Wednesday, December 21, 2011

REAL HOLIDAY PRESENT



     San Antonio, Texas -- In the holiday lead-up that is again dressing the nation, in a time of poor economy and worries about not only the American future but the world's, yet another perspective emerges. I am here for a moment with grandchildren -- actually it is always just a "moment" since kids change minute by minute -- and concerned for them, for anyone's young, as you must be, too.

My own Christmases were modest, but there were enough simple presents from two hardworking parents to leave my brother and I awestruck. Never was there a failure to communicate with Santa Claus, and these days when expenses for an elderly dad hit, we who can pay are grateful to help balance the sacrifices made. That we are able to
do so reflects a general American tradition that each succeeding generation will do a bit better. Ever since the Great Depression, that forward movement has built a middle class.

Now in San Antonio, I wonder if my grandchildren will be able to assist their parents if ever in need, or if the parents will have to provide for their young even when they are old, if the money does not run out as the middle class runs for its life.

This Texas city is more a mix than most in the state -- many residents include military and business professionals from other areas -- and so the political persuasion is less Texas conservative and more combined conservative/liberal, a fine point and counterpoint that can bring real and efficient compromise. My guess is that growing children in San Antonio are immersed in political dialogue that includes varied points of view. At  least I hope so.

Such mix is elsewhere in America as well, save the nation's much-ruling capital, where the Capitol and the White House seem to act as hardheads unwilling to stop shouting political rhetoric so they can hear the people instead of special interests. Meanwhile, my grandkids in San Antonio or the two in New York or your offspring or your friends' or neighbors'  very young, or teens or young adults - all hoping for a Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza or whatever joy the holidays bring - are left as unwilling bystanders in the grossly irresponsible political deadlock over basic human needs, over disappearing jobs, over an unfocused, obscenely costly war, over what the future should be for America, and surely the world.

The holidays will come to San Antonio, to the many in America one way or another this year, but what will they be like in 2025 or so? Holidays, yes, but. ...?

Ah, what a present it would be if common sense for the common purpose were to appear under the national tree. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

AMIDST CHANGE, TRADITION


   I am certain that if you had asked my grandfather or anyone beyond 50 in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of 1956 if community life were more tight knit when they were young, the answer would have been “yes.” And some 55 years later, if you query now-older me, I’d have to give the same reply. Such is nostalgia and the sometimes convenient forgetfulness that happens as we look through rose-colored glasses.
Yet, as with all potential black and white situations, there is a gray area or two or three. In time, certain standards may well disappear, or traditions or quality of living. We may seize upon those to prove our argument that the old days were better despite evidence that always there have been problems, bad situations, difficulties. But, ah, the gray. 
I have an example in mind. When I pass through my hometown village these days, the Spring Valley landscape has changed so very dramatically. A long downtown decline was brought on by failure -- here and elsewhere in the nation -- to meet the challenges of suburban sprawl, including the competition posed by shopping centers.  Today in the Valley, expensive urban renewal is bringing some hope, though it is an incomplete approach that remakes the mistake of the 1960s-on. Then, downtowns should have been rebuilt by integrating them into new housing for all income levels so as to create walkable, desirable places in which to live and shop in a mixed economy. Today, while urban renewal brings affordable housing, a very good thing, no community can thrive just on government help. It must stand on its own at some point. So, there must also be non-subsidized homes and retail shops and businesses. That will have to come to Spring Valley if the village is to truly be “renewed.” 
In 1956, when Gary Onderdonk III, then about 13, followed his Christmas season route of flipping telephone pole switches to turn on brightly colored lights, the Spring Valley economy was enough to support duplicates of hardware stores, bakeries, luncheonettes, stationeries, druggists, clothing stores and whatever else long marked American downtowns. 
Garry’s father, Garry Jr., was a local electrician who installed the lights and kept the strings stored in his home. His own father, Garry Sr., was the head of the local draft board and was well-respected and, yes, feared. At one time, the Onderdonk forebears owned much of what would become Spring Valley as well as land in Piermont and Nyack.
The fact that Garry's grandson walked the downtown -- about 7 blocks from Maple Avenue to Route 59 -- as an early teen and flipped switches on perhaps 50 poles assured the 1956 community that it was still close-knit, that although post-war suburban growth was about to explode and break many ties to heritage,  tradition continued. The lamplighter yet walked his route.
Even my grandfather and his over-50 friends would have admitted that, though they saw change they did not like. And now, in 2011, this writer, 69, also concedes that while Garry no longer walks the Spring Valley downtown, that while he isn’t there in just about any town you choose in America, the great changes to neighborhood society wrought by the Consumer Age, the Electronics Age, the Digital Age and the “Special Interest Age” that now disenfranchises the ordinary citizen are still not enough to make life simply white and black, good and not so good. There remains the gray.   
In the Nyack, N.Y., area, including another old and small village with a downtown that also has undergone serious change, is a fellow I know well, joined by others who choose to live where there are old buildings, where there is history, where you walk to the library, to a memorial park, where neighbors are recognized in a mixed economic community. He and others are the lamplighters of today for they wish to keep old community tradition while also embracing great change. They may use LED lights, not incandescents, but they are mixing with the old and reinvesting. There is balance, without which no community can fully thrive. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

VIRGINIA READ IT RIGHT


     In my part of the believing and non-believing world, in this economy, in this doubt of government, corporations and people, the local paper recently ran a story about a teacher telling her second graders there was no Santa Claus. Hullabaloo ensued.
Yet the rapid and firm push children get into adulthood today already unceremoniously strips them of belief in cartoon characters, super heroes, magic fairies and -- sometimes -- all that seems possible. Maybe that’s why we end up with little faith in government or anything else.
I don’t know enough about the teacher’s words, their context -- perhaps no one does except the students. We weren’t there, and I will not judge her. The report is that when the 7 year olds said they knew about Santa’s North Pole, the teacher responded that the bearded fellow did not exist and that Christmas presents were bought by their parents. Media coverage then exploded, the teacher is said to have issued an apology and the community asked to move on, into the holiday spirit. Yes.
In Virginia O’Hanlon’s 1897, it was her friends who told the 8 year old that Santa Claus was a myth, to which New York Sun Editor Francis Pharcellus Church responded in his now famous and oft-republished editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” 
He wrote: “Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except (what) they see ...  All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little ... How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. ...”
The sum of Church’s editorial argument was that  “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. ...” 
Second grade, in my parts and yours, is a fleeting moment of moving molecules, emotions and whatever is brewing in the individual soul. Its oh, so temporary dwellers have a brief second in which to recognize that all is possible, that good exists, that there is, as Editor Church put it, an "eternal light with which childhood fills the world. ...”
Can you see him now, can you see Santa? 

Monday, November 28, 2011

THE MAGIC POCKET


     UPPER NYACK, N.Y. -- Babysitting two grandchildren, one half way to 5 and the other galloping toward 3 means an old codger like me has to be on his toes, literally, in order to survive. There are more questions, emotional turns, spats, hunger moments and funny faces than grown-ups are used to. So, the survival answer is to not be so adult, to join the crowd.
Which is what I did last Thanksgiving weekend, with Sam and Beatrice jumping all over me, the couch and each other. There is never a dull moment since kids do, indeed, say the darndest things. They also have sharp minds, recalling the mistakes you made last time you babysat. And their questions are so simple and direct that you wonder why the gods allow children to become adults. Perhaps our business and government decisions would be far less troubled if there was the young’s directness and clarity.
Children are also more trusting for they have not yet been let down. Beatrice, for example, likes to pretend that every small scrap she gets from rough-housing or other play requires a Band-Aid. And she knows where to get one when I am around since this not-always-watchful handyman carries them for my own cuts. After I once took a Band-Aid out of my pocket to stop her tears, she figured it was filled with all manner of items.
So, she is apt to come to me and ask, “Do you have a flashlight in your pocket? “Or a Gummy Bear?” “Or an iPad?’
Anticipating her needs, I have added things to my pocket, which I must remember to remove when I fly to Texas in a few weeks or the frown of Homeland Security will not see the humor.
The pity is that as the young get older and become us -- mature, ever-so-wise, know-it-all adults -- they stop asking what's in the Magic Pocket. 
Therein lies the ruin of civilization.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A THANKFUL DAY


     We always knew it was turkey time back in sixth grade when we took a look at a very old painting of Pilgrims and Native Americans at a Thanksgiving feast, which hung all year long in the cloakroom. Why it was there I cannot relate, but kids seemed to notice it just before we went off for the holiday.
Today, gatherings for those fortunate enough to have family and means arouses the same feelings as it did with the early settlers, I presume. Any day you are off the treadmill, when there is a variety of wonderfully smelling food, when kids are running about in innocence and mayhem, when there are many under one roof, you appreciate -- are thankful for -- what you have.
Thanksgivings this year in our still bountiful nation, a country I remain thankful for, cost more if you have the money, have fewer goodies on too many tables and offer less time to enjoy since so many are worried about keeping jobs or getting them, the health of their pensions and the fitness of their health care. 
Now, this is not entirely new -- we have been in distress many times in America’s history. Think of the tough life early settlers had the days before the first Thanksgiving and the days after; during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War; on farms when the crops were wiped out  for one reason or another; in immigrant sections of our cities where sweatshops and dangerous tenement conditions prevailed; during the Great Depression and two world wars.
Yet in all that, there was always someone offering the optimistic view, such as Norman Rockwell in his famous Saturday Evening Post cover, “Home for Thanksgiving” (November 24, 1945), which shows a safely returned soldier peeling potatoes with his mom. Our Thanksgivings are the stuff of legends, family and nation, and of genuine gratefulness and of hope.
Where America is headed in these perilous times, so close to another precipice, is not easily predictable, but I will tell you one thing: If we could round up most of our “leaders,” if we could put the money managers with them, if we could squeeze in the greedy and make them all sit out this Thanksgiving, the rest of us, in good and poor circumstances in November 2011 might just have a thankful holiday, thankful for the goodness that is essential America; thankful for the things that matter most, like family and friends; thankful that we remain breathing. In that   there is the same hope of manifest destiny and new frontier that lie before the first Pilgrims. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

THE SPICE CABINET


    In a time of simplicity and quiet, which can be that moment when the lucky child, alone to explore and imagine, finds again and again that magic can happen, I took a journey. My travel to that special land began on an early wartime morning in late 1944 in my grandmother’s Ternure Avenue, Spring Valley, home when I was very young and the family was temporarily staying there.
I was wandering about, probably 6 a.m. or so, out of sleep and morning hungry, remembering that my grandmother, whom I called Nana, kept the corn flakes, raisin bran and Wheaties in a five-foot-high metal cabinet at the top of the basement stairs.
I continued tip-toeing until I managed to get to the basement door, reached for the 1915 doorknob and used two hands to turn it. There was the cabinet, in faded yellow, its own door held closed by a flip-up shiny chrome latch that seemed out of reach for a little guy. But stretch I did, also quietly, until the door swung open, aided by its tilt on lopsided, old stairs.
There was the cereal, all right, but something else, too, boxes of wonderfully smelling things, which later I learned were spices like ginger, cloves, cinnamon. Some of those boxes must have been in that airless metal cabinet for years, held tight, too by the latched door. What a wonderful collection of smells that brought, a gathering that I have never been able to duplicate in several spice cabinets I have bought or built.
I knocked my raisin bran box out of the cabinet and took it to the table, putting it next to where I sat, to await breakfast, which came just a short time later (maybe I had awakened the house).
Over my many years, getting a whiff of this spice or that, I am instantly taken back to my Nana’s cabinet, that early morning exploration, my pride at achieving success. I can smell the real fragrance of that cabinet if I deeply concentrate, and its memory has gotten  me through more than enough less-pleasant times.
That 1944 exploration on a quiet morning offered a lifelong lesson -- that we need so little to make us happy.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

A MOMENT MY OWN


     Spring Valley, N.Y. -- If, after 55 years, you remember where the bathroom is at your former elementary school, old age isn’t here yet. Not only was I blessed in finding that but I managed to get to my eighth-grade science classroom, conducted so very well by Mrs. Keesler. 
My return to what once was the North Main Street School, which both my father and I attended, was for a Rockland County Arts Council session on grant applications. The science classroom where I spent seventh and eight grades was on the third floor, southwest corner, and is now divided into an office and a meeting room. But the hallways are still in the glossy tile of the Craftsman age when the building was put up for children north of Main Street, with, yes, the South Main Street School for the other half. In my time I went to both.
So much changes in life, especially your perspective. North Main seemed much smaller in 2011 than in June 1956, but I was smaller then, too.  Some of my teachers -- Mrs. Keesler, Mr. Gram, Miss Margulies, Mrs. Churchill, Mr. Carroll, Mr. Fazio, Mrs. Badami, Mr. Duggan, Coach Thompson -- also saw to my father and were already legends of a sort. They had quirks, like we all do, and we kids sure exaggerated them, but if I were on the last bus to anywhere, I’d want them with me. Perspectives change, and I did not know then how very well these teachers taught their subjects and better ways of living. I reference them constantly.
I arrived early in Spring Valley so that I could park my car in nearby Hillcrest and walk to North Main, as I did for three years, but that hamlet is now so developed that “No Parking” signs are everywhere and I could not leave the car. So I parked at the school, walked to Hillcrest and back. It took just minutes compared to memory’s half hour, but in those 1956 days there might be pals to jawbone with or a stop at Roth’s store across the street or at Mager’s in Hillcrest. Most of the old sights, such as the great Burn’s estate, are now gone and there is way too much growth and subsequent neglect in their place, but in every step I could recall events, friends, girlfriends, good report cards and not, quick walks home for the holidays, quicker runs when I was late. I could see my parents, then my grandparents driving to our Hillcrest home. I could see myself in my first car.
At my meeting, I was the only one with a connection to the building. None of the panelists had even grown up in Rockland, let alone Spring Valley. Deliberating on serious matters for the Arts Council gave me enough time to day dream back to 1953-1956, when I also day dreamed in Mrs. K.’s class. I even managed to sit in the same area where my desk was.
I was the only one with pedigree that day, in the old North Main Street School. And I was most proud.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A 'PERFECT STORM'


     Rockland County, N.Y. -- The freak early snow that last weekend took down so many trees and branches and with them the power lines of ever-larger suburbia came as a “perfect storm” since (1) the trees still have largely green leaves that acted as a weight for the heavy, wet stuff, and (2) there simply is too much foliage. The suburbs, having lured homebuyers for decades to “the country,” now must eat the fruit of overgrowth.
Trees are wonderful -- they help clean the air, provide stress relief, shade us and remind us that the concrete of “progress” must be eased. But when you plant a tree, just as when you have hair on your head, trims are necessary for both styling and practicality. Nature takes care of tree overgrowth in a forest by lightning, fire, light, disease  and drought.  But homeowners usually don’t do much to their trees, and many a yard in these parts is out of hand. Overgrowth brings mold to siding,  inside, too, and the worry that the trees will fall on something.
This year, a very warm and wet summer in the Northeast helped trees grow at probably twice the rate, and it has kept the leaves green and still attached to branches. So, when the unexpectedly early and heavy snow arrived, the many trees, especially with overgrown branches, came down, in many cases bringing power lines with them. There were outages everywhere in this, New York’s smallest county geographically outside New York City but also a densely populated, built-up suburbia with thousands of utility poles and lines.
When I was Editorial Page editor of The Journal News in Rockland, I penned perhaps 25 edits over 30 years calling for (1) underground electric, cable and phone lines in all new construction, paid by developers; (2) a ban on trees over 10 feet tall within 15 feet of overhead wires and regulation of species (for example, no maple or oak); (3) aggressive trimming of all existing trees in utility right of ways, not the barbershop whisk now provided, which guarantees return work for the contractors already getting big bucks from ratepayers.
Most of all, we advocated for a comprehensive storm response plan. While the Rockland Fire Coordinator’s Office has put together a remarkable  blueprint that involves utilities, firefighters, police, highway departments and first-aiders, more needs to be done by municipalities and by the utilities. 
• For example, there might be a plan to have on call the great army of landscapers and their workers, quite happy to do immediate tree cutting. Surely liability insurance waivers can be obtained to press these people into service when needed. In the recent storm, trees made safe from power lines were still left for overburdened highway departments and utility workers.
• For public safety, drop-down, four-way stop signs might be installed at all intersections with traffic lights, which could be put into operation immediately. However, officers should be stationed at the most dangerous crossings, with all personnel on notice that they must report whether off duty or not and with auxiliary police and retired officers volunteering. 
• To enlarge the community spirit, there should be volunteers ready to help in debris removal, running errands for the sick and elderly, etc. A phone list should be ready. 
• Utilities and municipalities should have communication briefings on the hour, via TV, Internet, the media, cell phones. They should have enough live operators to handle calls. Retired workers should be available to help.
Such ideas -- and surely there are others from the full public -- must be welcomed since it seems nature will be blasting us with more bad storms. Rockland must be better prepared. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

THE NEW AGE

ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. -- Having endured an early, rare and very damaging snowstorm, which unloaded yet another of Nature's recent tirades, most of us here are in the dark, without power. Not a problem since we are all descendants of humans who had little but fire, and we live in a world that sees much of its inhabitants do without. So, OK.

OK to a point, and then principle makes it not all right. OK until you meet up with officialdom's response in this NEW AGE of red tape, cost cutting, worry about lawsuits and a sense of incompetence.

Most if us in my area have been without electricity for 48 hours now, with predictions of three or four days more. Still OK, since conditions must be made safe for repair people, especially with so many downed trees and some live wires.

Yet there is so far little indication that much restoration has been made. How long does it take to assess a situation, call in the troops and get things working?

If it is a matter of cutting trees, in another age -- just a few decades ago -- my neighbors and I would have cut the limbs ourselves. Today many still would. So would the great army of landscapers and their hard working staffs. Why were they not called in to help so that power could then be restored? Most of the trees are not near dangerous downed lines.

Utility crews are more than willing to work, but new rules keep them from toiling beyond certain hours, though they did years ago. Adrenalin can chase away fatigue, and surely  safe conditions could prevail in overtime. Perhaps the utilities do not want to pay overtime, not surprising in this deregulated market where, as with Wall Street, the bottom line is paramount, the customers be damned.

Finally, many intersections are without traffic lights. Still OK, since we can all use our heads. But in the old days, every cop would have reported in and willingly directed traffic. So would have retired officers.

Ah, the NEW AGE. Watch the money. Avoid lawsuits. "Not my job, so why should I do it?"

Monday, October 24, 2011

HALLOWEEN MOMENT


   TALMAN, N.Y. --  Quietly done, non-fussed-about, get-it-done moments strike deep chords in the reflections of older life, or so it appears in a Halloween memory.
More than a few seasons ago, in the 1949 of my youth, living in this small hamlet of fruit orchards in Rockland County, an equally small church offered a Halloween party, and someone told my father, who was then working at both a nearby hospital and in a nursing home. He was trying to make ends meet, though my brother and I never knew it, so kept were we from the home economy by both our working parents.
In this second grade year, excitement was had by playing in the apple and peach orchards off Cherry Lane (never saw a cherry tree there) and watching horses train at the polo club where actor Burgess Meredith kept a steed. There was no downtown to walk to, a luxury, then a necessity I would come to enjoy when we again moved back to nearby Spring Valley. For this part of young life, imagination had great latitude and deep encouragement in a rural setting where sitting in a tree and day-dreaming was as good as watching “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” on TV came to be in the next year or so.
My brother Craig and I did manage to get together with other boys and some girls, however, and the Halloween party was to be one of them. It was a last-minute invite,  an offer made by a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital who thought it would be fun for us.
So my father left the hospital and picked us up at the Airmont and Cherry Lane schools, and we both sat in the 1939 Dodge as it made its way to the small church and its basement. When we arrived, the very nice woman organizing the party opened the door, saw us and quickly came outside. It seemed neither my brother or I had costumes, which are expected at Halloween parties. My father had had no time to get costumes and would have been pressed financially anyway.
The church lady who dashed out to save us embarrassment just as quickly had my dad bring us right across the street where there was another kind woman, a seamstress who worked from her home. In a jiffy, this lady whipped up two creative costumes, pinned together in flourish. We were fun-ready, my brother and I.
The memory of that 1949 Halloween party is now a blur, but its circumstances and three good people -- the woman at the hospital, the one in the church and the seamstress -- can never be forgotten. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

OCCUPYING AMERICA


By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

   When was the last time America smiled? You see tears now, in the households where the unemployed sit for two years or more, from college graduates without hope, from those who bought into the American Dream only to have it dashed by an economy once built on the middle class and now controlled by those who ignore that class.

The young, the vibrant ones, the easy protesters, perhaps even attention-seeking, occupy Wall Street and increasingly across the world, but older people are now coming, too, their grievances of unequal opportunity and clueless government and lobbied officials stirring in a cauldron that promises to be a stew of real taste, a flavor that can grab attention. The focus toward changing government may well come.
Why are we here in this place, in America, in the world? When did the smiles of generational improvement, college and other achievement, satisfying, productive careers, improving health and a better future for more and more turn to forlorn, scared faces?
Nothing great happens in this great nation, in this, God’s experiment in participatory democracy, without going through a “system.” Prohibition, though a costly mistake that gave birth to organized crime, began with populism not unlike today’s Occupy Wall Street, which took on steam when it was legitimized -- enabled -- by the 18th Amendment. It took the system to make it real. World War II was not won by patriotism alone, by selfless soldiering, but by the system forged by a huge defense industry, by that system.
We see the system at work today against Occupy Wall Street, in New York, the nation, across the world. Police respond to a loose movement of occupiers as trespassers, even trouble-makers, and make arrests. Some leaders and candidates, the media, too, characterize the protest as ragtop, young, without a message beyond claiming that it represents the 99 percent who suffer from the 1 percent holding the purse strings. Give this movement time, though, a more diversified membership, set goals, offered solutions, charismatic leadership and demonstrated responsibility for non-violent protest that focuses on free airing of grievances, and it could grow to the point where the system recognizes it, and then things could begin to change. 
It’s happened before -- this nation’s independence was not likely. How could the disorganized, under-funded colonials defeat the British Empire? But here we are, a power greater than Britain. The Occupy Boston Harbor movement of the day gained focus, and so may Occupy Wall Street. The key is developing a system.
America is a gift from God. Its shaky beginning has endured, and we have helped save the world from inhumanity. This experiment must not end, must not go down in flames. The majority of our citizens are not physically with the few on the protest line, but the many in America today know full well that Congress and the presidency are broken systems, and great change must come if the nation is to survive. Special interests rule the roost, and somehow the people’s voice must become a lobby. 
Maybe then the system would create jobs,  perhaps in emerging technology, where we can again become world employment leaders.
Maybe then elected officials would be free of lobby money, with campaigns funded only by limited tax dollar so that Washington, states and municipalities listen to the people instead. 
Maybe then the wealthy with conscience, who recall their own upward climb, would help by loaning money to create jobs and also outright invest in America. They have the funds, and you know what? They would be repaid handsomely in renewed economic activity as consumerism “trickles UP,” not down (as it rarely has).
Maybe then the nation, free of special interest, whether moneyed or of political ideology, would decide what sort of health care, pension system and social service network a progressive world leader must have. We must work with private industry to fund it, not government, make it a profitable  enterprise, but with greed controls.
Maybe then we would recognize that the super rich were made even more so by our outsized expectations -- bigger houses, bigger cars, goods bought on the credit cuff. We enabled them through the system, shot ourselves in the foot.
America can smile again, should smile again, but it won’t come without change and sacrifice, not only from the ordinary people but from those who have the investment funds, who should be persuaded within the system.

Monday, October 10, 2011

OF A HOLIDAY, OF HOLIDAYS


     On this rearranged Columbus Day, courtesy of Congress’ move to make three-day weekends for pleasure, there were early signs this morning that not everyone had a day off, though too many have unwanted leisure time -- the growing number of unemployed, some chronically. But a portion of those still getting a paycheck were on the roads, adding to the noise level as minimum-wage landscapers started lawnmowers and leaf blowers to sing a shrill suburban tune and manning the counters at convenience stores, malls, etc.. No holiday for these guys.
On such a day, there will be parades to note the Italian explorer, who, working for a Spanish queen, stumbled upon what would become the Americas. Italian-American accomplishments will be noted, as they should be, though the achievements of all ethnic groups, which built and build these United States, stem from the first footprints of Columbus’ landfall at Hispaniola in 1492. Though Leif Ericson made it to North America about 500 years before, it was Columbus who set in motion European exploration of the “New World.”
Exploration of all sort ensued, and the cauldron of experimentation, inventiveness, democracy, independence and influence continues to be stirred. There have been missing ingredients, such as overdue recognition of the Native Americans chased to reservations, and, worse, killed, in manifest destiny; slavery; ethnic prejudice; and greed, which Republican President Theodore Roosevelt trust-busted for the public good and which on this Columbus Day again feeds growing protest across the land.
No American holiday is for itself any more, and perhaps never was. Labor Day. Memorial Day. Veterans Day. Workers may be off; children have no school; good weather brings out the barbecue and other leisure activities; officials note the particular day’s purpose, which some of us are reverent about, but for the great majority, the holiday is just that -- “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.”
Enjoy Columbus Day. But please know this: Every holiday is actually followed by “labor days,” for when the 24 hours are up, it is those many days and nights that will make or break our stressed nation, as has been the challenge before, as has been the opportunity to afford us true holidays.

Monday, October 3, 2011

TOO MANY CHOICES

     Perhaps the country began going to seed when Dunkin’ Donuts ended the belly-up coffee counter, its wonderful java offered in welcome-pardner ceramic mugs. For a small price relative to these days, you could nurse the brew while you day-dreamed or maybe shot the breeze with a pal. There were no double-mocha lattes, no designer croissant sandwiches to complicate.
Reaching farther back, the old diners also had counters where the cuppa was even cheaper (5¢, 10¢), and where you were more likely to meet someone you knew or a village character, to have more of a hometown visit. Most “diners” today have menus longer than the counters back when. How did life get so entangled? When did so many choices hit us? 
Some parents begin making college plans for their children right out of the box, before they enroll them in the correct pre-school. Seniors on Part D of the national prescription drug plan face quarterly choices over which is cheapest, which gives the most. Young adults don’t know where they should build their lives -- will the jobs last? Will there always be a middle class?
The electorate is totally confused. Candidates push great rhetoric, make many grand promises that get lost in the system once elected. Whom do you trust?
The technologically challenged are befuddled by cellphones, computers, big-screen TVs. What buttons to push? What media/data/voice plan to buy?
The world promises to become even more complex. What careers to pursue in this economy? How to invest wisely?
This isn’t to say that back in the 1960s when Dunkin’ had a counter, life was always so simple it was easier to get through the day, to build a future. That was the decade of continuing civil rights battles, unsettled, unsettling controversy over the undeclared Vietnam War, the sexual renaissance and the start of Great Society social programs. Everything was already changing much more quickly than in the previous several decades. Even Dunkin’ was part of that, its coffee and donuts a leader in the rapidly appearing, ever-more-complex fast-food culture.
It is inevitable that change will beget more change, and that like a bus going downhill with uncertain brakes, the curves ahead will prove challenging. The curves will be many, as will be the bumps in the road. Do we, as individuals, as the nation, as the world get off and take another route?
I think, for me, I’d find that old diner, grab a cup of joe and sit a spell, day-dreamin’. 
Too many choices, that’s what.

Monday, September 26, 2011

DEODORIZING PROGRESS

     An apple may not fall far from its tree, but if one drops in 1932 and another fruit in 2011, that’s a story. Or a column.
I live in Blauvelt, New York State, now part of the New York City suburbs but in my youth and in my father’s, this hamlet was about as far away from Gotham as a suit is from a tractor. Yet, the intersection of Western Highway and Erie Street was the busiest in Rockland County in 1932, my dad’s time.
The state had recently opened a psychiatric hospital, and the many jobs afforded during the Great Depression brought heavy traffic along Native American/colonial roads, so much so that the intersection, with no traffic light, was labeled by The Journal-News as the most traveled daily. An amazing fact since the crossing was smack dab in the country, not far from a newly built state highway, yes, but really in a bucolic setting. Tomato farms, orchards, a few summer bungalows and historic homes comprised the area.
Near the corner of Western Highway and Erie was a small apple tree left over from a strand of them. It was next to a recently constructed semi-Craftsman home sitting at the intersection. This tree, like all of Blauvelt and all of Rockland, was not used to the smell of automobile and bus exhaust nor the vibrations heavy daily traffic brought. Maybe that’s why it dropped apples more quickly than, say, the trees at Concklin’s, Davies’ or Brown’s orchards where acre upon acre afforded the fruit kinsmanship. The apples would quickly turn soft in the near-autumn sun and fill the air with a sweet fragrance, a fine counterpoint to the exhaust of progress. Children walking by would smash the fruit under their feet or kick them back and forth to one another.
In the decades since 1932, which include post-World War II super growth, the apple tree has gotten old but, amazingly, still produces fruit. The home at Western and Erie is also there, front porch and all, and the American scene at the intersection is even more hectic than it was 79 years ago. No longer Rockland’s busiest corner -- about 100 intersections vie for that dubious distinction -- the crossing probably handles more than 1,500 vehicles a day, including huge tractor trailers hauling trash to a compacting plant over roads that can hardly carry the load. 
The psychiatric center long ago downsized, and by then its workers came from all directions, across many intersections. Western and Erie lost its busiest corner marking a long time ago.
But the apple tree still drops fruit from vehicle vibration and the air still smells of exhaust, the fallen apples trying their best, as always, to deodorize progress. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A CHILD'S SMILE


     America doesn’t smile much these days. Jobs gone, debt, deficit, taxes, disappointing “leaders,” the greedy, less spirit, confused purpose -- not much to be happy about. Until you see a child’s face.
Not talking about my own grandchildren, for I am prejudiced. Nor the smiles of any particular kids I know. As with so much of life, it is the anonymous who are seen most acutely, most honestly. We have no direct stake in who they are, where they have been, where they are going. There are no ties, no responsibilities in the seconds it takes to glance at their openness, the smile from non-cluttered thinking in childhood expression.
Where are they, the young who smile? In innocence, surely. In curiosity, yes. In mile-a-minute thinking as their fertile, inquisitive minds begin to collect and catalog sights, sounds, smells, emotions. Most of all, in imagination, in that magical world where there are few limits, where super heroes are made and trusted, where Cinderella can meet her fella, where right can win out, where the frontier is the jump over the moon into the cosmos, and of course any child can do that. He/she has not been taught otherwise.
Adults have forgotten so much of a child’s world and come to tolerate it as a growing phase worthy of a nice pat on the head as they plan for college way too soon, not remembering that the best education in their own lives was when they were young and few boundaries had been set. Who is the wisest in the set? The youth in imagination or the “accomplished” adult who has made a mess of things in today’s America?
The nation no longer smiles, but the young still do, in almost any circumstance. All things seem possible in such early time, anything. 
Pity that we grow up. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

OF SATURDAYS AND MOMS


     A Colorado correspondent and I had a recent e-mail exchange on moms and Saturdays, 1950s style, and the conclusion was that we each pretty much were on our own, though with a different “push” from mothers. My friend reported, “I don't recall ever being chased from the house ... Saturday mornings were always trips to Nyack (New York) for laundry and shopping, and they were enjoyable. Much more to me, I'm sure, than to my mom. I was responsible for cleaning my room and doing the household dusting -- probably why I recall the lamps and knickknacks from my youth fairly well -- and then was free. Kept out from underfoot well because I didn't want additional jobs. ...”
I didn’t do any chores, at least on Saturday, and I was definitely chased out of the house by my working mom, who with my father, would tackle the week’s laundry and dust. They, particularly my mother, did not want my brother and I to be in the way, and so we were sent packing for six or so hours.
Not a bad deal as it turned out, since my parents had some peace, and though Craig and I generally went separate ways to individual friends or haunts, the key companion for both of us was imagination. No cell phones or pocket video games, no “booked” activities. We had long periods when imagination kept boredom away. We let our minds wander, in day-dreaming, sometimes in the imagination offered by books and their plots and characters,  and in hands-on effort like building huts and tree houses.
I had a regular Saturday walking route as well. I’d sleep in Saturdays, get up about 9:30, quickly wolf down raisin bran cereal and, knowing my mom would soon be looking my way, leave the Hillcrest, N.Y.,  house, turn left on Karnell, then right on State and right on Hickory where there was a wooded path that ran through the back of one of the numerous summer hotels in the area. In off-season, it was abandoned, and we kids used to take it as a shortcut to North Main Street, but not before we stopped at the open barn and sat at an old grinding wheel and gave it a spin. On North Main, I would head through downtown Spring Valley, past the same shops that greeted my father and grandfather in their day. It was a brief walk in town, six-streets-long, but coming from the countrified area of Hillcrest,  the hick in me had come city-courtin’, and I was less of a hermit for a moment. It was like getting warm sun on your face on a chilly day, a welcome necessity though you wouldn’t want to stay in the sun forever. 
Soon I was across the 1840s Erie track,  headed for the South Main Street School where I played in a yard enjoyed by my dad 20 years before. It had not changed a bit.
I might run into a friend, but more often I was alone, day-dreaming my way across town, looking at the stores, the street characters. I passed the time, enough so that I could come back home just when my mom finished her cleaning.
It was a routine, a 1950s moment in which kids like myself and my Colorado correspondent kept busy, out of trouble and with enough visiting in imagination, in day-dreaming, that I can say I was hardly ever lonely.

Monday, September 5, 2011

NO 'LABOR' FROM LEADERS


     EVERYWHERE, USA -- How is labor supposed to rest on this noted day when there are so few jobs? The many unemployed already have nothing but downtime. How did a rich, progressive, innovative, democratic, promising nation, always one with a frontier to conquer, become stuck in high joblessness and its growing disease, low expectation? Where will our children’s children be on Labor Day 2051? Where are many Americans today?
This nation, conceived in liberty, should not have won its war against the well-trained and equipped British; came close to returning to the king in 1812; could have been destroyed by our worst conflict -- brother against brother in the Civil War; could have collapsed economically in the later-1800s depressions; could have lost its identity in the great immigrations, if Old World prejudices had lingered; could have withered and collapsed in the Great Depression; and could have been permanently misdirected in the civil rights crisis, the Vietnam War, Watergate and Sept. 11. But our citizens' bearings remained set. We continued our optimism, inventiveness, innovation, charity and move toward equality. 
Not so government, which has lost its way. Today, the presidency and the Congress are isolated, reacting largely to the monied interests required for re-election, encumbered by procedure and lobbies that keep the executive and legislative branches apart from the American mainstream -- its pain and suffering, its hopes and desires.
On this Labor Day 2011, the sweat of many millions of our men and women, our forebears, are now the tears in the eyes of the jobless, in the eyes of parents who fear for their children’s future. Yet we retain our great energy and patriotism and native can-do American spirit ready to tackle the next frontier, if only, if only, that would be set by our leaders. 
Where are they?

Monday, August 29, 2011

CAN YOU HEAR THEM NOW?


     NORTH OF GOTHAM -- Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, was uber-careful to stress the potential destructive power of a hurricane named Irene that seemed headed straight for Queens Boulevard. In the second-guessing that now follows what became a tropical storm, he is criticized for being too careful. Not possible to be too prepared. The beast that was could have paralyzed the five boroughs.
It also could have taken out my suburban area 20 miles north and the surrounding five counties, but authorities here, too, were on the horn warning people to be prepared, even to evacuate. Though there were deaths, major flooding, heavy power loss and much disruption, the storm was weathered.
How much it will all cost has to be totaled, certainly a figure far above the 2 percent budget caps imposed on schools and government by the governors of New York and New Jersey. You cannot put a price on safety, however. 
The full damage from Irene, in the burbs as well as in Gotham, though not as great as feared but in the millions nonetheless, did not have to happen as scripted. The grief, the expense, was largely debt-due after decades of poor land-use planning, even greed and incompetence. 
Filled-in floodplains, overbuilding by profit-seeking developers, weak construction codes, too much strip-shopping and its impermeable asphalt parking lots as well as maintenance neglect of storm drains, tunnels, transit and other infrastructure have overtaxed government’s ability to manage the quality of life on a sunny day, let alone a rainy one and almost never on a stormy day except by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.
And that’s what will happen now as the tab for overtime and repair will mean cuts in basic government operation as well as added debt. The bill could have been less if municipalities, counties and states had long ago cooperated on proper building and code practice to seek “progress”  sensibly and within reason.
Mayor Bloomberg was right to hit the airwaves and the Internet on storm preparation. So were the governors of New York and New Jersey. Will they now use their considerable voice to plan better for Irene’s sister? For our everyday quality of life? Will there at long last be sensible land-use planning?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE GATHERED CLAN



     When a family comes together, there is a certain dynamic in play. It matters not which family, where it is geographically, in what age or how many people are involved. It is a study in human nature, in what matters dearly, in a species' survival.
Perhaps on my street in Blauvelt, N.Y., yesterday, there were several homes where families were gathered -- parents, young or grown children, in-laws, grandparents, uncles, cousins, whomever. Food was prepared, conversations had, kids watched super hero movies, memories were repeated. There was laughter, maybe an inward tear on recalling a now absent loved one. The cook was rushing about, assisted by the minor cooks -- but there was just one cook, of course.
Later, after hours spent in a busy pace not normal to the household, this family member and that left as the great cleanup progressed, with help at first and then the entire scene was left to the two or so people who really live in the house. Cleanup takes a long time, for it is not just the putting away of plates and silverware and the floor sweeping, but the arrangement again of one’s home, where routine is cherished. Routine is always interrupted by company, thank goodness, but it must be returned. It must.
In all, a warmness to any of the visits on my street, including in my own home where family gathered yesterday as my father in law had his 98th birthday. There was  electricity or at least the steady current that makes life worth living. The few hours were well enjoyed.
But we all cherish our quiet, so while we  are happy to see company arrive, we are also pleased to see them go. As they are when we visit their homes and also take leave at some point. That is the price of bonding, one gladly paid to enjoy a family gathering as well as the comfort of kin  when we are not together.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

HOW ONE CLASS FARED



     This essay was written for my class, the Class of 1961, Spring Valley High School, Spring Valley, N.Y. We had a fine reunion Aug. 14. It is offered here in hope that other former students, of whatever school, in whatever time, can relate to the feelings expressed.  
On a sentimental evening, we are not just about sentiment. There’s sentimentality in this room, of course. How could it be otherwise five decades later in this now retouching of friendships and the opening of memory pages? No, sentiment did not get us here, we collection of the successful, the survivors, the lucky. We are as youth once again, yet our lives prove the long journey beyond.
Each class, in whatever age, wherever in the world, has its flavor, its special stamp. Geography, the decade, social direction, the economy, our parents, teachers and whatever other influences the universe gives in the moment help spawn and grow the class.  There is the reality of local, national and international events, including war. Economic change. Vast social change. Our own maturing. How our dreams fared. What we wish for succeeding generations. Our health. Our relationships. The complications-- the joys and sorrows -- of the last 50 years, different lives but still, in all that, shared high school DNA, the leitmotif of the Class of 1961.
That peculiar mix, so well stirred in our years at Spring Valley High, began with the bringing together of kids from varied neighborhoods -- the North and South Main Street Schools, St. Joseph’s, Monsey, English Church, Camp Hill, New Hempstead, Happy Valley, Lakeside, and then, toward the end of our high school run, transfer students from New York City as the suburbs started to build. We had a first year of being together in the new junior high of the old Ramapo II School District -- ninth grade in 1957-58 at the former high school, a building that many of our parents attended. Time went so very quickly that season, but the months were enough to push us away from our elementary years and those particular communities into the yin and yang of high school, and to stir the juices of anticipation of what being sophomores, then juniors and, finally, big seniors would be like. How eager were we to grow up.  
Each of us has particular memories of Spring Valley High – the teachers who meant the most, some giving us life-changing direction. The friends we made, some for life, others now seen again, with 50 years just a second in time, so mutual are our thoughts and ways, even if not shared for so many seasons. Some recall the sports we played, the socialization of football and basketball games, the clubs we joined,  Regents exams, the proms, first dates, first love, first cars. All remember the sudden passing of our classmate Fred Yatto and how on that November 1960 day we among the young learned that life was finite. Some 16 of our comrades have reminded us since.
Most of us have moved away from Rockland, from the Spring Valley area and a main street where we knew all the shopkeepers, a downtown recognizable only in revisited memory. But for a time, in our time, the Spring Valley Theatre, Brown’s Luncheonette, Arvanite’s, Bauer’s market, Ro-Field Appliances, Nat Kaplan’s, Shapiro’s, Perruna’s,  Kulle’s Tire, K&A Hardware, drug stores, bakeries, barbershops and so many other businesses gave us a sense of continuity in our hometown. We were all part of Small Town, America.
We took the hometown feeling and that of the close high school community with us, even as we rushed on graduation night, cap and gown flung off, diploma in hand, to jump into college, the workplace, families, careers, other towns. We were in such a hurry that we did not see the door closing on such a vital chapter in our individual lives.
Where were our hearts and heads these 50 years? We built careers, families, relationships, lost parents and friends, experienced  joy and sadness and the great in-between that fuels most of life. As the decades passed, we became far removed from the youth of our high school years, from the village where we were cast. Yet,  the experiences of Spring Valley high, our elementary seasons before, our downtown, all that we then had remained in our subconscious, as circuits  that simply were not switched on for a long time, save the occasional flashback. Now, tonight, this weekend, after the preparation of two years by the extraordinary reunion committee, the circuits are again energized.  
So, it is not sentiment alone, this reuniting. It is a deliberate turn of the head back to the closing doors of Spring Valley High as we left pomp and circumstance in June 1961. We did not look then; we do now. This time, we can see what the future brought. This time we know that within the walls of that Route 59 building were the ingredients of a unique alchemy that made us, and only us, the Class of 1961, Spring Valley High School.
                                  

Monday, August 8, 2011

SAVING AMERICA FROM A FALL


    Congress and the presidency are now broken systems, and great change must come if the nation is to survive. Otherwise, the road traveled by ancient Rome in its decline -- high debt, reduced revenue, war distractions -- will be a metaphor for the U.S. The fall will be catastrophic.
History tells us how we got here, and it dates from 1918, the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In the rush to “normalcy,” American inventiveness and manufacturing began to produce consumer goods like refrigerators, toasters and radios. Enterprising marketers came up with the time-payment plan to help a rising consumer class buy these goodies on the cuff. It was the beginning of purchasing  beyond one’s means. Price inflation ensued, and the greed of the moment extended to margin buying in the stock market. On Oct. 29, 1929, the first day of the Great Depression, over-priced, unsecured stocks, frenzied purchase and high personal debt all proved to be the loose mortar of the new American economy.
In the Depression, Americans pulled pack to the lowered expectation of just a few decades before and survived with the novelty of major government spending until the defense jobs of World War II added more national debt but also personal income. The end of conflict saw the U.S. on top of the world economically since the Axis was destroyed and, among the Allies, we were the only country in good shape. We ruled the universe in our post-war manufacturing and innovative product development. But our 1920s’ habit resurfaced -- a huge and steady regrowth of consumer installment-plan buying and a “must-have” attitude. In the largess, government also expanded, largely through social programs as we marched through the 1960s. We flexed muscle internationally in the deadly and expensive, misdirected, confusing Vietnam War, and the continuing Cold War added to American debt as well. But we were still tops economically, and despite recessions, we thought our system highly resilient. What the ordinary citizen did not realize is that concurrent with our growing desire for more material goods, special-interest groups that could get the ear of presidents and congresses were becoming stronger and stronger. Not the least of these was the military/industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower, our American general and president, warned would become deeply imbedded. Every undeclared war since has had its strings pulled in part by this special interest. Now there are also lobbies that protect big financiers, huge manufacturers, oil companies and corporate-owned farming, etc. There are lobbies for political belief, for religion, for social causes. Special-interest groups for plausible reason and for sinister action. 
By the time we got to 2000, lobbies of all sorts were so entrenched that government, which by then was so big and so involved in individual lives, marched largely to special-interest direction. Today, with the awful and real worries about world terrorism; the polarization of government philosophy between heavy and active involvement (investment spending) and deficit reduction at any cost; and the great isolation from the reality of ordinary people’s lives that is both Congress and the presidency, we see special interests taking advantage at every turn. No decision is made without these lobbies. They fund expensive re-election campaigns, provide jobs for former officials and hold the keys to House and Senate committee doors. They are, despite some legitimate aims, largely a cancer on the nation, for they interfere with the legislative, executive and judicial branches. They affect the checks and balances of our democratic system. Government is ever so remote from the people.
End special interests
Until American campaigns are fully publicly funded, with no lobby money allowed, until the concerns of any special-interest group are heard not through the wallet but in open public hearing alone (to protect freedom of speech), U.S. leaders will hear no other voices. The congressional system is corrupted, as are state legislatures. So, if the nation is not to fall as Rome did in its own greed, special interests must end.
As for the presidency, the last time you see a living, breathing White House leader is when he is elected. On the stump, the candidate appears like the people, able to digest their fears, their needs, their hopes. He talks the language. Once elected, as has happened with Obama, the great collection of advisers (read special interests here, too) and the security apparatus isolate the man. Who has his ear? Not Joe and Sue USA.
We, the people, who have allowed the growth of special interests, who have permitted our remote presidency, have, over the past four decades, enabled special interests to end kill U.S. jobs by sending them overseas. This we have done by (1) not insisting on government reinvestment in  competitive industry, like steel; (2) by over-regulating business; (3) by making consumerism, principally the buying of goods financed by debt (home equity, credit cards) our basic economic engine. Now, in tough times, as on Oct. 29, 1929, that house of cards is falling part. 
How  do we rescue America? 
  • We end special interests. We ask our elected officials to serve by conscience and principle alone. 
  • We add a “people’s cabinet member,” an ordinary Sue or Joe America who serves a few months and has the ear of the chief executive on “real” concerns. Then a new American is appointed.
  • We, the nation, creates jobs, jobs, jobs -- in emerging technology, mainly, where we can again become world employment leaders.
  • The very wealthy “loan” us the money to create jobs and also outright invest in America. They have the funds, and you know what? They will be repaid handsomely in renewed economic activity as consumerism “trickles UP,” not down (as it rarely has).
  • We, the nation, decide what sort of health care, pension system and social service network a progressive world leader must have, and we work with private industry to fund it, not government, make it a profitable  enterprise, but with greed controls.
  • We end unfunded mandates and micromanaging of education and housing while enforcing agreed-upon quality and humanitarian standards.
  • We the people cut back our own expectations. Do we need McMansions? Super-sized cars? Vacation homes? Or should we live within means, growing the economy, yes, but within reason? And paying as we go, perhaps helping others in need, too?
.• We decide what wars will be fought and who else in the world will fight  them with us. No more unilateral U.S. action.
America is a gift from God. Its shaky beginning has endured, and we have helped save the world from inhumanity. This experiment must not end, must not go down in flames. We must take action.