Thursday, September 27, 2007


(News-Herald, September 27) So it’s time once again for The Big Game. I don’t usually get very worked up about the Great Oil City – Franklin sports rivalry, but if I’m going to watch one of these games, here are things I don’t want to see:

Fake School Spirit: There’s the fair-weather fan, the person who only shows up when the home team is wining. And then there’s the person who doesn’t care about the sport at all—they just like an excuse to start a fight.

Friday night there will be students trolling the stadium and parking lot, completely oblivious to the game while they hunt for an excuse to fight with someone from the opposing school.

The faux school spirit strikes in surprising places some times. Years ago, there was some spectacular breaking, entering and vandalism committed on OCHS by a student who was more or less from Franklin. This was a student who, on any other day, had to be dragged into school with a block and tackle attached to a team of clydesdales. If on football night, you usually just stay home not caring, don’t change your tradition just for The Big Game.

Civic Vandalism: If your child asked to go next door and paint “You stink!” all over the neighbor’s house, I’m guessing most parents would say no. But late tonight, carloads of teenagers will make the trip up and down river to leave their mark on the other’s city. Which is doubly silly considering that most of the students in the two schools live in neither Franklin nor Oil City.

Freakish Loss of Perspective: Look. If you’re in the stands at a high school football game screaming and ranting and busting a blood vessel as if the fate of Western Civilization were riding on that pigskin, you need to take a serious look at your life.

For decades, the two teams have been coached by men from That Other Town. Teachers, staff, parents, alumni and various other bystanders live in one town and work in the other. Graduates of the two schools have been known to meet, date and even marry each other!

These days, the city’s fates are linked more closely than ever; it just seems silly to pretend that some massive point of civic pride rests on this game. A rivalry depends on some long history of offense and grudge, but our history is too intertwined.

Remember the time that one player from Franklin—oh, wait—he married an Oil City girl and works in Cranberry. Well, how about that one Oil City coach—no, wait—his kids grew up playing for Franklin teams.

You can’t have family feuds when there’s only one family. If we need to nurse a grudge, may I suggest Every Team from Erie.

Classless Behavior: Too many years the classiest behavior in the whole stadium is that of the young men on the field, while too many people in the stands (some of them old enough to know better) act like classless jerks.

Class doesn’t mean a lack of pride. There’s plenty of class in saying, “We are proud of who we are, and we will fight harder and longer and stronger than anyone else to uphold our pride.”

There’s no class in saying “You stink and we hate you and we hope you get hurt and die.” It was hokey when your kindergarten teacher told you, but it’s still true—you can’t build yourself up by tearing other people down. And it’s silly—I feel certain that Oil City and Franklin folks smell about the same.

The majority of fans young and old are great, and the sense of occasion that surrounds The Big Game can be kind of exciting. And I do put a lot of stock in school spirit—I think at the very least it’s a way to learn about devoting heart to something bigger than yourself. I’m proud of the school where I teach, the people I teach with, and the students past and present who have come through that building. I hope our team plays with guts and heart and strength and class, and I hope they win.

I guess that’s why I always hope that the Big Game won’t be wrapped up in too much foolishness. It’s ironic, I guess—on the field, no one can appreciate the hard work and blood and sweat and heart and guts that a team devotes to the game better than the other team. And in Franklin and Oil City, we’ll never find a town more like our own than our neighbors at the other end of Route 8.

So go to the game, cheer with noise and pride for our teams, and walk out of the stadium afterwards remembering who and where we are.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


(News-Herald, September 20)I’m a big fan of volunteerism. I think the world is vastly improved when we all give time and effort to things that we value.

In an area like ours, volunteers are essential. The gold standard for Venangoland volunteerism is set by the volunteer fire departments. In a world where churches have to beg, plead, and arm-twist just to get someone to teach a one-hour Sunday school class, here are folks who volunteer to have their lives interrupted at any moment so that they can run off and risk themselves to protect other folks’ life and property.

It’s not that easy to find firefighters who will make those kind of sacrifices for pay; it’s nothing short of miraculous that so many of our small townships can put together full groups of people who do the work as volunteers.

It’s tricky to manage volunteers, particularly (and ironically) in non-fire department situations where the stakes are so much lower. But part of the trick to managing volunteers is remembering one simple principle: everyone, even a volunteer, gets paid. The key to working with volunteers is understanding who pays them, and how.

Now, I’m not talking about money. Volunteers work for all sorts of things—recognition, fellowship, a sense of power, a chance to meet hot chicks, feeling good about serving. None of these things are monetary, but they’re all mighty important to people who want them.

Managers who don’t understand this often shoot themselves in the foot by giving volunteers unintended pay cuts.

If Aunt Ethel always volunteers to knit the silver doilies for the church bazaar because it makes her feel proud to be the keeper of the silver doily tradition—well, that’s her pay, and even if you give her what is, on paper, a promotion to the frozen linguini concession stand, to her it’s a cut in pay, and she will probably not be happy about it.

Maybe Cousin Bruce likes to pain the sign for the annual firehall grilled pig jowls dinner. His pay is having his kids point and say, “Look, Daddy’s sign! How do you paint a pig’s nose like that, Daddy?” Having a professional sign painter work on the sign to “fix it up” cuts Bruce’s pay to zero.

These are obvious examples, but we are surrounded by less obvious ones. Many people who are paid workers on a job also do volunteer work at the same place. Eunice is paid to be an administrative assistant in Accounts Receivable, but she manages the coffee fund as a purely volunteer job. Her payment is a tiny bit more power over her co-workers and a little extra status.

These mixed jobs can create a dangerous situation for both workers and management. The volunteer worker faces the danger of an instant pay cut. At any point, management could grab a job that has been volunteer work and assign it to a paid employee. “The coffee fund should be handled by the accounting secretary,” declares The Boss, and now Eunice has lost her extra pay and her job.

And unlike the usual victim of a firing, Eunice remains there in the office. Not always great for the atmosphere.

Some workplaces depend far too much on volunteers. These are workplaces that would be in deep trouble if all their employees ever started doing only what they’re actually paid to do.

If you’re a manager, the other danger in using too much volunteer labor is that volunteers often do not really work for you.

Say that Chuck Gruntmuscle has been hired by the First United Church of Suburban Scrubgrass to coach their junior woodchuck ragball team. Chuck does it because he loves to see the team members get excited about the game, he enjoys winning, and he even enjoys the regard of the players’ parents.

Even though the church has hired him, Chuck is not paid by them. So in a very real sense, Chuck does not work for them, which is something they may discover when they decide they want Chuck to coach in a particular way and realize they have no leverage over him except to fire him completely.

That’s why so many mostly-volunteer jobs come with a small stipend. The pay scale may work out to something like one-point-oh-two cents an hour, but that’s not the point. The payment formalizes the employer-employee relationship, clarifying for whom the volunteer works.

That’s another part of the beauty of volunteer fire departments. They receive their pay from the communities they serve; it is the perfect relationship, as long as folks in the community don’t try to stiff their firefighters by skimping on support and recognition. It’s easy to take them for granted, but anybody doing valuable work deserves to be paid—in whatever currency they value.

Friday, September 14, 2007


(News-Herald, September 13) For all the complicated theological concepts that people of faith wrestle with, I think it’s the simple matter of witnessing that makes so many stumble.

The simple approach is that you bear witness to your faith by talking about it. I can remember what seem like hundreds of hours spent in meetings and gatherings and worship marathons with people standing up to tell their story. “This is what God means to me” or “This is why I love Jesus” or “This is how Divine Love changed my life.’

But talking about one’s faith is undoubtedly the least effective witness that any believer can offer.

I suppose I see more of this because I work with so many people who are relatively young in their faith. Students will write about how important faith is, or write about how religion changed their lives. Sometimes students will even talk about it in front of their peers. Then those same students will turn around and mock other students for being fat or wearing the wrong clothes or just being uncool.

Nothing bears witness to your beliefs (religious or otherwise) like the way you treat other people. Some people believe their faith gives them an obligation to treat other human beings well. Some people believe their faith gives them permission to treat other human beings poorly.

If you spend a lot of time in church circles, you’re probably familiar with a type. I call them Softball Christians, because the first place I encountered them was in college in church softball leagues.

In church or group meetings, they speak of God’s abiding love and heavenly grace, often with great warmth and sincerity. But put them on a softball field, and they will pursue secular victory in an earthly game with more hard-bitten ruthlessness than any Godless heathen. The same person who was earlier pointing at the world and saying “We must Save them” will now point at the other team and declare, “No mercy! We must obliterate them.”

Their competitiveness, their willingness to pursue victory even in something as trivial as a game—this is a mighty strong witness to the world.

There are those people of faith whose witness is that God has certified them as being special. And by “special,” they mean “better than the rest of you.”

They know better than to say the words, “I’m perfect.” The witness that comes out of their mouths is, “I’m imperfect, like every other human.” But the witness that comes out of their lives is, “I’m right. My understanding of God is perfect, and my understanding of His rules is perfect, so you had better do as I say. I don’t need to do any searching; I just need to straighten you out.”

We tend to make fun of our Puritan forebears—their funny hats, their dour banning of dance and music, their all-day church services. But give the Puritans their due—to a large degree, they walked the talk, and even a mute Puritan bore witness to his beliefs.

Modern witnesses often run into a consistency problem. Little Janie goes to church on Sunday morning and bears tearful witness to how Jesus has changed her and fills every single moment of her life and being. Then she goes home and logs on to Myspace to brag about how she drank everybody else under the table at Saturday’s party, including that stupid wench Ethel, who she hopes will get an awful disease and die soon. Exactly what sort of witness does she imagine that presents?

Understand, I do not agree with the school of thought that declares that since people of faith turn out to be merely human, that somehow proves that their faith is a crock. It’s seems fairly clear to me that being human means being flawed and limited, which in turn means that human understanding and practice of faith will always be imperfect.

But I have limited patience for the Magic Incantation school of religion, the idea that as long as I say the words, it doesn’t matter what I do or how I live.

It is human to be a mess on contradictory impulses, thoughts and actions. The search for meaning and direction in our lives is a search for something that can help us bring that big tangled mess into line. But the lazy man’s shortcut is finding something that provides an excuse for just indulging himself in whatever he already wanted anyway.

Religion and faith can be used either way, to provide direction or excuses. Most folks can tell which one they’re looking at, whether it’s the witness we intended to provide or not.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Today's post is strictly for showing off. The following link will take you to a piece about female motorcyclists, featuring my Aunt Betsi.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


(News-Herald, September 2003) You can tell a lot about a person from his lies. Not the question of if he lies—I’m not sure anyone can lay claim to a lie-free life—but the question of when he lies. It’s the line we all cross, even though it’s the line we almost all agree shouldn’t be crossed. When we’ll lie says something about what we value more than staying on the right side of that line.

Some folks lie to avoid trouble, the basic traditional Cover Your Butt lie. “Why no, I didn’t eat the last plum. It must have been stolen by fairies.” “I have no idea how that baseball came through the window. The boys and I were all in back discussing international monetary theory and French cuisine.” This kind of lie is easy to understand; there are times when avoiding a big hassle seems more valuable than a small truth.

Its first cousin is the Lie To Save Someone’s Feelings. 99 times out of a hundred this is just the Cover Your Butt lie dressed up in a rented tux to make it look nobler. Yes, there are people who really do want to spare other people’s feelings. But usually the purpose of this lie is to keep you from being upset—because I don’t want to have to deal with you when you’re agitated.

People who will tell these kinds of lies are dangerous. These are the folk who will say, “Sure, I dropped off that rent check just like you asked” without batting an eye. They may not even try to remember if they dropped off the check or not, because they know which answer will keep them from getting in trouble. These are the same people who won’t tell you that they’ve left you for someone new, so that you spend months publicly humiliating yourself by staying in a dead relationship when you could be humiliating yourself by trying to search for a new relationship instead.

Then there’s the Lookin’ Smart lie. Sometimes these lies are tiny; sometimes they’re enormous. But the purpose is simple—I would rather pull a statistic out of the troposphere than say that dreaded phrase, “I don’t know.” And if for some reason you actually know that the Ecuadorian annual rainfall figures that I just spouted are wrong, I’ll make up a source to go with my made-up number.

This type of liar is particularly annoying to work with because he would rather be right than solve the problem. He would rather watch the widget vat blow up so he can say, “I knew that would happen” than avert a disaster by taking someone else’s advice. His own sense of importance is more valuable than the truth.

Also appearing regularly at your place of business is the Manipulating Liar. This is the guy who tells you, “Yeah, bring that up at the next meeting. I’ll back you up.” Then he sits in the meeting and blows holes in your presentation.

This type of liar is particularly problematic because he’s usually your boss, and he’s lying to maintain control. He values power more than the truth. When someone doesn’t have the ability to manage by competence or the integrity to lead by principle, he can always keep people off balance and in line by saying whatever will smooth the waters right now—even if he plans to say or do the opposite an hour from now.

Special note to lying bosses: You aren’t fooling anyone. Your employees know you’re a liar. They don’t say anything to you because you’re the boss, but everything you say to them is filtered through the knowledge that you can’t be trusted. The irony is that you lie to gain power, but by lying you lose it.

Perhaps the most entertaining liar is the No Good Reason liar. This person tells lies that are so transparent or pointless that people are simply dumbfounded. His fiancé throws his ring at him in front of thirty witnesses and he tells everyone that he had to dump her because she was too possessive. She interrupts a conversation to announce that her recovery time from the operation under discussion was the longest on record, despite the fact that the operation in question is a vasectomy.

And in many ways this type is the saddest, because No Good Reason liars often turn out to be Look At Me Please liars, but their constant lying leads people to ignore them. They may change settings (school, workplace, neighborhood) many times, but their behavior always catches up with them.

We give up the truth when we think we can trade it for something more valuable, but we almost always underestimate the real price. We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking in the mirror and asking what it is that we think is worth that enormous price. But we rarely ask the question, either because we value the truth so little, or because we know we wouldn’t like the answer.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


(News-Herald, September 6)The relationship of parents with their offsprings’ schools is just one of those many parts of parenting most clearly seen in the rear-view mirror. My children are now post-teens, off to school; now that my nest is empty, I have a full wish list of parental do-overs.

You could focus on a whole long list of specific rules to follow when your child is in school, but I think it’s easier to focus on the broad principles. And I think the most important broad principle is to remember the end product.

For instance, most parents would agree that their child should emerge from school more or less ready to function as an independent-ish near-adult. But it’s easy to forget this long-term goal while addressing short-term issues.

The term in the ed biz is “helicopter parent,” the parents who hover over their children at every step. They check over every homework assignment, provide personal individual coaching at every sports event, oversee every aspect of Junior’s school life.

Some of this is the natural parental protectiveness. Childhood is rough; the teen years are particularly brutal. It’s the most natural impulse in the world to step in and protect your child from hurt. Some helicoptering comes from parents who believe that if they can control every aspect of their child’s life, that child out will turn out to be exactly as the parents wish.

Both views are mistakes. Lifting weights hurts, but if Mom lifts your weights for you, you don’t get any stronger. And anyone who thinks that they can engineer a young person to grow to order is doomed to disappointment (and a child who one day announces that they’re getting twelve piercings and moving in with someone named “Barf”).

Both views often feed the short-term approach, which is a mistake.

The school years are filled with things that simply won’t matter in the long run, and many of them are mighty seductive.

It’s easy to pursue grades. Cutting corners is easier than ever, with the cooperation of both your fellow students and the ever-reproductive internet. Parents can get sucked into the grade chase as well; more than a few of my students have turned in writing that included extra parental assistance.

But once students arrive at college or tech school or their job, their high school grades won’t mean a thing. What will matter is what they know and what they can do; school is their chance to load up on those things.

We make it easy to focus on the omnipresent PSSA testing. We do our darndest to convince students that the PSSA test scores are critical to the fate of Civilization As We Know It. But years from now, after they’ve picked up their high school diploma, their PSSA scores won’t mean a thing.

Parents of athletes want their children to win every contest, start every game, never sit the bench. But way too often the pursuit of winning sacrifices the very character that sports are supposed to build. Every record falls sooner or later, but a person’s character lasts a lifetime.

Even the social games of the school years are not forever. Most of us should know better—is there anyone who doesn’t know the story of a Most Popular High Schooler who grew up into a life of disaster and failure, or the social outcast who grew up to a solid life of success and achievement?

We don’t want our children to be left out, not to get invited to parties with the cool kids. When they have a falling out with old friends, we’d love to fix it. We want to see them have the kind of friendships with The Right People seen in every fantasy-filled movie about high school. Though we know there are more important things than the popularity game, we hate to see our children lose at it.

But the shiniest trophies of school are the some of the most empty and worthless. It’s the learning, the growth, the relationships based on something deeper than coolness and convenience that have the life long value.

Parents should absolutely be involved. They should stand up to the schools for their children, and they should stand up to their children for education.

But through all of that, take the long view. Worry a little less about how you hope your child feels this afternoon, and focus a bit more on that day, some years away, when they are high school graduates and you’re about to send them out into the world. When that day comes, you’ll want to know that even without you, they can handle the world; you won’t want to be wishing you could go with them because you’re afraid they can’t.

From my Flickr