Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Feeding the Enemy

(News-Herald, January 2003) I don’t know that it’s an irony, but it’s an often-ignored principle of combat. Your actions feed your opponent.

The principle, perhaps, does not apply to one-on-one hand-to-hand individual contest. But then, that’s a rare contest these days. Our contests are between groups, and that’s when this principle kicks in.

Say you’ve entered into a dispute with the Bayer family, the one that lives just on the other side of the backyard. Chances are the Bayers are not all of one mind on the matter.

“They’re a stupid and unreasonable threat to us, and they need to be stopped,” says Mama Bayer.

“They’re decent people and we have nothing to fear from them. Let’s just take a chance and work this out,” says Papa Bayer.

“By reaching for understanding, we can better come in contact with the force that binds the universe and confront the existential angst that confronts all humans; at the same time we will create positive karma for ourselves,” says Baby Bayer. (Baby Bayer is currently a philosophy major at Clarion).

Our behavior toward the Bayers will feed one of those points of view. If we start lobbing stink bombs over the fence, Mama will say, “See, I told you so” and Papa will be hard-pressed to answer her. If we take over a nice bundt cake, Papa gets to say “I told you so,” and Mama has to overcome his objections.

Granted, what we feed our opponents is not the only factor involved. Mama can throw the bundt cake in the trash and continue to declare, “They must be stopped.”

But every stance in a contest costs energy. And if you can’t draw the energy from your opponents, you have to draw from your own resources, and that costs as well. You can lie to your own people, or try to hold down your own dissenters, but in the end that carries an enormous internal price.

That’s why political activists love it when their opponents say something outrageous; it feeds their point of view and pumps in energy without costing them a thing.

And to some extent, that’s how we have turned Saddam Hussein into the heroic leader of a solid regime. Instead of the next Fidel Castro, we’ve made him into George Washington. And Saddam, being a wily little oil-country despot, seems to understand how to avoid feeding his most rabid opponents.

So we watch the inspectors, not hoping that Saddam turns out to be threatless, but hoping we can catch him at something that will prove he needs to be spanked. I have no trouble imagining policy-makers in DC wishing that Saddam would gas a bunch of people or blow up some orphanages or just do somthing that would make the USA hawk argument stronger.

And that is the ironic part of this—as our designated opponent, Saddam has almost as much ability to control America’s agenda as any suit in Washington. Sure, we can go to war without him. But if Saddam won’t feed the hawkish viewpoint, our leaders will have to do it themselves, and that means feeding it with our own resources, and we can already see the results: dissent, disunion, and distrust in some quarters that our government might say anything to get us to back the military play.

This really is ironic; despite the notion that opponents are somehow separated, two distinct and isolated sides, the truth is that we are usually tied as closely to our opponents as we are to our allies.

In this strange symbiosis, we cannot strike out at them without paying a price with our own teammates, and the strength we feed at them becomes theirs to use against us. This is why the Roman Empire worked in a way that few others in history ever did; they understood that you cannot wipe out your opponents without sowing the seeds of your own destruction.

If you feed your opponents fear, they fill up with fear, and a frightened human is a dangerous human. If you feed them respect, that can grow as well.

In the end, the gulf that we reach across to grapple with our opposition is a problem that we share with them; it is almost impossible to unilaterally solve. That doesn’t mean we should all join hands and start in on “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” or that we should stop standing for what we believe in, or that we should accept wrong for right; but if we think the solution will be that we beat our opponents into submission, we might as well hope that Santa Claus will come settle it all for us.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Summer Vacation

(News-Herald, July 24) I took my first trip to Los Angeles, to visit my son who’s out there to learn the acting biz. He’s spending the summer as a bookstore coffee barrista at the corner of Sunset and Vine, living in sumptuous bachelor digs (hey, how much furniture do you really need, anyway). It’s a challenge to send your child off to the scary American West, but awesome to see them turn into courageous grown-ups.

I didn’t hit the whole LA megalopolis; most of my adventures were in the general area of Hollywood. LA didn’t make a big impression. Unlike New York or Chicago or even Cleveland, there’s no place to stand on the curb and let your hick flag fly while you drawl out, “Dang! Lookee there! We ain’t got nothing like that back home!”

LA is mostly spread out and flat; it looks a lot like Erie but just goes on a lot longer. However, LA cleverly avoids monotony by planting mountains right in the middle of things. Actually, not so much mountains as two-sided cliffs.

Eastern cities have grown up in harmony with their geography. The lay of the land sets the shape of the city, and so most Eastern cities, whether we’re talking Buffalo or Franklin, have a harmony with the land.

In the West, it’s different. Las Vegas is the ultimate western city—it could have been plunked down a half mile in any other direction and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit. The cities exist on top of the land, independent of it.

But much of LA is in open combat with the land it sits on. Houses are clawed and clamped onto and into the hillside, like they’d been designed by mutant offspring of Frank Lloyd Wright and Dr. Seuss, barely hanging to land that looks like one pail of water would put quits to the whole thing.

The Hollywood Hills are a meandering maze of roads that are twisted and narrow, like passing slowly through the intestines of a large snake wrapped in a blender tossed in the spin cycle, the hilly parts of Oil City on crack. Mindy Eshelman helpfully demonstrated for me that even someone who lives there and drives with a GPS system can still have trouble getting where they want to go. I can’t imagine anyone ever standing and saying, “Yeah, this would be a great place for a house,” and yet there’s nothing but gazillion-dollar homes.

The driving was surprisingly easy, few things crowded. People are all going somewhere, but they don’t actually stay there. I didn’t see many bizarre Californian fashionistas. Most people I saw would not look out of place at the Cranberry Mall (and most who would were clearly tourists).

We are sometimes told we have much to learn about regional boosterism from other small towns like Frankenmuth. But I’ve come home thinking we can also learn from Hollywood.

100 years ago Hollywood was fields, nothing. Today it’s a really well-developed nothing, a busy nothing. Busloads and planeloads converge on it because they’ve heard that once upon a time something cool happened there. The famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine is indistinguishable from a million other street corners. A tour of the Universal backlot lets you see hundreds of locations where cool things you once saw in a movie happened. But right at this moment, they’re empty.

Some folks are disdainful of events like Oil Heritage Week, in which we celebrate stuff that happened long ago (but isn’t happening now). I say that Oil Heritage Week and Hollywood are just two versions of the same principle at work. One or two little attractions may not convince someone to even cross the street; put a hundred of these side by side, and crowds gather.

We need to stop thinking this is small potatoes, not enough to merit attention. There are only a handful of attractions on the planet that need no puffery, that inspire awe on their own. Things like the Grand Canyon, the Colorado Rockies. The rest of our Great Cool Places have been made into Great Cool Places by some combination of willpower, cheerleading, ambition and willpower.

It takes a lot of individual work. Hollywood wasn’t created by a single bureaucratic entity—just a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of different dreams. We can be that cool.

Did I see any famous celebrities? No, but I wasn’t really looking. I got to see my son, and that was all the celebrity I needed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Special FSCB Concert Bulletin

This week's Franklin Silver Cornet Band concert will feature an appearance by tuba pro Jim Self.

Self was born in Franklin and raised in Oil City. Consequently, though he's come back and appeared in the area a few times, I'm not sure that people in these parts get how enormous he is in the biz. He's the heir-apparent to the great Tommy Johnson, the go-to guy for film scores-- Self has appeared in everything from his famous mother ship solo in Close Encounters to more recent films like Lemony Snicket, War of the Worlds, & Sin City. He has way over a thousand film credits, as well as recording credits with everyone from Leon Redbone to Maynard Fergusun to Barbra Streisand. He has worked with orchestras and jazz groups around the globe. He is without a doubt one of the top low brass players in the world.

This Thursday night he'll be playing a couple of solo features with us, as well as sitting in with the band for the rest of the concert.

In a nice piece of book-ending, this week's concert will also feature the Junior Silver C's, a band composed of 5-8th graders from throughout Venangoland (Yes, it's the kind of summer music enrichment program that school districts used to do and could do today, but they don't, so we do). So the audience Thursday will get to see both the start and the peak of some musical careers.

So if you only make the trip to catch one or two concerts a summer, this Thursday's would be a good choice.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hildegarde in Concert

Just came from the Dittmans' one-woman Hildegarde Dolson show at the Barrow Little Theater, and if you missed it tonight, you have a chance to catch it tomorrow. It's a quick introduction (or re-introduction for those of us who already knew who she was) to one of Franklin's most successful native daughters, a midcentury writer with a keen eye honed in the small town and refined in NYC. Not as domestic as Erma Bombeck, not as pissy as Dorothy Parker, not as political as Art Buchwald, not as berserk as Dave Barry-- she has her own special voice and Mike's script paired up with Amy's delivery help bring her alive.

It's a mere five bucks and just 45 minutes out of your life. You should go!

Saturday, July 19, 7:00, Barrow

Leadership: Want It Bad, or Non-existent?

(News-Herald, July 17) “Well, it couldn’t get any worse.”

How many times have folks in a workplace uttered those immortal words as some dysfunctional boss headed out the door for greener pastures? And how many times have they learned that it’s a mistake to underestimate just how low the bar can be set.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a comparison—is the new boss really worse than the old boss? There are just so many different ways to be a dysfunctional leader.

For instance. Is it worse to provide bad leadership or no leadership at all? This is a tough choice, because each has its particular weaknesses.

Bad leadership generally involves forcing people to get behind something that is either stupid or wrong or both. Bad leadership does its best to squash anyone who has a different idea. For bad leaders, the problem is never that they are making bad choices for the organization—the problem is that you won’t sit down and shut up and stop disagreeing with them.

Non-leadership, on the other hand, leaves plenty of room for a variety of voices. The best sort of vision or direction you can expect from non-leaders is the things that they hope won’t happen; a non-leader will be happy if, for instance, he’s not taking any phone calls from people who want to yell at him. Since there is no vision or direction from the top, everyone else is free to do whatever he feels like doing.

In quiet times, that can work reasonably well. The problems come in times of crisis. When the bus is headed toward a cliff, and the passengers realize that nobody is driving, the next thing you see will be a mad dash for the steering wheel. Driving from the passenger seat is hard to do; therefore, the people most likely to try are those who don’t really understand the situation. In this way, non-leadership can often lead directly to bad leadership.

Bad leadership has the advantage of being predictable. Given a certain problem, you know the boss is going to say something stupid, but you can usually predict what stupid thing he will say.

This makes it easier for the organization to adapt and compensate. Most organizations have people who function as institutional enablers; they work to buffer the organization from the consequences of one stupid management decision or another.

It’s a tough line to walk. On the one hand, if you always fix your boss’s idiot mistakes, he’ll never learn anything. On the other hand, it’s no fun to live with the consequences of his idiot mistakes.

Good team players also try to enable a non-leader, but it’s much more difficult. Every once in a while, a non leader will realize that he hasn’t actually decided anything in days (or weeks, or years) and so he strides out of the office (or fires off an e-mail) in which he Makes Decisions. Where and what and how and why are hard to predict.

This process can throw institutional enablers for a loop. Nine days out of ten, the non-leader is happy to let someone else carry the ball. But, often as the ball is almost in the end-zone, non-leader will run onto the field, yank the ball away and do—well, who knows. Run it in for the score, run into the stands, throw it at the concession stand—there’s no predicting anything other than he will expect a big round of applause after he does it (Look!! I made a Decision!!)

Bad leadership can cause major dysfunction, but non-leadership can be the result of it.

For instance, we haven’t had much in the way of political leadership in Venangoland over the past several decades. Mostly we’ve had non-leadership—don’t rock the boat, don’t disturb the status quo, don’t try anything noticeably new or different.

That may be because we just haven’t had many people emerge who have had the vision or the skills to be local political leaders. Or it may be because the electorate hereabouts, for the most part, tends to greet new kinds of vision with as much enthusiasm as someone finding a pack of rabid weasels in their dishwasher.

In a business organization or government agency, the blame for bad or non-leadership rests squarely on the people who do the hiring. But when it comes to politics, we all get what we demand (or are willing to settle for).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Schools vs. The Real World

(News-Herald, July 10) In late June, the Associated Press released the results of their poll of US attitudes toward education. They sampled just under 1700 adults (about 50/50 parents/nonparents), which is statistically valid albeit tidy. And they forgot to ask me any questions.

Education still rates as a big point of concern. Only terrorism, gas prices, the economy, and health care caused greater concern (immigration, same sex marriage, abortion, not so much).

The headlines reported the survey results as “public thinks schools not preparing students for life.” That’s sort of correct. The public thinks that schools are pretty okay for college prep, medium okay for workplace prep. “Giving children the practical skills they will need to survive as adults” came up short for the greatest number of respondents.

I don’t disagree. I think there are several reasons it’s at least partly true.

Schools reflect society, and as a society we don’t really agree on what skills are needed to be an adult any more. We know that India and China are producing workers with enormous motivation and computer skills, but they also possess the skill of being willing to exist on wages that would not allow an American worker to live in a van down by the river.

We want our students to value hard work and honor and ethical behavior, but one need not search long and hard to find success stories that involve none of these qualities. One of the ironies of No Child Left Behind is that it’s a school reform spearheaded by the most successful scholastic-slacker-with-family-connections in American history. But never mind the White House; young people need only look as far as tv to see people in their early twenties whose fame and fortune is based on their willingness to make their poor choices in front of a camera. What “real world” skills are demonstrated there, exactly?

Those excuses aside, schools fall short in preparing students for the Real World because schools generally fear the Real World. Part of it is habit—it makes good sense to keep young children shielded from the Real World, and so we just keep doing it on through high school. Part of it is fear of litigation—every time a student interacts with the Real World, schools are blinded by visions of a thousand potential lawsuits.

When people interact with the Real World, there is always a possibility that Bad Things will happen. Schools are often less concerned with preparing students for that moment and more concerned with making sure it doesn’t happen on the school’s watch.

When listing problems as “most” or “not at all” serious, respondents gave the highest urgency to lack of discipline, fighting/gangs, and getting and keeping good teachers. We’re fairly low on Venangoland gang violence. “Lack of discipline” is vague enough as to be meaningless. Getting and keeping good teachers has been a nationwide issue for years; young teachers are leaving the profession almost as quickly as colleges crank them out.

We are disadvantaged here because we can’t offer the kind of juicy salary other areas can; our advantage is that we can offer things like juicy housing costs. But very few districts anywhere behave as if they serious about recruiting, training, and retaining the best teachers.

Local school districts will be pleased to note that the respondents gave much less urgency to issues such as “condition of school buildings” and “access to athletic facilities.”

The majority felt that schools are worse than they were twenty years ago. I’m not sure I agree; at the very least, I’m pretty sure I’m doing a better job than I was twenty years ago.

The majority also felt that if more students finished high school and college, the US economy would be better. I wish we knew why exactly they thought so.

Responders were 70-30 in believing that classroom work was a better measure of student achievement than standardized tests.

One of the few times that parents and non-parents split in the survey was the question of linking teacher pay to student achievement. Parents were 50-50 on the matter, while the general population was 61-37 in favor of it.

And 80% of the parents called their own children’s school “excellent” or “good.” That’s typical; people tend to say that their own school is okay, but all those other schools are messed up.

It would be interesting to see how a survey like this would play out locally. Perhaps local districts can include it when they start merger talks.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

One More Column About Patriotism

(News-Herald, July 3) A love affair with one’s country is like any other kind of love affair—there are lots of stupid ways to get it wrong.

There’s blind patriotism. Like any other blind love, this is just an invitation to disaster.

There’s nothing wrong with patriotism as a kind of unconditional love. But there’s a big difference between “My country—right or wrong” and “My country is always right.” The first is loyalty; the second is stupidity.

We’ve made some mistakes, gotten some things wrong. That does not make us unique—we are not, for instance, the only country to ever institutionalize slavery. We are, however, one of the few countries to ever get rid of it on our own.

Monarchs, despots, tyrants, totalitarians—they all depend on a belief that the government is always right. We have always had the flexibility to change our collective minds, to move in another direction.

But that can only happen when people are able and willing to speak up and say, “I don’t think this is working.” Refusing to question the government is not love of country; it’s just blind obedience to the tyrant of the month.

We have always needed dissenting voices. They require a tolerance for a loud chorus, arguing and disagreeing, inefficiently tugging in many directions. We’ve been that way since day one. Our constitution is a cobbled-together mess of compromise and disagreement, and our government started arguing about it immediately, often in fairly vigorous, abusive and violent ways. Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” but he also said “George Washington stinks and this government is a bollixed-up mess” (I’m paraphrasing a bit).

It’s not patriotic to say, “My country’s wrong, so I’m going to leave and become a citizen of Slobovia.” Neither is it patriotic to say, “My country’s never wrong, and people who criticize it should be thrown in jail.” (We actually had that law under John Adams, but critics convinced the government it was wrong, and we got rid of it.) It is no act of love to say, “Oh well—if my spouse is driving toward a cliff, I should just not look ahead and not criticize.” You can’t fix what you refuse to see.

Blind patriotism often connects to ignorant patriotism. We Americans have plenty of stories about our history that we love to tell, and many are wrong. For example, neither “America was founded to establish government free of all trace of religion” and “America was founded to be a Christian nation” are both wrong. (I’m not getting into the details today, but feel free to start writing those letters.)

Our arguments about law and society are laced with “proof” that isn’t true. And our many attempts to transplant the tree of liberty to other gardens have been hampered by our lack of understanding of how it took root here in the first place.

Ignorant patriotism is like your daughter who brings home the fiancĂ© that she met yesterday; she knows nothing about him, she “just feels” that he will make a great husband. Not a great plan.

Finally, there’s inactive patriotism. This is like the couple that gets married secretly; they have the piece of paper, but they never do anything about it and nobody sees a hint that they’re together.

Saying you’re a patriot doesn’t cut it if you used a lame excuse to get out of jury duty and you haven’t voted in ten years. We don’t even need to talk about what you’ve done for the entire country—our country is made out of many small places, each in its own way like the many slices of Venangoland. Our townships that can’t find enough people to serve in local office are suffering from inactive patriots.

Fourth of July is the great community holiday. You can celebrate most other holidays at home in your own way. Nobody celebrates July 4 at home in his own way.

That’s because patriotism means taking responsibility for some portion of your community. Patriotism is about being part of a larger body of people and so it takes a gathering, whether in Cranberry last night, Oil City tonight, or Franklin tomorrow, to properly mark the occasion.

If you want a worthwhile discussion of patriotism, never mind the question of whether ours is a great land. It is. The real question is what have you done to help make it great. You say you love her; what have you done about it?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Cutting a Wide Swat

(News-Herald, November 2000) I have long wondered how the name "Venango" made it to western communities in Nebraska and Kansas. Some folks have suggested that the Indians might have taken it west. The Ottawas, for instance, are noted in one source as ranging as faar eaast as Venango, Pennsylvania, and as far west as Kansas and Oklahoma. (They also lived at Mackinac Island in Michigan, giving us a slim but usable excuse to hold our qualifying round for Mackinac Island's stone skipping nationals.)

I have trouble accepting this explanation because "Venango" is usually presented as non-Native Americans' best guess at rendering a Native American word. So the search goes on. But while searching, I turned up something else. Let me introduce you to Samuel J. Crumbine.

Crumbine was born here in Venango County in 1862. As a young boy he would sit and watch local pharmacists mix various cures and practical medicine. At age 8, young Samuel was admitted to the Mercer Soldiers Orphan School. The interest in doctoring never left him; he eventually enrolled in the Cincinnati School of Medicine and Surgery, where he tried to make ends meet by distributing handbills for patent medicine. But after a year, he was out of money.

Crumbine headed west to seek his fortune, or at least enough fortune to finish medical school. By 1885 he had landed in Dodge City. His training and experience made him the most medically knowledgeable man in the neighborhood, so he opened up a practice. That put Crumbine in Dodge City at the same time as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. It was still rough territory, but Crumbine must have liked it because he went back to Cincinnati, finished med school, married, and returned with his wife to Dodge City.

Apparently Dr. Crumbine cut quite a figure out West. The "young feisty" doctor would appear in his Prince Albert coat, packing a six-shooter. Says a source, "he bullied his patients into good health habits, scolded victims of gunshot wounds (Why didn't you duck?), and generally earned the respect and loyalty of the townspeople."

But our native son's career as Kansas public health crusader was only beginning. His first crusade was to convince Fred Harvey's Diner in Dodge City to stop serving milk from an open pitcher. Small potatoes, you may say, but every crusader has to start somewhere.

Dr. Crumbine opposed pesthouses, the practice of putting victims of communicable diseases (like smallpox) in a building to recover (or not) while everyone else in town was quarantined in their own homes. This was hard on both public health and the economy (though the day after Thanksgiving might be pretty pleasant if everyone were required by law to stay home).

His stand against pesthouses led to a job as the head of the Kansas Public Health Board. In that job he pioneered food and drug testing. We take this sort of protection for granted, but back at the turn of the century Dr. Crumbine's department was discovering that one cure for "all nervous troubles" was 75% alcohol; another cure for several diseases had turpentine for its active ingredient.

But it was in his next crusade that Dr. Crumbine made his greatest mark. Noting the connection between houseflies and typhoid documented in the Spanish-American War, he decided to rid Kansas of the little pests. "Swat the fly" was the campaign slogan, and it brought out of the woodwork a teacher named Frank Rose who showed Crumbine his new invention: a yardstick with a mesh square mounted on the end. With clearly too much free time and too little gift for language, Rose had named it a "fly bat." Crumbine amended that to "fly swatter" and its immortality was assured.

The doctor also promoted the use of those little cone-shaped paper cups to stop the spread of tuberculosis from common public drinking cups. He took on the crime boss of Kansas City, threatening to quarantine the whole town to stop the spread of venereal disease, and generally annoyed politicians so much that he was eventually forced to resign. He moved on to run the American Child Health Association. There's an award given in his name every year.

Now Johnny Appleseed lived here very briefly and then went on to become a famous American loon. Here's a guy who was born and raised (a bit) here and who went on to do great things. If Johnny rates Applefest, surely Dr. Crumbine deserves a festival of his own, a giant fly-swatting festival. I can see it now; a giant fly swatter poised over Liberty Street, giant fly pageants, fly races, fly cooking contests-- I think the tourism promotion folks had better get on this right away.

From my Flickr