French Creek State Park, Phoenixville, PA

This is the third in my series state park reviews (see entries from June 3, 2017 and June 14, 2018). These are my perspectives on camping:

  • I’m a car/tent camper.
  • I camp with a group, ranging up to 35 people on, say, 10 sites.
  • My group is multigenerational.

Thanks, JM, for selecting French Creek and getting us organized!

I camped at French Creek several times in the past, and I’ve sometimes lauded it as “State Park Heaven”. Yes, it really is THAT GOOD! I first awarded that accolade when my kids were small. Instead of beach swimming, French Creek offers a pool. It’s big and beautifully designed, with lots of shallow water where kids play happily. The pool area is surrounded by grass and then a fence, decreasing the chance of a child wandering off. (Camping with kids poses ALL KINDS of challenges, but is usually worth it.) Because of the pool, those camping trips were the only times I ever brought kids home CLEAN. Wow!

We’ve never used a “group” campsite. They don’t have flush toilets. ‘Nuff said…

This year we were located on a “pet friendly” campsite loop, which made sense. Some years, our group has included dogs, maxing out at SEVEN one time! As it happened, none this year. Many of the sites near us had electrical hookups, which means (for the uninitiated) that campers could power up their huge, giant RV campers and go wild, enjoying all the comforts of home (air conditioning, sound systems, etc.) We felt out of touch with the surrounding culture, which included a light show projected up into the trees, and, on one site, a four by six foot screen showing NATURE SPECIALS. Like WILD PLANET. No kidding.

A camper always worries a little about noise, especially in the morning. Which will it be – children, dogs, rap music, someone who can’t resist chopping wood? No wood chopping this year, and babies/children not a problem. But the dogs! The first morning we heard only the occasional bark. But the second morning ONE DOG disrupted us repeatedly beginning around 6:30. My husband described it as the William Tell Overture of Barking, and began fantasizing about the Lizzie Borden school of conflict resolution. We restrained ourselves. So did everyone else! The third morning, all was quiet.

I offer the following advice to those who camp with dogs: if you can’t quiet your pet in the early hours, put it in the car and GO AWAY. Drive to the nearest Wawa, buy a coffee and CHILL. Come back after 8 am. Or put your dog on a leash and take a long walk. Be a good neighbor! (Goodness, I once resorted to putting my CHILD in the stroller and taking a 6 am walk…)

So what’s good about French Creek in addition to the pool? There are so many miles of well marked trails. And next door is Hopewell Village National Historic Site, both educational and entertaining.

We were thrilled to learn that the Natural Lands Trust has opened a new area near the French Creek called Crow’s Nest Preserve, with MORE trails and abundant natural wonders. Pennsylvania offers so many opportunities to be outdoors that, even on a peak weekend, you generally don’t feel crowded.

The final benefit is that French Creek is only two hours from home, and the trip takes us against the current of shore traffic. Easy!

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Childhood Fears – The Bomb, Driver’s Ed and Amtrak

My corner of the internet is busy debating the impact of “active shooter” drills and other safety measures on the mental health of children. One author asked if any other generation of American children has known so much fear. Symptoms of anxiety are becoming widespread.

I remember my fear of The Bomb. I was born in 1949. By the time I was in elementary school, the Cold War was in full swing. The arms race was hot. By age 8, I participated in “flash drills”. I was taught to “duck and cover”, but it wasn’t at all clear what that meant. Protect the back of my neck? When the local emergency siren sounded it’s weekly test (noon on Saturday), I flopped down with my face in the grass with my arms protecting my head. I wasn’t frightened.

Things gradually ramped up. I lived near Hartford, Connecticut, and I was told Hartford was probably a nuclear target because of an aircraft factory (Pratt and Whitney). I knew that bombs were delivered by airplanes, so the air traffic in and out of Hartford’s Bradley Field and along the northeast corridor frightened me. Then I was told that the planes that delivered bombs were up so high that we wouldn’t hear them. This didn’t exactly help. I was afraid of invisible radiation.

Things came to a head one day. My mother was cooking dinner using the pressure cooker. (Nothing like having a bomb in your kitchen.) The valve got blocked. Fortunately there was a safety valve, which popped loose. The escaping steam made a loud, horrible, screeching, completely unfamiliar metal-on-metal sound. Assuming we had been bombed, I panicked and headed for the basement at a dead run. My mother intercepted me, explained the problem in the kitchen and helped me settle down. I’m lucky. No one mocked me. I’ve shared this as a funny story from my childhood. But it wasn’t funny.

We lived with fear. My parents, survivors of the Depression and World War II, didn’t tell us everything was going to be okay.

How did I “get over” my fear? I learned denial! Hey, we all use it. If we really thought about all the things that can go wrong in life, none of us would get out of bed. Surely we wouldn’t get into automobiles or airplanes. Not today, we tell ourselves. Not in my town. Not me. I first utilized denial the summer I was eleven. I was going to Girl Scout camp for two weeks. It’s hard to explain how happy and excited I was! And I thought “The Russians won’t drop the bomb while I’m at camp.” So I forgot about it, set it aside, and went off to spend two weeks in a tent. It was great. What’s wrong with denial, if it makes it possible to live with something you can’t change?  I knew perfectly well nothing had actually changed between the US and Russia.

I remember the controversy, when I was in high school, over gory auto accident movies. My high school offered Driver’s Education. Some movies went to extremes – showing decapitation, etc. Some teachers insisted everyone had to watch all the blood and guts. Other teachers allowed some students to be excused. I don’t remember the details. I wonder what is current practice. I do know there’s some educational research that may help those who make these decisions. Does putting a wrecked car in which a young person died in front of the high school reduce that chance of prom night tragedies? I wish I knew.

Here’s another experience I want to share, from the perspective not of a child but of a parent. The threat in question was train safety. Amtrak, understandably, wants to keep people (especially children) OFF THE TRACKS. One of their approaches (early 1990s) was to show a safety movie, and one target captive audience was children in schools near train tracks, most of which are not fenced. (Never mind that NO child in our town crossed a track to walk to school.) My son was traumatized. The movie was very upsetting. As a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to see the film, and, yes, it was shocking. After some general safety discussion (don’t walk on the tracks, look both ways if you must cross), the film showed two children on the tracks. One has boasted that he will stand on the tracks until the train “almost” hits him. Another child tries to pull him off. With a roar and screaming whistle, the train thunders toward them and the screen goes black. I’ll bet my son wasn’t the only child to get upset.

A school shooting is a different type of threat. Parents and teachers are straining themselves to the utmost figuring out how to help and protect today’s children.

So much to consider… children need to learn train safety, fire safety, pedestrian safety, and now, some things about firearms. Our responsibility as adults is to protect children and, over time, teach them to protect themselves. It’s not easy.

We all experience fear. Parents and educators face incredibly difficult decisions. We need to talk.

We are all in this together. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

Riley C Howell, age 21 – Rest in Peace

On April 30, Riley Howell charged a gunman in a classroom at University of North Carolina/Charlotte. He was shot point blank. His action undoubtedly saved lives. The toll was two deaths and four injured.

The graduation picture released by Howell’s family is heartbreaking. Howell radiates happy energy. He is described as a fearless athlete who loved a challenge.

Why did he charge the shooter? Did he expect to die? We won’t ever know.

In my reading, I encountered someone who might offer insight. Frank Delaney’s book Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea describes an incident that happened in 1951 in the north Atlantic. Delaney recounts that when Captain Kurt Carlsen had safely evacuated all crew and passengers off  his disabled bulk cargo ship Flying Enterprise, a young sailor/radio operator jumped from a tug boat to the foundering ship. Why? The risk was extreme. He didn’t know Carlsen. Possibly Carlsen would have survived without him. Together, for two weeks, they struggled to salvage the crippled ship, finally leaving it just before it sank.

I wonder what we could learn, if it was possible to speak to that radio operator. (Not having the book in my hand, I don’t know what he said, if anything.) If he is living, he would be at least 90 years old. My review of Simple Courage can be found in this blog dated April 22, 2014. (Interestingly, Amazon’s web site includes a review of Simple Courage by Senator John McCain, who found the book “absorbing, thrilling and inspirational…”)

Howell’s loved ones can frame this however they choose, remember him as a hero or regret his split second decision or both. Their lives will never be the same. My heart aches for them.

Before I could even post this, another tragic death has occurred, of a high school student in Colorado, in similar circumstances.

“I, Eliza Hamilton” by Susan H Scott and other books about Alexander Hamilton

I, Eliza Hamilton

I feel like I’m sneaking up on Alexander Hamilton.

I tried to read Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton (2005) but got bogged down. I may return to it. I “accidentally” listened to The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-178” (2007) by Robert Middlekauf, part of the Oxford History of the United States. (On a long family road trip, the driver gets to choose the recorded book, and even when interested, I sometimes doze off.) I haven’t watched the musical Hamilton, or even heard the sound track.

I accepted I, Eliza Hamilton from an historical fiction enthusiast. Conflict of interest right there…  I ask the usual question…why fictionalize an interesting and fairly well documented life? I guess some people just HAVE to have dialogue! And they can’t accept that there are questions that can’t be answered. Did Hamilton marry for money and social status?

My opinion about Scott’s book? So so. Romanticized. Sentimental. But I kept reading. Call it a C+/B-.

What I really want to understand about Hamilton (and American society at that time) was the role of dueling. Scott (in her discussion notes) says Hamilton was involved in ELEVEN duels or threatened duels. She is the first author I have read to raise the possibility that duelists did not always shoot to kill. (Their weapons were of poor quality and most were bad shots.) What was the nature of the “honor” being defended in these encounters? If, as I have read elsewhere, dueling (which was illegal or severely frowned upon) was an alternate dispute resolution system, did this reflect a flaw in the laws and courts that might better have handled the disputes? What kept dueling from spiraling down into blood feud?

Guess I better keep reading.

 

“The Wives of Los Alamos – A Novel” by TaraShea Nesbit

For me, the name “Los Alamos” triggers a cold shiver. This remote New Mexico location (it wasn’t a town) is where the World War II Manhattan Project was moved in order to build the first atomic bombs.

Who were these wives? They were married to scientists and engineers, often academics, hence enjoyed middle class or higher socioeconomic status. Many were young. They were told almost nothing about Los Alamos in advance. The ultimate answer to any question was “the war”. You are doing this for the war effort. Someone, somewhere, decided that, if a few hundred scientists were going to isolated for months or years, they needed some semblance of normal family life. But once the work was underway, the scientists labored behind locked gates ten or more hours per day, and could not speak a word about their activities to their wives and children.

Nesbit has not written a conventional narrative, using a looser approach which offers several versions of every situation. No one woman is followed through the three year period covered by the book.

For example, Nesbitt writes about the (often hasty) marriages that preceded the deployment to Los Alamos (p. 37):

Our brothers said we looked like movie stars, like angels, like ourselves, like ourselves but prettier, like our mothers. Or our brothers were late to our weddings because they were taking the office candidate exam. Or our brothers were not there to see us wed – they were in a bunker in Europe, they were at Army gunnery school. They were Navy bombers, and on our wedding day the newspaper reported: A Navy patrol plane with ten men aboard has been unreported since it took off on a routine training flight Friday and it is presumed lost in the Gulf, and we did not hear from our brothers on our wedding day, or the next week, or the next.

Using this approach, no experience is offered as “definitive”.

I knew a little bit about Los Alamos because my dear friends Libby and Charlie Marsh were among the residents. Charlie was a physicist. (He saw the scientists as being distinct from the engineers on the Project.) I don’t believe he was drafted. Scientists were brought into the military through other pipelines. I wish I had asked Libby and Charlie more questions. Both are deceased.

Nesbitt’s accounts of the experimental Trinity test (first nuclear explosion) and the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are particularly intense.

How could we not have known? How could we not have fully known? In retrospect, there were maybe more hints than we cared to let ourselves consider: back in Chicago, our husband’s colleague told us, Don’t be afraid of becoming a widow; if your husband blows up, you will, too…Did we turn away from the clues because our questions would be met with silence? Or because in some deep way, we did not want to know?

Or perhaps we knew this might happen all along, but we never wanted to admit it.

I highly recommend this book. Understanding the experiences of my parents’ generation isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

Medical Aid in Dying – Sad Victory

Another trip to Trenton. (See my posts of  February 12 and 21 of 2019.) On March 25, both the New Jersey Senate and Assembly voted on a bill to allow a doctor to prescribe lethal medication for self administration by a mentally competent adult having (in the opinion of two doctors) less than six months to live. Polls show that 60% of New Jersey residents want this change in our law.

How did I spend my day? I was one of perhaps 25 supporters working under the banner of a national organization called Compassion and Choices. We made our presence obvious by wearing the organization’s distinctive yellow t-shirts. Some of us carried signs.

Opponents to the legislation wore recognizable lapel badges. Who are they? (I can’t answer this in detail.) I think they are people who believe that medical science can control pain. Some are doctors. Some seem to be religiously/morally motivated – Catholics and (orthodox?) Jews. Most poignant, some are citizens with handicaps who fear that Aid in Dying will lead to involuntary euthanasia of people judged to be “defective”. It seems to me that this “slippery slope” argument requires very careful analysis, and the concerns of the handicapped must be scrupulously protected. In this territory, the public policy making is far from complete.

Initially we lurked in the crowded basement of the New Jersey State House Annex, wanting our support to be visible to the legislators. The noise and crowding were extreme. Sometimes the two sides of the Aid in Dying issue came face to face. I was walking up a ramp, supporting a lady much older and more frail than I am, both of us moving carefully. We came face to face with an opponent to our position, a huge man dressed in black whose argument consisted of “how can you possibly?…” and “every soul is sacred”. I slowed him slightly with “what about my right to make the decision to end my own pain?” or something like that. Then I handed him my one page statement (see previous post) and asked that he read it. The crowd pushed us apart.

Much was under consideration in Trenton on March 25…

  • medical marijuana
  • recreational marijuana
  • teachers’ benefits and salaries
  • high school football
  • driving rights?
  • dozens of obscure-to-me bills

We waited – in the corridor, the cafeteria, the two legislative chambers…

Compassion and Choices warned us that, in the legislative chambers, we would hear distressing statements, exaggerations, untruths… We were asked to stay calm and refrain from calling out (which violates the rules), although opponents might do so. Yes, all of that happened. It was hard. Procedural issues came up – we thought the Bill was tabled, which would have been bad, but suddenly it was back. Only one assembly person spoke with what I would call the “voice of reason”. I think almost all legislators were committed beforehand. And a few were waging a passionate battle in opposition.

After the vote, most of “the opposition” drifted away from us, but a young man took out his cell phone and announced that he wanted “pictures of the Nazis”. That’s what he called us. We tried to ignore him and shelter the woman he approached most closely, a fragile cancer patient. Somehow we all got out of there.

Looking at the smiles and high fives exchanged after the legislation passed first the Assembly and then the Senate, and at the pictures posted on social media, an observer think the pro-Aid in Dying group was happy about its victory. But underneath this was very profound sadness. Most of the supporters of Aid in Dying (based on my experience) are women who are or have been caregivers. In formal testimony, there were repeated references to “my husband”, “my mother”, “my sister”, “my best friend”. Most (but not all) of these loved ones suffered from cancer and experienced terrible pain. A few people were advocating on their own behalf, in anticipation of uncontrollable pain. Four (possibly more) members of our group are plainly seriously ill – three using oxygen, one in a wheel chair. They were among the more emotional of the participants. I talked with a composed and apparently healthy woman suffering from a rare genetic liver disorder. There is no treatment available. She is fortunate to even have a diagnosis. Her quality of life may deteriorate at any time. If that happens, she wants to choose the time of her own death.

I was relieved when the Governor signed the Bill into law. A few months will be required to set up regulations for implementation. How soon will this be an issue which is about ME? Or some dear friend? God grant me wisdom…

“Babel – Around the World in Twenty Languages” by Gaston Dorren

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

This book is so good I started to write about it when I was only halfway through! I’m not great about taking notes when reading for pleasure, and I didn’t want to forget some of the things that have made this book so much fun.

Gaston Dorren is not a native speaker of English. He lists Limburgish, the Dutch dialect of a province in Netherlands, as his first language. I remember that when I spent a summer in Netherlands, a friend described himself as a speaker of Sittardish, a dialect limited to a single city. For him, Dutch was a slightly formal language, studied in high school and used at the University and at work. Scientists, it seemed, spoke as much English as Dutch. I ended my months in the Netherlands with great affection for the people and their culture, and a tiny knowledge of (standard) Dutch.

In Babel, Dorren writes about twenty languages, use of which accounts for about fifty percent of the human population.  He starts by admitting there’s no way to count languages. How do you decide what is a dialect? We know (and regret) that languages have been lost. See my discussion of the indigenous western hemisphere language Potawatami, dated March 6, 2019.

But what else is going on? It is the nature of language to CHANGE! After all, this is a “blog”, a version of “social media”. Wouldn’t have made sense 20 years ago…

Dorren counts “second language speakers” when calculating which languages dominate the world scene. My life is full of second language speakers; both of my (native born) grandmothers, immigrants, students from overseas, friends from hither and yon. Each has learned English, and some have forgotten their original languages.

What I like best about this book is that, having chosen his twenty “big” languages, Dorren then discusses whatever interests him about each language – geography, politics, history, sociology, sounds, grammar…

He begins with Vietnamese, which has very few “second language” speakers. In other words, very few people study it. Despite his linguistic training, Dorren finds Vietnamese excruciatingly difficult!

Only one African language makes it into this book – Swahili. Dorren describes the African attitude towards language as very different from elsewhere. French, (British) English and (Mandarin) Chinese (to name a few) are very clearly defined by official bodies, and VERY resistant to change. Correct speech is valued. Not necessarily so in Africa! Almost anything goes! Most people speak several languages – mother tongue, a local language for school, maybe another for high school, a regional language, plus Swahili and/or a “world language”. Dorren describes Africans “storming the language barrier”, cheerfully using any common speech they can find, gesturing, shouting… Correctness falls aside.

This is a great book to broaden your horizons. But beware… the urge to travel may overcome you. The only problem will be choosing a destination. Bon voyage!