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.