Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Connecticut and Massachusetts Towns Facing Budget Cuts Fight to Keep 4th of July Fireworks

Hotdogs. Sparklers. Fireworks.

Those words are usually the first that come to mind when it comes to the 4th of July. This year however, many towns across the nation will have dark skies due to budget cuts in this tough economy.

Click here to listen to NPR's Boston affiliate WBUR report on the struggle that Lowell, Massachusetts is facing this 4th, and the community's rally to save their cherished tradition.

More locally, many Connecticut towns including Middletown and East Haven are facing a similar dilemma, but have decided not to forgo the fireworks because of the morale and entertainment they provide. Reasons that are so important now, more than ever.

Still deciding on how you will celebrate this weekend? Check out this schedule of 4th of July celebrations and fireworks in Connecticut.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Remembering Billy Mays: Tribute to a Household Hero

Wow. Last week was a tough one.

The world lost a number of legends, with Ed McMahon & Farrah Fawcett losing their long and heroic battles with cancer, and of course, the unexpected death of music icon Michael Jackson. (Visit our YouTube page to see The Simpsons cast reflect on having Michael guest star on the show.)

For me, the breaking point was when news came that beloved pitchman Billy Mays passed away unexpectedly.

Yes, Billy Mays. That bearded, boisterous, guy on t.v. who, with his elevated voice and unstoppable energy, could almost convince you to buy almost anything. C'mon admit it...you've been tempted to play with a little Mighty Putty or a Mighty Mend It? For me, it was Oxi Clean.

One hot summer afternoon I opened the fridge at my mom's house for a drink. There was a fresh pitcher of red something, so I reached in, grabbed it, and WHOOSHHHH-the pitcher of red something that had once looked like an oasis now looked like a red nightmare, all over the kitchen floor, and worse, onto the (cream colored) living room carpet. I saw my life flash before my eyes. Then I ran to the sink.

I quickly grabbed the blue spray bottle, went to work, and within minutes, the panic had been relieved, and the red night mare was gone. I kid you not, after laughing at myself a little, the words "god bless you Billy Mays" came out of my parched mouth.

To this day, my mom still has no idea. Well, until she reads this. Hi mom.

So this one's for you, Billy. Thank you for saving my life that day. Thank you for keeping our whites whiter, our bathrooms brighter, and our Saturday mornings lighter with your jolly infomercials. You will be missed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More Secret Nixon Tapes Released with 150 Hours of Private Conversations

Today over 150 hours of President Nixon's phone conversations were made public by the Nixon Presidential Library, as part of the National Archives. The tapes, which document 944 private conversations, were recorded by secret microphones in the Oval Office between January and February of 1978.

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Especially in the Oval Office.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jon & Kate Plus 8: The Announcement

Last night Jon and Kate Gosselin, stars of TLC's hit reality TV show Jon & Kate Plus Eight announced that they are separating.

I don't have an eloquent or witty response to my reaction to all of this. It's just makes me really sad.

Aside from the fact that I am..scratch that...was an avid fan of the hit show, I am also a child of divorce.

When my parents marriage began to deteriorate, I was thirteen years old, and my younger sister was not much older than the Gosselin's twin daughters, Cara and Mady. At that young age, we endured some of the most painful, darkest days we will probably ever experience in our lives. Days that still play out in our minds, and that will follow us forever.

My heart is bleeding for Jon and Kate's "plus 8." Not only are they facing a long, hard road ahead, they are going to have to do it in front of the entire nation. They may be too little to understand what is going on now, but someday these kids are going to get on the computer and Google their family. They will be able to read, and watch all the drama and gossip that is out there, and it is going to scar them forever.

While last night's announcement did not come as much of a surprise, it did come as a disappointment. Honestly, it seems the split was inevitable. But as I tuned in last night, I was still holding out a bit of hope that Jon & Kate would say that they were ending taping so that they could take care of their family.

Behind the cameras, TLC execs are drooling over some of the highest ratings they have ever seen. Season 5 debuted on Memorial Day with over 10 million viewers. Ratings for the rest of the season have decreased, with last week's episode being seen by 2.9 million viewers. That's down 31% from the previous week, which was down 41% from the season opener.

I'm sick of watching these kids get dragged through the mud, and it seems America is too. Today, TLC has offered Kate's blog as a place for fans to offer their thoughts:

"I never thought that I would feel so turned off by this show that I once enjoyed watching so much. A part of me is really happy that Jon is moving on from Kate. The other part of me wishes that this wasn't televised for people's amusement.
" -Dina

"This was a long time coming, but it is now time to move on and that includes the end of the show. Why do the children need to be put through a show supporting divorced parents? It just shows money doesn't buy happiness and this has destroyed a family that should still be together." -Shelly

"TLC really needs to take another look at its supposed code of ethics and end this show. I won't be watching any more TLC programs. I am disgusted by what has become of this family and the damage it has done to their poor children. All they care about is $$$." -Brittany

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter and Iran

I've been using Twitter for a few months now, but I'm still undecided when people ask me if I like it. It can be as self-indulgent and narcissistic as the haters claim, but it can also be really useful. I follow mostly people / organizations that tell me something about what's going on with things that I care about, and I've found it mostly to be a helpful, self-selected news feed, catered just to me.

And now, with the way it's being used to keep the world informed of the news from Iran, I understand what Twitter might be at its best. Iranians and others have been using Twitter to communicate, not only with family and friends, but with those who are grasping for news and trying to sort out what's happening in real time; Twitter even postponed a scheduled update so as not to interrupt what has become a crucial service for getting news out of Iran when many have found themselves without phones or reliable Internet access.

In a recent TED Blog interview, NYU Professor Clay Shirky spoke about the influence of the internet on the way we digest and understand world news as it unfolds, and he was asked about the recent events in Iran in particular. When asked: "Which services have caused the greatest impact? Blogs? Facebook? Twitter?", Shirky replied:

"It's Twitter. One thing that Evan (Williams) and Biz (Stone) did absolutely right is that they made Twitter so simple and so open that it's easier to integrate and harder to control than any other tool. At the time, I'm sure it wasn't conceived as anything other than a smart engineering choice. But it's had global consequences. Twitter is shareable and open and participatory in a way that Facebook's model prevents. So far, despite a massive effort, the authorities have found no way to shut it down, and now there are literally thousands of people around the world who've made it their business to help keep it open."

You can read the entire interview on the Ted Blog.

Also check out Andrew Sullivan's amazing blog coverage of the news out of Iran - Sullivan regularly collects Tweets out of Iran (like this), giving a real feel for what people in Iran are thinking, seeing and feeling. It's a new way of collecting news and understanding events in real time, outside of traditional news sources.

Insights into Iranian Imbroglio

As your high school history teacher - and even college professor(s) if you majored in the subject like me - likely told you many times: In order to make sense of the present we must first look to the past. In that same vein, I thought I'd poke around at past Forum footage to see if any of our panelists had said anything relating to the current election fiasco in Iran. In fact, one had, Benazir Bhutto, take it away:

Although the late former Pakistani Prime Minister was not talking about Iran specifically, she very presciently touched on many of the hot-button issues that Obama administration officials are looking at squarely (U.S. interventionism, terrorism, nuclear capabilities, global security).

To what extent should Obama intervene, if at all? Is the United States willing to impose sanctions on Iran for election fraud? Would we look hypocritical if we did? Is the International Community willing to stand behind us? Does it really matter if one puppet president is replaced by another one? There are no simple answers to these questions, although Slate offers some advice and tries to get in Obama's head. Nevertheless, nobody can deny that what's currently going on in Iran seems like the hopeful beginnings of (dare I say it?) change, but as to what's really going on, and what will come of it, that's anybody's guess.

I will say, however, that it's nice to have a president who is on top of this, rather than one who jokingly sang "bomb bomb bomb Iran" at a campaign rally in South Carolina a couple of years ago.

By Abe Silk

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sick Baby Hoax? What Next?

Creepy "real baby" doll...yikes!

Woman Apologizes for Sick Baby Hoax

Anti-Abortion Blogger Admits Hoax

i am sorry

As for the hoax, the perfect storm of fanaticism, mental instability and the Internet. I can understand that combination being dangerous. At least, far too tempting. Alcoholics probably shouldn't hang out in bars and attention-seeking depressives probably shouldn't have a blog.

The REALLY interesting thing to me is, a million hits! Well over a million people read a blog about a woman with a sick baby. Millions more watch the Gosling family's eight kids and two parents' lives disintegrating every week. Half the world was worked into ecstasy by Susan Boyle belting out a song and then into a frenzy when she ended up in a hospital over it.

When it comes to misery, tragedy, and even hoaxes, I'm with Alice Waters. Keep it local. There is plenty of really dreadful stuff going on in our own community and (I know you probably don't like to admit it out loud) in our own lives, that makes for some excellent drama.

I think we all might just find that if we DID spend some more time exploring the lives of the people who live around the block, next door, and even in the next room, that not only would we grow closer, we might just have a lot less of the tragedy we so eagerly await now.

Here's what some other Forum folk have to say on the matter...

Jasmine says, "Anyone that gave her [money] should lose it for being so stupid."

Ruth says, "It shows you what lengths people will go to push their own agendas. "

Abe says, "Caveat Emptor on the Internet. Anybody can post anything."

Katlyn says, "I love Jon and Kate Plus Eight."

Jamie says, "I'm with Pat on this one. People should spend more time worrying about how they can help people in their own communities."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Emotional Graduation Day for this High School Senior

Meet Nick, a high school senior with every reason to smile

I had just started reading an article in Newsweek about America's top public high schools when Nick strolled into my office, plunked down his backpack, and settled into a chair.

"What are you reading?" he asked, grabbing a handful of M&Ms as he moved his chair next to mine and stared into my computer screen.

This is one of the many reasons I love working at The Forum. Every afternoon, like clockwork, a varied group of teenagers wanders into our office and treats it like a second home - a special, safe place where they can relax, eat snacks, mingle with staff and each other, and work on office computers. Most of these kids are members of our YOUTH Forum who live or go to school near our office in downtown Hartford, though not always. Sometimes they bring friends, and soon these friends bring friends of friends, and one by one, one conversation at a time, we get to know them all.

And just as these kids may benefit from spending time in our office and feeling their worlds expand, I know for a fact that we benefit more.

"So they just came out with a list of the top high schools in America," I tell Nick, trying to subdue any hints of my own skepticism about Newsweek's ranking system. "Can you guess what high schools made the list in Connecticut?"

Nick, a graduating senior at East Hartford High School and a proud member of their award-winning ballroom dancing team, was quiet for a moment, and then said, "No place around here."

In many ways, he was right. Though Connecticut's "top public high school" was located just a few miles away from his own - and, incidentally, right in my own town - for Nick and many others like him, it seemed miles away and completely out of reach.

"How did you get started on the ballroom dancing team?" I asked, decidedly changing the subject but curious, too.

"Well," Nick responded, smiling, "I had been fooling around in Spanish class and my teacher gave me detention. She said I could either show up at detention after school, or meet her at the ballroom dance team practice. I went to the practice and they told me I had good posture, good frame. I've been dancing ever since. We just won the inter-district championship."

"What's your graduation day going to look like?" I continued, eager to learn more about Nick, clearly a shining star in a high school that never even came close to making Newsweek's list of the top 1,500 high schools in America. "What will that day be like for you?"

Nick didn't hesitate. "It'll be emotional," he said, pausing, then adding, "I'll be the first one in my family to graduate high school on time, and the first one in my family to go to college."

He'll do even more than that. Nick will participate in a rigorous 6-week academic summer program designed to help him prepare for college classes. He will live in a dorm during the week and go home on weekends.

"But what about laundry?" I asked, genuinely curious. "And what about ballroom dancing? Will you keep at it?"

Nick just smiled in a way that only Nick can: full of joyful exuberance and youthful charm.

"I'm not sure about the laundry," he said, "but I may just have to start my own ballroom dancing team at college."

You may have to do that, Nick. And Nick? When you do, it'll be music to my ears.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Commencement Address Wisdom: Not Just for Kids

If "youth is wasted on the young," as George Bernard Shaw once observed, then it seems fitting that commencement speeches - and particularly those with unusually perceptive insights, wit, and wisdom - are wasted on those eager to commence.

I don't know about you, but I remember virtually nothing about the commencement addresses I've endured through the years...no pithy quotes, no resonant nuggets of wisdom. I'm sure there were quotes and nuggets aplenty, but back then, I simply couldn't hear them. I was too busy, er, commencing.

Now that I've slowed my pace enough to listen and actually hear the insights and advice offered by this year's crop of commencement speakers, I am humbled. Inspired. Challenged.

I hope you will be, too. Here are a few highlights for the Class of 2009 - and for us all.

"The world is in need of bright minds. Individuals who seek to spread peace and prosperity by the way they conduct themselves and the value they place on the lives of others and on life itself. These people, by way of their concern and awareness, whether they know it or not—are leaders. You lead through kindness, generosity, tolerance, innovation, the quest for knowledge and a basic, resolved goodness that is incorruptible, inexhaustible and undefeatable." Henry Rollins, Pop Culture Renaissance Man, speaking at Sonoma State University
"...the world needs your inexperience. There is something about the fresh perspective, the naïveté, the limitless energy that comes along with youth and inexperience that enables recent graduates to solve problems that many more experienced people have given up on." Wendy Koop, founder of Teach for America, at Washington University
"Careers focused on lifting up our communities - whether it's helping transform troubled schools or creating after-school programs or training workers for green jobs. These careers are not always obvious, but today they are necessary." First Lady Michelle Obama at the University Of California-Merced

"There's nothing wrong with money or position. But at the end of the day, the source of true happiness and success is that you have that sense of personal satisfaction of knowing that you are doing something of value for the society that you are a part of."
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell at Franklin & Marshall College

Find more commencement day highlights at CBS Evening News.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pursuing Happiness

Ignore the self-help title and check out the article by Joshua Wolf Shenk: "What Makes us Happy?" in this month's issue of The Atlantic. It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at "The Grant Study," a long-term study of mental and physical health, spanning 72 years of the lives of 268 men from the Harvard classes of '42, '43, '44.*

I'll start by saying that the study is absolutely limited in a lot of ways: it's all men, all Harvard educated, all white. Our definitions of happiness vary, so even defining what is being studied is a little problematic. But in spite of any issues that there might be with the study or the methodology, the recent article (and the study itself) highlights the difficult, intangible nature of happiness and the seeming impossibility to define it, all with a voyeuristic insight into other peoples lives that you rarely get with even your closest friends. The men all start with a Harvard education in common, but by the end it's impossible to imagine that they once had anything in common. Many ended up successful politicians, businessmen, contributing members of society, but at the same time one-third suffered from mental illness. The findings are a landscape of the excitement and danger of the possibilities life gives to us.

The findings about what those who are found to be happy share in common - education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, partaking in some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and employing what the study calls "mature" adaptations to stress - shouldn't really surprise anyone. But the most interesting thing is that, despite the length and depth of the study, it remains difficult to answer the crucial question: are these people happy because they manage to do these things, or can they manage to do these things because they are inherently happy? The study grapples with one of the "Big Questions" of life, so even without definitive answers, it's a chance to think and reflect on your own life and happiness.

[Psychologist Dr. George Vaillant on following the Grant Study men. Courtesy of The Atlantic.]

Check out the entire article, here.

*(Although the men are supposed to be kept anonymous throughout the study, we know that John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee are among them, as well as a famous novelist who the study's psychologist says only is not Norman Mailer.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thoughts on Hartford...

I've been thinking a lot about Hartford lately.

I work here, and at The Forum part of our struggle lies in convincing people who live outside the city to come downtown for their entertainment - to convince them that it is safe, there is parking and it will be fun - we promise. And, I've been looking at moving from the 'burbs into Hartford myself, so on a more personal level I'm considering what the city has to offer; there really is a lot going on here, so why do we work so hard to convince ourselves that Hartford is a dead city?

I feel like some of that is changing.

Maybe it's the opening of the new Connecticut Science Center, which had it's exciting pre-opening celebration this past weekend and will celebrate its grand opening on June 12. Maybe it's The Hartford Party Starters Union (HPSU) that is working to bolster Hartford's public image and make it a cool place to work, live and (most importantly for them) party. Maybe it's the always funny, always informative website Hartford.com, which should flat out embarrass those who whine: "there's nothing to do in Hartford." Or maybe it's just a tipping point caused by these and the host of other things that go on downtown. Whatever it is, it feels like there is a lot to be excited about, and I'm not the only one who's been considering a shake-up of Hartford's image...

Last week Where We Live's John Dankosky blogged about his feelings on Hartford after a compelling conversation with Iran Nazario, an ex-gang member who started the group Peacebuilders to mediate disputes between teens and stop them before they become violent. Dankowski began by reflecting on the attitude of the city: "There's a strange mix of inferiority complex, blind hope, resignation and energy [in Hartford] that I don't think I've encountered anywhere else." But, he concluded, "I guess I'm just rooting harder for Hartford today. I'd really like the conversation to change."

I found that so fitting for my thoughts this week - it's not just the city itself that needs to change as much as it is the way we talk and think about it. So I guess today I'm just adding my voice to those rooting for the city to succeed and thinking about how I can be a part of that success.