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That Best Most Imperfect Place

Apr 24, 2013 | Updated Jun 24, 2013
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A long, tough week has ended -- more or less -- in Boston.

I grew up in Boston's suburbs and spent twenty-five years away to return recently from grand adventures. Like millions of Boston expatriates living abroad -- that is, west of Worcester -- I always wanted to come back home someday.

In these years, my wife and I would go to the Sox games at Camden Yards where Red Sox fans vastly outnumbered local Orioles supporters. We'd be glad that we came from a place that appreciated the power of professional and college sports on a community. I would reflect on how well we had raised our sons when, after relocating to Los Angeles for school and work, they immediately found the Boston sports bar that carried NESN on Wilshire Boulevard. I would get home in time to watch the Boston Pops Fourth of July festivities on cable misting up each year when the canons and bells went off during the 1812 Overture. I'd sing the patriotic songs. And, I can't sing. And, I'd always check to see who won the Boston Marathon.

Every expatriate knows these feelings. It's who we are in the rituals of life.

I also spent these years wondering why the rest of the world spoke so slowly, how some towns ever got built when change was "hard," how candor sometimes challenged colleagues who mistook bluntness for bad manners and why the rest of the world didn't see the humor and tragedy in life in quite the same way. Life is rather funny, if only the rest of America understood it the way we see it.

It never occurred to me until this week that Boston left me with a sense of global parochialism. As my wife would say, it explains a lot of things.

As it turns out, there is something unique and valid about the concept of Boston Strong.

I'll leave it to the pop psychologists to explain our feelings to us. I am already determined to be the last one on the planet to know what Dr. Phil thinks of what happened. Pundits can now begin to tell us what we did wrong and what mistakes need to be corrected. We'll get back to you on that one.

I'm trained as a historian with a liberal arts degree. It's why I value the diploma. That's where I'll take my lead.

First, it occurred to me as I watched that Boston is much more about a built, collective history than the psychology of the crime, although they intertwine occasionally.

Second, you can see the changes best only when you come back.

Boston is still an imperfect place. It has its share of homeless and race relations must continue to improve. There is still work to do on everything from basic education to public transportation. Old ethnic traditions -- and the prejudices that accompany them -- die hard. The work continues, as Ted Kennedy would say.

Stephen Colbert noted humorously this week that the Puritans who founded Boston were so tough that they buckled their own hats to their heads. Mike Barnacle contributed further noting that there is still a wonderful fatalism to the place. He sees a preeminent "Irishness" that permeates Boston to give it a lyrical wit, uplift and sense of inevitability. There is a "can do" crustiness and impatience and underneath a deeply entrenched value system shared collectively. What's amazing is that these values persist with a new generation who imagine the possible daily in Cambridge's Kendall Square, downtown and the Seaport District. Boston today is infused with new immigrant traditions, wealth, ingenuity and purpose. It speaks well for where a country led by places like Boston will head in the 21st century.

As a child, I watched the collapse of shoes and textiles. As a younger man, I saw the Routes 128/495 electronic and high technology belts develop around Boston. In later years, I watched the colleges and universities grow and become national and global places to complement the world-class medical complex that served the region so well this week. Now, the next wave of growth in biotechnology is sweeping over Boston.

It's almost as though the more that Boston reinvents itself the more it clings to and sharpens the value system that four centuries of history have etched into a collective sense of community -- a kind of "common wealth" historically somehow passed on and improved by each generation.

As I caught the ferry from Hingham into downtown Boston this week, I watched the young men and women with rifles moving quietly and politely among the Fidelity managers who most days believe that they rule the world. What struck me there and throughout the City were the smiles and "thank yous" offered to the combined law enforcement contingent and one another, often led by the well-dressed suits from corporate Boston.

For all of the obvious jokes, the politicians closed the 64 Starbucks stores but kept the Dunkin Donuts open when the "shelter in place" orders were issued so that the cops could get some coffee and a jelly donut. America runs on Dunkin. If you're from Boston, it makes perfect sense.

While I was gone, Boston evolved into something better than what I had left. What the world saw this week was far more than the youngsters chanting "USA, USA" on the Boston Common to address politics we don't fully comprehend yet. It was more than an effort to put voice to the concept of Boston Strong. What the world witnessed instead was the emergence, warts and all, of that best most imperfect place. Wicked awesome, indeed.