Monday, July 31, 2006


(News-Herald, July 27) Tolerance has been a difficult issue for Americans since day one.
It makes a lovely tale to describe how the Pilgrims came and settled in the new world so they could be free of religious persecution. But the Puritans of Massachusetts turned around and began executing anyone who disagreed with them—and not just witches and pagans, but peace-loving Quakers as well.
So our ongoing issues with tolerance are neither new nor unusual.
The extreme versions of intolerance are violence, killing those persons that we believe should not be tolerated. Less extreme intolerance appears in simple verbal abuse. Verbal abuse can be good old fashioned name calling, or the specialized type where we label someone a heinous menace so that other folks will be encouraged to become even more intolerant of them.
So when a conservative pundit tells an interviewer that all gay men want to kidnap boys and covert them to gayosity, that’s intolerance. And when a liberal pundit replies that such a statement is just like the things the Nazis said right before they rounded up Jews and killed them, that’s intolerance, too.
Conservatives are perhaps more famous for being intolerant, for suggesting that our nation should not have to tolerate people of the wrong religion, the wrong race, the wrong life-style.
But liberals can be equally intolerant of various groups, starting with groups of people who have strong beliefs. There is something ironic in their inability to tolerate intolerance.
All intolerant behavior is rooted in one simple belief: “I am right and you are wrong; therefore, it’s okay for me to treat you badly.”
The most common approach to fixing intolerance is to address only the first half of that proposition. That’s why we keep finding ourselves in the same stupid mess time after time.
Forty years ago, mushy-headed liberals responded to the belief by saying, “Look, we’re not wrong. Nobody’s wrong. It doesn’t matter what you believe—everybody can be right.” Various cultures and religions and lifestyles are not really wrong at all, if you just squint properly. People who worship balls of string have a perfectly valid point of view. We were all supposed to tolerate everything. Well, everybody except the people who didn’t want to tolerate everyone—those people were dead wrong.
The hard-headed conservative reply has been to say, “Oh no. We really are right. We’re very very right, and you’re very very wrong.” The Right has responded by putting their feet down hard. There is a definite Right and a definite Wrong and they know exactly where the line is drawn, dammit. People who butter their toast funny cannot be trusted, and perhaps should be locked up.
It’s particularly difficult when neither side has any basis in fact. Arguments, for example, about whether homosexuality is genetically wired or a lifestyle choice are pointless—nobody knows. I know what my own experience and observation leads me to believe (I vote genetics)—but I have absolutely no hard facts to back that up, and neither do the people who disagree with me.
So the Right and Left argue on, holding fast to the “No, I really am right” point of view, tossing evidence and opinions at each other like big pointy sticks.
They’re having the wrong argument. The secret of tolerance is not in the first half of that proposition. It’s in the second half, the notion that somehow we can treat people differently if they’re wrong.
Christians, frankly, ought to already know this. Scripture addresses both halves of the sentence. First of all, there’s the matter of Being Right. The Bible is pretty clear on this—let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. In other words, you’re not all THAT right, so just cool your jets.
As for the second half of the sentence, there’s a ton of writing that addresses that. The Golden Rule just happens to be the best-known. It all boils down to “Treat other people well.” At this point people always want to start whining, “But they’re WRONG—“
Doesn’t matter. The instructions are not “Treat other people well if you agree with them” or “Treat other people well if you like them” and certainly not “Treat other people well if you think they deserve it.” The path to tolerance doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Authority figures (teachers, for example) cannot be thought police, forcing everyone to Think Proper Ideas. But authority figures can, and should, insist that people treat each other well, with kindness, decency, dignity and respect, no matter how Wrong you may think they are.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


(from October, 2001)
I acquired a new student teacher this week. That reminded me of a piece of bad advice teachers get sometimes: Make the lesson seem relevant to the students.
I know this advice means well, but I think it’s a mistake. I think as soon as you get to the idea “seems,” you’ve lost the battle.
Think about it. If I’m going to “make” the lesson “seem” important, then I’ve already conceded that it really isn’t important. Would I try to make the sky “seem” blue if it were blue already?
So a teacher who is trying to act as if his lesson matters is telling his students that it doesn’t (but we’ll try to fake it anyway).
I mention this because I think the whole seeming problem is widespread in our culture.
For instance, there are folks out there making a mint teaching managers how to motivate their employees by “seeming” interested or concerned. We’ve had waves of management movements based on “empowerment” that teach the idea of getting employees to “buy in” or become “invested” in a particular plan.
These rarely work because they are based on “seeming.” Managers want to make it seems as if employees have a say. But even a dog is smart enough to know that just because he is tied to the bumper, that doesn’t mean he’s steering the car. Managers want to stab someone in the back, but they would like it to seem as if the person threw himself on the knife.
It’s not a bad thing, the argument goes. We know that employees are happier and more productive working for a company that cares about them. If we can make them feel as if the company cares, isn’t that good? Does it really matter whether the concern is real or not, as long as it’s convincing?
Well, would you like to be married to someone who does not love you, but is only pretending to? Would it be sufficient to be married to someone who is trying hard to seem as if they are committed to you?
Of course not, because, somehow, you’d know.
It’s like follow through in golf. The follow through shouldn’t matter—after all, we’re talking about what you do with the club after it has already hit the ball. By the time the club is whipping back past your shoulder, the ball is already rocketing down the fairway (or into the woods, or toward the water hazard). After the moment of impact, it doesn’t know whether the club head lands where it belongs, or in your ear.
But it does matter. The whole act, the whole motion affects the outcome. Trying to hit the ball and then seeming to follow through won’t work. And “seeming” doesn’t work, because in the end it is just a more sophisticated type of lie.
So in the classroom, the trick is not to figure out how to make a lesson seem relevant—the trick is to first figure out how it actually IS relevant, and then show that to your students. And if you can’t figure out why the lesson is important, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
In the workplace, the trick is to actually care about your employees, or not. You may or may not win their affection (which, really, you may not actually need) but by being honest with them, you get a good shot at their respect.
If your goal is to involve them in decision-making, you have to let go of the wheel and give them input. If you’re going to make the decision yourself, just make it. Seeming to provide a choice when you really aren’t fools no one, and it makes you look like a lying weasel. Nobody does his best work when he thinks he’s working for a lying weasel.
In your personal life, you’re committed to someone, or you aren’t. You love someone or you don’t. Not that we can all be paragons of virtue and certainty, but there is an enormous difference between trying to be committed, and trying to seem committed.
That’s why politics seem cleaner and clearer here; because TV is the medium of seeming, and without TV, our politicians have to pretty much be what they are. It’s easy to seem for thirty seconds at a stretch, but seeming over the long run, up close and personal, is darn hard.
The clarity in non-seeming action is refreshing and invigorating. Part of the energy in the midst of grief that we felt nationally a few weeks back was a dose of that. For a brief time, people, leaders, everyone, stopped trying to seem like something and just were what we were. If we want to carry something good away from this attack, that would be a fine choice.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


(News-Herald July 20) Joann Wheeler may be the world’s first Art Champion. In many places it’s an award. But only in Oil City is it an actual job.
I visited Joann in her office last week, located in the Transit Building, where an assortment of arts initiatives have lived and died over the years. It’s a reminder that, here in Venangoland, our relationship with the arts is a difficult one. In many ways, the arts thrive here. We probably have more performing groups per person than most places in the country.
At the same time, the arts don’t seem to be part of our regional personality in the same way as, say, sports. The arts in Oil City are like the ballet in Pittsburgh—respectable in its own way, but not among the top twelve things you think of when you think of that place.
Arts endeavors in Venangoland can fall prey to a couple of problems. We suffer a bit too often from amateur hour in the arts. Artistic amateurism is one pitfall—if I just sit and think artsy thoughts while slinging paint at a canvas, well, then, I’m an artist. Talent and hard work are unimportant as long as my heart’s in the right place. It’s a sweet, na├»ve attitude, but we wouldn’t tolerate it in doctors or lawyers.
Organizational amateurism can be just as bad. It’s just the arts, so lets whip something up around the kitchen table and budget a buck and a half. It’s not enough to be interested; you have to know how to get things done and be able to judge what sort of things need doing. That’s just as true in the arts as it is in a mall or a hospital.
Talking with Joann was encouraging. First, she has some background in the real world. She has worked, among other things, helping to connect business and industry with training for their employees. And she’s worked off in the big city where a bit more expertise is required. To top it off, she is a lifelong artist as well.
Her vision for the arts initiative seems practical and realistic. And really, the whole Oil City arts initiative seems like a good response to the usual questions.
We need more people in the area—what resources do we have to draw folks here, and what sorts of folks could we draw?
Our resources are beautiful natural surroundings and quality of life. You can choose from different flavors of small-town life (traditional small towny Franklin; grittier, more urbannish Oil City; rural Seneca) or go country. Cost of living is low; housing costs are stunningly cheap (the average cost of a home in Venangoland wouldn’t make a down payment in most big markets)—as long as you have a job. And, unlike the rural West, you can have all that and still be a stone’s throw from a couple of major cities.
So. We’re looking for people who want to live cheaply in a small town setting surrounded by the natural beauty. And it would be best if they brought their own jobs with them.
That describes several different types of people, including young artists.
We have had artists come into the area before. Some of them have failed because they had a lousy business plan. You can’t use the Big Fish in a Small Pond plan—there’s not enough water in the little pond to keep you alive. The artists can live here, but Venangoland will never be their main market. “You can’t make a living selling things at Oil Heritage Week” says Joann. But to live and paint in Oil City, keep your overhead low, market yourself on the net, and make regular trips to a gallery in Pittsburgh to sell your stuff—that’s entirely doable.
Joann is refreshingly realistic about this stuff. Financial incentives are a nice idea, she says, but you can’t live on incentives, and the taxing bodies here are already hurting too much to give up more money.
And while there are places out there that do this sort of thing, Joann is also quick to note that this “has to grow out of what the community is” and not be simply modeled after some other place.
There will be other challenges, not the least of which is that Venangoland can be somewhat less than welcoming to New Folks who are Different. And for people who want to see the county turned around economically by one big grand slam, this isn’t going to be it. The economic effects won’t be enormous, and they won’t be quick. But if the arts champion fills a few more houses in Oil City with people who bring money into Venangoland, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


(News-Herald, July 13) My children have both worked around food.
My son has worked selling food to movie audiences. He likes it, though he lacks the killer sales instinct needed to coerce people into upgrading to the Giant Bucket O’Soda and House Full O’ Popcorn Combo. My daughter is in her second year as a waitress, or food server, or whatever we’re calling it these days.
It may be in their blood. When their mother was a struggling college student, she waited tables at the Reno Perkins (specializing in the late night crazy drunk guy shift). I myself never worked in the food biz—there’s a whole list of qualifications (starting with memory skills and neatness) that I lack.
But as a teacher of high school students, I’ve known many many people who worked on the front lines of commercial grub distribution.
Good waitpeople are worth their weight in gold. The best reason to eat at Leonardo’s is that the food is really good; the second best reason is that the service is pleasantly excellent as well.
Waitpeople are proof of Sam Walton’s rule: the way managers treat their employees is the way those employees will treat the customer. But the roughest thing that waitpeople face is not their managers—it’s their customers.
I have some single friends who restaurant first dates because they believe that you can tell a lot about someone by how that person treats waitpeople.
Some customers reveal just how condescending and snotty they can be. People who believe in democracy and the American Way and apple pie will suddenly start bossing The Help around as if they are both ugly stepsisters rolled into one demanding body. People who are kind to their mothers and pleasant to their churchmates will suddenly decide that A) only morons would ever work as waitpeople B) it’s okay to be mean to dumb people.
There’s a simple self-test. Watch how you behave in a restaurant. Imagine someone else treating your mother, sister or daughter that way. If that imaginary picture is unpleasant, you’re probably being a jerk and you should stop. (Note: if you just exempted yourself from the test with an excuse such as “well, my sister would never be a waitress,” then you’re definitely being a jerk. Knock it off.)
The beauty of the waiting biz is that it’s one of the few places where customers can set the price. The gas company, for instance, would like to tell us how much to pay them regardless of how we feel about their service, or even how much of their product we use. Not so with waiting.
Waitpeople, as everyone knows, are paid only slightly more than Chinese athletic shoe assemblers. The customer decides what the bulk of the wage will be. Unfortunately, many customers use that power to be stingy twits.
15-20% is simply a starting point for figuring the tip. Here are some other questions to ask when computing the amount.
Did your waitperson go above and beyond the call of duty? Did you ask them to make forty-seven different trips to the kitchen because you couldn’t quite get organized? Did you require them to listen to you whine endlessly? Did you leave them to babysit your children while you ran to the car? Did you insist that they convince the kitchen to create a new menu item just for you? If you made extra work, you owe your employee extra pay.
How long did you camp out at the table? Did you finish eating, then settle in to smoke an entire carton of cigarettes? In the time you sat, could two other sets of paying customers have occupied that table? If so, pay up.
The following factors do not have anything to do with how much you should tip.
Being a regular. A surprising number of people figure that the treat of seeing their face on a daily basis should be reward enough. Not so much.
“I’m on a fixed income.” Whether that income is fixed by your retirement fund or the amount of allowance your parents give you, neither excuses stiffing the waitperson. If you can’t afford to leave a respectable tip, then you can’t afford to eat out—just stay home.
Finally, no amount of tipping excuses the following.
Personal drama. You may not hash out your bitter divorce negotiations, nor provide graphic descriptions of recent sexual conquests.
Hitting on the waitress. She is your employee and it is her job to be nice to you. Hitting on her is as inappropriate as a supervisor telling his secretary that he’d like to discuss her raise at the Ri-Ge Motel. Yeah, I know. I’ve had crushes on cute waitresses, too. But this summer, one of those ladies is my daughter, so just back off, buddy.

Monday, July 10, 2006


(News-Herald, July 6) On the national level, election year politics have brought us a massive parade of pointless posturing. The nation is embroiled in a difficult and costly war. We face growing challenges with energy supplies and prices. And as a people we are struggling through another bout of distrust and cynicism with our leaders.
So, of course, faced with a variety of difficult and challenging issues, our leaders decide to tackle flag burning and gay marriage. Not only are these ridiculous side shows, but they are old, tired sideshows.
A flag burning amendment has been raised before, and every single official who raised it this time already knew what the outcome would be.
The gay marriage debate is even more cynical. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, conservatives already campaigned on their promise to do something about it. And then, once they were swept into office with the support of the Religious Right, they did absolutely nothing.
“Elect us and give us the power to do something about this,” they say. But it’s a promise they have made before and then reneged on. One wonders how many times they think they can get away with calling the religious right for a pre-election booty call. “Honest, honey. This time I really will call you the next day!”
But even more discouraging are the cheeseballs in Harrisburg. I sometimes watch the commonwealth congress on the PCN cable channel. It doesn’t make me feel better about what the folks at the state capital are up to.
Take for instance the recent debate about raising the minimum wage. Now, this is a fairly complicated subject. The growing ranks of the working poor create both philosophical and practical problems. Philosophically, it’s tough that someone can be able-bodied and willing to work and yet they still can’t get by. Practically, there are financial costs to all of us as the government gets into the business of picking up the slack for the working poor.
But at the same time, when you raise the minimum wage, businesses cannot suddenly go pick money off a magic bush with which to cover their increasing payroll costs. It’s a difficult issue to settle, but you’d never guess that from watching the debate in Harrisburg.
Now, in all fairness, it may be that there was some very wise and thoughtful discussion occurred when I wasn’t watching. When I was watching, nothing wise or thoughtful was going on.
A representative from Berks County took the floor to explain that no minimum wage law was necessary at all, because if people just worked really hard, their employers would pay them really well. After all, his sons have always worked really hard and they always make more than minimum wage.
While his point is not completely ridiculous, I think there’s a fair amount of labor history that suggests that business owners don’t always take care of workers out of the kindness of their corporate hearts.
Besides demonstrations that some legislators do not live on Planet Earth, there were displays of political horsepucky that suggests the legislature’s collective age is about ten.
There were attempts to bury the minimum wage bill by attaching it to irrelevant amendments, accompanied by the kind of arguments familiar to anyone who hangs around elementary school playgrounds.
You may remember this sort of thing. Billy calls Bobby a mean name. Bobby punches Billy in the arm. Billy says indignantly, “Why did you punch me in the arm?” Bobby replies in equal indignation, “What? I did not punch you in the arm!”
Legislators pull procedural tricks to mess with a bill, and the pretend that they were doing no such thing. Opponents respond with passive-aggressive balogna.
At one point, one of the parties refused to cast votes on an item, presumably because a six-year-old style tantrum seemed to be the best way to address the issue. The opposing party asked the chair to call a technician since apparently some of the voting buttons were not working, because pretending not to see the tantrum was a great way to stage a larger sulk.
How can these alleged grown-ups not realize how stupid they look? But then, Harrisburg seems to be unaware of any audience. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the great midnight money grab is not that nobody in the legislature seems to have said “This is wrong,” but that apparently nobody said, “You know, rewriting the rules to give ourselves a raise in the dead of night will look really bad.” It’s not that we need any great system for accountability in H-burg. We just need our representatives to act as if their bosses were watching.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


By request, I'm going to put up some of the old columns here as well. What the hell-- it's only bandwidth...


(News-Herald, October 2001) This was a good summer for getting close to nature. Out on the bike trail I saw the usual rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and the occasional snake. One morning on my bike I raced a red fox. Early in the day the deer come to the river; I watched fauns grow up over the summer. Thirteen deer in one trip is my record.
Americans have a long history of nature-loving. No doubt that’s in part because we live in a part of the world where nature doesn’t seem too intent on killing us. Blizzards and sandstorms don’t leave you with an itch to get in touch with nature. It’s a lot easier to appreciate nature when you know you can escape it.
For instance, it’s fun at dusk to stand by the river and watch the bats fly, swooping and zipping by so quickly that they barely register as black streaks about a dark gray dusk. I can stand and marvel at their amazing gifts.
This is considerably different from how I feel about a bat in the house. A bat outside is a marvelous part of the food chain, a warrior in the war against bugs. A bat in my house is a detestably winged rat.
I would love to offer a narrative here that would cause my editor to entitle this column “Manly Tales of Bat Assault” or “Brave Two-Fisted Bat Whomping.” But the fact is that a bat in a flight pattern anywhere near me makes me dive for cover. If the bat surprises me, I will also holler (the noise is not articulate enough to qualify as a scream).
That is bad, ultimately, for the bat. I am not, by nature, a particularly violent or aggressive person. But no matter how civilized we become, it’s still true that human beings are capable of doing just about anything to something that scares them.
So a bat in my house is living on borrowed time.
When a bat violates my space, I stop caring about other things. If it insists on flying around, I will yell at it, using language that by all rights should make its wings curl up and its blister and shrivel.
I will look for a weapon. The only badmitton set I ever bought in my life was purchased only so that I could have strategically placed rackets around the house ( a house which, despite some concerted hole-plugging efforts, seemed destined to stay on the Fordor’s Four Star Bat Hotel list).
I don’t care how stupid I look. I want protection, and if I can’t get to a room with decent accessories (because, you understand, I am NOT going to walk through the bat flight pattern, and if the bat is NOT flying, it is only because he is perched somewhere waving to his bat-friends outside the window in bat semaphore for “Watch this. I’m going to make him jump AND make funny noises all at once”) then I will settle for whatever is handy.
Do I look silly dresses in a bathrobe, fedora, shorts and snow boots, clutching a badmitton racket, scanning the room for the next assault, ready to drop to the floor instantly? I don’t care. At that moment, I AM primeval man, adrenaline raging, fully prepared to pulverize my enemy.
I have occasionally swatted one out of mid-air. I have knocked one off its wall perch with wasp spray (my instructions said water would do to shock it off there, but I didn’t want to go easy on the little demon-spawn). Usually the safest bet is to wait until it tires and lights.
Then I move to the next phase: trapping the beast with an empty trash can and sliding a piece of cardboard in place as a sort of lid. Sometimes various little bat limbs become trapped, pinched or mangled in this process. I don’t care.
I know there are people from the “catch and release” school of bat maintenance. I tried that a long time ago and became quickly convinced that this is misplaced kindness. I suspect that the bats simply return, after telling all their friends about this great bat Hilton with some dancing bearded pushover innkeeper.
So I take the trapped bat on that great amusement park ride, the Bat Frappe. And while I’m treating it like a little bat maraca, I assert my manly homo sapienosity (“How do you like THAT?!” bonkity bonkity bonk “Teach you to bust into MY house” bonkity bonkity BONK). And then I kill it.
I hear that’s sort of against the rules. I don’t care. Whatever the fine is, it’s not more than I’d pay to make a bat in my house go away.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A fun Fourth in Venangoland. At my house we have a picnic, followed by the Bully Hill Brass and friends jamming by the river until it's dark and all the friends and neighbors and guests and strangers who just wander down sit back to watch the fireworks. After the crowd clears out, the neighbors touch off the annual Giant Bon Fire. It's as good a night as any to remember why it can be nice to live here.

Joe and Carol were in town this weekend-- here is Joe singing a tune for Chloe, who does not sing much, but is an enthusiastic audience.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Barbara had her first bridesmaid experience yesterday. Here she is with the very dignified women of the wedding party...

(News-Herald, June 29) I’ve been dipping into the land of blogs lately, one of those delightful phenomenon of the internet.
For those of you not already in the know, blog is short for weblog, and it is essentially a way to keep a personal journal on line. On top of that, people can ask questions and leave comments.
Why exactly would anyone want to leave a personal journal lying around where anyone on the planet could both read it and scribble in the margins?
In some cases it’s just plain ego. I’ve found blogs in which people chronicle every detail of daily life under such stirring titles as “Thought of a Geek” or “Lifejourney of a Girl Becoming a Young Woman.” There is a blog in which a woman appears to have spent the last two years letting the world know when she has watered the lawn and what she has fed her cat.
The ego display blogs are not particularly interesting. You just get to see how people act when they imagine they are performing for some sort of large audience that finds them as fascinating as they wish they were. As one subtitle puts it, “My meanderings made less trivial because I blogged about it.”
But there are other blogs from people who simply write about who they are instead of the characters they want to pretend to be.
These are interesting precisely because they are real people. They are not pigeonholed or pre-processed, and they are not interested in sticking strictly to some party line. Among the political blogs you can find people who defy any easy labeling but who have carefully thought-out beliefs; the exact opposite of the real political world, where people have no thoughts at all, but make sure they have their labels firmly affixed.
But more than that, you can find places and lives presented that you might never know about otherwise. So we can read evilBuddha (, a gay Chinese-American in New York; or Farmgirl Fare (, which chronicles the life of a woman who sold her California bakery business a decade ago to buy a farm in rural Missouri; or Islam and the West ( by a Kashmiri-born Muslim living in Western Europe; or Conservative Cat (, billed as “the fifth best site for conservative humor on the web.”
Beyond the blogs that present personal points of view, there are blogs devoted to various interests. I have found a frighteningly large number of blogs devoted to professional wrestling. There are also blogs devoted to bands, tv shows, and various hobbies.
Blogs are the next step beyond email for linking people together over the net. As a teacher, I’ve enjoyed the advent of email. It used to be that a student struggling with a question late at night over the weekend would have to consider whether or not to call me on the phone. Email is vastly superior; they can send it at any hour, and I don’t have to wake up to answer it.
Now with a blog, not only can they leave the question, but I can put the answer up on line where any of the other students can also see it. No need for me to re-answer the same question; no need for them to try to hang on to the email with the answer in it.
Many folks have discovered the joy of emailing baby pictures to relatives all across the country. Blogging lets them put the pictures up where they can be found and enjoyed at any time from any computer. The many blog hosting services ( is mine, but there are several good ones) make creating a blog as easy as typing a letter in Word. It took me less than five minutes to set mine up.
That linking feature is evident in two blogs of particular interest to Venangoland residents.
Writer, professor and general raconteur Mike Dittman runs Venangago-go (, a blog that collects current information about the arts and culture throughout the region.
A newer blog is Venango County Unite ( that’s run by a folks interested in Venangoland, some still local, and some moved far out of the area. They appear to be interested in discussing some of the economic, political and cultural issues that face the county; it’s a worthy effort, and unites locals and ex-patriates in a way that no other forum could.
I recommend both sites. And you’ll notice that most blogs on come with a “next blog” button in the top corner that lets you surf randomly through the land o’blogs. It’s a big old world filled with interesting people. I encourage you to give it a look.

From my Flickr