Sunday, August 17, 2014


Apparently, that's how much my grandfather paid for his childhood farm when he purchased it from his widowed mother in 1960. I think a lot about how far my family has come in a couple of generations. My grandfather (mom's dad, or Pap) was born to a subsistence farming family. I played on that farm many times as a kid, when it was owned by a family who bought it from the Amishman who bought it from Pap. To be honest, it wasn't a very good farm. Set up against the side of Nittany Valley, it didn't possess the most fertile land. It was worth more for the lumber that grew on it (and which my grandfather apparently sold for about $3,500). It's not used as a farm anymore; the Amish family who owns it now primarily makes money from the carpentry business they run.

By the way, that $56k figure is in real dollars. When Pap wrote the check back in 1960, it was for $7,000 in his dollars.

How did Pap get the money to do this? After all, he was simply one of the youngest children of a relatively poor family. He had a 9th grade education. In his youth, he had something of a wild streak in him . . . mischievous rather than malicious. He worked for it, as a technician in a paper factory. He supplemented that income by working as the groundskeeper for a cemetery. When his plant was on strike, he did road work. He worked a blue collar job during that window in history when a blue collar job earned enough to attain something of a middle class lifestyle. His kids (Mom and my uncle) graduated from college and, in turn, sent their kids off to college now.

In 2014 I live in a house that's worth about 5 1/2 times what Pap bought his farm for in 1960.

This is what the troubles in Ferguson inspire me to contemplate. The commentary on those troubles that most helps me understand that community and its woes was written by Philip Kennicott. I appreciate how that author calls us to think of the complex factors that have led to the conflict that is ripping apart that neighborhood.

I didn't follow the news from Ferguson too much while on vacation. But from a distance it was apparent how both sides of the political spectrum were fashioning narratives around what is taking place there.

I can't help but think, however, how privileged my position must look like to those who feel snared by poverty in communities like Ferguson. Why am I relatively well off? Is it due to my own hard work? Yes. It's also due to some luck. More importantly, it's due to the actions by countless people who have wittingly and unwittingly shaped my life. Going back to my grandfather, he made decisions seventy and sixty years ago that set in motion me and the life I have today. My happiness today is the product of an army of family and friends and friends of family who made decisions and took risks for the betterment of themselves and others. I'm humbled by the sacrifices great and small of those people who weren't necessarily thinking of Chris Johnson and his family of four in 2014. I wish the factions viewing what's happening in Ferguson would consider, humbly consider, how we are all shaped by forces outside our immediate control, and how we shape others who we may not even be considering at this point in time.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Moving away from pessimism

There's no other news story I've been following as closely as the sad spectacle in Ukraine. I've written a few posts on it. But I'd like to take a moment to be optimistic. Teaching economics, I should value long-run thinking. Though I might disagree with the approach my president is taking, he's still my president and I can certainly hope his policy is the right one. Therefore, I was heartened by two unrelated developments . . .

1) News that Europe and the U.S. imposed a tougher round of sanctions was welcome. I must remember that the president doesn't want to move without company, and Europe is far more reluctant than the U.S. to meaningfully punish Russia. Maybe playing the waiting game is the most prudent: use our economic power to bear to further emaciate Russia's already tottering economy.

2) News that our economy grew 4% in the last quarter was also welcome. One won't see any news like that about Russia's economy any time soon. A stronger economy gives us more options, and more ability to wait out the Russians' encroachment on Ukraine.

I was also humbled by seeing my barber's reaction to the events in Ukraine as the news (the TV was on in the shop) talked of policy options. He grew up in Kiev, moved to the U.S. from there 20 years ago. He was obviously saddened, turning up the volume to hear the story (I've never seen him do that for any story before). I prodded him to tell me more about what he felt regarding the situation but he didn't have any clear answers. Perhaps he must stand by and watch like anyone else, knowing that what is occurring is wrong and sad, but knowing that force (or anything else quick) is the answer to the situation. Who am I to be so impatient: It's not my former homeland being ravaged.

Still, I'm impatient. I hope I can come to see ways in which a policy with which I disagree may end up being the best course of action, if I'm patient enough to give it time.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Charles Krauthammer's most recent column prompts me to write again on the two festering international crises of the hour, Ukraine and Gaza, and what our nation is doing about them. Krauthammer is very critical of our administration in the essay, as one would expect this writer to be. It's on the conduct of foreign policy that I remain very critical of our president, though I've mellowed about his leadership on domestic issues.

I cannot help but think that for Russia, a long-time rival of ours, and for Israel, a long-time ally, the wars in which they are engaged are wars for their very existence. Russia's frontiers have always been malleable: look at any variety of maps over the past century and one will see shifting lines for her. Acquiescing to a pro-western policy orientation by Ukraine threatens Russia's existence. Similarly for Israel, tolerating rocket fire from Gaza runs the risk of making life in that area of the world unlivable for some Israelis. Another commentator from the Washington Post did a good job articulating this.

Yesterday I visited the home of President James Monroe, and the guide talked a great deal on Monroe's efforts to secure America's borders. Though I wonder a bit if her tour was colored by the terms of today's debate regarding refugees (I don't know how much I like the phrase "secure our borders") she brought to mind an interesting point about that presidency. Monroe, having served as an officer in the American Revolution and as Secretary for War and State when the Brits burned our capital in 1814, was obsessed with making sure America's frontiers were settled. When his presidency was done, we had settled our border to the southeast and northeast, and had gone a long way to ensuring the peaceful resolution to our frontier to the northwest. Only to the southwest were issues murky: an ill-defined border with an upstart republic, Mexico, and a growing American population in one of that country's provinces. Monroe set us on the path to what we enjoy today: clear borders with two nations with whom we are on very friendly terms.

To one extent, one could say that any American interference in Ukraine is hypocritical: How dare we deny the Russians what we have taken for granted for more than a century? How dare we side against Russia who may be trying to expand their authority over a lawless area while we side with Israel in their their attempts to do the same? And how can we condone Israeli belligerence to solve their border crisis where as we solved so many of ours diplomatically (the Mexican War being a huge exception, of course).

Should America use its position of relative security to withdraw or engage with the world and its messy conflicts. Obviously, I feel in favor of the latter position. The world has largely been better off in the past century for America's interventions abroad. So I find myself sighing at the passivity our foreign policy has shown in this past year, the passivity which Krauthammer so sharply criticizes. There is something special about this nation (there is something special about every nation), and the world thrives on the peace and commerce America's strength helps provide. I am sad to see us hesitate to use the influence we have the good fortune to provide.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Again, Ukraine

Given the ugly and tragic recent developments in Ukraine I can't help but think on the merits of this argument from this week's Washington Post.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

First book of the summer finished

Many weeks ago I saw this infographic identifying The Lovely Bones as the most famous book set in Pennsylvania. I was a bit offended that Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels didn't get the nod for our great state. I wish I hadn't been so short-tempered on this: the map clearly is labeled most famous, not necessarily best or most noteworthy. Alice Sebold's book also benefited from a recently-released movie, which I'm sure made it more famous. However, I figured it was worth my while to read the book that supplanted one of my favorite all-time novels for this place of honor.

I finished Sebold's novel Tuesday. I finished watching the film adaptation of it last night.

It would seem as if both suffer from a plot that meanders rather than turns. I was a bit disappointed in the lack of resolution of the story, though that might be the point of the work: presenting a tale in which the family of the protagonist never receiving the closure that a satisfying turn of events would provide. The story's power, instead, is how it offers a meditation on life after death, both for the dead and the living.

The book was much more graphic and spared little detail. The film was visually rich, but spared painful detail at the most crucial moments. I appreciated the filmmakers' decision to keep some of the most painful elements of the story understated. As a father, it would have been too raw for me to see the film be as precise about Susie's abduction and death as it was written in the book. The film also made some significant changes to plot later in the movie to remove some of the book's complication (like the affair between Len and Abigail) as well as to avoid the difficulty of portraying characters like Buckley and Lindsay as they age. I see why that was necessary, but the story loses a good bit of its power when the viewers cannot see those characters age the way they do in the book.

The book and film reflect the artistic sentiments of the decades they were made. In the 1970s, literary and film fiction spared no detail and the book spares no detail either. The film from 2009 avoids showing the most gristly parts, perhaps because we are too aware that abductions, rapes, and murders lurk in our world. I wonder what temptation the filmmakers felt to set the story in present times rather than keep it faithfully in the 1970s: I'm glad though they let the film remain in that era. The hues of the clothes and cars much better fit the mood of the story.

On a final note, I found the setting of the book and film to be almost too eerie to be true. Much of it was filmed in areas I have called home, or call home today. One of our final views of the villain shows him driving a car up South Hanover Street near 422, a stretch of road I've been on countless times. Neighborhoods like Susie Salmon's exist all through this area. Seeing such a sad and evil drama play out in my backyard was quite unnerving.

Monday, June 30, 2014

New Year's Eve

The fiscal year for my employer resets tomorrow, as it does for many, many other public schools throughout the country. So, we're at a financial New Year. It's also a psychological one as teachers like me turn the corner from our old rosters and old courses toward a new year and a new set of challenges.

So, why do I do this? Why do I teach?

I love the energy of the classroom. I love the rush of being on stage with the answers and the ideas of where we are going. I get great satisfaction from seeing how my students grow. I still enjoy the challenge of crafting the kind of lessons that leads students toward an "ah-ha" moment. I enjoy that this job affords me a summer to recharge my batteries and to spend time with the two children with whom I have to measure my time during the ten months that constitutes my work calendar. And I'm grateful that it's an occupation that allows me the kind of income to support my family, and position my own children so that they will likely have an even fuller, richer life than I have.

So in the New Year I resolve to fight harder to make every line I just wrote even more true.

Good night.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My worst day . . .

. . . here is better than many people's best day there.

That's what an old friend used to say when we marinated in the pessimism of the crummy moments that occur in suburban public school life. I'm reminded of that at the end of a day when I vented a lot to my wife and my dad (who we met for dinner). It's also at the end of the day during which I found out my son said that I complain so much about school that I wouldn't be able to follow his camp's one complaint per day rule.

I'm chagrined.

I need to remember that I had lunch with eleven colleagues and enjoyed all the minutes of it. We like one another, and we generally try to help one another out. It could be much worse. Much worse.

I was granted a day to get my stuff away and check out leisurely. I had the chance to learn from others in a pair of webinars, webinars I got to choose from a menu of options. It could be much worse.

My kids were at a camp that they're so happy at that my son scolded me for being fifteen minutes early.

So, tomorrow, I resolve to rise above the smallness and do great things. If I can get others to do them with me, great. If not, I'll do great things by myself.

I resolve that I will not waste tomorrow.