Success! A Small Victory for a Family of Activists

We had made our case, each of us taking turns to walk up to the podium to explain why we were opposed to the next phase of development in our community which would involve building yet another multistory apartment building in an environmentally sensitive area of wetlands bordering our harbor. For the past five years, there has been a tsunami of apartment buildings taking over every nook and cranny of space left in our town.

We had done the best we could, given about a week’s notice, to inform about 150 local residents about the situation with flyers that provided a detailed explanation of why these dwellings are  inappropriate in this part of town. My husband and I spent a couple of hours on Lincoln’s birthday delivering the flyers and talking to whomever we could find at home during the day.  I spent an hour the following day distributing the remaining 30 flyers to another part of the neighborhood.

I had also called a couple of local organizations, both political and environmental, and called upon every friend I had in the community to please attend the town zoning board meeting where variances to local zoning laws would or would not be granted. Finally, I had spent a good amount of time getting my thoughts together for my speech to the zoning board. My son, who spearheaded our efforts, had already spent countless hours gathering information and resources/allies. Despite all our efforts, only one friend showed up.

My husband made the final, precise and very detailed presentation, following mine,  my daughter’s, and a close friend of ours. Now it was up to the zoning board to make their decision.  We were up against aggressive lawyers, developers, and a zoning board chairperson who obviously wanted to give away the store. He tried to intimidate us in every way he could.

There are 5 members on the zoning board. The last person to speak, a lawyer, instructed the board members not to pay attention to our testimony because it did not directly address the variances. “You should not let yourselves be influenced by anything you heard from the speakers not directly involved in the proposal.” I believe he said that because he knew, in his gut, that we had made a persuasive case against the apartments.

The first vote was an abstention; second vote a no; third vote (the chair) a yes; next vote a yes, followed by a no. The proposal was defeated! We were stunned. When the impact of the vote finally registered, we jumped out of our seats with excitement. All our time, effort, worry and anxiety had paid off.  The chair advised the developers and lawyers to take the matter to court: “You’ll find your remedy in court.” To me this was a very loaded statement intended to insure them they had other avenues to pursue their case and would eventually win their case.

Whatever happens next, we are not going to give up.  We will continue to do our best to preserve what remains of our local wetlands and the character of our funky, harborside community in the face of greed and overdevelopment.  The proposed apartments are not affordable to anyone who lives and works here; essentially they are for outsiders who want to buy their way in.  Gentrification is what we are talking about.

I am so proud of my family! Victory sure tasted good for a few moments.  We have all taken a break the past few days…exhausted by the process…but justice prevailed.  At least for now.

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My Rebirth as an Activist!

It seemed fitting that today, on Lincoln’s birthday, my husband and I were out knocking on people’s doors and/or putting fliers in their mailboxes to alert them of an imminent environmental problem in our neighborhood.  Since the election of Trump I have actively participated in signing petitions, sending emails, and showing up at local demonstrations related to government issues.  But this local issue is near and dear to my heart, and truth be told, I am tired of allowing Trump to take over my life. Exhausted, in fact.  And the local issue demands immediate action.

So there we were walking around the area in which we live to disperse the one hundred 2-page fliers my husband had created.  At first it felt odd to be doing this, but then we really got into the rhythm of it.  And besides, the walking we were doing counted toward my daily walk!  As we walked along the narrow roads adjacent to our harbor, and up and down the lanes of our neighborhood I had a close-up look at many of the homes that we don’t pay much attention to as we drive past them every day.  The act of walking and delivering the petitions made me feel more connected to the local residents than I usually do.  This is a sizable town, and although we have friends, it’s a big enough place to feel a bit isolated from most of the population.

Our mission was to alert the people who live in our area to the encroaching overdevelopment of multi-story, must-use apartment buildings which will seriously affect the quality of life here.  We live very close to  a harbor surrounded by fragile wetlands. Whenever we have a serious rainfall, local businesses and residents’ basements are prone to flooding, and at times our main road has actually flooded to the point where cars can and do get stranded.  This despite the fact that the New York State  spent millions of dollars on a flooding-remediation project within the past few years.

The proposals to continue to build on and near this land will bring us beyond a tipping point of saving this environmentally sensitive area.  As it is, the runoff from local residents’ lawns and local streets feeds an enormous amount of pollution into the harbor already.  Paving over everything within a mile of the harbor will cause this runoff to increase in volume and the increasing population density will put the final seal on this lovely harbor.  As a bird watcher  I am also aware of how what we do on the ground and in the nearby waters affects the local bird population.  It is fairly recent that ospreys have staged a comeback from near extinction due to spraying pesticides in the wetlands to fight the mosquitos, an action which also pretty much killed the local lobster population.

As a lifelong resident of this coastal area on Long Island, it breaks my heart to think that our town is allowing developers to run amuck and build wherever they can find a parcel of land to do so.  In addition to distributing the fliers, we plan to attend a local zoning-board hearing on Thursday night to express our tremendous dissatisfaction with the plans for further development. And so, it’s back to the streets to fight this sad state of affairs.  Back in the late 60’s and 70’s I never dreamed I’d still be marching in the streets, making signs and protesting.  Nor did I ever dream that I would become an avid user of digital technology to connect with like-minded people.  That said, I still believe in the power of face-to-face, door-to-door conversations. The few people we spoke with who were home today were very civil and supportive.

Being an activist is not a choice for me. If there’s a cause I feel strongly about, I will want to speak out for or against it.  I also believe that if you’re going to talk the talk, you must walk the walk.  And that is exactly how I spent my afternoon. Walking the walk…but this time as a senior activist!

 

 

My Happy Place

For at least three decades I have been a member of a non-profit professional organization that I am today calling My Happy Place.  This past Saturday, I drove 45 minutes to a community college campus which has housed this group throughout its four-decade history to attend a workshop on using digital technology to empower learners.  The workshop was being presented by a younger teacher friend I’d made several years ago when attending a workshop. Her topic was of interest to me as I am devoting some time to cultivating community connections to provide “authentic” opportunities for learning for students.

Flattening the School Walls & Empowering Students to Learn Anytime, Anywhere!

Gone are the days when students only completed assignments for their teacher and the learning would come to a halt when school was closed. With digital tools, students can share their ideas with the world and learn and create all the time! Spend a Saturday morning with the Long Island Writing Project on February 3rd and hear how third grade teacher and LIWP Co-Director Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski has been working to flatten the walls of the classroom and inspire students to be curious learners, readers, writers, and creators through every season. Share your ideas on ways you inspire students to keep the learning going!

https://longislandwritingproject.weebly.com/saturday-series-2017-2018.html

As I strode across the parking lot toward the building where today’s  gathering was taking place, the silence and emptiness of the campus on a Saturday morning allowed me to reflect upon my personal experiences with this group over this long stretch of time. The organization to which I am referring is the Long Island Writing Project, located on the campus of Nassau Community College on Long Island.  It is a  local offshoot of the National Writing Project which began in 1974 at  the Graduate School of Education in Berkeley, California and is one of 200 plus local  sites spread throughout the 50 states.  The simplicity of its mission is the foundation of its success: Practice what you preach.

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.

https://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/about.csp

I  have learned more about teaching and writing through participation in this group than through any other professional development I’ve been privy to during my 25-year teaching career. Most of the PD programs in which I participated over the years, some by choice, others required by my school district, never adequately addressed my particular pedagogical interests.  As an elementary ESL teacher and as an adjunct in the English Department at Suffolk Community College with a high minority student enrollment,  I was perpetually seeking ways to improve or refine my teaching practice, while addressing the specific needs of my limited English-speaking students at both the elementary and college levels.

Although most of the PD offered through the LIWP did not specifically address the academic needs of English Language Learners,  here was a place where teachers are considered lifelong learners and where the conversation is always teacher directed and student focused. Teacher practices and opinions are highly respected and exchanges between teachers are encouraged; in fact, they are at the heart of every workshop I’ve ever attended.  Although each workshop has a specific purpose, the model for every workshop is a presentation by a practicing teacher; several pauses during the presentation to allow for quick writing responses to the topic being presented; a followup discussion of the topic with all the participants sharing their “takes” on the topic.

Teachers love these workshops because they are supportive, reflective, imaginative, practical and they offer a sheltered place where teachers can honestly share their own practices and concerns in a nonjudgmental way, while learning ways to augment or enhance their teaching and writing skills.

I retired from teaching three years ago, yet I still choose to attend these workshops because I continue to  benefit from them; they help me continue to thrive as a life-long learner and educator.  The conversation goes on…over the weeks, months years and everyone is always welcome to join in.  I have seen many young teachers launched into amazing careers thanks to the support they are given and the confidence they gain through participation in this organization. Its grassroots, no-frills, low-budget, democratic model seems to really appeal to those of us who have been lucky enough to discover the LIWP and participate as members and participants over the years. The three women who are codirectors of the organization receive very little compensation, yet they  devote much of their precious free time to keeping it alive and current despite their own full-time careers and family responsibilities.  They are there because of their commitment to writing, teachers and students.

There have been periods of my professional life when I have been very active in the LIWP and other periods when I may not have attended for a year or two due to other obligations, but I have always felt welcome and comforted by the fact that the LIWP exists: It is My Happy Place.

Taking a Timeout from Trump Today

Congratulations everyone! We’ve almost made it through January and the short month of February is just around the corner.  Most Sundays I enjoy a leisurely read of the New York Times, but with Trump dominating almost every story and editorial, I found myself craving an antidote.  To combat “trumpitis,” my daughter and I took advantage of a lull in the winter weather to take a walk in our local park.  This is our way of escaping the malaise that permeates  everyday life in the Trump era and restoring balance and wonder in our lives.

We were rewarded with unexpected activity in the park. The sheet of ice which covered most of the pond was nearly gone due to temperatures in the 50’s today. There were many varieties of ducks, the usual Canada geese, and our local swan couple taking advantage of the open water. The ring-necked ducks

and mergansers

were less timid than they were earlier in the winter, swimming closer to shore which made it easier for us to enjoy their beautiful features.

But where we had found peace and quiet just a day or two ago, there was now a frenzy of activity. My daughter noticed it first. “The geese are doing that crazy behavior they only do when they are trying to attract a mate,” she said. She was right. Several of the geese were flapping their wings madly and thrashing them in the water, then rolling themselves over in the pond.

Then we noticed a small group of geese swim by, one of them tailgating a female, while a second goose aggressively honked at another goose to keep him at a distance. The volume of honking was much louder and more persistent than usual.

Suddenly, the muskrat appeared, vigorously swimming toward the shore.

He was quite big, with a long flat tail, and he quickly swam into one of his hidden hideaways in the banks of the pond. Another sign of life that had been absent for a couple of months.

As we continued our walk,  I posed the question: “Do you think the ‘monster turtle’ has emerged from his winter hibernation at the bottom of the pond?” “Probably not yet,” my daughter replied. “Well, it won’t be much longer, as he has to be around to eat the new baby swans and ducks,” I responded.

As we approached the part of the pond we’ve dubbed his “lair,” it took only a few minutes for my daughter to spot the top of his shell and his head barely visible in the murky pond water. Sure enough! He, too, had come back to join the chaos in the pond. We scanned the water for his buddy, who we surmise must be his “mate,” but she was nowhere to be found.

This snapping turtle is indeed a monster. He has spikes along his tail, enormous claws, and a head the size of a sumo wrestler.  He appears to be about two feet long. He clearly bridges the gap between prehistoric life and pond life as we now know it.  He is also reputed to be responsible for devouring the swan babies every spring. In past years, for example, four out of six baby swans have disappeared overnight.  Last year none of them survived! Although I am fascinated by this creature, I find his killer instinct deplorable.

Clearly, these were early signs of spring we were witnessing. It was somehow comforting to be paying attention to the small details of burgeoning life in our pond, rather than the sordid details of our president’s daily antics. It was reassuring to witness signs of normal mating behavior amongst a flock of birds, rather than read yet another story about sexual abuse of the powerless by the powerful.

As always, our walk in nature put things in perspective and lifted our spirits. Predators change faces but not behaviors. The world will not end because of the erratic behavior of our current president. But life in the pond will continue to follow its seasonal cycles, and for that we can be grateful.

Digital Distress

Last week I wrote a post about updating my digital tools. I never got to share my post because I was unable to get onto my blogging site: WordPress. I have struggled with this issue for nearly two weeks and was ready to give up blogging (really) until my husband googled “unable to log into WordPress on ipad”. He found someone on WP trying to help people who were having the same difficulties.  He learned that WP had changed its platform  requiring a later version of IOS which I didn’t have. To upgrade, according to my husband, would have meant slowing down everything on my computer to accommodate the new system. He advised against upgrading. I could no longer use my iPad for blogging  and must now use my new MacBook Air to write my blog on WordPress.

This may not seem too dramatic to those who are more fluent in the digital world than I am, nor to my younger fellow bloggers who are digital natives.

But to me it was catastrophic. I was upset, exhausted by my failing efforts to figure out the problem, and depressed because I felt my blogging world collapse around me. I felt like I was losing ground in keeping up with the digital world. I also realized how dependent I’d become on blogging weekly; blogging lifted my soul because it gave a welcome structure to my weekly activities and a voice to share my thoughts with the Two Writing Teachers community. I learned that I had, indeed, come to need writing in my life. This was both a revelation and a source of pain, since I had lost access to my writing world.

Here is the post I wrote last week (but never published) as I was adapting to my new digital tools, before I was swallowed up in the digital Black Hole.

January Reflections

Yesterday my daughter and I took a lovely walk in the bitter cold in our nearby park. The sun was shining which allowed us to sit on a bench for 10 minutes following our walk to sunbathe and replenish our depleted stores of Vitamin D.

Today is another cold day in the northeast, but it’s gray and I don’t have the motivation to take a walk. Instead I decided to open the box containing the new MacBook Air I received as a combination birthday/Christmas present this year. These are my very first words typed on the new keyboard. I also purchased an Android phone recently after years of hanging on to my flip phone. Clearly I am entering a new phase in my life as a senior citizen.

How did this happen? I remember a very close, older friend of mine who is now deceased but who was a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who told me I must keep up with new technology to avoid becoming out of touch. Until recently I was doing fine with my iPad, which I had won at a teachers’ annual union dinner about five years ago, and with my flip phone which I used only for necessary phone calls but mostly ignored as I am not a “phone person.”

But although I love my iPad, it frustrated me at times because of its idiosyncratic way of doing things which sometimes prevented me from following through on certain tasks because I had no one to advise me how to proceed. And I was beginning to be a bit envious of people with iPhones who were able to take amazing photos and share them, and search for information/resources in the moment. So I began to drop hints at home that I was entertaining the idea of upgrading my personal technology.

I surveyed the folks in the Two Writing Teachers community regarding the pros and cons of choosing an iPhone or an Android.

The responses were wonderful, but about equally divided. I ended up choosing the Android as a compromise; I thought it would be a good “first” smart phone at a very reasonable cost. Even if I use it for only a year, I reasoned, I haven’t made a huge investment financially, and I do love the larger screen and more user-friendly keyboard for texting. The computer was a different matter. I knew I wanted a Mac since everyone in my family uses one. I also knew I wanted something very portable and lightweight. Hence, the MacBook Air.

So here I sit, embarking on a new learning curve. For two weeks I couldn’t even answer my new phone because I didn’t realize I had to press on the phone icon while swiping it to make the phone connection. I was pressing on the phone icon and nothing was happening. I was swiping (and not pressing the icon) but then losing the call. I was not doing both simultaneously! Talk about a humbling experience! One quick visit to the Verizon store and I was shown what to do. Duh! The whole process is somewhat infantilizing for those of us who are not digital natives. We must swallow our pride and soldier on if we are to make this leap. The Verizon rep was very patient and very helpful which made feeling so vulnerable less stressful.

I know that this will be a challenging growth period for me as I surrender my comfortable routines and familiar gadgets in exchange for learning new systems that I hope will provide me with more desirable options. I know I will often wonder whether making the changes I need to make in order to adapt to my new devices makes any sense at my age. I know I will often fail and have to ask for help. I know that “this, too,  shall pass” and eventually I, too, will become a happy Mac user as I become more confident in my newly acquired skills.

Will these changes ultimately make a significant difference in my life? Probably not. College graduation, marriage, raising a family, having a challenging but rewarding career were life changers. Having cancer and surviving it was, and still is, the most dramatic event in my life. A new phone and computer don’t even come close!

Fast forward to today (Sunday, Jan 21st)…

I am back on my WordPress blog, no thanks to WordPress. com. Many thanks, instead, to my husband who diligently searched for an answer to my problems and who patiently walked me through the steps I needed to go through to share this post today.  I was in a black hole of digital despair, but today I have been handed a lifeline to which I am clinging.  Stay tuned for more adventures in Digital Distress!

Wrapping Up the Holidays…Craving Normalcy

Over the years I’ve come to realize that undecorating the house post-Christmas season is as much of a ritual as all the preparations that precede the holidays. I used to lament this time of year and regarded the months after December as a period of deep freeze..something to get through until the onset of Spring. Now I almost look forward to this season of deep quiet…a hiatus in the frenzy of modern life.

I am sure this has a lot to do with growing older, as I’ve noticed a trend in my experiencing of the world that is drifting toward slowing down, allowing more time for reflection. I used to try to pack as much into a day or a week as possible, trying to cover all bases all the time as a working Mom, wife, and teacher. Now I look forward to any breaks in the routine that allow me to just savor my time alone, often spent looking out my kitchen window at the many birds that enjoy our feeder and heated birdbath, or reading the New York Times. In fact, those two activities are the ones I most looked forward to in retirement.

Today we are undecorating the tree.

This is a complicated process in that it requires my husband to set up the ladder to our attic space, crawl into the attic and retrieve the 9 boxes of holiday decorations that are the result of paring down our collection last year.

Next, we carry the 9 boxes into our living room placing them close to the Christmas tree. Last night, in preparation for today, I went through the house looking for the random holiday items positioned in the places they’ve occupied for decades.

There’s always a holiday candle in the bathroom; this year I added a brass bell on a red silk cord hanging from the bathroom cupboard. The gnomes we purchased this year will stay in the kitchen cupboards for another month or two at my daughter’s request.

I collected the various snowmen sitting on shelves in the living room, as well as the treasured photo of my two kids sitting in Santa’s lap, a memento of our one and only trip to Macy’s Herald Square. I smiled as I picked up the handmade tic-tac-toe board we acquired from a neighbor’s holiday craft sale, along with many of our other handcrafted items we purchased from her. When our two-year-old neighbor was visiting with his parents a few days ago, I presented him with the wooden tic-tac-toe board to play with. He was fascinated by the tiny dreidl I had added to the set of Christmas tree pieces that originally came with the board.

We will try to downsize once again, but it’s so hard to give up family treasures, each with its own story. Dedicated to crafts, we also find it hard to give up handmade decorations that a child undoubtedly made with some effort and lots of love. Yet we know that the clock is ticking and that our children do not want the burden of disposing of all our family memorabilia. So, some difficult decisions will be made today, as we undecorate the tree, sweep up the pine needles from our glorious eight-foot tree (which I got at a bargain price this year), and repack the boxes that will be returned to the attic.

What makes it easier is that I now know that I will not feel sad when it is all done, but will, instead, savor the empty spaces and take comfort in the ordinary clutter that surrounds our everyday lives. I will return to sipping my coffee with the NY Times spread out on the kitchen table while the birds take their turns at the feeder and the birdbath. Normalcy is what I now crave.

An Evening of Pure Joy at the NY Botanical Gardens Train Show

I was raised in a family of 8 children: four girls and four boys. Every Christmas my brothers would set up a very large fiberboard platform, painted green,in the bedroom they shared (very large) to recreate their Lionel train display. I think this was not an unusual thing to do in that era; lots of families had their own train displays around the holidays.

In our family, setting up the train table was a ritual that started the holiday festivities. Once completed, guests and family relations were invited “upstairs” to watch the trains run and to see the new layout of the surrounding landscape. Every year new features were added and some disappeared due to natural obsolescence. New features would include more complex track switches, train cars with special features like doors that would open and close, or a milk car whose doors would open and a milkman would appear, unloading milk cans. The display was pure magic and my brothers put a lot of effort into making it so.

Now, many decades later, my family chooses one special event to attend together for a holiday treat. This year, after years of saying we would make the trip, we decided to make the trek to the Bronx to see the annual New York Botanical Gardens Train Show. The excursion was to coincide with my birthday which is three days after Christmas and would include a special dinner at The Hudson Grill, a farm-to-table restaurant.

My 36-year-old son wisely acquired tickets for us on “bar car” night when only adults would be viewing the show. The bar car was an actual feature on our Long Island commuter trains until recently. Commuters loved to hang out in the bar car, imbibing their favorite drink(s) as they returned to their homes in the suburbs, bumping along the rickety Long Island railroad tracks (even more rickety now). The night we chose to attend the show offered several “bar car” stations where we could buy a drink to enjoy as we roamed the grounds of the Botanical Gardens (in the 10 degree weather).

The amazing thing we had read about the displays that surround the trains at the BG is that each item (buildings, landscape features) is created from natural botanical substances including twigs, leaves, stems, vines, tree nuts, seeds, fruit slices, berries and more. Creating these objects requires hours and hours of tedious work to assemble the natural items into a house, or a park, or a bridge, for example; this is a job done by mostly creative volunteer enthusiasts. My daughter and I were probably more interested in this part of the train show than the actual trains.

The Train Show did not disappoint! In fact, it surpassed our expectations in every way. And that is quite extraordinary because we live in the suburbs near NYC and thus have been fortunate to have seen many amazing displays, shows, concerts, exhibitions over the years. But this exhibit is unique both for its subject matter and for its execution. Some people go every year because each year the exhibit has a different special feature. This year, mid-town Manhattan was the featured display and main event for regular attendees.

For first-timers, it was all glorious. The smaller room we first entered included some charming features and a few intertwining tracks of trains constantly running.

At first I felt a wee bit disappointed, lovely as it was. But then we turned the corner and entered the truly magical world of the train show. We were in the greenhouse, surrounded by lush greenery of all kinds, intermixed with the building and train displays in amazing ways. We walked through displays of historic buildings, row houses, museums, soaring bridges lit up like Christmas trees, and even a miniature Coney Island complete with the famous Cyclone roller coaster and the terrifying (to me, as a child) Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel.

There was also a large elephant which I believe was an actual feature at Coney Island in its hey-day. We strolled through a miniature Central Park with a reproduction of the famous Bethesda Fountain and the beloved pond with rowboats.

Finally we emerged into yet another room with the piece de resistance of the show: a reproduction of midtown Manhattan that included the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and much more, all aglow beneath the towering greens that surrounded the display. And of course, there were trains running throughout the display.

If you ever plan to spend time in NYC during the holidays, don’t miss the Train Show! It’s a low-key, communal type experience that is a must-see for young and old. And the drinks we had from the “bar car” definitely added to our enjoyment on such a cold, December night.