Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. I left mine in Boston.

I lived there nigh on 30 years, most of my adult life. The first day I got there, I took a room at the YMCA, then went exploring. I was waiting for the subway (the “T”) and asked a stranger, about my age (around 20), how much it cost to ride. Then I noticed his t-shirt was decorated with the Einstein field equations of general relativity. That was a good conversation starter! Later than evening — my first night in Boston — we went to symphony hall to hear Tchaikovsky. Not a bad introduction to a great city.

I remember signing up for the physics mailing list, to discover that there were a half dozen or so talks every week on topics like the early inflationary universe and the pulsations of massive stars. For a kid from a tiny little cow-town, that was a life-changing experience. I remember hearing, at least a dozen times, the old joke that in Cambridge (a nearby suburb) a Ph.D. qualified you to be a taxi driver. With Harvard and MIT, two of the world’s greatest universities, just a mile apart, and more universities per square mile than anywhere else in the world, Boston is a, if not the, center of learning on our planet.

I picked up my love of Irish traditional music in Boston. After all, they say that 60% of Bostonians are Irish and the other 40% are 60% Irish. There’s a pub in Somerville called the Burren which has a seisun (Irish musicians gathering to play together) every damn day of the year — if you want to play Irish music on Chrismas day, they’ll have a seisun. I remember a Korean tourist coming up to us one night and asking whether or not we knew “Danny Boy.” It’s a great song, but it’s so stereotypical that we all denied that we knew it. We were less than honest about that — I had recorded it in a studio that afternoon. I remember the great seisuns at the Green Briar when the girls would step-dance while we played. As a friend told me later, “The purpose of music is to make the ladies wiggle.” The craic was mighty.

Boston was also my introduction to a real sports-crazy town. With all the intellectual power concentrated there, Boston is still as mad about their sports teams as any place I can think of. I remember the heyday of the Celtics when the big 3 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish — laid down the law in the NBA. I remember the Patriots winning the super bowl multiple times, threatening to dominate the NFL. I remember Kurt Schilling’s bloody sock when he stayed in the game despite an injured ankle to beat the Yankees in game 6 of the ALCS. If you want to know what Boston sports fans can be like, watch the movie “Fever Pitch.” If you want to be insulted, ride the Boston subway wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. Count me as a citizen of Red Sox nation.

I remember singing renaissance music in an associated event of the Boston Early Music Festival, at the Old North Church — twice. The first time was straight madrigals, the second was early Polish music. They say you can’t swing a dead cat in Boston without hitting an early musician. I remember attending a concert of the early music festival at Jordan Hall, and having somebody recognize me for my performances of Irish traditional music. Talk about an ego boost!

I remember my first trip to the Boston Public Library. Before that, I only thought I knew what a real library was. I remember hearing, and presenting, scientific talks at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I remember walking through the Arboretum on what might have been the best day for autumn foliage ever. I remember busking, day after day, on the street and in the subway. I remember my partner and I finally concluding that when you did a song that was so good people actually applauded en mass, they tended not to give you tips. We called it the “inverse applause hypothesis.” I remember learning to tell the difference between the accent of the north shore and southie. Both of which are soooo different from the accent in Maine.

I remember all the friends I made, and still have. Boston is not as outwardly friendly as the midwest or the south, people are less likely to say “Hi!” on the street or visit a newcomer with a freshly-baked pie, but after you get to know them you’d be hard pressed to find better friends anywhere.

Nothing against New York, or Paris, or Rome, or London, or Tokyo, but to me Boston is the greatest city in the world.

I also remember sitting on the porch of my house in Newton (another Boston suburb), watching marathon runners ascend “heartbreak hill” in their quest to conquer what may be the most prestigious marathon race in the world. The most recent running of the marathon was marred by a cruel act of terrorism.

The recent events in Boston, the bombings and shootings, have affected me much more than such tragedies usually do, because they happened in Boston. I left my heart there. I take it personally.

But I also thought that in this time of focus on this great city, someone should talk about the things that are not tragic. Like why I love Boston so much.

35 responses to “Boston

  1. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing–and thanks for the reminder of what a great place Boston is.

    My very first evening in the city many years ago I wound up not at Symphony Hall but an even more venerated place: Fenway. Yaz homered into the right-field bleachers in the second inning, the crowd swooned, and I fell in love with the park, the people, and the city right then and there.

    I’ll be back in Boston soon–and Boston will be back to itself.

  2. This makes me jealous of my brother who moved there.

  3. Beautiful recollections, Tamino.

    Boston was also where the first American performance of any of my compositions took place–my Opus One, if I gave opus numbers. A little trio for flute, trumpet and ‘cello–given by an ensemble featuring a trumpeter who was one of those early musicians most of the time, and in the fabulous historic King’s Chapel. Don’t recall the exact year, off the top of my head, but the 80s were young…

    We were there last spring,the first time I’d been back since. We enjoyed fabulous Indian food in the evening, and the Common and Gardens next day–and in between, a totally random impulse “buy”: two tickets to see Earth, Wind and Fire at the Schubert.

    Yes, Boston is a great place. As we mourn the casualties and decry the barbarism, it is consoling to know that the city itself will continue to delight, inspire and nurture.

  4. The Burren … :)

    Great post. I’ve got friends at MIT and MGH currently locked down, as well as kids of friends who are locked down at various universities.

    Odd world – an acquaintence of mine was the person who found the pressure-cooker lid on a hotel roof. They were staying at the hotel, right on the finish line, his wife finished and had just finished showering and re-dressing when the bombs went off. They went to the roof to figure out what the noise was about and he found the lid …

  5. Susan Anderson

    If you don’t mind a little down and dirty, this:

    It’s horrid right now, everything in lockdown and can’t even get a weather forecast on TV.

  6. Next time you pay a visit to Cambridge, say “Hello” to Alex Dalgarno. One of the greatest astronomers around.

  7. Huh. I’ve been to the Burren, and a lot of my friends are part of the Irish dance and music scene… and it wasn’t until this post that I realized when I’d hear them talk about the “session” they were actually saying “seisun”.

    But yeah. I grew up in the Boston area, went to MIT for two degrees, and though I don’t live there now, my heart is there and this week has been surreal.

    • In Ireland “seisún” and “session” seem to be the same word, different spelling (Irish & English respectivley). I wonder if their origins are different or the similar ? It can also mean getting very drunk with your friends, the infamous “drinking session”.

      “Craic”, which Tamino mentioned at the top, is one of those words with an interesting history. Of Northern British origin, “crack”, was apparently brought over to Ireland through Ulster in the mid-20th Century, and only attaining its fake-gailicised form sometime in the 80s or 90s. I prefer “crack” myself, but “craic”, in the written form, does at least do away with any possible confusion with drugs.

  8. I don’t much care for the idea of a lockdown. One man shuts down a city the size of Boston?

  9. > One man
    It makes aiming easier. Seriously.

    • Life is dangerous. No one gets out alive.

      Shutting down a city is a bad precedent.

      • Andrew Dodds

        Indeed.. for those of us who grew up with bomb attacks happening on a regular basis (i.e. monthly or more), it does seem a bit of an overreaction. You’ve basically got to the stage where almost any sufficiently disaffected person can now cause a massive panic/scare with even a small, terribly easy to make bomb.

  10. Thank you for making a difference. For sharing a picture, that does not fight, hurt, or hunt, but lives.

  11. There are something like 56 institutions of higher learning in greater Boston. And within a 100 miles or so, many more including Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, Worcester Poly Tech, U-Mass, Clark University, URI, etc.
    The Massachusetts state college system orignally consisted of teachers colleges, which are now state colleges.

    Speaking of the Celtics, our small town high school (Leicester) basketball coach, Paige Rowden, played with Celtics legend Bob Cousy at Boston College. Cousy came to our high school and gave a basketball clinic for students. And our basketball coach also coached Leicester Junior College basketball team, bringing them to the Nationals at Kansas City nearly every year, when I was in junior high and high school. It’s now part of Becker Junior College.

  12. Born, raised and live in Ireland, but I worked for a Massachsuetts-based company for many years (Digital Equipment Corporation), and I loved Boston for its historic ambience, not just its Irish connections. Really, truly the city fo Freedom, home not only of the Adamses (Sam and John), but of the Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. I loved walkng along State Street and spending time in Quincy Markets. I did the Freedom Trail and USS Ironside more than once. The memorial to the 54th Massachsuetts Regiment outside the State House. Boston Common. I do miss it.

    My favourite city outside Galway (Ireland). Friends who did summer jobs in Boston when I was in college told me there were bars where you could find people speaking Gaelic.

    Just happy to see that Boston’s recent agony is now over.

  13. Robert Evans

    Many Thanks for this post. I only know Boston’s Logan Airport.

  14. Thanx Tamino. Boston and Seattle at opposite ends of I 90 are my favorite American cities to visit. I have family an hour north of Boston so I’ve visited the city many times. Like you ,I love the city and treasure my many visits ,so this weeks events seemed personal to me also. Boston Strong!

  15. Tamino,
    Current Bostonian. Thanks for this. I’ve run the Boston Marathon twice and for those not familiar with it, it’s not like other Marathons. This is a 26-mile block party, and then a road-race breaks out. For those that run (I’ve run for MGH’s Children’s Cancer Team) there is no other experience comparable when you turn the corner on Boylston and run that last stretch and EVERYONE is cheering you on – 5 people deep on both sides. Whatever they were trying to do, it won’t stop that shared feeling, and they won’t stop us.

    Please everyone also don’t forget MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. He was a near-neighbor to me here near Davis Square, and his assasination really brought home how senseless this has been. With 176 injured, most of us know someone directly, or very close indirectly who was injured. It will take awhile, but we will go on. We’ll remember them, and go on. And each time we run the Marathon, or line up to cheer on the runners, we’ll remember, and go on – For us, and them.

  16. Tamino, thank you for this great post. Boston is a great city.

  17. Lot of memories for me there. Meeting my wife. Graduate school. Pedro Martinez. The Standells playing when the Sox win. Walking home to Brookline from Whitehead Symposium at MIT when the T flooded during a Noreaster. Jogging along the Charles. Thanks for this post, Tamino.

  18. I’m late to post this, but also thank you- My wife is from Cambridge, my son and I are MIT alums, and he works there now. One brother-in-law who lives in the Greater Boston area has run the Boston Marathon in the past. And I remember Friday or Saturday nights in the Odd-Fellows Hall on Mass ave where a fellow named Johnson ran the most amazing series of traditional music performers, and we all sat or sprawled on the run because there were no chairs. I never wanted to leave it, and still scheme on ways to get back there, and coincidentally get paid.

  19. Hi Tamino
    Why have my (very mildly critical) comments not been allowed?

  20. Terrorism is always wicked and ineffective, but both only become fully apparent to people when they suffer its effects directly. I spent a lot of time in England and travelling to England during the IRA terror campaign, and it was as wicked and as ineffective as the Boston bombing will be. It is sad that it took terrorism on US soil to make the US see the full reality of the terror campaign that was funded to a considerable extent out of Boston, and whose most wicked final flowering was the Omagh bombing.

    The English were very rightly critical of many aspects of the Thatcher regime, but I never heard anyone do anything but respect the way in which after an attempt had been made in the Brighton bombing to murder her and her entire cabinet she picked herself up and continued with the party convention a few hours after her hotel had been blown up.

    There was to anyone who had lived through this an especial poignancy to the moment of silence observed at the start of the recent London marathon.

    • It continues to amaze me that anyone can imagine that maiming children at random can do anything for a cause except dishonor and discredit it.

    • Terrorism is profoundly wicked, but I think that it’s a mistake to say that it’s always ineffective.

      It has changed the way that Western societies live. Our freedoms of several decades ago are simply memories, our naïve innocence evaporated, and our sense of safety replaced by niggling fear and doubt. To that end the terrorists have already won some victories.

      • Oh, it can do terrible damage all right. And sometimes it can achieve tactical ‘victories,’ such as the withdrawal of international troops from Lebanon following the 1983 US embassy bombing. Certainly, the effects on the West are just as you describe.

        But (to continue with the Lebanese example) is Hezbollah better off because of that bombing, or other actions since? My perception is not: they are still locked in apparently unending (though somewhat intermittent) political and quasi-military struggle with various foes, still international pariahs, and suffering (along with all their fellow citizens) from the destruction and misery they have wrought to the political and economic fabric of their own society.

        If these be ‘victories,’ my sense is that they are quite Pyrrhic.

      • Igor Samoylenko

        Strategically, terrorist campaigns targeting civilians always fail. Those targeting military forces fair slightly better but even then the success rate is well below that of other forms of political pressure.

        Quoting from the article “Why Terrorism Does Not Work” by Max Abrahms:

        Contrary to the prevailing view that terrorism is an effective means of political coercion, the universe of cases suggests that, first, contemporary terrorist groups rarely achieve their policy objectives and, second, the poor success rate is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself.
        Groups whose attacks on civilian targets outnumbered attacks on military targets systematically failed to achieve their policy objectives,
        regardless of their nature.

      • I would note that the same seems to apply to military campaigns. The bombing of cities by both the Allies and the Axis failed to demoralize the citizens on either side–quite the contrary. The carpet bombing of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia yielded no military or psychological advantage.

        I would contend that terror is analogous to torture–it appeals to the perverted sense of justice that wants to see “evil doers” punished, regardless of whether that punishment will be of advantage to us. Psychological studies show that people will opt to punish what they see as “evil” even if they suffer in the process. We really aren’t a very smart species.

      • Bob Loblaw

        If the goal of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was to overthrow the US government, it failed. If the goal of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was to overthrow the Iraqi government, it succeeded. How did it do that? By provoking the US into an attack on Iraq. The terrorists surely didn’t have the means to attack and overthrow the Iraqi government on their own, but the instability following the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein made for an environment where radical elements could take control of parts of Iraq much more easily.

      • Ingenious argument, but I’ve seen nothing suggesting that Osama bin Laden aimed to overthrow the Iraqi government, and lots to suggest that his aim was to hurt America (which he certainly did.)

        But even if he had been aiming at Iraq, the current result would surely not have been pleasing to him. Iraq went from a secular government to a quasi-democratic Shia-dominated one, and according to Wikipedia, “Shia Muslims have been listed along with “heretics, […] America, and Israel” as the four principal “enemies of Islam” at ideology classes of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization.”

        Unintended consequences abound today for all parties to the Iraq imbroglio.

      • If the goal of 9/11 was to overthrow the Iraqi government, then I reckon I’ll set off a bomb in Antarctica to try and get Cookie Monster to go on a diet :-)

      • Bob, I would contend that the only way one could contend that the 9/11 attacks were a success in any more than a tactical sense is if the goal had been for Al Quaeda leadership to achieve martyrdom.

  21. Boston will prevail.