October 21, 2010

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Taking a swing at pessimism

Made a bet last week on the Phillies that I didn’t expect.

I bet on the local nine to win, but the circumstances around the bet were unusual. My bet was with a life-long Philadelphian who was certain that the San Francisco Giants would beat the Phillies in the National League Championship series this week (which is tied 1-1 as of this writing).

As a rule, in sports, you never bet with your heart. Died-in-the-wool fans should never bet on their team. Your allegiances will cloud your vision every time. But I didn’t grow up a Phillies fan. Growing up in Connecticut, I sided with the Red Sox long ago. To me the Phillies are objectively the better team.

I asked the life-long Philadelphian why he would take a bet against his hometown team. Did he have scouting reports I hadn’t seen? Nearly every reputable prognosticator had the Phillies favored.

This is what he wrote to me in an e-mail:

“These people [referring to an article from in which nearly all their writers favored the Phillies] did not grow up in the 1950s and ‘60s with the Phillies. They did not root for the Phillies team in 1964 that was six games ahead with 12 left – and then lost 10 in a row. They did not grow up with the Phillies in 1977, ‘78 and ‘79. Each time the Phillies had the best record in the NL and were heavily favored to go to the World Series – and blew it each time.”

As a Sox fan, I could relate to the heavy pessimism. But as recent history has shown us, pessimism isn’t always practical. The Sox managed to do the impossible in 2004 and the Phillies won one of the most entertaining World Series I’ve ever seen – that three-inning clincher was about the most exciting baseball ever played.

What about that? My betting partner countered with more pessimism:

“The law of averages. How many hundreds of years can you not come in first even once? They could not think up any more ways to lose.”

I suppose its hard to expect that a life-time of let downs – in both sports and civics – can be erased by a really great baseball team, and if the Phillies win it all this year, they will definitely go down as one of the best baseball teams of all time, up there with the Babe Ruth Red Sox of the late teens to the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati and the late ‘90s Yankees.

Still, all that great play is not enough to swat away the dark clouds of pessimism. And those clouds have been particularly thick lately. With the city on a seemingly everlasting precipice of bankruptcy, the front-page stories of  our newspapers and the cover stories of our magazines are thick with tales of government corruption and indefensible waste nearly every day. It’ll take more than a parade down Broad Street to sweep that away.

The Phillies will probably win. I’ll probably be $10 richer. But my friend will probably not be any less pessimistic. Win or lose, he’ll still be right about his hometown. How’s that for pessimism?

Pete Mazzaccaro


Commentary: Time to vote, Dems!

It is one thing for Democrats to get all high-horse and haughty, to be creeped out by Tea Party ignorance and antics. It is quite another to do what we must do, which is climb out of Enthusiasm Gulch, get a finger-hold on the threatening realities, and prepare for a house-to-house ground war.

In Pennsylvania, both major races – for U.S. senator, for governor – are winnable if we Democrats turn out in numbers anywhere close to our levels of just two years ago. The contest for Arlen Specter’s senate seat – Toomey vs. the excellent Joe Sestak – is basically a dead heat, and the increasingly compelling Dan Onorato is closing the gubernatorial gap between him and Corbett.

Our city, our state, our country and our president deserve a government of reasonable men and women who would put sober legislative accomplishments above short-term political advantage and extremist wishful thinking.           

The Senate Race: Joe Sestak has served his country for more than a quarter of a century — first in the Navy as a seagoing line officer and later in the U.S. House.  He is faced by an economic royalist, a zealot who doesn’t believe corporations should be taxed, who thinks the best way to fix the economy is to add to our debt by perpetuating tax cuts for the richest Americans. And gun control? Best done through a “good aim.” What a guy! 

Former Vice-Admiral Sestak, on the other hand, is an unhyphenated supporter of the President. Joe is a wiggle-free advocate of a woman’s right to choose, a dedicated environmentalist and defender of long-successful federal programs like Medicare and Social Security. His was a steady vote for health care reform. He has faced down the Tea Party in plain English.

Pat Toomey? A far-rightwing extremist who would tirelessly add to our divisions and further tatter our civic dialogue. But do note:  He is no dummy. A Harvard graduate Stephen King might have thought up, Toomey, on Capitol Hill, would reliably get into 10 times the mischief the absurd Christine O’Donnell might visit upon the work of the Senate.

Democrats, be warned!   It is vital to our health as a democracy that Toomey be stranded in Scranton —left to watch re-runs of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker all day long. Vote Sestak.

The Gubernatorial Race: The stakes in this one are just as clear-cut. Dan Onorato is a middle-of-the-roader, a Democrat who stands for legislative reform in Harrisburg and job creation. As Allegheny County Executive, he has made tough choices to revive Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities. He supports major investments in education.

His opponent, Tom Corbett, says Pennsylvania workers have suddenly turned lazy and that the answer to the Great Recession is to end unemployment compensation for the one in 10 Pennsylvanians who are jobless. The man is enough of a bully to have used his power as attorney general to go after citizens who twittered against him and press baseless charges against the president’s health care reform. He is all about one-party rule – the last thing Harrisburg needs – and appears intent on installing rank ideologues in positions of power. He has already comically promised that he will never raise commonwealth taxes, no matter what. Even though Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t tax cancer-causing chewing tobacco and the only natural-gas-producer without an extraction levy on the books, Corbett’s only “reform” offer is a pledge not to take responsible steps to balance the state’s budget.

No Pennsylvania voter with a newspaper subscription doubts that sacrifices loom, but only a balanced approach makes any sense. Dan Onorato is the candidate on the side of balance in Harrisburg.

The question to put calmly to our Republican friends and neighbors in Northwest Philadelphia is this:  Who can we trust to get us back on track? Pick Joe Sestak and Dan Onorato. Tell a friend.

John O’Connell is the Democratic 9th Ward leader, for Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy


The Cerulean Warbler: bird of a free-form feather

First things first, even in the presence of the mighty. I’ve been waiting for months to get my hands on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom,” but when it finally came to hand this week, it arrived “wrapped in a mystery” (literally) that needed solving first. Some background first.

I’ve wanted to read this book for months, but didn’t want to buy one if I could borrow a copy from the library. I ordered one online back in September and waited patiently, thinking I’d get my turn sometime in November.   

But by good luck, at the Fall for the Arts Festival, I ran into Ann Demilio, co-manager of Maria’s Ristorante in Roxborough (and daughter of Maria). Ann loves reading literary fiction. Our “Hi’s” are usually followed by “What are you reading lately?” And this time, at once “Freedom” came up. She had just finished her copy – did I want to borrow it? Does a bear read in the woods?

I picked it up at the restaurant on Tuesday after enjoying a delicious dinner made doubly delightful by the heft (651 pages) of the much-anticipated book I carried out with me. I returned home at 7 p.m., fully intending to start reading that night.

But I couldn’t because of the bird on the front cover of the book’s dust jacket. Against a background image of a pond in a Northern spruce forest at sunrise (twilight? the colors seem deliberately ambiguous), a bird’s head projects in profile (superimposed?) from the edge of the cover.

The bird seemed familiar, but slightly off, as though it were a variant of a bird I knew well – a Cerulean warbler. I’d just take a minute to verify the identity of this freaky little avian creature. Then I could start reading. Being of an old-fashioned nature, bird-wise, I went to my Peterson Eastern bird guide.

The Cerulean warbler, indeed. Now I could begin reading. I carried the book over to my favorite chair and sat down and adjusted the lamp.

Except the cover bird, on second sight, seemed grayer than the bright blue one in Peterson, and its bill was a bit thicker. So was its throat. And the thin ring around its neck, where it should have been black, was bluish gray.

Oh, so what? I resettled in my chair.

No, that’s lazy. Maybe the bird on the cover, rather than being a slightly off rendering of a Cerulean, was an excellent drawing of a bird I didn’t know. Maybe I should look in Peterson’s guide to the birds west of the Mississippi. I found it on the shelf and turned to warblers. As I suspected, the only bluish warbler with a white throat is a Cerulean. Case closed. I started back to my chair.

Unless Peterson missed the mark on this bird. I went to my bird reference shelf and took down Kenn Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Birds of North America.” Again, the only blue warbler with a white throat is the Cerulean. But Kaufmann’s version shows a bird that’s colored a deeper, almost purplish blue. (“Cerulean” means sky blue, but we all know the range of variation that can mean, depending on time of day and latitude and ambient pollution at work any given day.) And his bird has a very short, almost sparrow-like, stubby bill.

Okay, let’s get the “Stokes Field Guide to Birds.” The Stokes uses photographs rather than drawings and its Cerulean warbler exemplar is pitifully lacking in color and detail. The black chest ring for example is not visible. Nor is the slight contrast that should be evident between the face and cheek of the bird.

I really should have been reading, but out came the National Geographic guides, then “The Sibley Guide to Birds” and the old Audubon Society guides. Everything was off.

Then: bing! I remembered reading a report by Franzen in the New Yorker about songbirds in Europe. Maybe the bird on the cover of his book “Freedom” was a European bird. That would explain the variation.

I went online and reread the article from last July 26, “Emptying the Skies: Songbird slaughter in the Mediterranean.” The article describes the destruction of millions of songbirds, especially Blackcap warblers, to serve as food delicacies in Italy, Malta and Cyprus.” Very depressing.

I had an old guide to the birds of Europe, part of the Peterson Field Guide series. I’d consult that book and then, if necessary, go online to search, including perhaps a brief run through YouTube. (No run through YouTube is ever brief.) As I walked to the shelf for the European field guide, my wife, Janet, looked up from reading her own book and said, “Maybe there’s a cover art credit on the dust jacket flap.”


Yes. The back flap credit reads, “Jacket Art: Cerulean Warbler © Dave Maslowski.” Maslowski is a noted wildlife photographer. The book jacket designer then reworked the colors of the warbler to make them fit the overall tone of the cover.

And below that: “Landscape: 2009 © Heikki Salmi/Getty Images.” (And a quick trip to revealed that the background photo shows Heikki Salmi’s parents’ summer cottage at sunset — in Finland!)

Okay, pretty dumb, in a way. I wasted my time chasing down a “fact” that was easily available. On the other hand, I learned a lot about variation in birding guides. In the past I had often needed to look at several field guides to identify a bird I wasn’t sure of. But I had never before compared drawings and photos of a bird I thought I knew. The range of difference among them was remarkable.

I didn’t get to begin reading “Freedom” that night, but would you say the way I spent my time was an “enemy” of reading? When I finished my armchair birding, I was certainly eager to know what that strange little bird had to do with the story.


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