Archive for March, 2010

Harvesting Bitter Fruit

March 31st, 2010

Bastardized Harvest LogoBeware of organic privilege!

My brief visit to the JP branch of Harvest Co-op may properly belong in the Weekly Dig‘s Cruel World section. Quite literally every contact with other customers was crazy hostile, entirely on their parts, while my interactions with the staff were pleasant and mannered.

I was just on Centre Street for one thing and was in no hurry. I do enjoy my steel-cut oats (a.k.a. Irish oatmeal). Harvest has it in bulk at considerably less than McCann’s in the tin, sold in Whole Foods and some big supermarkets. A bulk pound at $1.59 does a lot of breakfasts. Moreover, today when I arrived, I was surprised and pleased to see it was on sale at 89¢ a pound.

So, early afternoon…low traffic on the street and in the aisles…New Age/do-gooder store… It had the trappings of an easy, pleasant moment, and unremarkable one after days of fighting the basement floods.

Instead, I stumbled into a zoo of self-indulgent, self-righteous twits. As a co-op venture, the Harvest’s staff likely were volunteers, doing their hours for the discount. Again, they were super as always. The customers, on the other hand, were mannerless monsters.

One followed me to the bulk-food area. I was writing 370 (the oats code) on the twist tie as the store requires. Harvest must have lost a lot of those sub-10¢ stick pens because they had their two on six-inch strings. In the few seconds it would have taken me to write three numbers, a hand and arm jutted in front of my eyes and bumped my arm.

A clearly very important, very impatient woman said, “I’m getting a bag!” She did not go to the clear side of me to take one off the reel without interrupting me. She did not say anything else, certainly nothing resembling, “Excuse me, may I get a bag?” Of course, had she done that, I would have had time to have written 370 and been gone. In fact, she did not wait two seconds. What she had to do was the most pressing task in the building.

In contrast, after I got my bag of oats, I turned to head to the registers. A staff member was stocking the lip balm area and had almost entirely blocked passage with a small wheeled cart of inventory. He immediately apologized, but I said I was sure I could get by and he shouldn’t try to move anything. I did sidle past and we had a pleasant interaction with swapped smiles.

Only one of the three registers was open. I was the next person after a customer buying lots of chicken broth (apparently also on sale). I waited near the register, but not crowding anyone. There was room behind me for two people to pass each other…or so solid geometry would imply.

Instead, I got a huge whack in the ribs as a customer came from the deli area, almost passed behind me and pirouetted to turn. She had one of those trendy, overpriced canvas briefcases with leather trim. It was filled with papers or something else bulky. While there was no way she could not have been aware that she clumsily slapped into me hard, she didn’t apologize or even acknowledge my presence. She tucked the bag closer to her and headed up to the dead-animal display cases (beef, chicken and fish that would be).

At my turn, the clerk was cheerful as well as efficient. She seemed mildly pleased that I would not take a plastic or paper bag to put my bag of oats into afterward.

Then on the way out, a young mom with a wee one in a stroller headed to the store as I was leaving. She saw me and suddenly switched from the entrance door to the exit one where I was. Instead of being in a position of exiting and immediately coming behind them holding the entrance door for her and her snowflake, I was stranded by the outward-opening door and unable to leave or help.

She may have been spatially challenged and not raised by wolverines. On the other hand, she may have been one of the many, many parents who seem to figure if they are armed with a tot in a stroller, everyone else be damned!

None of those three grobers, as my Yiddish speaking friends would peg them, got to me. I won’t bother with Cruel World, as I don’t feel oppressed by their uncivil actions.

How is it though that they could be by my estimate 40, 56 and 23 and devoid of common courtesies and so fail to be the moment to not be aware of their schmuck behavior? None of them seemed equipped with such niceties as excuse me, may I, thank you, or please.

I don’t think this is necessarily organic-food store shopping behavior, although the lefty haters at FoxNews and such like to depict all of us who’d buy such things as steel-cut oats at Harvest at effete.  Also, as I am aware from the Harvest staff, not everyone in JP is without breeding.

I confess that I bemoan the combination of geography and mores of these times. Those of us who grew up in regions and during periods of courtesy struggle a bit. It has been difficult to raise three polite children in the last couple of decades in New England. Visitors from Europe and the rest of the country regularly express surprise at what is acceptable behavior in Boston. Amusingly enough, locals here like to proclaim that it is those New Yorkers who are rude.

I can’t even waste a curse on those Harvest customers. After all, they and their familiars already have to be around them. That should be punishment enough for them.

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Cardinal Pitches Wholly Holy

March 31st, 2010

Every priest a saint…right?

Well, to listen to local Archbishop, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, all that will take will be some focus.

Keen. Foolishly I had thought it might be time 1) to take legal and moral responsibility and 2) to rethink that father-come-lately mandatory celibacy thingummy.

However, at least the message he delivered to hundreds of local priests in his Holy Week homily was that even with proof that thousands upon thousands of their number are linked to child abuse and in a few cases heterosexual adultery and fornication, they can each and all live lives of holiness.

Cynicism aside, I note that he was a couple of steps above the simple-minded just-say-no rhetoric about drugs and premarital sex foisted on teens for decades. He had specific, detailed steps. Those include the three-part plan of:

  • Annual personal retreat “for silence prayer, and spiritual direction, and a review of our life.”
  • Supporting and holding each other accountable in regular activities.
  • Leading a balanced life.

Unfortunately, that balanced life is heavily edited for the priesthood. It does not resemble the self-help and development that has worked for billions of non-clerics for centuries. Instead, according to that Boston Globe recap above, that would instead be “setting aside at least an hour a day for prayer and meditation, allowing time for sleep and exercise, eating properly, and getting regular medical checkups.”

One might note that this strategy does not mention a fulfilling emotional and sexual side to life. Under strictures of being married to the church and Christ, requisite celibacy and sublimation, the urges of hormones and the thoughts and feelings normal to nearly all of us are flat out.

For the many Roman Catholic clerics, as well as the parallels in a few other Eastern and Western religious groups, a pivotal ideal dominates. The superior practitioner transcends the physical and mental drives. In the R.C. priesthood in particular, the guys are supposed to direct their thoughts, feelings, energies and actions to the service of God, the Church and their parishioners (and sometimes their orders or specific causes). That’s supposed to happen all day, every day and to become that life of holiness.

Well, in the few centuries since celibacy became mandatory, that endless ideal seems to have escaped the capability of many, if not most, of this group. Forgive my incredulity, Cardinal, but a three-part strategy to refocus seems scant ammunition and weaponry in a relentless battle against very human needs.

Cross-post: This appears at Marry in Massachusetts.


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Color Me UU: 2 and New

March 30th, 2010

Good timing, Globe! A short feature today dovetails with my recent post on UU hand-wringing over lack of racial diversity.

After 378 years in Cambridge, MA, First Parish will have a Latina minister, Rev. Livia Cuervo. In a religious group striving to mix up its very, very white membership and very white ministry, that’s good. Unitarians founded and ran Harvard from the start, but has somehow fallen far behind in diversity efforts.

Cynics may ask:

  • What took so long?
  • How serious is this for adding her as an associate minister?
  • How serious is this for hiring a 72-year-old?

Don’t sneer too long. The parent UUA most recently elected an Hispanic, Rev. Peter Morales, to its presidency.  Plus, the senior minister in Cambridge is Rev. Fred Small, who is also a hippy-dippy style folksinger (pretty good and pretty well known IMHO). I have no doubt he wants to build on this choice.

UU v. US by raceUUs are actively trying to diversify. They seem to be doing better in attracting and growing ministers of color than folks in the pews. See this chart from UU data with the maroon being they and the blue all US church goers by race in 2008.

Rev. Cuervo is coming in with a good attitude at least. The Globe‘s Lisa Wangeness quotes her as, “This is really breaking the tradition — it’s big for everybody…I want to help them nurture the dream they have.”

From my experience in the UUA and in particularly with the Arlington Street Church, I’m looking to see whether this will translate into more Latinos coming to a not-necessarily-Christian and pretty white church.  I think back to over 20 years ago at the ASC when we replaced the standard UU minister (white, male, graybeard) with a young, very out lesbian adoptive mother, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie.

She was already well known in the LGBT communities around here as the minister at the P-town church. Very few of our members feared her presence might turn the ASC into an all-gay church; truth be told, we already had the reputation as the UUA chapel for the number of ministers and staff from HQ who worshiped there and we were already welcoming to all.

However, we were quite surprised in her first year at how many lesbian couples her ministry attracted, many adoptive parents and quite a few from Somerville. Most of those turned out to be tire-kickers as they say in the sales biz. When we asked those who stopped coming why, we typically heard that they’d rather sit in a café with the papers on Sunday mornings or that the 12 mile drive or subway seemed too much or that the kid’s classrooms were not nice enough for their children.

Rev. Cuervo might pack folk in by virtue of being a dynamite preacher, if she is. She might attract non-Catholic Hispanic worshipers. She might be just another good UU minister. Regardless, the calling was good. The effect and longevity are to be determined.

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No Gay 90s Spandex

March 26th, 2010

Granted plastics emerged during WWII and spandex in 1959. Yet, square modern cyclists with the 1890s version in Hyde Park.Hyde Park Cycle Club c. 1894

The embedded images are a few of the gems from the Hyde Park library’s archive room.  I’ll occasionally grab some history from there and cite it.

Pix click tricks: Click on a thumbnail to enlarge it. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back buttons or keys to return.

The history room has many document, map, photographic and bound periodical artifacts back to the early 18th Century life of HP as part of Dedham and Milton. Of great aid in familiarizing myself was a huge binder Historic Boston and intern workers created. These scans came from there.

Until I opened the binder, I was not aware that Hyde Park has one of the nation’s earliest and most active biking groups, the Hyde Park Cycle Club. Those stout lads at top are members.

Clothes aside, their bikes aren’t that dissimilar to today’s mountain or commuter versions today — if a little short on gears. That photo’s donor, Jim O’Brien of HP, annotated that photo, including:

  • Back row, second from left is John McCormick, my Mary’s grandfather.
  • Last one on the right is my grandfather, John Crowley.
  • His son was Msgr. Edward F. Crowley, teacher at St. John’s Seminary and pastor at Most Sacred Blood.
  • Two of their favorite rides were to Lake Massapoag (Canton) and Pearl Lake (Wrentham) .

I’ve done those rides, but I bet they are a lot easier on my modern road bike.

Hyde Park tandem cycists c. 1890

The binder has a few other bike images, including the two young men on a tandem. It also included a flier for a HPCC fund-raiser.

That was nearly 111 years ago, April 14, 1899. I’m not sure whether they were rowdy and the event unsuitable for ladies, but the entry for gents was 35¢.

Hyde Park Cycle Club fund-raiser dance 1899It was in Magnolia Hall, which does not appear on any HP map I could find.  However a turn of that century advertisement listed the halls in HP. Its address would put it where the present municipal building is at 1179 River, where Fairmount begins.

That’s now Logan Square, but was then Edward Everett Square, named for the illustrious politician, diplomat and educator, whose birth house was there.

The HPCC started in February 1886, according to Prominent Wheelmen and Bicycle Club Director of Massachusetts of 1894.It noted that Theodore Walker was the first president. The initial club name was the Hyde Park Ramblers.

They seemed to be active enough. For example, the spring 1892 Sporting Life newspaper reported:

HYDE PARK’S TEN-MILE EVENT.

The Hyde Park Cycle Club on Saturday afternoon held a ten-mile road race for three gold and silver medals, given by the Hyde Park Times and the Norfolk county Gazette.

The start was made from Everett Square, and the course was over East River street to dams street, Dorchester, and return to the tarting point.

Every member of the club entered and started. They got away in good shape on the second trial, and ten finished in the following order and time:

P. G. Alexander, 34m. 17s.; A. W. Corbett, 6m.; C. F. Corbett, 36m. 56s.; Otis Edgarton. 6m. 57s.; H. G. Andrews, 39m. 31s.; George Roundy, 40m. 30s.; J. F. Lovering, 41m. 18s.; H. Heydackter, 42ni.30s.; J. H. Porter, 45m. 0s.; F. H. Longley, 45m. 80s.

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Color Me UU

March 24th, 2010

A perennial source of Unitarian Universalist garment rending was an undercurrent last weekend in Brookline. The church there held a fabulous event that was an anomaly in several ways.

UUs do fret about many far too many subjects. Perhaps the greatest recurrent hand-wringing is over their incredible whiteness. Other Protestant denominations are also largely white, but UUs tally only  about 1% African American membership.

UU note: We refer to ourselves as an association and not a denomination. Despite both U and U’s Christian histories, our churches and church-like groups belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It’s OK to be a UU Christian, but it’s not the norm and disdain of Christians is an unfortunate UU habit in many congregations. It’s a reaction to the long-standing Christian dogmatic exclusion, discrimination and worse that have set the tone.

Musical Bridge

Well last Saturday, the Brookline church was not only nearly full, it had a more U.S.-representative share of brown and Black folk. It is likely that won’t happen again until there is another special event centered on an African-American person or project.

This dinner and concert double event celebrated John Andrew Ross. It was:

  • a fundraiser for the restoration of the organ
  • a project organized and produced by his recently late sister Paula Ann Ross
  • a soul-food dinner
  • a two-hour concert featuring superb jazz and gospel musicians and singers performing music John loved or arranged
  • a largely African-American musician evening, with minor exceptions like single numbers by the church’s junior and adult choirs

John Ross, who died in 2006, became the church’s music director in 1997. He arrived already justifiably famous as composer, producer, director, educator and on and on. He made his “Uncle Langston” Hughes’ Black Nativity into a continuing national phenomenon. He led the Emma Louis School of Fine Arts‘ music and founded its remarkable choirs. So for the last nine years of his life,  he ran music at the church. He quickly picked up the title Minister of Music there as well.

Throughout his professional life, his sister promoted and often managed his career. She continued after his death, culminating in this project. She worked on it until a couple of days before the celebration, originating the project, driving it to completion and seeming to die in her sleep only after everything was in place.

Prima facie, one might suppose that nearly a decade of his musical leadership, performances and presence would have attracted more Black visitors and members than a typical UU church gets. That’s not so and there are only a few non-white members of any racial or cultural background.

Diversity?

That is a UUA-wide concern and trait. Again, this is the kind of thing, we UUs think, talk and worry about. In this vein, a couple of articles that cover the numbers and issues appear in UU publications. Try:

Note the related articles in the sidebars to these articles.

Many Protestant denominations are perfectly content to be almost entirely white. They speak of people being more comfortable with what they know, with their own kind. That is true of predominately Black churches as well. UUs don’t let it rest at that.

For a religion that does not proselytize, UUs nonetheless seem flabbergasted that  more and more types of people don’t flock to membership. As a UU of over a quarter century and having been involved in the polity and politics of various UU churches, I recall my own experiences with this.

The first time I saw a UU church nearly full of Black people was when Rev. Victor Carpenter got his fariend Rev. Jesse Jackson to preach at the Arlington Street Church.  They arranged for the choir of one of Boston’s largest Black churches to sing. The church seats about 1,000, was filled and for once, white people were in the minority.

In the next several year, I heard that question repeatedly about what we needed to do to attract Black, Latino and Asian parishioners to the ASC. I served on various committees and ran the board for a few years, so the question was often plaintive and also demanding when I heard it.

We’d have reports from membership-committee folk who were frustrated. I asked and had others go to visitors and friends with the question. Many times, the answer as far as African-Americans was concerned focused on two aspects:

  1. Our music is comparatively stultifying with that in Black churches
  2. Our non-creedal/non-dogmatic churches did not offer Christ as lord and savior or even hold out promises and threats of heaven and hell

As counterpoints to these likely intractable problems, Rasor’s article on the subject includes:

Multiculturalism is not simply about numbers, of course. The Rev. Taquiena Boston, director of Identity-Based Ministries at the UUA, reminds us that “diversity alone is not the goal,” and that developing a genuinely multiracial and multicultural identity “must be integral to the larger mission and ministry of the congregation.” Or, as former UUA President William G. Sinkford put it, “the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded.”

I note for non-UUs that Sinkford is Black. Almost to a one, UUs tend to be inclusive. His skin color was not a problem. However, I heard numerous comments that mildly disparaged his overt Christianity.

The Possible

For music, yes, it’s true. I’m not very musical myself, but I can tell the difference. Our hymns are largely old Protestant tunes, with fine-tuned lyrics to enforce our openness and downplay God and Christ and lords over humans. Simply put, they don’t rock.

For the underlying beliefs, we in fact do not and never will push absolute answers in a dogma. Many people expect and need directive creed.

Instead, we have principles, which concern people and the larger world, and share the great goals and behaviors of many other religions. That is surely why many raised as Jews or Catholics are comfortable being members of UU congregations.

The cold fact remains that for many we lack the requisite trappings of what they demand from church. We may occasionally throw in some incense and sing old Christian hymns on Christmas Eve and Easter, but we can’t offer the music and dogma.

Thus, the UUA has just over 1,000 congregations and is likely to remain both one of the nation’s smallest religions and one of its whitest. I know that I am over fretting about what we can do to attract more members or even visitors of color.

I know that many of our congregations have a role as visitors to non-UU churches, as volunteers in community programs, and in co-hosting events. We get to know each other and our ministers often participate in social action and religious gatherings with those of other churches.

That’s gotten to be almost enough for me. I am certainly comfortable without dogma, but I would appreciate some snappier music.

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Not Yours!, Sayeth Librarian

March 21st, 2010

forbidden resources“Oh no. That’s not open!” a Hyde Park librarian told me with great conviction at as high a volume as her frail voice could reach.

This time, it was on the new neighborhood-history archive room. Not mine…hers…closed…go away were the clear messages.

Among the previous denials from this elderly bureaucrat at this library was my first visit there in August. After 30 years with a BPL card and 21 years with one linked to my Jamaica Plain address, I was in for a first visit. I went to the desk to update my street, zip and phone.

In her sincere and inimitably curt tone, she scolded me for even trying without current documents showing my address and phone. That it was an update to ensure they could track me down if they needed to and that it was a revised address and not a new card made no difference. Her implication was that she had an ironclad regulation requiring a current utility or phone bill from me. Otherwise, it seemed, who knew what might I be trying to pull.

Of course, I had updated credit cards, professional-society, voter registration and on and on on my say-so. Librarian No had different ideas.

Long ago, I had learned how difficult it is reason with a rules-are-rules types. Extreme literalists have a great need to believe they are following orders, procedures and the one right way. They check their brains at the door because they have their checklists.

The change-of-address was not a fight worth waging. I simply waited three weeks for bills to arrive and returned. Librarian No was comfortable looking at two bills and believing she had done her job the right way.

Last week though, she exceeded her reach. She decided that BPL and public resources were off limits. It was a little cute in a mother-hen way, but this was worth a battle.

My family was away at the end of last year when the HP history area finally opened as the Nancy Hannan Memorial Archive Room. She was a long-time head of the local history society and unofficial HP historian who collected great material from 18th, 19th and 20th Century people, events and buildings. Then Historic Boston Inc. and college interns worked with her materials (page 2) and others at the library to catalog, organize, scan and display centuries of HP historical artifacts and documents.

Librarian No Blinks

So, pride is understandable. Manufactured prohibition is not.

The librarian was firm that the room was closed, inaccessible, off limits. That made no sense and I stood my ground. Eyelash to eyelash, she blinked first. After repeating that it was closed, locked and inaccessible, she finally said that the head librarian might grant me access.

Down a floor was a librarian who seemed to think the BPL resources were, in fact, public. Mary Margaret Pitts is my kind of knowledge sharer. She simply grabbed the key.

It turns out that while there was an ESL class outside the locked third floor room, the staff did keep the door locked…when people were not using the archive. They have valuable, unique artifacts, photographs and documents that should not go missing or be unattended.

We elevated to the third floor and she opened it for me. We discussed Mrs. Hannan and her widower, Robert, who apparently is a bit of an HP historian himself and a likely source to answer some of my questions (Where and what was the oft-mentioned Magnolia Hall?  Was there any practical effect to the Boston City Council resolution granting the Readville section the nominal status of neighborhood? and so forth).

I had a good, informative time noising about the single room. It is about 10 by 16 feet I guess with display cases and file cabinets. There are old maps in evidence, some of the HP history publications compiled by Mary Hannan and old HP history periodicals.

HBI had assembled a remarkable binder with hundreds of scans from other photos and documents. It is a treasure to browse and I need to return with a laptop to use for making notes. I have several pages of handwritten ideas and details. I’ll be back.

For one, I need to learn more about the Hyde Park Cycle Club, one of the nation’s first in the late 19th Century. The HBI scans include article snippets and a great image of the sturdy fellows in the club and the program from their second social event. Online I can only find some sporting newspaper accounts of 10-mile races and such. I’m sure there’s more. It may be time to revivify the HPCC.

There is this hidden gem of history on the third floor of the HP library. Librarian Yes makes it possible to visit.

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Dell, Big Rock, Small Park

March 19th, 2010

Dell Rock flagHow many fully dressed flagpoles do you suppose have ever occurred naturally? Likely fewer than one.

Hyde Park’s own Dell Rock is:

  • A protected urban wild
  • Well, a rock, a big rock
  • A haven for littering drunks
  • A bastion of patriotism if its flagpole is a fair indication

After passing what appeared from Hyde Park Avenue to be a big rock, I finally visited today. It is more but not much more. There’s a fair history to this Boston neighborhood, as part of town as well as its own and before when it was part of Milton and Dedham. Yet, this large hunk of puddingstone does not figure in the history, there is no account of a battle of Dell Rock, and certainly no pioneers to the region used it for anything in particular, a landing or otherwise.

Dell Rock rock faceA scamper up the rough path (no steps and some slippery chunks to surmount) takes you to what is allegedly 40 feet above HP Ave. In the winter with no deciduous  foliage and the right weather, you can make out the Blue Hills, as you can from 213 or so other places in HP.

If you look down and around from the top, you can find specimens of various local plants. Again, that’s not uncommon, but what do you want from an urban wild, foxes?

According to the city:

Dell Avenue Rock consists primarily of a puddingstone ledge arising approximately 40 feet above Hyde Park Avenue. There are some outcrops near the top of the rock. The site is dominated by woodland, comprised of small and medium sized maples, oaks, cherry, and birch with sparse, grassy ground cover. This site provides a pleasant visual buffer along a busy, dense stretch of Hyde Park Avenue. Views from the top of the rock overlook the Stony Brook Reservation and in the winter there are views of the Blue Hills. The open, grassy areas on the lower portion of the site provide a quiet retreat for picnics or reading.

Its database of urban wilds lists this park-like-object as 0.6 acres, down from 1976’s 1.3 acres, the rest apparently nibbled by HP development of the neighboring houses.

However, it is not not without a fan. Anyone who likes urban rocks might contact Rob Villegas, who appears to be a one-resident Friends of Dell Rock. He seems a bit of a poet, who writes:

 …it offers a feeling of surprising remoteness—wild, vertical, and hardscrabble as it is. It offers little rocky or grassy spots on different levels with secluded views where one could read, picnic, or, unfortunately as some do now, break glass and leave trash. Apparently the sunsets from its peak are amazing.

We might suppose he’d actually hie himself 40 feet up at a sunset, but perhaps he’s reserving that.

LitterMeanwhile, I do see that there are often teens up by the flagpole when I pass by during the day. Judging from today’s visit, they or other HP denizens are up there of an evening as well. Loutish lads and/or lasses have decorated the hilltop with the remains, all the remains, of a 30-pack of Bud Light, plus numerous smashed bottles and flattened six-pack cartons of laced tea, and other beer cans.

We can set aside set aside what this says of their parents and upbringing. We can also not deal with what this says of the commitment and budget of the city for upkeep of this extremely urban urban wild.

However, Boston and private groups have not totally ignored Dell Rock. For example, in 2008, a person or organization called “The Dell Rock Neighborhood Association” received a $2,000 grant from The New England Grassroots Environment Fund “To develop the Dell Rock Urban Wild site to make it more visually attractive and simpler to maintain. Also to work toward the ecological restoration of the site by removing non-native species and re-introducing native species.”

Having not seen it from from the top before, I can’t testify how well he, she or they used thaDell Rock wildt $2,000. We can surmise that he, she or they have not made a career of it.

Yet, it wouldn’t be a bad spot for a picnic up top…after a couple hours with gloves and trash bags. In fact, maybe a word to a few can-deposit gleaners would clear out the 50 or so beer cans, leaving only the paper and broken glass.

The ground level with its two steps would be less desirable for a breather. It provides an up-close and very loud cavalcade of  trucks, cars and buses — very urban, but not so wild in the nature sense.

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Cyclist Makes My Morning

March 18th, 2010

Thank you, Campbell’s Soup Kid.

Today in a personal bike crisis at Ruggles station, I had a heartening moment with another cyclist. A really nice rider stopped to offer assistant. The effect was increased by her actually looking like one of those full-faced, pink-cheeked advertising cartoons.

I had been doubly stupid and deserved to be stranded, in all candor. Last week, I ran over some alien something that cut into a tire on my road bike and sliced the tube. I found it still embedded in the tread; it looked like a cat’s claw made of industrial ceramic.

After removing the object and changing the tube, I knew that I should trash the tire when I got home. I have several spares. I was too lazy or forgetful. Yet I knew deep down that the tire slash could let in other awful things from the asphalt.

Moreover, I was heading to Cambridge this morning for a tech writer’s meeting on agile development.  I was in bike clothes, but I swapped my regular, small bag for a full messenger one, which held shoes, dress pants and a nice shirt, along with cell phone, note bad, biz cards and on and on. I thought of everything…except my regular repair kit. You, know the one with the tire levers, spare tube, patch kit and so forth.

I’m good at changing tubes and had the rear tire off when I visualized my spare parts in my yellow bag in the basement. It was a real Homer doh! moment.

Although chilly, the sun inspired herds and hoards of cyclists headed to work or school. Dozens, maybe 100, whipped on by.  Jolly cycling

It was a no-bikes-on-the-T time. I reasoned that I might be able to lock up the bike, take the T to the meeting, and then return to find myself in the same fix. Instead, I accepted the situation and called my wife to come get me for the first time ever.

While waiting for her, I got the treat of cycling fellowship. Among the many passing, one stopped. She asked about my troubles and then offered me the use of her levers as well as a replacement tube.

She was all decked out in cycling clothes and a yoga mat was obvious in her backpack. She was not only willing to stop but would have taken the time to get me back on the road.

If she had stopped before my wife left the house, I would have done it and then gotten enough information to get her the spare tube back. Good on her.

I didn’t even introduce myself or get her name. She’s the considerate cyclist to me only. Again, good on her.

Not to be self-congratulatory, but I can say that I have done the same before, while this is the first time I got the offer myself. Particularly when I rode downhill bikes,  I had learned to carry two tubes. Those trail hazards can be nasty. A couple of times then, I found dummies in the Blue Hills and elsewhere with flats and no spare tubes.

Today, I was the dummy.

All hail to that cyclist. She has a good heart. In fact, I think I’ll tuck a second tube in my bag. I ride with one but it wouldn’t hurt to be ready for someone else.

Today, I’m feeling good about Bostonians.

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Churning Out Americans

March 16th, 2010

By European standards, 150 years is no big deal and it’s even a short term in Boston history. On the other hand, a group of nuns in South Boston have been ringing the school bells instead of waving crucifixes for that long. The Notre Dame Education Center has been about the business of staging immigrants to take part in this new-to-them nation.

Short-term, you can meet the NDEC folk and their supporters while tossing back a few at the same time. They have a Harbor cruise/fund raiser on the Spirit of Boston in a couple of weeks,  Thursday, April 8th. You need to reserve by Friday, April 2nd, to mingle with the sundry do-gooders who support the sisters. There’ll be no pitch for funds on board. You can get aboard at various price points.

See the details here, and remember the RSVP date has moved to 4/2.

I mention them for a couple of reasons. First for the disclaimer, a drinking buddy is their development director. Second, I did one of their morning tours to see what they are up to. I’ll tweet the next couple of those; they’re worth the 90 minutes.

Basically, the sisters and various staff teach newcomers and the not-integrated-into-the-U.S. what they need to know…without religious overtones. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic or any sort of religious type nor even live in Boston or its South Boston neighborhood. You do need to get the language, civics and communication skills to move yourself up and plug into America.

See their programs here.

Some of us seem to like the ideas of building literal and legislative walls to keep any and all immigrants out. These plain-clothes nuns are about the business of helping those who are here become productive Americans. I know which side I fall on in this one.

Gaping Maw of School Cuts

March 12th, 2010

Color me skeptical. At last night’s Boston schools budget hearing, the big shots weren’t talking and ranting or begging students and parents may have been bellowing into the wilderness.

As City Councilor John Connolly so candidly described it, the details of the school budget are fungible. He is in his third year of the messiest job on Council, chair of the education committee.  He admitted he didn’t get the big and small pictures on his first go and that he was too gentle and accommodating on the second. He thinks he may get it right this time. He’d better — this year and at least the next two are ones of triage.

We’re in the middle of a seven-week sprint. The Boston School Committee must present a balanced budget by the last Wednesday in March, working with figures their bank, that being the city, provides. At about a third of Boston’s budget, schools are the biggest chunk and get the most attention and hearings.

The City presents its budget to the Council, in theory for an up or down vote. Along the way in both processes, there are numerous public hearings and a few votes. Apparently, there’s much politicking and dickering.

Very Personal Experiences

I’ve been knocked around by the BPS for 25 years, from when our first of three sons headed to the Quincy School. He and his next brother were whittled into advanced work kids and jammed through BLS. The youngest is finishing BLA.

Along the way, my wife and I struggled mightily and frequently to get them in decent schools in a system that had from terrible to superb. We worked through the quirks and arrogance of numerous iterations of elected or appointed school committees and the often meaningless bluster and promises of yet another superintendent. Worst was dealing with Court Street to discover the current set of tricks required for the right school assignments. We had to move repeatedly in the early years for placement; no parent should ever have to do that.

We would hear how equitable assignments are, how this school was as good as that, and other lies. We would call Court Street for information, such as when assignments would be decided, only to get radically different dates, apparently on the whim of who was answering the phones.

We heard repeatedly from Court Street employees we knew as well as activist parents at one school or another that it was whom you knew. If you were involved in volunteering and the school parent council, you had an in for assignments. The Committee swore that was impossible, but we could see who got the assignments.

I earned my cynicism about the BPS system.

End Game(s)

The schools and city budgets aren’t finalized. It’s likely that it will be the last week of June before deadline on the 30th that the nits and grits are done. The pot is fixed but who gets what is not.

In the meanwhile, two more school hearings are on tap. Monday, 3/15, at 6 p.m. at Madison Park High will be a public hearing like the one I went to yesterday at Boston English. Then on Wednesday, 3/24, at Court Street, at 5 p.m. will be another short one before the 6 p.m. Committee meeting.

There my skepticism fairly hoots. The 3/24 meeting is when the Committee votes on the budget. So tell me on a scale of 1,000 whether it is likely to change at all in the last hour, on say a level of 1 or 2 of that 1,0000. Horse feathers!

At his gutsy BLA parent-council presentation, Connolly was frank about the process. Several of the parents there noted how disparate the individual schools’ budgets and cuts were, hitting BLA much harder than many. Connolly said there were lots of tweaks within the amounts proposed in the seven-week process. He noted that the best chance a school’s parents had was to go to the hearings and testify, ideally en masse or a long sequence (think 25 parents).

He also told me that both district and at-large councilors form alliances and cut deals for various programs and schools. He didn’t say it, but likewise it sounds like a lot of action takes place in city-hall offices, coffee shops and small meetings.

That is the way of politics everywhere and we should not delude ourselves into thinking an academic tie changes that.

I recall much worse years ago in South Carolina. At the state house there, it was amusing to see the school groups making their class trips, back in the day when kids got civics classes. They’d come into a chamber or a combined session to see government in action. When there was a big bill with heavy political or economic consequences, they wanted to see orators at the best. Invariably, the bill would get a quick, often unanimous, vote one way or the other. The kids were stunned, leaving with their what-just-happened faces.

Truth be told, the bills were decided at backyard pig roasts and other private venues. It was a done deal before the gavel hit the brass plate on the wooden block.

This is moderately cleaner here and now, but not all that different from what I see. At the very least, the proposed budget, as well as the hearings and other key dates appear on the Committee site.

Grim Choices

BPS Chief Financial Officer John (Jack) McDonough sprinted through a shortened version of the budget last evening. The previous day, he had gone into more detail at a presentation at the Committee’s regular meeting.

He’s not quite as flat in delivery as the cartoon Droopy, but McDonough has the stereotypical CPA’s monotone down pat. He also looks like he could be a mortician as well, which adds to the measured effect.

The facts include, as Connolly told the BLA group, the schools are screwed financially short and mid term. Yes, the city, state, federal and foundation contributions are down. Moreover, we have spent over half the federal stimulus money last fiscal year and will do the rest in FY2011 in the works.

This year, a balanced budget will only be within reach because of accommodations. At the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick pledged level funding for education. Likewise, Boston Mayor Tom Menino rolled back a demand that BPS cut over 1% of its budget (about $8.2 million) this year.

Apparently, the Committee is always a bit of a Henny Penny, squawking about falling skies and huge deficits…only to miraculously come up with a salvaged budget through great effort. Unfortunately, last year, that did catch up to numerous schools.

At BLA for example, they lost five teachers and one administrator.  Among other fallout is the loss of the creative-writing program, a hallmark of the school, which has climbed to some of the nation’s best English test scores. It also means that 8th and 10th graders generally have two study (no classes, kiddies) periods out of seven classes a day — a lot less education for the bucks.

The big question now is when the Committee is going to shut down schools. Hyde Park Councilor Rob Consalvo said that would be too negative, too disruptive. Don’t count on that.

The Committee works with a figure of 4,500 “empty seats” in the system. At the same time, many classes are at their maximum of 30 students, a level a lot of teachers said is too high to do the job right. Yet, the idea is that each seat costs the BPS $4,000 a year, so moving folk around would solve that, and by implication necessarily require closing schools, canning staff and saving all around.

Last evening, Committee Member Mary Tamer said it was time to talk about closings and get the process in the works. Otherwise those on the dais didn’t say much meaningful.

Superintendent Carol Johnson directed a couple of speakers, students and parents, to some staff in the room, but made no policy statements nor answered any of the tricky questions presented. Her solution might address individual concern ( or not) but did not get into the hard topics or reveal any policy. That was a finger in the dike.

Committee Chair Gregory Groover likewise was very politic and close mouthed. He did do something meaningful, which those attending Monday’s hearing may get the benefit from — asked CFO McDonough to produce an addition cut at the proposed budget that shows what real people and plant impacts the cuts will have per school and line item.

Surprisingly after all the hoo-ha yesterday, the hearing was sparsely attended. The only other Committee member was Michael O’Neill. The only politicians represented were Councilor Chuck Turner, and staff from Rep. Liz Malia and Connolly. Perhaps 100 parents and students were in the audience.The large auditorium looked like a scattered room where people were afraid to catch flu from each other.

By the bye, the education committee comprises Chair Connolly, Vice Chair Turner, Consalvo, Ayanna Pressley, Steve Murphy, Sal LaMattina, and John Tobin. I figured all should have been there or had minions present.

More Equal than Others

Backing up what the BLA parents complained about last week, the detailed proposed budget by department and school showed those disparities. (I don’t see that online, but I picked up a copy at yesterday’s meeting.)

On the face of it, BLA parent council representative Christopher Carter nailed it. He said there was no rhyme or reason to the inequities among schools. Some have already been hit hard and will be again. Others are untouched or augmented.

Connolly noted in his presentation to BLA that some schools have a lot more ELL (English language learner) and SPED (special education) students, among other high-cost populations. Federal mandates mean more per-public costs there. However, to me, even accounting for that, some schools seem better plugged into the politics and finances than others.

Even after last year’s cuts, consider a sampling of those projected by percentage this time:

  • Adams Elementary, plus 9%
  • Blackstone Elementary, -5%
  • BTU Pilot, plus 18%
  • Hale Elementary, -6%
  • Hennigan Elementary, -1%
  • Mozart Elementary, level
  • Murphy Elementary, -5%
  • Boston Middle School Academy, -13%
  • Boston Latin School, -1%
  • Boston Latin Academy, -6%
  • West Roxbury High, level

You can see from these and similar figures why many parents are angry and are skeptical about Committee claims of fairness and shared sacrifice.

In addition, even before getting to school-closing conversations, other budget measures include severely cutting custodial staff, deferring physical plant maintenance,  and outsourcing food service. Already, administrators have forgone raises.

Another nasty wild card to hit the table will be teachers’ union deals. Collective bargaining will occur this summer, after the budget starts. That promises to be rougher than this budget process. Teachers can match Committee and superintendent whining note for note. This could be the battle of the drama queens, each singing that she only has the best interest of the students at heart.

I think back to Connolly. I sure don’t envy his chairing the education committee. Yet, I spoke with his policy director, Jamie Langowski, last evening before the hearing. She iterated what he had told me several times, he loves this. He understands how important education in general and this budgeting in crisis in particular are. He wants to be part of making it the best we can get under the circumstances. Good on him.

Cross-Post: This has gone over the rim. I’ll also put in on Marry in Massachusetts.

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