Marathon musings: who is a hero?

Don’t read this if you’re tired of the non-stop coverage of the Marathon bombing.  Don’t read it if you’re not touched in some way by the tragedy that befell individual runners and bystanders or disturbed by the assault on our community.  Have there been efforts to capitalize on the grief and memorialization of the event?  The profit center that Boston Strong tee shirts and other memorabilia have become?  The media efforts to outdraw the competition? Yes, yes and yes. Obviously.

But count me among those townies who, since childhood, have gone to the running route, cheered on the travails and triumphs of the winners and the struggling also-rans, felt the communal experience of an event drawing people from around the world (back then, it was the Finnish and Japanese who came to best the American runners) and, without being able to put it into words, thrilled to the experience of a sharing and upbeat crowd. Last year it was: how could they do that to our town?

Randomness heightens the sense of horror.  Being in the right place at the wrong time. But are these victims heroes?  They don’t think so. Jeff Bowman had both his legs blown off a year ago.  He told WBUR he is not a hero, that he is an ordinary guy. Other victims have echoed his sentiments. They are overcoming adversity, clenching their teeth, battling their pain,  showing resilience, and moving forward. It’s what my father did when he lost his leg decades ago. The survivors will be in recovery for a long time, perhaps forever.

Are the police, firefighters and other responders heroes?  Or are they just doing what their jobs require?  They, too, are often dismissive of the term hero.  Even Lt. Ed Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy would probably have said they were just doing their jobs when they perished in the recent Beacon Street fire.  Perhaps their heroism shone when they decided to become firefighters in the first place.  Or police officers. Or soldiers, at least some of them.

Hero, to me, implies acting on behalf of others with disregard for one’s own well-being. Such were the people who ran toward the explosions last year, rather than trying to flee the scene (which is what I probably would have done.) Carlos Arredondo, the man in the cowboy hat, is such a hero.    He had tried to kill himself years before when his son Alexander, a Marine, was killed in Iraq.  His youngest son Brian did commit suicide three years ago.   The senior Arredondo lived and happened to be near the finish line. Disregarding his own safety, he helped to save Jeff Bowman’s life.  He reached beyond the burden of his own familial losses and has become a symbol of courage and resilience.

But what does “Boston Strong” symbolize?  Again, for some, it’s blatant commercialization.   Others deride it as a cover for increased security regulations that undermine the very peace and freedom that are other core traditions of Patriots Day. But, for me, it validates some of the good things about our community, including a commitment to pull together, to restore the sense of who we are or at least aspire to be. Resilience. Generosity. Courage. Determination. Are we all capable of those characteristics all of the time?  Of course not.  But it’s what we hope to pull out from deep within ourselves when circumstances call upon us to do so.  When tragedy befalls us, we hope we can measure up.  Events like the one-year anniversary or the evocation of Boston Strong give voice to the ideals that we hope to realize.

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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Shame on Brandeis

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is, indeed, a controversial figure, especially for the vehemence with which she has criticized Islamic fundamentalism.  Just read her memoir Infidel, and you’ll understand why.  Her childhood was spent in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where she survived genital mutilation, physical and emotional abuse, parental attempts at forced marriage and all the forms of degradation to which “good little girls” are subjected under rigid interpretation of Sharia law. Ultimately she moved to The Netherlands and was elected to Parliament.  Her memoir tells of how she went from dutiful submission to a self-aware political activist fighting for freedom and women’s dignity. Because she speaks out, she lives under constant death threats.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has formed a foundation to fight for women’s rights everywhere, and she certainly is a hero to those who approve of freeing women from oppression imposed on girls and women by extreme religion and cultural intolerance.  It is understandable that Brandeis University would invite her to receive an honorary degree at its May commencement. Oh, wait a minute. Not so fast.  This week, Brandeis rescinded its invitation based, it said, on extreme language used by Hirsi Ali in talking about Islam, in one way or another, as “a religion of death,” “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

Nearly a quarter of the faculty lined up with Muslim students and others to protest the University’s decision to honor Hirsi Ali. They decried her as Islamaphobic and attacked her “hateful views.”  But maybe they would have shared those views if they had been treated as she was.   To me, she is a woman of great courage, standing up for all women against the strictures of a vicious and repressive fundamentalist community.

Brandeis asserts that there is a difference between inviting someone to a dialogue on campus and honoring that person for the body of his or her work.  Maybe so.  But they should have thought of that in advance.  They claim they didn’t know about her anti-Islam language. They live maybe under a rock?

This about-face by Brandeis smacks of craven political correctness.  A Washington Post columnist recalls how in 2006 the University honored famous playwright Tony Kushner, whose anti-Zionist attitude had been reflected in his statement that  “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.”  At the time, Brandeis said it stood by its invitation, explaining that it doesn’t select honorary degree recipients based on their political beliefs. Apparently it does today.

I don’t usually agree with  Wall St. Journal editorial positions. Today the paper reasonably asks if Hirsi Ali’s critics by implication support the abuses she has fought her whole life – forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honor killings, all part of Shariah law. And, noting that Brandeis was founded “to defend non-sectarian religious liberty,” the editorial wonders if the University now includes in its core values “intolerance and the illiberal suppression of ideas.” That’s the message underlying the University’s reversal on Hirsi Ali.

Hirsi herself responded by congratulating the Brandeis graduates on their commencement and hoping that they turn out to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater. Amen to that!

 I welcome your comments in the section below.  p.s. Check out Hirsi’s “Here’s What I would Have Said at Brandeis” in Friday’s WSJ.

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Selfie, shmelfie – where will it end?

Four months ago, when the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the 2013 word of the year, I had never even heard of it. In the last couple of days, it’s almost all I’ve heard.  Of course, there was the selfie taken by President Obama of himself and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a comely lass, and British Prime Minister David Cameron off to the side.  What healthy male would pass up that opportunity?  Of course, that it was done at Nelson Mandela’s funeral prompted a flurry of criticism for being inappropriate at such a solemn occasion.  But the occasion was also a celebration and at least it appeared spontaneous.  What we’ve had since has been staged and, we have learned, commercial.

There followed the famous selfie taken by Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres. It showed her and a group of her nearest and dearest celeb friends, including Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and more. It was anything but spontaneous. There’s actually footage of her rehearsing the selfie, in hopes of getting it retweeted a record number of times. Now it turns out that the whole deal was not only staged but sponsored by Samsung. (When not being paid, she uses an iPhone.)

Which brings us to David Ortiz, who, as virtually everyone now knows. took a selfie of himself and President Obama at the White House  yesterday, surrounded by the Red Sox World Champions. And, yes, we now know that “selfie” was also paid for in a last-minute David Ortiz contract with Samsung.  No wonder some Red Sox in the background (Jonny Gomes?) were going cha-ching as the picture was being snapped.  So much for spontaneity and fun-with-photographs. The White House was not pleased to have been suckered into a commercial endorsement.

(My husband told me that because Ortiz had just signed a munificent baseball contract extension, the local icon  was donating all the proceeds from Samsung to Boston charities,  from One Boston to the Jimmy Fund. Then, he chuckled, “April Fool’s.”)

As writer Eric Wilbur opined, the sooner the word “selfie” goes away, the better.  Just another crass promotional deal, or, as Boston Magazine put it,  we have transitioned from “amusing photo format to celebrity monetization opportunity.” Oh, well, what else should we expect?

And why should we spend another minute of print or air time on a day when Boston’s brave firefighters are being remembered and we’re learning of yet another fatal shooting at Fort Hood in Texas? Or is Samsung sponsoring “selfies” there too?

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Remy brings ick factor to ballgame

Despite a hailstorm today, little green shoots are starting to poke their heads up in our yard, tomorrow is April 1st and the baseball season has officially started.  I’m poised to wrest control of my garden from the rabbits and welcome the season with a clean slate. Except for the Remy factor.

When Jerry Remy started broadcasting from spring training, I said it felt odd. But I was prepared to be open-minded.  That was before the outstanding article in the Eric Moscowitz story in the Boston Globe chronicling how Jerry Remy and his wife, albeit out of love and with the best of intentions, enabled the repeat acts of violence by their out-of-control son Jared, now in the slammer awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel.  One of his many victims was a young man whom he beat mercilessly, leaving him brain-damaged. Massachusetts judges, perhaps swayed by Jerry Remy’s celebrity, time and again let Jared off with a slap on the wrist. Case after case of assaults, beatings, and attempted murder, most continued without findings.  Ten times there were new charges while he was actually on probation, and still he ranged free, a steroid-infused monster and constant threat to others.

I’m a die-hard Red Sox fan so of course I was tuned in when they opened  against Baltimore in Camden Yard today.  The Sox left 12 on base and lost by a run.  Jon Lester pitched very well.  Grady Sizemore hit his first homer.  Not the best outing. Still, there are 161 games to go, and there’s much reason for optimism.

But watching and listening today wasn’t easy, and it had nothing to do with the score. Every time Jerry Remy opened his mouth, I saw the  man who indulged his thug of a son, couldn’t hold him accountable, gave him “all the advantages” and got nothing for it but a criminal who was a threat to society and to others, particularly women, who came in contact with him. I heard the man who couldn’t control his own children but had the effrontery to seek custody of the small child who had been in the house when son Jared allegedly murdered her mother. I also wondered about who gets hired as security guards at Fenway, as Jared Remy was.

Jerry Remy should not broadcast for the Red Sox, at least not until the end of Jared’s trial.  His presence in the broadcast booth is too uncomfortable.  Baseball should be an escape, not a constant reminder of all that is ugly, unjust and dangerous in the world. Message to John Henry: all of Red Sox nation is NOT behind Jerry Remy. Take him off the air.

I welcome your comments.


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Running for A.G. – a familiar face stands out

On April 19 last year, longtime political activist, former elected official and Watertown resident Warren Tolman found himself 300 yards from the capture of Marathon bomber Zhokar Tsarnaev.  With a helicopter roaring overhead, police on both sides of his driveway and in his backyard, Tolman listened as a swat team worked its way through his basement searching for the fleeing bomber.  In the aftermath of that extraordinary event, Tolman found himself thinking a lot about our first responders and their exemplary acts of public service. He repeatedly asked himself, “Am I giving enough back (to the community)” and, if not, how could he reorder his life to do so.  When incumbent Martha Coakley decided to run for governor, Tolman’s path became clear.

Warren TolmanEvery once in a while a candidate comes along who seems made for the post he or she is running for.  In 2014, that candidate is Warren  Tolman. After eight years in the legislature, two terms as state rep and  two terms as state senator,  he ran for lieutenant governor on the 1998 Democratic ticket led Scott Harshbarger. They lost to Republican Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift.  In 2002, Tolman ran for the top spot, losing the nomination to Shannon O’Brien (O’Brien happened upon us talking at Peet’s Coffee and noted that this time she is backing Tolman enthusiastically. So, too, are four former attorneys general - Bellotti, Shannon, Harshbarger, and Reilly.) Since that loss to O’Brien, Tolman has been in private law practice, occasionally serving as a guest political commentator in the local media.

He is a thoughtful, earnest guy with progressive views who projects gravitas and knows his way around the system.  He says being A.G. isn’t about being the best attorney or the best prosecutor but about being a leader.  He is actually bringing some fresh ideas to the table.

Tolman is proposing a requirement that all new guns sold in Massachusetts be “smart guns,” that is, activated only by the owner’s fingerprint recognition.  He wants to bring to colleges and universities best practices to reduce campus rapes. He is deeply concerned about the heroin crisis (123 overdoses in Taunton since January 1st, for example) and will advocate increased availability of treatment beds, be a resource for educators teaching children about drugs, and push big Pharma to use safer packaging for powerful new prescription drugs that can fall into the wrong hands.  These kinds of issues would get more attention under Tolman.

In other areas, he hesitated to stake out positions. With the flawed bidding process for medical marijuana dispensaries, he noted that “we haven’t covered ourselves with glory” and “the process has to be above reproach,” but he declined to prescribe specific remedies.   He implied he would have wanted more transparency with the casino bidding process, but he stopped short of taking a stand on the legality of the casino repeal referendum, now before the SJC.  With respect to drivers’ licenses for illegals, he would like to find a way to increase public safety by issuing such licenses but still not reward people who don’t play by the rules. (I understand the ambiguity of this issue.)

Tolman’s position on cigarette sales is more certain; he wouldn’t try to ban a legal product but wants to recover taxes lost to “butt-legging” and regulate companies that sell e-cigarettes, which target young people in a predatory way.

In the weeks ahead, we can expect other initiatives, including in the area of elder abuse.  In this, as in other areas of unmet needs, the state’s attorney general has to be a forceful advocate. Notwithstanding his unclear responses on some issues, Tolman still seems equipped for the job.

He’d ask interest groups to go public with candidate responses to their questionnaires. If they did not, he’d consider not pursuing endorsements from such groups.

Former State Rep. and now Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian would have been the most formidable opponent for Tolman in the Democratic Primary but has decided not to run and is backing Tolman.  Maura Healey,  a former assistant attorney general under Coakley, is running for A.G., has experience and seems to be an independent thinker, but has never run for anything, and the odds definitely favor Tolman. A totally unknown Republican, attorney John Miller, has just come into the race, but let’s be realistic!!! Candidate alignment with the GOP party platform – anti-choice, anti-marriage equality – isn’t going to help his candidacy.

The first test will be the number of delegates  supporting each of the candidates at the Democratic state convention in June. (Fortunately, I no longer have to cover such “beauty pageant” events.)  A strong majority of the convention is likely for Tolman, but convention results are not dispositive (and Healy is likely to make the ballot). Tolman says he is running as if he is 30 points behind. That’s smart because a recent Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll indicates a majority of the electorate is still undecided. And the public benefits when such an important position is vigorously contested.

I welcome your comments below.

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Teaching kids to hate

If you’re Jewish, think twice about moving to Bedford, MA.  That’s the message of recent anti-Semitic incidents in that west suburban town. Elementary school children play a game called “Jail the Jews.” Swastika graffiti is discovered at an elementary school, at Bedford High School and a local playground. Such anti-Semitism is not unique to Bedford, and the community seems to be taking it seriously.  But other anecdotes from there, including some advancing the slander that Jews are Christ-killers,  reflect dangerous attitudes that very young children usually can get only from their parents.

The pattern of such behavior implies an intention to hurt. But what about the controversy swirling about the unintentional hurt inflicted by stereotypes portrayed in the performing arts? Recently, many Newton parents were upset about the stereotyping of Asians in a Newton North High School production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The directors of the production apologized.  A focus group was held at some point. (The more outrageous portrayals of the original production had been toned down.)  And community gatherings and subsequent discussions turned the situation into a teachable moment.

It’s worth noting that former Newton Alderman Greer Tan  Swiston, who is Chinese-American, wrote in the Newton TAB that she found the high school version “thoroughly entertaining” and praised the behind-the-scenes efforts to foster understanding.

But should the production have been done in the first place? Freezing out all productions from a less enlightened time and place seems to be sliding down a slippery slope.  Should we not do West Side Story because of its portrayal of Puerto Ricans?  The King and I because the Siamese king is stuck in the ignorant past? Porgy and Bess, because of its  racist portrayal of blacks in the 1920′s in Charleston? And what about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and its cringe-worthy, anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock? Fiddler on the Roof, because it lampoons Yiddish-speaking shtetl dwellers? And what about Edward Albee’s WASPS? Where does it stop?

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,” says the song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, which itself reinforced stereotype in the character of Bloody Mary.   But what do people learn, and when?

Beyond their artistic merit, such productions can teach about prejudice by informing audiences about the storyline’s context and by illuminating why such attitudes are offensive today. Can’t even young children be taught that there are alternatives to hating “the people their relatives hate?” An African-American friend involved in education her whole life still remembers the pain she experienced as a school girl when she was exposed to hurtful productions.  Her feelings remain raw decades later. Young children are particularly impressionable and, she says, shouldn’t be exposed to productions that further  stereotyping.  Performance images, she warns, stay in young children’s minds much longer than words in a book, and we have to err on the side of protecting children.

I respect her sensibility, but the potential for offending people is virtually limitless.  I don’t want to see people storming schools and libraries, stopping productions, demanding that books be removed from shelves. I’m not in favor of overprotecting our kids, but materials do need to be age-appropriate and presented with an eye toward providing context and furthering understanding. Performances can be toned down to neutralize stereotyping, as has been done elsewhere even with Thoroughly Modern Millie, without seriously compromising artistic integrity. When it comes to high school dramas and musicals, sanitizing works of art shouldn’t be an either/or situation.  Working through the issues is worth doing.

I welcome your comments below.

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St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast: more love-in, less roast

Southie’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day breakfast was anything but traditional yesterday.  A testament to the new Boston, a majority-minority city, the breakfast was hosted for the first time ever by a woman, a person of color, a Haitian-American, and a resident of Dorchester…all wrapped up in the energetic and charismatic persona of State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry.

Dorchester was well represented among breakfast attendees, reinforcing the sense that the new Boston is on its way to becoming a rainbow coalition.  Dorcena Forry had prepared a few videos to marry her to the Southie part of her First Suffolk Senate district.  They were a success, as was Governor Patrick’s touching farewell ballad, his last St. Patrick’s Day breakfast as Governor. Hugging the Senator, the Governor said, “This is what a Forry and a Patrick look like these days.”

Other high points were Congressman Stephen Lynch, an old hand at this event, with humor on target and effectively delivered, and, relegated to the end of the program, GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, who was emotional in paying a tribute to the generosity of the Dropkick Murphys but also crisp, funny and off-color in skewering Councilor Bill Linehan, who won the sour grapes award of the day by skulking off for Ireland because he was not hosting the event.

Many of the speakers paid tribute to Tom Menino, announced just hours before to be suffering from metastatic cancer.  But it wasn’t the former mayor’s serious illness that cast a pall on the proceedings.  That was achieved by the singular failure of the majority speakers to be funny. It was as if they didn’t understand the goal of a roast.

There was a dreadful video featuring outgoing Senate President Therese Murray, shown looking for the next step in her career.  It was interminable and  prompted nary a smile.  (Pity its narrator Warren Tolman, obviously included to achieve visibility for his Attorney General campaign, saddled with a bad idea poorly written.)  Another failed video featured Murray’s counterpart in the House, Bob DeLeo, the video highlighting a string of “selfies” showing the Speaker at different ethnic eateries in Southie.  That dog didn’t hunt either.

Gubernatorial candidates Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman and Senator Ed Markey were also flat. The traditional breakfast format requires wit, sometimes pointed, sometimes self-deprecating, but usually good for a laugh.  Throughout, there were few laughs, not even any of the traditional groans that bespeak good-hearted attempts at humor. Slightly more successful than most was Senator Elizabeth Warren, who – in addition to jabs at new New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown -noted that Charlie Baker was known as the heart and soul of the Weld administration, (pause), “which is like being called the smartest Kardashian.”  Baker laughed amiably.

So yesterday’s breakfast had plenty of Kumbaya, and relatively little ha-ha-ha. Not even a mini-cameo video of former Senate President Bill Bulger, longtime star of the event, could evoke its past success.  One wonders if the sharp repartee of the past was put aside, even subconsciously, in the interest of comity in the newly diverse environment.  Perhaps next year, when Dorcena Forry is no longer a first-time emcee, we can be treated to the sharper jabs and inside humor captured this year only in her well produced videos.  As for yesterday, however, I hope the corned beef they served at the Convention Center was tastier than the generally bland corn delivered up at the mic.

I welcome your comments.

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