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...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Friday, August 31, 2012

Maine and Grass and Birds and Republicans

Spent last week in Maine at the summer home of friends Gloria and Ed. On the way in from the airport we snuck a peek at Stephen King's house and resisted the urge to knock and request entry for coffee and literary chit-chat. Once ensconced at "our" house (I take ownership quickly), enjoyed four acres of rolling coastline property, not far from the eastern-most point of the United States. Deer and bald eagles in the back lot. Lobster boats bobbing, lobster dinners succulent (four 1.5lb lobsters for $21), blueberry fields, blueberry pies, blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes, blueberry pickers engaged in backbreaking work. Attended a lobster luncheon at the local historic society. Burly bearded guy dumping nets of lobsters into a giant steaming vat. Rosy-cheeked volunteers checking on corn-on-the-cob and fish stew while a lady plucked a dulcimer nearby. Sleeping late, sunset naps, no TV,  only books and scrabble and puzzles and lovely conversation with old friends. A fine way to end the summer before fireplace season begins.

The lawn has grown to alarming proportions in my absence. I'm sure the neighbors are dismayed. I keep hoping the grass will stop already but...alas. I am over summer chores in spite of a few cuts yet required. I shall don sneakers and sweat pants in the hours ahead and handle it.

Two birds in the house tonight, both carted in by my cat, although I'm not sure it wasn't the same bird on a suicide mission. Little thing(s), sparrow(s) maybe. I managed to capture both (or the same one twice) and release. There's something spiritual about holding a bird in your hand and letting it soar off, miraculously uninjured by the feline. Ruby, the failed murderess, growled and hissed after the second  bird was set free. Thank god Harry was upstairs somewhere or the family room would have been filled with dying tweets and flying feathers. His killing instinct, unlike the cat's, is expert.

The Republicans are at it at their convention, watched as much as I could stand before flipping to Project Runway. Plenty of rah-rahs, we'll bring America back from the brink and so on. American Idol Taylor Hicks in a too-snug suit gyrating and singing "Taking It To The Streets." And did I hear correctly? Was the background song to Paul Ryan's fact-questionable speech on Wednesday Dylan's "Everybody Must Get Stoned"? Speaking of stoned, Rush Limbaugh, who some describe as the mouthpiece of the Republican patriarchy in that he brays out loud what others in his party are thinking, said Tuesday about Hurricane Isaac: "It's the Democrats' wet dream that the thing hits New Orleans." The day before, on Monday, the insufferable gasbag suggested the National Hurricane Center, part of the Commerce Department, was manipulating Isaac forecasts to help Barack Obama.

Having just come from Maine, a state that feels strangely as though it belongs in another country with its serene lobster/blueberry people and fascinating Kate Hepburn accents ("Yes, Deah..."), I found Limbaugh's comments astonishing, especially in the event that anyone listens. If he is indeed a mouthpiece, it's time for the Republicans to straighten up and clean house. He is a madman, an embarrassment to the airwaves, and, most certainly, to any political party with a candidate in the 2012 presidential race. Perhaps those pesky prescription drugs have finally eaten away any sense this talking head might ever have had.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Guest Post: Hydrofracking in New York

Chris Hoffman is a writer for the Madison County (NY) Courier.

The Nature of Debate
By Chris Hoffman

In last week’s (Madison County) Courier, Martha Conway reported on the Sullivan Town Council’s public hearing on natural gas activities.  I applaud her effort to give equal space to comments from people both in favor of and opposed to a moratorium on hydrofracking.  However, while a debate is decided on facts, facts must be carried to their logical conclusion, within an appropriate context, and not left hanging in a void, unchallenged.

Steve Durfee of Tuscarora Road, who is opposed to a moratorium, stated, “The fact of the matter is we need more energy.”  

Assuming for a moment that this statement is true, where does it take us if we go along with the concept of “needing more?”  Why do we need more?  For how long will we need more?  Is there a point when we won’t need more?  What must we do in the interim to attain the state of not needing more energy?  Does producing more energy assume that we will use it as quickly as it is produced, and therefore we will always need more?  

Such questions eventually take you to a vision of what things might look like if we keep building infrastructure and supporting industries that provide more energy to be consumed.  That vision includes less open space and fewer pristine landscapes in order to accommodate the infrastructure – pipelines, drilling sites, wind farms, transfer stations, power lines, trucks and tankers, storage facilities, processing facilities, etc.  As the population increases, demand for energy and fuel increases.  We can thus assume that the need for more energy will never abate unless we begin to consider other options.

So the question then becomes, do we want to create a situation of perpetually increasing need, until eventually we no longer live amidst the beautiful rural countryside, but rather live within a massive interconnected industrial infrastructure that spreads from coast to coast?

That is where the “fact” of needing more energy leads, especially in the context of heavy industries like gas.  Their impact is simply too massive, too invasive, too potentially dangerous to not consider when making such a statement.

Additionally, the statement presumes that the gas produced will benefit American consumers.  Again, more facts are needed.  And the fact is that the gas companies want to increase exportation of natural gas produced in this country because they can get more money abroad than they can here.  According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), U.S. natural gas prices are currently less than one-fifth the price of natural gas exported to India, Japan, and South Korea.

While there has been a significant decrease in the cost of natural gas in the U.S., international demand for natural gas has increased, leading to higher prices abroad.  As a result, natural gas companies have submitted plans for eight natural gas export terminals capable of exporting up to 18 percent of America's natural gas supplies.  According to the Department of Energy, exporting that much natural gas could increase the price to American consumers by up to 54 percent.

To protect consumers and businesses from increasing natural gas prices and keep America's natural gas in the United States, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced two bills in February of this year that would curtail exportation to foreign markets. One would have required that any natural gas extracted from taxpayer-owned federal lands would have to be sold to American consumers. The other would have prevented FERC from approving new export terminals.  Both bills failed in committee.  I tried reaching Giselle Barry, Rep. Markey’s press officer, to find out why, but I was unsuccessful.  

At the public hearing, Steve Durfee stated, “Natural gas activity can be conducted safely if properly regulated.”  All one needs to do to refute this statement is peruse the statistics from the Pennsylvania DEC on violations committed by the industry in their activities there:  2,241 violations in this year alone.  

And lastly, Louis DeMario stated, “We don’t need a moratorium … just legislation protecting our town.”  The problem with this statement is timing.  If a town has no local laws that address the myriad issues connected to heavy industrial activities in general, and hydrofracking specifically, once Gov. Cuomo gives the green light to the gas industry, it will simply be too late to put local laws in place to keep the industry in check.  Without the time a moratorium affords to draft and adopt local laws, the irreversible consequences of the gas industry’s priorities, values, and methods will haunt us forevermore.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

Just Keep Spinning

I've been spinning this week. Spinning about a weekend golf tournament. Spinning about hydrofracking in central New York. Spinning about an upcoming doctor's appointment during which I was to have a funky-looking spot checked out (is it skin cancer or isn't it?).


The golf tournament starts on Friday afternoon, but about that I am now tranquil. Hydrofracking...well, the jury is most certainly out on that one. Every morning there are construction men in the lot behind my house, hooting and cussing and drinking 6 a.m. coffee, driving trucks that suggest pipeline work is ongoing (more on that in the weeks to come as I get my head around this very tricky issue). As for the skin cancer, the funky-looking blotch turned out to be nothing. Never could I imagine being happy to hear, "Oh honey, that's just an age spot."

I'm always boring my family with phrases like Life Is A River. Yesterday that adage came to a sharp point when I went to the estate sale of my recently departed English teacher, Mrs. Fagan. There in the hallway of her magnificent home was...a spinning wheel. Ah, okay I said to the void. Is that what this spinning has been all about? Have you been leading me here all along?

It took me about ten seconds to decide to buy the lovely antique piece. Not only did my doing so calm the spinning in my head, it caused a familiar tugging at my sleeve. There is no better memento from Mrs. Fagan than a wheel that spins, a wheel that while in motion by skilled hands makes art. The wheel, which once sat in the heart of her home, will reside in my office near the desk where I spin my little stories. Perhaps, as I tap at a keyboard, I'll hear the voice of a lady who advised never give up, never accept failure. Her voice through that spinning wheel will inspire me: when something isn't good enough make it better. Make it the best you can. Give it everything you've got.

Just today I have adopted a three-word mantra in golf and in health and in small towns where big companies think they can move in and take from you what is yours. Those words are balance and rhythm and patience. I have been out of balance lately, my rhythm has been off, and my patience has been deli-ham thin. Somehow, miraculously, a teacher's spinning wheel has restored my footing. I imagine deft fingers that once, long ago, spun thread into cloth. I imagine my teacher guarding this treasure, polishing its aging wood with patience. And rhythm. And balance. This soothing triad restores calm when life threatens to spin out of control. Now the treasure is mine, reminding me to golf well, to write well, to live well, to take care of myself, and to fight for that in which I believe. Spinning, until today, seemed like a bad thing. Rather, to spin is to celebrate a cycle of thought that in the end, no matter how dire the circumstances nor daunting the competition, weaves a beautiful fabric of answers.

Friday, August 10, 2012

$13 Doesn't Buy As Much As It Used To

I came across an old diary recently from when I was around 11 years old. An entry in early August reads: "I counted my money today and I've saved $13 over the summer. Can't wait to go to the fair!

It's been quite a few years since I was 11, and if memory serves the last time I was at the county fair was in 1974 or so, when I was in high school. I remember marching students and crowds and big bandstand events involving tractors and race cars. I also remember delighting in the animals (prize roosters, cows, and horses), the camping trailers on display, the exhibits, and of course the midway. At night the sky sparkled with the moving and multi-color lights of the Ferris wheel. Food vendors hawked their goods...sausage and pepper sandwiches, pizza, fried dough...and game vendors hawked their prizes, which could be won by squirting water in a clown's mouth, picking up ducks, tossing rings. There were also "the freak shows" back then, a feature most certainly in the category of politically incorrect today but nonetheless fascinating: hand over a quarter and see the bearded lady, the two-headed infant floating in a jar of formaldehyde, the conjoined twins. I'd spend hours at the fair, which for me was magic, a fun and somehow logical conclusion to summer in a rural place.

My friend Mark is in town this week and on Thursday we went to the fair. I was excited, although I knew somewhere down deep that even though the county fair might not have changed, it would have changed anyway, at least for me. Nothing 40 years later holds the same glow, a glow when I was a teen that probably emanated less from the fair itself and more from something firing in my own head, something having to do with youthful anticipation, bright lights, and throngs of people outside my usual circle, not to mention the possibility of crossing paths with the high school crush of the week. Forty years is a long time, I told myself as we left the house, still secretly imagining the fun we'd have; things will probably be quite different. 

In that respect, the fair did not disappoint.

We drove in the same entrance, parked in the same grassy lot. There was the same bandstand, the same tractor pull, the same sky scene of spinning wheel and dive bomber. There was the midway and the food and the animals...roosters and cows (but no horses); a tortoise, a giant hare, some goats, some monkeys, and one cage I didn't go near bearing a sign that read "Watch out, it bites!" The hawking vendors were there selling deep fried butter and jewelry. A polka band played under a tent to a thin crowd of the elderly. I didn't see any camping trailers on display although there might have been some. Truth is, we didn't really stay long enough to find out.

After a sausage sandwich lunch and riding through a highly disappointing "scary" house, Mark and I drifted to the animal tents and got caught in a downpour, complete with wind, lightning, thunder, torrential rain, and hail. Foregoing further examination of strangely fluffy chickens and a few peacocks, we left, slogging back through a rather depressing and empty midway where a man selling tie-dyed tee shirts stood in a puddle, wringing out his merchandise.

Is this grim impression of an old and beloved haunt the fair's fault or my own? In truth I don't think the fair has changed much over the years, though without question I have. Now adult and traveled and, okay, maybe a bit jaded, I can still appreciate the rich texture of such things, husky geese entered by proud farm kids and flower arrangements on display by garden clubs. A shirtless country boy eating cotton candy, holding a girlfriend's hand. I guess the truth is, though, that for me the world has moved on. That stealthy thief Time has changed the angles of my vision, dimming the glow I once saw when, with my thirteen dollars, I arrived enchanted, greeted by pretty lights and all manner of possibilities.

In the car, Mark turned and asked me: "Was the fair always this small?" I just shook my head and drove away, with raindrops on the windshield and cold fried dough in a paper bag.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Confessions of a Grid Addict

In 2003 I was still living downstate, but was spending a few summer weeks in my central New York hometown. For the past 20 or so years, mid-August has been the date of the ladies' member/guest tournament at our local golf course, a tournament in which my sister and I play as a team. That year, in 2003, the tournament was being held August 15 and 16.

Nine years ago this month a friend of mine on Long Island was having a milestone birthday party. His birthday is on August 14, which in 2003 fell on a Thursday. Rather than make the 10-hour round trip by car, my plan was to fly from Syracuse to New York City Thursday morning, take a cab to my house on Long Island, take another cab to the party, and then scoot to the airport and fly home that evening in time to get up and out on the golf course the next day for the tournament. My hand-wringing sister and golf partner was concerned: "What if something happens and you can't get back?" My famous last words were, "Ah c'mon, what could happen?"

What happened, as some of you may remember, was The Great Blackout of 2003, when at around 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 14, the electric grid went down in the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada. The cause of the blackout is complicated and multi-faceted, including alarms that didn't go off, under-serviced equipment, too much draw on the grid on a hot day, and, in a nutshell, overheated wires sagging into trees in Ohio. The cascading effect pulled the plug on fifty-five million people.

My own little part of this drama played out as follows: I was in my Long Island house at 4:10 p.m., napping and blissfully unaware, when all hell was breaking loose on the east coast. I woke up around 5 and started getting ready to go to the party. I flipped the switch and..no lights. The power going out in my neighborhood wasn't anything new (don't ask me why...the power always went out in Glen Cove), so I put my make-up on in the gloom of my bathroom, got dressed, and just as I was heading downstairs the phone rang. It was the cab company asking me if I still wanted a car to go to the party location 20 minutes away. "Well yeah!" I said, "Why wouldn't I?" It was then that I learned of the blackout. My primary concern, of course, was my flight home that night, which, as it turns out, had been canceled.

Long story short: I went to the party, being held in a restaurant, and had a fine time in spite of the heat (no AC) and the absence of lights (there were candles, which only made the room hotter). My trip home troubles were quickly solved when a friend offered me her car, into which I jumped at 9 p.m. and roared back upstate. The lights were on in my hometown, and all things considered the blackout only served as a good story in the days to come since, had I not been able to borrow a car, I might have missed the golf tournament.

This week the power grid in India went down. For two days, 670 million people were without electricity. Six hundred and seventy million. That's a tenth of the world's population, 50 million more than twice the U.S. population, a number I can't even get my head around. The blackout in India, the biggest in history, caused massive traffic jams, passengers stranded on trains and at airports, and coal miners stranded in mines. Medical operations were suspended mid-way in darkened hospitals. Government and business offices dependent on the internet ground to a halt. The catastrophic outcome of such a massive power outage, power upon which we all now so depend, is chilling.  

My own tiny inconvenience with the grid going down and now watching what's happened in India have made me think about how personally dependent I am on electricity. For my morning coffee and toast. For lights and air conditioning. The furnace. The hot water heater. The TV, radio, and stereo. The dishwasher, and washing machine, and dryer. The refrigerator where my food stays cold or frozen, the microwave for thawing, the stove for cooking. The computer, where I conduct my business. The telephone, where I also conduct my business. The pump at the station where I get my gas. The lights in the grocery store where I buy my food, not to mention the food there that needs to stay cold. I don't own a chicken for eggs, nor do I have a cow or a single tomato on my three potted tomato plants. I have no garden. If for whatever reason the grid in the U.S. went down and stayed down, there would be no hot showers, no trips to the supermarket, no emailing of work projects, no late-night Frasier on the tube, and no reading in bed with the big old bedside lamp. And no food. I guess I could eat grass and bugs if the grid went down for a long time, and in the end I'd be a skinny jobless woman with dirty clothes and a car I couldn't drive. The thought of living without electricity is so foreign to me I might as well wonder how I would survive on Mars.

Are we spoiled people? I suppose so. Or have we just gotten used to the good life, so provided long ago by a man in a thunderstorm with key and kite? In spite of all the talk about the grid going down due either to terrorists or our own overuse and negligence, I'm not going to run out and buy a thousand candles, nor will I chop down the tree out back to prepare for fire in winter. I shall not build a chicken house, and I will not, like some I speak with these days, decide to "get off the grid." Instead, because I believe in human ingenuity, I'm going to be a millennium type and hope our modern-day Ben Franklins can figure out how to keep the lights on. Sure I can do my part: I can shut off lights I'm not using and try to conserve. Lay off the AC until I can't stand the heat another minute. But in the end, short of buying a couple of dozen extra cans of carrots and a laying hen, I -- like most of you reading this post -- am a hot shower-taking bacon-frying gas-guzzling TV-watching keyboard-typing slave to the grid. An addict is an addict, and I have a feeling this monkey is staying on all our backs for a long long time.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum