Monday, December 31, 2012

Tenacious G: The Eyes Have It


I’ve decided that what’s wrong with our healthcare system boils down to two factors—my mother and doctors.

First, let's talk about Mom.
My 86-year-old mother nagged me for the better part of November to get her a new pair of eyeglasses because the old ones "weren't working anymore." Naturally, I'm not ethically able to accomplish this without the assistance of an ophthalmologist (aka, eye doctor). She had cataract surgery last year, so this problem should have already been cleared up. I responded as soon as I could. The challenge was finding a nearby doctor with an appointment time open in the same year that I was calling.

Which brings us to doctors.


I made an appointment with an ophthalmologist and after three weeks of waiting, we arrived to get her glasses prescription checked.

Flashback: 
When I was a child, we went to an eye doctor who had a practice in his home, a lovely Victorian house near Main Street in Boonton. We would sit in his parlor listening to a grandfather clock tick until the patient before us was finished. There were no televised commercials blaring. Just blessed silence. And the ticking sound. Then the eye doctor would invite us into his examining room and spend the next hour with us. He knew us by name and asked us how everyone in the family was doing. On the way out, I got a lollipop.

Today, eye doctors are strangers located in office buildings and deal in patient volume. We stood in line for 15 minutes, much like is done at the Division of Motor Vehicles, waiting to check in with the receptionist. Then we spent another 20 minutes waiting in a room packed with dozens of other patients before being shown in to an examining room. Mom was complaining loudly and bitterly about the wait time throughout.

Patient volume is important. That means standing-room-only.
The examining room allowed Mom and me plenty of additional quality time until a young girl with a perky smile came in and gave my mother several vision tests. Unfortunately, the girl had a thick accent and I am hard of hearing, so it was difficult for me to understand anything she said. She asked Mom a number of rapid-fire questions about her eyesight and my mother had no idea how to answer the technical terms that were being thrown her way. So, Mom denied having any problems whatsoever. While this was happening, I experienced more flashbacksthis time, of her nonstop eye complaints during the past two months.

We were escorted back into the standing-room-only waiting room where we sat for another 15 minutes before being re-invited into a second examining room. Like sands in an hourglass, more of our lives passed into a sandy lump of boredom. Just as we were both about to doze off, the doctor swept into the room. He reviewed what the young girl had written on Mom’s chart and asked Mom if she had any vision complaints.

Which brings us back to the patient:

Eye problems? Me? No way.
Like the Biblical disciple, Peter, in the high priest’s courtyard, Mom denied her vision problems a second time.

“No,” she replied. “I’m fine.” Mom comes from that generation of women who were taught never to complain—except to their daughters. I reminded her that she was having problems seeing out of one of her eyes and as a result wasn’t able to read as much or generally see things when we went shopping.

She denied this a third time, looking irritated, and I gave up.

Which returns us to the doctor:

The doctor smiled, peered intently at her eyeballs, then announced that in 30 percent of cataract surgeries, the eye clouds over, and that’s what happened to her. The solution is a five-minute laser surgery that corrects it. Having delivered his prognosis, he left as quickly as he had come.

By now, both Mom and I had lost interest in her eye problems. We just wanted to leave. As the afternoon wore on, Mom’s primary concern became getting back to her assisted living facility for dinner.

Dinner became Mom's focus.
This day’s appointment had been for 12:30 p.m. and it was now almost 4 p.m. I must assume that the eye doctor believed that anyone who had the audacity to schedule an appointment with him was grateful to spend a half day playing musical chairs in his office.

The young girl returned to fill out paperwork for my mother’s office surgery that would take place in about six weeks. She asked my mother detailed questions about her eyesight, trying to establish what needed improvement. Nothing, according to my mother. The young girl flashed a disingenuous smile and told us someone would be calling the following day to set up a surgery appointment.

Two weeks later I received the call. In a month, she will have another opportunity to spend the better part of a day with this doctor. We can only hope the surgery will clear up her vision. I don’t know if we have the stamina to return to his office again.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Coming to Terms with the Unacceptable


When I heard about the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, my gut reaction was disbelief and tears. I am a mother, after all. So, in a universal sense, those children were my children, too. My husband, on the other hand, reacted in an entirely different fashion. He became very angry. He wanted to find the parties at fault and punish them. But who would that be?

The carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School was heinous, but since Columbine in 1999, I have seen too many mass shootings in the news to believe that any simple fix will put an end to them. Even before the smoke clears, the news media begins finger pointing. And the scenario always seems to go like this: Senseless tragedy, news reports featuring the killer like a celebrity, political pontification, days or weeks of analysis including a scorecard of number of people killed in past shootings versus the current one, and finally,  human interest stories that follow up on the courage of survivors or lament lives cut short.

I don’t mean to trivialize this terrible event. We all are going through a group grieving process. And we follow these rituals to come to terms with what has happened. What I do disagree with is the naïve notion that any one piece of new legislation or mental health band-aid will put an end to this type of bloodshed.

It seems to me that someone who murders groups of innocent people is already profoundly deranged. Maybe they were born that way; maybe circumstances pushed them over the edge. It surely differs from one instance to another. So, why can’t we stop these madmen? Because of one simple fact—no one can ever truly know what is going on in the mind of another human being.

Should we ban assault weapons? Makes sense since they are not used for hunting. Would be a good start. But even in countries where people have no access to guns, mass killings take place. In China, there have been a series of grammar school massacres by disgruntled, knife-wielding perpetrators. Will more access to mental health support solve the problem? Perhaps.  Although many psychotropic drugs dispensed by psychiatrists have side effects that can trigger aggressive behavior and suicide. And if someone is psychotic, can any amount of care truly help them or must we just learn to identify them and remove them from society? Is it deficient parenting? We all try our best, but with the loss of the extended family and the necessity of two parents in the workplace, parenting is more of a challenge than ever.

We live in a pressure-cooker society with long work hours, negativity-drenched media, a lack of community safety nets and a hunger for simple kindness on an everyday basis. None of this can be fixed by the federal or state government.

Only on an individual basis can we begin to change our world. That may include turning off vitriolic news commentators, building stronger relationships with family and neighbors, and reassessing how we treat ourselves as a part of the global environment. Everything we think, say and do shapes the world in which we live. Granted, individual behavior shifts are also unlikely to deter all potential killers, but they represent a first step at creating a world that is less likely to incubate them. And in the meantime, it could make life more pleasant for the rest of us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Shatner's World: We Just Live in It


William Shatner reflects on life.
In a departure from its usual high-brow showcases of classical music, opera and plays, this past Sunday the New Jersey Performing Arts Center hosted Canadian actor William Shatner in a one-man show befitting his infamous humility titled, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It

As admitted long-time Star Trek fans, my husband, Stephen, and I couldn’t resist attending this gathering of gray-haired geekdom. (I also must confess to a sneaking admiration for Shatner’s more recent character, Denny Crane, from Boston Legal.)

When I was a teenager, in the late 1960s, my friends and I were glued to the television every Wednesday night when the original Star Trek television show was aired. We thrilled to watching Captain James T. Kirk, his first officer, Mr. Spock, and their trusty crew careening through the galaxy, sparring or smooching with aliens and attempting but usually failing to follow the prime directive of noninterference with indigenous cultures. This often resulted in the ship’s doctor, Bones, announcing, “He’s dead, Jim.” as red-shirted ship’s crew collapsed around them. And who could resist that well-oiled chest peeking out of Kirk's oft-ripped Federation uniform.

But this performance was not an homage to Star Trek as much as a celebration of its famed over-acting star, William Shatner. At a spry 81 years old, he was remarkably witty, philosophical and engrossing to watch as he strode across the stage talking, and occasionally screaming, for emphasis.

Shatner backed by his projected crew.
Shatner began with a chronological sharing of his life and career, which was funny, touching and thought-provoking. We learned such cocktail party trivia as the last words of Steve Jobs, which were “Wow, wow, wow.” but with no certainty as to if his dying statement was an expression of wonderment or trepidation. We reviewed his career from stage to television to screen and heard many amusing anecdotes related to each. We shared his love of horses, which brought him and his latest wife (number four, I think) together. They’ve been married for 13 years, so it would seem he has finally found some peace in his personal life.

At the end of the performance, he offers a projected collage of scenes from throughout his long life and makes the point—obviously important to him—that no one should ever expect him to save the world or look upon him as an authority figure. “I’m only an entertainer,” he reminds his audience. Indeed, that’s true. And as his fan-base slowly filed out of the auditorium there was a satisfied consensus that he was correct. William Shatner is an entertainer—and a very accomplished one at that.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

One Wedding and a Frankenstorm

This is a tale about true love and the ravages of climate change.

First, picture a young couple, very much in love, who have spent the last year planning the perfect wedding in Newark, Delaware, 147 miles away from our home in the Garden State of New Jersey. It will be an idyllic affair. The bride is a statuesque blond and the groom, tall and athletic. The event is being held at a country club that sits on the edge of a pristine golf course with green, rolling hills. The bridesmaids will be wearing midnight-topaz blue dresses and the ushers will be attired in dark suits and ties. 

Celebrants will be served a several-course dinner and will dance the night away to the strains of loud and well-played live music.

Now picture that this unsuspecting couple has planned the most important day of their lives on the same weekend that an evil Frankenstorm named Sandy is plodding its way up the coast, leaving a trail of devastation and death in its wake. Lifetime vows are being made and guests are whiling the evening away like a reenactment of the Titanic as The Storm of the Century is darkly closing in.

My husband, Steve, and I had traveled 90 minutes by train to attend this lovely affair. We arrived on Friday midday. The wedding would be the following night. We began to realize as the shuttle pulled up to our hotel that we should be buying supplies—like food, bottled water and bandages—back in New Jersey to weather the storm. It also became apparent that our Sunday afternoon train back home might be cutting things a bit close. So I called Amtrak and rescheduled for a 9 a.m. train instead. This would have us back home in Jersey by midday Sunday.

On Saturday, as we were strolling around Newark, taking in the sights of this quaint little college town, my daughter, Chelsea, texted me to find out if I would like her to bring some wood in for our new wood-burning stove in case the power went out during the storm. I texted back, yes, and can you buy us some bags of ice for a cooler and several jugs of water as well? Sure, she said. Later that day, she texted back a photo of empty shelves at the local grocery store. A panicked population had cleaned out everything on the shelves. Oh well. It was nice of her to think of us since she no longer lived at home.

The wedding went off as planned. The couple looked like Barbie and Ken. I cried as they came down the aisle past us to start their life together as husband and wife. How did this cute little two year old I'd watched in play group grow up so fast to become a lawyer and married woman? We left the wedding at 10 p.m. and returned to our hotel to pack. A taxi was picking us up at 7:45 a.m. the following morning to get us to the train station in Wilmington, about 20 minutes away from our hotel.

When we woke up the next morning, I switched on the television and noticed on the news reports that Amtrak had canceled all service between Chicago and Washington. I became worried that our train might also be canceled, leaving us stranded in Delaware with no food, water or accommodations as Sandy curled her powerful arms of destruction into the area. I called Amtraks’ automated line and a robotic Julie answered, saying there was no information on the status of our train. She mechanically suggested I speak to an agent. So I called to speak to an agent and left my phone on speaker so I could get ready to leave the hotel while waiting for someone to answer. Repetitive messages cheerfully reminded me that I could go onto the Internet to find out train status, which turned out not to be true. I waited for 60 minutes for someone who was "busy with other customers" to answer. They never did. Finally, as we pulled into the train station, I hung up and hoped for the best.

I put my credit card into the ticket machine and it spit out two Amtrak passes. Then we went over to the ticket window to ask if our train was still running. The clerk smiled and said, yes, it was running and on time. It rolled into the station as 9 a.m., as promised. We gratefully boarded with gray clouds and wind at our backs, leaving us with a neurotic sense of impending doom. We arrived in New Jersey at 10:15 a.m., located our car and sped back home. The skies were steel-colored, but no wind or rain was yet in the area. After stopping at home to feed the cats (our daughter had fed them while we were gone), we went directly to the local grocery store where they were restocking water jugs. We bought some and returned home to fill the bathtub—not sure why—and cook soup and muffins (two important staples during adverse weather events).

The storm finally hit Monday night. We were texting relatives and friends to make sure everyone was okay. One by one, everyone began to lose power. We were one of the last to go dark late Monday evening. Winds picked up, sounding like a freight train passing our windows. We had already fired up our wood-burning stove before the lights went out, so were toasty warm. I had also bought a battery-powered lamp last year after an unprecedented Halloween blizzard had left us without heat or light for a week. So this year, we were prepared. We sat by the light of our 1000-lumen lamp, playing bingo and eating muffins. (Before judging us, please bear in mind our age.)

The following morning, we had no idea what had happened as we had no power and no Internet. Steve walked outside to survey the yard. No trees had fallen, but a large branch had bounced off his car’s windshield, leaving a sizable spider web of glass. After some brief cursing befitting an Italian, he adopted a Zen viewpoint about it. Compared to what other people most likely had suffered, it was relatively benign.

During the day, our power would come back for two minutes, giving us a brief snippet of television news, then die again for hours. This peep show of events revealed that much of our beloved Jersey shore had washed out to sea and some areas of inland flooding had occurred. Most deaths were due to fallen trees. This on-and-off power tease went on throughout Wednesday as well. Some of our family and friends got their power back; some were still in the dark like us. On Thursday morning, Steve found out the power was back where he worked, so I drove him in as his car was at the dealership getting a new windshield. The office where I was working freelance was still closed, curtailing my income for the week. 

Fortunately, Thursday night, our power came back. Now we were faced with another barrier to our livelihood. Our cars were running out of gas and so were the local gas stations. I had the option of working from home, but Steve didn't.

So ends the tale of one wedding and a Frankenstorm. True love and true destruction. We knew that eventually things would return to normal—until next year.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Phantom Cell Phone


Recently, my husband, Stephen, was driving to work when a police officer pulled him over. This, in itself, is absurd. My husband motors like a grandmother. He always goes the speed limit and is the safest driver—irritatingly so—that I have ever known. 

So when he rolled down the window of his 1995 Beretta to talk to the police officer, he told him that he couldn’t imagine why he was being pulled over. He knew he wasn’t speeding. He knew his car was well-maintained. He knew he hadn’t broken any laws.

The officer smugly replied that he had seen my husband texting—and that is against the law. My husband responded by laughing.

Why would an otherwise model citizen laugh in the face of the law? You would have to know a deep, dark secret about Stephen to understand why. He is not like the rest of us. He doesn’t own a cell phone.

The officer insisted he saw him texting and Stephen stated that, quite simply, that was impossible. When Stephen finally convinced the man in blue that he lived his life without a cell phone, the officer expressed shock at how he could possibly survive. Stephen said, quite well, and he had no desire to jump on the 24/7 communication bandwagon.

He drove away without a ticket—and after having received a cheerful apology. This experience, however, calls into question how valid any ticket written for texting truly can be if a man who doesn’t own a cell phone is pulled over for such an infraction. Maybe our law enforcement community could use some sobriety tests of their own—or at the very least, some eye exams.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Walking the High Line


Yee-ha! Manhattan cowboy! (Courtesy www.thehighline.org)
One of the items on my local bucket list is walking on the High Line in New York City. This past Sunday, my immediate family and I did just that.

For those of you not from the New York City area, here’s a little history on the High Line, courtesy of www.thehighline.org.

The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of an infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It was an elevated freight rail line that operated 30 feet above street level, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan's largest industrial district.
 
The original train lines, constructed in 1847, were built at ground level. Unfortunately, from 1851 to 1929, so many collisions occurred between trains and street-level traffic that 10th Avenue became known as Death Avenue (very Goth). For safety, men on horses, called the West Side Cowboys, would ride in front of trains waving red flags (see above photo).

After years of public debate about the hazard, the City and State of New York and the New York Central Railroad agreed upon the West Side Improvement Project, which included the High Line. (Back in the day when building/maintaining infrastructure was seen as a good thing.) The entire project was 13 miles long, eliminated 105 street-level railroad crossings and added 32 acres to Riverside Park. It cost over $150 million in 1930 dollars—more than $2 billion today. 

Residents decorate windows for passers by.
In 1934, the High Line opened, running from 34th Street to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street. It connected directly to factories and warehouses, allowing trains to roll right inside buildings. Milk, meat, produce, and raw and manufactured goods were transported without causing street-level traffic.

Unfortunately, the advent of the car and its corollary, the truck, had a chilling effect on mass transportation. As interstate trucking grew in the 1950s, the volume of rail traffic dropped in New York and nationally. In the 1960s, with our usual panache for disregarding history and razing everything in sight, the southernmost section of the High Line was demolished. The last train ran on the remaining tracks in 1980. Ironically, it was pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.

Architecture along the park is fascinating.
No trains have run on the High Line since. Fortunately, a group of New Yorkers had a vision for the derelict tracks, which were under the threat of demolition in the late 1990s. What they proposed was to keep the structure, which was essentially sound, and turn it into a park. 

A drummer enjoys the day.
The project gained the city's support in 2002. The High Line south of 30th Street was donated to the city by CSX Transportation Inc. in 2005. The design team of landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, created the High Line's appearance with guidance from a community of enthusiastic High Line supporters. 

Construction on the park began in 2006. The first section, from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, opened June 9, 2009. The second section, from West 20th Street to West 30th Street, opened in spring, 2011. 
One section of the High Line has windows out onto the street.

Elevated rail platforms are being converted into parks in other cities as well. The city of Paris successfully converted a similar rail viaduct into an elevated park called the Promenade Plantée in 1993. Projects similar to the High Line are in early stages in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago and Rotterdam.

About one third of the remaining track remains undeveloped. While the High Line's use as a park is secure below West 30th Street, the future of the northernmost section, around the West Side Rail Yards, depends upon plans now being developed by the State-run MTA and a private developer. This section of the High Line (West 30th Street to West 34th Street) may be fully preserved, altered or removed. As someone who has had the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful park, my vote would be to expand the park rather than remove the tracks. After all, the platform is structurally sound and architecture of this magnitude is unlikely to reappear any time soon. 
The Statue of Liberty peeks through the opening to the right.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reclaiming the Community We Always Wanted



I remember my father telling me that when he was growing up, his family—that had emigrated en masse from Hungary—grew a lot of their own food on their small lot on Washington Street in Boonton, New Jersey. They had fruit trees, they had trellises of grapes from which they made their own wine and they grew vegetables and herbs. Some of their neighbors had chickens. They kept pigeons, which apparently were good eating. They also had a root cellar for storing some of their crops for the winter. And it was a big day when the outhouse was replaced by indoor plumbing.
Dad's old homestead courtesy of Google Maps Street View.

My father said that he and his friends once got in trouble because they were caught overturning outhouses on Mischief Night before Halloween. There was no television, so people in the community used to get together for dances and socialize. He said that everyone truly wished the best for everyone else because getting by was so hard. I used to think that all of his tales of life before and during the Depression were all so strange and old-fashioned. Not anymore.

When I was very young, my father, like most people, walked every day to his local job. When the car became the norm, people ceased walking and drove to their jobs and everywhere else. They no longer needed a community. Or so they thought. Now I don’t want to upset anyone with predictions of doom. Things are happening in this country, but gradually, so there is plenty of time to make adjustments if you should choose to do so. Here are a few things you may want to consider.

“This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Food

If you follow the news, you may have noticed a corn drought in the U.S. Corn is an essential staple in our country because it is used for animal feed. The prices of corn have skyrocketed since there is so little of it, so farmers who would normally grow other crops, such as wheat and soybeans, are switching to corn to make more money, thus causing shortages of other crops. Frankly, I have no use for corn, whether it is for human consumption or fed to the livestock we eat, because most of it in this country is genetically engineered (GMO), but that is another blog altogether [click here to read about that]. The point is, that due to that drought, produce and livestock food prices will be going up.

Energy

I can only remember one or two blackouts all the years I was growing up. It was a rare event. In the past few years, power outages have occurred with disturbing frequency. When the power goes out, so does the heat, hot water, light and cable internet/television/telephone. You can sit in the cold dark and twiddle your thumbs. Last October, when it was 50 degrees, our power was out for a week. Not cold enough to freeze to death, but not all that comfortable either and a lot of our freezer/fridge food went bad.

Jobs

Like so many Americans, my husband and I have jobs where there are no vacation days or holidays. I am a freelance writer and he works as a retail manager for a locally owned business. If we get sick or otherwise can’t work, we don’t get paid. So how do we afford things when our budget gets lean?

Finding Alternative Ways to Live

Our garden features high deer fence, foot-deep groundhog deterrent.
So with food and energy sources being threatened, and jobs being moved overseas, what can the average person do? Well, it’s not easy to find affordable alternatives, but a few of them are out there.

We buy most of our produce from a local organic community-supported farm. To find one in your area, go to https://www.biodynamics.com/csa.html. In exchange for buying a share of the farm in installments, we get whatever the farmer produces that year. So no matter how scarce food may be in the parched Midwest or how high transport costs are for food grown overseas, we have a supply of produce throughout the year from a local source. We also built a critter-proof (we hope) garden in our backyard this year where we will try to grow as much food as we can using non-GMO heritage seeds. We also plan to learn canning although, sorry Grandma, that may have to wait for next year. We can only handle so much transition at a time.

Meet our alternative to expensive oil heat.
“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”—Mitch Albom

We cannot afford solar or wind energy. Right now, they are not priced for the average person. We decided, instead, to get a wood-burning stove to provide us with heat when the power inevitably goes out and to lower our insane oil bills. We chose a wood-burning stove over a pellet stove because pellet stoves require electricity to work. We chose cast-iron over steel because most reviews I read by users favored it for radiant heat that was not too overpowering. You can also put a tea kettle on top of it for hot water. I hope we can learn to properly use the damned thing so that our house doesn’t fill up with smoke or burn down. Wish us luck.

I joined a nearby time bank where you can exchange your skills or talents for other people’s services to save money on, say, home repairs or pet sitting or learning how to can food. See timebanks.org for one in your area. Also, we ask our family, friends and neighbors for help when we need it, something we were too proud to do in the past (not sure why). We intend to help them as well if they ask for anything. That's what community is all about.

I used to think that survivalists were crackpots. Not any more. Our government is corrupt and our economy has been hijacked by crooks in the financial industry and by the multinational corporate mafia. People like the Koch brothers (Google them) call the shots in Washington and elsewhere. They are not great humanitarians.

One of my old high school friends who migrated to California posted a manifesto on Facebook with advice (see poster above). It may not be all that far off.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I think if the average person bands together with their family, friends and neighbors—as they did when my father was young—we can definitely learn from each other, survive quite well and rekindle the sense of community that has long been lost from our society. Maybe, in the long run, our world could end up being a better place.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Terracotta—More Than Just Cookware


Terracotta warrior stands guard over the museum.
More than 2,000 years ago, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, decided to build a necropolis filled with life-sized minions so he would have subjects to protect him and rule over after he died (a necessity for any self-respecting despot). As the most powerful man in China, he had the clout and resources to create this city of the dead, which included more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 670 horses and a throng of obsequious civilian officials, acrobats, strong men and musicians.

Today, the clay army in that tomb is known as the Terracotta Warriors and fortunately, an exhibit of them is currently on loan to a museum in New York City. Steve and I decided to visit that venue, the Discovery Times Square Museum, to see this unparalleled expression of funerary art.

Mr. Ed's ancestor warily watches passing tourists.
Emperor Qin ascended to the throne when he was 13 years old and, no doubt tapping on his adolescent angst, proved to be a powerful leader. Within the space of his lifetime, he unified seven warring states into the seed of what is now known as China. 

As the story goes, the emperor was afraid of death and constantly trying magic elixirs to achieve immortality. Eventually, around 210 BCE, he died anyway at the age of 49, most likely from the mercury contained in some of those potions. But before he passed on to legend, he ordered some 16,000 workers (700,000 according to ancient historian Sim Qian, perhaps exaggerating a tad) to create his necropolis where he was buried.


Drums meant charge, and bells, like
the one above, sounded retreat.
The emperor died while touring his vast kingdom. His Prime Minister, Li Si, who was traveling with him, decided it would be dangerous to let people know he was dead because it might trigger a general uprising in the Empire. (Apparently, not everyone was a fan of his unification project.)

Unfortunately, the emperor and his entourage were two months away from the capital when he expired, so only some subtle ingenuity would cover up that fact in the sweltering heat of summer. Most of the imperial entourage was not told of the emperor's death. Only a younger son, a trusted eunuch, Li Si and five or six other carefully chosen confidants knew.

I swear this warrior's eyes kept following me.
Li Si ordered that two carts loaded with rotten fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor. What better way to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the wagon of the emperor, where his corpse was happily decomposing in the summer heat? A shade was drawn on the emperor’s wagon, so no one could see his face. They also changed his clothes daily (must have been a fun job), brought food and conferred with him on important issues. (This may be an early competitor for the Vacations from Hell competitions held annually by certain travel websites.)

Smaller warriors from a later emperor.
Interestingly, a year before the emperor died, a large meteor is said to have landed in a province near the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it, an unknown and perhaps hostile soothsayer inscribed the words "The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.” Unfortunately, this got back to the emperor who was none too happy about it. He sent an imperial secretary to investigate this prophecy and when no one in the area would own up to having etched it on the stone, everyone living nearby was put to death (thus proving that old realtor adage of “location, location, location”). The stone was then burned and pulverized. Sadly for the emperor, this precaution was ineffective. He died the next year and through some treachery, his younger  son became the next emperor. The son proved to be a rather incompetent ruler and the prophecy came true.
Barbie-sized warriors from a later dynasty.

According to historian Sim Qian, who lived from 145–90 BCE, the second emperor of China decided that after his father died, it was time to do some housecleaning:

The Second Emperor said: ‘It is inappropriate for the wives of the late emperor who have no sons to be free,’ ordered that they be put to death, and many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the tomb and knew of its secrets were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, immediately trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape.” Basically, it may have been good to BE the emperor, but not necessarily to marry or work for him.

Lanterns light the way at the Chelsea Market.
The tomb was planted over with vegetation, so it would resemble a nonassuming hill. As a result, it lay undiscovered for more than two millennia until a local farmer, digging a well, found it in 1974.

After wending through this fascinating exhibit, Steve and I capped off the day by having a late lunch at The Green Table at the Chelsea Market—great organic, locally grown food—and then we sat in a park and watched a man create really big bubbles. 

Nothing says New York like bubbles in the park.
Such was our foray into the city. First we spent the better part of the morning peering more than two thousand years into the past. Then we whiled away an hour watching mammoth bubbles float up into the air, pop and vanish. All in all, a day layered with the essence and absurdity of transience.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Tenacious G: Swinging With the Methodists

Tenacious G(randma) shares her wisdom.
Often, the older a person gets, the louder and less inhibited their comments tend to become in public places. They have grown old and wise, and now they want to share that with everyone within earshot.

Such is the case with my mother, aka, Tenacious G. She is 86 years old and ready to let anyone she encounters indirectly know how she feels about their tattoos, ("Why do people do that to themselves?"), mode of dress ("You can see up her shorts when she bends over, and it's not a pretty sight.") or whatever else ruffles her sensibilities.

Every Sunday during the summer, I take Tenacious G to free concerts sponsored by our town and area donors. If it's a sunny day, we take our portable chairs and sit in the park with our water bottles. Thankfully, in this wide-open setting, her sage comments fade on the wind. If it rains, however, the area United Methodist Church graciously hosts the concert in its building, which unfortunately has outstanding accoustics.

The sax player dons a stylish black hat.
This week, I took Mom to see a swing band. While the musicians were tuning up, she loudly announced that the drummer in the band looked like a woman. I quietly informed her that, no, he was a man. When she insisted that the drummer was a woman, I decided it was safer to agree. We were sitting in the pews of a church and her voice carried quite well.

Just as I was beginning to relax, she informed me and the surrounding community that the saxophone player should take his hat off since he was in a church. Then she modified her stance. He was dressed in black and wearing a black hat, so, she said, "He must be Jewish. If he's Jewish, he can wear his hat."

"No, the hat he is wearing is part of the swing dress style," I said. Big mistake. When will I learn?

"No, he's Jewish," she insisted a notch up in volume. Mind you, she is not antisemitic. Despite being an evangelical Christian, her late husband was Jewish. She just wants the world to share in her astute observations, as her mother did before her.

Finally, the band started up and played some wonderful swing classics. They were scheduled to perform from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Around 4 p.m., Tenacious G pointed to her watch. She had to get back to her assisted living facility for one of the highlights of the daydinner.

The raucous crowd breaks out into spontaneous dancing.
We were sitting up front. I suggested that we wait until the band finished their current number before we noticeably got up and walked down the aisle of the church to the parking lot. She agreed.

On the way home, she smiled sweetly and said that she had really enjoyed listening to the band and was looking forward to the Oldies band playing next week. I was, too.

Hopefully, next Sunday, it would be a nice, sunny day in the park.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Communing With St. Thérèse


A rosary hangs near the chapel's altar.
Having grown up in Boonton, New Jersey—a working-class town—I always thought of nearby Mountain Lakes as being the place where the rich people lived. What I didn’t know was that it was also the site of St. Thérèse of the Little Flower shrine—a little-known pocket of peace hidden down at the end of a sleepy dead-end lane.

I’m not Catholic, so why bother visiting such a place? Curiosity. It was the site of a local miracle and I wanted to see the place for myself.

The Story of Achille Arci

The small shrine represents a promise kept by Achille Arci back in the 1920s. 

Arci became very sick and was told by physicians bereft of bedside manner that he was incurable. Arci didn’t want to accept that prognosis, so he prayed fervently to St. Thérèse for help. He promised her that if he was cured, he would build a shrine in her honor and visit her home in France to pay his respects. Apparently, St. Thérèse liked that idea, because after a five-year battle with his illness, Arci was suddenly and miraculously cured.
Stained-glass windows grace the two side walls of the shrine.

Keeping his promise would require the help of friends. He formed a small society of devout Catholics to build a modest shrine to St. Thérèse. The group solicited donations and volunteered labor to make the small shrine a reality. In 1933, it was erected on what was then Arci’s property.

In October 1952, Arci traveled to Lisieux, France to visit St. Thérèse’s home. When he returned, he continued tending to the shrine until his death in 1957.

A halo of bricks encircle the front door.
The shrine property ownership was eventually transferred to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Boonton. Arci’s family continues to maintain the grounds in loving memory of their father and out of their devotion to St. Thérèse.

Who Was St. Thérèse?

Not being Catholic, I had to do some research to find out about the woman behind the saint. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was born in 1873, the same year a cigar-chomping President Ulyesses S. Grant was presiding over a post-Civil War United States.
Born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, she was a French Carmelite nun. Perhaps due to her sense of religious commitment at an early age, she is also known as “The Little Flower of Jesus.”  In 1888, at the age of 15, she became a nun and joined two of her older sisters in the cloistered Carmelite community of Lisieux,  Normandy.
During her nine years as a Carmelite nun, she wrote The Story of a Soul, a collection of autobiographical manuscripts. In 1897, she died of tuberculosis at age 24, at which time her writings were printed and distributed. They quickly spread, making her one of the most popular saints of the Twentieth Century. She was beatified in 1923, and canonized in 1925.

The Shrine in Mountain Lakes

St. Thérèse smiles down on everyone who enters.
Thanks to Google Maps, my friend, Zoë, and I were able to find Rock Lane, a small side road off of the main Boulevard in Mountain Lakes. At the entrance to Rock Lane is a modest sign for the shrine. We drove up a hill through a residential area and at the end of the road sat a small white chapel with a halo of bricks encircling the front doors.
Inside, were five or so rows of folding chairs facing an altar. And in one corner of the room was a large statue of St. Thérèse, holding a bouquet of roses and smiling down at us. A donation of 50 cents was suggested to help maintain the shrine. I lit a candle for my deceased relatives. Then I used the suggested prayer to ask for personal favors. Since I prayed for four people—asked for four favors—I left four donations.
Zoë and I sat there for about a half hour, enjoying the peace of this local, out-of-the-way gem. The names of families I had grown up with in nearby Boonton were listed at the bottom of the stained-glass windows on both sides of the chapel.
I guess it might not be the type of sight that would be listed in the entertainment section of the local newspaper, but it was a serene diversion for one humid, summer afternoon in the ritzy wilds of Northern New Jersey.