THERE IS NO PLANET B

 

The United Nations hosted meetings last week devoted to the environment.  As usual, politicians, celebrities, and celebrity politicians urged action, the largest countries obfuscated, or worse, and nothing meaningful occurred.  Among the speakers was the now-famous 16-year-old from Sweden, Greta, who lambasted the “adults in the room” for their failures.  Until recently, I found Greta’s lack of nuance and diplomacy somewhat off-putting.  I preferred a more mature, polished and politically correct presentation of the need for action.  Al Gore, for instance.  Now, I conclude:  “Greta is right.”

Unknown.jpeg

***********

My personal introduction to environmental activism arose in 8th grade (1970) when my school commenced a newspaper-recycling program.  Actually, to call it a “program” overstates reality.  A box marked “paper” was placed next to a dumpster in an obscure, far-off corner of the faculty parking lot.  If a person were self-motivated to gather newspapers, and able in turn to convince their carpool-driving parent(s) to detour to the box, a tiny contribution to the world’s salvation could be achieved.

I recall being fairly diligent collecting the papers and both my parents cooperated.  The activity satisfied my desire to “do something” but didn’t go further.  My only other environmental impulse from the teenage years was to object to my mother or sister’s tendency to want to take a walk and to then drive thirty minutes to do so.  The “drive to a walk” concept always bothered me as vaguely “defeating the purpose.”  However, I didn’t know what the “purpose” might be.  Concepts like wasting gas or creating emissions had not occurred to me.  Compared to many teens, I just wasn’t excited by driving.

images.jpeg

For most of the intervening years until 2000, environmental destruction remained, for me, vaguely disturbing.  Of course, I supported “conservation” and even made the occasional contributions to the Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund.  They sent me t-shirts and calendars in return.  But I certainly didn’t expect climate changes to occur in my lifetime.

Now that I’m a grandfather I look at the world differently.  I not only concern myself with the several decades I might still experience but the six or eight or ten that my grandchildren can anticipate.  Yet, if I only view my own lifespan, there are shocking changes taking place.  Without recounting all their now-famous names, it is common to see a “500-year hurricane” or “1,000-year flood” on an annual basis.  Fifteen of the eighteen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.  While not being so naïve as to confuse short-term weather with long-term climate, on an emotional basis I am alarmed to look at a thermometer on September 26 and see it is 93 degrees.  It’s been too hot all summer to play tennis outside.  While such an example seems trivial, the warming climate is actually affecting daily life!

***********

As recently as 1999 I bought a car that obtained a wasteful 19 MPG without a pang of conscience.    But as the new millennium proceeded I began to question my daily lifestyle a little more.  My recycling efforts were increasingly diligent.  To the dismay of my children I became fanatical about “turning off the lights.”  Admittedly, my motivation was partially economic, but I also turned off unnecessary lights at work, where I did not pay the electric bill.

“An Inconvenient Truth” struck a chord in 2007, right around the time I also saw “March of the Penguins.” Between the two documentaries, I recognized mankind is blithely ruining the earth not only for our selves, and future generations, but also for every other creature.  Most infuriating to me, a huge segment of society, including one of our two political parties and their media shills, are actively discouraging improvements.  They are overturning long-established clean air and clean water policies that were originally signed by President Nixon!  Doesn’t everyone breathe air and drink water?  Don’t people throughout the political spectrum have children and grandchildren and/or concern about nature?

Unknown-3.jpeg

I took my first concrete action shortly thereafter when I traded in my gas-guzzler for a hybrid.  Sad to say, the salesman didn’t know how to turn on the silent car and in his embarrassment encouraged me to buy something more conventional, something cheaper.  Can you imagine a car salesman discouraging a ready and willing buyer?

I found it immensely satisfying to leap from 19 MPG to 40 and wondered what else I could do.  In 2011, I added solar panels to the roof, thus cutting our coal powered electric use in half.  Every day, in the beginning, I raced to the computer to see how much the sun had produced.  Now, eight years later, and in a different home, to which we also added solar panels, it’s still satisfying.  In a small way it helps with the problem, it saves money, and in a more spiritual way, I enjoy being conscious of the power of the sun.

**********

 

These days, my efforts  (with the full cooperation/endorsement of my wife, Katie) have moved towards the obvious (refusing straws and plastic bottles) and the slightly less obvious, such as:  bringing our own re-useable take-out containers to restaurants and our own utensils if we know they only offer plastic.  We are fanatical about using our own bags at stores and even our HANDS when we buy just a few items.  It’s amazing how confused and even offended some cashiers appear when we refuse their offer of a plastic bag.  We’ve nearly cut out red meat from our diet, which is another win-win; less meat consumption leads to less abuse of the earth via methane releases and land-use, and is almost certain to be healthier for us.

 

Unknown-1.jpeg

Friends have reacted to our behavior in a variety of ways.  Some appear not to notice.  A few congratulate us for our efforts and say they are inspired to emulate us.  The majority, however, fall somewhere in between.  They would vaguely like to “change a few things” and “help out” but state:  “It’s just so hard to remember to bring my own bags.  I can’t be bothered.”  With a few exceptions, none have purchased a more efficient car with the environment in mind or purchased solar panels.

Until recently, my response to those who spurn re-usable bags by saying: “it’s too much trouble,” or, “it’s too difficult to remember” formed from the empathetic, compassionate part of my brain.  I nodded and said: “I understand.”  But now my thoughts (if not yet my spoken response) arises from somewhere more primitive.  “Come on, people.  It’s not difficult.  You are not a moron.  You can really put a few in your car and remember to use them.  DO SOMETHING!”

*********

I read the foregoing with a sinking feeling some will view me as self-righteous.  That exemplar of moral clarity, Dick Cheney, once dismissed energy-saving efforts as matters of “personal virtue,” an unnecessary indulgence.  To that, I can only ask: “What is wrong with righteousness?  What is wrong with a little virtue?”  It’s available to everyone.  For free.

Greta feels the situation is urgent.  I agree with her, both from a practical viewpoint and a moral viewpoint.  The aforementioned Dick Cheney, in fraudulently pushing our nation into the second Iraq war, once argued:  “If there’s just a one percent chance Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, we have to do something and do it soon.”   With regard to the changes mankind is wreaking upon the earth and its climate, unless we change course immediately, does anyone doubt there is more than a one percent chance it will end in catastrophe?

 

Unknown-2.jpeg


We used to live in a community constructed around a golf course.   The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf.  Since I’ve quit the sport for life several times, we were not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally joined members at the clubhouse for dinner.  Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around.  We typically discussed children, sports and the weather.  We compared restaurants, travel and traffic. We did NOT discuss politics.

Once, when my wife, Katie and I arrived for a dinner with three other couples, three of the eight seats at our table were empty.  We learned two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate.  Amanda, whose husband was at the meeting, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly.  The five of us agreed emphatically we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.

 

*****

To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.

“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left.  “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around?  We’re under siege!”

I had a sinking feeling my tongue would not obey my brain.   “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.

“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes.  We’re not where we want to be.”

I suspected he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting.  All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry.  Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.

*****

For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset.  For sure, Democrats can also be inconsistent.  I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school.  I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I understand them.

For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly socialist in terms of economic policy.  Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his downtown business, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime” mayor.  In addition, while he railed against the Vietnam War like a draft dodger, his personal fastidiousness caused him outrage when he saw longhaired or sloppily dressed men.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a daily basis.   I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them.  They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.

But modern-day Republicans?  As Harry asserted, I don’t get it.  I wonder about it.  I shake my head about it.  I can’t figure it out.  In the prosperous country club milieu, I couldn’t find any Republican who admits supporting the stated positions of their preferred candidates.  In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.

“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.

“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.

Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of enlightenment.

“Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.

Tom nodded.

“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in.  “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should make her own decisions about abortion.”

“Wow,” I said.

“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom.  “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to control their own bodies.”

“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”

“Of course,” said Mary.  “Even if you don’t actively support equal rights or gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”

“Good question,” I said.  “I can’t figure that out either.”

I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen.  Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean:  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”

“Absolutely,” said Harry.

“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.

“What about fracking?” I asked.

“I’m all for it,” said Tom.

“It’s for the economy,” added Harry. “And energy independence.  Are you against it?” he asked me.

“It’s not appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only minimal oil or gas,“ I said.

“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.

“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable.  Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”

“Agreed,” said Tom.  “You know, we may be Republicans but we do care about the environment.”

“Absolutely,” said Mary.  “We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know.”

“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table.  “We can have a serious, political conversation here.  We can reach reasonable conclusions.  We can respect each other.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  “On to another subject.”

Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm.  “You go get ‘em,” she said.  “I have to go through this every day at home.”

Everyone laughed.  I turned back to my three-person panel.

“What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blamed on Obama?”

“Haha,” said Tom.  “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”

“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked.

“You gotta get the votes,” said Tony.  “The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”

“So you agree that the low price of natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.

“We know that,” said Mary.  “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states.  Their economies are bad.”

“That’s right,” said Harry.  “What can those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia do without coal mining?”

“I suppose their economies did fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.

“Oh, there you go,” said Tom.  “Getting sarcastic.”

“Well?” I asked.

“What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.

“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections.  Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”

All three of them looked at me wordlessly.  Finally, Tom asked:  “Are you serious?”

I nodded, but before I could say: “Look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP.   “There are two main things:  securing our border and education.”

“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.

“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.

“Whoa, one at a time,” I said. “Let’s discuss the border.”

“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry.  “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border.  Democrats don’t take it seriously.”

“You do know Obama presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.

“I heard that,” said Tom.  “But he set the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”

“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.

I had to ask:  “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry.  “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”

“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked.  “Did he choose tacos for his final meal?”

“Very funny,” said Tom.  “We have to know who’s in the country.  We have to fingerprint them.  We have to know who’s around.”

“I agree that would be ideal,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys.  They ‘checked them out.’  It didn’t prevent the bombing.”

“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry.  “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”

“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked.  “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there?  Who picks the fruit, mows the lawns and cleans the houses?”

“Those are problems,” said Mary.

“Would you deport all those people?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Tom.  “We need some way to legalize them.”

“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.

“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry.  “Everyone understands that.”  He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.

“After all,” said Mary.  “We’re a nation of immigrants.”

*****

My hamburger had grown cold.  My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my tablemates.  I took a deep breath and plunged back in.

“What’s the Republican solution to education?”

“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.

“Okay.  What about them?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” said Harry. “But we also have to make teachers do a better job.  They need to be professionals.”

I asked:  “Would you support raising their pay?”

“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary.  “Nothing can be solved with taxes.  As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”

“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like Fox t.v.”

“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad.   There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”

“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.

“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.

“I don’t condone fraud,” I said.

“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.

“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Harry.  “We need strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”

“I agree we need an effective military,” I said.  “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.  No less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs.  Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”

“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.

“They can be,” I said.  “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”

“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.

“Still true,” I said.

“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary.  “Why don’t we hear about that?”

“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions?  I don’t think many welfare recipients do,” I said.

The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu.  The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other.  I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again.  Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.

“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom.  “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on, among other things, guns, gay marriage, women and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants.  Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too.  None of you profess to be against environmental regulations.  How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively reasonable positions?”

“Like I said before,” said Tom.  “They have to get elected.”

“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.

“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows.  “The people out west, and in the deep south, the ones who liked Sarah Palin.  You know, the nut-jobs.”

“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said.  “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”

“Bingo!” said Harry.  “That’s what they have to do.”

“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked.

All three nodded.  I found myself where I’d begun.  (And this discussion took place BEFORE Trump)  I STILL don’t get it.  If there is not a rational, real-life explanation for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, is there an irrational explanation? What factors influence them? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions.  Readers are encouraged to weigh in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


THE GIG ECONOMY, LOVE IT OR LYFT IT

 

At first glance the chance to pay, for instance, $15 for a ride to the airport instead of $26, is a no-brainer. That’s pretty much the economic equation behind the decision to take Lyft or Uber rather than a conventional cab. But several other factors occasionally come into play, namely:  How much of a driver’s life story do you wish to hear?  Might there be a traffic issue better solvable by a “professional?” And, considering safety, is an old, dented and smelly Corolla the last vehicle you ever wish to travel in?

 

*****

 

Taxis are simple.  In a large city you can stand on a corner with reasonable certainty of hailing a ride in a reasonable amount of time.  The driver may be gruff in manner.  In fact, the possible physical and personality traits that would prevent you from wanting to live closely with him (taxi drivers are almost always male) are limitless.  However, taxi etiquette generally keeps you silent in the back seat, behind a partition. There, you ponder which obscure African or Middle Eastern nation he is from while watching the meter tick, tick, tick inexorably higher.  At the end of the trip you calculate his tip-worthiness, a decision made both instantly and intimately.

 

*****

 

Uber and Lyft are different.  You know the cost of the ride before you enter and, if you are old enough to remember taking standard taxis, you have an endorphin rush knowing roughly how much money you are saving.

Unknown-3.jpeg

There is no partition, no meter and no tipping.  You will be free, after being dropped off, to “rate” your satisfaction on a 1-5 scale, and decide whether and how much to tip, in on-line anonymity.   The fact that you have “hailed” a ride via smartphone and the driver is identified by first-name makes ride sharing seem personal.  Sometimes, the driver’s baby pictures are on the dashboard for you to admire and ask the usual inanities, e.g., “How old is he?”  “What’s her name?” Or, if you are taking a ride at midnight you might feel compelled to ask:  “Who’s babysitting now?”  Resist this temptation.

Asking personal questions is human nature but can lead one down a rabbit hole.  Few people have aspired to become Lyft drivers.  There is often a dissertation not finished, a divorce, an unexpected corporate downsizing.  Sometimes, you learn you are a driver’s first or second ride.  You learn this because they are unable to operate the app or the GPS. When they ask you for directions, it’s a bad sign.

 

*****

 

One of my earliest memories is taxi-related.  Circa 1961, at age four, I traveled in a carpool to kindergarten in West Philadelphia.  Each day, a yellow “Checker” cab retrieved me and three other neighborhood kids from our mothers at the corner.  Could you imagine sending your child to school with a stranger nowadays?  No seatbelts, either.

129685-450x235.jpg

The cab featured an open area in front of its large back seat with a freestanding swivel-able stool we (inaccurately) called “the rumble seat.”  Each day we vied to be “the one” who sat on the stool.  Due to excessive strife, I’m sure the mothers eventually worked out a rotation, but the daily rumble seat controversy introduced to me the concept of dog-eat-dog competition.

The following year, I commenced being walked or driven to Gompers Elementary School.  Around the same time, my mother belatedly learned to drive.  Taxis thus became, for me, something to ride only on rare visits to New York City.  The children who’d joined me in the taxi, along with most of the residents of the neighborhood, disappeared like characters in a Chagall painting in a frenzy of “white flight.”  Due to some combination of inertia and, I hope, an all-too-rare lack of knee-jerk prejudice, my family didn’t move.  Yet, for better or worse or just different, the neighborhood changed  before one could even process the change.  I imagine that’s how taxi drivers feel about the arrival of Uber and Lyft.

Unknown-2.jpeg

*****

 

Taxis are still desirable in several contexts.  For instance, when we were in London last fall and needed to travel to Charring Cross Station, the “app” foretold a wait of ten minutes.  Breathing fumes beside horrendous downtown traffic, ten became fifteen and, eventually, twenty.   We became increasingly stressed about missing our reserved train to Edinburgh. Finally, we gave up and flagged a taxi. This “cancellation” on our part resulted in a $5 penalty.  It doesn’t seem fair.  But who wants to spend an hour on the phone to reverse a $5 fee?

It turns out our cancellation was serendipitous.  A demonstration roiled city center, thus the worse-than-usual traffic, and all the GPS-recommended routes were blocked.  A London cabbie, whose license is granted only after he passes an exam worthy of a PhD in geography and cartography, wended his way through a maze to deposit us at the exact correct spot to enter the massive train station.

Conversely, in Boston, we were first-day customers of a new Lyft driver.  Fresh off a farm in New Hampshire she excelled in cuteness and vivacity.  But she entirely lacked every other driver-related credential.  Not only did she not know which bridge headed to Cambridge, she wasn’t sure her GPS worked. “It’s been sending me strange places all day,” she explained.  Apparently, she also wasn’t sure her mirrors worked since she turned backwards and swiveled her head each time she sought to change lanes.  While my wife, Katie, generously offered career and relationship advice throughout the harrowing ride, I developed a headache from cringing and would have happily paid some grumpy old guy an extra $20.

Unknown-1.jpeg    Other highlights of Boston Lyft rides included the out-of-work musician with the 1990’s-era Civic apparently retrieved from Demolition Derby that had “check engine,” “check tires” and “check brakes” sensors lit at once – like a Christmas display on the dashboard; the Brazilian driver who danced the samba in his seat throughout, and the seventeen-year-old “covering” for her boyfriend who asked if we’d mind if she vaped. “Yes,” we answered, and a sullenly silent ride ensued.

 

*****

 

One need only look at the taxi line at the airport to know the industry is never coming back.  Passengers rush past the “professionals” to reach the “app stand.”

Unknown.jpeg

It’s simple economics for the customer, but sad to consider how many livelihoods, once deemed secure, have been ruined.  On the other hand, Lyft and Uber serve neighborhoods taxis will not.  They offer flexible hours for part-time workers. And if you are being picked up on a cold or rainy day, you need not stand outside to wait.

Time marches on.  Taxis were an industry ripe for disruption.  Consider it done.  (You can rate this story from 1-5 stars, 5 being the best.  Tips are optional).

 

 

 

 

 

 


NECESSARY DISTRACTION

 

 

One recent morning I lie awake at 4:00 a.m.   Involuntarily, and uncontrollably, my brain flits through dismal thoughts:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health; the Con-Man in DC; carbon emissions growth; stock market collapse; and, the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback situation.

I struggle until 7:00 when I arise, open the shades, look out the window and notice something new.  The pond across the street, normally placid and uninhabited except by slow-moving turtles appears to have a surface disturbance. As I focus, whatever moved disappears below the surface so quickly I wonder if I’ve imagined it.  Several seconds later, a bird reappears.  It looks like a miniature duck, but what kind?

I reach below my desk for the “Field Guide to Wild Birds.”  I scroll through twenty-two pages of common ducks and also a few rarer ducks I’ve seen, including, hooded mergansers that visited last summer and Muscovy ducks, the huge green/black fowl I’ve seen at the zoo.

Aha, our visitor is unmistakably a female “bufflehead.”  She is described, as follows: “Among the smallest of ducks, grey-brown with an obvious oval of white on her cheek.”   As predicted in the guide, she dives incessantly for insect larvae.  She remains below the surface for fifteen-twenty seconds at a time.  She is tiny, much smaller than the standard mallards one generally sees.

I haven’t spent too much time pondering ducks in my life, but if there is one thing I know about ducks, it’s that they mate for life.  Is our duck a widow?  A divorcee? Who’s heard of a pond with one duck?

 

*****

 

 

I grew up across from a pond.  It served as a water feature on the Bala Golf Course, an Irish Catholic institution that zealously excluded everyone else.  The several times I ventured onto golf course property during hours of play, a “ranger” appeared magically as if an alarm had been tripped.  He’d drive a golf cart down a hill from the clubhouse shouting: “No trespassing!  Private property!  No trespassing!”  Needless to say, my six-year-old self ran home immediately.

In Philadelphia in the early 1960’s it was understood there were Protestant (WASP) clubs, Jewish clubs and Catholic clubs.  If one wanted to golf ecumenically, I suppose, one went to a public course.  In a way, my exclusion from Bala probably saved me from developing a golf habit, along with the expense, time and frustration that entails.  Thank you, discrimination.

Meanwhile, back to the pond…. In winter, when no one golfed, the overwhelmingly Jewish population of our neighborhood considered the pond the local skating rink.  As soon as sub-freezing temperatures arrived, I cheered for the developing ice like a sports team.  Intellectually, I’d learned from my older brothers, it required at least four complete days of below freezing temperatures to create ice thick enough for skating.  Alternatively, it required 7-8 nights of nighttime freeze if daytime temperatures climbed above thirty-two.  Still, from the first transparent appearance of ice on the surface, I nagged my mother every day asking if the ice were ready.

The pond also hosted ducks.  I recall they were exclusively mallards, with the green-headed males and greyish females.  We’d save stale bread to feed the ducks in the corner of the pond where a waterfall prevented freezing.  The ducks ate ravenously, and we felt virtuous.  Recently, I’ve read it’s not healthy for them to eat bread, and local ducks I’ve encountered don’t seem interested.  Could they have gone on a species-wide health kick in the intervening fifty years?

 

*****

 

A week later, the mystery of the single bufflehead continues until one morning, a male appears.  He’s much larger, with brilliant white highlights between otherwise brown and gray feathers.  It’s exciting!  Our girl has found (or been found by) a mate.  They spend all day diving together.  My faith in duck companionship is restored.  By spring, I expect ducklings to brighten the pond.

The next morning, he’s gone. “What happened to our boy?” I wonder.  Am I over anthropomorphizing?  After a couple of days, the tiny female departs, too.  Our pond is again uninhabited except for turtles – no harm, but no fowl.  I realize I miss the daily speculation about her situation.

 

*****

 

Little came of my early skating career. There were few kids my age and teenagers didn’t want a six-year-old in their hockey games.  And, though I owned a stick and a puck, I wasn’t equipped to do more than skate in circles.  When the NHL Flyers came to Philadelphia in 1967 I realized for the first time there existed such a thing as specialized ice hockey skates – quite different from my figure skates.  Though I passionately embraced a rooting interest in the Flyers, I immediately sensed the rough and tumble of hockey were best observed from a distance – baseball and tennis embodied my interests better – no body checks or elbows.

And although the excitement of skating on the pond loomed large in my youthful mind, even before global warming took hold, skating was only possible for a few days each winter. Truthfully, I was a so-so skater with a tendency to quit at the first onset of frozen toes and fingers. Skating, for me, became just a prerequisite for the hot cocoa waiting back at the house.

 

*****

 

It’s been several weeks since the little bufflehead and her short-term suitor disappeared.  The pond remains placid except for an occasional visit by a flock of Canadian geese.  They are charming enough as long as they stay in the water.  But their invasions of the surrounding grass leave a trail of, shall we say, debris.  The pond seemed so alive with possibility when the bufflehead was around.  Now, it’s still pretty, but it looks empty.  Is there anything in the news I’d want to think about today?  Hmmmm.  How does one attract ducks to a pond?  Google, here I come….

 

 

 

 


THE SHARING ECONOMY

 

 

Use of Airbnb instead of a hotel is second nature to anyone under thirty but for the rest of us, it’s a brave new world. For the edification of my “mature” readers I will describe our experiences using the “sharing” economy while traveling, and offer what I hope are helpful suggestions.  Spoiler alert:  the perfect solution does not exist.

 

*****

 

Facing what seemed to be astronomically high hotel rates, my wife, Katie, was willing to take the time to scroll through numerous Airbnb listings before a trip to California’s wine country in 2016.

Unknown.jpeg

 

That’s the first thing you must know:  unless one is reckless, this is a time-consuming process.  By that, I mean, failure to do extensive due diligence risks victimization by a number of potential hazards, such as:  pets to whom one may be allergic; sagging mattresses; talkative and/or omnipresent hosts; quirky access procedures; and, surprising additional fees.  One might also encounter problems one may not anticipate in a property let out to the public, such as:  insect infestation, mustiness, traffic noise and, non-functioning appliances.

To be clear, several of the pitfalls above could also be encountered in a hotel.  But if one encounters a bad mattress or smelly room in a hotel, there is generally recourse via the front desk.  One can move to another room or, failing that, one can proceed to a different hotel.

Recourse is not as easy with Airbnb. The owner may not be on site.  He or she may not be easily reachable by phone or email.  One has paid for the room in advance to a landlord who may not agree with a subjective determination of smell or noise, so a refund is refused.  Also, an Airbnb is often located in a residential neighborhood where other overnight options are not available.

 

*****

 

Our first Airbnb stay occurred in St. Anselmo, CA.  We attended a wedding and Katie found online a home surrounded by gardens walking distance from the wedding site.  Wonderful, until we arrived.  First, we couldn’t access the property because of what appeared to be a locked exterior gate.  Fortunately, we reached the on-site owner by phone to render assistance.  She’d thought we were coming the next day, so hadn’t left instructions about the balky door – it was actually unlocked, but required a level of strength like an NFL linebacker’s to overcome humidity-swollen wood.

Unknown-1.jpeg

Following a long explanation of the garden and house and of her artistic career, our hostess showed us our room. It was lovely as advertised and contained a bowl of fruit and a kettle for tea. Wonderful, again, until we realized the host’s kitchen, living room and painting studio were separated from our quarters by only a floral sheet and she intended to be present throughout our stay. Any noise either party made, beyond a whisper, reached the other.  She showed us the small section of the refrigerator that was “ours.”  Each visit required an exchange of pleasantries.

Bottom line:  ultimately, our two-night stay was marginally satisfactory due to the pleasantness of our room, a good mattress, a great location for our particular need and a great price.  But there were hurdles as well as lots of whispering and tip-toing around!

Our next two nights in Wine Country were spent in what turned out to be a marginal neighborhood of tiny, ramshackle homes and trailers.  We were deeply concerned upon arrival, as we followed a skinny driveway to a detached garage behind a hovel. But the landlord’s instructions for entry were exact.  When we climbed the exterior stairs and entered the apartment we saw an incongruously pleasant space, open and airy with sleek furnishings over a hard wood floor.

zone-9-orange.jpg

house-interior-design-officialkod-throughout-house-interior-ideas.jpg

The rear view was a citrus orchard, and the owner had left muffins and fresh-picked fruit on the counter of a fully appointed, brand-new kitchen.  Per her written instructions, unless there was a crisis, she did not expect or desire to communicate with us.  We did not even know where she lived except that her instructions indicated she did NOT live at the premises.

We spent two terrific nights there and departed happily after re-depositing the key in its hidden spot. Now seems a good time to note an interesting tidbit about Airbnb’s.  While this apartment included welcoming muffins upon arrival,  that hospitable gesture was not repeated.  Despite what the name of the company implies, breakfast is not included.  There is no second “B” in an Airbnb.

 

*****

 

Our next adventure in Airbnb took place a year ago in Australia where our son, Sam, was conducting research. Since we were visiting for ten days it seemed a wonderful opportunity to settle in and experience real-life Sydney. Katie found a one-bedroom apartment in a modern high-rise walking distance to a subway.

The owner’s representative/friend met us, as promised, at the metro stop and escorted us to the building.  Though middle aged, he appeared to have been lost on the way to a Grateful Dead concert.

images.jpeg

Despite our determination to be understanding and “not judge a book by its cover” during the course of our three-minute walk we learned about his divorce, health issues and addictions.  Thus, we took to heart his admonition:  “I’m really not in any condition to handle stress.”  His hangdog expression reminded me of Droopy of the Seven Dwarfs.

Upon arrival at the apartment he oriented us and explained “just a few little nits,” namely: the clothes dryer, dishwasher, and coffee maker were not operational.  “I’ll be dealing with them one of these days, but not this week” he said.  Granted, these are first-world problems, as they say.  But we weren’t paying a pittance.  When he left, we declared: “no way we are going to call him for anything.”

As to our lodgings, our first two days were uneventful.  We enjoyed the sights of Sydney, its gardens and coffee culture.  We usually ate out but apparently accumulated a few breakfast crumbs and the like since we came home on day three to an infestation of ants in the kitchen like in a horror movie. The counters were crawling.  The appliances were teeming.  The floor flowed like a river.

Unknown-2.jpeg

“We’re on the sixth floor,” I observed. I didn’t think such a thing was possible.

“Oh,” said, Sam, who’d lived in Sydney for several months.  “Australia may be the insect capital of the world.  There are no boundaries.”

If this had happened in a hotel, we would have moved.  But our only choices were to call Droopy or deal with it ourselves.  We cleaned and cleaned, as though we were preparing the property for sale.   After a couple of hours, the whole apartment was pristine.  But we spent the additional five days paranoid about eating anything.  And what we had seen in and on the stove sapped all enthusiasm for cooking. Ironically, this Airbnb had the largest “cleaning fee” we’d experienced.  Yes, that’s another distinction from a hotel – at an Airbnb you will often pay an additional fee for “cleaning,” detailed in the small print, on top of the advertised rental fee.

 

*****

 

Would I use Airbnb in the future? Considering the cost is about half a normal hotel rate in many situations, perhaps.  But one needs to spend time doing research, be willing to accept quirks rarely encountered in a hotel, and not be hung up on uniformity. Is the Airbnb experience more interesting?  Usually.  Can it be treacherous?  Yes.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.

 

 

 

 

 


FLORENCE UNFOLDS

 

Hurricane Florence visited last week and dropped enough rain to warrant a tsunami of cable television coverage. The forecasts were dire for our Durham, North Carolina residence.  A late shift took the worst of the wind and rain two hours south and left us with, essentially, a tenacious but otherwise unremarkable four-day rainstorm.  Some localized flooding occurred but our community missed the much-hyped direct hit.  Of course, I’m delighted the storm didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, the impulse to disregard future warnings might be stronger as a result.

 

*****

 

Skepticism about the meteorologist/media combination is not new to me.  When I was little, my family listened to KYW News radio every morning during breakfast.  At the slightest hint a snowstorm might approach I took a rooting interest as fervent as I felt for any sports team.  “Maybe school will be closed,” I cheered/prayed/hoped.  My mother, a public school librarian, added her hopes, too, though with less enthusiasm.  Perhaps, having lived longer, she knew the unlikelihood of a large-impact storm in far-sub-Arctic Philadelphia.

I’m not sure why I rooted so hard for a day off.  School was not onerous for me and my at-home activities would not have been so fabulous.  Truthfully, I didn’t like cold weather and had limited enthusiasm for sledding, fort building and snowballing due to the resulting cold fingers and toes.  In addition, I would have been expected to shovel our front walk and might even have been guilted into clearing several of the neighbors’.  Two doors down, in particular, lived an ancient widow (I now realize she was probably in her 60’s.)  Somehow, a no-cash economy prevailed on 50thStreet circa 1962; she paid me with one or two old golf balls she had saved for decades or, perhaps, a tennis ball that no longer bounced.

Perhaps, I cheered on snow forecasts for the same reason I cheered for Nixon during the Kennedy debate or for the Cubs against the Phillies.  I wanted to get a rise out of my father who calmly, confidently, and almost always correctly intoned:  “They’re wrong.  It’s not going to snow.”

When it didn’t snow, my father never bragged.  In a way, his silence was even more infuriating than if he’d danced a jig in celebration. “Implacable” is a word that comes to mind.  “Smug” is another.  Oh, how I wanted it to snow.

 

*****

 

My early working life featured a couple of notable storms.   In Summit, NJ, in 1982, I was a first-month lawyer when the forecast called for some flurries, and it improbably snowed ten inches in the middle of April.  The storm disappointed doubly since I’d been counting the days to springtime, and it occurred on a Saturday.  I didn’t even get a day off!  Several years later, around 1985, a much-ballyhooed hurricane called Gloria aimed at northern New Jersey.  The forecast was so dire that the law firm I worked for allowed us to go home at the first gust of drizzly wind.  My co-workers and I gleefully anticipated several days off.  With sincere apologies to anyone who lost their home to Gloria elsewhere nothing stronger than steady rain ever reached Ridgewood.  We shuffled into the office the next morning shaking heads and complaining, as usual:  “Weathermen are idiots.”

 

*****

 

Moving forward twenty years my attitude towards predicted storms had inevitably become my father’s.  I assured my disappointed children as he’d assured me: “It’s not going to happen,” every time the television and radio foretold a weather apocalypse.  Also like my father, I was always right… until a storm named Floyd.

It was 2005, and we lived in Ramsey, NJ in a contemporary-style cedar shake house as leaky of air as a sieve.  The builder seemingly built it as a contribution to the utility industry.  Still, I loved the look of our house and, in particular, the fact that the garage was not visible from the street.  I reveled in not being part of the car culture dominating suburban America architecture.  Landscaping hid a driveway that curled down from the street to a below ground entrance.

Floyd approached like numerous events before it, as a weeklong media extravaganza. Reliably, the storms ran aground at the coast an hour southeast of us.  Alternatively, some storms came from the west but ran out of steam over Pennsylvania.  For whatever meteorological or topographical reason, in my prior twenty-three years of life in northern New Jersey, we never bore the full brunt of a hurricane despite almost annual predictions.

What I remember about Floyd is not so much the wind as the frenzy of the rain.  It fell sideways, splatting against the thin walls like hail.  The gutters gurgled in harmony.  And it wouldn’t stop.  For three days the rain continued.  As always, water rolled down our driveway and followed a stone path to the right of the garage doors through the backyard where it disappeared into the woods.  The first unusual thing I noticed during Floyd was that our back yard eventually began to retain a few water puddles of water.

Slowly, and then more quickly, these puddles resembled little ponds and then formed a lake.  My teenaged children gleefully raced out to enjoy floating in our backyard on a neighbor’s rowboat.  “Fun” I thought, at first, until I realized the water in the yard was approaching the garage from one direction and rain was still rolling down the driveway from the other.

“I think it might reach the garage,” I said, in unconcerned understatement.  I knew we had a sump pump in the basement for just such an event.

“Glug, glug,” went the sump pump continually from its subterranean hole in a corner.  Never having considered the matter before, I imagined the sump pump discharged somewhere distant.  Only during Floyd did I realize it discharged through a pipe onto our front lawn and, from there, the water eventually found its way back to our driveway.  But the discharge was only a tiny piece of the crisis; the first significant problem arose when the pump’s plastic discharge pipe, which ran up the corner of my wife’s office just off the recreation room in the basement, failed.  A spray of water shot through the air soaking, among other things, my beloved ping pong table, my wife’s collection of educational consulting books, family photographs, the kids’ astro-turfed indoor soccer area (didn’t everyone have one?) and a large carpet.  We turned off the pump and ran around frantically with towels.  “Nothing could be worse than this!” I declared.

Still, the waters around the house seemed to hold back despite a continuing deluge; the backyard continued to fill and would do so indefinitely, I imagined, for a few more ridiculously naïve minutes, while we struggled to deal with the sump pump calamity.  And then, as though one water molecule communicated a signal to a trillion others, the water at the garage entrance began to creep towards the house.  It was like a scene from a horror movie.  Even a perfectly functioning sump pump would have been overwhelmed.  The situation had become much, much worse.  In about ten minutes, the entire garage and surrounding office and recreation area succumbed to ten inches of water.

 

*****

Though I’m still to the skeptical side of the spectrum about meteorologists and media hype, Floyd showed how wrong I could be.  There may be more misses than hits, but having experienced what a monster storm can do, I learned a few things, namely:  the disasters that arise may not all be ones you anticipate; the media goes overboard but they are not ALWAYS wrong; and, it’s best to view natural disasters on television, from a distance.  I wish for a quick and safe recovery to all who have found Florence to be more of a hit than a miss.

 

 

 


A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

 

 

 

 

I turned off the television following a re-broadcast of “Schindler’s List.”  Though I’ve seen it several times over the years it always leaves me speechless for a while.

“That wasn’t much fun,” I finally said to my wife, Katie.

“There’s more to art than just enjoyment,” she sagely responded.

“I know,” I said, like a petulant child. “But who aims to torture the audience?”

We smiled at each other and said, at the same moment:  “Iris.”

 

*****

During a visit to Rhinecliff, NY last summer, our friends, Donna and Rick, invited us to join them to see an opera at Bard, the local college, where a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall anchors a scenic campus.  Though fond of classical music, I’d never attended an opera in person.  When I heard about the evening, I assumed we’d be seeing one of the anchors of the repertoire, something by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart.  Boy, was I surprised!

 

*****

 

“Who?” I said.

“Mascagni is the composer,” said Katie.

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“I’m sure the opera will be enjoyable,” she said.  “After all, it’s a summer college presentation called ‘Iris.’  It’s probably a comedy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.  Mascagni, I speculated, was probably a pop sensation in the 1890’s.  We shared a great dinner with Donna and Rick and then drove to campus. After admiring the beautiful setting and building, we filed inside.  We found our seats, the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced an overture both melodic and romantic.

“This will be nice,” I thought.

Suddenly, the melody stopped and a discordant murmur issued from the strings.  The curtain lifted to reveal two performers, a man and a woman, dressed in rags. They appeared distraught, thrashing and wailing while hidden figures above them atop a wall ripped pieces of paper and dropped them, like confetti, on the performer’s heads.  For several moments this activity held my interest. Unfortunately, it continued for twenty minutes.

Katie and I looked at each other and fought the urge to laugh, as though we were Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.  (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube).  The “action,” if that is the right word, never changed much over the next two hours. Rags and debris, cries and moans, deaths and dismemberments.

Occasionally, the music swelled with snippets of melody, but they never lasted long.  What kept us in our seats was the expectation that relief must be on the way.   A happy ending must be just around the corner.  But, no, Mascagni had different ideas.

At intermission, during which a sizable portion of the audience departed, I read the detailed program notes. Mascagni, it turns out, had early success.  His opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” remains a beloved favorite to this day.  But he came to believe applause during his operas was insulting and intrusive.  Therefore, he constructed his later works to minimize the possibility of adulation.  Each time the music in “Iris” built towards conventional beauty, Mascagni brought it down with a crash.  Any time a singer appeared to be on the verge of an ovation, he or she retreated offstage to be replaced by a scene both ugly and sad.

“How did ‘Iris’ become popular?” I wondered.

It didn’t, is the answer provided by the program.  Its most recent revival was in the 1930’s in Europe when, perhaps, discordance seemed de rigeur.  Personally, I will be surprised if “Iris” is revived again in this millennium.

As to Mascagni, he was confident his new ascetic aesthetic would become popular.  He felt “purity” was a virtue greater than “beauty.”  It’s not up to me to declare he’s wrong.  Time has told the tale.  Mascagni’s contemporaries, like Puccini and Verdi, are still famous and beloved.  Beyond his youthful “popular” works, Mascagni is forgotten.

 

*****

 

Following the opera, Rick and Donna took us to an on-campus tavern and performance space.  A rock band played loudly while a mostly college-age crowd danced and drank.  Normally, this is not my scene and I would seek a fast exit.  But this time, I enjoyed watching everyone have fun.  The mood was festive.

“Sorry about the opera,” said Rick. “We had no idea.”

“No problem,” I said.  “I suffered for two hours but gained a memory to last a lifetime.”