Monday, October 31, 2005


One last thing I think I must do before I get to sleep tonight: Wish you all, whoever’s still reading, my gratitude. This blog is done for a while.

I’m moving on to create a newspaper here in Cambridge, and if tonight is any indication — I think it is — I will not have the time to post. Not with anything worthwhile. Not with anything coherent.

(I assume anyone who would make the obvious joke after reading the past two sentences has long since stopped reading.)

I will make one last Misanthropic observation, or, actually, a last Misanthropicitic observation: The first couple of times I Googled this blog name over the years, I was intrigued to find that there is a gamer out there who rolls by the name Misanthropicity. A little odd, but who am I to raise an eyebrow? Recently, though, I Googled and found that the word “misanthropicity” has begun to creep into use as an ignorant replacement for the real word, “misanthropy.”

Is it my fault somehow? Do I share blame with the gamer? Did he get the name from me? (I sure didn’t get it from him.) Or did I just race ahead of the zeitgeist all the way to pointlessnessicity or idiocity?

I’ll probably never know. But it seems a fitting way to end this blog: confused, confounded, irritated and amused all at once by what people have done through some hard-to-grasp mix of cleverness, ignorance, humor and pretentiousness.

Myself included, I suppose. As usual.

Anyway, again, my heartfelt thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


I’m on hiatus, by the way. I thought it rude not to say anything, or to continue not saying anything. I really must remind myself to be more thoughtful about this — to be more, what do they say? Proactive.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


“Harvard Square is in crisis,” one shopkeeper said tonight after a two -hour public brainstorming session on the square at Christ Church, and the sentiment was hardly unique. While the event offered optimism alongside group critiques of the area, the afterparty was distinctly darker.

Vast sections of prime real estate are empty, even as the cost of renting has dropped dramatically, in some cases, said one real estate agent at the meeting, by $20 a square foot. Foot traffic is down, just as dramatically. The summer was a disaster. The holidays aren’t looking so good, either.

But the primary criticism of the criticism was that, in answering the four questions proposed by the city’s community development department, residents, officials and even business owners revealed a big, bitter truth: There’s plenty of stuff in Harvard Square that people simply don’t know about.

Even in answering question No. 1, “What works well in Harvard Square?,” some negativity crept in regarding how bad the economic picture is. But it was in answering the other questions — “What do you think is missing in the retail mix?”; “Of the things that are missing, what are the top three items that might improve the mix?”; and “Any ideas about improvements that would bolster the retail mix?” — that the awful truth crept in, as six subgroups announced their wishes that the square had a deli, lingerie, late-night cafes, cheap places to hang out, live music you could dance to, housewares ...

It may be argued that the square needs all of the above in more variety, but it was also clear that people were failing to think of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, Clothwares, Au Bon Pain, Cafe Pamplona, Phatt Boys, Dickson Bros. True Value ...

“And these are the people who live and work here,” a business owner said.

Little was decided at the meeting. At the end, city workers took the six oversized lists away for posting on the Web and further mulling.

A few things were clear, though, made so by appearing on multiple lists: Everyone loathes the banks that have turned prime Harvard Square real estate into a barren video arcade; everyone wants Harvard Square to get a grocery store, whether or not they knew Sage’s died of neglect years ago; and pretty much everyone wants cheap-nonchain-coffee-shops-that-are-open-late-to-hang-out-in-for-hours. And many people suggested that brand management, meaning better public relations, was the way to a Harvard Square resurrection.

“The solution may lie [in funding] a communications firm, which will take the image of Harvard Square as an intellectual, historical and cultural Mecca and revitalize and manage this image over a five-year period,” said one handout, amid complaints about bad press Harvard Square gets locally and nationally.

The idea was not universally embraced.

Walking out of the meeting, one Harvard Square businessperson was heard asking something along the lines of: “Communications firm? What the hell do we have an office of tourism for?”

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


The U.S. Postal Service long-ago introduced self-service kiosks that, at least in Porter Square, still require constant attendance by a postal worker. This seems to defeat the purpose, but, nonetheless, one of two workers hovered over the machine this afternoon, instructing the rare customer in its use while the line languished — growing five deep, then six, then seven.

“Anybody want to use the machine?” the worker asked. “It’ll save you a long wait in line.” Sometimes he amplified his sales pitch by noting that using the machine would save customers a “20- or 30-minute wait.”

When asked why he waited by the machine when there was such a long line of customers, the worker explained that employees on site have “no control” over how they spend their day; a manager for the city, who works elsewhere, decides how employees are used. When asked whether he could get behind the counter and help the lone worker there, doubling the effective staffing of the station, if no one wanted to use the machine … well, no. Even when the worker at the counter had to leave to use the restroom, he was prevented from budging from beside that ridiculous, job-destroying machine.

And when asked if this was frustrating, he replied, “You got that right.”

The worker ran back to her spot behind the counter. The line advanced one space.

From behind, the other worker could be heard making his pitch. When a customer responded, he could be heard assuring the man there was nothing to fear from using the machine.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” he said.

Monday, October 17, 2005


As if more evidence is needed of the effect “The Simpsons” have had on the world,’s reverse address search offers this: The sample house number is 742; the sample street name is Evergreen Terrace. This is the Simpsons’ address. And, just like in the television show, the state or province is without a sample and it is left unclear in what state the family lives.

Aliens or archaeologists of the far future will keep stumbling across these cultural artifacts, these fossilized indications of our objects of worship, and be astounded. No more so than we should be.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Scanning down one of the yummy snack food racks at Quick Food Mart in Inman Square, one finds: Hostess apple pies; Suzy Qs; Yodels and Devil Dogs; packaged fudge brownies and Frosted Donettes; and, at the bottom, several red onions in an open Tupperware container.

These appear to be the healthiest thing in the store, but possibly the least appetizing — at least to my postadolescent American mentality.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


This will be short. No matter how many people have been burned by Verizon — and the number is roughly equal to how many angels can stand around on the head of a pin complaining — a long rant would be boring and, ultimately, sad. For it would lead to thoughts of how the problem is not Verizon itself, but customer service these days in general and outsourcing and offshoring and the economy and the work ethic and oh it’s not like it used to be.

Still, it’s astonishing that Verizon has done it to me again. I was told to hang around at my new place from 8 a.m. to noon on Oct. 5 for a Verizon phone installer, who was a no-show. At about 5 p.m., when I called to complain about the lack of installation, I was told the installer had indeed shown up. At my old place. He installed two lines there.

I noted to the customer service rep, if one can “note” something at that volume, that in setting up the appointment I had explicitly asked that the installer speak with me before or at least after doing his work, and that I still wanted that to happen when Verizon came to correct the mistake. The rep, Cathy LaMarche — give her a call at (508) 502-1267 — blandly assured me that the installers are required to talk to the customer at installation.

She did not explain how two lines got installed at my old home while I was at the new one.

This required chat failed to happen again this time, yesterday, something I learned upon calling to complain that, once again, kind of, Verizon had failed to show up to install my phone lines. This call took place at 4:53 p.m., when I pointed out that I’d been told to be at home between 1 and 5 p.m. I counted down with the customer service reps.

“Will your installer be here in four minutes?” I asked one.

“Will your installer be here within the next seven seconds?” I had to ask the next one.

It gets weird. I was told that the installer had already been there. I was told there was no request on my file for the installer to speak with me.

I plugged in my land-line phone. No signal.

Later, upon the departure of one of three people who’d been in my apartment during this phone call, a brochure was discovered outside, taped to the door. It was from Verizon.

It said, on the cover, “Outstanding Service.”

It also said Technician IS2 had been at my home at 5:30 to take care of my “telephone service request.” This means the installer was there while I was on the phone complaining. He was there when I'd been told he’d already been and gone.

It’s a half-hour later than the latest time I was told to be at home to meet the guy. Is it the start time? The time he left? Was he there for 31 minutes? Or one? Obviously the time given was more than a half-hour after I called Verizon to complain he wasn’t there. In fact, I was on the phone with Verizon for an hour, two minutes and 44 seconds — the digital call log being one of the prizes of cell phones.

Twice I haven’t had to be home while Verizon workers came and did work for which they insisted I be home. Twice they’ve screwed it up. And one more twice:

Inside the brochure, I’m told to “Please refer to this number when contacting Verizon.”

And I’m told, “If you have questions or concerns relating to this visit, please call ...”

Neither number has been filled in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


The U.S. Postal Service sent me a relocation packet that includes a $25 coupon (off any purchase of $500 or more) from my local Blinds To Go outlet.

Surely this is one the stupidest business names ever registered. It was apparently needed to differentiate the chain from those catering to buyers who wanted to keep their window dressings on site rather than take them home for installation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Blocks away, where Central Square’s nightclubs dominate and black-clad youth throng sidewalks to smoke, the muffled sound of amplified rock has become mere background. The lively, crisp sound leaking onto the street from Sandy’s Music, though, still startles, even after a dozen years of Monday night jam sessions.

Passers-by glance into the shop in surprise, drawn by the counterintuitive twang of banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle, as though seeing Sandy’s — now deep in its third decade — for the first time. Indeed, it is exactly the kind of shop that fades into obscurity but is always around for those who need it, and it is largely the same for the old-time music played there.

“Some nights nobody will show up. Other nights there’ll be one or two. Six or eight these days is most common,” says Sandy Sheehan, owner of the shop and overseer of the event. “We’ve had people from teenagers up to people in their 60s or 70s. It’s totally informal, totally unstructured. It starts when people show up and ends when they leave.”

There is one rule: “We do not want singer-songwriters. This is specifically old-time music.”

Sheehan, also the host of WUMB-FM’s late Saturday “Traditional Folk” show, fits his part: He is scraggly and lined, a bit reclusive, the perfect mountain man, laconic and blunt, and his narrow shop is similarly well cast, crammed full of slide whistles, “authentic Ozark harps,” sheet music, packets of string, straps, light-absorbing black matte instrument cases and, hanging everywhere, those lustrous guitar and banjo bodies. The only bow to modernity is the computer, already yellowed although Sheehan claims it’s new, and a rack of compact discs.

The musicians wedge themselves into the aisle, showing up in profusion on a recent Monday that would seem to overwhelm the store’s resources — but somehow don’t. Folding chairs are produced from odd crevices as players arrive.

“We always seem to have enough,” Sheehan says.

The sessions are reputed to have drawn such names as Peter Wolf (“once in a great while,” Sheehan says), John Hartford, David Bromberg (“when he was in town”) and Mark Sandman and others from Morphine. The players that show up regularly are retirees, homemakers, software engineers, market researchers. They are grizzled old-timers with ponytails, such as Len Katz, or buttoned-down types such as Bob Miller, celebrating time away from his job at Procter & Gamble. Somewhere between the two is young John Ostwald, the software engineer from Cambridge’s BBN Technologies, who shows up with long hair, a button-front shirt and, this night, a homemade mandolin, its body made of a Coleman oil can. A candolin. The players marvel and crack jokes. Even Sheehan, who is dismissive of his own banjo playing and stays grimly behind his computer while the others zip through “Bumblebee in a Jug” and “Sandy River Belle,” gets up to see the thing.

“How do you manage up by the 12th fret,” he asks, looking dubiously at the instrument’s neck.

“I usually don’t,” Ostwald replies. He offers Rebecca Bearden, a mandolin player, a chance to try it.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she says.

“It’s a mandolin!” he tells her, passing the instrument and taking out his fiddle. “Try cello fingering. You’ll be much happier.”

The group plays companionably, speaking occasionally, comparing notes between songs, some concentrating, some in that magical zone where they seem to watch in pleasant surprise as their fingers play for themselves. The songs are short. Most are played with a jaunty, seamless elegance, even as more and more musicians take their place and join in. Once or twice a song is started and abandoned — experiments that the group kindly, and without formality, votes down.

Some players, such as Katz, have been coming since the beginning. Barkev Kaligian, 69, of Lexington, recently stopped in for the first time, drawn by a calendar of events in a bluegrass newsletter. The musicians play in peace and apparent perfection without benefit of long experience with each other.

“After every session I go home and my wife says, ‘Did you have a great session?’ Every session is a great session,” Miller says. “It’s always a lot of fun, that’s for sure.”

Bearden sets aside the oilcan instrument and goes back to her own mandolin, which has an old-time appropriate thin rope in place of a strap. More people arrive. More chairs are magically produced.

“It’s totally unstructured, informal and unpredictable,” Sheehan says again.

“Just like the music itself,” Katz says.

The old-time jam sessions start at about 7 p.m. on Mondays at Sandy’s Music, 896A Massachusetts Ave., Central Square. There is competitive parking on the avenue at metered spaces (free at night). Call (617) 491-2812 for more information, or go to The sessions are free.

Monday, October 10, 2005


With no shame I reveal that over years I have worked at otherwise idle times on deciding what I would wish for from a genie. This requires a lot of thought because, at least in popular culture, the genie is a capricious and contrary wish giver, angry over his servitude and eager to exploit the wisher’s slightest semantic slip to deliver a result that is technically correct and totally wrong.

An innocent wish to be a millionaire, for instance, could result in becoming some schmo in a McMansion in Henderson, Nev., with exactly $1 million ... and it’s all tied up in a stock that crashes the next day. One could wish to be as smart as Einstein ... and the genie might grant that but put the wisher in a coma, as well, unable to communicate any knowledge or insight.

Real petty “Twilight Zone” nonsense.

So the trick is to come up with wishes without loopholes, and I think I have some good ones. I have made sure to keep the actual wishes — usually there are three, and, as everyone knows, it is against the rules to wish for more — at a single sentence in length.

Listen up, genie:

1. I wish that a multimillionaire or billionaire who is a citizen of and will die in the United States or United Kingdom within the next month or two summon his lawyers, has them fill out the proper documents and wills me an unquestionably legal and unassailably proper inheritance of at least [how many millions of dollars are wanted] after all taxes and any legal fees.

(The provision about the United States or United Kingdom is to ensure that a perfectly legal financial transaction isn’t slowed interminably by dramatically different inheritance laws or cultural or linguistic difficulties.)

2. I wish for total, lasting and conscious control over every aspect of my physical being, including but not limited to strength and speed, general health and resistance to all disease and every aspect of how I look and the aging process, and that these powers be manifested by thought or speech but persist until I again consciously and wakefully think or say for the attributes to change.

(This wish still has at least one unavoidable ironic trap, which is that the wisher can remain eternally young, but those the wisher loves will inevitably age and die. Still, this is a very flexible wish, and the emotionally mature user may well use it to age and die gracefully and without pain. Also ...)

There is a wish remaining, held for some future emergency.

Does anyone spot any loopholes a willful genie could exploit? I’d like to address them before it’s too late.

Friday, October 07, 2005


How long will the Chinese food take-home container survive? One standard box has a clear plastic top but a metal body that makes it impossible to use in a microwave — a bit odd considering microwave ovens have been around since 1947 and are estimated to be in about 95 percent of U.S. households.

Even worse is the classic white cardboard version of the Chinese take-home box, the kind with the tiny metal handle. This handle must be less than 5 percent of the container, but it, too, means the box cannot be microwaved.

Although almost all Chinese food leftovers are excellent cold, the presence of the metal bits is gallingly contradictory and suggestive of a pointlessly provocative epicurean conspiracy. If the boxes are good enough to hold the food in the first place, why aren’t we able to heat in them and eat from them? It’s like mass manufacturing umbrellas with a single part that musn’t get wet, and nobody seems to mind.

There are all-plastic alternatives out there, folks. Let’s start ordering from different catalogs.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


I’ve been collecting New York Times news sections since Tuesday, March 23, 2004, and thought it would be interesting to see what was going on in the papers a year ago today.

Iraq, basically.

Even in the heat of the battle for the White House — Vice President Cheney and John Edwards had just held their fiery debate at Case Western University — the overriding topic was the war and the wisdom of our strategy there.

Cheney said our actions in Iraq were “exactly the right thing to do” in part because of the country’s “established relationship with Al Qaeda.” He also said the Bush administration had “never let up on Osama bin Laden from Day One. We’ll continue to aggressively pursue him and I’m confident we’ll get him.”

In Iraq, prime minister Ayad Allawi had just given his first speech to the National Assembly, saying the insurgency was a “source of worry for many people” and “a challenge to our will.”

Most striking, though, were the four subsequent paragraphs from Iraq, all about the U.S. military’s “second major offensive of the last week,” which “followed a much larger and deadlier weekend offensive in the insurgent-controlled city of Samarra ... American and Iraqi officials have been saying they intend to take back rebel territory this fall to lay the groundwork for general elections scheduled for January.”

And so they did.

Now fast forward a year and consider something from Monday’s paper about current military efforts in Iraq: “American military commanders see this effort as a crucial step in their strategy of cutting off the supply of foreign fighters that has fed the insurgency,” the Times says, “and threatens to tip the country into civil war.”

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


My new bedroom has a ceiling fan.

In the morning, murky light filters in through the cheap plastic blinds, and I’m groggy and without glasses. In these circumstances, the five-bladed fan resembles nothing so much as a giant asterisk hovering above me. It takes a moment to remember it’s just a fan.

That moment isn’t scary, really. I have no fear that the giant asterisk means me harm or can hurt me.

In that first second of consciousness, though, my eyes dart around the gloom looking for context. I wonder if I’m at the jumping-off point or the footnote. I wonder if the asterisk is merely pausing in a search for its proper home — perhaps a billboard somewhere where it will tell people mileage may vary or no purchase is necessary to win.

When I stand up the fan returns to three dimensions and the illusion is gone. When I lie down to sleep, it returns.

If I were a more poetic sort, I would see the asterisk as signifying my waking life as an extended explanation of my dreams and my dreams as a somewhat briefer explanation of my waking life.

But it’s really just a fan.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


MCI, still struggling to recover from the scandal and bankruptcy that sent the Worldcom name from the stock pages to the stocks, called recently with a great deal. It already had my long-distance business for a measly $5 or so a month; it would take over my local service as well and send a combined bill saving about $10 off what I paid Verizon.

It seemed too easy, and I was suspicious. But I was also easily convinced and, a few days later, became a complete MCI customer. It was, in fact, easy.

A week or so ago I called MCI to arrange a move and a change in billing to my new apartment.

I was put on hold for — literally — an hour.

It undoubtedly would have gone on longer. I hung up.

Called Verizon. Switched back. Told them to move my line and shift my billing.

And you know what? It was easy.

That would be a delightful end to the story, but agonizing contacts with Verizon over the next couple of days by me and my parents resulted instead in a limping, listless sort of denouement. The contacts included similarly excruciating hold times and a Monty Orwellian (or is it George Pythonesque?) examination of the advantages of business lines vs. personal lines (a listing in the white pages, basically, a lame prize in the age of the Internet). Never have people struggled so heroically to pay bills. Never has a company made it so difficult. I hope.

Coming up Thursday: MCI shareholders vote on whether to merge into Verizon for $8.4 billion.

Suddenly I’m feeling rather uneasy.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Although summer ended Sept. 23, the days have stayed hot. The nights have done their best to warn Cambridge of the inevitability of winter — by showing what winter nights are like — but this hasn’t really sunk in with people here. Women have stuck to their tube tops, so to speak, and flip-flops, even if it means clutching their arms around themselves as they walk from place to place.

But, like the first leaf turning color, or the first spotting of a migratory bird, there has been a sighting intoning the change of year.

Today in the Central Square T stop, the first Ug boots of the season were seen. Women’s footwear is finally acknowledging the chill of reality.

It’s all downhill from here until the skanks flock to South Boston for the annual spring-bringing baring of the midriffs.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


There are a million Comcast horror stories out there, and now I have one.

The installer showed up at least 15 minutes after the 9 to 11 a.m. window set by the company; wasn’t aware he was to hook up to an Apple Extreme Base Station wireless router — despite my specific orders when ordering broadband Internet access — and couldn’t accomplish it; left to go to another appointment; and never — despite collecting my cell phone number to do so — got back to me to tell me he was returning.

Ultimately the company told me it refuses to connect any wireless router but its own Gateway devices (never mentioned to me when I called for the appointment or by the installer himself) and that it understood I’d called to reschedule my appointment (I’d actually called twice just to find out where the hell the installer was — once when he was late showing up, the second time when he failed to return).

The only reason I’m going with Comcast is that I may eventually want to get basic cable television for city government meetings. Otherwise I would have gotten broadband through my local Internet service provider, Cyber Access Internet Communications.

Considering stories about Comcast I’ve heard just from the people I was with Saturday, never mind the entire continental United States, why does the company hold the monopoly in Cambridge? How do we get rid of them?

And has anyone, anywhere ever had a pleasant experience with their local cable provider? Perhaps it’s better to stick with the devil we know.