Monthly Archives: August 2006

Marketing that doesn’t work

[Sound of telephone ringing. Sound of fork hitting plate.]

[Me muttering:] “Who the #$%@! is calling me on the landline? I put that number on the do not call registry. Normal people use cell phones…. Hello?”

[Scratchy recording of a man’s voice:] “Hi, this is Chris Gabrieli, Democrat for Massachusetts Governor, and my campaign to get results– ”

[Sound of phone being slammed down.]

When the telephone rings in the middle of dinnertime, and I pick up the phone, and I hear a recorded voice of a political candidate, I will be less likely to vote for him or her. Not more likely, but less likely.

On the other hand, when the telephone rang last week, and it was a young woman from the Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry (RCFM), and she immediately identified herself by name, and politely asked to speak with me, and then told me that RCFM supports Tony Cabral in his re-election bid for state legislature based on his principled stands on marriage equality in Massachusetts, I listened carefully. She knew that I was interested in marriage rights issue. She knew I would be interested in hearing about Cabral’s voting record in the state legislature. I am now more likely to vote for Tony Cabral than I was before.

I am increasingly intolerant of scatter-shot advertising and marketing. If you haven’t done your research, if you don’t know what I am likely to respond to, your marketing is more likely to annoy me than anything else. Nor am I the only one who feels this way. Do I need to add that those of you who are involved in marketing your local congregation might want to take note of this social phenomenon?


The subway car emptied out after Central Square. A man moved to take one of the many empty seats next to me, and started talking to his friend across the aisle. This short unhurried exchange caught my ear:

“Hey. Thanks for [unintelligible]. I’ll do the same for you next weekend.”

“Next weekend…. Next weekend I could be in jail.”

“Yah, but if I don’t drink….” [pause]

“Yah but I been busted sober.”

“But if ya don’t drink….”

“Yah. OK.”

Day trip: Concord River from Carlisle to Old North Bridge

It was one thirty when I parked the car where the old bridge stretched across the Concord River from Bedford to Carlisle. The Bedford has been turned into a broad boat ramp suitable for larger boats on trailers, but I parked on the Carlisle side, which consists of a rutted road surrounded by poison ivy, a bit of a scramble down to the water, and quite a few of the old stone from the old bridge abutment. I put the fishing tackle in the canoe, the binoculars around my neck, and I started paddling upstream.

You could see little or no current along the Carlisle Reach, a broad straight stretch of the river just up from the bridge. But when the southwest breeze caught me, I had to paddle pretty hard to keep heading upstream. I concentrated on hugging the lee shore to keep out of the wind. Not that there was much to look at or any particular reason to linger:– the trees are low and scrubby, the surrounding land mostly flat and boring. It was hot in the sun, and I didn’t do much more than just paddle.

Half a mile upstream, the river begins to narrow, and wind around eskers and other harder, glacially-deposited soils. The land on the left bank of the river is mostly protected as a national wildlife refuge; on the right bank, you see a few huge houses but mostly just trees. In a few of the narrower stretches, I could really feel the effects of the current; but the river was narrow enough that I rarely felt the wind. I paddled on, moving through sun and shade.

Through a line of trees on my left, I could see I was passing a large open area, the lower impoundment of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The Dike Trail between the two impoundments comes right down to the river, and just as I was passing that point, four people with binoculars and telescopes strolled down to the river. I called over to them: “Still a lot of shorebirds out?” “Yes,” said one woman, “but the Glossy Ibis isn’t around today.” I beached the canoe and spent twenty minutes walking the dike between the two impoundments looking at herons, egrets, sandpipers, and plovers.

Still paddling upstream, I passed a small sandy beach, perhaps thirty feet wide, where a tiny brook trickled down over rocks and sand into the river. I stopped there to eat some carrots, drink from my canteen, and listen to the sound of the brook. Further upstream, I saw a man fishing from the bank, but he was gone by the time I got that far, so I couldn’t ask him what luck he’d been having. I decided to go upstream as far as the Old North Bridge, where was fired “the shot heard ’round the world,” some four miles from where I started. Tourists walked back and forth over the bridge, taking pictures, some of them wearing little tri-con hats, looking at the markers and monuments. Just beyond the Old North Bridge, you used to be able to paddle up into Saw Mill Brook. Now beavers have have put a dam there, and they have built two new outlets for the brook, spaced far apart. You can hear the water rolling and babbling from the beaver pond, through the brush, and into the river.

The sun was getting lower than I liked; it sets so much earlier now that it’s mid-August. I turned around, letting the wind and current push me when I could. I saw a man fishing from a john-boat. “Any luck” I asked. “Just a couple of small ones,” he said. “But they’ll be coming out soon. Get their snack just before bedtime.” I paddled around a bend in the river, then let the canoe drift and tried a few casts under the trees at the side of the river. Nothing. I drifted some more, switched to fishing off the bottom. Nothing. I looked at my watch, decide that if I wanted to be off the river before dark I had better keep paddling.

The last stretch, the Carlisle Reach, was monotonous. But by now the sun was low enough to send long slanting shadows across the river. It lit up the trees on the far side with its golden light. The sun made everything look beautiful, warm, welcoming, and even the leaves on the silver maples that are already turning yellow and pale pink with the coming of autumn lost their sad poignancy. I was growing tired from paddling. My arms and shoulders weren’t tired, it was my thighs that were starting to tremble.

The sun was below the trees by the time I beached the canoe, picked it up, and tied it on the car.

Eight miles of paddling.

Classic car night in New Bedford

On summer Thursday nights, the classic cars roll into downtown New Bedford. The city blocks off parts of Acushnet Ave. for some of the cars, and there are more parked in the Customs House parking lot. Most of the cars are from the 1950’s and 1960’s Of course there are DJs playing rock and roll songs from the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

“One o’clock two o’clock…” “…my loooove will…”

From our apartment window, I can watch as people walk back and forth from where they parked their cars, to where they can see the classic cars. Lots of families with children. Lots of people a decade or two older than I am, which means they are going to look at cars from their childhood. For our apartment window, I can hear two different DJs about equally well, which leads to some odd combinations of lyrics…

“…hey Mickey…” “…under the Boardwalk…”

If you want, you can walk around, look at the cars and talk with their owners, and buy fried dough and hot dogs and lemonade, and wander past the booths where you can buy all kinds of tchotchkes. Now it’s starting to get dark, and you can hear the DJs winding it down over there. Maybe I should have gone over and checked out the scene, but I decided to eat dinner at home instead of having hot dogs and fired dough.

“bah-bah-bah-bah-bahbahbahm….” “…whoa-oa-oa oooh…”

There’s always next Thursday.

It’s religious

My friend, the rabbi, stopped by New Bedford with his family. They were on their way home from their vacation on Cape Cod. The rabbi, and his wife the lawyer, and I had all been in college together, but this was the first time I got to meet their children. Great kids, although unfortunately they’re Yankees fans.

As they were all leaving, my friend the rabbi held out a hat that said “Red Sox” in Hebrew, with the little red socks logo stitched on the side of the hat. “Would you wear this?” he said.

“Would I wear it?” I said. “Of course I’d wear it!”

“We got some for the kids,” he said, “but my oldest just won’t wear it. He’s too much of a Yankees fan.” His oldest had made pointed comments earlier about the Red Sox and their stupidity in trading Babe Ruth, so I could well believe he wasn’t going to wear a Red Sox cap, even if it was in Hebrew.

“I’ll even wear it in church,” I said devoutly. My friend the rabbi laughed, but his eldest child asked quite seriously why I’d wear that hat in church. “The Red Sox are like a religion up here,” I said. He took me literally, and wondered out loud how baseball could be religious. His dad and I had to hastily explain that I had been making a joke.

(Well, kind of making a joke. Except not really. Not that I believe in the efficacy of prayers when it comes to winning baseball games, but I do know the whole reason that the Red Sox won the World Series two years ago is because I refused to watch the games on TV, because every time I watch their post-season games, they lose. Maybe that’s more superstition than religion, but I’d say it’s a fine line in Red Sox Nation.)

Anyway, now I have a Red Sox hat in Hebrew — and if you’re really nice to me, I’ll tell you where you can get one, too.

Which day?

When I worked at the lumberyard, the shipper was a fellow named Robin:– nice guy, quiet, did his job, drank milk for his ulcer. He and I usually wound up taking our coffee breaks at the same time. When spring came, we’d sit in the coffee shack, sip our drinks (black coffee for me, coffee and a carton of milk for Robin), and talk about places to go on vacation. For some reason, we were both fascinated with Labrador, and we’d idly talk about what it would be like to take the mail boat up the coast north from Newfoundland. Of course, neither one of us wound up going to Labrador that year, or ever.

Robin went away for vacation in the middle of the summer, came back two weeks later, sat down quietly in the coffee shack to join me for coffee break. He stirred his coffee, smiled a little, and said in a low voice, “Worst day of the year.” “What?” I said. “First day back from vacation,” said Robin, “worst day of the year.

Now I have a job I love. Unlike when I was working in the lumberyard, I don’t spend nine-tenths of the day waiting for five o’clock to roll around so I can punch out and go home. These days, I actually look forward to work, and one of my biggest problems is that I like my job so much I work far too many hours.

I walk into the church office this morning, my first day back from vacation, say “Hello, good to see you!” to Claudette, our church administrator, and Claudette says, “Hi, how are you?” “Worst day of the year,” I say, and when I say it I’m grinning, but it really is the worst day of the year, even these days with a job I love.

I can give you lots of deep philosophical reasons why it is the worst day of the year, drawing on analyses of late capitalism and the meaning of labor, or sociological reasons telling how family and work have been separated. You don’t need to hear those reasons, because you know it’s true for you, too.

Day hike: Across the Middlesex Fells

Yesterday was another perfect summer day in New England: low temperatures in the 50’s, dry air, perfectly clear, and a forecast for a high temperature below 80. What better way to spend a perfect day than to go canoeing with Abby and Jim. Except that my car wouldn’t start. The rest of the morning was spent getting the car towed to the garage. After lunch, I finally cleared my head enough to decide that I was going to up to the Middlesex Fells to go hiking.

You can take the subway to the Middlesex Fells reservation — the Orange Line all the way to the last stop, Oak Grove. The subway comes out of the ground at the Charles River, and you ride through a stark landscape of heavy industry, a major railroad corridor, and highway ramps leading to the Central Artery. When you get past that, light industry and unrelieved inner suburbia stretches along the Orange Line the rest of the way to Oak Grove. The train emptied out, and I could hear the African American man several seats away as he answered his cell phone: “Yo, what up.” Except that there was a soft New England flair to his words, so they came out: “Yo, wha ‘tup” — the “t” sound moving to the next syllable in just the same way that older New Englanders still say, “Ih ’tis” instead of “It is.”

There’s a half mile walk past suburban houses and renovated brick mill buildings, and then suddenly you’re on the Cross Fells Trail in the green trees of the Middlesex Fells. The occasional broken liquor bottle testifies to the fact that you’re not in the wilderness. But as I climbed up a rocky ridge, what I really noticed was how loud the cicadas were.

From one rocky prominence, I could see the skyline of Boston, the Hancock Tower with Great Blue Hill beyond it, and elsewhere the trees of suburbia with an occasional building showing through the leaves. The low-bush blueberries were bare of fruit, except for one last shriveled blueberry. A few leaves on some of the bushes had turned bright red. Across the paved Fellsway East road, I did see quite a few huckleberries still on the bushes, but they, too, were shriveled and past being edible. In one little open spot, Goldenrod and Purple Loosestrife bloomed right next to each other, with nodding Queen Anne’s Lace in front of them, all flowers of mid-August.

It was a shock to reach Highland Avenue, a four-lane highway. I lost the Cross Fells Trail here. The trail is poorly marked:– the old blue paint blazes are badly faded, and several of the new blue plastic blazes have been torn off trees. So I wound up taking an unintended detour to the shores of Winchester Reservoir, shining in the afternoon sun. I saw a few sailboats, some kayaks, and even one skinny-dipper slipping illegally into the water.

I managed to rejoin the Cross Fells Trail, following it along the paved Fellsway West under Interstate 93, but then I lost the trail again — the blazes were completely missing. I realized I should have brought a map. AFter another unintended detour, I managed to rejoin the Cross Fells Trail, but the sun was getting lower and lower and I knew I would probably not be able to get to the far end of the trail. I made it across South Border Road and up to the top of Ramshead Hill when I decided to turn around — I didn’t want to be looking for faded blue paint blazes after the sun had gone down.

The trip back was much faster — I didn’t stray off the trail for any unintended detours. It was after seven o’clock by the time I got back to the start of the trail, and since it is mid-August the sun had already slipped close to the horizon. During the whole of my walk in the Fells, I saw only half a dozen people who were more than a couple hundred feet from a paved road.

Nine or ten miles, depending on how far off the trail I actually got.

Walking in the big city

Today’s New York Times carries a story about one reporter’s six-day walking trip around Staten Island. In the story, “A Journey around Staten Island Gives a Glimpse of the City’s Wild Side,” Andy Newman reports on walking through landscapes and meeting people you wouldn’t quite expect to find in New York City:

Heading west, Richmond Terrace becomes the main street of several working class neighborhoods before petering out as a winding, rural-industrial lane. At its very end stands a lone country house with a barn and a chicken coop and a yard that merged into the marshy shore of the Kill Van Kull.

The door was answered by Tara Alleyne, a city employee and inhabitant of what was once a soap-factory town called Port Ivory. “I’m the only resident of Port Ivory,” she said proudly. “I’m on Mapquest.”

Newman even brings a tent and manages to find a few places to camp out a couple of nights. Those of us who love walking in the city and the suburbs can only hope for more such hikers, and more good writing about their adventures.

Day hike: Louisa May Alcott and walking to Boston

When we were children, someone told us about the time Louisa May Alcott walked from her family’s house in Concord all the way to Boston. I no longer remember the details of the story, but it always seemed to me that walking from Concord all the way to Boston was something I would like to do. So today I did. I walked over to Porter Square to catch the 8:45 train out to Concord. When the pleasant young conductor got to me, I said I was going to Concord. “Round trip?” he asked. “No, one way,” I said.

I walked from the train station though Concord center to get to Louisa May Alcott’s house out on Lexington Road. I stopped to talk with Pam, the owner of the Barrow Bookstore. She was just opening her store. “How’s business?” I asked. “Not as good as last year,” she said, “not as many foreign travelers this year.” We laughed together at some of the more ridiculous airline security precautions we had heard about.

Lexington Road was originally called the Bay Road, because it led to Massachusetts Bay. The first English settlers followed the course of the Bay Road when they first went out to Concord in 1635; no doubt parts of that road are older still, and were once paths trod by the Massasoit Indians. Not that you need to know this history; my walk wasn’t a historical re-enactment, it was more of a literary pilgrimage.

It was another perfect summer day, maybe seventy degrees, sunny, a nice breeze. Lots of cars passed me on the roads, but I saw very few people. Many of the houses I passed were perfectly painted, their yards perfectly landscaped — Concord is a very wealthy town now — but many of the houses and yards hardly looked lived in. I wondered how many people you would have seen out and about in Louisa Alcott’s time.

The Alcott family moved frequently, and lived in several houses in Concord. Two of them are right next to each other: Orchard House, the current site of a house museum devoted to Louisa Alcott and her family, and the Wayside which is now more famous as the house where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. I don’t remember where Louisa Alcott was living when she walked to Boston, but I figured those two houses would be my official starting point.

Soon I got to the Battleroad Unit of Minuteman National Historical Park. The Battleroad Trail winds for five miles through the woods and fields of the park, connecting the towns of Concord and Lexington. At times I was walking along an unpaved road between two old stone walls, with grass growing between the road and the stone walls with open fields beyond. This, I thought to myself, must have been a little bit like what Louisa Alcott saw on her walk to Boston. But not really, for the fields were just rough grass and weeds and not planted with crops, there were no cows or horses or sheep grazing anywhere, no kitchen gardens thriving near the few houses I passed. Nor did Louisa Alcott see any bicyclists in spandex shorts, tourists with cameras around their necks, and park rangers dressed up in tricorn hats, breeches, and waiscoats.

At the end of the Battleroad Trail, I walked on the sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue, up over Concord Hill in Lexington, through a neighborhood where the old 1950’s ranch houses are gradually being torn down so that McMansions can sprout up.

In Lexington Center, I crossed the Battle Green and passed Buckman Tavern, a historic museum where a man dressed up in 18th C. garb played a tune on a fife. Maybe, I thought to myself, I should have planned to follow in the footsteps of the Minutemen as they chased the Redcoats to Charlestown on April 19, 1775. But I was committed to my Louisa Alcott walk. I bought a sandwich to carry with me, and stopped to talk with Marianne, whom I knew when I worked at the Lexington church.

From Lexington Center, I followed the Minuteman Bike Path all the way to Somerville. The bike path follows an abandoned railroad right of way that roughly parallels Massachusetts Avenue, which is the modern name for that same old Bay Road that goes all the way to Concord. About two miles from Lexington Center, the bike path passes next to Arlington’s Great Meadows. I followed a little path in and found a knoll with a picnic table. I sat down to eat my lunch, gazing out at an expanse of marshland covered with Cattails, and Purple Loosestrife in full bloom. Away on the far side of the marsh, I thought I saw a few red leaves just starting to show on some Red Maples.

As I approached Arlington Center, two men passed me, one riding a bicycle and one on rollerblades. “Downsizing you car saves a lot of money,” said one. “Yeah,” said the other. “…Gas, insurance,” said the first. “Yeah,” said the other. Two women followed them, one woman on a bicycle and one on rollerblades, and they too were deep in conversation.

I stopped to rest in Arlington center. I wasn’t in a hurry, I wasn’t trying to set any speed records, and I had a cramp behind one knee. I sipped some iced coffee and read a newspaper.

On the other side of Arlington center, I came around a corner and there was Spy Pond. The pond was so beautiful — trees and house lining its shores, a small sailboat lazily moving along near the far shore, glints of sunlight on its surface — that I caught my breath. I left the bike path to walk along the pond’s shore. Children and dogs splashed in the water, a large extended family gathered around a picnic table, a woman typed on her laptop, a man sat reading. Regretfully, I rejoined the bike path.

After a while, when you’re walking for a long time, you tend to reach a state of mind where you don’t think about much. When I got to the Alewife subway station in Cambridge, where the bike path officially ends, I had to think because it wasn’t obvious how to get to the extension of the bike path that gets you to Davis Square. That’s all the thinking I did from Spy Pond to Davis Square.

I walked a couple of blocks over from Davis Square to Mass. Ave. and then followed Mass. Ave. to Harvard Square, and then I walked over a couple of blocks to the path that leads along the Charles River. I still wasn’t thinking about much, except that one knee hurt. I crossed over to the path along the Boston side of the Charles. Lots of people out sailing on the Charles. I watched one person sailing a Laser, a small fast sailboat, pushing the boat to its limit, coming about at the end of each tack with losing headway, heeling over until the lee gunwale was covered in foam.

Then I headed up Beacon Hill to Louisburg Square, and stopped for a moment in front of number 10, the house that Alcott bought with the money she got from her writing, and the house where she died when she was just 55 years old. Maybe I didn’t follow the exact route that she did when she walked from Concord to Boston, but that felt like a good ending to a good walk.

About 25 miles in nine hours of leisurely walking.