Friday, July 30, 2010


I've decided recently that I loathe weather forecasts. It's not about their accuracy or inaccuracy. I don't like how viewing a forecast gets me wishing away precious time. One can pick up the paper or check out a website to see what the day will bring (which I do daily), but I find it nearly impossible to not look ahead at what the next seven days will bring. If it's hot out, you look for a relief in the next week. If it's winter, you're looking for the next storm that might lead to a cancellation of school. If it is pleasant, you find yourself wondering how long the beautify skies will last.

One other problem: there's no history. The forecasters predict, set forth a map for the next week, but yesterday has no importance. It's gone, without a trace. I know one can dig for past weather data, but there's no "This is what you just experienced" or "What it was like one year ago today" conveniently on display.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Am I a Christian ____________ ?

Picked up a copy of The Lutheran recently and Peter Marty wrote the opening column in it. I appreciate it when an author can articulate a principle of faith brilliantly, as Marty does in that column. The last time I remember mulling over a bit of theological writing this much was years ago when I came across the middle page of The Lutheran Handbook.

So, what did Marty say? Marty was introducing the theme of his anticipated monthly column entries about being a "Lutheran Christian" as opposed to being a "Lutheran." He stressed a grammatical point, that adjectives are always trumped by nouns. Adjectives serve to modify or qualify a noun. The noun in a given sentence is more crucial, more powerful, more central to the author's meaning.

I'm eager to see how he elaborates on this in the coming months.

His elaboration further in the article resonated even more than the grammatical exercise. Marty discussed his discomfort with some people attaching "Christian" to un-religious aspects of life. The example he gave: finding a contractor who advertised himself as a "Christian Plumber." Marty's quip - that there is nothing inherently holy or spiritual about unclogging a toilet - stuck with me as I repainted the bathroom this morning.

I mulled over the adjective-noun point Marty made. There is a significance in saying one is a "married man" vs. calling oneself "a husband." It's significant that I call myself a "history teacher" and that there is really no honest way of un-nouning the "teacher" part of that statement; it speaks to how central the students really must be.

So, am I a "Christian husband?" I've never used that phraseology before, nor have I ever called myself a "Christian father." It would seem to me that the moral, philosophical, and emotional bonds implied by the very word husband or father make the assertion of "Christian" redundant. Of course it informs and guides. Further, Christianity certainly doesn't have a monopoly on the rules governing those relations. So even though I am a "Christian Father" or "Christian Husband" it seems awkward and unnecessary to glue the words together.

What about "Christian Teacher?" Given that I teach in a public school setting that sets me in a position of influence with many diverse children, there's an ethical problem to overtly advertising oneself as an adherent to any faith. But I hesitate to use Marty's plumber analogy for teaching. There's nothing necessarily holy or sacred about my job, yet lessons from Christianity have unmistakably guided and informed the way I treat colleagues and students. Further, I do often think of teaching (and many other jobs) as a "calling" and I can't dismiss the spiritual components of what guided me into this field.

It's been my fortune to have always bumped into gifted speakers who can articulate deep matters of faith: former pastors, the right kinds of reading, and now, it would seem, Pastor Marty writing in a column of a magazine I half-heartedly leafed through. It's been my fortune to have heard a consistent message that the secular and the spiritual can exist concurrently, that there is room for toleration of ambiguity, and that one can avoid a path of dogmatism and judgmentalism.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two Interesting Quotes

Heard and read these recently. Worth passing on.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter during an interview on 610 WIP quoting an old political acquaintance on the nature of success and criticism: "The higher you climb, the more people who can see your rear end."

And, a European politician, quoted in 2007 speaking about a rather boring issue in European politics: "We all know what to do, but we don't know how to get re-elected once we have done it."

My, how many political problems can fit under the logic of that statement!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quick Post / Good News

My brother, Matt, married Carrie today. This is a great day. They're very happy together. In a month and a half they move to the Lansdale area. Since 1994 Matt and I have been hours apart from one another. At some points he was even on other continents. I'm still in a bit of disbelief.

On a related note, I think it worth commenting that my parents have now raised three kids, seen all three married, and didn't have a single one break a bone. That's a pretty good track record.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Ironic development.

I finally ginned up the courage to buy an iPod touch. Love it. Fascinating little device. Right purchase.

However, in attempting to transfer my CD collection to it I discovered that the DVD-ROM drive on my laptop is no longer on speaking terms with the laptop in which it resides. I imagine I'll now have to spend $100 or so to fix this problem and truly make good use of the iPod on which I spent hard-earned savings.

For fancy toys like the iPod I use the not-so-secret-secret-savings-account at a credit union. I set this up years ago as a way to save for cool toys that I couldn't justify using family money for. Every time I've dipped into this fund, however, something else immediately happened requiring me to dip further into the fund. I reference the most recent big purchase: the new tv, within 72 hours of purchasing I racked up a speeding ticket AND lost my wedding ring.

Air Conditioning

I surrendered to the inevitable yesterday, installing an air conditioner in the dining room and installing a just-purchased window rattler for our bedroom. This came after a truly miserable morning, with a forecast predicting triple-digit temperatures by day's end. This came after a morning spent observing the other similar houses in the neighborhood, almost all of which have a window unit in the downstairs plus two or three in their upstairs. This also came after my observation that cold air does not rise at my parents' newly air conditioned home, which had I been paying more attention to science when I was younger.

But this also came after eight years of avoiding making the switch to air conditioning. Some of my reasons are logical: the cost, the potential circuitry issues (we did trip a breaker already), the annoying sound of the unit. Part of my opposition was more substantial: I already miss the sound of our neighborhood. I also don't want to take the air conditioning for granted, raising kids who believe they must have it.

However, the advent of air conditioning has led to something interesting. The kids' bedrooms have been shut down. Yesterday, Sam and Caroline slept in the living room and dining room in the afternoon, which they thought was the coolest thing ever. However, sleeping in mom and dad's bedroom, on the floor, might beat even that.

Even the cat is happy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Inertia and Momentum

I'm so appreciative to spend my days with a two- and a four-year-old. They change each day. They explore each day. They say something funny each day. Though there are bad days, each day is likely to show growth over the previous.

Meanwhile, the news each days seems to confirm a general sense of inertia in national and world events that contrast sharply with the movement I see in Sam and Caroline. Yesterday's Washington Post carried a column that likened the stagnation of political change in countries around the world to a recession. In other words, countries that had seemed to be traveling an arc toward increasingly democratic and free realities seem stalled, while autocratic countries remain entrenched. Anne Applebaum lamented about the same trend in her Post piece today. Recently I saw that '90s jargon "gridlock" come up in news coverage of Congress's drift toward inaction before November. Both parties have no incentive to take risk between now and then on issues great and small.


I was a news junkie from a young age. My first decade or so of following the news yielded fascinating stories. Current events seemed to follow a plot in the waning years of the Cold War and through the first years after the fall of the Wall. Politicians seemed to promote the pursuit of substantial ideas, though they were ideas less complicated than the world of health care reform, comprehensive immigration reform, and cap-and-trade legislation.

Not just for professional reasons, the news remains critical for me to follow. Now, however, I feel like I'm observing a pool rather than a river.

Monday, July 5, 2010

An ugly confession

At an Independence Day party yesterday, an old friend asked me: "Have you read any good history books recently?" My embarrassed response, "No." That really is pretty pathetic for one who loves history, has a couple of degrees in it, and who teaches it.

So, why is it that I don't read much history? Three reasons:

a) Too many essays from students. I have to evaluate a lot of writing, which means I read a lot of history as retold by my students. More importantly, I'm just reading a lot which does burn me out.

b) The other things I teach require me to keep up with the news, so I spend much more time keeping atop current events. I even have a spiraling loop of reading and re-reading news -

  • The Inquirer (my first draft of gathering news)
  • Local newspaper websites (the nuts and bolts of what affects me)
  • Op-Ed from Washington Post and New York Times (the most helpful sources)
  • The Week and The Economist (these help me retrieve what I missed in the previous week)
The third reason is sinister, and you might not wish to read it. It's such a powerful factor, I won't even let my students in on it.

c) One of my final professors in my masters program at Villanova urged us to never spend more than two hours reading any historical monograph. His point: if we're nearing the end of a masters program, we're in a position to more efficiently use our time. Instead of reading cover-to-cover, start a timer. Then, read the introduction and conclusion of the book. Then read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter. Be writing the whole time. Then, with whatever is left of the two hours, just read what seems most germaine to his thesis. Do this, that professor advised, and you know enough of the author's argument to move on in life.

I haven't read a single historical book cover-to-cover since he told us that. His advice was delivered in the fall of 2002.

Sadly, all these factors promote skimming and partial reading. More on that later.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day

Because of a significant curriculum change, I will be taking a one-year break from teaching U.S. History this year. I'll miss teaching kids about the Revolution this year, however. Our rebellion from Britain is one of the most unique events in history. When one studies revolutions in other cultures, those revolutions were usually class-based with one socioeconomic stratum of society overthrowing another. Or, people rose up against some sort of sinister, monolithic force. Sometimes revolutions are bloodless (as in the fall of the Berlin Wall) and sometimes they're hideous.

Our revolution, which symbolically happened 234 years ago today, does not fit any of the above categories. The Patriots and Tories don't cleanly fit into any particular socioeconomic category; both sides drew from the elite, the poor, and the middling. The rebels weren't fighting against a sinister, evil force but instead against a relatively democratic government that was guilty of mismanaging its empire and misruling over its subjects. The DNA of British government empowered the rebels to overthrow that country's authority. Though not bloodless, the Revolution's casualties were mostly confined to the battlefield, with only the rarest targeting of civilians.

The nation the Founders set up as sovereign this day 234 years ago was a noble experiment in government (an experiment that has required substantial tinkering): a republic in a world of monarchies. But that conversation can wait for another day.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Entering the 21st century, one bite at a time

Finally made the move to an iPod touch, forsaking the satellite radio receiver cum MP3 player. Some of the magic of randomly coming upon great music is lost, but maybe I can be choosy and build a quality music collection.

Populating an iTunes account is a somewhat interesting odyssey. One is forced to go back and revisit old CDs that one hasn't pulled off the shelf in years. I've hardly listened to my collection much at all in the past three years, so I'm familiarizing myself with a library that is both stale and deep.

Rooting for the right things . . .

Last week's cover of The Economist has troubled me for days: "Losing Afghanistan." I've come more and more to become concerned that we definitely not lose that fight, despite growing voices from both left and right (George Will, for instance, is calling for a pullout). I'm all the more troubled now that the GOP head, Michael Steele, seems to be labeling this "Obama's War," implying that the U.S. is either guilty of mismanaging the war or guilty of remaining in a lost cause.

It's our nation's war, Mr. Steele.

I applaud President Obama for putting General Patreus in charge. It must have been somewhat difficult for him to do so. Though disobedient, General McChrystal was Obama's hand-picked choice to oversee that theater after dumping General McKiernan. Going with Patreus implies that the surge in Iraq, something Senator Obama proposed, was the right move to make. I appreciate what the President did there.

I appreciate also it shows some resolve on the part of the President to win an unpopular, protracted conflict.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Gimmicking my way to . . .

Two strategies I've employed recently to discipline myself involved saving money and losing weight. My savings strategy:

  • never spend change
  • never spend a $5 bill I receive as change
  • don't spend money I get reimbursed
  • deposit above monies in a credit union account
  • use that account to make fun purchases
It's worked well. The first two gimmicks I read about in news pieces. The third I made up. So far I've use the money I've saved to . . .

  • buy this laptop
  • buy an HD TV and Blu-Ray
  • buy my beer-making equipment
  • replace my lost wedding ring
  • pay a speeding ticket
It's disciplining me, but it's creating a paralysis of analysis anytime I contemplate spending money, hence my difficulty replacing my Nexus and hesitation to buy any new computer games through Portal as Ben is suggesting.

As for the other gimmick: I was challenged by my doctor to lose weight lest I get put on blood pressure medication. Here's what I did (and this is proving more difficult to do in the summer):

  • no second helpings
  • no eating while standing
  • set utensil down between bites
  • no beer Sunday sundown through Friday afternoon
It's funny how these weight-loss gimmicks are harder to tackle in the summer while my proclivity against spending and for saving gets easier.

2,300 sq. ft.

Neat column in the New York Times about the growing size of the typical American home. Nowadays the average square footage is 2,300. During the baby boom it was less than 1,000.

In this we might see the boiled frog phenomenon at work. As a society, we've had a creeping shift in expectations for what a house should be. The square footage is an indicator of this, but the shift is also about expectations for privacy, for how to use the outside space, and what electronic amenities we need as well. And, perhaps, we find ourselves in this stalled economic state today because we have hit the law of diminishing marginal returns with housing. There's just not much more we as a society can buy regarding our homes. Pretty soon we'll run out of demand for digital tv services, patio furniture, and central AC.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

So, there's a dilemma

A few weeks back I lost a friend. It was a combination satellite radio receiver and MP3 player. A gift from my wife, I at first didn't know what to think of it. I listened at the time to XM in my car and didn't really know what this thing would do in the house.

Oh, how I miss it.

I'd use it to fill the house with music, usually older pop for the kids' sake but often obscure classic rock. At times, I'd use it for classic country, which drove my lovely wife somewhat crazy. Sometimes I'd grade schoolwork to a baseball game I could stream from it.

I only tapped into the best feature in the past year or so. I'd record radio, and then play it back in my classroom. Since I can't stream anything online, and since I can't receive FM cleanly there, it ended up being my antidote to the white noise of the institutional HVAC. Usually I'd just play somewhat anonymous stuff from Deep Tracks and The Loft. On more inspirational days, I'd tie in the music with what I was teaching, i.e. 50s pop when covering the Eisenhower administration in class.

With that player I discovered a lot of music I'd never have otherwise stumbled upon.

Players like this are hard to find. The music and radio industry seems to have settled upon the iPod as the Alpha and Omega of all things audio. The sales people at Best Buy really want to steer you there, and from their point of view I can't blame them.

I'm trying the Pandora thing. It's not doing it for me.

I hesitate to submit to the predictability of the iPod for listening to my music. It seems one then submits to a fragmentary and unimaginative loop of music selection and purchase. I will forfeit the pleasure of recording something, then finding gems when I play it back. I'll forfeit the ease with which I could in one day transform the mood in my room. And I'll miss the spontaneity of recording a song with one touch that my kids perk their heads up to.

By the way, here are the best gems from my 2 1/2 years of recording:

  • "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," by Ed James (Not Waylon Jennings, and I can't find this recording on iTunes)
  • Harry Kalas calling the top of the 9th from the 2008 World Series, Game 5
  • "I'm not Lisa" by Jessie Colter
  • "Seven Nations Army" by White Stripes (I know it was popular 7 years ago . . . I just missed it)
  • "Gimme Shelter" by Rolling Stones (easy to find on iTunes, I know, but much more fun to discover from something you absent-mindedly recorded)

Does this blog have a pulse . . .

Judging from the date of my last post - seven months ago! - I guess the answer is "no." Time to reboot this thing.

My political commentary got better the more I wrote, so I should continue that, somewhat. Events of the past year or so in politics, however, has been humbling and I can't profess to have solutions much more brilliant than those that our current leaders inadequately offer.

But I think it's time to blog more about what I observe as a teacher and as a dad. I just finished reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and doing so reminded me of how I really have my foot in several different worlds: childhood, adolescence, maturity, proto-maturity. There's still a kid alive in me, but there's also a great deal of adult. Next year I'll have been teaching as long as my students (all seniors) have been in school.

Oh, and update photographs. Must update photographs.