'Tis the season for lighting giant Christmas trees. As it has done for the last 16 years, the Embassy of Norway decorated an Christmas tree at Union Station in Washington, D.C. — a gift to the American people to say thanks for helping Norway during World War II.
This year is no different — the tree was lit in a ceremony Tuesday evening — but what stands out is the nature of the ornaments that adorn the artificial tree: In addition to small American and Norwegian flags, the tree is decked out with 700 shining decorations with the iconic image from Norwegian Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream."
This month marks the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth, and Norway's ambassador to Washington, Kare Aas, told All Things Considered's Melissa Block the artist is being feted across the world.
"As you know, 'The Scream' is one of Edvard Munch's masterpieces," Aas says.
Munch's painting of a ghostly figure pressing his hands to his cheeks, mouth open to deliver the nominal utterance and cowering against a swirling orange-skied backdrop is one of the most recognizable artworks in existence. It's been parodied by Andy Warhol and The Simpsons, and the image has been on the receiving end of psychological diagnoses - depersonalization disorder, according to the New York Times — and society's generalized anxieties.
The image may seem a decidedly un-festive choice to whip up Christmas spirit, but Ambassador Aas says that the dread implicit in Munch's screaming figure is perhaps not far off from how many anticipate the upcoming holiday.
"Sometimes, you know when I prepare for Christmas, I really feel like I am scared from time to time and that it is too hectic," Aas tells Block. "'The Scream' symbolizes an angst which some people have before Christmas."
That aside, Munch's "Scream" has become one of the priciest pieces of art ever sold. Last year, a version of the painting - Munch made four of them — sold for nearly $120 million, making it the most expensive artwork sold at auction at the time. (That superlative now belongs to Francis Bacon's 1969 triptych "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," which sold for more than $142 million in November.)
The "Scream"-ornamented tree at Union Station will be on display through December. So, what do you do with 700 Scream ornaments when the tree comes down? They'll be given as gifts, according to Aas. He says they could be used as reflectors when walking at night, perhaps. "We're always very practical, the Norwegians," the ambassador says.
It's lunchtime at Oakland High School in Oakland, Calif., and that means fence hoppers. Several kids wear mischievous grins as they speedily scale a 12-foot-high metal perimeter.
In theory, anyway, Oakland High is a "closed campus." That's done in the interest of safety and security and to cut down on school-skipping. It means kids can't leave during school hours without parental consent, especially at lunchtime. But it doesn't stop several students from breaking out.
Inside the cafeteria the lines are long, and complaints about the food are as plentiful as the fence jumpers.
Today's lunch is "popcorn chicken," potatoes and tamales. A plastic bowl with little packets of carrot sticks looks lonely.
The food is dry and burned, says freshman Mary Thomas. "It's just nasty."
And junior Olivia Moore says the lines leave little time to actually eat and socialize.
"I need more time because I eat slow and then, there's not enough free time," Moore says.
The school lunch hour in America is a long-gone relic. At many public schools today, kids are lucky to get more than 15 minutes to eat. Some get even less time.
And parents and administrators are concerned that a lack of time to eat is unhealthful, especially given that about one-third of American kids are overweight or obese.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students get at least 20 minutes for lunch. But that means 20 minutes to actually sit down and eat — excluding time waiting in line or walking from class to cafeteria.
At Oakland High, over 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And officially, students get about 40 minutes for the meal. But Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified School District's nutrition services director, admits that the actual table time is far shorter. At times it's just 10 minutes.
"I think it's a legitimate complaint that there's not enough time to eat," LeBarre says. "If we are being asked to eat our lunch in 10 minutes, that's not enough for us. So I really think we need to really work more for the 20-minute table time."
Oakland High is hardly alone. In a wide-ranging new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or less to eat.
Ironically, relatively new federal school-nutrition guideline changes may be making the situation worse. Under federal rules, schools have to increase the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables — among other changes. It's part of an effort to improve nutrition and combat childhood obesity.
But eating more healthful foods can take more time, LeBarre says. "It's going to take longer to eat a salad than it will to eat french fries."
At many schools, lunch schedules aren't changing. Julia Bauscher, who is president of a national advocacy group called the School Nutrition Association, says administrators are under intense pressure to increase instruction time and boost standardized test scores. The lunch period is often the first place they look to steal time.
"[They've] got to get in this many instructional minutes, and this is our expected annual yearly progress on the test," she says. "You've got two important and competing priorities there."
Exacerbating the time crunch, nationally, is the reality that more students are taking part in the free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. Many schools are now adding free dinners as well under a new USDA dinner program launched this year. Bauscher is also the nutrition services director for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. She says in her area, 70 percent of the students are participating in meals programs — including free dinners for some.
"We've got a higher number of students eligible for free and reduced meals than ever. So as more of them take advantage of those programs, you get longer food lines," she says.
Some possible solutions — such as adding lunch periods, more food stations or service workers or lengthening lunchtimes — can be costly. And many budget-strapped schools today simply don't want to risk the added price.
Nicola Edwards of California Food Policy Advocates says parents need to be central to any solution. Parents can't effectively preach to kids about healthful food and quality lunchtime, she says, and then model grabbing something unhealthful on the go.
"Parents need to be modeling good eating behaviors, and not shoving food through the window in the back of the car as they're on their way to work or to school," Edwards says. "Part of helping people is really making them understand the importance of eating and taking the time to eat. "
Want to understand why House Republicans aren't on board with an immigration overhaul? Take a close look at the districts they represent.
Hispanics today make up 17 percent of the nation's population, and are the fastest growing ethnic group. But an NPR analysis of U.S. Census data shows they live disproportionately in districts represented by Democrats. The average Democratic district is 23 percent Latino; the average Republican district, less than 12 percent.
Of the 200 Democratic-held districts, 76 have a Hispanic population share of at least 20 percent. Of the 232 Republican-held districts, only 39 have Latino populations that big. [Three seats are vacant, pending special elections.]
And for immigration advocates hoping to pressure enough Republicans in the coming election year to force a change, the challenge might be to find districts with the right numbers. The NPR analysis finds a mere five GOP districts with 20 percent or more Hispanics that were won by President Obama in the 2012 election, and only seven more districts where Obama lost by less than 10 points.
S.V. Dáte edits politics and campaign finance coverage for NPR's Washington Desk.
Drugs that help women become pregnant have replaced in vitro fertilization as the main culprit behind of high-risk multiple births, according to a study looking at births of triplets and higher-order multiples.
"IVF, which is usually the one we tend to point fingers at, was not the leading culprit," says Eli Adashi, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University who was senior author of the study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The number of multiple births of triplets or more due to fertility drugs like clomiphene citrate and injectable hormones rose from 36 percent to 45 percent from 1998 to 2011. At the same time, the births of multiples because of IVF dropped from 48 percent to 32 percent.
Having more than one baby at a time increases the risk for both mother and children, including premature birth, cerebral palsy and developmental delays. Between 1971 and 2011, the proportion of multiple births doubled in the United States, the study finds, from 1.8 percent to 3.5 percent. Almost all of that was due to fertility treatments.
Back in the 1990s, it became increasingly clear that transferring multiple embryos for IVF was boosting the number of high-risk multiple pregnancies.
Since 1998, doctors have discouraged women from transferring more than two embryos at a time for IVF. More recently, improved IVF techniques have made it more likely to achieve a successful single birth by choosing to transfer just one embryo. That is credited with lowering the numbers of high-order multiples by 29 percent from 1998 to 2011.
That's good news for babies and moms. But based on this new information, it looks like the education campaign needs to expand to include non-IVF fertility treatments, too.
Fertility drugs are cheaper and easier to use than IVF, and are often covered by insurance. Clomiphene citrate is a pill, and hormones called gonadotropins can be injected at home. The drugs stimulate the ovaries to produce more than one egg in a cycle.
"You certainly have less control" over the potential number of eggs with fertility drugs compared to IVF, Adashi tells Shots. But fertility specialists already have guidelines that help reduce that risk. Clearly not all doctors who prescribe the drugs are following the advice, Adashi says. "Using lower doses of drugs will go a long way toward reducing the number of multiples."
IVF births are tracked in a national registry, but there's no registry for births from fertility drugs alone. So the researchers did some math, taking the number of multiple births, subtracting IVF births, and then adjusting for the fact that women are having babies when they're older.
At least 10 pilot whales are dead and dozens stranded in the shallows off Florida's southwest coast, as wildlife workers struggle to redirect them back out to deep water.
Blair Mase, the marine mammal stranding network coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says four of the whales had to be euthanized on Wednesday, and six others had already died since the stranding was first identified on Tuesday.
NPR's Greg Allen, reporting from Miami, says the mass stranding has occurred in a remote area of Florida's Everglades that's only accessible by boat or helicopter.
"Cameras on some of those helicopters show dozens of short-finned pilot whales swimming in water just a few feet deep. The whales, which are 12- to 18-feet long, were refusing to stray far from whales that have already beached and died," Allen says.
Linda Friar of Everglades National Park says rangers were first alerted to the pod by a fishing guide Tuesday afternoon in a part of Florida Bay that has long stretches of shallows.
"So when the tide goes down, you can have 6 inches to a foot of water for multiple football fields. It's just really far. That's part of the challenge in getting these whales enough water so they can get back out to sea," Friar says.
Mase says those on site Wednesday, including federal and state wildlife agencies as well as volunteers from two private marine mammal rescue groups, are monitoring the health of the whales, and considering ways to lead them to deeper water.
At this point, Mase says, there are no good options.
"Deeper water is miles and miles away. And these whales seem to be determined to be sticking near by the dead, stranded ones," she says.