Thursday, June 30, 2011


So apparently a journalist insulted the president by calling him a "d---" on live radio. I heard his employer has suspended him. Frankly, I think his employer should fire him. Or, better yet, he should have the decency to resign.

Growing up, I remember people not liking Presidents Reagan and Bush, but I don't remember vulgarities used for them. During the eras of Presidents Clinton, Bush II, and Obama it seems as if the level of respect for the men in these offices has dropped markedly. These men, all forty-four of them, have earned a position that deserves our respect and dignity.

Many years ago a parent asked me to help facilitate a neighborhood political discussion club. I declined. She then asked me what I would offer as helpful rules or protocols for them to follow. The best answer I gave her was to always, always refer to an elected official by his/her title. It's not "Obama," it's President Obama. It's not "Bush," it's President Bush. The pause we must undertake in addressing them by title makes it less likely we'll utter something vulgar or nasty, like that journalist did.

We do this out of respect for the position if not the man himself.

The coarsening of culture MSNBC's journalist evinced is saddening. I'm surprised any journalist, who allegedly has a command over the English language, would feel the need to use something as base as "d---." At least he could stay away from describing the behavior and focus on the actions. It's pretty tough to call the president's signing of (or failure to sign) a particular legislation "d---" (though I guess it's possible).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stay-at-home-dad angst

Today included a frustrating little moment. I took the kids to swimming lessons and the place was swarming with swim team members and their folks. Not in and of itself a problem. Apparently today was the annual photo day. And today I got my first summer dose of "soccer mom" culture.

A tradition at the pool is for the swim team to offer donuts for sale as a fundraiser on Wednesdays at swim lessons. Last week I forgot my wallet and thus couldn't get my two a donut. Oh well, it builds that stingy dad image I hope to rely upon in the future. But today I remembered to bring it. I also promised Sam and Caroline that I would buy them donuts as a reward for an awesome week and a half of swimming lessons.

However, when our lessons were over, the donuts were sold out. Sort of. All that was left for sale was one jelly-filled donut. But approximately three dozen were sitting in boxes "reserved" by other parents.

Before I go on, I wish to compliment my two for being cool with the fact that donuts weren't available. Perhaps my promise of a compensatory run to Yum Yum prevented a scene.

Okay, now for the rant: Reserving Donuts?!?!?! Swim team parents making sure their 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds get their donuts while a legion of 3-, 4-, and 5-year old swimming younglings go without?!?!?! Swim team parents essentially cornering the market on a fundraiser for their own team?!?!?! Geesh.

Okay, now for the economic rant: Why in blue blazes didn't one of the swim team parents say "Here's an opportunity!" and then drive to the Dunkin' Donuts that is two miles away and get three more dozen? Rather than say no to bewildered, shivering kids whose parents had likely promised them a treat, they could have made an extra $30 in profits.

Okay, I'm done.

At dinner, though, Sherry reminded me that some day I'll likely be a swim team parent. She's right. But I won't reserve a donut for my kids. I'll reserve a seat at a nice restaurant, a seat on a plane, a place in a college around 2024 or 2026, but I won't reserve a donut.

Okay, now I'm done.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Quiet Time

Getting Sam and Caroline to sleep these summer days has been trying. Sam is 5 1/2, an age at which many kids are done napping. Caroline is two years younger: still needs it many days, still fights it some days. So it was of great surprise today when, for approximately 25 minutes, all three of us were asleep. I awoke from a catnap on the couch to a perfectly quiet home. Only the sound of birds and the occasional vehicle. I went upstairs and saw Sam clearing his eyes from a nap that obviously caught him by surprise (he was trying to pretend he hadn't slept). Within ten minutes of his arrival downstairs Caroline came on down too.

The three of us couldn't have been more pleasant on our way to the pool less than one hour later.

I wonder if it's days like this that I'll warmly recall when I get on in years.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Demoting Teachers

I do not live in the school district for which I work. I vote, pay taxes in, and will someday send my children to one where the relations between a popularly-elected board and the teachers has taken a toxic turn.

The teachers refused to accept a pay freeze in the midst of this contract, an agreement that is barely even one year old. In retaliation, the board is doing something I've never heard of: it's demoting teachers. Several dozen secondary staff will be relieved of their "duty assignments." In other words, a man or woman paid to teach six periods a day and supervise lunch or study hall will no longer supervise that lunch or study hall, and their pay will be reduced accordingly.

It's a stinky move, one with long-term consequences.

In a good school, a lot of relationships are maintained or forged in those non-teaching duties. Teachers know a broader base of students than just those they have in their classes. Teachers get to better know students who are on their roster, and get to see them in a different setting. Also, in a good school, a lot of teaching happens on those non-duty assignments. A math teacher supervising study hall is likely giving some help to a struggling student in such a setting. I remember from my own high school the geometry teacher on lunch duty even interrupting conversations to share results from a quiz with his students. Demoting the teachers robs some students of good opportunities to connect and learn.

Moreover, the district's decision to "demote" staff sends an ugly message about counting hours. Teachers are paid a salary rather than a wage. We accept a working arrangement in which we will do more than the contractually-stated minimum. The district, in slicing off small parts of the work day, is implicitly pushing teachers to count the hours and minutes they do spend doing their job, and rational creatures will likely shut themselves off and away during these times since their pay has been reduced by 1/7 or 1/8 or whatever the rate at which the district values these non-teaching duties.

For much of this year I've bemoaned the fact that I'll likely steer my children away from a career in teaching. Now I'm wondering if I will become so disappointed at what I see happening in the district where I live that I'll want my kids to have a better experience elsewhere. I believe strongly in the mission of what a public school does. I cringe at moves that could significantly undermine the quality of that institution in this neighborhood.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

East of Eden

I finished my first book of the summer, John Steinbecks' East of Eden. Wonderful read.

With the title, the fact that the featured protagonist was named Adam, and his twin sons Aron and Cal I guess it was more than a little obvious that the novel would follow the outlines of the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Surely enough, the last third of the work often harkened back to a key word from that Old Testament tale. Even the final word of the novel is the Hebrew word at the crux of the story from Genesis.

What reading this novel reminded me of is the power of allusion and reference. A literacy guru spoke to our faculty last year, talking how need to promote the idea that we learn so that we might read, rather than read so that we might learn. He stressed the importance of us teaching history and current events so that our students' heads would contain reservoirs of information to make sense of the reading they will undertake in their lifetimes. One can read and understand the Steinbeck's East of Eden without ever having read the Bible. But the experience is so much more powerful if one knows that great story of morality found in Genesis.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is this my first missed blog of the summer?

I had resolved to blog each day of the summer. I haven't gone to bed yet, so can this count as Saturday's post? Please? After all, it's still June 25 in California (and Wyoming).

I had a fascinating conversation with a friend about getting one's economic house in order. This is something that Dave Ramsey, Clark Howard, and many other personal finance gurus map out for their audiences. It's something that Sherry and I started some time ago. My conversation tonight helped me understand some of the steps that we've undertaken. Here they are:

1. Understand where the money is going (for us, after-the-fact budgeting)
2. Start to address debt (paydown some, eliminate others)
3. Shift from plastic to cash and coin
4. Truly understand interest.
5. Start saving money more aggressively and creatively
6. Set savings goals
7. Explore opening additional streams of income

Perhaps shells or layers is a better way to think of these steps. I believe one can be moving on multiple levels at once. I believe some levels (like level 2) don't end for long periods of time. Some levels don't have a goal of 100% fulfillment (like level 3). But this is largely the path my wife have taken to become better at home economy.

And, yes, I use the term home economy, or personal economy. I like it better than "home finance" which, I think, can be a bit too narrow of a focus. More on this later.

Friday, June 24, 2011


My first week at home with the two kids concluded this week. I think it took me the whole week to re-figure them out. They've grown by a year (no kidding). But that year has led to rather different children. I think my greatest challenge will be to not get lulled into a false sense of security: they entertain one another and themselves so well it's easy for me to relax and disconnect. They don't realize they're bored when they do get bored. If anything, this will be a summer of acting preemptively.

Frankly, I think my job as a dad was average. I'd give myself a B or a C. But I did learn from the week, and one of the most powerful lessons I've pulled from teaching is to not let one sub-par week infect or pollute the next. Learn from a weak or disastrous week, treat the next as a great reset learning from and disposing of the week that was.

Speaking of the week that was, my time without op-eds was therapeutic. The world didn't change much: the NFL is still in lockout, the Republican field of candidates looks similar to what it was last week. the big boys and girls in Washington still don't know what the heck to do with our debt, the economy is still stuck in irons. It was a good week off.

The hidden surprise was how good it was to step away from personal finance news for one week. I think that is what has made me best calm down my appetite for news.

Oh, and the week certainly helped me chew through 400-some pages of East of Eden.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A surprising discovery

So, today I thought it would be fun to take advantage of the kidsbowl(kinda) deal. I left at 1:15 to arrive at a bowling alley around 1:40, thinking that Thursday around 2 pm would be a light time for a bowling alley.

Boy, was I wrong.

Apparently the one o'clock hour is high time for the retirees of Montgomery County to come on out and bowl. Lane after lane was filled with gray-haired competitors. And they were good. A quick glance at the score board indicated that most of them were throwing spares and strikes.

We bailed. Too long a wait with a 3- and a 5-year-old. The kids took it well. We instead went to the King of Prussia Mall, which thought it still shines, has completely lost its appeal for me. Are we witnessing the death of the mall as we know it? Too many empty storefronts, allegedly because stores wanted to move within the mall.

- - - -

As for . . . I'm not saying it's a bad promotion. But there's a real "There is no such thing as a free lunch" thing going on. Of course shoe rental is mandatory. And, of course, a parent will have to accompany the kids. For as much as I love bowling, I always feel like there's great chances of feeling foolish with a trip to an alley: whether it's the goofy shoes, the public shame of frequent gutter balls, or the chance that you might not be able to get a lane.

One feels like a fool when calling to see if it's a good time to go: foolish for wasting time if the answer is "it's pretty quiet now" and foolish if one isn't part of the cliques that are bowling leagues.

Now as far as cliques go, I find bowling leagues to be highly unoffensive, even loveable.

I really do feel like an outsider at them, though.

Oh well, tomorrow I'll be foolish enough to take the kids to see a much-anticipated sequel at a theater on opening day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Damage on the South Forty

A fairly powerful little storm rolled through Lansdale today. It might have killed a tomato plant, a pepper plant, and a pair of potato plants. A couple of observations:

  • How easily nature can destroy the fruits of man's toil.
  • How terrifying storms must be to people who depend on what they grow.
Today's the first day I really missed reading op-eds. When did I say I was allowed to do so again?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Comparative Advantage

Pardon another economics-fueled post.

So I'm one year from the target date when I really want to convince my wife to trade in her beloved Honda Civic. I've been agonizing over what we should get, agonizing that it couldn't be a minivan. Two growing kids, ambitions of great family vacations, and the forethought that we'll often be hauling more than just Sam and Caroline to this-and-that at church, scouts, and school means we need space. But a minivan? Oh, no, never that. Instead, we look at the Ford Flex's love-it-or-leave-it styling (for me the former, for my wife the latter), the large-rear-ended Honda Crosstour (a/k/a the Cross-turd according to several automotive sites), or, well, we don't know.

It's starting to hit me that perhaps we as consumers are foolish looking into the fashionable automotive Swiss Army knife that is the Crossover or SUV. For alleged utility that is rarely used, one concedes back-seat comfort, ease of egress, and fuel economy. In trying to find a vehicle that can haul people short distances, haul them and their stuff long distances, weather the weather, and still be pleasant to drive we have found a flawed jack of all trades.

I wonder if a family in our neighborhood has it right. Four kids: two cars. One is a equipped to the brim minivan, the other is a compact four-door. Two cars, two specialists.

Coincidentally, I stumbled upon this insight from Motor Trend.

A fundamental concept in economics is that trade makes people better off. Essentially, we are better off as individuals and as a society when we specialize in one area rather than be jacks of all trades. In many ways, it makes sense. The world is better off since Steve Jobs decided to specialize in creating iProducts, that I specialized in teaching high school Social Studies, that my brother-in-law specialized in music. The alternative: we're each subsistence farmers.

Two hundred years ago this area was peppered with self-sufficient and relatively prosperous family farms. Montgomery County is far richer now as a home of teachers, engineers, police officers, architects, and construction workers.

Perhaps it's true for autos as well. You want to drive? Get a sedan. You want to haul? Get a pickup. You want to move people? Get a minivan. Only the rare family needs to do all three of those things. Most of us can subsist with two of the three. Besides, it might help us plan our time and use of other resources more purposefully.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A first day of summer

The start of summer gives me a good chance to see how my kids have grown. And the report . . .

Sam no longer needs a nap.
Caroline still does.
Caroline is fearless at swimming lessons.
Sam should've been riding a bike a year ago.
They are good at entertaining themselves.
They need Dad to prompt them to challenge themselves.

That is all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The not-so-secret-secret-savings-account

Sorry. Time for a foray into consumer economics.

It's something I created five years ago. As I became more budget conscious, I decided to create a savings account to save up for fun stuff. Here's what I put in:

  • spare change
  • any five dollar bill I receive
  • reimbursements
  • birthday / Christmas money
  • side job money (admittedly a small stream of revenue, at least right now it is)
Over the years, I've saved a lot through this method, enough to buy some great trinkets (a desktop computer, a flat-screen TV and blu-ray player, an iPod), some necessities (a replacement wedding ring, two moving violations), some fun weekends / days out, and even some things that no longer live (a laptop). Well, the account is swelling once again. There's nearly $1,000 in it, thanks to a witty gift from my wife (a wallet for Father's Day along with four crisp five dollar bills and permission to raid her car for change). So, I've got to spend it, right?

Problem is, I can think of four things I'd really love to have. I'm burning to buy a Nook, even though I'm not a super-avid reader. An SLR digital camera would be cool. Oh, a new laptop would even be nice. And, let's not forget, nav system for my car.

Yet there's an adage in sports: if you have two #1 goal tenders, you have no #1 goal tenders. I think this applies to my savings quandry. If I have four things I really want to buy, I don't have anything I really want to buy. So, it's time to apply the 30-day rule: If July 19 arrives and I still want any of the items, maybe then I should act.

Or, I can limp along in my life of abundance and do without the four items: we have a new iPad that I'm just untapping as well as a library card. We have a point-and-shoot camera that's pretty nifty. I signed out my work laptop for the summer. I'm good with maps. Besides, my wife has said a nav system would diminish my usefulness.

Maybe it's time to get away from things and saving up for events. Maybe it's time to lock away that money for 6 months in low-yield-CD purgatory.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Sunny Saturday in June

My father is turning 80 today. He wants little fuss. No gifts. What do we do?

  • Clam Bake
  • Get whole family together in one spot

I think that will work perfectly.

By the time one is 80, I guess there is little in the way of things one wants. But a true gift would be the fact that all the kids are happy, healthy, and nearby. That there are three grandkids who weren't here at age 70.

Friday, June 17, 2011

June 17, part II

I'm a high school social studies teacher. To do my job well I must closely follow the news. The experience has made me pretty savvy. I've become a voracious reader of political opinion and analysis. But I need a break.

Therefore, I will limit myself to news reports and boxscores for the next week. No commentary. No analysis. I think the world will still be here one week from today. A break like this in August 2008 did me a world of good.

If you're interested in picking up the slack for me while I check out, may I recommend the following?

This resolution should fit nicely with my vow to not read anything related to the NFL until the two sides in that spat decide to talk nicely to one another.

Wonder how much free time I'll uncover.

June 17

At last summer has arrived. I'll blog every day. I promise.

Many weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an essay by John Volkmer in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Volkmer mused on teachers' perennial struggle dealing with students who are, in his words, "full of it." This essay resonated with me more than most pieces on our profession.

Ironically, the design of this profession has teachers aging but the age of our students remains static. As a result we wonder "Am I getting old?" (or the converse, "My, they're getting younger?") while we face behaviors that seem increasingly juvenile. As the world changes, our students adopt and adapt to fashions increasingly foreign to those we knew from our youth.

Volkmer's piece reminds us that youth remains youthful. That the behaviors our predecessors struggled with are, at the core, little different from what we confront. Children often have to challenge. Children often have to try out "adult" ways of solving problems, and the results are often messy. Children often have to resist, for we are working with human beings who are breaking away from bonds with parents and friends that have lasted their entire lives.

To what extent Volkmer's piece demands that we hold the line on courteous, civil, and modest conduct is a subject for another post. But wherever one feels on how stingy or permissive we need to defend boundaries of behavior, the job we have working with youth who are "full of it" is a grueling one. It means as teachers we have to withstand a lot of barbs while remaining objective. It's our job to help them grow despite behaviors that can repel, and that will wear on you.

The grueling nature of this job necessitates the summer break that, for me, is starting today. We need to be fresh for the campaign we must wage with (but not against) our new students.

One other nature of my job which is grueling needs to go on vacation for a week . . . I'll save that for the next post.