Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Drink up

It's ridiculous that we would even be worrying about this in the 21st Century, but the state legislature passed a law today that protects breastfeeding mothers from being arrested for indecent exposure. The governor is expected to sign it. Theoretically, up to now, women could be forced to register as sex offenders for feeding their children (if arrested and found guilty).

American society is still prudish in many ways, with language or nudity controlled to various degrees on TV, radio and at the cinema. We should have long ago shaken off our silly mores.

Also, breast milk is what babies are supposed to be nourished on, though unfortunately the market economy has created products that even take the place of that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Heights notes

***The sign is up today that indicates that street cleaning starts on my block in the spring. Actually, the street cleaner has been coming by regularly during the warmer months, but up here on Bennington Street we didn't have to move our cars at a certain day and time, which worked out fine because most of the street was empty with people off at work. I know I am whining about an insignificant matter, but now I have to worry about where I park the night before, which is annoying.

***I've seen some men recently picketing the bank construction sight at the intersection of Bennington, Saratoga and Swift streets. Their placards, I believe, said something about non-union labor at that job. Anyone have any details?

***One block from there, at the corner of Bennington and Harmony, is a one story building with brown paper covering all the windows and the door. A couple months ago I saw a sign in one of the windows that said a convenience store was coming soon, but that sign is gone and I haven't seen any activity there.

***Finally, there is a nice-looking storefront one block over at the corner of Saratoga and Curtis. Someone did some work there to make the building attractive, but the "For rent" signs have been sitting in the windows for a while. I'm not sure what kind of business would succeed there.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Attacks on Gaza intensify

Israel's attack on Gaza has now killed 300 Palestinians, with two Israelis killed in return rocket fire, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to be readying the IDF for a ground invasion. The UN, the EU and others around the world are calling for a halt to the violence, while the Bush Administration says that Israel's overwhelming force is necessary and that Hamas is to blame.

There was a ceasefire recently, but Hamas has increased the number of rockets launched toward Israel in the days leading up to the unleashing of air strikes. However, this action from Israel is disproportionate and in as densely-populated a place as Gaza -- about 1.5 million people in 140 square miles -- civilians are going to be killed and injured.

The simplistic viewpoint offered by our government is in keeping with how George W. Bush and his minions have seen the world for eight years: good guys vs. bad guys, as if everything can be synthesized down to the sophistication of professional wrestling. The West created the underlying problem by carving Israel out of land occupied by others, and now we are still living with the inequity and injustice of the past 50 years.

I'm not defending those who've been launching rockets or causing other mayhem on the Palestinian side, but Hamas does things like provide education, police and medical care for a people otherwise left behind by the world. Is it any wonder that the residents of Gaza support the organization?

Isreal is also a month away from elections, which might have to do with the timing of the current attacks. As we've seen in the country, politics often plays a large role in the formation of military policy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

It's always darkest just before the dawn

As if there isn't enough turmoil in the world, two of the most dangerous places are heating up even more. Israel today killed more than 200 Palestinians in air attacks aimed at stopping rocket attacks from Gaza. Meanwhile, Pakistan is moving troops to its border with India in the wake of raised tensions between the two nations following the recent terror attacks in Mumbai.

Both of these locations have teetered back and forth between violence and tenuous peace for decades, and both claim the self-determination of Muslim peoples as their root cause. The Palestinians want Israel's occupation to end, and the Pakistanis want control of Kashmir from India.

In the former, Israel's superior fire power and backing of the US has staved off their being overrun by the surrounding Muslim states. In the latter, both countries are nuclear powers and are seemingly the most likely initiators of an exchange of such weapons.

The president-elect, it seems, will get a complete panoply of issues to deal with when he takes over in 24 days. Financial catastrophe, global warming, Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalian pirates, a nightmare in Zimbabwe -- the fates have decided that these and more aren't enough for Barack Obama to deal with.

I hope he's enjoying his time in Hawaii -- uh oh...wait...this just in...the power is out on Oahu, where Obama is vacationing with his family.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fish feast

Years ago Christmas Eve included a visit to my father's mother, who lived first on Meridian Street, not far from the bridge, and then on Eutaw Street. I didn't see that side of the family as often as my mother's side -- even though everyone lived in East Boston -- so it was a chance to catch up with some relatives, and my grandmother treated me like a king, being that I was the only male among her seven grandchildren.

Grandma and her second husband put out traditional southern Italian fish dishes (including calamari, baccala, lobster and quahogs) on Christmas Eve -- known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes -- though at the time I didn't eat much fish, confining myself to shrimp and my step-grandfather's pizza. My dad and grandmother passed away years ago, but I have fond memories of the holidays (we sometimes went there for Easter as well) spent at her house, and I wish that my family carried on the fish tradition. I would happily try every one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Local calendar available

George Cumming, who runs the wonderful OrientSee blog, has created a 2009 calendar using some of the photos he's taken at Belle Isle Marsh. (That great blue heron landing at the marsh is a sample of his work.)

It is always surprising and awe inspiring to see the birds and other animals that live and frolic in our neighborhood and within Boston's city limits at the marsh. Take a look here at the calendar and consider ordering one.

Shrinking influence

Though the state's population has continued to reverse an earlier trend by growing slightly in each of the past three years, it looks like Massachusetts may lose another Congressional seat after the 2010 census, part of a continuing slide of population and power from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West.

In 1813, the Bay State sent 20 people to the House of Representatives, a body of 182 at that time. We haven't had that much national influence since. In the early part of the 20th Century the size of the House was stabilized at 435 -- 16 of those from Massachusetts; from there the state's delegation has been slowly shedding members.

Currently we have 10: Barney Frank, William Delahunt, Edward Markey, Michael Capuano, James McGovern, Richard Neal, John Tierney, Stephen Lynch, John Olver and Niki Tsongas. If we do, indeed, need to shrink the delegation, two of the current House members will be lumped into the same district and forced to run against one another. Reapportionment -- the process of redrawing the Congressional districts -- is unfortunately fraught with politics, and it is likely that the jockeying will begin soon, if it hasn't already.

Early projections have seats also being lost by Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, while seats may be gained in Arizona (possibly two), Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah. The regional trends are clear in that list (and the exception, Louisiana, is due to the population decrease after Hurricane Katrina).

Apportionment also effects presidential politics, as the number of electoral votes a state has is determined by the number of House and Senate seats combined. Massachusetts had 12 in this year's election, but may have one less in 2012.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Celebrating the season

With snowflakes falling outside my window and George Winston's CD December playing in the background, I want to mention a few things of interest:

***This is the shortest day of the year, with the longest night ahead. The actual winter solstice occurred at 7:04 a.m. EST today. For thousands of years people all over the world have marked and celebrated this day -- Saturnalia, Yule, Dongzhi, Mean Geimhridh and Midvinterblot are some of the names used to mark the occasion at various times by different cultures, and the observance of Christmas comes out of these traditions. While today marks the beginning of winter for us, in many parts of the world this is the season's midpoint.

***The Globe has a story today on Christmas caroling, which seems to be making a comeback. I think that's pretty cool. Can you imagine a group of carolers making their way down the sidewalks of East Boston? Anyone want to run with that idea?

***I've long been a fan of the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, and a recent piece in The New York Times discusses some of the charms of the Frank Capra film. Despite the feel-good conclusion, much of the movie is a rather bleak depiction of the modern world and of a decent man's complete unspooling. Look closely at Jimmy Stewart's face as his character's world crumbles and then as the course his small town would have taken without George Bailey becomes apparent -- the scene at Martini's bar where George prays before getting punched out; the scene where he grabs his son and desperately holds him close; the scene where he sits across from the delighfully amoral Henry Potter and realizes that the old man is right: George Bailey is worth more dead than alive; the few seconds before he jumps off the bridge to end his life in what he thinks is the most honorable way out; and, most of all, the scene where, in the alternative, George-less universe, he is rejected by his cold, impatient mother, and Stewart, unshaven and haggard, runs confused and frightened right up to the camera and stares out at the horrific world around him with crazy eyes. Though the opening is sappy, there is lots of wonderful stuff in It's a Wonderful Life.

***I was recently in a bit of traffic coming off Route 1 in Saugus at the Lynn Fells Parkway exit when I realized the source of the slowdown was people checking out the elaborate holiday displays at a pair of houses just off the highway. While a few lights can be nice, the over-the-top gaudy spectacles strike me as cheesy and wasteful. A piece indicates that some other people agree.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Obama so far

One month from tomorrow, at high noon, Barack Obama will repeat the 35-word oath of office, which is prescribed specifically in the Constitution, on the steps of the US Capitol. He will likely tack on the postscript of "So help me God," as has been the practice of all recent presidents. In the weeks since Election Day, the president-elect has overseen an extremely orderly transition, taking the podium almost daily to name top appointments and to take questions from the media. It is all somewhat reassuring. Meanwhile, the nation's economic condition slides into even deeper distress and the current chief executive's only newsworthy action in the past six months was to duck from a flying piece of footwear flung furiously in his direction.

Obama's picks have disappointed some on the left, and I do long for a dream team of progressives taking over the controls of our government's mammoth bureaucracies. I am, however, inclined at this stage to sit back and give wide berth to the incoming president. He is, as most have acknowledged, a pretty bright guy, and he does operate -- as evidenced by the campaign and the transition -- in a smartly-conceived and well-executed manner. He gets to select who surrounds him, and by all accounts he's selected an exceptionally qualified and able group. If they aren't liberal enough on face, then I expect that they will be carrying out the policies of this president, and therefore will generally do the right thing.

But, of course, it has been clear all along that Obama does have many centrist, bridge-building tendencies. Those of us on the left will, I suspect, find ourselves in disagreement with the new administration from time to time. There will be attempts to find common ground rather than ramming through Democratic party ideas just because our party's nominee won the top spot. It's a bit frustrating because the Republicans, especially under George W. Bush, have done (and are still doing in last-minute executive orders) exactly that. Again and again, they talk bipartisanship and then lunge to the right. I take Obama at his word when he says he wants to change that culture.

The most extreme example may be the revelation that Rick Warren will be delivering the invocation at the inauguration. The minister of America's most well-known megachurch (Saddleback in Orange County, Calif.) and the author of the bestselling book"The Purpose-Driven Life," Warren is the new face of evangelical Christianity. Less outwardly prim and proper, he has been a key part of a movement that has focused on some good things in recent years, like working against poverty and hunger in Africa or embracing environmentalism. Still, in many ways, the new boss is the same as the old boss: homosexuality is seen as sinful; atheists are evil; etc.

Warren is a maddening choice for many who voted Democratic in November, and still it may be a brilliant selection in other ways. Obama has made the usual claim of being president of all Americans, not just those who voted for him; maybe this is one way to demonstrate that. He is also showing quite clearly that he will not hesitate to anger his base when he wants to. He is repaying Warren for inviting him to the Saddleback Forum, the pre-election interviews that Warren did with Obama and John McCain at the church in August (where McCain gave brief talking-point answers that he knew the crowd would applaud and Obama gave longer, more intelligent, nuanced responses that sometimes flew in the face of what the audience wanted to hear).

Finally, there is the "Team of Rivals" strategy, as discussed in the Doris Kearns Goodwin book as it relates to Abraham Lincoln. In other settings, with slight tweaks, it might be understood as the "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" strategy. Obama wants to accomplish important things, and after the first 100 days -- maybe more, maybe less -- the novelty, the honeymoon and the perception of a mandate will all wear off and the broad support of the public will be necessary to overcome the usual gridlock, partisanship and the lack of a filibuster-proof Senate.

A year down the road the 44th president might turn to the two Republicans in his cabinet (Robert Gates and Ray LaHood) or to the senator whose committee chairmanship he saved (Joe Lieberman) or to his former Democratic opponent turned cabinet member (Hillary Clinton) or, even, to the leader of one of the largest evangelical congregations in the country. Each of them, to varying degrees, will feel some obligation to jump on board with the president.

Is Obama thinking that far ahead? Is he really that smart? I think he is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Transportation changes

Bernard Cohen, the state's secretary of transportation, is out, and word is that Jim Aloisi is Deval Patrick's top choice for the spot. Aloisi (in photo), an East Boston native, has been involved in transportation issues at the state level for years.

How will all this affect the proposed toll increases?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The wrong stuff

President Bush is in Iraq right now, his fourth visit there. It's a farewell to the site of the signature event of his presidency -- the illegal, unnecessary and botched invasion and occupation of that country. Bush may actually be holding onto the idea that history will exonerate his decision; if so, he is delusional.

A government report, which hasn't been released yet but has been leaked, condemns the entire Iraq rebuilding effort as "crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners" and then "molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence, and gaps in knowledge," according to today's Globe.

The reports is called "Hard Lessons" and was put together by the federal Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Among other incompetence and dishonesty, the report quotes no less than Colin Powell, backed up by two other high-ranking sources, saying that the reported numbers of Iraqi troops trained by US forces were made up. The Pentagon just kept increasing the amount each week.

Also in the news recently is the indictment of five Blackwater guards, employed by the US government to do security work in Iraq. They are charged with firing their machine guns and grenade launchers into a Baghdad crowd in September of 2007 and killing 17 civilians. The use of private security forces is an underreported story in this conflict. These guys were totally out of control.

One of the biggest factors that I think motivated Americans on Nov. 4 was the incompetence of the current administration. At least, the citizenry collectively said, we want people in charge who know what they are doing. Nowhere has the lack of foresight, ideological blindness, intellectual cowardice and outright stupidity of George W. Bush and his minions been more apparent and costly than in Iraq.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Senate Republicans to Big 3: Drop Dead

Last night the US Senate gave up trying to pass a bill that would funnel cash to the Big Three auto makers, which are apparently on the brink of bankruptcy. There was not enough support from Republicans in the upper house -- specifically those senators whose states have auto plants from companies headquartered overseas.

The Honda, Toyota and other factories in Alabama, Tennessee and other southern and western states use non-union labor, and the GOP wants to bust the United Auto Workers, whose members work for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Senate Republicans circulated an email with instructions to "stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor."

Republicans in the Senate insisted that the UAW would offer concessions or there would be no deal. The average union auto worker, as we've noted, makes $28 an hour, not an exorbitant amount for skilled, monotonous labor, yet Republican leaders begrudge them this salary. I don't recall anyone asking that banks and other financial giants pay their brokers, accountants and lawyers less as a condition for receiving their $700 billion bailout.

Amazingly, it is the White House that seems to be on the more responsible, less ideological side of this issue.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The spirit of giving

The Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association and 303 Cafe are running a Toys for Tots drive "to help needy children throughout the Boston area experience the joy of Christmas." The cafe, located at 303 Sumner Street in East Boston, will be accepting toys through this weekend, so get into the spirit of giving by helping some less fortunate youngsters. In the photo, Hayes Morrison, Lynnette and Ruth Weening take part in the toy drive.

Eastie residents fight toll 'embargo'

The first of four hearings on toll increases was held last night at the state transportation building. City Councilor Sal LaMattina called the proposed hike "an embargo on East Boston" and said that any attempt to lift the residential discount program would be "war on our neighborhood."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fire in Eastie

A fire this morning at the Heritage Apartments on Jacobbe Road, behind Maverick Square, injured several elderly residents, at least one critically.

Update: Boston Herald story and the latest from

Friday, December 5, 2008

The truth on auto workers

Last evening during a story on the proposed auto industry bailout, CBS reported that workers for the Big Three make more than $70 an hour. Having read a story two days earlier that explained that this figure is not true, I started shouting at the TV. (I do that sometimes.)

This morning I tried to remember where I saw the story that actually broke down what auto workers get paid, and I searched on Google. There are many web sites that are running the story, including the CBS web site! Are these people morons?

The average salary for a worker at GM, Ford and Chrysler is $28 an hour, and the benefits they receive work out to less than $10. The $70 figure is taken from including all medical and retirements benefits that those companies pay to all former employees as well as current ones and then diving them by the number of current employees. That isn't fair and it isn't truthful.

I'm not quite sure what to do with the auto industry, but vilifying blue-collar workers is certainly not a solution.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Anti-hike movement mobilizes

There will be a Stop the Pike Hike rally Wednesday at Ecco Restaurant on Porter Street in East Boston from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Following the rally there will be a hearing hosted by City Councilor Sal LaMattina on the matter starting at 6 p.m. at East Boston High School.