Friday, September 24, 2010

San Francisco Bay Area

(News-Herald, Sept 22) Last weekend I cashed in a couple of personal days and grabbed some cheap tickets to Northern California.
The purpose of the trip was to finally visit my daughter and her longtime boyfriend. I’ve made a few trips out to see my son in the wild and wooly environs of LA, but this was my first visit to the more sedate San Francisco Bay Area.
My son’s Hollywood neighborhood is more familiar through pop culture; his school is next to the Capitol Records building, so every time that landmark is trashed in a disaster movie, my son’s school is also collapsing in ruins. Other parents may have their fearful imaginings about what’s happening at their child’s school, but my nightmares have been produced in Technicolor and THX dolby stereo.
But most of my prior knowledge of San Francisco comes from Rice-a-Roni commercials and an old Ray Harryhausen movie in which a giant octopus with six legs (it was a low budget movie) tears down the Golden Gate Bridge and rips up a pier. You’ll be relieved to learn that the damage has been repaired.
There are lots of great things to see in the Bay area, from big trees to a beautiful waterfront. Walking through redwood forests was a big hit with my travel partner. And while there wasn’t much time to hunt folks down, the representation of FHS grads in the Bay Area is a credit to Venangoland. In addition to Nate Byham out there seeing field time for the 49ers, the region also boasts alumni Mark (Special Projects Editor for Wired Magazine), Jason (Associate Dean at SF Conservatory), Nick (Project Manager at Microsoft) and Barbara (PhD candidate at Stanford). And those are just the ones I know about.
Stanford itself is as big and fancy as you’d imagine. Leland Stanford had risen from shopkeeper to railroad magnate (and as such was one of the buyers who made Miller and Sibley’s fortune). When his teenaged son died of typhoid, Stanford and his wife decided it would be easier to create their own university that try to get stodgy old Harvard to accept their money.
The very first student at Stanford was Herbert Hoover. Today a tower sits in the center of campus housing the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank (Condoleeza Rice works there) looking to solve all the problems of the world. If you were familiar with my daughter’s politics, you would appreciate the irony of her department being housed just a few feet away from the instituion.
San Francisco seems greener and cooler than LA. The famous fog really does hang in the sky much of the time, creating a constant sense of impending rain. If you climb up onto one of the surrounding mountains, the entire bay presents one of those massive sprawling vistas that no camera can do justice. We are so used to seeing our world through the filter of pictures in albums, on tv, in movies—it’s good to come face to face with some of the beauty that can only be experienced live and in person. There is music that will never be as impressive on a recording and some sights that the world’s best camera in the hands of the greatest photographer cannot fully capture. Metro LA sprawled out across the valley is one; San Francisco Bay is another.
The bay area of course is loaded with high tech companies. Some are kind of cute—the Googleplex looks, from the outside, as if it might be the world’s largest day care center. Many Google employees make use of the company’s fleet of free bicycles. Seeing a dedicated Google nerd tooling around on one of these colorfully decked out sets of wheels, one cannot help but conclude that somewhere, a clown is sadly walking home.
We spent part of a day traveling to Monterey. Monterey was once the home of a robust canning and fishing industry. John Steinbeck grew up nearby and featured Monterey and its industry in several novels. Cannery Row, the title street of one Steinbeck novel, was once the home of that industry, but by the early 1970’s the fishing way of life had completely collapsed. Monterey became a haven for a variety of artists and musicians, and now Cannery Row’s buildings house shops, restaurants, and one fairly awesome aquarium.
In other words, Monterey lost all its traditional industry, and, with no real assets except some nice waterfront property, reinvented itself as a thriving center of tourism and the arts. Imagine that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Puppy Time

(News-Herald, Sept 16) After my old dog Midnight reached the end of his long canine life, I though I was done with dogs. Turns out you’re not always done with all the things you think you’re done with.
The new dog in my life is Mr. Big (his Significant Human is a fan of Sex in the City), who is not just a dog, but a six month old chocolate lab puppy.
All of my previous dogs were full grown when I met them; my previous exposure to puppies has been primarily through cute commercials that focused mainly on the more adorable puppy activities such as Scampering and Being Floppy.
Big can scamper with the best of them, but he’s a larger fan of the mad galumphing chase after Something Over There. He is a might scourge of wind-blown leaves, and the night he found himself in the back yard just as the dusk-hour fireflies came out, I believe he might have pounced and chomped his way into a state close to nirvana.
He is also a master of Slobbering. If you can judge a puppy’s eventual size by the larger extremities that he will have to grow into—well, Big’s tongue suggests that this dog will eventually be large enough to scare great danes and small livestock. On a warm day, his tongue unfurls like a roll of carpet waiting to be installed in the grand ballroom at The Commons and sheds enough fluid to fill up every municipal pool Oil City has ever had.
Big finds the bike trail and river and any large area of grass and any place that has sticks all VERY EXCITING (because if Big could type, he would use all caps, all the time)!! Having him around is almost like the company of a small human child, except that with a child you assume that if you explain things more loudly and slowly the child will soon comprehend—no, actually, it’s exactly like the company of a small child.
I don’t know why we believe that a dog can understand English, or even loud English, but I know that we resort to explaining things more often than makes sense. I’m sure that what he hears is, “Blah blah blah blah BIG blah” and what he thinks is “OhohohOOOH—You are paying attention to MEEEEE!!!!!” We can try to explain that chewing couch cushions is not approved, but I think a spirited explanation of quantum physics would be just as useful.
Doesn’t matter. I provide him with running commentary about washing the dishes, cooking a meal, sitting in a chair. He does not appear to be any smarter and he has not offered to either do the dishes or cook a meal (though he’s totally ready to take over on the whole chair sitting thing). But I think part of the appeal of having a dog around is the conversation.
I am told that he is the doggie equivalent of adolescence, and he does occasionally exhibit a rebellious streak, but his heart hardly seems in it. Outside he’s become a bit slack in the bringing-it-back part of fetch, but inside he will still insist on shoving his toy into your hand until you drag it from between his pointy teeth and give it a toss.
He is definitely what the canine toy manufacturers call an “aggressive chewer.” There is nothing made for dogs to play with that Big cannot reduce to its component atoms. Having a wasted more than a few dollars on pleasant and attractive doggie toys that quickly became small wisps of fluff and stuffing, most of Big’s extended family has resorted to empty plastic pop bottles. 1 liter bottles are best, with the cap still on. Big can just about get his mouth around it before it squirts free like short-range bottle rocket, providing Big with unequaled joy, because the only thing more fun than chomping on something is chasing it first.
Cats do not disturb the territory they occupy, and that’s fine. But a dog is like a small random event generator, creating a comfortable level of chaos that keeps things interesting. I am told that Big will eventually settle a bit, and that’s fine, too. Venangoland is nice territory for a dog, all warm homes surrounded by wide swatches of open nature, packed with reminders that even in a quiet settled place like ours, there are sweet surprises that unfold before us, sometimes like wild bottle rockets and sometimes like warm companion settled comfortably around our feet.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

From Utica to Princeton

(News-Herald, September 8) This week, another column for people who are certain that nothing good comes out of the smaller corners of Venangoland.
Samuel Dodds was a professor of Physics, Chemistry and Bible at Grove City College. An ordained minister (Presbyterian, naturally), he lived with his wife Alice Dunn in Utica.
Their son Harold Willis Dodds was born in Utica in 1889. No slouch, Harold graduated from Grove City College in 1909. He taught high school for a couple of years, then added graduate degrees in politics from Princeton and Pennsylvania. He married in 1917 and went to work for the Food Administration. After the war he taught at Western Reserve and became known as an expert in problems of small government.
He became secretary of the National Municipal League, which may not seem like much of a coup, but that put him in the orbit of then-Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes steered the Utica boy toward Latin America, where among other things, Dodds helped the president of Nicaragua create new democratic election laws.
By the thirties, Dodds was a respected scholar on the faculty of Princeton. He was apparently well-respected, because in 1933 the trustees elected him president of the university.
As president, Dodds was the picture of the proper university leader; pictures show a bespectacled man with a serious expression and a twinkle in his eye. An article in the 1957 Princeton yearbook refers to his tendency to rib his faculty members, in return for which, they had gifted him with the nickname Uncle Harold. “Dr. Dodds” seemed too formal, and “Harold” not formal enough.
He pushed his faculty hard to produce significant research that would establish Princeton as a university that contributed to the body of knowledge in the world, but at the same time he also required his professors to actually teach, and teach well.
He worked a seventy hour week and tripled Princeton’s endowment (the yearbook credited his inner strength to his “Presbyterian commitments”). He decided every year to hold Princeton’s graduation ceremony outside, and it never rained.
Under Dodds’ leadership, Princeton added a Music Department , the Office of Population Research, the Creative Arts Program, and Departments of Religion, Aeronautical Engineering, and Near Eastern Studies. All this despite the fact that, after taking the president’s job, he memoed the alumni “I hope the alumni will pardon me if at this time I offer no stirring platform.”
He steered Princeton through the Depression, World War II, and the cultural upheavals that followed the war. In 1948, the Princeton debating society invited Alger Hiss to speak, and many protested. Dodds, who did not approve of Hiss, refused to interfere, saying, “Education includes the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.” In 1953, Time magazine profiled him, calling him “the Quiet One.” He kept a low profile, but Princetonians also enjoyed sharing the story of President Dodds helping an undergrad lug a large mattress from one building to another.
He believed strongly in the sciences and humanities, but he also admonished faculty and students “to look to religion for the truths that will not perish.” He Time, “Hitler, F.D.R., Conant [president of Harvard] and I all came into power at the same time, but I’m the only one still doing what I was.”
One of Princeton’s own histories credits the years of Dodd’s presidency as “the years in which Princeton became a real university.”
Dodds retired in 1957; Princeton’s policy required mandatory retirement at age 68. He went on to serve as director or trustee for the Carnegie Corporation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Brookings Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower also appointed him to government committees. Princeton established an award in his name, still awarded annually to a senior who best embodies the values he represented, "particularly in the qualities of clear thinking, moral courage, a patient and judicious regard for the opinions of others, and a thorough devotion to the welfare of the University and to the life of the mind."
He settled in his home in Highstown, New Jersey. He passed away at home in October of 1980 at the age of 91. His younger brother John Wendell Dodds died nine years later, having enjoyed a career as a professor at Stanford.
So apparently it is possible to be born and raised in Utica and grow up to have a lasting effect on one of the world’s pre-eminent universities.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Other Educational Benefits

(News-Herald, Sept. 2) Now that school has started, it’s time for the eternal question—why do we bother, anyway?
I’m a big believer in public education. I don’t believe in public schools because I teach there—I teach there because I believe. But lets face it—the standard arguments in favor of school have been worn threadbare. Blah blah blah informed citizens blah blah blah responsible member of society blah blah get a good job blah.
Those are all fine reasons, but for many people they are background noise. Like the Pledge of Allegiance, they are often repeated but rarely listened to. In many cases, they aren’t even believed. Contract talks in Rocky Grove bring out one predictable argument, summarized roughly as “Who needs stoopid school and edumacation anyways? Teachers ought to be happy to get paid as much as burger-flippers.” There may be legitimate arguments against the teachers’ position, but “Teachers and the work they do are no more valuable than packing groceries” isn’t one of them.
But I will leave it to others to make the standard arguments in favor of public education. Let me offer some other benefits of time spent in school.
Build Brain Muscles. “When,” asks the eternal student, “will I ever need to find a verb, solve an algebra equation, or recite the year the Spanish Armada sank?” The real answer is “probably never,” but that doesn’t matter.
Look at it this way. Basketball players spend the off season lifting weights, and yet no basketball game ever once involved a head-to-head leg press contest. Why do players lift when their weightlifting skills will never once be displayed in a game? Because the muscles that they build will make them better at what they do on the court.
You’re certain you’ll never use algebra in your career? I don’t care—working algebra builds mental strength and discipline that can’t help but be useful in life. Ditto for every other discipline. That’s why music and art have been repeatedly proven to make people smarter—even people who don’t grow up to be artists or musicians use the mental muscles that these disciplines build.
Meet Difficult People. There are people who really really want school to be a perfectly fair place, where nobody is ever mean, unfair, unpleasant or unkind. That’s an admirable goal, and many many teachers pursue that goal for their classroom, and they should. But I still have to ask parents who demand this perfectly fair environment—exactly what planet are you preparing your children to live on?
Some people are always difficult. Some people are difficult in certain combinations. Some people are mean and others are ignorant. Some lie, some cheat, some steal, and some use the advantages or power that they have to make life harder for others.
Understand, I don’t defend any of that behavior. Nobody can. Treating people badly on purpose, abusing power—these are always indefensible and wrong. And they are no more common in schools than they are in the rest of the world.
I hate stupid government-mandated standardized tests. But are stupid pieces of government regulations and paperwork part of life in America—of course they are.
Everything, no matter how wonderful, comes with hard parts. Beautiful joy-of-life babies cry at 3 AM. The job you’ve always dreamed of will include parts that are very unfun, or even jerks for co-workers or bosses. Good people occasionally have their hearts broken. Nice people sometimes get cancer. Life, you may have heard, is sometimes unfair.
Everybody deals somehow. Standing up, fighting back, sneaking past, calling the cavalry—there’s a whole list of coping mechanisms for handling life’s unfair difficulties. “Insisting they just not happen” isn’t on the list.
School is a chance to practice coping in a place where the cavalry is always nearby, in case it’s just too much. Learning to deal with that jerk today will help you prepare for the day ten years from now when he’s your neighbor, boss or in-law.
More Jokes. The more education you have, the more jokes you get. The best contemporary example would be The Big Bang Theory. Hilarious show, but if you have some actual education, particularly in physics or engineering, you get several more jokes per episode than the average viewer.
It’s true that for basic slapstick, no knowledge is required. But for all other human, you have to know something to get the joke. The more you know, the more jokes you get. More education = more laughs in your life.

From my Flickr