A month in the country

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from August, 2013.

For the first time since I was 18 years old, I have spent a month in the country.

And what a beautiful country it is. Fifty shades of green complimented by the bluest sky ever. Puffy clouds ranging from gray to bright white. Dozens of goldfinches, which my father-in-law called “cornfield canaries,” soar around with their undulating flight.

Grass won’t grow beneath the dense hemlocks, but their gray-green needles are still intact. The ash tree sprawls over the perennial beds, shading them, but not too much. Acorns fall on your head as you walk through an oak forest, but it is not yet clear that it will be a mast year. The maples are at least 100 years old, gnarled, rutted and pitted, their trunks sometimes looking like old faces. No one taps them for syrup, but a farmer down the road has lined his woods with bright blue plastic tubes that deliver sap from hundreds of trees. The pines tower over everything.

The town beach is Scobie Pond, sometimes called Haunted Lake. The water looks like tea and tastes like leaves when you swim in it. Sometimes minnows or snakes glide by, giving everyone a thrill.

This is not Disney World, a mall or anything that reeks of corporate, homogenized America. It’s called the simple life, but there is nothing simple about it.

Instead this is profound New England, much like “la France profonde,” the phrase that calls up a place’s truest, deepest culture. People have had to work hard to make the land the “simple” place it is. Dozens of stone walls, piled up by 18th or 19th century farmers, run deep into the woods, where ancient apple tree remains can be found. An old pine stands thick, reaching out with many large branches, signaling that this was once a cleared field, probably used for grazing. Out in the woods, sometimes an old cellar hole becomes obvious. The first Europeans who settled here endured a physically demanding life, not like me whose biggest exertion is hiking up a mountain or weeding the garden.

This is a land of my ancestors—some of them. This is the land they left to find a longer growing season, deeper soil, fewer rocks in the field, a better life. They ended up in the Midwest, as did so many other New England farmers, carrying with them New England names. The Peabody Coal Company was down the road from the farm I grew up on. Its founder lived in Chicago, but his mother and father came from Maine and New Hampshire. Now I’m back, grateful for the early settlers’ efforts.

Autumn is the season for which New England is known, but I’d argue that for New Englanders, summer is the high point. We increasingly have hot days, but many are cool and refreshing. We have enough rain most summers to keep the grass green and the gardens producing.

Painters from the gnarled ocean side of Maine to the green hills of the Berkshires have celebrated summer. Edith Wharton wrote a book with that season’s title, and she did not write books with titles of the other seasons. Summer is the season of Shakespeare’s plays performed outside, music played in tents and parks, of overdosing on sweet corn, pesto, and gazpacho because in a couple of months those treats that are at their best in August will be gone.

There are still blueberries at the top of mountains. Tiny wild dianthus grows among the grasses in the meadow, at times making it glow in vivid pink. Michaelmas daisies have popped out along the edges of the walls and the lanes.

Beavers are in the marsh. Leeches, bullfrogs and big snapping turtles are there too, scaring and delighting the children. Warblers, cedar waxwings and sparrows I have a hard time identifying lurk in the shrubs, making binoculars more important than a frying pan. Deer peek out of the forest. Flocks of turkeys strut across the lawn and balance on the stone walls.        It’s as busy as a street in downtown Boston.

There are dangers here. Bears and fisher cats pose risks to pets. Global warming has caused the hemlocks to be vulnerable to the wooly adelgid. The ash borer is creeping up this way. The spruce budworm has again done in some of the spruce, and the maples and oaks have potential problems too.

But I know we are lucky to be able to spend this month in the country, and I don’t take it for granted. It’s not Syria or other fragile countries in Africa and the middle east, where the world has gone crazy. It is a place of beauty and peace. I hope it stays this way forever.


Jaywalking is safest

Karen is on a break.

We’ve not heard much about this bill since last winter. But jaywalking is still a Bostonian’s best bet.

 It gladdened my heart last week to read that state Senator Harriette Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester and the Senate Majority Leader, proposed raising the fine for jaywalking from $1 to $25 for a first offense up to $75 for third offenses and more. She thinks this will save lives.

I was delighted for two reasons. First, it’s fun to watch when people try to solve a problem with an ineffective solution.

Also, the senator’s proposal gives me the chance to celebrate jaywalking as the Boston pedestrians’ only way to get across a street.

Let’s look at facts. Massachusetts saw 11 pedestrian deaths between January 4 and January 26, according to WalkBoston. Eight were caused by drivers, not pedestrians. Four of the victims were in a crosswalk, but the drivers hit them anyway. One driver was drunk. Three drivers hit and ran. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of WalkBoston because I care about this stuff.)

Eight fatalities occurred after dark. Older pedestrians were more at risk: seven were over 60.

The irony is that Sen. Chandler would be increasing the fine on the best way to stay safe. Studies in San Francisco, New York City and Florida have determined that jaywalking is safer than crossing in a crosswalk.

In May, 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks vindicated Boston pedestrians when he wrote that people take more risks when they believe systems or devices are in place to protect them. “[Pedestrians] have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways,” he wrote.

Despite the recent tragedies, Boston’s jaywalkers still make this city the second safest for pedestrians in America. Transportation for America, an organization devoted to expanding transportation options, quantified the most dangerous places for pedestrians. In 50 metro areas of more than 1 million, Minneapolis-St. Paul was safest, but Boston was second.

This is despite the fact that more Boston-area residents (4.6 percent) walk to work than in any American city except New York (6 percent). New York was also safer for pedestrians, with a ranking just under Boston’s.

Putting safety aside, jaywalking is the reasonable option when pedestrians face the challenges the city’s transportation officials put in their way.

The city has installed push buttons at every crosswalk so cars are not inconvenienced if no one is waiting to cross. We doubt that the buttons work since we know how badly the city maintains anything. So we are forced to take matters into our own hands.

Most cities use buttons at crosswalks where few pedestrians turn up. Here, at all times of day, there are as many pedestrians as cars at most intersections. We always need a walk cycle. Take out the buttons, and spend the savings on pre-kindergarten.

Another problem is that even if we get a walk cycle, it is not concurrent with traffic going in the same direction, as it is in every other American city. Maybe those officials don’t want us to slow down the drivers who are turning.

Law-abiding tourists are stuck and confused. You watch them stand on a corner, waiting and waiting for the little white man, wondering why Bostonians are paying no attention.

The next problem is the time walkers are given to cross a street. We might get 18 seconds at a Cambridge Street intersection, while Washington D.C. pedestrians get 47 seconds on a street of a comparable size. (It is nerdy to measure such things, but I do it.)

It is ironic in “America’s Walking City” that city officials are so behind the times in making it more convenient and safer for walkers.         Cambridge and Chicago have instituted a “leading pedestrian interval” at some intersections. Pedestrians get a few seconds head start in crossing the street before the light turns green for cars heading in the same direction. Turning cars are more likely to see pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk.

Finally, drivers should be fined for blasting through un-signaled crosswalks when a person has already started to cross. California drivers on even the busiest roads stop if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. In Boston, where drivers seem oblivious, a sign helps.

Mayor Walsh has a plan for making our streets safer with his Vision Zero Task Force. It has identified some of the most dangerous locations and made plans to make them safer. His plea for drivers to slow down won’t make a difference. But his plan for speed bumps and raised crosswalks in some neighborhoods is an excellent start, since high speed is the greatest factor in pedestrian deaths.

Making laws and the right of way tougher on cars is the way to go, not blaming the victims.

Meanwhile, I called Ms. Chandler’s office to see how things are going. Haven’t heard back yet.

Scandal: city councilors took trips

Karen is on a break.

Since this is a season for vacations and trips, this column, which ran last fall, is pertinent.

 Since this is election week, it seems appropriate to consider recent news about our city councilors. They have enjoyed overseas trips—Israel, Japan, Korea and Taiwan were mentioned.

Josh Zakim, Tito Jackson and Tim McCarthy met important local officials in Israel and also had a chance to “bathe in the relaxing and healthy sulfur springs at the Mineral Beach and float in the Dead Sea,” according to a Boston Globe news report. Matt O’Malley and Michelle Wu were also fingered as visiting foreign countries.

The report listed who paid for the trips. It wasn’t taxpayer money, heaven forbid. It was the Jewish Community Relations Council, the councilors’ campaign committees, the Taekwondo Foundation, Taipei’s Economic and Cultural Office in New York, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, the Japan Center for International Exchange and a US State Department grant. Pretty benign stuff.

So the question is: should city councilors take foreign trips?


Furthermore, I’d like to see more public officials going abroad. Overseas trips ought to be a requirement of heads of departments at all levels of government. They need to see what the rest of the world is doing. In a small city up in the corner of a big country, Bostonians can get parochial awfully quickly.

It’s not just Bostonians who think they know it all. Too many Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world. In this island nation that borders on only two countries and two wide oceans, most of us have little experience outside the continent. American “exceptionalism” appears to mean we don’t have anything to learn from anyone else. Such attitudes hold us back. We stagnate. We don’t have a clue because we never leave home.

In 2014, for example, only six percent of Americans took a trip overseas, according to the US Department of Commerce. If you count Canada and Mexico, the percentage rises to seven. The second most frequented location was the Caribbean, probably meaning a resort or a cruise. I doubt we can count those trips as foreign.

Even fewer Americans probably travel abroad than the percentages indicate because some trips are taken by the same person more than once during the year.

It’s too expensive for many Americans to travel abroad since 43 percent of us don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes, says businessinsider.com. We’re a poor nation.

Our work lives are also a barrier since Americans typically get less vacation time than the rest of the world.

Never leaving the US means we never learn that Turkey has fabulous highways —Turkey?—or that London and Paris have nailed public transit, or that congested Rome has increased business prosperity by banning cars from many historic streets.

Isolated here, we don’t learn that other countries build more affordable housing or have better mobile phone service. Staying here, watching the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants, some Americans fear the English language is vanishing. Those worriers need to go to Indonesia to see signs in English posted next to those in the native language. Trips abroad would reassure them that English is alive and well throughout the world.

So here’s my plan. City councilors, keep taking those trips so you can learn how foreign cities solve their problems. And let’s extend those benefits to other public employees.

Let’s send Boston Public Works Commissioner Mike Dennehy to Berlin and Istanbul to learn how those cities keep clean.

Let’s get MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola and the new MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board over to London to see how a real public transportation system works.

Transport for London, for example, has tunneled 13 miles under that city to build the Crossrail line, connecting 40 rail and underground stations on a route that will ease congestion and enable riders to get to their destinations faster. Compare that effort to plodding Boston, which can’t manage to bore only one and a half miles of tunnel to connect North and South Stations.

While we’re at it, let’s get Mayor Walsh over to London. After his election, he took a well-deserved victory lap in the country of his ancestors. But when London’s mayor came to Boston, there were rumors Marty stiffed him. Who knows if it’s true. To get along in America, it helps to shed old country attitudes. Besides, Marty needs to see London’s traffic congestion pricing at work. And since one of his goals is to keep Bostonians happy, he should go on to Copenhagen, home of the world’s happiest people.

So if you are a public employee and you want to see how others do the job you’ve been handed, see me. I’ll go to bat for you if reporters get on your case.

When should a building be landmarked?

Karen is on a break.

This subject continues to be important. Recently the Boston Landmarks Commission voted to study whether this commercial artifact should be given landmark status. For some people, it’s only a sign. Others believe it gives Boston a sense of place. In any case, the results of the study should be interesting.

 Mayor Walsh wants to illuminate Boston City Hall, which opened in 1969. William Rawn’s redesign of architect Philip Johnson’s 1971 addition to the Boston Public Library is coming to fruition.

These two events bring home the complications of deciding what architecture to preserve in a history-obsessed city.

These buildings have commonalities. They are public, built with taxpayers’ money at about the same time. They both employ the Brutalism style, although the Johnson building uses granite, not concrete. Architects and architectural historians appreciate them. The public mostly detests them.

The Johnson building was landmarked by the Boston Landmarks Commission in 2000. Landmarks oversees Boston’s historic districts, imposes demolition delays on historic structures, and designates buildings as landmarks, according to chair Lynn Smiledge. In the Johnson building’s case, this means the commission must approve changes to its exterior, entry hall and the voluminous staircase atrium.

City Hall is not landmarked. When the mayor wanted to illuminate it, however, he had to obtain Landmarks’ approval because the building’s landmark status is “pending.” In 2007, several residents, including Douglass Shand-Tucci, Sue Prindle, and Friends of the Public Garden founder Henry Lee, submitted a petition to landmark City Hall. The next step would be for Landmarks to commission a study describing the building’s architectural and historic importance to the city and to the state, region or nation. That study was not undertaken.

“There has been a drum beat against mid-century modernism,” said architectural historian Keith Morgan, a professor at Boston University. Morgan believes City Hall’s poor condition is a reason the public doesn’t warm to it. He was one of several individuals who urged Landmarks to move forward with the City Hall study.

“City Hall is clearly of landmark quality,” he said. “It’s the exceptional nature of its design and its historic significance. It was the building that reversed Boston’s downward spiral. We owe it a debt of gratitude.”

Such exhortations have fallen on deaf ears. Lauren Zingarelli, Director of Communications and Community Engagement in the Mayor’s Office of Environment, Energy, and Open Space explained it this way:

“Each year the BLC Work Plan prioritizes two or three study reports for pending landmarks,” she said. “These priorities are based on available funding, owner support and perceived threat.”

With little “owner” support—i.e. two mayors—and threats to the building proposed only by them, Landmarks probably saw few benefits from moving forward on City Hall.

The Johnson building’s story is different. Both library buildings were designated at the same time. They were not threatened. No one would probably object to landmarking the 1895 McKim building that faces Copley Square.

But the Johnson building’s architectural significance is unclear. The report said, “The Johnson addition looks reverently to the McKim building for several of its architectural guiding principles and yet utterly disregards it many ways . . . The starkness of the Johnson addition continues the refined grandeur of the McKim without competing with its visual richness. The disdain for the human scale evident in the Johnson design, however, undercuts the effectiveness of utilizing classical principles in its arrangement and renders its academic ideal lifeless.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of architectural significance.

The Johnson building’s historic significance is also dubious.

The report said it shows how “library philosophy” has changed. For example, open stacks were the norm in the mid-20th century as they had not been in the 1800s. Perhaps that can be construed as history.

The report dwells on Philip Johnson’s importance as a scholar, a taste-maker, and a person whose “sympathy with the Beaux-Arts . . . [gives] his work an altogether more serious character.”

The Kardashians are taste-makers too. It’s hard to see Johnson’s sympathy with the Beaux-Arts in any of his buildings except maybe in symmetry.

Keith Morgan pushed back on me. Johnson and others like him had a profound influence on other architects, he said. That is important.

These buildings’ stories leave one feeling that landmarking, like much of human endeavor, is fraught with subjective feelings despite the principles in place.

Questions still need to be answered.

  • Should a certain amount of time pass before a building is considered for landmarking—say 50 years? The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s original “palace” and its 2012 Renzo Piano addition were landmarked in 2011, before the addition was finished. The addition is fine, but is this another case of a celebrity architect trumping a measured judgment of how a building works with the city over time?
  • To what extent should the public’s affection for a building affect landmarking? Victorian buildings we now appreciate were dismissed by some 20th-century critics as vulgar. A future example could be the Hurley Building and its mental health facility, the Lindemann Center, on Cambridge Street. Keith Morgan praises its sculptural quality, but its unpleasant relationship to the street, even without the temporary, dirty steel fences around it, makes pedestrians want to walk on the other side. Its maker was celebrity architect Paul Rudolph.
  • To what extent should materials be considered? We’ve learned that concrete ages poorly, and it’s not only because the public concrete buildings have been left to rot.
  • Can we consider how a building contributes to a sense of place, a sense of Boston? The old Shreve, Crump and Low building at the corner of Boylston and Arlington did not receive landmark status and sits empty, destined for demolition. Its removal will affect the sense of early 20th-century Boston within a whole block.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I hope more regular citizens get involved in these matters so we can hash them out.

Donald O’Trump

Karen is on a break.

This column was published last fall. Things haven’t changed except that Donald is now the Republican nominee. But only a few weeks ago The New York Times reported he wouldn’t rule out quitting shortly after he was elected, if he did win. So I’m thinking he still is running partly to entertain himself. But who knows. Meanwhile I’ll still enjoy the ride. But by October? Not so much.

It started when the nine-year-old in our family misheard Donald Trump’s name and called him, with disgust and outrage, Donald O’Trump. She hasn’t been the only one disgusted and outraged. Globe columnists, Times columnists, television commentators have been spewing disbelief, abhorrence, indignation and revulsion. They parse his “policies” as if they actually mean something.

At some point, I started laughing. These people are so steamed up. They’re taking Donald O’Trump seriously.

I’ve got news for them. He’s spoofing. He’s taking us for a ride. He’s making fun of the Republican candidates, mocking them. He’s exposing the hard-core Republican electorate for what it is. He’s trumped us, and he’s laughing all the way to the primary. Calling him O’Trump is my way of honoring the half-aware guise he has taken on.

His modus operandi, perhaps unconsciously, has been to take Republicans’ prejudices and perversions to the max. Consider immigration. A couple of years ago US Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, said, “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s [sic] another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds, and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

No one in O’Trump’s party called out King for that remark, and there was little comment from the Republican presidential candidates when Trump accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals. They finally pushed back only when Trump demeaned Sen. John McCain’s war record—a suspect reaction since some of those same people had no trouble demeaning John Kerry’s war record in 2004. Criticizing immigrants pushed up O’Trump’s poll numbers, and mocking McCain didn’t hurt him.

Women? There is another topic that could get Trump in trouble but hasn’t. He has taken the insulting attitudes toward women displayed by several of the candidates and simply exaggerated them. Some of the Republican presidential-hopefuls have fought vigorously to restrict contraception and abortion, apparently believing American women’s only task is reproduction, which they can’t manage without government interference. Trump’s put-down of Megyn Kelly is no different from the insulting attitudes toward women displayed by such women-demeaners as Rick Santorum and his fellow travelers.

I haven’t the imagination to come up with the future shenanigans O’Trump is capable of.

That’s because he doesn’t know himself. He’s having a good time. He loves getting people steamed up. I suspect several of the Republican presidential candidates didn’t give him enough respect in the past year or two, so his “candidacy” might have been sparked by a bit of revenge on his part.

Now however, it’s just fun. He has nothing to lose. He was bored with his life—he’s made plenty of money and his empire is led by others who are able, so he had little to do. He might not have expected to be so popular when he got into the race, but now he’s enjoying a little payback along with causing a jolt to the system.

He signed a pledge to support the Republican candidate. But can’t you just imagine some candidate annoying him enough to cause him to renege on that promise?

Does O’Trump really want to be president? Doubtful. It’s a serious job and hard. But being a candidate is not hard or serious—just look at the Republican presidential candidates, of which only two, maybe three, are actual grown-ups. O’Trump is taking a cue from them and ramping it up.

Some in my family say O’Trump is not smart or ironic enough to invent such a plan. My answer is that it doesn’t take much intelligence. It takes only a need for distraction and fun. His “campaign” is not carefully crafted, but for his purposes it doesn’t need to be.

I don’t know how long O’Trump will be entertained by his public venture. I don’t know how long enough of the public will support him. I don’t know what his exit strategy will be. But the long campaign was boring even for a political junkie like me. With O’Trump causing fury everywhere, I’m just going to enjoy the ride.