Thursday, November 29, 2007

Diet Screts

(News-Herald, November 29)We are told, with increasing frequency, that we are a nation of fatties.

Like many folks, I see plenty of anecdotal evidence to support that. And this is a time of year that increases our awareness. Holiday shopping allows us to see the many examples of folks carrying a heavy helping of heft, and holiday eating gives us plenty of chance to join them.

So what are we to do? To read the articles, watch the tv shows, or listen to people talk, one would think that weight loss requires some sort of scientific breakthrough more elusive than brain transplantation, curing cancer, or the unified field theory. It’s a deep and difficult secret.

Of course, before you can hear the secret, you have to be mentally prepared for it.

You can’t hear the secret if you are still in denial. If you’re still claiming that you are merely big-boned, fluffy, glandular, or a victim of a peculiar optical illusion created by poor clothing choices, you aren’t ready. If you think having your child carry an extra fifty pounds to match the extra two hundred you’ve got is a personal matter with no consequences for the people who love you, you’re not ready.

Nor do you get off the hook by acting as if the only other option is to become a walking q-tip. Being seriously underweight is not a desirable option.

You can get off the hook by being honest about your size and being okay with it. The media ideal for build is bizarrely wispy. Women seem to seriously over-estimate the sexiness of visible bone structure. Go pop in a Marilyn Monroe movie. There’s fairly widespread agreement that she was a fairly attractive woman, and she was no waif-like frail flower. Plenty of us are carrying what current health charts would call a few extra pounds. And not just a few as in “a few people ran for county commissioner” but “a few people went deer hunting.” Some of us are fine with that.

But perhaps you have found your physique more aggressively ample than you care for, and you’re ready to shed a few ounces. What’s the secret to weight loss, the mystery that millions pursue through infomercials and the Enquirer?

Burn more calories than you take in.

Too simple? Move around more, and eat less.

There’s a reason that so many diet supplements have fine print about following an eating plan—it’s the eating plan that makes the difference.

Not that it makes the difference they show you. Those nifty before and after pictures? Here’s how that works, according to some of my internet sources.

Find an athlete who’s about to have some serious surgery that will lay him up for a few months. After he’s been stuck in bed a while, take a “before” picture of his newly pudgy self. Then, once he’s up and around, he can resume his usual athletic level of activity. After his body bounces back to its original trim and muscular shape, take your “after” shot. Oh, and don’t forget to sign him to a contract that requires his secrecy on the matter.

So the bad news is that your physical awesomeness will always be limited by your genes and history. No amount of exercise can turn Wally Cox into Arnold Schwarzenegger. Your body makes the rules about what it will and won’t put up with.

But most diet plans will work, for a while, because they make you think about (and therefore limit) the food you eat. I could go on the Vowel Diet: Mondays I only eat three foods with the letter A, then on Tuesday only three with letter E, and so on. I would lose weight, because I would stop throwing any sort of food within reach in the general direction of my big, open mouth.

The real trick is to pick something you can live with. I once jump-started weight loss with the clinical depression diet—I do not recommend it as a long term approach. But I have picked up a few healthier tricks.

When choosing diet versions of food, pick versions that you don’t usually eat. If you don’t love Thousand Island dressing, the diet version’s taste won’t be a let-down.

I also discovered that I can do nothing while sweating on exercise machinery as easily as I can do nothing while sitting on a couch.

And dieting is the perfect time for positive procrastination. There are foods that I can’t give up forever, but I can put off just about anything for the next twenty-four hours.

Eat less, exercise more. There are worse problems than not liking your weight, but not many that are easier to fix. Love yourself. Take care of yourself.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Trouble with Tourism

I'm yielding to the urge to reprint some columns from even earlier. This was one of the first I ever ran, and I'm much less grumpy now, thanks.

(News-Herald, June 1998) The trouble with tourism as an industry is that you have to put up with tourists.
I think those who tout tourism for our area sometimes forget this.
My family's roots are in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, an area that benefits financially from tourism, even though the major attraction is the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water that can only be comfortably entered during a two-hour span on a single Wednesday afternoon late in July.
The rest of the year it appeals only to small children, who will play in the waves for hours, then look up with big eyes and blue lips saying, "Wh-wh-what d-d-d-do you m-mean we're g-g-going home?"
Because the ocean is largely inhospitable, tourists in the area resort to the more common tourist activities: getting in the way, behaving rudely, and spending money. It is only their devotion to the latter that makes putting up with all the former at all palatable.
One of the benefits of quasi-rural life as we enjoy it here is that people basically leave each other alone.
Tourists extend no such respect; they consider your home their theme park. And if you are truly committed to having them return repeatedly with their uncles, cousins, boyfriends, and money, you smile sweetly and act as if you have no purpose in life but to make them feel at home.
So, having experienced Venango County's service industries for years, I have some doubts about our readiness for dealing with tourists. In the public interest, let me offer this little quiz. Take it and see if you are prepared to participate in the Oil Region Heritage Stuff Tourist Boom.

1) A customer enters your shop. You are busy with an important magazine article. You should:
A. Wait on him.
B. Ignore him for a while.
C. Ignore him until he goes away.

2) You work in a restaurant. A customer comments thaat his meal was not well-prepared. You should:
A. Apologize and offer to tear up the bill.
B. Give him a free mint.
C. Say, "Yeah, our chef really sucks, huh!"

3) You are trapped on Route 322 behind some elderly folks with out-of-state license plates. They slow down frequently for no apparent reason, turn their signals on and off raandomly, and generally gawk in an obstructive manner. You should:
A. Chuckle gratefully and feel proud of the beauty of Venango County.
B. Honk angrily and gesture expressively.
C. Run them off the road into a beautiful Venango County ditch.

4) One day a woman enters your place of business and offers to pay you half price for an item because it's really garbage and she's "having a terrible time because people in this hick town are so stupid." You should:
A. Smile sweetly and thank her.
B. Take the item in back to wrap up and never return.
C. Point out that you may be stupid, but at least you're not wearing a butt-ugly outfit like hers.

5) A complete stranger drives his car onto your lawn and has a family picnic. While his children play ball in your garden, he rips Aunt Ethel's memorial forsythia out of the ground, knocks on your door, and offers you five bucks for it. You should:
A. Offer to throw in an authentic oil-soaked country rag from your garage for another five.
B. Tell him about a great antique shop up the road and send him to your in-laws.
C. Shoot at him.

If you chose A's, you're ready to strike it rich. B's and you'll at least enjoy yourself. If you picked C's, perhaps it's time for you to write the county commissioners in favor of something less obtrusive than tourism, like a nuclear waste dump.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reviving Thanksgiving

(News-Herald, November 22)There are plenty of signs that I am becoming an old fogey. There is plenty of new music that I feel signals, at the very least, a terrible loss of sense and good taste among the young and, at the very worst, the decline and fall of civilization as we know it. Even when I hear teenagers listening to music that sounds as good now as it did when I heard it thirty years ago, I want to accuse them of not listening to it properly.

I think My Space looks like a programmer ate too much fruit cake, drank too much punch, and threw up into a neon piƱata. I don’t get the appeal of tattoos. I think pants should ride high enough to cover underwear (which in turn should be made out of something more substantial than colorful dental floss).

But while I may well be in a well-advanced state of fogeydon, I don’t think my feelings about The Holiday Season are fogey-related. I think the advanced decay and general ugly mess are real.

A Martian arriving in the US with no prior study might well conclude that The Holiday Season begins in October when Vampires, Licensed Action Heroes and Sexy Nurses travel door to door announcing the imminent arrival of the Baby Jesus, ushered into the area by Santa, who eats a last enormous meal in November to fortify himself for a month-long orgy of shopping in an attempt to mark the arrival of the baby by building a mountain of merchandise visible from space (the Baby Jesus Himself is needed only for a brief cameo).

Our celebration of these holidays is seriously out of whack. Yes, I know people have been complaining about this forever. But really. You’re reading this only because you managed to find a newspaper buried in the fifty pounds of advertising delivered to your door. And God bless the News-Derrick for organizing a campaign to collect and distribute food for Thanksgiving, because in most US media we have finally reached the point where more coverage is devoted to Friday’s shopping than the barely-recalled holiday on Thursday.

Black Friday used to be the day after Thanksgiving. Now it seems to be the main event; Thanksgiving is just the day that comes before it.

I do believe there’s an upside to this, however.

For a long, long time, Thanksgiving was an almost reflexive holiday, a set of traditions that anyone could observe without employing a single brain cell. One could go through the motions of Thanksgiving without a moment’s thought, appearing thankful without ever once considering what that meant.

Fifty years ago, going with the Thanksgiving flow meant sitting and talking and playing with the family long into the evening; now it means saying goodbyes early so that you can squeeze in some sleep before trying to beat the 3 AM rush at the outlet mall. These days, celebrating Thanksgiving requires a deliberate choice, a purposeful decision to observe what you believe the holiday asks of us.

We could do the lazy person’s version of the holiday and feel like we were living up to the spirit. But now in order to celebrate the spirit of the day, we have to make an effort to swim upstream, and that’s probably good.

Thanks and gratitude ought to be thoughtful. We need to think—really think—about what we have to be grateful for.

It is far too easy to take the blessings that we enjoy for granted. Worse yet, it is easy to take them as deserved, to imagine that the good things we enjoy are only what we’re entitled to.

There is nothing that shows less gratitude than to look at the friends or family or community or Creator who gives us a series of awesome gifts and say simply, “Well, of course, you’re giving me this. You should. And by the way, couldn’t you have put it in a nicer wrapper.”

We are among the wealthiest, healthiest, safest, most comfortable people who have ever lived on Earth. There is not a one of us who does not have something to be grateful for.

So I think the screwed up mess that our holiday has become is an opportunity for us to choose gratitude, to stop and deliberately take stock and mark, in whatever way suits us best, those things and people and circumstances and blessings in life that we enjoy. If we can plan a shopping trip and search out bargains, we can certainly plan a moment to search out our own grateful hearts. There has to be more to this season than simply trying to Get Stuff, and it has to be good for each of us to figure out what that something more is.

Further note:
See, here's the thing about writing a weekly column while living the rest of your life. Sometimes I can't quite get it to where I want it by deadline, and this was a particularly frustrating example. Busy week plus minor headlock kept me from tagging the point I ultimately wanted to make, which is this

If your holiday season is a horrible mess of consumerism lacking the true spirit of the occasion, it's your own damn fault, and you should do something about it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The 40 & 8

(News-Herald, August 2003) In my continuing research of bands in Venango County, I could not possibly have avoided the great American Legion Band of Oil City, a band that attained national stature in the forties and fifties. The 40 and 8 band won almost ten straight national championships in a row, taking Oil City’s fame across the country. Imagine that.

This was a band that drew enormous crowds locally and carried the fame of Oil City to every corner of the United States. Oil City returned the favor by twice creating a suitable performance spot to showcase the band: the Rickards Bandshell right near the library, and the stage in Hasson Park.

In the process of researching, I began to wonder what the significance of the 40 and 8 designation was, particularly when I encountered a news item that the Legion was considering censure or disbarment to rein in the 40 and 8, considered the rowdier branch of the Legion.

Once again, the internet came through. I learned the story of the 40 and 8, and it’s a story worth sharing.

The origin takes us back to Word War I. When the American forces arrived in France, they discovered that their transportation to the front would be by way of “Voiture” boxcars. These traveled on the French narrow-gauge railroad and were small compared to American boxcars. They were generally twenty and a half feet long by eight and a half feet wide, and on the outside there was often a plaque marking the capacity of the cars: 40 hommes et 8 chevaux. That’s forty men or eight horses.

The cars were rickety, drafty, unheated and often crowded, but in 1920 a special fraternity of veterans within the American Legion was formed: Le Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux in mock-fancy French, or the Forty and Eight in nice short American.

During World War II, the French again used 40 and 8’s to transport troops to the front, and in 1945, these old cars brought many US soldiers, including POW’s, back from Germany to be shipped home. For many soldiers it was a memorable experience as they spent long winter days traveling across France in the rickety cars (reportedly they sometimes built fires in the cars to help ward off the cold).

So with a new generation of veterans, the 40 and 8 grew. But that’s not the end of the story.

Some of you will remember columnist Drew Pearson. In 1947, Pearson made a pitch for food and clothing to help the people of France, whose country was still a thoroughly shambalized mess. This led to a $40 million relief mission that sent the 700-car American Friendship Train to Europe. Tons of relief items were sent from the people of the US to the people of Europe.

But that’s not the end of the story, either.

In France, Andre Picard was a railroad worker who had served in WWI. He suggested that the French send a boxcar of gifts back to America as a form of thank-you. So many thousands of French citizens chipped in that one boxcar wouldn’t do it. The French War Veterans Association joined in and the decision was made to send fifty cars to the US—one for each state with the fiftieth to be shared by Washington DC and the US territory of Hawaii.

52,000 gifts were collected. The list defies description—children’s drawings, a Louis XVI carriage, toys, trinkets, household items, and even tree seedlings. The gifts were packed into Forty and Eight type boxcars painted with the coats of arms of all the French provinces. The Gratitude (“Merci” in French) Train sailed into New York harbor in February of 1949 on a ship draped with a giant “Thank You, America” sign.

Longshoremen brought the boxcars ashore for free and Congress waived all duty. The narrow-gauge cars had to be delivered by flatcar to the various state capitals, where they were accepted with various displays of pomp and circumstance, their contents dispersed through charity auctions and donations to worthy institutions.

The majority of the boxcars are still on display (thirty-nine, according to one website, are still accounted for). Pennsylvania’s boxcar is reported to be at the Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard post at Annville, PA, near I-81. The last known location for the Ohio boxcar was near Port Clinton, Ohio.

Few visit the boxcars and few look after them these days. For most of us, they’re a forgotten chapter from a time when France and the US actually got along. Imagine that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Heroes '08

(News-Herald, November 15) Every year at this time, I write about honoring the heroes in our lives. I work from basically three premises:

1) When we openly honor the qualities that we most value, we help those qualities flourish, and we make the world a little bit better.

2) If we wait to find those qualities in a perfect, flawless human being, we will wait forever.

3) If we wait that long, we will regret it. The time to talk about what we admired in people is not after time, tide, or mortality have separated us from them.

It’s a mistake to withhold praise for virtue because we are afraid it might excuse a human flaw. It’s a mistake not to praise one person because we can think of a hundred others who are also deserving. And it’s a mistake not to praise a hero because we don’t have time to get the whole city to throw a parade. Honoring our personal heroes is important.

My heroes include people who put some of their heart and soul into their communities. It is easy to sit back and let someone else do it, to not concern yourself with anything but what you are getting out of the place where you live. It’s also easy to focus your attention and aspirations on the Big Stuff.

But what keeps a community running smoothly is all the people who carefully mind one piece of the puzzle or another.

My list of heroes includes guys like Roland Davis. If the City of Franklin had an AV Club, Roland would be the president. He’s made it possible for hundreds of people who don’t know a PA system from the PA turnpike to be heard. And he’s been there helping out when the help was needed, and not just when it was convenient for him to do it.

And that’s above and beyond the gazillion hours he has devoted to his church and the decades that he has spent being part of the glue that holds the Franklin Silver Cornet Band together. You don’t find Roland in the spotlight, but he’s often the reason there’s a spotlight there in the first place.

My list of heroes also includes people like Helen Ray and Sylvia Coast. It is incredibly easy for a community’s history to slip away, to be lost. It takes someone to step up and do the work of actively preserving it so that resources are available for people who want to search for family and events buried in the past.

When I first became interested in local history decades ago, I turned to the PA room at the library where Helen watched over a great collection of local resources. She should have thrown me out, or at the very least pointed out that I was a clueless historical duffer, but she helped me get started. Years later, Sylvia picked up that mantle (Helen’s helpful historian, not my clueless duffer).

There are more people like them at the Historical Society and the Oil City Library’s Heritage Room. How many thousands of people have found a connection with the story of their family and their community because of all these people willing to sit in a room watching over a bunch of old books and microfilm.

Every community is made up of thousands of little pieces. Some of those pieces survive on their own, but most of them survive because of some steward who watches over them and keeps functioning. Those stewards are heroes of mine.

I am sure that you have heroes as well. Here’s what I ask you to do every year in this stretch between Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving—do something about it.

You don’t have to buy your heroes a car or put their faces on a billboard. Just let them know that they are appreciated.

No phonecalls or e-mails. It should be a note. Something they can physically keep will be a powerful reminder of someone’s appreciation that can last for years.

No hedging. You can wait for another time to point out that although he is a noble person, sometimes he can be so annoying you want to slap him with a large herring. You can pick a later date to remind her that you have never forgiven her for the cranberry juice stain on your sofa. For this one moment, stick to the parts that you admire.

Just a simple note. You can start with “You are a hero of mine because…” For the price of a stamp, you can make the world just a little bit better.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Dear Mr. Brimmeier...

Joe Brimmeier, CEO of the PA Turnpike Commission, recently took out full-page ads in many local newspapers to print a letter rehashing the PTC talking points regarding the tolling of I-80. I've spent too many newspaper columns addressing this issue already, but I couldn't resist doing a little special edition here in blogland to answer his letter. I'll feel better and I think both my readers will probably forgive me.

Joe's letter asserts "we at the PA Turnpike Commission welcome an open, public discussion based on the facts." It's a nice thought, though the continued insistence that Act 44 is law and Harrisburg intends to pursue implementation aggressively suggests that this will be discussion with no hope of affecting any portion of the outcome. Joe then goes on to provide some critical Act 44 facts.

*Not one dime of I-80 toll money will go to public transit anywhere in Pennsylvania.

Joe, you must realize that nobody believes this oft-repeated statement is anything more than hair-splitting. Tolling I-80 is part of a larger financial plan that includes propping up the flailing transit systems in the 'burgh and Philly. I-80 toll money may not, technically, pay for mass transit, but it will free up other dollars to do so.

*All toll revenue collected on I-80 will be reinvested in Pennsylvania's roads and bridges.

One would hope so.

*Act 44 will generate nearly 2.3 billion annually, on average, to fix and maintain the state's entire transportation network

That would take us back to our first point. If you want us not to catch on to how this works, you should probably keep these two talking points further away from each other.
Tolling I-80 will no more generate revenue than my extension cord generates electricity. What tolling will do is take revenue away from travelers and provide an indirect tax on goods and services to be collected by businesses and paid by customers. Investments generate revenue; tolls are simply taxes, methods to take money away from citizens and give it to government.

*The turnpike will invest 2 billion in I-80 improvements over the next decade, transforming it into our next superhighway...

Which begs the question-- what is it now? The assertion that an improved infrastructure is important to PA economic growth is a sensible one. PA's reputation as a northwestern pothole capitol did not enhance its standing.

But turning it into a state where east-west traffic much either pay a hefty chunk of change or ramble about on non-super roadways is not going to be a major coup, either. I don't think it helps to make the new commonwealth motto "Pay up or else." Nor do I think dragging I-80 down to the level of the turnpike will help (if I were extraordinarily cynical I would wonder if this weren't the PTC's way of putting the kibosh on its cross-state competition).

I can assure you that the public will be heard, and involved, throughout this process.

It's a nice assurance, but really-- can you name any details of this plan that you're not going to make a decision about until you've heard from the public. Is there any portion of the plan that you're looking at and thinking, "Hmm, we'd better wait and see how the public feels about that before we go ahead." Because the impression out here in the cheap seats is that such is not the case.

In fact, beyond the spectre of economic ruin, I think what many people find unattractive about this plan is the manner in which it was adopted-- quickly, quietly, without any public input, and basically as part of hostage demands for the release of the commonwealth budget.

That, in and of itself, creates an impression that nobody involved in this is at all concerned about what may happen to people for whom I-80 is a critical economic lifeline. Fancy and meetings and full-page ads are not nearly enough to change that impression.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Interstate 80 Toll-- Bad for Pennsylvania

(News-Herald, November 8) I write these a few days ahead of time; as I type this it is Tuesday night. On my tomorrow, the commonwealth will have the first of its “informational” meetings about the genius-free plan to toll I-80. To you, that’s yesterday, and so I expect that somewhere in this newspaper is cogent, reasonable coverage by a real journalist. But some issues demand examination by someone who’s not balanced, fair or reasonable, and that’s when it’s time for me to step up to the plate.

I want to believe that these meetings will bring more information to the issue, but I’ve been following what the suits in Harrisburg have to say, and I’m not encouraged.

The turnpike commission has a website responding to Frequently Asked Questions about Act 44 (they always use language meant to remind us that this is a done deal, a passed law, and they’re doing us a favor by even pretending to discuss it with the public). The responses, which I suspect will become a familiar refrain, are not encouraging.

For instance, one question is “Why did you turkeys rush this through without actually talking to any of the Pennsylvanian citizens that it will affect?” (I’m paraphrasing a bit). The answer begins, “The Legislative process is an inherently public process. Bills are proposed and debated in both houses in public sessions; votes are cast in public and widely reported and documented….” And spends another paragraph not answering the question. The PTC is going to begin a “public outreach program.” “The impacts of tolling will be studied and presented to the public.” I believe it translates roughly into “We are hoping to have meetings until you give up and go away.”

There’s the continuing double-talk from the office of Joseph G. Brimmeier. I don’t know much about Brimmeier other than he seems to get testy about being challenged on this mess. His official biography boils down to a thirty-year career as a Commonwealth bureaucrat.

Brimmeier keeps insisting that all of the money made by tolling I-80 will go to I-80. I am not a professional bureaucrat, but as best I can piece it together, it would seem that this is kind of a fib. They’re going to borrow a lot of money to fix infrastructure everywhere across the state (that would include urban mass transit), pay that back with money from toll collection, and then once that’s done, every cent goes to I-80. Act 44 itself estimates that the debt should be paid down sufficiently by the 2024-2025 fiscal year. No, I didn’t make a typo there.

In other words, “Mom, I don’t want to borrow five dollars for a Whopper. I want it to pay back Billy. He lent me five dollars to buy a Whopper.”

Not that the use of toll money for the grossly mismanaged Philly and Burg transit systems is the most important reason to oppose the toll. That’s an argument we’re going to lose. I don’t know the numbers, but my guess is that the gas tax revenue generated by gazillions of urban drivers travel well beyond big-city borders.

When we argue that the worst thing about the toll is that it will hurt us rural NWPA folks, we’re being shortsighted. When the city folk agree with us (and suggest that’s a not-very-bad “worst thing”), they’re being stupid.

The PTC argues that toll costs will not be severe, that I-80 tolls will be right in line with the turnpike tolls, where a cross-state trip by car is “only” $25 or $100 by truck. This is the reasoning of people who don’t drive themselves on vacations. Worse, it’s the reasoning of people who never worked in an industry where even a five cent increase in the cost of a unit has a significant impact.

Tolling I-80 is bad for everybody, because it is one more nail in the PA border sign that says, “Businesses not welcome.” Toll is not good news for the PA economy, and jamming it through in an eleventh hour session with the state budget held hostage says something ugly about how we do things in the commonwealth.

Infrastructure A) matters and B) is not free. But this approach to the problem, generated by a governor pouting about being denied his Plan A, has been wrong every step of the way.

One more Fun Fact. On/off ramp toll booths are not planned for I-80; instead there will be every-so-often booths right on the highway. Placement of these will be critical, as that will mean that some areas will be able to make local trips with no toll cost. Other areas get local roads clogged with toll avoiders. Which means, if nothing else, the battle for the placement of those booths should generate even more political fireworks in Harrisburg.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

County Commissioners ('03 Edition)

Just happened across this, which is what I had to say about the commissioners' race in 2003. I still agree with all of it, even though today's election involved a whole other batch of clowns...

(News-Herald, March 2003)Suddenly, everyone wants to be a county commissioner. It’s uncanny, particularly when you think of all those years we couldn’t give the job away.

Not that I’m complaining. The most common problem we have in local elections is lack of choice. It’s great to have a decision to make; the trick is to figure out how exactly to do it. I’m reminded of an old political saw: if twelve clowns are performing in the center ring, you can jump in and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience you’ll just be the thirteenth clown. Soon we voters will have to learn to tell these clowns apart.

It’s too early to endorse anyone by name, and I don’t think I know the whole list of candidates anyway. But I already know what I’m looking for.

First, remember what the commissioners can and can’t do. It’s a mistake to think that the commissioners can magically create thriving businesses out of thin air. County government has the ability to get in the way of many things, but not a lot of power to make things happen.

So insisting that more businesses would come here if the commissioners would just wave a magic wand and make a money tree spring from the ground is silly. Nor do I want to solve unemployment by making the government so large that everybody in the county works for it.

But future commissioners do need to have a plan for cooperative regional economics. If candidates don’t know their way around the Bosworth report, they’d better have some ideas of their own.

Second, I want a commissioner to be a clear-eyed cheerleader.

Clear-eyed because there are certainly challenges that we face as a county, and we won’t deal with them successfully by ignoring them.

Clear-eyed because we need, in all our local leaders, some vision. It is useless to define our challenges in terms of what’s gone. It will not help us to look at our present and talk about how it differs from our past. Past is past; it’s gone. What we need to look at is how our present is different from the future we want for ourselves, and how we can bridge that gap.

If we have a serious vision weakness locally, it is our preoccupation with the past. We used to have more jobs at Joy. We used to have oil industries. All that is true. It’s just that, in terms of keeping our county vital, it doesn’t mean jack.

It’s as if we’re a family on a long car trip and we get out the map and spend hours going over the roads that got us to where we are. Well, if we’re going to continue the trip, we don’t need to know where we’ve been. We need to know where we’re going.

And “we’ll keep doing the same old thing and try to cut corners while we do it,” is not a plan for the future. It’s a recipe for helplessness. Keep cutting corners, and pretty soon you have nothing left at all.

So the clear-eyed part is important, but so is the cheerleader part.

I don’t want a mindless cheerleader. I don’t want someone with a smile pasted across his face telling me that a broken water main is good because it’ll water the grass. I don’t want someone to come watch my house burn down and tell me how pretty it looks.

But I have no patience for civic and business leaders in our area whose basic pitch seems to be, “Hey, we’re in horrible economic trouble and the business climate is awful and our people are leaving in troop ships and the weather sucks and grass won’t grow here and the sun never shines and we don’t even have a Starbucks. Don’t you want to come here to live and work?”

I don’t want to be represented by someone who is ashamed to live here, who thinks all our young people should run away, who thinks that we are on the brink of disaster and there’s nothing we can do but curl up and try to bounce when we hit bottom.

We have considerable resources in this county, a multitude of tools with which to build a future. The county commissioner candidates that I vote for will be people who can see that and are prepared to invest in it.

The candidates that I vote for will be folks who see county government as a resource. They’ll be able to manage effectively because they’ll see our county employees as people who work to help maintain quality of life in the county, and not a barrel-load of flunkies who need to be slapped up and kept in line.

We have many resources in Venango County; they aren’t infinite, but numerous and rich nonetheless. If you want my vote, tell me about that. Otherwise, I’m afraid you’ll just be the thirteenth clown.

Friday, November 02, 2007


(News-Herald, November 1)Halloween’s over, so we can move on to something really scary—local elections.

It’s probably a good year to learn about “bullet voting.” Bullet voting depends on one simple fact—you don’t have to use every vote you have.

Imagine a race in which four people are running for two seats: Tom, Dick, Harry, and Some Guy. Three voters go into the booth, each with two votes to use and only one candidate they really like.

So Voter A, a Tom fan, votes for Tom and Some Guy. Voter B votes for Dick and Some Guy. Voter C votes for Harry and Some Guy. And in the end, Some Guy is the big winner while Tom, Dick and Harry tie for last place.

It may seem counter-intuitive to “waste” a vote, but if voters A, B, and C use one vote to vote only for the candidates they really like, Tom, Dick and Harry tie for the lead and Some Guy loses.

Even with four people running for four spots, rationing your vote can still affect the order they come in; in some elected groups, that matters.

It’s a fine year to remember all this, because—well, the school board elections present No Choice At All, and other elections feature those jobs that nobody understands, like County Comptrolling Clerk of Electoral Records Secretary. Then there’s the race for County Commissioner.

I don’t suppose you could get a more disorganized, tragically doomed race if you tied a bunch of squirrels’ feet together, shook them up in a sack, and dropped them at the top of a water slide to go after a couple of acorns strapped to the bottom of the pool. In a thunderstorm.

We have the water muddied with write-in candidates. I suspect that the write-innacy of Horn and Smith is less about ego and more about some Powers That Be looking at the primary results and choking. But a write-in is tough going in Venangoland, and if the electorate has already rejected you once, that’s a pretty clear predictor. I give Smith the edge here—she came close in the primary and her name is easy to type. But while the electorate may be fickle, I doubt that several hundred voters have changed their minds since spring.

That leaves the duly selected candidates, none of whom have ever held elected office. I understand that every politician has to start somewhere; I wish these folks weren’t starting out by running the whole county.

Vance Mays stands out by being a Libertarian, a party that I like in theory. But Mays’s position on economic development seems a bit disingenuous. He says we shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on a development agency; it can be done by volunteers. Furthermore, he himself can pick up the phone and have thirty CEO contacts lined up to develop the county. Except that he apparently hasn’t actually done that yet. So I guess his point is that we shouldn’t hire someone to do a job that can be handled by a volunteer, and he will volunteer to do that job as soon as we hire him as commissioner.

The rest of the field is the usual mish-mosh of Republicrats. I remain unimpressed by the assorted posturings re: Two Mile Run Park. At this point we know two things about the park—nobody has a good long-term plan for the place, and it is a miniscule portion of commissioner responsibilities. Electing a commissioner based on a park position is like electing a President based on his plans for the janitorial staff at the Statue of Liberty.

In May, Jan Beichner said that if county government had better communication “you wouldn’t see so many lawsuits.” I’m willing to accept that Beichner is an expert when it comes to lawsuits and the county.

Troy Wood has actually bothered to learn something about county finances. Stan Grzasko has some actual experience with a larger scale union organization. Timothy Brooks is well-educated, but largely invisible during this campaign.

If these were all people who were getting ready to interview for a job, I would guess it was a job they didn’t particularly want. Little campaign material (including no web presence), statements vague to the point of uselessness, and none who appear to have done their homework. Everyone who ever ran for office in this county declared themselves in favor of lower taxes and more well-paid jobs. Big deal. Do any of these people have a clue about how to actually accomplish any of their goals? If they do, perhaps they should share those clues in the next couple of days, because they’re not entitled to our votes just for showing up.

From my Flickr