. We often stopped to talk about the thoughts we were having, or why the book made us feel sad, or angry, or disappointed. But we also stopped to cheer when things were going well.

From a literary point of view, the book is rich in literary devices. The use of foreshadowing is powerful. Symbolism is strongly used, especially to convey hope and sorrow. Character development is excellent.

In our family, reading aloud started with my husband and me reading a book to each other in an effort to find a joint activity during our twin pregnancy. Now, we continue to read aloud, but our circle has expanded to include our three children. In the future, we will perhaps embrace reading together as a couple again. Or we might convince friends to read aloud with us. Or maybe we will be joined by the next generation of readers, our children’s children. But one thing is for sure: reading aloud will remain strongly anchored in our family culture and will continue to be a favorite family tradition and pastime.

4 Literature’s Sake is a work in progress. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you. It has been a pleasure to write them down. Bis zum nächsten Mal! À la prochaine! Bye for now! Sziasztok! Hasta la proxima vez! Henriette Javorek Runte (aka Dr. J)

A scientist’s weekend

Written by Chad Cowan

I have just changed careers and am challenged every day at my job. For most of my professional life I was a professor at Harvard University, where I taught undergraduate and graduate students and ran a research lab. Eight years ago, I helped start and then led the research of a new company that sought to harness the newly discovered CRISPR/Cas gene editing system to make medicines.

Fall is in full swing here in New England. It is always hard to let the last days of summer go, but with their passing comes the routine of school and work. I am definitely a man of routine. I wake early (5:30am) and spend the first 30 minutes of the day feeding the dog, catching up on reading and the news and getting my kids out of bed. I exercise, a run or a walk or yoga, anything to get the blood moving. Then it is time for work.

I have just changed careers and am challenged every day at my job. For most of my professional life I was a professor at Harvard University, where I taught undergraduate and graduate students and ran a research lab. Eight years ago, I helped start and then led the research of a new company that sought to harness the newly discovered CRISPR/Cas gene editing system to make medicines. We did the early pre-clinical work to build medicines for CRISPR Therapeutics, which now has several medicines in patients. Today, many people with sickle cell disease no longer have any disease symptoms and lead largely normal lives as a result of our first medicine at CRISPR Therapeutics. This forever changed the course of my career and has put me on the path to working on the commercial side of drug discovery, or “biotech” as it is often referred to here in the Boston area. We have combined some of the key discoveries from my academic research lab with several additional advances in the field of stem cell
differentiation to form a new company Clade Therapeutics.

At Clade, our goal is to make cell-based medicines accessible to everyone. The success of CAR-T cell therapies, wherein a patient’s own T cells are modified to express a chimeric-antigen receptor or CAR that targets cancer cells has proven the value of cellular medicines in fighting and in essence curing otherwise lethal cancers. The problem with these therapies is that they are only available at a few very highly specialized research hospitals, and they cost millions of dollars to produce. We aim to change that by differentiating induced pluripotent stem cells into T cells that look and function the same as the T cells taken from patients. Arm these with a CAR, and you now have T cell therapies for everyone with a given cancer. We hope that by changing the scale and consistency with which these cell medicines can be produced we will also change their costs, so that in the long run these medicines become available globally for every patient in need. Day-to-day, I am excited by working with our research team to overcome some of the technical challenges that stand in the way of making our goal into a reality. I enjoy the process of solving hard problems together with some enormously talented scientists. This part of my job is not so different from running an academic research lab. The new challenges for me lie in learning to build and lead an organization that has all of the critical skills and know-how to make new medicines. In particular, I am not a gifted people manager, so learning to listen and understand everyone’s perspective and knit those together into a tapestry of teamwork has been my biggest learning experience. I love learning and I am blessed that my new career has stretched both my academic knowledge and my people skills to their limits.

After work, I love spending time with my family. An important part of our day is dinner all together whenever possible. We sit at our dining room table, light the candles, eat on the fancy china, use the silver, and discuss our days. One of favorite things to do is to have one member of the family read a poem aloud. We keep several volumes of poetry next to the table for just this occasion. We have an eclectic mix of poems, some based on science, some from the acknowledged masters of the art and a few irreverent items such as poems from Cookie Monster and those told from the point of view of family pets. No matter who the author is we usually have a laugh or a thoughtful moment.

As my sons are both young and full of energy, we also have a new family rule that if you leave the table without asking to be excused you have to do a “chicken dance”. We get one of these almost every night and it leaves all of us with a smile on our face.
This weekend we have the regular fall sports for our guys, soccer and tennis and the Annisquam Village Arts and Crafts Fair. The Arts and Crafts fair brings together artists and craftsmen from all over Cape Ann (this is the small island we live on that has the larger cities of Gloucester and Rockport). I volunteered to work the “floor” on Saturday helping people with their purchases and keeping an eye on the merchandise. All of the proceeds will go to benefit the local church and the Annisquam Village Hall Association, which is a community center, library, community theater and gallery open to everyone. So, a packed weekend with fun for all ages.

Written by Chad Cowan