Archive for June, 2009

Things Left

June 30th, 2009

One pilose and one squamous animal companion will not make the trip. Rather, whatever remains of their bodies will linger as we move from one Boston neighborhood to another shortly.

They are both real an symbolic. They are less substantial than the friends and acquaintances. They are less obvious than the flowers planted, the herb garden, and the children’s growth lines on the door jamb. Yet in the unwritten book of place memories, Tang and Igor have their pages.

I also ritualized my grandfather in the backyard. He had served as my father figure and being two generations older died far too soon, without being available to play with my children as he had with my older sister’s. For me, he was no longer available for to question and to bring disappointments and joys to his altar of wisdom. Yet it came to me as a variation of the Asian ancester shrines that I could place a locus for him within a few step.

He and my grandmother were buried in a small town along the Potomac, in the hills between West Virginia and Maryland. The Odd Fellows Cemetery is far less accessible. Instead, I placed a photo and a few artifacts in a tin, which I buried deep in the garden. He was gifted in his ability with both flowers and vegetables; I spent many summer days with him planting, weeding and harvesting.

In that sense, he has always been available for a chat.

For the animals, there is a clear bifurcation. Our first son had an iguana, a rather attractive critter, if not too cuddly. Igor died of the common arthritis as a juvenile. His corpse went deep under the roots of the gigantic beech.

Tang on the other hand was a delight for 15 years. A Maine coon cat that never reached the stereotypical gigantic proportions (altered early by contract with the breeder, so probably short on hormones), Tang had the delightful personality and even temperament of the breed. Three kids chased and handled  him, with no complaints. He was affectionate and seemingly ever grateful. He never broke anything nor leapt on tables.

Alas, as most of us will, he wore out. In his case, the vet was after us for some time to have him euthanized. His joints hurt and did not respond long to any medicine. He lost interest in both food and movement. Eventually, we let the vet do the kind and evil deed and buried Tang with his cat bed and blanket far down where we planted a cherry tree as a living marker.

Our small house, which I love and my wife long ago tired of, has the predictable memories. Each wall, sometimes literally, is awash with invisible residue of events and words and thoughts of the five of us and our visitors. I would suppose the new owner should exorcise us.

Yet, the animals and ancestor in the backyard will remain known to me. Leave taking will require yet another ritual.

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Lovin’ Lowell Time

June 25th, 2009

Even if you have never done the Spinners or the northernmost Beer Works, the last weekend of July, every July, screams for a visit to Lowell. It’s a pony I’ve been riding annually for over 20 years. The Lowell Folk Festival is a Massachusetts must.

Consider:

  • It’s free, the nation’s largest free music festival.
  • It’s diverse, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, world, jazz, gospel and a broad range of folk from various cultures.
  • It’s generous, two full days of music spread over a three-day weekend.
  • It’s convenient, easy to get to and park at for anyone in Eastern Massachusetts and not bad for the rest of the state and neighboring ones.
  • You can drive, bike if you’re close or ambitious enough, and take the train from North Station in Beantown.
  • It’s self-paced, with lots of good food and drink in and around the festival locations.

sistermarie.jpgThe problem we have had is schedule conflicts, when more than one act we want to see performs simultaneously. We can usually fudge that too, as most singles and groups do their thing more than once during the festival.

You’re not going to know some of the entertainers. That is a key advantage. We never return without a new favorite and generally with a CD to prove it.  Over the decades, we first heard some amazing artists here first.

At almost all the stages, you are on top of the performer. This is no Tweeter Center alpine climb to the squinting rows and inaudible bleachers.

People tell me about this time of year when I ask that they never go to Lowell. That’s dumb enough, with the music series that is pretty damned cheap (like Spinners seats), plus the restaurants.  It’s lazy and just plain stupid to miss the folk festival. It’s close, intense, pleasurable…and free.

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My Personal Horror Flick

June 23rd, 2009

crutchesThe Day of Black Ice doesn’t quite sound like a horror movie, but to me it’s close enough. From reports of surgeons and nurses, I have come to believe my broken leg was just one twist on a karmic joke affecting Boston.

The tales from the orthopedic types have amassed from the apocryphal to the empirical.

When I was still stupefied by morphine following my surgery, one of the grinning bone manglers at the bottom of my bed noted that they had done five of my particular operation within 36 hours, a high for Brigham & Women’s Hospital. That would be opening up my knee from behind the patella, reaming out the marrow from the tibia and inserting a titanium pin (Expert Nail) the length of it to keep me together.

In a followup session with a resident and the head of Partners’ orthopedic trauma, I heard that February 9th was the heaviest load the ER and hospital had ever experienced. Moreover, I subsequently heard from an ER nurse at Beth Israel Hospital that she almost turned around and headed home that morning. She got to the entrance and saw a couple of dozen ambulances lined up like so many taxis at an airport. Most as it turns out where carrying orthopedically injured sufferers.

We had had freezing, thawing and refreezing roads and sidewalks for over a week. I had labored on our side of the hill where live every day. I got new bags of salt and brought up the metal snow shovels I rarely use from the basement. It wasn’t easy to keep our sidewalks safe, but it was safety, courtesy, common sense and city ordinance.

Were I fell though was on the other side of the hill across the street. It seems the women there made no effort to eliminate the black ice. Afterward when I was cut up and drugged up, my wife spoke with a lawyer. He quickly dissuaded her of trying to recover anything for what courts view as acts of nature or some jokester god.

Even our immediate neighbor felt the day of black ice. She fell on her own steps leaving her house, breaking a bone in her foot.  It was the worst orthopedic day in Boston, it seems, and we were part of it

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Natural and Assisted Graciousness

June 19th, 2009

Today being my natal anniversary, I was pleased but not surprised to have good wishes from my wife. I was surprised from where and how else others came.

HB from Fark

My dawn greeting came in email, first from Bike Forums.  I had totally forgotten that registration asked birth date. Likewise, when I looked at Fark, I saw a greeting. As I recall, that site asks you to verify your age by birth day, month and year because of some risque content. They are savvy in using it to personalize the experience.

Oddly though, social-networking icon Facebook did not program that into its database and interface. While you don’t have to list a birth date there, many including I do. You’d think they’d be clever enough to intrude in that friendly a way, being social and all.

However, on my FB wall, a friend and an acquaintance sent greetings.

Perhaps the real surprise and an indicator of the state of the greeting technology came at the West Roxbury Y. At the desk, we wave our cards by a scanner to beep into the gym. Maggy was across the entry area but looked at the computer screen I could not see. “It’s your birthday! Happy birthday, Mike!,” she said wide-eyed and enthusiastic.

I have no doubt that the monitor prompted her. Yet, I am also sure she was sincere. When I arrived after my surgery for my broken leg, she was always the most interested and aware of changes — walker to crutches to crutch to cane to just limping. She commented and asked.

So there you have it, boys and girls, wise and oblivious uses of technology as social aids. I don’t mind that people get a tap on the shoulder reminding them to use stereotypical social lubrication.  In fact, it’s a pleasant aspect of modern life. The automated online ones? Meh. Yeah for the personal greetings.

Happy birthday to me.

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Heavy Foot of Telephony Giant

June 18th, 2009

In the simplest economic sense, I understand why communications Borg Verizon moved the large pain of software migration to its millions of customers. It was a stupid move though and one likely to be costly.

I spent much of an hour reprogramming voice mail today. It was under Verizon’s command. It was on Verizon’s schedule. There was no appeal to the Borg on any aspect of the process.

See the background on this here.

ex-verizonI think of a friend of mine from our Inc. magazine days, who wrote a book on savvy customer relations and service. Clearly this is not standard reading at the Borg.

It appears that the thinking at Verizon runs along the line of:

  • We want to switch voice-mail software to a cheaper or more capable system.
  • Doing the work behind the scenes to save customer settings, pass-codes, messages and recorded announcements would require work and, well, actual thinking and consideration of customers.
  • We can force customers to do all their own setup and customization all over again.
  • Each customer will only spend an hour or at most two figuring out what to do and performing all the tasks.
  • It’s likely that the support calls we get will cost much less than planning an automated migration.
  • It’s sensible for us to save the time and money by pushing the pain onto the customers.
  • Our customers are pretty inert and unlikely to switch phone providers over this.
  • We can have the extra fun of thanking them for choosing us.

This very 20th, really 18th, Century attitude is long-term loss for perceived short-term advantage. In this terrible recession and modestly competitive environment, Verizon could very well lose many times what it saved by flipping off the millions of customers. Moreover, its good-will losses will continue to drive away existing customers. Finally, in this technological era, admitting that they would rather force customers to do their upgrades says they are tech dolts who understand neither automation nor customer service.

Were I the head of Verizon or even manager of this migration, I would never have considered spitting on the customers. I would have insisted on 21st Century technology to keep my millions of minions happy with the easiest switchover possible.

As it is, Verizon has steadily increased our charges and decreased the local calling area. Yet, the fact is that even here in Boston, we don’t have choices in most areas of cable suppliers, but we do have in phone services, all at lower prices.

This is the final flick of the whip driving this family from the Verizon plantation. This Borg is not a full monopoly. We are not subject to its whims. It’s no way to treat those who provide your income.

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Uneasy Lies the Friend

June 18th, 2009

Sleeping, just sleeping, with a friend can carry a surprising load. I think of two examples from my mid-20s that present good and silly examples.

One was a former girlfriend who converted seamlessly after hiatus into a friend. She shared my West Village apartment as her pied-à-terre as she spent her weeks at cooky school in Hyde Park at the Culinary Institute of America. We often shared my queen mattress as well, without sexual contact.

I have conflicted thoughts about the cliché that men and women can’t be friends without huge sexual tension and a drive toward intercourse. It is most certainly easier to have all that behind you to allow a non-physical friendship. In this case, she and I had worked through that when we dated in high school.

Yet, I have women friends I never chased nor lusted after and am comfortable with them. Granted, I don’t share sheets. Also, I am pretty fastidious and have my Southern breeding allowing for context as well as behavior controls.  So, perhaps I am the anomaly for this.

The other was more telling of my shortcomings. Also in my mid-20s, I headed to Tampa on a loop from Manhattan chasing the woman I’d marry. I stayed with a sandbox-era chum.

On one level, all of us in that circle who knew him were aware he was gay and always had been. On another, he really didn’t admit it aloud or even to himself. He lived in the small West Virginia town where I summered with my grandparents. We spent a lot of time over decades together.

In my several days in Florida, he and I shared his king bed. On the second or third evening, he came out to me. He came to terms with his sexuality a few years previously in college. He was now telling friends and family.

He immediately seemed calm after seeing that I didn’t exhibit any negative reaction. He was soon asleep.

I laid there oddly alert, thinking and feeling. I really didn’t feel his revelation was negative at all, but I stayed awake. I wondered why. He had made no effort to be sexual with me. We had shared beds and tents numerous times over the years. Basically nothing had changed in our relationship, other than he felt more candid and trusting with me.

After an hour or two, I also calmed and that moment passed. To this day, I am unsure what my problem was that night. Other friends and acquaintances were gay and self-outed. Something I have never been able to identify kept me awake.

Perhaps this is simply like a Seinfeld episode —  nothing much happened and much was made of nothing because that’s how we humans often act and think.

Gay or straight, friends can be fine to sleep beside…no sex required.

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Just Ashes

June 15th, 2009

Ashes BoxWanda’s not here and she’s not in the box. You might say my mother has become furniture or un objet d’art.

It is, however, a fine box. I went shopping for one worthy of holding half my mother’s ashes and found it in a small town in New Hampshire.  Oddly enough, it was hand made and hand inlaid not there, but in Comanche County, Oklahoma. I was born there in Fort Sill Station Hospital.

My mother, of course, was there at the time, busy allowing me into the larger world. Now the buff, heavy ashes of half of her cremated remains are sealed in that box. The box sits on a bookcase in my home office, highly visible at waist height.

Four years on, it is past time to allow them into the larger world.

I did not ask for half of the remains and I would not have. Instead, a call from my brother-in-law in New Mexico informed me they were on the way. His wife, my sister, just knew I’d want them. She’d keep half and send the other to me. As I recall, when Richard told me of the pending delivery, my only response was, “Why?”

Zydeco legend spoke Clifton Chenier to my attitude of mortality with, “When you live, you live. When you’re dead, you’re gone.” On a higher plane, I can play Socrates, as recounted in Phaedo. While I don’t have his faith in an immortal individual soul, I concur with his conclusion when asked what he wanted them to do with him after his death. He said the they could do whatever they wanted with his body because he was not going to be there.

So wife and family can toss my remains or absentmindedly leave them in a fine constructed box — dust on both inside and outside — or bury them. That’s whatever suits their emotional state and needs.

Plato quoted Crito as asking the dying Socrates, ” And in what way shall we bury you?” The response included”

In any way that you like; but you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not run away from you…Be of good cheer then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.

My mother was of that thought, asking only that there be no funeral and minimal expense. She definitely did not want a burial plot and probably would not even have approved of the fancy box.

When the frightfully heavy bag of ashes arrived by UPS, I fretted. I turned to my sage, aged adviser, UU Minister Farley Wheelwright. Over the past seven decades, he’s buried and married quite a few folk, parishioners, friends, family and strangers. He set me straight immediately.

A Matter of Place

Farley said not to have even a passing thought that the content of the box was or had ever been my mother.  Instead, the ashes are just that. They are as symbolic as I choose but no more.

His own attitude about such matters is rather casual, even to himself. I stood in for him at a family funeral at nearby Forest Hills Cemetery here. There’s a spot in the same grave for his ashes as well, the last in that grave. He’s fine with that.

He did ask jocularly for me to drop by from time to time to visit. That seems to be the real utility of such burials, a locus.

Actually, I had created as much in my back garden many years ago for my beloved grandfather. I took a photo of him and a few small objects of his and buried them in a tin. He was a highly skilled gardener, equally of flowers, vegetables and fruits. He and I worked many summer days weeding and harvesting. Putting my version of him a few feet from the house was soothing.

He was my touchstone and ideal. He was always there for me when I was happy or troubled. Without judgment, he would answer, agree or discuss. I can still have one-sided conversations.

Now I think I need a trip to the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. My mother and I each learned to swim in the South Branch of the Potomac. We each wandered the mountains surrounding Romney as youths and adults. Her ashes — half of her ashes — should become one with that symbolic home.

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Multimedia with Astronaut

June 12th, 2009

Aldrin’s boot print on the moonEdwin Aldrin’s little sister couldn’t say brother. So she called him her buzzer.That boy became Buzz to the world and is famous as the second person to walk on the moon (that’s his boot print on the lunar surface).

Last evening, the 79-year-old did a credible job as narrator in a Boston Pops performance. He spoke a bit about his space experiences and then spoke scripted introductions to four Gustav Holst movements of The Planets.

It was the Pops at their poppiest. They ended with Stars and Stripes Forever even.  Somehow the link between Sousa and celestial bodies eludes me — perhaps it was the accompanying video of fireworks in the sky.

The performance made liberal use of drop-down screens. The four movements each got an artsy quasi-documentary silent video by José Francisco Salgado, astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.  Given that this was the annual MIT at the Pops night, that layered the evening with a patina of erudition. This was the loud part of a three-day conference on technology, Giant Leaps,  coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Number one son works at an institute at the tool school down the river, as the Harvard types are wont to call MIT.  He provided the tickets for his parents and brother (number three could not be bothered).

So, we had a jolly time at the café-style tables that fill the orchestra nowadays. The waitrons even provided pale blue light sticks to wave in time to the children’s chorus that wrapped the evening with John Lennon’s Imagine.

I had forgotten how the indoors Pops does a good show. It’s rather like some singers and groups I had seen over the years. I think way back to Frank Sinatra, who I saw last in his later, creaky-voiced days, and the Four Seasons. I didn’t buy their music or care to listen to their recordings, but on stage, wow, could they hold an audience, including me.

So it was with Keith Lockhart and his band of merry strummers, pounders and blowers. The program didn’t challenge anyone’s mind or musical sense, but it was flawless and fun.

We were up close in the sixth row. That was perhaps too close, close enough for small distractions.


Funny Trousers


Lockhart is a pretty boy, delicate of hand and seeming without self-esteem problems. It was amusing though to see the back of his overly moussed do and his comical trousers. His hair is thick and tapered in the back, like a truncated mullet. The level cropping of the back drops off a heavy cliff of black hair onto a white neck. It’s like a row cut in a wheat field.His pants though…they were funny and kept catching my eyes. His black (maybe super-dark gray) suit jacket had no vents and was well tailored, so that it rose and collapsed smoothly as he rolled, waved and jerked his arms. He is uncannily fluid in hand, elbow and shoulder movements. His precision and amazing smoothness of movement is gracious and beautiful.

His pants though…they are not tailored. It’s as though he is in denial about how short his legs are. I rather doubt he bought the pants at the last hour and didn’t have time to get them fitted. They were much too long, draping to the bottom of his heels or below in the back and bunched like overly long curtains over his laces and below in the front.

The effect was of an old elephant’s heavily wrinkled legs. Up on his toes and with his arms high, his pants would almost, but not quite, straighten in the back. The bunching migrated upward. Then as he fell down off his toes, the ample black fabric again and suddenly surrounded his calves and ankles in generous folds.

Perhaps if the music had been more demanding, I would have gotten swept up by it. But, hey, it’s the Pops.

For his part, Dr. Aldrin, we all agreed, looked just like an aging astronaut should. He was trim and well dressed in a (well tailored) dinner jacket and patent leather shoes. He sported his Medal of Freedom around his neck. He spoke with eloquence and certainty. When the music took over, he sat motionless, except for the well timed taping of his right foot.

Yet, clicking around to refresh myself on his nickname’s origin, I was mildly dismayed to find that he bought some of his appearance. He is famous, and it would seem, a bit vain. All over the net are mentions of how he had a face lift two years ago. He told Howard Stern that he was keeping up with his latest mate, whom he called a trophy wife even though they are the same age. He also has said that the G forces over the years made his jaws sag.

Regardless, he could do whatever made him feel good. He looked fine and fit and a little younger than 79.

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Duty to Disgrace

June 11th, 2009

Boston City HallAren’t reporter types supposed to humiliate and befuddle political interviewees? I have lost or mitigated that instinct. Maybe I’ve been a UU too long or have fallen back on my Southern heritage too cozily.

In recent podcast interviews with three candidates for Boston mayor, I have relied on our standard method instead. We have one person at a time, with no surprise guests and no trick, gotcha questions.

I try to keep real political posts off Harrumph! So if you are looking for those interviews, click to Left Ahead for Sam Yoon, Michael Flaherty and Kevin McCrea.

The issue of the obligations of the interviewer have fluttered in my mind since watching Frost/Nixon recently.  Like the related turning points of All the President’s Men, I thrill when the good guys have a breakthrough.

Yet, from my newspaper days of high school, college and professional, I know too well that the vast majority of news and analysis simply doesn’t offer the possibilities of great moments, sudden revelations and confessions. As much as blathering cable-new talking heads pretend the trivial is the pivotal, the typical story, as young folk like to say, is what it is.

Sometimes though, even in my blogging and podcasting persona, I smell the arena and hope for verbal combat. I anticipated that when I booked soon-to-be-disgraced Sen. Dianne Wilkerson on our show. She backed out and would not be interviewed by us or anyone.

Instead of the theatrical and even vicious, over at Left Ahead, we try to go for the much more low-key insightful. We are, after all, three progressive sorts who share similar political goals, even though we differ on some.

I suppose that’s maturity, even if less exciting than the figurative spurting jugular from the perfect ambush question. Thus, I really appreciate Chris Lovett’s shows over at Neighborhood Network News for many of the same reasons. He’s no drama queen trying to lure a news figure into some snare. He asks well focused and researched questions that leave the viewer with a much keener sense of the guest and topic. I love it.

Given the chance with a crooked pol, I’d surely rise (or sink) to the occasion. I’d go against my upbringing as I did as a reporter and go for the real story. Week to week though, we don’t see that.

It looks like we’ll get incumbent Mayor Tom Menino on soon. He certainly doesn’t fall in the crook class, but there are obvious sensitive areas for a man who is infamous for hating to be criticized. (He supposedly doesn’t like that criticism either.)

I’d be happy to have him explain what he wants to do in a 17th through 20th years that he was unable to in the last 16 as mayor. That’s probably far more meaningful to voters than trying to corner him on one of the stereotypical points. Rather, we put on our voter clothes and wonder what we get if we keep this guy in office.

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Still Missing Grave Goodies

June 6th, 2009

graverobber1.jpgAlas, there is no good update for last August’s grave robberies at Forest Hills Cemetery. One or more immoral thugs stole sculpture, as well as funeral urns — all salable as black market art or merely as scrap metal worth far, far less.

On bike rides or strolls through this gorgeous location, the damaged residue of the thefts are what remains. The pedestal that supported Ceres stands apart and lonely beside the lake, with the holes obvious where the Gibran statue was ripped from its block.

graverobber2.jpg

It’s not as obvious where Bark Balls used to nestle under the spreading beech.

The two pix here (click for larger view) show the base brackets from one of the urns in front of the Hanley mausleum. Apparently, the thieves pried the urns off with a crowbar or something similar.

The sights of what we can no longer see sadden me. I retain a hope that some metal dealer or a detective will get the right lead and return the goods.

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