Archive for November, 2010

Looking Beyond Blight To Find Blight

November 30th, 2010

Quite so…you see, but do not observe.

—Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia

The horror…the horror…here, that is satellite TV dishes on triple deckers. Four years ago, Boston Councilor Michael Flaherty led a failed attempt to regulate them out of sight. This year, Councilor Sal LaMattina is picking it up.

dishwires

The former was an at-large Councilor, who lived in South Boston, and the latter is District 1 Councilor, from East Boston. Why the neighborhood citation one might ask? It because the tony areas, like Back Bay and Beacon Hill, have historic and architectural public committees with the power of law in practical effect to regulate the appearance of buildings.

In blue-collar areas such as Eastie and Southie, people can pretty much act like they own their homes or rent them. They can paint the shutters, if they have them, any color, not a provable previous shade. They can, ahem, let those dish companies, such as DirectTV and DishNetwork, hang the gray parabolas on the sides of the buildings. That just wouldn’t do in Louisburg Square.

(The image here I took in Hyde Park is fairly typical of low-density dish placement. Look through the wires to find the dish. More on the wires follows. )

There are several bits of unintentional humor here. These include:

  • Classism: Poorer folk tend to go more commonly for dishes, as they are cheaper to have installed and to rent than cable or DSL.
  • Irresponsibility: Painted by some as bad renters who leave an apartment without paying for the company to remove the dish, thus accruing a veritable totem of dishes on the side of a triple decker. Another way to look at this is that the installing company owns the dish and should have to remove any orphans.
  • Aesthetics: The little gray cones are much less ugly than the myriad of phone, cable and electrical lines on poles nearly everywhere in Boston. They are also very much less jarring and anti-good-architecture than the rooftop TV antennae that dominated American from the 1950s until a few years ago.

The arguments in Council run along the lines of these dishes are a blight, an eyesore. LaMattina chairs the Council’s task force on these. He told the Herald, “We’ve been waiting for this plan for too long. We want answers. We want solutions. The people of Boston deserve better. All the people of Boston.”

cables

In a town where neighborhood pride and competitiveness abound, we see where this came from and where it can go.

These dishes are not a problem for rich folk. In a poor, high-rental area though, a duplex triple decker might be, well, decked out. Six units may each have a dish, likely on the same side of the building for best line-of-sight to the satellites. If more than one vendor is there and people leave without arranging for dish removal (and the vendors are not required to clear them), a building might have 8, 10 or more dishes eventually.

As the Council found four years ago, there is that little problem of the federal government. Municipalities can’t simply prohibit one type of telecommunications supplier without a compelling justification, particularly if an restriction interferes with reception. “Ewww. I don’t like how it looks!” doesn’t seem to fit that requirement.

Short-term, we can see if LaMatinna’s version of the task force is cleverer than the previous one. To me, it makes sense to mandate that the installer have an obligation to record its dishes and remove those no longer under contract. That would at least keep the number down.

However, there is what he calls the Satellite Trade Association. Precisely, that is the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, with headquarters in D.C. Our local guy says he is demanding an action plan from them for dealing with the clutter. How exercised they get from 400 miles away remains to be seen. I have to wonder whether the traditional Boston persuasion of speaking directly to the few vendors here and convincing them they’re better off accommodating City Hall might be the quick and lasting fix.

Meanwhile though, when you are about next look up. It works best if you’re not driving. Look at the poles and the huge, very ugly knots of cables and wires. Now look around to find the satellite dishes. Head to head, which sucks more?

Of course, we splendid great apes of the huge brains can do wonderful things with our perception. As Holmes said in fiction, seeing but not observing. Or as Harry Nilsson wrote in his The Point album, “Well, that’s it. You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.”

Much as we used to elide visually over rooftop antennae, we ignore the dreadful visual pollution of poles and cables. We just don’t see them right in front of, above and around us. Strategies to get them underground and the hard sell by power, cable and phone companies to convince us that is prohibitively expensive and impractical are another post entirely.

I intend to do that post soon.

If the Council wants to tart up Boston, it should start working on how to clear out the overhead lines. That will mean working with the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches. Long-term though, going for that will do a hell of a lot more for everyone in Boston than reducing the number of dishes on triple-deckers, dishes that in all honestly are hard to see for all the wire and cable clutter from the ubiquitous poles.

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Brookline: Just Go Away!

November 30th, 2010

goawayProbably all of us as adolescents had our cranky periods. Brookline never outgrew its.

Unless you live there, they are too good for you anyway. They don’t even want you parking there. They don’t need your damned tourist dollars. If you are from a neighboring town, why don’t you just stay there?

Speak to someone from Brookline and you are likely to hear how friendly they are. After all in schools, income, personal achievement and every other way, they are superior and have a lot of reason to be happy.

Brookline as a town makes its attitude plain on every street and road coming it. I think of it particularly as I bicycle around Eastern Massachusetts. (Fortunately for lesser mortals such as me, Brookline does not put up toll roads at its borders…yet.)

Other burgs in the area, such as Boston, Newton, Somerville and Cambridge, are different. Signs on streets entering those have this curious term that seems unknown in Brookline — WELCOME. Driving, cycling or walking into those ordinary places read WELCOME TO…

The Brookline version appears here. You are not welcome. You will not park anywhere in town for more than two hours, and there will be places that permit less time or none at all for non-residents. You will not park on the street anywhere overnight.

Go home. You don’t belong there.

It doesn’t work the other way, of course. Many from Brookline work in the financial district, medical facilities, corporations and universities of Boston and Cambridge.

thumbYou get a sense of the long standing of the Brookline attitude from its geography and governance. Brookline is a self-selected island of Norfolk County. As you can see from the map, it appears to be a thumb protruding into Boston’s bottom.

The rest of Norfolk County is to the South. Brookline refused to join Boston on several occasions, the last in 1873 when the town of West Roxbury agreed to annexation. Now Brookline is an exclave (not coincidentally sharing the first four letters with exclusive).

Back to bicycling, for all its snootiness, Brookline as a town is OK by riders. They don’t have nearly enough bike racks (goes with the car-parking attitude surely), but the cops there expect drivers to play nice with riders.

It has one nice, large park, plus the Olmsted site. We attend an old UU church there. The Brookline Village and Coolidge Corner areas have numerous OK, some good, but no great restaurants. (Note: Be very careful in the Village in the evening. Predatory towing services constantly monitor all off-street parking lots of closed businesses. They will get your car within 10 minutes.) It also has a concentration of kosher restaurants and bakeries.

Brookline never joined Boston, never formed its own county and apparently never got lonely for the rest of it body and buddies. It is content to float solo.

If you want to visit, bring quarters for the meters and for God’s sake, get out within two hours!

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Turner v. Ross Integrity Battle

November 29th, 2010

Chuck Turner has the bluster and belly. Mike Ross has the other kind of guts.

Boston City Councilor Turner is already whipping out what he say is his super-sized integrity.  In advance of his expulsion hearing Wednesday afternoon, he said, “I think it’s funny when they say they are going to vote me off to protect the integrity of the Council. I think I have the best a record of moral and fiscal integrity on this council. For the council to vote me off because of integrity is absurd.”

The Globe carries the tale of Council President Ross’ letter to the body calling for Turner’s ouster…by Friday. Universal Hub serves up the 13-page document, replete with opinion from the city attorney that Turner can speak at the hearing but not vote.

Back in more mannered places and centuries, Turner would likely have resigned when he was charged with corruption in talking a bribe and lying to the FBI about it. He seemed buoyed by charges though, as he did when he was convicted, and now that he faces being voted out of office.

Ross lacks the noise, but is not entirely without quiet drama of his own. He is in the unenviable position of chairing a board at a tough time. He has been a solid leader during this entire prolonged episode. It is a bit of a shame that presidents there can serve only two years and he is finishing his second next month.

For the rules-are-rules crowd, several come into play. One is that the Council’s unanimously agreed to rules require an expulsion hearing whenever a member receives a felony conviction. Another at the state level requires removal of any public official sentenced to jail or prison for a felony. For Wednesday’s hearing, the Council requires a two-thirds vote to toss a member, which would be eight of 13 in this case, even without Turner voting.

Turner continues to negotiate and will likely try again in two days. His final ploy as been to ask for a postponement of action by the Council pending his January 25th sentencing in federal court. Just maybe, he reasons, he’ll get probation, thus technically avoiding the mandatory loss of his seat under state law.

That seems highly unlikely, as it involves a guilty verdict of four counts — $1,000 bribe and three lying to the FBI. While summed, those could equal 35 years or so, the Globe quotes an ex-federal prosecutor as saying the guidelines are for 15 to 21 months.

This mess could have dribbled off into prolonged ignominy…had Ross not taken charge in City Hall. Turner had already repeatedly played racial victim. He noted that he and convicted State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson were the only two current officials charged by the feds and both are black. Another Councilor, the other Charles, Yancey, agreed with this judgment at a Turner rally.

Thus, Ross was in the spotlight, with a passive or hostile audience. Councilors were avoiding talking about Turner, like the situation might just vanish. Even before today’s letter and packet, Ross had made it plain though they they had to have the hearing and had no reason to wait for the sentencing. It was Turner’s conviction that triggered the trial-like meeting.

Even before he won this month’s special election to replace Councilor John Tobin, who took a job at Northeastern, Matt O’Malley said that unless something really unexpected and convincing happened at the hearing, he’d have to vote for Turner’s removal. Likewise, several other Councilors have mumbled that they may well do the same.

For his part, we may have a preview of Turner’s script on Wednesday. He told the Herald that he was set up, as in, “The issue of my moral and fiscal integrity, I don’t think can be questioned. Obviously the FBI set up a situation to remove me from office.”

Ross’ package to his peers praised Turner mightily, but returned repeatedly to the rule of law, federal, state and city. He included, “We are not above he law and none of us is above the rules we have established as a body. If we act as if we are, t his body loses its credibility, its integrity and the trust of the people we serve. Many are cynical of government as it is, we cannot add to their mistrust.”

He followed that with the motion he will put before the body on Wednesday:

Ordered: That under the authority vested in the City Council by St. 1951 c. 376 § 17 and pursuant to the procedures set forth in City Council Rule 40A, the City Council, in consideration of his qualification to serve as a member of the Boston City Council, now moves that Councilor Chuck Turner vacate the office of City Councilor effective Friday, December 3, 2010.

Note that this order makes no mention of any crimes or convictions. Unlike U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, Turner’s punishment is not to include a public admonishment in front of the body. Rangel though will be unlikely to serve prison time despite seemingly much worse offenses. Turner may lose his pension, but not what he’s paid into it, plus interest.

Turner could have made it easy for everyone. That has never been his style. In his role, Ross could have been cowardly and even acquiesced to Turner’s call for no hearing until after sentencing. Yet the facts are now that Turner talks integrity and Ross lives it.

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Cambridge Pols in Puerile Fit

November 23rd, 2010

Yeah, we know a lot of Harvard and MIT types are too, too special for mingling with ordinary humans, on higher planes as they are. A splendidly comical report today from the Cambridge Chronicle shows that pretension disease has infected the city government.

It quotes several councilors as saying their city has stuff that others, like common Bostonians, would willingly steal. The illogic is worthy of BBC skits.

According to the paper, at last evening’s council meeting, several officials warned another, Leland Cheung, not to work too closely with Boston officials, including Mayor Tom Menino. Over objections from Councilors Ken Reeves and Tim Toomey, the body voted to let Cheung arrange a joint economic-development meeting with their equivalents in Boston.

Consider the silly positions of:

Reeves: You need a mayor in Boston who is a regional mayor, who cares about Cambridge and Newton and all the way out to Worcester. That’s not what the current stance in Boston is at all. It’s as narrow and myopic as you can get. I love Mayor Menino; if I was the mayor over there I might have turned into that, too. He is not a big-tent persona who is looking to hold hands.

Toomey: Mayor Menino is a very dear friend and colleague of mine, but I don’t see an economic benefit to the city of Cambridge by us sharing with the city of Boston what we’re doing. Mayor Menino has made it very clear that he’s enticing existing Cambridge companies to go to Boston now as it is. I’m not sure why we’re going to share what we’re doing with the city of Boston.

Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis: Cheung needs to be careful not to share trade secrets.

They seem totally unaware of several key ideas. First is that Cambridge is not a private corporation with a proprietary product — secret ingredients and recipe steps that only a few know. In fact, the nature of public government is just that, with open meetings and the right for the public to know who does what and how. They are far more like other cities around than they are different.

The pretext that the city is somehow magical and singular seems widespread, even among those willing to speak with those others consider arch-rivals on the other side of the Charles. As Cheung said at the meeting, “I’m not even sure how you would share the secret sauce of what Cambridge has. It’s just so unique to Cambridge. I don’t think it’s copy-able.”

Yawn.

Another thing the hush-hush triplets seem confused about is that there already is sensible cooperation. Consider an area where Cambridge has long held a lead, bicycling. In laws, facilities, public perception and on and on, Cambridge put Boston to shame for many years. Then when Menino got cycling religion and brought in a real professional bike czarina to match theirs, the two and their related biking communities work together.

You can hear Cambridge’s Cara Seiderman here and Boston’s Nicole Freedman here in Left Ahead! podcasts. They spoke of Cambridge’s lead in their own podcast and Freeman spoke gratefully of how Seiderman and others in her city helped her see and apply lessons they already learned. The idea was for better cycling regionally, safer and more pleasant for all, including drivers and pedestrians…working together on common goals as it were and as it is.

Amusingly, the tone of the meeting was one of schoolyard competitiveness. Bad old Boston surely must want what they have. If you give it to them something terrible must surely befall.

One would think the generally well-read Cantabrigians would be a tad more (a lot more) cosmopolitan. It’s great that Cheung has some wit about him and that he was able to rise above the provincialism. In the end, I suspect it will take only one or two benefits accruing to them to get them to claim this was really their idea all along.

Mr. Grumpy’s Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2010

I’ve been to Trader Joe’s, Stop & Shop and the Haymarket. We have that hippy-dippy free-range turkey to pick up Tuesday and pies and bread to bake. It reminds me of a story.

About 40 years ago, in Plainfield, New Jersey, two older family friends were anticipating a rough Thanksgiving. Evelyn and Rollins Justice (everyone called him “Justice,” which seemed to fit such a kind and thoughtful man) had a tough year and a tougher guest.

They ended up fearing a Thanksgiving under the tyranny of his father. Think Abe Simpson and you are in the area. The old man had retired from the railroad in his 40s, sponged off one child and then moved in with his son and daughter-in-law in Plainfield. He was entitled, demanding and often nasty. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, from morning biscuits to his rocking chair placement. Justice was old school country from the western mountains of North Carolina. He would never toss the old guy or order him to behave.

Evelyn had volunteer work with the veterans’ hospital, she had visited remote sick grandkids, money was tight and Justice had to work. They simply could not prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Evelyn was a fabulous cook with the Southern pride of my-hand-to-your-mouth hospitality. She was sad not to be able to cook and she and Justice dreaded the response from the old man.

They didn’t discuss it with him. Rather when Justice got home, they got into their black Rambler and headed out to find someplace that was open and they could afford. The only place seemed to be the drive-in Steer Inn on Route 22.

Evelyn steeled herself as Justice went in and returned to the car with burgers, fries and drinks. Amazingly, the old man had not said a word, much less started a tirade about the first Thanksgiving of his life without a feast presented to him.

Finally, as Evelyn and Justice looked out the windshield and started on their burgers, the old man spoke. He said only, “Hain’t got no table.”

Happy T’Day and Cross-Post Note: This is what passes for a classic among my blog posts. It appeared four years ago at Marry in Massachusetts.

Thither Boston’s Surly Churls?

November 22nd, 2010

Visitors to Boston and locals alike have long, but oddly, reveled in the theater of the rude. They would willing grin as Durgin Park waitresses and nearby Haymarket vendors verbally abused them. Much like Renaissance fairs or comedy-club shows, the play is the thing.

Both places have been perking since the early 19th Century and are cheek to jowl.

Rather, the play was the thing, as I realized Saturday. A surly churl at the open-air fruit and veggie stalls scolded me for trying to pick my green peppers from an overflowing display. It was not that he trotted out the clichéd routine of go the the supermarket and pay four times as much if you want to pick. Rather, I realized and accepted that his theater was nearly extinct.

I first went to the Durgin Park restaurant and shopped the Haymarket in the late 1960s. Since I moved here over 30 years ago, I have bought my produce almost exclusively at the latter and nearly every week, well over a thousand expeditions. While I never frequented Durgin Park, I had been there often enough to know the act, the old act.

Both ends of this food stick was shtick. The vendors and waitresses played bored and annoyed. You had to know what you wanted, take what they gave you, pay whatever the cost, and endure withering glares if you dared bother them with questions. Then at the market stalls, you were to tell a vendor how much of what you wanted and not even think of touching or even pointing to particular edibles.

They’d yell at suburban types who tried to treat them like a supermarket display. They’d insult your parentage and act out like you were grabbing their genitals if you reached for their tomatoes.

Durgin Park is part of a big company now. Its prices are much higher relatively then when workers and lawyerly types lunched there. The staff apparently no longer gets to or has to be gruff.

The Haymarket is in transition as well. Many of the vendors toss customers plastic bags to pick their own apples or cukes or avocados. A few have open cartons of oranges and such or large tables stacked with packaged berries and prefer that customers pick their own. From observation, I think this is self-reinforcing. Shoppers appear to be buying considerably more when they choose.

Yet, I had noticed some personal shifts anyway. I have been shopping there over three decades and most vendors know me, by face and money. They have seen my boys from when I wore each of them in a Snugli against my chest to when they are men. Long ago, many would tell most customers hands off, but would say to me to hand them what I wanted to go into bags.

I suspect part of the general shift has to do with Asian customers though. Only a decade ago, most Chinese-American shoppers heard the insults and were told to take it or leave it. Now, those women include a fair number of Thai and Vietnamese shoppers. They often are pushier and more demanding than Anglo and European-descended Bostonians. Quite a few vendors who only a few years ago would jerk a bag out of the hands of a woman wanting to trade in an orange with a squishy spot, will swap one out.

Another cultural factor must surely be the obvious shifts in age and background of vendors. We longtime customers have seen the WWII-era vendors be replaced by those their kids and even grandkids’ ages. Then more recently, vendors whose families came from places other than Italy and Ireland are much more common, particularly on the ends at North and Hanover Streets.

Oddly enough, an anthology of traditional Chinese humor is heavy on humiliation, oral and physical. The modern manifestations of Asian and other immigrant cultures are much less so. You can still find the theater of the obnoxious on Blackstone Street, but it no longer dominates. There are flares of abuse in the air, not a steady gale.

anger,angry,cartoons,creatures,emotions,fantasy,frustrations,mad,metaphors

When I first began shopping on Blackstone and North, I was a bit shocked. I was a teen who had spent much of my life in the polite South. Bargaining for food was not done and insulting customers was scandalous. I confess that I came to anticipate and moderately appreciate the vendors’ invective. Shame on me. I knew when an obvious suburbanite dolled up and in heels steamed toward a stall with her squeezing fingers ready that she was in for it.

So now the Haymarket is still great shopping but far lower keyed theater. Long ago, I got my personal adjustment to the harshest rudeness and then occasional chuckles at the expense of newcomers over the years. Now that the guys behind the stacks of produce have largely mellowed, I honestly don’t think I miss the shtick.

The guy who snapped at me a couple of days ago was at one of the few booths I tend to avoid. They often have so-so quality and sometimes charge a little more than a few stalls either way. Plus, I didn’t bother to snap back. I knew other vendors who want customers to pick their stuff.

Honestly, some of the predictable drama is gone, contemporary with the nasty old elevated Interstate that went with the Big Dig. I guess after over 40 years of that, I can’t say I need to relive it every week. The thrill is gone.

Visitors to both Durgin Park and the Haymarket get a much toned down version of the old routine. They can find nasty Bostonians, but they may have to look around a bit. Not every vendor at every stall is willing to play the part every weekend.

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Nothing New Under the Thumbs

November 21st, 2010

About that attention thing…people have not been paying attention to those around them as well as to behavioral literature. The meme that relates appears yet again in today’s NY Times maggy. Researchers are yet again pimping the concept that current technology distorts and ruins the mental abilities of youth.

Some of this seems purely generational. Thirty-something and older scholars decry the intellectual failings of those youngsters. We’ve been seeing this ploy from the origins of the written word.  “When I was your age…”

This time, it is yet again the current technology as a hook. Think, smart phone making kids stupid, truncated Twitter tweets ruining deep thought, and factoids from Wikipedia removing any drive to read and then analyze.

In the defense of those who discover, rediscover and shill this new, improved, exciting scholarship, we can see evidence worldwide. Kids with callouses on their thumbs, folk with wireless headsets chattering away (we hope not just to themselves), and youth who do not read newspapers or have even rudimentary knowledge of human history.

Ahem, go back one or two generations and see the same simple-minded fallacy. Back in the 1950s and 60s, it was TV. By cracky, boys and girls today sit with their mouths open, wasting their lives on cartoons and dumb programs; when I was their age, I knew how to read!

In the next generation, it was the internet, rather the World Wide Web, to those of us who, by cracky, used the net before browsers with text search and online message (bulletin boards). Now it’s iPhones, Facebook and such for the next generation.

For the attention weak, the Times puts the punchline near the top:

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

That simply reeks of the same smelly sensationalism as previous super-generational hoo-ha.

If you’d like to see the living roots of such criticism, consider multitasking and look to boomer only children or firstborns. On the former, I’ve noted repeatedly (like here) Bill Gates is going to have to do considerable atoning for his foisting that belief on us to sell his Office software. Humans almost to a one are not capable of multitasking. Setting that expectation makes managers and workers alike inefficient and set up for failure. You can be sure that as nearly everyone says, “I’m a people person,” that everyone is sure he or she is a multitasker.

Second, for the special kids in any given family, the anecdotal evidence is powerful that the performance pressures are strongest for the firstborn and for an only child. That is particularly true, regardless of gender, if dad or both parents are overachievers.

We see a great sense of competitiveness. It often comes with doting parents and even teachers telling Master or Miss Special how superior everything they do and the people they are are.

The corollary effect is constant rewarding of the quick response. (Sound familiar today?) At home and in school and even among classmates, they learn to blurt an acceptable answer or interpretation before anyone else. Much praise follows and reinforces this behavior.

What they and everyone around lose is an emphasis on or drive to insight, completeness, analysis and even wisdom.  These, if you pardon, intellectual premature ejaculators become wired for shouting out the OK answers.

Thus, we presaged the meme of digital kids. We already have behavioral mechanisms in place to ruin thinking. We’ve done it for who knows how long…and without the need of technology.

Niggles and Memes

Of course, the sad truth of most academic research is that many perform it and few add appreciably to the body of their area’s lore.

Think of young Talmudic students. They may sit or stand in pairs or larger groups in yeshiva debating a passage or even a phrase. They may alternate debate positions, vigorously contradicting themselves in succession. The idea here repeats in much of secular scholarship. Attempt to worry ideas or facts beyond intellectual death and resurrection, with the idea that doing so brings you closer and closer to truth and knowledge.

Much of academic work and writing does the same, only without the give and take. Typically a scholar has a solid idea or realization and publishes it. Others already working in the field may defensively say and write, in effect, that this position is crap. Mostly they’ll take a detail and claim to refute it with the implication, in an Ayn Rand sort of way, that the whole paper is therefore unworthy junk. This inability to judge larger ideas and works again is the short-attention-span meme.

Most often, the critics are tired and effete. Without their own big ideas or innovations, they are reduced to finding holes or stains in the intellectual garments of others. There are, after all, many scholars and seemingly relatively few ideas and breakthroughs.

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Rangel Becomes Wangle

November 19th, 2010

If not the American way, Charlie Rangel’s life is an American way. Heading to being publicly rebuked — think the 19th Century schoolboy in the corner with the dunce cap — Charles Bernard Rangel epitomizes the best and worst of our system. He rose from the underclass in an era was black was still the wrong color through war heroism and effort to become one of the most influential politicians in the nation.

Now at 80, he’ll complete his career where the color of his skin is not important but the stain of his venality is. He surely will not stay in office or live long enough to be rehabilitated as far worse certainly-is-a-crook criminals like ex-Pres. Richard Nixon was.

chuckyFar more significant than his illegal, unethical and immoral actions over decades is how his case highlights the idiocy of self-policing. Whether it be members of the U.S. Congress or a city police force or physicians or accountants, no profession can prosecute and judge its own honestly and honorably.

Immediately, consider the laughable record of the U.S. House. In its 111 sessions (actually in effect from 1787), the body has seen fit to discipline its many thousands of members — drum roll — 22 time for censure and 8 for reprimand. Censure is the more severe but recalls and owes its life to an era of honor and decency that is sadly lacking in modern times and modern people in the main.

Censure requires a House-convicted member to stand in the front well of the room and hear a list of his offenses (all he, no females censured or reprimanded to date). This was and is supposed to be so severe a punishment that it supplants any more mundane ones, such as expulsion, prison and such as ordinary and lesser humans might face for crooked dealings. Honestly, and let’s get real, these guys aren’t even fired.

Not surprising to us in this 21st Century, Rangel was not humbled, not dehumanized in the classic and atavistic sense. In fact, he sniffled but remained proud. Thus, this belies the concept of self-policing so beloved by Americans.

Lords of Beantown

Here in Boston, we experience this several times a year with our police as well as our pols. Rarely, politicians (like our last three speakers of the MA House, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner) are so clumsy and arrogant that they get caught by law enforcement. Far more commonly, they are judged (light, lighter, lightest) by their peers. The same is more than true for the cops.

Police are a special case here, as unlike in other major cities, Boston doesn’t allow mere civilians to be involved in any meaningful way, no civilian-review board here. We claim the nation’s oldest police force, as the country’s first subway. That distinction is as often an insult as point of pride though. Consider our pathetic trolley sections, which much like the nation’s oldest turnpike in Pennsylvania, have aged badly and serve the public poorly.

The police here are so connected and so self-protective that an officer has to be observed by many performing the most egregious crimes to face the slightest consequences of abuse of office. The shameful phenomenon of testi-lying where the cops bald face deny any malfeasance or crimes has long been the norm. The cop unions are so powerful and so without oversight that the public basically has no say.

We see the same in professions such as medicine. There, ordinary humans are judged too ignorant to rule on or even comment on lordly doctors. They are forced to sue for money, and even then, a physician found civilly guilty is not likely to be forced to stop working, much less face criminal penalties.

Watching the Watchmen

Alas, we allow islands of deference. While we grew up hearing the fantasy that this nation is markedly different from that England of class distinctions and peerage, we must accept that we have created our own parallels.

In Rangel’s case, there is an American subtext. He was a poor kid from Harlem who grew up in a segregated and highly discriminatory time and nation. In the military, then in his professional and political life, he lived that ideal of hard work, intelligence, perseverance, luck, and personality equaling success. Ta da.

He was certainly not the first to abuse such earned privilege. He had moved into the fantasy world of the protected, the special, the, well, royals.

We in America have created our own royalty. They are in Congress, wearing badges and guns, dressed in surgical scrubs, and above all, policing their own.

As Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who guards the guardians?)

Today as a nation, we show no proclivity toward stripping the arrogant classist sorts of their self-policing. Regardless of the failures over decades, over centuries, we hesitate to demand accountability from our artificial royalty.

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We Have The Same – Ugh

November 15th, 2010

homomilkA broken desk chair and milk have an overlap — homogenization.

For the milk, I’m a Boomer and as a kid brought in the milk from the insulated silvery box outside the front door. The quart bottles had snug caps that nestled over the necks. Underneath each cap was a flat paper lid with a wee tab to pull to open the bottle. Under each of those lids was the invariable plug of yellowish milk fat, the thickened creamy stuff.

Nowadays of course, getting those relics requires touble and expense. You either contract with an atavistic dairy delivery or go to a hippie dippy food store and pay as much for a quart as a gallon of mass-processed milk, plus the bottle deposit. Everything in ordinary stores is homogenized.

Super-shaking milk so that the fats broke up into tiny pieces and disappeared in the liquid was but one of the seemingly endless points of pride of the WWII generation. From nylon for stockings, developed during the war, to vaccines, to oleomargarine, to breeder reactors, our parents and their media nearly deafened us with the glories of science all around us.

We got to know some downsides to those glories. Think of margarine, allegedly a much heart healthier, lower calorie alternative to butter. Well, I can believe it’s not butter. It tastes more like Elmer’s glue than a dairy product and its synthetic composition seems to cause many physical problems. It would be far better to eat a little butter and lay off the chemical spread entirely.

I honestly can’t think of anything wrong with stockings, nylon or silk. Pantyhose are awful, but stockings are sexy and fine with me.

Breeder reactors, on another hand, are crazy stuff. We were told how wonderful it was that we wouldn’t have to mine fuel for reactors, which could now make their own. They didn’t mention that disposing of the excess, plus the radioactive fluids and rods involved meant planning for 50,000 years of hot, fatal waste. No thanks.

Homo milk though is pretty cool. As the main family cook, I would appreciate the clot of creamy fat to cook with, but I don’t use it that often and can buy reasonable substitutes. I don’t get along well with any form of milk other than yogurt anyway and pay the internal price for ice cream and such. Yet, I admire the cleverness of mixed-together milk.

To the desk chair though, wider marketing homogenization that has been occurring for about 30 years came into play again. In a few areas of our lives, like supermarkets and wine/beer/liquor stores we have expanded choices. In far too many others, we constantly settle for ubiquitous homogenization.

Think such market segments as books, toys and hardware. If you can’t find what you have in mind in one store, huge or wee, you may have to forget it. The next store and the next and the next are likely to have identical products with the same brands in the same shapes, colors and sizes.

We learned when our now adult son was a little guy that Toys Я Us:

  1. was everywhere
  2. drove specialty toy stores out of business with low prices
  3. carried best selling items
  4. was not interested in special ordering anything

We see that in far, far too many retail areas. Again, you might be able to get fresh fruits and veggies your parents never knew existed, but you’re going to settle for what’s available in too many places.

Thus with hardware. I saw that again when I went to replace one of five casters on a steno chair.

It has been on sale at a Staples, the Toys Я Us of office supply. They didn’t have any parts, couldn’t get any, but would love to sell me another, different chair. I was supposed to toss mine.

Well, as my mother’s son, I don’t do that if I can help it. I repair or adapt and conserve.

Looking in office supply and hardware stores, including several home centers, I found homogenization. The same loose or bubble wrapped casters, not appropriate for my chair, were everywhere. The same sizes, colors, brands, configurations, and fittings were here, there and all useless to me.

casterClicking around wheel and caster manufacturers and wholesalers was frustrating. I eventually found a model that might be adaptable, as it came with five casters, each with four stems types. The package cost more than the chair or a replacement for it.

My damaged and useless caster had split and would not glue to repair. I know the implied rule of our era is to consider inexpensive items disposable. I was not raised to waste.

Alas, I set the chair aside and fell back on my lottery-as-a-retirement-plan strategy. I would not throw the chair away, rather I would keep an eye open for a discarded version with a similar 2-inch wheel set that I might adapt.

I decided that last night. As it was trash night, it struck me that I could start this perhaps quixotic quest the next day. My whole, dispersed and varied part of Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood has rubbish pickup on Monday. I pledged to take a shoulder bag on my bike ride, just in case a discarded desk chair with the right sized caster was obvious.

To my disappointment, I tooled around Fairmount Hill — a cardio challenge on foot or bike — and saw nothing remotely resembling my need. Swinging by Mayor Menino’s neighborhood, where natural gas imploded that house and cracked the bakery’s oven, and through and around Dedham, I was grokking streets and sub-neighborhoods. That’s a great benefit of urban biking, truly fixing the layout of your trips.

Finally on the way from Dedham center toward Hyde Park and up my monster hill, I noticed a hillbilly like display. A sidewalk had a disgusting sofa and matching chair just like the necks put on their porches. Upside down on the sofa, over stained once-tan fabric was a standard desk chair. The trash guys were running late.

I figured the casters were 2-inchers. I pulled off one and saw that the stem was wrong. Figuring I might be able to adapt it, I took one, then a spare, tucking them in my bag. Fairly giddy with scavenging luck, I cycled home.

Sure enough, with some considerable prying, I was able to remove the stem, and cut loose the Gordian netting of old carpet stuck in the two wheels. My chair’s stem is a tiny bit loose, but it fits. I’ll throw some filler in there and call it perfect.

My mother would approve.

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Little Pleasures Amid the Frozen Rain

November 8th, 2010

Nuthatches galore, love stamps, and a downy woodpecker brought cheer to a sleety afternoon.

lovehead

Even those who provincially proclaim pride in and love of New England fall weather would mutter and mumble today. Huge drops of freezing rain, so many God gobs, came in long flurries, then subsided, only to return. Winds gusted without leading sound from dingy gray skies — toppling garbage cans curbside on trash day, tossing back bathtub sized recycling bin lids, and flinging yogurt containers, Sunday papers, and candy wrappers on each lawn.

Yet, as I looked from an upstairs bedroom window, one then three then many red breasted nuthatches fairly danced over the nude limbs of the aged maple in the front yard. The round little treasures always look like the raccoons of the bird family, with streaks of black around the eyes. Hopping from one limb to another, they certainly were not upset by the sleet.

Minutes later in the first floor toilet, I saw a woodpecker likewise enjoying his constant hunt for bugs. He was on a different maple in the back, this one still holding about one third of its leaves. Unfortunately for him, it is not bug infested. He still fluttered from one joint to another, his red top mark rubbing and bobbing as he searched for signs of damaged bark. On this block alone, among the dozens of trees, he surely found some treats.

After three decades here, I never trust New England weather. When the freezing rain suddenly stopped and the sky brightened, I pretended it would stay that way for a half hour or so, doubting it all along. I needed stamps and was down to the last of the love ones on the last sheet. I figured on getting wet on the walk to or from the post office, a little over a mile each way. I left wearing a fleece vest under my windbreaker, so I could secrete whatever commemoratives I could buy.

A plus to the often occasionally nasty local skies and air is that natives are used to staying inside during Boston weather fits. It reminds me of Tarpon Springs, Florida, where you can be assured of a Gulf Coast rain every damned afternoon. It makes for a great long lunch at a Greek restaurant on the water. Order retsina and your meal, feign dismay when the rain starts, and order some more retsina and a coffee to wait it out.

In Hyde Park today, with the untrustworthy, sleety skies, I was the second customer into the post office, with two clerks in place. Mine was probably 30 and not yet jaded. When I asked whether she had any love stamps left, many months after they had been released, she could well and honestly said she did not. Instead, she went to the other stations. Finding none, she said she thought she knew where some were and headed to the back. She returned with a batch and a smile.

Buoyed by the birds and my helpful government employee, I didn’t mind that the freezing rain had started again. I walked several more miles, first to a grocery for some breakfast fruit, then up our outrageous hill with my bounty.