Friday, March 28, 2008

The Dems Come to PA

(News-Herald, March 27) Tuesday’s paper noted that the number of registered Democrats in Venango County is close to surpassing the number of Republicans. I’ll have to check, but I’m pretty sure that’s one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

Of course, they aren’t real Democrats. I don’t begrudge them that—I’m not a real Democrat, either; I realized a while back that being a registered Independent shut me out of the primaries, and in Venangoland, the primary is often the only election that really matters.

These newly minted Dems are intent on enjoying the fun of a Democratic Presidential Primary in Pennsylvania that might actually matter. I’m not sure I share their excitement.

I am what’s called a super-voter; I have voted in every election I ever could, which means I’ll likely vote this time, which means time spent harassing me is better spent than chasing after somebody who’s only going to vote if he’s heading out to buy cigarettes that day and the polling place is on route.

So I anticipate plenty of phone calls, a nice assortment of annoying recorded baloney from the campaigns to mix on my answering machine with the notifications about my car’s warrantee and invitations to timeshare.

But I figured we would mostly be left alone. I figured the candidates would deduce that their time was better spent speaking a rallies of thousands of big-city voters than talking to the fourteen card-carrying Democrats in Venangoland (though I suppose they could cover it by taking us all out to one quick lunch). If we’ve rounded up enough Democrats (real, converted or faux) to attract attention, that would be too bad.

In a way, I can see why this race would be attractive to Republicans.

On the one hand, we have a candidate who feels entitled to office, will pull any political streetfighting tactic to win, and claims that anything thwarting the campaign is the result of a malignant conspiracy between Evil Forces and The Media. On the other hand, we have a candidate whose policies are easily criticized as vague or seriously wrong-headed, but whose rhetoric is inspiring and uplifting, reminding us of all the good things we want to be as Americans.

In other words, Clinton vs. Obama is actually Nixon vs. Reagan.

True, the “First Woman/Black President” marquee muddies the water. It would be nice if we could have the election without gender or race being an issue, but we’re not quite there yet.

It’s hard to tell where we are, precisely. I believe there are plenty of people dumb enough to vote against Clinton because she’s a woman or against Obama because he’s black. But it’s a much smaller number of people dumb enough to say so out loud. So that part of the campaign travels underground, expressed through code, indirection, and internet lies and distortions.

As we settle into our role as the New Iowa, we’ll get to see and hear it all. If nothing else, this election will provide a windfall for media ad sales departments, sign printers and whoever manufacturers those vile, repugnant auto-dialing recorded message deployers.

I do feel marginally better about this election cycle than the decade’s displays of mud-wrestling between two sacks of trained weasels. McCain is the closest thing to an actual Republican we’ve had on the GOP ticket in a while, and I appreciate Obama’s attempts to act like a real grown-up. At the risk of tipping my electoral hand, I will admit that Clinton II embodies pretty much everything I find loathsome about DC politicians (whatever his rather large failings as a man, I thought Clinton I was an okay President).

I feel sorry for local candidates, who will have to try to buy the few seconds of air time not already dominated by Presidential politics. I know there are about 147 guys running for John Peterson’s spot. Somebody has hit the ground running with plenty of tv ads, but all I’ve retained from them is that A) this guy is ticked off about illegal immigrants and oil-rich countries that hate us and B) to my middle-aged eyes, this guy looks to be about twelve years old. I do not remember his name nor the office for which he’s running, so if I’m supposed to be part of the target audience, his handlers may want to refine their message. They don’t have much time before Clinton/Obama have sucked up all the oxygen in the room.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep hoping that the candidates will swing through in person. Maybe they’ll take a ride on the OC & T, or catch a fish on Justus Lake. I would be happy to host a picnic for them and Venangoland’s lifetime Democrats in my back yard. Just call ahead so I have time to get a few extra groceries.

For anyone keeping score, this has seventy-some more words than the newspaper version; the thin-sizing of the paper caught me by surprise and I sent this off before discovering that I would have to adapt to a new, shorter reality. After ten years, I'll be interested to see if I can now write in shorter takes.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Promoting Venangoland

(News-Herald, March 20) I had the pleasure of attending the premiere party for the Venango Chamber’s promotional dvd, and it’s a pretty good piece of work.

Traditionally, we’ve been pretty lousy at this sort of thing, stuck on one simple truth-- If you want to play the game in the big wide world, you have to play by the big wide world’s rules. We have had far too many people who insisted that we should be able to play the world’s game by our local rules. We’ll do it our way or not at all, some insist. It’s not much of a choice.

We have had some people over the years who got it. Guy Mammolite boosted Franklin so vigorously that it’s a wonder he wasn’t perpetually bedridden with multiple hernias. But he knew you had to shmooze the rest of the world. I suspect that at all those PA Mayors’ meetings there were plenty of mayors in the room thinking, “Oh lord, here comes that Guy again.” But they knew who he was, and they knew where Franklin was.

We have not always been good at branding. I am a major fan of the ORA, and I applaud them for trying to finally get us out of 1962 and into the twenty-first century. But “oil region” and “oil heritage” are not great pieces of branding. For that matter, “Franklin” and “Oil City” are not great brand name assets, either. A quick search on line will show you that these names are associated with a gumzillion different places. They don’t distinguish us from the pack.

Our best branding asset is the word “venango,” which is only used three other places in the USA, all of them small and not likely to draw attention away from us. It is odd, unique, and memorable—a built-in brand name. (I will happily chip in “Venangoland” as my cost-free contribution to local marketing.)

Franklin has made some odd choices in its quest for a nickname over the years. “The Victorian City” was, well, weird, given that in many places “Victorian” is not really a compliment. The new incarnation as “a small town with great festivals” is a step up, though somehow, I doubt that people in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or even Erie can be convinced that we are the only go-to location for small town festivals.

Oil City’s television ads also confuse me. These cable-placed commercials invite folks to “rediscover Oil City” and I can’t help wondering who they think has misplaced it. Part of what our marketing whizzes need to figure out is not how we view ourselves, but how an outsider could distinguish us from Mercer or Warren or Grove City.

Marketing does not start with the assertion that the prospective customers ought to want what we want them to want. It starts by figuring out what we have that might have broader appeal. This means that some businesses, good card-carrying, dues-paying members of many of our assorted Chambers of Commerce, must be willing to take one for the team, step back, and let the most alluring choices serve as our marquee attractions.

Marketing also must start with the belief that we do have something to offer. I am tired of people who have gotten bored looking at the same scenery for sixty years and therefore believe it is uninteresting, just as I am tired of those who believe that nothing less than a massive manufacturing firm is worth bothering with (provided that it is silent, immaculate, and in somebody else’s neighborhood). People who won’t stoop to pick up money unless it’s a hundred-dollar bill deserve to be poor. Many regions have achieved success with far fewer resources than we have here.

We have a beautiful outdoors. We have beautiful waterways. We have bike trails. We have people willing to work. We have a cluster of small towns that, taken together, represent everything that people imagine when they think about Mythic American Small Town Life. We can go outside at night, safely. We have an arts community large enough to have quality but small enough to have room for people who are not ready to go pro. We have the kind of recreation activities that city-dwellers spend millions to imitate, badly. We have a remarkably low cost of living, right down to homes that would cost ten times as much in any other market.

There are many reasons to want to live here. If you don’t believe that, you need to get on a bus and ride a hundred miles in any direction and look at the miserable conditions people settle for.

The people who made the dvd get that, as did the people who made the full-color flyer for Franklin. I can look at both and think, “Yeah, I’d want to live there.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jerry Frey

Hard to believe that it has been just over four years since Jerry passed away. Here's what I wrote at the time.

(News-Herald, February 2004)The Franklin Silver Cornet Band lost one of its stalwarts this week.

Jerry Frey had the longest tenure of any active band member. He held that rank by a matter of just a few weeks; shortly after he joined as a teenager in 1945, Jerry recruited Dick Eshelman to join the band.

Getting people to do stuff was one of Jerry’s talents. He had a special knack for it. There are people who guilt or browbeat you into helping out. And there are plenty of people in the volunteer world who want you to become the supporting cast as they step into the spotlight. But Jerry was not a spotlight kind of guy.

Not that he couldn’t have been. Jerry played an unusual assortment of instruments, including trumpet, horn and tuba. Musicians can tell you what an odd personality mix that makes. Trumpet players are known in the band world for, well, a certain lack of shyness and humility. Horn players can be a bit high strung and diva-ish. But tuba players are the quiet clowns of the band world.

Jerry had played trumpet in his early years in the band. He told me once about showing up for a concert and getting a field promotion to lead trumpet because somebody didn’t show up. The band performed a particularly challenging piece, and Jerry afterwards swore that he’d never give up the peace and quiet of the tuba section again.

Jerry was a born supporter. Talk to the old-timers about the people who held the band together when times were tough, and Jerry’s name always comes up. For us younger players, Jerry was the veteran who always made you feel that he was glad you were there.

It wasn’t just band. I never knew Jerry to be slow to praise or express appreciation. Back when my brother and I anchored the Big Band Show on Saturday mornings, we could always count on Jerry or Norma Jean to call when they heard something they liked. Over the years he always had a spare minute to offer a word of praise or encouragement.

Jerry worked at a variety of jobs over the years, most notably out at Two Mile Run County Park. But for many of us, Jerry always seemed to be more clearly defined by how he spent his “free” time.

Jerry was a choir director, a Sunday School teacher and a Red Cross volunteer. He played in just about every band that existed in Venango County over the last sixty years. And in all of his activities, he would recruit other folks to come along and join in.

And Jerry was a real clown. I remember how excited he was about running off with the circus when he was already over sixty. It was exciting to imagine Elmo the Clown out touring the fairgrounds of America. I can remember watching Elmo work; a modern tv-jaded child would view him first skeptically, as if a clown were just too uncool for words, and then be slowly won over by his charm and humor.

It was always hard to remember that Jerry had been in band longer than any of us; it was hard, really, to think of Jerry as “old.” He kept taking on new challenges, staying active, getting out into the community. It was difficult, visibly difficult, when Norma Jean died. But just last Christmastime, I played with Jerry in a brass group for a local church service. He was as sharp as ever, and shared some more stories of the old band days.

Jerry was a good man. He gave hour after hour to so many groups in the community. He married into the kind of loving partnership that most of us wish for our own children. He brought people together, one or two at a time, throughout the area. And he provided a living example of faith in action.

The world has way, way too many people who seem to think that the measure of a person’s faith is how much noise they make about it, people who think that if they drop a mention of God into every other sentence, it won’t matter what a lousy job they do of acting out that faith in their daily lives.

In all the years that I knew Jerry, I don’t think I ever heard him try to tell me what a very devout Christian he was. And yet, I don’t think there was any doubt that that’s just what he was.

For me, Jerry’s life was a witness to a couple of important truths. One is that how you walk says so much more than how you talk. The other is that while we may not change the course of history, we can still each make a small but important difference in our own corner of the world. I miss him already.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

John McConnell Tries Retirement (Again)

(News-Herald, March 13)The end of this month marks the end of John McConnell’s tenure as general manager of the Barrow-Civic Theatre in Franklin.

It is not an easy job. The Barrow has had several people in the position over the last fifteen years, and, to be perfectly honest, not every one of them had the chops to handle the job.

Managing a theater like the Barrow requires a multitude of skills. There is an army of volunteers who keep the place functioning, and managing volunteers is a special skill because, well, nobody is paying them to put up with anything they don’t want to put up with.

The Barrow has become the jewel of downtown Franklin, but that in turn gives it a responsibility to be an active member of the local commercial community. The general manager needs to connect, work with, go to meetings with, and otherwise connect well with the other area businesses.

And since it’s a theater, the general manager also has to stay connected with as many of the varied strands of the local artistic community. More contacts, more networks, more meetings, more egos.

But since it’s a regional resource, the Barrow also has to connect and compete with the larger world. And that requires a level of expertise as well. If you want to play the game in the wide outside-the-county world, you have to play by the world’s rules.

On top of all that, a manager of any regional theater operates forever on the edge of financial disaster. I can remember when the theater first opened and people would ask the question, “Well, how long until the theater is a self-sufficient money-making venture?”

The answer, discovered and rediscovered in thousands of regional theaters across the country, is “never.”

That’s not a bad thing. A theater is a big black hole of capital expense. There’s always something to be fixed or maintained, always new equipment that would be great to have. I can’t imagine any theatrical facility’s manager announcing, “We’ve got everything we could ever want or use. No need to raise any more money ever again.”

So you have to find contributors, sell memberships, figure out what the local breaking point is for ticket costs, and then guess what kinds of acts will be make back the money it takes to book them, all coordinated against the schedule of a thousand other local events (and figuring in the random factor of local weather).

Even if you were good at it, the general stress of operating check to check, booking to booking, depending on the public to support a service that many view as a luxury item—all that would be enough to give an iron man a permanent ulcer.

John McConnell certainly didn’t have to take the job on. In his career at Oil City High School he contributed as much to the growth and vigor of arts and music in this area as anyone ever has. Take that teaching career, add all the work he’s done with Civic Operetta, and he could have retired to play shuffleboard, drink exotic beer with funny names, and take cruises to far away warm places. Nobody would have said anything but, “He’s certainly earned it.”

So having him at the helm of this important regional asset has just been gravy for the rest of us. Not since Toby Saltarelli oversaw the transformation of an empty shell of a building into a living, breathing theater has someone done so much to make the Barrow a model of powerful positive change in the larger community.

I don’t know who will be replacing him; I don’t even know who has applied for the job. I wish them luck, and not just because John’s shoes will be hard to fill. To stand up and take a leadership position in the region takes vision, determination, and a thick skin. Taking a stand and making a difference guarantees that you will be a target for everything from cranky phone calls to lawsuits.

The new manager will take over a facility that faces some enormous challenges but also possesses enormous strengths, including a wide web of connections to the community and the region.

Those strengths exist today both because of the gazillion hours of hard work by an army of volunteers (and a handful of people whose pay is only slightly greater than volunteer pay) but also because of the leadership and dedication of John McConnell.

So as the month winds down, there will be no better time to drop him a line at the theater and let him know that you appreciate his stewardship of this community treasure.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Self-Made Men and Other Myths

(News-Herald, March 6) I am tired of self-made men. I am tired of people grunting, “Well, nobody gave me anything. I’m a completely self-made man.”Well, no, no, you’re not.

I don’t for a moment discount the value and importance of hard work and good decisions. Life provides an endless supply of opportunities to choose wisely, or not. Everybody who ever lived has gone through a phase in which they refuse to make those choices, or make the choices and insist that they get the results they want no matter what choice they make. Everybody goes through that phase, but then they have their sixth birthday and, in the vast majority of cases, start to grow out of it.

Those people who still want to make bad choices without consequences, who want to take eat the meal but not pay the bill—those people desperately need to grow up.

People who have succeeded in life usually do so because they make smart choices, accept sacrifice when needed, see available options that other miss, and leverage their talents and passions into meaningful achievements. They work hard, make wise decisions, and put energy into their lives.

They deserve a great deal of credit and recognition. The accolades that they receive, the success and recognition they collect is well-earned and much to their credit.

But they are not self-made.

I don’t care who you are, what you’ve achieved, how much you’ve clawed your way up from the bottom, there is still a long list of factors outside your control that share the credit for your success.

Let’s start with the presence of a stable government in a peaceful society. A John D. Rockefeller who lives in a country where either rapacious government officials or angry poor folks with pointy sticks can take away everything-- that is a John D. Rockefeller whose great success will simply never occur.

You live in a country where you never have to worry about how you’ll get where you want to go or how you’ll talk to whoever needs talking to. Having food to eat and water to drink and power to run a houseful of gadgets are concerns that barely register on the consciousness and take little time or effort. I doubt that you have a hand in providing anything close to all of that yourself. At best, you pay other people to take care of that, and you can only do THAT because you live in a country where a stable economic system makes such transactions totally routine.

And we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Your health is somewhat under your control, but if you draw the short straw in cancer roulette, that’s out of your hands. If you’ve never had your life derailed by catastrophic illness or disease, that has nothing to do with how virtuous or hard-working or deserving you are. You can call it the grace of God or you can call it sheer dumb luck, but don’t pretend you somehow earned it. Plenty of folks have been hit by the hard health hammer through no fault of their own.

You don’t get to take any of the credit for whatever end of the gene pool produced you. A quick twist of a dna molecule here and there and you would have been born half as strong or twice as dumb.

And while we’re talking about grace and luck, let’s talk about all the stupid things you’ve done in your life that, fortunately or gracefully, did not result in a life-changing consequence. That’s not because you’ve worked so hard, either.

I won’t minimize for a second the lifetime of hard work, sacrifice, and good decisions that have brought you to where you are. People who don’t make the most of what they have, who don’t make the effort, who don’t keep plugging away at turning their lives into something—many of those people end up with problems that they have foisted on themselves.

But if you want to tell me you’re a self-made success story, I disagree. And if you want to tell me that you don’t owe anybody anything, I say that you are full of malarkey.

Given a whole day, you could never list all the people whose lives and works have made your success possible. Nor could you list every turn at which misfortune could have derailed your life, no matter how great your efforts and determination.

The very least we owe our country and community and universe and Creator is gratitude for the chance to become who we have become. The very least that such gratitude should awaken is a sense of responsibility to use our gifts wisely, and a sense of respect and responsibility for our fellow travelers.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Relationship with God

(News-Herald, July 2002) For a columnist in an area like Venango County, addressing issues related to religion is a little like checking to see if the electric fence is on by licking it.

Every time I’ve licked that fence, the power has been on and I’ve drawn some rather spirited mail.

But what with the ongoing flap about “under God” and the various discussions about religion in America that have been stirred up, it seems like the fence is just itching to be licked again.

There are plenty of excuses for ignoring religion and the church. I think most of them are a crock. Some folks are partial to the old standard, “I have a personal relationship with God that I just work out in my own way,” meaning generally that they try to think God-related thoughts when the mood strikes them and they’re not too busy. Try running your marriage that way. The important relationships in your life require regular maintenance and a daily effort to hear the other person involved; that principle also applies to a relationship with the Creator of the Universe.

Another excuse is the observation that church people have occasionally turned out to be hypocritical and very unChristian. This is a hard charge to counter; I have absolutely no doubt that there are churches in this county that are some of the most unwelcoming, coldest spots a person could wander into. You would be better off wandering into a biker bar and ordering a milkshake than walking into some local churches as a Known Sinner. And certainly there is a well-documented list of big-time church leaders who turned out to be somewhat overwhelmed by their fleshier pursuits.

To which I say, “So what?” Some people get divorced; doesn’t mean we throw out marriage. Some people get food poisoning; doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up eating. Church people are human, which means we can predict fallibility will fall right in the 100% range. True, there are plenty of church people who forget that, but just because something can’t be done perfectly, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done at all.

But it’s fallibility that causes me to part ways with conservative Christians. It’s not that I think God is a vague cloud of imprecise suggestions that change with the latest human fashions; I don’t. What I doubt is the human capacity to read the mind of God.

History is full of people who were 100% certain that they knew exactly what God wanted. They knew with certainty that God wanted people from different churches killed, women kept subservient and silent, and blacks kept in bondage. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem witch trials to the World Trade Towers, people who were absolutely certain of their knowledge of God have displayed some Very Bad Behavior.

Now, at some point, we have to catch on. If you keep telling yourself, “God has sent this fuzzy caterpillar to make me warm and happy,” and twelve times you’ve picked the caterpillar up, and twelve times it’s turned out to be a rattlesnake that bit you on the rump, this is not a failure of God or your relationship with Him—it’s a failure of your relationship with your own brain.

If you can sit there and say, “Well, over the last several millennia the people who were certain they knew exactly what God wanted turned out to be mistaken, but I know I really know what God’s thinking, so I will be an exception” then, well, I am in awe at the size of your self-esteem.

And if you are sure that your little human brain can completely encompass an understanding of the Author of All Creation, I’m disappointed by how tiny your picture of God is.

I believe that as human beings the best we can hope to accomplish, with time and effort, is to grasp a part of the Big Picture clearly, some other parts not so clearly, and some other parts not at all. And if we aren’t willing to humbly approach each day open to the possibility that we are flat-out wrong about everything, and to accept that some self-correction may be in order, I think we grasp even less.

So I am suspicious of people who are certain that they have the answer, and I am suspicious of people who believe that since the answer is hard to find, there just isn’t one. People make their own journey toward the truth in their own ways, in their own time. Sometimes it’s your day to put a fence up; sometimes it’s your day to tear it down. And sometimes it’s your day to check to see if it’s on.

From my Flickr