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.