The Only Thing Difficult to Predict

Jill Lapore does a brilliant take-down of a flurry of recent literature themed “The Robots are Coming!” in her recent (March 4, 2019) New Yorker piece The Robot Caravan. Lapore’s acerbic and erudite wit skewers the doomsayers and technophobes who see the apocalypse coming.

Her argument could be summed up in one paragraph from the middle of her essay.

Fear of a robot invasion is the obverse of fear of an immigrant invasion, a partisan coin: heads, you’re worried about robots; tails, you’re worried about immigrants. There’s just the one coin. Both fears have to do with jobs, whose loss produces suffering, want, and despair, and whose future scarcity represents a terrifying prospect. Misery likes a scapegoat: heads, blame machines; tails, foreigners. But is the present alarm warranted? Panic is not evidence of danger; it’s evidence of panic. Stoking fear of invading robots and of invading immigrants has been going on for a long time, and the predictions of disaster have, generally, been bananas. Oh, but this time it’s different, the robotomizers insist.

As she says, such worries and fears are far from new. A little over 200 years ago, the Luddites came to prominence, by smashing looms and setting fires to factories.

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new. Moreover, the idea of smashing machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin or end with them. In truth, the secret of their enduring reputation depends less on what they did than on the name under which they did it. You could say they were good at branding.

One of the subtexts Lapore mentions is that of outsourcing. The upshot is the same; American jobs are being taken away by foreigners. It strikes me as odd that this drumbeat continues even in times like the present, in which the American job market is so tight that employers are complaining about not being able to find enough workers. I guess it’s not the only the present that people are worried about — it’s the future as well.

[Author Martin] Ford, an advocate of universal basic income, is neither a historian nor an economist. He is a futurist, a modern-day shaman, with an M.B.A. Everybody thinks about the future; futurists do it for a living. Policymakers make plans; futurists read omens. The robots-are-coming omen-reading borrows as much from the conventions of science fiction as from those of historical analysis.

There was even a small blurb within Lapore’s essay that made me smile for personal reasons.

In 1983, [a Mexican woman] crossed into the United States, illegally, to work at Kaypro, the maker of the Kaypro II, a personal computer that briefly rivalled the Apple II.

Just this past weekend, my friend Brooke (who now lives on the West Coast) and I were in a New York City taxicab discussing our days of using the Kaypro II.

My own take on the jobs discussion, as an erstwhile economist and as an amateur historian and all-around dilettante, is that it’s all a bunch of nonsense. In some circle, wealthy business-owners are touted as “job creators” as though they are performing some sort of grand philanthropic gesture to the poor unfortunate slobs who would otherwise not be able to work for a living. Of course they are doing no such thing, but are employing people when it is to their financial advantage.

There is also the argument that government stimulates (or should stimulate) the economy through its fiscal and monetary policies to create demand for goods and services, thus allowing businesses to hire more workers. There is undoubtedly some truth to this argument, to the extent that our collective action (also know as government) creates or subsidizes the infrastructure necessary for businesses to form and perform their job-creating miracle.

But in the end, my vote goes to the workers themselves. Jobs exist because people want them and are willing to work. Take, for example, the millions of people in this country who slipped across the border or who overstayed their tourist visas to find work. They may have started out by picking apples or mowing lawns or changing sheets in a motel, because they could find someone willing to pay them for things they were willing and able to do. Many of these people have gone on to higher-skilled jobs, and they are here because we need them; they are now an integral part of our economy.

Over tens or hundreds of thousands of years (or longer) of evolution, homo sapiens have risen to world dominance by being a cooperative species. In pre-agricultural times, human society probably consisted of bands of 100 to 150 individuals. Although there was probably some tolerance for non-working adults who were disabled or had special powers, for the most part each member of the clan had to pitch in if the group were to survive.

I suspect idleness has been bred out of our gene pool. Work, in our modern world, does not necessarily mean paid employment; it can be volunteer work, or hobbies, or helping out with the family. But I know very few people who just sit around and do nothing. And if people need money, they will find a way to earn it. When a worker accepts a job, who has “created” that job? My vote, as I’ve said, goes to the worker.

Yes, yes, I know this is all a great oversimplification. What about the Great Depression? Why didn’t all those people go out and create jobs? My argument is a philosophical one, and an appeal to look at cause and effect a bit differently. Robots are not to be feared. In aggregate, if people are replaced by technology, they will find other things to do that they can get paid for. Always have. Always will.

That said, I’m very well aware of the folk saying, “The only thing difficult to predict is the future!”

The Four Kingdoms of Autism

I attended a lecture at Simon’s Rock College at which the presenter mentioned a 2013 post by former NIMH Director Thomas Insel, entitled The Four Kingdoms of Autism.

I was not familiar with this description, and it seemed to me to be a useful way to think about how autism is viewed. Dr. Insel offers four different perspectives of autism, dividing his world into four kingdoms, of which he is perhaps the Emperor, since each Kingdom’s name begins with “I”…

  1. Illness
  2. Identity
  3. Injury
  4. Insight

Illness: This is the classic model of autism as a medical condition requiring treatment. Autism was defined as an innate condition in the first two classic papers that identified autism as a separate identifiable condition. Leo Kanner (1943) termed the condition inborn autistic disturbance of affective contact. Hans Asperger (published in 1944, although probably written before Kanner’s paper) called it “autistic psychopathy.”

Asperger explicitly stated that he believed autism was genetic in origin, based on his observation of familial similarities. Kanner was more equivocal, and later changed his view to be more in line with the then-prevailing psychiatric thinking that many deviant behaviors, such as homosexuality and autism, were caused by trauma.

The clinician who made the presentation at Simon’s Rock was clearly in this school, although she did give a nod to the Injury Kingdom.

Identity: This is where I live. Autism is a different way of being, not a disorder. Neurodiversity is to be praised, not shunned. Autism is also a disability in a society that is not accommodating. As Insel states, the “focus is on community supports, educational and occupational services, and civil rights.” The core example of this kind of advocacy is ASAN.

Injury: People in the Injury Kingdom are searching for the “cause” of autism, so that it can be prevented or cured. There is a close alliance here with the Illness Kingdom, though the way Insel describes “injury” he seems to be talking mostly about vaccines. For those of us in the Identity Kingdom, there is very little functional difference between illness and injury; they both smack of eugenics, and they both suggest that autism is a defect, not just a natural variation in the human genome.

Insight: The residents of this Kingdom sound like anthropologists, studying a strange culture. This, too, seems to be based on a deficit model, which is an approach rejected by those of us in the Identity Kingdom. I’ve participated in many brain studies, thereby learning much about how different my circuitry is from that of neurotypicals. But different does not equate with inferior, and if research starts with that premise (as most autism research seems to do), the results will likely be distorted and uninformative.

Observations About the Presentation

Given that the speaker and I seem to live in different Kingdoms, it is not surprising that I found things in the presentation that were disturbing or that I disagreed with. There were also excellent points made about aspects of autism, such as the idea that “repetitive behaviors” can be adaptive. This made me think of Ted Williams as an example of obsessive repetition. There are also many autistic people who are (or historically have been) very talented in music and mathematics, disciplines that are highly structured.

One of the odd things mentioned in the talk was the definition of biomarkers. It was the first time I’d ever heard of “behavior” called a biomarker. In fact, that seems to me to be self-contradictory. The reason biomarkers (such as a blood test or brain scan) are sought out is to avoid having the subjective judgment required to classify behaviors, which is currently the only accepted way to diagnose autism.

Having a reliable biomarker, it was said, would increase the chances of identifying autism early in life, thus being able to begin interventions sooner. I wish more had been said about what those interventions are, since I’ve learned about a wide variety of “treatments” — ranging from harmful to ineffective. I’m not at all sure why being “social” is such a desirable outcome, given the strange behaviors of most neurotypicals.

Sensory issues were hardly mentioned at all, although they are central to the experience of being autistic. When I arrived at the lecture hall, the lights were so bright that I felt a need to request they be dimmed (an accommodation the organizers were happy to make). At one point, a video was played, describing the default mode network (DMN). I could not understand what was being said because there was music playing at the same time that someone was speaking. I suppose for neurotypicals, it is “background” music, but since it was louder than the voice, it was all I could hear. These are some of the amusing things that autistics encounter in this neurotypical-dominated world. I say amusing because, even though they can be annoying or even painful, it continues to amaze me that many programs or meetings I attend that are about autism are given in environments that are hostile to my kind.

The Language of Autism

Language cues reveal much about social attitudes toward autism. “On the spectrum” has become a universal euphemism for “autistic” to the point that no one really knows what the “spectrum” is. Or, more to the point, the word is used in so many different ways that it has no real meaning. Originally, it referred to IQ range, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside. There was a graph in this presentation showing “severity” levels of autism. The implication here, of course, is that autism is a negative thing. One doesn’t talk about the “severity” of eye color.

In the Injury Kingdom, it is often said that various things increase the “risk” of autism, implying, again, that autism is a bad thing. This has spawned many spoofs in the Identity Kingdom, declaring that “autism is caused by being born” or the classic “Studies Prove It: Autism is Linked to Being a Carbon-Based Life Form.” The rise in diagnostic rates in recent years has sent people scurrying to find these “causes” when, in fact, the increase in entirely a function of increased awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria. An authoritative view of these trends is provided in the wonderful book NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman.

Those in the Illness Kingdom often talk about how the autistic brain has “too little” or “too much” connectivity in various regions, which is a value judgment, not a scientific fact. Despite years of academic research that shows there is no connection between autism and intellectual capacity, the myth persists that a high number of autistic people are intellectually impaired. It just ain’t so. I’ve recently heard numbers such as 50% or 38% or you-name-it. The truth is closer to 2% or 3%, the same as in the general population.

More on the Origins of the Illness Kingdom

My brief remarks in the paragraph above do not do justice to the early works of Asperger and Kanner, and the debate that ensued (and still continues) over the source of autism and how to deal with the condition. There is a good discussion in a book by Chloe Silverman, Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder (pp. 36+37 and elsewhere).

All of this deserves much more extensive treatment than I can give it in this short post. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, my friend John Robison has shared his thoughts on part of the debate in his award-winning post for Psychology Today, “Is the Definition of Autism Too Broad?” Well worth a read.

Kudos to Simon’s Rock

I’m delighted that the college sponsored this lecture and discussion, which they made open to the public. Although I (obviously) did not agree with everything the speaker presented, it was good to see the keen interest in autism among the students and the guests. I hope the college will follow up with more talks on this important subject.

 

Friendships

This past winter, I taught a course on autism for OLLI, our local (Berkshire) adult education outfit. Along the way, I discussed the theme of friendships.

One of the overriding messages I was attempting to convey in the 6-lecture course was that autism is not a deficiency, but a difference. To illustrate this, I shared examples of my collection of friends.

Although, as a youngster, I always felt left out of the inner circle of my classmates, I had plenty of friends. In recent years, I have asked some of those former classmates whether I seemed odd to them, and maybe that’s why they left me out. No, I was told, they never consciously excluded me, they just figured I was shy and I didn’t want to play with them.

This is a very common experience, I’ve come to learn, among autistic people. We long for inclusion, but never quite seem to find it, always looking in from the outside because we just don’t “get it” when it comes to social bonding. That stereotype, although accurate, should perhaps be revised to include the recognition that our desire for sociability and friendship is no less than in our neurotypical counterparts. We simply, for whatever reason, don’t pick up on the behaviors that lead to social integration in that dominant neurotypical culture.

Instead, we are steered by a different set of rules, and we make our own friends, in our own way. I’ll have more to say on the friendship theme in future posts, and I’ll share more of the examples I gave in my lectures. For now, I thought I’d post this one, since I came across a related document.

In my OLLI course, I flashed a picture on the screen and described it this way:

And these were my nerdy friends from high school. My 1963 graduation took place at Tanglewood. Notice that I am the only one with a girlfriend.

By coincidence, the four friends here were all on the same page of my high school yearbook.

Notice a common theme here? Lots of mentions of poker and gambling, money and odds. All part of my early life. I think I placed my first bet on a horse at the Barrington Fair when I was 14. I liked to think that I looked older than my age, but I wasn’t sure I could pass for 18. I put $2 down at the window and the teller looked me over. “How old are you?” he wanted to know. “18,” I lied. “Go away!” he waved me off. “Why?” I wanted to know. “You have to be 21!” So I went down the row a bit and tried again at another window. That guy never asked me my age.

I started investing in the stock market when I was in sixth grade. My uncle Paul, married to my father’s sister Jo, was a stockbroker at Goodbody and Company in Pittsfield. He told me to call him anytime for information or to place an order. He told me I could call collect. In those days, Stockbridge didn’t have dial phones, and a call to Pittsfield (two towns away) was a long-distance call, requiring the use of a long distance operator. It also happened that I was in school at the times when the stock market was in session, so I had to ask permission from my teacher, Fritz Brown (probably my least favorite teacher from grade school years).

Mr. Brown would escort me around the corner to the Superintendent’s office, and tell the secretary of my request. She would point to either the conference room or the inner office, whichever one was vacant at the time, and tell me I could go in there. I later figured out that they were listening in on my conversation from the phones in the outer office. I thought that was rather weird, because why would they care about what I was talking to my uncle about? Unless, of course, they didn’t believe me, and thought I was making contact with a Russian spy or something.

They would have heard some pretty boring conversations, although my uncle Paul was a loquacious guy. After I gave the operator my instructions, I would hear the phone ring and be answered. “I have a collect call from Michael, will you accept the charges?” Uncle Paul’s hearty voice would say, “Put him on!” and we would be off to the races, so to speak. After pleasantries, I would ask, “How’s Radio International doing today?” and he would tell me, “I’ll have to send a wire to New York to get a quotation — call me back in an hour and I should know then.” The stocks I was interested in generally didn’t appear on the ticker-tape very often.

So I would have to repeat the drill, and when he gave me the bid-ask spread, I might place an order to buy one or two shares at, say, $13. All of this was a whole lot more exciting to me than listening to Mr. Brown drone on about diagramming sentences, or whatever it was we were supposed to be learning that day. I hope he got a thrill out of listening in on my conversations. How I figured out he was doing that is asfad* and it involves the dog eating my homework, or something like that.

My cousin Bruce, along with Pete and Bill, were the core of my circle of nerdy friends. I don’t remember ever discussing our social situation with them at the time; I guess we all just accepted our lot in life, not being part of the “in crowd” (or at least that’s how I think of it now, looking back). We all went on to have high-powered careers, and it would seem that our social awkwardness in high school was not a precursor of a less-than-satisfying life.

Nadia Tao Wend was the only girlfriend I had in high school, and that for only one year. I think she identified with my friends, as a bit of a misfit in her own right, having moved into town just before our senior year. Or maybe there was more to it than that. After not seeing her for more than forty years, we reconnected when she came to Stockbridge, with her sister Darcy, for one of our high school reunions.

As you can see from her yearbook entry, she was known as Wendy at school. Her family called her Tao, and I called her Nadia. She pronounced it nahdja, and I thought it was a beautiful name, though I think I called her that because she asked me to. In between those high school days and our reunion, I had written a story about another love affair. It was published under the name Running in the Dark, and was based on a true incident. I asked my love interest at the time if I could use her real name, and she insisted that I not do so. We had both been married (to other people) for much of the time we were involved, although I was divorced by the time the story was written. So I proposed to use Nadia as the name in the story, and my friend expressed surprise, “Did you know that is the name of my sister?” I did not.

The original Nadia and I stayed in touch for a while after that reunion, and I shared with her my then-recent revelation that I had identified as Asperger’s. After hearing my story, she did a little research. We had lunch one day in New York City, where she was then living (I’ve lost track of her again), and she shared with me, “You know that Asperger’s thing? I think I might have a touch of that!” I didn’t ask her why she thought that, because it didn’t seem odd to me at all. Her father was an incredibly erudite and creative man, and would probably fit to a T the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. He was the one who inspired me, at age 16, to become a vegetarian. But, again, asfad*…

*a story for another day

It Runs in the Family

Here’s a great picture of me with my Georging friend Ed, photobombed by his daughter Eve.

Actually, as you can probably tell, this was a selfie by Eve, with Ed and me in the background. Very clever!

The setting here is a classroom at CIP in Lee, very generously made available to us twice a year for Northeast Gatherings. Georgers come from all over New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and (in Eve’s case) Maryland.

Ed is a very talented and articulate guy — he serves as our unofficial scribe and always writes up a description of the action at Gatherings he attends, with a playful account of all the personalities involved.

Ed also is a weekend musician, performing with a group that plays mostly classic rock and roll. In “real life” he has a career involving computers. All of these things: Georging, music, and engineering, have a lot in common, it seems to me, and require the same kind of thought processes that involve attention to detail and a flair for mathematics.

His offspring seem to share these traits, and although his son is not involved in Georging, both he and Eve have recently started careers in technical fields.

It’s quite a delight to have them participate in our geeky social circle. Gatherings are full of laughter and fun, and when we meet in public places, we often get curious looks and even outright questions, such as, “What the hell are you guys doing?” which of course only adds to the solidarity of the group.

 

 

Romances of Old Berkshire

Romances of Old Berkshire

I own a book, written by Willard Douglas Coxey, from which the title of this post was taken, published in 1931 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts by the Berkshire Courier. The author, according to the Find A Grave website, was born (1861) and died (1943) in Egremont, Mass. My brother Rick tells me he owns a companion book, Ghosts of Old Berkshire, which was evidently written a few years later. The author seems to have published other works, including poetry and at least one play. That’s about all I could learn about him from a quick web search.

I think I did read at least parts of this book several years ago, and I’m now re-reading it with an eye to figuring out, to the extent I can, how much of what he writes is fiction, and how much is based on accepted history. The author admits in his Foreword that “… these Romances have taken some latitude with tradition and historical events…” and “… they are but dream pictures of a day that is past.” They also reveal something about the mores and cultural attitudes of the era in which they were written.

Historical References

Also in his Foreword, the author acknowledges several sources, but, in most cases, does not give a full description of author or publisher. I have tried to track them down, though I’ve not yet indulged my yen to read them. Perhaps in the future I can circle back with a more complete understanding of the actual histories or legends that form the basis for his romances.

The Indian Dreamer: A Romance of Lake Mah-Kee-Nac Before the White Man Came to the Berkshires

The first romance (of seven) in this volume takes place primarily in the town of Stockbridge, my home town. I learned to swim on the town beach at the Stockbridge Bowl. I remember my first introduction to the water. The instructor lined up her charges on the shoreline — there must have been nearly a dozen of us, all somewhere around the age of 5. She had us walk out into the shallow water, so that the blue lake was up to our knees, and then turn around to face her on the beach. She had us kneel down and spread our hands in front of us, reaching down to support our shoulders and keep our heads above the water. We were then told to lie flat and kick our feet. It was a very strange sensation at first, but once I got the hang of it, thrashing about in the water became fun.

When I told my grandmother about my water adventure, she told me that the Stockbridge Bowl used to have a different name. It was called Mahkeenac by the natives of Stockbridge, a name that meant something like “great body of water” — and it is quite grand. Fifty years later, I was to return to the lake on a regular basis to row around its outer limits each morning just after sunrise. On those quiet mornings, when the water was still, and there was no other activity, it was possible to listen to the birds singing their morning songs, to mentally block out the cottages along the shore, and imagine being on that lake in a time such as the one described in Coxey’s Romance.

Since those primordial days, the size of the lake has been enhanced by an artificial dam, so I’m not sure what the natural shape of the lake was like. Today, rowing gently around the outer edges is probably a 5- or 6-mile trip, and a brisk row from one end to the other is nearly 2 miles.

Comments about the Romance

“The Indian Dreamer” is the author’s retelling of the tale of Lovers Leap, or Squaw Peak. I’ve heard and read many variants of this legend, and won’t try to compare this one with all the others I’ve heard. This telling strikes me as being different from many accounts I’ve heard, which involved lovers from different cultures — native and colonist. In Coxey’s story, they come from two different bands of Algonquins. To me, this does not have a ring of truth to it. The Algonquins in this area were the Moh He Con Nuck, (also Muh-he-can-nook and other variations); commonly called Mohicans or Mahicans by the English and Dutch.

The Muh-he-can-nook were the guardians of a stretch of the western border of Algonquin territory: that part which encompassed much of what we now call New England, as well as eastern New York state.

To the west, the Iroquois inhabited much of the rest of New York state and up into Canada. The Mohawk tribe, or nation, were the people who lived in the eastern part of this territory, and they were called the doorway to the east.

Thus, the Mohicans and Mohawks were brought into contact with each other in an adversarial context, each trying to prevent encroachment by the other into rival territories. When the Europeans arrived, they would learn of these rivalries, and exploit them for their own benefit. But I digress.

In Coxey’s tale, the rival bands are both Algonquins. This seems a little far-fetched, but it is, after all, a Romance.

He also mentions “the waters of Shat-a-muc” in referring to the Hudson River. The Mohican name for that river was Mahecanittuck. I have not come across that other name elsewhere, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled as I do further reading.

Another aspect of the tale that caught my attention was the juxtaposition of religious beliefs. The author makes many references to “the Great Spirit” and “Happy Hunting Grounds” — which seem to me to be equivalent concepts to the Christian God Jehovah, and Heaven. I wonder what Joseph Campbell would have to say.

Eternity is neither the past nor the future. It is the dimension of human spirit which is eternal.
Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss

In any case, Coxey reveals much about the attitudes of his time, I think, when he says

The Muk-he-can-ew were savages. In those distant days the missionaries had not come with their promises of a life hereafter … but they had hearts.

In fact, these “savages” had a belief system about the soul that was much more elaborate than that of the Christians. Some tribes believed in reincarnation, and many believed in animism (that animals — and plants — had souls) and in totemism (that, for example, part of a person’s soul could hide in a totem animal for protection in times of danger). They believed that disease was caused by evil spirits, and could be cured by medicine men, who had multiple souls more powerful than the evil spirits.

All of this made the natives “savages” to the English, whose more simplistic religion fit in better with their power structure. Although the Europeans seemed to be willing to learn pragmatic things from the natives, their inherent belief that the European culture was superior seems to have destroyed a lot of opportunities for them to learn more subtle messages about how to get along with their environment.

Future Posts

As I have time, I will read and comment on the other stories in Coxey’s book, and place links to those posts here.

Edwin Curtis Bidwell: an Early Physician of Vineland NJ

My grandmother (Grace Josephine Bidwell) Wilcox was one of the seminal figures of my youth. She was a wonderful story-teller, and she would enthrall me with tales of Stockbridge history, as well as stories of her younger days. Some of those stories involved her grandfather, Edwin Curtis Bidwell. I sensed that she had the same kind of relationship with him as I did with her.

One of the stories she told me about her grandfather involved a carriage accident he had in Vineland, New Jersey, where she grew up. In the accident, one of his legs was badly injured, after which he was able to get around only with the aid of a cane or a wheelchair. He was sixty years old at the time, too soon to retire from his pharmacy business, yet his mobility impairment prevented him from getting around as much as had been his wont. To help keep his mind active, he took up the hobby of collecting genealogical information on his family.

He had plenty of family to keep track of, since he came from a long line of Bidwells, and had ten children of his own. Only a few of those children lived into adulthood, but he still had many grandchildren. My grandmother told me she was quite surprised when he told her he was giving all of his records to her. She had not shown much interest in his genealogical pursuit, and she thought herself an unlikely candidate to receive all his work. She never admitted it to me, but I suspect that might have been the thing that triggered her interest in history. She went on to become a librarian, and, while employed at the Stockbridge Library, started a collection of objects, clippings, and correspondence which became the Historical Room; an important feature of the Library, the care of which eventually became her full-time job.

Unlike my grandmother, I was not surprised when she told me she was leaving the family records to me. I had certainly taken a shine to her stories and had frequently perused the family books and correspondence she kept, in several shoe boxes, on the top shelf of one of the steel cabinets in her office. I have recently discovered that she had other records that she donated to the American Antiquarian Society prior to the time I began to hang around with her.

I do have to confess, though, that the mantle of family historian has been taken up by my brother Rick, who remained involved with Stockbridge affairs (including many years as Chief of Police), while I went off to seek my fame and fortune elsewhere. I have given him copies of all the relevant documents I possess, and also shared those with the Stockbridge Library and The Bidwell House Museum in Monterey.

I’ve never been to Vineland, a deficiency I hope to correct soon. My interest in that place was recently piqued when I discovered that Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel is centered on a house in Vineland.

It’s a clever interweaving of two stories; one that took place in very recent history (nearly three years ago), and the other in the same locale in the early 1870s, when Vineland was still a new Utopian experiment. Edwin Curtis Bidwell moved there in 1866.

This is a snippet from a book I found (The Early Physicians of Vineland NJ) while looking for historical accounts of early Vineland. Note that this account of E. C. Bidwell (ECB) was written by his son (and my great-grandfather), Edwin Hugh Bidwell. The accident referred to in this first paragraph is undoubtedly the one I had heard about from my grandmother.

This short account contradicts (or at least glosses over) some other information I have from family documents. I will have to dig them out for later display and confirmation, but my impression is that he chose to leave the medical profession after his service in the Civil War because he was traumatized by what he had witnessed.

ECB’s pre-Vineland life was sketched out by his son in the Early Physicians book:

Vineland was established, in part at least, to promote the abstinence movement, to attract Freethinkers, and to be an agricultural showcase. The name itself was a tribute to its founder’s vision of growing grapes to produce non-alcoholic wine (Vineland is where Welch’s Grape Juice got its start).

Dr. ECB started his medical career close to where he grew up, as a general practitioner in Otis, Massachusetts. He was active in the abolitionist movement in Berkshire County. It is likely that Charles Landis’s Utopian ideas would have appealed to him.

ECB was an early proponent of the germ theory of disease.

My grandmother told me that his work on the Black Rot fungus was connected in some way to the discovery of penicillin. I don’t remember if she explained that to me, or was just mentioning it as a matter of family pride. I’ll put that on my already long list of topics to research when I get a chance.

I expect to share more information on my great-great-grandfather as I come across it, both online and in my grandmother’s papers. It is fascinating (and almost surreal) to me to realize that I was close to someone who had, in turn, been close to someone who was born nearly two hundred years ago, and served in the Civil War. That’s a very personal connection with a large stretch of the history of this country.

Hiking To and Beyond Laura’s Tower

Part Two in a Series on Laura’s Tower and Ice Glen

This post is my first follow-up to the preliminary announcement of my planned 90-minute lecture and discussion, to be given sometime in April or May of 2019. In subsequent posts I will share more background material on some of the illustrious characters in the history of Stockbridge, as well as more stories from my childhood.

Hiking from my early childhood home on Park Street to a later place of residence in South Lee

The Berkshire Hikers are a group that go out on the trail every Tuesday, year round, in all kinds of weather. On a recent Tuesday (August 28, 2018), I led the group, consisting of 18 intrepid souls, over a mountainous trail that included a stop at Laura’s Tower in Stockbridge. Despite the heat advisory that had been in effect that day, only two of the original 20 hikers signed up decided to cancel.

As the MapMyHike map (from my phone) here shows, we began at the end of Park Street in Stockbridge. I lived in a small house on Park Street until I was about 9 years old, and I have many fond memories of that time, which I will recount at other times. Here is a small sample.

That story is about the days before dial phones, and now I have a smart phone. I’m still uncomfortable with the phone part, but the smart is lots of fun. It allows me to see maps like this one, and to find my location in realtime.

Based on many hikes, by comparing distances on maps and signs with the number reported on my phone, I know I have to add 10% to the MapMyHike distance to have an accurate reading. In this case, my phone said 3.74 miles, so adding the 10% gives about 4.1 miles. The altitude profile tends to be fairly accurate, and shows that we gained about 900 feet from the parking lot by the Housatonic River to the top of the ridge, where we had lunch. The long flat line at the highest elevation represents time sitting still at that highpoint. The hike took about half an hour longer than I had anticipated, but given the heat, that is not surprising.

On the map, above the green pin, you can see a long white rectangle. I explained the origin of this to our group when we reached that point on the trail. The tale involved moving the Stockbridge/Lee boundary about 20 yards to the east, as a result of surveying work done around 1960, when route 102 was rerouted over the hill there, instead of following the curve of the River past what was then the Stockbridge Lumber Yard. The house where I spent my teen-age years was on the north side of route 102 (East Main Street in Stockbridge) exactly north of that white rectangle. The large sign that is still there (“Entering Stockbridge” on the east side, and “Enter in gLee” on the other side) was not moved when it was discovered that the town line was actually on the west (not the east) side of our house. Instead, the Great and General Court passed a special piece of legislation that ceded that strip of land to Stockbridge, thus throwing all maps into confusion, although allowing my family to remain residents of Stockbridge, and keeping the boundary where it had traditionally been thought to be.

My family moved to that house in South Lee (as we called it, although it was — we thought — not in South Lee, but in Stockbridge!) on Thanksgiving Day in 1956. My sister Sarah (youngest of the 5 of us) was only 2 at the time, and she had been the last one to come down with the mumps. She spent the whole day screaming in pain, poor thing. My Uncle Phil had helped us move, and he and my father went up on the hillside to round up some firewood, since the only heat source in the house was a pot-bellied stove.

I later learned that the previous occupant had been a Miss Murphy. It was a very large house (suitable for a family with 5 children), and there was a separate living space that went unheated and unused (except in warm months, when it became play rooms for children, and a place for magic lantern shows for the neighborhood kids). In that “apartment” (as we called it), had once lived a local chemist, who worked at Hurlbut Paper Company. Dr. Jessie Minor was a PhD in the days when that was quite uncommon for women. My mother told me, as an example of her brilliance, that during the war, Dr. Minor worked on the Enigma project in England (I learned this long before I knew of Alan Turing), the code-breaking that helped defeat the Nazis.

In writing this post, I was wondering if my memory of how to spell her name was accurate, so I did a web search, not really expecting to find much, if any, information about her, but I did come upon this snippet, which validated my recollection, and also my impression of her age at that time.

Shortly after we moved to South Lee, I became friends with Dr. Minor, who told me many stories. In the summers, she recruited a bunch of local kids to help her make Christmas cards for the Indian reservations, as part of her work for my church’s Missionary Society. That is a story for another time, set in her apartment on the second floor near where the Mobil Station now is, at the head of Park Street. One of the tales she told me was of her time living in that house in South Lee, where I had moved to long after she left, when I was 10 years old. She moved in to the apartment there because it was within walking distance of her job at the Hurlbut mill. The house was owned and occupied by a widower, Mr. Murphy, who also worked at the mill, and his adult daughter. Every working day, Miss Murphy (as Dr. Minor referred to her), would make lunch for her father and bring it over to him at the mill at lunchtime. At some point, while Dr. Minor was living there, Mr. Murphy died. His daughter evidently never accepted that explanation for his absence, and every day the mill was open she would make his lunch and bring it for him. At first, the mill workers tried to explain to her, but eventually gave up, and just accepted her offering every lunchtime.

By coincidence, that same white rectangle on the map outlines the central focus of what had been a ski area on that mountainside. It was originally built back in the dark days of the Depression, when the CCC provided jobs for men (no women were allowed) to work on public works projects. There are several maps and pictures on the link just given; a couple of them are reproduced here. This first map shows the approximate location of a rope tow that more or less followed that (by now infamous) white rectangle up the hillside.

Many thanks to Ellen, one of our hikers, for finding that website. She also took the picture of the wheel shown in this post. That is the same website that I had used to find similar information about the operation at Jug End Resort, but I hadn’t thought to look there for Beartown. I think the place where our group had lunch is approximately where the word “Kodiak” appears on the maps.

I had pre-hiked the route a couple of times, to be sure I knew where this trail went, since it is poorly marked in places. My friend Joe and I had gone most of the way a few months back, when there was still some snow on the ground, and we had spotted the wheel pictured here. A week or so before this hike, my friend Bess and I went the entire route, because I wanted to be sure I knew the descent all the way to the Hurlbut mill, since Joe and I had not finished the downhill section, having returned to Park Street the day we inspected the trail. Bess and I did not see the wheel (probably because it was hidden in the undergrowth), although we did find a series of metal poles that must have been part of the rope tow apparatus.

According to an email from Joe, Marina (one of our regular hikers) “says about that wheel that Doug (Marina’s husband) thinks the wheel is from a Model A, and there would have been another at the bottom so the rope tow, looped around both, and the car was running to make the wheels spin, bringing skiers up the hill.”

Notice the misspelling of “Sedgwick” in the ski area trail map. On this map of Stockbridge, taken from Google Maps (which, amusingly, is accompanied by a picture of Main Street in West Stockbridge), the town line is shown to go approximately in the middle of the white rectangle. Along the Housatonic in Lee, the state forest (green shading) goes down to the River, but in Stockbridge, the area next to the River is part of the Sedgwick Reservation of the Laurel Hill Association. The trail we hiked along the ridge above the River runs along the border between Beartown State Forest and the Sedgwick Reservation.

Wheel thought to be from a Model A, used at the top of a rope tow. Photo credit: Ellen Whitaker

As to the ski area, the information on the web site does not correspond to my recollection. A friend of mine and I used to take our skis over there in the winters, and hike up the slope as far as we could without getting too exhausted, and then ski down. One didn’t do too many runs that way. Of course, we had the bearpaw snowshoes with leather webbing, and our ski bindings were the old metal springs. We also explored the area during the summers, and I don’t remember seeing any remnants of the rope tow or any buildings, such as are shown on the map. So I do not think the area could have been operated into the 60s, as the website indicates. I’ve asked around, and I can’t find anyone who recalls there being an active ski area there during the 60s, so I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who remembers one way or the other. (Of course, there is the old saw that “if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there…”)

From looking at the maps and the photos, I think we were probably using the area called the “Polar Bear” slope, so it’s possible those other features existed and we just didn’t get that far. Still, I don’t remember (and I lived there until 1963) any activity on the mountainside while we lived there. On the other hand, I had probably discovered girls and had things other than skiing on my mind.

 

Finally, some advice about ticks: “When checking for ticks, start at the bottom. First the feet and the ankles, then the legs. Keep going up until you’re high enough to introduce yourself to the person you’re checking and explain what you’re doing.”

 

 

Laura’s Tower in Stockbridge Massachusetts

In the Spring of 2019, I will be teaching an OLLI course on local (Berkshire County) history. There will be six lectures covering six different locations, surveying the history and present use of the land, tracing as far back as possible before European contact, and continuing to the present day.

This post represents my initial research into one of these areas, the trails that now go to the Ice Glen and Laura’s Tower in Stockbridge, with some side-trips into the history of many of that town’s important citizens over the years.

Although I grew up in Stockbridge, and my grandmother was a highly-respected local historian, I claim no special knowledge of the town and its history. What you will find here is mostly drawn from public sources, which I have cited whenever possible.

First, the important question:

Who Was Laura?

In The Stockbridge Story [© 1989 The Town of Stockbridge], Laura’s Tower is mentioned on pages 32 and 33:

Laura’s Tower … was built by Joseph Franz to replace a decrepit wood structure.

The trail to the Tower from the end of Park Street in Stockbridge is on land that

… was part of the Sedgwick Reservation and was given to the Laurel Hill Association by Lydia C.R. Sedgwick in 1932 in memory of her husband, Alexander Sedgwick. The tower itself was given in memory of David Dudley Field’s daughter-in-law Laura Belden Field.

Laura Frederica Belden Field

The findagrave.com website has some further information on Dudley Field (David Dudley’s son) and Laura.

Later posts will cover more information I have received from my brother and other sources, as well as a description of hiking the trails.

UPDATE (August 29) now that I have led a hike up to the Tower and beyond (over to South Lee), I have much more material to add: Here it is!

Things My Mother Taught Me

My mother had folk wisdom for every occasion. I’ll try to add to this list as I recall more of her sayings.

  • A pint is a pound, the world round
  • If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
  • The horse is out of the barn; it’s too late to close the door
  • There and back in the same day! (upon arriving home)
  • You make a better door than a window!
  • Little pitchers have big ears
  • All around Robin Hood’s barn (taking a roundabout way)
  • When the wind blows the tree leaves inside out, a storm is approaching
  • It’s time to plant the corn when the leaves on the maple trees are as big as a squirrel’s ear (attributed to local indigenous lore)
  • Be careful you don’t get too big for your britches!
  • My, aren’t you full of piss and vinegar!
  • Saints preserve us!
  • Right as rain
  • If is was a bear, it would have bit you!
  • … as soon as you can say “Jack Rabbit”
  • Goodness! you’re busy as a bee…

My Genealogy

I’m hoping, as is my wont, to get off the road to hell. Nearly five years ago, I placed this genealogy chart on my website, with the intention of following up with more information and commentary. So the paving had begun some time ago.

Recently, a friend in town reminded me that he had discovered that his lineage can be traced back (as can mine) to John Wilcox (sometimes spelled Willcocks), one of the Founders of Hartford. So, we are related, and it will be fun to see where the family trees diverge.

I thought of this chart, which my mother prepared many years ago (obviously), under the guidance of her mother-in-law, who knew everything about how my father’s family was connected with everyone in the known universe.

The chart is light on dates and other specifics, only hinting at many stories that need to be told. I have lots more information that was left to me by my grandmother, and getting it all digitized and organized have been some of the paving stones that have so far smoothed my road.

Perhaps embarrassing myself with this post with provide a bit of motivation in changing direction.

In the chart, the Wilcox name in Stockbridge goes back only to around 1800, and I know I have evidence of additional lineage from there back to Simsbury Connecticut (where there is a Wilcox Street in the center of town) in 1732, and eventually back to Hartford ca. 1635.

As it happens, my father’s mother can also trace her ancestry back, through the Reverend Adonijah Bidwell, to John Bidwell, also one of the Founders of Hartford. And that was only coincidence. My father’s parents met because of baseball; another story that wants telling. Hint: my father was a huge baseball fan (not surprisingly, I suppose), and taught me how to swing a bat almost before I could walk. I once wrote a story,  called “Baseball and My Father,” for a baseball fanzine, at the invitation of the editor, who had been befriended by my dad back in those days of postal correspondence (before the days of email, if any of my readers can remember that time so long ago). It was meant to be a surprise tribute to my father, and when he read it he countered by writing his own story “Baseball and MY Father“…

I now live at the base of Tom Ball Mountain, and I have long wondered, but been unable to find out, what, if any, connection Tom Ball had to my Stockbridge ancestors, who included the Isaac Ball shown on the chart. Tom Ball was not European, and evidently “owned” (an English concept) the mountain and much land to the east of it, which is now Williamsville. So his Anglicized name was chosen for some reason, but I’ve not been able to discover it.

A few years ago, my brother Rick was researching the Stockbridge town records, and came across a copy of the special bill passed by the Great and General Court in Boston, giving permission to Isaac Ball to purchase land from the Indians. It was signed by Governor John Hancock.

As my patient readers will detect, there is a plethora of family stories aching to be dragged into the light of day. I can only hope, not promise, that I will continue in my diversionary program and bring some of them here to provide entertainment to those who enjoy learning about life in these parts in bygone days.