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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Some Random Thoughts On Heroes In Appalachia

Quite a while ago, I wrote the post "A Gallery Of Appalachian Heroes" with every intention of putting together a series of posts about people I consider to be heroes within the Appalachian Studies field or who should be considered heroes by most Appalachian people.  I wrote one of those posts about Jim Ferrell, a personal hero of mine but generally unknown outside Logan County West Virginia and Cleveland, Ohio.  I have also written a few posts about single or limited aspects of a few other people I put on my list of Appalachian Heroes such as Loyal Jones, Albert Stewart, and Cratis Williams.  I have mentioned the names of a few others in passing.  But, the bottom line is I have spent too much time writing posts, when I had the time, about other aspects of Appalachia and Appalachian Studies which also matter to me.  I need to get back to that series of posts and I consider this piece to be a warm up before I begin to actually do the posts about that series of individuals. 

I would like to delineate a list of characteristics of heroes, both Appalachian and non-Appalachian, which may not be universal but any list of heroes would be comprised of individuals who possess most of those key characteristics.  I have no intentions of researching these qualities not because I think I know all the qualities of a hero.  But, rather, I think I know enough about the list of people I intend to write about that I am capable of considering the qualities each exhibited in their lives, both personal and professional, to enable me to comprise a collective list of heroic characteristics.  By doing this, I hope to be able to define, both for myself and my readers, exactly what I believe constitutes heroism and a heroic personality. 

  • Heroes nearly always do the right thing even if it may not be in their own personal interests.  I have known several heroes who placed their own lives and well being in jeopardy in order to act in ways which were in the common interests of the groups to which they belonged.
  • Most heroes are not perfect and many of them exhibit clearly delineated flaws.  I do not wish to espouse or defend the theory of the "fatal flaw" of classic tragedy.  But I have known several heroes whose personalities often clashed with those of many of the people around them.  I have known a few genuine heroes who were simultaneously heroic and egocentric.
  • Many heroes are single minded, especially in support of a cause, to a degree that is sometimes detrimental to either themselves or the people around them.
  • At times, I have seen a few genuine heroes become petty and a bit vindictive.  Heroes sometimes see too far into the future to the degree that their vision of a perfect world does not coincide with the visions of the general public they represent. Two people I have known well and will not name, both of whom I consider to have been Appalachian Heroes, had a common dislike for each other.  Two of the greatest activists in Appalachian history, one of whom I knew well and one I only met once, began a career together and soon parted ways because of this flaw.
  • At least one of the people on my list of heroes greatly limited their potential and achievements through the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.  Yet this person achieved a reasonable amount of well deserved fame and a devoted following of equally committed and intelligent people in their field.  But the body of life's work this person achieved was seriously abbreviated by the time spent under the influence. 
  • Some heroes are just not very likable.  I have known more than one person who achieved heroic results yet had a small and restricted number of friends and admirers.  Whether we tend to believe in the concept of "the burden of greatness" or not, the presence of a commitment, a dream, or a vision can often make a person less than desirable as company.  When we become driven, we also often drive away those around us.  One of my personal heroes had a very talented wife who was often ignored in the home.  Yet, in her own right, she was popular, talented, and successful in her field. 
  • Many heroes have a tendency to overlook their own shortcomings in the mistaken belief that the rest of the world around them must know how important the hero and his/her work is. 
At this point, it might seem that I have a strange and unpopular list of heroes.  But most of my heroes have all the standard qualities that one tends to find in books about greatness and those who exhibit it.  They are intelligent, committed, driven, honest, ethical, visionary, altruistic, zealous, and tireless.  But, the bottom line, for most of my heroes, is that they are also human. Over the next few weeks, I will introduce my readers to a group of people I consider to be among the most important to have lived in Appalachia.  I have known some of them.  Many of them I only wish I had known.  But in each case, their lives and their work influenced me and helped me to become the person I am today. And, in each case, they also performed some important work in Appalachia or Appalachian Studies which also has affected the lives of numerous others. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Cross Cultural Experience

I recently spent two days completing continuing education for my Indiana Auctioneer License.  Any time you spend two days in a room with more than 20 auctioneers, it is a cultural experience in itself.  You have a room full of story tellers who actually have stories to tell.  But the real cross cultural experience has to do with the fact that I was able to spend a day in the company of my two closest friends among the Amish, Jesse and Steven Yoder, who are also auctioneers.  We went through our auctioneer pre-licensing course together and became good friends during that time.  We spent 80 hours over several weeks in a classroom together and for most of that time I drove them to and from class.  We have spent many hours lined up across the seat of a pickup together which tends to be a male bonding experience in itself.  They are roughly half my age.  But we never had any problems becoming friends either because of the age difference or the cultural and religious differences.  During those hours together, we have talked about most subjects which adult males talk about in any small group.  We know each other well.

Jesse and Steven are members of a more liberal sect of Amish which still practice all the old religious traditions with some mild shifts toward the mainstream.  They now have telephones in their homes but do not own cell phones.  When we spend time together, their wives call my cell phone if they need to pass on information.  But there are no time wasting calls.  When I first met Amish people in Southern Ohio in 1989, they were members of the same sect to which Jesse and Steven belong.  But at that time, these people did not have phones in their homes.  If they had a legitimate need for a phone, they had a pay phone installed in their yard, garden, or pasture in a small black building which looked much like a one hole outdoor toilet.  They would have an answering service in Cincinnati and would go to the phone twice a day to pick up messages and make necessary calls.  If they felt it was necessary, they returned a call.  If it was unnecessary, they never returned it. 

Today, they have telephones and use them for what they consider legitimate business or family calls.  They might call distant relatives once a week but not usually any more than that.  Jesse and Steven also have a web page on which is maintained by an "English" friend. The Amish refer to all non-Amish as "the English".  When it is spoken with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent it sounds more like "the Englitch".  When I am with my Amish friends, I tend to pronounce it the same way.  Steven and Jesse do not listen to radio or watch television.  When we travel together, the radio in my truck is never on.  They have two or three regular "English" people in each Amish neighborhood who drive for the Amish.  They will not operate a car but they will ride in one if it is necessary.  They have no electricity in their homes but they will use propane or natural gas.  They avoid as much technology as possible. But if Jesse and Steven were hired to sell a large "English" farmers assets, they would be willing to sell a $100,000 combine or tractor.  I know some Amish in Southern Ohio who own and drive propane powered fork lifts in a cedar processing business.  But they will not operate a gasoline or diesel powered machine. 

They go to church on Sunday and do not perform any kind of unnecessary labor on Sunday. This is rooted in the Old Testament quotation about "getting an ox out of a ditch".  If work does not involve a necessity or emergency, it is never done on Sunday.  Since the continuing education class was set for Saturday and Sunday, the instructor made arrangements to meet them at another time and place to do the class which everyone else did on Sunday.  They still speak Pennsylvania Dutch and use High German in church.  Their children only learn to speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home and do not start to learn English until they enter school which they leave at age 16.  Even today, English is a third language for them.  We have talked once or twice about whether they could perform as auctioneers in Pennsylvania Dutch.  They say they could but all auctions, even for the Amish are performed in English.  We have the shared experience of having grown up wanting to become auctioneers.  They say they practiced their auction chants while driving horses in the field or bringing the cows in to milk.  I learned, like most auctioneers, by "selling fence posts and road signs" while driving.  This means that you practice by starting a chant on a road sign and selling it when you get to the next and starting over. Their "English" auctioneer friends often kid them about how high the prices were for the road signs they sold since they were practicing while driving a buggy not a car. 
We generally do not maintain telephone contact on a regular basis and only spend time together when we are in the same place.  If it is not a necessity, we do not get together or call each other despite the fact that all three of us enjoy spending time together.  When I am with them, I try to adhere to as many of their lifestyle norms as I reasonably can.  When it necessary for them to tolerate a few of mine they do so.  We are genuinely friends because of the many common elements we find in our lives and because we all work to overcome the differences and do not allow them to interfere with our friendship. We accept each other at face value and understand that we are not likely to ever live our lives in a manner which would be akin to the other.  Knowing the Amish has been very instructive to me in terms of being able to deal with people from many other cultures. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Things I Learned By Posting A Poll

When I posted the poll which just closed, I thought I might get a few more people who would complete it.  I was wrong.  I was also thinking there might be some suggestions about what people might like to see in writing about the general topic of life in Appalachia and some specific topics in which they were interested.  There were only three answers to the question "Which Do You Prefer my longer more academic posts or the shorter more journal/diary type posts I have done a few of recently.  The results, from only 3 votes, were 2 to 1 in favor of the longer posts.  I enjoy doing them but they do require more time.  I do learn by doing them and I hope that, now and then, someone else learns something from them also.  But the most important thing I learned was that my readers are not interested in polls.  I will not bother to insert one again any time soon.  But I would still like to see some comments from time to time about topics in the field of Appalachian Studies about which you would like to read.  Thanks to the three people who bothered to answer it.  Now back to whatever it was I was doing.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Night And Day" by P. J. Laska--A Book Review

"Night And Day" by P. J. Laska available from at $29.99 and also on Kindle.

"Night And Day" a retrospective book of poetry by former National Book Award Nominee, P. J. Laska, takes the reader through a body of work which has been accumulating over the past forty or fifty years by one of the finest poets in America and particularly among Appalachian poets. P. J. Laska has traveled a life which took him from being the Polish-American Catholic son of a West Virginia coal miner to altar boy to Buddhist philosopher and from Morgantown, West Virginia, to the University of Arizona to the Southern Appalachian Circuit of Antioch College to Cleveland, Ohio, to a brief retirement in Mexico and back to Arizona. Such a varied experience deserves to be documented and that is exactly what Laska has done on nearly a daily basis since he first learned to read and write in the coal fields of Northern West Virginia.

P. J. Laska Photo By Roger D. Hicks

This work is far too brief to fully depict the poetic career of one of America's best poets. Laska has worked in the creation of this edition of his work much like an Alaskan prospector or a ten year old boy picking slate in a 19th century West Virginia coal mine. He has gleaned the best nuggets from his lifetime of work while also working diligently to pick the few small pieces of slate from what has been a remarkably productive and high carbon seam of literary coal. The reader of poetry can walk upright in this seam without fear of linguistic kettle bottoms or wordy water dripping from the ceiling. The top is solid. The bottom is clean. There is no linguistic methane but from time to time the language, ideas, ethics, and history can become explosive and incendiary in the best possible definition of both words. P. J. Laska has devoted his life to poetry, philosophy, social activism, and working to better the condition of the human race. I first met him in the early 1970's when he was a professor at the Southern Appalachian Circuit and I was drifting about on the edges of one of the finest collections of poets, writers, and social activists the region has ever seen. P. J. Laska easily stands with the best of a group of writers which included Bob Snyder; Don West; Bill Blizzard, Jr.; Gail Amburgey; Yvonne Snyder Farley; and about a dozen others who have produced bits and pieces of the best poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in the history of Appalachia. This collection by Laska joins the best works of this group which include Bob Snyder's cumulative body of poetic and non-fiction works; Don West's several books of poetry over a sixty year career including "Crab Grass" and "No Lonesome Road"; and "When Miners March" by Bill Blizzard, Jr. With the publication of "Night And Day", Laska has clearly cemented his reputation as having literary and historical importance in Appalachia equal to Snyder and West. He had already established a wonderful literary reputation in terms of single pieces of high quality poetry and with the National Book Award nomination. But publishing the collection of works written over such a lengthy period into a single book places the cumulative work easily in the hands of the general reader and gives the everyday educator a major point of reference for teaching Laska's work in the classroom.

Roger D. Hicks & P. J. Laska Photo By Candice Hicks

"Night And Day" reprises many of Laska's best poems from several works over the years while also introducing several newer pieces which many readers have not seen. It opens with "The Day The Eighties Began" and sets an immediate tone of social activism and outspoken opposition to wrongdoing. Then as we read on we find poems like "Uncle Frank's Death" which is a fine comment about family and love in the hills of Appalachia. The book examines Appalachian issues such as strip mining, love of place, outside ownership and corporate greed, and devotion to family. It gives the reader who has never met Laska's work a wonderful window into the soul of a poet who has lived a life of action and activism in a beautiful but often stormy land. It serves to create a picture frame around a portrait of a life lived at the cutting edge of social action in the 20th century.

Several other fine works came out of the Southern Appalachian Circuit group and, to date, the best had been Laska's "D. C. Images And Other Poems" which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Now, with this retrospective of his work both before and after "D. C. Images..." P. J. Laska has outdone himself. He is leaving footprints in the sands for other aspiring Appalachian poets to follow. The work contains many of the best poems from several of his earlier works including "D. C. Images...:", "Old Martins, New Strings" a work done with friends Bob Snyder and Joseph Barrett, and a few minor collections which had been self published over the years. It also contains newer works which had not been collected before. It is well worth the price of admission. Buy it! Read it! Seek to take up some of the social activism it portrays and espouses! Go back to it from time to time! Leave it dogeared and lying in a prominent place in your home for your friends to read and perhaps even steal.

Writer's Note: I had published this post several months ago on a "Page Important Enough To Stand Alone" and it never seemed to get read as much as I think P. J. Laska's work deserves.  So here it is where you cannot miss it.  But the book, read it, pass it on.  Roger

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Explanation Of The Poll

I have just posted a poll on the blog asking readers whether you prefer my typical, longer, fairly academic postings or the shorter, more diary/journal type postings.  Personally, I enjoy writing the longer things.  But I have done a few of the shorter ones in the last week or two and they seem to attract page views at or maybe even above the rate for the longer things. Feel free to send me a message stating your preferences or making suggestions for topics.  I still have plenty of ideas which are unwritten.  But new questions, requests, or suggestions can also lead me to new knowledge.  I try to always keep an open mind.  Let me know what you think.  And, to all the members, be aware that I am flattered that you have chosen to join the blog.  I obviously have some goals in mind here regarding the dissemination of information and the omnipresent goal of preserving, protecting, and defending Appalachian Culture. 

The One Good Photo I Ever Shot

Monday, January 2, 2012

Suggestions From The Work Of Loyal Jones

"All work in Appalachia must be based on the genuine needs as expressed by mountain people themselves.  Whatever work is done must be done with the recognition that Appalachian culture is real and functioning." Loyal Jones; "Appalachian Values"; p. 10.
Over the years, I have provided numerous staff trainings and professional presentations on the topics of Appalachian Culture, cultural diversity, and delivery of professional counseling services in Appalachia.  I have always tried to see to it that the Loyal Jones quote above was the first and last slide of any power point presentation I ever made on the  topic of Appalachian Studies.  It is the most important idea that any professional working in Appalachia can burn into his or her mind especially if they are not native Appalachian.  Every year or two, I go  back and reread the classic little book by Jones.  I frequently quote from it both in writing and in conversation.  At 144 pages, it is a markedly compact little slice of some of the most important truths in all of Appalachian literature.  Once again, at the New Year, I have taken it off the shelf and begun to read, memorize, and reflect on it.  The book is frequently maligned or underestimated.  Its critics often say it is simplistic.  But truth is frequently contained in the most simple of phrases.  Consider little plums such as "thou shalt not bear false witness" from the King James Bible.  Basic tenets of human philosophy, religion, and culture are contained in such phrases.  Jones' book is full of such little gems.  Of the 144 pages, a majority of them are taken up by the powerful photos of Warren Brunner.  The book arose from a widely acclaimed journal article from the Texas Tech Press which was later expanded into the book.  It is just small enough that even the least interested novice can be induced to read it when inquiring about Appalachia and Appalachian Culture.  If that novice is not overly captivated by Brunner's photos, they are quite likely to grasp at least one of the  basic ideas the book contains.  It is always the first book I suggest to anyone who states a desire to learn about Appalachia.  It can always become the rock solid foundation for a growing and effective knowledge of the region.  While it is not remotely comprehensive in its breadth, it is fundamentally true and basic enough that the average sixth grader can grasp its central themes. 

In the brief chapter on "Humility or Modesty", this little gem jumps off the page: "we mountaineers are levellers, and we believe we are as good as anybody else, but no better.  We believe that we should not put on airs, not boast, nor try to get above our raising." Jones; p 90. 

If every native Appalachian could grasp that idea and ensure that all those they encounter come to recognize it, all Appalachians would be better off.  Most of the negative stereotypes about us would gradually disintegrate and die out.  I would love to know that every person who reads this posting would pick the book up and read it.  If you are among the lucky group who have read it, I suggest that you pick it up and re-examine it with an eye to the little gems it contains.  Consider passing it along to your friends.  I frequently give it as a gift in the hope that it reaches deeper than the coffee table and into the mind of the recipient.  

Go to this link to read updated reflections from both Loyal Jones and I  about his book "Appalachian Values" forty years after it was published.   Reflections On "Appalachian Values" forty years later

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Some Thoughts On New Years Day

I have never made a habit of making New Years resolutions and most of the few I ever made did not survive Red  Bud and Dogwood Time.  The only two I can remember that ever worked are still working.  It has been a long time since I smoked or drank.  But my real thoughts about New Years Day are more philosophical than personal or purgative as most peoples seem to be.  I generally always start the year by revisiting the literary work of some old friends in the field of Appalachian Studies. If I have enough time when I start that reading I might also add a few people outside the field.  I try to reread some Wilma Dykeman, Cratis Williams, Don West, Bob Snyder, Albert Stewart, Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pearl S. Buck, Kerouac, Jack London.  I always end up sidetracked sooner or later in the reading by mundane responsibilities or new writers who pop up over the horizon.  I always try to renew my lifelong commitment to continuing to put up the good fight in defense of Appalachian Culture and Appalachian land and resources.  I hope some of you join in that effort as well.  West Virginia has just elected a governor whose successes have been rooted in the Logan County coal fields and he learned from the operators not the miners.  It might be a good time to look back at the life and writing of Mother Jones, Jock Yablonski, and John L. Lewis as well.  Kentucky just re-elected a governor who is committed to expanded gambling which always brings social problems wherever it takes place.  Kentucky elected a senator from outside the state who is committed to more right wing radical causes than it is possible for a responsible voter to stay informed about.  We are faced with presidential and congressional elections after having been exposed to a group of right wing radicals who held the congress and country hostage for most of the year.  They seek to tax the working class and feed the rich without taxing them.  Congress needs to lose most of the class of 2010.  The Tea Party needs to be repulsed and replaced.  Every citizen needs to become fully informed and educated about the political, environmental, social, and educational issues in the country.  Every voter who steps in a voting booth this year needs to think long and hard before making decisions.  Most of the electoral decisions in Appalachia and the nation over the past year have been wrong.  As many as possible need to be reversed.