Wednesday, June 20, 2018


     In 1884 (most of the dates in this story come with the disclaimer "give or take a year"), a girl named Buntze was born in a shtetl inside the Russian pale of settlement. She grew up and married an orphan boy named Shmuel Don. In 1909 they had a daughter whom they named Gittel, and in 1911 they had a son, Avrum. Things were getting difficult in Russia for Jews; there were pogroms and killings, and many Jews were fearful that it was all only going to get worse for them. (They were right.)  At some point shortly before or after Avrum's birth, Shmuel Don set sail for America, where the plan was for him to work and save his money until he could afford to bring over his wife and children. He had relatives in Bangor, Maine, so that was where he headed. He kept his bargain with Buntze, but it took him ten years.
     Meanwhile Buntze and the children lived with her parents, and Buntze kept a secret from her husband the whole time they were separated. When Avrum was born, the umbilical cord had gotten wrapped around his neck, and his brain was partially deprived of oxygen. It soon became apparent to Buntze that Avrum was mentally slow, but she never told her husband this for fear that he would abandon his family in Russia. If his son wouldn't be able to study Torah, Buntze probably reasoned, would Shmuel Don think that was worse than having no son at all? So for ten years Buntze wrote letters to her husband in which she invented achievements for Avrum, knowing that if Shmuel Don ever did send for them, he would find out the truth when they arrived, but apparently hoping that by then it would be too late for him to renege.
     At long last the summons came from America: working as a scrap collector, Shmuel Don had finally saved enough to pay for passage for his wife and children. But Buntze had one more trick up her sleeve. She announced that she wasn't going to leave Russia without her parents. Was this her plan for a safety net in case Shmuel Don did end up rejecting all of them once they arrived because of Avrum's (Abie's) condition, compounded by her own ten years of lies? In any event, Shmuel Don agreed to continue working until he had enough money saved to buy ship passage for five passengers traveling steerage, which meant being shoehorned into the bottom of the ship for a weeks-long journey.
     Buntze had heard about the questions they would be asked at Ellis Island, and about the fact that "feeble-minded" immigrants would not be welcomed. So she tried to teach Abie how to tell the strangers who would be questioning him what his name was, where he was traveling from, that he was nine years old. But this time her luck ran out. Abie could not fool his examiners. The rest of the family was admitted, but Abie was separated from them and detained alone at Ellis Island for weeks. Does this sound like a familiar pattern to anyone?
     It's hard to imagine the shock this all would have been to Shmuel Don, but he handled it. He waited with the rest of the family until Abie, the son for whom he had had such scholarly hopes, was released, and then everyone left together for Maine.
     Two more daughters were born in Bangor: Rose in 1923 and Sylvia fourteen months later. Within a few years, the family relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town in the Pocono Mountains, where they moved into half of a rented duplex and Shmuel Don bought a small grocery store directly across the street.
     Funny thing about Rose and Sylvia. Although they looked so much alike that they were often mistaken for twins, Rose grew up believing herself to be unattractive and clumsy, while Sylvia considered herself beautiful, and those self-assessments persisted throughout their lives.

Sylvia on left, Rose on right
     Rose was shy and studious; Sylvia was charming and vivacious. Rose was mortified when she was teased about having an older brother like Abie; Sylvia let it roll off her back.  Buntze's three daughters were (appallingly) categorized as the good one (Gittel, renamed Geraldine in the new country), the smart one (Rose), and the pretty one (Sylvia). Education for girls wasn't a high priority in the family, but somehow Rose mustered the courage to leave the fold, move to New York and attend Hunter College, while Sylvia graduated high school in Scranton and then went to work for a friend of her father's.
     When the United States entered World War II, Sylvia had a serious boyfriend who was drafted. They had an understanding that when he came back they would get married, but he never came back. Rose worked as a teacher in New York and Sylvia as a bookkeeper in Scranton, and they both remained single well into their late 20s - perilously late, by the standards of the times.
     In 1952 Rose and Sylvia went on a vacation to Florida together, and there Sylvia met Jerry, who was from Brooklyn. Their relationship progressed fast.  At some point Jerry said to Rose, "You should meet my cousin Eddie."  She did.  Eddie turned out to be the quiet, self-effacing counterpart to the brash and boisterous Jerry.  Rose (at age 30!!) and Eddie got married in May 1953

 and Sylvia and Jerry married a few months later.
     Eddie was the youngest of five siblings, and his father had died shortly before his bar mitzvah.  He and his mother were very close.  She died not long after he and Rose were married, and he fell into a deep depression which required hospitalization.  Rose, who was pregnant with their first child, managed on her own until he was well enough to come home.  Eddie's bouts with major depression proved to be cyclical, and recurred every seven or eight years throughout his life, requiring more hospitalizations.  Each episode seemed to be more severe than the previous ones, and he was repeatedly given electroshock treatments in the hospital.  Psychiatrists struggled to regulate his medication but no regimen seemed to prevent the recurrences.
     When he was well, Eddie worked as a social worker.  Jerry started his own construction company. Rose, in New York, and Sylvia, in Scranton, each had two children, close in age: Bobby and Susan for Rose, Jeffrey and David for Sylvia. Sylvia had two more pregnancies after that, both ending in miscarriages.  Rose went back to teaching once both her children were in school, and Sylvia kept the books for Jerry's business.  Both families were Orthodox; they rigorously followed all the rules, ate only kosher food, kept the Sabbath and all the holidays, and sent their children to Jewish parochial schools.
     Jerry's business was successful.  He and Sylvia bought a big house in Scranton, lived on the bottom floor and rented out the top floor.  Rose and Eddie had a harder time making ends meet.  Until their children were nine and eight respectively, they all lived in a one-bedroom apartment; the children shared the bedroom and the parents slept in the living room.  It wasn't until Rose and Eddie had been married for over 10 years that they finally upgraded to a larger apartment and got their own bedroom.  The kids had the other bedroom, with a flimsy dividing wall between their two halves.
     The two families got together often, always in the house in Scranton, where there was room for guests.  The week of Passover was always spent together, as well as winter vacations and summer visits.  Rose and Eddie didn't have a car, so the family of four would take the subway from Queens to Port Authority and then ride the Trailways bus to Scranton.
     The kids grew up and started their own independent lives.  Jeffrey, the oldest of the four, got married and stayed in Scranton to raise his family, working at his father's business and eventually taking it over.  Bobby, the next oldest, obtained a PhD, married young, became a father, and at the age of 23 moved to Jerusalem with his wife and toddler son.  They had four more children there before his wife died of breast cancer at age 49.  He and his children remained in Israel, where he was a university professor, and within two years he remarried.  Susan, his sister, was the only one of the four children who stopped practicing Orthodox Judaism.  She became a lawyer, got married, had a child, got divorced, married again, had a second child, and continued working as a public defender throughout.  David, Jeffrey's younger brother, perpetually struggled to hold a job, but he married a steady and practical woman who kept their growing family afloat financially.
     Eddie died of his second heart attack when he was 59.  His wife Rose, three years older, had a three-phase life: 30 premarriage years, 32 years married, and 33 years widowed.  When Eddie died she was only 62.  She left New York and moved back to Scranton to be near her sisters.  She lived alone there until the age of 91, when she moved to Israel to be close to Bobby (now Bob), his second wife, and Rose's Israeli grandchildren, who were now young adults starting families of their own.   
     Gittel, who was widowed young and raised her two children by herself, lived to be 100, although many of her last years were spent bedridden in a nursing home, so stricken by dementia that she couldn't speak, feed herself, or recognize anyone. Abie, a gentle soul in an always-frail body, lived with his mother until he died at 65. Sylvia, widowed for nearly 20 years, died at 94 this past March after years of dementia, much like Gittel. And Rose - my mother - died on June 1, 2018 at age 95. Despite her recent mental decline, she had been able to live in her own apartment with a full-time aide for the past year. On the last day of her life she kept complaining of being tired and just wanting to sleep. Her blood pressure had dropped and she was brought to the hospital, but before the doctors could decide on a course of treatment, she just closed her eyes and stopped breathing.
     My mother and I were never a good fit for each other.  She once told me that I had been "good" until I was five years old.  I've often wondered what a five-year-old could possibly do to permanently remove herself from the "good" category in her mother's eyes.  She always had very specific and rigid criteria for what a daughter of hers should be and do, and I apparently met few of them.
     My mother taught me by example to work hard, to live simply, and to care about people who were less fortunate than myself.  I'm grateful to her for all of those lessons.  And although she never supported my striking out on my own and living the life I chose - well, she never would have admitted it, but I suspect she taught me that too.  Thanks, Mom.  Rest in peace. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018


     So today Google is celebrating cartographer Abraham Ortelius, which is fabulous, but I do feel compelled to mention that I told my blog readers all about Ortelius way, way back in April of 2015, during the A to Z Challenge, when my topic was MY SUPERSWEET SIXTEENTH CENTURY.  It was a pretty good post, if I say so myself, and so were my other ones that month.  Just saying.  If you want to meet 26 fascinating 16th-century people, look at all my posts from that April!  Because I'll share my little secret with you: deep at heart, I'm a 16th-century person who somehow ended up living in the 20th and 21st centuries, and I can't make heads or tails of either one of my "home" centuries, but follow me to the 1500's and I'll be the best guide you've ever had!


Thursday, May 17, 2018


     I got to know Guilie online a couple of years ago when we were both participating in the A to Z blog challenge.  We admired each other's blogs and became online friends.  Then I quit blogging for a year, and just when I had decided to start back up again, I heard from Guilie.  She had a new book coming out and was inviting me to participate in her blog hop to publicize it!  The timing was perfect.
     Guilie is not only a dog rescuer but also, as I just learned when I asked her my interview questions, a second-generation rescuer.  Let me begin by saying that animal rescuers are heroes in my eyes.  They're not the people who go to the shelter and adopt pets, who are pretty great also; they're the people who go out on the street, find homeless animals, patiently overcome the animals' fear and distrust, and coax them into a place of safety.  And they often do so at their own personal risk and expense, and then they do it again and again and again, because it's their mission.  It's not easy by any stretch, and it's not for everyone, but anyone who wants to know exactly what the experience is like need look no further than "It's About the Dog: the A-to-Z Guide for Wannabe Dog Rescuers."

     Guilie is not only a beautiful person, but luckily for the rest of us, she's a beautiful writer too.  Here's what some of her fans have to say:

The A-to-Z Guide for Wannabe Dog Rescuers
Everytime Press, April 2018

A hands-on, less-tears-more-action, 100% practical how-to introduction to help you—yes, you!—get a dog off the street and to safety. From the gear you’ll need to how to know whether a dog needs help(and how urgently);from an ode to veterinarians to a crash course on how to gain the trust of a wary dog. In short, everything you ever wanted to ask your friendly (or maybe not so friendly) neighborhood rescuer and never quite dared.

“This is a must-have book on every would-be, could-be, and veteran dog rescuer’s shelf. [P]acked with invaluable information gleaned from experts and experience, on how to put good intentions into successful practice so you can provide real help for four-legged friends in need.” ~ Lynne M. Hinkey, author of Ye Gods! A Tale of Dogs and Demons

“Not only an incredibly thorough and brilliant How-To, but a pull-at-your-heartstrings look at the selfless world of dog rescuing—and a must-read for anyone who loves dogs. This book will renew your faith in humanity.” ~ Robin Cain, author of The Secret Miss Rabbit Kept

The author, Guilie Castillo Oriard, is a Mexican writer and dog rescuer living in Curaçao with eight extraordinary rescue dogs and an even more extraordinary man who puts up with them all. Her short fiction has been published both online and in print. The Miracle of Small Things, a novel in stories, was published by Truth Serum Press in 2015.It’s About the Dog: The A-to-Z Guide for Wannabe Dog Rescuers is her first non-fiction foray.She blogs about dogs at Life In Dogs, and about everything else at Quiet Laughter.

The book will be [was] released by Everytime Press on April 20th, 2018, in paperback and e-book. (Available at major online retailers and, later this year, with select booksellers in Curaçao.) To celebrate, starting on the day of release and until May 21st, author and book will be on the Dog Book Blog Tour, making the rounds in the blogosphere to talk dogs and rescue, even a little about writing. Come by and share your insights and questions, and enter the Dog Book Blog Tour Giveaway!

Find out more about the Dog Book Blog Tour and the Giveaway at Life In Dogs, and about the book at the publisher’s website. You can also follow It’s About the Dog on Facebook.

                                       *                                          *                               *
Here is Guilie herself,

and here's the crew she has at her house, because some rescue dogs aren't easy to place in adoptive homes and so their rescuers end up as their parents.

     Somehow amidst the madness of her book release, Guilie ended up finding the time to answer a few questions for me.  Voila!

1.       When was the first time you rescued a dog?  Was it an impulse rescue or had some training/ planning gone into it?  Details, please.

My first rescue happened when I was 8. Though, really, it was my mother’s rescue, so maybe it doesn’t count as mine-mine. And it probably wasn’t the first—certainly not hers; my parents fell in love while rescuing a dog from a freeway in Mexico City. But it’s the first one I was involved with in any serious, meaningful way, and it’s the one, I think, that definitively gave me a rescuer’s heart.

She was an Irish setter, in need of a good bath and a brushing but apparently not too skinny. “She must be lost,” was my mom’s conclusion. So we took her in, but left her in the carport, in full view of the street. “Her family’s probably looking for her. This way they’ll see her if they drive by.”

The dog wolfed down as much food as we put in front of her, drank from the water bowl we set out for her like there was no tomorrow. She was mild-mannered, the sweetest doe eyes you’ve ever seen. I wanted to keep her, but my mom was convinced she belonged to someone, somewhere.

Days passed, then weeks, and no one claimed her. My father wasn’t thrilled about the new carport lodger (we already had a dog), but she was quiet enough, made no messes, destroyed nothing. Mostly she spent her days in the shade of the bougainvillea, not too far from her food and water bowls, which we kept always stocked. She was still eating enormous amounts.

And then, one morning, we discovered the reason: eight puppies. She was so malnourished that the pregnancy hadn’t even shown. And she had no milk.

The vet was called. He took one look, and told my mom the best thing was to put them all down. “The puppies will never make it,” he said. The mom probably had all sorts of diseases; now that her belly was gone, she was all bones. And those big, big eyes.

But my mom wouldn’t hear of it. We bottle-fed those puppies, she and I. She took the graveyard shift and the morning shift, while I was at school. As soon as I came home, I headed to the laundry room (now the new family’s home) and sat there, surrounded by puppies and one desperately grateful mom, and endless supplies of milk.

They all lived. All eight. The vet couldn’t believe it when we called him two months later to come vaccinate them. And all eight found excellent, excellent homes. The mom, however, we couldn’t bear to part with. My mother named her Cindy, short for Cinderella—appropriate, I guess. She moved to the yard once her puppies were gone and became best friends with our Boxer. They both slept in my room at night. During the day, they chased squirrels (Cindy was a much better hunter than Cookie, the Boxer) and slept in the shade of the jacarandas or on the sunny terrace. She never wanted for anything, ever again. And she was loved. By me, certainly, but for my mom she held a special significance. A special place.

2.       Did you grow up in a house full of dogs?

Yes. And of cats. And of birds. I had turtles and a couple of Beta fish. We had two rabbits at one point. And a lot of these ‘lodgers’ happened because they were rescued, straight off the street, by my mom and me. Almost all of them were meant to be temporary; “Just until we find a home for them.” Famous last words. We did, however, manage to find homes for a few, and even managed to keep them close by: an Alaska Malamute puppy we rescued from a flooding yard lived a long and incredibly fulfilling life with my piano teacher.

3.       Do you have a “day job,” or does dog rescue take up most of your time?  Or maybe both?

Back in 2011, I quit my job (in the financial industry here in Curaçao) and became a full-time writer—and rescuer, though that part wasn’t part of the plan. For a couple of years now I’ve been considering going back to work; I even tried a part-time gig last year—writing does not the big bucks make, or even the little ones. But a side effect of rescuing is a houseful of dogs, and they’re not exactly the friendliest of packs, or the most stable. Being out of the house for more than, say, four hours at a stretch is asking for trouble (last year we lost a member of the pack like this).

I’m the luckiest girl, though. I have an extraordinary man as a partner, who not only is the best cheerleader I have but also puts up with the houseful of dogs… He didn’t even like dogs when we met. And now he’s become an amazing dog dad: he insists on doing the morning feeding because he feels it helps him bond with them; he keeps track (much better than I do) of when their Heartgard is due; he’s even helped on several rescues when we needed extra hands. A few years ago, when we fostered a litter of newborn puppies who needed to be bottle-fed, he even volunteered to do feedings so I could snatch an hour or two of sleep.

Like I said: extraordinary man.

4.       In 50 words or less, convince anyone who reads this interview why he/she should buy your new book.

I don’t think this book is for everyone. It was specifically written for people new to rescue who want to help stray or homeless dogs, and—as I kept telling the publisher back when the project began—there aren’t a lot of those. Maybe someone who’s curious about rescue and wants to know more about it, even if they’re not going to do much (or any) rescuing themselves would also enjoy it. [Ooops—that was 72 words.]

5.       Now convince that same person in 50 words or less why he/she should become a dog rescuer.

In my (admittedly not always humble) opinion, rescue is a bit of a calling. Kind of like being an artist, or a surgeon. You need to want to be these things, and even before you get any sort of training you need to have a feel for it, an affinity with it. (And there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t have it; there are plenty of ways to help, to make the world a better place, without rescuing.)

That said, rescue comes with all sorts of positive consequences: a houseful of dogs, yes, but also an enlargement of whatever organ it is that deals with compassion. One of my favorite quotes (which I couldn’t resist using in the book) is from Prince:

‘Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.”

If you do decide to rescue, I can guarantee this: you will become a better person. It won’t be pretty, it won’t be easy, and there will be plenty of heartbreak involved—but humans are, made of carbon, after all, and like carbon it takes the harshest of conditions to turn us into diamonds.

Susan, thank you so much for this lovely interview! It’s been a pleasure and an honor to become a part of The Art of Not Getting Published, and I look forward to chatting with you and your readers in the comments.

                                          *                                         *                                      *

And, as a grand finale, Guilie agreed to answer one more question for me: Can you share the story of one particularly memorable rescue?  Her answer follows.

Every rescue leaves its mark on us, I think, but there’s one that became memorable not only for the happy ending but for the scale and the surprises it had in store for us.

Someone had reported two stray female dogs, one of whom had possibly given birth in an empty lot in Sun Valley, a residential neighborhood here in Curaçao. Both were skittish and very afraid of humans, and no one had been able to catch them. No one had seen the puppies, either, which meant they were still too small to wander around—but puppies grow fast, and if we didn’t do something about this, they’d end up run over by a car or—maybe worse—as a pack of ferals, distrusting of humans, always hungry, always unloved.

Five dark SUVs rolled into Sun Valley on a hot Sunday morning, like something out of Men in Black. Instead of top-secret nuclear weapons, though, the cars were packed with transport crates, towels, leashes, water containers, Tupperware-fuls of sausage squares, bags of kibble, Frontline spray bottles, alcohol, leather garden gloves, shears… Alpha, this is Black Ops Rescue [static] — waiting for the go-ahead, over.

The empty lot was large, maybe half an acre, and totally overgrown. Weeds waist-high, trees dangling impenetrable nets of wild ivy (not poison, at least) that also covered the ground so our feet sank up to the ankle—and disguised dips and gullies. We found them nestled in a hole on the side of just such a gully, protected by roots and branches, way at the back of the lot. The most inaccessible place, in short. (Smart mom.)

Impossible to lower the crates to where the puppies were. Only one person at a time fit in the tiny space, and getting back up from there, carrying the precious cargo of a wiggly, fearful puppy, was no easy feat. So we established a puppy chain-gang. I perched at the top of the gully, straddling the remains of a brick wall there, and the person at the bottom handed the puppies to me, one by one. I swiveled and passed each puppy on to Cor, my partner, who was holding on to my legs so I didn’t fall head-first into the gully, and he passed the puppy on to the others, who were waiting to place them in the crates.

Seven puppies. Eight. Nine. That must be it, we thought. No, another puppy came up from the gully. And another. And another. Fourteen in total. All apparently healthy, no visible issues or defects. Maybe three weeks old, and all well within the weight for that age. No way this was a single litter. Later, when we caught the moms—which ended up being the next day, and required not-so-small amounts of human blood (mine, gladly given) to achieve, but that’s a much longer story—we found out that it was two litters. Both females, probably mom and daughter, had given birth at about the same time, and had kept their puppies together, which is something I’d never seen before, especially not out on the street.

The vet confirmed the puppies’ health. Aside from lice—they were covered in it; even now, just thinking about it makes me squirm—and the expected flea and tick population, they were in pretty good shape. Good weight, good energy, feisty even. But younger than we thought, so finding the moms became a top priority. In the meantime, an amazing woman named Karin stepped up to foster them—yes, all fourteen. She would eventually foster the two moms, too, so the whole family could stay together. And, from the first day, Karin fell in love with one of the puppies. She named him Bolo (for Bolo Pretu, the name of a cake made here in Curaçao for the most special occasions), and he is living a life of privilege and endless love with her. 

The others found good homes eventually, too; even one of the moms. But one of the puppies, Harry, and one of the moms, Kristin, turned out to be too wild for most families. When adopter after adopter passed them over (or returned them), they were taken in by the DOG Foundation, run by a woman who has devoted her life to giving a home to the dogs no one wants: the elderly, the ones with health issues or behavior problems. She lives with upwards of 70 dogs at any one time, but that number is always changing: there are always more dogs than adopters. 

For the last two years or so, I’ve been sponsoring Kristin and Harry. Every month I donate the equivalent of about USD 80 to cover their expenses, medical and food and whatever. There are others like me; DOG couldn’t function without what Djoeke calls ‘long-distance fosters’. (If you’re interested in sponsoring a DOG dog, or in contributing towards the creation of the DOG sanctuary—which will allow Djoeke to take in so many more dogs—you can find details on her website.)  And here is a video of  the sanctuary:

                                                  *                                                     *                                               *

Thank you, Guilie!  I'm so glad there are people like you and Djoeke in this world!!

Friday, May 11, 2018


     That's Bachelor of Fine Arts, which she became on Monday!

     As you can sort of see in the background, the graduation was at Radio City Music Hall.  The event was sadly lacking in Rockettes, as well as being FOUR HOURS LONG, but that's neither here nor there.  The important thing is that she made it through four sometimes difficult years of art school, became a seasoned New Yorker along the way, and is now ready to spread her wings and fly.  Monday was a very proud day for the Amy Fan Club.

Amy and Family

Amy and Boyfriend


Amy with Boyfriend and Best Friend
     Life with Amy can be maddening, hilarious, expensive, and/or fun, but one thing it never, ever is - is boring.  And I don't expect her graduation to change any of that!

Saturday, May 5, 2018


     I mentioned in my last post that I live in West Orange, New Jersey, the town where Thomas Edison lived and worked for years.  But I didn't mention that my house is about a mile from the Thomas Edison Historical National Park, located in his original laboratory buildings. It's not what most people would think of as a National Park, situated as it is smack in the middle of a suburb, but it is one - park rangers and all!

     Last Tuesday night the Park presented a very unusual concert, and my husband and I were there.  A Tuareg musician named Mdou Moctar performed on electric guitar with his band, which is a rather  exotic experience to witness all by itself. The music had a haunting quality, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  But here's the kicker: their songs were being recorded live (by a uniformed park ranger) in a crank-operated 1909 recording device onto a wax cylinder - exactly like the ones on which Edison recorded music - and was then played back for the audience's listening pleasure on an antique gramaphone.  Now there's something you don't get to hear every day, right?

      As the ranger very knowledgeably explained it, music creates a disturbance in the air molecules around it.  When the music is directed into the mouth of the horn, its notes create a pattern of air motion which causes a diaphragm at the bottom end of the horn to move in response.  As the diaphragm moves according to the music's pattern, a knife affixed underneath presses onto the rotating wax cylinder over which it hovers, and the pattern of the air's movement is transmitted onto the cylinder, creating a tangible pattern of grooves out of the audible pattern of air waves.  In other words - at least as far as I'm concerned - it's magic.  And then when you remove the wax cylinder and insert it into the bottom of the gramaphone, the whole process is reversed, and the pattern of grooves cut into the cylinder is "read" by a ball rolling over it, and it reverts magically back into air waves that offer us through the amplifier at the top a somewhat buzzy, distorted form of the music we just heard live.
     Here, you can listen for yourself.  Go to and scroll down to the May 2nd recording.  And by the way, Mdou Moctar is currently on a United States tour.  Check out the tour dates here, and maybe you can catch a live performance near you.
     I can assure you that none of this means that Edison himself wasn't a real jerk (see my previous blog post), because I've gotten the distinct impression that he was.  But, for sure, he was one of the smartest jerks around.
     Okay.  Since I'm still in an electrical mindset, I'll tell you what I'll do.  Leave me a comment, I'll choose my favorite (assuming/hoping that there will be multiples), and the winner will get my very own like-new copy of "The Last Days of Night," a wonderful historical novel by Graham Moore (who wrote the screenplay for the movie The Imitation Game, among other things) which features all the key players in the Current War whom I mentioned in my last post, not to mention some other fun characters including a lawyer, an opera singer, and ... well, no more spoilers. The book is a delightful read, and all you have to do to get it free is to leave me a delightful comment!

Sunday, April 22, 2018



     I admit that's an intentionally devious title.  It's "current" as in electrical current, not "current" as in going-on-right-now.  I'm trying to ease back into blogging after a year's absence, and I'm not nearly ready to talk about what's going on in the world, right now.  So instead I'm going to write about a war I've been reading about lately that took place toward the end of the 19th century.  No battlegrounds, no military maneuvers, no firearms, but it was a war all the same, and there were deaths that resulted from it.
     I just learned today, after I'd almost finished writing this post, that the Weinstein Company had shot a film called THE CURRENT WAR on this very same subject, and that it was supposed to have been released toward the end of 2017.  But once the movie industry began actually acknowledging in public what it seems everyone in Hollywood had known for decades about Weinstein but hadn't had the guts to do anything about, it was decided by studio honchos that time needed to pass for the Weinstein taint to dissipate.  So now THE CURRENT WAR isn't expected to be released until December 2018.  But you might not want to wait that long to learn about the topic, and besides, the movie reportedly isn't very good anyway despite its Benedict Cumberbach star power.  So I, who know very little about science, am going to try to explain things to you in the hopes that you know even less than I do and will find this subject as interesting as I do.
     As we all learned in school, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  Except that he didn't.  Edison invented a light bulb - the first one that really worked without sooner or later heating itself up to the point at which it exploded.  But he wasn't the first person to tinker with the idea of lighting homes and businesses through the power of electricity.
     Joseph Swan, an Englishman, patented a light bulb made of a heated carbon rod enclosed in a vacuum tube in 1878.  When Edison tried to patent a light bulb with a carbonized cotton filament the following year, Swan sued him successfully for patent infringement, and Edison decided his best move would be to join forces with Swan.  The two went into business together for a short time, although Edison soon went out on his own.
     Edison had started his electrical career working with telegraph systems, which ran on direct current (DC) - current that ran from one terminal to another.  So DC current was Edison's natural choice when he began experimenting with electrical lighting.  This worked fine when the wiring was run over short distances, but not so fine when longer distances were required.  And that's where Edison's fatal flaw came in: he was so stubborn that he refused, then and for the rest of his life, to even consider the possibility that some other form of current might be able to do the job just as well and, in some regards, even better.  And that's why Edison - a man who loved winning at least as much as he loved inventing - ended up (SPOILER!!) losing the current war.
     In 1880 Edison installed the world's first electric lighting system.  It was done on a very small scale; the first beneficiary was a steamship.  Other gradually larger individual projects followed until in 1882 he chose Manhattan as the site of  his first electrical power station, and began wiring up the homes of wealthy New Yorkers.

     Meanwhile, a young Serbian who had studied the brand-new field of electrical engineering in Europe had found his way to a job with the Edison Company's Paris branch.  When he was offered a transfer to Edison's New York factory, Nikola Tesla was thrilled at the chance to work with The Great Man himself.  But what neither Edison nor anyone else employed by him in New York knew was that Tesla had already invented - in his head, but not in a tangible model - a motor that would run on alternating current (AC).

     Tesla was, by all accounts, somewhere on the autism spectrum.  He worked and thought alone; ideas came to him in sudden bursts of brilliance.  He expected to be compensated for them, but he had no real interest in acquiring money or power (and probably wouldn't have known how even if he had been interested).  Tesla's life was a story of rags to riches and then back to rags again.  He never married or had any intimate relationships.  He didn't last long with the Edison Company, but he stayed in New York for the rest of his life, living alone in a series of hotels.  For a while New York society found his particular combination of genius and lack of social skills to be adorable and he was wined and dined relentlessly, but it wasn't long before the novelty wore off.  The glitterati got bored and dropped him.  The man once celebrated as "The Wizard of Physics" and "Greater Even than Edison" died poor and alone in a hotel room, where his body was discovered by a maid.  But I'm getting ahead of my story.
     The difference between AC and DC was that inside an AC-powered motor the electrical field would rotate and the resulting current would constantly be reversing course every fraction of a second.  AC current produced higher voltages than DC; on the one hand, this meant that it could be transmitted over longer distances, but on the other hand, the high voltages caused many people (including Edison) to regard AC current as too dangerous to be of practical use.
     And here's where George Westinghouse, the third leg of this triangle, came in.  Westinghouse, an affluent inventor and businessman, was willing to take a risk on AC current, and he had the deep pockets to set Tesla's ideas into motion.  In fact, Westinghouse won the contract to illuminate the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and it therefore featured AC current sparked by huge generators and distributed throughout the fairgrounds via wires.  For a week, Tesla personally put on seemingly magical public demonstrations, including passing currents of enormous voltage through his own body with no ill effects.  The Electricity Pavilion was the undisputed showstopper at the Fair.

     But no sooner did Westinghouse enter the fray than Edison began a two-pronged attack against him: publishing pamphlets warning the public that AC current was deadly, while also suing him for patent infringement.  When those tactics didn't stop Westinghouse, Edison secretly teamed up with a self-educated electrical engineer named Harold Brown.  Brown's novel idea for proving that AC was deadly was to provide a series of public demonstrations in which he used AC current to kill animals by electrocution.  This enterprise was every bit as ghastly as it sounds but, of course, it caught the public's attention.  Most of the victims of the killings carried out in the name of the current war were harmless dogs, calves and horses.

      But Edison and Brown still weren't satisfied.  Electrocuting animals was for them only the means to an end: their real goal was killing off not animals, but the public demand for AC current once and for all.
     They saw their golden opportunity in 1888, when the New York legislature declared that from now on, capital punishment in that state would be applied via a very new invention: the electric chair.  And somehow (Edison had very powerful New York connections) it turned out that the only electrical mechanism that could be applied was AC current.
     William Kemmler had killed his wife with an axe, confessed, and displayed no remorse.  In May of 1889 he was the first person to be sentenced to death under New York's new Electrical Execution Act, and Kemmler was fine with that.  In his opinion, the sooner the better.  But he had to wait another year until the constitutionality of the Act worked its way up enough through the court system for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that electrocution didn't qualify as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  The execution was allowed to proceed.
     One morning in August of 1890 Kemmler was placed in a chair in the prison basement and electrodes were attached to his body.  The current was turned on, Kemmler's body became rigid, and the current was turned off again.  But while the chair's inventor was still congratulating himself to all those present on his wonderful new apparatus, spectators began to notice something: Kemmler wasn't dead.  He wasn't exactly alive either; he was in some horrible state between the two.  The current was hastily turned back on, and soon a terrible stench of burning filled the room.  Kemmler finally died on the second try, but no one could deny that he had endured agony during the two-step process.  Tesla later wrote that Kemmler had been "roasted alive."  The New York Times said in an article entitled "Far Worse Than Hanging:"  "Probably no convicted murderer of modern times has been made to suffer as Kemmler suffered."
     Finally the general public was nauseated enough by the spectacle of electrocuting living creatures to climb off the never-AC bandwagon; after all, AC current couldn't even properly kill someone when it tried.  Soon most electrical engineers acknowledged that DC and AC both offered their own advantages.  Anyway, by that point transformers and converters had become commonplace; voltage could effortlessly be stepped up or down, and AC converted to DC and vice versa.  The two systems worked best in tandem.  When Edison refused to accept this practical reality, the big money men of New York, principally J. P. Morgan, got together and ousted Edison from his own company, Edison General Electric.  They even removed his name from it, and the General Electric company was born.  Now, in 21st-century America, about 80% of our electrical power grid runs on AC.
     Edison nursed his wounds for a while, but he was by then a very wealthy man with an estate in West Orange, New Jersey (where I live!!) and a summer home in Florida.  He had a stableful of electrical engineers who, through Edison's methodical trial-and-error process, could eventually figure out how to do almost anything with electricity.  He got over losing the current war and moved on to the next big thing: motion pictures.

                                            Edison's "Black Maria" building, West Orange, N.J.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hi. It's me.

My relationship with this blog - like my relationship with writing in general - had gotten so complicated by last April that I stopped posting and took a yearlong break.  I'd been planning to reboot this month anyway, but (just in case I was going to back out) I got a much-needed fresh impetus last week: my dear e-friend Guilie Castillo, dog rescuer extraordinaire, got in touch to let me know that her new nonfiction book, IT'S ABOUT THE DOG, is going to be released on April 20th, and to ask me if I want to participate in her upcoming blog hop.  OF COURSE I do!!  So sometime within the next two or three weeks I'll be posting an interview I do with Guilie about the A to Z of dog rescue, and meanwhile I'll try to post about other things from time to time, working out the kinks.  I'm excited, and nervous, to be back.  Please stop back and say hello!