Archive for April, 2012

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Respect Your Mother Earth

April 22, 2012

“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!”

We first heard this as children in school, these lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” As a child, it was merely a song, but through the years as I have traveled about this great country of ours, the words have taken on new meaning as I saw for myself the incredible splendors sprawled out from sea to shining sea. Each had a character and beauty of its own, and each left an indelible imprint in my memory. I do not exaggerate when I say that the natural wonders I beheld stirred my soul.

White Sands, New Mexico

How could this not be so? Gaze upon the pure white other-worldly dunes of White Sands. Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and watch the sun rise over the vast crevice. Listen as the mighty waves of the Atlantic crash with a thunderous roar on the rocky coast of Maine.  Walk in the sand as the seals bob their heads up in the surf along the pristine shoreline of Cape Cod National Seashore. How can the creations of mankind possibly match the staggering majesty of the Great Arch in Utah or the mighty Mt. Denali in Alaska? If you don’t believe me, next vacation, rather than visiting the artificial monuments of glass and steel and neon like Las Vegas, Hollywood, or Disney World, venture forth to explore the grandeur of the Tetons or Yosemite or Acadia or Big Sur. They all speak far more eloquently for themselves than I ever could. In the words of the great naturalist John Muir, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Mt. Denali, Alaska

So today, April 22, the day which has been designated as Earth Day, the often distracted or oblivious inhabitants of this nation are reminded to reflect on and appreciate the wonders of this land and all its natural glory. As far as I’m concerned, this should be done every day. While we are at it, we might perhaps reconsider the shortsighted intrusions we make on it for our own “benefit.”

The native peoples of the past did not need Earth Day, for they had an instinctive reverence for the natural world and a realization of its delicate balance. It seems that “civilization” has made us arrogant, for the view that the land and all that is upon or under it is merely there for our exploitation is now prevalent. This is a shame that can become a tragedy, for humans have ignored this stark reality:  if we do not take care of this planet, we will destroy it, and us along with it. This is not crazy talk. It is not the doomsday rambling of some overzealous tree hugger. It is science. It is common sense. And, in the long run, it is a matter of survival.

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Natural resources are a finite entity. They are not a commodity to be manipulated for the benefit of national power, corporate stockholders, or personal convenience. Modern man has exploited the gifts of this Earth without regard for their potential depletion or the destruction that is the byproduct of their acquisition. We have disregarded the interconnected nature of all things that make up the ecology of this world, and in doing so, have created an imbalance that is spiraling out of control.

History shows that we constantly overestimate our ability to safely extract the materials that we want and dispose of their waste. The result has been the pollution and destruction of our only environment. How many oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, deforestations, slag heaps, chemical contaminations, oceanic plastic “swamps,” animal extinctions, fouled wells, garbage-laden landfills, toxic dumps, and poisoned water sources do we need to understand this?

upstate New York: another site for “fracking”?

The cry of some at the moment is more oil, more oil, more oil. Why? Because we need it? No, we do not need it. We just want it. We have become energy gluttons who value convenience over conservation. How about downsizing the gas-guzzling vehicles we seem to covet? How about using more mass transit or even walking or biking? How about foregoing the wasteful McMansions and living in reasonably sized houses with moderately controlled temperatures? How about greater support for developing and making use of the technologies that would allow us to produce energy without destroying our planet in the process?

Teton Range, Wyoming: let the drilling begin?

Americans are the biggest culprits. We have perverted the concept of freedom and liberty into I-should-get-whatever-I-want-and-the-hell-with-everyone-else. That is not freedom; it is license. Just because we have the means and the power to do something does not mean we have the right to do it. Our avarice is reprehensible considering the consequences for the future of life on Earth.

I understand that there will be those who read this and shake their heads. They think this view is far-fetched and implausible. I’m afraid it will take nothing short of catastrophe to convince  them. Perhaps they should speak to those folks from Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Seveso, and the Love Canal who also once felt that way. Until it happened to them, that is.

We do not have unlimited time to solve the problem even if the skeptics change their view. The very things that make life possible are being endangered, and damage that is being done now to our atmosphere and oceans cannot be reversed. Unlike the dinosaurs, we will have no one to blame for our extinction but ourselves. If you listen carefully at this very moment, you might be able to hear the sorrowful cries of your Mother Earth as she witnesses the betrayal of the humans who inhabit her. Or perhaps that is just the sound of the ice caps melting.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” -- John Muir

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” — John Muir

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My Big Sister

April 8, 2012

Together from the start.

I have a big sister. This probably does not make me unique. That my big sister is who she is, however, does. I am certain there is no one else quite like her.

Her name is Laraine. There are not many Laraines anymore, nor were there ever, for that matter. The name comes either from Latin, meaning ocean bird, or French, derived from Lothaire, the ruler of the region Lotharingia later known as Lorraine, depending on which source you chose to believe. Neither really matters, though. She was named as I was, for no other reason than our parents liked the name.

I look through my old photo albums, and those brittle black pages are filled with pictures of Laraine and I through our years together in the small Cape Cod house in Bergenfield where we grew up. A floodgate of memories opens. Over the sixty-five years of our existence as siblings, my sister has been many things to me: protector, tormentor, playmate, mentor, confidant, and confider. We have shared a room, a childhood, secrets, and both extreme joy and heartbreak. There are twenty-two months and sixty miles between us, but still we share our hearts.

Little me with my big sis.

There are so many memories of small moments in our lives that remain vivid in my mind. They tumble forth in an avalanche of emotion, each a story unto itself. Our battles over putting the tinsel on the Christmas tree. Enacting imaginary fantasies with our next door neighbors Chris and Ceil in the driveway. Our “squeaky bed song” as we jumped up and down on the mattress at the old Tenafly house of our grandparents. Almost burning down granddaddy’s garage while playing with matches. Trick or treating together, Laraine in mom’s homemade creations, like the year she was a slice of watermelon. The night we chattered long after lights out and then called Mom a witch when she scolded us. The time we bravely hid dad’s booze.

And oh, the many dilemmas of growing up: Laraine so desperately wanting braces, the drama of trying to make cheer leading, the manipulations over prom dates. Then the real challenges began — adulthood and marriage and parenthood and changes almost too drastic to cope with and aging and too many sorrowful departures. In other words, life. It was in this connected life that I saw the strength and integrity and conviction of my big sister.

Laraine, Robbie, mom, and dad visiting the college freshman

I’ll never forget the worst day of our lives. The phone rang early that Saturday morning, and it was Laraine. I knew something was terribly wrong as soon as I heard her voice. She solemnly told me that Robbie, Laraine’s first son, my Godson, was in an accident on the way home from his first eighth grade dance. He had been struck by a car while crossing the street. He was in the hospital, and it didn’t look good. She asked if we could go to mom and dad’s and tell them for her in person; she just couldn’t bring herself to do it over the phone. Bernadette and I did that, and the pain of that day still weighs heavily in my soul. Robbie didn’t make it, and through those difficult days, Laraine bore the most unbearable of all possible grief with such incredible grace.

After dad had his debilitating stroke, he could no longer communicate, at least not in words. But he and Laraine had their own language borne of that special connection between fathers and daughters. He felt so helpless, and not being allowed to drive was such a significant degradation in that time of desperation. One day they went off together in his old Ford for some errand or other, and she let him drive in a large empty parking lot, allowing him a confirmation to himself that he was still at least in part the man he thought he was. When she shared this with me, I was so proud that she had done that with him.

When mom died, the bittersweet task of clearing out the house fell to my wife, Laraine, and I. We laughed and we cried as the items taken from closets and bureaus brought back memories and stories. I am glad we did this together, for no final communion with our common past would have been satisfactory otherwise. Each supposedly mundane thing was a precious reminder of how special this place was because of the times we shared in it.

After the house was sold, I made one final trip by myself. I sat at the dining room table in the fading afternoon sun and let myself drift into the past, vignettes playing out of all the time we had spent there as a family. Though I was alone, Laraine was with me in spirit, for this was our life, not just mine. For the last time, I walked out the side door and down the tiny brick porch where the milkman once set his bottles, down the driveway of all those wonderful days of hopscotch and roller skating and make-believe. I drove away, my heart broken, yet full.

As I look back now so many years down the road, I view my lifelong relationship with my big sister from a perspective that is steeped in pure affection. Though in the course of our lives there have been separations in time and distance and experience, it matters not, for our souls are forever entwined. We have been siblings for six decades. The bond between us is eternal.

Growin’ up, but not apart.

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The Corduroy Pants

April 1, 2012

Spring cleaning time prompts an annual and usually fruitless trip to our storage closet to go through clothes with the goal of reduction in volume. Since I am cursed with a Depression mentality — which, unfortunately, may come in handy — I always envision a day when hard times will descend upon us and I’ll wish I would have kept this or that. Therefore, the get-rid-of-pile is always far smaller than it really should be.

As I dragged the hangers along their rod from the old gravy-stained button down white shirts and frayed flannels to the out-of-style or faded-from-wear pants, suddenly I saw them. A pair of corduroy pants. The sight froze me in my tracks and plunged me back in time to the seventh grade and the adolescent trauma of realizing that I resided in Fashion Hell.

This revelation came courtesy of one Jerry Hawkins during third period math class. Jerry was everything that I was not: tall, good-looking, muscular, and cool. He was a mainstay on the football team. He played electric guitar. And he was a sharp dresser.

I, on the other hand, was a walking thrift store nightmare. One example of this was my pants. At any given time, I had three pairs of pants that followed a planned progression. The newest ones would be for church or special occasions. The previous church pants, now quite “broken in,” became my school pants. The former school pants, now firmly in the beat-up category, turned into my play pants. This rotation was firmly ensconced by the time I reached Roy W. Brown Junior High School, and I had no reason to question its propriety or logic. That is, until Jerry Hawkins.

At the beginning of that particular school year, my school pants were a pair of brown corduroys. My mom was fastidious about keeping them clean and ready to go, but the fact remained that each day, there I was in those same corduroys.

Miss Pindar, our notorious math teacher, was a great one for having students come up to the blackboard to be berated and humiliated for our lack of expertise in front of the whole class. I sat midway back in the rows, a relatively safe haven in which to cower hopefully unnoticed, but still not immune to her dragnet. Jerry sat near the front, the province of the “bad boys” so Miss Pindar could keep on eye on him. When anyone was called to the board, an anxious silence fell over the room in anticipation of the impending lambasting. It was in this silence that I and my corduroys were found out.

“Donald, come up and show us how you solved problem four on last night’s homework,” barked the Voice of Doom on that fateful day. This didn’t bode well, for as usual, I hadn’t done last night’s homework. Faking a problem under Miss Pindar’s withering scrutiny was an impossible task, so I braced myself for the worst. I rose from my seat trying hard to control the shaking that sought to render my legs inoperable. As I slowly made my way to the front blackboard, there it was, the Sound. “Vipp, vipp, vipp, vipp,” the song of the corduroy pants as the fabric of each leg brushed against the other.

All eyes were upon me and my pants, all ears tuned in to the sound of shameful uncoolness. And no one was more tuned in than Jerry Hawkins. The few snickers bold enough to brave Miss Pindar’s icy scowl faded quickly, and I was left to bumble my way  through problem four and the searing criticism it provoked. I returned to my seat, eviscerated but relieved to be done, and again I was accompanied by the “vipp, vipp, vipp.” It seemed to echo throughout the room.

The hallway after Algebra class, usually a refuge from the fear of the classroom, became a nightmare. “Hey!” boomed Jerry, “Wheredya get the pants?!” This was the first of many cleverly crafted comments directed my way, followed of course by the chuckles and guffaws of his henchmen and hangers-on. “I gotta get me a pair of those!” This became a daily occurrence and prompted me to spend much time pondering strategies to escape his badgering and belittling remarks.

Eventually Jerry tired of  me and moved on to another target (some egghead with thick coke-bottle lenses, as I recall), but my self-image and confidence had been scarred by the experience. I tried to convince my mom to let me broaden my sartorial horizons, and she reluctantly acquiesced, perhaps realizing the fragile nature of my Junior High psyche at the time.

I never became cool or even what one would consider to be even mildly fashionable, but as I became part of the invisible masses in the large high school environment in which I found myself, it mattered less and less. And, as it sometimes inexplicably happens, my liability turned into an asset in the helter-skelter days of college in the 60’s.

In 1976 I happened upon Jerry Hawkins once again after not seeing him since high school. Jefferson Airplane had morphed into Jefferson Starship, and they were performing an outdoor concert in Central Park which I attended with some friends. As we walked along one of the paths leading to the Sheep Meadow, I saw Jerry, standing there by himself. From the way he was dressed, ironically enough, he looked a bit down on his luck. I didn’t approach him, and he didn’t notice me. I doubt that he would have remembered me anyway. I sometimes wonder what became of him.

My hand now hovered over the corduroys in my closet, unsure of what to do. My first impulse was to rid myself of this vestige of middle school crisis, but I decided against it. After all, as distressful as it may have been at the time, that episode did teach me a valuable lesson, and these pants were a concrete reminder of it. Besides, the fashion gods may just decide to anoint corduroys as the Next Big Thing. One never knows. But if that does turn out to be the case, I’ll be ready.