June 3, 2010

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The byproduct of online journalism that I dislike the most is the comments section.

Journalism is a tough trade to begin with. It’s a profession that depends a lot on quoting sources, sources who often tell the truth but can also say things that veer from the truth in ways that range from delusional (it’s not true, but the person believes it to be true) to outright lies (obvious). It can be confusing. It is because of this that many people dislike the press.

Still, despite how much many dislike the press, the result of the practice is that the press works more often than it does not. The professional standards that steer us in the direction of fairness can sometimes seem like a zero sum game, but news organizations continue to do more to inform us than anything else.

Online journalism allows readers the unprecedented opportunity to disseminate and critique journalism. And in many ways, that is a good thing. Instead, however, online commentary sections, short commentary blurbs often found at the end of stories online, often amount to little more than opportunities for gutless misanthropes to lob verbal barbs. People who don’t have the spine to ask a friendly stranger for directions in person are the Glenn Becks of the web. Comments sections are repositories of deep-seated hate and ignorance. They are, literally, uncivilized.

While the Local’s letters section and its Lentz policy, guaranteeing all who would sign their names the opportunity to have their say, has often caused the most consternation with readers and the targets of criticism, it has been a place where individuals have to stand behind their words. We’ve been accused of incivility. Yes, some letter writers say tough, even incomprehensible things, but they do not do so anonymously. They must account for their words.

Last week, the Local appears to have been victimized by someone who decided to say something particularly critical of a neighborhood organization  and several community residents, but instead of standing behind his words, chose to sign his letter as another resident, Bert Brong of Wyndmoor. Mr. Brong was very surprised last week to see his name on a letter he did not write [“Moving on is not so easy”].

That letter, last week’s criticism of the Chestnut Hill Residents Association and its members: Ron Recko, Meredith Sonderskov, Ann Spaeth and supporter, Ed Feldman, came through the U.S. mail and was signed “Bert Brong.” There was nothing remarkable in tone in the letter. It was, frankly, the kind of letter we often receive here. It looked legitimate.

I remain baffled by why anyone would chose to pose as another community member in this fashion. In many years of working here, I don’t recall anything similar. But, I made the mistake of not verifying the letter. I was taken advantage of by the letter writer, who also managed to take advantage of Mr. Brong and all of our readers who have the right to expect that opinions in the Local are those of real people, or at least people responsible enough to own their opinions.

For that, I’d like to apologize to Mr. Brong, to our readers and to the members of the CHRA. From now on I will personally call to verify the authorship of all letters, regardless of their subject matter. And I will not let another imposter criticize individual members of the community without taking responsibility for his words.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Commentary: Chestnut Hill residents deserve better

I supported the 10 E. Moreland Ave. project with only one concern: hours of operation.

The dialysis center was originally proposed to operate from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Add to those hours of service start-up and shut down time and we are talking about a minimum of 17 hours of activity on the days of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. operation.

At a later meeting of the DRC, we were informed that the tenant (Fresenius) reserved the right to operate the center from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week instead of the original three, thereby extending the vehicle noise and traffic to six nights a week, instead of three.

The community organizations and neighbors worked hard with Dr. Jones to ensure the building would be beneficial to the community at large, much like Weavers Way and other businesses cooperated with neighbors to benefit all of Chestnut Hill. Yet, the board did not support the people who have acted in the best interest of the entire community. Why were 72 signatures against a few additional hours misconstrued as a flat out rejection of the entire project?

One board member railed against neighbors for being insensitive to her personal needs. Another characterized neighbors as fearful of the dialysis center attracting criminals and detected closet racism in other neighbors. Neighbors were chastised for being anti-business by a board member who is a business owner, and profiled as the same type of folks involved in other more recent business closings.

Board chairman Sullivan had difficulty controlling outbursts by board members who spoke indiscriminately in favor of the project, and with disdain for neighbors concerns as if we were opposed to a fellow human getting life-saving medical treatment. Another board member said, we were lucky we didn’t get a chicken processing plant on the premises.

Through all this, neighbors addressed the board in a respectful manner. If anyone doubts my account of the proceedings check the record – a board member apologized to the neighbors for the animosity and disrespect displayed by its members.

While the DRC, in concert with near neighbors, approved the project with a list of provisos that should benefit the community at large, it is clear that near neighbors’ concerns were ultimately considered by some as insignificant. I, and many of the near neighbors agree, the business is good for Chestnut Hill, and a fair, just balance between business and residential concerns is what makes our community so desirable. I would hope that in the future the CHCA Board of Directors will try to fully understand the broader implications of its actions. I hope it would try to be a galvanizing force, rather than a splintered, self-interested group, whose charge it is to oppose the very antisocial behavior and actions it overtly displayed.

The bottom line is this: A representative from Fresenius said the potential need for the extra three hours of operation on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights were critical to profitability; financial support would not be forthcoming from corporate without the ability to expand business hours if and when needed.

The CHCA Board of Directors caved in to a business that threatened to walk away from the deal if it didn’t get late night hours six days a week, much to the dismay of 72 supportive, near neighbors seeking a small compromise in order to preserve a bit of peace and quiet on Saturday evenings.

Ironically it was the neighbors who were accused of having little regard for the needs of others. I cannot help but equate this episode with the type of uninformed governance we experience nationally, and then openly ridiculed for when we become painfully aware of how our miscalculations profoundly affect people just slightly outside our immediate plane of vision.


A literary agent nibbles the cheese, Hugh goes mouse

Lately, I’ve been seeking a literary agent to represent me in selling a novel I’ve worked on for the past two-and-a-half years. In the first few weeks of May this year, I spent entire days researching several websites that list agents and their specialties. After creating a list of suitable agents, I composed letters to them, describing myself and my work, and included whatever samples they requested. I’ve been very formal, very to-the-point, and very careful not to waste what they are quick to tell you is “their” precious time. (Like doctors who keep you waiting an hour for your one-minute brush-off.)

By the time I had sent out my 35th query, I’d already received my 10th robo-rejection letter and started feeling like Lucille Ball trying to keep up with the whipped-cream-cake conveyor belt. Discouragement is a constant temptation, but one must play the game as it is played and keep trying, hoping for a break.

Late in the afternoon of May 19, I began browsing the website of an agent, whom we’ll call Mister Goodtaste. I read his agency’s statement and his brief biography. This man and his agency are definitely Top Shelf. Too big to be bothered with anonymous me. But then I read the list of his current clients. And I got very excited.

This man represents Dan Fante! Dan Fante happens to be one of the best, most honest, angry, could-care-less writers in America. His novels include, “Mooch,” “Spitting Off Tall Buildings,” “86’d,” and “Chump Change.”

But now the really big news for me is this: He helped Dan Fante get a publishing contract for his book, “Fante, A Memoir,” (soon coming) a memoir Dan wrote about his relationship with his father, John Fante.

John Fante (1909-1983), was one of the the greatest American novelists most people never heard of. Charles Bukowski said, “Fante was my god.” If forced to describe my own novel-writing style, I’d say it was J.P. Donleavy (“The Ginger Man”) meets John Fante. Nasty, but funny.

And my computer screen had opened to Mister Goodtaste’s website, I swear, just as the mail arrived, bringing me a package containing four John Fante novels I had earlier decided to purchase and reread.

This was all too coincidental. I had an immediate hunger to read Dan Fante’s memoir of his father and felt a deep regret that I’d have to wait months, maybe a year, before it came out.

What the heck. I’d been sending very formal agent queries, being a good little wannabe writer all day. So I decided I’d write a letter just for the fun of it.

I wrote:

“Dear Mister Goodtaste:

“I probably have a snowball’s chance in Haiti getting a nod from someone of your stature, but I wanted to part from my usual, methodical mode of querying and risk wasting a precious nickel by telling you something. I am really jealous that you’ve been able to read the biography of John Fante written by his son. If that book were published today, I’d beat down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy. Congratulations on signing him. 

“Back to work: I’m seeking representation and contacting you because my novel features off-the-wall characters in a weird literary setting. In this story, normal, decent people stumble into a world where the rules are turned upside down. As it runs along, each character has a firm grasp of only one small piece of the big picture in a scenario resembling “The Blind Men and the Elephant” meet Tarantino (though not as raw and mean as the latter).

 “My novel’s working title: AmericanaRama. Genre: Literary fiction with a whydunit crime and elements of Bibliomystery. 305 pages. 115,000 words. Status: Finished.

“HOOK: When Claudell and Patrick, two meth-tweaking, rednecked burglars show up in a Midwestern college town offering to sell a stolen library of rare Americana to Klaus Richter, an unstable, immigrant bookshop clerk, the mess-ups that follow expose some strange attitudes towards love, loyalty, and sex among the people drawn into their intrigue. 

Within three days one woman will be murdered, another kidnapped, and a third, Darlene-the-fence, will spend the final afternoon sitting in a closet armed with two knives, awaiting the man she thinks wants to kill her. In the big showdown at Darlene’s hidden cabin in the woods, an improvised auction is forced on two desperate booksellers. Three days of frustration, greed, lust, and anger culminate in Klaus’s redemption just before the explosion from which only three people will walk away, changed forever.”

Okay, I wasted a nickel being a little nutty and forward. But, I can’t stand sitting in a chair being serious all day. At 5 p.m. I knocked off for the day.

At 7, masochist that I am, I checked my e-mail. Two more robo-rejection letters. Par for the course. And what’s this? A reply already from Mr. Goodtaste. Holy Toledo! Here’s what he wrote:

“Dear Hugh:

“This sounds strangely fascinating...can you send me the full after May 31 (I will be at BEA next week and just don’t want to be drowning in manuscripts).

Just remain patient, Dan’s book will come out soon enough!

Best, Goodtaste.”

I’ve been floating ever since. And busy. I arose the next morning and started revising, refreshing, re-editing my manuscript. I worked from six to 10 hours a day for the next eight days. All of the rest of my life has been on hold.

As I write this column on Sunday afternoon, Janet, my wife and fellow writer, is reading the story for the first time. For the past two years I have not shared a word about my novel with her, or anyone. I am excited. I hope she likes it and does not find too many mistakes. Tomorrow I’ll make her suggested corrections and print a fresh copy. Then I’ll box the typescript and mail it first-class on Tuesday morning and cross my fingers.

Whether he takes a year or a week to read my novel, whether he likes it or he doesn’t, I’ll have had the pleasure for a while of having been told by a professional that my work “sounds strangely fascinating.”

That’s all we folks pecking away down here in the basement need to hear.


America, meet the Philadelphia Flyers

“To know a Flyer is to love him,” Mike “Doc” Emrick, NBC’s sterling hockey play-by-play announcer, reported in the early part of the first period of the Flyers/Canadiens fourth playoff game on May 22. He also noted, with his typical wry insight and humor, “Apparently there are 29 cities that haven’t met one yet.”

As Doc is aware, Philadelphia knows this team and has, belatedly to be sure, come to love them. They are talented, courageous, determined and, what endears them to so many, not only lovable but likeable.

Just like the baseball team that captures the town for most of the summer and recently well into the fall, the Philadelphia Flyers are our guys.

Many of them – Captain Mike Richards, offensive powerhouse Jeff Carter, Philly’s longest-tenured pro athlete Simon Gagne, young phenom Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk – are home grown.

Others – the future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Blair Betts and most especially Ian Laperriere – are tough, blue collar, self-sacrificing players that quickly endeared themselves to the Philadelphia fans and the local media.

When you read this, the Flyers will be in the midst of their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals since 1997. That, and four previous attempts, ended in disappointment. They haven’t won the Cup, the most coveted trophy in sports, since the Broad Street Bullies days of 1974 and 1975.

Their opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, haven’t been to the Cup finals since 1992 and haven’t won it since 1961, the longest drought in the NHL. Chicago’s wait dwarfs the 35 years the Flyers have come up empty.

Philly’s sports fans have the reputation – not undeserved – of being demanding and sometimes a tad over the edge. The events surrounding the Flyers getting to where they are now has turned the city into a hockey hot bed.

Everywhere you go there’s orange and black. People who “hate hockey” all of a sudden seem enthralled by the team that squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season in a shootout that left the hockey world stunned.

People who think a fore-check is some new banking service and only know icing as something that happens to windshields in February, now want to know what the pluses and minuses are in the Flyers/Blackhawks match up.

If marginal hockey fans have asked me once, they’ve asked me a dozen times if Pronger is really that good. (Yes, he is.) People wonder if the injuries from which Gagne, Carter and Lapperiere suffered were really as serious as they said considering that they’re all back on the ice earlier than expected. (Yes, they were.)

How could they come back? Well, this is hockey, the Stanley Cup finals, and the people who play this sport at this level are – like the really rich – different from you and me.

What captured everyone, and I mean everyone nationwide, was the remarkable performance this team had in its second round series with the Boston Bruins.

Down three games to none in the seven-game series, they fought back, depending on a goalie who had to fill in for the injured starter and on Simon Gagne’s scoring immediately after returning from toe surgery two weeks earlier.

In the seventh game – held in the enemy’s barn – the Flyers seemed out of sync. The first three goals belonged to Boston. The game was 3-0 and the first period was barely half over.

At this point the Flyers used their timeout after which they scored a goal and went into the first intermission trailing 3-1. They scored the next two and then the game seemed to level off. It looked, at one point, like it might be one of those multi-overtime games that keep people from getting to sleep and which drive reporters on deadline nuts. Not this time. Not this team.

With 7:08 left in the final period, Gagne scored what proved to be the game- and series-winning goal.

The Flyers had done the impossible. Only three other teams (the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders in hockey and the 2004 Boston Red Sox in baseball) have done what the Flyers did – and none of them were behind by three goals (or runs) in game seven.

The injuries, the inconsistent play earlier in the season, the denied-but-likely-true reports of contention in the locker room and the change of coaches in December all meant nothing. This team showed its character when it counted most. And now they’ve reached the promised land.

We’ll know in a week or so whether they win the Cup. Even if they don’t, those who have been won over by this group of athletes and characters have gained something. They have learned what hockey at its best can be: an exciting, subtle, energetic and beautiful – yes, beautiful – game.

The TV ratings for the NHL playoffs are up between 15 and 20 percent over what they were last year. That’s due in some measure to the extraordinary Olympic hockey tournament held in Vancouver in February.

It’s also due to the exciting and captivating games the 16 teams in this year’s run for the Cup have played. There are dozens of great stories surrounding these games.

None is even close to the Flyers’ story, one of the most remarkable in the history of team sports.

Because of this team’s [epic, historic, stunning, unbelievable – you supply the adjective] playoff run, maybe some of those folks in the 29 cities that Doc Emrick thinks don’t know any Flyers will see what Philadelphians have been living with for the past six weeks: This is a special team. Sports fans everywhere will be enriched by taking a moment to sit back and marvel at what this group of athletes has done. They also might discover what many of us have believed for years: ice hockey is a magnificent sport played by athletes who, on the whole, are talented and unspoiled. This season’s playoff run, especially the Flyers part in it, is evidence of that.





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