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New York Times

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Here is an interesting idea. We know that sleep patterns change as we age. Older adults seem to have more difficulty getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Some maintain they need less sleep as they get older, although there is scientific dispute about that. Now researchers are suggesting that such changes “may be an evolutionary adaptation that helped our ancestors survive the night,” according to a New York Times Science item titled, “Alive One More Day, Thanks to Grandma’s Insomnia” by Aneri Pattani. Younger people tend to stay awake later and sleep later. With different hours for sleeping, at least one generation was awake or lightly dozing at all times through human history to be on guard for the rest, a sort of inadvertent night watch.

That makes me feel a bit better when I wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t fall back to sleep. Now I know I am on guard duty and there is a purpose to my tossing and turning. Curiously I can usually fall asleep again with the breaking dawn and always half an hour before the alarm is set to go off. So maybe there is something to the night watch theory. With the coming light, others will awake, it is safer, and sleep can be resumed.

Come to think of it, the whole idea of sleep is compelling. Sleep, for all the studies, is still mysterious. The ancients revered sleep for what was revealed through dreams. That’s also true for some not-so-ancients, right up to Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when he persuades his wife to let their daughter marry the poor tailor, not the rich butcher, because of his alleged dream.

We spend about one-third of our lives asleep, or at least we are supposed to according to medical standards, yet there are some who resent that time lost. Sleep refreshes us, reenergizes us, even strengthens our immune systems. Yet some say, “I’ll sleep when I am dead,” and try to plow through the days with just short naps. Sooner or later, that deficit catches up with them. Those are the folks who can be found asleep on the subway, at the opera or during an early morning lecture.

How we go to sleep is as fascinating as the fact that we do. There are those who read themselves to sleep, whose eyes get heavy to the point that they can just drop off. Some have to unwind from their activities for a couple of hours in front of the TV before they can relax sufficiently to put themselves to sleep. I am one of those teapots: Just tip me over and pour me out. When it is time to go to sleep, I get into bed and most of the time, once prone, I almost immediately fall asleep.

Did I learn as a young child to put myself to sleep? Or is it genetic? My husband fell asleep only after a nightly battle with the sleep demon. We had three children. One goes through a routine that he has devised to fall asleep, one struggles with difficulty to fall asleep and one, like me, just lies down and is out. While that last scenario sounds preferable, we who fall asleep easily need sleep urgently. I go from 9 or 10 to zero energy in remarkably short order. Then, if I don’t allow myself sleep, I am almost in pain. I used to sleep eight-and-a-half uninterrupted hours, then wake up ready to sing, but now there are those interruptions.

Biological clocks are also interesting. There are those who need to go to bed at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and then again there are some who don’t feel sleepy until 1:30 or 2 o’clock in the morning. Those are usually classified as morning people or night owls. It’s usually best if those opposites aren’t married to each other.

But then again, they can take turns feeding the newborn or standing the night watch.

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There will be a rare, special occasion on my birthday this year. The spectacle I refer to is the first total solar eclipse across the United States since 1918.

Termed the Great American Eclipse, the moon will come between the Earth and the sun, blocking out daylight for about two-and-a-half minutes on Aug. 21.

According to a New York Times science article, “A Dark Spotlight” by Nicholas St. Fleur, “The temperature will dip. Birds will hush. And a dazzling, pearly white halo will emerge, demanding everyone’s attention.”

Carbondale, in Southern Illinois, population 26,000, has been deemed by NASA as “the point of greatest duration.” This small college city is bracing for an onslaught of many thousands, who will want to experience that day in the most dramatic place. Hotels are booked, some at $499 per night with a three-night minimum, seats are selling in the 15,000 seat Southern Illinois University stadium for $25, and local business people are rubbing their hands in expectation of an economic bonanza amid municipal financial struggles.

According to The Times, “People have called from Europe, Japan, Panama and Brazil” looking for accommodations. The city is planning other events leading up to the eclipse, including a music festival called Shadowfest. T-shirts, eclipse hats, coffee mugs and any other items that can carry a logo are selling.

Among the visitors will be excited astronomers, who are fascinated by this rare opportunity to collate new data. With the total eclipse, the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona, will be visible separately behind the moon. It has long been a mystery because its temperature is more than a million degrees Celsius while the rest of the sun’s surface registers 5,500 degrees Celsius. Why the extreme difference and why is it hotter farther away from the center? Astronomers will have only 2 minutes, 38 seconds to capture the sun’s secrets. But they can come yet again to Carbondale for the next eclipse, which is predicted for April 8, 2024. Coincidentally, that will be the 48th anniversary day of the founding of The Village Times.

To share with you some interesting trivia I learned from the article, the sun goes through an 11-year cycle. During that period its activity level changes from mellow to being more turbulent. Bet you didn’t know that, unless you are an astronomer or a rabid stargazer. This year, the sun is on the down side, but during the next eclipse activity will be greater, with more sunspots and solar flares.

Now that you know about the coming eclipse, if you didn’t already, perhaps you too can pass yourself off as a “magician.” That is what Hank Morgan does in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” In that tale, Hank receives a severe blow on the head and when he awakes, he finds himself transported back in time from the 19th century to early medieval England and the world of King Arthur, Merlin and Sir Lancelot. Because Hank is dressed differently and speaks oddly, he is sentenced to burn at the stake. But his execution date, he knows, coincides with a historical eclipse, and he threatens King Arthur with blocking out the sun if he is set alight. As the eclipse begins, the king releases him from prison, and Hank becomes the second most powerful person in the kingdom.

All of which gives me an idea. On Aug. 21, I will proclaim myself publisher of six newspapers, one website, several supplements and maps, and the executive producer of a full-length historic film called, “One Life to Give.” Now I call that magic. And if people don’t believe me, I will threaten on my birthday to blot out the sun.

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The headline spoke to me: “More Women in Their 60s and 70s Are Having ‘Way Too Much Fun’ to Retire.” After reading the article, which didn’t disappoint, by Claire Cain Miller in last Sunday’s New York Times, even though I’ve been at odds lately with The Times, I think there is more to the story than fun.

Two recent analyses indicate that “women have become significantly more likely to work into their 60s and even 70s, often full time” and “many of these women report that they do it because they enjoy it,” according to the article. For those 65-69 years of age,-the numbers have almost doubled since the late 1980s from 15 percent to nearly 30 percent.

Perhaps more surprising is the leap in percentage terms for those 70-74 years of age, more than doubling from 8 to 18 percent.

Who are these women?

Those working are more likely to be higher educated and to have savings, studies have shown, while those not working more commonly are in poor health and have low savings, depending on Social Security and perhaps disability. But for their health problems, they too might be among those working.

Why, if they don’t strictly need the money, are the women of “a certain age” still working?

I can offer some of the answers from my own life. Working, full or part time, is more than just “fun,” although there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s work. A job can offer a purpose to those who are now empty nesters or perhaps without spouses. There is satisfaction in having one’s daily accomplishments measured in some way, whether with salary or by problems solved. Presumably holding a job offers something of value to community and society.

There is also the social aspect of interacting with others and working as a team. Social ties are linked to longer life spans. In addition, working, unless at a job that is exactly the same each day and could be done by a robot, requires thinking and planning, which in turn helps exercise the brain. And the structure that reporting for work imposes in the course of a week might be welcomed by many.

Sometimes working might be a way to preserve a marriage. In a household where the husband might have been the sole breadwinner but is now retired, the spouses might not be completely comfortable with that new arrangement. Work is a respected reason to be apart some of each day.

There might also be a sort of prestige in still working. When people are retired, they may be asked, “What did you do?” as if life has now passed them by. That’s opposed to “What kind of work do you do?” Having a job might convey greater importance.

If the work one does is inherently engaging and one learns from it and meets interesting people, there might be the motivation to keep one’s hand in and stay abreast of new developments and changes in the field.

And no matter how much savings one might reasonably have, drawing down dollars in retirement can be scary. The urge is to stay in place financially and not to drop down. Bringing a stream of income into one’s life can offset that fear.

Finally, for many there is the absolute necessity to earn money in order to survive. They may wish to retire but feel they are unable to afford that luxury.

Whatever the reasons, society benefits from the continuing efforts of experienced workers. It goes without saying that our newspapers treasure older workers alongside our young.

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If you have had enough of politics and pundits this week, come with me for a nostalgic trip through the golden age of Broadway musicals. I was carried back to those heady days of the 1950s by a recent New York Times article about the lost art of sneaking in for the second act, impossible today due to post-9/11 security. Now I don’t know if you have ever indulged in this type of larcenous activity, so I will explain how it worked — at least for me and my merry little band.

I attended junior high and high school at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The subway was right at the corner of our Gothic-style building. This is important information for you to know in order to follow our exploits. The other bit of vital info is that our school day officially ended each afternoon at 2 p.m., rather than the usual 3 p.m. for the rest of the schools under the New York City Board of Education’s auspices.

Shortly after I started in seventh grade, I fell in with a happy group of kids who lived across town, on the Upper West Side. While that was decades away from what we know today as the highly cultured and worldly UWS, nonetheless these kids were a lot more culturally savvy than I was. Every Wednesday, which is of course matinee day, they would slip out of our last class some 15 minutes early, slither quietly through the side door of the school and make a beeline for the subway stairs 20 feet away.

Somehow I came to be included in this precocious group. We would ride the local to 59th Street, descend to the lowest level of the station, which in those days housed the BMT line, ride it through Midtown to 49th Street and Broadway and arrive at the predetermined show of our choice just as intermission was ending and the smokers were returning to their seats for the second act.

No one ever checked the tickets for the second act in those days. And there were always empty seats sprinkled throughout the theater that we claimed for our own. If the real seat owner arrived, most often the usher would help us find another seat since it was fairly common practice for young people to move closer to the stage in those days if there was opportunity. I doubt the ushers realized they were helping scofflaws.

In this way, I saw some of the most famous plays with their original casts during what turned out to be the most memorable period of American musical theater. Of course I didn’t know that then, I just knew I was having a fine old time and we didn’t even have to pay the subway fare because we had student passes.

Of course I never told my parents what we were doing every Wednesday afternoon, and somehow we never got caught leaving school early. Perhaps the faculty understood where we were going and thought it more important than the last 15 minutes of classes.

But my parents may have wondered from time to time because I seemed too knowledgeable about the current musicals, their actors and composers. There were the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics: “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” (the latter two with Mary Martin); Frank Loesser and his “Guys and Dolls,” “The Music Man,” “West Side Story” and Chita Rivera; Ethel Merman, Gertrude Lawrence, Yul Brynner, Gene Kelly and Gwen Verdon; Irving Berlin and Cole Porter — they were all in my world.

And then there was the best of the best, its eloquence, melody, intelligence and heart standing at the head of those magnificent musicals, Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” I can still hear the music, with its clever lyrics, playing in my head. Led by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, it was the longest running show on Broadway for years thereafter. And we saw them all — at least by half.

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One hundred years ago this week, The New York Times has reported, the worst terrorist attack on the United States until 9/11 occurred in New York Harbor. Black Tom Island, supposedly named after an early African-American resident and owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, lay next to Liberty Island and was the site of three-quarters of the American-made ammunitions readied for shipment to Allied forces in World War I. Stored in warehouses, in railroad cars and on barges on the small island, the munitions were targeted with small fires shortly after midnight on July 30, 1916, and the first explosion had the force of about a 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. It blew out windows of buildings in lower Manhattan and Jersey City, damaged the skirt and torch of the Statue of Liberty, shattered the stained glass windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and windows in Times Square, shook and possibly damaged the Brooklyn Bridge, threw people out of their beds and was heard as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland.

On that fateful night, some 2 million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition were on the island, along with 100,000 pounds of TNT on Johnson Barge No. 17. Initially small fires broke out along the mile-long pier, and while some of the guards fled, fearing explosions, others attempted to fight the fires and called the Jersey City Fire Department for help. The first and largest explosion, at 2:08 a.m, produced a rain of bullets and fragments, followed by mists of ash that made fighting the fires impossible; and the smaller fires burned for hours, causing explosions throughout the night.

While hundreds were hurt, surprisingly only a few people were killed, including a policeman in Jersey City, the railroad chief of police, the barge captain and an infant thrown from its crib a mile away. Two guards were quickly arrested for having triggered the disaster by lighting smudge pots on the pier to keep away the ever-present mosquitoes until it was realized that the pots were too far from the fires to have been the cause. Further investigation, which continued for years, identified the culprits as German agents who were trying to stop the shipments.

Until early 1915, the neutral United States was able to supply any nation with arms, but after the blockade of Germany by the British Royal Navy, only the Allied forces could purchase arms. Imperial Germany sent secret agents to the U.S. to obstruct production and delivery, and some of them caused havoc and civilian panic in the ensuing years. An effective weapon was the “cigar bomb” that was silently attached to the hulls of departing American munitions ships and only exploded after the vessels were well out to sea. Many ships, with their cargo and crew, were lost that way.

President Woodrow Wilson was desperately trying to cling to neutrality before the coming, tightly contested election against Charles Evans Hughes, chief justice of the Supreme Court and former New York governor. Wilson, as the president who had kept the nation out of war, initially refused to recognize the explosions as the work of the Germans. But after the election indisputable evidence forced his hand, and by early 1917 he prepared the country for war against Germany.

After the war, the railroad sought payment for damages under the U.S.-German Peace Treaty (1921) signed in Berlin and, at last in 1953, an agreement was reached for $50 million to be paid to the railroad. Dozens of railroad cars, six piers and 13 warehouses had simply disappeared into a huge crater filled with water and debris after the first explosion. For practical purposes the island, with its causeway to the mainland, had disappeared. Final payment was not made until 1979. In today’s currency, damages are estimated at $500 million.

Landfill projects through the years time have enabled what little was left to be incorporated into Liberty State Park. A single plaque there tells the tale of the largest terrorist attack until our time.

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