ARE ANTI-MASKERS NARCISSISTS? — by ELLIN CURLEY

We all know by now that Trump is a malignant narcissist. He’s an anti-masker. He’s anti social-distancing. He downplays the danger and severity of Coronavirus even though he has had it himself. He makes fun of people who are responsible and follow “the guidelines” to protect themselves and others against the virus.

I never thought narcissism could predispose people to be risk death in a pandemic. To become “anti-maskers” and COVID-19 rule breakers too. Several recent studies concluded that narcissistic behavior has likely contributed to noncompliance with public health standards during this pandemic. You can see narcissistic tendencies in people who feel that they are special and believe sensible rules don’t apply to them. Narcissism underlies and heightens their lack of caring about others. These are people who focus on their “rights” or their “inconveniences” rather than recognizing that obeying these rules helps other folks as well as the community as a whole.

According to psychologists, narcissists characteristically lack empathy. They feel grandiose and entitled. They do what they want, so if what they want is contrary to what the rules allow, they ignore the rules. These antisocial traits predispose large swaths of the American citizens to refuse to adhere to safety health measures –like mask-wearing, social-distancing and avoiding large groups. All of which have been put in place to limit the spread of the novel Coronavirus.

Rhetoric from all of the COVID rule-breakers highlight stunning examples of lack of empathy along with feelings of entitlement. Statements like “I don’t have to” and “You have no right to tell me what to do,” even if it’s for the common good, are typical. The rage, oppositionality, and childlike petulance are characteristic of narcissists. Somehow, you’d think actual life-and-death danger might make even narcissists stop and think about the potential effects of their behavior, but apparently not.

The U.S. is known to have higher levels of narcissistic personalities than other western democracies and no one knows why. Maybe it’s the nature of the people who came here from other places? No one is surprised that these personality issues have kept America from effectively minimizing the spread of the Coronavirus. We have actually been among the worst countries in controlling the virus and have among the highest rates of both infections and deaths — and since England is right in there with us, maybe that’s the common factor?

Perhaps the take-away from our dismal handling of this worldwide crisis is if we want to accomplish anything nationally in our future, we need to address the narcissism of a substantial block of our population.

To move forward, we need cooperation from the majority of our citizens, To make meaningful inroads into some of the attitudinal and other social issues we face — such as racism, sexism and homophobia — we’ll never eliminate these problems when more than a third of the country are reluctant to address their prejudices and refuse to be told what to think or do.

Unless most people are willing to accept majority-held values based on science, statistics, research, and facts, we’ll continue to butt our heads against these self-built walls for generations to come. It’s not a pretty picture.

THINGS THAT GO BUMP, THE EPILOGUE – By ELLIN CURLEY

I recently wrote a blog called “Things That Go Bump In The Night”, documenting our search for an invisible rodent making noises and leaving acorns in and around our bedroom.

Last night we saw him! He ran across the kitchen and I brought my husband, Tom in to help me look for him, to no avail. Then he suddenly ran across the family room while we were watching TV. When Tom, got up to look for him again, the little guy ran through the hallway and back into the kitchen. He was smaller than a squirrel but had a short, bushy tail. Poor guy must have been terrified. Was this the same guy who made noises all through the night a few weeks ago? We think it was.

We went to sleep and were awakened twice when the dogs went ballistic and raced from the bedroom into the hallway. We didn’t even bother to get up to check out whatever they might have heard. I fed the dogs at 6:00 AM without incident. When Tom got up, he went downstairs and found our nocturnal visitor dead at the bottom of the stairs. We had hoped to get him out of the house unscathed, but it looks like our hunting dog got to him before we could rescue him and release him into the wild.

RIP little guy!

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I live in the woods so I’m no stranger to the little woodland creatures I share real estate with. So when I entered my bedroom the other night, I wasn’t totally surprised to see that something was off. A vase that is usually on a lamp table in the corner, was now on the floor. And next to it were two, fresh, green acorns. Something, or someone, was clearly afoot.

We’ve found squirrels scampering around other parts of the house before. It presents a problem because we don’t want to hurt the cute little guys but we definitely want them out of the house. Once my husband chased a baby squirrel out of our powder room and straight out the front door. Another time he caught one hiding in the fireplace in a large Tupperware container and deposited him outside, away from the house.

So we assumed we were looking for another squirrel. We searched the bedroom and hallway as well as the second floor laundry room. We found nothing. So we went to sleep.

Around 2:30 AM, we were startled awake by the two dogs leaping off the bed and charging down the hallway, shrieking at top volume. The dogs were in an unusual frenzy and we were on immediate squirrel alert. We turned on the lights and searched the whole second floor but again, found nothing out of the ordinary. So we got back into bed.

Remy

A few minutes later, we clearly heard scratching and scurrying and the dogs went crazy again. We got up and went through the squirrel search routine yet again to find the source of the animal noises we had heard. Nothing. By the third time this happened, we decided to stay in bed and leave the police work to the dogs. This went on for a solid hour. Just as we would start drifting off to sleep, we’d hear scratching and/or stereo dog hysteria in our ears.

Lexi

I wish I had a satisfying ending for this story. But the next night, and every night since then, have been quiet, so maybe the dogs scared our nocturnal guest away and he’ll find another house in which to store acorns. I hope so, because I’m not looking forward to another episode of nighttime drama!

Our two dogs in a quiet moment together.

ALCOHOL ABUSE AND PRIVILEGE – ELLIN CURLEY

Since Brett Kavanagh, the Supreme Court nominee, now Justice, has been in the news, so have discussions about excessive drinking among teenagers. Apparently, there are studies that show that rich, privileged teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol. An article in the Washington Post on September 28, by Suniya S. Luthar, is subtitled “Affluence is a risk factor for dangerous behavior.”

Brett Kavanagh

Psychological research seems to support the premise that excessive drinking is more common with affluent teens, like Brett Kavanagh, who went to an élite boarding school in the 1980’s. In fact, students in high-achieving, élite schools are at higher risk for drug abuse, anxiety, and depression as well as casual sexual activity. Substance abuse in high school is not an isolated phenomenon. It is linked to serious drug and alcohol abuse in later life. This is clearly not only a teenage problem.

The studies show that the key risk factor for these wealthy kids is not money. It’s the extreme pressure they feel to succeed, to be the best and to live up to very high standards of accomplishment. This extreme pressure to excel produces high levels of stress and anxiety. Another factor in this toxic situation is the attitude of the parents. The parents seem to be more lenient when it comes to transgressions by their kids vis-à-vis drugs and alcohol. They are willing to pay for high-priced lawyers to get their kids out of any legal trouble. However, these same parents would come down hard on their kids if they indulged in behavior such as truancy, academic slacking or inappropriate social behavior to adults.

The article warns that “When adults are sanguine about drunkenness and associated reprehensible behaviors among kids, there are potentially serious consequences for … an entire generation of young people as they form their own values about what is decent, what is excusable and what will simply not be tolerated despite the power and prestige of their parents.”

I don’t believe that all of this is inevitable. But I am biased. I grew up affluent in New York City and went to a high achievement oriented high school in the 1960’s. My school was not residential so we had a different culture and social matrix than a residential boarding school. Dorm life can be a strong influence on kids. I succumbed to the academic pressure and suffered from both anxiety and depression. But neither I, nor anyone else in my class of 120, drank heavily or regularly. (Drugs were not yet readily available so they were not an issue.)

Unreal dormitory life

My school was 95% Jewish, and at the time, the stereotype of Jews not drinking much was basically true. My parents never drank. Not even wine at dinner. They only served alcohol at dinner parties. So my experience may have been atypical. The fact remains that teenagers under pressure don’t inevitably turn to alcohol or drugs. I have a friend whose son now goes to a prestigious, rigorously academic, coed, residential prep school in Connecticut. There is plenty of tolerance and support for homosexuality, gender fluidity, and gender switching. But not for blackout drinking or drug abuse.

The students (at least in my friend’s experience) are serious students into healthy living. His friends are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and racial and there are many kids from underprivileged backgrounds. This melting pot may explain the straight, clean lifestyles. It’s not all rich, white males, like at Brett Kavanaugh’s single-sex school. The peer pressure to drink excessively and misbehave may have partially been a cultural phenomenon, but it’s not limited to the wealthy by any means. We need to get parents to be vigilant about their children’s drinking and drug habits while they are in high school, public or private. If we can’t reach the kids directly, maybe we can reach the parents who tolerate and finance their children’s excesses.

DYSFUNCTIONAL PARENTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve recently read two interesting memoirs about mind bogglingly horrific parents who were both malignant narcissists and bat shit crazy. Despite horrible, abusive behavior, the two children who wrote their memoirs spent a good part of their adult lives trying to win the approval and/or affection of these abusive parents. I’ve always known how important parents are in shaping their children’s psyches and self images. But these books described such extreme cases that I was somehow still surprised that even when the authors ‘saw their parents for who they were’, they were still not able to fully break free.

The books are “Educated”, by Tara Westover and “Motherland”, by Elissa Altman. In “Motherland”, Altman describes her mother as a pathologically vain, shallow, self absorbed and impulsive sociopath who sees her daughter as a reflection or extension of herself, but also as a servant at the same time. She acts like an actual spoiled baby most of the time and regularly creates scenes to get what she wants. She constantly tries to remake her daughter in her own image and withholds love and approval unless her daughter is doing her bidding.

In “Educated”, the psychopathology is off the charts. The father is a totally paranoid prepper who is extremely anti-government and anti-medicine. He won’t let his kids near a school or a doctor and his wife is like a cultist believer in his insane belief systems. The father is brutal and withholding and one of the brothers is physically as well as emotionally abusive to the author. He regularly beats her to keep her from becoming a ‘whore’, which could mean showing your ankles or being seen alone with a boy. The father protects the son and takes his side against the sister.

 

Reading these books made my skin crawl. Both authors managed to make lives outside of their parents’ orbits as adults. Yet they still felt the need to stay involved with their abusers and continue to try to get some form of approval. They also continued to have self esteem issues, even after therapy.

My mother was a narcissist, though not nearly as epic as the protagonists in these books. My first few years in therapy in my late twenties, I refused to even discuss my mother because I firmly believed she was perfect, as was our relationship. It wasn’t until my early fifties, at the end of her life, that I truly grasped the untoward and warped influence she had had in shaping me to her image. It’s taken me a long time to get over my anger at her long-term control of me and her selfishness in how she exercised that control. I’m still very insecure in many ways and though I’ve come a long way towards strength and independence, I know I’ll never be able to completely get there because of my childhood. So I do get, on a visceral level, the unhealthy connection these authors felt with their dysfunctional parents. We can overcome a lot with the psychiatric tools at our disposal today. But I don’t believe we can ever totally overcome the consistent damage that parents can do in our early years.

Which brings me to one of my pet ‘soap boxes’. I believe that everyone should have to learn something about child development and parenting covering at least the first three or four formative years.of life. This course could be part of a Life Skills class in high school that also teaches budgeting and checkbook management, job interviewing, basic cooking among other things.

The childcare portion should cover the basics of how children’s intelligence and personalities develop, what they understand, can do and can’t do at every age and what a child needs from a parent at each developmental stage. I understand that truly sick people won’t be able to absorb or act on much of this. But it could make a difference for the well-meaning majority who want to be decent parents but may just not know how.

 

There’s another book that’s been recommended to me about yet another set of colorful and dysfunctional parents. It sounds interesting but I’m not sure I can handle it now. I think I’ve had enough dystopian parenting for a while!

CAPPUCCINOS CAME TO TOWN By ELLIN CURLEY

I live in Easton, Connecticut, a small town of about 8,000 people. We are proud of our rural, suburban character and our many acres of protected fields and woods. Many of us cling to our strict residential only zoning laws because we want to preserve the beauty and character of our town. There is no main street or any street at all for that matter. But there are several working farms in town. There are also four farm stands that have expanded into larger, more diverse stores. In addition, we have an old inn that is now just a breakfast and lunch restaurant. We have also had two general stores since the 1920’s or 1930’s. Recently, these two stores have modernized. One, The Easton Village Store, became a deli that also sells pizza and some essential grocery items.

The other just reopened after a major transformation and is now my favorite place in town. It’s called Greiser’s after the two generations of store owners. I remember Greiser Sr. from my childhood. The Post Office was part of the general store and Mr. Greiser was both postmaster and store manager.

Post Office when I was a child with Greiser Sr. behind the bars

I was thrilled as a kid that my grandfather would let me hold the mail when we went to the post office. But I was nervous that I might drop some of it into the pickle barrel that sat between me and the post office boxes.

The store when I was a child

When the son, Richard (my age) took over the store around the 1980’s, he petitioned the town to move the post office into its own room, attached to the store. After much wrangling with the zoning board, he was finally granted a zoning variance and the Post Office declared its independence!

Richard standing next to one of his ‘antiques’

Richard continued to sell a smattering of supermarket items. He also had a small deli counter and sold lots of sandwiches to workmen in the area.But his real passion was ‘antiques’ – old stuff, the kind of items which are closer to junk than heirlooms. He collected lots of old stuff and started a side business. He had interesting things like an old gas pump, old phones and typewriters and a full-size carousel horse I adored!

A sad aside – Richard was divorced and subsequently fell in love with the Post Office manager. They married and were very happy together for many years. Then she died suddenly from a massive heart attack in the post office, right next door to her husband. Richard has recently decided to retire and neither of his two children wanted to take over running the store. So he rented the front rooms of the store and kept the back room for his antiques.

The woman he rented to, Adriane, decided to totally reinvent the space. She turned it into a ‘gourmet’ country store and coffee shop. It also sells miscellaneous items like candles and soaps, blankets and aprons and trendy teas. It has a distinctly upscale country vibe.

The décor is warm, comfortable and rustic. There are places to sit down to enjoy your coffee, both inside and out, in an armchair or at a table. And there is still friendly conversation, with Adrianne and with other customers. The experience is still small-town intimate.

But the food is high-end city. The refrigerator section houses vitamin waters, fancy cheeses, cultured butter, frozen pasta and packed, marinated vegetables. The teas and coffees served are in the cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, matcha and chai latte vein.

The baked goods are delicious croissants – almond for sweet and bacon and egg, ham and cheese and spinach and ricotta for savory. The cakes and muffins are flavors like orange spice, morning-glory, and almond poppy-seed. The ‘sandwiches’ are paninis, like Brie and fig preserves on whole grain, locally baked bread.

The funny thing is that The Easton Village Store and Greiser’s are no more than two miles apart. But they are in and represent, two totally different demographics. They are worlds apart.

The Village Store is in the one-acre zoned part of town, which is more suburban and middle class. It’s food tastes run more toward the deli and salad counter at the local supermarket. Simple and traditional. Greiser’s is in the three-acre zoning area and is more rural and upper middle class. Food tastes here run more high-end urban. More Whole Foods than Shoprite.

Adriane behind the counter

I’m thrilled with the new Greiser’s. I love the vibe and the food. I’ll be even more excited when their chef (yes, they have a real chef) starts making cooked meals for dinner take-out.

I never thought I would be able to sit in a comfy chair and enjoy a cappuccino or latte just one mile from my home! (I tried making them at home but without a foam machine, it doesn’t really work).

Comfy chairs at the front window

So one small part of my town is slowly inching its way into a more urban, 2018 food culture. Easton now has a place to go with atmosphere, personality, and charm as well as good food and good conversation. Now I can have a touch of urbanity in my otherwise rural life.

Three Cheers!

FAMILY TOLL OF BIPOLAR DISORDER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I never paid much attention to the Kardashian family and I certainly never thought I had anything in common with them. But now I suddenly have a connection with Kim Kardashian – we have both experienced the chaos of life with a bipolar spouse. I know this because recently Kim’s husband, Kanye West, publicly announced that he is running for president and gave several off the walls, extremely manic rants on TV. Kim later publicly apologized for her husband and asked for understanding because he was off his medications and suffering from a severe manic episode.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West

Boy, could I relate to that! Most discussions about mental illness focus on promoting compassion and support for the person suffering from the mental illness. Fortunately, the stigma that used to exist around mental illness has diminished as we now understand the physiological basis of mental disorders and put them in the same category as other physiological ailments. We also understand that it isn’t the patient’s ‘fault’ and they can’t just ‘will themselves’ back to mental health.

Less has been written about the incredible strain and hardship suffered by the families of mentally ill patients. In my case, my ex was bipolar (or Manic Depressive as it is also called). He was more manic than depressed so most of my experience is with the manic phase rather than the depressive phase of this disorder.

Initially, many families go through a period when there is erratic, irrational, often volatile behavior but no diagnosis. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, this period with my ex lasted thirteen years because knowledge about Bipolar Disorder was in the dark ages then compared to what we know today. I insisted we go to a marriage counselor and she tried to analyze what I must be doing to provoke the unpredictable rages and paranoid fits my ex would have. I had a sense that his behavior was dangerous, but I had to go along with the idea that every marriage is a 50-50 proposition and therefore that  I had to be a big part of the problem.

One night my ex came home and went into an angry tirade about what a selfish, uncaring, inconsiderate wife I was because there were dishes in the sink when he came home from work, after I had fed my two kids. He threw a pot at me in front of the kids. The next night, the kids and I made sure that the dishes were done and the sink was clean when he came home. But my ex still went into an abusive rage, this time because the basement was cluttered. We couldn’t win.

The manic phase of Bipolar Disorder can manifest itself in many different types of behavior .This complicates diagnosis. Mania can show as paranoia, ‘irritability’, volatility, and irrationality. Extreme rages, way out of proportion to the alleged provocation, are often accompanied by verbal and/or physical abuse, the physical aspect applying to property as well as people. Mania can also be periods of unrealistic grandiosity, crazy schemes, uncontrollable spending of money or compulsive traveling. We once took thirteen trips in twelve months, many with the kids and many without, and many for just a few days each. It was very disruptive, as was the wanton spending.

The unpredictability of the manic phase was one of the worst features, especially for the kids who need consistency, security and routine. The kids and I would try to talk the their father before he came home from work so we could gauge what ‘mood’ he was in and figure out what to expect when he came through the door.

Family events and holidays are particularly fraught for families with mentally ill members. Our family stories revolve around which kind of ‘scene’ Dad created at which holiday and why and when Dad stormed out of which family gathering. He once left me and the kids stranded at my sister-in-law’s house in New Jersey when he impulsively drove the car to the train station so he could go back to NYC. My sister-in-law had to leave the festivities and drive with my son to the train station to pick up the car so the kids and I could drive ourselves home.

We were greatly relieved when my ex was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 1987. But the relief was short lived because, unfortunately, a common symptom of the disorder is a denial that you have it at all. My ex, as with many others, refused to believe he needed medication, though the Lithium he was prescribed actually worked very well and kept him significantly more level and stable and eliminated his manic phases. Also like other Manic Depressives, my ex refused to stay on his meds for more than a year or so at a time. He’d stop the medication without telling anyone, even his therapist, and he would gradually devolve into worse, more extreme and more and more frequent manic episodes until he was manic basically all the time. That’s when he would hit rock bottom and often had to leave the house because he was so out of control and destructive. Then we had to wait six weeks for the Lithium to kick in once he finally agreed to start taking it again. This is the roller coaster of life with Bipolar Disorder.

I understand exactly what Kim Kardashian is going through. She’s hoping to get Kanye back on his meds but knows in her heart that he won’t stay on it for long. How many times is she willing to go through this crazy cycle? I waited 25 years, until my kids were 14 and 19 before I decided that I had had enough. Knowing what I know now, I would not have subjected my kids to the irrationality, tension and chaos that marked their childhoods. But I was also traumatized and terrorized by the ups and downs of our lives as well, which limited my ability to be strong and confident and take charge of the situation. I was also financially dependent since I had given up my career when my first child was born, but that’s a whole other story.

So my advice to Kim Kardashian is: Get out now while your kids are still young and too much damage hasn’t already been done to them. You have the money to leave and continue to live your upscale lifestyle without the drama and trauma of Kanye’s mental illness in your everyday lives.

LIFE AS AN EXTROVERTED INTROVERT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I learned a new phrase recently, ‘extroverted introvert.’ I’d never heard it before but I instantly recognized that it applied to me and even explained some things about myself that had always puzzled me.

I have extrovert qualities but at heart I always felt like an introvert – so I could never figure out where I fit  on the spectrum. I would often be disappointed in myself when I didn’t feel as outgoing and social as I thought I should. I would beat myself up when I craved down time before and after bursts of socializing.

But that’s apparently natural for extroverted introverts. In fact, extroverted introverts are defined by their periods of sociability coupled with essential periods alone to decompress and recharge. This defines me to a tee.

Some people at our marina can sit on the dock and chat for hours. But after a while, I have to excuse myself and spend some time reading or writing. Extended socializing can be exhausting for me and often when I reach my saturation point, I mentally check out. I used to be upset with myself when this happened and I would worry about whether other people saw me as unfriendly. But now I can just relax and enjoy the amount of chit chat that is comfortable for me.

Another characteristic of extroverted introverts is that we crave deeper connections, with real substance. We don’t do well with much small talk. This means we are happier with a few close, meaningful friendships rather than many superficial ones. We feel rejuvenated and fulfilled when we have rich conversations and feel an emotional bond with other people.

I always felt bad that I had so little tolerance for idle chatter, but now I understand that since it gives me so little gratification, I should forgive myself for wanting to avoid it as much as possible.

We extroverted introverts are therefore better in small groups rather than large crowds and we actually prefer one on one conversations. I’ve always thought of myself as basically shy and insecure, though you would not think that to meet me, and in a crowd, I’m a wallflower. I tend to listen and observe more than talk. I hang out near the food or near the person I came in with and I’m wary about approaching people and starting a conversation. I’m often the one who offers to help the hostess set up or clean up to get away from the group setting.

But once someone is introduced to me, I open up and blossom and can form friendships with people very quickly. Also, if I sense a connection with someone, I have no problem asking a person I’ve just met for their contact information and inviting them to meet for coffee. I’ve come to realize that this is not the norm and that many people are reluctant to ask a stranger to hang out. That surprised me because I’m usually not that confident. But I think that my desire for deeper connections with others supersedes my shyness and anxiety.

The flip side of extroverted introverts’ need to connect is the fact that we are naturally empathetic and make us great listeners, a great shoulder to cry on and someone our true friends come to for comfort and advice. I pride myself in being that ‘sounding board’ to many friends and to both my children. I’m told that I am truly non-judgmental and therefore make people feel comfortable opening up to me. I’m thrilled about this because it’s something I’ve always striven to be.

My grandmother was fiercely judgmental and my mother always stressed to me how important it is NOT to be that way. My Mom turned out to be very judgmental too, though much more subtly. But somehow I achieved my goal of accepting people as they are and acknowledging that other people have different standards and values than me and that neither of us are inherently better than the other.

One of my best friends complimented me by telling me that I am one of the least negative and least judgmental people she knows and how much she appreciates that about me.

I don’t think that anything will change now that I know I’m an extroverted introvert. But it’s comforting to know that while I don’t neatly fit into the larger division of humanity between extroverts and introverts, there is a subset that fits me pretty well.

There are lots of other people who straddle personality modalities like I do. So I realize that I will never be the life of the party, but I am the person my friends will confide in after the party. And that’s fine with me.

TORNADO WARNINGS By ELLIN CURLEY

I live in southern Connecticut, an area usually immune from extreme weather events. We get an occasional hurricane, usually the tail end as a storm meanders up the Atlantic coast. Occasionally, it’s a serious one — like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — and it does real damage, but these have always been rare. We used to lose power a few times a year. Usually, it was just for a few hours. Our typical four-season weather does not cause flooding, droughts, mudslides, earthquakes, or tornados.

Tornado damage in Rutherford County, Tennessee

Recently though, we got a blaring tornado warning on our phones, telling us to head for the basement for the next half-hour. In shock, we headed downstairs with our dogs. This is scary stuff! I can’t believe that people stay in areas that are frequently battered by weather disasters. They lose their homes in many different natural disasters, yet they rebuild, on the same spot, again and again. Don’t they realize that the Universe is sending a message and that message is “MOVE!” We weren’t hit by the tornado, just a bad storm, but rumor has it two neighboring towns did get a small tornado. They are very rare here.

Tornado touches down in Mansfield, Connecticut

I’m not brave. You wipe my house out once and I will get the message. I’m heading for safer terrain. We’re such wusses. After a hurricane or two with week long power outages, we put in a full-house generator. I’m not a “roughing it” kind of gal. The generator has earned its keep several times over.

I also don’t like camping or rustic cabins. One of my worst memories is a weekend family summer camp to which I went when my kids were young. We slept in a bare log cabin with bunk beds, a table, and a single light bulb. The communal bathroom was a long trek through the woods which was a root-filled obstacle course. Stumbling through the woods in the middle of the night with my eight-year-old daughter in tow was my definition of torture. I never forgave my ex -husband for insisting we try this “adventure” on Lake George.

Basically, I’m a spoiled city girl having lived there in Manhattan for my first 40-years. By now, I’ve lived in the suburban woods now for 30-years but it’s a civilized suburban woods.

In the city of New York, Nature rarely impinges on life. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a big exception to that. Blizzards regularly shut the city down, but all it means is you just can’t go anywhere. You’re safe though you might be stuck at home for a few days. It’s inconvenient but not life-threatening or even scary. Even Hurricane Sandy didn’t threaten the tall apartment buildings and brownstones in which most people reside in New York. Some streets flooded. A few cars were swept away. Most people were safe and sound. No loss of life, no major property damage, no rebuilding. That’s all foreign to me.

I do know someone who had a beach house in Connecticut which was partly destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, but she knew the risks when she bought beachfront property. She couldn’t afford to rebuild the house and it took her years to sell the damaged house. Not a great investment.

Rural log cabin — not sure ours was even this nice

In my suburban rural area in Connecticut, I know someone whose house was hit by a falling tree during a hurricane. That’s the biggest danger we face in this neighborhood. Falling trees in storms are not uncommon in this heavily-treed area. My family built a house in this town in 1934 and has never had a direct hit. Our road has been blocked several times by fallen trees and the power lines have been pulled down regularly, but never any property damage or personal injury.

Fallen tree on a small road

So we’ve been very lucky in escaping major storm damage over the years. A good part of that luck is because we live in a part of the country that isn’t regularly terrorized by Mother Nature. I think I’ll stay here the rest of my life. Three-months of winter is an acceptable trade-off for safety and peace of mind.

Times and the climate are changing. Let’s hope we manage to get things sorted out before it gets much worse.

WONDER WOMAN AND THE ORVILLE By ELLIN CURLEY

I’m usually not a big fan of space or superhero shows, but I really like the “Star Trek”-ish television show “The Orville” and the movie “Wonder Woman.” I think the reason I like these two particular representatives of their genres is they focus on the human (or not quite human) relationships. The shows are not primarily about the pyrotechnics, battle scenes, superpowers, or twenty-third-century technology, although those are elements of both shows. In these two stories, the characters and their interactions don’t get lost in — or play second fiddle to — special effects.

In the first part of “Wonder Woman”, I became absorbed in Diana’s early life on a mystical island of Amazon women. Then I enjoyed watching her adjust to life in the early 1900s of WWI. I also loved the way her romance with Steve evolved. The movie is, at heart, a beautiful love story.

I’m a big fan of WWI and WWII movies. The major plotline here revolves around a ratty band of anti-heroes — plus Wonder Woman. They are trying to destroy the Germans’ new, extra lethal nerve gas before it can be used on the Allies. You could also almost call the movie a WWI drama with superheroes.

Talking about “Wonder Woman”, I have to mention the star, Gal Gadot. In addition to being breathtakingly gorgeous, she exudes intelligence, strength and compassion. She embodies the quintessential modern female superhero.

If you have any reservations about watching something like “Wonder Woman”, I recommend it as more than just a typical comic book-based movie. “The Orville” has a “Star Trek” vibe. But again, it is much more than your average space travel adventure. Members of the crew have quirky and interesting personalities and there are many fun and intriguing relationships on the ship. For example, the Captain and the First Mate are ex-spouses who haven’t fully worked through their issues. Seth MacFarlane is the writer, producer and also plays the Captain. He is fantastic, as usual.

There’s lots of humor and lightness in the show as well as charming banter between the exes. In addition, there are serious and topical issues that are brought up and discussed in most episodes. There was one that dealt with the conundrum of whether or not to change the sex of a female baby who would face serious discrimination and banishment on an all-male planet.

The plots are good and I find it an engaging and entertaining hour of television. I have ADD and often can’t sit through a one hour show, so that says a lot for me!

Over the years, I’ve become an expert at glazing over during most of the comic or space ship-based shows I watch with my husband. These are two that actually got my attention and kept me engaged. Kudos to the makers of “Wonder Woman” and “The Orville.” You can watch “The Orville” on Hulu and Wonder Woman is, I think, still available on Netflix. But if not there, it’s surely on one streaming channel or another.

SERVICE DOGS FOR VETERANS By ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve always been fascinated by service dogs. I can barely get my dogs to sit, stay and come on command. So the idea that dogs can be trained to do complex tasks for the disabled seems like a miracle to me. The Guide Dog Foundation For The Blind expanded in 2003 to include America’s VetDogs. This organization gives assistance to wounded veterans to help them return to a normal life. America’s VetDogs still shares staff and resources with the Guide Dog Foundation.

VetDogs provides service dogs to veterans who have a wide variety of disabilities and issues which prevent them from getting around independently. Service dogs help those with physical limitations, those who are blind or have low vision, those who are deaf and those who have PTSD.

Veterans who are paired with dogs go to the VetDogs ten-acre campus in Smithtown, New York, for a two-week, residential training program. The student and his or her dog bond and learn to work together as a team. The classes are small and there are lots of individual attention and instruction.

VetDogs has a wonderful Prison Puppy Program that allows prison inmates to train potential service dogs from early puppyhood. The prisoners also get invaluable benefits. I used to watch a TV series about prisoners training puppies and it was a joy to watch. The inmates developed a sense of responsibility toward the dogs and a sense of accomplishment at their dogs’ progress. Puppies also create a calmer climate in correctional facilities and bring some normalcy to the prison environment.

Puppies get sent to the prisons at eight to nine weeks old. They live in the handler’s cell where the inmate works on house breaking and other basic skills. The dogs attend classes with their handlers, participate in recreational activities and even go to meals with their handlers. An American VetDogs instructor comes once a week to provide training instructions and monitor progress. The inmates learn about canine socialization, puppy development, behavior theories, grooming, and canine first aid.

Prison handlers do more than teach basic obedience skills. They also train the dogs for service dog tasks, like retrieving dropped items, opening doors and refrigerators and providing support and balance on stairs. The prisoners also acclimate their dogs to objects in the outside world, like umbrellas, skateboards, and battery operated toys.

But a prison environment is limited. So the puppies go to the home of an outside family on weekends, often prison staff members. Here they learn house manners and they become familiar with cars and traffic noise. Dogs are taken to stores, restaurants, and hospitals so they can confidently go wherever their future veteran partner will take them.

When the puppies reach adulthood, the dogs go back to VetDogs for assessment, final training, and client matching. Statistics show that prison-raised dogs go through these final phases in half the time as home-raised dogs. One dog trained in the prison program has become an overnight celebrity. His name is Sully and when he was two, in June of 2018, he was matched with former President George H.W. Bush.

Sully with Bush and Clinton

Bush, Sr. was always a dog lover and he welcomed Sully enthusiastically into his home and his heart. Sully helped Bush, who was in a wheelchair, pick up dropped items, open and close doors, push an emergency button and support him when the 94-year-old former president stood. Sully developed a following on social media. His own Instagram account had more than 98,000 followers. Since George H.W. Bush’s death, Sully has become even more popular. A photo of Sully forlornly lying in front of Bush’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda went viral. Sully seemed heartbroken, but also seemed to still be keeping watch over his partner. His devotion exploded the internet.

Sully’s service to President Bush is over, but his career as a service dog is not. America’s VetDogs will send Sully to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There he will assist with physical and occupational therapy for wounded soldiers. The Bush family found comfort in knowing that Sully would continue to help veterans for many years to come.

The relationship between President Bush and Sully has shined a spotlight on the amazing things that service dogs can do for people with physical and emotional limitations. Maybe Sully’s fifteen minutes of fame will result in more money being donated to training more dogs for civilians as well as for veterans. It costs more than $50,000 to breed, raise, train and place one assistance dog. Dogs are provided to veterans free of charge. America’s VetDogs is a non-profit organization. Funding comes exclusively from donations.

Please donate to America’s VetDogs by going to their website. It’s a wonderful cause.

THE SOCIOPATHIC CONTRACTOR – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In 1987, my ex husband and I, along with our two children, spent weekends and summers in a one bedroom cottage on my mother’s property in Easton, CT. My grandparents had lived in the cottage when I was growing up. It was fine for them but at this point, both kids were sleeping in the living room. It was time to get a bigger house. So we decided to build one on a piece of adjoining property that Mom gave me.

We hired an architect and spent nine months designing a beautiful but budget friendly house. Unfortunately, our architect was calculating costs based on the prior year’s cost per foot. And costs were apparently rising at a ridiculous rate. When we put the house out to bids from contractors, the bids were twice what we had budgeted. We couldn’t afford to build our dream house anymore!

Only one bid came in low enough that we could just barely stretch to afford it. It came from a general contractor we knew personally. Mac was a well-liked, well-respected member of our tennis club. He had even been president of the club. We knew his friends and family. We asked him why he could put in such a low bid. He said he was just starting in the contracting business and wanted to use our house as a marketing show piece. He’d do it for cost and not expect a profit.

Mac working on the house foundation

We drafted an air tight contract (my ex was a lawyer). We broke ground. We wrote checks. The house was framed out but not enclosed. Winter was coming. We had put in all the money we were contractually obligated to put in. It was up to Mac to put in his share. On paper.

Mac told us he didn’t have the money to finish the house. If we wanted to protect the structure from the coming winter, we would have to pay for everything going forward, above and beyond the contract.

We were between a rock and a hard place. We’d lose our significant investment and our house if we cut our losses and walked away. We were frantic. We ended up selling three of my thirteen acres of land to help finance the now much more expensive house. We also borrowed money from my parents and went deeper into debt. We finished the house but it took forever. I kept paying all the bills I received but contractors either didn’t show up or came but did a shoddy job. We couldn’t understand what was going on.

Me and my kids as house framed out

Until one contractor came to me, toward the end of the process. He complained that Mac had not paid him until he threatened to sue. When he did get a check for $2500, it bounced. Mac had told him that the reason he was stiffing the contractors on their bills was that WE were not paying our bills to Mac. I was shocked. I showed the contractor my canceled checks to Mac, covering everything.

I hired a lawyer. He said that this was the worst case of construction fraud he’d seen in 15 years of practice. Apparently, Mac had just taken most of our money for himself. He was doing the same thing to another family at the same time. When contractors demanded payment, he would use some of my money or the other family’s money to pay them off and get them off his back. He was robbing Peter to pay Paul and visa versa. He was paying the contractors just enough money to get the jobs done – eventually. It took a year and a half to build our house.

My son on the building site

We fired Mac and finished the house without him. His partner told us that he would never work with Mac again. He also told us that the estimate Mac gave us was based on no calculations and no facts. Mac just came up with a number he thought we’d accept.

We couldn’t sue Mac because our lawyer couldn’t find any of our money. Mac was broke. There was no money to recover. No one could figure out what he had done with all the money he took from us, that didn’t go into our house. It came to over $200,000! His wife swore he didn’t spend it on his own house or family.

Years later, his wife discovered that Mac had conned her as well. He was supposed to be contributing his income to the college funds of his three kids. There was no college account. He was also supposed to be filing and paying the family’s tax returns. He not only didn’t pay taxes, for years he never even filed returns. The IRS came after his wife, who worked, and garnished her salary. That’s when she left Mac, taking her three kids with her.

Mac was obviously a sociopath. He screwed a lot of people. The building of my house turned out to be one of the major stress periods and financial drains of my life. I love my house and am still living in it 28 years later. But it is in spite of all the angst we suffered during the building process.

I recently renewed my friendship with Mac’s ex wife. We commiserate together over being taken to the cleaners by Mac. We still have no idea where all the money went. We think it might have gone into a land deal that went south. Mac always had some new money-making scheme in the works. But we’ll never know. They say that building a house is throwing money into a black hole. Well, in our case, it really was a black hole.