Thursday, December 29, 2016

Why One Rereads

Late in the summer I found myself drawn to World War II non-fiction. I read much of a book called Inferno, which I enjoyed a great deal. Then I used a gift card to purchase Antony Beevor's The Second World War. I just finished it today. I enjoyed Beevor's style, a style that saw him often end a chapter with a rather witty interpretive twist. He had a good sense of when to swoop in on minute detail and when to pull away to the big picture. I also developed a good sense of when the detail wouldn't be necessary for me, so I can't say I read every chapter word for word.

World War II was my first and still strongest historical fascination. (The Cold War is a close second.) Rereading a grand history of it still fascinates me, still teaches me. There were quite a few interesting points I learned from Mr. Beevor. To wit:

  • The Allies really struggled to trust one another down the stretch. Even the British and Americans bickered quite often. Perhaps the most serious falling out occurred when America's chief naval officer implied that Britain's Royal Navy in the Pacific was a "liability."
  • The Allies really didn't trust one another much early in the war either, with Britain and France spending much of the spring of 1940 pointing fingers at one another. 
  • I now know what Churchill's "Naughty Document" is, and searching for it online won't mark one as looking for smut. 
  • American and British soldiers showed hesitancy in the final stages of the war in Europe, wondering why it was worth risking their lives to fight an enemy in Germany who was fighting more stubbornly than expected despite the impossibility of victory. 
  • Late in the war, tacticians often struggled between elevating civilian casualties vs. risking soldiers' lives . . . this was as true in Europe as it was in the Pacific. 
  • America, Britain, and Russia truly depended on one another. 
  • America was really well served by two leaders in particular: Eisenhower and Nimitz. Both seemed to really get the whole picture and both seemed to learn from mistakes. 
  • The Chinese often bore costs for strategic decisions made by the U.S.
  • Diplomacy with the French and Poles was a lot tricker throughout the war than I expected. 
As I reread of this war, I was constantly struck with wonder as to how the Germans and Japanese could continue to fight in the face of inevitable defeat. 

Perhaps Beevor's best writing came in the summary, when he was ruminating on the massive loss of life in central and eastern Europe. That's where the greatest loss of life occurred in the European theater. Beevor urges the readers to think of this area and its inhabitants as inexorably caught between the two great millstones of the mid-twentieth century: totalitarian Germany and totalitarian Russia. And despite Allied victory, the restoration of freedom to Western Europe came at the expense of the freedom of surviving peoples caught between those millstones. 

America sacrificied mightily in World War II, and nothing in the book shook my belief that calling those G.I.'s the Greatest Generation is fitting and proper. We were fortunate, though, not to be caught between those millstones, for the sacrifices those people had to make are horrifying to contemplate. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Noisy Bill

My son, Sam, recently suffered a fracture of one of his body's least consequential bones, the first bone of the pinkie finger of his non-dominant hand (left). All is well now, we think. The cast is off. He's back to playing the violin, showering without a bread bag serving as an improvised glove, and running around like a 10-year-old boy. Also, the cause of science has been advanced by the new life forms discovered underneath the dirtiest cast in the Western World.

A bill arrived, however, indicating that the whole saga might not be over. Apparently I owe another $100 dollars because that is the "patient's responsibility." Hmmm. I'm understandably curious why we owe another $100 after having paid a $100 copay at the hospital as well as another $25 copay to the office of the doctor who operated on Sam and put the cast in place. Perhaps this is the hospital's cut? Perhaps the doctor seeing him in office counts as a separate economic activity from the same doctor performing surgery two floors below that office the next day. I'm sure I'll find out we owe it. We'll pay.

A moment of humility: I think about how many families would have their finances wrecked by an unanticipated $225 of medical expenses. We're fortunate. And Sam's care was excellent. And when the doctor said it could be less adequately set (at probably lower expense) we didn't hesitate to have it done the right way.

Let's get back to that bill, though.

Note that there are several numbers on here. The first, $13,170 seems to be the total cost of the surgery. Next, $1,691 is the amount my insurer paid. Then there's $11,379.00 which is listed as "Write-Off." Finally we get to $100. That's our share.

Wait a minute, a write-off of $11,379? That's not a write-off. That's a decent used car. That's more than half a vacation for four to Europe. That's a semester of tuition at a public university. That's months' accumulation of wages for someone earning minimum wage. That's a lot of money.

I don't know much about what medical technology and expertise cost. However, $1,691 seems like a relatively small sum for the expertise, labor, and technology involved in my son's procedure. $13,170 seems grossly inflated.

So, what's the real price? I haven't a clue.

I've spent a lot of time contemplating the cost of medical coverage in the U.S. I followed the debate over Obamacare with rapt attention. I've followed news on it since it's been enacted. I examine carefully what politicians say about it and attempts to reform it. I've also moved through a spectrum of opinions on that measure, from outright objection to it to acceptance of it. Generally, I want to let the markets use the pricing mechanism to determine what we make, how we should make it, and who should get what we make. A marketplace, however, relies on prices acting as signals to the participants. Prices rising or falling in particular ways cue producers and consumers to more wisely use the resources available. But markets fail to work well when price signals can't cut through noise that distracts from prudent decision-making. And markets fail even more profoundly when the prices become noise themselves. And that's where we might just be with health coverage in our country.

We heard before the election that Obamacare premiums were spiking by 25% or more. But then we heard (at a quieter volume) that government subsidies would pick up some of that increase.

We hear about mandates and Cadillac taxes. Regulations, too. We hear about premiums, deductibles, and co-pays. It's a lot of jargon that most of us partially understand. It's a lot of economic reality that families experience to different degrees of severity. My eyes are more aware of it now that I went through a broken pinkie finger with my son.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Those lunches only get more expensive when the cost is obscured, passed on, and "written off."

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Worth Every Penny

My renewal for The Week magazine came due, and I contemplated for a moment not renewing. Though I love the publication, my school subscribes to it and I could rely on that instead. But the clincher for me renewing it involves my son's growing interest in the news. Every week he looks forward to its arrival so he can peruse the cartoons. This past week's were especially good.

The one at bottom right I think was the best this week.
In fact, the cartoons inspired Sam to create his own commentary.

Note how JFK's ghost has a bullet hole so you can start to tell who is who.

They got me for another year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

My weekly Lutheran comment

Okay, peeps, here I go with something of a rant. Not theological, mind you. Really more about church manners. Other mainline Protestants might see something in this too.

Recently I had cause to attend a worship service I knew I couldn't stay for the end of. Schedule conflict. But someone I knew was being baptized and I thought (correctly) that I could stay through the baptism before I had to hit the road for my work duty (chaperoning a play). This was the perfect, I mean, perfect reason to sit at a back corner of the church so I wouldn't disturb other worshipers when, inevitably, I would have to leave early.

Alas, it was impossible. The back rows were nearly full. Middle rows weren't. One back row was entirely full, another was mostly, with a few seats toward the middle.

I settled for an organ bench, in the corner.

So, faithful readers, may I exhort you in this 500th year of celebrating the Reformation, can we consider moving as far front and center as possible? It might be a more welcoming act than meets the eye.

democracy is hard work

I've had two difficult conversations since the election has passed with individuals who voted for Trump. Most recently it was with a friend who was bothered by those protesting Trump's victory. I actually shared more of his perspective than he might have realized. Certainly chatting with this friend was easier than the other conversation where my barber was shocked that I was such an elitist that I'd vote for Hillary.

Back to the more recent talk, though. Democracy is hard work. And for those who supported the losing side in an election, there is hard work to do when the election is done. Namely, it's important that those citizens . . .

follow the news (which doesn't mean commenting on every story: it's important to be conversant, not controversial)

support professional journalism (actually subscribing or otherwise paying for good news)

vote in every election, even odd-year primaries; every vote matters

keep humble in knowing that no party or faction owns a monopoly on truth

These are good things to do, too, if one is on the winning side.

By the way, if one keeps their eyes open right now, there's some very useful autopsy results from the election. The results of this election revealed some blind spots in the Democrats' strategy and tactics. They (and the Republicans) were guilty of missing some long-run big-picture trends that matter, and matter a lot. Perhaps the best one I saw today is this one from the New York Times. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


A week has passed, hasn't it?

I've been a junkie for news ever since I can remember. It's nice that my career compliments this interest: especially since joining the high school it's crucial that I stay ahead of pace with the news. So I get to marry fun and work. Though the election had a way of souring the news for me. It sapped my enjoyment of reading it and by the final week I was reading it out of routine and hope than pleasure.

It might take a while until I have that enjoyment for the news again.

Two particular insights from the news have struck me the most powerfully as I make sense of the most recent election.

First, from a news site I almost never consult: Glenn Beck's website. Okay, it's commentary, not news. But one writer there offered a particularly helpful angle on understanding the election:

Did the opponents of Mrs. Clinton overstate her potential triumph as something threatening their survival? It's possible. But I don't know if I'm in a position to judge on that point. However, the election was, very much, for me a moral one. And I think that helps explain why the hurt and disappointment are so profound. My vote for her was a stand against something that I didn't want to see our country to be.

Next, an analysis by the Economist offered this chilling perspective while analyzing Democrats' options for leadership as they move forward.

"Witch-burning atmosphere" is damning but accurate. And as the campaign reached its crescendo, it's the tone that I couldn't mistake regarding Mr. Trump's rallies. There are many of Mr. Trump's supporters who bristle at the allegations of sexism or racism (directed at President Obama) in his campaign. Those who point to it are often labeled as elitists. To many of us, though, the tone was unmistakable. And it was a tone that wasn't entirely new. To wit: one passionate opponent of the president has a sign like this along the highway near my parents:

And then I remember seeing this tasteless poster last summer near Ricketts Glen:

Tone matters. Dog whistles matter. The tone, words, and atmosphere of Mr. Trump's campaign made me look at this election as a moral stand.

I could be witty and call to mind the famous witch scene from Monty Python's film. I'd rather, though, draw a parallel between this election and a somewhat obscure western, the Ox Bow Incident. Will our country at some point reflect on the shame of what just took place the way characters in that film do when the hanging is done.

. . .

There's some good that will come from this election. The Democrats paid an awfully steep price for overlooking an aggrieved class. I can separate the tone of the campaign (which I cannot respect) as well as the implicit sexism and racism of some opponents to the Democrats from the legitimate grievances that motivated many more to pull the lever for Mr. Trump. Those grievances I respect, and out of respect for those economic grievances I'm sad that Mr. Trump's policy solutions are thin, hollow, and ultimately not the remedies for what ails them. As Americans, we can learn to better listen to the grievances of groups we overlook.

. . .

I think that's it for my commentary on this election. I'm fatigued. Ready to look to something more interesting. Ready to look for ways I can not overlook aggrieved classes in our country. Ready to be kind. And ready to read the commentaries that mean so much to me as we evaluate a new presidency that starts on January 20.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Words Matter

As we work ourselves through the rubble of a cataclysmic election which followed the most hostile campaign in modern memory, it's good to see our political leaders take a congenial, conciliatory tone. I also appreciate the sentiments of so many who cast votes for Mr. Trump in their attempts to reach out and urge that there be no hard feelings. I've personally encountered very little boasting, bragging, and insulting since the election concluded (though the news and second-hand accounts I trust tell me of some very unsettling nastiness . . . here's one from a local newspaper about racist and antisemitic ramblings at a suburban public school). 

I urge my fellow Americans to understand, though, the perspective of someone who will have a hard time moving past the rhetoric of this campaign. Though I fit the profile of a Democrat and Clinton supporter in some ways (middle or upper-middle class, college educated, employed in the public sector, member of a public sector union), and in at least one conversation recently was cast as elitist for having supported her, there are many ways in which I don't fit that mold. I entered this campaign as a registered Republican. I voted for Romney in 2012, for McCain in 2008. I had only one chance to vote against Bill Clinton and exercised it in 1996. I voted twice for George Bush. For much of my adult life I characterized myself as a conservative, but prefer the label moderate today. 

I also at first supported Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries. When he fell to the side, I looked to Marco Rubio next as the candidate I wanted. He had dropped out by the time the primaries came to Pennsylvania at which time I voted for John Kasich. And then in the general election I voted Hillary. You're reading the post of someone who is 0-4 in 2016. 

And that winless run was joyless, too. I saw Mr. Trump demean, mock really, Jeb for being "low energy." Marco? Marco wasn't man enough for Mr. Trump. Little Marco with his little hands was how that campaign ended. Kasich wasn't in the limelight long enough to be laid low by Trump's words the way the previous two were. But the mean-spiritedness hit its crescendo with Mrs. Clinton: "Lock Her Up," Crooked Hillary, "Nasty Woman" who was more dishonest and criminal than even Richard Nixon. The pattern by which he brought down this series of opponents, people I supported, was a pattern of bullying. And I draw that conclusion just from observing (not objectively, mind you) the treatment of these four opponents. 

So, words matter. In my first teaching assignment, the assistant principal often reminded us that words are a reflection of character. It was true for me early in my teaching career. It remains true for me now as a citizen, father, teacher, and friend. It's true for the politicians we look to lead (and for the politicians who look for our support). 

One of the most helpful articles I've read since the election pointed to a basic difference between those who voted for Trump vs. those who voted against. That writer said that those who cast a vote for Hillary were often casting a moral vote. Those who voted for Trump were casting a vote for survival. If such a simplification is accurate, I won't argue that one (morality or survival) is more correct than another. It depends on where one sits, I suppose. 

As a people, we will make a great mistake if words don't matter. It's important that citizens hold politicians accountable for the words and tone of their campaigns and administration. We acknowledge the bare-knuckle arena in which politics must often take place. But we must also look to those politicians to own their rhetoric, meaningfully reach out to groups that feel damaged by it, and reign in the most rabid supporters and surrogates. 

As an American I need to hope and pray that Donald Trump is a good president. I need to hope that he proves me wrong, that his promises, words, and tone from the campaign aren't as sinister or harmful as I think they are. And, at some point, I need to forgive him for the harm he caused, indirectly, to me. Forgiveness, to paraphrase a religious book I read some time ago, means I don't prevent him from doing good or being useful. Forgiveness, also, doesn't imply forgetting. It would be a mistake for us to forget as we forgive. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Ugh. What disappointment.

I went to bed around 11:15, seeing the election sliding away from Mrs. Clinton. Slept very, very fitfully. It almost wasn't sleep. Awoke to the surprise that Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania!) had gone red. Stunner.

At some point I'll be able to engage in sober, rational analysis about why Mrs. Clinton lost. The missed opportunities. The tactics that could've maybe delivered victory. This is not the time.

I'm less emotional than I was twenty-four hours ago, but still quite angry. It's more like a cool but persistent resentment and disgust. Though I applaud Mrs. Clinton for her conciliatory tone, I feel anger over the scars that Mr. Trump and his supporters are leaving. Therefore, I pose these questions for Mr. Trump and his supporters to ponder:

1) To what extent will the aggression and insensitivity exhibited in the campaign (i.e. "Trump that Bitch" and "Lock Her Up") be a part of the White House?

2) What steps will Mr. Trump make to rein in the racially and ethnically insensitive words and tone of his campaign and his followers now that he's president?

3) Will the administration continue to threaten the press with limiting their access Mr. Trump and his White House as they attempted to do in the campaign? Will the administration threaten to use civil and criminal legal action against opponents?

4) What steps will Mr. Trump take to be more sensitive to the needs and concerns of women?

Mr. Trump and his supporters waged a nasty, nasty campaign. They need to own that and fix that, or else this will be a short, disfunctional presidency. And we, as citizens, need to do all in our power to remain vigilant, calling them on the base, crude behaviors they normalized during their successful run to the White House.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

500 Jahre

Lutherans began celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this past week. I wonder if this will motivate me to write weekly in honor of this anniversary.

My Playmobil monk accompanied me to Church on Reformation Sunday. He also traveled with me to Council and will continue to do so this year. 
I feel compelled to acknowledge the awkwardness of the great blemish on Luther's legacy: the antisemitism to which he ascribed. Honestly, I don't know too much of what he wrote in the regard. I know he's responsible for saying some odious things. But I know little more than that.

Perhaps it's a fear of hypocrisy that makes me mention this right away. For instance, I feel very awkward quoting Henry Ford because I know of some of the vicious things he said in the 1920s demonstrating his own odious intolerance for Jews. Antisemitic dog whistles are among the many offenses I hold against Donald Trump.

When we wrestle with a monumental figure in history, we're often challenged to weigh the merits of their contributions against the baggage of their prejudices and intolerance. Did the figure make a contribution to culture that can be separated from the darker parts of their nature? Was the intolerance that person exhibited central to their nature, or was it peripheral? I struggle with these questions when I look at a lot of the greats of history (Churchill's cultural and imperial condescension, Lincoln's occasional racist blindspots, FDR's timidness on racial justice). Luther is another one of those that will pose a struggle for me.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

I guess I'm with her

I've been challenging myself to outline the reasons why I'm voting for Mrs. Clinton rather than against Mr. Trump. It took me a while. But here, with about a week remaining, are my reasons which I'll state without lapsing into criticism of the Republican nominee.

  • Her record while in office is that of a competent policymaker willing to reach across the aisle in the sake of compromise. I think we could use that kind of person in the White House. 
  • She'll likely draw on allies with involvement in, or one degree removed from, advisers in her husband's administration in the 1990s. The domestic legislative accomplishments of that administration, though by no means unblemished, promoted some meaningful reform in a partisan 1990s climate. I like the idea of a president surrounded by advisers who will make things happen. 
  • Her campaign platform, and record as a policymaker, suggest she'll put forward policies to benefit working-class Americans, children, and young families. Also, it suggests she'll promote modest measures at regulating firearms. These are policies I think are prudent. 
  • Her tax recommendations are budget neutral relative to the track on which we currently find ourselves. 
  • She's a good mother. Her daughter, Chelsea, is a credit to her parenting. Given how Chelsea came of age while her father was president, and in the midst of the scandals he brought upon the family and administration, this is no small feat. 

Enthusiastic? No. Convincing? Probably not. I'll sleep fine on November 8 having cast a vote for her. Moreover, I'm a little bit more at ease given that I have some solid (though arguable) reasons for supporting her rather than opposing him. I've spent enough time on this blog criticizing Mr. Trump. Probably too much. But I'd like to conclude this season looking more at the merits of her rather than the demerits of him.

Like a good neighbor, eh?

Another outstanding cover of The Economist. It's a sharp commentary on how Canada is serving as a bastion of Western values (you know, the good kind) in a time when the U.S. and Western Europe is struggling to live up to the ideals that have been some of the West's greatest contributions. 

In some ways, it makes sense for us to perhaps hand over the Statue of Liberty to our friends up North. Not permanently. Just for safe-keeping until our irrational moods subside. They're good neighbors. They'll take good care of her and give her back unscathed when we ask for it. 

In case you're interested in reading the article for yourself, here's the link. 

An Odyssey in an Odyssey

The newest addition to our kitchen is the 16-month calendar from the Pennsylvania State Parks and Forest Foundation. It's a much more adequate calendar for our kitchen than the free one we got from Gettysburg College which, for 2016, seemed to be trying too hard in its photographs. Now, though, as the weather gets colder and the family and work schedules less forgiving, I'm taunted by photographs of beautiful parks I want to visit.

Salt Springs is this month's temptation. 
The calendar got me to thinking, could I get to all sixteen parks during the time this calendar is hanging on our wall? A park a month might seem too ambitious. However, I could exclude from the list the parks I've already visited, so that would make this quest more doable.

That's Shades of Death Trail!
So, I got to thinking. What about a road trip that would take us through the parks on the calendar that we haven't yet visited. If we did that, here's what the trip would look like:

This 700-mile trip has been arranged for efficiency. It doesn't include the trip home, which would tack on a mere 268 miles to this odyssey.
Setting up and taking down campsites at nine state parks seems like a poor use of our time. Obviously, we'd have to simply stop and see some of the parks. Neshaminy, for instance, might be worthy of a quick hello rather than an overnight stay. Bald Eagle, too, might just get the drive-by as we make our way from Raymond B. Winter to Cook Forest. The tough call would be whether to stay the night at Cook Forest or Moraine.

To further minimize the time and effort consumed by setting up and taking down, we'll obviously require a camper. However, I don't want to get something that would tax my minivan as we traverse the Commonwealth's countryside. Good thing that I know of a place that sells Cricket trailers nearby.

This daydream is becoming expensive.

And I interrupted this blog to look more at the TaxaOutdoors website and I'm seeing other ways to spend money there.

Our family took what has proven to be our favorite vacation last year to England. But trips to England are expensive and we had resolved to be more frugal with our vacationing in 2017. It would appear as if a relatively inexpensive wall calendar is tempting me to backtrack on that resolution.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


A few years ago the saga of then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane made me quite indignant. It's come to an end. She's been sentenced. She'll go to jail. Here's how the Philadelphia news reported on it. Somehow, I don't find myself at all satisfied.

I really wish the state legislature had impeached and removed her rather than see her convicted and sent to jail. Was the jail sentence warranted? Probably. But President Ford was right forty-some years ago when he issued a pardon, basically leaving Richard Nixon's punishment for a political crime political banishment.

Kane's saga marks something of a beginning of an angry phase in my political life. I remember feeling quite red over her shenanigans. Why was my tax money paying for this bully's salary? Why was this person the chief law enforcement officer of my state? Her conduct disgusted me.

As my interest in that story bated, the presidential campaign heated up. And in that I found a new figure seemingly worthy of my scorn. Now I ponder about what impact Mr. Trump's likely defeat will have on me. Will I feel vindicated? Probably not. I'll probably feel empty and frustrated over the wasted time, energy, and passion. Feeling right isn't the same as feeling good.


Today's news brought word that health coverage premiums are rising by 25% (or is it 22%) in the Obamacare exchanges. Here's how NPR's marketplace covered it. It's a shame it's broken.

There was a 20-minute window of time last week when I had to operate under the assumption that Sam's broken pinkie wasn't covered by my health plan. It was pretty obvious that there was some sort of paperwork error. And I knew that even if I did have to pay up front for the surgery with a check eventually it would get worked out. It's reassuring, and I know how privileged I am to have such assurances. I'm fortunate enough that I could've have written the check had it been necessary. But for about 20 minutes, I got a glimpse from the other side of this system.

The bill for my son to be seen by a specialist and then operated on by that specialist the next day would have been $1,300.

I don't know what the cost of our trip to the Inova Hopital ER in Alexandria would have been.

Let's get back to the $1,300. That's to properly set a slightly angulated fracture of the left pinkie belonging to a healthy 10-year-old.

I understand the cost, and I appreciate the quality of care my son is receiving.

The experience made me mindful of how impossibly uneven the system can be. For how many families is an awkward fall on one's pinkie a crippling financial setback?

So, back to Obamacare. I was against the legislation when it was passed. Now, I'd like it to just work. And I remain optimistic that after these elections a pragmatic president and a Speaker of the House who prizes little steps in the right direction might just look at that piece of legislation (certainly one with flaws) and fix it so it works. I'd really like to see it work so well that nearly every parent can proceed with assurance when their son, or daughter, or wife, or parent breaks a pinkie. Or worse.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The BINGO Card and Other Amusements

My BINGO card gave me some amusement last night as I watched the debate. I was surprised that it took 20 minutes for me to check off even one box. But then the candidates swerved away from a substantive policy debate into the acrimony that's characterized this debate. *Sigh. At least I felt like a winner when "Mike Pence" was uttered, allowing me to claim a diagonal win.

Though I profess to not engage in politics on Facebook I do violate that pledge once in a while. In the spring I announced my change of party affiliation by posting a picture of my new voter ID card. Last night, I posted this BINGO card, which I thought to be irreverent and politically ambivalent though it probably reflected my leanings anyway. Heck, that I made it in a sense of irreverence says something about me politically. Perhaps it says I don't take the election seriously. Perhaps it says that I'm more comfortable than I was three weeks ago that the candidate I support this year looks likely to win. I thought it harmless, but at least one person found it harmful.

Perhaps deep down inside I knew it was not as benign as I pretended it to be when posting.

So to revisit the trappings of the political posts on Facebook. It's something that's unwise for me to do because . . .

  • the format of the medium encourages people to get in the ever-elusive last word (there rarely is a last word)
  • tone, especially sarcasm, is hard to convey in words and it's increasingly likely online 
  • wit is rewarded more than wisdom
  • I like and love a lot of people who will disagree with me on many, many political issues 
And if those people whom I like wander to me on Facebook, expecting to see photos of my kids, my house, myself, my cross-eyed cat, but instead get met with political commentary that is more biting, condescending, or irreverent than they intended to find, then the blame is on me. So I should keep my politics over here, where it's expected. 

But I'll probably err again. 

Witty, eh? 

Sunday, October 9, 2016


In 20 minutes Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will square off in their second debate. I refuse to watch a minute of it. I take this stand despite my curiosity at how Hillary holds up to a blistering attack, my hope that she does so well, and despite the fact that my students will likely watch this debate and want to discuss it tomorrow.

In the last 48 hours or so I've seen and heard everything I need to see and hear to know that I will not cast a vote for Donald Trump under any circumstances. He's a lout. A bully. A beast. A fool. A knave. A bigot.

He has no regard for anyone else. None.

So, why would I every want to waste a minute watching this debate. He'll attack Hillary like a caged animal. He'll be rabid. Though she'll survive it, it will do damage to her presidency.

She will be the next president. There's nothing he can do to alter that course. All he can do is cause damage to her, the office she's about to earn, the party he is leaving in tatters. Watching the debate tonight only serves to enhance his ego and give more oxygen to a fire he will set.

The Republican Party was mine for a long time. I admired its principles and its people. The party that was the party of decent, assertive, and positive leaders such as Reagan, Ford, and Bush has now given us this wreck of a human being.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Maybe there was some thoughtfulness

In a debate considered nasty by many of its viewers, there was a moment of great thoughtfulness. Secretary Clinton said the following:

I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other, and therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions like, ‘Why am I feeling this way?'

That was a refreshing bit of clarity and honesty from a politician, and I hope it doesn't fall on deaf ears. Sadly, this is an election where many voters are having a hard time seeing nuance on very nebulous dilemmas. In a binary (I'm trying not to say black-and-white) political climate, it's more likely that Clinton will be excoriated for calling some group a racist or not siding with police than praised (or at least acknowledged) for raising a broader American dilemma.

We all hold prejudices and assumptions that are harmful.

We all have the ability to overcome those prejudices and assumptions to some extent.

Doing that is hard.

Doing that is a mark of character.

Acknowledging and feeling humility over those moments when we fail to do so shows character.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Potted Plant

Lester Holt, when asked about how he approached his role as a moderator in last night's debate, said that he didn't want to be merely a potted plant. He wasn't. In fact, many of Mr. Trump's supporters are wringing their hands today over his allegedly unfair treatment of the Republican nominee. Pardon me if I don't shed any tears.

What am I supposed to be in school, when working with high school Social Studies students. Certainly not a potted plant. One can be assertive and objective and professional at the same time. I do share with my students where I stand politically, and I take pride in how I can do so dispassionately and objectively. This requires me to temper what I say, but also to adhere to what I perceive to be true. Fortunately, my training as a historian, a discipline that calls on us to remember humility as we assert historical truth, helps me out a lot. But if I don't engage and share with my students, how else can one model civil political discourse.

However, here I don't need to hold back.

Donald Trump is a bully. It's as clear as that. Last night's debate simply confirmed and deepened that conclusion I've drawn about his character. He picks on those who cannot easily defend themselves. He casts insults and insinuations, then cowardly won't accept responsibility for what he said. It's meanness masked as bravado. If I were to vote for him, I'd be voting against all the values I was taught by my parents, my teachers, the parents of my friends, and my role models at church as I grew up.

There, that's what I couldn't say at school.

Okay, now back to being objective. But potted plant? No.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Water's Edge

So, there was this bombshell today.

Hard to believe. Here's the story as reported in the New York Times.

As I gasped at lunch today, my ten-year-old son inquired about what had me upset. Here's how I explained it to him.

Me: Trump wants the Russians to hack and reveal e-mails by Hillary. 

Sam: Why would the Russians want to do that? 

Me: So they could make money from the American newspapers. 

I'm stunned that I had to explain that kind of behavior coming from a presidential candidate.

Politics and partisanship stops at the water's edge. No political opponent is so frightening that reaching out to rivals to tamper with our nation's security and sovereignty can be justified. Mr. Trump acted shamefully today.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Marginal Analysis and Diminishing Returns

I'm getting closer to understanding the appeal of Mr. Trump (as well as the result of the UK's EU referendum and a host of other first-world political maladies) and here's my attempt at explaining the problem through which we're living. I'm not a political scientist. I'm a historian who is now teaching macroeconomics. These facts mean that my political analysis is shaded toward looking at a long-run perspective that emphasizes opportunity costs.

Propelling Trump's rise is a sense that things aren't good in America right now. Among the reasons why things allegedly aren't good are foreign trade trends, illegal immigration, and free-loading allies who are bleeding us of our wealth.

Looking at surface statistics allows partisans to find evidence to justify their point of view. Unemployment is lower than it's been since 2008, but the labor force participation rate is low, too. And unemployment is affecting some regions more than others. The stock market is doing well, but interest rates and inflation remain low. Our economy is growing (and doing so more robustly than most of the other rich nations), but it's growing below the historical trend. China's economy is slowing down, but not so much so to avert the reality that their GDP will eclipse ours before too long.

In other words, things aren't that bad right now. You could even argue that they're good. But they're not as good as they were 20, 30, or 60 years ago. And therein lies the political problem. Sixty years ago our economy was buoyed by a recently won world war, a war that depressed many of our exhausted economic rivals, gave us unparalleled opportunity to profit by rebuilding war-torn Europe, and an epochal demographic boom. Thirty years ago, those baby boomers were entering their prime earning years. Twenty years ago, our economy benefited from a perfect storm of the Iron Curtain's fall, liberalization of trade agreements, and the cresting of the baby boomers' earning years.

Our temptation now, as a democracy, is to not overreact to a present-day in which things are better than they seem, even though they're not as good as they were in our recent memory. In others words, we need patience and perspective. We're not getting that this week. Here's hoping we get it next week.


I've never been good at finding titles for my writing. Today I'm trying to be clever. Hastings Ismay was the first Secretary-General of NATO and he's often given credit for being the first to quip that NATO's purpose was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

Now for the dismay: An article from the New York Times summarizing Mr. Trump's attitudes regarding America's alliance commitments.

Here's my summary: He'll treat our alliance partners the way he would a piece of real estate.

The article I reference above isn't the lame-stream media or the New York Slimes maligning a candidate or misconstruing his words. It's an interview he provided to this major news source. This is what he means to do as commander-in-chief. And to me, it's utter, sheer madness. Collective security, found in agreements like NATO, have been the underpinning of global security now for more than half of a century. Trump's first resort (pun intended) is a sane policy-maker's last resort: treating a nuclear-brimmed U.S. as a platform from which we launch a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Though NATO was created during the Truman administration, the embrace of collective security was an enormous part of Dwight Eisenhower's foreign policy. It's also true that Ike leaned heavily on the nuclear deterrent to combat Soviet aggression, but in some ways he came to regret that by the end of his presidency. I know it's fashionable to bash the foreign policy legacy of President Obama and Secretary Clinton (and I'm certainly not a champion of how our President has conducted foreign policy in his eight years) but I can't help but see extraordinary value in adhering to the perspective of a man like Eisenhower who had much greater perspective and understanding on foreign policy than Mr. Trump.

The logic of trying to keep the Russians out, Americans in, and the Germans down still has some credence in the 21st century. In fact, keeping the Russians out of Europe remains a compelling national interest for us. (Perhaps I've been watching too much of Occupied on Netflix . . . No, wait, this is really important.)

Interestingly, Trump (if elected) will prove to be the third U.S. president to underestimate President Putin. After all, George W. Bush misread Putin's eyes. Obama delivered the famous putdown to Governor Romney back in 2012 that the 1980s was calling to get its foreign policy back. Mr. Trump, it would seem, looks at Putin as just some rival real estate mogul. Mrs. Clinton doesn't escape blame here: she's infamous for the "reset" with Russia that didn't reset much at all. But . . .

Now she has a chance to learn from her miscalculation, something I'm sure Bush and Obama both had. I'm getting closer to seeing the positives of a Hillary Clinton presidency rather than just the negatives of a Trump administration.

One final observation . . . Oh, wait, that'll take a little bit too long. I'll return to this later.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

So, what if we lose?

I left the Republican Party due to the imminent nomination of a man who troubles me deeply. I cannot abide by the arrogancy, bigotry, and emptiness Donald Trump represents. The New York Times just today reports that Secretary Clinton has a 75% chance of winning the election.

Too close for my comfort
As far as I'm concerned, the results this fall are a coin flip. This is an election for the Democrats to survive rather than win.

Is the Times being too optimistic saying Clinton's chances are 75%? I think so. So, too, is the analysis of The Economist which has an excellent article about how American political parties are often defined in defeat. In other words, Trump will probably lose the battle known as the 2016 election, but what he represents will live on to fight another day.

So, what if Trump wins? What the Democrats do this fall, in attempting to defeat him, matters a lot after November 2016, win or lose. I couldn't watch any of the coverage of last night's convention. But I read enough about it in the news to know last night was marked by anger and derision, attempting to bring Republicans together in what they hated. It's ugly.

The Democrats cannot stoop to that when they meet in Philadelphia. Tactically, they can't out-nasty the Trump campaign. Strategically, it will bankrupt a party that needs to brace itself to be the loyal, patriotic opposition in the event there is a Trump presidency. President Franklin Roosevelt gets credit for making the Democratic Party a big tent, in which there's a lot of room for a lot people. We must preserve that for the long haul.

worlds end

So while I was adventuring through the uplands of PA I was out of regular electronic contact with the rest of my world. As I traveled back and forth from a stunning vista (High Knob) in Loyalsock State Forest, I did intermittently pop into cellular range and in that brief moment, I found out that something like a coup d'etat occurred in Turkey. It took me more than 36 hours until I was able to read the news story of the suppressed coup attempt.

An ominous headline from The Economist website
Much seems to be falling apart. A coup attempt in a NATO ally shocks me enough. That the government is pointing fingers at the U.S. is all the more ominous. At roughly the same time, there's (another) bloody attack in another NATO ally, with the president of that nation pledging to ramp up raids on ISIS, which seems to be losing its caliphate but mutating into something more dangerous and unpredictable. Oh, and while we're at it, we have a presidential candidate questioning the cost of upholding the NATO alliance as well as the cost of maintaining security in East Asia. Let's not forget that in the midst of this we see the Peoples Republic building islands, challenging principles of sovereignty, and thumbing their nose at international tribunals that seek to check their ambitions.

In other summers I've turned off the news for a week to give myself a break. This summer I chose not to, and I don't see myself doing so before returning to work this fall. But my trip to Worlds End allowed me a chance to escape the news of a world where a lot of things seem to be ending.

Worlds End

I spent many, many days in Central Pennsylvania growing up. A several-day-long trip, without parents, to my grandparents was something of a tradition. When I got to be a little older than my son is now, my brother, cousin, and I wandered around the mountains near Gram and Pap's home. They lived in the eastern end of Nittany Valley.

Google Map image of Nittany Valley's East end.
This was the Central PA that I knew. It was hard for me to imagine any other area of Central PA that was as splendid as that little area. And it still saddens me that the days of looking out at that valley from the picture window in Gram and Pap's home are more than two decades behind me.

Again, I almost scoffed at other areas of Central PA. How could they possibly be as lovely. But as I've traveled in the state, I've become familiar with some of those other valleys. This weekend, I made it to World's End State Park, where the Loyalsock Creek cuts through a region known as the endless mountains, creating a valley that is stunning in its ruggedness and beauty.

Sunset at High Knob Vista

Double Run Creek

Double Run Creek

A waterfall along Double Run Creek

Rock formations along the crest near Loyalsock Vista

Man's attempt to tame nature: a marked portion of the Canyon Vista Trail

High Knob Overlook at not-quite sunset
So, maybe there are areas of Central PA more lovely than Nittany Valley.

When I think of my fondness for East End Nittany Valley, a fondness that borders on parochialism, and then contrast it with what I saw in Sullivan County this weekend, I cannot help but recall the words from the hymn "This is My Song." In particular, I think of the passage copied below.

I'm nearing the end of a month where I've been exploring the state with my family. We've so far been to Elizabethtown, Pittsburgh, Fallingwater, Mt. Davis, and Worlds End. Tomorrow, Philadelphia. This weekend might see us visiting Altoona. It's been a set of adventures that make the summer worthwhile.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Vocational Calling

The article linked here from the Washington Post speaks to me the most powerfully in the wake of tragic stories last week detailing horrible incidents between police and citizens.

I admire and identify with the way in which Lee Sjolander approaches his work. It's not a job to him, it's a calling. I don't know if there is much that's different between Lee the chief and Lee the husband, dad, citizen, or church goer. He understands the multiple layers of responsibility that go with the power inherent in his job. There is both pride and humility in the approach that he takes.

I hope it's what people see in me as a teacher. Like Lee, I try my best to reject an "us vs. them" mentality as I work with students, children really. I reject absolutes, knowing that what should work may work a majority of the time, but will not work with every child in every situation. I strive to master the subtle contours of the relationship between a teacher and his class. It's a job in which firmness must coexist with courtesy and dignity and in which a lot of correction can happen through humor or generosity.

And I was gratified (and proud) to read at the end of the article that Lee is a Lutheran. I figured it might be the case, given that he was a chief of a small town in Minnesota, and that inkling intensified as I read further about his philosophy toward his work. A friend of mine who is a pastor speaks of our vocational calling in life, and I feel like I was called to teaching rather than it being a job that I chose. And that calling powerfully shapes my work ethic, my relations with students, and my friendships with colleagues. The article helped reassure me that I'm not making that up.

I hope his message reassures others, either to rediscover the purpose to their work (or the work of a loved one) or to be reassured that the police who find themselves at the epicenter of a fissured moment in America are engaged in work meant to uplift and protect.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Unifying Themes

Clarifying for my students what distinguishes the two political parties from one another but what also serves as a unifying theme for each has been a challenge. Many of my students know that at one point in time conservative points of view were affiliated with Democrats and more liberal with Republicans, which is at odds to what one often sees today.

In the past few years, I've tried to share with them what I think is the core political value of each party. Democrats tend to believe government should reflect the will of the majority. Republicans tend to believe government should protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Neither of these standpoints are necessarily objectionable, though I do think the one I offer for the Republicans is more abstract than what most high school students want to hear. But, conveniently, it is a common thread that goes back to the Whigs and Federalists, forerunners of the Republicans.

Recently I was listening to the most recent installment of the very good podcast series on the presidents offered by the Washington Post. In that episode on William McKinley, Karl Rove was interviewed at length. He discussed how the 1896 election offered a clear mandate on a very old debate in American politics, about whether wealth is best created at the top (to then trickle down) or at the bottom, where it can rise up. That might be the enduring economic difference between the two parties.

Now if I could only find a coherent foreign policy thread for either party. Seems doubtful.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Unorthodox Unindependent

The problem with being someone who isn't necessarily partisan but who lives in a state that has closed primaries is that one has to either be an independent without a voice or affiliated asynchronously with a party and its policy positions. I was an unorthodox Republican, and as such held the following views while with that party (and still, by and large, hold them today):

  • Education funding should be more robust.
  • There's nothing inherently evil about public-sector unions. 
  • We should be welcoming to immigrants. 
  • I'm very ambivalent on capital punishment*
  • I believe it's unconstitutional to prevent same-sex couples from marrying* 
  • We may just benefit by nationalizing medical care*

Now that I'm a Democrat, though, I may as well confess to my heresies as part of this new party.

  • I don't think President Bush made the wrong decision invading Iraq in 2003
  • We should be meaningfully reforming Social Security and Medicare, in particular adopting the CPI-U-C to determine COLA adjustments 
  • Sugary drink taxes are for the birds 
  • The Supreme Court was right in its Citizens United decision 
  • The ACA unnecessarily over-reaches on social issues, in particular its policies regarding birth control prescriptions 
  • I question the propriety of funding Planned Parenthood with taxpayer dollars  

At some point I'll get kicked out of this party, too. But in the meanwhile, maybe I can stir up some moderate change. Oh boy, doesn't that sound exciting.

*Relatively recent policy changes

Monday, June 13, 2016

Retreating into Summer

Another school year ends. This one ends on a quiet, humble note. I struggled to balance elements of my work this spring. And though I'm proud of how I made myself more available as a father and supportive colleague, I've done a poorer job at managing the behind-the-scenes elements of teaching. I feel like I've had a hard time, also, managing the balance between preparing my students for big assessments vs. convincing them of the "so what" merits of the discipline I teach. I also struggled, more than I wish, with balancing the need to be approachable vs. being an authority figure. 

Simultaneously, I've seen my political feelings and affiliations change a lot over the last year. 

So though much has happened in my life that makes me happy (family, friends, faith, in short) I find that I've had fewer days where the impulse to write was there. Perhaps the summer will see the return of that impulse. Surely it will on my other blog, where I muse about my time as a dad in the summers. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016


I switched my voter registration Wednesday after a day of reflection. As soon as the Montgomery County Board of Elections receives the information I'll be a Democrat after 22 years of being registered Republican.

Blue for my new party's color. Blue for my mood (I'm sad about it). Blue for the color of the Dallas Cowboys, whose jersey I feel like I just donned. I guess it isn't that bad. I guess.

My switch came after a day of reflection about what Mr. Trump's victory in Indiana had meant. I had resolved that if he were made the nominee at the convention, I'd switch. I decided to beat the rush and switch now.

Back to the blue feeling. I'm dismayed because I grew up associating good things with the Republicans. My first presidents that I remember were Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, an optimist followed by a decent man and statesman. The presumptive nominee is neither, and the mood propelling his nomination is neither optimistic or decent. Truth be told, though, I couldn't vote for Senator Cruz, either, and I've become increasingly out of step with the party's ideas, most intensely at the state and local level.

So I need to assign blame to those responsible for soiling the party for which I rooted and supported for more than two decades. In order of culpability:

1) Congressional Republicans who mistook blind obstructionism for responsible governance.

2) Mr. Trump, for selfishly employing rhetoric that appeals to the American population's more base instincts.

3) President Obama for missing opportunities to meet his opposition half way and thus neutralize the impulses behind reason #1.

4) Voters like me for not looking at the long-run picture from 2009 to the present in our electoral decisions.

So, go blue. It's weird to think I'll be supporting the Clinton candidacy given how much I resented the tone and legislation of her husband's administration in the 1990s. Life changes. Elections have consequences. I'll sleep much more easily with the consequences of a Democratic victory this November.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Elections have consequences

Here's a shocking headline from a nearby community:

New Hope-Solebury is one of the most affluent areas in the whole state of Pennsylvania. It has one of the highest median incomes, one of the highest rates of educational attainment, one of the highest average home values. That their board has to consider charging students a fee to merely attend school should shame the voters those board members represent. The money exists in this district to fund what the students need. The community has simply chosen not to do so.

This Difficult Election

I'll likely be changing my registration after the April primary election in Pennsylvania. I have been a Republican since first registering to vote in 1994. After I get the chance to cast my ballot for the primary, I'll likely have to leave the party, and become one of the somewhat rare Americans who switch their party affiliation. I'll become a Democrat. Somewhere, the 1993 arch-conservative version of Chris Johnson is shuddering.

What's prompting this change? The likely nomination of businessman Donald Trump. He doesn't possess the temperament, ethics, or grounding in public sector to be deserving of the presidency. And, if he is the nominee of the Republican Party, then the party's values are too incongruous with my own.

This is hard to do. Few Americans stray to the other party from where they were brought up. I was brought up in a Republican household. And I'm proud of that background. I'm proud to have been a member of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Reagan. But now I must cross to the other tribe. In part this is necessary because of Pennsylvania's closed primary system: I take the democratic process too seriously to forfeit my chance to choose nominees, which I'd be doing if I were independent. More importantly, I must do this to make my protest of Mr. Trump as nominee more complete. If he's the party's nominee for the President of the United States, then I cannot be a member of the party. It's as simple as that.

Both of our political parties have their flaws. Democrats tend to underestimate the true costs of their desired policies. They also tend to overestimate the benefits of their desired policies. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to exaggerate the threat posed by liberal ideas and are a bit too quick to dismiss the benefits that come from government involvement in the economy. Regardless of the party I join, these flaws remain.

The Republican party has been making me feel more unwelcome, though, in the past few years. I don't share the fear many in the party have of illegal immigration. I'm a member of a public sector union, which many in the party see as a great threat to the nation's economic and political fabric. I'm a public school teacher and a fan of school funding, which it seems the Republicans (and many Democrats, too) seem to be against. Further, the party seems to have moved on from the assertive foreign policy ideology of the Reagan era and seems to be embracing something more akin to isolationism, which bothers me greatly.

Truthfully, there's a lot to dislike about both parties and their candidates for president. No candidate is speaking seriously about entitlement reform. Any discussion of the national debt has disappeared. There's little talk of how we could use tax dollars to fund schools or build infrastructure, endeavors which can enhance long run economic growth. No candidate is putting forth a very optimistic or ambitious set of ideas about what America can do to better the world.

And I'm no big fan of our current president. Though he's a decent man, I'm dismayed at the scolding tone he too often takes on social and economic issues. I'm disheartened at the passive and pessimistic approach he takes to foreign policy. His reliance on drones to assert U.S. power abroad concerns me. That being said, he's a decent man.

Mr. Trump is not. And I can't put much trust in Senator Cruz whose zealousness in pursuing Constitutional values (not in and of itself a bad thing) has seen him engage in some destructive parliamentary tactics as a Senator. I'm left with Governor Kasich who, as a moderate, doesn't stand much of a chance.

Moderates like me don't have much of a choice.

Pennsylvania's primary election is in late April. I look forward to voting in it, and casting a vote against a man I think wholly unsuited to be President of this great nation. But once that vote is cast, and once the nomination is settled in his favor, it's time for me to go. The party of Lincoln might be high-jacked (hopefully for just one election cycle) by someone with the temperament of George Wallace, and that'll make me retreat to a party that offers me a less horrifying idea of what it means to be an American.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Taking Flight

My children came home from school on a Friday following a long week in a long string of weeks uninterrupted by weather or vacation. Normally, this is the time of year a parent is hoping their kid will limp over the informal finish line that separates winter from spring, when attitudes and effort usually regroup for the end stretch to summer. I remember having to help Sam navigate frustrating passages at the end of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. But this year it's quiet.

Except for the sound of two happy kids. They're finding their niches, and it's neat to see.

Caroline thrives at school.

Sam is starting to find some real gifts in the way of writing.

And Sam's happiest moment of the school day? Getting to practice in an ensemble for the first time that featured strings, winds, and percussion. He was thrilled at the chance to play with a whole symphony ensemble.

I'm truly living the Goldilocks phase of parenting.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

I'm baaaack . . .

*I wrote this nearly three months ago. May as well post it. I'm still bent out of shape over these developments.

And why not get this blog re-invigorated with a blatantly political post!

The only good news to come from the Harrisburg budget stalemate (or impasse) is that now newspapers are using words like that to describe the inability of the legislature to pass a budget. About a week ago, I was instead reading about the budget crisis. Crisis? What crisis? The lights are still on. Police are still patrolling. State offices are still open. And surprisingly, this is all done without a budget. Please pardon me, I'm still trying to figure out how that works.

Has Pennsylvania gone the way of the federal government, with manufactured "crises" seeming to hold up the business of government while government continues to function? There seems to be something very unserious about the manner in which our Harrisburg politicians are going about their job.

I am, though, disturbed at this stalemate in which politicians cannot seem to compromise and commit on a spending plan that intentionally lays out our priorities for using the resources of this state. The sticking point, apparently is funding schools. The governor wants to send more money to schools. Legislators might, too. But only after they exact their pound of flesh from the bogeyman du jour, public-sector unions (full disclosure: I'm a member of such a union) by reducing pension benefits. Oh, I forgot, that's another crisis. Or maybe not. I've lost track of crises.

I don't see a crisis when it comes to schools and pensions, but instead a slow-motion failure in process. There is great reluctance to fund schools. Sure, the state will likely increase funding, but only with caveats about reducing pensions and making it harder for local school boards to raise taxes to pay for programs. In other words, it's not about putting more money to work for schools, instead to shift the burden from local to state sourcing. But in so doing, the state wants to limit what it'll be contributing by limiting pensions. Oh, and don't you dare think about taxing natural gas. And, from a national standpoint: keep our hands off of Medicare and Social Security.

And all the while, what schools are expected to do continues to increase.

Meanwhile, we have an Attorney General whose law license has been suspended, who selectively releases damning evidence to defame political foes, and who applies double standards to benefit her family while persecuting her opponents. The Assembly can't decide whether or not to remove her from office.

Whew . . . glad to get that off my chest. Now, let's get to writing on more fun stuff.


I've been very inactive in this space, haven't I. Cat got my tongue? Not exactly. But there are reasons why I'm quieter these days.

Politics, or should I say the state of politics, is one big reason. If I were to go back through my posts over the years, I'm sure I'd find political statements of which I'm relatively unsure now. The election campaign of 2016, or at least what has transpired in it so far, has been so thoroughly dispiriting, I don't know of much in politics of which I am sure any more. Self doubt may be a weakness for a politician, but for a voter it may be healthy. At some point in the future I'll vent my frustrations regarding this campaign season. But for now it's left me with little I feel like saying.

Teaching economics as opposed to history has also quieted me down. Economics is called the dismal science for a reason, and it doesn't stir my passion in the way history does. Aside from the cool logic of the discipline, and for the frequency at which "it depends" is the answer to an important question, I also find it humbling that I don't get my chances to teach writing like I used to in history. It feels as if I have less to offer my students, and that's humbling.

Teaching itself hasn't given me as much to write about, either. I'm working with a group of kids that I've seen now over two years. Every group offers its own challenges. This group (a likeable one) has fatigued me, though, and has often made me wonder if I'm getting stale in my ability to motivate. That might be overstating the matter. Still, this campaign has had the feeling of a slump, and the feeling that one is not at their best is enough to quiet one down.

I'll be back.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Indictment against Well-Roundedness

It's going to be a fun semester, in large part because a student has appeared on my roster who was with me before. This young man tends to be a good questioner, usually seeking to clarify learning. Sometimes it's a check on information. Other times it's more philosophical.

And that's what he did Friday.

I'm working my way through an introductory lesson on economic thinking, a lesson that involves talking about how economists prize specialization over generalization. The basic idea is that we are richer, and society is richer, if we specialize in something that suits our talents rather than try to be jacks-of-all-trades. Makes sense, right.

Then came the question: So is being well-rounded not all it's cracked up to be.

Great question, especially given the student's status as a 12th grader (in the throes of the college admission process and sitting at the end of a public school odyssey in which we praise students who are well-rounded).

My initial answer to him was honest, but could have gone deeper. I told him that a) I'm not an economist, that b) this sort of topic is what prevents me from loving economics, and c) what is economically true doesn't necessarily reflect what I admire in others or try to instill in my students or children.

I wish I had given the answer a bit more thought, because it seemed like I was preaching a discipline much at odds with what the student and his peers had been learning over the years. Here's what I wish I had thought to say.

At some point, in life, it's necessary for us to specialize. This time comes as we approach the point in our life where our efforts translate into something with a market value. In my early 20s, I entered that phase when I became a specialist in teaching Social Studies to adolescents. As I've advanced in my career, I've become more and more a specialist rather than a generalist. At different points we all become specialists as our particular skills and opportunities create value. That time comes early for some, say, the Division-I college athlete on scholarship, and later for others, like those who take a longer pathway toward graduation.

But until that point in time when one must specialize, the well-roundedness pays off. I'm the product of a liberal arts education who believes strongly in that approach. The well-rounded, and general, education one gets and the well-rounded experience one gets by dabbling in the teen years allows you to find that pathway that's likeliest to lead to the specialization that brings value.

So, I guess, we're not perpetuating a fraud as teachers and parents.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Facts and Stories

A couple of weeks ago I had penned a post that I never published. It was an irritable post, reflecting an irritable frame of mind about stalemated, shortsighted politics in Pennsylvania. Though I don't disagree with the sentiments I expressed in it, I'm glad it remained in draft form. After nearly two weeks away from work and with family, I find myself much less irritable and more thoughtful. I'd rather resume this post in that frame of mind.

My friend delivered a sermon this morning that was quite interesting. In commenting on the story from Matthew about the visit of the Magi, he contrasted the power facts about a person have compared to a story about that person. Though I mulled on the spiritual implications of what Dane had to say (seriously, I did mull on that for quite a bit) I got to thinking historically. A few figures in particular came to mind.

Five things that are true about Abraham Lincoln: he was from Illinois, he only held elected office once time before becoming President, he was a father of four (and outlived two of those sons), he was closer to his stepmother than his father, and he was a Republican. A story Americans often like to tell of him is apocryphal, that he sketched out the Gettysburg Address on the train ride to Gettysburg that November (the speech was actually in creation for several months), which I guess is a statement to our perception that he was so wise. But a story my professor in college told, of how the president compelled the resignations of two sparring members of his cabinet and then slipped them both into his desk for future use (remarking "I have a pumpkin in each sack. Now I can ride.") is the story that I keep in mind about Lincoln. It reminds me of a leader I admire who had such a seemingly impossible task of wrestling with warring factions, in his administration, the government, the nation, and how he so deftly reconciled those conflicts.

I could go on with other figures in history who speak to me: Washington, Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, I can't think of good stories to go with Franklin Roosevelt, though there are so many facts one could recite about him and his presidency.

On one sad note, Dane's sermon got me to thinking of how I don't get to spin so many stories teaching Economics now. Perhaps the students can spin some stories about me. Wait, they do. And so do those kids that live under my roof.

Dane's intention probably wasn't to inform my professional practice as I return to work tomorrow. However, his message reminds me that in a school and public school environment driven by content standards and testing, we are also the meeting places of hundreds of interesting people, each with interesting stories and who, in our interactions on a daily basis, create more interesting stories each day. I hope I remember to look for ways I can let those stories breathe in the new year.