THINGS IN JARS  by Jess Kidd

            (Published in rinewstoday.com on 1/09/2021)

Author Jess Kidd demands your total concentration, but rewards your effort.

Her third novel, Things In Jars is her most ambitious and complex work. Set in London the action flits back and forth between 1863 and 1841. In 1863 a strange six year old child, Christabel, who lives secluded in her father’s English manor, is kidnapped. During the abduction she bites one of her kidnapper’s hand and he experiences a garish and painful death. Christabel may be a marrow; part human, part mermaid in Irish folklore.

Christabel’s father hires Mrs. Bridie Devine to find his child. Bridie is a self proclaimed Domestic Investigator who specializes in forensic exploration and, quietly, does minor surgery as a sideline. In vocation and attitude Bridie is an early feminist for the Victorian era. She stuffs her smoking pipe with Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend tobacco. We are told, “… You add lots of Prudhoe’s Blend for colorful thoughts and triple that amount for no thoughts at all.”

Bridie’s pursuit of the absconded Christabel leads her into the strange world of scientist, actors, rouges, and a vague society of “collectors” who take joy in acquiring oddities of life; animal, plant or even human. Many of these anomalies of nature are preserved and showcased in jars. The cast of characters which also includes a carnival barker, a seven foot tall maid (Cora) and a ghost are fully fleshed out by Kidd’s stunning command of language and fertile imagination.

Scenes of pure dread are leavened by her tart humor………………………………………

Chapter 41 begins, “The servants of Albery Hall are having a trying day. Cora Butter has been rounding them up as and when they cross her path – the cook, assorted maids, and a weeping valet have now joined the butler in the cellar. The butler has uncorked several bottles to treat the shock subsequent to being corralled into a windowless dungeon by a seven-foot-tall housemaid armed with a poker.”

Bridie’s near constant companion is Mr. Ruby Doyle a nearly naked phantasmagoric ghost who has tattoos which transform themselves depending upon his mood. He is a mysterious connection to Bridie’s miserable childhood spent as an impoverished helper to a graveyard resurrectionist in the poorest section of London. There are whiffs of a fanciful Dickens in Kidd’s description of Bridie’s early life when she was a waif known as Bridget.

Legends, spirits, murders, mayhem and suspense are brilliantly swirled together by Jess Kidd to produce an intoxicating tale.

Kidd, who is 47 and lives in London, calls her work magic realism. Let’s hope the magic continues with more wondrous works like Things In Jars.

                        - END -

A time for mercy

   A TIME FOR MERCY - JOHN GRISHAM 
   Review published - rinewstoday.com on 1/2/2021

John Grisham had an amazing streak of twenty eight novels consecutively reaching number one on the best seller list. Nine of his works have been made into successful movies. He is, obviously, one of the most popular writers of our time.

A majority of Grisham’s books are courtroom related as he mines his own experiences from a decades long career as a trial lawyer. His latest novel, A Time for Mercy, returns to very familiar territory. It is the third story featuring Jake Brigane, a lawyer in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi.

In A Time for Mercy Jake attempts to juggle two cases simultaneously; one criminal murder case and the other a civil suit involving a tragic train/car accident. The cases are unrelated other than the financial stress placed on Jake and his family in pursuing the expensive litigation against the railway company.

Grisham’s practiced eye and skillful writing introduce us to a plethora of small town characters with their tics and foibles, although at times the author veers into lazy stereotypes. As early as page 1 the main miscreant is described as follows, “ Stuart Kofler was a sloppy, violent drunk. His pale Irish skin turned red, his cheeks were crimson, and his eyes glowed with a whiskey lit fire…” And, of course, Ozzie Walls, the popular black sheriff in a mostly white town, was a local football star whose NFL career was ended by an injury.

One of the challenges for all mystery/thriller writers is to create both foreshadowing of true events and feasible “red herrings” to keep readers off balance as to the actual outcome. Grisham has been a past master of this difficult skill, but in A Time for Mercy the feints and dodges seem too obvious.

Perhaps the burden of creating two parallel plots waters down the impact of the main story. For a 464 page book, which will be blurbed as another “Grisham courtroom novel”, it is a problem that the reader does not reach the actual trial until page 357. Now that’s a very long prelude.

Besides Jake Brigane, many of the characters here were featured in Grisham’s first novel A Time to Kill published in 1989. Incidents of rape and murder ignite both works but there was a much heavier emphasis on Southern racism in the debut work as the accused was black. Themes covered by the new A Time for Mercy include juvenile defenders and capital punishment. Grisham served as a Representative in the Mississippi House from 1984 to 1990 and has long been an opponent of capital punishment. One could speculate that the title, A Time for Mercy may be Grisham’s homage to the powerful 2014 expose of the Deep South’s capital punishment record, Just Mercy, penned by Bryan Stevenson.

After finally placing us into the courtroom, the author deftly, but briefly, describes the ordeals of witnesses, advocates, the defendant and jurors as the tale reaches its conclusion.

However, the real mystery is how Grisham, a writer with great talents, seemed to run out of steam and left so much unresolved. Perhaps another Jake Brigane book is in the works which will tidy up the many loose ends.

The final question is whether Grisham, a noted baseball fan, has lost his fastball.

The jury is still out.

                                            - END -

Contact:jraftus@aol.com

stimulus money – a modest proposal

(Published in the Providence Journal 12/28/2020)

STIMULUS MONEY – A VERY MODEST PROPOSAL

It appears a second stimulus check will be sent to a majority of Americans. No matter your political view of this government largess you will have a personal decision to make. What will you do with the money?

Last April my wife and I received a total of $2,400 in stimulus money. We used the new Visa card once to activate the account. The majority of the funds remain untouched. We are not 1%rs. We are retired seniors on a fixed income,but, thanks to our long term savings plan we are “comfortable”.

Now more government funds will be sent to us. We’ve done nothing to earn this money. It will not even mean much to our daily lives. However, millions of our fellow citizens are suffering because of the pandemic. The stimulus funds may put needed food on their tables or allow parents to buy winter clothes for their children. These funds will certainly provide some short term help, but rest assured their needs are still plentiful. Even with the vaccine on the way the financial struggles will continue for at least a year.

With apologies to Jonathan Swift, I have a very modest proposal.

Imagine if all Rhode Islanders who can afford it decide to use this new stimulus money to help the less fortunate. Rather than purchasing more “goodies” from Amazon, shop as local as possible. A greater amount of dollars remain in your town when you shop local. Support your locally owned gift shop, book store and hardware store. These are the businesses which most need your direct help. It’s the independent stores which give our region character.

Or, instead of consuming, consider direct contributions to area charitable organizations or specific business categories which are being decimated during this time.

Hospitality workers have been especially burdened by shut downs. A Rhode Island Hospitality Employee Relief Fund to give assistance for those in the restaurant, hotel and tourism industries has been set up at rihospitality.org .

The Rhode Island Community Food Bank, rifoodbank.org , recently reported that the number of people assisted has increased from 50,000 per month to 68,000 and that 1 out of 4 households lack adequate food supplies.

Performance venues have also been hard hit as they continue to have their curtains closed. Their struggles can have a trickle down effect. Trinity Square Theatre traditionally takes up a collection at all “A Christmas Carol” performances and donates the money to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Last year $60,000 was raised. This year “A Christmas Carol” will be streamed free and while donations will be requested it will impact the amount collected. The Rhode Island Foundation (rifoundation.org) has stepped to the plate and will match every donation made to Trinity up to $60,000. A true lesson in collaborative charity by these organizations.

There are many more local charities which you can find online.

Perhaps there is also a chance to be personally creative in your use of the stimulus money.

School districts are now having to opt for remote learning. While leaders have worked diligently to provide for their students, there are gaps especially in poorer communities. My wife dedicated 3 decades as a teacher and knows the constant needs. Perhaps a call to your local school department would provide some idea of needs. The past stimulus amount of $2,400 could have purchased a few Chrome books for students.

So, my very modest proposal. Rather than scrolling Amazon for something to buy, please consider how powerful it would be if thousands of Rhode Islanders decided to dedicate these funds to a better cause. My sometimes overblown optimism can almost see this happening across the country .

Let’s start 2021 with a surge of healing and helping.

Contact: jraftus@aol.com

ANXIOUS PEOPLE (Book review)

    ANXIOUS PEOPLE   (BOOK REVIEW)

Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman’s newest novel Anxious People captures the angst of modern life through the lens of a botched bank robbery, an accidental hostage taking and a single day going really, really sideways. Oh, possible suicides also hover.

It is a comic novel for folks with neurosis.

Backman’s earlier works, such as A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here, have a claustrophobic vibe to them. Their main characters are eccentric loners slowly forced to interact with others. In Anxious People the protagonist, whose name is never revealed, ignites the plot with a singularly foolish, desperate act.

Backman uses repetitive scenes told from the perspective of eight characters to reveal lives in varying degrees of folly, flux, promise and contentment. This elliptical approach and the circular dialogue mimics Joseph Heller’s work in Catch – 22. Both are stories which flit back and forth in time with one tale being told numerous times with comedic insight.

In interviews Backman has been forthright in discussing his time in therapy attempting to overcome bouts of anxiety. He knows the landscapes of uncertainty and self doubt and the affects they can have on lives.

His cast of characters in Anxious People include; a father/son police team, a young lesbian couple about to have their first child, a retired couple trying to limp to the finish line and a desperate parent doomed into making the very bad decision which for several hours disrupts all their lives. The manner in which the bad decision throws this eclectic group together forces them individually, or as couples, to examine their relationships and priorities. Backman handles these revelations with wit, charm and great compassion.

The author shows a deft talent for sharing the quirkiness of commitments and the serendipity of life. The unnamed protagonist received, as a seven year old, this advice from an alcoholic mother, “if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” With such counsel it is no wonder one makes such bad decisions later in life.

Backman’s dedication for Anxious People reads, “This book is dedicated to the voices in my head, the most remarkable of my friends. And to my wife, who lives with us.”

Book lovers can only hope those voices keep feeding the imagination of this talented, versatile writer.

                                     - END -

ONE OF US – 9/11

(PUBLISHED IN BostonGlobe.com on 9/11/2020)

ONE OF US -  9/11/2001

It was mid-afternoon of September 11th, 2001 and Tom Brokaw spoke these words,… We have the first identifications of victims and it is one of us. David Angell, co-creator of NBC’s Frasier, and his wife Lynn were aboard American Airlines Flight 11…..

A picture of my cousin David and Lynn flashed on the screen and my worst fears were confirmed. Our dear David and Lynn, who we had just spent a wonderful weekend with at a family wedding, were gone forever. I collapsed on our living room floor and buried my head in a sofa cushion. My wife Pat, daughter Katy, and son Steve, leaned in to comfort me, but in truth we were all in-consolable.
The emotions were too raw, too new to do anything but spill out.

The day had started out so promising. There was a brilliant blue sky as I drove from my Cumberland home to my office in Milford, Massachusetts. I had an unusual schedule for this Tuesday, a couple of hours of early work then playing with two of my co-workers in a member- guests golf tournament at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. It was a rare mid-week chance to work on my golf game.

Just before 9:00 o’clock I noticed a few folks gathered in front of a small television set in an adjoining office. This was not a normal occurrence so I walked over to join them. No one was talking all eyes were focused on the screen which was replaying a crude video of an airliner crashing into the 110 story North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Someone opined, “Must have completely lost power.”

“What a disaster.”, another sighed.

As the broadcast continued we watched in horror as another airliner smashed into the adjoining South Tower. Part of the plane careened off the building and plummeted to the ground. Instantly we, and the rest of the country, knew the United States was being attacked by terrorists. Both towers smoldered, thick grey smoke rose ominously besmirching the cobalt blue sky. It was obvious that the death toll would be large, well beyond those on board the two hijacked planes. Emergency vehicles began arriving, the beginning of heroic, mostly futile, attempts to rescue people from the carnage.
Then one of the newscasters revealed that the first plane was an American Airlines flight which had departed from Boston heading to Los Angeles.

My heart fluttered. My mind involuntarily froze then recalled David and Lynn remarking at the wedding reception that they were heading back to California to attend the Emmy Awards ceremony.

What day did they say? Was it Tuesday or Wednesday?

I watched several minutes more of the disaster while trying to calm myself and decide the best way to get more information. I did not have David or Lynn’s cell phone numbers so I called my older brother, Mike, to see if he had any news. He had called Bishop Kenneth Angell’s office in Vermont. Bishop Angell, David’s brother, was the Auxiliary Bishop of Rhode Island from 1974 to 1992. While unable to speak directly with the Bishop, my brother was told by his
office that although they didn’t know David and Lynn’s exact itinerary the couple usually took later in the day flights to the West Coast.

Although this eased my personal concern for them I still had trouble focusing on work as I returned to my desk. By now reports of a third hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon added to my dread. How long would this last? How many more planes were in peril? Ironically, David had served as an officer at the Pentagon in 1972.

One of my fellow workers who was supposed to play in the golf tournament with me contacted Kirkbrae Country Club to see if the rounds would be canceled.
Amazingly, they had decided to still go forward on the premise that this tournament was a once a year event and that guests, some from great distances, had already arrived. The three of us from my company debated what to do. We had been invited by a business associate and when we called him directly he felt canceling would do no good and it was an important day at the club. We decided to go. I, of course, would never have gone if I hadn’t felt some reassurance that David and Lynn were not included in the hijacked flights.

As I tried to concentrate on my remaining work my mind would steer back to thoughts of David. We were both born in 1946. He grew up in Riverside and West Barrington while I was from Pawtucket. Our mothers were sisters and our families were close. Traditional holiday parties rotated yearly from one home to the other. David and I shared a love of all sports. Sleepovers were common and we lost plenty of sleep talking baseball, basketball and, later, girls. David’s obvious interest in his female classmates and friends meant I was surprised when he entered Our Lady of Providence Seminary for the 9th grade. Surprised, but not shocked as his brother Kenneth was already a youthful Monsignor, a rising star in the Rhode Island church hierarchy. Eventually David decided he would not be following in his brother’s footsteps and he enrolled at Providence College where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in English in 1969.

My coworkers broke my reverie when they came to collect me to head out to Kirkbrae. I was unsettled by the thought of playing golf while this tragedy continued. News of the fourth crash in Pennsylvania did not help.

At the course the pre-round late brunch buffet was muted. Missing was the normal jocular kibitzing at tournaments. A television on low volume hung in the corner of the function room. When the round started things did not go well for our foursome. We had two good golfers and two mediocre talents, but no one was on their game.

As we waited on the seventh tee a Kirkbrae employee rapidly approached in a cart.

“Is there a Mr. Raftus in the group?” he asked.

I raised my hand.

“We have a message from your brother. He said you should head home and call him about your cousin.”

I tried to process this information weighing it against what Bishop Angell’s office had said. I called my brother as we headed back to the clubhouse. He said that despite many efforts no one from the Angell family had been able to reach David and Lynn. Now there were series concerns about their whereabouts. Of course none of us knew at this point that they had booked an earlier than normal flight to make an afternoon appointment in California.

I’ve not often wept in public, but by the time we reached the parking lot I was a wreck. My golfing partners had all driven back to my car with me, their rounds were finished as well. They gently offered to drive me home, but I needed to be alone.
On the drive home I remembered the day I visited David and Lynn in 1976 at their Warwick apartment and I had noticed a few books about script writing for television on their bookshelf. I didn’t say anything, but, lo and behold, a few months later they announced he was leaving his job as a technical writer for a Rhode Island insurance company and moving to California to pursue a career in television!

They set a marker of five years to try and break into the notoriously difficult television industry. During those years David worked many odd jobs and wrote during his time off. Lynn supported his efforts using her librarians degree from Auburn University to keep a steady income flowing.

Half a decade passed and, despite his multiple attempts at writing “spec” scripts and making show pitches, David had garnered only marginal success. In 1981 he and Lynn were literally packing boxes in anticipation of having to move back east. Fortunately at the last minute their perseverance finally paid off as David sold a script which aired on Archie Bunker’s Place in 1982.

David had his foot in the door.

He kicked that door wide open.

My mental reconstruction of David and Lynn’s early life in California kept my mind occupied on the drive home from Kirkbrae. When I reached home I had to face the reality of the moment with my family. Like the rest of the world we sadly watched as first responders clawed their way through the rubble searching for survivors. Rumors of other attacks proved false. Lists of possible leaders of the plot were circulating. One name seemed most probable- Osama bin Laden.

Extended members of our family called each other seeking any new information. There was none.

By now my mind had surrendered to the fact that, were it possible, David and Lynn would surely have let the family know they were safe at home or at a closed Logan airport. Anywhere, but where I dreaded they were.

Then Brokaw made his announcement. It’s not Brokaw’s fault, but even nineteen years later I resent his use of the phrase “… one of us.” A tenuous relationship held together by the thin thread of he and David being part of NBC did not warrant such familiarity.
“One of us”, means you’d shared some stories, laughs and drinks with David and Lynn three days before the tragedy.

“One of us”, means you had played golf with David the prior summer in a charity golf tournament where he went from being your invited guest to the event’s most generous benefactor.

“One of us”, meant you still had a picture of you and David, each six years old, standing with hands folded in supplication on the day of our first communions.

Yes, it is true that we saw each other rarely in the twenty four years after he headed out to chase his dreams. But how those dreams came true and how wonderfully David and Lynn shared their success. He and his creative partners won a total of 24 Emmy Awards for they work on Cheers, Wings and Frasier.

In 1996 David and Lynn created the Angell Foundation to formalize their ever expanding philanthropic efforts. The Foundation now focuses on three agendas; Education as Opportunity, Food Equity, and Transformative Leadership. It supports organizations in Southern California and New England. Amazingly, in 2019, eighteen years after their deaths, David and Lynn’s Foundation still made grants of over $5,000,000 to the chosen causes. Just in Nw England the Foundation made substantial gifts to: Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association, Boston Private Industry Council, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Farm Fresh R.I., R.I Community Food Bank, Rhode Island School of Design and College Crusade of Rhode Island.

Their earmarking of New England was not surprising because although they had lived primarily in California for over two decades their true loves were Cape Cod and Providence. They had long kept summer homes in Chatham and were just about to move into their newly constructed “forever” waterfront home there after returning from the Emmy Awards. They had also purchased a townhouse on College Hill in Providence which they would have used as their base for many trips into the city for attending cultural events and, definitely, Providence College basketball games. David mentioned at the wedding that he and his creative partners, Peter Casey and David Lee, had devised a new work load sharing schedule for the remaining seasons of Frasier which would allow David and Lynn to make Chatham and Providence their primary residences.
So, perhaps David and Lynn are truly “ours” not just to immediate family, not to colleagues at NBC, but to the thousands of people who have been recipients of their generosity and care.May they continue to rest in peace.

                                      - END -

The Empty Stoop (RINews 6/10/20)

Today June 4th, 2020 for the first time in over thirty years there was no Providence Journal delivered to my doorstep. Yesterday I cancelled my print edition and activated a digital only subscription.

To describe me as a life long newspaper junkie would be accurate. My early addictions were columnists; Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and Studs Terkel. Their wry, often cynical, writing in various national newspapers fired my young soul and formed my world view.

After marrying and acquiring a deliverable address I began receiving not only the Providence Journal but also the Boston Globe at my doorstep. These papers have long been part of my wife’s and my morning routines. We have different favorite sections we consume first then trade off with a timing perfected by forty-five years of marriage. This ritual will be sorely missed, even the ink stains on our fingers when the papers occasionally experienced printing problems.

Why have I cancelled home delivery? The ever increasing cost, $1,056 per year, versus the ever decreasing local and national coverage have become too glaring to tolerate. Yes, my retiree budget could still squeeze this in but the return on investment is no longer worth it. The $944 per year I’ll save by going only digital can serve a better purpose.

I would feel far less sad and guilty if I believed the Journal can continue as an online only platform. I understand print is practically an anachronism. The new generations receive their information on screens. I get it. I’m not a fossilized Luddite. Unfortunately, early missteps including a far too late, far too anemic marketing strategy to convert delivery subscribers to online customers coupled with inconsistent digital pricing policies has stalled their efforts. As recently as 2005 the Journal had 165,000 daily home deliveries. That number is now down to approximately 35,000. How many of those missing 130,000 folks did they recapture as digital subscribers? I fear not many.

I feel badly for the few remaining reporters, editors, printers and other employees. I fear the end is near for the entire enterprise.

Providence Journal critics from the left who bemoan every Victor Davis Hanson column and every Michael Ramirez cartoon plus critics from the right who rile at every Froma Harrop column and David Grandlund cartoon will all rejoice at the paper’s passing. That is short sighted and narrow thinking. Rhode Island will be left without a major daily newspaper in its capital city. That cannot be seen as a good thing.

More personally, the Providence Journal did provide me a small voice in the public sphere by publishing 45 of my commentaries in the past few years. They ranged from intensely serious to, hopefully, humorous articles. While I enjoyed this opportunity it is by no means the source of my sadness as I watch the slow death of the paper.
Most bad things happen in the dark. Less available information equals less light.
I’ll miss the Providence Journal. I’ve hung in as long as I could.

My front stoop is empty.
– END-

Jim Raftus
Contact: jraftus@aol.com
Web site: http://www.whorlofwords.com

THE BEST MEDICINE (published rinewstoday 4/13/20)

THE BEST MEDICINE

King James Bible Proverb 17:22, “A merry heart doth good like a medicine.” Seems to be a precursor to the modern, “Laughter is the best medicine.”

Sitting at my desk on this 17th day of self quarantine I face the yawning gap of hours to fill. Based on the biblical advice I decided to revisit some of the moments which have made me flat out laugh. I discovered a wide range of sources; high and low brow humor plus slapstick to dark comedy.

Every time I hear the blaring trumpets and arching voices of the Hail Freedonia! anthem at the beginning of the Marx brother’s Duck Soup I know I’m in for an hour and ten minutes of hilarity. Groucho, as Rufus T. Firelfly, is still in bed, nightcap and all, when this over the top musical tribute starts. His dialogues with Margaret Dumont are comic gold. The “Hail! Hail! Freedonia!..” refrain is used several times in the film with the chorus and trumpeters hilariously losing enthusiasm with each new effort.

No writer has ever captured the dark comedy in a troubled time better than Joseph Heller in Catch-22. His protagonist, Captain Yossarian, flying bombing missions in World War II lives a life with a Sisyphus construct; whenever he nears the flight quota needed for discharge the quota is increased. In desperation he pleads his case to Doc Daneeka using a fellow pilot, Orr, as a proxy.
“Is Orr crazy?” he asks Doc.
“He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions…..Sure I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

William Shakespeare’s great play of comedy and confusion, As You Like It, contains one of the wittiest put downs ever recorded on paper. In Act 3 Scene 2 the main character Orlando snipes to the nobleman Jacques, “I do desire we may be better strangers.” What a lovely, lyrical insult by the Bard.

In a 1983 Cheers episode the plot involves Sam deciding to read War and Peace to impress Diane. He does this despite Cliff’s description of the novel, “They say the first 800 pages are a little bit slow.” Sam soldiers on spending three days doggedly attempting to conquer Tolstoy’s masterpiece. In the final scene Diane chooses Sam over his intellectual rival. He admits he didn’t quite finish the book and Diane blithely says they should see the movie.
Sam explodes, “There’s a movie!! Where’s Cliff? I’m gonna kill him.”

In this current pandemic disaster we tire of the human condition; politicians daily attacking each other, folks wrestling for toilet paper. It is a time to try and find tolerance and forgiveness for people’s flaws. The final scene in the 1959 film Some Like It Hot offers a perfect, humorous, example. When a frustrated Jack Lemmon, disguised as the female Jerry Daphne, finally pulls off his wig and declares that he is a man to discourage the wholly smitten Oswald, played by Joe E.Brown, Brown’s marvelous face broadens with an elastic smile and he concludes the movie by declaring, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
– END –

Providence Youth In Peril From Jump

PROVIDENCE YOUTH AT PERIL FROM THE JUMP (Published in Providence Journal 8/23/19)

Providence, our Renaissance City, has suffered another black eye with the August 16th assaults and harassment of innocent bystanders by nearly 100 local juveniles. Many of these youngsters were riding stolen Jump rental bikes. Incidents on South Water and Killington Streets plus at India Point included physical assaults, intimidation and retail store shop lifting.

Are we surprised?

We shouldn’t be.

Anyone who took the time to read the recent scathing John Hopkins Institute’s report on the condition of the Providence Public School System could have predicted this type of behavior in our capital city.

Consider these two excerpts from the report:

“ There is widespread agreement that bullying, demeaning, and even physical violence are occurring within the school walls at very high levels, particularly at the middle and high school levels.”

“In a large number of classrooms, teachers did not press students to become engaged with the mathematics instructions, resulting in a variety of student off-task behavior: chatting with peers, checking phones, staring into space, or, in some cases, taking phone calls and watching YouTube videos. In some classrooms, this activity was loud enough to disrupt the learning of other students and, in some cases, led to student arguments that left the team concerned for student safety.”

This is the environment where Providence’s children spend approximately 6 hours of their time for 180 days of the year!

The biblical phrase, “As you sow so shall you reap.”, never seemed so sadly applicable.

If high school and middle school children see such lax discipline and disregard for decorum in one of the primary places which are supposed to help shape their future it takes a momentous amount of willpower to navigate unscathed. Statistics show only a heartbreakingly small percentage of Providence public school students move on to higher education.

I am not excusing the horrible actions of the young perpetrators. They chose to organize these near riots using social media, they chose to cut the locks and steal the Jump bikes, they chose to injure people and they chose to commit theft. They should be identified, properly disciplined and then given any available counseling.

My point is simply that the link between the deplorable conditions of the education process (including building conditions) and youthful criminal activity is both obvious and infuriating.

Many of our young students, unfortunately, have impediments to success before they even enter the first grade; generational poverty, family dysfunction, gnawing hunger and lack of good role models. Schools, along with churches, should be beacons of hope and inspiration not further causes of anxiety and fear. I know, and the Hopkins’ report agrees, that many individual heroic teachers and administrators strive daily to provide the best education possible despite the obstacles. However, the appalling statistical student failures across the board shown in the report call for draconian actions. Past incremental changes such as new superintendents, classroom restructuring and tweaked curriculums have not stemmed the continual erosion of the system.

New State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante – Green has embarked upon an intensive listening campaign as she gathers information from teachers, students, parents and administrators. On August 8th Infante – Green issued the initial order to begin the process of a state take over of the Providence Public School System for a minimum of three years. While pledging to work with the educational unions, she has allowed that the current contracts need appraising.

These actions have spawned the usual hand wringing and fear mongering from various entities. Upsetting the status quo is often lonely, precarious work.

While state take overs of schools have had varied successes and failures across the nation, Providence’s dire situation warrants a full and complete reset from the decades of decline we have all witnessed.

I not only wish Commissioner Infante – Green and our educators success, but also, fervently hope Providence’s next generation of students will be able to thrive and get a jump start towards happy, productive lives.

– END –

Jim Raftus is a retired marketing executive from Cumberland.
Contact: jraftus@aol.com

Oppositional Research

OPPOSITIONAL RESEARCH

I’m now several years retired. Starting to get bored. Thinking of running for public office. My main concern is the increasingly harsh nature of political campaigns. Candidates dive deep into rivals backgrounds looking for dirt. It is now called operational research.

Pondering this first ever candidacy I try to anticipate skeletons buried in my closet. I may have some issues.

Summer of 1955 the manager of the A&P Supermarket on Newport Avenue spots a nine year old me in my first and only attempt at larceny.

“Young man”, he scolds “I know your parents. If I ever see you doing this again I’ll have to tell them.”

To this day driving by this building, even though it is now Hasbro’s headquarters, brings back a feeling of guilt.

Spring of 1966 our group of young Rhode Island College students celebrate the first apartment one of us rents off campus. I apparently celebrated with one or two more Miller Hi-Lifes than normal. To keep me out of harms way my accommodating pals placed me in an empty bathtub. THERE MAY BE PICTURES!

Winter of 1966 I dodged the draft, sort of. Strange story. I was drafted. I said goodbyes to friends and family. My normally stoic father teared up as he dropped me off at Fields Point where I was to be sworn in and sent to basic training. While waiting to be given our instructions someone in uniform called out, “Raftus, is there a James Raftus here?”.

I was taken into a room and a doctor found a physical issue I knew nothing about and declared me to be 4-F. This was not a day the Army was doing physicals. It was a day to start your Army tour. I did not argue with their decision and returned to civilian life until April of 1968 when the U.S. Army, at this point churning through young men, changed their mind, re-examined me and declared me fit for duty. I enlisted and served until early 1971.

Summer of 1971 was a time to unwind after my Army stint. One evening I was standing on the deck of the former Jamestown Ferry which was docked in Pawtucket having been repurposed as and arts center for the city’s youth. I was offered, and accepted, my one and only hit of pot. The only effect it had on me was a mild headache.

Late Spring of 1998 I somehow forgot to pay my 1st quarter of Cumberland taxes and was two weeks late. This was the only time I ever had to pay a fine for local, state, or federal taxes.

I think that’s the extent of my personal rogues gallery. How embarrassing would this be to my adult children if it was exposed during the campaign? I can see the headlines from Fox News, “Progressive thief, drunk, draft dodger, drug addict and tax cheat runs for office in Rhode Island!”.

But wait, on November 8th of 2016 sixty three million of my fellow citizens voted for a candidate about whom the following was already known:

He had 5 military deferments including, although a self described “great baseball player” at this age, one for questionable bone spurs.

He had suffered multiple failed business ventures ending in bankruptcies.

His real estate organization was sued by the U.S Department of Justice in 1973 for racial discrimination.

He had cheated on all 3 of his wives, once, supposedly, with a porn star shortly after the birth of his son.

He was the first candidate in decades to not release his tax returns.

He bragged about grabbing women by their private parts.

Well, maybe, just maybe voters could forgive my sordid past. Yes, I just may toss my stained hat into the ring. Oppositional research be damned!

What should I shoot for, Town Council, School Board or something more ambitious?

– END –

Jim Raftus lives in Cumberland and is not running for anything.
Contact: jraftus@aol.com

Closing The Church

CLOSING THE CHURCH 1.

Because I’ve not been a regular church goer for almost five decades I reluctantly consented to attend the final Sunday mass at the soon to be shuttered St. Leo’s in Pawtucket. My reluctance was based on the fact that I knew attendance for this mass would be overflowing and I felt current parishioners and long time St. Leo’s attendees should not lose a seat because of me. However my sister, Virginia, who has been faithful to her faith, no longer drives and needed a ride.

St. Leo’s is a small church and all the familiar icons were on display as we entered; the side baptismal font presided over by a statue of the church’s patron saint, the pink ceilings with holy scenes painted in rectangular patterns and the Virgin Mother standing guard over the votive candles.

Five minutes before the start of the service the pews were packed, a very rare occurrence these past years. I sensed sadness leavened with inevitability in the mostly elderly gathering as Reverend Michael Sisco, escorted by altar girls and past parish priests, began the opening processional.

St. Leo’s had an outsized influence on the Darlington section of Pawtucket where I grew up. My family’s history ran deep. My brother, sister and I all attended St. Leo’s School next to the Church. Raftus baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals were all held in this Church. A memorial brick honoring our parents is part of a collection in front of the entrance.

Although I felt a stranger in the midst of these more diligent worshipers
I also felt a sense of peace as the familiar rituals of the mass unspooled. Prior to the mass my sister, wife, sister- in -law and I lit candles in memory of my older brother Mike who passed this past October. I took great solace in that. My wife and I also found joy, and surprising sentiment, watching the priest, Father Davenport, who married us on this altar forty four years ago return to help celebrate the mass.

For a reluctant attendee, a lapsed Catholic, I was experiencing a flood of emotions in this old building.

St. Leo’s Parish was established in 1916 and flourished for decades. In typical Rhode Island fashion it served a mainly Irish contingent while St. Cecilia’s Church barely three hundred yards down the street had a predominately French clientele. Attendance at both places of worship waned starting in the 1990’s. St. Leo’s was forced to close their school in 2008. In 2011 the decline in parishioners and income necessitated the merging of these two parishes into a new entity called the parish of St. John Paul II, a solution which caused angst on both sides as closure of one church seemed unavoidable. After much speculation the announcement of St. Leo’s closing became official in December of 2018.

Reverend Sisco, who has served as pastor for both churches the past few years, deftly used his homily at this final Sunday mass to mix sentiment with hope. He also leaned heavily on the beautiful sentiments of a letter written to him for the occasion by Sister Marie Fatima (Nunes) O.P., a long time parishioner who penned a powerful homage to the church’s past and to the endurance of faith which transcends any one place of worship. Her words, read by Reverend Sisco, reminded all that it is not the walls, the columns or the choir loft which keeps a religion intact, it is the faith of the people.

This last Sunday gathering was the mass of the Epiphany which celebrates the three magi offering of gifts to the baby Jesus. While there was no gift of a great personal conversion for me in my final hour in St. Leo’s I did feel a palpable resurgence of faith which may mean less reluctance to make occasional visits to places of worship of varied denominations to recapture that sense of shared community.

Funny how even a brother’s reluctant favor can restore one’s faith.

– END –

Musings and reflections of a Commentary Writer. Watch for weekly post on Wednesdays.