Friday, August 25, 2006


(News-Herald, August 24) Ordinarily, as a pretend journalist, I feel no particular obligation to get Out There to report on something. But in the summer, I do like to take a few spare hours to pursue experiences that residents of Venangoland are curious about.
Unfortunately, my resources don’t allow me to investigate important questions like “What’s a scenic cruise to Alaska like” or “How hot is Andie McDowell really?” So, instead, I spent a day on the VenanGo Bus.
There are actually three GoBus routes—around Franklin, around Oil City, and the massive Inter-Cities route. In the course of a day, I managed to hit all three.
Finding the schedule was not tough—a few inquiries got me to the county used-to-be-a-bank building office where someone directed me to a stack of schedules. I’m not sure what I’d do if I were a stranger in town; like many things in Venangoland (church schedules, store hours, general navigation), we’re geared pretty much toward local people who already know what’s going on.
My first connection was right on time and while it might seem ominous that the song playing on the radio was (I’m not making this up) “Highway to Hell,” it was a pleasant ride.
The buses come in a range of conditions. The first I rode was cool, clean and comfortable. Another had a ferocious squeak, and in the third, the driver had to request passenger help in getting the door to close properly. On one, windows were held in place by duct tape.
The drivers were uniformly pleasant and helpful. One maintained a steady friendly banter with the passengers (sample: “Hey, Ron, where you been all my life” “Shut up and drive!”). On each bus I simulated a person who was confused by the schedule and couldn’t figure out how to switch from one bus route to another (I think I was pretty darn convincing) and in all cases the driver answered my questions without in any way suggesting that I was either A)the six zillionth person to ask or B)a dope.
The buses travel to most of the places a person could want to go. The Inter-City bus can get you to the mall or the hospital, and the city routes cover most of the places you would expect to find people who, because of either age or finances, cannot drive themselves around.
Some of the stops surprised me. I had no idea the GoBus made stops here on the lower end of Franklin, but it sure does. In Oil City the bus wanders up hill and down dale and I’m pretty sure it took me places I could not find again if I had to. But the GoBus appears to be a service that, geographically speaking, is available to most everyone.
And I saw most everyone on the bus. There were riders of every age (including one in a baby carriage) and a wide variety of backgrounds, though, admittedly, I don’t think I saw any doctors or lawyers commuting to the hospital or the courthouse.
A large percentage of the riders appeared to be regulars. One way to spot regulars is to note which riders greet the driver by name. But I also noticed that many of the riders had a well-developed stance (I suppose the equivalent of sea-legs would be bus-butt), because even the newest of the buses hits every ridge and pothole like a professional wrestler being slammed into a cement truck.
Some regulars obviously knew each other and inquired after family, friends and health. Other folks struck up new conversations; one pair introduced themselves by trading stories of how they had their drivers licenses suspended.
Each bus has twenty seats, plus a wheelchair lift and a spot for the chairbound rider (this was used at least once). A sign discretely suggests leaving the front seat for the elderly, and everybody, including the elderly, left the seat open. Another sign on one bus asked for “No Profanity, Please,” and I heard almost no bad language all day.
The drivers stayed in touch with each other and dispatch; at one point I heard them make sure that two buses would definitely connect so a passenger could make a transfer.
It is clearly a program that depends on subsidy. In six hours of riding, I saw about forty-five riders, which, at a buck-fifty a rider, doesn’t buy a lot of gas.
But the buses were generally on time, the ride pleasant, the service good, and the passengers good company. And they remove the major barrier of transportation for many people. A day on the GoBus probably is probably not as much fun as a week in Alaska, but if my car blew up tomorrow, I wouldn’t be afraid to take the bus.

Monday, August 21, 2006


(News-Herald, November 2001) There really is no such thing as a labor-saving device. Such so-called advances don’t eliminate labor; they simply transfer it elsewhere.
Over the last century many devices transferred labor from humans to machines, which suits humans just fine, unless they are humans who were previously paid perfectly good money to perform the labor. But a washing machine or a continuous miner transfer labor from frail exhaustible flesh to tough tenuous metal.
The trick here is to be careful of how much labor we transfer to the machine. The more things we ask the machine to do, the more processes there are to break or fail.
We have seen the advent of labor-saving systems, which again simply transfer the labor. Garbage services transfer the business of disposing of garbage to guys who drive around and gather it all up for us. The last fifty years have seen the steady transfer of labor to places where sweat is a cheap commodity.
But the relatively recent self-service revolution is about the transfer of labor back toward the consumer. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that there was a time when we hired people to pump gas for us. Pumping our own gas saves no labor whatsoever, but it gets us faster service and we don’t have to explain what we want. Not that self-service is for everyone; I try to imagine my late Grandmother Binmore attempting self-service refueling, but that scenario always ends with a fireball and a frantic call to 911.
The computer revolution has brought a boom in labor-transferring systems. The instantaneous transfer of data and information brings an instantaneous transfer of labor. Everyone with a computer can be his own secretary; indeed, he may not have a choice.
Many offices in the last five years have seen this shift. The boss is in the office is patting himself on the back for how the new system saves his administrative assistant loads of typing, organizing, data processing, and labor. That’s because at a dozen other desks, his subordinates are now doing the work instead. No labor has been saved; it has merely been transferred. White collar workers all over the country are scratching their heads and wondering when they became part of the clerical and secretarial staff.
Perhaps the best example of this sort of labor transfer is the new self-checkouts currently on view at Big K (formerly K-Mart, formerly Kresge’s). Now, instead of standing in line to have a live human scan my purchases, bag them up, and collect my payment, I can stand in line to scan my own purchase, bag my own stuff, and stick the money in a machine that makes change for me.
My first reaction to this is to feel badly for the live human checkers whose careers, regardless of what corporate management promises, are clearly not made more secure by this innovation.
My second is, well, I’m not sure. After all, the amount of labor saved by this innovation is absolutely none. The labor has all been transferred to me! I am tempted to ask Big K management how many times I need to check myself out before I get put on the payroll. It seems like at the very least I should get an employee discount.
This is not like self-service gas. At the gas station, I have a particular mode of service in mind (“fill ‘er up” or “just five bucks”) and doing it myself is marginally more convenient than explaining it to an employee. But I have nothing special to say about checking out (“I’m sorry, but could you please run my Hershey bar across the scanner with a kind-of Zorro wrist swishing action?”)
This remind me much more of the old bag-it-yourself grocery store concept, only more high tech. The biggest innovation is in finding clever new ways to say, “In the interests of greater customer satisfaction, we will now provide you with less service.” The ultimate extension of this revolution will be the day when places like Wal-Mart no longer bother to build actual stores. Just back the delivery trucks into a giant parking lot and let the customer pay to uncrate the goods and load them in the car.
Imagine. I’ll cook my own food at Burger King or drive myself to the hospital (wherever it may be) in the ambulance. Some businesses will thrive as less time and effort has to be spent serving customers. Of course, other businesses will be in big trouble—what will Reese Brothers do when the day comes that I just call myself to interrupt my own supper with a sales pitch?
In the interests of improved customer service, I’ll let you write your own last paragraph for this column.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Race in Franklin

(News-Herald, August 17) Race has always been an issue in Venangoland.
That’s not surprising, really. Small town settings already have a strong strain of prejudice. Prejudice (without a “racial” in front of it) is simply the business of pre-judging someone based on a small piece of information, and in areas like ours, folks do it all the time.
We pre-judge based on family and background (“Don’t you hire him! I remember how much trouble his sister gave my uncle when she was renting an apartment from him”). Peoples’ histories follow them around forever (“I don’t want my grandchildren playing with his—you remember what a jerk he was in seventh grade!”). This is an area where “which high school did you graduate from” is still a reasonable and important question to ask someone.
Long-time residents are pre-judged on the basis of their family name. And if someone’s family name doesn’t carry back many generations around here, we pre-judge them on that.
Family too poor? Family too rich? Folks not from around here? We can find lots of folks who will pre-judge you quickly based on any of that.
I’m not saying that this sort of prejudice is necessarily as bad as racial prejudice. I am saying that in a local culture like ours, it would be surprising if racial prejudice were not also present.
Popular culture has taken to seriously minimizing racism in American history, leaving younger generations with the notion that somehow it was just a matter of white folks being kind of mean to black folks. There’s also a modern perception that such behavior is far, far behind us.
In June of 1963, the shooting of Medgar Evans was front page story in the News-Herald. Almost exactly a year later, another story ran about Franklin’s Negro Improvement League doing a local survey organized by Fred Harris.
The newspaper was careful to note that all fifteen participating Negroes were local youths (none of those “not from around here” folks).
The published results of the survey indicated that only four or five of the approx. 200 Local Negroes had jobs in local industries. Only two small sections of Franklin offered housing for Negroes; in the previous year a couple had bought a house in the lower end of town, and neighbors had circulated a petition to have them move out.
On Liberty Street, only one restaurant was willing to serve Negro customers. By the end of the summer, the barbers of Franklin met and voted to comply with the edict of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. “All Franklin Barbers Agree to Serve Negroes” was the newspaper headline.
So if that’s where we were forty years ago, things have to be better today. Right? I like to think so—certainly many, many of my students interact without any apparent regard for race. But I’m a middle-aged white guy who tends to be highly optimistic about my fellow humans, so I have to reluctantly admit that this is an area where I may not see the full picture.
I’ve stood with a bi-racial couple while someone drove by hollering ugly words. And I’ve listened to a college-educated grown-up explain that she preferred not to eat at a certain fast food place because so many of their ads featured “those people” (i.e. “black folk”). And I’ve heard many times of Cranberry residents who brag that Cranberry High has never graduated a black student.
But it’s a complicated business. Most of the folks I know with issues about race are not cartoon crackers. Many are God-fearing decent folks, nice as pie.
And it stretches across cultural divides we don’t discuss much in this country—rural vs. urban, working vs. upper classes. Folks who are born and raised to rural small town life have, I suspect, far more in common with each other than with their big-city ethnic counterparts. And tell a white working class guy that he’s part of the white power structure and he’ll be baffled because, as near as he can tell, he doesn’t have power over so much as when he gets to eat lunch.
On top of that, small town prejudice can often include a complete disconnect between the big picture and the small. A man can give a long explanation about what’s wrong with black people and how they need to be straightened out, then in the next breath threaten to beat the snot out of someone who mistreated his good friend, who happens to be black.
I don’t have any solutions to propose. Even good people sometimes have hard problems.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


(News-Herald, August 10) This evening, the Franklin Silver Cornet Band celebrates its 150th anniversary.
That’s a long time for an institution. In 1856, the country had only fought in two wars. Venango County had a population of roughly 25,000. There was one superintendent of schools for the whole county; his annual salary was $500.
In 1856, town bands were not all that common or widespread as they would be thirty years later. We’ll probably never know what prompted the creation of a band in a small community where farmers still grazed cattle in the city parks.
Old Stuff goes through four stages. Stage 1: Look at this cool new thing. Stage 2: We’ve grown comfortably accustomed to this old familiar thing. Stage 3: I think it’s time to throw out this old piece of junk. Stage 4: Look at this fine, valuable antique.
Lots of good stuff gets lost in Stage 3. Every family has a story about some object that they regret throwing in the trash. Franklin started the Stage 3 wholesale trashing of many great old buildings. Antique dealers make a living being smart enough to pick future valuables out of the trash.
An organization is much more fragile, much easier to lose. It’s an invisible bond that has to be passed on like a flame. Once it’s snuffed, it’s hard to bring back. So how does a group survive for the Really Long Haul?
Embrace your tradition, but don’t wear it around your neck like a giant half-ton medallion. The two worst reasons to do something are “We’ve always done it that way” and “We’ve never done it that way.” The people who came before you probably knew what they were doing, but you’re the one standing right here right now. For 100 years, it was traditional for the band not to include women. There may have been a time when that tradition made sense, but the time came when it made sense to get rid of it.
Compromise when you have to. There were times when the band was small and weak, barely able to squeak out a tune or two. It would have been easy to say, “Well, if we can’t do any better than this, we might as well call it quits.” But then all the good years of fine music that came later might never have happened. It’s nice to strive for excellence, but if you’re in it for the long haul, you have to expect some lean times and just push on through them.
Have good leaders, but rotate them. In 150 years, many good people have devoted a great deal of time and energy and passion to the band—more people than I could ever list here. But that core of leadership has been regularly rotated and replenished. In any organization, if you’ve had the same leadership for decades, you are headed for trouble.
Remember who and what you are. There are so-called town bands out there that are staffed entirely with paid professionals, and others that turn up their noses at teenaged musicians, and others that push older players aside to make room for the new young guns in town. I say “Phooey” to the lot of them.
A town band is about amateurs, about friends and neighbors volunteering to bring something special to the community, about generations of people from all across the community sitting down together to make music. It’s easy to get so caught up in the music part that you forget about the human element, but a town band is about so much more than music.
Have fun. One of the distinctive characteristics of the Franklin Band has always been that, while we take the music seriously, we don’t take ourselves very seriously at all. I have certainly known people who approach making music as if it were a painful chore, and others whose giant egos have become a straightjacket keeping them stiff and stodgy. If it’s not fun, why bother?
These principles work, I suspect, for any organization. I’ll bet they’re a big part of what has kept the Venango County Fair going for fifty years. The county fair folks are to be congratulated for that—in many ways the band and fair are similar in keeping alive a slice of traditional American life. Do enjoy some of the fair this weekend.
Tonight we are going to celebrate. The current band will be out in force, and a couple dozen former members will gather from near and far to join in. It’s like a reunion gathering for a very large, very extended family. We’ll play some cool music well, have some fun, and enjoy an occasion that’s rare in the whole country. We hope you’ll join us.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


If humanity were faced with the end of life on the planet with expectation that death could come anywhere between tomorrow and in twenty years, what would they do?

Run through the classic stages of grief? Battle with depression and denial a la the survivors in On The Beach? Would civilization collapse in a spiral of destruction and despair?

Well, according to this dopey show on ABC Family, apparently everyone would simply become charmingly eccentric.

Lord knows there have been plenty of shows that require a hefty suspension of disbelief, where we are asked to accept walking, talking dead folk, or a variety of standard SF tropes.

But Milford asks us to accept a world in which nobody has a recognizably human response to destruction on planetary scale. A lighthearted romp through the holocaust or a cheery series about those quirky guys who ran the Spanish Inquisition would make more sense.

Perhaps it could have worked as a cartoon or broad comedy (it has, in fact, been done with both the holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition). But it seems clear that this is meant to be humanity-based dramedy, heartfelt humanism for the same folks who like Gilmore Girls or Everwood.

But the chances that I'm going to warm up to these characters who seem to be missing some fundamental human emotional equipment are small. The premise of this series insures its own failure. And now that I've posted this, I either get to say I told you so or eat some tv crow. We shall see.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


(News-Herald, August 3) One benefit of teaching, particularly in a small town, is that you get to see your students grow up and become admirable, accomplished adults. Some become the good, solid citizens who keep the world spinning. That’s a great, honorable thing.
Some pursue something a little chancier, a little riskier, and it’s a great, proud thing when they find a measure of success. In the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded of four former Franklinites doing just that.
It has not been that many years since Steve Marzolf graduated, but since then he’s pursued the life of a working writer. He moved to The Big City and landed a job at FHM magazine, where Steve has worked his way up from short factoidish pieces to feature writing.
It is not glamorous work. It does not make people rich and famous quickly. But people who want to write for a living usually have to work their way up the food chain; not many have the guts or drive to do it. Steve and his buddies in my class gave me a plaque with their motto inscribed: “There’s nothing we can’t not do.” But there’s Steve, living his dream and engaged to be married to a woman who’s at least as smart as he is.
Mark McClusky is another Franklinite in the magazine biz. He worked for years at Sports Illustrated, and has now moved on to become an editor at Wired, a very cool magazine that deals with the cutting edges of technology and culture.
I can still remember some of what Mark wrote in high school, including some strong pieces for the school magazine, particularly about being a son. He now has a blog ( where he writes about gourmet food; he’s also included some nice words about the experience of being a father.
One of his best friends in high school was Mike Dittman. Mike and Mark were in some ways yin and yang. Mark was the one who knew how to stay within the lines; he knew the system and the system liked him. Mike, on the other hand, could not always resist giving the system a kick in the shins, and the system did not always thank him for it.
Which is why it’s ironic to find Mike on the other side of the desk now as a college professor teaching students how to write.
Mike’s new book is a noirish murder mystery set in post-WWII Pittsburgh. The main character is a veteran, struggling to readjust to a world that he has fought for, but can’t quite feel at home in. It’s hard-boiled detective fiction, brutal and finely observed, well-written. There’s a neat little mystery, some nice period history, and strong, compact writing. The book is Small Brutal Incidents and you can find it at, or through the publisher, Contemporary Press.
Native-product writers are easier to find and support because print waits patiently for its audience. It’s more of a challenge to catch our native-product performers.
In their teens, all of the Buranosky sisters were brilliant and talented. Jessica spent some time on stage (old timers might remember when she and her sister Raquel played twins in the FHS production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), then headed to Duke to become a lawyer.
She ended up a business consultant in Pittsburgh, but she had never let go of the music. She’d been taught and mentored by some great old hands of jazz and blues and a few years ago got serious—really serious—about singing.
More than that, she has become a force in Pittsburgh by organizing Thursday night sessions at a Burgh club where music is wrapped around sessions of business networking and panel discussions. She is making the connections between the business and music worlds really work. Joanne Wheeler may want to give her a call.
But more than all that, she can sing. She is straight out of the classic sound of singers like Etta James and Peggy Lee (the gutsy, late-night blues Lee, not the wimpy pop Lee).
She’s singing at the Barrow Saturday night as part of the theater’s drive to get out from under the grinding financial effects of its mortgage. Both she and the Barrow are worth your time and money.
These people passed through my classroom, but I get about as much credit for their talent as for sunrise in the morning. But I am proud of them nonetheless, and when people make jokes about how nothing much ever comes out of Venangoland, these four are just part of how I know those jokes are wrong.

From my Flickr