Friday, November 27, 2009


(News-Herald, November 26) My daughter feels that I should write about stuffing, which she believes is the whole point of the turkey.
Personally, I rather like turkey, though the combination of turkey and stuffing is optimal. I do not have any special secret family recipe and so in the years that I have stuffed and cooked a turkey, I have started with a bag of herbified bread, some chicken broth, assorted onions and herbs, and a bunch of garlic, because everything in the world is better with garlic.
I dump it all in a big bowl and add ingredients till I like how it smells. Then I stuff it into the bird.
Well, after I finish defrosting the bird. I know there’s a formula that tells me when to put the frozen bird in the fridge so that it will safely defrost (weight times the cosine of the number of bags of leftover restaurant food taking up refrigerator space minus the size of the ice cube maker equals “put the turkey in the refrigerator shortly after the Fourth of July”). I live on the edge, sitting the brick-like bird on a kitchen counter roughly five minutes after I remember that I need to defrost it. On cooking day this is supplemented with a warm bath in the kitchen sink (the bird, not me).
I am aware that I am turning the turkey into a seething cauldron of dangerous bacteria, so I am telling you clearly here that doctors, dietary experts and lawyers for this newspaper all advise that you should absolutely NOT follow any of the turkey instructions I am offering here.
Nevertheless, I have always felt relatively safe from the consequences of my wanton recklessness because I do not eat, lick or otherwise ingest the turkey before I have cooked it an appropriate number of hours (weight of bird times age of oven equals half a day). Stuffing laced with enough garlic to kill all life-forms within a ten-foot radius also helps.
My son is a big fan of chicken, but not so much its poultry cousin. He is not a major fan of holidays in general, so I think he views holiday meals as gilt-edged potholes on the highway of life. He has no strong feelings about stuffing.
My daughter accuses turkey of being boring. I disagree, though I think much of the standard holiday menu makes a good case for the value of boring. Stuffing is as exotic as I care to get. I can appreciate the artistry that goes into a giant vat of sweet potato sculpted into the form of the grand canyon with little marshmallow goats and donkeys prancing around the whipped orange cliffs, but I don’t want to eat it.
I’m inclined to say that Things Made Out of Jello do not belong on the Thanksgiving table, and I think that vegetables that are good enough for everyday use shouldn’t be forced to dress up for the occasion with bread crumbs or nuts or other unfamiliar substances.
But I have to admit that my own Thanksgiving dinner is not complete without cranberry relish, a substance that nobody really eats on purpose. It’s traditional, and I am a creature of habit. Tradition is a useful part of holidays; it helps make them comfortable and relaxing.
Still, even the most traditional of us can bend. My tradition was to watch the Macy’s parade, and then complain about how present-day parades are invariably ruined by “hosts” talking incessantly throughout. Now that I have cut my cable television ties, I no longer get to watch the parade, or complain about it. That may be a loss for me, but it’s a win for anybody who ever had to listen to me complain.
Time eventually forces traditions to change. My son won’t be home, so I can only hound him about eating by phone—not quite the same. But some traditions are immovable. I will play tomorrow night in the Franklin Silver Cornet Band pops concert because I can’t imagine not doing it.
A holiday is just another day—same number of hours, no different air. And stuffing is just bread. In both cases we simply add something of our own to make it into what we would like it to be. It’s that ability to shape a day that we are referring to when we talk about making every day a holiday. Heck, if we wanted to, we could have stuffing every day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Heroes 2009

(News-Herald, November 19) Every year at this time, I ask you to honor one of your heroes. Not some big, grand hero that you know about from television news or a magazine, but someone who you know personally. Someone who is an actual part of your life.
We are always oddly reluctant to honor such people. Perhaps we’re just shy. Perhaps we feel awkward. Maybe our heroes also have some less-than-admirable qualities that we don’t want to be seen as approving.
There is something extra sad about people standing around a funeral home saying nice things about the deceased that they never told that departed person in life. The one thing sadder I can think of would be someone who died before he ever told the people he honored how much he admired and valued them.
But as a people we find it all too easy to criticize, complain and carp while never quite getting around to the more positive words. We leave people to stumble forward blind and alone, never knowing how much they mean to many of the people around them.
So let’s do it. Once a year, minimum, let’s tell them that they are our heroes. Even if they are people that we are already close to.
My children have become heroes of mine. They are certainly far braver than I was at their age. They have carted themselves to the other side of the continent to pursue their biggest dreams and aspiration. They have sacrificed much of the comfortable and familiar to pursue the fields that they are passionate about.
But it’s not just that courage that I admire. They have continued to show courage and strength in their personal lives, been smart about who to let in and brave about holding to those people, even when holding on was a challenge of one sort or another.
Because they are my children, I love them. But for all these other things, they are heroes of mine.
So are my parents. They got married when my father was in college—who does that? Surely someone must have tried to talk sense into them. Then ten years later they packed up three children and moved a day’s drive from their home and families to Pennsylvania, which also could not have been easy (my sister was only three at the time).
Not that this is a scary, awful place, or a hard place to settle in and make a home. But they had no way of knowing that when they headed down here.
I’m not talking about extraordinary leaps of unheard-of daring. People do similar things, take similar leaps every day. But people also shrink from doing similar things every day.
People who take the leap will tell you they didn’t have much choice, that once they knew what they wanted, they had to deal with the obstacles. Once you’ve decided to eat the banana, you have to deal with the peel.
But lots of folks find it hard to summon that courage. When they see what they have to do, they draw back and say, “But I don’t wanna.” It’s a story as old as Moses saying, “Go pick somebody else for this.”
So among my heroes are people like my children and my parents who find the nerve to go where there passions direct them, who summon the kind of courage which is ordinary in its application, but rare in appearance. My heroes are the people who do what they have to do, even if it is hard or inconvenient, even if, as is almost always the case, they have to take the leap not knowing for certain where they will land.
It’s a quality I admire because, at critical junctures in my life, I have lacked it. Every big mistake I’ve made in my life I’ve made because I lost my nerve, and so many of my heroes are the people who didn’t.
You may choose your own admired heroic qualities for your own personal reasons. The point is, if you want a world where these qualities flourish, you need to honor them when they appear.
So send a note—something real and physical that your hero can hold and save—and let him or her know. Doesn’t have to be fancy. You can start with “You are a hero of mine because…” and send. Do it now, this week, and enter the season of decorating knowing that you added a little point of light to the world.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Dumbest Generation

(news-Herald, November 12) I recently finished Mark Bauerlein’s best-seller The Dumbest Generation. It’s one more interesting entry in the genre of cranky “kids these days” screeds, but a couple of his ideas struck me as interesting. These types of books are as regular as dandelions. It seems you are not a certified grown-up until you have complained about Those Darn Young Folks.
In the 1970’s there were regular complaints about the bunch of scary young “hippies” who would gather in Franklin’s parks for all manner of nefarious purposes. In the 1930’s, the Franklin Band threatened to stop giving concerts unless parents got their children under control. [Insert tired old quote by Socrates about disrespectful younger generation here.]
There is one different factor in current complaints—the rise of the digital age. Media changes always add challenges. Find a culture that is adopting the use of writing and you will find a bunch of old-timers complaining. “Kids these days. They don’t learn the old stories and songs. They can’t remember stuff at all. They just sit around squinting at those funny marks on papyrus.”
Digital media is changing us in ways that aren’t entirely clear yet. I like to physically own my music and books; younger folks seem comfortable having these things in intangible and impermanent forms. And the internet allows my children to stay close and in touch in ways I would never have imagined.
This is my digital age story: I stopped at Sheetz and bought gas, then pulled out onto the street. My cell phone rang. It was my daughter calling from across the country to tell me that my gas cap was off. One of her friends had seen me pull out, called her on the cell phone, and then she called me.
Bauerlein’s point is that the digital age is making young Americans stupid. Some of what he says is not new. One generation’s historic essential gold is another generation’s trivial garbage. Boomers remember where they were when JFK was shot; they are lucky if their descendants even remember who JFK was.
But two of Bauerlein’s points struck a chord.
First is a simple observation. We’ve been hearing for a while now the prediction that access to the internet and computers and an infinite library of digitized information would put young brains into overdrive. The internet computer revolution was going to drop our next generation of mental saplings into a deep sea of brain-expanding fertilizer.
Well, the saplings have been soaking for well over a decade now, and there are no signs that the computer-weaned young are any brighter than their forebears, and at least a little evidence that they are actually dumber. It may be that computers don’t make folks smarter any more than the invention of the automobile made people better runners.
Bauerlein’s other interesting point is more subtle. Digital connection has made it possible to stay insulated from other people.
This is true for everybody. Folks who want to believe that Obama was not born in America can stay on the internet fully insulated from anything like facts or sense. Belief that the earth is flat also thrives on line.
But Bauerlein suggests that this effect is more insidious for young folks.
Back in the day, teens would spend just a portion of the day in Teenworld, a world of drama and angst, where cool mattered and smart did not. But at the end of the day they had to go back home, a place often (but not always) ruled by adults and subject to rules different from Teenworld. They needed permission to leave, or even to call out on the single landline in the house.
Experiences in home, church, work and other settings outside of Teenworld prepared young people for life in the adult world, a world where you have to pull up your pants, work for rewards, and listen to people who aren’t like you. When it was time to leave Teenworld, they knew how to acclimate to the Real World.
But digital media have ended that, suggests Bauerlein. With a cell phone and good texting thumbs, teens can stay immersed in Teenworld 24/7, living by nobody’s rules but their own. They stay dumb and immature and therefore often fail to learn how to take a place in the world of Grown Ups.
I don’t think Bauerlein’s book is the last word. In fact, I think he gets some things just plain wrong. But it’s an interesting place for a discussion to start.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Loved and Lost

(News-Herald, November 5) Is it better to have loved and lost?
It’s cliché to call men commitmentphobic. There’s more to it than the picture of men as hungry buffet diners who won’t settle for just one food. Plenty of men, and women, too, fear commitment for the same reason some folks fear heights, water and pointy objects—something in their gut warns This Way Lies Danger and Hurt.
Hence the proverbial alternative to “loved and lost”—never to have loved at all.
Most of us would opt for choice three—to love and not lose. But that’s probably less likely. Not just because couples and love can fail; sometimes timing, circumstances, geography or courage fail. The only method guaranteed, the only way to be sure that you won’t lose, is not to love at all.
The benefits? Relative safety. Lack of danger.
Is that better than loving and losing? After all, loving and losing hurts. It stings. At its worst, losing leaves you reeling and torn open, betrayed by someone who had the keys to your heart (or your house, or bank account). You are left not only bereft of love, but doubting your own worth, your own senses, your own judgment.
But even the best losing leaves a curious emptiness, a place where someone once filled up a corner of your heart. Even if you are a happy, fulfilled person, a good love brings you happiness beyond what you can find for yourself.
Still, safety is way overrated. To begin with, it’s a lot harder to achieve than it seems in theory. And while “never love at all” could mean hiding in the basement, what it usually means is relationships that are safely half measures, a partner chosen precisely because they will never get close to your heart, or someone who is convenient and familiar. And that usually ends up creating a lot of hurt for which there is no justification.
Yes, losing love hurts. But if someone offers you a supremely delicious chocolate muffin, you’d be a fool to pass it up just because the experience of eating it will only last a few bites.
Love always risks loss, not only because things might not work out in the end (whatever “the end” is, exactly), but also because love, like everything else in life, costs.
It’s not just the time and effort that you put into it yourself. You pay costs in your relationships with other people, your availability, focus, attention. Commit to the person of your dreams, and you lose a little control over your own fate.
Love has an opportunity cost as well. Opportunity cost is an economic concept—spend a dollar on chocolate, and you give up the opportunity to spend it on pickles. Choosing to stay with one person means choosing to go without a whole bunch of other people. It takes a grown-up to make that choice, and some people grow up faster than others.
Once you’ve grown way up, you’ve accumulated much stuff in your life, and holding love can require a major rearrangement of the furniture. When you’re young, you don’t have much furniture, but you have a thousand future possibilities that have to be sacrificed to gain that one real, actual love.
So loving means you will lose something, and while the romantic ideal is that you’ll lose something you’ll never miss because you’ve acquired a priceless gem for the cost of a jar of pickles, it’s human to miss some of those things anyway. That’s why it’s wise to choose with your eyes open, fully aware of the cost, so you don’t second-guess yourself later and mess up the Good Stuff.
Love, at its best, makes you stronger and better, helps you grow, helps you become more yourself, teaches you how to help someone else do all that, too. That’s how you know it’s love, and not something smaller or uglier in faux-love mask.
Loving and losing stinks (just so we’re clear on that). But if you did the love part right, you are still stronger and better after it has passed, certainly more so than if you had never loved at all. And while losing is bad, the stupid stuff you do from fear of losing is far worse.
Love is not for the cowardly or the childish. In the end, death eventually does part us all. So there really is no question of whether we win or lose—only if we’re going to get in the game. Unlike some games, this one rewards the courage to risk losing.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

For Monarch Park Fans

William Passauer has created the definitive Monarch Park website, and I recommend it to all fans of local history.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, Monarch Park was a trolley destination park in Venango County during the first few decades of the 20th century. Today there are few traces left of this thriving amusement park that once served as Venangoland's playground.

This site features images (virtually every photo I've ever seen of the park is here) plus history, maps, and even modern views of the site. This is the best work of scholarship about the fabled park that I've seen to date. You should click on over and take a look.

From my Flickr