Béisbol Puro

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     The ball darts out of the Dominican’s left hand and is drilled into right field for a single, the first hit for the Americans in the game.  The lefty sets and fires, oblivious to the base runner’s antics. The ball crosses the plate, and the runner takes off for second, hoping to jumpstart his team, losers of game one 9-4.

     A recent game played in the World Baseball Classic?  Nope.  The runner is my son Owen and this game took place last week on a diamond hacked out of a sugarcane field near Chicharron, San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic (Don’t bother with Google maps.  It’s not there). 

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            The email arrived on Owen’s 9th birthday: Home Run Baseball Camp (HRBC) was organizing a camp in the Dominican Republic over Spring Break 2013. If you know baseball even just a little bit, you know how large the influence of the Dominicans is on today’s game.  Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Juan Samuel, Pedro Guerrero, Robinson Cano, Rico Carty and our host, Pepe Frias are among the 76 major leaguers from San Pedro de Macoris; the cradle of shortstops; a town 60 km east of the capital of Santo Domingo.  The camp was located in Consuelo, a town of about 32,000 just outside of San Pedro and birthplace to 11 major leaguers including Carty, Sosa and Frias.   

            Owen’s been attending HRBC in Brooklyn for the last two summers- the camp is designed for maximum game time with tons of at-bats and plays in the field; which he loves.  There are plenty of drills, but the highlight is two games per day, machine pitch, ensuring a fast pace and plenty of action.  The camp emphasizes becoming a better person, being a great teammate, reading a ton and making sure you are aware of your surroundings and how you can help those around you.  The camp motto is “Talent is what you have, effort is what you give.”   There was no chance Owen was passing up a week of HRBC in the DR. 

            The founder of HRBC is John McCarthy,  the son of Colman McCarthy; former PGA pro, turned monk, turned Washington Post reporter.  McCarthy walked on to the baseball team at The University of South Alabama and worked his way onto the Orioles rookie ball team as an undrafted free agent.  After his playing career ended he made a life in baseball, founding the camp in DC and starting an afterschool baseball program in the DC area.  McCarthy became enamored with the DR 20 years ago and with the help of Pepe Frias and Sister Lenore Gelb (Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception) started a program called Beisbol y Libros in Consuelo in 1999.  The program lasted until 2010 and helped over 400 children with their schoolwork and their baseball skills. 

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     Consuelo is where we arrived on Monday morning, 14 eager baseball kids, 3 from Brooklyn (Owen and 2 Brooklyn Bulldog teammates) and 11 more from Washington, D.C., ranging in age from 7 to 13.  We pulled up to a field with room for 16 baseball games at any one time- all of which are used on the weekends.  This morning there were about 50-60 Dominican kids there to greet us and participate in the camp.  They are there for baseball almost every day- school in the DR is currently only a half day, so many children spend the other half playing baseball.  The format was classic HRBC- some drills and then game time.  Everyone on both sides was greeted with smiles and joy.  The Dominicans were thrilled to have up there and loved receiving the donations of gloves we all brought from the US.  Our host was former big league manager Manny Acta’s ImpActa school.  Acta grew up in Consuelo and this is his way of giving back to his community, picking up where beisbol y libros left off.   

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     At about 11 o’clock in the morning I noticed a group of boys pushing a shoving around Owen.  My initial fears were assuaged when I realized they were just playing the universal sub-game of 9 year old baseball; the tapping of the protective cup.  This was one of many funny cultural exchanges throughout the week- one morning Owen was greeted by a boy who called out “Hey Motherf—r.”  He had no idea what it meant, only that it was an American greeting!  Everyone made lots of interesting connections- Owen even got a phone number from one boy.  What he’ll do when he calls him, I have no idea, since neither speaks the other’s language.  Owen thinks Google Translate might work. 

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     Wednesday was a memorable day.  The morning was spent in normal HRBC mode, but the afternoon was centered on spending time with Sister Catherine O’Shea, a Canadian nun who has served in the areas around Consuelo for over 20 years.  Pushing 75, sister Kathryn came to the DR for a year 20 years ago and realized she had found a great place to continue her mission of educating impoverished youth for her order, the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception

     The main industry of the Dominican Republic prior to tourism was sugar.  San Pedro and Consuelo were sugar towns with acre upon acre of sugar cane surrounding the towns with railroads and roads solely constructed to get the cane back to the port in San Pedro.  All that cane needed to be harvested and much of the population in those towns were cane workers imported from Haiti and the English speaking Caribbean.  These migrant workers are known as cocolos

     Picking cane ranks with the most dangerous occupations in the world and picking it in the DR is the worst place to pick it.  The industry has not modernized at all.  Workers are not paid by the hour, rather by the weight they pick.  In most countries the leaves are burned off the can prior to picking, allowing the picker easy access to the cane.  Not in the DR.  The leaves stay on so the machetes are used for the entire process- the cocolos in the DR can harvest roughly two ton a day vs. 7 tons a day in other countries.  A huge difference when you’re paid by weight.  A picker is paid 115 pesos per ton.  That’s $5.60 a day for 2 tons worth.  The zafra (harvest) lasts for 4-6 months.  That’s a maximum income of $1,008 a year.  

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     All of those migrant workers needed places to live.  In response, the sugar companies set up bateys.  A batey is a shantytown for the workers with the most basic shelter (think corrugated metal roof) and no safety or organization at all.   Bateys are tiny; no more that 500 people and were originally intended as seasonal housing only.  That changed with the loss of the migrant economy and now bateys are the poverty frontier in the DR.  Hovels with an estimated total population of 500,000 across the country. 

     On Wednesday, Sister Catherine took us to Alejandro Bass, a very large (500 people) batey near Consuelo.  The poverty is staggering.  Better than Soweto perhaps as there are cement floors and some power.  Worse than anything else you can imagine.  Stray dogs, chicken and ducks roam the streets along with people of all ages.  3 year olds hack at tables with 10-inch knives.  If you’re lucky, you have a lock on your outhouse.  The number one task for the residents every day is finding something to eat. 

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     A bus filled with Americanos, including 14 baseball-playing kids was a major event.  The kids set up on the field (after the horse was lead off) and the parents toured the town with Sister Catherine. 

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     Listless children lying watching the news under leaky roofs, mothers attempting hand laundry, barbed wire surrounding the school, those are some of the images etched in my mind.   

     On the field, baseball was universal.  Gloves were traded, bare hands used for drills, mighty hacks taken with the wiffle bats brought by the camp.  Everyone on the field was happy. We rolled out, on our way back to the hotel with a new perspective on beisbol. 

     Friday was a great day.  Instead of starting at Manny Acta’s facility, the camp rolled straight to Chicharron, a batey of roughly 300 people close to Consuelo. 

     One of Beisbol y Libros’ successes is pitcher Luis Noel.  Luis is from Chicharron and attended beisbol y libros starting at age 10.  His mother scraped together bus fare to get him to Consuelo each day and he took his opportunity, learned to read, learned to speak English and learned to pitch.  He learned to pitch well enough to be signed by the Orioles, earning him a $20,000 signing bonus at age 18. 

     Luis worked his way up through the Orioles system and became a well-regarded prospect.  More importantly, he positioned himself to further his education in the US.  Major League baseball is a cruel world; Luis learned with the hard way when his work visa was delayed in 2012; costing him his roster spot and his future with the Orioles and a major source of income for his family of 11 (he’s the oldest child). 

     Luis is now sorting out his future, which hopefully includes a degree in the US, and while he does that, he’s started a beisbol y libros program in Chicharron.  That’s where we headed Friday. A short cement backstop provides seating for spectators and when Luis heard Los Americanos were coming he and a friend collected the best wood they could find and built a dugout with bamboo and palm fronds to keep the visitors cool.  This was beisbol puro: US vs. La Republica Dominicana on a field with sugarcane as a fence surrounding the field and sugarcane as the free snack for players and spectators alike. 

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     My son eventually worked his way around to score, but baseball being baseball, the home team swept the doubleheader, with the highlight a two run bomb into the cane by a Dominican slugger.  The American team had their moments;  a steal of home and catches made by the youngest kids on the team. 

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     Beisbol puro; a day I will never forget not for the magical setting and  the spirit of the boys on the filed, not to mention the 11 year old Dominican lefty throwing darts and never knowing the count.  He is deaf and he never looked back at the umpire.  You can do that if all you throw are strikes. 

     After the game, we walked to Chicarron to meet Luis’ family.  11 of them live in a two-room house only slightly better than those in Alejandro Bass.  Baseball pictures of Luis adorn the walls.

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     You’d have never known it you were standing in abject poverty if your only gauge were the electric smiles on the faces of the family beaming at Luis, who brought his American friends home to meet Mom.

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     It was a tremendous week.  The kids got in a lot of great baseball and tons of life experiences.  It was a treat spending the week with other families and having fun with them.  

    A huge thank you to Coach Mac for setting up this opportunity and to the other coaches who spent a week teaching kids how to play baseball in multiple languages:  Brian, Mo, Matt, Eddie and especially Emma, who made sure the buses got us where we needed to do and got the water to the fields.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip.  

     Huge thanks as well go to Ramon and Julio Cesar from ImpActa for hosting us, Sister Catherine for the time spent with us and Luis Noel for sharing a piece of his life with our group.  

 If you’re interested in more information:
-Most of the information in this post regarding the sugar industry, San Pedro de Macoris and Consuelo comes from the fascinating book "The Eastern Stars" by Mark Karlansky.  

-This Mother Jones piece is a must read to understand how the Major Leagues can mistreat their athletes:  Yewri Guillen.  

-Another recommended book:  Miguel Tejada’s experience: Away Games.  
 
-A terrific piece on Pepe Frias and Sister Lenore Gibb can be found here.  

As always, email me at smith c at gmail!  Arriba!

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When in doubt, find an entrepreneur

The best thing about living in the world today is the explosion of great new goods and services.  It can be daunting to seek them out, but when you spend some time, it can really make a massive impact on your own life.  

I’ve been tweaking my diet over the past six months, trying to find what will impact my body in the best way- every time I make a change, I despair a little bit, missing what I’m eliminating, and then I find foods that make me love how I’ve changed my diet.  Every great new food that I’ve found is made by a company less than 3 years old with values that align with mine, and oh yeah, they are delicious.  Three examples:

-Purely Elizabeth granola.   When I switched to a low glycemic index diet, I had to move off of the cereals I previously ate and had a hard time finding something to replace them-  It’s also a hard diet to find snacks.  My wife found PE at a local store and I looked at the bag: vegan, gluten free, coconut sugar, etc.  Sounded awful.  NOPE.  This is the best granola I’ve ever had- gluten or no.  The company’s service is outstanding and they reward their best customers regularly  with discounts and swag.  

-Milkmade ice cream.  I tracked my caloric intake for a while and was shocked to see how much crap I put into my body- even “all-natural” ice cream is filled with gums and fillers.  I met the founder of Milkmade, tasted some ice cream and couldn’t believe the difference- the purity of flavor and the reality of texture is so much better than anything else you can buy.  Oh, and they deliver.  Like, to your house or office.  By hand.  Talk about service.  The only bad thing about it?  I’m about to try eliminating dairy.  Ouch.  Someone else needs to make up for me!

-OMilk  Ack, really? NO DAIRY?  Wow- that’s tough for me.  I eat a ton of yogurt (albeit sheep or goat) and love ice cream.  I tried SoDelicious and other alternative milks/yogurts and they are all awful.  I saw this at a market and figured I’d try it.  OMMYGODTHISISGOOD.  It’s almonds, water and agave.  that’s it.  The cashew milk is better- it adds vanilla along with the other ingredients.  The peppermint chocolate holiday milk?  ridiculous.  How do you get it?  Home delivery.  Yep, that’s right- they bring it to you.  

You can taste the effort and purity of all these foods- the service from all is exemplary.
Now, who’s making non-dairy yogurt that actually tastes good?  

Let me know your favorites!  

Sat Nam.   

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Chip Kelly!!!

OK, this is a bit away from my normal subject matter (me) and a diversion into football writing, so if you don’t care, no worries.  

I’ve been a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan for about 40 years and in that time my teams have won 5 championships, two of which I don’t remember at all (73/74 Flyers).  It’s a tough life, but at least I don’t live in Cleveland.  The last 10 or so years have been the best era in Philly sports probably ever, yet we only have one championship to show for it.  (Go Phils!).  

So, unbridled enthusiasm is perhaps unwarranted.  Yet, I could not be more excited that the Eagles have hired Chip Kelly as their coach.  I’m always a bit shocked at people’s reactions when a change is made- a large portion is already convinced that he is sure to fail.  An equally large portion is convinced he will be the next Bill Walsh.  I have no clue. For every reason he will not succeed as an NFL coach with no NFL experience, there’s the example of Jimmy Johnson; on the other side, Steve Spurrier/Nick Saban.  

Me, I have no clue.  But he’s the guy I wanted as the coach, and now that he is the coach, I’m even more excited.  

Why?  
He has a leadership philosophy that guides every single one of his decisions. It drives his football philosophy and gives him a foundation on which to build.  It’s exactly what makes great leaders great- the ability to understand what is truly important, drive those facts through their leadership prism and take the appropriate action.  

Here’s a piece he wrote that is a great primer on how his vision drives his actions:

http://fishduck.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Chip-complete.pdf

Go Birds.  

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Christmas is over!

When I met my younger (by 11 months) brother, I leaned down into the crib and 
hit him.   

When my son met my daughter for the first time, (january 10th), he started crying and cried out: “Christmas is over.”  

That’s often our instinct.  A new situation and we lash out.  But in both these cases, the instinct was incorrect.  My brother is a great brother and we’re great friends- My life is far better with him in it.  The same is true for my children- they are terrific partners.  

The one year anniversary of the start of my ongoing health issues is coming up- if you had told me a year ago that I’d have restructured my life, given up wine, given up exfm, been in the ER twice, seen innumerable doctors, etc., I’d have said I’d be miserable.  It was, in many ways, a miserable year.  But, I’m not miserable at all-  My life is in significantly better alignment.  I know how I make a difference in the world.  I love my current “job”: part time stay at home Dad, part time active seed investor and part time media “tycoon.” (Inside joke).  

Christmas might be over, but a new year is starting!

 

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Weedwacker. Worst Gift Ever?

I have no idea where this post is going, so bear with me.  

My father died 7 years ago yesterday.  My daughter’s 7th birthday is tomorrow.  Today is the day every year that I contemplate how that all bounces through my head.  Today has me thinking of birthdays growing up and I remembered the worst gift I ever got.  I was around 18 and it was a huge item wrapped in newspaper.  (all of our gifts were always wrapped in newspaper- you could tell how far in advance something was wrapped).  I thought is might be a new driver, or maybe a set of irons.  

Nope.  It was a weed wacker.  You know, for actually WORKING IN THE YARD.  

I was pissed.  I whined and moaned and sulked and wondered why I had such an awful life.  Boy was I wrong.  

It was a joke.  There was another, actual gift.  

Here’s what’s funny:  I don’t remember what the actual present was- I only remember the weedwacker.  

My daughter and father are inextricably bound for me in many ways.  I wish they had met.  They share some mannerisms; both sneeze at least 4-5 times every time they sneeze.    And Josie opens every present just like my Dad; with a genuine, joyful enthusiasm, whatever the gift.  Something to emulate for sure.  

Lokah Samastah Sukinho Bavantu.   

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Goals for 2013

Hi!  

Happy New Year- In my pursuit of a 100% life, I have decided to publically announce my goals, major and otherwise for 2013.  2012 was a very interesting year for me- the biggest health issue I’ve ever faced personally, a ton of turmoil as well as tons of amazing stuff otherwise.  Blogging (and writing) have been huge resources for me as I strive to get better.  So here goes, my goals for 2013:

1.  Be a great father and husband.  
2.  Write every day.  
3.  Write handwritten letters.  I did this a little bit in 2012 and loved it.  I need to do more.  
4.  Volunteer in a sustained, impactful way.
5.  Cook more, and do one incredibly difficult meal every month.  
6.  Find a job for my dog- she needs more mental activity.  
7.  Slow down.  
8.  Take an acting class.  (or dancing) (or both).  
9.  Listen to more music.  
10.  Live a 100% life.  
11.  Take sustained breaks from being online.   

I hope you all have a happy new year and a 2013 full of wonder.  

 Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

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Some thoughts on Guns

As many of you know, my family is in the media business.  We own newspapers and tv stations in PA, NJ, AL and FL.  It’s a great business and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.  I learned from childhood that keeping your political beliefs private was a responsibility for the media (I know, an antiquated notion).  

No more, not for me, not on the issue of guns.  

While I am not (nor will I ever be) a gun owner  I was around hunters and guns a fair amount growing up.  I took a hunters safety course and have always enjoyed trap shooting- I believe that responsible gun ownership is normal and I think it is imperative that kids be taught how to handle guns- it demystifies them and they need to know how to handle them in case they are ever in a situation where they are present.  

That is a far cry from where our country is today.  The tragedy in Netwown is unspeakable and I’m feeling it deeply.  It has brought my emotions in alignment with my beliefs about guns and now I’m going to do something I’ve never been comfortable doing before: openly support a political agenda.  

Here’s a variety of things that I’ll be supporting: 
1.  Ammunition bans/restrictions.  Let’s face it- there are 300 million guns in the US.  The only wat to effectively impact shootings is the impact the amount of ammunition produced and sold.  10 round magazine maximums and bans on ammunition for assault weapons.  
2.  Ban on Assault weapons.  Obvious and necessary.  
3.  Mandatory gun safety training for prospective gun owners.   We need to cut down on the accidental tests as well.  We get tested for driver’s licenses.  

I think the best way to get this done is to apply pressure on anyone in the gun business: manufacturers, retailers, hunting lodges, etc.  Who will be the first one to support meaningful reform?  

More to come.  As always, smithc at gmail to contact me.  

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From the story “NorEaster in Park Slope” by CharlesSmith. Read it on Backspaces.
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Great cartoon from the Scranton Times Tribune.  
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A tale of two Rockaways

I’ve now made four trips out to the Rockaways with supplies and I’m just now starting to understand the enormity of the logistical challenge facing NYC as we face this recovery.  The challenge varies from neighborhood to neighborhood and the contrast is stark in the Rockaways. 

It’s no secret that there is a vast income disparity in the Rockaways- The western end has an annual median income of $67,393 while the eastern end’s median income is $29,059.  These two Rockaways are facing vastly different challenges now:

The west end consists of single-family homes close to the beach and many of these homes are destroyed completely. Those that aren’t still face a complete recovery- there is water and sand everywhere, the electronics are shorted out and the cars are flooded.  In this part of the island, I’ve been met with tears from a woman when I hand them a shovel.  This part of the Rockaways faces a long recovery.  There’s fear here, but there’s also hope. 

The eastern end thankfully didn’t see the amount of personal property damage (at least that I saw) that the western end did.  The issue here is more basic.  Without power and heat and with nowhere to go, the residents are facing a long winter of fear.  Here, I was met with weeping when I delivered a flashlight.  Here, you can feel the panic as it creeps closer to dark and the shelters have to begin turning people and food away because if they don’t close at four, it gets dangerous for those manning the shelters.  That’s right; deliveries of hot food are turned away because it is getting dark.  You can feel the fear of those in line for food- if they don’t eat by four, it may be the next day before they do eat.  If they don’t get a flashlight, it’s another night of climbing a dark staircase 8-10 flights up to your apartment. 

I’ve often said that there’s no index on grief.  Individual pain is immeasurable- all of the Rockaways is feeling this pain, but the cause of the pain is different for these two distinct neighborhoods within a geography. 

It’s heartbreaking either way. 

I’m heading out again on Tuesday- check out this list and see if there’s something you want to contribute- let me know and I’ll try to get it out there (smithc at gmail):

http://596acres.org/en/news/rockaway-current-needs/  

Thanks for reading.  

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Post Sandy Small Business Recovery

There’s so much to do after Sandy that it’s hard to know where to start.  I have a post brewing on a broader explanation of my Weather Age thoughts, but I had to to get this out there too.  

A have a few friends who run small businesses that were adversely impacted by Sandy.  These are successful operations that don’t turn enormous profits $-wise, but give their owners a comfortable life and employ people.  

Their businesses were flooded; equipment lost, records destroyed, and perhaps most importantly, time wasted cleaning up which would normally be productive.  When these folks buy inventory, it is profitable.  When they work, they produce.  They might have smal business insurance, but they can’t get flood insurance.  

I’d like to see a kickstarter-like fund system that allows small businesses to get emergency assistance when necessary.  What I’m imagining is either a co-op like structure where businesses all across the country contribute, pass a financial test of some sort and the money is distributed when there is a disaster.  Another option would be similar, but with crowd funding- it would be an investment entity that would allow individuals to invest in these businesses.  We can remake the insurance industry with direct impacts on the businesses and profits for individuals at the same time.  

If you’re working on this, let me know!

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Go Pound Sandy

It feels like 9/11 all over again without the fear of everything overhead.  Even the specter of an upcoming election is similar.    

Sandy was a life-changing event for all of us and sifting through our new world (a new age) will take fortitude, intelligence, compassion and courage.

As near as I can tell, close to 400 miles of coastline were devastated; homes destroyed, lives upended and maps forever changed.  One scary thing about this storm was that for the most part, the warnings were heeded, the evacuations accurate, the preparations appropriate; yet we still faced devastation. 

My family came out of this unscathed, lucky to live up the hill from the water and protected from the wind.  Our park (Prospect Park) has hundreds of downed trees and some infrastructure damage, but will recover relatively quickly.  Based on that, I spend the weekend trying to get out of our bubble and see the major impacts of Sandy that are so close. 

Saturday was a trip to Aviator rink, close to the Marine Park Bridge to the Rockaways for my son’s hockey practice.  We decided to fill up the car with water, batteries, flashlights and cleaning supplies and take them out to Breezy Point. 

Aviator was a fascinating scene.  It is a FEMA staging area for disaster response and houses 500 ambulance units from across the country: California, Missouri, Arizona, etc.  These were the units that helped evacuate the hospitals and are currently waiting to be deployed to areas as the power returns. 

Our next stop was the Silver Gull beach club in Breezy Point, the distribution area for donations of goods to Breezy Point.  We found way too many clothes (a common theme), not enough batteries, and just about enough water.  We then drove through Breezy and were not prepared for what we found.  Utter destruction.  Homes flattened, overturned, ruined and in the best cases, simply inundated with water. The water was so strong in places that windshields were shattered.  Then we drove past the fire remains; I’ve covered some fires in a previous life and this was the worst damage from a residential fire I’ve seen; 100 homes burned to the ground. I had my navigation system on and it was trying to get me to turn where there were no roads.  Horrifying. 

Sunday I decided to fill up another carload and drive to the Rockaways with shovels, bags, batteries and blankets.  While I met despair in Breezy Point, anger and fatigue were more the order of the day in the Rockaways.  Residents are eager to clean up and get moving, but don’t have the tools to do so.  I brought shovels in my load and was greeted at one point by a woman who started sobbing when she saw that I had brought shovels (she took 2).  

Like 9/11, the despair and anger is mixed with hope and determination.  There were volunteers waiting to help- I asked for help unloading my car and got 14 hands raised immediately.  My heart goes out to the victims and needs to be healed in the wake of this. 

My head goes to what I believe is going to be the Weather Age and I think we need the type of effort and inspiration that lead to the information age in which we currently live to attack the Weather Age. 

A few random ideas based completely on need, not on the way things actually work:
-A power grid that acts more like the Internet- finding a path for electrons that gets them there with multiple routes to the end. 
-A UPS like device for houses that could store power for short bursts safely. 
-A ham radio like structure for mobile devices that can connect people in a local area when power/destruction wipes out cellular grids. 
-Map systems that are not road based, but create topographies of structure locations that can guide people when the roads go away. 

The application layers that can be built on top of these systems are endless, and necessary for what I believe is a new age.   

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

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