Archive for November, 2007

Rozzie Wine Evangelist

November 30th, 2007

What’s Spanish for zaftig? Does de buen tipo cut it?

Regardless, when my uxorial unit and I headed to (ta da) the Roslindale Public Library for a wine tasting, we met the full-figured and relentlessly enthusiastic Maria Valencia (as she says, “Like the orange”). The owner of the nearby Solera wine store wowed the seniors gathered with hints on what sauces to serve for the holidays.

We have sommeliers as touchstones and used to share a house with the food and beverage manager of the Ritz (back when there was a Ritz here and back when Johnny Carter was in charge of the cellars). Johnny was as much plain folk as a life-long Beacon Hill guy can be, but many wine professionals are not. Maria was in the casual mold, with her insistence on enjoyment over snobbishness.

She quickly pegged the crowd and played to it. Of the perhaps 25 of us, most were seniors and not the Harvard Law graduates from Dover either. They seemed not to know a Pinot from pickle juice. No worries, the broad smile and encouragement put them at ease.

Amusingly enough, Maria even elicited a gasp from the audience with with a ho-hum technique of boomer and younger generations. She showed how to open a wine bottle with a waiter’s corkscrew. waiter’s corkscrew

She cut the foil with the blade, inserted and turned the spiral and used the arm as a lever, as most of us, but apparently not those in the room, have done many times. When she extracted the cork with a light pop, an appreciative huzzah arose.

What a delighfully receptive group!

Maria’s business that night was familiarizing the Rozzie natives with wines for holiday visitors. She brought a sparkling (cava), a white and red Washington State bottles, and a Port. Everything was under $15 and drinkable as is. The approachable wine lady brought approachable potables.

She tied each wine to various foods, including recommending the cava with seasonable creamy soups. The whole evening was how to feel confident matching the wine to the food so you didn’t have to fret.

Incongruously, she did not come from a wine making or loving family or area. She grew up in Colombia. The only wine around was the sweet white stuff her father brought home from the local priests. A nice piece on her background and how she got to America and became a wine expert without going to sommelier’s school appeared in the Parkway Transcript. Some raves for her wine biz at 12 Cornith are here and here.

She also apologized for her hoarse voice. She’s a worker bee as well, with a job translating in downtown courts.

None of the wines in the backroom of the library was breathtaking or inspired those silly adjectives. My wife and I are relative winos contrasted to the sedate crowd in the room. I would have no problem getting more memorable wines at that price, at Solera or elsewhere. However, I bet she has the same enthusiasm in store and would turn over some great stuff I never knew.

November Optical Illusion

November 25th, 2007

This is the month we most appreciate our dining room. No food fairies come to serve us, but we find magic nonetheless. Our erstwhile resident artist set us up years ago to savor November inside and out.

Marion Etheredge, or Savannah as she is known professionally, did amazing work to bring the glories of the gigantic Norway maple from our sidewalk into the room. She photographed the tree in full yellow leaf, created stencils of some of the negatives, and used these to transfer yellow leaves on our walls.

Pic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail image for a larger view.

Window with Norway maple leaves

Come November, that fat old beauty of a tree hangs out its huge leaves of many shades of yellow. The best view is from the dining room…and that is pleasant enough.

However, the eal magic happens with the stencils. They too are yellow and their shades vary with the sunniness of the day and the hour. There are times every November day when the view outside is le trompe l’oeil. The walls and exterior have the same size, shape and color leaves.

It’s almost like having a good pair of hidden cards in poker. We know when the time comes, we have this hand to play.

Savannah learned these techniques when she had to support herself to do her artwork. Living in New York’s Tribeca, she created — painted, sculpted and more; we have some ceramic delights of hers as well. However, she also had to pay the rent. One of her regular jobs was marblizing walls for rich folk. She picked up many techniques related to stenciling, daubing and much more.

We initially felt she shouldn’t do that when she visited us, particularly because she is godmother to one of our sons. However, we’ve been buddies for a long time, and she convinced us that she really wanted to leave her mark literally in leaves.

Leaf stencils and window frame

Like nearly all the Woodbourne houses here in JP, ours has gumwood interior trim. We non-artists did not see the potential there for such stencils. Savannah did.

To her eyes, it was obvious that cream walls, light brown wood, and yellow leaf stencils for one to two months a year would match the view from the window. That must be what it’s like to think far ahead in chess.

We simple folk do reap the harvest of her foresight. We could not have done the work or even visualized the possibilities. Come November though, even we can sit down for a meal or walk into the dining room to revel in the visual delight.

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I Got Your November Colors Right Here!

November 24th, 2007

While Bostonians may retreat in the fall and winter into their brown or blue or black clothes, not all flora follows. A trip to the Arnold Arboretum today in 25-degree weather found several splashy, even garish, delights.

A week ago, I had returned to photograph the astounding bonsai collection in fall colors. I was disappointed to find an empty hut. The little joys has been spirited away for the winter. The arboretum folk have gotten pretty literal about the collection being on display until early November.

Pic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail image for a larger view.

However, we were over today to see what’s outside and still colorful. We figured that as the Forest Hills Cemetery still has some reds and yellows of bush and tree, we’d find some there.

Korean mapleTwo visual assaults — in the best way — were on Bussey Hill. The Korean maple and the Japanese beautyberry, as Billy Crystal might say, looked mahvelous.

The maple astonishes in its electric pumpkin colors.

Here, we are prone to deride the yellows of the stalwart Norway maple. Many call it a trash tree, while extolling the virtues of that ultimate premature exfoliater, the sugar maple. The sugar maple does have many shades of red, orange and yellow, but it fairly flings off its leaves as though it can’t bear the beauty. In contrast, the relatively dowdy Norway maple displays its shades of many yellow for a month or more longer, seeming to strive to keep the sun in the sky during the late fall.

You might find the greatest traits of both in the Korean maple (acer pseudosieboldianum). Climb Peters hill on the paved road. This loud rascal stands alone and is the most obvious feature. It is an exhibitionist.

Its leaves are maple-like and un-maple-like. They have 11 pointed lobes, like a flattened monster’s paw. The colors would overwhelm a sugar maple’s. Also, it is hardy to zone 4, so that it’s colors last far longer before it loses its leaves. It’s worth the hike.

TheJapanese beautyberry berries other showoff is the Japanese beautyberry (callicarpa japonica). The bush at the top of Peters Hill is a sudden delight. Walk the path to the top and just to the right of the steps going up to the benches (with the nifty Boston skyline views) is a vivid lavender display on drab stalks.

Dour botanists describe the plant as not showy because the green leaves fall in fall, leaving dull spindly branches. However, as the botanical expression goes, this plant has persistent berries. They stay on long past hard frosts and loss of leaves.

Denigrating this treasure because its only color is in its long-lived berries is like talking down a singer who only belts out arias. This one too is worth a trip.

By the bye, there’s another of these on the half way down the hill toward the front entrance, by the often lavender lilacs. It must have been some botonist’s jest to put these lavender berries with the lavender lilacs.

Oddment comment: For some inexplicable reason, these two plant gems are not on on the interactive map nor the monthly highlights at the arboretum site. Fie on them. It makes me wonder what else we’d love that they overlook.

It’s a long time before the traditional Mother’s Day visit, with its big scents and prolific blossoms. Meanwhile, with grey and brown winter already calling us, we can take our pleasures where they remain.

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Mike Didn’t Go for a Soldier

November 12th, 2007

This is a cross-post from yesterday’s entry at Marry in Massachusetts. It actually is more personal than political and is apter here.

Pic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail image for a larger view.

sheavesVeteran’s Day likely has connotations for most of us and catalyzes various emotions.In a real sense, I was born in the military — at Ft. Sill Station Hospital. My father was an artillery commander. My silver baby cup reads my name and birthday, and that it is from “OFFICERS AND LADIES” of the 17th field artillery battalion. When I was six months old, we headed off as part of the occupation army in Japan, from where my father also forayed into Korea to fight some more.He and many uncles and great uncles got their wounds and medals in WWII and Korea. Moreover, my maternal grandfather had the odd distinction in our family of having snuck off underage to join the American Expeditionary Force in Europe in WWI. He was the age of my youngest now, whom I can’t imagine in combat.

My parents divorced when he returned from Korea and they actually got to know each other. They had no business marrying and had the sense to quit. She raised me. Subsequently, he remarried and has two other sons, both of whom for some inexplicable reason spent a few years in the military. They also felt as I, that they had served military service long before they could join, and they don’t understand why they did it.

I was of the age that saw our last military draft. The Army was determined to draft me the minute I got out of college and sent me letters to that effect. They had a place in Southeast Asia for me to go. In the first draft lottery, the day before my birthday was 341 of 365 and the day after it was 360. They took boys through 195. My birthday was 104.

I had no intention of going nor any of heading to Canada. I knew the war was wrong, fought for the wrong purposes and a waste of the lives of all who died there.

I dearly loved my grandfather, a remarkable man. Yet I knew he had been an eager fighter in WWI, going when it wasn’t necessary. He had also been active since in the VFW and AmVets, even holding such offices as state chaplain in the former. I felt I couldn’t even discuss it with him.

One summer day, I was sitting on the front porch in his little town, watching the apple and peach orchards on the mountain before me. I actually was hoping for a rain storm. Most of the time, you can see the cloud come up and over the mountain like an angry, dark beast. You can watch it flow down and see the rain drenching the trees and head to town.

However, my grandfather had something to say when he joined me. He told me that he knew well that I had always been gentle and preferred to reason rather than fight. Then, he said that if he were my age, he would not go to fight in Vietnam, that it was not a just war for good causes. Then, he handed me a C.O. letter that he had drafted without my asking or even implying. He said if anyone he knew was against war, it was I.

I was surprised. I was stunned and could only thank him. Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. He had known me from before I occupied Japan.

By the bye, I did not apply for conscientious objector status. Instead, I told the military that I would not fight, but if they needed a photographer or reporter, I wasn’t afraid to go. I told them I would not carry arms in that war.

They sent C.O. papers. I returned them saying I wasn’t applying for that status, rather that I absolutely wouldn’t fight in that war. After three rounds of this, they eventually changed my 1-A (report for duty) status to a 3-A (the same as guys with a bunch of kids).

Yes, I’m glad the Germans didn’t win either World War. Nearly everyone alive owes a huge gratitude to those who fought, those who supported and those who died. Not every veteran was or is a hero, but enough have been and the stakes have been so high, that this day and other days we are right to treat them all as such.

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Way Old-Time Religion…in Color

November 12th, 2007

All you classicists need to hie down to the Sackler Museum at Harvard before January 20th. The Gods in Color exhibit is a delightful shocker.

I’m sorry that my Greek professor didn’t live to see this. She had a strong, frequent laugh and a keen sense of humor. Perhaps she grew up that way because her mischievous father named her Ruby Ott. I remember the joy she expressed when I gave her a Jolly Green Giant rug like a huge shag foot after she mentioned that her floor was cold when she got out of bed.

painted archer She was intrigued by ancient Greeks and Romans livening their statuary with vivid colors. She had been to Athens and beyond many times, but longed to see the gods and their lesser playthings the way they were originally. She spoke of the painted garments and red lips recorded for these.

At the first U.S. showing of the gods show, she could have seen just such works, along with the technologies that made this possible.

Visit info: Check the Sackler page for the exhibit. Note that there are lots of free classes for the $9 entry and that its free to all before noon on Saturday. The museum opens at 9 a.m. Note the couple of remaining related lectures.

I grew up fascinated with ancient religions. I read every book I could on gods, Norse, Greek and many others. As most of us, I grew up with the extremely white images of the old Green and Roman gods. The fast that rain, wind and sun blanched these friezes and statues was not relevant. Weren’t the old gods depicted as white, and hence in the stereotype pure?

Well, no. as Prof. Ott told us repeatedly, the Greeks in particular had a good time with their gods. Not only did these immortals have human fun, faults and fantasies, their statues were brightly painted and as bawdy as the Athenians of the time.

This show has been in numerous European cities, after starting in Munich. Crowds seem to bifurcate in reaction. Many are as pleased as I, loved the show and embraced the revised concept and reality.

Others, as quoted in a Reuters article on the display at the Athens National Archeaological Museum could not let go and enjoy:

“Some (visitors) like it, because they did not know and it was a discovery. Some are disappointed,” said Museum Director and archaeologist Nikolaos Kaltsas. “Some have said to me personally, ‘you have completely ruined the image we had of antiquity’,” he said.

When you go, save a half hour for the technique videos. They show in detail the process by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann from the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich. They reasoned correctly that modern technologies would reveal both the invisible patterns and the colors reflected in only a few tiny remaining embedded paint chips.

As well as researching old descriptions and drawings, they used two form of light. Ultraviolet revealed enough of some colors to provide accurate starts. In addition, raking light, that is, from acute angles, displayed faint patterns scratched in the marble and other stones. Those provided the intricate designs in the 23 painted reproductions.

Open the door to the Sackler. Open your mind to the garish reality that was the gods to the ancients.

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Battle with the Parking Ticket Orks

November 8th, 2007

Nothing, absolutely nothing snuffs the smoldering ember and ready tinder like agreement. Today, down in the hearing r0om of Boston’s Office of the Parking Clerk, Lou ground out my fire — quickly and pleasantly.

Southbourne not a sidewalkFirst, I confess that it was only a $15 ticket. On the other hand, it clearly had a handwritten (sidewalk) by the OTHER box, the traffic enforcer had checked. Expediency said to pay the damned $15 and go about my business. However, as you see in the accompanying picture, I had a case.

We arrived home at dusk to find the city paving bullies had posted sudden notices on the lamp posts that our cars had to be gone from 7 a.m. the next morning or they’d be towed. That’s not the way paving notifications are supposed to work, but the paving guys had been goofing on us for months.

We moved the sedan and the van and parked on Southbourne, next to the incredibly steep hill. That line on top is the sidewalk. The tiny strip at the bottom is what the road folk apparently call a pavement edging. It’s not a full curb. It just sort of keeps the dirt and rocks from tumbling onto the asphalt.

That sidewalk is about six to seven feet high and five or six feet north of the street. The ticket clearly had a handwritten (sidewalk). Cue indignation.

I took a couple of digital pix like this illustrating:

  • That the sidewalk was inaccessible, particularly to my wife’s Dodge Caravan. A V-8 Hummer might be able to go up a 40-degree or steeper hill, but…
  • The stone edging she allegedly parked on wasn’t even a full curb. In fact most of it was also largely covered by plants and dirt. In most places, the exposed stone on top was from 0 to 1.5 inches wide.

The ticket for an expired meter is $25, blocking a hydrant is $75, parking in an HP-DV plate zone is $120. This was $15, but I just couldn’t do it.

Hidden Horror

I went to the city site and found the well-hidden PDF file of parking regulations. Then, I composed a two-page letter (four with the two most illustrative pictures) and sent it in as an appeal with the ticket.

A month and change passed and I heard nothing. Penalties kick in for tickets not paid in 21 days, so I called. The clerk looked it up and said I’d get a form letter soon saying it was being “held administratively.” That meant they were denying my brilliant defense. Egad.

When it came, it set a 9:30 a.m. appeal time today. Bring evidence to convince them.

I was in for far more than a penny and armed for harrumphing battle. Plus, I revisited my letter, looked at all my related images, and rechecked both the city regulations and the state definitions.

Fascinatingly enough for those who park in Boston:

  • There is no fine or violation for parking on a pavement edging or even a full curb.
  • The fine for parking on a sidewalk is on the city ticket form at the rate of $40.
  • The regs define sidewalk on page 3, as That portion of a street or highway set aside for pedestrian travel.
  • At the bottom of page 32 of the regulations with all the BOSTON PARKING FINE STRUCTURE (in order of severity) is All Other $15.
  • The regulations do not mention pavement edging, but do cite curbs. However, there is no fine for parking on just a curb, unless it also obstructs a handicap ramp ($50).

I knew I was still in the right, but I had to shine even brighter in my presentation. That overly vague All Other is bureaucratic brilliance. Depending on who’s writing the tickets and who’s hearing any appeals, that could pretty much mean anything they wanted. I suppose they couldn’t get away with fining you $15 for parking on a discarded loaf of bread, but maybe they could.

Crackpot note: I’ll send a letter to the mayor and John Tobin, my district councilor. That line has to go. I’m sure it would not stand a challenge but it is too nasty and indefinite as is. Define those other types of violations!

I was ready to lose this one, but still make my statement. My ember was glowing.

I arrived with my manila folder. I had a scanned copy of the ticket, printouts of the eight relevant pages of the regulations, my letter with the two best images to illustrate how terribly wronged I had been, and the notice of the rejection and my shot at appeal.

Previous Battle

About 15 years ago, I had gone to court over a traffic ticket and was kind of experienced.

One night, I was driving with my family and got pulled just north of the Casey overpass (Rte.203 by Forest Hills). My elementary school son was in the front seat. The cop said I had run the red light. I never do. I didn’t that time. My son constantly monitored my wife and my driving and he also announced to me and then to the cop that I had not. The cop wrote the ticket anyway and similarly to this parking ticket, I was not about to accept that.

I showed up at the West Roxbury Court, which is in JP and has been for a long time, with sheaves of paper, including a detailed hand-drawn map to illustrate how the officer came from an angle that would have made it impossible for him to have seen the traffic light.

The court scene was like the military triage in Alice’s Restaurant with “all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people on the bench there” — DUI of alcohol and other drugs, slugging cops, concealed weapons and on and on.

I wheeled in with our baby in a stroller, and carrying a briefcase of documents. They called me and I stepped to the table and began unloading my supporting papers. The judge spoke before the proceedings formally began to ask what the papers were. I said that I intended to show that the officer could not have seen the location, that I had maps and related material, and that I was sure that because the location was perhaps 100 yards away, the judge himself was likely already familiar with the site.

He paused, smiled…”Case dismissed.”

I can’t know whether my preparation was actually wasted. I’m sure that he was in no mood to hear a long-ranting middle-aged guy with more serious tickets and charges pending. I have to wonder if I had shown up with any 60 pages of paper and said the same, I would have won.

In Tom’s Palace

Today, that All Other still had me nervous, but I was counting on the sidewalk in question being high and wide away, there being no fine for parking on a curb or pavement edging, the spirit of the sidewalk parking regulation being to keep pedestrian walkways clear. Even if they somehow wanted to argue that this dirt and plant covered edging was part of a sidewalk system, the narrowness of it coupled with the precipitous hill meant it was not suited for feet, wheelchairs or strollers anyway. I thought I was clean in letter and spirit.

However, with years of dealing with petty bureaucrats and other literalists in Boston, Manhattan and other cities, I thought they could arbitrarily make up a violation and I’d lose anyway.

The train in was much faster than I figured, so I arrived at 9 for the 9:30 hearing. I checked in with the clerk at window 224-K (she looked disturbingly like a much younger, much less weathered Maura Hennigan). It must have been a slow day. She looked at my letter and said to have a seat, I would be number 1.

Maybe two minutes later, a 20-something man opened the door and called “Number 1.” He led me to room 3.

He said he was Lou. The “informal” hearing as he described it was still pretty formal, but mercifully brief. I signed my rights document, raised my hand to the simple “Do you promise to tell the truth?” oath, and heard that if I didn’t like his decision, I had to file a civil suit to appeal.

The hearing took less time than the prologue. I was out of there within 10 minutes from “Number 1.” I showed him the photos, explained where the van was, and made my multi-point pitch.

Not only was it quickly obvious that he believed me, but he also said that he couldn’t figure out why the officer would write (sidewalk) on the ticket. There was a place for that with a checkbox. In other words, an illogical ticket that showed the officer was not thinking clearly was all that would have been necessary. Say it with me, overprepared again.

When it became clear he as dismissing the ticket, I did the social thing and said that I knew it was only $15 and didn’t want to be a jerk about it. Then he made my morning by saying, “You’re not being a jerk. He was being a jerk.”

He handed me a one-page report with an Action Code 83, dismissal, with the comment, “Respondent convinced me ticked was invalidly issued.”

It was a lot of time and effort over a little bit of money, but the parking orks I figured on meeting weren’t there. I felt a lot better walking out than into City Hall.

Tips from the Recently Victorious

I’m not a lawyer and don’t even play on in community theater. However, I think I have learned:

  • If a parking ticket is crazy, you have a good shot at getting it dismissed.
  • It is a pain in the neck or other body part to do this.
  • A detailed, well argued letter may or may not get it dismissed.
  • If you have to go into a hearing, it’s your wits on trail along with the facts.
  • The ticketing officer does not show and the only prosecution is the information on the ticket.
  • You are presumed guilty of the regulation violation.
  • You should look at the regulations, which may convince you that the ticket is invalid or you blew it and should pay the fine.
  • If you simply like contention, this is good, cheap sport, and at worst you don’t have to pay more if you lose the hearing.
  • Visuals can help — relevant photos and drawings.
  • The hearing officer is certain to have a highly tuned B.S. detector. Don’t try to fake it.

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The Daily Mensch: Part 2 of 2

November 2nd, 2007

Recently, the new neighbor across the street suffered a tragedy. I respect that word and its implication, and write that she did indeed. Two weeks after she and her youngest son moved in, the son died. He had come to stay with her after she lost her daughter in a car wreck three years ago. Her son and his brother were visiting their father on his birthday. On the way home on their motorcycles, the younger man ran off the road and into a phone pole. He died in his brother’s arms.

There are so many levels of sadness in that, it remains overwhelming. As Priam pleaded with Achilles, it is not the natural order for parents to bury their children. Now she had buried two of hers.

A Jewish friend said that I was a mensch for making a series of meals for her and sitting with this woman I barely knew. My neighbor wept, showed me photographs, and spoke of her son’s virtues and personality.

This is part two; part one is here.

Humble Social Action

My grandfather was a mensch. Compared to him, I’m a misanthrope.

GranddadGranddad, William Benjamin Michael, (right in a college photo just after he returned from WWI) sought neither praise nor thanks, but did the right things daily. By example he taught me. In retrospect, I marvel at the elegance of his deeds.

He was relentlessly industrious. He had a full-time job as a yard foreman on the B&O Railroad. He read, but did not waste time on TV. Among other avocations, he had a dry cleaning/tailor shop, and he grew vegetables. Therein lay the basis for good deeds.

Every summer, he grew one or two patches, as he called them. These were one-acre (a lot of veggies) little farms. He would sell enough to the local grocers to earn back his seed and fertilizer expenses. I weeded and harvested beside him all summer, and I got to sell whatever I could for spending money.

Much of the output though went to the other side of the tracks.

There were 14 Black families in this small town (about 2,000 in the area). The adults from there worked in service jobs, like housecleaning, or the few large corn or fruit storage and shipping facilities. There were no manufacturing jobs for anyone. While the few Blacks did not face overt racism, life wasn’t easy.

At my Granddad’s funeral, the unofficial Black mayor of the town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia said to me, “Your grandfather was a great man.”

That was my own Atticus Finch moment, á la To Kill a Mockingbird. The seed for this post came from Laurel reminding me of that in a recent BMG post about Nelle Harper Lee’s latest award. I thought of the moment at the end of the trial when the elderly Black minister, Rev. Sykes, said to Scout, “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

I hadn’t thought in those terms of Granddad’s relationship with the small Black community there, but yes, he was very helpful. He provided money and clothing, but more important, from his gardens, he gave countless bushels of vegetables and fruits to the Black community every year I was there and apparently before.

Mr. Pankhurst and others would come to the gardens and I would pick what they wanted or we’d do it together. We’d fill up the backs of pickups. Apparently for low-wage families, that was a huge help. The canned foods continued to supplement their meals throughout the cold weather as well.

So, the rest of the town may have ignored the Black families, but we were always welcome in their homes. We were friendly on the street too. Funny stuff.

Contagious Respect

My mother later told me a tale about her own mother in regards to Mr. Pankhurst. To nearly everyone, he was the diminutive Panky. To my mother and to me, we followed her father’s example and gave the same honorifics to Blacks as to whites.

My mother said once in high school, she referred to him as Mr. Pankhurst when speaking with her mother. Mable scolded her saying, “Don’t you ever call a coon Mister!”

That was quite a shock, my mother said. Her father did not use and did not allow racist terms around him. His wife was not so egalitarian. My mother responded — she said she surprised herself with her firmness to her stern mother — that she had always been taught to call adults Miss, Mrs. or Mr. There was no reason not to do this because Mr. Pankhurst was Black. He was still older and deserved common respect.

Living Your Thoughts

My grandfather was quiet and never self-satisfied or arrogant. I spent months of hours with him over the years (parse that!) and knew him as kind, wise and generous. Giving to others was just what he did and was. I didn’t think that other people took a lot of notice, much less felt strongly.

At his funeral, Mr. Pankhurst said he took pride in representing his community in signing the guest book. He and I laughed about the vegetables, particularly the huge zucchinis that Granddad let grow to monster size because he knew that some on that other side of the tracks liked to stuff the giant ones for baking.

He went on about how respected Mr. Michael was. Honestly until that conversation, I hadn’t considered how unusual that was. The other white folk were not hostile to the Black residents. They just didn’t think of them unless they needed a worker. Yet, what Granddad did for so long, he considered a small effort and the right thing to do. He both treated them with dignity and gave what he had. The Black folk didn’t think it was so trivial.

Granddad was a better person than I’ll ever be. Yet I know that if I act as a mensch, I do so by his example.

The lessons include not making any display of piety or virtue. Stepping up for others instead of stepping back can be a daily opportunity. Sometimes it is easy and other times it can take considerable effort, expense and risk.

I am regularly pleased to see the number of lefty activists who perform mitzvahs simply because it is the right thing to do. While some want praise, many must have had their own examples.

As the chances present themselves, be a mensch.

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The Daily Mensch: Part 1 of 2

November 1st, 2007

Shortcut: For the impatient, the key message of this two parter is you don’t have to offer up your life for another every day to be a good guy. You need merely do the right thing time and again, even when it is a bit of trouble.

My move to New Jersey at 14 ended up joyful and Jew-ful. The latter is noteworthy, as coming from Southern Virginia, I knew very few Jews. In Danville, we rented an apartment in a mansion (770 Main) from one of the few Jews there. He was also my pediatrician.In the summers, I stayed with my grandparents in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, apple and peach country. The one Jewish family there, Dave Shear’s, did not affect the culture of Romney. They went to temple 28 miles away in Cumberland, Maryland. Amusingly enough, Dave was the long-term mayor and ran the only menswear store in the county.In Plainfield, New Jersey, however, my culture shock was much less adjusting to Yankees as to a very Jewish culture. Jewish foods, Yiddish phrases, intense girls, Talmudic arguments and learning how it felt to be the outsider were all parts.That wasn’t true for all goyim in my high-school class of over 600. I was on the swimming team and newspaper, both heavily Jewish. I was in advanced classes in those days of graded education and a high percentage of my classmates were Jewish.In class, after school, on dates and with friends’ parents, Yiddish and the related concepts of Jewish religion and culture were suddenly ubiquitous. One word I heard a lot was mensch — that ideal of the stalwart who lived integrity and honor, religious principles, and of course, respect for his mother.I heard friends charged by mother or grandmother to be a mensch, and high praise came to those described lovingly in “He’s such a mensch.” That often followed a person performing a good deed, a mitzvah, particularly one that acted out a commandment of Jewish law.

The Epitome

Place and times can test us to the edge of heroism. Few of us can know whether we would risk all for others. Certainly, we are fortunate that life does not present such choices to each of us, rather only to a few and only occasionally.

We need look only to the nearly 22,000 honored as the Righteous Among the Nations. These are gentiles who risked their lives or at least all they and their family had, including their freedom, to protect Jews. Many of these were in Europe before and during WWII. A large number of these were in Poland, where it was a capital offense to hide or even help a Jew.

Moreover, the award goes to those, who Maimonides listed as, “Whoever among the Nations fulfills the Seven Commandments to serve God belongs to the Righteous among the Nations, and has his share in the World to Come.” As an aside, those ancient commandments contain a couple of anachronisms, such as not eating live animals and being against homosexuality. The concepts of being moral and just to all remain. In fact, a prime continuing commandment is to maintain the legal system so that all may have justice.

Surely we should be happy that we do not face the situation where we have the dreadful choices that the Righteous Among the Nations faced. Yet, that does not give us license to ignore the condition of others. At our daily level, social awareness and action possibilities are common. You and I too can be a mensch…with a lot less effort and at a lot less peril.

Living Righteous

vcSomewhere between the extremes of righteous living is Rev. Victor Carpenter (to the right in a shot from the First Church in Belmont). He literally risked his life hundreds of times when he lived and worked in South Africa. He was among other things, a courier for Nelson Mandela and others in the anti-apartheid movement. Later back in the United States, he was extremely active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

As an amusing sidelight, he had a little family inheritance and never cared much for money. He donated his salary to various charitable causes when he was minister at the Arlington Church. Our venal IRS officials could not believe this. They audited him — perennially. No matter how many times he proved that all of his income went out to good causes, they kept demanding proof.

He was the minister who drew my family to the ASC. His preaching was powerful and personal, and demanding. He loved his roving microphone, which had an absurdly long cord and which he used to bring even those who thought they were hiding in the back of the huge nave into the conversation.

He also personally involved me in church politics and liberal religion. For example, not long after we began attending, he dropped by our little apartment on the North slope of Beacon Hill. He had been at the denominational headquarters at 25 Beacon Street and stopped by, as I recall, on his way to visit patients at Mass General. He directly asked me to reconstitute the moribund personnel committee and work on the dysfunctional staff.

Here was Victor’s great gift. Not only did he recognize what needed doing and do what he could himself, he enlisted and delegated, charged and inspired others to do the rest.

In 2003, he received the UUA’s Adin Ballou Peace Award. Many of us from his various congregations came to the ceremony to see him honored. As befitting his style, we ended up on the roving mic praising him ourselves. My primary message was that he went beyond what other socially active preachers did. We never left one of his sermons without homework. Every week, he gave us specific tasks to do, social, political or both, to make the world better.

Victor is no airy-fairy liberal. He is happy and driven to tell us what a mensch would do.

Part two returns to Romney to cite an ordinary man doing relentless good deeds. It looks like this one needs to end up at Harrumph! as well.

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