Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Sacred Cod

Don't take your environment for granted.

I once worked in a building where every day I could see Dealey Plaza and the building forever known to history as the Texas School Book Depository. Most days, I drove through the infamous JFK assassination site on the way to work. Pretty much around the clock, people were milling about the small site, looking at the "grassy knoll," searching for meaning and answers.

History has always been interesting to me. And it comes in so many forms... not just historical events, but in locales, architecture, works of art. Americans don't always seem to understand this; if a building is really old, often some person or entity will deem it junk and want to destroy it. As Joni Mitchell said, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

As a sports fan, I've always hated to see sports structures torn down. Each of them have memories. Here in Boston, Fenway Park is more than 100 years old... it opened within a week of the Titanic sinking. Detroit's Briggs Stadium, better known as Tiger Stadium, opened at the same time. It's long been torn down. I saw my first baseball games there. I think it's sad that it's been torn down.

But they've torn down Yankee Stadium. Texas Stadium. The Boston Garden. Olympia. In each case, the reason was to make more money from new structures. In Montreal, the Forum building has been converted to movie theaters and small stores.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Colosseum stands.

History is everywhere. We should appreciate it more.

Thirty years ago, as I was just beginning my so-called career, my mom gave me a book that I really should re-read. "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon details a three-month cross-country journey the author took along the nation's forgotten, non-Interstate roads.

An exchange from the book has stayed with me. The author is asked, "Where you coming from?" His response: "Where I've been."


Our history makes us. Every step we have taken has brought us to the precise spot we are today. That makes it relevant and that makes it important.

M had a business event at Suffolk University. Everything here is accessible (eventually at least) via public transportation, but since I often have time and want to learn the layout of this erratically-laid out town, I drove her there.

The drive itself was fascinating... if you like history, downtown Boston is overrun with it. Suffolk is literally across the street from the state's seat of government, the Massachusetts State House.

Actually, it's the "new" State House, because it replaced the old one... in 1798. It's in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, on land once owned by John Hancock (yes, THAT John Hancock).

To get to Suffolk from where we are, you go down Storrow to Charles Street. Charles is in the heart of old Boston, and as thrilling as it is to go down it, the side streets that go left up Beacon Hill are even more fascinating. When the weather warms, I will wander them excitedly. They are impossibly narrow and tight. At the end of this stretch, you turn left onto Beacon at the westernmost corner of Boston Common, the nation's oldest city park, dating from 1634. The Common's illustrious history includes serving as a camp for British soldiers prior to the American Revolution, and the site of public hangings.

Beacon Street (see drawing circa 1850) forms a border for the Commons going uphill toward the State House, the large, domed structure at the top of the rendering. Charles runs along the water's edge. A lot of what is river in that drawing is now landfill.

It's magnificent. Imagine the people who have walked this street.

Right as you get across from the State House is a sign that made the middle-schooler in me laugh: It reads "General Hooker Entrance." I'm not the only one so inclined; there are numerous photos of these markings on Google. The jokes about political opportunism are just too easy.

The State House itself, nestled so snugly in this neighborhood, has a brilliant gold leaf dome, visible for miles as you head downtown on Storrow Drive. A few years after being built, the once-wood dome was once covered in copper. Paul Revere's company did that.

(See what I mean about the history in this place?)


You can drive completely around the State House, and peer into some of its windows. It made me a little sad in this Era of Crazy that I thought that despite sentry stations located around its perimeter, the building seems vulnerable to attack. In at least one way, the terrorists bin Laden and McVeigh won: our public buildings have become targets. I'd be more comfortable if they limited vehicular access to the building.

After seeing it, I wanted to learn more. You can tour the building and I will. Especially after learning about the Sacred Cod.


The Sacred Cod is referenced in wikipedia's entry about the Massachusetts State House. The Sacred Cod has an entire entry of its own.

Obviously, the fishing industry is and has always been crucial to the Bay State economy. So much so, it seems, that at some point in the mid-18th century, a carved representation of the cod was placed in a position of note at the old State House.

By the time the "new" State House was erected in 1798, the "Sacred Cod" was an accepted totem. The painted carving weighs 80 pounds and is just under 5 feet long. It hangs in a place of honor in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

And apparently, this isn't the only exalted fish in the State House: The state Senate chamber has a chandelier adorned with a brass casting of another sea beast. This one is called the Holy Mackerel.

The Sacred Cod of Massachusetts has been the target of collegiate thefts twice; once apparently just for kicks, and once as a protest statement. But it's now remained safely hung in this hall of government for more than 45 years. The thefts were classified as "cod-nappings."

Thursday, February 14, 2013


I'll try and make this quick...

Someone accused me of being sad and bitter after my last post. This concern troll actually was just sniping, for reasons I can easily identify but won't waste time listing.

Point being, if someone actually gave a shit about my feelings and was truly concerned, the friendly thing to do would be to ask about it and check up on me.

So if anyone was wondering: I'm fine. Am I sad? Well, I miss some people, and I am disappointed at things I think a lot of folks should be disappointed about.

Am I bitter? Well, OK, there are some things that happened in my life that were wrong, and that does bother me.

But every mistake I've made, every error, and every heartbreak... led me to where I am today.

And I would not have it any other way.

I have more hope and faith than I've ever had. I'm no child -- I'm a stone realist. And I believe that my best days are ahead.

If you think that's sad, your meter may need recalibration.

But you know, haters gon' hate. My message to them: been there, done that. Y'all can have all those sloppy seconds you want.


I don't think much of Valentine's Day.

In fact, I'm not all that enamored with certain holidays in general. If you think about it, except for New Year's Day, every holiday is made up. If you want to get really micro, you could say that since we randomly (well, not entirely, but you know) invented a calendar, even NYD is bogus.

MLK? A nice honor for a deserving man. Made up, though. We could have just as easily made a holiday for Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or Harriet Tubman. All improved the human condition. The U.S. is the only nation that celebrates this.

President's Day? Only governments and banks celebrate this. Like MLK, it's strictly a U.S. holiday.

The Irish treasure St. Patrick's Day, and it's celebrated in many world locales that have an Irish connection. Technically a religious holiday, it's become an excuse for western celebrants to get loaded. I'm pretty sure no one actually remembers the religious context. Ditto for Mardi Gras. It's also based in religion, but now a reason to party.

Good Friday? A religious holiday; if you're not Christian, it has no meaning. At one time this was a day off. We do like our days off.

Memorial Day? This one I generally like the idea of, but in some ways it kind of overlaps with November's Veteran's Day (which at one point was called Armistice Day, in England it's Remembrance Day). Memorial Day commemorates military dead. It's honorable, although wouldn't it be nice if we had never had to have a day remembering those killed in conflict? Pretty sad. Veteran's Day (Nov. 11) honors those who serve. I'm grateful to these people, in almost every case. (Whenever I see a serviceman or woman, I try to make a point of thanking them for their service, as was the case with the handsome flyboy entering the Cambridge Chipotle Tuesday night.)

However, since both holidays cannot escape the relation to war and killing, they are hardly happy occasions. When was the last time you had a big Veteran's Day party?

July 4th is a sensible national holiday, but again... in other countries, it's just a mid-year day.

Some variant of Labour Day, recognizing the contribution of workers, is celebrated in most industrialized nations. Eighty nations mark International Workers Day on May 1 -- May Day. Naturally, we can't share date in this country with all those other lesser lights, so the U.S. celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of each September.

Columbus Day is for the Italians now, but it's not widely enjoyed by many states, which don't do much to acknowledge the explorer's discovery of the Americas. In fact, it's a little shocking that anyone outside of the U.S. would like this day that much, considering the destruction and slaughter the Europeans brought to the indigenous people of the New World.

Thanksgiving is another odd one; theoretically a celebration of the survival of our earliest settlers, who essentially screwed over Native Americans and were actually the continent's first illegal aliens, this holiday now is known as our official four-day weekend and the start of Christmas shopping season.

The Pilgrims would be so proud.

As previously noted, we all like our days off. However, the U.S. actually is one of the worst nations in the world for giving its workers paid time off. The indisputable paid holidays of New Year's, MLK, Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas are only eight days. However, there isn't a single legal requirement for employers to offer ANY of those days paid, or off at all.

They do it because they want workers to think they've got it made. Employers will throw in a couple of "personal" days and some accrued vacation time to make workers think they're on Easy Street. Meanwhile, other nations laugh. Finland's workers get five weeks; godless, evil quasi-socialist hellholes like Portugal and Sri Lanka start at 22-28 days annually.

So holidays are bullshit. And Valentine's Day is the bullshittiest.

What I don't like about this one especially is that, there shouldn't be just one day marked to pay special attention and appreciation to the people you love. You should be doing that every day.

I get torqued at Christmas how people try and be all caught up in the season and kind and all. It's great. But why does it have to only happen for one month a year? Why can't we have that spirit in May, or in March? People have parties, workers go out for meals together... we could do that in September, you know.


Stuff like this contributes to the general perception some folks have of me that I am a curmudgeon. But I'm not. What I am is someone who thinks that we can do better, and BE better.

But we don't. We're lazy. We don't do the things that it takes to really show love and care for one another.

My valentine and I for a long time had a long-distance relationship. It was hard. Very hard.

But it was ultimately very good. Because in that situation, it really takes work to make it work. If you're lazy, you're not going to withstand the pressure, the loneliness, the temptation. You're going to cave in somehow.

Success in anything rarely comes without effort. If you're not good with people, ask yourself why? Have you done everything you can to make it work? Have they? Because it takes two.

That's what I'm thinking about on this lovely St. Valentine's Day, 14 February 2013.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Snow Thing

I've been counting the times its snowed since we got here Nov. 1. People are amused by it.

I grew up in Texas. In the panhandle there are the occasional snowfalls that attract notice, but that part of the world is at the edge of the earth. Amarillo gets more than 16 inches of snow a year and is closer to Denver than it is to Austin.

But Dallas averages barely 2.5 inches a year in snow. Most years there's no snow at all. It's an outlier.

So snow is novel and exciting to me. When I was a kid my brother and I used to have annual visits to see our beloved Aunt Becky, who lived near Detroit. We usually went up on or near Christmas Day, and returned on or near New Year's. We loved the snow. I've never been on water skis, but learned to snow ski in Michigan.

We liked winter things. Maybe because it was foreign and fresh. We ice skated on a frozen lake, watched people play pond hockey. We built a snowman, a big one, one there would never be enough snow for in Texas. We went to a cider mill and watched the giant wooden press wheel turn and warmed ourselves with hot cider. We saw NHL games for the first time in dilapidated old Olympia Stadium. Growing up I learned to love hockey, and to this day I find the Summer Olympics kind of meh but wish I could spend the full 16 days every four years watching the Winter Olympics. The downhill, the jumping, luge and bobsled, and now the new winter sports involving snowboards all seem like such fun to me.

Later in life we repeated some snow trips to Michigan, including one trip we crossed into Ontario and went to see Niagara Falls, encrusted in snow and ice. On another trek there, this one work-related in January, I experienced my first blizzard. It actually closed down Metro airport, so it was big even by Michigan standards.

The first time I went to Montreal, I was there for five days and it snowed almost throughout.

I loved it. The next-to-last day there, M and I trudged up to the top of Parc Mont Royal, which opens to a majestic view overlooking the city center just south. Stunning.

On the days prior, Montreal offered a snow smorgasbord of fat flakes, fast snow, slow snow, spitting sleeting snow that hits exposed skin like tiny needles... I loved all of it.

The most wintry place I've ever lived has been Northwest Arkansas. And that's just not that wintry.

Snow No. 10 is expected to start in less than 24 hours, and this one has even the locals intrigued. I'm seeing and hearing the word "historic" associated with the predicted blizzard that from early tomorrow into Saturday is projected to produce anywhere from a foot to (in the most extreme possibility) FIVE FEET of snow. Conservatively, forecasts call from 2 to 4 inches of snowfall PER HOUR when the storm peaks. The blizzard, which comes from the high winds in excess of 35 mph, will produce whiteout conditions.

Besides the obvious beauty of a snowy scene post-fall, one thing about snowfalls that I love is the quiet. Especially in a city (and greater Boston is home to more than 4.5 million people), there is a lot of ambient noise. The hum of a city is amazing. You've got traffic, trains, buses, the chatter of people, the power that creates a natural buzz.

In a snowfall... even if it's just for a little while... it's oh so quiet. It's kind of magical, really. You can create some quiet within your life by a lot of methods, but how often does the city itself pipe down?

As I peer out my window I see a gorgeous, cloudless blue sky and bright sunlight. That's expected to go away within hours before the storm hits. I've got things to do before this happens... a store run to stock up on some items, put gas in the car, prepare to hunker down. I also have to prepare for the storm's immediate aftermath, which will be some serious shoveling and digging out. By Monday the storm will be long gone and temperatures are expected to climb well above freezing. The snow will start to go away and it'll be all over except for the talking.

And then I'll be looking forward to Snow No. 11.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Our Culture of Murder

Chris Kyle was murdered Saturday night in Texas.

He lived in a little town not far from where I used to live, and I have some friends who knew him. They're upset.

Which is understandable, but every death is sad to someone.

Or is it?


Kyle was the author of a best-selling autobiography called "American Sniper," which details his career as a sharpshooter in the military. He claims 225 kills, and it's said that 160 of those are confirmed, although actual Pentagon statistics have not been made available yet to the general public.

Saturday, Kyle and a friend were said to be attempting to assist another veteran said to have PTSD. Their therapy was to go to a shooting range in Glen Rose, Texas. Something happened, and the troubled vet turned a weapon on Kyle and the other man, Chad Littlefield, killing both.

So much for Wayne LaPierre's theory that all it takes to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.


The gun argument is raging in America, although the gunnies right now desperately want the flames to die down. Their best hope is to let as much time elapse from the Dec. 14 horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary School as possible.

Good luck with all that. Newtown was just the latest mass killing in this country. This chart from Mother Jones shows the sickening, bloody trend.

Guns and violence and killing and blood are revered in this country. We are saturated with these images. Our most popular shows are about murder and crime. The sugar that makes it all go down so easily? The bad guys almost always get caught by the time the hour is up.

What bullshit. If we were so good at fighting crime, why is there so much of it?


That noted liberal rag, the Wall Street Journal, put together an interactive series of charts looking at American murders from 2000-10. The numbers exclude stats from Florida, a generally murder-friendly place, because the state doesn't conform to FBI methodology. It's pretty safe to assume Florida's exclusion only serves to enhance any positive conclusions from the research.

NB: The three lowest murder-totals in the sample span are in 2000, 2009 and 2010 -- years in which the White House was occupied by a Democrat. That's probably just a coincidence, right?

The CDC says there were more than 16,000 murders in 2011, of which more than 11,000 were by shootings. Interestingly, compared to the WSJ data, those breakdowns are statistically consistent: 111,289 of the 165,068 murders between 00-10 were gun killings.

Then there's this: 24/7WallStreet's list of the most and least "peaceful" states based on violence and its costs to communities. Seven of the top 10 are in the blood-red-state South; Missouri, Arizona and Nevada fill out the list.

Not every top 10 murder state is on the "least peaceful" list. New Mexico, Illinois, Maryland and Alabama round out that dubious bunch. Chicago and Baltimore are known as killing fields. So the blue states aren't without problems.

Having said that, the "most peaceful states (with the exception of Utah and North Dakota) are all blue: Maine is first, followed by Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Utah, North Dakota, Washington, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Iowa. Yes, Iowa has gone blue in three of the last four general elections.


I have several relatives in law enforcement. Two of them have been deeply immersed in the field, one has lived a particularly dangerous life because of his work.

I've never heard them anxious to tell me about what they've seen or done. I'm confident if pressed, they'd tell me, and I'm confident they would reveal that the job has brought them in close contact with the worst of the worst, and that blood has been spilled.

Their work has done more to improve the lives of Americans than they've ever gotten credit for. Both military veterans have helped keep our streets safe and sent criminals to jail. They're true American heroes and I am honored to share lineage.

Many others in my family have served in the military and as firefighters. All have served with honor and done what needed to be done to save lives, protect their units and co-workers, and defend the nation.


Could they have? I'm certain of it. I've even floated the idea to some of them. It was not embraced, but not rejected.

Fact of the matter is, they didn't do the things they did to draw attention to themselves. They did it because they felt it needed to be done, that the work was important. They sure didn't do it for money. They did it because they had the balls to do it, and they weren't afraid.

And no one's beating down their doors to hear their stories, even though they are no less important than those of anyone else who served our society in some capacity.


So Chris Kyle is now seen as a fallen hero. I'm appreciative of his service. But, he's no more a hero than anyone else who has taken on a dangerous job on the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, or Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Indeed, while his skill as a marksman is unquestioned, I don't think he's particularly special. This excerpt is from the New York Times, which cites a passage in Kyle's book:

He was deployed in Iraq during the worst years of the insurgency, perched in or on top of bombed-out apartment buildings with his .300 Winchester Magnum. His job was to provide “overwatch,” preventing enemy fighters from ambushing Marine units. 
He did not think the job would be difficult, he wrote in his book, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.”
But two weeks into his time in Iraq, he found himself staring through his scope into the face of an unconventional enemy. A woman with a child standing close by had pulled a grenade from beneath her clothes as several Marines approached. He hesitated, he wrote, then shot.
“It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it,” he wrote. “My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul.”
That last passage troubles me, a lot.

Not incidentally, our entire reason for being in Iraq was phony. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and its citizens, while repressed, had done almost nothing to beseech the great liberators of America to ride to their rescue. They weren't clamoring for the overthrow of Saddam or the institution of Western democracy.

So imagine a nation where life already somewhat sucks, but at least had some semblance of modern living. It wasn't like Afghanistan, where most of the population lacked modern conveniences. Into this rough landscape comes a third war... after the devastation of a 10-year failed war with Iran and the failure of the foray into Kuwait that generated "Desert Storm." Only this time, the invaders are going to completely subvert the existing political powers. They're going to occupy and shoot up the country for nearly a decade. They're sometimes going to go house-to-house and roust out suspects -- some of whom may be troublemakers, some of whom are identified as troublemakers by political and religious rivals who sell them out to eliminate competition for the nation's own coming new world order.

In a country known for its religious conflicts, scores were settled. Best of all, they were settled by an outside force that no one wanted to be associated with, but everyone could blame.

Sunni and Shi'a don't like each other much, but they pretty much agreed on one thing: they didn't like Americans.

Americans were the enemy. Whatever problems they had were theirs to solve; American intervention was unwelcome. We weren't greeted as liberators.

Against that backdrop, isn't it perfectly reasonable to see the enemy as not just a rival political or religious faction -- but also, the Americans?

Yes. Yes. It is reasonable. If an enemy force invaded the U.S., overthrew the government and started taking people from their homes... would we sit idly by?

I don't think so. Instead, we'd fight back. Perhaps a woman would conceal a grenade and approach an invading threat with the intention to strike back against her nation's oppressors. She'd clearly be right to do so.

And perhaps a sniper would cut her in two.

But that wouldn't make her a twisted soul. It would make her a patriot. The same kind of patriot Chris Kyle anointed himself as.


Chris Kyle was an assassin, a hitman, a professional murderer. It's what the U.S. military paid him to do, and what thousands of readers ate up when they made his book a bestseller.

He lived by the gun, and he died by the gun. If he'd known that by refusing to embrace the American murder and gun culture, he'd still be alive today -- do you think he'd have done it? I bet his twisted soul thinks very differently today about the life it has left behind. And the lives of a wife and two kids.

Was it worth it?

Until we stop killing one another, we're just animals. Not patriots. Not heroes. Animals. 


The man who killed Kyle and his friend apparently had his soul twisted by the horrors of war. Some in this country believe that mental health issues are more essential to address than the easy availability of killing weapons. This case will provide a forum for that debate. Will we take mercy on the accused, or look for another reason to kill?

You already know the answer, don't you?