Whitcomb: Holiday Season Is Bizarre; No Drunk Christmas Parties; National Failure; Plywood & Quakes

Sunday, November 29, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“And again I am in winter,

walking across the bronzed marshes

where as a child I went alone to skate.’’


--- From “Winter Poem,’’ by Carol Frost (born in Lowell, Mass., In 1948)



“How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea.’’

--  Nikos Kazantzakis (18830-1957), Greek writer, author of Zorba the Greek



 “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

-- François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known as Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher




Beware of those Proud Boys and QAnonists.




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PHOTO: GoLocal

This holiday season is bizarre, sad and frustrating.  But holiday dynamics are always changing anyway with social/demographic/economic  change. The thing I’ve most noticed is how the composition of holiday gatherings has changed since the heyday of the American nuclear family, back in the ‘50s  -- two parents married to each other living together with a bunch of kids.


Families are smaller, relatives are more dispersed, fewer people get married, there are now many more open gay relationships and a higher percentage of people at holiday feasts are friends, not family members. Or, I suppose you could say, the definition of “family’’ has changed for many people.


All this has made the holidays  more socially interesting, if more unpredictable. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing, in 2021, if the pandemic permanently changes how we celebrate the holidays, beyond our collective efforts to make Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a trillionaire. I’m guessing that there will be a huge pent-up demand for in-person gatherings. But some may decide that they prefer virtual communication after all.


Something else I’ve noted is while the holidays are still romanticized – after all, they’re an escape -- there’s a  bit more realism around. Consider the reminders at Thanksgiving of how the Native Americans said to have joined in the “First Thanksgiving” feast had been traumatized by the English bringing highly infectious diseases to  the “Indians,’’ who had no immunity.  You never read that when I was a kid. And there are many more warnings  about excessive drinking over the Christmas holidays. It used to be that the drunk at a Christmas party with a lampshade on his head tended to be seen as funny and part of the general jollity of the season; now he’s seen as sad.


We’re going into the darkest time of the year, made darker of course by the pandemic. The brevity of daylight depressed me more a few years ago. But an aspect of aging is that time seems to go by faster and faster. Remember the old line “After a certain age, we seem to be having breakfast every 15 minutes”?  So I’m now more aware that the days will get longer in a few weeks, though we won’t notice it much until late January, and that we’re moving ever closer to spring. The old leaves are off the trees, making room for the new ones.


Tom Finneran, the former speaker of the Massachusetts House, among other big jobs, had some good advice in a GoLocal column as we enter the cold season: Read  catalogs that remind you of happier times to come (if we’re lucky and careful) and escape in your mind to late next spring and summer, when vaccines, we hope, start to liberate  most of us.  Mr. Finneran mentions gardening, beekeeping (a surprise from this tough guy!) and travel.


Think of lines from the ‘30s  song “These Foolish Things”:  “An airline ticket to romantic places. Still my heart has wings…’’ or  lines from “Let’s Fly Away,’’ the ‘50s song made famous by Frank Sinatra: “Once I get you up there, where the air is rarefied We'll just glide, starry-eyed….’’


Yes, it’s a good time to day dream.

To read the Finneran column, please hit this link:




My wife and I just had the quietest Thanksgiving we’ve had since she and I ate the turkey in the almost empty dining room of Philadelphia’s Warwick Hotel in 1975.


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President Donald Trump

We Blew It!

With the impossibility, at least for now, of crafting a coherent national response to the pandemic and with so many millions refusing to follow basic public-health guidelines (masks, social distancing), the COVID-19 pandemic is out of control and will remain so until most Americans get their vaccine shots. (Let’s hope the anti-vaxxers don’t get in the way.) Using  contact testing to try to control the virus is increasingly ineffective: You’d need to test everyone every day to have much impact because the virus has circulated so widely. And the tests are sometimes inaccurate.


Meanwhile,  the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week barring New York State from imposing restrictions on how many people can attend services in religious venues mean that even more such privileged organizations can act as super spreaders, though of course, only a very small minority of those who test positive will get very sick.


It’s time to become a lot more fatalistic. America blew it.


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Inconvenient State Lines

Within states and regions, such as New England, where populations  bleed over state lines more  than in many other places, it’s particularly difficult to put together coherent and effective policies in such matters as public health, for which the states have primary responsibility. While states may impose various (mostly unenforceable) rules to try to control the spread of COVID-19, those rules may have little relationship to where and how people live.


Consider that western Massachusetts is far less economically and travel-wise connected with Greater Boston than are Rhode Island and southeastern New Hampshire, with their many commuters in and out of “The Hub.’’ And yet Massachusetts policymakers can’t impose rules that fully address that.


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has gone further than any other governor in facing the fact that diseases don’t obey state borders by trying to collaborate closely with New Jersey and Connecticut in testing,  quarantine and travel rules. He’s accepting the obvious:  Southern New York State and much of the Garden and Constitution states are all in the same dense Greater New York City region.


Pandemic and Antitrust Laws

COVID-19 has killed a lot of small businesses and made even bigger and stronger  those huge corporations that have the resources to thrive through the pandemic and become  even more gargantuan – think Amazon. The crisis has increased the power of mega-enterprises to control large sectors of the economy and much of American politics and government through money to politicians, some of it secretly distributed. More than since the first Gilded Age, we need strong application of the antitrust laws.


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More wind coming to Field's Point in Providence PHOTO: GoLocal

Turbine by Turbine

It’s all  too slow, but bit by bit non-fossil-fuel energy is gaining speed.  The latest news about this around here is that three more wind turbines will go up next year on Fields Point, in Providence, near the three already there. The more wind, solar and other “green energy” we have the stronger our region gets, by making it less dependent on gas and oil (mostly from Red States, whose leaders tend to be far less interested in nonpolluting energy than Blue State leaders). And as technology improves, alternative energy is becoming increasingly cost-competitive with the gas, oil and coal whose burning poses an existential threat.


Indeed, the International Energy Agency says that solar is now the cheapest electricity-generating energy.


Please hit this link:


“The United States is not losing the climate change conversation on the coasts.  One reason that previous attempts at federal climate policy have faltered is in part because we have not managed to galvanize the middle of the country. … We need a center-out strategy.” 

-- Rolf Norstrom, CEO of the Great Plains Institute in a Slate article. Please hit this link to read it:



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USGS Earthquake in November

When Risk Seems Distant

The Boston Guardian ran stories last week on the minor earthquake (3.6 on the Richter scale) that shook southeastern Massachusetts on Nov. 8 and on the plywood business in Boston. The latter suddenly surged last summer as street-side businesses prepared for vandalism in the social disorders/protests that erupted then.  Some of the plywood went up again in anticipation of a possible Trump re-election. Most of the plywood has since been taken down.


Both cases are examples of how hard it is to decide when and how much to spend to mitigate or prevent damage from rare events, such as destructive civil disorder in cities, or  very rare events such as a powerful earthquake in New England. Boston’s last big quake was way back in 1755, when a tremor estimated to have been higher than 6 on the Richter scale did much damage in eastern Massachusetts. Naturally, most New Englanders don’t want to spend money on quake insurance, though depending on what kind and size of property you have, it might make sense.


Those threats are hard enough to get people’s attention. It’s much, much harder when it comes to global warming, whose severe effects might not  be noticeable to most people for several decades. Global warming may seem both too vague and big to grasp. It recalls Stalin’s remark that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.’’ (No wonder he didn’t mind ordering the murder of millions.)


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Regional mass transporation

False Economy to Cut Mass Transit

As Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other states consider big cutbacks in metropolitan public transportation, they should worry about how much that would discourage tax-paying businesses from staying in, or moving to, their cities and paying taxes there.  Cutbacks in train, subway and bus service would cause more sprawl and vehicular gridlock, which would hurt many businesses, particularly small ones, and regional economies. And air pollution would surge; we have years to go before most of us have electric cars.


Yes, many more white-collar people than before COVID-19 will work entirely or mostly from home. But employers will want many to eventually return to the office. And housing and commercial space made cheaper by the pandemic will lure many people to move to, or back to, cities, some to create new businesses over the next few years. Most people don’t want to spend their lives staring at sterile screens; they want in-person, deeply human experiences. Cities won’t die, though the pandemic will change them, in good and bad ways.


Big cutbacks in public transportation would be a false economy.


Gerrymanders Are Eating America

We’re not going to make America’s quasi-democracy more representative of the people unless we curb gerrymandering. In most states the party that controls the legislature after the latest U.S. Census draws both congressional and state legislative maps, and they do it to maximize the power of their party and the interests that support them. (The increasing clustering of people by political affiliation and socio-economic status also plays a part in making legislators less responsive to the broad public interest.)


There are a few exceptions: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan and Washington use independent commissions to draw districts, while Hawaii and New Jersey use "politician commissions".


Governing Magazine’s Alan Ehrenhalt, in a Nov. 4 article, noted that after the 2010 Census, the (Tea Party-driven) Republican members of the Wisconsin legislature drew the districts such that in 2019 the party got 63 percent of the seats but only 46 percent of the vote. They used this big majority to block just about everything that the elected Democratic governor, Tony Evers, tried to do,  thwarting the will of the people.  And in Missouri, the GOP took 70 percent of the state legislative seats but only 57 percent of the vote.


You see margins like this in other states.


The Republicans have been far more devoted to,  and effective in, ruthless gerrymandering than the Democrats for the past 30 years, at least since the heyday of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who poured a lot of poison into the American political system.


Our governments would be considerably healthier if nonpartisan commissions and/or panels of judges (the latter in those in states where judges are not elected and have protected long term jobs) drew the legislative-district lines in all states with the technical assistance of demographic and geographic experts.  Don’t hold your breath, though.


John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, said that "partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional, are harming our republican government and readily can be identified and addressed by courts.’’  He noted how they polarize votes by lumping people tending to the same political views in the same districts, making it much harder to craft bipartisan legislation.


Hit this link to read Mr. Ehrenhalt’s article on this.



Tree Trimming With Trump

I’m on the emailing and texting lists for “Trump Patriots,’’ which is hard at work trying to persuade suckers to send money to that organized-crime organization. You can safely bet that much of the money finds its way into the pockets of the Orange Caudillo and his family to help pay post-Biden inauguration legal bills in the criminal and civil courts and huge debts to the vast money-laundry called Deutsche Bank and many other creditors whom he has stiffed.


The latest pitch I got was for me to buy “Trump {Christmas} ornaments.” You can also order “limited edition Trump Christmas socks” and  Trump wrapping paper.  Stock up now for a merrier X-Mass at Mar-a-Largo!


New Public Assembly Halls?

What will happen to all those movie theaters that the pandemic will probably close for good? Places for public meetings? New town or city halls? Venues for amateur groups to put on plays or movies they’ve made?


And how about those little ski areas with just one or two lifts? Just hiking trails? Back to the sheep pastures that many were in New England’s “Wool Boom’’ in the 19th Century?


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Cream of Lobster

Ah, Yankee ingenuity!


Two Mainers have invented a skin cream derived from lobster “blood,’’ which is called hemolymph. The stuff soothes such ailments as psoriasis and eczema. Yet another reason to protect the future of the lobster harvest in the Gulf  of Maine, which will soon be under stress as the water warms and currents change with climate change and lobsters head north for colder water.


Lots of unexpected gifts from the sea! Consider horseshoe crabs (which are not crabs).  Pharmaceutical companies use their blue “blood’’ to test for potentially dangerous bacteria in anything that is injected or implanted into humans.


To read more, please hit this link:



A Mainical Masterpiece

John Gould (1903-2008) was a Maine-based newspaper reporter, essayist,  raconteur and book author. He was usually engaging and often very funny. You see this in his 1978 book This Trifling Distinction: Reminiscences from Down East. It made me nostalgic for the fun, sometimes crazy, days of newspapers in their golden years, small town and big city. And as the book cover notes, “In Gould’s Maine everybody is either an author or a character.’’

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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