Monday, January 29, 2007


(News-Herald, January 2002) It’s common to complain about irresponsible people. But I don’t think irresponsibility is nearly as large an issue as nonresponsibility.
Irresponsible people make bad choices with a willful disregard for the consequences. “I want to steal this stop sign,” they declare, “and I don’t care whether it causes problems or not.” But the nonresponsible person is cut from different cloth.
The nonresponsible person pretends not to choose. The nonresponsible person picks a pre-emptive scapegoat; he doesn’t let the cat out of the bag until he’s already got someone or something holding the drawstring.
This is, traditionally, one reason that religion gets a bad rap; God has always been a popular scapegoat. “God told me to take your land and kill your neighbors” had its day, and “God wants me to have your money” never fails to open a few wallets. It’s an unfortunate tradition because there are so many people really trying to do what God wants them to do. These folks have to shoulder the bad press that nonresponsible believers generate.
Modern times have created even more places onto which we can shift responsibility. Upbringing is a popular one, along with any number of traumas and social and emotional disorders that provide excuses. “I’m not responsible,” the litany goes, “because my mother used to dress me in ugly clothes.”
But the disordered nonresponsibility really takes a back seat to modern faiths like counseling and therapy, because these, like God, allow the nonresponsible person to claim a Higher Purpose.
“I decided to dump you because your car is ugly” doesn’t sound very noble, but “My therapist thinks I need to move onto a more self-actuating plane of function” sounds really cool. “I wanted sex” sounds so cheap. “God sent this person into my life so I could make her happy” sounds like missionary work.
The telling detail about the nobly nonresponsible is that God and their therapists always seem to direct them to do what they wanted to do anyway.
Now, irresponsible people do whatever the heck they want to also, but they at least are honest enough to say, “Hey, it’s what I want. I’ll worry about the consequences some other day.” And when you want to complain about the act, the owner is there. But nonresponsible people are like a restaurant where the service is bad and the manager is never in. “We really don’t have anything to talk about,” says the nonresponsible person. “I was just being moved by my God/therapist/urges. I just did what I had to; it’s not like I really had a choice.”
Nonresponsibility also works for inaction. On my worst days, I will sit in the middle of the tracks watching the train bear down on me and complain about God’s shabby treatment of me. On my best days, I’ll get the heck off the rails.
It’s hard to have a relationship with a person in nonresponsible mode. To have a relationship, both people have to show up, and there really isn’t any substitute, any excuse, that changes that.
I have logged as many miles on the Lie-o-meter as anyone, but I wasn’t responsible because it wasn’t really my choice. Right. I proved conclusively that if you do not show up, in person, for the important relationships in your life, you can wreck them. And no excuse, no note from your Higher Power changes that.
If you make nonresponsibility a way of life, you eventually become a joke. You acquire a long string of short term relationships, punctuated by traumatic periods in which you meditate, pray, fast, consult your magic 8 ball. But the nonresponsible person isn’t looking for answers; he’s just looking for the solution to the puzzle of how to get what he wants and still feel good. He’ll walk around and around the situation, looking for the angle from which the choice will appear to serve some purpose greater than his own selfishness.
Is the nonresponsible person bad? Usually not. Just afraid, or uncertain, and looking very hard for something to make him feel good about the choices that he’s made. You don’t mean to lie, and when you think you find your answer, you’re sincere. But still, after a few years of it, you’re explaining the really good reasons that it was necessary for you to dump your twelfth spouse so you could fly to Bimini with the woman that God made just for you, and people’s eyes glaze over because they understand that you’ll always do whatever you want to do, but it will never be your responsibility. They know you’ll be full of excuses. They just won’t care, because they’ll have decided that you’re full of something else, too.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


(News-Herald, January 25)There are folks who figure that finding the right words to say is the solution to whatever ill assails us.
But usually it’s not a new set of words that we need. More often, we just need to act as if we really mean the words we’ve already said.
Take, for instance, the Harrisburg crowd. They regularly present us with a new set of words about how to create property tax reform in the commonwealth. But if they could just once act as if they really intended to have property tax reform, we could all stop talking about it.
Instead, school boards find themselves forced to walk the plank, propelled by a law that claims to be voluntary, but is not, and claims to provide tax relief, and does not do so (except for a select few). The legislature and the Governor Smiling Ed say that they are giving local school districts an opportunity to choose a path to relief to their local taxpayers. But their actions say that they want to concoct a lame public relations stunt while simultaneously passing the buck for the inevitable fallout.
It is easy to talk a good game, to say that your kids come first, to announce your priorities in life. Talk is cheap. The challenge is to act as if you really believe it.
Politicians are not the only people to struggle with this issue.
We’ve heard a lot of noise locally over the past few years about drinking and drugs, and panels have convened, committees have formed, and action plans have been issued to clamp down on the problem. And most of all, we’ve had many many many conversations about what might possibly be the cause.
The usual culprits are cited. The region is suffering economically. There aren’t enough wholesome activities for young folks to keep them busy. Fluoride in the water makes young people unruly.
Then there are the newer culprits, like video games and evil internet influences.
And I don’t mean to suggest that modern technology is not part of the picture. Back in the day, a recalcitrant teen had to plan illicit rendezvous on the household phone and borrow the family car to get there. Today teens with their own cars and cell phones can make arrangements far from the most alert adult eyes and ears.
But before we get ready to rally the troops to put a stop to teen-age drinking once again, we might want to ask ourselves whether we really mean it or not. Because over the past few years, I’ve been suspecting that many of us don’t.
I think there are plenty of parents who know they’re supposed to disapprove of drinking. One of my wiser students last year observed that drinking peer pressure comes in two varieties—teens are pressured by their peers to drink, and parents are pressured by their peers to express disapproval.
So adults dutifully say, “Underage drinking is Bad.” But many of the actions suggest that for many parents, teen drinking isn’t really that big a deal. Yes, everyone would rather that teens didn’t drink and then drive. But beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus.
This weekend, there will be parties involving teenagers and (at least) alcohol. Some parents will know about these. Some parents will carefully avoid doing anything that might lead to finding out. Some parents will make no attempt to find out what sort of soiree their children are actually attending. In a few months, at prom time, there will be parents hosting drinking parties in their home. And on any given weekend, there will be teens staggering into homes without any fear that someone will be waiting to meet them.
I’m not suggesting these people are bad parents. There’s a lot of room for argument about the drinking age; plenty of countries elsewhere do just fine without one. And after years of teaching, I also know that parents can do everything right and the teenage train can still come off the tracks.
But for a large sector of the population, the words and the actions don’t match, and the message is that teen drinking is no big deal.
If we believe that underage drinking should be stopped, then let’s act like we believe it. And if we think that teen drinking is basically okay, let’s just say so. And if it bothers us to say so, let’s ask ourselves why.
“Just say No” struck many people as kind of silly because they understand that anyone can “just say” anything. It’s acting as if you mean it that’s the trick.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


(News-Herald, January 18) No Child Left Behind is celebrating its fifth birthday this month (which means, of course, that if it were a human child, it would be time to start running NCLB through a battery of standardized tests). NCLB is also up for review by the feds that spawned it. So many folks are reflecting on the act and its various side-effects.
It’s tempting to dismiss the act simply on the basis of its most obviously objectionable aspects. For instance, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that NCLB is partly a money-making scheme for book publishers. Book publishers write standards for reading, produce materials designed to teach those objectives, and then win government recommendations that only their books be used.
Or the central insanity of NCLB—the 100% success rate. Nobody else in the country is expected to have 100% success. Not doctors, not lawyers and certainly not politicians. Heck, after the Iraqi WMD’s failed to materialize, we were reminded that the heavily staffed, generously funded intelligence community could certainly not be expected to be right all the time.
But here in Pennsylvania, in less than a decade, 100% of all students will be above average (which means, I guess, that they will all be well-educated enough to know that there’s no way 100% of anything can be above average).
Administrators and school boards hate the unfunded mandates (that’s when the government tells you that you must feed each student steak, but you have to pay for it yourself). Conservatives (at least the old school ones) hate having the State grabbing control of local school districts. Teachers resent being treated like the problem in education instead of the front line troops.
It’s easy to let these philosophical issues overwhelm views of NCLB. But at the same time, there are practical aspects to appreciate.
There’s no question that some school districts have, over the years, chosen to warehouse their problem students, to simply tolerate untalented, unmotivated, unwelcome students. Wait a few years, and they’ll go away.
School districts have often catered to the college-bound crowd. If you “just” want to be a welder or a mechanic or a plumber or any of the jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us—well, we sometimes figured that we just didn’t need to try to teach you all that much.
NCLB challenges the idea that some students aren’t worth the great effort it takes to work with them. And that’s an assumption that should be challenged.
NCLB also recognizes the need for some sort of measure of what a school district accomplishes. For way too long, the ed biz was marked by an attitude problem. Questions about what we were doing and how well we were doing it were greeted with a haughty, “We are the public school system. Stop questioning us and trust that we are doing great things.”
The push for a stiff and strenuous standard is a Good Thing, and if we judge NCLB on practical results, we have to give credit for that push.But it is also in the area of practical results that NCLB ultimately has failed, and failed miserably. Because at the heart of those standards, we don’t find a serious attempt to set and evaluate strong valuable learning goals.
All we find is a test. A one-size-fits-all, high-stakes, not-very-good test.
School districts ought to be talking about how to best educate their students. They ought to be talking about what goals are most valuable, what measures are most reliable, what will best produce wise and productive members of society. Instead, school districts are having only one conversation: how do we get better scores on the test? It’s like the head of Ford saying, “Never mind if the cars are any good—are the workers wearing clean uniforms?”
We take class time away so that we can take practice tests. We take teaching time away so that teachers can coach students on the practice items they missed. And if they don’t do well enough on the practice test, we replace some of their enrichment classes with classes about how to take the test. And if we don’t do it, the State threatens to take our school district away.
The tests are exactly what you would expect from a committee of bureaucrats, measuring little of value, and doing it poorly. At the end of the day, the scores prove one thing—how good the students are at taking that standardized test.
NCLB was supposed to transform schools. It has. Where educating students was once our main concern, it is now a side business, an afterthought. We’ll squeeze it in around the edges, once we’ve made certain we get our test scores up.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


(News-Herald, January 11)Passing the mantle of leadership can be a big generational challenge.
Barack Obama has been clear about analyzing his own appeal, which he seems to feel rooted in a generational boomer-fatigue.
That’s sad for the boomers—if Obama or one of his cohort win the White House, that will mean that the boomers provided the nation with a grand total of two Presidents, leaving them far in the dust of virtually every other American generation. That would be a boomer bummer, because we planned to permanently remake the world in our collective image.
And yet Bush and Clinton embody much of what is obnoxious about the boomers. Boomers specialize in a kind of single-minded righteousness, a sort of philosophical deep-seated double-jointedness. We know what we want, and we do what we want, but we always have a profound deep sincere righteous reason that we should get to.
So whether it’s hiding from the draft or using money to avoid responsibility or cheating on the wife or starting a war you’re clueless about how to finish, a boomer can make it all okay. At least, in his own head.
At our worst, boomers talk a good game of Right and Wrong, but somehow end up doing whatever we want to do anyway. The current political spectacle—Bush II forced to ask his dad’s friends of the Iraq commission to help sort out his mess, while the younger generation is already agitating for a new broom to sweep clean—may seem uncomfortably familiar to many boomers. Our parents still providing practical clean-up for our zealously idealistic messes, while our children wonder if we’re going to leave them anything in unbroken condition.
Well, if the younger generations find their elders obnoxious now, wait till the boomers finish retiring and decide that the Right Thing To Do is for taxes on investments and homes to be cut while working folks pick up the slack.
Of course, not all transitions in leadership are about the boomers (as much as we boomers have trouble believing that anything could be Not About Us).
Last week’s column about the Franklin Club’s financial problems had barely hit the newsstands before folks were reminding me of some earlier chapters in Club history. For instance, there still seems to be a bit of testiness out there about the Club’s reluctance to recruit and retain junior members back in the 1970’s. As some folks remember it, Club Elders considered proposals to try recruiting a younger wave of future members, but decided that young’uns could jolly well come ask to get in when they’d worked hard and proved they deserved it.
Groups in Venangoland sometimes have trouble handing the baton to the younger runners in the pack.
It’s not that they don’t want the young folks around—the younger generation is perfectly welcome to join in, as long as they don’t raise a fuss, don’t talk back to their elders, and promise to do everything exactly the way the older generation has always done it.
It’s not that the older generation wants to hold onto the power; they just want to be sure that everything is going to go on properly (“properly” being defined as “the way we would do it ourselves”).
There are plenty of churches around that have traveled to the brink of extinction with this formula—they’re perfectly willing to reach out to young people, as long as the young people prove that they’re the Right Kind of Young People.
Not that the issue doesn’t have some of its good points. I’m pushing fifty, but there are still places where I’m considered one of the Young Fellas.
And it’s not entirely the older generation’s fault, either. Sometimes the younger generation has a tendency to sit sheeplike, feet propped up and comfy, congratulating itself on having the good sense to have older folks around to take care of business. It’s haard to pass the baton to people who have their hands in their pockets.
Sometimes the younger generation does actually goober things up. Someone who is more ambitious than smart, more interested in winning the role than in knowing how to fill it, will often make a mess worse than any reluctant retiree ever imagined.
But that should be the exception, not the rule. One of the most basic responsibilities of leadership is to find and prepare your eventual replacement because (hot flash here) you will not be there forever. Even if you’re a boomer and you’re prepared to rule the roost until the end of time.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I'm re-presenting the following because on January 20 we'll be re-presenting this show at the Barrow. It's a benefit for the theater, and it is one of my favorite shows ever. So, you should come. But here's what I had to say about it the first time we put it on three years ago:

(News-Herald, March 2004)I’m not a big fan of theater about theater. I don’t get excited about old musicals like “Gypsy” and “Applause” in which singing, dancing actors explore how fascinating singing, dancing actors are.
I do have my personal old favorites on the stage. I think “Forever Plaid” might be the most perfectly written musical ever. And I could watch “Godspell” every year for the rest of my life.
It’s hard to find just the right stuff to put in words and music on the stage. You don’t think of it as hard, but really, compared to all the books and tv shows and movies created over the last century that still hold up, the number of theatrical musicals still worth presenting is surprisingly small.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been working on a show that I really like, that is special because it is both new and completely ordinary.
Ordinariness is not a common trait in musical theater. Stage musicals are geared toward big honking smackwhapping explosions of drama and grandiosity. Escaping Nazis over the mountains. Hiding a broken heart and misshapen face in the catacombs. A chorus of six gazillion blasting an ode to the French Revolution.
It’s not that I think those aren’t worth our attention. It’s just that most of us live lives not very much like that, but that are pretty ordinary.
This show (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) deals with the most ordinary human activity of all, the ongoing attempt to pursue and maintain a connection with those around us, to locate and hang onto that entirely ordinary human commodity, love.
I’m already on record as a sort of anti-romantic. I figure any shmuck can be romantic dressed in period costumes, well-lit and made up, hanging off the front of a giant ocean liner. It takes real love and heart to find romance after twenty years, looking across the breakfast table at someone with bad bed hair.
Anyone can be romantic with a crack team of scriptwriters. It takes real talent to make do with the words you fumble for on a first date with an appealing stranger.
It’s the ordinary, everyday romance of carving out a life together in the world of car payments and dirty diapers and limbs that creak more than they did forty years ago—that’s the stuff that shows our hearts at their biggest and silliest.
So this is the show I would write if I could write a show. The four actors play sixty-some characters, but the main character of the show is the purely human joy, frailty and humor of finding and holding onto love. It starts with a first date and ends with a widow and widower deciding to start a new chapter; around intermission there’s a wedding.
Every character is life sized—not larger than life, not massively dramatic, not a tiny cheap imitation of a person. I’ve met most of these people, even been a couple of them. And they sing.
There are so few odes to regular life, so few songs about how we deal with regular stuff in the Real World. We need more songs about regular stuff, songs that let us see clearly what ordinary life is like, to let us see that it is precious and funny and okay. Ordinary really is okay.
In this column, I don’t plug every show that Civic puts on; I don’t even plug most of the shows that I’m involved with. But I’m plugging this one.
Local audiences are not known for turning out in droves for new or unfamiliar shows; a Venango County theater group that put on nothing but Rogers and Hammerstein shows year after year would never go broke. But this one is worth seeing.
First, for the cast, which is first rate. Steve Luxbacher, Jodi Hoover, Suzie Ditzenberger, and Jodi Hoover are seasoned pros on stage, and they really shine in this material.
Second, because this is a show which celebrates all those nice little moments that are part of a lifetime of trying to stay connected to the ones we love. It is a grown-up show, though there’s nothing here to make an HBO executive or Janet Jackson bat an eye. Every time I watch it in rehearsal, I laugh, and at the end, I always feel a bit of hope for the whole Love thing. I hum the songs. I’m inviting you to this one because I think you’ll enjoy it.
It’s not always about the 100 piece orchestra and the searing, soulwrenching operatic scale drama. Sometimes it’s just a quiet voice and warm smile at the end of the day. But operatic drama every day will wear you out; a quiet voice and a warm smile can carry on for a lifetime.

The presentation on the 20th will include a tiny bit of new material-- they added a song in the years since we did it last. Our original violin player left the area, but I'm happy to annonce that Jill Mattson will be playing with us this time out, helping the always-dependable Kristen Criado in accompaniment chores. You should come see this. Really.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


(News-Herald, January 3)I never really believed the Franklin Club could fold. Still, not everything that’s old and traditional manages to survive. Nor does it necessarily deserve to.
The club started out as The Nursery Club. Long ago, Franklin’s motto was “The Nursery of Great Men.” That phrase was apparently coined by Erie politician Morrow B. Lowry, who was not a fan; he intended it as ironic mockery, but Franklinites picked it up and ran with it. The town called itself the Nursery, and Franklin High School sports teams proudly called themselves the Fighting Nurserymen. Hard to imagine how that nickname could fall into disfavor. But it did. FHS became the Knights, the Nursery Club became the Franklin Club, and Morrow B. Lowry, according to the local paper, ended up in an insane asylum.
The Club was initially happy to have rooms in the old Hancock Building. Common enough practice—the band and the newspaper and many other such reputable groups rented rooms rather than owning entire buildings. But the college boys who founded the club in 1877 became men and made lots of money, and the club bought a nice house and started adding to it.
That the club approaches extinction is not exactly news. The prognosis on the street has been grim for several years now. That in itself has probably not helped; folks are reluctant to book a facility that may not open by the time Billy Bob and Eulah May are fixin’ to get hitched.
And of course the club has never really been for Billy Bob and Eulah May. Part of the point of the club for most of its 130 years has been to preserve a certain amount of snootiness. There are people right now who are not rooting for this symbol of privilege. Fairly or unfairly, people are dredging up tales of days when merchants and teachers and laborers were blackballed from The Club because they weren’t the right sort. I’ve already been reminded of the story that circulated decades ago about a club employee who embezzled a truckload of money, and the club’s supposed decision not to pursue the matter in order to save face.
But I don’t think The Club suffers from bad karma. It has hosted many fine events, provided touches of grace and beauty to the entire community. There are more than enough fond memories of the Club to go around.
Places like the Franklin Club require a fairly good supply of Rich Guys, and we’re running a little low on that breed. Can you remember when most of Joy’s upper management lived right in Venango County? If you can, well, sorry, but you are old. There are not a great number of well-to-do folks around, and many of the few are not very visible in community life.
For that matter, many of those who are visible are visible in organizations involved in more active pursuits than maintaining a big club house with a ready supply of good food and alcohol. And many of them are part of a younger generation that is famously impatient in matters personal and professional. Why join an organization or business and wait twenty years to be trusted with any position of importance when you can go out and start your own club today?
That, in fact, is where groups like the Franklin Club came from in the first place. In 1877, American’s thirst for starting clubs was blooming. Virtually every civic and semi-civic organization (Red Cross, NAACP, Rotary, Boy Scouts) that you’ve heard of was founded between 1870 and 1920. By the 1970’s, we’d virtually stopped creating groups.
Then we stopped participating in them. From 1975 to 1999, figures show that participation in clubs dwindled to less than half its former level.
So The Club’s problems are not unique. In early 2006, the Pittsburgh Business Times reported a big decline in country club membership throughout the region. Wanango Country Club’s reputation hasn’t been much more solid that The Club’s for a while, and they have a pool and a golf course. In many ways, the Franklin Club is just a country club with nothing to play but basement duckpins.
We face increasing problems with these white elephants. Franklin First Baptist Church, Galena Building, Transit Building—created by long-dead rich guys, these beautiful buildings provide rich heritage and gut-busting maintenance costs.
How to hang onto them? Government pork would be a poor solution. Besides, these buildings have doors and windows; some other business with doors and windows would sue.
Nope. If we want to keep them, we have to pony up. It’s nice to say you’d like the Franklin Club to survive. But what would you pay to keep it? Right now, that’s the only question that counts.

From my Flickr