Archive for August, 2009

Death Comes Stalking

August 30th, 2009

In what passes for wit, we are wont to speak of our mortality drolly. “We are all terminal patients here” is one example.

Yet, in the past year of Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer, it seems odd that such privileged folk haven’t earned a long-term pass. The flare of irony there, of course, is that he worked so long and with such enthusiasm to have health care more widely available and more equitable. Yet with his huge resources and access to the best of care did not add even a decade to his span.grieving family tombstone

For cancer and dying too soon, I tend to recall my dear friend Paula Delancey. She was a far less famous version. She died at 33 in 1981.

Paula and I, as Southerners might say, kept company in high school. We got our physical and emotional stuff out of the way at 15. We were then clear and clean to become great friends as young adults.

She was the first woman to head her class at the Culinary Institute of America and became a skilled, reviewed and well paid chef in Manhattan. During her time in chef school, she shared my apartment and life on weekends. Years later when she was just in the swing of the city, she got a rare cancer — of the spine.

Like Kennedy’s, it took about a year to kill her once discovered. She had money and insurance. She had the very best oncologists and their care in New York’s greatest hospitals. She put great faith in their chemo and radiation, and surgeries. None of it ultimately worked.

In Ted and Paula’s cases, money and top medical care was not enough to cure them or even prolong their lives substantially. While we likely all know people who have beaten cancer, mere access to care doesn’t make the the difference in many cases. It gives us better odds, but guarantees nothing.

Many of us would like to think that doctors are magic and that medical science is key to everything that primary-care physicians and specialists do.

A distant Star Trek-style future may bring diagnostic wands or the like. How grand if doctors then could diagnose anomalies  with the waving of devices. Then, of course, some laser or other beam could isolate and eliminate bad cells or bulging blood vessels inside the skull or elsewhere. Mirabile dictu!

Meanwhile, we have fallible tests and even more fallible doctors. Short of obvious and acute conditions, meaningful diagnoses and treatment result from luck and perhaps the art of a particular doc.

As a child, I viewed doctors as pretty magical. I had no chronic or difficult problems. Typically, I’d get inflamed tonsils and drop my pants for a magic penicillin shot. I went from febrile and in pain to hale. Magic.

As an adult though, I’ve more often found bumbling. Doctors are happy to take credit for the body’s natural healing and blame patients for problems they can’t cure. More often than not, I’ve been subject to shotgun medicine, that is, treating a symptom with a drug that may or more not help, may or may not have bad side-effects, but certainly does not relate to the undiagnosed underlying problem or its cause. Not magic.

Ted might have had a decade or so and Paula perhaps five decades, if only there had been reason to examine where their fatal conditions were festering. While awaiting those future diagnostic wands, we really can’t expect and won’t have pan-diagnostic sweeps of our bodies.

We have a pretty good idea of how Ted would have built on his long record of legislative successes.  For her part, Paula brought pleasure to strangers and regulars alike in her restaurants. She was also a delightful friend who was looking forward to being an Auntie Mame character to her brother’s children. She anticipated a life as an eccentric old woman and we who knew her figured she’d become a classic.

Part of me and perhaps of you would like to think one could buy perfect preventative and curative medicine. That is not yet the normal way of things. That is a great shame and also a great leveler.

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Curse You, Litterbug!

August 26th, 2009

Public curses have their time. I place one now on the yellow-bag tosser. May he or she have perpetually clogged toilets and sinks.

Today, I experienced what we in my family drolly call a personal tragedy. That is in dual honor of Morse Peckham’s insightful Beyond the Tragic Vision as well as American hyperbolic self-pity.

Mine was a personal cycling tragedy.

After tooling to Davis Square and then stopping in Porter on the way to the bottom of Hyde Park looking for a specific book to give a friend, I did the wise cycling citizen thing and stopped next to two Cambridge motorcycle cops at a light by Lesley.

Apparently during the full, long light cycle, a flimsy yellow newspaper delivery bag blew onto one of the two pulley wheels in my rear deraillleur. Like some silent-movie slapstick guy I stomped the pedals leading the cops at the green. That didn’t last. My chain grabbed and the rear wheel froze, replete with thudding and tire complaints.

Dismounting, I found the damage. I had never heard of such an absurd bike problem, but I wasn’t going anywhere until I fixed it.

The fix was messy and long, about 35 minutes. The bag was thoroughly enmeshed into the pulley and related derailleur parts. It picked up and smeared about the wet lube from the gears and chain. It folded into the working of the derailleur and pulley itself.

deraileur pulleys

As my fingers smeared with tenacious grease and accompanying road grime, I hacked, pulled, pushed, yanked and tore at the bag pieces. The pulley remained locked and strangled. I had my multi-tool, so I could use the straight-blade screw driver and two of the smaller Allen wrenches to help. Eventually, blackened strand by greasy strand, the bag yielded and the pulley turned.  I could then pick out the smallest pieces freezing the inner gear.

I’ve gotten flats from glass residue left by clever folk who smash bottles in the street. In fact that happened a couple of times next to the Northeastern police HQ, where it seems college louts think it fun to break beer bottles in cops’ territory. I learned to avoid those couple of blocks of Columbus when I was bike commuting to Ft. Point Channel. A ruined road bike tire and tube are in the nature of $60, so this was economically less painful.

Done in by a plastic bag is a first for me. Surely a grocery-weight one would not have caught in the gears. For this one, it’s very likely that someone carried the newspaper from front stoop to work or college or on the way to the T. All it took then was for the old cigarette-butt style toss or letting the bag sort of fly toward a trash can for it to become a weapon of personal tragedy on a windy morning.

I have many flaws, which I won’t reveal here and now. Littering is decidedly not among them. I even gathered the many, greasy shards from my bike repair and hobbled in my cleated bike shoes to the distant trash can to push the mess deep into the bin.

My curse reminds me of early, culturally slanted humor from some Bennett Cerf book of my mother’s. As I recall it, two Scotsmen were staggering home after a few drams. One would stop by a streetlight every so often, bend to the pavement and stand up abruptly, angry and muttering. Finally, his companion could take it no longer and asked what was happening.  The reply was, “If I ever catch that that rascal that spits like a quarter, I’ll do him in!”

My yellow-bag tosser curse carries at least that much animus.

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Ted Went to the Root

August 26th, 2009

Likely lost in the rush to gush over Sen. Edward Kennedy will be his relentless passion and insight in aiming for the fundamental. That he shared with typical progressives — voters, pols and activists alike, something I’ve experience for good and annoyance in volunteer spots at UU churches, and traits that clearly differentiate him from his political foes on the right.

One cut on that was from the President. In his immediate emailed statement on Ted, he wrote, “For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts. ”

Underlying all those and more was that shared view. Liberals and progressives can seem slow and indecisive in going for the fundamentals.  Rather than a cosmetic or quick fix so often favored  by the other side, Ted went to identifying and working for solutions that permanently changed and improved big situations.

In this, Ted Kennedy typified a good progressive in:

  • Refusing the comfort of inertia (like separate-but-equal facilities from the previous era or insurer/drug-company oligopoly of today).
  • Diagnosing the root causes of big problems and their effects.
  • Foreseeing and detailing short-term, mid-term, and long-term solutions.
  • Building political and public support for the necessary changes.
  • Doggedly pushing the solutions against opposition and with setbacks.

Ted understandably annoyed conservatives, reactionaries and the plain lazy and literal with his approach. Yet, he could not have accomplished anywhere as much without his eyes on the horizon and his mind on the details.

We’ll need another Ted Kennedy or two in his absence. We can’t be sure yet whether Sen. John Kerry can step up to Ted’s level of progressive dynamism. There must be another Senator or two capable though. They can’t emerge soon enough.

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Death to Fruit Art

August 22nd, 2009

A seminal shift to Haymarket regulars this year has been the loss of flats of strawberries. Coupled with the disappearance several years ago of fruit and vegetable carton labels, the old ways continue to peter out.

This week, I finally asked a vendor on Blackstone Street when we’d see flats of berries again. He and I have had a casual relationship for 30 years and he was his usual frank self. “Never. They’re gone,” he said.

It seems supermarkets have squeezed berry farms and distributors. They’d rather have wasteful and unnecessary clear plastic boxes. Those stack easily and perhaps as important keep the customer’s hands off picking, shifting and, well being consumers. He added that he hears they want to get rid of cardboard boxes for veggies as well.

For as long as I recall, strawberries were available in overfilled green plastic baskets. At the Haymarket, you could buy six (half flat) or twelve in a box. Actually, in my summer country days as a child, berries came in wooden or reed baskets of pint, quart, half-peck and such.

fuit labelWorse for an alter kaker such as I, the dwindling, then stoppage of the flimsy wooden fruit and vegetable boxes a few years ago meant no more artsy labels. Those had been around since before I was born and were trivial art, for free, that I had long enjoyed.

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I have several dozen of them I brought home from the Haymarket over the past few decades. Sometimes I’d pick up a produce box and load my Saturday treasures in it. Other times, a label would call out to me from the rubbish heap behind the back row of vendors.

Now, I suppose those are merely artifacts and I won’t be picking up any more from the trash. I have enough of a store of such cheesy commercial art already. Yet, art in the mundane is so often a pleasant surprise, I regret losing another source.

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9/10th of a Loaf

August 18th, 2009

Dinner two nights ago with some charming friends in their South End garden condo brought the expected — satisfying food and drink — and a little cycling surprise. The advent of cycling lanes there brought carping from the riders.

She attended the August 4th public meeting to discuss the pending re-striping from Melnea Cass to Dartmouth on Columbus by September. I could not, as we were in the agony of packing for the suddenly accelerated move from JP to HP.

I thought it was in great hands and mouth and mind, regardless. City Bicycle Coordinator Nicole Freedman was up front. She’s a real bike advocate and power behind our local cycling advances. However, six inches out of five feet seemed to have caused serious contention.

My chum works in transportation and shall remain nameless. I pass along her comments. Normally that would be hearsay. However, the South End News covered the indoor struggle over the outdoor improvement in a piece in the current issue.

My friend expected a love fest. After all, only recently the state and city had spit on us cyclists over Mass Ave. While the laws and regulations require adding accommodations for bikes and pedestrians whenever a road is rebuilt or even resurfaced. The governments weaseled out of bike lanes on the thoroughfare, claiming the plans had been grandfathered before the new regs.

Yet, you squeeze your bike down Mass to the Harvard Bridge to find bike lanes across and then stretching ahead in Cambridge. Clearly, this ploy goes against needs, safety and the current rules. In that way lawyers and engineers can claim literalness over reason, the state and city told cyclists not only where to go, but to get there at their own risk.

So, I too figured the South End wheelers would be pleased if not delighted at the new lanes. Not so.

Many objected to the moderately dumb decision to give parked cars 7.5 feet and cyclists 4.5 feet. To non-cyclists be aware that cars need from 5 to 6 feet and that standard bike lanes are 5 feet wide. The cyclists had an excellent point that we should set the standard with the normal lane and not nibble bikes into traffic. Drivers should simply have to park in the lines as the present law already requires.

Also for non-cyclists, being doored is more what this is about than cars passing in the same direction. A few cyclists around here die annually and many are injured by gormless parkers throwing wide their street-side door without looking. While that is against the law in general and with stronger new cycling statutes, police are notorious about not bothering to enforce such reckless behavior. They are wont to call it “an accident” and save the paperwork and court appearances.

With all the stomping and yelling by drivers whenever cycling arises in the press or orally, a main point of the anti-2-wheelers is that police should catch and punish every moving violation. That’ll show those arrogant Spandex bums.

What’s missing there is the two-pronged reality of cars. Not only are they inherently vastly more dangerous, but at least around here, their drivers’ violations are non-stop — red lights, crosswalks, tailgating, speeding, threatening drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike with the vehicles.

It may be true that if Boston cops began enforcing state traffic laws we’d have a safer and much more pleasant city. It is also certain as cops claim that they’d have time for nothing else. At least until the paper flood slowed and the courts eventually unclogged, getting to safe would be the kind of cultural upheaval that we have not seen since the American Revolution.

Drivers are hell set against giving up anything. That would include parking spaces (many major European cities just take whole streets of parking and convert them to pedestrian and bike paths). They would love for all those other drivers to disappear, without having to give up anything themselves.

So it was with the cyclists two weeks ago at the discussion. They railed against the 4.5-foot bike lanes instead of 5-foot ones.

One more secret to share with non-cyclists is that there is considerable debate about how safe such bike lanes are. A substantial number of bike advocates contend that shared roads make more sense if the cities won’t clearly separate bike lanes from doors and traffic.

Regardless, Freedman said and I believe that a real value of bike lanes is visibility. The obvious reality of more cyclists along with marked, dedicated lanes makes it plain to drivers that they must share the road.

Even in Cambridge, there is informal accommodation, certainly by cyclists and police. For one, the Mass Ave bike lanes in many places should be called UPS/Fedex parking lots. Package trucks often force cyclists into motor vehicle lanes, slowing everyone as well as increasing risks to riders. Yet, business must continue and we cyclists use our mirrors and hand signals while bypassing the big, old trucks. Cops likewise give the guys in brown and blue reasonable time to drop off their boxes.

Yes, the riders at the discussion are literally right and the city should positively give a full 5-foot lane there. Yet, I’m with Freedman’s larger view here. If 9/10 of that sets the tone in the South End, it is net positive for everyone.

The ideal should be truly separate bike lanes, isolated from walkers and drivers. Short of that, the standard 5-foot lane is in order. The 4.5-foot version is okay…for now.

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Who Ya Callin’ a Boston Driver?

August 13th, 2009

Just as Boston’s mayor and bicycle czarina are working at reducing cars with their pollution, street clogging, noise and mayhem, bike hate seems never to have been stronger. Moreover, after almost being hit a couple of times by clueless cops by BPD HQ, I sent a letter about it to the commissioner. It’s more business as usual all around.

Today’s Globe op-ed is a poorly executed (pardon the pun) humor piece on terrorizing and maybe murdering cyclists. They deserve such treatment because they, each and all, are reckless scofflaws. Moreover, biker riders dare to follow the laws and regulations in taking a lane as needed for safety, thus making the writer slow down before passing. The noive, as Bugs Bunny would have said.

Jolly cyclingIf you haven’t noticed the pattern on our shrinking broadsheet, the op-ed editors have enjoyed printing what they seem to see as provocative commentary. These tend to be socially conservative and contrarian. A little out of the mainstream, a little rude, and a bit apart from the stereotype of the editorial writers’ alleged liberal work make a good column candidate. The combo seems to be intended to spark reaction and thus readership.

Well, traffic enforcement and driving etiquette are light and vague here. The police seem to follow the no-blood/no-ticket guideline. Feigning that they are solving or ready to prevent murder and other major crimes, the police watch countless drivers and many cyclists do as they will.

There’s little point to the moot and pissant arguments about whether car/truck/bus operators or cyclists are more likely per capita to run a red light or do something else dangerous. We can read the hundreds or thousands of comments whenever there’s an article about cycling. We do know a couple of results though: 1) death and injury by motor vehicle are extremely common and by cycle extremely rare; 2) many motorists are furious that the laws provide the same rights and responsibilities for cyclists as drivers.

It’s the old somebody is going to get something I don’t syndrome. I anticipated that early this year when I asked one of my legislators, Rep. Willie Mae Allen, to introduce a bill letting cyclists slow down at stop signs instead of necessarily stopping. Several states do this and it gets the cyclist out in front of the driver, so the latter can pass safely and confidently. The literal and simple minded invariably respond that if cars can’t, why should cyclists, even when they hear the reasons.

Another aspect that shouldn’t startle anyone is that there are different rules for bikes and motor vehicles. For example, cars aren’t legal on bike/pedestrian paths and bikes (along with horses and pedestrians) may not use limited-access highways. Most motor vehicles require licenses to own and operate. They also have highly variable possible penalties for moving violations, while cyclists face $20 fines for almost any infraction. Cars and cycles are the same but different.

As a regular cyclist and pedestrian and driver, I have the same moot experiential tales as bike haters and bike lovers out there. I am bike friendly though.

I do figure that we should at the very least expect our law-enforcement officers to set an example for us, certainly in marked and stealth police cars. They don’t. They are terrible almost to a one. They tend to be Boston drivers, but Boston drivers who set the pattern for other Boston drivers. Why stop at that red light or before the crosswalk then the LEO doesn’t?


I gave up a long time ago on bike cops though. I shared the block for a long time with the original Boston bike cop of the modern era, Sgt. Mike O’Connor. In his family car and blue-and-white alike, he obeys the laws and regulations, even doing the unknown to other cops — signaling right turns. Yet when he was on a bike, he rode on sidewalks in business districts, went the wrong way down streets and more. He was always alert for crime prevention and I watched him in action. He had no qualms about pulling over a truck or bus and enforcing the law as he had none about chasing bad guys by cycle. I ended up coming to terms that he was a highly skilled bike cop who showed good judgment in his abuses on two wheels.I’m not at all forgiving of a cop in a two-ton Crown Vic running lights, failing to yield to pedestrians or cyclists, or tail gating. They have lights and sirens that they are required to use in the rare instances when they must hie to help. Being a plain old Boston driver should be forbidden when they are in a police vehicle.I wrote as much to Commissioner Edward Davis. He responded with what appears to be a form letter. Mine was likely not the first complaint he received about his officers on driving. His letter reads:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your recent letter expressing your concerns over driving habits by Boston Police Officers.I regret that you have had any unpleasant encounters, relative to traffic laws, with members of the Boston Police Department while travelling in the city. Certainly, all officers should obey the traffic laws, unless they have activated themselves for a public safety reason. This should be the case across the board. They all receive yearly mandatory training at the Boston Police Academy, in which motor vehicle issues are clearly addressed. In addition, we have increased our focus on accidents involving a department vehicle and have a review board in place to monitor driving.

Again, I regret your experience and hope that the actions of a few do not reflect so poorly on the entire agency and its members; most doing a great job and serving the city and its residents well.

Thanks very much for bringing your concerns to my attention.

In other words (nicely), buzz off.

He did not address my principle point that appeared twice in my letter. That is, the police set the tone for other drivers, so they should model proper behavior and set those expectations.

That honestly isn’t that hard. Friends and relatives have chuckled at me for such habits as signaling turns, lane changes and exits from rotaries. Davis would have it that his team of crime preventers and solvers hear annually about doing just such things. Those behaviors are common sense, they are safety, they are courtesy, they are the law.

In various article and blog comments, I see some complaints about Boston cops as Boston drivers. I urge you to jot down dangerous driving by them and let the concerned commissioner know. There is a feedback page on the city site. However, a note or letter would be more effective to:

Commissioner Edward F. Davis
Boston Police Department
1 Schroeder Plaza
Boston, MA 02120-2014

I’m sure he’d love to know the date and time, the car number or license plate, the location and the infraction. If you deliver it by hand to the HQ, be very careful. The cops going in and out of the BPD lot are Boston drivers.

By the bye, the RMV used to have an online and a mail-in version of complaint forms for dangerous drivers. These could lead to hearing and resulting tickets or even court appearances.

When my bookmarked link to that was dead, I asked the RMV through the state site about it. The response was:

Hello, Unfortunately, the RMV no longer holds improper operation hearings unless they are specifically requested by law enforcement. Thank you for using Will

So, it is all the more important that the head BPD guy get a better picture of the example his men and women set. He thinks that all but a few are model drivers. Is that so?

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How Many Halt?

August 12th, 2009

Surely my trivial enlightenment is akin to noticing your new car model everywhere. Since my leg break and prolonged recovery, I have noticed limpers everywhere too.

It seems more obvious in the naked. Slacks disguise mild claudication, but bare, you are there.

This is clear in the large men’s locker room of the West Roxbury Y and almost as obvious in the main workout and weight rooms, where little shorts are the norm. I recently sat on the SciFit machine and tallied the men, sorting into limpers and straight gait guys.

Nearly 35% limped to some degree.  Only a few had canes and only one of over 100 had crutches.

Are we a nation of gait enfeebled and I never noticed it until I was? Likely.

A quick search of ye olde internet didn’t give me anything definitive on percentage of adults who limp. I did find a considerable list of medical conditions that can cause asymmetrical anomaly of gait (if you have numbers, fill in the Wikipedia stub).  Everything from brain tumors to being a porker to injuries like mine can cause limping. The list is so long and variety, I’m surprised that we don’t all limp.

My father, whom I did not grow up with, limped and got a new knee. He earned that through decades of obesity. Unlike guys at the gym I know with new hips or knees, he was very proud of his. He convinced his surgeon to give him a sample of the replacement knee, which he kept handy in his own sort of natural history museum, along with a whale vertebra and a piece of tanned human scalp among other freak show-style artifacts.

In terms of research, I did run across numerous of those conditions with their own papers. For example, consider anterior hip pain. The American Academy of Family Physicians published a piece by the University of Washington’s Dr. John O’Kane that described it with wince-producing precision. He said that up to 40% of us 18 years or older have bilateral injuries. That could cause limping.

Thinking to the overlapping possible conditions, we should be surprised that most of us don’t have obvious limps.

Anthropologists and medical types alike are wont to comment that humans were not built for walking upright. Yet we insist on doing it. I suppose you can say if you believe in the Genesis creation tale that you might have designed humans better.

It’s too late for that. The best I can hope for now is that the many of us with some limp become less obvious to me. It’s plain distracting.

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Furry Fairmount Hill Welcome Wagon

August 10th, 2009

(Does anyone anywhere still do Welcome Wagon for newcomers? We had a visit in 1963 in Plainfield, New Jersey, where in the history pamphlet among the goodies was the fact that an early name for the town was Pinchgut.)

We arrived from Jamaica Plain to Hyde Park in Boston with stiff backs, sweaty shirts and mental overload from our move. It’s not quite, not quite, an exile to exurbia after 21 years in my beloved Woodbourne.  We’re still in Boston, but we’re at the saggy bottom.

We did have our own greeter on the first full day though. Apparently gangs down here comprise individual and groups of small furry mammals. A squirrel invited himself in.

I noticed immediately as we began carrying things in the back as the movers lugged the heavies in the front that nearly all trash cans had a hole gnawed in the lid or even a side. We had squirrels, raccoons, opossums and skunks in Woodbourne, but they must have been more genteel than the HP crews.

The working can on the deck near the door had a lid with the hole  visible as I exited from the house, five feet away. That became crucial as the rodent surprised us both by popping out from his elevenses as I opened the storm door. In a fit of wide-eyed irrationality, he sprung toward me, past me and into the house instead of to the far more spacious and option-rich backyard.

I found him in the kitchen clawing at the screen above the sink. Then I chased him to the basement, grabbing a son’s walking stick on the way down the stairs. I closed us in the back room near the bulkhead while he scurried to the joists and clung, panting. I opened the door and the metal doors. He wouldn’t budge and was out of reach. I left him with the exit open for a few hours and returned to neither sound nor sight of him.

The next morning, it was human panic time. “Michael, there’s a squirrel in the dining room!” We opened doors and windows before I had to leave to drive one of the cost centers to work. The guest seems to have found daylight and trees.

We are just beginning to meet our human neighbors. I doubt I’ll have to worry any of them with a walking stick when it’s time for them to go home.

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