By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Barbara Kennedy speaks with the Globe about the importance of family reading

Photo (cc) 2009 by San José Public Library

This morning I want to share a really great story that Brion O’Connor wrote for The Boston Globe about family reading for kids that quotes my wife, Barbara Kennedy, who works as a library media specialist in Winchester. She’s the reader in the family — social media has turned me into a skimmer. Sorry this is behind a paywall, but here’s what Barbara has to say:

Reading aloud “helps develop language and listening skills,” said Barbara Kennedy of Medford, library media specialist at the Vinson-Owen Elementary School in Winchester. “Stories offer a way to better understand ourselves and the world and strengthens social-emotional development.

“Picture books are often powerful teachers that can offer deeper, multilayered stories,” she said. “They can build visual literacy, empathy, and comprehension. They build fundamental literacy skills. Reading them together with your kids builds reading habits and feelings that reading is a pleasurable thing.

The bottom line, said Kennedy, is that reading benefits every child, and every person. And that benefits society as a whole.

“We grow readers where I work, and the data shows if they aren’t or don’t believe they are readers by third or fourth grade, success across the board plummets and rarely gets better,” she said. “Reading is important, and doing it regularly is critical to creating engaged, curious, and empathetic people.”

Barbara also has two recommendations for books that parents can read with their kids: “Shooting at the Stars,” by John Hendrix, and “The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree,” by David Rubel and Jim LaMarche.

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Traffic has ruined Watertown Square — and other urban crossroads as well

Not visible by car: Near Watertown Square along the Charle River bike paths. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

Has any urban area in Greater Boston been harmed more by our cultural addiction to cars than Watertown Square?

I come through the square semi-regularly by bike; sometimes I turn around in the square, sometimes I keep going to Waltham. Today I drove because we needed an oil change and our garage is there. Not only is the volume of cars and other motor vehicles nightmarish, but the traffic pattern is insane, and the lovely architecture you see in older homes and other buildings is all but obliterated.

Sure, there are plenty of other places where car culture has had a harmful effect. I live in Medford, and the constant crush of traffic is a real obstacle to efforts to revitalize Medford Square. But I can’t think of any place that’s worse than Watertown.

We need a different way of thinking about cars, both for the environment and for our sanity. I’d start with fleets of electric buses and widespread bans on private passenger vehicles.

Dexter, 2001-2022

Dexter in 2014

Dexter was a badass — a stone-cold killer and a beheader of bunnies. A rescue cat who was about six months old when we adopted him, he was an orange tabby who I would describe as friendly, but not too friendly. I love the above photo of him, taken eight years ago. We have plenty of pictures that are more in focus, but none that captures his attitude quite like this one.

In 2006

Dexter died early today. We celebrated his 21st birthday in March even though we weren’t entirely sure of his birth date. He’d been slowing down for quite some time and was obviously failing during the past week or so. But his final passing came quietly, without the need for any final trip to the vet.

My favorite memory of him is from when he was young and strong. He brought a live bird into the kitchen and let it go so that it was flying around. I opened the top of a window. The bird flew out and Dexter leaped after him, through the open space and out into the backyard.

That one, at least, got away.

New Haven through the years

The Courtyard Marriott at Yale

Over the past month I’ve been able to spend six days in New Haven, one of my favorite cities. I’ve hit the apizza places, which I’ve written about. I’ve hung out at Koffee?, a hipster coffee place that welcomes non-hipsters like me. I’ve caught up with the folks at the New Haven Independent. And two weeks ago I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott at Yale, a nice, not-too-fancy hotel where I have a history.

In April 2002, I was on the road reporting for my first book, “Little People,” a memoir about raising a daughter with dwarfism. We were in the midst of some of the hottest April days on record; as I was driving through Connecticut, NPR reported that the temperature had topped 90 degrees in Central Park. I was on my way to New Jersey to interview Anthony Soares, a little person who was the art director at a major advertising agency and the president of Hoboken’s city council.

I sat in on a city council meeting and then, the next evening, interviewed Soares over dinner. Even though it was nighttime and we were sitting outside, we were both sweltering. When we finished, I pointed my car in the direction of New Haven, where I had an interview scheduled the next morning.

Or at least I thought I had pointed my car in that direction. It wasn’t long before I got lost — and this was long before GPS. I pulled into a motel in Newark around midnight to get directions. It was instantly clear to me that I’d stumbled into a prostitution ring. But a guy with a thick Russian accent was very friendly and helpful, and soon I was back on the road. I’d made a reservation at the Courtyard Marriott, a place I knew nothing about, and arrived in the wee hours. The next morning I interviewed Martha Leo, a woman who had overcome much but who struggled with an unusual and medically complicated form of dwarfism. And then it was back to Boston.

From 2009-’12, I traveled to New Haven repeatedly as I was reporting for my second book, “The Wired City.” I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott a few times and always enjoyed it. I remember eating breakfast one spring morning and reading with pleasure about a thrashing the Red Sox had administered to the Yankees.

It’s likely to be a while before I have a reason to visit New Haven again. But I know where I’ll be staying.

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Talking about the Wuhan lab-leak theory and the state of local news

I spoke with Lori Messing McGarry of Real Fiction Radio on Radio Arlington (Virginia, not Massachusetts) about the media’s coverage of the Wuhan lab-leak theory and the state of local news. Hope you’ll give it a listen.

Monday night supper

Every so often I get codfish cakes from Whole Foods. Rarely, though, do I go with the full experience from my childhood. Tonight I decided to pull out all the stops and create a favorite meal my mother used to make.

So let me start with the fish cakes. Here is where a bit of mystery creeps in. As I said, I buy them and then bake them in the oven. What my mother did was very different, and it’s long since lost to memory. I wish I could ask her; I wish I could ask her a lot of things. But from what I remember, she started with a can of codfish, mixed it with other ingredients (potatoes, probably, since that seems pretty standard), formed it into cakes and fried them in a wrought-iron skillet. They were spectacular, and I wish I had the recipe — assuming you can even get canned codfish these days.

The rest is more straightforward. My mother made great cole slaw, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time. What you see here is from the Blue Ribbon BBQ in Arlington, and it’s almost as good as Mom’s. (Also excellent is the cole slaw at Woodman’s in Essex.)

The finishing touch, believe it or not, is canned spaghetti. I don’t know why, but it was always served with fish cakes, and it was always Franco-American. I’m not sure they make it anymore. What you’re looking at here is Campbell’s.

Served with ketchup, it’s a perfect meal.

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Please give to the Mass. COVID-19 Relief Fund

Please donate to the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund, which assists vulnerable populations and front-line workers. These are our family members, friends and neighbors, and they need our help.

A professor copes, takes his class online, and wonders: ‘What comes next?’

Previously published at

I knew the Apocalypse was at hand when I walked through the nearly empty Ruggles T station Monday morning — and there were no Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not that I suspected these smiling, well-dressed folks with their posters and pamphlets were afraid of catching COVID-19. They probably just figured there was no point in standing in the cold all by themselves while the city was shutting down around them.

As a journalism professor at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of how fortunate I am. Our paychecks and benefits won’t be threatened unless the worst of the worst-case scenarios become a reality. For us, the pandemic means trying to figure out how to move our classes online so that our students’ education isn’t thrown off track any more than absolutely necessary.

Even so, it’s been a challenging week.

I’d spent the first week of March — spring break at Northeastern — in Mendocino County, California, reporting on The Mendocino Voice, a small news organization moving toward cooperative ownership. While I was out there, I attended a news conference on the coronavirus called by county officials. It was clear that things were about to explode.

Classes actually resumed March 9, but we all had a sense that was likely to change at any moment. And it did. During our faculty meeting on March 11, we got an email from the administration telling us we were moving to online instruction the next day.

It seemed possible that the shift wouldn’t be too disruptive. At least initially, students were not asked to leave university housing — something that would be a logistical nightmare given our large number of international students as well as students living on campus while working at co-op jobs in the Boston area. I taught my final in-person class that night and got ready to go virtual.

My plan for Thursday was a workshopping session with my opinion-journalism class. It seemed like more of a technical challenge than I was comfortable taking on, but a colleague recommended Zoom video-conferencing software, and I gave it a try. I was stunned at how easy it was — for an hour and a half, my 15 students and I had something very close to a normal class. I don’t hear especially well, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could hear them better through my earbuds than I normally do in the classroom.

But if we’ve learned anything in the past week, it’s that what we hope will be the “new normal” only lasts for a few hours. First, one of my international graduate students told me she was flying home to Ecuador. Then, on Saturday, the university reversed course and ordered everyone out of the residence halls by Tuesday, March 17, at 5 p.m. Social-media panic ensured. Within a few hours, the university sent an update — students would be given some leeway on when they moved out, the remainder of the semester’s room and board would be refunded, and students with a demonstrated hardship could stay.

That helped. But it left us wondering how much of the semester we could salvage with nearly everyone scrambling to leave. Ruggles may have been empty on Monday, but cars were lined up all over campus as students got ready to head home. Despite the confusion, I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. What came across as draconian on Saturday seemed like the responsible thing to do by Monday.

So now what? Why was I on campus Monday when I should have been hunkering down at home? Because I’d decided to come in one last time in case any of my students wanted to see me before leaving. As it turned out, most of them found electronic communication sufficient — and safer.

But one of my students, a young woman from Hong Kong, dropped by for some advice on her final project in my ethics class. We kicked around some ideas and talked about what would happen next. She’s a senior. The last few weeks of her classes are gone. Commencement, scheduled for May 1, is almost certainly gone as well. She’ll walk away with an education, but without any of the memories she should have had.

She took a selfie of us and said goodbye.

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Happy New Year to everyone

We closed out 2016 the right way—with good friends, the Three Stooges, and Alicia Keys instead of Mariah Carey. I hope that bodes well for 2017.

May all of you have a wonderful, happy, healthy 2017. And thank you for reading.

Yes, Steve Bannon is a racist

Steve Bannon. Photo (cc) 2010 by Don Irvine.

Steve Bannon. Photo (cc) 2010 by Don Irvine.

I was thinking of this in light of a conversation we had on Facebook last week. As you read today’s New York Times profile of Steve Bannon, you’ll see that a number of people close to Bannon insist he’s not a racist. Yet there are numerous details about how he’s been willing to exploit and indulge racism in order to accomplish his goals, which is really just another way of being a racist. Then there’s this:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

Jones, by the way, is not an unfriendly witness. Elsewhere there is this: “Ms. Jones, Mr. Bannon’s former film collaborator, who describes herself as very liberal, said, ‘Steve’s not a racist.'”

Steve is a racist.

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