The Faces We’re Born With

April 6th, 2015 No comments »

Decades ago, I was stunned to be fired from one of my first jobs. I was highly competent and well liked.More on that in a few paragraphs.

I recalled that plunge today as I read a column on looks in Mad Men by Robin Abrahams, the Boston Globe’s Miss Conduct columnist. She wrote of how lookism affected both men and women in the TV series, along with such insights as when it is beneficial to be a babyfaced man (specifically a Black CEO).

I grew up in a home run by a mother who was a manager. She was not a lookist, in fact, did not stereotype people. You produced and behaved or she’d try to make those things happen. Man or woman, old or young, pretty or plug ugly, none of those were relevant to her.

Thus, on jobs where I was the boss, I treated people as my mother taught me As a result, they tended to perform for me. They knew being unctuous or attractive meant little.Doing your job well and getting along with coworkers did. So there.

So just after the Mad Men era, in an office overlooking the Chrysler Building gargoyles, I was perking along as writer/editor at a weekly magazine of a professional society. The biggest part of the job was covering the weekly luncheon meeting of its influential members. The speaker was a powerful and often well-known person who often spoke of big ideas.

It was kind of trivial but still fun. Out of J-school and with considerable newspaper experience, I was in my element. I photographed the speaker and covered the remarks. Of course, I had to be flawless and present the speech coverage to reveal the high points in a compelling narrative. Hell, though, that’s what I’d done for many years in high school. college and  and on newspaper staffs.

Alas, vanity and ego came visiting the office, not mine though. The founder and long-term executive director of the society was old and retired. His middle-aged junior promptly jettisoned me.

I was stunned. Several coworkers were not. Moreover, the printer of the weekly magazine I filled took me to lunch for a talk right after the news.

The printer was a bright, highly competent, very flexible and particularly nice fellow I had a lot of business with on the job. Turns out he was also black Irish (thick and dark hair, ruddy skin) which came into play as he spoke. He said he had figured that would happen when the old man stepped down.

It was obvious to the printer and several staff members that I threatened the new boss and he was biding his time to dump me. Word is the ascendant chief told people I was jockeying for the top job.Moreover, the traits I figured ensured my longevity foretold my demise. Competence and likeability are too much for the mediocre to tolerate.

I had no interest whatever in taking over a professional society and making insincere kissy-face to0 big shots. I wanted to report on speeches and take good pix.

Once number two got it in his head that I was a snake waiting to slay him, I was dead as soon as possible.

The printer was very positive though. He said I was well rid of the job and would find something better quickly. He was right on both counts. In addition, he offered a truism likely from his own experience that has stuck with me — “It’s never going to hurt you to be a blond WASP.”

That’s a very dated, remarkably lookist comment, but spot on.

 

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Creeping toward humanness

March 7th, 2015 No comments »

I’m with Uncle Joe Biden on one of the craziest, dumbest Republicans. The Veep ridiculed Ben Carson’s inane gay bashing, noting the widespread disdain for the lunacy.

Carson has proclaimed he intends to win the GOP nomination for POTUS next year. More to the point, he is yet another proof that expertise in one area (he is a physician) means nothing beyond that. He went on and on about homosexuality being a total choice with his alleged evidence being that straight men are raped in prison, hence choosing to change.

From the MSNBC reportage:

But Biden on Friday was not sure how to respond. “Every ridiculous assertion from Dr. Carson on — I mean Jesus, God,” he said. “Oh God. I mean, it’s kind of hard to fathom, isn’t it?”

Still, the vice president pointed to the “universal ridicule” Carson suffered as evidence of progress for LGBT rights. “That wouldn’t have happened two years ago, five years ago,” he said.

And that is exactly it. Unlike Carson’s perverted fantasy, such advancement is observable, palpable proof that we can and do improve as a species.

I recall the moment I first became keenly aware and thus hopeful of such growth. It was in the Yankee in Beaufort, South Carolina in the mid-1970s. It was a dive, a beer and burger joint, but very Low Country. Three middle-aged guys  I didn’t know by name were about 10 feet away at the angle of the bar at lunchtime. One of them fell down the at-home well and ranted briefly about black folk, using the N word twice.

I wasn’t ready for the immediate response of his two buddies. They told him quickly and firmly that was not cool and they didn’t want to hear it. They guy was chastened and behaved himself afterward. I am pretty sure that he ws likely to behave himself with them and maybe others going forward.

That is both evidence that we can advance as a species and the method to advance that process. Do not let the crazies and the bigots slide. You don’t have to be pious and obnoxious about it. You do have to be quick and sure. Tell the bigot what’s wrong and look directly at him. It works the miracle of conversion to humanness.

Of course, the other thing is not to pretend it doesn’t happen in Yankeeland or the Wet Coast. Bigots and buffoons don’t respect geography.

 

 

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Farewell to our Spock and to mine

March 2nd, 2015 No comments »

llapIt’s not a stretch to say I was raised by Spock, or at least a Spock. As so many of us note the passing and mourn the death of Leonard Nimoy, I felt particular twinges remembering my mother, Wanda.

We see that Science Officer Spock’s live-long-and-prosper hand is ubiquitous lately. That’s as it should, or rather that is logical.

When the Star Trek original series started, I immediately recognized Spock as Wanda. That as not at all bad, merely entertaining and even assuring.

Wanda was unlike other mothers, other fathers, and other parental pairs. Like Spock, she was a cooly logical as a Vulcan, yet with a very human half.

For one specific, when she was raising my sister and me by herself, she did not betray reason with the extreme stupidity of, “Because I said so.” Wanda has reasons for every decision, every pronouncement, every argument.

Awanda1nd for arguments…my friends were astonished to hear her policy. If my sister or I could provide better reasons to do something than what she proposed, we prevailed. If not, she held sway. Not only did that make us feel invested in decisions, but it also inspired (me particularly) us to analyze what was going on or proposed, to pay attention, and to present our own positions.

Yes, Wanda was a single parent, an awkward status for the boomer generation just coming to terms with the flood of post-WWII marriages and almost as large flood of divorces. The term broken home was muttered like a diagnosis of leprosy. My sister and I found much humor in the expressions of pity as we moved every few years while  Wanda slowly advanced to support us, getting to see and know many families of friends and relatives. We had no doubt we were far better off than kids raised in homes with one or both married parents were drunks, where the children were regularly beaten, where mom, dad or both yelled at each other and the kids, and where the parental units were, well, illogical.

Wanda was an omnivorous reader. We had several thousand books, including multiple sets of encyclopedia and other reference texts. Wanda knew tremendous amounts on many subjects. That was a precursor to Wikipedia when I was very young. I’d ask a why, what or how question and she almost invariably knew. When we didn’t, she’d hit the books and tell me.

Tuen when I was in elementary school, she’d say, “Look it up.” We had to references. I did look it up. It drove me to read random volumes of our various encyclopedia, random pages of our unabridged dictionary, random entries in the world almanac and book of facts or pages in one of several atlases. “Look it up” served me well throughout school and beyond. I still do.

Wanda did not stay Spock to her death. Yet, she was while I was growing up. Toward the end, cancer, chemo, hormonal changes, financial reverses and love disaster all changed her. Most of her massive pressures came in a short period and I can’t think less of her for changing.

On the other hand, for all those years, she was my Vulcan mentor. When other kids lived under the arbitrary and emotional rule of a Kirk-like parent(s), I had the better of it.

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Elves working on JP Porchfest

February 8th, 2015 No comments »

111 bands this year for the JP Porchfest…plus:

  • theater performances
  • storytelling stage
  • dance stage(s)
  • circus acts

We were in the group who fought the rages of winter to fill the hall at the First Baptist to view the wee documentary of the first version last year. The website and FB page have details already on the second annual one, on the sked for Saturday, July 11th from noon to 6PM.

Band signups start in mid-March. The organizers have been churning along for months though. Watch the sites for ways to volunteer and announcements of the musical/potable/comestible fundraisers.

At today’s show, you missed free seltzer, popcorn and Hersey’s kisses…plus a lengthy performance by Jamaica Plain Honk.

jph3 jph5
jph4 jph2
jph1

 

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May I See Icy Maze?

January 3rd, 2015 No comments »

They’re trying hard to get the name Innovation District to stick to South Boston at Fort Point Channel and the new convention center.  A ploy to lure folk in the windy, wintery times includes the Lawn on D.

To less boosterism types that is really a medium-sized park in the desolate space on D Street behind the Westin. Otherwise, unless you work there, you’d avoid the spot.

This weekend (through Sunday, January 4th, there are things. Several moving sculptures, a couple of food trucks, an outside bar with wine and beer, some tables, and (ta da) a maze of ice blocks.

Honestly, the maze is scaled for 2 to 5 year olds. Its walls are under five feet tall, so adults peer over. Little ones love it. Certainly you’d have to be as dumb as a household pet to get lost in this one.

However, they got artsy with it. numerous colored LEDs add contrast and color. Prints of National Geographic photog Paul Nicklen are the real humor — pix of polar bears on ice in blocks of ice. Subtler art is in colored and carved ice blocks.

It’s not a must see, but if you are in South Boston…

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License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

 

If you’re the right size, the ice maze works just fine. SBmaze1
SBmaze5 Many LEDs liven up the blocks.
Paul Nicklen’s snow and ice wildlife images are (har har) embedded in actual ice. SBmaze2
SBmaze6 A lot of detail went into the carving and coloring.
Adults can peer over the maze, keep track of their kids, and admire the construction. SBmaze4
SBmaze Don’t expect to read in the local tabloid about families getting lost in the maze.

 

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A Disappeared Family

December 18th, 2014 No comments »

A college chum made his family vanish in his self-written obit. A wife and four daughters vanished in his detailed recap of life and kin.

I feel a double connection. I introduced, really connected, him and the woman he’d marry….first Then over 20 years later, he’d ask me to be a witness in the bizarre and hypocritical Roman Catholic annulment tribunal.

It’s not my thought to demean any religion’s dogma or processes. Yet from a post written at the time of the declaration-of-nullity proceeding, I clearly was stunned at the acrobatics involved. Likewise, reading the obit he wrote, I marvel at the duplicity.

His second wife, also Roman Catholic, insisted on an annulment, so they could marry in their church. Her will be done. Meanwhile, while he pressured me to fill in the complex tribunal questionnaire from the Savannah diocese, I was and remain uneasy.

As requested in the tribunal cover material, I did check the papers and answers with a local priest. He heads one of the region’s largest parishes and certainly understands his church’s rules, if not MA history.  He nimbly clarified the how and why of the process. To this UU, he was an animated FAQ on nullity. While I still see it very much as a game and a fund raiser, annulment is not otherwise part of my life and that is not my church.

The puzzlement comes when the theater extended to my friend’s death statements. The RC Church is careful to claim a nullified marriage did in fact exist when it occurred and that any children resulting did not become illegitimate as a result of the declaration. With his heart conditions and knowing his end was at hand, he could not drop the ruse.

The longest paragraph in his obit lists his relatives, sort of. His second wife’s folk abound. She is “the great love of his life.” Her parents, children, grandchildren, siblings and appendices all appear. On his side, his late father appears in the previous résumé-style paragraph. At the very bottom of the survivors he mentions his late brother.

Invisible are his aged mother, his very alive sister, his first wife and his four daughters. I can surmise that he was estranged from his family, perhaps as a result of his leaving, divorcing and getting that annulment from wife #1. I can imagine wife #2 insisting he drop contact with his birth and previous family.

I’ll likely track down and call his first wife. That will mean confessing my role in the nullity process, which she may already know. That would probably be good for my psyche.

My erstwhile chum seems to prove the idea in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon that “There are no second acts in American lives.” My old buddy avoided the complications and development of his personal play, going directly to the resolution, comfortable if delusional.

 

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Oh, glänzenden Weihnachtsbaum (Shiny Christmas Tree)

December 16th, 2014 No comments »

A huge shock of my late teen years was to make the annual pilgrimage to my grandparents’ West Virginia home to find…an aluminum Christmas tree in the living room. My very bright, stern but rational grandmother had her reasons.

That was a betrayal on numerous levels. Yes, yes, it was her home, but it was also mine. I moved every few years throughout my childhood. A constant was summers and holidays in the eastern panhandle of WV, now known amusingly as the Potomac Highlands.

Among the state’s abundances are mountains and trees, lots of evergreens. In fact, the small house itself sported two gigantic blue spruces that were wee when my grandfather planted them or his three then tiny children. He still decorated them with those old-style big light ropes. Inside we always had a fresh local tree. I remember going with family fried and relative by marriage old Charlie Long to cut a tree from his land. That was back in the days when you changed a pickup truck to four-wheel drive by hitting the hubs into position with a hammer…by cracky. Charlie was older than Granddad but he still liked Christmas trees and was delighted to help me pick, cut and load one.

2013treeIt turns out Baba, as my older sister had named our grandmother, had been plotting all those years. When the grandkids were in college, the new living room order would take charge.

Note that she had had her way with the heating system a few years before. Her children and then grandchildren had grown to big sizes with a coal furnace. The work fell to her husband, then her son, then to me. Of course, I did not enjoy lugging the gigantic galvanized cans of slag and powder remains to the curb. Likely the trash guys didn’t like their role either. I did like, no love, stoking the furnace. It was a fair dragon, with roaring mouth of flame and heat begging for more food. I was happy to oblige.

When she could Baba badgered her husband into converting to a very tame gas boiler. Boo.

Her underlying motivation though was simple. she never liked the faint smell of the coal heat in the vents. She absolutely hated cleaning off the faint gray smudges above the living room vents that appeared after a month or two of heat.

Honestly, killing the dragon for a few wisps of residue?

It turns out the Christmas tree ran afoul of similar sins. Her children, grandchildren and husband had always provided and mounted the tree. We had climbed into the attic and retrieved the balls, tinsel and lights. We had decorated to the sweet and dreadful strains of Lawrence Welk and other seasonal shows providing carols and show tunes of the season.

Baba, however, was affronted by violations of her space.

Worst was the profusion of needles. On the wooden floor, on the carpet and rugs, in the presents, somehow spreading like hair from some gigantic green cat. There was also the tinsel…Granddad had to have tinsel on the tree. It too seemed to reproduce and leave spoor even beyond what we had purchased and draped.

Apparently in a curtain lecture, she had let her husband know that when we were all in college, there’ d be no more living, shedding trees in her very own living room.

Baba’s folly aside, in our 35 years in Boston, we have had trees. We are down to two of our three sons  — one is off on that other coast and a father himself — living with us. We have decorations that go waaaay back. My late mother-in-law Sylvia made us a pottery creche. My late mother for years bought personalized ornaments for her grandsons. Our sons produced their own ornaments at preschool. Friends have brought tree baubles which we hung and maintain.

The tree above from last year is typical of our garish display. It includes numerous strands of NM chili lights too.

One son is off visiting his ridge-runner fiancée this holiday. The first  son spent Thanksgiving with us including his wife and toddler. He’ll be with his in-laws for Christmas.  Yet the three of us have the non-metallic evergreen yet again. We have made one concession, dialing it down a notch from roughly 8 feet to maybe six and one-half. I’m not sure we can jam all the ornaments and lights on. We shall try.

Ho ho.

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Four Things About Marky Mark

December 6th, 2014 No comments »

First let us be plain. The teen Mark Robert Michael Wahlberg was a racist punk. By police records, he was caught over 20 times in various violent or drug acts. By his own admissions and court findings he attacked black school kids with rocks (and slurs) as well as beating two Vietnamese Americans with sticks, one so viciously he lost the sight of one eye.

Second, he has applied for a pardon from our commonwealth. He wants a clean record, apparently to make his business dealings easier (the hamburger restaurant biz).

Third, despite his fame, wealth and connections, he has made no effort to find, apologize to or make any restitution to his victims.

Fourth, on the other side of it all, our goofed up culture of perpetual punishment mocks the paid-his-debt-to-society construct.

Cynical plea

The news stories of his pardon request an even his Wikipedia page are not terribly convincing. He returns to the idea that as he has done positive things that should settle the matter. Done and done. He loves pointing to this egotistically eponymous wahlfoundation to help poor kids.  (Pic note: image adapted from his foundation site, for which I claim fair usage.)

Not so fast and easy, underwear boy.

Let’s consider the moral and even religious angles here. Massachusetts in general and Boston specifically are largely Roman Catholic in culture, except for the WASP laws. That’s key to the likes of pardons and criminal records.

Sure Catholics are used to confession and absolution. The stereotypical “Say 10 Hail Marys and five Our Fathers” does not conflate with the Protestant secular laws and regulations. Catholics may get a clean bill from the Church, but Protestants carry their sins around for their whole lives…and they wrote the laws around here.

Now that we are all paying attention again, I’m betting he’ll hear a lot about this. I’m also betting that he’ll have minions track down some of his victims, maybe the former kids he terrorized or the two men he beat with clubs while calling them racial slurs. Then he can make a display of atoning before them. They are likely to be harder sells than a priest, as it should be.

Pardon? Pardon me.

He doesn’t deserve a pardon though. He was caught fair and square numerous times. Who knows how many racist and violent crimes he got by with?

While sentenced for two years for beating that blinded man, he served only 45 days in jail. That is a small price to pay for permanent, life-altering injury. What’s to pardon for a vicious, intentional crime?

The big however is the inherent vindictiveness in the records laws. We know from thousands of instances that CORI papers prevent ex-offenders from getting jobs, putting them at economic risk and holding them down in society. We are slowly reforming that stigma system.

In some few cases it makes sense, such as the sex-offender registry. Where mentally, emotionally disturbed types are likely to commit those crimes again, the stigma makes sense to society.

On the other hand, consider Wahlberg. He has his stacks of money and an overhauled reputation, replete with over a decade of good deeds. We have zero reason to suppose he’ll pick up a big stick and go into a racist rage while beating this or that person of color.

The only point of the alleged character laws is perpetual punishment. Again, it comes back to the Protestant concept of only God can cleanse you and only on Judgment Day. If you pardon the expression, what a hell of a way to write laws.

No. Wahlberg does not deserve a pardon to pretend he never did the dreadful racist attacks. However, his point of the unfairness of stenciling his life perpetually with a stencil from his 16-year-old sins is crazy.

Yes, he should forever he known for his bad deeds as he wants now to be known for his good ones. But the business regulations should not add perpetual real-world punishment to the shame.

Assuming Wahlberg really wants to do some good, he can lobby (or pay someone to lobby). Go to the new governor and a few key legislators. Reform the post-conviction system so that pointy-headed, rules-are-rules bureaucrats can’t perpetually harm former offenders in unrelated aspects of their lives. That would help thousands a year, not just make opening more hamburger joints easier for one guy.

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Passing of the Torch Light Switch

November 30th, 2014 No comments »

Even if our longest-serving Mayor Tom Menino hadn’t died so soon after leaving office, today would have been strange. His replacement, Marty Walsh, threw the light switch on  the Christmas tree in Logan Square.

LoganlightingThat’s in Hyde Park, Menino’s part of Boston (and mine). As a city councilor, then mayor for so long, Menino was the tree guy. He loved the square, the event, the happy kids, the young step dancers and other performers, greeting the constituents, and showing off his phenomenal memory of our names and details. One year when he was ailing, his wife Angela, stood in and up for him, but this was different.

A tree lighting without Tom Menino is a shock to the HP psyche.

Let me note that Walsh did well. I don’t know if he has it in him to be as charming, as avuncular, and as jolly as Menino. I can leave it for others who did business with the city to haul out their favorite vignettes of how Da Mare could, would and did figuratively break their knuckles in negotiations. As a constituent I never experienced that in my decades of dealing with him.

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Walsh is a passable pol. He got elected and reelected to the MA House then the mayoralty. Oddly enough though today in Logan Square, he seemed to get a lot more pleasure out of high fiving the kids than he did glad-handing the voters. Could the new Mayor be shy?

The crowds were also passable. I estimate that half to two-thirds as many who showed as in previous years. That was surprising in that we had relatively balmy 4:30 PM weather. It’s gotten to be a very localized joke that the event brings snow, sleet, bitter cold and strong winds.

However, as always, the kids had a good time. There were silly rides for the littlest ones, fried dough and cotton candy for the shameless and those with strong stomachs, and draft-horse cart spins about.

LoganfaceOh, yes, and the face painting occurred in the Logan Square Barber Shop. That’s where I get what little hair I have trimmed. I found it peculiar that while the barbers were not doing the deeds, kids adults alike were in the three chairs getting done up like tigers or with Patriots’ logos on their cheeks and foreheads.

On the dais, we had the usual suspects — Santa, Rep. Angelo Scaccia, District Councilor Tim McCarthy, At-Large Councilor Steve Murphy. the commander of the local police precinct and such. In no surprise, I kept overhearing the lament of no-Tom-Menino. That’s certainly not Walsh’s fault, but he has a lot of history against his back.

 

 

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Team Turkey Day v. My Kitchen

November 28th, 2014 No comments »

mymableWe had family and friends, close and far and very far this week for turkey goose day. In addition so many of us (almost all with Southern roots) have been assembling for over 20 years for the instant-to-concrete tribe, I love how it’s become a blood group effort.

Growing up, I knew different, as did my wife. Both her mother and my maternal grandmother, Mable or as named by my older sister Baba, identified strongly as THE family cook. Her hand to your mouth. You could set up, clean up and otherwise perform only narrowly defined tasks for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter feasts. Her kitchen…

Mable was a fine cook, really a chef and baker. I should never complain. Yet both my mother and later my wife did. Their mothers did not let them prepare meals, much less pass along the great folk art and magic of sustenance, of sacred sacrifice on the familial altar.

A few years after my parents married in Fort Sill, they headed to Japan with their two tots as part of the Occupation Army. A few years after that, they returned to Fort Sill and accepting they married blind, they divorced.

While we were in Japan, numerous servants tended to us. They adored the two blond kids, me particularly as the boy. They also cooked for us.

After the divorce when my mother began raising us solo, the full impact of knowing squat about food was all too obvious to her. Her mother fed her, then her college cafeteria, then the Army, then servants. Then what?

So this is a plea. If you are the family cook, teach your kids and if necessary your spouse. You might go away, they might go away, you might get run over by a careering armored truck.

This Thanksgiving, I did prepare most of the overly abundant carte. That would be the likes of goose with cracked peppercorns, cruditiés with four dips, roasted yams with orange, port wine cranberry chutney, wild and jasmine rice, key lime pie and on and on. I get in a groove.

However, the full-time family residents did their do. My uxorial unit is a great pastry baker. She made a highly decorative and delicious tart-cherry pie and a huge plate of deviled eggs. Son 2 made saffron ice cream and brie en croute. Son 3 did an extremely popular stuffed shells with from-scratch tomato sauce.

And so it went…

I likely could have made every dish. In fact, I held off on several I had in mind to make. We were already in overkill. Plus, various guests showed with nosh offerings, wines, ciders, and of course, their own pies — pecan, buttermilk and sweet potato. Our Thanksgiving clan has a real pie jones.

It’s nice….it’s better…t’s great…when everyone feels and exhibits ownership of the life and pleasure giving role. It’s a boat that everyone helps steer, When you arrive, you are happy for the journey.

Give thanks.

 

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