Saturday, October 14, 2017

They don't always tell you when it's time

Ernie tries to get comfortable in the one area of the house he could never get permission to use: atop Caroline's bed. 

It's been said that pets tell you when it's time for them to die. I don't know if that was true of Ernie's passing. We decided to euthanize him yesterday. His heart and lungs were giving out, though that wasn't obvious to us. Something didn't seem right, though, and that sense prompted a visit to the vet that brought far sadder news than we were expecting.

Up until his final day with us he still sought affection from us. Rather than hiding he would look for chance after chance to get some petting from us. In hindsight, I think the affection from us was his ony way to escape the discomfort he was experiencing with every breath. He didn't seem to be able to sleep well or even for very long. His appetite was starting to abate. There was obviousness weakness in his steps. So he sought us out for comfort.

Affectionate. That's the quality he had his whole life. We adopted him in large part because of the warm purr he gave when Sherry first petted him through the cage. Ironically, it took a half a year or so for him to warm up to us once we got him home. But he grew out of the skittishness to become the most affectionate pet I've known. It's funny to think that he was described as somewhat feral when we adopted him in 2012. Looking back, it would seem he was just really scared. I'm glad he came to no longer fear us.

It took more courage to be merciful to him than I expected, and I appreciate what Sherry did this last week in caring for him and arranging for his peaceful death.

Sam has dealt with his death better than I expected, and for that I'm very grateful. He shared with me, though, that he, too, dreaded waking up this morning, the first morning in a decade we wouldn't hear Ernie calling for us or see him awaiting our arrival to the day. His death hit Sherry and I with greater force than I expected. And there's an emptiness to the house today that aches.

When one welcomes a pet into a household, one knows that a day like yesterday will come. We'll welcome another one, I'm sure. I'm conscious, though, that the pet that died yesterday might be the pet I'll always remember as the one I loved the most, and who loved us the most.  

He didn't really like being picked up. But in the last year or so, he didn't fight it too much. 

On his birthday, 2017. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The economics of pet ownership

My mom forwarded me a fun blog post recently where the writer muses over a $300 bill for getting his cat's teeth cleaned. You can read it here: http://www.uexpress.com/village-idiot/2017/9/8/the-cat-effect.

A few responses.

First, the economics teacher in me says that this is a great example of the paradox of value. The paradox of value holds forth that necessities tend to have a low market value and luxuries tend to have a high market value. That's why pencils are dirt cheap and pink Cadillacs are expensive. One can contrast the cost of getting our cat's teeth cleaned (at least $300 the last time it was properly done) with getting my own teeth cleaned (less than $200 for a check-up and cleaning).

Sam petting Ernie. It's a little silly how silly the two of them get together. 

Second, the silly home economist would offer a cheaper solution to this man's conundrum. Simply do what we did. Take cat to veterinarian for check up. Get told to schedule a follow-up appointment to get teeth cleaned (because they're in bad shape). Procrastinate in setting up said appointment. Take cat to vet. Vet technician discovers that during the interlude, eight of the teeth simply decayed away. Only two remained, one of which was pulled. That was less expensive.

Third, the dad in me must reflect on the meaning of this cat in our lives. We joke about his demise a lot in our household. He's at least 17 years old. Deaf. Probably blind. Losing weight rapidly. Showing less interest in eating. Having difficulty moving. He doesn't have much time ahead of him. And this house will be cast in terrible sadness the day he dies. For 15 years he's brought a great deal of warmth to my wife and I. Amusement, too (who can't find humor in a cross-eyed Siamese mix). And for my son's lifetime that he can remember, the cat has brought tremendous affection. The cat, Ernie, does like my daughter, by the way, though his affection is largely unrequited. The cat has taught my son the rewards of kindness and gentleness. I've often said to him that God gave us pets so that we can practice the acts of love and care, and they also teach us about joy and loss.
Sam with Odin, an member of our pet extended family. I love seeing how Sam can bond with other animals. 
Ernie has been with us for far longer than I expected, and our time with him hasn't been what I expected either. I've longed for a dog for quite some time, but Ernie is a one-pet-in-the-household sort of pet. He hated our apartment, only beginning to warm up to us when we moved to Lansdale. He hid from us for the first eight weeks of his time with us. He didn't let me pet him for the first six months we owned him. In fact, I didn't get to do so until a Monday Night Football Game in 2002 when I stayed up to watch the Eagles beat the Forty-Niners (I think). At one time I speculated he was mute. But with us, at least, he is the most affectionate creature I've ever known. And that's a gift for which I'm thankful.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Statues

Someone at work asked me for my thoughts in response to a really good article by Joseph McGill entitled "We Must Teach Our Ugly Past, Not Erase It." In case you're interested, here's my response: 

Thank you for sending me "We Must Teach Our Ugly Past, Not Erase It." You weren't expecting a short response, were you? I can't respond in short. 

Lest I seem unwilling to take a side, though, my core reaction to the events taking place where communities or city or state governments are deciding to take down statues is that one should allow those local and state bodies to make these decisions. If the democratically-elected city council of Charlottesville decides that a statue of Robert E. Lee is no longer a fitting memorial in their town, those who don't live and vote there should respect their decision. I feel the same way with Baltimore, where four statues were taken down very quickly after the Charlottesville incident, but done so at the behest of a mayor and city council who had already voted to do so. There are many who argue that if these towns are allowed to do it, then statues will be coming down everywhere. I guess I just don't see it that way. What Charlottesville does has no bearing on the statues at the Gettysburg Battlefield. 

Back to the article: It's hard not to think long and hard over the dilemma of taking down statues. I'm a history lover. I lived in Gettysburg for four years. I chose for a living a job that has me teaching our past and our present, topics filled with many ugly episodes. And then this summer I spent time looking deeply at how we and the others involved in World War II memorialized those who fought and died over there. 

One thing that has struck me is how Americans have a great gift of land and space, and that allows us to, well, put up lots of statues. I know that may sound silly. But I must consider how in the summer of 1863 the residents of Gettysburg knew, immediately, that what had happened there was monumental and that at some point the land would have to be set aside and left sacred. How many farmers lost their farms as we did so? Quite a few. And I'm not suggesting that they were upset to do so. But there was always more land for them to farm, and for their kids to farm. So if thousands of acres are set aside, and if dozens upon dozens of states and regiments want to erect monuments, they can do so. We treated dozens of other battlefields this way. And we don't just do this with monuments to battle, but with monuments to great beauty (the National Parks) and many other spots we wish to sanctify. Quite simply, we have the land to conserve quite a bit. It's a real gift for us as a people. 

I contrast this with Omaha Beach, where campers stay in RVs right atop the draw from which our soldiers exited, and where boaters put in their craft as the tide rises, using a tractor to drive their boat across the beach where our soldiers fought. The land there is more scarce, so how they use it to memorialize victims is a more precious decision. 

The single most moving place I visited on that trip was a cemetery for German soldiers in France. It wasn't very big. Certainly wasn't very celebratory. But it honored young men who died in a horrific war. And it left me wondering what I would be thinking if I was a parent burying a son who had fought and died for a cause that all the world later considered evil. I don't know if there are words to comfort such a parent. In some ways, that German cemetery resonates with me more than does the nearby American cemetery, which is a much more celebratory space. 

By the way, have you ever heard of the stumbling stones in Germany? They strike me as one of the most powerful ways to memorialize Holocaust victims. Oh, and did you know there have been attempts to do something similar with the victims of lynchings in the U.S.? It's for these reasons that I love Joseph McGill's work with the Slave Dwelling Project. 

It seems like societies are on firmer footing when they honor the individuals lost rather than the individual who led. 

The erection of statues is a significant act. They represent how we try to celebrate virtue from the past, and our definition of virtuous changes over time. The taking down of statues is also a significant act, at the same time celebratory for many but painful for others. That's true if it's of Lee, or Lenin, or Hussein, or Paterno. 

At our first department meeting, I shared with the department a quotation that might help center conversations with students. It's from Tacitus, a Roman historian: “This I hold to be the chief office of history, to rescue virtuous actions from the oblivion to which a want of records would consign them, and that men should feel a dread of being considered infamous in the opinions of posterity, from their depraved expressions and base actions.” Whenever we are erecting or removing statues, we are engaging in the work of history. And when we see a community doing something we wish they weren't, or if a community isn't doing something we wish they were, it should force us to ask us what actions we want remembered and what we don't. 

I warned you my response would be long. Thank you for giving me a chance to respond to McGill's article. It's a good read. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tyrannies of democratic Government

One of the most interesting commentaries on our political life came from an unusual place: a newspaper from Montana. A recent column in a Billings newspaper offers an interesting twist on the system of checks and balances in our Constitution. It also offers some perspective on the long game that constantly plays out between our two major political parties.

It's often necessary for me to clarify what separates Democrats and Republicans in the classroom. I shy away from using terms such as liberal and conservative in doing so. We're living in a time where there has been a lot of crossover between ideology and party identification. But that's fleeting. Is Republican President Donald Trump really all that conservative? And, if Democrats are fighting to defend the Affordable Care Act, the status quo really, then aren't they essentially playing the role of conservative. Okay, I'm getting away from the point here. Let me wrap up this thought, though, by simply saying that as a teacher it's not as helpful as one might think to conflate conservativism and liberalism with the Ds and Rs.

So, what unifies the parties over time? My favorite way to simplify it is to suggest that Democrats believe government should reflect the will of the majority. Meanwhile Republicans wish to defend the country from a tyranny of the majority. This is a debate as old as the country itself, as old as Tea floating in the Harbor, and best articulated in the debates over the ratification of our Constitution.

I think it's important to note that the article from that Billings newspaper never uses the word "minority" adjacent to the word "rule." "Minority rule" has such an ugly connotation, and I don't read that into Mr. Darby's essay. And I don't consider the Republicans evil or un-American for trying to work within the boundaries of the Constitution to prevent the will of the majority from depriving Americans of their liberties. Political parties exist to win elections.

Republicans enjoy control of both house of Congress, the White House, and many state legislatures for a variety of reasons. Objectively, their success in redrawing Congressional boundaries to make Republican success in House elections has played a big role in that. Whether or not that's above board or dirty pool is a matter of debate. Their success there is symptomatic of a long-run approach to politics that has confounded their opponents. Democrats need to put their energies into the long game now.

A system featuring two powerful parties plays an important role, and Democrats cannot overlook that. Democrats, if they represent the will of the majority, need to do a better role in selling voters as to the merits of less splashy matters such as Congressional redistricting, voter registration, and funding for local services. The Democrats' job in our democracy is to mobilize democracy. The Republicans' job is to enforce boundaries to Americans' liberty.

Both jobs are essential. How do we know? Just look at the concerns and problems that occur whenever one party gets too good at its job.

Six Months

Six months, or one half of one year, seems an appropriate time to permit someone some benefit of the doubt. Some time ago I decided to give that amount of time to our president, and I therefore have refrained from commenting on the administration, its conduct, and its policies, on this blog. Is it because I'm trying to save him from my scathing analysis? No. It's been more about me stepping back and trying to gain perspective. 

When one imposes a ban on oneself from commenting politically, it ends up closing down a lot of ideas for writing on anything. Hence why this blog has been relatively silent for a few months. 

So, what do I want to say now that my self-imposed ban of silence is over? Not much. President Trump has done little to surprise me. I opposed his election as president in November. If I were asked to cast a ballot today, I'd still cast a ballot against him. In all likelihood, if he were to run for reelection in 2020, I'll vote against him. 

Yet I imagine his supporters feel much the same way. He earned their vote in November. He'd earn it again today. And there are many who I love as friends and family who cast their vote for him last month. It's possible that by criticizing the president today, I'll be criticizing people I care about. The president, the news, the political cycle . . . they'll all give me chances to critique and pick in the coming three and a half years. But really, nothing has changed since November. 

And that's a shame. 

I find that the media focuses very heavily on the actions of the president, either to criticize him (as many outlets do) or to defend him (as a few outlets do). It would seem as if any major news story covered by the great oligopolies of news media (CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews on the TV; New York Times, WaPo, and WSJ in print/online) is either directly about Trump or about the healthcare debate, which overlaps heavily with the president. There are many other things of national interest getting lost in this noisy coverage. There is also much of importance at the state and local level on which we are not focusing. The country is much bigger than the president. 

And there is always the business of what we're fighting for in our homes, churches, communities, and workplaces. 

If one is an opponent of the president (but at the same time, one who respects the office of the President of the United States), there is little to do that changes the fact that Mr. Trump is our president until 2020. In the meantime, there is much to do in the arenas where I can make a difference. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Lighter Fare

I really enjoyed reading this column from David Brooks in the New York Times on something of a slippery social standard. Interestingly, one reader found it unbecoming the standards set by that news source.


Mr. Averill's sarcastic protest calls to mind a few reasons why I appreciate Mr. Brooks taking the time to write on the trend of bailing. First, it's good that a serious and articulate columnist tries to apply his gifts at a behavioral trend. And I would suggest that the trend Brooks is shedding light on is more important than we think, and it allows me to better understand a behavior I see a lot in the students I work with as well as my same-age peers (I don't notice it nearly as much from those who are older than me). It allows me to better understand a poor behavior I engage in from time to time or consider engaging in. Bailing is a more significant issue than initially meets the eye.

Second, it's useful that a serious journalist takes time away from analyzing the malaise that has fallen on national politics. It's hard to separate small thinking from large problems from our political leadership right now. Brooks is applying large thinking to a societal issue that seems small but I think is more onerous.

And, finally, it's a reminder of how we shouldn't forget to look at the way we, as members of a society, are incentivizing behaviors that make us more civilized or challenge us to be as civil as we could be. We're more in control of our fates that we realize, and a focus on what is or is not happening in Washington (or Harrisburg) lets us off easy. Being conscious of the way we may be aiding and abetting ills to befall our society is as necessary as awareness of what a person whose name is followed by a D or R is enacting or Tweeting.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Spring Comes to An End

It's been sometime since I posted. I've been observing a six-month moratorium on posts regarding the presidency, which seems wise still. I guess that doesn't mean I can't post on political topics, but the White House has long been a gravity well for all that is political. For all intents and purposes, not commenting on the presidency means not commenting on government.

I could also lament that it's been a spring characterized by business, but that seems like a cowardly way out. Really, it was a spring of me not saying no at the right times.

So, I'll restart my blog with a brief anecdote that seems to capture the absurdity that sometimes results from the abundance of modern-day middle-class life.

Sam: Can I have the green iPad?

Me: But I was hoping to watch some of the Stanley Cup Final?

Sam: Can't you just cast it up here?

Me: No, I set that up downstairs. This TV has an antenna.

Sam: I wanted to play Clash Royale.

Me: Okay, I guess I can watch it on my phone.

Sam: Oh, what just happened?

Me: They overturned a goal.

Sam: Let me see.

Dad hands over phone to son. 

Me: I guess I could watch it on the green iPad.

Sam: Maybe.

Me: Wait, it's on NBC. I could've just watched it on antenna.

Seems silly, doesn't it. It dawned on me tonight that there are five different devices that this very minute could be showing that game. Probably another five could do so if I plugged in some passwords and downloaded some apps.

Seriously, the green iPad. I guess that differentiates it from maroon. Oh, and from the iPod, which is pink (guess whose that is?). Oh, and from the iPhone (old or new).

It's really an embarrassment of riches.

As a long-time friend says, one has either time or money. She's right, as tonight's snapshot into the two-income, two-kid, home-in-the-suburbs lifestyle attests.

Memorial Day

This seems a fitting day to introduce my readers to my upcoming adventure. I'll be travelling to France as part of the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student Teacher Institute. I know, that's a mouthful of a name, but it's an awesome, once-in-a-career opportunity to do some research with a student.


The officer you see pictured above is 1st Lt. Edmund Duckworth. An executive officer of E Company, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, he was killed on June 6, 1944. He is one of thousands upon thousands that we honor this Memorial Day. He is also the focus of the research project that has me travelling to France in just a little over three weeks. I'll be chronicling my journey on mrjohnsoninnormandy.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

And so I bide my time . . .

I've mostly used this blog to express my political feelings. The last month has given me both too much and not enough on which to comment. Twenty-five years is what's really needed to assess a presidency and a president. A bit more than twenty-five days has passed. Too soon to judge this administration. It's important to give it a chance. But a president deserves a strong citizenry who will challenge those in power. So I bide my time.

July 20, 2017. That'll be the six-month mark. Then it's time for me to comment. Until then, I bide my time.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

First 2017 Film

I enjoyed my Friday evening watching a movie that I should've seen long ago, The Iron Giant. That was one of the more meaningful movie experiences I've had with Sam.

The Iron Giant Movie Poster Image

Unfortunately it wasn't Caroline's cup of tea, and she had to excuse herself after the scene in which the title character witnessed a the death of a deer at the hand of hunters. She's a sensitive sort.

Sam, however, paid rapt attention throughout the film. And as we neared the climactic battle, Sam and I both predicted what we thought was coming. Sam sadly said to me, "I think I know what's going to happen." I replied that "It ain't going to be happy." Those of you who have seen the movie know of the twist at the very end, though, a twist that seems almost unrealistic. But it's a twist that makes the movie glorious, rather than just deep. I'm glad we stuck around for it.

I was prompted to watch this movie for a few reasons. One of these reasons was the advice of students at school who saw it in a film class last year. One of my colleagues does a wonderful job with that elective and she features The Iron Giant as part of her curriculum. A review of it, also, in Common Sense Media put the bug in my ear for it some time ago. That website has become something of a touchstone for me as a father, convincing me of some good films I might have missed, like Millions and My Neighbor Totoro, as well as advice I should've heeded (like for Hook). The website also stresses the importance of talking with your kids when the film is over, which Sam modeled for me when he asked what I thought the film was trying to teach when it was over.

The Iron Giant is a bit dated. It was made in 1999. It lacks the production values Disney films typically offer. The story isn't as brooding as we've come to expect films to be. But that was in part why I enjoyed it. Yes, it did get heavy. But it gave us that chance to not stay there after it was over.

And the lessons it was imparting were so important. We're not predestined to be bad or good. Children, liberated from adults' temptations to be judgmental, can be powerful agents of redemption. Grown ups can ascribe their worst fears to things they don't understand. I loved how it borrowed from the spirit of other wonderful tales for children like E.T. and Wreck It Ralph. And I'm most glad it gave me an evening to share with my son.

Leading with Inquiry, Week 2

Question for our political leaders: Is access to affordable healthcare coverage a right for Americans?

There's a somewhat confused rush to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which I get to a certain extent. At one time I opposed it quite heartily. Though I've come to think of it as legislation that has done more good than harm, I certainly acknowledge that it has many shortcomings. And the process by which the Democrats rammed it through Congress was regrettable. It's no wonder that Republicans, now enjoying unified government and one of their own (I guess) in the White House, the time seems right to them to remove this legislation.

There is a big however. They don't necessarily have any replacement legislation.

Catherine Rampell's recent blog post on the ACA is worth a read (link). Apparently the majority of Americans like nearly all the major provisions of the legislation except for, wait for it, the individual mandate. In other words, we wants the protections and affordability, but we don't want to share the costs with sicker Americans.

Until we're one of those sicker Americans.

So I'm curious as to how the leaders in Washington are going to solve this riddle. Essentially this comes down to a very old dilemma for Americans: whether equality or liberty is more important. And when it comes to health coverage, there seems to be a mandate to address liberty more than equality. But there might be more support for equality of access than meets the eye.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Leading with Inquiry, Week 1

This week's biggest dust-up concerning our political leadership in Washington was the further clarification of Russia's meddling in our most recent presidential election.


Here a few questions I'd like to pose:

1) Why was Russia so interested in having Donald Trump win the presidential election?

The president-elect and his acolytes contended this week that any Russian meddling didn't have an impact on the results of the election. I'm not sure I agree. But even if one concedes that point, it's important to explain why the government of Russia wanted Trump to win. Is there influence that they hope to gain with a Trump White House? Do they predict a Trump administration to be more friendly to Russian interests? More gullible? Or was it merely payback to Hillary Clinton and the political party of Barack Obama.  It's debatable that Russia's meddling tipped the scales in Trump's favor. What's clear, though, is that they wanted him to be president.

2) To what extent was the Trump campaign aware of Russia's attempts to influence the election in Trump's favor?

Given the means by which the Russians set up phony websites and online personalities, it's not beyond reason to suggest someone in Mr. Trump's campaign was aware of Russia's attempts to put a thumb on the electoral scales? We would learn a great deal from knowing how many, and how far up the food chain, such in-the-know individuals were.

3) Did the director of the FBI, James Comey, consider the Russians' influence in the election when he announced that he was reopening his office's investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server in October?

News that the FBI was opening an election that had been closed in the summer might have been the tipping point against Ms. Clinton this fall. The tone of the FBI director in the summer when he announced he was closing the probe didn't help Ms. Clinton either. At many points it seemed like Mr. Comey was failing to exercise caution against injecting his agency into the election. We should be concerned about the motivations of FBI officials who acted more recklessly in this election cycle than in any others in recent memory.


I leave it to people more qualified than me to find answers to these questions, and by that I mean the press. Something that sets us apart from Russia, and many other regimes, is our Constitutionally protected freedom of the press. It's up to us to support that press in its attempts to question and answer questions during this administration, an administration that seems challenged to operate in an ethical and honest way.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lead with Questions

There's a good chance 2017 will be an angry year for me. In 19 days a man is being inaugurated whose candidacy I opposed from the very beginning. I quit the political party to which I had always belonged and for which I had always rooted over that man. I fully expect that in his first year in office, Donald Trump will give me reasons to fulminate. After all, his political capital will have not yet been spent, his party is in control of both houses of Congress. The winds are at his back.

I think about angry voices from the past. For instance, William Lloyd Garrison, who once said that "I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard!" There was also Norman Beale, famous for proclaiming, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" For as thunderously wonderful as these sentiments might be, that's not my style.

In fact, when I was in graduate school for educational leadership, the best advice I got was to lead with inquiry. Question, don't assume. Start a conversation with a question but also lead people and move institutions with questions. Leading with inquiry is also more consistent with giving a new president a chance to make policy and be effective rather than just assuming they'll meet with failure.

So, the top political questions on my mind for the incoming Trump administration and Republican Congress are as follows:

1) What will you do to safeguard and promote the freedom of speech and of the press?

2) What policies will you put in place to counter the structural unemployment that will result from automation?

3) What measures will you implement to maintain the solvency of Social Security?

4) What steps will we take to strengthen and reassure critical allies throughout the world?

5) What measures will be taken to prevent foreigners' interference in American elections?

6) What will the administration do to promote growth of productivity?

7) What policies will you put in place to expand access to medical care?

8) What policies will you put in place to contain the cost of medical care?

9) What policies will you put in place to extend access to credit for lower-income Americans?

10) What measures will you take the guarantee all Americans equal treatment under the law?

That's it for now.

2016

This blog has been largely quiet for the latter part of this year. This is my normal outlet for expression on political and cultural issues. The news has given me more reasons to be frustrated, to be humbled, to be contemplative than it has offered me opportunities to express. I had been hoping to build up toward a profound end-of-the-year post, but the momentum fizzled.

On a bright side, David Barry wrote in today's Washington Post, summarizing 2016 far better than I could. You might find his points of interest here.

If the news gave me little to be happy about, virtually everything else in life made me sing. The past year gave me great times with family and friends, the joy of watching our kids grow, the thrill of doing so with the wonderful companion who is my wife, excellent health, and safe travels. In those respects, 2016 was a great year. Perhaps this is an invitation to me to update the blog where I focus on those matters.