Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Curing Childhood With a Pill

I have had this post percolating in the back of my mind for over a month now, ever since reading an article in the New York Times about a newly-"discovered" mental disorder in children called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo or SCT. According to the article, "the condition is said to be characterized by lethargy, daydreaming and slow mental processing. By some researchers' estimates, it is present in perhaps two million children."

Over six million children in the United States, according to the article, have been given diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), usually treated with one of several drugs. Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta,all stimulants, are among the drugs used to treat kids with standard ADHD symptoms.

Eli Lilly makes Strattera, a non-stimulant type of drug used for ADHD. Lilly recently funded a study to learn whether Strattera can help symptoms of SCT as well. The conclusion was that Strattera did have significant effects on children with the condition, which may or may not be an official mental disability. It may just be a subtype of ADHD. It is not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a separate condition even though symptoms have been recognized for several decades.

Then I saw yet another article in the Times, this one saying that 10,000 toddlers are being medicated for ADHD - these are children of 2 or 3 years old - many of them children who are on Medicaid. These medications haven't even been studied for safety or efficacy in children this young, and using them on toddlers is outside the standard of care for pediatricians. And yet, this experiment on our youngest citizens is taking place across the country. Young children, practically still babies, are being given powerful drugs with unknown consequences when their behavior patterns could be the result of poor nutrition, poor family life, lack of sleep, etc. Toddlers develop at different rates and this age group is in flux - some children are precocious; others may be a bit behind and find it harder to settle down. Shouldn't their physicians be looking deeper, or waiting longer to see what happens as the toddler matures, rather than prescribing a pill to "cure" him or her?

I am not denying there are children who do have real learning disabilities and that they have been helped tremendously by these medications. This new or renamed disorder may be another type of ADHD or a separate condition and there may really be kids who might benefit if properly diagnosed and medicated. In fact, I am usually a strong proponent for "better living through chemistry."

But - I do wonder whether it is true that this many children in our country truly have something wrong with them, or whether adults' expectations of children's behavior have changed in the last 30 years or so. Schools and teachers are being judged on how well they are functioning by how well the children they teach do on tests. Many children worry about things like getting into college at an age which my generation wasn't even thinking about it yet. They take expensive classes just to ensure a high SAT score; something no one did in my day. Heck, in New York City, parents compete  - and even cheat - to get their children into the "right" preschool.

When I look at the definition of SCT, I think of some other students in the past who may have had those symptoms - students like Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison, for instance, both of whom were considered problem students.
"He [Einstein] was a poor student, and some of his teachers thought he might be [ mentally handicapped]; he was unable to speak fluently at age nine. Still, he was fascinated by the laws of nature, experiencing a deep feeling of wonder when puzzling over the invisible, yet real, force directing the needle of a compass.... Einstein's formal secondary education ended at age sixteen. He disliked school, and just as he was planning to find a way to leave without hurting his chances for entering the university, his teacher expelled him because his bad attitude was affecting his classmates." (Source)
"Edison was a poor student. When a schoolmaster called Edison "addled," or slow. his furious mother took him out of the school and proceeded to teach him at home. Edison said many years later, "My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint." At an early age, he showed a fascination for mechanical things and for chemical experiments." (Source)
And think about Mark Twain - who also left school early and was a dreamer who preferred going on escapades with his friends and aspired to become a riverboat pilot. Most of his learning thereafter was self-taught, and he eventually became the journalist, and finally the esteemed writer that we are so familiar with today.
"In his youth, Twain was a mischievous boy, the prototype of his character, Tom Sawyer. Though he was plagued by poor health in his early years, by age nine he had already learned to smoke, led a small band of pranksters, and had developed an aversion to school. Twain's formal schooling ended after age 12, because his father passed away in March of that year." (Source)
What about Winston Churchill, who also struggled to conform to formal education?

I wonder what would have happened if these notable men had received medication for their conditions when they were children? Would they have gone on to be the geniuses that they eventually became? Or would their creativity and inventiveness have been stifled and would they have just gone on to be cogs in the wheel of commerce instead? The truth is, none of them were suited for the rote learning in standard schools and excelled when able to learn in their own way and pace, and to learn about subjects that interested them.

How many of these children currently identified as suffering from ADHD (or SCT) would blossom if they were given the opportunity to learn in their own way rather than the way the school expects them to learn? Would they still need medication? Some of them, probably. But there might be a good number that turned out not to need medication, but instead have their needs better addressed.

I am not ordinarily a fan of charter schools, because diverting tax dollars to private enterprises just robs the public schools of much-needed funds. But there are innovative schools, whether charter, public or private, that are trying out new ways to teach children. They should be viewed as laboratories for learning what works best and for whom. If some of these innovative methods are successful, then they should be transferred to regular public schools as well so that all children can benefit.

Magnet Schools are public schools that focus on a specific discipline, such as math, science, history, performing arts, music, etc., and often use innovative teaching methods as well. While these schools do promote integration in some areas, the fact that they cannot accept every student who wants to attend them generally leads to less diversity in socioeconomic status than in public schools.

Charter schools, of course, are the latest idea for disrupting the status quo of the public schools. Those schools that do well for their students tend to use innovative teaching techniques such as project-based learning, portfolios instead of grades, thematic, multi-grade classrooms, and more.

AltSchool, based in San Francisco, is an example of a private school that is using innovative techniques to help children learn. Their website defines AltSchool as a network of microschools, which provide "personalized learning plans" for their students and address the needs of the whole child. At $19k annual tuition, it costs as much as many colleges; however, there is a tuition assistance fund.

Now, mind you, I am not a teacher, have no experience in the education field, and have no children. I am certainly not up on the latest and greatest when it comes to curricula, or the challenges teachers - and school administrators - face every day. There is no magic bullet and I invite all of you with more experience in this field than I have (and you are legion) to comment and add your perspective.

But it seems as if there has to be a better way to deal with children who have difficulties learning in the standard classroom other than medicating them into lock-step with everyone else so they can fit into a mold.

I'll leave you with Harry Chapin's classic song about the kid who didn't fit into the mold - Flowers Are Red.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Haiku Wednesday

Is such a lonely talent
At which I excel.

I should be cleaning
And laundry is a-waiting;
And yet here I sit.

Articles to write,
A resume to update;
And yet here I sit.

A trip to pack for,
Instructions to write for pets,
And yet here I sit.

The dogs should be walked,
The kitchen must be cleaned up,
And yet here I sit.

Blame it on Facebook,
And the videos of cats,
And so here I sit.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Early Internet - An Ode to Prodigy

Mental Floss recently posted a bunch of old ads for the Prodigy internet service on their Facebook page and I took a trip down memory lane by watching them.

We bought our first computer in 1990 - it had something like 40 MB of hard disk space and used 5" floppy disks. It was some kind of IBM PC clone and we had debated for awhile whether to buy a Mac or a PC, deciding ultimately to go with the PC because it was cheaper; and even then we shelled out about $2000 for a computer that couldn't hold a candle to the computing power in any of our smartphones.

I don't even know what we used that computer for when we first got it - maybe spreadsheets? We weren't early adopter types, like those who used CompuServe in the 80s; we were internet virgins. But then we heard about Prodigy because there were commercials on TV constantly. So we became early subscribers to their internet service. Of course back then we only had dial-up modems to access the internet. But in those DOS-based days, even though Prodigy had a graphical user interface, accessing the service was not a problem since the graphics were so much more primitive back then.

My first non-work email address was through Prodigy, and my first online shopping experiences were through Prodigy. From the beginning I saw the advantage of shopping online - and now I do almost all of my shopping that way, even for groceries! But it was thanks to Prodigy that I first got hooked on it.

I remember getting up every morning during the first Iraq war and getting online to see the latest headlines from the night before. It was through Prodigy that I started to be addicted to getting the latest news without waiting for a newspaper.

My favorite aspect of the service was their message boards, which they called bulletin boards. They were organized by topic and subtopic. So, for instance, there was a Pets topic, a Dogs subtopic, and then individual subjects under that. You could either create your own heading or get involved in a discussion under another heading, such as, in my case, Pit Bulls. In 1995 we had just adopted a pittie mix, our dog Alice, from the local shelter, and I got into discussions with other lovers of the breed on that bulletin board. We had a great community there and I got to know one of the members well enough that we started exchanging snail mail Christmas cards each year. She lived in Fresno, California. Unfortunately, we eventually lost touch. I am hoping she and her husband and pets are still doing well.

By the mid-90s AOL was overtaking Prodigy as the more popular service, but I never liked their format. I tried their service a few times, using one of the free floppy disks they sent to our house, but ended up sticking with Prodigy.

However, as time went by, we eventually dropped Prodigy because the costs were going up - and by then there were so many other ways to access the Internet. We tried Juno for awhile, and then Earthlink, all still using dial-up. Then we finally succumbed and got Comcast cable, which gave us high speed internet access as well as cable television. Believe it or not, we did not have cable TV until then.

By this time - maybe it was 1999 or so? - the Internet was much more established. I was in touch with many old friends through email and went on various forums from time to time, but I missed the interaction with other people that I got in a more organized format.

In the early 2000s I found that kind of interaction on the online forums on our New Jersey site, There were forums about our town of Bloomfield, for our county - Essex - and for various subjects, including religion, politics, and pets.

Once again I found myself part of a community of likeminded (or not so likeminded) people, and delved into deep conversations with people I had never met. We all had "handles" to disguise our real identities. I went with Uhuru, which means "freedom" in Swahili. Uhura from Star Trek was also based on the word, which is where I got the idea, but I just took the generic Swahili word without the feminized ending, just to be more mysterious.

I used to get into heated arguments with a poster named Greylady, who rescued greyhounds but was not a fan of pit bulls. We used to argue incessantly about the issue of breed-specific legislation, in which certain breeds of dogs, particularly pit bulls, are restricted or banned.

I also had a lot of fun on the Religion forum, where atheists and believers clashed on a daily basis. I made a lot of good friends there, including a poster named Friday. I wonder what happened to her...

Then came blogging. In 2006 I started hearing more and more about blogs, and found out that a neighbor of mine at the time was a blogger - a well-known and prolific blogger. She wrote about her family, her son, her dog  and many other subjects. Some of her posts would make you laugh; others would make you cry. She has since become a published writer and she teamed up with another blogger and wrote a whole book. At that time I was simply impressed that she actually had a blog; it seemed so interesting and trendy. I thought to myself, hmmm. I wonder if I could do that?

My inspiration came after writing a long post on our hyperlocal news site, Baristanet - yet another location where people exchange comments and opinions. I had posted, along with others, an account of where I was on 9/11, on the fifth anniversary of the attack. I figured, here I had my first blog post all ready to go. So I got on Blogger and started this blog, and plonked down the remembrance of 9/11 as my first post.

I was glad I named the blog Mauigirl's Meanderings, because after that I had no idea what to write about. I meandered.... a lot. I was nervous about actually speaking my mind and having people who know me figure out who Mauigirl was and know what my thoughts were about various subjects, especially if they were people from work.

In the early days I made a few blog friends - one of the first was my friend Ruth from England, who wrote the blog Me, My Life, My Garden. A few others joined in commenting on my blog, but not as many as would eventually become part of my little circle of blog friends.

Finally came the first Blog Against Theocracy event and I decided to participate for the first time in 2007. I wrote a fairly scathing post about the evils of mixing religion and politics (sadly in some ways even more pertinent now than it was then), and after that the gloves were off. Although I still write about anything I feel like writing about, and I still meander, I have long since given up the idea of keeping my liberal politics - or my real name - a secret. I met a lot of great blog friends in the liberal blogging community and am happy that many are still commenting even after all my gaps in posting here.

Then in 2008, I joined Facebook. A friend of mine had joined and said 'You have to join, it's perfect for us - it gives instant gratification!" Sure enough, I became hooked. I ended up being Facebook friends with many of my blog friends, and then friends of theirs, and friends of their friends... At the same time I got to know a lot of people in my own community, some of whom I'd met in person and some not; and on top of that I got back in touch with childhood friends I hadn't been in contact with for, in one case, 40 years!

Looking back, I see my online involvement has been most focused on finding a community or number of communities in which to exchange ideas, find likeminded people who are interested in the same things I am, and keep in touch with distant friends and even relatives. Facebook is the ultimate when it comes to this function. I love reading blog posts and making the effort to write well-thought-out posts of my own, for when I want to do some serious thinking, or even not so serious thinking. But in terms of carrying on a conversation and providing the opportunity for give-and-take that builds a relationship, I find Facebook to be a great resource.

My Facebook friends tend to post links to thought-provoking and informative articles that I might not have ever read otherwise. They post points of view that invite intelligent discussion. We commiserate on one another's losses and share in our successes. Some people complain that their Facebook feeds are full of silly things and are a waste of time - I am happy that is not the case with mine.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good joke or meme as much as the next person, and my friends and I are certainly guilty of posting pictures of our dinners from time to time. But I like seeing people's dinners! They inspire me to want to cook something good for my own dinner! Often a post like that leads to a request for a recipe, or a restaurant recommendation. So it's all good.

So many people criticize Facebook and other means of online communication as leading to people being more lonely and less social than when they were confined to interacting "in real life." I disagree.

Between blogging and Facebook, although I am often by myself at home now that I retired from the Big Corporation, I am never lonely. I can always find someone out there who is online at the same time I am and we can talk. Some of the people I talk to may not be people I know "in real life," but I feel I know them nonetheless and they are no less "real" than other friends.

When you think about it, ever since people went online, what they have always been looking for is what is now called "social networking."

So, looking back on how it all started, in my own case, I have to thank Prodigy for having sucked me into the world of the Internet and changing my life forever. For others it may have been one of the earlier services, or a slightly later one like America Online. But in the end, we were all looking for the same thing. Connectivity with other human beings.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Science is Not an Opinion

Source of cartoon

One of the things that really worries me about the "modern" (and I use that word loosely) Republican Party is the insistence by many of the party's members that scientific facts that others take for granted are merely matters of opinion - and not facts at all.

For instance, I really thought the question of evolution versus creationism had been settled back in 1925 with the Scopes Trial, which was widely seen as a setback for anti-evolution forces at the time, although the Supreme Court didn't rule on the issue until 1968, in the case of Epperson vs. Arkansas.

At that time, two states, Arkansas and Mississippi, banned the teaching of evolution in schools. The Court ruled that the Arkansas law
"...must be stricken because of its conflict with the constitutional prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The overriding fact is that Arkansas' law selects from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it proscribes for the sole reason that it is deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group."
A 1987 Supreme Court decision also ruled a Louisiana law requiring teachers to teach creationist theory if they were teaching evolution was also unconstitutional, again based on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

With the rise in importance of the Religious Right in the U.S. over the past few decades, teaching evolution as the accepted theory of how different species, including mankind, came into existence, has become a source of contention in many states. Some states, like Kentucky, have laws that allow teachers to teach creationism along with evolution at their discretion. Curricula in other states downplay evolution by emphasizing that it is only a "theory," or authorizing the teaching of alternative explanations.

One of the exasperating things about those who claim evolution is "only a theory" is their lack of understanding of the scientific method. The use of "theory" as it pertains to evolution is as a part of that method:
"A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step—known as a theory—in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon."
It is all the more concerning that in a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe God created people and animals just as they are, less than 10,000 years ago, despite tons of scientific evidence to the contrary. People who believe this stuff come up with excuses to explain away the evidence, or to say the evidence is fake, or even say Satan is the one who came up with the idea that dinosaurs are millions of years old.

The even scarier thing is that the same percentage of college graduates believe this. And of course, 58% of Republicans.

Then there is the issue of climate change. It appears pretty low on the list of things that people worry "a great deal about," at 24%. But when it comes to Republicans vs. Democrats, there is a clear difference. When you look at the Democrats, 36% of them are concerned "a great deal" about climate change, while among Republicans, just 10% have that level of concern.

And although, overall, 67% of Americans believe the earth is heating up, 85% of Democrats believe it, but only 48% of Republicans do. When you look at conservative Republicans, it's only 43% - and among those only 16% think it is happening due to human activity.

97% of scientists who have studied the issue agree that global warming is taking place as a result of human activity, and will cause catastrophic results during the next 100 years.

But the deniers either deny the existence of climate change, or else agree it's happening but is part of a natural cycle - despite the steep trend line of the warming. And many conservatives refuse to admit that the scientists agree, saying the 97% number isn't right or even saying that the earth is actually cooling.

But despite this winter's Polar Vortex that caused unusually cold weather across the northern hemisphere, climate researchers on Hudson Bay are reporting a continued reduction in Arctic sea ice, with open water periods lengthening by about 3 weeks just since the 1990s. And despite the chilly temperatures in the U.S. over the winter, global average temperatures in 2013 are nevertheless expected to be among the 10 highest on record since 1850.

And if you look at the trend by decade back to 1881, you can see the relentless climb in average global temperatures. The last three decades have been the worst, as developing countries, particularly China, have vastly increased their carbon emissions as they become more industrialized.

Source: Washington Post

But you can't tell any of this to a climate change denier. They will just have more excuses why it's a hoax perpetrated by liberals.

And then there's another big group of people who are anti-science. These people are fervently against vaccinating their kids. This group comprises an unlikely alliance of lefties who feel vaccines are unnatural and dangerous, conspiracy theorists who believe the government is trying to poison them for some unknown and nefarious reason, and some right-wingers who think vaccinations are an example of government overreach.

As a result, diseases such as measles that were close to being eradicated in the United States are making a comeback. Most of those who are against vaccination don't even realize that diseases such as measles can kill people. They think the cure is worse than the disease, when that is emphatically not the case. If something isn't done, at this rate, polio could even come back. The problem is most people today weren't even around when these diseases ran rampant in our population, so they don't know what it was like.

The other problem with not vaccinating kids is the loss of "herd immunity," wherein the few people who aren't able to be vaccinated for one reason or another - or for whom the vaccine just didn't work - are protected due to the fact that the rest of the people they interact with have been vaccinated. Unfortunately, as the number of unvaccinated children rises, that herd immunity is no longer effective and the risk of contagion becomes higher for everyone. When a family refuses to have their child vaccinated, they are not only putting their child at risk, but they are putting others at risk as well.

Thankfully, there are some people who do see the light in regard to vaccines - see this blog post written by a young mother who had jumped on the anti-vaccination bandwagon, only to have the good sense to reconsider her views.

But many others will refuse to listen to reason. In fact, a scientific study showed that exposing anti-vaccine believers to evidence and factual information often backfired and actually decreased their intention to vaccinate.

In fact, for all of these issues, no matter how much you tell actual facts to people who have a strong belief about something, the less they listen. They claim you have been brainwashed, you have drunk the Kool-Aid, or are part of the Conspiracy.

Other studies bear this out:
"In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."
This means that there is no current solution to pull this country out of the abyss of ignorance. How do you argue with people who won't believe facts because they contradict their opinions?

Science is not an opinion. But until more people in America admit that, we will continue to fall farther and farther behind other countries that are a bit more rational in their beliefs.

I predict the era of American domination is nearing an end and we will fall into a dark age of sorts, while other countries take the lead into the next century.

Friday, March 07, 2014

A Cat's Eye View - Baxter is Back

Baxter here. Yes, I'm Finally Back, after my Female Human decided to take an Umpteen Month Break and not let me Blog. I have So Much pent up inside that I don't know Where to Start.

Let's see... Since my Last Opportunity to Blog, a Lot of Stuff has Gone Down. I'll try to cover it By Month.

July 2013: George Zimmerman was Acquitted of Murdering Trayvon Martin. This self-styled Vigilante took it upon himself to follow a young African American guy who was walking Back from the Store with a bag of Skittles, and ending up shooting him Dead even though the Cops said not to get out of the car and follow him when he called 911 to report Suspicious Activity. He claimed he was In Fear of His Life and that's why he shot the Kid. Hmm. If he hadn't gotten Out of the Car he wouldn't have had to Worry about that, would he?

August 2013: Two more states, Minnesota and Rhode Island, began issuing Same-Sex Marriage licenses, later Followed by other States, in the Wake of the Supreme Court's striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act. (Same-Sex Marriage is Now Legal in 17 States plus Washington, DC and counting!)

Bradley Manning was Convicted of leaking over 700,000 Government Files and Sentenced to 35 years in Jail (although he can get Out on Parole in 7 years). Seems a Bit of an Extreme Punishment to Me.

September 2013: Colorado voters recalled pro-gun control state senators for Supporting recently enacted Gun Control measures. And... also in September, Aaron Alexis, a former Navy Reservist, shot and killed 12 People at the Washington Navy Yard near the U.S. Capitol. But we don't Need Gun Control... really?

November 2013: Illinois and Hawaii legalized Same-Sex Marriage. Virginia Elected a Democratic Governor, and Chris Christie was Re-Elected in New Jersey, to Our Dismay. And of course, the News in Guns included not One, but Two shootings in November: One at Los Angeles Airport and one at a New Jersey Shopping Center. Sadly, there was also a Typhoon that Hit the Philippines and killed a Lot of Humans.

December 2013: Yet Another Shooting, this time in Colorado, where a Kid killed another Student when he Couldn't FInd the Teacher he was Aiming to Kill. Then he Killed Himself. There was also a Nasty Train Crash in the Bronx that Killed 4 Humans and injured about 60 Others.

January 2014: January was a Great Month for New Jersey Democrats, as the Bridgegate Scandal erupted around Governor Christ Christie, dating to a Closure of Traffic Lanes to the George Washington Bridge near Fort Lee, Back in September. Turns out it was done On Purpose by some of Christie's Most Trusted Aides, and it's all Under Investigation. MSNBC had a Field Day digging into the Details for Weeks!

We got a new Chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, the first Female Human to do the Job. Good for Her!

West Virginia had a Terrible Chemical Spill that contaminated Drinking Water, a result of Chemicals used in the Coal Industry. Between that and the Mountaintop Removal Method of Coal Mining, seems to Me that we should Phase Out the use of Coal as a Fuel in this Country!

February 2014: They had some Pretty Scary Revolts and Protests in Venezuela and Ukraine - the Ukraine Stuff is Still Going On. And there were Also the Winter Olympics in Sochi, in Russia. Lots of Controversies between Russia's Anti-Gay Policies and their deadly Solution for the Stray Dogs in the Area. Luckily, not all the Dogs met a Bad Fate - a Russian mogul helped Fund a Shelter to save a Lot of Them, and some Olympians even Adopted some.

March 2014: Russia marched into the Crimean part of Ukraine, which is Mostly Russian-Speaking People, and Crimea's Parliament voted to Join Russia. President Obama has Ordered Sanctions against Those responsible.

Now, I know I must have Left Out many Important News Items but this is as Good as it Gets for Now. I wanted to provide an Update in Case you missed Anything since last June when my Human last Posted here about Current Events.

All I can say is, as a Cat, I continue to find Humans to be Extremely Illogical and, frankly, Annoying. What's with the People who oppose Gun Control, No Matter What insanity Guns are involved with? Isn't it Ironic that since all those Kids were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, that hardly a Day goes by without another Kid being killed by a Gun? And yet, Nothing changes. I shake my Head in Bewilderment at This.

Oh well, all I can do is Comment here. We Indoor Cats don't get to go Out and interact in the World so we are the Observers of Humankind from a Distance. I must Say, however, that it Does drive me to the 'Nip to think about these things. I think it's time for some Catnip right Now, after having Looked Back on the past Year like this. Hang in there, Friends!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Haiku Tuesday - Mardi Gras Edition

Fat Tuesday is here
Celebrating it.

But all is not lost
I'll be at the Yellow Plum
Eating and drinking.

What's the Yellow Plum?
Ah, well you may be asking

Tonight they will have
Gumbo and jambalaya
And red beans and rice.

I'm sure there will be
To wash it all down.

For dessert, beignets;
Whatever else would you have?
On such a fine night.

I must get ready
My friend is picking me up
I must find my beads.

Monday, March 03, 2014

My Little Town

I asked Baxter if he wanted to post but he said he isn't ready yet, as he needs to catch up on current events a bit before deciding on a good topic.

So, I'm here again instead, to talk about something that occurred to me Sunday morning as I was lazing in bed trying to get up the energy to get up. My father-in-law was coming for breakfast, and it made me think about the differences between where he lives and where we live.

DH's dad and mom bought their house in Holmdel, New Jersey, when DH was about 5, and they were about 30. The house was not completed yet, so they went every day to watch it being built. At that time, Holmdel was the wide open country; their housing development was built on the site of an old orchard, and the road that their house faced was a country road with little traffic.

Now, 57 years later, that road is very busy; the farms in the area are all gone, replaced by highways and strip malls...

Holmdel is grouped into neighborhoods of 1950s homes like my father-in-law's modest 3-bedroom, split level/1 car garage house, tracts of slightly larger homes built in the mid-60s, and new neighborhoods filled with expensive McMansions in more exclusive locations, with an occasional original farmhouse scattered here and there.

(House photos courtesy of

The top picture above is the house next door to Dad's, which was recently sold. If you look at that picture you can't tell it sits on a busy road, but believe me, it does. As you can imagine, people who live in the neighborhoods that have houses that look like Dad's do not interact with those who live in neighborhoods that have houses that look like the second picture. At all.

In earlier days, when DH was young, and his parents were active in their church and community, they knew their neighbors and had friends in the area, as well as siblings and cousins. Everyone had moved to the area at around the same time; their kids were all growing up together, and families had similar jobs and incomes.

But as everyone aged, their friends and extended family all moved far away or died, and now my mother-in-law has dementia and is living in a nursing home and Dad lives alone in the house that he and Mom watched being built so many years ago. He visits Mom in the nursing home - about a 20 minute drive from his house - every day, twice a day, unless he is away for the weekend up at our cabin for a break.

I was thinking about how isolated he is living in that house now that all his old neighbors are gone. He doesn't know anyone in the neighborhood. There is never anyone walking up or down his street, not even walking their dogs. There are no stores near enough for anyone to walk to, so everyone uses their cars to go anywhere. And where do they go? Strip malls, big box stores on the highway, and enclosed malls.

I am thankful that Dad does go to the nursing home every day, because at least that way people are watching out for him as well as for Mom. If he didn't show up unexpectedly they would worry and call us.

Thinking about all this, I started comparing his situation to our town. We live in Bloomfield, a suburb of New York, a gritty older town that has been pretty much built out for at least 100 years.

At one time Bloomfield too had farms, and went through its own development into a more populous town. But the housing that was built in the early 20th century was built under the assumption that people would need to be able to walk to stores or public transit. Much of our neighborhood was developed in 1912, so most people did not have cars. Even the north end of town, which is newer, was built when most families had only one car, so some walking was still required.

Many residential areas, particularly in the older end of town, were interspersed with businesses or factories, including the old Annin Flag Factory right down the street from us (visited by George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign). This made it convenient for local people to get jobs in these companies and walk to work.

Westinghouse also employed many local people, who either walked to work or took the train to get there.

Now Westinghouse is gone (torn down, with the land still being remediated due to residual contamination from years of manufacturing as well as residue left from when uranium was refined there during the Manhattan Project). This is one of the few currently undeveloped spaces left in town other than a few parks. Other local factories were replaced with retail stores. Annin Flag Factory has been converted to upscale apartments.

But the town is still laid out to enable people to walk to destinations. Our house is within walking distance to the train station (25 minutes to Penn Station, New York), and there is a convenience store on the corner where we can buy newspapers, coffee, and a good selection of groceries. There are convenience stores scattered in a number of nearby neighborhoods - almost no one is more than a 5-minute walk from a little store, at least at our end of town.

There are also a myriad of very good local restaurants in several areas of town, offering foods of various types, including Greek, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Cuban and many other cuisines.

In contrast, in Holmdel, there aren't even any local or family-owned restaurants except one nearby Italian/Pizza restaurant; the rest are all out on the highway and most are chains.

In our neighborhood in Bloomfield, there is a senior citizens apartment building nestled within the residential homes, two blocks from our local county park, enabling seniors to walk to stores or the park and mingle with other neighbors who they see as they come and go.

The neighbors look out for one another here. Elderly neighbors living alone are a matter of concern to the whole neighborhood. One of our neighbors regularly took an elderly woman grocery shopping and helped her with her bills, since her own children lived far away. She did this until the woman, at age 100, moved to Colorado to be with her daughter.

Many neighborhoods in town hold block parties, which draw new neighbors into the fold and reunite other neighbors who don't see each other often due to their work schedules. People of all ages come to our annual block party and enjoy the food and good company.

Some residents have formed neighborhood associations that try to tackle ongoing issues in town rather than moving elsewhere in defeat.

Ours is a diverse town, with people of all nationalities, races and ethnic backgrounds intermingling. Our population is 54% white, with the rest a mix of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and others. Holmdel, in contrast, is 78% white, with 17% Asian and very few other nationalities represented. I feel diversity leads to strength, versatility, and open-mindedness. Many people move to Bloomfield from places like Brooklyn, and cite our town's diversity as a positive in helping them make their decision to move.

Best of all, at least from my perspective, if you move into Bloomfield, a fully developed town, you don't have to worry about the open space around you being turned into strip malls and highways - the parks are preserved for our use already, and whatever else has happened, for good or for bad, has already happened (such as the Garden State Parkway ramming itself through the middle of town in 1954).

The town center may have a different look now, but the streets are still the same, and the Green on which the local militia once drilled during the Revolution is still there, along with the 1796 Presbyterian church.

When you come to Bloomfield, you know what you are getting. There will be no surprises, as can happen if, as my in-laws did, you buy a new house in a new town surrounded by lovely farmland, thinking it will stay that way.

Bloomfield is continuing to emphasize walkability in town, making its streets even more pedestrian friendly by narrowing portions of one of its main roads and making bump-outs to slow traffic. More bike lanes are planned as well.

I am not writing this to put down Holmdel in any way - Dad's house has a lovely back yard, which is surprisingly quiet despite the busy road out front. The PNC Arts Center is nearby - in fact, Dad goes there to walk in the open space and woods on their grounds every morning for exercise. His town is convenient to the Parkway (to come visit us!) and the Jersey Shore. When they were younger, Dad and Mom used to go Sandy Hook State Park regularly to ride their bikes or attend concerts on the beach.

But the lack of a downtown of its own or a culture of walking and interacting with neighbors is a downfall of this type of community, built during the peak of America's love affair with the car. It is particularly problematic if a person is elderly and alone because of the lack of social support. Dad is 87 now, and still drives. But what will happen if he can no longer drive?

Does Bloomfield have its problems? Hell, yes. The racial diversity that works well most of the time can also lead to friction; there is a perception that those who live in the north end of town look down on those in the south end of town, which tends to skew somewhat more to the minority population.

Our town has managed to drag out a redevelopment of the town Center for well over a decade due partly to a lack of savvy, poor decisions and dissension among the township officials, with a couple of lawsuits thrown in. The project is finally getting off the ground and other parts of the downtown are also being redeveloped. However, many developments taking place are opposed by some of the residents.

The last few years have also seen their share of big controversies in town unrelated to redevelopment. The Bloomfield Health Department and the Board of Health were embroiled in one over the fate of a pit bull named Memphis. The controversy continues to this day, as the dog was sent out to South Dakota to be "rehabilitated" by a person purported to be a trainer - and remains there to this day.

The police department has also been roiled by dissension, with disagreements over who should be police chief, claims of political interference, and most recently, accusations of police misconduct.

But, for all its ups and downs, my little town really IS a "little" town - despite its population of almost 50,000 - because people know each other. We meet up with neighbors in the local stores, at the park, at the restaurants and at town meetings. We discuss our concerns on Facebook, on online forums, and in the Letters to the Editor of the local newspapers (there are two). We are a community.

We may not always agree with each other on various issues, and emotions can get heated at election time, but we are all Bloomfielders. And I'd rather live in Bloomfield than out in the sterile, suburban sprawl of Holmdel any day.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Snowpocalypse Continues, and What I've Been Up to for 8 Months

Well, here is my first post of what I hope will be a month of daily postings. I decided that is the only way to get back into the habit of blogging and catching up with all my blogger friends and their posts as well.

One reason for my long absence is, for the second half of last year we were living in a condition of total chaos as our kitchen was being totally renovated.

It all started about a year ago when we decided to renovate our upstairs bathroom, which had deteriorated to the point that we truly expected the tub to land downstairs on top of the kitchen stove at some point. Tiles had fallen off the tub wall to reveal that there was no actual wall behind them. Things were not good.

The configuration of the bathroom was horrendous as well - it was claustrophobic and dated to the 1940s or 50s, we believe.

So we contracted with a local kitchen and bath contractor and started on the bathroom. It was to be a full rip-out, and they would be turning the tub crossways under the window to make the room more spacious.

Once they ripped everything out, they found, no surprise to us, that all the joists needed to be replaced and/or reinforced since they were rotting from water leakage over many years. This meant ripping out the kitchen ceiling to be able to get underneath the joists.

Now, the kitchen ceiling was a problem to begin with. It was a dropped ceiling, and we had long known that above that was a long-ago disaster of some sort, as there were two layers of plaster ceiling above it that had obviously collapsed at some point. All of the later plumbing had been piped in below the plaster ceiling and above the dropped ceiling.

To make a long story short, the bathroom turned out great. The change was amazing.

But before the contractor did anything about closing up the kitchen ceiling, he said,  "Um, since your ceiling is already all torn apart, if you were ever thinking of redoing your kitchen, now might be the time to do it."

DH and I looked at each other, thinking about the fact that some day we may want to sell the house, and the current kitchen just didn't cut it. It should be noted I'd also been watching a lot of HGTV recently. We decided to go for it.

We had to take everything out of the kitchen and the pantry. I had no idea how much STUFF we had stuffed into the cabinets. It all went in boxes. I tried to separate out stuff we didn't need anymore or was too old and gross to keep, from stuff we wanted to keep. The boxes went in the living room, the dining room, and the sun porch where we hang out and watch TV.

The boxes stayed there from the end of August to the end of December. No cooking could take place so we spent a lot of time up at the cabin or eating out.

When we were at home, DH would go out and buy McDonalds Egg McMuffins for breakfast on weekends and I was hitting Dunkin' Donuts for a bagel and coffee during the week. Every day around 8 a.m. the Men would come to work on the kitchen. We got to know a lot of the Men. The dogs loved all of them, and they loved the dogs too, luckily. The cat mostly hid under the bed.

Finally just before the holidays, it was all complete, even the painting. And then we had to put everything away. We managed to give away all the stuff that we wanted to give away (thank goodness the veterans and the Lupus Foundation keep calling me to see if I have anything to donate - I kept saying yes and making sure I had boxes to put out for them).

In the end we had gotten rid of our pantry and replaced it with a powder room. We finally have a first floor bathroom, and now that we have it, I can't imagine how we lived here for 27 years without one.

The rest of the pantry was converted into a deep closet, which we are using as a smaller version of the pantry - we put a set of shelves from Ikea that we'd had in our pantry into the back of the closet, so all the extra cans and boxes, pet food, paper plates and whatnot can go there. The rest of the closet has room for the vacuum cleaner and other cleaning items. We put hooks on the back of the door for coats, since we usually come in the back door.

We like our new kitchen so much we put a small table in the middle so we could eat dinner there and sit and stare at it in wonder. I've even been cooking more as a result of having a brand new stove, and refrigerator that actually is in the same room as the stove and sink! The old configuration required that our fridge be in the pantry, which was quite inconvenient!

So. That is what kept us occupied last fall and early winter. 

Then the snow came.

If you are living anywhere in the Northeast, or even many parts of the South, you know this has been the Winter from Hell. I haven't seen this much snow since maybe the mid-90s.

Of course, there were snowstorms in more recent years, including 2011 when our dog Angel showed up in our driveway at 8:30 at night on February 10. I wrote about her briefly at the time, but I don't believe I shared the full story of how she was found.

When we first saw her, she came from behind a huge snowbank at the end of our driveway, just as we got out of our car. We had been to an "elegant dining" event at my mother-in-law's nursing home and were just getting home. As I stepped out of the car, I heard DH say, "Well, hello little pit, where did you come from?" And then this very thin white and gray pit bull with cruelly cropped ears and hanging teats, who had obviously recently had puppies, timidly approached him.

She let us both pat her and the next thing you know she was following us up the front steps. The forecast was for the temperature to plummet to 17 degrees overnight. What could we do but bring her in?

Diva started barking when she heard and smelled a strange dog, but we were able to hustle the new arrival into the kitchen and keep her there with gates overnight. We started off the next day by giving her a much-needed bath and clipping her over-long nails. Here is what she looked like right after we found her.

We then took her to the vet and learned she had mange and had to have shots of ivermectin and special medicated baths. After a few days it became clear that she was now our dog. She wasn't going anywhere and we had fallen in love with her by then. We think she was used for breeding and then dumped when the last puppies were gone. 

We learned later on that she had approached another house in our neighborhood just before we came home, and they had not let her in. At that point she must have seen our car drive up and ran up the street to greet us.

We named her Angel because she came out of the dark like a white apparition. Her personality matches the description as well, since she is as sweet as can be and all she ever wants to do is sit as close to her people as possible. In the beginning she would run out in the yard to do her business and run right back in again as if she was afraid she might get locked out.

Now, after three years, she is much more confident. She and Diva have become great friends and make a wonderful team; especially when they're begging for food! And, she's not skinny anymore!

Of course, things aren't completely perfect. Angel has a very strong prey drive and apparently wants to eat our cat Baxter. He has to stay upstairs now, separated from Angel, as we still have not managed to train her out of trying to chase him. 

However, Baxter and Diva sleep on the bed with us at night, so he does get his share of attention. Plus we have been bringing him up to our cabin in the Adirondacks when we were still going up there - he actually seems to enjoy it. He gets the whole loft to himself and can look down on whatever we are doing and lord it over the dogs.

So, anyway, back to the snow. 

Sunday night we are supposed to get yet another snowstorm, and I really don't know if I can face it. Here it is, March 1, with possibly 8-12 inches of snow bearing down on us. Many other years we've been able to go up to the cabin by this time of year, but not this time. It has been so cold that we haven't been able to go there since early December. We truly have cabin fever this year, in more ways than one! 
Picture courtesy of BitStrips(R)

So basically I've been a hermit for the past several months. I sit around most of the day on Facebook; it's amazing how fast the day goes. While Facebook is indeed a big time-sucker, on the other hand most of my Facebook friends post links to interesting articles and news items, which I find very educational. Plus I have some really good discussions with many of them. (Of course, that's because a lot of my Facebook friends I first met through the blogging world!) 

I haven't even gone out to go grocery shopping if I can help it. I have discovered the joys of Peapod, the grocery delivery service used by Stop-n-Shop. It is remarkably reasonable - only $6.96 for delivery of all orders over $100, which is easy to reach with very little effort! Plus you give the driver a tip. But it's worth it to have it all delivered to my door, especially when there are heavy things like cat litter or bird seed! Too bad there isn't a wine delivery service as well!

I also keep busy with local goings-on. I write articles about my town's council meetings and occasionally planning, zoning or other board meetings, for a local blog called, which includes news, restaurant reviews, and other information about several towns in our area. My mother would be happy I'm finally doing something with my communications degree, for what it's worth.

There has certainly been no shortage of news in our town. We've become a national spectacle because of an incident where our local police were caught on video pulling a car over on the highway and then proceeding to beat up the driver. All the facts have not come out yet, but the video is pretty clear that the man was being hit even after he was in handcuffs, and that his hands were up when the police first approached the car. This came on the heels of another scandal where the acting police chief accused one of the councilmen of trying to coerce favors from him. Both incidents are now under investigation by the county prosecutor's office. So, never a dull moment in our little town.

I think I have caught you up on the main events in my life for now. Next time I may have Baxter post! I know he is very popular with all his fans, and he has lots to talk about, I am sure, after all this time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Watch this space!

Just wanted to check in and let you know, if anyone is still looking at this page, that I have, as usual, made a New Year's resolution to blog again. I know, I know, it's the end of February. But I've been working on my other New Year's resolutions and have to do this a little at a time or my brain can't take the stress.

I updated the format and colors of the blog a bit - always a good way to procrastinate rather than actually write something - and deleted some of the links in my blogroll. I deleted any "professional" sites such as Huffington Post or Daily Kos, because, after all, aren't we all on Facebook these days? I see links from these sites all the time in my news feed over there so no need to link them here.

Sadly, I also deleted some links to blogs that I have enjoyed in the past but have not been updated in over a year. I hope if any of you are among them and see this post, you will let me know if you start blogging again and I will be happy to add you back to the list!

I also cleaned up a bit of the junk that had accumulated along my sidebar - all those old "awards" we used to give each other back in the old days - just to make it look a bit cleaner.

So, now that the housekeeping is done, I'm ready to blog again. I am going to try to write something every day starting on March 1. Hope you will hold me to it! ;-)