April 22, 2010

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The Chestnut Hill Local
8434 Germantown Ave.
Phila. PA 19118
Ph: 215-248-8800
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2009© Chestnut Hill Local
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Viva Hate:  Living with loathsome language

There are few people more loathsome in this country than the members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Founded in Topeka, Kan., by Fred W. Phelps in 1955, members of the church – according to recent court documents, 50 of the church’s 70 members are blood relatives and in-laws – have travelled around the country, picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 They have done this, they claim, to bring attention to their belief that God is exacting vengeance against the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality. It’s not that the soldiers killed are gay – in the stone-age rationale of the church, God has chosen to make his displeasure known to us by employing foreign fighters in killing our troops. They often hold signs that read “God Hates Fags” and operate a Web site of the same name. The church represent a fire and brimstone-fearing fundamentalism that is so antediluvian, it would make medieval fanatics cringe.

On March 10, 2006, the church picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder who had been killed while on duty in Iraq. The church members received the proper permits from the police of Westminster, Md., where the funeral was planned, and took their positions 1,000 feet away, waving signs that included phrases like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates America.”

Matthew’s father, Albert, learned of the protests on the evening news after the funeral and soon after sued the church for a number of things, including defamation, invasion of privacy and emotional distress.

Initially, a court awarded Snyder nearly $11 million, finding the church guilty of inflicting emotional distress on Snyder and of invading his privacy. Last September, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the award, finding that the church’s actions and words were protected under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court decided to hear the case in its next session, which will begin in October.

The church’s words and actions are appalling. It is hard to fathom the level of nastiness required to protest a funeral, especially the funeral of a young person who gave his life fighting for his country, regardless of what you make of the cause.  It’s the kind of speech that is unfathomable in almost any other nation in the world. Phelps has been kicked out of the United Kingdom and would almost certainly face trial and jail time in any European nation. Yet, it is the kind of speech – no matter how hard it is to stomach – that will likely be upheld by the Supreme Court as protected public discourse.

The folksy cliché made so popular after 9/11 applies here: “Freedom is not free.” The right to free speech means we must tolerate everything from the moronic to the downright hateful. Freedom to express ourselves anyway we want means we have to tolerate the exercise of that right by Neanderthals on the lunatic fringe. As the oft-cited Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “[T]he ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas ... that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Even in my most pessimistic hours, I don’t believe the message of the Westboro Baptists will dominate the marketplace of ideas. We’ll always have a healthy supply of wing nuts. And those wing nuts will get to say what they like. Forcing them to be quiet never works.  It’s best to let them rage on confident that their real rage is really against the dying of their dimly lit worldviews.

Pete Mazzaccaro

From the CHCA president: The state of your CHCA

We gather at our Annual Dinner Meeting to assess the state of your CHCA.

The state of your association is very strong and its achievements over the past year have been great.

This is a quite extraordinary community association. Virtually no other community association owns and publishes a weekly newspaper. Very few undertake a comparable range of major events and activities.

We are clear about who we are and whom we represent and serve

No organization can succeed unless it is clear about its identity. We know clearly who we are: a grassroots membership community organization of committed volunteers (ably supported by a dedicated staff of 20) who represent and serve all of Chestnut Hill, primarily the residents of Chestnut Hill. We listen to all. That is why we always publish my e-mail address.

You have a stellar CHCA board

This past year, you have been blessed with a dedicated board of 40 volunteers free of the bickering by fewer than a handful, which had sometimes in the past clouded our real accomplishments.

Your board is there to listen to you and to address the needs of our community, and they have done that with skill and devotion.

This coming year under our bylaws, which transition ultimately to a reduction to about 30, your board will consist of 37.

This year, you elect eight members to your board. You have eight excellent nominees, four of them new, who bring very special gifts to our work. Those very few letter writers, who perpetually somehow feel the urge to undermine your CHCA, argue that the absence this year of a contested election (and the obvious reduced voter turnout because of that) points to an indifference among the people of Chestnut Hill and to a weakness in your association. That obviously is wrong and makes no sense because the people of Chestnut Hill have never manifested apathy and have always been anything but silent whenever they were unhappy about anything.

This is one community that is known for its outspokenness. Although we would always welcome a contested election, the fact that this year the election is not contested shows only that the people of Chestnut Hill recognize that the direction of your association is sound and that they are fully satisfied with it.

You have an excellent group of officers and Executive Committee members

Your six officers and six other Executive Committee members have worked diligently on your behalf.

Your volunteers, above all, your volunteers, are what count

Your volunteers are everything, and to all of them we are deeply grateful.

With even more volunteers, we can do even more next year. We need at least 20 new volunteers.

This past year has been one of accomplishment

This past year has been one of achievement, achievement that only your CHCA could have made possible. This summary only skims the surface of what your CHCA does every day for and on behalf of the families of our community.

Publication of your Local

We own and publish our award winning community weekly that we all so value as a voice for our community. This is one of the undertakings of your CHCA that touches everyone, every family in our community. It is the single most important thing that we do. Seventeen of our highly skilled staff work specifically on your paper. Your board this year took decisive action to buttress the solvency of your paper.

Your Community Fund Drive

Your CHCA supported your Community Fund Drive. We all exceeded for the first time in years our goal of $100,000 for contributions to the independently managed Community Fund (Participation from the members of your board was complete). Your CHCA board recommended to the Community Fund trustees the grants to the organizations serving the people of our community that were published here April 1.

We plan next year even greatly to exceed that success and to invite applications for grants targeted to defined areas of community need.

Major community events

Your CHCA gave to our community these three major events, which above all gave joy to the families of our community.

  • The beloved Pastorius Park Summer Concert Series

   • The return after many years in September of the Main Street Fair, in cooperation with volunteers from the Chestnut Hill Hospital.

  • The Dec. 5 Holiday House Tour of five beautiful homes especially decorated for the       season – an annual delight.

Major community events planned for next year

We are now actively planning for September the return of the beloved Black and White Gala.

Other community initiative

The Community Blood Drive was a success.

We are updating your CHCA Web site

This is to facilitate your communication to us as well as our communication to you. Check it out frequently at

 The day-to- day work of your Physical Division

Your Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee of 12 volunteers with great experience and expertise has met generally monthly, often into the late hours carefully to consider every matter touching upon the needs of our community. So has the skillfully chaired Traffic, Transportation and Parking Committee. So often has your Aesthetics Committee. All three have reported monthly their recommendations to your overseeing Development Review Committee, which with equal skill has considered everything and made its recommendations to your board, which is the ultimate authority within our community.

We have further reformed the development review process so that normally the time frame has been reduced to five weeks from initial presentation to the DRC until presentation to your board for approval.

Henceforth, none can contend that Chestnut Hill is a difficult community in which to open up a new business because we require applicants to jump through hoops. This is an enormous amount of work – all by unpaid skilled volunteers to all of whom our community is profoundly grateful. Be assured that in this work we are and will always be fully mindful of the real interests of nearby neighbors and of the whole community.

Our work in concert with Chestnut Hill College concerning our college’s plans for expansion

This is the single largest development in very many decades in our community. This is our college. Our college needs to expand and grow, including on the Sugarloaf Hill site. Yet the way in which that expansion takes place significantly affects not only the near neighbors and their two advocacy organizations, but also our entire community. (Indeed, it is our realistic hope that our college may expand even beyond those two slopes deeper into the commercial area of the heart of Chestnut Hill.)

Your CHCA board has established a committee of nine, plus several alternates, for the purpose of negotiating with our college the manner of its needed expansion. Most of those people are themselves skilled professionals, three of them, including its able chair drawn from our LUPZ and DRC. That committee is in fact a coalition of community organizations including the two nearby neighbor organizations. Beginning many months ago, those people commenced preparations for those conversations with our college. Those people have to date invested many, many hundreds of hours (some of them alone that much) in this vital work. (I alone have devoted well over 150 hours to facilitating this work.)

Those conversations with our college began March 16, are proceeding now essentially weekly and are moving forward in a cooperative spirit.

It is our hope that they will result in a Community Development Agreement (CDA) with our college which will assure the needs of the near neighbors, of the other interested organizations, and above all of our whole community and our college.

What do we need to represent and serve you even better?

Your ideas and your participation.

Contact Walt Sullivan at


When all you bring to the table is not enough ...My wife, Janet, and I were invited to dinner two weeks ago by two very smart, very well-read friends. These friends had also invited three of their very smart, very well-read friends (whom we’d not met before) to join the table. It soon became apparent to me, that should the outside world be destroyed that night, these dinner guests could probably pool their knowledge and reconstruct the Bodleian Library at Oxford, if not the very Library of Congress itself.

The moment that I attained that reassuring thought unfortunately coincided with a less cheery one, namely, that I was in over my head. Martini in hand, sitting facing a cheery fire, listening to the smart conversation of these bright, attractive people, I tried to recall what I’d read lately that might help keep the conversation going, the way our host occasionally added a “fat stick” to the fire to pep it up.

My situation reminded me of one of my favorite “Peanuts” cartoons.

In it, Lucy, Linus, and Charlie Brown are sitting on a hillside, looking at the clouds.

Lucy said, “If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formation ...What do you think you see, Linus?”

Linus replied, “Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras in the Caribbean .... That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor...and that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen ... I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side ... ”

Lucy: Uh huh...That’s very good... What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

Our hostess was extolling the many virtues of the German novelist W. G. Sebald, who seemed on track to be a literary Nobel laureate until his untimely death (at age 57) in 2001. Our host was recommending a book by Graham Robb called “The Discovery of France,” calling it “the best observational view any non-Frenchman could have of the private world of rural France.” One of the guests was discussing the work of the contemporary French novelist, Annie Ernaux, with Janet, who had read four of the author’s works with her French reading group.

Heady stuff, all, and when I turned my attention to eavesdrop on the other two guests, I overheard them discussing what books they might take to Vermont and Nova Scotia with them for the summer. The gentleman said, “Yes, that one won the Bancroft Prize. I’m really looking forward to reading it.” (Prize awarded annually by the trustees of Columbia University to the authors “of books of exceptional merit in the fields of American history, biography and diplomacy.”)

Thus I hesitated to crow, “Hey everybody, I just finished ‘Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen.’ Written by Jimmy McDonough. It’s about ... uh ... Tammy Wynette.”

But I did. The female guest who goes to Nova Scotia had established herself early on as both super-intelligent and nearly encyclopedic in her mastery of a wide range of knowledge, both large and small. Because she is also kind, and driven by deep curiosity, she asked me what county Tammy Wynette was from. My moment to excel had arrived.

“Itawamba County, Mississippi. On the Alabama/Mississippi border,” I said, sounding to myself like the character, Bubba, in “Forrest Gump.”

We then talked for a little while about why had I read that book, which amounted to this: Because of my own ambitions as a writer I have developed a deep curiosity about how “artists” become successful.

Whether I like their writings or performances or not, in the past two years I have read biographies of, among others, Giacamo Puccini, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, John O’Hara, Tommy James and the Shondells, Jack Kerouac, Herbert Gold, Hank Williams, Larry McMurtry, Terry Southern, Warren Zevon, Michael Finkel, Grace Slick, Roger Tory Peterson, David Foster Wallace, The Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jack London, Harvey Kurtzmann, and Haruki Murakami. 

Here’s what I’ve learned from observing the similar paths to success they followed, simplified.

First, most of them have a superior talent for mastering their medium, be it a musical instrument, their own voice, or body, paint, words, clay, wood, marble and whatever else they’ve chosen. Okay, that’s obvious.

Second, in addition to whatever insights they offer about the human condition, they all seem to have a sad, little catch in their voice that evokes our sympathy. And they really “sell” their performance.

Third, most of them gravitated to “the place to be” if you wanted to make it in their world. Whether it was Paris, Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Nashville, Chicago, Berlin, or wherever ­– they went, and they hung out with, took courses from, and sought introductions to the shakers and movers of their world.

Fourth, they relentlessly promoted themselves. Every day, in every way. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Successful careers in the arts take more complicated arcs than that, but I believe those four ingredients (plus a degree of luck) lie at the core.

No one sat in Sheboygan and waited to be discovered.

Now, two weeks later, I remain grateful that no one at dinner that night snorted when I mentioned the “Tragic Country Queen” book I’d just read. And to show the sincerity of my gratitude, I didn’t mention that I had also just read, “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway,” by the female punk rock singer, Cherie Currie. Now playing (as “The Runaways,”) at a movie theater near you.




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