Thursday, May 19, 2022

Changing the Massachusetts State Seal

New content on this website/blog, as of May 10, 2022, no longer represents columns published in the Beacon-Villager, because May 5th was the last issue printed on paper, B-V continuing as an e-paper. 

The content below is copied verbatim from an email sent by David Detmold, who has been active in seeking a change to the Massachusetts State Seal, which appears, among other places, on every town name sign one sees when entering the towns. David's contact info is 

On Tuesday, May 17th, the Special Commission on the Official Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth voted unanimously to seek a complete redesign of the flag, seal and motto of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The six Indigenous members of the special commission (co-chair Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, Melissa Harding-Ferretti, chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag, Elizabeth Solomon, treasurer of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, and Brittney Walley, member of the Hassanamisco Band of the Nipmuc nation) met in caucus prior to the May 17th meeting to discuss the path forward. The commission had been beset with delays in the appointment process, internal obstacles and procedural problems since it was established by the passage of enabling legislation on January 6th, 2021.

On Tuesday, the Indigenous leaders on the commission pressed their colleagues to decide whether the full commission intends to seek minor revisions to the current flag, seal and motto, or to reject the current imagery entirely and start anew. After polling all the 17 members present, (Senator Marc Pacheco and the senate minority leader’s appointee, Michael Amato, were absent) the commission voted unanimously in favor of a total redesign.

The commission was originally charged with reporting back its recommendations for a new design for the seal and motto of the Commonwealth to the state legislature by October of last year. But not all members had even been appointed by that time. Since January, the commission has been meeting regularly, on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 11 a.m., and working toward a new reporting deadline of December of 2022. The commission, anticipating the breadth of its work, now hopes the legislature will extend that reporting deadline once more, until March 31st of 2023.

As of Tuesday, the commission appears to have overcome internal hurdles to arrive at a clear consensus. On Tuesday, the united call of the Indigenous leaders for a total redesign received a ringing endorsement from the director of Mass Humanities, commission co-chair Brian Boyles, who delivered the following statement before the unanimous vote of his colleagues:

Statement from Brian Boyles, director, Mass Humanities:

I believe a full redesign of the seal and motto are necessary, given the charges of the special commission. There’s no way that I can examine the seal, or the context in which it was created,  without concluding that it is harmful, both to each of us as residents, and of the reputation of Massachusetts. There’s no interpretation that leads me back to the qualities of peace, justice, liberty, equality and education that are stated in the legislation that created this commission, and at this very historic moment, I think we have a unique opportunity as residents of Massachusetts to do the hard work to create a seal and motto that do justice to the best that this Commonwealth has to offer, and to reckon with history, both visually and in the origins of the current seal and motto. I base these feelings in the wisdom received from my colleagues on this commission, who were named to this commission because of their expertise and their leadership in their communities, and the words of our Native colleagues as expressed in the History and Usages subcommittee only drove that home to me on May 10th.

I hope we can continue to foster this historic moment with collaboration and respect as we envision the path for a new seal and motto. I serve as a leader of an organization where every day we see the will of the people of the Commonwealth to reckon with our history, to not settle for stereotypes, to respond to a changing population, to dig into the archives and records to elevate the voice of people, and in particular Native people, who were marginalized and erased from the stories we tell about Massachusetts.

I think people in Massachusetts are wicked smart, and they are bold, and they should not settle for a seal that sells all of us short.  We have discussed the context in the historical record, and I base my feelings today on a full redesign of the seal and motto in part on the historical record left by Edmund Garrett, the designer of the 1898 seal, who in 1900 wrote an artist’s statement for New England Magazine, Vol. 23, which can be located with a Google search.

I note in particular, first the charge, or the figure of the Native man, the face of that figure was taken from a photograph plucked by the Secretary of State at that time William Olin from the Bureau of Ethnography in Washington DC of Thomas Little Shell, a Chippewa leader who never resided in Massachusetts. The figure is based on a skeleton held at the Peabody Museum in Harvard University. No Native residents were consulted in its selection, a reflection of centuries of exclusion on the part of the Commonwealth from land, laws, and historical records of Indigenous residents.

The figure in the shield, secondly, holds a bow that according to Garrett was taken from an unnamed Native man shot by a settler, William Goodnough, in Sudbury, in 1665. That bow serves as a reminder that should any person know the full context and record, they would understand what emerges from the violence brought on by a people in their own land.

Finally the sword and the hand in the crest is modelled on that of Myles Standish. We know from the record that Myles Standish killed Native people. He was even reprimanded by his own Pilgrim colleagues for doing this.

These are the elements of the seal. The intentions were quite clear, and the construction was done in harmful ways. When we consider the motto: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty,” given the origins, and what we know of the history, those words do not ring true to me. I believe they too must go. I don’t see any way to tweak, or edit them, that can do justice to the long history of erasure and oppression of Native peoples since the arrival of the Pilgrims. I see no way to redeem those symbols. To do so would be to give priority to people whose violence should not be a source of pride but of apology and reconciliation.

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Future of Maynard

“As the mill goes, so goes Maynard.” That was a truism for over one hundred years, until the woolen mill cratered in 1950. Then true again 1953 to 1993 when the complex – more than one million square feet of space – was renting to office and industry needs of myriad businesses, in time all gradually displaced by Digital Equipment Company. DEC bought the complex in 1974, then emptied it in 1993 as part of a massive downsizing before selling itself to Compaq. Then true once more after Wellesley Management took over in 1998, and with a generous tax break from the Town of Maynard, managed to fill the complex again. The recession that began in 2008, coinciding as it did with the winding down of the tax break, crushed Wellesley Management, leading to a sale to Mill & Main at fire sale prices in 2015. Repopulation was stalled by COVID-19, so we find ourselves well into 2022 with a partially filled complex of buildings that date to being 103 to 163 years old.   

Two generations ago, Maynard was a live, work, shop, play and pray community, but no more. Most working people commute, shop on line, play video games ditto, and if they pray, do so at a house of worship that has its own parking lot. The twenty-first century has seen the closing of the Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational and Evangelical churches. Candlepin bowling lanes and pool halls are no more.

“As the mill goes, so goes Maynard” is no longer true. Despite the partially rented status of the mill complex, the population of Maynard is at an all-time high, having increased by ten percent between the 2010 census and the present. New housing – owned and rented – is being squeezed in everywhere, the construction at 129 Parker Street added huge amounts of commercial space, and the cost of housing is at an all-time high. New houses on Wisteria Lane, with two-car garages, are selling for more than $800,000. If ever the mill complex fill again – be it some combination of office, industry, retail, housing (?), community college (??) or mid-sized hotel (?!?) – Maynard has moved on from being wholly dependent. According to the 2020 federal census, residents report an average work commute time of 30 minutes. Maynard, to some degree, has become JABS (just another bedroom suburb).

Can Maynard remain ‘special’ against a gentrification trend? The existing infrastructure of the downtown triangle lends itself to Maynard staying host to non-chain shops, restaurants, bars and live entertainment venues. This envisions downtown Maynard being a destination for residents and people from neighboring towns. Think a smaller Waltham or a lower rent Concord. Doing so will require the Town of Maynard to continue to be friendly to commercial development. Being designated by the state as having a “Cultural District” helps, as would a rescue of ArtSpace, but there has to be fostering of live cultural events. Diversity contributes to urban vitality, but Maynard is lagging on affordable housing.

David Mark in ONLY IN MAYNARD shirt
One unforeseen consequence of the COVID pandemic is that there appears to be a trend away from needing to be physically at a place of work five days a week. This plays in Maynard’s favor, as commuting from Maynard – at significant distance from I-95, I-495, Route 2 and the train station – made commuting a bit of a struggle. The other side of the coin is easy access to attractive recreational opportunities such as offered by the Assabet River Rail Trail, the Assabet River National Wildlife Reserve, town-managed woodland trails and parks, plus small boat recreational opportunities on the Assabet River.

It will all take work, but who knows? Perhaps some day Maynard will be such a vibrant cultural nexus that people will say “As Maynard goes, so goes the mill.”

With the end of Beacon-Villager as a printed newspaper, this is Mark’s last column. He thanks the paper and Maynard for given him a forum for twelve years, 425 columns and three books.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Maynard's Poor Farm

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, distinctions were made in the definitions for hobos, tramps and bums. “Hobo”, may derive its roots from homeward bound, in reference to a time after the Civil War, when discharged soldiers hopped on trains in order to get home. Two generations later, the term was popular again during the Great Depression, to describe men again hopping trains, traveling from place to place looking for work, either steady or seasonal. A “tramp”, on the other hand, was someone who traveled from place to place but did not seek regular work. Tramps depended on the kindness of strangers or other means of support besides gainful employment. The term probably comes from the idea of tramping from place to place. Lastly, a “bum” does not travel and does not seek work, although earlier in life may have held a steady job. A bum is often an alcoholic. The term was probably taken from the German slang word ‘bummler’, meaning loafer.

The song, “Big Rock Candy Mountains,” dates to the hobo era. It describes a lush outdoor life for the unemployed, with perfect weather, empty boxcars, food aplenty, cigarette trees and streams of whiskey. Furthermore, “There ain't no short-handled shovels, No axes, saws nor picks, I'm goin' to stay, Where you sleep all day, Where they hung the jerk, That invented work, In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” Versions later recorded for children substituted candy canes and lemonade for the cigarettes and whiskey.

Long before there were state or federal programs to support the poor and infirm, responsibilities fell on families and towns. A person or family appearing in town would be “warned off,” i.e., made to leave if they had no proof of financial support, such as a job or relatives to take them in. If an existing resident came into hard times, the town would arrange to pay for that person to be taken into someone’s household via auction at town meeting – lowest bid winning.

The "William Smith" house was built circa 1780, added to over the 
years. In 1892 it was purchased by the Town of Maynard to serve 
as housing for resident and transient poor. Closed 1920. Image
courtesy of Maynard Historical Society.
In time, towns established a workhouse, poorhouse or poor farm, with a paid resident manager. In 1891, the Town of Maynard rented a building owned by Lorenzo Maynard to function as a poorhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Alonzo Knapp were hired for $325 for the year to manage the house and farmland, and to put up transient hobos and tramps. The next year the town purchased the “William Smith” house at 206-208 Great Road as a poor farm. The Smith family were extensive land-owners in what later became Maynard, including land sold to Amory Maynard for the construction of the mill and mill pond. Poor Farm residents and transients (the aforementioned hobos and tramps) were expected to work according to their ability, which included working the farm fields on the other side of Great Road, that in 1928, was transferred to the school department “for athletic and playground purpose,” in time becoming Alumni Field.

Transients were expected to report to the police station before evening. They were taken to the Poor Farm where they got a meal of herring and crackers, and a bed for the night. Those caught ‘sleeping rough’ were arrested and spent the night in a jail cell without a meal. This system was needed to reduce the numbers of non-resident men wandering about town evenings and nights, scaring homeowners by knocking on doors and asking for food and permission to sleep in a barn or shed. The number of transients spending nights in Maynard rose and fell with the national economy, suggesting that men were roaming in search of work after having lost their regular jobs. In good years the counts for the year were in range of 100-200 men, but in bad times, often exceeded 1,000. In return for a meager meal, access to a washroom and an outhouse, plus a roof over their heads for the night, the men were expected to cut firewood for the schools.   

By 1910, Maynard’s Poor Farm had steam heat, electric lights and a telephone. Mr. and Mrs. Dunham, the managers, received a salary of $500 a year. The Poor Farm was closed in 1920. The few remaining residents were transferred to the Hudson Poor Farm. The building became a rental property, finally sold off in 1947.

In time, state and federal agencies and programs took on care of the institutionalized, the indigent, the mentally ill, the homeless, with varying degrees of successes and failures. One Stow-related anecdote: March 1911, Phineas Feather, former superintendent of the Gleasondale Mills, attempted to murder Alfred Gleason, mill owner. Feather and Robert Bevis were injured in the struggle for Feather’s two guns; Gleason was unharmed. Feather was remanded to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane, an institution under supervision of the wonderfully named Massachusetts State Board of Health, Charity and Lunacy. He was released in 1915.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Maynard Rod & Gun Club

Trout fising derby (1960) (courtesy of Maynard Historical Society) 

After several short-lived starts,  April 15, 1915, saw the beginnings of what became, in time, the Maynard Rod and Gun Club. Growth was rapid. The first annual banquet, held at the Masonic Hall on January 21, 1921, drew a crowd of 90 members and guests. During the early years, the Club purchased and used land near White Pond, in Hudson. This era ended after the U.S. Army has seized adjacent land in 1942 for the creation of a munitions complex, and then forbade shooting events on the too-near Club grounds.

As World War II drew to a close, the Maynard Gun Club leased its clubhouse to the Army, and then turned its eye to acquiring land in Maynard. Over years, several purchases were made, cumulating in 93 acres of club-owned property, about half in Maynard and half in Sudbury. For a while, the Club made do with renting space for meetings, but in late 1948, committed to constructing a clubhouse on the grounds. Plans were drawn in 1949, construction followed, and on May 21, 1950, the Maynard Rod & Gun Club held a Grand Opening of the clubhouse and grounds, soon followed by building a dam on the Second Division Brook, so as to create a fish pond.

(courtesy of the Maynard Historical Society) 
Weekend mornings, if it is quiet enough (no lawnmowers or leaf blowers), one can hear the dulled bang of shotguns from club members and guests shooting at clay targets flung into the air be spring-powered devices. The sound can be disconcerting to new residents.

Clay targets are also referred to as clay pigeons. Their use began to replace live pigeon shooting around 1875. In the United Kingdom, live-bird shooting competitions were made illegal in 1921, but a target may still be called a "bird", a hit, a "kill", a missed target, a "bird away", and the machine which powers the targets is still known as a "trap". In “trap shooting”, the targets are launched singly in a direction generally away from the shooter. In “skeet shooting”, targets are launched across the shooter’s field of view from either side, either singly or two at once.

Present-day, the Club offers a complete set of pistol, rifle, trap and skeet ranges for members to hone their skills, an archery range, and a trout-stocked pond. Access is via Old Mill Road, off of Waltham Street. The main lodge houses the member’s lounge, a function hall and an indoor pistol range. The Club is in the process of renovating the indoor range. There is also an open pavilion first built in 1984, refurbished in 1996. Indoor and outdoor spaces often hosts weddings. An annual fishing derby – suspended in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – is expected to take place this May, and be open to the public. In past years, children have much-enjoyed this opportunity.  

Some of the club’s land on the east side is leased to Boston Paintball, which has several fields for paintball events and competitions. Fields include building-to-building, an outdoor field with terrain and structures, and competition fields that comply with National Xball League specifications. Equipment can be rented or bring-your-own. Access to this is via Sudbury’s Powder Mill Road.

For a not directly related piece of history, years ago the Maynard Rod and Gun Club was host to an annual event that brought hundreds of motorcycle riders. Memories are of more than an hour of rumbling roar as bikes were guided west on Summer Street, down Nason Street, then east on Main Street, to finally finish at RGC for an afternoon of family picnic and entertainment. Given such a visually striking event, it’s a glaring omission that the Maynard Historical Society has no photographs. Finding a written history was also difficult. The only documents found so far are a 2011 write-up in the Somerville newspaper, describing the “7th Annual Massachusetts Motorcycle Ride for Recovery” as an all-day event, with a police-escorted, road-closed ride to Maynard, also a copy of a 2013 flyer for the “9th Annual Bob Herne Motorcycle Ride for Recovery” culminating in Maynard as a family picnic, with musical entertainment provided by James Montgomery Band, with guitarist Jon Butcher. This was put on by the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery.


Saturday, April 9, 2022

The End of a Newspaper (Maynard, MA)

Beacon-Villager ends print, goes digital only, after May 5, 2022
A few years back, I stepped out our front door to get the Sunday New York Times, which is delivered in a blue plastic bag. Across the street was my neighbor and his young son. The boy pointed to what I was about to pick up, and asked "What's that?" 

His father answered "Mr. Mark gets a newspaper delivered to his house every morning. It's inside the bag."

Then, the boy asked, "What's a newspaper?"

And now, this announcement: “The Beacon-Villager will cease publishing a print newspaper and will instead exclusively offer news online at, on social media, via digital newsletters and other platforms. The final print edition of The Beacon Villager will be May 5, 2022.” Thus ends 135 years of Maynard having a print newspaper. The transition is not unique. Weekly newspapers of some neighboring towns (Acton/Boxborough, Sudbury, Chelmsford/Westford) will also cease. The Concord Journal and Lexington Minuteman will remain in print – as least for now.

These were GateHouse Media/Gannett Co. decisions. Across the country, GateHouse owned more than 100 daily newspapers, including MetroWest Daily News, and hundreds of weekly town newspapers.  In November 2019, GateHouse acquired Gannett, making it the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, and in the process assumed the Gannett name. Gannett is a publicly traded company, but it is managed by Fortress Investment Group, which in turn is owned by the Japanese-based, international conglomerate, Softbank.

There have been trends that foretold the end of print. The Beacon-Villager, serving Maynard and Stow is a weekly. It shows up Thursdays, home delivery and in stores. Starting in December 2021 it had shrunk to 12 pages, down from 16, but in recent past had been 24 pages. Here and across the nation, the demise of print advertising tore the financial hearts out of newspapers. Subscriptions to digital-only versions have not replaced lost revenue. According to an article in the Washington Post, more than 2,200 local newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, creating “news deserts” for some regions. Not surprising consequences from a decline in local news coverage are declines in civic engagement of citizens, less competition for local office and lower voter turnout for local elections.

Maynard’s history of having its own weekly newspaper dates back 135 years. “The Enterprise Weekly” later renamed to “Maynard Enterprise,” started print in 1888. Individual copies were three cents, a year’s subscription $1.50. Advertisements are interesting reading: Distasio’s Market offered beef at 15-25¢ per pound. Lerer’s Clothing Store had men’s shoes for $2 and suits for $10-20. An oak dining room table with six chairs for only $25. Ford Motor Company offered car models starting at $700. To put all this into perspective, factory pay was less than two dollars a day. The Enterprise ceased publication in 1970.

“The Maynard News,” a weekly published in Hudson, serviced the towns of Maynard, Hudson, South Acton, Stow and Concord Junction (West Concord). It started in 1899, ceased publication in 1943. What is surprising is how little actual “news” was in the paper. Week after week, the pages were filled with announcement-type items, such as a wrestling match at the Finnish Hall, a lecture on the “White Slave Trade,” engagement announcements and school concerts. Apparently, the main function of the newspapers of a century ago appears to have been akin to what we now think of social media - personal items people wanted to share with the community. Most of the old issues exist as bound folios at the Maynard Historical Society and on microfilm at the Maynard Public Library.

“The Beacon” was the forerunner of the Beacon-Villager. It launched in 1945. In the summer of 1953, the Beacon Publishing Company was the first business to move into Maynard’s mill after the conversion from woolen factory to rentable office and industry space. As “The Beacon” and later “The Assabet Valley Beacon” it served several towns. In time this evolved to papers for each town, including Acton’s “Beacon,” the “Concord Free Press” and the “Sudbury Citizen.”

How Wickedlocal digital will work for Maynard and Stow is not entirely clear. Until now, the digital version of the Beacon-Villager has been free. Going forward, not clear if part of the content will continue to be free and part by paid subscription, or all within paid. There appears to be an introductory subscription offer of $1 for the initial six months, then $7.99 per month thereafter. The digital appearance may emulate the layout of a printed paper.

This column was not published in the Beacon-Villager. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Was Maynard a “Sundown Town?” Part 2

After the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1780, and the abandonment by the freed Blacks or their children to cities where there was a significant Black community, the remaining rural population were people of English and Scottish descent. Their progeny, other than the oldest sons who inherited the family property, either moved west or gravitated toward the factory towns of the developing Industrial Revolution. On the Sudbury:Stow border, Amory Maynard was hiring. By the time the Town of Maynard was created, in 1871, the available workforce also included Irish immigrants. The population was static (and all White) until the American Woolen Company (AWC) bought the mill in 1900 and expanded, resulting in a population doubling by 1910, and then relatively unchanged through 1960.

The AWC hiring was all European immigrants: Irish, Italians, Finns, Russians, Poles… and hence all White. What is missing from historic documentation is whether hiring only White immigrants was an AWC policy across its 60 New England woolen mills, or just taking advantage of the arriving millions of European immigrants as cheap and non-union labor. The Great Migration of Blacks from the south to the north, 1910-1970, was too late to contribute to Maynard’s completed population boom. More to the point, people move to where there are other people like them (also for jobs, housing, schools and safety). For the northbound Blacks that meant cities rather than small mill towns.     

Poster for a Maynard Minstel Show
All this history is more likely the reason Maynard’s population was nearly 100 percent White until well into the 20th century, rather than any disorganized or organized racism. One sad consequence of there not being a significant minority population to point out the offensiveness was the perpetuation of local amateur minstrel shows long after this form of entertainment had faded elsewhere. Well into the 1940s, Maynard’s churches and organizations raised money this way. James B. Farrell, a talented singer, wrote in a monograph for the centennial history book, “I can recall in being in over sixty shows with most every society and club being a sponsor.”

Earlier, circa 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had been active in Maynard and surrounding towns, including cross burnings on Summer Hill. The focus was primarily anti-Catholic. A critical event occurred the night of August 9, 1925, when a Klan night rally at a farm on the Sudbury:Framingham border was violently opposed by Catholic Irish, Italians and Poles, who attacked cars traveling to the KKK event with bats and thrown stones. Returned gunfire injured five, and led to arrests of dozens of Klan members, including the son of the Sudbury Chief of Police. Klan presence faded soon after, locally and nationally.

Does racism still exist in Maynard? Let’s go with “Yes.” ‘Old’ racism refers to the belief systems that perpetuated the inferiority of people of color and provided the means for legalized discrimination and segregation. ‘Modern’ racism first denies that discrimination still occurs, second, maintains resentment towards minorities for their gains in the social and political arena as being unfair preference, third, opposition toward political and educational programs designed to support social equality, and fourth, fear of the unfamiliar.

That last – fear of the unfamiliar – is something Americans have not yet overcome, and can result in massive racial and demographic changes over relatively short periods of time. White flight and recently, gentrification, have whipsawed Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. Both have recently seen affordable apartment buildings replaced by upscale condos. Or as one person put it, “The neighborhood went to hell when we got a Whole Foods.”

Closer to Maynard, which per the 2020 census is 92 percent self-identifying as White, there have been some interesting demographic changes. According to the census, 26 percent of residents in Acton self-identify as Asian. Some of the draw is Acton-Boxborough High School being ranked in the top 20 high schools in Massachusetts. Over a 20-year period, Marlborough has gone from 88 to 69 percent White, with most of the share countered by Hispanic and Brazilian newcomers. Maynard itself used to have a reputation of being a housing low-cost town surrounded by high-cost communities, basically the hole in the donut, but in 2021 the average house sale was above $500,000 and some of the newly built homes have been selling above $800,000.

Not having affordable housing to buy or rent is one powerful means of discriminating against low-income people and families, which consist of a higher percentage of people of color. By Massachusetts state law – Chapter 40B – cities and towns are required to strive to have 10 percent of their housing stock as affordable. Municipalities that are well below 10 percent or oppose proposed 40B projects are in effect discriminatory. Maynard’s housing stock is at 9.5 percent affordable, but that will soon to be recalculated lower, as it is based on current number of affordable units (419) divided by the 2010 census count of total units (4,430). Obviously, there has been an increase in total number of housing units over ten years. A revised percent affordable figure based on the 2020 census should be available later this year. When it does, it will confirm that Maynard is trending toward stronger economic discrimination, which can only be countered by construction of more affordable housing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Was Maynard a “Sundown Town?” Part 1

Was Maynard a “sundown town?” Let’s start with “No.” In the strictest sense of the definition, Maynard was never an all-white town that practiced a form of racial segregation by excluding people of color after sunset, the idea being that such people could work in and patronize the businesses in town during the day, but had to be gone be nightfall. This was accomplished by combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation and violence, enforced by (White) police and threat of vigilante action. Black travelers were guided by the Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-66) as to where it was safe to stop at gas stations, restaurants and places to stay at night.

Image of sign used on the cover of
James W. Loewen’s book “Sundown Towns”

The most common late nineteenth and twentieth century occurrences were in the southeast states that had made up the Confederacy during the Civil War. These states had large percentages of Black people – freed slaves and their descendants – who lived in Black-only neighborhoods on the fringes of White-only towns and cities. However, there were many places outside the Deep South that enacted similar restrictions, not only against Blacks, but also Native Americans, Mexicans, or Chinese brought in as railroad laborers in the West.

The U.S. history of limiting when people of color could be permitted to be out in public dates back much earlier. The earliest legal restrictions on the nighttime activities and movements of Blacks and other ethnic minorities were in the colonial era, when slavery was legal in all 13 colonies (Massachusetts 1640-1780). Coastal cities such as Boston and New York had Black populations on the order of 10 percent – a mix of Free Blacks and slaves. Rather than a slave-only curfew, laws were written applying to everyone of color. The general court and legislative assembly of New Hampshire passed "An Act to Prevent Disorders in the Night" in 1714: “Whereas great disorders, insolencies and burglaries are oft times raised and committed in the night time by Indian, Negro, and Molatto Servants and Slaves to the Disquiet and hurt of her Majesty's subjects, No Indian, Negro, or Molatto is to be from Home after 9 o'clock.” Notices emphasizing and re-affirming the curfew were published in The New Hampshire Gazette in 1764 and 1771.

From that era to the current day, semi-permanent or short-term curfews have been enacted in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by people of color, cities have passed (and repealed) “stop and frisk” laws, and “Driving While Black” has had risks that all too frequently have escalated from a traffic stop to a driver death. All of this represents legislated harassment, all enforced by a predominantly White police force, designed to limit places where people of color can be in public without fear. Curfew laws potentially criminalize people of color who want to safely use the same public spaces – streets, sidewalks and parks – as White people.

James W. Loewen, author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (2006), adds a broader definition: “towns that were all White on purpose.” This ranged from driving out by violence the resident people of color, a horrific example being the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, to creation of new communities that were all White by design. A famous example of the latter was Levittown, on Long Island, New York. The company Levitt & Sons, Inc., built the district as a planned community of thousands of identical homes, primarily for returning World War II veterans, between 1947 and 1951. Clause 25 of the standard lease agreement signed by the first residents of Levittown, stated in capital letters and bold type that the house could not "be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race." Same applied to house purchases. Seventy years later, according to the 2020 federal census, the Levittown population is 52,000 and 1.2 percent Black in a state that is 15.7 percent Black. Darien, Connecticut prohibited sale of houses to Blacks and Jews. Today, 0.9 percent Black in a state that is 10.7 percent Black.

At a federal level, laws were passed to restrict Chinese immigration in the West. Early waves of immigrants were men hired to work in gold mining, railroad construction and as farm labor. The Page Act of 1875 prohibited the immigration of Chinese women. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 expanded that to men, and ended the pathway to becoming citizens. The Scott Act of 1888 stated that Chinese who were legally in the U.S. but left to visit China (primarily meaning men visiting their wives and children, to whom they had been sending money) could not return. The acts remained in effect until 1943, after which immigration was by quota.

The continuation of this column in next week’s newspaper will present a possible gray area to the “Sundown Town” definition: New England towns that had no or few Black residents for demographic reasons rather than organized discriminatory policies and actions. For an early example, during the late Colonial era, west of Boston (with its 10 percent Black population (free plus slaves)), well-off towns such as Concord and Sudbury had slave populations on the order of one percent. Stow, poorer, was home to one slave. Maynard did not yet exist. After the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1780, the rural percentages decreased toward zero as the children of freed slaves moved to Boston or other cities with a significant Black population.

Mark noted that he grew up in a New Jersey community that was 100 percent White until the mid-1960s; now 1.8 percent Black versus all of NJ at 15 percent.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Maynard Garden Club (1938-1962)

On March 17, at 7:00 p.m., the Maynard Public Library will present a Zoomed talk titled: “Urban Planting: 150 Years of Trees and Gardens,” sponsored by Maynard Community Gardeners. Registration (required) at

The garden club we have now – Maynard Community Gardeners, 1995-present, is not a continuation or rebirth of the Maynard Garden Club that came into being September 1938 and apparently ended circa 1962. Perhaps a bit too glibly, the differences between previous and present-day could be described as “White gloves versus Dirty Knees.” The Maynard Historical Society has copious notes on the original garden club, including minutes from many of the early meetings.

Maynard Garden Club (undated, courtesy of 
Maynard Historical Society)
The 1938 decision to form a local garden club was triggered by a presentation by Mrs. Walsh, President of the Winthrop Garden Club, on the topic “Garden Clubs.”  Early on, a constitution and by-laws were composed. Membership was limited to 25 and annual dues were $.50, later changed to 35 members and $1.00. Per the MGC constitution: “The object of the Club shall be to stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening among amateurs.” In comparison, the present-day Maynard Community Gardeners has approximately 90 dues-paying members, dues of $20/year and as its mission statement: “Dedicated to sharing a common interest in horticultural activities, promoting town beautification, and creating gardening opportunities for all.”

There is an interesting letter from 1939, advice from the same Mrs. Walsh, on whether the Maynard club should join the Federation. This was apparently the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts. Mrs. Walsh wrote “The Federation activities are run by a group of wealthy women, Groton, Lexington, Concord, Newton, etc., with large estates and they have plenty of money to do things with…there is quite a feeling that the smaller clubs are like ‘poor relations’ if you know what I mean.” There is no record that MGC joined.

The club’s finances were modest in the extreme. The 1940 Treasurer’s report noted $13.00 collected in dues and $4.50 in entry fees for the annual flower show. Expenditures included $16.50 paid to speakers and $3.00 for membership in the Massachusetts Agricultural Society.

The annual programs, which for most years described planned monthly meetings spanning September to June, were printed on card stock with an artist’s drawing of a flower arrangement on the front cover. In addition to educational speakers presenting at the meetings, the club also performed public service – there are thank-you notes from the Bedford Veterans Hospital expressing thanks for the donation of flower arrangements, and a note that at least for a time the club was helping maintain a garden at Emerson Hospital. Gifts to other organizations were modest in nature. A record of donations for 1951 to 1955, inclusive, totaled $23.00. That included $5.00 to Maynard Girl Scouts, $5.00 to the Jimmy Fund, $5.00 to MA Heart Fund and $4.00 to Red Cross. 

There were parallels between the garden club then and the garden club now, including bringing in outside speakers, corresponding with other garden clubs, field trips to places such as Garden in the Woods, a holiday season party with exchanges of gifts, and an annual plant sale.

One difference is that the present-day garden club does not have a judged flower arrangement contest. A second difference is that the present-day club has a community outreach program that includes the perennial plantings at Maplebrook Park, plantings at the “Welcome to Maynard” signs and the historic horse watering troughs, plus flower barrels scattered about downtown on Nason and Main Streets. For the last, the town provides the barrels; members adopt a barrel and are then responsible for planting and watering. The town gathers up the barrels in the fall.

World War I Victory Garden
(where new fire station is)
Toward the end of the existence of the Maynard Garden Club there were 24 members. Meeting presentations were mostly by members. Topics included such as: Flower Arrangements, Dried Flower Arrangements, Christmas Corsages, Valentine Arrangements, Day Lilies, and a joint meeting with the Maynard Woman’s Club (itself in existence 1904-1976). There is nothing in the files to show that the Maynard Garden Club continued beyond the 1961-62 year.

In addition to the two garden clubs, the March 17th presentation will touch on World War I and World War II Victory Gardens, and on efforts during the Great Depression to produce produce (pronounced, respectively, proh-DOOS and PROH-doos) for local consumption. And trees. Lots about the history of trees. So much about trees.

This column is a lightly revised repeat of a column from August 2018. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Windthrow, Windsnap and Blowdown

On March 17, at 7:00 p.m., the Maynard Public Library will present a Zoomed talk titled: “Urban Planting: 150 Years of Trees and Gardens,” sponsored by Maynard Community Gardeners. Registration (required) at

Windthrown tree, Maynard, 1938 hurricane
What a wonderful word is “windthrow.” A user of it wields word poetic. The word itself warrants this column and a definition: “In forestry, windthrow refers to trees uprooted by wind. Breakage of the tree trunk instead of uprooting is called windsnap. “Blowdown” refers to both windthrow and windsnap,” plus branches lost to high winds. And there it is - windthrow is blow me over, windsnap another evocative word, is break me in two, and blowdown encompasses all. Maynard suffered severe blowdown from the hurricane of 1938.

The risk of windthrow is related to the tree's surface area presented by its crown, the anchorage provided by its roots, its health, age, and chronic exposure to wind. The last actually reduces storm damage risk because being chronically exposed to wind causes a tree to increase and widen its root mass, and thus provide greater rooting strength.

Having experienced a hurricane first hand in Mobile, Alabama, it became clear that different species of trees are differently affected. Post-storm, helicopter views of pecan orchards showed the trees all knocked over in the same direction. Southern live oaks survived, but lost branches. In contrast, where several species of southern pine trees had been landscaped into newer suburbs because of their fast growth, many of the trees had snapped in two at heights 10 to 20 feet off the ground, leaving the shorn tops to fly through the air, in some instances stabbing down into house roofs like a toothpick through an olive.

Windthrown tree, 1938 hurricane
courtesy Maynard Historical Society
Atlantic Ocean tropical storms and hurricanes were first formally named starting in 1950 (each year as Able, Baker, Charlie…), then changed to using women’s names from 1953 onward, then switched to alternating women’s and men’s names in 1979. Naming is currently the responsibility of the Hurricane Committee of the World Meteorological Organization. This group maintains six alphabetic lists of 21 names, with one list used each year. Letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used. This normally results in names being recycled every six years. However, in the case of a particularly deadly or damaging storm, that storm's name is retired. To date, 94 names have been retired. There is a reserve list of names for when named storms exceed 21. To date, only two years have exceeded 21: 2005 tallied 28 and 2020 reached 30.

After-the-fact, the hurricane of September 21, 1938 was referred to as the Long Island Express because it bisected Long Island before quickly moving north through Connecticut and Massachusetts. There were more than 700 deaths across New England. Boston Edison reported that two-thirds of its customers lost power; getting power restored to everyone took two weeks. In Maynard, the official report tallied 487 trees blown down: 329 on public streets, 81 on private houses and garages. Most of the street-bordering trees lost were windthrown rather than windsnapped, their root systems weak due to being overlaid by paved streets and sidewalks. Many of the spruce trees in Glenwood Cemetery were lost to the storm, later replaced by sugar maples. That tree tally would have been in-town-only. Forested areas suffered uncounted losses. The Great Depression program WPA (Works Progress Administration) put men to work clearing downed trees and planting hundreds of new trees.

Beech tree, snapped by storm winds
Here in New England, trees known for shallow root systems are ash, beech, sugar maple, Norway maple, Norway spruce and willow. In contrast, white oak and hickory have deep root systems. Of course, any tree can end up with a shallow system if the terrain is thin soil over clay or rock, or if there is a high water table saturating the deeper soil. And hurricanes are not a requirement for windthrow or windsnap. Nor’easters can generate near-hurricane-strength winds, as can downbursts or derecho (look it up). Santa Ana winds are a southern California phenomenon that knocks down trees and makes wildfires impossible to control. Tornados primarily plague the middle states, although, surprisingly, Massachusetts averages a few each year, mostly short-track, low intensity events. On August 23, 2021, a small, short-track tornado touched down in Stow, causing minor damage along Route 117 near the police department building. Similar tornado touchdowns occurred in Marlborough and Bolton, all associated with the passage of Tropical Storm Henri.

Mark’s experience with Hurricane Frederic, September 1979, included afterwards, with no electricity for ten days, everyone was grilling whatever was thawing in their freezers before it went bad.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Maynard's Murals

Part of mural on the old Gruber Bros. warehouse
Maynard is on the verge of losing its largest and oldest mural. The crumbling warehouse behind what once was Gruber Bros furniture was muralized on all four sides by members of CinderBlockHustle in 2008, then revised by the same group with a militaristic/patriotic theme in 2012. The building is due for demolition as part of the conversion of the site into apartments and street-facing businesses. After a pause of several years to catch its outdoor art breath, Maynard witnessed the creation of eight more murals, 2016-2021, with potentially more public art pending. Everything can be viewed via a walking/driving tour of the Maynard Cultural District.

Ana Dugan standing in
front of her mural
Start by parking in the municipal lot across from Fine Arts Theater. The large ‘people’ mural to the west was painted by Anna Dugan in 2021. The request for proposals had called for a piece that represented the past, present and future, to be part of Maynard’s celebration of its 150th anniversary. Anna’s design was selected from among several applicants. In a semi-abstract of bright colors, it features seven people and a short poem. Funding was provided through the Maynard Cultural District Mural Fund as part of a multi-year “Maynard as a Canvas” vision.

From this location, look to the south to see where the El Huipil restaurant paid Boston artist Eileen Riestra and Puerto Rico artist Elena Fadhel to create a Mexican-themed mural on the site of the building wall in 2019. It features three “calavera” style skulls accompanied by rainbow-hued animals and insects. From the parking lot, next walk east on Main Street, then south on Waltham Street, then cross to the east side to view a mural painted on the south side of Excelsior Comics and Games. It’s a chaotic vision of video game monsters spewing forth from a screen. This was completed by Nick Maskell in 2018. On his website he wrote that the mural was painted in acrylic on large wooden panels that were then mounted together to form one finished piece.

Excelsior Comics and Games mural, now
joined by a giant's skeleton (not shown)
Meanwhile, same year, the long-empty Murphy & Snyder building at the corner of Waltham and Parker Streets was graced with murals on both sides: an abstract-to-real portrayal of a hummingbird approaching a flower on the south side, painted by Eric Giddings and Ben ‘Berj’ Braley, and on the north side Henry David Thoreau looking down out of a window to see Babe Ruth in a Rex Sox uniform, painted by Jack Pabis. Together, the murals were the first effort of “Maynard as a Canvas.” This concept was brought to fruition by Erik Hansen, a Maynard artist, who had been impressed by public murals during a visit to Iceland. His proposal was acted on by the Maynard Cultural Council. An announcement in 2017 for proposals from experienced murals artists yielded 80 entries, winnowed down to six finalists, and then two winning entries. The result represents a commitment from the Town of Maynard to support public art and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognizing a Maynard Cultural District.

One of six panels at "The Commons"
Next, return to your car, exit the lot on the north side, turn left, and then left again into the town lot behind CVS pharmacy. From there, it is a short step to a circumnavigation of the warehouse behind the former Gruber Bros. building. This one incorporates hyper-stylized lettering more associated with graffiti. Next on the list is the by-far most obscure, a set of six panels that make up the Goldfish Art Project, executed by origamist Lisa B. Corfman in 2018. The project was partially funded by the Maynard Cultural Council. To get there, cross Main, cross Walnut, then walk down the metal stairs to mill property. Walk south, parallel to the river, turn right before getting to Building 6, then right again. There is a roofed area branded “The Commons” with the panels inside.

Last on the list is the Bee Meadow mural – actually two murals – behind ArtSpace. Once back in the parking lot, either drive north, then left on Summer Street, or else walk across the lawn on the north side of the lot to Euclid Street, connect to Florida Road; either route, get to the back of ArtSpace. Images of flowering plants were painted on the concrete wall behind the meadow by Maynard High School students in 2016. They added their initials: AH, SD, CD, HB, JMC and IH. The fifteen canvas panels of bumblebees, butterflies and flowers were painted by Brandon Trainito and mounted atop the concrete wall in July 2021.

Handprints of the student 
painters of the Bee Meadow mural
All this muralizing of Maynard begs the question – does the town have regulations in place covering what one can and cannot do to a wall? Or, does a private property owner have the right to paint the outside of their home as they chose to? The law is a bit unsettled, but it appears that local governments have an ability to impose zoning restrictions, including aesthetic zoning, but this then runs into a First Amendment right for people to engage in artistic expression on their own property. The latter wins. A gray area is regulation of art on a business’ wall. Is it 100 percent art, or is it promoting the business in question by name, and hence a potentially regulated business sign?

There is a distinction between street art and graffiti. The major difference is that street art is usually done with permission. It can even be paid work. A content difference is that graffiti is usually word-based art, often a stylized signature or ‘tag’ by the creator(s), whereas street art is more commonly image-based. Obviously, there can be cross-over from graffitist to artist, the rare few transitioning from illegal night work to sold-out gallery shows and museums (Keith Haring, you are missed).   

Mark prefers to do his decorating with flowers. See


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

2021 was a Warm, Wet Year (Maynard, MA)

The New York Times kindly publishes a year-end summary of Boston’s weather for 2021. Most of that information probably applies to Maynard, perhaps with the exception that winter storms bringing only rain to Boston deposit some of that precipitation as snow in Maynard and points west.

Boston’s average temperature for the year was 54.6 degrees, 2.5 degrees above the long-term normal, making 2021 the second-warmest year since record taking began in 1872. This was on top of a long-term warming trend that has seen the Massachusetts state average annual temperature go from 47.3 to 48.3 degrees. The Boston average for June was the highest ever for that month; August and September the second highest for those months. Even modest increases in temperature have consequences. Winter has become shorter.

At Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, peak lilac blooming time has shifted from late to early May. The Arboretum contains 408 lilac plants representing 179 kinds, making it one of the premier lilac collections in North America. Lilac Sunday 2022 is planned for May 8th. Back at the beginnings, more than 110 years ago, Lilac Sunday was the last Sunday in the month.

The yellow triangles show long-term average for volume of water in the Assabet River at the
Maynard-located gage. Blue line shows actual for 2021. The green horizontal line is the
indicator for start of flood status, equal to five feet deep at the gage. 

Precipitation for 2021 was 52.33 inches; 8.74 inches above normal. And precipitation was not normally distributed. Long-term averages show precipitation as rain and melted snow in range of 3.5 to 5.0 inches depending on month. The pattern for 2021 was below average for January though March and again for November and December, but above average for April through October. July was exceptionally wet, recording 10 inches of rain for the second wettest July ever, followed by 7 inches in August and 7.5 inches in September. Homeowners did not have to water lawns, but it was a tough year for house painters and roofers.

Massachusetts records dating to before 1900 show that average annual precipitation was in range of 35 to 40 inches per year, gradually but consistently increasing to more recent averages of 45 to 50 inches. This is not just a local phenomenon. Nationally, east of the Mississippi River has become wetter while west has become drier. One not-surprising consequence of the trend for wetter years is more water in the Assabet River. Record keeping by the U.S. Geological Survey dates back to 1942, and shows that average river water volume has increased by 40 percent over that time span. Every year, rain and snowmelt far exceed Maynard's water needs, but the town has no active reservoir to retain surface water, and so is dependent on what seeps down to the aquifer to supply our town wells. Perennially, Maynard considers reviving White Pond, south of Lake Boon as a water supply. The pond had served Maynard, 1888-1999. A 2019 report estimated the cost of building a water treatment plant and installing miles of new pipe at about $30 million dollars.

This winter is off to a slow snow start. Long-term Boston average is 42 inches. Starting October 1, 2021, Boston has had only 12.2 inches of snow. Unless the last days of January and all of February and March bring unexpectedly large amounts, this will have been a poor year for sledding, skiing, snowplowing, snowmobiles, snowmen and snowball fights.

We may be on the verge of a tipping point. Until recently, one surprising consequence of warmer and wetter was that while winter was becoming shorter, it was also wetter, thus packing more snow into a shorter season. The winter of 2014-15 set an all-time Boston record at 108.6 inches. Of the ten snowiest winters dating back to 1890, seven has been in the last 30 years. However, there may come a time when are temperatures are warm enough that winter precipitation will be less snow and more ice, sleet and rain. When it comes, the crossover will affect Boston before it impacts the inland cities and towns. 

Sunday, January 23, 2022


Nearly 20 years ago it was possible to buy ONLY IN MAYNARD bumper stickers, T-shirts and sweatshirts at local stores and at Maynard Fest. The lettering was orange against a black background - Maynard's school colors. Then, for a while, the sole remnant of this endeavor was bumper stickers for sale at Russell's convenience store, next to Town Hall.

The bumper stickers had TM superscripted above the end of ONLY IN MAYNARD, signifying that an application had been filed for a trademark in 2003. This was a Massachusetts-only trademark. It lapsed, but a new Massachusetts trademark was issued in 2017 to a new holder. As of 2020 there are ONLY IN MAYNARD bumper stickers and T-shirts, offered for sale at various venues and events, with profits channeled to non-profit organizations located in Maynard.

In addition, an agreement was reached with the trademark holder that the slogan could be affixed to coffee mugs. The mugs, black exterior, orange interior, the slogan in orange on the outside, are for sale at The Outdoor Store, Art's Speialties, Boston Bean House, Sugar Snap and other locations. All profits are channeled to an effort to beautify the Assabet River Rail Trail with flowering spring bulbs, summer-blooming perennials and flowering shrubs and trees. This “Trail of Flowers” effort, initiated in 2018, has resulted in the planting of thousands of daffodils, plus hundreds of tulips, daylilies, irises and other plants in Maynard and Acton, with plans to extend the plantings to the south section of trail in Hudson and Marlborough. See for program description and photos.

A bit of history: In the original form and subsequent incarnations, the words on ONLY IN MAYNARD products were deliberately printed so that the right side was noticeably higher than the left. Best guess is the wording was askew to convey that negative, rueful pride that only in Maynard could things (town things, school things, people things...) be so humorously incompetent or fouled up.

To counter the prevailing negative impression, a group of civic-minded citizens approached the Beacon-Villager newspaper back in 2005, to see if they could take turns writing a pro-Maynard column featuring the friendly and welcoming nature of this unique small town. The column lasted only a few months. An echo of that positive intent was conveyed in a 2008 article in the Beacon-Villager that read in part "A clever slogan, coined some few years ago, continues to describe our singular uniqueness, our melting pot citizenry and our basic values for the 'good life.' That slogan, ‘Only in Maynard,’ sets up the town as a special place where very special people do distinctive and exceptional things. This is especially true in the art of song and music as developed in our town."

An informal survey of people about town yielded both the negative and positive connotations, and also a third meaning - the concept of specialness. Only in Maynard can you see Santa Claus arriving by helicopter for the Christmas parade. Only in Maynard can you still find a local movie theater. Only in Maynard are the bars close enough together to have a pub crawl that might involve actual crawling (or at least walking) rather than driving.  

So, after all this debate, what does "Only in Maynard" really mean today? Whether it is only in this small town are people so warm, friendly and welcoming, or only here are things so ruefully, headshakingly messed up, or a comment on the unique nature of life in Maynard, my own opinion is that in comparison, ONLY IN ACTON or ONLY IN SUDBURY or ONLY IN STOW would make no sense whatsoever.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Heart Rate Recovery Predicts... What?

An entire health assessment industry evolved out of one scientific journal article published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in October 1999. The title was “Heart-Rate Recovery Immediately after Exercise as a Predictor of Mortality.” It was submitted by five people from the renowned Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and since then its publication has been cited by 1,145 science journal articles, meaning that it attracted and continues to attract a lot of attention. What, exactly, did it report, and how was that interpreted within and outside the medical community?

The value for the recovery of heart rate was defined as the decrease in the heart rate from peak exercise to one minute after exercise stopped. Why one minute? Standard exercise tests such as a treadmill test are used to assess cardiovascular health by gradually increase exercise intensity to a level of vigorous exercise, and then drop to a near-resting state, i.e., slow walking. What the researchers did was record for 2,428 middle-aged people how much their heart rate dropped at the end of one minute, and then followed their health for an average of six years. An abnormal value for the recovery of heart rate was arbitrarily defined as a reduction of 12 or fewer beats per minute (bpm) from the heart rate peak; 26 percent had recovery of less than or equal to 12 bpm, but in the follow-up period, these people accounted for 56 percent of the deaths. Incrementally, above a recovery of 15 or more bpm there was no improvement in reducing risk of death for higher values. Lastly, people who were more physically fit were less likely to have an abnormally low bpm recovery.

Smart watches provide many functions, including
heart rate and heart rate recovery at one minute.
These results led to an explosive popularity of the heart rate monitor industry, first as a device strapped around one’s chest, but evolving to wrist devices such as Apple Watch and recently to the Oura Ring. The newer devices send data to your phone, pad or personal computer. The concept behind all this heart rate fascination is a leapt-to conclusion that being more physically fit reduces risk of death (true), and that fitness can be assessed by heart rate recovery (maybe). The real question may be whether – if faced with a low heart rate recovery – to start exercising more, or make sure your will is up to date?

Exercise is associated with increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic nervous system activity, two components of the autonomic nervous system. The period of recovery after vigorous exercise is characterized by a combination of sympathetic signals decreasing and parasympathetic reactivation. To other than researchers in exercise physiology, one minute of recovery feels like the time it takes for fast breathing to slow and the sense of acute fatigue to temper. Which feels like a fitness measure that makes sense. HOWEVER, a research article published in 2018 assessed heart rate recovery (HRR) at 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 seconds in 40,727 middle-aged adults who had no history of cardiovascular disease. Subjects were followed for an average of six years. Only HRR at 10 seconds remained predictive of both all-cause and coronary artery disease mortality. This fast timing suggests that renormalization of the autonomic nervous system signals is a better predictor of heart health than the slower stuff we subjectively feel: the slower breathing and lessening fatigue, associated with recovering from oxygen dept and lactic acid build-up.   

So, back to question of whether exercise can improve heart rate recovery and reduce risk of death. The answer appears to be the former. One study looked at people who had had a heart attack. Exercise training improved HRR, and increases greater than 12 bpm had better cardiac survival. In another, for people in cardiac rehabilitation who started with a HRR averaging less than 12 bpm, 41 percent raised their HRR above 12 and had reduced risk of death compared to those who did not. This still begs the question of what is going on in people who take up exercise but do not have an improvement in heart rate recovery. Is autonomic nervous system senescence irreversible?

The term “heart rate variability” (HRV) comes up in this research arena. The autonomic nervous system, drives heart rate higher in times of physical or emotional stressors and lower when stress is over. A larger range is described as having a high HRV. Neurodegenerative diseases that present as mild cognitive impairment, progressing to dementia, may include damage to the neural networks controlling the autonomic nervous system, and by doing so, lower HRV. High HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health, and interestingly, with sleep health, which is also dependent on the autonomic nervous system. A common denominator here is that exercise improves cardiovascular health and sleep quality, and some evidence that exercise is of benefit to people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia. From all this, it is possible that aging of the autonomic nervous system is a driving force behind diseases of aging.

How much exercise is enough? The consensus is that a large fraction of total health benefits is reached with 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. The exercise should be a mix or aerobic and muscle building. More will make one stronger and faster, but that is a sports performance benefit, not a health benefit.   

Mark says that during his peak bicycling years – more than 3,000 miles per year – he had handlebar devices measuring average and maximum speed, distance traveled and heart rate. In later years he took all that off, to spend more time looking around and less looking down.


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Writers on Writing - John McPhee

Five years ago, I submitted a column “Writers on Writing” which led with quotes from famous writers and closed with a bit of background on how I came to be a nonfiction writer. Two of the quotes: “We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.” (Somerset Maugham) and “I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” (James Michener)

And again: When I am asked "Why do you write?" I answer "It's a disease." I have heard the same answer for people in the restaurant or acting industries. These are professions rife with hardship, rejection and failure. The people who persevere are those who cannot imagine doing anything else.

Early on, I was also asked by an editor of this newspaper if my column should have a photo of me. I replied that my preference was “No.” And when asked why, I replied “Because it’s not about me.” That is perhaps half-true. Whether “I” appears in my columns (about once a year), what I choose to write about is directed by my curiosity, my knowledge and my skills. So, history – yes, nature – yes, science – yes, people – not so much. My style is my style: parenthetical asides, alliteration, long sentences and sentence fragments, high school reading level, etc. Thus, I am in my columns even when “I” is not.  

It helps tremendously to have as touchstones writers who have excelled in what John McPhee calls “Creative Nonfiction.” Writing nonfiction, I learned early, is a matter of bricks and mortar. The bricks are the facts and the mortar the story tying the facts together. The craft is in managing the right balance of the two. If you, reader, aspire to creative nonfiction, consider the books “The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction” (2008) and “Writing Creative Nonfiction” (2001).

A dividing line – not an absolute requirement for being a creative nonfictionist – is whether the author is part of the story, meaning how much is “The…” and how much is “I…” Revisiting Annie Dillard, she is a LOT of “I.” Bill Bryson is a lot of “I.” Barry Lopez has some “I” is his writing, as does John McPhee. McPhee colors his work by incorporating his interactions with the people who live and work and play in the places he is writing about.

In contrast, as a biographer, Robert A. Caro, age 86, hews to a minimum of 1,000 words a day without an “I” ever being launched from his typewriter. It helps, I suppose, to choose to write about Lyndon B. Johnson after he was dead, as in no recounting interviews with the subject. Caro did, however, rent a house for three years in Texas Hill Country, where LBJ grew up and entered politics, the better to interview people who had known LBJ when he was young, and get a sense of Texas life. The first LBJ volume was published in 1982. That and the three published since then averaged more than 800 pages. As of late 2021 Caro was hundreds of pages into book five, now writing about President Johnson and the Vietnam War. He still hopes to visit Vietnam as part of his research. Writers who get too deep into researching their topics are said to be “Caro-esque.”

John McPhee (age 79 years)
Why McPhee in particular? Firstly, he is 90 years old and has been writing professionally for 70 years! Initially for Time magazine, then The New Yorker, from which his nonfiction has distilled into 32 books. Secondly, since 1974 he has been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University (his alma mater), where every spring he teaches a course named “Creative Nonfiction” to a class limited to 16 students. His essays on teaching writing are gathered in a 2017 book “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.”  

One essay: “FRAME OF REFERENCE: To illuminate—or to irritate?” is worth revisiting now and then. In a piece of writing, its frame of reference are the things and people you choose to allude to in order to advance its comprehensibility. Write that someone has the frenetic energy of Tom Cruise doing his own stunts and you have leaned heavily on the readers’ awareness of the movie industry in general and Tom in particular [Cruise will be 60 in July. He does all his own stunts.] That’s fine, for now, but write that someone has the gravitas of Richard Burton and you likely lost readers on two counts: gravitas? Burton?? Only once in all my columns has an editor called me on vocabulary: “yclept.” My response was “Keep it – they can look it up.”

As for paragraph four: “touchstones.” Was context enough, or were you moved to look it up? I was familiar with its use as a metaphor, synonyms criterion, gauge or yardstick, but surprised to learn that the word also applies to an actual precious metals assaying tool.

A bit more on writers writing about writing: Supposedly, Ernest Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is s___.” And mythology has it that Hemingway, challenged to tell a story in six words, came back with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." True or not, it has spawned an entire industry of six-word stories. One of my favorites: “Alzheimer’s: meeting new people every day.”

Mark mentioned that in addition to 12 years of toiling for the Beacon-Villager, from 1978-80 he had a weekly column for the Azalea City News (Mobile, AL), writing restaurant reviews, recipe columns and health articles.