Friday, September 25, 2009

New Enterprises in Franklin

(News-Herald, September 24) I took a quick trip through down town Franklin last weekend to get a peek at some of the new projects there.
First I made a stop at the Liberty Galleria. The newly refurbished space on Liberty Street has a small but interesting assortment of goodies. Chocolate from Foxburg, toys from Cochranton. Some pet stuff. A great assortment of heat-rendering ingredients for people who like to make food that bites back. And all the way in back a freezer loaded with baklava.
Most intriguing is a toy that is part building block and part marble track. The possibilities seem far more intriguing than the name (Block N Roll), and I was surprised to see that it’s produced by a toy company headquartered on Third Street in Franklin. I’ll do some research and get back to you on that one.
The Galleria also includes glass stuff, assorted jewelry, pet goodies, and a lot of empty air. There’s plenty of space left for fledgling entrepreneurs (if I had money to invest in inventory, I’d set up the Venangoland authors bookstore). And they’ve done a nice job of rescuing the building and turning it into something than any sort of business could happily locate into.
But I was just passing through the Galleria as an appetizer to the main course; Sandy Baker had agreed to give me a peek inside the old Franklin Club.
The club was originally called the Nursery Club; the actual organization dates back to the late 1870’s. But the Nursery Club didn’t buy its clubhouse until a decade later. That structure, previously a private home, was purchased for $8,000. Adding a ballroom and expanding some other facilities cost another six grand. Costs have gone up a tad during the 120 years the club has perched there.
The “Nursery of Great Men” slogan had caught on for a while in Franklin; it’s actual origin was Erie politician Morrow B. Lowry, who was trying to make fun of us. We took the line and ran with it, aggressively mocking him right back.
But eventually the attraction of the odd motto faded (as a school sports nickname, “Fighting Nurserymen” raises a variety of disturbing images). Eventually Franklin athletes became Knights, and the Nursery Club became the Franklin Club.
The Bakers have been busy inside the old building, though long-time club fans will not be alarmed by what they find. The first and second floors are newly recarpeted and wallpapered. The ballroom doesn’t get new wallpaper (thereby preserving what may have been the single ugliest feature of the club), but it is getting a reproduction tin ceiling. Most of the bars are being rebuilt. If you never spent much time in the club, things will seem largely unchanged when you walk in. It still gives an atmosphere of muted elegance and accessible class.
The biggest changes, ironically, are in the area that most local folks never saw—the exclusive basement rooms. This was the members-only bar and restaurant that ordinary civilians never got to see.
Now it will be McGinnis’s, an Irish pub. Basically, a three-room affair. One room will be the actual bar, one a genteel sitting-in-leather-chairs area, and the old restaurant will now house tables, bookcases, and a private corner in the back. The old carpet has been replaced with hardwood floor, the old ceiling with more reproduction tin ceiling. It is hard to imagine a more warm and inviting space. I don’t drink, but the picture of sitting in such a pleasant cave with a book and some good company—well, maybe I can just buy a glass of something and let it sit there for ambience.
For the pub project, the Baker’s have enlisted a co-founder of the popular Molly Brannigans pub chain, and they’ve hired their key personnel for the whole operation (I’m not sure what to call it now—it’s not a “club” any more, but “restaurant/pub/event center” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue).
The new name will be The Commons at Franklin (there’s a website). The bowling alley is still there, though not up and running just yet. The men’s room halfway down the steps to the bar is going to be a ladies room. A couple of wall displays will preserve and honor some of the Club’s early history.
I know many people have wondered what is happening, what we’re going to end up with. It appears that we’re going to get the return of an honorable old Franklin landmark, hopefully better managed and more accessible to the general public.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Goring Some Oxen

(News-Herald, September 17) I have a whole library of subjects I’ve put off because, as much as I’d like to write about them, I know that I’ll just be asking for trouble. But this week, I’m clearing out that trouble file all at once, like pulling off a bandaid in one quick jerk (only this week, I’ll be the quick jerk). I can stop procrastinating and start collecting grumpy mail.
This is not the South.
Ignore for a moment the offensive things that a Confederate flag represents. This is Pennsylvania. Back when people waved that flag for real, they were trying to kill people from here. A Pennsylvanian with a confederate flag on a house or truck or t-shirt makes about as much sense as a black man in a pointy white sheet.
Cheerleading is not a sport.
Yes, cheerleading has changed over the decades. In my youth, cheerleaders stood in front of fans and led cheers (how else did we learn to spell “success”). Now they put on acrobatic displays and create giant sculptures made out of people. I do not blame cheerleaders for the decreased time spent leading cheers; modern sports fans are tv-trained lumps, and only the band will actually cheer.
But cheerleading is not a sport. I know it requires physical skill, and that cheerleaders have competitions. The same is true of dancers, and dancing isn’t a sport, either.
What bothers me most about cheerleading calling itself a sport is—why does it WANT to? Does cheerleading suffer from some sort of low self-esteem that it thinks it’s not good enough if it is “just” cheerleading and not a big old sport?
Do football players say, “Hey, we have a ball and we run around, so we are basketball players, too!” No. Why do that instead of just saying, “Basketball, shmasketball—we play FOOTBALL!”
I understand this is NW PA, and for many folks if it isn’t a sport, it doesn’t matter. And some school districts have finagled their way around various regulations by declaring cheerleading a sport. But cheerleaders should be bigger than that. Cheerleaders should be proud to be cheerleaders.
Toddlers should watch parades, not carry batons in them.
There is no reason to put a small child in a spangly outfit, stick a baton in her hand, and make her march/trundle/stagger through an entire parade. None. I cringe every time I watch a troupe of small children dragging themselves miserably down a street, surrounded by a staff of adults who act as though they are masterminding the Normandy Invasion.
I have heard all the arguments.
“The child is learning skills that she’ll use for years.” No, she isn’t. She’s mostly learning to hate the whole business, so that any hope she might have pursued it, enjoyed it, and done well at it when she becomes old enough is erased in the heat-addled haze of senseless parading.
“The child really loves it. Really. She wants to do it.” She’s a child. If Mommy sat in front of her and said, “Hey sweetie, you’d really like to roll in the mud with smelly pigs, wouldn’t you?” she’d say yes. If she did it once and received a giant wave of parental love and approval, she’d keep on doing it as long as she could stand to, or at least until she was old enough to understand big words like “emotional blackmail.”
“It’s fun.” Really? Because usually there isn’t a person out there who looks like they’re having fun. Not the miserable, confused little girls, not the harried over-serious adults, not the guy driving the vehicle with the blaring tin-can speakers, not the brother who has been forced to “come help out.”
End (Some) High School Sports.
The private sector is ready to take over. A variety of leagues, sponsored by the Y’s and the AAU, have sprung up. These involve some very fine motives (more playing opportunities for young athletes) and some not-so-fine motives (more Being In Charge opportunities for adults).
It was one thing when these programs augmented school sports, but now some of these private leagues are actually competing with school programs for athletes. Meanwhile, fewer school sports are actually coached by school employees, giving them even less connection to the school. One of these systems can go, and while I’m partial to school sports, saving some taxpayer money might be popular. So let’s keep the sports that are still truly school sports and get rid of the ones that are now duplicated.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Small People; Local Politics

(News-Herald, February 2005) The old conservative-liberal division no longer makes sense; too few conservatives or liberals understand what their respective labels actually mean, though they’re certainly divided over something. There seem to be no politicians who believe in a pluralistic society; all our parties agree that the role of government is to force people to do the right thing, and everyone has a narrow view of what the right thing is.
Small town local politics are generally free of such ideologues. Instead, we get politics infected by the Small People. Sometimes the Small People are in power, and sometimes they’re hectoring elected officials from the sidelines. But the Small People always have certain tell-tale characteristics.
Small People have tiny vision, cramped and selfish spirits. They see themselves in battle against most of the rest of the world, a world populated by Those People.
The Small People have contempt for those beneath them socially or economically—Those People who live in the Arbors or line up at Community Services. The Small People believe that money = virtue, so people who don’t have money obviously lack virtue. Handouts are bad for them. (But Small People know their family and friends are virtuous, and anyway, what point is being in office if it doesn’t help you get your way?)
The Small People resent those beneath them. They resent it when Those People act as if they’re entitled to the same money or respect or shot at political post and advantage that the Small People have. How dare Those People act as if they have a right to hold an elected office without the Proper Connections.
Small People also resent the people above them. Someone smarter or more eloquent than they are makes them feel their smallness. People who have power over them enrage them. Small People can turn vicious in a power struggle, and bitter after losing. What right do Those People have to take control of this board/committee/group?
It’s impossible to move the Small People with an eloquent statement or well-reasoned argument, because they refuse to see anything larger than their own cramped aspirations or petty concerns. Every disagreement is personal; it never occurs to Small People that their opponents might have a legitimate point. Their response, whether to your face or whispered out of the corner of their mouth, will be cutting or condescending or cruel, to bring you down to size and to reassure themselves that there is no one in the world better than the Small People.
They refuse to imagine anything bigger than themselves, and assume everyone operates from the same selfish motives. A truth that disagrees with their own tiny view must be a lie. A person who makes a kind or wise gesture must be faking it to manipulate events for his own benefit.
Even their friends and allies are not immune to their withering sniping, because friends and allies must stay smaller than the Small People. Foolishly materialistic people may want to keep up with the Joneses, but Small People want to force the Joneses to stay down with them.
The Small People aren’t found just in elected office—church, volunteer group, school politics all attract Small People. Small People never see these positions as a way to serve or give back to the community. To them, politics is an avenue for putting Those People in their place (and making the Small People feel less small.) Sometimes they retreat from office because they sense that it will just highlight how Small they really are. Sometimes if they don’t get their way, they take their ball and go home to sulk.
We sometimes elect Small People because we think their definition of Those People matches our own. But we love some local politicians precisely because they are anything but Small. Guy Mammolite was an easy mayor to make jokes about for everything from his pageants and awards to his creative mangling of the language. But Guy was not a Small Person; he saw himself and his city and the people in it as part of something bigger, and he was always looking for ways to make it bigger still.
We’ve often been fortunate that way in Venangoland, though it irks the Small People to hear a Mammolite type praised. Whether in office or in the peanut gallery, Small People are the great bane of local politics, because they want to hold us all down to fit in their tiny, ever-shrinking world.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hopeless Health Care Debate

(News-Herald, September 10) The health care debate highlights how hard it is can be for Americans to get things done.
Health care is a complicated business, a highly technical field with a vast body of knowledge, plus a complicated delivery system and an entrenched business model that has become only more convoluted with time. And of course the health care biz is now smothered in the health insurance biz, one of the most deliberately complicated businesses in history.
The chances that an ordinary civilian can navigate this tangle, let along trim, cut and re-organize it – well, that seems as likely as chipmunks building a thermonuclear device in my back yard.
This type of work requires experts, people with years of experience with the ins and outs of the industry. Trouble is, these people have a vested interest in the industry. Getting these experts to help is like consulting a wolf on the best way to guard sheep.
Americans love the idea of gifted amateurs. In the movie, “Dave,” a small town shlub takes over the role of President and brings in his buddy, a small town accountant, to fix the federal budget in a day or two. That makes a swell movie, but is as likely as somebody being able to rebuild an engine because he’s always liked cars and he’s a good person at heart.
At times like these, some folks like to turn to the academics. Call in some college professors or think-tank whiz brains!
I’m not completely opposed to that notion. Academics have produced some fine results over the years (the internet is a good example), but experience in my field makes me suspicious. Education is filled with collegiate “experts” who wouldn’t last five minutes in an actual classroom but who can always land a government consulting gig. Then again, I may be an education expert, but I am heavily invested in my field and job. It’s possible, even probable, that my perspective makes some things very clear to me and keeps me from seeing other things at all.
That same thing is true of health care, but more so. If we’re going to pick apart the health care industry, whom do we trust? Who is in position to have good perspective on this monster?
Certainly some things are obvious to the average shmoe. Denying people health care because they’re ill is backwards. Spending a gazillion tax dollars we don’t have is unwise. Many businesses that I deal with keep track of me with stalker-like devotion. Yet the health insurance industry repeatedly makes regular customers approach like strangers. Do not tell me in this technologically advanced era that health care insurers need a system that is slow, cumbersome, inaccurate, and paper-intensive; surely it’s no coincidence that this system guarantees that they will pay slowly, hang onto money longer, and encourage customers to give up entirely. The health care biz is unique as an industry in which the economic incentive is to avoid doing the job that it’s there to do.
Democrats and Republicans are both historically happy to hand over the regulatory writing instrument to the industry facing regulation. I don’t automatically assume this proves corruption—inside the industry is where you’ll find the people who know it best. But we also can’t give the wolves the keys to the pasture. The economic meltdown is a fine example of how badly that can end.
And this balancing act must happen against the backdrop of the public shouting match loudly led by all the folks who have been suckered into shilling for the health insurance industry, and reform boosters with a seemingly-endless supply of Really Sad Stories.
How to navigate this mess. More actual thought and less noise would be good. It’s probably costing us too much as a country to just leave the industry alone; the wolves are already feasting on mutton daily. Market forces? Market forces say that a lot of sick unwealthy people should just die. Legislate a “right” to health care? Quick—go plant the money trees now. Put the feds in charge? Why think they can run the health care industry—it’s just putting more wolves in charge, though maybe dumber, slower wolves.
We could hire the wolves to watch the sheep and slap a good set of leashes on them. Course, then we need someone dependable to hold the leash. Maybe we just look for altruistic vegetarian wolves. Maybe I’d better keep a closer eye on the chipmunks in my back yard.

Friday, September 04, 2009

School with a Purpose

(News-Herald, September 3) First week of school in Venangoland, and already I suspect many people are starting to feel their focus fade.

As the first day approaches, parents and students (and teachers, too) ramp themselves up. They buy new clothes, new school supplies, nice pair of socks, clean new eraser. Resolutions are made about how this year will be filled with achievement and growth. And for a few days, it actually is. And then the noble goals start to fade.

You plan to worry about Important Educational Goals and end up worrying about how to keep your pencil sharp and where to sit at lunch.

It’s like steering a car. Focus two feet in front of the car and you’ll weave over the road, threatening the safety of all around you and alarming those traveling with you (this is a good time to apologize to my old drivers ed teacher, Mr. Shreck). You have to stay focused way out ahead. Eyes on the goal.

Parental focus is challenging because we have so many kid-related worries, and sending them off to school means we can no longer control every aspect of their lives. It’s not that we want to be puppet masters. We just want to master the impossible art of keeping them safe.

Some parents keep trying. They want to be right there, contacting the school regularly to make sure that their child is never sad or hurt or disappointed or upset or forced to deal with difficult people.

I completely understand the impulse. Parents do not want to see their children suffer, not even a little. Our strongest instinct is to protect our offspring from any threat. And there is no question that a parent should be a child’s advocate. I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to sit in a conference with parents who show no faith in, nor support for, their children.

Somewhere between abandoning the child completely and driving to school to cut up his food at lunch, there’s a wide gray area to navigate. When should you step in? When should you let junior takes his lumps?

For middle and high school students, I offer two guides: a three-month old baby and a cranky boss.

For every problem, take the long view. Each problem’s solution is a lesson in solving problems. Let’s assume that our goal is to prepare our children for life as grown adults, who may have to deal with a three month old baby and/or a cranky boss. Is my child learning an approach that will be useful then?

In school, students must sometimes deal with people who are demanding, unreasonable, and completely insensitive to what those students want. Lots of parents want to leap into these situations.

But who in the world is more demanding, unreasonable and insensitive to others than a three-month old baby? When your grandchild is crying and complaining at 3 AM, which of the following responses would you like your adult child to use:

“This is completely unfair. I really want to sleep. It’s unreasonable; I’m not doing it.”

“Mom, come here. I don’t wanna take care of this baby; it’s so haaaaaarrrd. Fix it for me. ”

“Well, this is inconvenient, but sometimes in life you just have to suck it up and do what needs to be done.”

How many times do you want your adult child to change jobs in a search for a boss who treats him like Mom always used to?

Some real research says that a major predictor of success, both in school and life, is resilience, the ability to bounce back from disappointment and defeat. Unfortunately, some parents are determined that their child should never experience disappointment or defeat. So when young people should be doing heavy lifting to build emotional strength for the years ahead, some parents are making sure Junior never grabs anything heavier than a twinkie.

A major cyberschool advertises itself with the question “Is your child happy in school?” I don’t think students should be miserable, but I don’t believe that the best preparation for adult life is a childhood without tests or sadness. The absolute worst reason to cyber- or home- school is to insure your child years of never having to do anything hard, deal with any difficult people, or experience disappointment.

This is the challenge—to make sure that we don’t get so worried that child’s life is so happy now that we forget to lay a foundation for the future.

From my Flickr