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Life in a Northern Town
By Daniel Flatley
Times Staff Writer
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Life in a Northern Town

‘People get hung up on the shush’: A conversation about books and other things with the ‘Frozen Librarian’

First published: March 24, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 23, 2015 at 4:04 pm
JUSTIN SORENSEN N WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
Angela Newman is a librarian with the North Country Library System, the central point of 65 chartered local libraries.

Angela Newman is a librarian, but she doesn’t work at a library — not exactly. She works for the North Country Library System, a central repository and headquarters of sorts for the 65 libraries in Jefferson, Lewis, Oswego and St. Lawrence counties.

Housed in a building on outer West Main Street in Watertown, the system provides services that many of the small rural libraries spread throughout the four counties cannot provide themselves. But all that shouldn’t suggest that she doesn’t know about books, or libraries or librarians.

She has a blog, a Twitter account, a brand — “The Frozen Librarian” — and a tagline: “Public service in a very cold climate.”

She is not, however, related to Paul Newman, although the actor once received a pair of her grandfather’s swimming trunks in the mail by mistake, according to family lore.

Originally from Syracuse, Angela has been moving back and forth between the north country and Pennsylvania, where she earned two degrees, for the last few years.

In her latest incarnation as a north country denizen, she has been in Watertown for two years and has great observations about books and life in the north country, which you can read on her blog, “The Frozen Librarian.”

In the age of the Internet, which has upset nearly every media delivery model out there, libraries remain a vibrant part of the community for several reasons, she said.

Libraries take all comers: the casual lunchtime reader, the job seeker, the book-obsessed fanatics, families, children, teenagers, retirees, people who are at the doors before they open and still reading when the lights start to flicker at the end of the day.

They provide the access to the Internet to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it and are one of the few remaining public spaces where people can gather without having to pay for anything, where loitering is legal and actively encouraged.

“That is why libraries are still relevant, because we do still serve the entire public,” Angela said.

Librarians, perhaps more so than some other professionals, have been unfairly subjected to character assassination over the years.

“They get hung up on the shush,” Angela said of the bad rap she and her colleagues sometimes get. “You wear comfortable shoes because you’re on your feet all day. You wear a cardigan because the HVAC system in your building is crazy, and you wear glasses because every librarian should have good optical insurance.”

That perception of librarians, and libraries, is changing in the face of contemporary life, where libraries are no longer silent temples to the hushed worship of musty tomes. There is a quiet buzz to a modern library and certain electronic formats — including ebooks — are embraced (some are available for free).

Angela has favorite “grown up books” including “Home Cooking” by Laurie Colwin. But she is a connoisseur of children’s books and young adult literature, two genres she said could hold their own with any “adult” literature out there.

“The only books that have made me cry are children’s books,” Angela said.

She brought several examples Friday to the offices of the Watertown Daily Times. These included “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus” by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation” by Duncan Tonatiuh, “Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands” by Katherine Roy, “Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” by Patricia Hrudy Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson, “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson (autographed copy) and “The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia” by Candance Fleming.

Angela did not set out to be a librarian. In fact, she knew when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English that she specifically did not want to be a librarian. But a few years later, she changed her mind and said she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“To enter the career, you have to be willing to be constantly learning; you have to be willing to help people,” she said.

And you have to be willing to have reporters ask you about the stereotypes attached to your profession.

Though, to be fair, Angela admitted to an affinity for organizing and arranging shelves.

“I’ve been known to straighten other people’s shelves,” she said.

And that much-vaunted “book smell” we self-proclaimed lovers of paperbacks and hardcovers love to profess? To a hard-core librarian, it apparently tends to disappear over time.

“People always want to know about the book smell,” Angela said. “I don’t notice it. I guess it’s normal to me.”

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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For Matthew Rush, in an unusual job, nature eventually takes over

First published: March 17, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 16, 2015 at 5:27 pm
Matthew Rush

There are people who have unusual jobs. And then there is Matthew Rush of On-Site Testing, who drives a Ford Focus ST the color of grape Gatorade around the state collecting — how can we say this delicately? — “samples.”

On-Site Testing Services, Brownville, does DNA and drug testing and can administer Breathalyzer tests to see how much alcohol a person has in his or her bloodstream.

From the sound of it, however, what Matthew does primarily is conduct urinalysis testing at business sites as far north as Malone, as far south as Hudson, as far west as Scottsville and as far east as New Lebanon.

Matthew says he loves his job.

He likes meeting people, talking to people and seeing new parts of the state.

He boasts glowing references from some of the companies for which he has worked, including school districts and beverage services.

And the map of his stops looks like a small reproduction of the night sky, with stars and constellations around Watertown, Syracuse, Utica and Albany.

But, he admits, “This is not something you think you’re going to do when you graduate high school.”

Matthew is tall, like, really tall: 6 foot 8 inches tall.

And he is skinny, like 6 foot 8 inches tall and 160 pounds skinny.

He’s 35 years old and lives in Watertown with his wife, Christine, who manages the On-Site office, and two sons.

On-site testing was started in 1997 by Matthew’s mother, who also is named Christine.

The business grew quickly as many businesses and government agencies are required to test their employees, especially drivers, for drug and alcohol use on the job.

If there is an accident, On-Site Testing often has to respond to test the driver involved.

“Sometimes it’s scary the level you’ll see somebody coming to work at,” Matthew said.

“To think that if you weren’t there, doing that test, they’d be out behind the wheel. It’s frightening. Or they’d be working with heavy machinery with their co-workers. Unfortunately, that’s why I have to do what I do,” he said.

For the most part, people understand when they’ve made a mistake or have been engaging in a pattern of making mistakes.

They don’t usually blame the tester, Matthew said.

But there can be confrontations with people who may not want to get tested on a particular day, for different reasons, Matthew said.

But Matthew, who served in the Navy during his early 20s, has a calming presence, a deep baritone that comes from somewhere inside his 6-foot 8-inch frame and a sense of humor, both about himself and about the job he gets hired to perform.

There is an inevitability to the testing — an “It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it” kind of ethos ­— and Matthew calls on this idea when he’s working with a recalcitrant subject.

“Hey, I don’t know you, you don’t know me. I’m just here to do my job,” he said. “It’s gonna happen one way or another.”

Jobs, life, biological functions, career paths can be unpredictable.

There are cases of dehydration or “shy bladder” to contend with, bumps in the road and unexpected turns.

But before too long, nature takes over.

“Eventually, you have to pee,” Matthew said.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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A (semi)-absinthe fueled weekend in Old Montreal (VIDEO)

First published: March 03, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 04, 2015 at 12:19 am
DANIEL FLATLEY N WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
Montreal City Hall

“Oui, bonjour, bon soir, merci beaucoup, non.”

— The only words I know in French

This winter, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s impossible to go any farther north than Watertown.

With some of the coldest temperatures in the nation, it’s easy to discount Alaska and even the Arctic Circle. All talk, no action, those places.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found out there’s a country above us.

Truth be told, I visited Canada in the eighth grade, so I was well aware of its existence. But it’s been a while.

Since 1999, my Canadian exposure was restricted to Dan Aykroyd comedies and Tim Horton’s coffee.

So it was with great excitement that we undertook a trip to visit Montreal, a charming international city on the St. Lawrence River, or the Fleuve Saint-Laurent.

As you may already know, they speak French in Montreal. I do not. This cultural failure on my part has the fortunate side effect of rendering French-speaking places even more exotic than they already are.

Montreal is a cool place. I would recommend going with the caveat that in two winter days, we didn’t really see all that much.

We went to Old Montreal, which was beautiful, and we visited a couple of religious sites including St. Joseph’s Oratory. But our gallivanting was somewhat hampered by the weather, though it was slightly warmer than it had been the week prior.

We rode the Metro, which was a sublime experience; I have a thing for public transportation. Interestingly, the Square Victoria entrance we used to access the subway looks like a Paris Metro station and apparently was a gift from “the city of lights.”

I also observed that people who live in Montreal tend to bundle up more than we do. I saw plenty of parkas with hoods and fur or faux-fur ruffs.

On the way out of Watertown, I saw a guy in shorts run across the street.

But the most interesting thing I did in Montreal was try absinthe for the first time. Absinthe, if you don’t know, is an anise-flavored spirit popularized in literature and art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was strongly associated with the bohemian culture of Paris and was rumored to be a favored drink of Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Oscar Wilde.

In the modern era, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, rapper Eminem and members of OutKast also have been known to imbibe the “green fairy,” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Absinthe is purported to cause hallucinations and was banned in most places until 2007. So, naturally, with an absinthe-themed bar in the lobby of our hotel, I endeavored to put this reputation to the test.

Absinthe, which has a high alcohol content, is traditionally served using a specialized ritual.

The green-colored liquor, in this case, Mythe Absinthe from France, is served in a glass along with a large jar of ice water outfitted with spigots. A slotted spoon is placed over the glass with a sugar cube on top. Ice water is then allowed to drip over the sugar cube and into the glass with the absinthe, diluting and sweetening the spirit.

Absinthe tastes a lot like liquorice, and I can’t imagine drinking more than one glass in a sitting. It’s a bittersweet mixture and has a somewhat thick consistency. Our bartender, the very helpful David, said the drink is often used now as an aperitif or digestif, either before or after dinner.

The hallucinogenic qualities of absinthe are in serious doubt, but a few glasses of the European varietals can have a marked effect, David said.

Go to the Czech Republic, drink some absinthe, “Then you gonna trip,” he said.

Noted.

To view a video of David preparing absinthe, visit: http://wdt.me/absinthe

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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David Carr: Recovered crack addict, media reporter without peer, devout Catholic?

First published: February 17, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 16, 2015 at 7:17 pm

“In my family, we were taught to be of service. Middle-pew Catholic stuff.”

— “The Night of the Gun” by David Carr

Long before I ever wanted to write about David Carr, I wanted to write like David Carr.

“The onset of adulthood is an organic, creeping process. No one wakes up one day and decides, ‘Lo, on this day I shall forever put away childish things and begin clipping coupons to go to Walmart.’ But in his or her own time, the person who was preoccupied by beer pong and doobie cruises begins to notice that life has other aspects — careers, families, homes — serious matters in need of tending. But being an addict means that you never stipulate to being an adult. You may, as the occasion requires, adopt the trade dress of a grown-up, showing responsibility and gravitas in spurts to get by, but the rest of the time, you do what you want when you want,” Mr. Carr wrote in his 2008 memoir “The Night of the Gun.”

That was David Carr as I knew him from a distance: funny, engaging, erudite, full of pop culture references and deep suspicion about narrative convention. A man with his own voice and viewpoint, unafraid to express himself.

Like a lot of people, I first came to know Mr. Carr courtesy of the 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” His raspy voice, unusual posture and journalistic bravado caught my attention; his stories about his past as an addict held it; and his hard-won expertise on the frontiers of new media captivated it.

A year or so after first becoming aware of him, I finished reading “The Night of the Gun” in the Best Western hotel room across the street from the Watertown Daily Times. I was interviewing for a job at the time and was scouring the text for advice. I came for the journalism; I stayed for the story.

Still, I confess to being a casual reader of Mr. Carr’s Media Equation column, and his presence fell out of my circle of influence as I tried to learn about the finer points of county governance and keep up with my duties as a daily newspaper reporter.

Thus, it was only recently, upon Mr. Carr’s death — he collapsed at 58 in the New York Times newsroom Thursday night — that I discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, that he was a Roman Catholic.

I’m not exactly sure why this struck me as a significant detail except for the fact that I’m a Catholic, by default rather than design, and am always on the lookout for other Catholics, in particular those who nurse doubt.

Among my books at home are tomes recommended to me by my devout Catholic English teacher and those written by devout atheist Christopher Hitchens.

But I still believe, in spite of myself. I can’t help but believe, it seems.

And in that respect, I shared something with Mr. Carr other than just the pages of his writing.

In 2011, Terri Gross, host of “Fresh Air” on NPR, asked Mr. Carr about the role his faith played in his recovery from addiction.

Mr. Carr talked about the things he did while he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, some of them difficult to reconcile with the behavior he evinced when he became sober. And he talked about where he found God, which was not in church, but through the kindness of family, friends and total strangers.

He called it a “jerry-rigged” kind of faith, and I can appreciate that.

This is part of what he said:

“So am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person, or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? And so that’s sort of as far as I’ve gotten with the higher power thing, as is I’m — you know, I’m kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I mean, I’ve done a bunch of terrible things. And yet, I’m able to, for the most part, be a decent person. How is that? Do I have some inner strength of character? I think not. I think something else is working on me.”

Mr. Carr apparently recommended against ending a story with a quote from someone else and so, out of deference to him, I will say that his approach resonates with me: enough space for the skeptic, enough space for the miraculous.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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Why I can’t watch ‘American Sniper’

First published: February 03, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 02, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Here we go. Another essay, column, think piece, op-ed about “American Sniper.” Haven’t we had enough of these?

Let me be clear: I haven’t actually seen the movie. Nor do I intend to see it.

My interest, never high to begin with, has only waned as the controversy has grown. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing people talk about it.

But I do want to make a couple of observations and tell one quick story. It won’t take long, I promise.

For those who don’t know or may have been dwelling quite comfortably under the shady side of a particularly mossy rock, “American Sniper” tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (one of the deadliest snipers in American military history), his exploits on the battlefield, his struggles on the homefront and his ultimately tragic end. Mr. Kyle was killed by a former Marine suffering from post traumatic stress disorder who he was trying to help. The story is told in careful detail in Nicholas Schmidle’s thoughtful piece for the New Yorker in June 2013.

As of this writing, the movie has taken in more than $250 million at the box office and has become a cultural juggernaut, generating controversy from all quarters and padding the pockets of the director, Clint Eastwood, and the star, Bradley Cooper.

This brings me to my first observation.

Among my friends with whom I served in the military, there seem to be few who have not seen the movie. Their reactions have been mixed.

Some of them have expressed their admiration for Mr. Kyle and his skill and their appreciation for the American lives he is reported to have saved. Others have pointed out that in order to save American lives, he had to take the lives of foreign fighters in a war that stands on politically shaky territory, with consequences that will likely never be fully resolved. Still others have pointed out that the movie gets important details like the uniforms and Arabic dialect wrong and ignores the many complicated aspects of Mr. Kyle’s personality and legacy.

And while I did not serve with him, poet, essayist, professor and Iraq war veteran Brian Turner, author of “My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir,” wrote a piece for vulture.com comparing his own experience in Iraq to the story told by the film.

I served in Iraq, and ‘American Sniper’ gets it right. But it’s still not the war film we need,” is the title of the essay. Mr. Turner points out that the film fails to consider the world through the eyes of the very people we purportedly went to Iraq to liberate.

“If we saw Iraqis as humans, we’d have to learn how to live in a world far, far more complicated and painful than the difficult, painful one we currently live in. Messy, trauma-filled, beautiful and altogether human; all of us breathing the oxygen of our time,” Mr. Turner writes, beautifully, poignantly and truthfully.

My second observation is this:

As others have also pointed out, it is a mistake to pin the entire narrative for American experience of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan on any one person.

The best pieces of writing or art or journalism that have come out of the last 14 years have focused not on individuals but on units. The book “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel, the documentary “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, and, if you like your war stories with a bit of verve and spice, “Generation Kill” by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright dwelled on the unit, the relationships within the unit and with higher command, often a source of tension. They also did a decent job at providing context, of talking about the larger implications of the wars, not only home but also abroad.

They also capture the reality of life in a combat zone, including the boredom and the stupid rules imposed by higher echelons to improve “morale.”

They may be harder to digest than the racy Hollywood treatment and less satifying than the catharsis of the theater, but they are true and that counts for something.

And finally, a story.

Toward the end of my first deployment, which was spent aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima (an amphibious assault ship), in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, the commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit sent a team of scout snipers, along with a few other Marines, to Iraq.

After years of sending MEUs directly to Iraq or Afghanistan, the Marine Corps was working on restoring its traditional role of being an operational force in readiness, positioned throughout the world to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. Thus, our deployment had been a mostly calm one until that point, mostly spent training and going on liberty calls at some of the world’s great port cities.

The team of which I was a member sometimes worked closely with the scout snipers, though I had come to the unit later to replace an injured member and I didn’t know any of them well.

Shortly after being sent to Iraq, one of the scout snipers was killed.

Regrettably, I can’t remember his name now, but his picture is placed in the front of our “float book” — a yearbook of sorts for those who deployed with the MEU. It’s buried somewhere on a shelf in my parents’ house.

If I remember correctly, he is pictured standing with his teammates and, on the opposing page, there is a shot of him from that picture, blown up to create a portrait. As a member of a team, they didn’t even really have an individual picture of him.

He was an American sniper, too.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times and a former Marine. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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To hang with Watertown’s firefighters, you’ve got to keep your cool (VIDEO)

First published: January 27, 2015 at 2:28 am
Last modified: January 27, 2015 at 10:35 am
NORM JOHNSTON N WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
Capt. Robert Seeber masks the face shield of a fellow firefighter gearing up to navigate the survival training course.

WATERTOWN — Steve Buscemi, star of stage and screen, famous for his bug-eyed gaze and snaggle-tooth smile, was a firefighter.

As far as personal inclinations go, I was always more likely to admire Steve Buscemi the actor and artist than Steve Buscemi the public servant. A lot of kids want to be firefighters; I wasn’t one of them.

But I’ve developed a late obsession with the fire service, perhaps brought on by my now much more regular interaction with its members.

Turns out I’m not alone in my late blooming. Battalion Chief James R. Holland, municipal training officer for the Watertown Fire Department, told me that despite the fact that his father was a firefighter, he never really entertained the notion of a career for himself along those lines.

It wasn’t until he came home from college that his father put a firefighter application in his hands and sent him off to take the test. Now, many years later, Mr. Holland says he couldn’t imagine a better career.

His brother, Jeffrey M. Holland, was one of several firefighters who went through the “Mayday and Firefighter Survival Drill” last week at the city’s Emma Flower Taylor station on Massey Street.

The drill, designed to test your composure by exposing you to stressful situations, is physically and mentally demanding. It’s meant to simulate the experience of being trapped in a burning building.

“It’s definitely challenging,” the younger Mr. Holland said. “The basic principle behind all the training we did that day was basically for you to keep your composure in a stressful environment. ... Your mindset has to be there, or else you’re useless to everybody.”

To get a better sense of what the training actually entailed, I asked Chief Holland to let me run, or, more accurately, crawl through the same drill his brother experienced.

I donned the boots, helmet and the rest of the “turnout gear,” along with an airpack and a radio — about 60 pounds, all told — and proceeded through a series of obstacles with my vision partially obscured by a fogged-out face shield. A ceiling fell on me and I got trapped in a closet, which I had to breach with an ax before climbing up a set of steps only to have the floor collapse.

And though all these obstacles were challenging, the aptly named “freakout box” — a simple yet devious device — was so difficult as to deserve its own paragraph. A long rectangular crate filled with wires that snarl and catch on every piece of gear, the “freakout box” has apparently claimed the composure of many a better man than I.

Even Jeffrey said it was hard.

“It is exhausting,” Mr. Holland said. “You go two inches, you get caught, you go two inches, you get caught, and it’s constantly trying to manipulate your body, manipulate your air pack to get through the wires and the obstacles in the course. Plus, being in that confined space is a little unnerving to some guys ... It tests you to keep calm and work your way out of it, to keep moving.”

I have a sneaking suspicion the trainers took it easy on me while I was making my way through, though the amount of sweat accumulating in my clothes and grunting emanating from my throat greatly increased as I struggled to free myself from the trap.

I’ve done some challenging training in the past, and the “freakout box” ranks right up there. The entire evolution was physically demanding, but not impossible. It was, dare I say, fun.

Granted, I had some advantages: I was not wearing the respirator mask, which restricts breathing and visibility, I could see a little bit through the bottom of the face shield and, as a grizzled veteran pointedly observed after I finished the training, “It wasn’t 500 degrees in there.”

At 61, Captain Mark W. Kellar is the oldest firefighter. “But not the most senior,” he said.

“Most of the fires come at night,” Capt. Kellar said. “I don’t know why, I guess people do things and then go to bed... you can’t see six inches in front of your face. That’s when your training comes in handy, so you don’t panic.”

I have a copy of the application to take the firefighter exam on my desk (they are available through the city of Watertown and must be turned in by Feb. 18, for those who are interested). I probably won’t do anything with it, but it feels good to have it there — another possibility, another life.

But I’m not a firefighter, nor would I ever pretend to be. I spent 15 minutes getting a small taste of what these guys do every day. It was a great experience, but I’m glad I didn’t have to do it for real.

A point driven home by Chief Holland after the training was over.

“It’s vitally important that we do these drills,” he said. “The end goal is that every day, when a guy comes to work, that they go home to their families. That’s our end goal and we work every day to make sure that happens.”

And though Jeffrey Holland said he’s never been trapped in a house or a building during a fire, he said going through the drill made him feel prepared for it, if it ever did happen.

“I wouldn’t wish that on any firefighter,” Jeffrey said about the reality behind the mayday drill. “Do we want to go to a fire, some of us, yeah, but we don’t want anybody to lose their life or property, you know? And we’re ready to go in there and put our lives on the line for somebody we’ve never even met.”

Video of the training can be found at http://wdt.me/fireman-dan.

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Richard Pryor, sage, scoundrel and truth-teller

First published: January 20, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 19, 2015 at 4:31 pm

“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

— James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”

There is nothing funny about the history of racism in America. From the treatment this land’s original inhabitants received at the hands of our European forebears to our original sin of slavery, the “exceptionalism” we have heretofore enjoyed has been borne on the backs of people we all too often choose to ignore and under circumstances we all too often choose to forget.

And it has become increasingly difficult to talk about race in America. Every discussion, from any perspective, quickly becomes bogged down in the quagmire of the political correctness that is all too often used as a guise to avoid broaching difficult subjects. Our discussions are held in whispers or among like-minded friends.

Or, even worse, perhaps we nod in sage agreement with a particularly pointed piece of writing without really wrestling with our own complicated feelings. It all remains in the dank, dark basement of our minds.

That is why “Becoming Richard Pryor” is so timely.

The biography, written by Scott Saul, was published late in a year that saw some of the most raw and contentious confrontations between America and its history in nearly 20 years. And it reminds us how its subject, a man regarded as perhaps the best comedian of all time by his peers, was anything but politically correct, settled or, at times, even possessed of a coherent understanding of himself.

In “Becoming Richard Pryor,” we receive a much fuller view of the legend behind the legendary comedian and actor, his upbringing in a Peoria, Ill., brothel, the twin authority figures who presided over his youth — his pistol-wielding grandmother-cum-madame and his controlling and absent father — his ill-fated time in the U.S. Army and the years he spent honing his craft on the Chitlin Circuit, in New York City and in San Francisco.

The journey, painstakingly reconstructed by Mr. Saul, paints a portrait of a man who rose from the ashes of his background to the heights of celebrity, not because he was sure of himself, but because he was so unsure and insecure.

Richard Pryor was confident in his own abilities. But he wrestled not only with his own identity but with the identity of his people and with the identity of America at large. And he did it with humor, in a way that allowed just about anyone to be part of the joke, to laugh not only at their own failings but also at the failings of a nation that aspires to great heights but finds itself confounded at nearly every critical juncture by its own grievous mistakes.

Richard Pryor emerged on the scene as a mimic of Bill Cosby before ultimately rebelling and turning himself into the anti-Cosby. Richard Pryor wore his faults on his sleeve. He had many failings, from the way he treated women to his drug use, but he did not hide them or shy away from them — he wrestled with them both in his private and public life.

This stands in stark contrast to the way Mr. Cosby has handled the allegations swirling around him today. Artists do not have to be pure, but they have to be honest.

“The world around us is crumbling to make way for new life,” Richard Pryor once said, and that quote adorns the top of the dust jacket for “Becoming Richard Pryor.”

Those words are even more prescient today than they were in 1977, when they were first recorded. Indeed, the world is crumbling all around us.

Changes in technology and culture are rocking the established order while we remain obsessed with the latest fad or trend or tweet. Without voices like Richard Pryor’s or even the willingness to have difficult conversations in our own communities, we lack the faculties necessary to shape or even understand whatever new world emerges.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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Hire More Heroes Act a needless, and patronizing, distraction from providing health care to Americans

First published: January 13, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 12, 2015 at 4:48 pm

The nation’s veterans are once again cynically being used as a political cudgel. The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously last week for what is being called the Hire More Heroes Act, a bill that, in truly Orwellian terms, does something entirely different from what its title would have you believe.

On the surface, the Hire More Heroes Act sounds like a well-intentioned piece of legislation. It is purported to provide more jobs to America’s veterans. And, after all, who can argue with that?

But in reality, it is simply another backdoor attack on the Affordable Care Act. And it once again patronizes veterans by paying lip-service to their time in uniform without addressing the bigger issues of why, or how, they serve.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Hire More Heroes Act would amend a section of IRS code to exclude employees receiving medical coverage through the military’s health insurer, TRICARE, or certain programs administered by the Veterans Administration from the employer mandate, which requires companies with more than 50 employees to either provide health insurance or pay a fine.

Excluding veterans receiving health coverage from TRICARE or the VA makes some sense, as they would, in theory, already be insured. But what about the veterans who are not covered by either of these programs, as many are not, or the regular employees who do not receive special consideration?

The success of the ACA relies on the idea that as many people as possible will enroll in the program, thus bringing down the cost for everyone. Whether this idea is ultimately sustainable is up for debate and there are serious questions about the viability of the ACA, questions I intend to address in my next column.

But to exclude veterans from the employer mandate eats away at an important part of the law without truly examining its foundation. And it puts veterans in a very awkward position.

By virtue of their service, this country’s veterans have proven time and again that they do not want to be left out of a fight. Either the ACA will work or it won’t. But to exclude veterans from that debate, to give them a pass, is wrong.

We live in an age where less than 1 percent of the population actually serves or has actually served in the military. Terms like “hero” only serve to widen the civil/military divide, labeling veterans as a sacred “other,” separate and distinct from the culture at large, to be seen and not heard.

To borrow a metaphor from sports, veterans have skin in the game when it comes to the ACA and all other pieces of legislation enacted by Congress. They served not only to protect and provide for themselves but to help protect and provide for others.

Pieces of legislation like the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which help veterans gain education and new skills for the work force, are good programs. They include veterans in the conversation. Legislation like the Hire More Heroes Act serves only to exclude and deepen the divide.

We should have a robust debate about the ACA. Arguments for and against it should be presented and carefully considered on their own merits, not undermined by feel-good legislation like the Hire More Heroes Act.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times and a former Marine. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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Sports, movies, cancer

First published: January 06, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 05, 2015 at 4:36 pm

Despite growing up steeped in the storied twin traditions of West Virginia University Mountaineers and Pittsburgh professional athletics, I confess to being something less than a sports fanatic.

But I like SportsCenter. I’ve always liked SportsCenter.

Our high school gym classes would often end with a dozen sweaty guys sitting in the conference room of our small athletic facility watching Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen run through the highlights of the day. I was captivated by Scott’s words and his delivery. He elevated sports commentary to the level of pure poetry, and it was a privilege to witness.

Our P.E. teacher, who was one of the most athletic people I’ve ever encountered, would chain smoke while the stories rolled. The cigarette haze was pierced by Scott’s signature phrase: “Boo-yah!”

Scott died Sunday at age 49 after a long battle with cancer. I won’t go too deep into his legacy here, as I possess neither the acumen nor the authority to comment on it. Instead, I will refer you to this excellent collection of tributes catalogued by ESPN: http://wdt.me/stuartscott

I knew Scott only tangentially, as a figure on TV whose work I admired. But in recent months, I became aware of his struggle with cancer, which had been going on for many years.

I remember seeing a segment on ESPN about the rigorous cross-training and mixed-martial arts routine he had undertaken to keep his energy and spirit up during his cancer treatments.

I developed tremendous admiration for the way he kept fighting and refused to give up.

“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live,” Scott told the audience at the 2014 ESPYs, where he accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance Award.

In a similar way, Roger Ebert, who died in 2013 of complications associated with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, continued to fight until the end, doing what he did best.

In “Life Itself,” a documentary about Ebert’s life that aired Sunday night on CNN, Ebert described being “in the zone” when he wrote — a state of mind in which his pain, fears and troubles dissolved next to the flame of his genius.

Some people have asked me recently how my mom is doing. She was diagnosed with a Grade 4 glioblastoma in December after a more than six-hour surgery to remove part of a tumor that had developed around a blood vessel deep in the left hemisphere of her brain. The prognosis is not great. Maybe a year, maybe more. We’re not really sure right now.

Stuart Scott told the New York Times that he never asked what stage he was in. He didn’t want to know his prognosis; it would make it harder to fight. I can understand that logic.

Recovering from surgery was not easy for my mom, and there was a time when she seemed ready to give up. But she is entering chemotherapy and radiation treatment soon and is fighting on. A fitting move for a woman with a black belt in karate.

It’s been incredibly difficult to be so far away from my mom and my family while all this is going on. But knowing that she is fighting is encouraging.

I look forward to the day when I can help her in some way. When I can fight by her side.

Stuart Scott said something else at the ESPYs that was, in some ways, more poignant than his remarks about beating cancer. He acknowledged that determination sometimes falters and, in those moments, we have to reach for help.

“So live, live; fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you,” he said.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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The time of year for retrospectives and resolutions

First published: December 30, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: December 29, 2014 at 10:25 pm

I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions — I’ve never had occasion to before. But after a difficult year, I’ve made two:

1. Get up in the morning at the first sound of the alarm

2. Floss

I have a terrible habit of hitting the snooze button repeatedly, often exiting the bed an hour or two after the intended time. That’s going to end this year. I figure, if I don’t have the heart to set some major league resolutions, at least I can get up earlier. I’ll probably get bored and do something.

I have always been incredibly negligent when it comes to my oral hygiene. I’m lazy. Flossing is an activity for those with the opposite proclivity. But sometime in early December, I was suddenly overcome by the desire to make my gums bleed by running a minty piece of waxed string between my teeth.

After the hemorrhaging stopped, I discovered that I actually like this strange custom, which is probably a good thing. In addition to preventing tooth decay, it will hopefully help me avoid those awkward scoldings from my dentist the next time I visit.

It’s no secret that 2014 has been a difficult year. I ruptured a disc in my lower back in February and spent six weeks recovering from the injury; I helped cover (sometimes badly, some might say) three major north country political campaigns; and late in the year, I found out my mom had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.

It wasn’t all bad though: I got married in June, which was a joyous occasion, and I got to spend plenty of time with friends and family during the year — a pastime I have become increasingly convinced is the best on the planet.

Still, I’m looking forward to putting 2014 behind me, perhaps more so than any other year before it. And I’m looking forward to doing better in 2015, somehow, someway.

The end of the year is crammed with retrospectives — “The Best TV of 2014,” “The Worst Journalism of 2014,” “The year the world turned on Facebook” — and prognostications — “An Unserious Look at the Year Ahead” — but is sometimes short on reflection.

Reflections aren’t the sort of things that will trend. They’re the kind of thoughts you have late at night or on a particularly long drive — thoughts you might string together into some kind of plan to do better the next time around.

So I think I’ll take some time to reflect, to celebrate and to resolve to do better and be better in the New Year. It’s good to try new things.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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