• In Memory

    Consider this man. Bob Amadore died this past week at age 91. He was my godfather and my mother's cousin. There were many personal characteristics of his that I admired: his ability to listen in conversation, the order and cleanliness of his home, his curious mind covering subjects as dense and diverse as domestic politics and model airplanes. In remembering him, I trace this taut thread that runs through them all.

    Bob spent his early days in Amboy, New York. It was a small rural village near the city of Syracuse. Though Bob and his two sisters grew up in the country, the working farms with animals, haylofts, and apple orchards were owned by their neighbors. First names. No fences. Living things everywhere to please or pester. In the summertime, my mother would join them for long stretches, visiting from her family's home in the city.

    My mother describes these times, the Depression years, actually, as idyllic. Wild blueberries collected in a white enameled bowl. A backyard creek with small plentiful fish. Rope swings. Fireflies. Poison ivy soothed with calomine. Stars unimpeded by harsh ground light.

    The Amadores were happy there all year round, and I would imagine had every intention of remaining. But the Solvay Process Plant, which had been producing soda ash on the banks of Onodaga Lake since 1880, required remote open acreage to dump their by-product. The residue they'd accumulated was plentiful. It was also toxic. And even in the early years of the 20th Century, there was a recognition that nature could not flourish with it in close proximity.

    As nature was still deemed to include human beings, a legal settlement was reached for the purchase of the land and the displacement of the home. The Amadores were deeded a small lot in Syracuse. The family built a sturdy brick house. No backyard creek. No neighboring farms. Instead, a winding lane meandered past their new address. Being the suburbs, it was given a name that at least referenced nature: Boulder Road.

    Bob Amadore would live in that house for the rest of his life. He kept a vegetable garden. I don't think he minded the annual intrusions of deer and raccoon. He actually seemed to take quiet delight in complaining about it.

    I mentioned that Bob had a curious mind and was a good listener. These are commonly the marks of someone who bears fair witness and is willing to act upon it when called.

    So when Bob was called this past week, he had already expressed a clear intenton based on what he'd seen and heard in life. Ashes to ashes - directing with his last wishes that a portion of who he was be sprinkled up in Amboy.

    Like the toxic waste of Solvay Process, Bob will remain in the soil there. Both will endure together. The forces of good and evil, archangel and devil, pure and sullied. Let them battle it out for all eternity. Bob holds the advantage of having lived on this earth. It will be summer again this year. I'm confident the healing has begun.  

  • Penultima - Essay 5

    Jenny Lind's voice was never recorded, at least not in a form that has survived. During her life, she became the most popular, most idolized singer in the world. The time for that presence would have been from approximately the late 1830s to the early 1880s, marking the period from her successful debut to her final concert.

    Not only did Jenny Lind's voice and performances elude the documentation of recorded sound, they also predated electronic amplification - no microphones or sound balancing was used during any of her live performances. All we are left with a century and a half later are ecstatic descrptions of the range, delicacy, and magnetism of her singing voice - essentially, all words written on paper.

    This reveals the weight of an experience that a very tiny percentage of humanity, people numbering in the thousands and all long dead by now, shared in that particular place in time. These individuals each had the immediate and intimate thrill of hearing Jenny Lind sing. Keep in mind that this was a voice that achieved world-wide fame in an age of sailing ships.

    Her largest performance venues were 1500 seat theaters and opera houses. They were designed by necessity to enhance a humanly projected voice from a stage to a large audience with the aid of natural materials like wood and plaster that absorbed rather than echoed sound. Simple design elements helped, as well. A lowered orchestra pit would separate the powerful instrumentation from the lone performer on the stage above. Again, as the audience left the performance in Stockholm, or London, or New York City, they could only talk about what they had heard, already separating from their experience with no expectation of ever having it again.

    The increasing sophistication of recording technology throughout the 20th century was accompanied by changes in the types of voices and instruments that performed popular songs and found audiences. At the beginning of the century, singers still had to rely on non-amplified theaters to reach their paying public. And so, early recorded vocalists like Enrico Caruso, Bessie Smith, John McCormack, and Al Jolson were mighty vocal projectors. For their sound recordings, they were singing into large acoustic horns with ensembles or orchestras playing simultaneously behind them and to an extent competing with them.

    As recording and sound technology became more precise, popular singing voices became more subtle. Singers like Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday required microphones to project to live audiences, even in smaller venues, and relied on them in studio situations to enhance their distinctive tones and phrasing.

    The late 1920s and mid 1930s was still a period when all recordings were done live, with various takes discarded if they were unsuitable. These years proved to be a critical pivot point when recording continued to approach the auditory experience of listening to a live performance without ever capturing the total sensory experience. Many classical recordings from the 1950s recorded on analog tape with ambient ribbon microphones include all the dynamics of a powerful orchestra which can sometimes test the settings and capacity of stereo sytems. But these recordings in audio verite are still one critical sensory step removed from row three at La Scala or the front balcony at Carnegie Hall. At best, it's almost like you could've been there.

    It is certainly true that in the half century from 1913, when Enrico Caruso recorded Ave Maria, to 1962 when Leontyne Price sang Tosca, recording technology took great strides forward in terms of accurately reproducing sound. But from that point forward, fifty years to the present, the focus of both marketing and development has primarily been to increase convenience to the consumer; not to enhance the personal sensory experience of absorbing the performance.

    First, competing formats were introduced with cassette and 8 track tapes. In the late 1970s, digital recording emerged followed by compact discs, DAT tapes, and mp3 downloads. In following this course, the evolution of sound recording was very much like public building design and the manufacture of footwear. Durability was reduced and maintenance further compromised as was the integrity of the subtle personal connection to the sensory or the natural. Cassettes, as we know now, do not sustain themselves well over time. The recorded sound degrades more quickly and the housing has proven more fragile. 

    It was initially thought, or at least claimed, that digital technology would preserve sound content on compact discs far more effectively than other formats since the surface-to -surface interface came from a laser rather than a needle or recording head. But in fact, digital recording, especially when reduced to mp3 files, employs compression of the audio signal which diminishes or equalizes the original dynamics in the performance. Simple proof of this can be found in the fact that the market for hi-fidelity stereo components, which enhanced as well as amplified the sound of analog recordings, has all but disappeared - mainly because its fundamental pupose has.

    Further, the current delivery systems for digital recordings: ipods and mp3 players, defy attempts at decentralized skilled maintenance and repair. The used market for these units after five to ten years is virtually non-existant. Meanwhile, vintage stereo components often trade at many times their initial cost decades later. 

    The act of recording sound in itself removes the listener from the performer in significant, if subtle ways. If there is one lesson offered to us by both the natural world and our sensory experience, it is that the subtle is very significant. Any attempt to build thicker barriers from the sensory and natural worlds in the name of cost or convenience to the consumer ultimately diminishes the human experience.

    In 1913, when Enrico Caruso was singing and alive, there were people who played his arias on hand-crank Victrolas in meadows during summer picnics and were transported to tears. Most of these people would saw Caruso perform live. Their active imaginations and their love of opera was what bridged the gap from the recording to the performance, not the technology they had employed to access it.

    It is the same difference observed between reading printed words and listening to an audio book or watching live action on film as opposed to computer-generated images. How much space in the experience is one's imagination allowed to occupy? In hearing sound; recorded or live, the internal process is deeply personal. The purpose in preserving the performance through recording is to connect an individual, however imperfectly, to the thrilling and immediate experience of actually being in the same moment of that song being sung. In the currency of the senses, that present witness is the very esssence; the highest peak. Jenny Lind in recital in Boston, Billie Holiday gigging in Harlem. That's for those that were there in the moment to take it in fully - until time passed and suddenly they weren't. Real life.


  • Penultima - Essay 4

    To identify and then react to the pervasive trends that have surrounded daily life in America over the past half-century involves making choices that are predicated on personal judgement. A decision to separate, or back away slowly from particular technologies or marketing trends needs to be preceded by a constant steady focus: maintaining eye contact.

    The result of this process of personal realization and separation can be a series of commitments, relationships, and values that bear a distinctive signature in this time and placeThe choice involves creating distance from those technologies and trends that compromise the sensory and the natural world. The intended benefit is a deeper, more personally engaged, and perhaps more profound experience of living life.

    This all depends on emerging values being articulated in a distinct, possibly counter-cultural lifestyle. It's essential to remove the designation of "liberal", "enlightened", or even "progressive" from this process and its goals. For perhaps even the vast majority of individuals living in a first-world society, this process of separation may be uninteresting and unappealing.

    There are many individuals who legitimately prefer the taste, texture, and price of Velveeta compared to a select organic cheese originating from a micro-producer. There are those who in coming years will purchase Google Glass units and wear the device all throughout their waking hours, relying almost completely on support from the digital world to the exclusion of the sensory and natural world.

    Curiosity is the path to willingness. As developed economies and modern societies have demonstrated the ability to increasingly divorce daily life from nature, the local, and the sensory, there are plenty of grateful recipients. These include children whose curiosity is directed early.

    Air conditioning, hot water heaters, recorded sound. These three innovations have emerged as accessible consumer goods over the last century. Their basic purpose offers more than mere convenience. They each provide real human comfort, a measurable improvement in productivity, and, at least in the case of recorded sound, reverie and true joy.

    But still, even these resources invite a steady gaze that might lead to a personal decision to reconsider and reposition a long-held relationship.

    Chicken is a domesticated bird and food source not found in the wild. There is evidence that chickens were initially raised and bred 10,000 years ago to be cockfighters for wagering and sport. Over many centuries, the taste and aroma of both cooked chicken and chicken eggs has become globally appealing, crossing disparate cultures and cuisines.

    For some, holding a steady gaze and taking a step back might involve the determination that locally-raised farm fresh eggs and chicken raised organically, free from antibiotics, are preferable to the products of mega-industrial food processing. This becomes an individual value judgement where the senses of taste, sight, and smell may combine with moral and ethical perceptions about how what's on the plate got there. Supporting this conviction might include the willingness to pay a surcharge for produce that costs more to provide to a smaller market in smaller quantities.

    This is one of a series of personal choices that results in a unique indelible signature. This particular decision is not either salutary or necessary to what many intellegent feeling individuals consider a comfortable life well-lived. In this mortal plane, there is only so much time, only so much desire to learn and discern.

    Even so, it is this pervasive inability or unwillingness to place significance and importance on subtle characteristics that product designers, advertisers, and manufacturers constantly leverage with the modern consumer. In the 1980s, a prominent small appliance firm decided to close a California factory that produced clothes irons with solid metal parts and casings.

    The reason given for the closure in the company's public announcement was that consumer surveys (commissioned by the company) concluded that customers preferred irons made with plastic components and design features. Durability and maintenance in this product line were subordinated to lighter weight and color. In this market analysis, the essential question of which product ironed clothes most effectively was left largely undetermined. You might say it was a wash. Ultimately, in an advanced consumer culture the product that does the best job is the one that's available to buy.

    The reasons why these larger trends should matter to an individual needs to remain personal - a matter of faith rather than preference. But apart from the industry trend to make lighter-weight, plastic irons that are less suitable to servicing and maintenance lies a simple fact. The high-impact plastic and the teflon now commonly used in the manufacturing process are more separated from the natural world than the steel those materials replaced.

    In order to create one distance by stepping back, we also judge other distances by using a steady gaze.


  • Penultima - Essay 3

    Remain calm. Maintain eye contact. Back away slowly. In other words: Balance, Focus, Create Space in order to allow for a fresh reponse to the responsibility of living on this planet and more specifically to redirect and fulfill the fundamental promise of the pursuit of happiness which once inspired the founding of this nation.

    As America has matured over two and a half centuries, our collective experience has diminished our respect for the resources, much less the perspective, of the past. In part, this is due to our shared heritage from frontier settlement and immigration. A society founded on migration is by nature restless and discontented. Our collective consciousness has been continually pointed toward the next horizon. This pervasive cultural attitude has accomodated both our penchant for innovations and our resulting obsessions regarding technology and the material. Something else. Something new. Right now.

    Once the American frontier formally closed in 1890 and open immigration was terminated in 1924, this attitude of more now was redirected toward mass consumer spending, which currently accounts for 3/4 of our Gross Domestic Product. Seen in this light, living modestly within one's means and creating a sustainable monetary surplus through saving are practices that can almost be considered unpatriotic in today's society.

    With regard to consumer goods; the newest model, the most recent upgrade, are considered far more valued assets for product design than durability. This is because the vast consumer economy, and the shrewd awareness of what best supports its exponential growth, has matured as well. For all their complexity and implied convenience, the recent digital technologies that infuse computers, smart phones, and small appliances conveniently defy the possibilty of either their repair or maintenance.

    Increasingly, consumers accept the notion that upon purchase of these cutting-edge consumer goods it will always prove cheaper to replace them rather than repair them. Minimal manufacturer's warranties can be slightly extended through a surcharge. The item that requires servicing will usually be replaced rather than repaired, so the minimal warranty period can begin again. Meanwhile, the larger cycle of product replacement accelerates as upgrades and competing formats are introduced on almost a monthly basis. It all encourages the average consumer to spend more often and more quickly - ideal responses to support an economy and society rooted in increasing acquisition. 

    One primary example of how the standards for sustainability and maintenance in consumer goods have deteriorated over the recent past can be found, not surprisingly, in our connection with solid ground: the shoes we wear. Accompanying the shift in footwear manufacturing from domestic to overseas over the past fifty years is a profound shift in our ability to care for these essential items.

    Through the first half of the 20th Century, shoes and boots were made of natural materials: rubber for heels, leather for uppers, metal for eyelets. Footwear was stylish, but it was also durable. Americans who spent much of their day walking, standing, and climbing demanded this. With far fewer cars, elevators, and escalators, walking in urban environments was a necessity rather than an occasional leisure activity. Middle class consumers darned socks, polished and buffed dress shoes, kept spares of laces. Shoe trees were commonly used to stretch leather and keep it supple.

    Metal taps were also used to protect heels from wearing down quickly. The popularity of these products, along with foot soaks and corn plasters were a clear indication of how much the average American walked in a day. Eventually, when soles and heels wore down, the simple yet durable construction of the shoe allowed for regular maintenance and repair. Cat's Paw and O'Sullivan rubber replacement heels were sold by storefront repair shops and affixed securely to the used shoe for a fraction of the original purchase price. These replacement and substitute parts were of high quality; manufactured and marketed apart from the shoe producers and widely available to both repair shops and their customers.

    There is pure elegant function in the fact that throughout American cities during the first half of the 20th Century, most every home within city limits was a reasonable walk from a shoe repair shop. Serious walkers proliferated; not simply because they regarded it as a leisure activity but because walking proved productive in accomplishing everyday tasks. Part of this elegant function would have been a walk along shaded sidewalks accompanied by songbirds, which have declined over 50% across America since 1950.

    Compare this sustainable response to the fact that with bonded soles and heels as the industry standards now, a vast majority of shoes for men and women sold new today cannot be repaired. Some high-end brands allow for resoling, if the original pair is shipped at customer expense to the brand manufacturer. The cost for this maintenance is percentage-wise far higher than the repairs done by independent shoe repair shops in the past.

    At its root, the commitment to maintain and repair material possessions lies at the heart of most spiritual practices. Other tenets shared across religions, cultures, and centuries include a deep respectful connection with the natural world and heightened awareness of the human senses. To take actions and embrace technologies which compromise these responses to the privilege of living on earth relegates nature, the sensory, and our very consciousness to a reduced status in everyday life.

    That present moment, that present conciousness can only be realized through balance, focus and creating space. To make the choice to back away slowly from where we are, what we have become as an acquisitive, distracted society - maps must be consulted before proceeding forward. Where have we been? What have we seen? Can our memories help us before we become completely lost?




  • Penultima - Essay 2

    The rate of suicide among young people ages 10 to 24 has tripled since 1952. Suicide is the now fourth major cause of death among children between 10 to 14. In the last decade alone, the suicide rate in this age group has risen by over half. 

    This stark reality stands alone to indict contemporary American society as antithetical to the human pursuit of happiness. Articulate discussion and funded studies continue to seek causes for this critical disfunction and its exponential growth. The contributing factors that emerge range from cyberbullying to absent, distracted, or overwhelmed parents to a lack of substantive guiding values earlier in life.

    Whatever its root causes, the nature and the resonance of this problem is undeniable. The impressive advances in technology and personal freedoms over the past sixty years cannot counterbalance the progression of this dangerous and virulent trend. A shadow with this size and weight cannot simply be placed on one end of a measuring scale. By itself, it provides an identity to the society we have created over the past half century.

    Children and young adults willfully killing themselves is far more that a disruption in the fabric of American life. It is foundational to a misdirected way of being. It is a clear indication that the roots of our existence in this place in time is being quietly fed by toxic and unconscious attachment. Is it an overattachment to the material? Perhaps too many misplaced values? This is not to judge individuals or situations. The implications of our societal choices surround us every day. We are receiving clear indications that the ground in which we've been planted is significantly comprimised, severely stunting the growth of the seedlings.

    There is profound tragedy in the infant who thirty years later winds up homeless and despairing on the street. There is ageless damage being done to ecosystems from pollutants and emissions. There is understandable concern that the loss of family farms, local food sources, and the introduction of genetically modified crops into our diets may effect the health of this and future generations. There is speculation on the effect that walking outdoors while wearing earbuds or staring at a smartphone may have on the human ability to connect meaningfully with our senses and our natural surroundings.

    But the amount of disassociation and devastation that resonates from a child's decision to choose death over life can never be accurately gauged or adequately analyzed. The exponential growth in its frequency in our recent past must be treated as a profound lethal force that targets the human spirit. Core ice samples taken in the Arctic regions of our planet indicate both the steady progression of global warming over time and the necessity of an immediate response. This dire sixty year trend in American society provides us a similar alert for our future.

    The requirement to address this directly through changes in behavior and the lifestyles we are accustomed to is also a consideration. Past a certain point, our response must transcend discussion and study into action. A collective solution would require the will to eliminate and restrict our daily lives in ways that a free and prosperous nation with an advanced consumer society might not easily allow.

    Prohibit the access of dehumanizing and violent interactive video games for those under age 18? Continually monitor bullying on social media? Require that every high school and middle school employ a child psychologist to counsel students, parents, and teachers? Placed in this context, 2,000 annual deaths by individuals at the dawn of their lives might be seen as small enough to be considered collateral damage. Not enough money. Not enough proof. These are commonly the excuses used to reveal there's simply not enough will.

    In the absence of collective action, another available option is to understand individually that the spectre of children killing themselves at home, children killing other children at school and in the process extinguishing the vast opportunities that await them are unmistakable signs that many of the choices we've made to support ourselves and our children diminish the very purpose of our existence. 

    As individuals, we do have the capability and capacity to reject certain trends and choices that have accompanied this profound shift and now have produced this encompassing shadow. This decision is similar to a response to any dangerous powerful force that would cause your own destruction. Remain calm. Maintain eye contact. Back away slowly.

    Increasingly, this personal response becomes a matter of protection and survival far more than a quality of life issue. It may be seen as acting to protect and sustain a light amidst growing darkness. A light that may provide welcome guidance, attracting those in search simply by its presence. 

  • Penultima

    Penultima (noun): Last but one. Example: the last syllable but one of a word. - Webster Dictionary, 1913 edition.

    I've been engaged in a simple exercise over the past few months. A single word will occur to me - broad enough in meaning to keep turning it over in my mind, exploring its significance, its relationship to life lived large.

    I think the word forgiveness was where I started. Like the forgiveness of events I can't control. Or forgiveness of people long dead. Or that daily forgiveness of self as I stare at the unattained and the imperfect. Forgiveness as a prelude to forgetting. 

    See that? Often, I've wound up making connections between words that share the same first syllable. For instance, one week I chose "authentic". That word seemed to me to be as fine a description you could have for a person, or an idea, or even an inert object. Authentic appeared to reach across time. At least one of the human senses had to be intimately involved. Authentic was a characteristic that drew whatever you were describing just a little closer to the very soul of its purpose.

    I consider a leather jacket in my living room closet to be authentic. Looks good. Feels good. Smells good when it rains. I purchased it about 20 years ago. The leather is thick and stiff. The jacket can even stand in a corner upright. I get enough compliments from strangers that I've taken to stashing it under the booth in my favorite restaurant instead of hanging it out of sight. Recently, I spent half of what I paid for it to have the lining redone. There's every expectation that whoever wears it after me will consider the same investment someday.

    Soon, "authentic" got me thinking of "author" and "authority". Good images to have handy in my struggles with self. Time passes. Soon a new word comes to mind and I'll play around with that for awhile.

    The latest word I'm carrying is "appreciation". Like the others, it offers lots of room for consideration and has particular characteristics all its own. But at their root, I believe that each of these words I choose draws me nearer to essence, to being. I've learned just enough over time to realize that "being" has far too much room and way to many characteristics to become my next new word. It should probably be capitalized.

    But forgiveness, authentic, appreciation - those are simply three concepts that lie within hailing distance of being. Maybe they're in loose orbit light years away in the darkness. Maybe these and any other words I choose will leave me with more questions than answers. A dead end. Then, just dead.

    Right now, it's become a route to follow. Some discoveries await. And so, we'll begin with these three words and set them along a continuum of time. It is said that our being only dwells in the present moment. So this will be a running start in that direction - the step before the foot is planted to leap up and out.

    That one step before is the penultima.


  • The Math Of 50 Years

    Recently, the Italian Culture Ministry decided to hold an on-line referendum to determine which of eight classic works of Italian art, some dating back to ancient Roman times, would be restored with public funds. In the United States, which is much younger culturally, some of our most precious artworks happen to be historic structures. But the problem we face is similar: a lack of public funding for restoration and, in certain instances, a lack of agreement as to how important the preservation of our late 19th and early 20th century structural heritage is for localities, and for the nation, as well.

    The modern historic preservation movement in the United States began with a singular act; the demolition of Penn Station in New York City in 1963. To see picures of those interiors and exteriors now, it seems unthinkable that a city, its citizens, or a thriving culture would ever allow it. The thrilling skylit lobby, the decorative iron work on the balustrades and the bannisters, the classic columns and statuary adorning the building's exterior, even the doorknobs and the mahogony benches - impossible to reproduce today. The building's beauty and presence was, in fact, celebrated as both extraordinary and timeless when the structure first opened to the public in 1910.

    But just as Penn Station's destruction taught America lessons about the dangers of leaving the future integrity of art purely in the control of the private sector, its actual lifespan tells us something about the urgency of saving the historic structures that remain with us today.

    Just do the math. Penn Station was 52 years old when it was demolished. The owner of the building and the valuable parcel lying beneath it, The Pennsylvania Railroad, decided that it would sell the property for the construction of the then-new Madison Square Garden, incorporating a smaller featureless Penn Station within it. The building remains functional today, just as it was intended to be. That market function, and nothing else, will determine when this structure outlives its usefulness.

    The outcry over this process and the increased public consciousness of historic buildings to provide for their restoration have resulted in the rescue of thousands of amazing public and private structures over the past half century. But almost all of these buildings where the design, craft, and an affinity with natural materials and the natural environment exist to the extent that they move hearts and stir collective action were constructed well before 1950. 

    So you see the urgency. In 1963, individuals who protested the demolition of Penn Station and used it as a call to action were focusing on a building that was half a century old. If we subtract 52 years from our present perspective, that puts us at 1962. Are there that many buildings constructed since then, public or private, residential or commercial, that we as a culture or even a local community would actually care about saving? Moreover, in this increasingly virtual world for retail, service, and assembly will the society as a whole devote more than passing interest and minimal resources to the structures we construct, occupy, and share in the future? 

    For historic preservation to become meaningful, it must transcend nostalgia. A structure becomes relevant when the very elements that defined the greatness of Penn Station: the materials, the grandeur, the craft, the incorporation of the natural within the man-made, carry our senses beyond percieved monetary value or fluctuating markets. We preserve a historic property for the same reason that we preserve and honor any work of art: it tells us something enduring about ourselves as a culture from the singular perspective of the creators, their place, and their time.

    The challenge for us now is the very real one of time passing and our dominant culture becoming more consumer than artistic. In Italy, they say that every time it rains a little more damage is done to the many aging ancient structures that need attention. The same is true for our broad, if considerably less ancient inventory of historic buildings. These are material things, even as their vast spirit seems to live and breathe before our eyes. And much like living things of great majesty - they need to be appreciated more as they age, as their day to day care becomes more dutiful and more challenging. And there is another similarity to consider here: the implications of death. When facing the possibility that the resources we treasure may soon be gone, we should always understand how impossible it would be to recreate them.  


  • Pinhook To Philomath

    There is an amazing book of Indiana's history that is rare enough that I have only been able to locate one copy in my many years of research. It is a reference work entitled The Indiana Gazetteeer. The publisher, R.L. Polk and Company, is best known by historians for annual directories of major cities across the nation. Inside every volume, you'll find surveys and listings of adult residents, their addresses, their occupations, even their marital status. Businesses, social organizations, trolley routes, schools, and churches are included as well. I found the Polk Directories in the 1920s for Terre Haute to be indespensible resources for my work on the Hometown series and the book. It provided a clear perspective on how dramatically the urban environment had changed.

    The Indiana Gazetteer for 1928 is a fat hardbound tome the size of a Webster Unabridged Dictionary. It documents businesses and public services for every community in the state at this particular point in time. Included are tiny rural settlements that these days only have a presence on USGS quadrant maps. Their actual physical presence has been reduced over time to a ruined structure in the middle of an untended field or an aging mobile home fronted by rusting junk cars. Green rectangular highway signs mark them on paved roads, but in many cases, these vanished settlements don't even rate this designation.

    Here is where the Indiana Gazetteer proves its enormous value in understanding our hallowed ground. In 1928, many of these crossroads communities only contained 25 to 50 residents, most of them in farming families working the surrounding acreage. The very names of these communities would probably lead to some amazing tales: Pinhook, Mecca, Philomath, Occident, Siberia. The imagination is fired simply by reading their listing in the Indiana Gazetteer: often one general store with one person's name listed as the proprietor. If the ownership had stayed constant for a couple decades, it's likely that proprietor had also once held the title of postmaster. But even as late as 1928, many of these tiny communities would have been reached by unpaved, unmarked roads. The isolation was real. The quiet and the darkness unimaginable.

    The 1928 Gazetteer also reveals the diversity and self-sufficiency of towns that were only a little larger; say, 500 to 1,000 residents. These towns would have been located alongside functioning rail lines. The Polk listings indicate that in most cases they included a hometown bank, a high school, and at least one physician; in addition to multiple grocers, drug stores, and restaurants.

    Finding an Indiana Gazetteer from ten or twenty years earlier would offer an even deeper and more informed perspective. One would likely discover that passenger service from the train depot was still available. Perhaps a small factory provided employment for some town residents.

    The year 1928 is critical. It provides perhaps the last glimpse of these self-contained communities before the Great Depression decimated many small banks and family farms, before the automobile consolidated services in the next town over, and well before residents had to rely on long trips in motor vehicles to take them somewhere else for education, employment, or a tube of toothpaste.

    Ultimately, the 1928 Indiana Gazetteer reveals that something of great value in America has been lost to us. No wonder these volumes have proven difficult to find.


  • Better Hangers For Fewer Clothes

    The cover for this month's O Magazine features Oprah posing with a few of her formerly favorite things. It's Oprah's annual guide for De-cluttering Your Life - 2014. Oprah shares with us her own personal purge of items that she selected for a charity auction to benefit her educational initiatives in Africa. To give you a sense of the exclusivity in both the inventory and the auction attendees, the event was held at the Santa Barbara Polo and Raquet Club.

    With Oprah, a broader message is translated directly through her own personal process, whether it's her struggle with weight or her enthusiasm for an underappreciated book. So accompanying the photo spread of exotic rugs, framed art, and electric scooters that can't climb the steep hills of Hawaii is an article about becoming more conscious, and more generous, about your own possessions.

    Oprah represents the American mainstream as purely as anyone in this century, so her message doesn't stray too far from the consumer imperative. Before the Declutter section on Page 107 is O's Spring Fashion Look Book and the O List, featuring new discoveries in the material world. Better replacements, perhaps, for whatever you are pained to part with.

    Yet the primary purpose of the issue is to encourage your own purge, even if none of the excess is suitable for auction. To that end, one article in O cites the statistic that we wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time. Oprah's resource for this challenge is Project 333, which contends that even someone fascinated by clothes and committed to style can get by quite nicely on 33 items of apparel. 

    While Project 333 is geared toward women and their clothes, it's reasonable that numerical limits could be applied to every household category: from books to kitchen utensils. It's likely that for most middle-class individuals, a conscious process accounting for what is actually being used or what has outlived its usefulness would produce boxes of worthy items for Goodwill.

    But returning to clothes for a moment, one area where there's almost always a generous surplus is hangers. It's there that we can use an increase in material consciousness to address a noticeable decline in material quality. Wire hangers, especially those that are currently provided with dry-cleaning orders, are much thinner gauge than those produced commercially a half century ago. Cardboard inserts are often used now to convert a flimsy wire hanger to a suitcoat or a pants hanger.

    Wooden hangers, like yardsticks and calendars, were once commonly provided by local businesses for their steady customers or, like imprinted hotel towels, made available with every expectation that some would get pilfered. I have a number of these old wooden hangers for my heavy winterwear. In most every case, the quality of the hanger has outlived the business it advertised.

    So for my own annual purge in this department, I would ideally pass along every hanger with cardboard or made with wire thin enough to wrap around my hand. I would include in this release an assortment the wooden hangers I purchased on sale last year at Menards. Already on one, the wooden dowel rod designed to hold the pants has wriggled free.

    I would keep the small collection of sturdy wire hangers I received from my departed elderly neighbor as well as the half dozen wooden hangers that probably pre-date the founding of Menards. I figure if I settle on ,say, 33 hangers total, it will provide a good second check against creeping acquisition.

    I already have the only yardstick I'll ever need. The wood is 1/4" thick. The business advertised is Bloomfield Hardware, back when their phone number was two digits.    





  • A Light Bulb Went On

    Durable goods are catagorized as manufactured products that last three or more years: cars, furniture, appliances, and the like. The importance of consumer spending on these goods to the American economy is considerable. Three-quarters of the nation's Gross Domestic Product relies on it. 

    Increasingly over time, the world economy is dependent on a constant turnover of goods and an ever-tightening cycle of purchase, use, and discard. The ability of the Cuban people to maintain and restore automobiles that are over a half century old is seen as a clear sign of that nation's disfunctional market economy. Replacement parts for these classics are often improvised. Though it is now possible to purchase new imported cars in Cuba, the price for them is far beyond the means of the average citizen. Strangely, the few new cars being purchased lend themselves far less to the type of durability and creative maintenance the Cuban public is used to. The unpleasant discovery for this disfunctional economy will be that these newer cars that won't run nearly as long once they become used.

    In a firehouse in Livermore, California, there is a incandescent four watt lightbulb whose carbon filament has been burning continuously since 1912. In the early part of the 20th Century, many light bulb manufacturers were advertising light bulbs that lasted for 2,500 hours of illumination. In 1924, it was quietly decided among the major light bulb manufacturers to limit a light bulb's life to a maximum of 1,000 hours. By that time, the Shelby Electric Company of Shelby, Ohio, the maker of the now-legendary Livermore bulb had been out of business for a decade.

    Lasting durability, which some may consider a primary factor in evaluating the real quality of a product, now only functions for limited markets and smaller manufacturers. The vanishing fix-it shop in America is testament to the fact that modern mechanical items no longer respond to repair. Their increasing complexity reduces the number of individuals who can acquire the skills necessary to diagnose and address problems. Manufacturers very often design consumer goods in ways that make access and part substitution impossible. Often, replacement parts are not available from the manufacturer to begin with.   

    It is true that consumer items, especially automobiles and large appliances have become more energy efficient over the last 20 years. But during that time, the warranty for critical parts have declined to insignificance. The standard warranty on the compressor for a refrigerator, original or replacement part, is one year. One year is the limit as well for the motor of a dishwasher or front load washer.

    There is still quality to be found, albeit at a price. The American Giant Clothing Company manufactures sweatshirts, hoodies, and t-shirts with the stitch techniques and strong quality fabrics that characterized standard activewear fifty years ago. American Giant crewneck sweatshirts are domestically made of 12 oz. cotton fleece. They also cost $89.00 apiece. The on-going problem, beyond paying a hefty premium, is the consumer frequently has to wait for inevitable backorders on selected items. The demand is great. The manufacturing process is comparatively slow. The inventory is only available on-line. One might think in order to ensure quality in this current consumer economy, these contingencies will probably need to remain in place.

    I used to live in Norwich, New York, a town of about 8,000 residents. There was a Champion sportswear factory on a sidestreet, which made sense for the time. Champion, it turns out, was founded in 1919 in Rochester, about 150 miles away. Since then, Champion has become one of the many subsidiaries of Hanes and moved their corporate headquarters to North Carolina. Their manufacturing is done abroad. The company is a long way from that brick factory in Norwich, perhaps even further from 12 oz. cotton  fleece.

    One can argue the wisdom of out-sourced manufacturing as effectively as the advantages of energy-efficient light bulbs and large appliances. But it would seem that in this current environment of disposable consumer goods and a world economy that's increasingly dependent on market growth, a truly revolutionary act would be to manufacture items that lasted longer, could be repaired more readily, and were clearly good value for the money paid for them. Is that $89.00 for a sweatshirt from a website? Or $260,000 for a new Peugeot in Havana? As consumer goods proliferate throughout our world, as they inevitably and increasingly will, could the principals of quality and susainability follow them as well?