Thursday, October 25, 2007


(News-Herald, October 25)Here’s some Venangoland entertainment recommendationms.

* I recently picked up a cd by FHS grad Andy Martin, and it’s pretty good stuff. Andy’s tunes present a nice blend of folk and rock and pop (the cd reminded me most immediately of the Three Bens, particularly Kweller).

There’s a lot here about love and travel and on repeated listenings the cd suggests a young man wrestling with finding his place and making mistakes coming to terms with the woman who may or may not be of his dreams. The closing piece, “Piano Song,” finds him singing “take me where you go,” broken and healed, settled into the business of loving enough to give up complete control of his life. Nice that it’s the track that includes a violin contribution by the woman who is now his wife.

It’s a pretty mature album for such a young guy, which is not to suggest that it suffers from the Deadly Earnestness that often afflicts folky music. There’s a lot of fun here, and a nice range from the Dylanesque pieces (“Falling Off”) to solid rockers (“The Valley Waits”). His vocal styling is loose and relaxed; not always vocally precise, but always personal. The production on the cd matches that—solid, but not overly slick. Overall it’s a nice contrast to the plastic over-produced slickness of top 40 without requiring the listener to endure amateurish experiments in odd noisemaking.

I have listened to this cd over and over and would be happy to own it if I had never met Andy in my life. You can get yourself a copy by websurfing your way to

* Last Saturday I headed to the Transit Building to catch Croyle Entertainment’s production of Wine, Cheese & Poe. Matt Croyle has created a theatrical setting for three Poe stories, a framework that helps establish an appropriate mood and provides a bit of Poe background for the uninitiated.

The evening is not particularly long, and the readings of the stories are nicely done. Matt actually makes “The Raven” make sense, and Rob Hoover is appropriately creepy as the narrator of “The Black Cat.” The producers even throw in some wine and cheese at intermission. The show will be presented again this Friday and Saturday night. It’s a fine way to kick off Halloween week, and support a fledgling local theater endeavor.

* Sunday afternoon at 3:00, the Venango Chamber Orchestra will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a concert at the Barrow-Civic Theatre.

Many people tend to be scared of orchestra music. They shouldn’t be. Anyone who watches tv or movies knows how moving and visceral orchestra music can be. But the best movie sound system in the world cannot capture or recreate the sound of a live orchestra. When a full-bodied chorus of strings stretch out on a soft and solid bed of brass and woodwinds, it’s like stumbling upon a full-colored sunrise over the Grand Canyon—it’s impossible not to be moved, impossible not to want to turn to someone and say, “Wow, look at that!”

Every area should have a live orchestra; very few do. It’s just short of miraculous that we have one here in Venangoland, and a testament to the folks involved that it is still thriving after fifteen years. And they play well, too.

What my first three recommendations have in common is a taste of the unfamiliar. When it comes to the arts, many of us tend to fear the strange and new, and sometimes the strange and new require an audience that likes daring stuff out on the edge. But I promise you—none of these treats require you to be edgy and experimental and out on the edge. They’re all easily accessible and thoroughly enjoyable.

* Recommendation four isn’t so unfamiliar. On November 9, 7:30 at the Barrow, there will be a concert headlined by Frank Feroz, who will be backed up by Rae Hanna, Mark DeWalt, Neal Williams and Steve McMurray—as close to a Venangoland Superband as you’re likely to get. I am particularly excited about special guest John Sferra, who was one third of the classic rock trio Glass Harp.

Another third of Glass Harp was Phil Keaggy, probably the best guitarist of his generation. Phil left the mainstream to make some of the greatest Christian rock music ever; Crimson and Blue, arguably one of his best albums, features Sferra as drummer.

Also on the program are the Electracons, about which I know nothing at all, and the River Nymphs. I’ve never actually heard the Nymphs, but I’ve seen pictures and so can vouch for their babe-osity (which is good, because Hanna and McMurray—great musicians, but not so pretty). Advance tickets are $10, and worth every penny.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


(News-Herald, October 2003) In these modern times, there’s a thriving world built around what are known as zines, magazines published, printed and distributed on a personal amateur level. Some of these are very slick and stylish, some very personal, some with exceptionally good content and writing. But zines are not new, exactly.

In the late 1870’s, amateur newspapers were in vogue. Anyone who lay hands on the basic printing equipment could create their own local newspaper. In 1878, seventeen-year-old James Borland and a few friends started The Evening News in Franklin. The first issue was four pages long: “An amateur daily paper published by three boys should be read by all. ‘Spicy and newsy’ is our motto.”

I picked up Borland’s memoir Fifty Years in the Newspaper Game, an interesting record of a man who was an integral part of life in Franklin for decades.

Borland’s father was a doctor; he contributed the occasional article and the boys created the newspaper in a back room of his offices. For James it was apparently the discovery of a passion. He worked on the paper before school, during lunch, and after school. The boys quickly ran out of money and only a timely loan from Joseph Sibley kept the paper afloat; it was the beginning of a lifelong bond between the two.

Borland’s path was still uncertain; a school teacher helped him decide. Stumped by algebra, Borland was confronted by Prof. John W. Cannon, who refused to explain the lessons to young James, instead advising him to give up the newspaper business and study lessons in the evening so he could get them without Cannon’s help. Borland decided that he was learning more from the newspaper business than from school, and quit school to pursue journalism.

Borland found himself a partner for years with General Miller; the picture that emerges in his book of that gentleman is less than flattering. In 1917, the two had a major falling out. Miller opposed Judge Criswell, an active Prohibition man in the county. The Judge had crossed Miller when Miller had attempted to divorce his wife, and Miller wanted the paper to oppose the Judge’s campaign. For Borland, it was a conflict between a wealthy man of power and a working class man of principle; the editor resigned and walked away from the business that he had created.

Borland immediately went to work for the Daily Herald, which two years later merged with his old paper to form the News-Herald. Borland was back at the helm again. In his account of events, Miller, never really interested in the newspaper business, wandered off to other pursuits.

Despite his conflicts with Miller, Borland’s loyalty to Joe Sibley remained undaunted over the years. His book includes numerous accounts of Sibley’s generosity and warmth. Sibley had his share of controversy in his career—an election scandal, charges that he was a tool of Standard Oil, a flap over campaign spending (imagine—people were outraged that he had allegedly spent forty grand on an election campaign). But no criticism of Sibley appears in Borland’s book unless it is accompanied by an exoneration.

Borland saw a lot of history: everything from national conventions featuring the era’s famous names to the beginnings of Conneaut Lake Park. In days when you only saw it if you were there in the flesh, Borland saw a lot.

And yet much of his best writing was in the two decades he wrote a column in the paper that most often focused on birds and wildlife and the sweet pleasure of life out along French Creek. And the biggest events in his life were the ones he helped stage here, most notably the series of Old Home Weeks at the opening of the last century. It is abundantly clear in his book that he took pride in those gatherings of folks to the old home town of which he was such a proud booster.

Old Home Week fans honored Borland for his dedication. Near the sidewalk in front of the county courthouse stands a small birdbath and a bench, nestled in a semi-circle of shrubs. Not as big as the fountain or as majestic as the war monument, but a nice reminder nevertheless of a man who managed to create something lasting out of his love and dedication. For Borland, serve was the operative word:

“The fascination of newspaper publishing is beyond compare. It is life itself—changing, moody, exhilarating, all-conquering, submissive, impulsive, wonderfully interesting. Such experiences are the only reward the true newspaper man receives. Few achieve riches, a handful achieve fame, but the great multitude of newspaper men serve—and serve—and serve!”

A bit hokey, perhaps, but a nice sentiment none the less.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


(News-Herald, October 18)It’s a tough job to steer one’s child through the world of activities. Sports programs, music programs, dance studios, general activity programs—we’re loaded with them in Venangoland, both in and out of schools. The challenge as a parent is to figure out which provide good use of time and money.

Part depends on the goal of involvement. Some people with a talent seek ways to enrich and develop it. Some people simply want to have their wonderfulness confirmed.

Confirmation is easy. Give the young persons constant praise. Always tell them (and their parents) how wonderful they are; never critique or criticize them. Of course, feedback that would interrupt this unending praise is also feedback that would allow them to grow and develop their talents.

There are often perks. There will be a super-special trip to the East Podunk Arts Festival as featured performers, or a spot in the line-up of the Outer Bogwomp Intraleague Playoffs. But all these “exclusive” events require of participants is the ability to write a check that won’t bounce.

These types of programs can be fine. They create some great childhood memories and as an adult, the young person can reminisce about the talent that he never really developed.

For those who do want to grow, there’s another type of balance to strike, and that’s the balance between the needs of the student and the needs of the program.

Drift too far to either end of the scale and things get ugly. There are parents who think, for instance, that schools sports exist only to provide a platform for their Little Johnny to take his next step toward Awesome Sports Success. Other players, the teams, the school, even Little Johnny’s own education—all of that is inconsequential next to Little Johnny’s need to Be the Biggest Star.

This approach is not particularly character-building, and Little Johnny either grows up to be a colossal self-centered jerk, or he finally gets fed up and tells his hard-driving parents to take a flying leap off the top of the Oil City sign.

Neither leads to great success. And the number of great sports legends to come from Venangoland is not something you need a lot of extra hands to count. You can try to get everything possible for your sports prodigy, but if your child doesn’t come out of the program with some character, the rest is meaningless.

An important part of character is the ability to devote time and effort to something larger than yourself. But on the other ugly end of the scale we find coaches and directors who believe that students exist only as fodder for The Program.

There’s no question that in the arts and sports, you ask students to make sacrifices now to pay off down the road. You practice till it hurts because later you’ll be better. You take one for the team because that’s part of being a member of a team.

But if you are always taking one for the team, and the team never takes one for you, something’s wrong. It’s like being a renter instead of an owner—you pay and pay and pay and still the result never belongs to you, but is always the property of the real owner. His band, his team, his show. His pride and success.

Parents whose child is charting this world need to watch out for the best interests of that child, and they have a right, and perhaps an obligation, to walk away from a leader who does not have the best interests of the student in mind.

Yes, these sorts of endeavors require time and effort and sacrifice. But if the student is being asked to give up a sizeable chunk of his life, and the return on that investment is supposed to be the satisfaction of making his Glorious Leader successful, something is out of whack.

No fair answering, “But Janey loves practicing her accordion sixty hours a week” if you’ve taught her since birth that she has to love it or you will be Very Disappointed. If you’ve created an atmosphere at home where your child can’t tell you the truth, you have another problem.

Because in the end, your child is your guide. The average shmoe can tell the team’s winning and still not be sure whether it’s any good. Audiences can take in a performance and not know whether it required virtuoso skills or was so easy that trained chimps could have managed it. They have to take someone’s word for it. But the final measure of the worth of a program is whether it enriches your child’s life, or makes it miserable; whether it helps her grow up or merely makes her wish she could be old enough to quit on her own.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


(News-Herald, March 2003) I finally broke down and joined the YMCA this winter. I had the vague notion that it might be helpful for getting in shape. Membership immediately improved my health; now I can’t afford to eat out so often.

Those of you who have known me for years will appreciate how surprised I am to find myself in a gym, working out and getting sweat all over myself. My athleticism is legendary, in the same way that leprechauns are legendary, except that you can probably find more people who will claim to have seen leprechauns than have seen me actively pursue any sport-like activities.

I had one season in my youth as a pitcher in playground league softball. I played for the Franklin Heights playground, where we practiced without benefit of anything remotely resembling a softball field. Third Street had a giant field, Eleventh Street a decent one, and at Fifteenth Street whacking the ball into the cemetery was good for a home run. Third Ward playground, home of the notoriously rough and tough players, didn’t have a field either, but they could use Miller-Sibley where the Cadillacs of fields were available.

At the Heights, we had a sliver of a field. Instead of power, we learned control, because a hit to anywhere except right field put you in the woods or in someone’s kitchen. Smart teams would not have bothered to put anyone out against us except a right fielder.

Though, as I recall, we did have a secret weapon. Somebody on the team knew Bernie Walz, who would occasionally come to play for us. At the plate, even at that relatively tender age, Bernie looked pretty much like a mountain wielding a toothpick. Bernie moved slowly; it looked like it took a half-hour for that toothpick to amble around. But then it would meet the ball—after that the small sphere would whimper, then sizzle, then head off to parts unknown. It would not surprise me to find some of Bernie’s hits embedded in low orbit satellites.

I pitched for the team. The position only required me to have good control of one limb at a time (as opposed to, say, running and throwing simultaneously), though I early learned to duck quickly. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a softball, flattened into a pancake by centrifical force, spinning toward your head like an angry white buzzsaw.

My gift for pitching was spotty. At one point, I led the league in both strikeouts and walks. The next summer I was too old to play playground league; oddly enough, no recruiting bids from other leagues appeared.

My athletic career has been rather limited ever since. I learned racquetball in college (liberal arts education) and was well on my way to being almost above average. Later I impressed my future in-laws at a family picnic by disassembling my entire knee during a game of kickball.

All of which goes to show that I am as mystified as anyone to find me in a gym working out. I don’t know what exactly prompted my entry into the world of exertion in these last few years. It may well be as simple as the belated discovery that running and biking and kayaking and yes, even grunting at oddly shaped machinery is fun, even relaxing.

If I could go back and deliver a message or two to my younger self, I would—well, come to think of it, that’s rather a list. But one item would definitely be to assure him that awkward or not, swift and strong or not, there is enjoyment to be had in putting one’s physical self to work, just as surely as it’s fun to sit down with a good book.

I wish I had known that sooner. But you can sit and read a book and there’s nothing to tell you that you are reading it slower or with less understanding than other smarter, faster readers. Way too much of the world of physical activity seemed geared for competition. Heck, even at the Y there are a zillion opportunities to swim competitively, but swimming just for recreation seems to be an alien art form.

The gym—excuse me, “Fitness Center”—at the Y is pleasantly non-competitive. I have a sense that the folks on the free weight end are a bit more aggressive, but I think you have to be because that part of the gym has the wall-sized mirrors so you can check your form. I don’t know what I look like when I’m exerting myself, but I’m fairly certain that it’s not pretty, and I’d rather leave it a mystery. My end of the gym has a nice picture window overlooking French Creek and a couple of tv’s. People are friendly but focused on what they’re doing. Nobody wears the kind of workout outfits that scream “I Am Way Too Serious About This.” I have not seen anyone kick sand in someone’s face yet.

So I’m not only surprised to be there, but enjoying it as well. All I need now is a barely mediocre racquetball partner.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


(News-Herald, October 11)No Child Left Behind has been lurching toward reauthorization. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been parading it like a stuffed dog yanked along on a tight leash. Periodically the poor dead thing tips over, and Spellings praises it for rolling over.

Spellings has been touting test results as proof that NCLB works. Not everyone is convinced. The internet is loaded with scholarly statistic wonk articles accusing Spellings of cooking the books and cherry-picking data. The good numbers reportedly depend on techniques like counting figures from before the actual implementation of NCLB.

But I’m not even going to argue that point. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that test scores really have improved.

The rhetoric that has surrounded NCLB since its spawning has been masterful. Every child should be educated in a culture or excellence and high expectations. Every child should receive the best education possible. America’s workforce should be well-educated. Who can disagree with any of these?

And I’ll go one further—who can disagree with the idea of accountability for school systems. In the ed biz, we feed at the public trough, and we owe the taxpayers a good accounting of what we’re doing with the system they pay for and entrust us with. The days are gone when schools can get away with saying, “Look, we’re your schools. Just trust us and don’t ask questions.”

Those days should be gone. Today there’s no reason for a school not to operate with a high level of transparency. Folks should be able to get some idea of how well we’re doing our job.

Every one of those goals listed above—every single one—is reasonable and appropriate and worth achieving. But the mystery remains—why would anyone seriously think that the way to pursue and measure any of those goals is by giving a single multiple choice test?

Certainly not actual teachers. Since the seventies, research into best practices has steered teachers away from multiple choice tests because they are such a lousy measure of pretty much anything. What’s required for a multiple choice test is a combination of regurgitation untainted by any actual thinking, plus a small amount of dumb luck.

Even the couple of essay-ish questions inserted as a sop to old-fashioned curmudgeons like me are multiple-choice dumb—if it asks for two reasons, the test scorer is only to count the number of reasons offered, and not to evaluate their quality.

The tests are not completely worthless. They’re like a canary in a coal mine—if nobody in your school is passing, something is terribly wrong. But if the canary is alive and well, that doesn’t mean you’re mining lots of coal. And if half of your crew is busy with the care, feeding and maintenance of the canary, then they’re not busy mining coal, and you’re falling behind.

NCLB could be merely obnoxious, or perhaps a curious hybrid (where else do we find the conservative desire to spank unions so perfectly wedded to the liberal desire to have the federal government take over everything). But the omnipresent testing makes NCLB a giant bloodsucking leech on the body of education. Testing and practice testing and bizarrely obsolete tests that we give just because we always have (yes, MAT, I’m talking to you) have steadily shortened the school year.

So we put the squeeze on history and art and music and just plain using your brain for something other than a sponge. Not to mention NCLB’s disrespect for blue collar jobs—the PSSA does not include questions about welding or carburetors, but it does hit calculus.

And now some batch of geniuses in Harrisburg think that a good next move would be—more tests!! I would love to meet these guys face to face, but I don’t think I can get transportation to whatever planet they live on. I can only assume they’re related to the same folks who think if you keep looking in your wallet, eventually you’ll find more money there. Fine if you’re rich, but if you’re checking your wallet instead of doing your job, it will only get emptier.

Try a simple exercise. Imagine that you are going to select an employee, a nurse for your aging parent, even a spouse. Could you design a multiple choice test that would tell you everything you wanted to know about them? Despite all the political verbiage about raising expectations, NCLB has lowered the bar while making it twice as hard to strive for anything better.

Several business coalitions have announced their support for NCLB, saying they have a real need for the educated workers it will produce. I can only assume that they expect a big wave of openings for multiple choice test takers.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


(News-Herald, October 4)There’s only one thing I could be writing about this week. So now, before the Applefestering begins, let me offer some Applefestifying survival tips.

As always, parking will be an issue. You may want to park somewhere convenient, like a side street in the lower end of town, or the handy outlying shuttle-serviced parking lots, or Cleveland.

The quest for parking is an odd one. Why an able-bodied person would spend an hour driving around in order to avoid a fifteen minute walk is a mystery to me. Of course, I’m not inclined to buy a giant herb-encrusted hand-carved tree trunk; I suppose factoring in cargo transport makes a difference in parking considerations.

But if you’re not planning on heavy shopping, consider some other alternatives. You could take the bike trail into town from Oil City or Fisherman’s Cove or even Emlenton. You get a little exercise, a peaceful ride through nature, and when you get back to the car you’ll be able to grab a bite to eat without waiting in line. (You’ll need a chain to secure your bike to some large object, like a bridge, or one of those people who stops in the middle of the sidewalk and just stays there).

Granted, that means you’ll miss some of the Complete Applefest Experience. But for some folks, the CAE is a bit of sensory overload. For those folks, I’ll also offer the reminder that Riverfront Park (at the bottom of Ninth Street, for you out-of-towners) is just a few blocks away from ground zero and offers benches and green and a lovely, peaceful view of both the river and the creek. It can be a handy place to catch your breath or dangle feet in the water.

Speaking of natural splendor, remember that the predicted warm weather and giant park full o’food will make a big day for yellowjackets. That means women should plan to make do without hair spray. I used to travel with the FHS marching band back in the eighties, the days when young women wore hair so large that it could be viewed from space, said viewing made easier because the five pounds of hairspray per individual hairdo opened holes in the ozone. On a warm evening, the Knightettes, Majorettes and Silks collective hair products would draw a swarm of yellowjackets large enough to carry away a small elephant.

At any rate, skip the hair product. Just wear a hat or a babushka. If you forget, you can always buy one of those crocheted toilet paper roll covers, which look rather like small hats anyway. And don’t forget to keep a thumb over the top of your pop can or bottle.

Of course, food is part of the very essence of Applefestosity. I recommend that you eat nothing at all today to give yourself maximum capacity for the weekend.

I am also happy to announce the newest rule for the Any Excuse Will Do Diet Program. Previously, Applefest diners had to depend on the old rules that both food eaten while standing up and food torn into smaller pieces have fewer calories. But a recent decision ruled that all food eaten at big noisy festivals does not count at all.

In addition to all the booths, I recommend eating at any of Franklin’s fine sit down restaurants because, let’s face it, at some point any excuse to sit down will be welcome. The trick is to head to these restaurants between normal meal times. At least, that was the trick until I just told everyone. It's still worth it to stop in-- you get a chance to check out the new Oskie's menu and, of course, when you can eat at Leonardo's on a Sunday, that's almost as good as Christmas.

The most important survival advice for Applefestery is to give yourself time. Clear your calendar. Leave your watch at home.

Then you can simply relax and enjoy the day. Have fun cheering on the race. Stroll through some booths. Eat something yummy. Swing past the performance spots every so often to check out which special flavor of music is being served. Eat something else. Rinse and repeat.

With a good weather year, I’d guess we’ll have another record-breaking year for the car show on Sunday, so that may make for a day’s worth of browsing all by itself.

But the most important reason for allowing lots of time only applies to locals. Applefest is Franklin’s homecoming, an event that brings home people of every age and station that ever lived here. You will see people that you haven’t seen in ages, and in spite of the sprawling splendid carnivalous varied vast adventure that is Applefest, there isn’t anything better than that.

From my Flickr