Sunday, July 27, 2014

Borders

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.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Year in Review, Part 2

On December 22 I wrote a post extolling the virtues of Canada and in that post I pledged to figure out a way to comment that someone's gitch was showing without getting fired. I partially fulfilled that one: I haven't been fired. That's true despite the fact that my 1st block students' most memorable moment was my retort to a slightly late 11th grader's plea that he was almost on time: "Being almost on time is like being almost pregnant."

On December 26 I confessed to changing political beliefs related to the Affordable Care Act and Same-Sex Marriage by quoting Keynes ("When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"). I hope that I am ending the year more open-minded than I started it. Knowing that I'm open to the charge of being wishy-washy, I resolve that a year from now I'll actually have a coherent political philosophy. Check that, of course I won't. Besides, politicians love to court people in the middle . . . unless one lives in a safe electoral district where my views really aren't courted in any way, shape, or form.

On January 20 I wrote that "Our entitlement perspective on schools leads us to mistake seat time for learning and consistency of quality for excellence." After writing that I taught better. I taught better by throwing away the rule book for a few particular tasks in my classroom. I re-sequenced units of instruction in a way that made sense to me and my students, but defied consistency with other classes. I informally swapped ideas with a friend and colleague, and was perfectly at ease with how we each implemented what seemed to work for our classes. I improvised a review game involving index cards and simple posters . . . and actually had 11th graders paying rapt attention at 2:25 on a sunny Tuesday in June. I relearned that infusing my personality and eccentricity into a class leads to my best instruction.

On January 26 I came a bit too close to offering salty commentary that might be construed as insubordinate. Good thing I write under an oh-so-clever pseudonym.

On March 30 I reflected on a day spent with music education professionals. I remain envious of the professionalism they exude with a conference like that, and I wonder if I would ever have the chutzpah to work with others toward building that for Social Studies educators. If I'm tired of playing small ball as a school system, why am I not swinging for the fences myself?

On tax day I wrote that I finished World War Z. I regret that I haven't found as good of a book as that since finishing it. I'm only 33% through the book I selected next. And I know it's nowhere near as compelling as the book on the Battle of Gettysburg I was reading last year at this time.

On May 18 I referenced a brilliant column about being a loyal hometown fan. The irony that yesterday my neighbor gifted my kids with Red Sox tee-shirts because she has mistaken my Ted Williams hat for me being a Sox fan hasn't been lost on me. How does someone tell a kindly septuagenarian that I'm not a Red Sox fan and cannot be as long as a) the Sox reside in Boston and b) the American League allows for the DH.

And that's it for my first ever year in review. Summer vacation begins for me Wednesday. I will next teach students in September. Happy new year.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Year in Review

In the spirit of Bob Ford, I've decided to reexamine my last year of blogging.

In a post on June 15 I fulminated "How patently irresponsible the great powers have been!" regarding the West's inaction in Syria. I guess I could've said the exact same thing nine months later about Ukraine.

In a post on July 6 I reflected on an impromptu Canada Day during which (with friends) I "enjoyed Canadian macrobrew and Canadian whiskey." Also that "I re-learned the ugly consequences of mixing beer and liquor and resolve that I will not again follow a beer with a whiskey with a beer, or at least I won't until next Canada Day." (Canada Day is only eleven days away. Just sayin'.) Though I've stayed committed to the dictum against mixing beer and liquor I am now seeking a solution to enjoying local microbrews on work nights. I'm glad I have the summer to study this problem.

In a post on July 7 I rambled at length about the cause of the Civil War, concluding the post by saying that "For history nerds like this [sic], discussing the central questions of that era lead us to write, and write, and write." After a year of not teaching history, I've lost some of my ramble. However, I have found that teaching economics makes me much less compelling at social functions. Apparently, people meeting with me over drinks or food would rather discuss the Civil War than bond yields. Go figure. Good thing I'm returning to history teaching next year.

On July 14 I wrote about our decision to install central air conditioning. Though I certainly don't regret that decision, I regret that the temperature failed to get above 85 degrees for the rest of that summer.

In a post on August 6 I reflected on the loss of a friend, Steve Frederick by writing that

Directors like Steve or Buzz Jones (at my college) lead and create institutions that don't have to exist. Lansdale and Gettysburg would be just fine without those ensembles. But the communities are so much richer when such groups exist, and such groups only exist when leaders compel people to volunteer to be part of something bigger than the everyday.

I'm sad that I lost another such friend and inspiration this past month. And with Ron LaMar, too, I feel my words are all the more true and pertinent.

In a post from August 16 I discussed some adventures with Sherry finding good food. I'm glad to report that my adventures continued over the course of the past year, leading me to such greats as the Hog Dog in Richmond and The Oasis in Lansdale.

On September 22 I commented on how if the NFL was a stock I'd sell it. I applauded myself for having the virtues of being above football. A playoff run by the Eagles and a fascinating postseason made me realize I'm simply a mere mortal. Live sports remains the greatest prohibition against cord cutting.

On November 3 I reacted to a stay-at-home dad's advice to spend more and save less. Credit card statements might testify that I've adhered to that man's advice more than is prudent.

On November 27 I complained about a long stretch of unbroken school year in the fall. If only I had known what devastation the winter would take to my summer (which still hasn't arrive) I would've kept my mouth shut. The fall had nothing on this spring.

On December 8 I commented on the silliness of new model by which teachers are being evaluated in Pennsylvania. It remains silly.

Oh, no. Battery life is ending and I'm not done. Well I guess I'm done this post. Perhaps part 2 of my year in review will be tomorrow.