History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Graduation reflects tenor of the times

Caspar Milquetoast gave the inspiration for a memorable line in the 1973 Morris High School graduation. It was the defining line of the night. Edie Martin proclaimed "Don't be a Milquetoast." She's the daughter of the late Willie and Rachel.
There was a time when high schools would bring in a featured speaker for graduation. Colleges are still fond of doing this. I get the impression it's not so necessary in high schools, where the podium gets turned over to selected grads themselves.
Bless these grads on the optimistic tone that characterizes their speeches.
Boomer parents might sit there and wonder why more of this tone couldn't have been heard when they were young. Boomers graduated from high school in an unsettled time. A graduate who spoke for commencement wasn't likely to choose the passive tone of today.
There were exceptions of course, but many celebrated graduation speeches of that time were "edgy." They encouraged a fresh start for our society. They encouraged grads to be uninhibited and take a fresh view of things.
I graduated from high school in 1973. The first Watergate revelations appeared in the summer of 1972 and the whole thing didn't culminate until the summer of 1974. So we were smack dab in the middle.
The president who represented the "silent majority" of the older, mature population of that time was going to get dragged out of power. This was the president who inherited Lyndon Johnson's war but couldn't end it, at least not for a very long time.
Perhaps Dick Nixon made the mistake of many conservative and Republican politicians of today, who say (like a parrot) "we have to listen to our generals on the ground." We mustn't be wimpy. Problem is, a general will never say "we're losing and we need to get the heck out."
The worst of the Viet Nam War was behind us as we crossed the stage in that spring of 1973. But this and other problems, like belated civil rights advancement, made us restless. We weren't inclined to want to hear the "stock" high school graduation speech.
The grads who spoke might not come right out and make naked political points. That would be a faux pas. So they exuded the rebellious air in a subtle way, almost by "code," by just being edgy and unconventional. We could read between the lines.
Our graduation was when Morris High School - no "Area" then - did seek the outside, adult "featured speaker." Many schools might tap an alumnus of note for this.
We didn't go outside for our speaker because we invited an intern Lutheran pastor from in Morris. I don't remember any of what he said.
A member of the clergy might be questionable as a graduation speaker. These people are by definition biased. Each denomination has a track record of opinions. Outside the cocoon of their own church, their speaking might not win broad acclamation.
I think the advice he dispensed to us was pretty tame. We listened respectfully.
Two from among us also took the podium. One gave a pretty stock speech, the contents of which I'd have no better chance remembering than the weather of that day. The other speech was by one of those grads of the time who felt she should be unconventional. I'm quite certain all of us in that class remember at least one catch line of hers.
She told us "don't be a Milquetoast." She was lively and animated at the podium.
The class of '73 was emerging from the rubble of some contentious times in America. Not only could a graduation speech shake us up a little, encouraging us to be fresh and original, a class motto could shake things up too. The late Wally Behm recalled pulling his hair out, at least figuratively, getting the school's leadership to put its imprimatur on ours. It was a quote from a U.S. Civil War commander. It was from the battle of Mobile Bay.
A Civil War battle was a metaphor for the kind of adjustments American society was being pulled through, i.e. with advancements in civil rights, gender equality (still a ways off) and getting completely out of Viet Nam. Our class motto was "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
Did we say "damn?"
I don't know if this theme would cause a problem today. It would most likely cause a problem with the graduates themselves. All those FFAers (and others) who subscribe to only the most wholesome of principles would make a face at such a phrase.
We didn't even have FFA at Morris High School when I was there. Can you believe that? I wrote about its creation when I was with the print media. I remember working with our first-ever FFA advisor, a gentleman named Jim Clendenin. I'm proud to remember the spelling of his last name. It's not quite the same as the New York Mets' first baseman on that miracle team of 1969: "Donn Clendenon." Morris was enthralled by that team because it included WCSA graduate Jerry Koosman, the big lefty.
FFA's inception meant that more settled times were arriving - a subscription to healthy, conventional and predictable values, sweeping aside much of the previous tumult. The FFAers in their blue jackets would be a source of stability. I can't imagine them issuing cries of protest. We can be thankful we live in what seems a more well-ordered world.
The boys of today should be reminded there was a time when the specter of military conscription (the draft) would hang over them. Such letters from "Uncle Sam" would begin "Greetings," remember?
Pearl Harbor was one thing. The Gulf of Tonkin, sadly, was quite something else. The Tonkin event might in fact have been entirely phantom - fabricated as a pretext for U.S. involvement.
The war cast a pall in a way that the nicely scrubbed and cheerful young people of today would have a hard time grasping. They might study the Viet Nam war in the detached manner of a student. "Oh, gee, that was unpleasant." To actually live through that was anything but academic.
So an air of pervasive restlessness arose in our academic institutions. Academia exists as an incubator for tomorrow's thought leaders. We saw a lot that was wrong but we lacked power to institute immediate change. So our graduation speakers drifted toward oddball, unconventional themes - "don't be a Milquetoast" - as a coded way of saying many of our conventions as a nation had become cockeyed.
It was a way of sort of "dropping out."
Morris historians should note that our practice of seeking an outside graduation speaker ended abruptly. I can pinpoint the year. It was in my first year of covering the Morris High School graduation for the print media. The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was president.
Our featured speaker was supposed to be Lou Wangberg, lieutenant governor. But he canceled with the explanation that the weather was a problem for his plane flight. He was known to be committed to a political (partisan) event at the same rough time, I believe in Duluth.
Suspicion sprang up immediately that Wangberg just didn't want to take the time to come here, that he had pressing political business to attend to. Very firmly, the Morris community decided it wasn't necessary to bring some pompous soul here to dispense wisdom for graduation. The kids themselves would do just fine. Politicians be damned, I guess.
Maybe we were wiser back in 1973 getting that local clergyman. I should note he was a "hip" young clergyman rather consistent with the tenor among the young. He is deceased, having died while practicing his craft in Florida. While in Morris he was associated with our First Lutheran Church. It was my church although I never felt any special affinity there. My closest personal friends tended to be Catholic.
Could the pendulum go back and could Morris decide it might be neat to get a "special" graduation speaker again? These things can go in cycles. Maybe we could get Newt Gingrich. His price might be reasonable. Hopefully he's recovered from that penguin bite.
Maybe Gingrich would come here and tell us about that moon base. He's Republican so he'd win the approval of those FFAers and their parents, who are largely Farm Bureau, straight-laced types.
We're on the doorstep of May, so graduation is getting near. The last Morris graduation I covered for the print media was in 2006. It was "Morris Area" and not "Morris." The local newspaper had lost much of its soul because of having been taken over by distant corporate interests. I had already submitted my resignation, so it was a highly bittersweet night.
The company made sure the public got the message I was on the way out. Two other newspaper employees would be there that night, one an intern, and I had no previous knowledge of that.
I had covered Morris graduations by myself as far back as 1979. But in 2006 I had become an afterthought, I guess. One of those employees walked right in front of me to take a photo at one point.
Considering the cuts made by that newspaper since then, I'm surprised they could have three employees present to cover graduation. The biggest cut of course was the cancellation of the mid-week (Wednesday) edition. They of course will say they "had to" do this. They'll say the new "weekly" paper has to come out on Saturday because "advertisers want it this way."
So the advertisers rule, which you can readily suspect by just examining the product. And I guess the reading public comes second.
I know some very established Morris residents - community pillar types actually - whose names I won't type here, but they have told me they don't buy the paper anymore. They don't subscribe and they don't buy it at the store. They don't mince words.
Now, if we could only get that "virtual community" destiny driver of Stevens Forward! to take hold, it wouldn't matter. We could all discard the paper and it wouldn't matter.
If only such a time would come. Unfortunately Stevens Forward! is turning out to be a dud. It's quite in line with Caspar Milquetoast.
Addendum: The urban dictionary defines a "Milquetoast" as "a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated."
Edie Martin was (is) quite the opposite.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stevens Forward! re-focusing in more realistic way

Is it time for Stevens Forward! to shake the Etch a Sketch and start over?
The community betterment program had its start in 2007. Those were heady days for our nation and our culture, as the Dow Jones crept over 14,000. Optimism might have seemed more in order.
Stevens Forward! really wanted our county to stand out in outstate Minnesota. Was it so much empty talk? That assessment seems to be get getting floated. The goals may have more on-paper value than practical.
Two representatives of the group recently appeared at a board of commissioners meeting. It appears there was an atmosphere of humility. That's the impression I take away from a media report, a report not from a Morris-based media entity.
Humility yes, but there was a refreshing tone of frankness and an inspiring resolve to keep going.
Ray Farwell is chair of the group. Carolyn Peterson is coordinator. I remember working with Carolyn, a very pleasant person, when she ran our Chamber of Commerce.
Farwell and Peterson addressed the commissioners and said Stevens Forward! is redefining its approach. Stevens Forward! has county board sponsorship. With skin in the game, the board is taking an appropriate sober look at an organization that might be easily tagged a typical bureaucratic organism with far more rhetoric than action.
One can read the 14 "destiny drivers" and suspect much is rhetoric. It all sounds very nice. The language of such organizations always sounds very ambitious. It's like the Blandin retreats, I might suggest, where surely the aims are nothing but admirable. But how practical is it?
I used to have an occasional philosophical chat with Skip Sherstad, an ambitious and now-deceased public servant. He was only a year older than me. As a childhood friend, he and I often talked with candor that might not arise with other people in high-profile roles in the community. He and I agreed that efforts like Stevens Forward! and Blandin could be way over-hyped. 
You might say we got cynical. We felt there was only one way to be a community leader in truly meaningful fashion. And that was to "have money." But I don't think we'd want "Mr. Potter" from "It's a Wonderful Life." I doubt we'd want casinos anywhere close to us.
Appleton thought a prison would do the trick. Prisons and casinos are Hail Marys in the development world.
We have the finest possible attribute here: the University of Minnesota-Morris. Stevens Forward! talks about that attribute and how it might be enhanced.
Oh, there's no doubt we should all root for UMM. But I have lived in this town since UMM's inception and I know how autonomous it wants to be. Experience tells me UMM isn't going to be influenced by an organization like Stevens Forward!
The University acts like it's quite capable of taking care of itself. I think my former boss at the Morris newspaper, Jim Morrison, would agree with me.
UMM works in concert with the main campus administration. (I know that's politically incorrect and I should say "Twin Cities campus.") The University drives itself with carefully tailored objectives and goals. It knows completely what is going on with the stimuli around it. It isn't going to recognize a nudge from a small town organization of do-gooders who have a parochial lens.
"Oh, you want UMM to have an enrollment of 2100 with 1800 of them on-campus? Gee, thanks for suggesting that."
Those number goals are found in destiny driver No. 13 - lucky number 13? - of Stevens Forward!
Every few years some new do-gooder in the Morris leadership network comes forward and says "we need a better relationship between 'the college' and the community."
I discussed this with Jim once when one of these quotes was fresh. Experience taught me, I said, that UMM really wanted to be left alone in many respects. And while UMM would never proclaim anything negative about the surrounding town, it really wouldn't court any special (or certainly not symbiotic) relationship.
I guess what I resented, if that's not too powerful a word, was the suggestion that the Morris community was at fault for any division. To the extent there's a divide, I really think this is something UMM has to answer for. There's no need for guilt and self-flagellation out among us.
UMM follows its own inspiration, its own agenda. And this might be totally appropriate. So I eye with some skepticism the assertion in destiny driver No. 13 that "we must build a stronger coalition between UMM and the region."
Believe me, this is nothing more than a continuing refrain. UMM knows exactly what it is doing on its own terms. Let's admit, though, the main campus has some egg on its face with being too loose with money. 
Maybe the main U is still a little bit in 2007 with the Dow hovering over 14,000. Heady days, yes. It was such days that gave the backdrop when Stevens Forward! got drawn up and promoted with the typically fancy brochures.
Destiny driver No. 8 is the type that would drive Glenn Beck nuts. It might suggest we're a hotbed of intense political progressives (or, as Mitt Romney might put it, "severe" progressives). It reads that by 2015, "we'll be the first carbon neutral county in the world."
"First county in the world?" Who wrote that? The whole world isn't characterized by having "counties."
Stevens Forward! wants us to have "viable models for green housing, neighborhoods and public buildings."
Yeah, like the famously ballyhooed, award-winning "green community" on the old school property, right?
One of William F. Buckley's early defining books was titled "Did you ever see a dream walking?" It might be an apt phrase to weigh in connection with much of what Stevens Forward! puts forth.
Stevens Forward! wants to lasso as many new retirees as possible, to settle here. That's logical since older people have done far better in the economic downturn than the struggling young adults, with the latter organizing in large numbers with "Occupy."
We might not be so enthused having all those ragtag young people living here. But the retirees with their Social Security checks? That's a gravy train. And it will remain so unless the likes of Paul Ryan seize power in government to carry out their wishes. And it could happen. Then maybe we'll all be poor. Elderly people can get their "coupons" to purchase private health insurance.
For the time being though, government continues to show the proper consideration for the old with all the dues they've paid in life. They are a backbone for small outstate Minnesota communities. In fact, heaven help us without them.
So please, vote Democrat!
Jim and I would definitely laugh at, or acknowledge with a knowing grin, destiny driver No. 12. It reads "we will construct an outdoor aquatic center."
Again, who wrote this? "We will construct?" Who is "we?"
The idea of an outdoor aquatic center, i.e. pool, has been bandied about from time immemorial here, to irritation. It could be a financial white elephant. Maybe a lot of the skepticism has been justified.
Destiny driver No. 14 is total bureaucratise: "By 2012 (hey that's this year) an intergovernment council will ratify a statement of interdependence that will guide us toward greater efficiencies among our public institutions and services."
As Count Floyd on the old SCTV comedy show would say, "Brrrr, scary."
An intergovernment council? To promote efficiencies? Creating something new, like MnSCU, to promote efficiency can have the exact opposite effect. New organizations by definition seek all the resources and largesse it can obtain. Glenn Beck would surely recoil at such a thought.
Destiny driver No. 14 suggests that the intergovernment thing will "ratify a statement of interdependence that will guide us toward" those greater efficiencies. Well, good luck.
Stevens Forward! is saying at present it will make some of its goals (drivers) secondary. It wants to "partner better with other organizations." Partnership, re-focusing, whatever. . .
The real positive change in a community comes when the hard-nosed businesspeople push forward, assuming they can identify a need or demand. Is that really in the cards now?
We learn that the Stevens County population has dropped by as much as 2,000 since 1980. I suspect there are forces behind this - e.g. tech, globalization - that are far bigger than anything Stevens Forward! or a like organization can counter.
Tom Brokaw talks over and over about the "depopulation of the Great Plains states." He talks about "courthouses located 35 miles apart, each with an auditor" - a system that "might have made sense in horse and buggy days."
We have a new or totally refurbished courthouse in Morris. I was there the other day and it seems opulent and over-built. What we had before was just fine. Our new Taj Mahal must have been planned when the Dow was around 14,000 and Stevens Forward! got formed.
The parking lot is too confining, inviting of fender-benders. And why on earth were those "islands" put in, making it even more difficult to maneuver around? Too much of the public's business is done on the second floor.
Are the commissioners wholly content with this? They got a roundhouse punch on trying to move forward with a jail.
We'll see if they approve of the current tweaking of Stevens Forward!
I'm inclined to be skeptical. I mean, "did you ever see a dream walking?"
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MACA boys come up shy in twin bill opener

BOLD 11, Tigers 7
The curtain opened for Tiger baseball action on Thursday, April 12, and it proved to be a humbling affair for MACA. Victory eluded the orange and black squad in both ends of this home twin bill.
The Tigers had a fairly robust offense in game #1, plating seven runs. They led 7-6 after five innings.
But the BOLD Warriors found the groove to rally for five runs in the sixth en route to an 11-7 win over MACA.
It was Logan Sandgren delivering the key blow that sent MACA to the canvas. Sandgren zeroed in on a pitch to his liking and delivered a bases-clearing triple. This Warrior would finish three-for-four in the boxscore. His RBI total: four.
The first two innings were scoreless. Then in the third, Mac Beyer's bat produced an RBI single and Tyler Henrichs pounded a two-run double.
The 3-0 lead looked promising, but BOLD got untracked for a four-run bottom of the third.
The Tigers came through with two runs each in the fourth and fifth. The rally in the fifth, good for giving MACA a 7-5 lead, featured RBI singles off the bats of Jake Torgerson and Tom Holland.
The Morris Area Chokio Alberta line score was seven runs, nine hits and two errors.
Holland had a sharp eye at bat, connecting for three hits in five at-bats and scoring two runs. Tanner Picht had a fine season debut at bat, going two-for-three with an RBI.
Henrichs had a pair of doubles in his three at-bats and drove in two runs. Beyer went one-for-three with an RBI, and Torgerson finished one-for-four.
Sam Mattson and Torgerson split the pitching duties. Mattson hurled for five innings, fanning six batters but allowing six runs (five earned).
Torgerson was tagged with the loss in his one-inning stint, in which he got roughed up. It's early in the season.
Riley Kramer was the winning pitcher.

BOLD 5, Tigers 1
Game #2 on season-opening day had Riley Kramer delivering a key hit for BOLD. He singled with the bases full in the first.
Kyle Athmann, a name very familiar to Tiger fans from throughout the athletic calendar, made a big statement with the stick in the second. Athmann tripled to drive in a run.
So BOLD led 2-0 and went on to hand our Tigers a 5-1 loss.
Logan Sandgren was in good pitching form for the Warriors, going the whole way and setting down seven Tiger batters on strikes. He walked just one.
Meanwhile, Mac Beyer and Chandler Erickson did the Tigers' pitching with Beyer coming away as the pitcher of record. He pitched five innings, striking out five batters, while Erickson worked two frames and he struck out four.
The Tigers scored their lone run in the sixth. Their line score was one run, four hits and two errors.
Beyer had the only multiple-hit game for MACA: two-for-three with both of his hits doubles, plus an RBI. Tom Holland and Tanner Picht had the other Tiger safeties.
Beyer doubled in Picht for the Tigers' lone run.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Seeing the big picture with aging Americans

Johnny Carson gave us the funny "Aunt Blabby" character. Ed McMahon introduced her as "deer, sweet, lovable, old," remember?

Hospitals are places of miracle and hope today. Certainly it's different from an earlier time, when medicine didn't have the tools to extend life so much.
I remember George Will writing that in 1946, the No. 1 expense for many hospitals was "clean linens." Science has brought us light years along.
But all good things are accompanied by challenges. As we find cures for the big things that can take one's life, we set people up for a lot of little problems and hindrances that come with age.
God's plan for us was to get steadily more brittle and vulnerable, beginning at about age 75. Society hasn't yet gotten a true wakeup call on what this will mean. No true clarion call. It's only "hints," as with these feel-good programs where a college student might volunteer to be a "buddy" to a senior citizen for part of a day.
It's very well-intentioned but hardly adequate.
An aging person who really needs this sort of thing is going to need it on a more continuous basis.
Often the most difficult step is to give up driving. How many boomers lay awake nights wondering if their parents are making the proper adjustments? If they're human, they are more distracted by this than they're willing to admit. We like to keep these little anxieties private. The barrier is pride.
Even though it's obvious God created us to lose our independence after about age 75, we don't like to admit it. In America, personal independence is an ideal. It's why we seem to revile "European style socialism." Actually I think it's just a few loud voices from the right trumpeting that.
A lot of older people are going to need considerable help as time goes on. We hear hints of this from the media occasionally. The true wakeup call hasn't seemed to arrive yet.
The concept of "assisted care" has been bandied about. It sounds like such an easy solution: "assisted care." Not messy and sad like "nursing home."
Boomers like me don't like associating themselves with things that are messy and sad. We grew up quite hedonistic and haven't entirely thrown off that inclination.
People of my vintage, 1973 high school grad, are at a point where our parents have passed on or are likely quite dependent. Old friends come back to town for funerals.
A classmate of mine who I don't see often approached me at a restaurant recently. His father had recently passed. I expressed sympathy. Without missing a beat he said "it was a blessing." The deceased had suffered from Alzheimer's.
Yes, medical science is a miracle. It prolongs life, for which we all cheer, but God has decided the end must come. An individual gets cured of something - thank the Lord - but aging then brings on other maladies. Gradually our independence must be relinquished.
We are restrained in discussing this with others. But most assuredly there are private little conversations going on all over the place. Even with the best-planned transition, older people get more vulnerable. God has simply decided this.
A recent page 1 headline tells us Minnesota is tightening elder neglect/abuse laws. We might wonder why the nursing home establishment has shown reservations about this, actually opposing to an extent. Shouldn't they be out front pushing for the best care? Of course it's not that simple.
Older people have challenges they wouldn't have dreamt of when younger. Aging is slow so we might overlook some of these changes. Older people can be in denial about their limitations. They might argue with their children over giving up driving.
There's a huge risk of falling, yet they don't seem aware of all the precautions they might take. Elder neglect laws may fly in the face of the kind of frailty that even the most conscientious caregivers, whether family members or an institution, can't fully provide insulation from.
I'm reminded of an impassioned letter to the editor in the Star Tribune from someone imploring us on how many suggested cases of "elder abuse" have shades of gray. In other words, "two sides to the story." You have to have been there, taking care of a brittle older adult.
There are truly egregious cases of neglect. The law tries to focus on these but it can be fungible. If the laws become too strict, maybe no one will want to take the risk of caring for, or keeping an eye on, very aged people. I imagine institutions will have to increase their costs. Yeah, like we're all ready to accept that.
Well we may have to.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
A spouse of a high school classmate of mine once said to me "eventually the Federal government is just going to take care of everybody." If our laws increasingly demand perfection and if that perfection has a prohibitive pricetag, the government will have to step in.
European style socialism? It will be the American brand. It will progress along quietly beneath all the conservative rhetoric. We talk about self-reliance but in fact we need help.
The Federal government can print money. Of course, that way lies madness too, or collapse. The doomsayers seem to be increasing in number.
Maybe the best thing would be for families to be forced together to take care of their own. America has been alone in discouraging multi-generation families. Through history, multi-generation families have been quite common.
The economy has been forcing some re-thinking in America. Still, we get news media commentators who insist on talking in a snarky way about this sort of thing.
Just as the automobile liberated us in the 20th Century, we came to feel we could all live like islands. It might be healthy for us to retreat a little. It might be nice for us to be collectively slapped in the face, and be told that cross-generational caring has been the norm through world history.
There are limits to how well institutions can perform.
I read a book from our Morris Public Library that cautioned on the concept of "assisted care." Let's emphasize it's a concept. The author noted how fashionable it is for middle-age people - boomers, you know who you are - to reason "I won't need a nursing home, I'll just use assisted care."
It's a delusion.
"Assisted care" sounds so much more palatable. But the author stressed: "Assisted care is more a philosophy than an established body of practice."
I would suggest that many people who begin considering assisted care never make it. Once you consider any sort of special help, it's likely you'll need it on a pretty intensive basis. We don't turn to this until we truly need it. And then we might be on the verge of a true "long-term care facility." OK, a nursing home.
The miracle of medical science extends life to where many people descend to where quality of life seems questionable. Surely we want to extend life. But we must accept the responsibility we have to older people, facilitating their adjustments as independence fades.
This begins when they're still living at home. We all need to slow down and think more about the people whose productive years are behind them. We're all headed there.
I often take an evening walk past Summit Cemetery. As I note the names on the monuments, I wonder how many of these people of an earlier time died at mid-life. The grieving for such people would have been intense.
If you were to talk with a funeral director today, you'd probably hear that the percentage of "low-grief" funerals is increasing. These are for people who have lived beyond where they could be reasonably said to have quality of life. As my high school friend stated regarding his father: "It was a blessing" (when death came).
It's horrible on the face of it to say that. But let's be honest: Such examples are likely to become more, not less, common.
God's will is that we become frail. He guides us to death, I guess. We want to delay that process.
Surely God would smile on our efforts to cure physical maladies. But we cannot defy our mortality.
The Fred Gwynn character in "Pet Sematary" said "sometimes dead is better." None of us wants to say that. But we all think it sometimes.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, April 6, 2012

Music education sets careful boundaries

Sidd Finch gave the French horn a spell of glory. The bassoon is still waiting. (Image from "Strong Memories")

The acoustic guitar is a marvelous instrument because it allows a single person to be so expressive. If you need it amplified, just set up a microphone. Accompany it with a human voice, and there's hardly anything more expressive.
Guitar playing is a lifelong skill. The piano has the same attributes but it's a pretty big and unwieldy instrument - expensive too. Laurel and Hardy's most famous "short" was about moving one. The electronic keyboard has liberated this instrument.
If you want to learn the guitar or piano, public schools aren't going to give you much help. If you're a kid you might be interested in "band." More accurately, your parents might "decide" you're interested in band. So you put your finger to your chin and wonder "which instrument?"
Well, why not learn more than one? That seems interesting but it's not how the system works. You pledge yourself to an instrument and are then supposed to stick with it. One could argue the decision is made too young.
That instrument helps define who you are as you grow up. After a certain point, we aren't supposed to ask questions about it. It becomes like fate.
Why does a trombone involve a slide in contrast to other brass instruments? The slide makes it a completely different proposition for learning. A trumpet player would examine a trombone like he's examining a rare artifact - almost scared of it.
Kids are encouraged to play these instruments with a passion. It's supposed to be a fulfilling commitment, but problem is, what happens after age 18, assuming you're not going to go on and play in college band? What is a clarinet player to do?
Band isn't alone in terms of this dead end quality. Think about high school football. How many of these young men, the ones who won't play college football, ever do anything close to playing football again? Or how about the kids who slavishly go through French class, conjugating verbs like crazy? Do they ever really go out and "speak French?"
So here's the point: Much of public education is devoted to getting kids to engage in activities where they follow a model of conformity. Education stands for nothing if not for promoting conformity. We're supposed to learn to fit in with society, and the acoustic guitar isn't in sync with this because it's such a powerful tool for self-expression. Self-expression could easily open the door for non-conformity.
There is nothing dangerous about a clarinet player. Now, the double-reed players? That's another story. OK that's a joke. Bassoons have value as firewood, I might chirp.
The very boring French horn was made to seem interesting when the "Sidd Finch" character, created by the late George Plimpton, played it for relaxation. He'd go down to the dock on the beach.
The instrument went back to its usual obscurity after that episode. (The Finch character was a prank, made up as a baseball spring training phenom who could supposedly throw a baseball faster than anyone.)
A band instrument is pretty worthless unless you're meshed in with many other players. This is a very limiting factor when you get past your school experience. Like football, an instrument like a French horn or clarinet will be retired to the dustbin.
And yet our education establishment thinks these experiences are quite vital. Same with conjugating verbs in French class, or dissecting crayfish in biology. Why can't formal education guide kids into activities that will have more lasting value?
The foreign language field was woken up to a certain extent. We hear about "immersion" and "immersion camps." We have realized this is the only way to really learn a foreign language. I am vindicated because my apathy in the French class I took (i.e. was force-fed) is shown to be well-founded.
Why are kids on their own to learn the acoustic guitar? I would say it's for the same reason bluejeans were banned when I was in high school. There was zero practical reason for this.
The guitar is "dangerous" precisely because it can be so expressive. It promotes the individual too much. So it isn't in sync with the objectives of public education which has the stultifying goal of conformity. Band members learn to perform as part of a cohesive unit. We recognize autocratic control in the form of a "director." It's really kind of militaristic.
The idea is to work as a unit to put out a "product." It's a model for the kind of challenges we'll face later in life.
Learning a guitar along with popular song form, perhaps with an interest to compose, makes you want to have your own personal imprint. This isn't what school is about at all. Once you are empowered with your own imprint, you might become political. You might look at the world around you and see flaws.
The whole idea behind popular music is to be emotional and honest. Look at the power Woody Guthrie attained. You are on your own if you want to follow this model. The public schools aren't going to teach it because it seems empowering in the wrong way.
School encourages you to perform as a cog in a system that will enhance business success. We once saw profits as just a means to live a comfortable life. Today they have become a total end in themselves, like it's a game.
People are forced to take ethics classes or seminars if they're caught gouging or lying, as if we need a class to simply realize we need to be fair. The class just has a cleansing effect, I suspect, reminding people "don't get carried away." It's not as if you did something totally wrong.
Bluejeans were a preferred attire for boys when I was young. So it made perfect sense they were prohibited, right? Why? Somehow, through how our popular culture evolved - James Dean? - bluejeans came to be seen as rebellious. Public schools cannot acquiesce to such a thing.
But, a simple pair of pants? What intrinsic qualities do bluejeans have that make them unacceptable? If they're not worn out they look quite fine, which you can say about any kind of "pants" or "trousers." (What lousy terms: "pants," "trousers.")
As a kid you didn't want to wear dress slacks to school because you might be teased. That was church attire. Your parents would drag you to church.
I once read that "corduroys" were developed as sort of an end run around school dress codes. They didn't really seem different from jeans.
I remember a music reviewer writing about a jazz band that had a young following, saying the audience was mostly "high school trumpet players wearing corduroys." Why on earth was the choice of pants significant in some way? This was as crazy as banning bluejeans. It could give one a complex.
I might ask the stupid question: Isn't the purpose of "pants" to cover one's legs?
Finally we all got a solution as the years went by. We got "Dockers" and other like versions. These were practical pants to wear anywhere. They bridged casual and formal. They had no political connotations. Whew! What a crazy time in which I grew up.
I regret not learning acoustic guitar. I didn't even learn about the "AABA" song form until I was college age. High school music never taught me about the "blues." If I played any "blues" it was off sheet music when the slavedriving director would guide us through, stopping us constantly in rehearsals (waving his baton constantly to get us to knock it off) so he could tell us how we screwed up. A perfect preview to the world of work that awaited us.
And that's what public education is all about.
I remember we played "Basin Street Blues" in pep band. But I was never instructed on blues song structure - the chords etc. If I wanted to learn how "verses" and "choruses" were organized in popular songs, I was on my own there too.
Popular music can make the masses restless. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as an alternative to "God Bless America." The lyrics for the latter seemed unrealistic and complacent. Guthrie wrote songs that came out of the dust bowl. Was he a communist? Maybe.
He was embraced by the leftist folk music community in New York City.
I remember "This Land is Your Land" as the theme for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. RFK picked up where Gene McCarthy left off. "Bobby" was assassinated.
It's fascinating to look at the fourth and sixth verses of "This Land." These are obscure and often omitted in recordings. Why? Because they accent protest and class inequality. A person can share a pretty strong message like this with only a simple acoustic guitar.
Public schools would much prefer you play the trombone. And play football. And conjugate verbs in French. And dissect crayfish.
Completing all that, a kid might well wonder if he was the only sane person in an insane asylum.
If you insist on learning the guitar, you might learn to pursue music with an attitude like what Guthrie articulated: "I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you."
A little too subversive perhaps.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, April 2, 2012

The best writing focuses on everyday things

Did Mark Twain ruminate on how best to draw interest in his work?

I once heard a writer talk about how hard it was to predict the response to a piece. He would write something that he swore might be a Pulitzer candidate, and hear nothing. Then he would write on something seemingly trivial, like his family's first puppy, and get a hundred gushing responses.
I was reminded of this lately when I got sincere feedback on my item about kids as self-starters in an earlier age. I'm not alone in noticing how kids today are so protected (as if they were "collectibles") and have organized activities waiting for them around every turn.
"Self-starters" means you organize on your own.
Kids lived more in their own world once, for better or worse. Whatever hazards might be out there, they had to buckle down and fend for themselves to a large degree.
A virtue or a drawback? A combination maybe.
I heard from two people who remembered some adventures on a farm. Both said they could feel grateful "being alive" considering some of the intense horseplay.
This was back when there were more farms and they were diversified. You might have to weave around a flock of excited ducks as you pulled in to visit someone. Horses were kept as companion animals.
I remember all this from "the farm down at the end of the road" where I grew up. It's were I live now too: Northridge Drive. Earn Julius was the farm owner and Fred Tatge the "hired man."
Fred's family lived in a very modest house but had a most vibrant life that didn't seem constrained at all. He was an engaging fellow with wit. He asked me once why it wasn't OK to "wear 'holy' pants in church" (pants with holes of course). He'd hitch up a cart to one of the horses and go back and forth in the neighborhood, welcoming kids to ride along
I remember him like yesterday but unfortunately he left us long ago.
Earn watched every penny which was typical of men of his generation. He served on the Morris school board. I doubt the school board members of his day could envision the kind of school campus we have today. Earn like Fred has been gone a long time now. The number of people with memories of these guys is getting whittled down.
Farms today are fewer and I presume they harness far greater efficiencies. They are more focused and benefit from technology.
Poultry is raised in more specialized operations, right? I remember as a kid visiting a farm in the Alberta area where the boys that afternoon were chopping the heads off chickens. The headless bodies put up a fuss for a while. Somehow these images remain pretty well impressed in your head.
The people who run farms today, who I'm more inclined to call "businessmen" rather than "farmers," wouldn't want kids fooling around on their property. Holy liability, Batman.
The people who commented on my post were playing on their own family's property.
Earn sold lots to the east of his farm where he knew darn well kids would be present, wanting to come over to the farm once in a while. But I can't recall him ever making an issue about it.
The "hay mow" was a treasure trove for us. There were ropes enabling us to swing like Tarzan. Perhaps he and Fred weren't aware of this activity. But In a general sense I think they were.
The boomers grew up in a culture that gave us wide latitude. Those people had gotten through the Depression and World War II. They were thankful to have relative prosperity and to be surrounded by kids.
It would be a couple more generations before society upped the organized activities and elaborate facilities for accommodating kids. Rules would be stringent.
Facilities? We'd scout around to find something approximating a baseball diamond and then have to come up with our own bases. The out of bounds lines had to be determined.
I began my recent post (on my "I Love Morris" site) remembering the "soap box derby" races. I suggested that some of the entries were more "contraptions" than racers. I described the location as "the downward slope on the east side of the old school."
Although this is precise, I suspected a reader might still get confused and think of Columbia Avenue. Reader Del Sarlette was thrown momentarily about this, then when I clarified for him, he responded as follows, enjoying the nostalgia (I know, which "isn't what it used to be"):

"I realize now you did say 'east' when you were relating the soap-box derby story. For some reason, my mind went immediately to the steep hill on the West side. We’d ride down that hill on our bikes - pending traffic allowance - and see how far north we could coast. I do remember sledding down the east hill in the winter. (I also remember Scott Groth using his sax case as a sled while returning to Mr. Korochek’s room after fifth grade band.) One of my most clear memories of that eastern slope: One day, during the split-shift years when high school football practice was at noon at the close of the class day for the older kids, for some reason I was hanging out at the top of the hill and hadn’t gone inside yet. Jim Neal came out of that side locker room door in full uniform, sat on the hill to lace up his spikes, and started singing Gary Puckett’s 'Young Girl' at the top of his voice. It’s amazing how such trivial episodes remain lodged in the mind."

I have to smile reading this. The imagery of this energetic student athlete singing with such gusto is precisely the type of memory I'm fond of writing about.
We'll forge ahead, remembering that the posts with the most seemingly trivial and mundane content can be the most memorable. Mark Twain would nod approvingly.
The would-be Pulitzer stuff? I won't give up on that either.
I'd like my politically-focused material to get more attention. My orientation on that was cause for a little sarcasm in a recent comment I got from friend Greg Cruze of Cold Spring:

"Nice story of the Wadsworth Trail. Very interesting history. It was nice that you held back on a shot at Republicans too. I know it was hard, but it made the story better."

Mr. Sarlette indicated he didn't remember the soap-box races, but he did conjure up memories of the skateboarders - reckless souls as he remembers them.
Del responded to what I wrote about the generally more unsupervised lives of us kids:

"Yes, we did have freer reign in those days - went outside at noon after sleeping in, then not coming home until (at least) supper time. Walking as a group through assorted neighborhoods, trying to line up enough guys for a baseball game . . . But, I’m as guilty as the next parent when it came to over-protecting the kids. And I don’t have an answer for that. I have read/heard this topic discussed in assorted venues before, and the common consensus seems to be that child abduction, sexual molestation, etc. isn’t really any more prevalent today than the '60s, it’s just that there is more publicity about those crimes. Some of those things just weren’t talked about back in the day."

Morris had a different look in some key ways. The "Columbia Avenue extension" didn't exist. It's hard to believe, but you couldn't enter Morris where the present-day Pizza Hut and Subway Restaurant are located. You'd have to walk through weeds.
If I wanted to ride my bike to school I'd have to take the long way using Iowa Avenue and go past the cemetery (to the new high school). The old school, where I attended through grade 9, was of course closer.
Del lectures me on the sentimental way I reflect on the old school, as if I'm suggesting it could have had value longer. He says with firmness that the time always comes to "move on." He's totally sold on our new campus which I have maintained is over-developed.
I think a big problem with the old school is that the powers that be didn't let go of it sooner - I mean tear it down. If that was going to be its fate anyway, well. . .
I think it's terrible we couldn't at least cling to the art deco auditorium. The 1914 building is built like, well like a brick schoolhouse. It seems to me the museum could have been transferred there as a first step in re-developing it.
That grand old anchor building could have been gutted like the UMM building that is now called the Welcome Center.
"Pipe dreams," Del and others might say to me.
But it's only depressing to see the old campus just disintegrating with the ravages of time, vandalism, pigeons etc.
The Morris community once made a huge commitment to that campus and property as being our wellspring of education. Now it's blight. Would any other descriptive word suffice?
Contrast this to the tender loving care Donnelly has always shown its "town hall," which really is a bare-bones (WPA) facility. Where there's a will. . .
I wrote about the contemporary schools, so many of which are located and designed in such a way as to seem like "prisons." I also admitted I took the "prison" term from the lips of a current Morris Area school board member. I'm fond of it, as at the very least it's descriptive, if not uttered with denigrating intent.
Again, Del's thoughts:

"To lump all contemporary schools into that category is silly. All institutional buildings built nowadays have to be one story, unless said institution is willing to figure in the cost of elevators and/or the lot is too small. If the lot size permits, one story is the way to go for a lot of reasons. Long-term stability dictates brick construction, energy efficient windows and doors that are going to all look the same, so naturally most one-story brick buildings are going to appear similar."

Del responded to my argument about how the old (1914 vintage) fortress-like school building could maybe have been salvaged through "gutting" it.

"I can see where you're coming from, but that has been done in other places and has always been regretted. A prime example is the auditorium for the old 'Central School' in Montevideo. Exactly the same thing happened there when it came time to replace the old school in the middle of town with a 'prison school' (middle school) on the outskirts. Only there, unlike Morris, the old building was torn down but the auditorium 'saved' and restored. OK, so it's a nice looking old building, but is a bear for the school district to maintain, and as all concerts have to be held there - no new auditoriums were built in either the high school or middle school buildings - the students have to be transported to and from their respective buildings for rehearsals, set-ups etc. (One high school principal told the high school band director a couple years ago that they couldn't bus kids to the old auditorium for rehearsals because that constituted a 'field trip,' and budget constraints had put a moratorium on field trips."

Time marches on.
I appreciate much the feedback I get on whatever topic. We'll be exploring Morris history more. We can't go back any further than the Wadsworth Trail. And no, partisan politics needn't be any kind of constant!
I don't care if the Stevens County Historical Society ever acknowledges what I'm doing. I'm fond of telling people I've established my own "historical society" with my two sites.
And a big difference is that I do this sans the incessant begging for money! (Man, it's like the "Gremlins" wanting chicken after midnight.)
I'm delighted to reach an audience without spending a penny. My photography costs a little but I could eliminate that by going digital. The online world affords an end run to make around all sorts of legacy institutions.
It's a delight. Feel free to respond anytime. "We love Morris."
And, what's the jewel of the West Central Minnesota prairie?
"Morris of course."
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com