Friday, October 31, 2008

All Hallow's Election

(News-Herald, October 30) This time of year a weekly columnist has a tough choice—comment wryly on Halloween, or make trenchant observations about the upcoming election.

The cheap shot is to link the two with some lame witticism suggesting that the election is far scarier than anything on All Hallow’s Eve. I’d rather not. I find this year’s Presidential race more disappointing than scary.

I don’t find either of the candidates frightening; I just expected, somehow, a better race than this. There was a time when I really respected each of these guys and imagined that we would be spared the usual wretched campaign excess. Instead, the Obama campaign has spent enough money to rescue half of Wall Street, while the McCain campaign has slung enough ugly mud to bury it (and they should know better—one of the things I have never forgiven the Bushies for is their shameful smearing of McCain eight years ago).

Some members of the electorate have raised a level of hysteria that’s just silly. I don’t believe the election of either candidate will signal the end of everything good in the country.

As far as some of some of the “information” circulating—well, here’s a quick memo. This is to those of you who keep insisting that Sarah Palin wants to burn books and hunt endangered species, and those of you who keep insisting that Obama is actually a Muslim and terrorist: You need to shut up. You’re embarrassing yourselves, and the rest of us as well. There are some perfectly good reasons to vote against either candidate; manufacturing stupid ones is unnecessary.

I am equally saddened at some “local” races. Now that John Peterson has retired, awe-inspiring gerrymandering in the Commonwealth has guaranteed that Venangoland will be forever represented by total strangers who live over two hours away. (Gerrymandering, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the process by which pinheaded yahoos in state and federal capitols redraw districts with no regard for actual constituents, but in order to guarantee certain seats will be safe for certain parties. Computers have greatly advanced this fine art of denying voters real representation.)

Halloween isn’t any scarier than the election, but at least it’s a bit more hopeful.

This, despite the earnest efforts of many well-meaning folks to stamp out or upstage the Great Festival of Junk Food Extortion. I have heard the arguments about the evils of Halloween, but I can’t take them seriously. If Halloween is Satan’s recruitment program, it is the most ineffective one since Uncle Sam started trying to interest young men in a free trip to Iraq. After decades and generations of trick-or-treaters in Venangoland, we should be positively waist-deep in middle-aged Satanists, and yet everyone I know somehow escaped unscathed.

Actually, as an in-town Franklin resident, I’m pretty sure that the “Harvest Festival” in the park has actually increased trick-or-treat traffic. Little masquers carpool into the city, glom up the free food in the park and then head out through town for the traditional non-wholesome stuff.

Beyond that, it should be a quieter-than-usual year in Franklin—the Friday night football game will cramp the style of the usual Franklin Heights egg war. Not so in Oil City.

There’s something a little bit triumphant about the return to evening trick-or-treating in Oil City. Sending the costumed kiddies out after dark is not just a harmless tradition—for Oil City it’s an act of courageous defiance, a night of pride and strength. It was right for the city to take a step back for many years, and now it’s right for the city to take back the night.

Of course, in the midst of all this there is an actual legitimate holiday (no, I am not referring to the new custom of using Halloween to kick off the Christmas shopping season). I’m referring to November 1, All Saint’s Day.

It’s an old holiday—the church first started festivals to commemorate all martyrs back in the late 200’s. Pope Gregory set All Saint’s Day for November 1 somewhere around 740 AD. Many modern denominations have moved it to the first Sunday in November and generalize it to commemorate all the departed faithful, a sort of Holy Memorial Day. It is an occasion that’s probably more deserving of attention than the pursuit of a juvenile sugar buzz. If your church is on the ball, you get to sing “For All the Saints,” one of best hymns in Christendom (take the time to sing all eleven verses).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Preventative Management

(News-Herald, February 2004) The best and most effective managers are those that see themselves as facilitators for their employees. They see their job as providing the front line workers with the equipment and resources to get the work done.

But there’s another type of manager who sees his job differently. This is the manager who thinks his job is to prevent the employees from doing things.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. For instance, you might think that the purpose of health care insurance is to help people pay for health care. Instead, the medical insurance industry is set up primarily to avoid paying for health care. And everyone has encountered one of those rare but scary librarians who wishes people would stop taking her books out of her library.

But let’s consider a hypothetical example. Say, a small company that provides drawings of industrial widgets. The purpose of the business is to make widget drawings. So a facilitating manager hires people who are good illustrators and makes sure that they have the paper and pencils that they need to create the widget drawings. His goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to produce the drawings that keep the business functioning.

A preventative manager, on the other hand, will focus on how to keep the illustrators from doing things. Keep them from using up pencils and paper. Keep them from doing anything that might cost money.

The facilitating manager does not writer blank checks. If the illustrators want to order special $3000 pencils, the facilitating manager sits down with them so that everyone can figure out how to make the realities of equipment needs match up with the realities of financial limits.

A preventative manager never has those conversations. Preventative managers usually have little understanding of how widget drawings are made, so they’re afraid that if they listen to the employees, they’ll be tricked into buying something they don’t really need.

A facilitating manager has few rules. There’s a clear job to do (make widget drawings); anything that helps do that job is good and anything that gets in the way of the job is bad.

A preventative manager has a long list of Do Not’s. Don’t use pencils with soft lead (they have to be replaced more often). Don’t fix more than two mistakes a day (otherwise they’ll wear out the erasers).

A facilitating manager has confidence in his workers. He hires people that he can trust to do the job. If he can’t trust a worker, that employee is either trained or fired.

A preventative manager is paranoid. She can never trust employees, because they are always trying to use supplies and spend money. Employees are sneaky and out to get me, she thinks, clutching her sack of gold coins.

It’s not that facilitating managers are nicer or more fun to work for. In fact, they often aren’t. If you are someone who doesn’t draw very good widgets or doesn’t much like drawing widgets, working for someone who judges you on your production of widget drawings can be a real pain. A preventative manager’s paranoid focus on everything but the real purpose of the business can make her easy to manipulate.

The real problem with preventative managers is that they do a lousy job. The steel and auto industries both suffered from preventative management in the last century; they resisted spending anything on new technology while their competition in other countries spent the money and breezed past them.

Preventative managers create a workplace that doesn’t much work. The preventative manager is focused on what doesn’t happen, instead of what does, so success is measured by a very crooked yardstick. If nothing Scary or Expensive has happened, then everything must be okay. This is not an atmosphere that breeds growth or innovation.

Bad widget drawers are rewarded because they’re not doing Anything Bad. Good widget drawers learn that if they try to hard and care too much, they’ll just be beaten down. Middle of the road widget drawers, who had the potential to become good, see which way the wind is blowing and get worse.

Customers can be initially attracted to a pitch like “We will provide the cheapest widget drawings in the industry.” But in relatively short time, they notice that they’re getting junk. “We won’t use resources to get the job done” is not a pitch that inspires confidence in the marketplace (remember those great cars of the seventies?).

Preventative managers have forgotten the organization’s purpose. Instead of “Make good widget drawings,’ their motto is “Don’t spend money. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t scare the boss.” But the gold medal rarely goes to those who do the least.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


(News-Herald, October 23) I’ve decided to take the plunge, to cut the cord, to make a bold new life change.

Okay, not quite that drastic. But I’m getting rid of my cable television.

And no, I didn’t simply replace it with satellite dish. I do still have dvds and netflix. But I have detached myself from the stream of popular culture.

It’s not that I’m a television snob who sniffs at the common herd for lowering themselves to watch the “idiot box.” I have watched a lot of television in my life, filling my brain with a mass of cathode-ray mulch. I do appreciate the great things that tv has accomplished. I have fond memories of staying up to watch Neal Armstrong on the moon. Many of us know much of what we know about the rest of the world because we’ve seen it on tv.

Television comes with negatives as well. I think perhaps the worst is the dual curse of bad acting and bad writing. I don’t object to these twin scourges on artistic grounds, but because I suspect they’ve had a bad effect on our society. Generations of young Americans have tried to learn about life and human nature by watching characters who neither speak nor act like real human beings. It’s the equivalent of athletes trying to learn how to play football by watching a night of Bingo at the VFW.

There are plenty of reasons I’ve become disenchanted with tv. I never minded that it was stupid; I am not ashamed to admit that I logged many hours of watching Gilligan’s Island, a show with proven ability to suck the IQ points right out of a room.

So no, I don’t mind the stupidity of television. What has bothered me in recent years is the sheer meanness of it. Television has become a 24-hour-a-day celebration of what is worst about us.

Entire shows celebrate greed, selfishness and unkindness. Dramas compete to see who can present the most graphic portrayal of ugly violence. Comedy is about watching some character’s painful humiliation. In “reality” programming, cast members work to make a name for themselves. Behavior that people would once have been ashamed to reveal in front of even their closest family they now parade loudly for the entire world, in hopes that a shameless display of their ugliest selves will rocket them to some fame and fortune.

That bothers me, just as it bothers me that broadcast journalism is such a sad shadow of its former self. Once the images and words on the news would challenge us to expand our understanding of the world. Now we select the news by our preferred bias, choosing the network that comfortably confirms what we already believe. Election coverage is a bad joke. Once, news organizations were ashamed to be caught showing bias; now their skewed viewpoint is a proud part of their marketing plan. If I want real information, I’ll read it in print.

I have to admit that the party most responsible for ending my relationship with tv is—well, I’m in the clichéd position of having to look tv in the eye and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

I allow tv to suck hours out of my life. I’m about to head out the door to the bike trail or the river or just around the block, but first I’ll just catch the end of this show (which I only turned on to provide some random background noise in the house) and there I am, rotund posterior perched on the couch an hour later (an hour including at least 16 minutes of ads). I have every intention of sitting on the porch and reading a book, but then…

Television has become the other voice in my house, a cheap way to eat up extra time. And that’s the rest of it—a recent hike in cable costs reminded me that it’s not even particularly cheap any more. Since the nest has emptied out, I could be filling up some of the empty spots with things I love, but instead I’ve been filling up with really expensive packing peanuts. For what it costs to feed the box, I could feed myself at Leonardo’s many times over.

We’ll see if I can hold out. I’ll still watch, but only as a deliberate choice and only the things I really want to watch (House dvds, here I come), when I want to watch them (and without the 25% advertising).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Different Kind of Las Vegas Tour

This has nothing at all to do with Venangoland, but I'm going to indulge myself.

My cousin Andy Taylor is a way cool guy. He and his wife and kids have lived in Vegas forever where he's an artist, cartoonist, journalist and blogger. One of his blog projects has been to capture the Stratosphere (the building, not the atmospheric layer) from every conceivable angle. After a year and 500 shots, he put together this little youtube featurette. Your eyes probably aren't fast enough to catch the building in every shot-- you can always go page through his blog.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Home Schooling Revisited

(News-Herald, August 2004) I have always had mixed feelings about home schooling. Over the past few years, those feelings have changed. Granted, they’re still mixed. But it’s become easier for me to understand the impulse to keep a child home.

We are living, after all, through a large scale assault on public education. As near as I can tell, No Child Left is intended to gut public schools so that some select folks 1) can get their children away from Those People and 2) can keep their money and avoid having to foot the bill for educating the servants’ children. At best, the government seems intent on creating schools where the point is not to educate, but to prepare students to take tests (the results of these tests will show conclusively how well those students have been taught to take tests).

We’re headed for a two-tier system in this country for both regular schooling and college education—one top-notch system for the rich and privileged, and another sorry beaten-down system for the rest of us. The No Child Left and school voucher folks would just like to get us there as quickly as possible.

Given that situation, I can understand a parent’s desire to get their own child out of the building before it collapses.

At the same time, I have misgivings, because I’m afraid that this sort of bailing accelerates the collapse.

The problem in many cases we’re losing the best students from public school. My objection to that is not based on any selfish desire to have the best kids in my classroom—the loss of the cream dilutes what’s left.

A while back, I watched an outstanding young local musician, and my first thought was, “What a shame he’s home schooled.” Not for him, mind you. His talent was obviously managing to grow well enough.

But as most musicians will tell you, the way you get better is by playing with other musicians. Particularly good ones. So there are dozens of other young musicians who will have a slightly smaller chance to grow because they’ll never have worked with this guy.

And music isn’t the only area that works that way. No matter what subject, classroom teachers will tell you (and the research will back them up) that the top students often drive the other students behind them, just like a runner setting the pace for a race.

So when the fastest runner is home schooled, the rest of the runners end up working to a slower pace, and they don’t do as well as they might have.

This speaks to one of the fault lines in our culture, the problem of balancing individual rights with responsibilities to the group as a whole.

If you have a talent, a skill, a special ability, an extraordinary level of drive, shouldn’t you be free to explore and develop that as best you can, without restrictions, without being held back by or for others? But if you have that kind of gift, don’t you have an obligation to use it for something larger than your own personal benefit? Do you owe it to society to share your talent?

I don’t have an answer for this one. I do know that if gifts aren’t allowed to grow and thrive, they can become twisted or stunted or simply lost. But I also know that all too often people look at a problem, say, “Hey, that’s not MY problem,” and then are later shocked and surprised that the problem was never solved.

This issue is a balance between serving society and being served by it.

Is the only value in a school what the student can get from it, or is it also important to weigh what the student can give?

The two questions are more closely related than they may seem, because the less some students give to the system, the less other students can get from it. If nobody chooses to play on the football team, then that team is not there to foster the gifted potential players that come along.

I don’t want to minimize for a moment the fact that parents have to try to make the best choices that they can for their children. But I think we sometimes fail to acknowledge that when a student is homeschooled, particularly one with a gift for art or music or athletics or writing or math, there is a collateral cost for all the other students.

The response may be, “Tough noogies. I’ve got to watch out for my own kid.” And parents have every right to take that stance. At the same time, when your neighbor’s house burns down, it’s the neighborhood you live in that’s damaged.

Friday, October 17, 2008

School Spirit

(News-Herald, October 16) School spirit matters a great to some folks; people in Venangoland often identify themselves by which high school they graduated from. Merging some of our school districts would streamline staffs, simplify transportation, cut costs and just generally make sense, but none of that stands up against peoples’ loyalty to the school that they graduated from.

At the same time, lots of grownups shake their heads at Kids These Days and wonder what ever happened to school spirit.

Well, part of what happened is the faulty memories of adults. There have always been plenty of teenagers immune to the charms of school spirit, people who don’t see any reason to owe loyalty to other people who happen to have been born in the same year and live in the same area.

But there is more to school spirit (and the dislike thereof) than coincidences of history and geography. School spirit, at its best, is about pride and investment in something larger than yourself.

Pride in your own thing is not the same thing as abuse of the other guy’s thing. “We’re number one,” is a perfectly good expression of school spirit. “You guys suck,” is not. First of all, it’s rude and classless. Second, it’s an admission that the other guy is better, that our only hope is to drag him down. Some sports fans at some schools in the region would do well to remember this.

School spirit is also about what a school district values. What does your school celebrate? What do school officials hold up as something worth getting excited about? Which students do we think deserve the recognition and admiration of their peers, and which do we leave to keep doing their thing without any special attention?

That special attention comes with a special responsibility, and it’s here where I think many schools fumble the school spirit ball. To build school spirit, we should hold up those special students with a message of, “Here’s a person who represents the whole school. This student is one of you, and represents what’s best in this school, and when this student stands up, it’s for everyone here.”

What tears school spirit down is to present those students who excel with a message of, “This guy is better than all of you guys. You should cheer him cause he’s so great.”

When students excel, there are two lessons to be learned. One is the lesson of respect for excellence in certain areas. The other is that those who excel and lead have a responsibility to their community.

School spirit decays when a school only celebrates certain narrow areas of expertise. If your school only celebrates the star tiddlywinks player, only the students who care about tiddlywinks will feel invested. Other students may feel that tiddlywinks is a pretty lame area in which to invest a school’s spirit.

School spirit decays when the excellent students, the leaders, go unrecognized or unsupported. And it also decays when they have no sense of responsibility to their school. Some high school athletes (and their parents) have come to believe that the school sports program exists to serve them. Their message: “Who cares about the school or the team? I’m in this for me!” Can they really be surprised that they don’t feel the backing of a spirited student body?

Oddly enough, I think the architects of No Child Left Behind actually understood this. Some envisioned schools with pep rallies for academics, a world where a school that won a Blue Ribbon Award would be celebrated and supported just like a championship football team. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.

Schools that want to build spirit need to hold up a wide range of students who have achieved excellence in a broad range of arenas, so that every other student in the school can feel some connection to the many values represented. Let those leaders say, “I stand for all of us—yay, us” and not “I’m great and you don’t matter. You should clap for me.”

Imagine a gathering where every team captain, each class president, the top scholars, the homecoming queen, the top tech students, the best performers, and other student leaders all stood up to say why they were proud to represent their school. No, I’ve never seen it, either. And it may just be hokey and naïve, too. But a school is just a big stack of bricks and concrete. The only spirit it’s ever going to have will come from the people inside it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

French and Indian War

My apologies to everyone I faked out-- you will note the September 2004 byline on this column, which is one of my weekly reruns here on the blog!

(September 2004, News-Herald) This weekend a strange and varied assortment of people will converge on Franklin to mark the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War.

It’s a tough war to commemorate. To begin with, the start date is not entirely obvious. In 1749, Celeron claimed the Ohio valley with his infamous plates. The next year the British and French made their final attempt to carve up the continent peaceably. It failed.

Then the Marquis Duquesne was appointed governor-general of New France with instructions to chase the British out of the Ohio valley. To put some muscle where their mouths were, in 1753 the French built forts at Presque Isle and Le Boeuf; later that same year they evicted trader John Frasier from his cabin at the confluence the Allegheny and La Riviere aux Boeufs (roughly French for “the river of beef”—heaven only knows what possessed the French to pick that label for what we now call French Creek).

Here’s where young George Washington passes through to scout the French locations. On the way, he decides that the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela would make a dandy fort location. The British begin construction, but the French chase them away and finish the structure as Fort Duquesne. A battle between troops led by Washington and troops from Fort Duquesne in 1754 is generally considered to be the first actual battle of the war.

The British sent Major General Edward Braddock; his major achievement was to get many troops killed, himself included. The following year, 1756, the war, which had already consumed considerable human and financial resources, was officially declared.

In 1758, Brigadier General John Forbes recaptured Fort Duquesne from the French. In 1759, the French gathered forces here at Fort Machault in preparation to try to retake the fort; instead, in what some cynics would call a signature French strategy, they ran away.

The British had pretty well mopped up the French by the end of 1760, including the construction of Fort Venango, but not till 1763 was a treaty signed to conclude the business. By that time, native American tribes had decided that the British were lousy neighbors. Although Indians get equal billing in the war’s title, Pontiac’s uprising, which resulted in the total destruction of Fort Venango and which was not squashed until 1764, appears as a small separate footnote.

So why care about the war? If the British had lost, maybe we’d all be washing down croissants with snooty wine; then again, Napoleon might still have sold it all to Thomas Jefferson forty years later anyway. And that’s just playing “what if”, a game that’s a lot like “who cares.”

The war did train many future heroes; Washington not only made a name for himself, but learned a great deal from British generals about managing an ill-supplied army.

The war also set the stage for the revolution. The colonies moved to join together for their mutual security and protection. Ben Franklin’s famous woodcut of the disconnected snake captioned “Join or Die” was created for the French and Indian War, not the revolution. A congress of colonies at Albany convinced colonial leaders that a Union of the Colonies was needed to protect them all from the French. The Albany Plan of Union provided the basis for many of the ideas later considered in setting up a new country.

In short, for those of you with a more literary than historical bent, the French and Indian War is to the United States what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings. To revisit it is to revisit the roots of who and what we are as a nation.

It is also, on a weekend with a fresher, more horrifying anniversary, a reminder of a time when war was very different. To kill a person you had to look at him. And despite the tension between the nations, Washington could gather intelligence about the French by walking up to their encampments and asking them. For his troubles he was invited in, fed a nice meal, and sent politely on his way. Not a trick you could try with Osama.

The encampment this weekend will be held both days in the parks from 9 till 5. Warriors of all sides will be represented, complete with close order drills and the firing of muskets and cannon. A variety of 18th century crafts will be demonstrated and guests will discuss everything from the forests of the day to the old French Road from Franklin to Presque Isle.

Perhaps not even oil put Venango County in the thick of such major American history. We were the front lines of a great war for empire. This is a good weekend to learn something new about our home and see some cool stuff from another age.

Friday, October 10, 2008

One More Columnist Takes on the Financial Mess

(News-Herald, October 9) Like most other average Americans, I’m not sure what the heck is going on with the much-ballyhooed economic crisis. I’ve read about it -- I don’t think television is capable of doing any useful coverage of a mess this complicated. But it would be nice to know whom, exactly, I should be mad at.

I’m not too mad at all the people who acquired mortgages they couldn’t afford. I’m more angry at the shysters who pushed those mortgages. I know the buyer is responsible for his own choices, but in situations like this I think of my Grandmother Binmore, who would have fallen for this kind of thing. She would have been easy pickings, not because she was dumb, but because her generation grew up believing that official people from official organizations didn’t encourage customers to do something stupid. If a banker or a government official said it was a good idea, you could trust them. I’m much more angry with people who prey on that sort of trust than with those who exercise it.

But the bad mortgages wouldn’t have trashed an economy. The estimate I’ve seen is that 94-96% of all mortgages are still being paid on time. That’s not a collapse of the housing market.

No, I save my real ire for the financial bigwigs who invented a new kind of side bets on mortgages, and then sold side bets on the side bets.

In other words, one set of shysters sold Uncle Wally a three-legged race horse. Then another set of shysters placed bets on the three-legged horse with everyone else’s retirement money. And back in DC, the shysters who were supposed to make sure the horse race wasn’t fixed decided to let the other shysters run free to exercise whatever stupid thought entered their heads.

So we end up poised between a rock and hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, paper and plastic. We could either watch the nation’s economy crumble, or watch the federal government wrack up unimaginable debt while gobbling up another chunk of the formerly-private sector (and we may yet get to see both).

Congress, given the chance to stand up for the nation’s best interests and use patriotism as its guide in difficult times—well, Congress blew it completely again. Instead of being a monument to extraordinary vision and leadership, the bailout bill is a bloated monument to self-serving pork. Under the pretense of guiding the firemen to the burning building, Congress started looting the place.

I don’t know if the bailout bill is a good thing. One commentator said that it was a horrible thing, the worst thing ever—except for doing nothing. That may be true. Maybe when so much of the public trust is threatened, Uncle Sugar must act.

The desire to federalize chunks of the private sector shows many things, not the least of which may be that Americans have simply become too soft and wimpy to tolerate the ups and downs of free market capitalism. But I think it also shows an understanding that the private sector holds a lot of public trusts.

Someone who owns a restaurant or a movie theater or a widget factory controls resources that are a public trust. Everyone who eats out has an interest in a good restaurant; everyone who works at a factory or depends on the taxes paid by workers—all of those people have an interest in that widget factory.

Private actions have public implications. The private individuals who continue using lawsuits to harass both the ORA and persons attached to it aren’t simply exercising their own personal right to hire lawyers and be a pain in the keister. If they win these lawsuits, they will spread the word that Venango County is not just reluctant about economic development, but is openly hostile to it. And that will be bad news for all of us.

When we see private individuals in any sector making choices that threaten the public interest, the urge is to protect that interest. But if we put every public interest under the protective hand of Uncle Sugar, we will ultimately hand over control of everything to the feds. And that is truly awful news for everyone.

So maybe the cause of this mess is a perfect storm, a long line of people acting as if they had nothing and no one to worry about but themselves. It’s useful to remember that, as citizens, we all carry a piece of public trust with us.

Monday, October 06, 2008


(January, 2003) Yes, drugs are still an issue with teens. But talking to teens about drugs has long been a big challenge for baby boomer parents.

Pundits have offered a variety of explanations. One is that boomers are feeling too guilty about their own youthful drug-induced exuberance to scold anyone else. Another is that boomers don’t want to sound any more like their own parents than they already do. And some boomers supposedly feel a great deal like hypocrites.

All that, plus the lack of any clear, convincing speech to deliver on the subject. Most boomers seem to have a hard time with any argument that stands on phrases like “the right thing to do” or “against the law.” Boomers have spent a chunk of their generation rejecting these sorts of arguments in everything from politics to jaywalking, and they don’t know how to make the point sound convincing.

We remember all too well the sorts of materials that were brought to bear on us. The movies about people who touched one joint and became drooling drug fiends never convinced anyone; we all knew people who had touched lots of joints and didn’t seem very drooly at all. The people who did drugs were never like the raving sleazy menaces in the materials we were shown; they were the same people that we’d played four square with in the playground.

We know that some of the people who did drugs turned out just fine. We know that some of them also turned out to be a mess. And the difference is just as mysterious to most of us as the person who may or may not become an alcoholic after a few drinks.

The whole illegal and wrong argument is a wash these days. I’m not saying that drugs aren’t illegal and wrong. But for better or worse, we’ve come to accept as a society that doing things that are against the law is okay if you have a really really good reason. And news developments like recent Air Force assertions that using drugs to keep long-duty pilots alert just muddy the water further.

By all means, continue to point out that drugs are illegal and wrong. Just don’t be surprised when lots of young people look back at you and ask, “So…?”

My first objection to drugs, particular for teens, is that they don’t give anything back. A good hobby is one that gives something back to the person who practices it, makes them smarter, happier, stronger. Drugs just take. I have had plenty of students whose hobby was getting high. That’s what they put all the energy and planning in their lives into, all their spare hours, all their spare money, from which they get nothing.

Sometimes I’m amazed that they don’t see it. If the person a teen was dating said, “You must spend all your extra money on me, and every three hours, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you must call me,” that teen would dump the relationship like a hot rock. If a boyfriend or girlfriend demanded, “Go hold up a store for me,” they’d be kicked to the curb. Yet anything from tobacco to oxycontin can make the same demands and have suckers lining up to meet them.

Drugs often demand obedience and give nothing back. “But drugs help me cope and let me get away from all the junk in my life,” would be the argument many teens would offer. Which brings me to the other large reason that they should leave the drugs alone.

During the teen years, many young people develop the muscles that they will depend on for the rest of their lives. Not just physical muscles, but psychological ones as well.

If you don’t exercise muscles, they don’t get strong. If you don’t deal with the pain and challenges of life, you don’t become strong. And when it comes to strength (as with many other things in life) you are either moving forward or backward—there is no standing still.

A teen on drugs is like a child in a wheelchair. Spend too much time there, and pretty soon it’s twice as hard to get up out of the chair and locomote under your own power. Stay there way too long, and you become incapable of getting around on your own, taking care of yourself, navigating through the world without someone to help you.

There are plenty of things in life that can steal your strength and destroy your power. There are times when you have to bargain away a piece of that power in exchange for something else of value. Why chose to give it away and get nothing in return?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Applefest Visitors' Guide

(News-Herald, October 2) Welcome to Applefest, visitors to Venangoland! Maybe you’re here nice and early, or maybe it’s Friday and you’ve picked up yesterday’s paper. Either way, let me answer some of your common questions.

Where’s a good place to eat?

This is a tough choice. Presumably you’re not blind to the great variety of Fair Food available right in the main maw of Applefest. If you’re asking because you’d like to get out of the crush and eat a sit down meal like a grown up, pretty much everything on Liberty Street is good. We have nice coffeehouse food, classy dining at Bella’s, the world’s best bread at Leonardo’s, and sports grill dining al fresco at Oskies, as well as some other great options.

Thing is, the best part of most of these places is the atmosphere, which will be completely shot as long as you’re here. You can get in your car in the middle of the day to drive just a few miles out of town for other options (family, fancy-ish, Chinese buffet), but if you do, you might as well just leave your car in that parking lot and walk back to town.

What about the parking, anyway?

We have no idea—this mess traumatizes us locals as much as it does you. But we’re not good judges of this. You can drive down to the lower end of town and there will be lots of street parking. The distance back to the main stuff is what we locals would call “a long way” but any city dweller would call “just around the corner.” The only really practical choice is the option I exercised years ago—buy a house in town.

Can’t I just pull in over here?


What about over—

No, really. And please don’t stop in the middle of the street to think about it. Just keep moving. Something will turn up eventually.

Goodness gracious! Why can’t I find accommodations that measure up to fine establishments I stay at in Pittsburgh?

Duh—because you’re not in Pittsburgh.

Fortunately, few Applefest visitors ask some version of this question. For that handful of cranky rich travelers, let me try to explain.

From ancient Egypt to modern metropolises, deluxe luxury accommodations depend upon one factor—a group of laborers who are willing to be paid peanuts in turn for devoting themselves to the comfort of their betters.

I suppose our problem here is that not many of us think we have betters (though we certainly have people who think they are betters). We’re not really up for treating you like visiting royalty. However, we will be happy to treat you like family (the part that we get along with). If that’s not good enough, may I recommend the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

Why don’t these people in front of me on the sidewalk MOVE already?

I don’t know, either. But, look—you wanted to come out to small town, get out of life in the fast lane, and enjoy the slow pace. Here it is.

I was imagining placid cow in peaceful field, not squished sardine trapped in tiny can. What else have you got?

Within walking distance (because, really, you don’t want to give up that parking space unless money is changing hands) you can find a peaceful riverfront park. Across the river there’s a very nice, quiet bike trail. Or step inside DeBence’s for a tour; it’s much cooler than you expect.

I don’t want to wander off too far. We might get lost.

If you can get lost in Franklin, you can get lost in your own home. If this is a real concern, it was a grave mistake for you to drive yourself here.

What about all the bags of quaint stuff I’ve bought?

I’ve said for years that someone could make a mint with a package-minding booth. Maybe this year someone will finally cash in. If not, I recommend a backpack, or a really big cart that you can use to clear a path for yourself.

What’s up with the one-way streets?

We prefer to only have to check one direction when we make sure you’re not going to drive over us while you search for a parking place. If you can manage Forbes and Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, you can deal with Elk and Buffalo Streets. If that’s too tough for you, head upriver to Oil City and we’ll show you how to get real mileage out of one-way streets.

From my Flickr