Let’s Loosen Up Zoning: A Letter to the Cambridge City Council in Favor of “Missing Middle Housing”

June 9, 2021

Greetings Cambridge City Councilor,

I am writing in support of the Cambridge Missing Middle Housing zoning petition before the city Council at the June 10, 2021 meeting.

Like many Cambridge citizens, I live in a building that could not be built under current zoning laws: an attached four family dwelling in a Residence B district on a 9,000 square foot lot with insufficient setbacks. Yet, the property’s generous light, air, and other attributes are enhanced by the fact that it’s in a walkable neighborhood close enough to shopping and other amenities that I have not owned a car for over five years.

Most laws that grew out of movements to eradicate substandard housing and improve sanitation, such as Cambridge’s zoning restrictions, were well intended. However, as modifications designated less density and more parking, our zoning requirements have evolved from a proactive mechanism to ensure public health into a protective benefit that generates wealth for property owners. Current zoning requirements exacerbate three critical issues we face today: they foster environmentally unsustainable development; reinforce economic inequality; and entrench racial divisions rooted in the historic bias of redlining that’s baked into zoning.

It is time to end this institutionalized privilege and create a more livable city.

Last year the Cambridge City Council approved the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO), and applied it across the entire city. I applaud this action. As a long-time supporter of local housing developer Just-A-Start Corporation, I know firsthand how AHO is already making it easier to create more affordable housing in our city.

The Missing Middle Housing zoning proposal is the next step toward a more environmentally sustainable, economically equalitarian, and racially integrated city. It extends select incentives of AHO to residential development of all income spectrums throughout the city; reduces parking requirements; and reinvigorates middle-density development such as townhouses and triple-deckers: the backbone of livable urban areas that were our city’s primary residential forms for decades.

The Missing Middle Housing zoning petition is a simple yet bold idea whose time has come. I look forward to your support of this zoning proposal as a solid step to creating the best possible Cambridge for all of us.

Thank you for your consideration and your ongoing service to our city.

Paul E Fallon

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Note: Graphics courtesy of Cambridge Missing Middle Housing

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The Pandemic Joy of Spider Solitaire

If there’s a single activity that’s promoted and preserved my sanity during the pandemic year—a big if in a year of rocky sanity—that activity is spider solitaire. I kicked off empty pandemic hours with jigsaw puzzles, shifted to Sudoku, even tried crossword puzzles. But once I discovered spider solitaire, it instantly became my default form of soothing mental manipulation.

Conventional, seven-column solitaire dates from the eighteenth century, but the earliest record of spider solitaire isn’t until 1917. Even then, spider was a rare form of solo-card-play until computers arrived because, unlike solitaires that use a single deck of cards, spider solitaire requires two. 104 total cards. A huge wad to shuffle, deal, and collect by hand. Trivial for a computer to sort.

The Internet offers many spider solitaire programs. I use solitir.com, which has a clean interface. Open the program and this is what you’ll get: ten columns of cards, forty-four face-down, ten face-up. The remaining fifty cards sit in an upper-left, face-down pile.

The objective of spider solitaire is to reveal all 104 cards and stack them in sequential piles, same suit, ace-low to king-high. You accomplish this by moving cards onto each other, a lesser value stacked on a higher value. When you create a full sequence, it zaps away from the ten-columns in play, to the upper right. If you compile eight full sequences, you use up all the cards and win the game. Congratulations!

How to do this? Begin by placing any exposed card of a given suit on another exposed card with same suit with the next-higher value. For example, seven of diamonds on eight of diamonds. These form the beginning of a same-suit sequence. Whenever you move the top face-up card in a column, the concealed card beneath turns over. Thus there are always ten columns of cards in play, and you can shift one or more cards from any same-suit sequence to another column.

Once you’ve exhausted the same-suit opportunities, the strategy begins. Spider solitaire allows you to move a card of any value onto a card of one-value higher, regardless of suit. In my demonstration hand above, I decided to put the six-seven-eight of clubs sequence on the nine of diamonds. Note: that does not build toward a sequence. My nine of clubs is unavailable for play until I move the six-seven-eight of diamonds to another column.

How do I decide whether to make that move? In general, an exposed card is preferred to a concealed card. Therefore, I move the six-seven-eight of clubs onto the nine of diamonds because it allows another card to be exposed.

When you’ve exhausted all the same-sit moves you can, and all the alt-suit moves you choose, click on the concealed pile on the upper left. Ten new cards appear, one at the bottom of each column. This provides new cards to play, but also changes access to the same-suit sequences you’ve been creating. In the example above, the ten of clubs landing on the jack of diamonds shuts off that queen-jack sequence. Unfortunately, I cannot place the nine of clubs on that ten, because I moved the eight of diamonds onto the nine in a previous round.

I’ve never won a round of spider solitaire without creating open one or more columns. When you’ve moved every card from a column—the original face-up card and all concealed cards beneath—you can then move any other card or sequence available for play into that space. This is the only way to move a king, which is the highest card in any sequence. Although sometimes it’s more strategic to move another card.

In the case of my example, I move the seven-eight of diamonds from column one to the open column. Why? So I can then move ace-through-eight of clubs from column seven onto column one and create—hooray!—a complete sequence of ace through king of clubs.

Once you have the opportunity to place a sequence in an open column, the opportunities to envision subsequent moves blossom.

My string of ace-through-king of clubs zips to the upper right of my screen. In this case, subsequent moves enable me to create a full sequence of diamonds as well.

At this point you may wonder, where are the hearts and spades? Spider solitaire can be played at three levels: easy (all cards are clubs); moderate (four sequences each of clubs and diamonds); difficult (two sequences each of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades). Once you’re familiar with the game, you’ll almost always win a round of all clubs, it’s that easy. On the other hand, playing all four suits is ridiculously hard. I play the moderate level, and, with improved strategy, win about 25% of the time. Often enough to find it challenging without being discouraging.

In my example, by the time I have played the entire concealed pile, I’ve created four full sequences (see upper right). Yet I still have eight concealed cards among my ten piles. So, I carefully shift playable cards onto one another with an eye towards revealing those concealed cards, and eventually creating more full sequences.

There comes a point when you realize, “I got this,” as more columns open up and you create more full sequences. The rest is just moving stacks.

Until You WIN!

Spider Solitaire is easy to play, yet its strategy becomes more challenging as you learn to ‘read’ the ripple moves that come from deciding what to play. My rules of thumb are as follows:

1. Make all possible same-suit moves during initial and first two rounds of play

2. Make moves between different-suit cards if they will expose concealed cards

3. Make moves of different-suit cards if they enable subsequent same-suit moves

4. If there are multiple options of same move, always move the card on the smallest column, to encourage creating an open column.

5. Always fill an open column with cards that will create a full sequence or expose more concealed cards

6. In later rounds, it sometimes pays to make a different-suit play even when a same-suit play exists, if the subsequent plays are worthwhile.

That’s the limit of my strategy now; I will probably develop more as I continue to improve. Although, as the pandemic ends, will I feel the need to fill an hour or more each day with a game whose primary focus is to pass time and soothe my mind? Hopefully, not.

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A Year of Taking a Knee

A year ago today, the day after George Floyd was murdered, teenagers across the street stapled black block letters on yellow poster board to the guardrail along Huron Avenue. BLACK LIVES MATTER. That evening, I noticed a family and their dog taking a knee. Next evening, I joined them. As did a few others. Within a week there were a dozen of us, often more. Fresh signs littered the guardrail. Ever practical, I added: “Take a Knee. Nightly. 7:30 p.m.”

Some evenings brought a steady stream of honking horns. Occasionally, a passing driver stopped, bringing all traffic to a halt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. After the timer chimed, participants spoke, if inclined. African-Americans applauded. On Juneteenth our modest vigil was a designated activity of Movement 4 Black Lives. Over seventy-five people took a knee on that stretch of grass. Our numerical zenith.

We knelt unstructured, leaderless. If Alex was there, he kept time. If not, the task fell to me. Or someone else took out their smartphone. We rose at the buzzer and disbursed. This was a solemn exercise, not social, though the simple act of being out of doors among others in the midst of the pandemic felt rebellious in its own right.

By July the tenor of take-a-knee changed. Counter-opinions manifested along the guardrail. Always under cover of darkness. “We Heart Police.” An American flag with a blue stripe. Followed by counter-counter opinions: someone scripted the names of Blacks killed by police on the flag. The number of kneelers shrunk. Car toots of support were punctuated by long blasts of dissent. When our number was few, a driver (invariably in a pick-up) would pull over and rant. Vitriol spewed at a quartet of gray-hairs from the safety of a metal carcass is pathetic.

One August morning we woke to find everything stapled to the guardrail gone. All messages, pro-police and pro-BLM, painted over flat grey.

By then, of course, taking a knee had become habit. When my alarm sounded three minutes before time, I dropped whatever I was doing and went to the rail. Half-a-dozen regulars, plus occasional drop-ins. Upon rising, we often chatted. Sometimes for longer than we knelt. I met new neighbors. Clarissa and Perron; Leon and Jayne. In the twilight, we shared our histories. They are the sole in-person acquaintances I made during the pandemic.

Fall came. Shorter days. We shifted to 6 p.m. The breeze blew cool. I’m lousy at mediation, but I forced myself, every night, to visualize Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. To invoke the pressure of why we were touching the ground. One Black driver stopped and chastised us. “This is not what we need; get off your knees and help.” Another pick-up driver’s diatribe planted the seed for my play, Sons of Liberty. Evenings grew rainy, often cold. None of us entertained the idea of stopping.

In early October, Peter became a regular, cementing a core of four. Peter, Leon, Jayne, and me. Peter walks at snail’s pace, thanks to severe rheumatism. His gait solidified our connection, as we flanked his crawl across the busy, darkening street. Fall turned to winter. The cold and rain and ice were often treacherous for Peter and Jayne. Leaving only Leon and me. How many nights would I think, “It’s cold,” or “It’s wet,” and wish to remain indoors. But knowing that Leon would venture forth pushed me out. It only takes a single other person to hold us to a higher task.

Mid-winter surprise: crisp; snow-filled nights induce profound thought. The earth and sky silent, shimmering grey. Flurries muffling the noise of scant traffic. Few braved the winter chill; the rising COVID. My meditations deepened beyond the particulars of George Floyd. To the eternal challenge: man’s inhumanity to man.

As spring emerged, Alexandra Shelton joined us, a local artist and longtime neighbor (our children went to grade school together). Fresh energy was welcome. Fresh creativity as well. Alexandra created a series inspired by the tumult of BLM. Her mother’s visits to the rail (she’s in her nineties!) inspired poetry.

A guy in a Porsche Boxer convertible stopped one night. Vanity plate. Jumped out and joined us. Has stopped several other times. A librarian from a few streets down. A mom with a pair of elementary age boys. We’re a hard group to define.

A few weeks ago, I told the regulars that I planned to stop on May 25, one year after George Floyd was murdered. I posted fresh signs to mark the anniversary. We enjoyed a boost in turnout, and afterward some cupcakes I made, with a flyer of police reforms instigated during the past year toothpicked into the icing. A tangible, if checkered set of accomplishments, none of which even remotely ascribable to our vigil.

As in any endeavor, the benefits I’ve received—enhanced meditation, creative flow, neighbor comradery—are more identifiable than any specific result our actions influenced. Yet, I’m convinced our nightly vigils have value. We cannot know who among the many drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians passing by reframed their idea of Black Lives Matter. To consider that, as Blacks have defined the barrel-bottom of our society for so long, only when their lives truly matter, will all lives matter. One mysterious beauty of life is that we are not supposed to know who and how we influence. Our task is simply to bear witness as the first step to acknowledging deeper truth.

Peter, Jayne, and Leon announced that they plan to continue on. Which makes me kinda doubt that I will stay full away.

Police Reforms Enacted In Response to George Floyd Murder

Partial list (Axios)

Ban tear gas


San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle

Ban choke holds

New York and Minnesota


Ban sleeper holds

California, Colorado


Ban purchase of military equipment


Enhanced body camera use

Colorado, Connecticut

Denver, Houston

Ban no-knock warrants

City of Lousiville

Revoke qualified immunity

Massachusetts (passed houses—not yet signed)


Reduce Police Budgets (Bloomberg)

Austin, New York, Seattle, Denver

Note: although some cities reduced police budgets

 total police spending in the 50 largest US cities increased in 2020-2021


Progress is being made


We are far from defunding police


Over 180 Black people have been killed by police since George Floyd (Newsweek)

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Land Acknowledgment

My first and most lasting lesson in the power of compound interest arrived on May 24, 1966. It must have been a slow news day. Toward the end of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, David Brinkley announced that 340 years ago, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians (as Native Americans were called back then) for $24 worth of trinkets. He continued, “if the Indians had invested that amount at a 6% interest rate, they could buy Manhattan back today…” Then he concluded in his sardonic tone. “…if they wanted to.”

My eleven-year-old-brain swirled at the idea that the most magnificent city on earth could be repossessed whole if only the thrifty natives had maintained a long-hold investment strategy. Quirky though that idea may seem, the 1966 math is apparently still correct (Morningstar: Manhattan Rate of Return). And although the Indians never tried to buy their island back, the idea that the Dutch settlers ‘purchased’ Manhattan lives in our psyche as a more-or-less fair deal. Whereas the English, French, and Spanish simply took whatever wonders of the New World they chose.

Fast forward to any socially conscious Zoom meeting in 2021. After everyone has renamed themselves with preferred pronouns, we round-robin acknowledgements of the land we occupy. I invoke the Massachusett tribe as I envision natives inhabiting the bluff over Fresh Pond that includes the 9,000 square foot plot the Registry of Deeds has filed under my name.

The motivation for land acknowledgment is noble—to honor those who once lived on the land we seized—but the practice rings hollow to me. Over the past year I’ve sat through dozens of land acknowledgments, yet haven’t heard anyone announce giving their land back. Which reduces the exercise to salving a muddy conscience by thumping mea culpa rather than actually righting our forefathers supposed wrong. What’s the value of our confession if we don’t atone to those we’ve sinned against?

The contrarian in me wonders what Native Americans think of this latest liberal craze. Do they feel honored to be acknowledged? Or are we simply picking at their wound with lofty words, while leaving things exactly as they are?

Let’s set aside that snarly perspective and grant that Native Americans appreciate acknowledgment. Perhaps even go a bit further and suggest that land acknowledgments could be an important initial phase—a witnessing if you will—toward increasing our collective conscience of Colonialist violence. That is might, someday, lead to transformation. It’s a cool idea; far beyond even my often-impractical vision. But inscrutable. Because the very notion of how land ‘belonged’ to Native Americans is diametrically opposed to how land ‘belongs’ to us. They ‘owned’ the land collectively, as an integral part of the human/animal/plant/planet interface. We own it individually, with a focus on its extractive capability: how much can we get from it?

This dichotomy is reductive, both in romanticizing Native Americans and demonizing the benefits of private property. It is also impossible to reconcile. Seventeenth century Native American culture could never support seven billion people on our planet. Twenty-first century capitalism cannot support all of us sustainably or equitably. Giving land back to Native Americans four centuries after we took it will not return our world to the bucolic balance we conjure at year Mayflower minus one. The 400 years between our vision of Native Americans living in harmony on the land to becoming marginalized (albeit profitable casino owners) cannot be erased.

The rabbit holes of reparations to all the groups who have been harmed, even eliminated by the Darwinian tide of capitalism are as treacherous as they are—ultimately—necessary. And so, for the present, I will continue to chime in on my turn, and state that I live on land once occupied by the Massachusett tribe. But forgive me if I feel like a cad. For even if someone offered me four hundred years of amortized trinkets, I intend to continue to steward my property for the benefit of the nine current inhabitants and whoever will follow. I have no plans to give it back.

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Stand Up for Racial Justice – Base Camp Training

Among the many things I’ve undertaken regarding racial justice over the past year (My Summer of 75 Things), becoming involved with SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice) has been the most illuminating. SURJ is a national umbrella organization devoted to ending racism through the lens of white people: the idea being that the people we oppress don’t need to be laden with our baggage, even as it is essential for white people to own our role and participate in change.

Last summer, in the geographically compressed world of Zoom, I attended meetings of Aware-LA. Come winter, I was invited to base camp training with my local Boston affiliate. I switched my attention to SURJ-Boston because eventually, taking action will resume its fundamental meaning as local, physical action.

From November through February I participated in bi-weekly, two-and-a-half-hour training sessions with a dozen SURJ novitiates and two facilitators. Every expectation I brought to the process of being a white person learning about and advocating for racial justice was, frankly, wrong.

SURJ training is not about the facts and figures, or even so much the historical events that define racism in our society. It’s not about labelling any individual a racist. Or trying to scrub every vestige of racism from my pores. SURJ training is about understanding that racism is neither a personal belief nor an isolated action. Rather, racism is mortared into our political and economic systems. This is both enlightening (I am not a racist!) and disheartening (I am completely woven into a predatory and racist system).

SURJ is doubly premised on racial identity: an organization of white people; working to end racism. I am leery of identity politics/identity culture/identity identities. Yet, I have come to view them as necessary transitions that will ultimately fade as we strive toward an ideal world. When every human being has access to all they need and enjoy avenues for full expression, ‘identities’ will be as irrelevant as any other tribal mark. Until then, as a person whose identity labels fall square in the realm of privilege—white and male—I must respect and support anyone for whom identity is dear. Whether they seek equity or simply solidarity, if someone’s identity is important to them, then it is important to me. Still, I brought my identity-wariness to training.

Our first session manifested the usual awkwardness of Zoom, exacerbated by gingerly facilitators. A year of attending Zoom social justice meetings had habituated me to rename myself with preferred pronouns and meditate through the land acknowledgement. Then, we did a surprisingly cool activity: write a brief verse about my cultural heritage. Mine was banal. Which is pretty much the point. When you inhabit the default culture—middle class and white—it doesn’t feel like culture at all. Living the yardstick by which all others are measured is wicked vanilla. For the remainder of the session we engaged ingracious PC-speak, and a clear hesitancy to step on toes. I came away thinking, whoa, that was pretty poor. I could have definitely done a better job facilitating that.

If our training had been in person, perhaps I wouldn’t have returned. But nothing else was happening on alternate Tuesday evenings. So I logged on, and assumed a unique position in our group. The only grey-hair. The only man. By session three I realized an advantage unachievable at in-person meetings: I could be an almost invisible image in our Zoom gallery. As a passive actor, annoyance that I could better facilitate gave way to appreciation of how Jamie and Matoaka facilitated differently. Impatience at the amorphous agendas dissipated under the quiet wonder of observing ‘hers’ and ‘theys’ navigate issues in ways no group of men ever would.

Low-profile became my conscious choice. I became the least active participant. I did not speak in large group discussion, nor lead off in break-outs. Perhaps it was selfish of me to withhold contributions. But restraint made me check everything I ‘knew,’ and the opportunity to observe a group interact unfettered by men proved revealing. I don’t know whether the others actually forgot I was there, but I muzzled my male penchant to fill the slightest void. To clarify. To control. An urge I felt at least half dozen times each session. Yet by silencing my voice, I learned more from listening to others take the platform, without concern for how long it was held, how well they furthered the agenda, or how sustained our subsequent silence. We sat in a lot of silence. So much more than is comfortable for me.

My fellow base group members occupy a middle-ground in the hierarchy of privilege. They enjoy the benefit of being white, yet all experience the barriers, even harm, of presenting as women. Sometimes I found no accord with their experiences; other times they resonated. At some point in every session (often times more than once) their stories sparked inspiration and purpose. To struggle for justice is worthy as it is difficult. I would brim in emotion.

Which is how the I came to see the crux of SURJ training in a different light. The struggle to end racism is a path to reimagine our society. A society that transcends racism and eclipsis identity. SURJ base training is a toe-tip exploration into a completely different way to perceive, organize, and operate our world. A world motivated by the voices here and now rather than a given agenda. A world striving to create a culture in which people don’t need to be articulate, or clever, or efficient. A world that doesn’t grant bonuses for optimizing ‘air time.’  A world in which all voices, however soft, however foreign, are equally heard.

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Liberal Overreach

Liberals have an uncanny talent. They shoot themselves in the foot trying to help the less fortunate; their hearts bleed out of the wound; leaving a blood trail for right-winged vultures to reframe good intention as folly. Such I fear, may be the fate of Cambridge RISE, my city’s pilot program for UBI (Universal Basic Income).

Universal Basic Income is a simple concept. Every person receives a direct payment simply for being here. UBI is radical, in that it anticipates the fall of capitalism by acknowledging that humans are no longer required as means of production. That our economy is so efficient (i.e. automated), labor is optional. The direct payment is barely enough for individual sustenance, but folks who prefer not to work could pool resources, thus freeing themselves from economic pursuit.

In UBI utopia, everyone has the security of a guaranteed minimum; social welfare systems like food stamps, Section 8, welfare, and unemployment evaporate as individuals spend money as they see fit; people gravitate to innovative work while robots handle the mundane stuff; personal expression and creativity abound.

In UBI hell, everyone drinks and drugs away their monthly check and society collapses.

As a man of hope in human capability, I am a fan of UBI, and applaud any steps we take in that direction. Unfortunately, no one’s about to implement UBI at scale. However, the idea is getting enough attention for pilot programs. Cambridge, being both liberal and rich, is a great place to kick one off.

Thus, Cambridge RISE. One-hundred-twenty families, selected by lottery, will receive $500 per month for a period of eighteen months, no strings attached. The pilot is a far cry from UBI: the amount per family is far too small; and the time limit extinguishes actual income security. Still, it will make a difference for recipients and perhaps the city can glean useful data in how people spend the money / change their lives.

It doesn’t seem right to hold a general lottery: so many Cantabrigians have more than enough. So, the city limits lottery applicants to families making less than 80% AMI (AMI=Area Median Income, which in pricey Cambridge is $96,250 for a family of four). That seems right to me; the idea behind UBE is not only for poor people.

The City also limits applicants to families with children under 18. I also agree this is also a desirable criterion.

Third, the applicants must be single-caretaker households.

This requirement makes no sense to me. In fact, it immediately raises that ugly specter in my head: reverse-discrimination. Why should a multi-caretaker household that meets the income and child guidelines be exempt from this program?

I write my favorite Cambridge City Councilor, Alanna Mallon, who offers a gracious reply. She cites the recent Cambridge Community Foundation report that 70% of Cambridge families in the bottom quintile are single-caretaker households. She cites targeted pilot programs from other areas of the country. She does not, however, address why the program denies application to the other 30% of bottom quintile families simply because they are headed by multi-caretakers.

It’s easy to imagine multi-caretaker families who could benefit from this program: families with disabled adults; multi-generational households. It is also too, too easy to see how the program will become an target for anyone to proclaim that by discriminating against traditional two-parent families, Cambridge RISE incentivizes single parenting.

If we only used the income and child requirements, a large majority of this lottery-based program recipients would still be single-caretaker households (statistically: 70%). We’d avoid accusations of providing special treatment to families who, for whatever reason, have only one caretaker. We could gather data on how a wider range of recipients use their payment.

Instead we have created a pilot program whose fundamental design enables opponents to undermine its credibility, regardless of data or outcomes. The City deserves a more representative pilot program. UBI deserves pilot programs that better reflect how it might actually succeed. And multi-caretaker families deserve the same —not more, not less—opportunities available to single-caretaker households.

(Note: Images from Cambridge RISE website.)

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How Our World Will End

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost’s poem has always established my bounds for how the world will end. Extreme heat or extreme cold leaves plenty of latitude for middling particulars.

In an era of global pandemic, climate change, and persistent mass violence, anyone who doesn’t think about how the world will end is—well—not paying attention. I’ve gotten in the habit of asking folks their preferred scenario.

My daughter, the nurse, championed the idea of killer viruses way before COVID-19 arrived. Nature morphs to resist our antibiotics, and we aren’t creating more with any efficiency.

My college roommate, a FEMA flood control expert, proclaims we’re already screwed. The rising tide of global warming is too accelerated to recede.

My son, the river morphologist, thinks loss of species diversity will be our demise. Without the full complement of specialized, niche organisms, nature’s web will untangle.

My niece, the activist, figures that as long as we nurture the fear of our differences over the wonder of all that we hold in common, we’ll just keep shooting each other to death.

My cleaning lady simply thinks we will drown in a sea of clutter.

We do not know how or when the world will end: we are not supposed to know. That tail phrase, “we are not supposed to know,” is my tip-of-the-hat to the beyond. Call it god if you like. The greater force that humans alternately revere and attempt to control.

We do not know how or when the world will end: we are not supposed to know. But most all of us can agree that human tinkering with our planet hastens the inevitability.

Being the mostly upbeat architect I am, I envision a Christopher Nolan end to our world. Inception’s elegant Parisian facades folding unto each other. Time and space and gravity denied. Destruction and death choreographed to swelling music. Devoid of pain and suffering. Not crushing civilization so much as folding into limestone-facade bedsheets of eternal sleep. A vision simultaneously cultured and barbaric.

I suppose mine is the unlikeliest scenario, but even a man who lacks a god with a capital ‘G’ is entitled to some solace.

I am content that the world as we know it will end, by means and moment outside our control, albeit hastened by mankind’s hutzpah. How then do I explain my innumerable quirks of behavior designed to lengthen our breath on this planet?

Why won’t I buy a car, or purchase meat. Why, for goodness’ sake, won’t I indulge in a yummy dessert simply because it is sealed inside a plastic clamshell case? Because I know that plastic will remain long after the sweet taste is gone. Why do I step on the scale every morning and sweat at the gym and eschew putting drugs on my body? Because despite our species’ hell-bent desire to ax itself, each individual creature innately strives to keep on keeping on. Why do I proclaim that Black Lives Matter, lobby for renewable energy, and advocate gun control? Because despite having no control over our world’s end, I still govern my own token actions. And I naively, dumbly believe that my minuscule actions, if multiplied seven billion times, might just nudge another generation or two of human survival on this earth.

The world that sustains humankind will end: by fire or ice; pestilence or flood; hunger or violence. Perhaps even by enwrapping us in our own beautiful constructions. We do not know how or when: we are not supposed to know. All we can do is live our lives as if we bear some responsibility for our fate.

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Affairs of (real) Estate

What is our responsibility—to ourselves, our family, and our community—for the assets we have accumulated during our lives? I confronted this question last year, when I turned sixty-five and reckoned with the good fortune bestowed upon me.

Fresh senior citizens in these United States are inundated with information about Social Security, Medicare, and Estate Planning. Silver-haired gents in boxy suits at Residence Inn function rooms dissect the minutiae of Parts A & B. They intone the virtues of revocable trusts. As a person blessed with comprehensive health insurance who’s allergic to any investment more complex than a no-load mutual fund, preparing for old age and beyond loomed unsavory. But after witnessing the chaotic aftermath of two friends who died without wills, I knew the responsible thing to do. So I sucked it up, enrolled in Medicare, and prepared an estate plan.

Friends all know my personal mantra, “It doesn’t cost much to be Paul Fallon.” I don’t have extravagant tastes, buy grown-up toys, or play the horses. Although architects are among the lowest paid professionals, I enjoyed a long run of middle-class income. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to discover that fully vesting my 401K year after year accumulated into a robust Vanguard balance.

The shocker came from real estate. Back in 1992, when most families with young children headed to the suburbs, my wife and I bought an aging four-family in Cambridge. We wanted to raise our children in the city and I salivated over years of renovation.

Life didn’t play out as planned. Our marriage ended; our children grew up and out; I took on housemates to fill the too-big space. Another unplanned reality: Cambridge real estate’s extraordinary appreciation. This was simply dumb luck: the same four-family in Cleveland or Detroit might have bankrupted me. But once renovations were complete and the mortgage retired, the reasonable rents I charge generated plenty of income. They enabled early retirement and middle-age adventures: volunteering in post-earthquake Haiti; bicycling through 48 states. Thank, you, thank you, this old house.

Twenty-nine years on, my pricey real estate deserved careful consideration. I’ve never met anyone who inherited financial independence without becoming seriously damaged in other ways, so I didn’t want to leave the place outright to my children. Yet, I couldn’t sell it to them anywhere near the market rate because a property we purchased on reasonable incomes in 1992 is now worth far more than any salaried person can afford.

Besides, age has radicalized me. I want my largest asset serve a wider purpose than familial enrichment.

The difference between being a ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ in these United States is largely a matter of whether a person owns their house. American homeowners’ equity more than doubled in the seven years between 2012 ($7.78 Trillion) and 2019 ($18.72 Trillion). That’s $57,000 per American. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a slice. Over 115 million citizens have exactly zero equity, and as housing prices continue to accelerate, the chance of them ever becoming homeowners continues to diminish.

My property cannot alleviate our city’s affordable housing crisis, but it can do something transformative for four families. Provide shelter that blooms into economic freedom. Raise them into the middle class. Perhaps even take them beyond.

Left to market forces, that notion is fantasy. The appraising realtor explained that the ‘highest and best economic use’ of my four-family building would be for a developer to purchase, gut, and renovate it into a pair of single-family townhouses, each of which would sell for several million dollars. Thus, I would further contribute to Cambridge’s loss of modest residential units, dilute the city’s population density, and reinforce economic stratification. The exact opposite of my objectives.

It took a year to address my ultimate first-world problem of too-valuable real estate. First task: discussions with my children about this unconventional idea. I sounded out their acceptance and gained their agreement. Second: sending an intentionally vague one-page concept to eight local non-profits: universities; bank foundations; developers. I chose to refine my concept with Just-A-Start Corporation, a local housing and service provider with whom I have a thirty-year affiliation. Finally, there was legal language, a friendly realtor, a gifted estate attorney, and details too tedious for a blog post.

The Cliff Notes will suffice.

When I die, or become incapacitated, my properties are bequeathed to Just-A-Start Corporation. My children have a six-month period to purchase them back from JAS at 90% of appraised value, with a proportionate down payment (roughly equal to their direct inheritance) and the remainder financeable through a local bank who’s already green-lit the scheme. In this scenario, my children can choose to return to their childhood home, without the largesse of outright inheritance, while JAS gets a few million to invest in other affordable housing projects. If my children choose not to buy-back the property, JAS will select four families to kick-off a revolving ownership program that is purposefully more generous than most affordable arrangements, as the owner’s appreciation is sizable, and ownership can be handed down through generations. Either way, my dual objectives are achieved: the bulk of my estate will provide affordable housing that promotes continuity and ownership.

Just-A-Start and I decided to broadcast this novel model of property transfer, (kicked off with a Boston.com article). From JAS’s perspective, our collaboration illustrates their creative approach to providing affordable housing opportunities. For me, it gets to the heart of what the propertied class must do to promote a more equitable world.

In a single generation an aging structure in a middle-class neighborhood has become a multi-million-dollar property along a Tesla-infected street. During the same period, my city’s vanishing middle class makes Cambridge a less diverse, less dynamic place to live. Given the scope of our nation’s inequality, my decision to transfer property in an unconventional way is miniscule. From a radical political positiosn, it is too little too late: I could live thirty years before it comes into effect. Still, it’s one tangible step, and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, the bequest is in effect.

My plan with JAS is worthwhile. And replicable. Over 25 million baby boomers own our homes, almost half of us have no mortgage. The default action in any estate plan—leave our property to our children—further stratifies wealth. It’s important for folks to consider other ways. Our plan may not be right for you. But if we are serious about living in a just world, those of us whom fortune has blessed have to do the real work. We have to redistribute our wealth.

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On Time

My object all sublime

I shall achieve in time

To make the punishment fit the crime

The punishment fit the crime.

  • The Mikado, 1885

One-hundred-thirty-six years since an operatic buffoon first pranced the stage bemoaning the consequences society inflicts upon its evil-doers, consider the Academy Award nominated documentary, Time. A film that assures us, no progress has been made.

I watched Time with prejudice: assuming I already know the harm our racially-skewed and excessive incarceration system lays upon fellow citizens. Not first-hand mind you: people like me rarely go to prison. Rather from reading, as if empathy-in-print equaled experience.

I can’t say that I particular liked Time, nor even that it added much to my indirect experience of incarceration. But the film stays with me. Its unanswered questions swirl in my head. What lingers is what the film leaves out.

Start with the title. “Time” is a vague. It could be about Stephen Hawking as soon as Sibil Fox Richardson and her quest to get her husband Rob released from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. The obviously clear title is “Doing Time.” Which everyone in this film does: Sibil; her husband; their four sons; for close to twenty years.

Then there’s the backstory. Selective at best. The film is rich in video clips Sibil made for her husband over the years, from when he first enters Angola while she’s pregnant with twins. We learn that they were high school sweethearts, that they opened a clothing store in Shreveport, that they struggled financially, that they committed armed robbery, and that they got caught. Rob is sentenced to sixty years without parole. Sibil—the getaway driver—also does time. What we don’t learn are any details about her time in prison, or who reared the boys, or how the family arrived at the current state. Present tense cameras record four admirable young men, one a dental school graduate, another college bound, living with their professional activist mom in what appears to be middle-class comfort. We get no reference of the struggle that led from there to here.

Intuition suggests the key is Sibil’s mother, a stern Black woman whose minor role downplays outsize influence. Watching this woman, during her too few moments on camera, makes clear the origin of the daughter’s firm resolve. It also illustrates a mother’s disappointment. That her well-reared daughter might have married a doctor or lawyer instead of a bank robber. The dismissive greeting she gives Rob upon his parole lays bare the fact that this woman does not approve; she endures.

At different points in the film both mother and daughter use the phrase, “You do the crime, you do the time.” Yet they say it to such different effect. For the mother, the crime spans the breath of all her daughter’s poor choices. For Sibil, it’s a badge of honor: she has done time beyond the harm of the crime.

I can understand why it’s necessary to portray this family as so upstanding, in order for attain the audience’s approval. Though that’s really too bad, because a sixty-year sentence for the crime committed is ridiculous regardless of character. The baseline message is clear: the punishment was so severe because Sibil and Rob are Black, and the obstacles Sibil faces to bring her husband home are not only Herculean; they are arbitrary and demeaning.

The film makes a clear and powerful case that our penal system is skewed, harsh, and ineffective. And in one powerful scene we observe Sibil in her church, asking forgiveness of the bank employees her husband terrorized during the robbery, of her mother, and her congregation. Sibil convinces us that the justice meted out was unjust. But once again, there is an important question that Time leaves out.

What punishment would have been appropriate?

Sibil is so personally knowledgeable about our prison system, I would love to know what she considers fair punishment for the crime she and her husband committed. After all, they robbed a bank: with guns. That’s not nothing. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of capitalism or gun rights, any society has to set consequences for people who violate its precepts.

It’s hard to conjure a single crime whose punishment is best met by sending a man to prison. Yet that is what we do: more than any nation on earth. When I hear Sibil’s voice, so steeped in the futility of our prison system, and I trust her experience I will never attain, I want to hear a deeper message than “the system is bad.” She and her husband committed a serious crime and suffered extreme consequences. I want to hear her outline a punishment that would be just.

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Confessions of an Educational Counselor

An interesting virtual volunteer opportunity presented itself last fall. MIT was looking for alums to interview a pandemic-induced bumper crop of undergraduate applicants. Spending thirty minutes or so with an engaged high school senior with geeky leanings is a piece’o’cake for a guy who perfected the art of kibitzing any stranger who invited him and his bicycle overnight. Besides it would be fun to recall MIT years, time-rubbed to a fond luster, and bask in current aspirants’ enthusiasm.

Here are the ground rules. An Educational Counselor (fancy title for: me) is assigned applicants to interview. EC’s receive only an applicant’s name, high school, and home town. No academic credentials. Our task is to seek out each student’s unique story and then file a narrative report, a 1-5 Leichardt rank on ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘personality,’ and the all-important ‘Overall Match.’ ‘5’ is a gem among the multitudes; ‘4’ represents the top ten percent of interviewees; ‘3’ is a good match; ‘2’ a poor fit; and ‘1’ is a stop light.

After brief training, I was assigned to the Oklahoma region, yet received only one specific applicant. That actually turned out to be a blessing. As I free-roamed the Overflow pool. I developed personal strategy to meet applicants from my formative geographies (Jersey shore; Norman, OK; and Lubbock, TX) as well as rural places I’ve visited. In total, I interviewed twenty-eight applicants from quirky spots like Coos Bay, OR; Las Cruces, NM; Kenosha WI; and Fayetteville NC. I savored the moment in each interview where I revealed familiarity with the student’s hometown and our talk turned local.

As in any volunteer experience, the rewards I received for my effort exceeded my investment. During a depressing period of American health and history, I enjoyed meeting these impressive and optimistic candidates.

What did I learn from my experience?

I learned that the future is in capable hands. These young people are impressive in their ability, ambition, and consciousness.

I learned that, as a group, first-generation students from India run circles around everyone else. They come to the interview prepared to speak of their passion; they’ve also done their research on me. They know every box MIT wants checked: social consciousness, community service, entrepreneurial initiative; dazzling academics. Then they deliver their case with a humble yet compelling personal story.

How did my interviewees fare in the admissions race?

I interviewed six glistening candidates, each of whom rose beyond the already impressive crowd. I abided by MIT’s rules and only assigned three of them a ‘4’ match, though I wrote such glowing narratives, I hoped they would all receive four-star consideration. My top six were geographically diverse: New Mexico; Indiana; Georgia; New Jersey; Texas. But five of my top six were bound by common thread: first-generation Indians who lived in multi-generational households. Each has done impressive independent research, yet each demonstrated a passion rooted in humanitarian rather than economic impulse.

In classic geek-style, MIT issues admission notices on PI-Day (3/14). MIT’s acceptance rate is tiny—around five percent—and since I’d  bypassed super-star students from prep schools, Bronx Science, and Boston Latin; as well as the flood of applicants from tech-savvy enclaves like Plano, TX; Fremont, CA; and Lexington, MA; I knew my outlier applicants’ chances were slim. Yet, as a long-ago outlier myself, I held out hope.

Exactly one of my interviewees was accepted; a woman originally from India with an open demeanor who has already done meaningful research on cancer clusters. She blew me away; though no more than the other five of my top six.

I’m thrilled that one of ‘my’ students was accepted, and I’ll be a quick to sign-on again next year should MIT need EC’s. But the overall experience reinforces my dominant concern with elite schools.

There are so many more students who can thrive at MIT than ever get the chance. Surely, they will get good educations at Georgia Tech or the University of Wisconsin. But that credential will not open the same doors and provide the same cache as the initials ‘MIT’ on their resume. In a fairer society, everyone with the ability and drive to meet the challenge of MIT would have the chance. And our world would be a whole lot better for that.

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