Monday, November 30, 2009

The sock test

The rapt attention of a child watching “The Aristocats” can be like the fixed stare of the later day-dreamer, in each case the individual giving concentration to sights, sounds, thoughts that will somehow play a role in the evolving life. So, both moments can be a worthwhile investment.

The other day, a babysitting one for grandson Sam, who is 2.5-years-old on this date, offered a look into youthful concentration. In fact, I studied the moment and did a test.

Sam had just come back from a half-walk, half carry-by-gramps jaunt to a downtown (Nyack, N.Y.) diner, The Skylark, where one pancake with strawberries competed for his attention with curiosity about the eatery and its patrons. Thirty minutes later, his grandparents long finished with their own breakfasts, Sam ordered, “Take home!,” nodding to the still mostly uneaten pancake. The waitress nicely wrapped up the food, and we got moving, Sam all the way home (about 1.2 miles) fixing in on this and that, as toddlers do. Yours and mine.

Back in the house, he played a short while with puzzles and building blocks and then took off shoes and socks, his sign for watching a DVD movie, which he retrieved from a shelf, looked at the cover and decided that it was “The Aristocats.” “Put on!” came another order, and after his grandmother bargained with him for a diaper change first – one most resisted – Sam settled in on a large couch ready for a favorite movie, a film that has also been a buddy to millions of children over the decades.

Since his grandfather was seated next to him, Sam did not have a chance. The older fellow set his own day-dreaming on pause, and noticing Sam’s rapt intent as the butler sets out to cheat the kitty cats of their inheritance, decided to test the young fellow’s concentration by putting a sock on Sam’s head.

Well, the sock, sort of a “Cat-in-the-Hat” striped design, remained in place for several minutes as the TV viewer spoke to himself, sang a song or two, swayed his body slightly but, most of all, kept the gears and wheels spinning in that young, developing mind.

Now this was an odd metaphor but nonetheless promising. In this world, this fast-paced time of quick news bites, abbreviated language by cell phone text and just seconds of concentration where once there were minutes at least, there was hope that if a 2.5-year-old could keep his mind and his senses fixed on words, pictures and  thoughts, he would also stay with the many books his parents surround him with each day. The sock on the head might prove to be the covering for the eventual well-placed feet on the ground as it were. An odd but apt metaphor.

Children are not supposed to watch much TV, the dictum goes, and Sam does not. But a movie that offers well-spoken words, lovable characters, a sense of right and wrong and so a moral, can be part of the mix of play activities that get the wonderful gift that is the mind going and growing in life.

I do not know where Sam went, where his thoughts traveled, as he watched “The Aristocats” after a spirited morning with his grandparents, but my sock test, the proof of concentration, gives expectation that he’s building castles and moats and fields and streams and woods and mountains and grand adventure, all set for a life that is, well, an ever bigger, total grand adventure. May it be so.

Monday, November 23, 2009

‘Once upon a time …’

Once upon a time in the nascence of suburbia, there was a street in a community called Hillcrest that had a model home at 25 Karnell. Being such, it was wallpapered with huge floral print in 1953 style. But that was the extent of added attractions. It was still a $12,500 Cape Cod-style house with two bedrooms, dining room, eat-in kitchen, full, unfinished basement and expandable attic, then also in vogue for, well, expanding families.

Time came when that attic was built-out, usually with scrap wood found here and there (a friend located beautiful hardwood in a bowling alley that was to be torn down for strip shopping). “Repurposing,” you see, was not invented in today's “going green” age, although originally the term was synonymous with “saving money.” The annual income tax refund also helped construct expandable attics into two big bedrooms, with, if the shekels were there, a modest bath.

The finishing of the attic, in Hillcrest and elsewhere in this nation, was a suburban ritual, a mark that the family had grown, and so its needs, and that there was a bit more money to move forward in overall progress. Only well-heeled professionals lived in the McMansions of the day, still-modest brick ranches that cost a whopping $40,000. For most, the ready-to-be-enlarged capes were a godsend, especially for families who had come through the Great Depression and survived a world war.

Everything was new on those suburban streets, including the water, sewer and electric/gas infrastructure. And in Hillcrest, there weren’t yet enough homes to overwhelm. The woods were still there, if no longer everywhere.

But suburbia is to expansion as a weeping willow is to rapid growth. Water the latter, and it multiplies. People the former, and suburbia explodes. So, in time, the expandable capes were built no more, replaced by fully finished and bigger spilt levels, then larger high ranches, then even bigger colonials, then McMansions of various super sizes. These never-ending developments would take over the woods, stress the old infrastructure and crowd the land with density.

The 1953 Hillcrest cape my parents bought in 1953 and sold in 1964 for $19,000 would sell for about $380,000 today, but it now includes apartments in the basement and attic. It was concern about  neighborhood overgrowth – illegal and illegal – that caused my mother and father to leave for a less-dense community in the same New York county.

Now we have the graying of suburbia in troubled times for lack of foresight and planning; for too many homes built; for infrastructure neglected; for anonymous strip shopping that must be accessed by car; for illegal housing and other zoning violations that are officially ignored.

Suburban planning could have arrived more responsibly,  providing for new residents  by expanding walkable village centers, just as we built expandable cape cods; by limiting growth; by protecting flood plains and the air-filtering and mind-easing woods. Instead, developers were allowed to follow a timed-release policy of “scorch and burn,” in this case bulldozing the woods and fields, building too much density, making a quick profit and walking away from the seeds of conditions that would inevitably result in greater traffic, a stressed infrastructure, higher schooling and government costs and reduced quality of life through both density and what it often spawns – illegal apartments.

It all could have been different, this suburban story, in Hillcrest and elsewhere. But, as the first paragraph of this piece introduces, “Once upon a time. …”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Man of conviction

It was a time of national unity against the obvious enemies – Hitler’s Germany and an imperialist Japan that had staged its Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack, but in the democracy that was at home, the one U.S. citizens and military were soon to protect, there was supposed to be room for dissent; otherwise, why the republic?

Yet the price for being a conscientious objector was high – public ostracism and the harshness of federal prison, including the injustices within those jail walls that were counter to the democratic rights of humankind, those very entitlements that are at the foundation of this nation.

There can be – must be – argument in a democracy about war, about relative “good war” (say World War II) and “bad war” (say the Vietnam War); about any government’s historically complicit failure to prevent the death of so many young people; about war’s devastation, war’s aftermath, war’s cost; about the vested interest of the military/industrial complex of which the good soldier Eisenhower warned us; about the polarization of one citizen against another, creating dislike, even hatred, just as brother was pitted against brother in our worst war, the Civil War.

There are no “nice,” safe, easy answers in such debate, yet this much is certain: If the patriot is to lay his or her life down in battle for the democracy, which at times is surely required, then it must also be understood that the sacrifice comes, too, on behalf of the living who choose to protest. Dissent can be sure patriotism as well, and it must be guaranteed.

I know of a distinguished fellow, quite accomplished in his professional career, as a husband, too, a father, a local New York historian, now 90, son of a pacifist, who was the valedictorian of his high school class in 1936, and went on to graduate from Columbia University in 1941. He was called up for the draft during World War II but failed to register because of his conscientious objection to war, and was sentenced to three years in prison, at Danbury, Conn., and Lewisburg, P.A., in March 1943.
The man willingly paid the price, as also befitting a democracy, for expressing his conscience in a time of war and national sacrifice. He knew that and took his punishment without complaint. What this man of principle could not abide was the hypocrisy of injustice against his fellow man, as seen in jail.
He took part in several prison strikes with other conscientious objectors – a work strike at Danbury in 1943 to protest racial segregation in the prison, and two hunger strikes at Lewisburg to protest mail censorship as well as a ruling that lengthened the terms of prisoners who staged work strikes.
Segregation was part of our nation before, during and after World War II, in the military too until 1948, even as a war was being waged against Hitler, who said in no uncertain term that some people (Jews, the mentally ill, social outcasts) were not people at all.
The man I know, who to this day speaks his mind and backs his conscience in peaceful civil protest, was, with others, locked in solitary during their strike to end jim crow seating in the Danbury mess hall. There was also protest against blacks being given menial work tasks.
It took more courage than most of us could muster to do what the man did, along with his fellow conscientious objectors, in defense of others in this democracy. I am not sure I would have had conviction in such a situation.
World War II was not my generation’s war, though I had relatives who served, one of whom was severely wounded. You can argue that this conflict could have been prevented by numerous governments worldwide, including our own, in the 1920s and early 1930s, but there was no other choice but a fight given the German invasions and Pearl Harbor. I believe I would have served if drafted after Pearl Harbor, but whether I would have had the red badge of courage under fire, I cannot tell. I do hope that I would have tolerated in this “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” style of democracy that is my belief, those conscientious objectors like my acquaintance, who is also my friend.
He edited my collection of essays for the Historical Society of Rockland, knowing well that one of my favorites was “1944: A fellow doing his job,” about the wounding of my Uncle Winfield Gunther in December, in the battle of the Huertgen Forest. I wrote that my uncle, an Army private, was  “Unannounced by name, almost anonymous on purpose. He went where he was told and did what he was supposed to do.  He never expected anyone to say thanks because he was just one of many called to the task then at hand. …”
Winfield, in 1944 a father, was drafted along with so many for the retaking of Europe and the expected invasion of Japan. It was his conviction that he could and would serve, and at peril. I am immensely proud of my late uncle, not only for his service but for the way he also continued a democracy as a civilian in responsible fatherhood, in the work place.

My friend, the man of conscientious objection, served his nation, too, for without dissent and without toleration of other views, there is no democracy. Patriotism that is blind to injustice or will not allow railing against it in hope of honest and truthful debate and betterment is infatuation for your country, not love.

As a patriot, I am proud of my friend’s courage then and now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Stepping into the season

I realized something was missing the other afternoon on a sharply brisk fall day with enough breeze to part golden and bright red leaves from their summer home and chase them in wisps and twists down the street. Incomplete in this set piece for autumn? My slippers.

I had gone through the whole of the last season without such need, for the weather was too hot for wool-lined footwear, even for socks. The cold wood floor of the house was great relief.

But now we step into fall, and one of the joys of coming in after walking around in the grownup shoes of adulthood, doing this errand and that, is to anticipate coming home, closing the door behind you, knocking off the brown footgear and dropping ten toes into comfy slippers. That and maybe hot cocoa or a hearty soup plus reading material or interesting e-mail or a blanket and the recliner would bring me to the place where I wanted to be.

Yet I could not get there since the slippers from last-winter-into spring were not there. My footsies were getting cold and they had no friends to play with. I looked under beds, in closets, in storage, in the garage, in the car (out of desperation) and on shelves. No slippers, no where.

 I then did what every husband does, and called out in the ether: “Where are my slippers?” The “answer” from my spouse was automatic – silence, for that is most usual when I offer a certain tone of voice.

It was only after  I showed up in person in front of the other half and calmly repeated my question that I was directed to a drawer in furniture unit b, sub-compartment 626 that I found my old friends.

 “Well, you left them in the middle of the hall last spring, so I put them away,” was the rationalization, as if my annual habit of parting winter-spring and cautiously approaching the hot humid time of summer was as usual as an animal awakening from hibernation.

The slippers located, my feet said hello. And there was purring to be heard.

Ah, another good step into fall.

Friday, November 6, 2009


November 2, 2009

ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. – With the second day of November arriving here in this part of the Northeast – lower New York State but north enough of its great southernmost city that the vestiges of long-ago country autumn can still be recalled, the air this morning was about 1948 vintage, I’d say. It was as if that fall had been bottled as rural wine and kept to mature, though that seems impossible, and why would anyone want to mature what already smells wonderful?

I claim this morning’s air as 1948 because in that season I was just turning six, and we then were living in the hamlet of Nanuet, having just moved from Sloatsburg village. (In those days, we tended to relocate when the rental lease was up in October, a bit jarring since my brother and I had to change schools after classes had begun, but often the move was economically driven.)

Nanuet was then rural as was most of pre-Tappan Zee Bridge Rockland. I was in the first grade and yet walked along Highway 59 to school, about 1.5 miles away. No real danger as I stuck to the marsh side, making my way through the beautiful cattails and skirting behind the large billboard signs.

It was in that marsh that I deeply took in the cool air, not yet with the icy breath of winter but surely without summer’s humid overlay. It was refreshing, that bit of air in 1948, my birthday two days away, Thanksgiving coming, too, then Christmas. Nice time of year,  as I already liked my new school on Highview Avenue.

Later that day, the still-strong sun would warm the air and the scent of morning would be lost forever. Or so it seemed.

This morning, in 2009, also on Nov. 2, I got out of my car, my legs considerably longer than in the first grade, and took in a deep breath of fall air that had come from the nearby direction of my old Nanuet homestead.

Could it be? Could that scent be autumn 1948? Well, yes, it  seemed so. I guess someone  bottled what this once-first grader whiffed 61 years ago and saved it until 2009. And now uncorked it.

What a birthday present.