Speed Bumps

In Buffalo we live two blocks from Delaware Park, a lovely Olmsted-Vaux creation. In the 1970s a benighted group of city Fathers (surely not Mothers) launched an effort to slice the Park in half with an expressway, named The Scajaqada, presumably to honor some Native American speedsters. Think Central Park with a high speed expressway from 59th Street right up to 110th.

We walk to the park most summer evenings and do a two mile loop there, but to get there, we have to cross Parkside Avenue, which serves as an exit from the Scajaqada. Despite it being a city street,much of the traffic seems to consider it an extension of the highway, and barrel along, ignoring the houses on the right, and every so often a car crashes into that sad house on the curve.

Recently some of those flashing speed readers were installed, and as we wait, and wait, and wait to cross, it is mesmerizing to see how few cars even approach the 30 mph limit. Will this reminder work? We will see. The Department of Transportation is fighting every effort by the local citizens to curb traffic on the Scajaqada, and make it crossable on foot.

Once again the car is King.

In Brooklyn, my other home, bike lanes are being installed, as they are throughout New York City. Thank you, Major Bloomberg. You may have a tin ear regarding many middle class concerns, but I love your biking initiatives.

Sadly, along with the increase in bicyclists is an increase in bike deaths, memorialized by the white “ghost bikes” adorned with flowers and chained at the fatal sites. A young girl was killed on our corner. A driver “doored” her ( my autocorrect was insisting on “doomed” there) and as she swerved to avoid the open door, she was hit by a bus. Up the street is another ghost bike, though I don’t know the story on that one.

I have also seen reckless bicyclists, the bane of drivers and pedestrians. They should be ticketed, fined, and banned if necessary. But there should be some accountability for drivers who strike and kill pedestrians and bicyclists, and that is currently lacking.

Apparently our current Police Commissioner insists that these deaths are “accidents” and nothing much is done in the way of investigation or prosecution unless a police officer actually witnesses the encounter. With a new Mayor there will be a new Police Commissioner. I am hoping for one who values two legs as much as four wheels. One current contender, ex-Commissioner Bratton, has said he will make pedestrian and bike safety a priority, installing cameras to catch cars running red lights and speeding, and actively following up on deaths. He also wants more speed bumps. There are some up the street from us now, and a favorite spectator sport is watching the cars that fly over at unseemly speeds, and then crushingly bottom out.

But overall now I am reminded of “Animal Farm” and “Four legs good, two legs bad”. though in New York it is “Four wheels good, two wheels (legs) bad,.”

White Hot Anger

One of the lessons of my meditation practice involves letting go of anger. Instead of embracing it,”I am angry,” you pull back and look at it “So that is anger,” and then try to let it go. This doesn’t always work for me, but it came in very handy a few weeks back.

President Obama was coming to town. I knew I wanted to hear him speak, but had not a clue how to go about when, where, or how  and details were not available. So I forgot about it. Then the day before, Phil casually mentioned that tickets were available through the University. Only he hadn’t thought to mention it to me till just then.

My anger flashed white hot. I can’t even remember when I was last that angry. I wanted to rant at him:

“Do you remember that last year I put in days and days and made hundreds and hundreds of phone calls to get this man re-elected, and it never occurred to you that I might like to see him in person?” That was the warmup to the unsaid vituperation.

Fortunately, I delivered a milder version, more bemused than furious, and when he told me there was a lottery and an hours-long wait on a security line, both my annoyance and enthusiasm cooled completely.

But my reaction had been so shockingly intense that I kept thinking about it.

And concluded that first, no matter how long or how well you know a person, you can’t know everything about them. And that includes yourself.

And second, we are inconsistent, even in our consistency. I usually mock the crowds who come out to see celebrities, or Popes, or royalty or Presidents. They are just people like us, right? So how was Phil to ever suspect that this one time I would care, and care so deeply? I didn’t even know myself.

The most useful result, however, was that tapping into what I had learned from Andy (my guru) of “Headspace.” And that was to take a minute and a step back. Look at the situation from a distance. Don’t leap into the fray, and don’t blurt out the first thing that crosses your fevered mind. Give yourself some space, and give the other person some as well.

Another practice is to ask oneself what you expect and hope to gain from the meditation, and later, what you expect others to gain from your meditation practice. In this case it was pretty clear that my being able to control that anger saved Phil (and I) a nasty confrontation.

These lessons probably sound obvious and trite, but the more I reflect on them, the more profound they seem. Anger, perhaps of all our emotions, brings on a hair-trigger response. And the regrets can last a lot longer. Taking a breath is well worth the time and the hurt not delivered does not have to be assuaged.

Things I Spied III: Books “11/22/63”

Sometimes I feel like Zelig. I was there at Woodstock, and across the street from the Twin Towers on 9/11. But the historical event that first shook and shaped my world was during my college years, when President Kennedy was assassinated. From this side of a lifetime, it was the first of many horrific events still to come. But from that side, it was the first time, for me, that the unthinkable could happen. And it set us down a road of increasingly unthinkable happenings.

But the thought has occasionally occurred to me-what if Oswald had been stopped? I will admit to many years of conspiracy theorizing, but at a fifty year remove, despite the incredible bungling on all sides that has now been revealed, I am left with the belief that it was just Lee Harvey Oswald who changed history. I am not the only one who has wondered how it might have been otherwise, however. Stephen King has put his doubts and suppositions into a gripping new novel, called “11/22/63.”

Stephen King? Surely not Stephen King! I loved his early books, “Carrie” and “Christine.” He even managed to make me afraid of that raging car. But then killer dogs and clowns turned me off, and I stopped being interested in his massive output and tomes.

Recently, however, I read and very much enjoyed “Duma Key,” and then “On Writing” which is his guide for writers, with an autobiography wrapped around it. My favorite rule was the one banning adverbs.

Today I am deeply, surprisingly, immersed in “11/22/63” in which the first person narrator travels through a time portal to prevent Oswald from killing President Kennedy. Time portal makes it sound like science fiction, but it is in fact a well-researched historical novel. Very well-researched. I lived through that time and was both gratified and appalled to be reminded of so many of the things I had forgotten.

Garterbelts, yes, and segregated toilets. Mmmm. And corsets and pillbox hats. Hats! And incredibly cheap prices and puritan attitudes.

Perhaps the best thing about this long, long book is the suspense King manages to build. I know that there cannot be a “successful” ending, first, because Oswald did kill Kennedy, and then, because this is a novel of fiction. And there are no time portals. But King has created a page-turner, nevertheless, and I have to go now and get back to my reading. Hope you will join me.

You Want Some Sugar With That?

Phil was briefly hospitalized following our recent ER adventure (Up All Night), so we had the opportunity of seeing into the belly of the beast of a large institution. The care from nurses, physicians assistants, nurse practitioners, doctors, technicians and staff was beyond reproach. Their attitude was upbeat, and caring, and helpful. Of course being wakened repeatedly from sleep for “your vitals,” that is, to see if you are still alive, has little charm, but is understandable.

But the one institutional mind quirk that befuddled us was the approach to food. I am not talking about the quality, though that varied widely, but about the composition of the meals and the nutritionist’s approach.

Because of a drug he was treated with a few weeks earlier, Phil had slipped into a diabetic state. By monitoring what he ate, and watching his blood sugar, he was able to get the blood glucose levels to just above normal. Watching what he ate meant severely reducing simple carbohydrates (the whit things like rice, flour, sugar) and eating complex carbs (brown rice, fruit, some whole wheat flour or pasta).

But here is a typical dinner:


And here some low carb muffins that he is not addicted to:


So he hasn’t been exactly suffering.

Enter the hospital breakfast: a heaping pile of pancakes, syrup, and apple sauce. And a nurse with a needle full of insulin. At first he complained that he was supposed to be getting the food for diabetics-only to find out that this was the diabetic diet!

Flashback to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Phil as McMurphy and the dietician as Nurse Ratched:
“But I don’t want all those carbohydrates!”
“We count the carbohydrates for you. You get four to five each meal.”
“But then my sugar goes up!”
“And we give you insulin for that.”
“But I don’t want to be dependent on insulin, just cut out the carbs!”
“But you need carbohydrates for a well-rounded diet!”

After that I brought food in for him.

I have thought a lot about this, and, I will admit, have some understanding for their approach. The average diabetic is used to this regimen. Eat 4-5 carbs per meal (or more) and adjust sugar with insulin. A life with minimal carbs would be too hard.

Phil, of course, is a different breed of cat, which I knew from the day I met him. He had already dropped 20 pounds to keep a pre-diabetic tendency under control (it’s a family genetic thing), mainly through limiting carbs. The nutritionist override was not acceptable.

Fortunately, the stay was brief, so only a few trays of food were wasted. You can bring a man carbs, but he doesn’t have to eat them!


It’s NaNoWriMo Again!

Say what? That’s National Novel Writing Month, of course! It extends from November 1 to November 30 every year, and over 200,000 people around the world, including me, will be writing a 50,000 word novel in that time span. That’s 1600 words a day-but who’s counting?

Of course it is something of a gimmick, but in past years some of the first drafts written those Novembers have actually ended up as published books, from real publishers. And for those of us who’ve always wanted to write a novel, and never got around to it, it provides a helpful boost, or kick in the pants.

I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo two (or was it three) years ago. I had never heard of this project, but on November first I read something about it, and decided to take the plunge. Of course I was already 1600 words behind. But I signed up at www.nanowrimo.org, and off I wrote. The founder of the idea, Chris Baty, has written a supportive book, “No Plot? No Problem! : A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days,” and I found that my experience was a surprisingly common one. The book is a steal at $1.99 on Kindle!

Since I loved reading murder mysteries (to the puzzlement of my daughters) I decided to write one. And since I knew colleges pretty intimately after eighteen years of education and twenty-five years of employment at a variety of them, that seemed a fitting venue.

Week One: The ideas flow, the word counts mount.

Week Tw: Brain freeze sets in. Ideas dry up. Each day is torture, and eking out the 1600 words daily is painful. Each day I approach the computer with not a single idea of where the story is headed. But I persist.

Week Three: The dam leaks, then crumbles. Suddenly the plot takes shape, the words flow, the characters start to develop, and the plot line takes on a direction. I then managed to lose three days’ work, and recovered in a marathon 6000 word writing frenzy.

Week Four: The end is in sight, the plot wraps up, and the story is finished on November 29th. I upload my manuscript of just over 50,000 words to the NaNoWriMo site, in order to receive my certificate of achievement. I am proud, relieved, and wonder what I will do with all the time on my hands.

The novel that I wrote, “Bad Chemistry,” is a mystery about a number of murders on a small college campus in Maine, told in first person by the college president, Abby Goodman. Wrapped around the murders is the story of daily life on the campus, with the personalities and problems Abby has to deal with, and her life both on and off campus. I intend to self-publish it one day, but feel it needs more description of place, and the characters need to be better fleshed out and disguised, since so far only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

But meanwhile, I am starting on “Tainted Biology” next Friday. It will be a prequel, again told by Abby, about her graduate student days in Israel, and the murders that happened there. Background this time will be life in a research laboratory, fraud in science, and juggling family and research lives. That’s all I know today, but I am really interested to see what develops.

Then I will get back to “Bad Chemistry” for a pre-publication push.

Any novel-writing wannabes out there? Join me at www.nanowrimo.com. The website now has all sorts of links and encouraging updates from successful authors, such as Neil Gaiman and John Green, as well as projects to support young writers.

And next month I’ll read your novel if you’ll read mine!


Things I Spied II: The Blogs I Read

I don’t read many blogs, in part because I don’t have the time. Recently I’ve even noted that I am devoting less time to my dear New York Times, because I am keeping up with the news on Facebook and Twitter through the writers I follow. But there are a few blogs I follow, some “chick” writ, others of broader interest.

“Head Butler” by Jesse Kornbluth curates books, music, films and interesting “stuff,” like the Anthelios Moisturizing Cream that I am now hooked on. Jesse’s and my tastes in music are somewhat at odds, but some of the books he has recommended, such a “The Beautiful Ruins” are now among my all-time favorites.

“Dooce” was the first blog I began to follow, about six years ago. In turn, Heather Armstrong was one of the first bloggers, since she started blogging over ten years ago. She even had the honor of being fired back then for what she wrote about her boss, an experience now known as being “dooced.” Heather now lives in Utah, is a lapsed Mormon, and one of the most successful of the “mommy bloggers.” While she has a terrific and biting sense of humor, she is serious affected by clinical depression, and writes candidly about that as well. There was a long series (sponsored) on how she and her husband Jon furnished their new house, only to be followed about two years later by news of their separation, and eventual divorce, about which she is highly circumspect, to the dismay of many readers, who feel they have the right to know all the gory details. Many postings feature her children, Leta and Marlo, who are probably more in the public eye than the royals, and I, a cat person, almost bought the calendar featuring her dog, Chuck.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, writes a personal blog on Fridays, mostly about music. He and I have similar tastes, and are both fans of the Canadian group, “Arcade Fire.” I also like his thinking on economics, so I follow his newspaper columns the rest of the week.

“Tikun Olam” is written by Richard Silverstein in Seattle and takes an insider/outsider view on Israeli politics. While my views are not always in alignment with his, Silverstein does real investigative reporting, and he revealed the awful, sad story of “Prisoner X” a failed Mossad agent who was so secretly imprisoned that he had no name on the rolls, and who somehow managed to hang himself while supposedly under observation at all times. Silverstein loves what Israel should be, but not what it often is.

On a lighter note, “The Fabulous Geezersisters” by Ruth Pennebaker tells tales of a liberal woman living in Texas with humor and Southern charm. She has the ability to make me laugh out loud, always welcome after a day of listening to political and foreign affairs reporting, not that she shies away from that as well. She gives me some hope for Texas.

I am trying to broaden my worldview, and not just exist in an echo chamber of people who think like me. At least some of these crack the door open a bit.

The Ghost Bike

There is a ghost bike on our corner. It is painted white and chained to a pole, and commemorates a young girl who was killed there on September 11, 2010. Her name was Jasmine Herron, she was 23, and she was bicycling along busy Atlantic Avenue. A woman who had just parked “doored” her, opening her car door without looking, and knocking her off the bike, into the path of a city bus which crushed her.


You can see these ghost bikes around the city, each commemorating the death of a rider, placed there by ghostbikes.org. Sometimes there is a story on a placard, others just a name and date of death, some just say that a death occurred there. All are sad.

This bike looked forlorn, so I bought some artificial flowers and leaves to add to it. I hate artificial flowers, but real ones would dry up in a day. There is a ring of dried flowers near one of the pedals.

The project started in New York back in 2005, and in 2010 the Sanitation Department announced that it would be removing abandoned bikes found chained to poles and posts, including the ghost bikes. There was a community outcry, and the plan was abandoned.

So now there are 116 ghost bikes around the city, to commemorate the 166 fatalities since 2005.

There is mutual hostility between drivers and bike riders in New York, and maybe in most places. The complaint here is that “professional” riders, such as messengers, who put a premium on fast delivery, blow through stop signs, and even mow down pedestrians. A few years back, in fact, three pedestrians were killed by cyclists, though there have been no pedestrian deaths in the past four years. On the other hand, 21 cyclists were killed last year, with only two prosecutions of the drivers.

One of the positive results of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure (along with the cool sitting plazas in Midtown) has been the increase in the number and ubiquity of bike lanes throughout the city. His last hurrah may be the arrival of rental Citibikes. We have three stations within a five minute walk of our place in Brooklyn. These are something of a mixed blessing, however, as novices who likely haven’t ridden in years go lurching out into traffic, helmetless. Amazingly, there have as yet been no fatalities. Perhaps the bright blue color and the erratic steering alerts the drivers, and that may be to the benefit of all cyclists.


I am still afraid to ride in the city, perhaps because of a longstanding memory of being doored in Boston and landing on the hood of a car, to the applause of some construction workers. But I think I may be back in the saddle in the near future, heading down a bike lane to Prospect Park, where the cars are few and the bikers many.


Up All Night

Sitting in a red plastic chair. Hard on the back, hard on the bottom. No sleep is hard on everywhere. The Emergency Room.

We were advised to head there at ten on Monday evening, assured we would get priority care for our genuine emergency. Six hours later we were still waiting.

We had the relative comfort of an isolation room, but on all sides were the cubicles, separated only by curtains, and there were three additional rooms full of patients as well. Not sure which circle Dante would have labeled it, but to me it clearly looked like a scene from hell.

One patient was surrounded by doctors most of the night. He was the real emergency as judged by triage, a gunshot victim. Invaded by tubes, breathing from a mask, he apparently complained as parts of him were being sewn back together. I could see the doctor pulling up the thread, and heard the reply “We’re just trying to save your life here.” By morning he was gone, taken upstairs to another room, I was told. I hope that isn’t some euphemism.

I caught one or two programs of “ER” on TV, but their ER was a tighty whitey version of mine. In the cubicles people moaned, coughed, slept, and displayed body parts better kept private. The aisles between the rows of cubicles were clogged with EMTs, incoming patients on gurneys and police officers and their charges.

The staff and patients were the New York Rainbow Coalition of diversity in race, age, gender and ability. A night on duty must give a fledgling doc an education worth weeks of textbook learning. At one point the announcement came over the loudspeaker,”Area C, prepare for a stroke.” And they did.

The staff remained calm and moved in a pattern that appeared random throughout the night, but which I assume was ordained by a triage algorithm. When we did interact, I was impressed by the humanity and even warmth we were shown.

The aide who wanted to bring me a more comfortable chair (which I foolishly refused, thinking I would be leaving shortly), said that a major problem was people using the ER as their primary care physician, and coming in with a cold. Makes me wonder if the efforts of the ACA (I prefer Obamacare) to remedy this will reduce that load.

Finally after six on Tuesday morning, attention was paid, and the wheels of care and medical support started to turn. But it wasn’t until Tuesday night after ten that a room came free in the hospital. I won’t speculate on how, at that hour. I had left by then to subway home and sleep prone. Care continues.

I’m OK, You’re OK. Or are you?

One New Year’s Eve when we were living in Canada, Phil and I were out with friends. When my phone rang, I assumed it was our daughter Yael with New Year wishes. Instead, it was our daughter seeking advice. Her boyfriend and she were cooking a festive dinner, and when a dish exploded from heat, he had slashed his big toe on a shard. It was bleeding profusely, you could see the bone, what should they do? We insisted that a visit to the ER was called for. He was resisting, because, an aspiring musician, he had no medical insurance. Our Canadian friends sat there dumbfounded. To them it was inconceivable that someone needing medical care could be calculating whether to seek it, based on the lack of insurance. Because all Canadians have medical insurance, paid for through taxes.

In the end he went. The toe required numerous stitches. And he got a bill for $2000. Good luck with that.

I won’t even mention the bill Jon got a few years later for $30,000 for a five day stay when he awoke paralyzed and the cause could not be found. Because he was still a striving musician on a low income, he qualified eventually for Medicaid, and was relieved of that one.

Most notable for us that first night was the reaction of our Canadian friends. They literally could not comprehend the discussion over whether to go to the ER for a serious injury. In their lives they had never had to worry about whether medical care would be available or how much it would cost or who would pay for it. Like the air or the sun, it was always there for the taking, with no discussion needed. It was a right, not a privilege.

We had our own brush with medical disaster with Yael. After her first year of college, she decided she wanted to change schools and go part time, working part time as well. Of course by then, being 19, she was no longer covered by our health insurance and couldn’t afford her own on her minimum wage salary. I think I held my breath for that entire year.

She returned to college full time the next year and was again covered by insurance. That year she had an emergency appendectomy, and the following one an allergic reaction to an antibiotic that landed her in the hospital for five days. I refuse to think what would have happened to all of us if either of these had hit her during her Year Without Medical Insurance.

If you have insurance in this country, you are at least partially safe, so long as the insurance company agrees to pay the bills. Of course if you have a pre-existing condition, you could be turned down. If your employer wasn’t picking up part of the tab, the monthly cost for the premium could be crippling. And if you are a woman, you are charged more.

Obamacare will not be a panacea. There will be plenty of bumps, and it is not a single payer system such as Canada, Australia and England have. But it will smooth out some of those inequities. And if we had it 13 years ago, Yael would have been covered, and I would have been breathing in deep relief that whole year long.

My Buffalo Home

I’ve lived in Buffalo off and on for seventeen years. The first three were full time, when a was a Dean here. The next four, I was a Dean in New York, while Phil continued to work in BLO, and we took turns doing the weekend commute to be together. For the next five years, I was in Canada, and made it back for one weekend a month. Then back to New York for two years of weekend turnabouts again. Finally, three years ago, I moved to Buffalo “full” time, with weekends in Brooklyn twice a month. Whew!

Yet I have never really felt a part of this place, and that is odd, because with all the other places I have lived, including a small town in Nova Scotia, I tended to dive right in and adopt the new surroundings as my own. Even in Canada, when people would ask “Where’s home?” I would say, ” Right here,” and explain that I was like a turtle, carrying my home on my back. That never really satisfied them, because “home” to them was the place you were born, and always wanted to return to. Since I never wanted to return to where I was born, this didn’t resonate with me, so we reached an impasse.

But I am still bemused by my alienation from Buffalo. The city has lots of positive features, like some of the most beautiful housing stock I have ever seen. The summers are ten degrees cooler than in Brooklyn, there is an Olmsted-designed park five minutes from our house, I have made some wonderful friends here, and winter is no longer the snow-bound hassle it once was. A nod to climate change.

Our house is not one of the architectural wonders, but it is cozy, with a front and back yard, three bedrooms, eat-in kitchen and dining room. And we bought it for under $50,000, about 13 years ago. We joked at the time that we could put it on our credit cards.


But then there are the negatives. The media delights in that snow-bound reputation, and exults at every flake, the civic attitude is not one of “can do,” but rather, of complaint and finger-pointing. When I left in 1999 there was discussion of building an improved Peace Bridge, to compete with the crossing from Canada near Detroit. In 2012, the Detroit crossing had doubled its span and traffic, and nothing but talk having developed in Buffalo, the issue was finally laid to rest and defeat.

Despite the financial reality that a lot more money comes into this region from the State than ever goes out in taxes, there is the iron-clad conviction that somehow Western New York and Buffalo are supporting New York City. And when young people see no future here and leave, that is somehow someone else’s fault too.

The major enthusiasm the residents seem to have is for the losing sports teams, the Bills and the Sabres. The University even spent untold sums to bring its football team from Class III to Class I, though to what end remains unclear. A new Medical Campus is being built downtown, but meanwhile the Pharmacy building was given a major renovation before the Department’s imminent relocation to the new campus.

I have met many good people here, and wish the city well, if it could only stop stepping on its own feet!