Friday, April 24, 2009

Oil City Bicycling

(News-Herald, April 23) I have discovered one more reason to be jealous of Oil City.
I don’t mean merely their politics. Oil City has been on the move the last year or two, and I don’t think it’s because of any clever marketing. The growth of the arts initiative has been great and one or two other pieces are falling into place, but mostly I think Oil City has managed some interesting, robust politics.
I mostly blame the mayor. Small towns are at their best with interesting mayors. It’s true that interesting doesn’t always sweep or patrol the streets, but cities have paid employees for that. It’s a mayor’s job to keep the city interesting, to put a good public face on it, to give it a personality.
Goy Mammolite and Bob Olson certainly gave Franklin an interesting face in their day, and I suppose that I am bitter that none of the interesting people I suggested as mayoral material stepped up. We don’t even have a race for mayor in Franklin, and while our single candidate may be competent, I have no idea if he’s interesting. Certainly a one-man race is not interesting. I mention this now only because there is still time for a write-in campaign, if we can just come up with someone willing to be written.
But that’s my old reason to be jealous of Oil City.
I discovered my new one last weekend when I ventured out on the bike trail. The trail was, as always, a pleasure. The Allegheny Valley Trails folks have given us one of our greatest recreational assets, a long winding stretch of placid pavement that provides a window on some of the greatest scenic splendor in all of Pennsylvania.
I was so energized by the ride upriver that I decided to check out the marked extension of the trail that runs through town.
I do this kind of adventure carefully. I am not a Serious Biker. Bicycling offers a chance to get Really Serious by buying special accessories and toys and clothing in various shades not ordinarily found in nature. I don’t own any of that—I have reached a point in life where I have no illusion that any sort of athletic gear could ever make me appear either cool or hot. So I settle for comfort.
I have several friends who are Serious Bikers. There’s Steve, who rockets down the back roads of Venangoland at speeds that make me uncomfortable in a car, and Paul and Terri who have logged enough bicycle miles to travel to Peru and back 147 times, or Mike who uses biking terminology that sounds like space shuttle parts. They all have great biking stories, though I notice that many of these stories include phrases such as “and then I hit the yak” or “when I woke up in the hospital” or “the doctor said that with therapy I’ll be good as new in a year or twelve.”
So I’m not a Serious Biker. And I am happy to report that even a non-serious biker can navigate the Oil City bike environs with relative ease.
Unlike Franklin, which asks cyclists and pedestrians to battle it out on the sdiewalk, Oil City has actual bike lanes in the street. There are drawbacks to this—Oil City streets include potholes large enough to have their own zip codes—but for the most part it makes navigation easy and uncomplicated.
The signage is good, though in one or two spots it’s an advantage to already know one’s way around Oil City. And the bike paths provide a biker’s version of the Oil City one-way maze.
But (ignoring hilly parts) it is much easier to navigate through Oil City by bike than it is to pedal about Franklin. It may even be easier to get around Oil City by bicycle than to get around Oil City by car. (It should be noted, however, that in both cities your troubles begin when you decide to get off the bicycle and park it somewhere.)
The Oil City leg only takes you to the top of the North Side; the next adventure will be to orienteer my way to Oil Creek park and on to Titusville. This summer’s goal is a Titusville to Emlenton ride.
In the meantime, if you love the bike trail, too, remember to support the AVTA folks with some cold hard cash. Anything worth having is worth paying for.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Venangoland TEA Party

(News-Herald, April 16) As a fake journalist I occasionally take on a story that can’t be covered from my home. Someone invited to the TEA party, so Tuesday night I hightailed it over to the Rocky Grove Fire Hall for the big tax protest meeting.
The tea party rallies have been a growing phenomenon over the past several years. This year the American Family Association either decided to help or co-opted the business, depending on who’s talking (there’s a small internet tempest among some disgruntled “original” Tea Party organizers). They clearly didn’t hurt; there were thousands of these rallies this week.
Venangoland’s tea party was an AFA affair. I disagree in the extreme with some of AFA’s behavior and beliefs, but I also believe it’s dumb to assume that if someone is wrong about A, I should assume they are wrong about B through Z. Since I don’t think an American tax revolt has a lot to do specifically with God or gay folks, I was happy to listen to some political rhetoric.
A wide variety of folk showed up. I saw Christian bikers and Libertarians, jean jackets and faux leopard furs, a variety of office-holders and office-holder wannabes. There were plenty of flags (traditional American and “Don’t tread on me”) and signs ranging from the direct (“Don’t put our grandchildren in debt”) to the obscure (a man holding up a small grave marker for the Federal Reserve). Inside, tables set up by WAWN/AFA handed out materials and Constitutions. Outside it was spring-in-Venangoland chilly and wettish.
Some of the content of these rallies is pretty predictable. There is the reading of the Declaration of Independence, noting that some of the offenses of the 18th century Brits are being replayed today. This routine was first employed during the Lincoln administration and has been trotted out regularly ever since.
Which is not to say that protestors don’t have a point. The government spends way too much imaginary money on stupid things and sticks its nose in many places where it causes more harm than help. This is just as true as the cold and mud of a Western PA spring; if you are surprised or shocked by either, I can only assume that you have been living in a cave.
Plenty of rallyers were against spreading government involvement and spending and socialization and a congressional process that thwarts the thoughtful involvement of all representatives. The cynical side of me wonders where these people were for the last eight or fifty years.
Of course, wasteful government spending is money the feds give the other guy. Ed Scurry, Venangoland’s eternal Democrat, was there with a sign that read “I love Medicaid, Department of Defense…” and a host of other federal programs.
But I nit pick. If you’re finally at the party, I guess it doesn’t really matter how long it took you to get there. And Jane Richey and her crew provided a well-crafted tea party.
She is a smooth and capable speaker, and she had clearly come prepared to work a mixed crowd. She kept her own presentation largely non-partisan, and though she ended with a prayer, acknowledged that not necessarily everyone would want to take part in that portion. She even handled unscripted interruptions (hint: what can’t you ignore in the RGVFD parking lot at 7 pm?)
Other speakers appeared by tape. Rev. Peter Marshall Jr. offered some history of grass roots revolts (the crowd’s attention wandered during the lesson). Wingnut Alan Keyes observed that the government can now control the will of its citizens. He talked about “these people” and how they are overthrowing the system of constitutional government so that “this is no longer a government in which the people are sovereign.” His line “if it [the government] is really broke, throw it out and start over” was the first big applause line of the night.
Some familiar foes were invoked (the media, and whoever it is we need to Take Back Our Country from—other voters who imagine they’re Americans, too?) and folks were given a chance to sign a Declaration of Dissatisfaction. Jane observed that we don’t have money problems so much as moral problems in this country and that people should actually do something rather than counting on others to guard their interests. Lots of folks stayed to sign the Declaration. Throughout, a videographer circulated to capture footage to be made into a Youtube video (I’m pretty sure nobody did that during the Lincoln administration).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter with Thoreau

(News-Herald, April 9) You remember Henry David Thoreau. Went out and lived in a little cabin next to Walden Pond. Wrote a book about it. That’s about as much as most folks remember. If they remember much else, it’s the picture of some monk-like stick-in-the-mud anti-social fuzzy-headed philosopher.
This is at least partly the fault of those of us who inflict Henry on our high school English students. Sometimes we get more wrapped up in the highlights instead of the important details. So if Henry is mis-remembered, I have to take some of the blame myself.
It’s unfortunate, because Thoreau’s work strikes me as strangely relevant once again. But let’s clarify a few points before we get into that.
Walden Pond was not in the wilderness, and Thoreau did not cut all human ties while he lived there. He was about twenty minutes from town, which he visited often. He had parties. He grew beans and sold them. He delivered lectures about the experience even as he was having it; audiences found them witty and fun.
Thoreau’s move was not some sort of philosophical wild impulse. It was a response to his own situation and the state of the world at the time. He had gone to the big city to try to break into professional writing, and found the big city a tough nut to crack. He had worked as a handyman and au pair for his buddy Emerson, his days filled with looking after other people’s families and property.
The state of the world? In that pre-Civil War period, the country was in the grips of a tremendous economic downturn. Unemployment was high, prospects poor, the great experiment of capitalism apparently collapsing under its own flaws. Boy, just imagine a country in that kind of mess!
So Thoreau’s action was not an attempt to escape the world and rise, unencumbered by ordinary life, into some cerebral mental plane.
It was, instead, an eminently practical attempt to come to grips with the world. It’s not a reality escape—it’s a reality check. For himself, he was seeing if it was possible to do the work he wanted to do with just enough space to focus easily. For the country, it was almost a dare. So you think you can’t have a life without a pile of money and a big house packed full of stuff? Let’s see if that’s true.
The parallels to our own time seem obvious. The economic mess is, well, a mess. But it’s also a reality check. Last week a headline said “$500,000 home sold for $200,000.” Well, no. If the house sold for $200,00, it was a $200,000 house. Whether a McMansion, a hovel, or a box of beanie babies, any commodity is worth exactly what someone will pay for it. Pretending it has some other monetary value over and above that is invitation to disaster.
We’ve run headlong for a while now, our list of things we Must Have getting longer and longer. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that real human beings aren’t suffering real hurt in this mess, but as a country and a culture, we’re forced to deal with some perhaps overdue questions—how should each of us go about making a life in this world? Thoreau didn’t suggest we should all live in tiny cabins. He was suggesting that we all ask ourselves what parts of our lives we should really care about.
It’s an appropriate question for Easter week. The events of Easter capped a revolution that was far less, yet far more, than people had been looking for. People had clamored at God for generations with a long list of Things We Need From You To Make Life Good. I like to think that Jesus’s story is God’s way of saying, “Look, let’s talk about what you can really afford and what you really need. Let’s talk about what you really want your life to be.”
Thoreau’s intention was to live deliberately, to do things on purpose, which seems like a simple enough goal. Yet most of us are content to flop through whatever hoops are set before us by accident and habit. Thoreau believed that any day could be the day that we begin the life we choose to create for ourselves instead of one we drifted into, seduced by the world. Times can be scary, but as it turns out, we can lose much of what we want and still have everything we need.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Unplugged Progress Report

(News-Herald, April 2) Last fall I decided that it would be a good idea for me to save some of the money and time that television cable was sucking away. I’ve now been living without cable for six months and I’ve already learned some lessons about life unplugged.
The very first thing I learned was how much company I have. A surprisingly large number of Venangoland residents stopped me in the store or sent an e-mail to let me know that they, too, had disconnected. Apparently plenty of people live full, rewarding lives without that steady stream of electronic marketeering.
There have been a few things I’ve missed—the Macy’s parade, the occasional news story, the—well, you know, I remember missing some things at the time, but as I sit here and try to conjure up the list, I’m stumped. And that perhaps is one of the surprising parts about life without cable—how quickly I’ve stopped missing things.
I did have a handful of shows that I watched regularly, and I figured I’d miss the habit. I fully expected to be hurrying online to stay current with many shows, but it hasn’t happened.
I thought I might miss tv news as well, but reading is a great substitute for getting bombarded with short, quick, ill-created blasts of tv news-like substance. I read the News-Derrick in print, several other newspapers on line, and I swear I actually feel smarter than when I absorbed the tube-based fast food news.
I never said I was going to go all cave man. I still have a television, but now it’s hooked up to a dvd player. I am a major Netflix fan, and I have watched my way through the complete run of a few series, both modern and classic. I’ve watched a slew of movies, and lots of fun documentaries.
But the biggest change is that I have become more deliberate in my tv choices. I used to just turn the tube on for background noise and company—now I don’t watch anything that I don’t purposefully put in the dvd player myself. Watching tv this way forces me to consider some of my tastes in viewing (I must, for instance, confront the fact that I have turned out to be one of those people who thinks documentaries are fun).
I watch way less television than I ever used to. And that means that I watch far less advertising than ever before.
Watching a modern tv series on disc, one can’t help noticing that an “hour” show actually runs about 42-44 minutes. In other words, watching a program on “regular” tv means spending about 1/3 of your time being bombarded by ads.
When I encounter “regular” tv, it’s the advertising that I find most striking—the show is interrupted so often, and for so long! And so many of the ads are sooooo bad (really, whoever’s spending money on “Rediscover Your Oil City” might as well take the money and staple it to the ice catchers).
Many 19th century novels (think Charles Dickens) weren’t really meant to be novels, but the collected chapters of weekly magazine serials. Collected episodes of tv series might also be the birth of a new form, a long rambling narrative that can’t be viewed in one sitting, yet works better as one big work than it does as many little pieces. NCIS, Arrested Development, Lost—all somehow more interesting in large continuous chunks than as weekly bits. Do be careful of the classic shows—they aren’t always as good as you remember (sorry, F-Troop).
Being freed of “regular” tv also means being freed of the clock. The network schedule doesn’t tell me when things stop and start.
I confess that there have been times when I have really missed having something stupid to do while I turn off my brain. For that sort of brain novacain, nothing beats television. But it turns out that with practice, I can get used to having my brain awake and working more hours of every day. And occasional bouts of restlessness sure beat discovering that I’ve just had several hours sucked out of my life by a show so stupid that even the bacteria on the tv screen are insulted by it.
I know there are folks who felt sure I’d eventually fold and go back to “regular” tv. I wondered myself if this would be a short-lived experiment. But between dvds, the internet, books, music, the river and the bike trail, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

From my Flickr