Between you and me

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

A friend called the other day to wish us a happy new year and to tell us that she and her husband had sold their house. The buyers were going to tear it down and build a new one on the property. Before I could react, she assured me that they had lots of pictures from over the years, and their many memories of raising the children there would always stay with them. Clearly she had mixed feelings about what was happening.

It got me to thinking about what a house is. For starters, it’s four walls and a roof, maybe even a basement, but maybe not, in which we shelter ourselves, our families and our stuff. It is also a place where we invite friends and neighbors to drop in for a drink, a chat or even an elegant dinner party. Some of those guests may even stay over from time to time, so a house is a hospitality center in which we connect with those we enjoy and perhaps love.

A house is a physical location where we can be found. When people ask our names, they may immediately follow up with a second question: “Where do you live?” So to some extent, where we live helps define us. But a house is more, so much more. It is a home where those closest to us reside, perhaps where our children grow up, where we planned, and from which we traveled to and from work to become the people we are today. 

Home is where we want to go immediately when we are not feeling well. It’s where we can get a soothing cup of tea or our regular sustenance at mealtimes. Home is a place where we rest, watch television, read the newspaper, use the computer, play video games, call our friends, wash our clothes, floss our teeth and sleep one-third of our lives. Home is our center, where our car knows to go automatically. Home is safe.

The longer we live there, the harder it is to leave.

When my elder brother died, leaving the co-op empty that my parents had bought and lived in for many years, I started slowly to have alterations made inside the apartment. The bathroom and kitchen needed to be brought up to date, appliances modernized, floors improved. 

My cousin watched with some amusement. “You are making a temple to your parents’ memory,” she offered. Not really, I thought to myself. I was investing for a far more pragmatic reason. I had hopes of one day renting it out for some supplemental income. 

But when I thought about her wry comment, I had to admit there was an element of truth in it. Our family had lived there happily for such a long time. I was even born there. It wasn’t just an apartment. It was the physical container for some of my happiest times. And it was comforting, somehow, that it was still there, even if we no longer were.

I remember when I was still in elementary school, just down the block, that one of my young classmates came to school one day to wish us goodbye. With tears in her eyes, she explained that her family was moving to someplace called Ohio for her father’s job, and she would be leaving us. 

“Don’t worry,” soothed the teacher, “you’ll go to a nice school there and make new friends. You’ll grow from the experience. And you can always come back to visit.” She nodded her head obediently, but I remember thinking then how sad it must be to leave one’s home and all associated with it to start over. 

Leaving a home means interrupting the momentum of one’s life. I wondered if my father would ever move us all elsewhere and comforted myself with the thought that he seemed pretty anchored where he was, which meant I would continue to live near my school.

A house is just an inanimate thing, bought and sold. But when it is a home, it can be the soul of the people who once lived there. 

Nancy Pelosi

By Leah Dunaief

This new year may come to be known as the Year of the Older Woman. That was my thought as I read The New York Times article by Jessica Bennett, “I am (an older) woman. Hear me roar.” The story goes on to cite Nancy Pelosi, Glenn Close and Susan Zirinsky, the newly named head of CBS News, among others, as examples of powerful women over 60 in the spotlight.

IT’S ABOUT TIME.

Pelosi survived a serious challenge to her leadership from the energetic freshmen Democratic members, to once again become speaker of the House of Representatives. That makes her the most powerful elected woman in the United States. Pelosi is 78. Long-serving Representative Maxine Waters (D-California), is the first woman, and incidentally the first African-American, to chair the Financial Services Committee. Waters is 80. Donna Shalala (D-Florida) is the oldest freshman in the House. Shalala is almost 78. 

Zirinsky, who worked at CBS in almost every conceivable news position for 40 years, is not being shunted into retirement. Instead she is now the first woman to head the prestigious news division. She is also the oldest person to hold that position. Zirinsky is 66. Glenn Close, regarded as an underdog in the best actress in a motion picture, drama category of the Golden Globes, beat out four younger women. Close, long a favorite actress of mine, is 71.

How much of this has been as a result of the #MeToo tsunami? Older men have long held power into their 70s and 80s. But some of them have been spectacularly toppled: Charlie Rose is 77 and Les Moonves, newly ousted from CBS Corporation, is 69. So age, of in itself, has not been seen as a barrier to power, but gender has. Those fallen men have vacated positions at the top that now can be filled by equally qualified women. Christiane Amanpour, who will be 61 this week, has replaced Rose on PBS. 

Gender coupled with age was always toxic for female advancement, but not in every culture. Native Americans, I believe I recall, would admit only post-menopausal women to the highest circles of power within their tribes. Slowly the rest of our country seems to be realizing the value of older, and presumably wiser, women for positions of leadership. This is most encouraging for the women over 50, of whom there are more than at any time in our U.S. history. And why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities at leadership and power as men? They are healthier, working longer and earning more than ever.

Well, in fact, it seems like they are advancing. In the words of Susan Douglas, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan, according to The Times, “a demographic revolution” is occurring. 

More women are working into their 60s and beyond, and are being appreciated for their talents and experience. In the late 1980s, some 15 percent were still working. Today it is nearly one-third of those 65-69. Those 70-74 and working have jumped from 8 percent to 18 percent. The Times article goes on to point out that working longer is more common among women with higher education and savings. Presumably some are in the workforce by choice and are valued there.

This all reminds me of an exchange that occurred shortly after we started The Village Times, our first newspaper, in 1976. I was 35-years-old, with more gray hairs than now, and hiring staff, when a man came to interview for one of the positions. 

After a positive conversation in my office, I was about to hire him when he paused, then asked, “Are you the boss?” When I told him that I supposed I was, he looked confused, then explained, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. I couldn’t work for a woman boss.” With that he stood, picked up his coat and hurried away. I didn’t even know enough then to be flabbergasted.

TBR News Media held a free screening of its first feature film, 'One Life to Give,' at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University in June. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Leah Dunaief

By Leah Dunaief

The end of the year has snuck up on us. Have you noticed that the pace of the passing years seems to have accelerated? This is our last regular issue for 2018, and it seems fitting to take a bird’s-eye look at where we’ve been and what lies ahead.

Most immediately coming are the next two issues of special note, that of Dec. 27 and Jan. 3. The first is People of the Year, and we call it our only all-good-news issue. This is the 43rd year we are honoring outstanding residents for going that extra mile and thereby helping to make our hometowns the special places they are. In doing so, they quietly elevate the quality of our lives.

We solicit nominations for this issue from you, our readers, community leaders and neighbors. The editorial board meets with focus groups in the last quarter of the year over breakfast or lunch to discuss nominees and to further inform us of what is happening here, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so much. It is a treat for us to interact with the community on such a pleasant mission. We also get suggestions via emails, texts, phone calls and even an occasional petition; our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are available, too.

We then take those names back to our conference room and amid lively discussions, select those whose stories we print in the People of the Year issue. Sometimes the ones that don’t fit become feature stories we run in the new year. I have been told that there are collectors who have all 43 issues. What a shelf life!

The second, the Year in Review, is new this year and is done in pictures in a kind of Life magazine treatment. It is on special white stock to help enhance the photo reproduction and is in full color. Life magazine — for whom I worked when in my early 20s and is no more — eat your heart out! A chronology of the way we were, we suspect that it, too, will have a long shelf life. 

Some special offerings of this past year certainly should include our first full-length movie, “One Life to Give,” which was screened in June at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University to a full house of more than 1,000 viewers. The story follows the early years of the Revolutionary War, specifically through the lives of Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge, and the start of Washington’s Culper Spy Ring that was headquartered in Setauket. 

I am pleased to be able to tell you that we have filmed a sequel, called “Traitor,” that takes place four years later. It is now 1780, and with great luck the Patriots have captured British spymaster, John André. Again Tallmadge is central to the plot that reveals the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and the ultimate fate of André. It will be screened in the spring and you will all be invited.

Another first for us this past year was the Cooks, Books & Corks event at the Bates House off Main Street in Setauket. Many local authors came with their books for sale, and many local restaurants came with their specialties for tasting on a sweet summer evening. There was wine and unending good food for both the body and the mind. Our engaging headline speakers were Guy Reuge from Mirabelle Restaurant, internationally famous naturalist Carl Safina and the inspirational dean of the School of Journalism at SBU, Howard Schneider. The event raised money to fund a journalism intern next summer. In answer to the many times we have been asked, yes, we are planning to do it again.

A new print offering this past year was the sleek Washington’s Spy Trail booklet. In 1790, Washington took a slow, ceremonial coach trip along what is now 25A, from Great Neck to Port Jefferson, to honor the Setauket spies who had contributed so much to the victory of the colonists. The booklet marks the route, which this year sports road signs, with information about various points of interest along the way. We will again be publishing the story with updates.

I am running out of space, but there was a lot more that we innovated this past year with much more to come in 2019. Meanwhile thank you for your participation. We could not do any of this without you.

Evelyn Berezin

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Two exceptional people, Edmunde Stewart and Evelyn Berezin, died this past week, one day apart. The funeral for one was at Bryant Funeral Home in East Setauket on Monday, for the other at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City on Tuesday. Although quite different, they were both well known for their talents. I was privileged to know them as friends. Their deaths leave a void for the world and a hole in my heart.

The first was a Scotsman, an orthopedic surgeon who lived for many years in Old Field and whose office was in Port Jefferson. He was 80 years old, and during his half-century of medical practice, he touched the lives of thousands of people. Educated well, he came to the United States to cap off his training, fell in love with one of the first women he met at Stony Brook — and Scotland’s loss was our gain. She was there, at his bedside all those years later, when, struggling to breathe, he finally succumbed to COPD.

Edmunde Stewart

The second was born in the East Bronx and was 93. She was one of three children raised in an apartment under elevated railroad tracks. It was so small that the uncle who boarded with them, while he finished medical school, had to sleep on a mattress under the dining room table. She was bright enough to finish high school at 15 and attended Hunter College at night while she worked. Unusually tall for her generation, she lied about her age in order to get her job. Under a World War II City University program that allowed women to study calculus and other specialized subjects at an all-male school, she then transferred to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and ultimately earned a degree in physics from NYU in 1946. Needless to say, she was in a distinct minority in her classes.

He, when not practicing medicine, and as a passionate lover of horses and riding, participated in the Smithtown Hunt for many years and on many wild rides through the neighborhoods. He cut a fine figure in his scarlet hunting jacket at the head of the pack. And he probably broke every bone in his body at least twice in his many falls, always with good humor during the phone calls as he related the latest mishap to his wife on his way to the hospital.

Evelyn Berezin

The other left NYU just shy of a doctorate in 1950 and ultimately found a job in 1951 with the Electronic Computer Corporation, a shop of engineers in Brooklyn. In between she married a tall Brit named Israel Wilenitz, who was a chemical engineer. She figured out how to design various computers including one that made range calculations for the U.S. Defense Department, another that kept accounts in business offices and one for an airline reservations system for United Airlines. She also built and marketed the world’s first computerized word processor. She went on to found her own computer company with two male colleagues, which was located in the Hauppauge Industrial Park, and eventually was bought out by Burroughs Corporation. For fun she loved attending cultural events, especially the American Ballet Theatre in New York City where she held a subscription. Recently she joined us with a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera.

Our best times together were probably on her back deck in Poquott, where she served us elaborate brunches of French toast, bagels and lox from the famous Russ & Daughters on the lower East Side of Manhattan and regaled us with historic events she had witnessed during her long life. She had something interesting to say about every subject, past and present, and was totally engaged in current events right up to the end. The last time I called her, she told me she had to get off the phone because she was watching “60 Minutes.”

He was also my orthopedist and shared with me a precious bit of wisdom: “You Americans feel that there should be a cure for every pain that you may feel. But the body isn’t like that. Pains, minor pains, are a part of life and can be borne without rushing into surgery to have them fixed, which is a risky thing to do in the first place.”

They were companions and their lives were an inspiration for me. I am diminished by the loss of my dear friends.

Stock photo

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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