A Friendship

A Friendship

It was 1943 when my father, an Air Force lieutenant in his 40s, was transferred to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.  As a lawyer, he spent the rest of the war there writing air force contracts.  I was twelve years old when we moved; my brother was six.  I came from a small country day school of 60 people to the Oakwood High School, the biggest building I had ever seen.  It was confusing – an understatement – to see hundreds of students in one place.  In her belief that eastern schools were superior to those in the Midwest, my mother convinced Mr. Zook, the principal, that even though I had skipped the third grade, I should skip the eighth and become a twelve year old freshman in that giant building.  I was scared.  For me, it was an immediate transition to becoming a lifelong observer rather than a participant.

On the bus one day I met a girl who lived nearby and we began to walk home from school together.  Joan and I became friends.  We stopped often at “The Drug,” the drug store where we bought milkshakes and leafed through movie magazines, talking about her deep admiration for Van Johnson.  Years later while watching him on Broadway in La Cage au Folles, I thought a lot about Joan and those days in the drug.  On Friday nights, we went to “The Flop” (local movie house) for a serial, the cartoon, and the feature.  On Saturday nights, she came to my house where we sat next to the radio listening to the Hit Parade, while waiting in great suspense for the top three of the week.  I’ve never forgotten one night when the top three were “Send Me One Dozen Roses”, “Tangerine”, and “People Will Say We’re in Love”.  We were delighted as we sat there, our heads bent to the radio.  Sometimes on Saturdays, we took a bus downtown for a morning movie, a brand new thing in my life.  Even now I remember the titles and the stars of the films we saw.

Our friendship evolved into a lovely trust.  She wore bobby sox and saddle shoes, something my mother refused to allow.  I looked freaky in brown oxfords and knee socks – the style of the school I had left behind.  On all levels, Joan never intimidated me.  She ranked #1 in our class.  She was the star of the hockey team, and sailed through Miss Baker’s Latin Class without ever a hint of superiority.  I, at twelve and thoroughly scared, was especially grateful to her for making me laugh.  She had a delicious sense of humor that you never saw coming until you stopped for a moment to realize what she had said.

And suddenly it was 1945, war’s end, and we lost touch for years while each of us married and had families of our own.  I found her again, by letter, in Wheeling, West Virginia with her family, her dogs, and, as I was, working for Kennedy’s election.  And so there we were, friends by letter with our adult politics in common.  She came to New Jersey once with her friend Walter and we went kayaking on the river and sometime later I went to Washington where we had breakfast with her son.  After that we stayed in touch by email venting our political anger and sharing family stories.

And then one day, her thoughtful son-in-law called me to tell me Joan had died.  For all my life I’ve remembered how much our friendship meant to me.  She welcomed me without hesitation when Dayton didn’t like Easterners or Army people.  She literally made my years there memorable by helping me relax into feeling as if I belonged, at least a little.  I’ve always thought I became a movie critic years later because of our exciting bus excursions to Loews Keith in downtown Dayton.

I loved the trust and loyalty that we were able to renew electronically after so many years.  She was my first real friend.  She loved her children and her grandchildren and I have never forgotten how she helped me adjust to life in a new city during the war.  Even though we saw each other only a few times as adults, the fun of life is knowing that people you care about are out there somewhere, living full lives.  I still miss knowing that about her.

The Circus Comes to Poughkeepsie

May 14, 2017

Last week, David Von Drehle wrote in Time Magazine about the closing of the Circus.  He zeroes in perfectly on the why of it:  the loss of our ability to be astonished.  When a small iphone brings us headline news around the clock along with pictures of everything happening everywhere, what can possibly astonish us?

For 146 years, Ringling Bros. traveled the country in trains staying in towns for one or two days.  Local people gathered to watch the elephants pull the ropes that would set up the tent.  Anticipation and astonishment in an unconnected world.  Now in old age, I treasure even more the memory of the day my college roommate and I decided to go to the circus when it came to our college town.

In 1948, Penny and I had just finished our freshman year at Vassar and had decided to spend the last wartime summer term there as well.  We walked from the campus to downtown Poughkeepsie by the Hudson River and approached the enormous beige tent held up by ropes attached to wooden spikes driven into the grass.

For some reason neither of us can fathom, we decided to crawl under the side of the tent to avoid buying a ticket.  To my horror, as I ducked under the canvas I was immediately between the two back hooves of one elephant in a row of others.  To go forward or back out?  I crawled forward on the dirt, came safely out through his front hooves, stood up and stared in gratitude that he hadn’t decided to stamp on that alien being crawling beneath him.  That memory is as alive all these decades later as it was when I was under his belly in 1948.

From that minute forward, Penny and I soaked it all up and everything we saw was new to us.  Before the circus started we went to all the sideshows:  a hermaphrodite, nearly naked women, rare animals, polar bears, unicycles, clowns, jugglers, “sixty lovely girls aloft in flashing color,” and “Wizards of the Wire in Unbelievably Skilled Expansions Beyond the Abyss of Intrepidity.”  And for the finale, “Daring elephants, lovely debutantes, dowagers and an “enthralling extravaganza of graceful, grotesqueries and swirling rhythm.”  Where else in 1948 could you see any of this?

You’re laughing, of course, but most of us in the audience had never seen Ringling Bros before, and certainly we had never heard such descriptions.  The circus travelled over 19,000 miles in four silver and red trains on 37 railroads.  How much rope for what they did in the tent?  Seventy-six miles of it.  Can you imagine a tent full of today’s young people who are surprised by almost nothing?  That’s why Ringling Bros has announced the closing of the circus.

Several decades after Penny’s and my wonderful afternoon, I was approaching the Hudson River for a return to a college reunion when I sucked in my breath in astonishment and pulled to the side of the road.  There, close by, was the silver and red train steaming across the Hudson River Bridge for yet another performance.  What stopped me cold was one car without a roof and there they were:  an entire car full of giraffes.  The river, the bridge, the train, and against the sky the long orange necks.  One more day of astonishment before the modern world killed fantasy.

For 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had delivered the gift of astonishment to joyful audiences.  Modern communication brings everything to everyone now.  No more surprises.  Except one for me:  whenever I think of looking up at the belly of that elephant, I thank him quietly for not stomping me for invading his territory seven decades ago.



Our Turn To Make Predictions

26 March 2017

Let’s hope we do a better job of it than these guys.  Their dismissals of newfangled ideas appeared one day on my computer and fit perfectly with my bafflement at today’s new inventions whose names I don’t even understand.  Will we one day prove to be as comically stuck in the present as these men were in their time?  Let’s look at both.

1864 – “No one will ever pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.” – King William I of Prussia.

1876 – “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication.” – Western Union.

1883 – “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”  Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society.

1878 – “The Americans have need of the telephones but we do not.  We have plenty of messenger boys” – Chief Engineer, British Post Office.

1878 – “When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” – Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson.

1903 – “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”  President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.

1921 – “The wireless music box (the radio) has no imaginable commercial value.  Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”

1936 – “A rocket will never be able to leave the earth’s atmosphere” – The New York Times.  That one was accompanied by a picture of our astronaut standing on the moon while saluting the American flag.

1943 – “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  – Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM.

1946 – “Television won’t last because people will get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”  Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox.

1954 – “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.” – W.C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute.

1955 – “It’ll be gone by June.”  Variety on Rock n’ Roll.

1959 – “The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most.”  – IBM founders to Xerox.

1977 – “There is no reason for anyone to have a computer in his house.”  Ken Olson, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation.

There is a wonderful documentary that shows Bill Gates and his team visiting IBM to convince them his work would one day be important.  No luck.  What’s next, we wonder, what’s inevitable?  The only certainty:  don’t waste time denying the future.  Have some fun trying to figure it out.  And remember the new truth: we are already on the pathway to a robotic world.

One problem is that any initial product is apt to be faulty, oversized, or unreliable in its early stages.  When our fledgling family company bought an early computer, we had to build a special climate controlled room to hold it while management and employees saw it as a glorified typewriter.  Then came desktops, still for secretaries only – “What else could you do with it except write business letters?”

Looking back through eight decades, the process is clear.  New products lead to several years of fixing quirks, then to an exciting variety of workable variations, and finally to new cultures.  A palm size invention born of the first room size computers of decades ago.  Two dropouts changed the world in a very short time.  Aren’t we lucky Bill Gates didn’t listen to IBM? And because of that, people aren’t making fun of the approaching robotics world.  The big question there:  will humans be able to adjust to being friends with a robot?  How will they deal with robots that are smarter than they are?

A sad part of invention is that inevitably the products will be used for both good and bad purposes.  But because of the extraordinary human brain, nothing will ever stop people from thinking of new ways to do things. Here are just a few now in development.

Drones for policing, surveillance, surveying, firefighting, espionage.

LiTraCon – for construction of skyscrapers, towers, sculptures.

Metal Foam – for hulls, space colonies, floating cities.

Nano materials – an elevator into space.

3D displays – Images are no longer confined to a computer, TV, or movie screen.

Flying cars, Hover boards.

Electronic Nose – for detecting spoiled food, chemical weapons, cancer.

Devices for life extension.

In vivo pregnancy – out of body artificial uterus.

That list is just the beginning.  As usual, all will pass through the developmental processes that cause eye rolls among natural born naysayers, but these emerging technologies will inevitably evolve and create new cultures as they go.  Right now the field of life extension has enormous appeal for me.  I wonder why.

Think about one unexpected treasure we see already.  The Millennials, and now the generation nipping at their heels, have embraced the new culture by working for startups.  They won’t spend a minute in training programs working their way up in companies.  By soaking up the technological culture, they are already ahead of the managers who once held power.  Even 30 year old Millennials say to me, “Ask a younger person about that, it wasn’t there when I was young.”  As businessmen are marginalized by technology, the excitement of success is going to the very young.

The fact that most of us won’t be around for it doesn’t matter a whit.  The fun of all this lies in imagining the pathways younger people will follow as they develop the ideas.  They are the only ones who have the tools.  The seed of possibility takes root in some young brain in the current culture and is nurtured and developed as it influences the next.  The visionaries and the naysayers butt heads in the oldest tussle of all.  Guess who wins?

How Old Are You Now, How Old Were You Then?

Time Magazine has published 100 photographs from America’s past.  People who see the book are likely to identify with the ones that are related in some way to their age. Many are dark, many moving, but each is likely to take you back to the moment when you first saw it.  These were the ones that struck me at 86.

1936 – The Migrant Mother – It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the year I was five and I never saw it until later in my life when the extraordinary picture of despair and strength reminded me that I had been alive then and my life was just fine while so much of the country was desperate for food and shelter.  Each time I look at her face I am struck by how it could have been that so many were desperate and so many untouched.

1937 – I remember my parents conversations about the possibility of transatlantic air travel by Skyliner and hearing on the radio that the 804 foot long Hindenburg, a symbol of the future, would be landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937.  They discussed wanting to drive the short way down, but didn’t.  Instead we heard the crash on the radio – The terror in the voice of  commentator Herbert Morrison as the airship burst into flames that killed 36 passengers instantly while some jumped to safety.  It happened just feet above the crowd that had gathered to welcome them.  To modern eyes, mine too, the sight of a balloon filled with gas over a tiny passenger cabin underneath is a warning of inevitable catastrophe.  But back then, it was the promise of future travel.  And then it unraveled in one horrific minute. 

1945 – The iconic sight of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square in 1945.  This is a still life of the chaos enveloping them in Times Square in celebration of the end of World War II.  We hear none of the welcome uproar but photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt caught a still that even today is the symbol that brings it all back for us.  Those of us who were young can remember the nationwide relief that unfolded as grownups bent their ears to the descriptions on the family radio. I was fourteen when I went alone to a Trans Lux Theater in New York and watched the spontaneous eruption.  The long war that took so many lives was over. 

pic9  pic3 1953 – At the invitation of Joseph P. Kennedy,  photographer Hy Peskin took a weekend’s worth of pictures of Jackie Bouvier and Jack Kennedy at play in Hyannisport for Life Magazine.  The unmentioned side of the story was that Jackie hated sailing, the family’s favorite pastime.  The Life spread fixed the newly engaged couple in the public eye as comers.  I was a Vassar freshman when I met Jackie who lived across the hall just six years before this picture was taken.  I never knew her well at all but now, seeing this picture, knowing it was the first resentment she held against the publicity required of public figures, knowing now what lay ahead for her.  Slightly over two years of the glamorous life of being the President’s wife and then the tragedies:  The assassination of her husband, the murder of her brother-in-law Bobby, the murder of their friend Martin Luther King.  She faced it all with great dignity.   And then of how carefully and seriously she managed to carve a final career in publishing in New York.  Finally she had privacy.  And then cancer killed her.  If there is anything good in her timeframe, it is that she wasn’t alive when her son John died in the crash of his plane.

And then this one that I love especially because it affirms the very long list lodged in my head of things I never, ever wanted to do.    


Mom’s Peppermill 1948 – 2010

Six decades or so ago, Mom’s Peppermill opened as a hot dog stand near Hightstown, NJ to serve workers who were building the New Jersey Turnpike, the state’s new miracle road.  The hot dog stand expanded over the years to a diner with 120 seats and stayed that way until it was abandoned in 2010.   Never opulent, it was a landmark, a welcome-to-New Jersey place, a diner where after a long trip, drivers could stop for a burger and a coke before moving on.

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Mom’s Peppermill always told us we were almost home whenever we returned from the places we lived in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, and Chicago.  It was a tiny, proud dot in Eisenhower’s dream of connecting Americans by road.  Now the Peppermill stands untended in its decay.  I feel a little sad when I pass because it still triggers the travel history of our family and because it was an announcement that we had found our way home.  Whatever it is, it means something to me and I don’t quite know why.

The Apartments

We rented them from 1949 to 1959, in New Haven during my husband’s senior year, Washington while we both worked for CIA, Wilmington where he shoveled coal into hot furnaces on the night shift as a trainee for American Brake Shoe, Chicago for more hot furnaces and studying for a degree at Northwestern, Baltimore to work for Rowan Controller, and finally Red Bank, NJ to help start a division on the home turf of Rowan’s founder.  And what did I do?  I kept all the apartments clean in the manner of ‘50s wives and had one baby in Wilmington, one in Chicago and one in Neptune, NJ.  And always I remember piling our children and their equipment in the car to return to New Jersey for vacations and stopping at Mom’s Peppermill as we left the Turnpike.


Cooper Road

After deciding to build, we went with a developer who stamped out small ranch houses in a matter of days and weeks.  When he looked at the 17 acres of land we had acquired for next to nothing in the isolation of Cooper Road (1959), the builder told us he could never ask his men to work in our long mud driveway and the bramble covered field.  So we began to clear with two toddlers playing in the dirt, a new baby in a basket, and our new tools:  a brush axe, a hand saw, and clippers.  The house went up quickly.  We raised three children there in what we thought was paradise for them.

I renovated the house after our divorce in a modern way that was loved only by me and I lived there alone and happy with occasional visits from family for another 25 years until, at 85 I began to feel too isolated, too alone, and slightly overwhelmed by the load of outdoor work.  I still have the ledger of the money I earned plowing snow, the memory of mowing the fields and clearing evermore into the brush.  It had been perfect for us, then perfect for me and it was time to go.


Red Bank

I moved in 2015 to the West Side Lofts in Red Bank in what is now referred to earnestly as “the Arts District” in the New York Times.  The credit for that goes to Bob and Joan Rechnitz who built the beautiful Two River Theater that has become an outstanding part of New Jersey’s regional theater network and the off Broadway theater world.  Life here is good with deadlines for my movie reviews, the Danish Café across the street where I eat all too often, the Two River Theater, and the independent movie theater within walking distance.  It feels like a professional community and I love it.


Cooper Road  

And then this year, the people who bought our house tore it down along with everything we had built – the rock walls, the banks, the decks, the shed I had built that blew down sideways one night in a windstorm because I hadn’t braced it diagonally, the rope tow we built, the coasting hill we cleared, kids who came to coast and skate on the pond according to the weather.  They all remember it, they tell me now, and so do I.

Something else I remember that they don’t – because they had grown and gone – the years when my close friend built a house on five acres of the seventeen for herself and her daughter.  From age four to her teenage years, that little girl played, as my children had, outdoors on that land, but there was a difference.  Because I was older then, without all the pressures of being young, I watched this little person playing on that land, gently catching a butterfly, holding and looking at it and setting it free into the air.  It was my chance to watch a child grow up peacefully and I loved the friendship with her and with her mother until they moved away to Vermont.  Their house still stands.

Looking from the road up the long driveway I see only the flat red clay where our house stood, the broken remains of the beautiful enormous rocks we skittered around with our jeep to hold the banks, the smaller ones we used to build walls.  And so I reminded myself often that, like Mom’s Peppermill, our place had been a home to two families and a playground for their friends for several decades.  Things endure only when next generations choose to live near their roots.  All of them are scattered and working now in other places and it is up to the family who bought the land to make it their own.  I had my time there, now it’s someone else’s turn.

Our Atlantic Highlands Plant

Just one more scar.  I have written before about starting our company in our kitchen and our garage, about moving from one small building to another in Atlantic Highlands as it grew.  When my husband bought 120 First Avenue and asked a fine local architect to renovate it, we thought our grandest dream had come true.  It was painted pale yellow and within a few years, he had bought other buildings for the growing company.  And then he and my son moved the whole thing to Eatontown, NJ and our roots in Atlantic Highlands were gone.

Now, some years later I don’t know one person who remembers our company or anyone who worked for it even though more than 100 employees lived in the town and worked in that building.  That’s how fast time flies.  One day last month as I drove down the street I sensed an enormous void, pulled over, and saw the scar in the earth.  Bulldozers had destroyed the entire, magical building that had made us part of the town.  All that’s left of that particular dream is a big dirt scar.


And so in just one year, I have been chilled during my drives by the sight of Mom’s Peppermill, of my home of 57 years on Cooper Road, of the building that made us proud of the company my husband and son had built – all gone in one year.  But scars also heal over good memories.  Losing what you’ve built happens to everyone lucky enough to grow old.

At 86, I remind myself that this has been going on since the beginning of time.  People build, move on, grow old, and die and another wave comes along to build new lives.  2016 was a tough year of watching the physical erasure of our early dreams, but I have the reward of knowing that my children, my grandchildren and my two friends had good beginnings here.

One other thing I never expected.  How can anyone know, before growing old, that the great gifts of old age are insight and perspective?  We – man or woman – can look back at our various decades with new understanding.  The end of something?  Of course.  But isn’t it harder for men?  They spent years working in defined ways and are suddenly adrift in retirement.  Women of our generation, on the other hand, learned how to do all the work of life except earning the money.  Chances are good that there’s something they’ve always wished they could do “if only I had time.”  Now we have time.

Would I go back to my 20s with the uncertainties of marriage, babies, housing, and income?  How I loved raising my family, but you need to be young.  Or to my 40s facing college tuitions and an empty nest?  Or my 50s when so many marriages came unglued?  You certainly could talk me back into the 60s when we could begin to follow our own dreams and feel the first edges of freedom.  The 70s can be pure gold.  80s too, though shadowed by mortality.  There is a rhythm to life that makes each phase of it right for its time.

That is what allows me now to make sense of both past and present.   Scarred earth where we once lived and worked is one thing.  The freedom of life in old age is another and it can be very good if we think of it as a reward.


The New Power Shift

In a provocative article in Time Magazine, Tom Vanderbilt describes the frustrations of teaching his seven year-old daughter to play chess.  After she soon started beating him, he turned for understanding to experts.  Vanderbilt writes, “There are, I learned, two forms of intelligence:  “fluid” and “crystallized.”  Fluid intelligence is, basically, being able to think on one’s feet, to solve new problems.  Crystallized intelligence is what a person already knows – wisdom, memories, metacognition.”


For young people, everything they see and learn flows into an open mind that doesn’t judge or sort.  Over 18, things are subject to our judgements and slotted to the appropriate places in our heads.  Sometimes that flow becomes wrapped in the wisdom of a Supreme Court justice or a physicist; for others it can become a thinker rooted in stone.


People who work in a field that runs on fluid intelligence will face the obstacle of facing obsolescence that begins around age 30.  That’s the age when everyone must try to stay relevant in new age companies.  When their minds start to organize material, they have lost their fluidity.  An article in Bloomberg Businessweek advises people to exclude any experience further back than ten years – no matter how impressive – in their resumes.  They suggest hanging out in parking lots to see what people are wearing, to absorb the lingo of their juniors and if they fail, to look for work that older people can do.


If you’ve hit 40, you’re probably done for even if you play a clever game.  Your fluid intelligence is already crystallizing.  Talking to someone whose intelligence has crystallized into wisdom may be fine for the Supreme Court, but not for those who want to work in the world of new technology.  For the first time in the lives of those of us still breathing, the power ladder is undergoing a radical shift.


Think back.  In the 1950s, women of all ages remained at home doing “women’s work.”  In the explosive ‘60s, Gloria Steinem led, and still leads, the revolution for awareness that has improved the status of women forever, but one road block remained.  Nothing could change the fact that in a few seconds, men impregnated women who then dealt with pregnancy, birth, and the raising of that child – and whatever children followed. Women were knocked out of circulation for roughly two decades while raising families.  Men were charged with earning their support. For millions of us, these were lives we loved.  And then the ‘60s exploded.  From that time forward, mothers, given new attention, struggled with how to realize themselves in ways additional to their full time domestic roles.


Then came the massive and unexpected disruption of our culture. The revolution wrought by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and their generation not only changed the power structure, but did it so fast that most of us are still trying to make sense of it.  By the time the century turned, young college graduates, both men and women were computer literate and many were turning to on line startups.  Marriage was shelved for many as they lived with people they loved, worked in on-line startups and prospered in a new world no one had predicted. This is a world where women can often work from home while their children are young if they choose to.


The language and structure of our culture had been revolutionized without a wide understanding of what was happening.  What indeed was going on?  Men in their 20s no longer wanted to start at the bottom and work their way up.  Applications to law schools dropped, corporate training programs thinned.  In existing law firms and corporations, women at the secretarial level learned the now essential language of computers.  Men at the top still thought of computers as advanced typewriters, as secretarial tools, as something they didn’t have to learn. Their subordinates could deal with it. They soon found out.


And the world for those kids? They have become the go to generation. They are the ones who understand the new language of commerce.  And if for a moment we thought this power would lie forever with the Millennials, think again.  Even they are already turning to younger people for explanations of whatever they don’t understand.  Because children now begin learning the language of the internet when they are three, a 30 year-old Millennial may deflect a complex question with “ask a kid.”


As the Millennials operate comfortably in this new world, the power has shifted downward toward them.  The president of a bank may still earn a bucket of money, but he may be lost in the world of communication.  He has to turn to those beneath him in the power structure and that power is moving slowly down the ladder in exactly the same way employees used to acquire it on the way up.  At his older age, he no longer has the mind that can grab odd new ideas on the fly.


The revolution that introduced computers in the ‘80s signaled the approach of a new global culture that will forever remain in a constant state of change. And that is precisely why the people working in it must be young enough to absorb the world through their fluid intelligence before it crystallizes. Our new world belongs to them.

Remembering Cooper Road

IMG_9397July 9, 2016 – The day started one way and ended quite differently.  The notion had crossed my mind that it would be fun to write a post about the spontaneous gifts of words from strangers that have shown up on my Facebook page.  Here are a few that made me smile that day before an incoming email triggered a major mood change.

How can anyone not enjoy this from a stranger?   “I was driving and I felt cold.  So I turned down the volume on the radio.  It was a full ten minutes before I started thinking, “I’m still cold and now I can’t hear the music.”

I’ve often wondered how to describe my son’s work to anyone who asks the perfectly ordinary question, “What does your son do?”  As if in answer to my confusion, this public relations release appeared on my Facebook page under the following headline:


“Ideally, enterprise information technology (IT) systems should include or accommodate architecture that is based on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which leverages internet protocol down to the sensor level,” says Erik Dellinger, manager for the IoT for Kepware.  “While II0T is gaining momentum, the reality today is that enterprise IT systems must interface with older technologies.  Innovative suppliers are meeting this challenge with unique easy-to-use, and cost effective technology that enables cloud-based, Big Data solutions to collect and organize data.  Called intelligent data aggregation, it revolutionizes the implementation of an enterprise system.”

With a lingering envy for any mother who could say “My son is a pilot, a doctor, a florist, or a carpenter,” I decided just to say, “I really don’t know.”

Then, still thinking back about starting the company in the kitchen in the early ‘60s, I wrote this:

People my age often ask how I knew it was the right time to leave the land I had loved for 56 years.  It had rolled over me gradually that I used only my bed, my desk, and my kitchen, that going in the other rooms just made me sad.  In my new place I still have a bed, a desk, and a kitchen.  What I don’t have is the several hours a day of outdoor mowing, plowing, and splitting that I loved.  That’s what I miss:  my tractor, my plow, and my splitter maul – and at this age, that’s okay – except on winter nights when it’s impossible not to think about plowing snow under the moonlight.

And then, on July 8th, this email came from my daughter, Laurie:

“Caught a raccoon and took him to our old house to release him.  It is being torn down today.  The guy said it was a solid well-built house that was hard to take down.”

It felt like a sock to the gut even though I had known it was inevitable. I wrote back, “This makes me very sad this morning,” and sent that to Laura and her two brothers, my sons Corky and Kevin. Suddenly, those three kids of mine started to reminisce by collective email.  Here it is.

From Laurie:  “Don’t be too sad, Mom.  It was a glorious time for all of us and now Time has marched on.  The next house will make its new family some great memories.  The land is still there, and the raccoon I released was very happy about that!

From Corky:  “She was a great place to grow up.  Simple, but we thought it was the greatest place.  The linoleum floor in the kitchen that withstood skateboarding around the kitchen table.  Family dinners of Barfaroni, Welsh Rarebit, pure low fat hamburgers with Gerbers baby spinach or squash, and all the mud in the beginning, with Dad bringing ash from someplace in Highlands for the driveway.  Oh, and the roof as a bounce back for football catches.  She was a great home.

From Laurie:  “The ash came from a furnace in a school in Highlands.  What a mess it made. Jumping off the mulch hay mountain with an umbrella, playing mud pigs, digging very deep holes to find old bits of blue and white china.  Old bottles everywhere!  Skunk cabbage.  Forts.  The sandy corner on the well road where there were always ticks.  Wild blackberries and violets on the way to the gravel pit.

From Kevin:  I was just born and didn’t see any of this.  The gravel pit was a huge forbidden place like something out of Tolkien.  There was danger there.

From me:  I just hope each of you knows how much it meant to me to hear your memories and that you took the time to send them.

From Kevin:  I was too young for the mud.  For me it was the magic of a poured basketball court – 22 feet to the end exactly – with lights!!!!  Janny and Grampy’s pond for skating and the coasting hill.  The long days and nights on the basketball court after Laurie and Corky had left for boarding school left an indelible mark on me and enabled me to live sufficiently alone with my thoughts.  Oh….and living next to your parents may have been a drag for you sometimes.  But it was great for me.   Great having them around.  I wish I’d appreciated it more.

From me:  Kevin may have been too young to remember this but it happened:  I was sitting outside the cellar on the flagstones I had laid as a “terrace” having tea with a friend (I don’t remember who) when I realized that Kevin, who had been playing at our feet, was gone.  Remember this, he couldn’t yet walk.  He could only crawl.  With increasing terror, I searched all round the house with no luck.  I called next door to my mother to enlist her and my father in the awful search.  They opened the front door and there was Kevin sitting happily on their front stoop.  You can understand this only if you know that he couldn’t walk; he was just one.  He had crawled down to the lake, turned left on a trail through the woods, and then right over a bridge across the little stream, up the hill and around to my parents’ front door where he was sitting happily when they threw it open to join the search.  Fifty-seven years later I still turn cold when I think of it.

From Laurie:  I believe you, but I find this hard to believe.  Mom, you must have been weak with fear!  How about when he stuck his finger in the fan belt?  A couple of things come to mind:  Kevin knew the route because we all traveled it many times a day.  Living next door to one’s grandparents was a fabulous gift.  And Kevin’s athleticism and gregarious nature were already in evidence.

From Corky:  That story about Kevin seems impossible.  He could have crawled off the bridge and fallen into the brook, or gone into the pond.  Was he dirty?

From me:  That’s precisely why I still go cold every time I think of it.  Yes, it was that dangerous.  And I don’t remember whether he was dirty.  All of you were dirty all day long until your late afternoon baths before supper when you suddenly became three perfectly clean little people who might not have been doing all you have described here all day long.  I ask you all to imagine what you looked like after jumping from those high hay bales into the wet black furnace ash that we were using to harden the driveway mud.

From Laurie:  I love hearing Kevin’s memories.  When we first moved there the basketball hoop was nailed to an oak tree outside of Mom and Dad’s bedroom window.  If you missed the rebound the ball landed on the tree root and shot across the lawn, getting covered with mud in the process.  It was a great incentive to make our rebounds.

I agree that living through the woods from Janny and Grampy was HUGELY important.  I ran over there multiple times a day, always assured of a warm welcome.  Janny taught me about roses and vanilla pudding with nutmeg.  Grampy was silently loving and always taking pictures.  He was addicted to his insant camera.  How ironic that the instant photos didn’t last, something about the quality of the film.  But our memories do last.  Can we keep this roundtable of memories going?  It’s such fun and eases the loss.

From Laurie:  do you remember when I fell into the well when they were digging it?

From me:  Didn’t you read my description of you falling in?  I was in the bottom of the well shoveling dirt into a bucket on a long rope which Dad would then pull to the top.  You, of course, leaned too far forward and fell in and somehow between us, I got you onto the bucket and he pulled you up.  I, of course, was scared the rope would break.  It didn’t.

From Laurie:  My memory is exactly this:

Joan:  Laurie, stay away from the edge of the well; you might fall in.

Laurie (in her mind):  Don’t tell me what to do and I will be perfectly fine.  I will get in as close as possible to the edge and see what happens.

From Corky:  The water pump breaking constantly, Dad and I going down to the hole, where he constantly had to repair gaskets to hold the seal, with me holding the flashlight.

From Kevin:  I HELD THE FLASHLIGHT TOO.   But I could never hold it still.  I would lose my attention and he would yell at me.

From Laurie:  Hahahah. You guys make me laugh!  He never asked me to hold the flashlight.  Once when he was helping me make a rabbit trap (I was about 7) I hammered a nail in crooked.  “Girls,” he sighed with exasperation.  I was offended, infuriated, and determined to hit a nail straight from that day on.

This small exchange, over a couple of days, did so much to put the demolition of the house in its proper perspective for me.  They all grew up, all married, all had children, all have work of their own.  They began their lives in that house on that land with a mom and dad who were in their 20s.  So now I’m reminding myself that it’s all okay, it’s all the natural flow of life.

However, there is one thing I will never accept, and that is that for at least 40 of the 56 years I lived there, that damn well drove me crazy.  About twice a month the first person to take a shower would yell out, “Dad, the mice are in the well again.”  The stench in the shower water was unmistakable and meant always that we (varying ones of us) would go down the hill to the well and try to patch the holes they used as tunnels to the water where they would die and then stink.  I often wondered how many of our contemporaries showered in water smelling of mice.   I was still somewhat surprised when I moved to this new apartment at 85 to find myself feeling a visceral thrill when I turned the shower handle with complete confidence that I would not smell a rat.


The Week That Was

30 June 2016

For a long time the second week in June sat quietly in my mind as an approaching pleasure.  A little complicated, but all good.  My 65th Vassar reunion on the first weekend would be followed by a simple wandering through New England seeing old friends, topped off by the weekend of my granddaughter Willa’s wedding in Basin Harbor, Vermont.  What I underestimated entirely was the emotional impact of everything that would unfold.

On a bright clear Friday I loaded my beloved Honda Fit with a ridiculous variety of clothing and equipment for all imaginable happenings and set off with that feeling about driving that has never left me:  pure pleasure, anonymity, freedom.  Why does driving lift me into some odd state of sublimity?  Yes, I know that’s not a word, but I like what it means to me.

On the way up I thought back about all our earlier reunions – about feeling guilty leaving my children, about listening to classmates discuss their lives, sometimes with a hint of competitiveness about our families. Most of us are alone now and we are the measure of ourselves.

Two women from the Vassar administration had asked me to encourage classmates to come back by 1:30 on Friday for a gathering of faculty, alumnae, and administration to explore the campus chaos that had developed over the Israeli/Palestnian problems.  The young, highly respected Rabbi spoke and then opened the discussion to the floor.  At this point, an alumna – I’m bad at guessing ages – perhaps in her forties –  stood and yelled that she is Jewish, that there aren’t two sides to this question and that her homeland is being stolen.  Every time the Rabbi tried to invite additional opinions, the objector stood and obliterated any discussion until finally, the disheartened Rabbi gave up and closed the gathering.  Not just rude, it was a violation of all the college has taught about exploring ideas even through disagreement.

It was a shame because all of us have been reading about the discord on many campuses and this had been our one chance to explore the issues in depth.  Mr. Post would have gaveled that woman down to protect discussion, but the naysayer shut up for no one.

Saturday was scheduled microscopically with busses and guides to take us to every stop, further evidence of our age and the college’s awareness that at 85-87 many would not be wandering the campus.  During this whole busy day, we reconnected with old friends but, best of all, fell into discussions with women we hadn’t known well or at all.  All gathered, all one age for a gentle exploring of ideas among fifty women who have lived through eight decades of cultural change.  There was a lot of wisdom in that room along with a deep loyalty to the college that had given all of us a fine start to our adult lives from the day we arrived in September of 1947.  One final, comforting thought:  Donald Trump wouldn’t find one vote in that group.

It was at this point that I began to understand the meaning of old age exhaustion.  After driving to Burlington to the house of an old friend and her partner, I collapsed and slept instead of wandering around New England as I had planned.  They welcomed me, fed me, and gave me a spot to call my own in their lovely Vermont house, and then that night, Orlando happened.  A march in honor of the victims of right wing hatred was announced for the next night.

We gathered in front of the church at the top of the hill above the town and marched in silence down through Burlington to City Hall.  The paper the next day said there were 2000 of us.  The silence was so complete that the only sound I heard was that of sneakered footsteps on the pavement.  When we stood still there – gay, straight, alone, together, most people were crying.  The mayor spoke, Bernie Sanders spoke humbly and quietly angry and when it was done we all began to drift away – slowly, as if we really didn’t want to leave.  It felt like the apex of rage in an election season that has been driven by hate from every side.  “Love, Not Hate” was no longer a slogan that night. It was a demand.

The Basin Harbor Club sits hard by Lake Champlain in Ferrisburg, Vermont.  The fourth generation of the family who founded it runs it still and they have preserved the original flavor of simple cabins looking over the lake – no glitz – just an enormous piece of rolling acreage with all manner of small boats for the pleasure of their guests.  One of the special ingredients of that pleasure is the certainty of delicious food every day.  Add to that the remarkable good humor of the staff that makes it happen – a group of invisible, friendly elves.

It turns out that this year, much of the staff is from abroad – college students who work at Basin Harbor for five months and then have a sixth for personal travel before going home.  To a one they were intelligent, quiet and fun to be with, ready to help in any way and invisible except at mealtime when they served full course meals at the speed of light.

That was the setting.  The next terrific surprise was emotional.  Four families who did not know each other had gathered – 180 of us, and instead of heading for people they knew, they table hopped, danced, wandered, walked, made new friends of people with familiar names that they hadn’t met before.  That setting was what allowed people the leisure to appreciate each other.

And then, the bride and groom.  Eric, whose parents started the company he now works for and Willa, my granddaughter, both beaming at 32, welcoming all who had come long distances to celebrate with them.  Willa’s uncle ran the rehearsal and the wedding the next day with a gentle humor and warmth that the guests all loved.  She was surrounded by friends; she was beautiful; he was handsome and quiet.  The guests loved it all as they headed for dancing and dinner under big white tents near the water.

Only the next morning did we hear that Eric’s mother had been taken, in great pain, to the hospital following that perfect day.  She reappeared for the wedding but still wasn’t well and after that we heard she had gone back to the hospital.  She is a brave, warm woman determined to keep her sudden sickness from spoiling the fun she had helped to create for so many.

At breakfast the next morning the room was full of goodbyes and emotions that I sorted through on the long drive back to New Jersey.  A new life for a fine bride and groom, hope for recovery for his mom, love for my three now middle-aged children, and pride in all eight of my adult grandchildren who had come from near and far – a Hollywood scriptwriter, a Washington on line car dispatcher, an assistant on Bernie Sanders’ staff, a stand-up comedian, a member of an online shoe sales startup, another in online cosmetics, an artist/teacher in classical realism, and an account manager in commercial business insurance.

And then, a new element in the chemistry.  Of the 180 people who gathered, my ex-husband, his wife, and I were the oldest in the gathering by an entire generation.  And the fun of that, as it is for so much of life over 80, is that irrelevance means freedom from responsibility, from duty, and work.  We had been handed a fanciful new freedom just to love and appreciate what the two generations below us have become.