Between you and me

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Last Friday, exactly 53 years ago to the day, a book was published that started by asking the question, “Is this all?” The book, written by Smith College graduate Betty Friedan, is called “The Feminine Mystique” and it is generally considered to have launched a revolution that changed society in America and around the world.

Friedan based the book on a survey she did of her classmates at their 15th reunion in 1957, at which she asked her telling question. At that time women were assumed to be content with their lives if they had a husband, a home and children. The answers she received proved otherwise. For this sample of women, that was resoundingly not enough, and from those answers and her own experience she began to advocate that women be educated not to get a husband but to be an individual. To women today, this thesis seems obvious, but at the time of her book, Friedan’s message was greeted with astonishment. She was overturning the role of women in society that had existed for pretty much all of recorded history.

The same week Friedan’s book came out, my husband and I were married in a beautiful wedding that my parents made for us in New York. That night, we flew to Chicago where my husband was finishing school. I immediately got a job to support us until he graduated and we returned to New York. Were Friedan’s words ringing in my ears? Hardly, for I had recently graduated from a college whose president had repeatedly delivered that same message. These were Barnard College President Millicent McIntosh’s words:

“Don’t make your goal in life simply to find a husband. You cannot know what lies ahead for you. You may not find that special person, you may get divorced or be widowed. Prepare yourself for the future by getting a good education.”

How true! I was able to support us in those early years because of my education and was able to carry on and care for my family after my husband died at an early age because of my solid identity. All widows eventually do this. It certainly helped to be prepared.

When the youngest of my three children started first grade in 1976, I launched my own business. It was the hometown newspaper you are now reading 40 years later. Within five years after I stepped back into the workplace, women had indeed “left their kitchens,” as Republican presidential candidate John Kasich controversially said this week, to get jobs outside the home. Some started businesses of their own. Some of those women, wives and mothers, helped me immeasurably to grow my business. Women were hungry for a creative role and an individual existence outside the home in addition to their meaningful work maintaining the family.

When more women began to work and the idea of wives earning salaries became more acceptable, the two-paycheck families became the norm. This in turn brought forth all sorts of new issues: latchkey children, gender equality in the workplace, redefinition of roles within marriage, glass ceilings, higher divorce rates, balancing work and family for women and men, the child care industry. All are familiar themes to us now.

In a way, my life and those of my contemporaries span the dramatic changes Friedan’s book and McIntosh spoke of, for we are living examples of those truths.

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This past Monday was Presidents Day, and we might have been thinking of our great presidents, if we were thinking of them at all in the midst of a vacation day, as being larger than life. However, in a recent biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow tells us that for all the 8,000 acres of splendid estate and many slaves to work the property, Washington when he retired from the presidency in 1797, was hard up for cash. Financial pressure was “unrelenting.”

I don’t know about you, but to me that makes him a more human founding father, one almost every business person and resident can identify with. So what did the father of our country do? He looked around his farmland for a new profit source, one that would supply cash rather quickly, and came up with the idea of making whiskey.

It was not, The New York Times tells us in a recent article, his idea alone. His new plantation manager, James Anderson, was a Scotsman and distiller. Mount Vernon had plenty of rye and together with what Washington called “Indian corn” and a still, they were able to make ample supplies of whiskey.

Now this is not how we usually think of our first president, the guy who chopped down the cherry tree and the president who sent militiamen to quash the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania when local distillers revolted against a federally imposed whiskey tax. Washington was aware of his image problem but, entrepreneur that he needed to be, he became something of a whiskey baron. In the first full year of operation, almost 11,000 gallons were produced and the whiskey earned a profit equivalent to some $142,000 in today’s dollars.  A distillery was built that was one of the largest of the time. Washington blamed his new success on Anderson, unwilling to take personal credit. The distillery was rebuilt after tours of Mount Vernon began and can be viewed by the many visitors to the estate each year. The old recipe is still used when samples are handed out.

Washington did enjoy alcohol, favoring “sweet wines, rum punch and whiskey,” but his reputation for alcohol in moderation was established by his stern action toward his troops when they became drunk and his reluctance to pass out drinks when he ran the first time for election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. His opponent did and duly won. A quick study, Washington did so the next time he ran, and this time he was successful.

Unfortunately for Washington, he was not able to realize a growing success from his whiskey efforts. In 1799, the second full year of production, he died at the age of 67. He willed the distillery to a granddaughter of his wife Martha, but a fire destroyed the operation in 1814.

Only relatively recently has this chapter in Washington’s life become widely known, and it adds a colorful dimension to the man and his myth.

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Chinese New Year this week made me think of the Chinese people I had visited this past September, which in turn made me think of the vegetation growing out of their heads, which then made me smile. We don’t usually think of the Chinese as being frivolous, but there they were, sporting plastic clips on their hair in the shape of vegetables, fruits and flowers.

First I thought it was my imagination. Then I guessed it was some sort of fancy head covering. Finally I just stared. People — young people, older people — were walking past us matter-of-factly with flowers and weeds growing up out of their heads. Most had one or two; some had half a dozen. That was our first morning on the street outside our hotel in Shanghai. The fad moved with us as we traveled around the country.

No one seemed to know how or where it started, although there was some speculation that it began in the southwestern city of Chengdu, known for its laid-back lifestyle. And in a country in which the people are not particularly known for their individualism, they certainly did stand out on the streets. The plastic vegetation included clover, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, lavender, mushrooms, chilies, cherries, gourds and pine trees, according to an article about the fad that appeared in The New York Times at that time.

The trend was ratcheted up when a popular Taiwanese singer, Jay Chou, and his wife were seen wearing bean sprouts in photographs on the Internet. They were “meng meng da.” meaning cute. Bean sprouts are still the most popular item, according to street vendors, who with their native entrepreneurial instincts, leapt into business on street corners and in gift shops. The rapidly growing fad speaks to the power of the Internet in China to spread trends as well as ideas.

“Some people think it’s cute, some think it’s just plain infantile,” one sales assistant was quoted by The Times as she was carefully arranging three flowers and a cherry stem on her friend’s head.

The flower clips cost 500 renminbi each, or about 75 cents, unless one is a skillful bargainer in which case one can get perhaps three or four for the same money.

Maybe the colorful plastic head gardens offer some respite from the unceasing gray pollution that covers the cities and towns in China. The greens could be seen as a wistful attempt at harmony with nature. For us, they were ready-made conversation pieces. We indicated our admiration to the wearers, and they smiled in appreciation. Quickly the ice was then broken and conversation, often in pantomime, proceeded from there.

Taobao, which is a popular Chinese retail website, lists thousands of sellers of increasingly elaborate floral displays for one’s hair, although at this time of year, such ornamentation is probably taking second place to hats. And maybe not, since it was 64 degrees in Shanghai yesterday, warm enough for a garden to grow.

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This week is bracketed on both ends by a “Super Bowl,” the real one coming up in Santa Clara, Calif., between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers and the one we just witnessed in Iowa. The NFL game is a lot easier to understand, what with there being only two opponents and a final victory.

The Iowa contest, despite tons of publicity and seemingly endless buildup, is only the first polling in what remains a nine-month marathon to elect the next president of the United States. In fact, the politicking and the campaigning have been going on for the better part of a year already. Never mind the arguments over whether baseball or football is the national pastime. Based on airtime, print and social media, the answer to the question of which is the most popular spectator sport is clearly politics. It’s the only game that goes on for two years.

Politics also has its own way of scoring that defies logic. The results for the three main GOP contenders were Ted Cruz, 28 percent; Donald Trump, 24 percent; and third-placed Marco Rubio, 23 percent. Now if four points won a football game, we would call it a close game. So Cruz is the acknowledged winner at only a quarter of the total, and Trump is only a little behind. Yet everyone talks of Trump’s poor showing — except him. And Rubio is somehow congratulated for coming in even a whisker behind Trump. This is a game where absolute numbers don’t seem to count; it’s a contest of expectations. Better the pols should set themselves up the way they do on the stock market: Put out poor expectations of future earnings and when your results rise above that lowly level, the value of the stock goes up.

But we always knew the guys on Wall Street were smarter than the presidential aspirants. That’s why the politicians hate the market makers so much.

Anyway, back to the Iowa caucus. Besides being the first in the country, how important is it in history? The answer is tepid at best. In contested caucuses, where there was no sitting president running for re-election, Iowa Dems chose the eventual presidential nominee five out of eight times, according to the Des Moines Register. And twice that winner has gone on to become president: Barack Obama and, before him, Jimmy Carter — with a miniscule number of voters who showed up at the polls. In 1992, by the way, Bill Clinton finished fourth with only 3 percent of the caucus vote, and we all know what happened after that.

Iowa Republicans in contested elections chose the eventual nominee three out of six times. Twice that winner went on to the presidency: Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. In 1980, father George H. W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucus but Reagan went on to represent the GOP and then won the national election. In 1988 Bob Dole beat George H. W. Bush in Iowa but Bush went on to triumph, no thanks to Iowa. Maybe they would be better off if candidates hoped to lose Iowa.

As to the Dems, Hillary Clinton beat out Bernie Sanders in a contest so close that different groups were flipping a coin to decide which candidate their representatives would support. Yes Clinton won, like a runner who wins a race by a fraction of a second, but her enthusiasm was nothing compared to that of Sanders, who considered his results fabulous. It’s the expectations thing again.

Better to leave this discussion of politics and talk about something noncontroversial that happened this week. In fact it probably is the biggest story of the week: the weather. Maybe we have El Niño to thank, but any time I can walk the dog in February wearing light clothes — on me, not him — I consider myself wonderfully lucky. I’m not going to go on about this because I don’t want to run the risk of hexing us, but I’ll take a winter where the temperature bounces around in the 40s and even flirts with 60s on a few days, and the blizzard comes on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll consider us in the Northeast the real winners this week.

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This story may be of help to others in a similar situation. That is why my lifetime friend gave me permission to share what was a family secret. He is one of four siblings — three brothers and a sister — and three of them had long ago stopped talking with the fourth. Why this happened isn’t important to the account. There are certainly plenty of disagreements and aggravations within families. But the one brother felt so pained that he refused to speak to the others and they all fell into a thick silence.

It’s like a game of dominos, this kind of walling off. As the adults refused to talk to one another, their children, in-laws, different aunts, uncles and cousins all drifted apart, pulled by what they felt was a sense of loyalty to whichever of the angry ones was the closest relative. And it was easy to separate. The four lived in different parts of the country: the estranged one in Oregon, one in California, one in Texas and my friend and his wonderful wife here in Long Island. I call her “wonderful” because she is the heroine of the story, the one who finally broke the logjam.

Out of the blue, one day some months ago, she asked her husband, “If James died, would you go to his funeral?”

Her husband looked up in astonishment and replied, “Of course! He is my brother.”

“Well, he hasn’t died, so what do you say we go visit him?”

Her husband hesitated. “I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. What if he didn’t want to see us?”

“I’ll email him right now and tell him we are coming. Let’s see what he says.” With that she quickly left the room to find her cellphone and to cut short any objection. She sent the message and they waited. And waited. Several days passed. They made up reasons why he hadn’t answered — out of town, email down, hadn’t checked his computer. Other reasons weren’t pretty to contemplate.

Then they got a flurry of messages, each with something planned for their visit. He had made reservations here, gotten tickets there, suggested a drive together to a nearby destination. They read the emails joyfully. Clearly he wanted them to come. After registering the explicit and also the underlying messages, they went to the phone and called the other two siblings, asking if they would join the visit. Immediately the others agreed to go.

During a week last summer they all met for the first time in over a decade and immediately fell to again being brothers and sister. They didn’t bother to speak about what had originally angered them. It didn’t matter. What was important was to be in the moment, enjoying each other, catching up on so much news.

When the week was over, they made sure to plan for their next get-together. The rock that had weighed them down was lifted. They had found each other again, reconnected the family and were moving into the future, stronger for being together.

It just took one brave outreach, a willingness to be rejected for a greater good, to bring them all home again, at least in their hearts. I love my friend for being that brave one, the first to say, “That’s enough, there isn’t that much time left, the time has come to take down the wall.”

Blessed is the peacemaker. And so she is.

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Here is some new information for those struggling with their New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Not all of us metabolize the same foods in the same way. How we metabolize is unique for each of us and depends on different factors such as genetic makeup, gut bacteria, body type and chemical exposures. Further complicating the picture is the variability of response by the same individual, depending on stress and one’s environment at any given day or week.

Now we know that we are all different in what we can eat. I remember when I was in seventh grade and a good friend asked me to join her every day after school at the nearby Schrafft’s, the ladies genteel luncheon restaurant, for an ice cream sundae. Slender and yet to have need of a bra during our puberty years, she thought she could hurry such development along with some more poundage — her straightforward goal was to gain weight. The year was 1952 and if you can believe it females generally did not go into restaurants alone, although Schrafft’s was known to cater to women.

So being a good pal, I went with her each afternoon for a month, and we rapturously enjoyed hot fudge sundaes with vanilla ice cream in chilled metal cups. At the end, she got on the scale and to her disgust she had not gained an ounce. I, on the other hand, although having changed nothing else in my ordinary diet during that time, had gained five pounds, which I subsequently worked hard — alone — to take off. Moral of story: Different bodies digest differently.

Now if we were in the caveman days, as a physician once told me, I would have a better chance of survival in times of starvation rations because I can store reserves better than she. But to this day she is reed slender … and I am not.

How do bodies absorb and metabolize differently? If we could figure that out, people like us would be more successful following diets — a notoriously difficult thing to do. The same dietary advice does not work for everyone.

A recent study published in the prestigious journal, Cell, “found a startling variation in the glucose responses of 800 subjects fed the same foods,” according to an article in Science Times, a section of the Tuesday New York Times. “Some participants had sharp increases in blood sugar when they ate ice cream and chocolate, while others showed only a flat or moderate response.” They could have been talking about my junior high school friend and me.

“Each person’s capacity to extract energy [calories] from foods differs, it appears,” the article continued. The researchers went further with their study. Using today’s high tech tools, they combined glucose responses of each participant with identification of gut bacteria, medications, family histories and lifestyles, and devised a formula that correctly predicted blood sugar responses to foods not yet eaten in the study. Once they could do that, the scientists could then modify diets and boost good gut bacteria according to whatever the goal might be for better health; for example, how to lose weight and/or prevent diabetes. The study is titled, “We Just Do It with Food,” and is co-authored by Dr. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute in Israel.

The study is based mainly on genetic testing, according to The Times, but scientists have only begun to explore the links between DNA and good nutrition. The answers for each person are not simple because there are the many variables previously mentioned: those same genes, microbes, diet, environment and lifestyle on any given day. To date, 38 different genes have been linked to nutrient metabolism, and the technology in the form of sophisticated computers exists to analyze big data issues.

Meanwhile, until these studies produce customized diets for us, keep eating whole grains, lean meats, and lots of fruits and vegetables, especially the green leafy kind.

Interestingly when I was a kid, I remember people who were fat blaming their weight on their “genes.” Most of us didn’t even know what genes were, and all of us scoffed at that idea. Obesity was considered a failure of willpower then, pure and simple. Little did we know how right those people turned out to be.

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Wow! It’s 2016. How did that happen so quickly? We were just recently worrying about being carried by the calendar into 2000 and whether our computers would continue to work. Well, here we are, 16 years later, amid all the promises of a brand new year. At the very least we know it will be interesting because this is a presidential election year, with a new administration since our current president will be termed out. Will the new incumbent’s party also be different? We Americans like a change of party in the White House regularly but not always. We will have to wait and see, meanwhile enduring the endless pontification, punditry and prognostication.

If the year will seem a little longer, in fact it will be. This is a leap year, with that extra day stuck onto the end of February, giving us one more day of winter. Why didn’t they put it onto the end of June, adding to summer? In any event, that gives us one more day to listen to our politicians before we go to the polls to vote. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the leap years and the presidential election years coincide.

We welcomed the first business day of the new year with one of those heart-stopping stock market plunges. The trip wire this time was the double whammy of projected further slowdown in China, which has the world’s second largest economy, and the combustion between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that some 85 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni, there simmers an underlying rage periodically leaping into confrontation with the Shia. This complicates our diplomatic efforts since Saudi Arabia is technically an ally in the volatile Middle East.

On the lighter side, for escapism, we can generally look forward to some of the best movies from year’s end because their producers want them to be fresh in the minds of the judges for awards in the following quarter. This year the trend seems to be toward historical fiction that is more like documentaries. “Spotlight,” based on fact, is the story of the investigative efforts of the daily newspaper, The Boston Globe, to bring the tawdry tale of clerical pedophiles and their cover-up within the Catholic Church to the public. The filmmakers managed to make this movie riveting despite the lack of the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-back girl in the narrative.

Another excellent movie based on recent history is “The Big Short.” Using some outrageous scenes to make its point, like a woman in a bubble bath drinking champagne and a stripper shimmering around a pole in a nightclub, the movie does a credible job of explaining the subprime mortgage crisis and how it almost took down the world economy. Again, this is not the usual romantic or violent action fare we are offered by Hollywood, and three cheers for the enlightenment which in turn enables ours.

Then there is of course “Star Wars,” with its record-breaking box office receipts. Nothing more to be said there, except that if you wish to be part of the national conversation, you will see it.

For true escapism, we have the long-awaited, much-anticipated return of “Downton Abbey” on television. Delightful for its attempt at historic accuracy and its engaging upstairs/downstairs characters, this mighty soap opera has succeeded in capturing the attention of the world. Why? Perhaps we wish to see how the wealthy lived in the Gilded Age. Or perhaps there is also the thread of historical fiction here, as we watch how events of 100 years ago changed the world and set us up for life in the 20th century. The historic period lived by these characters bridges the enormous shift from an agrarian world, 25 percent of which was dominated by the United Kingdom, to the industrial and perhaps more egalitarian existence that developed under the watch of the United States.

On a personal note, we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Times Beacon Record newspapers, whose exact birthday is April 8. What a personal satisfaction to have been here for 40 years. As you might imagine, there will more to come on that subject in future columns.

So here we are, in the early days of 2016, wishing each other wonderful things like good health, lots of love, happiness and fun. Would that wishing might make it so. In any case, Happy New Year!

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Whatever else we may be feeling right now, it is safe to generalize that we are not bored. Aside from the usual holiday frenzy, as we get our homes, our pets, our refrigerators and pantries, ourselves and our shopping lists ready, we are overwhelmed by more issues at this year’s end than I can ever remember. Maybe it has to do with our instantaneous news feeds that make us aware of what’s going on. But I think that we are living in a frenetic age.

Where to start?

Certainly, terrorism has occupied center stage in the minds of Americans. Worse — and more frightening than attacks from outside — is the demonstrable possibility of random homicide from within, from Americans or those who have settled among us and been “radicalized,” a polite word for psychopath. For how else can one characterize those who would commit mass murder to make a statement?

Continuing on, in no particular order, there is the fierce debate about guns and their easy availability in our country. Probably the most extraordinary line I have heard on the subject: “If Jews in Europe had had guns, there never would have been a Holocaust.”

The presidential race, started way before the actual election, has become an excellent source of entertainment as spectator sport for the public and high ratings for the TV stations. Top banana is surely Donald Trump, who is clearly having the time of his life mocking his GOP colleagues and those of the opposition party, especially Hillary Clinton. Just think: If this were a movie, people would never believe it could happen, this New Yorker leading the pack by insulting everyone in sight. He may even be the catalyst for a new detente with Russia. Putin really likes him and vice versa. Maybe he gives Putin something more interesting to watch on his own TV at home at night than the censored news the Russian people are served up. How probable that a candidate in Russia would be able to say the one-liners Trump offers each day, starting with his opinion of his president?

Then there is the grave matter of police brutality, which is framed in large part by the issue of racism in America. No sooner is there a police shooting in one state than there is another in another state, equally distributed between North and South, East and West. The only redeeming feature is the outrage and immediate investigations such events engender. But how helpful those reactions are remains to be seen. We must keep the spotlight
on them.

Immigration has become a major flash point, having moved from Mexican youngsters crossing over in large enough numbers to overwhelm the border patrol to Syrians and others from the Middle East desperately seeking asylum from the bombings and atrocities currently perpetrated on civilian populations. We are living in a time with the greatest migration of peoples since World War II displaced millions. And how are we to judge the authenticity of each person coming into America? By the same token, do we discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or religion? Have we learned nothing from the past century?

Immigration is an even more acute issue across the Atlantic since Europe is a geographically closer destination than the United States. Thousands have abandoned their homelands, taking little more than their children and the clothes on their backs to try and make a better life in the northern countries. Some have perished along the way. Fences have gone up to prevent their entrance, threatening the basic tenets of the European Union amid the countries’ inability to cope. Partly underlying resistance to the newcomers is the fear of admitting further terrorists.

Meanwhile we continue bombing Syria. So does Russia. So does France. So does a reported Middle Eastern coalition led by Saudi Arabia. No wonder mistakes are being made as people are killed who are not the intended targets. There must be almost as many different nationalities of planes in the air as people on the ground, trying to escape. What a mess.

For the moment, we here can do little more than pull our families closely around us and remember how lucky we are as we reach out to help others. No, we are not bored, just overwhelmed. May we see peace in our time.

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Many of the college students have now finished their finals and ended their fall semester. It seems that as college costs increase, classroom time decreases, but maybe that’s just my faulty memory. In any event, who are these students that have now been released into what we used to call “intersession” and will eventually go on to graduate with their bachelor’s degrees? Statistics tell us that 77 percent of them come from families in the top 25 percent of household incomes but only 9 percent are from families in the bottom 25 percent of incomes.

What does that mean? If you believe that education is the ladder to a financially successful life, that startling disparity among college graduates is telling us that social mobility has drastically declined in America. Put another way, America is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, attracting the ambitious from all over the world with the promise of the American Dream. It means that what you become in life depends more on who your parents and grandparents are than what skills you possess.

This conclusion is further reinforced by the information researchers have found about economic mobility here. A child born in the bottom quintile has only a 4 percent chance of rising to the top quintile, according to a Pew research study. Contrast that with Britain, where the number is about 12 percent and Canada with class advancement twice as likely as for the United States.

So we come back to the subject of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our country. This has been a visible concern for at least the last 25 years. When my family and I were invited to the Bill Clinton White House in the early 1990s as part of an out-of-town press conference, we happened to meet David Gergen, the political commentator and former presidential adviser, in the hallway. As we chatted, my middle son asked Gergen what he thought was the major problem for the nation then, and he immediately referred to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Who filled that gap in past decades? The answer is, the middle class, the engine for advancement in America and everywhere. Pretty much everyone then, and perhaps even now, described oneself as being in the middle class. But today the middle class
is disappearing.

Why should we care?

Because the middle class is composed of the people who buy the goods and services that sustain the upper class, and without the former there cannot be an economically viable society. Inevitably if this situation persists there will be extreme social unrest among the lower class, and to underwrite the country’s expenses the upper class will be asked to shoulder unbearable taxes. Furthermore, intelligent and ambitious immigrants will pass us by as their ultimate destination, and will strike out for other shores where their prospects seem more promising. In fact that has already been happening on the graduate school level, as many of the most talented students choose countries like Germany in which to pursue their careers rather than the United States. If enough of the best and brightest go elsewhere, it could affect not just our economy but also the very security of our country.

The idea that our success depends on how our lives started rather than on our own hard work and native abilities goes against the grain of the American self-image. The columnist and author, Nicholas Kristof, wrote recently about this distressing trend and asked why none of the candidates for president was speaking about how to change this direction.

As we approach the end of the year we, as a nation, are intensely caught up in the frightening problem of terrorists and how we can protect ourselves and our way of life from their horrible violence. But as we look ahead to the new year and the coming presidential election, not all threats to our country are so overt. Some, like this troubling income gap and its consequences, are more insidious and could prove more threatening and difficult to solve.

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This past weekend started for me with a stellar performance, as usual, by the Emerson String Quartet at the Staller Center on the Stony Brook University campus. This marvelous string ensemble comes to us directly from Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center or at any given time, from other musical capitals in the world. They are, incredibly for us, in residence at Stony Brook and as part of the deal struck with SBU past president, Shirley Kenny, they give four performances a year here.

The quartet features Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate at first and second violin, Lawrence Dutton on the viola, and now Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel in 2013, playing the cello. The original group formed when they were students at Juilliard, then turned professional in 1976, and in the course of their career they have released more than 30 albums and won nine Grammys along with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. They were inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

Friday night, they played two selections by Haydn and two by Beethoven. Attending their concerts is made even more delightful for not having to drive more than a few minutes from door to door and being assured of convenient and free parking upon arrival. The audience routinely gives them a standing ovation.

Moving onto the next day, three friends and I joined up to view the 37th annual Candlelight House Tour, traditionally held on Friday evenings and Saturday daytimes, and made possible as a fundraiser by the hard work of the Three Village Historical Society. Members take care of the myriad of details from selecting to decorating the homes, along with professional help made possible by local contributions. Each year homeowners graciously allow hundreds of visitors to traipse through their rooms, checking out the decor and listening to the history explained many times over during the day by society members and helpers. This year the homes were centered in Old Stony Brook, and the weather cooperated magnificently. Many of us well remember in past years waiting in line to enter the homes in subfreezing, or snowy, or rainy or sharply windy days. Sunny Saturday was a Goldilocks day for touring: not too cold, not too hot, just right.

And if house tours are your thing, the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce has worked hard to organize the Lantern Light House Tour, this year centered in Harbor Hills. Also a fundraiser, the event is scheduled for this Saturday, Dec. 12, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Like the one in Three Village, the tour is very much a community effort with generous contributions of time and financial backing.

As if this weren’t enough activity for a satisfying weekend, we enjoyed the lighting of the splendid Christmas tree on the Stony Brook Village Green, sponsored as usual, by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization Sunday night. WMHO has been happily celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout this past year. On Jan. 19, there will be a special anniversary commemoration of the night Ward Melville hosted a dinner at the Three Village Inn for the owners of the sundry shops and unveiled his plans for the first shopping mall in America, a crescent village on the hill overlooking Stony Brook Harbor. After much good food and drink, the shop owners agreed to join the effort. The result was the picturesque Stony Brook Village Center, designed by architect Richard Haviland Smythe that we enjoy now, three quarters of a century later.

The ongoing vibrancy of the village was further illustrated by the ribbon-cutting party later that evening at the site of the latest business to join the Stony Brook shopping center. Blue Salon & Spa, formerly Legends, welcomed guests, who devoured delicious hors d’oeuvres provided by owner, Cathy Hansen, in her newly renovated salon. It was a symbolic end to the evening’s festivities.

Meanwhile in the other direction, Port Jefferson Village offered the Dickens festival last Saturday and Sunday for the 20th year. Originally the brainchild of former mayor, Jeanne Garant, churches, schools, the theater, stores and restaurants all joined together to transform the village into a Dickensian wonderland, replete with 19th century characters walking the streets and engaging the public. (And throughout December you may stop at Santa’s Workshop, a brilliant creation of the talented Pat Darling.) Encouraged by the wonderful weather, visitors came out in droves to the festival, putting Port Jefferson on the map as the glorious destination village that it is.