Friday, June 29, 2007


(News-Herald, June 28) I want to start with a short history lesson. Please bear with me.

Up until the 19th century, nationalism was not much of an issue in the world. People’s allegiances were to family first, then maybe community or tribe. The king was just some guy who, hopefully, would leave you alone. “The king is dead; long live the king” didn’t so much mean “Hooray for us” as “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In the 19th century, several leaders discovered the value of nationalism as a motivational tool, building it up until we arrived at “modern” wars like World War I, where people were successfully motivated to fight and kill and die for The Motherland.

As a relatively modern nation composed almost entirely of non-natives, the US has always had a bit of the nationalism bug—though the Constitution was a tough sell because most folks at the time considered their primarily allegiance to be to their state. But we’re used to the notion of national pride, national honor, national interest. It seems natural and normal to us, but it’s not the way Things Have Always Been.

Now, I wonder if we aren’t seeing a change into a post-national world. And these days it’s clearly visible in two ways: terrorists and corporations.

Lebanon is an example of a place where government and nation are in danger of being overwhelmed. It’s just one of many locales on the globe where terrorists live, or at least occupy the space, with no particular allegiance to or stake in the actual nation.

The Taliban have always been an effective enemy to pretty much anyone who wandered into Afghanistan because they show no particular interest in actually taking over the country. Terrorists don’t want to rule, don’t want to waste their time on the mundane business of government like maintaining roads and services. They just want to be able to do as they please and take what they want.

Likewise, modern multinational corporations operate in a world that is above and beyond nations. These days, nobody would expect a CEO to announce that he was making a corporate decision based on loyalty to the nation that he calls home.

We occasionally get some noise about how global economic stuff will ultimately be good for America, but nobody really knows how that will pan out, and, really, it’s a justification after the fact, not a motivation for decisions. There seems to be an unstated assumption that governments are an obstacle to economics.

Terrorists threaten governments with guns and bombs while corporations buy them with money. Both are looking for the freedom to exert their will without being restrained.

I have no idea if life in a world without national allegiances is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Nationalism had its good points, but it has also motivated people to do many awful things. I suspect the post-nationalism is neither good nor bad—it just is. It will be a benefit for some people, a curse for others. It will lead some people to do good things, and others to do terrible things.

But a post-national world will be one that involves new roles for governments. Terrorists and corporations want pretty much the same thing from governments—to be left alone and allowed to pursue their interests with a minimum of interference.

That requires some sort of cooperation with the government, because while interference sometimes comes in the form of laws and legislation, sometimes it comes in the form of angry citizens carrying pointy sticks. Corporations cooperate by paying some attention to citizen interests. Terrorists cooperate by agreeing to not blow up too many important people too often. Both have learned to cooperate by providing some of the goods and services that governments traditionally take care of.

The big difference between these new rulers and governments is that citizens don’t get to elect the CEO of Satan-Mart or the leader of Titanic Whackos Instigating Terror.

That’s what may make bad news for the rest of us. First, because we don’t easily wield the power to make these guys go away. And second, because governments are torn between serving the citizens who elect them, the bomb-wielding whackos who threaten them, and the corporations who pay them. My hope? That government will remember that their job is to protect those of us who think of ourselves as citizens from all those other folks who don’t.

Friday, June 22, 2007


(News-Herald, June 21)So how do you get rid of drug abuse, drug users and drug sellers, anyway? I’m not going to give one quick, easy answer and solve the problem in under 800 words, and I would be a fool to try. Behind any discussion of how to fight drugs is one painful fact; for every anti-drug technique ever mentioned, there’s some parent or friend who did everything right and still failed to rescue someone they loved.

Though no approach is 100% certain to work, there are definitely some ideas that are better than others. And in the war on drugs, there is one powerful truth— It is almost impossible to affect the behavior of people if you aren’t involved in their lives.

Here’s some total stranger sitting on the front porch. You can run up, holler “Stop that” and then run away. The chance that the total stranger will stop is close to zero.

Now here you are sitting on the porch with someone you know well, because you have been sitting together on that porch every evening of every day of your life. You’ve shared struggles; you’ve helped each other. If you ask that person to stop, whether it’s chewing gum, smoking a cigar, or speed-drinking a case of Bob’s Wine In A Bag, you might have a chance.

Many adult anti-drug initiatives fail because adults and teens are working at cross-purposes. The adult wants to feel that he has delivered an important message to the teen. The teen wants the adult to leave him alone to do as he wishes.

“Promise me you won’t do Naughty Things,” says the adult.

“Why, I surely won’t,” says the teen.

The adult walks away feeling virtuous. The teen goes back to ingesting his or her Inappropriate Substance of choice. Everyone is satisfied; nothing is changed.

You would think my generation would know better. But we love having teens sign pledges. Promise not to drink at Prom. Promise not to have sex. Promise not to eat raw sushi. But what teens take away from the pledge-signing is what boomers already knew perfectly well as teenagers—if you tell adults what they want to hear, they will give you stuff and leave you alone. We shouldn’t be surprised, for instance, that studies repeatedly show that abstinence programs have absolutely no affect on teen sexual behavior.

Some of this is hard to hear. The DARE program is enormously popular both nationally and locally, yet everyone from the US Surgeon General’s office to the US Department of Education has declared the program ineffective. One study in Illinois suggested that it actually encouraged students to try drugs.

Drug abuse is no different than any other part of human behavior. People who are not actively involved in your life are unlikely to change your behavior.

People in the illegal drug sales business understand this, and they use it in two ways. First, they become involved in the lives of their customers. Particularly in an area like ours, people don’t get their drugs from strangers—they get them from people they consider friends. Second, these sorts of criminals make it a point to keep people uninvolved who might want to stop them.

Teens instinctively get this. If I’m so scary and difficult that my parents just back away and actively ignore my life, they’re less likely to stop me. Getting out of bed at 3 AM to confront the teen who has just stumbled in drunk is hard. Getting a promise is easy; sticking around to hold someone accountable and facing the possibility of disappointment when they don’t—that’s hard.

For criminals, it’s just good business. If I come across as scary and really dangerous—well, people who don’t know my name, don’t speak to me, and pretend they don’t even see me on the street are actively staying out of my life, and their ability to affect my behavior is therefore minimal.

That’s why taking back neighborhoods by being vocally involved, by looking dealers in the eye and saying, “I see you, I know who you are, I know what you’re doing, and I’m not going away” can be so powerful. And that’s why pretty pledges signed for strangers in the midst of drive-by do-goodery aren’t.

The number one cause of teens drinking and drugging in Venango County is not boredom, unemployment or lack of a good arcade. It’s teens making the choice to use drugs and alcohol.

The number two cause of teens drinking and drugging? Teens without any adult actively involved in their lives who seriously suggests that they shouldn’t. This weekend in Oil City, some folks are planning to stand up; I hope they do well.


(June 21) The show opened tonight, and I can say that I'm really pleased with the final product. For the first time in quite a while I'm working with a full pit, and while there are still just a couple of rough edges to sand off, the sound is tremendous. We tweaked the drumming for "Rhythm of Life" and that number absolutely rocks. It is a well-orchestrated score; the pit really boosts many of the numbers.

Terri Gilmore manages to make me like a character that, on the page, doesn't really appeal to me. She really commits. And I would pay cash money every night of my life to watch/hear Jodi and Carissa sing together-- absolutely ballsy and beautiful.

The dancing is tremendous-- the Rich Man's Frug is a brutal marathon and we are dripping with sweat just playing it in the pit, so I can't imagine how whupped the dancers are, but it's really exciting to see. The Big Spender girls are tremendous.

There's such a parade of characters in this show-- Tom Greene's Oscar climbing the walls, Steve Teig's smarmy-yet-likable movie star, Jen Monahan doing a strong turn as the spoiled starlet, Nick Hess's various quirky creations, Marc Holland taking total command of the stage as Big Daddy, and I can no longer imagine how a mere man could do Erma justice. The audience's surprise that she can sing, and sing well, was palpable tonight.

A lot of great performances and some really nice musical moments tonight. I'm really proud of these guys and the job they did, and I only wish I could sit back in the house to get the full audio effect.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Next weekend we'll be putting Sweet Charity on displqay at the Barrow. I'm not going to be plugging it in my column (I have some shame) but thought I'd say a couple of words to my three readers here.

Charity is not one of my most favoritest shows in the world. Its genesis was an attempt to turn a Fellini film into a Broadway musical, which makes about as much sense to me as an impulse to turn Greek statue into a coat. This is not a show that I could ever hjave stage directed, and God bless Ted Smith for taking on that task.

Our Charity is Terri Gilmore, who was last seen by Barrow audiences in Guys and Dolls as Adelaide. She is a terrific belter and has one of the toughest assignments in this show, which requires her to be on stage for almost every scene. Charity moves through an assortment of men, most notably Barrow regulars Steve Teig and Thomas Greene (yes, that's my son, which reminds me-- if anyone has some contacts in LA, my son is still trying to land an apartment for school there in the fall).

Marc Holland is choreographing the show. Marc is a tremendous dancer and choreographer and can do might fine singing when the occasion calls for it (this would be one of those occasions) and his presence on the production staff of a dance-intensive show like this is a big plus.

I'm the music director mostly because this is a fun score. "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "I'm a Brass Band" and "Big Spender" are the most recognizable tunes from this show, but there are several other terrific numbers as well, including "Rhythm of Life" and "I Love To Cry at Weddings."

It has been an enjoyable cast to work with, and your only chance to catch alocal musical at the Barrow this summer. If I weren't already going to be there, I would surely go. Next week-- Thursday, Friday, Saturday and a Sunday matinee.

Friday, June 15, 2007


(News-Herald, June 14) Is it really that hard to be a good manager? Is it that difficult to understand some basic principles of how to motivate people? Or if you can’t figure out how to turn them on, at least manage not to turn them off.

Rhetorical questions, really. There’s no question that the world is filled with lousy managers. For them, here are some of the basics of Management 101.

Talk is cheap. Some managers seem to think that platitudes about teamwork and vision can be uttered like magic incantations, after which the manager can go ahead and do whatever he feels like.

Wrong. Talk means nothing; actions mean everything. If your employees really are part of the team, and you treat them that way, they’ll know it even if you say nothing. If your employees aren’t part of the team, saying so won’t make them believe it. In fact, saying so is insulting, suggesting that you think they’re too stupid to know the difference.

Tell them what you want. The one time talk means something is when you are articulating what you expect. If you don’t (or can’t) tell your employees what you expect from them, do not be surprised (or angry) when you don’t get it. It is not your employee’s job to read your mind; it is your job to articulate what you want clearly. That, however, leads directly to:

And mean it. See point #1 above. Think about the vision that you articulated. Imagine what you would do if you really meant all that stuff you said. Is that what you’re doing, all day, every day?

Bullying is not a management style. Yelling, browbeating, intimidating and just generally being a pushy strong-armed jerk will not get the best out of your people. They may never do anything unpleasant to your face, but they will never go the extra mile for you, unless it’s going out of their way in the company parking lot to slash your tires.

Include them. When you have to make decisions that affect how your employees do their jobs, it is the most basic of common courtesies to consult them about it.

People do their best, hardest work when they have some sort of emotional investment in their job. When a job situation becomes unpredictable and out of their control, the natural reaction is to disengage. It’s like dating the crazy woman—after a while, the only way to cope with her bizarre behavior is to simply make yourself stop caring.

Listen. Listen listen listen Listen. And also, listen. The most underused management skill in the world, and yet one of the most effective ones.

People want to be heard. When they have concerns or objections, they really really want to be heard.

Many bad managers seem to believe that all negative comments and contrary opinions must be squelched and stomped flat and rolled over. The irony is that nine times out of ten, people who believe they’ve been heard can take it when the decision doesn’t go their way. But when they feel that their point of view wasn’t even heard or considered, their anger festers and grows.

Sure, if you hammer hard enough, you can’t get people to shut up and do as their told. But all that gets you is a bunch of people who do just what they’re told, and no more, which isn’t anything close to “getting the best work from your people.”

And if you really want to anger them, set things up so that they never have a chance to express an opinion in the first place. Management by e-mail is excellent for this. But there are many ways to arrange things so that you rarely have to meet your people face to face, or even learn their names.

Managers almost always skip listening because they think it will solve or avoid problems. They are wrong—refusing to listen, either by passive avoidance or hostile confrontation, creates far more problems than it solves.

Beware convenience. In all fairness, this is not simply a management problem. The whole world is suffering at the hands of people who don’t want to do one part of the job or another because “it’s haaarrrrrd.” Managers face double pressure here; not only do they need to do the hard parts because the hard parts need to be done, but managers also have to set an example for their people.

Note for managers: the hard parts include everything on this list.

Note for everyone: if you’re unwilling to do the hard parts, your employer is justified in asking what exactly he’s paying you for.

Of course, no bad managers will see themselves in this article. Feel free, employed readers, to clip it out and send it by inter-office mail.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


(News-Herald, June 2003) There I was, paddling away and thinking that everyone needs a kayak. French Creek is a special treat, because it’s not accessible all summer long. Well, it’s accessible, but you have to get out and walk for long stretches, which is not the most enjoyable way to spend the trip.

There was a time, a century or so ago, when French Creek was considered the vacation destination of the area, sort of a Venango County Poconos. It’s not hard to see why.

There’s the stretch below Utica that offers many islands, side trips, and interesting little eddies. There’s French Creek’s generally windy nature. I love the Allegheny, but there are long straight expanses that can feel a bit like the waterway equivalent of Indiana—long and flat and after traveling for a while, you can look up and see exactly what you saw an hour ago. But French Creek has so many twists and turns that there’s always another corner to peek around, another view to be unveiled like a series of beautiful paintings behind a row of velvet curtains.

French Creek also offers long stretches away from civilization, completely quiet but for the sound of birds and water. It is good for the spirit to be reminded of what real quiet sounds like.

I am partial to the view from the water. The tree-covered hills, families of geese, ducks overhead—and I’ve seen deer at the edge of the water plenty of times, but there is something special about seeing them from the creek itself.

You can make the journey by canoe if you wish. I confess to being totally biased in favor of kayaks. You sit lower, you travel lighter, and you always have available the minimum number of people needed for an enjoyable trip (that is to say, one).

Selecting a kayak can be daunting—there’s a great deal to choose from out there. Kayaks are available to be used for acts of momentary insanity, mythic foolishness, and conservative wimpiness. It’s important to make the selection appropriate for you.

Acts of momentary insanity are best committed in what are often called “playboats.” Do not be fooled by that term, which suggests a ten-year-old romping in a friendly fish pond—these are the boats that you see in ads for SUV’s in which studly young men pitch themselves over dribbly cliffs, their legs wrapped in a slim sheath of multicolored vinyl. That slim sheath is the kayak.

Playboats are short and tricky. In our neighborhood, I can’t honestly think of what you’d do with one, although if you have a three story house you could run a garden hose up to the roof, drag your playboat up there, and ride the drizzle all the way to the downspout.

There are expedition kayaks as well. These are slender and longer than a Lincoln Continental. Strap one to the top of a VW Beetle and not only will you look ridiculous, but you will fly away in the first stiff crosswind. These come with lots of straps and compartments, the better to store and carry all the supplies you’ll need when you leave to circumnavigate Antarctica.

Both types require a certain amount of physical stamina. It’s not just the paddling; steering has a lot to do with using your lower back to aim your legs. Hang from a doorjamb by your arms, pick up a bottle of ketchup with your feet, and use it to write the Declaration of Independence on the floor. It’s kind of like that.

Find kayaking appealing yet? Fortunately, there is also a large category of Kayaks for Normal Humans. Not too long, not too thin on the bottom. You may want to try a few out to get the right combination of characteristics. You may not want a boat that tips over easily, but on the other hand, if it’s too stable, it will handle like a brick.

In one respect, kayaking is like bicycling. You can sink a gazillion bucks into flashy equipment, cool accessories, and scary fashions to wear, and become Way Too Serious about it all. Or you can just get some cheap basic stuff and have some fun.

Kayaks can be found used (think ebay, though the postage can be a killer) or rented. Used kayaks are not as pretty as new ones, but since most modern kayaks are made out of the same sort of indestructible materials used in space rockets and Tupperware, they’re usually a safe bet. After the human race is extinct, the cockroaches will be tooling around in our old kayaks.

And whatever you do, get some advice from reputable professionals. In other words, drop this paper in the recycling bin and go ask the guys at Wiegels Marina to fix you up.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


(News-Herald, June 7)It’s one of those classic social problems of the workplace.

The first time you pass each other in the day, a simple “Hi” or “Hey” or “Howsitgoin” is appropriate. But then ten minutes later when you pass each other again, what do you say? You can’t do a full-blown greeting—that might suggest that you actually forgot you already said “Hi” and that would be kind of rude. But if you don’t say anything at all, that seems like you’re ignoring the person, and that’s rude, too. So you use some sort of head-bob or brief grunt to serve as some sort of not-exactly-a-greeting and you can both get on with your day.

The inconclusive goodbye is harder. Admit it—at least once in your life you’ve made a complete goodbye to someone, stepped out, realized you forgot something, and then decided not to go back after it because it would just be too awkward to face the people you just said good bye to.

The inconclusive goodbye is the opposite of the repeatable partial greeting. With the greeting, you already know which was the First Greeting of the day. But with the inconclusive goodbye, you never know when the actual final goodbye is going to come.

If the possible separation is short, there’s no pressure. “See you later” and “See you tomorrow” are fairly close. It’s tougher when you’re trying to choose between “See you later” and “See you in twenty years.” Underestimate and you’ve given someone a lamely inadequate parting message; overestimate and you have to sheepishly face someone to whom you bared your soul a day or two ago.

The inconclusive goodbye is, of course, one of the many challenges of high school graduation season. There are plenty of people to say goodbye to. Some of them you will see repeatedly over the summer and every vacation for years to come. Some you will stay in touch in through the magic of the US Postal system or the mighty internet, even though you will rarely meet face to face. Some will be regular fixtures of your life practically until the day you die. And some you will never, ever see again.

It would be great if you had a window on the future, a way to sort these different folks out, so that you could correctly hand out a “See you later” or a “I hope your life goes wonderfully.”

Of course, as much as we avoid thinking about it, we already face this puzzle in the average non-graduation seasons of our lives. Every time you say goodbye to someone, it really could be the last time you see him or her. But it’s too heavy to think about that. Only at weighty times of transition in our lives does the issue become unavoidable.

We have to part, and we have to think about what that might mean.

As if that weren’t enough, there are other flavors of parting to be tasted as well.

Students who aren’t graduating use pretty light goodbyes to end the school year. “See you next fall” isn’t much weightier than “See you later,” and it’s true that we will all be back in same building next year. But it won’t be the same.

I can be sorry to see a class go, even if I know I’ll see every single student in it around next year, because they’ll never be back in that exact combination again. They’ll be certainly older, possibly wiser, in new groups, with new concerns in someone else’s classroom.

Families face the same thing. It’s not like you usually send a child off to college or work or a separate apartment or even marriage knowing that they’ll never ever be back under your roof again. They’ll be back, sometimes for quite a while.

But it won’t be the same. The pieces of your family will be back together, but they will make a new and different picture, and the old one will be gone forever.

That’s not always, or even often, a bad thing. The new picture usually shows strengths and joys and bright new colors even as the parts and patterns of the old picture are visible underneath. Growing up improves most people without destroying what there was to love about them when they were younger.

I suppose that’s why graduation time is a bit sad for some people. You can know that you will be together again, but not like this, not the way you are now. In the best of partings, there’s joy in what the person is becoming and what they are moving toward. But even when you can say “See you later” to a person, you can know that you are saying “Goodbye forever” to something else.

Friday, June 01, 2007


(News-Herald, May 31) The Two Mile Run County Park flap has been, every step of the trip, a classic Venangoland confrontation between folks who set out to do the Right Thing in the worst possible way, and folks who believe the world would be a better place if we could just roll the clock back forty years.

When these two sides line up against each other, confrontation always turns ugly. When one side looks across the gulf, they see a bunch of slope-browed yahoos who don’t have the brains to know what’s good for them. When the yahoos look back across the gulf, they see arrogant snobs who believe their money and education make them so much better than everyone else.

The last time these two groups squared off was the Great Hospital Merger Fiasco. History shows that merging Oil City and Franklin hospitals was exactly right, but the Big Bosses managed to mishandle it every step of the way, feeding an increasingly angry opposition. Arrogance married mule-headedness and gave birth to the Worst Possible “Solution” -- a hospital in Cranberry.

The county’s decision to give up management of Two Mile was smart. It was a black hole of tax dollars, taking from the taxpayers while barely remaining usable. Handing it to a management firm made sense. Instead of the classic government management model (“Run this business for us and we’ll pay you the same whether you succeed or fail”), we got a conservative free-market approach (“Run this business, and you will prosper only if it prospers”).

But the first proposal for park development called for a complete change in the character of the place with a resort hotel and a fancy restaurant. At the most this required a steady stream of rich folks from far away places; at the very least it required that local folks be convinced the plan had merit. The park folks failed to sell the plan, and by the time the plan was scaled back, it was too late. Somehow the battle lines between ignorant yahoos and arrogant snobs had been drawn.

Some of this mess was unexpected. I’ve met Tim Spuck, and I’m familiar with the Rudegeairs, and they all strike me as reasonably decent folks, so how the stupid spat over the observatory managed to spiral out of control is a mystery to me. From out here in the cheap seats, it seems like the sort of dispute that two friendly ten-year-olds could resolve.

Of course, other parts of the mess are completely predictable. Once things turned unpleasant, lawsuits were inevitable—the courts remain the weapon of choice in the county.

Not that there was any mystery about some of the outcomes. If the Two Mile Run treehouses are competition with Turtle Bay Lodge, then my dog is competition with the Lipizzaner Stallions and I am a serious contender for the US Senate. Of course, if Mrs. Beichner becomes commissioner, she’ll be able to insure that the “competition” never threatens her again.

And about the commissioner soon-to-be-elects. I’m not particularly comforted by their offer to help out with the park. Here we are about to seat an entire brand new set of inexperienced county commissioners who will have to manage a court system, oversee regional economic development, and administer a massive staff of county employees, and the first thing they want to get a primer on is the park !!??!

But there’s still plenty of dopiness to go around. When a usually-reliable radio newsman reported that the Rudegeairs had skipped town, he could have resorted to the journalistic approach of driving past the house with his eyes open. The Rudegeairs deserved better.

And I’m going to hope that the park board’s decision to freeze Two Mile in place for the summer is a prudent managerial choice and not just a petulant pouty fit. Because it certainly seems like the message of the shut-down is “Our main goal in managing the park is to get our own way, and if we aren’t going to, then why bother.” This is a different message from, say, “We’re going to take this chance to give the county one more summer of the park being run the way we believe it should be run.”

Right now it looks like a bunch of sad failure all around. Parks Unlimited failed to win allies and articulate a vision of themselves as aggressive caretakers of a county trust. Their opponents failed to articulate any vision that didn’t include some fantasy-based return to a golden age of the park that never existed.

In some ways it’s a small loss. It’s not like we have a woods and water shortage in Venangoland. But it would be nice not to have to watch the “arrogant snobs” and “ignorant yahoos” square off yet again.

From my Flickr