Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Change of Seasons

So I read the following headline on Yahoo:

Pope holds first meeting with cardinals

My first reaction is, "who's Pope?"
Less than two weeks to baseball!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Why in Hell?

So here we are, on the least enjoyable anniversary of recent years. To the tune of Sunday morning spin doctors spinning, I took up the chore of replacing a few burnt-out bulbs around the house.

So, with all our technology, why is it we can't let ordinary householders buy their bulbs from whoever makes the one at the end of the tunnel?

That sonofabitch has been burning most of my adult life. I could put a few of those to more peaceful uses than politicians do.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

One More for Media Morons

OK, I know good PR when I see it, and St. Patrick was a champ. The snakes bit: great. Shamrock = Trinity: inspired. Tear-jerking autobiography: splendid.

My own St. David, with his water-drinking, vegetarian monastery as a schtick, didn't have a hope in hell of competing. With the water drinking, it's a wonder he even made it with the Welsh.

But here's a note to broadcast journalists. Suppose you stick to calling it St. Patrick's Day. The native diminutive is Paddy. If you have some legitimate Irish descent, you're entitled to it. If not, you might want to consider that Paddy on the lips of a Yankee Protestant sounds a great deal like nigger, fag, wop or greaser.

In any case, the Welsh-born (cough) saint's nickname was never "Patty."

Imagine if we had a Nor'easter on St. Patty's Day. The mind reels.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Lem, We Hardly Know Ye

Some unsentimental reflections on St. Patrick's Day to tip the cap to my Irish ancestors.

As a graduate student, I was introduced to the notion that Irish-Americans have a stronger sense of sentiment and a poorer sense of their actual history than any other American ethnic group. This is owed in large measure to being the first really "foreign" group Americans had to deal with in large numbers, and the first to assimilate. Despite obvious physical differences, both African and Native Americans had always been part of the landscape. White America thought it knew how to deal with them (badly, but that's another tale). Here were a new people. There were, in the 1840s, tens of thousands of them, all at once. They were poor beyond the prosperous experience of eastern America, dirty, diseased. Myth notwithstanding, few of them spoke English well enough for Americans to understand them, or understood it well enough to grasp their rights in a new country. (As late as 1900, my Irish great-great grandmother--only a hazy memory even to my grandmother--spoke mostly Irish, and could barely put a sentence together in English.) Worst of all, they were Catholic, the ultimate other three centuries after Luther.

In 1839, Boston had won the contract to be the main American terminus for the fledgling Cunard Lines, an economic accident that drew other British-American traffic in its wake. Thus it was a few years after, when the near-genocidal horror of the famine broke upon Ireland, a vast number of those able to flee ended up in Boston. Those who could find work, in the time when the sign "No Irish Need Apply" was first seen in the land, ate the poorest food available: salt beef hard enough, sailors said, to carve like scrimshaw, and the cheapest vegetable, cabbage. Sound familiar? Those who could not find work to earn even that starved in their thousands. Indifferent Yankees pretended not to notice, as indifferent English pretended not to notice what was happening at home. Ignoring an insoluble problem is still a common way to deal with it.

One of them noticed. His name was Lemuel Shattuck, and every Irish-American who takes a drink on St. Patrick's Day ought to lift one in his honour. Already a founding figure in American statistical and demographic studies, in 1850 Shattuck published his Report on the Sanitary Condition of Massachusetts. It was the first comprehensive treatise on public health in America, and it shattered Yankee complacency like a weapon of mass destruction.

I read a good part of this extraordinary public paper in graduate school, and I think it ought to be read aloud in every Irish bar in Boston this weekend. My professor didn't think Shattuck had begun the study with any greater claim upon posterity than any other Boston Yankee of his day. He ended it in quite a different frame of mind. Wisely, Shattuck didn't climb on a soapbox, haranguing and screaming in behalf of improvements in basic public health and a decent housing standard for these sick, starving new arrivals, jammed into the city's disused corners*. Instead, he gathered, marshalled and presented his facts. What facts: page upon page that carefully documented the unspeakable desperation that passed as Boston's welcome to the Papist scum. Reading it, one can feel Shattuck's own outrage building behind the dam of his self-imposed restraint. No one with an immigrant in his or her past can come away from this reading without owning shares in what Shattuck and his students had seen. In the end, of course, he didn't win Yankee Boston over through compassion so much as through self-interest. Years before the germ theory gained acceptance, Shattuck was still able to show that today's sickness in a pestilential cellar on Fort Hill, calf-deep in raw sewage, would be tomorrow's in a Beacon Hill nursery.

It took a generation to get Boston off its butt, but Lemuel Shattuck began the solution to the insoluble problem. Taking public health seriously was the essential first step to a polity of integration and tolerance that took the Irish from sewers to streetcar suburbs in two or three generations, but at a cost: collective amnesia about the real circumstances in which they started.

Slainte, Lemuel, and Iechyd Da.

Circa 1980 I had an office in an early 18th century building in the North End, about 16 by 16 feet. I felt it forever haunted after I discovered a census return for the house from the era of the famine diaspora, when that one room had contained 14 people, and the whole place nearly 60. That, mind you, was a step up from the conditions Lemuel Shattuck documented.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

March Madness

I still duck the gambling, but I've discovered that there is a reason for basketball in March.

Outside, March is a pitiful, pathetic excuse for a month. I still don't know why the calendar reformers didn't do us all a favour and make it the shortest month. Just when it gets warm enough to get something going by way of sport, it gets cold again.

You can only spend so much time doing taxes, picking up after yourself, and reading. In those loose moments when you absolutely must turn the TV on, it's a comfort to find something other than bowling on the tube, even if the "something" is a tribute to the ability of people with pituitary disorders to make a place for themselves.

Then again, isn't there a curling tournament coming up?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Catholic UnCharity

Browsing the blogosphere, I see two types of response to the Catholic Charities decision.

One I dread, as a "cultural Catholic" old enough to remember when anti-Catholic bigotry was very real. It comes from non-Catholics who have always believed, deep down, that "they" are always like this, always ready to turn away from compassion and care in favour of blind obedience and ritual. That belief runs like a quiet, polluted current deep beneath the surface of careful discourse.

The other comes from the Catholic Church of the laity, expressing some degree of pain or highly personal turmoil at this latest outrage against the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. It's become trite to say "I feel your pain." I feel this pain. It is my own.

I do not believe non-Catholics can fully understand the conflict, can appreciate why everyone doesn't just leave, or why when you do leave, you find that in certain ways you haven't. I suspect that it's especially hard for the tens of thousands of current and former Catholics who, as I do, have Catholic Charities somewhere in their family tree.

All the same, I'm not coming back. I left the audience, going nowhere in particular. Instead of sitting in front of the magic show, I found myself in the wings. At last, from this different perspective, I could see the reality behind all the sleight-of-hand. I paid attention to the man behind the curtain, and understood that even he wasn't there. As long as the illusions made the leaders and the led care for their fellow beings equally, they were fine. They do so no longer: doctrine has become just a blueprint for hate and excuses. The time has come for humanity to cast off this mental crutch and find out that we can stand on our own.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

They're All Around Us

This linked story proves I don't believe that all Welsh walk on water.

But then, I saw the video, and I have reason to believe the perp is only a resident: She's blonde.
So is that newfound furry lobster, but the lobster wasn't trying to apply makeup on the A499.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Well, What IS it, anyway?

Sunday, 3/5/06. George Williams, of White (excuse me, WEST) Roxbury writes in his letter to the Boston Globe:

"What is lost in the latest turmoil over Catholic Charities of Boston and adoption is that the
Catholic Church is not a social service agency...."

I wish again that my late Irish grandmother was still with us, if for no other reason than to see her lay one upside the head of anyone thinking this way. "Gaga" knew the best and the worst of the church. She grew up in circumstances that make "dysfunctional families" look like the garden of Eden. Her one anchor in the decade of hell one could sardonically call her childhood was the Diocesan orphanage that used to stand near the Cathedral. I'd like to see what she'd do to you, George, if you told her the church wasn't about social service.

During her years as a foster child, Gaga also saw the worst side. She never forgot the spectacle of children burnt to death by stove accidents as their parents sat entrapped in Mass listening to interminable drivel from priests whose spiritual reinforcement wasn't coming entirely from the communion cup. Could the parents miss Mass to care for children? What, and burn in hell forever? The church helped them avoid a metaphysical fire as their children died in real ones.

It may be that the socialism of my paternal side had a touch of the theoretical about it. What I got from the other side, from Gaga...along with a good dose of anti-clericalism...was the product of brutal and bitter experience. It burnt white hot in her...and it still does in me.

It also seems to me there was someone back aways who said "whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me." That sounds an awful lot like social service and pinko liberalism to me. Never mind: the chain of command seems to stop at Rome these days.

Busy day in the Globe, 3/5/06. A while back I scribbled something here about cultural Catholicism. I'm eloquently answered by Joan Vennochi's column. It truly is time to pack up the sentimental memories and hack away any emotional ties one ever had to this institution. It doesn't care. Walk away, shed a tear, and find another centre for your life. In the long run, the betrayal of people of compassion by the catholic institution may be the best thing that has ever happened.

The paper even has something from Alan Dershowitz that I can quote (Q&A column), and that has some relevance to this rant:

"You need not to have religion to have morality. Morality based on religion is often no morality at all. If you do it because of heaven or hell, or because an instruction book told you to, it's not morality. It's morality when you have decided yourself, without benefits or threats, that this is the right thing to do."

Gaga could get behind that.