"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Three Stooges and an alternate

It's terrible to talk about the University of Minnesota-Morris and stupidity in the same sentence, but recent national news places the two in uncomfortable proximity to each other.
Seriously, institutions cannot answer for the conduct of all those who exit with a diploma. And that's a good thing, because the bizarre behavior of a young man named Joseph Basel, and three associates, is hardly the type of thing that UMM would attach its name to.
"Room temperature IQs," was the disparaging way Professor Jonathan Turley dismissed the four alleged troublemakers in a Thursday cable TV news appearance. The jocular Turley went on to note that when individuals of this type sit down with a defense attorney, the attorney might well say "you're a disgrace to criminals (with such stupidity)."
The rimshots kept coming as Turley said of the four that "I'm surprised they were able to find the building."
One less perpetrator in this ruse and the whole thing would look like a rough draft for a Three Stooges script. Stumblebums in phony repairmen uniforms, plodding along as if no one would notice the charade. . .
"Why I oughtta. . ."
"Oh, wise guy! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk."
The perpetrators would be lucky if they could now sell the whole episode as a lame comedy script. Very, very lucky. Because now UMM graduate Basel, whose father is a Lutheran minister in Mankato, is very much in trouble. Flirting with an extended stay at the crowbar motel. . .
Joe Basel and his accomplices were arrested for allegedly tampering with the phone system in the office of Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Basel is a rabid conservative. He was the prime mover behind the "Counterweight" publication getting born on the UMM campus.
I'm glad Tim Tebow was born but I wish the Counterweight had been aborted, as I have long expressed to various people before Mr. Basel got in trouble with the law.
UMM is a proud liberal arts institution and it ought to repel a Fox News equivalent like the Counterweight. Liberal arts adherents care about people - about the issues that can make their lives arduous.
While many colleges have gotten way carried away tilting to the left politically - I experienced this myself once - a slight tilt leftward ought to be viewed as natural in higher education. Just like a slight tilt leftward ought to be given a pass in the news media - an argument made by Scott McClellan in his expose on the George W. Bush administration: "What Happened."
McClellan argued that liberals, however debatable their political prescriptions might be, care about constituencies that can get overlooked in the political process. Politicians have their place in our society because they are custodians for the society in sum. Conservatives are over on one end of that spectrum, tending to reflexively say "you're on your own."
I had a close friend in college, a dormitory lounge friend of Finnish ancestry from Virginia, Minnesota, who said that it's hard arguing with conservatives on the basis of pure principle.
"But conservatives don't care about people," he said.
That has stuck with me. The reason that so-called liberals feel on the defensive so much is that they're in the position of defending an assertive, some might say intrusive, government - an instrument that often reveals human failings and shortcomings (like in a sausage-making process). That's why Mr. Basel and his cohorts can have a field day sometimes with their video equipment (like with the ACORN saga). Any time a lapse in judgment or a shortcoming gets into their viewfinders, they have struck gold which can be immediately carted to a salivating Fox News.
The scheming of the four, "Three Stooges and an alternate" I'll dub them, collapsed miserably in the little escapade at the senator's office. I'd laugh but these four young men could have their lives virtually ruined.
I had some contact with Mr. Basel when he was at UMM - he graduated in 2008 - and I was with the "dead tree" community newspaper. I noticed nothing unusual or troubling about him. He seemed like a genial chap, but one thing to keep in mind with young men under 25 is that they can obsess within narrow fields of interest.
Such zealotry, I would argue, is like dogs marking their territory by urinating. Somehow this analogy and references to Fox News seem appropriate in the same commentary piece.
Hopefully Basel's fall will cause UMM to re-think having the Counterweight on campus, and while we're at it, why don't we push for online-only student publications at UMM like has been done at the University of St. Thomas? The Counterweight would just get lost in the sea of online opinion that's out there.
Attention Chancellor Jacquie Johnson: Let's consider going in that direction.
- Brian Williams - Morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Funerals bring people together

It seems funerals can be just as effective reuniting you with old acquaintances as class reunions, if not in quantity then in the quality of the bonding.
It's a shame that something as sad as someone's passing is needed to get old acquaintances together.
The funeral is also a chance for many to see their old hometowns, in which they may now feel like strangers. They might even look a little dazed as their frame of reference switches constantly from how things looked in yesteryear compared to the present.
Last week's funeral for Ken Cruze in Morris brought many old Morrissites together. The Cruzes are a family-oriented clan to the maximum. Their roots are in the Catholic faith, and Ken's last rites were held at Morris' Assumption Catholic Church. It's the largest church in the community and has a somewhat primitive tunnel connecting it to the adjoining St. Mary's School.
St. Mary's was once a complete school taking kids all the way through grade 12, but today it's K-6. It hasn't had a senior high for a very long time. People of my age remember it solely as an elementary school. If you grew up here and attended the public school, you'll remember that the St. Mary's kids joined you in grade 7, adding a new dimension to your social lives if you weren't already acquainted with these kids.
The Cruze kids were part of that "alien" group when I embarked on the seventh grade here.
My phone rang in the middle of the day Tuesday, the day after the annual MLK Holiday, and it was Art Cruze, with whom I graduated with the Morris High School Class of 1973. He suggested we have a get-together at the Morris Dairy Queen. He noted with excitement that he had "taken the tunnel" to St. Mary's, a la old times, as part of being at the funeral. He had a quip prepared as he shared all this with me: "It's interesting how they've moved the urinals in the lavatory lower than they were (in those school days)."
St. Mary's is a sturdy, not architecturally significant building - not comely in its appearance. But boy, if those walls could talk!
The public school youth of the 1960s here were divided into two schools. The Longfellow School in west Morris was for grades 1-3. Kindergarteners and the fourth through sixth graders went to East Elementary, part of the "erector set" of buildings put together over several years on the east side, finally abandoned and now sitting as somewhat of an eyesore in central Morris. Those old buildings are ditto in terms of "if walls could talk."
Will those walls finally come down to a wrecking ball? It's up to the city. The City of Morris suckered (in my opinion) to an offer from School District #769 and acquired the vacated property at the time the new (and I feel overbuilt) new school complex opened. The old complex looms like a haunted hulk.
We gathered at the Dairy Queen Tuesday - Art, his brother Greg , their mother Leona and yours truly - and the mood was light and fun. The sadness of the funeral had been tucked away, compartmentalized as it were, and we were now living in the present again. We talked with nostalgia about the way things used to be in Morris. Such talk often suggests that those "old days" were better, but if forced to reflect further we'd be more measured.
I recall reading about "the old oaken bucket principle," which asserts that we tend to remember the good things about the past while filtering out the bad. Hence the nostalgia that makes us smile so wistfully.
On Tuesday the Cruze boys had typical tech tools on their persons - cellphones, I-phones etc. - tools which in our youth were the stuff of "Star Trek" fantasy scenes. I remember visiting Art in our high school years and how we'd play a game called "NFL Strategy" in the basement of their South Street home. It was a tabletop sports simulation game. You flicked a little plastic ball that bounced between springs to determine the outcome of a play. The players shuffled through cards and made offensive and defensive selections, sliding these cards into a slot prior to the "flicking."
Today, computers have taken over such recreation. The old "NFL Strategy" and comparable games would seem to be for cavemen. But we reminisce as if those sessions were unparalleled for producing childhood memories. And they really were.
Funerals remind us of different chapters in our lives. We are surrounded by people who joined us for those chapters. Not long ago my childhood pastor, The Reverend Cliff Grindland, met his maker after a prolonged illness. I associate Cliff with those years when I took confirmation classes at First Lutheran Church. And went through the pains of finding one's appropriate niche relative to your peers. . .
I sometimes wondered whether I was a true Lutheran because I never mixed as effectively with those kids as with the Cruzes and their more earthy brethren.
My (strongly suggested) compulsory stay at Luther Crest Bible Camp one summer was the typical adolescent nightmare. What? A camp full of junior high-age kids all behaving like they're on a sugar high - not totally fun and exhilarating? No. But I can take credit for sticking it out the whole way. Years later I learned that one of my childhood acquaintances actually "hit the wall" at Luther Crest, called his parents and had them come and get him.
I don't blame him, but I earned my "badge of courage" as it were, putting up with the silliness, teasing and unbridled rambunctiousness.
Pastor Grindland's funeral was at Calvary Lutheran Church in Alexandria. I paused to reflect on how Cliff's generation, dubbed by Tom Brokaw "The Greatest Generation," is viewed with such unflinching reverence now by their boomer offspring. In the prime of their lives they were taken for granted by us, or at worst dismissed as insensitive on many fronts such as with social issues and the big issue of my generation when young: the Viet Nam War.
If Pastor Grindland's generation, or an individual like Billy Graham with his bully pulpit, had only risen up, put aside their blinders and said "the emperor has no clothes. . ." If only they had said "enough of this war" the way Ronald Reagan would later trumpet "Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall!"
But they either equated war with the triumphalist destiny of the West - after all we had won "the good war," WWII (although we should heed "the old oaken bucket" with that too) - or they were muted by the Red Scare of the 1950s.
The Viet Nam War lingered - festered. And then inflation scarred the U.S. economy. And then "Tricky Dick" Nixon lingered on the national stage too long. And pretty soon us boomers were out of high school, the Cruzes and I, into a new world and forging new paths. Finally the war abated along with some other lingering headaches of the times.
Whether it's "old oaken bucket" or not, we're putting aside the unpleasantness of earlier years now, and talking with total reverence of our elders as they slowly leave us (hopefully heading to a better place). And this is the way it should be.
The Cruzes can envision better times for the "young crop" in their clan, because man is inherently optimistic.
The funeral for Terry Manney several years ago spotlighted the work chapter of my life. This is delicate because work relationships cannot be said necessarily to have the same kind of affinity and sincerity as your ties with family/friends. We put on airs of friendship and affinity but upon leaving a particular job, we realize those bonds were merely transitory. I confess this is painting with a broad brush.
I attended Terry's funeral at Federated Church. It was nice celebrating her life but I questioned the necessity of having a special section in the sanctuary for work colleagues. IMHO the deceased's work life should be but one small part of how the person is remembered. How many of us want to be defined by our work? Oh, we talk about loving our jobs - that is, if we aren't victims of the recession - but isn't that so much B.S. for a lot of us? It's learned behavior.
In blunt terms, work is for many of us a sober obligation. I remember Terry as an exuberant person who I suspect could have taken a little better care of her health. I'm thankful for our work having brought us together. She was charming when teasing me about being the father of one of her kids and how I'd better get out my checkbook to pull my weight with them.
Because her profession was newspaper ad sales, I have to wonder how she would be dealing with the tsunami overtaking that industry now. The communications tech revolution has totally changed the landscape.
I wish I had been a more pragmatic co-worker with her, not so influenced by the tumult of "The Wonder Years" - remember the TV show with Fred Savage? - marked by Watergate and how it made newspaper writers heroes for rattling cages.
"Afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted" were bywords of the times.
Today you'd better try to comfort everyone. Rattling cages today can be a straight route to oblivion. The citizenry is not so dependent on the so-called traditional or mainstream media. The watchdogs of the Fourth Estate have been declawed to a degree. People can empower themselves, as this site demonstrates.
Terry would have had to adjust with the times and maybe find a new niche in selling. But she didn't have to deal with that, as she's now in a better place.
Obituaries today should be more properly read online than in "dead tree" newspapers. the paper in Morris, where Terry and I were once fixtures, is only a weekly now which means that many published obits are "old news," appearing after the funeral.
Visiting the terrific Pedersen Funeral Home website of Morris, I scan the well-written obits there and realize what an "equalizer of men" these pieces are. Whether rich or poor, powerful or sans power, people at the time of death have in their backgrounds common ingredients of personal wealth: children, education and careers of all stripes.
Ken Cruze's family gathered with both sadness and exuberance to celebrate his life. Nowadays it's typical for funerals to promote an upbeat, "celebration" type of air, perhaps due to the political correctness wave? I don't know, but it's innocuous and certainly well-intentioned. But it wasn't always that way.
In the first half of the 20th Century, funerals were profoundly sad. Nobody pretended it could be an upbeat time. This contrast is presented by Maurice Faust in his terrific Minnesota memoir: "Remember - No Electricity." I bought this book as a Christmas gift for my mother once. Every museum in Minnesota would benefit having a copy of this.
"When I was a child, funerals were quite different from those of today," Faust wrote. "Wake services were held in the home where the casket with the loved one was displayed in reverence and respect. Family, neighbors and friends came to the home to pay their respects. Almost all who came for the final visit stayed for at least one praying of the Rosary that was repeated hourly.
"Close friends and family lingered late into the evening. When the bulk of those paying their respects departed, the coffee pot was put on the stove, and the core group of mourners were given a little Minnesota type lunch.
"The wake service was a two-day affair and totally taxed the energy of the family involved. Even talking in the home of the wake was a strain because the voice had to be kept low and hushed in respect.
"The church service, unlike today, was also very different. Rather than being bright and pleasant, it was dark and somber.
"The final commendation at the grave site continued to stress death rather than new life and resurrection as today."
Marvelous perspective, Mr. Faust (who grew up in the Pierz area of central Minnesota). Different times nurture different habits and perspectives. But funerals cause all of us to press the "pause" button in our frenetic day-to-day lives and think deeply about how a particular life has touched us.
The sad and devastated feelings are always there, whether on the surface or suppressed. But ultimately we must muster new enthusiasm for embracing the future, taking the inspiring lessons of Ken Cruze's life, along with Cliff Grindland's, Terry Manney's or anyone else lodged fondly in our memory.
And will those St. Mary's urinals be lowered any further? Rimshot.
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com - morris mn

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On "seizing the moment" in sports

"That's why they play the game," Chris Berman of ESPN often says after an upset, suggesting that all the pre-game analysis (based on existing empirical data) might just as well be shoved aside.
A team can sometimes dip into a mysterious well of focus, inspiration and intangibles, becoming a "team of destiny" and rendering irrelevant the statistical and scouting data.
Marv Meyer used to talk about "seizing the moment." The Morris Area cross country coach knew that when his runners were on the doorstep of a particular accomplishment, they simply needed to step it up. Marv is retired today and living in Willmar. His own running was impeded toward the end of his career - injury circumstances intervened - meaning he had to "will" his runners along rather than physically push them. So the mental component took over more than ever.
The importance of the mental component in sports? Why, one can hardly say enough about it. So Marv would probably have a Cheshire Cat grin watching the current overachievers in the National Football League: the New York Jets. Rex Ryan is the proud, prodding coach of the Jets and his grin at press conferences of late has been most Cheshire Cat-like.
The Jets "seized the moment" last weekend, during the Wild Card Weekend of NFL playoff games, beating the Bengals on the road. The Jets were seeded modestly at No. 6. They owned a most pedestrian regular season record of just over .500. The Jets seized the moment in undaunted fashion, putting behind them their horrible rating in the passing game - the phase of the game getting prime accent by the game's architects today. (Wasn't it spellbinding on Sunday watching the Packers and Cardinals play a pinball-style game that seemed like Arena League football with its constant passing and scoring?)
Is coach Ryan, son of NFL defensive genius Buddy, a dinosaur with his more conservative orientation to the game? Could he push back against the more "pinball" style teams? We'll find out more this coming weekend, but the Jets made a statement and set an example with their performance at Cincy which was a "seize the moment" exhibit 'A'.
The Jets were 31st in passing offense in the NFL's regular season. The betting line for the game at Cincy was the Bengals by 2 1/2. Mark Craig of the Minneapolis "dead tree" newspaper picked the Bengals by 7.
The best-ever example of a sports team "seizing the moment" might be the 1987 Minnesota Twins. Minnesota sports fans were starry-eyed at the end of that episode, pinching themselves to see if they were dreaming after our "Twinkies" won it all.
We may have forgotten just how delirious we were with that dose of success, largely unforeseen, that wiped away memories of the Twins' 1965 Series setback (in seven games vs. the Dodgers, outdoors at Met Stadium).
Whitey Herzog was pinching himself to be sure. Herzog is an exemplary person and professional but was Darth Vader in the eyes of the Minnesota sports public in '87 as he managed the opposing Cardinals of St. Louis.
Whitey's character traits come forward with a flourish in his biographical book "You're Missin' A Great Game" (a takeoff on the old shout of derision vs. umpires). I consider this one of the most underrated baseball books ever. But it was written by a guy whose career was in the Midwest (i.e. Flyoverland). A book by Roger Kahn focusing on New York would be more palatable to the media mainstream.
The '87 Series pushed the east coast media snobs to the side, albeit for just a blip of history, and it was really something for us knaves of the tundra to celebrate. I celebrated with a tear in one eye, realizing that the '87 Twins would forever upstage the gallant '65 crew in historical annals. And in '91 the same magical path to the summit would be followed by the "seizing the moment" Twins. What moments they were!
But in '87 we were all losing our virginity, so to speak. And it sticks in Whitey's craw. He states vociferously that the Twins lacked the credentials if not the pedigree to claim the world championship. No one can argue that in '87, unlike in '65,the Twins had a particular home field advantage. Whitey might say "home floor" 'cause the Twins had moved indoors to the Metrodome.
I remember an embittered Herzog, saying into a TV microphone immediately after his team's '87 setback, that the Twins "do well in this building." I haven't noticed this quoted in the media since but it spoke volumes for me as an exhibit on the perverse qualities of the Dome.
For someone with memories of pleasant August breezes wafting through the fan assemblages at Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, that quote ought to sting.
The Metrodome ("Minnesota's Rec Room" as dubbed by former "dead tree" scribe Doug Grow, now writing for the online "Minnpost") helped propel the '87 Twins. Its peculiarities buoyed the familiar home team and baffled visitors. The Cardinals were from the National League and getting their initiation there. They must've felt like "Alice in Wonderland."
Herzog wrote: "The '87 Series showed that it's unfair to play for a title in a hall of mirrors. It also showed how easy it is for mediocre teams to get that far in the first place. That cheapens baseball."
Herzog documented his opinions convincingly. Teams in those days played a balanced schedule, he explained (i.e. everyone playing everyone else the same number of times), so the regular season records were quite the barometer for judging.
You might want to put your Homer Hanky aside for a moment, or use it for nose tissue, as you realize that the Twins had quite mortal qualities for most of the '87 summer. They posted an 85-77 record. In the Eastern Division, there were four teams that did better: the Tigers, Bluejays, Brewers and Yankees.
Herzog notes: "In other words, Minnesota was not the best team in the American League. They were not the second best team. They weren't even the third-best or fourth-best team. The Minnesota Twins were the fifth-best out of 14 teams in the American League in 1987. And they won the World Series."
What the Twins really did, Whitey, was "seize the moment." Consult with Mr. Meyer please.
I remember interviewing a local person who attended the '87 Series (when I was a scribe for the "dead tree" media in Morris). This individual was Steve Van Slooten, manager of the Morris radio station at the time. His main point was that regardless of what you wanted to say about the Twins either not belonging in the Series or deserving the title, "hey, we did it!"
The historical record will show we came, saw and conquered, so pop the cork on the champagne, Mr. Van Slooten said in effect. (I really wouldn't know if he endorsed alcohol.)
Herzog wrote that in '87 - can you believe, over 20 years ago? - the Twins lost 52 of 81 away games (a .358 success percentage) - "rotten even for a mediocre team," Herzog writes.
Herzog was nicknamed "The White Rat" but it's affectionate. He's a consummate professional and gentleman, obviously with sobering memories of '87 tucked away. And as author he can use this license for some zingers directed our way like: ". . .the Homerdome, where baseball met science fiction". . ."like a biodome on Mars". . ."I call it the NBA World Series (i.e. with home team having big edge)". . ."Every pop-up is a flight to the Bermuda Triangle."
The Ugly Duckling Twins seized the moment, underscoring coach Meyer's wisdom, demonstrating that in sports where all kinds of fleeting variables come into play, you simply must "go for it."
This is what the New York football Jets will attempt to do this weekend. Their quarterback, Mark Sanchez, will strive to put behind him his most pedestrian regular season passing performance and try to perform like he's at USC again. His USC coach Pete Carroll seemed miffed at the time Sanchez declared for the NFL (prematurely as the QB had eligibility remaining). The coach and the QB were together at a press conference and Carroll seemed not to be OKing his protege's decision. But Sanchez, even in this moment, was "seizing the moment," following a credo that in sports seems to have paramount importance.
Coach Meyer, you should write a book too. Title suggestions welcomed.
-Brian Williams - Morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, January 8, 2010

"Hollowing Out the Middle": a hollow approach?

Our wonderful public library in Morris had a book available in its new non-fiction display recently that instantly caught my attention. It purported to shed light on the travails afflicting rural small towns in the Great Plains.
How timely. There has been a "contraction process" evident in Morris for some time. Institutions of all kinds are stressed.
Most recently the director of the Regional Fitness Center on the UMM campus went into a "passing the hat" mode in a public plea. UMM's enrollment has been hovering at the low end of its perceived spectrum. Employees on campus are reportedly on pins and needles about possible future cuts or coaxed retirements. (There is a murky gray area between the two kinds of departures.)
Back to the point at hand: This book that I tucked under my arm at the library, called "Hollowing Out the Middle," was supposed to offer insights that knaves like me could use to understand why tumbleweeds are blowing (figuratively speaking 'cause it's January) across places like the Coborn's parking lot.
Coborn's, once a virtual hotspot of commerce and chatter in town, is empty and has become a blighted embarrassment on the north end of Atlantic Avenue. Heading north out of town toward Breckenridge, "you're lucky if you can find a place to even get a cup of coffee," says friend Jim McRoberts, a man of sage outlook.
So the book on "Hollowing" (as in the emptying out of this big swath of the U.S.) promised to be riveting. But instead it brought back stale memories as it read much like a college textbook. After a few pages I realized that the co-authors must be purebred academic sociologists. I flipped to the back cover where the author thumbnail bios were, and sure enough. . .
A premise of sociology is that all of us knaves can be neatly tucked into various categories. I believe that sociology is, by definition, "the study of human beings in groups."
In the case of the book under scrutiny here, co-written by Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, these groups include the likes of Leavers, Stayers, Returners, Achievers and Seekers. The authors' analysis is of a town in Iowa for which they've coined a fictional name: "Ellis."
Alas, the fundamental problem of sociologists is they cannot look inside people, see their souls and read their exact levels of contentment and fulfillment. And academic people, of all people, shouldn't be guilty of judging people by their extent of material possessions. But Carr and Kefalas, in spite of the credo of their academic discipline (of being wholly scientific and non-judgmental), render judgments, opinions, generalizations and even horrible stereotypes all over the place. One has to grimace at times.
If you grew up in a rural Minnesota school like me, brace yourself for the following: "And there is probably no other place in American society where the rules of class and status play out with a more brutal efficiency than in the world of a country high school."
The authors make a judgment about a fleeting, trivial incident while they were in church, when no one turned to greet them during the "peace be with you" ritual. They should know that even a lot of the natives are not particularly fond of this ritual. (Ditto, from my perspective, for the prayer list which seems more to fuel community gossip than anything.)
At the time of the alleged "snub," I would want to know if the authors really behaved in an engaging, friendly manner when in church, if they dressed according to the norm etc. These are reasonable expectations if you're seeking to blend in anywhere. (It seems they theorize that Maria's dark skin, making her seem Hispanic, prompted some to not show affinity.)
Lack of enthusiasm in the "meet and greet" could be attributed to a variety of things, such as fear of catching some illness. How about plain apathy?
Us rural folks are not predictable automatons.
If the authors had been greeted in more cheery fashion, would they have even written about it? Would they be disappointed? Surely a book about the wonderful, resilient attributes of small town people, people like the "Whoville" inhabitants on the morning after the Grinch robbed them blind, was not the intent of Carr and Kefalas. They were aware of their academic blinders.
Regarding "the Achievers" (i.e. the town's brightest youth who seem groomed to leave), the authors note that "after a significant time away, they can't recall how they ever lived out in the middle of nowhere. Worst of all, they may start to see Ellis the way outsiders do: parochial and redneck."
Yes, these are terms, "parochial and redneck," that sociologists of the ilk of Carr and Kefalas love to toss around in connection with "real people," you know, people who live life under stresses that are unknown to academicians with tenure and union safety nets.
I'm absolutely convinced that Carr and Kefalas would be interesting and engaging on a personal level. They'd probably chuckle if scanning this diatribe. But they must know deep down that their ingrained intellectual habits are tribal.
The authors suggest that "the Achievers," upon leaving the small town, only come back home for Thanksgiving and weddings, and the longer they're gone the harder it is to adjust back because they're in "another life." The authors talk about the "tempting options" of a large city with "diverse cuisine" etc. and how the Achievers' "ability to follow the rules of a small town evaporates." There are no indications here that the authors interviewed people to glean these conclusions.
More offensive is the following: "Although some other kids got the message from teachers that they were good-for-nothings who lacked the spark to make it in New York or Chicago, the Achievers (singled out to leave the countryside) could do no wrong."
So here we have the assumption that New York or Chicago or other like metro concentrations represent the epitome of success and that the small town, by inference, would be the pathetic alternative. But once again the authors are simply unable to get into people's heads and truly understand their ideals, aspirations and personal principles.
I'm also reminded of the late, great political author Theodore White, of the "Making of the President" series, who observed that a big city is not a singular entity but a collection of small communities.
Now, I don't want to just pillory Mr. Carr and Ms. Kefalas so I'll give them credit for the following: "Perhaps the rural crisis has developed so slowly that the symptoms of decline have been easier to ignore; the rural downturn seeped rather than swept through the region. But it is also quite possible that the main reason is denial; no one wants to admit that the small town's 'Music Man' image is nothing more than cockneyed nostalgia."
Social scientists famously proclaim how they are non-judgmental about culture, how, for example, we cannot describe Third World cultures in terms such as "lower" or "less developed." A student who violates this dictum might get hands slapped with a ruler, in a manner of speaking.
But look at what Carr and Kefalas wrote about a typical "Achiever" among the small town's youth: "Ideally, the student's family was counted among the respectable churchgoing sort, even if the church they attended was among the lower Protestant churches rather than the mainstream Lutheran and Catholic ones."
"Lower?" I've been around but I don't really understand that. Lutherans and Catholics are "mainstream?" Definition?
The authors assert that "of the young people armed only with a high school diploma who ever do manage to leave Iowa, precious few get very far without enlisting in the military first."
"Manage" to leave?
"Precious few 'get very far?' "
The inflections are unsettling for someone who grew up in small town environs.
Carr and Kefalas indeed wrote a book that is insightful about a slice of life that deserves scrutiny, but that slice of life isn't small town America but rather the ivory tower world of academia. This is a world that I feel is getting assailed by the Internet and new media that are empowering young people to bypass the tedium of archaic ordeals like "Sociology 101" and to get from points 'A' to 'B' in their learning process in more efficient, satisfying fashion.
Oh, thanks to our Morris Public Library for having this book available!
-Book review by Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com - morris mn

Monday, January 4, 2010

With apologies to Bernie. . .

Bernard Goldberg
I remember Bernard Goldberg writing about his first foray into writing a book, staring at that "blank page" on his computer screen and feeling humbled - ironic since he was a professional journalist.
Being a writer in one field doesn't necessarily make for an easy transition to another. Goldberg felt that the only thing harder than a book might be to "give birth to triplets," although by definition he could only speculate.
Goldberg was once a stalwart in the broadcast network news when that institution was in its arrogant heyday. He kept his conservative political leanings fairly private in those days, but he has now shaken off all inhibitions. To the extent that his first book - the fruit of that "giving birth" type of challenge - was a venting of frustration about the orthodoxy of liberal political thinking that surrounded him in his network career. . .
Bernie's book was called "Bias." It's an important and seminal work. Since then, sad to say, the somewhat curmudgeonly Bernie has become a caricature of himself, railing about the "liberal media" long after the media beast itself has splintered up so much that there really is no "orthodoxy" any more.
Bernie has written a couple of "spinoff" books, neither with the "childbirth" inspiration of the first, and I'm happy for the money he has made. I'd be happier if he would go his own way and cease being a sycophantic guest on Fox News TV shows. But hey, he has to pay the bills.
I like Bernie at a fundamental level but I'd find him more appealing if he'd stop sharing the screen with Bill O'Reilly, that crazed, manipulative buffoon who caters to a paranoid audience nightly.
Is the antidote to watch Keith Olbermann on MSNBC? No, I'd say the solution is to watch CNN's Campbell Brown. She's a voice of moderation between zelous camps, and an attractive woman too (if I may risk un-PC thought).
So, our pal Bernie is now initiated into the world of book authorship. There's a parallel in my own "scribe" background, in which I tried parlaying whatever journalistic talent I had into. . .songwriting? Why would I want to? Is this like Mallory said of Everest, "because it's there?" Well, maybe not, because who would want to end up like Mallory, whose body is still pretty well-preserved in that bleak place where he met his foreseeable fate.
I want to write songs because I'm fascinated first of all with the intrinsic artistic component, and secondly by the sheer power of popular songs to become fixed in people's minds. I'm fascinated that such incredibly simple creations like "Tiny Bubbles" and "Please Release Me" can be hummed or sung by people coast to coast (or in Bangkok) years after some fool first imagined the melody and words, perhaps scribbling hurriedly on a bar napkin or back of a receipt. Imagine such power! Such immortality?
But it's really more than power, it's value. These songs help people find relaxation and contentment as an escape from the daily grind. It's beautiful.
I've discovered most vividly that the simplicity of songs just cited hardly makes them easy to write. I once heard country singer Doug Stone say in a radio interview that "first you have to write 200 songs (to develop the craft) and then maybe, MAYBE you'll write a good one."
Again I'm reminded of Bernie's "childbirth" analogy. I can't give birth to triplets but I can make a stab at songwriting. Since Christmas is just past, I'll share here a Christmas song (lyrics) I penned: "Look Around and You'll Know It's Christmastime." Any poet should make a stab at this. Morris Area school board member Laura Carrington pens poetry and might find this an uplifting outlet.
The verse for my "Look Around" has a melody with a chord progression like the George Strait song "Amarillo by Morning," and in the chorus the chords mirror the Helen Reddy '70s classic "Keep On Singin', Don't Stop Singin', You're Gonna be a Star Someday. . ."
Interestingly, the song title doesn't appear in the chorus - an unusual characteristic and hopefully not a cardinal sin. And yes, the lyrics might seem a bit cheesy and cliched, with perhaps a wee bit of theft of intellectual property here and there. But I like it!
"Look Around and You'll Know It's Christmastime. . ."

All the tinsel's up around the tree
And the kids have been on Santa's knee
Ho ho ho they all live for Christmastime
And they know that he will soon be in the air
Flying swiftly in his sleigh
Doesn't matter if they're near or far
They know he'll find the way

There are presents lying on the floor
And the carolers are at the door
Fa la la they proclaim it's Christmastime
And the carols have a message touching all
From the peasants to the king
Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem
So let's join in and sing

Say Merry Christmas to all that you know
For it's the grandest time of year
And in the eyes of the little ones
It shimmers crystal clear
Say Merry Christmas it softens the heart
And makes the soul stand proud and tall
So say it loud say it all around
And have the greatest Christmas of all

There's a steaming pot of oyster stew
And a treasure trove of things to do
Deck the halls 'cause it's almost Christmastime
It's a sentimental journey every year
To a place of inner peace
Watch the spirit of the season come
To every man and beast

(repeat chorus)
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com