Friday, January 21, 2022

Lessons on Living Longer If Not Larger

 Betty White’s legion of multigenerational fans celebrated what would have been her 100th birthday Monday January 17 had she not passed away December 31. They splashed tributes across social media.


Reaching 100 is a milestone not yet commonplace though more frequent than when Willard Scott used to single out centenarians for birthday wishes during his stint as The Today Show’s weatherman from 1980-1996 (he actually began that bit of jolly morning cheer in 1983).


Living longer, if not larger, is a global trend, as The New York Times unrelatedly reported on the day Betty White died. Citing the United Nations, The Times said “there were about 95,000 centenarians in 1990 and more than 450,000 in 2015. By 2100, there will be 25 million.” 


Until the pandemic ended my weekly distribution of kosher meals to aging seniors, I regularly engaged with men and women, mostly women, straddling the 90 year mark. Some were bedridden. Most lived independently, usually in apartments, occasionally in houses they had spent decades in as wives, mothers and widows. They resisted for as long as possible relocation to a senior care facility. 


On January 9, shortly after the December 24 passing of the last of six aging New Yorkers The Times had been following for seven years, the paper printed a moving article entitled, “Some Final Lessons on Life and Loss” (on its Web page it was called “Notes from the End of a Very Long Life”): https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/06/nyregion/ruth-willig-oldest-new-yorkers.html?smid=em-share


There’s much to be learned from those who have come before us and from those who put their wisdoms into words. Spend a moment contemplating three paragraphs from the final article in John Leland’s series:


“How do you make a full and meaningful life when you can’t do so many of the things you once did? The pandemic has brought home how much this question applies to people at any age.


“For almost two years, no one has been able to do things they once did. We all gave up some mobility and time with people, all stopped going to places we loved and felt some degree of isolation. Everyone had to find satisfactions that were still accessible — to make lives of what they had, not what was taken away.


“The elders have been living in this terrain for a long time. Their answers — don’t brood about the things you can’t reach; live as if your time is limited; focus on the people you care about; enjoy the pleasures near at hand — are simple but highly useful, pillars on which to build a good life. Easy to do, hard to remember to do.” 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Snow's Not the Reason Syracuse is Salt City

The snow forecast for Syracuse, NY, over the next two days calls for 10-12 inches, a mere dusting in Syracusian terms. Syracuse, after all, is the snowiest city in America, averaging 128 inches a year.  


Having spent an academic year in Syracuse earning a master’s in newspaper journalism back in 1971-72, I am well acquainted with the city’s less than ideal weather, if you’re a snow hater like me. Snow is one manifestation of Syracuse’s climate. Indeed, the city averages just 163 days of sunshine a year compared to the national average of 205 days.


Snow is such an expected part of the city that it is not uncommon for a radio station to provide a prize to the person who predicts the first date a measurable amount of flakes hits the ground. A day in mid October won the year I was there. That year it snowed 133.7 inches.


With lake-effect frosty stuff all around, Syracuse has a well deserved reputation for knowing how to deal with snow.


Syracuse’s nickname is Salt City. I assumed the moniker came from the liberal spreading of salt on city streets to clear the snow. Actually, it derived from nearby salt mines. I had no idea there were salt mines until I heard a story on the radio explaining the origin of the nickname during my last week in Syracuse. 


Over Thanksgiving weekend 1971, a pounding blizzard struck New York State. The National Weather Service describes the storm thusly: 


“Heavy snow in Catskills and across the Upper Hudson Valley. This heavy snow began on the day before Thanksgiving and continued into Thanksgiving day. Albany picked up 22.5 inches with amounts up to 30” reported elsewhere. This storm turned the busiest travel day of the year into a nightmare, with many stranded travelers not making it to their destinations on Thanksgiving.  This storm was the greatest November snowstorm on record and one of the greatest ever.”  


With all highway traffic shut down, I was forced to to wait until Monday to return to school from my parents’ home in Brooklyn. Roads were still barely plowed in New York City, but as I got closer to Syracuse the highways were almost totally clear. Even city streets were passable. I remarked to myself that Syracuse sure knew how to handle snow. I further wondered what all the fuss was about, why travel had been restricted on Sunday.


I parked in front of the gingerbread-style, three-story house on East Genesee Street where my studio apartment occupied part of the top floor. As soon as I stepped out of the car the extent of the snowfall became apparent. Snow engulfed my legs up to my hips. I struggled to reach the front stairs, then made my way up to the third floor.


I opened the door to find half my apartment covered in snow. The roof had caved in under the weight of the snow. It took several days for the landlord to repair the roof.


The rest of the winter passed without incident, though I was nervous each time I ventured out driving in the snow. My red with black vinyl top Buick Skylark weathered the winter with no dents, no fender bender, no scratches.


On a bright, warm early June day, diploma in hand, I packed the Buick up in the driveway shared with the house next door. My getaway was a few moments away. As I bent into the car to reposition my stereo, I looked out the passenger side window and saw another student’s car backing up, slowly, inexorably, toward me. I screamed, “Stop!” I waved my hands. To no avail.


Thunk! Broadsided in sunny, summer daylight in my passenger side door. I shook my head in disgust. So close to escaping Syracuse intact. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Word Games Replace Political Diatribes

 I don’t normally tackle the daily crossword puzzle in The New York Times, reserving my grey matter for the paper’s Sunday puzzle and Spelling Bee in the magazine section. So I was caught off guard when my daughter-in-law Allison texted to ask if I had done Thursday’s NYT crossword and that I should check out the clue to 45 Across.


Retrieving the Arts section before it hit the recycling bin, I read the clue: “Suburb about 20 miles WNW of Boston.” It required a five letter response. 


Without hesitation I knew it was Acton, home town to Allison, Dan and their brood of two children, a goldfish and a Chinese dwarf hamster. I was duly impressed they live in a town crossword puzzle-clue worthy.


I have supplemented the two aforementioned weekly puzzles with three daily mental challenges. As I am usually up at midnight, I recently began to log onto the daily Wordle quiz which goes active at the stroke of a new day. 


Not familiar with Wordle? Neither was I until The Times ran an article on it 10 days ago (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/technology/wordle-word-game-creator.html?smid=em-share). I’ve been hooked ever since. I can’t go to sleep before completing each day’s puzzle, usually accomplished before 10-15 minutes. Here’s the link I use: https://www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle/


Shortly after 3 o’clock each morning—yes, dear reader, I often emerge from slumber at that dark hour—and, contrary to all medical sleep advice, open up my iPhone to work on the Letter Boxed and Spelling Bee challenges that are updated at 3 am daily. 


I’m addicted to the Spelling Bee which is different from the Sunday version. On Sunday, six letters in a circle surround a seventh letter in the middle which must be used in all five-letter or larger words you find. You get one point for each word; three points for using all seven letters. 


The daily Spelling Bee also displays six letters around a seventh. Four letter words are acceptable. Points are allotted based on the number of letters in each word. Your score determines your level of competence, from beginner to genius. I am determined to accept nothing less than genius, a status I usually attain even if it takes hours, though not at one sitting, er, lying down in bed. I’ll usually stop by 4 am, if necessary, resuming when I m more alert. 


Here’s a link to the daily Spelling Bee, which in all honesty, am not sure will open for you as you might have to be a Times subscriber: https://www.nytimes.com/puzzles/spelling-bee.


Between Pickle Ball, Spelling Bee and other word games, I’m spending my COVID retirement days exercising a variety of muscles. What I am not doing is spending lots of time reading news accounts of how our country is going crazy. So you’re seeing fewer political postings from me. Instead of writing diatribes in the middle of the night I’m playing word games. Works for me. Hopefully for you, too.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Pickle Ball Has Replaced Tennis

 I stopped playing weekly doubles tennis three years ago. Not because I didn’t like it. Not because of any physical limitation. Not because of a time conflict. Not because of the expense. Not because I wasn’t any good at it, though that appraisal is subject to different ratings based on the evaluator.


Actually, that last clause encapsulated the reason. A new player joined our group the year before. I acknowledge he was a better player than I. But he was also a p**ck. He made it totally uncomfortable to be on the court, either as his partner or foe.


It was a no brainer to conclude my mental health was more important than any benefit physical activity could provide. I was not alone in that assessment. Another of our regular players dropped out for similar reasons.


Last Tuesday morning, playing my first game, I entered the world of pickle ball. Though the playing area looks like a miniature tennis court, there are several significant equipment differences between the two sports.


First, you play with a plastic ball with holes, like a wiffle ball. Pickle balls don’t bounce like tennis balls. It takes extraordinary concentration to remember that even the hardest hit ball will not bounce up to your waist or higher, as a tennis ball might.


Second, a pickle ball racquet is just 8 inches wide by 15-3/4 inches long, compared to 11 x 27 inches of a tennis racquet. You must get closer to a pickle ball if you want to successfully hit it over the net.


Combined, those two pieces of equipment require much more bending from the knees and waist, not something I do often enough in life but obviously need to do more of on the court to become proficient in, and avoid injury during, pickle ball.


Pickle ball has taken on almost cult-like status, particularly among my age cohort. I’m not yet at the groupie stage but I am looking forward to my next game tomorrow morning for which I’ll have to swing out of bed around 8 am to get ready hours—literally hours—before my normal departure from under my warm comforter. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Chilling Movies of Snow and Ice Adventures

Scenes this week of multiple-car wrecks from snow and ice storms are a stark reminder the beauty of nature can obscure the destructive power it can be inflict on an unsuspecting, unprepared public. Here are my favorite movies with snow or ice (including ice rinks) playing a central role in the plot:


The Thing from Another World


Dr. Zhivago


The Day After Tomorrow


The Gold Rush


It’s a Wonderful Life


The Man Who Came to Dinner


The Far Country


Nanook of the North


Miracle on Ice


Groundhog Day


Escape from Sobibor


The Way Back


Cool Runnings


The Pink Panther


Patton


Alive


Into the White


Spellbound (1945)


Knight Without Armour


Battle of the Bulge


Northern Pursuit


Wuthering Heights


Will Penny


The Revenant


Seven Brides for Seven Brothers


Citizen Kane


Planes, Trains and Automobiles


A Christmas Story


Frozen


Wind River


I, Tonya


Little Women


Fargo


The Grand Budapest Hotel


Into the Wild


A Simple Plan


Home Alone



And now, for some real life snow adventures:



Story #1: During the winter of 1973 I was a reporter for The New Haven Register. My beat covered the suburban towns of Seymour and Derby, Conn., two communities along the Naugatuck River, separated by the larger but still small city of Ansonia. Municipal boards met at night, after which I would drive about 15 minutes to the Register’s bureau office in Ansonia, type my story and transmit it before midnight by Scan-a-tron to copy editors in New Haven. 


After a city council meeting in Derby ended around 10 one wintry, freezing-rain night, I headed my usual way to the office. It was a switchback route, each leg of the trip descending deeper to the bridge on Division Street, the link to Ansonia. But when I made a right turn down one sloped road I quickly noticed cars lined up not parallel to the street but rather perpendicular to it. In fact, three were wedged across the width of the entire street, each about 15 feet above the other. 


Immediately after hitting the brake, my Buick Skylark started slip-slidin’ away on the ice. Seconds later it, too, was perpendicular to the road, coasting sideways downhill. Amazingly, the car came to rest snugly secure between two parked cars. Not a scratch or dent suffered by any of the cars. I was not out of danger, however. 


Suspended midway down the street, I was the bulls-eye (did I mention the color of my car was red?) for the next vehicle that was bound for Ansonia. I didn’t have to wait too long. Once more I watched in amazement as that car as well skidded into a perfect fit between two parked cars some 15 feet above mine. 


The police finally arrived, though they could do nothing to free our cars until the freezing rain stopped overnight. They did drive me home to Seymour. 


A few years later, after I started working in Manhattan. Gilda and I decided to move to Westchester. We looked at apartments in Hastings, Tarrytown, Dobbs Ferry and Irvington, but the steep hills of those river towns reminded me of my night of terror. No way would I knowingly subject either of us to a similar escapade on icy, steep roads. 



Story #2: The snow dump early Friday morning evoked memories of two 20-inch storms back in 1978 that remain with me as lessons in commuting that nobody should experience. They were the reasons I developed a well-deserved reputation at Chain Store Age for taking snow days at the drop of a snowflake.


In January of that year, after a 20-inch snowstorm, I trudged to the train station from our apartment in downtown White Plains in plenty time for the 8:18 am transport. The train arrived on time. I sat down for the usual 35-minute commute. Four hours later, the train pooped out in the tunnel beneath Park Avenue. Snow had fallen through the grates, blocking all trains from entering Grand Central Terminal.


We couldn’t move forward or back up. Metro-North decided our only exit was vertical. All on board had to carefully climb down onto the tracks and ascend one of the emergency staircases, taking us up to Park Avenue and 72nd Street. From there I walked 15 blocks to my office at 425 Park Avenue. When I got there I discovered the office was closed. After a few minutes to thaw out, I was back on the street, slogging my way down to Grand Central, 13 blocks to the south, all the way hoping there would be a train back to White Plains.


I was lucky. Double lucky. A train was set to depart momentarily, and I had secured a seat. Four hours later it pulled into White Plains. I had spent more than nine hours commuting in the snow. I vowed to be more circumspect in future snowstorms.


I had my chance two weeks later when another 20-inch storm struck. This time I sought assurance our office would be open. I called our VP administration who, by coincidence, commuted on my same train each day. He daily drove down to White Plains from Ridgefield, Conn. If anyone would be a no-show, Mike surely would lead the pack. But his wife cheerfully reported Mike had set off for work. I reasoned I had better show up, as well.


Once again, I trudged down to the station. The 8:18 am train again arrived on time. I sat down. Once again, the trip south took four hours. This time, though, it made it all the way into Grand Central. I engaged a pay telephone (this was pre-cell phone days), called the office and discovered it was, once again, closed!


Once again, I was double lucky. A train was set to depart momentarily, and I had secured a seat. Once again, four hours later it pulled into White Plains. Once again, I had spent more than a full work day commuting in the snow.


 This time, I came to the realization that snow was God’s way of telling me to slow down, that even in pre-Internet times work could be done at home just as easily as in the office. I soon garnered my well-deserved reputation for taking a snow day for anything more than a dusting.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Land of My Family's Past

Have you ever wondered what the neighborhoods where your parents lived their formative years, looked like? It is an especially poignant question to anyone whose parents, like mine, immigrated from another country, be it to escape hardship or oppression, or simply to seek a new life in a land considered to have more robust opportunities.


My mother left Lodz (Łódź), Poland’s second largest pre-World War II Jewish community, before she was four. Subsequently, Lodz meant very little to her and so engendered little fascination in me. Traveling with her mother, brother and two sisters to reunite with her father in New York, Sylvia Gerson arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 shortly before a more restrictive immigration policy for southern and eastern Europeans went into effect.


The family lived in The Bronx, eventually moving to an apartment on the Grand Concourse, the height of 1930s sophistication, said to be “the Park Avenue of middle-class Bronx residents.” Her father owned a successful jewelry store.


I’ve driven that broad-lined thoroughfare many times, but, not knowing her address, never stopped in front of her building.


My father’s history, on the other hand, imbedded in me a curiosity about his hometown shtetl of Ottynia and his early adult years in Danzig from where Kopel Fürsetzer emigrated to New York in January 1939.


I’ve come to know facets of life in Ottynia from a benevolent association of Ottynia immigrants (of which Kopel was a long-time president), from pamphlets with pictures produced by several members, and from a few of my father’s family photographs.


Often, when one thinks of a shtetl one conjures up images of pious bearded Jews with curled sideburns. To be sure, Ottynia had its share of Hasidim. A famous rabbinic dynasty and its adherents, the Viznitz Hasidim, came from there. They now are a major sect living in Israel in Bnai Brak outside Tel Aviv.


Ottynia was much more than an Anatevka-like village. It had a thriving cohort of young, athletic looking men and women organized by several Zionist groups.


Visually, Ottynia is mostly a mystery to me. When my family toured several Eastern European cities in 2008 I entertained the idea of an unscheduled trip over the Ukrainian border (Ottynia was removed from Polish jurisdiction after World War II), but our guide in Krakow advised against it.

  

A few years ago I came across two 2013 YouTube posts by a New Jersey dentist who visited Ottynia. It was, he reported, more backward than before the war. 


Still, I would have liked to see it. I also would have liked to walk the cobblestoned streets of Danzig (now called Gdansk) where my father spent nearly a decade and a half. He spoke very little of that time, perhaps because it coincided with the rise of Naziism there. Though Danzig was called a “free city,” neither part of Poland or Germany, its population was overwhelmingly German. The government instituted repressive laws against Jews similar to what Hitler enacted in Germany. 


Perhaps Danzig might also have reminded Kopel of the first love of his life, Dora, who did not leave with him for America because she felt obligated to go with her parents to Australia.


My paternal thoughts, or is patrimonial a more apt word?, are prompted because Tuesday The New York Times ran a story on a 70-minute documentary that expands on three minutes of film taken in 1938 in a different shtetl outside Warsaw. Three minutes was all that could be salvaged from a full reel of video of a visit to the ancestral home of the filmmaker (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/movies/three-minutes-a-lengthening-documentary.html?smid=em-share).


And, more importantly, my fascination with the past is heightened because today, January 5, is my father’s birth date. Either in 1911 or 1912 (in a previous blog I explained why the year is unknown: http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2012/01/marking-birthday.html). 


Monday, January 3, 2022

Tower Tour Turns into Power Memorial Memory

One never knows when your past will become current conversation. Case in point: While waiting early Sunday afternoon for a tour of the Highbridge Water Tower in upper Manhattan to begin, Gilda and I struck up a conversation with another attendee, a slightly younger retired New York City fireman.


We got to talking about our respective high schools. Kevin attended Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan; Gilda, Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn; myself, Yeshivah of Flatbush, also in Brooklyn. From that trio of educational edifices I related a story that united a Catholic high school, a public high school and a Jewish high school into a once in a lifetime experience. 


During Gilda’s and my high school years (1962-67), Erasmus and Power Memorial dominated their respective school basketball leagues. Power Memorial’s dominance could be traced to one player, Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who graduated in 1965. During his years on the Panther varsity, Power Memorial three-peated as the 1963-64-65 New York City Catholic school basketball champions. 


All of his games drew frenzied crowds. Everyone wanted to watch the near seven-footer play. Power Memorial had a hard time finding quality scrimmage opponents, an even harder time finding neutral courts that wouldn’t turn every game into a media event or a riot scene. To be sure, Madison Square Garden for a short span stopped hosting high school games after a melee broke out following a game (not involving Power Memorial) in 1964. 


Enter Bernie Kirsner, coach of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Falcons, but more importantly, for this story at least, also coach of the Erasmus Hall High School Dutchmen, a basketball powerhouse in its own right, New York City public school champions in 1965 and second in 1966. 


Kirsner had a keen eye for talent. It was he who cut short my basketball career, not even granting me a spot on Flatbush’s junior varsity squad. He saw right away I couldn’t dribble and drive to the basket. In all truthfulness, my jump shot wasn’t too dependable back then, either (current friends would no doubt say it ain’t too accurate these day, as well—better for me to say it than let them have the satisfaction). 


A few months into 1965 Kirsner arranged for Power Memorial to play Erasmus on a neutral court—the gym of the recently opened new building of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School on Avenue J. Date, time and location of the game were kept secret so that students of both schools could not attend. 


So secret, in fact, that Flatbush students also were not aware of the momentous game to take place in their building until players—really tall players—from both teams started filtering into the school. 


The afternoon of the game only Flatbush students could gain entry into the gym. My classmates even shared the locker room with Alcindor as he dressed for the game. They said he was “really big,” in more ways than one, if you get what I mean. They said the game was great fun to watch, really competitive.


They said a lot more, but as you might have noticed by now, I keep deferring to what my friends said rather than giving my own version of the event. That’s because I wasn’t there—I cut school that day. Wasn’t sick. Just cut school. Who knew I would choose to cut school the one day I could have watched Lew Alcindor up close and for free?


Years later, Gilda and I watched the now Abdul-Jabbar play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. After the game we saw him walking on Seventh Avenue. Gilda remarked how tall he was (7’2”), that she could probably walk through his legs without hitting her head. Recalling what my friends said some 10 years earlier, I suggested that probably couldn’t happen.


You might also have noticed I didn’t relate to Kevin, nor to you the reader, who won the scrimmage. I simply did not remember as I was not there in person. There’s no Internet file of the game to search—secrecy apparently still prevails—but I did query several of my school mates who sat in the bleacher seats. They reported it was a close game ultimately won by Power Memorial. 


The Internet did come to the rescue in my need to let Kevin know the winner. I hadn’t asked for his email or phone number. Actually, I didn’t even ask his name. He had said he was a retired fireman who lived in Valley Stream and that he was in the Power Memorial alumni association that remained active despite the school closing down in 1984. 


With that information I sent an explanatory note to the president of the alumni association Sunday afternoon asking for help in identifying my tour pal. By 8 pm Kevin was identified and in the loop.


Back to the Tour: The Highbridge Water Tower was a critical part of the clean water supply system that enabled Manhattan to increase its population in the last third of the 19th century. Built in 1866-1872, the near 200-foot tower is located off Amsterdam Avenue and 174th Street. 


Below the tower is the High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge. The High Bridge was part of the Old Croton Aqueduct system. Water would flow under the paved walkway linking The Bronx to Manhattan. The majestic  arches support the bridge over the Harlem River (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Bridge_(New_York_City). 


For several years Gilda and I have explored parts of the Old Croton Aqueduct, taking guided informational miles-long walks above the buried pipeline in both Westchester County and New York City. We highly recommend these free excursions organized by the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (https://aqueduct.org/about-friends).