Saturday, July 31, 2010

Man of Honor, CAPT Tom Hudner

I traveled down to the other 93 Chelmsford Street (the one actually in Chelmsford) last night with Sam Meas to go see the ribbon-cutting for the office of Sandi Martinez, Republican candidate for 3rd Middlesex State Senate District.

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw a gentleman named Tom, from Concord, there wearing a Medal of Honor. I didn't want to be too over-the-top about wanting to kiss the Blarney Stone, so to speak, but I figured if he's out wearing the MOH in public, it's okay to ask him at least the basics. He told me that he served on an aircraft carrier as a naval pilot during the Korean War. A Google search after I got home brought up his citation:

The President of the United States
in the name of The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the

Medal of Honor



Rank and organization: Lieutenant (j.g.) U.S. Navy, pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, attached to U.S.S. Leyte. Place and date: Chosin Reservoir area of Korea, 4 December 1950. Entered service at: Fall River, Mass. Born: 31 August 1924, Fall River, Mass.


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, while attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose plane struck by antiaircraft fire and trailing smoke, was forced down behind enemy lines. Quickly maneuvering to circle the downed pilot and protect him from enemy troops infesting the area, Lt. (j.g.) Hudner risked his life to save the injured flier who was trapped alive in the burning wreckage. Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing on the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in subzero temperature, he put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free. Unsuccessful in this, he returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames. Lt. (j.g.) Hudner's exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Sam Meas Campaign Office -- Grand Opening Today

Sam Meas, candidate for U.S. Congress, is going to be hosting a grand opening of his campaign office on 93 Chelmsford Street in Lowell today from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

There will be free food, a performance by the Angkor Dance Troupe, some speeches, and other assorted hoopla.

Regardless of your political involvement or leanings, I'd recommend this event as being worth a look.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Drive It Like It's a Rental? Depends How You Mean It

For the past week or so, I've been puttering around in a rented Ford Fusion, picked up from the Enterprise Rent-a-Car near Chelmsford and Lincoln.

I can't wait to return it.

Other than work-related traveling, I've never rented a car before and don't much enjoy the experience.

Even a cursory look at the car I do drive -- which I hope to squeeze a couple hundred thousand more miles out of -- might show you that I don't fret too much about scrapes and dents. My reasoning is simple -- I believe a car is a tool, not an investment.

Having lived and driven around in a few cities, I just expect my car to get dinged up, scratched, etc. If it doesn't affect the way the car drives, I don't much mind -- as proof, just ask the two drivers who have hit me when I was stopped at red lights. Ditto for the interior. My "reverse OCD" makes it hard for me to keep the thing neat, but the bonus for a passenger is that you never have to say you're sorry if you spill your coffee. In fact, you might be high-fived for it and credited for your Jackson Pollack-like artistry on the upholstery.

Not so with a rental.

Just having the rental for this week, my wife and I have both noticed the extra "pucker factor" we feel when wheeling it around the city. That extra feeling of responsibility sort of takes the fun away from wondering if that driver is really going to pull out from her spot on Merrimack into traffic without looking (I was seconds away from a nice low-speed collision just today) or whether someone might get too antsy at the Lord Overpass and scrape the entire side trying to get over to Appleton Street (totally fine if it's my car, but please don't hurt my rental!) Ditto for the interior and the rules for passengers.

Anyway, you get the idea. I've never liked the expression "Drive it like it's a rental," in its traditional sense and I find it makes the most sense when it's spun 180 degrees out.

And one other, unrelated thought -- there was a conversation a while ago on about some of the best "Third Spaces" in Lowell. I wasn't familiar with that expression at the time, but the idea is that most people have a First and Second Space (their home and their office) where they spend most of their time. Your "Third Space" is your primary "go-to" for either relaxing or working that might be a coffee shop, a pub, or wherever else might suit your fancy. An unsung hero among Lowell third spaces might be the Starbucks inside the Target on Plain Street. I know the whole "chain-inside-a-chain" might scare away some coffee shop purists, but in its corner are great hours (8 to 10), access to ample caffeine and food, easy restroom access (unlike some of the Dunkin' Donuts that require you to be buzzed in, which can get frustrating and even embarrassing if you're pounding the espresso shots), a central location for many in the city, and seating options that can either put you in a very central, public spot, or sort of tucked back away from the employees and the rest of the store you're in.

As much as I love Brew'd Awakening as a place to meet up/hang out/read the Globe and Sun, its layout makes it a really tough place to go for someone looking to get knee-deep into serious reading, writing, or business.

As for the Stahhbucks on Plain, it would be very easy to go there in the morning, order a little something to eat or drink, and basically spend your entire day working on your Great American Novel, your resume, your studies, or whatever else you do without anyone really noticing you're there, let alone pressuring you to buy anything or to surrender your real estate.

Oh, and one last note -- I'm fixing to take another "Blog Holiday" for a bit. I'll be back on the 30th and looking forward to falling in on all the old daily routines then.

In the meantime, have a great Folk Festival and, as always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Public Sector Gone Wild

My best wishes today go out to the people of Bell, CA. I hope they can shine a light on this problem and help other cities overturn similar rocks, too.

Hundreds of residents of one of the poorest municipalities in Los Angeles County shouted in protest last night as tensions rose over a report that the city’s manager earns an annual salary of almost $800,000.

An overflow crowd packed a City Council meeting in Bell, a mostly Hispanic city of 38,000 about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, to call for the resignation of Mayor Oscar Hernandez and other city officials. Residents left standing outside the chamber banged on the doors and shouted “fuera,” or “get out” in Spanish.

It was the first council meeting since the Los Angeles Times reported July 15 that Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo earns $787,637 -- with annual 12 percent raises -- and that Bell pays its police chief $457,000, more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck makes in a city of 3.8 million people. Bell council members earn almost $100,000 for part-time work.

City Attorney Edward Lee said the council members couldn’t discuss salaries in public without advance notice. The council then adjourned for a private session. About an hour later, the council members returned, and Hernandez read a statement saying the city would prepare a report on the salaries and seek public comment at the next council meeting, scheduled for Aug. 16.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hey, Who Are Those Guys?

Tonight, I attended a meeting of the Global War Veterans' Alliance over at the Senior Center on 276 Broadway.

The group is an amalgam of post-Vietnam era veterans -- all services, all branches, all theaters, and all Military Occupational Specialties are welcome to join.

Among the present were Bob Page (in an advisory capacity to the group, Army Air Corps from Korea), Dick Howe (Cold War, Europe), Jason Christian (Kosovo, soon-to-be Afghanistan), your author (Western Iraq, soon-to-be Afghanistan), Jack Mitchell (Desert Storm), Thayer Eastman (Army in Desert Storm era), and Jeff Hall (Corpsman who served with Marines in Iraq and elsewhere, in addition to several sea tours).

Also there was Lauriann Deely of the Life Choice Hospice network to talk about volunteer opportunities that might help give vets a chance to talk about their service before passing.

Of course, there is no shortage of veterans' organizations in Greater Lowell, but this one is unique as far as I know in the sense that it draws its membership from veterans of more recent campaigns. I also like the way it doesn't draw any distinctions based on whose unit(s) got called to go where, and when. When you say "any type of uniformed service after Vietnam" you're casting a wide umbrella.

If you're interested in joining or learning more, contact Eric Lamarche at elamarche (at)

As an interesting aside, after the meeting adjourned I headed over to the Bank of America ATM near 6th and Bridge to deposit a bunch of checks...while waiting in line, I overhead some guys speaking an Iraqi dialect of Arabic, so of course I had to ask..."Afwan, intum min Iraq?"

Sure enough, all four were recent arrivals to Centralville (all new enough to have not yet experienced an American winter). One spoke excellent English, and it seemed that all had arrived under the auspices of a State Department program.

When I asked them about life in the States, they all talked about feeling much freer here, with the gist of the story being that under Saddam they were treated like animals, and that since the American invasion in 2003 they felt like they were constantly under threat from sectarian militia groups.

I think we probably could have stood in that spot in front of the ATM booth all night talking about Iraqi culture and politics, but when it was time to pick Ratriey up from work, I left...however, phone numbers were exchanged all around along with offers to drink tea in the near future...I hope to report back in the coming weeks and months with updates on how brand new Iraqi-Americans transition to life here in this city and nation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Crossing Cultures

Cliff Krieger recently blogged about a British custom whereby if a ceremony is going to open the doors at 5:30 p.m. for an actual 7:00 p.m. event., it is advertised as such. He wrote that the British way "takes the guesswork out of things" even if it does not allow for a more casual approach to living.

If by expressing a like for that custom, he meant that he preferred it (I don't want to infer too much or place words in another author's mouth), then I'll say this: I could not agree more.

As someone who entered into a legal marriage just over a week ago, but who had the knots tied (literally) around his wrists on Friday in a traditional Cambodian ceremony prior to a hybrid Eastern-Western style reception Saturday, I've definitely been thinking about balance today.

And in fact, the concept of needing some sort of *balance* is pretty much the one thing that nearly all the recognized Great Works of philosophy and religion have in common. Whether it's the idea of yin and yang, the passages in Ecclesiastes that inspired the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" or the many tenets of Buddhism that call for meditation towards achieving balance and stability, it's in there somewhere.

This is no doubt, an amazing city in an amazing country. Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan be damned, what makes us great is the diversity that has been part of our national fabric since before we were really a defined 'nation.' The diversity that has come since the mid-1960s, which has greatly increased the Asian and Latin American *flavor* of the nation, plays a hugely constructive role in modern America.

And those cultures bring us many great things...which is why we should embrace them.

By and large, we do; and if you really feel that we don't, and you honestly believe that America ranks high on the world's scale for xenophobia, you need to get out and see more of the world.


And then come back and let me know what you think.

All THAT said, there are so many phenomenal things about Khmer culture that I am excited to wholeheartedly embrace -- the emphasis on family, the communal spirit of warmth, the cultural traditions, food, music, dancing, etc. I can embrace those things in a totally non-defensive way: rather than take away from anything else I associate with my identity, I believe they just add to it and make it better. I hope that we have kids someday who feel the same way, and I expect them to spend enough time with grandma to be fluent in Khmer -- not just linguistically, but culturally, too.

But now that all THAT has been said, I think there are some aspects of the traditional Anglo-American culture that I prefer. I, too, value my time as a precious, non-renewable resource and generally appreciate knowing when I can expect things to happen. If someone tells me to hurry up and be somewhere because I absolutely must be ready to leave by 2, and then I end up sitting around on my hands for three hours because we don't really leave until 5, I tend to want those three hours back (and yes, I've learned to always bring a book or magazine in tow to be ready for precisely those situations). Ditto for a dinner, a wedding reception, or anything else. I completely understand the 15-minute leeway rule, but if you and I are meeting up for lunch, my general expectation is that you're at least going to make the effort to be on the way by our mutually agreed-upon time. And I would do the same for you out of respect; maybe this is just the career military officer in me, but at the end of the day, that's what punctuality is really all about -- respect for someone else's time.

I also appreciate our frankness. A friend of mine has a brother who frequently travels to Japan for business. Over there, he is endlessly frustrated by the cultural tradition whereby people are ashamed to say 'no' to a request. As you might imagine, that makes business situations extremely challenging. It's like, if I say, "Can you have a crew of 10 people here in this spot ready to work by tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.?" and you're going to say "Yes" no matter what, how can I really know what you're saying?

Also, something that we take for granted sometime is the way our society teaches us about cause and effect. That may sound so simple as to be a bit ridiculous, but again, expose yourself to enough different ways of thought and you might see why a cause and effect concept is sort of like air, water, or money -- not that important until you feel there's not enough of it around you.

So back to the main idea here -- the ideal we should strive for is to take the aspects we most admire from other cultures, embrace and adopt them, and enrich ourselves and those around us as a result. At the same time, it should be absolutely acceptable to acknowledge that there are elements of our own culture worth holding on to at the same time.

In other words, the street should always have two lanes open for traffic.

I love my wife, I love her family, and I love her culture. I embrace all three strongly, and simultaneously.

But if you and I have lunch plans for 11:00, and I haven't seen or heard from you by 11:15, I'm going to go ahead and order.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bloggers of the Roundtable

Today I had the distinct pleasure of appearing on "City Life," hosted by Mr. John McDonough, with a panel of Cliff Krieger (Right-Side-of-Lowell), Marie Sweeney (, and George Anthes. The fellow bloggers in the peanut gallery were Shawn Ashe (Dracut Forum), Mimi Parseghian (Left in Lowell), Jackie Doherty, Gerry Nutter (Gerry Nutter's Lowell).

I would say we hit most of the topics that you'd expect to come up (role of blogs in society, value of blogs in society, legitimacy of anonymity for bloggers/commenters, distinction between journalists and citizen journalists, etc.) No major surprises there.

I sensed there was some agreement in the room when I talked about the superiority of New Media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter) to Not-as-New Media (e-mail, cellphones) as a way for people to keep in touch. Marie Sweeney talked about running into people who seemed to be fully caught up on her life (Facebook lurkers) and I talked about catching up with old friends with whom I could've sworn I had *lost* contact, but who I found out had been checking in from time to time on this blog to see what I was up to.

I think there's a simple reason for this: To read peoples' Facebook updates and blog posts is passive, whereas e-mailing and phone calling are active, and thus require a higher threshold for motivation. With the ubiquity of smart phones, anyone waiting at a bus stop, the dry cleaner's, stuck in traffic (as passengers, I hope!) is able to quickly *pop in* to Facebook or a blog to give a quick look. That look might only take seconds, but it accomplishes the goal of checking in and it doesn't beg reciprocity. And that's the whole key. Any type of back-and-forth discussion or relationship via e-mail or phone that requires one party to *return the volley* before the other hits back is, just like a rally on a ping-pong table, eventually bound to fail and die out. With blogs and Facebook, no one has that problem. I can sort of check out your new Facebook pics or status updates, you can sort of check out my blog, and the result is that we basically know what the other is doing but without the reciprocity norm and incumbent feeling of guilt when that e-mail that you *meant* to get back to starts getting staler and staler in your inbox...and then you feel sheepish about replying so late at all, so you just delete it.

Another point about New Media, which is one that Dick Howe and many others have made before, is that the idea that online interaction comes at the expense of *real* interaction is, at the end of the day, bogus. In fact, the two can feed off each other quite nicely, and create what a sociologist might call a positive social capital spiral -- I may have first gotten to know you online, it helped break the ice when we talked in person, we can reinforce our connection online (even in simple ways, such as *liking* each others' Facebook statuses), and then we can plan social events together. The beauty of that one is that we can reinforce the bond even when we're not physically co-located. I gave the example of a servicemember on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan posting images of his "meet-and-greets" with village elders in the desert. I now have a better picture (literally) of what he's up to, and it's the first thing we'll talk about when we bump into each other in the states down the road.

Shawn Ashe talked about how people in online communities like to reinforce what they already think as opposed to searching out new thought challenges. There's probably some truth to that in other venues (look at any market data about who watches Fox News) but there's another element to online discussions that merits mention: the way civility can quickly disappear online. Frankly, this is why I find in-person discussions of serious matters FAR more enjoyable. In person, we have tone, we have context, and we have socially conditioned limits as to what we'll say when we disagree with someone, and how. That typically gets lost online. In fact, if you follow things like Lowell Sun Topix or even the more respectable local blogs, you can see that 80%+ of online argumenters resort to ad hominem attacks or gross straw man mischaracterizations of their antagonists' arguments. As a result, I almost never pick fights online. That's not blog-specific: Even in work situations, if I don't like the direction an e-mail thread starts moving in, I reach for the phone. If there's still tension, I go right to the person. Without fail, that extra level of personalization de-escalates whatever little misunderstanding arose between people behind screens who lacked the benefit of tones, body language, and non-verbal cues.

One last point -- EVERYONE in the room agreed that there's information saturation on the Web, and a daily struggle by all of us to sort and prioritize what we can and will make time for. Mimi pointed out that Lowell probably has one of the highest community-themed bloggers-to-residents ratios of any city in the country (Neither of us has stats, but Mimi, I'd back you up on this hunch), and that the bloggers are mutually supportive.

My only advice to anyone getting started in the blogosphere, and hoping to catch hold of some type of audience, is this -- have a niche. At the end of the segment, several of us sang praises for Rob Mills' excellent police blog and for the way Mr. Mill City pulls off the informative-smart-witty trifecta in Daily Show sort of way (you can go there for real news, but you'll still come away laughing). The "food blog" and "the music blog" were also mentioned (and yes, both are way much more than just either of those things). Rodney Elliott and Jackie Doherty are leading the way among the City Council and School Committee, respectively, for blogging. Right-Side-of-Lowell gives you the best international coverage and perspective, while is the best single-source I turn people to who are curious about understanding contemporary or historical Lowell. Gerry Nutter and Left in Lowell serve up a lot of Inside Baseball about city politics that you're not going to get anywhere else. Corey Sciuto brings up some of the best questions about urban design and city planning. LDNA and other neighborhood sites give a hyper-local perspective.

Anyway, you get the idea. The little differences among each of the blogs helps them stand out on their own, and the reader is left to pick and choose as suits his or her tastes.

The blogosphere is an integral part of this city's life, and it ain't going away. It will morph and mature, but as the saying goes, with technology there are only two types of people -- martyrs and zealots.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Al Gore's PR Nightmare

I have no idea what did or didn't happen between Al Gore and a masseuse in an Oregon hotel room in 2006. I wasn't there, I haven't seen all the evidence, and my first inclination is to give the former VP the same benefit of the doubt I'd expect to receive were the proverbial shoe on my foot.

That having been said, someone in the Gore Camp royally screwed this one up...because for someone of Al Gore's wealth, stature, and future earnings potential to be left vulnerable to these sorts of accusations means that the guard was let down precisely when it should not have been.

Al Gore has way too much to lose from something like this, and so do his agents, his PR people, his schedulers, and other associated straphangers and toadies. I'm not going to enter the moral judgement zone here as to what he should or shoudn't do during his free time on the road, but I do think it's a colossal screw-up somewhere along the line if the Big Fella was left alone in a hotel room with any woman besides his wife, regardless of her age, appearance, occupation, or marital status. For someone that powerful, wealthy, and instantly recognizable, I would hope the self-preservation instinct would kick in before he could even leave himself vulnerable to something like this. Ditto for all the people whose livelihoods depend on Mr. Gore's economic success.

When I was a student teacher, one of the first things we learned was to always keep the door open should we ever find ourselves between or after classes with just one student in the room (and to avoid those types of scenarios whenever possible to begin with). As it was explained then, this wasn't necessarily to protect them, but to protect us from someone making a wild claim which, regardless of its accuracy, could tank any of our careers in a heartbeat.

So regardless of whether Al Gore committed any impropriety, he will certainly sustain a hit to his lucrative multimedia "brand," as have Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods.

And from this little corner of the world, it all just seems pretty unnecessary.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

White Space...And the Measure of a Leader

There's an Abraham Lincoln quote that I fell in love with the first time I saw it, inscribed on the back of an OCS class t-shirt in Pensacola, FL.

Here's the quote: "Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

That quote stands on its own as a phenomenal and succinct insight into the character of human beings. The six years of life experience I've had since first seeing it, viewed mainly through the lens of a junior military officer, has only reinforced the signficance of that quote for me. In the spirit of that quote, though, here's my Page Corollary:

"Nearly all men can stay busy from reveille to evening colors with a packed schedule, but if you want to test a man's resourcefulness, fill his schedule with white space."

'White space' here refers to those portions of the training schedule marked as "Sergeant's Time" or "Commander's Time." In other words, there isn't a mandatory training lane, briefing, PT evolution, or anything else specifically marked.

Having just spent 30 straight days down at Camp Edwards for our unit's Annual Training (AT), you can imagine that some of our 720 hours together were marked on our training schedule as, essentially, white space.

Some sections saw opportunity here. Their Non-Commissioned Officers (E-5 and above) and their Officers used the time productively, conducting 'hip-pocket training,' or on-the-fly lessons about their experiences overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo. Others did cultural training for their guys. One section worked on identifying the major terrain features in and around Kabul and creating mini-quizzes to share with the rest of the unit.

Still others just complained about it. You can imagine some of the laments, "What the f**k is this -- the Guard sent us down here for 30 days and we're just sitting around holding our [sensitive items.]" "How stupid is this? We had three hours of white space this afternoon and now the whole brigade has a mandatory briefing at 1830? What cheese brain monkey-ass planned this?" And so on and so on. You could pretty much fill in the rest of the complaints as a sort of AT Mad Libs, appropriately sprinkling on adolescent references to male anatomy and/or the private parts of popular zoo animals.

Even after AT ended, I still heard someone fairly senior making these sort of complaints.

What I told him -- and believe me when I say this was not what he wanted to hear -- was that if he's going to wear that rank and then complain, he's part of the problem and not the solution.

"Do all your Soldiers already know everything they need to know from the Manual of Common Tasks?"


"Then why didn't you take advantage of that white space and use it constructively?"

"Uhh...uhh...well, sir, that's not my job."

The conversation didn't get any better from there, but if you've read this far, I think you get the idea. It's just way too easy of a copout to piss away your available time by letting your guys just go off on their own or hide out in their racks watching movies, and then blame your leadership for the fact that the schedule isn't dense enough.

I don't think Infantry units have as much of a problem with this, because they have a more intuitive grasp of the idea that there's always something to be doing, and yes, it is always a matter of life and death. I got to spend three days living with two of the Infantry battalions and it was like night-and-day coming from a top-heavy Brigade staff (future entries and cool pics coming later, I promise).

In the meantime, I vow to continue making tactful but pointed corrections of anyone above the rank of Private or Specialist who moans and groans about downtime or "white space" during drill weekends and unit training evolutions.

There's always something that can be done.

So get to doing it.

Because somewhere, an impressionable Private or Specialist may be listening to you.

And your attitude may be more contagious than you realize.

Monday, July 5, 2010

July 4th on the 5th in Chelmsford

I marched today along with fellow Sam Meas supporters, to include one other local blogger, in the Independence Day Parade in Chelmsford (in the photo, Sam is the guy on the left, and his Campaign Manager, Jack Roy, is the guy on the right).

Despite the triple-digit heat and sweltering humidity, there was still a great turnout from residents who either set up on their own front lawns, the sidewalks, or in the downtown towards the end of the route.

There were several political candidates and movements represented. Of note, Representative James Arciero (D, 2nd Middlesex) had a sizable entourage of young people sporting his t-shirts, as did Rep. Paul Loscocco (R, 8th Middlesex), who had about a dozen youngish-looking people with black t-shirts and an amateurish "Loco for Loscocco" sign on their vehicle. Loscocco is the running mate to Tim Cahill (I?, Quincy).

Because most of the political entourages featured mainly retired volunteers, the candidate's relatives, and/or hired staff, this begged an interesting question -- just who were those flocks of young'uns?

My guess is that the considerable entourages surrounding a Statehouse member running unopposed and for the running mate in a sinking statewide race were probably made up of summer interns and/or their friends. In any case, the question made for some interesting post-parade speculation over lunch, but the easier thing to do at the time would probably have been to just ask.