Archive for October, 2009

Too old or old enough?

October 28th, 2009

Tom MeninoSo Tom Menino is 66. That’s a famous highway. It’s also a typical obituary number.

With credit to his challengers and critics, few have made much of his age in this Boston mayoral re-election bid. To be sure his four terms and 16 plus years in office, the longest serving ever, have made the debates and campaign literature of those who would take his relative throne in the concrete castle. There’s an implication there that he’s old, but the thrust is too long in office.

Cross-post note: This is one of those rare cases that seems to fit here and at Marry in Massachusetts.

I would not be the first or even the 900th to note that in some European nations and typical Asian ones 66 is considered a reasonable age for a chief executive to take office for the first time. That’s supposed to bring with it maturity, wisdom, experience, knowledge, expertise, savvy and even statesmanship.

In last night’s final debate before next week’s voting, his age was the only humor safety valve in a tense session. He got chuckles answering about city workers in general, “I don’t believe in mandatory retirement.’” Pause. Laughter.

Yet, Menino is just a little older than the youngest baby boomer. Judging from print, broadcast and blog chatter, many younger Americans would just as soon that such oldsters toddle off to Cape Cod or wherever they can get to…right now.

It’s easy to see them corking up jobs while ignoring the boomer role in keeping Medicare and Social Security funded for WWII and Korean era folk, putting the Gen-X and Gen-Y kids through college, caring for elderly parents and even age protection in employment law. The media melodrama of the 50-something multimillionaire subset is much more, well, dramatic.

So, again, Tom is 66. Is that too old to be mayor? The would-be replacement, Michael Flaherty is no child himself. but at 40, he’d be a decade younger than Tom when he became mayor.

We don’t see Mike smearing Tom for his age nor Tom asking if Mike is too young to be mayor.

For sure, Mike and the challengers who fell in September’s preliminary had strong arguments for replacing Tom. He has been there so long he’s out of ideas. He’s so entrenched that development, schools and other key functions seem stagnant.

Perhaps it’s to our credit that being a year past the traditional retirement age for the previous two generations has not been a campaign issue. Yet, I think the laughter at Tom’s retirement remark is just one indication that we do have it in the back of our minds. We’re all adults here, but we know that 66 is not 40.

Tom isn’t giving any indication of age-related shortcomings. He is known sarcastically for his long memory (in holding slights) and seems to have great short-term recall.

Now, I’d like him to be healthier and have offered several times to go on long bike rides with him or cycle into City Hall together. Councilor Steve Murphy (himself 50-ish) joined me in that offer. As fond of his mountain bike as he is, Tom prefers to tool solo around his part of our shared neighborhood instead. Yet, even in physicality, he’s far from limited by being mid-60s.

Of course, some pols stay in office after age has bested them. I think of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose brain had, if you pardon, gone South long before he died a few months after leaving office at 100, a very old 100. His voters returned him repeatedly past his freshness date in a combination of sentimentality and the self-interest of having such a senior legislator with power.

I doubt Tom has another 34 good years in office in him or that Bostonians would be so emotional and accommodating to a failing politician.

Meanwhile, our mayor has astonishing energy and focus. A key staffer told me she had trouble keeping pace with him as he did his job and campaigned non-stop. She’s in her 20s.

I think Menino’s opponents were wise in not raising the age issue. It’s better that they stick to more saleable contrasts in how they would do this or that better. Too long in office? Maybe. Too long on the planet? Not yet.

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Paulie’s Bucket o’ Food Fun

October 21st, 2009

Simple things couples can do to reinforce their affection abound. I heard another last evening from the owner of James Gate in JP, Paulie Bryne.

I recall well when we had one, then two, young sons. With work and parenting, cleaning and repairing, cooking and reading, we were lacking. We didn’t have much adult time, much quiet romance time, much just-us humor, much leisurely meal time, much revel in each other alone together time.

We ended up contracting with boy sitters for a weekly or at least bi-weekly night out.  We could drag our sorry selves home from exhausting days, but we knew Wednesday evening was ours. We went out, just the two to a restaurant, theater or some variation. We might go out tired, but we were always glad for it and refreshed.

Bryne recalled that for me yesterday. I had met him casually before, as he and the chefs would greet diners at the table or door. Last evening was the first time I really spoke with him.

There for a meet-and-greet for at-large councilor candidate Andrew Kenneally, I had a little time with the owner when Andy introduced us. Of course, we talked food and booze, restaurants and bars, things Bryne and I seem to know a bit about. In the course of intercourse, I recommended Townsend’s in my new neighborhood.

Then he told me of his variation on date nights. He and his girlfriend keep a dish (I don’t recall whether it was a cup or bowl) as an aid. They write names of restaurants to try on slips of paper, toss them in and decide where to go by pulling one out a random.

That seems to add a dash of adventure to it, eh?

After talking Townsend’s and owner Michael Tallon for a bit, he said he’d short circuit the process this week and head on down. He said they’ve been meaning to check out some eateries in Hyde Park for awhile.

Apparently we arrived at a decent time. A week after we moved, Mayor Tom Menino and Councilor Rob Consalvo had the scissors out in Cleary and almost adjacent Logan Squares. They cut ribbons on five newish restaurants that afternoon. Townsend’s was not among those, having been open for over a year. Within a block though are a Mexican one, a Spanish one, and the South End-style The Hyde.

I like Paulie’s attitude about restaurants and romance. No matter how you decide, I recommend date nights. Romance isn’t just for teens.

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Discovered Tattoos

October 18th, 2009

Irony seems to have its own vitality, emerging suddenly. While I was commenting on the tattoos of others, for one example, a surgeon had loaded up my own version.

The day after the Deep Ellum session, I appeared at Brigham and Women’s orthopedic-trauma offices for my OK-now-get-lost visit. Having been eight months since surgery to repair my broken leg, the final checkup was to be sure nothing has gone terribly awry.

Having posted snaps of my comminuted fibula head and splintered tibia, I knew this was my chance to see whether the bag of rocks that was the thinner bone had tried to heal. I was sure that the tibia was growing plenty of repair material, but the fibula was just a bunch of jagged shards held together by the fascia around it.

On the previous visit, the very jolly and helpful resident surgeon assisting the God of Trauma had noted that they really didn’t care whether the fibula cohered.

“We are very disrespectful of the fibula.” He noted that orthopedic surgeons use the tibia for spare parts, lifting segments as needed to graft to weight-bearing and essential bones. He iterated that as far as they are concerned, it isn’t even necessary for me to function.

Two long-term friends, who are professional massage therapists and healers themselves disagree. They say they treat numerous clients with bad pain and such from the fibula-is-connected-to… kind of problems. That is, this allegedly non-weight bearing bone helps align the ankle and knee, and in turn femur and pelvis. If one bone is out of whack, it can twist the pelvis and spine.

From the surgeon’s point of view, I got my taste of that in the hospital. The operating team arrived at my bed a few hours after inserting a 14-plus-inch pin and five screws in my leg saying I was good to go. The leg was structurally sound and I could leave when I was ready.

That’s a very carpenter or auto-mechanic attitude. Shall we say, kindly, it is not holistic. There was a piece of metal keeping the leg from collapsing if I tried to stand.

I was on opiates and experieninge an elegant, sublime level of pain regardless of the mechanics. The room nurse overheard them and as they left (and I think within earshot), she said, “Fucking surgeons!”

For last week’s final, they had even less concern about potential problems.  I had taken my minerals and hit the gym like a Spartan. My bone growth in the first two months had been what they might expect in eight or ten. They didn’t order or want x-rays for the last look.

I don’t, can’t and won’t know if my bag-of-bones above my ankle is knitting. I choose to think it is.

For other issues, I asked about the discolored swatches on the left calf. The long, crescent contusion-looking areas have remained since the surgery.

Originally, the surgeons said that was collected blood cells that would resorb into the body. However, last week, the head of the group said they were permanent. “Consider them tattoos,” he told me.

I laughed aloud and told him about the pair at Deep Ellum. He said he lived in that neighborhood and would check them out, as well as the taps there.

Now I have a bit of a science project. A couple of weeks ago, one my massage-therapist friends was by and examined the leg. He has been following the progress since February.

He showed me a technique for stretching the skin around the discolored areas and inspiring the cells to move along. I’m already trying his method. I learned long ago that physicians, be they in the GP/FP/PCP/internist families or surgeons/specialists have large areas of ignorance. Some are defensive about not knowing much about nutrition or rehabilitation or the like, pretending that expertise in their areas means they know every damned thing. Others are open to different views and admit they can’t know it all.

So, it’s likely that Mark, the doc, or Joel, the body worker is right. TBD.

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Deep (Ellum) Diving

October 15th, 2009

No tattoos here — color me dull. On the other hand (and arm and waistline) color the tap puller/manager sorts at Allston’s Deep Ellum well tatted and proud.

Our regular gang of middle-aged swillers have warmed the stools and patio chairs there on and off for several years. We like to vary our establishment for new brews to us.

We think of Cambridge Common as the IPA paradise with prices one or two dollars a pint cheaper than almost anyone.  Redbones has its 24 taps, plus sometimes cask conditioned, changing the mix regularly. The Sunset a short distance from Deep Ellum has over 100 taps, where everyone can find three winners a visit.

Deep Ellum has much on bottle and plenty on tap, but centered on Belgians, which is not my favorite. Yet, they always have several wonderfully hoppy brews. In the main their shortcoming is outside — no provision at all for bicycles. You might luck on the single new post there for the bus stop. That by itself could inspire punks to trash your ride while they wait for the T. The abutting Walgreen’s has an iron fence that for the moment doesn’t have signs discouraging cycle locking. Apparently you are supposed to be a student in the area and walk to and stagger from the pub.

A remarkable sideshow is the tattoos that Max and Emily display, particularly in warm weather when their arms are bare, at least of clothing. I think I have it right that their skin decorators are at The Painted Bird in Somerville.  The designs are serious art and the colors are like the fish and coral you see skin diving in the Caribbean.

My adult introduction to tattooing was in the 1970s when I lived on East Third Street in Manhattan across from the Hell’s Angels. Several friends had itty-bitties that  one Angel or another had convinced them to endure in some drunken or drugged moment. At the time, they’d wrap cotton thread around a sewing needle and then dip it repeatedly into indelible ink as they punched holes. They would do maybe a flower or butterfly.

Again, color me dull. I pierced my ears long ago, but I have no permanent body art. Even my sister, who apparently will continue to be older than I has tattoos, as does her daughter.

I do admire the Deep Ellum moving art though.

Emily came in yesterday as though on cue. The barkeep at the moment said she did not have tattoos when I remarked that I recalled Emily’s. She added that her chum was about to have her left arm done too. Emily then showed up and showed off.

The outline of the work in process completely covers the arm from the shoulder through the wrist. Color is to come.

She said it all started because she fell in love with a tattoo artist. She asked him to give her a tattoo. It was an elaborate, and again very colorful, gird at waist level. They have kept company and he has continued to ink her. Her right arm is high art already.

She said previously there was a book in the works on her beau’s art and her tats will be included. After coming home, I searched and found a myspace site for her. That includes a few pix with the art, but doesn’t stress it.  Pity, it’s impressive stuff. If I ever decided to go that way, I’d definitely go to her guy.

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Sexist Artifact

October 14th, 2009

An intermittent of benefit amid the angst and tedium of sorting, packing and moving (and seemingly uncountable trips to Boomerangs). Unpacking can be like getting surprise presents — little rewards.

Yesterday in sorting old correspondence, I found a lost artifact, one I just knew had been tossed in my mother’s detritus from her overly stuffed garage after she died. Click on its thumbnail her for a larger view.The Helplessness of Women sketch

Journey back with me to the 1950s (if you weren’t alive then, pretend that something that doesn’t relate directly to you happened). Imagine a world in which my mother was a single-parent raising two kids without even the child support her ex refused to pay. Imagine that she would from time to time keep company with a man who asked her to dinner.

One such fellow, Allen as I recall, fancied himself as clever, hip (as the expression was) and manly. To me at 12 or 13, he seemed silly. Also, as a middle-aged guy who still lived with his widowed father, he didn’t seem like the best relationship material. Yet, from time to time he and his father would come over for a meal and some cards.

This was the modern-art and Peter Gunn era.  Today, we have our own safe-to-ridicule groups, like cyclists (particularly wearing bike shorts or fat people). Then, beatniks were fair game, as was abstract painting.

One evening, Allen took some of our ubiquitous art supplies (my mother, sister and I were forever drawing for Red Cross or school needs). He churned out the pasted piece, both to show his sophistication at satirizing modern art and to claim gender superiority.

My mother, Wanda, was astonished at his lack of observation and awareness. She was far more accomplished and self-sufficient. Indeed, among the helpless in the room, Allen was singular.

Come to see this oddity in my files, I seem to recall that she tossed it, maybe before he even left. It was his ticket out and I don’t think we saw him again.

My mom was many things, but helpless was not one and neither was accepting denigration of her gender.

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Munich West Via Galway

October 11th, 2009

Nothing like a blustery fall New England day to be in Germany or Ireland or Massachusetts…wherever. In an incongruous melding the Blue Hills Brewery continued its beer-related theme fests today in Canton. So, this was an Oktoerfest at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton.

Other than being the available facility directly across from the Brewery on Route 138, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet in its exuberant and timely way (Oktoberfest just finished in Germany), it worked.

It was not widely publicized. I learned about it first from a sign on the dreary industrial storefront of the brewery. A chum and I really enjoyed their IPA at the Sunset in Allston a couple of weeks ago. The barkeep there wasn’t sure where the Blue Hills Brewery would be when I asked if that would be Canton. When I looked it up and found that it was at 1020 Turnpike #3B, I realized that I had been biking by it many times.

I looked and had to turn around and track it. #3B is one of a row of sad little enterprises in a weary industrial park just above Stoughton. It has a German shepherd sized plastic sign bolted to the outside. Nonetheless, they make a grandly hoppy IPA.

This afternoon, I tooled down to my first visit to the Irish Cultural Center…for an Americanized Oktoberfest.  The short of it is that I had a fine ale, poor conversation, a wee bit of amusement, and a chance at the portolet before getting back on two wheels.

I confess, I didn’t stay for the highlight of the afternoon, the keg toss. They were looking for a new champion too. Hey, I’m a bruiser. Maybe I could have been a champion, could have been somebody…

Regardless, chaps from the brewery were selling tickets for the edible and potable offerings — $5 for either. The four company offerings were on tap, although I knew I wanted the IPA and only one because I was biking another 20 or 30 miles afterward. At the food bar were a variety of knackwurst and bratwurst offerings.They appeared huge too, and a bargain in the world of mystery meats.

The crowd of 150 or so were largely 20 somethings, with a few old guys my age and maybe 10 wee ones. They heard an oompah band as well, although many huddled around the big screen showing the Sox game.

I did listen and no one appeared to be anything other than Irish-American. That’s certainly the nature of the area and the center. Most, men and women, did not appear to be strangers to either brats or beers. There was lots of adipose tissue top, middle and bottom. A good time was being had by all.

Most surprising was the indifference of the brewery crew to the customers. I sidled up to the brewmaster and a minion at the ticket table for a chat. My brewer friends love to talk beer and the professionals are mindful that customers pay their salaries and keep their companies in business. These guys didn’t seem to care. They seemed to make no effort to mingle either, venturing down only for a keg hunt, wherein mostly lads scoured the nearby field for a sequestered quarter keg that would earn them five gallons of their choice.

To the ticket vendors, I mentioned that I had cycled down to locate their place, that I was inspired to attend the gathering today, and asked about brewery tours on their gift-shop afternoon or other time. They pointed to the table of tee-shirts and glasses and said there was nothing at the gift shop that wasn’t there. Talking to them was like punching dough.

I thought of Jim Koch at Sam Adams and how effusive and socially skilled he ls, how his love of his craft and product shine. You’d think that the ability to make good drink would come with higher developed social skills. It was only after my ride that I checked the net again to see that brewmaster Andris Veidis is from Newton, Massachusetts. That explains much. For around here, he was showing good manners.

As it is, Blue Hills makes a really good IPA and I’ll buy it again. I don’t know that I need to go back to #3B for the cold shoulder.

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Immortality, Boston Style

October 8th, 2009

Elihu Greenwood mugshotRelative immortality in these parts used to cling to landowners. Consider two artifacts — Paul’s Bridge and the Greenwood School.

In what seemed a period with a dearth of imagination, locals settled here with the titular trappings of their old digs. Boston, for an obvious example, and many settlements were English town names familiar to the newcomers. Then by the 18th and 19 Centuries, they progressed slightly to naming places and even objects for their own.

However, despite the assertion that in these parts it was what you know, not whom you know, it was in fact the wealthy landowner who got the honors. Imagine.

Down on what is now the Milton/Hyde Park line,  by 1784, the artfully constructed Paul’s Bridge had that name. It was not from some Revolutionary War hero with that first name. Rather, the nearby farming family with that last name owned the most land in the area. In the British tradition of kissing up to the wealthy, that family got this wee honor.

The Greenwood naming orgy (streets, squares, schools and more) was similar but had greater justification.  The 19th Century Elihu Greenwood (1807-71) was likewise a farmer, but a civic-minded one. He did part with tracts of land to advance the commonweal. A grateful then Dorchester, then Hyde Park and now Boston named this and that for him.

On the face of it, he appears in tiny bios in old books in the Boston Public Library social-sciences area only as a Dorchester school board member. However, the very helpful research librarian (I wish they had name tags; I must ask her to ID herself), knew where to find those bios, is herself from Roslindale and a student of that neighborhood’s history, and knew where the real goodies are online.

She pointed me to PDF files of The Hyde Park Historical Record. Wherein, Elihu’s sole child, Herbert wrote up a charming account of his dad in Vol. VI on pages 54 and 55. I lifted the mug above from the included plate image.

Elihu, I would note, is Hebrew for He is my God. Befitting such piety, the Elihu in question did not hoard his gold. As Herbert wrote:

He was a public-spirited man, especially in his actions. He, and a friend of his, Mr. John Weld, of Jamaica Plain, were instrumental in having the County Commissioners lay out what is now known as Harvard and Hyde Park avenues from Fairmount avenue to Forest Hills ; in order that this should not fail, he gave all the land required for this across his farm from Westminster street to the brook this side of Clarendon Hills. He also gave one-half the land for Metropolitan avenue from East River street to Greenwood Square. He donated fifteen hundred dollars toward the erection of the Baptist church, and was one of the building committee of the same. A few years after his death his widow donated eighteen hundred dollars to the Methodist Church. The Greenwood School, Greenwood Avenue, and Greenwood Square, were all named in honor of him.

So, we can probably infer that if you want relative immortality around here, amass some property and then give a good portion of it for the public good.

So remember though that even the finest monuments have real tenures of only hundreds or thousands of years. You’ll be long gone…but immortality?

Better we should recall Shelley’s most famous sonnet, Ozymandias, which includes:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

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Explode or Erode

October 6th, 2009

Clichés attacked my brain yesterday while lifting weights. Those who knew me young will find that itself amusing, as I did not lift in my teens, in fact not until I was in my mid-50s, long after any bulk-up effects would ensue.

At just 15, my wrestling coach ordered those of us under 16 to keep off free weights and use push-ups and sit-ups instead. They were the way he got his own steely bod. The next year, I started my swimming career, in which the coaches opposed such muscle-tightening. Meanwhile, I developed with a million or two breast strokes.

When I had a big disk (L5-S1) pop into my spinal column, I began lifting as rehab. It helped keep the blood pumping around the renegade disk to resorb (dissolve) it, thus avoiding risky surgery. I did that for a couple of years, then didn’t and just started again at twice a week for upper body. I get plenty of leg work with cycling and hiking.

With that setup, I come to the clichés.

I grew up very WASPy, with pretty standard Boomer ethics. While our WWII parents often urged behavior they did not model, one regular message was that vanity was unmannerly and self-indulgent. I bought into that and in fact, my mother and her parents also acted accordingly.

Yet with my weight loss following my tib/fib fracture and related changes, has inspired me to look a bit. I am trimmer than since I began college, plus I keep tabs daily or weekly on blood pressure, weight and body fat percentage. I have a machine for each.

My trim trouser set is back in play. I might have tossed them a few decadumbbell workdes ago but am doubly glad I didn’t. Now I have new clothes, plus my ego is pleased enough to keep me monitoring my girth.

So yesterday, I was in the dank (two working sump pumps all the time) dungeon of the West Roxbury Y for my bi-weekly strain fest, 46 minutes of arm and chest thingummies. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and let myself look.

One of the lifts is lateral dumbbell raises. As I finished, I saw that even on an old man, some muscles had changed a cut. The backs of the triceps brachii were evident. Moreover, sitting on the bench, I noticed that the delts rippled with definition.

Suddenly a philosophical question ensued. What would be sadder, for a tuned body to just stop, say car wreck or heart attack, or for it to wither and dissipate with age, disuse or disease?

In turn, the now rampant chestnut of when an elder dies, a library burned leapt to mind. That’s often attributed as an African proverb (of dubious provenance,  allegedly inspired by Caesar’s accidental destruction of the library at Alexandria). It’s still a powerful thought. Most of us do acquire knowledge, skill and judgment from repetition and correction if not native intellectual power.

The ultimate personal injustice of life is that death halts it all and the unrecorded and un-transferred treasures of mind go into the ground or melt in the crematorium’s heat, figuratively at least. We can pretend that each of us continues to be curious, keeps reading and analyzing, adds to instead of just reinforces our knowledge and sensitivity. Thus, death is a shared sadness beyond the emotional toll on the survivors. Humanity and its intrinsic store lessens a tiny bit with each corpse.

Being my mother’s son, I seldom allow such wallowing in self-absorption and admiration. I forgive myself this time only because my body changes in the past seven months have been profound.

Just after the long glances yesterday in the Y, I thought of dancers, yoginis and athletes I know. Many maintain a fluidity of motion and remarkable muscle tone over decades of human weathering and ripening. I am the equivalent only with aids — in the pool or on a bike. Yet, here too, those trained bodies parallel the discriminating and educated minds.

A Shared Sadness


Alas, through vicissitudes of age, illness, indulgence, lassitude or accident, the finely carved muscles become indistinct as surely as the failing mind. So, to the question, is the sudden or inexorable disintegration a greater sorrow? As long as we are rhetorical, does it even matter or does simply the demise or erosion stand alone?

The answer from my old and trained Protestant ethic would be that letting oneself go would be the worst.  It would be a failure of will and duty.

That involves a level of guilt and moralization I subscribe to no longer. People who are very fat or very thin are should not be a moral issue. Instead, blame and ridicule should fall heavier on those whose minds stagnate from repetition, be it golf or TV.

Let us each stay toned, certainly inside and perhaps out, as long as we are able. Each of us should live as though we expect all who know us or us to be to sad when our treasures go.

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A Little Dying in the Death Biz

October 2nd, 2009

While not in the habit of pointing to a single link, I learned several things from the Financial Times piece on tough economic times in the funeral biz. It dumped the stereotypes and clichés I was quick to assume.

We all know every industry has suffered from the deep, prolonged, worldwide recession. So, the funeral one will have lower profits as consumers bargain shop even final expenses for motionless loved ones, eh? It’s not so simple.

Operating earnings of the industry’s four giants are down 10% to 38% since May. The average of about $10,000 for burial with plot continue to go down. (The FT notes that this expense is third after house and car for most families.)  Yet, the profit drop does not come from dickering over caskets and flowers.

Instead, pre-need planning now includes comparison shopping (even to getting the box from a big box store, like Costco).

This still-alive purchasing has long been great cash flow in the death biz. Think the invested float AMEX keep from all those unspent travelers’ checks.

The industry expects a heap of funerals after its death trough too.  Lots of us boomers should be dropping left and right almost simultaneously. Yet my generation favors the much cheaper (like 50%) cremation, which the industry projects to go from the old 4% to the current 35% to an expected 60% of corpse resolution.

Meanwhile, there’s been lots of consolidation and M&A in the biz. Investors see the big changes and have been doing their own bargain hunting, but for companies not caskets.

The FT points to the possibility of upscaling and fashion/status marketing. It says new opportunities are there in fancy urns and even “the opportunity to have artificial diamonds made from love-ones’ ashes.”

It did not deal with our thought here of green burials.  Rather than bury a multi-thousand dollar casket to rot with the body, this— in the few places available — goes for a pine or paper box and no embalming cost. It’s returning to the earth and so forth that most humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years quite nicely.

In Massachusetts, there’s no law, only industry pressure, to keep greens from happening. There is no cemetery yet that allows it. Some of the big ones are considering it. A few New England states have such facilities. They’re on the way and will likely take more of the sting out of death, at least for the survivors.

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Praising Needy Volunteers

October 1st, 2009

Likely more than most, I was a volunteer before I had the volition. My mother ran Red Cross chapters. By elementary school, I was folding appeal letters and stuffing envelopes, graduated to hand tweaking mimeograph sheets with a stylus and then running the wondrous flier maker, and even playing the victim for first-aid classes.

On a pedestalMy volunteer line has few interruptions and certainly did not stop when I left my mother’s apartments. As a child and adult, it has been church, professional associations, civil-rights and other political groups, and of course teaching swimming and first-aid myself.

All of that is to say that there are reasons I am astounded by two attitudes. One is the adult who grew up in a non-volunteering household and is content to sit before a TV or computer nights and weekends doing nothing that I think of as worthwhile. The other is the needy volunteer.

I am not either of those. I have known many though. In my UU church work and professional association stints, I met and dealt with those for whom no amount of praise and honors is adequate. Each act of volunteering requires constant affirmation.

Some friends at my professional group (the Society for Technical Communication) had giggles at my expense at June’s end-of-year meeting/dinner thingummy. We always gang our mentions of and hand out certificates, plaques and such to those who gave energy and time over the year.

This time, I got one of the special awards, the Spirit of Volunteerism one. It’s a much lower key version of the lifetime achievement Oscar. I had been on a six-year leadership ladder, including the presidency of the Boston chapter, but I found getting the sculpture and honorarium embarrassing.

My mother taught me to let volunteers take credit for things, even if they were not the originator or driver for them. She also taught me to praise the volunteers while deflecting attention from myself.

What a Good Boy Am I


I thought of this very recently when we moved Boston neighborhoods. The fellow of the couple who owned the house was a needy volunteer. I was pleased to hear that he was also a cyclist, but puzzled by a few things. First, he only rode from late spring when it got warm and only to prepare for the Pan-Mass Challenge, a three-day ride to raise money for cancer research.  For maybe nine months, he didn’t ride. I try to ride every day it isn’t sleeting, snowing or pouring rain. He instead seemed to ride for praise.

Second, he wanted everyone to know he does this to do good. He seemed inordinately proud of this, despite the many hundreds of others doing the same ride for the same purpose.

Likewise, packing for his move, he gathered up books he didn’t want to truck to Texas. When a bookstore would offer him only about $100 for the lot of six boxes, he took them to a local college, who incorporated them in a book fair. He says they said they got maybe $600 for his share. Again, he went on about how wonderful and clever he was to have benefited the school.

We didn’t bother to say that for years, we give our books like that as well as other valuable artifacts to Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain. Their money goes for AIDS research, but we don’t need a pat on the head for our small share.

Of course, praising volunteers has realistic and reasonable rewards for the organization. After all, by definition and custom, volunteers do not receive pay for their work. In that sense, praise is in lieu of salary. Public acknowledgment in a newsletter, at an awards ceremony and orally in front of others is the right things to do in any case.

The problems come when volunteers get self-absorbed, self-righteous or demanding. On the cash end, a couple at my professional society said they would only help if they got a discount on their membership dues, in other words, money. On hearing that, a long-term board member sneered and said that perhaps they should look up the definition of volunteer.

You Can Fire Volunteers

More commonly though, emotionally needy volunteers want figurative head pats and to step on pedestals for doing what the rest of us do as a matter of course. They can be very high maintenance. These characters want constant and repeated recognition of their service and are not at all shy about telling everyone else how wonderful, kind, generous, wise, and philanthropic they are.

We didn’t see a lot of that in the Red Cross. There, a typical chapter has many hundreds of volunteers in blood drives, disaster preparedness, teaching home nursing, first-aid or swimming, motor service to ferry folk to care facilities and on and on. There, helping others seems to be its own reward.

Churches, on the other hand, seem to swell the ego and open the need gates for many. As well as ad hoc and committee service, I chaired committees and boards at UU churches. While our congregations have a great concentration of do-gooders and sincere volunteers, some constantly leap over that boundary into look-at-me land.

There must be theories about what makes some need effusive praise for what others do quietly.

When there is much to do as in many social activist churches, some volunteers are just too high maintenance. That can be unfortunate from many angles. I can recall music, social action, worship and religious education groups with praise hounds. That is amusing at a low level, and thus forgivable. Cranked to the extreme though, it can be a distraction to ministers, staff and committee leaders. When your hands are busy holding another’s, clapping, or patting their backs, you can’t do your own work.

In the past decade or so, I have seen numerous articles about how it is right and sometimes necessary to fire volunteers. Often, a minister or committee chair can detour the worst offenders into special projects or roles where their interaction with other volunteers is less. On rare occasions though, there is the painful message often best delivered by a minister that they are not working out and need to step back for a bit.

If committee chairs and staff have to stop constantly to praise and honor the neediest volunteers, someone with a larger, wider view might be assigned to those volunteer jobs instead. Recruiting folk is always a chore, but intense management of the most distracting is more of one.

On the other side, then District Executive Tim Ashton of the Mass Bay District dealt with us at the Arlington Street Church in his extremely respectful and pleasant way. Behind all that was a candor that made his an effective manager and pilot.

ApplauseOne thing he taught us while we transitioned from Victor Carpenter through Farley Wheelwright into Kim Crawford Harvie during the interim ministry was to praise efficiently and with purpose. He noted that the ASC volunteers didn’t have enough fun often enough. He said we were far and beyond the most socially activist church in the district, but we were too focused on all that needed to be done and not on what we accomplished on the way.

Rev. Tim suggested that we regularly stop to celebrate. He suggested that committees also have gatherings for fun and mutual enjoyment, with no intention of conducting any business or setting more goals. He never once suggested catering to the neediest volunteers or picking individuals to praise.

Yes, volunteers deserve thanks. No, they should not require that everything and everyone join in praising them for every deed.

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