New York City

THE NEIGHBORHOOD

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

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It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature white oaks in New York city, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends was inevitable.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other, thought each better off than ourself. It would be long years before we learned each other’s secrets. By then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed as we grew up. Lonely in our big old houses, all those years ago.

Where I was that day

On September 11, 2001, I had just gotten back from overseas. I’d been in Israel, a business trip. While there, I picked up some kind of nasty bug that kept me very close to home — and a bathroom — and so, I was at home when the phone rang. Sandy and I were in my bedroom, sorting through some clothing. It was Owen — her husband, my son — on the phone.

“Turn on the television,” Owen said.

“What channel?” I asked.

“Any channel,” he said. “Do it now.”

I did. “The World Trade Center is on fire,” I said.

“A plane hit it,” he said. And as I watched, another plane hit the other tower and the world spun round and nothing was the same after that.

HittingTheTowerSandy and I just watched, silently. Owen was watching at work, on the other end of the phone line. Then, a tower was gone.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “The tower is gone. Gone.”

Then, the other tower fell.

Nothing remained but a cloud of dust and a giant pile of toxic rubble. Information started to come in. One of my co-workers was supposed to be on one of the planes that had hit a tower. I called, but Herb said he had changed his mind at the last minute. He had felt he didn’t want to go on that flight. He’d take a different flight, later in the day.

“God whispered in your ear,” I said, as did everyone else that day. “God whispered and you listened.”

Close as we were to Boston, everyone was calling friends, family, trying to find out who was where, who was not, if anyone knew something. We watched television, we waited. Garry got home from Channel 7. He said the newsroom had been a very strange place that day. Very strange. Never stranger.

We knew the world had changed. We didn’t know how much. We didn’t know it would be forever.

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12 years later, we know. It will never be the same. So many differences, some subtle, most not-so-subtle. It was the end of our belief in our invulnerability, though surely Pearl Harbor should have done that years before … but that was a “real” war, somehow different. This was an enemy we didn’t know we had, didn’t know was out to get us. Didn’t recognize the hatred behind the rhetoric, a hatred so blinding it would exempt no one from the fire.

It’s 9/11 again. A good time to remember who lived, who died, and how the world has changed.

Hello? Can you hear me? — I love progress!

Progress. I love progress and am strongly in favor of it, especially when we are progressing backwards. Kind of like technological time travel as gradually, by adding more and better high-tech devices, stuff that used to be simple and problem-free becomes much more complicated, difficult and expensive. The techno-version of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

iphone-whiteLet us travel together back in time to the halcyon days of yore. Not so long ago … the 1970s and 1980s. Even the 1990s.

Remember? We could make telephone calls without worrying whether or not the person on the other end could hear us. Without wondering if we would be able to understand them. That was so cool, wasn’t it? You didn’t have to shout into the phone, wasting half the call yelling “Hello? Are you there? Can you hear me? You’re breaking up. Can you hear me? Hello?”

You could have an entire conversation, from the beginning to end without getting disconnected, losing the signal, running out of battery. Getting dumped out by your carrier. Nobody said “What” even once! Unimaginable, isn’t it? I grew up and in my entire childhood, I do not remember ever having to ask “Can you hear me?” We could always hear. Sometimes, a long distance call had an echo, but you called the operator and they put the call through, no charge. No problem.

We’ve come a long way, my friends A long and winding road.

The other night, my husband and I watched — for the umpteenth time — Meet Me In St. Louis. It’s the old Judy Garland musical. Vincent Minnelli directed it. Great movie, one of our favorites. Terrific songs, Margaret O’Brien about as cute as a kid can be. Nostalgia on the hoof.

The story is set in 1904 when the World’s Fair was coming to St. Louis and telephones in private homes were still the hot new technology. A long distance call from a far away city was a very big deal. Early in the story, the oldest sister Rose gets a long-distance call from New York.

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The phone rings.

* * *

Rose Smith: Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?

Warren Sheffield: Yes, I can hear you. (Pause)

Rose Smith: What did you say, Warren?

Warren Sheffield: Nothing. I was waiting for you to talk

Rose Smith: Oh. Well, did you want to discuss anything in particular?

Warren Sheffield: What?

Rose Smith: I said, was there anything special you wanted to ask me

Warren Sheffield: I can’t hear you, Rose

Rose Smith: That’s funny. I can hear you plainly

Warren Sheffield: Isn’t this great? Here I am in New York and there you are in St. Louis and it’s just like you’re in the next room.

Rose Smith: What was that?

* * *

The next day my friend called.

Me: Hello? Hello? Cherrie?

Cherrie: (Faintly) Hello? I’m in New York … (something I can’t understand) … signal.

Me: Bad signal?

Cherrie: No signal.

Me: How are you?

Cherrie: Tired. Running around.

Me: Miss you.

Cherrie: Miss you too. Having trouble getting a signal here.

Me: We watched “Meet Me In St. Louis” last night. Remember the phone call from New York? We’ve gone back there. Worse. THEY had a better connection.

Cherrie: (Laughter.) You’re right.” (More laughter.)

Me: I don’t think this is progress. (Long pause.) Cherrie? Hello? Are you there? No, you aren’t there.

(Click. Sigh. Pause. Ring. Ring.)

Me: Cherrie?

Cherrie: Can you hear me?

Me: I can hear you, can you hear ME?

Cherrie: Hello? Hello? (Pause, faint sounds.) Is this better?

Me: Yes. A bit.

Cherrie: I turned my head and lost the signal. Boy, was that perfect timing or what?

Me: We couldn’t have done it better if we’d scripted it.

Cherrie: I’ll call you when I get back. I think I’m  losing … (Silence.)

* * *

As I said, I love progress. I most particularly love how advanced technology has made everything so much better. And easier.

Watch Out for Pigeons!

Anyone who knows me at all knows I love roller coasters. I love them all … but for me, there’s nothing that comes near the Cyclone at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. Been riding it since I was 8 years. I’m ready to go again. Just say the word. But I think I’d have to go alone. My friends and husband have declared themselves too crotchety to do it again. Bah. Humbug.

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If a goose can bring down a 747, it is not irrational to believe a pigeon can derail a roller coaster. Just thought I’d mention it.

Here’s a crazy video of the coaster and nutty middle-aged people enjoying the last great legal high. How many of us leave this ride limping, wondering if we are as insane as we appear to be? I would say yes, we are insane. After last summer’s excursion to Busch Gardens, almost a year later … I’m still limping! But oh, that wonderful adrenaline rush as you look down the first drop, wondering if this time, the car really is going to hit a pigeon and you will go flying off into eternity. What a way to go, right?

Map of Coney Island in 1879

Map of Coney Island in 1879

This is still the best video I’ve seen to date.  Clean, almost sort of  like being there. Nah. Who am I kidding? There’s nothing like being there except being there. Garry says we’re too old, just because I can’t even stand up straight. He points out I can barely walk. But  you don’t have to walk on the Cyclone. You just sit and scream. I can do it. I can, really. Especially the screaming.

Well, we’ll always have 2009 in Brooklyn.

Ah, the refreshing sounds of joy mixed with terror! What a great thing it is to be safely scared to death. Just gotta go back … one last time. I hear the new rides are FANtastic. And here, a sentimental song and a look at those long ago days of doo wop and 1962 … beehive hairdo and mini skirts. Gee. I was the same age that my granddaughter is now … yikes.

Hey Brooklyn … how are you?

- – -

Back to Coney Island – Summer’s Back!

Astroland in a summer night, 2005

Scared and screaming, laughing and screaming some more … Sometimes hot and sweaty, dirty and grubby, or clean and shining with the gleaming water and soft sand … Coney Island was a great place to be alive. You got to be a kid, no matter what your real age!

Time to ride and scream and eat hot dogs at Nathan’s and remember how it was while enjoying what it is. Also, the beach is a beautiful as ever and the boardwalk is still unbeatable. First, how it used to be!

Us ... Coney Island ... 2007 or thereabouts.

1952 … I was five, but didn’t get there for three more years.

They still had most (not all) of these same rides running all the way through the early 1960s, but age and attrition started to eliminate pieces after that. I DID get to ride all of these!

These were the years I remember best from being a kid with other kids. Without the annoying background music, accompanied entirely by the joyfully terrified screams of kids and adults alike.

Fast forward through the declining years and the closing of Astroland, end of a long era … to 2011 and now, it’s the NEW Luna Park!

It’s back … and Nathan’s is still there, with the best beef fries and hot dogs in the world. And the water is still fine!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Change – Beginning To End

As I live my life here in the country, amidst trees, weeds, rocks and creatures that make their home in the woods surrounding us, I have become attuned to seasonal changes and the things which mark the ending of one and the start of the next.

The end of winter is heralded by the brave crocuses who battle their through the last of winter’s snow and debris.  Each picture in this gallery shows both a start and a finish, parts of the cycle. Embedded in every end is a beginning. Change is eternal.

Living Mom’s Life

The other night, I was poking around the music section of Amazon. Since getting my cute little Kindle Fire HD, I have started to listen to music again. It’s been a while and I wasn’t aware how much I missed it, especially classical music. I often hear the melodies in my head, distant echoes of my younger self. I played the piano for a long time and was a music major in college, completing all the requirements except for 1 credit of chorus, at which point I changed majors. I didn’t want to graduate with a degree in music, already knowing it wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go professionally. I loved music and I was a pretty good pianist, but that’s not a career. It’s a hobby.

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I was particularly good at Bach. The music fit my hands, something which could not be said of  my hands in context of Chopin, Grieg, or Beethoven. My hands are tiny. Child-sized hands on a full-grown body. It’s especially odd because I’m not petite. Short, yes, but not petite. I have big feet, broad shoulders. Solid peasant stock. So what’s with the tiny hands? Don’t say anything. It’s all been said before.

Anyone who tells you the size of hands doesn’t matter to a musician doesn’t play piano. Once you get past kiddy music, you need hands that can span at least a 10th, more if possible. You need full-size grown up hands and a good deal of physical strength. To put it simply, the piano was the wrong instrument for me. I needed an instrument for which the size of my hands would be irrelevant.

I wanted to play the drums.

“Girls don’t play drums,” my mother said.

“Why the hell not?”

“Watch your language.”

“Who says girls don’t play drums? Is there a rule written somewhere?”

I dragged in my high school band teacher into the argument. Still no go. GIRLS, said my mother, don’t play drums. There was nothing for it. I was a girl so no drums. It was a bit strange because my mother usually was a pretty strong feminist and frequently reminded me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t need to be a nurse: I could be a doctor — except I wanted to be a nurse. Had Life not crashed into me when I had just started my MS in Nursing, I would have been, though I wonder if I would have wound up writing anyhow. I wanted to run public health clinics. It was my reformer persona taking charge. Life had other ideas.

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Meanwhile, on the music front, I suggested voice lessons. I had a decent enough voice and I was pretty sure girls were allowed to sing, but Mom always wanted to play the piano. It was too late for her, but her daughter was going to be a pianist. I was living my mom’s dream. It’s a pity her dreams and my hands were so incompatible. I had some talent, but I was studying the wrong instrument. After a great deal of effort, I achieved a high level of mediocrity as a pianist. If I’d been more dedicated, I could have achieved “almost good enough for concert work,” a special Hell exclusively for aspiring but unsuccessful classical musicians.

Getting stuck in your parents’ dreams happens in all kinds of families. It is not exclusive to any ethnic group, class, color, religion or even nationality. Wealthy parents want their kids to do what they weren’t able to do as much as poor parents. We all try to give our kids what we wanted, even when it’s not what they want. It’s almost a reflex.

I needed freedom as a child; even more as a teenager. I was self-disciplined. I merely wanted to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do without being watched all the time. Since that was not going to happen, I became highly successful at sneaking around. I went where I wanted to go, with or without permission and I just didn’t tell my mother. It was one of the important lessons I learned about parenting: You can’t stop a determined kid, so you might as well help him or her do what they want to do safely.

I was never interested in hanging out at the mall or a movie. I snuck off to museums and libraries. My nerdy idea of adventure was a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a world-class museum and if you are ever in New York, it’s worth a day of your time. It isn’t just one museum, either. My favorite part of it is the medieval section, The Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.

“Too dangerous,” said Mom. When I pointed out that she was going on ski trips to Bear Mountain when she was 14, she said she had been more mature than I was. I believe I chipped my first tooth during that conversation. I got to say classic lines like “How will you know I’m responsible until you let me have some responsibility?” and she got to give me the “As long as you live under my roof … ” line. Stalemate. I was going to live my mother’s dreams and be beholden to my mother’s fears.

If I were easily bullied, I’d have done the rest of my mother’s life for her and become a teacher. I have nothing against teaching as a career and believe it’s as important a job as you can do in this world. I simply didn’t want to be one.

My Geekscape

Despite sporadic side trips, deep down I knew I was going to be a writer. I toyed with other things: nursing, music, photography. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of being an author, seeing my name on book jackets, the smell of printer’s ink and the soft crack of the spine when you open a new book. A writer I became and remain, but my mother was always sure I would never be able to earn a living as a writer. I did well, but she never believed it was a “real” career. It was not substantial, like teaching.

It is hard to resist giving in to the pressure and doing what mom or dad always wanted to do because it makes them happy. Pressure to do their thing rather than your own can be very intense yet subtle. In the end, it doesn’t work, unless your dream happens to be the same as theirs. Everyone needs to do what he or she was born to do.

As a parent, it can be tricky to teaze apart the strands of what you want from what your kids want. It can be painful watching them fail and failure is always possible. You have to let them sink or swim on their own. It’s not a choice. Kids grow up to be who they need to be. The best we can offer is support, to help them find and follow their own paths.

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Daily Prompt: My Favorite People, Weird Things and Kismet

How long were we apart? How long. An eternity? Or so it seems. Sometimes it feels like a strange dream I had as it fades in memory and so few people remember the places we lived or the language we spoke.

My home in Jerusalem.

My home in Jerusalem.

From the end of 1978 until August, 1987, I lived in Jerusalem, Israel. It is where I wanted to be and I was there by my own choice. I had wanted travel. I didn’t want to only travel. I wasn’t looking for a long vacation. I wanted to become part of another culture, another world, as different I could manage from the world I knew where I felt I was being swallowed by blandness.

Never did I have great yearnings for fame and fortune, though I wouldn’t have turned either away had they come knocking on my virtual door. But there are those of us who need to not only dream of other places, but experience them directly and apparently, I am one of them. My friends warned me I would suffer from culture shock. “Yes!” I said. I wanted culture shock. I wanted to be smacked in the face by a different lifestyle.

“You’ll be poor.”

My mother stepped in. “Marilyn’s never cared about things very much … she’ll be fine.” I didn’t know she knew that about me.

My friends sang three choruses of “What about me?” and I said “Buy a ticket. Visit.” Only Garry and one other friend … and my ex-husband (yes, we stayed friends until he died in 1993) took me up on the offer.

Garry, now my husband for 22 years (heading to 23) took me to the Four Seasons in New York and told me he’d really miss me and he would write. In all the years since we’ve been married, I’ve never seen him write a letter to anyone,  but he wrote me twice a week, sometimes more, for 9 years. Those letters became a lifeline. I used to call them my fan letters, but when everything seemed to be falling apart around my ears and the life I’d built shattered, there was Garry. No surprise that we hooked up as soon as I got back and were married a few months after my divorce came through. Life take its own time.

And then there was Cherrie, my friend. When I said I was leaving, she said she was too. If I was going to quit Doubleday, she wasn’t going to quit too. We have this parallel life thing going. She wanted Hawaii, wound up in Austin. We completely lost track of each other for all the years I was away.

JerusalemNow, we get to the good parts of the story. When I came back from Israel, I had nothing. A suitcase full of ratty tee shirts … a couple of hundred dollars … and my résumé. It was 1987 and the economy was beginning to move, especially in the Boston area where — coincidentally — Garry lived. Meanwhile, though, I got a job working for Grumman in Bethpage where among other strange and wonderful top-secret and not so secret jobs, I got to work with a bunch of NASA scientists on the design of the satellite catcher. We concluded that an effective satellite catcher had to have no fewer than 3 arms. Ignoring all recommendation, the U.S. government went cheap and made a catcher with 2 arms. It didn’t work. Mainly, as we had said, it wouldn’t catch satellites that were not rotating along a single axis. So, proving why humans have risen to the top of the food chain, our astronauts reached out and grabbed the spinning satellites with their dextrous hands and convenient opposable thumbs and easily caught them. Everything is weightless in space. We didn’t need a machine at all. Oops.

I also discovered we are hunting for anti-matter. Here’s a quoted interchange between Marilyn the Blogger in her incarnation as atomic editor anda  highly place NASA physicist:

Me: “I thought anti-matter was a science fiction thing.”

He: “Oh, no, it’s very real. We want it.”

Me: “And you are sending probes to the ends of the universe to try to collect it?” (Unspoken: “Isn’t that a little bit dangerous? Like, to the world which you might eradicate?”)

He: “Yes. We have several probes seeking it and hopefully they will be able to collect some and bring it back.”

This ranks high in the weird conversations of my lifetime department.

Meanwhile, I had met a couple of people at Grumman and one of them published his own jazz newsletter, telling people what groups were playing where on the Island. He asked me to write some stuff for it. I said “How about an astrology column?” I actually can do astrology, though I don’t anymore for a whole bunch of reasons, but astrology columns are so totally bogus that it’s effectively straight fiction-writing, but people actually believe you (how cool is that?).

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Ed, the guy with the newsletter, left them in pile free in the lobbies of buildings, local delis, and so on. And one day, my friend Cherrie who had returned from Austin and was living with her Mom while I was temporarily abiding in my ex-husband‘s guest room, was walking through the lobby of the building in which she worked and she saw there “The Jazz Ragg” and picked up a couple of copies.

There was a column by Marilyn Tripp. She read it and she said “That has GOT to be Marilyn, whatever her last name is now.” She knew my writing (we had worked together, after all), so she called my ex-husband and it turned out we were living a couple of blocks apart. Yay team. We have never been parted by more than a couple of hundred miles since … and after the Atlantic Ocean, that’s nothing.

By the Blackstone River

As for Garry, we got together, married, bought a house, had our lives fall apart, put our lives back together and now live in the middle of nowhere in an oak woods with many dogs, my son and his family, way more bills than money to pay them, and a legion of aches and pains. In compensation, we also have a really huge television and many computers — 6 on this level and 5 or 6 more downstairs. It’s compensation for destitution.

So although we were apart,Garry and Cherrie and me, we found each other and are busy getting old together. How strange and wonderful to get old with the same people with whom you were first young.

Death of the Dinosaurs: The Asteroid Didn’t Act Alone

See on Scoop.itTraveling Through Time

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There’s never a good time to get clobbered by an asteroid — something the dinosaurs discovered in the worst way possible. It was 65.5 million years ago when an asteroid measuring 6 miles (10 km) across slammed into the earth just off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, blasting out a 110-mile (180 km) crater and sending out a cloud of globe-girdling debris that cooled and darkened the world. That spelled doom for species that had come to like things bright and warm. Before long (in geological terms, at least) the dinos were gone and the mammals arose.

That’s how the story has long been told, and it’s still the most widely accepted theory. Now, however, a study led by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and published in Nature Communications suggests that the asteroid might not have affected all dinosaur species equally. Some, including the well-loved triceratops and duck-billed dinosaurs, might have been on their way out already and were simply hastened to the exit by the asteroid blast. The reason for their weakened state — and the way the investigators discovered it — provides both new insights into the fate of the dinosaurs and new methods with which to study their world.

The asteroid impact — known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction — was always thought to have been an equal-opportunity annihilator, and there was good evidence to support that. Tracking the rise and fall of the dinosaurs was always done simply by counting how many species were around at any given moment in history. The more species there were, the better the overall clade was doing; the fewer there were — particularly after the K-T — the closer to extinction all dinosaurs came. But that method was never entirely reliable, mostly because paleontologists do their digging in so many different places.

“Results can be biased by uneven sampling of the fossil record,” says Steve Brusatte, a graduate student at Columbia University and one of the participants in the new study. “In places where more rock and fossils were formed, like in America’s Great Plains, you’ll find more species.” Similarly, in places that didn’t fossilize remains easily, you’d find far fewer — even if at one time there were just as many animals there.

Hadrosaurs by a lake.

Hadrosaurs by a lake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Natural History team, led by paleontologist Mark Norell, thus decided to take a different approach — looking at the biodiversity within different groups of dinosaurs. If one group — the carnivores, say — was thriving, it ought to be producing more species than groups that were struggling just to hang on. When the investigators looked at things this way — sampling 150 species across seven major groups — they were able to paint a much different and much-less-uniform picture of how all the dinosaurs were faring before the asteroid arrived.

In general, the number of species in the small herbivore group (the ankylosaurs and pachycephalosaurs) was stable or even increasing. The same was true for the carnivores (the tyrannosaurs and coelurosaurs) as well as for the largest herbivores (the sauropods). Things were not so good for the slightly smaller herbivores known as bulk feeders because of the wide range of vegetation they ate (the hadrosaurs and ceratopsids). They appear to have been in decline for a good 12 million years before the K-T wipeout, with their species head count dwindling steadily over that time.

“People often think of the dinosaurs being monolithic,” says Richard Butler of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, who also participated in the study. “We say, ‘The dinosaurs did this, the dinosaurs did that.’ But dinosaurs were hugely diverse. Different groups were probably evolving in different ways and the results of our study show that very clearly.”

So why were the hadrosaurs and ceratopsids having such a hard time? Geography may explain at least some of the problems. The bulk feeders were especially common in North America, a continent that was then bisected by the Western Interior Seaway, a wide and deep body of water that ran from what is now the Arctic Ocean to what is now the Gulf of Mexico. Changes in the depth, width and temperature of the sea might have reduced the food supply or altered the surrounding ecosystem in other ways that made it hard for the hadrosaurs and ceratopsids to survive. The tectonic collisions, which gave rise to what are now the Rockies and the other mountains of the west, might have had a similar effect.

Tyrannosaurus rex, a theropod from the Late Cr...

Tyrannosaurus rex, a theropod from the Late Cretaceous of North America, pencil drawing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever the cause of the two groups’ decline, it’s not certain that their condition was terminal — that they would not have somehow stabilized themselves if the asteroid hadn’t come along and rendered the whole question academic. Indeed, throughout the whole of the Mesozoic Era — from 250 million to 65 million years ago — diversity within dinosaur species was known to fluctuate quite a bit. “Small increases or decreases between two or three time intervals may not be noteworthy within the context of the … history of the [groups],” says Norell.

Of course, the asteroid did come along and did render everything academic. But if all of the dinosaurs left history’s stage at more or less the same time and for more or less the same reason, they now appear to have strutted their hour in ways that were more varied — and in some cases more fraught — than we ever appreciated before.

See on www.time.com

30,000 hits … Go figure.

It seemed appropriate — what with getting all these awards during the last few days — that this is the week I hit another landmark. On November 9th, I passed 20,000 hits and today, exactly 3 weeks later, I hit

30,000

From February 2012, through the end of September, I gathered 10,000 hits. It took me a slightly more than a month to get the next 10,000. On November 9, I was at 20, 783.

At 11:38 pm — right now — I am at 30,044, which is just about 10,000 hits in three crammed weeks.

When there’s a lot of stuff going on, people come looking for more than information. We all want explanations, validation, confirmation that what we believe is right or what we disbelieve is wrong. Those of us who put ourselves out there gain a certain amount of popularity, maybe notoriety or at least a degree of attention in return for fending off a lot of flak for having expressed opinions with which others do not agree. I try to back my opinion with facts, at least as far as I am can establish whatever facts exist. In the end though, facts are slippery as eels, subject to innumerable interpretations. Statistics are easily twisted to support virtually any position. Numbers are neutral, but what we do with them is not.

November 2012 was a newscaster and blogger’s dream. The richness of the available subject matter for a writer was unlimited.  It gave me a lot of room to stretch my writer’s wings, to try writing about things that would normally not fall in my purview.

The dreams of writers and reporters inevitably are built on events that are someone else’s nightmare. Sometime since the advent of electronic media has come to dominate the news industry, news no longer means information about current events … what’s happening. It used to be that news might be good or bad. News was merely “new.” It was the newness that counted, not any predetermined content.

It’s different now. Today, all news is bad news. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the unofficial motto of newsrooms around the nation and probably the globe. Violence and death draws an audience. If a story has a happy ending, it’s likely relegated to feature status or considered “not newsworthy” and thus completely ignored.

Lacking fresh disasters, the next hot ticket in the news biz are scandals, financial crises, sports, weather, and anything happening to a celebrity. These days, we have celebrities who are famous for being famous. They’ve never done anything noteworthy. They don’t act, sing, play an instrument or invent things. They aren’t politicians or scientists. They are nobodies. I hope I am never desperate enough to write about any of them. Since I have pretty much no idea of who is currently famous, I’m unlikely to write about them. Most of the time, guests on talk shows are strangers to me. I can’t tell one from another. Neither can my husband. If you are looking for the latest gossip, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. I have neither information nor opinions on the subject.

Election day 2012I plead guilty to enjoying lively discussion and controversy, though I require civility however much we disagree. I figure we should be able maintain the same level of manners in public disputation that we would demand of a 5-year-old. That has turned out to be an unreasonably high expectation when issues of national importance were under discussion. No kindergarten teacher would allow such appalling behavior from her charges, but we not only tolerate, but actually encourage worse behavior from public figures.

As angry as I have been about policies and issues, I have been far more upset by the bad behavior of public figures, many with advanced degrees slinging mud, calling names, and clearly trying to incite violence. There ought to be limits, there ought to be a level below which we will not sink. Watching “Lincoln” yesterday reminded me how uncivil our public behavior has been over the years. The difference between then and now is the presence of electronic media that allows everyone to immediately see — in real-time — how ill-mannered we really are. It used to be a dirty little secret; now it’s an international embarrassment.

The sheer energy generated by so many major events occurring at the same time helped me gain an audience at a faster rate than I could have done had there not been so many important events occurring. There was Sandy, the giant storm. A storms is inherently uncivil. Storms have an excuse. They have no brain cells, just mighty wind, rain or snow … so a storm has an excuse for mindlessness, but what excuse can there be for people like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck?  Perhaps they too lack brain cells. But more likely, they simply like a conscience and the level of manners required of a pre-schooler.

I get a reasonable number of regular visitors these days. I’m not exactly viral but I have an acceptable following. The number of visitors rises and falls according to some invisible tide over which I have nominal control . When Serendipity’s visitor count first popped up from 70 or 80 on a good day to over a thousand, I figured it was a fluke and would fizzle. As I expected, the visitor count has leveled off, but apparently people who initially dropped by for a particular post continued to return for other things. I am more inclined to trust the new, steadier numbers I get now than the wild up and downs surges of early and mid November.Here, Griffin!

It’s harder to find relevant, exciting content when there are no super exciting events in progress, but I try to stay relevant, try to find interesting subjects. Maybe make a few people laugh or at least smile. I like offering historical background for whatever is going on, the rest of the story we didn’t get in elementary school. Understanding the world is easier if you have the perspective of history. Context counts.

Thanks for reading, thanks for being my friends and making me feel that I’m still a real live part of the living world.  Let’s all hope that this year is going to be a better one than last year. Maybe less full of news, but more full of joy!

It’s that damned wormhole again …

2013 is the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. That’s five zero. Half a century.

After so many years, one might suppose my memories would be fuzzy enough that I could delude myself into believing I had fun in those opening years of the 1960s.

This has come up because a few of the people with whom I apparently attended high school want to have a reunion. Not the entire graduating class of more than 1200 people. This is a smaller sub-group of people who claim to actually know me and want to see me again. They say they remember me and all the neat stuff we did together.

I think they are deranged. Whatever they think they remember, as far as I can tell, didn’t happen. I do not want to go to the party.  I said no when I was contacted by phone, but they keep sending me invitations by email … endless variations of the same thing. Lists of names I don’t recognize. I know I’m not young, but I’m not senile either. Who ARE these people?

I am considering the possibility I slipped through a wormhole and am in an alternate reality, which would explain how come they know me, but I don’t know them. Yeah, that’s probably it.

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I was not a popular high school student. Even amongst the unpopular students, I was unpopular. Fortunately, by the time I had survived junior high, now known as “middle school” but back in those good old days, referred to simply as Hell, I had learned to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and crowded, you could slither through all three years (10th, 11th and 12th grades) and if you kept your head down, no one would know your name. I only got attacked by junior thuglets once (not bad considering what an oddball I was) and participated in group activities only if dragged screaming and kicking, usually because someone needed an accompanist and I played the piano.

A klutzy young thing, I avoided the traditional humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. When I showed up, the swimming coach would say “You again? Just keep out-of-the-way,” and thus I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of our Olympic-sized pool. I think I was on the swimming team, but I didn’t actually ever swim in an event. I was a bench sitter. And, apparently, the only girl in high school who didn’t care if my hair got wet.

So all I had to do was get decent grades, try not fail my math courses, and then I could go to college where I heard I might actually meet people who I’d like and might like me too. It turned out to be true, so surviving high school was probably worth it. But now, like a malevolent spirit,  fellow graduates of Jamaica High School want me to come to their party. They even think I should pay for the privilege.

If I could remember any of them, I might consider it. No, that’s a lie. You’d have to drug me then drag my unconscious carcass there before I regained consciousness.

High school wasn’t a fun time. Not for me. Fifty years later I can’t think of a single reason to revisit an experience I would as soon have skipped in the first place.

And now, a word from our sponsor:

Sandy takes Coney Island amusement zone on rough ride

See on Scoop.itForty Two: Life and Other Important Things

It may not be as bad as the Jersey Shore, but Hurricane Sandy also hit Coney Island’s amusement district pretty hard.

For those who asked what became of various parts of the area, this covers it pretty well.

See on www.nypost.com

 

One morning, eleven years ago

September 11, 2012.

Marriott World Trade Center and Twin Towers

Marriott World Trade Center and Twin Towers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eleven years since two hijacked airplanes were intentionally crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Eleven years and so much has happened, yet I remember the day more clearly than I remember yesterday.

I had gotten back from Israel, a business trip, just a couple of days before. I’d picked up food poisoning while I was away, so I was not at work … too sick to be anywhere but home.

My son was working for GTE which was then a big part of the backbone of the internet. They managed servers for huge international corporations and as he sat at work, he could always see a panel of lights, each light representing a server connection to a client. Many clients were located in New York, and a large number of the New York clients were headquartered at the World Trade Center.

I was living in New York when the original towers were built. We were proud of those towers. We didn’t build them with our own hands, but they symbolized the preeminence of New York, the greatest city on Earth, or at least New Yorkers thought so.

By 2001, I’d lived a few more places. I was now settled in New England, working for a company based in a suburb just outside Boston. Garry and I had moved to Uxbridge the year before. There are a lot of former New Yorkers in Boston … and vice versa. There has always been a lot of population exchange between the two cities, rivals in so many things, yet also alike in many ways too.

Most of my family still lived in New York, not in the city but in nearby suburbs. I was raised in the city and still had (still have) a not-so-secret affection for my home town. It was a great place to grow up. How much better can it get when your local museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art and your local ballet is Balanchine‘s New York City Ballet? Or for that matter, there’s the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Any place you live after that, it’s never going to be better. Maybe good, maybe even as good … but not better. Not ever better.

Around eight in the morning of September 11th, my son called and said “Turn on the TV.”

I asked which channel and he said, “Any channel,” and I turned it on. I stayed on the phone for a while, but he had to hang up because everyone was calling someone.

My daughter-in-law was up in the room with me, in the bedroom, sorting through some clothing … and I said, sort of stunned, “Oh my God, the World Trade Center is on fire!” and we watched. We heard an airplane had crashed into the tower not long before. No one knew if it was an accident. Most people assumed it was an accident and then, we watched, and another airplane hit the second tower.

We just watched, now silent. More and more information was coming in and then, there was a cloud of dust and a tower was gone.

“It’s gone. The tower fell down,” I said because I couldn’t think, because it was impossible. Absurd. And then, the other tower was gone. Just dust. A huge cloud of dust and an empty horizon. The towers were gone. The towers were gone, they had fallen down.

I remembered, abruptly, that my boss was scheduled to fly to the west coast that morning and I called. It turned out Herb had been scheduled to be on Flight 175, but at the last-minute, changed his reservation to the following day. No reason, he just decided that this was not a good day to fly. God whispered in his ear that morning.

A lot more information would come in that day and in days, weeks, months, and years that followed, but that morning, it was strange, unearthly.

It was one of the days that changes the course of history and our lives.

My son said that when the towers went down, most of the lights on the big board, those lights that represented clients, companies, businesses full of people living lives and working in the World Trade Center suddenly went black.

Where there had been light, it was now dark, a dark board where the lights had connected life to life would never light up again. It signaled the end of GTE and my son’s career, the end of the company for which I worked and for many other companies.

It was the end of thousands of human lives, the collapse of the lives of relatives, friends, and first responders. Many died and of those that lived on, many lives were warped out of shape, deformed and never made right.

Sometimes, the end of something is the beginning of something better, but 9/11 was the end of trust and the beginning of a vast escalation of suspicion, war, hate, violence and fear. Time will heal. It always does … eventually … but not yet, not even close.

I hope life will be good again and soon, while I’m still here to see it. Because this world so full of ugliness is not a world I want to leave to my descendants.

Neighborhoods

96-Holliswood1954People are surprised when I tell them that this town with its oak woods, huge plots of land, picket fences and farms reminds me of the neighborhood in which I grew up. I was raised in the middle of Queens, one of five boroughs that make up the city of New York.

My neighborhood was an anomaly. The city had grown up around us leaving us in a tiny rural enclave within easy walking distance of the subway.

My childhood home was more than a hundred years old or at least its foundation was. It had been changed by each family that lived in it. I’m sure the original builder would never have recognized it. It began life as a four room bungalow. Subsequent owners added to it, seemingly at random. By the time our family moved into it in 1950, it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd little rooms.

Two staircases went to the second floor, both of which ended on the same landing. Eighteen doorways on the first floor meant that there was not a single unbroken wall in any room. The living room was cavernous and dark. Amongst the many unfathomable additions to the house was the living room’s huge field stone fireplace that lacked a chimney. No mere faux ornament, the fireplace was a massive construction that completely dominated the room to no real purpose.

Despite the strange interior, the setting was stunning. Beautifully situated on more than two acres, it stood at top of a hill, enfolded by mature white oaks. They were the last remaining mature white oaks in New York state, the rest having been cut down to make masts for tall ships.

Because of their rarity, the city of New York cared for the trees free for as long as we lived there. My mother was passionate about trees, which is why she’d wanted the house. She became a fierce protector of her trees, never letting anyone as much as trim a branch from one of her precious oaks.

All the land belonging to the house lay either in front of it or off to the side. There was no back yard except for maybe a 15 foot sliver separating the house from the back property line. After that, the land there dropped abruptly downward … so sharply that it was useless for any purpose.

The house had been placed at the highest point of land on the property, set back about 250 feet from the road. The enormous trees towered over it. Summertime, when the trees were in full leaf, the house was invisible from the street. In all seasons, it was a long climb from the street to one of the house’s many doors.

Our oak trees loomed. No sunlight penetrated their canopy. The house stayed comfortable through most of the summer because of the perpetual shade, but was bitterly cold in winter.

My mother was stingy about heat. The furnace, an old converted coal burner, was nearly as old as the foundation and very inefficient. With huge amounts of hissing and groaning, it delivered some heat to the first floor of the house and almost none to the bedrooms on the second floor. I was cold from fall through spring, no matter how many blankets were piled on my bed. Some mornings, a thin skin of ice formed on the glass of water on my night table.

Being such a small, thin child, I was cold even when I was fully dressed. All complaints drew the same unsympathetic response from my mother.

“Put on another sweater,” she said. End of discussion.

Pointing out that there was a practical limit to the number of sweaters that I could actually wear was pointless. Once my mother had her mind made up, she was not going to be confused by facts.

The shadows of oak trees were always present, summer and winter. They were magnificent, but also ominous. Many branches of those oaks were bigger than the largest tree on our land in Mumford. As a child, I would watch those branches sway during storms and wonder when one of them would crash through the roof and crush me like a bug.

I was just past my fourth birthday when we moved into the house in Queens. I was considered a precocious child, which meant, I suppose, that I knew a lot of big words and could talk in full sentences. I’d had no contact with children my age and was a complete social retard.

When winter turned to spring and the weather warmed up, I was told to go out and play and so discovered that there were other little girls in the world. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was supposed to do about that. I might as well have been commissioned to make peace with the Martians as make friends with other kids.

First contact took place on the sidewalk in front of my house. There we stood, three girls, all not yet five years old, staring at one another. We stood on one foot, then the other, there on the sidewalk until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism.

“I live up there,” I said, and I pointed at my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I felt left out, as if the two of them formed a private club into which I already knew I wouldn’t be invited. And they were both pretty. I felt lumpy and awkward, standing there on the sidewalk.

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with a sweet, smooth face. Her hair was absolutely straight. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild and curly, always full of knots.

“I live down the street.” She gestured in the general direction. “There,” she pointed. The house was a barn red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, pink-cheeked, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial across. There were bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long, red brick staircase leading uphill to the house. I’d never seen either geraniums or vase-shaped masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other, old friends, the in-crowd. I the stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

“I’ve got a big brother,” I announced.

They were not impressed and I found myself at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. And they turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again because at four years old, I hadn’t the experience to know that our future as friends was a virtual inevitability given the proximity of our homes.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block.

To be continued …

From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong

Copyright 2007

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Woodcleft Canal

Freeport, Long Island. It’s in Nassau Country, the closest county on Long Island to New York city. I grew up in the city … in Queens, which is a borough of New York. Each of New York’s boroughs has its own character and in many ways, is a city in its own right. Certainly people who grow up in Brooklyn identify themselves as Brooklyn-ites and if you come from the Queens, Staten Island, or the Bronx, you will always identify that as your “home ground” rather than just “New York.”

Colorized postcard of Woodcleft canal with houses visible on the right side of the photo. Postmark: “” Merrick, N.Y, September 3, 1907″ Addressee and Address: “M.A. Hansen, 791 59th Street, Brooklyn” Message [on front]: “” Sept. 1, 07. Have a good time. May” – From the Freeport Historical Society Postcard Collection

Between the picture postcard and our visit lay almost exactly a century.

People from Manhattan have a strong sense of superiority because they come from The City. For reasons that are hard to explain, but perfectly obvious to anyone who has lived there or even visited for any length of time, Manhattan is the heart of New York in ways that cannot be simply explained. It’s not just because it’s the center of business. In fact, that really has little to do with it. It just is what it is. Even when I was a kid growing up in Queens, when we said we were going “into the city,” we  meant Manhattan. If we were going anywhere else in the five boroughs, we said we were going to Brooklyn or the Bronx or some specific neighborhood … but the city was Manhattan and no doubt still is.

I moved to Long Island in 1963 when I was 16 and had just started college. I never moved back to the city, though for many years, we went there for shows, museums, all the things available in a city and not in suburbs or other outlying areas. And of course, work.

A few years of my childhood, before I was 5 and moved to Holliswood, we lived in an apartment house — really, a tenement — on Rose Street in Freeport, near Woodcleft Canal.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area near the canal was decrepit. Living “near the docks” was not a good thing, certainly nothing to brag about. My family was going through hard times and it was the best we could afford.

My mother hated it. It was the middle of nowhere and she didn’t drive. For her, born in Manhattan, a lifelong resident of New York, what was Freeport? Long Island? That was farm country where you went to buy vegetables at farm stands. My mother, an urbanite to her core, understood poverty but being poor in the country was her version of Hell.

My memories are limited but I see in my mind a big white stucco building with no architectural features. A large white box that didn’t fit into the neighborhood. It stuck out so that even by the less stringent standards of 60 years ago, it was an eyesore. It hasn’t lost that quality. It is still an ugly building, but I expect the rent is higher.

We drove down Rose Street to look at it. I was curious if I would recognize it, but I did. Instantly. I think early memories are deeply embedded in our psyches. Then, having satisfied curiosity, we found out way to the canal.

Reflections in the canal.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the canal lined with marinas and yachts. The road along the canal has the usual expensive restaurants featuring faux nautical decor. It was a trifle weird.

There were many huge Victorian houses in Freeport back in the 1970s that you could buy for almost nothing. A great deal if you had a lot of money with which to fix one of them up. Those grand old houses … there are still a few around there and here too, but restoring one is big bucks and maintaining them, even if you can afford the initial restoration, out of the range of most people. I’m glad that some have survived. They are magnificent, though even thinking about the cost of heating one is frightening.

Everything changes.

You can’t go back in time except in your memory. Sometimes, if you treasure the way it was, how you remember it, it’s better not to revisit places. Keep your memories intact because then, the places you remember will always be the way they were.