June 29, 2017: So much more than a book

June 29, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

When I was growing up, the “book mobile” visited our neighborhood each week.  Every Tuesday night, an over-sized bus lined floor-to-ceiling with books would park in the lot of our local ice cream parlor. It opened its doors and the neighborhood kids streamed in.  The librarian/driver not only knew each and every child, but also knew what they liked to read.  Stacks of books came and went.  Our family’s weekly outing to the book mobile was as much a part of the rhythm of life as attending Sunday morning church service was.

Not all children have that same access to books.  Belmont resident Kylia Garver is trying to help fix that for one small Boston school.  Having opened in 2014, the P.A. Shaw School serves predominantly low-income families, with 100% of the student population qualifying for the free school lunch program.  A high proportion of the student population has learning disabilities.  A high percentage of the kids are homeless.  Access to books is not a way of life for these kids.

With its expansion to fourth grade this coming fall, P.A. Shaw prepared to handle its students with a part-time librarian.  The problem was. . .the school library had zero books.  Garver describes the school as having a “huge library with lots of empty shelves.”  A school the size of P.A. Shaw, she says, should have at least 7,000 books.

She vowed to help.  You see, Garver also grew up in a reading family.  Her mother, Janet, was a teacher and a literacy specialist.  She was known in her community as the “book woman,” often going to local schools to read to the kids. Garver learned early that reading books helped kids engage their interests.  Whether it was sports, or science or history, reading helped children pursue those interests.  It also worked the other way. Kids not otherwise particularly interested in reading might pick up a book about baseball or a biography about Helen Keller.

Garver has been beating the bushes in Belmont to gain donations of books for P.A. Shaw. “Anything you might find in a library,” she says.  “Picture books, easy reading, science, biography, chapter books.”  She talks about how Belmont families may have aged past certain book “stages.”  Those unused books need not become clutter in your home, she says.  “P.A. Shaw can sure put those to good use.”

Garver tells friends and neighbors (and anyone else who will listen) that cleaning out and donating no-longer-used books is one small way to help the P.A. Shaw School. And Belmont has responded.  As of last week, Garver says, she had collected more than 2,300 books from Belmont residents, which she is organizing and preparing to take to P.A. Shaw. If you want to pass on some old family favorites, you should contact Garver by e-mail at kyliab@gmail.com.  She will arrange with you either to pick up, or to have you drop off, the books you wish to give.

Belmont residents should understand, Garver says, that what you might give is “so much more than a book.”  When the P.A. Shaw librarian shares new books with the school’s students, she explains to the kids that “people gave these books because they care about you. They want to help you learn, to grow.”  What the kids take away, she notes, is the knowledge, perhaps newly found, that the kids have worth and that they should believe in themselves just as others believe in them.

Kylia Garver.  Belmont’s own book woman.  The efforts spearheaded by Garver should not be simply a project of Belmont’s young parents. Garver’s efforts deserve the support and participation of the entire Belmont community.

June 15, 2017: Growing a daughter at the ballpark

June 15, 2007–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Born into it. A Red Sox fan for life.  She never really had a choice. Our daughter, Allison, attended her first Red Sox game at the ripe old age of six months. For the next 18 years, until she left home to go to college in Iowa, Allison and I, dad and daughter, had a standing Friday night “date.” If the Red Sox were in town on a Friday, we headed to our seats at Fenway Park.

At first, it was simply an opportunity to give Mom a one night break from having a baby in the house. Over time, however, the trips grew into an entire set of personalized routines and rituals.  Home run celebrations. The Seventh Inning Stretch. Sweet Caroline. Dad and daughter. Game after game. Year after year. Even our friendship with the parking attendant. The attendant knew us; he looked for us. He noticed the first time Allison was the driver (rather than in the passenger seat) when we arrived one night.

It always felt like being a dad/daughter twosome at the ball park was noticed more than had we been a father/son duo.  And we played to that.  I wore my “Who” jersey (#1) to games while Allison wore her “What” jersey (#2). (Think “Who’s on First” for those familiar with Abbott and Costello comedy routines.)

Raising a daughter at the ballpark presented difficult decisions for a dad.  At what was she old enough to go get ice cream on her own (about 7; older than she thought necessary). How long is she gone before you start worrying (about 30 seconds). When she was a toddler, decisions involved when to head home. By the time she was 8, however, she was deemed old enough to stay late to watch extra innings.  When Allison was 11, one playoff game moved past midnight as the extra innings piled up. At what point, I wondered, did giving her the chance to watch history become parental irresponsibility?  (We left at 1:00.)

Opening Day 2008. The Sox were to receive their championship rings for winning the World Series the previous fall. But it was a day game. Allison was 16 and in high school. The question inevitable. “Dad, can I skip school to go with you?” The game, however, ended up scheduled for 4:00, rendering the issue moot.  We were both disappointed.

Conflicts did arise. The deciding game of the 2013 World Series was to be at Fenway. On a Thursday night. Allison’s away at college. “Dad, can I fly home to see the last game of the World Series.” The answer was firm: “no, you cannot skip three days of college just to see a ballgame. There will always be another World Series.” She retorted, as only a baseball fan could, “did you learn nothing from 1918?”

Allison was back in Boston last summer for a few days and we went to Fenway Park together for the first time in two years. Dad and daughter. She, no longer a child, but an adult. I asked her whether it was still exciting to walk up the ramp and catch her first glimpse of the Green Monster.  “No,” she said, “it’s more like coming home, a place of comfort and refuge.”

Baseball. It’s not just a game. It’s not just about Nomar, Varitek and Papi. It’s not just about watching Ellsbury patrol Center Field, or watching Pedro strike out the side.

Dads, daughters and baseball. Traditions, memories and special bonds. A place of comfort and refuge. Gee, back at the age of six months, I thought we were just going to a ballgame.

June 8, 2017: Words matter–use them wisely

June 8, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Congratulations Belmont High Class of 2017.  As you cross the stage to accept your diploma, family, friends and community members all look on with justifiable pride.  You represent not only our today, but offer us our tomorrow.  And while it looks like our tomorrow is in pretty good hands, we need some help from you.

Today’s world poses some problems that I’d ask you to help us all work on as you move forward.  One of the biggest problems is that we frequently seem to forget today that words matter.  The old childhood rhyme is just plain wrong when it asserts that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now I concede, as a person with training in both law and journalism, I pay particular attention to words. I won an Iowa supreme court case once because the state legislature used the word “that” where it should have instead used the word “this.” Nonetheless, for everyone, words do matter.

Some words get over-used today.  For example, I fear we may have become too casual with the word “hate.”   I, personally, often proclaim that I “hate” the Yankees, the Jets and the Jayhawks.  Hate, however, is a strong word, capturing a strong emotion.  We cheapen its meaning by making its use too casual. When we become desensitized to the word’s true meaning, it becomes too easy to overlook expressions of disapproval (or even simple discomfort) through proclaimed “hate” in language, or through practiced “hate” in behavior.  Be wary if you find the word “hate” popping up in your vocabulary too frequently.

The word “them” gets over-used as well.  “Them” (as in “not us”) connotes a focus on that which makes someone different.  One problem with its use today is that the word too frequently focuses exclusively on a single attribute of a person (or group of people).  A presentation last year here in Belmont, for example, concerned “Muslims in America.”  One speaker eloquently questioned how a person might become a “them” based solely on differences in religion, even though the commonalities arising from being a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a neighbor might be far more substantial. Finding yourself with lots of “thems” in your life may merit some reflection on whether you are allowing yourself to experience the entirety of individuals you meet.

When I was in college, comedian George Carlin had a popular routine about “seven words you can never say on TV.” Carlin used humor to make the point that words are just words; they are harmless unto themselves. But words are rarely “just words.”  And they almost never stand unto themselves. Words almost always carry a context: expectations, judgments, emotions, history. Their use conveys that context. Please, be aware of the full context you are conveying in the words you use.

The world seems recently to have become a less civil society. Your conscientious use of words in the future can help reverse that trend. To do so, whether you move from high school to college, or to some other life pursuit, you should strive to be constantly self-aware of your day-to-day, person-to-person impact on the world.  One of those impacts is through your awareness that no matter the setting –work or play, on-line or in-person, public or private– what you say, and how you say it, makes a difference.

In short, as you move on after graduation, I ask that you consciously strive to use words wisely.  Words matter.

Class of 2017, as an entire community, we smile and feel a rush of pride upon your graduation.  Congratulations on your accomplishments. Godspeed on your life journey.

May 25, 2017: Walking the line between capital truths

May 25, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the truly thankless jobs in Belmont is serving on the town’s Capital Budget Committee. Two intractable truths face Belmont: (1) the capital needs of the town are real; and (2) the inability of many households to pay increased taxes to meet those needs is just as real.  The conflict posed by these two competing truths should be acknowledged. The reality of the needs does not make the ability-to-pay any greater; and yet, the inability-to-pay does not make the needs any less.

Some of the town’s most experienced public servants sit on the committee to figure out how to walk the line between these competing realities: former Selectman Anne Marie Mahoney, current Selectman Mark Paolillo, Jennifer Fallon, Becky Vose, Pat Brusch, and others. Under Belmont’s by-laws, committee members determine which projects or purchases are “most necessary.”  And they are charged with developing “the probable cost,” along with a “recommendation as to the method of financing” each project.

They scrimp and scrape and try to figure out how to make do with not enough money. In this year’s capital budget report to Town Meeting, for example, the committee reported, “the Fire Department will replace Squad 1 with a refurbished truck from the [Department of Public Works].”  The committee noted “a spirit of cooperation has developed among the departments who now make an effort to offer ‘hand-me-down’ vehicles and equipment to other departments.”

The problems the Capital Budget Committee faces are often thorny.  The lack of “good” solutions, however, does not allow them to “do nothing.”  Increasing student enrollment is one such issue.  The committee reported that “additional classroom space was required at the high school and the Burbank for the 2016-17 school year.” The addition of more modulars at the Burbank and the Butler is expected in the fall of 2018.  The committee told Town Meeting: “if enrollments continue to grow rather than [peak], more classrooms will be needed in the not too distant future.  The CBC anticipates that these future requests to fund modulars and/or to outfit additional classrooms may become more and more difficult to include in our limited budget allocation.”

The Capital Budget Committee is not, indeed cannot be, a cheerleader. If there is bad news to report, it must be said (out loud and in public), popular or not.  For example, Belmont has facilities that are not simply falling apart, they have fallen apart. According to the committee, in the opinion of many people, the police department and DPW “facilities are in worse shape than either the library or the high school.  Our town employees work in the police and DPW facilities under deplorable conditions. . .”

Finally, one job of the Capital Budget Committee is to identify those projects needing to be pursued, whether or not there is any group of people clamoring for them to be done. The committee told Town Meeting this year, for example, that unlike the library and the high school, “the Police Station and DPW are left without a constituency to advocate for them and no clear path forward.”

Understanding the job of, and the limits upon, the Capital Budget Committee, of course, does not require Town Meeting to accept without question the annual capital budget presented for Town Meeting consideration. I certainly have had my differences with the committee in the past.  In its upcoming review of the town’s capital budget, however, one would hope that Town Meeting will express an understanding of the complexity of the task of structuring a capital budget, and an appreciation for the willingness, and ability, of the Capital Budget Committee to keep all the balls up in the air for yet another year.

May 11, 2017–Belmont’s Chess Legacy: A win in 19 moves

May 11, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do the Dan Scharfman Run, the municipal flag pole in Waverley Square, and the Reischauer Memorial House all have in common?  They each seek to preserve part of the human heritage that has found its home in Belmont over our community’s storied history. Scharfman was known informally as the “Mayor of Belmont” for his multiple civic leadership roles.  The Waverley Square flag has a small plaque commemorating the service of James (“Jimmy“) Castanino, long-time director of Belmont’s Highway Department.  The Reischauer House preserves the memory and work of Belmont resident Edwin Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan and noted East Asia scholar.

These three memorial efforts came to mind last week as Town Meeting voted to make substantial improvements to various Belmont open space and recreation areas.  New facilities are being planned and installed. New spaces are being created.  Whether at the Grove Street Park or around Clay Pit Pond, it would not only be “nice,” but it would seem also to be appropriate for town officials to take this opportunity to give a tangible, public, nod of acknowledgement to Belmont’s chess heritage.  More specifically, ongoing and future plans might reasonably easily incorporate a public “outdoor chess table” with a small plaque dedicated to Belmont resident Harold Dondis.

Dondis, of course, made local history back in March 1964 when he required just 19 moves to defeat future world chess champion Bobby Fischer in a tournament at the Wachusett Chess Club (Fitchburg).  Granted, Fischer, who was only 20 years old at the time, was participating in what is called by chess devotees a “simul exhibition match” (playing against multiple opponents at the same time). He was playing against 56 separate people at once, one of whom was Belmont’s Dondis.  If anyone could do that, however, it would be Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game.

The legacy of Dondis, however, extends well beyond his defeat of the future world chess champion.  Dondis was author of the Boston Globe’s chess column for nearly 50 years.  When the Globe once decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to cancel his column, the paper received so many protests that not only was the column reinstated, but the newspaper increased its publication from once to twice a week.

If Dondis were alive today, he would likely say that a public place devoted to allowing people to play chess need not be large enough to accommodate any type of crowd.  While Dondis was quoted in 2004 as saying that interest in chess was “exploding,” he nonetheless still did not view it as a spectator sport.  It’s a personal game, he believed, an intensely personal game focused on problem-solving.

A lot of conversation occurred on Town Meeting floor last week about “preservation.” The new sign by-law was offered to help preserve the character of the town. The Demolition Delay By-law was offered as a way to preserve architecturally and historically significant homes. The Pay as You Throw resolution was offered to preserve the environment.  Our human heritage merits preservation as well.

People tend to remember that Belmont once was the heart of orchards and greenhouse gardens. But, in addition to that historical role, for many years, in its own way, Belmont, in the person of Harold Dondis, was also the heart and soul of the Massachusetts chess world.  A public outdoor chess table and small plaque acknowledging his role in one of the Town’s ongoing projects would be appropriate. Dondis has been gone since December 2015.  Without some small action to memorialize his work, the memory of his contributions may soon be gone as well. That would be a shame.

April 27, 2017: Ill-fated solid waste facility should not shackle our future

April 27, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting should act favorably on the Pay as You Throw article that will be considered in May. That article would allow the Board of Selectmen to consider PAYT when Belmont negotiates a new solid waste contract this coming fall, notwithstanding a 1990 over-ride regarding solid waste. Arguments that the 1990 vote created a “social contract” under which Belmont residents would never need pay for trash collection should be rejected.

The tale of the 1990 over-ride actually began years before, when Belmont yielded to pressure placed on Massachusetts communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. According to a 2001 Harvard Business School analysis: “in the late 1970s and early 1980s Massachusetts officials leaned hard on many communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. . .[The state] wielded heavy sticks, notably the threat to close down existing landfills. Some municipalities resisted this pressure, but almost two dozen—representing 500,000 Massachusetts residents—felt they could not.” Belmont was one of 23 communities that joined the North East Solid Waste Committee.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The biggest problem arose when the state stopped pressuring local governments to close their landfills. Landfills that were expected to close instead continued to operate. Since the NESWC contract called for a Guaranteed Annual Tonnage to be provided to the incinerator, when large communities such as Lawrence and Lowell decided not to participate, the 23 smaller communities (including Belmont) were required either to provide equivalent substitute tonnage for the trash that had been expected from the large communities or to pay for that tonnage anyway.

The adverse impacts on Belmont were extraordinary. The 1985 Warrant Committee report to Town Meeting noted that the “costs of disposal will rise to about $29 a ton from $16 during the current fiscal year.” In 1986, the WC reported that the “costs of collection and hauling will be about $56 a ton.” In 1987, the WC told TM that the budget for solid waste was “almost 70 percent above the amount voted [the previous year]. . .”

The cost increases simply didn’t slow down. A subsequent investigation of NESWC by the Massachusetts Inspector General reported in 1997: “NESWC communities currently pay approximately $95 per ton for waste disposal.” In short, NESWC created a financial crisis for Belmont: a 600% increase in trash collection and disposal costs (from $16/ton to $95/ton) in just over ten years (1985 to 1997). The Inspector General’s report noted that “rapid increases in the cost of waste disposal meant that other budgetary items necessarily had to get trimmed.”

Because of these budgetary pressures, Belmont swallowed hard and passed a 1990 over-ride devoted to solid waste. This was not based on any commitment that residents would “never have to pay for trash collection and disposal,” but rather because Belmont was drowning in NESWC debt that threatened the town’s schools as well as its police, fire and other community services.

The financial debacle associated with the NESWC trash incinerator no longer burdens our community. Today, moving to PAYT would not only be environmentally friendly, but would save the town close to a million dollars over five years. To allow the NESWC disaster to prevent Belmont from even considering a contemporary trash collection and disposal scheme would be to allow that NESWC incinerator to impose continuing environmental and economic harms on Belmont.

Belmont suffered for years because of the ill-fated NESWC facility. It should not, today, be allowed to shackle us in the future to both our financial and environmental detriment. In negotiating a new solid waste contract this year, the BOS should be authorized to at least consider PAYT.

April 20, 2017: Louis Armstrong: Lessons for the Library

April 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Timeless. In the recent Belmont Media Center debate between Library Board of Trustees candidates, one candidate referenced how, while growing up, she used the World Book Encyclopedias as her reference source.  In contrast, I am reasonably certain that my Millennial daughter has never opened a World Book volume, turning instead to the internet as her primary information source.  The Belmont library serves both individuals, the middle-aged person who turns to books and the Millennial who turns to the internet, even though looking perhaps for the same information. As that BMC debate comment acknowledged, it is the information, not the mechanism used to record and make that information available, that withstands time.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Louis Armstrong, labelled by TIME publishing as one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time.  It was almost this day 94 years ago, April 5, 1923, that Armstrong, as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recording. And the world changed. According to music historian Phillip Atteberry, “jazz, more or less as we know it, could have happened without a lot of prominent people. If Benny Goodman hadn’t come along as the King of Swing, someone else would have. Something like jazz could have happened without Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Thelonious Monk or even Duke Ellington. But jazz as we know it simply could not have happened without Louis Armstrong.”

More than 40 years after making that first recording, Louis Armstrong was still making history. In 1964 (May 9th), Armstrong ended the Beatles run of 13 straight weeks of having #1 songs with his recording of Hello Dolly. The musical revolution in the United States wrought by the Beatles, in other words, was grounded, at least temporarily, by a nearly 63 year old man who had been playing his trumpet for 40 years.

Much can be said about Louis Armstrong’s legacy. Born in poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong became an international music icon. Even if not the originator of the jazz solo, Louis Armstrong took the jazz solo to new heights. Armstrong gave birth to the use of improvisation in American jazz music. Armstrong began his career with one instrument (the cornet), not moving to a different instrument (the trumpet) until 1926.  Even later, Armstrong added decades of unique vocal renditions to his musical legend. All of which is known today, of course, to both young and old.

Which brings me back to the Belmont public library. As I sit here thinking about Louis Armstrong making that historic recording back in April 1923, I find myself somewhat awed by the task that the Belmont library has undertaken for our community. The job of the library is to make accessible not merely music, but information, in a multitude of forms, from a multitude of eras, to a multitude of people. From Louis Armstrong’s first recording in 1926, to his Beatles-defying recording in 1964, up to the music he recorded before his death in 1971, the music of Louis Armstrong will live on in public libraries. Whether available to my Millennial daughter (through You Tube), or to folks my age (through a paper book), information about the life and music of Louis Armstrong is made available to all comers through the public library.

In this era known as The Information Age, you truly have to appreciate the complexity of the job undertaken by the Belmont public library, as a community institution, in making available timeless information to anyone, and everyone, who seeks it. And one must admire the commitment of the people who keep that institution vibrant through all the dramatic changes in information-sharing over time.