Top 10 Real Estate Secrets of the Year

blog secrets 300x114 Top 10 Real Estate Secrets of the Year Shrewsbury MassachusettsIn one of my favorite Beatles tunes, they lamented that “the best things in life are free.” That’s rarely the case but every once in a while its actually true, and this in one of those cases. This week, I put together a free report about the Massachusetts Real Estate market that some might describe as revolutionary. It is not conjecture, but rather is based on my 27 years as one of the top real estate agents in Massachusetts, and tries to share some tips and tricks that I have come up with over the years. Hopefully, it will change your view of the industry and make 2014 a profitable one for you and your family.

The statistics for 2013 are in, and the results were great, at least in comparison to the somewhat dire market we were coming off of. Statewide, sales in December of 2013 were up 11.4% over 2012, however sales were down 26% over November, which was also down from October. While some seasonality is common, 26% is a huge drop to see. Likewise, condominium sales were down 32% from November to December, and this has caused more that a little concern in some segments of the market.

 Top 10 Real Estate Secrets of the Year Shrewsbury Massachusetts

Here in the trenches of the Worcester County real estate market, many in the real estate industry are taking a wait and see approach. At a recent lunch I organized with some of the top agents in the region, people are wondering whether 2013 was merely a blip in the market, caused by years of Buyers holding off, and exacerbated by low inventory – or whether it represents a true healing and return to a normal balanced market. Only time will tell.

According to MAR President Peter Ruffini, the challenge still remains a critical lack of inventory. That’s why now, more than ever, we need those home sellers who really have wanted to move for a while to reach out, and provide the “supply” to go along with the “demand.” As I mentioned in last months column, each winter I open up 10 spots in January and 10 in February for my “Homeowners Blend Program.” Now in its 20th year, this has been a fantastic opportunity for Sellers to save up to 50% on the real estate fees when selling their home, WITHOUT having to give up a thing in return. I do have a few of those left for January, so if you’re reading this, and would like one of the slots, email me at steve@stevelevine.com and I will save you one.

Oh getting back to the Free Report, we come to one of my favorite topics, namely the Expired Listing Market. Last year alone, over 18,000 homes in Worcester and Middlesex County that were on the market, came off without selling, which represents almost 40% of the total listings taken by agents. In contrast, I think I had two such listings all year, and in both cases, it came down simply to Sellers that were just unrealistic on price. After seeing just how serious the issue was, and knowing that it wasn’t happening to me, I sat down for an entire day and put together a five page report that details the Top 10 Reasons A Home Doesn’t Sell. This isn’t some “canned report” purchased online, but really represents the core experience of having done this over 2000 times, and all that I learned through trial and error along the way. I even took the time to incorporate items specific to selling issues in a particular town or area, creating unique reports for those as needed.

Of course, this report won’t be of use only to those who had listings previously on the market – although they will no doubt have some eye-opening moments reading it. Rather it applies to ANOYONE thinking of moving at all. After all, what better way to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes, than to read about what happened to others? If you’re interested in reading it, along with a separate page of helpful tips and the final 2013 statistics, just send an email to report@shrewsbury.net and include your name and the city you live in, and it will email you back automatically with a copy of the report for your individual community.

An open letter to Governor Deval Patrick

Dear Governor Patrick,

You have always been one of the nations greatest advocates for improving education for our children, protecting the underserved populations, and advocating for the needs of your constituents. The work you have done has not gone unnoticed, yet at the same time cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth are in crisis, with many struggling under the crushing burden of unfunded mandates from Washington, and from Beacon Hill, at a time when our economy is only now beginning to recover from the recession that has left us often taking one step forward, and two steps back. In towns such as Shrewsbury, where I live, it seems that we are faced with nothing short of economic crisis, year after year, as our new growth has come to a standstill, and yet our costs of running our schools, caring for our roads, and cleaning our wastewater has continued to soar exponentially. These issues have pit one group of residents against another, as those with means and those with children in school call out for operational tax overrides, while those without means, and who have already completed educating their children, call out for lower taxation and a restraining of the skyrocketing costs.

I know that you care deeply about these issues, Governor, and at this point feel that you need to take a leadership role in reforming the educational system in the Commonwealth once again, to enable us to continue to take pride in the most highly recognized schools in the nation. Fortunately, unlike most such lofty objectives, this need not be an ethereal exercise over the course of many years, but can likely be done in an expedient and revenue neutral way, which will enable our cities and towns to continue the recovery that they have started, provide far better education to our children, and unite, rather than divide, our citizens.  While the issues are clearly complex, they really fall into three main areas of thought – (a) applying the concept that it is up to all towns in the Commonwealth to contribute to the educational needs of all students in the Commonwealth, rather than each community being solely responsible for, and at the mercy of, the individual needs and choices made by a particular family, (b) working with state leadership, private and public insurers, and school and community leaders, to define what role and responsibilities relating to students with special needs should be defined as “educational” requirements, and which aspects should be defined as medical,  housing, and transportation related responsibilities, and (c) working to reform collective bargaining between communities and teachers unions, to enable us to value the incredible contributions that our valued teachers make in our society, reward appropriately the exemplary service many provide far over and above their job description, and yet at the same time be able to ensure that town budgets remain sustainable.

I truly feel that, to paraphrase the oft-quoted African proverb, it does take a village to raise a child.  I believe that it is inherent upon all members of a community to care for other members in order to allow our society to move forward.  Certainly, social welfare nets at the federal level serve to do this function, as do almost all state programs.  As a society, for example, we all pay into social security, and when someone is disabled and needs to collect, those resources are available.  Part of our state taxation goes to fund Mass Health, TAFDC, WIC, and other such programs, and as such regardless of what town an eligible person may live in, those state programs continue to support their individual needs, without requiring them to appear in person before their respective town manager and beg for the very benefits to which they are entitled. This is not the case, however, with one and only one aspect of entitlement, which is the cost of educating children with highly specialized educational needs, some of which can be handled within their school district, and others which require out of district placements. Under the 1973 IDEA act, amended and reauthorized in 2004, student with disabilities must be guaranteed a “Free and Appropriate Education.”  I concur with the letter and spirit of that law 100%.  These students need every service we are providing, and more, and as stated previously, I feel it is up to each and every one of us to see to it that this happens.

This is not an easy thing for a parent of a special needs child to ensure, however, because the system which currently exists in Massachusetts places the burden on the town in which a student lives to determine the level of services needed, in conjunction with the family and medical professionals, of course, and then pay for these services out of the education budget.  This methodology creates a conflict from day one, in which a family often finds themselves at odds with a school district, with the former trying to get the best services for their child, and the latter facing budget crises year after year, trying to find the most cost-effective suite of services that will comply with the IDEA mandates, while often spending 25% of their entire school budget on special education.  In the case of our town, we spend 10% of that budget merely on the 1% of students in out of district placements alone, not counting the great work we are doing in-district.  Inevitably, this creates issues wherein each party is then bringing in “their experts” to advocate for their particular position, with a student caught in the middle who just wanted to education to which they are entitled. This “zip-code based entitlement” is even more obvious with respect to students moving into a particular school district. Under the current law, any student that moves into a district prior to April, becomes the responsibility of that new district to provide for.  As school departments throughout the state try to get their budget requests completed, they face more hurdles than an olympic athlete.  They have no idea what the level of state funding will be, no firm number on circuit breaker reimbursement, no guarantee of costs for their out of district students, and of course no clue as to how many new students with out of district placements, or intensive in district needs, may move in during the year. This makes it impossible to do accurate budget numbers in a timely fashion.  As school districts face budgets that are beyond tight, many are in a position of actually having to lay off teachers just to balance the budget. Suddenly, a family moves into their particular community that has a child in a $350,000 per year out of district placement (to which they are absolutely entitled), and the school administration is left wringing it’s hands and wondering if it will need to lay off an additional 7 teachers to pay for those services.  I suppose at the same time, to that students former community, the news that they are moving must seem like a financial windfall, and the thought of that sounds to me as ridiculous as it does downright cruel.  Do we really want to live in a state where town leaders start to imagine that it would be less costly to buy that family a free house if they agree to live in another town?  I know I do not. What difference does it make which community someone settles in, we as a Commonwealth have a responsibility to care for them and do all to enable and empower them to be the best that they can be.

As a parent, a taxpayer, and former School Committee member, I feel that we need to fix this system.  I expressed these views to former Secretary of Education Paul Reville, in a meeting several years ago, and posed to him the following thought.  Special education remains, as I stated earlier, the only mandate that I am aware of which is dependent on zip-code of residency, yet it does not have to be this way at all, nor does the Commonwealth need to spend more revenue to solve the problem. Instead, let us modify this such that all residents of Massachusetts are responsible for these costs, just as they are now all responsible for every other entitlement.  Just looking at out of district special education costs, for a moment, let us assume that collectively, the total amount spent by all cities and towns in $X annually, to educate “Y” number of students. Where do these $X come from?  Well, they come from the school budgets of each town, which inevitably come from the taxation base, and from the many forms of state dispensation, whether it be “cherry sheet,” Chapter 70, etc.  That is then mitigated by state circuit breaker reimbursement, and in the end, $X has been raised.  Instead of this method, let us use the same financial dispensation methodology that the state uses for every other program. Under my proposed model, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will be responsible for the $X in it’s totality.  No matter where a child lives, their benefits will follow them.  This leaves a district able to truly work to provide the best suite of services for each and every student with no fiscal conflict, much as they do now with the school lunch program, in which low income students are provided free and reduced lunch, and it is reimbursed by the federal government.  Where will the $X come from at a time when the Commonwealth’s budget is already stretched thin?  Well it is really already there.  You need only to deduct that $X from the amount of Chapter 70 and other state funding to cities and towns, and centralize the cost.  To a district that currently has no special need students, they will lose some revenue. To a small town like mine, in which nearly 10% of the $50M+- school budget, in a town with 6000 students, goes to educate just the 70 students in out of district placements, they will gain revenue, and be able to restore teaching positions, and get class sizes under control.  In the end, however, all cities and towns will benefit because they will be able to properly plan their budgets, and be true advocates for all students, not adversaries.

Does this approach sound radical?  If so, let me restate again that this is how every other state mandated program works. Towns don’t need to be concerned that a person on Mass Health may move into their community and need a heart transplant, because as a Commonwealth, we all pitch into that system.  I do not pretend to be an expert in state government, but it seems logical to me that a simple realignment of the funding methodology would be a revenue neutral approach that would thrill parents, students, and community leaders alike.

Moving away from special education, this same issue can be applied to students choosing to attend technical and vocational schools, as well as charter schools.  Rather than each community going through the agonizing process each year of trying to establish how many students are going to leave their district to attend outside schools, this would just be part of the normal operation of the DESE to handle. In this way, town X need not worry that a family just moved into town that has four students in a charter school, and thus is incurring a $70k bill for them.  Instead, those costs would be shared across the state, as they are for the other programs mentioned previously.  While we are on the subject of charter schools, the state needs to seriously look at that system, and whether it has, in some communities, gotten away from the core principals on which is was founded, namely providing a high quality learning option in inner cities where some students were finding it hard to thrive.  Instead, we have seen the spread of highly specialized schools where the plurality of students might be construed as gifted and talented, and where they are running what is basically a fantastic private school, being paid for not by the families who attend, but by the school district in which the student resides. I suppose some would say that this competitive environment causes local public schools to improve, in order to try and keep its best and brightest, and I believe we have seen that here in our community, yet it is far removed from the original intent of the charter school program, and the $1M+ in annual tuitions that our district pays to outside charter schools, is the equivalent of 20 teaching positions.

(b) Momentarily stopping back into the issue of special education, which makes up a large portion of any towns school budget, perhaps 25% or more, the issue has been raised as to someone coming up with a better means of defining what is “educational responsibility.”  This becomes more apparent, but is not limited to, the out of district placement.  Under the current system, it is up to the local school district to provide that “free and appropriate education,” and to do so in the “least restrictive environment.”  As I have stated, this is not an issue for me.  I feel this is our social obligation, and that we need to continue to provide each and every level of service possible, and more, to enable these students to achieve.  The question becomes, however, when is something an “educational” function, and when is it a medical or housing function that should be paid for not by a local school district, but rather by the health insurance, or family of the recipient? How much of the $350,000 per year cost of a particular placement is actually “educational” in nature? Policies are in place now which allow school districts to file for reimbursement from private and public insurers, but this system is murky at best, and the burden is on the district, not on the insurer, to prove the validity of a claim, requiring addition manpower and expense that could have been used for teachers. The same exists with in-district students, of course.  As schools have tried to reduce the out of district costs, they have become better and better at providing in-house services to people with disabilities, which has resulted in an increase in the level of care they are providing. Which aspects of that care should be construed as the school department’s role, and which should fall under the specialized medical needs that a private insurer should be paying for?  Again, I am not an expert in these matters, but feel that towns could probably provide better services as they relate to education, if freed from the overwhelming cost of the medical aspects of that care. The same applies to the high cost of transportation, both of special needs students, and others who opt for an out of district experience. We learned this week, for example, that one of our students has chosen to attend the Norfolk Agricultural School Program.  I think that’s fantastic, and we certainly need people with that type of background to ensure our continued food supply.  Why, however, does our towns school department, have to pay $25,000 in tuition for them, along with $35,000 in annual transportation costs?  That, Governor, is “a teaching position” that will be lost, to pay for someone to attend a completely optional out of district opportunity, which makes no sense to me at all.  What if 10 students decide to go there next year?  Shall we just eliminate 10 more teachers, in order to be able to pay that bill?  This is something that should be the Commonwealth’s responsibility, in my opinion, and thus the cost of transporting all of these vocations, technical and other such students needs to just come out from the top of the funds that were to be available for cities and towns, thus spreading those costs among all of the residents, as we do with all other social programs.

Lastly, Governor, is the challenging issue of the rising costs of running a school district, which inevitably come down to the cost of salary, health care, and benefits provides to it’s teachers and paraprofessionals.  This is not an attack on teachers, nor is it an attack on teacher salaries. In fact, I think many of them are paid far less than they deserve. I love our teachers, and can emphatically say that my children have been blessed with some of the best educators I’ve ever known, many of whom have become both mentors, and dear friends. Teachers work tirelessly, many of them well beyond the classroom, and the work that some of them are doing, especially under less than ideal conditions, is nothing short of fantastic. I can think of many teachers with whom I have had personal experience that I truly think should be making six figures, and one comes to mind that I would love to see get a large bonus, for securing a massive private grant for our district, which would only serve to encourage other teachers to write additional grants, and thus make us less dependent on state resources.  Sadly, the current systems of collective bargaining don’t really allow district to reward teachers based on such exemplary performance, any more than it allows them to do much about the few teachers with professional status who may be just showing up, and going through the motions.  Instead, teachers unions provide that someone has been there for X years, attained Y graduate credits, and should be earning Z dollars, regardless of performance. This would clearly not go over in any private company, where individuals are required to perform at a high level just to retain their job, much less to receive increases in salary, and where compensation might be based on the difficulty of the task at hand, and how well it is carried out.

For example, in a given school, you may have 6 teachers, all teaching 9th grade social studies. Each carries the same course load of students, yet one is earning 87,000 annually, and another 42,000, with the others all in between.  Their students are all learning the same material, testing the same on common assessments, and yet the range of compensation is disparate by over 100%, and in no way tied to any performance based metric like the rest of the world. This is a very unique situation indeed, and because of that, in conjunction with this thing we call “professional status,” or tenure, we as a society have removed any incentive for them to help take our educational system to the next level, to innovate, to go beyond that which is required,  Make no mistake, countless teachers do all of those things, but they do so only because they are passionate about what they do, and care about our children as if they were their own; yet in the end, they are not rewarded for their efforts in any tangible way, as I feel they should be. In some communities, unions are showing flexibility and recognizing that merit-based salary relationships are not demeaning to the profession. One recent article in the Collegiate Times spoke not of eliminating unions, but of the simple fact that “It would seem that if our education system needs to drastically improve, we need drastic changes from the teachers unions.”

Try to imagine bringing your car in for an oil change, and being charged based on the number of years that particular mechanic has worked there.  It sounds positively ridiculous.  Some would say that is not a good example, because teachers are”professionals,” so instead, imagine instead a visit to the dentist.  Will my dental insurance company pay twice as much to fill a cavity, because my dentist has been there longer? I doubt it very much.

School districts need the ability to both pay and employ based on pre-determined levels of performance. To some that would seem radical, yet it is, of course, how the rest of the professional world functions.  This does not mean that we need to cut teacher salaries.  In fact, as I mentioned earlier, I can think of dozens of teachers I know personally who truly deserve a massive increase in salary.  It merely means that people in the field need to be compensated fairly based on their individual skill sets, and most important that employers, in this case school districts, need to be able to set out each year how much they can afford to pay, at which point all of it’s “employees” can decide if they would like to work there, or seek a higher paying position. I have no idea why some fear this merit based system.  In a recent California development, teachers in San Diego, I believe, agreed to reduce salaries to save jobs and protect class sizes, if and only if, the performance issue was dropped.  In any event, all that the districts need is that ability to decide what resources they have, and plan accordingly.

With this freedom in hand, districts can begin to evaluate compensation based not on longevity, but rather on the individual talents required of different people, to do different jobs. Not to blaspheme early childhood educators, nor to encourage hate mail from the amazing people that had my kids in kindergarten, but I truly believe that the workload of a high school AP English teacher, coming home with 100, five to ten-page papers three nights a week, mentoring students, tutoring for the AP tests etc., is just different than the workload requirement of a kindergarten teacher, albeit responsible for 25 rambunctious 5-year olds, but who’s day is about todays class song, sharing circles, teaching adding and subtractions, and whether today will be an indoor or outdoor recess.  Again, I’m not demeaning the kindergarten teacher.  It’s a really hard job, and I could never have the patience to do it. These teachers, in many ways, set children on a path of being lifelong learners, as they did for my kids.   At the same time, that teacher is not up until 11PM each night grading papers and agonizing over 40 college letters of recommendation.  This difference in workload, however, is something that current districts have no way of recognizing. If both teachers have been there for 10 years, and have the same degree, they earn the same pay, and when asked why, the answer is “that’s just the way it has always been done.”  Still, that is not the way other professionals are compensated. The Wall Street attorney makes more than the local real estate attorney.  The neurosurgeon earns more than the general practitioner.  The accountant at Earnst and Young earns more than the accountant at HR Block.  It’s really not a radical supposition to think that districts should be able to compensate based on workload and job requirements, rather than only on years of service. This can be done not by a wholesale change to the system, but merely by replacing the current methodology with “salary range” contracts, as many school districts do already with their senior leadership teams.  The salary of a principal is set by the School Committee policy as being “between X and Y” for the current year. The Superintendent can then decide where within that range a certain principal will be compensated, whether to even extend their contract or not, and if so for how long.  They can set in place criteria for annual reviews, establish bonuses, and even lay out corrective measures that they feel would need to be dealt with in order to see the contract extended for an additional year.

At times like this, when class sizes have risen precipitously, and teachers are constantly being asked to do more with less, something our community’s teachers have risen to time and time again, these new policies would allow us to reward excellence, where it is warranted, and seek out new talent when needed. Of course, in a world of traditional collective bargaining, this seems absurd to some.  To me, absurd is the union representing the workers making Twinkies refusing to re-negotiate a salary plan, in order to “protect their workers,” all of whom are now going to be unemployed as they forced the company into bankruptcy.  Last year,  one Governor took the lead on this, Gov. Walker of Wisconsin, and it nearly cost him his job, and resulted in Wisconsin legislators literally fleeing the state to avoid a quorum. He did, however, successfully prompt a national debate on teachers unions, the effect of which is still reverberating.  Others followed suit, with Mayor Bloomberg of NY challenging the LIFO (Last In First Out) system, and indicating that any teacher layoffs needed should be based on merit, not seniority, something supported overwhelmingly by a plurality of city voters, but then blocked at the state level. Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio and other states are already considering bills for things from merit based pay, to limits on collective bargaining, as you will note in the article at this link.

Teachers are our national treasure, and we entrust upon them the most valuable things we have, in our children.  They deserve everything we can give them, and then some.  At the same time, however, we are hamstrung by the simple fact that the revenue of a community is not growing at a rate commensurate with being able to give every employee an annual cost of living increase, a step increase, and a comprehensive health care package. In times of rapid community growth, such things were possible, but now we just find ourselves each year reducing staff, so that we can increase the income of those remaining, and to me it just feels like throwing people off the Titanic in the hopes that without them the boat will stay afloat.  This is just not a sustainable method, and something has to be done to fix it.

You have countless brilliant minds at your disposal Governor, and I proudly admit that I am not one of them. I don’t know what the solutions are, and those who know me will tell you that I like to speak in these broad terms, and let others work out the details. I do know that we need to find something, and that it will only happen by taking on bold new initiatives.  I suppose in one sense, we are fortunate to have not only a brilliant mind such as yourself running the Commonwealth, but also one who is term-limited. You have the ability now, in your final term as our Governor, to take chances, to explore new ideas, to bring together community leaders and hear what they have to say, and in the end, find a solution that will be your legacy in years to come, and more importantly set the cities and towns in this great state on a pathway to renewed prosperity.

Thank you very much for your time, and for your years of service to the people of Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitey Bulger photo from arrest and court proceeding

Whitey Bulger arrest photo1 Whitey Bulger photo from arrest and court proceeding Shrewsbury Massachusetts

Shrewsbury gets back to post election normalcy

It seems like this election cycle lasted even longer than any other we’ve seen.  Certainly it was the most divisive in a lot of years, with what seems to be the meanest commercials ever.  Even as we get back to normal, I wonder what the ultimate ramifications are.  It would seem only logical that with the plethora of brilliant people in our nation, that our leaders would ultimately be the best and brightest at each level of government. Logically, each would be not just unquestionably brilliant, but also of such high moral fiber that nobody could find anything negative to say about them.  Why then have our last three Speaker’s of the House in Boston been indicted or resigned under disgrace. Why do we have one congressman after another resigning after facts come to light about corruption or patronage.

Perhaps it’s because our system of government is such that it’s not the best and brightest that are willing to put themselves through the torture of campaigning for office. Perhaps our system of government is such that we place insurmountable hurdles in the pathway, such that too few of these brilliant political minds are willing to go through the process.  When one looks at the results of the election this year, I can’t help but wonder whether what we saw yesterday was a true referendum on who the values espoused by one particular political party or another, or just a lack of candidates and choices.

It seemed to me, at least, that the prime reason why so many so-so candidates were returned to office this year, is not that the plurality of voters believing in the acts and policies of the incumbent, but rather the fact that the candidates put forth to challenge them was a really weak bunch. What I’m not sure about though is how that happens?  Not to pick on any particular people, but take Jeff Perry, for example running for US Congress in the 10th district, against Bill Keating.  During the campaign, it comes out that in his previous life as a police officer, he was involved tangentially with the illegal strip search of a 14 year old girl etc., etc.   Now, I’m not saying he did or didn’t do anything.  I have no insight about him, his character, or anything else he’s involved in.   All I wonder is if he is really the “best and brightest” that the Republican Party could  proffer to run in an election for national office.

We had the same thing here in our district, with Holliston Attorney Marty Lamb, running against incumbent James McGovern.  There were several decent candidates running in the primary, but Lamb made it through largely due to  support of the Tea Party group, most of whom are an awesome bunch of dedicated people with a truly libertarian belief that government has gotten out of control.  Some of them are a little bit radical for me though, and I fear that they may have backed the wrong horse in this race.   The day after he won the primary, it came out that Lamb had filed a massive $300,000 personal bankruptcy.   Add to that that although he was a nice enough guy, he was a bit of a nebish, and you wonder whether there was any hope from the start that he was going to unseat a 13 year incumbent with a campaign that included sending barf bags to his opponent.

Somehow, I feel as though what we need to do is to to get this other group of potential candidates on board instead.  The ones who graduated from the Kennedy School of Government, or who studied Political Science at Dartmouth, who worked their way up with a pure desire to serve our nation, rather than stuff money into their bra in a downtown delicatessen. The real question, I suppose, is why those people would get involved.  Certainly they could make far more money in the private sector, with less stress, and not be under a microscope day and night.   Perhaps that’s a curse we’ve placed on our own system of government.  It’s rare to find people wealthy enough, and brilliant enough, that they are able or willing to take a public sector job.   I suppose the few examples out there where such things have happened, have worked out well, but those are incredibly rare.   Take, for example, Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of NY.   A brilliant entrepreneur, worth billions of dollars of his own self-made money, he’s managed to be an effective leader, with no real “ulterior motive.” He’s doing the job because it’s what he enjoys and he’s trying to contribute, not for the money or glory, all of which he already had.  I suppose to some extend the same was true for Ted Kennedy.  Not that he was ever the most brilliant person, nor did I agree with some of his politics, but I do have to hand it to him for stepping up, donating his salary year after year to charity, and paying his staff out of his own pocket.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well for him.

The question we need to come to as a society is what will work best for us.  I’m in no way proposing a wholesale change in our nations governmental systems.  Rather I just want to think about how if we have 1000 men and women working on our aircraft carrier we can have the absolute smartest one driving the boat.

The evening before election day in Shrewsbury….

Well we’ve come to the end of election season at last.  Soon we’ll be able to return to a normal life.  A life without hostility intertwining it’s way into our commercials, a life with no standouts on Saturday mornings, no signs, no bumper stickers and no debates.  Soon, we can all hug and love each other again, and worry about things like how Randy Moss can get fired his first week on the job.

Tomorrow night, we’ll know the answers, and find out who our leaders will be.  Some of the news will be exciting, and other news will be disappointing, and yet the world will ultimately go on.   Why is that by the way?   I mean if we believe what we hear on the television commercials, the world as we know it should stop spinning on it’s axis in candidate a gets elected instead of candidate b.  Yet historically, has that ever really happened?  Would Nixon have done anything different than Kennedy did during the Bay of Pigs?  Well I suppose he might have bugged Castro’s headquarters and had better intel, but other than that would it really have been any different?   If the hanging chads had hung in a slightly different way in Boca Raton, and All Gore were President, would we not have gone into Iraq?  When Obama was elected, wasn’t there a campaign promise to bring all of our troops home in 6 months?

I suppose in the end the question is whether any of our political leaders really have the power to make any substantive change, good or bad, in anything that affects our daily lives.   That doesn’t imply that they don’t all work hard, or have the best of intentions, but rather that the “power” that any one political figure has in our Democracy is so diluted that they really can’t single handedly do much of anything.   I watched with great interest the debate between Jim McGovern and Marty Lamb, and they both insist that one of the primary reasons to vote for them is that they will “bring jobs to the region.”   Now, can any of them actually “bring jobs?”  One of them will most certainly be elected tomorrow.  When exactly will the jobs be here?

Even the President of the United States has no power at all to make 90% of the changes he promised.   Allowing gays to serve in the military, bringing peace and prosperity to the world, brining home the troops, or the famous Obama tag line about working for “Main Street, not Wall St.”  Is that what the huge bank bailout package did? I don’t fault the President. I’m sure he’s doing his best.  It’s just that he can only do what he can get all the other branches of government to go along with.  We don’t live in a monarchy here.  Actually, even if we did…..can the Queen of England do anything she wants?

I’m sure I had a point here, though I’m not quite sure what it was.  I think it basically comes down to a simple acceptance that no matter what the results of the election hold for tomorrow, it’s going to be ok. Life will go on.  Those who lose will cry, lick their wounds, and get back to work, always wondering if people will ever stop thinking of them as “the candidate that didn’t win.”  They wont, by the way…but they will view you with deep respect as the candidate who tried.  Those who win will celebrate, cast a sigh of relief, and then wonder what the hell they got themselves in to.   Their first week will be a whirlwind of excitement and thrill beyond belief, as they feel more important then they’ve ever felt in their lives. Then, reality sets in, as they get into their first meetings, and realize that their idealist views sounded great in the campaign, but their fellow elected officials have other ideas, and building a consensus is altogether different then running a campaign.  In the end, as the old saying goes, “a camel is a horse built by committee.”  You win some, you lose some.

Of course, in the end, everyone will try to do the best throughout their term, so they can to justify coming back to us in two years and asking to be elected once again.  And the circle of life goes on…

“And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game”

Joni Mitchell

Never thought I’d miss diaper commercials…

politics 300x155 Never thought Id miss diaper commercials... Shrewsbury MassachusettsSHREWSBURY – If you’re like me, election day can’t come soon enough.  As an avid TV watcher, I can no longer stand the streams of commercials touting one political candidate or another.  I remember someone posting on Facebook the other day that for the first time in the election cycle, 100% of the commercials in a given program were political ads.  If that weren’t bad enough, the ads themselves are just so incredibly mean that it’s hard to imagine us emerging as a more civilized society when it’s all over.

I’m not sure who went negative first in this cycle.  Actually, I think it started with the Republican Governors Council going after Tim Baker…but once it happened it was  ”gloves off.”  As I’m sitting here typing, watching Good Morning America, I’m seeing them come through one after another.  First was the ad suggesting that Congressional Candidate Jeff Perry stands around while children are molested by police.  Next, the anti-Patrick ad  that implies that the Governor wants welfare mothers to use their money to “buy booze and play slot machines.”  Then lastly came the ridiculous anti-Polito ad that the Grossman people  put out with the puppy. Each one seems to be worse, more mean, and less true than the one before.

The pattern of these commercials all seem to be identical….so much so that I wonder if they are all produced by the same person.   First is the haunting music…with the photo of the candidate – always the single most unflattering photo ever taken, of course – talking about how this candidate is single-handedly responsible for everything from World War I to the Black Plague.  Then the music changes to the happy, peppy music, and you see the best photo ever taken of “candidate 2″ where he (she) is skipping down the yellow brick road that leads to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that every citizen will get, if only this guy is elected.

Things at the local level don’t seem to be quite as bad….probably because the local candidates don’t have the funding to make all these silly commercials, and perhaps because they know that unlike the state-wide races, when it’s all over these guys all have to live in the same town. I suppose there’s something to be said for the latter.  After all, regardless of who wins or who loses the Governors race, they probably aren’t going to be bumping into their opponent at a school bake sale.

As we think back to our founding fathers, I wonder if this is what they had in mind?  If they had the power of mass media two hundred years ago, would they have resorted to this same level.  The answer is that sadly, they probably would.  For those history buffs out there, think about the heavily divisive election of Thomas Jefferson, as the nations third President.  Opposed by Charles Pickney and Aaron Burr,  they fought a campaign fraught with scathing commentary on both sides.  When the election was held, the electoral college vote came out as a tie!!  Under the rules of the new Constitution, it went to the House of Representatives to select the President. Alexander Hamilton, far too controversial to run for President himself, but widely respected in political circles, sealed his fate forever by writing letters of support for Jefferson, and going out of his way to oppose Aaron Burr, the man who would later come back and take his life in the now infamous duel on the New Jersey shore.

Ler us hope that we get through the election cycle without any of the Candidates challenging each other for a duel on the Boston Common.   Let us get through this week, and, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “join together to bind the nations wounds….to do all we can to achieve a lasting peace.”

Could the Verizon iPhone rumors be true at last?

iphone verizon Could the Verizon iPhone rumors be true at last? Shrewsbury MassachusettsSHREWSBURY – How many times have we been told the same old story…that the Apple iPhone for Verizon is just around the corner.   I know the rumors usually start about this time of year, in anticipation of the upcoming holiday season, but as yet they just haven’t ever come true.

It’s almost as though this silly telephone has become the holy grail for the huge majority of us who just can’t relegate ourselves to the fact that TMobile coverage in the Shrewsbury area is just not up to par.   Now this time it seemed as though the rumors might be a bit more substantiated, to the point where companies have gone as far as to downgrade Motorola on the rumors of the Verizon iPhone, and others have implied that the prototypes are well beyond the development phase, and now in final testing phase before building the millions of units needed to satisfy what will obviously be overwhelming demand.

Wondering what the companies official position was, I stopped into the Verizon store in Shrewsbury today, and asked the sales folks what they knew.  No surprise, the answer was nothing.  According to one nice sales person there, he said they the people that work for Verizon are always the last to know.

The real question is why this “quest” even exists? I mean I have a blackberry that I love, an better camera than that in any phone,  and an iPod sitting on the kitchen counter that I don’t even use, so why have I convinced myself that the world as I know it will change when I get my iPhone.

I suppose it’s more the lust for something you’re told that you can’t have, than anything else. I mean after all, the iPhone 4 users that were the early adopters were the same ones that had faulty antenna’s only to be told by Apple not to “hold the phone a certain way” while they were talking on it, or they’d drop the call.

A totally separate phenomena, I presume, is how the rest of the cell phone industry has created this whole race of iPhone wannabe’s.  I spent a bit of time at the Shrewsbury Verizon store checking out the Droid’s, the Samsung etc., and all they can talk about is how it compares to an iPhone, why it’s better etc..  The Droid looked really tempting, especially being able to talk to the phone and ask it to locate the nearest italian restaurant, which it did, on a map, with a full review.  It was very, very cool, and I was nearly sold on it until I was told that I couldn’t synch it with Apple Mail.

So, the wait for the holy grail of cellular technology continues, and now it seems it’s just a matter of time….or so we’re told…

Steve

Has Halloween morphed into something else?

As a young boy, Halloween was always my very favorite holiday. We would plan our costume very carefully, and of course we did it all ourselves.  There was no “purchasing of a costume” at a local store, so whatever we had around the house, combined with some make up, and maybe a set or two of wax vampire teeth would do the trick.  My friends and I would hook up and begin our trek for what seemed like miles and miles, and of course was really about two blocks.  Much as the kids of today, a pillow case was the ultimate candy carrying bag.

We went house to house for over an hour, but we weren’t allowed to go to the brick apartment building, because according to my mother that’s where they supposedly killed children. Of course, mom also taught us that venereal diseases came from walking barefoot in the public bathroom at the beach!   After making it all the way around the block, it was time to sit down and sort out our booty.   Mom made us throw away all of the apples, of course, because she said that the killers hid needles in them to kill the children. Then all the unwrapped food was tossed out, the cookies and brownies etc., leaving only the individual store bought and wrapped candy that mom would inspect for us.   Do you get the feeling she was a bit over protective? Perhaps, but I’ve grown up the same way…

The common elements when we were young were that first and foremost we all wore costumes.  There was no trick or treating our of costume allowed. The other thing is that we only took ONE piece of candy. Sometimes, a mom or dad would put two in our bag, but most often we’d reach into the bowl, take one piece, and be done.

All of that has certainly changed over the years.  In my neighborhood, most of the young kids have no grown up. With the exception of a mere handful of youngsters, the bulk of the crop of kids we all had once we moved in are now 15 years old.   This begs the question of when are kids too old to trick or treat.  In my mind, I don’t really care if you’re 16 and want to trick or trick at my house on Halloween, but wear a costume!!   Only one thing bugs me more than a pack of 15 year old kids with no costumes on ringing my doorbell begging for candy.  That one thing by the way, is when it’s a bunch of 15 year old kids who don’t even live in our neighborhood.

Yes it’s true, we get imports of trick or treaters from other areas of Shrewsbury and quite a few from Worcester.  They arrive in mini-vans into our neighborhood, where they pile out onto our streets, no costumes, and just go door to door asking for candy. Now I’m not sure where the official rules of Halloween reside in the zeitgeist of the holiday, but something tells me that it’s an event limited to where you actually live.

Another odd phenomena that has actually been scientifically studied is the idea of kids reaching into a bowl and grabbing fistfuls of candy. Sometimes, when I would need to go out walking with my own kids when they were younger, we would have to just put out a bowl of candy on the porch for kids to help themselves.  Without fail, after ten kids had come up to the door, the bowl would be completely empty as greed took the place of manners and kids grabbed whatever they could.

Several years ago, as I mentioned, there was a scientific study done on Halloween candy grabbing.  They tested kids who had a costume with a mask that covered their face, and without the mask.  Kids who’s faces were covered, thus providing anonymity grabbed far more candy in an honor system give a way than kids who’s faces were uncovered.  Moreover, when a mirror was placed behind the bowl of unattended candy, even the kids with masks took far less. The reason for this was determined to be that as long as they saw themselves in the mirror, they held themselves accountable for their conduct, and felt guilty taking more than one or two pieces. Who would have thought that we would ever study Halloween scientifically, but I found these tests incredibly interesting in their ability to predict human behavior.

I hope everyone has a safe and happy Halloween this year.  Remember no apples or apartment buildings, and while we’re at it, just in case my mom was right, wear flip flops in the bathroom at the beach ok?

People, birds, and rodents…

As humans we seem to have a very interesting love hate relationship with the animal kingdom, and I often wonder what it is about certain species that has created long standing morays and what I can only describe as rampant discrimination.   I myself am as guilty of such discrimination as anyone else.  For example, I have mouse traps in my garage, at the same time as I’m buying a fifty pound bag of sunflower seeds and peanuts, which I carefully lay out for the chipmunks in my yard, so that they can store it up for the winter, sleep and snack well, and come back to play with me in the spring.   Why is this?  Why do we love chipmunks, but scream if a field mouse or rat goes by?  How did the chipmunk endear itself to human society , to the detriment of the mouse, or the mole?  Why is seeing a bunny rabbit in the yard a thing of excitement, yet seeing a muskrat  would be abhorrent to most.

This same phenomena of discrimination continues even in the insect kingdom.   We plant shrubs to attract butterflies, yet kill moths, flies, and even honey bees.   We catch fireflies in our hand and treasure that experience, yet we trap and kill japanese beetles. Ninety percent of spiders cause most to be paralyzed with fear, yet a daddy long-legs crawling on the table can be picked up and gently relocated to a different spot.

The worst, however, is one which I myself did the other day.  Yes it’s true, I, who grew up in the most integrated town imaginable, just outside Newark NJ, was guilty of discrimination, and I still don’t understand why.    I had set up four bird feeders in my backyard, which I’ve stocked religiously with a wide array of different bird foods to attract and appeal to a host of feathered friends. We have gorgeous red cardinals, blue-jays that are so vividly blue that they are almost irridescent, gold finches, and these amazing red-winged black birds that I had never seen before, and needed help to identify.   I could watch these birds for hours, putting out special treats that they’d like, and even trying yesterday to get one of the small finches to eat from my hand.

The more birds the merrier, I thought…but is that really how I feel?   The other day, a crow found it’s way to my bird-feeder.  I really didn’t think much of it at the time, as it came and went pretty quickly, other than to note that it was much larger than the others.  I have no idea what he told his friends, but five minutes after it left, over 50 crows descended on my bird feeders en mass.  It was unbelievable.  I felt like Tippi Hedren have a really bad day!!   I quickly ran out and chased them away, but as soon as I came back in the house, the flew back in.   Finally I threw a rock into the woods making a huge “boom” and banged a 2×4 against the deck.   They finally flew away for good.  Phew….

The question I pose to you is why?  Why do I treasure the blue, red, and grey birds, but chase the black ones away??  It makes no sense.  Either I want to help the bird community or I don’t.  How could I be discriminating arbitrarily against a bird based on color?  What’s next? Do I start sorting birds based on religion, sexual preference, beak size?  It seems positively ludicrous that the red-winged blackbird is a treasured addition to my menagerie, but the all black crow isn’t welcome.   The only thing I can possibly fathom is that in some subconscious way, I view the crow as not being a win-win member of my community.   I must believe that the other birds are  offering something to me in exchange that the others are not.  They are permanent members of my yard.   I feed them, and they let me watch their day to day behaviors, and as such we both benefit from the relationship.   The crows would have just come in, eaten all the food, and left – never to return.   To me that must mean that I’m somehow self-justified in my behavior, although I too admit that it’s a stretch, and that discrimination in any form is something to be avoided at all costs.

I therefore send out an open invitation to crows everywhere to establish a new and improved rapport with me.   Come live in my yard, and be a regular member of my community.   Let’s talk, watch each other, and have some fun together…and then you’ll be welcome at my bird feeder.  If you want to invite friends over, then do as I tell my kids, and just let me know.  I’ll buy some special food just for you and your guests, and if it’s not too much trouble, when they leave, help me clean up the mess.

Together, we’ll form a rainbow coalition that will form stronger bonds with birds throughout the world.

Why do busses come in threes?

That was the title of the book my son read for summer reading and it was a fantastic musing about the mathematical principals behind the things we see in every day life. Of course, living in a non-metro area, most of you probably don’t know what they’re talking about, but growing up in the inner city, as I did, we would take the city bus to school each morning for 40 cents.   Back then, unlike today, I was insanely organized and had little piles consisting of a nickel, dime, and quarter, scotch taped together and set up for the weeks bus fees.  For those who’ve taken busses regularly, there’s a known phenomena whereby you wait for your bus fro what seems like an eternity, and then three of them come in a row.  The book went on to explain the math behind why that happens, and how the first bus, simply because it’s first, get’s bogged down because at each stop there are all these people waiting to get on and off, and it takes a lot of time. The second bus, and the third, having left the station 5 and ten minutes later respectively, get to each stop and find only one person there if that, so they move faster, and inevitably catch up.    It was a great book, if you have a chance to read it, and went over a multitude of other incredibly interesting statistical analyses, such as the fact that in a class of 25 kids, the odds that two will have the same birthday is actually almost 50%!

Where was I going with all this? I think it was tied to the thought that like buses, bad things come in threes as well.   This week, for me, it was mechanical things.   First my Yukon with a zillion miles on it that I loaned to my son to take to college blew a part is the transmission.   Now there’s a quick way to spend a two thousand dollars on a car that’s probably worth six thousand.  You quickly find yourself trapped in the circuitous thought of having a car that’s too valuable to junk, but barely valuable enough to fix.

Next, it was my Espresso machine, which is a really slick, and quite expensive one, that basically bit the dust.   Now as a true caffeine addict, I can handle just about anything life has to throw at me, as long as I have my coffee first!  Well, when that thing is the coffee maker, and you have to deal with the problem without coffee, it’s an incredible thing.  That is, if you’re truly an addict.

Last night, was the Wed. School Committee meeting.  It was a great meeting, we finished by 9:30, which is rare, and I headed home only to have my right front tire blow out a few hundred yards from town hall.   Talk about the wrong place for such a thing to happen.  I quickly put the flashers on and crept along the side of Maple trying to get to an empty parking lot where I could park to deal with it.   You know what amazed me though, is that nobody stopped to help.   Last week, Jamie saw an older man stuck on Route 9.   He’d run out of gas, could get no help.  His friend walked over to the Shell station and they said they had no gas cas so they couldn’t assist.   She called me, and I ran out with gas for the guy, filled him up on Route 9, and got him on his way.  Now, a few days later, here I was, car disabled on the side of the road, and nobody stopped to help.   Well, I shouldn’t say that, because the person who lived in the house I stopped in front of came out to ask what I was doing, but I’m not sure that was for my benefit as much as to make sure I wasn’t going to break into his home.   Either way I did appreciate it.   I was just surprised that no drivers stopped.  Not even other folks leaving town hall.

While I waited for Jamie to pick me up, four people came to the parking lot where I stood outside my car, flat tire and all.   They parked, went to take money out of the ATM machine, got right back in their cars, and drove off – never giving a second thought to whether I needed help.  Clearly I was well dressed, coming from my meeting, and standing with my Porsche with it’s flashers on, so I’m assuming their excuse isn’t that I looked like a crazed killer.  I have to assume, instead, that they just really didn’t give want to go out of their way to help, which is just such an odd commentary on our society.  I know I stop all the time for people, on highways, in ditches of snow, change tires, get gas etc….   I just think it’s what we as a civilized society need to do for each other.

So, why do busses come in threes?   Well perhaps it’s not a mathematical algorithm after  all.  It could just as easily be so that if one get’s a flat tire, the one behind them will be able to stop and help them out of a jam.

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