Archives for October 2012

Senior Matters~Tips for Recovering at Home and Avoiding Hospital Readmission

By Jack Cross  |

The nurse comes into your hospital room and says that you are ready to be discharged. You’re happy to be going home to the comfortable surroundings of your home and your own bed. The last thing you want is to be readmitted to the hospital because you run into problems taking care of yourself after you are discharged.

The hospital staff also wants your transition from hospital to home to go smoothly with no return visits. However, almost 20 percent of Medicare patients are readmitted to the hospital within 30 days after discharge, according to a New England Journal of Medicine article. This is a huge financial issue for Medicare which is searching for solutions to the “readmission” problem. Why do so many elderly patients need to be re-admitted to the hospital?

They may not understand or may be too weak to fully comprehend the discharge instructions provided by the doctors and nurses.

They may have difficulty understanding and managing changes to their medications.

They may find it difficult to get to follow-up medical appointments because of fatigue or lack of transportation.

They may be too tired or uncomfortable to prepare nutritious meals which can jeopardize their recovery.

They may not recognize warning signs that require medical assistance and may delay notifying their physicians until the situation becomes acute.

They value their independence and may be reluctant to ask for help at home. They may neglect their discharge plan when they return home because they are tired, confused or frustrated but still hesitant to ask questions or to seek help.

When elderly patients are ready to return home from the hospital, it is very important for everyone involved in their care – patients, families and medical caregivers – to be realistic about the challenges facing the elderly while they are recuperating from illness.

As a patient, what can you do to better ensure a successful recuperation after you are discharged from a hospital? When you receive a discharge plan, ask yourself the following questions:

Do you have the names and phone numbers of all medical personnel you may need to contact when you return home?

Do you have a schedule of all follow-up medical appointments? Do you feel strong enough to call to set up medical appointments when you return home? Can you get to these appointments on your own or do you need help with transportation?

Are you willing to ask another family member or professional caregiver to coordinate your discharge plan if you feel too weak to handle it yourself?

Do you need help with normal housekeeping duties, such as food shopping, cooking, household chores and personal care, during your recovery?

Do you have any new dietary restrictions? Do you feel strong enough to prepare nutritious meals and to shop for groceries? Do you understand that certain medications need to be taken with food at certain times of the day or that some medications cannot be taken with specific foods?

Do you have a list of all your medications, especially any new or unfamiliar medications? Do you understand the dosage and when to take your medications? Are you aware of any possible side effects, especially adverse reactions that require prompt medical attention?

Will you be able to pick up prescriptions from your pharmacy and do you know that you can ask for easy-open bottles with large print labels if needed?

Do you use a pill box to organize and manage your medications and are you able to refill it and use it properly while you are recuperating? Do you understand how to incorporate new medications into your pill box? If you have not used a pill box, is it time to start using one now? Are you willing to ask a family member, your pharmacy or even a professional caregiver to manage your pill box until you feel better?

Do you know the warning signs that your recuperation is in trouble and that your health may be declining – or are you willing to ask someone else to look out for these warning signs – so problems can be addressed before they turn into a medical crisis?

After you look over this checklist, you may decide that you can handle all the discharge instructions on your own — or may decide that extra help is needed while you are trying to get back on your feet. Are family members willing or able to help you or is a professional caregiver a better option during this transition period? It is normal to feel frail and confused — and even angry or anxious — when you return home. With the right support and kind encouragement, you will stay on the road to recovery without a readmission back to the hospital.

Jack Cross is President of Home Instead Senior Care-Lexington a provider of companionship and home care for the elderly. He can be reached at 781-402-0060 or jack.cross@homeinstead.com . See our website at www.homeinstead.com/404.

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Too Much Water?

By Mark Sandeen, Chair, Sustainable Lexington  |

Q:   Is it my imagination, or has Lexington been having many more large rainstorms in recent years?

A:   It’s not your imagination. When it rains, it pours. A new report on extreme precipitation by Environment America looked at precipitation data for the last 60 years and found that the frequency of extreme storms has increased by 81% in Massachusetts.  This is much faster than the national trend, which saw an average increase of 30%.  Extreme storms are also increasing in size as well as frequency – the amount of precipitation produced by the biggest storm each year increased by 25% in Massachusetts over this period.

Lexington DPW Rain Garden

Given this trend, it makes sense to design our storm water infrastructure to be more resilient.  The rain garden at the Lexington DPW building is one example of using natural systems to handle this increased rainfall while reducing the chance of flooding.  The Sustainable Lexington Committee is working with the Town to implement similar solutions for other areas that have experienced flooding during our recent extreme storm events.

You can read the full report here: http://bit.ly/TnTyiR

Q:   I’ve just completed an energy efficiency upgrade project for my home. Will my energy efficiency investment improve my home’s resale value?

A:   Yes, a study conducted by ICF Consulting and published in the Appraisal Journal found that for every dollar in annual fuel savings, the resale value of a home typically increases by $10 – $25. Another University of California study that tracked all the homes sold in California from 2007 to 2012 found a 9% increase in resale value for Green certified homes. The study controlled for key variables that influence home prices including location, size, vintage, and the presence of major amenities such as swimming pools, views and air conditioning. Both studies confirm that energy efficiency substantially increases the market value of owner-occupied homes.

The most important conclusion from this research is that homeowners can profit by investing in energy efficiency, even if they don’t know how long they will be staying in the home. If your energy savings exceeds the interest paid to finance your energy efficiency investment, then you will enjoy positive cash flow for as long as you live in your home and you can also expect to recover your investment in energy efficiency upgrades when you sell your home. On top of that, you can get a 7-year, interest-free loan for up to $25,000 of energy efficiency work from Mass SAVE. Check out their HEAT Loan information at http://www.masssave.com/Financing

Make sure your appraiser and your real estate agent know you’ve made energy efficiency improvements and let them know about this important research.

Send your sustainability questions to questions@sustainablelexington.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Diana Taraz Performs at First Parish

Diana Taraz

Diane Taraz performs her new Civil War song sampler, “Home Sweet Home,” on October 20 at 7:30 pm in the historic 1847 structure at First Parish, Lexington Center, in a CD release concert co-sponsored by the Lexington Historical Society. Music holds collective memory and sheds light on this turbulent time when the nation was torn asunder and families, too, were bitterly divided. Brothers, cousins and lifelong friends took opposite sides in the conflict, but they shared the songs they all knew. “Tenting Tonight,” “Dixie,” and songs beloved by both North and South are in the evening’s repertoire.

Saturday, October 20
7:30PM
First Parish
7 Harrington Rd.
Tickets: $12.00

Dressed in period attire, Taraz evokes this dark but inspiring time. Re-enactors will be on hand adding to the atmosphere and answering questions about the life of a Union soldier. Concertgoers will get a close-up view of a diminutive, evocative original 1860s gown on display and glimpse Taraz’s recently acquired cache of actual period sheet music at this special celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

On her new recording, Taraz has collected songs that reflect the diversity of people from all walks of life struggling through wartime. The album is anchored in the title song, “Home Sweet Home,” which captures the longing of soldiers as well as their loved ones.

The Civil War era also gives us some raucous tunes. Anyone who sang “Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care!” as a child is welcome to join in the fun as Taraz rousts the crowd into a sing-along or two. Taraz is familiar to many as the leader of the Historical Society’s Colonial Singers. “Diane has a unique ability to tell history through music,” noted Susan Bennett, Lexington Historical Society Executive Director. “Her resonant interpretations transport us to the Civil War days.”

Taraz will bring both her guitar and mountain dulcimer, but an authentic 1860s songfest must have banjo, harmonica and jaw harp. Joining her in concert will be harmonica and jaw harp phenom Chris Turner, singer John Yannis, plus banjo man John Berger, one of Taraz’s band mates from the Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society.

“The history of the time is revealed,” says Taraz, “in details about the music of the era – the Union Army had 32,000 drums! – and about the songs, themselves. For example, Abraham Lincolnnsaid that music has more power ‘than a hundred generals and ‘Dixie’ was a favorite song of his.” Fittingly, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with lyrics penned by Julia Ward Howe of Massachusetts, will provide the concert finale.

To reserve tickets call 781-862-1703. Admission is $12 ($10 for Society members).

For more information visit www.dianetaraz.com/civilwar.htm or www.lexingtonhistory.org

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LEF Trivia Bee

17th annual Trivia Bee

Wednesday, November 14

Cary Hall

You won’t want to miss this fun and exciting town-wide tradition. Over forty teams sponsored by local businesses, organizations and invidviduals test their trivia know-how in this friendly battle of wits. Many local civic organizations and all nine Lexington Schools will be represented. Many Lexington friends provide the supporting cast, including our colonially-outfitted Master of Ceremonies, Jeff Leonard, and our Queen Bee, Thelma Goldberg. Be prepared for some questions relating to Lexington’s Colonial period in celebration of the 300th! Admission is free and fun for the entire family.

If you would like to participate from the sidelines, consider sponsoring a team from one of the nine public schools, a town employee, or general sponsorship of the event. Team sponsorship is a tax-deductible fee of $375; through your sponsorship you will “bee” investing in our schools. For more information about the Trivia Bee, to register a team, or participate as a sponsor, please visit our secure website at lexedfoundation.org or call us at 781-372-3288

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LEF Upcoming Events

17th annual Trivia Bee

Wednesday, November 14

Cary Hall

You won’t want to miss this fun and exciting town-wide tradition. Over forty teams sponsored by local businesses, organizations and invidviduals test their trivia know-how in this friendly battle of wits. Many local civic organizations and all nine Lexington Schools will be represented. Many Lexington friends provide the supporting cast, including our colonially-outfitted Master of Ceremonies, Jeff Leonard, and our Queen Bee, Thelma Goldberg. Be prepared for some questions relating to Lexington’s Colonial period in celebration of the 300th! Admission is free and fun for the entire family.

If you would like to participate from the sidelines, consider sponsoring a team from one of the nine public schools, a town employee, or general sponsorship of the event. Team sponsorship is a tax-deductible fee of $375; through your sponsorship you will “bee” investing in our schools. For more information about the Trivia Bee, to register a team, or participate as a sponsor, please visit our secure website at lexedfoundation.org or call us at 781-372-3288

2nd Annual Multi-Cultural Bazaar

Thursday, December 6th

This event will honor and celebrate Lexington’s diverse student population. The Bazaar will feature a global marketplace of gifts and treasurer created by talented local artisans and designers. It will also include live music and dance performances highlighting a variety of world traditions.

Founded in 1989, LEF is an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to funding grants bringing today’s technologies, training and innovative instruction into the classroom and the hands of every student. LEF funds grants across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines and areas: math, science, language arts, social sciences, the arts and physical and social wellness. In addition, our grants deliver classroom technology and training and fund professional development programs for educators. Grants are teacher initiated and range from small classroom-specific programs to large district-wide projects, increasing learning and sustaining Lexington Public School excellence. Since 1991, LEF has awarded more than $4 million to all nine Lexington schools and the central administration.

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Serving Those Who Serve Us All

By Heather Aveson  |  Ryan Lennon is the face of the new American veteran. He is thirty-ish, college educated, has a young family, served in Iraq and knows the pain of losing friends and fellow soldiers to an IED attack on a dusty road. In many ways this is the story of military men and women through out our history. That shared story is part of what makes Ryan passionate about serving other veterans.

Ryan Lennon

Lennon knew the value of serving his country from an early age. He grew up at Fort Devens where his father was career army in the Special Ops division. Ryan joined ROTC at Northeastern University and become the fourth generation of army officer in his family, and a third generation paratrooper. During 2006 and 2007 he spent a sixteen month deployment on a combat tour in Iraq. His combat experiences and family background strengthened his commitment to the armed services and his fellow soldiers.

Ryan Lennon in Iraq

In April of this year Ryan stepped into the role of Veteran Services Officer for the Town of Lexington. It was a natural fit. “My unit, the 82nd Airborne, had some of the worse losses in the war. It wasn’t unusual to get 6 – 8 catastrophic IED strikes during your deployment. Several guys on my team had TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). When we got back I was helping a lot of them get benefits. It was just rewarding,” says Lennon.

Now he has the opportunity to help many more fellow servicemen and women. There are over 1.200 veterans living in Lexington according to the 2010 census. Most of them served in World War II or Korea. Add to that the surviving spouses and dependents and the number grows much higher. There is also an influx of those who qualify as veterans since 9/11, including National Guard reservists.

One of the challenges Lennon faces in his new position is finding those people who would benefit from the programs offered by the Veterans Administration. Because of strict privacy laws he isn’t notified when a service member returns to town. He can only help those who reach out to him. Lennon realizes how tough that can be for a returning soldier, “Veterans by nature are stoic, they don’t want to search out help. Unless they know benefits are out there or their neighbor knows they need help, they’re not necessarily going to contact me or I’m not going to come across them in my daily travels. I know there are older widows and dependents in town who need services and don’t want to ask for them.”

On the other side, HIPAA and other privacy laws ensure that all communication and services are kept confidential.

Massachusetts is unique in its support of veterans and their families. Chapter 115 of the General Law guarantees veterans and their families, need based financial assistance for everything from a heating allowance and help paying a mortgage to medical co-pays and insurance premiums.

According to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report the unemployment rate for veterans who served since 2001 was just over 12%. That’s 50% higher than the national average. New educational and job training programs are available to unemployed Massachusetts veterans. Lennon knows firsthand the importance of having job programs available to vets once they’re back in the community. “When I was getting off active duty I went through the standard out-processing procedure. They tell you about job search programs and other helpful stuff. I just wanted to put Fort Bragg in my rearview mirror,” he remembers, “It’s kind of like telling an 8th grader how he has to save for an IRA.” That’s where programs like Veterans, Inc. of Worcester are stepping in. Job skills and training in growing fields such as green and renewable energy, healthcare, security, construction supervision, and technology are offered for free. Many of the programs lead to licensing and certificates and job placement services are available, Veterans Inc. also serves very low income, homeless or at risk of becoming homeless veteran families across New England through a Veterans’ Administration grant.

Also on the federal level, The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 is enhancing medical care benefits by providing veterans’ caregivers with training, counseling, supportive services, and a living stipend as well as guaranteeing health care to the family caregivers of injured veterans.

Right now the Veterans’ Administration is facing a perfect storm that is causing delays in processing federal claims says Lennon. “The World War II guys are getting older, needing more services. The Vietnam Vets are realizing they should get their benefits set up. At the same time young guys are coming off 4 -5 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. A typical flash to pay can take two years.” That’s one reason Ryan encourages local veterans to seek out services under the Massachusetts statutes, they can be a valuable lifeline until federal benefits come through.

With so many programs available, Lennon is putting a lot of effort into getting the word out to both older veterans and those just returning about the benefits available to them. He has a full line up of meetings with community groups, including the Lion and Rotary Clubs and the Interfaith Council. This October he will reinstitute the Veterans’ Day Breakfast in conjunction with the Lexington Rotary Club (see inset). It’s a great way for veterans from all eras and all branches to come together and be honored. Working with the community to bring veterans together is a facet of the job that Lennon is trying to grow. He points out that the Veterans Services Officer isn’t there just for benefits assistance, “There is so much stuff I can pull into my job.” On a recent day he helped an older veteran navigate through the technology of mobile banking, then he was at the cemetery checking on a headstone he had ordered for a widow in town and an hour later he was visiting the mental health clinic at the Bedford VA Hospital.

Ryan can’t say enough good things about the work of the Massachusetts Veterans Administration. “The Mass VA is amazing – progressive – they were among the first to look at the mental health of soldiers. They’ve tapped into other top notch health care facilities in the Boston area if you need a specialist.” They have also created ‘Welcome Home Wings’ and ‘Women’s Wings’ at the VA hospitals to address the needs of those particular populations.

The first step Lennon recommends for all veterans? “Enroll in VA health benefits. It’s always better to be enrolled now, in case you run into problems later.” And Ryan is happy to help you enroll or answer any other questions you might have.

Veterans’ Resources

Ryan Lennon   |  Veterans’ Service Officer

Lexington Senior Center, 1475 Massachusetts Ave Lexington, 02420. 781-861-0194

rlennon@lexingtonma.gov

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Veterans, Inc.

508-791-1213

www.veteransinc.org.

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Civil War Quilts~Pamela Weeks to Speak at Heritage Museum

Pamela Weeks

In both the North and the South, Civil War buffs are legion. This American tragedy, now being commemorated on its 150th Anniversary, has generated research on everything from specific battles and famous leaders to social institutions. For example, in June 1861 the United States Sanitary Commission came into existence to “improve sanitation, build large well-ventilated hospitals, and encourage women to join the newly created nursing corps.” Responding to the Sanitary Commission’s requests, civilians on the home front began making quilts to send to soldiers. Thousands of quilts were sewn, though only a few exist today.

This very human side of the conflict will be discussed on October 20, 2012, at the National Heritage Museum when quilt historian and author Pamela Weeks presents “Quilts for Civil War Soldiers: Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield.” Her program will include an overview of “the origins of the U. S. Sanitary Commission at the beginning of the War, the roles women played on the home front and the battlefield, and … the stories of fourteen actual Civil War soldiers’ quilts.”

 Saturday, October 20, 2:00 p.m.

Quilts for Civil War Soldiers:  Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield

National Heritage Museum

Weeks, now curator at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, had started making quilts during the Bicentennial in 1976, but she became a quilt historian in 1999, the day she started researching a quilt that her aunt had bought at a New Hampshire auction. Weeks had been seeking and collecting signature quilts that carried the names of her ancestors who had lived in New Hampshire for ten generations. Dated 1847, her newly-acquired quilt featured stars and signatures, including her relative Sarah A. Leavitt. It was made with silk and composed of individually self-bound blocks.

The unusual, though not unknown, method of quilt construction led Weeks to ask experts about this quilt-as-you-go sewing technique. She had noted that “each block was individually bound with pale blue silk and then the blocks were closely whip-stitched together on the back.” They appeared to be “elegant eleven-inch-square potholders” fashioned into a quilt. Well-known quilt experts such as Gerald Roy, Stephanie Hatch, and American Quilt Society appraiser Vivien Lee Sayre confirmed that this “block-by-block” method (the preferred description) was informally known as making “potholder” blocks. The experts suggested more research be done on the origins of Weeks’ quilt and on the heritage of the potholder style.

The quilt above is from the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum, made in Portland, ME in 1864 by the Portland Ladies Soldiers Aid Society. Right: Detail of one of the quilt squares.

She discovered that this potholder technique is predominantly a New England style, frequently from Maine, and often used by groups to make community-project quilts. It was the easiest way for a club or church group to make a quilt because each contributor took the instructions, worked at home, and then returned the finished block. Though it might appear this was also a quick way to make a quilt, the reality is that many such quilts made for Civil War soldiers and other reasons, such as fundraising, presentation, or friendship, took as long as a year. The earliest known potholder quilt – dated 1837 – is in the collection of the Concord Museum; other may be seen at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Her research showed Weeks that the potholder style was common during the years of the Civil War (1861-1865), as well as before and after. Noted historian Dr. Virginia Gunn estimated in 1985 that more than 250,000 quilts were made for Civil War soldiers – 125,000 were distributed by the Sanitary Commission during the war. Yet, with the impressive output, fewer than 20 quilts made for Civil War soldiers have survived today. Eleven of these were made by the potholder method. Most Civil War soldier’s quilts that have survived are inscribed with names and dates, which probably contributed to someone setting aside the cherished old quilt instead of pitching it into the trash.

In her book, Civil War Quilts (Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), Weeks shares her research as she teams up with Don Beld whose interest in American history had led him to establish the Home of the Brave Quilt Project in 2004. This nationwide movement honors the fallen heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by creating handmade quilts to present to families, in an effort to show gratitude and provide a measure of comfort. Inspired by quilts made during the Civil War, Beld leads volunteer quilt-makers who construct hand-pieced quilt patterns and use 19th century reproduction fabrics almost exclusively. Their book tells the stories of selected Civil War quilts and the women who made them. Techniques and patterns for making reproduction quilts or information on participating in the Home of the Brave project blend to make this a unique tribute to the Civil War legacy.

 

Weeks’ free lecture at the National Heritage Museum is sponsored by Ruby W. Linn. Copies of Civil War Quilts by Pam Weeks and Don Beld will be available for purchase. Contact the Museum at 781-861-6559.

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A Personal Connection~How do you like them apples?

By Hank Manz  |  In my front yard are two apple trees which we inherited from friends when the trees and we were a lot younger and our friends were enlarging their house. The trees had to go and where they went was our front yard. The placement was awkward because I just wanted to keep them alive while I found a better site for them.

Our house lot is small and other things intervened so today the trees sit where they were planted years ago—too close together—and now it is too late to do anything about that although the storm last October did some serious pruning when it took the top out of one of them.

We were told that one of the trees would produce Macs while the other would give us Golden Delicious so I joked that a graft would produce an apple called the Manz Orchards Malicious.

For a few years they produced, but then there were several years when we got nothing. Courtesy of one of the email lists, we learned about winter moths and how to keep them at bay. So now every year, about the time the snow has finally left the ground, but before anything is even thinking of blooming, you will find me outside spraying the trees with my puny hand sprayer filled with something called dormant oil. All it takes is one spraying.

Once we learned that trick, the trees started to produce again. Overwhelmingly to boot. The resident woodchuck, the squirrels, and the chipmunks wandered around looking fat and happy and we feasted on applesauce, apple pie, apple cobbler, apple-stuffed squash and any number of things with “apple” in the name.

We don’t spray for bugs, however, so like the apples in the Joni Mitchell song, ours sometimes have spots and they are not always as perfect as the somewhat tasteless ones you buy in supermarkets.

Those spots sometimes make people think that the apples have something wrong with them so while some passersby enjoy an apple now and then, others look at them, but do not touch.

Our apple trees, like our tomato and cucumber plants, produce huge quantities over a very short period of time so what to do with them all begins to sound like a variation on a famous Henny Youngman line—“Take my apples … please!”

There is a little girl who lives a few houses away. Now and then she would take an apple, but then a few minutes later she would be brought back by her grandmother who handed the apple back with body language that said “I am sorry my granddaughter took your apple.”

Unfortunately, neither the child nor her grandmother share a common language with me and my attempts at sort of a sign language were never productive so I could not get the message across that it was alright to take the apples.

Then a light dawned. I went to the Lexington List and asked if somebody could write me a sign in Chinese that said something like “The apples are good to eat. Feel free to take one.” I received several replies within an hour.

Oh, I could have used Google Translate or some service like that, but I have heard stories of people who had Chinese and Japanese characters tattooed on their bodies only to find out later that they did not mean :Good Luck” or “Good Fortune” so now they needed a tattoo removal service. Immediately. And I remember the huge laugh several years ago when a notice about the Public Garden in Boston left the “L” out of Public.

But the sign looked good and after running it by a Hong Kong-born Mormon missionary who happened to stop by, I put it by the tree.

The little girl came by a short time later. She read the sign. Smiles. She left and returned with her grandmother. Nods. More smiles. Both left and returned with other family members. Even more smiles. Picking of apples followed.

I also found out that I had other neighbors who spoke Chinese. A great deal of smiling and multi-lingual exchanges. Then other people stopped by and shyly asked if they could try an apple.

I thanked all the people who had helped by sending a short note to the Lexington List. A couple of people suggested that a children’s book should be written about it. I thought about it, I have to admit.

But then I rejected the idea. A child wanted an apple, but we could not communicate well enough. Then a lot of things came together in space and time to allow it to happen. Then other people we didn’t know about were able to sample the apples.

The real story is not a puppy-mom-apple pie sort of thing, but that there was a small victory in a quest to communicate better. A victory that leaves me with a desire to make it happen more often and with much bigger issues than apples. The real story is that we all need to try harder to make things work and that is more than a children’s story.

The apples will be gone in a couple of weeks. What we humans don’t eat, the furry critters will. But I hope the magic of what happened with a child who wanted an apple and an adult who finally figured out how to tell her it was OK will last a lot longer.

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Meet Me at the Fair!

Photos by Rachel Victor & Laurie Atwater

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Author and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel discusses “What Money Can’t Buy”

Monday October 15, 2012
7:30 PM at Temple Isaiah
55 Lincoln Street, Lexington    

Michael Sandel. (Photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

By Jeri Zeder|  We hire private contractors to fight our wars. We pay children to incentivize them to read books or to get good grades. If we have the means, we can pay our way out of standing in long lines at the airport or amusement park. We give away naming rights of public schools and sports arenas to corporations. Some of our corporations purchase “dead peasants insurance” on the lives of their employees, not for the benefit of their employees’ families, but for themselves.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which markets and market values have infiltrated areas of our lives where different values once held sway. Is this trend good? Is it ethical? Should markets, which above all else value efficiency and maximizing utility, be limited to particular segments of society so that they do not overtake other human values?

Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University, explores these questions in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2012). His fantastically popular course, Justice, was a nationally televised series on PBS, and became the first Harvard course to be made available free online (http://www.justiceharvard.org/). The course has been translated into many languages and viewed by millions of people around the world.

Sandel will be discussing What Money Can’t Buy in Lexington in October at Temple Isaiah in a forum moderated by Lawrence S. Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University. He recently spoke with Colonial Times Magazine.

Colonial Times Magazine: What will you be speaking about when you come to Lexington?

Michael Sandel: The central question of the book and of the lecture is, what should be the role of money and markets in our society? Over the past three decades, we’ve witnessed a quiet revolution. Markets and market thinking have been reaching into spheres of life previously governed by other values, from family life and personal relations to health, education, and civic life. Where do markets serve the public good, and where do they not belong? Where might they crowd out or undermine moral and civic values worth caring about? The lecture will include interactive components. I will try to engage the audience in a lively discussion of some of these questions, which, after all, involve big questions about the role of ethics in public life.

CTM: In your book, you talk about the “skyboxification” of American life. What is that?

MS: When I was a kid growing up in Minneapolis, I was a big Minnesota Twins fan. At the baseball stadium, the difference in the ticket prices between the best box seat and the cheapest seat in the bleachers was two-and-a-half dollars: three-fifty for a box seat, and a dollar to sit in the bleachers. The effect was that, when you went to a baseball game, you could find the CEO and the mailroom clerk sitting side-by-side, more or less. When it rained, everyone got wet. It was a democratizing experience, everyone rooting for the home team under roughly similar conditions. Over the past three decades, this has changed. Most stadiums now have skyboxes where the affluent and the privileged can isolate themselves from the common folk in the seats below. This is a metaphor, I think, to what’s happened in our society as a whole in recent decades. I call it the “skyboxification” of American life.

CTM: Why do you see that as a problem?

MS: As money and markets dominate more and more domains of life, we find that the affluent and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. There are fewer and fewer public places and occasions where people from different walks of life, from different social and economic backgrounds, encounter one another and share in-common experiences, and this is, I think, damaging to democracy, corrosive of the commonality on which democratic life depends. I think it’s connected to the growing tendency of money and markets to dominate, not only in the sphere of material goods, but in most every sphere of life.

CTM: Besides democratic values, what other values do you think are becoming displaced by money and markets?

MS: My book discusses many examples, but let me give just one more here. In many school districts around the country, they are experimenting with paying students a financial reward to get good grades, or even to read books. This is one of the topics that I plan to pose to the audience. Is the use of a cash incentive to try to motivate academic achievement a good idea, or is it objectionable? And if it is objectionable, why, exactly? This is an example of another kind of value—the love of learning for its own sake—that is arguably crowded out or eroded where monetary incentives come to substitute for intrinsic motivation.

CTM: Your course, Justice, is a runaway hit at Harvard and has been viewed online by millions. China Newsweek named you the most influential foreign figure of the year. To what do you attribute the popularity of Justice?

MS: I think that there’s a great hunger among students around the world and also among citizens generally to engage in serious discussion about big ethical questions in public, to reason together in public about questions such as justice, rights, the common good, and what it means to be a citizen. Too often, public discourse doesn’t really address big questions. I think this is a source of frustration for a great many citizens, and rightly so, not only in this country, but around the world. I think this is the reason for the astonishing response to the online Justice course. It is a reflection of this hunger for public discussion of big, sometimes controversial ethical questions that really matter to people.

This interview was conducted, edited, and condensed by Jeri Zeder.

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