Life

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That line came to me a few minutes ago, as I looked and read through the latest photographic blog posts by Stephen Lewis in his blog, Bubkes). This one…

Stephen Lewis photo… titled Farmyard, Grandmother, Chicken, and Ovid in Exile, is accompanied by richly detailed text, including this:

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden were uprooted several years ago.  in their place: a summer-time restaurant surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds and a tall antenna tower of a mobile telephony company resting on a broad concrete footing.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby…

Nothing is permanent, but in this case the more durable feature is the grandmother and her friendly face — the face of the place, while she lasts.

Also arresting is Corn Stalks, a Plateau, the Black Sea, and the Horizon:

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It’s a place that calls to mind face in its verb form. A synonym might be to meet, or to confront. We face a challenge, an opportunity, a problem, success, failure, or the world. Things face us as well, but not always directly. Three of the four things in the photo are mostly hidden by the first, but far more vast and open. Also flat. Horizons may feature mountains, but they are horizontal: flat and wide.

We are walking and running animals that work best in the horizontal. Our eyes shift more easily to left and right than to up and down. Our stereoscopic vision and hearing also locate best in the horizontal spread from one here to many theres.

Our species dispersed from Africa toward gone horizons, mostly along coasts long since drowned by melting ice caps. The Black Sea has changed greatly in spread and shape throughout human history, and may have reached its present height in a deluge through the Dardanelles and Bosporus seaways.

The view on the path in the photo is framed between the vertical blinders of dry corn stalks at the edges of fields of unseen vastness. (Corn fields have always been both beautiful and a tiny bit creepy to me, ever since I got a bit lost when wandering as a kid into a cornfield somewhere, with no clear direction out other than the sound of distant voices.)

Between the last paragraph and this one, Stephen posted another photo, titled Shabla, Bulgaria: Seawards and Kitchenwards, taken on the shore of the Black Sea:

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The subject is mostly boats and ramps. In the foreground are stairs and wood railings, two of the many literal and figurative framings, none quite horizontal, in a vertical photo with dimensions we call “portrait.” On the face of this Bulgarian shore, one ear is the sea itself. All the ramps face land and sea. To them the camera is an unseen visitor from another dimension.

While seeing and hearing are mostly horizontal (our ears as well as our eyes are aligned with the horizon), eating is vertical: food is something we “eat up” and “get down.” So is nutrition: we “raise” crops and cattle.”

In Stephen’s photos, things have faces too. Some are literal, such as in Guns of August, Books of August: The Iconography of a Gravestone in Prague:

ww-i-grave-prague-copy-2 The photo puts in contrast the irony of cemetery “monuments” (as gravestones are now called), commemorating stuff nobody alive remembers, for an audience a living performer might round to zero. Under the subhead The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead, Stephen writes,

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life’s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.

Last month I visited the graves of relatives three generations and more ahead of mine, at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, and reported on that visit in Lives of the Dead. While some graves at Woodlawn yearned toward the kind of extravagance Stephen found in Vinohrady, my late kinfolk leaned in the opposite direction, marking little or nothing of who they planted there. To my knowledge, I was the first to surface (at those last two links) twenty Englerts, Knoebels and others whose faces in death are carpets of mowed grass.

And who knows how long anything will last on the Web? My old blog, on which I wrote from 1999-2007, survives by the grace of a friend, and its blogroll is a near-cemetery of rotting links.

Every thing faces a future for as long as we grace it with expectation of use, appreciation or some other goodness. Why else save anything?

So I’m glad Stephen keeps putting these photos up, and enlarging them so well with prose. Here’s a list of other photos in his series, posted since the last time I last blogged his series:

It’s a wonderful gallery. Enjoy.

A couple weekends ago I visited the graves of relatives and ancestors on my father’s side at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx. All of them died before I was born, but my Grandma Searls and her sisters often visited there, and I thought, Hey, now that I’m in New York a lot, I should visit these dead folks. Grandma would like that. Here she is at at age three, in early 1886:

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She was born Ethel Frances Englert, on November 14, 1882, the third of four sisters. Here they are with their dad, Henry Roman Englert, in 1894:

5212424474_60250bb2dc_zGrandma is the foxy one on the lower right.

They lived here, at 742 E. 142nd Street in the South Bronx:

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That row house was razed, along with the rest of the block, to make room for what is now called “Old” Lincoln Hospital. These days an impoundment lot for towed cars reposes atop a hill formed by the imploded remains of the hospital. Amazingly, a lookup of the address on Bing Maps still goes to the same location, a century after these homes disappeared. Here’s how it looks now.

Henry was a son of Christian and Jacobina Englert, immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, and head of the Steel & Copperplate Engraver’s Union in New York. His first wife, the four girls’ mom, was Catherine “Katie” Trainor, the daughter of Thomas Trainor, who emigrated from Letterkenny, Donegal, Ireland at age 15 in 1825, leaving six siblings behind. Thomas married Mary Ann McLaughlin of Boston, settled in New York, and made his living in the carriage trade:

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He lived and died at 228 East 122nd Street in Harlem. He and his wife Anna (née McLaughlin), married at St. Peter’s in Manhattan produced seven children, of which Katie was the second. The others were Hanna, Ella, Margaret, Mary and Charles, who was killed in the Civil War. Family legend says Chartles ran away as a teenager to fight, and was shot carrying the Union flag. But he didn’t die then. The old man visited the kid in a Washington army hospital, barely recognizing his son through the boy’s thick red beard. On Christmas 1865 the Charles arrived home in a box.

Thomas, Charles and other Trainors are among the early plantings in Old Calvary Cemetery in Queens. At three million corpses strong, Calvary is New York’s largest. I’ve never been there, and I’ll bet almost nobody else has in over a century. (One exception: Aunt Catherine Burns, about which I say more below.)

Katie’s sister Margaret, better known as “Aunt Mag,” or “Maggie,” was a favorite of the Englert girls and a source of gentle but stern family wisdom. A sample: “You’ve got it in your hand. Put it away.” Here she is:

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Maggie was the only one of the Trainor kids to live a long life, dying in 1944. Katie died at 38.

After Katie’s death, Henry married Tess Atonelle*, who had worked for the family. Here is Tess with Henry’s youngest brother, Andrew Englert:

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Tess and Henry produced a number of additional offspring, of which only one was remembered often by Grandma and her sisters: Harry, who died at age 4 in 1901:

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The next year Grandma married George W. Searls, my grandfather, who was 19 years older. George was, among other things, the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith, when Hollywood was still in Fort Leed. Here he is…

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with his crew:

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He built the family house at 2063 Hoyt Avenue, where my father and his two sisters were born and raised, and where my parents were hanging when I was born in 1947. The two upstairs floors were mostly rented out. Among guests and tenants passing through were Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Grandma preferred Lillian, finding Mary’s language too salty. Another was Edward Pierson Richardson, Sr., M.D., father of Elliot Richardson (who served as Commerce Secretary under Richard Nixon).

Grandma met Grandpa when she was working as cleaning help in a boarding house, where she found Grandpa sleeping. She was so attracted to the rugged carpenter that she bent over and kissed him. He woke up, pulled her down and kissed her back. Natural selection, I guess.

Grandpa died in 1934 at age 70 after catching erysipelas from a nail that scratched his face. If they had penicillin back then he might have lasted a lot longer. I remember his older sister, Eva Quackenbush, well. She was born in 1853, lived almost to 100 (she died in 1953), and told stories about what it was like when Lincoln got shot. She was 12 at the time. Here she is with Mom and the infant me:

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I was lucky to know so many interesting characters born two centuries back, or close: stories of New York when the streets were all dirt and cobble, of the arrival of gas light, electricity, subways and trolleys, bridges and tunnels, cars and phones.

These people were living history books. Grandpa walked with a limp from a wound he got fighting in the Spanish-American War. Among many other achievements, he was foreman of the crew that built the Cyclone at Palisades Park: the scariest roller coaster in world history. Pop worked in that crew and was the first to ride it. Heres a photo he shot from the top:

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Pop was a fearless dude.

Through the Depression Pop worked as a longshoreman in New York, helped build the George Washington Bridge, served in the Coastal Artillery and went to Alaska to build railroads. That’s where he met Mom. Then he re-enlisted to fight in World War II, where his last job was as General Eisenhower’s phone operator in Paris.

All four Englert girls were still going strong the whole time I enjoyed perfect childhood summers at the beaches and in the backwoods of South Jersey. Here they are on the Jersey shore in 1953:

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They all spoke Bronx English, so the place where they stood was called ‘Da shaw.” It was also Mantoloking, not Point Pleasant. Just being historically accurate here.

What matters are the memories, which fade in life and disappear in death. I had hoped to bring some up, or to organize them in some way, when I visited Woodlawn.

It was less eerie there than blank: dead in several meanings of the word. Graves not “endowed” were marked by stones sinking into soft and hummocky glacial moraine. Who still remembers or cares about Henry Kremer (1853-1905) and his infant son, whose headstone is a few years away from burying itself? Those who cared enough to buy the stone are surely gone. How about Joseph Harper, who departed in 1897?

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Bet nobody.

I took those photos while following a map made for me by my cousin, Martin Burns, who shares the same ancestors and relatives, and who had been there before with his mother, Catherine (named after her Irish grandma, Katie), who did much of the genealogical and photo-gathering work from which my research here benefits. She died not long ago in her late 90s. (If accident or disease doesn’t get us, we’ve got a nice portfolio of genes to work with here.)

I walked around for about half an hour. During that whole time, and while driving in and out of the cemetery, I saw nobody else, other than my wife, sleeping in the car. (She said this wasn’t her idea of a fun date.) Verdant and peaceful as it is, Woodlawn is abandoned by nearly all but the dead who reside there.

The Englert inhabitants of Woodlawn are spread across three grave sites. The fourth one on Martin’s map is the Knoebel’s. They’re the family into which Aunt Gene, Grandma’s oldest sister, married. She’s the second sister from the left in the beach shot, above. There are six graves in the Knoebel plot, which is the only one of the four that I found. Thirteen people were buried there. One, Aunt Gene, went in when she died in 1960, and came out a decade later, when she was moved to Fairview Cemetery in New Jersey.

Christian and Jacobina are in an endowed plot, so their headstone stands upright. Here are aunt Catherine and cousin Kevin Burns (brother of Martin), standing behind it a few years back. There are three graves here, containing the bodies of seven people. I’ve listed them in this photo, by Martin. Four died young, and three lived full lives.

The single grave of Andrew and Annie Englert is unmarked, far as I know. (That’s Andrew next to Tess, above.) I didn’t find it. Nor did I find the grave of Henry Roman Englert, the root stock of most of the descendants I knew and heard about growing up. (I hadn’t yet posted the photos I got from Martin, so all I had to go by was a print-out of his map.)

After finding none of the Englert graves, I stood in one quiet spot and sent out a mental message to any ghosts who might be around, asking for a clue. I felt and heard nothing: clear evidence that the departed are truly gone.

Later, when I looked at these two photos, I saw that I was standing exactly on top of the graves of Henry, Katie, Harry, and several others. Here they are, in a photo Martin shot:

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Several more things weirded me out, once I looked at the affidavit Catherine got from Woodlawn (or somewhere), listing the deceased under the grass there.

First was that a fifth Englert sister, Grace, existed. She was the youngest, died at age 2, and was buried here in 1889. Obviously my aunt Grace Apgar was named after this kid. But I never heard about the late baby Grace or forgot it. Either way, it was a surprise to learn she once walked on Earth, and lies in it here.

Second was that little Harry lay beneath both his older sister, who died at 28, and his mom, Tess, who died at 63. That all died young seemed even more tragic to me. (I’m five years older than Tess was when she went. “Young” is always less than one’s own age.)

Third was that old Henry R. got the only headstone, and it was probably not one he bought for himself. I’m sure it was put up after he died, I suppose by his surviving daughters.

Yet the site was visited often, way back when, I was told. Why did nobody ever mark them all? Or those in the other plots? Was it too expensive? And how did they know where to look without a marker of any kind?

I doubt I’ll ever know. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that cemeteries are for one or two generations of living souls, and that’s it. If the dead remember the dead, they don’t do it here on Earth. Thanks to burial vaults (coffin containers) the dead don’t even serve as fertilizer.

At any moment there are better things for the living to do than dwell on dead people that nobody alive remembers or cares about. I’m probably wasting my time and yours by visiting the subject right now.

Yet I do feel a need to put what little I know about these people in pixels on the Web, rather than just on cemetery stones. I am sure, for example, that some Englert descendants — cousins I don’t know — will some day find this post and appreciate the efforts put into this accounting, mostly by Catherine and Martin.

Harvard, founded in 1636, is likely (I hope) to keep this blog up long after I’m gone; but even Harvard won’t be around forever. Everything dies. Rock under my ass in uptown Manhattan dates was formed about a half billion years ago. In another half billion years, life on Earth will be gone: burned away by a growing Sun.

Kevin Kelly once told me that in a thousand years, evidence of nearly everyone alive today will have disappeared. It’s a good bet.

Life is for the living. So is knowledge. All I’m doing here is contributing a little bit of both to the few people who might care — and acknowledging the love and caring that flows between people within and across all generations, nearly all of which are gone or not yet here.

Since I started with Grandma, I’ll close with her gravestone, in Brookside Cemetery in Englewood, New Jersey:

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If we matter enough to be written about, our lives are framed by dates in parentheses. Grandma’s here is (1882 – When?) The answer is 1990, when she was nearly 108 years old. She is buried next to her husband George and her older daughter, Aunt Ethel M. Searls (1905-1969). Grandma’s other two kids were my father, Allen H. Searls (1908-1979), and Aunt Grace Apgar (1912-2013).

Ethel died of horrible medical treatment (including convulsive electroshock) for what was probably just depression. Though beautiful and brilliant, her love life went poorly, and she hit the glass ceiling as a regional office manager for Prudential Insurance Company — the highest position in the company held by a woman at the time.

Pop died of his fifth heart attack, all of which I am sure were caused by decades of heavy smoking. He and Mom are buried together in North Carolina. I visited Pop’s grave three times: 1) when he was planted in it; 2) with Mom on her 90th birthday; and 3) when she died a few months later. I haven’t been back since.

Grace died last December of being done. Until then she lived an active and wonderful life. You can see that in shots of her 100th birthday party, which was a gas. She lived in Maine and her body, like those of husband Archie and son Ron, was cremated, sparing us all the need to avoid visiting remains in gardens of stone where almost nobody goes — except once, when they die.

I’d like my body to be recycled. Just put it in the ground somewhere, to feed living things. These days they call that natural burial. But I’m in no rush. Too busy.

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* Since Google finds approximately no families named Atonelle, and many named Antonelli (and a few named Atonelli), I suspect Atonelle is an error. So I’d welcome a correction.

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themodernA couple weeks ago I took a walk around the historic neighborhood in Fort Lee where my extended family had a home — 2063 Hoyt Avenue — from the turn of the last century into the 1950s. It’s where my parents lived when I was born, and where my aunt and grandmother sat for my sister and me (taking us often for walks across the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build) and held big warm Thanksgiving dinners.

It was all erased years ago, and the parts that aren’t paved over are now turning into high-rises, starting with The Modern (there on the left), a 47-floor mirror-glass monolith that towers over the George Washington Bridge, and straddles what used to be Hoyt Avenue, exactly next door to the old house, which was paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. A twin of The Modern will go up nearby, as part of the Hudson Lights project. The whole thing is freaking huge and will change the New Jersey skyline and Fort Lee community absolutely.

It’s also where “Bridgegate” happened.

Anyway, I shot a bunch of pictures. More in the captions.

Back in the early ’90s I was waiting for an elevator one night at a high rise hotel when I was joined by a group of Miami heat basketball players and Jack Ramsay, who was then most famously the former coach of the Portland Trailblazers, a team he led to an NBA championship in 1977. But he had coached a number of other teams, including the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) during my former schoolmate Bob Kauffman‘s time there. So I thought, “Oh. Jack Ramsay is coaching the Heat now.” Back in those days Miami was not a great team, and even as a fan I was paying no attention to them. But the team was paying attention to Dr. Ramsay. That much was clear.

We got on the elevator together. The tallest players, 7-foot Matt Geiger among them, had to cock their heads toward one shoulder to avoid bumping the ceiling. I was crowded into a corner like a piece of luggage. The team had just lost a game. For the whole trip up to the Nth floor, Jack talked to the guys about what you can learn by losing that you can’t by winning — in useful detail. It was obvious that the old guy was still a great coach, and that the players had great respect for him. By that I mean, they weren’t just being nice. They were listening, carefully.

It was only later that I learned that Jack was not the coach, officially. His job was color commentary on Heat broadcasts.

All basketball fans by now have learned something from Doctor Jack, who went on to share his wisdom and experience over ESPN and other outlets. The man always had something interesting to add to the time-filling blather that comprises most of sports commentary.

So I just learned that the good doctor passed this morning, at age 89. I also learned that he enlisted for service in the U.S. Navy at age 19 during World War II, and shortly thereafter became the platoon leader of an underwater demolitions team — the forerunner of today’s Navy Seals. I suppose he was younger during his service than most or all of the players he taught in that elevator. Tougher too, I’m sure.

Ghandi said we should learn as if we’ll live forever and live as if we’ll die tomorrow. Jack Ramsey was clearly one of those guys who did both, for all his life.

This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

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Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

I grew up on Woodland Avenue in Maywood, New Jersey, a few miles west of where I am now in New York City. Flexible flyerThe street was unremarkable, except when it snowed. Then the town would often block it off, so kids could sled on it. It wasn’t a big hill — just an ideal one for sledding: steep at the top, with a long glide path. With a good start you could ride your Flexible Flyer down past Garden, Cole and Elm Streets, all the way to Cole’s Brook. On the other side of that was Borg’s Woods, which was then owned by the Borg Family. They had a steep back yard behind their house on Summit Avenue in Hackensack, and kindly encouraged neighborhood kids to sled there.

So snow was a big deal for us, and still is for me. I love it. Alas, too often Winter forecasts in New York went like this: “Snow, changing to rain.”

Well, that’s what happened today in New York. We had a beautiful snowy day before it turned into rain and worse. For the last hour or so we’ve also had lightning, thunder and hail. The result is thick white slop, atop the frozen and half-thawed mess left over from the last storm. Here is how it looks right now at Weather.com:

I am sure there are kids in Maywood (and all over the East Coast) who wish the snow didn’t turn to slush today. My inner kid knows how they feel. (I’m also hoping my grandkids in Baltimore fared better. They got a bunch of snow today too — I think with less rain.

(By the way, our original Flexible Flyer looked just like the one above, only a bit longer. It could seat three or four kids. And nobody ever wore helmets.)

The power is out and won’t be back for awhile. That’s what the guys in the hard hats tell me, down where they’re working, at the intersection where our dead-end street is born. Many trucks are gathered there, with bright night-work lights illuminating whatever went wrong with the day’s power pole replacement job. The notices they left on our doors said they’d be done by five, but now it’s eight and I’m sitting in a house lit by candles, working on the nth draft of a writing assignment, in the absence of a steady flow of electrons off the power grid. Also in the absence of connection except to the physical world alone. Connectivity = 0. My laptop is good for another four hours or so, but without a connection I lack the building materials I need for constructing the piece. So I’m writing this instead.

Some other utilities are unaffected by the power outage, of course. I have matches, and can fire up the gas stove. Water runs, cold and cold. It also drips out of the little motel-grade refrigerator upstairs, defrosting itself into towels I’ve fed under it. The freezer in the kitchen remains closed, to keep whatever is in there from thawing and requiring use in the next couple days. What I’m witnessing is a gradual breakdown that is easy to imagine accelerating fast, especially if I was coping instead with a wildfire or an earthquake.

Three interesting facts about California and the people who — like me — choose to live here:

  1. The state tree is the California redwood. What made these things evolve into groves of spires with thick bark, standing at heights beyond three hundred feet, with branches in mature specimens that commence a hundred or more feet above the ground. I say they are adapted to fire. A cross section of a mature redwood will feature black edges to rings spaced thirty, fifty, two hundred apart, all marking survival of wildfire at a single location.
  2. The state flower is the California poppy. Here is what makes poppies thrive in dry rocky soils that are poor for agriculture but rich with  freshly exposed minerals: they are adapted to earthquakes. More than any other state, except maybe Alaska, California is a product of recent earth movement. Imagine looking at the southern Appalachians in the U.S. or the Blue Mountains of Australia, two million years ago. It’s not hard: they would pretty much like they do now. If you looked at the site of the future California from anywhere two million years ago, you would recognize nothing, unless you were a geologist who knew what to look for. All of California has been raised up or ferried in by tectonic forces that have been working at full throttle for a couple hundred million years, and aren’t moving any slower today.
  3. Neither of those facts teaches caution to human beings who choose to live here. For example, the home where I write this, in Santa Barbara, has been approached, unsuccessfully, by two wildfires in recent years. The Tea Fire in November 2008 burned 210 homes and the Jesusita Fire in May 2009 burned other 80 more. The Tea Fire came straight at us, incinerating everything but rocks and soil for a mile in its path before stopping a quarter mile and ten houses short of where I’m sitting right now. (Here is my report on the aftermath.) The Coyote Fire in September 1964 burned the same area, and much more. The Sycamore Fire in 1979 came even closer, burning houses just up the street from here.

“We live in the age of full convenience,” John Updike wrote, at a time when it made sense to think copiers and fax machines marked some kind of end state.* But the lessons that matter at the moment arise from the absence of the two most essential utilities in my life, and probably yours too: the electric grid and the data network. (Yes, I can get on the Net by tethering my laptop to my mobile phone, but both use batteries that will run out, and the phone is down below 20% already anyway.) So here are three lessons that come to me, here in the dark, all of which we are sure to continue ignoring::::

  1. Civilization is thin. A veneer. Under it nature remains vast, violent and provisional. In the long run, which may end at any time for any of us, nature will prove no easier to tame than the tides. For three great perspectives on this, I highly recommend John McPhee‘s The Control of Nature. The title is taken from a plea to students, carved into sandstone over the door of a building at the University of Wyoming in Laramie: STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON, NOT GIVEN. (I also recommend this blog post, by Themon The Bard, who went to UW and provides a photo.) Its chapters are “Iceland versus the volcanoes,” “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains” and “The Army Corps of Engineers versus the Mississippi River.” The New Yorker re-ran a set piece from the third of those, right after Hurricane Katrina, which produced what New Orleans natives call “The Flood.” In it McPhee describes what would happen to New Orleans when a levee is breached. Here is the original, published years before reality certified true McPhee’s prophesy.
  2. Humanity is insane. A good working definition of psychosis is disconnection of the mind from reality. As a species we have proven ourselves nuts for the duration, as the examples above attest. Present company included. (Further proof: war, genocide.) It should be clear by now that humanity is not merely at the top of the food chain around the world, but a pestilence to everything God (or whatever) put in position to be exploited in the short term, regardless of the obvious fact that it took approximately forever to put those resources in place, and how much of it cannot be replaced. While it’s true that in the very long run (a billion years or few), the aging Sun will cook the planet anyway, we are doing our best to get the job done in the geologic present. This is why many geologists propose renaming our current epoch “Anthropocene.” Bonus question: Why do political conservatives care so little about the long-term conservation of resources that are, undeniably, in limited supply and are clearly bound for exhaustion at any consumption rate? Before categorizing me, please note that I am a registered independent, and in sympathy with economic conservatives in a number of ways (for example, I do like, appreciate and understand how the market works, and in general I favor smaller government). But on environmental issues I’m with those who give a shit. Most of them happen to be liberals (or, in the current vernacular, progressives). George Lakoff provides some answers here (and in several books). But, while I love George, and while he has probably influenced my thinking more than any other human being, it still baffles that opposing conservation of resources fails to seem oxymoronic to most avowed conservatives.
  3. The end is in sight. Somewhere I’ve kept a newspaper story that did a great job of listing all the resources our species is bound to use up, at current rates of exploitation, and how long that will take. On the list were not only the obvious “reserves,” such like oil, gas, coal and uranium, but other stuff as well: helium, lithium, platinum, thorium, tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, niobium… stuff we use to make stuff that ranges from balloons to hard drives to hybrid car engines. Many of the heavier elements appear to have been deposited here during bombardments by asteroids several billion years ago, when the Earth has hard enough not to absorb them. Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the universe, is produced on Earth mostly by decay of radioactive elements in certain kinds of natural gas. Much of the world’s helium comes from the ground here in the U.S., where our enlightened congresspeople decided a few decades back to hand the reserves over to private industry, where “the market” would decide best how it would be used. So, naturally, we are due to run out of it within maybe a couple dozen years, and have not yet found a way to replace it. Read on.

[Later...] I wrote this three nights ago, but didn’t put it up until now because I was already way overdue on the  writing assignment I mentioned up top, and I had to deal with other pressing obligations as well. So I just went through the post, copy-edited it a bit and added some links.


* Special thanks goes to anybody who can find the original quote. I’ve used it so often on the Web that I’ve effectively spammed search results with unintended SEO. The closest thing I can find is this from Google Books, which fails to contain the searched-for nugget, but still demonstrates why Updike’s criticism earns the same high rank as his fiction.

Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems traffic access to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here:

The spot marked “A” is the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920:

My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old.

It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades and had no fear of heights, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables.

Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. See the brown area on the map above, between the highway and Main Street? That was it. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is now a house-less strip of rotting pavement flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached.

Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights on Main Street are City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old, in April 1948. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self.

When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — all born in the second half of the 19th Century — was still going strong. One relative I remember well was great-aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and the baby me. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She visited often from her home in St. Louis, and died just a few days short of 100 years old, in 1953. Living long is a Searls family trait. Grandma made it to 107 and Aunt Grace to 101 (she passed just last month, fun and lucid to the end).

So to me the world before cars, electricity and other modern graces was a familiar one, because I heard so many stories about it. Grandma grew up in The Bronx, at 742 East 142nd Street, when it looked like this:

Today, according to Google’s StreetView, it looks like this:

The red A marks 732. On the left, behind that wall, is a “towed car” lot. It sits atop a mound of rubble that was once “old Lincoln Hospital”:

According to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln Hospital, “In 1895, after more than half a century of occupying various sites in Manhattan, the Board of Trustees purchased a large lot in the South Bronx—then a semi-rural area of the city—at the corner of 141st Street and Southern Boulevard.” This is a morning view, lit from the southeast, looking north across 141st Street. Grandma’s place was on the back side of the hospital. Amazing to think that this scene came and went between the two shots above it.

Grandma’s father, Henry Roman Englert, was the head of the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in the city. His trade was also destroyed by industrial progress, but was an art in its time. Here he is, as a sharp young man with a waxed mustache:

Henry was a fastidious dude who, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters to appear and stand in a row. He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl. Or so the story went. Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Grandma met Grandpa in 1903, when she was twenty and he was forty. She was working as a cleaning woman in the Fort Lee boarding house where Grandpa lived while he worked as a carpenter. One day she saw him laying asleep, and bent down to kiss him. He woke, reached up, and kissed her back. Romance commenced.

Grandma didn’t like to admit having done cleaning work, insisting always that she was “lace curtain Irish,” to distinguish her family from “shanty Irish.” When ethnic matters came up in conversation over dinner, she would often say “All for the Irish stand up,” and everybody would rise. In fact she was only half Irish. Her mother, Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, died in her thirties. Henry later married an Italian woman and produced more progeny, only one of which was ever mentioned by Grandma. That was Harry, who died at age five. The largest framed photograph in Grandma’s house was one of Harry, looking up and holding a toy.

Kitty’s dad was Thomas Trainor, who came over from Ireland in 1825 at age 15 to escape England’s harsh penal laws. (He shipped out of Letterkenny with an uncle, but the Trainors were from south of there. Trainor was anglicized from the Gaelic Tréinfhir, meaning “strong man.”) Thomas worked as an indentured servant in the carriage trade, and married Catherine McLaughlin, the daughter of his boss. Thomas then prospered in the same business, building and fixing carriages at his shop at the south end of Broadway. His two daughters were Kitty and “Aunt Mag” Meyer, whom Grandma often quoted. The line I best remember is, “You’ve got it in your hand. Now put it away.” Mag taught Grandma how to walk quietly while large numbers of other people in the house were sleeping. Grandma passed the same advice to her grandkids, including me: “Walk on the balls of your feet, toes first.” The Trainors also had a son, who ran away to fight in the Civil War. When the war ended and the boy didn’t come home, Thomas went down to Washington and found his son in a hospital there, recovering from a wound. The doctors said the boy would be home by Christmas. And, when Christmas came, the boy indeed arrived, in a coffin. Or so the story went.

An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Time flies, and so do people, places and memories. My parents’ generation is now gone, and family members of my own generation are starting to move on. I can count ten places I used to live that are now gone as well, including my high school. Kevin Kelly told me a couple years ago that none of us, even the famous, will be remembered in a thousand years. I’m sure he’s right.

But I still feel the urge to pour as much as I can of what I know into the public domain, which is what you’re witnessing now, if you’re still with me at the bottom of a long post. I believe it helps to see what was, as well as what is.

For example, this view up Hoyt Avenue from the site of the old Searls place, in 2012, is now filled with a high-rise that is almost complete. The little bridge-less town where my grandparents met and my father and his sisters grew up is now a henge of high-rises. Fort Lee itself is now also known as Fort Lee Koreatown. In this constantly shifting urban context the current scandal seems a drop in the bucket of time.

 

Obamacare matters. But the debate about it also misdirects attention away from massive collateral damage to patients. How massive? Dig To Make Hospitals Less Deadly, a Dose of Data, by Tina Rosenberg in The New York Times. She writes,

Until very recently, health care experts believed that preventable hospital error caused some 98,000 deaths a year in the United States — a figure based on 1984 data. But a new report from the Journal of Patient Safety using updated data holds such error responsible for many more deaths — probably around some 440,000 per year. That’s one-sixth of all deaths nationally, making preventable hospital error the third leading cause of death in the United States. And 10 to 20 times that many people suffer nonlethal but serious harm as a result of hospital mistakes.

The bold-facing is mine. In 2003, one of those statistics was my mother. I too came close in 2008, though the mistake in that case wasn’t a hospital’s, but rather a consequence of incompatibility between different silo’d systems for viewing MRIs, and an ill-informed rush into a diagnostic procedure that proved unnecessary and caused pancreatitis (which happens in 5% of those performed — I happened to be that one in twenty). That event, my doctors told me, increased my long-term risk of pancreatic cancer.

Risk is the game we’re playing here: the weighing of costs and benefits, based on available information. Thus health care is primarily the risk-weighing business we call insurance. For generations, the primary customers of health care — the ones who pay for the services — have been insurance companies. Their business is selling bets on outcomes to us, to our employers, or both. They play that game, to a large extent, by knowing more than we do. Asymmetrical knowledge R them.

Now think about the data involved. Insurance companies live in a world of data. That world is getting bigger and bigger. And yet, McKinsey tells us, it’s not big enough. In The big-data revolution in US health care: Accelerating value and innovation (subtitle: Big data could transform the health-care sector, but the industry must undergo fundamental changes before stakeholders can capture its full value), McKinsey writes,

Fiscal concerns, perhaps more than any other factor, are driving the demand for big-data applications. After more than 20 years of steady increases, health-care expenses now represent 17.6 percent of GDP—nearly $600 billion more than the expected benchmark for a nation of the United States’s size and wealth.1 To discourage overutilization, many payors have shifted from fee-for-service compensation, which rewards physicians for treatment volume, to risk-sharing arrangements that prioritize outcomes. Under the new schemes, when treatments deliver the desired results, provider compensation may be less than before. Payors are also entering similar agreements with pharmaceutical companies and basing reimbursement on a drug’s ability to improve patient health. In this new environment, health-care stakeholders have greater incentives to compile and exchange information.

While health-care costs may be paramount in big data’s rise, clinical trends also play a role. Physicians have traditionally used their judgment when making treatment decisions, but in the last few years there has been a move toward evidence-based medicine, which involves systematically reviewing clinical data and making treatment decisions based on the best available information. Aggregating individual data sets into big-data algorithms often provides the most robust evidence, since nuances in subpopulations (such as the presence of patients with gluten allergies) may be so rare that they are not readily apparent in small samples.

Although the health-care industry has lagged behind sectors like retail and banking in the use of big data—partly because of concerns about patient confidentiality—it could soon catch up. First movers in the data sphere are already achieving positive results, which is prompting other stakeholders to take action, lest they be left behind. These developments are encouraging, but they also raise an important question: is the health-care industry prepared to capture big data’s full potential, or are there roadblocks that will hamper its use

The word “patient” appears nowhere in that long passage. The word “stakeholder” appears twice, plus eight more times in the whole piece. Still, McKinsey brooks some respect for the patient, though more as a metric zone than as a holder of a stake in outcomes:

Health-care stakeholders are well versed in capturing value and have developed many levers to assist with this goal. But traditional tools do not always take complete advantage of the insights that big data can provide. Unit-price discounts, for instance, are based primarily on contracting and negotiating leverage. And like most other well-established health-care value levers, they focus solely on reducing costs rather than improving patient outcomes. Although these tools will continue to play an important role, stakeholders will only benefit from big data if they take a more holistic, patient-centered approach to value, one that focuses equally on health-care spending and treatment outcomes.

McKinsey’s customers are not you and me. They are business executives, many of which work in health care. As players in their game, we have zero influence. As voters in the democracy game, however, we have a bit more. That’s one reason we elected Barack Obama.

So, viewed from the level at which it plays out, the debate over health care, at least in the U.S., is between those who believe in addressing problems with business (especially the big kind) and those who believe in addressing problems with policy (especially the big kind, such as Obamacare).

Big business has been winning, mostly. This is why Obamacare turned out to be a set of policy tweaks on a business that was already highly regulated, mostly by captive lawmakers and regulators.

Meanwhile we have this irony to contemplate: while dying of bad data at a rate rivaling war and plague, our physical bodies are being doubled into digital ones. It is now possible to know one’s entire genome, including clear markers of risks such as cancer and dementia. That’s in addition to being able to know one’s quantified self (QS), plus one’s health care history.

Yet all of that data is scattered and silo’d. This is why it is hard to integrate all our available QS data, and nearly impossible to integrate all our health care history. After I left the Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) system in 2010, my doctor at the time (Richard Donohue, MD, whom I recommend highly) obtained and handed over to me the entirety of my records from HUHS. It’s not data, however. It’s a pile of paper, as thick as the Manhattan phone book. Its utility to other doctors verges on nil. Such is the nature of the bizarre information asymmetry (and burial) in the current system.

On top of that, our health care system incentivizes us to conceal our history, especially if any of that history puts us in a higher risk category, sure to pay more in health insurance premiums.

But what happens when we solve these problems, and our digital selves become fully knowable — by both our selves and our health care providers? What happens to the risk calculation business we have today, which rationalizes more than 400,000 snuffed souls per annum as collateral damage? Do we go to single-payer then, for the simple reason that the best risk calculations are based on the nation’s entire population?

I don’t know.

I do know the current system doesn’t want to go there, on either the business or the policy side. But it will. Inevitably.

At the end of whatever day this is, our physical selves will know our data selves better than any system built to hoard and manage our personal data for their interests more than for ours. When that happens the current system will break, and another one will take its place.

How many more of us will die needlessly in the meantime? And does knowing (or guessing at) that number make any difference? It hasn’t so far.

But that shouldn’t stop us. Hats off to leadership in the direction of actually solving these problems, starting with Adrian Gropper, ePatient Dave, Patient Privacy RightsBrian Behlendorf, Esther Dyson, John Wilbanks, Tom Munnecke and countless other good people and organizations who have been pushing this rock up a hill for a long time, and aren’t about to stop. (Send me more names or add them in the comments below.)

Grandma Searlsfootstone says “1882 -  ” and is hardly and overstatement. She died pushing 108 in 1990, and was lucid, loving and strong in all the ways that matter.

She was one of four sisters in her family. That’s them, with their dad, on the left. Grandma is the one on the bottom right.

My father was one of three sibs, with two sisters, Ethel and Grace. My mom was one of three sisters and one brother. My wife is one of six sisters, plus two brothers. All those women were, and are, strong too. (Grace is now 101 and doing great.) My sister (Commander in the U.S. Navy), daughters and granddaughter too. Love ‘em all.

It’s Grandma’s birthday tomorrow, her 131st. It’s my wife’s birthday today. My daughter’s was yesterday. (Also JP Rangaswami‘s and RageBoy‘s.) So here’s a toast to all of them — and especially to the strong women who have been raising me all my life.

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