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.