Monday, February 27, 2006

We visited Oneonta on Friday, something we do every year or so. It was a nice time, as always. But I was left with a melancholy feeling. Later, I tried to figure out why. Because I could have happily lived forever in that little city? Or is it the passing of time and aging? On campus, after the trip to the college store to pick up tee-shirts and other alumni paraphernalia, despite the bitter cold, we walked around a bit near the academic buildings, and went inside one that used to house a favorite coffee shop. It was sad to see that the coffee shop is gone, replaced by a vending room. All the chairs and tables were there, as well as the memories. In '70s orange. I scanned the faculty directory. The offices for mathematics, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and education are located there. I only recognized one name in the list. We both noticed how friendly the staff and students were at the college union, such a contrast to here in Albany. Because it is a smaller campus? Because it is in Central New York? Because the focus in undergraduate education? We weren't sure why. Later, someone told us that the coffee shop we missed moved to a different building, and transformed into a Starbucks. Typical.

Downtown we visited a favorite bar and found it unchanged, the pizzeria where Bob worked (which has been extensively renovated), and a health food cafe. It was vegetarian when we were students, but now it serves meat. We bought a funky lantern at a small gift shop that sold used DVDs (Bob guessed they are like currency to cash-strapped students), tapestries, a huge selection of pot pipes, and incense. We ate at Brooks (yum!) and had dessert at at small cafe.

As we strolled along Main Street, we were saddened by the empty storefronts. Even when we were students, there was talk of the difficulties of owning a store there, of the threat from the east and west ends of town. But as it turned out, the suburban fringes didn't do that much harm. Students didn't have cars, the campus bus stopped near Main Street, it was tradition for folks to drive in from the outskirts to shop on Main Street, and the chains Ames to the west, and Barkers to the east both have gone out of business long ago.

The anchor of Main Street was Bresee's, a classy three-story department store that was founded in 1899. Little shops, restaurants and bars filled the rest of the street. In the basement of Bresee's was the "Health Bar," a wonderful coffee shop. I still remember two cookies were 15 cents, and a turkey sandwich on a roll was $3.00. Another sandwich choice was cream cheese on banana bread with canned peaches for that same low price. They were closed Sunday, open the other days until 5:10 and Thursdays until 8. We ate there nearly every day - twice on Thursdays - and our favorite waitress was Grace. The last time I saw Don was sitting in a booth at the Health Bar. Several of us had coffee and talked about Pink Floyd "The Wall."

In 1994 Bresee's went out of business; the Health Bar closed, as did many departments, but the store stayed open - it still operated under the Bresee's name, but sold only furniture and appliances. At least it was still there, in a way, the building maintained, a friendly presence. So I was shocked on Friday to see it vacant, and many of the surrounding stores out of business, as well. When we got back to Samsonville, I searched in Google, and learned that in late 2003 the building sold. The store stayed open, but they auctioned off much of the memorabilia that was stored inside - a lifetime of retail point-of-purchase. At Christmas time there were enormous snowflake lights that would adorn the storefront, and in the windows, a series of animatronic elves entertained passersby - all sent across the block. I wish I knew about that auction! I would have loved to go, and get something. There was a carousel horse that they sold - of course that would probably have been out of reach. But even a Health Bar menu would have been nice to have.

I could find no mention of the store going completely out of business since then, but the posters in the window said that the inventory and restaurant equipment had been auctioned off in January. There was no year, but we assumed it was 2006, since the poster was still intact. So perhaps I felt sad because Bresee's is gone?

There is no mystery as to why. Students bring cars to campus now; Oneonta has paved some formerly green spaces. Perhaps the newer generations, who inherited the buildings and stores on Main Street, are not interested in retailing. Then, people in general are willing to travel greater distances because of the allure of the malls - I'm sure lots of folks go to Binghamton or Albany to shop. Just have to have lots of selection and the latest plastic thing, you see. And it seems few people are loyal to old fashioned, small retailers. This is the philosophy: If it can be made in China, then bought for 5 cents cheaper at a big box store at midnight the day after Thanksgiving...stay outa my way on the highway, baby.

The east and west ends may have been no match for the venerable Bresee's, but Southside is booming. What was only a Howard Johnson's, a Holiday Inn and (ominously) a new, small mall (that struggled) when we were students, now has a variety of bland, awful chains: Home Depot, Hannaford, McDonald's, Taco Bell, WalMart. I didn't bother to look, but there probably are Target, Olive Garden, etc. too. You could be anywhere on this planet. It isn't special enough to be Oneonta. A flyer in the newspaper announced the grand opening of Lowe's. Samson Floors, where Bob bought paint and wallpaper, left Main Street - moved into the closed movie theatre building (because, of course, the mall has a cinema 1-50) and has since gone out of business there, too. If Samson Floors couldn't make it, how can Oneonta need both a Lowe's and a Home Depot?

I was thinking that I understand better something that eluded me when I was younger. When a senior citizen would say, "I'm glad I'm not young, because I don't like X and I don't want to see Y in the future," I would think, how ridiculous. Change is exciting, progress is good. The past may have been great, but the future will be too. Now I see all the big box chains that people fall all over themselves to support, the destroyed community that is left behind, and I see a part of contemporary culture that I don't like at all. I mourn for Bresee's, and Main Street. I even mourn the two small supermarkets adjacent to Main Street, on Chestnut Street, both now bankrupt. So now you would have no choice but to have a car, if you wanted to buy groceries. Southside is not residential, or pedestrian friendly.

A few small businesses have opened recently, to replace some of the grand stores that once graced the street. They are mostly small, exotic gift shops, and cafes. They seem to be low budget operations that cater to students; I hope they make it. Anyway, in searching, I found this blog with pictures of Bresee's, and this website, with pictures of Main Street.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

On AOL today, I read this article about tips for successful online learning. Of these 10 tips, only #9 and #10 are useful, in my opinion. The others are OK, but they strike me as either too common sense to rate more than a "duh," or not important enough to warrant inclusion in a list of so-called "secret" tips. A piece of advice for students in the online world? Don't make the mistake of thinking an online class will require less effort than an on campus one. Be sure to stay on top of the work, don't procrastinate. Check the course website regularly. And read everything that is posted by the instructor!

Friday, February 17, 2006

We are overrun with squirrels - we have moved the bird feeder several times to try to outsmart them - but they hang by their back feet from a branch, next to it, using their little hands to get the seed so their weight isn't on the feeder, and the trap doors stay open. We do have some birds coming also, but I think every squirrel in Castleton is coming here, they far outnumber the birds. Ma says, "tie the cat out there."

Speaking of the cat, we moved the bird feeder to a bracket near the kitchen window (we still throw corn on the ground for the squirrels) and now Edna is perched on the sink, watching the "banquet." It is a real banquet for the birds, and an imaginary one for her.

Bob and I had a funny conversation last night. Strange, but funny. We were discussing the odd weather - such a warm winter. Then, today it is extremely windy and the temperature is dropping something like 60 degrees in a 24 hour period. So I said, "maybe the world is ending." He agreed, suggesting that the assumptions that it has to be by freezing or fire could be wrong. I told him that if it is, I don't want to be one of the chosen ones, who is left to pick up the pieces. I might be capable, but I am not interested. That got us to thinking about writing up a list of rules for the new world. Something that future people could find and follow, believing prophets were the authors. Some of our bullets: In the New World, there will be no cars. In the New World, there will be no television. In the New World, there will be no lattes. In the New World, there will be no WalMarts. In the New World, there will be no Targets. In the New World, there will be no sports. In the New World, everyone will be a vegetarian. In the New World, wine will be free. There were others, but I'll stop there. It would make a science fiction story, if I was so inclined.

I don't want you to think from this that I am some kind of conspiracy theorist, or caught up in morbid end of the world thinking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is the sort of stuff we would amuse ourselves with in college - groups of friends would sit around, talking about the new ideas we were learning, and letting the conversation meander wherever it wanted, sometimes into absurd territory. I see an absence of that today on campus, it is crowded out by cell phones, blackberries, instant messaging, television, ipods. But then my day class this semester seems to be a throwback, filled with students who are introspective, and like to discuss theories. So perhaps I shouldn't generalize.

One other thought, about students. I am struck, every semester, about how so many people look alike. I have about 120 students every semester, in my four classes. Approximately 90 of them are in my on campus classes. In every class, I have a few students who either look almost identical to someone from a past semester, or resemble some friend or relative of mine strongly.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

We celebrated Valentine's Day at Lombardo's. There are a lot of restaurants I like a lot, but that is easily my favorite Italian restaurant in Albany.

I'm caught up on my work (sent off a book review I've been working on yesterday), so I started to read Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood. I haven't read any of her short story collections before, but as with all her books, it is a good read so far. I am two stories into it.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Last night we saw Phantom of the Opera at Proctor's. It was great! We'd seen it before, in 1994 on Broadway and it was wonderful (that's a funny memory, maybe there's a story there for another time). The movie from a couple of years ago was an abomination! Ugh! All DVDs of it should be confiscated, and snapped in half. I am happy to have seen it again live, to erase the image of that piece of crap out of my mind.

Tomorrow we are going to see 1776 at the New York State Theatre Institute.

I've figured out the dynamic in my lower division is 57% male! That's rare at this university, and unheard of in the school of education.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Lately, we have had a run of movies from Netflix that I didn't enjoy very much. First, was Dogville. Twice I tried to watch it - and both times ended up turning it off after torturing myself. Then it got sent back. Next, Brazil. I'd seen parts of it on TV before, and found it interesting. But the first time it came in the mail from Netflix, the DVD was damaged, and wouldn't play after a while. The replacement was in good shape. I enjoyed the movie more than the awful Dogville, but it was too long. Way too long. After a while, I lost all empathy for the characters. Finally, 25th Hour. This movie was more watchable than either of the other two disappointments, but again - it was just too long. Why are film editors so reluctant to cut? Not every scene is a masterpiece, or necessary.

Contrast this to PBS, which so often has wonderful, interesting, worthwhile programs. Recently, I saw Influenza 1918. It was amazing! Another history subject that is not covered enough, or at all, in school. In the cemetery behind my house, the one Rudy loved to explore during walks, there is a small tombstone with the inscription: "In memory of all the infants who died in the epidemic during the winter of 1918-19." Yesterday, I met with a prospective graduate student who was telling me that if she could persue her true academic interests rather than more practical ones, she would get a PhD in anthropology. The same is true for me and U.S. History. There are so many topics to research, I would never run out of material. The 1918 flu epidemic is an example.

My 100-level class is going to be a classroom management challenge this semester. In the Fall, the students were serious. Perhaps they were nervous, since most were at college for the first time. But this Spring, there are several young men who are not rude to me or anything - they pay attention politely when I am speaking - but they do a lot of horsing around when there is "down" time, or discussion. Something like classes I remember from high school. I didn't mind so much last night, since we are just getting into the swing, and an active, even at times rowdy class is OK with me - but as the semester goes on, I am going to have to be careful that the atmosphere doesn't disintegrate to the point where the other students get turned off.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

This semester, for the first time, my classes are back-to-back, which means that I teach straight from 2:45 to 7, two days per week. I am finding it very tiring. I suppose I will get back into the swing of things eventually, but it is hard to be "on" for that long.