10/25/10 4:19pm

Autumn has finally come to Merced. Last week the temperature was in the high 90s, but today it’s in the 70s. It’s a nice change, and we’ve even had a patter or two of rain. Residents here are quick to tell the Easterner that Merced does have a real autumn with leaves changing color and, indeed, it’s proving to be true. Most of the trees are still quite green, but on my street I have yellow patches, and just enough fallen leaves to crunch through when I walk.

This autumn, of course, there is a big election — and very much so in California. A few weeks ago, I went to a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters to find out about local issues. It was held where the county Board of Supervisors usually meets. It was well run and well attended. The participants were the Democratic and Republican candidates for state Senate and state Assembly. All candidates responded to each question, and had a specific amount of time; the rotation changed continuously, meaning no one was always first. The timer had different colored cards to flash at the speakers, so they knew how much time they had left. They never went over.

What struck me was how orderly and civilized the discussion was. The news focuses on the disorderly, so this was most welcome. The audience listened quietly and attentively; as requested, it did not applaud until the very end. The Democratic candidates happened to be officeholders, one running for a second term in the Assembly and the other, currently an Assembly member, running for state Senate. The Republicans were each business owners; one is the mayor of a nearby town and had run for Assembly in the last election. The Democrats each talked about what they had done and emphasized that they frequently worked in a bipartisan manner. The Republicans mentioned their own collegiality, emphasizing their business experience and its importance for dealing with the state’s budget shortfalls. Some topics were: 1. high-speed rail and its financing. Were the Japanese interest in investing and other resources sufficient, or would this rail system wind up being an expensive albatross? 2. Water, and whether new dams were needed to make sure farmers got their fair share of it. 3. Expansion of University of California, Merced, which everyone favored, with special enthusiasm for the prospect of its developing a medical school in this seriously underserved area. First steps will be taken next year, in collaboration with UC/Davis.

None of the candidates referred to the top of their respective tickets (governor and senator), although at the end each was asked if they supported their ticket. They did.

Now that we are getting closer to Election Day, I have received from the county a 28-page booklet containing a sample ballot, statements from the Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress and the complete text of measures C and D plus arguments in favor and against — all in English and Spanish. These measures both have to do with preserving farmland, and both seek a mechanism for citizen involvement in changes from agricultural to residential zoning. The booklet also includes a means to arrange to vote by mail. I want to see who is in my election district, so I will be going to the polls, but many voters choose the mail route, just because the ballot is so long. They have until Oct. 26 to choose.

I’ve also received a 128-page booklet, in English only, from the state. It lists all state candidates, with statements from each, the text of proposed laws (propositions) along with arguments in favor and against. Voters are expected to do their homework! The propositions can cause mischief, however. This year there are several such amendments. No. 27, for example, eliminates a recently authorized state commission on redistricting and consolidates the authority with elected representatives. It is on a collision course with No. 20, which removes elected representatives from the redistricting process and transfers the authority to a 14-member commission. No. 23, sponsored by out-of-state oil interests, suspends implementation of an air pollution control law until unemployment is down to 8.5 percent or less for a full year. (In October 2008 the state’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent; it is currently 12.4 percent.)

For me all this is a serious matter. The propositions seem fussy and invasive — why do people elect representatives if they then turn around and second guess them so often? It’s cumbersome and expensive, and also a sign that the legislative process is neither understood nor trusted. Nevertheless, putting propositions to the voter dates back to 1914, and it’s unlikely to change.

For me, this is all very different. It means studying the texts, making a variety of choices and keeping track of them until I have finally cast my vote — only a week away.

Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: diane.amussen@gmail.com.

09/23/10 12:00am

This is a busy day, both outside my house and inside. Maybe it just feels that way because nothing was happening for such a long time, and now so much is going on — some things I’ve had nothing to do with and some I have slowly, inch by inch, put into place.

Outside, the City of Merced is trimming tree branches across the street. Two shiny citron-yellow trucks have been in the neighborhood for over a week now, and while they are impressive in themselves, they are even more so because they have buckets, and there is more than one. When I needed trees cut down in Greenport, I found only a few tree men with bucket trucks — so the idea that the city owns even one is surprising.

In fact, many things surprise me here. After all, this town has fallen on hard times. Today’s headline is that the local Pepsi plant is closing, a prospect denied by the company as recently as a month ago. Yet the two bucket trucks are accompanied by a bright-yellow chipper truck that travels with them, also sporting the distinctive City of Merced logo.

The city’s garbage trucks are also at work outside. Two new ones, state of the art, have been added to its fleet. These run on natural gas and, like the others, have two “arms” that extend to pick up and dump the barrels we leave on the curb. Last night my neighbors and I put out our city barrels: recycling (blue), garbage (gray), clippings (khaki). Each truck picks up only one color, so three different trucks are needed to complete the job.

Life in a city of 80,000 is very different from life in Southold Town. But I do miss the dump.

Now to the indoors — very exciting because every small thing that gets me nearer to feeling completely at home here is important. When I arrived, the first thing I realized, amid the mountain of boxes I knew I’d have to unpack, was that I had no shades. Further, the windows are all oversize — too big for the kind of shade I used to buy at the Arcade. As I lived through my first 100-degree day here, I also realized how very hot the sun made my living room and kitchen. So I experienced a different need for insulating windows — from sun and heat. In fact, California offers energy rebates for installation of Low-E heat-resistant glass. Such windows are expensive, so buying them requires doing some homework. I made several trips to Lowe’s to figure out what shades I needed and what kind of glass I should be looking for. The frames are also important, with the options of wood, vinyl or fiberglass. My son, John, helped with the research and found a company on the edge of our area that carries what I want and will work with me. Today I met with its president, who makes his phone calls at 7 a.m., so we’ve become early morning friends. The glass will finally be installed in November, and will involve removing asbestos, too. Apparently houses built here before 1978 used this material.

Lastly, I’m getting window blinds today. They also have insulating characteristics: a double honeycomb weave that reduces heat. They are for the three windows that aren’t being replaced, but these are in the front. I will feel private again.

Why is all this such a big deal?

Getting packed and ready to leave, I never thought about actually being here. All my focus was on the details of leaving — so many details that I was on overload and my brain just froze. I have needed every minute of these two months for it to start working again.

When I arrived in a totally new place and was deposited among 50 boxes, all of which had to be unpacked … well, I’d sigh a lot, unpack a little, then sit down to read a book. Each step was hard won and very small.

That’s why today seemed so busy, and was so exciting. Something was coming together. Outside the house. Inside the house. Inside me.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: diane.amussen@gmail.com.

08/26/10 12:00am

A true New Yorker might ignore discussion of the mosque proposed for two blocks from ground zero, but an alternative is to find out more — in this case, go back in time to look at two historic Islamic kingdoms.

The city of Baghdad had settlements as far back as 1800 BCE, but it became prominent when the Abbasid dynasty established it in 762 CE as the world’s center of education and culture for the next five centuries. Here, during Europe’s Dark Ages, when no political structure existed that could preserve and protect culture, Muslim scholars translated the works of the Greek philosophers into Arabic and made intellectual contributions of their own — algebra, for example.

Another Islamic group, the Moors of North Africa, invaded Spain in 711 and pushed as far as Tours in southern France, where they were halted. The Moors created some of the greatest architecture in present-day Spain, and instituted “universal” education (for men) at a time when even most kings and nobles in Europe were illiterate.

From the 11th century onward, Christian rulers gradually pushed this kingdom of al-Andalus into a smaller area. To help with the conversion of Muslims, Spanish scholars studied Arabic and translated key works of Arabic scholarship into Latin. It was these translations that brought ancient classics into Europe – the works of Aristotle, the astronomy of Ptolemy. A Muslim philosopher from 12th century Cordoba, Averroôs (Ibn Rushd), is considered the “father” of philosophical rationalism.

By the end of the reconquest of Spain in 1492, the knowledge developed in Baghdad had made its way into European intellectual life. There was no longer room for Muslims or Jews, however, who were expelled from the country — a tragedy both for Spain and for those who had to flee and, if they survived, re-establish themselves in other European countries that were only slightly more tolerant.

I’ve telescoped and abridged history here, but it’s important because Islam is now being tarred with the brush of Sept. 11, as if that day represented the sum total of the whole religion. But Islam began in the seventh century CE. We also need to remind ourselves that three major religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, consider Abraham a patriarch. In that sense, followers of the three faiths are spiritual cousins, and the conflicts between us are as bitter and intolerant as all family feuds. Each group has a long history. As an example close to home, my ancestors were ardent Christian warriors whose ferocity in expelling the Moors won them the distinction of adding the phrase “of the burnoose” (de albornoz) to their surname. It’s not something I’m proud of, but however we define them, we all have sinners and saints in our background.

As for the present, it’s not only that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque where they wish as long as they meet city zoning requirements, but that the presence of the Islamic faith adds an important balance to the Sept. 11 story. Islam is not the only religion with extreme believers, and the presence of the mosque expresses hope for the future. Some of those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, including Muslims, may wish for a more tolerant world to come. As for those who find the mosque a desecration, does it really have to be so? Do they really want the darkness of their loss memorialized by the banishing of the mosque from the neighborhood of ground zero and, with it, a lost promise of future understanding?

As it is, the families are being used and their pain manipulated to serve political ends. We don’t need that, and neither do they. We are all looking for healing from the events of Sept. 11, and for that we need to reach for something larger than ourselves, and more lasting.

Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and a former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: diane.amussen@gmail.com.

08/12/10 12:00am

The last few weeks have been taken up with unpacking and trying to find where I’ve put things. But they’ll emerge eventually; now it’s time to find out about this place where I’ve come to live, 3,000 miles from Greenport.

Merced is located in the San Joaquin Valley in Merced County, one of California’s top-producing agricultural areas. The valley itself is sometimes called the nation’s salad bowl because of the fruits and vegetables it produces. The word valley is important here, a distinguishing descriptor. For example, the local public television station is called Valley Public Television. It offers programming in both English and Spanish.

For me, Merced is distinguished by its trains. Wherever you are and whatever the hour, you are likely to hear a train whistle. I love to listen and think about where the trains have been, where they’re going, the times I’ve traveled on them and when I might ride them again. Two different sets of single tracks run through the town, and you have to cross them to get from north to south. One track handles freight and Amtrak passengers, the other, freight only, and these trains can be very long.

I have been lightening my unpacking chores by making afternoon expeditions, each of which has helped me feel more grounded. Some of these are necessary, like the trip to Sears to get a vacuum or to the vet to get Mecca’s prescription diet. Some are significant as well as exploratory, crossing the tracks to get a library card and to register to vote. Some are a matter of self-interest: joining a gym with a pool and going to the farmers market.

The gym is exciting. Its pools are all outdoors (two big ones, a small one for kids and a large kind of Jacuzzi); in the winter the main pool is covered with a bubble to keep it warm (unless the wind is too strong). The gym also offers free classes, such as water aerobics and yoga, as well as exercise machines, and it opens at 5 a.m. The manager of the facility is one of the yoga teachers.

The farmers market offers vegetables that are much the same as on the North Fork, with a wider variety of squashes and the addition of black-eyed peas. As for the fruits, this is plum, peach and apricot season, along with the ubiquitous strawberries, which last until November. A new fruit delight is a pluot, a juicy combination of plum and apricot. Merced is also walnut and almond land, and I noticed people happily munching samples as they checked out the various stands.

A young boy was selling organic eggs at the market, and his mother filled me in on the enterprise. She and her husband have free-range chickens that live in a kind of trailer consisting of nesting boxes and covered with a transparent fabric. The chickens can leave the trailer at will and forage in the orchard where it’s parked. Twice a day the trailer is moved, so the chickens fertilize the whole orchard and, of course, always have plenty of fresh forage. At night, the trailer’s covering, along with flashing lights, keeps coyotes at bay.

Year-round, the family’s three children gather the eggs, wash them by hand and package and sell them. A portion of the sale price goes to them, half of which is banked for their college future.

For all the differences between one coast and another, some things seem to be the same. The idea of sustainable farming has its converts here in Merced as well as on the North Fork. A big difference, however, is the huge amount of farmland here and the presence of factory farms, which account for much of the area’s agricultural production. The expanse of farmland has also attracted developers, and the kind of the pressures the North Fork has experienced are beginning to be felt here.

I remember Long Island’s potato farms in the 1950s and have seen their evolution. Looking at the vast fields here, I find myself hoping we are all wiser now and will protect them better.

Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and a former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: diane.amussen@gmail.com.

07/22/10 12:00am

I’ve finally reached Merced, Calif.; that is, I’m all the way here. It’s been a long, hard journey from Greenport for Mecca, my dog, and my two cats, Jojo and Snoopy, and me, as well as my son, John, who mapped our route by way of pet-friendly motels and did all the driving.

It took us six days to cross the country by a northern route, traveling roughly 650 miles a day (except for Day 1, when we left Greenport at 3 p.m.). We developed a routine with the animals. John would register us at the motel while I walked Mecca. Then we would unload our gear onto a luggage trolley: two cats in their carriers, spare kitty litter, food for cats and dog, a box with everyone’s meds (including mine), our suitcases and, for John, a computer and camera.

Once in our rooms, the cats were let out of the carriers and fed and their kitty litter set up. Snoopy was with John and Jojo and Mecca were with me. Then John and I would find a place to eat. Often it was late, around 8, and after the meal we’d turn in to be ready for an early start the next morning.

Usually we’d meet for breakfast around 6 or 6:30. Then we’d reverse our evening routine, loading the trolley and settling the animals in the back seat of our rented SUV. The cats rode in their carriers side by side on the platform created by putting half the seat down, and Mecca was installed on her bed on the other half, on the seat proper. We discovered that our “carsick” cats no longer got sick and didn’t complain as long as they had a small box of kitty litter in the carrier with them. It made for crowded carriers but the cats seemed to feel more secure.

Mecca turned out to be a great traveler, seemingly catching the spirit of adventure. She slept most of the time, happily took a walk every two hours or less and went right back to sleep afterward. She’d prance into our motel, wherever it was, ready to explore every room along the hall.

At our rest stops on the road, we would take turns going inside because the temperature was often close to 100 degrees and we had to keep the car and its air conditioner running — unless we could find a tree to park under for a 15-minute lunch.

The changes in landscape as we headed west were striking. We went from lush farmlands in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to the stark, often windblown, landscapes of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. These are not easy places to live even today — how much more so for pioneers!

Before I left, my daughter Susan said, “This is a huge thing you’re doing.” But I told her that if I’d thought it was huge, I wouldn’t be doing it. Now that I’m on the other side of the journey, I agree with Susan. It may be that as we near 80, as I am, we are slower to catch on to new things. After the long, grinding journey, I’ve felt helpless and rudderless, not sure where I really am and unable even to plot a course to a nearby grocery store or remember the many getting-around tips Susan has given me. I finally know where I am today because three days after arriving, I drove myself to the grocery, found a Starbucks and came home — at last beginning to act independently and take care of myself again.

After over 3,000 miles that I couldn’t have managed by myself, it’s those first few blocks on my own that really count.

Ms. Amussen, now of Merced, Calif., is a freelance writer and a former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

07/08/10 12:00am

Busy. busy, busy. Moving out, and there are so many “to-dos” — I dare not list them lest I be overwhelmed. Instead I blinker myself and just plod from one job to the next — pack cold-weather clothes, pack pictures using towels to protect them, do this set of books, then that one — and, oh yes, sell my car (done) and donate furniture I won’t take with me (done). Mail back the pet carrier that’s too small (my fault), call the shipper because two pet carriers arrived in a torn box with no hardware to put tops and bottoms together (Afterward, I discover I was so “efficient” that I missed the hardware tucked between top and bottom).

Well, many of us have our own moving stories — like the cabinet with “nothing” in it that turned out to be chock-full of tapes and DVDs. Nothing new here. We’ve all met with surprises when we’re trying to pull something together.

Set in the midst of this busy-ness is the saying goodbye. Goodbye to the women of Women in Conversation; goodbye to the “writing ladies” and our weekly meetings with writings to share — and so much else — to share. Goodbye, with cake in the conference room, to my colleagues at Times/Review. Goodbye to North Fork Reform Synagogue, the faith family that welcomed me so warmly.

Goodbye to the North Fork, the trees I wake up to, rustling when there’s wind. Goodbye to Mecca’s special friends, the children on the block. Goodbye to Granola the tortoise, whose eye met mine in a way that made me realize, unexpectedly, that tortoises are sentient beings. He’s now happily part of the small herd at Martha Clara Vineyards.

Goodbye to special friends I worry about. Goodbye to friends I’m unlikely to see again — California is a long, long way. Promises to keep in touch. Goodbye to friends who just might visit, and to all the friends who helped put me together for the long trip. This Fourth of July I watched Greenport’s fireworks from Sandy Beach, a yearly treat to treasure, remembering the sound of water washing in, the boats going back and forth in the channel and the lights of Greenport.

Such a rich spread to add to my memory collection.

In two days my son, John, and I start our drive west with two carsick cats (Snoopy and Jojo) and one elderly but still bumptious pit bull (Mecca), our route charted by way of pet-friendly motels.

I won’t say goodbye to you, however, because I’ll keep on writing on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Maybe I’ll tell you something about my new house, maybe about Merced, maybe about the trip. Maybe something else entirely.

We’ll see …

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

06/24/10 12:00am

Events move in a variety of patterns. Most of the time we just amble along from one thing to the next, but sometimes it seems as though nothing is happening or, conversely, that change is occurring at a million miles an hour. I have been experiencing every one of these paces lately, and sometimes all of them at once.

After two years of getting my house in order — a slow, painstaking process — I experienced the flurry of putting my house on the market. I’ve been very fortunate to find an enthusiastic buyer — no one knows that better than I. But I’m spoiled, and was totally unready for the next installment.

Four days ago I flew to Merced, Calif., where I plan to move, hoping to find a house to buy. Merced is in the midst of a housing crisis, one of the worst in the country. This is what enables me to think of moving there. The town has suffered terribly from the mortgage crisis, and it has a lot of empty houses. It is estimated that apart from the houses now up for sale, banks are holding 1,200 more off the market (in a town of 22,000), waiting for prices to go up.

Right now, however, Merced’s real estate sector operates only on a cash basis. If you want to buy a house, forget about a mortgage — that’s passà — your house won’t cost you “much” by Twin Forks standards, but the entire transaction probably has to be completed within 30 days. One reason a mortgage is out of the question is that appraisals have not caught up with the new reality, so houses are appraised at a higher value than they can actually sell for, meaning banks can’t write mortgages on them.

As a child, I used to be fascinated with the original colorful label for Old Dutch cleanser — a woman in a Dutch cap holding a can of the cleanser and looking at herself in a mirror, infinitely (so it seemed) reflected in her mirror image, can and all, reflected again, and again, each time in a smaller version until she and the can are visible only in the imagination. For the banks that so eagerly sold mortgages to people who couldn’t pay them must now watch business circumvent the whole process. Nevertheless, the banks still own that housing stock, and one day, post bailouts, they will sell and partially recoup.

Meanwhile “investors” are in control. They buy properties at auction and “flip” them, doing a minimal cleanup and then putting the house up for sale again, cash only, to be spoken for within seven days. This is how it’s working for me right now, for it will be a minimum of five days before I find out if my offer is accepted and, of course, I’m not the only one waiting to hear. While I want this offer to work out in my favor, I do think hanging in limbo serves people like me right for trying to benefit from someone else’s personal disaster. The housing bargains in Merced are enmeshed in stories we’ll never know. But I have a hint in the case of the house I’m trying to buy because my daughter Susan saw it a month ago, before the investor did his cleanup; she walked into a living room with Christmas decorations, including a tree and children’s toys, still in place.

I can’t love the investors, but I love the banks even less. They are keeping homes off the market and letting them deteriorate. No one is taking care of them. A house is like a person, I think; it needs someone to be concerned about it. Maybe that is the real tragedy in Merced, that people became as disposable as the homes they lived in. It’s not only Merced’s tragedy, however, as we know. The business model isn’t a particularly good one for people, and it’s shown that it’s not always very good for the country either.

Update: Just as we were going to press, I found out that my bid was accepted by the investor. I don’t feel guilty, but I do feel very fortunate.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

06/10/10 12:00am

It’s happened! I have sold my house. Back in December, when my children were putting my kitchen in order, they predicted that the house would sell in June, but I didn’t believe them for a second. But I’m happy to leave behind immaculate housekeeping and vanishing with Mecca while brokers troop through. (Mecca’s pleased, too.) Even though I’ve spent two years getting the house ready so that I can move to Merced, Calif., where my daughter Susan lives, it’s very hard to believe that it’s actually time to take that next step. In fact, during these last years I’ve been unable to imagine this in-between period — and now that I’m here, I still can’t take it in. Maybe if I keep taking small next steps, my understanding will finally catch up to the facts.

First there was the period of disbelief — this is not really happening. Then there have been nights when my busy brain endlessly listed all the things I have to do. First …, then …, then … . Like Fibber McGee’s legendary closet, they fall on me with an endless clatter. Not helpful.

I am blessed with friends who want to help me pack, but I am still trying to decide what to pack and in what order. I’ve made several distance moves before, and the worst moments always come very near the actual moving date, if not on the day itself, when I discover a whole closet or bookcase still filled to the brim.

Now that I’ve begun to sit and think, I’m able to list several areas that might contain hidden treasure. My goal is to eliminate unpleasant surprises by reviewing all my storage areas at the start.

For example, if I put my winter clothes away, they are done. Heavy blankets, extra towels — pack them away. Give away whatever I don’t want to move. Think about what I might want to have as soon as I arrive in Merced and segregate those things so that I either take them with me or mail them ahead to Susan.

See how much I can do, just sitting still? But I have a cautionary walnut sapling growing in my yard, reminding me that some careful squirrel thought to hide his treasure there for the winter day when he’d need it — and then forgot.

There’s one category that’s harder to deal with — books. For one thing, they aren’t taking up space when they’re in a bookcase, but once I start packing them, my house will be an obstacle course. I’m going to try to cull them soon but not actually pack them until almost the last.

Then there’s the uncertainty of not knowing where I’ll live. Next week I’ll go to Merced to find a house.

This is just a peek at what’s in my head. Notice that it’s pedestrian, one detail after another. It’s important to think this way at a time like this, but it’s also deadly, the enemy of any imaginative thinking. This period won’t last. It’s just that I’m trying to anticipate surprises of the not-packed kind.

For now. I’m taking the day off to go to a friend’s house and learn how to bake challah. That should silence the list-making for a day. Knowing how to bake challah will certainly travel. And it doesn’t need to be packed.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.