Friday, February 26, 2010

The Huntington’s Stick Fly – regional theater scores again

“ All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” according to Leo Tolstoy. Stick Fly, the latest Huntington Theatre production (at the Boston Center for the Arts) uses a weekend family gathering to talk about race, class, gender, and complicated family dynamics – all the heavy stuff – but it is so laced through with wit and humor that it is fun rather than a heavy sociological treatise.
It has been called a comedy of manners, but it is so much more. Rather than simply satirizing the customs and manners of a particular class of people and leaving it at that (think Noel Coward), Stick Fly inspects the issues, tensions, insecurities, peccadilloes, hurts and secrets of this family as one might study an insect or butterfly and learn something about a species. We are all drawn in on one issue or another.

Stick Fly is about a well-to-do black family, gathering in its home on The Vineyard. Note: they take some smug satisfaction that the setting is Edgartown, rather than Oak Bluffs. (The father is a neuro-surgeon. The mother is never seen.) The girlfriend of the older brother, a plastic surgeon, is WASP, a polished, educated, liberal and seemingly out to “stick it” to her stuffy family by dating a black. The fiancée of the younger son is an entymologist who, while African-American, is insecure about her own socio-economic background. The daughter of the maid, who is also never seen, makes a revelation about her place in the family’s history that is the springboard for the other characters to reveal themselves in their relationships to the others.
Playwright Lydia Diamond deserves the praise she’s received. The first act, which she wrote “relatively quickly” races by. Director Kenny Leon, and a stellar cast including Nikkole Salter, Jason Dirden, Amber Iman, Billy Eugene Jones, Wendell Wright and Rosie Benton, clearly benefited from an earlier Washington, DC run and made this production polished from the start. The pregnant silences, finely tuned facial expressions and carefully wrought non-verbal gestures are as compelling as the language. All three women are especially good in their respective roles. Louise Kennedy’s review in today’s Boston Globe is superb in  itself.
The bottom line is that fine acting, humor that delivers again and again, rich set design, and nuanced direction all make Stick Fly a really worthwhile theater experience. [It runs through March 21 at the Wimberly Theater.]
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

War in Afghanistan is a pact with the devil

News today that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has decided to handpick members of the election oversight commission, jettisoning participation by United Nations monitors, signals that, whenever the United States extricates itself from that war, the situation will go right back to the feudal mess it has been.

And it’s not just a question of controlling voting irregularities. It's rampant thuggery. Civilian truckers hauling supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan to fight insurgents are forced to pay protection money to Afghan warlords to allow their safe passage. A Congressman who recently made a repeat visit to the region said there is little difference between those warlords and the corrupt players inside the government.

Hamid Karzai’s own brother is said to be heavily involved in the opium trade. It was even alleged in the New York Times that, at the same time, he has been getting payments from the CIA for some eight years. Remember, it is money from the opium trade that helps to finance the Taliban. The same dirty money greases the palms of corrupt government officials.
The corruption and our willingness to fight side by side with a tainted government was an issue when President Obama was deciding on committing thousands more American soldiers to a surge last December. He said that denying Al Qaeda a safe haven was essential to our own security. To do this, we’d have to help the Afghan government halt the Taliban insurgency.

But whom are we in bed with? There is no evidence that the corruption issue, which undermines the confidence of ordinary Afghanis in their government, is being dealt with in any meaningful way.

President Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was linked to the production of tens of thousands of phony ballots in last fall’s election in Afghanistan.

You get the picture. The very underpinnings of government are manipulated by the corrupt actions of those in power. Yesterday’s latest move by President Karzai is just the icing on the cake. Does anyone really believe that, if the United States succeeds in extricating itself by the end of June 2011, history will be anything but circular?
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Way to go, Scott Brown!

U. S. Senator Scott Brown was one of five Republicans to break ranks and side with Democrats on a $15 billion jobs measure that passed the Senate today 62-30. The goal of the bill is jobs creation. In fact, Brown was the first Republican to join support of the bill, and then he was followed by Christopher Bond of Missouri, Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe,and Ohio Senator George Voinovich.
This bill frees companies hiring unemployed workers from having to pay payroll taxes on them through the end of this year. The bill also provides a $1000 credit if the employee stays for a year. Optimists project that tens of thousands of new jobs will result.

The New York Times quotes Brown as saying he will also push for an across-the-board cut in payroll taxes.
In his run for office, Brown had promised to be independent-minded , put principle above politics and do what’s right for the people of Massachusetts and the nation. To those who thought this was merely campaign rhetoric, this is a hopeful sign.

Can Washington really turn its back on reflexive partisanship, especially in an election year? Polls show strong support for that happening. But is Congress listening?
Congressman Steven Lynch (D-South Boston) said this morning that both parties have indulged in too much “group think,” focusing too much on what people wanted for their parties and not on what daily life is to the American people. He says the people want “common sense leadership.”
This Senate vote on the jobs legislation may just be a step on the road to common sense. Thumbs up to Scott Brown for exercising leadership.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tiger Woods still in the rough

The trick to effective presentation is to prepare, prepare, prepare and then look as if you’re speaking off the cuff, effortlessly and authentically. Tiger Woods’ highly anticipated mea culpa looked well prepared, intermittently sincere, but not altogether authentic.

That said, from the view of the American public, and viewing the event from the perspective of a communications professional, Tiger’s presentation was a public relations coup! Congratulations to his handlers! They garnered headlines like the one in today’s Boston Globe, “Woods reveals a new Tiger, penitent and promising to change.”

There were moments when I was persuaded. He very explicitly took responsibility for his transgressions. He acknowledged that fame and wealth had translated into the assumption that for him, “normal rules didn’t apply,” and that he could do whatever he wanted to do. Recommitting to life within normal boundaries, he seemed contrite, at times pained. His anger at the media for stalking his child at school was legitimate. However, as Dan Shaughnessy noted in that Globe piece, where were the concerns for his family when he was out rampantly womanizing?

What also didn’t sit well were Tiger’s repeated references to his having “issues,” as if this notion of a sexual addiction disorder made him a kind of victim! When he apologized to his colleagues, his family, his friends, his staff, and all the students who looked up to him as a role model, where was the apology to the numerous women whom he had bedded? Sure, they were star-struck and went willingly, but the imbalance of power between him and them makes his behavior more than a little predatory.

Tiger had obviously been coached in his pacing, in when to look directly at the camera, and perhaps even in his gesture at the end, when, walking out of the room, back to the camera, he raised his left hand to his face –perhaps to brush away a tear?

Yes, there are some matters that are private, between his wife and him. But any journalist should be irritated that Tiger's public relations advisors were able to pull this off, getting them to cover the event staged to look like a press conference but with a no direct access to him and no questions. Cynically, this all seems timed to tee him up to rejoin the tour, if not recover some of his endorsements. There may be opportunities, perhaps when he announces his return to golf, perhaps later on a golf course, to pose direct questions. But then again there are many who just want him back to playing money tournaments, no questions asked.

How well he learned the lessons of his self-indulgent and damaging behavior will be a question to test him the rest of his life and will be answered in sport, in family life, and in his head and heart.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Charlie Baker: You can do better than this! An open letter to the Republican candidate for Governor

Dear Charlie,
Thanks for your recent letter, sent by The Baker Committee to my home. But, Charlie, how could you let this missive go out over your name? You’re better than that!

Was it done by a robo-writer? Every cliché in the book! “restore integrity” “demand accountability” “restore confidence in state government” “cut government spending” “streamline government” “the future of Massachusetts is at stake” Every line except “The future lies ahead!”
Plus, in decrying the “scandals that have become commonplace on Beacon Hill,” you seem to be running against the legislature. You mention House Speaker after House Speaker indicted on felony charges, a State Senator arrested for accepting bribes, another State Senator caught giving the wrong name to police officers.” All true. All correct to deplore. But what do they have to do with Deval Patrick?

You call, and rightly so, for the balance that comes from two-party government, but we had 16 years of Republican governors, and most of those scandals happened under their administrations. And why would you wed yourself to Bill Weld and his legacy?
After he dealt with the deficits of the early ‘90’s, he looked at government as a joke, consoled himself with amber liquid for having to deal with “the walruses,” as he called them, and looked for ways to get out of Dodge. Charlie, you’re no Bill Weld. You’re much better.

Look, Charlie. You seem to have done a good job as Human Services Secretary, making cuts reasonably humanely during the huge budget crisis of the early ‘90’s. You also learned the nuts and bolts of government as Administration and Finance Secretary from ’94-‘98. You’ve served in local government. And, albeit with state help, you led an important turnaround at Harvard Pilgrim. You have the background to be able to tell us specifically how you’re going to fulfill the promises implied by all those clichés in your campaign literature.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh says you’ve offered some interesting ideas. You have been substantive at least on pensions and health reform. Why not build on that? It’s not too early in the campaign. We’ve had it up to here with sloganeering.

You faulted the Patrick administration for increasing the sales tax and say it should be rolled back. How about some specifics on how you’d do that? What would you cut? The Governor says that, in face of yet another revenue gap, he’d sustain local aid and education at current levels. You agree that cutting local aid should be off limits, but, if so, what would you cut to balance the budget? As an old Human Services secretary, how deeply would you cut services to the homeless, to the developmentally disabled, to job training.

You have the brains and the background to make the campaign against Deval Patrick one of substance and specifics. Please spare us the drivel of campaign material like this one. Show us what you’re really made of!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bye, Bayh: “Things fall apart: the center cannot hold”*

Two-term Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana is quitting. He won’t run for re-election and says the main reason is that there’s too much partisanship in Washington today. As Captain Renault said in Casablanca, “I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” So Bayh is walking away from Washington, and his departure deprives the Senate of one of its more centrist voices, arguably heightening the level of partisanship in that erstwhile august body. Well, to quote Finley Peter Dunne, “politics ain’t beanbag,” and, more than ever before, there’s a need for both Democrats and Republicans of moderate persuasion to stay the course.

Unlike some others who have announced their intention not to run for reelection, Bayh was well positioned to win another term. He had, as the NY Times reported, collected signatures and was due to file papers; he had hired campaign workers. His departure leaves Indiana Democrats reeling and possibly unable to put forward a strong candidate by the filing deadline. Nationally, he reinforces the sense that the Democrats aren’t up to a tough fight on issues like climate change and health insurance reform and that they lack the backbone necessary to be effective leaders.

It used to be that being a centrist meant you could exercise leadership by putting together coalitions. Today’s centrists focus on uncivil attacks that come from both sides. That means a centrist Democrat gets attacked by both conservatives and liberals. As CNN reports, liberal attacks are one of the reasons Bayh is calling it quits. Behold the flaming liberal, who devours its young for straying too far from the nest. The same can be said of conservative condors.

On the other side, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, in his bid for reelection to the Senate, is facing a right-wing opponent, J.D. Hayworth, who charges that McCain campaigns like a conservative and legislates like a liberal.

Retiring Senators now number 11 – five Democrats, six Republicans. At this time, the 11 winners are more likely to be partisans representing the more extreme wings of their parties than moderates desirous of building coalitions. Hang onto your seats. It’s bound to be a bumpy ride.

*From William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” 1921

Friday, February 12, 2010

Kindling my passion on Valentine's Day

On Valentine’s Day, I must confess a new love in my life. I have fallen head over heels for my Kindle. So I read with more than passing interest a piece in the New York Times about a developing controversy over plans by Amazon and others under pressure from publishers to raise the price on e-books from $9.99 apiece to $14.95.

Some Kindle users say they’ll boycott and find other forms of entertainment. Still others have protested the increase by going on and logging negative reader comments about the book they would otherwise have bought.

I’m afraid I’m putty in their hands. As long as e-books cost less than discounted hard copies, I’m hooked. Let me tell you the whole tawdry tale. For our anniversary last year, I bought a Kindle for my husband, who is a voracious reader, an info-holic. Five newspapers a day. God knows how many magazines. Limitless online consumption of news. If he were stranded without fresh material, he’d read cereal boxes.

Obsessive reader though he is, he was slow to start using the Kindle, so I decided to try it out…and promptly appropriated it. I love it. On a recent vacation, I read six books and carried only my Kindle. There is no required trip to the store or wait for a delivery to be made by Amazon. When I finished reading Tracy Kidder’s riveting book about Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, I wanted to read Kidder’s new book, Strength in What Remains. A few clicks on my Kindle and, in less than 30 seconds, it was downloaded.

Others in love with their Kindles are outraged that they have to pay $14.30 for Strength in What Remains, rather than the original Kindle price of $9.99. But buying the hard copy on Amazon would be $17.16 plus delivery. And going out and paying retail would entail a list price of $26. Even if it’s no longer $9.99, it’s still a deal!
Want to check out the meaning of a word? You don’t have to go to the dictionary, which I frequently postponed doing. Just move the cursor to the left of the word and you get the dictionary definition. If you doze off, the Kindle will respond to the inactivity and turn itself off. When you turn it back on, it is open to the “page” where you left off. If you’re driving somewhere (and your book is not copyright-restricted), the Kindle can be voice activated and will read to you, though admittedly it is a quirky computer voice and not the quality of books on tape. There are other features, including the ability to take notes. I haven’t yet mastered that feature but don’t need to at this point.

There’s even a Kindle app for my iphone. I don’t carry my Kindle with me, but, if I have to kill time waiting for an appointment, I go onto my phone and pick up my reading where I left off. When I return to reading the Kindle, it syncs up with where I left off on my iphone.
The only real limitation of the Kindle is that my sister and my daughter-in-law can no longer borrow my books because everything is on my Kindle.

The e-book increase is one pricing war that I’m staying out of. I’m still getting a bargain and glad of it. Maybe I’ll get my husband his own Kindle for Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Making Dollars and Sense out of Salaries and Perks

Joe Dwinell’s coverage in today’s Boston Herald of public workers cashing in unused vacation days and sick time makes the blood boil. The perk cost the city of Boston $17 million last year. And at the state level, the paper has documented how workers cashed in over $1 million in unused vacation days at Massport alone. Across the public sector, such pay-outs can either come annually or, in a lavish lump sum, when the worker retires. This has always been galling.

Most of us in the private sector have had to live with a use-it-or-lose-it policy. If Thanksgiving rolls around and you still have unused vacation days, you’d better plan some off time before December 31st or you’re out of luck. Those vacation days go away. I understand that unused sick days are usually part of contract negotiations. But, on a philosophical basis, however they get into the contract, they still make no sense. They’re there to protect you in case you get sick. And, if you don’t get sick, well then, isn’t that better for you? And, when you really do get sick, the flu, for example, how often does the ability to cash in unused sick days at a later day pressure you into going into work, contaminating co-workers and affecting workplace productivity.

The issue of overtime costs is a horse of a different color. If you work overtime, you should be appropriately remunerated. The Boston Globe reports that the city of Boston has reduced overtime by some $15 million, the equivalent of the entire budget of the Parks and Recreation Department. The Police Department alone accounted for $11 million of that, some in payment for police details. The citywide reduction in overtime costs results from focused management and the ability to differentiate between legitimate overtime and overtime abuses.

Lavish perks, including munificent pensions, have traditionally been seen as a fair way to compensate for lower salaries for public sector workers, many of whom are dedicated public servants. But some public sector jobs are plums and treated as jobs for life. Unwarranted perks feed public animus and undermine trust in government. The dark economy has shed light on the need to put salaries and perks on a rational basis.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Governor Hits a Home Run

Governor Deval Patrick’s speech this morning to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce was a home run, not a grand slam perhaps, but a home run nonetheless. He made a compelling presentation of his administration’s accomplishments in “the worse economy in living memory” and laid out a six-point plan for boosting the state’s economy, with particular emphasis on the 85 percent of the economy represented by small businesses. He was forceful and energized and very well received.

His accomplishments are many, and he finally seems able to deliver the message. While dealing with $9 billion in budget gaps (eliminating 2000 jobs, negotiating the “first-ever” contract concessions, cutting programs – many of them worthy), he said he has moved the state up to 8th in a CNBC rating ( from 15th last year ) of how states are managed, also reflected in Massachusetts’ AA bond rating.
We are first in the nation in student performance and in getting people health insurance. We have major accomplishments in alternative energy.

With the legislature, major (though not flawless) reforms have been passed in education, public pensions, lobbying, transportation, and auto insurance. While the sales tax has been hiked, the corporate income tax has been reduced. Much needed infrastructure repairs are underway (“the level of neglect was shocking,” he said). And, according to Patrick, Massachusetts ranks in the top ten states for efficiency of usage of stimulus funds. He explained how his administration has been strategic in using that spending to leverage private investment.

Citing the creation of new jobs in biotech and clean energy, the Governor asserted that “From the beginning, our #1 job has been all about jobs.” (Hopefully, none of the stimulus funds for new energy initiatives will be used for production in China as reported on ABC News.)

He then laid out his plans for doing more. A new $50 million small business tax credit, which he said could generate 20,000 new jobs; a $40 million growth capital fund; efforts to hold down health costs by disapproving “unreasonable and excessive” increases (requiring legislative approval and causing some health executives in the audience to squirm); freezing unemployment insurance costs; and regulatory simplification.

The Governor supports Senate President Therese Murray’s proposal to consolidate numerous economic development agencies to make it easier for businesses to seek their help. He also will work with House Speaker Robert DeLeo on workforce development. All this makes sense, though the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Have I drunk the Kool-Aid? I don’t think so. The Governor has pledged to sustain funding for Chapter 70 education aid across the Commonwealth, a worthy commitment. He has also promised to hold harmless the local communities for local aid. But the one phrase that hasn’t come up in the Governor’s recent policy pronouncements is human services, which have been reeling from the cuts in three budget cycles. In response to a blogger question, he said human services cuts would be about half a percent. He said it’s time to think about how you deliver services and hinted at consolidations that would make it easier for clients to access services. He said he wants to help people help themselves, but you can only go so far with people who are developmentally disabled or have other special needs. [ Disclosure: I consult with human services clients.] “A robust human service capability is a reflection of the best of our values,” he stated.

So where does all this leave us in this, an election year? And what is the lesson of Scott Brown’s upset win last month? The Governor seems to get it. He says “people want to feel you see them and hear them and are doing everything you can to help them.”

One wag said to me recently that Deval Patrick is “circling the drain.” I don’t think so. Not if he campaigns hard across the state and is the same Governor Patrick who presented this morning.

Judge for yourself. The speech to the Chamber will be broadcast at 8 pm Sunday night on WBUR, 90.9 FM.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wedding Bells are Ca-chings for City Clerks

Boston City Clerk Rosaria Salerno is earning$68,000 in cash, over and above her roughly $100,000 salary, by performing as a Justice of the Peace at City Hall during her normal working hours. As the Boston Herald points out, that may be legal, but what she earns could hire a teacher or a firefighter for the city.
Elsewhere, city clerks also function as justices of the peace, but Salerno does more than anyone else given the population of Boston. City Council President Mike Ross wants to review the practice, and that makes sense.

The Ethics Commission years ago found there was no conflict of interest, even if city clerks perform the wedding ceremonies during regular business hours. State law seems to be silent on whether a city clerk acting as justice of the peace can pocket the money or whether it goes into municipal coffers.

Newton City Clerk David Olson says he does one or two marriages a week, at most 104 per year, and charges $75 each, adding to his salary some $7800. Considering the time he spends on many night assignments covering meetings of the Board of Aldermen, this doesn’t seem particularly problematic and is hardly a blip on the screen compared to Salerno’s extra income, which is nine or ten time times more.

Lowell Clerk Richard Johnson does about 100 marriages a year, at a cost of $100 apiece. He and his assistant share the nuptial ceremonies and split the $10,000 proceeds. Again, you’re not talking a lot of money even if it were to be redirected into city coffers.

(Of course, if you don’t want to pay the $75 or $100 fee, you can always get a friend or family member do the honors. A one-time special permission to marry you is only $25.)

For the privilege of picking up the extra income and performing the service, city clerks pay $25 a year for their justice-of-the-peace licenses. Non-municipal individuals wishing to be justices of the peace pay $75.

For most communities, the fact that the clerk gets to pocket a small amount of money for marrying couples wouldn’t even rise to the level of a tweet, much less a blog. But in the big cities it can add up, as the Herald points out, to the salary of a librarian or public safety officer. If the Boston City Council seeks to capture the revenue for community purposes and they really want to make it count, they could raise the $60 Salerno now charges to the $100 allowed by state statute. That would raise an additional $45,600. Add it to the $68,000 she’s now getting from the marriage business, and Boston could actually save a couple of the civilian community liaison workers the police department is now having to lay off. Even if she split the proceeds with the city, she could save a job!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reflections from Afar

The thing about viewing the world from between your toes, seeing naught but silky white sand and turquoise water, is that it clears your mind.

Re-entry is problematic. I note, for example, that save for the child abduction story, Haiti has disappeared from the headlines here. Is the ongoing human misery no longer a concern? How serious, substantive and sustained will Bill Clinton’s role be away from the spotlight? How will it be possible to transform a Republic of NGOs into a viable nation?

I also note that nothing distracted from Scott Brown's rock star will-he-run-for-President status until his swearing-in yesterday. This is, as work-aversive former Governor Bill Weld used to say, where the rubber hits the road. At last, Scott Brown will have to get down to business, learn the rules, the issues and his colleagues, and figure out truly whether his primary fealty is to Mitch McConnell, John McCain, a 2012 re-election strategy or to what is best for the people of Massachusetts and the nation. We shall soon see what a Scott Brown Republican really is.

Also greeting me is a story about a Marlborough Councilor's proposal that all voters have to show photo ID's at the polls. What's next? A poll tax? Back in the day, then Senate President Bill Bulger used to joke that, when he died, he wanted to be buried in St. Augustine's Cemetery in Southie so he could remain politically active. But, to my knowledge, there has been virtually no voter fraud in the Commonwealth since the introduction of voting machines, and photo ID's would seem to be an unnecessary encumbrance.

On the up side, I note that the Massachusetts House finally passed the no-brainer proposal to ban texting while driving, require hands-free technology for cell phone use while driving and impose vision tests for those over 75 years of age every five years rather than every decade. Critics lament the absence of action on mental acuity tests for older people. Too bad they don't have that for all of us - especially after a vacation!