Friday, April 30, 2010

A tragedy all around

Yesterday, a 19-year-old boy (or, if you go strictly by chronology, man) was convicted of first degree murder for killing another boy -- this one 15 -- three years ago at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, which is located in a tony suburb west of Boston.

There's no doubt that the killer -- John Odgren -- committed the crime. The facts -- that he walked into a boy's room at the school and stabbed James Alenson (whom he'd never met) in cold blood -- are beyond dispute. And Odgren's attorney (Jonathan Shapiro) didn't even try to challenge them.

It was about as senseless a crime as I've heard of. How could you work up such a twisted hatred of someone you've never met? And, more importantly, how could a 16-year-old boy have developed his sociopath-ism to the point where he'd thrill-kill someone in his own school?

The answer, obviously, lies in the mental health of the perpetrator.

Odgren has Asperger's Disorder, which is a mild form of autism. People with Asperger's can, typically, be highly intelligent while, at the same time, have poorly developed social skills.

We need to establish right off the bat that Asperger's sufferers are not inherently violent. There is no link ... no logical leap ... that would suggest those who suffer with it are hard-wired toward violence if a specific set of circumstances arises.

But it's also true that people with Asperger's are often victims of the same scourge that seems to affect schools all across America: bullying, taunting, hazing and social black-balling.

This isn't to say that Odgren shouldn't be accountable for what he did. It just means that there's a reason for everything, it's often complicated, and that we owe it to ourselves as a society to sort through these situations and try to gain some perspective from them.

In Massachusetts, first degree murder results in a mandatory life sentence. As a result, Odgren, who was 16 when he committed the murder, will spend the rest of his life behind bars, in a maximum security prison. His life, no doubt, will be a living hell, as all indications point to the fact that he is an emotionally immature, unstable kid who has no idea what he's in for when he's integrated within the general prison population.

Some people will say that Odgren should have taken that under consideration when he channeled his obsession with all things dark into committing a thrill-kill. They're right. People who have Asperger's generally know right from wrong. There's no inherent lack of perception here.

Shapiro argued that Odgren was the victim of a brief psychotic episode that stemmed from being delusional, and, because of that, he should have been judged not guilty by reason of insanity. That defense rarely works. Juries aren't all that willing, especially in this day and age, to excuse people from their heinous crimes. And that's how many people see it.

What they don't often see -- and what the judge in this case refused to allow to the jury to hear -- is that people judged criminally insane aren't just let loose. In an overwhelming majority of cases, they're confined for a long, long stretch to a mental health institution. Their release, if it ever happens at all, is up to a judge.

There are all kinds of jumbling emotions that come into play here. Some of them are so visceral that it's impossible to discuss them dispassionately. For example, there's a perception among people that this state in particular is way too soft on crime. We do not have the death penalty in Massachusetts (a source of constant contention for many). Also, there's a feeling that life without parole, although that would seem pretty specific, doesn't always mean life without parole.

So, a good part of the population, even in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, sometimes feels that any attempt soften the harsh reality of accountability plays into the hands of this perception. And they react accordingly. With extreme anger.

If you check the blogs on both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, an overwhelming majority of the posters feel Odgren is going exactly where he belongs, and they don't care about anything that might happen to him once he gets there. In fact, many of the people who have posted anticipate, with barely concealed glee, the absolute most degrading future for him that you could imagine.

Again, whatever happens to John Odgren, and as degrading as it might be, can't compare to him stabbing a 15-year-old boy he didn't even know, repeatedly, until he bled to death. And I hope Shapiro never loses sight of that fact as he peels away the layers of criminal justice bureaucracy in appealing this verdict. Odgren, whatever his mental state of mind was, killed James Alenson.

Yet at the same time, these issues -- with their tremendous shades of gray -- don't always bring out the best in us. There are a lot of unfathomable things in this world, and one of the least understood, yet most exasperating, is mental illness.

And sometimes, it just seems that rather than acknowledge that the mind is one of the more undecipherable aspects of humanity, we tend to throw the blinders on when questions of mental health arise ... as if they simply do not apply. It's as if we don't always have the patience to sift through the myriad of issues connected with mental health and criminal insanity.

It's a problem we don't want to deal with. Just throw them in jail, throw away the key, and refuse to accept the fact that a person's social and mental environments -- especially if they come together in ways that clash -- can often have a tremendous impact on how he or she behaves.

And in this aspect of the case, there would appear to many culpable people. No, they didn't kill James Alenson. Nobody connected with John Odgren's case put a knife in his hand and orchestrated this horrible, brutal murder. Yet, Odgren was mainstreamed into the Lincoln-Sudbury school system -- where he'd been bullied and harassed due to his Asperger's condition.

Such bullying and taunting had reduced him to state of almost constant agitation and paranoia (neither an inherent byproduct of Asperger's as much as the natural result of a lifetime of being pushed around). Simply put, if people push you long enough, and hard enough, you eventually push back. Not always, perhaps. But enough.

There's plenty of evidence that some of the most egregious crimes involving young people -- and all you have to do is read a little about Columbine -- stem from chronic victims of bullying and social blackballing pushing back.

The problem, of course, is when they push back, they can often do it indiscriminately, and with enormously tragic results.

In this case, it set into motion a chain of events that has resulted in one boy's murder and another boy's lifetime of incarceration. There are no winners here. It's one of those cases where even the prosecution, which did the job we pay it to do, couldn't have gone home at the end of the day yesterday with anything but a horrible, empty feeling in the pits of its collective stomach.

And I'm sure none of the people in the Middlesex County District Attorney's office is jumping for joy over sending a 19-year-old kid to prison forever. I wouldn't want a D.A. who'd celebrate anything like that. I'd run to the polls to vote someone like that out of office.

In fact, Middlesex DA Gary Leone was very muted, and very respectful, in his post-verdict statements. And he also took to task the people (none of whom he chose to name specifically) who may have had a hand in being totally oblivious to the many warning signs Odgren exhibited ... signs that should have dissuaded educators from the special needs school he attended from mainstreaming him into an environment that only increased his paranoia and agitation.

But then again, we don't understand mental illness very well ... and that's not a knock on us. Mental illness is baffling even to mental health professionals -- as we've seen in this case -- so why should anyone expect people with no expertise in the field to have a good handle on it?

At the same time, though, we have to acknowledge that it exists. We have to be able to wrap ourselves around the fact that mental illness is baffling, insidious, and can lead its victims into doing things that not only harm themselves, but us as well

There is just such a wide and varying degree is sickness that it's almost impossible to say, for sure, whether or not Odgren was legally irresponsible for what he did three years ago. I don't know. And sadly, a jury trial of people with very little sophisticated knowledge of the problem themselves is probably not the best place to sort it out.

Ironically, on the same day John Odgren was found criminally responsible for first-degree murder because -- in some ways -- he pushed back tragically indiscriminately, the Massachusetts legislature passed a comprehensive anti-bullying bill.

And all I can think, as Leone himself said, is that if people had paid a bit more attention to John Odgren, and acted on his behavior accordingly, perhaps he'd never have been in a position to kill James Alenson.

This isn't to say that he wouldn't have, or couldn't have, killed someone else someday. There are no guarantees in life.

But it's possible James Alenson wouldn't have been the one to pay the ultimate price for John Odgren's lifetime of being bullied and taunted for a condition that neither he nor the rest of us truly understands.

Rest in peace James. I never had the privilege of meeting you, but there's no way to describe the feeling (I'm a father myself) I have over what this did to you, and your family. I put myself in your parents' position and a chill just goes right through me.

But it makes me just as angry to know that the person who did this to you -- John Odgren -- was allowed to fall through the cracks of the mental health system.

That never should have happened either. This is a true tragedy all around.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whither the weather?

There are all sorts of time-worn colloquialisms about the weather -- two of the best attributed to Mark Twain.

The first: Everybody complains about the weather ... but nobody ever does anything about it. And the second: If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a minute.

There's validity in both sentiments, but particularly the second, and even more particularly in the spring.

This is when our weather can be as unpredictable as a car careening out of control down a highway.

This year, we were blessed in the Boston area with an early spring. The snow spigot shut off, with a couple of minor exceptions, in February. And March was, for the most part, one of the warmest ever.

Of course, we paid for that gift dearly -- which is another aspect of New England weather. Nature provides a cruel balance sometimes. So at the end of the month, when the National Weather Service trots out is average temperature and precipitation figures, it's best to take them with a grain of salt.

In 1978, for example, the region suffered perhaps its worst blizzard ever. There may have been storms that resulted in high snow totals, or colder weather, or worse flooding. But when you factor in the timing of the storm (it reached its maximum level of ferocity right around rush hour), the rapidity in which it escalated (almost immediately) and its length (almost three days, enough for three rounds of astronomically high tides and the coastal flooding that came with it), the Blizzard of '78 set the standard.

Route 128, which was, at the time, the major traffic belt that connected Boston with its suburbs on all flanks, became a parking lot of abandoned cars as the blizzard, with its almost zero visibility, made driving futile. Amphibious vehicles had to patrol streets in coastal communities, with rescue workers often plucking people out of unwelcome ocean water that had crashed over seawalls and into homes. Some communities got two and a half feet of snow.

Michael Dukakis, our governor at the time, shut down the state for an entire week (and also made L.L. Bean a heck of a lot of money by appearing on TV with a different sweater every time appeared on the tube).

Yet on February 28 of that year, the National Weather Service issued a statement that called the previous month "on average, mild and sunny."

Yeah. Right. I'm sure a lot of people felt the same way as they were sloshing water out of their basements and piling snow onto banks taller than they were. It took me two weeks to shovel a path from my driveway to the back door of my house. Somewhere in the family archives there are pictures of my wife's car, in our driveway, with only the radio antenna visible. It was dwarfed by a giant snow drift.

This was pretty much my reaction when I heard, for the first time (I've actually heard it several times) that March 2010 was exceptionally warm. Sure it was ... if you eliminate the amount of rain we got (we set records with that, too). Now, here's the thing. It cannot rain when the weather falls below freezing. It snows.

So in order to establish rain records in March, the temperature has to be above freezing, right? So, to end the statement by saying "it was one of the warmest Marches on record" is just a great big, "DUUUUHHHHH!" It really doesn't justice that went on in March 2010.

What happened is this: We had two mega-Nor'easters -- so named because of the way the storms circulate (bringing in a fierce, chilly ocean wind -- which comes in from the northeast -- and, with it, bands and bands of rain or snow, depending on how cold it is), and because some New England farmer couldn't pronounce "Northeaster."

These two storms, combined, dumped over a foot of rain in many locations, taxing rivers, dams, bridges, backyards, basements, and -- in Warwick, R.I., an entire mall. Although there was some coastal flooding, the people who suffered most were the ones who lived near rivers and streams, whose banks overflowed freely. Those little babbling brooks, which look so rustic and serene in ordinary times, did a little bit more than babble. They spewed water all over the place.

And the big rivers (well, what there are of them in Eastern Massachusetts) just became impossible to contain.

But this is spring in New England. It can be 70 degrees one day and pouring rain the next. And in between these two storms, we had perhaps the most marvelous stretch of early-spring weather we've ever had.

But while systems move in and out with the speed of lightning most of the time, every so often, they stick around for days at a time. This sets up what I like to call "The Black Cloud" effect, which amounts to day after day after day of relentlessly gloomy weather. It may not rain exceptionally hard ... and sometimes not at all. But the predominant trend is overcast, raw, damp and miserable.

And it's the kind of cold that just goes right through you.

I am a beach walker, and I love it the most in the dead of winter, when there's hardly anyone down there walking. I love the solitude. And even though it can get mighty cold on a brisk February afternoon down by the shore, it's an invigorating kind of cold.

One of the many physical therapists I've had for my cranky knees told me that there's no such thing as "too cold." Only "under-dressed." And he's right. If you dress properly -- in layers, keeping your extremities warm, you will survive a winter's walk on the beach very nicely.

That's a winter's walk.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was one of those Black Cloud kinds of days. It rained Tuesday, and it was supposed to be better yesterday, only it wasn't (again, typical of spring in New England, when these coastal quagmires can be as stubborn as a child during a temper tantrum).

(As an aside, that's pretty much how I define spring in New England: it's beautiful except when it isn't.).

I layered up about as much as I could. Shirt, sweatshirt fleece jacket, gloves, hat, wool socks ... everything I'd normally wear in February if I went for a walk down the beach.

I might as well have been wearing nothing. The wind just whipped through me as if none of those layers even existed. It went straight to the bone. I couldn't wait to get back into my car and go home.

I wonder whether this phenomenon is more due to our exasperation over having to deal with cold weather again ... especially after being teased by the genuine warmth we've already experience ... or if it's because there's something especially nasty about a raw northeast wind that just penetrates everything you do to protect yourself from it.

Spring in New England is also a time for extremes. Yesterday, it never got out of the 40s. By Sunday, it's supposed to be 80 (actually I hope they're as wrong about this as they are about everything else. The Greater Boston Walk for Hunger is Sunday, and I'm not sure I want to be doing that in 80-degree heat).

There are few happy mediums in New England during the springtime. But oh, how glorious it is when you get them. I'm a man who likes his seasons. I'll put up with winter ... as long as it's in the winter. And while I love summer, I don't necessarily like it in the middle of October, just when I'm starting to appreciate the beauty of a crisp, clear fall day; and I don't necessarily like it in May, when my system is still trying to shed its natural protection from the cold.

So when you get this high 50s, low 60s days, with a gentle wind, all you want to do is be outdoors reveling in it. It's days like that when you want to go off, play hookey, and find some open space of green grace, where the gardens are just starting to sprout. For me, that would be the Boston Public Garden. I make a beeline for it every chance I get in the springtime.

I suppose the reason we feel this way is because, in New England, those days are few and far between. You never really get a consistent stretch of weather like that because there's always the next front, followed by the one after that, and there's always the possibility that, without a lot of notice, you will go from 40 to 80 before you ever get a chance to take the fleece jacket off.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In defense of dissent

OK. I touched some nerves yesterday (well, one anyway). And if you're going to do something like this, you have to expect to generate anger. Or, at least, generate some strong reaction.

That's why you do something like this. You want to get people talking, and -- hopefully -- learn a little bit more about people, what they think, feel, and consider important.

So now, the question is this: What do you do, on the morning after you've elicited a strong reaction out of someone? Do you keep it up? Do you do a followup and lambaste the person who lambasted you?

Sadly, the person who responded to me did it in a private email (I'm not sure the response would have fit within the parameters of whatever response mechanism this board offers), so responding to it here would be pointless. So, absent any context, I'll refrain.

But I do want to say this: Anyone who writes an opinion piece and expects nothing but kudos and eclats ought to stop right now and find some kind of mutual admiration society to belong to. And that goes with anything else too. The louder, and more strident, your opinions, the more likely it is that someone's going to be equally as loud, and strident, right back ... especially if their view of things is diametrically opposed to yours.

As they say, it makes the world go 'round. This world would be awfully boring, indeed, if we all sat around agreeing with each other ... you know, like some kind of a police English tea room where people spend all day nodding at each other, and saying things like, "yes, yes ... quite, quite."

This dovetails nicely with a letter I read in today's Boston Globe (yes, that Communist paper that a friend of mine used to refer to as "Pravda") that responded to a column a week or so ago about the Tea Partiers.

The column likened the Tea Partiers to terrorists. I remember reading it and disagreeing with the author. They may be a nuisance, but they're only doing what a lot of us did -- both in the 60s and a few years ago -- to protest wars. They're gathering -- usually peacefully -- to protest something they think is wrong.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with them (and I don't), and it doesn't matter whether their interpretation of the issue differs radically from yours (as it does with me). What matters is that they have the opportunity -- or, more to the point, the forum -- to do it.

People near to hear dissent. I generally like Barack Obama, but he's not above hearing from people who think he's going the wrong way ... and neither were his predecessors.

Presidents tend to be insulated, of course. And in some ways, and especially in this environment, that's a good thing. As much as I didn't like George Bush's agenda (though I never actually thought he was a bad guy ... just ill-advised), I didn't wish him harm. And I certainly understood, again, given the direction he chose to go, that he required maximum insulation and protection.

But while that protection and insulation is necessary to protect the president from the wackos who'd shoot him down in a second (and believe me, no matter who the president is, there are wackos from every stripe who'd do this), such cocooning can be detrimental too. If you surround yourself with nothing but people you pay to do your bidding, you can develop an awfully warped sense of your administration's impact on people.

I wonder, sometimes, if George W. had let a few anti-war people into the inner sanctum (other than Colin Powell, I mean) whether we'd have gone ahead and invaded Iraq. And I wonder, sometimes, whether Obama would have tread a little more lightly with regards to health care had he gone to a couple of Tea Party rallies and listened to the objections people had about it.

Now, right here let's get one thing straight. I, personally, thought a lot of those objections were off the mark -- especially all this stuff about death panels. But it doesn't matter whether they're off the mark.

It's like the old expression about being "dead right." One of the very favorite things I said to my son, all while he was growing up, was that being right wasn't enough. Situations that result in disputes don't end because someone's "right." Most of the time, the person who's "right" ends up doing a piss-poor job communicating his "rightness," and ends up making the situation worse, not better.

So, I'd say to him, "so you're right. Big deal."

I kind of feel the same way about the health care debate. I'm pretty sure that there was a lot of misinformation spread around both ways ... pro and con. It got so bad that you really didn't know who was telling you the straight story, who was embellishing aspects of it -- taken totally out of context -- to push his own agenda, and who was leaving vital information out of the debate for the purposes of painting a distorted picture.

As a result, those who thought they were "right," regardless of what they thought they were "right" about, really didn't go far enough. If you're right, and half the country thinks you're wrong, what good does it do? You can't simply fold your arms, say, "I'm right," and walk away.

Even if the Democrats -- and Obama -- were right to do this, they were wrong not to measure the anger and apprehension of the American people and deal with that as its own issue. Because it was its own issue.

And the trick was to work toward diffusing that anger, even if it took a little longer to accomplish than they'd have liked. Obama has said, many times, that he considered this health care plan vital because of the amount of time Ted Kennedy put into it. And considering how important Teddy was to Obama getting elected -- especially early on when he stuck his neck out to endorse him (risking a political schism from his friends, the Clintons), perhaps the president felt he owed it to his first credible sponsor to see this through.

That, of course, is a noble endeavor. But (and I hate to sound irreverent), Ted Kennedy's going to be in that ground for an awfully long time. And as much as I agree with the whole idea of health care reform, I'd have liked it a hell of a lot better had this happened without all the rancor -- even if it meant waiting a little longer.

Of course, with dissent comes responsibility. I've always thought that if you're going to protest, you'd better have cogent arguments for your positions. I think, for example, those who felt leery about health care based on the cost, or based on any worries that their individual situations were going to change, probably had a legitimate reason to be out there. Yes, it is going to be costly. And even though there's nothing in the bill that claims the government is going to be directly in the business of dispensing medicine, every action has its own unintended consequences.

But those who were out there because they were worried about "death panels," well, I'm sorry. I part company with you. There needs to be a distinction, when it comes to dissent, between arguing over something that would appear to be a legitimate concern, and throwing shit up against the wall and hoping it sticks. And while it may not be illegal to do that, and while we all have our right to do it, it's certainly irresponsible.

Still, with all that said, dissent is a very necessary component of what makes this country special. And as unpleasant as it may seem at times (and inconvenient, and downright nasty as well), it has value. I have always, for example, been of the belief that if you hold an opinion, and you're trying to force that opinion through the legislative process, then you should be able to defend it and show people why your way should prevail. If you can't do that, then you deserve to lose.

(As an aside, I also think that Catholics who consistently whine about how mean people are when it comes to reporting about the church should man up too. Catholicism is no different than any other doctrine. If you believe that strongly in it, then you should be strong enough to withstand the criticism of those who oppose it.)

And that includes diffusing misinformation, because there hasn't ever been an issue in this country's history that wasn't muddled by some kind of misinformation, or misinterpretation. People are people. Often, they're not going to get the whole story, whether it's because they don't want to, or because they'd prefer to ignore the parts of the story that don't jibe with what they think, or because the whole story just isn't available.

If issues come up, and people express concerns, then those concerns need to be addressed.

Finally, dissent is patriotic -- provided those dissenting are honest about it. Otherwise, it is a huge impediment to the process.

It is patriotic, for example, to take the view that a health care bill, or a corporate bailout, could be a costly endeavor, and that there isn't enough oversight in Washington to ensure that things don't spiral out of control. It is not patriotic to simply make stuff up for the sole purposes of muddying the waters.

And all I hope is that people who speak up in protest of what our government does remember that.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A fine example of government inertia at its worst

There are plenty things on my mind. The question is where to start.

I'm furious with the Republicans (aren't I always?) for stalling this financial reform bill.

They just can't seem to get it into their heads that they lost the last election, which means that American people -- despite everything they claim -- rejected their approach to government. Should the people this November change that, and put them back in charge (something that very well could happen), then fine. They will have won the right to push their agenda forward.

Until that happens, though, I wish they'd stop acting as if we all made a colossal mistake in November of 2008, and would at least attempt to add their input into some of the very necessary things this government has to accomplish.

I guess this is my roundabout way of approaching the whole topic of government inertia.

I'll be 57 years old in August, and while I'd probably consider myself more of a liberal than a conservative, there's a very strong part of me that's always trusted the process. Even during the Bush II years, when I was adamantly opposed to much of what he tried to do, I always figured that common sense would win out in the end ... and that even among conservatives, there were people with enough brains to remove the most radical elements from the proposals Congress had to consider.

I think, sometimes, people get the wrong idea of how the process works. I also think they they're wrong about the value -- or lack of value, in their eyes -- of having a healthy mix of all ideological factions in the same ring, throwing broadsides at each other.

That is healthy. The problem comes not from the ideological diversity, but in the homogenization of viewpoints. What frightens me, for example, isn't the fact that there are Republicans (or Democrats when the shoe is on the other foot) who will fight the majority tooth and nail on all matters simple or complicated. What scares me is the fact that, on just about every issue these days, there's no budge. This would indicate that the people we've elected to represent our interests in Washington aren't doing that as much as they're doing their party's private bidding.

And that is just wrong. And it's wrong even if you agree, in principal, with the agenda that is being advanced; or if you disagree with it.

I doubt there's an intelligent soul among us who would disagree with the need for some sort of health reform. Or that there's a need -- especially after 2008 -- for better oversight of the financial industry.

We have a Congress of over 500 people, and while it's an unwieldy collection sometimes (especially in the House), it's more than enough people to form a solid consensus on what should be done about some of our problems. Only right now, there is no consensus. There are only two basic blocs -- Democrat and Republican -- and, with the occasional exception, neither moves an inch toward the other side.

Of the two, the Democrats seem to show more give. There seems to be wider range of political diversity there. Some Democrats are more conservative.

And you know what? That's fine. I'm not sure I'd want a Congress where all 535 members felt the same way ... regardless of what way was. You need both ends of the spectrum represented in a healthy manner. You even need the radicals on both sides ... the zealots ... the wingnuts ... because most of the time, they define the parameters of the debate.

But the answer has to come closer to the middle, because, believe it or not, that's where most Americans reside. I think if you were to examine most intelligent people (and not just the ones who squawk on talk radio shows or spew invective on political blogs), they would -- even if grudgingly -- admit that there are no uniform solutions to the issues that face us.

Some solutions do require an approach that would fall under the definition of liberal. Others require a more hard-line stance. It all depends on what you're talking about.

We don't have that insight today in Washington. We have a one-size-fits-all mindset, and I don't know if that's more to do with the political parties' identification of, and constantly playing to, their "bases;" or whether it's the fact that we've made it so difficult for normal, intelligent people to run for office that all we have left are power-starved politicians who allow themselves to be bought and sold by the highest bidders.

Perhaps it's a little of both.

Robin Williams once said that all politicians should be forced to wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers, with identification patches signifying all their contributors. Then, he said, perhaps we'd understand why often simple things require so much consternation and acrimony down there.

All I know is that the health care debate, and now this burgeoning brouhaha over financial reform, underscores all that's wrong with our system.

I have to be honest. I didn't go on line and find the health care bill, in its final form, that has all 2,000 or so pages intact and in order. I don't have a real good understanding of exactly what's in there, and where it all could lead. I trusted the system to come up with the best bill it could ... and would have lived with whatever came out of it.

I also don't think I'm alone. I doubt anyone really knows every aspect of this bill. Most of what we saw, or heard, on the subject was filtered through the eyes of whoever it was that laid it out, and it all depended on the person, or group's, ultimate objective in presenting the information.

In other words, nothing -- nothing -- is pure and detached when it comes to this stuff. Every bit of writing -- including this writing -- has its own spin.

If someone like Sarah Palin, for example, starts screaming about death panels, then unless you're so married to her way of thinking that you think she's God, you owe it to yourself (not to mention me and millions of others) to take her rantings with the appropriate grain of salt, and go hunting around for someone on the other side whose opinion is just as deranged so you can have some kind of a balance.

The health care debate never got that far. The Republicans, I'm sure, understand the need to make some sense out of the way we provide health care coverage in the United States. What they didn't want, however, is to take part in anything that could result in a Barack Obama victory, because moving even a fraction of his agenda forward would hurt them this November.

There was enough of a muddle with health care -- as I said, I don't know, and no one knows, really, the full extent of what's in there -- that honest debate over it could have taken a year. The Democrats, on the other hand, might have tried to go a little to fast with it, and that certainly added to the acrimony. If I were Obama (and believe me, I'm glad I'm not!) I might have tried to get a few easy things done first and built up a little bit of a cachet before tackling this. He certainly expended quite a bit of political capitol on it, and it remains to be seen how this will affect anything he wants to accomplish.

But something tells me the GOP is badly (and foolishly) overplaying its hand on the financial reforms package. The Republicans tried to portray themselves as the part of common sense with health care, and I think they had more of a case there. I don't think they have as strong a case with this bill.

It seems to me, based on my cursory knowledge of it, that the president wants to ensure that for major companies that fail majorly, there's an orderly way to take them into insolvency so as to not cripple the economy, which is what happened in 2008. This is the third of the bill's three major components (the other two involving stronger government oversight of the firms; and requirement of those firms to hold onto more capitol to reduce their debt).

The Republicans aren't exactly clear about what they oppose. I makes sense that the government should monitor these companies. They employ millions, and have more millions of dollars in their hands. And for a group of people who just hate the idea of spending money, you'd think they'd be all for any provision that requires speculative industries to hold onto their money.

So it must be the third component -- the one in which the government can seize failing businesses and run them until they've exhausted themselves. Now, this makes sense to me, but I'm just a sportswriter from Boston.

I look at it this way: If I'm standing at the top of a precipice, looking straight down, and I slip, God help me. There's nothing to stop me. I'm dead.

If the mountainside is sloped, even a little, I have a better shot. The more it slopes, my odds get better.

So, if the U.S. government had the authority, for example, to take over Bear Stearns, or to threaten a takeover of AIG, for the sole purposes of selling off its components and liquidating it, then perhaps this free fall we experienced in 2008 wouldn't have been as severe as it was. Think back to 2008. There was very, very real panic.

The Republicans will cry socialism, but they always do. Anything they don't agree with immediately becomes branded as socialist. But even if it leans in that direction, it would be a good idea if people read a little history and learned about how, and why, many of those old European oligarchies turned to socialism. Suffice it to say, if those old European oligarchies weren't blatantly exploiting people who weren't in the ruling class, there would never have been a need, or even a fertile ground, for the spread of socialism. Those who revolted against these oligarchies and established socialist governments, did so after years of inequities and injustices.

And it's an important thing to remember. I'm convinced the capitalist system is like a car ... it requires fine tuning constantly. If you let it go along, without any care or oversight, it becomes burdened with dead weight, and it becomes much to much an instrument of predatory people who would gladly exploit the weaker, and less tuned in, among us.

Capitalism requires a certain amount of initiative. But too much of it, and too much unregulated free enterprise, protects bullies and predators and victimizes people who don't necessarily have the aptitude when it comes to money matters.

So once in a while, the government has to step in and make sure that the people least equipped to deal with the enormous fallout of an AIG collapse aren't thrown overboard. That is not socialism.

I think the Republicans are wrong about this. I really do. They need to step up, work with the majority party on this, and put a bill together. If they don't, and they allow this to drag on through the fall (which is obviously their intent), they might be surprised at how people react.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Diamond in the rough?

Today, we discuss tribute bands -- musicians and singers who channel their love of their favorite groups and entertainers by singing their songs and mimicking their mannerisms as much as they can.

Last night, for example, we went to a show by a group called "The Diamond Collection," with a couple of friends who are hardcore Neil Diamond fans.

I must confess ... I'm not a hardcore Neil Diamond fan. It's not that I have absolutely no use for him. I like some of his songs ... and don't like a lot of them as well. I'm of the opinion that Neil Diamond -- at his best -- wrote and sang catchy pop songs ... and that, especially in the early days, he put out a lot of music that ends up on many, many lists of favorites.

You won't find many people arguing, for example, that "Cherry, Cherry," or "Holy Holy" are bad songs. They're not. They're very good songs, and he sang them well.

However, Neil, at his worst, to me, was unnecessarily overwrought. Now, his fans say that his overly bombastic and dramatic arrangements were simply cases of him putting so much feeling into his music. Maybe. I'm a big fan of feeling.

But, you know, feeling has to come from a certain place. And when you're waxing emotional about lyrics such as these ("I am, I said, to no one there ... and no one heard at all, not even the chair ..."), well, let's just say I'm not up for that kind of drama. Barry Manilow wouldn't even write and sing lyrics like that, and he's about the most shameless musical huckster I've ever had the displeasure of listening to (in general; "MacArthur Park" might hold the all-time prize, though, as the single most shameful piece of musical drek ever written; seven and a half minutes of sheer torture).

I've heard some good tribute bands over the years. The best was Beatlejuice, a band fronted by the late Brad Delp (of Boston fame). And back in the 1980s, a slew of Doors tribute bands became prominent throughout the country -- the best of which was called "Soft Parade." I don't know who the lead singer was, but he had Jim Morrison -- and his mannerisms -- down pat. He could sing a little, too.

Locally, in my neck of the woods, there was a group called "Class of '66," which didn't pay tribute to one band in particular, but all the old single-hit sixties bands (meaning, bands that made it big before the advent of album oriented rock and concept records).

Nobody mistook them for the real thing, and, further, nobody cared. Listening to a good tribute band was like listening to records down your friend's basemen when you were 11 and 12. You were there for the ambiance, and the shared experience. I never closed my eyes, for example, and imagined that it was Felix Cavaliere, and not Sammy Donato, singing "Good Lovin." It was just the music of my youth, and I enjoyed it no matter who was singing it.

(That, of course, is what makes karaoke so much fun, but that's a different story entirely).

I kind of feel the same way every time I see Kenny LaBelle channel is inner Neil at the Hu Ke Lau restaurant in Chicopee (or, as I like to call it, Chick Peas). You may ask why I -- an ambivalent follower of Neil at best -- would kill a Sunday night to travel all the way across Massachusetts to a Chinese restaurant to see some guy pretend he's Neil Diamond. Legitimate question.

Initially, it was because our friends asked us to go, and we're all so busy with our lives we hardly ever get to see them. It was a chance to reconnect, catch up, and just be with each other. It could have been the "Manilow" connection and probably wouldn't have cared (except, maybe, I'd have brought earplugs and some laundry to sort).

Let's also say I know a little bit about groupies. I spent much of my youth listening to the Moody Blues, and belong to an internet group that -- initially -- was devoted to them. I've heard about women from that board who jet from venue to venue, following them ... and who swear Justin Hayward himself is singing those intoxicating loves songs directly to them.

I say let them dream.

My friend Anne is a Neil Diamond fanatic. I'm pretty sure not even she could count the times she's seen him live ... or recall all the cities and towns (though she was at Fenway Park two years ago when Neil sang there) For that matter, I was at Fenway earlier this month when Neil appeared out of Canvass Alley in right field to sing "Sweet Caroline" at the traditional eighth inning break on opening night).

Anne found this group a while back, and a couple of times a year, she organizes these outings to see them play. This is, I think, the fifth time I've gone out to see them. In other years, we've had an army of people drive out to Chicopee to see "Fake Neil," as my son likes to call him. And it's a lot of fun, too. And isn't that what all this is supposed to be about? Isn't it supposed to be fun? Aren't you supposed to be able to, once in a while, escape life's drudgery and just go out and have a good time?

That's always how I've viewed tribute bands. Nobody's expecting them to break new ground. Nobody's expecting anything other than what these bands promise to deliver: a night to hear the music of a performer that, presumably, they and you hold in tremendously high regard. It's a pretty direct connection.

Despite some misgivings about the merit of some of Neil Diamond's music, I always enjoy listening to Kenny do Neil. I mean, if you squint ... and I mean really squint ... you can see a vague resemblance between Kenny LaBelle and a young (say, circa early 1970s) Neil Diamond. OK. Not really. I just threw that in to see if you were paying attention ... they look nothing alike.

But he does sound a little like him. And the band does its best, with the instruments it employs, to remain faithful to the original recordings, with a couple of intentional exceptions (one that works and the other -- to me, anyway -- that does not).

I have a friend (the same friend who told me about the Jump the Shark website) who swears that the "wussification" of Neil Diamond occurred at precisely the moment when he recorded "You Don't Send Me Flowers" with Barbra Streisand. Since I, too, cringed every time I heard the song back in the day (and I heard it way too often), I thought that was about as well put an analysis as there was.

LaBelle and backing vocalist Diane Slezek do a pretty funny takeoff on that song, with them as an older, bickering, couple, called "You Don't Smell Like Flowers." In any other context, this would be about as corny as it gets. But in this setting, among Neil Diamond fanatics, it works very well.

The other deviation is the song "America," from "The Jazz Singer." And here, LaBelle does something I really wish he wouldn't do. He changes the lyrics to reflect patriotism for American (instead of "they Come to America," he sings, "stand up for America"). Now, I've never seen Neil Diamond live (except for that one song at Fenway), and have no idea whether Diamond has taken to doing this or it's just post-9/11 fervor. But to those of us who would prefer our patriotism a bit more muted (and I guess I'm in that category), it just seems a a tad bit jingoistic.

I'm sure LaBelle's heart is in the right place. I'm sure he's not up there urging everyone to take up arms and kill every one of this country's opponents. And I have to be fair in saying that nobody else there seemed to mind. There were many, many people dancing to it, and singing along, and raising their fists. It's a pretty popular viewpoint.

I'm just saying it makes me uncomfortable.

The song is about immigrants who came over here hoping for a better life. It celebrates the diversity that made America what it is.

Neil Diamond, after all, was born of Jewish/Russian/Polish immigrants and I have a feeling he was channeling much of his family's history into that song. It's also one of the better one's he's ever written. It's really a small fly in an otherwise very satisfying bowl of soup, though.

I put Neil Diamond in a category of performers I stopped liking a generation ago (I'd also put Elton John in this group too). I've always thought that whatever Neil Diamond had back in the sixties and early seventies ... whatever it was that made his best music so memorable ... he lost in his desire to expand his horizons and attract wider audiences. There's a lot to be said for remaining true to who you are. It hasn't, for example, done Paul Hewson (Bono, for those who don't know) any harm, and it certainly hasn't lost Mick Jagger any money over the years).

Then, you hear a group like this and you remember, "ahhhhhhh. Whether I like him now or not, it doesn't change anything about what he did then." You hear songs like, "I'm a Believer," and "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime" and you do get transported to summer days and nights in 1966, with transistor radios blaring out of every sand blanket on the beach. You do remember where you were, and what you were doing, when someone first played "Hot August Night" for you -- easily the best live album I've ever heard from the late sixties-early seventies (particularly good is "Holly Holy," another of my favorites by him).

I can remember, a few years ago, walking across the Boston Common and coming across a couple of old-time revival tents where there was an actual meeting going on. I could hear the preacher screaming at the top of his lungs, and I could hear the congregation's "amens." It was almost surrealisic.

I could also hear Neil Diamond singing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" in my head.

It's nights like this when you remember two things. First, guys like Neil Diamond don't command tribute bands if there's nothing to which to pay tribute. Neil's been in the entertainment business for 45 years (we're going to back to the days in which he served his musical apprenticeship in the old Brill Building in New York, cranking out songs in Tin Pan Alley style), and he would be silly to suggest that everything he's done over that long, long span has turned into an instant gold nugget.

There's plenty of forgettable material there, but there's also more than enough songs that have truly stood the test of time. It's fair to say that he's either written or recorded enough genuine classics to have earned his reputation ... not to mention a few tribute bands in his name.

The second thing to remember is that as we get older, it's a good thing to have the Kenny LaBelles of the world around to remind us of how good these people were in their primes. Neil Diamond, for example, is 69 years old ... older than Paul McCartney and Jagger). He's sung a lot of songs, and his voice certainly isn't as rich and true as it once was.

I've always made fun of Harry Connick Jr., for example, because I always thought that if he were that good, he wouldn't have to go around pretending to be a young Frank Sinatra. But on the other hand, we don't have Frank anymore. And even when he was alive, we didn't really have that Frank in any other way but in our memories.

The band sings two songs I particularly love to lampoon: Shilo, which is said to be about Neil's dog; and "Longfellow Serenade," which, believe it or not, is is about something very similar to what Bob Seger was writing about "Night Moves." I'll let you do the math.

Oh, but how I'd make fun of it. I thought that, for a while, all of Neil Diamond's songs sounded alike, and I'd go around singing, "Longfellow Serenade, all my songs sound the same ..."

In the beginning, I went to see "Fake Neil" because it was a chance to connect with friends. That was five years ago. I've come to grudgingly realize that I wouldn't have kept coming back all those years if I didn't like what I was getting.

So, Kenny LaBelle, thank you.

Even if I have to sit through "Forever in Blue Jeans," and "I Am, I Said," he puts on a good show, and he remind me that regardless of how often I make fun of Neil Diamond, his material has stood up well.

(If you like this blog, please leave a comment at the bottom ... and be sure to tell your friends).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Today ... a little of this, and a little of that

It's Saturday ... and it's the day that I've officially decided will be the day where we write to the true definition of what "notes, quotes and anecdotes" means.

In other words, a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of idle chatter. We'll get heavy and/or topical Monday through Friday. Saturday is the day for leftovers. Oh ... and anything goes, too.

(Sunday is a day of rest).

Alrighty, then ...

I don't get the whole national obsession with the NFL draft. It's not that I'm disinterested in where the college players I've watched end up going, I just don't get the idea that it's reached the point where it's considered prime time viewing.

Really, where's the action? What's the point? Turn on ESPN, or the NFL channel, and all you see are people talking. Because that's all they can do. Each NFL team has a certain amount of time it can spend "on the clock," and in between there's nothing to do except talk, and show clips, and speculate, and -- for lack of a better term for it -- bore me to death.

And if Mel Kiper Jr. isn't the oddest looking guy on the planet, then he's in the Top Five. He looks like Beavis. Every time I see him talk, I want Todd McShay to look at him and say "settle down Beavis, or I'm going to have to smack you."

I also love the fact that the NFL tries so mightily hard to compare itself to the military at all times, especially during the draft, when the conference room in which discussions and evaluations are held becomes known as the "war room."

No it's not. It's a conference room with a bunch of people evaluating talent. These guys are Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell without the snark. The only difference is that they make their decisions in private, rather than in front of national TV audience.

But just the same, I'd love to hear Bill Belichick, someday, get up in front of his cadre of scouts and assistants and channel his inner Simon about some guy the Patriots are thinking about drafting.


Every now and then -- and most of the time, it's by accident -- you catch an offbeat film on cable at two o'clock in the morning. You catch them at that hour because that's the only time they ever get shown.

A few years back, unable to sleep, I caught one called "Lost and Delirious," which dealt with the girl-on-girl relationship between two boarding school students, how the whole thing became undone, and how it's demise affected one of the principals.

This may sound lurid, but it wasn't. It was actually a mature film in that it dealt with sexually controversial material without the gratuitous moments that would have otherwise turned the whole thing into a hardcore porn flick.

Another one, a bit more famous and mainstream, from the late nineties, was "American Beauty," which, again, took something that could have been just incredibly tacky and tawdry and turned it into a brooding metaphor for the type of emotional disconnect that can only happen when families become too "me-centered" and lose their sense of what unites them in the first place. Director Alan Ball seems to feel this condition is almost exclusively indigenous to wealthy suburbs, where emotional sterility is almost an epidemic at times.

("American Beauty" also, by the way, turned me onto one of my very favorite songs ... Annie Lennox's version of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down.")

Last night, or should I say in the wee hours of this morning, I caught another Ball creation, "Towelhead." Outside of Toni Collette, I didn't know a soul who acted in this film. And like "American Beauty," "Towelhead" deals with topics that could have resulted in needlessly gratuitous footage and gives them a mature tilt.

The film deals with a Lebanese girl who is sexually mature (at least physically) for her age, and who draws the attention of both an African-American student at school and the man who lives next door. The girl is bewildered by the effect her "assets" seem to have on men, but at the same time intrigued by it as well.

However, she's naive, like any 13-year-old, and really not sure about what it all means. The neighbor successfully seduces her -- thankfully off-camera.

I haven't decided yet whether I liked the film or not. I don't think it's the type of film you can fall in love with. There's not a lot of warmth to it (except for Collette) and the world these people live in is very cold and disconnected.

Yet at the same time, it offers up some mature outlooks on the nature of temptation and its relationship to sexuality. Good people are incredibly flawed ... and bad people (like the neighbor) are painted in such a way that good traits aren't totally lost in the shuffle.

Suffice it to say, sometimes not being able to sleep in the wee hours of the morning can have its moments.


I've always been partial to crime shows on TV ... which is a good thing, since crime shows seem to be about the only drama left on TV.

But I'll take even a bad crime drama over the absolutely insipid nature of the rest of the menu. I never got into any of the reality TV stuff, couldn't care less who Donald Trump fires (or about The Donald himself, for that matter), hate "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars," and and happy to report that I've never watched an episode of "Survivor," and couldn't pick Kate or John out of a police lineup if you gave me all of The Donald's money.

With that in mind, I will rate them today.

Top on the list is still CSI: The Original. I thought this show would jump the shark when we lost Gil Grissom, but thanks to Laurence Fishburne (who is a very, very good actor) that hasn't happened.

When it was first reported that Fishburne would take over for William Peterson, I was talking to a much younger colleague at work, and quoted his climactic line from "Boyz in the Hood": "Give me the mother fucking gun, Trae."

The guy, only in his mid-20s, looked at me like, "what???" And he informed me that Fishburne's most noteworthy role came much later, in "The Matrix." I'm sure it did. But you can't deny that he -- and almost by himself, too -- turned "Boyz in the Hood" into a classic.

Anyway, Fishburne has added an element of class to CSI, while, at the same time, walking the incredibly difficult line of blending in with a cast that has nowhere near the star power he has. He has done this well. And the show has taken off, as far as I'm concerned.

As it was, CSI already had its share of quirky characters -- not all of them likeable (hello, Hodges) -- that make for good drama.

Next on the list is "Cold Case." I like the premise of solving an old, heretofore unsolved, case every week, and the cast works well together.

Third is "The Mentalist," which features Simon Baker as an insufferable profiler who -- despite the fact he goes out of his way to piss people off (and, indeed, can do it even when he's not trying) -- manages to get it right ... and solve the case ... every week.

Which, of course, pisses people off even more.

He's probably a lot like "Quincy," the Jack Klugman coroner from the 1970s, I suppose, but Baker is must smarmy enough to put a new twist on it.

Fourth on the list is "CSI: New York." This is mainly because I've never seen Gary Sinese in anything where he hasn't been first rate (Lieutenant Dayan!). It also has the "all-names" team when it comes to cast members. Wrap your tongue around Melina Kanakaredes and Carmine Giovinazzo if you doubt me.

Rounding out the Top Five is "Criminal Minds," another profiling show that sneaks into this hallowed territory solely because it is -- at the moment -- my son's favorite of them all.

CSI: Miami, which I still watch, gets more and more ridiculous by the minute. David Caruso's excessive preening can be really, really annoying; and some of the plot lines strain the bounds of credulity.

But if you're looking for the all-time all-time of crime/whodunit dramas, Perry Mason (the old ones, not the silly Fred Silverman resurrections of the 1970s and 80s) retires the trophy. Those old episodes still stand up today.

And besides, how can you argue with a show that, despite its gravitas, refused to take itself totally seriously that it named one of its principal characters "Hamilton Burger." That would be "Ham" for short.

With or without ketchup? And hold the pickles.


And in the words of our animated porcine friend from Warner Brothers, "th-th-th-th-th-that's all folks."

If you like this blog, please tell a friend and pass the word. Also, I would appreciate any input anyone wants to give me -- good and bad -- on the contents of these posts. Thank you very much.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Internet is for Porn

Well, OK, not really (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

But apparently the folks at the Securities and Exchange Commission think it is.

I woke up this morning -- as I always do -- to the local news on our ABC affiliate. I do this for many reasons, not the least of which is that Channel 5 has, at the moment, my favorite weather babe ... J.C. Monahan ... and it's somewhat more palatable to hear that it's going to snow, or rain for three days and flood my basement, from J.C. than it is to hear it from, say, grizzled old weatherman.

Hey, if you're going to get bad news, you might as well get it from someone who looks good. Right?

But I digress. After today's two-hour local news cast (which features so many spots of J.C. and her weather map I don't even count anymore), Good Morning America had a spot about how the watchdogs at the SEC -- you know, the people who are supposed to be making sure corporate pigs like Goldman Sachs and AIG aren't fleecing is all blind -- spend, in some cases, up to eight hours a day surfing the web for porn.

My first reaction to this was that I thought only the death and the leftfield wall at Fenway Park were the great equalizers. Little did I know that porn falls into that category too.

No matter how important, or indigent, we are in life, death makes worm food out of us all. As one friend put it to me once, we're in that box, and in the ground, for eternity. Our lives here are tantamount to a mere blink of an eye.

As for Fenway, all you have to do is mention the name Bucky (Bleeping) Dent. If a guy like him can hit one out of the yard, then you know what I mean about that park being the great equalizer.

But porn? Actually, I should have known. We're all hard wired the same way in the end. We are all slaves to our sexual stimulations, even if some of us are more stimulated than others.

We all have sexual needs, desires and fantasies, and we all have aspects of each that we'd just as soon nobody knows about.

All of which is why porn is a natural for the internet. Back in the good old days, when we all hid Playboy and Penthouse under our mattresses, we lived in fear that our sexually explicit material would find itself in the wrong hands (such as snoopy mothers).

My mother was a snoopy mother. And unduly paranoid, too. She once took the cover to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band down the basement, and parsed every lyric of every song for drug references. She came back upstairs, convinced she'd uncovered the key to some nefarious plot by the Beatles to get every kid in America hooked on drugs ... and damn near banned us from listening to the album, or them, ever again.

(I should add, she bought me the record for my birthday).

So you can imagine how my mother would have reacted had Forum Magazine popped up between the mattresses while she was changing the sheets. And we won't even get into what she'd have said, had she seen one of those disgusting periodicals, about any undefined stains on those sheets.

For the record, I was way too smart to import pornographic material into the Krause House -- or even on the Krause property.

Most people, when they think of the internet and porn, undoubtedly have this visual of a bunch of schieves in their sleeveless T shirts, pleasuring themselves while sitting in front of a computer in their parents' basements. I know that's the image I have.

And while I'm sure there plenty of them, and that they're doing what they do even as we speak, I guess the SEC circle jerk proves that porn has no bounds. It knows no class distinction. Doesn't matter if you're a Harvard lawyer or a hard core voyeur (gee, can I make a poem about that??). If you're hooked, you're hooked.

I work at a place where one of our top executives got caught downloading porn on his computer. Of course, he was pretty stupid. He supervised an office of mainly women, and his computer screen was situated in such a way that they could see the images reflected through the window in his office.

Someone complained (well, obviously!) and next thing you know, our executive was shown the door. And as a result, the company drew up this list of rules and regulations governing use of the internet more explicit, in its own way, than any of those letters you used to read in the Penthouse Forum. Of course, we all named this document after the poor soul whose weakness for the internet flesh cost him his job.

We are nothing if not twisted people ourselves!

Anyway, back to the SEC. I wish some of these guys could get dragged into court someday (who knows, maybe they will). I would love to hear some crusading attorney get one of them on the stand, and ask, "what were you people doing while Bernie Madoff was making Ponzi look like a Boy Scout? What were you people doing while AIG and Bear Stearns were driving themselves -- and the rest of us -- straight through the ground and halfway to hell?

"Well, your honor, we were busy. One of the guy downloaded the latest episode of 'Alien Space Fembots,' and it was just too good to pass up."

I can just see one of these guys thumbing through the latest porn catalogue (with one hand, of course) and then going into a meeting where they're charting statistics, and having his chart look like a parabola.

(For the math-challenged, a parabola, on a Cartesian graph, charts all the possible solutions to quadratic equations. They can, in many cases, resemble a well-proportioned male member.)

Of course, now, the double entendres will just come pouring out. Today, on the ABC website, there's a sidebar to the main story that asks, "How Big is the SEC's Porn Problem." Sort of reminds me of the time the Buffalo Sabres had a hockey player named Michael Peca. The Bruins were about to face Buffalo in the playoffs, and one of its reporters -- a female, no less -- wrote a story about him. Some Globie, and I'm convinced it was meant for in-house purposes only, wrote a headline that said, "Buffalo's Peca really big."

Alas, it got through ... and got into the paper the next day.

It also reminds me of that Year from Hell, when I worked in public relations for the company that is now known as Verizon. There was a whole list of expressions we could not use when we wrote press releases, and one of them was "enter the market." I, in my naivete, thought that was pretty innocuous, until it the urban connotation of the word "enter" was pointed out to me. Now, I wouldn't call myself a rube when it comes to this stuff by any stretch. But even I thought that was a bit too paranoid.

all of his only proves that when it comes to porn, and and prurient interests, we are all teenagers whose hormones still rage out of control.

Well, at least now we know why the economy tanked as badly as it did. All this time, we were led to believe it was Bill Clinton's fault (man, don't even go there ... can you just imagine? ... no, never mind ... the thought of that is just too gross, even for me). Or Barney Frank's. Or the head of AIG. Or General Motors.

Turns out it was none of the above. It was Debbie Does Dallas. It was Larry Flynt's fault. Or Hugh Heffner's (though to be honest, that stuff's pretty tame compared to what you can find on line if you really care to look).

And here thought, all this time, that Monica Lewinsky's dress was the only article of clothing floating around the American power structure that also served as the host for someone's incriminating DNA.

Thank God for Net Nanny, though, and other inter-office internet tracking devices. I'm sure that's how all these Wall Street Wankers were found out. Otherwise, we'd have to get Bulah Balbricker from Porky's to feret them out. That would have been a hoot.

So, in closing, I leave you with this ... perhaps the real theme song for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Enjoy it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The bell tolls for Big Ben

Once again, one of our premier athletes is in the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

(ALERT: if you don't like sports, don't worry ... this isn't necessarily about sport as much as it is about sports people who seem hellbent on squandering their privilege).

Today, we discuss Ben Roethlesberger, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, who has been suspended for six games by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell because of sexual assault accusations -- even though those allegations didn't pass muster to the point where he was formally charged.

I support this -- though I'd have preferred, say, an 11-game suspension. But that's only because the Patriots have to play the Steelers in Week 10, and, well, we probably have a better shot of beating them without without Big Ben.

But that's provided that Big Ben is still with the Steelers ... something that's certainly not a given. There's been rumbling that the Steelers, a family-owned team conscious of their athletes' obligation to hold themselves to high standards, might try to deal Roethlesberger and wash their hands of him.

If they do ... good for them. The National Football League may be a collection of private organizations, but all sports franchises are unique in that they're also public institutions. They stay in business due to the largesse of people who buy their tickets and TV packages, patronize their luxury boxes, and spend millions of dollars to advertise during their games and in their stadia.

And we won't even get into the fact that, in this, the 21st century (and in the second decade of it already) there are still people in this world naive enough to think athletes are role models.

So, what Ben Roethlesberger does in a Georgia bar is absolutely relevant to the survival of the Steelers as a public trust in Pittsburgh. And if the Rooney family feels that having a quarterback with Big Ben's baggage -- even if he's as physically talented as Roethlesberger -- compromises its standing in the Pittsburgh community, well hooray for them.

The Steelers have already jettisoned another of the principal components of their 2009 Super Bowl victory when they sent receiver Santonio Holmes (he caught the TD pass from Roethlesberger that won the title for them) to the Jets after he violated the league's substance abuse policy.

(This, of course, speaks ill of the Jets, which is fine by me, as I generally don't need much ammunition to despise them. So this is like an unexpected New England clam bake).

This isn't to say that Ben Roethlesberger doesn't deserve to play in the NFL. He just needs a timeout. And, perhaps, he needs to be sent a message by his employers that, as talented as he is, he's not sacrosanct. He needs to be held to minimal standards of human behavior, and that if he can't meet them, he's perfectly welcome to ply his trade somewhere else.

Maybe a trade to some god-forsaken NFL outpost, one that has less of a chance to get to the Super Bowl than I do, might fix Big Ben's wagon.

And personally, and even though the state of Georgia refused to press charges on this latest escapade, I think guys like Big Ben need to sit an entire year. I'm not sure six games is enough.

If you're not sure, exactly, what's so wrong with what Ben Roethlesberger did, then cut and paste this link ...

I mean, could you at least get a room? We impeached a U.S. president whose transgressions weren't even that gross (though fellatio on the Oval Office is pretty darn lurid, when you think about it).

Now, one supposes that you take some of this with a grain of salt. But there does seem to be a pretty consistent story here ... one that has Roethlesberger walking around a bar, drunk, and going into a restroom to have sex. In fact, if these allegations are true, one wonders why charges were not filed. Could it be that, despite this being the 21st century, second decade, we still cut athletes way too much slack when it comes to them skating on behavior that would land the rest of us in jail, without bail, awaiting trial?

(It also makes one wonder to what degree dog fighting is a more evil transgression than herding a woman into a restroom to have sex with her. I'm sure Michael Vick wonders the same thing; I'm even more sure Vick is following this case closly; and still more sure that Vick understands America's biases and prejudices just fine, and notices that Big Ben's skin is somewhat lighter than his own).

The above aside aside, there's no excuse for any of it (Vick's transgressions included). Violence is violence, and physical intimidation is physical intimidation. And if you're an athlete whose body can safely be called a weapon (have you ever seen Roethlesberger throw a block? He's a truck, for heaven's sake), then using it as a weapon for any purpose other than the one it's intended for should be considered a crime.

And that includes intimidating women into having sex with him.

There is, too, the whole notion of athletes as role models. Once upon a time, back when there wasn't nearly the media and spotlight on athletes, this may have been possible. There's plenty of evidence that the legendary Babe Ruth was every bit the carouser and misogynist that any of today's athletes are. The Babe loved to have a good time ... especially at the expense of the ladies.

But reporters covering baseball back in those days were the same as White House correspondents who kept John F. Kennedy's peccadillos under wraps. Suffice it to say, JFK wouldn't have survived today's culture ... and The Babe wouldn't have either.

Somewhere along the way, The Babe would have run into a reluctant participant, shall we say, who would have, then, filed charges. That would have set into motion an entire chain of events that would have ended up similar to this case, or to the Kobe Bryant or Mike Tyson situations. Or maybe one of The Babe's many concubines would have sued him, the way Margo Adams handled the fallout from her affair with Wade Boggs.

The problem is that athletes have been enabled all their lives ... and by people who should have known better. One of the things that caught my eye in the whole Phoebe Prince bullying case (in South Hadley, MA), is that the captain of the football team was involved.

That pretty much tells the whole story right there. In the pecking order of high school life, the captain of the football team is at the absolute top of the chain. No one with an ounce of sense is going to take him on -- and that includes faculty members either too timid, or too educated as to the ways of life in the average American high school, to try.

This is the culture. It allows the NFL, for example, to allow Ray Lewis, a self-admitted, convicted felon, to not only play in a Super Bowl but to be the MVP of it. It allows a slew of University of Nebraska players to commit crimes on a Tuesday and show up to play on a Saturday. The situation got so bad out there that the derisive nickname for the team went from Cornhuskers to Corn-victs. Coach Tom Osborne had to step down. His reward? He got elected to Congress (thank God as a Republican and not a Democrat).

Look around ... even if you're not into sports. Where, for example, does the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas get the idea that whipping gun out and brandishing it at a teammate he's arguing with over poker money is anywhere close to being acceptable? Where does the New York Giants' Plaxico Burress get the notion that's perfectly OK to walk into a bar with a loaded gun in his pants ... and then be careless enough with it that it goes off (thankfully, Karma prevailed on this one, and he shot himself in the leg, and not some innocent patron).

The list of Athletes Behaving Badly is endless. And it's because, for too long, we've allowed them to become so enabled, and so empowered, by our sheer idol worship of them that they're like runaway trains careening down a hillside.

I like the fact the Goodell, at least, is trying to put a stop to it, and hold athletes' feet to the fire. His posture on these things makes baseball commissioner Bug Selig, who, I swear, gets into a debate with himself over what kind of coffee to buy in the morning, look like a total fraud. Thanks to Selig, every record set in baseball from hereon out will be susceptible to suspicions of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

It's bad enough that athletes command such ridiculously high salaries (especially in relation to people in society who contribute so much more on a daily basis). But, as the movie says, that's entertainment. That's the American way. That's capitalism. The free enterprise system. The market defines everything (which is something all these grouchy sports talk show callers -- most of them, I'm sure, love the free enterprise system, warts and all -- should perhaps consider the next time they complain about overpriced athletes).

But can we please stop treating them as if they walk on water too? Can we please, even when they're in high school, stop covering for them, making excuses for them, giving them special dispensation solely because of their athletic abilities?

Maybe if we do, then guys like Ben Roethlesberger won't go through life thinking they're entitled to go after anything they lay their eyes on -- including women -- in the crudest of ways.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I am a prisoner of ... mindless idling

Today, we kick back. Or, at least, we kick back here. There's plenty to keep me busy. I have a myriad of things to do ... work on the novel I've been trying to write forever ... work on establishing this blog ... clean the kitchen after breakfast ... go out for a walk ... somehow manage to fit work into all of this ...

But I think I'll put all that stuff off for a few minutes and check out what's happening on Facebook. Or maybe I'll go onto the other internet sites I peruse -- and play on -- daily.

Maybe I'll find some friends to chat with. Perhaps someone will have posted pictures that either amuse me, or jog my memory about things I've long ago forgotten.

Could be that I get on one of those Pathwords jags that just won't let go of me. Somehow, I think Pathwords is an addiction worse than nicotine. You could probably same the same about all these internet games. You can hop on the internet after supper and easily waste an entire evening playing Bejeweled, or some other mindless game. Next thing you know, it's 1 a.m. and your eyes feel like someone poured a bucket of sand in them.

I vowed I'd never get too wrapped up in Facebook. I'm 57 (or will be later this summer). I'm mature. I missed the whole MySpace thing, even though people sang its praises for years before I'd even heard of it.

About the only thing I ever knew about MySpace was that every time some stupid kid -- almost always an athlete -- went to a party, and decided he was going to drink, someone snapped a picture of him with a beer in his hand and put it up on MySpace.

Next thing you knew, the principal of his school -- who just happened to be perusing the site himself, apparently -- found out about it and whacked the kid with the mandatory state-required suspension from all things jock.

And I had to end up writing about it. Which, by the way, is something I truly hate to do. But fair is fair. If teenagers are going to accept the eclats, then they have to accept the brickbats with equal grace. Life isn't a one-way street, and along with the glory comes responsibility.

But back to mindless idling, which is what this is really about.

Last night, for example, I wanted to write this blog item and get it done, because I have an early game to cover today. I also have to do my weekly expense report for work. But I blew it off. Why? Pathwords.

I developed an addiction to Pathwords over a year ago, fueled by friendly (?) competition with two Facebook friends -- Nancy Jones from work and Karen McConnell, who lives in Alberta, and who is my absolute favorite Hockey Talk Woman.

Now, just relax, everyone. Karen is a fine, upstanding woman who loves Canada, the McKenzie Brothers and hockey. She once sent me, as a Christmas present, a coffee mug decorated with the type of outrageous outfits that Don Cherry (erstwhile coach of the Boston Bruins and current Hockey Night in Canada color(ful) analyst) usually wears on the air.

I should interrupt here to say that I had more fun covering "Grapes," (as he was called), and his Bruins, than I've had covering any other professional sports coach, or team, in Boston -- and that includes Larry Bird's Celtics and the Red Sox team that finally broke the "Curse of the Bambino."

Said mug got me through the weeks after my gastric bypass surgery when all I could do was drink bullion broth, decaf coffee with the skimmest of the skim milk, and water laced with Crystal Lite. So when I say Karen is my favorite Hockey Talk Woman, I am channeling my gratitude for her thoughtfulness as much as I'm channeling my inner Mick and Keith.

Anyway, Karen got me started on Pathwords (remind me to thank her), and she may as well have taught me to smoke (I did that all on my own, though ... though not in years). She challenged me to a game (or five, or 10), and whipped my ass every time.

I'm sorry to say I'm not one to accept losing gracefully. I am very old school in that regard. I grew up with a kid named Dickie Mariano, who used to stomp around the house making strange, almost guttural, noises when someone would even beat him in Monopoly. For lack of a better term for it, my other friend back then, Eddie McDonald, used to call it "bimping."

Sad to say, I bimp too. Especially when the Red Sox lose. In fact, I disgust my family when I do it. I also amuse my friends, who only see that deranged side of me when the Sox are losing -- and especially if they're losing spectacularly (and by that I don't mean 10-2 as much when they do something monumentally stupid, or the blow a lead).

I bimped plenty when Karen would beat my ass in Pathwords. But then I figured out that you could play Pathwords by yourself (I'll refrain from using any more double entendres here, lest you take your undivided focus off the topic of mindless idling) and, boy, did I go to town.

And boy, did SHE, go to town. For a while, we'd leapfrog over each other as we both got better and better at it. Then, she stopped playing it ... going on to bigger and better things, I'd imagine (such as posting pictures of the Moose that invade her property ... beautiful pictures, by the way).

Ahh, but then, Nancy Jones got into the act (proving, for those who remember him, that Jimmy Durante was right). In the beginning, Nancy was absolutely no competition. But then SHE got the hang of it, and all of a sudden, it was the three of us -- Karen, Nancy and myself, leapfrogging over each other. Karen and Nancy do not know the other exists. They are on MY list of friends and, at the moment, I'm wedged between them in the pecking order. Nancy is first, with 1,520 points. I'm second, with 1,330; Karen is next with 1,250 and my cousin Ruth Bobzin is right behind with 1,240.

I have no idea how Nancy jumped all the way up to the top like that. But she decided, probably for her own mental health, to retire as the champion. Karen doesn't play anymore either. In fact, as I started getting really competitive with the game, she emailed me and told me to "give it a rest."

I took that to mean she was pissed off that I was getting as good at the game as she was. (Just kidding, Hockey Talk Woman).

For a while, I stopped playing too. Facebook keeps reinventing itself (not always for the better ... well, hardly EVER for the better), and, for a while, it took longer and longer to load the game. Then, my mouse started showing signs of wear and tear, and could no longer navigate the game board as nimbly as it once could.

Since I'm the type of guy who will wait until there are two holes (let alone one) on the bottoms of my sneakers before I'll break down and get a new pair, you can probably deduce that I dealt with the mouse, warts and all, long after I should have traded it in for a newer model (this should surprise people at work, because there, since it has to be used to facilitate all sorts of desktop publishing functions, I am very impatient when the mouse gets sluggish).

But then, for Father's Day last year, my son bought me a wireless mouse and a keyboard. And in no time at all, I got back into playing it.

So there I was last night, Pathwording when I should have been blogging ... or, at least, budgeting. Which is why I got up at the crack of dawn today to fulfill my commitment of doing one of these a day.

Thankfully, it's done. Now ... onto filing expense reports.

How exciting.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Invasion of the Stick People

I cannot say I was always the biggest fan of the Boston Marathon. I've kind of had a love/hate relationship with it for my entire professional life.

It was barely on my radar through high school. I knew about it, but that was as far as it went. In those days, it was the BAA Marathon, and it was a race for amateurs who were (in my humble opinion) crazy enough to run 26 miles from the western suburbs to the Pru for the honor of throwing up the bowl of beef stew they got when they finished.

And that was, literally, my first experience covering the race, too. I was still 19 years old in 1973 when assigned by United Press International (my first professional job) to the bowels of the Prudential Center in Boston, where the post-race triage unit was set up. There, I saw enough digestive distress to turn me off from EATING (let alone running) forever.

And it caused me, for a time, to be as derisive about these runner as possible. I thought the whole thing was overrated. It permeated everything in its wake, including the Red Sox, who had to play early on Patriots Day. To me, that was simply a craven accommodation to a bunch of narcissistic freaks who thought that a 26-mile road race was an excuse to shut the whole city down.

Of course, I can say, now, that a lot of that ill-will was masqueraded envy. I had no idea, when I was 19, what it was like to work feverishly toward setting a difficult goal and then experience the euphoria of achieving it. That is the essence of the Boston Marathon. The story here isn't which African professional flew in here to win it. The story involves the rest of the pack ... the ones who began in this year's second wave. They are the reason this race remains an indelible civic institution.

Covering the Marathon for a wire service makes it difficult to see it from that perspective. You're there to report news ... and the news is who won, who almost won, and any other noteworthy events that take place along the way (and a lot of that involves celebrities who jet into Boston for a day to run). We never got to hang back and talk to the dedicated runners who do this to realize their OWN dreams.

Because in the end, it doesn't matter whether you're Robert "Swing Low, Sweet" Cheruiyot or some anonymous runner with a five-digit bib number. Everyone who runs, and who finishes, gets to cross that line. They all get to hear the cheers along the way. They've all trained, often alone, and often in unforgiving weather conditions. The course offers the same harsh realities to all, whether they're elite runners or plodding through for the first time.

And when it's over, they all have something extremely, wonderfully important in common: They've all conquered the 26.3 mile Boston Marathon course ... Natick and Wellesley, Heartbreak Hill, Cleveland Circle, Kenmore Square, Mass. Ave., Hereford Street, and Copley Square ... and they all deserve an equal amount of credit.

I rode the media bus in 1975 when Bill Rodgers won this race for the first time; and rode it again in 1976, when it was 95 degrees at the starting point in Hopkinton and in the low 60s at the finish line (the notoriously strong New England sea breeze having taken effect). I've seen the toll the elements can take on the runners, particularly when the race -- which begins well inland -- wends its say to the coast and the winds and temperatures can change wildly. I've seen runners so cramped up, and in such intense pain, that you wonder why on earth they put themselves through the ordeal. It just doesn't make any sense.

The answer comes with a very positive aspect of human nature ... and one that, I'm afraid, is lacking in more people with each generation: the desire to challenge ourselves ... to continually raise that bar to (to use another track analogy).

We've lost that desire, I'm afraid. I don't know if it's because we've just had too many things handed to us, or whether technology has made it unnecessary. Maybe we're just not conditioned anymore to accept challenges. You can see it everywhere you go.

Nobody has any desire anymore to embrace the tough challenges. In fact, if anything, we go out of our way to deny they even exist Problems that have left geniuses vexed for generations are now reduced to simplistic, easy solutions by today's pundits.

And I don't want to get overly political here, because there's an equal amount of guilt here. We all do it, whether we're liberal or conservative. We just don't have the patience anymore to sit down and work out complicated solutions. There's no glory in it.

You won't get elected to office if you admit you have no idea, for example, how to stop a recession from getting worse, and that, to you, the only solution is to try different things and see how the markets react to them. You can't do that because nobody wants to hear that there isn't an answer that cannot be found in the same time it used to take Ward Cleaver to solve The Beav's weekly dilemma.

I think if I were to profile my ideal political candidate, he or she would have to be a distance runner. I don't mean someone like Bill Clinton, or George W ... one who dabbled in it for show (though I suspect Bush was probably more dedicated, on the whole, to fitness than The Fantastic Billy C was). I mean someone who understands the commitment to keeping your eye on the prize, and who won't let a couple of setbacks along the way derail them. I mean someone who has trained patiently, in all kinds of elements, and understands that true achievement often comes after an extended period of great pain and frustration.

After all, wasn't it Thomas Edison who said, "genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration?"

We do not have a government of long distance runners today. I don't think we even have a government of sprinters. Or hurdlers. We have a government of hucksters ... car salesmen ... people who will say anything to anyone to close the deal, and worry about the ramifications later.

Of course, all of this is contingent on an electorate who understands the same things, but that's just not the case either. Some of it has to do with the fact that our problems tend to reach such a critical stage (and that's because their complicated nature is counterproductive to them even being address by today's politicians) that people just cry out for easy answers. And there just aren't any.

But a lot of it is simple conditioning. We're not conditioned to think long-term anymore. Everything is "now," whether we're talking about stopping terrorism, losing weight, getting rich, building and maintaining our national infrastructure, curbing recessions, health care ... the focus seems to be to achieve the maximum results with the minimum output.

That is why you see these commercials for Bowflex home gyms, or Jenny Craig ... why there's Judge Judy on TV ... why we ever thought we could eradicate terrorism by killing every last terrorist (which is akin to trying to kill every last cockroach that lives in the walls of your house) ... why, for the longest time, we thought the solution to every social problem was to throw money at it.

We remain married to anything that allows us to get around life's complications ... that reduces the overly complicated to the overly simplistic ... and (and I hate to use this expression because it's become such a cliche) dumbs us down.

People often dismiss sports as being totally artificial and irrelevant ... and the exclusive domain of tremendously self-absorbed athletes who no longer have the slightest thing in common with the rest of us.

And a lot of ways, that is true, especially the major professional ones where even being an elite athlete isn't enough. This is why we have so many instances of cheating, whether it's steroids, growth hormones, blood doping, and the rest.

The last bastion, to me, of old-fashioned American perseverance and tenacity is distance running, because there is absolutely no way to get around anything. If you're going to succeed, you have to work. You have to take risks. You have to protect your body so that it can withstand those risks. And you have to know, going in, that even if you do everything right, things might not go your way ... and you have to prepare to accept whatever comes.

You compete not against Robert Cheruiyot, but against yourself. You answer only to the person on the other side of the mirror, and we all know that person is absolutely the toughest one of all to please.

Congratulations to those who dared, even if they didn't finish. For they have done something that nobody can take away from them ... and they've dedicated themselves to something much bigger, collectively, than they could ever be individually.

A few years ago, on the local sports radio talk station (a refugee for exactly the type of people on whom this entire screed would be totally lost), an angry caller got on there (aren't they all angry??) the day before the race and complained that the "stick people" were going to be clogging up his streets for the next couple of days. His streets. Stick people.

I thought the use of the term "stick people" was as humorous as it was pejorative, and in some of my more caustic moments, I've come to refer to the Boston Marathon as "The Invasion of the Stick People."

But I also know that running a Marathon requires dedication, discipline, a bit of fire in the belly, and a lot of patience and endurance ... all traits that, I'm afraid, we, as a people, could do well to learn a little better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Bullying dilemma

We have all had the experience of being victimized – or watching someone else be victimized – by the school bully.

It follows a pretty pathetic pattern. Someone appoints himself (or herself … for the purposes of eliminating confusion I will henceforth use the male pronoun) the official alpha and proceeds to use physical and emotional intimidation to solidify the position.

What happens next is fairly predictable too. The alpha – with the help of a few members of his “posse” – comes up with some sort of rudimentary pecking order that, for reasons we’ve never really been able to figure out, remains cemented in place for the entire duration of the school experience.
If you find yourself at the top of the food chain, then good for you. You may find your four years of high school tolerable. However, you might want to consider this: the pressure that comes with trying to stay on the alpha’s good side might still make your life a stress magnet.

The lower you are on that chain, of course, the more susceptible you are to various degrees of bullying, depending on your position, your personality, and the various other unspoken whims that govern the alpha’s modus operandi.
If you were to compare going to high school with any one aspect of the animal kingdom, the most appropriate scenario would be a pack of wolves, where the alphas reign, the pecking order is almost unbreakable, and loners are shunned.

And with regards to the outrage that accompanied the suicide of Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., all I can say is this: if it were that easy to get a handle on bullying, and to stop it in its tracks, it probably would have been done decades ago. You can probably take every student-perpetrated school shooting in the United States and trace it back to the fact that the shooter was either victimized by bullies or felt overwhelming rejection by those he targeted.
This doesn’t make it right. Nor does our lack of understanding, not to mention our inability to come up with a workable solution to the problem, excuse us from continuing to try.

I just don’t think, though, that every aspect of bullying falls under the parameters of a criminal complaint. In fact, I take the exact opposite approach … that if we’re elevating bullying to criminal status, we’re a) admitting that we’re powerless to deal with the situation; and b) we’ve done a horrible job nipping these incidents in the bud early … BEFORE they rise to the level of criminality.
Before we can start arresting people, and charging them, willy nilly, we must set parameters. If, as the result of bullying, a person is physically injured, then the appropriate criminal charges must be filed … assault and battery, aggravated assault … any one of a number of them.
That, of course, is contingent upon whether the victim considers filing them a safe, sensible thing to do. More often than not, they conclude that it isn’t, because the schools cannot adequately protect them from repercussions … either from the bully himself or his posse of lackeys whose collective moral integrity is probably even farther down on the food chain than the alpha’s.

But bullying doesn’t always rise to the level of physical confrontation. Actually, the worst bullying almost always involves patterns that do not involve violence. Taunting and name-calling generally rule the day. Fellow teens are also very good at ostracizing peers they deem unworthy of their company, and that can often feel worse to the victim than a punch in the nose. At least you can retaliate against one of those.

Finally, there’s the growing, and very alarming, aspect of cyber-bullying, which is the new-age extension of scrawling incriminating graffiti on the restroom stalls and walls.
Let’s take these one at a time.

Name-calling and taunting are not criminal issues and neither is ostracizing classmates. This isn’t to say either should be tolerated. But trumping up charges of “violating civil rights” over these issues is gross overreaction. Only in the most extreme cases – and the Prince case certainly comes to mind – should these steps be taken. And even then, if you’re going to file charges for them, the schools that served as the clearing house for all this abuse should be held accountable too.

That’s what bothers me in the Prince case. If the DA in western Massachusetts found it necessary to charge nine students of South Hadley High School on various counts, then there has to be at least one offense – perhaps the civil rights one – to pin against the school system. Obviously, if this abuse went far enough that Phoebe Prince felt that life was no longer worth living, then it had to be pretty darn pervasive. For school officials to act as if they hadn’t known about it, or that they did all they could to prevent it, is absurd. Especially if those nine students were still in school to torment the girl.

Schools need to knock heads on this issue and work out a step-by-step solution to the problem. And it doesn’t start in high school. It starts in the first grade, which is when kids begin to get the idea they’re better than everyone else.
The bully in the third grade is generally still the bully in high school. These patterns develop early and they do not change. And although bullies tend to pick up victims along the way, they seldom stop abusing the ones they’ve already collected. Sadly, that pattern remains in place too.

I say first or second grade is not too early to suspend children for being bullies, whether it’s physical or mental. Children who taunt, belittle, ostracize … they are exhibiting an almost pathological behavior that goes well beyond “just being kids.” They should be removed from the mix and their parents forced (with the penalty of not being able to return to school without verification) to deal with their issues – professionally if they’re bad enough.

If parents are not going to teach their children these things then it’s up to the schools do to it … by default, I suppose. And it’s too bad if parents consider that usurping their right to raise their children. Maybe if they raised their children schools wouldn’t have to resort to these draconian measures.

I would propose the following: Children exhibiting antisocial behavior in the form of bullying get one written warning sent home to their parents. If the problem continues, a suspension would accompany the second incident. And if that doesn’t work, then the child obviously needs some sort of professional intervention and should not be allowed to attend school until that help is obtained.
Even then, it’s questionable as to whether you can ever root out all bullies. But you might be able to eliminate the “posses” that empower the alphas to continue to be bullies.

On the other side, there are, sadly, chronic victims. And they form their patterns at just as early an age as bullies do. They have the same lack of self esteem as bullies (yes, that IS the root of all bullying … self-esteem issues manifested by aggression), but channel it in a different direction … timidity, awkwardness, inability to interact socially. Again, to use our animal kingdom comparison, they stand out as easy prey. And if you know anything about carnivores, you know that they don’t go after the strong … they prey on the weak.

I think it’s just as important that while we attack bullies head on we do not ignore the needs of the victims. It’s not enough to stave off the bullies. Schools have just as important a responsibility toward the victims, because once you’ve become a target, everything you say and do becomes magnified … and, perhaps, distorted … until it begins happening repeatedly. Then, it feeds on itself and the cycle continues, and tightens, until your life becomes a living hell. You lose your identity, and you find yourself trying to say and do things that you think will keep the bullies off your back … except that it doesn’t. Instead, the bullies and the posses sense the awkwardness and unease, and keep pressing their feet on your throat.

Just as I think bullies need professional help to sort their issues out, victims likewise need the aid of an impartial professional to deal with their situations. Otherwise, these feelings fester to the point that, maybe, someday, you have another Columbine on your hands. But even if you do not, schools that ignore this side of bullying run the risk of moving extremely wounded, emotionally fragile people through the system. And that’s a worse risk, I’d say, than going light on bullies. After all, remember that bullies do not prey on confident people.

This leaves us with cyber-bullying. I do not minimize this. It goes to the very heart of what pours fuel on this cycle. Bullies rule by intimidation. If you speak up about any of this, you run the risk of making your life worse, not better … unless the school system, and all the adults involved, step in and back you up. More often than not, they do not. They just don’t understand the nature of the beast.
This might change in 20 years, when all aspects of the education system have been fully integrated into the social networking system. But for now, there are still far too many administrators whose familiarity with Facebook and MySpace are passing, at best.

It’s hard to get a handle on cyber-bullying because, obviously, you cannot control what you cannot see. The onus here is on parents to do a better job of monitoring what their children do on the internet. And spare me the argument of rights to privacy. I don’t want to hear them. They are not relevant. They don’t exist. Not when you’re 14 and 15 and have no clue about how easily what you say and do can come back to haunt you and hurt you … and others.

I don’t know how you combat this, except that the same laws of slander and libel should absolutely apply … and the same defenses against them as well. If your child is spreading lies about another student on the internet, that is libel. And the victim’s family should absolutely have the right, under libel laws, to seek redress through the courts. If it gets to this point, we’re not talking “kids will be kids” anymore.

Schools still need to step in, though. If a court case is initiated, it is absolutely up to the schools to protect all involved here … using steps up to, and including, expulsion. And if restraining orders become necessary, schools need to do whatever they have to do to enforce them … even if that means keeping the accused bully out of the school.

They key here is to make it not worth the bully’s while to continue the behavior, and the hope is that by doing so, you moderate the behavior. That’s the best you’re ever going to be able to do, because – I’m afraid – humans, being animals themselves, are hard-wired to set up these social structures and exhibit these behaviors no matter how old they are, and where they are. Bullying is just as prevalent in the work place, in politics, and – especially – in organizations involving adult leadership over kids (or maybe you haven’t been on the board of directors of your local Little League).

But hard though it may be, schools and parents bear the responsibility here to do whatever they can to keep all of this antisocial behavior from spiraling out of control. Failure to do so can – at some point, but not always – be considered criminal.