Friday, July 31, 2009

Flesh and blood

We hoped that Big Papi was different, but in the end we really can't be surprised by the news that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz is among those who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs back in 2003. His on-field heroics and amiable personality made Ortiz a Sox favorite since his acquisition and the long-suffering team's subsequent World Series wins in 2004 and 2007.

Former teammate Manny Ramirez was also implicated yesterday, but that news seems to go without saying after the hero-turned-traitor was suspended from the LA Dodgers for 50 games earlier this season for violating rules on anti-doping that didn't exist a half-dozen years ago.

Of course, the truth is that our heroes all have flaws, and if we are slow to realize that, reality will inform us sooner rather than later. No matter how talented, how intelligent, how apparently good, no one is able to do the right thing all the time. No one has the capacity, the will or the strength to always behave in ways that are beyond reproach. At times like this I throw out an oft-used, but powerful fact nonetheless: Thomas Jefferson had slaves. The guy is a hero of mine, but one can find quite a bit in his life to be disappointed about. He was a rather sneaky, dirty politician, and -- yeah -- despite his lofty words about freedom he personally owned dozens of people.

And this takes us to another issue, of less universal import and involving less human misery: in baseball the heroes end up in Cooperstown, but a list of those inducted into the Hall of Fame will include characters that represent a cross-section of the society that they came from. A New York Times review of a book on Cooperstown that was just published says, "The hall is full of gamblers, brawlers and defendants in paternity suits, and there are numerous drunks..." To top the list there is Ty Cobb -- undoubtedly one of the game's greatest players, but also "a sociopath, possibly a murderer and a notorious racist who was also a card-carrying, torch-waving member of the Ku Klux Klan" (and he isn't even the only Klan member enshrined!).

So how do we evaluate modern players and their worthiness for the Hall of Fame against this background? Pete Rose, who undoubtedly has the statistics to be in, is banned (by the Hall itself) from even being voted on (by the sportswriters who cast the annual ballots) because of his troubles with gambling during and after his on-field career. (Is that worse than Cobb?) Now we have a whole roster of athletes who have created the headlines of the last two decades -- McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, A-Rod, Clemens, Manny, etc. -- all under the dark cloud of substance abuse. Should the entire era be tainted? Should we accept that each period had its anomalies and cheaters and just go by the numbers? Will the writers even get to consider each of these guys, or will some of the names be stricken from the ballot, a la Rose? Does a place like the Hall of Fame have any meaning if Cobb is in, Rose is out and Bonds is on the fence?

Last Saturday two more players had their plaques added to the sacred space of the enshrined. Rickey Henderson, an amazing player and a character himself, was elected in his first go-round. (Players generally must be retired for five years before their name appears on the list that the writers vote on. A player needs to be chosen on 75% of the ballots to get in. After 15 years names are dropped from the list, but there is a Veterans Committee who can induct anyone they please.)

Jim Rice, who played 16 seasons for the Red Sox, was finally given the nod. Retired from the game since 1989, Rice's credentials have been hotly debated since, and he barely made the cut -- 76.4% of the voters selected him in his final year of eligibility. He was a formidable hitter, a good (not great) left fielder and was, by all accounts, not very friendly with the media while a player. His 1978 MVP season is one of the greatest ever put together by anyone.

Rice was dogged a bit by the feeling that his post-season performance was sub-par, but the Sox only made the playoffs twice during his career (1986 and 1988) and in the '86 World Series he batted .333, which is good. I do remember one of my uncles always railing about Rice not producing in the clutch, the rants filled with racial epithets as we sat outside in my aunt's yard grilling every summer Sunday.

Today, Rice is a broadcaster at NESN, though I don't think he's that good. I feel like the same discomfort that kept him from talking to the media a great deal as a player keeps him from feeling completely confident even though he is on the other side of the microphone. He never learned to, or even set out to, master and manipulate the press like Larry Bird did so skillfully. But Rice, I believe, is a very decent guy. His name has never come up in relation to any of the embarrassing episodes (gambling, infidelity, drunkenness, drugs) that pop up every so often in the game, as elsewhere. He's always been involved in a number of charity activities. And then there is the memorable episode when Rice carried an injured boy inside the Sox clubhouse for medical care.

Jonathan Keane was four years old on Aug. 7, 1982, when he was struck in the head by a foul ball that rocketed into the seats along Fenway Park's first base line, next to the home dugout. Immediately he was covered in blood, his skull fractured. Rice had been standing on the top step of the dugout and without hesitation he ran over, picked up the child (see the Boston Herald photo above) and brought him into the Sox clubhouse, where the team doctor met the pair. In minutes the boy was on his way to Children's Hospital. Keane credits Rice with saving his life. He doesn't remember the incident, but he has no lasting effects from it.

Rice didn't do anything superhuman that day. He was overcome by the same feelings that most other people would have felt, but he also didn't hesitate to act. Many who know Rice say that the incident speaks to the man's character -- one that probably puts him head and shoulders above many who were allowed to take their seats in Cooperstown much more easily.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rules of the road

The state is still trying to figure out what to do about elderly drivers, as every few days we see another story in the news where a 70- or 80-year-old runs down a pedestrian or drives through a building. Yet -- as many of those who leave comments on these stories at point out -- teenagers are actually more dangerous behind the wheel than older folks.

Many of the comments on these message boards take issue with, which is the Internet portal of The Boston Globe, highlighting these stories as they do, or at least linking them with other cases involving older drivers, because they feel the reporting is skewed against the elderly. I disagree. This has been a story that has attracted a significant amount of interest and people are talking about it. Therefore, the Globe needs to do what it's doing.

On the other hand, Massachusetts should act to make texting while driving illegal and subject to significant penalties. Such laws exist in 36 other states. While this isn't strictly aimed at teenagers, it will affect that age group much more than others. A study I just read about -- which covered 18 months and three million miles -- found that motor vehicle operators are 23 times more likely to get in a collision or near-collision while they are sending or reading text messages behind the wheel.

In an interesting side note to that issue, The New York Times recently used a photo, I have posted it above, to illustrate a story on teens texting while driving. While the image looks staged, the paper gave the back story in a blog entry today: a Times photographer was doing a story on teen dating and tagged along with a few boys heading to the mall. The passenger reached over to take the wheel as the driver sent a text message to girls that they were meeting. The photographer captured the image.

One other issue in this area: cell phones. While almost certainly not as dangerous as texting, talking on the phone while driving does present a raised level of risk. I am all for requiring drivers to use their cell phones in hands-free mode only. I have an inexpensive earphone that allows me to answer calls while driving and it leaves me much more nimble than when one of my hands is occupied by my phone. Also, I think if people are forced to use a hands-free set-up they won't be looking for a ringing phone while driving 70 miles an hour.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A fortnight in the Old Country

Earlier this month I visited Italy for two weeks, spending time in Naples, Rome and Florence, as well as a village in the mountains above the Mediterranean coast. It was a fantastic trip. Our hosts -- relatives of a friend of mine -- were wonderful, and we ate like kings.

The village is called San Mauro Cilento, and you can see in the photo what sunset looks like from the house where we stayed. It happened to be the weekend of a town festival, which provided the most bizarre moment of the trip: children dancing on a stage built in the village square to the songs of Grease while a band played the music, singers performed the songs in Italian, and clips of the film played on a screen behind them.

In Naples we ate some of the best pizza in the world and stood at coffee bars several times a day for expertly-pulled shots of espresso, but the real revelation in the densely-populated city was that there are virtually no traffic rules. Driving is seemingly an adventure everywhere in Italy, but hitting the road in Naples is well beyond anything I've seen in the United States.

I'd been to Rome before, a decade ago, so we didn't replicate the usual first-time must-see things: the Sistene Chapel, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, St. Peter's. We did make a trip to see some a couple paintings by Caravaggio, a personal favorite since I saw a program about him on PBS. We also took part in a bit of Roman nightlife, visiting a wine bar and having a drink along the Tiber.

Florence was at the top of my list for places I wanted to see, so I spent four days there, visiting churches, checking out public art, and spending time in the Uffizi, one of the world's top museums, where I saw more of Caravaggio's work. I didn't see the actual David, as the line for that site was too long, but I saw the copy outside the Palazzo Vecchio, and I walked across the Ponte Vecchio as well. Florence was clean and calmer than its southern Italy counterparts, and the architecture and art are phenomenal.

After two weeks away, the nine-hour flight from Rome to New York was a chore, and I arrived to a nine-hour layover at JFK because of weather-related flight cancellations and delays. It was nice to be back, but the entire experience -- the people, the places, and the food -- will not easily be forgotten.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The eyes have it

An astute reader points out a small ad on Page 8 of this week's East Boston Times:
La Signora "Filomena" & "her Grandmother"
Back from Italy
57 Years Experience
I could find no translation for the first word -- "chiromazia" -- with a quick check on the Internet, but add one letter -- "chiromanzia" -- and the word is translated as "palmistry" by Google Translate. The ad goes on:
Helps in reuniting lost love, finding true love,
trouble in marriage, success in business,
in-law & family problems.
The ad specifies that the duo have "Never failed a case" and, most importantly, they are:
100% guaranteed to remove Maloccio (bad luck)
The malocchio (usually spelled with an h) actually translates, of course, as "bad eye" or, more commonly, "evil eye." If you've grown up in an Italian-American household, you've heard the term many times. You never wanted to get the malocchio; in fact, you'd wear the red horn around your neck to protect you. If you had a stretch of bad luck or illness, it was commonly assumed that someone had given you the evil eye.

Seeing the ad reminded me of one of the more bizarre and frightening episodes of my childhood. When I was perhaps 10 years old, my mother had a string of painful headaches. At some point, as I looked on, my grandmother performed the ritual that chased away the malocchio and I was a bit freaked out by it. In the kitchen of our apartment on Chelsea Street, my grandmother placed drops of olive oil in a bowl of water and chanted something in Italian and then she tossed the contents of the bowl out the second-floor window.

My mother's mother was a rather practical woman who was born, I found out later, in Jersey City. I can't recall ever hearing her speak Italian except in this instance -- probably words that she had been taught by her own mother. There may have been more to the ritual, but that is all I remember. (It's quite possible that I ran out of the kitchen at that point.)

I just returned from two weeks in Italy and one of the gifts I received was a small plastic figure of a man with a blindfold on his eyes and the horn below him. I was told to hang it on my door. I'm not superstitious, but ... you know ... it was a gift, and so the giver's instructions have to be honored, right?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When a news anchor told it like it was blogger Glenn Greenwald ripped into the popular media a few days ago in the wake of Walter Cronkite's passing. Much like the death of journalist David Halberstam, mainstream television and print reporters are using this occasion to slap themselves on the back in celebrating the achievements of one of their own. Greenwald notes that today's celebrity journalists are often little more than shills for the government and corporate America. They praise Cronkite while ignoring that, in 1968, the CBS news anchor told Americans on live TV that the government wasn't being honest with them and that the Vietnam War would end in nothing better than a draw.

Those eulogists had their chance to step forward with equivalent truth-telling but instead they spouted the party line on Iraq. Greenwald quotes one network reporter as saying it's not his job to point out to Americans when their government is lying. Cronkite himself wrote in 1999 that "there has been an abdication of responsibility within the profession..." And that's the way it is.

The missing link

It's disappointing to see the long-proposed link-up of the Blue and Red MBTA lines talked about as something that will never happen, as is the case in today's Globe. I've been hoping to see this project come to fruition for years, and the state is apparently legally bound to push forward with plans for it. The money to actually construct the connection, however, is not there right now and neither is the will.

From what I've read in the past, the Blue Line tunnel already continues from Bowdoin -- the current last stop -- to the Red Line's MGH/Charles, less than a half-mile away, so it is just a matter of laying track and the other infrastructure needed to connect the lines. Still, the estimated cost is $300 million. Hopefully, the state's financial picture will improve enough to get this done.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

While I was away...

While I was away -- more on that soon -- I saw these stories in the local news:

***A federal grant will allow researchers to piece together what exactly happened on the Chelsea Creek in May of 1775, when colonists sank and burned the HMS Diana, a British vessel that was appropriating supplies upriver for the Redcoat army. Considered the first naval battle of the American Revolution -- and taking place between the iconic battles at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill, the confrontation is rarely cited as a key part of the nation's history. Researchers may attempt to find what, if anything, is left of the Diana. Our friends at provide more on the Battle of Chelsea Creek.

***The parent company of East Boston Savings Bank is purchasing the South Boston-based Mt. Washington Savings Bank, which will increase deposits to over $1 billion.

***The specifics may still be a bit murky, but arresting Skip Gates, perhaps the leading African American scholar in the country, while he was in his own home is going to appear to many people as an indication that, despite our half-black president, the US is still a long way from being free of institutional racism. The fact that this happened in Cambridge, arguably the most liberal city in America, makes it all the more disappointing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Quabbin threatened

It may seem like a small issue, but an invasive mollusk could jeopardize our drinking water supply. The Globe reports that the zebra mussel, originally from Russia, came to the US in the 1980s and is now in western Massachusetts. The zebra could "wipe out native aquatic life, clog water intake pipes, and foul drinking water supplies," according to state officials, who are developing emergency plans to deal with the potential menace. In the meantime, fishing will be limited, as boats can trabsport the mussel from different bodies of water.

The Quabbin, created by the flooding of four central Massachusetts towns in the 1920s, is one of the finest sources of drinking water in the country. Fishing is usually allowed using rowboats, but motorboats and swimming are prohibited.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dangerous decision

Despite a law requiring seat-belt use, fewer drivers in Massachusetts buckle up that any other state -- fewer than even New Hampshire, which is the only state without a mandatory seat-belt law. It's shocking to me.

Seven of the drivers killed in the wee hours of the Fourth of July were not belted in. Some say it makes them uncomfortable, some say it messes their clothes. I have a cousin who refuses to do it despite being an otherwise intelligent, reasonable man.

Honestly, I belt up every time, no matter how short my trip. I was sporadic until I saw a program on TV where a woman who was in an accident going just 35 mph had to have a hole drilled in her brain to relieve the pressure. That stuck with me, and I never forget to use my seat belt.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What a lucky man

When the doorbell for my apartment rings repeatedly it is usually a longtime friend who wants to be intentionally annoying for a laugh. Otherwise, it means trouble. Being that it rang this morning at 8:05 I immediately knew -- despite still being half asleep -- that someone was prompting me to move my car because it was time for street cleaning.

I threw on shorts and popped my feet into sandals, then ran outside. I squinted in the morning sunlight and looked up and down the street. There was one car to my left and one to my right. Despite their looking nothing alike, I couldn't remember which was mine. Then I looked down to make sure I had put some clothes on.

I ran to my car as a Traffic Department employee stood next to it. He had been persuaded by my neighbors to wait just a minute before writing a ticket. I moved the vehicle across the street and thanked my neighbors. They not only saved me from getting a ticket (How much is that these days?) but from possibly getting towed, which is a hassle and carries a price tag around $150. Man, I lucked out. Later I bought the neighbors a case of beer.

It's a crime

The Globe has a story today about the hazards of summer -- skin cancer, Lyme disease, EEE, West Nile, etc. -- and how they've been overblown, causing widespread worry when the dangers are relatively tiny. This idea is a microcosm of a bigger problem in our society: we worry too much about the wrong things.

Recently I heard Lenore Skenazy, author of a book called Free-Range Kids, on NPR and she cited crime figures that show that, as a rule, children are as safe today as they were when their parents were growing up. Crime did rise for a decade beginning in the mid-1980s, but the number of murders, assaults, rapes and abductions are way down in recent years. The perception, however, is that we live in crazy times and that children need to be chained to their parents.

This paranoia is fostered by local news and true-crime TV shows, but it isn't reality. Of course, every child -- every person -- who is the victim of a crime is one too many, but American parents seem consumed by the idea that a stranger is going to leap out and snatch their kid. Any review of the facts will show that when children are abducted or harmed it is almost always a relative or close friend; when they are reported missing it often turns out that they've run away or that they're with dad.

I remember going to see Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine and thinking that it'd be a liberal crusade against guns -- a crusade I support -- but the theme was actually quite different. Moore has been an NRA member since he was a teenager. His movie focuses on the fear that many Americans have that someone is going to burst through their door to attack them, rob them and/or hold them hostage. Again, this is an irrational fear. That is not to say that it never happens, but that it is extremely rare. Watching local TV news and true-crime shows, however, you'd think it happens every other day in your town.

As a result, people in the United States arm themselves with all sorts of weaponry and fight against laws that would exercise some control of their armaments. In the movie, Moore crosses the border and walks around Toronto -- a big urban center -- and into people's homes. Turns out they don't lock their doors as often in Canada because they don't fear crime the way we do. They aren't bombarded with fearmongering on the tube every day.

Yes, I know: crime does happen, and it can be devastating, but I don't believe that we should let the way we live be controlled by TV stations desperate for higher ratings.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Read 'em and weep


The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen

united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Friday, July 3, 2009

LUC announces grants

The East Boston Land Use Council recently presented $20,000 in charitable grants from the Leonard Florence Memorial Trust Fund. Included are scholarships for local students in private schools and money for non-profit agencies.

The list can be viewed at

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Should we be alarmed?

East Boston is protected by one less fire company today. The city has "browned out" Engine 56, located on Ashley Street in Orient Heights, along with companies in Dorchester and South Boston, in accordance with its new policy to avoid paying overtime when a certain number of firefighters call in sick.

It is unclear to me whether Ladder 21, which operates from the same firehouse, is still on duty. Eastie also has firehouses at 239 Sumner Street (just outside Maverick Square) and 360 Saratoga Street (just outside Day Square).

This is the latest in a war of hostility between the Menino Administration and Local 718, the firefighters union, which has been without a contract for three years.