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Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Hole's in the Hat, not in the Heart

At the counter of a fast food place yesterday before heading out to a workshop of the Norwich City Council that got off to a late start as those present waited for about half an hour for members who never arrived and I flashed on Edna, the lunch lady at The Browning School for Boys.

First a digression: the name says it all. When I went there for part of the late sixties, it was all boys and remains so to this day. If you thought the school was named for Robert Browning, himself a poet but best known for being married to the far more famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning, sorry-no. Sandwiched between Park and Madison Avenues on the East side, I would have already been a fish out of water, kid from New Jersey, no money in the family, if I weren't the son of the Lower School Headmaster. Yeah, those were good times-and if anyone from the Alumni Association is reading this today, now you understand why I never respond to any of the notes you send.

Just about the only person I felt comfortable with would have been Edna who rationed the hot lunches with a zeal that often led me to wonder if part of her salary and benefits package wasn't in being permitted to take home to her family the food she didn't serve to us. Stranger things have happened-in my years as a Browning Gentleman, I ate many of those stranger things.

Edna always wore a hair net, always. On Valentine's Day it was red; on Saint Patrick's Day it was green. I was always grateful we had no school on the Fourth of July. I'd watch her leave in the afternoon, staring out the rear window of (Mr.) Clair Smith's homeroom, as she walked the block and a half to the subway that took her home. So self-absorbed was I as a callow and shallow lad, I had no idea where she, nor, for that matter, where any of our teachers lived and it was only decades later that I realized I never knew. But I can recall the hairnet and understood the reason for it-bought in on it, hook, line and sinker.

So here I am, trying to have my order taken by a gum-chewer that could have been me forty years ago. A person who did me a favor showing up for work this morning, and just ask her and she'll tell you, but won't do me another favor by leaving. I realized she, and all the other McMinimum Wage plus a Nickel Associates, are wearing visors--not a hair net in the crowd.

I've always loved the late George Carlin's contemptuous characterization of visors as 'half a hat' and in terms of the original purpose of hairnets in places that prepared food, he's right. The visors everyone now wear are part of that uniform the McArmy of One, no matter the franchise, wants us to experience. Considering most of these places don't actually make food, but reheat the edible units (or whatever the corporate statement calls them) for consumption, I suppose there's little difference and even less distinction. I do think the hairnets would come in handy on Fridays, but I'm a little old school.
-bill kenny

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Where the Sky Begins

This was an odd week of political news, for me at least. That is, the story I kept hearing and reading about was a story I thought I had already known, and had a bellyful of, close to twenty months earlier, John Edwards, former Senator, former Vice Presidential candidate and if political pundits held in some regard have truly earned that regard, seemingly, thisclose to have been the nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2008 campaign.

Before there was "Change We Can Believe In" and "A Leader You Can Believe In"or even "Doing the Dance the Mopey People Do" (it appeared on "An Evening with...", his Zappa-produced debut; I own it; proving selling Manhattan for some glass beads wasn't the slickest con job ever), there was "Tomorrow Begins Today." In short order, John Edwards went from being the Super Cuts endorsed candidate to a legitimate contender before forgetting the run to the White House is more marathon than sprint (or t-mobile, for that matter) and eventually took himself out of the race.

What could have been ruin by a thousand cuts was sped up, considerably, when stories circulated about extra-curricular activities that generated dependents (as the US Army used to refer to childbirth) by someone other than the Senator's spouse. As Wolfman Jack used to admonish his primarily male listeners, 'Swimmin is like women-stay in the authorized areas.'

Like I said, I thought there had a been a ton of buzz on this at the time. And now, it's news again but I'm unclear exactly what part of new is involved or why. We consume famous people, hair and all, don't we? Just inhale them and they're gone.

Once the fifteen minutes if over, life goes on for most. At least I think it does-we're lucky, you and me, because we're not in the side of someone else's lives, we are sufficient unto ourselves. I wouldn't know what to say to the former Senator if I ran into him today, 'how's it going?' just seems so hollow and I wouldn't blame him for popping me in the nose. Is it polite to ask about the child he refused to acknowledge, even when he as only one in the hemisphere still in denial?

In one of the stories, he's quoted as hoping one day his daughter will be able to understand and forgive him but I'm not sure what she will be understanding much less forgiving. And I've picked up enough in fifty-seven years on this Big Blue Marble to know better than to ask a question when you can't stand the answer. That might have been the slogan to put him in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue-but it's a little late for all that now.

"Despite the best intentions,
And a big old man goes up for sale.
He becomes his own invention."
-bill kenny

Friday, January 29, 2010

People never notice anything

I can still remember the first time I read it, "Catcher in the Rye." I could hardly believe this was a school assigned book especially when I came across the magic four letter word that Holden tries to protect Phoebe from. Whoa! It wasn't a swear, it was literature. And right at the end of this stunning book that seemed to give voice to every thought I was having (it turned out, to the millions of thoughts that tens of millions of people were having) I realized Holden, "the Catcher", was in a mental hospital. Very much harshed that 'he sounds just like me" buzz.

In the forty-odd (literally and figuratively) years since first reading it, I've revisited J. D. Salinger's book hundreds, if not thousands, of times (it was only a little older than I when both of us were much younger). It, Heller's "Catch-22" and Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" are probably the three books I have returned to more often than all other reading material combined. Heller and Pynchon wrote other books, some nearly as good, perhaps a bit better, and some not so much.

Holden Caulfield's eternal imponderable--"...I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park ... I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away."

I always loved Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and had I been brighter, I might have thought more about that story and its ending while racing through Catcher. As it was, I was breathless from the exertion of reading it as fast as I could. I struggled, and often failed, to keep up with the torrent of words the protagonist used as weapons as he waged a one-man war on everything and everyone 'phony' only to realize he was, himself, one and the same with the thing he despised.

Jerome David Salinger, who turned 91 on the first day of this year, died yesterday after almost half a lifetime spent in reclusive seclusion. Sometimes there's no second act, I guess. There's an ache, a dull one because he was gone long before he left, but the pain of remembrance of what was, and what might have been, remains. 'What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-bye. I mean I've left schools and places I didn't even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don't care if it's a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I'm leaving it. If you don't, you feel even worse.'

"And a soul that is free can live on eternally." Goodbye Holden. Goodbye J. D.
-bill kenny

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pronouns Other than "I"

I'm not sure our schools teach English grammar and vocabulary the way they did when I was a slip of a lad growing up in America before Edison invented the light bulb and Al Gore the Internet.

We learned about Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (and the more mature of us knew of Henry Miller and James Joyce), but they were all the stuff of English Literature, and had nothing to do with diagramming a sentence or identifying the parts of speech that comprised a sentence.

Sentences that asked a question were always interrogatory; statements could be declamatory and/or expository and, of course, there were exclamatory remarks. Each in its place and in its moment.

There were nouns, verbs, predicates and objects surrounded by adjectives and adverbs, free-range propositions and grazing gerunds, predatory participles (my old friend, the future pluperfect back when I had more future than regrets) and infinitives, split and otherwise.

Sister Mary Jean had a diagram question on every English test every Friday and it never had any thing to do with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, James Joyce's Dubliners or (Lord, literally, forbid) Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.

When we left one of the least charitable of the Sisters of Charity's eighth grade, we had the souls of first shift torque-wrench turners at the Ford Mahwah assembly plant in terms of lyricism, but we could diagram Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in less than two minutes (or three less than it took Abe to deliver it ) while two fourth-period miscreants, sentenced, as penance, to accomplish the same for the remarks delivered by Lincoln's predecessor to the podium, died along the way.

And if you're keeping track, exactly ten, count 'em! ten, first person plural pronouns appeared and zero singular--by comparison, go here, and grab at random. Sister Mary Jean was right-when we don't have to diagram them, our sentences are filled with worthless and meaningless words for everyone, but most especially and tragically for ourselves.

"Of Life immense in passion pulse and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine
The Modern Man, I sing."
-bill kenny

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Boarded Up Windows, the Empty Streets

Those words are actually from Bruce Springsteen’s “My City of Dreams” a song written a decade ago about his (near) hometown, Asbury Park, New Jersey, but I think they ring as true for us here in the Rose of New England.
To be honest, that's what Norwich looked like to me when I drove over the (old) Laurel Hill Bridge through downtown the weekend after Columbus Day 1991 looking for someplace my wife and our two children, still in Germany, would call home when they arrived here (as they did the week before Thanksgiving).

It was a Saturday afternoon, and all these years later, I now know that's not a time of the day (or day of the week) where 'downtown' looks like anything resembling a bustling and hustling metropolis. But I’ve also learned that looks can be deceiving and there’s more to downtown (and across all of my adopted hometown, actually) than meets the eye. You have to know where to look.

Now, as then, there are some hearty and hard-working entrepreneurs logging 856 hours a week, it seems, to eke out an existence as (too) many of us drive past, windows rolled up tight, on our way to malls built farther and farther away from where we live.

Is 2010 the year we start to finally change Norwich back into a place where our adult children will want to come home to, or from which all who have the wherewithal to leave, will flee with a haste that borders on the unseemly as a retreat becomes a rout? Pardon an outsider’s observation, and after all these years I concede that for many, I’m still NFH (Not From Here), but we don’t know how we got here, and, more importantly are unwilling to work together to get to where we want to go.

We need to stop waiting for Hartford, which is politically and financially exhausted, or for Washington, D. C., which is too far away, even more broken and has too many of its own problems, to ‘save’ us. And we need to finally wake up from the recurring dream we have of finding that one big development project that will transform the three rivers upon which we were founded to flowing honey and the falling raindrops into gumdrops.

The only help we can count on, and should, is the assistance we give to ourselves. If we're looking for a helping hand, look no further than the end of each of your arms-that's two and that's a start. If you join hands with those of your neighbor, we have an initiative--and if three of us work together, it’s a movement. Every person, every building, every block and every neighborhood, one community. We've seen the hard way what working to benefit only ourselves has gotten us--a society of sharpened elbows and people not afraid to use them. Many have stopped trying and so we have to pick them up as we take ourselves along to where we need to get to in order to rebuild and rediscover the spark in the dark that made us the nation we are.

I've always suspected had the Native Americans who greeted the Pilgrims realized their guests were not going to assimilate or be interested in learning very many of their hosts' customs, that first Thanksgiving meal might have been more 'to go' than John Alden and Miles Standish could stand. But what were their choices, and what are ours? It's not ever easy, and it's not instant, but we're not in this life, or nation, or circumstance, alone. And we can do this-because, when you get through with all the platitudes, because we have no choice. You're burning daylight, sitting here reading this, my friend. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
-bill kenny

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Curtain Fell Down

As we were driving back from Sunday grocery shopping, my wife, Sigrid, looking out the passenger window at the grey landscape blending seamlessly into a grey horizon where, somewhere overhead, it met an equally grey sky, and offered a word in her native tongue, German, to describe it, trostlos-hopeless.

This is the toughest time of year for a lot of us, to include folks like me who stare out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of what's next. A number of years ago someone took me on a short helicopter fly over of some of the woodlands and farmlands in this area of Connecticut in the late fall, early winter, and the view from the top seemed to be of another world at times.

I can recall everywhere we went (and you can see a lot of them from the roadways, but there are many, many more as it turns out), seeing rock walls through the forests and brook beds, intersecting at angles and wondering how odd that must have seemed to the indigenous peoples here when European settlers first arrived. In comparison, the European landmass was the smallest of the continents, and maybe that's where the assertiveness (if not out and out aggressiveness of its natives) developed as they went out into the big world and marked their territory not only to use but, at times, to use up.

I drive through lands demarcated by ancient stone walls everyday as I travel through the Real World, and none of the creatures I pass in my travels or travails regard them as immutable boundaries or barriers. They are there and nothing more. I would imagine for a Mohegan or a Pequot, thinking of the tribes in this region of the Connecticut, watching an early settler struggle to subjugate the earth to farm crops, engaged in back-breaking labor to maneuver the giant stones they unearthed while tilling, to serve as property markers was too amusing to not smile.

And it's taken us centuries to learn lessons of harmonious, not rapacious, living within a natural order. Reuse and recycle from plunder and leave and to work very hard to not spend too much time calculating what has been lost from lessons left unlearned for too long. Broken Arrow.
-bill kenny

Monday, January 25, 2010

Drenched in Vanilla Twilight (Norwich Meetings 25-30 January 2010)

This new year, 2010, that arrived with such hopes and high expectations is already almost a month old, or will be by the time we reach the end of this week. How did that happen-and when? Perhaps the good news is that if you've holding off buying a calendar, you should start to see some great prices on them as the deep discounts kick in. That's an economic stimulus we can all get behind.

Municipal government works only as hard as we, the people who live in our millions of towns and cities across the country, help it work. Everything from picking up trash as you go for a walk around the block, to testifying at a public hearing on a zoning change or offering yourself as a candidate for an office, each a small step by itself, adds up to a larger way forward.

I fear we've spent too many years in this Experiment Called the United States getting too comfortable referring to others as 'them' so that 'we' will have someone to blame. The danger of finger pointing is that three of the fingers point back at yourself. Perhaps if, instead of balling out fingers into fist we offer them as a hand up to someone else in need, together we can make where we live better for all of us. If we don't at least try, we fail and we've long since reached the point where failure can be an option.

This afternoon at five in Room 206 of City Hall, it's a regular meeting of the Redevelopment Agency, about, and from, whom, in the coming weeks and months, based on the City Council's Saturday conversations, we will all soon hear much more.

Tuesday morning at eight, in their offices at 108 New Park Avenue in the Business Park, it's a regular meeting of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board who balance a (comparatively) global perspective with local implementation.

There's a Norwich Board of Education Policy Committee meeting at 3:30 in their central office, across from the Norwichtown Green. A check of the NPS website will shed no light on what this committee has been involved in, as the schedule for "2008-2009" (sic) Policy Committee meetings has NO minutes of the hours they were in session at all.

At five, in Room 210 at City Hall, it's a regular meeting of the Harbor Management Commission. A review of their December meeting minutes suggests progress continues on both the reconstruction of the seawall and the Yantic dredging (maybe more with the former than the latter because of regulatory interfacing). I follow the former mainly because I enjoy the walk from the pump house to downtown along the Heritage Trail, regardless of the season, and hope to soon begin again to be able to do that (now that I have these bionic knees, it's that or SYTYCD, and no one should have to choose that).

At six, across town in their conference room on Golden Street is a regular meeting of the Board of (Norwich Public) Utilities Commissioners/Sewer Authority (the former includes a presentation on the Norwich Community Development Corporation by its Executive Director, Bob Mills. I'd expect one topic will be a work in progress, their Strategic Plan, and the impact the Saturday conversations with the City Council are having on it).

Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 is a meeting of the Norwich Board of Education Building and Space Committee in the central office. The only mention I could find of it wasn't on either the Board's or City's website, per PL 8-03, but in a local newspaper. In light of the scale and scope of this group's purpose, the multi-million dollar expansion and improvement of Kelly Middle School, a better effort, a much better effort, needs to be made to keep the public informed.

I realize that can be a thankless task, sometimes, as someone who sat on volunteer committees and wondered where the heqq all the folks I'm trying to help are on any given afternoon or evening. Speaking of which, there seems to be a vacancy on this committee which means if you were wondering how you can help make where we live better, the first step is to go here and apply. I like that the form asks if you are a registered voter, but even better, that it does not ask about your political affiliation.

Later Wednesday, at five, in the Planning Department's basement conference room at 23 Union Street, it's a regular meeting (I suppose) of the Dangerous Buildings Board of Review. Sort of subsets of this board, are both the 21 West Thames Street Committee and the 751 North Main Street Committee which meet, one right after the other, after the Board of Review meeting, and/or starting at 6:15 PM whichever comes first (your mileage may vary). All three are missing posted copies of their December meeting minutes.

And at seven, to the left of the sand trap (where's Mark Twain when I need him?) over at their conference room in their facility, it's a regular meeting of the Golf Course Authority.

Thursday morning at eight, in their offices at 77 Main Street are both annual and regular meetings of the Norwich Community Development Corporation Board of Directors. NCDC, along with other members of the 'alphabet soup' coalition of development agencies, is working more closely than perhaps at any time in its history with the elected leadership of Norwich as the city's downtown development arm. Perhaps, like me, you don't know what you don't know about their role, make-up and function. Thursday morning could be a good time to learn-but if you can't attend the public meetings,as I have done in the past, you can request a copy of the agenda and previous meetings' minutes.

Perhaps, but only perhaps, Thursday afternoon at 5:30 in Room 335 of City Hall is a meeting of the Sachem Fund Board listed in one of the local newspapers, though not on the Municipal website. In reviewing their October minutes, the most recent ones posted, I'm trying to grasp the impact of paragraph 5b on a funding proposal for the former YMCA, since what I understood of what I was heard (not always what I was told) seems to be the opposite of what is considered a permitted use of funds. It's a feast or famine with me-I read too soft or too hard-never just right.

In the same vein as the previous note could be a meeting of the Recreation Advisory Board, maybe at six in the Recreation Department Office, next door to Dickenman Field, at least according to a newspaper.

And at seven, there is a Democratic Town Committee meeting in City Hall, usually held in Room 335. Anyone can attend, you do not have to be a registered Democrat. They're not big on pony rides-no need to ask how I know that.

Friday morning at 7:30 (but come early because the acoustics are awful even if there's a mike and speakers) is a roundtable with Mayor Nystrom sponsored by the Norwich Council of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in Room 335 of City Hall. There's a cost to attend, $5 for members and $10 for non-members.

And Saturday morning, at eight, in Room 335 of City Hall, the Council, Mayor and City Manager will continue to wrestle and wrangle with the data and details being developed by NCDC, Rose City Renaissance, Downtown Neighborhood Redevelopment Zone (missed them last week) and the Redevelopment Agency, the 'alphabet soup' agencies I've mentioned, as they sift through dozens of sources of information to build a a body of factual assumptions upon which to construct an economic development plan tied to community needs, strengths and abilities.

More facts, less emotion-not quite as catchy as Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (and you thought I made that up?) but maybe we really do need something with more utility and less futility. "I'll find repose in new ways/Though I haven't slept in two days. 'Cause cold notalgia chills me to the bone."
-bill kenny

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Like Listening to Golf on the Radio

Yesterday afternoon was a family outing, of sorts, for us. My daughter, whose accomplishing what I think is her last semester as a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, has moved home from the dorm life of recent years for the final slog. Her full-time return to our hearth and home hasn't changed the Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle of her parents, even if her father now moves and reacts more like Clyde's dog than Clyde himself. She does give my wife a Thelma for her Louise and so it goes.

Anyway, the three of us spent the afternoon at a home show. You've seen the ads for these things on your local cable system, where all the folks who have goods and services for home improvement and remodeling cluster in one location designed to pitch their products not at homeowners or home dwellers like you and me, but the hundreds and thousands of small businesses from whom the former purchase expansions and improvements.

Not surprisingly, in an economy where General Motors has had to let a few auto manufacturing divisions go, times have been tough and money tight.

This isn't the first year we've gone to this home show. It's local and we have tickets from my son, Patrick, who works for a company that, like the other vendors, rents space to set up a booth to pitch its product to potential customers. That the business is cell phones took me aback the first time we went until I realized how ubiquitous cell phones, yes, even in the construction business, have actually become.

This year, to underscore the point that anything can be sold to anyone if the forum is right, was a booth not that far from Pat's that offered teeth whitening. Obviously, such a service is not instead of the gutter helmet booths of which I counted three by different companies, but rather, in addition to for people who might be interested in buying gutter protection but also want to have a big, bright smile because they don't have to dig leaves, or small, dead animals, out of their gutters.

I knew the economy was tight just from the amount of space in the aisles on the floor of the arena where the home show was staged. The last time we went, I think, two years ago, it was jammed and everything and everyone flowed like molasses on an August afternoon. It felt at times that everyone east of the Connecticut River was at the show. But this time, the crowds seemed to be much smaller, though I'd read an article earlier this week suggesting the bottom had been reached nationally in the home sales and home improvement markets. Maybe just not here, or just not yet.

Patrick described the ebb and flow of customers as 'like listening to golf on the radio', an expression that struck me as both descriptive and unquantifiable, simultaneously. As both of our children have grown into adults of their own, I've discovered I understand less and less of the world in which they live. Which, since it was my job as their Dad to prepare them for it, reflects very badly on me and wonderfully well on them for adapting and overcoming anyway. More often than not these days, they shield me as a stranger in a strange land from a lifestyle of calculated coldness whose language is stark and frightening and for which I lack a decoder.

As we walked from one booth to another, I could see, or thought I could, the desperate gleam in the eyes of many of the vendors as the hours since the home show opened raced by and the leads for the next big sale never finalized because this time, the cliches are more than that. Times are tough and the world is a rougher place to make your living than it was a year ago. Not only is virtue its own reward, it's perilously close to becoming its own punishment. And it may get a whole lot worse before it gets a whole better and I'm worried that if that's the case, how will we ever know?

"And it's a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace,
And a wound that will never heal.
No prima donna, the perfume is on an
Old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey.
And goodnight to the street sweepers, the night watchmen flame keepers
And goodnight to Mathilda, too."
-bill kenny

Saturday, January 23, 2010

So Much for Enjoying the Weekend

We're still enjoying the mid-winter vacation from winter here in Southern New England (I'm always tempted to throw a "y'all" in there after I type Southern even though I know no one here actually says it and most people in the South don't say it either).

Our stretch of above freezing days is starting to run together and I fear a few more will lull us into a sense of winter is over and then winter will pounce again and, as happens every year, we'll be miserable again because we thought we were home and dry.

Last weekend and perhaps most of this one are when we take small-scale automobile expeditions to see friends or to shop, as if we were nearing spring and we've been so reluctant to do that in recent months because of the economy, or emotional malaise, or (on the opposite side of the ledger) overload at home or at work. You may not have noticed the price of gasoline is starting to creep up (as in comparison to what we think we should pay. Almost everyone else around the industrial world cannot believe the bargain we get at the pumps--except us, of course).

In the closing month of 2009, it very slowly started to ascend and here, and as we are about to enter the last week of January (!!! Already, the entire first month of the year is gone?!? When did this happen?), the price continues to climb and in the not-too-distant future, there's an excellent chance the price at the pump these days will bear a striking resemblance to the 'good old days.'

Here's a number that has nothing to with the price at the pump but everything to do with the cost for each of us and to our way of life. Last year, we imported 4.35 Billion barrels of oil at a cost of about a million dollars per minute. I'm not a great numbers guy (someone else always handled the slips and the flash paper) but a decent wag on that total cost works out to about $265 BILLION dollars sucked right out of a struggling economy.

We've been a nation striving for energy self-sufficiency since the early Seventies when Boss Mustangs, and Oldsmobiles 442's roamed the earth-Getty was 35 cents a gallon (there's NO cents key on my keyboard. How incredible is that?) and someone pumped your gas, checked your oil and wiped your windshield. Thirty-five years on, how's all that working out? Hop in, we can talk about it along the way. I'll drive, you buy.
"Standing looking at a photograph
That you do not remember being taken.
You look out of breath, and me like I am faking.
As a matter of fact I don't recall this photo being taken
You don't even actually exist, so I just started shaking.
Does not exist, take an exit."
-bill kenny

Friday, January 22, 2010

This must be the Pit, because I can see the Pendulum

Cynic that I am, I realized even as last November's national election results were being announced, the 2012 campaign had started--I hadn't realized how relentlessly humorless it is already proving to be. As you must know by now, Massachusetts was in the news earlier this week, oh boy. I'm just not sure what exactly what happened means-but there's certainly enough folks rushing to tell me.

Massachusetts, to help place things in a perspective is the only state that voted for George McGovern in a presidential election before many of us were born (not me!) that twenty-one months later elevated Gerald R. Ford to the Office of the President of the United States, while we, the electorate howled for the blood of the man we had rapturously returned to office by the largest popular vote margin in the history of the Republic in November of 1972. See ya later, Watergater.

Fast forward to almost now. A year and a day after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of these United (but not especially happy about it, sometimes) States with a great deal happy-happy, joy-joy celebration that meant something far more profound than that to a huge number of people than some of us uncharitably will ever be willing to concede, now for something completely different. I think technically, Cleese is wearing more clothes than the new junior Senator from Massachusetts, though that's not important, at least to me.

I'm registered to vote in Connecticut. I don't pretend to know what issues we have in common with Rhode Island, or where we differ, though I suspect we have diverging views on coffee milk as a signature beverage. I'm pretty sure Family Guy is fiction, but the same could well be said about a balanced Connecticut State budget, (I'd settle for real and the devil take the 'balanced' but don't tell Pat R).

My point is a lot of people are reading a lot of tea leaves about what Scott Brown's election means for the United States. Not only was I under the impression that he was running to be a Senator from one state, so, too was he (I think) and here's what he thought the issues were upon which he built his campaign. (Arming bears?) Less than 72 hours after he was elected, there are all kinds of folks who are, technically MY neighbors and not his, not only telling me what his election means, but what they did to help make it happen.

I realize it's never eaten as hot as it's served and our democracy works only as well and hard as we do--but Out here in the middle, it's getting lonesome and not just a little scary as we keep shouting at, instead of speaking to, one another. It's getting so hard to hear ourselves think, I fear we may have finally stopped.
-bill kenny

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Greetings from I. G. Farben

It's not called that anymore-it wasn't even called that when I worked in it decades ago. Then it was called the Creighton W. Abrams Building and was known as the US Army's V Corps Headquarters in Frankfurt am Main, FRG. The FRG, Federal Republic of Germany, was diplo-speak for West Germany; East Germany, the bad guys, were called the DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik.

It was a massive building and rumor had it that frightening chemical weapons had been developed in the annex behind the main building during the war. Another rumor had it that Frankfurt am Main was nearly totally destroyed during World War II except for the area where I. G. Farben had their massive corporate headquarters which is why Ike set up shop there. He and Mamie were gone by the time I got there, as was Checkers and his owner, too, though I once wore a cloth coat to a cat rodeo. I do know there was a great place around the corner to get kiwi and strawberry ice cream, so delicious it practically ate itself while you watched.

I was working in a video production facility that everyone liked, as an abstraction, but in terms of manning and funding, no one was too crazy about us. It's not that we weren't nice people or didn't deliver great products-we just cost lots of money. Armored vehicles were going for tens of millions of dollars, this was during the Cold War, remember, (a Gift Store?) and we were squared off against Ivan and his toady lackeys (our toadies were, of course, our friends and allies) and whoever blinked first laughed last. Or something. I forget. It was a long time ago. Anyway, we had LOTS of tanks. Video cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars and we had trouble getting money from the guys with all the tanks to buy us even one.

I thought about that yesterday when a florescent bulb in the fixture overhead "burned out". I remembered Ron Hicks, one of our engineers, and his running buddy, George Whose Last Name I Have Forgotten. George was from Samoa and was the most easy-going person I've ever seen, even when provoked by Ron Hicks. Ron was crazy-brilliant, but crazy. He and his wife had two very young boys, Brenden and LB. And if you guessed that LB was short for Little Brother, then, perhaps you met and know Ron because that's what the youngest one's name was and that's what the initials stood for.

Ron, as the chief engineer, saw his job as repairing the video field production equipment we took on our travels while accomplishing our jobs and broke. He skipped over almost all of that and cut directly to 'broke'. And he was right. We did inordinate amounts of damage to production equipment as it got run over by any number of tracked vehicles moving at high speeds across unforgiving terrain. When dropped from helicopters, it did not bounce, it splattered. Rain cases were not, as hoped, waterproof shock-mounted protection and so it went, one disappointment after another. And Ron and George repaired everything, even if we didn't come back with all the parts we started out with. There was a day we compensated by returning with part of a German motion picture camera, a very expensive motion picture camera, that was, alas, utterly worthless to us and anyone else. Ron and George did more with less than any two people since Adam & Eve.

But I thought of Ron because of the "burned out" light. Ron used to explain to the most junior of the field cameraman the differences in methods of illumination, a topic not really touched on in the Television Production Handbook by Herbert Zettl, the video equivalent of every Sacred Text of every major, and most of the minor, religions. Something not covered in Zettl? The little ones would lean forward and listen closely, and Uncle Ron didn't disappoint.

Incandescent light, he'd explain as if this were merely review because (yawn) all of us knew this already (or so his tone of voice would suggest), illuminates by driving darkness out of a defined space. He noted that late at night when you turned the nightstand light on, it always seemed even brighter than during the day, because at late night it was much darker. Heads would slowly nod and the sound of young fish flopping on the dock, hooks still in mouths, would begin to be heard.

Florescent light, he pointed out worked in the exact opposite way--it absorbed darkness and left only light. There would an occasional askance look-Ron would continue unperturbed because he was already to his clincher. How many of you, he'd ask, have ever removed a "burned out" (air quotes every time) florescent? All hands went up. And did you notice, he'd ask, how there was what looked like black very close to where the metal gap met the glass fixture at the two ends? Again, all heads nodded furiously. That, he explained, is because the florescent is full and can hold no more darkness and the leftovers are seeping out.

He'd allow that to linger for the briefest of moments before adding he could understand how some might be tempted to doubt him but, submitted for their approval, he'd add, have you ever thrown a "burned out" florescent light into a metal dumpster? Of course all of us had done this countless times. The next time you do it, he said, open the little door on the side of the dumpster and take a look in there--it's as black as a coal mine. Why? Because (of course!) throwing the glass florescent into the metal dumpster broke the glass, releasing all the stored up darkness the bulb had been sucking out of rooms for years, scattering it around the dumpster.

I do not recall Ron ever finding the time, or the opportunity, to correct the information he'd shared with the best and brightest videographers the US Army could send to Western Europe as we avoided, but documented nevertheless for all posterity, the deadly embrace of the Russian Bear.
-bill kenny

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

We Gather Every Summer to Celebrate Our Game

There was a TV commercial campaign years ago invoking All-American icons (they hoped), baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Thanks to some adroit negotiations, it looks like fans of The Boys of Summer will need to travel no farther than Senator Thomas Dodd Stadium for three out of four of them, as Dodd Stadium becomes the new home of an affiliate of the NY-Penn (Single A, Short Season) League. I’m thinking either this area has been incorporated into the Keystone State (those having a Keystone Kops idea right now, hold that thought) or the name of the league may be changing (I’m partial to “Bill”, if we’re shopping for suggestions, but I may be biased).

A schedule with thirty-eight home games will seem like a sprint in comparison to previous Double A home seasons with seventy-two, but it’s the hope and intention of the team’s owners (and minor league sports is a business first and foremost) that regional baseball fans will reward their willingness to start again by starting over at Dodd Stadium.

In a perfect world, with a small population sprawled across a large part of the state, a population with reduced discretionary income (usually called disposable because many of us are considered working class, undeserving of an uptown descriptive, I guess), we should be looking to Dodd Stadium as a value-added entertainment venue the way the fingers on the hand look to the thumb.
And, perhaps with the stability of a long-term contractual partner (an anchor store, so to speak) more community-based activities can and will be (I hope) offered at and through the stadium.

I'd point out (as someone who was on the Norwich Baseball Stadium Authority for close to a decade; many of my former colleagues probably felt it was a lot longer) there's been lot of community events at Dodd Stadium for the last decade and a half. High school playoff games as well as Atlantic Ten baseball tournaments, almost since Dodd Stadium opened have been held there, usually in conjunction with, and preceding, home games by the professional team. I assume we’ll see that not only continue but perhaps expand.

In addition to baseball, Dodd Stadium has seen everything from marching band competitions through SpongeBob Squarepants and Bob Dylan concerts (I don't remember who opened for whom; it was a woolly night all along the watchtower on the way to the Krusty Krab) to the annual auto show. All of that and more have been staged at Dodd Stadium to the delight of visitors all in a facility, first and foremost, designed and built for baseball (which just happens to be a great place to enjoy a game).

When nearly 300,000 people were attending Navigators' games in their early seasons at Dodd Stadium, no one seemed to have a problem finding the stadium or getting there, so complaints about location or access that have grown louder in the last half a decade as a reason and advanced as a reason to not attend a ballgame always unsettles me and, quite frankly, seems somewhat contrived. The same neighbors who complain about getting to Dodd Stadium have no qualms, as an example, about driving to the L. L. Bean outlet in Freeport, Maine. I guess clothing the naked is a powerful motivator, finishing far ahead of feeding the hungry.

For an extremely reasonable price (parking, tickets, beverages, and eats) a family or a feast of friends can have a cheap evening or afternoon out without breaking the bank. Admittedly, the hometown team does not have a Dustin Pedroia or a Derek Jeter on the roster (yet)- but the NEXT Dustin or Derek could be out there this season and we can say we saw him 'back in the day'.

Here in Norwich where the default mood is doom and gloom, we've elevated self-deprecation and navel-gazing to an art form. You do the math on this one: Exactly two other cities in Connecticut (New Britain and its Rockcats and Bridgeport with the Bluefish) have professional minor-league baseball teams. If you don't think fans across southern New England don't know and appreciate that factoid, then maybe it's time to wake up and smell the ballpark franks.

Congratulations to the Norwich Baseball Authority, and those in the city administration and elsewhere, who brought this episode to a far happier ending than appeared to be possible just a few months ago. Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training camp in about two weeks. We've already had the shortest day of this winter and despite the outside weather, Spring is winning. The Boys of Summer will be here in a metaphorical moment and the crack of a baseball struck by a wooden bat will replace the sounds of silence on Stott Avenue in the business park. Minor League Baseball returns to Dodd Stadium, proving we are
safe at home.
-bill kenny

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

January Thaw or Spring Preview

I don't understand why it happens, but I'm glad it does. We are experiencing (and if you're in an area that gets cold and snowy in winter, I hope you are as well) a January thaw, though the exact reason has never really been something I've been good at grasping.

You can check this out--I really liked "where z is a threshold anomaly," probably because that's what the bartender in Mosco's Tavern, near Douglass College up in the heights section of New Brunswick, used to call me before throwing me out on my jacks. At least that's what I understood her to be saying, but I was pretty far gone and the auditory sense fades quickly under an alcohol onslaught (she threw real hard for a girl, too).

The most telling line in the study (and I enjoyed the entire paper because I can more or less follow it), if you're a statistician you may feel very differently and be correct, is "people will find patterns in the world around them, whether or not those patterns result from coherent underlying causes."

That's a truism that covers a multitude of events. And in the end, the report concludes that there may or may not be a real January Thaw. Rush Limbaugh had one of these cause and effect epiphanies last week for why bad things happen to Haiti (and who benefits) and it only bolstered some wags' cause and effect arguments on why Rush is one of the bad things that keeps happening to the Republican Party. To each his own, I suppose; it's as you like it.

We could both stand outside this morning without over jackets, Rush and I, maybe waiting to see if Norwich Is Moving Forward, which was such a popular turn of phrase not all that long ago around here, and see which one of us turns blue first. Truth to tell, I don't think he'd stand a chance, being deep in the heart of Connecticut and everything. Heck, there are some who argue Joe Lieberman is hardly blue at all and look at how long he's been here.

All I know is it's above freezing again today, and in the middle of January that's about as close as we get around here to a heatwave. The cold will return, because it always does, but whatever you call what we're having right now, means winter's days are numbered.....
-bill kenny

Monday, January 18, 2010

Norwich Meetings 19-23 November 2010

There's a march to and through the plaza in front of the Norwich City Hall this afternoon at 1:30, honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and an extra voice to sing and bear witness is always welcome.

Meanwhile, here in the land of steady habits and neighbors working in the trenches of local government for little more of a reward than the belief that they are making a positive difference, it's a full week of meetings in a short week.

Tomorrow morning at 8:30, in their offices in the Norwich Business Park is a special meeting of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments (normally held today, a holiday). Lots of us talk about the importance of learning to think regionally; SCCOG actually does it.

Tomorrow afternoon at five thirty, the Norwich Free Academy Board of Trustees meets in Room 6109 of the Latham Science Center on the NFA campus. A significant amount of the Norwich Board of Education's budget is devoted to paying the tuition of Norwich children attending NFA, so it's always good to monitor their budget plans and intentions, especially as the season of municipal budget formulation is nearly upon us.

Tomorrow night at seven are two different meetings. The first, in the Planning Department's basement conference room at 23 Union Street, is a regular meeting of the Commission on the City Plan. I'm not sure the other meeting is being held at all and that's more the rule than the exception. The city's website and a local newspaper list a regular meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, but elsewhere on the city's website is a meeting agenda of this same agency from last Monday. And yet another reminder Public Law 08-3 is NOT a suggestion, it's a requirement. Do I anticipate revisiting this issue? Something about a chicken and lips..HEY, what's that bear doing here in the woods of Eastern Connecticut?

I'm wondering if maybe one of the topics that should be addressed in the Saturday City Council workshops is why communications between and among city agencies remain so awful (the appointments to this committee, and other volunteer panels, are in need of renewal. Perhaps a consideration of renewal should be a concerted effort to send and receive oral and written communications in a (more) timely manner) and how to improve the process.)

Then at 7:30 it's a regular meeting of the City Council, whose 'big ticket item' will be a decision on the long-mulled purchase of the Norwich Hospital property. (For those reading along at home, the entry about a 'second reading and action' substitutes a gerund for a verb and lacks an object.) The Saturday session of citizens, state officials and city council members was an excellent opportunity to make your voice heard, but so far, in terms of total turnout, it's been a small chorus.

Tomorrow night, speak up or shut up-simple as that. Sorry for the bluntness, not. Perhaps helping that process, though maybe not, might be if the Council page on the city's website actually had the email addresses of all the alderpersons and not just some (and in one instance, the email address of someone no longer on the Council embedded in someone else's name).

Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins--sorry-actually at nine o'clock in the community meeting room of the Dime Bank on Salem Turnpike is a regular meeting of the School Readiness Council of Children First Norwich. They seem to be wonderful people-their website is incredibly out of date, but I admire their good hearts. It might be easier to help them if I knew more about what they are working on, but perhaps this is for the best.

The Wednesday afternoon regular meeting of the Housing Authority has been cancelled though, as has been the case since the city's website began, there are no meeting minutes posted (ever)of any of their meetings, so for those of us on the outside looking in, the net difference is zero.

At five, meeting in Room 210 of City Hall, is the Historic District Commission (whose importance and involvement in any and all aspects of historic tourism, as a tool in the City Council's evolving economic development plan cannot be overstated).

Thursday at six, in their conference room at The Rink on New London Turnpike is a regular meeting of the Norwich Ice Arena Authority, whose meeting minutes, since last July, have all melted from the city's website.

And Saturday morning at eight is the next installment of the strategic goal setting (it's my note; I'll call it whatever I want) with Doug Relyea steering a discussion with the Mayor, City Manager, City Council and the 'Alphabet Soup' of development agencies (includes Rose City Renaissance, Norwich Community Development Corporation, Downtown Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, and the Redevelopment Agency) on where do we go from here and how do we get there (without involving that old stand-by, 'Search for the Guilty', as part of our all-too regular way of doing business in the Rose City).

You really should make it a point to attend at least one of these sessions rather than remain unhappy about what you see as the lack of progress and process here in the second decade of the 21st Century. Of course, it is a lot easier to be a horn than a light, but that decision is yours.

"There is a blood red circle on the cold dark ground and the rain is falling down.
The church door's thrown open, I can hear the organ's song; but the congregation's gone.
My city of ruins, my city of ruins."
-bill kenny

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My City Bought the Norwich Hospital Site Property

My apologies if you've stopped by today to visit and don't live in The Rose of New England as this is pretty much the definition of narrowcasting (that is, using a broadband wide spectrum medium to reach a niche audience). As the tee-shirts I'm going to sell will say (on the front), "It's a Norwich Thing. You Wouldn't Understand." with a big rose as the background. The back of the shirt will say "I live here and I still don't understand." Remember, these shirts are not sold in stores and if you call right now and pay a separate shipping and handling charge, we'll double your order! (Order by midnight and we'll get your money even faster)

Attended a two hour and forty minute meeting yesterday afternoon in Norwich City Hall organized by State Senator Edith Prague (whose portrait on her webpage should be reversed so she's not looking off screen) who brought with her a representative of the Connecticut Department of Public Works and one from the Department of Environmental Protection to address lingering questions or concerns about the City's decision, forecast for a vote Tuesday evening at the Council's meeting at 7:30, on purchasing the "Norwich portion" of the former Norwich State Hospital property. My question, 'what would we do with it' was asked earlier this week.

I don't pretend this is the official account of what went on. These are my notes. If you don't like 'em, get your own bag. I defer to any official observations made by anyone taking and making notes at the front of the room-consider these a first draft and, as they're fond of saying in Congress, I reserve the right to revise or amend my remarks. Was that a disclaimer? Sure sounded like one, didn't it?

Don't get all mathy on me, but I think I counted fifteen people siting at the table in the front of Room 335, also known as the 'Hall of Huh?' because you say that a lot when anyone anywhere in the room tries to speak because the acoustics are beyond awful (turns out this is the other place that no one can hear you scream) with an audience, at its largest, of twenty people (including city agency leaders and department heads and two people who said they were developers (I know, 'where have you guys been?!').

Among those at the table were State Senator Edith Prague, State Representative Melissa Olson, State Representative Christopher Coutu (briefly), all the members of the City Council, Mayor Nystrom, City Manager Alan Bergren, Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll, NCDC Executive Director Robert Mills and representatives of the Connecticut DPW and EPA.

It began late but compensated by going until ten after three. From 1237 through 1342 (I so prefer the 24 hour clock because it's easy to use and everyone else on earth already does), was citizen comment. Everyone who wished to speak could, for whatever length they desired.

Frank S, a Norwichite (Norwichean?) of forty years, counseled 'don't buy what you can't afford.' Rodney B, concerned about clean-up costs (in the five million dollar neighborhood, to start; a pretty pricey neighborhood), suggested the tax increase to pay the costs would force people to leave Norwich. Ernie C encouraged the Council to vote yes Tuesday night because 'we should look ahead and not back' and drew parallels to what's now called the Pease Development Authority (the size of our parcel is slightly more than seventy acres and about half of that can be developed).

Andy D, suggested a 'no' vote was more called for and quoted from Sammy Davis Jr.'s version of Candyman, 'Cover it with choc'late and a miracle or two' (Anthony Newley really has some 'splaining to do). Bryan K had questions for the DEP representative if Norwich doesn't purchase the site, to include, 'what will the state about (the costs of) remediation and on-site security?' Keith R feared Norwich cannot afford the site if the state of Connecticut doesn't do the clean-up.

Martin G became my personal hero, noting 'without a plan for what to do with it, why are we thinking of buying this site?' Joe M asked 'why is the state trying to sell this property without cleaning up?' (we were to learn later, though more elegantly phrased, 'because they can.') Evert G, back from the Harley expedition to the Palin Heartland, offered 'we have no plan for this property and without that, this isn't a viable purchase.' (yes, I cheered inside.)

Mark F, a member of Thames River Landing, LLC, pointed out the 'Third Party Transfer provisions in the purchase agreement' allowed Norwich to buy the property, turn around and sell it to a developer, and, in this case, his group had a commitment of forty million dollars for environmental cleanup of the entire property (to include the 400 plus acres Preston bought but hasn't yet done anything with).

And Kathleen M, a member of the now-defunct Hospital Site Advisory Committee, reminded the City Council of the on-line availability of the committee's meeting minutes and final report while, again, voicing her opposition to purchasing the site (I attended all but three of her committee's meetings, sometimes as the entire audience; (having no life is hard work, after all)) and I never remember hearing about this Third Party Transfer provision in the purchase agreement. I think I'd have remembered that-or that it would have been mentioned in passing in the final report.

The five minute break requested by Alderman Nash lasted fourteen minutes and when the meeting resumed Mayor Nystrom asked of the CT DEP representative (as Joe M had earlier) "Why has the Department of Environmental Protection NOT taken the lead on cleaning up all of the Norwich Hospital Property?" The rep promised to relay the question to the Commissioner for a more fully developed and timely answer (the vote, bear in mind, is Tuesday evening; Monday is a municipal, state and federal holiday) but suggested there is 'no law in Connecticut mandating property owner cleanup.' In conjunction with superfund concerns, as a separate issue, the various state property transfer laws, and municipal ordinances drawn from them, mandate environmental compliance and disclosure of defects when real estate is bought and sold.

As I understood the point, no guarantees of course, in the private sector, the buyer and seller would come to an agreement on hazardous materials removal costs and the like, to include a lowering of the price if the purchaser will pay for the clean-up. In this case, priced at a buck, there's really no room to haggle and the bottom line is there's no state law mandating a clean-up and the DEP doesn't have the money to pay to have it done.

Senator Prague sought assurances that Norwich, in its interaction with the state, was receiving the same considerations in the purchase,that Preston had when they purchased their part of the property. The DPW representative assured the Senator there was no special treatment and the arrangements were identical. A concern throughout the room was how long does Norwich have to begin the environmental clean-up if the property is purchased? A variety of time lines have been bandied about but we had the definitive answer person in front of us.

Within one year, a graduated plan of remediation must be designed she explained (her point was much of the 'end time' for implementation depends on what the land is intended to be used for which will drive to what degree it must be remeditated). And yes, she reported, Preston requested and received permission to phase in the clean-up (as opposed to all four hundred plus acres at one time) and she expressed confidence that Norwich, if we were to ask, would receive the same answer.

Representative Olson asked if further negotiation of the current agreement were possible. Short, answer is no. The City Council on Tuesday night must vote yes to approve a purchase negotiated nearly three years ago (that was the time limit and we all knew going in). Modifications involve a number of State agencies, ultimately needing review and approval by the State's Attorney General and none of that will happen by Tuesday night's vote. To answer Representative Olson's question, to allow the agreement to lapse (by not voting at all) or voting "no" would, if both sides were willing permit further negotiations on a new agreement. But before any of that can happen, the City Council must choose an action for Tuesday evening.

Alderwoman Caron wondered what the total and final cost of acquisition would cost a Norwich taxpayer annually as well as cumulatively and both Mayor Nystrom and Alderman Braddock noted costs would begin and include all purchase and legal fees, as well as all associated development expenses through, literally, the day the final parcel was sold to a private developer (when revenue began flowing into the city's coffers). In essence, the meter starts when the cabbie puts the flag down; whether he's idling, waiting for the passenger to get in or sitting at a light someplace. When you buy a ticket, you get the whole ride.

Corporation Counsel Driscoll, in response to what sounded like a buyer's remorse question, told the room the purchase timeline would probably be a closing within one hundred and twenty days of a decision to buy the property Tuesday night. I didn't see anyone take out a Hallmark calendar, but it works out to no later than 29 April.

We are slouching towards Bethlehem, my fellow Rosebuds (I like that better than Norwicheans; your mileage may vary) and the time for coming and going has just about come and gone. For a lot of residents this purchase has become a footrace to see if reasons to make no decision can be manufactured faster than the exigencies requiring one. The Mayor delivers his first State of the City Address prior to the City Council turning its attention to Resolution One (and first in the hearts of its residents?) as first we talk about tomorrow and then do something to bring it closer. Time's almost up--it'll soon be here.
-bill kenny