Authors Posts by Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

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By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The conversation in a New Jersey classroom of first-graders got around to the subject of Christmas, and the substitute teacher unleashed a bombshell. She told them that Santa isn’t real, that parents just buy presents and put them under a tree. On a roll, she didn’t stop there. Reindeer can’t fly, she advised the students, elves are not real, the elf on the shelf is just a doll that parents move around, there is no tooth fairy and no Easter bunny, either. She summed up with the news that there is no magic anything and that magic doesn’t exist. Whoa!

This made the top of the news earlier this week for CBS, NBC, Fox, USA Today and other major news outlets. No one, as far as I know, has interviewed the children to get their reactions, but the school superintendent and the principal were moved to speak, as the district apologized to the parents.

Montville superintendent of schools, Rene Rovtar, was “troubled and disheartened by the incident.” Cedar Hill Elementary School principal, Michael Raj, sent home a message to the parents in which he mentioned the “poor judgment” of the teacher and asked parents to “take appropriate steps to maintain the childhood innocence of the holiday season.” At least one parent, Lisa Simek, took to Facebook, expressing dismay. She urged that Christmas magic is real and expressed through acts of kindness, love, positivity and grace — from and for loved ones and strangers. The superintendent added, “The childhood wonder associated with all holidays and traditions is something I personally hold near and dear in my own heart.”

We don’t know how the children reacted, but we certainly know how upset the adults are. And we have not been told if the teacher will be allowed to substitute again. How should we react to this?

On the one hand, we know that the idea of Santa Claus brings joy and excitement to children and therefore to the adults around them. This is hardly innocence exploited by adults but rather an opportunity for adults each to be Santa, to be their best, most generous, most loving selves. While the person of Santa is a fiction, the embodiment of all that Santa stands for most surely is not. Fictional characters can provide inspiration for the lifetime of a child as he or she grows up. Intergenerational mythmaking exists in many contexts, not only to entertain but also to inspire.

Children sooner or later catch on, especially when they see 20 Santas walking down the street together on their return from their Salvation Army posts. But on the other hand, how do children feel when they realize the adults around them have told them untruths? If they go to school expecting to believe what they are taught there, should the teacher acquiesce in mythmaking? For sure, this teacher handled the situation with poor judgment. It would have been far better for her and the children had she told them to ask their parents about the magic of Santa. For whatever reason, she did not do that.

How did you feel when, as a child, you learned that Santa was a story made up by the adults closest to you? Did you understand the greater good embodied in the concept or were you left to distrust on some level whatever those adults might subsequently tell you? Does misleading a child bring psychological questions into play?

It did not negatively affect Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked that question of her father when she was 8 years old in 1897. She said the answer inspired her for the rest of her long life. Her dad told her to write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper, and added, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The Sun’s hard-bitten, cynical editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote the answer that turned into the most reprinted editorial over the next century in the English-speaking world: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This sounds like a fairy tale, but the latest weapon in the battle against mental illness is a bench. Yes, a brightly colored, sometimes plastic, sometimes wooden magic bench. In this particular instance, a bench can do wonders. It all started as a brainchild of psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda in the far-off country of Zimbabwe, which is just north of the Republic of South Africa.

In Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, he was treating a young woman for depression who traveled some 160 miles from her rural home each time to see him. At one point, when she couldn’t get to him, he discovered that she had taken her life. That tragedy changed his life.

Zimbabwe is a dirt poor country of some 17 million people with 12 trained psychiatrists, and they are only in Harare. Almost every person suffering with depression does not have access to evidence-based talking therapies or modern anti-depressants. There is not even a word in the Shona language for depression. The closest is “kufungisisa,” which means “thinking too much,” and is akin to “rumination” or negative thought patterns that often lie at the core of depression and anxiety. Long-term social stress, such as that brought on by unemployment, chronic disease in loved ones and abusive
relationships, is associated with depression.

In the early 1990s, nearly one quarter of adults in Zimbabwe had HIV with no meds to save them. In 2005, strongman President Robert Mugabe’s forced slum-clearance program to “drive out the rubbish,” known as Operation Murambatsvina, caused the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of homes and jobs. The consequence of such events was widespread depression.

For Chibanda, the challenge was enormous. He felt strongly that had his patient been able to see him regularly, he could have saved her. But how to get mental health care to those who cannot easily access the help? Certainly not in the private clinics that he had planned to start in the city.

As he cast around in vain for government resources, he realized that grandmothers were already functioning since the 1980s as community health workers, supporting people with HIV, TB, cholera and offering health education. They were trained by the government, lived where they worked and were trusted and highly respected. In 2006, they were asked to add depression to their list of treatable ailments.

Chibanda took on a group of 14 elderly women, taught them to ask patients 14 questions, eventually called the Shona Symptom Questionnaire, and if the answers to eight or more were “yes,” then psychological help was deemed necessary. Questions included, “Do you feel you are thinking too much?” or “Do you ever have thoughts of killing yourself?” The patients put their answers in writing, and after the first interview, the grandmothers gathered in a circle to discuss each patient and decide how to proceed. Professional help might be sought for the extreme patients, but for the most part, the service provided by these grandmothers of listening and offering wisdom acquired over their years to guide patients to their own solutions to the problems at hand proved remarkably effective.

Where to sit and listen to these patients? Rather than in overcrowded clinics, the answer was on a bench under the shade of an old tree. The benches were placed outside the clinics, in plain sight, and by sitting down on one, a patient could indicate the need for intervention. In 2007, an initial pilot was begun in a suburb of Harare, and by October 2011 the first study was published. By then, there were 24 health clinics and more than 300 grandmothers trained in an updated form of problem-solving therapy. And by 2016, a decade after the program began, the results showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.

The Friendship Bench project, as it is known, has spread, with evidence-based approaches, to Malawi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Canada and the United States; Australia and New Zealand are on the wait list. There is also a program in New York City. Chibanda gave a TED talk in 2016 that has further popularized the Friendship Bench project

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Call me ghoulish, but I like to read obituaries. Of course they have to be well-written obits, like the ones in The New York Times. I almost never know the people who have died. If I’ve heard of them, their stories are usually on the front page. These obits that I refer to are usually found in the back pages. The dead are famous enough to warrant a significant write-up, and I always like to hear tales of people’s lives. That’s one reason I find them interesting. Another, perhaps more important attraction for me, is the random information to be gleaned on diverse subjects.

Let me give you some recent examples.

On an entirely random day, Thursday, Oct. 25, I read about Wanda Ferragamo, clever wife of the famous shoemaker, Salvatore Ferragamo, who had built a shoe shop in Florence, Italy, into a shoe design and manufacturing concern. Upon his death in 1960 — he was 24 years older than his wife — Wanda, who had never worked in her life until then, built the company into an international powerhouse with annual revenues most recently of more than $1 billion. Now I happen to like Ferragamo shoes, although I mostly don’t buy them. But the obit was something of a business case study for me, as well as the story of a remarkable woman who had just died at her hilltop villa in Fiesole, a beautiful village above Florence, at age 96.

Then there was Osamu Shimomura, who died in Nagasaki, Japan, at age 90. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for finding a glowing jellyfish protein that is now a major element of biological research. Shimomura, working in Washington state for a Princeton marine biologist in 1961, scooped up thousands of jellyfish from Puget Sound in an attempt to discover how they glowed green when agitated. They were able to extract a luminescent material, a protein, which they named aequorin. He also found trace amounts of another protein, green fluorescent protein or GFP that would glow green whenever ultraviolet light was shined on it. Ultimately the GFP gene was stitched into the DNA of other organisms, enabling researchers to track those organisms the way naturalists can track tagged cougars in the wild. This revolutionized contemporary biological discovery. Of great further interest, he lived with grandparents near Nagasaki and saw the American B-29 airplane that dropped its devastating atomic bomb on the city. He described what he saw in graphic detail in his Nobel autobiography.

Dorcas Reilly, who died in Camden, New Jersey, at age 92, might particularly be remembered at the Thanksgiving table. It was she who invented the classic American dish of green bean casserole when she worked in the Campbell Soup Company test kitchen. Containing a mere six ingredients, the recipe was printed on the label of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and called for cooked green beans, a little milk, soy sauce, pepper and some crunchy fried onions on top. Reilly helped create simple recipes to promote the sale of company products. Originally called the Green Bean Bake in 1955, Campbell’s estimates some 20 million American homes will serve the dish in two weeks time.

The Indian musician and teacher, Annapurna Devi, 91, died in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Called by The Times “a poignant inspiration for women artists,” Devi masterfully played the surbahar, described as a bass sitar. This is “a difficult instrument that few if any women of her era played.” She and her first husband, the famous sitarist Ravi Shankar, sometimes played together, but when she seemed to get most of the notice she stopped performing. A 1973 movie, “Abhimaan,” is said to have been inspired by their marriage and the tensions within it. She then limited herself to teaching and “turned out musicians of the highest caliber.”

There was also Tony Hoagland, who died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 64 and “a widely admired poet who could be both humorous and heartfelt.” He found insights and imagery in the everyday, like a pool in an Austin, Texas, park; a spaghetti strap on a woman’s dress that wouldn’t stay put; and, according to The Times, an old man dying awash in paranoia from too much Fox News.

Never heard of any of them? Now you have and learned something too, I’ll bet. I did.

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As I sit here, writing my column on election eve, I can feel — or imagine I can feel — the nervousness of a nation on the threshold of the unknown. More than perhaps any other midterm election, this one has come to epitomize the turbulent and contradictory forces pulsating within America today. One thing is certain, however. The day after the election, we will still be living with those same forces: racism, income inequality, foreign affairs and the role today of the Constitution written more than two centuries ago.

Seemingly just in time, although he explains that he started the book two years before President Trump was elected, Joseph J. Ellis has written about these same subjects by sharing the conflicting viewpoints of a quartet of our most admired Founding Fathers. Remarkably they concern these same issues, and hence Ellis states in “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” that he is writing about “ongoing conversations between past and present.” He even labels chapters “then” and “now” lest the specific themes of his dialogues and how they relate to today are not clear. Our Founding Fathers not only argued among themselves, they argue across more than 240 years, speaking to us in the present — and in a way reassuring us that the dialoguing is not ruinous but rather an asset of our democracy.

So much for our current concern about a divided country.

The four founders are Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and James Madison. Ellis describes Jefferson’s contemptible views on race as he grew older, insisting as he did that the two races could not live together and that blacks could never be equal to whites. This after a younger Jefferson wrote that “all men were created equal,” and denounced slavery. But as we know, he benefited from many slaves at Monticello in Virginia and sired multiple children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Certainly he struggled with the whole issue of race but did little to try to ameliorate the problem. He might have banned the spread of slavery to the Louisiana Purchase that he so brilliantly acquired in 1803, or sold some of it to compensate slave owners for freeing their slaves or even have provided a safe haven for freed slaves to live there. He did none of that.

In their final 14 years through 1826, Jefferson and Adams exchanged letters regularly, arguing not only for their time but consciously for future Americans to be able to read their deliberations. Jefferson held a romantic notion that economic and social equality — not between the races, however — would come to be the natural order of American life. Adams realistically insisted that “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in individuals and families … the snowball will grow as it rolls.” Adams believed that government had a role in preventing the accumulation of wealth and power by American oligarchs. The Gilded Age of the late 1800s proved Adams right, as the unbridled freedom to pursue wealth essentially ensured the triumph of inequality. So has our own age. We have an endemic, widening gulf. What should be the role of government at this juncture in our democracy?

Madison — who orchestrated the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the ratification, wrote many of The Federalist Papers and drafted the Bill of Rights — changed dramatically from a staunchly held belief in federal supremacy to one in which states and the federal government shared sovereignty, thus allowing future residents to interpret the Constitution according to a changing world.

Washington famously warned against foreign adventuring in countries of little threat to the United States. It was almost as if he could see Afghanistan and Iraq over the horizon.

Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books about our early history, believes that history helps us understand the present. We can see the same arguments going back and forth that somehow sound an optimistic chord.

And what does he see as the ultimate fix? A great crisis would certainly unite us, he suggests, perhaps even that of evacuation of the coasts with rising seas. He also thinks mandatory national service would help, not necessarily from the military aspect but toward some form of public good.

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There is a lot of stress in our lives these days. Stress envelops us. One man I know complained that even in his home, he does not feel stress free. When he puts on the television or radio, the now-commonplace partisan viewpoints surround him. And that is the least of it. The horrific shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, pipe bombs sent to at least 15 different targets perceived to be Democratic in nature throughout the United States, the shooting at a school in North Carolina and more make up some of the news just this past week. There seems to be no escape. Even conversation with customers or spouses inevitably touches on the daily stressful events.

Surely there have been times of even greater stress in our country. World War II comes immediately to mind. The Cold War, with regular air raids, was another. The Cuban Missile Crisis was yet another. But these were all threats from outside: from the Nazis, the Japanese, the Soviet Union. The stress today, whether rhetorical or physical, is domestic and aimed by Americans against other Americans. Worst of all, as political partisans denigrate opponents and gun violence becomes tragically routine, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

Can we learn to manage the stress in our lives? The Harvard Women’s Health Watch advises that we can. In the August issue, published by a division of Harvard Medical School, physicians offer some information about stress and its effects. They also give some suggestions for coping with stress.

First the information. “It’s not uncommon to feel disorganized and forgetful when you’re under a lot of stress,” the article, “Protect your brain from stress,” explained. “But over the long term, stress may actually change your brain in ways that affect your memory.” Because stress can influence how the brain functions, including not only memory but also mood and anxiety, it can cause inflammation. This in turn can affect heart health. Thus stress has been associated with multiple chronic diseases of the brain and heart, according to Harvard physicians.

The brain is not just a single unit but a group of different parts that perform different tasks, according to the Harvard article. When one part is engaged, researchers believe that other parts may not have as much energy for their specialized functions. One example is if you are in a dangerous situation, the amygdala section takes over to ensure survival, while the energy level in parts having to do with memory or higher-order tasks recedes. Hence you might be more forgetful when stressed.

“There is evidence that chronic (persistent) stress may actually rewire your brain,” according to the research, as if exercising one section makes it stronger while other sections, like that having to do with more complex thought, take “a back seat.” Such brain changes may be reversible.

There are various kinds of stress. For example, one feels differently before taking a big test compared with that experienced in a car accident. More stress is worse, and long-term stress is generally worse than short-term stress, according to the physicians. Unpredictable stress is worse than stress that can be anticipated. Chronic stress can be more challenging than one that will end shortly. Feeling supported by others most likely mitigates stress effects.

So here is some advice from the Harvard publication on how to cope with stress. Establish some control over your situation such as by setting a routine. Get organized. Get a good night’s sleep — hard to do when stressed but going to bed and waking up at the same time each day helps, as does avoiding caffeine and creating a relaxing sleep environment. Get help, sooner rather than later. And try to change your attitude toward stress by striving for healthier responses to stress. Use its effects, if you can, to high power you to a goal. Like voting.

And I say, turn off the television and the instant news briefs on your cellphone for some quiet time each day.

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When asked to name my favorite activity, I have to narrow the selection down to perhaps five. One of them is certainly reading. I have always loved to read and begged my mother to teach me to read well before I started elementary school. One of my favorite destinations, as soon as I was old enough to cross the New York City streets, was the neighborhood public library. The librarians knew me by name and regularly recommended books. They sometimes even bent the rules and let me take out more books than the normal limit at any one visit, and I devoured them all.

This revelation is probably not so surprising considering the job I hold. My guess is there are many millions more like me. So it is no wonder that the PBS series started last spring, “The Great American Read,” in which viewers rank their favorite novels, has drawn such an enthusiastic response. This week the winners on the list of 100 favorites were announced. The finalists were: “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Lord of the Rings,” the “Harry Potter” and “Outlander” series and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee won.

“One of the best-loved stories of all time, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has been translated into more than 40 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture and was voted one of the best novels of the 20th century by librarians across the country,” according to “The Great American Read” website. “A gripping, heart-wrenching and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father, a crusading local lawyer, risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.”

The PBS website continued, “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ led ‘The Great American Read’ voting from the first week, and kept the lead for the entire five months of voting, despite strong competition from the rest of our five finalists. It also topped the list of votes in every state except North Carolina (who went for ‘Outlander’) and Wyoming (who preferred ‘Lord of the Rings’). Such widespread support from readers across the country make ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ a worthy winner of ‘The Great American Read.’”

Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, 1926, and died in her sleep at her hometown in an adult care residence in 2016. She was named after her grandmother, the name turned backward, and the family pediatrician, Dr. William W. Harper. She used the name Nelle but took Harper Lee as a pen name.

Her father was a former newspaper editor who then practiced law and was a member of the Alabama State Legislature for 13 years. He once defended two black men, a father and son who were accused of killing a white storekeeper. Both men were hanged. This clearly influenced the plot of “Mockingbird.”

Lee studied law for years at the University of Alabama, where she also wrote for the university newspaper, but she did not earn a degree. In 1949, she moved to New York City and found a job as an airline reservation agent, writing fiction in her spare time. Then, in November of 1956, she received a gift from friends. It was a year’s wages with a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

The following spring she brought a manuscript to an agent, and it wound up with a J.B. Lippincott Company editor named Therese von Hohoff Torrey. Tay Hohoff, as she was called, worked with Lee for two years, turning what she called “a series of anecdotes” into the finished book. During that intense time, Lee once threw the pages out the window into the snow, then called her editor in tears. She was told to go out and pick up the manuscript immediately. Fortunately for all of us, she did.

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It’s as if we are living in a James Bond movie but with one small difference: These events are real. A Saudi journalist walked into his country’s embassy in Turkey, we learn, and never came out. He entered at 1:14 p.m. Oct. 2, around the time he had been instructed to come, to pick up papers that would enable him to wed his Turkish fiancée. The wedding was scheduled for the next day. She was waiting outside in the car for him to re-emerge. There is video of him entering the building but none of him leaving. She waits outside but in vain. She does not see him again.

The journalist, we continue to learn, is Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident in his country and critic of the royal family who felt sufficiently at risk to leave and move to the United States. He lived in Virginia and was a Saudi contributor to the Washington Post, for which he said he could write freely. Khashoggi was good friends with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In addition to the video at the Saudi Consulate, there are further videos of two Saudi charter planes landing at the Istanbul airport the preceding night and that same day. Those disembarking were 15 men, all apparently known to the Turkish officials as members of Saudi intelligence. One was identified as an autopsy specialist who carried a bone saw. They all came to the embassy. Late in the afternoon, all reboarded the planes and returned to Saudi Arabia.

Turkish authorities claim to have video and audio showing that Khashoggi was killed in his country’s embassy and his body dismembered. To date, they have not shown the evidence, claiming they do not want to expose intelligence sources. Until now the Saudi government has denied any knowledge or connection with the events in the embassy but has in the last couple of days changed its story. As a result, it now suggests that the journalist was accidentally killed while being interrogated.

Aside from the morbid fascination with these events, why should we in the United States care? We are directly involved because Khashoggi, though still a Saudi Arabian citizen, lived here and was a well-known columnist. Further, Saudi Arabia is a fulcrum of President Donald Trump’s Mideast policy, both in the context of any Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, in the Middle East wars and also in our effort to diminish the influence of Iran. In addition, the Saudis buy billions of dollars of military arms from us and play a major role in the supply chain of oil. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is known to have cultivated a close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is effectively controlling the government. In the past, members of the Bush family too, while in office, were closely tied to the Saudi royals.

Now prominent members of Congress are urging Trump to impose economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia. Trump is caught between all of the previously given reasons not to alienate the Saudi government, and the outrage and disgust of world leaders at a possible grisly murder that is assumed to have been authorized by “MBS” — how the crown prince is known. Revulsion is plain to see as some corporate leaders have withdrawn from a global economic conference, the Future Investment Initiative — known as “Davos in the Desert” — that is scheduled in Riyadh for next week. The conference is seen as something of a prestigious triumph for MBS.

So far, Trump has offered the suggestion that “rogue killers” may be responsible for the possible murder, even as he threatened “severe punishment” if the Saudi royal family were found to be involved. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, is still slated to participate in the conference. A decision on his going is expected by Friday.

So what will carry the day here, humanitarian or political concerns? Will the world move on, forgetting a single journalist in the interests of Machiavellian gain? Or will there be an honest, vigorous investigation as this morality tale plays out across the globe?

Stay tuned.

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Partisanship is a distressing topic these days. We are a divided country on so many issues, and savvy candidates in the upcoming elections try to sooth that aggravation by offering to reach across the aisle to get the nation’s business done. But here is an age-old question that is simply unbridgeable: Which are smarter, dogs or cats?

Now many of us have heard of Chaser, a border collie from Spartanburg, S.C., who understood 1,022 nouns. His owner was John Pilley, a scientist who studied canine cognition and trained his pet as part of his work. There was also a border collie named Rico who could identify 200 items. These dogs helped us reach the conclusion that dogs were extraordinarily intelligent and certainly smarter than cats. But had their partisanship colored the verdict of remarkable canine smarts on the part of owner-scientists?

Currently there seems to be a study for every question, and this one is no exception. Stephen Lea, an emeritus professor in the psychology department of the University of Exeter in Devon, England, along with Britta Osthaus, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, England, conducted one such study, according to a recent Laura Holson article in The New York Times. The results are published in the journal Learning & Behavior. In the interests of full disclosure, Lea confessed that he was a cat person. Nonetheless the scientists tried to impartially compare dog cognition with three similar groups: carnivores, social hunters and domestic animals. Among those selected were wolves, cats, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses and pigeons.

Here is what they found.

Dogs cannot use tools, unlike dolphins, New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees, which according to The Times, can harness plant stems to fish for termites. Homing pigeons are trained to fly home over great distances, and probably would be more trustworthy to travel on a 1,000-mile errand than a dog, Lea believes. Domestic animals, like horses, can also impress with their learned tasks and tricks. Dogs seem smart in part, Lea said, “because they like to be trained.” The same cannot always be said for cats.

In my dog-owning years, some 45 all together, I’ve loved and enjoyed the company of three golden retrievers and one royal (the largest) standard poodle. From this small sample, I would conclude that the poodle was the smartest. When I would sit on the sofa and read the newspaper, he would hop up on the cushion next to me, sitting upright as people and that breed do, and peer over my shoulder. I swear I think he was reading the paper, much as paperless people used to do to their paper-toting seatmates on subways before the arrival of the smartphone.

So all right, I am a bit partisan.

The conclusion that Lea’s study reaches is that dogs “are not smarter than they are supposed to be, given what they are.”

Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe and a dog lover, recognizes merit in Lea’s study. He explains that Lea is not putting dogs down but rather putting them in their proper context. What Wynne touts about dogs is their outstanding capacity for affection.

Cats, I feel, are more aloof. So while Lea concludes that dogs are not particularly extraordinary, I would say that by being so affectionate toward humans, they have created the best possible lives for themselves. I once had a plumber working in my house who, eyeing my dog asleep on a pillow, told me, “In the next life I want to return as an American dog.”

Now if that doesn’t show superior intelligence on the part of dogs and their ability to earn that kind of existence, I’m not sure what could reveal a higher IQ. Certainly our elected officials are not nearly so endearing.

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The lights went out just as I had finished the chapter, and was about to put down my book and go to bed. I looked at my watch, which shines in the dark, and noted that it was past 11 p.m. It was a clear night with no lightning or wind, was my first thought. Probably some driver ran into a telephone pole and disabled a transformer, my brain posited, trying to make sense of the sudden blackness. Then the loud noises began. In rapid succession, there was a series of what sounded like firecrackers going off somewhere on our street, close to our house. The acrid smell of smoke began to fill the air.

I briefly thought to go outside, then decided to wait a few minutes before bothering to fumble around for a robe or wake the rest of the house. Within minutes my neighbor across the street phoned. He looks directly at our property. And he said that the telephone pole right beside my driveway was on fire, flames and sparks coming out from the bottom. “We’ve called the fire department, and you seem to be in no immediate danger,” he reassured me. “They said they would be here directly. In fact, here comes a police car now. It’s beaten the fire truck.”

Time to wake the house and go outside for a look, I decided, hoping not to trip over any obstacle on my way to the front door. The police car was in our driveway, his lights the only ones piercing the darkness. “What’s happened?” I yelled as he got out and slowly walked toward me. He didn’t want to trip over a tree root or a curb either.

“Your telephone pole is burning but not to worry, the firemen will shortly have it under control,” he offered calmly, as if everyone deals with these particulars when they should be in bed asleep. When I asked, he told me his name and that he was from the 6th Precinct. My hostess instincts rushed to the fore. “Would you like some coffee or a sandwich?”

He laughed. It was, after all, a preposterous exchange to be having in the dead of night. “No thank you, but here come the guys from PSEG, right behind the firemen. They will take care of this quickly.”

It wasn’t so quick. A courageous soul from PSEG Long Island went up in one of those extending arm buckets mounted on the truck alongside the burning pole to cut the electric wires. At the same time, the entire street was plunged into darkness, no doubt at the direction of the power company.

“What caused such a reaction?” my neighbor asked a worker. “Who knows?” he replied with a shrug. “It could be a rodent or a squirrel chewing through the wires.” The responders were a gallant crew, seemingly unperturbed by the excitement. Between the fire trucks and the PSEG trucks, there were interminable blinking lights and radio noise for a couple of hours. The men went about their jobs in good humor, and when the lines were cut and the fire finally out, they promised to come back the next day. They were able to restore power to the rest of the block but, of course, not to us, before they left.

To their great credit, the men were back with trucks by 9 a.m. the following morning. This surface crew dug up the burnt wires, installed a new pole alongside the charred one and reconnected the overhead wires. The underground crew arrived around midday and installed the other wires beneath the soil, laboring until well after dark under bright lights before they finished.

By 9 p.m. we had our power back in our house but not the other services that are attached to the pole: cable and telephone. As of this writing, those services are promised shortly. Whatever we grouse about on the national level of our country, it is tremendously reassuring that on the local level we are remarkably well cared for. Three cheers for my helpful neighbors, the police, firemen and PSEG men.

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Québec City seems like a delightfully European-styled destination that is only a nine-hour drive from here. Montreal, officially Montréal, is even closer, only six hours or so. The old cities there are filled with beautiful stone buildings that speak of some five centuries of North American history, a unique culture that is a French-Canadian and English mix, lively street scenes and shops, museums, sports and scrumptious restaurant food.

I can attest to all that because I attended a press convention that was held in Canada this fall, and a friend and I drove there and back. By the way, the road trip is a scenic joy as we traveled along the Molly Stark Trail amid the Green Mountains through Vermont and back on the Adirondack Northway. The only way it could have been better is if the leaves had been turning. As it was, the trees were at their lushest, the highways were clear and the weather was perfect — in the 70s with low humidity and azure blue sky.

I was thrilled that the local residents could understand my French and even more so that I could understand theirs. I haven’t tried to speak French since I was last in Paris, a while ago. I discovered that the French Canadians speak more slowly than the Parisians generally, so communication of at least a rudimentary nature was mildly possible. I certainly understood how much they dislike President Trump, which they told us often enough after they discovered we were visiting Americans.

Quebec City, referred to that way to distinguish it from the larger Province of Quebec, is located both above and below cliffs that line the northern bank of the wide St. Lawrence River. The Upper Town, home of the now-famous Château Frontenac, was where the elite among the early French settlers lived, including the clergy and government officials. Merchants and craftsmen lived in the Lower Town along the river. The strategic location of the city permitted the French to repel both British and American invaders for more than a century and enabled trade to flourish among New France until Wolfe and de Montcalm fought on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and the British won. The Quebec Act of 1774 allowed the French to continue to speak French and to practice Catholicism, and by keeping the French satisfied probably kept them from joining the American Revolution. To this day, road signs are in French although children learn English from second grade on and are bilingual.

After a couple of days, we made the three-hour drive to Montreal and the location of the convention, still enjoying glorious weather. I keep marveling at the weather, knowing that of the original 28 men who accompanied Samuel de Champlain from France in 1608, 20 died from the harsh first winter.

The Island of Montreal was considered, in the early days of settlement in the mid-17th century, to be only an outpost for fur trading. Over the centuries, however, it has become one of the world’s largest primarily French-speaking cities after Paris and the second largest city in Canada — only Toronto is larger. The Port of Montreal is one of the world’s major inland ports, served by the St. Lawrence Seaway. It is a city of skyscrapers, festivals and considerable diversity, and it too has marvelous restaurants, along with the cultural and entertainment offerings one would expect. I only got a short tour of Old Montreal and some time in the art museum, where there was a good exhibit on Picasso and African art, because in Montreal I had to work. I enjoyed the meetings and learned some things there that our newspapers will be telling you about in subsequent issues, also on our website.

Our return on Sunday afternoon took us an hour to cross the border compared with fewer than three minutes on the way into Quebec on a weekday. We left our northern neighbor, however, with a strong urge to revisit soon.

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