Good books for gift giving

It’s December. Time for a holiday gift book roundup. Two recommendations are the works of Massachusetts authors whose books, no matter what the titles, are really about relationships.

No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults, published by John Wiley & Sons, is downtown Boston author John Spooner’s follow-up to No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Letters to My Grandchildren.

Spooner’s day job is investment advisor. He has also written magazine and newspaper articles, a couple of novels, and a series of financial advice books over a long writing career.

This latest book is aimed at men and women just beginning their careers—the 22 to 32 year-olds who are more often associated with social media, technology and start-ups that capitalize on social media and technology.

But Spooner’s book has little to do with these millennial activities. Although its title explains that he will address money matters, the advice is not much about money either.

Instead Spooner advises young adults to cultivate good relationships, make time to listen to other people’s stories and operate with optimism. It’s all about a good life, rich in friends, family, co-workers, and the stable of helpers—doctors, lawyers, plumbers, car valets and waiters—who help you get through both good and bad times.

This is a personal book. He describes the loss of his beloved wife of 45 years to cancer, the loss of his father with whom he tussled as well as held dear, and the pleasure of spending time and getting advice himself from old camp friends, college roommates and new people he meets in activities he forces himself to participate in, even when he doesn’t want to be bothered.

Some of his stories, especially about lawyers, journalists and IRS agents, descend into stereotypes that are a bit curmudgeonly and surely don’t reflect his total experience, given what a good outlook he usually has. But these clichés also add to the reader’s understanding of the author—he has his prejudices too, like everyone else.

Moreover, the advice he gives is good not only for young adults but for older ones too. My favorites are about buying jewelry—don’t expect it to appreciate because it won’t. And join clubs early in your career before you make enemies—you will make enemies if you are doing your job, he says—and before those enemies can blackball you.

Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small is my second recommendation for holiday gift giving. Fadiman lives in Whately, Massachusetts, in the Pioneer Valley, with her husband, author George Howe Colt. This is not a new book. It was published in 2007. But that is a trouble with books—if you missed the review or you don’t have a reliable librarian or friend with good recommendations, you might never hear of the book again.

In this book of essays you will learn about the author’s marital bed, her fascination with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 17th century mail service in London, ice cream, catching butterflies and her family’s move from Manhattan to western Massachusetts. The author’s brother, their parents, her husband and their children appear again and again in a loving way.

She has the gift all writers want: her writing is so good that before you know it you are as interested in the minutia and trivia of a strange topic as she is. You can’t put the book down because each sentence about flag raising or the Arctic is so well crafted that a reader just keeps reading, as if he or she were sailing through the atmosphere in a glider.

Spooner’s book and Fadiman’s have commonalities. Even though short, Spooner’s book has an index, which is a nice touch. Fadiman’s has a list of sources from which she has quoted.

And they can be read in short intervals. So they could be part of an outdoor library in a park, lying on a shelf in a bathroom or placed beside a guest bed for a little literary pick-me-up before a good sleep.

Happy holiday shopping.


Giving thanks

You will probably be sitting around a table soon telling friends and family what you are thankful for.

We think about the big things—those friends and family members, the good food, good health, a satisfying job. We can easily forget other enjoyments, amenities and endeavors that enrich our lives.

I’m here to remind you of such enrichments.

For example, give thanks for the new 311. Punch that into your phone, and City Hall answers. You can report a missed trash bag, a street light that is out or a dangerous pothole. 311 is not 911, which is for emergencies. 311, though, keeps all those little city pieces functioning.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, let’s thank the trash pickup. It works. The trucks are clean considering what they handle. They come when they say they will. The guys are pretty neat in the pickup. What they leave behind is mostly the fault of lazy residents who deposit their trash the night before, leaving 12 dark hours for the rats to chew through the bags and strew the contents all over the sidewalk.

This is the time of year to be thankful for winterberry, that native New England holly flashing its bunched, small, neon-red fruits in the region’s marshes right now. Birds gobble up the drupes by mid-December when these shrubs become indistinguishable from the other bare branches you can see. Wade into the wetlands and harvest the berries, or buy them at florist shops. But be wary of poking them into your window box. The birds will swoop in for a feast, and you will be left with bare sticks.

I’m thankful for New England churches, not necessarily for their religion but for their architecture. Every small town has one marking its center, many built before the separation of church and state. Along with Cape Cod, Federal and Greek Revival-style houses, they create a sense of place that few other American regions can match. They embody Louis Sullivan’s directive that “form follows function.”

It is too bad Walter Gropius hadn’t seen them when he began his career in Germany, since their simple shapes, balanced features, clear volumes and modest ornamentation anticipated his theories by more than a century. Some Bauhaus or International Style buildings are fine, but those old Congregational churches comprise some of the world’s best simple architecture.

We also should thank the Registry of Motor Vehicles this year for not sweating the small stuff. It finally allowed Lindsay Miller to wear a spaghetti strainer on her head for her driver’s license photo. According to a report in the Boston Globe, Miller calls herself a “Pastafarian”—a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who, its followers say, might have created the world. While we’re at it, let’s be thankful for yet another religion based on magic and improbabilities. Whatever spins your dial, as one might say.

We should also be thankful for Police Commissioner William Evans. He won’t remember me, but I met him at Back Bay neighborhood meetings when he was District 4’s captain. He was straightforward, unruffled, sensible and articulate about policing matters. When he talks, as he did recently telling Bostonians the police were beefing up security at certain venues in response to the Paris mayhem, he commands respect and admiration. Lucky Bostonians.

We should be thankful for our parks, especially the newest one. The Greenway has come into its own, with trees, shrubs and perennials maturing nicely, a staff that calms neighbors rather than inflaming them, and lovable activities, attractions and art we.

I was skeptical about the airborne Echelman sculpture, since her similar works had appeared many times elsewhere. I was afraid it would be like those dreadful cows that surfaced in every city.

I was wrong. The aerial sculpture was fabulous. We should thank the owners of the buildings at 125 High Street, International Place and the Intercontinental Hotel, from which it hung, for being good sports.

Finally, we should give thanks for musicians. The night after President Kennedy was murdered, Leonard Bernstein assembled the New York Philharmonic for a television performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The music didn’t change the tragedy, but it reminded listeners that civilization’s beauty is bigger than some creepy guy with a gun.

After the massacres on November 13, a pianist set up his grand piano on a Paris street and played Imagine, confirming that the Beatles have made it into the classical musical canon.

It didn’t change things either, but the performance reminded listeners that there is a better world out there than eight pathetic murderers.

Christmas thanks

A tree is being cut down today in Nova Scotia with great fanfare. Soon it will travel by flat-bed truck to the Boston Common, where it will be erected, decorated and loved. Similar trees have occupied the Common or the Pru yearly since 1971.

A tribute to Americans’ Christian holiday, the tree’s journey is mostly because of a Jewish man, Abraham Ratshesky. This blending of countries and cultures is fitting at a time of year in which we should all be celebrating everyone’s way of marking the winter solstice.

Abraham Ratshesky was a co-founder of Boston’s U.S. Trust Company, a founder of Beth Israel Hospital and a Back Bay resident. He was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to serve as minister to what was then called Czecho-Slovakia. He still has family in the area. His great-nephew Alan Morse lives in Brookline.

In 1917 America and Canada were at war with Germany. Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the closest North American port to Europe, so it was busy.

Early in the morning of December 6, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel McCall received a short telegram. Something terrible had happened in Halifax, though it was unclear what that thing was, according to the Nova Scotian author Blair Beed. A Halifax survivor had run three miles to the only operating telegraph station to send the cryptic message.

Bostonians later pieced together the story. A few days earlier the French ship, the SS Mont Blanc, had been loaded with war munitions in New York. It stopped in Halifax in open ocean on December 5 because the port’s submarine nets had been lowered for the night, blocking the harbor. Early the next morning the ship proceeded through a narrow strait to the inner harbor while the Norwegian steamer, the SS Imo, loaded with relief supplies destined for Belgium, was leaving.

A tugboat impeded the Imo’s path, and in trying to get back on course, the steamer rammed the Mont Blanc. A small fire erupted on the Mont Blanc, and the crew abandoned ship.

As the Mont Blanc sloshed toward a pier, the fire grew, and the munitions exploded with such force that the ship’s anchor shaft was found three miles away.

It wasn’t just fire that destroyed the town. A blast wave tore down houses and tore up people, and a tidal wave drowned them.

Throughout that first day Gov. McCall tried through downed lines to reach Halifax by phone or telegram. When he couldn’t, he acted anyway. He commissioned Abraham Ratshesky to leave by train to do whatever needed to be done. Through a blizzard Ratshesky led a group of rescuers—doctors, nurses, Red Cross officials, railroad officials and journalists—without knowing what they would face. That train arrived on December 8 at 7 a.m. It was the first major help Halifax got.

When Ratshesky arrived, he found a city with neighborhoods completely destroyed. His entourage was met by Mr. C. A. Hayes, the general manager of the Canadian Government Railways, whose trains couldn’t get through from the west. When Mr. Hayes saw the Americans, he burst into tears. It was later estimated that more than 2,000 people died.

Ratshesky set up hospitals, organized a food supply, arranged for housing, and generally got things going. The people of Boston came through too. On the first day they learned what happened, Bostonians raised $100,000 for Halifax’s relief. That was at a time when $12 a week was the prevailing wage.

Massachusetts automobile dealers sent $25,000 worth of trucks, ten chauffeurs and gasoline. The state sent horses and carts, four ambulances and x-ray machines. Soon other American cities were sending help, but Boston, with a quick-thinking governor, an able organizer and the closest proximity, got there first. The help lasted for several years.

Ratshesky was able to leave by December 13 but the Red Cross stayed until January 5, 1918. When Gov. McCall finally paid a visit, he was honored with a degree from Dalhousie University, and a temporary housing block was named after him.

At Christmas in 1918, Halifax sent Boston a tree in gratitude for the city’s help. In 1971, the county’s Christmas tree producers revived the gift, and now Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources annually selects a spruce or fir from someone’s yard or field for shipment. The owner is asked to donate the tree, and the answer is usually a resounding “yes.”

The Boston Parks Department is responsible for the tree on this end. Ryan Woods, that department’s director of external affairs, said he spends most of the fall dealing with logistics around the event.

The tree arrives the Friday before Thanksgiving and is illuminated with celebration on December 3.

Nova Scotian poet Clark Hall long ago penned this acknowledgement of the help Bostonians gave to Haligonians:


When good old Boston heard the news,

She answered like a flash,

And sent us food and clothing

Likewise men and cash.


As soon as they received the news,

Without the least delay,

They got their cars in readiness

And started on their way.


God Bless our neighbours to the South,

God Bless them one and all

Who responded so magnificently

To humanity’s urgent call.


Where’er that spangled banner floats,

On water or on land,

You’ll always find them ready

To reach out a helping hand.


They sent us their trained nurses

With a brotherly, Christian will,

And in the medical line, the best

Of Massachusetts’ skill.


They attended to our cuts and torn

In an earnest, faithful manner,

Those ministering angels in our midst,

From beneath that starry banner.


We never shall forget them

Till we go to our grave.

And may the flag of freedom

Forever o’er them wave.

Reducing your carbon footprint

Let’s pretend. It is 2024. Senate bill 1747, An Act Combating Climate Change, passed the Massachusetts legislature and was signed by the governor in 2017. The bill made Massachusetts a leader in combating carbon emissions.

A couple who lives in downtown Boston spent $419.61 on natural gas fuel for heat and hot water in April of that year. That is about average for them for a month, since during winter they need more heat and, in warmer months, only hot water.

The bill for their fuel, however, is a bit higher. They also pay a carbon fee—$40 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide their fuel emits. In their case, for April, that amount is 1.65 metric tons of carbon dioxide, triggering a fee of $66. So their April bill is actually $485.61. Over 12 months, their household natural gas will emit over 11 metric tons of carbon dioxide, increasing their annual fuel bill by $446. That’s a lot of money for heat and hot water.

The couple doesn’t drive much because they live downtown, so their one car guzzled only 35.8 gallons of gasoline in March. Ordinarily they would have paid $2.41 per gallon at the pump, totaling $86.26. Again, this is about average for them.

But it is year seven after An Act Combating Climate Change passed. So for gasoline that month, they’ll pay an extra fee of 36 cents per gallon or $12.89, calculated at .009 metric tons per gallon, for the carbon dioxide their car emits. Yearly, the fee would cost them approximately $150.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Under this act, each person in their household will receive a rebate of $225. They will still be out of pocket for $146—money they’d like to save.

The obvious place for this couple to save money is not with their car—they don’t use it that much. But their heating and hot water bill is on the high side. They’ll figure out some way to save on heating costs, perhaps insulting pipes or walls, replacing leaky windows, maybe even replacing their furnace for a newer, less polluting one.

The result: not only does the couple save money in the future, but their consumption emits fewer pollutants. That means slowing down global warming. The polar bears survive.

State Sen. Michael Barrett sponsored this legislation after he ran in a contested primary in 2012. When he asked his future constituents what they wanted him to work on it was health care, the economy and climate change. “People were freaked out at the weather,” he said. The same message came from all income groups and every town.

“I wanted to find a game changer,” he said. “A carbon fee would get all of us in the game. It’s the single most effective thing a state government can do.”

How does he know if no state has tried it?

Look at what’s happened in British Columbia, he said. That province’s carbon fee began in 2008, increasing every year until 2012. BC’s fuel consumption per person has dropped by 16 percent, according to The Economist. Using less fossil fuel has not hurt BC’s job growth or its economy, proving wrong Republicans who make such claims in opposing such fees.

Proponents point out some things to consider in this legislation:

* The fee would start small and rise over a period of seven years to give householders time to adjust their practices and usage.

* Households will face a penalty if they use MORE fossil fuels, and they will enjoy a benefit if they use less. This motivates people to change their behavior.

* Low and moderate income families will NOT be burdened, since rebates will typically equal or be greater than the fee they pay.

* A formula will protect residents in rural areas, who must drive more than urbanites, from excessive fees.

* Most economists agree that a carbon fee is the most effective method to cut carbon pollution.

* State Sen. Marc Pacheco has also introduced a bill to put a price on carbon. It would set aside a small percentage of the fee to invest in clean energy.

* A carbon fee has been proposed in both Congress and the US Senate. It didn’t get far. But carbon fee legislation is now under consideration in 12 states or provinces.

* The fee requires no new bureaucracy, regulations or taxes, which could help it gain support from some Republicans, at least those who acknowledge climate change and the role fossil fuels play in the phenomenon.

Several Republicans already have come out in favor of it, including Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor and a George W. Bush advisor. He claims that most economists agree with him.

It may be the cowardly way out—to let Canada experiment with new ideas before we try them. But taking this step with Barrett’s legislation or something like it, seems a good way to motivate all of us to change our behaviors. Stay tuned.

Scandal: city councilors took trips

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 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.