Saturday, September 30, 2006


(News-Herald, September 28)This weekend the Cranberry Mall celebrates its 25th anniversary.
It’s a big anniversary, marking the beginning of one of the major local shifts of the past several decades.
On the one hand, twenty-five years is not that many. You don’t have to be much of an old-timer to remember when Cranberry was a whole lot of rustic rusticity. On the other hand, local teenagers have no memory of a time when there wasn’t a mall.
Residents of a certain age (i.e. mine) will recall cruising up 257 craning necks to catch a glimpse of anything dirty that might be showing at the drive-in. Fanny Hill is much naughtier when she’s thirty feet tall.
And you don’t have to be much of an old-timer to remember when the mall was just an old school house with a Radio Shack and an Artsy Crafty store with a driving range out back.
Some folks thought that a mall, out in Cranberry, was possibly the silliest idea ever. Then the mall was actually built, and suddenly it didn’t seem so dumb; suddenly people were a lot more worried about the emptying of downtown Oil City and Franklin. It was scary for a while, watching stores like Sears and JCPenney disappear from the city landscapes.
But for once, and pretty much by accident, development had come in a way that was smart and healthy for the long run. It was hard to see at the time. Back then the two cities were still pretty well locked into the idea that each was its own little economic world, and from that perspective, the arrival of the mall looked like disaster.
I suppose that anxious city fathers could have made a ginormous push to keep the big stores. They could have leveled city blocks, made deals to offer prime development deals to retailers. Rows of fine old buildings would have disappeared and with them, the character and heart of our two distinctive small towns.
The cities could have headed down the same disastrous planning road that Franklin started down in the seventies. Instead, what happened is what makes the most sense from a regional viewpoint. We kept one of our regional assets—the distinctive old faces of small city downtowns—and we traded in the asset we could most afford to lose—a couple hundred acres of old farmland.
What we get is, essentially, downtown Venangoland, situated in a place that won’t cramp growth either by lack of space or by using an area where people want to live and sleep.
I know it’s not all sunshine and skittles. Oil City and Franklin are both still grappling with the challenge of figuring out what exactly to do with all that picturesque downtown real estate. Some answers have been pretty good (Summer House Coffee in Franklin, for example) and some, not so much (how many finance-related storefronts do we really need).
Now, today, it’s easy to look at Downtown Venangoland see it as obvious and inevitable. Like Grove City, it’s just far enough from the Big Cities. It sits on the state’s favored Route 322 corridor. And like any good downtown, it’s right in the heart of the area it serves.
But twenty-five years ago, it took a mighty powerful pair of spectacles to see the future in a wide field of farmland. What looks like a simple slam dunk today took guts and vision twenty-five years ago. Anybody can hop on a bandwagon once it’s running; it takes nerve to build a bandwagon when you can barely see any road to drive it on.
Irony in the retail world comes around pretty quickly. Just as the mall forced the old commercial centers to struggle for a new identity, now the mall, as the Old Part of downtown Venangoland, has to fight for consumers that are being swallowed up by that great black hole of retailing and its hangers on (including some stores that once called the mall home—marriage is so fleeting in the retail world).
The mall has become a modern version of the old downtowns it replaced, a melting pot of department stores, special shops, and the occasional bizarre little boutique shop (stop and check out the giant weird Halloween stuff store). It has hung on, the territory around it has prospered, and we can all get plenty of shopping done close to home.
25 years is a long time in mall years. And while I can’t really get all sentimental about a shopping mall, I can still remember when we young folk were excited that we would have a real mall right in our own backyard. Wow, we thought. It’s like the area is really building up. We had no idea.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


If you have been to Summer House Coffee in Franklin, you have seen the fine and interesting work of Oil City artist Thomas Shreve. His "City in Abstraction" series presents many notable landmarks in Venangoland in a new light, including several churches and that old standby, the county courthouse.
These works do deal in some abstraction of the buildings, as if they've been run through a fun house mirror and doused in bright and striking oils. But the series keeps the beloved structires totally recognizable, and yet viewed in a way that makes them fresh and new. Let's face it-- the courthouse is a gorgeous and majestic building, but do we really need one more photo-realistic depiction of it?
We have our share of fine artists of the region-- graphic artist Lynn Pacior-Malys and photographer John Karian come to mind. But Shreve was someone I didn't really know about.
So I was particularly excited to find his stuff on line in a beautifully well-produced website that even lets you order t-shirts of his work. It's not too early to do some Christmas shopping...

Friday, September 22, 2006


(News-Herald, September 21) As the November elections approach, I find myself in the usual sort of bind, the usual problem of a man in a garden store trying to decide between a bag of horse manure and a bag of cow manure, wishing that he’s come to the store in a truck instead of a station wagon with window that won’t roll down.
What I’d really like to see on the national scene is a batch of actual conservatives. We have plenty of faux conservatives. I’m tired of them.
Take Rick Santorum. Let’s see. Has no clue about the life of ordinary not-rich citizens (all you working women—go home and get back in the kitchen). Thinks that government should put its nose in areas where reasonable people used to think the federal government has no business intruding. Helped the current administration run up an unfathomable mountain of debt. Supported the federal take-over and dismantling of public education, but made sure that his own children would be safe from government meddling in school programs by moving them far away from their alleged home and yanking them out of public school. And billing the taxpayers for it.
Spending gazillions of dollars you don’t have. Sticking Uncle Sam’s nose in everybody else’s business (while making sure he leaves yours alone)—let’s face it. Santorum is a Democrat, a tax and spend liberal supporter of the nanny state.
Now, if you want to vote for Big Rick because you agree with his “family values” that’s certainly your privilege. Just don’t tell me that he’s a “good old conservative.’ He’s nothing of the sort. But he has plenty of company in DC.
The last Republican to get us into a serious war was Abraham Lincoln. McKinley was a Republican, and he sort of backed us into the Spanish-American War, but as wars go that was less exciting than even Operation Desert Storm, which was also Not Really a War.
No, it used to be that it took a Democrat to get us in a real mess, like two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam. It’s conservatives who are supposed to be good at keeping us from becoming entangled in these foreign morasses. Historically it’s conservatives that understand how unpleasant war is and that it should be avoided. It’s also conservatives that understand that if you’re going to fight a war, you need to fight like you mean it.
It’s the traditional conservative who was supposed to present the hard-headed cold-eyed unsentimental no-free-lunch view of the world. No conservative I can think of would have claimed that we are fighting for the fate of Civilization As We Know It, but that we can do it with a handful of troops and absolutely no sacrifices by people on the home front.
From Terri Schiavo to Gay Stuff to abortion to running schools to spying on anyone they don’t approve of, we’ve got a bunch of government folks who are sure that Uncle Sugar should be forcing American citizens to behave as Big Uncle believes they should.
I am not surprised to find government officials saying these kinds of things. I am surprised to find these people calling themselves conservatives.
And remember when conservatives used to taunt Democrats for being “tax and spend liberals”? Well, those were the good old days. The current “conservative” administration has spent us into the biggest national budget deficit in the history of the world (over—or under—300 billion dollars).
Now, I don’t want to argue any of the merits or demerits of these issues. There may be good arguments for taking some of these federal actions. It’s just that I expect to hear them from a liberal.
I certainly believe that there are situations and areas of civic life that call for the intervention of the federal government. But mostly I’m pretty sure that the less that gets done in DC, the better off the rest of us are. I’d like to see a law that says that Congress can only meet about thirty days out of the entire year—the rest of the time the various stuffed shirts have to go home and live cheek by jowl with their constituents. If they want to go back and monkey around for more than the thirty days, they have to meet the costs of doing business out of their own pockets.
It may be that I’m really a Libertarian, but Libertarians always seem to have a mean streak, an attitude of “I should be free to take your lunch money, you should be free to try to stop me, and the government should butt out.”
There are lots of things not to like in this election cycle (Smiling Ed and Dancing Lynn come to mind), but it would be nice to have a real conservative in the mix. I miss ‘em.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


(January, 2002) Church-shopping is tricky. Many people mistakenly shop for churches like they shop for cars or hamburgers; it’s easy to imagine these folks banging on the altar rail and hollering, “Hey, can I get some service in here?” But searching for a church is like looking for a neighborhood to live in; walking in the door and waiting for someone to take care of you doesn’t cut it.
In Venango County we have more churches than Wal-Mart has parking places. Rough figuring here in the research department shows that if we divided up every man, woman and child in the county between churches, each congregation would only have about 600 members. (That’s not counting Wal-Mart itself, which as near as I can tell, is church to some folks.)
Theology aside, there are matters of style that serve to divide churches up when you’re shopping.
Formality. Some folks like the feeling of a formal occasion at church, with a level of pomp appropriate to a coronation. On the other end of the scale we find folks who think church should be more like a family picnic (though even the looser churches draw the line at shorts and a gas grill in the sanctuary). Would you rather hear a sermon by The Right Reverend Father Blortmeyer DD, or by Pastor Bob? Should the congregation remain silent, applaud, or holler back at him?
Members. Some churches gear more towards people who are “finished,” people who are basically established and okay in their lives. These churches ask their members to lend a hand, but rarely ask if those members need a hand.
On the other end of the scale, we find churches that specialize in “unfinished” people, parishioners struggling with life. In these churches, members are expected to trot out some personal tragedy on a regular basis.
Demographics. Most Venango County churches are too small to include a true cross-section of the community; most specialize. There is, for instance, a church in Franklin that includes a zillion teachers. There are churches where you are more likely to find a flock of flying pigs than an actual low-income person.
Not all county churches can handle the concept of Single Adults; single or divorced folks may come and sit, but the church isn’t really geared for those who go stag. Nor are all churches child friendly. All churches pay at least lip service to interest in young folks, but in some cases that’s only if the young folk (which can mean anyone under age 50) behave “properly.” One church displays on a welcoming marquee the silhouette of a mom, dad, and two kids; but then, they also complain frequently about how noisy the young people are. I predict they will soon have plenty of peace and quiet.
Pre and Post Reformation. In this county you can go basically Catholic, Catholic Lite, Protestant, or Very Protestant. Here you must decide if you prefer worship led by trained professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.
Whole Worship. Heaven deliver me from churches where the worship experience is a mammoth sermon plus a prayer or two and some snippets of music. Memo to preachers: if you haven’t made your point by the end of fifteen minutes, you’re never going to make it. I have to wonder about ego when a minister feels that the voice of God can only be heard is if it’s coming out of his mouth. But I could spend a whole column on preaching styles, and there are other things that matter in worship.
For me, music matters. We have a wide range of musical offerings in area churches, even some modern-type churches that involve Things That Plug In. Some of these are very good; some are very… um… enthusiastic.
This must be judged over time; few church choirs sound the same Sunday to Sunday. Prolonged exposure can tell you whether the church prefers the Gaithers, Handel or variety. It will also tell you if the church has a commitment to music ministry or not.
Watch for high-tech worship aids. Some churches have added big-screen service guides (Follow the Bouncing Bible). It’s much easier than balancing a bulletin and hymnal, but the screens are a bizarre eyesore in some sanctuaries, like a t-shirt on a crucifix.
Finally, the critical part in any church is to remember it is not just what you think you can get, but what you can offer. As with marriage, if you’re not really ready to offer anything, you may not be ready to chose. There are still some critical differences between county churches and Wal-Mart, but neither worshipping nor shopping are spectator sports.

Friday, September 15, 2006


(News-Herald, September 14) You can have the muggy heat of summer, the snowy mounds of winter, or that special springtime mix of mud and new greenery. For my money, there is no better time in Venangoland than the fall.
I’m partial to sweatshirt-and-shorts weather, just cool enough to be comfy, but warm enough that you can still feel your feet when you go shoeless. It is a perfect time to enjoy the natural beauty that we tend to take for granted.
Last weekend I was reminded of how great it can be out there. I have been bikeless since July. Someone was apparently so inspired by the Tour de France that they just had to grab the first bicycle they saw, which, unfortunately, was mine. Even bicycle theft was a small town experience—on the one hand, I was enough of a trusting small town rube to have my bicycle stolen from my front porch. On the other hand, the bike sat there for about four years before anyone walked off with it.
At any rate, I finally scraped together enough shekels to head over to Country Peddlers and rejoin the ranks of bike riders. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it. Venangoland bike trails are an absolutely gorgeous resource, providing mile upon mile of beautiful woods and water. You set your own pace, pick your own distance. And this time of year it only gets better and better as the waves of green slowly slide into the golden warm colors of autumn, then part slowly to reveal a better and better view of the river slipping by to one side and the hills rising above you on the other.
Depending on the trail you pick or the direction you head, you have some-to-none background noise of roads, motors and civilization. But you always get the steady sound of birdsong and breeze.
I also had the chance to take to the river. It’s kind of cool to imagine earlier folks paddling up and down our waterways in delicate constructs of wood and canvas, but I love my middle-aged man’s kayak (courtesy of Wiegel Brothers Marine, where they have a great local selection of paddling stuff—just ask for Ryan). I never have to worry about hurting it—kayaks these days are made out of some sort of super-duper space polymer. I occasionally exaggerate, but I am not stretching anything when I say that a fairly hefty tree once fell on it and didn’t leave so much as a scratch.
Not that I need the protection. You will not find me kayaking straight down over sixty-foot cliffs like the studly young SUV drivers on tv. I like my water flat and peaceful. Last Sunday, French Creek was as calm as could be, and the inlet behind the island at the confluence of the creek and thee river is a miraculous spot where you can slide silently between a canopy of leaves and sky overhead and its perfect mirror image below. There are plenty of wildflowers in bloom right now, provided just a dash of color.
Geese, ducks and heron are easily found on the water, and on a especially good day you may catch an eagle coasting by overhead or a deer catching a quiet drink. I am always surprised at how close I can get to deer on the water. Apparently upright humans are scary, but a guy in a boat is completely unimpressive, even if the boat is a sort of fluorescent yellow capable of blinding unwary fish.
The river has to be approached with some respect. Under the wrong conditions or with inappropriate handling, the water can be dangerous stuff. But with care and preparation, it offers enormous rewards.
I’m always amazed at the people who don’t get this stuff. Across the country, in large cities, there are people who invest a lot of time, trouble and money just for the chance to sit on a hyperthyroid lawn next to a tepid pond. Some Venangolanders are like people who live in the middle of a picture perfect postcard and complain that it doesn’t have enough plastic and neon. I have no doubt that Venangoland would be a better place if every resident spent an hour or two each week on or beside the water.
This weekend looks to be a good one. And in addition to the chance to get out and enjoy the outdoors, you can swing by downtown Franklin, where the convention of band organs (you know—the kind of mechanical music machines that you remember from merry-go-rounds) will be in town making much music. All in all it should be a good couple of days to remember why you’re glad you don’t live in a big city.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


An interesting new entry in the Venango area blogosphere is Where the Creek and the River Meet. The writer is new to Franklin, but she and her son have wasted no time getting out and about. It's fascinating to see the first impressions of someone who's seeing things like the Barrow and the bike trails and concerts in the park for the first time.

Friday, September 08, 2006


(News-Herald, September 7) Since the start of the school year is approaching, this might be a good time to check the state of governmental meddling with the schools. The answer is either “Wonderful and right on schedule” or “Continuing to be a disaster” depending on where you stand.
No Child Left Behind is still chugging along. To review, just in case you’ve forgotten the broad outlines, the program requires all the states to subject all students to standardized testing, which will be used to prove, theoretically, that every single student in America is above average by 2014.
It’s patterned after the Texas Miracle, where, under then-Governor Bush, school leaders showed exemplary skill in faking, lying, book-cooking and otherwise creating the appearance that students were getting much better at taking standardized tests. The superintendent who did the very best job of faking his numbers (Rod Paige) got to be President Bush’s Secretary of Education.
If you are an optimist, you may believe that this program is well-intentioned but poorly engineered and executed. If you are a cynic, you may believe that this is a clever plot to dismantle public education and redirect tax dollars toward funding rich kids’ private schools. If you believe it’s a great program that’s really going to work-- well, I’ve tried to find a way to finish this sentence that beats around the bush but, really, if you believe that, you’re a dope.
As of this summer, no states had met the deadline for having all “highly qualified” teachers in core subject areas. This will theoretically trigger an assortment of fines. Actually, everything in NCLB triggers fines and punishments, because the core assumption of NCLB is that people working in education could do a perfect job—they just choose not to. So if we threaten them sufficiently, things will improve. I’d rather not imagine a school that approached its students like that.
Across the country, some people are being alarmed to discover that their school is failing. In the face of that alarm, it’s important to remember one simple fact: Eventually, as NCLB is designed, every single school in this country will fail. Every single one. Anything less than 100% will be failing. And no school can achieve 100% success.
But that failure paves the way for federal and state take over of school districts. The feds are already preparing to fine some states because the feds don’t approve of the standardized test developed by the test (or, in the case of Nebraska, the state’s failure to develop a standardized test).
The feds use the testing to drive all education, which means that the government sets the goals for curriculum. Virtually every educator and administrator knows that teaching students to take a test is bad education, but they also know that teaching to the test is the best way to postpone the inevitable. So schools cut time spent on music and art and math and history and English to make room for Test Taking 101.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of PA has creatively grabbed districts by the purse strings. When the school districts wouldn’t volunteer to drink Smiling Ed’s “property reform” cool-aid, he got angry and rammed it down their throats. The long-term effect will be to cut the funding stream for districts and make them entirely dependent on state money.
So we’ll get “local” schools whose budgets are set by Harrisburg and whose purpose is to follow Harrisburg’s curriculum so that students can pass Harrisburg’s test, a test that must be designed to meet federal standards. The students produced by this system may or may not be well-educated, but at least they’ll be able to pass a standardized test. Meanwhile, home and cyber schoolers will still be free to learn that the earth revolves around the sun.
Nobody in Harrisburg is going to have the guts to actually legislate away local school districts. But I’ll predict that Jim Greenfield is not going to be the last Pennsylvania school board member to resign because he feels that the state has made his job undoable.
Why keep teaching if I think this is the future? Because in spite of all this, perhaps even because of all this, I still believe that education is really, really important. And despite our American education-for-everyone ideals, the ed biz has never been all sunshine and fluffy bunnies-- there have always been obstacles both to getting an education and to providing one.
The success of teachers and students has never depended on educational utopia—it depends on finding ways to navigate the obstacles. That never changes, even when the obstacles do.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


(News-Herald, August 31) One of my summer projects was to look at the world of dating for Venangoland residents of A Certain Age.
I talked to some people I know and some people that I did not know. And I crunched some 2000 census statistics.
There are roughly 17,500 Venagolanders between the ages of 35 and 55; that’s roughly 31% of the population. Of the entire 15-and-over population, 4,300 are divorced, and 3,900 had a deceased spouse. It appears the talent pool for the over-35 crowd is shallow here.
I originally expected to separate male and female perspectives, but in fact there was no need—men and women tell pretty much the same story.
Common complaint: there’s no place to meet people. None of the over-35 crowd wanted to wade into the bar scene and “there’s only so much you can do walking around Wal-mart.” Traditional advice like “go to church” or “join a club” didn’t fly because of Venangoland’s slow turnover; “You meet the same people there that you ran into five years ago.” Some found churches less than welcoming to single people.
Hardly anybody had friends or family trying to “fix them up.” That may not mean anything. If they knew someone good at fixing them up, they would have been fixed up already and I wouldn’t have been talking to them. (Though, when you think about it, “fixed up” is an odd choice of phrase, suggesting as it does that the single person is somehow broken and in need of fixing.)
Nobody was very excited about on-line dating services. Results were described as everything from “geographically impaired” to “dirty rotten liars.” And the process struck some as unsatisfactory. It “takes away the initial non-verbal connection.”
People of A Certain Age appear to be somewhat more picky. I heard variations on “I won’t settle” several times. Now, sometimes that pickiness didn’t seem particularly extreme (“I want a man who has a job, no drug habit, and all his own teeth”). But if, for instance, you’re searching for someone with education or professional background, here’s some cheery statistics:
In all of Venangoland there are 5,000 people with a few college credits, 2,200 with associate degrees, and 5,000 who finished a bachelors degree or more (and those numbers include all the married folks).
Another large obstacle is life itself. Many over-35s are full- or part-time single parents. A small child trumps just about everything for some folks (and, really, would you want to date someone who said, “No problem; I’ll just dump the kid and pick you up at 7”?) Many are involved in various activities. Just setting up a simple interview with each of these folks was an adventure; in some cases I’m pretty sure it would be easier to get in to see my dentist. I know there’s a singles group that meets around here, but never at a time I could possibly go see what’s up.
Perhaps it gets easier if you become really dedicated to the process. I have a friend who made up his mind to find Ms. Right and went out with one or two different women a week. Of course, if you could pull off that schedule here, you might well get through every eligible bachelor or bachelorette in a year.
I thought I might collect some good horror stories about local dating. Nobody had any to share. I thought perhaps some patterns might emerge (as in “the problem with men/women around here is…”), but it didn’t happen. Much seems to come down to taste. “Too many women want to be rescued” rather than “These women were just too independent.” Choose “Guys these days are just too wimpy” or “These men were all just too controlling and pushy.”
These folks all shared one thing—the same thing that made writing this column difficult. My interview subjects were all absolutely clear that they did not want to be identifiable in the newspaper.
At first I was puzzled. What exactly did they not want people to know? That they’re single? I’m going to guess that cat is pretty much out of the bag.
Perhaps it’s that they’re looking. If you are single, but you’re not trying, you can still be cool about it (“I could find Ms./Mr. Right if I wanted to, but I’m fully devoted to my macramé now”). Or maybe it’s a matter of not looking too desperate.
So I guess what we’ve got here is a bunch of single folks of A Certain Age hoping to bump into one of the handful of eligible local matches in some sort of non-deliberate-looking manner. Macrame is probably easier, but stranger things have happened.

From my Flickr