Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Odds and Ends

(News-Herald, December 26) I am one of the few remaining people I know with an actual live (well, previously live but now dying in a seasonally picturesque manner inside my house) Christmas tree. The market must be shrinking because it has gotten progressively harder over recent years to track down a chunk of non-artificial holiday lumber in Venangoland.
After years of bouncing between road-side vendors, I’ve been driven to Home Depot. Apparently I’m not unusual; according to the Associated Press, Home Depot is the top seller of yule foliage in the US, with anticipated sales of 2 million trees. That doesn’t seem like a large number, but last year there were only 31.2 million live trees sold nationwide.
Other tree facts from the National Christmas Tree Association: In 2007, there were 17.4 million fake trees sold. Of the real tree sales, 23 percent were at chain stores, 21 percent at cut-your-own farms, 20 percent at garden/nursery centers, 12 percent from some lot, and 15 percent from “other.”
The NCTA wants you to know that real trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, that real trees are biodegradable while fake trees are not, and that there are more than 4000 US Christmas Tree recycling programs. They also helpfully note that almost all fake trees are made by impoverished Chinese laborers out of materials that may include poisonous lead. And on top of that, fake trees were first marketed by the Addis Brush Company, whose usual products were toilet bowl brushes. Or, as the NCTA website puts it, “the first fake Christmas trees were really just big green toilet bowl brushes.” I want to root for the real tree guys, but they do sound just a tad desperate.
I am not sure how a recycling program for trees would work. Old friends of mine would occasionally leave the tree up till it had dropped every needle, then repaint the remainder white and call it an Easter tree. I have never gone quite that far, by which I mean that I have never painted one of my dead, nude trees white. As far as recycling, I find the tree makes a nice June campfire.
Before you start mocking those of us who keep festive trappings up, I will remind you that Christmas, properly observed as a religious holiday, consists of twelve days (sound familiar?) of which December 25 is merely the first. Christmas is not over till January 5, so I will leave my lights up for a while yet, thankyouverymuch.
According to the federal agricultural census, if you want to rank states’ Christmas tree-inees by number of trees or number of tree-yielding acres, Pennsylvania is #4. By number of farms, we are #1. Alaska, Nevada, and Arizona bring up the rear in all three categories.
I like my live tree, though I can’t offer much of a rational explanation for it. I suppose that’s also true of the date. While most of us know of December 25 as a date co-opted from pagan celebrations, I have actually seen a theory for a more Christian background. Some ancient Jews believed that the prophets of Israel died on the day of their conception. So early Christians could have worked from the widely believed March 25 crucifixion date and come up with December 25 as Jesus’s birthday.
Neither chopped up fir foliage or dates of dubious origin serve as the oddest of seasonal factoids. Researchers claim that the holiday season is a peak time for making holiday whoopee, a claim supported by a reported spike in September births.
And no holiday tradition beats the Spanish habit, particular in Catalonia, of including a caganer in nativity scenes. For those who are unilingual, “caganer” translates roughly as “pooper.” Since the 17th century, folks in Spain (and parts of France) include one, off in the corner somewhere being indelicate. Children apparently enjoy this tradition as a nativity Where’s Waldo game.
Since 1974, American Christmas has also been marked by large gatherings of tuba players; Tuba Christmas has cropped up in over 200 cities with peak numbers of over 450 players.
Do we humans become ridiculous at this time of year? Perhaps, but I like to think that it just highlights our humanity at the same time that we are remembering and honoring the Divine. Tradition is also useful because we don’t have to argue about what we want to do or who’s in charge or what it all means; just smile sweetly and follow what we already understand.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Online Timewaster

I don't do a lot of site recommending here, but this is solid gold for television fans Of A Certain Age (i.e. over five). Virtually every tv theme ever, including openings and endings and , in many cases, variant forms from different seasons. When you need a break this week, here's a quick killer of time:

TV Theme Music and Songs

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Stress, Wars, and Spirit

(News-Herald, December 18) The final stretch before Christmas is a time to settle back and really think about the meaning of stress.
Usual Christmas stress is a personal thing. It’s one of those take stock type of holidays that can make us panic, like learning that the News-Derrick is coming to take pictures of all the rooms in our house. There’s nothing like a holiday built around idealized images of home and family to help us really remember how non-ideal our actual homes and families are.
That kind of personal stress is old hat. The last decade has added a sort of community stress. It’s not enough to make sure that our own Christmases are perfect—now we have to make sure that everyone else is celebrating properly as well.
The so-called Christmas wars are only the most ridiculous manifestation of that. On the one hand we have retailers desperately trying not to alienate anyone (or their money) and behaving as if Holiday Season were a natural cultural event when it’s simply the result of ever-expanding marketing ploys, only slightly more deep than Swimsuit Season.
On the other hand, we have People of Alleged Faith insisting that Jesus deserves a place of honor in the appliance aisle. The notion that a Christian nation would throw itself into the celebration of Christmas would appall our most pious founders. The Puritan’s handled Christmas celebrants by putting them in the stocks, chastising them severely, and throwign them out of town.
I suspect that some people desire to have Christmas recognized commercially to salve the conscience. Maybe a lot of religious-ish signage will help me feel as if shopping for plastic doo-whingies actually has something to do with the birth of Christ.
But this year, even mindless economic activity is an uncomfortable pursuit. Just as we were (mostly) applauding ourselves for the coolness of Democracy, along come brutal reminders that much of our fate is in the hands of people that we don’t get to vote on. There is no election for stupidly stubborn corporate executives or selfishly dimwitted financial wizzes, and yet these bozos have put our collective future on the line without so much as a by-your-leave.
So the usual joyous spending spree is overshadowed by a vague financial uncertainty, adding more soggy fuel to a sputtering fire.
I have talked to people who, in the face of all this, despair of finding any joy in the season. Eternal optimist that I am (really, stop snickering), I believe it can be done.
I believe it can be done because, first, I believe we have rarely actually done it in the past. Too many people, when discussing the Joy of Christmas are talking about a fake plastic joy, a childish belief that we can have it all and pay no cost.
We like to talk about how this is the season where everyone can show love and kindness to his fellow man. Baloney, say I. Mostly it’s the season in which folks strike a short-term deal: you will act as if you like me, and I will act as if I believe you.
And then someone inevitably says, “If only it could be Christmas all year round.” Well, if it were Christmas as we Americans celebrate it all year round, we could raise the stock market back up on the strength of prozac sales alone.
But let’s turn that notion around. Instead of a hopeless wish to extend the imaginary state of manufactured Christmas grace to the rest of the year, let’s imagine what we really wished the rest of our year looked like, and then plant the flag of THAT bold conquest in the soil of this one day.
Do you have hopes and dreams for what you wish your life looked like? Don’t focus on what you fear it should be like; make this the season that you commit to those hopes and dreams.
Do you have relationships you want to mend or strengthen? Make this the season for starting the real work instead of faking it.
We can spend this season stressing about what we’ve lost, what we don’t have, where our world comes up short. Or we could focus on what we can build, how we can grow. When the plastic wears out, we have a chance to go for something real. This is the part of the story before the manger, in which conditions are far less than ideal, but nevertheless, there is still a beautiful new life waiting to be born.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wizard of Oz and 50th

(News-Herald, December 11) This weekend Franklin Civic Operetta marks the end of its 50th anniversary season. That’s no small achievement. Theater takes an investment of considerable time and effort. Finding people to make that investment is a challenge; there are communities far larger than ours that can’t do it. It says something about Venangoland that not just one, but two theater groups can flourish here.
Time demands are big. Turnover is frequent; burnout not unheard of. There can be plenty of extra drama; nobody ever stepped out to perform on stage because he had a tiny ego.
Broadway producers have big budgets and their pick of thousands of talented hopefuls; community theater directors work with a couple of bucks and hope they will have at least as many auditioners as they have roles to fill.
Sometimes community theater can achieve greatness that you only get from gifted amateurs. Sometimes, not so much. Sometimes community theater can take bold chances, and sometimes it plays it safe. Sometimes it provides its audience with a challenge, and sometimes it goes straight for the theatrical comfort food. In fifty years, Civic has done all that.
Civic celebrates its fiftieth even as its theater, the Barrow, celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. It has been an impressive trip from a barn and a concrete slab to a fully functional showpiece of a theater.
In my universe, a great community theater production has a little bit of everything—something for audience to look forward to, something familiar, something they’ve never seen before, something they can only get from live theater. This weekend’s mounting of the Wizard of Oz is the perfect finish to the anniversary season.
Part of the work has been done by the writers, who have kept everything anyone ever loved about the classic movie, but added small twists, additions, and expansions (I always wondered why, at the end of the film, Miss Gulch didn’t just come back for Toto and start the whole mess over again). Musically, you get extras as well—the verses that you’ve never heard, and the long-lost musical number that was cut from the film in production.
Director Ted Smith has avoided the mistake of simply trying to reproduce the movie on stage. First, he has opened up the Barrow; the show blossoms right off the stage and fills every corner of the house. I would never have thought of Oz as an intimate theater-in-the-round sort of show, but the depth and space that this staging opens up (a whole new section of stage was built for this) creates a world that is both more intimate and at the same time broader and bigger than anything seen previously.
Second, there’s a whole new visual element to this Oz, particularly in the costuming. This Oz looks feels familiar yet new, comfy yet fresh (bolstered by the set work of Ed Ramage, possibly the single most valuable person in all of Civic). You recognize it and remember it, and yet at the same time, it’s full of surprises. The end effect is like seeing Oz for the first time and not the six hundredth.
The cast itself is outstanding. Local theater fans will see old favorites, including Jacob Krupitzer doing some of his best work ever as the Tin Man and Mike Leisher (the Cowardly Lion) proving once again that he is a great comedic actor trapped in a leading man’s body. Wicked Witch Jamie Agnello’s return to the local stage is absolutely triumphant, and Linda Leisher was born to play Glinda.
But audiences also get to see something new. RGHS student Molly Burkett’s Dorothy is the emotional linchpin of the show; her “Over the Rainbow” is the audience’s assurance that they are in good hands for the evening. And BCT newcomer Brett Sloan manages to both honor Ray Bolger and create a magical new scarecrow of his own.
These leads are absolutely superb, and they are surrounded by a crowd of munchkins, Ozians, flying monkeys, dancing ghosts (courtesy Jackie Fike) and winkies who make Oz come alive for just a too-short evening. A great orchestra led by Steve Luxbacher creates a lush carpet of sound, and an army of stage hands complete (literally) the picture. A small army of people of all ages from all over Venangoland stretch themselves and the beautiful theater to bring a great finish to the anniversary year.
Word of caution. Tickets are in short supply, but rumors of a sell-out always start way before it actually happens. Call for tickets. You don’t want to miss this one.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Living Where You Work

(News-Herald, December 4) Personally, I agree with residency requirements.
My first reason is the obvious one. If you are paid by the taxpayers of a particular city, township, or school district, the money that those taxpayers give you should go back into that community.
You should pay taxes there. More than that, you should do your shopping there, eat in restaurants there, buy your gas there, drop your change in the Salvation Army bucket there, pay your parking fines there.
I don’t care if it’s good economic times or bad—those of us who are paid with local tax dollars should be using those dollars to prime the local economic pumps as much as possible. Local taxpayers support us. We should support them.
But there are reasons beyond the economic for local employees to have local addresses.
I’m convinced that one of the ills of our culture is the distance that has grown between people who make decisions and the people who bear the brunt of those decisions. Giants of Wall Street can play stupid games with other people’s money without ever having to face those other people. CEO’s don’t have to explain their obscene pay packages to either their employees or the customers who foot the bill.
One of the advantages of small town life is that we see each other in a variety of settings. A public official can’t hide behind an office door and a press release; he’ll get a chance to explain himself in the grocery store, at the ball game, in the choir loft at church.
It provides unparalleled accountability for both sides of the coin. If you know you’re going to have to account for your choices to your friends and neighbors, it gives a whole other perspective on the decisions you have to make. Knowing that your mistakes will come back to haunt you—for years—is great motivation to try to make fewer mistakes.
And members of the public have no excuse for not making their voices heard. If you didn’t let a public employee know your reaction, whether it was good or bad, there is no excuse. If the public figures don’t know what you think, that’s nobody’s fault but your own.
Granted, this kind of localized dynamic is never perfect. Some public officials can be unremitting jerks, regardless of public reaction (the plus here is that, when you get in trouble, all you have to say is “It was Officer Jerkface” and everyone says, “Well, say no more”). And some members of the public have trouble telling the difference between “being heard” and “being obeyed.”
I have known teachers who didn’t want to live anywhere near their students. But I believe it’s a great attitude adjuster to teach students as if the might be your neighbor, or grow up to be your mechanic, plumber, lawyer, or colleague. All public employees should put more than their money back into the community that supports them; they should also contribute sweat and time and effort, and young people in particular should see their teachers doing so.
I recognize there are limits. People on the public payroll often have spouses, and those spousal units have residency requirements of their own. It’s also true that selling a previous house to move into a new neighborhood in our market can be an exercise in prolonged economic suicide.
So while I’d like to see a residency requirement for all tax-supported jobs in our area, I’m realistic about the practical obstacles.
And, of course, I’d never require anyone to live in Cranberry, that downtrodden land of totalitarian tyranny run rampant, where Big Brother suppresses people’s God-given right to fire howitzers at 3 am and erect carcass and car-frame sculptures on the front lawn.
Thank goodness so many outspoken citizens have taken every opportunity to get the word out, from ranting at public meetings to erecting signs. Cranberry is an awful, awful place.
It’s an artful piece of PR. Were I resident of Cranberry, I might be tempted to brag about the growing tax base, the booming business district, the new school and hospital facilities, and the fact that Cranberry, by population, is the modern center of the county. Not to mention lots of pretty countryside.
I would, in short, be thumbing my nose at Franklin and Oil City instead of at myself.
But that’s okay. Since Venangoland is one big community, I see no reason that people who are scared away from Cranberry can’t settle in Oil City or Franklin.

From my Flickr