Monday, December 29, 2008

History on the Landscape

Lies Across America is a fantastic study into the truth behind the thousands of historic markers found nationally on and off the beaten path. Every time I think I might have a good understanding of a topic in history, an author like James Loewen presents himself to me as a challenge to keep learning. Thank goodness.

His is an intriguing thesis. Those who place the historic markers, usually local groups, or national ones like the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), seize control of a part of our history. They control this very visible portion of history that tourists read when we travel. We can ignore the markers, read and accept their texts as fact, or explore the true nature of what has been foisted into the landscape for our inspection. Much more than simply stating that there is more than one side to a story, the author proves that some of these markers are simply false. I don't mean wrong or bad interpretations of an event, but actual and deliberate fiction has been passed off as history.

More common are the markers that commit what some call lies of omission. And also the question is raised regarding all of the worthy people and events of history that go unrecognized; why do some earn markers and others do not?

History books are often scrutinized and authors are criticized for improper treatments of a topic in history, and this is only proper among people who claim to value free expression. But the bits of history given in these markers like pages in a pop-up book, if bound together and sold as a history of our country confuse, offend, shock, and outrage nearly everyone who bothered to read it. So why do we allow the makers of historic monuments to get away with publishing faulty history right under our collective noses?

I will not say too much because the author does a superior job of expressing his own ideas in the book. Read it for yourself. You will not likely put it down without thinking differently about how we choose to represent our history in public places.

Live Well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Wishes

If a wish is a request for something that you just can't manage to get on your own, or for something that really is not possible to get, then I have a few to put on record.

1. A cure for Type-1 Diabetes and Rheumatoid Arthritis: Many lives are lost or altered due to dozens or hundreds of illnesses or diseases that medical science cannot combat. I suppose I could wish for a universal cure, but these specific disorders have a personal impact on me and my family. It is my most selfish wish.

2. Wisdom within our nation's politicians and leaders: Students of history know how rare it is to see wise leaders in the world. They also know how powerful and dramatic social changes can come from the leadership of wise men and women. Corruption tempts all leaders. May our current world leaders find the strength to avoid corruption in all its forms.

3. Sincere adherence to religious teachings: Among all people who claim faithfulness to a religious tradition, please be mindful of the essence of those teachings in your daily lives. No legitimate leader or founder of any major world religious movement has ever advocated hatred or philosophies of destruction in order to achieve a divine purpose. Religious devotion is not a matter of convenience. Always practice your espoused faith. Through such practice, love will dominate life.

4. A daily recognition of our common humanity: No matter what we do, everything can be done and should be done with attention to humanity. To be humane means to consider the overall condition of those lives you have become involved with. Ask always if what you are about to do will add to the improvement of humanity, or reduce our collective greatness. This is at the heart of all religion, but outside of religion, it also has meaning. We all should have a personal interest in the collective well-being of everyone around us. While it is true that some among us profit from the depravity and misery of others, it is my wish that we each make every effort to elevate humanity and ease others' burdens. Do this and you will be happy in your work, and happier in life.

5. Share your knowledge, and happily learn from others: Talk about what you know, and listen to others when they do the same. Keep your mind open to new learning. Ideas inform dialogue, and dialogue shapes opinions. Opinions and ideas are behind any action. So be active in the dialogue around you. Use your education, and always add to it. Knowledge is one of the most reliable keys to power and influence. Everyone does the best he or she can do based on what they know. If you know more, you can do more.

6. Appreciate the life you have now: Even if you are striving to improve your situation, or that of others, don't forget to appreciate the happiness and beauty that exists around you in this moment.

There are more wishes, but these few make up the majority of the sentiment. I can do many things for myself, but I cannot control the actions of others. This is the intent, I think, of the wish. There's nothing original on my list, but that does not make them unimportant. What it does mean is that there is an urgency behind unrealized wishes.

Whoever can read this, please make your best effort to make one or more of these wishes a reality, if only in your own life.

Merry Christmas!

Live Well.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Dangerous and Secret Life of Boys

I have a son and two daughters, all under the age of nine. I have very little time left before my son starts experiencing "the urges." No, not the urges of bodily stimulation, but those of the curious minds of boys. Already my son has displayed his desires to hold or even be near things with blades, things made of metal, or things designed to shoot projectiles. Flashing lights and sound effects are also high on the list of drool inducers. He likes to build as well as destroy, arguably mankind's most highly developed skills. My son will soon exercise and practice his skills with or without supervision.

How do I know? I lived it. Any man who claims he did nothing stupid, dangerous, and destructive growing up is lying, has repressed the memories, or was never beyond sight of his mother. Notice I used the conjunction "and" instead of "or." We practice all three types of acts,-- stupid, dangerous, destructive-- often together. Please understand that this propensity for risky explorations has little to do with intelligence. Smart kids have no immunity against our biological urge to endanger ourselves and others around us. You can resist, for a time, but resistance is futile (the Borg are right). Lest you think I am exaggerating, I will present a short list of truly asinine stunts, topics, and experiments I was involved in over the years. I will leave out the dates and names of others, although my older brother was usually directing the chaos.










The list really does go on and on. All I know is that I will soon have to figure out how I will react to my own child's version of the same idiocy I performed. It's true that I am here, and I "turned out OK," but surely there has to be a way to break the cycle.

I suppose that's why men invented contact sports. We need a confined arena in which to dangerously bang into each other and cheer about it. Here's to the future. There isn't much time.

Live Well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Heroic Leader Wanted

“Individuals who are unable or unwilling to purposefully, knowledgeably, and courageously work for social justice in education should not be given the privilege of working as a school or district leader.” --Marshall and Young, 2005

My eyes have been opened through my recent course work to the higher nature of public education. Leaders in education cannot become concerned only with standardized test scores. Leaders cannot afford to mistakenly believe that their schools are islands of learning beyond other concerns. The community of school is bound to the human community that surrounds it, and, by extension, to the rest of the world. The issue of involvement and interaction with the school environment is important, but only as it is a strategy that leads toward social justice.

We have learned that schools are filled with teachers and leaders of good intent, but also lack of clarity concerning the real problems of schools. We mostly fail to confront our complicity as agents responsible for the very inequities we rail against. We are complicit and instrumental agents who usher along cycles of social reproduction, even when the model we reproduce is the essence of racial and class hegemony. Jonathan Kozol calls our education system a kind of American apartheid. I would stretch a bit further and liken it to an Indian caste system, or the Mexican encomienda. In these old-world systems of social hierarchy, the effects of which are still actively being worked out, social status is determined by the nature of your birth. In India your occupation was a copy of your parents’ social level and associated work tradition. There were strong racial and ethnic restrictions built into this system, but all was cloaked in the primacy of religious mandate. The Brahmins, the keepers of religious tradition, not surprisingly, enjoyed the most privileged status. Social mobility was not a provision of the caste system. In Spanish-controlled colonial Mexico, the encomienda system was focused on your ethnic or cultural birth rights in a more blatant manner. The Spanish born, or peninsulars, were most privileged, of course because they were the conquering culture. As time passed other social strata had to be created. The criollos, or Mexican born of Spanish parents, were less affluent. The mestizos, or those of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, were a level further removed from power. The indigenous population, still the bulk of society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, received the least amount of access to the cultural capital of their day. Of course the African slave population was valued the least of all.

If some educators would read this, powerful reactions may arise. I’m crazy for drawing comparisons of American education to colonial racism. But am I that far off? America’s history runs parallel with that of Mexico. We are also still reconciling ourselves with our own history of slavery followed by legalized institutional racism. Social inequities in education continue to exist. How can that be unless social reproduction is being continued and managed through our public schools? Consider the explanations in another light. If “school” is not the problem, meaning the current system of education as practiced commonly today, then gross inequities must be explained in other ways. Try out these answers. Poor kids are just too ill-equipped socially, mentally, or otherwise deficient, and cannot learn well. They will never “measure up.” Those foreign language speakers just aren’t trying hard enough; they’re faking it anyway. Those special ed kids are hopeless, or they use their disabilities as a crutch. And those African-American kids just are a mess. They act entitled to everything and argue and complain whenever they’re held accountable for something. Once you see the counter-arguments for what they are, racist and elitist twattle, then what is it that remains? The system itself perpetuates social and racial inequities. Who fares consistently well while other identified sub-groups lag behind year after year?

And so the leader of the American school first must challenge himself or herself to face this ugly reality eye to eye. Call it by name. A leader in education must think and act like a social reformer. Social justice will never become real by wishing for it. It will never come to pass by waiting for others to make it happen. The easiest path to follow is the one that already exists; this path leads to social reproduction. Those who seek social justice in schools must blaze new trails in the landscape of educational practices.

Creating a school environment in which authentic dialogue among all parties involved is practiced and expected; this should be a high priority of the leader seeking social justice. Raising the level of educational discourse is essential if justice is desired. Anything less is just complacency. Leaders who are willing to engage in the tough and uncomfortable issues that really need to be the topics of staff development meetings; they are the ones who will move us closer to social justice. Leaders who understand that parental involvement takes on hundreds of forms, not just ten or twelve; they will earn the respect of the community. Leaders who take time to understand and appreciate the diversity of their student body; they will inspire students to achieve higher levels of learning. Leaders who speak of social truths and realities instead of test scores; they will earn the respect of their teachers.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe was executed by a lethal injection of carbonic acid at Auschwitz, 14 August, 1941. During the weeks before his execution he was regularly and savagely beaten and starved, once left for dead. Guards seemed to reserve their harshest torture for this affable priest. He continued in this nightmare environment to minister to others, perform Mass, give last rites, and generally share the work of God. He would use smuggled wine and bread for his Mass services. Relevance? Those dedicated to a great and noble cause will do anything necessary to bring about the desired change. Educational leaders should, indeed, view their position as a privilege as well as a heavy responsibility. Social change will only come when leaders actively seek such change. In the last issue of his publication, The Knight, Kolbe wrote,

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

Those who would be real leaders in education must dedicate themselves to social justice in the same way that religious leaders dedicate themselves to divine missions. In fact isn’t the educational mission another kind of divine mission? Do we not speak of love? And what is love if not an acute and sincere concern for the well-being of others? Social justice must ultimately be based upon a deep concern for the well-being of others. This requires school leaders who recognize the humanitarian mission of education. It requires individuals who will not compromise the educational mission out of fear of retribution or fear of angering teachers and parents. It requires a bravery and dedication usually attributed to heroes and saints. Anyone who moves into a school leadership position must accept this responsibility, or hopefully recognize their own limitations and allow someone else to take up the challenge.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coffee, regular, keep it coming

My mom started giving me coffee when I was a small child. This is not unusual in Germany, but apparently it is in the USA. The coffee kids usually get is made for kids, and is made from wheat. It really is a coffee substitute, not the true drink. Still, I only knew that coffee was usually one of the normal drink choices around the house growing up. This normally did not cause a problem, but once in a while I got funny looks and comments from kids in school when I poured coffee out of my thermos at lunch. Some teachers raised an eyebrow as well. But they were mostly distracted by the manly sized sandwiches I would normally bring. Looking back as a teacher, I can appreciate the humor of it. Other kids are eating bologna on white bread, or braving the school offerings, and I sit with the deli special and cup of coffee. I suppose they were waiting for the smoking break next. Mom sure did make great lunches. That really was a great part of the day.

Coffee shifted at some point from wheat substitute over to the real bean. Even then my parents made it with milk and sugar. I still prefer it that way. I don't know if there ever was much thought or conversation given to the coffee situation; it was just normal for me. I'm glad it was. For now, it is a pleasurable part of life's routine. It is a habit like reading the newspaper, but not like habits of addiction. I will run out of coffee and then not have any for many days until I remember to buy more. No worries. I like coffee, and I choose to have it, but life goes on without it. I'm just a bit less satisfied with the world.

On one trip I took with my mom to Germany, we took a side trip to Poland. We actually went back to her hometown which she had not seen for over forty years. The town was part of Germany-- OK, Prussia-- at the time of her early childhood, but WWII politics shifted the borders around. While we were in Poland we were staying with people in their homes. These were people who either didn't know us at all personally, or who had not seen my mother in over forty years. What great people. All they needed to know was that my mother was friends with Mrs. J---, someone everyone knew. They did not have much, but we were invited to have some of what was being offered. At one point one of the women asked me what I would like. I said a coffee would be great. They were speaking German to me, incidentally, which was fine, because I was not prepared with much knowledge of Polish. It is a very cool language, I think. I understood many things before we were done that week.

The coffee that was brought to me was an unexpected and lovely experience. They had made the coffee in a style common in the east of Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. With Turkish Coffee, as it is known, the fine coffee grounds are boiled with the water and poured together into the cup. The dregs settle to the bottom. It was served to me in the Russian style tall tea or coffee cup. This is a glass that is held by a metal decorative holder. In the glass I could see all of the dregs that made up about two inches of the five inch vessel. My only thought of hesitation, having never had this style of coffee before, was the question of the grounds. Do you drink it down, or leave it? I was told later that some of the old men would drink the lees, but it was normal to leave them. That was the only coffee I had while we were in Poland, but it was fantastic. I enjoyed it very much because it was a dear commodity given joyfully to me by distant kin who had never met me before. Such a flavor is rare, indeed.

I started to really ponder on that trip what coffee might taste like around the world. Since before the journey in Poland I have tried to experience whatever I can of cultural food expressions. What a beautiful introduction into someone's world.

Back on my dad's side of the family there are the culinary offerings of South Central Kentucky. I actually never recognized that kind of food as anything other than normal. My grandma was an excellent cook, and I ate anything she made happily. But since this is about coffee, I have to share the one coffee trivia fact I know that connects coffee to the town of Burkesville, Kentucky. Joel Cheek of Burkesville was a traveling dry goods salesman in the late 1800's. He started blending different coffee varieties that he sold to customers after he realized that the most expensive varitey he carried was not actually the best in taste. He experimented with the blends until he arrived at the best tasting product. His customers agreed. Mr. Cheek then struck a deal with the kitchen manager of a Nashville hotel to buy his blend and serve it in the hotel dining room. When Cheek's blend ran out, the kitchen served their old coffee, but the customers complained. When Mr. Cheek returned, the deal was given a new life. He would continue to bring the coffee to the hotel, but in order to sell it abroad, he also agreed to give it the name of the hotel, the Maxwell House. (The only other culinary claim to fame for Burkesville is a burger joint called Dovey's. That is definitely a different story.)

My parents have never developed a liking for coffee that is much stronger than the kiddie coffee they used to give me. They get very dramatic over the coffee I drink now. How can I drink that stuff, they wonder. It's about enjoying experiences in life. Coffee can have a great range of flavors in much the same way as wine, beer, or chocolate. I savor the flavors of well-brewed coffee. It brings me a sensory experience that does not come with just any beverage. Tea can provide a similar experience, but proper brewing is important. That's another blog, I think.

No one has yet convinced me that coffee is bad for you. It's been said, for sure, but always on shaky evidence, or laced with propaganda. I'll go on brewing, drinking, and thoroughly enjoying the coffee I make at home. I will aslo gladly partake in coffees made for me by generous family members, friends, or the occasional barrista. And my children, too, will enjoy coffee if that is their choice.

Live well.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

No Cell Phone, Please

I have explained this particular quirk of mine to many people. It isn't because I am proud of it, or because I am some kind of neo-Luddite, but rather simply that I have not felt the need to own a cell phone.

While you're catching your breath and making your exasperated arguments in favor of this decade's favorite toy, let me explain the Luddites. In the late 1700's and well into the next century, the king of industrial labor in England was textiles, the manufacture of fabrics. This work had traditionally been done in small quantities by hand, but during the Industrial Revolution mass production became the mantra of business. Massive factories were being constructed all over Britain for the purpose of creating vast quantities of woven fabrics. These were to be made on giant looms that were automated, at least partially. Humans, especially humans with small hands, like children, were still needed to maintain the operation of the automated machines which were prone to jamming. The nature of these machines were such that they were not shut down in order to free a jam, so children repairing them often lost fingers in the process, or worse.

Ned Ludd, an Englishman working in the textile mill, saw the advent of these machines as the death of skilled laborers like himself. His solution was to destroy the automated looms. Taking his example, in the early years of the 1800's, a rebellion of textile workers arose during which many factories were destroyed. These followers of Ludd, called Luddites, were opposed to new technology which replaces skilled workers, or eliminates their own utility. In their era it simply was not possible to change careers when the apprenticeship program took an average of ten years. Losing one's job was very nearly a death sentence.

Today the term Luddite has been used to describe anyone opposed to technology for a varitey of reasons, but usually associated with folks who oppose using it at the workplace. Where do cell phones fit into this? Sorry, this is what's known as a long walk to the well.

I think cell phones are great. Really. I also think people have come to rely on them far too much, and use them for way too many purposes that are mere distractions. Put into the context of the driving issue, they have become quite dangerous. They also have taken the place of real human contact for a lot of users. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a multi-purpose convenience tool can essentially make you lazy if you let it. Dealing with middle school students has not convinced me either that the phones should be standard equipment in life.

Please don't leave comments about how your cell phone saved your life, or how your business couldn't function without it. I get it. I just ask for a little understanding when I say that I am not that important. I do not need to be that accessible. I have computers and phones in my home. I have computers and phones in my workplace. Virtually everyone I know has a cell phone, so what purpose is served by getting one of my own other than to say I have one? I have survived three pregnancies and births without a cell phone. Everyone involved is doing fine, thanks. And in a couple of decades of driving I have yet to experience the "stranded in the middle of nowhere in a panic" scenario that folks use to convince me that I need a cell phone. (When it does happen, boy, will I be sorry I didn't listen. There, I said it for you.)

Again, I am not opposed to them at all. The iPhone is actually very cool from what I have seen. But I just have yet to make that leap which will allow me to justify the considerable cost and hassle of owning one. Back in the early nineties I was the first and only person I knew who owned a Palm Pilot. I have bought several upgrades of that device over the years. Actually I got in trouble once at a meeting because the parent had accused me of ignoring her and playing on my calculator. I was taking notes on my Palm, but they were still quite unknown to the general public.

Each day when I come home there are perhaps seven or eight messages on the phone. I don't usually listen to them because mostly they are not for me. The people who really need me know how to reach me, or how to find me in person.

(In case you are curious, I also have avoided the following trends that dominate life for many others: smoking, the Adkins Diet, recreational drugs, liposuction, and tanning beds.)

You don't need to pity me, nor must you look away from my hideous condition. I'm quite alright with my Dell laptop, below-average phone bill, and computers and phones by the expanding millions all around me. Incidentally I have had the need, once or twice, to make a call while I was out. Here's the crazy part. I appealed to the spirit of civility around me; I asked someone if I could borrow her phone-- a total stranger!--and she was happy to let me do it. In a desperate and insane world, you sometimes have to resort to rebellious behavior to make a point. Thanks, Ned. You know how to reach me.

Live well.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is upon us in the greatest country in the world. We have much to be thankful for as a nation, even though we are struggling through a financial crisis. I have faith in our nation's leaders that they will guide us through the fog, and that once again we will persevere and resume our former greatness on the world stage. But I write today to explore for a moment just how fortunate we are, even during a relatively critical recession.

If you fly one and a half hours from Florida to the southeast, covering 1,975 miles, you will arrive in Haiti. This country, one of our neighbors in this hemisphere, is among the poorest in the world. More than eighty percent of the population lives below the poverty level. What does this mean? Poverty means that basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter can not regularly be acquired. Consider the per capita GDP, or gross domestic product. To get this number add the total dollar value of all goods and services produced in a year and divide that total by the population. Haiti's per capita GDP is $1,300 after converting into US dollars. Remember that figure is an average, so many will earn less than that amount in a year. The same figure for the USA is $43,444. The average American family will spend seven percent of their income on entertainment, over $3,000. The computer I am writing this blog entry with had a purchase price of $1,000.

Poverty exists in our own land as well, to be sure. The essential difference is, though, that in our country there is at least a theoretical possibility that an impoverished family might one day gain economic mobility and strength. The future for most Haitians today is bleak. With an average life expectancy that hovers around 50 years, the misery of poverty is relentless and fatal.

We will go on complaining about our economy, which is truly salient on a global scale, but as we fret and worry, remember our less fortunate neighbors for whom the essence of life is often beyond reach.

This Thanksgiving I will spend many quiet moments reflecting on my own blessings and bounty. I have a healthy and loving family. Type-1 diabetes is a daily reality for one of my children, but, because I am employed and have health insurance, the life-saving supplies we need are available to us. With my own strength of body and mind, I am able to provide many comforts for my family. My career gives me as much job security as any other could provide. Being an educator also provides the kind of job satisfaction that many others lack. I am helping young people to appreciate the power of learning. In our world knowledge is power. Everyone does the best he or she knows how to do; those who know more can do more.

Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing, not even tomorrow, is promised. The life that we are blessed to live in the moment is all we can be sure of. Be thankful for what you have, and then make time to appreciate and enjoy it.

Blessings be upon you.

Friday, November 14, 2008

James Bond

The Bond films, according to the earning power of movies, are the most successful franchise in cinema history. The newest films in the series have managed to do what none of the previous editions of the series could do. James Bond is finally being taken seriously by nearly everyone. Quite an improvement over many of the classic movies.

There is even early talk of Daniel Craig possibly making an Oscar run. I don't have much to write about this development other than I think it is about time this series has come of age. I love the movies for all of the reasons that have been parodied in the Austin Powers movies. But the Craig incarnation of the character seems to defy parody. It's as if the makers of the movie watched the Jason Bourne series and asked, "Why can't we do that with Bond?" After all, Bond films paved the way for all other spy and action films. Now the original spy thriller is taking the lead again.

The only question now is what comes next? The original Fleming stories are nearly used up. Can the character grow beyond his maker?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

America, Fulfilling the Dream

What a bold and emphatic statement the American voters just made! We have elected Senator Obama as our next leader, and have done so with the sound of thunder and the power of a flood. The orators and leaders of our past-- Douglass, Lincoln, King-- each expressed a desire to see equal opportunity truly find expression in society. Their words have finally been transferred into full reality away from the realm of philosophical deferment. Our nation has conjured with our collective will more than a milestone, we have illuminated a beacon of historic light. All of our past struggles have led us here, and what follows will be filtered through this new reality. In our efforts to secure our own civil rights, we always have looked for tangible signs and evidence that progress is being made. The famous firsts have been recorded and repeated and revised again and again, but still racial inequity has been the rule of the land in nearly every arena of public life.

What greater example of social progress is there than what we now have manifested in our highest national office? How many millions of children have been told by the well-meaning adults of the world that anything, even becoming president, is within reach if you just apply yourself? Now those words have been granted a bit more credence. Many writers and commentators will try now to be dismissive of a racial issue in this election. They will claim that race did not play a significant role in the outcome. But to do this diminishes the impact that this country's decision must now manage. The time is now to push harder than ever to erase the racial inequities that plague our society. We are running out of excuses.

Our new leader may possibly face the toughest future of any previous president. Expectations have been raised like never before, and so the pressure to fulfill the promises of two years of campaigning will be immense.

Where will our new leader take us?

Kyrie eleison.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mr. Miller, A Gentleman

On Monday, October 20, 2008 a small pocket of the world began the grieving process following the death of a gentleman named Glenn H. Miller. Mr. Miller died at age sixty-two, but most people, like me, who worked with him saw him as a much younger man.

He taught me through his example that education is a serious business, and one that requires an appropriate attitude and demeanor. As assistant principal of Lincoln Middle School in Pike Township, Mr. Miller served as a sturdy bridge between the school and the community. His very presence brought calm to many meetings that may otherwise have been filled with conflict. People knew him and respected him. He respected the mission of education, and, by extension, the students and families who came into his school.

Few school administrators take time out to give praise to teachers and staff on a personal level. Mr. Miller would sometimes come to a meeting, always knocking first, and sit in just so that he could tell us what good work we do. He understood the work teachers do, the hours and mental toll required, and the thankless nature of it all. Since no one seems to be able to lighten the load of responsibilities, he at least knew he could give us thanks.

If I ever have a position as an administrator in the future, I know that I will do well. If I'm lucky, though, I might one day be a leader like Glenn Miller.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Government Cheese

I have long thought that Government Cheese would be a great band name. Government Mule was used already by a very cool southern rock group that started back in the mid 1990's. I've had government cheese, though, and it is not anything like cool. Government peanut butter is similarly uncool. Which brings me to the topic of food choices.

I know I am already blessed to have access as I do to tremendous varieties of food and drink as well as the wealth to buy them. Once past that there must be a discussion of the differences between food as mass produced bio-fuel versus food as craftsmanship.


Among the most ancient food products, bread has been made by all people around the world in some form through much of our history. The traditions have been successfully passed on without much loss of integrity in spite of all that we do that normally kills ideas-- war, migration, irresponsible agricultural techniques, cultural oppression, etc. Bread is a living connection with our past. It is tied with life itself in religion as well as mythology. And the multitude of forms and varieties it can take on makes it versatile like few other foods.

Why should I unhappily eat the mass produced bread that feeds so many today? Simply because I have known so much better stuff that is called bread. Growing up I spent many a summer in Germany with family and friends, this being where my mother is from. I would like to explain what the German bread is like, the kind that lives in the memory of my childhood, but comparing it to something we have here is pointless. It's just too different. I will always remember my mom's description of the bread she had to buy so often here; gluey-sponge-bread was the name she gave it. There is bread of fair or better quality that can be bought here, but Mom also has a financial proclivity for paying only what she thinks something should cost, even if it means the quality suffers. She would never pay the five or more dollars it costs at a modern bakery shop for a loaf of "artisan" bread. It's funny how the stuff that was the simplest peasant food in the past has now become the gourmet's treat. So she buys the gluey-sponge-bread anyway because it makes better financial sense.

Brotchen in Germany are like mini loaves of bread in the style of a French loaf, but only about the size of a potato. Their crust is crunchy and the inside is soft. I have never found these simple treasures anywhere in the US. I have looked. The closest I came was in Bobak's in Chicago, but theirs were not quite right. Something is different about the flour we have here, and this is enough to alter the final product too much. And now we find ourselves perfectly willing and happy to drive three hours to Chicago for one store's offerings. We also buy sausages and other meats there when we go because they make it "right" when no one else does. When Pope John Paul II visited America, he would stop in Chicago for the chance to eat Bobak's sausage. It reminded him of Poland. Actually, though, Bobak's has changed for the worse recently. It's quite sad for my family to know that one of the only places we knew of for good bread or meat is changing its ways to save money. The other wonderful secret in Chicago was Meyer Delicatessen in Lincoln Square. It's closed now. A truly sad situation. This was the only place you could buy real veal liverwurst, another favorite from my childhood.

I think the government cheese that my brother and I ate at times when we were kids was a real turning point with my attitude about food. He and I joked about it even then. We knew why we were getting it. Back in the 1980's, thanks to the deregulation efforts of Ronald Reagan, the trucking industry my dad worked for took a big hit. The company he had been with for twenty years was sold and shut down. Mom and Dad figured out how to supplement the pantry when money got scarce. We had a lot of fun regardless of the financial climate, and so we made jokes about the cheese or other bulk food containers that sometimes made it home. (We also received on occasion fantastic packages of venison from my grandma's freezer. Grandpa wouldn't touch the stuff. His loss was our delicious gain.) What I learned from the food was that the government was not very interested in providing great food to its people, only food good enough to pass the inspection. No awards for quality, just a blue stamp on the box.

Now when I buy groceries I usually shop like my mom does, (paying attention to sales, buying off brands, watching the receipt) but not always. I will pay more for bread that doesn't plaster the inside of my mouth. Cheese will sometimes be purchased at a premium just to make me or my wife happy, and to remind me that the waxy yellow blocks from Uncle Sam might show up again one day, so I should indulge a bit while I can.

My kids also need to know about the varieties of food in the world. They know that foods have special and interesting names, and that cheese is not just known as yellow or white. My older daughter has had brotchen and other breads in Germany, but the other two have not yet had the pleasure. They will, though. We have pictures of each of them at various ages eating toast with Nutella, their smeared faces smiling with the brown cream in their teeth. Pirate teeth we call it. Arrrr!

Food is a daily necessity, and so you can't go gourmet every day. My kids are not food snobs, but I want them to know that there is a good reason why some people are. They also will learn that every population, every culture, has its own wonderful foods that are waiting to be experienced. You may not like them all, but a few of them may stick with you for life. Part of living life means experiencing new and different things, and one of the easiest way to do this is through food.

Live well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

You Say You Want a Revolution...

On this night the major party candidates for the presidency will debate each other for a final time. I am hoping but not confident that the topic of education will be mentioned. OK, it might be mentioned, but will it be discussed or actually be debated using the proper language to frame the topic? This is highly doubtful. The major problems with education are not going to make it into a prime time televised debate. The reason is simply that no politician is bold enough to risk an election just to raise a dialogue that mainstream America would find too distasteful to swallow.

Let's start with inequity. Teachers and schools receive pay and funding that varies drastically from state to state, city to city, school district to district, and even from one school to the next within a district. If you ignore the humanity of the issue, you could probably find some manner of justification for this using economic theories. But this is essentially a human issue, not an economic one. When kids in one school are worth $8,000 per child, and twelve miles away in a different school, the state offers $12,000 per child, how can an economic theory encompass the lack of morality behind such inequity? Drive a few more miles and you might find kids worth $20,000 or more. This is all in the same state, yet the state wants all kids to achieve like results on standardized tests. And the poorly funded schools whose scores are certainly lower receive punishments and sanctions, not help.

The second level of the problem defies funding. The racial segregation of our schools has reached levels of separation not seen since before Brown v. Board of Education was argued in the Supreme Court. The poorest communities which contain the most poorly funded schools also tend to contain the highest concentrations of minority populations. When the nation mandated that schools become integrated, they did nothing to offer more equitable funding or teacher pay. So it was like moving figurines around on a map. Mixing the kids around but still placing them in the poorest communities did little to effect lasting improvement in those communities. How could anyone expect that it would? The human element of the issue was always untended.

What is the primary focus of education as it happens in schools right now? Thanks to our government's misguided attempt to fix education through greater accountability, No Child Left Behind, our nation's educational leaders must focus on standardized testing. Everything that happens in a public school today is first connected to a state testing standard or goal, otherwise it is not supported. How much more can the system stand of this constant testing mentality? What will happen in 2014 when the NCLB legislation, as it is currently written, demands that all students in every school must meet 100% proficiency on the state test? That means every student must pass every section of the test, school-wide.

Whenever I see or hear a truly stupid advertisement or product name, I repeat a funny line to my wife. I say, "that was the winning idea?" I imagine some executive board meeting with guys pitching ideas until they hear the winner. Sometimes I change the line to, "I wonder what the losing ideas sounded like." And so it is with NCLB in my mind. I want to talk to Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, if only to ask her, "was that really the best idea on the table?" She wrote the legislation with others, but it is known as a Bush initiative. Where else, in what other arena of life is there a demand for 100% proficiency?

Our government allows;-- they created an acceptable amount-- they allow things that aren't food to exist within the boxes of breakfast cereals we buy and consume. Companies sell it to us like that, and it's OK! Our government only has the ability to properly inspect less than five percent of the fish we buy and consume. The government will inspect the cleanliness of your favorite restaurant only about twice a year, according to a schedule. Apples and oranges, you say? Fine. Every licensed driver on an American road had to demonstrate proficiency to earn the card. And how many times can a potential driver take the test? Who cares? If fifty times is the charm, then guess what your license will look like; exactly like mine and everyone else's!

Education reform is needed. It will not become reformed through constant testing. The American public will not support reform efforts that might work until we can admit to and address the deeper social issues at the heart of all of the inequity among schools. It also will not happen until we can recognize the need to make education reform a national priority. Education reform is inextricable from social reform. We have to admit that we all are participants and accomplices to the social maladies that have created an unjust and unequal system of education.

NCLB must change with this next administration. If you don't like the way the school is performing, you don't fix it by testing it more. That's just re-weighing the pig.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Where Gino Knows Your Name

Einstein Bros Bagels in Speedway, Indiana: go there most mornings from around 7am until maybe 9am, and you might just meet a new friend. I started going to Einstein's (I'm a Hoosier; I can do that to a place name) a few years ago when my son had a tendency to get up in the morning way too early. I tried for a while to fight it, but putting him back to bed just made the other kids and my wife wake up, too. I had the idea to just take him into the car at 6am, still in his pajamas, and drive over to the bagel store.

Little did I know that this diversion trip would start a tradition. I have since taken all three of the kids there, though now we usually dress more appropriately. I'm not sure what the age limit is on looking cute in pajamas in public, but no one minds when it is a baby or toddler. My son loved it from the first visit onward. He would just sit calmly and watch the people. They would smile at him, sometimes coming over to talk, while I read the paper and drank coffee. I would get him a bagel or a pumpkin muffin, his favorite. Folks often commented on how calm and quiet he was, and wondered if it was always that way. I assured them it was not.

On one of these early trips I started talking with one of the shop regulars who had taken an interest in my boy. His name is Gino. Gino seems to be everyone's friend. He loves watching my son eat. Gino and I have had many conversations over the last two or three years, and he always asks about my family. He is sincerely interested in all of the news I tell him. Gino usually tells me once or twice in the conversation, in case I might forget, "Man, you're rich. You're rich and you don't know it." I tell him that I do know, and I drive away to work or back home feeling better about everything. I am rich.

I loved the idea from Cheers of Norm walking into the bar and everyone shouting his name. When I go to the bagel shop, with or without my kids, if Gino is there he will always call out my name. "Hey, Andy. How's that family?" I don't know if anyone else knows my name in there. If they do, they choose not to use it. But that's OK. Gino knows me, my family, and the magnitude of my wealth that has nothing to do with money. It's good to be reminded of that.

In an anonymous, busy life, Gino is a dose of civility and friendliness worth slowing down for. Einstein's Darn Good Coffee is actually pretty darn good, too.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Two Parties Equals Democracy?

Man, I miss Ross Perot! That wacky billionaire with the color charts and twangy accent was such an invigorating force in a democratic presidential race. Where are the independent voices this year? Where is Nader and the Green Party? Give me a Libertarian's voice in a debate at least to provide a greater contrast of views so that the D and R stop blending together. That spells "dr" (pronounced dhrrr). I'll even welcome an actor/politician-wannabe if it would mean that a fresh point of view could be heard.

And for crying out loud, when will Obama and McCain speak out about our nation's education system? Their respective education secretaries are going to debate each other on October 21st, but not many people are likely to see or hear of it. No Child Left Behind is part of Bush's legacy. It has become the white elephant standing in every classroom across the country, yet our elected reps can't bring themselves to speak of it more than for twelve seconds in a tv ad. What's the future of NCLB and the rest of our imperfect educational system?

Election Day is coming fast, and I have yet to hear the compelling voice of reason to guide my vote in the right direction.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Life in Five Inches

My dad is not a reader of books or magazines. One of the lessons he taught me by example as I was growing up was to read the newspaper. I don't think we have ever had a conversation about it, but I have still acquired that part of his daily routine into my own. My brother has as well. I feel unprepared for the day, almost lost, if I cannot read the daily paper. I get up early these days, often before five, so that I can have time to read the paper in addition to other morning jobs before going to work. Going to the gym is usually first, although I have faltered in that duty lately.

My brother-in-law recently told me that he specifically dislikes and avoids newsprint. He doesn't like the feel of it in his hands. His news sources are all internet based. I read internet news, too, but feeling the newsprint is part of the ritual of becoming educated about the current, changing world. The feel of the press connects me to the process and art of news production and to its history. Bill Clinton wrote that any man who reads three newspapers daily can hold his own in a conversation with any politician or policy maker.

One of the sections I read with more attention than some others is the obituaries. This is an unusual area of journalism, to be sure. I've read about the craft of writing these ultra-condensed biographies. Often papers today submit obits written by family authors, but this is no less difficult. On average, the obituary runs to five column inches.

How can a life with all of its triumphs, successes, challenges, and countless trials be captured in such an insignificant literary burp? Some obits are elegantly composed, nearly poetic. Some in our society evidently are worthy of greater volume on the page than others. I think of biographies or autobiographies written about great men of history--Churchill, Grant, extending volume after volume. What makes the life of one more or less worthy of our collective memory? Length of accomplishments alone is not the answer, because some of our greatest lives, in detail at least, remain largely unknown. The known events of the lives of the greatest religious founders, Jesus, Confucious, Mohammed, Abraham, Siddharta Gautama, each would comprise a fairly short listing. So the impact of the things we do is certainly as important as the variety of activities that fill our lives.

What kind of impact do we create in the lives of those we enter into? If it is positive, efforts that increase the greater good-- what must be the divine mission-- then life is good. Everything we say or do has power enough to make better those lives around us. Perhaps it is enough to know from the obituary of another that the life lived was a good one.

History will continue to record the details and exploits of great men and women. We will write lengthy tomes about the heroes and villains among us, and of those who preserve or destroy nations. These will be studied and debated, some eventually forgotten. Those of us who lead humbler lives will be given our allotted five inches, maybe a bit more or less. If we have added something more to the greater good as we wander through the fog, then this will suffice.

In the body of writings devoted to Christianity, there are a few stories told of singular events of individuals. In some passages a person is only named one time. During the Passion a woman named Veronica wiped the bloody face of Jesus as he walked toward his crucifixion. She took considerable risk of being beaten and arrested by the soldiers for doing this. She is not described as being a follower of Jesus elsewhere, or as a disciple, or even one who might be connected to those who were. She exercised her power of compassion to offer a small comfort to another whom she viewed simply as a suffering and condemned man.

What if each of us could be known for at least one act of bold and selfless compassion?

Live well.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why We Need Superman

Superman, as painted by Alex Ross

I was fortunate enough to visit the Heroes Museum that was located in downtown Indianapolis. The tense is past because the one man behind the show was not making enough money to keep it open. This is a shame. It was a small part of the proprietor's personal collection of stuff related mainly to Superman, but with an impressive Batman section as well. It was also hard to find. It was in one of the buildings that once held Kipp Brothers Toys and Novelties, where I worked for many summers long ago. The wholesale district of town is changing. In comic books the heroes do their work in the heart of the city. Indianapolis should have worked harder to keep Superman.

Superman represents the best and most noble aspirations of each of us. He protects and serves like the police, but he will not be killed by criminals' guns. He works for no company, government, or group, so his motives are pure and free of corruption. Superman fights for the good in the world because he can, and not for glory or paycheck. He has compassion for the weak and innocent. His enemies are the powerful, greedy, and self-serving of our world. Certainly the comics and graphic novels have thrown supernatural villains of all descriptions at the man of steel, but the villains who always remain are those who are hardest to stop, the human oppressors.

While Superman could destroy these misguided men, he chooses instead to work within our system of legal and moral guidelines, the same held by his earthly adoptive parents. They were imagined as humble farmers in rural Kansas. As his alter self, Clark Kent, he tries to use media exposure to stop corrupt individuals from doing more harm. His biological parents were scientists who, in another world, tried to stop their government from harming their planet beyond repair, but the damage was already too great. The world of his birth was destroyed.

Yet even with the powers he possesses on Earth, he also must live with the burden of his own limitations. He reminds us that the best of us, even one better than all of us, is still only one person. Superman fans know that power and influence is only worthwhile if it used to guide and inspire others to use their own power responsibly and wisely. We all have power.

In a Superman book called Peace on Earth the artist, Alex Ross (the greatest hero artist of the modern era), shows Superman whisking around the planet trying to tackle the human crisis of hunger. In one segment he carries a cargo boxcar filled with food into an unnamed African or Asian setting where the soldiers of that nation open fire on him. Later in another country where the people are allowed access to the food he has brought, they claw at him and mob him so that he simply has to get away. He realizes that bringing food to the starving is the wrong kind of help for such a massive problem. Superman cannot help them. He cannot assume control of corrupt governments, nor can he destroy them, for what might take their place?

Ross also paints Superman in a most human light, physically. He is shown looking weary, dejected, almost defeated. No matter how pure his intentions, no matter how awesome his powers may be, he still protects a world of pain and suffering. But in that moment we readers understand that this is what really makes Superman the hero he is. He does not give in to despair. He does not give up his efforts or call them hopeless. He does not harbor hatred for humanity. He keeps fighting for the greater good. He fights on because he can. It was why he was put here.

Ultimately, we need Superman to remind us of our own obligation to fight for the greater good. Superman can't do everything, but he does his best to do whatever he can do to push the balance a bit more in favor of goodness. And precisely because Superman is not real, writers, artists, and others keep his story alive. If we each strive for greatness, each of us fighting as we can to put down injustice, corruption, and deception, there would be no need to tell his story.

In all that you do, strive for greatness.

The Invisible Chimp

My daughter has had type 1 diabetes since just before she turned three. She will be in high school next year. I have learned about diabetes in the last decade like no other topic before. My former wife has learned more than I because she is usually the one around giving treatments and making observations.

I have become an in-house diabetes liaison in my school, partnered with our nurse. It's incredible to learn of all of the different levels of understanding and competency surrounding those afflicted with this disorder. Misunderstandings almost always must be dealt with before effective treatments will be used. Mishandling diabetes can be fatal, and yet a shocking number of people are not handling themselves or their condition correctly, or even with regularity.

We had been living with the insulin pump for about three years, then moved on to the OmniPod, and it makes things easier to be sure. What a brilliant use of technology! We have participated many times in the Walk to Cure Diabetes. This is sponsored by JDRF, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and many other big organizations. Indianapolis is a great city when it comes to hosting wonderful events. Something is going on nearly every weekend while the weather allows for it. The walk this year is set to start at Military Park. I hope the fundraising event will be the most successful yet. JDRF also manages an auction each year that has been held at the Colts training complex. Everyone seems to have a special charity or cause that needs your support, but this is the biggest one for me. (You can learn more, or make a donation at

There's never a break from the concerns and demands of diabetes. You know how ducklings will imprint and follow around the first living thing they see? Imagine that an invisible chimpanzee had imprinted onto you. It would follow you everywhere, and you have no choice but to accept its needy presence. However, other people would not recognize or see it. They would never suspect anything to be amiss until maybe one day the chimp decided to ride on your back. How frustrated and tired you would be! You would know how to manage the chimp through many training techniques, but ultimately this invisible rider will still do unexpected and harmful things to you. You can bring it back under control, but you are never allowed to ignore it. This invisible companion will seize your attention by force if need be.

People often diminish the critical nature of diabetes. They say it is only something that means you need to watch what you eat. They assume the old wisdom about eating "sugar" still holds true. But few realize that it is potentially fatal if not managed properly and constantly. Other folks speak with me about it and wonder why my daughter can't just take an "insulin pill" like their uncle takes. First, insulin doesn't exist as a pill, and second, those who take pills are dealing with type 2 diabetes, not type 1. Insulin is broken down by stomach acids and rendered useless by the body. It must be delivered directly into the bloodstream. No choices. The new inhaled insulin system is not very reliable when it comes to delivering specific dosages of insulin.

I don't know if anyone will read this. I just started doing the blog mostly for myself, because I know that it helps to get some of these monologues out of my head. Most people in my circle of influence understand these issues. The folks who drift in and out, they are the ones I wish could read this one day and begin to understand.

Above all I want there to be a cure for type 1 diabetes. I want my daughter at some point to be able to do some of the things that kids should be able to do. Eat a pound of Halloween candy all in one sitting. Find out how much pizza is too much. Swim all day long if it suits you. She really can do this now. What I mean is for her to do it all without the intervention measures that must go along with it. Ironically she is probably living a healthier life because of diabetes.

As a father you wonder constantly about doing the right thing. Try as I might, this thing is beyond any real control or influence of mine. I can be the best provider, the most wise adviser, the funniest jokester, and the most caring role model ever, and this obtuse intruder into the family can still ruin it all. I want a cure, and I want it now.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Apparently debate rules don't matter

I have been baffled at the mainstream media's response to Gov Palin's debate performance. Apparently since she didn't giggle and squeak, apply make-up while talking, or simply fall down on stage, she gets to be hailed as a close-second competitor.

It's true that both candidates made errors in fact, but Palin was simply not following the rules of the debate game. Since she openly admitted to this, we are all supposed to think she is shrewd? How about being critical of a potential world leader? Does she know anything about Israel, just one topic she skipped over handily. Where was the nerve of the moderator?

Imagine any other male candidate in Palin's place delivering her lines. Would Evan Bayh have been hailed as a close-second finisher? He would have been lambasted in the press for the remainder of his ruined career. Why is the media so quick to give a US Governor such a huge grading curve in such a critical election year? If she is unable to address critical issues now, then what should we expect later when the pressure is real and the consequences severe?

Joe Biden needs to read Harm de Blij's book, Why Geography Matters. Biden seems to believe that millions of years of earthly history prior to mankind's existence can be ignored as long as we focus on the past 200 years. Earth has undergone global warming and cooling many times before we existed, and will continue to do so no matter what we do. If he wants to say that we are harming our environment or that we are likely hastening the current warming trend, OK; but to say that mankind has caused global warming is just rubbish. If the next cooling trend comes while we are all still here, I wonder how quickly all of the so-called experts on climate change will suddenly focus their claims using real global climate data? We are in an interglacial period currently that is on the verge of shifting from warming back to cooling. No one can say exactly how long these time periods will last, but they have been happening since the birth of the planet.