Friday, July 31, 2009

Hildegarde Dolson

(News-Herald, July 30) Hildegarde Dolson would have been 101 this August; I’m ashamed to have missed her centenary. I’ll be correcting that oversight.
Dolson, born and raised in Franklin, graduated from FHS in 1926, then attended Allegheny College. She never finished there; instead, she embarked for New York City. She wrote that she arrived on October 24, 1929 (Black Thursday). Whether this is precisely true or not, her timing was certainly imperfect.
She worked as a copywriter for several big stores, lived in Greenwich village, and began scoring freelance writing sales to bigtime magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal and the New Yorker. Then, fewer than fifteen years after her big move, Dolson published We Shook the Family Tree. The book chronicles her youth in Franklin, and it became her most enduring hit; picked up by Scholastic Book Publishers, it stayed in print for over three decades, and generations of school children grabbed it as a TAB paperback.
I set out to meet her, figuratively, and decided I’d try to do it through her writing.
This seems appropriate because Dolson was such a personal writer. She was primarily a humorist, a story-teller who worked from her own life. She sometimes found herself in odd situations (e.g. hanging around the dressing room of a 17-year-old stripper), but events as simple as a trip to the store, a visit from a political canvasser, or reading a book could trigger a few hundred words of Dolson’s wry, observational wit. Her stories about interviewing Emily Post and Doctor Spock are more fun than the interviews themselves.
Dolson never left Franklin far behind. In addition to Family Tree other pieces covered topics as diverse closing up the family home after her parents’ death and finding herself rendered in egg (next to an eggy John Wilkes Booth) in a store window. She always and often referred to her home town by name. Never “a little burg I come from” but “my home town, Franklin, Pennsylvania.”
Her writing suggests that she was pleased to be from Franklin, but happy to live in the Big City. In her early comic novel The Runaway Husband, the main character runs away from his home in Bracklin, PA (a town near Oilburg and Titusdale) and ends up in Greenwich Village working for a major department store. “Bracklin” is portrayed kindly, but at the end of the novel, the husband has no epiphany that he needs to get away from the big city and return to his roots. Her later novels are set in a wealthy but small Connecticut much like the one where she settled with her husband, writer Richard Lockridge. In all of these settings, Dolson seems to find charm and humor.
Dolson stayed single for much of her adult life, a self-described spinster, yet a steady stream of men move through her writing. Her voice is an odd hybrid, a sort of discretely frank Presbyterian Bohemian. While there is never a hint of lewdness in Dolson’s writing, her characters are well aware of sex and occasionally have some, and not necessarily with the benefit of marriage. The heroine of Open the Door is a middle-aged book editor who has just ended a bad affair and is falling for a writer.
Dolson’s own singlehood was deliberate. She chose writing as a profession early in life and felt that the solitary, focused life of a writer left no room for looking after a husband. She reports her four-year-old nephew’s analysis: “I know why you don’t want to get married…It’s because a husband would talk to you and interrupt you when you wanted to think.”
Children appear in Dolson’s novels as agents of change. She manages to write about them as all her characters, without patronizing or idealizing them. I suspect that Dolson made an excellent aunt.
Her high school yearbook photo shows a young woman who’s not physically imposing (she described her hair color as “drab” and never gave a weight greater than 95 pounds). Her hair is cut in a stylishly wild bob, and she looks through her bangs with an unaggressive intelligence (reminiscent, somehow, of Breakfast Club Ally Sheedy). Her grown-up book photos show that same intent gaze with a hint of smile.
Dolson had the essential writer’s gift—a distinct and pronounced voice. She was the quintessential big city woman with small town girl roots. She was sophisticated and witty without becoming cynical or dismissive; she was able to see the ridiculousness of people and places without losing her love for them. Next week: Dolson reading recommendations.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Venango Museum of Art, Science and History

(News-Herald, July 23) In Venangoland, we are so soaked in oil history we sometimes forget that most communities are not. In most places “oil heritage” makes about as much sense as “weasel heritage” or “toupee heritage” or “spam heritage.” Except, of course, that weasels and toupees haven’t changed the course of civilization (you might make a case for spam).
To warm up for this week’s extravaganza of oil heritaginess, my daughter and I made a visit last week to the Venango Museum of Art Science and History. It’s been a while since I’d been, so I was interested to see what there is to see.
The first thing we noticed about the museum is how absolutely slick and professional its presentation is. It’s not unusual in such “small market” museums to find displays and signage that looks as if they were done by the curator’s niece with some magic markers on her kitchen table.
But the museum looks good. Really good. There are wall-sized illustrations that are eye-catching and impressive, and signage is completely professional. You can pooh-pooh these things as mere cosmetics, unrelated to the actual content of a place, but these design elements set a tone. The eyewash in the Venango Museum says, “We are serious about this stuff.”
Visitors to the museum are greeted by some nice graphics and a coin-fed arcade wizard (like the one in Big) who introduces himself as the “Wizard of Black Gold or Black Magic.” “Black Gold or Black Magic” is the title of the current exhibit; not exactly poetry, but it gets the idea across.
If you don’t feed the wizard, you’ll be greeted a few feet further in by another recorded voice. Warning: this voice is triggered by a motion sensor and people (like, say, middle-aged English teachers) who are being distracted by other exhibits might be startled into a loud reaction that invites teasing from other visitors (like, say, my daughter).
There are many nifty, informative exhibits. There’s a great display of memorabilia related to Rattlesnake Pete, one of the region’s most colorful characters. This is a great batch of stuff and may well be worth the price of admission all by itself.
For that matter, admission is worth the price of admission. If this big beautiful building were sitting there empty, it would be worth a few bucks just to tour it.
Also worth the price of admission is the 1920’s era Wurlitzer theater organ. The console is a beautiful piece of art in its own right, but the music it makes is also a rare treat. Be sure to ask to hear it when you visit; modern technology means that no actual organist is required in order to hear this gorgeous instrument.
Another display shows a mannequin version of Ida Tarbell at her desk, briefly explaining her importance in the history of both oil and journalism. It even underlines how deliciously ironic it was for Ralph Nader to own the Transit Building in Oil City.
There is a really nice car, a Cord Phaeton. The museum’s website says it’s a 1935 model. It also says that it’s a 1937 model. The notes I took from the sign in the museum say 1930, but maybe I made a mistake. At any rate, a beautiful car from 193-something.
There are displays about the oil industry itself; how informative they are depends on how little you know to start with. If you are hosting someone from outside the area who wants to know what the big oil deal is around here, the museum is a good way to get started. For locals, some of this is not exactly news, but some is kind of cool. For instance, they have a nice working mini-model of the pumphouse-driver-well set-up that we’ve all stepped over the pieces of in one section of Venangoland woods or another.
There’s also a giant dinosaur sort-of-skeleton and a gift shop with plenty of oildom memorabilia. Though it has “Venango” in its title, the museum is mostly Oil City-centric, but that makes it a good fit for the next few days of oily celebration. It doesn’t take a great deal of time to tour the museum, and it doesn’t take a great deal of money to get in the door.
The Venango Museum is certainly a facility we can recommend to visitors with pride as well as a place that locals don’t visit as often as we ought to. While you’re celebrating oil heritage days, make it a point to stop in.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Good vs. Great

(News-Herald, July 16) I am a big fan of excellence, of the pursuit of what is great and extraordinary. But at the same, time I don’t like it when that pursuit becomes extreme and unhealthy.
How can it be bad to pursue excellence?
There’s a saying about the good driving out the great; people’s willingness to settle for the merely good keeps them from pursuing what could be great.
I certainly see plenty of this in my classroom. Students routinely create essays that are okay, but if they had kept working and hadn’t settled for “okay” they could have produced some really excellent work.
But sometimes the reverse is true. In our desire to settle for nothing but the very best, we overlook some of what is really good. Some folks become so pathological in their quest for absolute perfection that they miss out on Very Good Experiences.
In severe cases, these people become perpetual dropouts, leaving homes, jobs, spouses in an endless search, fueled by the belief that somewhere out there is a job/town/person who is just so totally awesomely perfect that nothing else will do.
You can spot these folks by their use of the word “settle” as if settling were both tragic and contemptible. They say “I will not settle” in the same tone you’d use for “I will not stick my head in the septic tank.’
At its worst, this desire for Only Excellence leads to people bound and determined to convince themselves that what they’re experiencing is titanic, monumental, awesomely great beyond all cosmic levels of intergalactic awesomeosity. This inflationary appreciation cheapens everything.
I am a standing ovation scrooge. I stand and applaud only when I’ve seen something exceptional and extraordinary. If I explain this, folks look at me as if I am a big fat meany, as if it’s cruel NOT to tell a performer that he just gave the best performance in the history of the universe.
At what point did “You did a really good job” become an insult?
Overpraising not only cheapens the praise, but it calls into question the judgment of the person delivering it. Suppose I’ve just played a session of jazz trombone. If you tell me you really enjoyed it and think I did a great job, I’ll be pleased and flattered. If you tell me that I just played the most awesome jazz trombone you ever heard in your life, I’ll be thinking that you have A) a sad life and B) little knowledge of jazz trombone playing.
It really is okay to be “just” good.
The Franklin Silver Cornet Band has performed thousands of concerts. Only one of those could be the Best Concert the Band Ever Played. Franklin Civic Operetta has presented hundreds of shows. Only one of those can be the Best Show that Civic Ever Put On. Pride should come from a consistent level of excellence, not a focus on one single peak.
I’ve lived through roughly 19,000 days so far. Only one of those can be the Best Day of My Life. Now, I could focus on that single day, or I could keep crowning a new champion Best Day Ever, but either way, I’m passing over 18,999 perfectly good days (okay, maybe 18, 253 perfectly good days—some of them weren’t so hot).
I think those who constantly carp about our region suffer from a touch of this problem. If we can’t tout Venangoland as the Greatest This or the Best Ever That, the reasoning goes, then this place must just stink.
Well, there’s something to be said for settling. Still push for your best. Still strive for excellence. But people who refuse to marry anyone but the Most Perfect Partner will die grumpy and alone. Parents who insist their children be The Most Perfect Ever will drive those children away. People who think every day must be the Best Day Ever will have many, many bad days. People who must live in a Perfect Place will move a lot, and die either disappointed or deluded.
Sometimes Really Good is good enough. There is no shame in living a life that is just as good as you could make it, even if it’s not the Greatest Life On Earth. There are so many reasons to be proud of our corner of the world. There’s no excuse not to keep trying to move forward, make things better. But there’s also no excuse not to settle for a place that’s really good, even if it’s not the Greatest Spot on Earth.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Let Other People Be

We cannot make people act the way we want them to. Over this unexceptional log a gazillion men and women have tripped.
First, other people do not necessarily feel the way we think they ought to. This irritant reappears repeatedly in politics. For eight years, many Americans were certain that everyone should be appalled by George W. Bush and upset that he was acting like a war criminal and starting stupid wars and trampling on everything that made this country great. Nowadays, instead, we have people certain that all Americans should be appalled by Barack Obama instituting Communism and lowering our defenses and trampling on everything that made this country great. Both groups are certain they know how everyone should feel.
Or we feel hurt, and we think the people around us should feel hurt, too. And yet, often they do not.
Second, even when people feel the way we think they should feel, they don’t act out those feelings as we think they should. This is the source of a thousand lovers’ arguments that begin with the phrase “If you really loved me you would…”
We figure that this one action would show that these people feel the way we hope/demand they feel. Sometimes these are not unreasonable (“If you loved me, you would not sleep with lots of people who aren’t me”) and sometimes they are (“If you loved me, you would not be upset that I sleep with lots of people who aren’t you”).
Often they are oddly unique, sometimes based on our own experience (“If you cared about me, you’d put my salad dressing on the side”).
Most troublesome are those that come out of our own temperament. We’re all wired to react to high stakes emotional situations differently, from those of us who explode outwards to those of us who turn inward, from those of us who leap to the front of the fray to those of us who sit and stay still, waiting and watching.
These responses are so basic to our nature that we have a hard time imagining different ones. When I get upset, my urge may be leap up and Go Do Something; why someone would just sit there? Or my response is to sit and think things through; why someone would want to go off half-cocked. I may really need to talk about things, or I may need to really NOT talk about things—either way, I can’t imagine how people would feel differently any more than I can imagine why some people would enjoy being set on fire.
So people may not feel the way I think they should feel, or they may not act on those feelings the way I think they should. That’s only the beginning; my problems really begin when I start trying to explain the differences.
If they don’t feel what I think they should feel, I may decide they don’t understand. The Bush Bashers and Obama Haters are certain that if they explain How Awful He Is just one more time, everyone will finally Get It and howl in outrage. If they still don’t get it, I guess they can’t understand—people who don’t feel the way I think they should just must be stupid.
Or I may combine the problems—if you really care about me, you’ll just know the right thing to do.
If I don’t see the actions that would “prove” your feelings, then that proves you don’t have them. That leaves a blank for me to fill in with what I guess your feelings are.
It’s as if we’re speaking two different languages. I did something that to me means, “I care about you,” but to you it means, “I think you’re a big jerk.”
It’s worse in times of stress and struggle; then we’re least likely to stop and ask ourselves “I wonder how this comes across” or “Can I put myself in their shoes for a second?” Growing up we (mostly) learn a common language of actions and behaviors that (most) people (usually) (mostly) understand. But in tough times we often revert to the behavior and actions that were wired into us in childhood. At those times it’s really hard to make connections between each other. A good first step is to remember that each of us has a heart that speaks a language of its own. We can’t force it to speak our language; we need to listen and be careful how we translate.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

On the water

sum09.38, originally uploaded by palan57.

I had a perfect night for shooting last week. I've inflicted these on facebook friends and you can see the whole set on flickr as well. But honestly, do I live in a beautiful place or what?

Friday, July 03, 2009

PA Budget Follies '09

(News-Herald, July 2) In our universe, “deadline” means “the point by which a piece of work must be done.” If my editors say “Your deadline is 3 am next Tuesday,” I know that I need to have my work in to them BEFORE 3am on Tuesday.
But when the suits in Harrisburg talk about the “budget deadline,” they actually mean “the point in time at which we’ll START to seriously work on completing a budget.”
The time before the deadline, the period in which you or I (silly political amateurs) would be trying to finish a real budget—well, that’s the time that the folks in Harrisburg get busy posturing and positioning for the real budget negotiations.
Negotiating is a refined art in the best of circumstances; two parties must work out a mutually satisfactory solution, and they begin this journey toward mutual understanding by sitting down and telling big fat bald-faced lies. I want to end up with one fluffy bunny, so I demand a truckload of weasels. You want me to end up with only one fluffy bunny, so you propose to kill every pet I ever have or will own. And then we begin a series of conversations to gauge how big the lies are that we are telling each other.
Political negotiating is especially entertaining because the goal is to scare not just your opponents, but also all the innocent bystanders (aka “voters”).
Our problem is simple. The amount of money we would like to spend is a much larger amount than the amount of money we expect to have available. And because we lack the federal government’s ability to make money out of air while using a time machine to pick the pockets of generations yet unborn, we have to find a way to make those two amounts Not So Different.
Everybody knows there are two solutions. 1) Take in more money. 2) Give away less money. For individuals, there are good and bad ways to do both of these. “Get a better paying job” is a more useful solution than “Knock over a Kwik-Fill” or “Take out a fraudulent mortgage” for generating income. “Stop buying things you don’t need” is preferable to “Cut back to one meal a week” or “Stop paying bills.”
Republicans have floated a budget that slashes a variety of programs. A variety of economic/community grants, support for tourism, and arts money, as well as (depending on who’s doing the analysis) state parks, environmental protection, and legal defense.
Various affected groups are already out beating the bushes and raising the alarms. I get regular e-mails of panic about cutting arts funding to zero, which trickles down just about everywhere (even into Venangoland). Other critics say cuts would close state parks, shut down health care, and blot out the sun.
Meanwhile, Smilin’ Ed is proposing a whole bunch of additional taxes on everything that moves. Oh, and “temporary” income tax hikes. Critics suggest this would make PA’s lousy business climate even worse, send rich people running to Barbados, and blot out the sun.
To the panicked screeching on both sides, add smoke and mirrors. Federal stimulus money is in there, but in some cases, such as education, maybe not really. Like when your Grandma gave you an extra five dollars and then your parents cut your allowance by five dollars that week.
To sort it all out, you need someone who is 1) knowledgeable and 2) not trying to sell you something. Good luck with that.
Short of some really creative solutions (Sell Philadelphia on e-bay) the commonwealth faces hard choices, and I’d like to blame just the dopes in Harrisburg, but part of the solution is for the electorate to suck it up. It may be unfair that the state is in this mess, but here we are. The long term health of the state may require many of us to bite some short term bullets.
Selfish solutions (“Get the money from people who aren’t me”) aren’t an answer. And both “We don’t care what you cut as long as you don’t raise taxes” and “Tax anyone and anything as long as there are no cuts” are stupid solutions.
Scare tactics won’t help. Political posturing won’t help. Serious consideration of the issues and an honest view of the state’s future would help. Now that we’ve actually entered budget season, maybe some brains and vision will emerge soon, and those Harrisburg geniuses can start doing the job they were supposed to finish weeks ago.

From my Flickr