Monday, April 30, 2007


(News-Herald, January 2003) Yes, I was initially resistant to the federal education initiative. I know that in the past I may have referred to “No Child Left Behind” as “dangerously dopey” or “a cynical attempt to dismantle American public education.” But I have seen the light.

It makes perfect sense to approach the human endeavor of education with the expectation of a 100% success rate, and it seems only right that any school district that falls short of perfection should be stripped of financial support and taken over by the government.

In fact, I think the feds should extend the principle to more fields devoted to improving the human condition. Let me propose a few programs.

“No Smile Left Behind.” It’s time for the dentists of this country to provide thorough and effective treatment of their patients. There’s no reason in this day and age that we can’t have 100% perfect dental health—so all dentists will be expected to have 100% success with their patients. If not, they’ll be replaced with special government-issue dentists.

“No Patient Left Behind” Probably the only area of human service as wide-reaching and important as education is health care. In a world with 100% perfectly educated youth, surely we need to have 100% success in health care.

So we’ll give hospitals twelve years to improve their delivery of treatment, and at the end of a decade we’ll have hospitals that cure every person who comes through their doors

See, the beauty of No Child Left Behind is that unshakeable 100%. For too long, we’ve accepted less than perfection. For too long we’ve accepted, for instance, that saving lives from cancer is hard. Let’s adopt, instead, the NCLB philosophy; if any hospital fails to provide 100% cure of anything from cancer to the common cold, we’ll stop giving them any money for treating patients. That’ll get them to stop monkeying around and trot out that 100% successful cure that we know they’re hiding somewhere.

But let’s not stop there. We need to address other aspects of health. We’ve heard repeatedly that America is overweight. That gives me an idea for our next program:

“No Behind Left Behind.” Most every town has a YMCA or YWCA or health club; there’s no reason for America to have any fat people. I say there’s no reason not to expect each exercise-based facility to have 100% success in getting every person down to perfect fighting trim. Biology, habit, ambition, determination, desire—these minor quibbles won’t stop us from having perfect schools, so if the Y can’t get every rear end in the area into a slim pair of jeans, then the government should take over and implement their plans for weight reduction in the US.

And why stop with physical well-being. Let’s have “No Soul Left Behind.” Churches have clearly been dogging it in this country. After several centuries, we are still surrounded by sinners and evil-doers. I say it’s time for church leaders to get off their duffs and get that salvation train rolling.

It is time that every single soul in this country was saved. So let’s give the churches and synagogues a decade or so, at the end of which we’ll expect a salvation rate of 100%. And if any church fails to produce, then we’ll just bring in government officials to properly supervise the salvation of American souls.

I’m excited about this revelation. As a teacher, I’ve always bought into the notion that there’s no such thing as a perfect school. But all the things that we have claimed stand in the way of perfect education—individual differences in abilities, goals, circumstances, ambition—are the same factors that challenge the success of most human endeavors. So if government legislation erases these from schools, they can be erased from other areas of human existence as well.

The feds have given us great new principles to live by: Perfection is attainable and we should never settle for less. People fall short of perfection because they’re unmotivated; threaten to take away their livelihood and they’ll do better.

And if you lose your way on the path to perfection, the government is always ready to step in and show the way, because the government, apparently, knows the secret of achieving 100% successful perfection. In fact, I’m sure they can make a go of two more programs—“No Evildoers Left Behind” in which 100% of America’s military enemies are neutralized and “No Stomach Left Behind” in which 100% of all Americans have enough to eat. Should take twelve years, tops. And if the feds don’t get it done, I think we should cut their funding.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


(News-Herald, April 26) Country music has always occupied an odd spot in our culture consciousness. It has often been treated like a poor cousin, even as it has almost always generated more money than basic “mainstream” pop music.

Perhaps that is what has caused the curious dilution of the product.

First, the sound of country has become more broadly defined. My brother maintains that if the Eagles were a new band today, they would be filed under country, and I would guess that would also be true of many other bands of our youth. Little River Band, those guys who recorded “Amy,” Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young)—ten minutes on GAC will turn up many performers who sound far less “country” than the oldsters. Some bands, like Lynrd Skynrd, have been turned into country bands retroactively.

In fact, watching videos, one wonders what exactly makes one performer country, or not. Many of the classic distinctions seem to have disappeared. Garth Brooks became a famously wealthy and sought-after concert artist not by following in the footsteps of Hank Williams or Roy Acuff, but by taking performance tips from KISS.

Country was always supposed to be more in touch with traditional values than mainstream pop. But I can find just as many half-naked, rear-end-gyrating, hydraulic-plasticine-breasted women worshipping cars and money in country videos as I can on MTV.

Rather than offering itself as an alternative to the world of pop and hip-hop, Country now gets right in the same line. Just one example—“Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk” -- takes a term from the rap world to use in a country song/video celebrating, staring at, and otherwise treating like a piece of meat, the posteriors of young women. Even the blandly conservative Bonnie Raitt-sounding Sugarland requires its lead singer to wave her cleavage around on camera.

Then there’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” celebrating a young woman who likes to get drunk and naked (apparently in that order). In fact, while country fans have often been the sort of people to decry the evils of drug use, country music endlessly applauds the virtue of getting drunk until you fall down, throw up, or otherwise do something stupid. Currently in heavy rotation on GAC is “All My Friends Say,” a hilarious ballad about what our hero thinks he might have done while drinking himself into a state of alcohol-induced amnesia.

If country music does indeed celebrate and honor a world of older traditional values, it also a world where men start fist fights, cheat on their women, and drink millions of brain cells into oblivion. So if country music fans are going to claim that country music embodies some sort of moral superiority, well, I’m just not seeing it.

Country does seem to require an anti-mainstream pop attitude. Gretchen Wilson sings a song about how we should be glad that they aren’t all California girls. She and her friends stand there in the video, stripped down to bikini tops and the kind of shorts that don’t include enough material to mop up the amount of beer spilled at a church picnic, complaining about those skinny little girls struttin’ around in their size zeros. I am not an expert clothes sizer, but Gretchen and her size-zero-mocking friends appear to be big, beefy size 0.5’s. (She also takes the courageous stance that Parris Hilton is a jerk, which I’m not sure qualifies as a radical point of view.)

Often country seems to have to try way too hard to be outside the mainstream, but country stars can now come from the same bland over-hyped mass-produced American Idol musical sausage grinder. Plenty of songs hit the top 40 in both a country and non-country incarnation.

While country acts aren’t conservative when it comes to sex, drugs & alcohol, or recycling rock& roll, they are pretty politically uniform. So the Dixie Chicks, like Neil Young before them, can make music based on traditional folk forms and instruments, but be shunned by country radio because of their political posturing. And there are slightly fewer black country stars than there are white rappers.

But at the end of the day, all I can come up with is the twang. Big and Rich don’t make music that’s any more countrified than the Beatles or N’Sync, but they sing with that little twang and make sure to use words like “country” and “cowboy.”

It is what hip-hop, rap, heavy metal, country and performers from every other pop music niche have in common—putting on an act, playing the game, pretending to be whatever the marketing kings tell them to pretend to be, having a rowdy good time, then laughing all the way to the bank.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


(News-Herald, April 19) I finally got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth, the movie about Al Gore and his traveling Power Point presentation about the upcoming end of the world due to global warming.

As a piece of filmmaking, it is fairly clever. To begin with, trying to add pizzazz to a slide show is like trying to add air to a Twinkie—power point is a great technical aid in making a paragraph’s worth of vague information look like Gone With the Wind. But the filmmakers make the series of slides look pretty substantial while simultaneously making Al Gore look like an elder statesman, a scientist, and a globetrotting investigative reporter.

Amidst all this, I remember seeing some Really Important Points being made: Many glaciers are shrinking. There’s more CO2 in the world now than ever before, and that’s really bad. Hurricane Katrina was very unpleasant. All scientists everywhere agree that the world is getting warmer and human beings are causing it. Global warming is cooler when it’s explained in an almost edgy, faux-irreverent cartoon by the creator of the Simpsons.

Of course, there are counterpoints to all of these, many of which can be turned up fairly quickly on the internet: They’ve been shrinking for a while. No, there isn’t, and no, it isn’t. Yes, it was, but that has nothing to do with global warming. No, they don’t. Not so much. And so’s your old man.

Global warming is still the subject of considerable debate. In fact, there’s even a debate raging about whether there’s a debate raging. And for the average innocent-but-thinking bystander, it’s not easy to pick a side. Even finding facts on which to base an opinion is difficult.

There’s plenty of opposition science out there, but an awful lot of it is bought and paid for by the corporations that would be most hurt by legislation to curb the warming. The Bush administration has already been caught telling government scientists that they couldn’t express conclusions that support the views of the Global Warming alarmists.

But folks like Gore build their case on an awful lot of tissue and smoke. Inconvenient Truth uses words like “implicated” and “suggestive” to frame their support. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are a cornerstone of Global Warming arguments, but there is no conclusive link between CO2 levels and warming (and two sets of conflicting charts about how high the levels actually are).

And really, it’s hard not to suspect that the Global Warming Police believe its true because it casts all their favorite villains in the role of Bad Guys. It has to be seductively attractive to discover that rapacious industries and thoughtless consumers you always loathed are actually destroying the world—at last we’ve caught them red-handed!

Of course, just because some environmentalists are long on zeal and short on facts does not guarantee that they’re entirely wrong. And their arguments certainly aren’t any sillier than the counter-theory that Global Warming is happening because the sun is getting hotter.

But climate is mighty difficult to study and predict. It’s a chaotic system (I don’t know why we aren’t all learning a lot more about chaos theory) and that means it can change suddenly due to small, hard-to-predict factors. We don’t know what triggered the beginning or ends of any previous ice ages; we don’t know what will trigger the next big climate change.

Still, our ignorance ought to be a good reason to be extra cautious. If you don’t know where the sensitive spot on a sleeping lion is, smacking it indiscriminately with a pointy stick is not the smartest plan.

Nor is free market capitalism a great model for preserving the future. The driving force is self-interest—I’ll make the best choices with my property and business because those choices benefit me. But there’s no benefit to me in insuring that the environment will be in good shape in a hundred years-- I’ll be dead. Environmental concerns require a larger, longer view than the usual business decision, or, for that matter, the usual decisions we all make in our daily lives.

We can all make smarter choices. Though I’m not sure I want go as far as this line in Gore’s film: “We can all make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero.” I was not the greatest biology student in school, but I could swear that the only way I can bring my carbon emissions to zero is to stop breathing—a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.

But smart choices are hard. And to make them people need real information, not hysteria, whitewash, and propaganda from both sides.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


(News-Herald, April 12)Wherever you go, you’ll meet amateurs and you’ll meet professionals.

You can’t distinguish between the two by whether or not they’re paid. Particularly in an area like ours, you’ll meet professionals who volunteer without compensation and amateurs who draw regular paychecks.

There are qualities that mark professionals whether they’re paid or not.

Do what you say you will, when you say will.

It’s a clear and simple principle, but some folks just don’t get it. When you promise to do something—do it. And if you say it will be done in a month, don’t take six.

Yes, sometimes it’s hard to know how tough a job will be before you start it. In that case, don’t make a promise you don’t know you can keep. And yes, sometimes surprises foul up a time line. In those instances, a professional picks up the phone, apologizes, and explains.

Give the clients something they value.

It’s easier to see this with businesses. Nobody sets up shop and then tells customers, “Give me your money because I’d like to have it.”

When it’s amateur hour in the marketplace, some people do come close to that request. People start a business and think of all the reasons that they’d like to have people give them money. And then they fail. Leonardo’s is successful because they provide a dining experience that people are happy to pay for.

The same principle applies with volunteers, but there are amateurs who don’t get it. Time is the currency of the volunteer world. Yet people who would never just grab money out of your hand will still tell you that you should be happy to donate hours of your life to them.

Let’s be clear. Even people who donate expect a return-- at a minimum, the knowledge that their donation will do something they can feel good about.

This one is a pet peeve of mine because amateurs often approach young people with this amateur attitude. They think of lots of reasons that they’d like to have teens donate time to their cause, but not one reason that the teens might actually want to do it.

Know what you’re talking about.

When it’s amateur hour, good intentions are all you need. It’s not that professionals know everything. But what they don’t know, they try to find out. They talk to people who do know. They consult the experts. Nobody chooses a brain surgeon saying, “Well, he’s never studied it, but he’s really interested in it.”

Don’t make yourself at home.

You aren’t. You’re at work. Your personal hobbies, your personal conversations, your desire to be done in time to catch your favorite tv show—it’s all amateur hour.

When you’re calling someone into a “meeting’ just to find out if they’re mad at you, it’s amateur hour. When your treatment of a fellow workers or your judgment of their competence depends on whether you think they’re your friend or not, it’s amateur hour.

When you indulge in any behavior that would be most appropriate in the privacy of your own home, it’s amateur hour.

It’s not about you.

It’s about the job, whatever the job is. When you make your workplace choices based on what you feel like doing instead of what the job demands, it’s amateur hour. When people have to know what mood you’re in in order to know what kind of work they can expect from you, it’s amateur hour. When you decide not to do part of your job because, well, it’s inconvenient and hard, that’s amateur.

There’s nothing amateur about asking folks to do things differently because it will produce a better product. But when your goal is just to make life easier for yourself, it’s amateur hour.

There are organizations in these parts languishing and fading because their leaders aren’t worried about doing the organization’s job—only about how to keep coasting and taking care of their personal concerns.

It may not be possible to be professional every single day. But whether you’re practicing law, fixing a water heater, volunteering for a non-profit group, or building a dog house—be passionate about the job, be committed to the job, but do the job. And beware of amateurs.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


(News-Herald, September 2003)This summer I had the chance to stop in DC. I hadn’t been in quite a few years, and I think everyone should drop in every decade or so. You won’t find a better collection of cool free stuff anywhere else (actually, strictly speaking, it’s not so much free as we taxpayers have already paid our admission price).

The mall was mostly as I remembered it. There was little evidence of security concerns. Museums required a brief check of handbags and backpacks. The Washington Monument was loosely surrounded by concrete highway dividers creating a barrier that would require terrorists to spend an additional ten seconds approaching the spire.

I had my first look at the Vietnam and Korean memorials. Both are moving in their own ways. The Vietnam Memorial was larger than I imagined, moving and elegant. The World War II memorial is under construction, destined to be a subtle but stirring addition to the non-Lincoln end of the reflecting pool.

I stopped mainly to look at the Smithsonian, but ended up devoting more time to the national art galleries.

I didn’t particularly expect to be gripped by the art, but apparently I was in an arty mood. The thing is, the national gallery has so many familiar works. And yet, though you think you’ve seen these works, you haven’t.

Take the Monet cathedral paintings, or Van Gogh’s Roses. I have seen prints of these paintings more times than I can count. But it isn’t the same. No print that I’ve ever seen captures the intensity of the color, and nothing at all captures the actual sight of the brushstrokes, the texture on the canvas. For me, there’s also the realization that I am looking at the exact materials that the painter himself touched and applied a century or so ago.

There was a Dutch work with a moon so bright, light thrown across a dark nightscape that seemed to glow. Rembrandt as an older man, more real and solid than a photograph. A Seurat lighthouse; up close some dots distinct with others carrying the imprint of a tool used to flatten them.

There were plenty of folks in the museum just breezing through, glancing at work after work, nodding at the familiar the same way you acknowledge a hit coming on the radio for the twentieth time. I’ve seen that before and I’ll see it again, their half-attentive glances seemed to say.

It strikes me as one of the most prevalent human mistakes, all summed up in that moment.

I don’t just mean the appreciation of art. I can look at Monet’s work and feel it, like a palpable thump to the heart, a jolt to the center of my chest. But that’s me, my reaction, not necessarily yours.

But the intensity of that moment, standing before that painting and feeling the sight and sense of it—that’s an unrepeatable experience. I can buy a print, download it as a screensaver, even take along a digital camera and snap a picture. But it won’t be the same.

One of the great seductions of technology is the notion that our saved shadows and imitations of experience are as true and powerful as the real thing. We think that if we’ve seen a picture of the painting, we’ve seen the painting. We think if we listen to the cd, we’ve heard the performer. If we watch love or loss on the dvd, then it’s the same as going through the experience.

Well, no, it’s not.

And sadder than our belief about the recording of experiences we’ve never had is our belief that we can capture moments of our own lives.

How many weddings have been commandeered by the videographer capturing the experience on tape? How many children’s performances have been cluttered by parental recorders?

The mistake is in the belief that we can really capture and relive these moments. We can’t. Each moment, each experience comes just once, and if you ignore it the first time because you’re busy “capturing” it on film, you’ve lost something that you won’t ever get back. We miss living it as it happens, thinking we can have the experience later, at our leisure. But what we return to will be the empty shell; the real thing will be gone.

Imitations, reminders, keepsakes of life are all well and good, but it’s no good to miss the real stuff of life on the way. It doesn’t matter if it’s the real Monet on the museum wall or the moment when the sun cuts through the mist below a tree stand on the first day of deer season or the game when you’re perfectly in tune with the ball and the team or the perfect kiss that draws the air right up out of your heart—you’d better pay attention to the moment while it’s there, because no cage known to man can hold it.

Friday, April 06, 2007


(News-Herald, April 5) The flap over party-hopping county commissioner candidates is a new twist on an old Venangoland election tradition.

For virtually every other election it’s normal procedure for candidates for every office from school board to ferret inspector to file as candidates of both parties. This has nothing to do with political philosophy or the principles of one party or another. It has to do with the laziness of county voters.

A candidate for office has two pre-election details to sweat. One is making sure that he is listed with both parties. The other is hoping that his name will be drawn for the top of the candidates listing on the ballot.

Plenty of people in Venangoland still love to vote the straight party ticket with no particular regard for the actual person running. If my dog were running for office, he could get 20% of the votes cast by crossfiling; if his name were at the top of the list, he’d get 35%.

It’s a curious phenomenon because political parties stand for so little these days.

Nationally, the GOP has been spoiled by success. It got tromped in the last election by valuing, as John McCain correctly observed, political power over principle. The GOP forgot that it had any principle other than the desire to keep and exercise power, and so the party that once championed smaller government spent money like a drunken sailor and stuck Uncle Sugar’s nose into every nook and cranny of American life.

The Democrats are similarly principle-free. They have found some things to pretend to believe that get them votes, but their main message is still, “We aren’t those guys.”

As little as parties matter on the national scene, they matter even less here.

Take, for example, the Cranberry School Board. You would think that these folks had run out of ways to embarrass themselves years ago, but no. There are always new ways for them demonstrate the fine art of scrabbling and wrestling for power. It’s hard to escape the impression that the district could be fabulous if the board members focused as much energy on education as they spent on putting “those people” in their place.

This is local, small-time politics at its finest. We’ve watched these two factions, in one form or another, battle it out for years. Yet I would wager that most of us have no idea how the party affiliations stack up in all this mess. Nor in all the heated rhetoric do we read any mention of Democrat or Republican.

The politics are personal. It’s my good, noble friends and I, trying to stop those big doodyheads over there. Small town party affiliations don’t tell us much about the candidate’s ideology or philosophy. Mostly party affiliation tells who they hang with, who they’re loyal to, who sits at their table at the country club.

The requirement that county commissioners not come from all the same party makes sense, not because we need a balance of ideologies, but because it improves the chances of electing people from different political cliques.

I can see why Dems might be touchy about the matter, because that one seat is the only office in the county that a Democrat has a good shot at winning in an election. It has to be annoying to nominally Democratic candidates that some nominal Republicans are trying to take even this small prize away from them.

But for the general public to complain is just silly. Telling Republicans apart from Democrats in this county is not a matter of distinguishing between sheep and wolves or elephants and donkeys. It’s more like distinguishing between guys who wear boxers and guys who wear briefs—it can be done, but not with a quick, superficial glance.

The electorate loves to complain about elected officials, but then, a large portion of the electorate never even shows up to elect. And when it does show up, it doesn’t bother to learn anything about the candidates (who could, on the local level, be anything from a highly-qualified capable grown-up to a clueless dimbulb to my dog).

Yes, sometimes voting is a fruitless exercise. Cranberry’s board isn’t the first to ignore a clear message from the voters, and it won’t be the last.

But if you don’t want to elect a Republican in Democrat’s clothing, don’t vote for it. And if you really want to vote in a way that is useful, learn something about the candidates and decide who has the brains, ability, commitment and skills for the job.

When the time comes, go to the polls. Exercise your ability to think. And if you can’t do that, exercise your ability to stop complaining.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


(News-Herald, March 2002) We arrive now at what may still be my favorite holiday of the year—Easter.

I have fond memories of Easters past. Back in the day, the ministers’ forum of Franklin put on a nifty sunrise service out at Two Mile Run Park every year. It was my privilege to play in a brass choir that Tim Young directed in those days, and one of our prime activities every year was to play at that service.

It was a good reminder of the vagaries of local weather. I can remember at least one service that was moved inside because there was a foot of snow on the ground. But when it worked—well, there we’d be, playing Easter hymns on a flat-bed trailer parked on Pioneer Flats, the sun coming up over the hill behind us and illuminating three large crosses mounted on that hill.

Afterwards we’d go out to breakfast and eat too much, then disperse to our individual churches. My own church would have a large cross at the front of the sanctuary covered with lilies, and the scent filled the building.

I love that Easter has stayed largely impervious to our tendency to water down every religious holiday until it’s palatable to anyone, regardless of creed or lack thereof. I suspect that an alien landing in the US in December would assume that he’d arrived in the midst of some festival of General Nice Behavior without ever picking up a clue that the festival had anything to do with some sort of religious faith. We’ve loaded the season down with secular songs and worldly justifications for Getting Stuff; we’ve even reached the point where some folks suggest that Hanukah and Christmas are really pretty much the same, which is rather an insult to both.

But Easter resists. Marketers have never quite hit on a good hook for Easter. No matter how many times we redesign him, the Easter Bunny looks either scary or ridiculous. There’s only so much candy you can give folks, and most of us don’t know enough about seasonal clothes any more to appreciate the transition. Do I have to wait till after Easter to wear white snow boots?

An Easter egg hunt is hard to pass off as anything more than kids chasing around to grab stuff. Entertaining, but what’s the message here? Christmas gifts are supposed to represent our love and appreciation for each other, but what do we make of groping in the underbrush for fake eggs. Sometimes in life you have to look for the prizes under a bush, and then it’ll just be some cheesy plastic thing? And for music we don’t have anything beyond “Easter Parade.”

I suspect that Easter hasn’t “caught on” because the message is a bit too complicated. Christmas has been boiled down to “Be nice. Enjoy your family. Give people stuff.” But the whole death and resurrection thing—that’s a bit harder to squeeze down to a motto that will fit on a chocolate bar.

Easter isn’t as pretty as Christmas. Babies are cute (particularly if you imagine fresh-scrubbed hay and well-groomed farm animals) but there are no pretty pictures to go with the Easter story. Even Christians have trouble with that aspect; Sunday the churches will be full of folks celebrating the resurrection part of the story, but in the next forty-eight hours there will be a lot of lonely ministers in the county talking about the dying part.

And, in the end, the Easter story has a message that is not exactly the one we tend to hope for. If the life of Jesus was to be remade for the movie market, producers would definitely tweak that ending. “We’ve got to lose that whole nailed to the cross thing,” some Hollywood mogul would holler. “How about Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson parachute in and blow the Roman soldiers away? Or all the kids that he preached to before make googly eyes at the soldiers and get them to turn him loose?”***

We like stories where the Bad Thing doesn’t happen and people don’t have to go through anything really hard. For me, part of the Easter message has always been that Bad Things do happen, and yet there is renewal and resurrection and the Bad Things don’t have to be the end of the story.

It’s not an easy message to absorb or accept (which is why I think it sometimes gets garbled in translation into things like “Jesus died so that you could win a softball game or get enough money for a new Lexus”). But in the end it’s a hopeful one, just right for spring. Things really can be as bad as they seem, but that doesn’t mean that life can’t surprise you with something better than you can imagine.

***This was a rare instance of my editor's removal of my original text. For the newspaper audience he was probably correct. Since my audience here is rather more limited (and since Mel has since caught up with surpassed my thought here) I present the original full version.

From my Flickr