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?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day, 2011

First, today's fall from grace award goes to the anonymous hackers who attacked various PBS Web sites because Front Line had dared to broadcast a show on Wikileaks that fell short of adulation. This is precisely why my contempt for Julian Assange and his minions remains strong. Freedom of information means nothing if its self-appointed defenders pick and choose what information shall be free.

The local Memorial Day show followed much the same script as in past years. This town has a three-stop parade. The first stop is the harbour, where the town remembers those whose gave their lives at sea, navy, merchant marine and privateer: there are long memories here, and it wouldn't do to leave the privateers out of our thoughts. The main event, which I take in, is at the Memorial Park downtown. This is the one dominated by a sombre Civil War obelisk, which bears more names than all the other memorials combined.

This the beginning of the Civil War sesquicentennial. If we manage to get through the next four years without starting another one, perhaps we can use the time to recognise the seed of what the war started, and to settle some things that were far from settled at the centennial.

Against this background, I was disappointed in our keynote speaker, a young Marine reserve officer raised in Marblehead. There is a lot of material to draw from here. We did not especially need a political sermon strongly tinged with Tea Party rant. Although that the town has a decidedly Republican cast, I detected an uptick in shuffling and shifting in the crowd. Not the place, old man.

Forty years ago one would not have predicted that veterans' organisations would have been inherited by veterans of my generation. Then, I would have predicted that those organisations would wither and die rather than treat Vietnam veterans on equal terms. I have never forgotten or forgiven that. I will show up at such events but that is as far as I'll take it. But here we are, old men and women, and the older men and women of World War Two and Korea are dying at a prodigious rate. We are the old ones: may the fates grant us one insight denied to veterans of "the greatest generation." What Holmes called "the incommunicable experience of war" unites us all. We are related to the deeps of time, far past Thucydides, before Marathon. May we be fair-minded and generous to those who are behind the guns today.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011


The sole benefit of living near the high school is being able to hear the outdoor band practices this time of year.

A biggy-size-it toy I detest is the "SUV stroller." Entitled suburban mothers already take up enough room, what with their obsession with breeding and with always walking side by side. Why add to that with baby conveyances the size of a Deux Cheavaux...then try to roll them in tandem into a small shop?

There will be more thoughts presently about Tyler Hamilton, as the other shoes drop over his--and others'--cycling confessions. My first immediate comment is addressed to those who took issue with my earlier defence of the homeboy: you were right, so there.

My second comment is to hope that this scandal has no effect on recreational and transportation cycling, now that both have at last gained some credibility in the auto-obsessed US of A. Past disturbances in the chi of bicycle racing have had negative effects on the use of bicycles at less exalted levels. For once, one can hope that public cynicism will do some good, and allow us to slough off the latest obnoxious pro sports drug spectacle.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Don didn't know it all

Donald Murray, teacher and mentor to two generations of writers at the University of New Hampshire, was full of advice. One of his favourite tips was that freelance writers should acquire a skill that has nothing to do with writing and that takes little creative power. He was not a friend of the starving artists school of thought, believing that want saps creativity rather than motivating it.

Being smartasses of a certain generation, we were inclined to ask if that was why he had made his living as a reporter, then an editor talented enough to get a Pulitzer, then a teacher of writing. His calm answer was that if he had it to do over again, he would follow his own advice. He recommended piano tuning as an occupation especially suited to writers. The schedule was irregular, he said, but the work fairly steady and well-paid. It put one in touch with another sort of creative people as well.

I've been getting progressively deeper into my own version of this, and I'm not sure the advice was so good. The schedule is erratic, not irregular. The work seems prone to dwindling, and one's human contacts are more exacting than creative. And alas, a skill which looked appealing at the outset shows signs of being, well, humdrum.

Possibly I chose poorly. The result is that it is rather hard to start the engine at the end of the day, even when one's mind is churning with ideas. This too, presumably, shall pass, but I think it may be better to do as Don did, not as he said. Writing begets writing.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Twenty fricken days! I'm dreadful! I'd say I'm in a funk, but any time I do, I remember a college friend who would inquire, to that statement, why so and so was in a funk, not an MG.

I suppose I've been in the one and not the other. Which is too bad, because there have endless opportunities for literary levity in the world at large.

There has been this other thing, peculiar to my little town, the yachting capital of the world/the nation/New England/Essex County. Our universe has been shrinking, but there are still enough fools who believe it to make a Marblehead harbour mooring rather more valuable than our real estate.

I have such a mooring. The odd thing is that the holder of such a mooring no longer actually owns anything. He/she simply has rights to use a buoy, rights to pay a permit fee, and the privilege of paying a licenced maintenance firm a hefty amount of money a year. (Once upon a time if you had a permit, you actually owned the buoy, the chain and anchor, but no more.)

A few years back, we sold our boat but, in the usual local fashion, kept our rights in the mooring. We did this basically to give a lift to our small fleet of small sailboats. While in theory we also got the right to use the boat, our interests were moving away from sailing. We used it very little. In addition, our co-owner was a thorough mariner, both born and bred. He did much better than we ever did.

Suddenly, this spring, he got a new job in the Midwest and sold out the boat. If you ever feel friendless and unwanted, for an antidote try having one of these 5x8 bits of paper with no boat on the mooring. You will have many, many friends in a very short time. If you give up the mooring, you will make one anonymous person very happy, and earn yourself many unfriends. If you keep the mooring, only one of your friends will be truly happy.

If this isn't complicated enough, add a Left Coast child who has suddenly rediscovered her interest in sailing. This would be innocent enough if she were to remain living in the desert. However, there's a high likelihood that her next career move is to the Bay area, thence back to this coast. So, as all this unfolds, daughter says "Don't give up the mooring."

No pressure.

We caved.

Our new arrangement is with the person we thought needed a chance at a mooring most. Just to show how diverse we are, he's a Republican. Nowadays, doing this sort of thing is far from simple. Papers: many many papers. Hoops: many many hoops. It is unclear as yet whether we've acquired unfriends from all this, because they haven't called. At any rate, the deal is done. At last.

My brother-in-law, hearing all this, suggested that getting moorings in Marblehead is like getting season's tickets to the New York Giants. I think the Giants tickets would be easier.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Hoist by his own Johnson

Mr. Wayne Johnson's bid to save his house from his self-destructive urges was "indefinitely postponed" by a 2-1 margin last night. Those unfamiliar with the art of open town meeting politics, as practised in the Massachusetts towns still delusional enough to have open town meetings may not understand this reference, or the back story.

The town's Finance Committee vets the list of action items, called the warrant, before meeting. They publish their recommendations which are approve (we can afford it), don't approve (we don't think we can), no recommendation (it doesn't cost anything so we're not competent) or indefinite postponement. The latter is generally recognised as a sort of local politics limbo. It is possible, though not likely, for an indefinitely postponed item to resurface in its present form. Such measures usually undergo serious tweaking before they show up on the warrant again.

The present zoning ordinances, which set a variety of lot sizes but which do frown on narrow-fronted (or "pork-chop") lots, were set by town meeting a couple of decades ago, years before Johnson decided to ignore the law and build what he pleased where he pleased. Although most town meeting articles pass by simple majority, zoning articles must pass by a two-thirds vote. In a town in which it is close to impossible to get a two-thirds vote favouring anything, this ensures that zoning ordinances command as close to universal assent as the town is ever likely to go.

The question, then, was settled law to just about everyone but Wayne Johnson, who makes his laws up as he goes along. It is before the meeting now only because our hero discovered that the Commonwealth's courts were unimpressed by his poor little rich kid pouting act. Faced with the imminent threat of demolishing his house, Johnson did what every red-blooded American millionaire does. He hired more lawyers and discovered a loophole that allowed Town Meeting to stay the courts' decision by retroactively changing the zoning.

It took two nights of nail-biting suspense for Johnson to reach his turn. Alas, his personal article came during a meeting preoccupied with

a) Accessibility for the Old Town House, one of the nation's oldest public buildings (1727)
b) Changes to the Town Dump
c) Capital expenses for a large elementary school.

All we would have needed was any article concerning dogs and the meeting would be sitting until mid-June. Any one of these topics generates hot air in inverse ratio to its level of importance and/or controversy. We have in addition a relatively weak-kneed moderator. His late predecessor knew town meeting procedure inside out, and showed no hesitation about shutting off anyone or anything to keep things moving. With all this, it took two nights and around six hours to do less than three hours' worth of business. When the end came, poor Wayne was sent packing, despite his crying towel.

Indefinite postponement does Johnson little good, for this warrant article was a last, desperate throw. The questions remaining are whether courts and town can at last show the backbone they have failed so far to display, and who's going to pay to take the place down?* The emerging buzz seems to expect that Johnson, who has laid out every sob story he has, will hunker down and wait to have the house torn down around his ears: which might happen.

Negligent as town officials and courts have been in enforcement, we should not lose sight of the central fact in all this: Johnson's pre-adolescent hubris. He knew the lot was non-conforming, but he bought it and built on it anyway. Although he could have built a more modest, better-sited house, and avoided most of the pitfalls awaiting those who build on pork-chop lots, he did not. He built a McMansion so sited that it was deliberately in yo' face to neighbours and town officials alike. Sixteen years of "no" from neighbours, town offices, town boards and the courts was not, and perhaps still is not, enough to convince him that they meant it. He was voted down not only for his hubris, but because wiser heads understood it was not all about him. Johnson expected to do as he damn well pleased, then change the law to ratify what he had done after the fact. Marblehead should be pleased that he pursued this pleasant line of reasoning in a relatively benign field like zoning and not in, say, homicide.

*The irony in all this is that Johnson could have moved his house on the lot, or altered it. The courts made it clear that they found demolition a distasteful solution. So far had Johnson lost his reason that he never seems to have considered either option, and they may now be closed to him.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Show me the picture!

Some years ago, some academics with lots of time on their hands demonstrated that the most hazardous sort of stupid people are the ones who are so stupid that they don't know they're stupid. There were plenty of examples at the time. Today we have so many more, chiefly found in the comments section of any online news story.

These are the stupid people in the West who latch onto any conspiracy theory, such as the one that runs "Osama ain't dead because I ain't seen the pitchers."
Never mind that another significant group of whack jobs, called al Qaida, accept that death as fact.

DNA evidence is extremely hard to fake. Facial recognition matches are hard to fake. Photographs? Child's play, even before PhotoShop. Let's drift back in time about 75 years, to a seminal conflict unknown to most Americans today: the Spanish Civil War.

The photograph below, by Robert Capa, became the single most representative image of that war.

In the 1970s, British journalist Phillip Knightley examined the entire tale of the
"moment of death" photo,
as it was called, and concluded it was faked. His evidence is persuasive, and the followup (at the link) is interesting. Here, we encounter the idea that the public, not Capa, was responsible for the legend of the photograph. In his initial discussion of the photo, Knightley made the point that is relevant to the "proof" that the imbeciles demand today: context is all, especially context provided by captions. Had this photo's caption said "Republican soldier slips during training exercises," it would have been forgotten in a heartbeat. But this is what the clown class considers evidence.

If, or when, we see the pitchers, we'll see an image of a human head hit at short range by a high-velocity projectile. It may not look enough like the innumerable file photos to satisfy those people too stupid to recognise their own stupidity. It is a pitiful commentary on today's media that we must act to make our own fools happy almost ahead of any other consideration.

The evidence--especially that offered up by al Qaida--tells me the sonofabitch is dead. I am perhaps un-American, because I am ambivalent to find myself happy over the death of another human being, no matter how vile. I recall the words of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings: "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so."

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Monday, May 02, 2011


Don't ask me what I think about the bin Laden news, yet. My days of dancing in the streets are long past. One thing I do know: I'm tired to death of conspiracy theory nutjobs. The evidence is appearing in due course, but the basket cases would only accept bin Laden's head on a pike. They are as medieval as al Qaida.

There's plenty else to deal with. Tonight I'm being dragged (yes, kicking and screaming) to our chief local annual farce, ye open town meeting. I'm bringing reading. There's only one thing I'm there to vote on, and it's the proposal of one entitled bastard to change a half century of zoning laws. And why? So he doesn't have to tear down a house he knew was illegal. I don't see why, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we can't yet watch the meeting at home and cast our votes remotely.

Speaking of comedy, I happened to see that the latest thing in diets is "the Viking Diet." In fact, it features cabbage, rye bread, root vegetables and fish: yes, lovely. My first reaction to the name was that I'm already on the Viking Diet: Pill-age.

OK, more profound thoughts later.

The beat goes on

Nickelodeon fans in the 1990s will remember the animated series Doug. As the parent of an adolescent interested in animation, I had more than the usual share of exposure to this and other Nick toons. What's relevant here is that the script had a running joke, more of an idee fixe really, about beets.

The weekend's festivities at the Vatican have themes relating to beat** on my mind--or beet, if one is hooked on phonics. So the object here is to play with this charming word, syllable, or what have you.

First in my mind is the political turnaround involved. When the saint-to-be John Paul was a young priest, a Polish priest was more likely to beaten by a Hitler Youth than beatified by one. Yet here is Pope Benny, presiding over the festivities as if such a thought never crossed his youthful Teutonic mind.

I was also taken by the business of exhuming the late pontiff so that the faithful could pray at his coffin. Is it that the Miracles Verification Unit is a little short of this prerequisite for sainthood, and someone is hoping that the blind obligingly see and the lame walk during this act of the production? Even a sainthood candidate so obviously in the political express lane should have a good portfolio of miracles.

The church is on Facebook and Twitter, but they've missed a bet by bringing John Paul VI's remains back to centre stage with sombre Vatican piety. They should have produced a YouTube video, coffin raising up through the centre of the altar, with the sound track playing "The Beat Goes On," (with cuts to the "I Vas Not A Nazi Polka" whenever the camera panned to Bennie). The video could have a heartwarming closing, with beatific Father McFeeley taking a choirboy into the sacristry by the shoulder. I leave the rest of that dialogue to reader imagination.

But surely, there must be other plays on this theme out there. I'm beat...and I think I took too many snarky pills today.