2015 – It’s a Wonderful Life

January 1, 2016

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I turned sixty this year, threw myself a party, and waited for some age old wisdom to inhabit my noggin. I’m still waiting on the wisdom, but in the meantime I took a look back at my “2014 – Ten Random Thoughts on This Past Year” and I am proud to report I got the dumpster mentioned in #4 and I read the Billy Collins book in #9. I was so enthralled my wife took me to see him read at Harvard’s Sanders theater – wow, that’s a place to see! Turns out the stuff that sticks in my less than perfect memory isn’t the things newly acquired, but experiences great and small.

In 2015 we experienced snow – crap loads of snow. From January 8th to February 10th school had 5 snow days and three 2 hour delays. Worcester won the title of “Snowiest City in the US” – crushing perennial favorites Rochester and Erie.

Enough shoveling! By March we needed a break so an impromptu weekend visit to DC while our son was working there for a few months. We rode up the Washington Monument to rise above the snow, but the highlight of this trip was a dinner. We had no idea the BLT steakhouse was serving what the Washington Post called  “The Hope Diamond of Beef”. We went full wagyu and after the meat orgy was over there were no regrets.

Come April, with many promises and apologies from management, my wife decided to stay in her job (see “The End of an Error”). With that settled, she took Addy to photograph Charleston and I chaperoned some 8th graders to not speak French in Quebec.

Mountview graduated another class just in time for the Smith Family Big Alaskan Adventure by way of inheritance a gift from my mother. From our cruise ship base we tried everything – trains, seaplanes, jet boats, regular boats, kayaks, dog sleds, helicopters, hiking, and earthquakes. I saw whales breach, glaciers calve, and big smiles on my family. A few favs: Addy becoming a sled dog’s new BFF, Zach calling out “derp” from his balcony to the sea otters, and my guarding the entrance to a snow trench at Base Camp #1 high on Denali so my wife could pee at 11,000’.

My children paid me back with some adventures of their own – Zach took me to Fenway to see Pedro get his number retired and Addy to see Parks and Rec star Nick Offerman. I also experienced with great pride with the courage they demonstrated starting down new paths – Addy returning to school to start a nursing career like her mama and Zach taking a new job with a biotech start-up in Boston.  

For our anniversary Pam and I headed up to Lake Sunapee for the New Hampshire Crafts show, renting a little cabin. The show was great, as always, but it was the unexpected antique boat show the day we were leaving that was the highlight.

Sprinkle in an odd trip into Boston only to end up sailing on the harbor and catching James Montgomery on the Blues Barge; include a random visit to my sister in Wickford, R.I. after cutting greens at the reservoir that turns into a Christmas shopping spree and add a “do you have anything planned today?” road trip to Walpole N.H. in search of the holy grail of chocolate (L.A. Burdick’s) and finding wine, art and alpacas along the way and 2015 was what my wife’s hats, sweatshirts and a few tees say – “Life is good.”

As I write this it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m sitting in our room at the Intercontinental Hotel with my wife catching a nap before the midnight fireworks. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is on the TV and the Bailey family is singing “Auld Lang Syne.” We just had a fabulous meal at Mama Maria’s and what I remember most so far is walking the North End holding Pam’s hand. I’m one lucky guy. Hey, maybe some wisdom did creep in!

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Thanksgiving Chivalry

November 26, 2015
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My classroom white board

It was the last period of the day when it happened. Tales of conquering knights, castle life or the grossness of the fuller’s job makes teaching the  Middle Ages to 8th graders easier. The kids have played Clash of Clans or Magic, they know the story of Cinderella, Rapunzel and the Hobbit, they wear Underarmor  and maybe even sneaked a peek at Game of Thrones… so many misconceptions, but it’s a place to start.

It also helps that middle schoolers want to fit in – the oratores, bellatores, laborares of the middle ages make sense to them (those who pray, fight, work). I use the opening scene of Divergent to introduce these interdependent class systems that maintain social order. The kids learn a lot of vocabulary and research many aspects the middle ages – knights and the code of chivalry, the duties of lords and vassals, the everyday life of serfs and freemen. They have to put in a lot of time reading. This unit lands just before the Thanksgiving break so I hold out the promise of a tournament day to keep their attention on their school work.

After all that reading it’s time to put the newly acquired knowledge to work. I have invested a full set of chainmail, arming coat, helmet, sword and buckler along with a 12th century noble lady’s outfit (complete with wimple, stylish long belt and purse) for two lucky kids to put on with the help of their squires and handmaidens. We have some crazy masks to perform a mummers play, some mock robes for our clergy, and pool noodles, foam shields and inflatable horses for the joust. It is a very active day.

In the middle of this we have a dubbing ceremony, the elevation of a squire to the order of knights who must follow the code of chivalry. For the dubbing ceremony I use a translation of Tirant Lo Blanc – a story favored by Cervantes published in 1490. This year the script hit home in light of the recent ISIS attacks:

King (to squire): Squire, bring your master forward and present him to me.(Candidate kneels before the King) Squire, do you vouch the candidate is deemed worthy of elevation to the order of chivalry?

Squire: Yes, Sire.

King (to candidate): This sword’s significance lies in the fact that it slays and wounds with both edges and its point also stabs. The sword is the knight’s noblest weapon, and he too should serve in three ways. He should defend the church, killing and wounding those who oppose it as do the two edges of a sword. He should also defend the poor and weak against the powerful influence of the rich. And just as a sword pierces whatever it touches, likewise a knight should pierce all heretics and villains, attacking them mercilessly wherever he may find them. The pommel symbolizes the world, for a knight is obliged to defend his king. The guard symbolizes the cross, on which Our Redeemer died to preserve mankind, and every true knight should do likewise, braving death to preserve his brethren. Should he perish in the attempt, his soul will surely go to heaven.

Would the kids hear the parallel in these words? Would they hear danger in promises of heaven to defend earthly interests? Maybe if they were in high school or college… What lesson would be learned from this class? That people are horrible to each other?

The script requires the knight candidate have a squire present him to the king for the dubbing. I let the student wearing the chain mail choose who will be his squire. Everyone has fun watching this poor kid struggle to move around wearing about fifty pounds of kit and he always picks a buddy to join him in the spotlight.

And then it happened. When I asked the knight-to-be to name his squire he asked if he could pick anyone. He has some football friends that weren’t amongst the nobles he should pick from, but it was the last period of the day and I was too tired to push that point. “Yeah, anyone – Who will it be?” Still unsure he double checked his choice – “Could it be —–?”

His choice of squire was a young man in class who is intellectually impaired. He attends school with the help of his one on one aid. It’s important to his parents that he knows the great variety of people in this world, not just those he would meet in the shelter of a “special” school, even though he is not able to do what the other kids do.

This day I was taught a lesson by an 8th grade boy. Don’t believe the Lord of the Flies mentality attributed to middle school kids. This day I saw a squire beaming with pride presenting his knight before the king and laughing as he joined in the joust. After class his joy was heard down the hallway telling everyone what he did. What did he do? He fit in, thanks to the invitation of a classmate.

What I learned in school this day was that to defeat the inevitability of despair caused by terrorism it takes just one truly noble, chivalrous act – sometimes delivered by a thirteen year old. I learned people can be awesome to each other.

Bullies and Bystanders

August 15, 2015

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“And then [Megyn Kelly] hit me with a very, very hard question. That was when I came up with the Rosie O’Donnell statement, which really got a tremendous applause. That was the biggest applause in the evening actually, so it was sort of interesting.”
– Donald Trump on Fox and Friends

As a school teacher I am a mandated reporter of bullying. While watching the Republican debate I felt the need to report the Donald, but the audience response was even more vile.  In bullying seminars and workshops they point out that whatever the bully’s problem is, it can’t be easily be rectified; so the focus is on appealing to the bystanders, the bully’s audience and source of power. They make the bully the center of attention and their presence amplifies the humiliation heaped on the victim. Change the attitude of the bully’s audience and you can stop the bully.

The Donald’s crowd increases with each insult he launches. It’s giddy fun; – after all,  calling everybody a “fat loser” is great stuff to your inner twelve year old. Is this frustration with predictable political correctness? But now those government-sent Mexican drug lord rapists have been called out and anyone who has ever been given a hard time by their wife/girlfriend/mother knows that it was because she was pre-menstrual/menstrual/post-menstrual. Thanks, Donald – It’s not our fault. The Donald even spoke his version of the truth to Fox power and has all the other nattering nabobs of negativism in the news declaring him unelectable making him ‘Merica’s underdog and we love the underdog.

We may love the Donald right into the White House, despite the protestations of the pundits. Despite our fear and distrust of the big buck bankers and cartels, we may be electing one of their co-captains. Many despise the limited experience of the current occupant of the White House yet we may elect someone with NO experience. The more we are told it’s a stunt, he can’t possibly make it past the primaries, he is a plant by the Democrats; the more he gains in the polls.

“I must have heard at least 15 times today that the thing people like about Trump is he says what we are all thinking but can’t bear to say,” said State Rep. Fred Doucette, the co-chairman of Trump’s New Hampshire campaign. “He’s a straight talker. He says what he thinks and thinks what he says and sticks to it and tells the truth.”

There are a lot of things that I think, but don’t say. I learned this by having my mouth washed out with soap by my folks a few times. The Donald’s dad must have been too busy building the inheritance to do the same.  What dad says “…if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her” even if she “has a nice figure”? Seriously? Is this the kind of straight talk we want running the country, our own inappropriate American version of Putin? Maybe the Donald will commission his own macho version of the Russian hit, “A Man Like Putin.” Of course his version would be the best.

This bully knows how to enlist the bystanders and how to turn statements that would cause most politicians to fall into the abyss into a rise in the polls. So here is a test: Who are his victims? A – Civility? B – Sensibility? C – Political discourse based on policy not pompous personality? D – All of the above? (The correct answer is “D – all of the above.”)

So how do we, a civil, sensible electorate who would like to base our vote on policy, appeal to the ever increasing crowd of onlookers ready to snicker at the next left handed compliment or wildly cheer for name-calling? I’m not sure this translates to the national stage, but here is some advice for dealing with school bullies from Stompoutbullying.org:

Whether you know the victim or not, there are things that you as a bystander can safely do to support the victim:
• Don’t laugh 
• Don’t encourage the bully in any way
• Stay at a safe distance and help the target get away
• Don’t become an “audience” for the bully
• Reach out in friendship
• Help the victim in any way you can
• Support the victim in private
• If you notice someone being isolated from others, invite them to join you
• Include the victim in some of your activities
• Tell an adult

As a teacher of History I have always wondered how some of the great villains of past rose to power and popular support. I think I may be living through the answer to that question. I’m going to tell an adult.

What’s in your garage?

June 5, 2015

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What’s in your garage? Maybe your car, but we cram so much other stuff in there sometimes that doesn’t even fit. The garage holds all of our crap – the trash cans, some tools, clothes you cleaned out of your closet but haven’t made it to the donation box with yet, a badminton net, some just-in-case wood scraps, the lawnmower, the snowblower, and sometimes, maybe, the car. The beauty of the garage is when you close that enormous door you’ll look as neat and organized as everyone else on the block even though it’s a mess inside. Maybe that’s why Bob and Scott chose the garage as the place to end their lives. These two people are as different as people can be yet they both picked the place where we put things when we don’t know what else to do with them as the spot for their suicide. I wish they both had had Mr. Brackeen for high school biology like I did. He was someone we all took very seriously because he was the only black guy in a white on white suburban school. He had been in the service; he had been in the South and he knew stuff – not just about biology, but about life. He scared us and we listened when he spoke. He asked us one day what we hoped to accomplish if we committed suicide. He knew we all had thought about at least once because we were all full of teen angst. It’s what we did. Do you want to punish your parents? Your girlfriend? Yourself? He said we would succeed in varying degrees. Did you think killing yourself would save them all the trouble your very existence seems to cause? Maybe, but he didn’t know our stories so he didn’t know for sure. There was one thing he said he did know for sure – if you did kill yourself someone was going to come and have to clean your sorry dead ass up. Someone you didn’t know. Some firefighter, some cop, some EMT, some stranger that did nothing to you now will never be able to erase from their memory the image of your lifeless body and all those fluids and other gross things that will leak out of you. Mr. Brackeen knew because he had been a medic in the army and saw stuff. I listened. In the crush of depression I thought the only way to stop the pain was to end it all. Then I would recall what I learned in that Bio class: suicide was really a moment of arrogance – that moment when ending my personal pain was more important than the devastating memory I was about to inflict on some innocent strangers called to clean me up. I couldn’t be that guy. That idea was stored in my head by Mr. Brackeen and I thank him. In time, I learned to tidy up my garage just enough and every so often I let go of some of the odd bits and pieces when it gets too full. The easiest way to clean it is to open the garage door and use the leaf-blower, but “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” so maybe a yard sale would be in order. But really great things – like what Mr. Brackeen taught – should be on the curb with a “free” sign on it. Because then maybe Bob and Scott would have picked it up and saved a lot of people a lot of hurt.


Need more reasons to not do it? 1-800-273-8255  – No matter what problems you are dealing with, they want to help you find a reason to keep living. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

For my friend Bob Collins: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Worcester Animal Rescue League, 139 Holden St., Worcester, MA 01606.

For my student Scott Elms: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Scott’s name to the Wachusett Greenways, 21 Miles Rd., Rutland, MA 01543 (www.wachusettgreenways.org)

The End of an Error

March 28, 2015

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74,000 babies have started their lives in my wife’s care during the past 37 years as a neonatal nurse at St Vincent Hospital in Worcester. Today she gave up her biggest baby, her department, and resigned. She resigned because working twelve hours a day, five days a week and being on-call 24/7 was not enough for her bosses; her bosses who have enjoyed excellent bonuses based on her department’s profitability, client and staff satisfaction, and her leadership.

She was the manager of the neonatal nursery and post-partum care and took patient assignments as well so she could lead from the trenches. Four times the director of the Center for Women and Infants left and four times Pam became the acting director with less and less pay each time. This last time was for a year and a half with no additional compensation. Her body compensated her with cancer, a type of cancer commonly triggered by high levels of stress. Most of her coworkers and none of her bosses know as she poisons herself weekly with a low dose of chemo to control it. She won’t let the cancer beat her.

Pam is a St Vincent School of Nursing graduate. I met her when she was in school. I helped her escape the top of Vernon Hill during the Blizzard of ‘78 and we have been together ever since. We have two children, Zach and Addy. Pam was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis a few years after Addy’s birth. M.G. is a neuromuscular disease affecting her voluntary muscles. Surgery and the ability to tolerate very high doses of Mestinon keep her going. She hasn’t let Myasthenia Gravis beat her.

Saint Vincent was building a new facility, a brand new hospital in downtown Worcester. Pam was on the committee that flew around the country to see the latest in medical malls and worked with the architects on the design and layout of the new Center for Women and Infants. Her pride was evident in the pictures we still have of all phases of the construction; much like those ultrasound pictures the moms-to-be get, except these show metal studs, pipes, cables and duct work. And as soon as the new St V’s opened the newly unionized nursing staff staged their first strike. As management, Pam lived at the hospital for the 49 days of the strike; teasing me that she was enjoying the big Jacuzzi tub (for mothers who wanted a water birth) and wasn’t coming home. She understood some aspects of why the nurses went on strike, but not others. She felt supporting the needs of her patients, the mothers and their babies, was most important and many of her staff crossed picket lines and lost friends to help keep the department running. After the strike was settled she struggled to pull her staff together to again work as a unit and move on. She received the Robert Maher Manager of the Year Award that year. She hadn’t let the strike (and the threats) beat her.

Babies don’t understand staffing guidelines. When everybody’s bundles make a group decision to be born on the same shift, Pam would bake cakes, cookies or brownies and bring them to work the next day because she knows how much everyone stepped up. She knows how important it is to be appreciated and have the extra effort acknowledged. She also knows chocolate is the key ingredient in a good thank you. She kept chocolates with a mix of other sweets in a basket in her office so people could stop by for a quick fix. Work is work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in a little treat now and then. She knows a happy crew is willing to pitch in to smooth out those rough spots.

The babies come in their own time and, as every mother knows, you can’t beat them back to fit your schedule. This staff achieved a 97% productivity rating by the hospital’s own metrics. Those measures don’t account for the ladies who labor but aren’t admitted or other patient anomalies that still require attention, but aren’t putting a head in a bed at midnight. The folks get taken care of, but aren’t counted for staffing purposes.  And senior management sniffs at this level of performance. They have set a goal of 98% for the year. Or to put it another way – a 1% increase in profit margin for them. The upcoming two quarters should be especially profitable since there is an anticipated increase in deliveries of nearly 30% and no plan to increase staffing.

Knowing even chocolate can’t make this right, Pam presented the need for a minimum of twelve full time nurses to meet the current staffing guidelines to her boss who presented something to her boss. Then two bosses returned to announced “Problem solved!” They would bring in four travelling nurses to cover Labor and Delivery. That means none for the Nursery or Postpartum units, because once the babies are born the mothers and newborns can fend for themselves, right? The four travellers will end up in those other areas because the regular staff will have had more L&D experience. That means 2/3rds of the time the Center for Women and Infants will be severely short staffed.

The Center for Women and Infants has a superb reputation as a modern facility with a Level II nursery and excellent patient satisfaction reports (except for the food). These satisfaction reports are not only some of the highest of any unit in the hospital, but highest amongst all the Tenet owned facilities. The Center is consistently one of the top profit centers for Tenet and hospitals know that birthing centers are the gateway to continued use of that hospital by the new family brought into the world there; a good experience at birth creates a repeat customer.

For 37 years my wife has given her life to make that happen; to help every mother and baby get what they need to start life safely and to teach them enough to make going home to the awesome responsibility of raising that baby just a bit easier. She has been there long enough for babies she helped come back to have their babies. Now, in the interest of short term gain, her bosses will not allow her to deliver the safe, caring experience she has led her staff to provide. Simply because there won’t be enough staff.

They said to her, “So, what are you going to do about it?” She thought about it. Did they expect she was going volunteer what little life she had left to fill in for the short staffing? She thought about what she had been a part of: building a new hospital, developing their model of care and their excellent reputation. And all the lives – all 74,000 of them.

One thing I can tell you about my wife is you don’t want to challenge her. One of my wife’s old bosses said she didn’t deserve respect because she didn’t have her BSN, just her RN from St V’s. Faster than you can say “bite me” she graduated summa cum laude. Myasthenia? No problem. Knee and ankle surgeries? That’s why there’s physical therapy. Cancer? Lesions under control.

They challenged her, “So, what are you going to do about it?” She thought about it. Her reputation? Her dignity? Her life’s work? Like I said, you don’t want to challenge my wife. She wasn’t going to let them beat her. She resigned.

Postscript – Pam will hate that I wrote this about her, she doesn’t like being the center of attention. She hopes that her action will galvanize those with more power to pressure the top layer of management to initiate positive change. One change I know will happen is they will need to hire at least two people to replace her. Perfectly, this NY Times article was in my Facebook feed today.

Thanks for all the well wishes and heartfelt notes – I read them to Pam and my chin quivers. I choke up too because for 37 years you (the staff) have been part of my family. You were there for us when we had our babies at St V’s and we have grown up (not old) together. Our love to you all.

2014 – Ten Random Thoughts on this past year.

January 4, 2015

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2014 was packed with many tales for telling, but who has time for that? Instead here are Ten Random Thoughts that came to mind when reviewing 2014…

  1. I am fat. I now get red-faced when I have to bend over to tie my shoes because I can’t breathe. And because I have no ass (Irish) my expanding, descending gut beats the pants off me. I’m considering suspenders (braces) because a belt doesn’t have the staying power I require while allowing for digestion. Exercise you say? Yeah – I’m thinking about it in between choosing snacks, but new methods for holding my pants up seem more likely.
  2. How are there no manuals for adult children? I love my kids and 2014 had some serious ups and downs for them. When they were little a tickle or a treat could fix most anything. Now I don’t know what to do, but still want “to make all better.” I know I can’t – but that doesn’t stop the frustration.
  3. Travel often, but not too often. This past year every vacation from work was packed with travel – Iceland, Durango, and Wales. I know I can be a whiner, but maybe we did too much. In the rush to check off our bucket list, we too often forgot to just be in the moment. After a day of piloting a canal boat in Wales, we moored and walked over to the lake alongside the canal. We sat on the shore eating dinner and feeding ducks while the sun set. It was glorious. We could have dined lakeside most anywhere, but here was an unplanned moment that was complete – no distraction from tomorrow or yesterday. Stop and smell the roses…? Yeah – do that.
  4. We sold my mother’s house this year. So many things in it were imbued with the power of time travel. One minute I’m nine proudly presenting a nicknack made in art class for her birthday, then I’m fourteen and embarrassed by the finger cymbals for belly dancing and then seconds later in my fifties wistfully passing the salt substitute. Sorting the house out I realized just how few treasures realistically could fit into my own crowded home and how many “rare” collectibles could be found on the shelves of a TJ Maxx. Note to self – get a dumpster.
  5. Drugs – Just say YES. Love ‘em! Without the M&Ms (Mestinon and Methotrexate) my wife would be encased in a floppy, lesion covered body. Drugs give her body the chance to act like most other bodies the age of hers. She gets to walk around, comb her hair and bitch about the aches and pains of getting old. Without these drugs I have no idea what her world would be – what my world with her would be. Easy to pick on Big Pharma, but there are success stories too. I love my wife, so I say thank you for giving us this time. And a shout out to the fine folks at Dana Farber. We are privileged to be holders of their blue card, opening us to a world where I feel lucky to have a naturally balding head and my wife wears a hat just because its cold out.
  6. Facebook has made me realize just how many of my friends have come out of the Libertarian closet or now rely on Jesus – or both. To quote the Byrds – “I was so much older then, I’m younger then than now.” I was a Libertarian when I was 20 and, at age 13, I respectfully decided Jesus had things to say, but with no more authority than Einstein or Gandhi. Sadly many of my Facebook friends are filled with vitriol for those who don’t hold the same beliefs they do. I disagree with so much of what is posted, but since it is from people I mostly like I listen, only occasionally pointing out factual errors. To quote another musical source, John Mayer, “Is there anyone who ever remembers changing their mind from the paint on a sign? Is there anyone who really recalls ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?” I like to believe most of us have come to our world view through serious thought (I’m a glass half-full guy).
  7. This is the year, in my mind, I officially become an old guy. I’m turning 60 and I hear my conversation spouting things like “back in the day…” and the ever engaging “kids today…” Time – I need to make more of that because there may not be enough to read all those books and visit all those places I want to. Highlights include scheduling my next colonoscopy and wondering if that twinge is just the effect of some worn out body part or a sign of the big one…
  8. An aside to my many conspiracy minded friends: Washington is truly run by just out of college, Redbull gulping,  over-achievers trying to do everything anyone asks them to do. There is little coherence to what they do, much less diabolical plotting. Most political scandals are not a glimpse of some deeper secret, just a subordinate making a poor, sleep-deprived choice trying to please a mid-level bureaucrat who is trying to meet some misunderstood short-term metric and get that bonus.
  9. My wife and I got a shelving unit as a Christmas gift. I started moving the unread books that are stacked around my family room on to it. Books purchased with noble intentions to enlighten and entertain patiently wait for me to crack them open. I used to read constantly, now I fall asleep constantly. Looking over my choices I opened a collection of poems by Billy Collins – damn, that’s some good stuff. I need to get out more and into some books.
  10. People are important to me. Making up this list made me think of so many things and so many people. I know how it feels to be excluded so I don’t want to be that person. So please know that thing you did – yeah, that thing – still makes me think of you… yeah, you.

Jingle Bells, Something Smells…

January 6, 2014

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It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and The Grapes of Wrath were just on my libturd, Obamanation, communist TV this holiday season. It is part of the left-wing media’s war on Christmas, every Christmas. These movies are brainwashing workers into thinking they deserve a share of the American dream, when in truth, they need to earn it. Business succeeds by crushing the competition and minimizing costs – and wages are one of those pesky costs – so if you want more go out and earn more.

To hear it told by some Foxy commentators, Henry Potter is the real hero of It’s A Wonderful Life and Tom Joad should be thanking the farm-owners and the camp “guards” as job creators in The Grapes of Wrath. And isn’t Scrooge just a rational businessman in a secular world? Why should his workers get time off for their religious celebration when profits can be made? Propaganda they say and maybe they’re right.

Consider this:

It’s A Wonderful Life  – The Bailey Building and Loan was poorly run – a quaint family business with an incompetent relative charged with critical fiduciary responsibilities. Who can blame Potter when opportunity falls at his feet?

The Grapes of Wrath  – The murderer, Tom Joad, whines when his pay is reduced. What he didn’t realize is when 20,000 workers show for 800 fruit picking jobs wages were bound to head south. It’s the law of supply and demand and Joad wants to break that law, too. This criminal should be thankful he has any work. He should quit his bellyaching or get another job, duh!

A Christmas Carol – Poor Scrooge just wants to pay his workers what they earn – no more and no less. If his workers take time off, why should he pay them? His only true concern is his business, not his employees’ personal lives.

And now consider this:

All of the above makes sense – because business is all about maximizing profits and opportunities. That’s the story of business as told by Wall Street players and mega-banks and they are pitching their story hard.

In It’s A Wonderful Life the Bailey Building and Loan’s product to provide the people of Bedford Falls a valued alternative to slumlord Potter’s rents. Good for many, but cut into maximizing Potter’s profits.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad wants to earn enough to feed his family and for them to be treated fairly. The farm owners are all about the money, workers be damned.

We are also told that small business is the backbone of America; that they are the job creators. Every small business begins with an idea for a product or service and every successful small business has customers who find value in that product or service. Finding those customers and creating enough value is the real action of an entrepreneur, profit is the reward.

Henry Ford understood this. He also understood his workers could be his customers if he paid then enough – a short term loss versus long term gain. That is what the bankers and players don’t understand. That doesn’t feed their quarterly bonus programs.

These are the folks who came up with mortgage-backed securities and made money on both ends of a bad deal – Put your home on the line… no worries…oops, my bad… all the way to the bank.

Charles Dickens’ father was in a debtor prison because he owed the town baker £40. Luckily his mom died and left him enough dough to pay off his daily bread. These prisons and poor houses were the workfare of the day and were created so the poor would pay for themselves by working as a collective and, hopefully, generate enough revenue to reduce the tax burden on those well-off enough to have to pay taxes. When the forced labor didn’t produce enough money then fees were added – room and board fees, ankle-chain removal fees, skull crusher removal fees (seriously). All this was designed to teach the poor a lesson – don’t be poor.

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Scrooge is asked to make a charitable contribution to help these poor, but he thinks he has done enough. This is how Dickens crafts the exchange:

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Much like Cain, he denies knowledge of his brother’s condition and wonders why he is asked to be his keeper.

Each of these stories pits the good of the many against the good for the few; the 99% versus the 1% and now we are being these stories have it wrong. If the 1% were left alone they would help the rest – honest… with sugar on top.

Does anyone remember the killing of Anna LoPizzo during the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence? Or the lynching of union organizer Frank Little? The seventeen workers shot in the back in the Anaconda Road Massacre? The actions of the Pinkertons during the Homestead Steel Strike? The Ludlow Massacre? The Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago? The Bay View Massacre? These were the actions of owners against workers who wanted improved working conditions.

This is not just in our past like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 garment workers who couldn’t escape because exits were blocked or locked in the name of loss prevention. The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India employed cheap, under-trained workers in a building where safety systems were shut off and maintenance was cut as cost saving measures. This plant exploded in 1984 killing 3787 and exposed a half a million more to toxins whose effects are still to be determined. In 2012, 117 garment workers were killed in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh and in 2013, in that same city, the owners of another garment factory building were told it exhibited cracks and was unsafe. The next day they demanded their workers return to work in the morning and the building collapsed crushing 1129 more workers.

This is business as lord and the workers as replaceable serfs. This is not theory. Businesses are run by humans and humans are greedy animals, be they boss or worker. But the boss has the power to act on his greed and the weaker worker can only react.

From the 1916 report for the U.S. Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations:

Violence is seldom, if ever, spontaneous, but arises from a conviction that fundamental rights are denied and that peaceful methods of adjustment can not be used. The sole exception seems to lie in the situation where, intoxicated with power, the stronger party to the dispute relies upon force to suppress the weaker…

The origin of violence in connection with industrial disputes can usually be traced to the conditions prevailing in the particular industry in times of peace, or to arbitrary action on the part of Governmental officials which infringes on what are conceived to be fundamental rights. Violence and disorder during actual outbreaks usually result from oppressive conditions that have obtained in a particular shop or factory or in a particular industry. Throughout history where a people or a group have been arbitrarily denied rights which they conceived to be theirs, reaction has been inevitable. Violence is a natural form of protest against injustice.

The principal sources of an attitude leading to violence are … arrogance on the part of the stronger party. This may result immediately in violence through the use of force for the suppression of the weaker party… Such physical aggression is seldom used by employees, as they are strategically the weaker party and the results are negative; only under exceptional circumstances can an employer be coerced by the use of force or intimidation…

Many instances of the use of physical force by the agents of employers have … come before the Commission, indicating a relatively wide use, particularly in isolated communities… The instruments of industrial force belong chiefly to the employer, because of his control of the job of the worker. Their use is more common and more effective than any other form of violence at the command of the employer. The most powerful weapon is the power of discharge, which may be used indiscriminately upon mere suspicion, which under certain conditions may be almost as potent, either in use or threat, as the power of life and death. It is the avowed policy of many employers to discharge any man who gives any sign of dissatisfaction on the theory that he may become a trouble maker or agitator…

I am not condemning businesses here nor am I leaving workers blameless. The needs of both must be balanced, but will only happen if both sides have power. Now we have American CEOs making 273 times more than their average employee and their compensation is up 37.4%1 (for some context CEOs made about 20 times the average worker back in the 70s and that is still the norm for Germany). U.S. workers have averaged .9 to 3% increase over the same time period depending on region and job sector yet we are being sold the idea that unions are the problem. Union workers are a scant 11.3%. 2  Can they balance the power of the CEOs?

With the stock markets at an all-time high, bonuses are filling the clutching hands of the Wall Street brokers and the bankers are lining their personal vaults with millions. They tell us government oversight and union bullies have handcuffed American business – they are the real problem with our economy.  They tell us these classic movies that grew from the struggles of the Great Depression have it all wrong. They tell us we need to unleash American business on the world unencumbered and they will pull us all up from our weakened state! Who is telling us this? Let me take a guess…

Somebody once said to get to the bottom of a story follow the money. To paraphrase Shakespeare – Wall Street and the bankers doth protest too much.

Sing it with me people – Jingle bells, something smells, time to join a union…

1 http://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-2012-extraordinarily-high/

2 http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

Birthday Deathday (for my son and my mother)

October 5, 2013

zrs glo

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza…

Well, fix it dear Henry dear Henry fix it…

              Really, Liza? Fix it?

Under that hole is a little baby bucket

drinking in all the stories and admonitions

– filling up

    to spill over

         to the next and the next

watering the garden

         – crybabies.

             Liza, don’t be a bitch – it’s not all about you

the universe needs that hole!

Livin’ the Dream

July 18, 2013

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It’s anti-apartheid leader and former South African president Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday today.  He was instrumental in ending South Africa’s apartheid nearly twenty years ago and his birthday is being celebrated are all over the world by people of all colors. We finally live in Dr. King’s world where the children are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  The U.S. elected (and re-elected) its first black president, Barack Obama. My home state of Massachusetts has elected (and re-elected) its first black governor, Duval Patrick. Ahhh, we’re livin’ the dream…

(gunshot)

I want to talk with my fellow non-racist white guys – guys like me. You and I know we’re not racists. We judge people on their merits. We don’t care if folks are white, black, red or green. We don’t think about color – we don’t even notice it – unless we are walking down the street with that black guy follows us. Or we enter a restaurant/club/that-side-of-town and we are the only white folk there.

Have we ever been pulled over for no reason? Ever ask to look at an item from inside a case at the store and the clerk doesn’t let us hold it? Have we ever been told we better fly right because we are representing our white race? OK, two outta three ain’t bad… right?

If you are like me – white – it’s easy to say you’re not a racist because to us race isn’t important. Being white doesn’t get us into trouble and often helps get us out of it. But the browner you get the more you stand out and the more judgments are made about you based on color.

We white folk think that not recognizing color makes it go away. We get a bit uppity about it with our kids. In the grocery when our toddler asks why that man is black we quickly reprimand her by telling her we don’t say that – he is just a man, we don’t care about color. We say it with our voice embarrassedly lowered to a whisper. This man’s most obvious characteristic is clearly taboo. That’s the message we really give: Being Black is something so scary we can’t even talk about it.

In light of the divide created in the Trayvon Martin case I want to point out to my fellow non-racists that it isn’t always the laws that indicate our racism; it is often something much more subtle. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” Laws have changed, individuals have been elected, boundaries have been broken – we have made a momentous start, but it is just a start. Blacks still are more likely to get longer sentences than whites for the same crimes, still less likely to get a plea bargain, and more likely to receive a death sentence.

If there is a positive to be taken from the Trayvon Martin case it is this: It can restart the conversation about race that stopped back in the Sixties. Let’s not whisper, let’s not shout, let’s stop denying that confrontations caused by race based assumptions killed Trayvon Martin and just talk.

__________________

Here are a few links to help get the conversation started:

This Newsweek article is about how we raise our kids and the natural tendency even babies have to categorize their world. It refers to a study that opened my eyes.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html

A Cheerios commercial caused a controversy by showing a biracial family. The maker of this video played the commercial for some kids and asked them to find what upset the adults (There is hope here – the world keeps getting better!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VifdBFp5pnw&feature=share

And for those who doubt Blacks are treated harsher than Whites in America by our justice system:

http://time.dufe.edu.cn/jingjiwencong/waiwenziliao1/004109.web.pdf

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324432004578304463789858002.html

http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/racial-disparity-sentencing

A (mock) Review of Zonkaraz at Indian Ranch

June 29, 2013

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Zonkaraz – a mock review

Warning!!! The following review is NOT to be taken seriously. It is a tribute to all those who love Zonkaraz because the band followed their own muse – not the “common knowledge” of the music business. It was inspired while waiting for tickets to be printed prior to the Indian Ranch show when all the same questions and mispronunciations I heard 30 years ago were repeated by passersby. As to the actual show – It was as good as the band got 30 years ago, with the added power of the knowledge this would be the last time anyone would hear this music that had no pretense beyond its sincerity and honesty live.

June 22, 2013 (WEBSTER) –  Today this reviewer witnessed a group of lads and a petite young lady who go by the unusual moniker of Zonkaraz grace the stage at Indian Ranch for one show with their own mixed brand of music. This reviewer does not know what to make of the performance he attended.

The opening act, Maritime Pilot, was clear with their musical intent, instrumental rock designed to engage the listener in a wide range of orchestral moods delivered by talented musicians on guitars, bass and drums.

This was followed by the folk duo of Chuck and Mud backed up by the Hole Dam Band. This combination easily dispatched toe-tapping tunes with delightful vocals from the husband and wife team.

The final act was the aforementioned Zonkaraz. Before discussing their performance let’s talk that all-important first impression – the name. Zonkaraz – Just how do you to pronounce it? What’s it mean? In speaking with the band’s two founders; Paul, who plays piano and Ric, who plays guitar, this reviewer learned that it is a combination of the names of their pet dogs. Really? This reviewer loves dogs as much as any of God’s creatures, but naming your band after them is clearly a poor choice, and will become a hindrance for their future in the music business if they choose to continue on.

So much for the name; how about that first glimpse? There is one thing everyone in the music business knows that to be successful you need to pick a style and convey it. This group has not learned that lesson. There is no coherent look on stage and nothing to set them apart from their audience – anything from Hawaiian shirts to Duck Dynasty wear. This reviewer offers this observation: It was a very sunny day and many of the band mates kept their sunglasses on. This reviewer suggests they all adopt that look and wear shades on stage – that would be a start – and maybe an inspiration for a new name.

Let’s get to what should really concern an audience and this reviewer – the music. Whereas the other groups had a clear style, this group couldn’t decide if it was country rock, blues, a lounge act, Latin pop or a jam band with an odd mix of band originals, a blues cover and a show tune – maybe a little of everything for everyone? This is a big band, on stage were as many as four guitarists, two drummers along with a percussionist, a bass player and a piano player all displaying excellent musical skills. Joining them was vocalist Jo List, a young lady with a powerful, expressive voice. This reviewer did find himself tapping his toes at many points as this is a group of very capable musicians, but just as the groove was found it disappeared with a tempo change. It was a tribute their many fans that they were able to keep up when caught on the dance floor.

And the fans were also as mixed up as the band – young and old, hippie and hipster. This fan base could surely be expanded if the band displayed a more consistent style, and a like minded audience, appreciative of that style, is certainly more inclined to give the positive word of mouth every up and coming act needs. This reviewer was told this was their last show and that makes sense. After all, what audience wants to see a group that looks like themselves, plays a mishmash of music that appeals to no particular group and with a name you can’t pronounce?   Farewell, Zonkeraz.