Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Any Sarcasm is Intentional

Linda and I were married in July of 1972, and after a honeymoon of 10 days or so, we returned to Chittenango to move into our first apartment at the corner of North and Russell Streets just across from the Presbyterian Church. I believe it was that summer that the Byrne Dairy store opened in the site on Genesee Street once occupied by Bob Williams's gas station and garage. It was only a two minute walk for me to buy milk or, occasionally, a six pack of Piel's Real Draft, which cost a dollar and sixteen cents.

Since then, we have always gone to Byrne Dairy for milk and other essentials and non-essentials. I have always, in that 38 or so year span, brought the posters for the school's plays and musicals and for the village's SUMMERPLAY to the store for display, and the Byrne Dairy staff, often my ex-students, gladly posted them on a window, a wall, or the front of the ice machine. So. . .I was surprised when yesterday, a nice young fellow, the store manager I believe, told me that "corporate" policy no longer permitted local posters to be displayed in BYRNE DAIRY. I questioned him briefly, suggested that this was not a policy that would be well received by village organizations. . .but it wasn't this guy's fault, so I left--ANGRY!

I refused to let my anger last. After all, I try to live on "Beaufort" time. And I knew that Byrne wasn't the only chain store in the village to have such a policy. Rite-Aid has had this non-community attitude for years. When I mentioned on FACEBOOK that I had been rebuffed by Byrne, I was informed that Subway, Dunkin Donuts, and Pizza Hut also deny local signage. Those stores had turned away representatives from Vacation Bible School. "Wow!" I thought and was reminded of the song "Alice's Restaurant" in which Arlo Guthrie declares, "we got a movement."

So I thought about it, and I realized where "CORPORATE" was coming from. They couldn't possibly give over ad space to such local organizations for fear of suggesting they were in support of those organizations. If they let subversive organizations like Vacation Bible School and local summer theater advertise there, what would come next. Lions Club? That would upset PETA! Rotary? Well, maybe Rotary would be O.K. They are an organization of business people. Or how about Sullivan Community Council? Sure, now they support social activities like youth athletics, but. . .isn't that just a few steps away from socialism?

This blog isn't about anything I have written about, really. It's a blog in thanks to the many locally owned stores, and the corporate entities like KINNEY DRUGS and DO IT BEST HARDWARE, that continue to operate on the "hometown" level, a word that has often been a part of Byrne Dairy advertising, and are happy to put up posters and such for their fellow citizens. . . And let's not worry about the other stores who choose to be a bit less community friendly. I mean why should they put up something as simple as a community bulletin board in their stores? After all, what have they gotten from the Chittenango residents over the years. . . other than a few million dollars?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Libraries and Me

I can't come up with my earliest library memory. I'm sure I went to the library in Penfield, the upstate village I lived in until I was six, but I can't recall. I do recall being surrounded by and having my early years enriched by books read to me by my mom and dad.

And I do recall the first library we went to in Webster, the town I lived in from when I was six until I graduated from high school forty-five years ago right about now. Actually, the library wasn't in Webster. It was in Irondequoit just across the bay from where we lived. Later, we would start going to the Webster Village library on the lower level of the town hall.

Those first memories of libraries are all about towering stacks of books. The Hardy Boys, Freddy the Pig, Landmark books, TOM SAWYER, and so many more books that I can't immediately remember. And taking those books up to the high counter, where a lady, never a man, took my library card and my pile of books and checked them out for me. This required both the card in the little book pocket and the paper stuck under the book's cover, to be stamped firmly, in two quick librarian strokes, with the date the books were due. A library card was very important, but I remember being rather careless with mine, and how I would misplace it, and how it got frayed in my pockets and washed in the washing machine. My mom always found it or saved it for me.

I have a vivid sixth grade library memory. That year, my teacher was Mr. B., and anyone who attended Bay Road Elementary School around then, will know that meant for a rather scary year. Going each week for a period in the library was always happily anticipated. I remember one Wednesday night, (I'm pretty sure we went to the library on Thursday), my mom discovered in my jeans pocket a crumpled up outline of the Dewey Decimal System number code. We had been told the week before by the school librarian to study this list for a quiz. It wasn't a priority to us sixth graders, though, because, you don't get a mark for library, after all. I had forgotten all about it, but my mom made me study before I went to bed. The next morning when we went to library period, the librarian passed out 10 question quizzes. Everyone else in class stared blankly at them. Not me. I whisked right through that quiz with the librarian beaming beside me. I got a 90%. Somehow, I missed one. The librarian was thrilled with me and announced to our class how special I was for actually doing library homework. She then allowed me to go choose my book first, while the rest of the class sat in hand-folded silence, glaring at me for what I had done. I remained smug and slowly chose my book. I remember the book, too! It was called GHOSTLY TALES TO BE TOLD, and in that volume I discovered Ambrose Bierce's "The Wendigo," the scariest story I have ever read. This short story collection was the germ of my lifelong love for horror fiction.

I have really fine memories of my high school library, too. Overseen by the thin and matronly stern Miss Growney, the R. L. Thomas High School library, was important in that it was the place I did my first serious research. I still recall receiving an A- on my 20 page senior essay, "George Bernard Shaw, Critic" in Mr. Castor's Honors English class. In fact, I liked the topic so well, I used it as the topic of my freshman essay at SUNY Albany, where I received a B+, from a pinch-mouthed TA, whose name I have forgotten. I also remember the area under the high school library tables as the place I learned to play footsie, amazingly, right under the watch of Miss Growney. The library was also a nice place to watch the members of the library club, all girls, many attractive, rearranging magazines and such.

Of course, my college library was essential for an English education major. It was so huge. Three floors of stack after stack after file cabinet after study carrel. I was amazed by the sheer number of periodicals, and because this was before the computer age, multiple years of each periodical were stored in special periodical boxes. I remember reading theater reviews in a long gone magazine named CUE and in WOMEN'S WEAR DAILY. I remember a lengthy search I did to find information on the Faulkner novella, "The Wild Palms." I also remember being curled up for hours in a carrel just before finals week as I tried to finish reading ABSOLOM, ABSOLOM, another Faulner challenge. It was nice, too, to take a break in the second floor lounge and do a little co-ed watching.

For thirty-three years as a teacher, I and my classes availed ourselves of the Chittenango High School library and watched it evolve into something called a "library media center." Lots of great librarians helped me and my minions. Lorraine Aust was the first, Judy Waite, Betsy Keck, who led Folksmarches, Pamela Revercomb, who dressed in a tutu on days she got stressed, and Mary Cucznik, and I probably forgot someone. When I go into the comfortable, high tech, two-tiered high school library today, I am happily amazed, and I have a hard remembering what it looked like back in 1969, the year I first entered its doors.

I have become a buyer of books I am ashamed to say. I like my own paperbacks, purchased at Barnes and Noble, to curl up with during my major reading hour, which is before I fall asleep at night. I know I should save my money and borrow books from the Sullivan Free Library more often. This doesn't mean our library isn't important to me, though. It is my SUMMERPLAY rehearsal hall. Air-conditioned and large, the community room is perfect to rehearse my large cast plays. I'm really excited about a play for reader's theater, which I am going to write as a fundraiser for the SFL. I believe the date is Thursday, October 14, 2010, in the high school auditorium. This aforementioned play will star a group of local folks from various walks of Chittenango/Bridgeport life. And just this morning, while our house was being renovated and my office was under construction, I borrowed the SFL Wifi to begin this blog. While I was there, I bumped in to a student from the past, class of 1991, who was there looking at books with her little boy. What a bright young woman! I have to start borrowing more books, too.

I've had fun remembering the libraries with which I have had relationships over time, Now I have a great relationship with the new library in the old bank building. The people who steered the purchase and renovation of the Chittenango branch of the Sullivan Free Library, and who now administer and work in both branches of the SFL should be very proud. What wonderful places our libraries are.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Peter Straub's A DARK MATTER

I've loved the writing of Peter Straub since the publication of his epic horror tale GHOST STORY back in the seventies. After reading that classy and scary novel, I searched some of his older works, discovered IF YOU COULD SEE WHAT I HEAR, and have read that spooky, out of the way tale two or three times over the years. Another one of my favorite Straub books is FLOATING DRAGON, which is a little more mainstream spooky. I also like THE TALISMAN and BLACK HOUSE, on which he collaborated with Stephen King, although I've talked to a lot of people who don't care for those two efforts by the masters.

Peter Straub's style is elegant. His books have always seemed to me to be the work of both a poet and a scholar. So I was surprised to be disappointed with A DARK MATTER, his latest novel. In this Rashomon-like tale, four people, getting close to old age, tell their individual stories of the horrible event, the "dark matter," that all were involved in back in 1966, and which has haunted them until the present time. The prose is elegant. Reading it, I could sense that wonderful combination of poet and scholar. But ultimately, after 397 pages, I found I didn't care what this book had to say.

Perhaps, my initial disappointment came from the fact that I didn't really care about anyone in the story. I should have, as they are my contemporaries, but I didn't, and I didn't really believe in them, either. In A DARK MATTER, four high school friends, with the troublingly cute nicknames of Hootie, Dill, Boats, and Eel, and 2 college frat boys are pulled in by the charisma of a handsome and charming guru of cosmic change named Spencer Mallon. This guy has a Cinque-Manson-Jones kind of hold on the kids, and he bears the deep message summarized for him by the story "The Lady or the Tiger?" The message is this: Once you pick a door, no matter which you choose, you are aware of where the lady is and where the tiger is. Therefore, you have answered the central question of the title, and it makes no difference if you're squeezing a princess or getting devoured, you were successful in this quest. This, I guess, is so existential, (later it is mentioned that there is no difference between a pile of broken dolls or a pile of dead children), that the easily led sixties kids are swept right into this Mallon statement's "deepness."

Mallon entrances them, then prepares them, and finally takes them to a field where he is sure that a sort of parallel world is just waiting to be opened by their joint presences. Of course, it works. One college kid gets killed by a hulking, horrible, evil beast, (he deserves it as he's a serial killer in training) and the other college kid gets sucked through an opening between the worlds that he picked at like some cosmic scab. Hootie, Dill, Boats, and Eel all have their own special visions in the field, which screw them up in different ways, and which they never share until the end of the book, some 40 years after the "matter." Remember these visions took place in the 60's so, they are pretty trippy, but not a bit scary, and really disappointing.

The most important and true vision is the one that the Eel had. This is ironically destined before we hear her description of it, because of the way the vision screwed her up. It made her blind. Vision causes no vision. Get it? And don't blind characters often see things more clearly than the sighted characters. I need to question Eel's nickname at this point. Supposedly, she is the most beautiful, charming girl any of the boys have ever met, so why in God's name would they nickname her something disgusting like "Eel." Well, I'll tell you why. It's because both "Eel" and her boyfriend at the time, who becomes her husband later, have the first name "Lee." So they call the guy "Lee" and the girl "Eel," or sometimes, they call them "the twins." "LEE EEL!" If Straub wants so much to use this palindromic combination, then nickname the guy "Eel" after some slithery, disgusting water snake not the gorgeous girl. Or wait--could the Eel be an "Eve" symbol, ergo snaky, at the dawn of a new world order? I don't know. . . or sadly care. I should now tell you about Lee, the Eel's husband, who didn't get charmed by Mallon in the beginning, but who is writing a book about what happened to them all. But I'm not going to because he's a boring putz.

As I have gone on too long, let me conclude with what I believe to be the novel's final theme statement, a theme which the Eel discovers during her vision in the field. It is this: the opposite of love isn't hate; the opposite of love is evil, of which hate is only one of many subsets. It's a good theme. I, too, believe in love, which I know sounds like a song title. I just didn't need 397 pages to reveal it. Maybe a good short story. Or maybe it's like what Stephen King said in the little plug he gives A DARK MATTER on the novel's back cover. He says that the "high school students in the turbulent sixties. . . stumble into horrors far beyond their understanding." Maybe that's what happened to me, too. . . maybe it was beyond my understanding. . . because I just didn't get it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

It's Great When Bigwig Has Your Back!!

Linda found a great book at the library's used bookstore today, THE WATERSHIP DOWN FILM PICTURE BOOK. I know that quite a few of my FB friends have read Richard Addams' wonderful book and seen the very interesting, British-made cartoon film version. It had been too long since I thought about Hazel and the rest, so I was delighted when Linda presented me with this fabulous find, the entire story told through stills from the movie.

If you have never read WATERSHIP DOWN, you have a treat waiting for you. It is the tale of a band of rabbits but so much more. From it, you will learn the value of strength through Bigwig, intelligence through Blackberry, quiet leadership through Hazel, and the necessity of paying attention to others who don't quite see the world the way you do through little Fiver. You'll also have a review of the dangers of fascism and the terrors of giving up your spirit to make life simpler. You'll be amazed at how a band of rabbits can teach us about bravery and friendship and spirituality and love.

Read it and may the spirit of El-ahrairah be with you!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Being GLEEful

GLEE was a little bit of a downer on Tuesday, but acceptably so. If you want to look at the show realistically, it'd be pretty tough for New Directions to defeat a highly funded machine like Vocal Adrenaline. After all, how many 26-member high school show choirs provide their members with matching Range Rovers? Of course, that statement shows that it is completely impossible to look at GLEE realistically, which may be why it's so wonderful.

I watch GLEE first for the fabulous musical numbers, and second for the quirky characters. Now that Rachael has found her mother, Quinn has had her baby, Puck has revealed his sensitive side, Artie has come to terms with his wheelchair, Kurt has learned a lesson about bedroom decoration, and Finn has decided that Mr. Schuster is his father figure, I think some of the secondary or tertiary characters need to be featured. (Can a character be called "tertiary," or is that word only used in reference to things like sewage treatment plants?)

My vote for character who deserves her own plot line goes to Brittany. I love Brittany. I sit every show waiting for her classic dumb lines. When the series finally comes to an end, the producers need to put together a collection of her stupidities. My two favorites are "I think my cat has been reading my diary," and, in response to Kurt's father's admonition that they use protection when he catches them in bed, "Does he mean like burglar alarms?" And she's grossly underappreciated, which is shown by the fact that there were hardly any pictures of her online to download for this post.

Here's my idea for Brittany's back story: She's really a genius, who has created the whole Brittany persona because she so wants to be popular. In fact, she has already graduated from high school and is working on advanced degrees online. More difficult, though, than her late night online studies, is her need to be constantly coming up with stupid things to say. Her search for new idiocies would fuel this special "Brittany" episode. I'm not quite sure where her search would lead, but perhaps to a relationship with a politician who's had open mike problems. I do know that the episode would culminate with her singing, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" because she finally got it memorized. This plot, of course, will not deal with the problem that, along with being totally clueless, Brittany also has the morals of an alley cat. She has enjoyed intimate congress with every straight and able male member of her senior class. (The euphemism and double entendre exhibited in that line are smokin'.) That moral/psychological issue could be dealt with in a later show, and end with her singing "What's Love Got to Do With It."

Planning GLEE back stories could become a really fun thing to do. Imagine if Santana were actually the love child of Sue Sylvester and Mexican rock guitarist and legend Carlos Santana. . .

Friday, June 4, 2010

Teenagers Remain My Favorite People in the World

The title of this piece is not meant in anyway to demean my many friendships with non-teens. Heck, most of my best friends aren't teenagers. But as an age group, I find teens to be unsurpassed in their excitement and joy, their depression and their occasional dysfunction, their curiosity and their need for privacy, their ability to fall in love or into a funk, and a bunch of other things, too. There is so much to them! That's why I happily taught them for a long time and still enjoy seeing them in their natural habitat.

It's true that twice this year I wrote about school violence and bullying, but I need to believe that the most serious of these offenses are the product of a very few. In the last two weeks, we got to spend some time with some great teenagers, and if my optimism about the basic specialness of that age group had begun to pale, it returned to full blush with these visits.

A couple of Wednesdays back Linda and I went to the high school library for a "Writer's Chair" awards reception. We had helped judge the short stories and poems entered by a group of young Chittenango writers. Judging was enjoyable, but talking with them and hearing about their love for writing and their aspirations was the best.

The following Saturday gave us the chance to meet three other teens. Cassie, Bryan, and Erica came to our house to help us paint our picket fence. If you haven't ever painted pickets, you can be sure that it is both painstaking and frustrating. Our three Saturday morning teen helpers were fabulous. In return for their help, we provided some funds to help them attend Young Life Camp in Virginia this summer. They provided the physical, and we helped to pay for the spiritual. They were great kids, and we enjoyed working with them and eating donuts and pizza with them. I have a picture I took of the trio, and I sent it to their Young Life leader, but I decided not to post it here, because I hadn't asked them. Believe me though, my picture of the paint-stained, ice cream bar eating threesome is way better than the photo I pulled off the web to illustrate this posting. (The amount of money that must have been spent on orthodontia alone on the downloaded group above boggles my mind.)

I have been a little lax in my blogging of late, and I'm going to try become more disciplined to it again. I'm glad to get back by writing about kids.

SUMMERPLAY 2010 Cast List and More

Cast List for "The Girl Who Loved Romance Novels"
by Greg Ellstrom
The Director--Aileen Kenneson
Shannon--Chloe Houseman
Dr. Sam--Glenn Phillips
Tim, the non-stalker--Kyle Stevens
Pip--Matt Hess
Jess--Kayla Haynes
Ashley--Sarah Baidel
Juliet--Sarah Guzman
Amanda--Ellen LeFort
Sarah--Maegan Welch
Jennifer--Nicole Kovaleski
Sid--Matt Mohr
Lucy--Jennifer MacAlpine
Mrs. Fezziwig--Joan Dear-Houseman
Gertrude--Kathy Vogel
Dora--Mary Schwarz
Dave--Wayne Horning
Jack the cop--Chuck Hess
Colleen Baldwin, Kathy Cooney, Mary Alice Clapp, Ian Dwyer, --Adult woman #1-3, Adult Man #1, Boy #1, Melva, the Dental Assistant, Allison, Herb, the operators of multiple kiosks, crowd folk, Barbarella, Mayor Maynot, the professor, the Emcee and "someone" (plus more, too, as far as onstage organizing of scenery and providing of clothing)

"The Girl Who Loved Romance Novels" is a two-act comic romance. It tells the story of an improv. company that decides, under the leadership of "The Director," to stage a romance. This romance becomes the tale of college student Jess Arden. In one morning, Jess falls for two different young man. One is very much like her conservative dad and the other somewhat like her activist mom. This busy day ends not only with fireworks but in a near tragedy, and it is not until 4 months later, that Jess's story is resolved.

This is the 6th season of SUMMERPLAY sponsored by the Village of Chittenango and the Greater Sullivan Area Chamber of Commerce. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday thru Saturday, July 15-17, 2010. Tickets are $5 with no family being charged more than $20. The play is suitable for middle schoolers to senior citizens. Reserved tickets will be available in early July. For information call 687-7332.