Saturday, December 31, 2011

The annual obituaries

Newspapers' accounts of the famous and infamous lost in 2011 contain a lot of big names. I wonder if we'll look back on this past year as noteworthy in how we lost some fairly notable tyrants such as Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il. The Economist has a considerable amount of coverage in its most recent issue lamenting how Mr. Kim was afforded the privilege of dying a free man, labeling him the most despicable tyrant of modern times.

The most famous "good guy" I feel we lost was Harry Morgan who, as Colonel Potter, represented a pleasant father figure for me on television.

I might look back at 2011 as the year that killed two long-time pasttimes for me: television and sports. The introduction of an iPad and Kindle into the home, along with the revelation of Netflix streaming, sees me turning on the television less and less, at least for live entertainment. I might even pull the plug on pay tv in 2012 and decide to go over the air along with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

As for sports, the Penn State scandal has the potential of upending the megalomaniacal monstrosity that is big-time college sports. The crimes that occurred at PSU could have happened at one of any dozens of campuses in the country where coaches and programs are above the law and escape close journalistic scrutiny. We have seen the last of coaches in the ilk of JoePa, and in time we are going to see coaches and programs reined in.

College sports never meant much to me, I'm a casual observer. But pro sports took a back seat to more meaningful people and ways to spend time for me. I opened 2011 watching a miserable Eagles' playoff game during a family gathering, watching it to the exclusion of wonderful relatives I don't get to see too often. It dawned on me after that game how empty of an experience it was to watch it rather than talk with my uncle or aunt more. For the first time in more than a decade, I missed more Eagles games than I watched in 2011. It was a struggle to adopt this mindset, but I'm finding there are so many better things to do with a Sunday than watch them. As for the Phillies, I learned that a quick score check around 9:10 or so is enough to tell me whether the end of the game is worth watching, normally not. Time is better spent with my Kindle.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Moment to Be Appreciative

My greatest anxiety a week ago was that my children would find their Christmas underwhelming. Sherry and I deliberately decided not to over-buy, and resisted some last minute impulses successfully. We had clued relatives in on good, safe bets for our two and decided to make the riskier purchases.

My anxiety only heightened Christmas Eve when I saw my son go to bed with a copy of the Lego catalog tucked hopefully beneath his pillow. Yikes! And I knew there wasn't a single Lego set from Santa (I'm not counting the Hero Factory sets which were a complete gamble).

The result: two kids perfectly happy and appreciative with what they did get.

I'm so fortunate to have those two.

Sherry and I have somehow figured out how to do Christmas in a relatively low stress way. We lazily eat a nice breakfast. The kids open a few gifts, play, open a few others. We normally have some extended family come on over - this year my folks and my brother's family - but don't overdo the meal. This year Christmas morning felt like it was only an hour long, and it seemed like our guests were only here for 45 minutes when, in fact, they were here for more like 4 hours!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Film and Teaching

To purposefully interrupt the monotony I started a cinematic adventure with my history students. We're watching The Searchers as a way of better understanding the West in American culture. It got me to thinking of my favorite films to watch with students. Here goes:

1) High Noon - I like using it mostly as an allegory for the foreign policy dilemmas of a superpower like the U.S. It's ironic to use a film meant as an allegory for the Red Scare to explain the Bush Doctrine.

2) 12 Angry Men - I look for any excuse I can find to show this to a group of students. Works great with nearly all types of Social Studies classes.

3) The Searchers - It's deep in ways that students have a hard time seeing, but if kids get it, they really get it.

4) The Best Years of Our Lives - I was shocked at how the last group of students who watched this with me understood that the film's most meaningful character isn't Homer but instead it's Fred.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sizing Up 2011

Taking stock of the year already? Yes. The Saturday before Thanksgiving always marks something of a turning point for me. Normally there is a one-week break from teaching, so the weekend before Thanksgiving feels like the beginning of a vacation (though I will be at work for three days before the holiday).

Today I find myself mulling over the finances of 2011. I'm finally at peace with what has been an expensive year. In part this is my own doing . . . I went on something of a binge buying electronica. Also, my tendency to get better things when making a big purchase has drained my funds. I couldn't just get any new black suit, could I? I couldn't just get the base model replacement camcorder, could I? I guess 35 isn't too young to have some deeply ingrained tendencies, and for me it's that I rarely like to go the bargain route when spending on bigger items.

I will look back on 2011 as an interesting transitional year: It was our last year of writing checks for two kids to have a pre-school education. It was the first year in which we started paying substantive amounts for the kids' enrichment (i.e. dance lessons and soccer).

We also decided that we had enough of living cheaply: We took two significant vacations. We have decided to eat out on Fridays. We hired a friend to do housecleaning every other week. Sherry and I are starting to value our time differently.

The last month has seen me experience some angst because I've come to the realization that we won't hit some savings goals I had established since our prospective house purchase in April fell through. Then again, I guess reckoning one won't hit savings targets is better than incurring more debt.

Sherry and I survived our 20s better than a lot of young couples I know. A lot of consumer ed. blogs talk of how one's 30s is the decade in which people typically fix the financial mistakes of their carefree and cash-strapped 20s.

So I'm looking at 2012 as a year in which we can adjust spending habits, especially with credit cards which, though we faithfully pay them off each month, are nasty reminders of last month's excesses. This upcoming year will also likely be the year we more purposefully lurch toward the next home, saving a more meaningful amount of money for that. After all, 2011 was the year we learned that goals like that don't just happen on their own.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Breaking my Silence

I really go hot and cold with this blogging thing, don't I?

The scandal at Penn State is what compels me to break my silence. The tragedy of 9/11 filled me with rage; this new tragedy simply leaves me profoundly sad. In fact, I cannot remember a news story that has sorrowed me as much as this one.

- - - -

I've spent most of the last week looking at op-ed pieces, hoping some columnist somewhere in America could articulate something that would help me see some perspective on the scandal. The one that came closest appeared in yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News. In it, John Baer levels a powerful indictment of the political and cultural forces that can let something like that tragedy take place. It's worth reading.

- - - -

I spent much time listening to WIP this week, which was a departure for me (It's Russian nuclear winter for the Philly sports fan and I've been listening to lots of podcasts of more high-falutin' stuff instead). The type of call that most troubled me for some reason were the callers second-guessing Matt McQueary's actions. Please understand that I wish with all my heart he had called police at the time he allegedly witnessed one of Sandusky's heinous acts. Yet many callers bragged that had it been them they would have stepped right in. I wish I knew they were right.

We have people in our society who rush into burning buildings, who brave enemy fire, who commit acts of outstanding bravery. But many of those people are soldiers and Marines, firefighters and police officers who benefit from rigorous training and an extraordinary calling to serve.

How many of us, if we were in McQueary's shoes, would've rushed right in . . . when we saw the father of a friend doing something unthinkably hideous, in the insulated town we had always called home, in or near the house that Joe built . . . and then when we went to that most powerful figure (Paterno) to report the incident, wouldn't we think that had to be sufficient. I hope we would have the courage to act aggressively right then, but I doubt how many of us would.

Still, calling the police seems more than prudent. And it saddens me Matt didn't.

Matt's possible indecisiveness or inaction humbles me because it makes me think back on times when I didn't speak up loudly or forcefully enough at ugliness. Thankfully I've never stumbled upon an evil as egregious as Matt did (There but for the grace of God go I), but I can think of moments when I didn't do enough.

One other thing: I'm troubled that when Matt McQueary turned to his father for advice, his father gave him bad advice. I feel some measure of sympathy for Matt's situation: he had just witnessed something hideous and extraordinarily unexpected. He was confused. He asked his dad for guidance. His dad didn't suggest going to the police, but instead to go to Joe. Even when my children are nearing 30, as Matt was at the time of the incident, my role as a father might still include orienting my kids when they need some help interpreting their moral compass. I hope that if Sam or Caroline ever needs my guidance like Matt did that day that I can give a better answer than that father did. It saddens me that he didn't.

- - - -

So I did bring up the scandal in my classes. Somewhat difficult to see where kids were on this, for many of them are really at a transitional point in moral reasoning. Still, it's a conversation a teacher should have with students. But in my one class's conversation a girl admitted to not knowing much of anything about the scandal. A classmate quickly (in a sidebar I could hear) clarified to her what happened by telling her that the coach was "blasting" a boy.

Blasting?! My word, there is a word for this?

I don't begrudge the student for saying it. Given the circumstances (I know the kids well) I see no maliciousness on her part. She was simply using the vernacular to help a classmate know what's going on.

My shock is that teens have a word for the violation Sandusky was creating. Have we, as a culture, failed if we have so desensitized sexual violence that there's a word kids can immediately recognize for what crime that man was doing?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Falling off the savings bandwagon

So my secret savings fund burned a hole in my pocket all summer. I finally succumbed to temptation and bought two items that at the start of the summer I swore I did not need. Here's the update:

Kindle - I purchased it about a month ago. Like it. On the verge of loving it. I'm using it to consume the George R.R. Martin novels. It has now brought our household clearly above the national average (four) of wireless internet devices, to wit:

  • iPad
  • iPod
  • old desktop
  • new desktop
  • Kindle
  • laptop (on loan from school)

The biggest cost to acquiring the Kindle has been the television. I've found myself now reaching for it rather than the remote. I often traipse around with it and the iPod. Kids go to bed, then I check the iPod to see if Phillies game is worth watching. Then I lose myself in Martin's cruel world.

Keurig Coffee Maker - I just acquired this Saturday night, so the jury is still out. What a statement of wasteful American capitalism! What a thrill to make a cup of coffee in, like, 20 seconds!!!! The most painful thing is to use it in the morning and just see it sit for the rest of day, knowing another cup of coffee can be had in less time than it takes to check my e-mail accounts, but knowing that my wallet and blood pressure don't need more than three cups a day.

I've held down the fort on buying an overpriced Macbook (at least I have some willpower). I need to heed Sherry's advice to "just enjoy" this purchase for a little while.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Okay, so I slipped a little bit . . .

On this fourth week anniversary of my last post I apologize for falling so terribly far off the blogging wagon. So, what got me off track since July 17?

Getting lost in George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice (or, as it is more popularly known, Game of Thrones)

Camp week in which I tagged up with some friendly moms to watch the others' boys one day each for one week.

A job interview.

A rejection from the job interview (circumstances so murky I feel like that scribble George Schultz used to draw in a thought bubble over Charlie Brown was floating over me).

A week in Maine with friends and family that was far more relaxing than I thought any vacation with kids south of age 6 could possibly ever be.

A dreadful three-day-long training on student assistance - a worthwhile program but grueling.

I don't know where to begin but to say I'll post tomorrow. Promise.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vacation from everything - 7/10-7/16

For some reason I couldn't post blogs on my recent vacation. I drafted a few. Simply couldn't post them, strange.

A week in New York was both exhausting and refreshing. It did get my mind off of job and money worries for a week. Ironically, that expensive city (a source for another post) also might have dinged up finances more than I expected. Hmmm.

It also got my mind away from politics for a second time this summer. Wonderful. I see in my week away that almost nothing has changed. Politicians behaving badly. The economy performing laboriously. And the NFL and its players are still unable to figure out how to divide a multi-billion-dollar pie of revenue. Sigh. I really didn't miss much, did I?

Anyway, here was our week in NYC:

Sunday -
  • Berenstain Bears Live
  • Trip to Central Park
  • Move in to our place in Brooklyn

Monday -
  • Empire State Bldg.
  • Museum of Natural History

Tuesday -
  • Bronx Zoo
  • First attempt to go to Top of the Rock

Wednesday -
  • Concert at Fort Greene Park
  • NY Transit Museum
  • Second attempt to get to Top of the Rock

Thursday -
  • Jones Beach
  • Third and final attempt to get to Top of the Rock

Friday -
Statue of Liberty
Ellis Island
FAO Scwhartz

Saturday -
An exhausted family returns home

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Apollo 13

I just finished watching the film with Sam today. It took a bit of time for him to stop calling Lovell "the guy who sounds like Woody." But he seemed to enjoy the film and, for the most part, to understand it.

Of all the stories from the Space Race, Apollo 13's triumphant ordeal has fascinated me the most. I remember first hearing about it on the spring 1970 episode of Our World when I was about 10. I find the tale of those three astronauts and all who worked to help them on earth remarkable. The fact that Russia offered to help, but that there was nothing they could do, haunts me. I can't imagine how agonizing it was for Americans to watch through the news bulletins.

Apollo 8, Challenger, and Columbia were devastating, but they were also sudden. There were multiple points in Apollo 13's ordeal where the mission could have cost the astronauts their lives. That's considerable tension for several days.

I watch this film again against the backdrop of the shuttle program's termination. I'm saddened that our manned exploration of space is stalled. Despite the expense, I loved the pursuit of glory along with the pursuit of science. I feel like we're going to miss something as we pause from sending men and women into space. I hope we resume before too long.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Some Neat Dad Moments

As week three concludes, I have this to say about being a dad . . .

  • Swimming with your kid is great. Swimming with your kid on a night where rain has driven everyone else away is better.
  • Taking kids under your arm to watch a PG movie (Apollo 13) is a pretty cool feeling.
  • I actually assigned homework for the first time today to my son: three pictures (that we could then label).
  • Calling my daughter my favorite nickname -Padiddle - when she explained that Mommy and I were speaking sotto voce about her older brother is pretty fun.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The First Year

"Daddy, I want you to play with me."

My son has made this request a few times this summer.

My son is entering Kindergarten in the fall. Shouldn't he be playing by himself? After all, he's old enough. He's moving on.

Of course I'm being melodramatic.

This summer has been an interesting study in better understanding childhood. My kids grew up a lot in this last school year. Most alarming to me has been my son's rhythm which now has moved on completely from naps in the daytime. Today I've decided I'm done with quiet time for him. Obviously, he's moved on.

But he needs me.

A wise guidance counselor with whom I once worked would preach to the parents of about-to-be-middle-schoolers the need for the parents to maintain their involvement in their kids' life. Common sense often tells these parents that their kids have moved to a bigger school, can and should handle more on their own. Ironically, these kids need us more in the first year of a new experience than they needed us in the last year of an old.

I guess they venture into something terrifyingly new. We're still old. And comfortable. And stable. And known.

She's right. Sam needs more of me than I think. Let's make sure I don't forget this when Caroline is 5.

* * * *

In brighter news I resurrected my Schwinn Sting Ray from my parents' garage. Good news: it's intact and working. The tires even hold air. Mine is like the red and yellow one in the ad below. Even with the grime, rust, and straw (I'm working on getting that out of the spokes) it's more beautiful than anything kids can buy today.