Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years Customs

(News-Herald, December 30) Time for the finale of the holiday trifecta. We’ve had our day of enforced family togetherness and our day of enforced love and warmth for fellow humans, so now it’s time for the holiday of enforced merriment and partying good times.
Of course, just as Thanksgiving and Christmas are based on more substance than current custom might suggest, so does New Year’s have a history of being more than a mandate to drink deep from the pool of bad behavior.
Observing the start of a new year is almost as old as human history, though the ancients often had some arguments about when that first day fell. The current kickoff champ was only one of many contenders in the ancient world until Julius Caesar in 46 BC supposedly established the Julian calendar cementing January 1 as its starting date. (January was named for Janus, the god of doorways, entrances and beginnings. He was usually depicted with two faces, one looking forward and one backward.)
There have been a wide variety of New Year customs, some of which are still practiced and some of which have morphed into newer forms. The Scots give us two fine traditions. One is “Auld Lang Syne,” which was not actually written by the poet Robert Burns, but transcribed by him from its rendition by an old Scotsman. There are at least five verses, all of them fairly incomprehensible unless you have a hardy Scots-English dictionary, but all of which lament that time and distance now separate folks who were once close friends.
The Scots have also preserved First Footing, the notion that the first person to cross your threshold after midnight signals your luck (or lack thereof) for the coming year. There seem to be some differences of opinion about the details, but authorities agree that a tall, dark-haired man is the best sign for a fortunate new year. First foots should bring a practical gift such as coal or bread for the household. They may be actual members of the household, though they should still knock and be invited in.
John Wesley (founder of Methodism) liked the Moravian tradition of Watch Night and so appropriated it. These services start late at night and continue into the new year, giving thanks for the previous year and asking for more divine assistance in the year ahead.
Other traditions include letting nothing go out of the house on New Years Day—no deliveries, no presents carried out, not so much as taking out the garbage. This strikes me as a particularly tough regimen for folks with housepets; I guarantee you that the Labrador puppy that lives in my house will be taking something outside on January 1.
On the other hand, I can easily comply with the tradition that says no laundry must be done on New Years Day (apparently wash means that someone will die in the upcoming year).
Many traditions build on the notion that anything happening on January 1 will set a tone for the whole year. So crying, paying money to others, and breaking things are all to be avoided, lest you have a weepy year of broken poverty. On the other hand, some customs suggest that you succeed at a job related activity to guarantee a year of similar success. And obviously kissing someone pleasant and appealing makes a good trend-starter.
For the last century in Spain, folks eat twelve grapes at midnight, one on each chime, for each of the coming months. In many cultures hog is considered a sign of prosperity (as in “high on the”), so eating any forms of it is recommended. Black-eyed peas and cabbage should provide sufficient good luck for vegetarians. For people who want to be sure, I suspect that somewhere in Venangoland, pork and sauerkraut will be available, as well as grapes in one form or another.
Fireworks and noisemakers were intended to drive away evil spirits for the new year. Many cities have added modern touches, most famously in New York City, where thousands of tourists gather to watch the ball drop. I am told that this event is carefully avoided by all authentic New Yorkers, except for authentic New York pickpockets. And many American cities have embraced the notion of First Night as a means of creating memories one can share with his children instead of stories that need to be hidden from them.
Pick the custom you like. On a day for saluting the past and embracing the future, a buffet of traditions seems perfect. Just don’t mess with the Rose Parade.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Viewing

(News-Herald, December 23) Christmas is almost here, which means that homes throughout Venangoland are filled with the sound of joy and cookies and tradition and impending nervous breakdowns. At some point it may be time to sit in front of the tube and do your yuletide viewing. What to watch? I’m glad you asked.
You’ll have to watch somebody’s version of Dicken’s Christmas Carol. While there are many fine knock-offs and interpretations, most miss the point of this holiday horror story. The George C. Scott version does pretty well, but believe it or not, one of the most faithful versions is the Muppet Christmas Carol. And an earlier production starring Mr Magoo has become available again; it has some great songs in it. The book itself is short enough to be read in one sitting, and worth your while.
The indispensable How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Charlie Brown Christmas are both reminders of why you need to watch your own copy of these classics—both are so brutally trimmed when broadcast that they are barely recognizable.
Both manage to avoid the worst trap of Christmas programming, which is to create something so sickly sweetly treacly that A) nobody believes a word of it and B) anybody who does slips into diabetic shock.
These two classics also have the virtue of being undeniably about Christmas (what production these days would actually quote scripture a la Charlie Brown?). So much so-called Christmas entertainment is simply regular old entertainment with a fuzzy red hat plunked on its head. “Well, this whole bunch of stuff happened, and then this other guy did some stuff,” says the story-teller. “Oh, and by the way, it happened AT CHRISTMAS!”
Yes, beloved Frosty the Snowman, I’m looking at you. Yes, several hundred schmaltzy Lifetime-ish weepers with “Christmas” jammed into your titles, you, too. And how did It’s a Wonderful Life ever become classified as a Christmas-only treat?
The anchor of the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas empire, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, barely makes the cut. It’s really a kid’s adventure story that trots Christmas out for the grand finale, but, hey, there are elves. And immortal lines like “Let’s be independent together” and “That’s a mighty humble ‘bumble” are so awesomely and repeatedly linked with Christmastime that they provoke a Pavlovian drooling for candy canes.
Besides, there are works solidly grounded in Christmas turf that can be safely skipped. The Year Without a Santa is an open invitation to laugh at Mr. Kringle and his clan, and not in a jolly way. Real Christmas content is no guarantee of entertainment quality.
Many works tack Christmas trim onto ordinary material, but some modern classics make solid Christmas elements the foundation of stories that hold up year round. If you have avoided Elf because you usually find Will Ferrell obnoxious and annoying, now is a good time to rent or buy this flick which dares to pit sweet Christmas spirit against a recognizably mundane and harsh world (Miracle on 34th Street without the cheesiness). Likewise, you may have skipped Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas because it appears to be creepy animation. It is, but the sweetest, gentlest, hummably tuneful creepy animation you’ll ever see. Both are great reminders of Christmas at any time of year.
Any look at Christmas viewing must consider the age-old question—White Christmas or Holiday Inn? Fred Astaire makes a better partner for Bing Crosby than Danny Kaye—I love Kaye, but his hyperactive terrier clashes with Crosby’s laid-back hound dog. White Christmas, however, provides a more potent emotional punch at the finish. Inn has some culturally insensitive moments (blackface!!??) and Christmas can feel like it’s about twelve hours long. Both only use Christmas as a peg on which to hang Crosby’s classic rendition. Watch Holiday Inn, then switch to White Christmas for the last twenty minutes.
There are other lesser-known Christmas viewing treats. In particular, Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, a Muppet special the Jim Henson created for HBO before he started making movies, is touching in a quiet muppety way. We haven’t even scratched the surface of variety programming (find Pee-Wee’s Christmas Special). And in the interests of full fake journalist disclosure, I must admit that I have never actually watched A Christmas Story all the way through.
There are plenty of riches available for a home video Christmas. Pass the razzleberry jelly, and if you end up watching Ernest Saves Christmas or Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rand at Christmastime

(News-Herald, December 16) Ayn Rand has been experiencing a sort of revival in popularity which, given the current currents in politics and culture, is not surprising. In all the twentieth century, there may be no other writer who so clearly distilled the demand that the whiners shut up, the sob stories dry up, and the strong individuals stand up.
Some of her observations can seem pretty pointed these days. For instance, her view of charity was that a society that values charity will end up rewarding people for being the most compelling and sad failures, rather than rewarding folks for success. Anyone who ever railed against the welfare state knows exactly what she was talking about.
There is appeal in Rand’s view of the world. Her philosophy of Objectivism was based in the belief that there is one absolute truth, one set and unchanging world, and that reason was the only way to perceive it.
In her breadbox-sized masterwork Atlas Shrugged she wrote, “There are two sides to every issue. One side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil." When an interviewer for Playboy asked her, “Isn't this a rather black-and-white set of values?” she replied, “It most certainly is.”
In Rand’s world there is only good and evil, and no excuse for choosing anything but the good.
For Rand, the worst evils were committed in the name of collectivism, the notion that the needs of the many can ever outweigh the needs of the few. Government was at its worst when demanding sacrifice, forcibly taking money and resources away from those who had rightfully earned them. For Rand, there was no greater good than the individual’s pursuit of his own self-interest. Rand didn’t consider selfishness okay—she considered it the only way to live a rational and moral life.
Her world, as laid out in Atlas Shrugged, is one in which great and brilliant men build and create, while the small, weak, puny scavengers that make up the rest of the population live off the sweat of the great few.
It is hard not to see some of Rand’s philosophy as a reflection of her experience. She lived through the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, and that’s enough to make anyone leery of governments that ask for a few pints of blood so as to help the greater good.
She liked capitalism and reason, and she was adept at creating quotes in their honor. “Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” And “The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.”
Libertarians might like “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” But Rand didn’t like Libertarians. And while some people of faith might find Rand’s absolutes appealing, Rand was an unwavering atheist who saw religion as one more attempt to rob individuals of their free will.
By the 1960’s she was noted for a variety of controversial positions. She supported abortion rights, opposed the draft (but also opposed draft dodgers), backed Barry Goldwater for President, said that European conquest of Native Americans was just. In 1964, she wrote the essay “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
One oft-repeated quote is “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” It sounds appealing, but not even Rand could manage to live by it in her own messy personal life. Later in her life, Rand took Nathaniel Branden as a lover, with the consent of her own husband and his wife. She set him up in business as the keeper of an early think tank devoted to her own philosophy (by this time she considered herself on par with Aristotle). Dissent and disagreement with Rand were frowned on, and when her lover moved on to yet another extramarital entanglement, Rand closed the institute and denounced Branden; he apologized for perpetuating a cult.
None of this has entirely healed. Branden’s wife still has a website presenting her side of the story for all the internet to see. The Ayn Rand Institute’s biography simply omits the Brandens and their work.
Why bring up Rand now, in a season that celebrates everything that she considered evil and wrong? Perhaps for a change of pace. Or perhaps to ask the people who do celebrate this season and yet revere her ideas… why?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Threat of Technology

(News-Herald, December 9) Recent removal of an old foundation at a noted European archeological site turned up an important work, which I’m going to reproduce in its entirety here:
My dear sir;
I have been told that you intend to drag our school forward, willy nilly, into the use of new technology, a technology that is unproven, undependable, and prone to enormous abuse. I fear that this new technology will seriously disrupt the work of both teachers and students, and I think we need to think long and hard about implementing this.
I am speaking, of course, about your intent to introduce the use of paper and pencils into our classrooms.
Let’s consider the impact of this new technology.
Paper is fragile, undependable and untrustworthy. It is easily torn and crumpled, and the simplest bit of mis-applied pressure pokes holes in it. If pencils are kept too sharp, they will jab right through the paper. But if the pencils become too dull, they will barely make a mark. The technology is therefore completely unreliable.
This means that students will have to be taught to maintain and protect the technology. They will have to be trained how to keep the paper flat and clean, and will have to learn special techniques for transporting it between classroom, home, and school. I foresee our students having to find and purchase special protective devices for their paper.
And what of the pencils? What if my students arrive with a pencil that is too dull, or they have simply forgotten one? When the technology malfunctions in these ways, will my classroom be forced to grind to a halt??
Adopting this new technology will play hob with our academic setting. I know that you foresee a system in which students are made familiar with paper and pencil from a young age so that the use of this technology is so familiar that students use paper and pencil without ever thinking of all the hundreds of ways that they must care for and maintain the technology. I believe you grossly over-estimate them. I envision a classroom in which learning grinds to a halt as students clumsily snap pencils in half as they mistakenly try to write upside down papers that, accidently moistened by tears of frustration, collapse into sodden clumps.
Furthermore, you realize that these students can use pencils to write anything on the paper. Anything at all!! They could write naughty words. The more talented ones can even draw naughty pictures. By passing papers back and forth, they can communicate with each other at will. At the very moment I need their attention focused on an important matter of verb conjugation, they could be passing notes back and forth about what Fiona said during the barn raising yesterday.
Since paper is malleable, they can easily hide these notes behind legitimate work, and unless I walk around and pay attention to what they’re up to, I have no way of knowing whether these students are on task or not.
Can you not at least provide specific instructions on why, when, where and exactly how this technology is to be used? Your insistence that we can just experiment, try things out, and use common sense to find the ways that paper and pencil can be helpful is too vague. What if a student tries to fold the paper into a hat? What if he tries to write on the edge instead of the flat side? The technology offers too many possibilities, and frankly, that scares me. Can’t we take some of them away. Would it not be better, for instance, to make one side of the paper black so that it cannot be written on?
Yes, I know that most of the adult working world uses paper, and yes, I know that students use paper and pencil as part of their daily lives. I see no reason that my classroom should not linger in the past. Let them deal with this unfamiliar and difficult technology on their own time. Our job as teachers is not to prepare them for the future, but to make them comfortable in the past.
This technology is scary, hard to master, and requires new skills that will never, ever become second nature. We will never ever learn to handle the problems that the technology raises. Our old technology is more than equal to the task, as this letter attests—I have carved it into these stones in less than a week, and that is fast enough for any man.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Venangoland in Nebraska

(News-Herald, December 2) You may recall that I have an interest in the name “Venango.” It’s short, distinctive and should be a great tool in branding and marketing the region. There are dozens of places named “Oil City” and a gazillion Franklin’s, but only four places on the planet that use the name “Venango.”
The village in Crawford County is nicely close to home, but the other two Venango’s are in Kansas and Nebraska. How did our place name, which is a mistranscription of a Native American term and therefore not really a real word—how did it end up out West?
The Kansan “Venango” is barely a place—a dozen houses next to the Venango Public Use Area set by the Kanopolis State Park and Kanopolis Lake. There’s a beach, a place that looks like an RV camp, and several roads with “Venango” in the name (as well as a Horsethief Road and Avenue Q).
It’s the Nebraskan Venango that really interests me.
It’s a small place almost on the western border of the state, with a population generally under 200 people. But if you have any doubts about its connection to Venangoland, consider the street names: Pennsylvania, Mercer, Dauphin, Allegheny, Washington, Fayette, Chester, Crawford, and Lincoln. There’s also a Ziemer Street—some digging suggests that it’s named for a family of long-time residents.
One source says that Venango was settled first in the 1860’s, spurred by the Homestead Act , but “the buckle of the wheat belt” didn’t seem to really take hold until the 1880’s, when the railroad came through. But the railroad cuts across one corner of the city’s grid at an angle, seeming to suggest that the town was there before the railroad. Across the tracks from the town are the grain elevators that dominate the landscape.
In its history the town had banks, several newspapers, schools, and a town band. Its World War I veterans formed an American Legion Post, and by the 1930 it had reached a peak population of 287.
The Depression and the Dust Bowl both took a huge toll on Venango, but over the following decades it reconfigured itself again. The school added a gym in the 50’s and a new music room in the 60’s. It celebrated its centennial in 1987 with parades and celebrations.
In 2009, it achieved a true 21st Century landmark—it was Google-Earthed. That means that visitors can now take a virtual walk through the streets of Venango.
There’s not much in Venango to suggest its history. The homes are mostly simple one-story constructions—certainly nothing to suggest a city over a century old. Google earth even captures the cars parked in driveways or on the streets (some of which are wide and paved and some of which are dirt tracks), and they are mostly pick-up trucks. Where Google indicates a car dealership, the photos show a vacant lot. There are some new buildings—most notably a church and an elementary school—but the real estate on what was once the main drag looks like a shell of the central street of earlier decades. The median household income is $24,444.
Most striking to an Easterner’s eye may be the edge of town. When you get to the edge of the grid, the streets curl back around into the town, but you are looking into a great big wide bunch of flatness. There’s no other structure or town within eyesight. Venango, Nebraska could be on the moon.
Still, the records suggest that families have stayed there for generations. The 2000 census lists 175 people, 68 households, 51 families. There is even a facebook group for present and former residents of Venango. The place looks hard, but not beaten.
So far, not much hint of how our name ended up out there. There’s a Levi Hafer who might have ties back here. There are plenty of people who left the right part of PA to head west, but landed in the wrong part of NE. Early settler names include Steinke, Watkins, Busch, Hopkins, Morton, Grothman, Strack, Wostenberg, and Fulscher.
Where is that guy who transplanted Western PA to the wide open wheat fields of the west? I’ve made a contact with a historian in Nebraska, and my brother has been poking around quite a bit, but frankly I’m hoping someone who reads this will know the story of what Venangoland ties connect us to this distant cousin of a community. Barring that, perhaps my bosses at the News-Derrick will decide to send me on a fact-finding tour.

From my Flickr