Living where we do, in a rural area surrounded by sparsely inhabited hills, we've had bear sightings before.
But none like last night.
We were eating a quiet dinner when I turned my head and there, right beside the window, was a huge black bear with a brown snout.
He must have been five or six feet long, from nose tip to tail, and three feet in girth.
We jumped up from the table and scrambled to get the camera. By the time we were shooting, he was lumbering around the side of the house and headed for our front porch. He climbed up the stairs and peered in through the screening
we have on the window, and then he got bored and went back down the stairs.
Soon he was headed for the driveway, or the compost or the garage.
We have a very tiny dog named Poco and I was grateful at that moment that she was sitting comfortably in the house, unfazed by our excitement.
"We can't let her out on her own anymore," I said to my husband.
"Don't be silly, the bear is gone."
"Ah, but will he come back?
"Bears don't eat dogs!"
So I looked it up. The state of Connecticut, which has plenty of bear sightings, says that bears "rarely" bother cats and dogs. I'm not sure I like the word rarely.
It took me the whole evening to settle my nerves. And it's going to take me a lot longer before I let Poco out to play without following her around the yard.
Once upon a time, most everyone I knew belonged -- or wanted to belong -- to "the middle class."
It was simple. You went to school, got a good education and a well-paying job. You married, bought a house or a condo, had kids, and you all took a vacation once or maybe twice a year. You retired and lived a decent lifestyle thanks to retirement benefits and savings.
For some immigrant families, like my own, it took a couple of generations before all the cousins were going to college. Still, it didn't take that long for us to arrive squarely in the middle class.
Now comes the hard part. Sometime in the last 30 years, the middle class has gone missing in the U.S. Increasingly, corporations have shifted high-paying jobs abroad where labor is cheaper. More and more union jobs have disappeared. More and more Americans have been forced into lower-paying service jobs, most of which don't offer benefits.
The real kick in the pants came in 2008 when the housing bubble burst, sending millions of Americans scrambling to pay their mortgages. Millions of homeowners foreclosed.
So where does that leave us? The term "middle class" doesn't mean what it used to. It makes a lot of Americans nervous, because the economy is a lot more precarious that it used to be, particularly for those closer to the bottom. We can no longer assume that we can afford to get to college, or that getting an education will pay off. We can't count on getting ahead the way we used to. And we certainly aren't sure about how our kids and their kids will fare.
And so along comes a piece in The New York Times today on why the Presidential candidates are no longer referring to "the middle class." "The once ubiquitous term 'middle class' has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach." What term replaces "the middle class?" According to the Times, Mrs. Clinton refers to “everyday Americans.” "Scott Walker prefers 'hardworking taxpayers.' Rand Paul says he speaks for 'people who work for the people who own businesses.' Bernie Sanders talks about 'ordinary Americans.'” The tricky part is that in order to win, a Presidential candidate must appeal to those of us in the middle. So keep your eyes and ears open. Listen closely to what the candidates would otherwise call the middle class. Better yet, pay attention to what these candidates promise to do to try to help Americans struggling in the middle. Oh, one more thing: According to the Times piece, approximately 51 percent of Americans now consider themselves middle- or upper-middle class (that according to a Gallop poll. Compare that number to 60 percent who identified themselves in the same way in 2008.
Anyone who lives in southern Berkshire County certainly knows what's happened in recent weeks in Great Barrington.
It looks a little bit like a war zone. The streets and the sidewalks have been torn up on Main Street. All the white flowering pear trees -- which would normally be in bloom -- are gone.
Walking down the street you get dirt blowing in your eyes. It's harder to park. It's difficult to walk.
To some people, the city project -- to replace Main Street -- is hard to fathom. According to Red Crow News, a blog that covers Berkshire County, the decision to rip up Main Street is the stupid idea of GB's town officials, who were lured to use a pot of state money for a project that is of dubious value. Says Red Crow, a quirky website that has its finger solidly on the pulse of the Berkshires:
"But I can’t be the only one thinking there is something really weird about ripping apart The Best Small Town in America for a summer or two for a mere four or five mil. Granted, it’s the State’s money, not ours. Gettya free money! Free money! Right over here!
"Some folks thought we should replace Main Street over ten years. But they were merchants. And some of them actually lived outside of town. A little bit of work for a manageable amount of money each and every year. Find a crack, fix a crack.
"But the Town Manager and the Select Board and the State are convinced the free State money will make the Best Small Town in America even Bester.
And you can’t be Bester without some pain. Lose a few small businesses. You can hear the coaches yelling: “Dig Deeper!”
It was Smithsonian magazine that in 2012 hailed Great Barrington (along with Taos, New Mexico) the best small town in America. What would the magazine say today?
According to the Berkshire Edge, another local on-line news source quoting town officials, the project will “improve sidewalks, drainage, curbs, traffic signals, crosswalks, and lighting.” The reconstruction will also better the town's bike lanes. Pittsfield's main newspaper, The Berkshire Eagle, says the $6.2 million state Department of Transportation project has the approval of many merchants who say that buckling sidewalks are dangerous. Still, Main Street's merchants are suffering. Who cares to brave this colossal mess to stop into a toy store, or a photo shop, or to check out Tune Street's musical offerings? The Edge says the upheavel will "proceed throughout this construction season, and into the following year. During the tourist season in July and August, work will be suspended in the downtown core, from Bridge to Elm streets."
It's hard to imagine how suspending this mess for two months will make things all right for the summering and vacationing crowds that descend on Berkshire County each year. Memorial Day is right around the corner. How can the town possibly replace the sidewalks by then? (If they do, I will definitely let you know!)
The only way to keep things in perspective is to think about how minor this situation is compared to a real disaster the likes of which we've never seen in the U.S. I'm thinking of course about the gargantuan earthquake in Nepal.
When I see photos of that devastation, I am reminded of something my daughter often says, that we Americans have a whole lost of "first world problems." Granted, the GB situation is one pain in the butt, but you know things will be righted relatively soon. The devastation in Nepal, and in so many other areas of the world hit by earthquakes and tsunamis (Haiti comes to mind) are beyond comprehension. The war zones there don't go away.