Sunday, May 31, 2009

Much Ado About Not Much: 'The Fighter' Casting Call

Saturday morning we piled four of us in the vehicle and headed down to the VFW to check out the Cattle Call for 'The Fighter,' the Micky Ward life story film that's going to star Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, among others. Right away, we saw a ton of commotion centered around 190 Plain, with lots of preened jocks with sleeveless shirts wearing cabbie hats, put-together blondes with headshots and inch-thick acting resumes, and guys with pained expressions to go with their trucker hats and flavor saver goatees. None of us had anything resembling a headshot or acting resume, and we were all about equally intersted in grabbing breakfast as we were in trying out for a movie.

When we saw the line snaking all the way from the Hall entrance down Eaton Street, and then ALL THE WAY down Montreal Street to Main (if you need Google Earth to picture this it will help sink it in, but suffice to say it seemed nearly a half-mile long), we just collectively said, "Forget it," and went to Wal-Mart to get a present for a recent GLTHS grad (Congratulations, Danny!)

Anyway I was back home later that afternoon in a half-nap when another friend of ours called, said the line had died down, and was heading over. Weighing that against collecting more drool on the couch pillow and dribbling potato chips down my chin, I decided to go for it.

Sure enough, the line had died down considerably. There were still plenty of self-serious types in the crowd, but the non early-bird crew seemed a little bit more likely to have gotten there by accident. We had one picture and nary a resume between the three of us, and we promptly got into the short line to be herded into the hall.

After some quick "hurry up and wait" operations, we finally got told to queue up into a huge line to get ready to hand off our information packets, which included names, numbers, and e-mail addresses. In a mostly civil fashion, all the folks in the hall got into two lines where we spent all of exactly five seconds actually meeting someone from Boston Casting.

Our "moment of glory" consisted of us being asked whether we'd want to be cast as a trainer, fighter, or extra. Our info sheets were then put into one of three piles and we went on our merry ways.

No "Romeo, Where Art Thous." No "You talkin' ta me?!" a la Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Somewhat of a letdown for those who looked like they'd spent hours getting ready for the 'event' and then sort of slinked away seeming disappointed by the whole affair.

What I sensed from the beginning was that they probably need to stick fannies in the seats for the pro-am fights, background patrons for the bar scenes, and other general things that movie extras are used for.

If anyone in Greater Lowell is reading this and is still interested in being an extra in The Fighter, the good news I have to report here is that you probably didn't miss a thing if you weren't at the VFW Saturday. You could probably still contact Boston Casting and go for your shot at glory as a guy clapping or war-whooping at a Golden Gloves fight.

You just have to be available with just one day's notice to spend an entire day waiting around for a fifteen-minute shot at acting that might involve walking down a street, sipping a beer, or enthusiastically cheering under the guise of 'acting natural.'

And someday, you can put your grandkids on your knee, cue up your vintage The Fighter DVD from the year 2010, fast forward to 1:09:12, freeze the frame, and say "That's my elbow!" as one of the protagonists pushes past you at a bus stop.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Flash Mobs, Membership Fatigue, and the Good Idea Fairy -- an LDNA Wrap-Up

On Monday night, the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association held its monthly meeting in the Victorian Garden (the area between the Trolley Museum and Lowell Tae Kwon Do on Shattuck, now with freshly cut grass as described on the LDNA blog).

Jane Ward from the American Textile History Museum (and also of the 'Around the Neighborhoods' Sun Column, but not here in that capacity) spoke about the big re-opening set to take place on June 21 ( The major event is slated for that day, but the museum has already had a "soft" re-opening from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at its 491 Dutton St. site.

One of the promotional pieces that Ms. Ward handed out at the meeting mentioned that prospective new members would receive a 20% discount on an annual membership. A quick look at the website tells me that for $50, that would get me: one membership card, free admission to the museum for 1 adult, 3 free visits to the Osborne Library (by appointment), the Overshot newsletter, invitations to special events, and two guest admission passes.

We didn't get into the specifics of the costs and benefits of membership, but one downtowner present mentioned the idea of membership fatigue. In light of other fatigues -- social network website fatigue (I signed up for Twitter but I swear that's it and this time I mean it!), blog fatigue (though I just added Rob Mills' blog because I think he's doing something totally unique among the blogetariat), and even czar fatigue (I think I heard we've got more 'czars' in the Obama Administration than there were actual czars in Russia...seriously), the idea of membership fatigue is just that within a stone's throw of Mack Plaza there are enough things to join -- and to pay for, of course -- than a reasonable chap or lass can keep up with.

I definitely feel that pain, and it's understandable.

Having taken the reins as LDNA Treasurer a few meetings ago, I've been hitting up all the new faces at the end of meetings for $5, and gotten a wee bit of pushback (okay, I get it, people don't like being shaken down when they've just come to check something out). Even some older hands have insisted that 'I'm already a member' despite the key word being 'annual' and the LDNA elections marking the new 'fiscal year.'

And five bucks is what some people spend for an iced coffee and a pastry.

Fifty bucks is definitely something else entirely. As much as I support the idea of preserving cultural heritage through museums, as well as investing in your own backyard, a price like that seems a little steep for what I'd be getting back. Maybe someday when my financial picture looks a lot different, I'll be able to support things like that without having to even put any thought behind it, but for now I think I'll take a pass...for a once-through to check it out.

But speaking of fundraising, and what some membership dues (like LDNA) contribute towards, one good news story from the Downtown is the success of the Tent City Coalition's rock concert at Revolving and subsequent campout. The event raised over $3,000. In the words of leader Allegra Williams, "For the first time ever, hundreds of people in Lowell who live on the streets will have a place to go to take a warm shower and to wash their clothes."

Another topic that came up was the idea of having downtown residents get together to meet in bars as a fun, light-hearted way to build social capital (take a look at Rob Mills' latest blog entry -- apparently downtowners are known for high levels of community already) and have fun. Whether that would come in the form of something like an organized pub crawl or something more closely resembling a flash mob (where everybody suddenly congregated in one spot thanks to the power of Twitter and text) remains to be seen, but it definitely seemed like a case where the folks present seemed to love the idea.

As with any soft shoulder landing from the Good Idea Fairy, however, that's just the problem -- good ideas are as famously easy to conceive as they are notoriously difficult to implement. While it takes seconds to start a sentence with "Y'know, someone should..." being that someone is the hard -- and admirable -- part. Leaders of organizations or departments are especially susceptible to visits from others who are laden with good ideas but don't want to take the time or effort to see them through. That's why any leader can best keep from going batty by responding, "That's a great idea, work on it, get back to me and let me know how it goes" rather than "That's a great idea, I'll work on it, get back to you and let you know how it goes."

Following the latter course is a good recipe for caffeine-induced sleeplessness on the part of the leader, the idea not ultimately being implemented, and the inevitable lament from the idea-haver that "No one listens to me."

When I think back on what I've learned in five years as a Navy Officer, that definitely stands out, and I think it's what Edison was getting at with his famous "one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration" gem of a quip.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Afghan Pack-Out List

I just heard about a blog called "Afghan Lessons Learned" which is written by soldiers who have deployed to Afghanistan for soldiers about to head over there. I've added it to the blogroll and have included a pack-out list as an example of some of the practical advice it offers. Of course I have no idea who wrote this but #55 indicates it was a National Guardsman.

I'm sure there are good stories behind each item on the list, both good ones from those who had them and some not so good ones from those who lacked.

Here is the list, in raw form:

1. Any extra Class VIII you can bring with you is good to have.
2. Wolfhook single point slings
3. Desert Tan Spray paint
4. Space blanket(s)
5. 100 mph tape, 550 cord, TP, other expendables you think would come in handy
6. Drop Leg Holster (blackhawk or SERPA) and Uncle Mike's Paddle-Holster for wearing around every day (drop leg will wear a hole in ACUs over time). I also have one for my IBA so I can have my 9mm handy when in the gun hatch going through towns.
7. Weapons lube that DOESN'T ATTRACT SAND. (MILTECH or Remington Dry Lube only)
8. Two copies of addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, etc.
9. 2 pairs of GOOD boot insoles
10. A Good Tactical Flashlight (SureFire, even though you will get issued one with M4)
11. Red/White light L.E.D. headlamp
12. Spare pair of running shoes
13. MP3 PLAYER W/ x-tra pair of spare headphones
14. Enough batteries to last you 30 days
15. Chap stick
16. Lotion
17. 30 SPF or higher Sun block
18. Bar soap- for some reason its in short supply....almost always
19. Small compact rolls of TP. A lot of places make travel size, half the time you get to a port-a-potty the jackA$s before you ganked the TP
20. Baby wipes-- 30 days worth. Expect that the power and water will either go out, or the water will be contaminated at least once a month.
21. Gold Bond Foot and Body Powder
22. Small clip on LED light-clip it to your will come in handy....quite often.
23. Drink mix for 16/20 oz bottles of water
24. Weightlifting supplies
25. Small photo album with pics from home.
26. Hand sanitizer (small bottles to put in ankle pockets)
27. More books/magazines than you think you will need.
28. DVDs, for you and to loan out for swapping purposes
29. Tactical gloves- military gloves are sort of clumsy ( I love the $9.95 whitewater brand gloves from the clothing sales). Also standard flight nomex are good.
30. Lens anti fog agent. Shaving cream works in a pinch, but you have to apply it every other day or so.
31. Good pair of shower shoes/sandals. I recommend the black adidas....lasted me all year.
32. Small pillow (air inflatable)
33. Cheap digital camera (at least 2.1 mp)
34. Boot knife
35. Gerber multi tool
36. Fabreeze-sometimes the laundry is few and far between.
37. Armor Fresh
38. Extra boot laces
39. Stainless steel coffee cup with screw on lid.
40. Soccer shorts/normal t-shirt to sleep in, hang out in your room in
41. Sweatshirts for winter times hanging around
42. A couple of poncho liners for privacy, nasty mattress cover, etc.
43. A set of twin sheets with pillow case
44. Good regular-size pillow
45. One or two good civilian bath towels
46. Buy a good set ($200) of winter desert boots. All they will give you is a regular summer set and a set of goretex lined for waterproof needs. Desert is a cold place at these altitudes in the winter time.
47. Bring a laptop!!! Also may want a PSP or some other handheld gaming device.
48. Get an external USB hard-drive (120gb). You will need this to back up data to, and to store movies and MP3s that you will fall in on from previous teams.
49. Get a Skype account and download the software from This is how I talk to home 95% of the time. If you call computer to computer it is totally free. You can also skype out from your computer to a regular phone for $0.021 a minute. There is nothing cheaper than that.
50. Decent headset with mic for computer (skype).
51. Webcam for video calls back home.
52. Bring a min. of 18ea. M4 mags per person. 9 that are loaded and 9 that rest. Plan to do M4 mag changeover once per month.
53. Bring 8ea 9mm mags, for same reason above. Change these over every two weeks.
54. Order a LULA mag loader/unloader. It will be the best $12 piece of plastic you every bought. I have 12 mags loaded at all times and when I do change over it will do it in a fraction of the time and save your hands, and save the ammo.
55. Try to get your state or purchase yourself one 12v DC to 110 AC inverter per man for your trucks. There are crucial on mission to charge personal items, cell phone, ICOMs, and especially ANA radios (they only have re-chargeable batteries).
56. Dump the IBA tac vest you get issued. Get a Tactical Tailor MAV chest rig (does not matter if you get 1 or 2 piece one as you want to keep the front open for laying in the prone. You don't want mags pushing into your chest making it hard to breathe) . I wish I would have bought mine at the start. It makes a HUGE difference on the back and shoulders when carrying a loaded rig.
57. Get comfortable pair of desert boots. I wear only the Converse 8" assault boots (non-zipper ones). Oakley, Bates and several others are similar in style and comfort.
58. Bring some good snivel gear for the winter time. Extra poly-pro winter hat, gloves, neck gators, etc.
59. Lock de-icer for the winter time
60. Disposable hand and feet warmers
61. Canned-air, lots of it for electronics weapons, etc.
62. Lens wipes for optics
63. Screen wipes for computers
64. Firing Pin Retaining pins, Brownells is a good source
65. DVD ripping program for your laptop so you can transfer all your DVDs to electrons and store on a harddrive
66. A good assault pack, I have one from Tactical Assault Gear with aluminum stays in it for support. It's been a lifesaver several times,the one the Army issues is a P.O.S.
67. MBiTR pouch from Tactical Tailor
68. An aviators knee board
69. Personal GPS (Garmin, etc.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor and 'Humbling'

I should probably say right up front that this blog entry has nothing to do with the upcoming Sonia Sotomayor nomination process (I'm going to try to avoid it, because I think the whole thing is going to be very scripted and predictable, right down to the Rush Limbaugh soundbites, the faux outrage captured by Drudge headlines, and then the final confirmation vote in her favor). Neither is it going to be some kind of philosophical treatise on what it really means to be 'humble.'

Instead, it's going to be the quick rant of someone who probably would've become an English teacher if a few bumps in the earlier course of his life had shot him in a different direction.

Right after President Obama made his speech today announcing his decision to nominate Sonia Sotomayor for the bench of the Highest Court in the Land, she got up to speak.

And here's how she started: "Thank You, Mr. President, for the most humbling honor of my life."

A quick glance over to the dictionary tells me that 'humbling' means:

1. To curtail or destroy the pride of; humiliate.
2. To cause to be meek or modest in spirit.
3. To give a lower condition or station to; abase.

I should certainly hope that a Supreme Court nomination meets none of the above criteria!

I understand that the English language constantly morphs, and that word meanings constantly evolve, especially when you consider the slang used by young people. Just look at 'peruse,' 'notorious' or 'anxious' for examples of words whose proper usage is more often honored in the breach than in the observance.

Still, there's a curmudgeonly English teacher in me that just cringes every time some self-important athlete who achieves an inherently-meaningless milestone, actor who wins an Oscar, Golden Globe, or lesser-tier award, or politician who wins an appointment or election feels the need to bastardize the words 'humbling' or 'humbled.'

'Honor' and 'honored' are great word choices for such occasions, but you're humbled when something bad happens and it knocks you back down to size.

It would humbling, for instance, if your resume lists you as a fluent Indonesian linguist but then you fail the DLPT.

It would also be humbling to show off your creative side by writing your own wedding vows, but then awkwardly forgetting them during the service.

If you were convinced you WOULD win the Oscar, or would be nominated to the High Court -- and told all your friends and relatives it was coming -- but then you didn't, THAT would be humbling.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Veterans Share

Saturday morning, I was moving on foot towards the Ladd and Whitney Monument to check out the Memorial Day ceremony when I bumped into Ted Lavash, who I knew to have been a Marine but didn't know when.

After convincing Ted to reverse his course back towards home from the Club Diner and towards the ceremony (it didn't take much arm-twisting), I got to asking him when he served with the Marine Corps.


As if he could see the wheels turning in my head to try to figure out what happened then, he broke into my thought before the gears started to grind.

"I was too late for Korea but too early for Vietnam. But I was on the beach in Lebanon in 1958. 10,000 of us came ashore, we stayed for a while and we held the airport."

Amazing. Here I was about to show up at the ceremony standing next to someone who was actually there in the eastern Med in 1958 as a participant in something that's been reduced to a footnote, or at best a paragraph in our history textbooks (President Eisenhower's effort to help stabilize the Maronite government).

Afterwards, as Ted met up with some Marine Corps League buddies and I hitched a ride to Memorial Auditorium from a Navy veteran, I kept thinking about the luck of the draw (and I use the term 'luck' unironically) that determines exactly where someone serves.

That was the topic #1 on the noggin when I saw Dick Howe (author of the eponymous blog conveniently linked to your right) in front of Memorial Auditorium. Knowing he was a) an Army veteran, and b) a high-order history buff, I knew he'd appreciate knowing that I was just talking to a guy who was part that whole 1958 Lebanon adventure.

I was comparing the here-and-now, where you can virtually assume that anyone in the ground services (and increasingly, all the services) has either already served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or is getting ready to do so, to previous eras. By comparison, I wouldn't assume that an active-duty soldier or marine had been in Desert Storm in 1991, and for the smaller wars, forget it. Even the chance that an active-duty Marine would've been on that beach with Ted in 1958 is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

Dick mentioned Grenada. He was on active duty in October 1983 (and wasn't there) but it never even would've occurred to me to ask. Operation URGENT FURY was a small-scale thing, involving mainly Special Operations Forces and some XVIII Airborne Corps folks who were sitting on the other end of the line for President Reagan's 911 call when the "go" order came while the marine barracks was still smoldering in Beirut.

Like so many who served during the Cold War, Lt. Howe cut his teeth in Germany, bracing for hell's fury to pass through the Fulda Gap before the "strategic" elements became involved and changed things irrevocably. This tour preceded orders to Devens, formerly a major league-sized element right in this-here backyard (Now who woulda thunkit -- a young man earns a commission, goes on a far-flung adventure, takes orders to get back to the area he left and set up the next phase of his life, then moves his commission over to the Guard -- sign me up for that one!).

Numbers and odds are important.

Joining the Army or Marines today brings with it a virtual guarantee of service in a combat zone and future eligibility for the VFW. I'm not sure if things have really been that way since World War II -- even during Vietnam, we had far more sizable overseas "presence" commitments, and we never used the Guard and Reserves in the same way, so entry into those groups almost meant the reverse of what it did today, as it came with protection from the Draft.

I consider myself very lucky to have joined the Navy in 2004 and still found my way into "the theater" by earning a spot attached to a unit that does that sort of thing for a living (and whose past involvement in places like Grenada and Panama makes them far-from-forgotten within that community). But even THAT had a lot to do with timing. Any earlier OCS start date would've meant a different, far less exciting time as an Ensign and a JG.

Those odds are a lot different than being a Vietnam-era F-4 pilot (as was the author of Right-Side-of-Lowell, also handily linked at the blogroll to your right), where operational demands were high, risks were great, and there weren't many billets you could be *stashed* at and hide the fact that you possessed that skill.

But it's that very level of uncertainty, and the very willingness to accept that uncertainty, that unites all past and present sailors, soldiers, airmen, marines, and coasties. No matter what your branch of service or your MOS, when you join the military you not only surrender your basic rights (remember, we protect democracy and liberty but we don't always practice it), but you surrender your ability to control your own fate.

People who believe that military service is "noble, but it's something for other people, or other people's kids" just don't get this, and never will. Someone who raises their right hand is essentially saying, "I'll be that person, civilian leadership do with me what you will."

Your Germany could be my Korea. Your Laos might be my Northwest Frontier Province. Your Camp Lemonier could be my Camp Fallujah. Your beach in West Beirut could be my Indonesian archipelago after another tsunami hits and the CA guys get tapped to make things right.

The fact is, we just don't know, and we'll live with uncertainty.

Bearing that uncertainty, asking our families to do the same, and pressing ahead in spite of it -- that will be our special bond.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Senseless Deaths, Redux

For the record, I did not know Elizabeth Durante before she died.

I also didn't know Tavaryna Chouen.

I wouldn't have recognized either of them if we'd passed on the street, they wouldn't have been able to do the same for me, and I couldn't tell you a single thing about what made them unique. I can't tell you what was lost when they died, other than all the potential still remaining in a young life.

But I nearly went into shock this morning when I clicked on the Globe's website and saw the picture and name of Justin Cosby, both of which were instantly recognizable as the former 10th grader at CRLS who frequented the basketball courts between Magazine and Pearl.

Justin was a bright, engaging, energetic young man with an original, expressive writing style. I know this last part because as I've been unpacking and sorting out all the boxes of *stuff* that I've accumulated over the past few years, there are a few essays and assignments in there with his name at the top.

I have no idea why Justin Cosby was killed and probably never will. But I know he will be missed by many, all of whom never had the chance to say a proper goodbye.

Justin, may you rest in peace always.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Did Keith Olbermann Really Just Say That?

While I was just sitting at my desk, updating messages for the boss and not paying too much attention to the TV on in the background as glorified white noise, I heard Keith Olbermann start to go on an anti-Dick Cheney rant.

Fair enough. That's his viewpoint. I'm no bigger a fan of our previous Vice President as I am of the current one, which is to say, not very much of one. What I am a fan of, though, is the First Amendment, so I'm all about Keith Olbermann's right to rant about anything he wants to.

But that same document means I can rant back.

During his diatribe about fear-mongering, Mr. Olbermann completely downplayed the threat once posed by the Fort Dix Six, men who stated a goal of killing as many servicemembers as possible on an Army base in New Jersey (Fort Dix, by the way, is a regional training hub for all deploying reservists from the northeast, so chances are you know someone who could've been affected by this had it been carried out).

Olbermann said something to the effect of "What could a bunch of pizza deliveryman have done by shooting at people on a base where everyone is armed anyway?" I found that pretty crass and offensive. I could say I don't care what people think, or that I never get upset, but: a) neither statement is true (see previous entry), and; b) the fact is that I got pretty upset about what Keith Olbermann seems to think about the Fort Dix Six threat.

I don't want to unfairly speculate about Olbermann's familiarity with military bases, but based on that statement, I would have to surmise that there's not much familiarity to speak of. At least 90% of the people walking around on ANY military base are unarmed at any given time, and that's not to mention that if even they all were, homicidal-suicidal maniacs with grenades and heavy weapons could still probably kill dozens of soldiers (let's say they hit a PT formation) before being *neutralized* themselves.

Also, for the record, just because one of the Newburgh Four apparently suffered from mental problems doesn't mitigate that threat, either. It's like, if someone was trying to rape and kill my family, I wouldn't necessarily feel any safer or reassured after finding out he was a schizophrenic.

Remember George Carlin's bit about that?

Every time someone goes nuts, the local TV news always interviews the neighbors, and everyone says what a "quiet" and "unassuming" guy he was.

Inevitably, someone watching with you will turn to you and say, "It's always the quiet ones."

...And in comes the Great Carlin's rebuttal -- "F--- that! I'm worried about the LOUD ONES!!!"

Call me paranoid, but someone who hatches detailed plots to blow up synagogues, shoot down military aircraft, and ambush people on a base qualifies as a "loud one."

And I reserve the right to be worried.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Favorite Quote, and Why

"Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't." -- Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister 1979-1990

I'm not sure when I first heard this quote, but it definitely registered on some level and has just grown ever since. Besides being a great statement about power itself, it has WAY broader applications about personality and identity. Put simply, it says a ton about just being who you are, not being defensive about it, and maintaining a healthy level of skepticism anytime it seeems someone is trying too hard to convince you who they are with words instead of actions.

Here are three examples of statements that have recently set off my BS detector:

(1) "I don't care what anyone else thinks of me." This is one that we've all heard plenty of times, and maybe one we've all said before as well. If it's intended by the speaker as "I don't care what certain people think," or "I'm not primarily concerned with the court of public opinion," it may be true -- it's noble, and I respect it. However, let's be real -- there's no such thing as a person who truly doesn't care what any other person thinks of him or her. Let's start by admitting that whether it's your mother, your father, your child, your boss, your colleagues, or whoever, other peoples' opinions of you affect your sense of well-being. If you still believe that you really don't care what anyone thinks, how about I plaster flyers all over your neighborhood with your name and picture and the words "WARNING: DANGEROUS REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER." Guess what might happen? Suddenly, you might say 'uncle' and realize that yes, sometimes you can be affected by others' opinions.

As I said in the beginning, I really have come across people who are unafraid to take unpopular stances, correct people even when it would be easier to just walk on by, or to tell the emperor that he's not wearing any clothes.

Guess what they all have in common? They don't need to constantly prove it. Just as Lady Thatcher's quote suggests, someone who really tells it like it is doesn't need to constantly, loudly remind people that they do it. And what's the ultimate irony behind a guy who does?

He's probably making such a point of it as a way of trying quite hard to exert a devil-may-care, plays-by-his-own-set-rules persona. In other words, because he cares tremendously what the listener thinks, or at least a lot more than the great median clump of people that sometimes care, sometimes don't, but don't need to make a point of it.

(2) "I never get stressed. I'm Peyton Manning in the pocket on 3rd and 6...yup, I'm unflappable."

Again, I'll grant that some people are way quicker or slower to lose their cool than others. But as I've said a time or two before on this blog, and will probably say again, show me a person who's upset about something and I'll show you someone who gives a rip. I've mainly seen this shine through in work experiences -- the people who don't get excited about anything get away with it because they're not invested in it. They're happy to let others do the work, put their feet on the desk, and then talk about what cool customers they are. Hardly impressive, and hardly a Super Bowl MVP on third and long. Wait until these people have something they're actually concerned about, like a pay issue, a promotion exam, or something in their personal life come up, and somehow all that stress bubbles to the surface.

I feel especially qualified to say this because from 2005 to 2008, I had the neat experience of living and working with people who would meet anyone's definition of a tough guy, or of someone who might know how to handle stress. There were definitely times I saw people get emotional, use four-letter words, and show other outward signs of stress. It was done at appropriate times, it was controlled, and it was the natural outgrowth of someone showing genuine passion about what he did for a living. Right or wrong, one thing's for certain -- I never heard anybody putting their tough guy credentials, or their ice-water-through-the-veins credentials on display.

(3) Any emphasis on one's own humility.

This one should pretty much speak for itself. It's like, if you invite me to your house for dinner, I'm not going to start telling you that you don't have to count the silverware before I come over. Whether I would even think of stealing your corkscrew or pizza slicer is so beyond the pale that it just won't come up. I think of humility the same way.

On a couple occasions, I've heard people go on and on about how humble they are -- in one case, with the stated reminder that "...and let's just say there's a lot I could choose not to be humble about." Huh?

I know plenty of humble people, and it shows every day, in the thousands of little interactions they have with people of all ranks and from all backgrounds. They probably never have to stop to think about it, and they certainly don't have to go around telling others about it.

I've written about this quote at least once before and I know I will again.

In fact, last night at the annual Canal Place I owners' meeting and trustee election, someone who was clearly disgruntled about the way a decision was made to overturn the ban on welcome mats interjected into his comments that, "I couldn't care less about welcome mats."

With a nod to the great humor writer Dave Barry, I swear I'm not making this up.

This guy followed that zinger with a couple paragraphs' worth of comments about welcome mats, and why certain material should not be allowed for the residents who do choose to put the mats in front of their doors.

The many in the room who actually couldn't have cared less about welcome mats demonstrated this lack of concern by not saying anything in the first place, and then politely waiting for this guy to wrap up his comments (it quickly became clear he had not thought to address this before the board previously, as the pro-mat people had repeatedly done) before moving on with their lives.

Before I wrap this entry up, I am going to mention another reason this quote matters to me -- rather than just use it to place value on what's subtle and can go without being said, it also serves as a reminder not to be defensive. This may be reading into it a bit too far (if you don't already know, I'm a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher), but I think it can also apply as life advice for a lot of other situations.

Much like Ralph Ellison's "I yam what I yam," or Martin Luther's "Here I stand, I can do no other," I interpret this quote to mean that sometimes it's not worth explaining yourself if you feel misunderstood or mischaracterized.

Personally, I'm equal parts idealism and ambition, something I've never tried to hide. But I'll admit that it's stung a bit to have people doubt my sincerity, which has happened a time or two from someone making a pat, superficial assumption based on connecting point A to point B on a resume or trying to fit some other decision into a neat narrative.

So here's what the Thatcher quote says to me about that: Stop worrying about the peanut gallery. Be who you are, rather than explain who you are, and charge forth without apology.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kathleen's Keystrokes: The Power of Blogs, Redux

Like any good Lowell blogger, I'm fond of writing about new media, its pros and cons, and what it will mean in the future for the way that citizens receive information and stay informed.

The next time someone doubts the power of e-mails and blogs to quickly disseminate information that affects people locally, I now have this case study to throw back at them:

Yesterday, Kathleen Marcin (LDNA President) posted about the lack of outrage and general attention following the shooting death of Tavaryna Choeun last week. Specifically, she called out the local blog community (among others) for not being involved, in both the blog post and an e-mail that went to LDNA members and some other neighborhood groups.

So this morning, when I sat down at my desk and did my usual Lowell Handmade scan to see which blogs to read, there it was -- Left in Lowell had picked up on it (with direct text from the original e-mail), Jen and Tommy had done something, and there was coverage of that post front and center on Also this morning, a heartfelt piece about remembering Ms. Choeun was posted to Choosing a Soundtrack, which started with a nod to Marcin's original admonition.

So take some righteous indignation, add in the power of new media and instantaneous communications, and you have a ripple effect -- literally, overnight.

We can't imagine how the rally tonight at 5:00 would have looked without any of this coverage, but I'm willing to bet dollars to donuts that the local blogosphere helped to stoke interest in this and it will affect the turnout (I'll be fighting traffic on 395-N, but I'll turn back to Handmade to read about it later).

During the UML community discuss series hosted by Bill Berkowitz's class, I practically made "use the blogs" my hobbyhorse every time a community group or non-profit asked people how they could best spread their word.

A few times, the pushback I got was that the blogs would be of limited value because of a preaching-to-the-choir effect -- that is to say, blog readers are already informed, so there's limited marginal return.

For two key reasons, I beg to differ.

First, because even though people who read blogs may already be generally informed, there's always some nugget of information you wouldn't have gotten elsewhere, whether it's a book sale at the senior center, a subcommittee meeting, or commentary on how the sparks flew at the last School Committee meeting.

Second, information has a way of flowing in all directions. It's like, let's say I read a half-dozen or so local blogs. From those, I learn. I have friendly chats with my next-door neighbors, who are generally informed and involved, but not as into the blog scene. What happens? Information gets passed -- I learn stuff, they learn stuff, and we respond accordingly. Multiply that times the thousands and thousands of links people have with their peers, and you can see the power. Even if the major local blogs *only* have a couple hundred unique readers a day, that's still a potentially huge source of information flow.

To me, saying the blogs only reach the already-connected is like saying Meet the Press doesn't matter because the only people who watch it are already clued in to the latest political trends in Washington. That would have some steam behind it, but would ultimately miss the mark. If someone announces something truly spectacular or important on a Sunday morning political talk show, yes, the first people to learn of it will be the country's chattering classes. However, those very people will help drive the information cycle that would inevitably result in the wake of a truly significant announcement.

Like I said, we'll never know how tonight's rally would look if that e-mail hadn't gone out across the city or been posted to the LDNA site. But my basic common sense test says that any event that headlines the local blogs will grab the attention of the city's leaders, whether they'd admit to it or not (apparently, some City Councilors claim not to read The Column...yeah, right).

Blogs, Twitter, and e-mail can mobilize people in way that print media can't, if only because of the time restrictions and the limitations placed by a once-a-day publishing cycle.

For the quick ripple effect they can create, they matter.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Why the Post-9/11 GI Bill is Such a Big Deal

At yesterday's Memorial Day ceremony at the Lowell Cemetery, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas spoke about current veterans' issues, chiefly the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

My take on how prominently this figures on most of the country's radar screen is admittedly skewed -- I hear people raving about this every day, but probably only because they're directly impacted by it.

Directly from the VA website:

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is for individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate service on or after September 11, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days. You must have received an honorable discharge to be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The Post-9/11 GI Bill will become effective for training on or after August 1, 2009. This program will pay eligible individuals:
tuition & fees directly to the school not to exceed the maximum in-state tuition & fees at a public Institution of Higher Learning.
see chart listing 2008 - 2009 maximum rates
a monthly housing allowance based on the Basic Allowance for Housing for an E-5 with dependents at the location of the school.
determine the BAH for your school's ZIP code click here (link goes to a non-VA

an annual books & supplies stipend of $1,000 paid proportionately based on enrollment a one-time rural benefit payment for eligible individuals
comparison chart for more information.

This benefit is payable only for training at an Institution of Higher Learning (IHL)
(See comparison chart for more information). If you are enrolled
exclusively in online training you will not receive the housing allowance. If
you are on active duty you will not receive the housing allowance or books &
supplies stipend. This benefit provides up to 36 months of education benefits,
generally benefits are payable for 15 years following your release from active

This is a HUGE deal, because it brings back the original promise of the post-WWII GI Bill, which was the single-greatest enabler of upward mobility in the history of this country. The promise of that bill at the time was that veterans returning home from the war would be able to get a college education, paid in full by Uncle Sam. Detailed studies of that bill have since shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that that government expenditure was a great investment, as it led to a more productive, educated, and effective workforce for the rest of the 20th century.

Since that time, as we all know, college tuition costs have skyrocketed far beyond inflation. Meanwhile, the GI Bill has sort of just lagged. The version I entered into when joining the service in 2004 was a $1200 "pay-in" ($100/month for the first twelve months) for the future promise of around $1,000/month for up to three years of higher education. Nothing to sneeze at, for sure, but not enough to make a major dent in the cost of a private MBA or JD program.

As Congresswoman Tsongas said more than once yesterday, this new legislation "restores the promise," because it pays a generous housing stipend (roughly $2k/month for the Boston area) in addition to the full freight of whatever the most expensive state school in your state costs. So if you choose to go to MIT, you're still going to pay something, but it's literally a fraction of what you'd pay without it.

But here's the part that has so many senior non-coms excited -- there's a provision for transferrability to a spouse or other family member. So if you joined 18 years ago out of high school, and you either earned your Bachelor's via military courses, or you just don't see the need/point of full-time school anymore, you can offer your kid the chance to go to whatever school he or she wants to. Now, it only works for one kid (or several if you want to spread the money out), but it still makes a TREMENDOUS difference in the financial picture of many military families.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What BRAC Could Whack..

Yesterday, at 1000 in the Shepherd of the Sea Chapel in Groton, CT, the senior-most operational commander in the Northeast region turned over with this relief, who is now Commander, Submarine Group TWO.

Rear Admiral Bruce Grooms left to become the Executive Director of the Joint Staff down at the Pentagon, having been hand-selected by Admiral Mike Mullen (Chairman, JCS) for the position. This would've made Admiral Grooms the #2 man for Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal, but that just changed, as McChrystal was recently named the top operational commander in Afghanistan. Admiral Grooms' relief is Rear Admiral Paul Bushong, who had been serving at the Pentagon as N87B (that's the deputy for the two-star on the Navy staff who represents the entire submarine force).

I've got a bunch of pics from the ceremony forthcoming -- I know I said that with Portsmouth, too, but they're not on my camera, so that's my excuse for not having them at the ready now.

If the last round of BRAC (that's Base Realignment and Closure) recommendations from former Secretary Rumsfeld had been approved, the last operational Navy base in all of New England would no longer exist. Until certain forces aligned to keep SUBASE Groton up and running, the proposal from the Pentagon was to save millions of dollars in the very long term by concentrating the entire East Coast submarine force in Norfolk, VA and Kings Bay, GA.

BRAC has already hit this region hard.

The general logic behind BRAC is that if you station people in areas where land is cheaper, you save a ton of money on things like housing, per diem stipends, and the many other personnel and logistics costs that are just higher in an area with a higher cost-of-living.

The second way the bean counters at the Pentagon can save a lot of money is by concentrating personnel and equipment. The military spends a small fortune every year on moving people around, paying for them to travel to conferences and other fly-in events, and on the costs of moving heavy equipment around. When you have MAJOR concentrations of assets, like you currently do in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area of Virginia, you can peel back a lot of those costs, as you make it possible for everything from families to materiel stay in one general area for a heckuva lot longer.

But if you carry those two ideas to their logical extreme, you would just concentrate all your forces in one area with cheap land, which would violate one of the very few truly ironclad lessons/principles of history, which is not to over-concentrate everything in your arsenal. It makes you extremely vulnerable to a natural disaster (i.e. hurricane), an epidemic (just imagine swine flu but much worse), or a terrorist attack (a single dirty bomb detonation in a concentrated area of personnel).

Thankfully, the SECDEF was rebuffed back in 2005 and the birthplace of the modern submarine was saved. People who wish to stay in uniform AND serve in New England have a way to do so, and a whole region's worth of impressionable youngsters have potential military role models within a day's drive. It's hard to put an exact dollar value on that, but it definitely does matter. Already, the Northeast is by far the most underrepresented region as far as who feeds new recruits into the system nationally.

There are tons of examples of areas that have succeeded post-BRAC. A good example might be Pease AFB just outside of Portsmouth, which re-invented itself into a major commercial flight hub. There are already tons of bright, innovative ideas about what may happen out at Devens. But their home areas were already a lot less vulnerable than is southeastern CT.

The economy of that area is supported by seven pillars -- the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, General Dynamics, Pfizer, and the SUBASE. The casinos are important local destinations, but how many great jobs do they really provide for the educated and upwardly mobile? Also, if other parts of New England added casinos, a lot of the Foxwoods/Mohegan allure would be lost to convenience. Pfizer could pull chalks at any time, and already provides many of its jobs for foreign workers on temporary visas -- not the types to stay for decades and generations and make a human *investment* in the region.

A trip to the Groton Super Wal-Mart Thursday night just reinforced this for me -- nearly all the shoppers were either foreign Pfizer employees and their families or military personnel and/or their own spouses and families.

If the military rug were to be pulled out from under the local businesses that depend on those dollars to survive, I don't think many would. Downtown New London is already tumbleweeds, boarded-up storefronts, and "For Rent" signs. Mystic is still a regional tourist destination, but that's only seasonal, and it's a small part of the area.

I used to get a lot of funny looks when I explained to people that I moved to Lowell even when I had just learned I was being stationed down at the SUBASE (I probably still do but I'm so inured to it now I just don't notice). But as my time down there is drawing to a close, the decision seems like it makes more and more sense. The Merrimack Valley, and Greater Boston in general, has a ton going for it -- but you already knew that. Any one leg could get broken, and the table would still be standing.

Not so much for southeastern CT. I'm one of the most optimistic people I know, but in investment terms, I'm far from *long* on either Norwich or New London, so it's no accident that I didn't make either my personal or professional *base.* I wish them the best, though I know wishing is not exactly a concrete strategy.

And for what it's worth -- if it's worth anything -- I'll cross my fingers that the BRAC boogeyman doesn't come back around again that way, too.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stan the Man,8599,1897542,00.html

I was thrilled to see the headlines this morning that Gen. McChrystal is going to be taking over as the General in charge of the Afghanistan mission.

That's phenomenal news.

There are very few people you come across where nearly everyone who has worked with him/her tell you, "Yup, this person really lives up to the hype...he/she is the real deal." Gen. McChrystal is one of those rare people.

Let's hope he doesn't get beat up too badly during the confirmation hearings, and then let's get him in the driver's seat for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) as fast as we can.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on Being an FNG

I mistakenly wrote to a former Army Captain today and referred to the term FNG, as in "F---ing New Guy," as being "something they say in the Navy." The term is almost always used disparagingly, it's gender-, rate-, and rank-neutral, and it works equally well overseas or back in the Continental U.S.

One wiki search later, and I've learned that FNG is an old term that spans all services and dates back at least to Vietnam.

FNGs were an important part of the group dynamic of US units in Vietnam and their treatment had at its core an overall sense of "us" (those with experience of the war) and "them" (those who were back in the United States). As one soldier said, FNGs were "still shitting stateside chow".[4] It was in combat units that the FNG was truly ignored and hated by his fellow soldiers. An FNG in a combat unit was "treated as a non-person, a pariah to be shunned and scorned, almost vilified, until he passed that magic, unseen line to respectability".[5]

I bolded that last part of the quote because I love the way it refers to one's transition away from being an FNG as something unstated and non-quantifiable. I think there's a universal application here and it goes way beyond the military: Anytime you show up ANYWHERE for the first time, like it or not, you're an FNG. Eventually, of course, you stop being an FNG, but no one really knows when. Personally, I think the ratio of people newer or older than you to the unit is key -- after a year or so at any active duty unit, you can't really be an FNG anymore, because by then half the staff has probably been there for less time than you have.

So it might not necessarily work so well for your neighborhood, your church, or your job -- if turnover there isn't all that frequent, you can still be an FNG after years, no matter how much you wish you weren't. I guess it all just depends, but no matter how welcoming your *group* is, or how transitory its membership, there's still got to be some period of time where you're an FNG.

Soon, I'm going to be an FNG in many senses of the word -- new to the rank, to the MOS, the unit, the base, and most important of all, the service. So in comes the question -- How should one handle being an FNG?

The most obvious thing that comes to my mind is a probationary period on new ideas or suggestions about how things should be done. I won't try to remain completely quiet -- besides running counter to my natural personality, I might run the risk of appearing aloof, which couldn't be further from the case. However, I definitely won't start regaling people with tales from "...this one time, at band camp" because I know no quicker way to make eyes roll.

But I think the real key to successfully transitioning from FNG to just, well G, is to give oneself a healthy period of time to Observe and Orient before Deciding to Act (and thanks to Col. Boyd for coming with the OODA loop phrase to aid the memory).

Soak stuff in.

Get your bearings.

Learn which side of your blouse the patches go on.

Figure out the hierarchies, formal and informal.

When the Good Idea Fairy lands on your shoulder, brush him off before you wind up with the newest suggestion to most efficiently maintain the vehicles or to muster for PT.

Eventually, when you see something that you might want to tweak, or wish it were different, find the right way to voice that opinion, subtly and tactfully. But only once you're no longer an FNG.

All groups have their tribal codes and codas, stated and implicit. All have common rituals and language to draw distinctions between *in* and *out.* Naturally, then, all SHOULD have a healthy skepticism of anyone who comes in from somewhere else, especially someone in a leadership role prone to verbal miscues like confusing "latrine" with "head."

That is, of course, until that person stops being an FNG. At which point, of course, he can begin viewing newcomers with a quizzical eye and the dismissive tone that comes when he turns to someone else and says, "So, who's this FNG?"

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Drillbit Taylor

I'm going to spend most of next year in a semi-employed sort of status. I'll be away for training for entire chunks at a time at such scenic locales as Huachuca City, AZ and Fayetteville, NC, and then back-and-forth on weekends to and from not-so-exotic locales like Reading and Milford, MA.

So I'll be fully engaged and paid for all the times that I'm busy, which is to say not completely employed, but I'll be way too busy doing all of that to even think about going out and starting an entirely new career, especially when I factor in the key "not going to be in this country for most of 2011" detail. On top of all that, there's the Everest-sized challenge ahead of trying to get a 2/2 qualifying score in Pashto, Dari, or, ideally, both.

Existing savings and the accession bonus will help, as will the currently-rebounding stock market. However, the mortgage and condo fee still loom each month, and the savings might be nice to have around as a protection against usurious credit card interest rates when those things you don't budget for, like auto repairs and leaks in the plumbing set you back when you're least ready.

So herein lies the challenge that I've been posing to anyone and everyone I've spoken to in the last few weeks:

If you were in a situation where you needed a job to supplement your income that would: a) maximize your schedule flexibility to the point where you could pretty much dictate when you'd work, b) let you walk away at any time, for any reason, and c) gave you the free time you'd need to spend reading and studying the stuff you needed to prepare you for a coming deployment, what would you do?

A lot of people have thrown out some great ideas. Working as a third-shift security guard at a bank, school, or other institution would definitely give me (c), but would not necessarily allow for (a) or (b), so might not be doable. Ad-hoc work as a limo driver would meet conditions (a) and (b), but would definitely not allow for (c). Temp work would run into the same problem. So would everything else from tutoring at an after-school center to sorting boxes for UPS -- yes, they're jobs that would help with bills, but the per-hour wage isn't *worth* more than time that would allow for endless Rosetta Stone drill repetitions or histories of the tribes of the Panjshir Valley.

At the end of the day, the only thing I keep coming back to is substitute teaching. There's always a demand for competent subs, esp. when you consider how many schools there are here and in the surrounding towns. The pay isn't amazing, but it would quite easily pay most of my bills, and mitigate the damage done to existing savings. It doesn't require any commitment beyond the day-to-day "Yes, I'm available" on the phone in the morning. It could easily be walked away from if I get picked up for ADSW (that's Active Duty for Special Work). It definitely meets condition (c) because during free periods, video periods, and anytime after the last bell it leaves plenty of time in the day-to-day schedule.

So much like the forgettable Owen Wilson film about the substitute from the Army (no, wait, that Drillbit Taylor character was actually neither, and perhaps I should've headlined with a strained 'submarines to substitute' pun), it looks like subbing might be the best intersection of schedule flexibility, during-the-day downtime, and enough pocket change to help out with the necessities.

Plus, you never know, it might be a chance to influence a young mind or two. Expectations for subs are usually quite low, so just by getting in there, leaning back on some of my student-teaching experience, and filling in competently for teachers might lead to situations where I can actually *teach*, even if just for short blips of time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

FLPPing out at the Defense Department

Here is one of the many well-thought, sensible, and innovative policy changes to come out of the Defense Department in the past couple years: Foreign Language Proficiency Pay (FLPP) for ALL qualified servicemembers, regardless of rank, rate, or service branch.

It's based on a matrix that takes into account your score on the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and the criticality of the language you speak. It maxes out at $1,000/month for active duty and $500 for Guard and Reserve.

Here are the "Immediate Investment" languages from the list: Arabic, Chinese, Persian Dari/Persian Farsi, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Pashtu, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, and Punjabi.

The next category is "Strategic Stronghold" languages, which pay slightly less per month for an equivalent test score, as compared to those in the above paragraph.

Now, you might be wondering, why on earth is it a good idea for DoD to be paying the cook on a ship in The Seychelles to be able to speak Chinese? Or for an Air Force supply clerk in Qatar to be able to speak Urdu? Here's why: Paying that guy (or girl) $12,000 a year to maintain proficiency in the language is: a) a much stronger incentive than saying "We should do this," but b) much more importantly, it's a way for the bean-counters at the Pentagon to recognize where the speakers are when they're needed. Hiring contractors when you need them is at least 20 times more expensive, and it comes with a whole new set of challenges when security clearances become involved.

Let's say a crisis erupts in the Balkans; suddenly, in our hypothetical, we need to identify ALL the fluent Serb-Croat speakers within DoD. Past examples have repeatedly shown that people aren't going to do this on their own -- after all, where's their incentive? In the worst cases I've heard of, people have hidden or even outright lied so as not to be yanked overseas so their critical skill could be used.

The new FLPP system totally changes that. If you're willing be paid for your skill, you're not going to be able to hide when you're needed. And if you're needed, you can't just opt out -- when ANY servicemember, regardless of rank, MOS, or branch, raises their right hand, states the oath, and then signs on the dotted line, he or she willingly cedes most of the basic rights that most other Americans enjoy every day. If a civilian employer wanted to relocate an employee, the employee would have the right to simply not go; in the DoD, that act would be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and could mean a long bus ride to Fort Leavenworth.

That's why FLPP makes tons of sense for all the parties involved. If you were lucky enough to have a parent who was a native speaker of one of the critical languages, or if you just like to travel and/or study a lot, you might have a back-pocket skill that could earn you a very nice chunk of extra change.

But when it comes time to pay the piper for it, the DoD will have in you an asset that's already trained, probably has a clearance, and can be had for pennies on the dollar compared to a contract linguist.

As a way forward, I'll spend a lot of next year working my l'il tail off on the Dari and Pashto quals. I won't get *paid* for it in the sense of an hourly wage-earner, but I'm thinking of it as a long-term investment that, when laid out over the next 15+ years of service, sure beats a lot of potential alternatives.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Ministry of Hope

Last night marked the last in this round of UML-community discussions led by Prof. Bill Berkowitz and his Community Social Psychology grad students. The guest speaker was Diane Waddell from the Living Waters Ministry of Hope, now located on West Adams Street. There were also about a dozen or so homeless Lowellians, mostly residents of the Transitional Living Center on Middlesex, and all associated with Living Waters.

From the beginning, Ms. Waddell explained that Living Waters was about helping to meet people's basic needs, and that it was "a hand up, not a hand out." A drop-in center that depends on volunteers, financial contributions, and help from local churches, Living Waters' biggest challenge is fundraising. Simply put, they need more money to meet more needs -- tents, blankets, socks, shirts, and eventually an expanded building.

Several homeless residents explained their situations, to include Kevin, a former homeowner who, after losing his house, was arrested for sleeping outdoors in a public place; the arrest then made it even harder for him to find a job that could help reverse his fortune. Others talked about the stigma they face when filling out job applications and indicating their housing status or listing their address as "189 Middlesex."

The biggest commonality I saw here from the last meeting was that the best ideas were practical and offered something to would-be donors. Much like a community group that could increase membership by appealing to their neighbors' self-interest, a non-profit group looking to raise more funds ought to think along the same lines.

Here were three such ideas:

(1) For fundraising, Steve Hattan suggested that Living Waters raise money by offering something back. Two examples he cited were car washes and snow shoveling, and the advice is universal -- whether it's a Little League, a local Fire Department, or a ministry serving the homeless, you're going to find a much more willing donor pool when you're offering a service or something else of value. People are naturally skeptical, as they should be, everytime sometime comes to them with an open palm asking for money. This seemed to mesh well with something said by Allegra Williams from the Tent City Coalition ( about charity versus empowerment. It seems like this is one of those cases where you can come from the Right (Hey! We shouldn't just write blank checks all day) or from the Left (Hey! We shouldn't patronize people who need a hand up with money-for-nothing) and find some middle ground. Another example Mr. Hattan brought up later on was the idea of using something like a thrift store to raise money and teach skills; as it turns out, Ms. Waddell has been planning this for some time, but needs to expand the current Living Waters structure to be able to do it.

(2) Right next to Mr. Hattan was Paul Marion (UML Community Outreach), who talked about ways that homeless advocacy organizations might be able to create "a different model for providing services." He talked about using community partnerships (I'm thinking David Brooks may have been his muse here) to bring about things like contract work and even small businesses. Tapping into resources like the MBA program, local banks working via the Community Reinvestment Act, and other local contractors would put together the right mix of business know-how, access to capital, and labor demand with people willing to work in order to improve their lot in life. As long as it's done in a way that doesn't exploit the homeless (and this could be done with simple verifications by program directors), using an available but vastly under-utilized source of labor and talent to work throughout the city seems pretty hard to argue against. It also goes a long way beyond just giving someone the proverbial fish, who will then need another tomorrow, and the next day...

(3) Right next to Mr. Marion, in turn, was Jay Mason, a local architect who had firsthand knowledge of the Associated Grantmakers of Boston, a clearinghouse of fund providers. Associated Grantmakers puts on periodic two-hour seminars on how to use the existing grant application system to bring more money to non-profit organizations.

Hearing all these ideas gave me an idea -- someone with business knowledge, a big heart, and a lot of time on his hands could do wonders for the world -- or even just the community, by working as a pro bono consultant for the many non-profit groups who could use the help. Listening to all the groups that presented during Prof. Berkowitz's series left me with no doubt about the goodness of their leaders' motives or the causes themselves. It did show me, however, that a lot of these groups could stand to greatly benefit with more input from people with business and marketing knowledge. Already cash-strapped, I don't think they could shell out the big bucks for the whizbang consulting firms from Boston, but I do think it'd be a huge help if them if they could seek out more sessions like these to get constructive feedback about how to improve their publicity and finances.

Before the meeting ended, Ms. Williams put in a mention for the Homeless Benefit Concert to be held Saturday, 23 May from 7-10 p.m. at the Revolving Museum ($10/door). The proceeds from this concert will fund the installation of washers, dryers, and showers at the shelter. After Mr. Hattan's point and the ones that followed, the timing of the plug was apropos -- the Tent City Coalition is raising money by offering something valuable to the community in the form of a downtown concert.

For the time being, that spells the end of the UML-community discussions for this class, though I'm told they may pick up next academic year. I've had a great time attending these and writing about them afterwards. If you didn't see Kathleen Marcin's quote in the related Sun article from two Sundays ago, one of the best things about these sessions is that they put people from a lot of backgrounds, neighborhoods, etc. into one common place. From there, ideas naturally flow, social capital develops, and the community grows stronger.

As I know I've said before, it's been particularly good to see these things steered towards actual, tangible action steps that will yield results. I thought the UML students were a tough crowd, but in a good way; the more vocal ones in particular made what I hope were the strongest impressions on the presenters to be self-critical in the way they solve their problems.

One last thought before I wrap up: It was also great to see Council candidates Paul Belley and Ryan Berard attend these sessions. Time and again, there were laments from students and presenters about non-responsiveness from local government; having the ear of two potential future members of that government can only have helped those causes. The best thing those advocates can do, I believe, is make their causes known to those who might represent them, register, vote, and then hold those leaders accountable for the next two years.

The right to complain about your government is guaranteed by the First Amendment, of course, but it seems like you lose a little bit of your moral high ground to do so when you don't even bother to vote.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hamas Singing a New Tune?

I had reason to be optimistic today when I caught this NY Times headline:

In the story, Khaled Meshal, Hamas' leader, advocates a very Palestinian Authority-ish stance, calling for a return to pre-1967 borders, dismantling of settlements, and right of return for Palestinian refugees.

I know the right of return issue makes the whole thing a non-starter for many, who fear the consequences of the numbers who could be involved may threaten Israel's existence.

Still, the fact that anyone from Hamas -- let alone its leader -- is calling for anything other than pushing the Israeli state right into the sea has got to be cause for optimism on some level.

Surely, a two-state solution will not mean the end to all terrorism in the region. If we ever reach such a solution, and isolated terror attacks still occur (which they will), there will undoubtedly be a chorus of "I told you sos," from the naysayers. But if we make the total cessation of attacks a precursor to the two states, that only ensures we'll never see such a solution, because it makes any teenager with a chest full of nails and ball bearings more powerful than the U.S., the UN, and the EU put together.

And it will give many of the people in the world who don't see this conflict the way most Americans do continued reason to offer moral support to the stateless, who, by accident of birth, happen to find their homes in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Blog Fatigue? Not Here..

"...A time to laugh..." -- Ecclesiastes 3:4

I just made three additions to the blog roll here. Though each of these blogs has been around for a little while, I've been reading each for a few weeks, and they are new additions to the list to your right. They are: Art is the Handmaid of Human Good, Lowell Shallot, and Mr. Mill City.

To anyone following the local blog scene, or just glancing at the roll here (most of which are local blogs) it could seem like we're at risk of facing blog saturation, or "blog fatigue." There are definitely plenty of blogs, and yes, it's probably easier to start one than to engage in any license-requiring activity such as driving a car, owning a firearm, or catching certain types of fish.

I don't think we're in any danger.

If you were to double the number of existing blogs without too many new variations on themes they already contain, then yes, I'd say we might be at risk of blog saturation -- the point at which there'd be too many to keep up with, they'd tend to mostly blend together, and you wouldn't be able to fit most of the city's blogatariat in the big kids' room at Cafe Aiello.

Each of the blogs you see on the right offers something slightly (or very) different from each of the others, with the main difference being the blog's coverage focus. Each has something unique that makes it stand out from all the others, whether it's depth and breadth of Lowell history and politics coverage (Richard Howe), national and world developing news coverage (Right-Side-of-Lowell), unique local sports and live music stuff (Choosing a Soundtrack), news for a specific neighborhood (LDNA blog), etc. Each offers a different flavor, and you can do a quick headline and lead glance by checking out Lowell Handmade. That takes about a second, and you can use it to steer you towards what you want while skipping over what you don't.

As for this blog, it's the only place you're going to get the perspective of a current military member, and it's the only one I know with a strict 'comment-to-the-comment' policy, born out of my frustration back when I was *just* a blog reader that someone takes the time to say something thoughtful about a post, but then you'd never see the author come back in kind, which always seemed like one of the things that could make blogs more interesting than traditional media. But besides, where else are you going to get a micro-essay on who should actually say thank you after a friend comes to visit for the weekend? (If you're curious, it's the person being visited who should offer gratitude, not the visitor...)

But anyway I digress -- back to the three new ones. What Lowell Shallot and Mr. Mill City have in common is that they do satire of the city -- everything from its ad campaign to its leaders to its reputation. That brings unique value, as no one else was really doing that in anywhere near as clever or as focused a way. I was talking with a bunch of Canal Place neighbors this morning and found there were several fans of these blogs; although there was some disagreement about which posts were funniest, we had real consensus about our appreciation for seeing satire in the local blogosphere. As to the question about whether certain city personalities seemed to be sitting in the crosshairs over at Lowell Shallot, it was also agreed that a) much of the content was legitimately funny, not just a bunch of pot shots, and that b) there was a certain "Saturday Night Live" effect to it, in that being spoofed is a compliment with an unstated but real statement about your status/stature.

Art is the Handmaid of Human Good also brings something unique to the table, with its recipes and very useful, down-to-earth tips on getting by on a budget. I know I've written on several occasions about my constant attempts to be more frugal and to cook more of my own food (and yes, those two would certainly go hand-in-hand), so I've found this blog to be a great source of practical information.

So, as a huge fan of the city's blogs, and someone who has found blogging to be a tremendously fun and rewarding experience over the past year or so, I'm going to continue to read each of the ones listed on this blogroll as much as possible. And as a lifelong fan of comedy, and as someone who swears that in another life he coulda/shoulda/woulda been a comedy writer, thanks to the anonymous authors of Lowell Shallot and Mr. Mill City for doing what you do.