Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Local and Regional History

Like it or not, we are all historical characters. This may be easiest to comprehend for those of us caught up in a war or some other giant catastrophe. But it is always true--whatever history is. (If it is something that takes place in time, for instance, then just what is time?)
Like the writing of poetry, and of books in general, the preservation of history is a magical concept for many people. People who would not dream of reading poetry, or novels, or history, dream of writing great poems, or novels, or histories.)
I think, though, that the pull of history is deeper and more real than the others. And that the people who understand that they live in history and who respect it, have a deeper and richer and more entertaining life than most other people. I remember, when I was in the seventh and eighth grades, I went to school in a former chapel in my township; and when I had a chance I'd sit in the library at the back of the room and read the books local people had donated to us. One of these--and I enjoyed this most--was Fred Brenckmann's old history of my native Carbon County.
Brenckmann certainly was not one of the great historians; but he was very interesting nevertheless. He told me stories that had happened, not in ancient Rome or Egypt--although I found those places interesting too--but in New Mahoning, a mile away; or in Summit Hill, two ridges to the north. It was chiefly his influence, I think, that made me in turn an historian of Carbon County. (My book is called "Smokestacks and Black Diamonds: a History of Carbon County, Pennsylvania." If you'd like to know more about it, contact me.)
Meanwhile, look around you. Books on your town, parish or county are everywhere. Read a few of them. You might become positively addicted to your heritage.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Going on Break

Now that Pennsylvania appears to be in the most serious complex of crises, I am putting this blog on hiatus. It seems to me there must be something more effective I can do to help the state, and I am giving the matter considerable thought. I hope to be able to resume Welcome to Penn's Woods at a time when Penn's Woods is more welcoming.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Binoculars: Things You Should Own I

This holiday season there is a constant undercurrent of advice against acquiring too many things. I am in favor of keeping the materialism to a minimum. There are all sorts of things we can buy that will have the effect of further polluting the world, further impoverishing the poor, or driving us, personally, into bankruptcy. And sometimes all three of these.
It is not a good idea to buy things in this category. Besides, they tend to take batteries, or gasoline, or some other kind of outside energy source that you have to pay for, to keep running. Yet another drain on the environment--and your pocketbook.
There are a few things, though, that I believe everyone should own because they can contribute in important ways to one's education, amusement, and happiness. Of these, probably the highest end item is good binoculars. (Hmmm..."Binocular" or "binoculars"? Hard to say. Let me just muddle on through.)
I currently have a Bosch-Optikon which seems--to me--to be quite powerful. Despite its famous German name, I take it that it was made in China. That is all right with me, as long as it works. And, although I am unable to give you the technical specs, it seems to work very well.
It replaces a promotional Sports Illustrated instrument which I had had for years, and which was only useful for observing race horses at a distance of no more than 16 inches or so.
This new binocular was given to me when I began to join long-time friends to go birdwatching; it was one of Dan's spares. It made an enormous difference in what I was able to see.
(Bird watching, incidentally, is one of the reasons why you really need binoculars. It may sound dull; in fact, it is relaxing and challenging. It isn't often that you can find a hobby that combines both benefits. I will make a case for it in another post.)
You might want the glasses as well for watching sports--better than my old SI model--or for going to plays, ballet, or opera. Although for what takes place inside theaters and opera houses you will not need binoculars as powerful as my current ones. The little ones called opera glasses will do very well.
I have just begun to realize the possibilities of binoculars for home study of astronomy from your own back yard. I know about people who use them this way--there are even books about it--but I live in a bad place for astronomy, with tall trees, lots of night lights, and frequent overcast skies. But this morning I awoke at 5 a.m., when it was very dark outside, and saw a sliver of crescent moon hanging just over South Mountain. Somewhat to its left was a bright light that seemed unwinking. For this reason I thought it was a planet. On impulse, I decided to get the binoculars and check it out.
The experience was, shall we say, illuminating. First I looked at the moon, and saw quite a bit more of it than than I had seen without assistance--the dark shadow that covered the large part of it not in full sunlight. When I turned to the bright light to its left I was delighted to see the light turn into a sphere, molded and shaped by the distant sunlight just as the moon was. I could see striations across its face, which made me believe that this was Jupiter. But I don't know for sure.
All I DO know is, I cannot wait for another chance to explore the heavens with the aid of my binoculars.
I wish you the same pleasure.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Edison Pena: A Human, Racing

In a period of rather dreary news, it was good to take note of--and is still good to remember--Edison Pena's successful participation in the 2010 New York City Marathon. While we are at it, the same can be said of his nationally televised debut as a vocalist on--the David Letterman Show, I believe it was. (I only got to see this on You Tube.)
Anyway, on the telly, Pena covered the old Elvis hit "Suspicious Minds", no doubt establishing a fellow feeling in the hearts of Elvis fans across the country. Just as he had impressed the running community earlier--I mean, not everybody who gets into the New York City Marathon is going to make it through. He did. Not in great form, but sometimes good enough is good enough.
You can't say Pena planned well in advance for what could be called a couple of real public relations coups. He got his chance only because of an accident that could have killed him and many of his colleagues and left them entombed forever--for he was one of the 29 Chilean miner trapped within a mountain for 67 days and rescued only by a Herculean effort of experts from several countries. (Note: We humans seem to be almost as good at rescuing each other as at destroying each other. We should try more rescuing.)
Edison Pena seems to be a person you and I would like to have as a friend. At least at present, he is full of the joy of life; and no wonder! Hopefully he and his colleagues will enjoy a happy future, one in which they don't have to go back to mining unless they want to.
One who may want to is the man who returned to the surface to find both his wife and his mistress awaiting for him. Now, THAT plot has all the elements of an interesting opera.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nancy Pelosi And The Journey Back

I was stunned when Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republicans' new leader in the House of Representatives, had the effrontery to attack current--and hopefully future-- Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to continue serving as Democratic leader in that chamber.
And to that idea I say, "Why not?" And even, "Hurrah!"
Rep. Pelosi played a key role in making the Democrats the majority in the House in the first place. It would seem to be the party's natural role, since for all its lapses it is by far more representative of the needs and hopes of America's diverse peoples than Cantor's Republicans. What's more, against almost insuperable odds, she played a vital role in pushing through key items of President Obama's forward-looking agenda, including the much-maligned Health Care Reform Act.
If that is the case--readers may be asking--why is Pelosi the most hated woman in America? Why did the Democrats endure such a thrashing in the recent election? Why does everyone seem to hate Health Care Reform? Why is "Democrat"--the party label of great leaders from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt and beyond--now a pejorative term?
Well, I'll tell you. It's because of a propaganda barrage of unbelievable intensity and dishonesty, courtesy of Fox News? Network and the "giants" of conservative talk radio--not to forget their backers, the Kochs (by whatever name) and the corporations and the Chamber of Commerce. The Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United decided that corporations were persons, and could give as much money as they liked for political purposes--with almost no accountability. This led to a flood of tainted money, in which many worthy candidates and aspirants--Senator Russ Feingold, Rep. Alan Grayson, and Pennsylvania's Joe Sestak--were swept away. The propaganda filled people with such rage that few were able to take in what the Health Care Reform Act really said, what candidates really stood for, and--oh, yes, what Nancy Pelosi herself really stands for. (Not to mention President Obama, who right now must be America's hated and willfully misunderstood man.)
In short, large portions of the electorate acted more like a mob than like thoughtful voters on November 2. It was not their fault. The effect of the propaganda tsunami was to take away their capacity for thought. I suspect, once they realize they've been tricked into voting against themselves, they will be eager to change their votes next time. And I believe Congresswoman Pelosi will play a key role in winning back a House majority which was lost through no fault of her own.
As to Cantor, he is entitled to his opinions--as long as he keeps them to himself. He does not vote in the Democratic Caucus--luckily for all of us--and should have no public opinion as to how it votes.
So why does he? Is he, perhaps, afraid of Nancy Pelosi?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Election From Hell

From a political point of view, Election Cycle 2010 has been like a year-long Hallowe'en Party in which the monsters are not just in costume. Or maybe they ARE in costume, but the threat they represent to America as we have known it is real and, I fear, growing. The Right Wing in all its manifestations, Religious, Corporate, whatever, seems determined to prove that it is in charge, and will do as it likes with the planet and its people. The Supreme Court is already in the pocket of this group, so it appears, despite a couple of excellent appointments by feckless President Barack Obama. (When we elected this guy some of us voted with crossed fingers, as it were, hoping against hope his talent extended beyond inspirational speeches. It doesn't, it seems; and this year the speeches have not even been all that inspirational. In my opinion his initial mistake, following the exhilaration of his election to the Presidency, was to try to work with the Republican leadership in a bipartisan spirit for the good of the country. This in itself shows his lack of political acumen. It is difficult to work in harmony with people who are trying to kick your head in.)
Initial triumphal pronouncements by Senator Mitch McConnell, now on the verge of being the best-known Republican in the country, sh0w that the Republicans have that ambition still. I'd have thought that the duty of a Senator and his colleagues was to enact legislation to ensure the well-being of the United States, not to bring down a President of the United States. But ole Mitch and his colleagues don't see it that way at all. Not only do they think their duty is to destroy the Obama Administration; on their way they will get rid of colleagues who disagree with them. They will have them voted out.
And who will say this is impossible? By that time, perhaps, the only voters left will be those who agree with them and will do their bidding. We have already seen how a mere two years of lies and half-truths, backed by unbelievably vast sums of corporate money, can twist and confuse the minds of citizens until they vote their anger, not their understanding.
This is what just happened. Despite Obama's seeming lack of political understanding, several things he has done have been good, including Health Reform. It's been demonized as Obamacare, and many principled legislators have given their political lives for it. But why is this? It is BECAUSE THE CITIZENRY HAS NEVER REALLY BEEN ABLE TO LEARN WHAT IS IN THE BILL. Again, part of this is because Obama never saw to it that the legislation was adequately explained to the people; but more is because the enemies of everything he stands for have worked with great energy to MIS-explain it.
So here we are, in perhaps the greatest survival crisis faced by our country in over a century. What can we do about it? Can we do anything? If our only choice is between going down fighting and going down with a whimper, that is very sad. Maybe a choice like this would be the logical outcome of all the years millions of us have been "too busy" to inform ourselves and vote. Maybe in that sense we deserve it.
But this is no time for recriminations among natural allies. We can't turn the clock back, anyway: and our grandchildren do NOT deserve the life they will inherit if the Right finishes off our democracy.
Personally, I am going to find and join with any citizens' groups who plan to fight back. And I think my readers should do that, too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Juan Williams versus National Public Radio

What is National Public Radio? A media outlet for pinko commie reds, or what?
Actually, no. People who think that might be surprised to learn that it's a product of the Richard Nixon presidency. No doubt Nixon was influenced by the noted liberal thinker Daniel Patrick Moynihan; but we may take it for granted that if Nixon thought NPR was a good idea there were no pinko commie reds in the offing, nor did he think there was a chance there ever would be. Whatever you may think of President Nixon, he was not exactly an encourager of Marxists and others of that ilk.
Today NPR is a refuge for millions of Americans who love unusual kinds of music--jazz to opera and beyond--and of course what we firmly believe to be the most detailed and straightforward news anywhere. (Not that it doesn't have flaws. I find myself questioning what I perceive to be an Arab bias in its coverage of the Arab-Israeli situation, for example. But that, alas, is shared by all too many "mainstream" news organizations--and most of the others are, in my view, far worse.)
Who are NPR listeners? Pointy-headed intellectuals? I am sure we have many of them. We also have students, senior citizens, truck drivers, and just about any other type of person who happens to tune to a public radio station. We are an elite that anyone can join. And many of us pay to help support our radio habit. It is largely because of the (sometimes fierce) determination of NPR listeners that the enterprise survives. We give, and we advocate.
On the other hand, take the Fox network, media capital of the land of Great Right-Wingia, home to the likes of Glenn Beck. For many of us, and not just NPR listeners, this is the antithesis of NPR. I think of it as a place where truth is always the first casualty.
So, when--several months ago--I learned that senior NPR news analyst Juan Williams also worked for Fox News, it came as a shock. I even wrote to NPR about it; and I got an answer from Williams that, I must admit, I was too afraid to open. But I continued to believe that Jesus was right--nobody can serve two masters. Sooner or later something would happen to change matters. And it did--with a suddenness that almost stunned me.
I immediately saw problems. NPR's reaction seemed like entirely too much for the immediate offense. Williams is alleged to have admitted that he got tense when he saw a passenger in Moslem costume on a plane. Millions of us, without being bigots, probably would have the same reaction. We would not have had it before sunset on 9/10/2001; but we certainly would have felt it--and in many cases still do--after the late morning of 9/11. We have been badly shaken, and nothing reassuring enough to restore our confidence has yet happened.
So this one statement should not have been fatal to Juan Williams' NPR career, especially coupled with the disclaimers he made. But it seems that this episode was only one of many. Perhaps the most offensive that I have heard of was a slap at Michelle Obama, who he seems to have said resembled Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress. (I heard the entire quote twice, but did not catch it either time; so I am only approximating.)
I believe the best way to have handled the matter would have been one that did not attract the fire of the likes of Sara "Railin'" Palin. Something like a quiet conference which left Mr. Williams with the choice of NPR or Fox.
Well, it didn't happen that way. It has made some trouble that would better have been avoided. But I remain a stalwart fan of NPR, and will help it in any way I can. Just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean it isn't very good.