Friday, September 12, 2014

"Connecticut - She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not"

 Sydney M. Williams                                                                                                      September 12, 2014
A Note from Old Lyme
Connecticut – She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not”

“A window opening onto fair meadows of hopefulness”
                                                                                                                        John Hollander (1929-2013)
                                        Connecticut Poet Laureate (2007-2011)
                                                                                                                        “The Night Mirror” 1971

Professor Semir Zeki of University College London would not be surprised if I find myself both loving and hating the state in which I was born, and in which I have lived for fifty years. A study by the British biologist showed that some of the nervous circuits in the brain responsible for love are the same as those responsible for hate.

Connecticut has great beauty and plentiful resources, both of the natural and human kind. But in the past two decades its political leaders have adopted policies that have impeded economic growth and limited individual freedom.

Nevertheless, one could say the state is in my blood, as I have ancestors who were here 350 years ago. I was born here and have lived here most of my life. Young women in 1940, if they could, would often return to their mothers when they were about to give birth. That was especially true with a woman’s first births. That decision must have seemed obvious when the option was a small farmhouse, with no central heat, during a cold New Hampshire winter. So my mother went back to her parents, late that year, when eight months pregnant with me. Grace New Haven Hospital became my first home, for a week or so, when I was born at the end of January of 1941. A few years later, during the War, my mother returned home again with her horses, goats and three children, while pregnant with a fourth. My father had been shipped overseas to fight the Nazis in Italy. We would live in Madison for about a year and a half.

Since we were married in 1964, Caroline and I have lived in Connecticut, other than our first year when I was still at college in New Hampshire. We have lived in four Connecticut towns – briefly in Glastonbury and Durham, and for almost a quarter of a century each in Greenwich and Old Lyme. It is a state I love. From the green fields and rolling hills of Litchfield County, to the rural farms in Windham County, to the 618 miles of coast line that stretch from Greenwich to Stonington, it is a state easy to embrace. Through the center of the state, passing through the state capital of Hartford, descends the Connecticut, New England’s longest and largest river. It takes its name from the Algonquin, Quinnehtukqut, which means “beside the long tidal river.” The river runs 410 miles from just south of the Canadian border to its mouth. It empties into the Sound, with Old Saybrook on the west bank and Old Lyme on the east. Its estuary, on which we now live, is filled with marsh islands and small creeks, and has been designated by the Nature Conservancy as one of the 40 “Last Great Places” in the Western hemisphere.

With a median household income of $65,753, Connecticut ranks fourth highest in the nation. The state has the most educated population in the country, with 36.2% having a bachelor’s degree or higher. It has one of the highest concentrations of educational institutions in the country, with Yale, Trinity, Wesleyan and Connecticut College within thirty-five miles of our home in Old Lyme. It is home to innumerable corporate executives. It has a thriving art academy in Old Lyme. The state is an important link between New York and Boston, with its highway, rail and air transport systems. From the south, it is the gateway to New England.

So, it is sad that this state, so rich in resources and skills, should be doing so poorly by its citizens. Consider these numbers:

·         The Department of Commerce ranked Connecticut 50 out of 50 states for annual economic growth in 2012.
·         The American Legislative Council, for the same year, ranked Connecticut 46 for economic performance and 43 for economic outlook.
·         Barron’s states that Connecticut has the highest level of state debt and pension liabilities per taxpayer of any state in the union.
·         In the past six years, the workforce shrunk by 3,000.
·         Median household income has declined by 4% since 2008.
·         The Tax Foundation publishes a State Business Climate Index. On its list of the ten worst, Connecticut is prominently displayed. Forbes, slightly more generous, ranks the state 33 in overall business climate.
·         Even before the financial meltdown, between 1996 and 2006, the number of small businesses operating in Connecticut declined by 2.2%.

Connecticut is a study in contrasts. It is home to some of America’s richest individuals, but 10% live below the poverty level. Median family income ranges from $242,000 in Weston to $32,000 in Hartford. The median value of its owner-occupied homes is 57% above the national average at $285,000, yet the amount of state debt per capita is the highest in the nation. Unemployment in the state is second highest in New England. The State Business Tax Climate Index ranks the state among the ten worst in the nation. Yet, in terms of “quality of life,” another survey ranks the state second in the nation. Maintaining this split, the “business costs index,” has the state three from the bottom. (Such dichotomies can be experienced in personal ways. The other day, as I ruefully pondered my September quarterly tax payment, a deer gracefully crossed the lawn!) A combination of repressive taxes and over-regulation has created this situation. Every new rule imposed means one less arrow in our quiver of freedom. There is a yin-yang to Connecticut that causes people to love the state, yet want to move out. The “yang” seems to be winning. Over the past two decades, 300,000 more Connecticut residents have moved out than moved in.

As for us, our hearts being bigger than our heads, Caroline and I are likely to remain residents. It doesn’t make much common or economic sense, but there is so much about the state we love: the stone walls that guard the back roads; the quiet, tree-lined streets with their colonial homes; the smell of the marshes that remind me of my grandparent’s home in Madison; the book barns that I frequent; the beaches along Long Island Sound. We enjoy walking through the Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme, where stones mark the graves of veterans from every war in which Americans have fought and died, from King Phillip’s War in 1676 to Vietnam in 1973. We appreciate the history and admire the fact that men and women came to this place with nothing but determination to carve from the land a living, a place where they could live in freedom. I wonder – would I have had the courage to leave a home, with city streets, shops, family and friends, in order to make a new life, in an unexplored wilderness? I don’t know the answer, but since some of my ancestors did make that commitment, I feel an obligation to honor their pledge.

But I hope and I pray that those whom we have elected to run our government will have the common sense to allow this dream to continue. I worry, because I know that those whom we elected have promised more than can reasonably be provided, and that the cost of their largesse (our money) will have negative consequences: the dependency of the few on the production of the many is changing and becoming a dependency of the many on a productive few. That trend is one of the explanations for the widening income gap that troubles us all. More troubling, though, is the realization that once the dependent outnumber the productive, our democracy will cease.

In the meantime, however, we have this beautiful place. Whether one looks out on Sharon’s hills or Putnam’s farms, at office towers in Hartford or the cloisters of Yale’s colleges, at former mills of fading brick in Middletown or at beautiful homes along the Sound in Greenwich, or at the marshes before our house in Old Lyme, we have in Connecticut, as the poet John Hollander wrote, “a window opening onto fair meadows of hopefulness.” Let us hope it stays that way.  

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