Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Friday, November 25, 2005

Local grant helps bring the sweet sounds of Talleyrand Park to life

Thanksgiving is a good time to express gratitude, not just for turkey and trimmings, but also for some of the things we take for "granite," as my imaginative students used to spell it.

Under a Local Government Grant, the Nov. 12 premiere of local musician and composer Rick Hirsch's jazz composition, "Village Green in Blue: A Musical Portrait of Talleyrand Park," at the Garman Opera House, presented new perceptions of a place that some of us might indeed have taken for granted.

Until he started researching the history of Talleyrand Park, Hirsch assumed that the park had been around forever. But it was only in 1964 that plans for the park were first proposed by Borough Council. The site was leveled in 1971, and in 1974 the real work began with the formation of the Talleyrand Park Citizens Committee.

Sculptor Rob Fisher, a Bellefonte resident and an original member of the committee, introduced "Village Green in Blue" by defining Talleyrand Park as "the quintessence of what the American Dream can produce." Then, the Valley Jazz Orchestra, comprised of seasoned players, as well as a young Krupa on drums and a budding Brubeck on keyboards, delivered a gift that will reap returns for years to come.

The composition in five parts was more free-flowing than structured, more pictures in sound than improvised jazz riffs on a theme. Spring Creek rippled along in the first movement, "Lifeblood," gained momentum as it reached the falls, then coming to a quiet close with a repeated figure on keyboard.

The second movement captured the graceful architecture of the suspension bridge in a tranquil scene where wood and steel sway in the breeze. Movement III is dedicated to the true owners of the park: the ducks. Hirsch gave them a calypso beat, while with just their mouthpieces, the trumpet section quacked convincingly.

"Placid" is a mood piece introduced by the keyboard, then picked up by the sax in a melodic passage with gravelly accompaniment on trombone. "Aspire" brought the work to a close, centering on the gazebo as a symbol of persistence and vision.

Sometimes we take grants for granted, forgetting that projects such as "Village Green in Blue" don't just happen. They start with the borough of Bellefonte and the Local Government Grant program with funding also from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, administered in this region by the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance. The results, as another of my students might have spelled it, are "ah-some."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Growing old has its advantages, though they are often hidden

What began as an ordinary trip to the drugstore for moisturizer turned into an education. Besides standbys such as Nivea and Neutrogena, the shelves were stacked with a bewildering variety of anti-aging products -- wrinkle removers, skin lifts, peels, masks, even a microdermabrasion kit that seems to operate on the system of sandblasting.

I left the store without buying anything because I was too confused, not just about the products, but about the aging process as well.

In his new book "Healthy Aging," integrative medicine practitioner Andrew Weil says we should embrace what is good about aging. In the CDT on Oct. 30, Arthur S. Rotstein quotes Weil as saying that "aging brings its own rewards."

Well, it brings senior discounts, but the first time the checkout clerk at Pizza Hut gave me a discount without my asking for it, I felt kind of betrayed. Then after the same thing happened at the Garman Opera House movie theater, I got used to it.

I received a reduction on my car insurance after I took a safe-driving course for older drivers. And recently, I applied for a senior pass at the new Centre Area Transportation Authority bus station at Schlow library. When the clerk, a lady of a certain age herself, asked if I didn't also want to get a pass for Centre Ride, the van that takes seniors to their appointments, I didn't flinch.

I may be riding that van for a long time. My beautiful aunt and godmother Gertrude Torsell lived to be 103. But no van for her; she was still driving in her 90s, always smartly dressed and blessed with perfect skin. I asked her once what she used on her face and she said Pond's Vanishing Cream. I think her real beauty secret was in never talking about her age.

The other day a tree trimmer was cutting dead wood out of one of the silver maples down the street. "These trees are all dying," I said.

He fixed me with a penetrating stare and said, "So are we." The arborist was also a philosopher.

This time of the year, the rich colors of the leaves remind me of my favorite Crayola crayons. But there are changes there too. Burnt and raw sienna are still in the box of 48, but golden ochre and burnt umber have vanished, like Aunt Gertrude's face cream.

In the autumn of my own life, the leaves this year seem more brilliant than ever. Maybe Andrew Weil is onto something.

Banned Books

(Belated post--this ran in the 11/2/05 issue of the Centre Daily Times)

Every September the American Library Association observes Banned Book Week. This year's display at Centre County Library did not shock because of its racy titles. In fact, according to librarian D. J. Lilly, many patrons expressed shock at seeing one of their favorite books tied up with yellow tape. "What's wrong with it?" they would ask. A handout prepared from the ALA website ( offered various reasons, most often "offensive language."

Looking down the list of banned and challenged books was like looking at a copy of the 10th grade curriculum guide from my years of teaching literature at the high school. There was Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

"Huck Finn" has been controversial since its publication in 1884 when it was banned by the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library, not for its language but for its depiction of a way of life the library board considered "rough, coarse, and inelegant." Twain, whose satire on civilization is narrated by nature-loving Huck, could not have said it better himself. More recently the book has been challenged because of its use of the n-word (over 200 times in the book, mostly by Huck).

My eventual decision to substitute another coming-of-age novel for "Huck Finn" was based on putting myself in the place of a minority student in the classroom and hearing repeated racial slurs. I felt like Huck in the middle of the Mississippi, trying to make up his mind whether to turn Jim over to the slave hunters or follow his conscience and protect his friend. "Huck Finn" will always be one of my favorite books, but how and when or even whether to teach the book remains a sensitive issue.

"The Diary of a Young Girl," Anne Frank's story about hiding out with other Jews in Holland during the Holocaust documents a time in history we are still trying to come to terms with. It makes the ALA list because it is "too depressing." The subject of "Fahrenheit 451" is book burning, an irony in itself. Even dictionaries don't escape the "offensive language" charge.

In the long run, according to ALA, it is "parents and only parents who have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children to library resources." In the classroom an alternate title can always be substituted for one a parent might object to. The freedom to read comes with an option: the freedom sometimes not to read.


(Belated posting--this ran in the 10/26/05 issue of the Centre Daily Times)

Trick or Treat night in Bellefonte can bring kids by the carload or a handful of stragglers, depending on where you live. Residents in the historic district, especially on Linn and Curtin Streets, have already started stockpiling supplies for the two-hour event. Last year the unofficial count on Curtin Street was between 250 and 300 kids. That adds up to a lot of lollipops.

Some people put up lights and elaborate displays to welcome the invasion of superheroes and Cinderellas, monsters and vampires. The adults have as much fun as the kids. But a few years ago I stopped turning on my porch lights. It could have been the year I was having my porch repaired, but it's more likely I had just stopped having fun.

Participating in Trick or Treat night means you are pretty much held captive in your own home, answering the door, handing out candy, trying to figure out the identities of the kids behind the masks. That's fine if they are from the neighborhood, but when I retired from teaching I could no longer recognize the kids from Pleasant Gap or Coleville or Zion.

When I leave now to attend evening services for the Feast of All Saints, I fight my way through a river of costumed kids followed by slowly moving vehicles. The scene is surreal, like a modern-day Children's Crusade. But by the time I get downtown the crowds have thinned. The action is all uptown.

I feel a little guilty at the end of the evening and try to justify my decision with excuses like, who needs all that candy anyway? But nagging thoughts swirl around me like so much ectoplasm. In my book, mean people are punished. Last year I did not have to wait long.

When I came in from getting the mail the next afternoon something dark hanging from a nail over the fireplace caught my eye. It was a bat, sound asleep, its plump velvety sides gently pulsing, a silent reprimand for my insensitivity.

The man from the exterminator service was understanding but warned, "This might not be pretty." Then he whipped out a piece of cardboard, ripped off a protective sheet and slapped the sticky side on the bat who went quietly without a squeal or a struggle. "I'll take it back to the office and release it," the exterminator said. "Brown bats are protected, you know."
No, I didn't know. But if it's a choice between bats or kids, maybe it's time to rethink my position.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A world of uncertainty has us looking for shelter from the storm

Five days after the "light" snow that was predicted for Oct. 25, snowmen still stood in front yards, and downed branches in full leaf were waiting for the chipper and the chain saw.

Not only did the unseasonable storm transform the landscape, it changed the order of people's lives. If Shakespeare were around, he would have written a play about it.

Storms in Shakespeare were not just an excuse to try out a new thunder machine; they symbolized upheavals in society. So King Lear, driven from his home and deprived of his title, rages against the elements. And in the "Scottish Play" (I share the superstition about using the actual title), three witches meet on the heath in thunder, lightning and rain to predict the murder of the rightful heir to the throne.

In "The Tempest," a shipwreck leads to a shakeup in the political order. In "Twelfth Night," another shipwreck throws characters into hilarious scenes of mistaken identity.

By looking at things from a different perspective, new insights emerge. By linking cosmic disorder and political chaos, Shakespeare shed light on themes of corruption and human error. Hurricane Katrina, in his playbook, would be the lens through which mistakes are magnified.

Before Hurricane Wilma hit, I checked in with two friends in southern Florida. Betty was putting up her storm shutters, and Barbara was polishing off the ice cream in her freezer. Both seemed like good examples of the principle of living with nature, not against it.

A humor column by Jack Gustafson in the Rochester Senior Times makes a similar point. In his list of characteristics of true Pennsylvanians, he says, "If you have worn shorts and a parka at the same time, you might live in Pennsylvania."

Looking ahead to this winter, The Old Farmer's Almanac has issued its forecast for the Appalachian region. Temperatures will be lower than normal and snowfall will be above normal with a heavy snowstorm in early April.

"We believe that nothing in the universe happens haphazardly," the editors say, "that there is a cause-and-effect pattern to all phenomena."

Yes, but those words may be cold comfort to folks trying to figure out how to pay their fuel bills this winter.

Shakespeare's plays always ended with a restoration of order -- lovers were reunited, villains disposed of, peace reigned. Audiences could go home with the satisfaction of having everything back in its proper place. The need for stability in an uncertain world was as much a part of Elizabethan times as ours.