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July 2003

The Skunk

I'm taking some tired pleasure in watching the Bush administration squirm over this Iraq uranium thing. For a while, I did my patriotic duty and blogged nearly every day on the new idiocy and dishonesty, the sheer low cunning, of our current regime. But after a while, it began to get really depressing. I found myself unable to get very interested in new incursions on civil liberties, new lies and political outrages, etc. It's not that I didn't care anymore. It was more like having a dead skunk in the house with you. For a while, you are really upset by the smell. But after a while, even if it begins to smell worse and worse, you notice less and less.

I'm going to drag my attention back to the skunk and say something I've been thinking for a while and have been keeping to myself. I think the men behind the curtains of the Bush administration are loathsome political strategists rather than Bush's cabinet; that the decision to invade Iraq was made by strategist before Bush had even become the Republican nominee; that control of oil is not the ultimate reason we invaded, though this prospect was probably used to get funding for the campaign. Out with it: I think the real reason for the Iraq invasion was so that Bush could be a wartime president because, as a wartime president, he would be politically invincible, and maybe his anointed successor would be invincible, too, if they could just keep this up.

I don't want to go research this or serve up heaping tablespoons of links that might convince you. (if I'm right, the real evidence is more deeply buried than I'll ever find.) Rather, this image has been visible to me in the mist for a while and I thought I'd finally share it.

If I'm right, impeachment would be too light a penalty. This would be a matter for a war crimes tribunal: one does not go to war, killing thousands, in order to win elections. But that is indeed what I think has happened.

Greetings from Readercon

So we did all get in the car yesterday and head on down the road despite all. We stopped for dinner and celebrated David's 62nd birthday, arriving at the convention hotel at about 10:30 last night. The kids, up way past their bedtime, bounced off the walls for about an hour before we could get them to go to sleep. I was worried that we might be disturbing the people in the next room. But this morning we discovered that the next room is occupied by Jim Freund and friends and that they didn't hear a thing.

There is a high speed Internet connection in the room and a decent pool downstairs. I have fantasies of relaxing in the sauna, but will have to wait until someone else can take the kids for that.

The convention has not yet started. Registration is setting up and Graham Selight and a friend of his are helping David set up in the dealers room. David's not allowed to lift cartons yet, but has recruited help setting up.

ReaderCon Looms

ReaderCon looms large in the headlights. It is one of my favorite conventions, yet right now the possibility of the family and all the luggage making their way to the car by the end of the afternoon tomorrow seems small.

A pile of wood chips in the driveway beckons. Chappaqua Chipmunks Tree Service has graciously given me a new batch to apply to the play surface in the circle of stumps. But I have to get them out of the driveway and into the woods.

Right now it's 70 degrees and 100% humidity. Later it will be much hotter, but it will still be very humid.

The Fire Santa

Today is crazy hat day at Peter's camp. He created his crazy hat this morning by putting a Santa hat on top of a fire helmet. The effect is striking: seemingly, the hat worn by the Fire Santa who goes to fires and brings people presents.

It's supposed to get very hot and humid today. I expect this afternoon and evening will be a challenge.

David has taken the train into Manhattan for the first time since his angioplasty.

Logistical Challenges

I was going to write about how I can't seem to plan my way out of a paper bag today and how concentrating on making things work only seems to make them worse. Then I got a phone call which revealed that what I thought was a significant blunder on my part turned out to be a medical emergency on someone elses's part (nothing too terrible -- a bad rash resulting from a newly purchased pair of pants). This call was reassuring after an embarassing slip-up earlier that was clearly and entirely my fault.

I did not sleep well last night, and a personal logistical collapse seemed like a direct outgrowth of this. I need to find some inner peace (and perhaps get used to sleeping through heat and humidity).

Nonetheless, I've had a pleasant day. David and I (with Elizabeth in tow) had lunch with Paul Park at a Pleasantville restaurant we'd never eaten at before. (Elizabeth got her first taste of squid.)

Yesterday, I got Peter's Fun Ride set up in his circle of stumps. It is one of the traditional backyard recreations: a trolley you hang from on a wire between two trees. So far, I give it favorable marks. However, given my level of manual dexterity, I found it a bit hard to set up. I kept losing little parts in the woodchips down there.

It's been pleasant weather, but a storm system is moving in: it's getting dark out rather quickly and I hear distant thunder. And now the rain has come. There is a severe thunder storm watch on for the next two hours.

Dumbo the Octopus

Peter has a fever today and so is spending the day watching the BBC series Blue Planet: Seas of Life on DVD, which I highly recommend. We haven't seen it all yet. But so far, the best episode is The Deep which features amazing footage from the deep sea chimney vent ecologies and a strange underwater lake (a methane-based ecology deep enough to be beyond the reach of sunlight).

Peter's favorite creature is the dumbo octopus. Click on the link to see whay it's called that.

Architectural Fictions: Welcome to the future, Kid. How would you like to live here?

Searching to see if Usonia, the utopian development a mile from here, had a web site, I came across a bit of speculative fiction I would otherwise have missed: eight stories inspired by architecture in Metropolis Magazine's Fiction Issue (January 2003), including stories by Yxta Maya Murray, Karen E. Steen, Kurt Andersen, Karrie Jacobs, Bruce Sterling, Thomas Beller, Rick Moody, John Hockenberry.

I'm still chuckling over the bit of dialog which serves as the last line of the Sterling story: Welcome to the future, Kid. How would you like to live here?

MEANWHILE, Ferag NicBride and Charles Stross have posted their wedding pictures. (The bride wore purple.) Congratulations!

Bad News in Batches

I discovered from reading Teresa Nielsen Hayden's weblog, Making Light, this morning that Kevin Maroney's 41 year-old brother Tim Maroney collapsed in the shower yesterday and died. Our condolences to Kevin and his family. Kevin is a good friend, a frequent visitor to our house, and a member of the NYRSF staff.

The final post on Tim's weblog is quite unsettling. He apparently could tell that something was wrong with him but couldn't tell what.

Also, we heard yesterday from Caitlin Blasdell that she is back in Pleasantville, home early from vacation because of a car accident. Caitlin was taking her son Will out for ice cream when it happened. Will is fine, but Caitlin suffered a broken pelvis, is in considerable discomfort, and will be on crutches for at least 6 weeks.

Also, the Pleasantville branch of Chase Bank was robbed Monday, as was (I'm told) the candy store next door. A friend of ours was in the bank moments before. David is in that bank several times a week. The bank and candy store are in the part of Pleasantville Peter refers to as his "favorite part of town." We encountered one of the policemen investigating yesterday afternoon, who said he'd been working so much he hadn't seen his family in three days.

David continues to improve and recover, but I find myself a bit paranoid about his health, since I never had a chance to get really upset about the clogged coronary artery until it had been stented.

Old Farm Hill Park

Old Farm Hill Park is around the corner on the other side of the block on Old Farm Road South. At the time of the Mt. Pleasant 1970 Comprehensive Master Plan, the park was 6.1 acres earmarked for a playground, with the possibility of buying additional acreage (which the town did) to provide for a playfield. It is now 22 acres, but remains undeveloped. The land has frontage on Old Farm Road about the width of a house lot, plus a road-width bit of frontage one house further. The rest of the 22 acres is surrounded by the backs of people's back yards.

When David and his first wife moved into this house in the mid-1970s, it was possible to go for walks in the park. As nearly as I can tell, it is former farmland, gradually being reclaimed by forest and underbrush. Three years ago, when I tried to find my way in to have a look at the park as a possible place for nature walks, I found it heavily overgrown with briars. Also, the road frontage is quite steep, leading immediately into a marshy area. So the main frontage of the park is a quite treacherous way to enter. I've looked at the parks department's topo maps. The road strip is a much gentler way in. However, it is overgrown with chest-height underbrush at present. So for me, this park is, in it's current form, quite unusable.

This does not mean that it isn't being used. For one thing, I'm sure that it is heavy used by the local deer population. This sounds like a good thing, but we are on the main deerpath and so not only do the deer eat most things we might wish to plant in the yard, but they carry deer ticks which carry Lyme Disease. This household has had three (all serious) cases of Lyme disease. So even though deer are pretty, we are not big fans.

Also, I'm told by the head if the parks department that there are bike trails and such immediately in back of the adjacent houses. So, to some extent, neighborhood children use, or have used, at least the outside edges. Also, a number of the houses adjacent the park are of the type that have a big front yard, providing the estate-style entry, combined with a small back yard. The undeveloped park contributes to the illusion of an estate by giving the sense that the homeowner is the master of all he surveys. So this undeveloped park is used, after a fashion, but only by people with adjacent yards.

It's perimeters are entailed in much the same way as the shoreline of Tercia Lake, the nearby lake I mentioned in yesterday's post. However, Old Farm Hill Park is public land, paid for by the taxes of town residents.

Why has it remained undeveloped? I don't know the deep history of it, however I do know that when Peter was a newborn, we got a little flyer in our mailbox from a group promoting the idea of putting a small walk-to only playground in Old Farm Hill Park. Before the group had even had time to present a formal proposal, the people with homes adjacent the park rose up and mobbed a town council meeting, angrily shouting that they did not want the park developed.

What I'm given to understand is that they had two main objections:

(1) Increased traffic on Old Farm Road South. This is a legitimate objection, given that there are no sidewalks on Old Farm Road South. The overall safety of that road would be improved by the addition of sidewalks, even if there were a developed park.

(2) Adjacent residents wanted to retain their woodland views. Nothing in the meek proposal by a group of local mothers would have interfered with the views of any of the parks' neighbors, especially since they weren't even proposing that a road in be built. Nonetheless, the owners of illusory estates fought hard to preserve the illusion. From their perspective any development of the park was a potential threat.

Several years ago, I went over the topological map with the head of the parks department. The park is actually large enough that one could have a playground and several baseball fields in it without interfering with the views of adjacent neighbors.

For now, the park remains undeveloped.

PETER QUOTE OF THE DAY: Peter, watching WALKING WITH CAVEMEN, says Mommy, one of our ancestors just ate a tarantula!

Wild Turkeys

A family of wild turkeys walked through our yard. It's the first time we've seen them in this area. There were two adults and five chicken-sized turkey chicks.

I had wanted to continue on with the discussion of my neighborhood this morning, but my writing time just isn't working out this morning. The next topic will be the park on the other side of the block. Maybe later today.

A Town of Mini-Rockefellers

My post of yesterday has received a fair amount of favorable attention, and there is certainly more to say on this subject, so I will continue.

The particular development we live in was built in the late 1950s. A few years ago, I talked to a man, probably in his late 40s, who had grown up in this neighborhood as it was when first built. He told me that there used to be a sledding run from our uphill neighbor's yard, across ours, across our downhill neighbor's yard, and almost to the street. All the neighborhood kids used to use it. He told me that this went on until the former owners of our house built a pool, thus blocking the sledding run. (The pool was built in 1967 and rotted out about 10 years ago.) I was quite struck by this tale, perhaps even a little shocked.

I had assumed that the isolation of neighborhood children in their own yards was simply a function of the lack of sidewalks and the 1 acre lots. But clearly, other social forces were at work. The children in this neighborhood as of the time I heard this story (4 years ago) would never behave like that. Property lines had been made too meaningful.

What has changed? When these houses were built, they were surrounded by open fields. There was a beautiful lake you could walk to. (It's about 800 ft. from our property line; David's son Geoff, now 26, who grew up in this house, says he's never seen the lake.) There was an estate in ruins where there were the foundations of an estate house one could explore.

Children have very different ideas about real estate than adults. For children, any unclaimed open space is potentially the commons. Open space that doesn't have a KEEP OUT sign and that adults aren't using can become the commons. So, first off, this neighborhood had, I'd guess, about 30 - 40 acres of commons available to children, encompassing forest, streams, meadows, ponds and a lake, and ruins. On the street itself, there was very little traffic, since this would have been a dead end in those days. (There's still very little traffic, since we are not on the way anywhere. But much of what traffic exists comes in the form of heavy delivery and service trucks.) Over the 70s and 80s, the surrounding houses were built and people refocused their children's attention on backyard utopias with patios, pools, and playstructures.

The new houses that were built were bigger and fancier. Most of the neighborhood is built on 1 acre lots. Many of the newer houses, though on the same size lots, have a bigger setback from the street (so they have extremely long driveways) and smaller back yards. They are built as mini-estates. I have a copy of the Town Plan for Mt. Pleasant from the 1970s -- our mailing address is Pleasantville, but we live in the Town of Mt. Pleasant which also encompasses part of the Rockefeller estate. The town plan promotes the 1 acre yard as what should be the standard. It also spends more wordage on how the Rockefellers will do as they please with their land than it does on housing for the elderly. The subtext of the plan is that this area was intended to house many mini-Rockefellers on little private estates. On the other side of the block, where there are only fences visible through the woods, the estates are not so mini: immense houses on 10 acre parcels with key-card entrances. There is a playstructure in one of those yards, though I have never contacted them to ask if their kids want to play with mine. I don't expect I ever will.

Given that the idea was for us all to be mini-Rockefellers, the roads and placement of the houses are optimized to emulate the look of estate driveways, not for convenient pedestrian traffic from house to house. Trick-or-treating around here is exhausting. Many nearly streets don't go through in order that we not be on the way somewhere, which is fine. But no pedestrian traffic is provided for. A house two houses away with a child Peter's age is either a short hike through a patch of poison ivy, or it is a 3.3 mile drive. Poison ivy grows on disturbed land. When new houses are built, poison ivy grows around the periphery.

I have to stop now and wake up Peter so I can drive him 13 miles up to Bedford Village for art camp. Perhaps I'll continue this thread tomorrow.

MEANWHILE, one of the praying mantis egg cases has hatched out and we have several hundred baby mantids on hand. (One egg case remains unhatched.)

Why Sidewalks?

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Patrick Nielsen Hayden says "I actually wish you'd spell out your argument about family values and sidewalks." A few years ago, I was all upset about this and capable of long rants, but I feel a bit beaten down on this subject, since not many people in this area seem to see the lack of sidewalks as the serious problem I perceive it to be. I married into this place. Most of the rest of the people moved out here because they actually thought it was a good idea to live this way.

When people complain about the unwalkablility of suburbs, they usually point to unnecessary gasoline consumption or specific details, such as Americans becoming fatter because they don't walk anymore.

I approach this topic from a pragmatic and functional standpoint. I live in Pleasantville, NY, one of the places the suburbs were invented. Readers Digest's historic move to our town was one of the things that set the new idea of the suburbs in motion. Also, we are about a mile from Frank Lloyd Wright & co.'s development, Usonia. We live in the kind of suburb people move to "for the kids." We have an excellent school system, fine libraries, and beautiful, well-equipped parks.

Yes, I will drive an enormous car over 60 miles today to get Peter where he needs to go. Summer camp has begun. If you see children in their own yard during summer camp hours, it's like seeing a racoon out in daylight -- it means they're sick; don't go close. Children are trucked away every weekday morning in the summer and don't return until late afternoon.

Two summers ago, I did a lot of work in the yard. I watched all summer and never saw an unaccompanied child walk down our street. Many adults walk for exercise. But those gentle suburban curves in the street hamper visibility. Many yards have shrubbery that grows into the street. And, of course, there are no sidewalks. Why don't kids walk down the street? Although there is very little traffic, to walk safely, you have to zigzag across the street.

We have an interesting swamp behind our house. The only child other than my own that I have ever observed exploring it isn't from around here. He lives in Scottland and his grandfather lives up the street. Poison ivy and Lyme disease reinforce the general suburban tendencies, so kids stay in their own yards until mommy can drive them somewhere. They do this until they are old enough to drive.

When Peter was born, there were several families with children close by, but they never crossed property lines. Playdates came in cars by appointment. Kids played in their own yards in the center of the grass on wooden playstructures. All of those families have moved away and have been replaced by other families. As each new family has moved in, I have encouraged the idea of spontaneity, of children crossing property lines, and with good results. Slowly, things are changing.

What is the impact of the lack of sidewalks on a neighborhood? It removes most of the social supports for both mothers and children. Know any teenaged baby sitters? I don't. Want someone to play with? Mom will make a few phone calls and see what she can set up for Tuesday of next week. And it gets scary when there's an actual emergency if you don't know anyone nearby. I've shovelled snow with pneumonia because I didn't know what else to do. I've taken an infant along when I went to the emergency room, since there was nothing else I could do. Neighborhoods without sidewalks are stripped of a lot of basic supports for family life because people do not know one another and do not regularly interact.

So, other than the very cumbersome institution of "playdates," how do children have friends? Parents sign the kids up for activities. The lack of sidewalks strips the neighborhood of one of its basic functions, which is then sold back to us at a premium price. How do people find baby sitting? Many have live-in baby sitters or regular sitters charging $12/hour or more. I can't hire random teenagers I don't know, and since I have no network for knowing them, I pay experienced adults with many references. This means that at home, I don't get out much in the evening. Similarly, all other functions that might emerge from cooperative effort within a neighborhood are subcontracted. Running a household around here up to local standards amounts to managing a complex network of subcontractors. (Some even contract out the putting up of Christmas decorations.)

Parents can drive and can subcontract, but children can't. They live strangely isolated and over-supervised lives with little autonomy or opportunity for exploration. (I have thought of nominating poison ivy as the official plant of Westchester County, since it seems to me an icon of isolating greenery.) I can't quite imagne growing up this way, and yet my children are.

What has all this to do with family values? A functioning family is not a discrete nuclear entity. Rather, it functions within a community, and stripped of it neighborhood supports it is much less functional. Supporting the family means supporting the neighborhood, and neighborhoods are much more likely to function properly if they have sidewalks.

Does the lack of sidewalks contribute to divorce and the breakdown of families? I think it does, though I know of no statistical evidence one way or another.

Why are neighborhoods built without sidewalks? Because sidewalks are expensive and contractors are allowed by municipalities to get away with building developments without. We shouln't allow them to do that, but increasingly the suburban neighborhood without sidewalks is the shape of American life.

PETER'S THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Why don't apes have playdates?

That simple question is in its way quite profound and resonates nicely with my post of this morning. (I did explain to him that we are apes. But he meant all the rest of the apes.)