Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells

It’s a good things I stay alert for random factoids, or we would have missed an important anniversary this year. In 2007, the song “Jingle Bells” celebrated its 150th birthday.

The song was written by James Lord Pierpont. He was the son of a Boston minister and somehow ended up being related to J. P Morgan. Sources differ on how, exactly, just as there seems to be some pretty heated disagreement about where precisely James wrote his musical contribution to the ages. It’s often reported that the song was written for a Sunday School program in the early 1850’s; some authorities seem to think that it was for a Thanksgiving celebration, but since Thanksgiving languished largely uncelebrated until the Lincoln Presidency, I have my doubts about that little tidbit.

Sources agree that he was thirty-ish and serving as an organist at a Unitarian church in Savannah, Georgia by the mid-1850’s. He made a trip back to Medford, Mass to (depending on whose version you believe) either compose or get an early reaction to his cute little song, entitled “A One-Horse Open Sleigh.” No fewer than four places claim to be the “home” of the song, with Savannah and Medford both sporting nifty “Birthplace of “Jingle Bells” plaques. At any rate, in September of 1857, he copyrighted the song.

James was an adventurous young man. He had run away to sea at age 14 and later headed west to the Gold Rush. He first married in Troy, New York, and left wife #1 in Medford with his father when he made the move to Savannah. She died there of tuberculosis, and he went on to marry the daughter of Savannah’s mayor.

James took the Southern side during the War Between the States, and composed several pro-South songs such as “Strike for the South” and “We Conquer or Die” which included the lines “The war drum is beating, prepare for the fight!/The stern, bigot Northman exults in his might.” He apparently got himself in some hot water during Reconstruction when he signed on for a plan to bring Scottish itinerant farmers in to work empty Southern farms.

James passed away in 1893 at the age of 71, having realized little fame or fortune from his venerable classic, though it had been popular from day one.

The original tune is a bit different from the one we know today—the chorus is a bit more formal. To my ear it actually bears more than a passing resemblance to the tune of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” (a song that authorities list as “traditional” and “origin unknown”).

The lyrics have come down basically unchanged, four full verses in all. It’s the third verse that tends to get left out—in that verse, our hero is blown off the road and laughed at by a faster rig. The only real lyrical oddity is that Jingle Bell scholars believe that the title is an imperative—in other words, we’re giving instructions, not identifying a type. It’s “hey, you bells, get jingly” and not “here we have some jingle type bells.”

Mostly the lyrics point to the big unanswered question, which is this—why exactly is “Jingle Bells” a Christmas song anyway?

It’s not even remotely about Christmas. In the first verse, we extol the fun of ramping around in an open sleigh. In the second, we add a girl (“Fannie Bright” not “Brice,” who didn’t some along until much later) and the get stuck in a snow bank where we become “upsot,” which is 1850’s slang for either turning upside down or becoming drunk.

The final verse is even more direct. “Now the ground is white/ go get it while you’re young/ Take the girls tonight/ and sing this sleighing song.” It also advises that you get a horse with “two forty for his speed,” a reference to a horse that covers a mile in two minutes, forty seconds.

In other words, “Jingle Bells” is nothing less than a 150-year-old celebration of the joys of a woman and a fast vehicle. How such a thing ever became associated with the baby Jesus is quite beyond me, but clearly there’s no reason we couldn’t keep enjoying it throughout the rest of the snow-covered winter season.

Not that all news for the venerable birthday song is good. A recent poll by Edison Media Research tested 579 Christmas recordings. Placing dead last was a song that was a big hit in 1955, created by a Danish sound engineer by the slow painful process of working with hundreds of collected recordings of animal sounds. Yes, “Jingle Bells” as rendered by the Barking Dogs has been judged the least favorite Christmas record of all. Happy birthday, indeed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas with the Family

(News-Herald, December 20) Plenty of pressure comes with the Christmas holiday. Selecting presents, eating food, shopping crowds, bad music—but for many people the greatest challenge is the dreaded family gathering.

I have reached that stage of life where my house is otherwise empty until people come home to it. I find that prospect pretty exciting, and I likewise look forward to the three of us heading off to my parents’ home for a massed clan onslaught. But I know that not everyone finds these sorts of prospects appealing.

Like many parts of Christmas, this tradition carries a high stress level because we expect that it will be acted out with all the polished treacly perfection of a Hallmark television special. Real live non-televised humans are considerably messier than the Hallmark kind.

When some people gather with family, they bring more issues than the simple desire for perfection. There are some other habits of mind that foster discontent during seasonal hearth gathering.

What have you done for me lately? There are people whose relationships ride the roller coaster of recent events. I’m not talking about major news, like discovering that someone you trusted has stolen your life’s savings. I’m talking about the person who was your buddy last week when you were shopping together, but yesterday she snubbed you at a party, so now you hate her.

When I close the book on a professional or amateur career, I would hate to have that whole span judged based on the last few chapters, particularly because our last chapters do not always find us at our best. We forget that, though, so there we are thinking that we don’t care if Uncle Duddly saved our lives years ago—right now he’s irritating and loud and he smells funny.

The eternal grudge. This is an absolute family pitfall, because families have a mountain of history. It’s almost certain that some time in the last fifty years everyone has done something unpleasant and painful to everyone else.

It doesn’t matter if it was the time Madge insulted your dress or the time your sister hit on your new boyfriend or the time Uncle Duddly hinted that your son is not very bright. You can select the wound and pick at the scab forever.

Grudge-holding is an absolute killer at Christmastime because everyone is supposed to be warm and happy. So the offender can make a show of being regretful and sad that he did a Bad Thing, thereby being a spirit-killing party pooper. Or he can get in the appropriate happy spirit, giving you the cue to quietly seethe—how dare he act as if he doesn’t care how rotten he was to you.

Sitting judgment. How is it that we can look at strangers and acquaintances and say, “Well, everybody’s entitled to make their own choices,” but when it comes to family, we feel the need to correct Errors in Judgment.

Cousin Ethel has adopted a diet that won’t oppress green leafy vegetables, and since we think that’s Horribly Wrong, we’ll make sure that we don’t do anything that might suggest we in any way approve. This makes use of that great old rationalization: “It’s not rudeness if I’m really right and she’s really wrong.”

Alpha battles. Christmas brings together many people who are used to being royalty in their own castles. It’s not always easy for them to spend time around someone else’s throne. Wrestling for the crown can involve anything from subtle discomfort to open combat.

Sometimes it’s not just you. Sometimes there’s a family member who really is a jerk. Really.

How can you cope with the extra drama of extra family togetherness? Well, you can focus on everything you ever loved about the ones you find difficult. It’s not really any harder to fixate on something you loved than on something that bugged you.

You can focus your attention on a relative that you particularly love, someone you would give the greatest gift in the world if you could just afford it. Your gift to that person can be a peaceful, stress-reduced Christmas gathering.

Or you can just imagine that your family members are dead. Yes, that’s an awful thought, but stay with me.

Where’s the one place that bygones are bygones and the family is loving and supportive without hesitation? The funeral home. When do we let go of the worst of someone and grab onto the best with unconditional love? When they’re dead.

Well, if you can do it then, you can do it now. So before you walk up that snow covered walk to the house, remember how much you would miss the folks inside if they were gone. Put love first. Have a Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Harold Pixley Remembered

Hard to believe that it has only been seven years since Harold Pixley died. This is the column that ran in December of 2000. Like many of the old columns about people, I run this to give him a little bit of presence on the web. Who knows who might be looking for some little cyber-trace of him.

Harold Pixley died this week. I know I'm not the only person in Franklin who will miss him.

Pix came to Franklin in the summer of 1943 when the school district was looking to fill the gap left by the departure of Richard Stocker. Pix came originally from Centralia, Illinois. He graduated from Oberlin College and had played first chair clarinet with the New Philadelphia Ohio Symphony Orchestra. The school district selected him from a field of ten applicants; he was thirty-one years old.

Those of us who come to teaching with even a small amount of idealism dream of becoming the kind of teacher that Pix was. His influence in Venango County is beyond measuring.

He built up the Franklin High School Stage Band. This may not seem like a particularly radical notion, but it was the forties and a teacher who tried to bring swing music into the schools was viewed about as a teacher who wanted to start a school rap ensemble. That's they were called "stage" bands-- "swing" was too naughty.

With both the stage band and the full bands at Franklin, Pix was a master at selecting music that audiences would enjoy. Pix was not the kind of musician who believed in "pure" music, music that musicians and academics would love but which would give average audiences headaches. Pix never played the national anthem too slowly. One standard Pix saying was, "Give the audience a treat, not a treatment."

Pix could push students without insulting them. And he was not the stereotypical band director who required his students to make him proud, to make him look good. He wasn't all warm and mooshy and fuzzy, but he was always a gentleman. "Practice at home" was another standard Pix saying.

Pix set the regular format for the annual Musical Broadcast, the FHS variety/talent show. Pix's Broadcasts were legendary for their length-- Pix gave every performer an encore, whether they deserved it or not. And even in the last years of his teaching career, Pix never became hidebond and set in his ways. He really didn't get rock music, but he knew "the kids" did and that was okay.

Pix's influence went beyond the high school. He was the first director of the Franklin Silver Cornet Band to have actual formal musical training. In the years when the band nearly died for lack of members, Pix helped bring high school students into the fold, including students who broke the great gender barrier (women in town band---gasp!!)

Pix was for years the music director at the First United Methodist Church. It was Pix who conned Steve Anderson and me into singing in the youth choir there, with absolutely no reason to suspect that either one of us had a hint of vocal skill before he recruited us (and precious little afterwards, either), but it was Pix's way to keep building. "He may not be good for the band," he once said about a student. "But the band will be good for him."

It was Pix who handed over the reins at church to a new young guy, just back in the area, so that John McConnell could begin his many productive years of making that church into a musical leader in the community. And it was Pix who recruited Ed Frye for town band, where he began the longest tenure in band history as director. Pix was not one to jealously guard his turf.

I've never seen anybody who could work so hard and look so relaxed at the same time. I never saw Pix look harried or stressed or under the gun. I can remember him sitting next to me in board meetings for town band, hard of hearing and not quite catching what was said. He'd just smile and turn to me and say, "What's he talking about, Pietro?"

And I can remember the long hard years of his wife's illness, the medical prognoses that gave her a few months to live. Those months stretched to years, and caring for her became a full-time difficult task; we didn't see him out and about often.

He told me once in that time that he supposed he could put her in a home, but he didn't think that was right. She was his wife, and he had made a promise that he would always take care of her, and so he did, although he was not a young man. I wouldn't have thought any less of him if he had felt trapped, or regretted giving up so much of his own life to care for her, but he explained it all in the same simple way that a man explains why he eats and breathes.

I will always admire Pix. He was kind, gentle, dedicated, and quietly strong. He was a man who found a place for himself and filled that place without flinching or complaining. He made thousands of friends who always loved him, and touched thousands of lives for the better. All of us will miss him.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Information Vacuums

(News-Herald, December 13)Nature abhors an information vacuum. Where information is missing, nature always finds way to pick up the slack. This is a simple principle, easy to grasp, but often forgotten. People, particularly when occupying sensitive positions of power or bureaucracy, seem to have an overwhelming urge to “manage” people by withholding information.

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them” is the operating principle, and it’s true, as far as it goes. But the oft-forgotten rest of the saying is “but it will surely come back to bite you in the butt.”

On some level, we all know this. It’s a principle that has been celebrated endlessly on television. If the first part of an episode involves a husband deciding that he will avoid trouble by keeping some piece of information from his wife, every tv viewer over the age of six knows that hilarity will ensue as his secrecy breeds disaster.

The problem with an artificial information vacuum is not just that it’s hard to control. The problem is that when you refuse to tell people things they want to know, they will invariably just start making stuff up. Nobody ever EVER walked away from a situation like that saying, “Well, they aren’t talking, so I guess we’ll just never know.”

All of the great wrangles in these parts have featured this principle at work. From the Hospital Merger Fiasco to the endless Two Mile Run Drama, confusion and mess have been sown by folks who figured they could keep a lid on things and avoid further squawking.

In the murky uncertainty of the merger of the Oil City and Franklin hospitals, a thousand imagined outcomes were conjured up. The Oil City Hospital is going to be closed. The Franklin Hospital will be closed. A thousand nurses will be laid off. The Oil City building will be encased in concrete, then blown up. Patients will be dragged to the Franklin facility and then forced to live within the Franklin City limits.

It’s not that the complete truth is always greeted with a warm fuzzy hug. Had the merger plans been laid out in detail from day one, there still would have been plenty of people hopping mad. But by trying to avoid that scenario, honchos managed to still get all of that anger PLUS a bunch more anger about things that weren’t even going to happen.

And if that isn’t messy enough, an information vacuum provides opportunity for deliberate abuse. Hypothetically, a physician who was worried about having his golden applecart upset by the merger would have been free to fill the vacuum with whatever tale he chose to spin in order to stir up people for his own purposes.

Two Mile has often offered more of the same. We could go back through the years, but let’s just set the wayback machine to last summer.

All the park authority ever needed to do was issue a simple sentence beginning with the words, “It’s necessary to close the park for the season because…” and finish it in fifteen words or fewer. Instead, we got gobbledygook that was, perhaps, intended to soothe the savages. It didn’t—it just left everyone in the county free to invent their own reason for closing the park.

So many stories have been made up about the park that the average shmoe doesn’t have a hope of figuring out what the heck really went on. That’s how it is with an information vacuum; before you know it, you’re trying to prove that forty-seven different things didn’t happen and answering questions like “When did you stop beating your wife?”

That’s why it’s worth it to tell people you don’t have an answer—if you tell them nothing, they’ll guess that you’re keeping the truth hostage for nefarious purposes. That’s why it actually makes sense for news outlets to keep reporting “Nothing new has happened at this time.” The truth may be boring, but it still fills the information vacuum.

Sometimes information has to be held back. It would have been nice to have regular updates on the saga of the Crook Who Stole Venango County’s Money, but the feds asked our local authorities to keep a lid on it and that seems like a hard-to-ignore request. Troop movements, contract negotiations and medical tests are better handled without widespread public scrutiny, balanced by the knowledge that the results will ultimately be revealed.

It should also be noted that it is not an information vacuum when the information is right there for all the to see, but people are just too lazy or cantankerous or attached to what they’ve already decided is the truth. If you insist on remaining unbothered by the facts, the only vacuum is between your ears.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gifts of Time and Money

(News-Herald, December 6) One of the thorny issues of the Christmas season is the business of gifting, the large-scale dispersal and redistribution of whatever we have that passes for wealth. It’s a pretty shaky proposition to start with the birth of the baby Jesus, the Creator of All manifest in frail human form, and then draw a line from there to a mad dash to buy home appliances, jewelry, toys, and the latest dvd’s.

The conventional answer is to enshrine gift-giving as a tradition begun by the magi bringing their gifts to the manger. It’s a nice thought, even if it does give short shrift to the shepherd who showed up with full hearts but empty hands.

I’m not lobbying against gift-giving. It’s an honorable tradition, and it gives us the opportunity to reflect on something at the core of honorable, devout and ethical behavior. And that’s the simple matter of acting on what we believe.

People, whether as individuals, or as parts of organizations or governments, usually have their stated priorities and their real priorities, and they don’t always match. To find out the real priorities, simply watch how someone spends two resources—time and money.

Time and money are the resources that matter because they are absolutely limited. You only get so much of both, and that in turn means that every expenditure of time or money is a choice. The hour I spend talking to you is an hour I don’t spend doing something else; the dollar I spend on a chocolate cupcake can’t be spent on fresh twinkies.

People try to identify priorities with talk, but talk is cheap. It costs you nothing. One common trait of the presidencies of Slick Willie and George Junior is grasping that if they said what people wanted to hear, many folks will not pay any attention to what actually happened.

Most working folks have experienced the Pep Talk. This talk (apparently taught in Manager School) involves some boss standing in front of a room full of widget twiddlers. “Widget twiddlers,” he says earnestly, “are the heart and soul of this organization. What you do is so very important, and we just couldn’t function without you.”

Managers, here’s a clue. If you can’t right now think of ten real, substantive things that you’ve done in the last year that could be used as evidence of your commitment to widget twiddling, you should just shut up, because nobody in the room will believe your motivational words. On the other hand, if you can name ten things, you probably don’t need to talk about your commitment, because your people already know.

Here’s your management lesson for the day. If the only way people will know what you value is that you tell them, don’t bother. A) Nobody will believe you because B) it isn’t true.

If you are telling folks you’re all about your home life, but you’re rarely at home, you’re not very believable. If you tell your kids they come first, but you spend all your money on Beanie Babies, while the kids make do with one pair of jeans and a t-shirt each, your kids likely suspect that they aren’t number one.

What we say we “can’t afford” is always a clear marker of our real priorities. We can always find money for the things that Really Matter; we can always find reasons not to pay for what doesn’t.

Sometimes priorities are real. There are people in this world who really can’t afford cable tv because they really need to buy food instead. And there are people who have to sacrifice most of the hours in their week to make that money. But most of us are neither that poor nor that busy. We just make a lot of choices in a hurry, without thinking much about what we’re choosing.

But every year as Christmas rolls around, we become deliberate gifters. We choose who to give to, how much, and how carefully to choose. And that’s a part of the holiday we can learn from.

If we consider keeping local workers and businesses worth supporting, we can choose to spend our money here at home. If there are people and organizations and events that matter to us, we can choose to spend our time on them.

And it doesn’t stop on December 26. Every day we trade away bits of money. Every day we give away twenty-four of our precious hours. We can toss them away impulsively and support priorities that we don’t even realize we’ve chosen, or we can choose to give them in ways that we truly value, like carefully selected seasonal gifts. That would be Christmas every day.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Remembering Grassy

(News-Herald, September 1998) For a quick lesson in how people took care of each other once upon a time in this country, there is no better subject than Alonzo Nichols.

Lonnie was born in 1865 in Williamstown, New York, and moved to Franklin when still young. At a fairly early age he became a bootblack, the profession he stayed with for most of his life.

It's doubtful that Lonnie was ever in school. Accounts from print and oral tradition indicate that he was at best, slow, and at most, what we used to call "retarded."

But newspaper accounts of the day never apply so much as "simple" to his name. In 1901, the Evening News said, "he developed an elastic imagination that has been constantly stretched until today its extension is unlimited..."

Early on in life, he developed his own dance, which he called the grasshopper; consequently, he was known through most of his life as "Grassy."

He knew everyone in town, and proclaimed himself at various times the mayor, police chief, and fire chief. He attached himself closely to the Franklin Band; his only residence for much of his life was the band room in City Hall. That address is duly noted in several town directories.

Grassy was not a perfectly picturesque town character; he was not sentimental Hollywood cute. He was pushy about asserting his "rank," frequently insisting on delivering speeches at public events, and often made life a bit difficult for others. Band lore includes tales of various times that Grassy had to be moved out so that the band room could be fumigated; hygiene was not one of his virtues.

At one point, irritated city fathers gave him the option of going to Erie to live with relatives or undergoing evaluation for a room at the institute in North Warren. Grassy did go to Erie occasionally, but his heart never left Franklin.

His loyalty was legendary. When the band left on a trip to Buffalo without him, he was seen doggedly trudging up the railroad tracks after them.

He was devoted to the Elks and their minstrel show, and was often featured as a "character comedian" or as "Blondin, King of the Tightrope."

Grassy's father died in the poorhouse; his mother in Erie did not seem interested in him. The city of Franklin was his family.

There is no hint that any of his public appearances were greeted with mockery, or that he was ever viewed as an object of ridicule. The band included him in at least one group photo. The newspaper regularly published accounts of events in the life of "the Chief."

When he became upset over the state of his resting place in the band room, the mayor and police chief bought him a new cot. The Elks let him carry the purple banner for them in an important parade in Erie, with no apparent fear that he might somehow embarrass them.

In 1910, the city sent out postcards to invite folks back for Old Home Week. The cards featured drawings of favorite landmarks such as the courthouse. One featured a picture of Grassy wielding a gigantic key to the city and inviting folks home.

Nor did the city treat him as incompetent. Newspaper accounts suggest that folks did keep an eye on his comings and goings and even his bank balance. When he would leave town for a "vacation" and end up arrested for vagrancy (while claiming to be the mayor of Franklin), someone would go fetch him back. But it appears that no one ever tried to control his activities or finances, or steer him to an "appropriate" life.

There was never an attempt to take away any of his freedom, not even "for his own good."

Eighty years ago, in September of 1918, Grassy hopped onto the running board of a fire truck headed for the Third Ward. On the way, the solid rubber tire broke and struck Grassy and one of the firemen. Shortly thereafter he died.

The Mayor and City Controller agreed that Grassy should have a first class funeral at the city's expense. Hundreds called to pay final tribute; the funeral procession, led by the mayor's car and including the Elks and the Franklin Band, was viewed by hundreds who stood in the rain to pay their respects. Grassy' pallbearers included Elks, city councilmen, and the fire and police chiefs.

Wrote the News: "While the going of Grassy was greatly regretted, all of the circumstances of his death and burial seemed fitting. He met his death in what he considered his line of duty, and the show on the occasion of his burial was in keeping with his whole career."

What, one wonders, would happen to Grassy today? Perhaps we would all turn our backs on him, secure in the knowledge that professionals would take care of him. He would be their problem, not ours. Social services would find him an "appropriate job" and train him to "properly" handle his money.

Perhaps with the aid of people who could help him find his "proper place" in (or out of the way and to one side of) society, he would even have a life today more satisfying and fulfilling than the one he enjoyed so long ago, but somehow I doubt it.

The summer after this column ran, the Franklin Silver Cornet Band corrected a longstanding oversight and placed a marker on Grassy's grave.

From my Flickr