Monday, April 30, 2007


Tom Parnell of WGGB-TV40 was up to UMass today to interview me for a story they're doing on the Valley blogosphere. I don't expect to be featured very prominently in the piece, which is about the various problems people have when they are attacked in forums like Masslive by anonymous cowards trying to damage their reputation. I tried to stick up for the internet, pointing out that it is a new medium whose standards are still evolving. Besides, who takes seriously what some anonymous jerk has to say? Anyway, it should be an interesting story regardless of anything I had to contribute, so tune in when it airs next Sunday.

Also on the scene was the north-Valley writer and poet Andrew Varnon. Here we are in front of the Fine Arts Center.

We went for a coffee and had a conversation about whether the journalistic profession has a future. Our conclusion? No matter what technological changes occur there will always be a demand for news, and those who can gather and organize information in a useful way will always find their skills in demand.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is a big day here in Amherst as there is a special election being held for a tax override referendum. As these pictures I ripped off from Larry Kelley show, the opponents have cleverly created signs meant to resemble angry yellow-jacket bees rising up to sting the greedy politicians.

The supporters of the tax increase responded by copying the style of the opponent's signs, as if the bees were actually stinging not politicians, but instead teachers, police and firefighters.

Of course as a good little worker bee for the Kelley Machine, I will be voting NO on the tax increase.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Nigtht Sounds

I'm not the only one doing video of the Norwottock Trail. Local writer Mary Carey produced this beautiful film at sunset yesterday capturing a sense of the soul-soothing sounds and mind-blowing beauty of the trail, which is one of our Valley's most wonderful ecological treasures.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Breakfast With Bulger - 2000

Hey people, here's another installment of one of my old pieces which I came across while moving recently, and which I feel deserves a reprint. This is about a breakfast I attended with the infamous Billy Bulger, brother of Whitey. I took the picture of Billy above at the event.

Like most people, I can think of situations where ending a pregnancy through abortion is really the pro-life thing to do, if what you mean by pro-life is doing what is best for the mother and the unwanted prospective child. But although I'm a supporter of abortion rights, I make a few commonsense exceptions. For example, I don't like taxpayer-financed abortions, which seems to me tramples on the rights of those who oppose abortion by forcing them to pay for the procedure with money taken from their paychecks involuntarily by taxation. That doesn't sound to me like respecting anyone's "right to choose," and I think the pro-abortion movement makes itself look hypocritical by insisting on taxpayer funding. I also have little respect for those late term abortion procedures that are just one step removed from infanticide.

Yet despite these misgivings I am definitely not someone much inclined to participate in the activities of the anti-abortion movement, and therefore had little interest in attending the local Knights of Columbus anti-abortion fundraising breakfast in Chicopee on October 15, 2000. However, at the last minute a friend gave me a free ticket, which put the breakfast in a whole different perspective for me. I'll go almost anywhere if there's free food.

In addition to the free eats I was drawn to the event by the guest speaker, none other than University of Massachusetts President Dr. William Bulger. Of course to most Massachusetts residents Dr. Bulger is best known as the controversy plagued, iron-fisted former State Senate leader Billy Bulger, the brother of alleged mobster and suspected murderer James "Whitey" Bulger.

Quietly retired to the ivy halls of academia, Dr. Bulger is not so much in the news anymore, but he still gets around, and is one of the most passionate leaders of the Massachusetts anti-abortion movement. I was curious to see Bulger in that role, as I'd been told that you couldn't appreciate just what a right-winger Bulger really is until you see him expound on the subject of abortion.

One of the things that impressed me immediately about the pro-life breakfast was the size of the crowd. At least 200 people were present and contrary to what the media coverage might lead you to expect, not one of them resembled a Neanderthal. These were good, respectable church-going types whom you would never consider calling radical or extremist. Indeed, the breakfast was a who's who of local politicians, with virtually everyone running for office attending along with no shortage of public officials. Indeed sitting at my table along with two retired school teachers were Governor's Council candidate Marshall Moriarty and his wife Sandy, Springfield City Councilor Angelo Puppolo and Republican Chicopee Alderman Rick Goyette. Despite the attempts of the media to portray the anti-abortion activists otherwise, this was as mainstream a gathering as you could have hoped to assemble. And the food was pretty good too, neither the eggs nor the ham tasted like rubber and the toast was not so cold that the butter wouldn't melt.

But the undisputed star of the event was Dr. Bulger. Instead of hiding from his checkered past, the UMass President openly embraced it in a way that often had the audience howling with laughter. At one point he remarked that one of the waitresses serving breakfast that morning had told him that she had once lived in Bulger's South Boston district. She said she wished she could have voted for him but she never could because she moved away in 1972. Bulger said he reassured her, "You are still registered to vote in Southie, and I'm sure you have voted for me many times."

He used his district's reputation for corruption as fodder for much of his humor, at one point praising the practice of counting dead people as voters in an election. "Why shouldn't we count their votes," Bulger asked, "when we know perfectly well they would have voted Democrat were they alive?" He said his favorite precinct in Southie included St. Augustine, the local cemetery, which he described as "always the last precinct counted and always just enough!" When an election commissioner once confronted Bulger over how it could be possible that in a certain Irish neighborhood over two hundred people were registered to vote from a single tenement, Bulger said he replied, "The top floor is vacant!"

Bulger also railed against the Boston Globe, which he said had always supported his opponents and which he dismissed as "the Herald with verbs." In one of his campaigns he said his opponent was a token candidate whom the Globe could find no reason to praise besides the fact that he was a well liked veterinarian. Frustrated by the Globe's stubborn refusal to support him even though he had no serious opposition, Bulger said he ran on the slogan, "Things may be going to the dogs, but that doesn't mean it's time to bring in the veterinarian!"

Yet Bulger did eventually become serious. Harkening back to the days of ancient Greece, Bulger said that the Greeks considered those who did not participate in politics as "useless people" who refused to consider life beyond that which occurs in front of their own face, ignoring the larger community. Complementing the audience by declaring, "We are not useless people," Bulger then gave a surprisingly heartfelt speech in favor of banning abortion. It was largely a religious argument he made and thereby hard to refute. If you're a good Catholic his arguments were compelling. If not, they were probably less so. One surprise was when Bulger singled out United States Senate candidate Phillip Lawler of the Constitution Party, who was seated in the audience, to praise his anti-abortion writings. In mainstream circles the Constitution Party is considered something of a fringe group, and the politically correct thing for Bulger to do would have been to ignore Lawler's presence. Yet Bulger apparently wanted to make sure that all realized his solidarity with the more militant elements of the anti-abortion movement.

Certainly Bulger was right on target when he talked about "the abortion distortion," which he described as the dishonest manner in which the media distorts the anti-abortion movement or completely ignores it. In fact his own appearance in Chicopee was a perfect example of what he meant. Let a dozen academic feminists from Smith come down to Springfield's Court Square for a candlelight vigil for abortion rights and it will appear everywhere in the local media. But let 200 people gather on a Sunday morning to hear the President of the University of Massachusetts speak against abortion, and sure enough, there were no television cameras present, no radio microphones and not one syllable about Bulger's speech appeared in the local press.

The breakfast ended when Bulger, "responding to the request of a person planted in the audience," sang the old Irish tear-jerker, "The Isle of Innesfree." It should have been an awkwardly corny moment, but it turned out that Bulger has a gorgeous voice and he sang with such emotion that many present appeared openly moved. Then he walked offstage to a thundering standing ovation - Dr. Billy Bulger - politician and scholar, academic and outlaw, moralist and backroom dealer. An enigma certainly, but a fascinating one.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Gaypril Queerfest

At lunchtime today I went to the annual UMass Gaypril Queerfest. I just sort of walked through taking pictures, but my impression was that it was gay in a cheerful way and queerly odd. In other words, it was just what it should have been.

The university radio station was broadcasting live from the Queerfest.

I don't like the concept of "identity rallies" whatever identity they're celebrating, whether it be ethnic, racial or sexual. I think they encourage more separatness than unity and help to reinforce stereotypes. But on the other hand, it's hard to disapprove too grumpily when people are having a good time, and that defintitely seemed to be the case at the UMass Queerfest. I laughed when I saw this colorful mixture of the gay pride rainbow and the American flag. It wasn't clear who put on this display of patriotism, but perhaps it was the conservative gay rights group, The Log Cabin Republicans.

In any case, the event seemed to draw a pretty good crowd, with too many people in attendance to have just attracted gays.

If they really want to attract a big crowd, what the organizers of next year's Gaypril Queerfest should do is give away a lot of free food. For a free burger even the most homophobic frat boy will conquor his fears.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Trail Less Traveled

The Norwottock Rail Trail sure has become popular in the last year or so. In fact it's losing some of its attraction for me, because it's getting so crowded. On weekends it's beginning to get absurd how many people you encounter in walking just a short distance. I'm glad to see the trail become a success, but there is also such a thing as becoming too successful.

In my hikes I've confined myself to sections of the trail located between Amherst and Northampton. I've walked the entire distance all at once only twice. Once to prove to myself that I could, and another time I did it involuntarily when I missed the last bus out of Hamp so it was walk to Amherst by the rail trail or sleep on a bench in Pulaski Park. That was especially interesting because it was about ten at night when I started and fully dark. I was alone for nearly the entire walk, but was never really nervous, encountering about half a dozen people total and all of them friendly. A few I suspect were more afraid of me than I was concerned about them. Like I say, an interesting experience but not one I would repeat voluntarily.

Most people are unaware that there is another section of the trail that runs from Amherst into Belchertown. For years I've intended to explore it, yet never got up the ambition to actually do it. But now with the main part of the trail becoming overrun with hikers and bikers, I thought I should give this trail less traveled a chance. On this occasion I didn't go all the way to Belchertown, but I was very much impressed by the portion of the trail I did see.

The Amherst/Belchertown trail begins where the Hamp/Hadley/Amherst trail exits into downtown Amherst.

However, instead of exiting, you want to bear left and pass beneath the tunnel from which this cyclist in a bathrobe has just emerged.

On the other side of that tunnel you will find yourself by the Amherst Farmer's Supply Company.

There is a nice little country store as part of the Amherst Farmer's Supply complex, where you can buy beverages and snacks for your walk or ride.

The trail initially goes behind the Amherst College athletics facilities, separated by a large stream.

The stream itself is slow moving to the point of near stagnation, with all this green gunk floating on top.

There was a long stretch of peaceful woodlands along the trail until suddenly I spotted this country lane and turned down it to investigate.

There I encountered this sign explaining that it was some sort of Amherst College bird sanctuary.

Sure enough, there were these man-made bird houses spread out all over the terrain.

I wonder what kind (or kinds) of birds were living in them?

Continuing to stroll past tranquil woodlands, I came at last to this stone bench by the side of the trail.

Beside it was a stone marker, which read "Grandpa's Bench."

I don't know who the Grandpa was that made that bench, but he surely built it at the right location for enjoying the magnificent view.

It is sights like that which remind me of why I love our Valley so. Can you imagine what this view will be like when everything turns green? You can be sure that I'll be back to capture it with my camera this summer, and again at the peak of the fall foliage.

The weather was odd that day. It was warm, almost too warm, but with a brisk wind that was neither warm nor cold, but just right. As I sat on Grandpa's bench I was inspired for the first time this year to take my shirt off outdoors. I was shocked in the bright sunlight to see how pale my Irish skin had become over the winter, as white and clammy looking as a frog's belly. The sun on my body felt almost as if it were a physical touch, a warm caress for my sun starved skin that was almost erotic.

Unfortunately at that point I had to start walking back if I was to make it to downtown Amherst by dark. But I will be back to explore further, although if you are impatient for me to get around to it, why not explore this section of the wonderful Norwottock Trail yourself?

No sooner did I start to leave the bench than I heard a pounding sound coming towards me. Realizing what it was, I quickly whipped out my camera and made the following video. Unfortunately the sound was ruined by the wind.

Finally, I ran into Seamus and his mom in Barnes and Noble the other day. He was anxious to pose for a picture with the things he bought, but he didn't much like the flash going off in his face.

That is why it looks like he was showing me his stuff while sleep-walking.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Haymarket Mirror

One morning recently I was so busy that I couldn't even pause long enough to get a cup of coffee. This is not an idle matter, I need coffee or tea or something with caffeine in it each morning like a junkie needs junk or a vampire needs blood or a nympho needs whatever. After hours of suffering, finally in downtown Northampton I had a chance to stop in at the Haymarket Cafe for a quick cup.

The only downside was all the tables were taken but one, a very undesirable location, right by the door so that everyone bustled past me on their way in and out. Definitely the least relaxing table in the joint. But for coffee that morning I would have sat in the middle of the floor, and was therefore all preoccupied with administering my dose and restoring myself to normal. However, as the caffeine gradually soothed my jangled nervous system, I begin to take notice of my surroundings. I realized that almost directly across from me was a huge antique mirror.

At the angle I was sitting, I could not see myself in that mirror. However, I could see reflected in it everyone that was walking by as they entered or exited the coffeehouse. Then it dawned on me there was something about everyone as they passed the mirror.

They all looked at themselves. A few stopped outright to examine their appearance, but the vast majority were just casting sideward glances, never breaking their pace, yet all of them checking themselves out in the mirror. Everyone. I could catch no exceptions.

And why shouldn't they look in the mirror? Does the wind not blow hair? Do noses not run? Do clothes not become ill-fitting? But none of that fit the sense I had. I didn't feel that they were performing a utilitarian purpose of grooming or fashion. They were looking because we live in a culture where mirrors command our attention. We feel we have to look.

I decided to take a picture of the mirror with myself reflected in it. I guess I was experiencing mirror-envy from watching everybody else gaze into it.

Yet when I looked to see how the picture had come out, I couldn't see myself because the flash had obliterated me. I was a meaningless white blob.

I slurped up what was left of my coffee and headed back out on to the busy streets of downtown Northampton.

Even when Amherst does something bad, it does it in an arty way. Take for example this downtown graffiti I'm posing in front of. It looks less like an act of vandalism than something that should be the backdrop for a Pepsi commercial.

Of course not all graffiti is so delightfully colorful and artistic, but even the low grade one's can have some substance. For example consider this oddity:

The question asked by the Mad Hatter figure is, "If a secret is something between two people, what is a secret called when you don't tell anyone else?"

Nearby is scrawled the answer:


Finally, Jeff "sodafixer" Ziff writes me complaining about all this attention being paid to hotdogs in recent posts. Don't I know that not all readers share my phallic tastes? Okay, okay let it never be said that we don't honor diversity at this website. Here's a cheap thrill for you non-hotdog types.

Monday, April 23, 2007

More Westfield

If you read the comments to the last post, then you know that Mark T. Alamed, a wizard regarding all things Westfield, informed me that I could have gotten the key to the Old Burying Ground from the Westfield Athenaeum (above).

The question most people would have upon hearing that information is, "What the hell is an athenaeum?" Well, the internet serves up this definition:

athenaeum (noun)
1. An institution, such as a literary club or scientific academy, for the promotion of learning.

2. A place, such as a library, where printed materials are available for reading.
[Late Latin Athneaeum, a Roman school, after Greek Athenaion, the temple of Athena.]

So in other words, it's a high-brow word for a library. I stopped by there recently and took a few snaps, but wasn't going to use them. However since the Athenaeum has come up, here they are. This shows the computer room, which like at all libraries these days, is the most popular and heavily used section.

There were also student art displays, such as these quite psychedelic pieces.

What are they putting in the Kool-Aid in the student cafeteria?

Recently I posted about Dave's Diner in Hadley and showed a picture of a hot dog sculpture they have just inside the door (above). Yesterday I received this email and photos on the subject. Thanks, Emily!

From : Emily Robertson
Sent : Sunday, April 22, 2007 7:01 PM
To :
Subject : Hot Dog

Tom -

Not too long ago you posted a picture of a hot dog pouring ketchup on itself. I just returned from a trip to eastern Tennessee and thought you might be interested to know that I spotted another of those hotdog statues smack dab in the middle of Dollywood!

They really like hotdogs, I guess, because we also spotted the Weinermobile in the parking lot...

Even my kids noticed the "political climate" of the area - friendly and patriotic - was a stark contrast to angry, liberal Massachusetts - and a truly great vacation destination!


Finally, political ads have penetrated every level of life:

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Westfield's Dead

In the town of Westfield, across from a holy-roller church....

There is this non-descript bar named Rally's.

It is the sort of place where the management thinks it wise to warn the clientele with a sign like this:

In other words, my kind of place - where my kind of people gather!

The Pine Point Cafe was once such a place. A place where anything might happen, because no one has anything left to lose that might hold them back. I don't look for trouble, in fact I give it the slip whenever I can, but we are old companions and it knows my ways. I feel a vague sense of danger in the air, I don't know from where but I've learned to trust my instincts on such things about such places. I don't think my taking pictures went over very well, although no one said anything. Just the same, they don't trust people with cameras in a place like this. A lot of people here maybe don't want to be seen, by ex-wives, law enforcement or whoever. I overtip the bartender and walk out of the joint into the street.

Actually I'm just killing time until my sister gets out of work so we can go out to eat somewhere. I decided to take a little walk to where I saw something a week or so ago that stirred my interest. It was what appeared to be a very old cemetery, but from where I saw it the place was fenced in and I couldn't see where the entrance was. I went to the same location, determined to search for the entryway.

My interest in cemeteries is not rooted in a morbid fascination with death, but with a healthy fascination with history. Oftentimes people's graves are the only permanent record they create of themselves. You can learn a lot about a community and its past eras by visiting the town cemetery. They tend to be contemplative places as well, and once you get past their somewhat somber purpose, they can be peaceful places of beauty.

This old cemetery's location reminded me of the cemetery in Amherst where Emily Dickinson is buried. It was originally on the outskirts of town, but as the town grew it eventually completely surrounded the cemetery, concealing it from view from most angles. I knew however that if I just followed the streets wherever I saw the cemetery fence that I must eventually come to an entrance.

So I shuffled down lonely streets....

Past the old factory and a row of houses....

And sure enough I soon arrived at the official entrance to what was appropriately called The Old Burying Ground.

Unfortunately, the entrance was firmly padlocked shut! What a disappointment after having gone to all that trouble! I considered trying to jump the fence, which wasn't all that high, but I didn't like the sharp barbs on the Victorian era fence. One slip and there go the family jewels!

But surely that can't be the only way inside. Then it dawned on me - there must be an alternate way in, and any kid in the neighborhood would know where it was! So I went in search of a kid, and didn't have to walk too far to find one. Just a few doors down I spotted this Hispanic kid playing in a yard all by himself. From the music he was humming and the poses he was striking I suspected he was pretending to be a Power Ranger. I startled him a little when I spoke to him, but his kid safety radar quickly assured him I was cool. Is there another way into the cemetery? He smiled and nodded that I should follow him across what proved to be several backyards. We were disrespecting all property rights, but kids have no sense of that and being in the company of a kid I too was immune. Finally, we came to a place where the cemetery fence had been bent up at the bottom and bent down at the top. So by either climbing or crawling, you could get inside.

Not wanting to crawl on the ground, I decided to climb over, but before doing so I asked my young friend to pose like he was going to climb under the fence, as a picture that would serve as a demonstration for you, dear readers. He was glad to, but then suddenly a woman appeared. "Juan!" she shouted. "Get in the house!"

"But Mom!" he protested.

"Get in the house now!" She commanded, then she shot me a look like I was something she had found on the bottom of her sneaker, only there was a little fear mixed in there too. Sheesh! Sorry lady, but I'm not on the sexual offenders list! People are so paranoid these days, it's really pathetic. Anyway, here's a picture of the secret entrance way, but without the kid.

Once inside, I quickly realized that this place was well worth the trouble getting in. These were really old stones, going back to the earliest colonial times. Here is the tombstone of someone who died just a few weeks before America was born.

Notice the head with wings on the side that appears on top, signifying an angel. Almost all the oldest stones have that image, which along with being decorative, was meant to suggest the role in which the dearly departed was now engaged.

In this case they preferred people wearing hats:

Here is the oldest gravestone I could find. It was for someone with the last name Root who died in 1687. Wow, that was a long time ago!

So I suggest to you that you devote some time some day to checking out Westfield's Old Burying Ground. Hopefully you will find it open, but if not, track down a kid to show you the other way in.

Say what you will about Raipher Pellegrino (I have) but credit must be given where it is due, and I must say I'm impressed by what he's done to restore that beautiful but ramshackle old house that stands next to Classical on State Street.

Frankly, the house was in such a state of decline that I would have thought it impossible to salvage, but Pellegrino has impressively saved it from the wrecking ball and given it new life. Well done!

Finally, here's Jay at a recent appearance.