Thursday, May 28, 2009

On the musical frontier

Outpost 186 hosted a three-part microtonal-music night Wednesday, playing up the touring Thomas Helton on upright bass but including locals the Trio Microcosmique and bass clarinetist Todd Brunel. (The trio was formed a week ago just for this gig and comprises Scott Dakota, Lainey Schulbaum and Rachel Jayson.)

“Microtonal” brings to mind what to Western ears might seem like a lot of droning, and, to be sure, what went on wasn’t for everyone — but it wasn’t merely tedium and allowed for as much range as you might find at a night with a full orchestra. That is, if you don’t like the current microtones, just wait a microminute.

Helton did two pieces in his hour or so alone, and in each he produced sounds totally unexpected from the bass, although maybe not from this particular bass, which looked well-used — a Texas bass, at home on the frontier. At times Helton made shrieks like metal on metal by sawing his bow on the strings below the bridge while strumming two strings above; maintaining the strumming, he dragged the bow up the unused center strings to create a crazed skittering; still maintaining the strumming, he whipped the bow in the air off to one side for a chilling flapping of wings. At another time, plucking the bow violently around the C bout or lower bout produced surprisingly scary, and riveting, noises. The only unexpected use of the bass that was also unsuccessful was when he used his hand to rub it front and back, which sounded only like someone using his hand to rub a bass’ front and back.

His improvisational work with Brunel was also a mix, emerging into the sublime by lurches out of the clumsy. In this case, the key stretch was when Helton settled into a laid-back, slightly menacing but cool thrumming as background to an aural attack by Brunel. The image: Robert Mitchum sauntering down a black-and-white street in broad daylight, appearing totally at ease despite the screeching psychosis inside waiting to burst. Another improvisation, in which the pair swapped the lead several times, continued the argument between mournfulness and violence.

The Trio Microcosmique played on a different palette, ranging from soaring to pulsing, but always with key and harmony in mind, frequently looking at each other in silent communication, and Dakota even gave some encouraging explanations of what the players were about to do.

Schulbaum, showcasing her classically trained side instead of the broad(!) comedy of her Steamy Bohemians gig, assured from the beginning that the trio would be a gentle and pleasant ride.

“Don't be scared by the ‘microtonal’ tag!” she told her Facebook invitees. “The arid, astringent art thing is cool — don't get me wrong — but we're not about that. No frets or fixed pitches are present here, so from all possible notes we can choose to play the extra pretty and harmonically unified and interesting ones. Notes you don't ordinarily hear, new sounds! It's natural intonation, like a string quartet or a cappella vocal group. And for the math and history buffs among you, just Intonation utilizes whole number frequency ratios in the style beloved of the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Vedics, and that Pythagoras dude, with some modern twists.”

“Artsy this may be,” she said, but fun as well.

Despite her assurances, In fact betrayed by her assurances, the music can’t help but be a bit cerebral. But the performers made sure that wasn’t a bad thing, and made it adventurous, as well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sleepover: Weekly comedy night could be new comics' community

There was more than one thing in the air Monday at the Cantab Lounge. The first was a fecal stench. The second, fortunately, was the possibility Cambridge has found a successor to the Great and Secret Show — the long-running alternative comedy night that recently ended its run at another Central Square venue, ImprovBoston.

The Cantab show, the Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Sleepover, is the creation of comedians Chris Coxen and Robby Roadsteamer, who intend for it to be weekly, like the Great and Secret, and free, as the Great and Secret was in its heydays with the Walsh Brothers at ImprovBoston’s old location in Inman Square. Coxen and rock star Roadsteamer are mainstays of the local comedy scene and know just about everyone in it, so they have a broad field of talent from which to recruit acts and plenty of good will to keep the talent around while audiences build.

Monday’s inaugural audience included more participants than watchers, but there were also plenty of nights the Great and Secret was like that. In fact, that show’s magic was partly that it was a community of comedians, and the comfortable atmosphere contributed to an environment in which comics felt free to try out material that was new or on the iffier side of alternative. It wasn’t always funny but, well, what did audiences want for free?

The first Sleepover had a little of that going on; Nate Johnson riffed on the odor in the air, creating on the fly the character of Hiram Pines, a formerly homeless man selling perfumes and colognes, and not all instant comedy is going to kill. But it’s consistently more interesting than most of the observational humor trotted out at two-drink-minimum clubs, and Johnson returned later for a Coxen & Johnson “Telepathy brothers” sketch that grew steadily more funny.

Niki Luparelli did a breathy, sweet solo variation on her Steamy Bohemians sex bomb persona, swinging a hula hoop while telling dirty jokes and pulling various items out of (and putting others into) her bra. The most revealing thing about her act, though, was the power and beauty of her singing, despite the silliness of playing along on the ukulele and kazoo. She brought welcome energy to the show, probably topped only by Roadsteamer’s usual antics: roaring exhortations to the audience and abbreviated hard-rock tunes keying off whatever he’s feeling at the time. Monday the crowd got a bit of “Someone Put a Condom on My Dreams,” “I Hope I Get Something Creative Out of This,” about artists’ tendencies to use whatever sucks in their lives, and “I Got Construction Boots,” in which Roadsteamer and glockenspiel player Nikki Dessingue (more commonly known as a keyboardist/lyricist/vocalist for Where the Land Meets the Sea and The Campaign for Real Time) improvised rants about who’s in what kinds of boots. Dessingue’s presence made Roadsteamer’s act strangely charming, like putting a kind of screwball romance filter over the amps and aggression of the man behind “I Put a Baby in You.”

Probably best of all, though, for all of those missing the old Great and Secret, were the comedians who put storytelling into their sets. Mehran told an uproarious X-rated story about a man he met while looking for a roommate. “I love how long we’ve talked about this,” Mehran exulted at the end, but his exuberance and surreal turn of phrase never let the audience tire of the story. Rather than just be curious as to where the story was going, listeners got to relish the smaller surprises of his language along the way. And Ken Reid turned his day’s real estate frustrations into an extended rant on living in Somerville, which he’s come to feel is like the older brother “that dropped out of high school but still buys Cambridge beer. He used to be kind of cool.” (It’s easier to understand the sentiment if you, like Reid, were to come home midday and find two homeless and/or developmentally disabled people making “mouth love” topless on a stained mattress on your sidewalk. All true.)

The Sleepover has a distance to go — first, ensuring there’s no return of what Coxen called the “rustic essence in the air” — before it’s a second home like the Great and Secret. But the hanging-out after a Great and Secret Show wrapped was part of the show's charm, and the Cantab’s bar is open long after Sleepovers end, as well as there being music upstairs. Coxen and Roadsteamer may yet be able to work out the kinks without stamping out the community.

Coxen acknowledged Tuesday that the Great and Secret is something of a model for the Sleepover. “Without a doubt,” he said, he wants a sense of looseness and community. “But the Great and Secret was not an open mic night, and I have the same feelings with this show. What I will say is that for people I trust, like Ken or Shane Mauss, I would definitely encourage them to try new stuff.”

Still, he said, “It’s not just about the performers. I want it to be fun for everyone.”

The Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Sleepover runs every Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. at the Cantab Lounge, 738 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge. Call (617) 354-2685 or go to

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Top candidate

I think one of the laziest people in the world lives on Walden Street in Cambridge, near Masse's Hardware. As you will see in this picture, a Christmas tree was put out on the curb sometime Monday — four months and 17 days after Christmas. Now, I too can be a bit of a procrastinator, but …

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Comic strip synchronicity 2

Another odd overlap on the comics pages, this time from the Feb. 17 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe. In each a blond son walks in grumpily from a day at school, lugging a backpack; and in each a black-haired, red-sweatered mom asks about events.

It's the freakiest thing since yesterday's example of comic strip synchronicity, is it not?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Comic strip synchronicity 1

Every once in a while a single page of comic strips will reveal a strange similarity from one artist's creation to the next — a totally out of the blue (or, in the case of newspapers, cyan) occurrence that of course does not legitimately include obvious common themes such as Halloween or the last day of school before summer vacation. I would also be reluctant to include coincidentally overlapping demonstrations of, ugh, the old generation of artists' fixation on golf. (Nothing is as funny as golf!)

I'll post examples when I run across them, although I've got only one saved up after today's inaugural post.

This one is a particularly startling example of the phenomenon, though, because what's shown here, from the May 3 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, is unretouched! These comics strips ran just as you see them here, one atop the other.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Closure on Connecticut (Part 1 of 3): The Post-Herald

Following through on the details to leave Connecticut again — packing up, arranging to shut off gas and electricity and such — also begged some closure on what I tried to accomplish there as editor of the Bristol, Middletown and New Britain dailies. (I really didn’t have too much to do with the day-to-day creation of content for the related weekly newspapers, and most of those are sadly shut down now anyway.) Lacking another venue, I figured I might as well throw it on my long-defunct blog.

Apologies to anyone who ventures into the older material here at Misanthropicity. My advice is: Don’t bother. I’d estimate 99 percent of it is worthless.

And a warning to everyone about this posting (and those that may follow on the matter of central Connecticut): It’s for me, basically, to get some thoughts down. I’m aware this is a public blog, and the posting may be stumbled across by any number of people, but it’ll be deadly dull for nearly all. It’s merely unfortunate that the closest thing I have to a diary is appended to something that also holds items of more general interest. Unless you’re having trouble sleeping, then, you’d best stay away! “Remembrance of Things Past” is more concise! You’ll undoubtedly find “The Phantom Menace” more entertaining! And better written! Et cetera.

For those who still haven’t gotten the message …

The job I took was a killer. Since I was responsible for some 20 publications, there were many seven-day weeks, during which I worked from 72 to 80 hours, and even when I had a day off, I was almost always on call and working in some way. I didn’t just edit. Like many other editors in the chain, I designed pages. I wrote stories. I even took photos. In the roughly two years I was there, I had only a single actual weekend, meaning two nonholiday days off in a row (and I worked, I think, every holiday), and yet for all the hours put in there was never a paper published with my name on it that didn’t embarrass me in some way. Although it will astonish some readers to see, I have high standards. The typos we let go, the shortcuts we had to take and the failure to pursue important stories and even entire beats were humiliating and hurtful to me. But the realities of the situation were overwhelming, made up in large part of extremely low pay and dire understaffing. Such problems are endemic to the industry, and all my hours on the job couldn’t make up for it.

Still, even with those hours and the difficulties of the job, I was interested in staying in central Connecticut just on the merits of serving the newspapers’ communities and seeing if I could finally make some needed improvements; there was also justification when contemplating the horrible economy and worse job market for journalists.

If anyone from New Britain finds this posting, they’re likely to wonder about one aspect of my time there: reporter Rick Guinness, as controversial a topic (or metatopic) as you can find in local journalism. Over the years, Rick has been a great shoe-leather reporter, and he was for a long time ideal for the papers I was given to run. That is to say, I inherited tabloid newspapers, and I was told by the publisher at the time of my hiring to pursue a tabloid strategy — one main story on the front, and a bold headline that could be read from some distance away. This was deemed necessary because The Herald, especially, was reliant on sales from vending machines and news racks rather than from subscription sales, even though it was my goal to produce a newspaper of such quality that people who bought an issue here or there were ultimately inspired to subscribe.

Until we reached the point where subscriptions reigned again, we were encouraged to focus strongly on New Britain, not the surrounding towns, and to sell the paper with stories that some would consider sensationalistic. I tried to follow my bosses’ orders in this regard as responsibly and sensitively as possible, and sometimes I failed. But for quite a while, Rick Guinness fulfilled the publisher’s needs extremely well; his stories drove Page One, and that drove sales, and I feel we did some good work in that time.

For what it’s worth, a look at the Monday-to-Friday sales averages in the spring of 2008, a year after Rick, the education reporter and I started in New Britain, shows circulation topping 10,000. (This is around where sales were a year earlier, but those 2007 figures had been described as soft and suspect — the implication is “unreliable” or “faked” — by the circulation director, who said he was working to ensure reliable numbers. While it was dispiriting to see numbers dip over that year, despite assurances the newsroom was not to blame, it was conversely very exciting to see the numbers rise again to that peak and be able to credit the work of staff throughout the building.) The most recent figures I have, in mid-January of this year, puts Monday-to-Friday sales at 7,882. By now, the spring of 2009, the numbers may have risen again, but I don’t have access to them. Either way, for at least a year, the publisher’s tabloid strategy and the newsroom’s work to fulfill it seemed to be working. The Herald has a different strategy now, with the text of stories appearing on Page One and jumping inside. It was not a strategy I was asked to pursue, nor one I would have fought.

Every reporter at The Herald came with pluses and minuses, and while Rick was no exception on the minuses side, his reporting was energetic and substantial. And he could write in complete thoughts, in actual English. Believe it or not, that wasn’t always a given at The Herald’s level of hiring before I came on. (It’s a strange thing to say that when I had the opportunity to hire, I felt I had to ensure applicants could simply write a coherent sentence.)

Rick’s personal life sometimes overtook his professional skills. That’s no secret. Rick has been open about the more problematic aspects of his life. As his boss and friend, sometimes I had to hang on and wait for those personal problems to be ironed out and for his work to rise to more ideal levels, but that wasn’t just because of Rick as an individual or a legal obligation to hold jobs for people with illnesses or similar problems; it was also due to company policy that made it extremely difficult to hire when the newspapers I edited lost a worker. An example of this is when New Britain education reporter Fran Morales left the paper in March 2008; surely many in the city noticed we never got to replace her, and with her leaving, The Herald lost 20 percent of its news staff.

The bottom line: As crazy as it may sound, if Rick had left or been fired from his role as city hall reporter, it was a gamble whether the company would give permission to fill the gap, and The Herald could have had three reporters scrambling to fill the pages once filled by five. So it was necessary to move with extraordinary caution on any personnel changes.

But there was more going on than weakness or misjudgment on the part of Rick, me or the company that owned The Herald. The mayor of New Britain, Timothy Stewart, decided to punish Rick and the newspaper in early February 2008 by withholding information needed for stories and quotes needed to balance them. He vowed not to speak with us and to force us to “FOI” for everything, meaning any information wanted from his employees at City Hall would have to be formally requested through a formal Freedom of Information filing — a process that could be followed for a longer-term piece written over a matter of days, weeks or months, but impossible for people trying to put out a daily newspaper. I tried to talk to the mayor by cell phone and e-mail shortly after his decree, but he would not talk to me and did not reply by e-mail.

The mayor’s order, placed only on The Herald as punishment and not on The Hartford Courant, obviously runs contrary to what the state is trying to accomplish with its FOI law, and is certainly fodder for a lawsuit (if only I had the means or energy). But Stewart’s City Hall has been bad on freedom of information for a long time, obliging the Common Council to pass two local FOI laws to reinforce state statutes. The state Freedom of Information Commission also heard four complaints filed by The Herald against New Britain’s City Hall, finding in The Herald’s favor three times. The loss of the fourth was unnecessary and pains me.

The awfulness of this may be too esoteric or dull for some to fully grasp or care about. A better way to put it might be: No public official should be allowed to choose which laws to enforce, or to enforce them for some people but not for others, and nor should a law ensuring a freedom be used to deny that freedom. How can you have faith in a government acting this way? Even if you do, are you automatically willing to allow the next regime to act in exactly the same way, with the same caprice and whimsy, the same willful ignorance of laws it dislikes or finds inconvenient, not knowing who will be leading it? It’s why we’re a nation of laws and why no one is supposed to be above those laws, and every voter and citizen must ask themselves whether they believe that. The alternative, at least at the extreme, is a cult of personality, shadow government and dictatorship. At a more mundane level, decisions that are made out of the public eye stand a good chance of being made incorrectly and for the wrong reasons. It allows corruption and waste to take root and flourish.

Newspapers are supposed to watch out for those things, and that requires the asking of questions that may seem offensive, stupid or that sometimes go nowhere. But they must be asked, just as in any kind of reporting. A most basic example: Reporters should confirm the spelling of even the most basic of names (Is it Jon or John? Is it Smith or Smythe? Etc.), and feel stupid doing it. When the questions aren’t asked, reporters can get information wrong. When the questions aren’t answered, the information can come out skewed as well.

Sometimes I felt even people in the newsroom didn’t understand I wanted questions asked or accusations investigated not because I wanted them proven, but because they had to be pursued if true and disproven if not. If true, we’d get a helluva story. If untrue, we did our due diligence, and the truth about elected officials is worth knowing whichever way it comes out.

Rick and The Herald were consistently denied access and information at City Hall, then criticized for getting facts wrong. Republicans in New Britain refused to talk, then blasted The Herald for talking too much to Democrats. (Here’s a weird but telling example: Once we delayed publishing the schedule of meetings for the Democratic Town Committee so we could run the Republican Town Committee’s schedule as well; the Republicans refused to respond and share their schedule, so we ran the Democrats’ with a note of explanation.) There were accusations Rick and the paper got “everything” wrong, but no examples were offered and virtually no corrections requested.

The Herald, meanwhile, bent over backward to be fair, continuing to call the mayor for comment on stories even after he made clear the effort was pointless and never shying from publishing stories that made the mayor look like a hero. (Every once in a while the mayor would comment to Rick, then suddenly withdraw from contact again, never explaining why.) As editor, I wanted to do things carefully and responsibly, and sometimes that meant losing stories completely. For instance, I have confirmed from eyewitnesses that the mayor once tried to bar Rick from City Hall and threatened to assault him when he saw Rick inside anyway, but a story about this never appeared in The Herald.

Just to be clear: As witnesses describe it, the Dec. 23 incident involved the mayor trying to block a citizen from pursuing legitimate public business in a publicly owned building. Rick had to pass through a common area, a lobby, to get to a meeting with members of the Common Council, and in that common area a holiday party was being held. The mayor didn’t want Rick at the party, and that, on its own, is fine.

But would it be acceptable for some other random citizen to be told they can’t get to their previously arranged meeting with aldermen — arranged without the knowledge there would be a holiday party taking place nearby — because they weren’t liked by the mayor? Perhaps the party could have been held somewhere away from where public business was being conducted. Perhaps passage through the party could have been granted on the way to, and from, legitimate public business.

Rick exacerbated the situation by taking a picture of the party, but that doesn’t justify the mayor’s subsequent threat (again, as described to me by witnesses and confirmed in a conversation with a police officer who became involved) to knock out his teeth or retroactively justify the barring of a citizen from City Hall while engaged in legitimate public business. I think those actions display a lack of respect for or understanding of the law, both of which hardly recommend the mayor as a public figure, as well as a lack of judgment and erratic temperament.

At least in this situation, the mayor hardly took the high road.

The Herald taking the high road never seemed to help. And over time it became clear that what the mayor wanted was a newspaper without Rick, and, I was told by several people, without me.

In a Jan. 31 e-mail to the publisher of The Herald, I wrote:

“I truly hope we can get some peace and progress on this from Stewart; I am beyond sick of this situation, but I keep enduring it because I truly feel it is dangerous to let any public servant get away with bossing around their local newspaper just so they can run City Hall the way they want, without questioning. This is not JFK asking silence as he prepares the Bay of Pigs invasion (and look what happened there!); this is a small-town mayor who seems to think it's more efficient to decide things himself instead of letting the taxpayers in on the process. We've supported Stewart when he's been right on things, we've been beyond polite and forbearing when he's acted up … He badmouths the paper, Guinness and myself constantly, loudly, out in the community. And I really don't see how that helps the community.

“… bowing to his demands would make him the de facto boss of the newspaper, and the word goes out that he ‘beat The Herald.’ I just don't think a public official should have that bragging right, not [ex-governor of Illinois Rod] Blagojevich, not Stewart.”

Rick’s leave-taking from The Herald was ambiguous; he wasn’t really fired and didn’t really resign. I’d spoken repeatedly about the newspapers’ need for reliability from the staff, and health issues left Rick unacceptably out of contact for several days. When he finally called, we both understood that was the end — that he had to focus on his health and couldn’t do that while working at The Herald. Nor could he do the kind of work we needed, the kind we’d once run day after day on Page One, when bogged down by those health issues.

He wrote his last Herald staff story Jan. 30, before health issues led to his disappearance, and his employment limped to an end about a week later. My last day was March 6. Rick wrote later in The Journal-Inquirer of Manchester, Conn., about Stewart’s wishes for me to be gone from The Herald, and comments about Rick’s essay found on the blog of New Britain resident Frank Smith shows that some people — at least those interested enough to comment — felt Rick’s reporting and my editing were damaging the reputation of The Herald and hurting circulation. Any responsible person who shared such an assessment would certainly act to end that.

The comments on Smith’s blog do, however, show some lack of comprehension of how journalism works, and of the sequence of events. They make reference to “a slant in coverage that seemed to favor Democratic members of the city council … many articles were devoid of quotes from the Republican (conservative) members of city government,” for instance. People forget that for a time, before the mayor stopped talking to Rick, The Herald was perceived to be in Stewart’s pocket. When a tape of the mayor cursing was leaked to The Herald during his 2007 reelection run, we ignored it as not being newsworthy, then — after The Hartford Courant ran a story about it — defended him because cursing when awoken at 3 a.m. to deal with a crisis was really a nonissue compared with Stewart’s actions to help his constituents. And we supported Stewart's re-election in an editorial, calling the campaign of his opponent pointless and lacking in ideas.

In short, the lack of GOP coverage was a policy of the mayor and Republicans, not of Rick, me or The Herald. I told the mayor and other Republicans that the party’s refusal to comment would hurt, because Democrats would dominate the conversation, and that was true enough. It hurt in some unexpected ways.

The conflict with the mayor certainly didn’t make my job any easier, and neither did Rick’s health problems, and both hobbled Herald coverage of New Britain as surely as the loss of the education reporter. Journal Register Co. policy at the time, a resistance to bend on journalistic ethics and an unwillingness to hurt neighboring communities and beats by redirecting the work of other reporters contributed to something of a standoff. This probably hurt The Herald, too. I wish there had been another way to resolve these issues.

Had I stayed on, I would have continued efforts to create a pull-out section (meaning the center eight or 12 pages of each days’ newspaper) incorporating coverage of arts and events in the cities and towns we covered; a comprehensive calendar of events of all sorts; and features such as comics, puzzles and television and movie listings. One of the complaints about tabloid newspapers is that they rob readers of the ability to hand one section of the newspaper to a companion while hanging on to another, and this would have been a way to address that.

The arts have been portrayed as vital in formal plans for New Britain’s downtown revitalization, and artists and public officials alike have talked about how the city can and must go from Hardware City to “Artware City,” as The Herald coined it in the headline to a Feb. 7 story about the hoped-for transition. Leading this effort is the Greater New Britain Arts Alliance, which alone represents more than 40 creative local organizations. There are far more individual playwrights, musicians and visual artists at work throughout the area.

That’s why as far back as Dec. 18, 2007, I met with the city’s arts council in the public room of the downtown library and told those assembled of my hopes to hire a reporter solely to cover the arts and other such features — something I’d already proposed to my bosses.

It took 13 months, but I was finally allowed to hire a reporter for that beat. Jennifer Abel, who’d been a columnist for the papers, started Jan. 26 of this year and hit the ground running, providing stories that not only illustrated a wonderful, creative side of the city but served to promote local arts organizations and lead residents to edifying and fun events taking place, so to speak, right around the corner.

The other element to all this is that a consistent focus on arts and events could give people a new or renewed reason to buy the newspaper. I felt this would boost circulation among the paper’s traditional readership but, even more importantly, bring in new and different kinds of readers, including younger ones. (Circulation of newspapers has been plummeting nationwide for more than a decade. The central Connecticut publications I edited suffered also from reports they would shut down, and work to sign up subscribers or renew subscriptions lapsed. A further drop in circulation was brought on by the outsourcing in that time of many aspects of newspaper circulation to a company considered unresponsive to reader — and company — complaints. In the year starting Jan. 17, 2008, recorded circulation dropped 21 percent for The Herald and 19 percent for The Middletown Press, even though The Press didn’t suffer similar political stresses. I cannot give circulation figures for The Bristol Press, which had a different circulation director in this period; I know the figures were better in Bristol, but her reports didn’t get to me regularly.)

When the city’s revitalization plans finally result in the building of downtown apartment towers and a growing population, I had hoped they would find a newspaper that was a must-read for anyone interested in exploring and taking full advantage of their new city.

Closure on Connecticut (Part 2 of 3): Leftovers

All of my business with New Britain is old business; these three items I wanted to clear off the agenda happen to be about business as well. All are offered in the spirit of constructive criticism, not to bash a city and people for whom I have a great deal of affection.

First: Hardware City Tavern is a beautiful place with friendly owners and workers. It is a boon to downtown New Britain, and it is exciting that people have somewhere to go before and after shows at the Trinity-on-Main performance center and Hole in the Wall Theater. I have had a few meals at the tavern and even spent some time at the pool tables (another huge plus for the tavern and downtown).

The quality of the food and service, though, have been indifferent the times I have gone. Despite the tavern’s essential monopoly on evening or slightly higher-end diners downtown, this may be something the owners and managers should know to ensure their long-term success. This delightfully designed restaurant and bar, the very presence of which is a great gift, shouldn’t suffer any avoidable loss of business, and its creators deserve all the riches they can get for taking a chance on the city and doing it as thoughtfully as they did.

Second: In discussions with several city residents over the past few months, I encountered a great deal of skepticism about New Britain’s downtown revitalization plans. In short, the area seems too spread out, with too little retail, dining, nightlife and entertainment uses clustered to achieve the critical mass suggested by planners during presentations a couple of years back. It’s doubtful ground-floor business in the proposed police station at Main and Chestnut, or on Chestnut on either side of the Harry S. Truman Overpass, will reach that level.

That puts in doubt the ongoing arrival of masses of university students on the busway expected to be running in 2013, and the building of a downtown events center (once to be built in NewBrite Plaza but displaced by the opening of stores such as A.J. Wright) is also iffy. Apartments, retail and a semi-public park going on what is now The Herald property could be first to come, as it may cost more for developers to pull out than to complete the job, but it’s yet to be seen whether the economy will force compromises there or at the site most likely to see renewal after that, the police station.

Charter Oak State College will be slower to move from Paul J. Manafort Drive than developers once thought; the reconfiguration of roads and parking over by Liberty Square and the courthouse looks to be an asphalt desert, hardly conforming to the New Urbanist ethic suggested elsewhere by master developer Arete and Haddam-based designers Harrall-Michalowski Associates; and state transportation officials say a New Britain terminal will be among the last steps taken on their busway plans.

The main question is how well the master plan works when construction proceeds haltingly, providing less for the young professionals intended to move in to new apartments and condos and take advantage of a bustling downtown and easy access to highways and mass transportation.

That’s why it would be interesting to hear what the economic downturn has done to revitalization plans, but I’ve only seen tangential references or cursory analysis. The last real look at the overall $300 million plan, which relies largely on private investors at a time few are investing, was in August.

One city official I spoke with referred to the plans as “stalled,” while another seemed optimistic — largely based on the positive things he saw about downtown New Britain now — but in agreement that the economy was taking its toll on the overall scheme.

It would be nice to see the city’s plans work out, but before that is needed a good analysis of what’s at stake and how the plan is expected to function in the current environment.

Third: The city’s chamber of commerce stumbled in creating its municipal economic development Web site, called — take a breath, or at least flex your fingers before typing it into a browser —

It’s a fine site, and I hope it serves as that desired first step in drawing businesses to the city. The name, though, while descriptive, is a tad on the long side.

With search engines being as efficient as they are, and considering the nature of those most likely to go to the site, the exhaustively spelled-out nature of this URL may be unnecessary or even counterproductive. While it may sound unlikely, having someone type 38 characters in a row without spaces can result in a typo that thwarts a user from finding the site, and that gets in the way of the chamber’s goal. (Using a search engine such as Google to find the site avoids the need to type the URL at all, but it also obviates the need for a name that lengthy. Search engines pay more attention to site content than to URLs.)

At the very least, the name raises problems when used in print: If it appears at the end of a line, a word processor may want to break it at a syllable, and readers will have to wonder if the hyphen they see in text is supposed to be used on the Web as well.

Web experts frown on extremely long URLs for a number of reasons, and although isn’t quite so long as the bandwidth-wasters and broken-link-creators they generally warn against, why not consider going shorter in the future? The URLs and even are available, for instance, and similar shortcuts could be used if there are additional sites to be made and named.

Closure on Connecticut (Part 3 of 3): Election

In November 2007, I made a tacit endorsement of Republican Mayor Timothy Stewart for re-election, although even then there were concerns about his “anger and paranoia.” If Stewart looks for a fourth term, I hope New Britain decides for another candidate.

It’s not that there’s much to criticize in terms of what we know of Stewart’s efforts to improve or safeguard the city, although the success of some have been on hold. The $6 million purchase of the former Pinnacle Heights public housing site, for instance, is crawling toward a June 30 signing deadline after the Common Council gave its approval in mid-August. The nation’s economic downturn has reportedly stalled the deal, just as it’s caused a halt to the redevelopment of the New Britain National Bank Building downtown. The economy, of course, is not the fault of Stewart, and in the case of Pinnacle Heights, it’s not clear things would be working out differently had the city gone with another company’s $4.5 million bid.

In one regard, Stewart has really stood out: His focus on the securing of jobs for the homeless, in addition to places to stay and a safety net of services, has drawn applause from the White House’s homelessness czar, Philip Mangano.

But most of his work has been less revolutionary. It’s impossible to say another mayor wouldn’t have done as well at bringing business to the city, especially with others in its economic development team — such as William Millerick at the Chamber of Commerce and Donald Courtemanche at the Downtown District — still in place. And in the case of Tilcon Connecticut Inc.’s bid to move into New Britain, Democratic legislators cited Stewart being secretive, untrustworthy and deceptive as a cause for the withdrawal of their support.

Make no mistake: It looked reckless for the delegation to back the plan, then reverse course, and I have no way of knowing if their eleventh-hour concerns were sincere or merely political. And, as longtime City Hall watchers describe the situation years ago, before two Republicans joined the Common Council, Democrats deserve a rebuke for freezing out Stewart. It was an uncalled-for and classless display of power that undoubtedly contributed to the current animosity and lack of communication between parties.

Taken as a whole, though, Stewart’s long-term response has been not just lacking in class, but verging on the dangerous; there has been no healing, and a recurring bloom of suspicion over motives makes the mayor and council function poorly together. His “anger and paranoia” has grown and sometimes burst out in public, and even supporters say he has “a well-documented pattern of using abusive language and bullying tactics.” There is no telling when or how this could backfire (or, if Tilcon is included, backfire again). It may repel other politicians or cost points in economic negotiations if potential business partners consider the point man in New Britain to be unstable or just distasteful.

There’s also another, greater danger. My experience with the mayor, mainly through taking on him and some board members and City Hall workers before the state Freedom of Information Commission (three wins for The Herald, one for City Hall that I truly wish could be appealed) has revealed a disregard and even contempt for transparency in government and the rule of law. Stewart feels he knows what is best for the city, and he doesn’t want petty statutes, political opponents or an ignorant public to get in his way. That’s not right.

Writ large, we have seen before this kind of arrogance, secrecy and hostility for our governing principles. We saw it with President Richard Nixon’s subversion of domestic intelligence in a bid to stay in office and justify war in Vietnam; we saw it when President Ronald Reagan defied Congress and funded the Contras by doing what he said America shouldn’t — negotiate with terrorists; we saw it again as President George W. Bush and his administration manipulated, tortured and spied, diminishing civil liberties and exploiting fears to pursue gratuitous war in Iraq. These are all the results of leaders who didn’t want to bother with the details in pursuit of what they considered the greater good, even if the goals weren’t shared by the majority of their equals throughout the country. They rejected due process and proper explanations, perverting rather than persuading.

This kind of comparison may strike many as over the top. The point is that shadow government and the deciding of public issues behind closed doors is wrong on any scale. Stewart’s tendency toward secrecy happens to be on the mayoral level of economic development and smaller financial matters rather than on the presidential level of national security, but checks and balances are written into every level of government for a reason. Stewart prefers not to bother.

Is he making good decisions for the right reasons? Without access to the decision-making process, citizens can’t know. His efforts to hide information, resulting not just in The Herald’s four FOI cases but in two city FOI statutes passed by the council, are disconcerting and worrisome and may lead to waste and corruption.

We know in February 2008 he decided to make it difficult for The Herald to get information from City Hall, and he did so through abuse of the state FOI law. That’s improper, and it leads to questions of who else he may decide to punish — without discussion or appeal — through the abuse of some other law.

That’s not the kind of concern citizens should have about their mayor, just as they shouldn’t have to worry about what’s going on behind closed doors or when anger will burst profanely and irrationally into the public arena.

Democratic state Rep. Tim O’Brien may be running against Stewart in November. I endorsed O’Brien for re-election when I was editing The Herald and happily endorse him now. He has good ideas, is responsive to his constituents and will likely be a steady hand to oversee the next steps in New Britain’s growth.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Realistic estate

I am back in Massachusetts. Back in Cambridge. Back with near-constant access to Diesel.

Life is scary and failure certain, but location, location, location.

Mexico time

While I had my job, I worked six or seven days and often 72 or 80 hours a week. I would leave Roger Mexico, my cat, in the morning with water and a bowl of dry food and return to feed him a can of wet food a dozen or so hours later. We would hang out a bit, then sleep, usually with him curled up next to me. Since he never went outside and had little reason to note the change of seasons or flow of hours, I suspect he began to mark time this way — with my return and the pleasures it would bring.

Then my job was taken, and I was suddenly home a lot.

I can only imagine how strange this must have been for Mexico, as though time had sped up dramatically. “What, you again?” he would say upon seeing me after I ducked out for an errand or a few hours at the library. “Is it tomorrow already?”

Immortality is mine

My submission to Overheard Lines was used. Here’s the direct link, although the entire Web site — which is exactly what it sounds like, complemented by witty headlines that add much to the eavesdropping — is worth a look.

My overheard line was from a New Britain Dunkin’ Donuts on Jan. 27. I only wish the man who spoke the words knew that, actually, immortality is his. I’m really just Boswell to his Dr. Johnson.

Power co-opts, and great power co-opts absolutely

Being unemployed has allowed me to again watch “Gilmore Girls” on DVD. I have the full seven seasons, all but the last of which I’d seen before starting the collection, and all of which had to wait for my job to end to serve any purpose beyond the pleasures of ownership and completeness.

Some people own homes; I have $140 to $350 worth of unwatched media from the WB.

My watching of the show once encouraged two girlfriends (by which I mean friends who are girls or, to be more specific, ex-girlfriends with whom I remained friendly) to also become fans (or at least watchers) of the show. It was a pleasure to chat with them about it, although I felt kind of gay doing it. And that’s not a juvenile and homophobic way of insulting the show and my behavior; it’s an acknowledgment that the show isn’t big with the macho, and that gossiping with girlfriends about the goings-on in twee little Stars Hollow, Conn., made me feel a bit effeminate.

That didn’t stop me, of course. I thought it was funny.

This time around it’s been funny to foist the show on people who aren’t fans and never will be, and funnier because I’m taunting these people with knowledge that would normally be seductive — if, apparently, we were talking about something other than this show.

I showed Rebecca the Gilmore girls, mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory, watching and talking about “Grey Gardens,” a documentary about another mother and daughter wobbling and warbling in extreme eccentricity around their crumbling Long Island estate. Rebecca loves the documentary, and she hated that the Gilmores also loved it.

I told Sean about how Rory Gilmore read and endorsed Dawn Powell — a neglected author Sean read and endorsed to me. (I have since read Dawn Powell and endorse her as well.) He reacted with such revulsion to the shared predilection that I never got around to telling him about the times his band of bands, Sonic Youth, was heard on the show and even appeared on it.

There’s something about “Gilmore Girls” that taints the coolest things past recommendation and all the way to co-option, and it’s probably not fair. If the cool kid in school likes Sonic Youth and discovers the uncool kid does as well, that’s a plus for the uncool kid. But if the cool kid discovers his parents like Sonic Youth, that’s a minus for Sonic Youth instead of a plus for the parents. The same dynamic is at work in love, where an action can be either romantic or creepy depending whether a woman likes or does not like the man (to use the most common gender roles in this situation) sending the flowers, leaving the note, proposing a date, etc.

What bothers Rebecca and Sean and a legion of imagined others objecting to Lorelai and Rory liking anything from Bon Jovi to H.L. Mencken is the idea that the show is name dropping to seem cooler than it is without making a real commitment to a brand or lifestyle. That the show is glibly and superficially making claims to coolness without having done the work. That there is no Rory to actually read Dawn Powell, no Lorelai to truly watch and rewatch “Gray Gardens.”

Or maybe the problem is simply that “Gilmore Girls” is so irritating — its manic chatter, occasionally schizophrenic and bizarre behavior, syrupy theme song — that people cringe to find they have something in common with it and its creators.

Too bad, though, because these aren’t so much examples of deals with the devil as they are hints that the devil, too, has a good side. A pop culture reference by Oprah or on “Gilmore Girls” directs the attention of untold millions to greatness, allowing them to share it. But the devil’s good works corrupt, because the devil is too powerful and dilutes the cool to lukewarm. (There are Gilmore Girls reading lists on the Internet, but they tellingly include books seen on the show to illustrate lowbrow tastes, which are Lorelai’s, as well as stuff such as Dawn Powell read by Rory. Is there no discrimination?)

“Gilmore Girls” democratizes cool, but explosively, so your coffee shop is suddenly packed with people you don’t recognize, and the only seat you can find is crammed in between a fat, sweaty man visiting from Dubuque and a squalling tot who’s spit up breakfast. How can you enjoy your espresso like that?

You can convince yourself the newcomers can’t appreciate Dawn Powell or Sonic Youth the way you have, but this reasoning leads to the conclusion that disliking “Gilmore Girls” is a selfish, classist stance, held by an elite intent on withholding great culture from the masses.

Or it would were it not that I stalled on “Gilmore Girls” somewhere near the beginning of season three, not even halfway through the canon before finding myself wincing at the writing, angry with the characters, short-tempered over its tone. It really can be an immensely irritating show.

We’ll see if I can I make it through all seven seasons. I’d like to, for the sake of completeness, although watching certainly takes up time I could be using to, well, read or listen to music.