Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fenway parker

Shame on City Councilor Michael Ross for using his office to get about $1,000 in parking tickets dismissed. Ross, who represents Beacon Hill, the Back Bay and the Fenway, now has to pay the State Ethics Commission a fine of $2,000 in addition to the $1,000 in parking fines. Crime doesn't pay, boys and girls. (Well, sometimes it does pay: There are another 70 tickets that were waived and that Ross doesn't have to pay back because he was on "official business." I'm sure that standard is applied quite liberally.)

Does every politician get corrupted? Is everyone in public office taking maximum advantage of the perks of their jobs? Sometimes it's hard not to think so.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The most obsolete show on earth

"This is all about how the circus is an anachronism in the modern world," Bob MacKay said in a story on Boston.com today. MacKay -- a South Shore pipefitter -- approached his state senator, Robert L. Hedlund, regarding the treatment of elephants in circuses in Massachusetts and the Republican from Weymouth is holding a hearing tomorrow on rules governing pachyderm treatment.

I've never liked circuses, and I agree that their day has come and gone -- especially any "act" that includes animals. The photo above is of a bullhook, which is typically used by circus trainers to control elephants. Ouch.

For whom the bell tolls

Within four months we've lost two of the finest people ever to serve as Congressmen from Massachusetts -- and, to my way of thinking, the two best legislators I've seen in my lifetime. Gerry Studds, who represented the 10th Congressional District (South Shore and Cape Cod), died in October, and Fr. Robert Drinan, who represented the 4th Congressional District (Newton and Brookline to New Bedford and Fall River), passed on last night.

The former was the first openly gay national politician in the US, and the latter was a Roman Catholic priest who irritated his superiors so much that Pope John Paul II demanded that he step down in 1980. Both men put conscience before politics and few of their like can be found today.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Desperate patients?

Jerome Groopman is a top doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a contributor to The New Yorker, which is where I've read some of his discussion of medicine and hospitals. He has a book, How Doctors Think, that will be published in the spring and today's Boston Globe has a column about the book that leaves the reader feeling a bit frightened at the state of medical care in the US today. I think it's a must-read.

If he only knew how right he'd be

In the Baltimore Evening Sun of July 26, 1920, American journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken wrote:

As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

The man was a soothsayer.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Clone sweet clone?

It looks like bills will be filed in both the House and Senate that would require meat, milk and other food products from cloned animals or their progeny to carry a label informing the consumer of the the animals' origins. The FDA has said that such labels would not be required, but that takes the choice out of the public's hands. Let us decide if we want to eat such foodstuffs.

Friday, January 26, 2007

More, more, more

I don't begrudge anyone a pension, but the recent rush in Massachusetts to add thousands more to the post-retirement salaries of state employees seems a little greedy to me. William Bulger -- who once gave "inconsistent" testimony to a Congressional committee that was looking into the sordid connections between the former state senate president, his gangster brother and a dishonored FBI agent, and then had to resign his post as president of UMass as a result -- had the nerve to ask that his pension be boosted from $179,000 to $208,000 a year because he felt some of the perks that the state was generous enough to provide should have been used in tallying the amount. The state retirement board agreed with him, and recently three former state legislators followed with their hands out, crying, "Me too."

Bulger received a severence package of nearly $1 million from UMass after what should have been a resignation in disgrace, but that -- and the $179,000 a year -- wasn't enough for the slimy, self-serving South Boston Democrat. His arrogance is only topped by his greed. As for the other legislators, who are likely the first of many, their totals aren't as high, but their attempts at sucking a few more bucks from the state are really disgusting to the average voter who is struggling to pay rent or meet healthcare expenses.

Chill out

Being that I have a warm place to live, I can appreciate the cold wave that has hit Boston. The air is exhilirating to be in for a short period -- as long as you have the means to escape it when you choose. The temperature here bottomed out at 3 overnight and rose to just 12 today, with a wind that made it feel significantly colder. It's 8 now and should drop a few more degrees tonight before rebounding tomorrow afternoon.

The coldest it's been in Boston since I've been alive is Christmas Day, 1980, when the mercury slipped to -7. I remember walking down Chelsea Street that morning, from my house to my aunt's. During the winter of 2003-04, while I was living in central Massachusetts, I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. because we were experiencing record cold and I wanted to go outside to experience what that feels like. I bundled up and went out for a couple of minutes, and when I checked the official reading it was -14. Now THAT is cold.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Boston Hemisphere?

The Boston Globe announced that the paper will be closing three foreign bureaus, further evidence of the decline of the breadth of newspapers in general and of the Globe in particular. As the article says, it's so easy for the reader interested in international news to go to The New York Times web site that smaller dailies just can't compete.

In a way it's a wash for the Times, which owns the Globe. But for those of us in the Boston area who value the integrity and independence of our preeminent daily, it's another blow, coming soon after the announcement that the Globe will be cutting 125 jobs, including 19 in the newsroom.

Will the newspaper's name be changed to reflect the diminishing coverage of the entire planet?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Following the 'Greed is good' mantra

I don't understand people. Boston.com has a story about a woman who controlled the expense accounts of a Massachusetts company and stole nearly $7 million, spending it on lavish trips and parties. Why wasn't she satisfied with that first thousand or $100,000? Why didn't she show some retraint after the first million?

Her story is outrageous, but it seems as though she isn't much different from many other people, who want more and more. Are we all greedy, self-serving beings only interested in ourselves?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

President Hagel?

In a feat of great prescience, I am going to predict right now that the next President of the United States will be Chuck Hagel, currently the senior senator from Nebraska. A Republican and a decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel did vote to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq, but he has been quite critical of the Administration's handling of the war since at least 2004.

Hagel has solid enough conservative credentials to get by the GOP primary -- especially with that party's activist right wing not being sold on the more moderate Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, and John McCain's all-out support for the war making him a liability for his party in the general election. With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the Democratic frontrunners, it is -- sad to say -- likely that quite a few voters will see Hagel as the safe white male alternative to whichever one of those two emerges, probably quite beaten up, from the primary gauntlet.

Hagel also has an independent streak that will appeal to many moderates, and the war experience of a twice-wounded grunt that makes his pronouncements on the current conflict above reproach. I don't agree with much of the man's political views, excepting the war, but he does seem like a decent guy, and I am convinced he will be the next occupant of the Oval Office.

Don't forget: You heard it here first.


A few witticisms that I came across recently:
  • Mark Twain on the epic novel War and Peace: "Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include a boat race."
  • Acerbic New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker (right), when asked to use the term "horticulture" correctly in a sentence: "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."
  • The character Ariel in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Hell is empty, and all the devils are here."
Indeed they are.

Friday, January 19, 2007


The Bush Administration condemned China's testing of a missile that shot down a satellite a week ago. That's all well and good, except that the US was the only nation to vote against a United Nations ban on the militarization of space that more than 170 other countries thought was a good idea.

Such votes are alarming and embarrassing. According to a piece online, the US voted "no" on about half of the UN resolutions advocating disarmament and security in 2006, often casting the only opposition vote: "[T]he United States stood alone even against measures intended to mitigate factors fueling civil wars and armed conflict" and on votes that would "curb the illicit trade of small arms."

Now, without an agreement to keep weapons out of space, America will spend -- and is spending -- billions of dollars to develop missiles that can hit a mark beyond the stratosphere, as well as technology that can defend against China's missiles. For Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Raytheon, Honeywell, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics and their peers this looks like another magnificent payday, but for the rest of us the world just got a little less safe.

Ignoring the rules

In another move that clearly ignores the Constitution, the Pentagon released rules for the trials of terror suspects that include allowing hearsay and coerced testimony. Such evidence could not only convict people, it could send them to the death chamber. This comes after the US previously dismissed the Geneva Conventions, having held some individuals now for five years.

Nobody wants terrorists to go free, but the civilized world has adopted standards, and the US has signed onto those standards. It is outrageous that the Bush Administration has decided that they don't apply. Those captured in the midst of a conflict are prisoners of war. They cannot be tortured and they must be set free when the battle is done -- which means in these cases when Kabul and Baghdad fell to US forces. Only those who have committed war crimes -- or, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, crimes against humanity -- can be held longer and then they must be tried fairly by an international tribune.

Those are the rules of engagement and the US is a signatory to those rules. It is arrogant and hypocritical for our government and military to institute an entire set of guidelines outside of those set up by the four treaties known as the Geneva Conventions. The only system that should work outside of that is the criminal justice system. If someone violates laws on American soil then they are held accountable to that system, with a trial that respects the Constitution. If someone violates laws outside of the US, then they need to be held accountable according to that country's laws. There are no other options -- except tyranny.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hard knock lives

Maybe the best story I wrote in my two years covering sports for Current Publishing -- which puts out eight weekly newspapers in suburban Portland, Maine -- was a piece on concussions called Hard Knocks. For the story I talked to high school athletes who received concussions as well as a doctor who specializes in brain injuries, a school nurse, an athletic director and a few athletic trainers. My conclusion was that concussions are much more serious than we thought even just ten years ago.

Today there is talk that an NFL player who committed suicide last fall might have been affected by the numerous concussions he received in his playing days. Also, there was a book published recently called Head Games that looks into "Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues," as the subtitle says.

My story, by the way, was one of three I wrote that were chosen by the Maine Press Association to receive first-place awards. If I can toot my own horn for another moment, the judge of the contest wrote, "An important, anecdote-spiced story about concussions in high-school sports, a significant issue ignored for decades in a macho world. Well-written, well-researched, and well-done."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

She wields a mighty pen

Sofia Snow is a 17-year-old from Boston whose words are garnering notice. The Boston Latin Academy senior is a poet and spoken-word artist, and there's a story about her today on Boston.com. Her pieces speak of the struggles of urban living and her roiling passion is clear in the audio of her readings that I listened to. Check out "Everyday" at Snow's MySpace page and hear her sling words like weapons.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Quencher of the gods

Mead is quite possibly the first alcoholic beverage that ancient humans knew. The drink, which is fermented honey, is thousands of years old, predating wine and beer. The Greeks drank mead and so did the Vikings. It is known to have been popular in most civilizations and is still consumed around the world, though here in the US we don't come across it that much.

Last year I attempted to make mead for the first time -- I've made my own hard cider for four years now -- and it came out OK. I just bottled this year's batch (see photo), which has a nice golden color to it. Because honey is more expensive than apples, I make much less mead than cider. Still, making it at home is cheaper than buying it, if one can find mead at the local liquor store.

Come by and we will raise a glass of mead together, just as Beowulf and Hroogar do in the 1,200-year-old epic poem before the hero heads out to slay the monster.

Destination: Eastie

Today's Globe reports on more development in East Boston, including condos that top out at $2 million. In the story, longtime neighborhood activist Mary Ellen Welch expresses concerns about Eastie remaining affordable for the rest of us, a quite legitimate concern.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The war is over?

There's a really disturbing article on the Boston.com web site now about America's out of control materialistic consumption. "[C]lass warfare seems to have ended, and the rich won," posits Don Aucoin, the story's author.

The piece seems to follow in line with what we find all around us in America. For example, I've seen a few minutes -- and it only takes that amount of time for anyone with a conscience to become visibly shaken -- of an MTV show called "My Super Sweet Sixteen," which documents the excesses parents will go to in order to please their spoiled, amoral children.

There are a number of tangled reasons why we have reached this point, which is roughly equivalent to the Roman Empire circa 475 A.D. Capitalism and its emphasis on money and material above all other things is certainly a central factor. People are defining themselves by the stuff that they have, rather than the stuff inside them. This conspicuous consumerism comes at a time of record debt among individuals and the government. Excuse me, but I think I hear the barbarians knocking on the gate.

Class warfare isn't over. When the bread runs out and the circuses end, the huge divisions will still be there and people will take notice.

Cooking outside the lines

When I'm in the kitchen I tend to follow a certain paradigm, and I'm not sure if I am part of a small minority or if everyone does the same thing. I usually check several recipes for a given dish and then, without writing anything down, I prepare to bake or roast or saute using whichever of the necessary ingredients I might have on hand and substituting for whatever I don't. And I don't measure anything.

Now some refer to my methods as "half-assed," while I'd like to suggest "adaptive" as a better term. There have certainly been occasions where my attempts have floundered and ended up nothing like what I was hoping to make, but more often than not, the entree or breakfast or dessert comes out just fine -- even providing a new twist on something. Isn't that how the art of cooking moves forward?

For example, for the past couple of years I have made pancakes with various substitutions, most notably prefering apple cider as the primary liquid ingredient instead of milk or buttermilk (which generally don't agree with me). The result has usual been excellent pancakes, despite my never reading or hearing of any fruit juice being used in such a recipe.

Until last week, when the Globe had one for orange cloud pancakes. I bought orange-pineapple juice (instead of straight OJ, and I used much more than in the recipe -- of course, because I wasn't looking at the recipe at all). I didn't have cottage cheese, so I skipped that all together. The pancakes came out great. Bon apetito.

King prophesizes Bush?

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
--Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Don't mind the gap

Who knew that it is still possible to cross the Bering Strait on foot? Apparently Karl Bushby, a 37-year-old Briton, knew and he did so in March of last year, traversing the iced over 58 miles between the westernmost point of Alaska and the easternmost part of Russia.

Bushby, whose sea crossing actually covered 150 miles because of shifting ice, is more than halfway through a 36,000-mile walk almost around the world, from Cape Horn to Britain. (There is no similar freeze between the British Isles and Newfoundland that would allow him to complete the loop.)

Bushby and his crossing companion, French adventurer Dimitri Kieffer, were eventually arrested by Russian authorities for entering the country illegally. Of course, in their defense, there was no gate that they crashed or guard who they evaded. They just walked in through the wide-open back door.

After some diplomatic wrangling, the two were released. Currently Bushby appears to be walking somewhere in Russa.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The sweetest thing

Unpasteurized apple cider is somewhat of a passion of mine. Unlike most store-bought cider (which is pasteurized) or apple juice (filtered, pasteurized and often doused with preservatives), the good stuff is simply the juice of crushed apples. Taste it and you will be hard-pressed to return to drinking cider from the supermarket, which often has slight bitter flavors replacing the earthy fruit taste as a result of being heated to 160 degrees (the pasteurization process).

These days, untreated cider can only be sold from the orchard that produces it due to unfortunate federal regulations. The reason? A confluence of sloppy practices has, in the past, resulted in a few people getting sick. If one were to use apples from the ground – “drops” – instead of picked apples and if one were to own livestock and allow those animals to roam the orchards and to do their business wherever … well, you can probably see where this is going.

The overwhelming majority of orchards selling their cider to the public follow strict rules that prevent any of these variables from happening. Still, for a number of reasons, few of them continue to sell unpasteurized cider. Living in the city makes it even tougher to find and get to those places regularly.

In autumn I made occasional visits to Honey-Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, about an hour west of Boston, to buy cider, but they’ve shut down for the season. A little research on the ‘net led me to another farmstand in that same central Massachusetts community – Derby Orchards – and I’m happy to report that they are open and selling unpasteurized cider – at $3.75 a gallon, which is a good price – and plan to continue doing so into February. I picked up three gallons today, in fact. Bottoms up.

Friday, January 12, 2007


As the credits rolled on a film I saw this evening I heard someone call out my name. It was dark in the theater, so I didn't recognize the young woman at first, but it turned out to be one of my former high school students. I followed her outside the theater door, where she introduced me to her husband. Then we shot the breeze a bit about the good old days, and she said many nice things about me -- I had been her English teacher six or seven years ago.

I run into former students occasionally, and former members of the Boys & Girls Club, where I worked for 13 years. They always heap kind words upon me, and it's quite flattering. It often takes many years, but the young people that you work with do absorb some of what you tell them and they do appreciate it. Like most worthwhile rewards, it is a bit slow in coming, but it is indeed rich and savory.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Straight talk from Chuck

Kudos to Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for telling it like it is. Hagel was tough on Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice when she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon, calling the president's new Iraq strategy "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam..."

Speaking with Charlie Rose tonight, Hegal acknowledged that the US has created a Middle East that is a much more dangerous place today than four years ago. "It's a mess," he said, and his honesty and straightforwardness are much appreciated.

Reality bites...hard

A large number of Americans aren't buying George Bush's contention that another 21,500 troops will allow us to turn the corner in Iraq. Boston.com reports that 70% of those polled oppose sending additional troops. The story goes on to say that Bush's overall job approval rating is now at 32%, a new low.

More troops will allow the US to kill more insurgents -- there's no doubt about that. But more American soldiers will die as well and the country has seen enough blood spilled for objectives that are unclear.

The number of people who want to do us harm -- and who are willing to die to do so -- has increased dramatically because of our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Send in more troops and we will continue to motivate those people to take up arms against us. Bush and his neoconservative allies have made the world much more dangerous for Americans, now and for the next 20 to 50 years.

Midway through Bush's first term one official in his administration told a reporter that he and his boss were working on a different plane, a different reality than the rest of us. It was another case of a small group thinking that they were "the smartest guys in the room." Reality -- the one we all face -- has spoken loud and clear, though a small group still seem to think they can turn lemons into lemonade. The fruit is poisoned. Let's put it down and leave.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Theory of relativity

Winter -- or more accurately, temperatures that we in Boston are used to feeling this time of year -- blew into town today. It's currently 32 degrees with lows tonight in the lower 20s. It feels so much colder, however, and that can be attributed somewhat to the moderate breezes coming in from the northwest (wind chill: 20), but also the mild November and December (both the warmest ever in Boston) appear to make one much less tolerant of a little chill in the air.

It's all relative. A high of 50 feels nice after a cold spell, but when the mercury drops down to 50 from the mid-80s on a late summer day it makes me shiver.

Many facets of life are the same. The Catholic Church and the political right rail against relativism, but in my examination of life and the universe, it is the only conclusion I can come to. All factors are dependent on other factors and so on. Even good and evil are not carved in stone.

For example, picture this scene: a man is about to shoot a woman. Who is right and who is wrong? Immediately it appears that the man is commiting an evil act and is wrong and must be stopped. But what if we pull the camera back and the woman is about to kill a child? Now the tables are turned and the man appears in the right while the woman is evil. Add more information: the woman is insane, perhaps. Now the whole scene takes on a shade of gray.

Even simpler: A man steals. Stealing is wrong, correct? He is stealing from a store owned by a single mom who is trying to pay her mortgage. That's terrible, no? The man should go to jail! Further inspection reveals an adjustment to the initial premise: A man steals to feed his starving children. Now where do we stand? Paying mortgage vs. feeding kids. It's all relative.

Most of our day to day troubles fall in the gray-shaded spaces between absolutes. Too often the absolutists just want us to accept their definitions of what is right and what is wrong. Their interpretations are no better than mine, and in fact I find them to be much worse. To quote Henry David Thoreau: "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."

Right on.

Monday, January 8, 2007

'Stop this man'

James Carroll lambastes George W. Bush and his failed Iraq policy in today's Boston Globe. Calling the president "a taunting killer," Carroll condemns the Administration's plan, to be unveiled tomorrow, to send even more troops to Iraq: "Bush is the impresario of unnecessary violence. America has followed him into the death chamber of this war, and now he wants us to believe that the way out is through more death."

Carroll rails against the chaotic and amateurish execution of Saddam Hussein, saying that the handling of the death sentence made "an absolute villain [into] an object of pity" and that it seemed like "an act of tribal revenge" rather than justice.

On the execution, I agree. What we need to remember here is that we are trying -- maybe crazily -- to instill justice and the rule of law into a country that has been run by a tyrant for decades. How does this execution -- seemingly rushed, with the criminal taunted and the video on the Internet -- advance our case? Leo McGarry, the chief of staff from The West Wing, may be a fictional character, but his pronouncement that, "The process matters more than the outcome," is a concept that has stuck with me and is applicable in this case.

I also agree with Carroll's feelings on Bush, who lied to gather support for the war and has a "fantasy now that an honorable outcome remains possible..." Chillingly, Carroll ends with a plea: "Stop this man."

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Tea time

A friend once gave me a gift with this printed on it: "While there is tea, there is hope." I'm not sure how literally true the expression is, but hot tea is certainly one of life's pleasures, especially on days that are damp or cold. Given a choice of how to spend time, settling down with a book and a cup of tea is near, if not at, the top of my list.

Tea is one of the items, like pasta and bread and chocolate, that is such an essential staple -- as well as an emotional part of who I am -- that when a doctor has told me that it might for some reason be a good idea to go without the drink (it could increase my uric acid; it could eventually darken my dental implants) I have responded that I choose not to do so. I gave up Coca-Cola (and all soda) nearly three years ago -- but that was an easy choice, as that stuff really is terrible for you. Tea, meanwhile, has all kinds of healthful qualities, in addition to tasting good, feeling nice going down and providing a relaxing accompaniment. I drink mine -- two to five times daily -- with no milk, but with a nice dollop of honey.

I've never liked American coffee, but in recent years I have become hooked on designer coffee drinks -- a latte or cappuccino (no more than one a day) is a nice pick-me-up and perfect for sitting at a favorite cafe and reading, talking with friends or people watching. At Diesel Cafe in Davis Square, Somerville, I opted for a nice pot of Chinese green tea yesterday and was well rewarded. I sipped and read for nearly two hours. If I could, it's likely that this would be part of my routine every day.

Sign of the times

As I took a few photos of the sign of a bakery in Davis Square, Somerville, I saw a small commotion inside the place and a woman came to the door. "Excuse me," she said. "Why are you taking pictures here?"

I explained that I thought the sign was cool and was then ready to tell her that I was on public property and could therefore take a photo of her sign if I pleased, but she said, "Oh OK."

This is not the first time that I've shot businesses and had an owner or employee worriedly confront me. Maybe it is post-9/11 paranoia, which is understandable to a degree, but really -- I don't think the terrorists are coming after our baked goods.

I actually did get chased away one time by a security guard at a condo development in East Boston that was in the midst of construction, as if I were stealing state secrets about plasterboard and brickwork.

Heroes among us

I don't think there's any way to tell in advance how you will react when confronted with a situation that requires instantaneous action to save someone's life. Well, that is, unless you are Wesley Autrey or Lenny Skutnik.

Autrey, 50, jumped down onto subway tracks in New York City last Tuesday to save the life of a man who fell while having a seizure. The construction worker quickly covered the 20-year-old film student as the train roared overhead. “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Autrey told The New York Times.

Autrey (photo above) joins Skutnik, who dove into the icy Potomac River in January of 1982 to save a woman whose plane had crashed, in the pantheon of Average Joes whose split-second courage made them heroes. Most of us would, more than likely, feel anguish and empathy, but would not have the guts to jump onto the tracks or into the river.

There are, however, a number of people among us who would respond as these two did, but they'll never be confronted with a situation that requires them to do so. It may be the guy who cuts you off and gives you the finger tomorrow or the woman who was impatient with you at work last week. All of us have our positive qualities and negative qualities, just as we are products of good experiences and bad experiences and all have our good days and bad days.

If Cameron Hollopeter hadn't fallen onto the tracks and if Air Florida Flight 90 hadn't crashed into the Potomac then Autrey and Skutnik would just be a couple of guys living out their days anonymously, just as thousands of people are doing at this very moment -- people who have the courage to be heroes if the need should suddenly appear.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Seasonal depression

Today is the second consecutive day that Boston has posted the highest temperature in 125 years, and we broke this one at 10 o'clock this morning. By 1 p.m. the thermometer at East Boston Savings Bank had a reading of 68 degrees, one short of the day's high. At least one cherry tree blossomed on the Common yesterday, according to the Globe, and other stories I've read noted that the unseasonable warmth has changed the migration habits of some birds.

One area that concerns me is the coming maple sugar season. For the sap to run, temperatures need to be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. If we don't have a steady period of those conditions, New England maple syrup production will continue to decrease and the price is likely to skyrocket.

There are some positive effects of this warm winter: Less energy is needed to heat houses and less money is being spent on snow removal. Of course, we're still in mid-winter and there's plenty of time for cold and snow to make an appearance. We've had snowstorms well into April in the not-too-distant past, so those of us who love winter haven't given up just yet.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Speaker of lies

Get caught with a couple ounces of marijuana or shoplift an item from a department store and you could do jail time, but intentionally mess with the inner workings of democracy and lie about it and you'll get a slap on the wrist. At least, if you're Tom Finneran.

The former Speaker of the state legislature pleaded guilty today to obstruction of justice charges in exchange for having three counts of perjury dropped in a case stemming from his involvement in a legislative redistricting plan. Finneran received 18 months of probation, a $25,000 fine and agreed not to run for political office for five years.

Now the president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, Finneran may also end up getting disbarred and losing his state pension, but the fact is that he lied under oath in a case that determined that the districts that were drawn up violated the state constitution. As a lawyer, he knows better. As the most powerful person in the state during his reign as Speaker, it demonstrates an arrogance that was also on display when Finneran refused to fund the Clean Elections Act, even after being ordered to do so by the state's highest court.

Maybe voters in Massachusetts elected Republican governors for 16 years to balance the tyranny that they saw in the state legislature.

Project runway

The Boston Globe reports today that Logan Airport's newest runway, which is called 14/32, has reduced delays at the airport in its first month of operation. Logan's fifth runway was constructed 30 years after Massport initially floated the idea because of vehement community opposition and a court injunction. With Republican governors in charge for the past 16 years, the will of local residents was pushed aside, the injunction overturned and the 5,000-foot runway was put into place.

While the Globe article passes on the airport's bubbly praise of the new slab of asphalt -- and does so with a seeming dirty look to those who objected to its construction -- our point has always been that Massport cannot be trusted. Their goals are in many ways directly opposite those of us who live around the Logan behemoth. We care about quality of life issues; they only care about money. We don't trust them and we will never trust them, and it is because of our vigilance that 14/32 was allowed to go forward only if Massport signed onto a number of restrictions.

What those who aren't familiar with the history of Logan Airport don't know is that there will come a time when Massport will violate those terms. They will do it with a sheaf of statistics showing that their actions won't harm the environment or detract from the quality of life, and they will do it with a smile.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Happy days

All I wanted for my birthday, which fell on Election Day in 2006, was for Democrats to take the House, Senate and governorship of Massachusetts. Sometimes wishes do come true. Now, two months later, the whole lot of them was sworn in today and it is time for the party to take the reins after years of Republican control. (The Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress a dozen years ago and gave up the corner office in the State House 16 years ago.)

Here’s hoping that we govern smartly and with integrity.

By the book

Virgil Goode, a Republican Congressman from Virginia, has it all wrong. Not only are his comments about Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives, intolerant, but they don’t make much sense, either. When he found out that Ellison was going to swear his oath today on a copy of the Qur’an, Goode went off about tightening immigration laws to prevent too many Muslims being elected to Congress.

First, Ellison was born in Michigan and can trace his roots in the US back to the 1700s, and second, there is no regulation about having to swear an oath on a Bible to serve in the federal government. There are, however, prohibitions in the Constitution against any kind of religious test being used to prevent people from holding office.

Beyond all of that, Ellison -- elected by the people of Minnesota's fifth Congressional district, which includes Minneapolis -- is a Muslim who believes in America. He wants to go to Washington and to be a part of the political process that keeps our democracy safe and orderly. Shouldn't we applaud someone who embraces both Islam and America? Don't many of our troubles in Iraq stem from the refusal of Sunni Muslims to take part in the democratic process?

Goode represents a district in Virginia with progeny that include Thomas Jefferson, who listed among his most important accomplishments writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In fact, the Qur'an that Ellison rested his left hand on today came from the Library of Congress, which received the book from Jefferson himself.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007


The death of Gerald Ford brings to mind the whole era of Watergate and the disgraced presidency of Ford’s appointer and predecessor, Richard Nixon. Massachusetts’ position as the most liberal state in the nation was clearly on display in 1972, when Nixon was re-elected with 520 of 538 electoral votes. Only the Bay State and the District of Columbia went for Democratic nominee George McGovern, and – when Nixon’s dirty tricks began to hit the fan – cars around the state sported bumper stickers that read: “Don’t blame me – I’m from Massachusetts.”

In that spirit, “Don’t blame me – I live in a blue state!” bumper stickers are available on the web. The more things change, huh?

Forecast: Disaster?

We’re approaching what are historically the coldest days of the year in Boston, but the forecast is for temperatures in the 50s for the next few days -- maybe reaching 60 on Saturday. Weather, of course, vacillates widely and one week or year is symptomatic of nothing. The warming trend of recent decades, however, cannot be denied.

While we sit here and talk about the possible effects of global climate change 20 or 50 years down the road, some small islands have already been swallowed up by rising oceans, their people – environmental refugees – forced to move elsewhere. Each of us, me included, needs to do as much as we can to limit our use of energy that necessitates the burning of greenhouse gases. The consequences of our lack of action so far have been slow, but they are going to happen faster and the form they will manifest cannot be predicted.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Something old, nothing new

Despite the “sky-is-falling” rhetoric from conservatives and the Archdiocese of Boston, the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that legalized same-sex marriage has not resulted in the destruction of the family, the decline of civilization or the end of the Republic. (However, corporate greed, global warming, the military-industrial complex and the widening gap between haves and have-nots will probably do us in soon enough.) Since May 17, 2004, consenting adults have been allowed to pursue happiness via marriage no matter what their sexual persuasion and evidence of any negative effects due to their matrimonial preferences is non-existent.

However, outgoing governor and incoming presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the archdiocese and others want to keep the fight against same-sex marriage alive, whether due to political gain or misguided principle. There is no widespread movement in Massachusetts to undo the current policy, which has functioned smoothly now for 19 months, but the state legislature seems to be responding to the squeaky wheels once again. It’s time for us to move on to more important issues. This one should be behind us.

Monday, January 1, 2007

All the pretty words

I would have probably waited a year to buy Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, The Road -- that's roughly the amount of time after the hardcover is released that the trade paperback comes out -- but a friend gave me the book as a gift today. McCarthy is arguably America's greatest living writer, and to date I've read six of his books, including Blood Meridian, which many choose as his finest work.

The first of what McCarthy calls "The Border Trilogy," -- his 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses -- is when I, like many readers, first heard of him. That book spent time on the bestseller list, won several awards and was eventually made into a film. That popular hubbub is atypical for McCarthy, who writes dense prose that sounds Biblical in tone and is reminiscent of Melville and Faulkner. His books are also quite bloody. I remember picking up his previous novel, No Country for Old Men, and reading the first few pages in the bookstore before I paid and left, and in those opening lines three characters had already died.

McCarthy is now 73 and The Road is his tenth novel. It came out just a year after No Country, which is odd for a writer whose books were often six or seven years apart. It has been described as "post-apocalytic," and one gets the impression that it may be the man's final work. McCarthy surely is not for everyone, but to my knowledge there is no one writing in America today who uses words the way he does.

Holiday musings

A few notes while preparing to return to work tomorrow:
  • I didn't make too much of a stink regarding any Christmas traditions or practices that might have fallen by the wayside, but back on Thanksgiving I did. This year, for the first time, my mother didn't cook a turkey and the fixings. This year it was decided, before my input, that we would get our Thanksgiving meal to go from the supermarket. I was appalled. Sure, the food was from a well-respected, high-end supermarket and my mom, who is approaching 70, is not as energetic in the kitchen as she once was, but the food was mediocre, it still had to be heated (and wasn't all hot at once, which was a complaint about cooking) and the clean-up was virtually the same. Here's the thing: Thanksgiving is all about the meal. We celebrate a meal in remembrance of a meal (though we have embellished the details), so if we give up on the meal, then what is the point? As a result, I have volunteered to host Thanksgiving next year.
  • There are some who regard It's a Wonderful Life as an exercise in excessive sentimentality, but they are all Scrooges. The 1946 film, now as much a part of Christmas as the tree and stockings, does celebrate small-town values and the decency and endurance of the common man, but there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with glorifying those items. Too often a moralistic view is presented without nuance, wit or balance -- in short, without art. Frank Capra's film, however, presents those by the sleigh-load. Remember that a good portion of It's a Wonderful Life is dark to the point of outright cynicism. Old Mr. Potter's brand of cutthroat capitalism rules the land and George Bailey has given up. But individuals can and do make a difference in our world and Jimmy Stewart's Everyman does so. Who can keep a dry eye at the conclusion? In recent years I have especially noted the amazing shot toward the end of the movie, when Stewart is denied entry into his mother's boarding house and he runs out into the road. Next time the film comes around, notice that moment, with the camera right in the actor's face, frightened almost to the point of distortion.
  • Sitting in my favorite cafe the other day, a few people started singing Handel's Hallelujah chorus. They were obviously part or all of some type of singing troupe -- a chorus, if you will. The outburst was only a few minutes in duration and not too loud, and -- with snow falling in big flakes at the time -- was quite nice to hear. I think that people should spontaneously break into song more often.

'A cup o’ kindness...'

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne," which translates roughly to "Days gone by." The tune is a Scottish folk melody. The song starts out:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne."

Here's wishing a cup o' kindness to everyone everywhere. Happy new year.