Friday, December 31, 2010

When Good Deeds Get Punished

I know everyone has heard the old saw about how "No good deed goes unpunished" many times before. I'm sure most of us have even said it to ourselves after trying to do the right thing and then taking abuse for it.

I sort of caught myself going down that road today but had to nip that pity-party stuff in the bud. Here's the backdrop:

For New Year's Eve, I decided to spring for a suite at a hotel in CT near the casinos and just throw an open invite out in the direction of some extended family who like to go down there from time to time and gamble. Personally, I couldn't gamble to save my life, but unlike people with gambling problems, I don't pretend to be able to (remember, nothing is funnier to me than the way every person ever dealt a hand of blackjack at Foxwoods is 'up' over the course of their careers). But anyway, I'm down for the spectacle, or the restaurants, or shows, or whatever other draws there might be.

A few took the offer up, and a few others didn't. No big surprise there, that's sort of how open invites tend to go. I figured it was time for a 'last big hurrah' before some Army commitments take me out of the picture for a bit, so I didn't mind the cost, and wasn't looking for a flowery 'thank you' from any corner.

What I wasn't really ready for, though, was a lot of extensive questioning and second-guessing from an extended relative who has been repeatedly demanding to know 'The Plan' since the idea was conceived. It's like, no matter how many times I've tried to convey that there was no plan (and that's the whole point!), it didn't seem to register. I just sort of meant to reach out, open some doors (literally), and let whoever it might be sort of do whatever they might do. Anyway, after SEVERAL new rounds of scrutiny regarding "The Plan" (hey, who appointed me for that anyway?) I'll admit my frustration started to show a bit.

And then I realized something -- this is ignorable. I don't have to pout and shout about how "a simple 'thank you' would have sufficed," or get upset about it, or any of the above. To the degree that I can, I'm going to stay away from the refrain listed as the title of this entry, too, because I think it's often used obnoxiously. No one likes ingratitude, BUT:

(1) Before people complain about ingratitude, or about blowback from their 'good deed,' they need to ask about 'demand signal.' Way too many times, I've seen friends and colleagues complain about others' ingratitude in the face of their own generosity, but way too rarely does the complainer stop to try to frame it through the eyes of the other. It's like, let's say you're REALLY into a sport or a band. If you've got a spare ticket, the person you're offering it to probably doesn't care as much as you do, so if all you get is a muffled, "Thanks, man" then that might actually be a proportional response. Back when I was single, I had someone get upset at me because he'd given me the name and number of a female friend of his who lived down in Malden, and had told her to expect to hear from me. I never called or otherwise pursued, and he got really torqued about it...but I had never asked him to do it. There was an assumption built into the initial effort (which admittedly came from a good place), and that same assumption drove him to get upset later on. Ditto for any of the gazillion-million ways people think they're doing others a 'favor' that just might not be all that favorable!

(2) No one should do ANYTHING for which they automatically expect gratitude. Hosting might be a good example of this. It's like, yes, you've probably spent a good chunk of your own money on food and drinks, and you've opened up your home to people, but the key there is that it was all voluntary. Unless someone made you do it, you can't complain about who did or didn't bring or appreciate what. Going around expecting gratitude from people all the time is just a 'sub-optimal' way to go through life, IMHO. Stop trying to keep score, and start enjoying.

And last, the one that I'll have to adhere to now:

(3) If you think you're trying to do something nice, and someone is giving you grief for it, don't fan the flames. It's like, okay, I get it...somewhere, some wire got crossed, something was misinterpreted, and one person who thought he was doing something really nice confused another person who perhaps expected something more, or just different. Raising the ante, or even voicing my own frustration to the third-party who has been relaying all of this 'Planning' confusion, just makes it worse. All I can do is store it in the back of my brain somewhere, because if I do it again, then it really is my fault.

And on that note, time to stop blogging and start having fun -- it's America's greatest secular holiday!!!

HAPPY NEW YEAR and best wishes for 2011! (And, as always, thanks for reading)

The Best Political Book...Ever

I know I've written a time or two here about "What it Takes," by Richard Ben Cramer. It's an exhaustive account of the 1988 Presidential election campaign, with a page count that gets into four-digit land.

But the amazing thing is that it's all awesome. It's not one of those massive books that makes you wish it had been edited better, and that you just keep reading out of a sense of commitment. Instead, it's a magnum opus that addresses a myriad of contemporary American issues of all sorts, and gives revealing and meaningful biographical information about a lot of people who still loom large on the contemporary political landscape (like our current Vice President).

A buddy of mine sent me this link, which talks about how the book was not initially well-received, but has sort of flavored with age and developed a following among people who've discovered it at used bookstores (like I did) and fallen in love with it.

If you have the time and the dedication, check out "What it Takes."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gooooood Morning, Wakefield!

My command had a bit of a 'regime change' a couple months ago.

One of the things I love about it is that we ALL (that is, all ages, all ranks, and all MOS) go out on Friday mornings, throw heavy packs on our backs, and traipse around Lake Quannapowitt.

For the record, I really believe what they say about team-building through shared suffering...but this definitely isn't suffering. It is, however, a shared and collective experience -- undoubtedly, as we remember doing it years from now, the air will have gotten colder, the snowdrifts higher, and the wind nastier every time the stories are told.

With this Friday being a holiday, that makes tomorrow the 'ruck' day, which means I won't even have to think about the snooze button.

I don't know the office-place equivalent, but whatever your 'group' (say, your company, your family, your block association, etc.) a regular -- even if infrequent -- activity can be a great way to build some tradition and shared memory.

And if even people grumble about it, they might not 'really' mean it..

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What WILL They Think of Next?

Remember when you were a kid trying to use a vending machine, and you had to find just the right dollar bill, that never had a single crease or crinkle anywhere on it...and that split second pause just as you put it in, hoping the machine wouldn't spit it back at you?

A couple years ago, I was talking to a friend and we both remarked how much the dollar-bill technology with vending machines had improved. Now, you can jam just about any dollar bill in there, and assuming it's not ripped or torn, it'll *take.* Makes perfect sense, right? Customers have money, vendors have wares, and both parties' interests are served when it gets even easier for the customers to part with said money to get said wares.

Maybe this has been around for a while now, but I just noticed the first time I'd seen a vending machine that can take twenties. It spits fives out for change...and what a great convenience for people who have yuppie food stamps from an ATM but no singles to spare.

Just when I got done taking stock of that, I saw dual drive-through lanes. Go capitalism!

Panic! At the Market

I might think this would be showing my hand as the new guy in Massachusetts, but I want at least partial credit for the fact that this isn't my first, second, or even third rodeo. I think I did an entry like this last year and I'll probably do the same next year, too.

Here's what is about to happen:

1. We are going to get walloped with some heavy-duty snow Sunday afternoon, night, and Monday morning.

2. It will be really hard or damn near impossible to get around on Monday.

3. By Tuesday, it won't be so bad any more. The roads will be passable, the supply chains will flow (remember, the profit motive isn't all bad), and somewhere, birds will chirp.

Does that make me an Apocalypse Denier? Am I just being skeptically contrarian by refusing to participate in Anthropogenic Idiocy in Supermaket Parking Lots and Aisles (AISPLA)?

I just feel that I'd be placing my safety and that of my family in far greater danger by trying to fight off crowds of frantic AA battery hoarders and maniacal milk stocker-uppers at Hannaford's or Market Basket than I would by taking the dire risk that we might go without resupply of those items for a roughly 24-hour period starting Sunday night.

I have a feeling that with some pluck and some know-how, we'll make it!

Why Interview Prep Matters...A Lot

A slightly belated Merry Christmas. My blogging "optempo" has fallen off quite a bit lately, given work requirements, so thanks for keeping faith and tuning back in.

Last week I had an interview up in New Hampshire. I would say it went really well (but then again, studies show most interviewees overstate their performance), but could have been a Hindenburg-style disaster.

The week before the scheduled interview, a buddy of mine who is a) slightly older; and b) much wiser about such matters, called me. He insisted I come down to Boston to do a mock interview.

"You may think you can just wing it by being friendly and generally well-spoken, but trust me, you can't," he insisted. He couldn't have been more correct in that statement.

By no means was he out to sucker-punch me in that practice session, but he still had me squirming and stammering a bit on even some of the most standard interview questions (i.e. Tell me about yourself, walk me through your resume, and describe a professional failure of yours).

After we wrapped up, he started off, "Well, there's a small percentage of interviewees who absolutely blow it, either by being obnoxious, or standoffish, or timid, or whatever else could tank a person in 30 minutes' time. You're not in that category, but..."

He was being nice about it, but the fact was that I had put forth a "C+/B-" effort, and had come off as rather amateurish. A good interviewee has already thought about how he or she might answer such questions and also has several "hip-pocket" anecdotes ready to go for the inevitable follow-up questions like, "Oh, really...tell me about a time you acted that way," or "How have you implemented that concept in a real-world setting?" etc. A varsity-level interviewee has an idea of how he might crisply and confidently answer a wildly open-ended question like "Tell me about yourself" in under 30 seconds. If the interviewer wants to probe further, she has the freedom to do it, but under no circumstances would the interviewee be stammering and "uhh-ing" wondering whether to wrap-up or keep rambling.

I took his advice and spent the next couple of nights Googling likely questions and then thinking about how I might answer them. I came up with 8 or so "hip-pocket" examples of ready-made stories I could tell if asked about a success, a failure, or a difficult boss or subordinate, etc. The idea, of course, is not to sound rehearsed or too polished, but to not have to mentally *fish* for the answer you'd give to a 101-level question.

This preparation was worth its weight in gold.

After a little distraction about the snow falling outside (which may have been a test to see whether I'd sit down first...I didn't), my interviewer started off with, "So...walk me through your resume," and then a dozen or so boilerplate-type questions. I didn't answer them robotically or recall them from memory, but the fact was I never had that "uhh....uhh...." sort of moment that would've sent things downhill in a hurry. As a result, I stayed confident and relaxed, which fed itself into a neat little positive feedback loop throughout the interview. Concise, crisp answers, 30-45 seconds apiece, with follow-up only as requested.

That may all sound really obvious to you, but unless you're a frequent participant in job interviews (from either side of the table), it might not be. The trap that I think many people could fall into is this: "I'm friendly, I make good eye contact, I'm articulate....I can wing this -- what could go wrong?" The answer to that is that plenty could go wrong. If you haven't taken the time to at least ask yourself -- and then answer out loud -- some questions about your personal work history that require some introspection and follow-on analysis, you definitely don't want to be doing it for the first time in the booth. You might think you sound great, but much like the amateur stand-up guys who suffer from what Jay Leno calls "Laugh Ears" in the book Leading With My Chin, you might not sound so hot from the other side of the room.

As the buddy in Boston was telling me today in an e-mail, all people who are great at anything prepare. Michael Jordan shoots lay-ups and free throws during the shootaround. Punters stay limber with practice kicks along the sideline. Opera singers go through the scales in their dressing rooms. And so on and so on.

People who study performance psychology -- whether in academic, athletic, artistic realms, or wherever else -- consistently report that it's the people who are *slightly nervous* who perform the best. Not the Nervous Nellies, but also not the people who think they can just coast through without a care.

If you're getting ready for an interview, whether for a graduate school, a professional board, a new job, or whatever else, you should get a few butterflies. Then, you should try to anticipate the dozen or so most likely questions you'll be asked, and then make damn sure you're not a deer in the headlights on Gameday.

With a nod to John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, anything else is preparation for failure.

Christmas in Kabul for the Mass. Guard

This Boston Globe photoessay centers around the 1-181 Infantry, a battalion of the Massachusetts Army National Guard headquartered out of Worcester. Only the last five pictures are actually of Guardsmen in Kabul...the rest are centered around family members in Western Mass.

There was also a good article about this unit in today's Globe.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Frank You Very Much

I was heartened to see the quotes from CC Murphy, CC Descoteaux, and CC Mendonca regarding the re-surfacing of the residency requirement issue for city employees. Here is a snippet from the Sun regarding CC Descoteaux's thoughts on the matter:
Councilor Franky Descoteaux said she supports the long-term of goal of more Lowellians working in the city, but also does not believe a residency requirement should be mandatory.

"Practically, however, as municipal employees' pay and benefits increase, and as taxpayers, and state and federal agencies place higher demands on government systems, I am more inclined to prioritize getting the best possible value in an employee -- including education, experience and aptitude -- rather than whether they come from Lowell or not," she said.

Descoteaux said she would be willing to look into policies that give new hires incentives to move to Lowell, including providing a one-time monetary benefit to those that do so.

As a sideline judge, I give the quote here a "10" because it hits on all the important points -- first, that an in-city residence mandate is a bad idea (chiefly because it would limit the available pool of people to draw from, and all the outside experiences/opinions they would bring to bear); second, because it hits on the idea that we're going to increasingly rely on government services in the years ahead, and that we should expect much from its well-compensated employees (Luke 12:48); and thirdly, that a commonsense middle-ground solution could allow the city to draw from a worldwide labor pool but then incentivize city residence and then benefit from the way that would enhance the tax base and generate more social capital across the municipal gov't/private citizen sphere.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Global War Vets' Day in the Sun

Jen Myers did a great write-up in the Sun yesterday about the Greater Lowell Global War Veterans -- a big tent/wide umbrella veterans' organization open to all who served in any theater (including CONUS) in the post-Vietnam era.

Cliff Krieger eloquently answered the "Why this group?" [in addition to the dozens of other veterans' groups in the Greater Merrimack Valley] question on his site.

As he writes, every group has its own vernacular and its own common places. Global War Vets has its place, and the group has tons of growth opportunity.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ethnicity and 'The Fighter'

So right after 'The Fighter' ended last night, my wife and my brother-in-law were saying how some of the spoken Khmer language in the movie sounded inauthentic. This all went right past me, of course, because I don't know enough Khmer to appreciate how "Don't try to rip us off like that" and "Do you think we're all stupid or something?" should actually be said to someone promoting a pyramid scheme.

I didn't really *get* it because I assumed most of the Khmer speakers in the movie were found right here in Lowell, so I couldn't figure out why their way of expressing those things didn't sound right to a native Khmer speaker born in the States in 1985 or to another born in Cambodia in the mid-1970s.

Either way, I give some credit to the filmmakers for not whitewashing the city in the early 1990s. I didn't live here then, but I'm well aware there were already tens of thousands of Cambodian-Americans living in Lowell at the time. Even by just including the scenes where Dicky (or is it Dickie? I see a 50/50 split in the print media) walks by a friendly group of Cambodian-Americans, this film avoids the revisionism of productions like the blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" which rewrote Hawaii's ethnic makeup in order to make the Japanese seem more like *them* and the Hawaiians more like *us.*

Regardless, movie stereotypes cut many ways. For instance, how many people in Lexington were represented by the guy with the sweater thrown over his shoulder who butts into Micky and Charlene's conversation outside the art house cinema? Not many.

I'm always reminded of this when I think about how a friend of mine and his then-girlfriend reacted to the forgettable and formulaic 1990s film Maid in Manhattan. After the film ended, she started off right away about the tiresome way that Hollywood paints Latinas as "sultry" and "fiery," and how the storyline relied on a wealthy white man who saves the day.

Rather than become defensive or apologetic, he just said, "Well, I get tired of the way movies like that caricature white people as a bunch of soulless bumblers who are emotionally tone-deaf and uncaring towards others."

Fair enough. I remember a college class in which a student complained (in the same 90-minute period, mind you!) about the way African-Americans are negatively portrayed in popular media and culture, and then went on to say how she hated The Cosby Show because it showed a stable, wealthy, two-parent black household with a doctor/lawyer couple and well-adjusted kids. "We're not all like that! I don't want white people to see that and then draw a conclusion that all is just perfect in our community these days!"

I can empathize with both of her points, which are not necessarily self-contradictory. But I think everyone who enjoys TV and movies needs to first acknowledge that visual art forms with highly restrictive time constraints are never going to depict all the subleties of life, or of people, in an accurate way.

Let's agree on that first, but also be unafraid to call out offensive or tiresome stereotypes in movies, or the offensive way in which certain ethnicities can be multi-dimensional but others introduced for tokenism or just to teach the other, *real* characters important life lessons that will then make them more whole.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Goodbye, Pat

I learned this afternoon via the local blogosophere that Pat McCarthy had passed away.

Pat was the first person I met when I came to Lowell in March 2008, looking to buy a condo downtown. On a cold but tolerable day, I popped into the office on Central Street, just before that little turn where it becomes Prescott Street (right next to 1 City Square, and across from the Post Office) to see a guy with slicked-back white hair reading a newspaper and chomping on a cigar. I explained why I was there, and he dropped whatever he had been doing to give me an animated, guided walking tour of Lowell...for the next two days.

He took me all around the downtown, explaining not just what everything was but what it had been, two, three, or more iterations ago. All points were emphasized by pointing the cigar towards the ground and an "I'm tellin' you, kid." He told me all about the old days of the trucks carting in booze, the epic brawls with hammers, and, of course, the "massage pahlahs." I think by the time we were done I had Jack Kerouac's daily routine damn near committed to memory.

We checked out many of the buildings downtown while he caught me up on Democratic party politics (he had been a big Hillary for President guy) and I told him that all the news from Iraq wasn't bad (I had just gotten back a couple months beforehand).

I wound up closing on the spacious place on Market Street with the breathtaking view of downtown and the mountains way out beyond, which I stretched myself to get into but am now just a year or two away from going from red to black on the equity thing.

From then until recently, I would run into Pat McCarthy every now and then, either at TEFKA* Sangria's, Brew'd Awakening, Towers News, or anywhere in between. Because we didn't see each other often, there would always be new milestones to report when we did, and a ten-minute errand could become an hours-long event. One thing that really stands out is that Pat always went way out of his way to introduce me to all the people he knew. He would grab me a seat right in the middle of groups of friends who'd know each other, literally, for decades. Effortlessly, he made it seem as if we did, too.

The topics were always wide-ranging, the stories were always colorful -- even if sometimes apocryphal -- but it was always lively and worth the time to talk, listen to, Pat.

*The Establishment Formerly Known As

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Bureaucracy Happens

"Nothing is ever a big deal...until it happens to you, at which point it becomes a very big deal."

So in the National Guard, there's a fairly steady undercurrent of tension between the part-timers and the full-timers. The attitude of the part-timers tends to be something along the lines of, "Those lazy bastards. They've got all month to plan just two days of drill, but somehow things always get messed up." Many full-timers tend to think, "Those ungrateful bastards. I work so hard to make sure all the paperwork is in order, and I'm lucky to even get as much as an acknowledgement for it."

I have a fairly interesting window on it all, because I sort of sit between the two worlds. The units can bring more FTSP (Full-Time Support Personnel) on board during special projects or near units' mobilization dates, who essentially augment the *real* full-time force by working during the weeks and the drill weekends but in a temporary status.

As with any longstanding dispute or misunderstanding, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. However, if I HAD to pick a side, I'm going with the part-timers. They're the ones who SHOULD have everything in order for them on the weekends. They're the ones who make the sacrifice of juggling two jobs, and they're the ones who lose financially when things get screwed up.

To use a not-so-hypothetical example, let's say someone who worked a civilian, private sector job planned to take the month of January off because he had been promised a course that ran the entire month (and would pay him his regular base pay, plus travel and allowance costs). Then, when the time came to input the order, the full-time Officer in charge arbitrarily decided, "No, I don't see the need for can just be completed online instead on the soldier's own time." Never mind all the e-mails and phone calls during the months prior (during which time the desk jockey Officer could've voiced those thoughts). More importantly, never mind the well-being of that soldier. His civilian employer had already arranged for him to be gone in January, and the soldier had already made travel and lodging arrangements for the course. The person making that decision is going to be paid handsomely every 1st and 15th of the month regardless, and has apparently forgotten that it's not that simple for everyone else.

On a smaller scale, other things like this happen from time to time. Training events get planned or cancelled without all the people involved being notified. Bureaucratic snafus keep people from getting the proper (new) pay after a promotion. Security clearance packages get lost in the sauce. And so on and so on.

In almost all cases, it boils down to one simple thing: People not treating an individual situation as if it were *their own.*

In other words, let's say you send a mortgage check to Wells Fargo every month on the first. Let's say you usually notice it clear your account sometime around the seventh. If it gets to be the 11th or 12th of the month, and you don't see the updated bank activity, what are you going to do?

Don't worry, I'll answer for you.

You'll call to see what happened. You'll want to figure out if it was a Post Office issue, or if the bank had been backlogged, or if there was some type of problem with the check, etc. You might offer to have your check voided and write a new one, or to see what the manager can do for you, or some other proactive solution...What you WON'T do, however, is just sort of *let it go.* You don't want to get hit with penalties or other bank issues for something that wasn't even your fault in the first place.

Really good bureaucrats treat their jobs the same way. They follow up. If they don't hear back from an important e-mail, they call. If that doesn't bear fruit, they call around the office they need to find someone else. They double check. They keep lists. Basically, they take ownership of their role, and treat everyone's issue like it were theirs.

Unfortunately, not-so-good bureaucrats "fire and forget." Yes, they may show basic competency by sending someone's paperwork off to the equivalent of the "Top Men" warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they don't take that next, critical step of making sure it actually got there. Not-so-good bureaucrats are very good at using the defensive mechanism of insisting that "it's not a big deal" to address other people's concerns.

The problem is, it is a big deal. If your application package for a Company Commander position, or your paperwork packet for a security clearance, or your eligibility data for a VA home loan were on someone else's desk, it would be a really big deal to you. If you lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and took a month off of your civilian job because you had been verbal and written promises to come on orders for equivalent or higher pay, but then had that rug pulled out from under you, it would be a really big deal then, too.

When people completely lose sight of that, they deserve a wake-up call that, unfortunately, usually never comes. This is sort of a tautology, but the people who least need the wake-up call in the first place (i.e. the most 'tuned-in' bureaucrats) are also the quickest to see the light when something gets screwed up and then try to fix it. And, of course, vice versa.

Bear in mind, this isn't just more public sector self-loathing stuff here. I think this sort of thing applies to ALL large organizations, and can be felt by anyone who has ever tried to resolve a bogus insurance claim, or moving violation, or clerical error on a bank statement, etc. It's YOUR big deal, and not theirs, and that's obvious from the manner and attitude with which it's being handled.

That's *sort of* okay and expected when we're talking about impersonal and anonymous settings, esp. when you consider the person handling it may have hundreds or even thousands of cases and could NEVER be expected to treat each like they were his or hers. However, when the scale is far smaller and the relationship between supporter and supported is more explicit, the type of callousness that leads someone to say, "Just do it online," without a shred of regard for how that might affect the person in question or his family is, well, unacceptable.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Newark, You Have a Problem

A buddy of mine just forwarded me this New York Times article about a 13% cut to the Newark Police Department recently announced by Mayor Cory Booker's Administration.

If you don't follow the link, I don't blame you. I don't have such a hot track record of following links I see in blogs or in forwarded e-mails, so I'll steer clear of hypocrisy land and just give you the Readers' Digest edition:

The city of Newark has an $83 million budget shortfall. Its mayor -- who happens to be one of the most phenomenal people in public service today on any level -- needs to address that. He met with the Fraternal Order of Police, tried to get some negotiations but, in NATO terminology, wound up with NO JOY. So his only option, even amidst rising crime rates after years of positive trends in the city, was to make layoffs.

Camden had it much worse, by the way. That far more bedraggled hamlet across from Philadelphia just cut half of its police force. Bear in mind, Camden consistently ranks as "America's Worst City" in statistical formulas that measure quality of life.

The worst part of all?

This is just the beginning. Because the union was unwilling to compromise with the city, all those jobless policemen and their families wind up in the loss column, as does the Mayor, and, way more importantly, all the law-abiding citizens of Newark. The Union can claim some sort of Pyrrhic victory, and you could *sort of* say the other 87% of police benefited, but the new conditions of the city might not even make that true.

All this reminds me why President Obama deserves across-the-board applause for the two-year freeze on federal wages.

And who should be the first people celebrating that decision? Federal employees, that's who.

No typo there, and I'll wrap this up with my point, which I used before in reference to Vallejo, CA and also to recent events here in Lowell. When public sector salaries and benefits are allowed to spin out of control due to cozy negotiations or ridiculous, runaway annual *bumps* in a non-inflationary environment, the eventual effect is that the house of cards will come tumbling down and public sector workers will be out of a job. With the public services they perform taken away, there are lots of losers in the equation. This is what SC Jim Leary was getting at last week -- if the teachers' union tells the city to pound sand rather than compromise, the current school budget will be the victim. The assistant librarians and the media specialists and the coaches and the paraprofessionals would directly suffer, as would the students, and just about anyone with any education could tell you how that would adversely affect the rest of the city.

I'm not a gambler, but I know this: If someone said I could either keep my current wage -- albeit frozen for five years -- or choose an alternative where my agency would face 40% cuts over that time, possibly in an arbitrary manner, I would be plum crazy not to take that first option. I would even take a 10% cut rather than option two.

But looking at some of the visceral outrage to the President's decree, I'm guessing that not every servant of Uncle Sam sees it quite the same.

Koh Pich Memorial on Saturday

This just in, copied and pasted verbatim:

Dear Friends,

We want to share with you tragic news from the Kingdom of Cambodia. On November 22, 2010 there were 450 people confirmed dead (stampeded) on the final day of Cambodia’s annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

We are hosting a memorial service and accepting donations for the victims and their families for this tragic loss of life. We invite you to come together in a memorial service this Saturday to mourn the loss of their lives and to share the grief of the victims’ families.

TIME: 9:00 AM to 12:00 NOON
WHERE: Sompao Meas Restaurant
450 Chelmsford Street, MA 01851

Monetary Donation can be made payable to:
Koh Pich Victim Relief Fund c/o Sam Meas
P.O. Box 1323
Haverhill, MA 01831

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Calling One Out: Prisoners and Students

The other day during conversation, a colleague who is also a full-time student was talking about the costs of education.

"It's amazing when you think about it," he said, "Because even for all the grumbling about the high costs involved with schooling, it's twice as expensive to imprison a person. How messed up is that?"

Please don't get me wrong -- this isn't a lead-in to some rant about law and order, or lockin' em up and throwin' away the key, or the rightness or wrongness of the American criminal justice system. It's also not about the near- and long-term costs or benefits of incarcerating people for breaking the law. Instead, it's about the statement and rhetorical question, in and of itself.

Much like other oft-repeated but wide-of-the-mark statements, like those about the fate of 50% of marriages (they don't), or whether certain groups weren't once immigrants to North America (sorry but ALL were, at some point, as I first saw on Choosing a Soundtrack last July and have kept in mind ever since), or whether a man named Crapper invented the flush toilet (he didn't), the implication that the prisoners and students spending comparison is somehow "messed up" doesn't really ring true.

The way people usually derive this is to compare the direct costs of education itself versus the entire cost of housing, feeding, and caring for a prisoner. As my eight year-old niece might say, "Well, duh."

One ought to be fairly expensive, as it involves salaries, administration, transportation, books, resources, and equipment, etc. from roughly 8 a.m. until roughly 3 p.m. each day. If we're talking college, people usually use the tuition itself, or the per-pupil costs to a state university, when making this argument. Still, it's not hard to imagine what's being included and what's not.

The second ought to be a whole lot MORE expensive, as it also involves intensive manpower and the resultant salaries, administration, transportation, etc. but also three squares a day, living facilities, health care and prescriptions, legal rights, and other basic 24/7 amenities that most of us folks on the outside take for granted. If we re-jiggered the numbers to include all the per capita spending on the lives of students (whether from their own or others' wallets), to include their housing, their meals, their entertainment, their transportation and fuel costs, and the uniformed folks who keep order on the outside, things might not seem so "messed up" after all. It's really easy to calculate per-head costs this way for a prison, but not so easy to do for an open society. I may not always appreciate it, but I am constantly deriving benefit from the fact that there's a police station within view of my house and someone waiting to answer a 911 call if I ever had to make it. So is a student who *only* spends 20k per year on tuition.

I happen to admire Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, and have said as much on several local blogs, for his politically unpopular but spot-on strident critiques of our prison-industrial system. For the record, I think it's important that we do whatever we can to prevent recidivism. If that means properly taking care of our prisoners, manning the corrections staffs enough to prevent sexual abuse, and making every effort to provide inmates with job skills, then so be it.

But just to tie it back to the top for a second, I just want to reiterate that my overall point here is NOT about the proper amount of money our society ought to spend on schools or prisons.

Frankly, I have no idea about the *proper* levels of either, and won't pretend to.

It's late, and I'm too lazy to look all this up right now, but if you showed me numbers indicating that the cost of locking someone up in Shirley for a year was four times greater than the cost of in-state tuition at UML, I just wouldn't be able to extrapolate much from that - it's just not saying anything.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Business Success and the KISS Principle

So I had an HVAC issue. It wasn't all that big a deal -- that's the benefit of living up on the eleventh and twelfth floors, and the modern advances that make space heaters safe, powerful, and affordable. I pushed the whole thing off for a while because I was so wrapped up with work, but this Saturday I finally had a chance to do something.

But you already know I'd never write about that for its own sake -- hang in there.

As I opened up the phone book with a loosely-defined plan to cold call anyone with a "978" area code, I swung and missed at the first couple of numbers. On the first two opportunities, all I got were recordings that offered to transfer me to answering services. Not wanting to be a hypocrite about the whole voicemail thing, I took them up on the offer but -- no surprise -- the people I got patched through to couldn't help with any of my (very basic) questions.

I worked down to my next number, which was for Affordable Heat & Air in Billerica. I faithfully dialed the ten digits and was soon talking to an actual HVAC specialist with whom I could share details about what was working, what wasn't working, and how I might describe it. Bear in mind, if you've ever heard some variant of the change-a-lightbulb joke where the punchline involved calling an electrician, that about sums up my level of handyman expertise.

No surprise, Monday has passed us by now and I never heard back from the first two businesses. But that's all water under the bridge, so to speak, because the guy from Affordable already came by today before the missus' shift and solved our major problem.

Here's the best part: In the process of coming up and down the elevator on trips back and forth to his truck this morning, the guy found two other leads, as in people from the building who sought him out because they were also having HVAC problems.

Who knows who else those people may know. And so on and so on. You get the idea. If you've ever read a Malcolm Gladwell article about networking, I know you're already excited.

I have a feeling I'm not the only person who works during the week and can't necessarily carve out time during *company hours* to start calling around to people to start talking about work that needs to be done on the house. I can't be the only person who puts those sorts of things off, along with other major errands, until Saturday.

A service that wants to win the business of people like me should keep that in mind, adhering to the Keep It Simple, Stupid premise that says, "Many people work Monday through Friday. By being responsive to customers on Saturday, we'll differentiate ourselves from those who aren't. Business will therefore grow."

Remote technologies like cell phones and Google Voice make this way easier than it would've been years ago, where it would've meant tying up an employee near a desk for that whole day. The wisdom of companies and services who grasp this will be reflected in their bottom lines.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Consistency in Corvallis

Here are four basic premises with which I hope you'll agree:

1. It's wrong to drive a vehicle packed with explosives into large crowds with the hopes of killing hundreds during a public gathering.

2. It's wrong to associate one person's decision to commit such an act with a much larger group, nearly all of whom would agree with Statement 1.

3. It's wrong to deliberately set fire to a house of worship for ANY reason.

4. It's wrong to associate one person or small group's decision to commit such an act with a much larger group, nearly all of whom would agree with Statement 3.

Looking across the international punditocracy's response to the recent arson at an Islamic center in Corvallis, OR, an apparent retaliatory response to one teenager's apparent attempt to commit the act described in Statement 1, it seems that many are okay with statements 1-3, but are getting tripped up on Statement 4.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims -- not just in the States, but across the world -- disagree with the rationale that some might use to justify spectacular terrorist attacks like the one plotted for this weekend's ceremony in Portland, OR. That's not an attempt at political correctness, but a verifiable fact.

It's ALSO true that the overwhelming majority of American citizens do not support or even passively condone the burning of houses of worship. One or even a handful of vigilantes who may have attacked the would-be bomber's house of worship in Corvallis, OR does not set the tone for the Corvallis community or for American society writ large.

To make sweeping, negative characterizations about the nearly 300 million or so Americans who did NOT commit that act is just as ignorant as a blanket condemnation of the billion or so Muslims who had NOTHING to do with the attempted bombing in Portland.

The real mistake would be for the moderates to be drawn into the fray by the extremists on either side who would love to see it happen.

Slow News Day, Eh?

A couple nights ago, I caught a segment on local TV news about the buying habits of consumers in this "New Economy." One of the "revelations" made during the segment was that shoppers are so wary of economic turmoil in these crazy times that they've stopped making bulk purchases of common household items like toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, etc.

I had to throw a yellow flag on the field for that one.

I don't for a minute dispute that vast sums have evaporated from people's IRAs and 401(k)s. Neither do I contend that huge numbers of people face, or have recently faced, involuntary periods of economic inactivity, whether through unemployment, underemployment, or any combination thereof. Lastly, I don't take anything away from the fact that the real estate collapse has left millions of people holding notes for their homes that are greater than the value of the homes themselves.

In fact, maybe the reason why I'm so confident that Americans are dealing with all three of those phenomena (and more) is because I've been among their ranks since the Great Recession kicked off more than two years ago. I'm now employed (over-employed?) but in a somewhat precarious sort of temporary way. All of that experience, coupled with the fact that I live within one square mile of pretty much the entire economic spectrum this country has to offer, makes me think I might have some concept of just how good or bad things are for many participants in our economy.

Having laid all that out, what I WILL dispute is the idea that our society is undergoing such widespread privation that people are budgeting week-to-week and honestly concluding that, "Honey, I don't think we can afford the $12.79 one-time outlay for the Bounty Towels, even though that brings the unit cost down. Instead, let's just keep our edge by buying the rolls one-at-a-time, because we have no idea if we'll ever see ten bucks again." Fewer family ski vacations to Vail? Sure. More meals eaten at home this year? Okay. But a mass trend away from cheaper, multi-pack toilet paper due to a fear of parting with a little more money up front? Not a chance, my friend.

Although he'll never win a Nobel Prize for Economics for saying it, I still remember the skepticism that a friend of mine (someone who has lived through an ACTUAL Great Depression, mind you) showed when he heard all the Chicken Little-ism back in 2008: "When people all around me start canceling their cable subscriptions, that's when I'll know we're really into something bad here." Again, nothing necessarily profound, or even backed up by hard data, but I think there's a nugget of wisdom to be found in that statement for anyone willing to look.

I was reminded of all this today when the missus and I were trying to find a parking spot outside the Target at the Pheasant Lane Mall. All the aggressiveness of drivers unwilling to cede an inch, the "sharking" of the people who appeared to be leaving the store and heading towards their cars, and our overall inability to find any space (remember, I'm one of those 'analog' people who parks in the back while the digital types fight for the good ones) reminded me that the apocalypse might've arrived somewhere else, but it's not here.

When times get so tough that people's basest instincts stop being displayed in their quest to part with disposable income on a Sunday afternoon in Nashua, I'll believe we're really in for a societal sea change. Until that happens, I'll use Comcast revenues as a better indicator than some bogus news report about a phenomenon that doesn't exist!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bernie, Bud, and the Two-Way Street

So, the old issue of the City Manager's communications skill (or perceived lack thereof) seems to be surfacing again lately, with last Tuesday marking the second straight week where CC Caulfield threw a pointed barb at CM Lynch on the subject.

I know this came up with the last Council, but this time around it's a whole new ballgame -- the three-Councilor turnover we experienced following the 2009 election makes for a less-hostile environment for the CM. Still, Caulfield likes to beat this drum. To a lesser extent, CC Mercier does, too (although to her credit she'll go out of her way to praise Lynch at times, too).

The subject is near and dear to me because so much of what I do at work revolves around communication, whether over e-mails, phone calls, or in person. I've come to pretty much accept the fact that no matter how much you convey to people, regardless of the format(s) used, some will ALWAYS complain that "No one ever tells me," or "I had no idea," etc.

I've learned to save every e-mail I send in a "sent items" folder. And yes, I particularly love to respond to the "No one told me we were training that day" or "No one said I was coming on orders" with e-mail responses which include the original e-mails to the person, along with the pertinent dates and information...and sometimes, even the acknowledgement response from the recipient. From time to time, I've even wished I did the same with phone calls, but that'd require a lot more technical skill and patience, could skirt up against some legal issues, and just seems too Nixonian.

But enough with that for now. Even if things really aren't always communicated, what people tend to forget all too easily is that things like e-mail/phone/walkie-talkies/smoke signals/messenger pigeons, etc. all have this neat feature in common -- they can be used in both a send AND a receive mode. I have 11 people directly reporting to me...and I constantly tell them to practice two-way comms. I mean it when I say I would rather hear from someone ten times a week, even just to check in on a particular question, than to ever hear one person say one time that "No one ever tells me anything." That's just way too easy, and way too lazy, but I'm sure it's been used since time immemorial in almost all professions and organizations.

So if CC Caulfield is that concerned about which jobs might be leaving the city, or which other jobs might be replacing them, and where that might be happening, I would recommend that he engage the CM on a regular basis to ask about that. Especially considering that Lynch gave a detailed briefing on that very subject (minus the names of certain companies, for confidentality's sake) at an LDNA meeting at MCC two months ago, I don't think he's trying to hide anything. However, he would have to be blessed with a special clairvoyance to be able to pre-emptively anticipate which CCs might want to be privy to every bit of information that crosses his desk.

As CC Murphy mentioned last week, the big-picture question worth asking is how the CM should best set up regular communications on big issues with the Councilors, but it's NOT about whether someone's ego got bruised because he was asked about something at DeMoula's and hadn't yet heard about it.

But sometimes it's just way too easier to be a solipsist about everything -- if I haven't seen it, it must not be real, and if I didn't hear about it, it must be the fault of whoever was supposed to tell me. In a me-centric world, that's a legitimate way to form your reality.

That doesn't have to just apply to communications, either. I always get a kick out of it when people who I haven't seen in a while say, "Have you been living under a rock or something? I thought you'd gone away or been deployed."


"Well, I haven't seen you since _____."

"Funny, I was going to ask the same of you. If you haven't seen me, don't you think that means I haven't seen you either?"

Somehow, that never goes over as intended.

And just to conclude, it is legitimate to say someone is a poor communicator if you are acting in good faith, sending e-mails or calling, and are being met with radio silence. It's equally legit to wonder about people whether people you've been making a fruitless effort to reach have skipped town or otherwise fallen off the radar.

But if you assume the world revolves around you, and that any piece of news, tidbit of gossip, or even person which fails to make its way to you must be due to some outside factor that's beyond your control, then I'm sorry, but I just can't help you -- maybe your communication skills need some brushing up!

Monday, November 22, 2010

5Ws for World AIDS Day

At tonight's LDNA meeting, Troix Bettencourt of the Institute for Health and Recovery spoke about World AIDS Day, which is recognized annually on December 1st. Here in Lowell, a vigil/procession will be sponsored by Lowell Community Health Center, Lowell House, the Institute for Health and Recovery, the Greater Lowell Visiting Nurse Association, and Middlesex Community College.

What: A vigil and procession starting at City Hall, and moving up Dutton Street and then Market Street.

When: 6:00 p.m., December 1st.

Where: City Hall, then Dutton Street, then Market Street, followed by a Memorial and Awards Ceremony at 7:00 p.m. at Middlesex Community College.

Who: Anyone is welcome to attend. Several City Councilors and other local personalities are slated to be in attendance.

Why: To raise awareness of HIV/AIDS issues and to remember AIDS victims.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Harm, No Foul

"In the game of life, genetics deals the hand, and society makes the rules -- but how you play your cards is up to you."

I stumbled upon the video below one morning last week after waking up at oh-dark-thirty for work and hoping a scan of YouTube's "Most Viewed" would snap me out of my morning slumber. It may have worked -- after all, it left a lasting-enough impression for me to be writing about it now.

The video below is of a really interesting trick play that has been done a few times before. The quarterback feigns confusion, which the coach feeds with commands from the sidelines. The center hands the ball back -- not through the legs, though -- and no one on "O" acts like the ball is live. Meanwhile, it is, and the QB takes advantage of the confusion to break away for a score.

I've written in defense of these sorts of plays many times before, and I know Kad Barma has done the same. Sports, much like life in general, is centered around rules. People like Bill Belichick (or the coach of the middle school featured here) make games fun to watch because they find creative ways to defy expectations while staying within the rules (bearing in mind, of course, that Videogate was really just the result of a misinterpretation).

Some people might say that trick plays like the one featured in the video below show bad sportsmanship or teach the wrong lessons to kids.

As emphatically as I can say something in a written format, I could not disagree more.

If there really is a problem with the play below, where do you draw the line? Is a play-action pass with a fake handoff unfairly deceptive? How about a quarterback's "quick kick" on third down that stuns a defense and offers better field position? A team taking an intentional sack in the end zone? What about a team with a lead taking an intentional fall in front of an open end zone late in the game, so as not to relinquish possession?

In my opinion, all those things are precisely what make the game great. If there were really a problem with one of the above, a fan's gripe should be with the league itself, not with the coaches or teams who think outside of the proverbial box.

To tie back in with the life metaphor, we should always call on lawmakers or executives to fix broken systems, all the while staying careful not to blame the beneficiaries themselves. Those who benefit from such systems don't have to become defensive or resort to sensationalist rhetoric (witness last Tuesday's city council meeting and the Master Medical discussion), but should at least take that little step back to empathize with others' points of view. Unfortunately, however, they often don't. To tie in again to Kad Barma, as he so wonderfully turned it back on the Chicken Littles today:

if this plan is exactly what these people say it is, (aka, the only thing standing between "many retirees" and certain death), how is it that we can possibly sit still, least of all those with the coverage who know best how it's saving their lives, and not fight tirelessly so each and every resident in the city also enjoys the life-saving benefit??

With regards to the health insurance debate and the problem regarding unfunded liabilities, no one is out to blame or hurt the retirees (the players). Many are rightly pointing out, however, that the 'game' is broken.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Discovering But-Heads

After I posted about the former Steelers kicker who insisted on prefacing excuses with disclaimers about not making excuses, and then referenced some previous posts about how those sorts of disclaimers are not only disingenous, but they often aggravate the words they're meant to mitigate, Cliff Krieger posted this Globe article describing those very phrases as 'but-heads.'

I had no idea that there was already the term, or the synonymous "wishywasher," "false front," or "lying disclaimer."

McKean, the author of, makes tons of interesting points in her essay. She makes the point that people use these disclaimers in their speech because they basically want to have it both ways -- they want to make their point, but they also don't want to really step out on a limb, so they hedge their bet with "I hate to say it" and all its verbal cousins.

The only point I thought she could have added is that the words themselves often make otherwise innocuous statements become suspect. I can recall a time a couple years ago, when I was working in CT but living in MA, when someone asked me how that came to be. In and of itself, that's a totally reasonable question that I would've been perfectly happy to answer, but it was prefaced with a full minute's worth of "please don't take this the wrong way" "I don't mean to pry," and "If this is something you don't want to talk about, I totally and completely understand."

Huh? I never would've even remembered the interaction if it had been more straightforward, but all the hemming and hawing left a strange enough taste in my mouth for me to remember it to this day. Did this lady think I was a Chinese spy or something? Rather than serve to mitigate, the string of but-heads just made it clear that she thought something wasn't adding up, and it gave me the creeps.

Friends shouldn't have to resort to this type of speech at all. Last night, I had dinner with a good friend at Blue Taleh. Afterwards, as we were walking back up Merrimack Street, he just told me, apropos of nothing, "Page, you're crowning, dude. You should really consider using Rogaine."

No idiotic disclaimers. No garbage about how to take it. And most important, no need. It was a friend offering genuine, honest advice to another.

All I could say was "thank you" and that I'd look into it.

I wish more interactions could be that direct.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A River in Egypt?

After the loss, [Steelers Kicker Jeff] Reed called into question the quality of the turf at Heinz Field.

"I'm not one to make excuses," Reed was quoted as saying in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'll take the credit for the miss. It was a great snap, a great hold, great protection. It's kind of hard when you plant your foot and the hole -- a piece of ground moves where the ball's under the holder. I almost missed the ball completely.

"I'm not going to make excuses. If you've played any kind of sports in your life, you realize that what we play on is not very good turf. It happens."

Seeing these quotes from Jeff Reed reminds me of why "I'm not one to make excuses" should be banned from most people's vocabularies, right along with expressions like "no offense" and "not to brag," which are inevitably followed with, well, offensiveness and braggadocio, respectively. The irony of all those disclaimers is that they not only tip the speaker's hand ahead of time, they often aggravate the very words they are intended to mitigate. Stop and think for a second about the last time someone leveled a 'no offense' at you, and you'll see what I mean.

If Jeff Reed really doesn't want to make excuses, he might consider how all the other NFL kickers are handling the 'disappearing turf' phenomenon.

Forward, Eh?

At the Global War Vets / Veterans Square / Westlawn I Flag Retirement Pit Ceremony on Saturday, I couldn't help but notice Rep. Nangle say, "I look forward to calling him Senator Panagiotakos," in reference to a fellow speaker at the event. He definitely emphasized the word, so I don't think there was any mistake there. It sounded like a strong hint about an upcoming statewide race, but here's this from yesterday's Sun:

State Rep. Dave Nangle is already predicting the winner of the 2012 Senate race.

"I think Scott Brown is unbeatable," he declared. "I don't care who is going to run against him, they can't beat him."

"Even if it is Marty," he emphasized, laughing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Veterans' Event Tomorrow @ Westlawn Cemetery

Saturday, 13 NOV @ 1100, there will be a dedication of a new Veterans' Memorial and a Flag Retirement Pit at the Westlawn Cemetery (155 Boston Road).

There is a more detailed write-up and a nice picture over at, too.

The event is being put on by the Greater Lowell Global War Veterans, a group for servicemembers of all branches who have served domestically or in any overseas theater in the post-Vietnam era.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stopping for the Bugler's Call

Tomorrow morning, after the Voices of Democracy essays are presented, I will hear "Taps" ring out along Plain St. in a small but dignified VFW ceremony.

I have no idea how I'll react. When it happens, I'll be thinking about someone I first crossed paths with in Al Asad, Iraq in the spring of 2006. An enlisted Cryptologic Technician providing tactical intelligence support, Petty Officer Daugherty initally struck me as somewhat aloof -- did this guy think he was better than me because I was just a TOC monkey? When I really got to know him later that year back at Little Creek, I realized how wrong my initial impression had been. Petty Officer Dougherty came from that breed of sailor who truly loved his trade (now we had something in common!) and was looking to put together his package to trade his chevrons in for bars and become a Naval Intelligence Officer. He sought me out for advice on the process and we both agreed that after our respective rounds of upcoming deployments, we would sit down together, knock it out, and send it off to Millington, with preemptory phone calls to all the right people. That behind-the-scenes effort, I hoped, would not only guarantee a deserved commission but also convey something subtle but important about the impact that an Officer who cares enough to make that *little* difference can have on a sailor's life.

All of that, however, was preempted by a blast in Sadr City that rendered the discussions and plans moot.

I can't imagine for one second what he would say if he could reach down to any of us today, but I have wondered a lot over the past six years about how best to honor people like Steve. It never comes back to things like Facebook pages, memorial walls, or even donations and volunteer work. Those all have their places, but it has a lot more to do with taking a little bit of time to pause and reflect about what you have and why you have it.

On this or any other Veterans Day, I think that's about the best you can do.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Global Vets: Jack Mitchell on City Life

Tomorrow morning (10 NOV), Jack Mitchell will appear on City Life. Jack is a Desert Storm veteran, former Old Guard member, air assault-qualified infantryman, Democratic Party activist, founding member of Greater Lowell Global War Veterans (a post-Vietnam era veterans' group), and champion of the Bobola's Belly Buster.

Jack will be introducing the new group in addition to pitching the ceremony on November 13 at the Westlawn Cemetery that will inaugurate a flag retirement pit that will allow Greater Lowellians to properly (and conveniently) cast away old American flags so that they can be eventually retired in a dignified, ceremonial manner.

Walking AND Chewing Gum

So the past week has been a big fat blur, but mostly in a good way.

Getting back to work has meant not only a lot of "catch-up ball" but also dealing with a regime change here at the unit and a MUCH higher optempo, so to speak. With the days' lengths seeming to just expand and expand (Saturday was 18 hours from door to door...really) I'm noticing I'm missing some things.

Like returning e-mails. Like being on top of all my bills and other mail. Like writing essays for potential grad schools. Like blogging.

Here's the strategy that I'm going to implement to fix some of this: Doing more at the office.

Now don't get me wrong -- I'm not talking about stealing Company Time from Uncle Sam. Instead, what I mean is that once "quitting time" has arrived, staying the extra hour or two to knock out all those little knick-knack things that are okay to let slip on any one given day, but not okay to ignore indefinitely. I can bring a lot of what I want to accomplish with me, and it seems like a more efficient way to go.

Plus, it gives more of a separation between work and home, which is probably an ancillary bonus, esp. considering 'home' increasingly means my in-laws' house on Willie St., which is a lot more fun than my own house on Market St (not to mention an endless source of good food), but with the flip side of being a tougher environment for attacking the daily to-do list.

This also seems more efficient if there's anywhere to go in the evening. On a second Tuesday, for instance, there's a VFW meeting at rather than go home just to go back out, my thought process says to stay at work until about 6:45 or so and then just head straight there.

I'll have to wait and see how it goes, but I'm confident from the get-go that taking even that little bit of extra time while I'm still in *work mode* is going to be better than just coming home exhausted, throwing everything down, and putting everything off until the next day...rinse, wash, repeat.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Planning Your Tomorrow

I know I could take the Captain Obvious Award for saying this, but don't forget that there's an election going on tomorrow.

I write this just because I got so wrapped up in some of the projects I had going on today at work that I completely lost track of the time, in addition to forgetting that there was a world going on outside of l'il Camp Curtis Guild. Only on the way home did it occur to me that tomorrow is Election Day.

Just a quick reminder here -- whether you tend to vote first thing, last thing, on your lunch break, or somewhere in between, don't forget to carve 'voting' into your day's plan.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Closing the Can

So on the 21st, I opened up a massive can of worms here on the blog.

It was a bit of a risk, but I'm glad I did it. As I've said before on this site, the downfall of many blogs is when they become too me-me-me self-indulgent and thereby lose the interest of would-be readers. I have made, and will continue to make, exceptions for major life milestones or stories rooted in personal experience that can have some kind of larger meaning or importance.

See the distinction? I would never presume to waste YOUR time by writing about how long the line was at the ATM today, or about how the milk in my cereal seemed a bit sour. To reverse shoes and feet, if you wrote about those things, I can assure you I would re-divert my time and energy.

All that said, I do have some happy news to wrap up what I wrote about last week: I have since received the pathology report from my surgery and there was no lymph node metastasis.

Long-story short, I am now cancer-free. I will definitely make a point of blogging from time to time about worthy causes and charities for cancer research and awareness, I may post some relevant articles, and I will post during May (that's National Oral Cancer Awareness Month) about simple steps you can take during your regular dental exams and cleanings to screen for oral cancer.

But that's sort of it. My new tongue will become normal again, and my tracheotomy will continue to heal. It may take a few months, but I'll speak at a 100% level.

And in the meantime, I will have plenty of chances to blog about local elections, word origins, charity dinners, Lowell DNA meetings, civil-military relations, funny interpersonal observations, and whatever else seems interesting at the time.

I'm greatly looking forward to it..

Thursday, October 28, 2010

CTI Dinner @ Lenzi's

Last night, Community Teamwork Inc. hosted its annual Heroes' Night, at which seven local heroes were awarded: The Student Cadets of LHS JROTC (collective award); Francis "Frank" O'Malley; Rebecca Duda; The Late Edward A. Fish; Stephen Greene; Members & Volunteers of Lowell Telecommunications Corp (collective award); JoAnne McQuilken; Ashley Toland; and State Senator Susan Tucker.
A fuller description of each of the awardees can be found on Richard Howe's site.
If you'll pardon the poor quality of my iPhone camera (and the fact that the shot is of a screen which was behind our table), the pic here is of Pam Howland, wife of Stephen Greene. Stephen Greene is Vice-President of Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association, in addition to serving in leadership roles with Keep Lowell Beautiful and the Green Buildings Commission. He was not present to receive his award last night because a work-related project for his consultancy took him to Baltimore instead.

Two local bloggers presented awards last night. Richard Howe and Paul Marion, both of, presented awards to Dracut History Teacher Rebecca Duda and the LTC, respectively.
One point that Paul Marion made about LTC really stuck with me -- it's one of the only organizations in the city that really looks like the city. As anyone who has worked in the non-profit sector knows, the Big Elephant in the room sometimes is the disparity between the organizations themselves and the populations they serve. That's not necessarily anyone's fault -- it's a familiar story across the country -- but it is remarkable when groups like LTC can break that mold.

Monday, October 25, 2010

LDNA Tonight, 25 OCT

Yup, it's the fourth Monday of the month, all over again. Now that the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association has moved from the Revolving Museum to Caffe Paradiso to Middlesex Community College, many downtowners may not be familiar with the new meeting location. It's in the City Building (the tall, red brick guy @ 33 Kearney Square). The room # is LC109.

On tonight's agenda are introductions of new City Development Services Managers, a discussion of the notification process for downtowners during snow emergency parking bans, and some open forum time.

If you haven't paid dues since February 2010, it's $5 if you're between 18-70, and $1 if you're outside the southern or northern boundaries of that age bracket.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

One Lawn, Undivided

In the spirit of pre-election bipartisanship, I had to stop to take a "happy snap" of this lawn on Carriage Drive when I walked past it this afternoon.

Pardon my iPhone and its lack of zoom capability, but the sign in the background is for Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell), candidate for the 1st Middlesex Senate District.

The picture in the foreground is for Jon Golnik (R-Carlisle), candidate for the U.S. 5th Congressional District of MA.

Just as is the case with a region, ethnic group, interest group, or any other constituency, a household open-minded enough to consider "split voting" deserves the attention of BOTH major parties in future elections.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Context for 12 Tours

Okay, so back to another theme here -- civil-military relations.

Recently, a 29 year-old Sergeant First Class from the 1/75 Ranger Regiment was killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan while serving on his twelfth tour of overseas duty.

There has been a lot of emphasis put on this number in the media (including Bob Herbert's column today), and a lot of genuine curiosity on the part of people who wonder "How is that possible?"

First of all, it is an amazing, impressive testament to the sacrifice this soldier has placed above so many other areas of his life...not just personal, but even his professional military education (ironically enough, right?). He didn't look for desk jobs to hide out in stateside to work on his degree. Essentially, he has been either at war, in reset phase, or in workup phase to go back, for the past decade.

But back to the question -- it's important for people to know that not all *tours* are created alike.

The first time I went to Iraq was in May of 2006. I took a small plane from a small base in the American southeast to a place called Fort Campbell, KY, which sits just outside of Clarksville, TN. I was with just a couple guys sent out to augment another unit, and the ride we were hitching was courtesy of a unit called the 160th SOAR. Just to make small talk, I turned to the guy next to me in the back of the C-17 and I asked, "So, how many times have you been over to Iraq before?"

His answer: "This is going to be my thirteenth time."

No typo there. And again, bear in mind that this was 2006. By now, this guy may have easily passed the quarter-century mark. The reason why is that his unit is a Special Operations Aviation Regiment that rotates equipment, helicopters, pilots, and mechanics in and out of "theater" on a constantly-rotating basis. He might go in for two weeks, help install replacement parts on four of his birds, fly back home to knock out administrative work at the unit, and then be back in Iraq before the calendar page even turned once again. The marginal cost of all this is very low, by the way, because the heavy birds are going to be doing their inter-theater thing regardless.

All the people I got to know said they really didn't mind. In fact, if you ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine a question along the lines of, "Would you rather have to say goodbye for your family ONCE but for an entire year, or do it four times, all spread out, for three months at a time?," almost every single response will show a preference for the latter.

The Air Force, which tends to be the most personnel-friendly branch, *gets* this. Air Force personnel can deploy, get to know their Army buddies on a base, finish their own deployments, come home, work up again, and then deploy AGAIN back to that same base...and yes, those Army Joes are STILL there, still on their same *pump.*

Special Operations units, which operate at a breakneck optempo, can't deploy people in the same way that a conventional National Guard unit does.

A few years ago, a helo mechanic made huge waves in the headlines by screaming to the media about the Big Bad Army forcing him out the door on his 5th deployment. "Five is just too many!" was the rallying cry he and his wife made. But closer analysis showed that the TOTAL amount of "boots on ground" time the guy had spent was less than that of someone from a conventional unit who had gone twice.

In sum, anyone who has been deployed 12 times since 9/11 is an amazingly noble, dedicated servicemember who repeatedly placed himself or herself in harm's way despite several opportunities for "outs." At the same time, so is any conventional "green-suiter" who has done four standard year-long tours. One is less eye-popping than the other, but the overall sacrifice is similar.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hey, What's the Matter With France?

Plenty. This story from Yahoo breaks down the situation, in which there are dire fuel shortages, infrastructure blockages, and threats of much greater civil unrest over this central tenet of pension reform: upping the benefits-collection age from 60 to 62.

Of course, there are all kinds of conspiracy theories to go along with the proposal, such as the idea that it's a first step in someone's Master Plan to start stripping away all benefits from all workers (slippery slope, eh?), or that it's a targeted way to stick it to blue-collar employees.

Nowhere in all the chanting, the sloganeering, or the screaming that are visible to us (well, at least when our news networks are taking a break from bullying in schools or the war on cholesterol), is anyone talking about intelligent ways to keep the math equation working as waves of workers retire and there just aren't enough young workers to keep the Ponzi scheme working.

I know this is starting to turn into a hobbyhorse of sorts for me, but who cares? I think it's important enough to keep mentioning how scary it is to me that we could be sliding towards something like this in the States.

Regardless of how you self-indentify politically, I'll assume that you "care deeply about the future of the country." If asked on a poll, who would disagree with that? No one, and that's why I'll assume you wouldn't, either.

Well, the lesson that keeps popping up across the Pond is that when you engineer generous public-sector benefits package (even with perfectly good intentions) you might be creating an unsustainable monster. Once that happens, if people were able to recognize that monster, and then calmly, coolly, and rationally step away from it, this wouldn't be such a big deal.

But where is the calm rationality in all these French protests? WHO is answering the question about why you wouldn't want to *slightly* tweak benefits for one generation of workers in order to keep an entire system sustainable for generations down the road?

It just scares me a little bit that more of these French unions aren't seeing it that way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Would You Like the Can, Sir?

No thanks, I think I'll pass.

So I just got back today from my extended stay at the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary. I can't speak, I can't fully use my left arm, and I have a ridiculous beard that I can't shave until my tracheotomy and neck dissection scars start to scab up.

But everything is relative...I'm pretty thrilled to be in this position right now. I'm extremely grateful to be recovering, to have Tricare, and to have been under the care and supervision of the medical equivalent of the 1985 Bears' Defense.

I haven't written about this yet on the blog -- I purposely decided to wait until after the surgery. On September 15 I was diagnosed with cancer -- specifically, poorly-differentiated squamous cell carcinoma of the oral tongue. On October 12, a seven-hour surgery most likely removed not only the malignant tumor itself, but quite probably the rest of the cancer as well. I will know more by late next week, but when one of the Top Docs with more letters after his name than I could recite backwards tells you that things "look good" you can respect it.

From the 15th to the 12th, I was biospied and scanned nine ways to Sunday. On the 12th, I had 1/3 of my original tongue removed, which was replaced with live tissue from my left forearm, which was partially replaced yet again by a small part of my left thigh. I also had a radical neck dissection, which means, yes, another cool scar. I've been breathing with the assistance of a hole in my throat (seriously) because of the inevitable swelling issues associated with the glossectomy and radial forearm flap.

When I found out, I just completely skipped the denial stage, the woe-is-me stage, or even the why-me stage. Instead, I went right to the "act" stage, which is important, because there are things I can help you with should you or someone in your family ever get a similar diagnosis.

And if you're wondering, there is not a single epidemiologist or oncologist in the world who can definitely conclude why an otherwise healthy 29 year-old American male with no risk factors develops an oral cavity cancer.

Anyway, back to the diagnosis -- I also promised myself not to either become the "pity party" guy in the corner OR to become the guy with 10 yellow bracelets on his arms who constantly talks about "Lance" like he's my best friend, or uses the term "survivor" every few minutes in self-reference.

ALL THAT SAID, this does fall under the "significant item" header, and it does offer some learning opportunities for anyone who reads this blog, which I might call roughly synonymous with people interested in concepts for their own sake and the real big picture. I will still blog primarily about little ways in which I see the world here in Lowell and beyond, but will also interject medical and cancer stories in whereas I wouldn't have before.

Here are two thoughts for the moment: (1) Everyone should educate himself/herself to some sort of baseline level to better understand what cancer is, how it affects people, and how the blanket term 'cancer' doesn't mean the same thing for all people who get the dreaded diagnosis. For instance, I had no idea what the five year survival rates were for breast, testicular, and prostate cancer until I started doing my own research. Right off the bat, you should know how different those are from esophygeal, pancreatic, or lung cancers. One, it's just one of those "general education" things that people should sort of *have.* (Like whether the 1st Amendment calls for an explicit "Church and State" separation...that's not a trick question!) Two, it will help you get some proper perspective when someone close to you shares a cancer diagnosis. (2) Everyone should take a brief moment to think about how they might react if they received such a diagnosis, or if someone close to them did. The military calls this some variant of a rock drill and I'm sure that businesses go through similar "what if" exercises. As I said earlier, what might seem *right* should vary based on the inevitable medical questions about staging, metastasis, and tumor location. But here's a huge, huge clue that I think some people who instinctively *get* don't need to be told -- just be empathetic. You might feel shocked, saddened, surprised, or whatever when someone shares a diagnosis with you -- now is not the time to become Confucius, to share your vast medical expertise, or to question the person for deciding to "come out." Now is the time I say three words: I am here.

The means through which you do that -- written words, artwork, music, flowers, humor, or whatever else is entirely between you and the friend or loved one, but the message should be simple enough for even a small child to understand.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rick Sanchez, Jon Stewart, and Minority Status

Now that Rick Sanchez is making all the right apologies and saying all the "right" things, he is angling to get his job back with CNN.

If you haven't been following this one, Sanchez went after "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart during a radio interview, implying that Stewart could not possibly understand how someone like Sanchez, a minority member, felt as an American professional. Sanchez did not stop there, however -- he went on to say that because the people who run media organizations are "culturally similar to Stewart" (read: Jewish) that Stewart had the upper-hand. Sanchez even went further, questioning whether a group of people with disproportionately high education and wealth could be considered an oppressed minority in America.

My first reaction to all this is that I never heard Jon Stewart describe himself as a member of an oppressed American minority group.

My next reaction, though, is to turn some of this back on Sanchez -- as a wealthy, good-looking, light-skinned guy who came to the U.S. at age 2 and speaks unaccented English, just exactly whose boot is on this guy's head? If America is such a terrible place, and the *other* Americans are so out to get him, how did he walk away from drunk driving situation in which he left the scene of an accident and the *other* guy eventually died?

One of my long-term fears for our country is that we're going to allow certain people to write blank checks for self-indulgence and thus stifle all debate and sense of personal responsibility. At some point, no matter what you've gone through -- racial discrimination, accent discrimination, PTSD from a war zone, physical disability, disease, accidents, unemployment/job frustration, divorce/separation, drug addiction, and so on -- it's important that people be empathetic -- but only to a point.

Because from this author's vantage point, there's only so much empathy I can extend to a highly-pampered, vain millionaire with a mediocre level of talent. I *get* that he has overcome difficulties in his life, but that doesn't make him automatically right...or CNN automatically wrong.

If it did, wouldn't that be a little bit condescending? Bringing kid gloves and allowing an automatic *halo* around any figure who can check the right status boxes seems like the furthest thing from equal treatment that I can imagine.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Buying a Ticket

"And these signs shall follow them that believe...they shall speak with new tongues." -- Mark 16:17, King James Bible

"Yo! You best protect your neck." -- RZA

There is an old story/legend/parable about a man who interacts with either God or St. Peter (depends on the version being told), where he wonders why, despite his daily prayers and devotion, God did not let him win the lottery. The punchline is some variant of "You could've met him could've bought a ticket." One version is pasted in here below:

One day Georgios Georgiou prayed, "Good Lord, I just received a notice from the bank that they are going to foreclose on my restaurant if I do not make a payment right away. I do not have the money. Good Lord, you are Greek and I am Greek. Help me to save the restaurant that's been in my family for three generations. Panagitsa, help me when the lottery." Mr. Georgiou did not win. The next week, Georgios prayed again, "Thee mou, didn't you hear me? This is your obedient servant. I must win the lottery to save the restaurant. Please, O Kyrios, help to win the lottery." He didn't win. The bank repossessed the restaurant. In tears, Georgios prayed again, "O Lord, why did you let me down? The restaurant is gone. What am I going to do? Oh, why did You fail me?" Suddenly, a voice came from the clouds, "Georgaki, you could have met Me halfway. You could have bought a lottery ticket."

I've heard it told many times, and I love it for the same reason I love the "Ask, Seek, Knock" message in Matthew 7:7 -- if you believe, as I do, that God created the world and built humans in his image, then you might agree with me on the importance of living in the world as a part of it, rather than apart from it.

I don't write here about my faith often -- maybe because it's personal, or maybe just because it's so automatic that I don't even think to discuss it. But when I do, I should also add that I have faith in many things that I can't necessarily see or touch, but believe in. I have faith in people's basic sense of honesty and decency. I have faith in the orderliness of the society around me. I even place faith in Jim Harbaugh's ability to call plays from the sideline when down in the last minute.

None of those run counter to my faith in the Almighty or my belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. And neither of those runs counter to faith in medical innovations which, within just half a generation's timespan, can change a situation from certain permanent disability to a high probability of full recovery.

If you like to hold dangerous reptiles, speak unintelligible words, walk on coals, or whirl like a dervish, that's your choice. If that's how you express your faith, then so be it.

I'll be okay with the less-dramatic, but far more spectacular, miracles made possible by things that exist in the world around me.

In other words, I'll be the guy making a beeline for the ticket window right after the "Amen" is said and the hands come unclasped.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Defending Niki's Choice

First, I'm no advocate of class warfare. Even more important, I might add, I'm no advocate of class it concerns warfare.

I hadn't heard about the brouhaha concerning Niki Tsongas' ad about her support for veterans until Democratic activist Jack Mitchell mentioned it during lunch today in Wakefield. Apparently, some peoples' hides are chapped that the son of renowned author Doris Kearns Goodwin and presidential advisor Richard Goodwin availed himself of the generous Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits to pay his way through law school.

Two of the chapped hides belong to Independents currently running for the 5th CD.

"One of Tsongas' challengers, Dale Brown, an independent from Chelmsford, said he is a strong supporter of the military, but said Tsongas should have chosen someone else for the advertisement. "I think it would be more acceptable if she would use somebody who did not have quite the resources he might have," Brown said of Goodwin.

Bob Clark of Berlin, a second independent running against Tsongas, said voters have the right to ask questions about the ad.

"We might also want to ask the taxpayers who paid for Mr. Goodwin's education if they are glad they could help," Clark said in a statement. "Many of these taxpayers are currently struggling to pay their bills or even find a job."

The bottom line here is very, very simple. Joseph Goodwin raised his right hand and signed a check that could have been cashed with his life.

Because he did that, he is eligible for the benefits. No ifs, ands, buts, or class warfare rhetoric needed here, thank you very much.


There's nothing in the legislation about who one's parents are, how much one's family takes home in royalties, or where one's ZIP code falls on the prestige scale. As there damn well shouldn't be.

Mr. Goodwin is 32 years old. Who am I, or anyone else, to presume that he receives any form of "Economic Outpatient Care" from his family?

I know I don't. My parents were successful enough to buy a large home in a leafy suburb, send me to great public schools, and pay the lion's share of five years' worth of higher ed. I am deeply grateful for that.

But guess what?

I haven't benefited from any other such transfers in my adult life -- not for a car, house down payment, wedding, or any other milestone. I have never inherited a single dime and I don't stand to ever do so. That might really surprise you, but if you'd like to take me up on the offer, I've got a stack of 1099s and 1040s sitting in a shoebox somewhere.

And guess what else?

I'm applying to full-time MBA programs this fall. I'm on my own financially, so you better believe I'm extremely grateful for everything that the post-9/11 GI Bill stands to offer me.

For the record, I'm also quite grateful for the top-notch health care that I get courtesy of Uncle Sam. I certainly hope Dale Brown and Bob Clark don't think that veterans like Goodwin or myself should be footing the full bill for their medical care, either.

As would a world without the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that wouldn't leave me with too many options!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Vallejo Example

Okay, so now I'm becoming *that guy* that's yelling about this public sector pay issue on all the local blogs. This snippet below is cut-and-pasted from an article about Vallejo, CA:
Blame Vallejo's politics, dominated by public-sector unions, for the city's sorry fiscal situation. “Police and firefighter salaries, pensions and overtime accounted for 74 percent of Vallejo's $80 million general budget, significantly higher than the state average of 60 percent,” reported a 2009 Cato Institute study. The study highlighted a shocking level of enrichment: pay and benefit packages of more than $300,000 a year for police captains and average firefighter compensation packages of $171,000 a year. Pensions are luxurious: regular public employees can retire at age 55 with 81 percent of their final year's pay guaranteed, come hell or a stock-market crash. Police and fire officials in Vallejo, as in much of California, can retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their final year's pay guaranteed, including cost-of-living adjustments for the rest of their lives and the lives of their spouses. And that's before taking advantage of the common pension-spiking schemes that propel payouts even higher.

When a city spends so much taxpayer money on retirees, it doesn't have much left over for services that might actually benefit the public. That's why Vallejo has been slashing police services and has even warned residents to use the 911 system judiciously. “Since 2005, the number of police officers has dropped from 158 to 104,” a San Francisco Chronicle editorial about Vallejo pointed out recently. “In 2008, Vallejo had a higher violent crime rate than any other comparable city in California.” And it isn't just public safety that has suffered. A 2008 Chronicle article reported on a budget plan that “cuts funding for the senior center, youth groups and arts organizations, to the dismay of residents.” Citizens complain about an increasingly decrepit downtown.