Let’s hear it for Librarians


By way of Jessamyn West’s librarian.net, here is a list of 33 reasons librarians are still extremely important.

Mary Carmen also offers a passionate defense of Access Services on her new Circ and Serve weblog.

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Book Review: Thumbs, Toes, and Tears by Chip Walter


Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter is an evolutionary story about what sets human beings apart from other animals. Walter specifically identifies six traits of humans that can be found in no other species: Big toes, opposable thumbs, the pharynx, laughter, tears, and kissing.

The big toe is important in that helped humans walk upright which in turn modified our anatomy leading to larger brains and skulls. At the same time the body adapting to walking and running means the birth canal is too small to allow easy egress of our big heads. So human infants are born far earlier in their development than other mammals and that is why humans are so helpless in their early years. In fact the long period of ongoing learning and development is uniquely human.

The opposable thumb is well-respected as the difference between humans and other animals, allowing us to create and manipulate tools. Our hands are also central to our ability to communicate and the genesis of language.

The pharynx is most fascinating in that it physically allows us to speak. I never knew that it does this by intersecting the airways and the esophagus, which does not happen in oher mammals. The price to pay for being the animal that speaks is that we are also the animal that can choke. Being able to speak gives rise to consciousness and the prefontal cortex of the brain.

Laughter allows us to connect emotionally to others and is rooted both in our primal urges and our ability to walk upright.

Crying is the most mysterious as humans are the only beings that have tears that well up and drip out of the eyes as a means of expressing emotion (as opposed to merely keeping the eyes clean). One theory is that crying actually brings us back into a state of equilibrium. Crying is also a means of body language to communicate emotions to other humans.

Finally, kissing is a learned cultural trait that allows us to communicate our love and affections in a way that feels really good.

Walter writes all of this in a lively style that makes it a fun and engrossing read. In many ways it is a gentler version of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape which Walter cites several times. It’s a work of popular science, and it hems & haws with a number of “probablys” and “we don’t know for sures”, but I think it teaches an illuminating lesson in human evolution and unique traits.


Interesting Quotes:

If we were born as fully formed and physically mature as the babies of contemporary great apes, human gestation would last not nine months, but twenty-one! This means we are born a fully year premature. We may define “full term” as nine months in the womb, but by ape standards we are fetuses that have arrived twelve months earlier than we should have. – p.34-35

We tend to think that the forces of evolution are terrifically at rooting out all wastefulness to make the brain thoroughly optimized for smooth, clean operation. But the truth is that evolution feels it way toward success, tinkering and puttering until it stumbles across marvelously inventive solutions to the problems that need for survival presents, and then shambles on. Our brain, amazing as it is, is not an efficient machine, but a maddeningly complicated organ that stubbornly resists analysis. – p. 107

Quite possibly we cry not because we are getting agitated and upset, but because it is a way for our nervous system to bring us back into equilibrium.

One study reveals, for example, that if the nerves central to the sympathetic system are paralyzed, patients cry more. But when important parasympathetic nerves are damaged, they cry less. If crying was driven by the sympathetic nervous system, it would be the other way around. In other words, we don’t cry because we are upset, which is the way it feels, but because we are trying to get over being upset. That may be the real reason why feel better after we have a good cry. p. 173

Our simian cousins, gifted and intelligent as they are, don’t have the capacity for the powerful marriage of thoughts and emotions. They can feel rage, frustration, or loss, but they do not reflect on them. The random emergence of genes that connected the emotional and intellectual parts of our brains to lacrimal glands that sit above our eyes gave us a new way to express those elusive feelings. And in the bargain we gained an emotional stamp we can put on our cries for help that no other creature possess. – p. 179

Movie Review: The Departed


On Friday night, Susan & I finally saw the Boston-based crime drama The Departed.

This movies is the goriest and most brutal I’ve seen since The Gangs of New York. Not surprisingly, the two films share the same director Martin Scorsese. Other things in common are that they are stories about Irish mobsters and star Leonardo DiCaprio. They also share some great acting although The Departed’s villain Jack Nicholson is not up to par to Daniel Day Lewis’s great villainous performance in The Gangs of New York. I generally don’t like Nicholson, but he gets far enough away from playing himself in portraying a Whitey Bulger type of mob boss. Overall, the all-star cast is impressive including DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga (who plays the only female character). Mark Wahlberg may have put in the best performance of all since I didn’t even recognize him. He plays the obnoxious hardnose cop who turns out to be the only trustworthy character one can count on.

Beyond the great acting, witty dialogue, and a good story there are some flaws in the movie. First, it is way to violent for my tastes. I’d consider seeing it again to work out the intracicies of the plot if I could see a version without all the point-blank gunshots to the head. The body count in this film is seriously high, I think the number of people killed in this movie is larger than that actual murder rate in Boston. The finale has the most major characters killing one another since Hamlet and contributes to an unsatisfactory, over-the-top ending. The idea of rats is overstated as it seems that all the cops are working for the mob and all the mobsters are in the police force. Finally, the big clue of the Citizens bank envelope is handled so unsubtly it is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Then again I have extreme difficulty telling the difference between DiCaprio and Damon who look alike to me, so maybe I’m not to bright.

Overall, an above average movie, but far too violent.

Independent Book Stores


Three recent articles of interest regarding bookstores:

First an article about the people responsible for opening new independent book stores at a time when the independent book store is is said to be on it’s death bed:
‘We’re not in it for the money’ The number of independent bookstores has been steadly growing. But will they survive? — By Teresa Méndez in the Christian Science Monitor.

Part of what these stores – and the larger independent community – are working to do is find a niche, a way to create an experience the warehouse-size stores cannot, whether through knowledgeable handselling, hosting author and community events, or carrying a particular genre.


Following up on the news of the 98 new independent bookstores in the country, some advice to keep the independent bookstore alive:

Wicked Witch of Publishing Takes Over Pretend Independent Bookstore. Will She Thrive—or Just Survive? — By Lynne W. Scanlon in The Publishing Contrarian.

Where do I find the mass grave of the 2500 bookstores that went out of business between 1990 and 2006? I want to stand beside it and bid adieu to Murder Ink, Coliseum Books and Micawber Books—bookstores-turned-white-elephants that have recently succumbed at the ages of 34, 32, and 26, respectively—as their corpses are tossed on top of the bones of their erstwhile predecessors. Then I want to grab the owners of the 97 new independent bookstores that arrived on the scene in 2006 by the scruff of the neck, drag them to the edge of the grave and scream: “Don’t make the same mistakes these guys did.”


Finally, an article on bringing bookstore ideas into the library, albeit ideas from chain bookstores. I’d love to see an independent bookstore-inspired library. The smell of pathcouli would be as strong as the voices of the prophets of doom.

What libraries can learn from bookstores: Applying bookstore design to public libraries — By Chris Rippel in LYPOnline.com

Crosstraining would benefit libraries. Training circulation and reference staff in the mysteries of interlibrary loan would increase their ability to answer questions and advise patrons about the interlibrary loan process. Crosstraining catalogers and reference staff could produce better cataloging for use by reference staff and improve reference staff’s understanding of the access provided by cataloging.

This quote speaks to a constant struggle at my own library. We’re constantly in trouble when “the expert” is not around, but on the other hand when everyone is cross-trained it’s hard for each individual to keep track of all that information and overall service is watered down. Quite a conundrum.

Not scared enough?


One of the things that push my buttons most when following the news is fearmongering. So you won’t be surprised how peeved I am by the following headline.

U.S. not scared enough of bird flu, Senate told” — By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor. Copyright 2007 Reuters.

I think the last thing that the news media and the government need to be telling our citizens is that they are not scared enough. Improve public health efforts and preventitive means? Yes. Develop preparedness plans to counteract possible outbreaks? Yes. Making people worry? No! Scaring people about one potential disease is counterproductive. We’ve seen in the past few years people stocking up on Cipro that they don’t need and making runs on flu shots that should be reserved for the elderly, children, and other high risk groups. Not to mention that diseases that are already among us are ignored as attention and funds are misappropriated to the scary disease du jour.

I read a good book last year on this trend called False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear by Dr Marc K. Siegel which I reccomend for those interested in reason over fear.

Web 2.0 and Library 2.0


Until recently I had no idea what Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 are, and furthermore little interest. Mainly because these trendy terms kept popping in everything I read and I have a strong aversion to trendiness. I even read one blog that stated that one can increase traffic to one’s blog by including the terms Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 (we’ll see if this post can oust the current champ, my review of The Painted Veil). Once I got past the hype and the trendiness I’ve discovered there are some very interesting things behind these terms. In fact I’m already well involved in the phenomenon through this blog and other resources I use everyday. So while still trying to avoid the trendiness, I’m going to explore Web 2.0 and Library 2.0.

Last week I attended a web conference on work about Web 2.0. While the presentation wasn’t too great and the lecturer used the word “cool” far too much, I did learn some fascinating stuff and added a lot of new bookmarks (including signing up for and account with the Web 2.0 bookmark tagging tool del.icio.us). I’ve also been accumulating various articles and blog posts on the subject. So here is my list of what I’ve found thus far to be read and evaluated.

Web 2.0

Library 2.0

One question I had about Web 2.0 that I was not able to ask in the conference I attended regards authority. The lecturer seemed to think that the best information and the best resources would rise to the top simply based on high referal rates from users. I can’t help but be concerned about the possibility of “tyranny of the masses.” Will the loudest voices drown out the wisest voices within Web 2.0? And what about the insidous influence of corporations to guide public tastes to their products? Jessamyn West has an interesting reflection on “why reference and authority matter” at librarian.net.

Finally, while not entirely on topic, I have a number of interesting-looking articles on libraries, technology and the future of libraries to read:

Henry Knox and “The Noble Train of Artillery”


This week is the anniversary of one of the most interesting events of the American Revolution. After the initial battles of the Revolution in 1775, the British army held the city of Boston while Continental troops under command of George Washington attempted to lay siege to the city while holding the high ground in neighboring communities. Things were in deadlock though because the British controlled the sea and could easily sail in and out of the port.

A young man named Colonel Henry Knox came up with a logical solution. The Green Mountain Boys had captured a large number of cannon at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. If this artillery could be brought to Boston and used to fortify Dorchester Heights, the Continentals Army would then be able to take shots at British shipping and thus control the harbor.

The story of the band of men under Colonel Knox swiftly transporting 60 tons of artillery across Massachusetts in the winter of 1776 is one of daring and intrigue. On the one hand marching through the snow and ice must have been miserable, but on the other hand crossing frozen rivers and transporting cannon by sleigh made actually eased the effort compared to what difficulty they may have faced in warmer months. Knox and his men successfully brought the cannon to Boston and in the dark of night fortified Dorchester Heights. The British had no choice but to evacuate the city.

The story is so fascinating to me I am surprised there aren’t really and books or documentaries about it. Last year I read Ye cohorn caravan: The Knox Expedition in the winter of 1775-76 by Wm. L. Bowne, but it was no more than a pamphlet and dry one at that. One can still follow the Knox Trail to this day. I think an interesting book would be to follow the trail today and recount the adventures of Knox and his noble train of artillery. Perhaps that will be a book I will write.

Concert Review: Marcia Ball


Jan. 25, 2007 — Marcia Ball at the Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

At the invitation of Susan’s friend Donna, we met up with a large group at the Regattabar in Harvard Square’s posh Charles Hotel for a concert by Marcia Ball and her band. Self-described as honky tonk, Ball plays a mix of electric blues, cajun, and a lot of stuff that actually sounds like early rock & roll along the lines of Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and Bill Haley. Each song left a lot of time for improvisation and solos by the guitarist, saxophonist, and Ball herself on piano. A highlight of the show was Marcia Balls’s performance of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”.

The Regattabar is an odd venue with high ceilings around the edge of the room and the performance space all but shoved in a corner under a low ceiling. We owe much praise to Donna for getting us excellent front row seats, but it is still a bit odd watching a show in this cavelike environment, albeit it is not as clausterphobic as Club Passim.

Susan and I felt the guitarist bore a stunning resemblance to our friend Mike G. Not just that he was a skinny guy with glasses, but als that the guitarist seemed to stand and have mannerisms in the way of Mike G. When we found out the guitarist was also named Mike we knew we couldn’t be fooled anymore by his simple disguise of a soul patch.

All in all it was a fun and entertaining show. The best part for me though was to see Donna so thouroughly enjoying herself, snapping her fingers, and singing along.

Book Review: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress by James Morris


Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress is the first in the Pax Britannica trilogy of history books about the British Empire by James Morris (better known today as Jan Morris, the world’s most respected travel writer).

This volume traces the rise of the Empire from a few scattered holdings to dominance over 2/3’s of the Earth during the period 1837-1897, the first 60 years of Victoria’s reign.

Although a thick book well over 500 pages in length, it is actually a rather quick read due to Morris’ lively writing style. It is not an exhaustive work but it does hit upon the many thoughts, trends, and events that gave rise to British Imperialism. At times Morris seems wistful about Britain’s lost imperial past and times amused by the mores of Victorian era Britons. Being rather anti-imperialist myself I feel Morris is not critical enough, but on the whole Morris tells the story warts and all. His main thesis is that a missionary zeal drove the expansion of British influence worldwide. In the process the prostelyzing goal shifts from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the gospel of British civilization.

As a reader of British fiction, I found this book helpful in finally knowing something about all those cultural touchstones that appear in British literature. At last I know a bit about the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War, Gordon of Khartoum and Dr. Livingstone. The Crimean War, however, is only mentioned in passing.

To help illustrate the breadth and diversity of this work I include a couple of sentences summarizing each chapter.

1. A Charming Invention — Queen Victoria accends to the throne in 1837, while Emily Eden travels in India with her brother. Nothing seems to indicate that Victoria will soon be Empress over a vast swath of the Earth.

2. High and Holy Work — Britain not only bans the slave trade but also the Royal Navy is saddled with the task of preventing the smuggling of human chattel.

3. Sweet Lives — The Boers get bored with British interference and trek off to settle their own country where they can be racist, cranky, and slaughter the natives. Morris holds a bizarre romantic attachment to the Boers while at the same time making them sound like the most awful people ever.

4. Roots in Their Soil — Religious and political reform join forces to eliminate the Thuggee cult of stranglers in India.

5. Laws of War — The British venture into Afghanistan and find themselves in a quagmire that eerily resembles current day headlines.

The presence of the army in Afghanistan, it said, was apparently displeasing to the great majority of the Afghan nation; and since the only object of its presence there was the integrity, happiness and welfare of the Afghans, there was no point in its remaining.

6. Merchant Ventures — The traders, voyageurs, and imperialists of the Hudson Bay Company.

7. White Settlers — Settlement in Nova Scotia, Australia, and New Zealand.

8. An Act of God — The horrors of the Irish famine, and the indifference of the British to their suffering neighbors due to a devotion to market economics instead of the religious charity and reform they brought to other parts of the world.

9. ‘What a Fine Man!’ — Short sketches of the military and colonial leaders who would shape the Empire.

10. Grooves of Change — The British become enamored with technological progress from the machinery of Crystal Palace to the medical plants of Kew Gardens.

11. The Epic of the Race — The bloody and tragic Indian Mutiny which forever changes the relationship of Britain to its colonies. Attitudes shift from a communal of effort of joint improvement to the Imperial imposition of British ways.

12. Pan and Mr. Gladstone — The British acquire the Ionian isles, use them for imperial R&R, and are completely ignorant of the local culture.

13. The Imperial Style — The empire settles on Gothic architecture and constructs hill stations to oversee its colonies.

14. Illustrious for the Nile — The search for the source of the Nile leads to a feud between explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Speke wins.

15. Governor Eyre — An uprising in Jamaica meets bloody reprisals from the British colonial rulers that cause a furore back in Britain.

16. ‘Ain’t the Pentateuch Queer’ — Missionary zeal, the schism of the church in South Africa, and superstition in the ranks.

17. The Humiliation of the Metis — In Canada, a mix of indigenous peoples and French Canadians efforts at self-determination in Manitoba are ruined by a British doublecross.

The British were now exporting to their dominions a kind of package civilization, offered in competition with the local product, and backed by powerful service arrangements.

18. In the Pacific — The British squabble with the Americans on the high seas and along the US/Canadian border at San Juan Island.

19. A Fixed Purpose — The rivalry of Gladstone and Disraeli and their conflicting visions of empire.

But the sense of duty, too, powerfully contributed to the passions of Empire. It was less a missionary duty now: the idea that the world’s natives could be converted to Christian Britishness had lost some of its conviction. But it was still, in its austere way, a philanthropic mission. Justice, security, communications, opportunity — these were the advantages of civilization which the British now diligently if aloofly distributed among their subjects. . . . The British had no doubts about the merits of their own civilization, or qualms about their mission to distribute it across the world: but they had coe to suppose that not all aspects of it were transplantable (p. 389-90).

20. Ashanti — The British enter into black Africa and brutally take on the proud, mystical, and militaristic Ashanti.

Africa was a brutalizing influence upon the Empire: not because the black peoples were more brutal than others, but because the British though them so, and behaved accordingly (p. 404).

21. By the Sword — The British secure because of their strong but dated Navy are shocked by the opening of the Suez Canal, but eventually take control of that as well.

22. South of the Zambesi — The British meet the Boers again and are humiliated in battle once again, a rare loss in a string of Imperial victories.

23. The End of the Tasmanians — The aboroginal people of Tasmania are erased by genocide.

24. The Rebel Prince — The inspiring yet tragic story of Charles Stewart Parnell and the doomed Irish Home Rule movement.

25. The Martyr of Empire — Gordon of Khartoum became a national hero by waiting for Krusty to come to Sudan.

26. Scramble for Africa — The European powers divy up Africa for their own commericial and imperial causes.

The idea of Empire was becoming vulgarized, like some fatidious sport cheapened by arrivistes. It had often been brutal in the past, and often misguided, but it had seldom been mean. Eve in hypocrisy its aspirations were at least grand, and it had been enobled by the lingering vision of the evangelicals. Even in moments of vindictive frenzy its furies could be interpreted as divine, and most of Victoria’s imperialists genuinely believed the British Empire to be an instrument for the general good of the world.

Africa and the New Imperialism tainted this conception. There were still visionaries genuinely concerned with the betterment of the Africans, who saw the humiliation of tribes and ancient kingdoms only as sad means toward honorable ends. Generally, though, the African scramble was a chronicle of squalor — chiefs gulled, tribes dispossesed, vast inheritances signed away with a thumb-print or a shaky cross (p. 520).

27. An Imperial Fulfillment — By the time of Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, empire is firmly established and the sun never sets on the British Empire.

Movie Review: The Case of the Grinning Cat


Tonight I went to the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square and used my membership voucher to see The Case of the Grinning Cat or Chats Perchés in the original French.

This documentary set in Paris follows the filmmaker Chris Marker’s fascination with giant yellow cats with great big grins that suddenly begin appearing painted on the city’s rooftops in 2001. Without learning who the artist or artists of these graffiti tags are, the movie traces the cats’ development and spread across the city, becoming a cultural phenomenon. Eventually images of the grinning cat begin to appear in Paris’ many political demonstrations from 2002-2004. Marker brings his camera to demonstrations in search of the cat who appears during the Chirac/Le Pen electoral crisis, Iraq anti-war demonstrations (my favorite banner says “Make Cats Not War”), anti-racism rallies, an AIDS die-in, and protests against Prime Minister Raffarin. Marker captures the spirit of the protestors while gently chiding them for their excess and misdirected efforts. The focus of the film really shifts more and more away from the cats and to the demonstrations. At the end of the film, Marker reveals that the cats themselves have faded away and suggests that they left due to popular interest in a celebrity scandal (at least that’s what I think he’s suggesting).

The value of this film lies in the time capsule manner in which a specific time and place are caught on film. Whether he’s filming spray-painted cats or people on the march, Marker is really good at capturing the small details. The camera captures an eye-level view of the streets and Metro of Paris often zeroing in on a particularly beautiful moment or person. Through what is really just a collage of images a story emerges about Paris in the post-9/11 world.

Here are some other reviews of The Case of the Grinning Cat (which I haven’t read yet so as to not color my own review) from the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the Village Voice. Images of les chats may be found here and here.

Snow


From Monday afternoon to Tuesday morning, snow gently fell on the metro Boston area for the first time this winter. At least it was a close approximation of snow that dusted the region and tried to remind us what season it really is. For me it is a proud moment because I’m still trying to commute to work regularly on my bike through the winter. The several weeks of unseasonably warm weather made it pretty easy to keep peddling so this was my first real test. Monday was also the first day I got to try out my new fleece jacket, a Marmot shell, and thin insulating gloves, thin insulating socks, and a thin insulating hat that fits under my helmet, all acquired at Hilton’s Tent City.

I’ve learned that bicycling in cold weather means trying to avoid overdressing to keep warm. The lighter, breathable layers keep away the chill of the wind but allow for greater flexibility and prevent my from sweating (and then getting cold from being lathered up in sweat). I found it quite a thrill to ride in the cool, fresh air and to pedal among the snowflakes. And my bike had fine traction, it didn’t slip at all. Of course, this is a mild test compared to the greater rigors of winter, but it’s still a test I passed. One thing I didn’t expect is just how much salt ended up deposited on my pant legs. Perhaps I need gators.

I figure I can make it through the winter riding whenever possible but avoiding riding in 1) heavy rain and/or snow, 2) riding when the streets are icy or covered in snow, and 3) riding when it’s just plain wicked cold. The good news is that it’s only two months to spring so I should be in pretty good bicycling shape when it arrives regardless of how much riding I can get in in that time. I must confess that ice still make me nervous. I read online a comment that slipping on ice generally doesn’t lead to injury compared to warm weather riding because the extra clothing protects one from things like road rash. On the other hand I really don’t want to find out what happens if I slip on the ice in front of a moving car thank you very much.

Speaking of bicycle safety, a recent study suggests that the more people bicycling the safer it is. So I encourage everyone to get out on their bikes and make it safer for everyone. On the other hand, since I had difficulty finding a place to lock my bike in Harvard Square tonight that wasn’t already occupied by a bike, I guess plenty of people are out riding this winter.

Francis de Sales


Saint Francis de Sales

A year ago on some whim I now can’t remember I signed up for the Saint of the Day e-newsletter at American Catholic. As as a result of reading this newsletter everyday I was led to read My Life With The Saints by James Martin which in turned inspired me to do these reflections on different saints over the course of a year.

I think a big wow moment for me was that the very first Saint of the Day email I received was for St. Francis de Sales. The reason is that he is my patron saint whose name I took at Confirmation. Longtime readers of Panorama of the Mountains are probably scratching their heads remembering that I said the same thing about St. Nicholas. Chosing a Confirmation name was a difficult for me (and I confess underinformed and not well prayed over as well). I like Nicholas both as a tribute to a kind saint as well as taking the name of my grandfather, but as a budding writer I was intrigued by the patron saint of writers, Francis de Sales.

Talking with another student involved in the confirmation program at William & Mary, he revealed to me that one could actually take more than one confirmation name. So I settled on two, making difficulty for my sponsor Mike who had to remember the names Nicholas Francis de Sales to speak forth as I was annointed. I also get a ludicrously long set of initials: LTNFdSS(otM).

For all this, I still knew litle about Francis de Sales, the man and the saint. Born in 1567 in France, Francis was drawn to the priesthood and upon ordination was sent to Geneva where he would eventually become bishop. Geneva at the time was a center of Calvinism and as the Catholic bishop of the city, Francis would have found himself in the middle of religious strife during a very violent period of Catholic-Protestant relations. What appeals to me is that as opposed to inserting himself into the conflict, Francis instead appealed to people through his gentleness, kindness, and patience. He also wrote constantly both letters and religious tracts as well as a couple of books.

According to Catholic Encyclopedia:

His goodness, patience and mildness became proverbial. He had an intense love for the poor, especially those who were of respectable family. His food was plain, his dress and his household simple. He completely dispensed with superfluities and lived with the greatest economy, in order to be able to provide more abundantly for the wants of the needy.

What makes me appreciate and relate to Francis even more is that this mildness was not in his nature as revealed in the comment from Saint of the Day:

Francis de Sales took seriously the words of Christ, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” As he said himself, it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, so overflowing with good nature and kindness was his usual manner of acting. His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”

Flip decision or not, I seem to have been blessed with the most appropriate patron saint to the type of person I aspire to be.

While researching for this post I came across some other things that Francis de Sale is patron saint of. These include four American cities: Baker, OR; Columbus, OH; Cincinatti, OH, and Wilmington, DE. He is also a patron of deaf people and educators. The patronage that drew me to him was that for writers, and in a similar vein Francis is patron for authors, journalists and the Catholic Press. It appears that at this point there is no patron saint for bloggers, so I humbly submit Francis de Sales as a good candidate.

Poverty


January, the coldest and darkest month of the year, is “Poverty in America Awarenes Month”.

According to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in August 2006, 9.9 percent of all families are living in poverty which amounts to 7.7 million families down slightly from 7.9 million in 2004.

As defined by the government and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the new poverty threshold for a family of four is $19,971; for a family of three, $15,577; and for a family of two, $12,755. Other studies have shown that Americans believe the current poverty threshold figure is unrealistic. A recent study conducted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development shows that most Americans believe it takes closer to $35,000 annually to adequately house, clothe and feed a family of four.

Since I learned of poverty awareness month a few weeks ago, I’ve been collecting articles that relate to poverty.

First, there is a NIMBY attitude growing in Quincy toward the United First Parish Church’s soup kitchen. This church also hosts the Prison Book Program where I volunteer regularly so I know they play an important social role in the community.

Then there’s the controversy within the business community, which does not like the Quincy Center location. “They think it’s bad for business,” says the Rev. David Wooster, executive director of the Esther Sanger center. “My response is, would it be better for business if we closed and these people were on the streets, hungry and desperate?”

In more positive news, French activists are attempting to raise awareness of homelessness by setting up campgrounds in major French cities. They call themselves the “Children of Don Quixote” and hope to make housing a legal right in France.

Jean-Baptiste Legrand, a film producer and president of Quixote, says that, “No one who is human really likes this problem. Everyone talks about it a little bit, but no one really speaks loudly…. We just felt like in this country we shouldn’t leave people in the street.”

Understanding urbanization is the key to alleviating poverty in the future according to State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future, a study from the Worldwatch Institute. According to the report tha lack of environmental sustainability of cities is linked to poverty.

Unplanned and chaotic urbanization is taking a huge toll on human health and the quality of the environment, contributing to social, ecological, and economic instability in many countries. Of the 3 billion urban dwellers today, 1 billion live in “slums,” defined as areas where people cannot secure key necessities such as clean water, a nearby toilet, or durable housing. An estimated 1.6 million urban residents die each year due to lack of clean water and sanitation as a result.

In the United States, the issue of poverty is in the news in relation to the House of Representative recently passing an increase in the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is controversial because some people believe that it correlates to higher consumer costs and forces businesses to employ fewer people (my more cynical side feels that corporations will use just that excuse to raise prices and cut jobs). However, I believe it is important to raise the minimum wage because it is proven that the cost of living is so high that many people and families can barely make it even when payed more than the proposed minimum wage.

The Christian Science Monitor ran a couple of interesting articles on the minimum wage issue. The first discussed what life is like for typical Americans at minimum wage.

“Until you’re making $10 or $12 an hour, if you’re [a single-income household] with dependents, you’re going to have a really tough time making ends meet without public assistance,” says David Blatt, a poverty expert at the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, about 40 miles from Muskogee in the state’s northeastern section.

Next, an article that tells what happens in Massachusetts when the minimum wage is raised.

“Both critics and advocates of the minimum wage have exaggerated its effects,” says Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It doesn’t do a great deal of harm. At the same time, it’s no panacea for the low earnings of less-skilled workers.”

Obviously, raising the minimum wage is only the start of what can be done to help the poor and reduce poverty in the country. Personally, I believe poverty should be a central issue in political discussion and would support any candidate who runs on an anti-poverty platform. In fact, if any candidates or political parties are reading this they are welcome to borrow my Five Point Plan (easy to remember because it’s like the five fingers on the hand):

  • Nourishment — food and necessities to provide immediate relief to those living in poverty
  • Education — quality schooling for every child with equal opportunity for advanced education. Also education and training for poor adults in trades, language, and other necessary skills.
  • Jobs — secure jobs with living wages for all who need employment. No longer making it necessary for working parents to work multiple jobs for 80-120 hours a week just to break even. Allow for work-life balance, parents spend time with children, adults have time for education and other opportunities.
  • Health — health care and insurance should never be just a privilege of the wealthy.
  • Housing — safe and affordable homes for everyone.

Obviously I am a starry-eyed dreamer and I don’t have all the answers, but something needs to be done, and I think these are good points to start working toward a solution.


Edit: No sooner do I finish this post then do I find a snarky article with a good point by Barbara Ehrenreich about Washington, the state with the highest minimum wage in the US.

There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the 29 states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification either.

And another commentary in Christian Science Monitor about Income Equity.

Roe v. Wade, 34


Yesterday was the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that led to legalized abortion in the United States. I found a couple of reflections online that went beyond the usual rhetoric trotted out on this day and showed some insight on the controversy.

The first is Diana Butler’s column in the God’s Politics blog.

On this January 22, I am reminded that the Christian community has, for the most part, failed regarding abortion. Certainly, there are isolated examples of Christian care for the least when it comes to abortion. For the most part, however, we have given in to slogans and untenable philosophies. We do not bear transformative witness of hospitality to the “least of these” or prophetically challenge the disordered “relations of power” that plague our lives, churches, and society. Until we live in hospitality and justice, the world will continue to ignore abortion – thinking instead that Christians are more concerned with the ethics of potlucks than with the oppressed and powerless.

The second is this quote from Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia on Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia.

“Christianity is not a police force,” he said. “There is no way in the world you can force people, because these are not God’s instructions. To challenge them, yes, to force them only by the compelling power of truth itself — not physical force.” When those challenged fail to listen, he said that the answer is simply to “pray for them, understand them in their weakness, try to convince them, strive to explain it well. And when we have explained it, we must explain it again and again and again.”

Free Admission Day at the MIT Museum


I never got around to officially making New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I had in mind in 2007 is to take more time enjoying the arts, culture, and museums available in the Boston area. I often feel I saw more of Boston before I moved here than I have in the past 8 years of living here. So I was happy to take advantage of free admission day to visit the MIT Museum in Cambridge.

It’s a lovely little museum with some nifty exhibits. I spent most of my time in the gallery which traces the development of artificial intelligence and robotics at MIT. There are some heavy duty topic in AI and the exhibit delves into them in detail. Still there’s a basic fascination about robotics that even the many children running around the museum could enjoy it.

Speaking of AI, I recently discovered A.L.I.C.E., a chatbot you may speak with online.

Other interesting galleries included the strobe photography of Harold Edgerton and a fun look at the cultural history of MIT. In addition, I joined in the Sea Chantey Sing. Totally unrelated to the exhibits, a circle of people gathered in a gallery of old microscopes and sang martime songs. This being Cambridge, everyone sang and sang well.

There is another Free Admission Day and Sea Chantey Sing coming up on Sunday Feb. 18, so I will have to return to explore and sing some more.

Almost completely unrelated, but connected with AI/robotics, Battlestar Galactica returned from midseason break on Sunday night. Since we watch the show on iTunes and have to wait for the artificial unintelligence to actually download I’ve still not seen the episode, but I’m looking forward to seeing the Cylons’ plan there way out of this one.

Book Review: Subway Style by the New York Transit Museum


Just before Christmas Susan & I met up with our friend Craig at Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge. The plan was that we’d split up and each buy a book for each other person in our trio that we thought the other person should read and then give them to one another across the street at The Field pub. I don’t know how well I did in my picks. I gave Craig a book about the Bulger brothers to help him write his folk ballad about Whitey Bulger. For Susan, I picked out a book about people living on the Falkland Islands among penguins to help her overcome her fear of penguins.

If my giving wasn’t so great, my receiving was bountiful. Susan being the perfect wife gave me the perfect book, Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway. This coffee table book is full of pictures from a century of New York City’s greatest public work. While there is a bit of historical text, the book mainly focuses on the design associated with the subways. There are chapters on stations, ceramics, metalwork and lighting, furnishings, fare collection, signage, maps, advertising, and the design of the subway cars themselves. Mostly this book is great for the many large photographs that take one on a trip through history underneath New York.

This book has been my bedtime reading for the past month. Now I may have to just start all over again from the first page. Or maybe the chaper on maps.

This is as good a place as any to promote one of my favorite web pages NYCSubway.org which contains a large collection of articles, history and images of the New York City rapid transit. Lest Bostonians feel unappreciated there is the similar New England Transportation Site although it doesn’t seem to have been updated lately.

Disillusionment


There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to face the fact that their childhood heroes are fallible. Sure they always seem happy and humble in accepting the adoration of their fans. But there’s always that point where there head gets too big and they descend into debauchery and have their photos splashed across the tabloids. I mean we kind of expected this of Lindsay Lohan, but Mr. Met, how could you?

Mr. Met Gone Wild

Now, the PR spin is that Mr. Met was on Bourbon Street merely to promote the Mets new affiliation with the New Orleans Zephyrs AAA team. But I’ve been to the French Quarter. I look at the picture and I hear I Mr. Met shouting in a slurred voice, “Hey b*****, show us your t***!”

And that unsavory character with Mr. Met is Boudreaux D. Nutria.  I don’t think nutria are the type of element Mr. Met should be among. My mother-in-law once had a dream that Susan was trapped in a house surrounded by nutria. And Susan’s parents had to hire an old-time cowboy star to rescue Susan. But on the way my father-in-law and the cowboy star stopped for North Carolina barbecue. Now that may be a big tangent, but it tells you one thing: nutria are not to be trifled with!

The other heartbreaking aspect of all this is that the Norfolk Tides ran off with the Baltimore Orioles. During my years in Virginia, the Tides were my connection to baseball and the Mets. And now their 38-year affiliation is no more. I remember going to Tides games and watching up & coming players like Bobby Jones, Jason Isringhausen, Benny Agbayani, and Roberto Petagine.

I also attended the AAA All-Star Game at Norfolk’s Harbor Park in 1998. The day before the game there was a meet & greet autograph session with all the players. My favorite part was a little boy named Archer, about five years old, who was eagerly trying to track down Red Sox prospect Trot Nixon. Archer didn’t even like Red Sox, he just wanted to get the autograph for his grandfather. How heartwarming!

I’ve been fond of Trot Nixon ever since then because of Archer, not to mention that Nixon is a great player who hustles a lot. Trot & I ended up in Boston around the same time and he’s been a fan favorite all these years. But not anymore! Nixon is an Indian.

Oh, what a world, what a world. I think I’ll slink off to listen to some Morrisey albums and wallow in my disillusionment.

Architecture


I read a book review in the Boston Globe about a book I’ll definitely have to add to my reading list, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. The book apparently explores the why of architecture.

What de Botton tries to do is figure out why there have been, and still are, so many different styles of architecture. Why do some of us like one thing — let’s say, glass-and-steel modernism — while others despise it? Why do so many Americans in 2007 wish to live in copies of the red-brick-white-trim Georgian architecture of the 18th century?
The author understands that sometimes we seek what is familiar, orderly, and predictable in the world we build, as in that Georgian house. But he also understands that sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we seek the new, the shocking, the slightly crazy.
Both reactions are fine with de Botton. He’s not interested in pushing one or the other. Instead he wants to figure out where our different tastes come from.
His answer is that every building embodies a message. It billboards a certain set of values.

Sounds like a fascinating read.

My current favorite book on architecture is How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stuart Brand.

On a related note, I found a few other things of interest in the world of architecture in my perusal of the web:

  1. A photoset of New York City storefronts.
  2. A French photo website called Photography of Unexpected and Neglected Architecture.
  3. An article that tells how if you want to build a successful neighborhood, put a library in the middle of it.

Weekend in New York


Susan had to attend a conference in New York City over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend. Instead of staying home eating pizza, drinking beer, and listening to lonesome blues music, I decided to travel to the City with Susan. She was pleased to have my company and know that I’d be able to entertain myself. I believe I’ve visited New York at least once a year since my birth so it is good to keep the streak alive early in the year.

We chugged down to New York aboard Amtrak, I napped most of the way, but awoke to watch my old stomping grounds of Connecticut pass by. We checked into the La Quinta Inn amid the Korean barbecues and 24-Hour Spas of Korea Way. Some of my Mets fan buddies from The Crane Pool Forum were gathering at Virgil’s in Times Square so we joined them for a couple of beers and Mets talk.

With Cranepooler Edward, Susan & I marched up town to take advantage of Susan’s corporate pass to the Guggenheim Museum. En route, I satiated my blood sugar levels with a hot pretzel and Susan and Edward tried the chestnuts roasted on a open lightbulb. Neither of them enjoyed their chestnut experience much and Edward left most of his for the squirrels of Central Park. Susan and Edward chatted merrily while I pondered why I was sweating profusely in what was allegedly January.

The exhibition on display at the Guggenheim is called Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History. The exhibition is not arranged by chronology or artist but by themes like “Knights and Ghosts,” “Virgins and Mothers,” and “Monstruous.” Thus, regal portraits by Goya and Velasquez are mingled with surrreal landscapes by Dali and Picasso’s disturbing images of the Spanish Civil War. We started at the top of the rotunda which was actually the opposite direction of the exhibition so we learned about the themes after we saw the paintings. We arrived only an hour before closing so we’d only made it about halfway down the corkscrew before we were evicted. It was nice that Susan’s company provided the comp passes since it’s a rare treat that we can visit a museum for just an hour and not worry about rushing through to get our money’s worth.

The three of us walked back downtown and got some pizza for supper. Edward caught a train to Long Island and Susan & I returned to our hotel. I was exhausted and fell asleep swiftly while Susan watched a Tom Hanks movie.

The next morning while Susan attended sessions in the windlowless basement of the Javits Center, I began my day with a tour of Central Park. The topic was Views from the Past, a historical overview of the heart of Central Park: The Dairy, The Sheep Meadow, The Mall, and Bethesda Terrace. The guide was a bit dry but had some good stories. I particularly enjoyed his amusement with the Love-ins and Be-ins once held in the Sheep Meadow (“great events but bad for the grass”), the in-line skaters who perform impromptu dances by the bandshell, and the pet boa constrictor he once saw swimming in the Bethesda Fountain (“I don’t know if it’s legal but I did notice everyone pulling their dogs out of the fountain”).

After the tour I did some strolling on my own through the Ramble, the Great Lawn, and along the Reservoir. I also discovered something called the Pinetum. I didn’t know what it was at first, but since it was full of pine trees I assume it was an arboretum exclusively for pines. I left the park near the Ancient Playground. Why that name — is it because it’s the oldest playground in the park, named for the Ancient family, or because it’s near the Metropolitain Museum of Art? The last answer is correct and the playground is full of pyramids and obelisks modeled after the museum’s Egyptian wing. The playground also contains the Ancient Comfort Station which contains classic floor length urinals. Stop by and take a pee in them now before they renovate and put in those crumby seeing-eye toilets.

I left the park and strolled down the charming Madison Avenue since I’d walked up and down Fifth Avenue on Saturday night. Begging the forgiveness of my sisters and brothers in organized labor I paid my admission and entered The Frick Collection. Mr. Frick’s mansion full of conspicuous displays of wealth contains mainly European art from the 16th to 19th century. Frick apparently was not one of those wealthy people who supported modern art although I did see a Cezanne, a Renoir, and a Monet. One gallery called the Boucher Room is described by my guidebook as “not to 21st-century tastes” with its depictions of cherubic children engaged in various arts, sciences, and professions. I’m of the opposite opinion since people who collect Hummels and Precious Moments figurines would probably love this room.

Whatever you may say about Henry Clay Frick, he collected some beautiful art. I’m particularly fond of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert and Turner’s Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening. A special exhibition of Old Masters from the Cleveland Museum of Art included this David painting of Cupid looking proud and ready to do strut after a night with Psyche. The house was a bit gaudy for my taste but I did like the Garden Court, I could live in a house with one of those. In fact I could live in a house that was just a Garden Court with a kitchen in one corner and a bed in another.

On my way out the door my visit was spoiled a bit by a man throwing a temper tantrum at the securtiy staff over the museum not allowing children into the museum. I was proud of a woman who was visiting the collection who spoke up in favor of the guards. The man’s five-year old boy would’ve been bored to tears in the Frick. I couldn’t bear to watch the end of the argument so I got my coat and strolled down Lexington Avenue to the subway and rode back downtown to Herald Square. I attended Mass at the pretty little Church of St. Francis of Assisi and then returned to the hotel to meet up with Susan.

We dined out in Greenwich Village in a restaurant called Souen. This restaurant was perfect for us since the menu has a large number of vegetarian dishes for me and fish for Susan. The staff was very pleasant too. Souen goes on my list of restaurants to remember in New York City. For a digestif, we visited the dark and stylish Belgian Wine Bar Vol de Nuit. We shared a small serving of frites and I drank a glass of La Chouffe (delicious but pricey).

On Monday morning, Susan and I ate breakfast together at the Skylight Diner and then I walked Susan over to the Javits Center. I decided to stroll up town along the river since I’d never spent much time in that part of town. Not a good idea since the fog and buildings on the piers blocked my view of the Hudson and the neighborhood was industrial and dull. I did get to witness fleets of UPS and FedEx trucks getting ready to rumble in a contemporary version of West Side Story.

For this trip, I most looked forward to commemorating Dr. King’s day with a special Big Onion tour of Historic Harlem. I took the train up to Lenox Avenue and 135 St. and was there at 11 am but no one else was there. I thought maybe the tour was really starting at 125 St. so I boarded a bus and rode it downtown but there was nothing doing there either. I learned later that I got the time wrong and the tour was actually at 1 PM. Bummed, footsore, and tired of being out in the wetness, I stayed on the M102 bus all the way downtown to the East Village, enjoying a tour of the City’s many neighborhoods along Lexington Av.

Since I was in the East Village and it was lunchtime, I went to Curry Row on 6 St and ate at Gandhi Restaurant. Having rearranged my day to touring the East Village, I went to the Merchants House Museum which I’ve long wanted to see. The tour of the 19th-century house of the Tredwell family is self-guided and the docent gave me a thick binder full of descriptions of the various rooms of the house. This is perfect for history geeks like me so I could sit there and read the whole thing in its entirety. Afterwards, I wandered into the NYU area of the Village to pay my respects to the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire.

In the evening, I returned to the hotel and once again joined up with the love of my life. Susan picked out a restaurant for dinner in the vicinity of the Port Authority and we walked up town. The West Bank Cafe turned out to be a lovely albeit expensive restaurant and I felt a bit underdressed. I have to note that the restrooms are classy and the dessert was wicked good. After that Susan walked me to the Port Authority and I took a bus back home to Boston.

Photos from this trip are available at Othemts.com.

Marguerite Bourgeoys


Homage to Marguerite Bourgeoys

Call it jingoism but I have a fondness for North American saints. The first Canadian woman canonized as a saint, Marguerite Bourgeoys is no exception.

I first encountered Marguerite Bourgeoys in fourth grade, my first year at Catholic school. My experiences at St. Cecilia’s were not the best as for three years I was the frequent target of ceaseless teasing and bullying. But I do have a few good memories. One is in October of 1982 when we celebrated the canonization of Marguerite Bourgeoys with a special Mass. The sisters who taught at the school were particularly excited both because Marguerite was a North American and — if I remember correctly — she was the founder of their order (my memory may actually correct here as Marguerite Bourgeouys founded the Congrégation de Notre-Dame and I recall the sisters religious at St. Cecilia’s were Sisters of Notre Dame).

As part of the celebration we were all given buttons with an image of Margueritte Bourgeouys and the date of her canonization. During recess, another boy and I were playing with the buttons, pretending they were CB radios. Another boy who oftened bullied me admonished us. “Stop playing with that button as a toy. It was blessed in the church.” For once the bully was right. I suppose Catholics can be guilty of too often idolizing relics, but in this case it was a good point to show some respect to St. Marguerite’s button on her special day.

Seventeen years later, I visited Canada for the first time spending a weekend in Montreal. On my last day there, I awoke ridiculously early and could not full asleep. I needed to get out of the hostel but of nothing was open at the crack of dawn on Sunday so I decided to follow my guide book’s walking tour of the city’s oldest quarter Vieux-Montréal. Along the tour by the Vieux Palais de Justice (Old Court House) there is a magnificent sculpture of a young woman, her face full of joy, playing a circle with several children. I completed my tour with Mass at Basilique Notre-Dame where I again encountered Marguerite Bourgeoys in the statuary and a chapel of the beautiful church (as well as experiencing the universality of the Catholic church by celebrating the Mass in French). I felt intrigued by this saint who was so obviously a heroine in Canada.

It was not until recently that I made the connection between these two stories of my life as relating to the same woman. I’ve learned a little bit about her life. Born in Troyes, France in 1620 she felt a missionary calling and at the age of 33 ventured off to the wilderness of New France. Marguerite’s accomplishments in the small village that would become Montreal include founding the first school in Quebec, where she taught orphans and Native American children among others, and founded a congregation of sisters dedicated to teaching. I have a fondness for teachers and he impresses me as a feisty woman willing to take on the challenge of education in a new world. The sculpture of her dancing with the children for me captures a joyous joining a love of children with the filling of the Spirit.

More biographical information about Marguerite Bourgeoys is available from the Vatican, Catholic Online, and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.