News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Last minute gifts

You can’t do better than a good bookstore for your last-minute gift buying. Our local Barnes and Noble downtown has popular as well as quirky selections, or try Willow Books in Acton if you’re down that way. My favorite, slightly off-the-beaten-path, books for gift-giving:

Half Magic by Edgar Eager – an old fashioned magical tale, good for 8 -10 year olds who like Roald Dahl. Quaint and charming, not too cute, with the marvelous premise of a magic coin that only gives you half of what you wish for.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander – for those 12 year olds who have read all of Rowling, all of Tolkien and don’t know what to read next. This is the first book of an engaging trilogy. Highly recommended!

The Beacon Street Girls - for those girls (11 and 12) who like The Clique but are really too young for The Gossip Girls.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the late, great Douglas Adams – absurd, philosophical, funny. Perfect for your nihilistic 15-year old and everyone else who thinks.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. For your cerebral teen, a history of philosophy wrapped in a mystery. It’s a page-turner. Or, try the wonderful Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

For the mystery lover on your list, try the dark, yet humane detective tales from Sweden by Henning Mankell featuring Kurt Wallander. They’re highly addictive. For the inquiring mind, try The Best Science Writing series. In poetry, I treasure Given by Wendell Berry. The irascible, conservative poet-farmer has been cautioning for decades about our excesses and our treatment of the earth; prescient, backward looking, yet never preachy, his voice seems right for these times.

So, yes, there are only two more days to finish your gift-buying, but one trip to your favorite bookstore should tie up the loose ends. Happy reading to all, and to all a good night!

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An Irish Blessing

Whatever you’re doing today–shopping, visiting with family, staying warm at home, or traipsing through the wintery wonderland that is Christmas in New England, my prayer is that you remember what’s important and cherish your blessings. And so, in a tip of the hat to my Celtic ancestors, I share with you an Irish blessing:

May Joy and Peace surround us,

Contentment latch our door,

And Happiness be with us now,

And bless us evermore.


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Holiday mail: Season of asking

This time of year, my mailbox is full of welcomed cards from friends and family from near and far, as well as the standard amount of bills. There also seems to be an unprecedented number of requests for donations from different organizations. In a few weeks, I’ve collected requests for money from more than 33 nonprofit groups, most of them doing very important work and deserving of every dime we can spare. Here’s a sample of groups looking for my dime recently: Rosie’s Place, Salvation Army, WGBH, American Heart Association, World Wildlife Fund, National Children’s Leukemia Foundation, New England Home for Little Wanderers, Project Bread, Catholic Relief Services, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. Local groups soliciting me include Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Stand for Children, Saints Memorial Hospital, Lowell General Hospital, Community Teamwork, Girls Inc, Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Acre Family Child Care, Lowell Community Health Center, Lowell Humane Society, Coalition for a Better Acre, and the United Way.

Like most of us, I’ve seen our savings depleted, our home devalued, and our financial solvency destabilized during the recent economic downturn. And yet, the overwhelming requests reflect the real needs of people in our community. In my family, helping others is not only about sharing (as Christ noted, whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me), but also is based on the very practical understanding that as members of a community, we do not fully prosper if fellow members suffer. And so, we decided an amount we can afford during these tough times (when giving is even more important) and to prioritize who gets the funds. (We’re leaning toward local groups where people we know provide for neighbors in need.)

posted in City Life, Local Groups, Money Matters | 0 Comments

District eyes state/federal relief while tightening its belt

Last night, the Lowell School Committee supported my motion requesting “the Superintendent prepare two budget proposals: one for a level-funded budget and one with a ten-percent reduction in state funding.” Although there was discussion regarding the timing and details of the proposals, especially since cuts this deep will require layoffs and there was concern regarding employee morale, the majority consensus was that we need a plan—the sooner the better—to deal with the current fiscal crisis. According to State Senator Steve Panagiotakos’ presentation, reported here last week, a level-funded budget is the best-case scenario—requiring $4 million less for Lowell schools with as much as $10 million in reductions a possibility. I’ve watched the district cut programs and staff since 2002, before I even got on the committee, and I don’t see how we’re going to make cuts this deep without seriously impacting the quality of education our children receive. It is going to require new approaches, thinking outside the box, and a reassessment of priorities, both in terms of the district and its funding sources. Each year, health insurance, utilities and compensation costs have risen—outpacing revenues—but the challenges we face and the children’s need for a high-quality education have not diminished. As the state faces its own fiscal crisis, there is some hope that Lowell will top the list for additional funds through the governor’s Readiness Project. Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville visited Lowell schools on Monday, and told us he was impressed, particularly by the district’s partnerships with UML and MCC, and the investment of community stakeholders. Supt. Scott, Chancellor Meehan, and MCC President Cowan pitched their “Pre-K to 16 Pathways” plan to him as our version of the governor’s project, with hope that when funding is available, the state will look to Lowell as one of its first pilot sites.

There is also hope that the federal government will offer some relief. As the creators of No Child Left Behind, national legislation that left the funding behind, the federal government has a responsibility to fund its mandates, as well as a moral and practical imperative to ensure educational excellence nationally. It appears the new administration gets the intimate connection between an educated populace and economic stability. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, President-Elect Obama has pledged $10 billion for early-childhood education, representing ”the largest new federal initiative for young children since Head Start began in 1965.” His platform also supports “new federal financing for states.” Many of his supporters are expecting him to deliver on his campaign promise to make education a priority even after federal bailouts for Wall Street bonuses and automakers’ incompetency: After all, economic revival is not possible without skilled employees.

posted in Education, Local Politics, Money Matters, National issues, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Economists in the spotlight

I took Microeconomics in college and found it pretty dismal, so I never made it on to Macro or any other economics classes. Lately, however, I find myself becoming something of an economist groupie, reading articles and blogs by experts in the field who might be able to shed some light on the financial crisis, sub-prime meltdown, rising unemployment, falling dollar, falling oil prices, deflation, stagflation, and so on. I like James Surowiecki’s concise, clear-headed columns in the New Yorker, and I check out his blog, The Balance Sheet whenever I think of it. Closer to home, I always like to hear UML Professor Bob Forrant’s opinion on things. His refreshing, contratian ideas will keep you on your toes, and I will miss hearing him on the late, lamented morning radio show, Sunrise. An example of his style is agreeing with conservative columnist William Kristol’s statement in the New York Times that economists should come out and admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, that they don’t have a clue how to fix a crisis of this magnitude. He is also critical of Obama’s newly-formed economic team. The good news is that the Sunrise website archives are still accessible and you can hear Bob’s latest podcast along with those of other local financial pundits.

I am also exploring a list of economics and finance blogs that I found in last week’s Boston Globe. So far, I like the macro approach taken by Barry Ritholz in The Big Picture. Maybe I should have given Macroeconomics a chance after all!

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Catching up with the classics

Who doesn’t know the story of Frankenstein – the mad scientist who created a monster. It’s one of those tales that seems to be part of the air we breathe so that we know about it without knowing how or why. Even if you haven’t seen one of the movie adaptations (Netflix lists ten movies with Frankenstein in the title, from the original classic with Boris Karloff as the monster to the inspired parody Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder), you can picture the eerie gothic castle, the demented obsessed scientist, the strange, oversized creature with bolts in his head, the creepy assistant. So, when you pick up the book, written in 1818 by twenty-one year old Mary Shelley, it is quite surprising to find that the story is not set in Transylvania or some such place, that there is no castle, no assistant and that it is more of a philosophical and moral fable than a horror story. There are plenty of dead bodies by the end, but the true horror is in the inescapable, personal doom brought on by the hubris of the scientist in daring to create life. In the nuclear age, with the awful power to destroy ourselves unleashed, the lesson is clear – the deed cannot be undone and the consequences cannot be escaped. In addition, there is a creeping horror about the monster himself who cannot be looked upon without loathing and who commits murder out of his anger and loneliness, but he is also a piteable creature who longs for love and acceptance. His angst and questioning of his creator is that of an existential anguish that also parallels the modern individualistic quest for personal meaning. While the prose is a bit overwrought and some of the coincidences and plot twists unlikely, the complexity of motive and personality in both Frankenstein and the monster are moving and convincing. The stories are layered, being framed rather oddly by a letter from an Arctic explorer to his sister, both characters who have little to do with the central plot but merely exist as a device by which the tale of the Doctor is told. This roundabout method of narration was not unusual at the time when many novels were epistolary, and is reminiscent of Coleridege’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” where the narrator tells a story that was told to him. If you have patience and endure the somewhat tedious set-up, the story itself is worth reading.

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I take it back…bail them out!

Awhile ago I found myself agreeing with Mitt Romney’s column in the New York Times that we shouldn’t bail out Detroit. This felt weird. Recently, I’ve changed my mind (this feels better to me) and while I think that, in normal times, bankruptcy protection might suffice to get the industry back on track, I quote Professor Bob Forrant from his last podcast on UML Sunrise, that these aren’t normal times. Experts seem to agree that the worst of the financial downturn started when Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail and similar ripple effects on credit, jobs, housing, consumer spending and consumer confidence will be even worse if Detroit goes down. It seems that, this time, we can’t afford to let them fail.

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St. Theresa’s Prayer

May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.

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Sugar & Spice Weekend sounds fun

I’m going to avoid the mall traffic this Saturday and look for unique gifts by going downtown to the Holiday Market Place at the Brush Art Gallery and Studios, 256 Market Street (behind the National Park Visitor Center). Special hours for the Sugar & Spice Weekend are 11-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and shoppers will be able to sample free sweets as part of the “Cookie Competition,” which includes voting for the winning cookie along with getting recipes and warm refreshments (another reason not to sit in traffic on Daniel Webster Highway). Visiting the gallery is always a pleasant, stress-free experience and a great way to find special gifts for those hard-to-buy-for folks. But watch out, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to resist picking up a little something for yourself too.

posted in Art, City Life, Local Groups | 1 Comment

Senator delivers bad news for schools

Last night, a packed room of area school and municipal leaders gathered at Middlesex Community College to hear from State Senator Steve Panagiotakos regarding K-12 state funding, as well as from Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the department of education. As expected, the news was not encouraging: The senator affirmed recent media reports that cities and towns could see a 10% reduction in state funding for next year. According to the senator, the best-case scenario would be level funding for schools. In Lowell, where the state provides more than 85% of the costs of educating our children, a level-funded budget for FY10 would require cuts of about $4 million. The notion of having to cut more, up to 10% from the budget or about $14 million, is disturbing since cuts that deep would absolutely impact the quality of education our children receive. (Last year, the Varnum Elementary School was closed to save $1 million, and with that savings came a ripple of disruptions still felt today as staff and students were distributed throughout the district.)


As part of his remarks, Senator Panagiotakos provided a presentation (link available soon, watch for future post) where he noted some interesting historical data, such as the fact that state spending from FY00 to FY09 increased an average of 3.2% annually. He also discussed Chapter 70, which refers to the Mass. General Law requiring the state to support public schools, as well as the role of the foundation budget, established in 1993, that sets an education funding minimum. And despite today’s headlines touting Massachusetts as the highest-ranking state in math and science, and one of the top scorers in an international exam ranking students from four-dozen countries, the future for funding the Commonwealth’s schools is bleak. According to the senator, some relief may come in the form of federal funding, the state’s willingness to reduce unfunded educational mandates, and re-examination of Governor Patrick’s revenue-generating ideas. More on all this later. 

posted in Education, Money Matters, State Concerns | 0 Comments

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