Zuzu’s Petals

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George Bailey, the regular-guy hero of Bedford Falls, New York, as portrayed by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” is one of my role models. I know I’m not alone in this. While I never saved my little brother from drowning (I don’t have one) and I’ve never been known for distributing cash among my neighbors (but I would if I could), I’ve always admired how George was able to balance the big dreams of what he thought his life should have been with the reality of what it was. And how, by his actions, he intuitively made his little world, the one he privately complained of being “stuck” in,  a better place for himself and for everybody around him. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I’ve had anywhere close to the same effect on my little world as George had on his, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve done no harm, and like George, I’ve been blessed in having made a lot of friends around town, though I hope I never have to ask them for $8000, ’cause that would be awkward.

And of course, everyone knows that George never leaves Bedford Falls. And me, I have found myself as an AARP-eligible adult landed on a comfy couch right here on the same 60 x 100 plot of land in Valley Stream, Long Island that I started out on 54 and a half years ago. I have a beautiful, funny, successfully employed wife and a smart, good-looking son with who is finding his way through adolescence pretty well despite a school system and social system totally unsuited to his particular genius (which is fixing every single mechanical thing on the planet that has broken). I have a good job, a nice little house, more toys and diversions that I ever have time to get around to (like this blog). I have a big happy yellow lab who is my personal ambassador to the human race and three cats for entertainment and interesting conversation.

Just like George Bailey, I could have done a whole lot worse. I’ve really had a wonderful life and I have no intention of throwing it all away. But I also have no intention of letting it be taken away from me piece by piece by the Forces of Pottersville, at least not without a fight. This is me fighting.

I first saw, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was about 14 in 1977, around the time the 1946 movie became public domain and Channel 11 in New York would show it over and over before Christmas. I started telling everyone in my family and anyone who would listen that they had to see this movie. I dare say I was in on the ground floor of the revival that made it Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie. And I dare say I do a dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, which I promise I’ll do for you when I branch out into podcasting. I was immediately charmed by the story, the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey’s character. And I guess the lesson that George learns from his nightmare in Pottersville became part of the unshakable truths that I’ve built my value system on: Success has nothing to do with money or career status and everything to do with the cumulative effects of being a good person and trying to do the right thing. I don’t know if George had anything to do with me never moving more than twenty miles away from where I was born, but that’s entirely possible.

George had his chances to get out of Bedford falls (‘and see the world!”), but he realized early on that the big dreams he had a young man were not as important as being a good guy, which is the most important thing of all. He didn’t necessarily want to be where he was, but until Uncle Billy handed Mr. Potter an envelope with $8000 in it, he didn’t take that dissatisfaction and frustration out on anybody around him. He treated people the way you should treat people. Despite his desire to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” George took comfort in people and places and protocols that had remained the same in Bedford Falls throughout his life. He knew where he stood with everybody and everybody knew where they stood with him. Me, too.

George could’ve done something more with his life than holding together the Bailey Building and Loan. (It’s always presented with a pejorative: “Broken down”, “measly”, “penny-ante”). I probably could have been something “more” than a junior high school English teacher if I had applied myself a little more as a younger guy. Before I started phoning it in and getting crappy grades in high school (just like my beloved Dude does now, bless his heart), I was supposed to write great things or be a famous something or other. By the time I was going to Queens College at night to cobble together the credits for an English BA, those dreams of writing novels, or sitcoms in Hollywood, or being a famous FM disc jockey were all pretty much dead, and after two years in the production department at New York Magazine, finding out how unpleasant life could potentially be in the editorial department, I got my master’s and went into teaching ’cause I knew I’d be good at it and I could finally get out of my parent’s house. Those aren’t noble reasons to enter my profession, I’ll admit. But you know what? I followed in my mother’s footsteps, and I’ve helped thousands of kids learn to read, write and think a little better and a little deeper in my “shabby little office” for over 23 years.

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So George and I find ourselves with something else in common: Our professional lives are a tribute to a parent that instilled a sense of values and beliefs in us that neither one of us could ultimately escape from, simply because it made so much sense. George keeps the Bailey Building and Loan going so people have someplace to go without crawling to Potter. I ultimately decided teaching was a better use of my life  than helping to produce a magazine that would be thrown away when the next one came out (though it’s a mostly insane existence from September to June every year, which my archives will tell you doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for blogging).

Plus, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who wrote this magazine were terribly impressed with themselves and their Manhattan lifestyles. I spent Sundays waxing floors with a friend of mine from Valley Stream because I wasn’t making enough money. That friend was smarter, funnier and more original than anyone at New York Magazine, but they would never understand why. They wouldn’t get him. In the end, I needed to be with real people. To “fritter my life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” as Mr. Potter puts it to George. It was good enough for my mother, and it’s been good enough for me. And I love garlic.

And of course, when not at work, when it’s safe to speak my mind, I continue another one of my mother’s traditions (besides an addiction to Jeopardy, which she actually got from me, and blasting WQXR Classical in the kitchen while cooking dinner, which my Bose Soundtouch has taken to a whole other level, thank you Trisha): The tradition of Good Old-Fashioned Democratic, Bleeding-Heart Liberal Politics.

Growing up, I soaked up both of my parents complaints about that Crook Nixon in the 70’s and that Buffoon Cowboy Reagan in the 80’s. I saw the damage they did, (and later felt that damage more acutely as an adult while W. wrecked the country in the 2000’s). By virtue of working in the New York City high schools, my parents were immersed in diversity before it was even close to a thing. They believed that without labor unions, “the bastards” would rob you blind. They took their children to the Adirondacks and grew flowers and vegetables in the backyard and studied the comings and goings of the ducks on the creek and thus turned us all into environmentalists, around the time it was becoming a thing. My parents always rooted for the underdog and they despised guns and the abuse of power. They were devout, religious catholics who practiced their faith in their lives and knew Billy Graham and the evangelists were full of shit.

Mom was more vocal about all this, as she was about everything. My dad was more of a “do as I do” guy. But I’ll tell you what: If my mother, Joan Marie Duffy, were alive today, she’d be screaming bloody murder about what’s going on in this country. She’d be a voice of Resistance on Twitter, probably with a couple of thousand followers, probably using the expletive “fuck” in all it’s forms to comment on the disgusting developments of the past year. She can’t so I do. They’ll vote with Potter otherwise.

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Because as we all know now, this is what happened: The GOP knew Trump was disgusting, and they pretended to complain about him at the start of the primaries but they knew that their primary voting base was equally disgusting, and the more primaries he won, the less they complained (and the more free air time he got on cable news for the Hitler rallies). And the more disgusting things he said, the more the people in this country who had already been thrown into their own Pottersville Of The Mind loved him for it.

A lot has been said and written about the people and the vibe in the Nightmare Pottersville of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (For example, the friend who I used to wax floors with thought it seemed like a lot more fun). One has to admit, Capra’s vision of dystopia is a bit over the top, from the amphetamine-driven boogie-woogie piano player in Nick’s Bar to the over-capacity dance halls on Main Street to Burt the cop opening fire into a crowd. I personally always found it amusing that there even was a Pottersville Public Library, never mind the fact that Mary Hatch was an old maid who was just about to close it down. I think it’s more likely that the town council, all in Mr. Potter’s back pocket, probably would have closed it as part of an austerity budget designed to line their own pockets. 

But I think that the point Capra was trying to illustrate with all this silliness was simply this: The rich assholes pit everyone against each other. People lose trust. They turn on their neighbors. They come to believe that not giving a shit is much easier, which it is, and why make the effort to make your town or your country better if those rich assholes are pulling all the strings? Fuck ’em all. Nothing matters. Just lay down a few bucks for some mindless entertainment, get shitfaced and forget about how much better your life could actually be if you got educated and exercised your First Amendment rights, ’cause it ain’t never gonna happen, bub. You’re just too lazy, and they’ve got you by the balls.

Nick the Bartender showed compassion for George Bailey as he breaks down on the bar stool. Nick the Boss is the twisted dictator of his own little band of small-time assholes, a big fish in a toxic pond of deplorables who gets off on spraying Mr. Gower in the face with a seltzer bottle, ostensibly because Mr. Gower deserved it, even though he’s obviously paid his debt to society and is a threat to no one in his current condition. He has no patience for Clarence the Angel, even after George suggests he has a mental disability. If you’re different in Pottersville, you get thrown out on your ass in the snow.

 

 

And Mary Hatch? Why is she an old maid? Capra is suggesting that it’s because there weren’t enough decent people left in Pottersville. She couldn’t find George not because George didn’t exist but because people who, in a fair, compassionate society, may have been more like George were instead being reprogrammed into mean, suspicious, wounded and dangerous animals like Violet Bick, Ernie the Cab Driver and George’s own mother have become in George’s Pottersville nightmare.

As the media narrative goes, in the Rust Belt states where Trump won the electoral college; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the people were fed up with the status quo and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Some of that may be true, but here’s how I and many other people have come to see it: Some of those people are exactly what Hillary said they were, the famous “Basket of Deplorables”. They’re pissed off because they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants are treated better than they are by society at large, ignoring the small fact that those people of color and immigrants happened to have spent the previous ten years working their asses off to get educated, learn trades and build up businesses instead of watching “The Apprentice” in their double-wides and smoking crystal meth in the Wal Mart parking lot. The Deplorables are bitter, nasty, poorly-dressed, poorly-educated, poorly-spoken people who resent everyone, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles and saw Trump as a way to take all us liberal coastal elite smart asses down into the Pottersville Pit of Despair right along with them.

But these people had been like this for years, as anyone who ever watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!” or “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes can attest. And Fox News stoked the fire against The Black Guy for eight years, convincing the most hardcore stupid among them that Obama wouldn’t say Merry Christmas because he was a Muslim, even if he was saying it on every other news channel.

 

And if these people really had that much power in the electorate, how did Obama get elected – and win those states – twice? Those elections, in 2008 and 2012, were won with voter turnout, and with the votes of intelligent, compassionate residents of Bedford Falls America who saw right through The Republican Lie that bankrupted the country at least three times in the last 100 years. There’s way more of us than there are of them and that remains true right now. But especially after Obama’s re-election over the guy with the dog strapped to the roof of his car (who honestly doesn’t look nearly as bad in retrospect), we thought we’d finally turned the corner. The new, diverse, young optimistic America was ready to drive policy and public opinion away from your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea.

The Republican Party was well on its deserved way to being irrelevant on the morning of November 8th, 2016. And then, it happened: Your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea was declared the winner of the Presidential Election.

My take on why: There were people on the fence about Hillary. I could understand that to a certain extent. I supported Bernie in the primaries because I’m a socialist. I know Hillary wouldn’t take that personally.  I had no problem with her prospective Presidency. I figured she’d still have to deal with Republican control of the House at the very least and probably would be limited, like Obama was after 2010, in what she could actually get done, but that I’d agree with 90% of what she wanted to do. I’m sure lots of people felt the same way about her.

But the bastards saw their opening: Besides their usual voter suppression tricks, they leaked the emails that made Hillary look like the politician that anybody with a brain already knew she was. They pushed the server story over and over, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a story at all. And of course, with Putin’s help, they planted lie after lie on people’s Facebook pages and bot after bot on their Twitter feeds.

And those people who were on the fence about Hillary, but at the same time thought that Trump was a disaster, they figured no sweat, there’s no way the same America that voted for Obama twice is ever going to turn 180 degrees and elect a racist, ignorant buffoon. They stayed home and didn’t vote at all because the Forces of Pottersville had sown their doubts about the intentions of the Big Clinton Machine.

As for those that did vote, contaminated by those Putin-inspired doubts, I suppose they found themselves walking into the voting booth like Uncle Billy walking into the bank. They got distracted by the drama of the moment and handed Trump and the Republican Party the United States of America stuck inside a folded up newspaper. The majority of the country woke up the next morning rifling through the garbage can incredulously, with a sense of panic growing by the second, while they smirked at us from behind the door, knowing that they had us where they always wanted us.

Pottersville.

 

 

And here we are, a year later. The evidence in the public domain that Trump stole the election with the help of the Russians is overwhelming, so one could only imagine what’s in Robert Mueller’s filing cabinets right now. I can’t begin to imagine how that whole thing is going to play out. (But most people realize it would be hard to have a Civil War with no Mason-Dixon Line to stand behind). And, just in time for Christmas, the rich assholes who paid for their Republican candidates, from Trump on down – they got what they wanted: Their big, fat, immoral corporate tax cut. My parents always warned me: The bastards will rob you blind if you let them.

Our accountant is a decent fellow. I’ve known him for many years. We both love dogs. But he is a Trump supporter and a Hillary hater. And I know if I asked him, he’d tell me (passionately) that we’re going to do great on this GOP tax cut, although I don’t see how that could possibly be. (My usual reaction when I hear a Republican say anything). Statistically, It turns out that my wife and I, by virtue of getting up really every working morning, keeping our mouths shut, and being really, really lucky, are rich; a notion that’s “rich” in itself as we’re always broke. We may not be part of the doomsday scenarios of what this tax plan will actually do to the middle class, because again statistically, we’re not in it. Despite losing the deduction of the $9,000 we pay in school and property taxes, not to mention losing the deduction for state income tax here in the Incredibly Expensive Empire State, our very successful accountant will probably tell us that we’re going to come out ahead, or at least even. We’ll wait and see.

The problem for me is that the, “I’ll be fine so screw everybody else” mentality is exactly why America has been allowed to turn into Pottersville. It’s very nice if we pay less federal income tax. It would be even nicer if I could be assured that people less fortunate than us will be able to stay in their houses, never mind heat them. It would be really nice if people in Puerto Rico could put food in refrigerators and turn a light on when they use the bathroom right now. It’s what my mother would have been screaming about right now, but no one making decisions in the federal government seems terribly concerned.

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Rich assholes congratulating themselves on stealing money while people live out of coolers and plastic bags in Puerto Rico.

And it It would be especially very nice to know that this mass redistribution of wealth upwards will not be followed as it always is by municipal budget cuts, reduction of school aid, home foreclosures, small business layoffs and personal bankruptcies. We’ve seen this movie before. We know where they’re going with this. Cities and towns all over America cutting back transpotation service, library service, after-school and elderly programs, public assistance for the poor, drug and alcohol treatment. Then they start telling you that you’re getting too much in Social Security and we just can’t afford to support all these people on Medicaid and Medicare. But look! The stock market is doing great! Corporation are making record profits! There’s never been more choices of shit to watch on TV!

Fucking Pottersville. All over again.

So what do you do if you go to sleep in Bedford Falls and you wake up in Pottersville? What do you do when your beautiful, compassionate country has turned more mean and more ugly in a year than you thought possible? What do you do when America is starting to feel like Nick’s Bar and you just want to sit quietly with a friend, sipping at your flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves, but the motherfuckers are harassing you at every turn and it’s looking more and more like you’ll get thrown into the snow with everyone else who doesn’t fit their Nazi, Deplorable prototype? If they don’t get me because of my political views, maybe they’ll just smirk at me from behind a cracked-open door when the next big hurricane wipes away everything I have, despite paying FEMA $2000 something a year to protect against that. Or maybe flat out kill me with radiation poisoning, in which case, I suppose they win. That’d be just like something they’d do.

Well, for one thing, you take Barack Obama’s advice: “Don’t boo. Vote.” While I regularly employ my First Amendment rights and Internet access to tell Speakers McConnell and Ryan and the Liar-in-Chief to go fuck themselves, I realize they aren’t bothered particularly by my provocations. Though it would be fun to get into a shouting match with Paul Ryan and watch him get all flustered and hysterical.

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I do hope all the people who are screaming outrage and hashtagging themselves with #The Resistance are people who voted in the last Presidential Election, but statistically, I know many of them did not. They did put a nice dent into the Republican Lie this past November, which was nice to see. (And especially nice to see Alabama rise up to stop Roy Moore just this past month). Even here on Long Island, voters booted out Republican administrations in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead that were as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.

And in the year that starts tomorrow, every seat in The House of Representatives that has stood by and done nothing as Trump has wrecked the country by executive order, enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense, and proven himself to be batshit crazy – every seat in that political body is up for grabs, gerrymandering and voter suppression notwithstanding. Alabama has shown that anything is possible and maybe people aren’t quite so stupid after all. So if you read this and you agree with me, vote. And if you read this and yout think I’m a naive hippe liberal that has no idea how the world really works, vote. Because it’s your right. I’m going to bet the odds that more people think like me, and would much rather live in a place like Bedford Falls. And that the criminal tragedy of the 2016 Election and all bullshit that’s been thrown at us will still be very fresh in people’s minds come this fall.

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In the meantime, consider Zuzu’s petals, the metaphor. When George finds Zuzu’s petals (in that cool little pocket sewed into his suit pants for which I couldn’t imagine another purpose) he knows he’s home. He knows everything is going to be OK, even though he’s still missing $8000. (“Isn’t it great? I’m goin’ to jail!”) As long as he has his family, and the people and the life he loves in Bedford Falls, it will all work itself out.

Zuzu’s petals represent home. Here in our home, we don’t watch 24-Hour Cable News. We get our daily Trump Disasters on a need-to-know basis from Twitter and respond in kind, often using a form of the expletive “fuck”, just like Mom would have. We watch Stephen Colbert mock the Fat Dotard, the Turtle and the Smirker, reminding us that they might have the power to poison our air and water, and possibly deport our neighbors, but they can’t kill our spirit, the American Spirit. It runs way too deep, and goes back way too far to ever die. We’ll be back in the fight tomrrow, no matter what happens.

The people who brought you Trump and that Tax Nonsense, they weren’t listening to Martin Luther King when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They thought they didn’t have to listen to him because he was black.

But we were listening, and we believe it.

Zuzu’s petals are the birds and ducks living around Duffy’s Creek, and the garden of colors we let loose in the summertime. Zuzu’s petals are driving down to the Long Beach Boardwalk on a warm day or going out to sit awhile with my elderly father at the nursing home then going for a hike up in Stony Brook. Zuzu’s petals are watching my nephews become husbands and fathers and knowing Joan and Francis Duffy’s family will live well past my own expiration date. Zuzu’s petals are stopping in to our favorite businesses around Valley Stream, where they know us and we know them, just like in Bedford Falls. Zuzu’s petals are in the food we cook, the music we play, the one-liners we trade, the neighbors we wave to, the church we go to, the roof over our heads and the hot water coming out of our faucet. Everything that is good in our lives, that still stayed good this year, despite all attempts by the Forces of Pottersville to turn us into a bitter, selfish assholes just like them.

So I wish you a Happy New Year and offer some unsolicited advice of how to survive a difficult time that may get more difficult before it gets less difficult:

Keep Zuzu’s petals in your pocket. Any pocket will do. You will have hope for a better future, and hope for a better future is really all you need to get out of bed in the morning.

And treat the place where you live like your own little Bedford Falls, even if the sign says Pottersville. Being a good person is the ultimate measure of success. As I regularly tell my son, please don’t be an asshole.

Your reward for being good? You’ll be at the front of the crowd, your heart filled with joy, together with all your good American neighbors, and together in spirit with all the people who made you who you are and imbibed you with that spirit, when we all rise up to tear that fucking sign down for good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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#Resistance is Not Futile. Or Maybe It Is. Depends on Whose.

urlForgive me WordPress for I have sinned. It’s been 202 days since my last blog post. Six months and 20 days. Unacceptable, Dude, he said to himself for a change instead of to his son. I really should not have let all this time go without one single, measly little post. Especially with all the happy positivity I’ve gotten back from other humans with computers since I started “A Creek Runs Through It” two years and two months ago. Never mind the OCD that claws at me when I see all the missing months in the archives. You’d think I would have wanted to keep that momentum going, to discipline myself to finish what I start, and to have found the time to pick away at it a little every day.

But noooo. I booted it. And there is absolutely no excuse.

So here’s my excuse: I have been overwhelmed by resistance. I’ve had all sorts of good ideas for blog posts that I just haven’t put together, that have gotten swept aside in days spent fighting the resistance that comes at me from all fronts every single day. It pops up like I’ve entered Dante’s Whack-A-Mole. I’m a simple, kind and well-meaning electrical current that keeps running into things that scramble me up and send me in different directions. I’m fighting against the resistance. It takes way, way too much of my time, and it’s exhausting.

Wu-wu-wait, you say. You might have clicked on this from Twitter. Or you clicked a Facebook post to see what Duffy was up to now, because didn’t he make an announcement through his cat back in January that he wasn’t going to post political stuff on Facebook?  (And he hasn’t). Or I might have showed in up in you inbox because you followed me. (Thank you). Maybe you know me from real life, or at least what’s left of it.

However you got here (and thank you again) you almost certainly know where I stand on the political spectrum, for better or worse. So you’re thinking whatchoo mean, FIGHTING the resistance? That’s sorta backass, isn’t it? I know you. You’re a lefty, an aging- hippie-schoolteacher-type, a borderline-socialist bleeding heart liberal. Just like your mom, except she was a little less of a hippie. You’re outraged by the State Of The Nation. You’re in there every day exercising your First Amendment Right to tell the President of The United States that he’s an evil, crooked, creepy, demented monster and by the way go fuck yourself. You’re PART of #TheResistance. You follow all the power hitters. You’re up to 2,000 followers yourself now, and at least 500 of them aren’t trying to sell you something, and seem to have some interest in what you have to say.

Well, a tweeted link that I read early in my “resistance career”, which started five days after my last blog post (one wherein  I naively attempted to toss an olive branch into the basket of deplorables) sums up my thesis today perfectly. I can’t find the original so I can’t give it to you verbatim, but here’s a paraphrase, with apologies to whoever the original thinker was. I’m pretty sure it was a link and not something the writer pulled off in 140 characters (A great art form until you realize that’s all the writing you did all day). Here’s kind of what he or she said:

“You’re asking me why I’m on Twitter harassing the President? Listen. I was just living my life and minding my own business.  He started screwing with my neighbors, my environment, my child’s education, my safety, my country’s future and my sense of decency. Hell, I’m not harassing the President. That motherfucker’s harassing ME.”

And so I’ve come to realize that the people who identify themselves with #TheResistance are really the people who are fighting resistance. The resistance is coming at them from the circumstances of the times. People who value intelligence and fairness and honesty, people who were traveling along through their lives on a nice, sensible electrical current, who never thought they’d see the vulgar stupidity and hypocrisy that is unfolding before our eyes, who were suddenly jolted with an unexpected surge, a sudden resistance that threw them off course.  

moransThe people whose thoughts I’ve read and shared on Twitter over the last 202 days (when I really should’ve been writing about my dog) are intelligent, sane folks who figured all but a couple of soreheads around them shared their basic human values, and that The American Experiment was working because the willfully ignorant, backward assholes among us were in the minority, and would never be strong enough to force their will on the country at large.

We suspect now that we underestimated these “deplorables”, not to mention the Fox News I.V. drip they’ve been hooked up to for ten years. (And there’s just no better word to describe them, though Hillary probably should’ve edited that one out. I guess she just couldn’t help it. They are fucking deplorable). We who call ourselves pound sign The Resistance also suspect that the whole damn thing – including the wacky-ass Flag-Wavin, Gun-Totin’ Jesus-Saved MAGA ‘Muricans who were suddenly all over the place with their cult-like worship of the most vile human who’s ever lived – all of it is part of a criminal enterprise without equal in the history of the world.

 

Well, I was out walking Mookie, and I was thinking about the word: Resistance. And my mind traveled to the little pins with the color-coded pegs in the middle that represent ohms of resistance. That’s right, ohms. You bend the resistors of various ohms so one pin goes in B9 and the other one goes in E7 on the motherboard. And I know a little something about electrical circuits because God blessed my wife and I with a child, who is now 13 and knows EVERYTHING about electrical circuits. And he has since he was about four (no shit), around the time he told the guy at Ace Hardware matter-of-factly that he already was an electrician, he just didn’t have his license yet.

So I have a basic, English Major’s / Involved Dad’s idea of the functions of  all the little components that The Dude solders into circuits that ultimately combine to light up little LED lights, or start the coffee maker. This is what I know (with my apologies in advance to my electrical engineer nephew who will read this and say, “uh, close there, John. Not quite”). An electrical circuit only needs a power source, a load, connectors and a switch. Why that’s simple enough. But along that circuit, you can add (integrate) components that will alter that circuit in different ways, usually in order to regulate the flow of electricity, or to store it and disperse it in other directions. These include resistors, inductors and capacitors, which are called passive components. They don’t introduce energy into the circuit, but rather control, retain or redirect the energy already in the circuit. The active components, like transistors, can take the energy supplied to them and amplify it, enough so with help from Russia they can win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

So in terms of the political history of this country, I guess liberals and conservatives, progressives and obstructionists, Democrats and Republicans have taken turns being the active and passive components in the circuit. We’re either amplifying or resisting what comes at us, depending on who’s holding the cards. And of course, I’m very aware that #The Resistance is a direct reference to the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation, so my whole nonsense about comparing it to electrical circuits is just that, but I like to think about words. And knowing that we are all following in the footsteps of the French Resistance against the Nazis, at least when I’m tweeting snarky comments I can sort of feel like Victor Lazlo or Captain Renault in Casablanca, or hell, even Bogie. And their side ultimately won, and would have even if they had called themselves the Capacitors.

casablanca-mainSo  through my online persona, Up A Creek (with it’s avatar of Woody Guthrie’s guitar, on which he wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists”), I am a proud and permanent part of hashtag The Resistance against the awful people who have overtaken over our beautiful country. It eats my time, but I feel like I have to keep up on it. I’ve always felt a need to bear witness to the parade of events in my lifetime, but now I feel like I have to throw myself in the road to slow it down, or at least hold up a sign to let the record show I did not go along with any of this. For historical value, the week I wrote this was the week we went from inappropriate comments to the Boy Scouts and the Suffolk County Police Department to insulting the Statue of Liberty and The White House, to suggesting that the entire State of New Hampshire is a drug-infested wasteland to #LocalMilkPeople to hey guess what asshole, Mueller’s impaneled a grand jury. The White Nationalist Occupation Of America will not last, but it will cause some significant damage, and it will take a lot of time and political will to repair that damage. The only thing that saves us right now as a country is our most sacred freedom: The First Amendment freedom to call bullshit what it is. Hitler didn’t have Twitter, but if he did, his amplifier would have soon enough been short-circuited by the roar of the The Resistance. Tiny-Handed Orange Hitler doesn’t stand a chance.

But meanwhile, while all this insanity plays out in Washington D.C. and on my magic rectangle, I got my own fish to fry back here on the creek. The Resistance doesn’t end when I put the damn phone down. Sometimes, it’s just getting started.

If you have children, and they’re already older than 13, and you’ve survived and conquered triskaidekaphobia, then when I tell you (which I already have) that we have a 13 year old living here, even if he or she were the very, very best 13 year old in the whole wide world, you would roll your eyes and say, “Oh God!” in a very folksy way. I know this because I’ve spent my entire adult life teaching 13 year olds, and even when they are very, very good kids (and the overwhelming majority are, so relax about the future and worry about the present), when I meet their parents, we all sit around and roll our eyes and say, “Oh God” in a very folksy way.

That is the nature of the beast. 13 year olds are annoying. I don’t know what yours does (though I could guess), but mine regularly snaps angrily at us, takes forever to do the simplest thing, forgets what you tell him from one millisecond to the next, leaves stuff lying around everywhere and blames us when stuff gets lost, gets caught in poorly-executed lies, slams and stomps, talks and talks and talks over you, belabors every point, gets pissy and yells “I KNOW!” when you tell him school work has to get done, then winds up in summer school anyway, even though he knew.

One thing that’s actual kind of fascinating about teaching (and any teacher will tell you this) is how you can see the adult hiding inside the child. Once you get to know a kid, you can sort of extrapolate -for better or worse – what they’re going to be like when they’re forty.  And this I also know from experience: Some kids are not good at being kids. The hidden adult is, on an intellectual level, ready to bust out and get things going, but is emotionally and developmentally trapped by lack of experience and the need to learn through trial and lots and lots of error. So sometimes the kid is the little adult that will emerge easily and naturally in the course of time, and sometimes the adult is there already, has been all along, trapped, doing time in the body of a kid.

The Dude has some trouble with life right now. It’s hard for him to smile. And of course, when you’re 13 and life gives you trouble, you respond by giving life some trouble. It’s not all the time, but enough so that it seriously effects his self-esteem, which should be higher because he’s so smart and so damn good looking if I do say so myself. Social cues are a bitch. Understanding and/or anticipating what the other person may be thinking in a given situation, seeing the big picture. He has trouble seeing himself outside himself. He gets stuck in his own head. And because (maddeningly) has not taken up the habits of reading for pleasure or following a game or losing himself in a song, he can’t get out.  It can be painful to watch and infuriating to deal with. Because he worries and overthinks so damn much, he’s not real good at being a kid sometimes.

Interestingly enough, when he’s moving, mostly on his bike or swimming, he’s at his most kid-like. Movement sets him free from worry. But a lot of time he’s angry or miserable or twisted in knots, and he’s convinced that there’s nothing we can do to help. Because he knows that the advice will give him will involve change from within, and emotionally and developmentally he’s just not ready to come to terms with that.

But in the meantime, between the storms, he can take an entire washing machine apart, switch out the motherboard and replace the broken lid switch. He can tell you the model of an air conditioner sticking out of a window as you pass it doing 40 m.p.h. He’s trying to internalize the map of Valley Stream so he can get further and further away from me on his bicycle. But then again, he’ll have a catch with me now and enjoy it. And something I especially appreciate, he’s developing the ability to have a rapport as opposed to a one-way, monologue conversation. (Two great examples from just yesterday: Upon seeing a guy walking into an intersection unaware that he was walking into the path of an ambulance,  Me: “Savage”. Dude: “Thug Life”. Upon seeing a woman walking a little dog on the Long Beach Boardwalk,  Me: “If I brought Mookie up here, they’d throw me out in two seconds. They’re dogists. That’s what they are.” Dude: “They’re breedists, actually”).

Every adult outside of school (and most adults in school, right before before they say “but”) has told us how smart and well-spoken The Dude can be, and how he’ll eventually be fine. We know this. He makes progress on an excruciatingly long trajectory, and there’s still lots of drama and lots of damage control to be suffered through. And of course, the curse of junior high is trying to fit in. Unfortunately, right now The Dude is trying to fit in by pretending he’s not as articulate as he is and turning his mechanical passions into a hidden secret life because he thinks if he gets found out it will stick him with the geeks. Bringing up this subject, or any subject remotely connected to school, is opening up a big can of verbal whoop-ass, which is ironic because he loves being a part of the school on an emotional level, and even became a Valley Stream South Falcon this year by joining the track team. He just avoids the work as much as he possibly can because he’s not perfect at it and it pisses him off, which of course leads him into a hornet’s nest of resistance. On and on the vicious cycle goes.

Valley-StreamObviously, there isn’t much you can do about somebody going through these kinds of storms at 13 but to just keep working like hell at it. And so I’ll have one of these verbal pissing matches with him, walk away, go out to the patio, open up the magic rectangle and see the latest insult or degradation to civilized life that’s trending on Twitter, then realize we’re out of cat food and take a leisurely twenty-minute fucking drive to the King Kullen a fucking mile away because Long Island is bursting at the seams with people and cars. Usually you get stuck for a good five of those minutes at the light at Merrick and Central Avenue. There’s a Walgreens on the corner. I’ve dubbed it The Corner Of Sick And Miserable.

I’d love to get off Long Island, and not because Twitler called it a blood-soaked killing field when he was out in Suffolk telling the police to rough up presumed innocent suspects and scaring the Trumpbillies watching Fox News in West Virginia with an unfortunate local gang issue being dealt with in Brentwood. And not simply because my fight-or-flight adrenaline suddenly disappears as soon as I reach Rockland County. I’d love to get off Long Island because there’s just too many people on Long Island. They create resistance. They don’t mean to. They’re just here. Like I’m here. But getting anywhere to do anything takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort and the whole thing wears you down. And once you get there, everything costs more than it should. A lot more. Trisha lives at the mercy of the Long Island Railroad every working day. She pays them $261 a month for the privilege of being a sardine in a can that may or may not get to Penn Station or back on time, plus another $100 to our fair village for the right to park her car. Enough said.

I had a cool psychology professor in a summer class at Nassau Community College. I took Intro to Psychology because I had to take something to finish enough credits to get a Liberal Arts degree. I also took Intro to Philosophy. And the professor was just as cool. I learned more in five weeks in those two classes that I learned over years of taking silly English Lit and Education courses for my Master’s. Those people were just stealing money. But I digress.

The cool psychology professor, large and unkept and not the slightest bit bothered by either, sitting in a turned-around backwards student chair and chain-smoking cigarettes that he extinguished on the floor, taught us one night about Sensory Adaptation, the idea that after you are immersed in something long enough, you respond automatically to it without really sensing it. It’s the reason why nothing feels as good the second time and the reason why I can find my way to the King Kullen on Merrick Road. The professor suggested that it’s sort of tragic that we can’t live without it, because while I can grab the cat food out of aisle six without thinking about it, I can’t appreciate that I have this nice big, well-lit store full of food and household products and friendly people a mile from my house. It’s not fun anymore. It’s just a given. I don’t see it. It’s just there.

And I’m not going to lie to you. I had to look up the term that my psychology professor was talking about when he laid out that painful paradox for me thirty-something years ago. And when I checked back on Sensory Adaptation, I also ran across Habituation. This is where an organism, like me or you, will no longer respond to a stimulus because it has no relevance. the organisms psychological and emotional response is diminished because the stimulus is no longer “biologically relevant.” Right now, if I listen, I can hear the constant drone of Kennedy Airport six miles away, plus the big highway and the train track a mile north of the creek. But I can also tune it out. The problem, I guess, is that by virtue of living 48 of my 54 years in the same house, I block out too much of the good stuff, too, ’cause I’m just trying to get through the day while the so-called president I hate screams at me about fake news and the child I love screams at me about losing the 5/8 ratchet that he left on the garage floor.

Sometimes I can’t see how beautiful the gardens we’ve grown around this house truly are because it’s freaking hot out and and I have to pull weeds to keep it beautiful. Sometimes I forget how cozy our house is because the clutter has piled up and the floors are disgusting and I’d just really rather crank up the air conditioner and take a nap with the dog.

Speaking of beautiful, Trisha nailed this phenomenon recently, in her way, which is a way that damn near ruptured my spleen from laughing. We were looking at a red and orange and purple sunset stretching across the northwest sky, reflected in the high tide flowing out along Duffy’s Creek. She said, “You know what it is? You see this sunset, and you think to yourself, “Wow. That is so beautiful!” And then when it’s over, you think to yourself. “Wow. Back to dead inside.”

And don’t think for a second that I don’t know that, as far as the Dude is concerned, I’m part of the problem. He loves Valley Stream, and everywhere we go on Long Island. As hard as his life can be, he loves his home. It’s all still relatively new to him. He’s just trying to find his way through growing up, and this motherfucker’s harassing HIM. He might get out and see the world someday, but something tells me, looking at the adult inside the child, that he’ll be another George Bailey who never leaves Bedford Falls. And of course, between that and the whole going to work thing, we’re not going anywhere. And sometimes that simple fact – you sir, are stuck – a wedged bear in a great tightness -leads to resistance that I’m really just creating for myself, messing up my own circuits by not trying to be content with what I have and stay easy with the world. I could be catching up on Richard Russo’s latest novel sitting next to me on the coffee table. I could pick up the guitar, work on the mandolin, open the piano nobody has touched in months and teach myself something, work on that big extended blog project about all the walks I take with Mookie ,who has the ability to make you lose all sense of Habituation even when you take the same walks over and over, because he keeps looking at you and saying, “Isn’t this great?”.

IMG_0546In other words I could be enjoying my life more. Like Mookie does. I suppose if the Mets were playing better, it would help, but you can never count on that. Too often, instead  of playing that guitar or reading that book or writing that blog, I spend down time looking up Columbia County and Saranac Lake house porn on Zillow and checking in with Twitter every half hour because the fucking world is going nuts and I feel a responsibility to voice my displeasure through blasting out a couple of ohms of resistance.

Turns out I’m not the most fun guy to live with if you’re a 13 years old. He throws me a lot of resistance, but I need to be a stronger conductor.

And like Jimmy Cliff in the song, I don’t know where any of this is leading, but I know where I have been. And I guess I’ve been a lucky son-of-a-gun, because I still look to the future with an overwhelming sense of optimism that usually has no basis in empirical data. My experiences have led me to believe that one may as well.  Our son is going to grow up just fine, the criminals who’ve taken over the country will be served justice and I’ll wake up tomorrow and see the beauty in every flower.

This is how the song goes, by the way:

“Sitting here in limbo / waiting for the dice to roll / Sitting here in limbo / waiting for the tide to flow / Meanwhile they’re putting up resistance / But I know that my faith will lead me on.”

You got that right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There’s Only One Rule That I Know Of, Babies – God Damn It, You’ve Got To Be Kind.” (Even On Twitter)

This one’s about politics; The State of The Nation Address from Duffy’s Creek. I’m going to try not to go off on too many tangents, and I’m going to try really hard to NOT offend or enrage anyone who happens to read it, no matter where you are and who you voted for. Everyone who read this blog the last time I got into politics (“I’m John Duffy and I Approved This Message: Now I’ll Shut Up” – August 2015) could rightly wish me good luck with all that. And since I’m “boost-posting” this one on Facebook (for which I pay $40 bucks and change) and tagging it with “Trump”, among other words I find unpleasant, I’m going to tell you right now, if you’ve read this far, that I’m way, way left on the political spectrum. Like two steps to the left of Nancy Pelosi, holding hands with Bernie Sanders. So there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to disagree with some of the things I have to say here. But If you stick around, I promise you that I’m just trying to open an intelligent dialogue about this whole mess of a Divided States of America, and I pinky promise three times that I won’t call you a Racist or a Nazi or a Brainwashed Cult Follower if you promise not to leave comments calling me a Libtard and a Snowflake. I have too much respect for you as a fellow human being to go there, whoever you are, and whatever you think. I hope I can earn yours in 15 minutes of reading time.

Because you know what? If you were to read my other 19 posts that aren’t about politics, you’ll find that I’m house-proud and neighborhood-proud and town-proud, and a bit of a character, just like you. I love my wife and my son and my garden and my vacation places, just like you. I have a big beautiful, friendly yellow lab named Mookie and I’ve followed the same baseball team for fifty seasons. I listen to Dylan and The Band and Van Morrison and Creedence and The Dead and still read “Blondie” and “Pickles” and “Peanuts” and “Zits” on the comics page of a newspaper that I hold in my hand while a cat that I rescued sits on my lap, the newspaper that a guy delivers to my driveway before I wake up for work at 4:45 in the goddamn morning, just like you. Yes, I live less than 25 miles from Manhattan, and yes I drive a Subuaru Outback and I have a Master’s Degree. I’m afraid I don’t much like guns or football or violent video games and I proudly voted for Bernie Sanders in the New York Primary as a registered Democrat. But I love plopping down on the couch with a couple of Oreo cookies and watching “This Old House” or “How It’s Made” on a snowy Saturday, and I have a weakness for Sausage Egg McMuffins. And maybe you do, too. Maybe we have almost everything in common except for one thing:

imgresI never saw “The Apprentice.” I would have sooner pulled out one of my fingernails. My opinion of the man who will lie through a solemn oath with his right hand on a bible this coming Friday was formed in the 1980’s, when those newspapers I held in my hand loved to tell me about this weasely clown with a bad spray tan and fake hair who was becoming famous for cheating on his wife and ripping people off on deals and being loud and saying lots of jerky things. And the only reason he was famous was because his Daddy was stinking rich (and his Daddy first made the newspapers a decade before for fighting a federal lawsuit that outed his practice of excluding people of color from renting his apartments). When I was a kid, my father saw me laughing at a comedian named Foster Brooks, whose whole act was getting laughs by pretending he was smashed drunk. He and Dean Martin would act really drunk and the laugh track would laugh, and so would I. My father told me point-blank, with an angry tone, that I had no idea how unfunny it was, that these guys were making fun of a mental illness. By that same logic, a lot of people were first introduced to Trump by his apparently getting, if not laughs, then appreciation, for being the biggest, loudest asshole in the room and yelling “you’re fired!” at people and insulting them and pitting them against each other. That stuff is just not funny to me. Narcissism is not normal to me. It’s deeply fucked up. It’s among the human characteristics that are the most disgusting to me, right up there with greed, intolerance, willful ignorance, misogyny, combativeness, dishonesty, recklessness and duplicity.

So possibly the only thing that we don’t have in common, my house-proud, town-proud, dog owning, family-loving, newspaper-reading fellow American grandchild of immigrants, is that I have no idea how you could have possibly voted for Trump and you have no idea how I possibly could have voted for Hillary Clinton.

Last February, I thought it was all over. It was The Dude’s 12th birthday and I was enjoying a visit to the Creek from my 89 year-old mother-in-law, whom I love with all my heart. Besides being as strong as a pillar of steel, she is a deeply religious woman of unfailing and unmatched moral integrity. She is the mirror I hold myself up to when I want to see if I’m doing the right thing, and most often I’m not. The primaries were just getting cranking. The American Consciousness had already been through eight months of Mexican Rapists and Build The Wall and Ban The Muslims and Bleeding From Her Whatever and we still had WikiLeaks and Pussy Grabbing and Lock Her Up to look forward to. Aware that my mother-in-law was a lifelong Republican (we stayed at her house after ours was damaged in Hurricane Sandy, and I drove her in a snowstorm to vote for Mitt Romney on Election Day in 2012, and late that night she sat quietly and smiled while Trisha and I celebrated the re-election of President Obama), I asked her who she was going to vote for. I meant in the Republican primaries. This is what she said. She said, “I’ll probably end up voting for Hillary.”

I was flabbergasted. The first time she had voted for President was in 1948. She voted for Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman. Then she voted for Eisenhower twice, then Nixon, then Goldwater, then Nixon again, then Gerald Ford, then Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. (I was there for that one). This is what she said on that day last February: “I couldn’t possibly vote for that man.” I bragged about it for weeks. It was my main talking point. And I let the whole ugly, national embarrassment that was the General Election come and go without writing about it on this blog because I didn’t think there was any chance that he was going to win, and probably neither did you.

Plus, an interesting phenomenon was developing as I started using Facebook to promote the blog, and it made the idea of writing about my political beliefs, or raging about the people who I see as Part of The Problem, suddenly become a difficult proposition for a Man of Peace like myself who does not enjoy confrontations and likes to be liked.

First I should say that the reason I pay Facebook to promote the blog is simply because I think that whole point of writing things is so people can read things you write, and if what you write is honest and positive, then maybe it will bring the world a little closer together as more people read what you wrote, because now you know me a little better and maybe I’ve helped you know you a little better by telling you about me. And so I’ve written stories about my little life that I live here with my pretty wife on Duffy’s Creek, and I’ve sent those stories out into the world to make people I don’t know laugh and think and nod yes, I get it; stories about our son and our dog and our hometown and my mom and my personal history and our backyard, where a creek runs through it. And  many, many of the people who have kindly clicked and liked “A Creek Runs Through It” are from what the people on TV who get paid to do nothing but talk shit have been calling “Red States” for years and years.

My last blog post was about trying to eat better food, and this great company called Our Harvest that delivers farm-fresh food right down here to the suburbs. The last three people who liked it were a white guy from Down South who liked to hunt, a Mexican guy from LA who liked modifying cars and a black guy from Baltimore who was into hip-hop fashion. I had become a teeny-tiny unifying force in a bitterly divided country. So how could I then show up on people’s Facebook pages a month later and tell them that they’re all a bunch of redneck racists if they vote for Trump? I don’t know their reasons, and I don’t know their hearts. It’s not nice. I could no more do that than insult my own mother-in-law.

She voted for Trump.

maxresdefaultAnd he won. Sort of. But I’m afraid I won’t be watching any of it on Friday. He’s not my President and he never will be. Not on Friday, not ever. If it were Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office as the first female President of The United States, I’d be in on it, and happy about it. I would have been comfortable with her (and Bill) being in charge of things again. But she wasn’t my first choice, and I could totally understand why she would make people uncomfortable about her intentions and her character, even before the Russians hacked the election and Comey tripped her and made her fall flat on her face on her victory lap. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for people to believe fake news about Hillary, because Hillary had always seemed pretty slippery. The idea that she was one person in public and another person in private was something that shocked no one in America.

But there was a fuse of pure hatred for the woman running through many segments of the population, and that fuse was lit years ago by the disgusting insinuations of her political enemies and the (sorry) outright lies reported on Fox News and the fringes of the Alt-Right Media. WikiLeaks and Putin and Comey’s Big Lie wouldn’t have set that bomb off and destroyed her candidacy if that fuse hadn’t already sown the seeds of doubt about her intentions in the minds of so many Americans. People had whispered “Crooked Hillary” in their ears for years before Trump started screaming it in airplane hangers. And as one “deplorable” that I read on Twitter pointed out rightly, if there was nothing in those emails, if she had nothing to hide, she would’ve won despite all those years of suspicion. So there. Point taken.

Nevertheless, I supported Hillary and I voted for her in the General Election, despite the fact that she and her Merry Band of Emailers cheated Bernie Sanders in the primaries, because I believed that no matter how sneaky and duplicitous she is, the Public Hillary represented my traditional Democrat beliefs.

And I suspect this is why my mother-in-law and so many other traditional Republicans voted for a guy who mocked a disabled man in public and bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. If I did either of those things at my mother-in-law’s house, I’d be banned for life. But I have to assume that she could not vote against party lines when the stakes were so high, what with the Supreme Court and all that.

And neither could I. I would never even consider it.

But if Hillary had said some of the things her opponent said, and shown herself temperamentally and intellectually completely unfit for the job, I would’ve written in Willie Nelson.

Many people stay with their parties purely for social issues. Me? I don’t care if you get an abortion. I’d prefer if you didn’t, but it’s none of my goddamn business. I don’t care who you sleep with or who you want to marry or what drugs you want to take. I don’t care what color skin my next door neighbor has, or what country he was born in, as long as he doesn’t make a lot of noise and he keeps his yard tidy. Apparently, lots of Republicans do care about these things. And in the opinion of Snowflake Northern Libtards like myself, this is how they’ve been able to get people to vote against their own economic self-interests for years and years, all the way back to Nixon’s Law and Order Crusade to crack down on the Hippies and the War Protesters and the Uppity Black People in 1968. Be the party that holds up “Father Knows Best” Values as a bright shiny object while they’re picking your pocket and smacking you in the back of the head. That’s what I believe they do, while you might believe my Democrat Party wants to take all the money you’ve ever earned and give it to abortion-getting, dope-smoking brown immigrants who you believe that I hold in higher regard than you because you didn’t go to college and I did, nyah, nyah, nyah.

So let’s take a deep breath. And I’ll tell you what I just can’t understand. And I’ll try to tell you why.

Above all else, I can’t understand the level of hatred that was leveled at President Obama. I just picked off the three images above in exactly one minute of google image searching. I had no idea that people held this level of racism in their hearts, or would possibly think this stuff is funny, but that’s because I’ve been not living in a bubble for too long. But I grew up living in a bubble, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

From the time of its founding in the 19th Century until about 100 years later, Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, where I grew up and still live, was as white as a sparkling clean bathtub. By the time I started interacting with other kids in school, everyone was Irish, Italian, Jewish or German. (All descendants of immigrants, but we’ll get to that). Being right on the border of the NYC Borough of Queens, Valley Stream found itself in the 1970’s and 1980’s surrounded by a giant horseshoe of predominantly black neighborhoods: Rosedale, Springfield Gardens, Laurelton, St. Albans, Queens Village, Jamaica, Elmont. People were deathly afraid of Valley Stream “turning black” (which it coudn’t do unless they left), deathly afraid that some politician or judge was going to force school integration through busing. Many of those people had left those neighborhoods themselves to go to Valley Stream where they’d feel more “safe.”

So I grew up listening to my parents on the one hand, who had black friends and supported the Equal Rights Movement and revered Martin Luther King. Then I went to school and heard unimaginably racist ideas from my friends. Needless to say, I didn’t know quite what to think. The sparkling clean white bathtub was filled with toxic water. The further I went in the world, the more people I interacted with, the more I realized how toxic it was, but I had still been sitting in it for so long that it still warped my thinking at times.

In 1995, when I was 32, I took a job as a junior high school teacher in a school in Rockaway Beach, Queens, a mostly black school that served the surrounding housing projects. I can tell you that some of the kids I met there over the next nine years were often already sadly beyond hope at 12 and 13 years old, but most of them weren’t. And they quickly recognized that my heart was in the right place, and that I got a kick out of their ways and their expressions. We had a good time, and we learned from each other. But my neighbors (in Lynbook at this point, one town over) were all still white, and I still kind of thought that this was the way it was supposed to be.

Then one day, Valley Stream began to integrate. The same town where a volunteer fireman got arrested for burning a cross on a black family’s front lawn in the 1970’s now had a measurable black population, as well a growing presence of Central American immigrants, by the end of the 199o’s. Around the same time, I fell in love and got married, and my parents had begun planning a move to a lifecare facility 50 miles east in Suffolk County. My brothers and sisters were already homeowners. We had the opportunity to buy a nice little cape cod house with a 60 x 100 plot on a creek in Valley Stream for below market value. Trisha had also grown up in lily-white towns but had no reservations about the future of our neighborhood.

But I sorta did. I talked to one of my best friends, who had also come into a second-generation Valley Stream house six years or so earlier. This guy’s dad used to channel Archie Bunker a lot, great guy though he was, so I know my friend had heard different messages about race than I heard at home. But you know what he said to me? This is what he said: “People are people, Duff.” We bought the house.

And we’ve been proud homeowners in this integrated town since 2002. My son is growing up in a better Valley Stream, because it’s not a bubble. It has its problems, but trust me, it always did. And I know without question that all the toxic water in that squeaky white bathtub would have caused permanent brain damage to me if I’d stayed in it. So when a guy who has been a second-generation public racist his whole life immediately disrespects the first black President by questioning his citizenship and demanding his birth certificate, all I hear is the ignorant fools I grew up with making up all sorts of creatively demeaning names for the people on the other side of Hook Creek Boulevard. When that same guy can’t accept legitimate criticism (and the rightful questioning of his own legitimacy) from Rep. John Lewis, and instead suggests that Lewis’ district in Atlanta is a ghetto, all I can think of is all the people I know, through my job and through my neighborhood, who have more class in their brown pinkies than the President-Elect will ever have, and how he doesn’t really know a damn thing about how ordinary Americans actually live.

And, back in 2004, Mitch McConnell said they would block everything Obama tried to do and make him a one-term President. And off went Fox News and the sinister Alt-Right and their insinuations and lies. And suddenly, it’s perfectly acceptable for a fringe of the population to treat a man of color with disgusting contempt, even if he happens to be doing a pretty good job as President of The United States. And they’re easy targets for the hate-mongerers, these people, because they live in segregated bubbles, and they already didn’t like the idea of taking orders from a black guy. And I’m not necessarily talking about “Red State” people. We have plenty of them here on Long Island and right here in Valley Stream, where some of the hard-core bigots, who I assume spend a lot of time in dark rooms in their houses, like to tell you that the place ain’t what it used to be. They have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.

A couple of months back, the Valley Stream Herald ran a story on their Facebook feed about Muslim parents and their students petitioning to have school closed on their religious high holy days, just like the Catholics and the Jews on Long Island and NYC have always had. The City has already done that. In the comments attached to the post, the first guy said, “Trump says, “Merry Christmas.” The second guy said he was sick of accommodating immigrants. Not being able to help myself getting pulled down the toilet on this one, I pointed out to the guy what the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty says:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

He said something along the lines of “I don’t know what you got out of that paragraph but all I see is u have to work hard I don’t see anything about accommodating people.”

And this is why the text abbreviation “SMFH” was invented.

Because here’s the thing. People are people. And racism is learned, and can be unlearned. I’m living proof. But if the leaders and the news sources are telling people who follow them that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim who wants to establish Sharia Law, and their people believe it, they tend to see themselves as people, and everyone else as less than people. And Trump was, in the words of Charles Blow, the Grand Wizard of the campaign to turn people’s racial suspicions into votes and cold hard cash.

In 2004, the year our son was born, I was transferred to a school in Ozone Park, Queens. The reason I was transferred is because the school I worked in was shut down. The reason the school I worked in was shut down was because the white people on the West End of The Rockaway Peninsula didn’t want their kids in school with the black kids from the projects, so they used their political influence to close my school down and replace it with a “magnet school” that could pick and choose its students. The grand tradition of Christopher Columbus continues. White people just take what they want.

In Ozone Park, where I’ve been for 13 years and survive to this day, I received a whole new education. This was a school that had become a true melting pot of colors, nationalities, religions and cultures. (One of my biggest challenges was copying everyone’s name spelled right into my grade book). Some of my best students over the years have been Muslims. Now they’re some of my best neighbors, too. I love the spirit of the Hispanic and Latino kids as well. (I could tell you the difference between these two terms if you’re not sure). You want good Spanish food from all over the Central and South American world? Come visit us in Valley Stream.

And there I am, riding in the car with my son on a day in June of 2015, in downtown Valley Stream, driving past the San Antonio Chilean Bakery and the Colombian Chicken Restaurant, listening to WCBS 880. And that guy who I wrote off as a complete asshole thirty years before, who just won’t go away,  is announcing his run for President by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and all I can think of is that they’re some of the nicest people I know. And I turn off the radio because it’s almost like exposing my son to some sort of sick verbal pornography. Then this same guy, people actually start voting for him, and gets people going at the rallies by saying he’s going to ban Muslims from entering the country, and all I’m thinking is how much the Muslim people who have sent their kids to my school and moved onto my block have improved the communities I live and work in, and how this guy has never improved a fucking thing in his life and has basically been pretty much nothing but an impediment to human progress for 70 years.

twitter_bird_logo_2012-svgAnd the General Election comes around, and I start following the trends on Twitter, and I discover, as many of you may have, the depths of twisted thinking that you’re sharing your country with. You read what they say and you think to yourself , Good Lord, are there really people who are that angry, that uneducated, that nasty? You know from the whole Russian Hacking thing that many of them are robots. But to me, the most terrifying thing is the notion that they’re both; semi-sentient beings who have been turned into hate-manufacturing robots by the forces of hate who inform them. Nobody is born racist. No baby ever refused to interact with a baby of a different color. This shit has been learned, preached as Gospel by cynical politicians and media who have been using it as a way of enriching themselves for my entire adult life, and in the process have destroyed the middle class in much of the country through their economic Hunger Games. And as of Friday, they have the keys to the car.

And if you’re reading this, and you truly believe that I’m a typical Libtard Snowflake, and you truly believe that your way of life, or your quality of life, is in danger because of the rise in status of minority and immigrant groups around you, and you’re not a robot planted by Russian intelligence (and we do get them on WordPress) I have only two words for you, and I hope you won’t find them offensive:

It isn’t.

But it is advantageous to your chosen government representatives and news sources that you think it is.

You should tell them to go fuck themselves, but that’s just my opinion.

0b346bff3a23c6cd58bd07bb8de7445cWhich brings me to the moment that inspired this post. The trending topic on Twitter was L.L. Bean. I love L.L. Bean. I love them so much I probably buy about $300 worth of stuff from them every year. But thanks to Twitter, I now know that a portion of that money goes from the head of the company’s ruling family direct to Donald Trump. So I tell you what: I sort of give a shit but not really. It’s not like they’re exploiting their workers. I figure most of the money I spend goes to billionaires at this point, and what billionaire doesn’t like laws that benefit billionaires? That’s the corner we’re backed into now.

So, again, whatever. It’s not going to make me love my Portuguese Cotton Flannel Shirts and Wicked Good Slippers any less.

And I totally understood why a bunch of prissy liberals whining how they’re going to boycott L.L. Bean now would be a source of amusement for country folk. One guy tweeted that the Liberals would destroy their L.L. Bean Fishing Boots if they could figure out how to.

But then there was this one guy. I know things about him that I’m not going to tell you, ’cause when you see a mental patient coming towards you on the street, it’s best not to hand him an axe. I’ll give you this much: First of all, he looks like a 19th Century dispossessed American-Indian child’s crayon drawing of a White Devil. Second of all, he has some sort of Internet Radio / Podcast thing where he helps American Become Great Again somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

This is what he tweeted: “I didn’t know L.L. Bean accepted food stamps.”

And this is what I thought: You dick. First of all, it’s common knowledge that there are more people in rural areas on public assistance than in “Blue State” cities. Second of all, why even go there? It’s just mean. Why throw people who are struggling to have enough to eat, no matter where they live and what they believe, into this particular argument at all? I suppose the only answer is to be clever, to be cute. And remember what I said earlier about people on TV and Radio who are paid for no other purpose than to talk shit? Who couldn’t survive in a real job for five minutes if the whole Shit-Talking Industry came crashing down tomorrow? This guy was exhibit A.

And here’s the punchline. His little radio show has a link to a “go fund me” site, where he recently bilked people out of $24,000 so he could continue to have a platform in which to talk shit. And he did not strike me as an uneducated man, but rather as one who has something to gain by misinforming others who may not be as well-educated. What does he have to gain? At least $24,000, plus whatever they get from the “donate” button on their website.

So here’s what it all comes down to: These people are going to keep talking. Trump and the Republican Congress are going to do what they do. You and me, we might agree, we might disagree, but I can’t stand the thought of living in a country where I distrust so many of my fellow citizens, and I bet you can’t either. I will be part of the Resistance against President Trump, the safety-pin wearin’ snowflake libtards, but my beef is with him and the people he represents, not necessarily the people who voted for him, including one of my favorite people in the world, my own mother-in-law.

I’m going to give her, and you, the benefit of the doubt, Trump voter. But not him. As I said earlier, I totally understand why people would not vote for Hillary Clinton, and I know the Democratic Party has written off large segments of the population, and I dislike very much that they’ve done that. Once upon a time, a large part of the Democratic coalition was working-class whites who belonged to labor unions. As the labor unions were eaten alive by the corporations their members worked for, those members were left out to dry and often forced into lower-paying jobs, and the Democrats seemingly did nothing to protect them. That’s one of the great shames of my party. They have others, but promoting equality, in my opinion, ain’t one of them.

If you voted for Trump, I have more than made my point of why I don’t agree with you. It’s hard for me to put any faith in a man with a trail of destruction and hate as long as his, and assuming the most powerful position on Earth with not a minute of government experience to boot.

But the fact that you have faith and I don’t is not reason for us to try to destroy, demean or demonize each other. We don’t have to be mean. We don’t have to assholes about it. We have a lot in common, from yellow labradors to L.L. Bean flannels to summer vegetable gardens to stopping everything for the World Series. We’re having roasted chicken tonight, and we watched “Barn Builders” on the DIY Network this afternoon. And remember, I’m from “Lawn Guyland.” And I’d love to move upstate when I retire, where there are a lot more Republicans. Got no problem with that.

My experience with living in a segregated world that became diverse has taught me, in the words of an Irish singin’ feller named Mike Scott, to “look twice at you, until I see the Christ in you.” Nothing has shown me that the President-Elect does this, but I’m betting you do.

And since you’ve read this far, I can now explain the quote from a great personal hero of mine, the writer Kurt Vonnegut, that I used to title this post. In his novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Kurt tells the story of a billionaire named Eliot Rosewater, from Rosewater County, Indiana. Mr. Rosewater becomes a hero to the local poor people of his town when he decides to give the entire Rosewater fortune away through a little office on Main Street before other members of his extended family find him legally unfit and take the fortune away from him. People come to him and he gives them hugs and advice and free money. He becomes a local hero, and is asked to be the godfather of his neighbors’ twin babies, and is asked to say a few words at the baptism ceremony.

This is what he said:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

So I’m just going to shake my head at whatever goes down in this country in the next couple of years, if it goes down like I think it will, and try to keep taking the high road as I make my displeasure known. But there was something in President Obama’s Farewell Address that resonated with me, as a school teacher for the last twenty-two years and a parent for the last thirteen. If you want to be optimistic about the future of America, look at the young kids in their twenties. They don’t have the racial baggage that we grew up with. They organize. They speak up for what they believe in. They have very highly developed bullshit detectors. They love their country. They work it out.

Actually, Obama didn’t say that all that, I did. But no matter. I’ve met thousands of Americans in my lifetime, from Editors-In-Chiefs of Big City Magazines to Aspiring Little Gangsters from the NYC Projects and everyone in between. And most of them are good, no matter what the people on your news feed tell you. You know that, too. Most of the people you meet instinctively know a simple rule of life that, I’m sorry, the man you may or may not have elected President has never learned. But I have a feeling that he soon will. The bible quote, from Corinthians, generally goes, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” But Robert Hunter, the lyricist for The Grateful Dead, had a slightly different take on it, one that gives me and you hope, and should be a warning to those who continue to divide us:

“Whichever way your pleasure tends / If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a Walk: An Abridged 10,000-Year History of South Valley Stream

 

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There have been Duffy’s on Duffy’s Creek since March 9, 1955. There have been people on Duffy’s Creek since about 4600 B.C. So the existence of people has a long and colorful history here, though the existence of too damn many people is a relatively recent phenomenon, out of which I was born in 1963, the youngest of five children, an unwitting part of the problem.

On summer nights, Trisha and I sit out in the backyard, and we talk some, while alternately staring at our little light-up magic rectangles and staring through the flowers towards the sunset over the creek. I like to imagine a Rockaway Indian couple sitting right in this spot in summer twilight a thousand years ago, without the stupid iphones and kindles, maybe listening to the “crawwwk!” of night herons, or watching swallows and bats circling the orange sky, or just watching the flow of the creek, the same tide and the same current, and maybe some of the same water molecules as we look at today, but maybe without so much spam in them.

But I don’t have to imagine being a little kid a hundred years ago, before the sprawl, walking into a deep, majestic forest at the end of Westwood Road in Woodmere, walking less than three miles to emerge from that forest into a farm field that overlooked this creek. I don’t have to imagine it at all because about ten years ago I discovered a book titled The Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland written in 1971 by a noted birder and naturalist named Robert Arbib. And Mr. Arbib told me all about it; what this place was like for thousands of years before cape cods and split levels ate it alive. And we’ve become friends, though he died twenty years ago, because I love learning about the history of places, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time hanging around this one. And so did he. I like him and I think he would’ve liked me. md10207462402

A little disclaimer before I go on: I know a lot of people who are passionate about digging up the history of Valley Stream and the surrounding area, and some of them will read this post and want to point out possible discrepancies. (Gleefully). Please just relax. This is but a jumble of the stuff I know from reading Mr. Arbib’s book and a whole lot of other stuff, including stuff from the Hewlett-Woodmere Library website and the Valley Stream Historical Society Facebook page , called “Valley Stream of Yesteryear.” (You’re all wonderful people, and thank you for uncredited pictures, but you didn’t credit them either). I also know some history from my mother, who wrote the Valley Stream Historical Society newsletter for ten years or so, and my father-in-law, Jack McCloskey, who visited this neighborhood in the 1930’s for watercress and garden lime. But this is definitely not meant to be the definitive history of anything. (And by the way, it would be much easier to refer to Robert Arbib as “Bob” from here on in. “Mr. Arbib” sounds like I’m trying to be the New York Times, and I happen to know that his friends called him Bob. Anyway). What I am trying to do here is to put words and context to the pictures that I can I see in my mind sometimes when Mookie and I go walking.

Everybody knows us, Mookie and me. We’re local characters, and we’re proud of that. One sunny day in the middle of last winter, a woman called out to me from a car on Wood Lane as Mookie was reading his pee mail. She said, “you two really get around, don’t you! I see you everywhere!” I said, “Yes, yes we do.” And Mookie looked up and wagged his tail.

I knew at that moment that I had achieved my ultimate purpose in life: Being a local character. I’m the slightly crazy looking thin man with the very large happy yellow lab who you see walking around South Valley Stream all the time. But Mookie, of course, is superior to me in so many ways, particularly in his full-minded commitment to The Here And The Now. He’s living in the present when we’re out walking because he’s a dog, and that’s what dogs do, which is why they’re so much better than us. I try to stay in The Here And The Now, but I’m just not Mookie and I never will be. Often I’m living in the future as we’re walking, figuring out what things I can turn into things I’ve already done in the hours and the days ahead. But sometimes I’m living in the past, imagining what this place was like before the cars and the trucks and the poles and the lights and the wires and the fences and the signs and the asphalt and the whole rest of it. And it makes me wistful for a place I never knew, even though I’m walking through the middle of where it was; a place that, had it not been altered forever in the decades before I was born, actually would have made me as I know me impossible.

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Robert Arbib

Bob’s story starts in 1920, as a nine year old boy exploring the woods that actually stretched from Lawrence to South Valley Stream, which he learned were called The Lord’s Woods after the very rich, successful lawyer who had owned the land at one time. (There’s a Lord Avenue way down in Lawrence in the area behind Rock Hall, where nobody ever goes unless you’ve got business there or you’re lost. It’s quite a beautiful area). The woods that Bob and his friend begin to explore stretched from about three miles southwest of here just about to my backyard. The entire Lord Estate stretched back through Cedarhurst and Lawrence all the way to Far Rockaway. My son is twelve and we can’t yet in good conscience let him cross the four lane road (Mill Road) that separates us from the rest of the world. Once upon a time, Mill Road was where the woods thinned out and the farms started. Bob and his friend walked through the woods, teeming with hundreds of different bird species and happy little animals. They discovered cool stuff like an Indian marker tree that was bent on purpose to indicate a trail, and a rope swing along a brook in the middle of nowhere. They crossed streams and marshland and followed along a dirt road until the realized they were following a gigantic water pipe, half-buried in the ground. The pipe led them to the “waterworks”, the Long Island Water Property, where the last little postage stamp of woods remain to this day.

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A picture I took of the current “waterworks” building at the end of Starfire Court, before that camera picked me up and people started chasing me. Not really.
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The waterworks that Bob found in the middle of The Lords’ Woods in the 1920’s.

They realized that the Water Company actually owned all the land that they were walking on. and that the land was kept undeveloped because they needed to pump water from under it. (One of the main reasons they ultimately sold it off to development and bulldozed it was that the technology was developed to dig deeper wells, thereby needing less land to protect the aquifers). But people had been trespassing on and enjoying these woods forever, and Bob and his friend soon found like-minded young nerdy fellows who liked identifying birds.

I like identifying birds. When Trisha and I first took over at Duffy’s Creek, we started keeping track of how many different bird species we could attract, including the waterfowl, who just hung around with us because we have a creek. Over the course of three or four years of keeping neat little notebooks (before we became parents and chaos ensued), I counted somewhere around 105 different species. Many of them just showed up once or twice, inexplicably, like a Brown Thrasher or a Tri-Colored Heron. But in The Lord’s Woods, apparently all these birds were as common as pigeons. And this is how Bob became a famous orthinologist, and how I helped get Andrew Cuomo to promise South Valley Stream $3 million dollars to help rehabilitate the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, money which he may or may not be still holding on to, because they haven’t spent it yet. I suppose because he’s not up for re-election. But that’s a story for another post.

In the first half of The Lord’s Woods, Bob tells the story of his youth through his seasons exploring own local primitive wilderness. As a guy who likes birds and plants and stuff, I just ate it up. There’s also a particularly gut-wrenching storyline about showing his first girlfriend all the secrets of The Lord’s Woods, then losing her to a car accident several years later when she was away at college, which was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Nonetheless, It’s all beautifully written, and topped off by a really cool map (pictured below) that helped me follow exactly where he was (and what is there now) as he describes his discoveries. I live along what is called Mott’s Creek or Foster’s Brook on the map. When I was growing up, my father told me it was called Watt’s Creek. On USGS maps (United States Geological Survey) it’s called “Valley Stream”. About fifteen years ago, when I had some time on my hands, I wrote to the USGS and tried to get it changed to Duffy’s Creek. The nice man from the USGS patiently explained to me that: 1) The don’t use apostrophes, which was a total buzzkill, and 2) I would have to die.  I know that Foster, Mott and Watt were also local characters who just started calling the creek by their own names, so until I die and someone does the paperwork, that’s my plan.

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In the middle of the book, as Bob is still grieving for his lost love, first the Hurricane of 1938 and then a giant fire decimate the woods. (I’ve seen more than once what a big hurricane can do to big trees). And the omens begin to rise around this same time: Giant electrical transmission towers go up, and surveyor marks plot out Peninsula Boulevard (which you can see on Bob’s map cuts right through the heart of what he called The Big Woods).

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Looking north on Peninsula Boulevard.

A wilderness would eventually recover over time from a natural disaster, but it didn’t stand a chance against the the post-WWII boom, and it is this point in the story where the book rises from beautiful to powerful and unforgettable. In the chapter entitled “Boom”, Bob begins:

“It was not fire that destroyed the Lord’s Woods. Fire and storm, blizzard and drought, even hurricane and flood were all natural events in the woods’ long history, often experienced and somehow survived, their wounds slowly self-healing and finally obliterated in forgiving beauty. Before the final act could be staged and the curtain rung down on the last of the drama that had been unfolding here for thousands of years, there had to appear on stage the villian of the piece – modern man – and there had to be a motive. It was not fire or storm that came to destroy our woods. It was greed and duplicity, avarice and ignorance and apathy.”

The “Boom” chapter, and the following chapter, called “The Threat” take you through a truly American story: How people saw what was happening to the woods and tried to stop it, and other people laughed and said “Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.” As more and more of the woods were being bulldozed for development, people began to realize that “what remained was the only remnant of wet woodland left” in Southwest Nassau County, “the only place where one cold lose himself from the frenetic world and be an Indian brave or a Thoreau, a Daniel Boone or a John James Audubon, or just oneself, a child learning about the world around him.” 

Here’s the short version: In 1955, the year my parents bought a house on a creek in a five-year old development of cape cods, the Lord’s Woods had been reduced to a box bordered approximately by, from what I can tell, Gibson Boulevard, Peninsula Boulevard, Woodmere Middle School, Hungry Harbor Road, Rosedale Road and Duffy’s Creek. The entire neighborhood of North Woodmere came after West Sunbury, so the ancient woods probably met the Hoeffner Farm all the way down Rosedale Road and went along Doxy Brook and blended into marshland as it got closer to Jamaica Bay. And in the other direction, I know for sure that there was a scout camp on the land where Peninsula Shopping Center sits now. You would need a lot of trees for a proper scout camp, so that was likely part of the woods as well. The neighborhood of North Woodmere on the opposite side of Rosedale Road from ours has bigger trees, because it was a woods and this was a farm. (I figured this one out all on my own).

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At the corner of Mill Road and Peninsula Boulevard, where a scout camp in the woods was up until the 1950’s.

The community got wind of a deal between the water company and a developer to buy up and bulldoze what was left of the Lord’s Woods. Bob tells of a woman named Helen Bergh and a man named Ben Berliner who were the leading forces in trying to save the woods, working with the Audubon Society to develop ways that the area could be used as a sanctuary and interpretive nature center.  As the last acres of what was by that time called the Woodmere Woods were being eaten up, Helen Bergh (what a great name) led the Woodmere Woods Conservation Committee. They tried everything. New York didn’t want it for a state park. Nassau County didn’t want it. Officials from the Town of Hempstead suggested they would consider a park if Bergh, Berliner and their committee could show a public consensus for saving the last virgin woodlands in Southwestern Nassau County. But as Bob points out, “to prove that all people, everywhere wanted an esoteric amenity like a public wildlife preserve in 1956 was no easy task.” Some people wanted a park with lots of ballfields and tennis courts and swimming pools, which they eventually did get in North Woodmere Park. Other people, newer arrivals to the area, “would let the developers proceed; homes and gardens were more desirable neighbors than thickets of poison ivy and rat-infested woodlands where rapists can hide.” There wasn’t much you could do to convince people who had such disregard for the concept of open space that it would be in their interest to have a large undeveloped area around them. They’d no doubt never go in it anyway. Mosquitoes. Rapists. Very unsafe. Best to stay in the air conditioning.

By 1957, Helen Bergh had joined forces with a neighbor and friend who had also grown up enjoying the woods. His name was Edward S. Bentley. Together, they wrote a bill to present to the New York State legislature giving the Town of Hempstead authority to create a park district out of the Woodmere Woods. Before they could find sponsorship for the bill, the Water Company sold the land. Bob describes a race between the bulldozers, chain saws and graders, moving “like an invading army into the Lords’ Woods. One by one, the century-old oaks, maples, tulips, hickories, ashes and sweet gums crashed to the frozen ground.” 

Sudddenly, as the woods came crashing down, people started paying attention to the destruction of the woods. Newsday was an up and coming newspaper at that time, according to Bob, and they took up the cause, but “while the editorial pages endorsed the principles of conservation and preservation, the business section, real estate section and its general news rang with announcement after proud announcement of the latest shopping center, housing development, industrial park, power station, highway expansion, population growth, property values and prosperity…No one was talking about the intangible cost of smog and summer heat, and the deprivation of natural beauty and an oasis of solitude and silence. Quality of life was of little concern to most people in 1957.” I’m sure if my parents knew about this story, and I’m sure they did, they were too busy to even think about joining a fight to save some woods.

Needless to say, the park proposal was shot down. Bob points out several bad guys in the tale, including lawyers and elected officials who were working both sides of the fence, pretending to help Mrs. Bergh’s cause for the public support it would bring them and working with the developers to destroy the woods at the same time. By the end of 1958, five years before I was born, the Lord’s Woods were completely gone. There is a little postage stamp of woodland around the waterworks, and some land that creeps up behind backyards up Doxy Brook to the reservoir on Hungry Harbor Road. When I was a kid, we’d sneak into those woods sometimes. My older brother and his friends used to catch turtles, bring them back to the house, paint their initials on the shells and set them free again. Today, most of it has barbed wire around it. And apparently, If I see something, I should say something. I assume it would be about what I saw, but I can only see though the fence, and there’s not much to see.

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What’s left of Doxy Brook at Rosedale Road
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Through the fence into the woods

 

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A picture of a path through the woods that Mookie and I are not allowed on, and neither are you, taken through the fence on Brookfield / Rosedale Road. If I see you there, I have to say something.

When I was younger than my son is now, I would go off in the summertime on my bike searching for rabbits in the parkland built behind the backyards in the Green Acres neighborhood, which is across Duffy’s Creek from our own neighborhood, which was called West Sunbury when Mr. William Gibson’s company built it in 1950. When I was a little older, I would take the aluminum rowboat from our backyard and row it down to Rosedale Road, pretending I was an Indian paddling along the creek. You could “park” the boat and climb the bulkhead into Brook Road Park in Green Acres. About twenty years ago, maybe more, they changed the name of the neighborhood to Mill Brook, because the residents did not want to be associated with the gargantuan shopping mall that sits right next to it (The same developer, Channan Corporation, built the houses and the shopping mall on land that once once divided between the Hoeffner Farm and Curtis Field, a famous airfield in the 1920’s that was visited by Ameliah Earheart and Charles Lindbergh. There’s a plaque in the middle of the Home Depot parking lot you could go look at if you don’t believe me). 10414459_10152187517227983_633736653996581073_nThe shopping mall is still called Green Acres, and it’s about thirty times the size it was when I was a kid. I may be exaggerating there a little bit. All I can tell you is that there aren’t any kids looking for rabbits or pretending to be Indians around here anymore. Lately they’ve been looking for Pokemon.

hub00031Mr Gibson built our house. Thirty years before, he bought up a wooded area north of the farms and south of Sunrise Highway (which apparently was a hunting ground up until that time, though I don’t know who was hunting what) and built a planned neighborhood south of Sunrise Highway and north of the Lord’s Woods. Some of the houses were brick capes, but most of the houses were called “Gibson Colonials”. I’ve been in lots of Gibson Colonials12510280_10153935905123060_3823137400778803684_n, and they’re great houses. Before the 1920’s were over, 12345517_10200991102777741_2972661268509285498_nGibson started building bigger, pointy colonials on Munroe Boulevard and the surrounding streets. They’re great houses, too. In the middle of it all, he built his own Long Island Railroad Station in 1929.

300px-Gibson_LIRR_StationAfter World War II, Gibson bought up some more farmland and built hundreds of cookie-cutter capes and rickety ranches. Not as big as the colonials, but darn comfy, and with slightly less claustrophobic backyards. My parents bought a cape  from an original owner who left after five years (for a bigger house). Gibson cranked out South Valley Stream in the course of thirty years. Our house was built in 1950 on what was the a small patch of woods at the edge of potato fields belonging to Reising Farm, which was divided between the Gibson development called “West Sunbury”, Harbor Road Elementary School (later renamed Robert W. Carbonaro School) and Valley Stream South High School.

Three houses still exist on Hungry Harbor Road right around the corner from here that predate Mr. Gibson’s West Sunbury neighborhood and the North Woodmere neighborhood that begins just south of it. (The name Hungry Harbor goes back to the 17th Century, and referred to squatters who lived on the land). One of the houses (the red one below) is condemned, but there may or may not be a guy still living in it. And don’t think I don’t now his name, because I do, because you learn things when you hang around a place for 53 years. I’m just not telling you about him because I feel sorry for him. You can see “the farmhouse” from our front yard. Close enough that you could holler across the potato field from the back step and tell Pa supper was ready if he were standing in our backyard. It must have been beautiful. There was actually a buffer of woods between the field and the creek, which is tidal and would probably eat your potatoes if you planted them too close. You could probably take a quick swim in the creek and not smell like the back of a garbage truck when you came out.

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This was the original Reising farmhouse, across Hungry Harbor Road from the 1920 house. I can’t find the date it was built, but I imagine it starts with an 18. Notice that the house has been boarded up but there’s an air conditioner in the window. There’s somebody in there, and he’s a Mets fan.
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The Reising Farmhouse, built in 1920, where Jack McCloskey’s father bought lime for his nursery in the 1930’s.

My late father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was a nursery man. His father started McCloskey’s Florist and Nursery in Rego Park Queens in the 1920’s. When Jack visited our house for the first time, I thought he would enjoy knowing that you could see the  farmhouse from our front yard. The farmhouse has a large outbuilding. Not really a barn but more like a  series of attached garages. Thanks to Jack McCloskey, I now know that in the 1930’s, he would ride out to Valley Stream with his parents, where his Dad would buy the garden lime the Reisings sold wholesale out of that building and he would pick watercress along the creek with his mom. We were standing in my driveway when he told me what he remembered. We would have been in the trees at the end of the potato field.

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A very cool aerial map, courtesy of my friends at The VS Historical Society.

At the end of the chapter of The Lord’s Woods when Bob recounts how the last of the woods were lost, he interrupts the narrative and takes you back all the way to the glaciers to drive home the point of what was lost when those chain saws and bulldozers attacked the Lord’s Woods. He includes the ancient history of the place to illustrate just how disgusting the systematic destruction of this land for tract housing really was, how parts of the area surrounding me were literally untouched from before the birth of Christ until just after the arrival of Francis and Joan Duffy.  He describes the arrival of the Rockaway Indians, a great bunch of people with a really cool name who showed up here around 1000 b.c. “For centuries untold, these people lived on these lands and waters making no destructive impact on the environment…They belonged to the woods and were as much a part of it as the turkey, the bear and the wolf.” 

Of course, once the English Settlers showed up in the 1600’s and created Ye Olde Town of Hempstead, the jig was up for the Rockaway Indians. Within about two hundred years, in 1818, the last of the Rockaways, an old man named Culluloo Telewana, died in his little house in Woodmere. 70 years later, a local man named Abraham Hewlett, who “was enthralled with his stories as a boy” erected a monument to Cullulo Telewana. As Bob points out in The Lord’s Woods, “It is the only memorial to a 7,000 year history to be found anywhere.” And here it is:jedziegler6a-1

And so Mookie and I go for a walk a hundred years ago, in 1916, before Gibson, before Curtiss Airfield. It’s very, very quiet here. We start at the creek and walk through a small patch of woods until we’re walking along farm fields towards Mill Road. We cross the dirt road and stroll beside the mill on Watt’s Pond. Mookie jumps in for a quick swim while I watch the ducks fly off. We walk back along the dirt road, maybe seeing people out working in the fields. The land is completely flat, so you can see the farmhouse all the way from the pond. Mill Road disappears into the woods. We walk through a cathedral of trees along an old Indian path. Maybe it’s the end of October, and the leaves are on fire as they rain softly from the giant trees, and the autumn sunshine streams down, bringing the whole scene into sharp focus and preposterous color, like an old Kodachrome print. We walk about as far as Peninsula Boulevard then we turn around and head back to the 21st Century, our footsteps and birds singing around us the only sounds we hear. Yes, folks, there could have been a beautiful, majestic nature preserve right in my backyard, an ancient woodland preserved for the benefit of my son, his son, his grandson and all our dogs. But as Bob Arbib writes at the end of the final chapter of The Lord’s Woods, “greed and apathy, deceit and arrogance, ignorance and blindness to future needs had finally done their dirty work.”  

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Mill Pond at the turn of the 20th Century.
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A lithograph from 1878 of Mill Pond by an artist named Charles Henry Miller.

One of my favorite passages from The Lord’s Woods appears on page 175, when Bob is explicitly expressing his opinion of  my neighborhood, the place my parents fell in love with, the place my son loves. This is how he saw it:

North of the woods along the Old Grey Road (Rosedale Road was its official name) the farms were disappearing fast…Grids of roads were slashed across them and the houses went up blocks at a time, more densly crowded, more monotonously uniform than anywhere around…I looked upon them as rural, ready-made slums, quickly and badly thrown together…they were sold and occupied as fast as they were built. This was a sorry wasteland, now, with no single inhabitant of any of those tacky boxes who could remember what had once been here: The corn, the rows of lettuce, the potatoes, the bluestem grass. No one could remember a horse and buggy shooting up banners of yellow dust as it raced along, one summer’s morning years ago.”

I can remember it, Bob. I can remember what it looked like, even though I wasn’t there, and I’m part of the reason it’s gone.  I see it sometimes when I’m out walking my dog. It’s beautiful here.

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Mookie Rescues A Kitten And Grandma Writes Her Own Final Script, Exits Stage Left: A Long-Winded Story

DSCN4732The last story I told my mother was about how Mookie the Dog rescued a kitten. It happened three years ago this week. Today, I’d like to tell it to you, just as she would’ve, with enough painfully intricate detail to make you want to run screaming.

Somewhere, probably within ten miles of here, this scrawny little black and white kitten has grown into a fat, healthy three-year old house cat, all because he had the good sense to follow a dog that should have been named Jesus. It’s a good little story, and you not only get to hear it, you get to know The Dude’s Grandma Duffy a little bit along the way. Anyone who ever met her would tell you it’s your lucky day.

If she had one glaring weakness, or one great strength, it would have to be the incredible twists, turns, detours, asides and complete non-sequiturs that my mom would take you on when she told a story. I never met anyone who didn’t like her, so I guess it was a strength. People enjoyed listening to her, she enjoyed listening to other people, and she remembered every single thing anyone ever told her. Therefore, if she were telling you a story about running into someone at a store, you would come away from the experience learning not only the person’s life story, but more than likely the history of the store as well, plus an overview of the inventory, some background on the owner and his employees, and the parking situation outside. But if you were, on any given weekday, trying to get work done, or take care of a child and his animals, make dinner and clean the house all at the same time, and the phone rang, and Mom had a story, and you didn’t want to be rude, because you were rude last time, you would be sucked down into the abyss, and the hands of the clock would start spinning around like they do in cartoons and old movies.

So we had our fights in her last couple of years before she died because it drove me crazy to get stuck on the phone when I had pressing matters to see to. I’m really not a phone guy in the best of circumstances. But the problem was that Mom had nothing to see to, nothing to do really except be in pain from Parkinson’s Disease. And though her body was shot, her mind remained sharp as a needle until her last days. She became a prisoner of a body that didn’t work anymore. Yet she had spent her whole life busy at something, and had always had an innate need to connect to other people, to be part of the action. She raged like hell against the dying of the light. Her mind was a housefly trying to get through a plate glass window.

In 2001, after 46 years in Valley Stream, she and my father moved from Duffy’s Creek to a “life care community” in Suffolk County, about 50 miles from here, and sold the house to us. If you go to live in a life care community, you start in a cottage, then you go to an assisted living facility, then you go to the skilled nursing floor, then you slide into the back of a Caddy. Mom went through the four steps of life care in the space of 11 years, the last three in two years. And through those years, most of our catching up was done over the phone. The problem was that a lot of the time I had nothing to share except the stress of the daily grind, which was not the slightest bit interesting to me, so I really didn’t want to be on the phone. More than once I was unnecessarily nasty about it. But she got even. She died.

Oh, and I should mention that no one was allowed to call HER between 7:00 and 7:30 weeknights because she’d be watching Jeopardy, which I got her hooked on. My entire goal in life some weekdays in the winter is to get to the point where I can sit down on the comfy couch and watch Jeopardy on the DVR. Some days that doesn’t happen until 9:30 or so. Mom never learned how to work a DVR. It wasn’t her style. But God forbid you went a week without calling, or not calling back in due time if you let the answering machine pick it up because you were tossing chicken cutlets. She’d attack with all the Irish Mother guilt in her arsenal.

So I made it a point to call her on Thursday August 16, 2012 and tell her what happened that day. I knew she would appreciate it, and I had time to talk, and to listen if necessary. It was a story about Mookie, and she loved Mookie. She would introduce him to people when he came out to see her at the life care community as “the youngest member of my family.” And Mookie fell in love with Grandma Duffy instantly because she was the first person to sneak him human food under the table, specifically McDonald’s french fries. Mookie loves everybody, but after those french fries he always had a special place in his heart, and under the table, for Grandma Duffy.

Mookie's first Meet and greet with Grandma and Grandpa Duffy in July of 2011
Mookie’s first Meet and Greet with Grandma and Grandpa Duffy in July of 2011
Mookie's last visit to Grandma and Grandpa, August 2012
Mookie’s last visit to Grandma and Grandpa, August 2012

On the morning of Thursday August 16th, 2012, Mookie and The Dude and I were walking on the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek. On our side, most of the backyards have a little buffer zone between the property line and the creek (we encroached on it and built a wetland garden). On the Left Bank, there’s a path that starts at a four-lane road and winds along the creek, with short streets dead-ending along it. It used to connect to a bridge that connected to another path that connects to Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good. They took the bridge down about ten years ago because (they said) it was getting old and unsafe. The high school kids had trouble behaving themselves on the path leading to the bridge. Thirty years worth of Valley Stream kids had found fun and trouble hanging out by that bridge, I among them. Lots of people got real nostalgic when they took it down.

So there we were, down by where the bridge isn’t, and Mookie was sticking his nose under the gigantic holly bushes at the end of Elderberry Road. Under one of the bushes I heard a tiny little, “mew!” And my very first reaction was, “oh, crap.” This whole area is rife with stray cats (You can’t swing a cat without hitting one). My parents actually fed a small colony of them at one point, until it became a large colony. They kept one cat that moved out east with them and ended up living 15 years or so.

We have three cats.  They live inside. The last thing I needed was for The Dude to find a litter of kittens under a bush.

Mookie heard the “mew!. He knew exactly what he had found and was very excited about it, as you could imagine. But The Dude didn’t hear it at first. (Sometimes he’s in a different stratosphere, even when he’s five feet away). I gave Mookie a quick pull and a “leave it!” He looked at me and expressed his disappointment and reluctant acceptance, as only he can. We started walking onward where the path veers away from the Creek and goes behind some houses.

mother-298x225And the kitten came out of the bushes and started following Mookie along the path. I immediately thought of the “Are You My Mother?” story. The little bird is left alone in the nest and flies around asking people, and things, if they are his mother. That story had a happy ending. I wasn’t feeling too good about this one.

We turned around and walked back towards the kitten, who at that point turned chicken and ran back under the bushes. There were no other cats to be seen. Although I didn’t express my thought process to The Dude, if figured the kitten had been either separated from or abandoned by it’s mother, and he would probably just lay under that bush and starve and roast until he was food for whatever eats dead kittens around here. Unless we rescued him.

And we couldn’t rescue him. In theory, sure, but in reality, well, we have three cats. Sunny, the oldest, is a very mellow zen master. She’s even trained Mookie to stop chasing her and sit his fat behind down when she comes in the room. They keep each other company. Then there’s Allie. Allie is a sweet, fat little ball of fur who is scared of her own shadow, and only leaves the attic at night when Mookie is asleep on The Dude’s bed behind a closed door.

Gansta Cat.

And then there’s Lyle. Lyle is gangsta His back legs are too long, so he even walks gansta. Or really, more like a gunslinger that just got off his horse. He spends a lot of time catting around at night, until he gets bored and  harasses me out of a dead sleep to get up and feed him. He does this every single night. And once he wakes me up, usually by batting at my eyelids or dropping his ass directly on my face, I have to pee anyway, ’cause I’m a guy in his 50’s.  So I get up and I feed the cats. It’s gotten to the point where I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m on work nights, even though I don’t have to get up until 5, just so I know I can avoid being attacked and get back to sleep for a few hours. It’s a sad state of affairs, but Lyle decided from the beginning that I was his mother, and he’s very attached to me, although I regularly call him abusive names. Therefore, of course, Lyle is highly jealous of Mookie, who will follow me, follow me wherever I may go. Lyle will be happy to try and rip Mookie a new snout if he gets too close. And Mookie can’t understand how anyone could possibly not like him, ’cause everybody loves Mookie, so he keeps coming back for more abuse. Lyle and Mookie have a classic dysfunctional co-dependence.

Mookie can't understand while Lyle acts like such a jerk. And yes, I have repainted that radiator cover.
Mookie can’t understand while Lyle acts like such a jerk. And yes, I have repainted that radiator cover.

So right away I knew that I was not going to be able to adopt this kitten, because Lyle would more than likely kill him the first chance he got. He’s a stone-cold killa gansta gunslinger. Ask the mouse that got into the house once. Actually, you can’t. He’s dead. Lyle snuffed his ass.

But I called Trisha at work and asked her anyway. Honey, Mookie found a kitten and it followed us, can we keep him?

Now, mind you, Trisha will be the first to tell you that she had planned to become a crazy cat lady but married me instead, AND she had three cats when we met, whom I loved as my own for the rest of their seven years. So we’re talking about a woman who has a soft spot for cats. And this is what she said (verbatim) when I told her what we found and asked if she wanted a fourth cat: “NOOOOOOOO!!! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! NO WAY!!!”

So I called my pals at Broadway Vet in Hewlett. I knew that they often had kittens for adoption sitting in a cage in the waiting room. And I knew that Dr. Glenda Wexler had a soft spot for Mookie, and wouldn’t want to disappoint him. They reluctantly agreed to take the kitten if I could catch him. No problem. I had a pet carrier, plenty of cat food and a dog named Jesus. The thought occurred to me, though, that the mother might come back for the kitten, and that I was sticking my nose into cat business that shouldn’t concern me. But I also knew that being a feral cat is nothing but a one-way ticket to Palookaville, so it was in the kitten’s best interest to leave the wilds of the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek behind.

We drove over with the cat carrier, the cat food and Jesus the Dog, who of course found the kitten right away. I had The Dude hold Mookie while I got the kitten to eat some cat food off a plate, then put the plate inside the crate. And just like that, the kitten was in the back seat of a minivan on the way to his new life in the Five Towns, no longer a feral animal. The entire process took about an hour. The kitten was adopted within a week. He has no doubt grown into a beautiful cat, and I wish we could’ve kept him. But I like Lyle well enough, even if he is an asshole.

The first person I wanted to tell my Dog Rescues Cat story to was my mother. I called her that night and we had a nice long chat, and she listened to every word of the story and asked the right follow-up questions and pressed for the right details. I knew that this would give her a story to tell my father, who takes lots of naps and doesn’t like staying on the phone very long. Then she could tell her neighbors, and the people who took care of her, and her dinner companions at the community center (which we called “The Big House”) where she and my father ate every night. Then she could tell the waitress and the busboy. It was a good story. A yellow lab rescues a kitten. You can’t beat that. I knew that she would see that it was conversational gold. And now it was hers.

Less than 24 hours later, on Friday August 17th, my sister called. Mom had been taken to the hospital. They had found her “non-responsive.” I immediately knew it was the beginning of the end from just those words. In 82 years, no one had ever described Joan Duffy as non-responsive.

And I had a decision to make. The next day, Saturday August 18th, was or annual one-day trip upstate for Copake Falls Day. What is Copake Falls Day? I’ll let Mookie explain in his words: “We go for a long ride in the car, we say hi to a lot of people, we go swimming, we walk around, we sit in the shade, then finally we walk up a hill where there’s music playing and people hand you big slabs of barbecued meat, which turns out to be what Mookies like best. Then you sleep in the car all the way home.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We haven’t missed it since they started doing it seven years ago.

I knew Mom was going to die, but nobody had officially told me that yet. I figured the worst that could happen is she would slip away during the 16 hours we’d be unavailable, and if she did, I could rationalize to myself that because Mookie rescued a kitten, and we had a nice, long phone conversation about it, and there was nothing she loved more than a nice long phone conversation, not to mention Mookie, so I could always say that we went out on a high note. I just didn’t feel the need to rush to her bedside. I thought of Albert Camus’ character in “The Stranger”  – which of course Mom turned me on to – who is found to be a menace to society because he didn’t show emotion when his mother died.

But she wasn’t dead yet. And I have two older brothers and two older sisters. Mom would be covered for Saturday, and I’d be out there as soon as I could on Sunday.

So how did I know she was going to die? Well, In the true spirit of long-winded storytelling, it’s important to interject two details before we go on here. One is about her mother, my Grandma Scully. Julia Scully was a widow from 1958 until she died in 1989. She decided shortly before my grandfather died to drag him out of Astoria, Queens and follow my parents to the Creek in Valley Stream when the house next door to them was up for sale. William Scully died of complications from diabetes within a year and Julia Scully stayed next door and systematically drove my parents nuts for the better part of three decades. When the paramedics carried Grandma Scully out of her house in 1983 after suffering a stroke, she lingered in a nursing home for six years until she died at the age of 98. And my mother told me, and hundreds of other people more than likely, that Julia “thought she was going to write her own script. She thought she’d die in that house and never have to leave it.” And the point was, of course, that, as my English Teacher, Devout Catholic mother would say, quoting the gospel of Matthew, “we know not the day nor the hour.”

Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll - used without permission)
Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll – used without permission)

The other detail takes us to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. And buckle yourself in, ’cause this a big detour. Mohonk is a stunningly beautiful place. It has no equal. It’s also stunningly expensive to stay there. But Mom didn’t care. She heard about it from a friend and decided in 1982 that she and my father would stay there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Then in 1992, she dipped into the cash that Grandma Scully had piled in her house by collecting rent from the buildings she owned in Astoria (my father called it “The Scully Fortune”) to bring the entire family, fifteen of us at the time, up to stay for a weekend. Like a bunch of friggin’ Kennedys we were. A big Irish Catholic family all gathered up in suits and dresses for dinner, playing tennis and going to the spa or out on canoes on the lake during the day.  I got to see how really wealthy people relaxed and had fun on vacation. I have to say, they have it down. Mom obviously had the time of her life because we did it again ten years later for their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002. There were 18 of us by that time. We had a wonderful time. I don’t want to know what it cost.

But that was Mom. She loved a good party, and she thought it was worth it. My father, bless his soul, was madly in love with her from the day she helped him out in 10th grade math class at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. If she wanted it, he did what he could to make it happen. When they left the city to come to the suburbs, Mom said she wouldn’t buy a house unless she could see water from it. That’s why you’re reading duffyscreek.com. It was the best water they could afford at the time. Us too.

So when 2012 rolled around, and Mom was already separated by a floor in the skilled nursing building from Dad because he couldn’t take care of her anymore, and against the advice of just about everybody, she said fuck it, we’re all going back to Mohonk for a 60th Anniversary Reunion. Matching tee shirts and everything.  She tortured my brother who handles the finances and my sister who handles the health care for the better part of the year over making the arrangements. She was going to get back there if it killed her. My father’s opinion? Whatever your mother wants.

They were transported from Long Island to New Paltz in the back of an ambulette. They were accompanied by two home health care aids, who stayed with my parents the entire weekend. They were delightful women. Mom had a list of everything she wanted to do while she was up there from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, including having somebody push her around the grounds and going to the outdoor picnic on Sunday afternoon.

And it rained more that weekend that it rained all summer. It rained buckets, for hours at a time. And Mom was pissed, as only Mom could get pissed, until I told her to look around. We were on the porch of the Mountain House, with the rain dancing off the lake below and off the roof above us. And everybody was there, because it was raining, and there was nowhere else to go. At the 40th and 50th Anniversary Weekends, my brothers and sisters and their families went their own way during the day and met up at meals. Now we were all stuck together, just talking, enjoying each others’ company. But I told her, If the sun was shining you’d be sitting here by yourself. You paid for all these people. Now you get to see them. And more importantly, you get to talk to them. Enjoy it.

My parents' 60th Anniversary Dinner at The Mohonk Mountain House, July 19th, 2012
My parents’ 60th Anniversary Dinner at The Mohonk Mountain House, July 19th, 2012

She thanked me for changing her attitude. And though the pain she was in wouldn’t quit, and it was tough for her to keep up, she knew she had lived her dream. She had pulled it off. She got the band together to rock Mohonk Mountain House one last time.

Mookie and The Dude and I went out to see them about a week and a half before she died, a few days before I got to tell her the incredible saga of how her favorite dog rescued a kitten. We took her and my fahter outside to the patio of the nursing home – it drove her crazy that she couldn’t go outside any time she damn well pleased – and we sat and we talked.

And we did go to Copake Falls Day and did everything we always do and nobody died that day. The next day, Sunday August 19th, I brought my father to the hospital to see my mother. It was not the first time I had done that. The other times, she got a little better and they released her. This time, as my father sat with my mother, the doctor consulted me with the results of all the tests they had done. The short version was that she had pneumonia, and when combined with all the things that were already wrong with her, she would probably be gone within a week. And then I got to walk back into the hospital room where my mother slept and my father watched, and I, the forty-nine year old baby of the family, got tell him that the woman he had loved for nearly 70 years was dying.

I tried for a good five minutes. He wasn’t getting it. He didn’t want to get it. I went to get the doctor. He tried for another five minutes. Dad finally acknowledged what we were telling him. The doctor left the room and we sat in silence for as minute. He didn’t cry. I don’t think I cried. We’re not really criers. He just said something that will stay with me forever, something I say every time I try to acknowledge someone’s grief and express my sympathies. You know what my father said when he found out my mother was dying? He said: “No matter how much time you have, you always want a little more.”

Mom woke up long enough to talk to me a little bit. She was back to being responsive, at least for about ten minutes of every hour. I told her that I we had gone to Copake Falls Day the day before and she understood, and she was happy to hear it. She’d never been to Copake Falls, but she knew I loved it, so she loved it. After I gave them some time alone, I brought Dad back home. On the way out of the hospital, we stopped for a little snack and a coffee to go for the driver at the cafeteria. My dad wandered away for a minute and came back with the biggest black and white cookie I’ve ever seen in all my life. I thought that was a very intelligent response to situation. A yin-yang full of sugar. I drove home to tell Joanie Duffy’s youngest daughter-in-law and youngest grandson that they had to come back with me tomorrow and say goodbye.

We wanted to do something special, and since The Dude was seven years old and was really impressed with his own reading ability, we prepped him to read one of Mom’s favorite poems to her, W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree.” Once he started reading, she started reciting it from memory right along with him, right through to the end. It was an amazing thing to witness. Mom was an high school English teacher – “a goddamn good English teacher”- as she told me in confidence on her deathbed. She loved literature, but she also loved all kinds of music and all kinds of art, and she kept everything she had ever experienced in her head right until the last day. I could’ve played “Name That Tune” with her as she was dying of pneumonia and she would’ve batted 1.000.

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Trisha took The Dude for a little walk around the hospital so Mom and I could have some one on one time. That fifteen minutes or so was great theater. There were certain people in her inner circle that Mom would feel comfortable enough with that she would curse like a sailor when she got together with them. I was fortunate to be one of those people. We regularly laced our conversations with f-bombs and characterized people as assholes and pieces of shit, usually Republicans. So I should have been ready for her last little bit of passive-aggressive snarkiness, as it was one of the great gifts she passed on to her youngest boy.

I told her I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I got annoyed at her, that I should have been more patient, no matter what I was up against. because the pain she had suffered in the last ten years of her life was a monster, all the more monstrous because her mind had stayed so sharp. I was especially sorry for not taking the time to call more often, or for chasing her off the phone. “Or lettin’ that goddamn answering machine pick up.” she added. Yeah, that too.

I told her I was sorry and I hoped she could forgive me. She looked straight at me through all the pain and the fog and hung the wiseass smirk that I learned so well from her. “Naaaaah,” she said, “Fuck you. I’m takin’ that one to my grave.”

I believe I replied with something along the lines of, “well played, old lady.” It didn’t matter. She had a heart as big as an Adirondack mountain, and she loved me with all of it, every day from May of 1963 on. We shared music and poetry and baseball and art and gardening and animals and food and all the things that make your life your life. She taught me what living is. But she also took no shit. She’d hit you with the verbal frying pan to the head with no mercy if you had it coming. And I had it coming.

Later, she told my sister, “I think this is really hard on John. He’s still my baby you know.” She knew.

By the time I got out on Wednesday, she wasn’t talking anymore. They had moved her from the hospital back to hospice care at the nursing home so my father could be with her. They talked Wednesday morning, somebody took Dad to lunch, and when they got back, she wasn’t talking anymore. and she died late Thursday night. I didn’t bring Mookie to see her before she died, because of all the people who would’ve said what the hell are you bringing a dog in here for, but I brought him to see Grandpa as we all gathered Friday morning to start the send off.

She had a great turnout for an 82-year-old woman who had moved 50 miles from her home. Well over a hundred people. One of her oldest friends, a nun, said to me, “we have a new saint.”

I can’t help it. She made me what I am. I smiled and chuckled and said, “well…I don’t know about that.” Not quite sure how the nun actually took that, but she smiled back.

It was tough on The Dude. I could see it in his eyes when he saw her at the wake. I lost my own Grandma Duffy – Molly Gerahty Duffy of County Longford, Ireland- in 1971, at the same age he was in 2012. They wouldn’t let me see her at the wake. I had to sit outside. But I snuck a look at her lying in the coffin, and the image stays with me to this day. We decided that there was no point to shielding The Dude from anything. And it was actually gratifying to see him show raw, unguarded, profound human emotion, and gratifying to know that he loved his Grandma Duffy deeply and would never forget her. She had worried that he would never get to know her. She worried about a lot of stuff that never happened. She passed that one on to me as well.

I sang and played one of her favorite songs at her funeral: “Morning Has Broken”. I also wanted to perform “Four Strong Winds”, which she loved: “‘Cause our good times are all gone / and I’m bound for movin’ on/ I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” (How many people do you know whose mothers asked them to mix them CD’s?). The nice people at the Catholic church would not accept “Four Strong Winds” at a funeral mass, but “Morning Has Broken” is on the acceptable list – “in the canon” as they put it to me. I thought it was kind of funny that it was written by a guy named Yusef Islam.

And when it was all over, when she was buried in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery, I was able to let my mind wander across the whole course of events of her final month, and back over her whole life. I don’t know where I was when a magical thought occurred to me. I was probably in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek that she loved so much. I thought about her incredibly stubborn insistence that she get to The Mohonk Mountain House that summer. I thought about how she rolled her eyes when she talked about how her own mother believed she could dictate the terms of her own death.

“But you did.” I said to her memory. “You went out like a rock star. You knew your body could never handle that trip, and you were in awful pain the whole time, but you did it anyway, ’cause nobody was going to tell you you couldn’t live while you were still alive. You wrote your own script.”

Well played, old lady.

My Mom in the backyard on Duffy's Creek in 1984. She's 54 in this picture, two years older than I am now. Much thanks to cousin Ann Marie Lenihan for digging this one up.
My Mom in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek in 1984. She’s 54 in this picture, two years older than I am now. Much thanks to cousin Ann Marie Lenihan for digging this one up.

Whooooosh!!!! Growing Up in Valley Stream All Over Again

July 2011. The Dude is seven. Mookie is about ten weeks. Me? 48.
July 2011. The Dude is seven. Mookie is about ten weeks. Me? 48.

Most of this is a re-run for some of you. Heck, it’s August. Read it again. Why not. Back in the Summer of 2011, my buddy David Sabatino, aka Mr. Valley Stream Himself, suggested that I write something for the Valley Stream Voices column in the local Herald Newspaper. And I said, yeah, I could do that. David was helping out the editor at the time, Andrew Hackmack, who did a great job covering the town for a lot of years. Andrew asked him to find someone who could do a Voices column, and David said, “John Duffy.” And I’m glad he did.

I decided to try to capture the experience of raising a child in the same town I grew up in. I painted the place in a very positive light, and overall, I was happy with the way it came out. Andrew wrote the headline, “Valley Stream is Better Than Ever,” which was not totally misleading, as it was the general theme of the essay, but I thought it that message was a little too advertising slogan-y. Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. There are a lot of things that aren’t better: First and foremost that we’re all packed in like sardines, and they keep building more and higher sardine cans to pack more people in.

There happens to be a reason for that. At some point, the Long Island Rail Road, which my wife Trisha subjects herself to twice a day to earn a living, is eventually going to finish a connection to Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan. And when that day comes, lots more people are apparently going to want to live in apartment buildings near the railroad stations, specifically Valley Stream and Gibson. And I suppose the ten minutes it takes me to go two miles to the King Kullen some afternoons will turn into fifteen. They built a monster of an apartment building less than a mile from Duffy’s Creek – called Sun Valley Apartments. Ugh. – that I and many people raised hell about when it went up, because it looked like a cross between a Bronx tenement and an upstate prison. They recently did a nice crown molding all the way around the top of it to make it less ugly. That was nice of them.

Trisha and I would really like to leave here, but we can’t. We’d like to move to Copake Falls, or somewhere nearby. Valley Stream, and Long Island in general, have become ridiculously crowded and dirty and noisy. But this is where work is for both of us, and we both have many years invested in our jobs. We also have an 11-year old son who has trouble transitioning from pajamas to clothes every single morning. He doesn’t do change very well, and the fact is, this is a good place to grow up, because you’re forced to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. There were a lot of bigoted white people trying to turn me into one of them. If not for my parents being bleeding-heart liberals, they might have made more of a dent. When the town started to diversify, around the turn of the century, the bigots mostly ran like hell, leaving people who know how to get along for the most part. It’s not the people that make me want to leave. I love the people here. There’s just too damn many of them. So The Dude has about ten years to save his money if he wants to buy this house and “stay here forever” as per his plan. We’re not leaving anytime soon, and we’re very good at making lemonade out of the lemons, but in about twelve years this blog will be called, “A Creek Ran Through It.”

Anyway, here we are, and what follows is my little public love letter to Valley Stream, written four years ago. My favorite thing about this essay is that the mayor of Valley Stream, a very smart, energetic and friendly fellow named Edwin Fare (that’s right, Mayor Fare) has borrowed a phrase that was the anchor of the whole piece. I don’t know how terribly original it was, but I referred to Valley Stream as a “big small town”, which it is if you’re an old timer. You’re usually about three degrees of separation from anyone you start a conversation with – they went to school with someone you know, or lived on the same street, or went to the same church, or played on the same team, or at the very least got drunk in the same bar. Mayor Fare used the phrase in an interview with Newsday and in a recent Cablevision-produced video. I believe that he unconsciously lifted it from me. I saw him just today walking around the pool. I’ve never said to him, “Hey! That’s my line!”, since for one thing what does it matter and for another thing he’d just tell me it isn’t, ’cause he took it. Fact is, he needs it more than I do. (What I did say to him was, “you ought to jump in! It’s like a bathtub in there today!” Which was just me being folksy, as he was wearing street clothes).

So without further ado, the Valley Stream Voices Column from 2011 that I would have simply entitled: “Whooosh!!!”, with a little postscript at the end. Hope you enjoy it (again):

I am a second-generation Valley Streamer. Many of you just said, “me, too!” There are a lot of us. My parents moved from Queens in 1955 for a backyard on a creek and room for their growing family. Five kids and 46 years later, in 2001, they moved east and my wife and I bought the house where I grew up. Two years later, in my 40th year, our son Jack was born, a third-generation Valley Streamer.

dscn2230In my new role as Jack’s daddy, I began to realize how many of the icons of my childhood were unchanged, and how Valley Stream remains a big small town and a good place to grow up. In my opinion, it’s actually better than in the ’60s and ’70s.

When I was a kid, my mother might announce that we were “going to town.” That meant driving in our red Volkswagon bus (seriously, we had one) over to Rockaway Avenue. The first stop was Morris Variety, then, as now, a place where a little kid could be enraptured by the impressive assortment of stuff; where you could get lost in the long aisles of toys, hardware and craft supplies while mom picked through greeting cards, then memorize the candy at the front counter while she checked out. Going to town might also include lunch at Itgen’s, Mitchell’s or Ancona, and maybe a walk up to Sal and Vin’s for haircuts, a swing by the library or a stop at the bank with the big vault that looked like the one Maxwell Smart walked through.

dsc042613058-1Today, going around Valley Stream with my son, there are times when I’m suddenly traveling in a time machine (I can even hear a “Whoosh!” sound in my head when it happens). I can reconnect with my inner little kid, the one that we all tend to leave behind and disregard, as we get older and our boundaries expand far beyond “going to town.”

One of the first places Jack and I went when he was a baby was Brook Road Park in Mill Brook. (Sorry, but it’ll always be Green Acres to me.) When my older siblings were all in school and I was home with my mother, she would push me there in a stroller over the bridge. (The bridge was first fenced off and then taken down, to the dismay of many old-timers.) Coming back 40 years later with my little boy was one of my first trips into my personal Valley Stream Time Machine, one of many enjoyable travels that I’ve taken back to my childhood through my son. After admiring the new playground equipment, we walked by a fence that holds back the eroding retaining wall along the creek. Behind the fence were relics of my pre-school days — the big dolphin you could sit on, and the concrete turtle you could crawl under, both on a bouncy rubber surface. And there was the very bench where my mother sat enjoying my company, wearing ’60s-style cat’s-eye glasses.

461142_299944693431867_624281914_oAs Jack grew into a toddler, we joined the Valley Stream Pool. As a kid, I remember the kiddie pool area shaded by mottled Sycamore trees, like the ones still in the playground. My mother was a part of a group of women with lots of children who jokingly called themselves the “Over the Hill, Under the Tree Club.” On summer days, they could have some much-needed peace and adult conversation as the kids entertained themselves.

There was a probably a 30-year interval between my last visit to the pool as a kid and my first as a dad. As I stood next to the Olympic pool, “Whoosh!” I was in the time machine again — going under water with my eyes open, daring myself out into the deep end, jumping off the diving board, eating a hot dog and French fries under the concession stand roof. It all comes back to me, like opening a book you haven’t read in years and remembering how much you liked the story. The French fries taste exactly the same.

Jack likes going to town. He’s well-known at Morris Variety, and Michael at Sal and Vin’s always makes him look great. We recently had Itgen’s for lunch and Ancona for dinner with a trip to the pool in between. Jack and his mom both like mint chip ice cream. I’m a vanilla fudge guy. Ancona meatball parmesan heroes are sublime.

This year, I made some new friends in my old town. While looking for dog parks for our new Labrador puppy, I found Envision Valley Stream, a group that promotes ideas for fostering a sense of community, including park clean-ups, graffiti removal and the skate park and dog park initiatives which the village administration has been receptive to. It’s nice to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who like living here. And it’s very nice to see the local government working with residents to make good ideas happen.

Jack is going into second grade at Carbonaro School. It was a warm and nurturing place when I went there and it still is. This year, he played baseball with the Valley Stream Little League. I played on a Mail League team in the ’70s, so of course the “Whoosh!” brought me right back as I stood on the ball fields of Barrett Park, Wheeler Avenue and others. We marched with the Little League in the Memorial Day parade, my first since the ’70s. The sense of community here is as strong as ever. And a one-time reputation for intolerance has been replaced by a diversity of people who interact easily with each other. This is something my son will have which my generation did not. His big small town is a lot like mine, but better, and I’m glad we’re here.

Ok, I’m back here in 2015. Christ, I’m tired. The Dude doesn’t go to Carbonaro anymore because the class where he fits best is across town in an identical building called William L. Buck.  (The Dude calls the similarity “freaky”). We’re a long way removed from little league, and I’m a happy observer of the Memorial Day Parade. The Dog Park is a raging success, mostly due to the efforts of others besides myself, but I feel a sense of ownership of the place, and so do Mookie and his Dude. You’ve gotta like that.  “Envision Valley Stream” is in the process of morphing into the Greater Valley Stream Civic Association, in which I’m trying to carve out the time to take an active role. (I’m the liaison for the “part of South Valley Stream that isn’t Mill Brook or Gibson even though Gibson built the houses but don’t you dare call it North Woodmere” -Our Man On The Creek, if you will). 

Yeah, we want out. And we more than likely will get out someday. We won’t be able to afford to stay when we’re too old. They’ll eat us alive. But for now, me and My Dude  still go to the pool most weekday afternoons in the summertime. And we’ll be getting our haircuts at Sal and Vin’s tomorrow. And lunch or dinner at Ancona is never far away. (John! You Called?). When we finally do leave Valley Stream, when it’s all over, will I miss it? (I have to speak for myself, as Trisha has been here for 15 of her years and I’ve been here for all 52 of mine, more or less). Will I romanticize it like my mom did when she left kicking and screaming?

I don’t know. Places are funny like that. It’s like the line from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, when the creepy guy is giving the dorky guy his dating advice: “Wherever you are – it’s the place to be! – Isn’t this great?” I tend to live in the present tense (which is why we’re broke), so if I were living upstate, I don’t think I’d give it much thought. I think the toughest thing about leaving would be the legacy that I’d be ending that started with my parents in 1955. My mom DID miss it when she left, so I’d miss it for her.

Speaking of my Mom, if you’ve never met her, you’ll have a chance to get to know her a little bit in my next post. Anybody would tell you that would be your lucky day. And coincidentally, that upcoming post is also about a kitten who had a very lucky day because he decided to follow a big yellow dog one day on Duffy’s Creek. It’s not so complicated, but I’ll probably tell the story in a way to make it so. I got that gift from Mom. I’m long-winded and I need an editor. But at least I came by it honestly.

Read it anyway, and thanks. See you when the tide comes in.

Hendrickson Lake in Valley Stream. I can't take a boat on it and my dog can't jump in it, but it's nice enough to look at, and a good place for a bike ride or a walk. And it's a just a couple of sewer pipes away from Duffy's Creek
Hendrickson Lake in Valley Stream. I can’t take a boat on it and my dog can’t jump in it, but it’s nice enough to look at, and a good place for a bike ride or a walk. It’s the Crown Jewel of My Hometown, and it’s a just a couple of sewer pipes and a six-lane highway away from Duffy’s Creek.

Goldfinch and Associates: Landscape Architects – A Tour of The Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek

We growIMG_1430 a lot of flowers here on Duffy’s Creek. And trees, and bushes, and vegetables. And we’ve spent way, way too much money doing it. And it takes a lot of time and grunting to maintain what we’ve done from year to year. But I tell you what: I’ve walked around a lot of neighborhoods with Mookie Dog these last four years, and I’ve gotten a good look at a lot of peoples’ properties while Mookie sniffed and peed on the nearest telephone poles (The Dude gets credit for coming up with: “he’s reading his pee mail.”). In the world of property ownership, and what a wonderful world it is, I have come to believe that people who have flowers growing around their house are the people who look like they’re enjoying their stay on Earth a bit more than the people who don’t. And they  probably are. I know I am. Of course if the homeowner is elderly or disabled it isn’t a fair statement, but still, if you can grow some flowers and you don’t, it looks to me like you just don’t care in general, and you probably don’t. Is that arrogant? It might be arrogant. Hell, I don’t know. I’d just like to take you on a tour of Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek. You like flowers? We got some flowers for ya today.

Trisha's Rose Garden. The big show is in the spring and fall. I'll post more pictures then
Trisha’s Rose Garden. The big show is in the spring and fall. I’ll post more pictures then

It doesn’t matter where we start, since you’re not actually here, so we can start where it all started. Trisha and I bought the old Duffy Family House on The Creek in 2001 from my parents, who moved to a Lifecare Community. My mom kind of went kicking and screaming, mostly because she loved the backyard on the Creek. Trisha’s family owned an operated a Florist and Nursery, McCloskey’s  on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, Queens for 86 years, Her grandfather started out by selling flowers for putting on graves in St. John’s Cemetery across the street. So as soon as she saw the backyard of this place, she knew what she wanted to do with it. The first thing she did was clear a whole lot of crap (her newlywed husband dug up a few tree roots for her) and plant this Hybrid Tea Rose Garden. I love that all the plants have names and little stories, but I can’t keep any of them straight. Still, I like hearing about them. And truly, there’s just nothing like roses. I don’t know what smells you associate with your spouse (Cheese? Cinnamon? Ben-Gay?) but to me the smell of hybrid tea roses, whatever the hell their names are, remind me how much I love my wife. Isn’t that nice?

The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden

We have a big six-foot wood stockade fence along the back of the Rose Garden, courtesy of some former psychotic neighbors who will get their own post one of these days. I’ll even name them for you. Anyway, the point at which the rose garden meets the house and the stockade fence is Trisha’s “Secret Garden”, which has more Hybrid Teas, plus some climbing roses and Clematis on arbors and some various perennials, the Lupines being my favorite, if only because of the silly Monty Python sketch. There’s some bitchin foxglove in there. And it’s a great place to hide from The Dude.

Around front, you get to Trisha’s Cottage Garden, modeled after a Thomas Kinkade painting if he dropped acid, which has a lot of beautiful perennials and some good smellin’ Mock Orange and Quince, plus this cool guy called a Purple Beautyberry Bush which is owned and defended by an insane Mockingbird.

Trisha's front yard Cottage Garden. It's a scene, Man.
Trisha’s front yard Cottage Garden. It’s a scene, Man.

Me, I always liked playing in the dirt. As a matter of fact, when I was very young in this very backyard I had a “diggy spot.” And when I was 30 and stuck living back with my parents after going through surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, I decided to start a little garden out where my “diggy spot” used to be.  And my mom liked planting flowers, too. So one day in 1993 we went to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside together – which in itself is a great memory – and she sprung for some perennials and bulbs to get that garden started. There’s still a couple of hyacinths that come up every year from that garden, but for the most part it got too shady under my neighbor’s giant oak tree to really get anything good growing there. So after my mom died in 2012, I planted a Colorado Blue Spruce as a memorial to her, thus taking the “diggy spot” out of the active flower gardening area. I’ve never visited her grave, and I don’t know if I ever will. If I need to talk to her, she’s right here.

The Colorado Blue Spruce I planted as a memorial to my mom in 2012 so she could keep an eye on things. This was my
The Colorado Blue Spruce I planted as a memorial to my mom in 2012 so she could keep an eye on things. This was my “diggy spot” as a little feller, and when I was 30.

When we moved back here in 2001, I started noticing the birds. And the ducks and the geese and the other assorted characters – osprey, egrets, kingfishers, terns, herons and cormorants to name a few- who made their living on the Creek. We had a lot of songbirds, too.  Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the whole place was overgrown and they had lots of places to hide. Once we put up some bird feeders, it was madness. One January twilight we had over 20 cardinals dancing around in the snow. We don’t have as many birds now because we had to take down two massive maple trees and a pear tree before they killed us in a hurricane. (And there was one, and they didn’t. And we of course replaced those trees, but these things take time). Back when we started, I wrote down all the species of birds I saw and when I saw them in a spiral notebook (very neatly ’cause I’m OCD), then I looked them up and found out what they were doing here, and what they wanted for dinner. I have a list of about 115 bird species that have passed through or by this property. I will put that list up as a separate post sometime soon. It recently may or may not have helped earned South Valley Stream $3 million dollars in New York Rising Recovery grant money, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, around this same time, we started taking hikes through Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a long way from here but connected by water, and noticing not only the birds but the plants. This led to the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary. We started trying to use as much garden space as possible for bird-friendly habitat plants and stuff that grew here naturally. This led to the Wetland Gardens that run between the yard and the Creek, which is actually planted on land that belongs to Nassau County. But screw ’em, they don’t deserve it.

The Wetlands
The Wetlands

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In the wetlands are Rosa Rugosa and Red Twig Dogwood and Winterberry Holly, a Weeping Willow Tree, a Butterfly Bush and one of our signature specimens, the Great Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. It was a four-foot tall Eastern Red Cedar bought from Dee’s Nursery. I really had to wonder about myself when I planted a $139 tree on property that I don’t actually own, but no matter. The Red Cedar got really tall, probably about 15 feet or more. Then Hurricane Sandy came along and knocked it to a 45 degree angle. My brother came down from Connecticut to help us out with the mess about a week after the storm. We raised the Cedar back up and he tied it to the fence using one of the knots that he learned in Boy Scouts and I didn’t. The Cedar survived, but it leans like the Tower of Pisa now. So we call our backyard The Leaning Cedar Cafe @ Duffy’s Creek, ’cause we like the way it sounds.

When we first moved in, we had a deck. It was a very 1970’s deck, probably because it was built in the 1970’s. And it was slowly rotting away. The final straw for the deck was when a cat caught a mallard and left his decapitated head under the step. It was a little too evocative of “The Godfather”, but I digress again. Around that same time, we took a day trip from Copake Falls to visit the Stockbridge Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Here we met some of the “Herb Associates”, whose name still inspires giggle fits around here. Basically a bunch of old ladies who planted and maintained an herb garden just off the kitchen of the house at the gate of the Gardens.

We were already planning to replace the deck with a loose-laid brick patio. The “Herb Associates” inspired us to include a little garden with some sage and lavender and thyme and oregano and mint. And then we just kept going, and started adding lots of cool perennials, dahlias and zinnias from seed.

Patio Garden looking out towards Duffy's Creek, taken from the attic window
Patio Garden looking out towards Duffy’s Creek, taken from the attic window. You can also see my Quaking Aspen, which transports me to Lake Kushaqua in the Adirondack Mountains every time a breeze blows through.

Soon enough it was the insane garden you can see in the foreground of this picture. Some of the coreopsis and rubekia and hellenium and Mexican Sunflowers grow over six feet tall. We call them by their latin name: “Crazius Bastardus.” The patio garden is our landing place. It’s the nicest room in the house in the summer, and consequently, we watch a lot less TV. It’s where you sit and stare for five minutes  – or an hour- when you’re between things you have to do, or walk around and crush leaves between your fingers, take a big whiff and say, “damn that’s good!” At least we do.

Patio Garden
Patio Garden. Real gardeners rarely put away the hose.
Patio Garden
Patio Garden with Crazius Bastardus on display.

As you can see, the patio garden has some nice bee balm. And when you have perennials, you can make the same jokes at the same time every year. As soon as one of us mentions that the bee balm is coming into bloom, the other will either do a Monty Python falsetto and say, “Whatcha bringin’ a balm in here for!” or do the Jackie Childs voice from Seinfeld. “A balm? Nobody know what a balm will do! They’re unpredictable!” We try to have fun.

The patio garden. The bench is dedicated to our sister-in-law, who loved to exchange garden stories with us. Her spirit can visit and see what we're up to.
The patio garden in all it’s glory. The bench is dedicated to our sister-in-law, who loved to exchange garden stories with us. Her spirit can visit and see what we’re up to.
Patio Garden from another angle. The MAESTRO gave you a balm?
Patio Garden from another angle. The MAESTRO gave you a balm?

Along the side of the house this year I have some, OK a thousand, black eyed susans growing quite untidily. Usually I insist on tidy, but I’m letting them have their fun. Last year I planted a thousand black-eyed susan seeds in the Wetlands and in this spot, where I was out of ideas, and in one year they have naturalized and become our own resident wildflower. They are pretty weeds.  God bless ’em.

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We also have eight blueberry bushes in large planters which have been producing phenomenal fruit for us and the Robins, Catbirds, Song Sparrows and Mockingbirds for ten years now.

Blueberries and Vegetables, and more crazy Black-Eyed Susies.
Blueberries and Vegetables, and more crazy Black-Eyed Susies.

During the Hurricane Sandy storm surge, the blueberry bushes floated on down the block. We found them the next day on various front lawns around the neighborhood. A neighbor with a van brought us two that he found at the high school at the end of the street, about a quarter of a mile away. We have a dog kennel that we bought when we first got Mookie, but that he decided he didn’t like one damn bit because we weren’t in there with him. We were going to sell it, then we realized it would come in handy in the next Hurricane as a place to put anything that might float away down the street.

Hurricane Sandy (I hate “Superstorm”) didn’t do the damage to us here in South Valley Stream as it did in points south, specifically East Rockaway, Oceanside, Island Park and Long Beach, which all got walloped. But it did take out some of our favorite specimens. We had two little Christmas trees growing on the side of the garage, a Frasier Fir and a Balsam Fir. We were going to make them our last two Chistmas Trees here someday if we had a choice in the matter. But the brackish water from the surge killed them, as well as a Mountain Laurel that had survived for 60 years and two outrageously beautiful Burkwood Viburnum bushes outside the front window. But when life hands you lemons and all that, we turned the space along the garage into a nice vegetable garden, where we’ve started feeding ourselves as well as the birds. We have carrots, celery, broccoli and cucumbers growing there now. I use the cucumbers to make homemade Bread and Butter Pickles, because I can. Actually because I jar, but no matter. The best part of making bread and butter pickles for me is being able adopt Robin Williams’ silly, exaggerated Scottish accent and scream at my wife, “Damn it, Woman! I’m makin’ The brine right now!” I never get tired of that one.

Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Cucumbers.
Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Cucumbers.

Of course, every good gardener knows that you go through a lot of experimentation and a lot of failure on your way to creating a successful patch. That’s the thing that Thomas Jefferson and I have in common most of all. The spot outside the front window has seen and lost Two holly bushes, the aforementioned Viburnum, a peach tree that was really cool but was under constant siege from Ants, Squirrels and Fungus (which may have been the name of a Warren Zevon album).  I also planted and moved an Eastern Red Cedar and a Crabapple Tree from that spot after I decided they each looked better somewhere else.

Our resident Insane Mockingbird decided he like the Eastern Red Cedar so much he planted another one on the opposite side of the front lawn, and it has grown almost as big as the first.

Sargent Crabapple. Successfully transplanted twice, now happily right outside the front door, where you can watch the birds harvest the fruit in the fall.
Sargent Crabapple. Successfully transplanted twice, now happily right outside the front door, where you can watch the birds harvest the fruit in the fall.
We planted two Eastern Red Cedars, including the Famous Leaning Cedar of Duffy's Creek. A Mockingbird planted this one.
We planted two Eastern Red Cedars, including the Famous Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. A Mockingbird planted this one.

And this leads me to one of my favorite things about this whole 14 year experiment in floral hedonism that we’ve got going on here. Two years ago, I decided I would just fill up the spot in front of the window with flowers. I threw in some zinnias and gladiolas and dahlias and lilies and phlox that I grew from seed. As usual, I spent too much money that could have gone towards fixing the house itself, like say, a roof for instance. And after I do all that, and it all grows in, the most impressive flowers in the whole business are the a deep orange multiflower sunflowers that were planted by my friends the goldfinch.Who are busy eating the seeds of it and pooping them out to make sure they come back next year.

Front Yard Garden - My Patch
Front Yard Garden
Front yard - my patch
Sunflowers courtesy of resident goldfinch

So if you’re walking by our house (And your dog is reading his pee mail) you might notice a nice display of flowers growing outside. And if you knock on the door and ask, we’ll show you round the back. And you’ll say, these people, they seem to have a pretty good life here, and we do. And because we do, we praise God with a thousand flowers every year, because we care, and we’re trying to enjoy our time here on Earth. And we like birds. And it smells good.

And if you’ve got a couple of geraniums in pots on your front step, and you keep them watered, well you’re all right with me.

A creek runs through it, Duffy's Creek starts in Valley Stream State Park, goes through Hendrickson Park, goes under Merrick Road, reappears in the Village Green, ducks under Sunrise Highway, flows through Mill Pond Park where it becomes Mill Pond, goes through a spillway under Mill Road, flows past our about a mile until it goes under Rosedale Road, flows past North Woodmere Park into Jamaica Bay and out into The Atlantic Ocean. During the Hurricane Sandy Surge, the brackish water was up to the top of the post and rail fence.
A creek runs through it:  Duffy’s Creek starts in Valley Stream State Park, goes through Hendrickson Park, goes under Merrick Road, reappears in the Village Green, ducks under Sunrise Highway, flows through Mill Pond Park where it becomes Mill Pond, goes through a spillway under Mill Road, flows past our house and on about a mile until it goes under Rosedale Road, flows past North Woodmere Park into Jamaica Bay and out into The Atlantic Ocean. During the Hurricane Sandy Surge, the brackish water was up to the top of the post and rail fence. Other than that it’s nice in the summer.