Saturday, August 30, 2008

Challenge for the New School Year

(News-Herald, August 28) If you’re a parent, you’ve prepared yourself for the moment next week when your child makes the big trip toward another year of education. But there’s still time to pick out some piece of Parental Wisdom to impart to your offspring. If you haven’t come up with anything, here’s my suggestion for the new year.

It’s simple, really. Accept the challenge.

We talk a lot about raising the bar, about making our students more competitive, about being the best. But that’s the generality, the broad picture. As parents, our more natural impulse is to make sure that our own children are never unhappy, never suffering, never pained, never disappointed, never feeling the sting of failure. And so, with the best intentions in the world, we identify the biggest challenge our child could face, and we help him avoid it.

No Child Left Behind is supposed to address this and push all children toward excellence. It won’t. Two important things to remember about NCLB:

1) Within the next six years (if the law doesn’t change) every school in America will fail.

2) When reports say that students are being better educated, what they actually mean is that students are doing better on standardized tests. You can get students to score well without educating them; in fact, educating them often doesn’t help. And in the end, all you’ve proven is how well they do on a standardized test.

So NCLB doesn’t address the challenge of challenge. Neither does the idea of school choice.

Proponents claim that, free to choose, parents will choose the best, toughest, most challenging schools. That, unfortunately, is not true.

Right now, the high schools of Venangoland already offer choice. Most students can choose classes that challenge them a lot, a little, or not very much. Some choose the big challenge. Some have parents who force them to accept the big challenge. And plenty avoid any sort of challenge like the plague.

If school choice became law, someone could make a fortune opening a school that promised students would never have homework and would always get B’s.

Why do students shy away from challenge?

Sometimes it’s that parental desire to protect. We want our children to experience nothing but success. We hope they never feel pain, disappointment, frustration.

But the only way to do that is to duck the challenge. Lifting heavy weights to build muscles is hard and makes you sore; lifting two pounds is easy and doesn’t make you uncomfortable at all. Running a mile in four or five minutes leaves you exhausted and breathless; strolling a mile in an hour or so is much less uncomfortable.

Sometimes it’s simple short-sightedness. We have students who can take the long view about practicing long painful hours at a sport because they believe the sacrifice will pay off in the professional career they imagine having ten years from now; these same students then blow off academic assignments because they’d rather be at the movies tonight. Students spend a gazillion hours worrying about how to get in to college, but no time at all worrying about how they’ll handle the demands once they’re there.

Challenge, with its discomfort and strain, always looks bad in the short view. That’s when the long view matters. Ten years from now, how likely is it that you’ll be thinking, “Thank heavens I skipped every Monday and ate KFC in front of my Playstation” or “I’m glad I prepared by the world of work by never showing up on time for school.”

The long view of challenge is one of the areas where young folks in China and India have us on the run—they’ll put up with almost any level of discomfort and challenge now in order to have a shot at a better life years from now, while Americans declare that reaching the ripe old age of 15 entitles them to kick back and take it easy.

Now, accepting a challenge is not the same as beating your head against a brick wall or trying to run a two-minute mile. Everyone has their limits, and a good part of wisdom is learning to stay within them. But you can’t find your limits without testing them. You can’t build the big muscles without lifting heavy weights. And you don’t get anything out of a year of school by trying to just ease comfortably through it (and that goes for teachers, too). Make this year count for something. Take the challenge.

Friday, August 22, 2008


(August 21) Deliberative bodies in this region seem doomed to repeat the same basic mistake. Faced with a difficult decision, a hot potato likely to create a shower of heated spudly agitation, they decide to obfuscate, to avoid giving information or explanation.

It’s an understandable impulse. If you know the news you’re about to deliver will cause dismay or anger, you may want to postpone delivering that news as long as possible. Nobody wants to go through the drama of argument and agitation that accompanies difficult moments. People break up by letter, hide their report cards, “forget” to mention the bounced check until the spousal unit is on the way to work.

But this kind of obfuscatory bobbing and weaving is not helpful in the grown-up world. It makes for bad management and bad government.

I’m not talking about a moral imperative or idealistic set of Proper Rules. I’m talking about practicality; if you are a manager or a government official or a school board member, being a good manager also means reducing the amount of agitation directed at you.

When you have to make a decision that affects people’s work and/or lives, there’s no doubt that some folks will be upset. But you can’t avoid that, and trying to avoid it only makes things worse.

A certain percentage of folks will be okay (or just won’t care much). Another group will back the bosses no matter what. And another group will be really angry. Nothing you do will change the folks in those three groups much. But there is a fourth group, the largest group, that could become supporters or opponents depending on how you handle matters. These swing voters can make a big difference in the tone of public reaction.

When you have to make a tough call, a controversial call, swing voters want to know a couple of things.

First, they want to know how you made the decision. What were your criteria? Did you look for the contractor with the best price, the fastest tractor, or the cutest owner? Once you selected the yardstick for your decision, what were the facts that you gathered, and how did they line up with your criteria?

People want to know that you had a reason for your choice and that you followed some process more complex than flipping a coin or picking whatever made things easiest for you.

If you don’t tell the people how you made the decision, they will guess. They will rarely guess, “Although the process is apparently a secret, I’m sure it’s wise and fair and honest.” They won’t guess that because it’s hard to imagine a wise, fair and honest process that needs to be kept secret.

Second, they want to know that you heard and understood their feelings about the issue. Some bosses appear pathologically terrified of listening, as if the mere act of hearing a different point of view will somehow destroy their position.

Listening is a powerful tool. People want to be heard. If they don’t feel they’ve been heard when they are speaking, they will keep raising their voices until they are hollering. By that time, they’re angry, too.

Our deliberative bodies, our boards and bosses, only need to be able to say, “We understand what you’re telling us. But here’s what we’ve decided, and here’s why.”

Admittedly, this is a hard position to take if you are a governing body that has not done its homework. If you don’t have a good reason for a particular course of action, it’s pretty hard to make a public case for it.

But in Venangoland, we specialize in making what may be correct decisions in the worst possible way. Leaders who are afraid of facing the anger of a few people end up stirring up ten times as many irate citizens, taxpayers, and employees. (Insert usual references to hospital mess here.)

Economic realities will keep forcing tough decisions. The folks who have to make these decisions don’t have the option of choices that will make everyone happy, but they do have some control over just how many cranky people they will have to face.

You may have a lawyer working for you advising you not explain anything to anyone; the lawyer’s responsibility is not to make sure you’re doing your job, but to make sure you don’t get yourself in trouble. When you’re making decisions, talking can get you in trouble. But it may be trouble that you’ve earned. And not talking will create even more.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Taking Advice

(News-Herald, February 2003) “Hey! Your house is on fire!”

There are any number of responses that you might expect to get to this observation. Here are some of the less sensible ones.

“How could you possibly know that? I’ve lived in this house for years, and you’re just passing by. You just don’t understand how this house is.”

“You never liked this house. You’ve never accepted my living in this house. This is just a low cheap way of getting back at it.”

“You’re too young to know about fire or houses. Come back when you’re more wise and sophisticated.”

Taking advice is a real art, almost as difficult as giving it.

It’s a mistake to listen to everything that anybody tells you. Some people will look at the steam rising from the soup on the stove and insist that you dial 911. Some people are easily panicked; others will yell “Fire” just for the entertainment of watching you run around like a cranium-deprived chicken.

But there are many times when you should heed the advice you get. The trick is knowing when to listen.

For me, one sure clue that someone is giving me advice that I should pay attention to is that I am busy coming up with reasons that I shouldn’t have to listen to it.

There’s an old saying— even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I’m convinced that there is nobody who is so dense and dopey that s/he is never, ever right about anything.

So if I’m concentrating on why I shouldn’t have to listen to the messenger instead of taking a look at the message, that’s a good sign that I don’t want to take a look at the message because I don’t like it.

For instance, I still know people who can give earnest arguments about why the data about smoking is inconclusive. Is that because they are such deep, objective scientific-minded folks? No, they’re just people who don’t want to quit smoking, so they search for reasons to suspend common sense. They argue with the messenger, not the message.

This kind of advice-resistance is doubly damaging. On the one hand, there’s the obvious damage if the advice you’re ignoring happens to be right. You can argue with the surgeon-general all you want, but it’s very hard to win an argument with lung cancer.

The less obvious damage of this type of advice-resistant behavior is the wear and tear on the human spirit. When everyone who has ever loved you, cared about you, and invested in your life is telling you that the kitchen is on fire, and you insist on turning off the smoke alarms and coming up with reasons that these folks should be ignored, you pay a price in your relationship with them.

Now, sometimes the price is unavoidable. Sometimes you’re the one who sees the fire and it’s your friends and family telling you there’s no reason to bother the fire department.

But when you stake your self on believing that they are all ignorant, bad, insensitive, and incapable of appreciating why your house really isn’t aflame, that tends to weaken the bonds between you. “I really love you, you ignorant fool,” just doesn’t read well on a Christmas card.

And then once you’re invested in denying their advice, you drift further and further away from reality. “That’s not smoke,” you declare, gritting your teeth. “It’s a special atmospheric disturbance created by rogue aromatherapy saleswomen. It’s a very small fog bank. It’s the dust from dancing fairies.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re an elected official dealing with constituents, a boss dealing with subordinates, or an average human dealing with people who think of themselves as your friends. It is hard to keep your house well when you are more devoted to proving that your would-be advisors are wrong than to doing whatever the house needs to stay healthy.

The secret is to stop arguing with the messenger and start evaluating the message. Listening to what someone has to say, really listening, and considering what’s there costs you nothing. You don’t give up the chance to say, “I’ve looked all over the house, and I don’t see any flames anywhere; therefore, I’ve come to the conclusion that the house is not on fire.”

But by considering what they have to say, you build your relationship up instead of breaking it down. And as an extra bonus, sometimes you even keep your house from burning down.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Masons Celebrate 150 Years of Conquering Franklin (Secretly)

(News-Herald, August 14) This Saturday, the Masons will descend upon Franklin in celebration of the 150th birthday of the local lodge (or shrine or club or coven, or whatever you like to call a gaggle of Masons).

There are many histories of the Freemasons. The most ambitious put the origin of Freemasonry back before 800 BC, with the building of Solomon’s Temple. Some like to link them to the Knights Templar or the stone mason guilds of the Middle Ages.

There’s all sorts of scholarship, some of it by reputable people (there’s also research about the Masons conducted by people who apparently made their tin-foil hats a bit too tight), to suggest some Freemason activity in the 1600’s, but the widely accepted kick-off date for modern Masons is 1717, the year the first grand lodge was formed in England.

Throughout their history, the Freemasons have set the gold standard for conspiracy theory; if your only background for this stuff is watching the National Treasure movies, you haven’t even seen the top of the iceberg. They engineered the French Revolution. They engineered the American Revolution. They got the Russians in the UN. Pope Clement XII actually fixed it so that any Catholic who became a mason would be excommunicated. And many fundamentalist Christians will tell you that Masons are, if not Satanic, at least anti-God.

This anti-God theory will come as news to Masons, who are under the impression that one of the few requirements for membership is a belief in a supreme being. But the conspiracy ding-dongs have an explanation—the five million Masons in the world are dupes, manipulated by a secret cabal that pulls the strings in the world of Freemasonry. If you keep following these wheels within wheels, you eventually arrive at the wellspring of all nutburger conspiracies—yes, the Freemasons are tools of the Illuminati.

Some conspiracy theorists point to the many well-placed members. George Washington, Ben Franklin, and John Hancock were Masons. Fifteen US Presidents were Masons (Reagan was the last; neither Obama nor McCain are Masons, at least not yet). Other important Masons: Napoleon, J. Edgar Hoover, Sir Winston Churchill, W.E.B.DuBois, the Marquis de Lafayette, several Supreme Court Justices and (gasp) Edwin L. Drake.

Other Masons include Duke Ellington, Bud Abbott, Irving Berlin, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Autry, Bronson Pinchot, Red Skelton and Col. Sanders. So if they’re really trying to conquer the world, they perhaps need to become a bit more selective about membership. Though as world conquering secret organizations go, the Masons have many flaws (which may help explain why after 300 years, they’re still not in charge).

For one thing, they need to close down, “Your Masonic superstore with 3500+ items on sale.” Secret world-conquering organizations do not set up super stores to sell caps and belt buckles with their logo affixed.

In general, the Masons stink at secrecy. The vast amount of charitable and service work they’ve done over the last three centuries keeps putting them in view. Locally we’re well aware of the Shriners Hospital in Erie, but that hospital is just one of a network of over twenty Shriners hospitals providing health care for children. For free. Free. Clearly this is no way to be sneaky.

Masons have a long history with entertainment and parades (John Philip Sousa, also a Mason), and really, what could be better than watching grown men wearing funny hats and driving giant motorized tricycles (unless it’s watching grown men drive motorized bar stools). The best-known wing of Freemasonry in Venangoland may be the Zem Zem Shriners.

Now maybe this is just double-clever sneakiness. Maybe we’re supposed to be lulled into a false sense of security and think, “Those cute guys on the giant tricycles couldn’t possibly be part of a giant conspiracy to rule the world.”

But after looking at the record, I’m inclined to think that the Freemasons, in all their shrines and lodges and clubs and other component parts are just what they claim to be—America’s first fraternal organization, dedicated to the notion that some men, who believe in God and are willing to ignore the differences that might otherwise separate them, can get together and make their world a somewhat better place.

Saturday night’s parade looks to be one big fat party, and any local organization that can exist for 150 years deserves one. We should come enjoy the fun and help celebrate. Or, if you’re still afraid of the vast conspiracy, put on your best tin-foil hat and come keep an eye on them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Torch Memories: New Years in Erie

In honor of the current wave of Olympic-mania, I'm digging out these two columns from years ago when I had the treat of being part of the Winter Olympic torch run through Erie.

(News-Herald, December 2001) I’ve found myself part of an unexpected event or two in my lifetime. But nothing tops what’s coming up on New Year’s Day.

It was, as is often the case, a student who got me into this. Scott McCleary, now a Franklin High graduate, last spring noticed the Coke ads that invited folks to send in the name of someone in their town, so he did. And now, believe it or not, I’m going to be an Olympic torch bearer.

This has provided an interesting inside look at how this particular part of the extravaganza is put together.

I received a multipage form (registered mail) that asked a variety of useful questions (like, how well can I actually move under my own power) and bits of personal information. It also included lots and lots of directions and rules for me to keep in mind.

No, I could not have anyone run right along with me. Actually, someone will be running with me—they’re called Support Runners and they trot right along with the folks who do the carrying. Plus the security runners, plus the support van. I think I’m going to get to experience what it’s like to travel with an entourage.

I may not ride a scooter. I may not change my running route. More importantly, I cannot carry along any signs, insignias, logos, etc etc etc. No stapling a Leonardo’s menu to my forehead.

In fact, the Olympics (note to editor—check to see if we need the little copyright symbol to go with that) provide all torch bearers with an official running uniform, including shirt, pants, gloves and a hat. Shoes and socks are our responsibility.

I had half-expected the suit to carry a logo or two (Chevrolet is also sponsoring the torch run) but in fact there isn’t a commercial millimeter anywhere on it. It’s mostly white, with some tasteful Olympic logos, and some sort of blue jaggedly thing—it might be a stylized mountain. I’m not sure.

I get to keep the uniform. My corporate sponsors (it just gives me shivers to type that—I never had a corporate sponsor before) even purchased each Coke runner’s torch for them; I’m really not sure where I’m going to put mine yet. I don’t really have a room in the house that says “Olympic Torch.”

The torch run is very tech-savvy. There’s a web site where you can track the torch, read the stories of the various carriers, and see pictures from the various celebrations. There’s also an opportunity to buy lots of Olympic torch stuff. The flame, of course, has been on the road for weeks.

It is, frankly, one of the more humbling things I’ve ever been involved in. The torch has been carried by sports figures, celebrities, and people who have overcome tremendous hardship to become inspirations to their fellow-citizens. I’m pretty sure that Mario LeMieux, Diane Sawyer, the woman who gave her sister a kidney, and I are cut from somewhat different cloth.

But I look at it this way. I do think people from little out of the way areas like ours ought to be represented, and I think teachers ought to be represented, and I’ll be proud to carry it for all of us.

My leg will be in Erie on January 1 at 12:30ish, on West 6th Street from Colorado to Nevada Drive. My instructions assure me that nothing short of a hurricane will pre-empt the run. And while all the running I’ve been doing will be helpful, in actuality every torch bearer only carries the torch about two tenths of a mile (that’s roughly once across the 8th Street bridge). Even allowing for holding one arm steady instead of swinging it, I think I can manage.

The torch relay is a cool thing. We don’t pass the torch—we pass the flame. And there is something a bit mystical about that. After all, a flame isn’t really an object, a thing. The flame started in Atlanta and 45 states later what arrives in Salt Lake City won’t be the same object, exactly, and yet in some indescribable way it will.

Despite our increased technology, our accumulated wisdom, our growth over the centuries, a flame is still the best symbol we have for spirit. A flame cannot be captured, cannot be frozen in place; it can only survive by being fed and allowed to grow. There’s just something cool about this little piece of spirit moving from person to person across the face of the land.

I’ll be back next week with a full report.

(News-Herald, January 2002) Tuesday morning, while most of the world was blissfully (or painfully) slumbering, I was driving to Erie to keep my date with the Olympic torch.

I arrived a bit early; the weather was cold but better than expected, and I tend to show up early for important events, just in case my car is struck by meteorites or continental drift moves my destination. But an early arrival put me directly in line for the Girl Scout Photo Ops.

The torch-bearers convened in Erie city hall, as did the girl scout troops that were handing out American flags to attendees of the days’ events. The girl scouts wanted to have their pictures taken with torch type people, so a mail carrier from Union City and I filled the need for appropriately uniformed props.

The rest of the runners did eventually arrive. We were all greeted by Olympic torch relay officials, mostly twenty-something people who volunteer to spend a few months away from job, school, and/or home in return for the opportunity to see a big chunk of America, eat junk food, and live out of duffle bags. Not a bad trade.

Our host was named Steve. Steve just left a job that he’d had for about four years; after the Olympic Stuff is over, he’s headed for school in New York. Steve showed us how to handle the torch and told us the various logistics of the whole business.

It really is a well-honed science. We all piled onto a shuttle bus, which dropped us off, one at a time, at our designated spots.

Once I was deposited on my street corner, a man in the lovely official periwinkle and lapis uniform ran up and turned on the gas. Then the prior torchbearer ran up and lit my torch. Then a support runner reminded me to move my legs and lumber to the middle of the street, where I ran directly behind the big official picture-taking truck and tried to stay out of the slush.

A few blocks later, I lit the next person, and then the pick-up shuttle swept me up to return me to our starting point. All very neat and efficient.

Despite the large convoy of vehicles, I ran pretty much alone on the street except for my support runner. The torch is not really light, not really heavy. It really is a nicely crafted little piece of flaming sculpture. At last check, they were going for $1,200 on eBay.

There were plenty of people there. I definitely saw Scott McCleary, the student who got me into this in the first place, and members of my actual family. I know from later in the day that some of my students were there. And there were several people who spoke to me as if they knew me. I’ll admit to having been a bit overwhelmed by the moment. One woman asked me my name; it took me a second to answer her. Frankly, any of you can claim to have been there and I would never know the difference. It was a humbling experience.

Because of the nature of the set-up, the twenty or so of us on the out-of-Erie leg spent more than an hour together. Our group included an anchor guy from Channel 35 news, a retired school teacher who had lost part of her leg when hit by a car, a hockey coach who dedicated her run to two teen team members who died last year, and a woman who carried a torch in ’96. There was a man who will travel to Antarctica next month; after he runs a marathon there, he will be the twenty-fourth person in the world to run a marathon on every continent. I was technically the only Franklin resident there, but running just a bit further up the street from me was Cootie Harris, who may live in Meadville but certainly counts as a Franklinite in my mind. Oh, and there was also a sophomore from John Carroll who won gold and silver medals for swimming in the last Olympics. Did I mention that I felt humbled?

So I had the chance to feel like a part of history and to pass on a piece of something that has been carried by every sort of American imaginable. I had my picture taken more times than in the last ten years put together (not even counting all those girl scouts who will someday look back on this event and say, “Who was THAT guy, anyway?”) and I didn’t blow another New Years watching the Rose Parade in my pajamas. All in all, it was an excellent way to start a new year.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Road Rage, or At Least Crankiness

(News-Herald, August 7) Thanks to unexpected circumstances, last weekend I hopped into the car (actually, “hopped” may be an overstatement) and made the twelve-hours-or-so road trip to Maine.

Combined with my earlier trip to LA, this gave me a full continental span of travel for the summer. I have had my feet in both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. I have freeloaded on both coasts (if you must travel, I suggest destinations where you have family who can put you up for free). And I have sampled driving on both coasts.

New England drivers have a bit of a reputation. Massachusetts drivers are supposed to be the worst on the planet, but on this trip it was Connecticut that seemed to be celebrating Hand Your Car Keys to a Mentally Challenged Person Day.

LA drivers drive fast and aggressively, but they at least drive as if they are going somewhere. In Connecticut, people observed the unofficial interstate speed limit (65 MPH must be the speed limit posted in base-fifteen)—right up until the point that they randomly slowed down to contemplate birds or pretty clouds or their navels. Then traffic backed up very quickly.

New England drivers also proved to be merge-challenged. Instead of gliding smoothly into one forward-moving line of traffic, these drivers—well, it’s the same maneuver your grandmother uses when she comes to a dead stop in the middle of the road before entering her driveway.

One other thing that LA gets right is the use of automotive cell phones. In California it’s against the law to drive while using a handheld cell phone (those bluetooth headpieces are okay). It used to be when someone in the car ahead of you was doing something stupid or erratic they’d turn out to have a cigarette in hand. Nowadays nicotine idiots are rare; the guy swerving back and forth across three lanes of traffic is using his cell to conduct some important business (“Definitely rent the first Ghsotbusters, honey”).

I think California is on the right track. If you’re caught talking on the phone while driving, you should be fined enough money to operate a school bus for a year. And your phone should be taken away. If you are caught texting while driving, your phone should be taken and smashed into your carburetor assertively enough that you will never be able to use either the phone or the car again.

But my greatest heap of road rage is reserved for Left Lane Bandits. These are the folks who pull out into the passing lane, move up beside the next car in the right lane, and then match speed, blocking the road for the next hundred miles.

I am always interested in the workings of the human mind. I am particularly fascinated by the ways that we find to rationalize the things that we have already chosen to do. Hardly anybody thinks that they’re doing something wrong. In our heads, we find a way to make it right.

If you have a problem with someone, and you really want to solve it, you don’t need to know why you believe they’re wrong; you need to understand why they think they’re right.

It’s been the sticking point with the hospital, the county park, whatever it is that Bedow and Company are upset about this week—if you are sure that the other side is choosing to oppose you because they are misguided/stupid/evil, you will have real trouble ever bridging the gap between you, because I guarantee you, they do not believe they are any of those things.

I find the self-justification process fascinating, but there are times when I have trouble imagining its workings.

What do left lane bandits tell themselves. As they drive along, miles of cars backed up behind them, making no discernable attempt to let others pass, what are they thinking? “I’m a hero—I’m saving these people from driving fast.” “HahahahahaHAAAAAA! The raw power is all mine!!”

Maybe they’re just oblivious. Maybe they’re thinking “I love being all alone on the open road” or “How great that the government built this road just for me. Me me MEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

There are scientists out there trying to create a system to have all traffic controlled by computers instead of humans. I’m not a supporter; I can’t think of any activity so simple that a computer hasn’t screwed it up. But after my time on the road this summer, I can understand how someone would think computer-controlled traffic would be a good idea.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sound of Music Auditions

I'm directing the Applefest production of "Sound of Music" this fall. I know, I know-- but I believe that buried in the original script, somewhere under the sugary treacly delight of the movie, there's a pretty good little story. Give me a chance to see if I can't get rid of the cartoon nazis and nuns, rinse off a bit of the icing, and find a decent little slice of cake under all of that. I'm not out to produce something that will alarm and offend the movie fans, but I think there's a good story to be told about two people who find themselves making some difficult choices in a real-life difficult time. And really-- the best way to have your bright and shiny moments is not to surround them with a bunch of bright and shiny, but to hold them up against a dark background.

For all of that, of course, I'll need some actors. So if you're game, auditions for grownups will be this Saturday at 10, and Sunday at 2 at the Barrow. Those interested in being a Von Trapp urchin are invited next Saturday at 2. In addition to the familiar leading roles, there are several non-singing roles for acting men and several non-acting roles for singing women. Note too that Elsa and Max, so underserved by the movie, actually have two songs in the play.

Music director for this production is Steve Luxbacher.

And as a side note, isn't it interesting that this show is set in the same time and against the same historical backdrop as Cabaret? Now there would be a fun theatrical mash-up....

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Cell Phones

(News-Herald, July 31) It’s not very often that a piece of technology comes along that reshapes a culture. Certainly the automobile did. It’s not just that people could transport themselves farther and faster and at their own convenience. The car changed the shape of community.

For example, personal automobiles killed Monarch Park, a place where virtually every resident of Venangoland previously gathered on major holidays. After the rise of the automobile, people would never gather so completely as a community ever again.

There were more subtle effects. Automobiles gave rise to Rural Free Delivery, and that ate away at rural communities. There was a time when country folk had to travel to the post office (often a country store) to pick up the mail. That was why, even in rural farm territory, everybody knew everybody (and their business)—because everybody made regular trips to that central hub.

Businesses, roads, moving away—automobiles changed the way the culture defined much of itself. We haven’t seen a shift that massive in a long time, but I think we might be living through one now.

No, not computers or the internet— not directly. I nominate the cell phone.

Cell phones are more than simple conveniences, though they are certainly that. And they are more than a new way for the phone companies to just print money, though they certainly do that as well. The phone company can charge for both sending AND receiving a call, even as they manage a system that doesn’t depend on sixty gazillion miles of wires. The phone company can charge a big chunk of change if you want to leave them (phone company alimony), in addition to various extra charges for everything from Federal Mystery Voice-related Surcharge to Extra Percent Tacked On Just Because.

In all fairness to the phone company, I have no doubt that it takes a lot of money to maintain the largest, most complicated automated customer service denial system in the known universe. But I digress. None of this is culture-changing; it’s merely a great business plan (our own beloved Verizon reported a profit increase of 12% last quarter).

Just as the automobile completely changed our concept of the boundaries of our personal world, cell phones bring a new measure of mobility.

I can recall an evening thirty-some years ago when Joe, Bill and I decided it would be fun to go bowling, and even more fun to take real live female girls with us. Lacking regular girlfriends and personal transport for six, we began a convoluted process of calling girls, contacting Seneca Bowling Lanes, and negotiating with parental car-owning units. We three were parked at home, next to the phone, calling endlessly back and forth. I don’t remember anything about the actual bowling outing, just the process of trying to get it arranged (“Okay, I’ve got a lane and a girl. You? Okay, a car but no girl. Okay—call me back in five.” Rinse and repeat.)

Today, of course, that never happens. People can make plans on the fly. Nobody has to make plans or arrange meeting times. Sad teenaged girls will never again sit home waiting by the phone for him to call.

Since Bell said, “Watson, come here, I need you” into a funny black tube, home has not been where our hearts are or where they have to take us in. Home is where our phones are, and in the age of the cell phone, we’re always home, wherever we are, all the time.

Cell phones are also the warm fuzzy face of the internet. Parents who are terrified of letting their eight-year-old spend a single unsupervised second on line will blithely put a phone in that child’s hands.

Here’s what they need to understand. Everything you’re afraid your child might do on a computer—chat with scary people, trade inappropriate pictures and words, become electronically addicted, make plans that would make you graying hair curl—all that and more they can do on a phone as well, just as easily and with far more privacy. The internet does change things, but putting the internet in your pocket accelerates the revolution.

We watch computers carefully, because for those of us of a Certain Age, computers are New and Scary. But that little wireless phone, well, it’s just a phone, right? As Blackberries and I-phones are beginning to show us, no, they’re not. They’re net-enabled computer-driven multimedia platform doorways to the world. They are our new homes, the leading edge of the next big change.

From my Flickr