Sunday, August 17, 2014


Apparently, that's how much my grandfather paid for his childhood farm when he purchased it from his widowed mother in 1960. I think a lot about how far my family has come in a couple of generations. My grandfather (mom's dad, or Pap) was born to a subsistence farming family. I played on that farm many times as a kid, when it was owned by a family who bought it from the Amishman who bought it from Pap. To be honest, it wasn't a very good farm. Set up against the side of Nittany Valley, it didn't possess the most fertile land. It was worth more for the lumber that grew on it (and which my grandfather apparently sold for about $3,500). It's not used as a farm anymore; the Amish family who owns it now primarily makes money from the carpentry business they run.

By the way, that $56k figure is in real dollars. When Pap wrote the check back in 1960, it was for $7,000 in his dollars.

How did Pap get the money to do this? After all, he was simply one of the youngest children of a relatively poor family. He had a 9th grade education. In his youth, he had something of a wild streak in him . . . mischievous rather than malicious. He worked for it, as a technician in a paper factory. He supplemented that income by working as the groundskeeper for a cemetery. When his plant was on strike, he did road work. He worked a blue collar job during that window in history when a blue collar job earned enough to attain something of a middle class lifestyle. His kids (Mom and my uncle) graduated from college and, in turn, sent their kids off to college now.

In 2014 I live in a house that's worth about 5 1/2 times what Pap bought his farm for in 1960.

This is what the troubles in Ferguson inspire me to contemplate. The commentary on those troubles that most helps me understand that community and its woes was written by Philip Kennicott. I appreciate how that author calls us to think of the complex factors that have led to the conflict that is ripping apart that neighborhood.

I didn't follow the news from Ferguson too much while on vacation. But from a distance it was apparent how both sides of the political spectrum were fashioning narratives around what is taking place there.

I can't help but think, however, how privileged my position must look like to those who feel snared by poverty in communities like Ferguson. Why am I relatively well off? Is it due to my own hard work? Yes. It's also due to some luck. More importantly, it's due to the actions by countless people who have wittingly and unwittingly shaped my life. Going back to my grandfather, he made decisions seventy and sixty years ago that set in motion me and the life I have today. My happiness today is the product of an army of family and friends and friends of family who made decisions and took risks for the betterment of themselves and others. I'm humbled by the sacrifices great and small of those people who weren't necessarily thinking of Chris Johnson and his family of four in 2014. I wish the factions viewing what's happening in Ferguson would consider, humbly consider, how we are all shaped by forces outside our immediate control, and how we shape others who we may not even be considering at this point in time.

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