Whitcomb: McCoy’s Lobster Salad; Safer in School Than Home? Healthcare Implosion

Sunday, August 02, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

“Lord Finchley,’’ by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), Franco-British man of letters and conservative political figure



“Despise the glare of wealth. That people who pay greater respect to a wealthy villain than to an honest, upright man in poverty, almost deserved to be enslaved; they plainly show that wealth, however it may be acquired, is, in their esteem, to be preferred to virtue.’’

John Hancock (1737-93), American statesman, Massachusetts governor and wealthy merchant. His huge signature on the Declaration of Independence became a synonym for one’s signature in general – e.g., “put your John Hancock here.”


“Money cannot buy happiness, but it buys the conditions for happiness.’’

John Hodgman, writer and comedian and author of Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches. The painful beaches are in Maine.


On July 24, a bunch of us celebrated a friend’s birthday with dinner at a table in the middle of the field at McCoy Stadium, home of the Pawtucket Red Sox, which of course is decamping for Worcester. The stands have been eerily empty in this COVID-closed season but there were lots of widely separated but fully occupied tables at what has been turned into a very nice reservation-only, open-air restaurant this crazy summer. Luscious lobster- salad sandwiches, by the way. And the birthday girl was honored on the giant screen. I’ve been to McCoy many times but was again surprised by how big it seems for a Minor League team.


It had been a hot day, but a nice breeze over the grass kept us comfortable and then we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset. For some reason, McCoy has superb sunsets.


I felt a pang knowing that professional baseball will probably never again be played at McCoy, which more likely than not will be torn down. We always found a PawSox home game a very nice outing for out-of-towners; foreigners seemed to especially enjoy it.


I’m getting a tour soon of the “WooSox” site, where the Polar Park stadium (named after the Worcester-based seltzer company), is going up; I’ll report back. Will pandemic problems prevent it from opening on schedule next spring?


Maybe someday professional baseball will return to Rhode Island; it certainly has the population density and location to be attractive for a sports team. (I have always thought that the most interesting and dramatic place for a Rhode Island baseball stadium would have been on Bold Point, in East Providence.)


The biggest question may be: How popular will baseball be in coming years compared to other sports? Is it too late to turn McCoy into a soccer stadium?


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Lou’s Legacy

The death on July 29 of Lou Schwechheimer from COVID-19 has saddened many people. Lou was the longtime vice president and general manager of the PawSox during the club’s heyday under the ownership of the late Ben Mondor. Lou, working with Mr. Mondor and Mike Tamburro, then the club’s president and now vice chairman, turned the organization into one of the most successful teams in Minor League Baseball.


I encountered Lou many times, and his presence was a tonic. He seemed to have endless supplies of energy, enthusiasm, ingenuity and good humor. He had a memorable capacity for making and keeping friends and boosting the community that the PawSox entertained for so many years.



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The need to return to school

Which Is Safest?

The big – and controversy-rich -- pandemic issue now seems to be how much to reopen the public schools in a few weeks. But there can be no simple answer, especially because the disease data change daily. How to reopen – all in-person or all-remote or a hybrid -- should depend mostly on each district’s COVID-19 positivity rate and on how state policies are crafted,  which can vary widely depending on demographic and political factors. And since in America local property taxes pay for much of schools’ budgets, the ability to open in various ways will also depend on local districts’ taxing and funding capacity as they try to make the expensive interior-design and other adjustments needed for reasonable safety.


I think that there’s been too much fear that schools would be giant COVID spreaders. Might schools, at least well-run ones, be safer places for the students and those they might infect than home, where the kids could mingle with their friends and others much of the day without the mask-wearing and social-distancing supervision of teachers and other school staff?  And why aren’t teachers considered “essential workers”? In any event, teachers should be among those who get regular COVID-19 testing.


As I’ve said perhaps too many times, trying to teach all classes this fall entirely on computer screens would be an intellectual, socio-economic and psychological disaster and might even jeopardize physical health more than in-person teaching, at least in some districts. Such classes cannot compare in quality with in-person learning in comprehension and retention, and some families don’t have the computers, reliable Internet connections, tech know-how or other resources to get what full benefits can be had from remote learning.   Many kids have already fallen way behind in their learning since the schools were closed in March and superseded by screens, and parents’ attempts to home school, as COVID-19 spread rapidly.  A lot of students have lost precious learning time,  particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds.


And let’s face it: Schools also function as day-care institutions, which lets parents go to work to support their families without undue worry. And for families where parents can mostly or entirely work at home, having their children there all the time can make it very difficult to do their jobs. It packs a lot of stress.


Most parents cannot afford to send their kids to private schools, with their usually smaller classes, or hire private tutors and engage in other end runs around the public schools. Some politicians and others will use the pandemic crisis to try to further undermine public schools in favor of private ones that cater to affluent people by means of vouchers, etc. I hope there’s pushback.


Please read this editorial from The New England Journal of Medicine on why fully reopening schools in a few weeks should be a national priority:


Organizations have made a big show of “deep cleaning” surfaces to, it is hoped, kill the virus. But in fact, surfaces are a minuscule threat, and much of the time and money being spent on dramatic “deep cleaning’’ would be better spent on making sure that everyone wears a mask (always have extras available to hand out), closely monitoring social distancing and adjusting, or replacing, ventilation systems so they don’t recirculate the virus through the air. The disease is overwhelmingly airborne.


But wait! Perhaps “demons” are causing COVID-19. Please hit this link:



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The Future of Health Care

COVID-19 has hit hard many hospitals that have small endowments and other financial resources, as well as many private medical practices. That’s partly because many people with good insurance have put off medical procedures to avoid going to places where they think they might be infected. And some hospitals and medical groups have delayed treating many people, say those awaiting elective surgery, because they’re too busy dealing with COVID patients. At the same time, lots of people have lost their employer-based health insurance as they’ve been laid off or furloughed or their companies have gone out of business in the current depression. Employer-based health insurance, which really got going as a way around World War II price controls, is a costly, confusing and inefficient basis for a health-care financing system. The pandemic has made that clearer than ever.


The big hospital-chain companies (some calling themselves “nonprofit”) get more pricing power as their smaller, weaker competitors are driven out of business by the pandemic. They’re in the catbird seat to impose big price increases on patients and insurers while expanding multimillion-dollar pay packages for hospital-chain senior executives. Meanwhile, many people newly without health insurance (though some will get into Medicaid) will forgo the medical attention they need.


Thus many patients and insurance companies will take it in the ear, though of course the insurers can try to impose big premium hikes.  Still, the pain caused by all this may fuel enough political pressure over the next few years to finally bring us a universal, federally backed health-care system along the lines of other developed nations, not that America is looking all that developed these days….


Will We Change for Long?

“It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

― W. Somerset Maugham



Some have argued that the pandemic will permanently increase our neighborliness and give us a better appreciation of the simpler things of life – an appreciation that can best be enjoyed by those who can quickly switch to fancier stuff. Maybe, but mostly in some compact,   walkable, pleasant and generally affluent places. The suburban-sprawl, car-dependent culture that tends to crimp community consciousness will continue to be dominant and indeed may expand, at least for a while, as many flee urban neighborhoods for the perceived safety (if also boredom) of suburbs. And the painfully disorderly aspects of American life, such as far too many one-parent households, will intensify, especially in poor places, under the stress of the pandemic and its economic mess.


As for the idea that we’ll be traveling less: Yes, many of us will tend to stay closer to home for the next several years and especially avoid air travel, which had become increasingly unpleasant for years anyway.  And after all, a lot of us will be poorer even as airfares soar. None of this applies to the rich, of course, who, as soon as a vaccine comes along, will resume jetting off with abandon. Who can blame them!


And exaggerated fears of traveling on trains and buses, which, if you mask up, may be as safe or safer than driving on some roads, will put even more people on our highways.


And American advertising is a powerful thing. People will still be swayed to buy all kinds of stuff they might not need, or be able to afford. Indeed, COVID-19 is creating a lot of pent-up demand.


Anyway, I’m not expecting a simplicity boom.


Subtropical Life Moves In

Because of Nantucket’s relative proximity to the Gulf Stream, people used to joke that you’d soon be able to grow palmettos there. Well, that might happen in the next couple of decades as man-made global warming accelerates.


I thought of that while reading an article in the July 27 New York Times entitled “Imagine Central Park as a Rainforest,’’ which described the proliferation of plants moving from the south into New York City, which, like Providence, the National Climate Assessment now places in the “humid subtropical zone,’’ a shift from its previous placement in the “humid continental zone.’’  The growing conditions are now similar to those in Maryland.


Such trees as crepe myrtles and magnolias have become common in New York City and southern New England, as are such invasive and warmth-loving plants as Japanese knotweed. I’ve noticed a host of new weeds cropping up in our little yard the past few years.  Plants, including flowering trees, are blooming earlier and lawns tend to stay greener later in the fall. Unfortunately, with the southern plants come southern insect pests that we must learn how to suppress without poisoning a lot of “good’’ plants and animals in the process. (By the way, I have found that cleaning vinegar (6 percent acidity) is a safe herbicide. Or you could stick with Roundup and give yourself cancer.)


None of this is to say that the “polar vortex’’ won’t briefly but memorably slam us in the winter from time to time, so it’s a little early to think we can put out palms year round. But the direction is clear.


So southern New England gardeners will have an increasingly exotic time of it.


Hit this link for The Times’s story:



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The Evolution of the Two Major Parties

In part, because history teaching has faded in recent decades, many voters have been confused about the evolution of the two major political parties.


This should help clarify things:

The Democrats in pre-Civil War times had two wings – Northern and Southern, with the Southern one pro-slavery. The Republican Party, created in the 1850s, was almost entirely a Northern party and was formed in opposition to slavery.


The Southern Democrats, almost all of whom were white, continued after the Civil War to be deeply racist and oppose civil rights for African-Americans. The GOP continued, albeit usually timidly, to promote those rights, and the few Black people in the South who were permitted to vote usually voted for Republicans for many decades.


But starting in the late ‘40s, the Northern, urban-based wing of the Democratic Party became more muscular about trying to protect the civil rights of Black people. (Hubert Humphrey was a major figure in this movement.) This offended many Southern Democrats. Meanwhile, especially after 1960, right-wing ideology, including its emphasis on “states’ rights,’’ gained much more influence in the Republican Party, under the leadership of such people as Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. In practice, “states’ rights’’ included the right to suppress the Black population in violation of the U.S. Constitution.


As the population of the South increased rapidly (thank you residential and industrial air conditioning!), that section became more and more politically powerful and so the new version of the Republican Party began to embrace it, not worrying much about the Black vote there, which continued to be suppressed – indeed still is in many places. Richard Nixon became adept at appealing to Southern whites with assorted dog whistles appealing to racial and crime fears. Ronald Reagan did a bit of it too.


So the current GOP is to some extent the descendant of the Southern Democrats of yore while the current Democrats, wherever they live, are descendants of Northern Liberal Democrats, particularly Franklin Roosevelt, and progressive or at least moderate Republicans that recall Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller.  They live on in a few places -- e.g., Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.


A couple of ancillary points that may be of interest -- many Southern Democrats loved the New Deal because it brought a lot of federal money and jobs into the region (consider the Tennessee Valley Authority) even as FDR avoided directly challenging white supremacy in the region because of the Southern Democrats’ power in Congress; his Democratic successors took tougher stands for civil rights. To this day, while Southern whites emote a lot about the horrors of “socialism’’ they are big net takers of federal largesse. And they love socialism in the form of Social Security, Medicare (but not Medicaid) and the Interstate Highway System.


As a young person whose family was a mix of New England (moderate) and Midwest (right-wing) Republicans, I watched the changes in the party with interest and even wrote about them after I got into the newspaper business. In the ’60s, I read conservative magazines weekly and even met Barry Goldwater, who was gruffly charming. I don’t think that he himself was racist at all but he respected “states’ rights’’ more than he should have. I watched the GOP head south. And now the most Republican part of America is the Deep South –with the same sort of people who used to call themselves Southern Democrats. That their leader is a con man from Queens is simply a reminder of the strangeness of life.



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Peace Proposals

The Rev. Paul F. M. Zahl is a theologian and retired Episcopal minister. Whatever your level of faith or nonfaith, he brings an acute understanding of the emotions and psyches of many people to his latest book, Peace in the Last Third of Life: A Handbook of Hope for Boomers. Maybe you’re sick of Baby Boomers, but there are lessons here for everyone.


He focuses on the reality that older people’s memories tend to go back powerfully to events in the first third of their lives, many of them guilt-provoking and even traumatic and/or tragic, even as we forget much of the stuff in the blur of “the getting and spending” middle third. Psychologists and neurologists can explain why some of this baggage is so heavy.


But the emotionally and psychologically astute (and sometimes funny) Paul Zahl does it in his own memorable way,  and you don’t have to be a Christian to benefit from his insights, seasoned with references from his vast supply of examples from popular, as well as a high and middle-brow culture, and especially song lyrics.  Perhaps some young people can read it, too, and thus avoid mistakes that could haunt them when they’re 70.

Robert Whitcomb's weekly examination of everything that is important. Only Whitcomb offers such a collection of insights on the global and local issues that matter.


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