Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Morning News Roundup

Michael Gerson writes today on a topic I don't follow too closely, about the persecution of Christians in foreign lands. In that essay, he raises an interesting historical observation that I wish to quote here:

But this is the criticism of a caricature. Democracy promotion — as embraced by the National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute or Freedom House — is about human liberty protected by democratic institutions. Securing institutional respect for minority rights is particularly difficult in transitioning societies, as we’ve recently seen. But clinging to authoritarianism further hollows out civil society, making the results even more chaotic and dangerous when a dictator falls. And even marginally more favorable dictators can’t be propped up forever, as we’ve also recently witnessed. So it matters greatly whether America and other democracies can help pluralism survive and shape the emerging political order.
This is a priority for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. As William Inboden of the University of Texas notes, there is a robust correlation between religious persecution and national security threats. “Including World War II,” argues Inboden, “every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” The reverse is equally true. “There is not a single nation in the world,” he says, “that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States.”
There are a number of possible explanations for this strong correlation. The most compelling is that religious freedom involves the full and final internalization of democratic values — the right to be a heretic or infidel. It requires the state to recognize the existence of binding loyalties that reach beyond the state’s official views.

Again, this is a problem about which I am not well read. I appreciate how Gerson offers a compelling rationale for America to remain an active force in the world.

Greg Sargeant, a columnist I don't often read, offers some thoughts on the politics of the Affordable Care Act I find interesting, and I largely agree with his advice that Democrats have to more convincingly embrace the troubled legislation rather than run from it. More interesting are the points he makes about the way in which legislation can regulate some of the market abuses of the industry. Makes me think of ACA as a New Deal for medical coverage. Eighty years ago, FDR's policies set the ground rules for a new economic reality, regulating an economic environment in which larger corporations had emerged from years of consolidation. How they fared was how the economy fared was how the common man fared. Regulations sometimes worked poorly (like the NRA) and sometimes well (like Glass-Steagall) to create a new, more fair landscape of rules. Perhaps that is what the upshot of Obamacare will be, a new playing field with more transparency of cost and benefits regarding health coverage.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 Winds Down

As 2013 winds down, I'm reminded that I've been writing here for several years. In that time, I hope I've become better at articulating what is on my mind. I also hope that writing here has given me an opportunity to better understand what I believe, and in some ways I've seen some shifts in my perspective on several worthy issues.

Rather than feeling guilt over possible wishy-washiness (haven't we mocked candidates for their changing stances?), I'm going to embrace the changes in my view on politics and life. John Maynard Keynes once quipped "When the fact change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Abraham Lincoln talked about the silent artillery of time (when discussing how over decades points of view might change on great issues due to the withering fire of logic). Some long-held ideas of mine have tumbled due to that silent artillery, or in recognition of the changing circumstances.

The problems of the Affordable Care Act's rollout have been a source of fascination for me. Four or five years ago, I think my feelings would have been simple revelling in the embarrassment of a president for whom I did not vote. Since then, I've come to think more and more about the lack of alternatives offered by the opposition. I've come to think that nobody wins from a flawed piece of legislation or a troubled rollout. I am starting to see how the legislation and its rollout, as flawed as they might be, are doing something very good in that they are accelerating a shift in consciousness regarding healthcare costs, a consciousness that we need to be awakened to. Namely, medical coverage costs a lot. Its costs are borne unequally and arbitrarily. Healthcare requires cost-shifting and cost-sharing, where the young and healthy overpay and the old and sick over-receive. It's been that way for a long time. The lopsided and uneven nature will only get more acute over time. The ACA makes that more apparent and more apparent sooner.

The ACA has also disabused me of the notion that the market handles this best. It's led me to embrace the idea of a single-payer, taxpayer-based system. This is a position I never would have embraced years ago. But I've come to see medical care as a merit good, or one all citizens are entitled to. In the status quo, it is in part paid by government, in part paid by individuals. As a result we have something very expensive that doesn't cover everyone. To me, it's more important that it covers all than that it be done inexpensively. In a perfect world, it would be both. Right now, we might only have time to do the former, and figure out the latter later. Obamacare has helped me realize this, and I hope it helps more realize sooner that our system needs change. ACA isn't the right change, but it's better than nothing, which is what the opposition, a party to which I'm a member, has offered.

One other perspective-shifting moment on this: my grandmother continues to battle a chronic condition that defies easy diagnosis. Despite her limited means, the coverage is there through Medicare. That coverage is hers by right of age and citizenship. Since she is in her 80s, she doesn't need to forego medical treatment due to cost. Why shouldn't someone in their 50s or 40s enjoy the same protection?

In my next post, it'll be time to tackle the "evolution" (paraphrasing the president) in my views on same-sex marriage. A post by William Eskridge on Politico prompts me to write on that. Next.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Top Ten List for Canada

A great article from CNN's website, entitled "10 Things Canada Does Better Than Anywhere Else," invites me to comment. From the list . . .

One of the more amusing historical books I've read is Bastards and Boneheads, a tongue-in-cheek history of Canada. But it makes some very significant points in the midst of the chuckles it tries to induce.

File:Canadian Red Ensign 1957-1965.svgI can't disagree. It's a brilliant choice of symbol. It creates such a simple flag, certainly more simple and more distinct than the flag that the Maple Leaf replaced. Some other brilliant simplicity from Canada: it's name (the official name of Canada is Canada . . . no "Republic of" or "Kingdom of" or "Federal Dominion of"). I'd like to say their anthem is simple (beautiful, too) but it does come in two languages and the meaning of the French and English lyrics are quite different.

I prefer Tim Horton's over Dunkin' Donuts, but I cannot tell you why aside from that it's Canadian. I ate at a Swiss Chalet one time, but didn't see all the fuss. I'm frustrated CNN left St. Hubert off the list, because that Quebec institution is awesome. St. Hubert is like a cross between Bob Evans, Hoss's, and Ruby Tuesday's. 

Now I have some terms that I need to include in my daily conversation for the upcoming year. I wonder how often I can use "given the gears" at school. I will look for ways I can say "your gitch is showing" without being fired. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Conversation with a New Friend

In getting to know a new friend, John, we established a common interest in history. Funny, given his Economics B.S. and my current teaching gig, I would've thought common interest in bond yields would be more our thing. Whew, we dodged that bullet and instead swapped interests in history.

He said that a colleague once posed him a question: What was the most significant day of the 20th century. His answer: June 6, 1944.

Good answer.

I'm glad he asked me for mine. It took me a few moments, but then it came to me: the day President Truman rejected General MacArthur's recommendation to turn Korea into a global war.

It's not a glamorous answer. In fact, it's so obscure I needed to look up the date (Truman dismissed MacArthur on April 11, 1951). But I find it so significant because it was the day Truman decided that victory in Asia wasn't worth a Communist Western Europe. It was also the day in which a global power decided that there was a limit to what a nation would, or should, or could do to win a war. Korea wasn't worth an atomic war, nor was a shot at "winning back" China worth sacrificing allies in Europe. The decision crystallized a Cold War stalemate. In the long run, it was a great call despite the unpopularity greeting it at the time. Less than four decades later the Cold War was over, and South Korea was a prosperous, growing power.

Two other days in Truman's presidency rival April 11, 1951 for their importance: his decision to respond to the Berlin Crisis with the Berlin Airlift and his decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. His decisions on both of these fronts were made in the shadow of, and with an eye towards, Joseph Stalin, one of the 20th century's most cunning and evil figures.

How ironic that such weighty decisions were made by one of the more unlikely figures to ever become president.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Today is the anniversary of the date on which President Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to declare war against The Empire of Japan. In short order, Germany and Italy declared war on us and we reciprocated.

World War II was my first fascination in history. I wasn't much younger than my son is now when I first started reading heavily about it. At that time, I would find the Pacific war far more interesting than the European. I found the stories of combat more interesting than the stories of diplomacy, economics, and popular culture. I've matured, and am a bit more inclusive as to what parts of the story merit my attention. 

One clear memory of my youthful fascination I have, however, is that I really dwelled on battles and events near the end of the war, such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and D-Day. Perhaps it's because the instruments of war were more interesting (my favorite planes included the F4U and the B-17G). I think the bigger reason was that the outcomes didn't seem as much in doubt if I read about events in 1944 and 1945. 

A few years ago I had the chance to watch Ken Burns' The War from beginning to end. It's a masterful documentary, though I don't savor it the way I do his The Civil War. A particularly chilling part of that miniseries, however, discusses the mood of the country in the earliest months of that war, and there is a wonderful interview in it of a woman who wondered why we weren't doing anything to help the poor boys stranded on Bataan. The simple answer: there wasn't a thing we could do. 

One of the many things that sets our military apart from others today is that we have the power to go anywhere. We can insert battalions of highly trained troops anywhere in the world within 36 hours. And if someone would threaten us the way Japan did in 1945, well, they wouldn't even dare to threaten in that way. We have vulnerabilities now; the era since 9/11/2001 leaves no doubt as to that. But the threats to us aren't existential. 

In that winter of 1941/42 victory was anything but certain. It's hard to fathom that as a citizen of the world's sole superpower. Seventy-two years ago, the American people had fear to believe their way of life was truly in danger and they lived in a fog of war, with no social media to help them make sense of events, and even a government who was keeping some of the more pessimistic developments under wraps so that we wouldn't lose any hope. 

Quantifying an Art

A frustrating development in teaching this year has been the advent of the Danielson model for evaluating teacher effectiveness. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, it has become the rubric by which teachers are being formally judged. As with a lot of reforms in education, an idea starts with good intentions and clear rationale, but becomes bureaucratized and oppressive.

So far, it seems the model is creating a lot more work for administrators as well as some greater amount of anxiety for teachers. To summarize it succinctly, the Danielson model sets up a somewhat unrealistic expectation for distinguished teaching, making it likely that most teachers (those who are mediocre, average, good, and great) will be rated as proficient. I heard that some technocrat in Harrisburg quipped that distinguished is only a place one visits. Turns out I was wrong . . . Danielson herself said that, many times over. At the end of the day, however, it really only matters if the teacher is evaluated proficient. Whether or not the rating is proficient or distinguished, the same final judgment is put down on the ultimate teacher form.

Mustering the artifacts to render judgment on a teacher in this model takes time. There's a program for it, of course, which now brings to a total of five the required computer programs I must use on a somewhat regular basis to do my job (in addition to Microsoft Word, Infinite Campus, SchoolWires, and Outlook . . . and let us not forget the recommended programs I use to effectively reach my students such as Promethean, Powerpoint, and Excel). So, Danielson takes more time on the part of administrators (especially) and teachers, leads to pretty much the same conclusion, but adds some seasoning at the end that makes the professional more frustrated that they haven't attained the highest level, a level which might really be unreachable. A PDF on the website for the Danielson Group details what distinguished teaching looks like.

In an attempt to inspire excellence, the Danielson Framework instead ventures into arrogance. It's one rubric for a job that is guided a lot by intuition and subtle decisions that build important relationships. It's a job that involves children as young as five and as old as eighteen, in subjects as diverse as handwriting, music literacy, and physics. It's also a job that involves kids in a wickedly diverse set of strengths and shortcomings for a equally diverse set of reasons. It presumes a lot to have a one-size-fits-all rubric that identifies what great teaching is for as varied and diverse as our job is.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Economic Fatherhood

I backed into a neat parent trick for the 21st century. Here's how.

My son missed his school's photo day back in October. In the flurry of household activity, we didn't see information regarding picture retake day last month. He was in school, however, and had his picture taken. But we hadn't sent with him any check or order form.

Two days ago his backpack contained a proof sheet and means by which to order his portrait online. I was able to complete the transaction from the comfort of my favorite chair this morning.

Is it just me, or isn't it glorious to have the ability to see if the photo is worth buying or not before making the order? In the old days, we sent in the order form and check, had the kid's picture taken, then wait a few weeks to see if it was a good or bad portrait. If it was bad, you could send in your photos for retake day, but still that second round could go badly, especially in the range of years (ages 7 through 17, I suppose) in which dermatology and orthodontia (as well as just plain awkwardness) can play havoc with photographing our kids.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Two Small Gems from the Economist

The Economist has created something like an advent calendar for infographics. Today's first entry makes me think I need to visit this site daily between now and Christmas.

Last week's issue featured some interesting essays on American power, painting a picture that's more optimistic about the nation's place in the world than our mood usually permits. I invite you to read it here. The topic of China's economic rise often comes up in my class, and one perspective I offer students is that China was artificially suppressed and America artificially elevated (in an economic sense) by World War II, and that today we're seeing something of a historical correction. I'm so used to thinking economically I forget about how this pertains to projecting national power and influence.

The essay makes a few good points that help me keep our political stagnation in perspective. After the defeat of the Axis in 1945, the nation had an unprecedented opportunity to influence the world, and we (on the balance) used that influence prudently. After the Wall fell in 1989, we largely exaggerated the promise of the new post-Cold War era and overlooked some grittier realities. We took as unquestioned western mental models about liberty and democratic rule. As the essay points out, in the West such ideas have the power of Gospel. It's easy for us to forget that in other areas of the world, trust in political officials and trust in the people's decisions (exercised through fair elections) is anything but taken for granted.

I'm optimistic that we're nearing the end of a period of political stalemate in our nation. We've been highly dysfunctional for the better part of a decade. The problematic roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, the persistent deficit, the inability to compromise on immigration reform are all symptoms of that dysfunction. Our friends in Europe are, in similar ways, fighting dysfunction. In Japan we're seeing signs that they're fighting through the political stalemate of their own lost decade. In our democracies we've gotten caught up in some ugly ideological warfare. By engaging that warfare, we have stalled our nation's trajectories, in much the same way that sectarian violence stalls the trajectories of nations we read about in the Middle East (thankfully without the violence we see in those nations). I began this paragraph by claiming optimism because I think the dust is beginning to clear from our ugly battling. National leaders on both sides have been humbled by setbacks and policy failures. The nation and the economy are showing signs that they have tired of these leaders' charades. We're seeing a new corps of potential leaders emerging from outside the normal roster of national leaders.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A 2013 Public School Odyssey

Yesterday I went against the grain by trying to do something simple: visit my son at his school during a holiday function. I did so between teaching classes in the morning and attending a meeting in the afternoon. Here's what it looked like: 

10:40 am: finish teaching

11:00 am: finally exit parking lot after waiting for second wave of buses to clear 

11:45 am: arrive at my son's school after being delayed for 15 minutes in traffic 

11:55 am: finally reach my son's classroom after going through security

12:40 pm: depart my son's classroom 

1:10 pm: arrive at my afternoon meeting location - another school in my district

1:22 pm: actually arrive in my work location after walking around a large suburban high school looking for an open door 

The security procedures for entering a public school during the day when one doesn't work or learn there are numbing. You must be buzzed in through a locked door, submit photo ID, sign in, apply a badge with a photograph of you, return the badge . . . it's a lot. 

Our procedures for securing schools have intensified in the wake of a decade and a half of chilling tragedies in school houses. These procedures also represent a response to the danger that someone who has no right to be with a particular child might try to take that child during a school day. Prudent concerns. Are our measures to prevent them excessive? Do these measures reveal an arrogance in our ability to control against every conceivable tragic circumstance? Can we prevent every tragedy. 

I am saddened at the end of the day in which we could more easily allow the community and schools, parents and teachers, to interact. I guess it is necessary. And I understand the mentality behind these measures. One expert I heard from recently pointed out that there has been not a single fatality as the result of fire in a school since 1949, as a result of instituting regular drills for fires. Wouldn't it be good for us to someday say we haven't lost a student since 2012 (or a teacher since 2013) due to violence in the schools? Still, I remained saddened at the tradeoff: safer schools for greater rigidity. Sadness comes, also, from knowing that I can't say safest schools for this tradeoff of rigidity. 

58, or 60, not that I am counting

Today marks the first weekday where school was closed since we were closed for Rosh Hashanah in early December. That means 58 consecutive days (excluding weekends) that we have had school. We are now 60 days into a 184-day school year. Toward the end of this grueling run I could sense how I was running out of steam, how it was becoming hard for me to spool up the creativity to put together compelling lessons. The students, too, I could tell were worn out. 

I work with good students. They're adolescents, though, and as such they exhibit behaviors that frustrate. And toward the end of a 58-day slog they have less ability to suppress those frustrating behaviors. If a student were writing this blog, they would probably be noting how teachers were having a harder time suppressing their grumpy behaviors. 

Teaching is an intense job when it's done well. The teacher is consistently on the spot, with somewhere between 20 and 30 eyes on them at all times, with the pressure of making every minute of a 90-minute block count, acting with the knowledge that you must measure the words you use with the children of other parents. Compound this with the mounting list of proscribed strategies and mandates our higher-ups (in building and in Harrisburg) mount onto our task lists, and it creates a pressure cooker. 

There's a little bit of a woe-is-me tone to this post. Let me step back. One can infer from my words that I'm trying to vindicate the great aspect of my job that is summer vacation, and those eight, nine, or ten weeks in the summer serve a therapeutic purpose in the educational orbit. I think it's more important for me to consider the way in which the pressures I see in my field exist elsewhere, too. Working too long, too hard, too intensely without a break has a tolls. It wears down the deliverers and the receivers. It takes a toll on judgment. Those of us fortunate to have jobs are working harder and with fewer colleagues than before the Great Recession. What kind of quality does society get from us when we don't have the time to think and take a breath? 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Could selfishness be a good thing?

About a month ago, a small article caught my eye, the results of a survey about Libertarian political identity. Here is the Reuters report. I remember some sort of op-ed riffing off of these findings, but I can't locate it now, or at least I can't pull one up from the wells of political opinion to which I normally refer. The basic upshot of the report is that libertarians tend to be well-off, non-Hispanic white males. If I remember it correctly, there was some current of journalistic opinion using this trend as a means of criticizing the libertarians (but perhaps I'm exaggerating).

Though I'm not a libertarian, I'm intrigued.

One libertarian I listen to often is Clark Howard. Far and away, he is my favorite financial literacy guru to listen to. He usually doesn't stray into politics, and when he does he strives to do so objectively. His approach to the Affordable Care Act (which one might think to be anathema to libertarians) is a good example of his approach. I do appreciate the humility and compassion by which Howard approaches his craft, an approach that defies a too-simple portrayal of what libertarians believe.

Is it possible that libertarians share a view on politics with one another because they come from a common position of privilege and wealth? Probably. I wonder, however, if this is necessarily a bad thing.

I also wonder if Libertarians have a goal of becoming a rival to the two major political parties. Perhaps they represent a group that looks to be wooed election-by-election by candidates who may wear the R or D label, the L label, or no label at all. And as such, they can exercise influence more like smaller parties do in multi-party political systems, where coalition governments are the norm.

Selfish political advocacy, tempered by humility and objectivity, might be an antidote to our stalemated political times. Have the past few years been colored by politicians who think their point of view, if it prevailed, would be best for everybody. Is that what has led to the political brinksmanship of the past year or so? Would the shut down have occurred if politicians would have looked for common interests shared across party lines rather than slippery slopes that spelled the end of capitalism or democracy.

If I were to sit down in a room with 37-year-old married dads, I think we would have a lot in common with one another on political matters. Our political views is shaped by what's most important to us relative to where and how we live. I think Lincoln once said that "where you stand depends on where you sit" (though it seems the world wide web attributes that to Nelson Mandela, and most websites debunk the notion Lincoln said it himself). A coalition of 37-year-old dads would probably want good schools, a tolerant society, a fair chance for my kids to get ahead, and less expensive college tuition. Are any of those things bad on their face? No, but getting those things does involve some cost to someone somewhere.

I can do this with other cohorts in which I see myself: Lutherans, teachers, history nuts, economics thinkers, and so on and so on.

Is it a problem if my views change over the next decade? Does that make me hypocritical. I don't think so.

Would politics be bettered by individuals coming to think of themselves as parts of small cohorts, exchanging ideas and engaging in compromise-driven trade-offs to solve political dilemmas? Perhaps. I'm sure it would be better off if individuals stopped thinking that what's good for them is good for everyone, and instead accepted the fact that 27-year-olds might look at a situation differently than a 47-year-old, but that on some issues there is a middle ground.

I guess I'm calling for pragmatism, which is in short supply in Washington. Selfishness blended with humility and compassion might seem paradoxical, but I think it could work when looking at political issues.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Today marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Ken Burns' tribute to it is at, a site worth checking out. 

I miss teaching a history class where I could've dwelled on the speech today. However, this particular speech was a hard one to teach in a history class. It's more an exercise in the beauty of language than anything else. A speech from this leader I preferred working with my students in interpretation was the 2nd inaugural address of 1865. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Sunday News

Over the weekend, a few pieces caught my eye.

Politico ran this complimentary essay on Charles Krauthammer. He's one of my favorite columnists to read, though I don't always agree with him and though I sometimes find his tone a bit too bitter. The essay mentions David Brooks, who I enjoy reading a bit more. It fails to mention Krauthammer's colleague at The Post, Michael Gerson, or Brooks' at The Times, Ross Douthat, whom I both prefer. Politico's essay features a contemptuously condescending (how's that for redundancy?) quote from Paul Krugman. I'm amused at how my money goes to support both Krauthammer and Krugman via my subscriptions. I'm also amused at how often those two columnists' opinions appear in my economics classroom.

Is it time I started italicizing Politico? It's becoming quite an impressive news source. It was the big deal in 2008 and it seems to have not lost too much momentum.

An analysis piece on the Affordable Care Act talks of the value in under-promising and over-delivering in politics. Funny, but I thought that was an idea conceived by Scotty from Star Trek. I appreciate the balance of the writing in this one. There are some interesting allusions to infamous moments from our recent presidents: Is this a "Read my lips" moment for the president? Or is this more like Katrina? What about "I did not have . . . relations with that woman?" The comparison that I found the most meaningful was the one between the president's mangled apology and one that was just as mangled by "The Great Communicator" (Ronald Reagan's tortured "my heart and intentions" apology on Iran-Contra). It makes me wonder if Obama will end up getting a pass on this one the way Reagan did on his. I guess it's an exaggeration to say Reagan got a pass on Iran-Contra. That scandal is an uncomfortable footnote on his presidency. But it's not a ruiner of his legacy, nor is Bill Clinton's impeachment a ruiner of his. After all, his comments this week on the "If you like it" pledge echoed very powerfully and forced the president's hand. The broken promise that most powerfully defined a presidency was George Bush's "Read my lips."

Isn't that funny. We are more apt to forgive Reagan's and Clinton's indiscretions than Bush's course correction on taxes?

Another interesting feature from Politico, this one about diversity in America. It speaks to a fascinating revolution in American demography. Reading this reminded me of an astute observation from The Economist in an article about the changing nature of colonial museums (surely, I can't be the only person interested in such trends): that the residents of Northern Virginia can claim descendants who were living on four different continents on the eve of Jamestown's founding in 1607.  

Holy cow! I just came across this essay by Drew Gilpin Faust and it's time to get ready for church! I hope to finish this later. The 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is Tuesday. If you get a chance, check out the readings by famous Americans at the site Ken Burns established for honoring that great speech. Stephen Colbert's is worth watching.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Saturday News

I'm forcing myself to stay away from news on the implosion of Obamacare. It's encouraging feelings of schadenfreude that I'm best to avoid. Further, I think I need to just tune out Washington. After all, reports regarding the reaction of markets to the shutdown as reflected in the most recent jobs report, I think many of us are ignoring the juveniles in D.C.

So, when I challenged myself to find more intriguing news, what did I find?

Wow, here's a fun piece about a man who has prided himself on collecting a 1981 Chevy Citation X-11. I fondly remember some of these relics from my youth. My first generation of friends included a father who owned a Cadillac Cimarron, And though it sported the four-speed described in the article, Aunt Mim (who watched me after Kindergarten classes, would often pick me up in a more pedestrian four-door version of the Citation. Hers was white.

Political geography, how fun! I like the author's description of my home nation, The Midlands.

Please keep in mind that today is the 24th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment I remember that still gives me chills. Certainly today is the anniversary of a far grimmer event in that nation (Kristallnacht occurred 75 years ago today). It's fitting that BBC and Der Spiegel news websites are highlighting the latter, more tragic event rather than the one many of us can still remember.

Disruption in Higher Education

The New York Times recently had a neat feature about disruptive forces in higher education. It should be here. The essays there hit me on two different levels.

First, as a teacher, am I doing what I should be doing to get kids ready for that world? I think I am. In fact, I'm grateful that I made the jump over to teaching Macroeconomics as well as civics and economics, not because I think that will be my permanent teaching assignment, but because I'm learning how to reach kids better. There are so many times in Macro where I know I can't move on to the next thing because some or most of my kids don't get it yet. Ironically, a course like history allows a teacher to move on to the next thing if the kids don't get the current thing yet. You can, for instance, master World War I if you're clueless on the Civil War. But one can't move on to Fiscal Policy without understanding competing theories on macroequilibrium. My experience with non-AP juniors has been eye-opening, as I've had many instances in which I've noticed students learning something within a class period or week but not internalize it for the long haul. When I return to teaching my specialty, history, I'll be better attuned to listening for the signs that tell me my students truly get it.

Second, as a father concerned about my own kids' future in college, I'm heartened to see some trends that might take down the price of a college tuition. The model by which the four-year experience has operated is under attack, in part because it's apparent the customer base is losing the means to pay for the experience. Cost (money and time) weighs larger than suitability of the college degree. Perhaps the way people my age will be able to afford their kids' college experience is to embrace a reality in which the four-year away-from-home experience is replaced by a model that has less frills, education paced at the rate by which one masters material, and opportunities that mix campus and online experiences.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Well, now, that goes against the grain . . .

A stay-at-home dad in the Philly area writes on the folly of saving for college.

I'm not ready to embrace his advice in its entirety. There seems something irresponsible about not saving anything for the kids' college education. Further, there are others in my kids' lives who wish to contribute to their education down the road. Yet his advice is a good reminder that time with the kids as they grow is invaluable, and that often that time requires money to do meaningful things with them.

I could put this advice with an interesting feature from Freakonomics recently, one that preaches on the folly of saving when we're young, which in my mid-30s I still am.

It is possible to be so pre-occupied with the future that one can short-change the now, and in short-changing the now, one can be guilty of short-changing the future.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tuesday: Polls are Open All Day

Tuesday will feature the stunning theater that is municipal general elections in Pennsylvania. Turnout figures for such day bring to mind the philosophical musing about trees falling in forests. In some states there are bigger decisions at play. Gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia come to mind.

Still, municipal elections are important. More important than we generally consider. Local elections give us great chances to see the consequences of our choices up close. If one is a tax-and-spend liberal, vote that way and see if the results, which will be felt with seeing those extra police cars on the street or extra funds in the schools seem worth it in light of the higher property tax bills. If one is austerity-minded, vote that way and see if you really miss that extra police car or if your local school can do without those resources that seem superfluous.

I'm trying to be apolitical as I try to make a point: When we participate in elections where participation and margins of victory are measured in the thousands and hundreds of votes and when we see up close the benefits and costs of our decisions we can better understand where we feel on bigger political issues. There is some danger, or perhaps sloppiness is a better word, in being only a once-every-four-year participant in elections in that we can start to disconnect cause and effect.

One other nice thing about voting in local and state elections is that those we elect are usually more conscious of the preferences of their constituents than are holders of national office. Labels matter less at the local level. When we don't vote in our municipal races we forfeit the chance to have input in a part of the process that welcomes our input more than any other.

5 am on a Saturday

I don't know why I felt compelled to wake at 5 am today. No clue. Just did. Okay, now I remember: it came to my mind that I forgot something minor at work this week . . . really minor. But once it's there, it's there, and I'm up.

Not too long ago I would've trolled the TV listings for something worth my time. But instead, today, I caught up with the parts of Shrek my kids watched after I dozed off on the couch, watched two TED Talks on Education, and watched two videos featuring Chris Cizilla from the Washington Post's Post TV.

How is broadcast and cable television going to survive if a 37-year-old who grew up on TV gets his satisfaction from cobbling together free on-demand video like I did today? Okay, Shrek wasn't free: I rented it for 48 hours from Amazon so the kids could watch it last night. But otherwise, all free via the wonder of Roku and my laptop.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Today's Washington Post op-ed page featured a string of commentaries about President Kennedy. My favorite of them, by the way, was a fascinating piece on the death of the president's son in 1963. My first reaction was to roll my eyes and wonder if I could endure a month of hagiographic what if. But then I gained some perspective:

  • We're coming upon the fiftieth anniversary of a president's killing. 
  • His death coincides with a remarkable number of turning points in America's story at home and abroad.
Though JFK wasn't innocent of vices, he was the last president to serve in an age when we tended to revere and look up to our presidents. In the fifty years since his passing we have been led by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

In the fifty years preceding Kennedy's death we were led by Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, FDR, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, and Woodrow Wilson. 

Both those lists are filled with presidents of varying abilities, but it's a little shocking to think of the difference in how those two sets of presidents conducted themselves, reacted to adversity, and commanded the respect of the people they served. Perhaps we're also mourning the loss of respect for an institution as we're mourning the loss of a compelling young American 50 years ago November. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Follow Up

Since writing my previous post, I saw a few extra stories worth reading regarding the shutdown. Thank you, Twitter.

About why it hasn't ended already. Very prescient.

About morale among federal workers.

About the stutter-step start to the Affordable Care Act.

The Shutdown

When the shutdown of the Federal Government began on Tuesday, it was an amusement to me. There they go again was my foremost thought, and the whole affair struck me as somewhat silly. But then it actually started to interfere with my work. My economics students had a small assignment due Friday about economic indicators, and many of the websites from the Commerce and Labor departments were shut down, preventing them from easily getting answers to questions. Teachable moment, I guess. But then I tried to search for political cartoons for my politics class and I found it pretty hard to find cartoons about the War Powers Resolution of 1973 without being able to use the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

Though obnoxious, these obstacles didn't make my job impossible. I think of the people whose jobs aren't available as a result, including one relative and a handful of friends. What for me is obnoxious must for them be maddening. And then I think of the custodians, data processors, and entry-level folks who get their income streams and jobs interrupted . . . I'm sympathetic.

As I've followed the news this week it seems as if the media has come down pretty decisively against the Republicans, or at least the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. The consensus around blaming them is probably for good reason. Even some of the conservative writers I've followed acknowledge that forcing a shut down of the government was tactically stupid. What they (Gerson, Douthat, Krauthammer, and Magliocca) offer is worth reading. Ross Douthat would probably take issue with me branding him conservative . . . I regularly find his point of view and thoughtfulness refreshing.

As a teacher, I've had cause to clarify this event for my kids, especially since many were asking me what was going on since the shut down served as a dog-at-my-homework moment. Uncle Sam is still issuing a lot of checks, I have to clarify, for the shutdown hasn't affected Social Security, Medicare, and SNAP. Nor has it furloughed members of the Armed Forces (thought the PX stores on which those servicemen rely to make costs reasonable aren't working).

So, we have a government shutdown but the three biggest drivers of the deficit (Social Security, Medicare, and Defense) keep on keepin' on. That's a teachable moment.

It's been a teachable moment for this writer who harbors conservative instincts still. Some of the lessons I'm learning:

  • I'll divide my blame 60% Republicans and 40% Democrats for this episode. 
  • This episode is definitely regrettable. 
  • I'm incensed at how the costs of this shutdown are being felt most acutely by some unintended elements of the population. The friends (and relative) I have working for the government are middle class young parents who work hard, save wisely, contribute to their communities, and try their hardest to be good moms and dads. In the short run I guess their kids benefit from a little more one-on-time with mom and/or dad (by the way, to those parents, enjoy as best as you can this interruption with them . . . at least it's a silver lining to a gray cloud), but in the grander scheme, government has told them that their work and talents don't matter and aren't wanted, at least for a few days. What's worse, to be told one's job is non-essential or that it's essential but we don't know when we'll pay you? Either way, what a dumb message to send. Meanwhile . . .
  • checks to other constituencies keep rolling. I'm talking Medicare and Social Security. Obviously we can't stop those checks from rolling (to not do so would be cruel). But perhaps that's the point. The President and both parties in Congress knew that a shutdown wouldn't and couldn't go that far. So why not shut things down? It's only the young and working folks who'll get pinched. (My apologies, that might have been too acidic of a comment). 
  • I'm reminded of how public goods are good. No free access to No easy access to or No access to the Smithsonian? I'm glad to pay taxes to keep those things open. Wait a minute, I'm paying taxes to keep them open, but they're not open. 
  • And if the public goods I care about are this meaningful to me, what about services to those who really struggle paycheck to paycheck. I heard last night that Head Start is a nonessential government service. 

So, Washington, I'm learning. What was at first a snicker grew into annoyance and is now maturing into the philosophical.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Parenting Dilemma

We retreated to what is becoming our default retreat, Hickory Run State Park, and camped there this past weekend. Until a storm chased us away, we were having a wonderful time.

The campsite I like best is set against beautiful woods (site 1 is my favorite but this weekend we were at site 2, nearly as great). There are no other sites to our west, and if you're there at the right time, the only sounds you hear is the breeze in the trees and a gentle roar of Hickory Run flowing at the bottom of the hill near our campsite.

Upon arrival, the boys wanted to go down the hill and play. I thought nothing of it, having played in woods for most of my childhood. But our friends kept accompanying the boys down the hill. At one point, I thought there might be some overreaction: what supervision do two good-natured boys need alongside a Pennsylvania creek? But on one trip I tagged along, and I saw something both beautiful and terrifying.

As the creek meanders to the southwest, the terrain quickly rises. Following what you think is a bank, you find yourself suddenly atop a rock cliff cut by the creek, ten feet or so above the creek. In other words: there's a cliff down there. No warning. Just a potential fall high enough to be, well, fatal.

And this is one of the great challenges of fatherhood: Do I let him play down there? Do I allow him the wonder of exploring woods, of traipsing paths dirty, rocky, or rooted? Does loving him mean I allow him freedom, or does loving him mean hovering, and squelching a good part of the joy a boy finds exploring in the woods outside of the gaze of parents?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

It's Sunday afternoon and I watched no football

I didn't watch any yesterday, either, but I was only a peripheral college football fan at best. In the wake of the Penn State scandal (and the NCAA's response) I can't watch it at all.

Back to Sunday. There was a day, and I recall it not too long ago, when sitting in front of the TV nearly all day to watch football was the way to spend a day. Today, however, I turned on the 1pm matchups, saw nothing interesting, looked out the window, decided to run 3 miles, then came home and forgot football was even on. I watched three minutes of a 4 pm game, then came the commercial break, which prompted me to watch a 44-year-old Cold War thriller.

My Eagles played Thursday night. Awful game. Didn't watch much of it past halftime. When I see my team playing Thursday or Monday, I'm initially happy that my Sunday is clear to watch more, better matchups. But then the product I see on TV leave me feeling "meh."

If the NFL were a stock I would sell it. Games now are caught in something of a limbo between encouraging hyper-tempo offenses but trying to prevent players from inflicting devastating injuries. At the college level (feeder programs for the league), teams are coming up with more high-tempo schemes but have no choice but to bend and twist arcane NCAA rules to field championship teams. At the high school level, many parents wince at the idea of their kids playing football, and they push their kids into safer pursuits such as soccer and lacrosse. At suburban high schools, where I teach, hallways are bereft of the mountain-like young men who would make you nudge a colleague and say "Surely, he's a football player." Simply, there just seem to be better things to do than watch a game over the weekend. And I don't think I'm alone in that.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

I'm shocked . . . good TV news journalism?!?!

CBS News has video of a debate from Face the Nation regarding the Syria episode that is quite good. It seems so much more mature than a lot of the talking head fare we're exposed too. Either that, or I really am a sucker for Michael Gerson and David Gergen. I encourage you to watch if you're in the mood for elevated debate on the Syria crisis which seems to have lapsed.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

My favorite Sunday reads

So, what did I find most interesting in today's news . . .

Ross Douthat's column, centered on a faux conversation with Vladimir Putin's, is a winner.

Charles Lane writes on Cuba's decay in The Washington Post. So much attention has been focused on the hells in North Korea and Syria that the West has perhaps lost site of the Caribbean's hermit regime.

The Post also ran an essay that is a bit troubling, speaking to the observation that images from Syria aren't moving the American public to support war there. The piece makes me think a lot about how fifty years ago, moving images from TV moved the American public away from ambivalence on civil rights.

Oh, and let us not forget that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.Two good links: from the National Park Service and from PBS.  

Thank you, CNET, for offering this gem on automotive excellence from Detroit at the nadir of America's industrial age.

Oh, and one interesting observation. I woke up early today and found a way of spending Sunday morning that was even nerdier than combing the news. I notice that now my Twitter feed is full of an excess number of Tweets about the Eagles' game, which I guess means that on a game day the-early-bird-catches-the-worm thing applies to getting news that way. Sometimes I can fall prey to arrogance about watching and reading things on my schedule. Is it possible that Twitter can throw us back into "appointment" viewing, just now on a smaller screen?

However, for the record when I turned on the TV for today's Eagles game, it was on the same channel as I had left it Friday night. We went 39 hours without watching any live television.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Some Slideshows

The Washington Post has offered some pleasant surprises recently. I found this slideshow on their page about famous public service announcements (PSAs), which led to the shocking discovery that my wife doesn't recall the famous "Iron Eyes Cody" PSAs of the 1970s and early 1980s. I guess I watched more TV than she did. 

In class on Wednesday I shared with my students another slideshow, this on how the world has changed since 9/11. Seemed appropriate as I've now had to treat 9/11 as a historical topic for my students (who were 3 or 4 when it occurred) as opposed to an in-the-news topic. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

News Roundup

Neat analysis piece in the New York Times regarding what the Syria episode is revealing about presidential power. High school Social Studies teacher orthodoxy calls for an assumption that the power of the presidency has grown since the time of the Framers. Perhaps we overlook the stubborn nature by which Congress can veto a president's intentions. I think the analysis might miss the way in which the Supreme Court can redirect events, too. Perhaps a running theme I used to call my students' attention to in AP U.S., that no president with the possible exception of James Monroe had a good 2nd term, is consistent with this analysis. Good read.

Maureen Dowd's essay offers me something I'm tempted to use in my classroom. Great example of the style that makes op-eds interesting to read, and it invites debate.

Thank you, Ben Schott. Your glossary is a great reset for those outside the Beltway looking in.

An interesting point of view regarding the rising cost of college tuition is at the Washington Post. Not too much interesting there today on Syria . . . I guess they put forth their best on Friday when they had Krauthammer and Robinson weigh in. However, one op-ed offers the depressing reality that "Saving lives is a hard sell these days." You can read that here.

My local paper had a write-up about Bike Night. It's actually kind of neat to stroll Main Street for this event. I don't know why it took my wife and I so long to visit it.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

One of the more infuriating columns I've read in some time

I haven't been political with my posts in some time. A column from the New York Times compels me to break that truce.

Timothy Egan wrote a piece recently that laid the blame for whatever we're doing (or not doing) with Syria at the feed of former President George W. Bush.

Mr. Bush left office nearly five years ago. His aims on foreign policy were repudiated in a midterm elections seven years ago. The chief architects of his foreign policy left office that long ago or even longer. He has been remarkably quiet in his time since leaving office. It stretches credibility to lay the Syria impasse at his feet.

I'm troubled by recent developments, and in many ways I identify with the ambivalence our president is showing. I also sympathize with his predicament by which words he said in the past have come back to haunt him. As for dealing with jackals in Congress who thwart his aims, well, I think many of us have had our own adversaries and partisans poking at our vulnerabilities.

We've all been guilty of leaping before we have looked.

Ross Douthat's most recent editorial is perhaps my favorite perspective on what to do with Syria. I wish the President hadn't promised action in Syria. But he did. I wish he hadn't thrown the vote to Congress. But he did. I wish Congress didn't seem inclined to undermine the president's stature. It looks like it does.

There is a messy reality on the ground in Syria. And it's tough to push for the overthrow of a regime when we know the likely victors of that struggle bear our nation significant ill will. The episode in Syria has not really become about the Syrian people, or even about Assad or Putin. It's about the inferences millions around the world will make about America's wherewithal, and I'm afraid we're coming up short long before we need to.

Okay, now I'm ready

My relatively short summer comes to an end. Tomorrow is my first teacher day (now it's called professional development, which seems to me an awkward title). Students arrive in a bit more than a week.

An annual trip to the Grange Fair in Centre County serves as my transition from summer to school year.

It's a five-day retreat for me, with the kids, to a tent which has served as the base for reunions in my family since 1976. As we get older and as, for the generation of new parents, our schedules get more frenzied, it's an important moment for me to pause with relatives I don't see as often as I would like. It's also an interruption in my summer because, well, I can do nearly anything I want to do (see exceptions below), but those things are more difficult. Bathrooms are a walk. Getting to bed requires setting up cots. Cooking requires some creativity in a makeshift kitchen.

Cleanliness is a war. Hopping online requires patience as one tries to get onto a burdened 4G network (tragedy of the commons, anyone?) and fights to keep one's phone charged.

But the detachment from the normal grind recurrently surprises me. Every once in a while I laugh at the preposterousness of voluntarily living in a canvas tent rather than a house with solid walls. The peculiar twang of Central Pennsylvanians flows into the tent (lots of diphthongs). There's a sight I get when I walk in our tent neighborhood, of row after row of tents lit from within and above, and it reminds me that thousands look to this event as a way to catch up and recharge.
I enjoy the soft glow of the lights as I sit in front of the tent and catch up with siblings and cousins. I revel in pushing my kids to follow routines at bed time and meal time that keep the place clean. I laugh when I think that years from now they might see this place the way I see it, as a semi-detached, semi-primitive haven from a world of schedules, agendas, and worries.


Perhaps the most pleasant surprise from summer 2013 was my relationship with my neighborhood, which strengthened. Sherry and I bought our home in 2002, thinking it was a nice starter home. We saw ourselves there for a few years before moving on. If we do move on, it's hard to see us doing it anytime soon and it's hard to see us moving from our neighborhood. This summer only deepened my affection for this little corner of Montgomery County.

Improvements to the house make this an easier conclusion to draw. This was the summer of central air conditioning, and though it was tough to see craftsmen saw holes in our walls and ceilings, it made the house remarkably more comfortable.
Looking down through the hole which now is the uptake of our air conditioning. 
The pool continued to be a great feature of our neighborhood, and as one who grew up in the woods, I'm still kind of astonished at the idea of having a pool within walking distance.
Sam on the final day of swim lessons.
The style of the homes, also, still appeals to me in our particular neighborhood. 

But I'll remember summer of 2013 most for it being the summer of beers outside and in town. Several of the fellows around here, whose kids my kids play with, turn out to have a lot in common with me, and we enjoyed spending time this summer walking to one another's homes to enjoy beer and talk. Certainly that thwarted some diet goals this summer, but that's where the running came into play. 

I never thought I'd be saying this at age 37: I have a running partner. But I am learning how to make runs in the area enjoyable, and that's helping me appreciate some nearby places, such as the Green Ribbon Trail.

A bittersweet moment: I bid farewell to my favorite chair. Before giving it away, I placed it on my porch and enjoyed a beer. 

And now there's news that Chick Fil A is moving in nearby. Oh, and Wegmans too.

I'm coming to chuckle more and more at the quirks of Lansdale: the way in which you can live here for 11 years and still feel like a newcomer, the fact that we have a Mardi Gras parade on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, that no Wawas exist in the borough, but surround it in every township, that we have great neighborhoods and churches, but a dormant downtown core, that we're old but have lost some of the finest pieces of architecture (it's amazing the way this town has demolished great buildings only to have them replaced by hum drum . . . the original Trinity for a non-descript bank branch, the original high school for a shuttered McDonald's, a victorian hotel for a tire superstore). 

And that is all for now. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Comment on Education

On Sunday I sang with a friend at church. This friend is an older fellow (64, I think) and he is mentally retarded. Despite his handicap, my friend comes to church regularly, participates with the choir, serves as an usher, and has an uncanny knack for keeping schedules of his friends, such as myself, straight. He has a heart of gold. He looks forward to singing a solo every summer during a service, but prefers to have someone sing with him, so he and I usually sing a duet together toward the end of the summer. We did so this past Sunday.

On the way out of church, another older member of the congregation stopped me and, after telling me that he enjoyed listening to us, volunteered that he's known my friend since he was a young man because he "worked at the institution" into which my friend was enrolled as a boy.

An institution?

Though it's obvious my friend has intellectual deficiencies, it's hard for me to imagine that those deficiencies were so great as to have need to institutionalize him. Certainly in today's education system that wouldn't happen: he would be in a segregated classroom for nearly the whole day, but there would be a place at school for him.

So I left church Sunday thankful that I work in one school system (and pay taxes for another) that has a place for students like my friend. Hopefully we won't be so hasty in our attempts to eviscerate America's public schools that we forget the good work we do including students of all types in our mission.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Not sure I want to see summer vacation end but . . .

. . . Esther Cepeda has a good point.


Washington, 2008
Chicago, 2009
Toronto, 2010
New York, 2011
San Francisco, 2012
Montreal, 2013

And I don't know where it will be in 2014. Ottawa and Houston are leading the list of contenders for where we'll call home in 2014. Since my daughter's birth, we've made it a tradition to identify a city and call it home for a week as our vacation. There are some times that I question whether or not to continue this: the trips are difficult in a tiring sort of way. Sometimes, as was the case with New York and Montreal, they feel particularly expensive. And there are times in which I wonder if the kids are enjoying what we do on our days.

A feature in today's New York Times, though, reminded me of why Sherry and I enjoy such trips. That feature was a special report on how New York has been transformed during the years in which Michael Bloomberg has been mayor. I enjoyed the fact that it made sense to me, and I feel like I can appreciate what changes  have taken place there having called that city (and Brooklyn) my home for a week. That vacation ended my fears about driving in the city, and made me feel at ease navigating metropolises such as it. Making my way around Montreal seemed pretty natural this summer. And I look forward to the day when income, time, and ages make it possible to simply fly to one of our old homes for a long weekend to see how things have changed, and how our kids' perspectives have changed in them.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Only One Thing Today

A single item popped out of the news at me today, Ross Douthat's take on the sale of the Washington Post. We often decry the polarizing nature of news media today, but perhaps the partisan nature of today's news merely reflects a return to an old trend. From my studies of our past, I know that news outlets at one time were brazenly partisan. In the decades leading up to the Civil War towns typical had two newspapers, one offering the Democrat point of view and another offering the Whig/Republican perspective. Newspapers of different political stripes covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates very differently.

Another response: I've been an avid follower of the Washington Post for sometime. I think their op-ed page offers a superior variety of opinion to any other news organ I follow. It's ironic that a paper whose digital age strategy was allegedly so poor hooked me so convincingly. I'll remain a reader and fan of that paper for some time.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Night in Philadelphia

Sherry and I overnighted in Philadelphia and enjoyed what was one of our more unusual dates. Sherry was the one who wanted to see a football game, I was the one urging us to leave early from it. I was the one to order a dessert involving fruit, Sherry the over-the-top peanut butter and chocolate sundae. I was the one to get goofy over the quirky perk of a water dispenser and a battery of plastic bottles which were complimentary at the hotel

I'm discovering that food odysseys are becoming my favorite way to enjoy a city. We took dessert at Max Brenner's restaurant in Philadelphia, and I enjoyed what I must consider the most spectacular dessert I've ever had. This morning I enjoyed breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market where the Pennsylvania Dutch Festival was underway. I had my choice of meat for my breakfast sandwich, and I chose scrapple. I didn't realize that she would take a whole thick slice of scrapple and put it on my sandwich.
Excessive. Delicious. The finest cream-filled donut finished our breakfast.
I'll end this festival of superlatives by admitting that the coffee we had was good, but not great. 

When in Montreal I hunted for bagels, beaneries, and even shish taouk. My most passionate quest was for a smoked meat sandwich, and I reveled in finding the best, not the most famous. It would seem smoked meat is to Montreal what cheese steaks are to Philly, and true Philly folks know that Pat's and Geno's are the tourist magnets whereas Jim's, John's, and Dalessandro's are the best. So I bypassed Schwart'z in Montreal and headed for Lester's, which ended up being the most fun impromptu jaunt of our vacation. 


My wife posed me a simple question as we slogged our way through traffic in Philly today: "Which teacher was your greatest inspiration?" 

Immediately I listed Mr. Wall, then Dr. Jones, then Mr. Breidinger . . . wait, Mr. Bollinger, then Dr. Birkner, then . . . 

Realizing that such a long list implied indecisiveness I returned to my first two, Mr. Wall and Dr. Jones. The former was my English teacher in 9th and 12th grades; the latter was my band director at college. I'll always give Mr. Wall the credit for not just motivating me to become an effective writer, but also for showing me what an inspired teacher can be in a classroom. Dr. Jones was the biggest reason I chose to go to Gettysburg College, and he inspired me to be part of a group in which I take more pride than any other of which I was a part, the band at Gettysburg. He taught me a great deal about how one works with older kids. Those two, more than anyone else, inform how I act as a professional. 

It's ironic, perhaps, that a pair of teachers outside of history and Social Studies are those inspirational figures. One of my great blessings is that I was a student of an army of great teachers, and I can count the number of poor or ineffective teachers I've had on one hand. My history teachers were outstanding teachers, showing me the discipline, habits of mind, and skills needed to be a historian and teacher. They didn't inspire me to love history and make it my academic field. In fact, my passion for history goes back so far I cannot clearly attribute it to anything and must assume it was my parents' influence. Instead, they molded and informed me. 

I'm glad Sherry got me to thinking of this, for I sometimes forget that I'm not teaching the next generation of historians or social scientists. The minority of the kids I teach will go into those fields. But I still have remarkable potential to inspire them, and I can dispense with the mindset that I'm losing them to other fields when they come back to me to share with me good news of their ventures in music, biochemistry, and art. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Four Cities in Four Weeks

I'm ending a month in which I will have visited four significant cities in just four weeks. Some thoughts on them:

Boston was the focus of a long weekend with some friends from high school. We made a pilgrimage to Fenway, which was worthwhile (though I don't think I need to see a game there again . . . in fact, I'm more interested in seeing another game at the new Mets park, Citi Field). My impression of Boston on this trip was more favorable than my first brief forays years ago. The downtown is remarkably walkable, and I remember often seeing destinations on maps that proved to be closer than they appeared. The transit in the city is very easy to use, though it seems antiquated and can get crowded. The heritage areas meant a lot to me having taught AP U.S. History now for so long. The Freedom Trail proved to be a wonderful way to see the town, and I had the chance to jog along it two of the mornings I was up there.

We called Montreal our home for a week on our family vacation. Of all the cities we have visited like this (Montreal is our sixth, following Washington, Chicago, Toronto, New York, and San Francisco) it is the one that most beguiled me. I had a more challenging time finding range on it than other cities: it seemed like most of our stops had a small hitch associated with them. Also, I saw nothing there that wowed me like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco did, or which the skyscrapers of Chicago and New York did. But I was taken back by the diverse neighborhoods, the great options of where to eat, and the ease with which one could explore on foot or bike. It was also a remarkably easy city to drive, though a frustrating one in which to park.

Ottawa was a stop on our way home. Okay, it wasn't on the way home, it was more of a detour. This city surprised me, and I'm very eager to get back to it. It seemed as if every destination we went there, and we only went to two, had much more to offer than expected. It was somewhat quiet, and it felt to be a much smaller scale than Montreal. The area surrounding Parliament was quaint and meaningful, but it wasn't oppressively large like the areas around our Capitol and White House can be. It offers a sense of humble majesty, if there can be such a thing.

And this weekend I return to Philadelphia, the city that has been around my corner nearly my entire life. On a brief anniversary trip, my wife and I overnighted in Philadelphia and swore we needed to do it again. We almost forgot to do so on this, our fourteenth anniversary. I'm sure on Saturday morning, I'll be realizing why we needed to be back there again.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Missing: Weeks in Review

Goodness how the better part of a month can escape! For a brief while I had been good about posting the happenings in the household on a weekly basis. Then came late July. Since July 15, I have seen and done a lot, with friends, with family. To wit . . . 

A baseball odyssey with some friends from Owen J. Ben, Chris, and Gary traveled with me to Boston and New York for something of a baseball pilgrimage to Boston and New York. 

A family vacation to our sixth North American major city. We spent a week calling Montreal home. On the way home, we briefly visited Ottawa. 

More about those in a later post. My battery is expiring and the weather is to nice to be typing indoors.  

The Buses Come, the Buses Go

The first principal for whom I worked would often say "The buses come, the buses go." Usually he did this in response to someone agonizing over an issue that while pressing at the moment would soon become rather trivial. He didn't mean for the saying to imply that our jobs and actions were fleeting, but that we shouldn't fixate on the crisis-of-the-moment in an environment that worked on a regular schedule over 180 days. We should keep perspective, and be fresh to meet and work with our kids when the buses came the next morning.

I have thought about this phrase a lot over the last three weeks as I watched the passing of a great man and retired educator, Steve Frederick. I invite you to check out what my band's website has to say about our co-founder, who lost a battle to cancer late in July.

My admiration of Steve and our co-director Chuck comes from what I see as a profoundly meaningful application of my first principal's philosophy. Steve worked in public education for decades, first as a band director and then as an administrator. In those roles, he taught, mentored, led, supervised, and directed hundreds of students. If he did his work in a fashion that was ordinary, he would have kept his job and passed time with those kids and colleagues. Instead, he realized that those days in which the buses brought and took away the students afforded opportunities to reach them and push them to do something that lasts longer than the dismissal bell. Legions of former band kids swear as to the impact he had.

And then as he neared the end of his career, Steve worked with a peer to establish a band that has been in existence now for nearly 20 years. That band has come to mean a lot to me. It's something of a weekly sanctuary, allowing me at least once a week to be a part of something that isn't defined by exam performance, educational jargon, or the stresses of being a teacher and parent. Once a week I am part of the creation of art. And it's art well done as well: Steve and Chuck constantly select repertoire that challenges us as musicians. As a result, we create performances that have the ability to entertain or even stir one's emotions.

Speaking personally, it gives me a meaningful refuge like what band in college did. Is the concert band of which I'm now a part the musical peer of my college ensembles? No, but it's not as far off that mark as one might assume a volunteer ensemble would be. In my college years, the band was a chance for me to escape from the unreasonable pressures I was putting on myself to achieve, and in those hours spent rehearsing and performing, I was not just escaping the two-dimensional obsession that academic excellence can be, but I was creating art.

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.

As I mourn the loss of a man who I knew for a small number of years but who I came to respect a lot, I contemplate the challenge he offers to me. How can I inspire and build despite the Groundhog Day elements of this profession I am in? What can I do to stir the emotions and artistic impulse of the kids who arrive at my school and leave it 184 days a year? What can I do to build something people in my school or community can cherish and support after I am gone? Of course I don't have answers to these questions, but I hope I can figure out some in the next decade or so. After all, Steve was about ten years older than I am now when he talked a friend into cofounding a band with him, a band that would end up meaning a great deal to some kid who moved into the area in 2002 and who felt the itch to be part of something musical again in 2009.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Risk of War

The Week re-ran an essay that ran in a recent issue of The Atlantic regarding the Civil War. It explored a provocative question: was that conflict a war worth fighting.

Perhaps that best point Horowitz makes in the essay concerns how close the Confederacy came to winning its sovereignty and how that outcome would have entrenched slavery:

Imagining these and other scenarios isn't simply an exercise in "what if" history, or the fulfillment of Confederate fantasy fiction. It raises the very real possibility that many thousands of Americans might have died only to entrench secession and slavery. Given this risk, and the fact that Americans at the time couldn't see the future, Andrew Delbanco wonders if we ourselves would have regarded the defeat of the South as worth pursuing at any price. 

By the way, I must concur with Horowitz on how close the Confederacy came to winning the war. James MacPherson, in Ordeal by Fire, cannot narrow down the war to just one turning point. He can only narrow it down to three turning points: Antietam, Gettysburg/Vicksburg, and Atlanta. I've often thought on how the election of 1864 was a legitimate last gasp chance for the rebels to compel the north to consent to peace.

The political leaders who lead us into war and the soldiers who fight it take great risks, which seems so obvious it doesn't need to be said. I speak not only of the risk of life, but the risk of history's judgment. So often today we hear the cliche "wrong side of history" (which, I think, comes from a Supreme Court Justice in Brown v. Board deliberations). The servicemen and women (a volunteer force) who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq took the same risks of life as did the soldiers of the Civil War. But little more than a decade has passed and already the majority of the American public looks at those conflicts as mistaken in whole or in part.

I still remember, with great humility, the browbeating a friend and I took when an Air Force colonel overheard us debating the merits of the Iraq occupation in the summer of 2004 at Mount Rushmore. Though we live in a land of free speech, I can't help but think how insensitive he and I were to question his sacrifice.

Political leaders and members of the armed services don't have the luxury of knowing whether or not, generations from the present, their cause will be judged as just. They act in their present, and in the fog of war. They act in response to perceived threats to the nation, without the information that would confirm the reality of those threats.

I want to revisit that portion of Horowitz's essay that talks about the consequences of possibly losing that war. Are not the stakes of wars worth fighting so high? Just as the Confederacy came within a whisker of winning the war, did not Nazi Germany come perilously close to ushering in "a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science" in late 1940? In 2013, it's somewhat easy to appreciate the sacrifices necessary to prevent Nazi victory then, moreso than to appreciate the incomplete destruction of slavery (Jim Crow persisted for a century after Appomattox). Perhaps it is those brushes with disaster that make it easier to cast the wars as so nobly fought.

Monday, July 15, 2013


The Washington Post reminded me today of why it remains my favorite paper. The op-ed page had a variety of opinions on the Trayvon Martin case that made me think. The best of which was by Ruth Marcus. Jonathan Capehart offers a passionate but melancholy reflection. What he says speaks to me as a father. So, too, does Eugene Robinson's essay. Richard Cohen offers counterpoint. Together, it's a collection of intelligent attempts at making sense of a sad, sad event.

Rather than outraged I find myself saddened by the episode that led to Martin's death last year. Intelligent news commentary helps me find perspectives on which I can ponder.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Week in Review

From a game of Creationary. Caroline's castle, my firehouse.
The Johnson household witnessed so much activity in the last week that it seems I accomplished something almost inconceivable, a summer week that seemed to last forever (in a good way). Usually I find myself lamenting how the days are just flying by at the midpoint of July. Not today. Instead, I think of the last week and how much took place.

My band had a performance Thursday in Limerick Township, which was the second time in five days my family found itself out there. The concert was at an unusual time, 6 pm, but that afforded an opportunity for Sam and Caroline to hang in there long enough for a concert. Our first time in the township was Sunday when we, surprisingly, purchased new furniture for the living room. 

Our second instance of spending money like sailors on shore leave was a source of angst for the week. We decided to install central air conditioning. I spent the first part of the week meeting contractors who sized up our home's potential for the project. I actually did my homework and solicited estimates from four firms. Friday I settled on the winner and made the deposit to get the work underway. I used the word angst as I got into this tale: I didn't enjoy entering into a process where I contacted four businesses knowing full well that I would say "Sorry, but no" to at least three. I also didn't enjoy the 24-hour window of time in which I was weighing the costs and benefits of various BTUs and SEER ratings. Still, it's about time we did this. After all, three of the four members of this household live here through the days of the hottest months of the year, and increasingly Sherry and I do a lot of work in the home. It makes sense that we do so in some degree of comfort. 

A great highlight from the week: Caroline has mastered the art of buckling herself in!

Sunday featured a trip to the Johnson estate for a belated celebration of the Fourth of July. All were able to gather save for my nephew, who was away. My brother-in-law and I holed up in the basement for a bit too long re-waging the Cold War (in which the U.S. eked out a one-point victory). 

Sam, Caroline, and I ventured to the library for our second trip of the summer. For the second summer in a row, I've resolved to pick a day of the week and just pick out a new series of books for us to enjoy for the week. 

An interesting moment of frenetic craziness: Within a half hour on Thursday, my daughter had two friends visit and I received phone calls from three individuals on three unrelated issues of pressing importance. I don't know if the phone rang at all the rest of the week. 

Sam, Caroline, and I ventured down to Ocean City, NJ for a day on Wednesday. The weather was miserable (a mid-afternoon thunderstorm chased us from the beach), but we enjoyed the trip regardless. Our neighbor was nice enough to invite us down, and I enjoy spending a summer day with them. I even got to fit in a taut game of Ticket to Ride with the New Hampshire wing of the family. 

The best surprise of the week was the way our first camping trip as a whole family turned out. Sam and I spent an overnight at Site 1 of Hickory Run State Park in April and resolved to stay again. I reserved two nights at that same spot. Originally I was going to venture up Friday and then Sherry would join me Saturday. At the last minute, Sherry decided to come on up with us Friday. The four of us had a blast hiking and making a campsite work. We did three separate hikes at Hawk Falls, Fireline Trail, and Shades of Death. We visited a cold lake where I harassed geese, attended an astronomy presentation, and made a brief trip to the Boulder Field there. We also discovered that the four of us enjoy camping and unplugging for the occasional weekend. I'm stunned at the kids' patience through a night of rain and two failed attempts to start a camp fire. I invite you to check out the album

Supporting videos might be available on YouTube. I'm still working out the kinks of using it for family videos.