Between you and me

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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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It is disconcerting when the medical community reverses course. They seem to do that every decade or so, as with the purported value of vitamin C, estrogen and so forth. The latest about face, in case you haven’t yet heard, is on the matter of taking baby aspirin. For years we have been urged to take a baby aspirin each day to ward off all sorts of ills: heart attacks, strokes, dementia, colorectal cancers and who knows what else. Those tiny pills that can dissolve in seconds against the roof of one’s mouth, or be popped into it, seemed capable of miracles.

Now, with a shot heard truly around the world, an Australian research team at Monash University in Melbourne concluded that not only may aspirin not help, it may in some cases actually harm. The results of their study, which included more than 19,000 people over 4.7 years, were published in three articles this past Sunday in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine and summarized by The New York Times on Monday, and by just about all other major media.

The study included whites 70 and older, and blacks and Hispanics 65 and older. Each took 100 milligrams — slightly more than the 81 milligrams of a baby aspirin — or a placebo each day. While doing so did not lower their risks of diseases, it did increase “the risk of significant bleeding in the digestive tract, brain or other sites that required transfusions or admission to the hospital,” according to The Times.

So what does all that mean, especially for those already at risk for the conditions aspirin was supposed to protect against?

I am going to quote from The Times very carefully here because this can get confusing due to mixed messages. “Although there is good evidence that aspirin can help people who have already had heart attacks or strokes, or who have a high risk that they will occur, the drug’s value is actually not so clear for people with less risk, especially older ones,” wrote reporter Denise Grady.

So can aspirin prevent cardiovascular events in people with diabetes, for example, or is the benefit outweighed by the risk of major bleeding? Does dose matter in that heavier people might require more aspirin to be prophylactive?

Here’s what the study tells us: Healthy older people should not begin taking aspirin. This will no doubt disappoint Bayer, St. Joseph and others who manufacture the drug. But those who have already been using it regularly should not quit based on these findings, according to Dr. John McNeil, leader of the Australian study. Rather they should talk with their doctors first because the new findings do not apply to those who have already had heart attacks or strokes, which involve blood clots. Aspirin is known to inhibit clotting.

The name of this study is Aspree and it was funded by the National Institute on Aging, along with the National Cancer Institute, Monash University and the Australian government. Bayer supplied the aspirin and placebos but had no other role, according to The Times.

The study focuses on preventive medicine, especially how to keep older people healthy longer. It included 16,703 people from Australia and 2,411 from the United States, starting in 2010. Serious bleeding occurred in 3.8 percent of the aspirin group as opposed to 2.7 percent in the placebo group.

McNeil does suggest the possibility that aspirin’s protective effect against colorectal cancers might still exist but not show up for a longer time span than the study. The Times article does go on to say that the good doctor, who is 71 and specializes in epidemiology and preventive medicine, does not himself take aspirin.

Don’t know what to do? As they say in the commercials, consult your doctor.

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When we have visitors, we like to show off our neighborhoods. We take our guests to the beaches to admire the beautiful shoreline and we bring them to our villages to enjoy restaurants and shops. But some stores have been forced to close largely because so much shopping now takes place on the internet.

The owners and managers of stores that remain have learned that they must do more than in the past to attract customers. That is true of malls, department stores and especially smaller retail shops. To compete with the convenient internet, they have to offer an appealing experience for the consumer to visit them.

We are proud of our downtowns and want to publicize their efforts to attract business, especially for their best season before the holidays. To provide a local shopping event and a fun experience, we have arranged a private holiday treat at the Bates House opposite the Emma Clark Library in Setauket. Hometown stores and services from Huntington, Cold Spring Harbor, Northport, Smithtown, St. James, Stony Brook, Setauket-East Setauket, Port Jefferson, Port Jefferson Station, Mount Sinai, Miller Place, Rocky Point, Sound Beach, Shoreham, Wading River, Centereach, Selden and Lake Grove will feature their offerings at this charming venue for our local residents. Those who come out to enjoy this showcase will find a discount of 20 percent for some products and services.

Shoppers will be exposed to neighbors and friends as they sample community gatherings. Business owners will look to demonstrate what’s new for the holidays, from products or services to gift certificates and one-time discounts.

To make the occasion more delightful, there will be dessert bites from Elegant Eating and prosecco wine provided by TBR News Media/Times Beacon Record as a treat for shoppers, who will attend free.

Those businesses who are participating will enjoy a discounted rate at the gala in addition to their advertising in our holiday book, “Time for Giving.” They will also have advertising on our internet website and social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Furthermore, we will have spot interviews with each exhibitor and streaming live video throughout the event on Facebook on Tuesday, Nov. 13, from 5:30-8:30 pm. For further information, please turn to the large ad in our Arts & Lifestyles section in the center of the newspapers. also see our website and social media.

We will be proud to feature our private holiday shopping experience and hope you will, too. Please join us.

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Question: Put together some sci-fi, add a bit of spy thriller and what have you got? Answer: The latest hypothesis for what caused the symptoms and illnesses of our diplomatic representatives in Cuba and then in China. The Cuban incident caused a serious rift in the newly mellowed relationship between Cuba and the United States. Now scientists are suggesting that microwaves might be the weapons.

It seems that weapons emitting microwave radiation, not the short waves that come from our kitchen microwave ovens or connect our cellphones to antennae towers, have been considered by military specialists for mind control since the Cold War. These invisible beams can transmit painfully loud booms and even spoken words into people’s heads, according to an astonishing story by William J. Broad on the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times. Now Douglas H. Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the lead author of a recent study of 21 affected diplomats from Cuba, pointed to this possible cause of the brain injuries.

The Frey effect, named after American biologist Allan H. Frey, occurs when microwaves cause the brain to “hear” ordinary sounds, like loud noises, ringing and even human voices. These can be the result of stealth attacks with sonic weapons.

Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that, according to The Times, helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, has been called in to figure out the cause of the symptoms. While the group has not issued any explanations, nor has the FBI, it is certainly studying the possibility of microwaves being the agents. Frey, 83, who lives near Washington, agrees. He even thinks that a group of Cubans aligned with Russia, their longtime ally, might have launched such an attack. “It’s a possibility … a perfectly viable explanation,” to disrupt a closer United States-Cuban relationship.

Microwaves, a form of electromagnetic radiation, are everywhere and are generally seen as harmless. However, when tightly focused, as when dish antennas turn the disorganized rays into concentrated beams, they can cause even deaf people to hear false sounds. Frey, in effect, founded a new field of study on the neural impact of radiation waves. He realized that the human head, because of its dimensions, is a good antenna for picking up microwave signals. The temporal lobes, beneath the temples, are where nerve signals from the outer and inner ear are processed. The effect is now called radio-frequency hearing.

Others took note. The Soviets built labs with armed guards to study the neural impact of microwaves and envisioned arms that they called psychophysical or psychotronic. These sounds, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned, could disrupt military or diplomatic personnel.

The U.S. Air Force jumped in to research how to beam comprehensible speech into the heads of enemies. The Navy sought to paralyze with the beams. Russia, China and European nations know how to make such weapons today. The weapon might look like an innocuous satellite dish and could fire beams over relatively short distances. We do know that Russian President Vladimir Putin resurrected “work on psychoactive arms” as recently ago as 2012, according to The Times.

There is still no definitive explanation for the sickness of diplomatic personnel in Cuban and subsequently China, but suspicions of microwave radiation remain high on the list. The problem in pinpointing them is the stealth.

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Summer is about to end, and with it the most mellow time of the year. I’d like to leave this season with a gentle and accurate message that came from the internet and resonates with me:

A newlywed young man was sitting on the porch on a humid day, sipping ice tea with his father. As he talked about adult life, marriage responsibilities and obligations, the father thoughtfully stirred the ice cubes in his glass and cast a clear, sober look on his son.

“Never forget your friends,” he advised, “they will become more important as you get older. Regardless of how much you love your family, you will always need friends. Remember to go out with them occasionally — if possible — but keep in contact with them somehow.”

“What strange advice!” thought the young man. “I just entered the married world. I am an adult and surely my wife and the family that we will start will be everything I need to make sense of my life.”

Yet he obeyed his father, kept in touch with his friends and annually increased their number. Over the years, he became aware that his father knew what he was talking about.

Inasmuch as time and nature carry out their designs and mysteries on a person, friends are the bulwarks of our life. After 70-plus years of life, here is what he, and you, and I will have learned:

Time passes.

Life goes on.

Children grow up. They cease to be children and become independent. And to the parents, it breaks their hearts but the children are separated from the parents because they begin their own families.

Jobs/careers come and go.

Illusions, desires, attraction, sex … weaken.

People can’t do what they did physically when they were young.

Parents die but you move on.

Colleagues forget the favors you did.

The race to achieve slows.

But true friends are always there, no matter how long or how many miles away they are. A friend is never more distant than the reach of a need, intervening in your favor, waiting for you with open arms and in some way blessing your life.

When we started this adventure called life, we did not know of the incredible joys or sorrows that were ahead. We did not know how much we would need from each other. Love your parents, take care of your family, but keep a group of good friends. Stay in touch with them. [Tell this to] your friends — even those you seldom see — who help make sense of your life. (End)

Friends, especially old friends, are witnesses to our life. They have helped us soldier though the hard times and been there with us for the celebrations and the fun times. We don’t have to explain much to them because they know most of the details already. They have aged along with us and can laugh at the same incongruities and absurdities that are specific to our generation. We can compare our satisfactions as well as our aches and pains, and share the advice and names of our physicians and our medicines. As we are reduced in stature, we are reduced together so the same relative heights hold and we continue on unperturbed.

Most satisfying is the shared wisdom that has come from living a substantial number of years. We can comfort each other as we laugh about the difficulties and perceived difficulties in our lives, and we never need to feel embarrassed about our thoughts or our hang-ups.

The most painful part comes with the inevitable loss of close friends. They are irreplaceable and their absence leaves a hole in our lives and our hearts. “I’m only going to befriend younger people I meet,” we declare. The same for our doctors and dentists, who have the temerity to retire or die.

So to my dear friends — and yes, those professionals who keep me together — just know how I treasure you.

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They are a surprise to behold, the wildlife in the suburbs. When I was growing up in New York City, the extent of the animal population consisted of pigeons and squirrels in the park. So I marvel at Long Island’s Canadian geese, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, swans, seagulls, ospreys, raccoons and deer going about their business alongside us as we humans go about ours.

Sometimes they are beautiful to watch.

On one road I frequently use, the geese will cross to the other side, holding up traffic as they do. Drivers slow to a stop and watch as the geese unhurriedly walk single file before them. Interestingly one of the geese stands in the middle of the road in front of the line of march, a sentinel protecting the rest. Only after the last one crosses does the lookout then join on the end. These geese are definitely traffic savvy, patiently waiting on the edge of the grass and avoiding the cars as they speed by, awaiting an opening before they start to cross.

My son likes to watch the ducks swimming along, one behind the other, and wonders aloud if there is a pecking order to the line. We also marvel at the birds in strict formation when they begin to migrate.

We have a wacky rabbit that lives on our property and races the car down the driveway as we arrive home. One of these days, we are going to have rabbit stew if it isn’t careful. There are gorgeous butterflies occasionally, rising together like an umbrella of color when startled, and the buzzing bees encourage the likelihood of pollination.

The other day, as I was driving along a waterside road, two deer, one in front of the other, rushed out of the wetland grass in front of my car, crossed the road, gracefully jumped the post-and-rail fence on the opposite side and raced up the hill until they were hidden in some trees. It was a heart-stopping moment because they had come close. They were also so lyrical in their movements, their russet bodies glistening in the sunlight, that they took my breath away.

We have a woodpile that is visible from the windows on one side of the house, and early each day, it seems, there is a squirrel that runs back and forth, bushy tail held high, across the chopped logs. We have named him Jack and conjectured that he is doing his morning exercises. Later, he can be seen leaping from limb to limb among the lush trees, the ultimate gymnast gathering nuts, I suppose, for his meals.

Early in our lives here, we used to see an occasional red fox and sometimes plump pheasants, but I haven’t seen those in a long while. I do know when there is a skunk nearby, and should we just once leave the garbage cans unfastened, we are aware we would be visited by raccoons.

The variety of songbirds is lovely. In addition to the mockingbird, the cardinal and the blue jay, those little brown birds are loud and numerous. A pair of ospreys apparently have made a huge nest nearby because we can see them soaring high above. Ditto for the seagulls, crying out to each other as they glide on an air current looking for dinner.

It surprises me that the dogs in the neighborhood coexist so peacefully with the rest of the animal kingdom here. Yes, they will occasionally chase a rabbit, almost as a duty, but not for long. And they will bark at a chipmunk as it scurries along but not in any sort of vicious way. I suppose that means they are well fed by their owners. The cats, however, are a different story. We’ve got one on the block that’s a real hunter, a lion in miniature.

The cliché is that the suburbs are sterile places, but they certainly are more interesting for their variety of natural life than the pigeons I used to be thrilled by as they landed on the fire escapes and city windowsills. To take just a few moments from an otherwise busy day, draw a deep breath, and enjoy the beauty of living beings around us this summer is a pleasure we should allow ourselves.

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Dear Leah,

My wife and I enjoy your weekly opinion pieces, and we especially enjoyed your column about a police encounter (“Techniques for avoiding traffic tickets,” Aug. 9). It rekindled the memory of our encounter, 55 years ago, with the California Highway Patrol.

By Chuck Darling

In January 1963, while employed by the Gyrodyne helicopter company in St. James, I was “volunteered“ by the owner, Peter Papadakos, to lead a team of engineers and electronic technicians to assist the U.S. Navy fleet in Coronado, California, installing our drone helicopters on Navy ships. This assignment was to last six months, so Nancy and I packed up the four kids, (ages 5, 4, 3 and 1), and the dog, locked up the house and flew to San Diego. After we had settled in for a month, Nancy’s folks decided that they could use some time away from the brutal winter weather in Illinois, so they drove to San Diego to warm up and to see their grandbabies. Whilst there they volunteered to stay with the rug rats for a long weekend, so we could have a respite from parenting. This was a godsend for Nance, for, other than the occasional movie, she hadn’t had a break from the kids for more than five years. She immediately contacted some friends that we knew from the University of Illinois who had settled in Southern California, and set up a long weekend in Las Vegas. Nancy’s folks had driven their 1958, fin-tailed Cadillac from Illinois, and since it had air conditioning, they thought it would be more comfortable for us to drive in it through the desert to Vegas than in the used Volkswagen Beetle which I had bought in San Diego. We gratefully accepted their offer.

On a Friday morning in February, we kissed the kids goodbye, and headed east for Las Vegas. Driving the Caddy was like flying a plane — it was quiet, comfortable and fast. It was very easy to let the speed creep up, as the road was flat and very few cars were evident, especially when compared with traffic on Long Island. As I noticed the speedometer at 80, I also noticed in the rear-view mirror, a California Highway Patrol car approaching with his bubble light flashing. Oh, no! I pulled over and the smartly dressed officer approached and said, “You were going a little fast there.”

I told him that we were headed for Vegas for a long weekend, the first time for the two of us to be away from kids together, and we were giddy to get to the palaces of pleasure in Vegas. He asked to see my driver’s license, and I handed over my New York license. He said, “Why a New York license?” I told him I was on a temporary work assignment in San Diego, and hadn’t bothered to change it for a California permit. He said, “But you are driving a car with Illinois plates.” I said it was my father-in-law’s car. He was visiting us from Illinois and the old folks were sitting with the kids back in Chula Vista while we were in Vegas. He asked to see the car’s registration, and I told him that I had forgotten to get it from Nancy’s dad before we left. He had this incredulous, bewildered look on his face and just stared at me for the longest time — it seemed like an hour. Finally, he said, “I’m going to have to let you go with a warning.” I almost wet my pants with joy. But, since the CHP wasn’t known for its benevolence, I asked him, “Why?”

He said, “Because a judge would lock you up forever if I wrote you up. You’re driving 80 miles an hour on a California highway; you have a New York driver’s license; you’re driving a car with Illinois plates on it — and you don’t possess the car’s registration. You would never get out of jail. Somehow, someway, I believe everything you’ve told me, but I’m not sure a judge would. Just get out of here, just leave.”

As I watched him walking back to his patrol car, he was quietly shaking his head as though he had seen everything now.

Originally published in Ferry Tales, a Jefferson’s Ferry publication.

If your car is pulled over by a police officer, there is a good chance that you will be treated mercifully by the officer if you have the same first name as his or hers. How do I know this? There has been research that corroborates that statement.

Now in a possible scenario, it would be a little difficult for me to pass myself off as “James,” the name on the officer’s name tag, when my driver’s license clearly says differently, although I suppose I could try telling him that he can call me by my nickname, “James,” for short. Somehow, on reflection, I don’t think that strategy would work.

As I was considering the possibility, I remembered strategies that did work, deliberate or not, that at least got me out of a ticket. I’ll bet you have some such memories of roadside encounters with the law, too.

The first one to come to mind happened the day after I got married. My new husband was a medical student in Chicago, and he had flown into New York City for the Sunday wedding. We then flew back to his apartment that night, he returned to school the next day, and I got into his car and began to drive to an employment agency in the neighborhood. As I passed along the unfamiliar streets, I came up behind a large truck that was stopped just short of an underpass. When it didn’t immediately move, I assumed it was either stuck or parked there, and I drove around it to continue on my way. Immediately a police car appeared in my rear-view mirror, lights flashing. I should mention here that I had not been stopped before in my short driving career. I pulled over, rolled down the window and waited as the middle-aged policeman got out and walked toward me frowning.

“What’s the matter with you?” he inquired. “You just ran a stop sign.” I looked into my side mirror and realized that was why the truck was stopped. It had, however, blocked my view of the sign. I started to explain.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“I’m going for a job interview with an employment counselor. I just got married yesterday in New York and I need a job.” Although I do not cry easily, I could feel myself beginning to tear up.

“What! You just got married? Where is your lazy bum of a husband? Why isn’t he out working?” (This was February 1963, years before women’s liberation was even an expression.)

“He’s a medical student here, and I’m the one who has to support us for now.” I was beginning to sob. My story must have had the ring of truth, because he stared at me for a moment, then took out his handkerchief — these were the days before tissues — and handed it to me. He looked stricken.

“Now don’t cry. Everything will be all right. You just go on to your appointment.” He started to turn away, then turned back for a moment. “You just make sure that husband of yours takes care of you properly as soon as he finishes school.” He turned on his heel, climbed into his car and pulled away. It was only then, as I was wiping my cheeks, that I realized he had left me with only his handkerchief — and not a ticket.

I have been stopped by police officers on the highways in the course of the ensuing years. But I have never again been able to cry on cue. If you have any surefire ticket beaters, please share them with the rest of us.

It’s no secret that newspapers, large and small, are financially hurting. We know the reasons as well. The internet makes shopping possible from our bedrooms and sometimes at a cheaper price than a downtown store. We can send birthday gifts to our grandchildren and friends while we are still in our pajamas and slippers, and the items will arrive nicely wrapped and on time. This in turn makes retailing difficult, from box stores and malls to neighborhood shops. So many of the large (like Toys “R” Us, Genovese Drug Stores) and the smaller (like Swezey’s) and mom-and-pop stores have given up. While the larger stores advertised in the dailies, these smaller businesses reached their customers in the immediate vicinity through the local papers, and they were the backbone of the hometown newspapers’ financial model. Fewer such businesses are left, and some of those place their ads only on the internet. The nature of shopping and of advertising has been profoundly disrupted.

So we have a publication like the New York Daily News, once the paper with the highest circulation in America, cutting half their editorial department in order to survive. And we have any number of community newspapers closing their doors and leaving their hometowns without an effective voice to protect them. Failure to adequately monetize their own investments in the internet by struggling papers has been part of the problem.

The difference between larger dailies and smaller weeklies is more than size. When a daily cuts back or gives up, there are other news sources that can fill the gap for national and international news. But when the community papers and websites disappear, the local issues that arise at school board or town board or civic or chamber of commerce meetings, or on a particular block with high crime or tainted water or garbage dumping or illegal development, those are not necessarily picked up by the remaining bigger news outlets. The stop signs and potholes are local matters, and for the most part they need local coverage.

That recognition is the reason that the State of New Jersey has now put up millions of dollars in its budget to help pay for community journalism. Say what? How can that be? After all, news media are supposed to be the watchdogs of the people against those who would take advantage, especially those corrupt officials in government. So how can government subsidize media and the residents still expect the media to independently investigate government?

Since the earliest days and the first leaders of our republic, people have known that a democracy cannot exist without independent news sources. That is why the First Amendment — the first before all others — protects freedom of the press. It is the only industry enshrined in our Constitution. And for those local legislators and executives and judges, the local newspapers are the ones who disseminate the news of what our officials are doing to help us.

So it is not so odd that local officials want to come to our aid. They need us just as we need to watch over them. Can this relationship exist in an independent, nonpartisan fashion?

I think it can if there is a neutral party between us. Public television, like my favorite PBS “NewsHour,” and radio stations get funding (not a lot) from the government. “It’s not about saving journalism in New Jersey,” Mike Rispoli, director of an advocacy group on behalf of local media, said in The New York Times. “It’s about making sure our communities are engaged and informed.”

So if funds are awarded to media by boards made up of representatives from the communities, like state universities, community organizations and technology groups as well as government officials, the goal of independent journalism can be met. There is a fine line here not to be crossed.

See editorial for another view on this topic.

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