Monday, August 30, 2010

The New System: Saving Money and Lives

Imagine being sick, having no job, and no home. Then, imagine someone putting her hand out, helping you find a doctor, a job, a place to live, and welcoming you into a community of friends. “Crystal House has saved my life”, said James, about the center he attends daily. “I was homeless and I spent years in the state hospital before I found out about Crystal House. They’ve helped me get jobs and stay out of the hospital for over three years. “

Crystal House is one of thirty-two recovery and rehabilitation centers, or “Clubhouses”, across Massachusetts that provide a lifeline to more than 8,000 people each year who, like James, are affected by serious mental illness. Working side by side with staff, members of the Clubhouse participate in the activities that keep the centers running day-to-day, while learning to manage the symptoms of their illness. Clubhouses are voluntary programs focused on people’s strengths, built on the belief that work, supportive relationships, and the need to be needed, are central to people’s recovery. The center help members get jobs, housing, and health care. They provide a community of support and a place to go, a place to belong.

Now imagine losing all that. The state, who funds these centers through the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), is in the process of making changes in its contracting system, changes that may threaten the very existence of Massachusetts Clubhouses. “To lose Crystal House would be like losing my family”, said James.

Not only do the centers provide lifelines for people with psychiatric illnesses, but they have been saving the state significant money in the process. The current annual Clubhouse funding of $18.8 million works out to an average of less than $2,500a year for services to one person. For each day that James was in the hospital, it cost $1,000 per day. When a Clubhouse assists one member from being hospitalized for three days, it has already saved the Commonwealth money. For more than 8,000 people over the course of one year, that’s a huge savings.

Massachusetts has been funding human service providers to run Clubhouses since the mid 1980’s. Although the state periodically reviews contracts, there has been no system in place to ensure that this happens; the last time EOHHS reviewed Clubhouse contracts was 1995. In August, 2008, providers were thrilled when the Massachusetts Legislature passed Chapter 257, mandating that the state reform its system for purchasing services for its most vulnerable citizens. The law’s most important requirements have great potential to ease strained Clubhouse budgets, which have been level funded for fifteen years. Chapter 257 mandates that the state reimburse providers at a reasonable rate for their costs and to pay human services workers fair, livable wages.

Although Clubhouse providers are happy to finally have their contracts reviewed, the members and staff at the centers have reason to be concerned. The state plans to meet their mandates without providing any additional funding. In addition, EOHHS has made it clear that it will not require Clubhouses to adhere to the standards set forth by the International Center for Clubhouse Development (ICCD).

Like the other Clubhouses in Massachusetts, Crossroad’s budget and staff are stretched to the limit. It’s hard enough to run a business and keep up with the rising prices of food, gasoline and utilities; never mind working for 15 years without receiving a raise. The program’s transportation costs have grown by a third in the past fifteen years, In 1995 Crossroads staff provided services to 30 members a day. Now, with the same amount of money, it can afford only a staff of seven, but it serves twice as many. Most employees still make less than $30,000 a year, so turnover is high. Some Clubhouses in the state report staff turnover rates as high as 37%.

“We are hemorrhaging workers, stated Reva Stein, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Clubhouse Coalition, a non profit organization that advocates on behalf of the state’s 32 centers. “Clubhouses are based on the belief that relationships and work are the key to recovery. How can you build relationships if one third of your staff are leaving every year?”

In its report to the Legislature outlining EOHHS’s plan to revise the contracting system, the agency acknowledged the extremely high staff turnover caused by low wages. There have been other positive signs from the state. In March 2010, Secretary Judyann Bigby’s support of Massachusetts recovery and rehabilitation centers was encouraging. “We know that Clubhouses not only help individuals recover, but they are part of our economic engine as well… The earning power of members also shows that employers have tapped into a pool of talented, skillful, hardworking individuals who have overcome the greatest odds and found their strengths as productive employees.”

Yet, despite the EOHHS report and her encouraging words, the Secretary also stated this past year, that cuts to human services, as short sighted as they may be, will continue to be made. She acknowledged these cuts may save money now, but will cost the Commonwealth in the long run. If EOHHS does eliminate any of the 32 centers that assist the more than 8,000 people each year, the Commonwealth’s commitment to “Community First,” to serving families and individuals in the community, and not in institutional settings, will be severely weakened. Years of research and experience has shown that a lack of adequate community mental health services results in dramatic increases in recidivism rates at psychiatric hospitals, numbers of people incarcerated in our prisons and jails, and the numbers of people who are homeless; all much more costly than supporting people in the community.

The majority of Massachusetts Clubhouses are certified by the ICCD, which has developed a set of Clubhouse Standards; a sort of “bill of rights” for members and a code of ethics for staff and administrators. By meeting these standards a Clubhouse achieves certification by the ICCD. They are a basis for assessing the quality of the centers. Clubhouse Directors across Massachusetts are concerned about the state’s unwillingness to require certification. Although EOHHS officials remarked that the state would not preclude Clubhouses from following the standards, Kevin Bradley, Executive Director of Genesis Club in Worcester, was skeptical. “It leaves an opening for the state to require us to provide services in a way that would conflict with the standards. You can’t separate a Clubhouse from the standards; they define who we are.”

Last year, with the support of Clubhouses, 1,950 Massachusetts citizens with mental illness earned over $13 million as working, tax-paying citizens. Paula is one of them. She is working three days a week as a peer specialist at a clinic near her home, a job that she obtained with the support and encouragement of the staff and members at Crossroads Clubhouse. Like James, she credits the center with keeping her stable, staying out of the hospital and getting a job. “The support that I’ve received from the staff and members at the Clubhouse is the main part of my recovery. Day-in and day-out, being part of this community and the feeling of contributing something important, is what makes all the difference for me.” Paula has never felt better about herself, but at the same time, she is terrified of losing the very thing that has helped her achieve so much.

As EOHHS has labored to define its rate setting terms, the economy has worsened. At a recent public forum, officials from EOHHS and the Department of Mental Health suggested that “the decision to reduce the number of Clubhouses is definitely under consideration.”

This is what terrifies Paula. “If you limit the number of Clubhouses, you limit the number of people who can be served. I come here every day I’m not working to be challenged and to be supported. If this program goes away, what am I going to do?” she asked. “Where am I going to go?” Her concerns are echoed by many members across the state. James from Gardner, Brenda from Fall River and Dawn from Springfield, all share Paula’s fear.

“Not only are members afraid, so are the staff. We could lose it all,” worried Val Comerford, Director of Crossroads. We don’t know how EOHHS could possibly keep the same number of Clubhouses and raise staff salaries, and without the standards, the very thing that makes a Clubhouse what it is could be completely dismantled.”

As the Executive Office of Health and Human Services develops its new system for funding community mental health programs, it should pay close attention to Clubhouses and the standards that ensure the quality of their services. It makes sense that EOHHS and its fiscal departments closely examine just what Clubhouses do, and how to reimburse them for their work. It is important that while deciding how to allocate its limited dollars today, EOHHS is careful not follow a short sighted course. The current initiative to revise the funding system for these centers must keep in mind the desperate need to pay workers a livable wage, as well as the critical role that all 32 Clubhouses play, not only in saving the Commonwealth millions of dollars each year, but in saving the lives of many of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Homeschooling: An Overview

While homeschooling is becoming more common in the United States—approximately 2.5 million school-aged kids were educated at home last year—the method is often shrouded in vague notions of pajama-clad children lounging about, families with 10 children dressed alike, or spelling/geography/what-have-you-bees academic superstars.

Parents decide to homeschool for many reasons, but at the heart of each family stands a firm belief in the right of the individual—for parents, to educate as they see fit, and for children, to start them off on a path of truly enjoying learning.

A National Household Education survey found that “concern about environment of other schools” and “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools” outranked “to provide religious or moral instruction” for the first time since such motivations were tracked. Another multiple-option survey from Trinity University found the majority citing “can give child a better education at home” over “religious reasons” as their primary reason for homeschooling.

The decision to homeschool is not taken lightly. Parents acutely feel the burden they’re placing on themselves, and are often racked with fear: “What if I can’t teach them to read?” “Am I leaving “gaps” in their education? “How will I handle algebra?” Rather than a casual decision to whisk their kids out of the public school, months are often spent researching other options, trying to make the current situation work, looking at curriculum requirements, evaluating books, and a lot of soul searching. Most families go down to a single income, with the mother as primary teacher/facilitator. Expenses also go up buying books, resources, and other items that their tax dollars otherwise would have paid for. Most homeschooling families spend approximately $500.00 per child per year on curriculum, with the first year costing even more. Parents also give up any semblance of “alone time” in lieu of being together 24/7.

Blog posts, advice columns, grassroots connections, state/local organizations, conventions, and curriculum fairs all help to field the fears and concerns of parents trying to decide whether this lifestyle—and it is a lifestyle—is worth it for them.

Homeschooling parents can be hard on their children, with exacting standards. My friends and I used to think it highly unfair that our public schooled friends could get an A with only a 90, while we were held to a 93 or above. The lives of homeschooling children after graduation reflect back on the parents. Homeschoolers generally want their children to go on to college, to get good jobs, to be successful. “Dumbing down” their grades—often a reason they leave public school in the first place—will not help their children, and they know it. Any deficiency will quickly show up in transcripts, test scores, essays, or initial college grades.

In order to ensure no “learning gaps” exist in their child’s education, most homeschoolers try to follow a method that best suits their teaching style and their children’s learning style. These methods popularly include:

Classical Education
Charlotte Mason
Boxed Curriculum (School-at-Home)
Distance/Facilitated Learning
Unit studies

Each has its strengths and weaknesses for a particular family; one can indulge in nature studies all day while the other reads Cicero. In both cases, they nail the essentials through books oriented towards their style of learning, while hitting all the electives they want to cover. There is no need for rigidity, however. Most homeschoolers fall under the “eclectic” category—that is, they mix and match. Many parents, the first year they homeschool, write down a flexible list of all that they want to cover, and place it side-by-side with any state or college acceptance requirements. From there, they can easily see what remains to be done in how many years. Combining those subjects with topics that the student is interested in, the parent and child can then work on finding the books and resources they feel would work best. Choosing the right curriculum for the year is a challenge, especially if it’s non-returnable, and occupies the entire month of August for most families. Catalogs fill the mailbox, reviews are read, samples obtained, books ordered, examined, returned, and new ones bought.

Planning and organization is the cornerstone of homeschooling—and for good reason. Most homeschoolers plan out their work for the year, month, and day, but remain flexible. There’s no need to be tied to a five-days-a-week schedule; days can be spontaneously taken off and made up later; work can be doubled in order to take the next day off. There’s room for Real Life. Some families school year-round with many breaks; others follow siblings in the public schools; still other change up the year to have breaks for new babies, travel, or other unique situations. Homeschooling schedules vary with the family—and that flexibility is one of the primary reasons so many people choose to homeschool. It’s relaxing, it’s spontaneous, and it allows for plenty of field trips, books to be read, new concepts explored, and detours accepted.

When I was homeschooled in elementary school, my day would often look like this:

Morning Chores
Independent Work (Math, Grammar, Reading, other Workbooks)
Lunch & Together Reading
Together Work (Science, Art, Music—other activities my siblings and I could participate in together)

Homeschooling allows for extremely close bonds to form (and fights to occur) between siblings. The teaching parent will often combine classes, instructing similarly aged kids the same subjects, and making up the difference later on. As most homeschooling families do tend to be larger than average, this doubling up eases the schedule for the parent, and allows for collaborative work. The lack of emphasis on specific grade-levels makes this easy to accomplish.

As students grow older, parents take on more of a facilitator’s role, buying books and gathering supplies, rather than actually teaching. By middle school at the latest, students have been taught how to teach themselves—how to take responsibility for their own education, how to pace themselves throughout the year. Homeschooling allows you to move at your own pace; I could read phrough all of Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, and the Brontës, writing papers along the way. I could also spread out my math until I (at least sort of) understood it. It’s common for homeschooled high schoolers to be done with all of their work by noon; if you only have so many subjects, you know how many pages have to be done each day, and when you’re just working by yourself it can be finished very quickly.

My high school schedule looked something like this:

AM: (book work)

After Lunch:
Interactive lessons, depending on the day:
Archaeology Lab
Figure Skating
Farsi lessons

On the days where I had no other outside activities, I just finished early; I could devote the rest of the day to being with friends, helping my little siblings with their work, or continuing to read whatever I was interested in. This schedule went smoothly while we were at home. However, with five kids in the family, the youngest twelve years younger than myself, we joked it ought to be called “carschooling.” Lessons were done in the waiting room, in the car, at the mall. Distractions ceased to exist—even at home, I often had some child on my lap, or at least their (hopefully happy) playing would echo throughout the house. My best friend (the oldest of 11) and I both have pictures of us making dinner with a child on our hip while reading some book. Like most Eldest-Homeschooled-Siblings, we learned to study no matter what the circumstances.

However, I fully realize that perhaps I had the ideal combination of circumstances and personality. Homeschooling is not some magical formula that determines success. There are parents that should probably never attempt it, and some kids for whom the structure and oversight of public school better suits them. For myself, I was introverted, and thus cared nothing for the larger “social” scope of school; I left the public school after third grade, and both before and after I preferred close friends over crowds. I enjoyed learning, I knew what I wanted to do (archaeology and English), and I enjoyed the opportunity to direct my studies towards these ends.

My brother, the eldest after me, did not enjoy homeschooling. He didn’t listen to my mom, wanted to spend more time with larger groups of people, and needed the direction of teachers who were not his parents. He also had a habit of playing with Legos more than tackling his math. The one advantage that he had—and one my parents disapproved of—was the copious amount of time he spent fiddling with computers. He always knew he wanted to go into an IT field; in the public high school, he was able to take Cysco programming classes and gain college credit.

However, the fact that homeschooling is not for everyone does not mean that it cannot be for anyone. When one imagines all the possibilities for failure—and cases of actual failure—it’s not hard to jump to conclusions of wide swaths of the population growing up in religiously conservative, ignorant families who only seek to shelter them from the godless, liberal masses. And unfortunately, like many stereotypes, there is almost always a grain of truth in this, despite how inaccurate the overarching picture might be.

The stereotype homeschoolers hate the most, and roundly scoff at, is what they call “The S Question”: Socialization. The image of homeschooling can be one of families isolated within their homes, totally cut off from anything else. This perception could not be farther from the truth. Homeschoolers are actually incredibly socially active—both with each other, and with the outside world—and this is generally true of all types of homeschoolers.

Many join co-ops, which are groups in which a qualified parent or volunteer teaches a class: a physicist teaching physics, a doctor teaching anatomy and physiology, a writer teaching writing. The vast majority of homeschoolers have experience within classroom settings with homework due and all the formalities of a normal class.

There’s also the perception that homeschoolers have to do everything themselves, when really, they’re more orchestrators of individualized education plans than anything else. They have no problem with utilizing the best experts available, or sending their kids off for a class or three. During my high school education, I took Algebra II at a local high school, logic at a co-op, piano lessons with another friend, Farsi lessons from a tutor, skating lessons from a coach, was a stage manager with a local theatre company, worked as a volunteer in the state archaeology lab, and held a job at the Discovery Channel Store. I was anything but sheltered, and I certainly did not teach myself everything.

Homeschoolers also congregate as local groups and set up shared field trips, take classes together, and just get together to play. These varied experiences are certainly not unique to me, and lend themselves to homeschooled students having broad socialization skills; they often do not care to only be with their own peer group, however. I had plenty of friends my own age, including of course my best friends, but I also considered people of all ages to be within that category—and valued the time I was able to spend with them throughout the day.

The true test of homeschooling as a legitimate educational option, however, lies in the results. Trinity College found that homeschoolers scored an average of 1.7 points higher on the ACTs and 67 points higher on the SAT. With many home educated students graduating from high school, colleges no longer find them an anomaly. College applications have specific instructions for homeschoolers (no class rankings!) and employers often hire homeschooled students.

On par academically and socially, as shown by test scores, college acceptance/ graduation rates, and statistically higher levels of community involvement after graduation, homeschooling has rightly been accepted as an alternative form of education. Now moving into the second-generation, the first class of homeschoolers taught by homeschooled students is poised to continue and improve upon the methods that their parents helped to create.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Whitey Bulger: Southie's Man of Mystery

South Boston today conjures up images of three-story houses lined up in a row, a stroll down to Castle Island, and watching the famous St. Patrick’s Day parade. The history of South Boston also includes these images, but there is a darker picture looming in the background, and that is the image of the Irish mob and James “Whitey” Bulger who once ruled the organized crime scene in South Boston.

Whitey Bulger and his followers instilled fear not only in the citizens of South Boston, but in those living in surrounding areas. Today, South Boston has a fairly good reputation and its population is growing, but when it was Bulger’s territory, the stigma of this area in Boston was anything but safe or respectable.

James Bulger was born September 3, 1929. He grew up in Dorchester, MA and was one of six children. His nickname “Whitey” came from his head of white-blond hair and stuck with him for life. He grew up in a housing project in South Boston and almost immediately began causing trouble. At age ten, he ran away with the circus and at fourteen he was arrested for stealing. From there, his criminal record only grew worse. Among his crimes of youth were larceny, forgery, assault and battery, and armed robbery. After serving five years in a juvenile facility, he joined the Air Force but was put in military jail for assault and was arrested for going AWOL. He was discharged in 1952, returned to Boston, and began his life of crime.

Bulger was convicted of three bank robberies across the country from Rhode Island to Indiana, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. While in prison, he voluntarily took LSD for a research program to reduce his stay. However, he also passed a hacksaw blade to three inmates for an escape plot and was sent to Alcatraz for three years. After Alcatraz, Bulger was imprisoned at Leavenworth and Lewisburg. He returned to his hometown in 1965 and became an enforcer for Donald Killeen, a crime boss in Boston. Killeen, however, was shot and killed in 1972 and Bulger joined the Winter Hill Gang. He quickly rose to power, aiding in numerous murders and already proving what a ruthless and shameless mobster he was.

By the late seventies, Bulger became one of the biggest mobsters in the Boston organized crime world. He took over Howie Winter’s gang after Winter was sent to prison and Bulger also came into control of a lot of Boston’s drug dealing, bookmaking, and loan sharking. In only sixteen years, eighteen murders were committed under Bulger’s reign.

Bulger, trying to keep himself safe, became an FBI informant. Whitey’s brother, William Bulger, was in the Massachusetts State Senate and Whitey took full advantage of his brother’s stature. He also kept many childhood friends who worked in the police force around Boston and was able to keep his crimes under wraps. With the help of these people, Bulger was able to bring down the Italian-American Patriarca crime family in Boston and built his own organized crime network that was even more dangerous and violent than the Italian mob.

Bulger’s influence spread all around South Boston and especially to the youth growing up in the Southie projects. In Michael Patrick MacDonald’s book entitled All Souls, he discusses Bulger and his influence on the teens living in the area once Bulger brought his drug trade into the South Boston projects. MacDonald chronicles Bulger’s power over young individuals and the alarming number of teens who died under Bulger’s control either from murder, suicide, or drug overdose. According to an article published in The Boston Globe entitled “The Man Who Opened the Windows and Screamed,” a lawyer once approached MacDonald and “urged [him] to file a class-act suit against the FBI, modeled on smokers’ suits against Big Tobacco, for allowing Bulger to terrorize Southie residents with impunity.” MacDonald’s book gave a testimony to the horror that Bulger and his crew created in South Boston.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Boston Police Department finally began investigating Bulger’s gambling ring. In 1995, Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, his associate, were indicted but Bulger got away with no punishment. There are rumors that Bulger’s correspondent in the FBI, Special Agent John Connelly, tipped him off so that he could flee before he was arrested. John Connelly was sentenced to a ten year term in prison for working with Bulger and feeding him inside information. It has been reported that Bulger and his common law wife, Theresa Stanley, fled just after Thanksgiving and did not return until January. They roamed from place to place including Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Clearwater, Florida.

Bulger returned to Boston with Theresa Stanley, but fled once again soon after with a mistress named Catherine Grieg. The two have been fugitives ever since. James “Whitey” Bulger still remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and has been there since 1999. He is the second most wanted person – only behind Osama bin Laden. According to the FBI’s website, there is now a $2,000,000 reward being offered for any person that can give information on Bulger’s whereabouts. The charges that Bulger is still wanted for include money laundering, racketeering, drug trafficking, obstruction of justice, along with the murder of twenty-one people.

In 2003, Whitey’s brother, John “Jackie” Bulger was convicted of perjury. He was said to have been communicating with Whitey, assisting him in obtaining a safety deposit box, and also getting Whitey a fake license.

On August, 2010, the fifteenth segment on Bulger ran on America’s Most Wanted. It showed the same photo that has been shown each and every time. Bulger wearing sunglass and a Red Sox cap as he waltzed into the Lottery headquarters to collect his “share” of a $14.3 million Mass Millions ticket he just happened to receive. His photo has been electronically aged to give an idea to the public of what he might look like today.

The search is still on today for Whitey Bulger’s location. A force called The Bulger Fugitive Task Force (BFTF) was created in order to try and gather as much information as possible on the Bulger. As far as the BFTF knows, Bulger and his mistress are still alive and in good health although their location is unknown. Since 2004, there have been over one hundred Bulger look-alikes brought in and dismissed. Citizens from all over the world call into their local police departments to investigate suspicious characters that resemble that blurry picture of a white-haired man in a Red Sox cap. Federal, state, and local law enforcement teams have all been working with the BFTF to find Bulger and bring him in.

In one 2007 article in The Boston Phoenix, a cop claimed to have seen Bulger in a local movie theater sitting in the front row of a showing of Martin Scorsece’s The Departed. The witness said Bulger had snuck in to view Jack Nicholson play a character based on him. The lead however, led nowhere. There have been sightings of Bulger worldwide in countries such as England and Italy and still the search has been going on for over ten years. Also, an article on states that the last confirmed sighting of Bulger was in London in 2002. The FBI continues to receive tips on where Bulger may be hiding out, but each time they travel out of the country they must receive permission not only from United States, but convince foreign authorities to allow investigation.

According to the FBI’s website, Bulger is still alive. He is now 80 years old and “maintains physical fitness by walking on beaches and in parks.” He is also still considered “armed and extremely dangerous.” There have not been any real sightings of Bulger in eight years. The notorious mobster is still roaming the globe. It is believed that he and Grieg are somewhere in Europe, but it is only a possibility. The only next step for citizens to take is to keep an eye out for this notorious Bostonian.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Denneno's Pizza: Quality, Affordability, Family

When’s the last time you called to order a pizza and the person taking your order recognized who you are by your voice? Most likely this has never happened to you. But at Denneno’s Pizza in Stoughton, MA this is just the kind of exceptional service you will receive and come to expect. If you eat here once you will instantly become a loyal customer.

This family owned business is a well known establishment that has been serving Stoughton and the surrounding towns for fifty five years. Ma Denneno is still answering the phones and providing the best customer service by making each phone call and order a personal one. If she doesn’t know your name when you walk in she will certainly know it by the time you walk out. She treats every customer as if they were her own son or daughter.

The family atmosphere and intimate experience is just one aspect of this pizzeria that makes it so successful and pleasurable. The thin crust pizza has just the ideal balance of classic Italian sauce and mozzarella cheese. The crust is flakey, buttery, and undoubtedly cooked to perfection. The pizza is always piping hot and there is originality and freshness about the smell of this pizza shop that any returning customer will salivate over.

Aside from providing exceptional service along with a high quality product, the cost of Denneno’s pizza is affordable no matter how tight one’s budget may be. For less than twenty dollars you can satisfy a family of four to six and maybe even have a midnight snack leftover. There are no scams and no gimmicks. This establishment is credited upon serving delicious pizza that everyone can enjoy.

Denneno’s has been successful for over half a century because of the genuine business it was built upon. The owner’s pride themselves on delivering quality, affordable food with exceptional service. These types of establishments are difficult to find in a sea of chain restaurants and generic pizza places. But a hidden gem like Denneno’s Pizza is one that should be appreciated and enjoyed for all that it offers and represents.

Dedham Super Service: Mechanics You Can Trust

“Why wouldn’t I go there?” I asked myself. Convenience is about the only answer that comes to mind.

“What’s the secret of your success?” I asked him. He laughed and said “Lucky” and then added, because he knew, “People trust us, I guess”.

Dedham Super Service, or D’Amore’s as most people know them, is the town car repair shop in Dedham, which my family has been going to for over 50 years. For a while, I would take my cars to a place around the corner from where I lived in Dorchester or to the shop nearest to my job. Sometimes I thought I was getting a decent price at those places (although I could never really be sure of this) and sometimes I thought they were trustworthy, honest people (again I could trust my gut instincts, but was never really sure). Over time I’ve figured out that there’s something much more “convenient” about truly trusting the person who is fixing my car. I spend a lot of time in my car. My kids spend a lot of time in my car. I work in my car, chill out and stress out in my car. It needs to work. It needs to be safe and I need to be able to afford keeping it that way. So now, for anything other than an oil change, it is always much more convenient to bring my car to D’Amores at 490 High Street in Dedham than to the shop down the street.

Maybe it’s because my family’s loyalty to them is proven with a third generation now bringing their cars to their shop, but D’Amores trustworthiness is something I have yet to find anywhere else. In for an oil change at a Meineke shop recently, I waited an extraordinarily long time. When I called them, they told me I needed a “serpentine belt” and, when I asked what that was, they gave me a slick and complicated answer, along with a shocking estimate for the job. They also informed me that I needed new brakes. I told them I’d think about it and would call them back. When I called D’Amore’s, David D’Amore matter of factly told me exactly what a serpentine belt was and what it would cost. Not only was it at least $100 less than Meineke, but when he checked my brakes, he told me that no, I didn’t need to replace them now. They would be good for another 5 – 6,000 miles.

Louis D’Amore was a young man in 1937 when he first started working at the shop he would eventually buy. He was a mechanic in the U.S. Air Force in World War II and when he returned from the war to the shop, he saved his money and eventually bought in it 1953. My family has been going there since 1956.

Some will tell you Louis, now 93 years old, was a grumpy guy who told off color jokes, and he was. But he was a good mechanic and my father trusted him, so my brothers and sisters and I all trusted him too. Over time, he mellowed. His sons, David and Richard, took over the shop some years back and learned the trade from their father. Experienced and competent mechanics themselves, they too have earned our trust. Like their father, they get right to the point and tell you what’s what. Unlike car dealerships and bigger shops, there’s nothing high tech or slick about them. No bells and whistles here; they still do all their invoices by hand. Open only Monday through Friday and closing promptly at 5pm, the shop is always busy, but can usually take care of you and your car within a day or two of your call. They know most people who come into the shop by name. After dropping off my car, either David or Richard is more than willing to drive me to my mother’s house, if I ask. My mother doesn’t have to ask.

Don’t get me wrong. D’Amore’s prices are competitive and definitely not always the cheapest. But I believe that when I write a check to Dedham Super Service I’m not paying for anything extra and, like everyone else who’s been going back to D’Amores year after year, I trust them completely. D’Amores will do the job you need, tell you if you need more, and refuse to do extra work if they think it isn’t needed. When my sister wanted to have her tires rotated, David told her he wouldn’t do it because it wasn’t time yet. When my husband’s front wheel fell off a mile from our house, he didn’t have his truck towed to the mechanic down the street. He brought it to D’Amores, 10 miles away in Dedham. His assessment of D’Amores: “The good thing about them is that you call them when you need them and they’re there. And not only do you have David and Richie working on your car, but Louis is still there, watching over the shop.”

Procrastinating because of the inconvenience and the money, I finally brought my car into D’Amores this morning to get a headlight repaired that has been out for months. Louis was there, snoozing in the chair. David was greeting a customer and moving cars around. Sweating and clearly not wanting to waste time chatting with me, he popped in the headlight bulb in less than 5 minutes. It cost me $15.00

Richard and David D’Amore at Dedham Super Service are mechanics you can trust. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.

Dedham Super Service
490 High Street
Dedham, MA

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shopping & Seafood in Essex, MA

The Puritans arrived in Chebacco in 1634, which after multiple name-changes became the current town of Essex, MA. With a long, if quiet, New England history, it’s fitting that there are more antique shops per square mile here than anywhere else in the country. Combine the shopping activity with some of the best clams in the country, and you have the perfect place to spend a summer day. Lined with shops selling historical wares from all time periods, Main Street (Route 133) is the locus of activity, with stores featuring merchandise in varying price-ranges; you can easily go from rummaging through stacks of colored-glass juicers to finding a desk used by a Founding Father.

If you step into a shop at random, it will most likely be in the upper-price range. Vintage Louis Vuitton trunks selling for thousands of dollars, Chinese paintings brought back by mariners, plate dishes from the cabinets of 19th century Beacon Hill society—the sort of things you might see in museums are all here. With plenty of (obviously) wealthy shoppers lolling about, it’s easy to imagine these pieces ending up in North Shore mansions, and the majority of shops seem to cater to this clientele.

However, that doesn’t mean that cheaper finds don’t exist! Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques and The White Elephant are two of the best “cheap” antique shops in Essex—and they’re packed with all sorts of treasures. Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques is conveniently located near Woodman’s of Essex, and has an entire house and barn filled with fun and quirky items. The barn contains stacks of bulky wooden antiques—snowshoes, furniture, crates—while the house features trays full of wooden printer’s letters, vintage Shakespeare, sewing paraphernalia, postcards, and plenty of glassware.

The White Elephant is further down the road (next to an quaint, but mosquito-infested historic cemetery), and is the more-famous option. Situated in a huge building, The White Elephant is clearly organized, with wider aisles and glass cases on the lower level, rooms full of books, and an upstairs with more books, kitchen goods, and larger items (such as a huge “High Wheel Bicycle” hanging from the ceiling). Fairly priced, a quick online search reveals comparable prices or even impressive deals. The cash register has a glass case filled with smaller items, and a large table is covered in “penny-candy” type sweets.

Just visiting two or three antique shops can take half of a day; when you’re hungry, there’s nothing better than hitting one of the seafood shacks along the marshes of the Essex River. The “tourist-y” thing to do—or what you really should do, if you haven’t already—is to eat at Woodman’s of Essex. If you’re there in the summer, you will encounter lines. With every type of seafood plate, they’re most famous for their clams and clam-chowder. They’re overly-expensive and cash-only, but that’s never been a deterrent to visitors. Farther down the road, J.T. Farnham’s is another local option that engenders the debate: which is better, Woodman’s or Farnham’s? With a similar menu, J.T. Farnham’s is slightly cheaper by a dollar or two, however, parking is limited, and the police troll the bridge looking to ticket illegally parked cars. Also cash-only, they only have one register compared to Woodman’s two, so despite fewer customers, you might end up waiting just as long.

Essex’s historic houses, salt-marsh views, and classic restaurants provide a picturesque way to spend a day. With the thrill of finding a unique item or two, the fun of wandering through overflowing basements, and the general camaraderie that exists as you meet the same shoppers wandering shop to shop, Essex is an enjoyable place to visit.

The White Elephant
32 Main St
Essex, MA
(978) 768-6901

Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques
136 Main St
Essex, MA
(978) 768-7282

Woodman's of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, MA
(978) 768-2559

JT Farnham's
88 Eastern Ave.
Essex, MA
(978) 768-6643

Sew U Review

Learning to sew is not a forgiving endeavor. More akin to carpentry than crafting, the stringent rules of mathematics can strangle creativity; one wrong cut, one slip of the pattern, and not only is your project ruined, you’ve wasted your time and money. True for wood and fiber crafts, “Measure twice, cut once” is the operative rule; even measuring countless times, you can still make mistakes. With everything that can go wrong, it’s a wonder anyone learns to sew at all.

I knew I wanted to learn, but I was certainly scared off by the seemingly endless possibilities for error. The sewing books that I had looked over were terse, filled with terms defined once at the beginning and never repeated. The patterns often had to be enlarged on a printer, or if they were full-sized, they were filled with markings as unfamiliar as a foreign language. These books also featured projects and photographs that appeared as if they were taken straight from some 1980s sewing magazine; tacky fabrics with hand-models pointing out stitches did not exactly inspire me to slog through their step-by-step lists.

Sew U by Wendy Mullin was the book that cracked the pattern-code and released me from my fears. Modern fonts and illustrations, a casual tone, and instructions clearly written for the beginner grabbed my attention from the start—this was no learn-to-sew book written by some dowdy great-aunt. A NYC designer (her line is “Built by Wendy”), Wendy Mullin’s own story, preferences, and tips are integrated throughout, lending a sense of personality often missing from DIY guides.

She begins with the building blocks of sewing: fabric, tools, the sewing machine itself. If you’ve never sewn before, walking into Jo-Ann’s fabrics is daunting, both in decisions and in up-front costs. Why pay $30.00 for scissors when you have a perfectly good pair in your drawer? Which is better: the scissors or a rotary cutter and mat…which cost $50.00? All the tools you’ll encounter are identified and explained piece by piece, which is handy when you’re standing in an aisle with a million different pencils, pins, and needles. You only need a few basic tools, but knowing exactly which of these to get is the difficulty.

Sew U could also function as an introductory guide to fabric. Weft and warp, silk and wool—the construction, differences, and appropriate purposes are all concisely explained. You receive a thorough introduction without getting bogged down in useless details; everything you learn, you learn for a practical purpose. Wendy also takes the time to talk about how much fabric to buy, explaining that all those identical-looking bolts on the shelf are actually different widths; you can easily find a lovely fabric, read off the amount needed on the label, and get it home only to find you’ve bought too little.

The chapter on reading patterns is worth its weight in gold. With everything you could need to know about the practical implications of pinning some incredibly-easy-to-tear paper on inside out and precisely arranged fabric, Wendy makes each step make sense. While some people may be able to blindly follow directions that seem to contradict the final product, others—myself included—need to understand the “why” aspect. Covering grainlines, darts, punch holes, even pattern storage, she answers not only the obvious “This is what such-and-such does” questions, but also the little random problems that pop up when you have your mouth filled with pins and it’s two in the morning. It’s those invaluable details: marking darts not at the end of the dart, but 1/8” of an inch before, flipping sleeve-pattern pieces over so you don’t get two of the same armhole, the seam allowance for bias tape, that can make or break a project. Sew U provides many of these helpful clarifications, and could perhaps even use a few more. However, the issues each person faces vary with the fabric, equipment, and pattern; it would be impossible for a manual to cover every possibility.

The projects themselves are classic, but with plenty of personalization options. Until you’re able to modify patterns independently, these little details provide a way to think outside the box while following the pattern-lines. Three Simplicity brand patterns are provided: a simple skirt, shirt, and pants. A “ticket” is provided for each of the different customization options; this page lists the trim you’ll need to buy, any pattern changes, unique sewing notes, ideas for fabrics and trims, and a front and back view. It’s all right there for easy reference and consultation.

With all that prep-work, introduction, and research, the element of fear is quite reduced when beginning the actual cutting and sewing. You can still get that queasy feeling when slicing a piece of fabric for the first time—there’s always the possibility of miscalculation, no matter how many times you re-check your work—but it’s calmed considerably. The two-tone illustrations play a crucial role in ensuring your work is on-track; every numbered step has an accompanying picture. Photographs, while providing a realistic feel, have their efficiency muted by distracting details. These pictures are crisp, every line drawn to bring attention to the most important part, each color shaded to minimize confusion.

The text retains a remarkably jargon-free tone that doesn’t over-caution or under-instruct. Instructions are simple, to-the-point, and in line with what Wendy has explained earlier in the book; she does a remarkable job of not springing new concepts midway through the project. Wendy keeps to a need-to-know basis during the actual construction steps (when you need to concentrate the most); in the other sections, her personality and design background shines through. She’s not simply interested in getting you to sew for the sake of sewing; she’s interested in helping you design your own clothes. You bring the ideas; she’ll provide the canvas.

Let’s say by the end of all this, you’ve learned that sewing is not for you. Sew U is fun, witty, and makes everything easy to understand, but sewing still takes plenty of nerve-racking effort. Even if this is your final conclusion, Wendy doesn’t make you feel like a failure; her final chapter is “Plan B: Take It to Your Tailor.” She provides all the information you need to get customized clothes—but without sewing them yourself. Detailed tips cover how to draw and explain your project so that the tailor understands precisely how you want the final result.

The lay-out of the book itself is also well thought out. Even the shape was taken into consideration; it’s longer, rather than taller—perfect for avoiding desperate scanning to find the paragraph you need. Most importantly, it has a lay-flat, hidden-spiral binding. It’s hard enough to keep a standard-bound book from flopping shut , never mind when you have both hands, a foot, and an elbow engaged.

For myself, learning to sew has been incredibly fun—though certainly not without its trying moments—and I credit my burgeoning confidence to the foundation Sew U laid. I still double-check laconic pattern directions with Sew U; I often want to be reassured that my grainline is correct. I also reuse the included skirt pattern; it’s an easy way for me to get a new piece of clothing, and its simplicity allows me to switch out the fabric for a completely new look. I continue to rely on Wendy’s basic explanations as back-up help; she doesn’t include a dress pattern in the book, and a dress remains my only complete failure. I’m not saying it happened because I didn’t learn to sew dresses with her first (she has a separate book on dresses)…but I certainly wished that I had! In a very thorough manual, altering patterns seems to be the only aspect that she completely ignores. I can understand why—it’s a complex task, and would probably expand Sew U by another few chapters—but to include it would have been helpful.

An ideal beginner’s volume, Sew U features amazing detail. Including what other books leave to dull introductory guides, the information provided in Sew U will allow you to quickly move on to regular patterns. Her designs are simple, up-to-date, and customizable. The three patterns provide a fantastic way to learn the basic elements of garment construction, and her designer-input allows for the same pattern to be re-used with a completely different effect. You get to create unique items, but since the pattern stays mostly the same, you’ll eventually find yourself sewing faster and faster, gaining an invaluable “feel” for both the garment and the craft of sewing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Out and About at New Silver Beach

We know we’re lucky to have both Gram and her beautiful New Silver Beach in North Falmouth, Mass. We went this past weekend to see them both. It’s a second home to many of us and when we go there we have expectations: watching a baseball game, eating good food, swimming, stars, an ocean breeze, a good night’s sleep, and inspiration from a woman who loves it all. We are rarely let down.

Food is the big focus and usually the first order of activity is to figure out the next meal, or jump right into the one that’s in progress. That’s just what we did this past Saturday night and added some of our own to the pot; barbecued chicken, beer, and green beans and tomatoes from our garden.

What’s great for us is that the beach is a short walk away from Gram’s. We can’t see it from the house and we can’t even hear it. But we can smell the ocean and feel it in the air, salty and breezy. We love the walk. In fact, we tell ourselves and others that it’s so much better not to live on the beach, better to be a few blocks away. After all, where do you walk to when your house is on the beach, when you’re already there?

It was my husband, and not I, who grew up there. The stories have always been of a carefree childhood in the 60’s and a wild time in the 70’s, and it looks like those days have returned. On the weekends this summer that I’ve been lucky enough to get out of the city and to New Silver, the good night’s sleep doesn’t start until the beach party ends. The “New Silver Beach Improvement Association” organizes swimming lessons for the kids throughout the summer, Sunday night kid movies at dusk on the tennis courts, and the traditional Fourth of July “Horribles Parade”, when all the little kids dress up in costume (anything goes; patriotic Uncle Sam, ocean mermaids, you name it) and stroll through town. Throw in a few clam bakes and you have the perfect summer vacation spot.

The beach is not as big and expansive as the better known “Old Silver Beach”, but big enough for four jetties set several hundred yards apart, with one big long “fishing jetty” and a little creek down the south end where we go clamming. It’s on the western side of a little peninsula, making it one of the few places on the east coast where you can watch the sun setting over the ocean. Sail boats and motor boats of all types and sizes are docked in Wild Harbor and dot the bay.

One of the best things about New Silver is the Tea Room. The scene of all those wild parties way back when, it is still the center of activity and fun for kids of all ages. A small arcade, candy, cold drinks, pizza and an ice cream stand are all just one block from the beach in the Tea Room. There are always a half dozen bikes dropped out front and it is the meeting place. Across from the tennis courts and playground, the Tea Room is where teenagers meet at night before moving their party to the beach.

We never miss a trip to TRICS (Tea Room Ice Cream Stand) before we leave. Serving up Giffords ice cream from Maine, TRICS offers only 7 or 8 flavors, but they are the best; the standard chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, plus our favorites, chocolate mousse tracks, Maine black bear, and wild raspberry. We each got a small, yet gigantic, cone. On the Fourth of July it was so hot we had to eat them fast before they melted into our hands. This time we could take our time and stroll the beach enjoying our ice creams.

On Sunday, Gram, who used to swim everyday of the summer, took out her walker, tossed it down the front porch steps and announced she needed to walk into the ocean. It was the Feast of the Assumption, and there’s an old custom of receiving a blessing or miracle from the sea on this special holy day. It was a bit cloudy and windy by the time we got there, but it was high tide and the water was warm. The conditions were perfect for an old lady and her family to get blessed by the sea at New Silver Beach.

New Silver Beach is a community of a few hundred year round families and is located on Cape Cod in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, 65 miles southeast from Boston. It is on the northern rim of Buzzards Bay to the northeast of Old Silver Beach.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Island You'll Never Leave

There are books I read because I have to. There are books I read because I want to. Out of these books, some I like, some I really like, and a few have a serious impact on me. One of these few books is Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. I was not planning on reading this book; I just happened to see it on display while strolling around the local Barnes and Noble. I was intrigued by the cover and the summary. I had no idea this impulse purchase would change my world.

It was a weekend in October, if I recall correctly, that I began my adventure into Lehane’s world of Shutter Island. It had been some time since I had found a novel that truly held my attention and made me never want to close the pages and leave that fictional world behind. The novel chronicles U.S. Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, as they travel to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on the remote Shutter Island off the coast of Boston (I was a tad disappointed to realize that Shutter Island is not actually one of the Boston Harbor Islands). The two marshals are sent to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a prisoner – or shall I say patient – at the hospital. Right as the partners step off the boat and through the gates of the hospital, it is apparent that this is no ordinary assignment and no ordinary location.

I had never read any novels by Lehane prior to Shutter Island and had also not read many novels in the mystery/thriller genre. I was hooked immediately and the novel had just begun. The marshals are introduced to the head staff members of the hospital, all seemingly more conspicuous than the next, and are given more information on Rachel’s disappearance. According to hospital staff, there is no way she could have escaped unnoticed, through the locked gates and out onto the rocky terrain. Even if she had managed to do so, she would not survive the approaching storm and had no shoes! Completely confused but dying to know what happens next? I certainly was and I had just bought the book that morning.

As morning became afternoon and afternoon quickly became evening, I hoped I would never have to leave Shutter Island and its mysteries, but eventually I did have to take a break from reading to sleep. I will confess, after reading about criminally insane patients writing in the Federal Marshal’s notebook to “RUN,” I had a hard time getting a good night’s sleep. In my head, images of Teddy, Rachel, and her secret clues like “WHO IS 67?” flooded my mind and although I tried to only listen to my television, my mind did not leave Ashecliffe that night. My mind wandered to Ward C to find out what was going on in that building where no one was allowed to visit. If that’s not a sign of a well-written novel, then I don’t know what is.

As soon as I woke up the next day, I was back in the midst of Lehane’s mystery and the twists just kept on coming. The officials at the hospital find Rachel Solando – or so they think – and tell Teddy and Chuck that they are free to go home. Teddy, however, is not satisfied and wants to figure out Rachel’s clue about Ashecliffe’s possible 67th patient. The reader finds out by this point that Teddy has a hidden past and believes that the man responsible for his wife’s death is hidden away at the hospital in Ward C and is this mysterious patient. To the displeasure of the hospital staff, the Federal Marshals do not leave the premises. At this point in the novel, I am convinced that there are conspiracies abound on Shutter Island and that these poor Marshals are being imprisoned there to be used for cruel and unusual mind experiments. I believed that every person employed on Ashecliffe’s staff knew what was happening and was allowing these experiments to continue and to let new people - insane or not – be brought in and taken prisoner. Shutter Island actually took over my mind for those few days. Nothing else was worth my time; I had to find out what was happening on this mysterious and unsettling island.

When I wasn’t lost on Shutter Island, I was talking about Shutter Island. Everyone in my path had to hear about it – my parents, my friends, my classmates – if you were near me, you were hearing about it. Any spare second I could grab was spent enveloped in my book and trying to extract any information from Lehane’s words that could lead to the answers to the mysteries lurking on Shutter Island. I enjoy my fair share of novels, but not many of them make me feel the need to tell others about it when I haven’t even finished it yet. When I picked up the novel (finally!) again, even more mysteries and twists were in store. This time it’s that Rachel Solando had three children and she drowned them all in the lake behind her house. Creepy and sick? Yes. Did it suck me even further into the novel? Yes it did. I was consumed by these characters’ minds and Lehane’s writing makes this fictional world seem as real as the world outside my door.

Eventually the Marshals make their way into Ward C after a brutal storm disarms the alarms of the building. Teddy confronts who he believes is his wife’s murderer and is warned against the dangers of Shutter Island and that he will never leave; he was brought here for a reason. Determined to get off the island alive and with his brain intact, Teddy resorts to desperate measures but is not successful. Once confronted by head doctors in his escape attempts, Teddy inquires about his partner, Chuck, and is informed that he did not arrive with a partner. This absolutely throws me for a loop. Slowly it becomes clear that maybe the conspiracies are real, the entire medical team is in on this game, and Teddy Daniels is truly never going to leave Ashecliffe because he knows just a little too much. However, it may also be true that Teddy is, in fact, not completely sane and the fact that everything I had believed for the whole novel is possibly not real is beyond mysterious – now I’m just scared and even more trapped on Shutter Island.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it is not what you would expect. The last part of the novel explains mysteries that I thought I had figured out the entire time, but was proven wrong. The mind games that Lehane plays on his readers are unreal and once I finished and finally put down the novel, it didn’t leave my mind for a long time. I anticipated a good read, maybe even a great one, but I did not anticipate the impact that this one novel would have on me. Since Shutter Island, I have read more of Lehane’s novels, but none seem to compare, although I do enjoy each one. I recommend that all readers take a trip to Ashecliffe Hospital and travel through Ward C with Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels. It is worth the venture to be drawn into the thoughts and fears of the a Federal Marshal as he seemingly slowly goes insane the longer he stays on this forsaken island just off the coast of the city we know so well. Maybe it’s Lehane’s characters or maybe the way that he portrays the plot to his readers; whatever the reason, Shutter Island does not allow you to leave once you have arrived.

Out & About in Boston: Fenway Park

Recently, I was in the Fenway Park area in Boston. As a local, I feel like I lose a lot of appreciation for the atmosphere and events around this area. When I am fortunate enough to acquire the long sought after Red Sox tickets, I like to spend the entire day outside Fenway Park and enjoy what it has to offer. The first part of the afternoon and night has to start on the T. Driving into Fenway Park is a nightmare and let’s be honest, the T is always an adventure. It only costs $2.00 each way to get to the Kenmore stop, and there is a lot of people-watching to be done on the ride. The T is part of the experience of getting around in Boston. After stepping out at the Kenmore stop, the festivities can begin.

As you walk from the T stop to Fenway Park, it becomes clear that the atmosphere is changing. Everyone in sight is decked out in Red Sox gear to support their team and express loyalty to a team that doesn’t always have the best record in the division. There are also those desperate people trying to buy a ticket or sell a ticket hours before the game is about to begin. Continue walking and you’ll come across the man handing out pamphlets on Jesus and also a bunch of guys yelling out “PROGRAMS HEAAAH GET YA PROGRAMS!” Many tourists probably get drawn in by the loud yelling, but Bostonians tend to just walk on by. What outsiders may not know is that if they pass by this yelling salesman who is selling the programs for only $2.00, they will have to pay more than double the price inside the park (just a tip!).

Shortly after this point the aroma of the baseball park hits. All of the distinct smells of Yawkey Way – sausage, peppers, onions, hot dogs, French fries, popcorn –are overwhelming. Groups of fans stand around waiting in line for some delicious food before even entering the ballpark. The prices are pretty high – a Fenway Frank is going to run you at least $4.00 and will be gone in two bites. Want a beer? You better go to the ATM because those are $7.75 a piece! These prices continue once inside the ballpark as well. If the weather is nice (which is quite the gamble), fans can be seen sitting at GameOn, the restaurant right outside the park with all open windows enjoying a refreshing beer and maybe an appetizer to prepare for more eating and drinking once inside the park.

Of course, Yawkey Way and Landsdowne Street are just seas of Red Sox attire, but the streets are also lined with gift shops and tables full of shirts and hats in case you are sick of the one you’re wearing. The occasional YANKEES SUCK chant can also be heard (even if the Sox are playing the Angels) along with the beeping of the ticket checkers. Strolling down the streets can definitely leave you with a full belly and an empty wallet. The experience of the spirit of Boston baseball fans, however, is priceless.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

World’s Softest Socks: They Really Aren’t Lying

When my mother handed me a newly purchased pair of socks emblazoned with the phrase, “World’s Softest,” I couldn’t help but feel skeptical. I thought, “How could this company have the audacity to claim that their socks are the softest in the world?” To me, it seemed completely unrealistic that workers employed at World’s Softest headquarters could be familiar with all socks in existence. I was immediately offended by this false advertising campaign and imagined the wicked staff of the marketing department embarking upon new ways to fool customers into buying their products. In order to make such an outrageous declaration, the World’s Softest company had to possess one of two qualities:

1) They were pure evil and only made this claim to gain profit.

2) They really did make the world’s softest socks.

So there I was, holding a new pair of socks in my hand and fuming at the state of our capitalist country. I figured that I had nothing to lose. These socks would either protect my feet from the frigid New England winter (thus making me happy and warm), or they would fail miserably and I would revel in how correct I had been. To my surprise, dismay, and delight, World’s Softest Socks were indeed the softest socks I’d ever tried on.

If your company’s name is World’s Softest and you create socks that declare, in writing, that they are the “World’s Softest,” then you better have a fantastic product. World’s Softest has just that. World’s Softest creates socks for both men and women that come in a multitude of cuts and fits. My personal favorite is the “Women’s Crew Sock.” You can purchase these crew socks in a variety of colors such as white, black, navy, red, laurel, brown, pink, mauve, yellow, and my favorite, periwinkle. Each package includes one pair of socks which are designed specifically for comfort and warmth. The fabric is made of seventy-five percent ultra soft acrylic, twenty-three percent nylon, one percent Lycra, and one percent polyester. The socks come in two sizes: medium fits sizes five and a half through eight and a half, while large fits sizes nine and up.

Many socks are uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Some socks slide down your feet when you are still wearing shoes and eventually end up bunched around the arches of your sneakers. Other socks are uncomfortable because of the way the toe seam is stitched. World’s Softest Crew Socks have none of these problems. According to the company website, the toe seam is stitched flat to reduce irritation. The top of the socks are cushioned to keep them from falling and bunching up. Women’s Crew Socks are also extremely durable. I’ve had my first pair for over a year and they are still as new as the day my mother purchased them for me.

The best part about World’s Softest Crew Socks is that they are, you guessed it, soft. The specific make-up of the fabric creates a sock that, when you put it on, feels like you’ve just stuck your foot into a cashmere sweater. Yet, you won’t have to pay cashmere price; Women’s Crew Socks cost only $5.99 a pair and are well worth the money.

You’ve been needlessly suffering by wearing subpar socks. So give World’s Softest Socks a try and see what you’ve been missing!

To purchase these remarkable socks, visit:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Allure of Ponkapoag Pond

Whenever I find myself wandering the natural woodlands of Canton, I encounter a host of problems. Number one: mosquitoes. For some reason, these irritating parasites always gravitate toward my scent, feast on my tasty blood, and leave me covered in red painful welts that itch for days on end. Number two: footwear. It never fails that my friends hatch the idea to traverse the forest just as I am attempting to break in new sandals or boots (I’ve ruined multiple pairs of shoes in this manner, not to mention pedicures). All in all, you might say I’m not the most adamant nature lover. But despite these never-ending obstacles, I continue to return to Ponkapoag Pond in Canton.

Ponkapoag Pond is part of the Blue Hills Reservation, a 7,000 acre protected area that
stretches from Quincy all the way to Dedham. To reach Ponkapoag Pond, you must locate the hidden entrance off of Randolph Street. Once you spot the sign for Temple Beth David, slow down and you will see the narrow gravel road which leads to parking for the pond and surrounding trails. If you have access to a car that is not a 1998 Honda Civic or any other small sedan, then I recommend driving it. The road is extremely bumpy and has dips and boulders that have almost wrecked my poor silver Civic.

Once you have maneuvered your larger vehicle across the pot-hole ridden ground and
found appropriate parking, you have two choices. You can begin your visit with an easy hike or head straight down to the beach. The hiking trails around Ponkapoag Pond are perfect for people who don’t like to hike (like me). Most of the trails are quite flat and have minor inclines. Even though there are trails with different names, you are essentially walking in a large circle around the pond; there is no way you can get lost! This gives you time to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds you without the fear of taking a wrong turn.

While walking on the trails, you are shaded from the sun by a canopy of various trees. Even if you are not a tree expert (I most certainly am not), you will ultimately find the trees fascinating and thought-provoking; many of them have odd shapes and indents from years of rot and wear. Streams run alongside the trails, giving home to a variety of mosses and ferns. Your leisurely walk will also include the sounds of woodpeckers, bullfrogs, cicadas, and crickets with the occasional whir of a dragonfly.

Ponkapoag Pond also offers a very modest beach on which to frolic, sunbathe, and take a quick dip. The beach is pet-friendly and many visitors bring their dogs to swim in the water and socialize. Dogs are also allowed on the trails, but if your dog has never been introduced to a horse, you should probably just limit him to the beach. There is a horse stable right across the street from the entrance to Ponkapoag Pond, so horses are a common sight. Ponkapoag Pond is also a destination for avid fishermen. Pickerel, crappie, and trout swim the waters, while snapping turtles, ducks, and geese skim the pond’s surface. Non-motorized boats are allowed; many people bring small kayaks in which to explore the outer edges of the pond.

From the most enthusiastic of outdoors lovers to the more hesitant city dwellers, Ponkapoag Pond in Canton offers a variety of entertaining activities. Whether fishing, kayaking, hiking, or enjoying a simple picnic, you will find yourself wanting to return on a sunny day time and time again (just remember bug spray and the proper footwear).

For more information about the trails of Ponkapoag Pond, visit:

For information regarding fishing at the pond, visit:

To see what else Blue Hills has to offer, go to: