Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloweeniness 2010

(News-Herald, October 28) It seems as if Halloween is another holiday that has somehow lost its way.
It’s not that it has a clear and strong tradition. The holiday itself is most likely a left-over from a Celtic holiday that honored the end of the harvest season, a time when the barrier between this world and the spirit world was a little more porous than usual.
Trick or treating seems older. There was the Christmas wassailing of the middle ages which involved going door to door trading song for food. And there was also souling, in which poor people would go door to door on November 1st, offering to pray for the dead.
Jack O’ Lantern comes from an Irish folk tale that appears in many versions. In most a trickster named Jack manages to trap the devil and will only release him if he promises never to take Jack’s soul. When Jack eventually dies, he’s too wicked for heaven, but can’t go to hell, and so must wander eternally looking for a resting place. The devil gives him an undying ember to light his way, which Jack carries in a hollowed-out turnip. Yes, I know—turnips seem to lack a certain something, but they were apparently the Jack O’Lantern vegetable of choice for some time.
Keene, NH, where my mother went to college, for many years held the record for most pumpkins carved and lit. It was also the place with the lowest automobile accident rate in the US. I’m unaware of any connection between those two factors.
Trick or treating seems to have first really caught on in the US in the 1930’s. This sort of tricky extortion seems in tune with the general spirit of the holiday, though many modern practitioners don’t appear to have their hearts in the game. I don’t need to have every costumed child, pre-child or eternal child threaten me, but simply stumping up to my porch and extending a demanding hand seems lazy. Particularly if the applicant for sugary goodness is dressed in the costume of “The Way I Dress Pretty Much Every Afternoon.”
Not that I need to see every kind of costume available. I am not sure when Halloween became a Celebration of Sluttiness, but the Halloween store at the mall has a section of apparel that puts Fredericks of Hollywood to shame. These are costumes that a stripper would be embarrassed to go out in. It’s as if the fairly clear Halloween costume standard of “things that would scare children” has been broadened to “things children should not see.”
That said, I apparently also missed the point at which Halloween graduated from teen mischief night to another excuse for underage partying and drinking. But many of my students have informed me that they expect many classmates to be absent on November 1st after having stayed up all night drinking. Just like last year. When they were all in eighth grade.
Whatever happened to those carefree golden days when young people were content to simply vandalize private property. I assume that the egg-flinging adventures in Franklin Heights are simply the local version of a universal pastime. I don’t know where Oil City teens go to fling eggs at each other, neighborhood homes, and vehicles, but I assume such a place exists.
I’ve never been able to imagine what familial advice accompanies these outings. I can’t believe that any parents are so cluelessly unaware of what Junior is up to when he heads out the door carrying four dozen eggs. So what do they say as parting advice? “Remember, don’t vandalize the homes of people we like”? “Be sure to keep that ski mask on so you can’t be identified”? “Keep an eye out for the Man, and remember, Junior, always Fight the Power”?
But yikes! A quick google search of Halloween egg throwing turns up many scary tales. Turns out that in New York City, about one person per year is killed in Halloween egg throwing related violence. And medical authorities warn that an egg in the face can, and periodically does, result in eye injuries or even blindness. I thought egging qualified as god clean fun.
But evidently egg throwing on Halloween is a bad idea, and both I and the News-Derrick legal department want to be clear that this column in no way advocates such behavior. It’s a danger to cars and homes, not to mention all those poor women in their half-naked slut costumes.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rethinking the Gay Marriage Debate

(News-Herald October 21) The gay marriage argument is only going to get noisier, because it’s the last gasp of the battle that’s often the loudest.
Gay marriage is here. It’s already happening, and at a fairly regular rate. The only real question is whether it will be recognized by governments or not, and that change is just a matter of time. And not much time at that.
So let the final rounds of arguments commence. But I’m tired of the same old arguments; here are the things I don’t want to hear about during the fight.
I don’t want to hear the Biblical arguments. This scriptural cherry picking has been worn out by both sides.
I don’t want to hear the medical argument currently favored by Diane Gramley’s AFA. It’s an argument typical of the group, not fashioned out of genuine concern but designed to adopt a stance that can’t be attacked.
The argument that the homosexual life is inherently more hazardous to one’s health doesn’t work the way they’d like it to. For one thing, you can only label AIDS a homosexual disease if you ignore the disease’s history on, say, the entire African continent. Recent research does indicate that it’s the male brand of biology that best sustains HIV, so it appears that Gramley and the AFA are arguing in favor of what is clearly the safest, healthiest relationship choice—lesbian marriage.
I do understand the “changing the definition of marriage could lead to…” argument. When you start messing with the meaning of words, strange things happen. “Marriage” could come to mean “a union between a man and a cow.” It could also come to mean “a ham sandwich” or “a card game played with lettuce leaves.” These are all bridges we can decide not to cross if we ever come to them.
The argument that I find most odious is the one that claims homosexuality is just a choice.
There are certainly people who provide support for this. Homosexuals are the only oppressed group that you can “join” just by saying so, and there are certainly people who call themselves gay because they’re curious or they want attention or even because it might be a great way to take people to court and extort some money out of them.
It’s unfortunate that these faux-mosexuals make it easier to dismiss the issues that actual gay folks face, because anyone who ever sat with a person really struggling with the realization of their own homosexuality could never imagine that it’s a choice. Sometimes the person is not even the first to figure that she or he is gay. I’ve seen these moments play out a hundred ways, and none of them involved a young person heaving a giant sigh of relief and saying, “Wow, well, turns out I’m gay. Thank goodness.” And certainly not, “I’ve weighed the pros and cons and I’ve decided to choose Gay as my lifetstyle.” It’s hard to see why anyone would choose the challenges of truly being gay in a small town setting.
I can only assume that someone who claims homosexuality is a choice has never met an actual gay person. Opponents of gay marriage are heavily invested in the view of homosexuality as a choice not necessarily because they believe it, but because it’s an important linchpin of their argument. They’re simply wrong.
The Gay Marriage Will Erode Society argument also does not hold up. I’m actually surprised that more conservatives don’t support gay marriage. Society’s interest in marriage is in having citizens agree to make themselves each other’s problem and not the government’s. Stable family groups create a stable society. Stable marriages—gay or not—are in the government’s best interest.
Admittedly, the government’s best interests may not coincide with churches’. That’s why there’s an important lesson for religious conservatives in all this. Those who want to end the separation of church and state imagine that once church and state are handcuffed to each other, the state will go where the church drags it. But there’s a reason that church folks helped build that wall of separation in the first place—sometimes it’s the state that drags the church.
Marriage is one of the few places where church and state are still mostly handcuffed together, and the state has mostly bowed to the church’s definition of marriage. But I believe that’s about to change. Maybe instead of arguing fruitlessly, some folks should be looking for the key to the handcuffs.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Land O'Bullies

(News-Herald, October 14) October is either National Anti-Bullying Month or National Bullying Prevention Month, depending on whom you ask. That means that once again, Americans will focus their attention on a problem for a few weeks, talk a lot, and then move on to whatever shiny new bauble the media dangle in front of us (see also, BP oil spill, school shootings, flag burning, Lindsey Lohan).
Because I teach, people have been asking if bullying is worse these days.
Sure, bullying has always been a problem among school students. Strong bully weak, smart bully dumb, popular bully outcasts, outcasts bully the mainstream. And yes, some students have often been treated horribly while some have whined about one mean name.
But the answer is, of course it’s worse. Bullying is worse throughout our whole entire country’s culture—why wouldn’t it be equally awful in schools?
We can define bullying a variety of ways. Using physical or emotional abuse to dominate or coerce or silence someone. Overpowering people to confirm that they are small and the bully is big. Being mean to someone on purpose.
In our culture, it’s not simply that we fail to disapprove—we applaud bullying. Simon Cowell is only one of the people who have achieved celebrity by bullying. Viewers are sad he’s leaving, because they will miss, not his insights or his wisdom, but the way he could tear some poor contestant apart.
In politics, it’s even worse. Obama took heat from Democrats from day one because they wanted him to push the Republicans around to get revenge for all the years in which Republicans pushed them around.
Our political “information” comes from people who claim to be entertainers. Is their entertainment providing thoughtful analysis, carefully balanced research, or bridges between differing points of view? Naw, forget that stuff—they compete to see who can be the most unrestrained, obnoxious bully. Olberman, Maher, Beck, Limbaugh, Coulter—all vie for attention by trying to heap the roughest insults, the most shocking slanders, the best use of the Big Club of media to beat on the heads of those they disagree with.
At times, we pay lip service to the idea “Bullying is not okay.” But mostly what we really mean is “Bullying is perfectly okay under certain conditions.” Those excuses include:
End justifies means. If we think it’s essential that somebody bow to our will and take a particular action, we can believe that anything that pushes them in the “right direction” is okay.
They were asking for it. What this usually means is, “That person annoys me and I have the strength to smack him up physically or emotionally. So I will.”
He started it. This is why the victim card is so highly prized—if I’m the victim then I’m just standing up for myself, not picking on someone. Hitler didn’t say, “Let’s get the Jews because we can.” He said, “The Jews are victimizing us. Let’s stand up for ourselves.”
I’m Right. Diane Gramley and Joe Wilson are a perfect match. The AFA has made a regular habit of using bullying tactics to get their way. Joe Wilson came to town and used bullying tactics to make his movie. I have no doubt that both will swear up and down that they are not bullies—they are just Really Really Right, and their opponents are Really Really Wrong, and Standing Up For What’s Right is not bullying.
All of these people are wrong. Frederic Douglass observed over a century ago that slavery was not only bad for slaves, but also bad for slave owners. When we treat other people as if they are less human than we are, we ourselves are diminished.
This is a rough and tumble nation and always has been. Ending bullying is about as likely as ending gravity, and while bullying should not be excused, it would be a smart use of time and energy to help young people develop the strength, support, and resilience to deal with it through means less radical—and permanent—than suicide.
In the meantime, if we adults want young people to deal with their differences and disagreements with decency, empathy and reason, we’d better take a look at our own world and ask where, exactly, they can see such behavior modeled. Young people reflect the culture they grow up in. If we adults don’t like what we see when we look at them, we’d be well-advised to remember that we’re looking in a mirror.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Be Nice To Wage Slaves

(News-Herald, October 7) Is it really that hard to be nice?
I don’t mean syrupy sweet gooey niceness. I’m not asking for fawning devotion to kissing backsides. I’m not even asking for dumped-on doormat behavior.
The vast majority of my Applefest interactions were pleasant, even more than pleasant. Perhaps I noticed the outbursts of unpleasantness because they stood out in such stark contrast, or because we ate out more, and eating establishments seem to be one of those places where people feel free to get their rude jerk on.
“Hey, we need some spoons!” barked the woman at the next table at one place, using a tone of voice that suggested that the spoon oversight was a personal insult and that a restaurant that didn’t respond instantly to her smallest need was borderline abusive. “Hey,” her attitude suggested. “If you think I am going to put up with this spoon-deprivation attack on my dignity, you can just forget it.”
My children used that same formula when they were about four. “I need a cookie,” they’d command. The usual reply was, “Well, then, maybe you should ask nicely for one.”
It’s not just restaurants. The world seems loaded with people who treat minimum-wage workers as if they are contemptible over-paid lackeys. I have lost track of the number of times I have wanted to tell someone, “Look, this man/woman is just trying to do his/her job. Give them a break.”
I’m not excusing bad service—lord knows there’s enough to go around—but one of the virtues of small town life is supposed to be a higher standard of kindness than one finds in the Big City. People are paid to do a job, frequently the mere pittance of minimum wage. When you ask them to go way above and beyond, the least you owe them is simple courtesy and kindness, and a basic awareness of when you’re being a pain in the tuchus.
Walking into a store five minutes before it closes? Especially if it’s just to look around with no real intent of buying something? You are being a pain in the tuchus.
Holding up the line while you fish for pennies in the bottom of your purse is being a pain. Asking a server to move eight tables together to accommodate your large party is being a pain. Asking the woman at the clothing store to fetch you forty-seven dresses to try on is being a pain (especially when you don’t intend to buy any).
These pains are no fun to employees, but they’re part of the normal wear and tear of the job, part of the reason that few people decide to make a career out of minimum wage work.
What is not a reasonable part is throwing a big bunch of abuse-sauce on top of the big bowl of tuchus pain. It’s inexcusable rudeness.
Calling the employee names because she doesn’t bring you the dresses you don’t intend to buy quickly enough is rude. Griping and complaining because the server doesn’t just clear the restaurant and seat your forty-seven guests RIGHT NOW is rude. Abusing any employee because she won’t change company policy for your personal benefit is rude.
And yes, there is a special corner of hell for people who demand extra service at a restaurant and leave a lousy tip. I don’t care if you’re on a fixed income or if that would have been a great tip during the Truman administration—if you can’t afford to leave a decent tip, you can’t afford to eat out, and you should stay home.
We make a lot of noise in this country about the value of good, hard labor and the importance of willingness to do an honest day’s work. We complain about welfare, and insist that Those People ought to go get a job, no matter how minimum wagey. And then we turn around and treat minimum wage workers like low life lackeys.
In an area like ours, where so much of our economy is carried on the backs of minimum wage workers, and so many of them are the young people that we also claim to value, that’s just really wrong. If you think a job is worth doing, how hard can it be to be nice to the person who does it?
Just treat people, including working people, with the same kindness, decency and consideration that you would like to receive. It’s not that hard, and I’m pretty sure that the principle has been brought up before.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Applefest on Foot

(News-Herald, September 30) New York City is, at all times, the city that never sleeps. Franklin is, at Applefest time, the city that never sits down (except to eat). I can’t think of any other holiday, however large or small, so totally devoted to tramping about on foot.
It is true that only feet really work. Every Applefest, you’ll find a handful of hardy humans trying to maneuver something wheeled, like a stroller or a shopping cart. Memo to those folks: you may be managing to get around, but you are not making any new friends.
It might be fun to try tooling through town on a segway, but I’m pretty sure that would end badly, and I’m doubly certain that there would be no place to park it when you wanted to get off and shop for classy cultural artifacts.
After years of trying to come into Franklin tourist style, I’ve very much enjoyed my decade of taking the shoeleather express uptown.
Mapquest tells me that it is almost exactly one mile from my front porch to the corner of 13th and Liberty. That’s an easily managed distance—I would gladly walk a mile for some Leonardo’s bread, some funnel cake, or a chance to look at some cool cars.
What’s perhaps odd is that I would not generally walk a mile to look at oddly painted scenes on roof slates, hand-dyed t-shirts, or hand carvings with an excess of character. But that is the magic of Applefest—set any one of the many tchotchke booths up on a corner and few people would bother to cross the street to see, but when you put a few hundred together and add a sense of occasion, it’s a special event that people will travel mile after mile to see.
Some folks scoff at the notion of Venangoland as a tourist destination, but Applefest demonstrates everything you need to know about how it works. Beautiful setting plus hundreds of attractions plus a tireless body of promoters and supporters equals a destination that people hate to miss.
Is it the same thing year after year? I don’t really think so. There’s something comfy about the many repeat attractions, both of the vending and performing variety, but at the same time much of each year’s special flavor comes out of the unique and unpredictable blend of people that you meet. Applefest really is homecoming in Franklin, and the surprises and treats that come with the meeting of returnees, visitors and residents is what makes Applefest so much fun.
If that’s not enough variety for you, you can always change up your personal approach to mass of artforms and lifeforms in the heart of Franklin. Over the years I’ve mostly gone stag to the Fall Apple Classic. On the occasions that I traveled with my kids, we’d usually separate with agreement to meet again sometime within the next forty-eight hours (my family represents the full range of Applefestering enjoyment—my daughter could stay there all day and my son could stay there all of ten minutes).
But this year I plan to spend some of my Applefenestration time with a date, and I’m wondering exactly how one makes date time out of the Apple-y onslaught.
Walking through the main boothal area while holding hands is at best mean and at worst asking for trouble. I suppose some of it could be handled like a sort of window-shopping date, and there are obvious date activities available (we plan, of course, to see Peter Pan at the Barrow). But a romantic stroll by the kettle corn? Dancing to the strains of the FHS marching band? Buying special mementos which we then carry around until the plastic bagstraps are chewing their way through our tired fingers?
Is there couples marketing being done for marketing? If there is, I’ve missed it. If there isn’t, someone needs to get on it because we’re missing a market niche, and I’m pretty sure that with a little effort we could squeeze forty or fifty more bodies into downtown Franklin. In the meantime, I have some planning to do, starting out with limbering up my walking shoes.
For those of you who dread this time every year—lighten up. It’s a big party, full of music and toys and all kinds of great people, and it’s all right here in our back (and front and side) yard. Things will be back to beautiful fall normal soon enough; right now, relax and enjoy!

From my Flickr