The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ryan's 100 Days

A flashback.


R. Bruce Fitzgerald and Charlie Ryan


I recently wrote a review of the first 100 days of new Springfield Mayor Dom Sarno. That enticed me to go back and dig up this old piece I wrote for the occasion of the first 100 days of the administration of Charles V. Ryan, which occurred in April of 2004. Unfortunately, I was unable to retrieve any of the photographs from that event except the one of Ryan and Fitzgerald above.

The Ryanites had a party in the Mayor's office to officially celebrate the 100 Days and I was invited. Here is the report I filed, minus the photos, from that day.

THE HUNDRED DAYS


Back in the 1960's when I was a dot of a tot, my first grade class took a field trip to downtown Springfield. I've forgotten most of the details, in fact I remember little from my early grammar school years except that I was always the shortest kid in my class. How do I know that? Trust me, as the shortest kid in the class I was always helpfully informed of that fact by my classmates, just in case I didn't notice.

However I do recall a picnic snack in Court Square and a visit to the Campanile, which was open to tourists in those days. I do remember clearly that we went inside City Hall, where we were brought into the mayor's office to meet Hizzoner himself, a then young (but to us quite old) Charles V. Ryan. We were probably in there for all of five minutes, just long enough for Charlie to say something appropriately educational and patriotic, after which we were ushered out as an aide (Lenny Collamore?) passed out lollipops. Looking back at it that was pretty good politics, since we all went home and told our voting parents what a nice mayor we had.

The 60's of course are long gone. So are the 70's, the 80's and the 90's. Even the millennium itself has faded years into the past. I thought of these things as I stood in the mayor's office yesterday, celebrating Charlie Ryan's 100th day in office as once again the Mayor of Springfield. The fact that I was even standing in that office was remarkable; just six months earlier if I had come anywhere near the mayoral chambers they would've called security. I am considerably taller than I was when I last visited Charlie in that office, and since then Charlie's hair has gone completely white, but it was still a kind of poignant reunion across the decades. As the saying goes, what a long, strange trip it's been! It was an almost perfect moment as we spoke at Charlie's desk, the only imperfection being that no one offered me a lollipop.

What Charlie was telling me is not happy news. It turns out that the figures discussed thus far of what the city needs to raise to avoid receivership, about 14 million, are now inaccurate. Ryan says that further examination of the city's financial situation reveals that he needs at least twenty million to avoid a state takeover of municipal government. I asked him if there is some way to finesse the difference. "No," Charlie replies, "a few million dollar gap you can find some way to patch over. But twenty million?" He shakes his head.

Ryan is presiding over a city that has been deeply betrayed by nearly all of its major institutions. The city was allowed to get buried in debt while its financial officers looked the other way. The city government is mired in corruption investigations and scandals. Even the Catholic Church, once the backbone of the Springfield community, has been disgraced. Crime is up, the city continues to suffer a terrible drain of citizens moving out (the latest to exit: Mitch Ogulewicz to Connecticut) and the percentage of residents in poverty continues to rise.

Is this any way for a 76 year old man to spend his golden years?

Far from being discouraged, Ryan seems to be energized by the challenges. He refers to Springfield as "my lady" and although she may have stumbled, in his eyes she hasn't fallen. Indeed the single most prominent characteristic of the Ryanites as they celebrate their 100 day anniversary is their optimism. When I ask Charlie how he would describe the 100 days personally he says "It's been fun," and that is a word I hear the Ryanites use a lot. Asking an aide how she likes working for Charlie she replies, "He's a fun boss to work for." It is obvious as he interacts with the city workers at the celebration that his employees revere him with an aura of integrity and respect that is almost palpable. If anyone is pessimistic about Springfield's future, they can't be found in Charlie Ryan's City Hall as his optimism rubs off on everybody.

It is that change in tone that is perhaps the fledgling Ryan Administration's greatest accomplishment. Fired or forced into early retirement are the lazy and dishonest department heads and employees that once fed on the taxpayers like vampires. Gone are the arrogant Albanoites who once strutted through the corridors in search of power, privilege and profit. Three decades of a political culture of self-serving corruption cannot be corrected in just 100 days, and there is still housecleaning to be done, but for the first time in many years City Hall is once again "the people's place" where all may feel welcome.

Turning away from the unpleasant subject of the financial crisis, Charlie chuckles over some posts he read the night before on Masslive.com's Springfield Forum. Like virtually all of Springfield's political establishment he is a regular reader, but doesn't tell me whether he ever posts on the forum, leaving it to Masslive readers to wonder whether one of the posters is secretly their mayor. As he turns to talk with other well wishers, I use the opportunity to solve an old mystery.

Back in the administration of Robert Markel there was a rampant rumor that then Springfield Newspapers publisher David Starr used to regularly enter the mayor's office by a door that allowed him to bypass the normal entrance requiring him to announce his arrival to the mayoral aides. This was allegedly done by Starr to prevent the City Hall gossip mill from reporting just how often Starr was meeting in private consultation with the mayor, thereby feeding into charges that it was Starr who was actually running the city. When Markel appeared on The Dan Yorke Show one day, Yorke pressed him to reveal whether such a hidden entrance existed and whether Starr had access to it. Markel refused either to confirm or deny it, infuriating Yorke with his evasiveness and leaving the question never answered.

So wandering around the mayor's office I saw that indeed there was a door, open for the 100 day party, that gave no indication on it of where it led to, so that no one walking past it could know that it was an entrance to the mayor's office. In other words, Starr could easily have come and gone, just as the rumors suggested, through this door without anyone on the mayor's staff knowing anything about it. So Yorke was right after all.

As the festivities were winding down, it was soon time to leave and let the mayor and his staff return to the herculean task of saving Springfield. I would call it an impossible task, but this is a bunch that doesn't accept the word impossible. Promising to return at a future date I bid the Mayor adieu - departing via Starr's secret passageway:


The final photo in the piece showed me departing by Starr's hidden exit, but I no longer have the photographs. Unfortunately, we no longer have Ryan's dynamic leadership either. Indeed, reading this account of Ryan's first hundred days sure makes Sarno's seem dull by comparison.

In the window of Northampton's India Palace I spotted this old restaurant review from the Springfield newspaper's April 11, 1991 edition. Note that it preserves a typo in the phrase "dining out." (click photo to enlarge)



It also preserves the paper's former name Union-News. Once upon a time, in the golden age of newspapers, there were two editions of what is now The Republican. One was called The Springfield Union, which came out every morning, and the other was called the Springfield Daily News, which came out every afternoon and for which I was a paperboy. In 1987, with the newspaper industry in decline even then, they were forced to cut back to one edition. Rather than decide between killing the evening or morning editions, they combined both the Union and the Daily News and christened the resulting product The Union-News.

It was a well-meaning attempt to respect the paper's history, but the new name proved clumsy and confusing. Many people called it "The Union Newspaper." When they finally decided to return to the original name the paper had in the 1800's - The Republican - no one objected or claimed to miss The Union-News.

Even this old name made new has caused some confusion. Most people refer to it as The Springfield Republican, but although it is published in downtown Springfield, technically the paper claims no allegiance to any particular city or town in its title. Many people also assume that the name suggest some relationship to the Republican Party, but in fact the name predates the forming of that political party. It refers only to the generic patriotic term, as in "to the republic for which it stands." In the era leading up to the Civil War, when the paper was founded, there was almost a fetish made of the term republican because of its relation to the concept of a united nation. That is why Abe Lincoln and friends later chose the term for the name of their new political party.

To the extent the modern paper has a political affiliation, it is owned by the Newhouse Corporation, one of the most prominent media backers of the Democrat Party. The paper almost never endorses Republican candidates, although a rare exception was made to endorse Kerry Healey over Deval Patrick for governor. Rumors at the time suggested that the paper's President David Starr had a relationship with the string of prior Republican governors that he did not have with the upstart Deval. Whatever the reason, the endorsement re-enforced among the paper's critics the false impression that they are a Republican Party newspaper.

It seems that when it comes to their name, the poor Springfield Newspapers Company just can't win for trying.

In Amherst I stumbled upon this old tree stump. How huge this tree must have been to leave a stump so large!



Trees are the true elders of our communities, and although they cannot speak they are living witnesses to our lives.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Next Thing

Beyond the Meat World

Last week I got the following email from Valley Free Radio star Mary Serreze:

hey there mr. tommy devine

mike kirby and i are hosting an informal bloggers' summit this monday, april 28, 7pm, at the packard's library. probably mostly relevant for those who cover local news and politics......but i thought i'd let you know in case you wanted to make an appearance. (cuz you do cover news and politics, tho not exclusively...and you are somewhat famous)

we wanted to 1. provide a chance for people to meet each other, laugh, have a beer, trade war stories and 2. explore possibilities for collaborating/specializing/promotion/research etc--

maybe there are ways in which northampton bloggers can collaborate, and maybe not (independent cusses that we are....) but no harm done by putting a bunch of interesting people in a room together. so far i have confirmation from kirby, shanahan, roessler, saulmon, cohen, lafleur. so if you feel like stopping by please do.

mary serreze
http://communityradiohour.blogspot.com
www.northamptonmedia.com


Usually I respond to such invitations with that old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to belong to any group that would have me as a member. However, I found myself responding in the affirmative primarily out of curiousity. I didn't recognize all the names mentioned of the bloggers attending, but I knew that they were primarily Northampton or North Valley writers. In any case I thought it couldn't hurt to meet some of the Northampton bloggers. At the very least I might be able to get a photo of the North Valley bloggers to match the historic South Valley blogger photo captured by Victor Davila earlier this year in Springfield.



The meeting was held in what is called "Packard's Library" located within the famous Northampton bar Packard's. I've been going to Packard's for decades, playing pool, getting drunk and picking up sex partners, but I was totally unaware of any part of the building that could be called a library. Yet there is such a room hidden away off in the back. Here's a picture I took.



Of course it isn't really a library, it is a drinking room with some shelves with books on them that look like someone got then at a tag sale. But it does make for a dignified setting and a calming decor.

Unfortunately I couldn't get there for the start of the proceedings as we have meetings at the drug half-way house where I live until after seven. Because I arrived about an hour late, I never did get properly introduced to everyone nor put every face with a name. But here are a couple pictures I took of some of the participants. Match them with their blogs if you can!




The first thing I realized when I finally got there was that those assembled were smarter than me, at least about Northampton politics. They were discussing the questions asked by those truly in the know: Is Mayor Clare Higgins too pro-business? Will the new landfill cause ecological damage? Who are the leading contenders for mayor? I really couldn't participate in these discussions without appearing uninformed. When it got to be my turn to speak I had to pretty much beg off by saying I'm primarily an Amherst and Springfield dude and that my Northampton coverage consists mostly of pictures I take as I poke around town. I didn't use the word "shallow" to describe my coverage but maybe I should have.

Actually, there was a time in the 1990's, around when Tony Long ran for mayor of Hamp, that I could have held my own in a discussion of Northampton politics. Later I wondered, "When did my blog begin drifting away from politics?" Of course there is and always will be political posts on my blog. But why has a bunch of other stuff emerged as equal to politics in the subject matter I write about?

I think it began when I read an interesting factoid somewhere claiming that more than a third of American children under fifteen have a blog. Doubtless that percentage is constantly increasing. Thinking about that fact made me wish that I could have had a blog at 15 and to wonder what it would be like to have such a chronicle of one's life across several decades. More interestingly, what would it be like to have an audience over your whole lifetime who followed you via your blog? What would be the nature of that relationship?

The children who are starting blogs today will find out the answer to those questions. Living your life on a cyberstage certainly raises a lot of existential questions. For example, what is the meaning of privacy in such an existence where everything you do is pretty much public? Will the children of today who have blogs have the same notions of privacy that we take for granted? Orwell imagined a world where everything was observed by the government. What he didn't foresee however is a culture where the observers are the general public and a relationship develops between the observers and those being observed. Surely Orwell could not have foreseen that the person being observed would be presenting themselves for observation voluntarily.

Everyone has people they know in person, people who they can see in their field of vision, who they can touch, smell and hear. But as the blogosphere blossoms our world is becoming filled with people who we don't see or touch or smell. Yet through the blogosphere we feel we get to know them, what they are like, what they do, what they think. We get to see their friends and their families, what they wear the places they live and the things they think about.

Yet those doing the observing are mostly unknown to those being observed. They are just statistics telling them how many hits they got that day. But behind each hit is a flesh and blood person. A fan who thinks they know who it is they observe.

In any given week thousands of people read my website and find out all kinds of things about me. That knowledge about me accumulates over time and deepens in intimacy. Less than a hundred people see me in the flesh per week, and many of them know less about me than the readers of my blog. So when you say "Tom Devine" who do you mean?

The Tom Devine dozens see in the flesh, or the Tom Devine known by thousands who have never met me? It's a strange new world indeed.

And it intrigues me. Increasingly I keep expanding the realms of my life that I am willing to make public. I'm trying to break down as many walls as I can between the flesh me, in the "meat world" as the cybergeeks say, and merge that with the version of me in the blogosphere where I exist only as zeroes and ones.

This is the new frontier, the first inklings of what our lives are going to be like, what our children's lives are going to be like. Each of us will have two personnas, a private one where we interact with one another physically and sexually and in real time and space, and another personna that is computer generated by thousands of individual choices we will make throughout our lifetime about what to reveal, how to reveal it and through what medium (words or images or both) and that will be taking place before an audience, the majority of which will be strangers to us.

I see my blog as a prototype of this new form. This is the new frontier - Cyberlife. I ache to move beyond my own time. I ache to leave the Meat World behind.

After the meeting I went out for coffee at the Haymarket with Local Buzzlings Bill Peters and Greg Saulmon.



They are hip to New Media to a degree I don't see in anyone else in local media. They are currently working way too hard for too little money for people who don't recognize the significance of what they are doing. But that will change.

The other day I noticed this neat skeleton of a geodesic dome being used as an exercise structure at the Bridge Street School in Northampton.



Today was Founder's Day at the University of Massachusetts.



Happy 145th Birthday UMass!

There's a new trend in v-blogging called "flash vids" that attempt to capture something of significance in a very short time frame. It can't just be short, it has to show something worth seeing. Here are some very short but cool videos from last winter that I missed somehow. In the first one Northampton resident Sean Kinlan set up a camera in his backyard last winter and made the following fascinating video condensing five hours of a snowstorm into eight seconds. Dig how the trees droop.



This is a moody 22 second glimpse of Amherst College.



When life sends you lemons and you can't make lemonade - squirt lemon juice into the eyes of your enemies.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Survival

Hanging in there.

Someone sent me this image of downtown Amherst as it was in 1965.



Here is the exact same view as it was around noon today, forty-three years later.



Nearby, some peacers were venting against the president.



A little late in his term to be talking impeachment, don't ya think?

I saw this line of poetry from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland on the chalkboard in the Amherst Starbucks.



The full stanza goes like this:

APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.


April was certainly a cruel month for UMass student Liam O'Donnelly.
Last week he committed suicide by hurling himself from this skyscraper dorm that is named in honor of President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts.



Where his body landed is this makeshift shrine his friends erected in his honor.



It's not clear why O'Donnelly killed himself, but it is not unheard of as the academic year nears the end for someone on campus to turn up dead by their own hand. I remember when I was at UMass that in McNamara, the dorm next door to mine, a girl committed suicide. She liked to party too much and was flunking all her courses and was afraid to tell her parents that she had wasted all their tuition money so she killed herself in her room. It really freaked everybody out.

It is wrong to judge people who commit suicide. You can't know enough about what their lives are really like to do that. But I think, in hard times, it is useful to remember that we are dead a long time, so why rush to the end? Plus as someone who has seen a lot of bad shit go down over the years, let me say it is my experience that it is surprising how often good things lie just around the corner. As they say in Narcotics Anonymous:

Don't quit five minutes before the miracle happens!

Wish ya coulda thought of that, Liam.

The weather is so nice that a few of the Northampton restaurants are serving food with their windows open, such as The Teapot.



Also offering semi-outdoor dining is the restaurant called simply Zen.



Here I am sitting at a table on the sidewalk yesterday enjoying a lazy cafe lifestyle.



My pal Zak got himself a new tatoo yesterday. It took three hours to embed it in his skin.



Years ago I considered getting a tattoo. I probably would have gotten something Grateful Dead themed, such as the contemplative jester icon.



I once had a boyfriend who tried to get me to have his name tattooed on my ass. Blinded by love I almost agreed but fortunately ultimately refused, as our relationship ended up lasting less than a year. Now I don't think I would get a tattoo under any circumstances, because it has become too trendy. Years ago a tattoo had a stigma attached to it, only people who genuinely lived on the edge of society had them. Now that it's become some kind of mainstream fashion statement, I'm not interested anymore.

Dig this hot car in Hamp.



Another tasteless local joke:

Question: Why did so many Polish end up in Chicopee?

Answer: They thought the sign said Chicago.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Nice

It's a great day to be alive.

It lifted my spirits to look at the beautiful view out my window this morning.



Near the Amherst Survival Center where I work in selfless service to humanity (translation: for free) is this symbol of the American Dream; pretty flowers in front of a white picket fence.



After my shift at the Survival Center I went to UMass, where some of the students were just hanging out enjoying the sunshine.



Other students were calling for the liberation of Tibet at a rally in front of the Student Union.



One protester was displaying gross pictures of people allegedly tortured for wanting freedom for Tibet.



The campus police were nearby, but the rally was peaceful.



Monks were posing with a picture of the Dalai Lama.



Last year around this time the Dalai Lama came and spoke at Smith College. Here is a video of him arriving at the Hotel Northampton.



The Dalai Lama seems like an okay guy for a dude who runs around the world in flowing robes blessing everybody. But a government under him would still be a religious dictatorship, and history has shown that no matter how benignly these things start out they always end badly.

Since whoever controls your money controls your life, economic liberty is essential for all other forms of liberty. Free markets and free minds are self re-enforcing - you can't sustain one without the other. Capitalism is the only system that allows you to produce products or sell your skills as you wish and to keep the money you earn doing so. Therefore, no society can be called free that has any other economic system other than capitalism.

Also, no government is legitimate where those who must obey the laws are not allowed to participate in making them. Therefore no society can be considered free that does not practice democracy.

Therefore, the only form of civilization that provides for the maximum freedom and the highest level of well-being for the most people is a system embracing a capitalist democracy.

Unless that is what the goal of the free Tibet movement is, then their talk of liberation is just so much blather.

Globalism, not religion, is the key to a free Asia.



Here is a song of freedom.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Assorted Academia

On campus.

At the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College there recently appeared this germicide contraption.



You put your hand under it and some cum-like goo comes out which you then rub all over your hands. In the old days you didn't have to worry about germs in the library because books are poor surfaces for germs to live. However today nearly everyone who goes to the library works on computers, and you never know who touched or sneezed on the keyboard before you. I predict these germicide dispensers will soon be in all libraries.

At UMass the manufacturers of Stride chewing gum brought a giant hummer on campus to promote their product.



Some students thought a giant gas-guzzler was inappropriate during Earth Week and made this sign.



It reads: "Big Corporations Off Campus - Stride and their hummers are not welcome at Earth Week."

The University is cleaning the outside of the UMass Grad Research Center. It is not a job for those afraid of heights.



I used to work in the Grad Research Center, before drug addiction made me unemployed. I want to go to work and get off welfare, but who will hire an old queer stoner?

Stoners were ooohing over this hookah on display today in the campus center.



So if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're gonna fall
Just tell 'em a hookah smoking character
Has given you the call
He called Alice
When she was just small




Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sarno's Days

The first hundred.


Mayor Dominic Sarno


I've been meaning to post about the passing of the first 100 days of the Sarno mayoralty in Springfield. It is an arbitrary, though traditional ritual of American politics to judge a new office holder on the basis of what trends are indicated by the first one hundred days of their administration. By no means definitive nor always fair, it's still a worthwhile appraisal. Here is what I think are the most important things about Sarno's administration thus far.

1. No ethical challenges - The first 100 days of the Ryan Administration were filled with radical change, as Charles V. Ryan began his term with a widespread cleansing of City Hall as incompetents, hacks and crooks, some of whom had bled the city for decades, were quickly fired out the door. The biggest fear was that Dominic Sarno would reverse that, and invite the bad guys back inside City Hall. Such fears were magnified in the campaign by Sarno's close association with the notorious sleaze Charlie Kingston and the scandal plagued former State Rep. Ray Jordan. There were even rumors that Brian Santaniello might return as Election Commissioner. None of it has come to pass, as Sarno has successfully kept his shadier contacts at arms length. Critics claim that Sarno is merely afraid of the Control Board and will invite the bad boys back once they leave. However the fact is so far those who predicted that the election of Sarno would lead to a new ethical crisis have not been shown correct.

2. Biggest campaign promise not kept - The most dishonest aspect of Sarno's campaign was the implication that he could do something about the city's unpopular trash fee. Actually that is under the sole authority of the Control Board, which as anyone could have predicted has shown no interest in repealing it. It was a promise voters should have realized Sarno had no power to carry out in the first place. However Sarno depended on the the voters not to understand this, and no one ever lost an election by relying on the stupidity of the Springfield electorate.

3. Fitchet gets top police post - This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing because Fitchet is an insider and is unlikely to change anything to harm the department. It is a bad thing because Fitchet is an insider and unlikely to change anything to improve the department.

4. Shows some backbone - Critics claimed that Sarno was a lightweight who would be pushed around by local power players. Yet there's little evidence of that as Sarno has pretty much set his own policies, made his own choices and strongly defended them. One can argue over the wisdom of those choices and policies, but those who predicted that Sarno would be merely a figurehead mayor or a puppet for others are clearly wrong.

5. He's no Charlie Ryan - No matter how good Sarno turns out to be, we already had an old pro at the helm. Historians will forever shake their heads over why Ryan was shown the door.

6. Good humor - Sarno has held up well in the face of endless corny jokes about his hair. A sense of humor is an essential requirement for leading Springfield.


In conclusion, after 100 days the jury is still out on the Sarno mayoralty, but in general he's off to a solid start and the fears of his worst critics have thus far proven unfounded.

Here is a picture I found online of the first Earth Day celebration at UMass in 1970. Dig the geodesic dome!



It's funny how little UMass changes over the decades. If you went to that exact same spot today, and erected a geodesic dome, everything would look exactly the same. Here's a video I made at this year's UMass Earth Day showing an interesting demonstration of solar power.



Blues-tinged soul singers Avi and Celia raised a ruckus on Main Street in Northampton the other day by performing on the sidewalk for free. As shown in this humorous video, passerby threw them change, not realizing that the duo were performing later that evening at the Iron Horse for ten bucks at the door.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Eyes

To see what I could see.



As I get older I feel the darkness closing in, the shadows growing longer, the light fading, fading, fading....

Just kidding!

However, I can't see as well as I used to. When I was younger I had fantastic eyes, and used to impress everyone by how well I could see the buses approaching at our bus stop in Pine Point by the old wall on Boston Road.



Long before anyone else, I could see whether the approaching bus was the one we wanted - State Boston Road which stopped directly in front of The High School of Commerce - or some other school bus. Now my eyes have weakened until I can hardly read without glasses on. Which brings me to a recent bit of misfortune.

It went down like this: I was sitting on the couch and reading the Springfield Republican when the phone rang. In a hurry to answer, I carelessly put down my reading glasses and went to the phone. After talking for several minutes, I returned to the couch and sat down. That's when I heard a sickening crunching sound. I jumped up and looked where I had sat and this was the condition of my glasses.



Oh shit! I sat on my glasses and knocked the lens out! Try as I might to stick it back in, the lens simply wouldn't stay in place. As an unemployed former drug addict on welfare, how could I get some new glasses?

Taxpayers to the rescue!

I found an eye doctor in downtown Northampton who takes MassHealth. I headed straight down there to 78 Main Street on the second floor.



Right next door, where NBO Tickets is now, was once a smoke shop called Lizottes. They had the best selection of rolling papers in Hamp.

78 Main is a grand old building with an interesting floor of hardwood and glass.



Anyway, the story had a happy ending as I will soon have my brand new glasses. Actually the pair I broke were cheapos I'd picked up at Walmart. My new ones will be prescription glasses made to meet the exact specifications of my individual eyes.

America has been very good to me.

Speaking of freebies, this is where I got today's free lunch at UMass.



You could also get free pot - a planting pot that is - provided you were willing to paint it.



Here I am in Packard's in Hamp, posing by a painting by the famous artist Greg Stone. Photo by Bill.



I'll be attending a blogger's summit (or whatever) next Monday night at Packard's.

Here's a painting I came upon outside a student partyhouse in Amherst. Think it has any sexual connotations?



I wonder if this message on a dorm window in the Southwest section of UMass also has sexual overtones?



Or maybe I just don't get it. Drivers however are getting it good.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy 420

Latest from the Captain.



I promised that I would tell you more about the videos Ken Babbs sent me, and what better day to finally get around to it than 420, the International Stoner's Holiday of High Pride?

Ken Babbs you may recall (or not) is one of the co-stars of the popular book by Tom Wolfe The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He is soon to become more famous because a film is in the works based on the book directed by the renouned film maker Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) shown below on the left with Babbs.



The subject of the book, and now the film, is the infamous bus trip taken by Babbs and his best friend Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) a trip where legend has it they helped to popularize the use of psycheldelic drugs, in particular LSD, which was legal back in the mid-1960's when the cross country bus trip occurred.



That legend is both exaggerated and simplistic. The real purpose of the trip was to arrive in New York City for the official release of Kesey's second book, Sometimes a Great Notion, a lesser known novel but one which many literary critics consider better than Cuckoo's Nest, at least in terms of style and creativity. While there was drugs of psychedelic types onboard the bus, and many madcap adventures occurred, it was never specifically the desire of Kesey, Babbs and crew to turn on America, at least not by bus.

If the bus ride eventually had a pro-drug influence on society, that is largely the result of Wolfe's book, which had a romanticizing effect on the trip. Ironically not everyone associated with drug culture has praised it, with some complaining that Wolfe sometimes adopts a snarky tone in the book. In any case, forever after Kesey, Babbs and their friends, who sometimes called themselves the Merry Pranksters, were locked forever in the public's conciousness with that bus ride.

What wasn't always appreciated was that most everyone involved with the bus ride lived for decades afterward, indeed, a good many are still alive today. Kesey is not one of them, having died of liver disease in 2001. But much of what is so celebrated in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test continued on through the years, even if no writers were hanging around to write books about it. Much of the psychic and cultural experimentation was recorded in one form or other and stored in the Prankster's legendary archives. Most of it has never been seen by the public, but that may change if the acid test movie is a success.

The most valuable archival material, that owned by Kesey himself, is under the control of his son Zane, who makes some material available on the website Key-Z.com, formerly known as Intrepid Trips, which was originally run by his father as one of the pioneering websites of the cyberspace revolution. The Pranksters were online as one of the earliest colonizers of cyberspace, and among the first to present their daily lives online in the manner that would later be called blogging. Whatever their cultural significance, Kesey, Babbs and the Pranksters were technological innovators as well. Not in the sense that they created new technology, but because they pioneered new uses and forms of self expression that the technology could be used for.

Today we consider it commonplace for people to make videos and other forms of recordings of private lives and then share them with the public through mass distribution online or by other means. But in 1965, when the Pranksters filmed their bus trip, the idea that private lives recorded by regular people could have a wider significance was by no means widespread. Yet the purpose of the film was to show a subculture, hidden from the view of the larger culture at the time, and to express the consciousness that subculture was experiencing. The fact that they were using drugs was almost beside the point.

For the Pranksters, and the musical group most associated with them, the Grateful Dead, it was considered essential to preserve everything one did that was of any significance, either by writing about it, filming or sound recording it, or all three! The Grateful Dead's credo of preserving everything has paid off handsomely in a string of endless live releases. But for the Pranksters, their archives have been less of a mother lode, at least commercially.

Part of the problem is the archives are in desperate need of editing. Kesey reportedly left behind mountains of manuscripts, miles of film and reels of recording from which no one has really attempted to sift the wheat from the chaff. What Zane Kesey has mostly made available is stuff that was already pretty much edited and ready for release around the time Kesey died. Much of this material is excellent, such as the original films shot on the bus trip, some priceless footage of a shirtless and stoned Neal Cassady tripping at Kesey's farm, and a 1970's poetry festival the Pranksters put on featuring some of the most important literary figures of the era. There is a grab bag of later material available, which is not as good but still interesting, such as videos about a trip the Pranksters took to England and the delightful but hopelessly spacey labor of love of Kesey's later years, the play called Twister. All these and more can be obtained here.


Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady.


However, if Zane is the keeper of the vaults, then Ken Babbs has emerged as the definer of the Prankster message in the present. Actually the term Merry Pranksters has been mostly retired since the death of Kesey, in much the same way as the term Grateful Dead was retired after the death of Jerry Garcia. While the spirit lives on, the terms in both cases was too closely identified with a single individual to keep the same name. While the Merry Pranksters were always bigger than Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead were always more than just Jerry Garcia, neither entity could really be called the same thing in their absense.

So for the future evolutions of the Prankster concept, Babbs came up with the Skypilot Club, a loose kind of spoof of the old cereal and comic book clubs of the 1940's and 50's. There are membership cards and other silly knockoffs of kid culture, all presented with a wink and a nod to drug culture. And there are videos of what Babbs and his cohorts are up to now. What those videos suggest is that the more things change, the more things stay the same in that wondrously odd world of those formerly known as the Merry Pranksters.

Two excellent examples are some videos Babbs sent me recently. The first is one that is about the United States military base Guantanamo in Cuba. Or at least that's sort of what it's about.



What the video is about as much as anything is wordplay. The Pranksters have always been fascinated by language and sound, whether it be puns and rhymes or just noise and the way it undulates through space. Babbs (and Kesey of course when he was alive) love to play language the way a jazz musician plays sound, arranging it in new and unusual ways that sometimes have only a tangental relationship with the normal usage of the words. The result is a kind of sonic intoxicant that is almost hypnotic in its effect, phasing back and forth between message and medium in a way resulting in fresh understandings. Babbs, a proud veteran, is obviously sincere in denouncing the alleged cruelties committed at Guantanamo, but as this video unfolds the constantly repeated script becomes more musical than political. In the end, it's all about the wordplay.

This is even more apparent in the second video Babbs sent me Dreamin.



Essentially a skit performed as part of a concert by the newly reformed Grateful Dead offshoot band New Riders of the Purple Sage, this short (35 minutes) performance is essentially a New Riders jam session set to a poem by Babbs. The performance, where Babbs and the New Riders are accompanied by a spirited cast of Pranksters and friends, again relies heavily on the juxtaposition of words so that they convey fresh meanings. The tone of the piece is very upbeat, and Dreamin is one of Babbs best poetic compositions.

Alas, if you are looking for a New Riders concert, this is much too freeform for a fair sampling of the current state of the band, which from all reports I've heard is as good on the road as it's ever been. This video is all about Babbs and friends, with the New Riders providing only tasteful noodling among the verses.

However, if you are looking for good videos to put on after midnight at your next party, then these are two certain to surprise and intrigue your guests. Or better still, watch them yourself when you can really get into the words and the rhythm of the literary beat. You'll be surprised by what these videos unveil with repeated viewings.

How can you get your mitts on these viddies? Well, Babbs is currently hard at work completing a novel with a strict deadline, and is officially discouraging any correspondence that makes demands on his time. But maybe if you were to send him a portrait of Andrew Jackson on greenish paper and a polite request to the address here, then perhaps he may be enticed to send you a surprise.

Continuing in a 420 vain, I spotted another one of those hula hoop defaced signs on King Street.



Don't understand what I'm talking about? Then click here

Finally, closing out our 420 post, here is Springfield native and Classical High graduate Timothy Leary, goofing with Cheech and Chong and ending with a worthwhile public service message by PeeWee Herman that I wish I had heeded.