Friday, February 23, 2007


(News-Herald, February 22) We keep hearing that we need to pay attention to China, and given that they’re well on their way to owning us (and the oil we crave), that’s probably good advice. I’ve read a fair number of histories of China, particularly covering the twentieth century, and I agree it’s a good idea for us to pay attention.
For one thing, we’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later (actually, sooner has already arrived for a great number of American businesses), and if there is one thing we are consistently, repeatedly, expensively stupid about, it’s the matter of doing our homework about the countries we’re getting involved with. Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Iraq—our problems often aren’t a matter of military will. We just plain don’t study up on the culture and the people and we end up taking a croquet mallet to a horseshoe game.
But China is different. China is huge. It’s entirely possible that the only reason that China doesn’t already rule the world is that they’ve never wanted anything from the rest of us except some breathing space.
Chinese communism had a lot in common with the old Soviet Union communism, which is to say that in both cases the resulting government has very little to do with communism and plenty to do with national character that was already in place.
And Chinese culture is worth some American eyeballing because many of their most disastrous and undesirable characteristics are outsized versions of qualities we generally like.
Take family values. The Chinese put an enormous premium on family values, and much of Chinese culture is powered by them. And sometimes, it has not been a very good thing.
Chinese family values often ended up meaning that, in a position of power or public trust, your first responsibility was to take care of your family, and that your actual job description was secondary. If your job is to manage food distribution in your district—that means your family is sure to get fed, followed by people who stay on your good side, with people that you don’t like bringing up the rear. If you do the hiring, qualifications are not nearly as important as connections.
In many cases the Chinese valued family over responsibility or principle. In our culture, we don’t really associate family values with corruption, but in excess, unchecked by principle or ethics or a general sense of responsibility, family values can be just as much of a corrupting influence as anything else.
That is probably one of the reasons that the Chinese welcomed Mao and the communists in the first place—because they promised to replace a government based on personal connections and familial corruption with a government that focused on actually doing its job impartially.
Not that Mao ever delivered on that promise. But what I read leads me to suspect that says a lot more about Mao and China than about communism. Communism’s wide-reaching control simply allowed traditional Chinese corruption to become even more pervasive.
The Chinese also have a history of being really good at loyalty. And as much as we value loyalty and patriotism, it’s instructive to see how the Chinese have occasionally shot themselves in the foot with those virtues as well.
In the late fifties, Mao decided to turn China into an industrial giant by simply having all citizens turn their attention to steel production. China did not become a steel giant—but millions of farmers were taken away from the business of food production.
It was considered disloyal to question any of this. It was, in fact, considered disloyal not to claim enormous crops and great success, regardless of the facts. So as people across China celebrated their loyalty to their leader and their country, people across China also suffered and died because there simply was not enough food.
Under Mao, loyalty trumped truth. Facts were unwelcome; all that mattered was loyal and patriotic beliefs that stirred the heart and fostered the view of a strong and powerful country. Couple this belief with the drive to stay on the good side of the local people of privilege, and you begin to see why Chinese leaders have never needed anything like the Gestapo or the KGB.
It’s easy to imagine that certain values or ideals can never be perverted or twisted or over-emphasized, that they can never lead us into dark and dangerous places. “As long as I believe X, I’ll never do wrong,” is a lovely thing to tell ourselves. But our nature allows us the ability to make a hash out of just about anything.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


(News-Herald, February 2002) Today I’m apologizing to my dentist. I’m not going to name him for the same reason that you don’t usually volunteer your mother’s name when you’re arrested; he’s a good guy who does good work, and I’m afraid my conduct might not reflect well on him.
I was not always a Terribly Awful Dentistry Patient. But a few years ago—
Note: If you are considering the removal of wisdom teeth at any time in the future, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs.
--a few years ago, I had some wisdom teeth removed. The first round wasn’t bad. At least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t bad. I can’t claim to really remember a whole lot about it. I was under the influence of the kind of drugs that make it dangerous to walk past heavy machinery, let alone operate it.
But the second time around, some serious fear reaction vaporized every molecule of senses-clouding drug in my system. I felt no pain, but I heard and felt at the same time my teeth grinding on bone as they were ripped from my jaw, like character mutilation in a horror flick, only in full sensurround.
Since then, I am a dentistry basket case.
My dentist, God bless him, does everything right. He explains everything so that I understand what’s going on. He uses pleasant Dentist Euphemisms like, “This will pinch a little bit” (I believe we dropped pamphlets on the Taliban that said something similar).
He even has an office full of attractive women. I don’t know if this is by design, or luck, or Dental Technician School just doesn’t accept ugly women. But it’s a good choice. First, there is something vaguely comforting about having an attractive woman in the room. Second, no male over age 15 in the same room with an attractive woman is going to allow himself to scream, cry or beg for mercy. So this staffing choice seems a good thing for all concerned.
But even though my dentist does everything right, I do a lousy job of responding to his consideration.
First, there’s my mental problem. My brain is frighteningly retentive. I can remember a poem from Kindergarten (“Little Charlie Chipmunk”; when I know you much better I’ll recite it for you). I remember the combination to my mailbox in college, and the lyrics of many old bad songs.
However, once I’m told a date and time for a dentist appointment, my brain turns to durable Teflon. Tiny little eraser molecules hunt down the information, wrap it in plain brown paper, and load it on the next sneeze out of cabezaville. If I was at the dentist in the morning and made an appointment for the same afternoon, that evening I would be at home scratching my head thinking, “I wonder what I was supposed to do today. Maybe I was supposed to recite ‘Little Charlie Chipmunk’ for the kids.”
Add to that the embarrassment that’s involved in making an appointment because A) I suspect I’ve missed the previous six and B) I’m calling because of some problem that’s become ridiculously advanced while I waited for the tooth fairy to come fix it. I’m a reasonably intelligent person. I understand that when you put off painful things, you only make them more painful when you finally can’t avoid them. As a rational human being, I grasp this principle and can apply it in many situations. Except making dentist appointments.
Once I make it there, more challenges appear.
First off, I am apparently novocain-resistant. Sometimes it takes a few shots to achieve numbness. I suspect that the same anti-dentistry organ that puts out those eraser molecules recognizes that novocain is a prelude to Bad Things, and tries to get rid of it, like a panicked passenger bailing out a leaky lifeboat. Maybe somewhere in my body is a pocket of saved novocain; I envision being attacked by a bear some day who takes one bite out of me and then collapses when his head falls asleep.
Then, well, I feel bad that my dentist has invested in nice comfy chairs, because once he starts to work, I might as well be strapped to a seven foot two-by-four. I believe I actually shrink; I think I clench my entire body hard enough to compress my bone frame.
So I float a few inches above the comfy chair, heart hammering, congratulating myself on looking reasonably collected, and he’ll ask me, “How are you doing?” in that tone of voice that suggests he knows exactly how I’m doing and hopes that I won’t pass out with my mouth closed. I really should call him soon.

Friday, February 16, 2007


(News-Herald, February 15) Graduation is still months away, but it’s not too early for senioritis. If you’ve had children who graduated from high school, you know senioritis. “itis” is medicalese for “inflammation of the fill-in-the-blank.” In the case of senioritis, what becomes inflamed is the high school senior’s sense of self-importance.
The best-known symptoms are the most obvious. For seventeen years, a person can be the most mild-mannered, selfless, kind, considerate and lovable human being ever spawned. But by April of senior year, that same person will become so selfish, with such a ginormous sense of entitlement, that he will become unrecognizable.
By April, a high school senior knows that she is the center of the universe, sees no reason to believe that there is anyone anywhere doing anything more important than whatever she intends to do today.
Nature’s balance is at work here. Babies are cute and cuddly and adorable so that we don’t kill them when they’re screaming at 3 am. High school seniors are demanding and selfish so that we won’t miss them so much when they go.
But there are other side effects of senioritis as well. Take, for instance, senior panic.
Senior panic sets in when the senior combines counting skills and a calendar. For instance, as of right now, a Venangoland senior has only sixteen weekends left in his high school career. Subtract weekends that are already claimed by Prom, school plays, sporting events-- that might leave only a dozen.
Only a dozen weekends left to ask out that Interesting Someone that you’ve been imagining you might some day date. Only a dozen Saturdays to sleep in. Only a dozen weekends to spend with the friends that you may never see again for the rest of your life (and if you do, it won’t be the same). Only a dozen weekends left to square away the hurts and misunderstandings; only a dozen weekends to say those things that you always meant to say.
But it’s not only the seniors who start hearing the ticking of the clock.
Parents of high school seniors experience their own senioritis. Here they are, looking at this person whom they remember fairly vividly as a tiny blob of squalling flesh, realizing that this child is now about to walk out into the world, to be expected to function more or less like an adult. And the parent is not ready to let this adultish child go yet.
I don’t mean the sad loss when a close friends moves away and you know you’ll miss them. That’s certainly part of the package, but I’m talking about the same sense of panic that you felt when the teacher said it was time to pass in your test, and you knew you weren’t done yet.
Suddenly the parent is looking at the proto-adult and thinking, “But I’m not done! There’s Really Important Stuff I didn’t finish imparting yet!”
One minute you’re looking at the child who has inspired nothing but love and pride, and the next minute you’re thinking, “Good lord! How can anybody hope to hold down a real job when he can’t even comb his hair and pull up his pants!? Why in heaven’s name did I not get around to stressing the important of pulling up your pants!!!”
On their best days, parents feel the same love, pride and trust in their senior that they’ve always felt. But under the sway of a full-blown senioritis panic attack, parental units see an oncoming train wreck. They do not panic out of a sense of personal pride, but something far more powerful—the sudden overwhelming fear that a person they love most in the whole world is headed for disaster. And it will be their fault.
So, in a pre-emptive strike against guilt, matters that have not been an issue for years and years are suddenly the serious topic for talks entitled “We’d Better Sit Down and Talk About This Right Now, Young Lady, Part XXIV.”
This, in turn, aggravates everybody’s senioritis. At the very moment the senior is enjoying the belief that he is, in fact, the Master of the Universe, here comes the parents to suggest that he is actually a mass of glaring flaws.
Rinse and repeat for the next five months, until June comes and we find many people of both generations having a good cry—not sure why, exactly, but sure they can use it.
It is, in the end, just a phase for all involved. The Master of the Universe will, indeed, find the universe generally unimpressed with his preternaturally high self-esteem. But the Master’s parents will usually discover that their child is tougher and more adaptable than they had hoped. Good luck to them all over the next six months.

Monday, February 12, 2007


(News-Herald, August 2002) There are two types of people in the world; those who like to divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.
There are many many ways to do the dividing (my favorite new e-mail joke: there are 10 kinds of people in the world; those who understand binary and those who don’t). Let me suggest today that in the river of life, there are sticks and there are stones.
Stones are stationary. The current flows around them; they feel the pressure of the flow, but they stay put.
Sticks ride the current. They are carried along with the rush of the water.
Stones shape the river; sticks are driven by it.
Sticks cover a lot of territory, see a lot of the river bank, come in contact with many others. Often sticks can hook together, and move on to see what’s around the next bend side by side.
Stones become part of their surroundings, anchor the other stones with them. They don’t see much of the river bed, but what they see they know well.
Current may dislodge a stone, uproot it and send it tumbling further downriver, but a stone never really enjoys it. A stone feels disoriented, uncertain, and looks to get itself planted quickly again.
Sticks can become lodged against a bank or caught in an eddy. You can watch them bobbing there, edgy, itching to get back to their journey again.
Some sticks and stones are thoughtless and judgmental. Stones may look at sticks flashing by and be disgusted by their lack of stability, their insistence on moving on ahead, their unwillingness to settle. Some sticks look down on stones and think how dull, how boring, how pointless to sit there in one place.
But sticks and stones can also envy each other. Stones may look at sticks and envy their freedom, their movement, their energy, the sheer excitement of plunging on ahead with the rush of water. Stones can become lonely, feeling as if people and events rush by them and leave them sitting where they have always been.
Sticks can envy stones their peace. Sticks rush endlessly on and may dream of what it would be like to be a stone, at peace and settled in your own stable corner of the universe and the feel events move around you, instead of picking you up and tossing you ahead on the current.
Stones dislike being left behind. Sticks dislike leaving people behind.
Sometimes sticks and stones try to join together. Hardly ever works. There is no way for them to live together in a manner that honors both their styles. Opposites may attract. They may even love each other. But that doesn’t make them able to build a life together.
I think some places are better suited to one or the other. A big city, like Chicago, seems like a place suited to sticks. Venango County is a good place for stones.
I don’t think it’s better to be a stick or better to be a stone. The sticks complain that Venango County is too set in its ways, too stolid and stable. The stones complain that the sticks give up too soon, leave too easily. But each type of life has its rewards, and each requires that you give something up.
Ultimately, I think sticks and stones work well together. For a stone, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from helping to shape and direct the forces that send a stick on its way. And for a stick, that direction and shape to the river of life helps give them direction of their own, for which they can be grateful.
Without stones, a river would be a straight unwavering rush to the sea, without any interest or bend or change, monotonous and ultimately pointless. And if the river carried nothing with it, the life of each little section would be small and limited and connected to very little else.
If there really are two types of people, then we can each be only one type at a time, and our lives are richer and deeper and broader for our sharing with the “other” type. Life really is bigger than one person can take in from one small vantage point.
Sometimes, after a stick has traveled a long time, it becomes heavy and sinks to rest on the bottom; sometimes a stone is worn away until it is light enough to be carried away on the current. To really see the river, we have to see it more than one way. But while we’re waiting for the day our vision may change, we can benefit from the sight of others. That’s the best reason I know to have two types of people in the world. Or 10.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

This is what happens when you teach in the same small town you grew up in. Eventually, you find your students hanging out with your mother...

Friday, February 09, 2007


(News-Herald, February 8) If you are going to try to make it as en entrepreneur in Venangoland, there are some specialized rules you need to be aware of.
First, and perhaps most challenging, you need to realize that we’re not very fond of success around here. Oh, we think it’s fine in principle—money rolling into the county, jobs blooming like a thousand flowers.
But as soon as we see anyone personally making money, we get grumpy and suspicious. Around here we don’t even have to meet Well-To-Do people—we know they’re all arrogant and stuck up and think they’re better than everyone else.
If someone uses initiative and wits to come up with a business idea and really makes it work, we know a hundred reasons why they’re Not So Great and their idea is Stoopid and it’s Not Right that they should get money that way.
It’s not just business people—we expect our politicians to stay in place, too. No getting fancy, no getting clever, no taking initiative.
It doesn’t just start in the adult years. You remember that kid in school—she studied for tests, did all her homework, paid attention in class, and when she got A’s the other students made fun of her and said she only got good grades because she was a suck up. As if being hard-working and ambitious is just an underhanded way to beat the system.
And while this may seem a harsh judgment, I’m trying to think of someone who has become locally successful, well-known and widely loved by achieving ambitious, daring, innovative, trail-blazing success. Can’t think of many. If I’m forgetting people, let me know—we need to talk about them.
But while we’re discussing your plan for local success, let’s talk about your personal life. I don’t mean your personal bad habits or your odd clothing choices. I mean your marriage.
We’ve seen it too many times in Venangoland. A couple’s personal issues become a court matter, their property carved up on the judicial block. And when that property includes valuable local businesses, everybody feels their pain.
Count the number of local businesses that have gone through upheaval, or that now stand empty, because Mr. And Mrs. Business Owner couldn’t work things out.
So, new rule. Anybody who’s in business around here who’s single—if they want to get married, they have to have the approval of all of their patrons. I don’t care whether you’ve been brought together by matters spiritual or biological—I don’t want to be deprived of my favorite basket weaving emporium or lemon pie dispensary because you get hitched, then later realize you made a horrible mistake and have to carve the business up in court.
If the business owner is already married, no divorce will be granted until every employee and patron in the area has taken a crack at fixing the marriage. The prospect of a few hundred marriage counselors should be more than enough motivation to make things work out.
Finally, business success in the region requires a thick skin and plugged ears. Because if there’s anything you’re going to get around here, it’s advice. We are loaded with kibitzers.
Selling something? We all know what it should cost. Made a decision? We all know what you should have done. There isn’t a person in the county who doesn’t know where the hospital should have been built or how Two Mile should be run.
And to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I happen to believe that democracy and capitalism and the free market work best with a variety of opinions, all out there loudly announcing themselves. Some opinions are smart, some are stupid, some are right, and some are just silly. But to sort them out, we have to have them out where we can see them and talk about them.
But if you’re launching an endeavor with the expectation that you will be loudly and unanimously supported by the local public, you’d be better off drilling holes in the Cranberry Mall parking lot with the expectation of striking gold. You can have as many people sit and jaw in the back seat as you like, but in the end, you’ve got to do your own steering as best you can. Even when the people in the back seat start hiring lawyers.
Just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean you need to listen to him; not even if the opinion is printed in the newspaper.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Another new addition to the world of Venangoland-related blogs is up and running. Venango Ghost Stories is collected tales of haunted places and wandering spirits; the author has already posted several. I'm kind of fascinated, because for all my years of playing in the local history sand box, I've never run across much in the way of ghost stories, and it seems as if we ought to be entitled to a few. If you can contribute, please do; for the rest of us, it makes interesting reading..

Friday, February 02, 2007


(News-Herald, February 1) When it comes to groceries, I’m old fashioned—I like to buy them at a grocery store. I can’t help it. The spectacle of a head of lettuce nestled between a polo shirt and a car battery just seems wrong to me.
I can’t really explain what strikes me as so special about a grocery store. I suppose there’s a social aspect to it, but I’m usually in a quasi-hurry, and so can’t really stop to chat. I have read the articles that suggest single people Of A Certain Age can use the grocery store as a sort of respectable singles bar, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen that work out for anyone (Shop and Save’s pharmacy in Franklin used to occasionally employ possibly the most beautiful woman in Venangoland, but I have no idea who she is and have now publicly embarrassed her, so I don’t think that counts).
No, grocery shopping is not a perfect experience, but I think if we all agreed to follow a few simple rules, we could improve it considerably.
EXPRESS LINE: Okay, really, how hard is it to count to ten, or twelve, or even fourteen?
You get a pass when the store isn’t very busy and the checker calls you over to buck the system. But when the store is busy and people are waiting, if your fingers and toes aren’t up to the task, just bust out your calculator and do the math.
It is not, as someone once suggested to me, a matter of ten different kinds of items. 150 boxes of frozen chicken livers are 150 items, not one.
I admit that I find this behavior a little fascinating, in much the same way I’m fascinated by the driver traveling at fifteen miles an hour down 322 or 417 with fifty-seven cars lined up behind.
What, I wonder, do these people tell themselves? “People should have to wait in the line behind me because I have extra-special groceries” or “Express line? That must be a place for me to let other people watch me express myself” or maybe “Look! A special line just for MEEEEE!”
MAKING CHANGE: Okay, here’s a quick quiz. Which one of the following people do you think can make change more quickly?
A) has change organized by denomination in a handy drawer, and practices making change all day.
B) has some change, she thinks, somewhere in this purse here, just under the compact and behind the three used tissues that are now wrapped up in the car keys, which are resting right next to a half-finished roll of Life Savers with the loose paper wrapper just sort of trailing off it and , oh wait—here’s a penny. Now I’m pretty sure I saw another penny in here somewhere behind these AA batteries…
I know Person B means to be helpful, or maybe just a mildly obsessive need to be exact. And that’s kind of admirable and/or treatable. But really. Leave the change-making to the professionals.
Note: You get a pass on this one if the checker is running low on coins and need to collect some change.
EMPLOYEE CHAT: I like that local grocery employees are friendly at most stores. The folks at Shop and Save under the management of both Scott Barefoot and the Fazzell’s have always set the standard for Pleasant.
I particularly appreciate that they avoid the cardinal sin of employee behavior, which is to talk to each other as if the customers aren’t even there. I hate that. It’s rude, and it leaves me feeling as if I should sneak out and stay out in order to avoid interrupting someone’s private party.
Grumpy Employees will also chase me out of a store, mostly because they reflect badly on management. One of Sam Walton’s best pieces of advice for managers was, “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”
TOLERATE DIFFERENT STYLES: Finally, remember that we don’t all shop the same way. Some people like a long slow browse (“I wonder if there are any new vegetables they’ve decided to put in cans…”), while for some shop as if they’ve only got a few minutes before their cart explodes. Speed shoppers have every shelf memorized; browsers make each trip as if it was their first (“Why look! They sell milk here!!!”).
I don’t want to pick sides, but we need a simple agreement. If the browsers can agree not to park in the middle of the aisle, speed shoppers should agree to at least swerve before they roll right over some poor person contemplating the splendor of canned fat-free soup.

From my Flickr