Sunday, October 22, 2006

I Love Pennsylvania

As soon as I get to Pennsylvania I feel better.

I’ve driven around the state a number of times, and it’s always the same.

The last time was when I drove to Pittsburgh from Boston and back in August. I enjoyed almost all of it. Except of course the part where I was rear-ended on I-80, but more of that later.

What’s wrong with me?

Pennsylvania is, after all, one of the squarest, dullest states in the country. Nothing could be more boring than mile after mile of well-manicured countryside, dotted with little towns with translated Platdeutscher names, where nothing ever happens.

And the basic population is as white as possible (pushing 90%), mostly of Northern European origin (people of German, Irish, and English background make up almost half the population), and heavily Protestant Christian. They tend not to look like garden-variety fat Americans, but often resemble stolid Bauern from the Low Countries, whose descendents they generally are.

Well, that’s the stereotype, and, like all stereotypes, there’s an element of truth to it. Part of my wife’s family is from Pennsylvania. They were originally French, but had become quite German by the time they arrived. They married into the local Pennsylvania Dutch population and settled right in. Her ancestor, Michel Gilbert, horloger de Paris, was a Huguenot (big surprise for a watchmaker). He bailed when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes.

Caution: History ahead. Sorry if your eyes glaze over. I'll stop and read it if it's about the 17th century. You should, too.

Anyway, here’s what Wikipedia says:

Eighty-seven years later, in October 1685, however, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, renounced the Edict and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This act, most commonly called the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had very damaging results for France. While the wars of religion did not re-ignite, many Protestants chose to leave France, most moving to Great Britain, Germany and the Dutch Republic. This exodus deprived France of many of its most skilled and industrious individuals….

So, the skilled and industrious Michel Gilbert headed to Hohenheim in Württemberg. His thoroughly Germanized grandson, Bernhardt, moved to Pennsylvania in 1750, where he could be among his Calvinist coreligionists and enjoy the ongoing benefits of William Penn’s well-run enterprise. He settled the town of Gilbertsville. It’s still there near Pottstown, not far from Reading, and nothing much has happened these past 256 years.

Now my wife with her Pennsylvania ancestry finds small-town life there intolerable. As a book editor, she had to do a couple of temporary stints at a printing plant in York, PA, which drove her to climbing the walls even while not at work.

I find rural Pennsylvania strangely comforting, however. I like the settled, almost European look of the countryside. It has little of the chewed-up, bleak, exploited appearance of many agricultural areas in this country. People have lived in rural Pennsylvania for 300-odd years, and it shows.

I also like the fact that Pennsylvania is heavily churched. A bit less than 40% are Protestants, with more than 50% Catholics. If you do a Google Earth search of any populated area in Pennsylvania and select to show places of worship, the image will be practically blacked out by little church icons.

Christian radio stations are everywhere. This is fairly unusual for the Northeast. Here in New England, there is the odd Catholic broadcast on some small station. Evangelical radio is rare.

I find that I am most comfortable around religious people. The specific religion is not important to me, but I just like people who have some religious or at least spiritual dimension to their lives.

This is a complex subject I’ll try to write more about later. I hope to make religion and spiritual life one of the topics on this blog.

A short aside:

The small suburb where we live in Massachusetts is surprisingly churched. As a result, our kids think that going to mass is perfectly normal, as everybody does something like it. It also allows them to explore and compare different traditions, because the kids talk a lot about it among themselves. They also talk to us: “How come Jacob is walking with his family all dressed up in black on Saturday morning? Where are they going?” “William told me they don’t believe in saints. Why do we believe in saints? What are saints, anyway?” “That church is scary. Why does St. Michael have that big sword?” We’ve had some great religious and philosophical discussions with the kids that I don’t think would have happened in a more secular environment.

So, I appreciate the relatively high percentage of churchgoing Pennsylvanians.

I must say I have no illusions that there is a simple, sturdy yeomanry out there in some kind of sylvan American paradise. The recent horrible Amish school murders make that point, don’t they?

In addition to the horror of the school murders, there is the universal catalog of daily human misery in rural Pennsylvania: Truckers on pills, hopped-up meth-head bikers, local thugs and idiots, alcoholics, hookers, all-purpose bums, runaway pregnant girls with AIDS, and on and on. Read or listen to the local news.

My wife did not like her gun-toting, proto-good-old-boy cousins when she met them many years ago. But despite that, there is a kind of goodness, an almost Midwestern niceness that has come from most people I’ve met in Pennsylvania. There is also plenty of old-fashioned American practicality that is in short supply in the other bicoastal places I’m familiar with.

An example of the practicality and civility of Pennsylvanians was in the way I was treated when I was rear-ended on I-80 somewhere in Jefferson Township. I was driving a van filled with trade-show display items. I was rolling to a stop behind some trucks already stopped for road construction, when a driver in a Mercedes station wagon, not from Pennsylvania, plowed into my left rear side. Because he swerved at the last second, he barely missed hitting me directly, and spun out three times into the center divider. Neither of us was hurt, although he might have gotten a scrape or two. In any event, all sorts of people stopped to help. I called 911, and the State Police were there in a few minutes. The State Troopers, from the DuBois office, were remarkably helpful, friendly and efficient. With the help of a tow truck driver, they eventually got the van going again, and I drove on to Pittsburgh. I can’t say enough for the quality of their work. I’ve been involved in a few other fender-benders, and I’ve never had a better experience with the police. Another confirmation of my good feelings about Pennsylvania.

So, am I just a fan of the boring, the dull, and the white? Should I like Cambridge or Manhattan or San Francisco better? I’ve spent time in all three places, and if I were asked now if I would rather move to any of them or retire to some rural township in central Pennsylvania, I’m afraid my unhesitating answer would be the middle of Pennsylvania.

To repeat the question, what’s wrong with me?

Monday, October 9, 2006


I drove to Pittsburgh in August. I went to represent my company at the National Flute Association convention. In fact, my second blog entry was done from a hotel room in Pittsburgh the night I arrived.

I have not mentioned exactly what I do for a living in comments on other blogs, and I’ve been torn about revealing my profession here. Given my screen name and the thumbnail photo in my profile, not to mention my Boston-area location, it should be pretty obvious, though, to anybody with a passing knowledge of woodwind instruments.

So, yes, I am in the musical instrument business, flutes and piccolos specifically. I’m responsible for a department in one of the oldest and best-known flute makers in the US. We have a reasonably large operation in the Boston area, where we make handmade custom instruments as well as a couple of other lines of less expensive flutes. We also have a separate company to offer other wind instruments, either imported or made from a variety of sources.

But I don’t want to get into the specifics of flute making or the musical instrument business here. This post is about Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh makes a good impression. It is a pleasant, mid-sized city in an exceptional location. The confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers is a lucky piece of North American geography and quite an obvious place to put a city. The rivers provided a way to transport relatively nearby raw materials and to ship finished goods from the iron and steel industries that dominated the place for more than a century. Now that heavy industry has gone, one of the nice surprises is how little the area has been permanently despoiled. I’m sure there is quite a lot of hidden pollution, but on a superficial level the air is clean, the rivers look good, and the countryside is green and pleasant. Pittsburgh seems to have found a new economic footing as well. It lacks the run-down look of old industrial cities such as Buffalo or Detroit.

Downtown Pittsburgh, like so many American central cities, has an unsafe feel at night, but during the day when the offices are filled it is quite tolerable. The Convention Center where we were is large and well-designed. The hotels are decent, and there are a few fairly good restaurants. Pittsburgh is not a large city, so the restaurant selection is limited, but you can eat quite well if you want.

WQED is probably the best classical music radio station in the US, much better than anything I’ve heard in Boston or the West Coast for a long time. Also the college stations of WRCT and WDUQ are quite good, again better than anything comparable I’ve heard elsewhere. In fact the quality and variety of radio in Pennsylvania are striking, and I’m wondering how this happens when radio has become so homogenized and bad elsewhere.

Below are a few pictures of Pittsburgh taken with my cell phone camera. I forgot to bring a digital camera, but the cell phone did the job in this pinch.

This first is from Google Earth and shows the Convention Center on the lower bank of the river to the right, with PNC Park on the opposite side to the left of the image. PNC Park is the relatively recent (2001) replacement for Three Rivers Stadium.

This is a morning view toward the 19th Street Bridge from my hotel room.

Here is a view toward the PNC Park from the bank of the Allegheny River. There is a nice below-ground walkway to a little observation/park area on the riverbank near the 19th St. Bridge. One of our guys was lucky enough to be taken to the Pirates game you see illuminated in this picture. He says it's a very good new ballpark built along classic lines complete with two decks of seats.

Finally, here is a slightlly fuzzy view of the walkway. It was cool on a summer evening with falling water lining the path.

Is anyone from the Pittsburgh area? What can you tell us about it? How is the economy? How is cultural life? Is it the pleasant, reasonable place it seems, or are there dark, hidden currents of despair in post-industrial Pittsburgh?

Why Blog, or, What Do I Think I'm Doing?

With thousands of blogs created every day, why would anyone find this interesting?

I suspect they won't, but, frankly, that doesn't matter right now. The main reason I've done this is for me. With the exception of music, I'm no expert on the themes I proposed to blog about. And I really wonder about music sometimes.

What I am, though, is an interested layman. So, the first reason for this is to discuss things. Perhaps not exactly ships and sails and sealing wax...cabbages and kings, but something like that. And I promise not to eat all the oysters, although this blog does give me some vinegar and pepper besides. But I won't devour you unless you attempt to turn the tables and play the walrus.

I am not a controversialist by nature. I am what I like to think of as middle-of-the-road and moderate in most things. That's what attracted me to Althouse's blog in the first place. I tend to agree with her positions on most political issues, including her stated distaste for really partisan politics. I have always found it easy to disagree with someone about politics and not think they were a bad person or "evil" in the modern manner. That seems to be a quaint and old-fashioned outlook these days. So, to all you true believers out there: Go away. This isn't for you. I may not even talk that much politics, but we've all encountered egocentric and monomaniacal bores in whatever area of life. If you have some idée fixe that you have to sell, again, go away.

As much as I want to be able to discuss all sorts of things, I don’t have much hope that it will attract a “commentariat” like some of the established and well-attended blogs. I do hope we will have something like a quorum here before too long. That is up to me though, isn’t it?

The other selfish reason, quite honestly, is to improve my writing. I had the experience some time ago of having to produce an essay to be put up on my company’s Web site. It occurred to me that I hadn’t composed a piece of expository prose of any length since graduate school. The essay turned out fine, but it cost me more time and energy than I imagined. So, are the little grey cells still healthy? I don’t know, but let’s find out. They won’t be damaged by the exercise and neither will yours.

Some actual, real material will follow. I’ll quit talking about blogging. I promise.

Sunday, October 8, 2006

The Best Laid Plans

Well, it began bravely enough.

I wrote what I thought was a pretty good introduction, got a comment, wrote a response to that, posted another since-deleted entry, got a couple of comments, and then....

Real life, aka work and kids, intruded into my blogging career.  Mostly work.  So, here we are, back at square one.

I've found it easier to post the occasional comment over at Althouse than to create something new for this blog.  I'm sure the few people who might have stumbled over here from Althouse on the basis of my comments have been irritated to find their time wasted.  My apologies.

Anyway, here goes...again.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Wow! A First Comment

This may have been a bad week to start a blog. I am writing this from a hotel room in Pittsburgh at 1:30 AM. Why am I in Pittsburgh? Simple. I'm at a convention this week. Forgot about this little detail when I put up the first post.

And how am I going to write those brilliant posts after 14-hour days meeting and schmoozing with people here? Short answer, I'm not. Wait a few days, folks.

So I want to thank Ninanina for putting up the first comment here, despite the lack of content other than the introductory post. Check out her blogs here, here, and here.

Nina's drawings of historic buildings in Richmond, Texas are well worth a look. Making drawings of interesting buildings or other local sights such as these used to be much done in the 19th century and were often shared among friends. These drawings capture that spirit nicely and are much more interesting than mere photos.

It's now after 2:00 AM, and I'm afraid I've turned into a pumpkin long since. Thanks again, Nina, and I hope you would join in a discussion here soon. But first I have to locate my brain and put it back in my head. Won't be able to do that for a while....

Sunday, August 6, 2006

A Quiet Evening Begins

This blog will be about discussion.

Topics will, of course, be set by me and will inevitably reflect my interests and tastes.

All are welcome to contribute. I prefer medium-length posts and comments, long enough to develop ideas but not eye-glazing in length. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but do feel free to convey more complex ideas if you wish.

Here is a list of things that we might discuss. This is not everything, so expect surprises:

Music. This is my lifelong and principal interest. I spend most of my time with classical music, but I also enjoy good jazz. I expect to have a fair number of posts on musical topics. Unlike so many of my generation (Boomer, in case you hadn't guessed), I have almost no interest in the various kinds of pop and rock music. I can tolerate World music and other eclectic genres a little. So if you want to talk about Radio Paradise, fine. I don't expect to be posting, however, about Bob Dylan and his new radio show anytime soon.

Politics and public policy. Can we have an intelligent discussion? I am not particularly partisan, and would like to steer clear of the left-right divide that has poisoned so much of our public life.

Foreign policy. Being married to a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, foreign policy comes up rather often around our house. I was interested in foreign affairs long before I met my wife. Her being a grad student in the field was one of her many attractions.

Spiritual and religious matters. This will not be limited to sectarian views but should be understood broadly as all things religious. Are you a Buddhist? A Catholic? An Evangelical? A Jew? An agnostic? A quiet atheist? What have your spiritual experiences been? Let's talk about them and everything else that might come up here.

Science and technology. No stem cells, please! I like physics and astronomy and hardware of all kinds. I dislike science about soft, squishy subjects.

Literature and writing. I am just curious enough about current literature to start a discussion or two, but can only claim a smattering of ignorance on the subject.

Current movies, TV shows, and popular music. NOT! There are a zillion other venues to discuss these topics. And please don't quote lyrics from 30-year-old rock songs. Let me do that. I mostly quote Frank Zappa.

Starting this blog is an attempt to have the sorts of conversations I once enjoyed with a few close friends, now long scattered. We cannot relive the past, I know. We know we will never reclaim those young years when all seemed bright and possible. The friends may still exist, but we've said everything. The conversations are done. The evening seems barren and dull. So why not invite a wider circle to share an interest or two and perhaps to have a chat?

There are many people seeking to connect in some way, and the Internet has given us all new tools to do it. With these possibilities are the dangers of a new world of synthetic relationships. There is something distanced and false about even the most intimate and confessional forms of electronic communications. Terms like "community" and "roots" ring hollow. I originally intended to call this blog "A Quiet Evening with Friends," but "Friends" had such a pathetic quality that I dropped it with a wince as soon as I saw it.

We may have "friends" of a sort online. But the people who must have first call on our loyalties and energies are our families, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Face-to-face always trumps keyboard-to-keyboard.

There are obvious problems that flow from the ability to hide behind a computer screen. This device gives us the unrivaled ability to create false faces and put on disguises that, in real life, would subject us to withering ridicule if discovered. For my part, I propose to keep my identity private for the time being, and I fully respect others who wish to do so. On the other hand, I try not to misrepresent events, ideas, or myself in any serious or essential way, and I would request that others do the same.

So, there you have it: The motivation, the interests, and a gentle reminder about honesty.

Please feel free to drop by. I will try to post at least twice a week, ideally more often. Find a spot on the sofa, make yourself comfortable, have a virtual glass of white wine, or coffee or tea if you prefer. There are a few virtual treats on the coffee table. Settle in and let us know what you think.

So, here's to beginnings.