Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Characters

Revisiting an old blog post reminded me of how I spent some time this summer watching old M*A*S*H episodes and gave me reason to explain how I revered Hawkeye Pierce as one of my great TV character heroes. Here's a list.

Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H - The first character I remember admiring as I grew up. Mom and Dad were huge fans of the show, and I was watching it well before I could appreciate all that was going on in it. Despite my somewhat conservative leanings, I found the liberal, irreverant, and somewhat narcissistic main character of the show heroic in his efforts to look out for those who couldn't look out for themselves, and to poke a finger in the eye of full-of-themselves authority figures. Truth be told, I'm more like B.J. Hunnicutt than Hawkeye. Perhaps Hawkeye reminded me of who I'd like to be.

Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. The lovable jerk. It's the only way I can think of him. He was endearing in his authentic quest to do good policework, even if it meant crossing ethical line after ethical line. And just as one was coming to admire him, he would do something to remind you that, deep down inside, he was a jerk. I don't see myself as being like McNulty and don't want to be. I'm more like his boss, Lt. Daniels. McNulty was one great character in a cast of great characters, a cast unlike I remember from any other television journey.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many Trek fans would consider this blasphemy, I say it still: Picard, not Kirk, is my default captain. I admired the way the character always kept his temper in check, and I relished the way he delivered choice lines: ones from "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "The Wounded" come most readily to mind.

I guess I'm a sucker for men in uniform: Commander Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica was the flawed but revered commander, often allowing his personal feelings cloud his decisions regarding subordinate officers who occasionally failed him.

Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law and Order was my favorite from that long-running show. It's a slight nod for him over Jack McCoy. Still, I loved Lennie's one-liners, his professionalism, his flaws. The episode "Marathon" is a brilliant look at a man fighting old man time to stay relevant as an officer. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An old favorite photo

In the summer of 2008 the photograph you see below came home from preschool. The frame has finally deteriorated so badly I had to throw it out, but not before saving the photograph.

Funny. At age 2 he shows the same kind of expression one might see on him today.

Monday, September 21, 2015


The textbook for my Macro class discusses wealth distribution in one of the first chapters, and in doing so it introduces the term "income quintile," a term which really flummoxes my seniors. When it comes to vocabulary and jargon, they're rigidly literal. I was very interested, therefore, in an article that appeared in The Economist two weeks ago with the ironic title "It's Expensive to be Poor." It features a pretty good example of an income quintile. More importantly, it does a great job highlighting the difficulties that poorer Americans have navigating a financial system that is reluctant to offer fee-free checking and more than happy to offer payday loans.

Now that's a quintile. 

I see it as something of a duty to talk about matters of poverty with my students. We work and learn in an area of affluence. All the metrics - median household income, median household value, unemployment - point out how wealthy our attendance zone is. Of course there are students from families who are shut out from this. Generally speaking, though, I teach students who don't encounter poverty much at all. This explains why I seek out articles like this to help build some idea about the faces behind the statistics and stories they see and hear in the media. 

One student's reflection. 

Short and to the point. 
Spending time with the article was particularly timely given a blog post that appeared, penned by a somewhat recent graduate of the school where I teach who tried to articulate what it's like to be on the outside looking in. To be from the one neighborhood all know isn't so fortunate in the midst of a community characterized by wealth and affluence. 

It's part of my job to make the students conscious about matters of wealth and poverty. I don't do this because I have some grand plan to bring about equity or foment a political movement. My goal is somewhat hazy: to elevate consciousness about how Americans of lesser means that is typical in my area live. It might not be an ambitious undertaking, but if I can get a dozen or two teenagers to walk from my doors thinking of a checking account as a luxury, because to some it is an unattainable one, I've done something important. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Blatantly Self-Serving Post Commenting on Political Affairs

A nearby school district is making headlines by way of its refusal to pay into the pension system.

I can sympathize with the sentiments and frustration of that district's board and the taxpayers who support their protest. It's maddening to see government not meet its obligations. It's maddening to feel like one is in a situation in which one's tax dollars are simply being transferred to another citizen rather than paying for a service or good that benefits them or their community. Over the past couple of years, however, I've tired of being in the cross hairs of political anger and I guess my patience has worn down a little bit. If I look at the actions of the Quakertown board selfishly, I can't help but think that they are threatening my financial future, I guess just as they think a program that benefits me is threatening their financial present and future.

Since my wife is employed in the financial industry, and since I teach economics, I've given a great deal of thought over to the pension problem | crisis | uncomfortable conversation (circle one). In some ways, I'd be comfortable with transferring over to a defined benefit system for providing for my retirement. I see what such a system can look like when it's done well in the private sector. Savers are free to make financial choices, and live with the good and bad consequences of those decisions. Employers match employees' contributions, at least in part. There are tax benefits for savers if they properly make use of federal tax law. I could live with such a system.

If one looks closely at the most recent proposal in Pennsylvania for pension reform, it doesn't deliver those things, in general and in particular to my younger colleagues. Existing 403(b)(7) law limits the number of vendors who can serve a district, thus restricting the freedom to find the best retirement services provider. There is a limit as to the potential gains one can make on their savings decisions (but no limit on the potential loss). And, finally, there's no whiff of any option for an employee match.

In fairness, those latter two limitations come from the fact that pension reform attempts to maintain a stream of revenue to the pension fund to benefit older employees, which (*gulp) is what I am at age 39. But these speaks to one of the great political limitations of pension reform: It's still politically unpalatable to destroy benefits current retirees or people well in the system (like me) have earned. Therefore, even if we cut the youngest teachers out of a future pension there still must be a means of providing for the older ones. Ugh. That's a tough one.

I also don't see any situation in which there'd be political support for districts to match any portion of voluntary retirement savings by employees. Districts have a hard enough time justifying any sort of tax increase: justifying a tax increase to permit a match of, say, dollar-for-dollar for up to five percent of one's salary isn't going to happen.

All of this leads to some real political conundrums. Many want to treat teachers more like private sector employees. But the retirement savings match which is common in much of the white collar corporate world wouldn't take place in education. That being said, I'm conscious of how self-employed Americans never get an employer match. Yet, I don't see many making parallels between teachers' station in life and business owners. We're not consultants or contractors.

Many decades ago we decided, as a country that professionals in public service would receive pensions as a safeguard against financial hardship in their later years. This was, in part, a way to keep professionals in public service. It was also a way of offsetting the lower pay one typically earns in public service relative to private sector jobs where pay raises can be more impressive. Unraveling a decades-old bargain is difficult.

Quakertown's board is attacking just such a complicated bargain. Any solution will create losers, just like staying with the status quo creates losers. I guess I'm one of the many who need to fight so as to make it less likely I lose.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remembering a Teacher

Mr. Bechtel, a teacher of mine, passed away last week after a battle with cancer. Some might be surprised to hear me call him a teacher because of his outstanding reputation as a police officer in the Pottstown area. Mr. Bechtel's call to teaching was a call to the periphery of the work week: on Sunday mornings and evenings teaching youth at church.

Among the many things that touched me reading his obituary (which he penned himself) was that he thought of himself as a teacher as well as a police officer.

His obituary (found here) is worth reading. It's a very eloquent reflection on one's life. I hope I can be so eloquent when I am looking at the end of my life.

Raymond D. Bechtel Jr. Obituary

What do I remember of his teaching? I cannot recall any particular lessons, but I do remember four examples he taught through simply being him.

I remember his expectation that even though we were confirmed high school kids, we still had a responsibility to arrive at Sunday School on time.

I remember the day he came to Church after a night shift in his uniform and sidearm. No time to go home and change. It was time to teach kids.

I remember him happily orchestrating soup dinners served at Church to coincide with the Super Bowl, and how he had all of us teenagers working as a happy, efficient team.

Most importantly, I remember his acknowledgement that the older youth needed a place to call theirs on Sunday morning. It's easy for congregations to overlook the confirmed high school students and let them drift. Mr. Bechtel knew there was a corps of us who sang with choir at 8:00 am then had nothing specific to do until rehearsal at 10:45 am. To him the problem had a ridiculously simple solution: teach them Sunday School.

Mr. Bechtel taught me a lot about service. Service as a Christian. Service as a citizen. Service as a dad. Rest in peace.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Silly Canadian Tales

It being 9/11, I wish I had had the presence of mind to share with my students this wonderful story about our neighbors to the north and their hospitality on that dreadful day.

Part of the joy in teaching Macroeconomics comes in unsettling the students' wisdom about money. Early in the course, I need to spend some time getting us to comprehend how large 18 trillion dollars is. Later, I need to work with the students on understanding that most of they money supply doesn't exist in physical form, but it is no less real. Oh, and we need to get to that whole not-backed-by-gold thing. At the end of the year we need to examine how the value of one currency can rise or fall relative to others. It's fun. A bit sadistic though in that I derive pleasure from seeing what they thought to be true not be so true or simple.

So, today in class I had the chance to share one of the more interesting news stories I've seen in some time, about how a region in Quebec is accepting cut-in-half bills as money. Seriously. The people and merchants there are treating one half of a $20 bill as $10 and one half of a $10 as a $5. They call it Demis. Talk about a fun way to upset kids' understanding of money.

But a student topped that. He put me wise to another crazy tale, a tale of how Canadians have noticed that Sir Wilfred Laurier, the P.M. depicted on the $5 note, bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Leonard Nimoy. And with a small bit of assistance from a marker, it can look as if Science Officer Spock himself is the portrait on that note. Here's a story.

spock banknotes

Oh, the irony. Nimoy wasn't Canadian, but William Shatner was. Is there any chance Shatner looks like The Honorable John MacDonald, whose likeness graces the $10?

Consistency, I guess, isn't my strong suit

I was going to blog daily for a month about my new school year. I made it about four days before I forgot to post. Oh well, I never was a very good one for routine.

I finally got into a good lecturing, note-giving groove today, as if that was a positive thing. The presentation I delivered (I also prefer the euphemism "direct instruction" over lecture) was on the circular flow model, a pretty abstract concept that is a foundation for much of the learning for the class. Despite the high tech wizardry of which I'm so proud I had to give some of the presentation on an old chalkboard to my final class after my program stopped recognizing the stylus I was using. I guess that 20th-century educational training came in handy: I can still rock the economic diagrams in chalk.

Two points of pride come to mind as I finish the week: I'm developing a pretty good knack for timing instruction at unconventional times. It would seem strange to save the final 30-45 minutes of class in a week for one of only two direct instruction sessions. But the students seemed attentive, almost happy that I settled into a teacher-directed groove after several days of more loosely structured teaching. I really aim to put the teacher-centered stuff after the student-centered: it's a way to counter the natural tendency to think class is over if the notes precedes the practice.

The other point of pride: Many of my former law students have come to me and told me how much they appreciated the class last year, even saying they miss it. In a few instances, that praise came from students who I didn't think liked the class that much. One girl talked with me for a few moments, and I asked her why she liked the course. After all, in my words, I thought I just got out of it alive. As she put it: it was nice, you didn't make us work too hard.

Really? Did I make you think? 

Oh, definitely.

We're often our own toughest critics. Such is true of my work last spring.

Monday, September 7, 2015


My church recently made the news in Lansdale by posting the message "Black Lives Matter" on one of our signs out front. I say it made the news even though I was completely unaware of the brouhaha until a friend filled me in Friday. As a result of the message, our church received numerous calls from outraged passers by. Council leadership has called for a forum in which community and congregation members can dialogue about the sign. The pastors have had to apologize for the pain the message has caused.

This not the first time I've seen a small message cause significant uproar. The use of the phrase "living Constitution" in a course of study elicited some controversy in my school district's leadership, for instance, just a few years ago.

Back to this message, and my church, though. I find it unfortunate that one cannot safely take a position that honors and values the work of police but at the same time acknowledges the powerful role racism and prejudice play in criminal justice in this country. My brother is in law enforcement. A friend's brother was grievously wounded in the line of duty. Yet I've seen examples of what seem to be pull-overs for driving while black. Still ringing in my ears are some of the blunt anecdotes a friend (who has since passed away) shared with me as a black man and father regarding neighborhoods where he "better drive the speed limit."

I've probably referenced it before, but an op-ed written some time ago in the Washington Post still haunts me about what kind of advice I'd have to give Sam if he and I happened to be black.

As I've mulled over the politicization behind #blacklivesmatter I've come to think a lot about the asymmetrical relationship that exists between police and the alleged wrongdoers they engage. The moment the policeman says "hello" it's an encounter, and that encounter brings into play a host of civil liberty protections that the policeman is bound to observe. At the same time, that officer has the potential to use deadly force if the conflict escalates, and even a jaywalking incident can escalate into such an encounter. At the same time, the policeman walks amongst people who will target him just because he is in uniform. And the policeman can be subject to all sorts of uncivil behavior, but still need to respond in ways that are professional and protecting of one's civil liberties. And the person they're encountering might be someone with an outstanding warrant, or parole status for whom the encounter means they are already headed to jail (and therefore have little to lose with aggression). But at the same time, the alleged wrongdoer may be someone who feels they never had a fair chance at life.

I entitled this post # because I meant to reflect on the peculiar power of hashtag activism, but I dwelled instead on the inherently (and inevitably) unequal relationship between the policeman who walks the beat and the people whom he encounters. No wonder so many see so much to fight for when confronting slogans like "black lives matter." An asymmetrical relationship will always be unequal and unfair, and advocates of both parties will always look for a way for justice. Justice that is, inevitably, elusive.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Extra Lesson on the Weekend

Ach! I forgot to write a post on Friday. Therefore, I only got four days into my self-imposed challenge to blog daily on my teaching experiences before skipping. Rather than hang my head in shame, I'll "pick up the ball and take the six," moving on to the next hole. Wait, that reference might require an explanation. Before summer ended, Sherry and I took the kids to play miniature golf. Since then, Sherry has said to me quite a few times regarding my dieting efforts that I should "take the six" when I try to reconcile a weekend of bad eating with my weekly goals of budgeting my eating.

So is it coincidence that the day after I missed blogging I had an awkward moment as a teacher, on a Saturday? Probably.

Saturday marked the first home football game my school's team played on their own campus. When my school was built half a decade ago there wasn't room in the budget for a stadium. Our team has since shared a stadium with one of our sister schools, a stadium that is on that school's campus. Oh, that school is our greatest rival. Therefore it never really felt like a home stadium but instead an apartment we were forced to rent.

That changed Saturday when our boys got to play in a field merely 200 yards from their own school's gym. I wasn't missing that game for anything, or at least missing the first half (it was a mismatch typical to southeastern Pennsylvania football . . . our team was leading by three touchdowns at the half, so I therefore left after the band's performance). And there was a lot of spectacle worth seeing: the marching band and cheerleaders test-driving new traditions, the student section staking its claim, the crowd figuring out the flow of where to get tickets, when to leave for snacks, and fans realizing that day games require sun block (there are no lights at the stadium).

Then there was the awkward moment that inspired this blog post. Rather than give an account of what took place, an account that might not fairly capture what I saw, I want to laud my students for trying to create a tradition at our stadium that links an early symbol of our nation with the school mascot (the Patriot). Can students use a historical flag of our nation as a symbol at a game? Probably. But there is protocol they'll have to observe so as to not offend or violate the flag code. So, I think have an opportunity to help the student leaders figure out the right symbol to use.

Is this an official U.S. flag? I'm not sure.

This, too, might be official. Unsure.

Way too much politicized meaning in 2015.

Too cryptic.

Too cryptic and not from our region of the country.
So there are lots of choices, but they each have their liabilities. 

I hope they re-name the student section "Sons of Liberty" like they did a few years ago. Also, I think it would be awesome for them to figure out a way to don a student in colonial era garb who could carry one of these historical flags at the game in respectful but enthusiastic manner. They've got a chance to do something meaningful here. 

I'm proud of my school's students, though, that they're seeking ways to reach into the past to find a national symbol that they can link to their school mascot. The teachable opportunity here comes in challenging them to figure out a system by which they make no mistake they're still honoring the country. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

14 Weeks of Stuff in 18 Weeks

One of about twenty pins I found in an old colleague's desk drawer. Seems appropriate. And it looked dapper on the purple outfit my daughter picked out. Scroll down for that photo. 
The course I'm teaching this year is offered each semester. In the fall I teach it for eighteen weeks, then send the kids on their way. Then I get another crew of students, but with them I don't have all semester to prepare them for their big test. Instead, I get 13 or 14 weeks.

At first it seemed more pressing that I only had 13 weeks to do what I could otherwise do in 18. But now I'm coming to realize that in the fall, I have 18 weeks to do what I must otherwise do in 13. I have therefore come to the conclusion that I can . . .


It's not something one is used to in this line of work. But in some ways, I get the opportunity to leisurely start the year. I can take a week to get into a rhythm. I can shrug off a bad day or a lesson plan gone awry because I have time. And this time is with well-behaved, veteran students. Twelfth graders.

A seven-year-old photographer photographs the wardrobe she chose for her dad. It was very, very purple. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Our third day of school took place today. It was the third day with a modified schedule so as to accommodate an assembly, today for seniors. High school teachers and students are creatures of habit (I'm not exception to this) and I'm craving a day with our conventional bell schedule. 

One of my prouder accomplishments was the creation of a grid that offers a one-shot glimpse of the bell schedules possible in our building. You'll find a copy of it below. I was gratified today when I stopped by a colleague's room and she had the schedule grid out.

One other observation from today: At the assembly for our seniors, a cloud of hazy stress descended on them when the two guidance counselors stepped up to acquaint them with some dos and don'ts about the college admissions process. I could see a wave of reality come across them as they realized that there's a lot to do in a relatively small amount of time. That wave of reality also meant it was time to more closely face the prospect that they are entering an enormously stressful gauntlet where a school will, for the first time ever, size them up and determine if they're good enough to attend.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

17 does not equal 18

Today reminded me of the phenomenal growth awaiting seniors during their 10-month campaign as 12th graders. I last taught Macroeconomics to 18-year-olds on the eve of college. They learn a lot about money, about life, about time during those ten months and one can converse with young men and women rather than big kids. But a mere ten weeks later, I find myself with newly minted 12th graders who are months away from the perspective and gravity of those more grounded students. It might take me a week or so to get away from the assumptions of what my students know and start acting on where they really are.

Monday, August 31, 2015

School Buses

My cousin took up the challenge posed by Te@chthought last year and has been blogging daily since, creating a very readable diary of her work with the students. Inspired by her example, it's time I started writing more on my craft as a teacher, which started today.

I spent quite a bit of time this summer explaining to friends a switch I made, from teaching history to teaching economics. People who grew up with me, or who knew me in college, have a bit of a hard time with that switch, given the kind of history lover that I am. Therefore, I often find myself explaining what makes teaching economics compelling. Those conversations gave shape to the lesson I did today. During a shortened block, I spent a great deal of time tasking students with explaining this riddle:

If seat belts are so safe, and if we regularly buckle up when driving or riding, why don't we equip school buses with seat belts? 

Though the riddle might seem silly, I offered it as a good metaphor for much of the thinking we'll do in AP Macroeconomics this year. If one can understand how adding seat belts might actually make buses less safe, or make them marginally safer but lead to an increase in behaviors that are unsafe, it's really just a logical jump to, say, the "crowding out effect" or the counter-intuitive logic behind why a strong dollar actually hurts U.S. consumers. The riddle worked in prompting the students to think economically.

By the way, you can read what the National Traffic Highway and Safety Administration has to say on the topic here or here

The discussion, and a recent Economist article, prompt a more thoughtful consideration of some choices we're faced with today in public education. Running buses can be an expensive proposition. Though it's a safer, more cost-effective, and more environmentally-friendly means of getting a population to school, that transportation represents a significant cost to school and, therefore, to taxpayers. Consequentially, school districts around the country are cutting the service, often by expanding the radius outside of which one must live to qualify for bus service.

As schools look to save pennies, nickels, and dimes on bus transportation they risk undermining the mission of a public school and undoing something American schools have done right. We were one of the world's first democratic republics to consecrate public schooling as a mission of the state. We worked throughout the twentieth century to expand that mission, making the school year last longer, normalizing the completion of high school, providing lunches (and then breakfasts) to students, and, of course, seeing to it that transportation to/from school would be in the schools' rather than the parents' hands. These expansions of the missions come back to one central premise of American public education: all are welcome and deserving of it.

We now look at ways to lower the price tag of this mission, which means curtailing the mission. And that means looking at ways that we risk reversing strengths that made our system stand out from those of our peer nations.

There's more to this school bus riddle than what meets the eye, which is why it's one of the better riddles I have begun a year with in Macroeconomics.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Time to Consider Some Things Seriously

Since World War II, the average expansion has lasted 52 months (the average recession 10). We're currently in an expansion that began in July 2009. That was 73 months ago. Today, the stock market sunk, largely as a reaction to the fall we've seen Asian markets taking.

A recession is coming.

So, why consider some things seriously?

In recessions, Americans look to fire the president. We did so in 1992. We did so again in 2008, though we couldn't fire George W. Bush. We did the next best thing: fire his party.

We cannot fire President Obama in 2016. But we can fire his heir.

So, can Republicans please rally around someone other than Donald Trump? Please.


On the bright side, maybe borrowing money to finish the basement renovation isn't such a bad idea. My hunch is the Fed will leave interest rates right where they are.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

__________ Creep

I'm struggling at the right word to put before Creep in this post. No, this isn't about creepy behavior, but about the way in which information and historical insight can creep. In the historical community "classification creep" refers to the system by which one-time classified files are made public, usually 25 years after the documents were deemed classified. As documents become public, the historical analysis on a given topic can change in light of the new evidence. This in part explains the cyclical nature by which a president's legacy seems to get reevaluated.

Mike Sielski wrote a column in today's Inquirer that got the part of my brain still tuned to History 300 (Methods) from college humming. Philadelphia sports fans tend to glorify Chuck Bednarik, one of the NFL's last two-way players and, even more rare, one of the Eagles' championship players. The most famous image from Concrete Charlie's career is the one atop this post, of Bednarik celebrating a fumble securing the Eagles' victory over the Giants in their 1960 season. Or, was he gloating over the player he had just injured, Frank Gifford?

Today, Sielski publishes a column in which he points to evidence (other photos taken of that sequence of events by a Sports Illustrated photographer) that Bednarik probably was exulting over an injury. That's an interpretation that is blasphemous in many Philadelphia fan circles. Why publish such a provocative opinion today?

Because the two most important figures, Bednarik and Gifford, are now dead. Bednarik took with him to his grave the story that he was simply triumphing that the game was finished. Gifford never challenged that claim. Bednarik's motives to write the history in a hue favorable to him are pretty clear. As for Gifford, how could he remember what happened that moment? Further, how could he, as an all-star and Hall of Famer in America's great gladiatorial sport, ever sound like he was crying over a physical hit.

Now that Gifford is dead, there isn't a need to politely nod one's head and let a gentleman preserve his dignity.

The photographer died in 2002: we've lost any chance to get him to reconcile the record.

So what do we call the historical creep that allows us to speak candidly about emotion-charged moments like this? I'm unsure of that. I love, though, how that event from 1960, an event which cannot happen again, can get richer and deeper as time goes on. There is no way we will know every detail with absolute certainty for important events. History remains compelling because it offers the chance to reexamine and reanalyze and, in so doing, add more past than there was in the first place.

So, I haven't posted in a while . . .

News often inspires me to post here. News hasn't given me much that's inspirational as of late. Okay, I'm in a summertime mood anyway and therefore thinking more about being a dad (you can read more here). But even if it weren't for the summertime mood, I think my general reaction to just about anything in the news can be captured in this illustration from The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read.

I love coffee. But when I want to eat, coffee just isn't enough. 

Hillary's e-mails. Don Trump. Philadelphia's inadequate preparations for the Pope's visit. The Kathleen Kane saga (wait, take that back, that's kind of fun). Chip Kelly. Chase Utley. Tom Brady. Interest rates. Chinese currency manipulation. Any of these events is just enough to make me look like the book's hungry title character or say, as only the little old man would say, "Fiddlesticks and Fishfur!"

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An Odyssey of Friends

Today concludes a two-week stretch of vacation and travel. Though Sherry took two weeks away from work, our main vacation lasted only one week. Okay, one week plus a pair of weekends. The second week was a vacation of sorts, but with home as our base of operations. 

One of the interesting quirks of this two-week stretch was that it afforded me the chance to touch base again with a half dozen friends, friends I came to know at different stages of life. In Portland I met with Rob, who was a partner in crime after I became comfortable in my career. His friendship was invaluable during challenging professional times. On the way home, we saw Karen, one of the most genuine people I came to know at Gettysburg, the sort of interesting person that college attracts. When we got home, I had the chance to touch base with Ken and Jess, friends who have helped me figuring out this whole dad/teacher thing. We took a day off at the shore with Juanita, a friend we came to know as we lived here in Lansdale. She actually invites us down to the shore each year to spend some time at the beach with her family. And in Alexandria, I had the chance to dine with Jeff, a friend since I was younger than my son is now. 

Me with my best friend, while dining out with friends. 
Oh, and let's not forget that I got to see brothers- and sisters-in-law who feel more like friends than what the term in-laws suggests during these weeks. 

I sometimes chuckle at the episodes through which I frame my life: in roughly four-year periods that go back to the early eighties. In each of those episodes I was fortunate to be in the company of really good people, and I've had the ability to keep in touch with many of them. 


Friday, July 24, 2015

"He's my son, too."

My neighborhood. Correction, my block, is in the news. There was a somewhat scary but mostly sad incident that took place a few doors down. A young man had a violent, threatening episode that required the police to come with sidearms drawn. Thankfully no one was hurt, no shots were fired.

You can read of it on the Lansdale newspaper page or on the site of the Allentown television news. It's on Philly news, too.

A few thoughts . . .

I get the impression the borough's police force knew the alleged criminal and situation well and were in position to solve this as peacefully as they did.

I'm still not interested in having a firearm at my own home.

There was something very unnerving about walking out my door in order to retrieve the newspaper and seeing officers advance with sidearms drawn. It was so out of place I stayed outside.

It was so out of place I didn't object when my wife left for her daily walk with friends. In fact, she walked by as the apprehension took place.

More importantly . . .

The parents of this young man are good people. Always friendly to me. I cannot imagine the pain of seeing a child act in the way this young man did yesterday morning. I can't help but recall the words from a sermon my friend gave a few months ago, when he said that he the spirit of God reassure him in a moment of anxiety with his newborn son that "He is my son, too." And so I think of the young man who was arrested yesterday, he is God's son, too. His earthly parents did their best to raise a young man. Sadly, that young man made some awful, terrible choices. He might be beyond the point of their help, but he isn't uncared or unloved.

I did, by the way, talk with my own kids about the episode. When we returned from the movies today, and after I read the news story, I shared with them in terms they would likely understand what took place. I don't want them surprised when it comes up (inevitably) at school or with friends. And I don't want them contributing to a gossipy spiral. Ultimately, two good people who've always been friendly to me and my kids are suffering right now, experiencing a pain and disappointment I cannot fathom.

They're His children, too.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Elections have Consequences

An op-ed from yesterday's Washington Post caught my attention. Okay, several caught my attention. But this one in particular struck my historical nerve. The author comes to the defense of the maligned South and criticizes the north (and west) as regions of the country that are as culpable as the south in our history of racial struggles. I agree with his points about 20th-century discrimination in the north. It existed, it has persisted. De facto discrimination is a very stubborn thing to combat. Racist impulses motivate behavior today, yesterday, and will continue to do so in the future in the different regions of the country. In the future, scholars will look back on 2015 and shake their heads at some of the racist acts and trends of this era.

I don't want to lose sight, however, of an important stand that flawed people took in the election of 1860. In that year, we had a four-way race for president. The candidate who carried the north did so on a platform promising to prohibit slavery in the territories of the west, where slavery did not exist. The candidate who carried the south promised to end any restriction on the spread of slavery in the west. The candidate who carried the north won. And the war came.

from The Washington Post 

In a narrow sense, we can see much racism in the decision made by those voters in the north in 1860. They weren't calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. Some might have believed that cutting off its expansion would eventually end the institution, others might not have thought that far ahead. Some might have voted because they thought the ending of slavery was a matter of justice for the black man, but probably more voted because they saw slavery as something getting in the way of the white man's pursuit of happiness. The motives of those voters, however, is fairly inconsequential. The consequential matter is the result of their decision: setting in motion a chain of events that ended the institution of slavery. The ending of that institution is progress in the name of racial justice, however imperfect the process and intentions of its authors may have been.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Context is Everything

Well, this whole Greece-vs.-EU fight is fun to watch from the sidelines, isn't it?

I've encountered some commentary talking about the concept of a referendum called by government in which government so obviously sought a "No!" outcome. In the U.S. leaders normally call for referendums when they are rooting for a "Yes!" But other commentary shows me that "No!" has powerful resonance in Greek popular memory. In 1940, Germany apparently issued a nasty ultimatum demanding Greece's surrender.

And so they were invaded.

And so they were conquered.

But they said "No!" And that is a point of national pride.

(It would seem that my memory is fuzzy or that what I read elided some historical details. Here's what has to say on it. Here's another reading about how they stood up to the Italians.)

It reminds me of a favorite historical yarn, of the American general at Bastogne receiving a German demand that he avoid further bloodshed by surrendering his troops. That general's response: "Nuts!"

I think I can identify the Greek position better when I consider another yarn, that of Jay's Treaty. In the 1790s, President Washington was desperate to avoid war with Britain and he sent John Jay to Britain with orders to avoid war at all cost. So Jay did what he was told, and returned to the U.S. with a demeaning treaty that led to some memorable expressions of outrage and a widening of the partisan splits between some of our founding politicians. Really, that might be the moment in our history where we came closest to capitulating or appeasing a bully.

Now that's graffiti!
And only a leader with the posture of Washington could pull off the maneuver.

Jay was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when dispatched by the President to negotiate an undesirable treaty. I guess the C.J. of the SCOTUS really had nothing better to do. 

For much of our history Britain was the bully, or seemed to be the bully. We stood up to them on several occasions. And on the one where it provoked war in 1812 we were lucky Britain was too distracted and exhausted from protracted war with France to finish the job against us. Standing up to Britain over a dispute in Venezuela about 120 years ago may just be the crucial event in convincing Britain that they should work harder to cement our friendship.

Whether or not the Greeks are right in their dispute with Europe is up to interpretation. What I find fascinating, though, is that we might not be too different from them when we perceive that we are on the receiving end of some international bullying. We loathe capitulation. And if in their spot, we might just vote No! too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Narrow Networks

I'm subscribing to a paper edition of the Inquirer again. It's kind of like connecting with an old friend (an old friend to whom either time hasn't been kind or who has gone on a diet: it's a noticeably thinner paper now, and I don't know the appropriate metaphor to use). The nice thing about a 20th-century newspaper is that it makes it more likely you read things you might now have done so on your own. A pretty useful article on the Affordable Care Act and "narrow networks" in today's issue is a good example of this.

The article itself is worth a read. The summary could go like this: as a way of cutting costs of coverage, most health plans offered under the ACA put fairly strict limits on which providers one can go to. Typically, one might not be aware of the effect of these limitations until one gets a diagnosis for something severe, such as a cancer, and finds out the specialist one really desires isn't in one's network. The article discussed this tradeoff (more reasonable costs in exchange for more available care) as one which many participants don't know.

Something I find ironic, though, is that this narrow network phenomenon reminds me of what we've been doing in an unrelated field: consumption of media. In the past few years, Americans have been ditching the purchase of CDs and listening to radio in favor of music streaming services. A drawback to consuming music that way is that we tend to narrow our listening choices, and find ourselves less exposed to new music we may like. But we have made this shift to lower the financial cost of consuming music. And so far, it seems most are fine with the tradeoff, too. Cord-cutters like me also have narrowed our field of television that we consume. I found that the plethora of HD channels and DVR box I received from them didn't justify the high cost of my monthly bill to Verizon. Saving about $40 a month, I've narrowed what I can watch and am just fine with the limitations.

There's a chance we're ready to trade-in the bloated expenses of a buffet approach to healthcare in exchange for a lower-priced menu. The limitations on choice and purgatory of referrals doomed HMOs and Hillarycare 20 years ago. Perhaps we've shifted our priorities. Perhaps our eyes aren't bigger than our stomachs anymore.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

New Bucket List Item - URGENT

Neat column in today's Inquirer spurs me to consider a new list of must-see sites in the U.S.

So, here's a listing of the ones in the National Archives and Records Administration system:

  • Herbert Hoover
  • Franklin Roosevelt (check - Dec. 2012) 
  • Harry Truman 
  • Dwight Eisenhower (it's shameful I haven't been to this one yet . . . in Gettysburg)
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon B. Johnson*
  • Richard Nixon
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Bush 41*
  • Bill Clinton 
  • Bush 43*
  • Barack Obama (not open yet)

*Could be accomplished on one trip!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

July 4th

The fireworks meant a little more to me this year.

A famous James Brady photograph of three Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg after they had surrendered. 
I love my country. In the past few weeks, I've done some trips looking at some natural beauty as well as some history. 

One of Ricketts Glen's numerous waterfalls. 
An F-4U Corsair at World War II Weekend.

Sam outside the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour.

Inside the Lackawanna Coal Mine
One of the many waterfalls at Delaware Water Gap
So I guess history and natural beauty were on my mind as I watched the fireworks. Without even leaving the eastern portion of my state, I've had the chance to see some spectacular things and witness some of the struggles Americans in years past endured. It's hard not to be humbled by how hard men had to work to earn a living in the late 19th-century Anthracite region, or by the sacrifice made by Americans in World War II, a war in which our Allies were much more at threat than we. 

If I return to the photo at the top of this blog, I must comment on Gettysburg. The battle ended 152 years ago today. It cost more American lives than any other single battle in any war. The men who fought there were motivated by something both simple and abstract: love of country. I say that's abstract in that love for country fuses both land and ideas. Soldiers fighting for the Confederacy were fighting for a way of live centered on slavery though most of those soldiers didn't own slaves. There was a greater concept of liberty at play for them, a concept that would likely differ a lot from liberty as we know it today, but one that is no less powerful. As for the Union soldiers, they fought for the preservation of the Union. How would their lives have been worsened by allowing 11 recalcitrant states to break away? It's hard to tell how they would have been materially worsened. But they fought anyway. 

As Americans today, we still fight (squabble might be a better word) but we do so over issues that seem proportionally smaller than those that motivated those boys in gray and blue. We squabble over issues that are smaller than those at stake for the G.I.'s seventy years ago. Bicker might be an even more fitting word for our scraps over issues that dominate the news. 

So I write this today (enjoying a surprisingly sweet Tasmanian whiskey, by the way) thoughtful more about the great issues with which our forefathers fought and appreciative of the beautiful land we happen to enjoy. Perhaps tomorrow I'll see signs that our political leaders are taking more seriously the things over which they prefer to bicker, and place our struggles today in the proper perspective. I was tempted to end this post with a photo of a preposterous billboard I saw in Benton, PA over the week. But I think I'll leave it there (and vent about that billboard later).  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Rail-Splitter Logic

It would appear my last few posts have been serious. Perhaps a bit too heavy.

I've felt compelled to speak on issues like the Confederate battle flag controversy and recent changes regarding same-sex marriage because these are both issues on which I've found my point of view change over the course of the past decade. Not too long ago I would have described myself as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and conservative. Now, I have a hard time describing where I am politically. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not an independent. I don't really see myself as consistently liberal or conservative as one goes from issue to issue.

There are times when I wonder if my shifting opinions on great political matters indicate that I'm not firm enough in my convictions. There's a chance that is true of my political convictions. I have, for instance, become someone who shamelessly votes my job. There was nothing ideological about my support for the winner of Pennsylvania's most recent gubernatorial election. Perhaps that becomes somewhat ideological when I vote for school board positions in the district where I reside. I guess over the course of my 30s I've learned that I can't simply wait for someone else to look out for my interests. I need to look out for my own.

But what about issues that don't directly affect me, such as the two third-rail issues with which I started this post?

An author of a Lincoln biography I heard back in 2009 spoke about Lincoln's "Rail-splitter" approach to politics. One doesn't merely swing an axe and watch wood come apart with that one swing: splitting rails involves repeated hits of the axe, or the combination of a sledge and a wedge cutting through the wood. On a stubborn piece of wood, the initial split isn't much. But eventually the momentum, the slant of the axe head, the repeated blows split the wood. By extension, on stubborn political dilemmas, the logic of the superior or victorious point of view won't be evident at first, but eventually it ends up carrying the day.

For proof of this, one can look at Lincoln's evolving position on slavery. In his last speech, he called for suffrage for black veterans and other "intelligent" blacks. If we look past our 21st-century notions which would see the inherent white supremacy in this comment we can see a man whose political viewpoint evolved significantly from the early days of his political career when he supported the re-colonization movement.

And along the way, he talked of how a "house divided cannot stand."

Rail-splitter logic.

There have been times in history when stubbornness has been vindicated. Winston Churchill's pre-war stubbornness about Hitler's intentions comes to mind most readily. Yet we often talk in history of individuals whose stubbornness, or apparent stubbornness led to ruin.

I'm aware of my own tendency toward stubbornness. It may take a few years for the logic of a point of view to work through some layers of opposition for me. As I've said before in posts, the quip from John Maynard Keynes that "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" resonates quite a bit with me. Perhaps blogs like this exist as a place for me to verbalize my opinions, even as those opinions shift. And it can also be a place where I articulate the things on which my beliefs have deepened, such as my faith, my affinity for Lutheran theology in particular, how I feel about the nature of kids and how to work with them, what I value as a parent.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Your 98 cents of change

Last week ended with a rather surprising string of news stories. Some commentators in the news have pointed to one or another of these apparently unconnected events as significant turning points in America's history. That may be true. But they offer me chances to reflect on issues of national concern that I have been concerned about too, and in some cases issues on which I have changed my mind. Let's get started:

The groundswell of opinion against display of the Confederate Battle Flag

To me, it's all about context. Unfortunately some individuals espousing hatred have hijacked that symbol as a tool of intimidation. In particular, this occurred in the 1880s and 1890s as well as the 1950s and 1960s. In the latter of these periods, it was also a symbol for defiance of federal authority. Again, it's all about context. Since it has been prominently displayed in those contexts since 1865, it's display should be limited. Governor Haley of South Carolina is right to ask her state's legislature to remove it from the capitol grounds. Those are the grounds of all the people. A symbol used to instill fear and hatred shouldn't fly over the grounds of all citizens.

Yet if you choose to fly it over your own house, I respect the First Amendment's power to grant you that right. And I have no objection to it flying over the graves of Confederate war dead or at a memorial at Gettysburg or Vicksburg or anywhere else where men fought and died under that flag.

It's about context. I saw a recent Facebook post claiming that a Confederate flag over Gettysburg is as improper as a swastika over Normandy. To me that's a false comparison on too many levels.

One weird story that struck me a bit speechless: a Doylestown area car collector has decided not to display his "General Lee" at car shows this summer. Hmmm. Context tells me that the display of that on a TV show of the late 1970s is a different thing than the waving of that banner by Klansmen in the 1960s. But I wonder if it's a sign of racial intolerance that I as a white boy in the northern suburbs could afford to overlook.

The Supreme Court's Decision on Gay Marriage

It was the right decision. Quite some time ago I came to the point of view that the 14th Amendment couldn't permit the denial of marriage rights to same sex couples. Simultaneously, I've come to better know friends who are gay and really can't stand the idea of denying them the joy I know in my own marriage.

This remains, though, the one great issue on which my religious faith hasn't helped me make up my mind. Biblical messages on it are ambivalent and ambiguous. I understand, though don't necessarily agree, with individuals who find spiritual reasons to object to same-sex marriage. And I think motivations beyond mere bigotry allow some Christians to believe same-sex marriage defies a Christian definition of marriage. This is the one issue on which my understanding of the Constitution and rights in a more generic sense trumps my spiritual compass.

The Supreme Court's Decision on Obamacare

The Court made the right call. And in doing so, they made me more disgusted with the Republicans (my party, by the way) than I expected. For six years, the Republicans have opposed the Affordable Healthcare Act. They've pushed for its repeal. They've failed to offer a reasonable alternative. In the end, they hoped that a technicality from some lawsuit could overturn it. It didn't play out. These were six wasted years, years in which alternatives could have been offered, alternatives that supersede the call for "repeal and refund."

The ACA is a bad law. But I would contend that health care is so problematic it defies almost any law. It may just be time to call health care a public good, a merit good, and make it taxpayer funded. Too many externalities. Too many perverse incentives. By accident, the ACA may be creating a better (or at least less broken) status quo. Shame on the Republicans for hoping for a loophole.

The Referendum on Obama's Legacy

A few weeks ago a columnist pointed to how the two above-referenced news stories as well as the Pacific Trade Pact and opined that they would settle Obama's legacy. Combine that with his response to the Charleston murders, and the blunt acknowledgment that he's a lame duck and I think we have a good prediction about what historians twenty-seven years hence will be saying.

On domestic issues: not too bad.
On foreign issues: not too good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


In the past few weeks, I've heard a few sermons that really pushed me to think. Namely:

My friend, Dane, gave a sermon in which he related the story of his son's recent birth. He talked of the anxiety he felt the moment his son arrived, anxiety borne from knowing that there was now a second child to care for and the lifetime of decisions and guidance he would now be supplying. Dane talked, though, of how it seemed God spoke to him in his anxiety, reassuring him by saying relax, he's My son, too. It's helpful perspective: not just with my own children but with the children of other parents I work with daily. When they test my temper and patience, I need to remember that their His children, too.

Recently our senior pastor addressed the tragedy in South Carolina. He was rather pointed, pointed to the extent I felt a little uncomfortable. Still, I'm glad that he said what he said: that whites should pray for God's forgiveness of the sin of white supremacy. As he put it, the murderous act was an unstable act but one that sat atop a very stable foundation of racism, exclusivity, fear of "the other." Though I live hundreds of miles away from that crime, it's necessary for me to think of how I might, through action or inaction, contribute in some small way to the foundations atop which that crime could exist.

A few weeks back, our senior pastor challenged us to write obituaries for ourselves. His point was to get us to consider how full and meaningful we have been, and how we want that obituary to look when we do in fact die. And to that end, I think I'll pen one now. I know that might seem stark, but it's a though exercise. A spiritual exercise. In that spirit, I write:

Christopher (Chris) L. Johnson of Lansdale died yesterday of injuries from an accident. He was 39. 

Mr. Johnson was born to Eugene E. and Betty J. (Smith) Johnson of Elverson, Pennsylvania where he grew up. He graduated from Owen J. Roberts High School in 1994 where he had a reputation for being an active student. Chris later went on to earn Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Gettysburg College and Villanova University, respectively. At Gettysburg Chris played the trombone and it was in the music program there that he met his eventual wife, Sherry D. (Stevens) Johnson. He cultivated a keen interest in history during those years, an interest that led him into a career teaching. Mr. Johnson had just finished his seventeenth year teaching in the Central Bucks School District, where he was known for his energetic history and economics classes as well as his friendly demeanor in the hallways. 

Chris married Sherry D. (Stevens) Johnson in 1999 and with her was a parent to two children, Samuel E., 9, and Caroline M., 7. He took great joy in his family and looked forward to weekend and summer trips throughout Pennsylvania, the U.S., and Canada. His family are members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale where all are involved in the music ministry of the congregation.

Surviving Chris is his loving wife and two children, his parents, his brother, Matthew S. Johnson, 38, of Lansdale, his sister Kendra J. (Johnson) Cook, 32, of Sinking Spring, his grandmother, Blanche (Shortlege) Smith, of McConnellsburg, several aunts, uncles, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nephews, and nieces. He also leaves behind many friends from his childhood, his neighborhood, and the school where he taught.

Services will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church where Chris's remains will be interred.  

Wow. That's stark. But it's where I am right now. I think it's pretty honest. My goal, by the way, is to live until I'm 100. So, I've got 61 years to make my life story more compelling.

As it is, though, it's a good story. Writing it has forced me to wonder what impact I'm having as a dad, husband, teacher, colleague, and friend. I think I'm having an impact. But would it get into my obituary? Unsure.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Juking the Stats

In this age of intense testing, I've so often thought of the line uttered over and over again in The Wire about "juking the stats" (don't worry, this clip is safe). NPR today ran a story that articulated wonderfully many of the frustrations I have wrestled with over the past decade or so. I encourage you to read or listen to their piece. In it, the dig into some of the less attractive trends at work behind the ever-climbing rate at which high schoolers are graduating.

Perhaps this journalism is evidence that the tide of popular opinion regarding standardized testing is starting to turn. Are we more broadly coming to question the costs of the testing culture that has gripped U.S. schools? Are we starting to see that data doesn't tell the whole story of educating children? Journalism like this, and the small bits of furor opening up here and there over opting out of state tests are enough to suggest that, yes, maybe the data-driven emphasis on tests is starting to wane in power.

I teach at a school that, four years ago, graduated its first ever class with a perfect graduation rate. At the time it seemed like an accomplishment. Many kids and even more adults worked hard to make that possible. I was one of those adults (that happened to be a year in which my schedule was exclusively teaching seniors). But over the next few years, that accomplishment turned into an expectation. Now, it may as well be an entitlement.

At the time, in the spring of 2011, I overlooked a realization that I've come to appreciate: to expect 100% of adolescents to do anything is naive and counterproductive. They're adolescents. Adolescence is messy.

But sometimes in that messiness, they're ridiculously clear-headed. What one student learned by trying to balance the U.S. budget. 
It's a time of overlapping and conflicting priorities. It's a time of great change and a growing ability to handle that change. By the way, a growing ability to handle change implies that there is varying inability to handle change.

There's a fascinating parable in here about steel quotas and Stalin's Five-Year Plans that I cannot help but think when I contemplate the uglier aspects of today's testing culture. 

Attainment of an unrealistic goal encourages unethical behavior. Attainment of an unrealistic goal creates fertile ground for perverse incentives. Attainment of an unrealistic goal can stunt individualism.

But I don't think unethical behavior is typical in my profession. I work as part of an army of people who genuinely care for kids. Caring for kids can unintentionally lead us to do things that stunt their growth.

In some ways the problems NPR points out resemble concerns people have about the "everybody-wins-a-trophy" mentality that some say persist with sports and other competitions. I don't necessarily think that such an impulse is at play here. The desire to award everybody is driven by care for a child's feelings. This push toward 100% graduation is motivated by a desire to set kids up for success.

That doesn't mean it's right.

A fundamental principle of working with kids is to provide options. Don't make ultimatums. Offer an option A and option B. Help highlight the pros and cons of each. Sell A over B. But ultimately let the kid choose. And be as comfortable as possible when their choice disappoints.

In today's culture, I've seen the adults - teachers, administrators, boards, parents - take the kids right to choose away. A few years ago it was a movement that the students must pass a given test. That's only gotten louder. That sentiment has morphed into every student must graduate.

And the day we say must is the day the adults own the problem. And in owning the problem, we rob the kids of a chance to choose their path.

I love working with kids. It's hard for me to imagine leaving the classroom despite being there 17 years. On a daily basis I work with very interesting adults-in-training. They might not surprise me daily, but they do surprise me weekly. For instance, I can't wait to see the finished product of the Macroeconomic chess set a group of my colleagues' students are making with a 3D printer.

I'm hopeful that tomorrow another kid will impress me the way a shy 10th grade girl did in delivering a solid presentation on a harder-than-seems topic. And I say this despite the fact that behaviors today disappointed me (it's June 10 . . . a week of school remains, shenanigans were abundant today . . . 1:00 to 1:10 was a variety show of obnoxious acts).

A variety show of obnoxious acts? Too harsh. No, I'm just working with adolescents. And I love doing so. And I want to continue working with them in such a way that we can help them grow, not keep them as kids.