The hyperlocal gestalt of things

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“I don’t think there should be goodbyes, just good night.” – Kim Hughes, played by Kathryn Hays, on the series finale of As the World Turns, Sept. 17, 2010.

It was the spring of 2018. I was eating lunch in the Utica College cafeteria. My phone rang. It said the call was from Rome Sentinel. I assumed it was about a press release I had sent in for an event I was promoting. It was Nicole Hawley of the Clinton Record calling me about this exciting hyperlocal newspaper they were going to launch and its search for local columnists.

“I am way too busy,” I thought to myself. “Well, maybe once a month,” I said.

“It would have to be more often than that,” she said. “How about every other week?”

“Okay, I’ll try every other week,” I agreed.

I always wondered if they expected a sedate listing of upcoming events in Westmoreland or a (too-boring-for me) “This Day in Westmoreland History” type thing.

I was far too ambitious for that.

My first interview was with Ryan Quinn, whom I tracked down in Los Angeles, one year after The Voice. I interviewed politicians, authors, and television stars. I took readers to social justice protests and rallies. I did a continuing “deep dive” on COVID, and I even took them with me through the dark days fighting off the KKK. I also brought them along as I entered the light of Masonry, and as I explored and deepened my faith, then when I walked down the aisle with my husband, Jim Hale.

There was so much to say that I wrote a column every week. This, however, is the last one. The Clinton Record will end publication with this issue. I am staying with the Rome Sentinel, though, and you can continue to read my work starting this week in the Seven Day Sentinel, the paper’s Sunday edition.

Before I close this chapter, I want to say that it wasn’t the elected officials or the celebrities who made this column what it was. It was the people who were a part of my life and my community who had the most important and meaningful things to say. I am glad I had this opportunity to amplify their voices.

One of those people was one of my all-time favorite students, Anthony Lubey, who, now that he has graduated, is a friend on social media and in real life. I taught him English Language Arts at New York Mills High School when I was a long-term substitute teacher during the 2018-2019 school year.

Anthony is a great cook, which is understandable since his family owns Voss Bar-B-Q. His grandfather, Kent Voss, is a direct descendant of the restaurant chain’s founder (there are three Voss Bar-B-Q’s; Yorkville, one on the Marina in Herkimer, and one at Palm Springs Mini Golf in Marcy.)

Anthony has been helping out in the business so he knows how to do all the different jobs required to run a fast-paced diner that is so popular it is considered a landmark in the community. He even brought masks out to people waiting in line this summer.

I wondered how the business had done this summer during COVID.

“We were still busy,” Anthony told me. “All three of them.”

I asked him what the most popular menu items were.

“Chili dogs,” he said to my surprise. “Chili dogs are popular with people my age. Then, cheeseburger deluxe, fries with nacho cheese, and milkshakes-the business started out as an ice cream business.”

“How about the fish fries?” I asked, remembering the times I spent waiting in lines to get them for my mom. “They are, and if we’re out, people get upset,” he laughed. “But, they always think of something else to get.”

There are a lot of good things to eat at Voss, and the customers were as satisfied as ever this summer. The only thing a few of them missed was the colorful refrigerator magnet letters they used to give out to remind people of their order number. Because of COVID, those are probably on a shelf somewhere, hopefully waiting to come out next summer.

“We’re a family business,” Anthony said. “So no matter what, you know you’re going to get good food.”

I asked him what 18-year-olds do for fun during this time of social distancing and with many things still closed down.

“I have two or three friends I’ve hung out with since the beginning,” he said. “I enjoy my time with them. No matter what, you’ve got to fight through it.”

Yesterday, on the way to the Lowell Methodist church, I drove by the homemade sign Jessica Ferguson and her daughter, Raelyn, 4, painted that says, “To all keeping us going, Thank You!” It leans against their mailbox about a mile from the center of town and says so much about who we are as a community.

In April, I wrote about second-grader Zander Seamon, whose mom, Darci Owens, sent me a picture of the hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies he spent his birthday money buying to give to others. I wondered how Darci and her children were holding up now that the pandemic seems poised to engulf us in a second wave. I was happy to learn that her optimism hasn’t dimmed.

“I beat cancer four times,” Darci said. “I’m not supposed to be here. I even wasn’t supposed to be able to have kids. I am just so thankful that I have three boys.”

In addition to Zander, who likes to be called “Bubba,” and Anthony, 14, who sometimes goes by “T-bone,” she has a kindergärtner named Colton, who insists on being called “Sharkbait.” Her father, David Owen, gave them those fun nicknames.

Darci says she moved her family to Westmoreland because she loves the school district. She has tremendous praise for Becki Burrows, Zander’s speech therapist, and Rocco Migliori, the school superintendent, who she remembers from her time as a student.

“I can’t call him anything but ‘Mr. Migliori,’” she insists, laughing. “He was my principal, and one time when I fell in with the wrong crowd, he had a talk with me that turned everything around. He said to me, ‘do you want to be the person you are right now or do you want to be someone who makes a difference in the world?’”

Darci became a person who makes a difference in the world. She has counseled rape victims, taught kickboxing, taken care of the elderly, and how she is raising three boys to grow up to be “amazing men.” And she is doing it while giving up cigarettes!

“Something good needs to come out of this time,” she insists. “It’s what my son said when he gave me all the money out of his piggy bank to help others through COVID, ‘instead of sitting here and being scared we can help.’”

Before the interview ended, Darci said she’s always felt like she knew me from reading my column. She’s right. This is me. Since March of 2018, this column has been my journal, my humor, my life in print, my credo, my cri de cœur. Thank you to everyone who recognized me in public and told me how much this all meant to you. It’s been great fun, but it has been a ton of work, very hard, and sometimes even scary. 

I was only a few weeks into writing this column when Westmoreland was a site for recruitment by the KKK. It called for the kind of action whose risks you don’t even appreciate it until it’s over and your name is in the local, then national, then international news as an enemy of the hate group. Reading what I wrote on these pages back then, I see the how and why faith has become vital and sustaining to me.

On a Saturday, I was quoted on CNN.com saying, “the only way to get through fear is to stand up and come together. When something like this happens, sometimes you have to make a statement to remind people that we won’t have this here.”

The next morning I was in church, and I wrote this: “Life is like a vapor; you’re here, then you’re gone,” Pastor Bailey said. “Make the best use of your time.”

Am I doing that? I wondered.

“Make me dwell in safety,” Wendy Grosjean, lay reader, read Psalm 4.8.

“Make me dwell in safety,” I repeated under my breath.

The week after, I quoted Donna LaBuz, one of my favorite people to talk to. Like all people blessed with great wisdom, she is as funny as she is down-to-earth.

“The guy on the People Places and Opinions of Rome NY” Facebook page posted nasty lies about me,” I said and started laughing as soon as I did, realizing how ridiculous it was to let something like that bother me. “Even in the midst of turmoil, find something to smile about,” she said.

Last year I lit the candle on our church’s Advent wreath that symbolized “joy,” I asked her what “joy” meant and what I should say about it when I was on the alter. “You are always so joyful,” I said.

“I have downtimes too, just like everyone else,” she said. “I don’t just live life; I try to experience it. Because when you experience, you learn. Negativity can drag you in like a magnet. I’m not a ‘budger.’ I won’t get pulled in. It’s my faith that keeps me going.”

Before I lit that Advent candle, I asked Gary Leising, a poet, and a professor, what it all meant to him. “We can’t just watch the world go on as we think about what Dr. King called the long moral arc, whether it’s in our families, communities, or countries,” Gary told me. “One Advent Sunday might be about rejoicing, but the other three are about preparing ourselves to participate, to do good, to help bend that arc toward goodness and justice as we are able.”

As I write this last column for this paper, it occurs to me how much I am dwelling on last Christmas. Then I remember how it was the last holiday we had before people started dying from COVID. The last normal time.

As I read back through my old columns, I think that someday I need to put them into a book, a blog, or some collection. They were what happened, what I did, and thought, and lived through, and I hope they inspired readers, motivated them to take action, or got them to think. But, I look back on all of it as sort of a dream life. Like everyone else, it’s hard to escape the immediacy of life and see the bigger picture, but it’s there, and this year COVID forced a lot of us to consider it.

In one column, I interviewed Mimi Torchin, the founding editor of Soap Opera Weekly, about my favorite show, General Hospital. I asked her why daytime dramas were so important to their fans.

“They become part of our dream life,” she observed.

There is something about writing about life that makes it seem a bit like a dream life; or at least it allows the writer and the reader to put it into perspective. I hope I showed you that. There is so much more good than bad. Amid this pandemic, I got married after being with my (now) husband for twenty years. I wrote a column about that and called it “Mirror in the sky, what is love?” A title taken from a line in the Stevie Nicks song, “Landslide.” My wedding was shared with tens of thousands of readers, hundreds of followers on Facebook Live, and God knows how many people who watched it on NewsChannel2. People are still congratulating us. The world is a good place, and sometimes, like on soap operas, it is a dream life.

A family friend, Arianna Granza, sang “Magic” as we walked down the aisle in my mother’s front yard.

“Building your dream has to start now. There’s no other road to take. You won’t make a mistake; I’ll be guiding you. You have to believe we are magic; nothing can stand in our way.”

“As a Christian minister committed to the radically welcoming and inclusive gospel,” our officiant Jen DeWeerth said, “I see weddings like this one, so long denied, as a reminder that love does indeed win.”

And I ended the column, “Ron Klopfanstein was married to Jim Hale at 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 5, beneath a sumac tree in Westmoreland, NY.” Love did indeed win both in real life and in this column. Nothing stood in our way.

I have a friend on Twitter who once wrote, “The truth is never in a single thing, but in the gestalt of things.”

I quoted it when I interviewed “The guy in the red shirt,” who crashed a Black Lives Matter rally. It’s a story about anger, fear, misunderstanding, and bad circumstances, the sort of complicated, challenging, important story that I like to take on and make some sense of for my readers and myself.  

Whether or not I made sense of it is something you can judge for yourself by doing a Google search for the story. But I sat down with him on a park bench, and we talked for 20 minutes.

The last person I was interviewing before the guy in the red shirt came along said, “Dialogue is essential to change.” It seemed a lot more meaningful after talking to him.

“All this crazy [expletive] going on,” the guy in the red shirt told me before he left. “It’s nuts.”

He was right about that.

“All this crazy [expletive]” is the gestalt of things, and we’ll never make sense of any of it unless we try to make sense of each other first. I look forward to doing that with you. Let’s meet up again on Sunday.

Ron Klopfanstein’s column ran in almost every issue of the Clinton Record during its entire run. Starting Nov. 29, he will appear each week in the Rome Sentinel’s Sunday paper, Seven Day Sentinel. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein

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