Monday, December 27, 2010

RESPITE



     If life were just about cozy socks, maybe adding hot chocolate, reading material and a log on the fire would give most of us enough peace for a long time. But the socks eventually need changing, the chocolate is enjoyed and the log burns down. The book is read. Yet the story is not over since the moment, if we are lucky to have it, is but a page in life.

It took a snowstorm to bring the metaphorical equivalent of that moment to me in my particular part of the Northeast where a relatively weak but genuine “blizzard” hit us for the first time in decades. We have had plenty of snowstorms and drifting over the years but not such fierce winds that even just a foot or so of snow was made into mountains here and there. Bitter cold, too.

Travelers returning to home and hearth after the Christmas holiday were caught in the storm, though most people were able to sit within and chill out, the Sunday after set to 33 1/3 rpm rather than 78, the stomach satiated enough that it could rest and sufficient presents to keep children occupied and out of the SUVs where all too many seem to spend all too much time going to their numerous appointments.

I did not cozy up to a book, though other family members, good readers all, were happy to do so. I did not change into cozy socks though I received a few pairs under the tree, and I am not a hot chocolate fan. But a good microbrew, a newspaper and three pairs of already washed socks brought the purring on in my quiet moment, stolen from the fast pace of life as if I were on a fast train that had pulled into a siding.

There I remained for a good part of the day, happy that the hands of the clock did not move  so fast, happy that I barely looked at the time. I sought no complication, did not push my brain to rack over political mistakes in my beloved country. I just put my being on autopilot and perused – did not study – the paper. The beer was not swished but sipped, and my three pairs of socks, regulation uniform on a cold day, constantly telegraphed that they were keeping my feet warm. Reassurance of blessed simplicity

What more could I want in my quiet? Not a thing, except perhaps that it last a bit longer.

Monday, December 20, 2010

TRANSISTOR RADIO



    For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my (former) newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web. – Arthur H. Gunther III 
 By Arthur H. Gunther IV 

The transistor radio was black.  Long ago, the small plastic piece that held its battery in place had been lost.  Black electrical tape had by now done the job of the forgotten plastic piece for so many years that the back of the radio was inevitably sticky near its bottom.  Max remembered with clarity the eyes of the Eveready cat peeking out from in between the loops of tape.  Nine volts was all the radio needed for months of listening.  It seemed to Max that the metal antennae, necessary only for FM reception, had never been there, though it must have at one time.  The radio’s listeners had never had much use for FM anyway.

The radio belonged to Max’s grandfather.  He lived in a small house overlooking the Hudson River, bought long before there was any cache to being near the water that bore the Dutch explorer’s name.   Max would ride his bicycle over the mountain from his house on school-year Saturdays and summer afternoons and sit outside with his grandfather while the radio hummed with the sound of that afternoon’s baseball game.  The announcer’s voices were both familiar and friendly, their chatter the ideal accompaniment to whatever conversation Max and his grandfather were having.  The easy rhythms of the game left plenty of space for old stories, memories, reading and commenting on the articles in any of the several newspapers that were always around Max’s grandfather’s house.  The radio even had an ear piece, not head phones, attached to a long white wire which Max would sometimes find stuck in his grandfather’s left ear.  He always unplugged it upon seeing Max.

Around the time of his ninth birthday, Max’s mother became sick and found herself in the hospital for several months.  When December arrived and it was  clear that she would not be home for Christmas, Max’s dad sent him over to his grandfather’s house for Christmas Eve.  Max’s father knew the value of waking up to a warm, glowing, happy Christmas morning and doubted his ability to provide it for Max that year.  Though Max welcomed every opportunity to see his grandfather, and grandmother too for that matter, he lay in bed that night unable to sleep, filled with thoughts of worry about his dad and mom.  Max crept downstairs at midnight, looking for distraction.  There on the table that stood by the old green sofa sat his grandfather’s transistor radio.  Max picked it up and brought it back to his room.  The December night was clear.  Max could see the moon reflecting on the river from where he lie in bed.  He turned on the radio and scanned the dial for something to take his mind off his worries.  The weather, Max’s room on the water and the winter night combined for ideal AM reception, and it seemed that every fraction of an inch the dial turned revealed new sounds, many from places that Max had never come close to visiting in his short life.  There were call-in shows from Washington and Baltimore, weather from Buffalo, news from Cleveland, Christmas songs from Hartford, Philadelphia and Princeton, New Jersey, even a hockey game from Toronto.  Eventually, Max settled on the voice of Jackie Gleason.  A station from Boston was playing audio of an episode of “The Honeymooners” that Max had never seen.  It was a Christmas show that was essentially a retelling of the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Though Max was years from reading the actual text, the story was the perfect distraction, and he quickly became absorbed in the voices of the characters until he fell fast asleep as the show ended, barely able to turn off the radio.

Max’s mother recovered and that year ended up being the only Christmas Eve he ever spent at his grandfather’s, though his family continued to visit on Christmas Day for years to come.  Years later, Max was at college, in the thick of the all-night studying that was the inevitable sacrifice for surviving the December final exams of the fall semester, when he wandered down to the TV lounge in his dorm for a midnight study break.  He found a girl there, presumably with the same idea he had.  Max sat down and noticed that on the TV was “The Honeymooners.”  After watching for several minutes, he realized it was the same episode he had heard that Christmas Eve  long ago at his grandfather’s house.  Though Max had always meant to, he had never seen the actual episode.  Max gasped out loud at the lucky coincidence of finally finding the show.  The girl who sat there turned to Max, as if just realizing he was there. 

“Sorry to startle you,” Max said, “but I’ve always wanted to see this episode.”  “I think I know it by heart,” answered the girl.  “When I was a kid in Boston, there was this one radio station that played it every Christmas Eve at midnight.  It was some kind of tradition.  I used to fall asleep every year listening to it in my room.  It’ll always remind me of home.”

Max sat there tongue-tied, with a goofy smile curling across his face.  Two weeks later, when he was home for the winter break, Max told his grandfather the story.  And when Max married that same girl five years later, he opened the gift from his grandfather to find the transistor radio at the bottom of a small box.  It is all so clear in my memory.  Max is me.

Even now, on clear, cold winter nights, when my wife and children are fast asleep and I just can’t seem to settle my thoughts, I’ll find a quiet room in my house, take out my grandfather’s old transistor radio and scan the AM dial, wondering what will be out there for me to find.

Arthur can be reached at clausland@yahoo.com

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A HOLIDAY TALE


     Growing up in little Spring Valley, N.Y., a country village near New York City, but oh so far from urbanity, holiday lighting was minimal. Ostentatious wasn’t yet in, very few of us had any extra money, and cheap, overseas-made  decoration wouldn’t arrive until nations recovered from the Second World War. Indoor and limited outdoor lighting depended on strings and sets kept for years, with bulb replacement just about all that was necessary.

Most people in the Rockland County of the 1940s-50s would travel to one of the five and tens or hardware stores in the Valley, Suffern, Nyack, Haverstraw or Pearl River and get fresh tinsel for the Christmas tree, perhaps a new ornament and a few seven-watt bulbs. Many would wait until Christmas Eve to decorate. Few put up elaborate outdoor lighting. Our Jewish neighbors lit Menorahs for Hanukkah. Neighbors of any persuasion were invited on the eight nights to participate in the lighting. 

Downtowns were lit with heavy strings of colored bulbs across main street from telephone pole to pole. In Spring Valley, Garry Onderdonk, whose electrician father installed the lights, would have to switch each string on nightly, using a long pole. Merchants would add color to their window displays for both Christmas and Hanukkah.

In all, there was enough bright and varied lighting to make the season warm and festive. Just right, most of us thought. In keeping with both reality and our expectations

So it is with prejudiced view, or at least non-approving thought, that I cannot accept the lavish displays I now see in the suburbs, including Rockland. Some homeowners are hiring outfits that bring 10 men and a bucket loader to trim large evergreens with string after string of lights. Giant air-blown figures sway with the wind and against other lighting on the lawn. At the street is a sign proclaiming that the Disneyland spectacular was “professionally” installed.

It makes you wonder how many holiday lights there are at the unemployment office or in homes where people go to sleep solid middle class and awake in lower economic ranks.

Now, I am not blaming folks well enough off to have a design team temporarily triple their electric bill. Yet, the contrast is still there for all to see in a nation that faces Christmas 2010 more worried about debt, jobs, government viability and the national mojo  than it has since the Great Depression. 

But, hey, it’s holiday time, and colored lights take our minds off reality. Enjoy, please. Come January, the lights again will be white and bright. Enough that we can see what’s what. If only we then take a look. …

Monday, December 6, 2010

'NIGHT CARPENTER' AT WORK


     I think doors have a way of fitting in, just like long-gone Uncle Jack in town for a comfy visit. He gets that way fast. Or people who initially stand out and are somehow morphed into the crowd, hopefully adding to the whole. It’s as if the universe has a carpenter on staff who, in the secrecy and dark of night, planes here and sands there, making adjustments to assure a fit, whether it's doors or people.

Several weeks ago, I replaced six interior doors in my 1973 home with more stylish, six-paneled molded ones. Now, this house, like me, has lost its plumb and level a bit in 37 years, so just one factory-produced door fit without having to trim an edge, more deeply mortise a hinge or move the height of a lock. 

The refitting took time, and when the work was done, despite the usual mistakes and miscalculations by this practiced but non-pro carpenter, and with almost a full vocabulary exercised in the cursing language that is always in my tool kit, the doors looked just fine and worked fairly well. Not perfect, you see, since (1) they were not the original doors, which had been fitted to the jambs on an assembly line, but (2) replacements made by another manufacturer decades later. Sizes were off, as they often are. So was my work, a tad.

It has taken these weeks since installation to give a nudge here and there to a few doors, and it is nearing winter, too, when the house moves a bit. That has required further adjustment to the doors.

All is now fine, yet something else is happening. Last night, I went into my office area and flipped the door closed, as I did with the old one. It smoothly went into position, as easily as would a machinist’s pin in a milled location. This is not my “fine” carpentry at work, though. I really believe the doors feel at home, that they finally fit in.

They are now part of the house, as its predecessors were for so long. I miss the history of those doors, two of which were on my sons’ bedrooms, with their signs and posters affixed, different in each season of growth. But today is today, and the hope is the doors will also open to tomorrow.

I am grateful that they fit so well. It must be the finish work of the unseen night carpenter.

Monday, November 29, 2010

SAM'S HICCUPS


     Had a conversation with a young fellow at a train station in chilly, windy weather when the topic turned to hiccups since that was what the 3.5-year-old was using for punctuation in what otherwise was rapid-fire language. We were waiting for his mom and dad, my son and his wife, to return from an anniversary trip to New York City, and I figured he would like to see the Metro-North local arrive. It isn’t every day that a kid looks at a train these days – it’s still a thrilling sight, as it has been since the first Erie ran in my parts in the late 1840s.

But keeping a youngster occupied at a busy station, even for the 10 minutes I figured were left before the train pulled in, is challenging. I don’t know his world, and he doesn’t know mine. What are Sam’s day dreams? His fears? His concept of time, space? How does he look at people? What does he think of his old codger grandfather, an odd-enough fellow?

Discussing hiccups seemed an excellent way to keep him occupied. We had a conversation, parts of which, maybe even the whole, might seem silly, but then again, pondering the universe in any which way led us to the electric light and other good things, too. In the least, it can be entertaining.

I asked Sam where he got his hiccups. Did his mom put them in his breakfast cereal? Did his teacher give a Thanksgiving treat? Since, I, too, wanted hiccups so as to not be left out, I asked Sam where I could buy them.

He answered with a bunch of “no’s” and “I don’t know.” He did so quite seriously, as if we were professors pondering quantum physics. Sam thought it quite natural that his grandfather and he would be having such a conversation, and he pondered every answer. At no point did he think the questions silly. Perhaps in a few years he will see nonsense, but not now.

Now is still time for Sam to have an awfully broad imagination, an unlimited field of dreams where he can race this way and that, chasing this thought or another. Why not? He has not yet been told to limit his thinking, to set boundaries. Sam -- any youngster his age --  can be what Tom Edison always was, a thinker without qualification  whose imagination is without limits.

Soon, thanks to a conversation about hiccups, including asking Sam what color his were, whether he saved a few in his pocket for an after-lunch treat, and whether he could see them on his computer, the train with mom and dad pulled in.

The very sight of his parents made Sam lose his hiccups and eagerly embrace his favorite people. Wonderful. Gramps moseyed on.

Hope Sam had some hiccups later, though.

Monday, November 22, 2010

WHEN THE OVAL OFFICE DOOR CLOSED



     Forty-seven years ago this was a Friday, and about 12:30 p.m. I was flipping TV channels when I paused at WCBS-TV, New York. A soap opera was in progress, of no interest to a young fellow age 21, but the long thread of its story line, including every emotion there is, caught my interest and I lingered. But not for long. Quickly, on the simple black and white set, with just seven channels available through a rooftop antenna, came a bold screen with large letters shouting “CBS-TV NEWS BULLETIN.” Then the signal switched to a live newsroom, Walter Cronkite at a small desk, professionally but with almost incredulous tones, reading wire service copy: “There has been an attempt on the life of President Kennedy . …” The venerable reporter and commentator did not leave his post for a day, and this America remained glued to the TV for even longer, over an increasingly somber weekend and through JFK’s burial. 

So much changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when 90 minutes later, after numerous news flashes of increasingly negative tone,  Cronkite read another bulletin: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash is apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. today, Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”

As a young man, idealistic as so many of us were in that folk-singing era when youth had infused government, when hope seemed a sure bet despite a recession, the Cuban missile crisis and still-distant war drums in Vietnam, the president’s death shortened our sunny days, coinciding with the coming winter solstice. In JFK’s place was an older man, the less articulate, old-style politician Lyndon Johnson. He reassured the country as an uncle might after you lose your cool dad, and perhaps that made you get into bed, feel a bit tucked in and have some sleep. But the next morning you knew things would never, ever be the same.

And they have not been the same. Presidencies since JFK have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by necessary security to protect our national leader from nuts but in the process putting the person into a cocoon apart from the people. Elect a president and you never see him (her?) again except through the filters his advisers employ. They have his ear, these special interests of whatever bent, not the citizens who cry when their presidents are taken from them.

Ever more complex is our government today, and the super economic power concentrated in the secretive military/industrial complex that Eisenhower the old warrior warned us about is much stronger and deeply entrenched.

Today no president has simple choices, for the world is so very complex. Idealism seems reserved for the political stump, not for the Oval Office.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, may he rest in peace, kept the stump with him for much of his short tenure, continuing his well-phrased speeches, strumming the rhythm of the song of hope. What success or failure or a mixture of both he might have brought to the nation – in the economy, in dealing with the Cold War, in Vietnam – can only be conjectured. Was his the last approachable presidency? That, too, is speculative.

Monday, November 15, 2010

NEVER FORGOTTEN














     SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – It is another moment now for my classmates and me, Spring Valley High School 1961, a season so very far removed from senior year autumn 50 years ago when “fall madness” brought the football team to its new playing field and General Organization President Fred Yatto Jr. stood at half-time with Gerd Bitten Andersen, our Danish exchange student.

In  a few weeks’ time, the rush of giddy feeling from knowing that in just months we would graduate and move to adulthood and its freedom would be tempered with  loss and sadness, too.
On Nov. 19, 1960, Fred, 17, passed away after very difficult, even impossible, heart surgery. A routine school sports physical the previous spring had detected an unusual sound in his heart. Further investigation revealed a hole. This meant open-heart surgery, then in its infancy and far, far riskier than today.
   
Fred knew his operation was coming up in early November 1960, but he tried to make light of it, hoping not to worry his classmates. Most of us were too immature and inexperienced to know the very grave danger he faced. Fred understood that and continued to be everyone’s friend. His ability to get along with people proclaimed great promise.

On Nov. 12, he presided over a pre-game ceremony on the new field off Route 59 in which Bitten was officially recognized. And about two weeks before his surgery, he went to a party in nearby Pomona with some friends, this writer included. The small amount of alcohol he had there, in his condition, caused him to pass out. We carried him onto a bed in a spare room at Joan Prescott’s Pomona Road home so he could recover. It was a prescient moment.

Just a few weeks later, some of us would again carry Fred Yatto, this time to his final resting place on this Earth, the West New Hempstead Cemetery, only two  miles from the Prescott house. Fred died Nov. 19, after the open-heart operation revealed a hole the size of a half-dollar, and in those days it could not be successfully repaired.

When our classmate passed away, so ended the innocence of school life for the Class of ’61. We have had other classmates leave us too soon in later years, 15 by my count from a class of 201, but Fred was the first, and the sobering it cast will never be forgotten.

Good times eventually returned to SVHS, but the black fact that death comes to us all, including the young, was forever imprinted on our psyche. It changed us, some for life. The journeys each of us have taken since Nov. 19, 1960, have been set by it.

While I know that, in an earthly view, Fred  was denied the right, the joys, even the sorrows of life beyond high school, the journey into middle and old age, and into the season that is now, it must be said that the spirit of Fred Yatto Jr. has lived a life.

The spirit continues to live  in Fred’s friends and former classmates, who, once in a while, reflect on the young man who was and the man who should have been.

I recall his eagerness, his humor, his sense of responsibility, his deep love for living. What were to be his hopes, his aspirations, his ups and downs, have been experienced in some way or another by the Class of ’61. Some of us have thought … what would Fred have said about this or that, or what would he have done in such and such a moment?

The realization that 50 years later, a 17-year-old fellow has not been forgotten is proof that a life did not finish on this earth on Nov. 19, 1960.


Monday, November 8, 2010

LOSS AT WOODSIDE




     NEW HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – History isn’t always rescued. Sometimes it costs too much. Sometimes “progress” is a big bully and wins. Sometimes no one cares. Sometimes there are priorities. The given, though, is that all history lost is heritage gone, memories set to fade mode, to hazy recollection such as “Wasn’t there a barn over there?”

New Hempstead, in the Spring Valley Postal District, is a smallish village carved out of the Town of Ramapo several decades ago, in part to slow the development bulldozer, protect quality of life a bit and perhaps save this or that part of history. Yet now a big piece of the past is gone. It is a sad story, one that almost anyone, anywhere can relate to since change, while often beneficial, also is like a wake.

On a recent Sunday, the volunteers of the Moleston Fire District, Hillcrest Fire Company, held a training exercise at the long-standing Woodside Dairy barn off Brick Church Road. The barn, not used for many years, had become dilapidated, and it was determined it had to go. So it was put to the torch, doing one last bit of good for the community it long served, training hardworking volunteer firefighters.

Perhaps it was fitting, too, that Hillcrest would bring the barn down since the Moleston District’s first commissioner was Enoch Erickson, predecessor of those Ericksons who worked the dairy farm.


According to Marty Erickson, wife of Gene, daughter-in-law of Clarence (Pete), the Woodside Dairy Barn and Milk House began on purchased Smith farmland. Woodside was a working dairy farm until the 1960s. During World War II, says Marty, “The family made sure local children had dairy products, often at no cost. When the Rockland Leader (a Spring Valley weekly newspaper) burned in the 1960s, the barn stored rescued editions.”

As Rockland County moved from pre-war rural to post-war New York City suburb,  local dairies and other farms were sold for housing developments and strip shopping centers, “progress” paving over a long-practiced way of life. Soon enough, people began buying milk from large companies in convenience stores and supermarkets, and home delivery died out.

Woodside was sold “for a token amount, in a spirit of patriotism, for a county veterans cemetery … In recent years, the buildings have been vandalized, the barn roof succumbed to the weather … and the silo was covered with vines,” writes Marty.

The Woodside barn has not been rescued. If it could have been restored, perhaps Rockland schoolchildren could see demonstrations of old-time milking, smell the hayloft straw and the old barn timbers, get away from the hustle and bustle and step back in time to a moment of American history when independence, hard work, self-sufficiency, community spirit and service and pure survival were parts of ingrained country character.

Saved from Woodside are a few milk bottles and fading memories. Yet there must be a repository for all the emotions this farm witnessed over so many years. Somewhere, somehow, some time, they may emerge in realization and enlightenment that progress doesn’t mean just building the new but securing the past as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

ELECTION DAY 2010



     Election Day this year is more important than in many seasons. If this nation (1) does not show up at the polls and (2) does not elect those willing to forgo special interests and secret money, America will not progress. The economy will stagnate and taxes will rise. Major issues – true health care reform, job creation, fair trade, education reform, immigration, security and the rescue of the dwindling yet vital middle class – will not be addressed.

According to national newspaper reports, in the 2006 mid-term elections, outside groups not connected to political parties spent $51.6 million. So far in 2010, courtesy of a high court decision guaranteeing “free speech” to big-moneyed interests that can bully with unlimited cash, such groups have spent $280 million, 60 percent from undisclosed donors.

It is power and greed, hiding behind political philosophy and jingoistic, simplistic  slogans that are behind large secret donations. Continual war makes money for all too many, as Ike warned us in far less involved times. Health care is not about human needs but about profit. Manufacturing, once and for a long time made successful for companies and the nation by hard-working blue collars, has left the USA for other countries, a slap in the face to those still owed for building these companies. But money rules, even if only for the short term since without income, Americans won’t buy products and so keep the economic stream replenished.

If God’s lighting could strike Tuesday, it might bring us a full turnout of thinking voters; it might cause the special interests to wither; it might see the election of thousands of “Mr. (Miss/Mrs.) Smiths, who go to Washington or to state capitols or to town and village halls as disconnects from the almighty dollar, who seek only to do right by their fellow man, woman and child.

Such equality of purpose has not been seen in the Founders’ Land for decades.

Monday, October 25, 2010

'PROGRESS' AND A PLAYWRIGHT


     There is in my county – Rockland – in what just a short 50 years ago was mostly rural land, a slice of leftover heaven. Though within 25 miles of New York City, the absence of interstates and direct rail had until the 1950s kept growth on the other side of the Hudson River. To this place, this country of apple farming since the 1700s, came many artists and writers, who could keep in touch with business/career matters in Gotham and then escape to create in soulful respite. One of these gifted people was John Patrick (Goggan), playwright of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” screenwriter of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and other notable properties.

The author guarded his privacy, and he could do that well, living on more than 200 acres of God’s land in the woods, hills and marsh of the Town of Ramapo, off old State Highways 202 and 306. For a very long time, even as “progress” filled in surrounding acreage, Patrick was able to keep his retreat, and, presumably, his quiet so that “Some Came Running,” “High Society” and “Three Coins n a Fountain” could be written. His lavish parties at the estate, which included stables and farm animals, attracted well-known neighbors like the actor Burgess Meredith.

In time, Patrick would leave, as would Meredith, playwright Maxwell Anderson of South Mountain Road, New City, and so many others. The assumption is Rockland’s loss of innocence had something to do with the exodus.

What seemed heaven-sent, so much open and wooded land, in a place where seasons changed, where long country walks in great quiet could be had for free, was replaced with too-many-to-count housing developments, strip shopping centers, then low-rise and high-rise apartment houses, indoor shopping malls, traffic, congestion, noise and high taxes, all made possible by two interstates and a bridge called the Tappan Zee.

This “progress” surely was that for many, just as 1800s growth on the island of Manhattan gave us part of New York City, enormously influential, enjoyable yet teeming in great emotion with all the elements of human living. Paved over was simplicity, nature’s sounds and the awe of masterful creation, there for the taking by eye, ear and heart.

Now, the same “forward” movement of growth is set to gobble away John Patrick’s farm, which, amazingly, has not yet been developed. And it would not be today, in the stress of the challenged and changing economy. There is little money for more housing, even in such a bucolic setting as Patrick’s retreat. Too many homes are already for sale, too many through foreclosure alone.

The equation here for “progress” is a different formula. Ramapo government is trying to accommodate a religious group that contends it needs God’s bucolic acres for its interpretation of God’s work. So, the acreage, once zoned for homes on two acres, with much of the land held back as flood plain, has been rezoned, and the town Planning Board is probably going to approve 87 single-family homes and 410 multi-family units. Guarding the marsh areas in the aquifer will mean heavy, urban-like density, quite unsuitable for this relatively country-like section of Rockland.

Government is failing to balance the quality for life for all in this rezoning, and the religious group is not seeing the wisdom of building a smaller complex so as to be a better neighbor.

Such a script is part of the “progress” play, for old-time Rocklanders could argue that too many developments replaced the apple farms, or early Manhattanites could contend that their neighborhoods were blitzed for growth. Or our Native Americans could justifiably claim that sacred land was taken from then for the white man’s “progress.”

An old story. One even worthy of a John Patrick theme. Certainly fodder for Maxwell Anderson, whose play “High Tor” detailed growth and consequences, too.

Ironically, it is for the sake of God, or, more exactly, for one people’s view of His call to life on this earth, that “heaven” will transform into what would others would term its opposite.

Monday, October 18, 2010

WE MUST DECLARE WAR


    It is time to declare war, America. We are at our united best in such action, one that begins after an attack on our people, noted by the president in a stirring speech and legalized by the Congress. We’re talking World War II-like declaration and subsequent adrenalin load, mobilized defense and full use of our can-do brains and muscle.

Our nation has been attacked, not by terrorists but by special interests who buy our officials and who cunningly direct growing populist rage against government and policy, playing on the fear foaming out of the stirred pot of a prolonged and most severe economic crisis. Feeding the fire are rumor-mongers, nonsensical beings who reason not, who, for example, blame minorities for anything and everything, as if no minority ever helped build this country.

The American middle class, created by the Industrial Age, Progressivism, two world wars and manifest destiny, is disappearing. Corporate greed has outsourced jobs overseas. Focusing on the immediate bottom line instead of the future of the American economy/social structure is creating a third world-like underclass that will be out of work permanently.
At stake is much more than loss of buying power, a stalled economy and the threat of renewed recession, even deflation. No democracy long sustains itself without a healthy middle class and the hopes therein. Cities and suburbs will decay, and crime and social problems will increase. Children will be lost as progress regresses for the short-term almighty dollar.
    
Aspiring to be in the middle class, with its great comforts, its sense of arrival, has been the carrot that so many Americans have chased, even while under the stick of poor job conditions, long hours and sacrifice. It has always been worth it – the carrot usually has been eaten. Until now.

Now, the rules are different. Greed is the only rule, with profits ever higher for the very rich, for corporations built by the middle class that now outsource work overseas. Greed that is aided and abetted by ever-more powerful special-interest groups, through 501C (4) political action committees and a Supreme Court decision that essentially allows big money to drown opponents and their contributors in a sea of cash. In 2010, big money rules elections, rules Congress. That is an attack on America.

So, let there be war, never desirable but once again necessary since the conflict has not been avoided by true campaign finance reform. Call it “The Greed War,” one that awaits national address by an articulate president who nearly has been done in by special interests and their manipulation of national rage into awful moments of untruths, extremism and even violence, and by himself, since his leadership has been most lacking on what he promised to do. But he is still the national leader, and he can still help save the nation.

Once his words are given in an address to a joint session of Congress, that body will then, as agent for the people, declare that this nation is now at full war with those who thwart our national aims of equality and social and economic advancement through their push for the big dollar and for the special powers – military/industrial/political – the investment dollar might bring.

Once war is declared and the enemy is identified as special interest, it must be eliminated. No more fat wallets for any candidate or office holder, with each and every campaign instead fully funded by the people. Lobbyists would still have their voices, but through public hearings on any cause or government question and not through questionable “donations.”

Then, the war won, a new “Marshall Plan” of recovery, not for Europe but for America this time. Funded will be a new industrial/scientific age that creates innovative work (jobs), the seeking of a new frontier that can guarantee a vibrant middle class, and with it, the wealth of the upper and the sustenance and dreams of the lower. And the hopes of the future for all in this nation.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

FREE SPEECH TAKES COURAGE


     Most postings to online news stories are an embarrassment to free speech. The same people seem to post over and over, often answering one another back and forth, in diatribe reminiscent of the old radio call-in shows, also dominated by “regulars.”  What is written is usually not thought out, poorly phrased, full of spelling and grammatical errors and not edited by anyone. Worst of all, they are unsigned, which makes their frequent fear- and prejudice-based “reasoning” all the more troubling since their authors strike in anonymity. Rumor-mongers, these posters play on “e-bites,” the Internet equivalent of sound bites. But the full meal, the thoughtful argument, is rarely there. 

Is this how we are to “inform” in the new age of declining print and quick electronic comment? If so, the nation, the world, the neighborhood is in trouble. It’s like uttering a joke in one language, translating through the idioms of 10 other tongues and then back into English. The intended meaning is lost, even skewed toward idiocy.

How did we get here? As revenue has declined in dwindling print journalism, newspapers and other media have encouraged online viewpoints, thus giving almost anyone a shot at speaking in the public square. In doing so, there has been editorial ballyhoo about protecting democracy through added, unrestricted comment, but that's a convenient argument used to rationalize marketing for website hits. The more people who visit the sites, the more advertisers you get. 

How is public discourse encouraged when too few posters think through what they want to say, often getting off the subject completely and instead pushing whatever agenda they may have? Some examples: A recent Associated Press story about Kim Jong Un, the new North Korean leader, contained many postings, including one that suggested America send “that fat little pork chop” to South Africa where sharks could eat him alive. Attached to a suburban newspaper piece about a highly paid police chief who may retire was the comment that many houses “where lost do to forecloser.”  No, many homes WERE (perhaps) lost DUE to FORECLOSURE. In a Louisiana story about that state’s review of the Gulf oil spill, there was this:  we should “believe the findings of this committe? yeah tell it to the friggin pope!” (Spelling, grammar, vulgarity not changed “to protect free speech.”) How do these postings add anything coherent to debate?

As a retired 42-year newspaperman who fought for the right to access facts and print them and for the right to express both the newspaper’s views and the people’s, I cannot call for a narrowing of the online response pipeline. Instead, since I am still free in this nation, I will continue to ignore most of this comment, just as I switched off many of the old “hotline” radio callers. But as a former editorial page editor who, together with my newspaper, insisted that letter writers identify themselves, I urge all media companies to require the same for online posters. And any poster immediately should show courage of conviction and stand up using his/her real name. This should make people think first, and think deeply, before posting. It would weed out the ridiculous.

In the letter-writing days, some of the correspondents would ask me to use a pseudonym, for fear that “some nut will call me” or “I will be harassed by calls.” I would reply: “When you use our – your – free speech forum, you hang yourself out there. The right to offer opinion comes at risk. Be willing to take it.” Almost all did.

That’s not the case with online posting. There are too many participants who do not have the courage of their convictions.

Monday, October 4, 2010

STATE OF THE NATION




     Taxes are up, people’s confidence down. Health insurance is ever more costly despite  “overhaul,” the rich are richer, and they don’t share opportunity. Manufacturing, once the bedrock of our economy, is silent, its machines now spinning in China. The American middle class, created by the Industrial Age, Progressivism, immigration, two world wars, suburbia and manifest destiny, is disappearing. A third world-like underclass is forming, one that permanently will be out of work.

     At stake is much more than loss of buying power, a stalled economy and the threat of entrenched recession. No democracy long sustains without a healthy middle class and the hopes therein. Cities and suburbs will decay, and crime and social problems will increase. Education will not progress in such limited optimism. Children’s dreams will be lost as opportunities dwindle.  

The squeeze of the common man is on for the short-term, almighty dollar to enrich the already wealthy, with scant evidence that the largess ever trickles down to reinvigorate consumers who buy most of the products and who want to climb the ladder of success that is the foundation of the middle class.

     Our longest war continues without clear strategy. There is no end in sight. It is killing our young and draining not only the borrowed treasury but the nation's future as it will be our children’s children’s children who will have to repay the borrowed debt, if they can.

Special interests – some of polarized political bent, many others industry-driven (health insurance companies, military suppliers, financial houses) – determine our legislatures, our executive branch, too. If “Mr. Smith” went to Washington to tell us this in what was once plain, simple, direct – and honest – language, he probably could not get through Homeland Security.

Politics in 2010 is polarized talk, not service to the people, now delivered in quick sound bites and e-bits meant to inflame, not inform, playing off slogans, playing off fear, based not a whit on facts. The downsizing and less-profitable media devotes too little in investigative reporting and explanatory writing to structure the debate and thus forge the choices that a democracy must make. Instead, we have sloganeering, innuendo, deliberate distorting of facts, pushed rumors – all meant to push a simplistic agenda, such as “take government back” or “change.”

If only it were that simple.

Government investment – deficit spending – was supposed to gas up the stalling economy, but it has not. Bureaucracy, special interests and deliberate distortion of aims have largely wasted borrowed money. It seems the system we have simply shoots itself in the foot, yet the ordinary American feels the pain, not government.

The handwriting is on the wall, and it is one word: “greed.” What the nation requires is a teacher who will erase that from the blackboard and write “investment.” Investment in jobs, in what must become a new industrial/scientific age in America that creates innovative work, the seeking of a new frontier that can guarantee a vibrant middle class, and with it, since it is America’s historical bent, the wealth of the upper and the sustenance and dreams of the lower. 

All good will follow – money for schools, for health care, for infrastructure, for defense, for debt.

One last thing: Teacher should send special interest to the principal, recommending permanent suspension. Can’t teach with a bully in the classroom.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

BALANCE IN SUBURBIA




     In 1945, even before troop ships brimming with returning World War II veterans hit ports in America, the suburban “plan” had been hatched. Defense contractors like Levitt & Sons knew many of these men, and some women, would never go back to their cities after their breakout. No longer were aspirations shelved by the make-do years of the Great Depression and then a devastating conflict. As well, there was renewed confidence in survival. The G.I., the sailor, the Marine, the airman, had made it back, and maybe these Americans could forge yet a new frontier, as is written in our national genetic code.

The newest frontier was affordable housing for the average American, to fulfill the dream of home ownership. William Levitt and his family, businessmen surely seeing great profit as well as possessing the ability to meet a need, were the first to step up to the plate in 1947 when they began selling homes fabricated in an assembly-line method, with payment as low as $57 a month. “Levittown” would completely alter the Long Island farm landscape, and everywhere else. Quickly, housing developments would grow across the nation, including in New York City’s suburbs, fertilized by eager investment and cultivated by willing towns and villages, which envisioned much more money for tax coffers. What was not expected in the heady rush was suburbia’s cost, its great and growing expense that today is helping drain treasuries from the federal government to the states to communities. 


Aging infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, utilities, parks and public buildings; hastily built homes now requiring new plumbing and electrical work; houses illegally modified over the years against zoning regulations to create multiple units; insufficiently maintained homes, some of which stand out as eyesores, with unregistered cars on lawns, litter and unpainted siding; and bulldozed-over floodplains that raise the water table for other residents, filling their basements in storms – all these concerns now haunt graying suburbia, just as many of them have afflicted the old cities from which suburbanites fled in the decades after World War II. Yet, ironically, many of our urban areas have been rebuilt in their rediscovery. Children of suburbanites, turned off by the great development expanse, shopping strips that you have to drive to and the loss of old neighborhood downtowns, seek closer community in walking, downtown areas in Brooklyn, for example.

But this leaves suburbia wanting, for our growing national, state and local deficits and the ever-escalating cost of government combine to raise taxes prohibitively while concurrently not providing sufficient re-investment. Our infrastructure repair budgets are cut; our social services and health care expenses increase as suburbanites age. Reductions in manufacturing jobs and other workplace losses shrink the ranks of the middle class, the suburban bedrock. Suburbia no longer is growing, yet the rather big elephant in the room needs to be fed, its appetite almost insatiable. Who will pay?

A partial answer is in balance, which is necessary in the maturing of the suburbs. When the suburban boom began, planners, developers, investors  and government should not have abandoned our downtowns and hamlet centers, instead balancing rebuilding there with the growth of fringe development. Without visionary thinking, we left areas to sometimes unscrupulous, exploiting landlords who turned them into substandard housing. And we vacated our downtown shopping zones in the process.

The proper plan would have been to reinvest in the downtowns, to tear down and renew the old and build a community of shops and housing, tied to outer suburbia. Instead, a gazillion shopping strips went up, with yet another pizza shop, dry cleaner and now the standard bagel joint. No visionary was available then (1945-2005 at least) with a strong enough voice. Everyone thought the suburbs were the best thing since toasted bread. Leave the crowded cities behind, people said. So, many Gothamites fled to the suburbs, but many, too, have now fled from them as well in the inevitable aging of suburbia.

Balance is required in development, particularly in rebuilding suburbia; that is, if growth and regrowth ever happen in this scary economy. But will visionaries speak up and be heard this time,  over the shuffling of the mighty greenback?

Monday, September 20, 2010

A NEIGHBORLY VACATION


ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN DAWN (Sept. 12-19) – I’ve cruised seven days as a tourist in calm waters, though in truth I would rather have been on a high seas adventure as correspondent during trying times.  I saw clear to the horizon, literally and otherwise, no other vessels near, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, its ballasts and stabilizers set for a senior citizen-comfort ride, pushing along at 13 knots, bound for Halifax, St. John, Bar Harbor, Boston, Newport and then back to New York City.

Security was tight shore-wise, ship-wise. It is the price we pay these scary days – 99 percent of the people showing photo ID, facing deep scrutiny by eye, computer and X-ray detector against the 1 percent who might do harm. This puts a damper on fun activities, especially when the rare official is overzealous, but not so much that what you pay for doesn't deliver on a cruise. If you are a casino aficionado, a shuffleboard player, a Las Vegas-type show lover; if you like to eat, to socialize, to relax on deck lounges, a cruise is custom-made; if you like to get off the ship in varied ports (not all do), this is the way to travel.

For me, a cruise is a way to people watch, to observe humanity, to overhear accents - from England, the American Midwest, Canada, France, all over the world, 70 nations represented on my trip alone. It’s been an opportunity to have conversations – so many people were friendly, so many were interesting. Some were endearing. Living as most of us do in a microcosm, interacting with the same neighbors, workers, family and friends every day, immersed as we are in whatever region in which we live, we get used to the habits – the politeness, the impoliteness, the yin/yang – of our particular little world – the moaning and groaning, the good deeds, the annoyances.

I can report that getting out of our cubicles and meeting new people makes you feel optimistic about humanity. You are reassured once again that while we have always been troubled by greed, hate, wars, the better nature of us all is still a good bet for the long run.

As I cruised along, my sense of pioneering, the security blanket of independent spirit that I have carried since birth still wrapped tightly, I was reassured that this nation, this world must never be looked at through the eyes of the self-annointed suspicious, through the greedy, through those who profit by hardship and who would have us live in fear, but through the hearts, minds and values of the corn farmers I met on this trip, and of the English couple bent simply “on a holiday, you see,” and of the Filipino staff most courteous, and of the American westerners with wonderful, disarming manners, and of the older lady looking at an immigrant baby who saw only promise in a nation that once gave her Polish grandfather a shot at a dream.

If only the world we live in – the one determined by our governments – was as neighborly as this cruise has been.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

WEEPING IN PEARL RIVER


     In honor of Sept. 11, this is a reprint of my column for Sept. 14, 2001, just days after the awful attack on America.


They are weeping in Pearl River. Weeping for New York City’s Bravest and Finest, lost in the rubble and horror and smoke of the World Trade Center disaster.

They are weeping elsewhere in Rockland County, surely, for civilians and city workers alike, but it is Pearl River and all of Orangetown where so many of the Bravest and Finest live.

Some neighborhoods are almost an extension of the city, and firefighters and police officers living there have taken the jobs of fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers.

This is another Rockland, set apart from the country and historic days, and distinct from the regular post-war suburbia of New City or the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Spring Valley and Haverstraw.

In that, there is as much heritage, distinction and pride as in any section of this geographically small county so close to New York City. Indeed, it is the physical closeness that makes Pearl River, particularly, so attractive to city workers.

When the Palisades Interstate Parkway partially opened in 1955, Orangetown was the first accessible Rockland area, 16 miles from the George Washington Bridge. Firefighters and police officers, seeking a country life for their families and unable by law to live in New Jersey, which is closer to Gotham, flocked to the relatively affordable housing here.

And they formed a community. It is not the usual suburbia. Yes, there are the bi-levels; the block parties; the hustle and bustle of car pools and family activity. But there is also the “Brotherhood.” The Brotherhood of deep concern and respect for each officer, active or retired, and son or daughter or father or grandchild of that officer.
You might just as well be in the firehouse or the police precinct station house on many streets of Pearl River. These people stick together, and when one suffers, all do, fueled by the deep sense of mourning that the Irish (so many of these officers are of that heritage) instinctively carry in their souls and hearts.

     Rockland, Pearl River, do not yet know how many of their New York City Bravest and Finest will be counted on the honor roll of the dead. That may take weeks, and the toll may be high. But already the darkness of grief has descended, and with that sweep of fate are also seen angels of mercy and comfort.

The mutual-aid system of the Brotherhood of firefighters and police officers has eased into the grief, separating the dark from hope and resurrection and thanks for sacrifice.

The bagpipes will be playing a long time in Pearl River and in Rockland. The Masses will be many. There will be a lifetime of sorrowful memory. But already there has begun a healing, thanks be to God, by the goodness of the Brotherhood. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

CURIOSITY CAN SAVE AMERICA


     Curiosity, we are warned, killed the cat, but the naysayers never tell you about the nine lives.

In the University of Higher Education that is life, you can earn a doctorate via Curiosity 101, 201, 301, 401. Curiosity was a  welcome affliction for Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, who thought out of the box, who often applied barely basic skills of learning to journey, as Buzz Lightyear says in “Toy Story:” “To Infinity and Beyond.”

Einstein did poorly in school arithmetic and early math. Had he been the traditionalist, had he earned his gold stars in calculus, he might have ended up a fine professor of that discipline instead of spending 10 years daydreaming about gravity and the speed of light and whether a fellow saw himself in a mirror the same way traveling through space as he would moored to earth. His e=mc squared formula might not have been written.

Tom Edison endlessly tinkered in his lab, trying this and that out of curiosity more than straight applied science. Had he followed strict dictum, he and his people might have given up. If they had let curiosity kill the cat the first time out on light bulb filaments, there would have been no ninth life, no pushed inquisitiveness that found carbonized thread as the winner. And then there was light, literally.

Edward Hopper, the famed American realist painter whose works of solitude and intensity of emotion are so especially defining to the world right now, spent long months in utter curiosity, going to 1930s movies, peering out his Washington Square studio window, looking away from the sea at South Truro, Mass., walking Gotham’s streets and reaching into his mind's file cabinet for human and architectural sketches squirreled away on so many trips of curiosity. From here and there, Hopper took what he needed, and when the time was right, he brushed in strokes of interpretation that make us shiver decades later.

So, I say to all of you, especially the young yet not spoiled by too many limiting rules: Go for it – be curious, day dream, move to a different, unique place in your mind. Be independent, dare to “go to infinity and beyond.” This America, in particular, needs your innovation right now.