Archive for April, 2011

Arcadia…Here, Now, Forever

April 30th, 2011

Bubbles of delusion shade and shelter us from horrors that affect others, but not us.


Even in little Bridgton, ME, the worst of life and death brings comfort through denial. This town of under 5,000 knows that one of their own met a foul death this week. The corpse of was the gelid, murky waters of a pond just over the border in New Hampshire.

Krista Dittmeyer, whose cause of death has yet to be announced, left her infant daughter in her running car and died nearby. Young, pretty and popular, she is immediately the locus of utopian thinking. As the Boston Herald quotes a chum, “It doesn’t happen here. People are safe here. They care about one another. They help one another. You can leave your doors unlocked at night. It affects everyone.”

Well, sprinkle some pixie dust and fly around the room.

Bridgton seems to be one of those the-way-life-should-be towns as ME promotes its exurban self. The tourism site lists 100 things to do there, such as hunt partridge, see a drive-in movie, hike up a ridge to look at see Mt. Washington way over there, and walk along Main Street.

No one seems shocked when Boston teens or 20-somethings stab or shoot each other in gritty neighborhoods or even in Downtown Crossing. Yet even here in the 22nd largest U.S. city, we engage in delusion and magical thinking.

In my decade in Manhattan, I never heard others say what they do in Bridgton or the various Boston neighborhoods we’ve lived — “We never lock our doors. We don’t have to.” Beacon Hill, West End, South End, Jamaica Plain and now Hyde Park, it was the same. Other neighborhoods or sub-neighborhoods may be dangerous and have criminals, but not here.

There is more justification for it in the newish place. On Fairmount Hill, we might call it a variation on the North End’s Copp’s Hill. With the police academy and many officers settled here, this could well be Cops’ Hill.

Sure enough, sections of town and Hyde Park have burglaries, even the occasional murder. Yet up on this hill, folk decidedly feel safe, rather know they are safe.

I think though of perpetrators of robberies and assaults. Frequently they are junkies. The diminished capacity of addicts means obliviousness to the obvious. Just because there is a blue and white or trooper car parked in the driveway doesn’t mean they won’t break-in and do their nasties. For murders, the typical case is high emotion between people who know each other — family or friends fatalities as it is.

In Bridgton or on Fairmount Hill, the need to believe in the specialness of locale, of our very own place and space is strong. In Bridgton, they likely hold that the bad guys are in Portland. In Boston, with few undeniable exceptions, we need to believe it is the next neighborhood over or farther away that is dangerous.

That might be a benign conceit, but it carries risks. If in fact we do not lock our house or car doors, we may eventually guarantee robbery or worse. (…as the mayor of Somerville recently learned…) As I have heard cops and Fortune Society folk alike say repeatedly, break-ins and robberies are almost always crimes of opportunity. Your car or house doesn’t need to be impregnable. It just needs to seem harder to to get into or less attractive (no goodies showing) than the next one.

We can call the belief in personal Arcadia an endearing affirmation of human hope and trust. I still lock my house and car.

Tags: harrumphharrumphercrimedelusionlocks

Youthful Personae Live Agelessly

April 25th, 2011

cheer1Surely not all women realtors were cheerleaders, but I’m betting many were. Those who carry themselves with relentless enthusiasm and rigid smiles betray their high-school selves.

How many of us are aware of such pervasive artifacts of our youth that are obvious to others?

Roles we played, things we did, became what we are, from elementary school and even earlier. That’s not necessarily bad, as it can inform our behavior for the better.

Sure, it’s tempting and easy to stereotype and ridicule some traits. There’s the dumb athlete, bluenose Sunday schooler, socially clumsy geek (or in my day AV guy), and such. I was on the receiving end of enough of those.

I was scholar and athlete in high school and college, so I got ribbing from some for being an egghead and bookworm and from others for being a jock. I remember being on a partial swimming scholarship in college and bringing my grade card for each professor to fill in and sign, to hear the philosophy 101 guy (a PhD sort no less) look over my As, including his class, and I think one B, and say in all seriousness, “That’s a pretty good report card…for an athlete.” Another amusing variation were a couple of girls I dated telling me their mothers had informed them of a truth they’d have to adjust too, that as an athlete I’d have a strong sex drive that needed relief. Also, I lost track of the dumb comments about how obvious it was that I must be dumb…because I was blond.

For the generally good stuff though, it’s hard to denigrate Scouts and such. Once an Eagle Scout, you’re likely to forever live out those virtues such as honesty and respect for others. Girl Scouts too do more than enjoy cookies and S’mores. Like U.S. Marines, they tend to consider themselves forever members, with kind of cheerfulness and generosity for other women that comes with that.

More subtle and even more pervasive are what we expect from others and how we interact with them in light of our youthful selves. If everyone, in and out of our families, told us we were pretty or handsome, we continue to hold ourselves as such and act the part. We might have dreadful colored or combed over hair, liver spots everywhere, and Cape Code level of leathery skin, but if we perceive ourselves as good looking, we can flirt joyfully, throw ourselves into sales or public speaking, and be generally extroverted.

Of course, the opposite can be sadly as true. If parents or friends berated our young selves as ugly, we might unfold into swans but still think of ourselves as hard to view. Likewise, fat or skinny kids can grow or exercise themselves into well proportioned adults, but see themselves forever as their out-of-proportion younger versions.

I prefer to enjoy the positive aspects that most of us have just under the skin and always in action. Truly it’s fun and a pleasant sport to imagine or realize what roles people played in school. Give it a shot with people you didn’t grow up around and don’t know that well.

You can probably figure out which guys were football players, which folk were in drama club, and who were those cheerleaders. Actually that has useful application, kind of like knowing their Myers-Briggs letters. (I’ll start; I’m INTP.)

The real advantage though can be in tolerance. If you realize who was a Scout, who a chess-club member, who a literary magazine editor (and of course, contributor), you can and should appreciate them for that and cut them some slack. I’m sure you’d like them to do the same for you.

Tags: harrumphharrumpherpersonalitystereotypesmaturingcontinuity

Clean Streets and Small Favors

April 23rd, 2011

milletgleanersBusiness-card shame was the order of the afternoon in a midtown NYC bar among us trade journalists. Most of us who had worked for the huge Conover-Mast chain of magazines did not want to leave the city for either Chicago or Boston. We scattered to local jobs when the Boston-based acquirer Cahners Publishing moved our books, as we were wont to call the magazines.

As we swapped our new cards, one poor fellow was slow to flip his on the table. He would be well paid, but he had not adjusted to the shift from Purchasing to Solid Waste Management.

Well, way back then and today, trash is big business and not just in the romance-novel and porn industries. He did just fine, but I don’t think he ever did adjust to the name.

Street flotsam

My Boston City Councilor, Rob Consalvo is learning that. He is figuratively hip deep in trash.

Among the numerous tedious problems very important to some constituents is trash-day trash leavings. Residents in his Hyde Park and Roslindale neighborhoods, and abutting areas, are disgusted, irate and want some fixes.

Paper and garbage clogging or blowing around sidewalks and streets are not the stuff of movies or important novels. They certainly aren’t what pols claim as their legacies. Yet, trash is unpleasant to look at or smell, it brings squirrels, dogs, cats, raccoons, opossums and crows, and no one sane longs to pick up other folk’s rubbish.

This week’s Hyde Park Bulletin has the messy story. (You have to pay $12 a year to read the articles and can only see an image of the lastest week’s front page otherwise.)

It’s complex and Consalvo is forced into a multi-phasic set of problems and solutions. It’ll likely lead to public hearings. Issues include:

  • Trash on the curb in boxes, paper bags, and plastic bags, often not in trash cans or barrels.
  • People looking for deposit cans and bottles opening up those before the garbage trucks get there, scattering trash about or leaving the bags open for animals.
  • Garbage crews spilling partial loads through inattention or because of poor packaging — and leaving the stuff on the sidewalk or road.
  • Trash put on the curb up to 24 or more hours before pickup day, which exacerbates the likelihood of its ending up loose.

Already, Consalvo sees a couple of partial solutions. One would be to copy the requirement in higher-density areas with restaurants, like the North End, for all trash to go into lidded barrels. That was largely a reaction to the rodent problems there. However, we in more suburban, single family Boston neighborhoods know the destructive capabilities of hungry ‘possums and dogs.

Another would be to make sure that street sweeping schedules follow trash pickup the next day.

Consider the gleaners

Among his messages was also the awareness that bottle pickers can open bags in their quest for deposit money. There’s a chance for an education/cultural solution here.

In a town that fancies itself as Catholic and otherwise religious, the modest consideration for such gleaners should be an easy sell. It goes back to the Torah and Old Testament, and is well covered in the Book of Ruth. The law in agarian communities was to allow the less fortunate to pick the leavings in the fields after harvest.

Likewise, we have weekly (or three times a week in places like Beacon Hill) harvest in a sense. Most people don’t bother with nickel deposits on soda and beer cans and bottles. Even in such hard times, there are plenty of pickings on the curb as well as in downtown public trash cans.

All we need to do in front of our houses is to put out a separate container with the deposit containers. We have that single-stream monster recycling bin, but we use the old, small rectangular blue one for deposit bottles and cans.

Modern gleaners come around a few hours before the garbage and recycling trucks. Where they see separate containers with the deposit containers, they don’t mess with trash cans or the big bin.

It’s better for us and for them. Consalvo is likely right on this aspect too. We don’t see damaged bags or papers pulled out of the big bin.

The old texts commanded that gleanings be left for the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. The principle remains much the same. What is a small thing for most of us can be substantial to another.

Plus, it makes for spiffier neighborhoods.

Tags: harrumphharrumphergarbagerecyclinggleanerbottle depositConsalvo

Up in the Actors’ Faces

April 22nd, 2011

Is it odd that someone as inherently shy as I likes theater where you could touch the actors if you stretched just a bit? Well, I am and I do.

Last evening, we had that experience again, this time in Cambridge. It was our first time at the Central Square Theater. It was much like my countless off-off-Broadway evenings in my decade living in Manhattan. It was also very similar to the old New Rep, when it was the Newton Repertory Theater (hence New Rep) in the Congregational Church in the Highlands there.

I think we found our new New Rep yesterday.

Not only did we like the space and play, but we had the affirming omen of sharing the restaurant with a famous professor holding forth. Theater before theater with splendid food has all the marks — at least the public ones — of a good evening.

Cheek to Jowl

I started enjoying off-off-Broadway productions when I was in high school in New Jersey and would bus into town. Coffee houses, folk music and poets were the entertainment norms, but cheap theater was another part. I got in at the very end of the beatnik phase and the start of the Dylan/Baez/Ochs types. Folk, poetry, jazz or plays were all a few bucks and generally no waiting, reservations or the other rituals of today.

When I moved to the city in the decade there were a few Broadway theaters with bargain seats. I recall the Winter Garden had Sondheim and such where obstructed view seats were under $10. You’d be in a box very close to the stage, but a column would cut off a corner of your sight of the whole stage.

Particularly for musicals, that was of little significance. A friend who loved Follies and such had me accompany her repeatedly to such shows.

My heart though was in the rawer dramas off-off-Broadway. They were invariably in smaller theaters, mostly below Times Square. As with the Central Square Theater, the audience was from two thirds to entirely around the stage. It is like being in the play, without the extroversion. The plays were innovative, unknown to most of the audience and as such riveting and demanding.

If I want to see and hear the same tired tale or song again and again, I could turn on television.

Likewise, we immediately decided to subscribe to the New Rep when we went to our first play there — Moby Dick, An American Opera — in 2001. Not only were we right on the sprawling stage that was the Pequod and much more, but it was not some hackneyed crowd pleaser.

I could certainly go the rest of my life without another production of the 100 or so plays Boston professional, touring, college and community theaters stage. We understand that they put on what they know people will pay to see. Yawn.

Instead, I love being next to the stage and action. I love new plays that require full attention and forming my own judgments.

Fear of Sameness

So last evening, I got it all. While we didn’t go entirely blind and had read a review of Breaking the Code, we did not know the work or playwright. Our reward was a very well written and largely superbly acted blending of biography, history, melodrama, mathematics and fledgling computer science. It was very memorable and far more so than had we seen yet another hoary modern classic play. Yawn again.

Early in life, I could not believe people’s need for the known and fear of the unknown. The mere idea of an eternal heaven of one unchanging, blissful day sounds rather like hell to me. Likewise, I an aghast when I hear folk say they love or look forward to loving to do the same thing every day in their retirement, be that golf or fishing or whatever — hell acted out on earth.

When I lived in Manhattan, a high-school chum decided to become a chef, enrolled in the CIA up in Hyde Park on the Hudson, and took to spending weekends based in my West Village apartment. We were together often, walking the length of the island, eating, drinking, going to theater and such. She became a successful chef.

She told me a story of sameness more than once as she graduated head of her class and worked NYC restaurants. She’d cock her head to the left as she was wont when amused to tell me that I was a better cook but could never be a chef.

She noted that I could go to the pantry or the corner green grocer and create a remarkable meal from what I found. She said that made me better with food and thus a better cook. However, as she learned in school and professionally, the vast majority of restaurant customers want, expect and demand the same…every time.

I did and still do cook by what is best and freshest, combining them generally differently each time. I rarely use recipes. In contrast, she said, customers pay for a predictable experience, one that is a package with generally the same companion(s). Their veggies, entrées, soups, desserts and all damned well look, feel and taste exactly as they remember them.

Likewise, with theater, the crowds like the predictable. They want stories they know, dialog they’ve heard, and a play that their neighbors and coworkers will also recognize.

Felicitousness Omens

Only a block from the theater is an apt restaurant for it, Rendezvous. We had been there before and returned, but not because we expected an identical experience. While some of the dishes are pretty steady, many vary by Chef Steve Johnson’s whims, by which of his herbs are in his garden, and by what pates and sausages he and the staff have concocted that week and day.

Shortly after we ordered, someone else who likes Rendezvous arrived to join a table of maybe two dozen. Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates came in, greeting his friends and the wait staff alike. Cheeks were kissed.

I did not get boorish and buttonhole him. After watching his Faces of America PBS series, I suspect he’d appreciate the light link we have. My mother came from the same immediate region as he. They were born in the same hospital in the tiny town of Keyser, West Virginia. He, she and her father all graduated from Pot State (Potomac State in Keyser, now part of the state University system).

As his series shows, it’s possible there is some family connections as well. Who knows, but just talking the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia is not an experience he likely gets often. Nor do I.

Regardless, I behaved myself. On the way out, I did ask the maitre d’ and sure enough, he’s a regular. Perhaps we’ll coincide on a future visit to the theater and we can play two former hillbillies.

Meanwhile, the dinner was wonderful and my wife and I had a fine time there and at the play. We’ll be back to both.

We do vary our restaurants. The several companies that stage in that little complex don’t have so many productions that we’d be on entertainment autopilot.

Following its move from Newton to Watertown, the migrated New Rep stuck us as fairly boring. They run a lot more conventional productions. We dropped our subscription. They have aged badly and are much more timid.

Now in Central Square, there’s what we like.

Tags: harrumphharrumphertheaterCentral Squareoff-off-Broadwaycookingvariety

On the 3rd Day, They Fudged

April 22nd, 2011

balanceFor well-meaning equivocation, it’s hard to outdo UUs on Easter. The wings of many Unitarian ministers stretch and strain as they try to include all, offend none, and somehow blend Easter, Passover, and jelly beans and Peeps.

Frankly, UU jokes are too common, too easy, too cheap. Having been a UU for decades, I attended and joined knowing what was up with liberal religious sorts, both in history and present. I also came from the stereotypical return-to-church-and-become-UU profile. Raised as a serious Methodist,  I was a devote little Christian, but as the Monty Python character says, “Got better.”

Younger folk should be aware that this was before the United Methodist Church. There were separate white and black churches, plus the white ones had both Southern and Wesley branches. Members of the former looked askance at those of us in the latter, also known as high-church Methodist. We were considered almost Episcopalian, which was almost Roman Catholic. Oooooo.

Regardless, my small self always attended both Sunday School and church, joined the youth fellowship, was in the choir and on and on. I knew the comfort of belief in a personal savior, an all-powerful, everywhere present God, life everlasting, Christ’s resurrection, and transubstantiation. To this day, I recall my young self rolling in the mystical sense of transformation in my mouth and throat during communion.

Now I am more typical of American UUs. Few are Christians and around here many of those are former Roman Catholics psychically roughed up by the clerics of their youth. Many say they are or were Jews. Others came from the camp of the amusingly condescending term of UUs unchurched.

Many UU churches specialize in social action, contributing self as well as money to good causes for the life, betterment and comfort of others. Most UUs I have known are not just write-a-check-and-praise-yourself types.

No Hell

So imagine being a minister on Easter Sunday carrying that many hearts and minds in your arms, not wanting to harm, damn, or offend any subcategory of congregant.  This exacerbates the weekly problem of including the Christian and specifically Protestant history of Unitarianism and the everybody-can-find-salvation heritage of Universalism with the current reality that most members are not Christians. Some even are affronted by Christ lingo. Too many UU churches give least consideration to Christian members.

I am to terms with my ex-Christianity in early adolescence. I got there on my own, struggling all the way, coming from a church-going family. It became an oft-told tale among my relatives and chums about confessing this to my mother. She was a long-time Sunday School teacher and her father has been in various offices in churches. She smiled broadly when I told her and said, “Finally, I can stop teaching Sunday School!” She had been doing that for me and was a closet humanist in her own right.

So there you are on Easter Sunday, in the pulpit before of the two most populated congregations of the church year. You make the wheezing joke about the church being open on other Sundays. You know that maybe half the folk don’t come regularly, that many have never been there before, that quite a few don’t understand what UUs are about, and that church members want that spiritual ambrosia. They want a sensitive blend of acknowledgement of Judaism/Passover with another joke about bunnies lugging candy about with cautious allusions to the Jesus story.

So the easiest mix has springtime/renewal concepts, equivocations about some believe a Messiah has never appeared, others that one is out of the question, and others that there was what today’s youth have profanely chosen to term Zombie Jesus. No one group will be totally satisfied — the universe in the pews is simply too diverse and stratified.

How much easier it would be to provide a homily for the religiously homogeneous. On Friday, Jews can hear a pure Passover message. On Sunday, Christians get the powerful message of hope for a heaven and permanent bliss.

Instead, most UU ministers stand before an often prickly crowd. They know they are sure to bore some, offend others, and leave out still others. Ministers tell me that typically congregants will let know them how they have failed on Easter Sunday.

Oddly, there seems to be less pressure on the services around Christmas. Even ex-Christians or lapsed Catholics let the infectious joy of the season compensate for loose talk about a savior being born. That rising from the dead to sit at the right hand of God is another matter.

Jews I know who attend and belong to UU churches seem much more flexible about service content. In most UU churches, you’re not going to find a crucifix or Christian communion. Instead, they tend to have highly adapted versions and even water communions, similar to how they name children instead of Christen them. Even Catholics tell me that is a big improvement over the baptism in their churches that intends to drive the devil out of newborns.

I feel for UU preachers come Easter. I do believe most need to show more guts though. In too many UU churches I have attended, there are subtle or plain derision of Christians as though all of them are intolerant and dull-witted. Yet, I know UU Christians and some of the greatest, most generous, hardest working social activists are in that camp. Fortunately for the UU ministers, that splendid set of good souls are, like the UU Jews, forgivable and flexible. I have heard a few mention in passing to a minister or worship committee member something like, “You know, I am a Christian.” This seems not to whine, but just to remind others that the history and shared religion includes Christians, as well as the astonishing range of Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, and many other traditions often cited.

This sermon juggling pressure falls on the UU ministers or perhaps they take it on themselves. This seems in stark contrast to the fundy churches that openly deride homosexuals as doomed to a hell and shout often that only one man/one women couples are worthy of producing children. I try to imagine how the many couples who adopt or turn to IVF to grow their families must feel hearing such irrational hate. Likewise, I have heard gay black folk I know say the compartmentalize their religion from the homophobic rhetoric they hear so often from the pulpit.

It seems to be the UU preachers who try to accommodate the worshipers in contrast to expecting anyone coming in the door to shut up and do what they’re told…and sing a psalm of praise. As UU ministers have often said to me with a smile and laugh, they don’t have the threat of eternal damnation and suffering to use.

I have never heard a UU minister speak on the deep and simple joys that Christians feel in their belief in resurrection and hope in their belief of a heaven and relief in their belief that Jesus took away their sins by his death. I don’t believe any of that, but I recall believing it all.

I am pretty sure that UUs would not be hurt and might be more tolerant of the Christians among them and in the larger world if they considered life and afterlife from their view and experience.

Tags: harrumphharrumpherEasterUUChristiansJewstolerance

Crusader Rabid

April 17th, 2011

madWell, I was wrong, but nowhere near as much as the screaming, puerile cyclist following me. I’ve never seen that maybe apocryphal Critical Mass cyclist who smashes car windshields with his bike lock, but I got a glimpse into such a soul in downtown Dedham this afternoon.

My ideal, surely utopian, image of cylists are green, peaceful types, co-existing with all. Yet, let us accept that Masshole-ism knows not from two or four wheels or none. While on two wheesl, as I normally am, I have never threatened a driver, though quite a few have buzzed me, three have hit me on my bike, and many have screamed to get on the sidewalk or other such craziness.

I’d like to think that nice people ride bikes and that riding a bike makes or reinforces niceness. As I think that, I remember that I have a similar fantasy about good cooks. My-hand-to-your-mouth mentality and the lush wholesomeness of food should engender kindness. Yet in my own family, my maternal grandmother was a magnificent cook, particularly of baked goods, but she often was nasty to many of her relatives. I have never come to terms with what seems dissonance. In reality, the conflict lies in my ideal, my fantasy.

Today, I turned left on red. That switched on the rage and abuse of a middle-aged cyclist beside me.

I note, as I have before, that I am such a law-abiding driver that people make fun of me for signaling exits from rotaries and switching lanes, never running red lights and so forth. My confession is that I am working on red light behavior as a cyclist. I always stop for stop signs and red lights, and I always signal a turn unless as the law says it is unsafe to take a hand off the bars (as in descending a steep hill). Yet if the road is clear, I may treat the light as a sign and advance. I’m working on this, but it is a long-time habit. I would like to see us pass laws permitting such behavior as a few places have done. I’ll introduce that bill and testify for it again, but meanwhile, I know what is sensible and safe in this case is still illegal in Massachusetts.

So the enraged guy came behind me bellowing self-righteous scolding, many times at increasing volume. I could see others looking at him, seemingly thinking from their expressions, “Who is this ass on the bike?” I looked at him that way too.

He held forth with numerous profanities and schoolyard insults. The gentlest thing was ordering me to trade my bike in for a tricycle. Most were raw obscenities far beyond the level my transgression.

I did notice in my mirror that the light changed a couple of seconds after I turned. He then took several turns behind me, yelling the whole time, but never signaling. I don’t suppose his illegal actions gave him reason to berate  himself.

He was such a cartoon and so out of proportion, as well as of no more authority to enforce the law than he would trying to make a citizen’s arrest for a driver’s violation.  He didn’t anger me because he was such a Yosemite Sam character. In this case, had he come at me and attacked me physically, I certainly would have been willing to mix it up with him, and I don’t pick fights.

I did extrapolate that he likely spewed his self-righteous vitriol toward drivers who offended him as well. He might have sense enough not to scream obscenities at someone driving a ton or two vehicle, but with his out-of-control mouth, I doubt that. One of those might be as immature and lacking in executive function as he, and then run him over. In my case, had he wanted to criticize and perhaps change my single bad behavior, approaching me to discuss it calmly and rationally would have been his best bet.

He left Dedham center still screaming swear words. I did my business and then headed on my next leg a little sadder. I like my fantasy of nice cyclists and don’t care for screaming bullies. I have been known to pooh pooh drivers and pedestrians who swear that every cyclist is a mad man or wild woman trying to run them down and never even slowing for traffic signals. I fear today’s aging screamer will color my mind. People that out of control and emotionally volatile shouldn’t be in public at all, much less on two wheels.

Tags: , , , ,

Who Gives a Damn About Libraries?

April 16th, 2011

Even on libraries…

We can forget just how gutless Brits can be. That is my genetic and cultural heritage — deference and melancholy. I have a more personal experience with loving libraries.

To the point, about two weeks ago, an acclaimed young English author, Zadie Smith, made an emotional appeal, with intellectual undertones, on BBC 4, calling for maintaining local public libraries even with demands for austerity. I would link to her nearly five minute speech, but the Beeb has been chastened for running it without its usual snarky challenges it makes to interviewees. Instead of its typical iron maiden sort of guest torture, the Today segment let her speak and paid heavy penalties. Rather than say it was her opinion, the Beeb biggies folded and groveled.

You’re in luck though in that at least two of the rebutters are online and available even after they removed Smith’s originals. I did find her remarks on YouTube though. A puerile poster there accompanies her speech with crude graphics calling her a socialist, “shit writer” and so forth. If you want to keep a little objectivity, you can minimize the window during audio play. If you’re hardcore right wing, you can hear like-minded critics of her position here and here. Moreover, the English press was all over her and the Beeb for calling for continued public funding for public libraries; more such links are here.

The Brits seem to have stopped demands for rights with Magna Carta and really don’t relate much to our whole First Amendment/free speech thingummy. Also unlike U.S. libraries with citywide funding in most cases, most English public libraries are under controls of local councils, nearly autonomous hyperlocal groups that seem to operate like U.S. home owners associations, with all the power and none of the wit of big-picture people.

Likewise, most American seem content to fund public libraries and accept that local access to books and other educational resources is necessary, wise, and, well, American. In contrast, conservative Brits who have spoken up take the position that as fewer go to libraries regularly, that means these deserve less or no funding. Also, they say familiar winger stuff like saying, “If I don’t use this service, my tax-funded government should not pay for libraries.”

For the moment, set aside the arguments about schools, highways, rail, and mass transit. Do you think it is unfair that services for the commonweal require funding from those who at a given time in their lives or locations may not use all the service? Those who understand the basics of democracies and nations should, but not all do.

Libraries I’ve Known

Maybe because I’ve been around awhile or perhaps because I grew up in homes with many hundreds of books, I believe in libraries. As we always got many magazines and several daily papers, my family in my childhood through adulthood read at home, in school and in libraries. I always had at least two sets of encyclopedias available, along with big atlases, unabridged dictionaries, almanacs, and many other reference books. From an early age I was sure to hear the same response whenever I asked by widely and deeply knowledgeable mother something — “Look it up!”

Sometimes, we didn’t have the books with the right answers in house. From an early age, I trotted to the library. School libraries were pretty limited, so it was to the public ones.


I  was eight when I truly got into libraries as lifestyle. In Danville, Virginia, the public library was in a mansion built by a Civil War era officer and tobacco magnate, Maj. William T. Sutherlin. His home became the last capital of the Confederacy where the decision to surrender occurred. I was vaguely aware of the history, but much more attuned to the huge number of books.

It surely was a grand home and it was a wonderful library. The kids’ and young adults’ books were in the basement, which was cheerful with numerous windows up high.

There I discovered and devoured whole ranges of books we did not have at home. I remember reading everything that was in whole or part of Norse mythology and of dinosaurs. Apparently too I read virtually everything, checking out the maximum (eight at a time as I remember it). The chief youth librarian there pulled me aside and presented me with an adult card after I had gone through her goods. That let me upstairs into an even wider world. I kept at it until we moved when I was just short of 13. Bless her.

We lived for a couple of years next in the middle of Virginia, Chester. It had a pathetic library. I read everything we had at home, turned to randomly going through encyclopedia articles and our many history books, and spent more time and money visiting bookstores in nearby Richmond and in Washington when we saw relatives near there.

PlainfieldfrontThen the summer of my 15th birthday, we moved to Plainfield, New Jersey. It had a 1912 Carnegie library, one of many the steel magnate funded for the betterment of the common folk. Bless him too.

While the city had good book stores, as well as cheap and easy bus access to Manhattan where I visited constantly, the library was both a community center and educational resource. While it was replaced with a bigger, glassed, community-hospital looking place a few years after I graduated high school, my friends and I haunted and loved this one.

It abutted the big public park with the high school. We ate, debated, sang, necked and studied in the park and did everything short of eating and drinking in the library. My friends were often astonished at the number and variety of books in my apartment and for those without such absurd amounts of reference material, the library was key to decent grades and being able to converse with your chums.

There must have been classmates who didn’t read. I honestly don’t recall any. After all, this was also the Sputnik/space-race era. We were getting pushed from the President to teachers to parents to get smart, get smarter, and take America to the stars. Ta da.

[Of course, there were neither personal computers nor even the earliest forms of the internet (not even ARPAnet, bulletin boards, nor telnet command-line connections before browsers existed). Seeing that, kiddies should probably look up archie and particularly gopher. Information was available online before the World Wide Web GUIs, but you actually had to know how to get to it.]

View Across the Pond

For all reactionary craziness and vitriol toward Smith and secondarily the BBC, I didn’t really dig into this until the Financial Times’ Christopher Caldwell waved his right-of-center wand over the proceedings. In today’s FT, his column attempts a Newtonian objective distance for observation.

He agrees that Smith clearly and accurately sees libraries as cultural levelers, gateways for those who take advantage of them. Yet he criticizes her for not understanding the economics and politics behind the 400-plus libraries at risk of closure there. He writes that the snooty upper class sorts are not the problem here, rather that libraries “are imperiled for different reason: because (local councils) have better things to do with the money.”

He finds the grand public libraries both there and here as atavistic, belonging to “a brief transitional period at the end of the 19th century  — after the rise of democracy but before the rise of the welfare state.” He adds that in such tight times as now, governments decide what’s really necessary.

In that, he mentions an article by Eleanor Jo Rodger in American Libraries. He really doesn’t get too deeply into that, but I suggest reading it. Her primary theme is librarians need to define which of their services are necessities and which are amenities. From there, they can make the case and get steady supporters for the essentials they deliver.

Caldwell is certainly not anti-library. He does brush aside advocates’ personal and emotional calls. Instead, he cites the goals of the founders of the library systems as seeing “that a certain amount of intellectual infrastructure is necessary to the maintenance of a free society.” They aren’t to produce erudite gentlefolk, rather to help provide the public with “a basic toolkit of literary communication that leaves them uncowed by accounts built out of words, sentences and paragraphs.”

He concludes that the political reality is that defending such amenities as DVD checkouts and internet access “may work better than defending necessities.”

I suspect pitching necessities as well will be necessary. There are plenty of Americans, even more than usual in hard times, who are eager to forgo egalitarianism. The have-nots don’t get a lot of support in rough times, and little enough in good ones. Simply appealing to the American ideals of giving everyone a chance at the dream is seldom effective.

I am a book guy, one who has spent and still spends far more than my share of time in libraries. I am not a homeless fellow using a library to stay safe and warm. I’m not someone who needs to be there to access a computer and the internet. I’m not a teen who gets homework help there. Yet each of our groups and others uses and benefits from our branch libraries. That seems as American as it gets.

Cross-post, yet again: As this is both political and personal, I also put it on Marry in Massachusetts.

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Impossible Bike Lanes in the Works

April 15th, 2011

I was wrong (not unusual) and impatient (usual). Last evening’s presentation of the proposed Mass Ave bike lanes proved both.

By the end of 2011, the allegedly intractable problem of adding lanes from the oddly named Harvard Bridge (crossing the Charles at MIT) South to Roxbury seems solved. The always chipper, relentless efficient Boston Director of Bicycle Programs Nicole Freedman brought on the consultants and wowed maybe 150 jammed into and pouring out of the Copley Library ground floor meeting room.

readmassaveThe show-and-tell largely fell to Senior Planner (and cyclist) Nick Jackson of Toole Design Group. As an update on 4/19, Freedman sent the proposal. I extracted the real proposal diagram and reproduce it here.

The idea is to claim two five-foot cycling lanes by removing parking from the West side of Mass Ave in the stretch. Then it’s 5′ bike, 11′ travel (bus/truck), 10′ travel, 10′ travel, 11′ travel (bus/truck), 5′ bike, 8′ parking.
This is where I was particularly wrong. I have been sure this city lacked the political will to take parking. Even though numerous U.S. and European cities have done that for years, we have seemed to have been short on the guts. No more.
Of course, this being oddly suburban-ish automobile-centric Boston, it did not approach the ideal of isolated cycle tracks, so motor vehicles, pedestrians and bikes each got safe, separate paths. Hey, this is still a huge advance and again, a solution to the insoluble.
We should note that NYC does it far better, but it has considerable advantages we lack. Most obviously, its avenues, the North/South arteries, are almost entirely much wider and either one-way or two way with a wide median of some sort. There’s a lot more real estate for redevelopment.
Here, the city and the designers headed off the big problems. They surveyed the devil out of the abutting businesses and residents as well as the commuters. They also worked internally and with cycling groups to count who uses Mass Ave throughout the day and week and overnight. They know when cyclists are up to 16% of all traffic, when and where the LOS (level of service for traffic) was great (A, B or C) or sucky (D, E or F), and how filled the parking spaces were when.

The stretch runs from the river South past Symphony (connecting the heavy blue existing bike lane streets). With only 60 feet in play, solutions that worked elsewhere didn’t in this stretch. However, they found that overnight parking took a quarter or fewer of the spaces, permitting removing them from one side.
They also knew that Mass Ave is the location of 10% of bike crashes and EMS reported from Halloween to Halloween 2009-2010 that they hauled away 25 cyclists, mostly hit or doored.
There are issues to resolve, such as enforcement of bike-lane parkers and stoppers, loading zone times and locations, HP spaces and such, but last evening’s hearing got a great response from the almost entirely cycling audience. The residents and businesses seem to be at ease after all the outreach and study.
This effort is only the latest and most visible of Freedman/Tom Menino’s to continue and complete Boston’s transformation into a bike-friendly and 21st century city. She said we have 50,000 regular cyclists now, but she is aiming for five times that in the next decade. That would be 10% of all trips here.
Freedman returned repeatedly to a theme I have heard her sing many times (including our Left Ahead podcast with her and a similar one with her Cambridge counterpart Cara Seiderman). Real and imagined the number one complaint of motorists and some pedestrians is a perception that all cyclists run every read light, endanger walkers, and otherwise act as scofflaws — while of course, all motorists are safe, considerate and law abiding.
She was quick to poll the audience and lump us together as jay walkers, red-light runners and so forth, regardless of our mode of transit.
However, she said during this expansion of cycling, it behooves cyclists in particular to behave legally and respectfully. As cycling-oriented cities have seen, when enough cyclists use the roads, everyone obeys the traffic laws and regulations much more.
The local D-4 police captain, Paul Ivens (also a cyclist), backed her up. He was jolly but firm. Along with their regular duties, his officers have issued several hundreds of tickets to bike-lane car parkers since July. He noted that they would likely be handing out non-ticket tickets to cyclists soon as warning educational devices.
Freedman added that the city had already expanded its educational efforts with info in auto excise tax statements. She added that as more cyclists participate in the pending bike-rental program and otherwise feel comfortable enough with bike-lanes and other safety features her department will be expanding its how-to-bike safely (and legally) efforts.
The car culture certainly is entrenched here, with many non-cycling drivers clinging to fantasies that they are safe and bikers and walkers are all idiot scofflaws. Yet advances like these Mass Ave bike lanes hearten me. I’m a constant cyclist who drives weekly for major grocery shopping and such. I am a very law-abiding and safe driver, who never runs a red light, always signals lane changes, turns and rotary exits and such.
I’m getting there with cycling. I do signal unless it is patently unsafe to remove a hand from the bars. I stop and yield like I was in a car. Now, if I can made the emotional sacrifice to wait for every red light to change…
Cross-post: This being political and avocational for me, I post it at Marry in Massachusetts as well.

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Manly Men Entertaining Men

April 12th, 2011


My maternal aunt, Peg, was a nurse her whole career. She had internalized much of the folk lore of various Pueblo people from work and added that to the family heritage of West Virginia country wisdom. Among her convictions was that grunting really help in doing hard physical work. (That was also amusing in that she avoided manual labor skillfully.)

I think of Peg sometimes when I’m in the gym, both the weight room and the locker area. There is enough grunting there you’d think the men were either delivering babies or having a limb amputated. Some guys just can’t display enough drama.

On high school and college teams, we really didn’t hear much opera in the lockers. As an adult though, I have been regularly astonished and entertained by the heavy acting of guys.

For example, there’s big to huge noise at:

  • Lifting any weight, particularly bench pressing
  • Racking any weight, even girly-man ones like 20-pound dumbbells
  • Tying shoelaces (honest to Charles Atlas!)
  • Slamming locker doors shut

Unlike their sister Peg, my mother and Uncle Bill grew up in their father’s gut-it-out mindset. Grunting, yelling and other oral indications of pain were reserved for, well, real pain. Bellows were for moose and bovines, and melodramatic displays for ordinary tasks were considered sissy and rude. I confess to falling in this camp.

Consider today at the HP Y. Five of us were in the weight room doing our do. Another older guy and I were lifting, recovering, lifting, recovering. Three fully grown but younger guys, two friends and a solo, were performing. One guy picked up 15s and 20s from the dumbbell racks, did some curls and such, grunting and gasping throughout, watching himself right next to a mirror, and seeming like Hercules setting to yet another labor. When he finished a set, he’d let the little dumbbells slam into the rack, making clatter like they were the 80s below them.

Another had a single 30, which he sat on a bench and curled a dozen or so times. With ever bend, he’d do his best I’m-in-labor imitation. Across the room, the other 20 something was pushing a barbell with something modest like 90 pounds. It sounded like his chest might explode from the roars.

I finished about the same time and saw what I expected in the locker room from the divas. They left their locker doors open for someone else, likely the custodian, to shut for them. Two of them grunted when they tied their laces as though it was another manly task. I guess I missed the man memo about knotting laces being hard work.

It took be back to when Mad Maggie’s was in Norwood. Many of us from Microcom just up the hill worked out there. Several of the development engineers were serious grunters, the tenors of travail, as it were. We also would eat or drink together in sundry configurations. I remember one time I just couldn’t stand it and teased a programmer, Scott, on his grunting.

He alway made noise, loud noise, and we had just worked out in the same space a few hours before. He looked at me incredulously and was clearly insulted. He swore that he never grunted when lifting or using the Nautilus equipment. Sitting with us was another developer, who happened to have been his girlfriend a few years before. She laughed very heartily and corrected him. He was a yeller and bellower in all manner of exertion, she said. He remained stunned at what was clearly news to him.

Since that moment, I consider that many habitual grunters may be unaware of what they do and how loudly they do it. Also, from some I’ve known better, I see that their fathers are also grunters; I assume it is taught and not genetic though. Finally, as I see that so many of the grunters also leave lockers open and throw towels on the floor or benches for others to retrieve, I’m betting many were mama’s boys, first-born sons, or  only children. Those last are loaded terms, typed only from experience of knowing some of these loud guys’ family background, albeit a small sampling.

These grunts of seeming agony can be startling, particularly if they come unexpectedly from out of sight. Yet in the main, they are more entertaining than annoying. These poor fellows do seem insecure, as though they constantly have to prove they are doing tough work. If Peg was right, their drama helps them with the task at hand. Otherwise, it’s just sweat opera.


Reusing Power, Old and New

April 10th, 2011

The suddenly gray Potomac, with its distinct line at Luke Mills, was visible long after the smell alerted you. The billowing, rotund plumes from the smoke stack were not the benign steam we see (and don’t smell) in major cities. Instead, West Virginia Pulp and Paper use the standard sulfur dioxide to bleach its products (and did smell).


That plant in the old family employer is now called MWV and it doesn’t stink anymore. Yet those of us who knew we were close to visiting great uncles and great aunts and the countless cousins on the near Maryland side of the mountains recognize the stack at least (shown here from a Google street image).

Despite the many visits to the numerous Cave relatives on my maternal grandmother’s side, I hadn’t thought of the Luke plant for years until today. At BarCamp Boston, one of the sessions I attended was on solar-powered supercomputers. (Feel free to re-read that and let it sink in. That literally was the content.)

An aim of the array supercomputer competitions is to produce the most FLOPS with the least energy expenditure. FLOPS are floating-point operations per second, or raw processing output, in plain terms.

A side effect of energy use is that damned heat. That’s exacerbated nowadays by the industry using more processors instead of having the benefit of each processor being dramatically more powerful. Thus, more power often comes with a lot more heat generated.

Outside the rarefied joys of array supercomputing, this effect is constant in many of the services we use in our companies and even our internet recreation. Data centers and server complexes are hot boxes. You may extrapolate from that laptop that sears your thighs.

The guys in the solar-powered supercomputer lecture chatted up the cleverness of some data center designers and managers. They were pretty sure the center that was designed to reroute its heat into its building was in Iceland. Actually, they were munging the concepts. With the advantage of checking after the conference, I see that Icelandic buildings continue to use the local geothermal for heating and one new one can use free air for cooling its humongous computer operations.

Incongruously enough, that cooling innovation is in (ta da) London. A new data center built on the site of the original East India Company was designed to recycle the computer system’s considerable heat into usable energy for the 200,000 square foot facility.

To close the loop, I remember my grandmother’s relatives who worked their careers for West Virginia Pulp and Paper. While they never believed it, from far away it was obvious that the plant killed them. Three of the four of her brothers had brain or other vital organ cancers, as was common in Luke and neighboring Westernport. Instead, they gave us reams of typing or scratch paper that the company handed out, and they spoke gleefully and gratefully of the free heat.

The mountains of West Virginia and Maryland on the opposite banks of the Potomac can be, how did we say it as teens, cold as a witch’s tit? The paternalistic plant operators did at least run the steam from the operations under the town and to the houses. There was free heat, like the Icelandic geothermal version, always available.

So today’s workshop on supercomputers and the chatter about designing buildings to make it easy to capture and reuse the god-awful heat from computer operations was an atavism to me. In fact, I thought of the Elder Joseph Shaker song, Simple Gifts, with its closing lines:

To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.