29 December 2008

Some Cool Quotes

"To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." Raymond Williams

"Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it's not the end yet. Just relax and keep working." Michael C. Muhammad.

"Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity." Marshall McEwen

And if you have a chance, watch the video linked in the title. It's an awesome assessment of how close we actually

17 December 2008

One of the Dots

The video below is a fascinating look at immigration into the United States between 1820 and 2000.

Each dot represents 100 immigrants from a given country.  I keep watching this over and over again, thinking about my ancestors who came over in the 1690s, 1890s, 1900s and 1920s.

It's also cool to see how things fluctuate from Europe and Africa to Latin America and Asia--where most immigrants originate today.

Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

16 December 2008

George W. Bush: A Success Story

I submitted this is a letter to the editor of my local, daily newspaper.  Since I doubt it has much of a chance to get in, I though I would post here here for your enjoyment.

Personally, I don't like to be judged by criteria that I don't choose to be judged by.  Consider my merits and my goals when you are calling me a screw-up or a disaster.  If I judged George W. Bush in the same way, a success story emerges.

As we come to the end of the Bush Administration, many writers are trying to get a jump on history by proclaiming him a miserable failure (the prevailing view) or lauding his goals, if not his achievements as president.

Another way to judge the Bush Presidency is on what it intended to do from day one.  Judged in this way, it is easy to find many successes.  Cheney's energy task force was wildly successful when one looks at the wild profitability of the coal and oil companies who helped to forge it.  The tens of billions of dollars of profit of companies like Exxon/Mobil, and the vast numbers of Americans tricked into denying climate change or believing in the existence of "clean coal" technologies are testaments to Bush's successful energy leadership.

The tax cuts of 2001 were also successfully implemented, and Americans with incomes in the top 2%--and those who stood to gain lucrative inheritances--cannot complain.  Moreover, with no tax increases to pay for increased spending on the War on Terror or Homeland Security, Bush successfully delayed the economic impact of these policies until the last year of his administration, albeit two years earlier than when the bubble was designed to burst back in 2001.

The Iraq War was also a goal of the administration from day one.  Former treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill revealed in his book The Price of Loyalty, that rationale for an invasion of that country was presented at one of the first meetings of the National Security Council.  Bush wanted that war.  Mission accomplished.  When he ran for re-election, Bush promised to keep troops in Iraq, and he has delivered on that promise, too, even if it took two more years go find a strategy that would finally reduce sectarian violence in that war-ravaged land.

If we consider his terms, then, Bush succeeded at achieving the goals he had from the beginning of his first campaign for President.  In hindsight, these "successes" may seem short-sighted or disastrous to our country's prosperity.  If that is the case, however, the blame should not lie with George W. Bush and his administration but with the American voters who embraced these priorities in Bush's two election victories.

12 December 2008

Star of Wonder

There was a wise man once, a wise man who had spent his fortune building observatories and charting the location of the stars.

One night, as he looked at the constellation, Cassiopeia, a strange sight appeared.  Glimmering at the top of the constellation, near the top of the throne, bright as Venus, shone a star that hadn't been there before.

The wise man consulted his charts, believed to be the most accurate in the world at the time.  Not only was he a keen observer of the stars, he was inventor of the parallax, a device used to measure the movement of the planets--and the fixedness of the stars.  Corresponding with fellow astronomers, the wise man came to a revolutionary conclusion.  Next to the star's place in his records, he wrote the words, "Nova stella"--new star.

Over the next week the nova stella  appeared even in the daytime sky.  Gradually, however, the star began to fade.  Sixteen months later, it disappeared.

This wise man was Tycho Brahe, the richest man in Denmark.  And the date he saw nova stella  was November 11, 1572.  The star shone brilliantly for the first two weeks of that month, visible even during the day.  Then, over the next 16 months, it gradually faded from white to yellow, yellow to orange, orange to red, and red to black.

Tycho's nova stella was not a welcome sight in Europe in 1572.  Its existence was, in fact, heretical.  The Bible taught that the heavens had been made by God.  They were fixed.  Unchanging.  Perfect, untouched by sin.  And they hung in the heavens to--like the sun and moon--revolve around the earth!  

That passed for orthodoxy in the Europe of Tycho's Star as the nova is now known.  Thirty years prior to nova stella, Copernicus had published his conclusions that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun.  It would be another 40 years before Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, would confirm these theories definitively.  In fact, Tycho's carefully calibrated charting of the planets and stars had hoped to synthesize Copernicus's calculations with church orthodoxy.

That was before nova stella, a name that would be shortened to "nova" for stars that appeared and died out in this way.

In 1604, another nova appeared in the heavens.  Johannes Kepler, a protege of Tycho and the mathematician who described the revolutions of the planets, confirmed a second nova stella, erasing all doubt that stars are born and that stars die out in the wide, wide universe.

What is a nova?  It is better to begin with a simpler question:  what is a star?

Despite the way our own star, the Sun, looks in the sky, a star is not a ball.  There is no surface, no skin, no place where one might land on or walk upon a star.  A star is actually a delicate balance of the most powerful forces in nature:  gravity and fusion.  The gravity of our star is a tremendous force, capable of holding huge planets like Earth, Saturn and Jupiter suspended in orbit from millions of miles away and able to sling comets like Halley on 75-year round-trip journeys to the edge of the solar system and reel them back.

Within the star, the tremendous gravity draws hydrogen molecules into its core.  As they hurtle toward the center, the molecules collide and heat to such extreme temperatures that nuclear reactions take place, turning the hydrogen into helium and expelling force with this fusion.  As the hydrogen is used up, helium makes carbon, which makes oxygen, which makes neon, as it moves up the Periodic Table to the heavier elements.  The "skin" or "circle" in which we see the sun is simply the place at which the exploding energy and the in-drawing seem to be in balance.

A nova occurs when the balance that forms the star is upset--usually when the hydrogen runs out or when the creation of iron (Fe) brings the whole process to a jolting stop.  Less energy is expelled, so the star implodes, sometimes creating a black hole, other times creating a blinding-bright nova.

In star terms, our Sun isn't quite capable of creating a massive nova.  It's a pick-up truck, if you will:  reliable, slow, small (in star terms).  Scientists predict it will run out of fuel in 5 billion years or so, at which point it will bulge with a giant burp and then sleep eternally as a dwarf star.

The stars that create novas are white giants--Lamborghinis, if you will.  They live fast and die hard, using up huge amounts of fuel in their lifespans.  As the hydrogen gets used up, you can imagine a Lamborghini going from 101 octane fuel to 97 to 93 to 87 to beer to rubbing alcohol and then to water, at which point it would lock up (or explode, I guess).  

When the delicate balance is upset, what happens?


Light streams across the universe, coupled with x-rays and gamma rays.  Years pass, decades, centuries.  Then we might, if we're lucky, see what happened in our night sky.  Indeed, the explosion that lit the sky above Denmark in 1572 was 7,500 years old!

What about Christmas?
You probably saw the title, "Star of Wonder," but now you're growing frustrated that a mediocre English teacher proves to be such a terrible astronomy teacher.

The fact is that theories about as to the star that guided the wise men to Jerusalem:  planetary convergence, comets, shining bands of angels, etc.  All that we do know is that wise men claimed to have known about Christ's birth because of a star (Matthew 2).

This is compounded by the fact that the exact year of Christ's birth is uncertain.  The Gregorian Calendar, which separated history into Before Christ and Anno Domine appears inaccurate when one considers the established fact that Herod the Great, ruler at the time of Christ's birth, died in 4 BC.  Most scholars actually put Christ's birth somewhere in the years 6 to 4 BC.

But there are obvious parallels with novas in the Christmas story.  A new star, stella nova, appeared in the heavens.  It burned bright--possibly bright enough to see during the daytime--and expired a few months later.  In fact, Chinese astronomers recorded a kho-hsing or "guest star" in the constellation Capricorn in 5 BC (Tycho's Star would be the first nova recorded by a European).  It appeared sometime between March 10 and April 7 of that year, lasting for 70 days.

The appearance of this "guest star" would signalled revolution for the astronomers learned enough to notice it.  Persia, where presumably the magi originated, was closely tied with Judea--its king, Cyrus, had been named "Messiah" by the writer of Isaiah, and one of the most famous Jews to prophesy about Messiah, Daniel, had ended his life in Persia.

Another revolution appears in the worldview of the Jewish world in which this star appeared.  As the world of Tycho was geo-centric or Earth-centered, the religion of Judea was temple-centric.  Salvation came through the temple, and its gates were barred by the corrupt practices of the Temple elite and Sanhedrin.  When John proclaims that the "light has come into the world," it truly is nova stella:  a temple destroyed and resurrected in three days to become Emmanuel, God within every person (not within the temple).

The nova says even more about God and the marvelous ways that He works.

Try this with me.  Imagine going back in time to about 5 BC.  Look over the shoulders of the magi as they scan the heavens and remark upon the bright new star in Capricorn.  

Now go back centuries, thousands of years to the moment the star actually exploded.  If Tycho's Star is any comparison, this spectacular moment of death took place anywhere between 7,500 and 10,000 years before it burst into the view of the magi.

If this is true, then God is here.  To me, this means that the destiny of the human race was set before humanity as we know it existed--before Daniel, before David, before Abraham, before Noah, before anybody, the light that bore news of nova stella was on its way toward Earth.

That thought makes me rethink nearly every story of the Old Testament.  I think of Sarah, giggling with doubt at the thought of a son, much less one who would father a great nation.  Yet in the 10 seconds or so of her laughter, the light of nova stella had advanced 2 million miles through space!  I imagine Elijah, fearing for his life and the loss of God's work in Israel.  Does he realize that nova stella is on its way?

This is the God that I believe in:  the One who created the Universe and set it in motion.  He sealed the destiny of my world and countless others thousands upon thousands of years ago.  He is the minder of the gaps that connect worlds upon worlds.

To me, that means that a New Heaven and a New Earth are already made, streaming through space for my arrival.  The fulfillment of Christ's promise, "I go to prepare a place for you--" hurtles toward me at the speed of light.

Where God can be found, there is also faith:  my hopes made manifest, my fears dispersed before I knew to ask.  The resolution of all matters was set in motion before I existed.  That's why the prophet does not say, "Those who pray to the Lord shall renew their strength," he says, "Those who wait upon the Lord...."  The Answer is coming at light speed--and well worth the wait.

Lord, give me eyes to see nova stella.  Give me a heart of faith that waits upon You.

12 November 2008

What Reverend Abner Stood For

This is a short story I wrote back in college.  At the time, the country was transitioning from Bush the Better to President Clinton, and there was a lot of fear in the air (my college wasn't what one would call "progressive" by any measure).  I like to revisit it whenever my country is recovering from an election and moving into an uncertain future.  My prayer is that it helps to put politics into perspective, in light of our Christian calling.

15 December 1992

Few Christmases in our nation’s history have been as desperate as the Christmas of 1777.  George Washington and the Continental Army were bottled up in Valley Forge.  The British held Philadelphia and New York City.  All sings pointed to defeat for the struggling colonies.

Nowhere was the disappointment felt more severely in than in the town of Fredrick, Maryland; nowhere was the patriotism more intense.  The leader of the revolutionary struggle in Frederick was none other than the Anglican minister, Douglas Abner.  Since before the revolution—before the Declaration of Independence—Abner had railed against the injustices of the British monarchy from his pulpit every Sunday.  “We have no king but Christ on high,” he often said, “no government but that which every free man chooses for himself within these 13 colonies.”

By Christmas of 1777, the patriotic fervor had grown into anti-British mayhem.  Loyalist houses and businesses were looted and burned.  Tea was boycotted to show solidarity with the residents of Boston.  Even in little ways, the colonists showed their contempt for the British.  Playing cards which had once included four sets of kings and queens were now printed with likenesses of George Washington and Betsey Ross instead.

Despite the bitterness, Christmas crept ever closer.  Townspeople readied themselves for the holiday season, and looked forward to Frederick’s Christmas tradition—the community symphony’s annual rendition of Handel’s “Messiah.”  Thirty-five years earlier, at the oratorio’s debut, the majestic strains of the Hallelujah Chorus had brought King George I to his feet.  At the sight of this standing king, the other concert-goers had followed suit.  Since that time, standing during the Hallelujah Chorus brought to mind the King of England as well as King of the Jews.

The Sunday before the performance, Reverend Abner condemned the English for being slaves to a tradition set by despotic rulers—a tradition that refused to let the colonies have their freedom.

The members left the church bewildered in spite of their patriotism.  What about “Messiah”?  Would this Christmas tradition continue?  Would anybody stand?

The community orchestra practiced pensively that week for the Friday performance.  The church choir seemed distracted as they went over the songs they had sung every year since 1760.  No one talked about the final chorus.  No one thought of standing.  No one mentioned the word, Hallelujah.

The night before Christmas finally arrived.  Colonists came from Frederick and several nearby villages to hear the oratorio—more than had ever come before.  But Christmas joy was nowhere to be found.  Every jaw was set.  Every eye looked unwaveringly forward.

Reverend Abner set a somber tone for the evening when he began the program with a special prayer for the American soldiers on the front lines.  He included a moment of silence for five of Frederick’s sons who had died in battle that year.

After Abner’s prologue, the concert progressed horribly.  The orchestra had to stop four times to retune.  The soloists sang without any hint of emotion or praise as Christ’s story unfolded.  Every eye in the hall was on Reverend Abner.  Every hand moved in applause with his hands.  Every head nodded in approval with his.

At last the moment came.  The strings sang the joyous entrance to the Hallelujah Chorus; the choir began to sing.  Everyone watched Reverend Abner’s jaw become suddenly tense.  He clutched his hands together.  He crossed his legs.  He stayed seated.

Back in the tenth row sat Francis Weaver, the 8-year-old son of a Frederick carpenter.  He couldn’t see Reverend Abner over the heads of the other concertgoers.  He could only see the choir and listen to the words as the choir sang distractedly:  “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah.”

Francis didn’t know what omnipotent meant.  He didn’t even know where England was.  But somehow he knew exactly what the music had called him to do.  Francis stood up.

No one noticed at first—that is, until Francis stood up on the chair to get a better look at the orchestra.  Then a murmur arose.  Reverend Abner turned to quell the talking, only to look with horror at little Francis standing in the tradition of King George.

Next others stood in acclamation as the choir sang—a little more boisterously now—“And He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah.”  The strings seemed to pick up the tempo, and soon that hall in Frederick, Maryland, barely a hundred and fifty miles from Valley Forge, was ringing with the music of angels.  Abner sat still, a lone dimple in the rejoicing, standing mass of Marylanders.

He lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut.  “King George, King George,” he muttered, “That’s all that it is.  I am a patriot.  I will not honor such a king.”

But the choir continued, building to the song’s climax: “And His name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Abner looked up at the words, “Prince of Peace.”  Like Paul before the gates of Damascus, he opened his eyes to see something he had never expected.  Instead of a haughty, white-wigged King George of England, the King of Kings reached out to him.  Calling him.  Electing him.

“Hallelujah,” the choir sang.  “Hallelujah!”

Abner looked around at the festive citizens of Frederick.  With a loud sigh he looked forward at the choir and stood—a testament to the fact that no revolution nor war nor evil empire could stay seated before the King of Kings.

When the Chorus ended, the applause filled the church.  Francis’s father hoisted him up on his shoulders as the mass of patriots clamored for more.  The choir obliged and sang the Chorus again, this time even livelier and more joyously than before.  Next the orchestra played Christmas carols.  The throng joined the choir, and that tiny hall in colonial Frederick, Maryland, literally glowed with the joy of the Christmas season until midnight.

As the gathering dispersed, a Christmas star shone in the heavens.  The colonists went happily to their homes, festive and merry.  No one watched Reverend Abner slip away into the cool night.  No one noticed the tears flowing down his cheeks or his shaking hands.  No one saw him gaze up into heaven, nor did they hear him whisper the word, “Hallelujah.”

18 October 2008

Are You Smarter than a Sixth Grader?

Several years ago, when I was getting back into teaching from my embarrassing foray into grant administration, my first job was teaching five Language Arts classes to sixth graders at Shafer Middle School in Gallatin.

The regular teacher had gone on maternity leave, and I began the job eager to get back into teaching and show what I could do. Sure, they were 6th-graders and I had only taught high school before, but I wasn't awed. "Bring 'em on!" I thought, in a misguided-ignorant-George-W-Bush sort of way.

I was several weeks into teaching there before I got a solid understanding of what had hit me. The creatures in my classes--were they children? teens? tweenies? how do you categorize 12-year-olds (you don't)--did bizarre and inexplicable things.

There were the two boys who took turns making animal sounds whenever I turned to write on the board. There was the girl who alternated between helplessness and contempt in her interactions with me and other students. There was the boy who couldn't stop moving, either in the room or in the hall, until he ended up in ISS for the final two weeks of school and made up all his work. And then there was the day all the staff spent in the cafeteria, ready to prevent a food fight that we successfully headed off.

I learned something about 6th-graders that year--and a lot more about myself. I gained a new respect for that age level--and the teachers, pastors and parents who are needed to guide them through this important time.

But what I learned the most was about the intelligence of 6th-graders, something I had underestimated, or at least misunderstood. They are a wickedly crafty species of homo sapien, and one not to be taken lightly. Now that Ellie has moved into 6th grade, I am revisiting many of those lessons learned long ago. Am I smarter than a 6th-grader? I certainly hope so. Otherwise my life is about to be a lot worse.

Here are a few observations about 6th-graders. I'm composing them now, so that I can revisit them over the course of this year. Perhaps you will appreciate them, too, if you have parented one of these creatures, or you can file this away from when your time comes.

6th-graders divide and conquer. I used to think that the quest for independence begins in 9th grade, when kids are fully fledged teenagers. I was wrong. The battle for command begins in 6th grade. It's a bizarre kind of warfare, based on animal instinct and exploding hormones. I couldn't even call it generalship--because that would take planning and an overall goal.

No, 6th-graders are more Pancho Villa than Patton in their approach to warfare. Their goals are immature--give me what I want, don't hold me responsible--but their tactics are often brilliant. I watched my own parents grow divided and angry in response to attacks from a 6th-grader when I was growing up. The combination of teddy-bear looks and devious tactics can run roughshod over the institutions that are meant to direct them: schools and marriages are the first line of assault.

I remember how completely the administration of my middle school were divided from the teachers as a result of these tactics. I would write a kid up, only to hear later from the incompetent vice principal that I was the one who had been in the wrong. I had two girls complain that I had kept them from going to the restroom during their menstrual periods in the six weeks I taught there--double the number of high school girls who had pulled this trick in six years of teaching high school. The kids ran the school, and within a year both the vice principal and principal had been replaced (the new principal is awesome, by the way, and my mother-in-law teaches there now, which is cool).

6th-graders are not responsible. There are many frustrating tasks that I have had to complete in my lifetime, none more frustrating than having to argue with a 6th-grader about something they blatantly did. A preferred tactic of the 6th-graders I taught was to deny (this continues through the first two years of high school, I might add). I was always so shocked to hear this, that sometimes it worked. I backed down due to temporary brain lock!

A more common trick was to talk back through blame. "You didn't say anything when X did it!" This is a terribly effective strike because it's even more confusing than the first one. But the argument at it's base, "I don't have to be good until everyone is good," is devastating. If 6th-graders can win this argument, then no rules can be effectively enforced. It's amazing how 6th-graders study everything in their environment--stuff I wouldn't normally pick up on--just to get out of responsibility.

Of course there are magical, wonderful moments when 6th-graders become aware of their responsibility and accept it. These usually coincide with unity--the school and parents being on the same page, or both parents being together rather than divided. The kids' faces light up. They actually grin (because they know in there primitive animal minds that they need an Alpha figure) and move on to plan the next ambush.

6th-graders are victims of runaway hormones. Again, I had thought before that 9th grade was when the hormone thing started. Was I ever wrong. Sixth grade is the point where boys stop talking to girls and get embarrassed by them. It's the point at which girls divide up the boys and "go out" with them--yet at the same time seldom talk to or associate with the boys who are their "boyfriend."

When I was twelve, my friends in Ohio started "dating." They were girl-crazy. My friend, Eric, had a girlfriend, so did Kevin. I helped Kevin get his girlfriend. He told me to go and tell her she was a "fox." Apparently this was all it took.

I found this really confusing. My idea of a girlfriend, at the time, was someone you spent a lot of time with and held hands with (kissing was out of the question, of course). They tried to set me up with a girlfriend of my own--an unknowing, innocent girl named Tabitha. I was too scared. I didn't have a "real" girlfriend until I was 15 or 16.

It is only now that I look back on those "relationships" and understand them a little better. Kevin and Eric and I ended up spending most of our time together, not with girls. We played more than our share of softball and football. We had a great time together. But for a few moments each week, Kevin and Eric were boyfriends, and I was merely confused.

Ellie had a similar romance a few weeks ago. Her friend, Tristin, lured her to a car, where a 6th-grade boy was sitting in the back seat.

"You like her, don't you?" Tristin asked her cousin, the object of Ellie's affections.


"You like him, don't you?" Tristin asked Ellie.


Thirty seconds later, Ellie was giggling with her girlfriends, and the boy was hanging out with his buddies again.

No harm done.

Am I smarter than a 6th-grader? It's a question that I cannot answer. It's a challenge that I face every day, and will continue to do until my 6th-grader(s) until they are mature young adults.

(An aside: does anyone recognize how the traits of 6th-graders (more Pancho Villa than Patton, never responsible for their actions, head-hunting tactics meant to divide opponents) also apply to the Bush Administration? Were these folks smarter than 6th-graders, or were they 6th-graders?)

I do think that it's a question that helps me to anticipate the next ambush, appreciate all the changes that are going in my favorite 6th-grader's life, and prepare to parent even the most difficult of stages of development.

30 August 2008

Religion in Public Schools

All week I've been explaining the "Obama is a Muslim" myth to people at school. It's surprising how many people believe this, considering that it was debunked last winter pretty forcibly by the campaign. I try not to press my politics on the students, but in cases of outright lunacy--like the Obama-Muslim connection, or the Saddam Hussein-9/11 connection (which are believed by legions of Americans to this day), I feel that I have to step in with the truth. To be honest, I would also step in if a student tried to tell me that John McCain has a wooden leg.

Another popular myth is "There's no religion allowed in public schools." I have heard this more times than the Obama-Muslim myth, and frankly it rankles me a little more because I am such an outspoken Christian and I have invested my career in demonstrating my own personal Christian values in a public school setting.

For me, religion in public schools is the same as politics in the pulpit. It shouldn't be preached. There is no such thing as a homogeneous group in America where I can proclaim "Obama will be a great president" or "I believe every dumb thing you can tell me about Bill Clinton" except, perhaps a political party convention. In any other setting, the words a person wants to say about God or education, will be coopted if they insist on presenting a biased political slant on things.

That's how it is in my classroom. In any group of 20 or 25, I expect to have four or five who are members of the Baptist mega-church in Hendersonville, about four of other fundamentalist denominations (Church of Christ, Mormon, Adventist or Jehovah's Witness), three mainline or Catholic students and 30 to 40% of the room that is unchurched.

To me, this is a real opportunity to learn as well as teach. We bring up religion a lot, but I do so in a way that students feel safe expressing their own beliefs while respecting those of others. For example, in a recent discussion of the Puritans, I asked students to choose from one of the following three options: (1) Man is basically evil and therefore needs control [a la Puritans]; (2) man is fundamentally good and therefore needs freedom [a la deists like Thomas Jefferson]; (3) man is neither good nor evil and therefore must muddle through [a la postmodernists]. Religiously speaking the classes were 98% postmodern.

Students come to my school with Jesus T-shirts. Many of them carry Bibles in their backpack--I remember a hand full of students who placed them on the top of their desk tops after they sat down. I remember smiling as I passed a boy who had a cross on his T-shirt. It had the caption "I could be punished for wearing this in a public school." I left him unmolested, as did every other teacher that day.

With our boys at the public elementary school next door, we saw a classic example of how prevalent religion is in the public schools. Owen's teacher, Ms. Sloan, called us recently quite concerned. She had asked the kids about a place they would like to visit. Owen wrote, "Heaven."

Now I think most of the readers of this blog understand fully what Owen intended. Students in Adventist schools are encouraged to imagine Heaven, describe it, draw it, look forward to it.

In Ms. Sloan's faith background, it was quite different.

Think about it.

For her, going to heaven was probably a euphamism for death. And when she saw a bright, 7-year-old boy say that he wanted to go there, she could only understand that he wished to die.

It made us both glad that she cared enough to call us about this; and even more glad that Owen's religious education is up to us, not to a given teacher. As long as Owen is at Station Camp Elementary, religion will be alive and well, and that's the way it should be.

Speaking of heaven, it makes me want to include one of the verses I sang at Oasis last night:
When I come to die,
Oh when I come to die,
When I come to die, give me Jesus.

23 August 2008

In Praise of a Teacher

Last year I missed the first game of the high school football season. I resolved not to miss another.

In ten years of teaching at public high schools, I have never been to a Friday-night game. I keep busy with religious groups, and my Adventist background makes me quite defensive of my Friday nights. Last year, however, when I realized how late sundown was that first Friday night, I resolved not to miss another one.

That's how Ellie and I came to be outside the ticket booth last night at Hendersonville High School (a cross-town rival). Ellie had invited one of her middle-schools friends. As we bought our tickets and looked for a seat in the visitors' stands, a remarkable community emerged before my eyes.

I saw co-workers and students (some in school spirit colors, some shirtless with big letters painted on their chests, and some attractively dressed in outfits not approved by our dress code), I even saw alumni who had passed through my classes and moved on. "You won't believe this, Mr. Dittes," said Jacob, 2008 graduate now attending a local college on a football scholarship, "My first class is Comp 101."

"Just remember the five-paragraph essay," I replied. "It won't let you down."

"I know," he said.

Ellie and Andrea spotted friends from middle school. Their was a burst of excitement when the spotted Ms. Stark, their 5th-grade teacher last year at Jack Anderson Elementary.

I'm returning a favor for the job she did last year by teaching her son, Roger, in my English 11 class. "I feel like I owe a lot to you," I told him the first day of class. "Your mom did a great job teaching my daughter, Ellie, last year."

"Go ahead and give me an A," he said.

I laughed. "I'll just do the best job of teaching that I can."

When I think about the teaching his mom did, even now, three months after Ellie left her classroom, never to return, I am so grateful. Tears well in my eyes, just thinking about the remarkable turnaround she engineered in my daughter.

As of last March, Ellie hated school. "I'm dumb," she would say. "I'm not one of the smart kids." It was the nadir of a school-related slide that had gone on for two years, through two different teachers at her old school. You can read more about that difficult time on a prior blot post, here.

Fifth grade shouldn't be the point where kids begin hating school. It is the greatest grade of the eight in elementary school--the point at which I began to see excellence in school as a pathway to excellence in life, when I began to love learning. I withdrew her from her old school and enrolled her in Ms. Stark's class.

I well remember the first time I met Ms. Stark. I had take the morning off to get Ellie to her new school. The attendance officer walked us down a long hall to the 5th-grade wing. She opened a door, and Ms. Stark appeared. After a short introduction, Ms. Stark opened her arms and wrapped Ellie in a big hug.

That was the first of many steps that would restore Ellie's love for school. As I reviewed Ellie's progress during our long rides home from school, I saw a consummate professional at work. Accountability in homework had Ellie hopping to get assignments done on time and logged in her assignment book. School spirit and room-level enthusiasm bonded Ellie to new friends in the class. A challenging curriculum revealed to Ellie that the world was a place worth learning about.

A close friend, Andrea, came along and helped Ellie to integrate with a key group of classmates.

When we met Ms. Stark again last night, Ellie had just finished her 2nd week of middle school. She has her own locker--and she's proud to know how to open the combination. She has seven different classes, including an advanced English class and a math enrichment class. She is in band and cross-country, and now she wants to add chorus to that busy schedule (mainly because the chorus teacher is someone she really, really likes). She seems to know the name of every 6th-grader at her school of 840.

I wish I could tell you everything Ellie has told me about her new school in the past two weeks. I'll mention her new friend, Courtney, a fellow Portlander whose mother teaches next door at Owen and Jo-Jo's school. I know all about her lunch table, and the hilarious things that go on there. She has blossomed. She loves learning. She has the air of confidence that daddies like me dream of seeing in their daughters.

A friend at work was asking me about Ellie's transition recently. Although this woman is a Catholic, her kids had attended Greater Nashville Junior Academy for a time, so she knew about our educational backgroud. "It's a much bigger pond than the one Ellie was swimming in before," I said, then I smiled. "And Ellie has become a much bigger fish."

Perhaps this helps you to understand how I get so choked up at the sight of Ms. Stark.

24 July 2008

Taking a look at Renovations

With school drawing closer, I'm really under deadline to finish up the work on our house!

Last spring, Jenny and I decided to refinance our house and pull out some money for major renovations (this seemed insane, considering that so many American homeowners are going bankrupt, but we were OK). Our focus was on the "new" side of the house, built for my grandparents in 1958.

Since we moved into the house, we've all been living in the "warm side of the house," i.e. the original wing (built in 1954). As the kids grew up and moved into their own beds, things began to get crowded. Owen and JoJo now share the library, which isn't really big enough for one person, much less two with toys.

The reasons we stayed out of the "cold side of the house" were twofold. First, it's haunted. Second, two walls of the huge family room were taken up by energy-inefficient sliding-glass doors. The most recent time we tried to pay for heating both sides of the house in the winter, we ended up with a $541 heating bill.

The energy efficient improvements to the house, then, were tops on our list. We replaced the heating & cooling unit on the warm side. We replaced all the windows in the house with double-paned glass. We removed the sliding-glass doors and replaced them with walls and picture windows.

The house is haunted, too. There is a singing Santa Claus doll that Jenny's grandpa bought us for Christmas five years ago. Whenever a loud noise is made nearby, it starts shimmying and singing some stupid song called "Disco Santa." Mizpah died in 2004. The place is haunted.

Secondly, it's haunted because my grandma and grandpa's bedroom is there. That's their room, and in my mind it always will be. I was joking with someone at Oasis that sleeping there with Jenny would be like the first time I spent the night in bed with her in my mom & dad's house. Despite the fact that we were legally wed, I half expected my mom to come bursting through the door and say, "What do you think YOU'RE doing?"
Just this week, I got the cold side of the house ready for moving. I can't tell you how excited I became as I nailed in the final crown molding and swept up the final mess. How awesome!

As you will see from the photos, there is still much to do. I know that many of you--particularly the Ditteses--have been wondering what it looks like now. I'll take you on a photo tour of the new digs.

Photo 1: the family room from the outside. The wooden walls and picture windows are where the doors used to be. You will notice the french doors on the end of the room. We haven't stained the outside wood yet. That will be a fall activity.

Photo 2: detail of the back door and security light. We still have to pick out a color for the stain. I can guarantee one thing. It won't be the color of the trim above the bricks! That color looks best on a bowel movement, not a house.

Photo 3: looking toward the back door. You can see the flooring and the new ceiling fans much better in this one.

Photo 4: Closer view of the new windows on the west side of the family room. If you look closely, you can see the cool new lights in the hallway.

Photo 5: New hallway lights. This L-shaped hallway was always too dark. There was one light bulb in the corner expected to light both sides of the L. I found this lighting kit at Lowes that let me stretch out the lights. Now it's so much brighter! I have one 20-watt halogen light pointed at the steps to the kitchen, one pointed at the entrance to the family room, and three more to cover the space in between. Whenever I walk into the hall, I feel like I'm in an art gallery!

Photo 6: Here is a trick question--only the hardcore Ditteses will know this one. I think you would need to have spend 20 years of your life wandering the halls of this hallowed manse like I have to even answer it. This is a picture of the hallway in the warm side.

What's different?

If you figure it out, tell me in the comments.

19 July 2008

Thinking Out Loud About School

School starts in three weeks.

There's a lot I need to finish. The renovations we have made to the house are on schedule, but there is still much work to be done. The family room needs to be livable by the time Julie visits in two weeks. That means that there are boards to stain and shellack, couches to buy, blinds to hang. Much, much work.

For the first time in quite some time there are also questions about school.

Not about me. I'm set to teach German again this year, along with two English classes. I will be adding podcasting to my teaching repertoire, using it to teach vocabulary words and dialogue in German--and to teach some cool things about German history and culture, too. It will be my fifth year at Station Camp High School, and my longest teaching stint to date looks pretty certain to continue indefinitely.

Ellie is looking forward to middle school. As you may remember from a previous post, she finished the school year at a public elementary school near where I teach. She loved it. She felt challenged by the work and respected by her teachers. She can't wait to get into 6th grade--6th through 8th grades attend middle school in my county, followed by high school.

The cool thing is that Knox Doss Middle School is just down the street from where I teach. On a decent day, she will walk over to my classroom after she finishes her class work and track practice.

Now Jenny and I are wondering about the boys. Owen will enter 2nd grade this year, and Jonah will be in Kindergarten. A new public elementary school just opened up on the campus where I teach, and I am leaning toward enrolling them there--70% certain--instead of returning them to Highland Elementary, the school that both I and my dad graduated from (1985 and 1958, respecitvely).

Not easy.

I need your prayers and your heartfelt thoughts. Perhaps by sharing this dilemma on my blog, I'll be able to sort this out a little better.

I don't need any prejudice. Please don't tell me what you've "heard" about public schools or speculate about the curriculum or fellow students. I have ten years experience teaching in public schools, and I have friends who teach at Station Camp Elementary.

This is how it breaks down. I'll start with the pros, since that's the way I'm leaning.
  1. The education. The teachers are all highly qualified, and the curriculum is up to date and a little more challenging. Ellie learned more about science and history in the last 11 weeks at JAES than she had learned in 25 at Highland. This year she will take honors 6th-grade English. The teacher told me they learn 5-paragraph essays. I learned how to write a 5-paragraph essay in college. Owen will qualify for advanced classes that should stimulate him and meet his gifted needs.
  2. Convenient location. The boys will be right next door. Their school would get out at 3:45; mine gets out at 3:15, so I would be able to pick them up every day as I was leaving. Last year, we had to arrange for friends to pick them up after school or pay $14 an hour to have them in after-school care at Highland. It was complicated, because they seemed to be at a different place every day.
  3. Cost. About $600 a month--although public school isn't necessarily free.
  4. Friends. It's a good school in an upper-middle class neighborhood. The kids are about twice as likely to get invited to a program at one of the megachurches in the area as anything negative.
  5. Faith. Jenny and I have no reason to invest in a lifelong attachment to Adventism, since we ourselves have moved on a different faith community. We don't want our kids fantasizing about Heaven or speculating on the Second Coming. We want them to learn to live Christian lives within the community God has given us. The onus would be on Jenny and me, however, to teach what we believe and encourage positive interactions with their teachers and friends.
Of course there are also cons.
  1. Owen doesn't wish to leave.
  2. Friends. Owen and Jonah have good friends at Highland Elementary. They like the people they go to school with, and they don't have an overarching reason to leave (in the way that Ellie was struggling with teachers).
  3. Family. It was tough enough on my family when Ellie left Highland. I feel like many of them are so prejudiced that they are now banking on her failure in life to prove me wrong. When she was faring poorly at Highland, my dad was one who jumped on the "there's something wrong at home" spin, instead of confronting some of the issues that were going on at school. If I send the boys to Station Camp, I might as well be putting them on a yellow school bus to hell.
So that is where things stand. I have prayed about this for the past few months. I feel led to make the break now, rather than drawing things out as I did with Ellie. Ellie wants them to make the move for many of the "pro" reasons listed above. As difficult as it was for her to switch, she tells me I should have done it sooner. She still sees her Adventist friends at church and at camp, but school is about school, and she likes the clarity of it.

One thing I learned as a teacher is that it's easier to be a Christian in a public school environment. I think the choices are starker, the outcomes more clear. One doesn't get bogged down in trivial stuff.

Comment below. I welcome your ideas.

Taking a Claw to My Fears

I am not a man who is defined by his phobias, but I certainly struggle with some.

My greatest fear is heights--something that has dogged me ever since I was young. Fortunately, it doesn't keep me from going to the tops of tall buildings (we visited the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center in our 2nd Day in New York--as Jonah demonstrates in the picture at right, that is the Empire State Building under his left elbow). I have climbed my share of canyons and seen plenty of mountain tops despite this malady.

A close second is a pretty strong fear of crabs.

When I was five, I remember walking out on a pier during a visit to my grandparents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We found a man there hunched over a plastic bucket. One by one, he pulled crabs out of a trap, nonchalantly snapping off their claws and dropping the bodies into the bucket. I can still her the snap, snap, snap of the claws. My fear of crabs is caught up in those terrible claws.

Once, right after I had met Jenny, we stopped during one of our hitchhiking trips at a tidal estuary in Wales.

Jenny was in one of her mad fits (a craving to exercise), so she decided to swim out to an island in the middle of the river, about 100 yards away. I waited on the shore and guarded our stuff.

As Jenny started to swim, I waded a little ways out in the water. I needed my exercise, after all!
Standing in the water, I felt something tickling my ankles. I looked down to see dozens of small, sand dollar-sized crabs scurrying all over my feet.

I screamed like a little girl and raced back to shore. By the time Jenny got back, I was ashamed--not only for failing to meet her physical challenge, but also for getting chased out of the water by a combined posse of crabs that weighed less than one pound.

But travel has ways of liberating one from his phobias.

At the Mystic Aquarium, I came face to face with crabs, and I finally overcame my fears.

The Mystic Aquarium is a wonderful place with a surprising array of experiences available in an aquarium dwarfed by others I have visited in Chattanooga, Boston and Atlanta.

One of the big draws for me was the aquarium's connection with Robert Ballard, the submariner par excellence who located the sunken Titanic and who has found shipwrecks and signs of ancient civilizations from Lake Huron to the Black Sea. An exhibit featured his many explorations.

The animal exhibits were fascinating, too. An aviary let the kids get up close to Australian parakeets. Belugas swam for us--I had taken care to copy the classic Raffi song, "Baby Beluga," to our summer soundtrack.

A display showed "mermaids' purses" or sharks' eggs. Part of the black, leathery shell had been stripped away, and we could see the embryos growing at various stages right before our eyes.

The highlight for me, however, was the hands-on pool. There were two crabs there: a huge crab, which huge claws (like the one Jonah stares at in the picture at side) and a spider crab (smaller claws but creepier looks).

In the full spirit of adventure, I reached for the crab.

"Pick it up from the back," the guide told me. "It won't be able to pinch you that way."

I reached in from behind and grabbed the crab. It jerked its claws and dangling legs back and forth helplessly. I felt such a surge of power and pride! I couldn't believe my fingers.

Next came the spider crab. It was easy. Those tiny pinchers were no match for my bravery. I was in command of the crabs--and my fears.

A few days later, we stopped in North Carolina's Outer Banks. What looked like a short hike from the Cape Hatteras light house to the beach turned into quite a trek through scrub and sand dunes.

I stepped over a pile of scrub, only to hear a haunting clicketty-clicketty-clicketty sound.

"A crab!" Owen yelled, pointing to a small crab now cowering in the shadows.

"Cool!" I answered.

04 July 2008

Over ye go, Me Hearty!

"Owen, that does it. You're walking the plank!"



These words were actually said by yours truly, two days before Father's Day, no less.

Every road trip has its highs and lows. For me, one of the highs was our visit to the fascinating town of Mystic, Connecticut. (One of the lows was Owen's behavior that day.)

From the time Julie had offered to rent the RV last Christmas, I had known the theme for this trip would be whaling. I read Moby Dick. I read five books on whaling and 19th-century maritime history. I rented films. I did everything I could to prepare.

That didn't stop Mystic from blowing me away.

The previous night we had camped near Orient Point, Long Island. We caught the 8:00 ferry for a ride across Long Island Sound to London, CT, passing four to five islands along the way, as well as a photogenic array of sailboats and lighthouses. We squeezed the RV through the narrow byway into Mystic, a town of about 45,000 close to the Rhode Island Border.

Outside a used book store the brightly painted sculpture of a sperm whale welcomed us to town. I knew this was going to be a great stop.

We drove to Mystic Seaport, a historic maritime village. They feature a boat yard where wooden ships are carefully wrought in the way they were made when Yankee Clippers were the finest of open-sea technology.

There were exhibitions about rope-making, clam-fishing, and knot-tying. We climbed aboard a Yankee Clipper in time for a guide to tell use how the sailors sang songs to work the ropes--since most sailors were "greenhands" or novices, the first few weeks of any voyage were a chance for the captain to help the crew to "learn the ropes," a saying we still use today. I also learned that a "slacker" was a sailor who didn't pull his fair share of the rope.

The crown jewel of the visit, though was the blacksmith's shop and the Charles W. Morgan, the only whaling ship remaining from an industry that was a backbone of the American economy in the 1850s.

It was in the blacksmith's shop that we came face to prong with the instruments of the whaling trade: the harpoon, the lance, and the cutting spade.

When whalers spotted a whale--"Thar she blows!"--they rowed away from the ship on whaleboats. The harpooner, at the front of the boat, got close enough to the whale for a solid shot (10 to 20 feet). After securing the harpoon in the whale's side, the crew of the whaleboat held on for a "Nantucket Sleighride."

As the injured whale towed the boat through the water, the crew maneuvered to tire out the prey and bring the boat up close. Once the whale was still, the mate approached from the back of the boat with the lance, a long spear which probed the inside of the whale, hoping to reach the lungs and cause death by asphyxiation. When the whale emitted a spray of blood from its blowhole, the cry went up, "chimneys afire!" and the crew secured the whale to to the carcass to the whale ship.

Yes, this sounds gross. It probably was.

The blacksmith's shop was hands on. I picked up a harpoon and showed it to Joshie. We imagined what it must have been like to get so close to a whale, throw the harpoon, and hold on for dear life.

Moored nearby was the Charles W. Morgan. It had been one of the last whaling ships to hunt for whales--long after petroleum had replaced whale oil as an illuminant and lubricant and the prices has collapsed.

As we entered, Owen's mood darkened. He is an animal lover; I am a history nut. Perhaps his take on the whaling story was opposite to mine.

We talked with the guide and toured the captain's galley--a bed with matters and a toilet, the captain lived in luxury, and he shared a table with his mates.
Owen kept up a negative whine, shoving his cousins and causing chaos.

"That does it," I said. "Walk the plank!"

He looked at me and frowned.

"I mean it. I want you to walk right off this ship and wait for us at the end of the plank."

Owen turned and stomped off. (The picture, right, shows him waiting for us when we left the ship.)

We continued into the blubber room, into which strips of whale blubber were lowered and cut. I had read that whale oil was some of the strongest smelling stuff known to man--and the lower decks reeked. It was said that you could smell a returning whale ship before you saw it; others insisted that whale ships could be smelled from three to five miles away.

Once the whale had been killed, there were only two commodities American whalers sought: oil and ambergris. In the sperm whale--preferred prey of Americans--the head contained a huge, 500-gallon chamber of a special oil known as spermaceti (its cloudy texture resembled human sperm and gave the whale its name). As for the rest of the whale, whalers cut into the blubber with the long whaling spades, rotating the whale in the water and peeling it as one would peel an orange, with one long line of blubber coming free.

(Other valuable commodities from sperm whales included whale teeth--sperm are one of the only whale species that have teeth instead of baleen--which were worth their weight in gold on the South Sea islands. Also, ambergris is a substance found in the intestines of sperm whales that was used in perfumes and seasonings.)

Back on the main deck, we checked out the try works, where the blubber was melted into oil and drained into barrels. We walked the plank to find Owen waiting patiently for us, ready to move on.

Later I left Julie with the kids at a kids-oriented exhibit, and I took Owen through the museum. Owen has a great personality, but he is something of an introvert. Jenny and I have learned to give him his space when he really starts to act up.

Together we examined wonderful examples of scrimshaw (artwork painted onto a whale's tooth) and watched ancient film footage shot during one of the last whaling voyages, around 1909.

We finished with a meal at the galley--my only sampling of fish & chips the entire trip. Before leaving, we posed for pictures on a doomed whale boat.

For me, Mystic was the highlight of the trip, both for the seaport and for the aquarium, which I will blog about next. That so much history and character could be bottled up in such a charming town! If you go to New England, it is a must, methinks.

Basking in the Art of America

My first stop in Washington, DC, was the museum that I loved when I was a kid: the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

I had wanted to begin our whaling trip there because of memories I had of the giant blue whale that soared over the marine wing of the museum. As I began to research the trip, however, I learned that this whale was no longer part of the museum--you have to go to New York's Museum of Natural History to see a full blue whale (although we later saw some skeletons in New Bedford, Mass).

In fact, the marine wing was closed for renovation, so Jonah, Owen and I headed for the mammal wing while Julie, Ellie and the Gates gang checked out the insect zoo.

I love the 'stuffed animals of the exhibits, and so did the boys--they had really loved Chicago's Field Museum last summer. They posed (right) with a chunk of seal blubber.

Later we visited the dinosaur room, in which so many different skeletons are on display, it is almost overwhelming!

For the afternoon, I decided to check out a new (for me) museum, the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art, which shares the old U.S. Patent Office with the National Portrait Gallery. I love art museums (it's a vice, I know--and the rest of my family hates me for it). When I visit a good exhibit, my pulse quickens, and my imagination begins to race. I really get stoked for these things!

To make things worse, I spent 2nd semester teaching American Literature at my high school. When I teach literature, anymore, I try to use music and art to augment the lessons kids learn about how American culture advanced through time. I had a heart full of American artists like Alfred Bierstadt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Winslow Homer; now I was ready to get an eye full.

We split up again. The Gates Gang (with Ellie in tow) toured the International Spy Museum across the street. I took Jonah and Owen.

Touring an art gallery with a kindergartner and a 2nd-grader is a real challenge. I knew that--if I was going to get anything out of this visit--I would need to provide a context for the boys to enjoy the paintings, too. Otherwise it was going to be a terrible afternoon.

The first gallery was an exhibition of landscapes. Before we started, I took the boys aside. "Okay, we're only going to look at a few pictures here," I told them. "For each one we look at, I want you to answer, 'Where is it?'."

They nodded.

"You can say 'desert' or 'Colorado' or 'Tennessee' or whatever you want."


We went to the first painting, a pretty straightforward picture. Seashore, said Owen. "That's the beach!" Jonah chirped.

We saw desert, New Mexico, a big river. We stopped before an abstract painting with lots of lines going up and down (brilliant, Georgia O'Keeffe). Where is it?

"That's New York City!" Jonah shouted. Owen looked at the marker. He looked back at me, stunned. "He's right."

I was stunned too. I'm not sure where Jo-Jo got it. (Later in the trip, we would visit New York.) At that point, I knew the visit would be great.

I had planned to skip the abstract paintings, but the boys were hooked, and their imaginations were fully dialed in. Nothing got past them, they figured out where everything was.

We moved into the collection of portraits of American presidents. Jonah was still on track. He pointed out George Washington, got a little tripped up on Jefferson (all the wig-wearers looked the same to him). He needed only a little help with Lincoln, and we journeyed through the other presidents with ease, including a fascinating exhibition on Lincoln's 2nd inaugural and subsequent assassination/funeral.

The last part of the tour was the one I had looked foward to the most, a trek through 300+ years of American history and art.

Our previous travels informed the kids of this wing--there were lots of bison and Indians, which we had learned about on trips West the previous two summers. I was blown away by the monumental Bierstadt painting, "Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868)." It was ten feet high and almost 18 feet wide, and it simply was breathtaking.

The print they sold in the gift shop just didn't do the original justice. I will include it at right, just for you to reference, but you will have to take my word on the magnificence of the original.

This is painting is what makes being an American such a great experience. There are places in this country where you can stand, look up at the mountain peaks, and get the feeling that angels are singing all around you--like you are looking directly into Heaven. Thank God, there were painters who shared this view and were actually able to capture the emotion on canvas!

There are fireworks going off in my mind at the memory of this painting, and I witnessed it almost three weeks ago (there are fireworks going off outside, despite the rain, because it is Independence Day, which may also explain my patriotism).

I will close with one more picture from the MAA. In the modern wing of the historical exhibit, we found this sculpture of a mother playing with her baby. It was a remarkable sculpture, because the fluid lines and the playful postures made this a work of art that was enjoyable from almost every vantage point.

You can see that even Owen found a good angle from which to study this piece.
By the time we met Julie and Ellie again, I was on cloud nine. The boys had had fun. I had gotten a mind full of art and a heart full of my country. I had blown some serious money in the gift shop. All was right with the world.
(Later, when I report on our Father's Day visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I will purposely leave out the dis-interest the boys showed there. All you need to know, dear reader, is that I got it right...once.

03 July 2008

Shoeless Jo goes to Washington

Since he was old enough to walk, Jonah has had his own nickname: "Shoeless Jo."

For those of you not versed in the history of baseball, the original Shoeless Joe played for the Chicago White Sox 90 years ago.

He was one of the greatest players in baseball history, topping 3,000 hits (the standard for baseball's greatest hitters), hitting over .400 once, and retiring with the 2nd-highest career batting average when he left the game after the 1920 season.

But it was how Shoeless Joe left the game that obscures the greatness with which he played it. He was part of the eight men on the White Sox who agreed with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series against the underdog Cincinnati Reds. He accepted $5,000 to play poorly, even though his statistics--.375 batting average & 12 RBI would have won World Series MVP in many other years.

He was part of a legendary encounter outside the federal court house where he had testified in the gambling trial. A young boy, a distraught White Sox fan, confronted him outside the court house with the immortal words, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

It was so. For his ties to gambling, Shoeless Joe was banned from baseball for life and kept out of the Hall of Fame, despite his records. (For the record, my favorite childhood baseball player, Pete Rose, remains banned from baseball for his own gambling problems.)

My own Shoeless Jo earned his nickname through consistent negligence. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I remind him, Jonah remains shoeless. Yesterday we were halfway to VBS when I looked in the rearview mirror. "Did you put on your shoes?" I asked. (I had reminded him four times before we left.)

Jonah shrugged. "Nah." I tried to be angry, but he out-cuted me.

When we visited Washington, there was a lot of walking. Monuments, museums, walk, walk, walk. We were really exhausted!

On Tuesday we went to my congressman's office to take a tour of the U.S. Capitol his staff had arranged for me. (I had contacted them to arrange for a White House tour, but I missed out on the six weeks it takes the Secret Service to screen visitors.) At 1:30 Congressman Gordon walked into the office for a chat. Julie and I were the only visitors.

He showed us into his office to talk about a few issues. He was pleasant and courteous, showing us the different space-related curios in his office (he chairs a committee on space--of all things).

As I was talking to him, I saw Julie start to grin. I turned, and to my horror I spotted Jonah, squirming around on the congressman's nice leather couch.

In the 30 seconds I had talked with this important congressman, Jonah had found a way to slip off his shoes and kick back on the couch.

He certainly made himself at home.

I couldn't believe it.


Julie snapped the picture that you see at left.

I have to admit, I have studied this picture carefully. Jonah is on the couch, pointing his bare feet at the congressman (if this were an Arab country, where feet are considered unclean, it would be equivalent to flipping the bird.) Joshie is next to him, shoeless as well.

Every time I look at the picture, I try to scrutinize Congressman Gordon's smile. It looks genuine, doesn't it? Or is it the opaque smile of an experienced politician? Behind the smile, is he thinking, "The people I represent HAVE GOT to do a better job of raising children! This is leather furniture! These miserable rednecks and their spawn!"

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. At least I will know, when I cast a vote for him in November, that he has certainly earned it.

30 June 2008

Give President Bush the Credit He Deserves

This picture was taken at the RV park in Washington, DC, where we camped.

Jacob (Julie's son, age 6) and Owen posed in front of a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

Clearly, one of these boys is being raised to love his country and all it stands for. He has also been taught to give George W. Bush the respect he has earned as leader of our country over the past seven years.

And the other...has been raised to love his country and all it stands for, and--yes--to give President Bush the respect he deserves.

26 June 2008

RV Riding

One of the most unique features about this summer's road trip was that we went in a 31-foot RV.
I had never camped in an RV or driven one, so I didn't know what to expect until I met Julie in Raleigh, NC, and clilmbed aboard. It was sweet. There was a room in the back with a queen-sized bed. A shower and a bathroom. The middle section extended out about three feet when we camped so we had room for a kitchen (including microwave, oven and stove) and seating for about seven. In the "fo'c'sle" above the drive there was another queen-sized bed.

Within minutes, the boys were running all around the back. Julie and I weren't sure of the safety rules to follow. We did feel pangs of guilt when we heard Owen (7), Jonah (4), Jacob (6) and Joshie (3) jumping on the bed in the back room. Soon there was a crash and we had the boys in seatbelts for the rest of the trip (I fixed the bedroom mirror at our first stop).

Traveling with kids in an RV is great. Someone needs to use the bathroom? Go then. We're not stopping. Thirsty? The refrigerator was stocked with Sprite, Diet Coke and juice boxes throughout the trip. The only stops were for gas.

Sure, this wasn't a very smart time to be driving a gas guzzling RV around the country. On the drive back from New York to Raleigh, NC, I know we spent $440, stopping four times to fill up. (Many pumps have a $75 or $100 maximum fill-up, so I wasn't able to calculate gas mileage very well.) Still, it was worth it because Julie's business, MyDietSolutions was picking up the gas tab.

To pay her back, we plastered decals on the walls of the RV. We wore brightly colored shirts everywhere we went that read: "I'm learning about BLUBBER!" and gave the web address. Whenever we went into the city, I stuffed my pockets with promotional pens and post cards, which we left everywhere we could think of: subway trains, restaurants, kiosks.

My favorite technique was sliding cards behind the posters that advertized on the subwasy in NYC and Boston. We must have given out more than 300 pens!

Driving the RV was quite another task. Since Julie was paying, I was happy to let her drive--and she did for 80 percent of our trip together. The further north we got, the more difficult that became. (Ellie and Owen modeled our shirts at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, right.)

We decided to stop in Atlantic City to check out the action on the boardwalk there. It was fun driving into Atlantic City. Somewhere I learned that the streets in the game, Monopoly, are named after streets there, and I sure was right! We cruised down Atlantic Avenue and crossed Ventnor, Kentucky, and Park Place. Julie and Ellie wanted to check out the Trump casino, so we aimed for Pennsylvania, which went past the Trump Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately we got to the end of the street and couldn't find a place to park. I got out to scout things out. Poor Julie had to turn the thing around. Later, in Plymouth, we would see the Goodyear Blimp at the airport where Julie's husband, Don, parked his plane. I joked, "We should have a competition between the RV and the blimp to see who can make the sharpest turn!"

While Julie stopped and started, back and forth, from one side of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, I slipped into the Resorts Casino across the street. I was blinded by the casino lights. (It really does mess with my brain. It was hard to concentrate on my mission--and I am not yet addicted to gambling.) Finally I found a parking guy who was so nice. He showed us the way to one of the outside lots, and he let us park for free.

This is how Julie got me back. When we got back from the boardwalk--and a buffet dinner at Resorts--she said, "I have a lot of work to do. Why don't you drive this leg?" So I hopped in for my first experience driving an RV and cruised up the Garden State Parkway towards the Big Apple.

Two hours later, I was squeezing my way onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island to Long Island. The lanes were n-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-o-w! My knuckles were white already, and I hadn't yet begun to navigate the interstate canyonlands of Brooklyn and Queens.

It was terrifying. I would be scared driving my tiny Saturn through that area, but driving an RV was horrible. I knew that the only thing worse than driving the Long-Island Queens Expressway would be the streets of Brooklyn. I kept going.

Julie made a game of it. "Let's see how many times you get honked at," she said, after one driver laid on his horn big time. I was scared of changing lanes. I was more scared in getting stuck in an exit only lane or getting onto an expressway that led back to the city. Both hands were frozen to the wheel.

And then the sun went down and we were finally out of the city on our way to Orient Point, Long Island. We stopped for gas, and Julie returned to the driver's seat. I wouldn't drive again until the drive home.
All in all, driving an RV is terrible. Adventure makes it worthwhile, I guess, but I still have flashbacks to the Long Island Expressway. This small town boy really got more than he bargained for there!

25 June 2008

Worth the Wait?

Has it been three weeks already since I posted to my blog? Ouch!

There has been a lot happening--mainly our road trip up the Atlantic Coast, and I can't wait to blog about it.

To be honest, I was blogging, but I was being paid to do it by my sister's web site, MyDietSolutions, which sponsored our trip. I also wrote a blog about the trip, which (frankly) wasn't very detail-rich, and I had to include a lot of facts about blubber and weight loss. But there are some good pictures and highlights from the trip there.

If you are a friend, you are welcome to check it out, but in this blog, I'll get deeper into some of the things I experienced, so reserve your comments for here.

Also, I read a great book the weekend before the trip, and I have almost figured out post modernism and its applications to spirituality, but that is for later!

On with the show!

02 June 2008

Baseball Summer

I'm indulging in my favorite sport, baseball, this summer more than I have in years.

My fantasy baseball team, the Arizona Run Devils, is #1 in my league of fellow high school teachers. I'm over 200 points ahead of the 2nd-place team thanks to awesome seasons from real-life baseball players Chase Utley and Justin Morneau. For those of you who don't know, in fantasy baseball, team members draft real players and get points for the statistics they earn in real baseball games.

Finally, I found this statistic in a recent column by Gennaro Filice:

The Cubs swept the Dodgers this week, evening the all-time series at 1,010-1,010.

The National League, in which the Cubs & Dodgers play, was founded in 1876.

I love this game.

30 May 2008

Clues to the Tree of Life

I'm expanding my Podcast reach.

Recently I went through the offerings at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I listened to a podcast about the Assyrian collection. I want to tell the rest of what I learned in story form below:

In the halls of the Met's Near-Eastern Galleries, you can see the seeds of the Bible parading across the walls. Lovely, powerful beings march across the walls. Each one has four wings, and their power is symbolized in the enormous leg and arm muscles so carefully wrought by an artist long ago.

It's funny. When I think of an angel, usually I think of a tall, male figure. Now that I think if of it, he has blond hair and white garments. His figure isn't particularly striking--effeminate, perhaps. In my imagination, the power comes from his wings.

That's not how the writers of Genesis and Judges pictured angels when these books were written long ago.

They saw men very much like the one at right. They have long, braided beards, dark hair, and brightly painted, fringed clothes. They look like they could have stepped out of an advertisement for Gold's Gym. These men were known as Genii, from which we get the magical term of "Genie."

(The term, Genie, comes from the Arabic term, Jinn, which also refers to angelic beings, albeit beings with a different set of powers that those of our Western angels.)

I hadn't really thought about the cultural implications to what I believed an Angel to be. Yet it is clear from the relief that I'm seeing things quite differently from the way they were at the time the Bible was written.

Genesis 3 closes with an extraordinary image: an angel holding a flaming sword, guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden and barring Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life.

Of course Revelation ends with the same image of a Tree of Life. But this is one where the angel is not barring the way, but instead it is showing John the way into heaven--quite a twist, and what I would describe as quite the happy ending.

In Revelation 22, the Tree of Life is more of a species of tree than a single tree, since apparently these trees line the River of the Water of Life (verses 1-2). What kind of tree could it be?

It "bears twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (2). Those are some good hints. Fruit falls every month. Its leaves provide healing. When I think of fruit, I think of apples or peaches--but they fall once a year, they can't possible produce in every season (at least not during winter). Have cherry leaves been used as a medicine?

Later rabbinic traditions held that the tree of life was so tall that it took 500 years to climb to the top.

Let's review the clues: the Tree of Life is tall, it never goes out of season, it produces fruit, its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

The ultimate visual clue--if one connects the origins of the Biblical tree of life with Abraham's cultural origins in Mesopotamia--can be found on another relief. This pictures another Genii--this one with the head of a hawk rather than a prince. His wings are behind him. He has the powerful arms and legs from the original picture. Like the original, he carries a bag full of incense.

Look at his right hand. In it is the seed of the Tree of Life.

It is too long to be an apple, too narrow to be a pear, too large to be a grape or a cherry.

It is...

...a pinecone.

That's right, the people of the ancient Near East saw the pine as a tree of life. It is evergreen, almost magical. It certainly isn't what I would have expected from previous readings of Genesis or Revelation.

Is it what you expected?

After I post this blog, I'm going to walk up my driveway to get the mail. As many of you know, it is lined with pine trees that my grandpa planted over 50 years ago.

Today, as I'm walking, I think I might better imagine what John saw in Revelation 22: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing...down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life."

Walking through those pines today, I'll feel closer to heaven--closer to Eternity which has been promised me.