Meeting over coffee

Our local elected officials usually schedule coffee hours once a month or so in each neighborhood in case constituents want to come and chat about important public matters.

So a couple of weeks ago I sat down with state Rep. Jay Livingstone as he waited in Panificio on Charles Street for people to come by. I was the only one who did. Jay said it was probably because the Beacon Hill Times had forgotten to list it in the calendar that week. Apparently people actually read the newspaper because Jay said on Beacon Hill he usually has a couple of visitors each month.

West End constituents also come regularly when he holds sessions in that neighborhood. I had first asked Jay if I could join him in the Back Bay when he scheduled a coffee there but he said that usually no one shows up at the Back Bay coffee time.

He had no idea why two of his Boston neighborhood coffee hours draw constituents and one doesn’t.

Nevertheless, he hears from constituents. In the Back Bay the most recent topic has been cars driving too fast on Beacon Street especially and the desire to narrow the street to two vehicle lanes so a bicycle lane can be installed.

On Beacon Hill, recent questions have been over the timing of construction of the new pedestrian bridge over Storrow Drive and also about when the city will replace bricks that have been removed on several of the sidewalks.

For several months West End residents have come to Jay to try to prevent the city giving approval to a tall building proposed by Equity Residential on Martha Road. It was approved, probably for the final time, in June. (There was some going back and forth about that approval.)

You might notice that most of these concerns have to do with the city’s jurisdiction and not the state. What can Jay do, for example, about forgotten temporary patches instead of bricks?

He ends up doing something, he said. He might alert a city official to a problem. When complaints came into the city about snowplowing on certain streets, he talked it over with Mike Dennehy, the City of Boston’s Public Works Commissioner. After the next snowstorm, Dennehy called Jay and asked, “How did we do?” Jay went out to check the streets in question and found them perfectly plowed.

He also might be able to deal directly with a state official. There was a timing problem on a light at Leverett Circle. The traffic light turned yellow at the same time the pedestrian walk light came on. He could resolve that conflict because a state agency, the Department of Transportation or MassDoT, is responsible for that traffic circle. It was resolved quickly, he said, because MassDoT has resources. When problems occur on areas over which the Department of Conservation and Recreation has jurisdiction, they can linger because that agency is poorly funded and it hasn’t sufficient manpower.

Jay’s district (Eighth Suffolk) is also in Cambridge where it extends from Kendall Square, goes west along the river through Cambridgeport and includes Central Square. He said there is less expectation in Cambridge that a state rep would get involved in city matters. He believes part of the reason is that with only 100,000 residents, Cambridge has less of a bureaucracy than does Boston with its 650,000 residents. Also since all city councilors in Cambridge represent the entire city there are more people to go to for help than in Boston.

His Cambridge constituents pay more attention to state matters than do his Boston constituents, he said. He gets more email from Cambridge constituents than he does from Boston. Cantabrigians contact him about every progressive cause—gas leaks, energy policy, gender pay equity. That bill was due to pass the House on the day I interviewed Jay, who was the lead sponsor of the bill.

The legislature has made progress on many of these matters, and Jay would like to turn some of his attention to creating some rules about cameras that are deployed by government agencies.

Jay has undergone many changes in his life since being elected to the House in 2013 in a special election. He has gotten married. He has become the father of young Henry, now almost five months old, and he will show you a picture of the cute little boy if you ask. He ran unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts Senate this past year in a special election, and he is running again for his House seat in the primary this September against a Cambridge resident, Keith Richard Anderson of Whitney Street, who can’t be found on the Internet and is known by no one in Cambridgeport that I contacted.

Go visit Jay for a chat during one of his neighborhood sessions. He’s interesting to talk with and knows a lot about this district some of us call home.

Words to get rid of

This week is going to be pretty exciting. First, we’ll learn how many Republicans are packing guns at their convention. And, mercifully, we’ll also start to get rid of a dreadful word.

The word is “presumptive.” We must endure that word every time Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is mentioned. We barely heard the word before May 4. The Republican convention ends this week. We’ll get rid of presumptive before Trump’s name, even if we don’t get rid of Trump.

After July 28, we won’t have to attach it to Hillary either. She’ll have accepted Bernie’s goals—she basically agrees with them, and then everyone will drop presumptive before her name too.

What a break for the rest of us.

We’re not going to get rid of the trendy word “agency” so fast. People use it like this: “You have agency over your umbrella.” In other words, you can decide what to do with it. Wikipedia defines the word as “the capacity of an entity . . . to act in any given environment” or “human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices.” It is being used increasingly as a morally uplifting term—sort of. It is fashionable in some quarters. Its usage in this way comes from sociology and philosophy. It has become part of the new jargon, replacing a simple sentence such as “You can decide whether to open your umbrella or keep it shut.”

It creeps me out.

Other tired words that have to go are “Boomers” and Millennials.” Boomers are supposedly between about 52 and 69 years of age. They are supposed to share many traits—entitlement, good education, high expectation, good jobs, an ease when they are feeding off the public trough to the detriment of those younger than they.

Maybe. But thinking of all the people you know who are those ages, you wonder if sociology and the media, the two entities who seem to be in cahoots over the word, have any idea of the people they are actually describing.

For one, Boomers seem to be white people. They seem to come from the cities, not the dying rural areas in the Midwest and the Plains states. I’m betting Boomers don’t live in West Virginia.

And “Millennials” is equally as annoying. I’m never sure who Millennials are. We are building micro-apartments for Millennials, say real estate developers and BRA-types. But if they are people who became adults around the year 2000, as Wikipedia says, aren’t we a bit late? Millennials, now in their mid-30s, probably now have kids and need bigger places.

But we may not even need the term any more. British Millennials, who are working all over Europe, just got screwed by their older compatriots. Maybe they’ll be called “Returnees” from now on. (And, by the way, according to some reports, it was the Boomers who took away Europe from the Millennials.)

It’s hard to imagine that 30 years from now either of these terms will have resonance, much less be remembered.

“Bug out” is also being used weirdly. “We need to bug out of here,” used to be a phrase I’d hear from time to time. Now it is being used among survivalists, a nutty group of people who enjoy thinking about preparing for Armageddon, which seems to energize them. For no reason, I get survivalist messages in my spam folder. Finally I decided to look at one.

I found out that a bug-out bag holds the essentials you’ll need, in a “without rule of law situation,” which the promoters seemed to relish. They describe the items with great reverence. Water, warm clothing, a flashlight, matches, a first-aid kit, a pot for cooking. Sounds pretty obvious. Duh.

I’m wondering what will happen to the word “rigged” after this election season. Our own senator, Elizabeth Warren, used it to great advantage over the past couple of years. Now Donald Trump has co-opted it. Considering how hostile the two are to one another, I’m thinking she might come up with a new word to describe how middle class Americans have been scammed.

A couple of trendy words and phrases are worth keeping. One was introduced to America by Alyn Smith, a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland, which backed the Remain camp in the recent Brexit (get rid of that too now) vote. “The people who have committed themselves to leave will crawl across glass to get to the polling stations,” he lamented, “and on the Remain side it’s much more, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ”

“Crawl across glass” is wonderfully evocative of shards sticking up and bleeding bodies. It’s a perfect metaphor.

Another cliché I want to keep is “rocket science,” as in “washing dishes is not rocket science.” Except one day a few years ago, the U.S. sent off a high tech missile over the Pacific. It sputtered out. (Sounds like North Korea, but it wasn’t.) The Air Force general had a good excuse. “Well, it is rocket science, you know.”

Thank you, General, for rescuing that phrase.

The toxic culture of guns

Everyone is saying race relations are at a new low. We have to have a conversation, a dialogue, a national catharsis of speech.

I can’t figure out how any of this will help unless we get rid of the gun culture. Good and kind Americans of any color can work it out. But we cannot have a civilized society if we believe we must possess a gun to feel safe. No one, including police officers, can resolve any dispute if pointing guns at one another is how we handle conflict. If you live in the gun culture, you’re wary all the time. What a terrible way to live.

First, there is no one in civilian America who needs an assault rifle. They have one either because they intend to kill scores of people, including little children. Or, more likely, their “hands” are too small, and they need a dose of fantasy manhood to get through the day. If such people were actually a part of the National Guard, I’d say go for it. That’s our militia, and there should be no problem arming members of that group, who presumably are there to protect us.

Everyday pistols, rifles and shotguns are also popular. What kind of a world do people live in that they need guns to feel safe?

Why did Philando Castile, the school nutrition services supervisor who was shot in Minnesota by the cop, have a permit and carry a gun? He was supposedly popular with his co-workers and had a sweet temper. Reportedly his girlfriend, who was self-possessed enough to record the aftermath with her cell phone and post it to Facebook as it was happening, had a license to carry also. Why did she think she needed one? A gun didn’t end up making them safer. It might even have contributed to the cop losing his cool.

Then there are the mothers, one from Idaho and another from Milwaukee, whose toddlers picked up their loaded guns, pulled the triggers and the mothers died. What kind of a world did those mothers live in that they needed a loaded gun in their pocketbook or car? If that were Syria, maybe I could understand it. But Milwaukee?

No longer the home of the brave, America is filled with cowering folks arming themselves against who-knows-what imagined threats. It doesn’t seem to help. It is now more likely that an American will be killed by a gun than in a motor vehicle accident, according to the Economist. (The gun culture practitioners say they are wrong, but I’m going with the Economist.)

I’ve never understood the gun culture because I grew up with guns. Four long ones, unloaded, rested on a rack on our living room wall. I was not afraid of them, but I never touched them. Even my little brother, sometimes known for his bad choices, stayed away. Our father had been in the Army’s military police during World War II. He knew how to shoot, though, because he learned growing up. When our ancestors settled our farm, wolves were still around on the prairie, threatening the livestock. Although the wolves were mostly gone when I was a child, our father used his guns to kill foxes that got into the chickens. He took his gun hunting, and we enjoyed pheasant, quail and rabbit, foods that are now aspirational and pricey.

But ours was a farming culture, not a gun culture. No one was afraid of anyone else. I never saw some guy with small “hands” brandishing his gun to impress us with his manhood. We expected that life would be peaceful, and it was.

If you are reading this, you probably live in downtown Boston. Not many people here are afraid either. For one thing, we have more restrictive gun laws than some states and fewer guns. That means we have fewer gun deaths. Also, we don’t have much crime in the downtown. We walk around at night taking care, but usually trusting we’ll be safe.

Some parts of Boston are not as safe as the downtown. Perhaps I am naïve to believe that our police force is a good one, determined to treat people fairly and also get rid of the gun culture that exists in those neighborhoods. But I’m counting on their professionalism.

I didn’t know James Madison personally. But it’s hard to imagine him and his cohorts who wrote the the US Constitution tolerating the idea that some guys thought they needed assault rifles or that everyone would be packing as they went to class or drove down a highway.

Paul Ryan, certain Supreme Court justices and the National Rifle Association didn’t know James Madison either. His language, however, is pretty clear: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It’s all about the militia. I realize I’m better educated, maybe even smarter, than certain justices of the Supreme Court, who apparently can’t read. I hate that.

July’s Tragedy or Comedy

You’ll have to admit democracies are more entertaining than dictatorships. Nothing ever happened in East Germany except for people trying to get over the wall. Nothing happens now in North Korea, where everyone follows the same orders or else.

Instead democracies have uninformed people deciding matters of great importance. Rabble like us, as our founders feared, like to stir up trouble just because it is fun even if we don’t have a clue as to what is going on.

So that means we’re going to have a truly fabulous July. If you’re not crying over the British Leave vote on the EU, at least you can watch the turmoil that has roiled the land of Keep Calm and Carry On after they voted themselves out of the serious world, apparently, not realizing the effect a Leave vote would have on their economy, London’s financial headquarters, their factories, or the chances their young people will have for good jobs on the Continent. (Sorry about that long sentence, but as intelligent Americans, we can handle long sentences. After the Leave vote, Americans are finally considered smarter than the British, but we’ll be a better judge of that in November.)

Observers are calling Britain rudderless, panicky, already regretful. Scotland is threatening to leave Great Britain. It’s probably a disaster, despite the calming words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Right now maybe it’s better to think of it as good theatre. Any drama with the word Exchequer in it has to be diverting.

Soon, on top of the British breakdown, we’ll have the Republican convention. That ought to keep us glued to the television if we’re not there, and it looks as if few Massachusetts Republicans will be there. We’re expecting bombast, dirty words, bragging, politically incorrect talk, preposterous accusations, and, if we’re lucky, major bigotry.

The Democratic Convention (Democrat Convention to Republicans who sound as if they left school at fourth grade, not having been taught the difference between an adjective and a noun) can’t possibly be as good. How can you top the one with the bonkers billionaire as its star? But we’re hoping Bernie provides a bit of drama as he tries to get the Democrats to agree to his platform, which they already agree with, but don’t see how they’ll get there through Bernie’s means. The Democrats need a fire-brand 74-year-old, heady with the love of his followers and with his own form of bad hair, to keep things even.

Blessedly, for our continued entertainment, we’ve also got Marco Rubio trying to regain the Senate seat he rarely sat in. We’ve got Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan bamboozled, trying to figure out why the hoi polloi of the Republican Party doesn’t give a darn about conservative values. A Noah’s Ark is opening in Kentucky with models of dinosaurs playing with children, because there are people who believe this kind of thing. And some guy who barely met the Clintons is coming out with a tell-all book about their supposed rants in the White House. You can’t make this stuff up, but apparently he did.

Surely there will be additional brouhahas erupting from the terrified class who are aghast at the thought that women might have to use the bathroom at the same time as a man who has become a woman. How many people are we talking about anyway who are men becoming women? Can’t we deal with it? I once stood in a bathroom line in France at a break during a performance with the women headed for the men’s stalls while men peed at the urinals. No one seemed to mind.

Luckily, the left wing has comedians to help them get through. Andy Borowitz and Stephen Colbert, sometimes still Jon Stewart, and even Rachel Maddow, who is supposed to report serious news, are pretty funny. I’ve never figured out why the right wing has no comedians to help them.

In any case, by August, both political parties will probably have nominees. Who knows? Britain might even have rejoined the EU. So many people are on vacation that not much will happen. (Some people, of course, think everything happens in August—the start of WWII, for example.) But during July, enjoy the fray. You won’t have to bother going to the movies. You’ll have real life to entertain you.

Summer Reading

You’re probably not looking forward to a summer that is sure to contain a series of outrages from Donald Trump. I’ve got relief for you. Concentrate on Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy instead.

This series takes awhile to get through. You may want to keep a list of characters. You might need a bigger map than those in the books. Unfamiliar terms and challenging dialect are part of the experience. The first sentence is 63 words long, so the author has warned you this will not be easy. I’m usually a fast reader. Not so with these books. I had to slow down.

The effort is worth it and will likely distract you from the craziness of this summer’s presidential campaign. Start with Sea of Poppies, follow up with River of Smoke and finally tackle Flood of Fire. Ghosh writes about the India-Chinese opium trade and the events leading up the opium wars.

         Sea of Poppies is the story of a dingy, Baltimore-based former slave ship, retrofitted to transport coolies (indentured servants) from Calcutta, India to the sugar plantations on the island of Mauritius.

Ghosh introduces us to a woman who grows poppies, a smart, young, free, partially black man who passes for white, a lascar who is the serang or top-level ethnic seaman on the ship, a penniless raja, a young orphaned French woman who is a botanist’s daughter and the Indian man who is like a brother to her because they grew up together, as well as several insufferable English men and women.

Some of the lesser characters in the first novel rise to higher levels in the second and third books. The cause of actions in the first book look different while reading the second and third. Some of the characters aren’t what you thought they were. Look for references to eyes.

While much is made of the new “global economy,” this trilogy shows there is nothing new about a global economy. This is the story of the global economy of the 1830s. It is heinous, but rich for storytelling.

Although New England doesn’t figure greatly in the story, there are enough New Englanders to make you realize that if slavery is America’s original sin, opium may be its second.

John Forbes Kerry’s ancestors, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, engaged in the opium trade. So did the founders of Boston’s most revered institutions—such people as the Cabots, the slave-trader Thomas Handasyd Perkins and John Cushing, whom the Chinese called Ku-Shing. Cushing, Perkins’s nephew, spent thirty years in Canton, married the daughter of the minister at Trinity Church upon his return and then built a country estate he called Bellmont, after which the town of Belmont is named.

It wasn’t New Englanders who were mainly addicted. It was the Chinese who got the drug from the ship captains and traders who bought the opium in Turkey and India and dumped it in Canton, now Guangzhou.

The British forbade the American colonies from participating in the opium trade. But after the War of 1812, the Americans happily dove right in. They prospered from it because New Englanders wanted Chinese porcelain, antiques and art. The Chinese typically wanted only timber and furs from New England. Opium helped balance the trade.

The Chinese authorities were not happy with the situation and tried for many years to shut down the trade, resulting in opium wars in the 1850s.

Among the 19th-century users of laudanum, or opium, were John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Dickens and Thomas DeQuincey, who published “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” And who can forget Dr. Watson being distressed by Sherlock Holmes’s three-times-a-day-habit?

What goes around comes around. Americans are now addicted to the modern version of opium, which was at first believed to be the answer to pain. Gov. Baker declared his own war on opium addiction, just like the Chinese authorities did. It is unclear whether Baker will succeed where the Chinese did not.

Ghosh relied on images from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for his books, according to curator Karina H. Corrigan, who has read the first two books of the trilogy. Although many items from this period are in storage while the museum expands, one small installation displays luxuries that can give a reader an idea of the goods New Englanders brought back from China.

Opium still exists in New England. If you go on a garden tour in late June or July in some rural areas, you’ll find pink and red opium poppies happily being grown for their beauty. The seeds can’t be bought, but they are passed around from gardener to gardener.

If you visit Lincolnshire, England in late summer, you’ll find wide fields of lavender opium poppies grown legally for the British pharmaceutical industry.

Such a beautiful plant. Such a sordid history. You’ll be entranced by the Ibis trilogy.