Friday, January 26, 2007

I love my job!

Blogging has been light of late, as track season began Monday. That means two things in my world: first, that I'll work late every day (and therefore have less free time at home for such things as blogging), and second, that I'll be exhausted for a week or two from the physical effort of coaching. I don't run every step with the kids anymore, but the parts I do participate in are demanding (and become more so as I crowd the big 4-0). But even though the weather this past week has not cooperated (it tends to drop about 20 degrees between the start and finish of practice every day, which is really unpleasant for sprinters), I am reminded again what a blessing it is to do something for a living about which one is passionate. On Tuesday, possibly the best athlete in the school barfed up a lung because he wanted to excel (and impress ME) so badly. The end of most of our workouts looks like Jim Jones has been passing out kool-aid, with bodies strewn all over and various groans of agony sounding from the heaps of steaming flesh. Yet these kids are all there on purpose, giving 100%, in pursuit of a goal months away. For some it's a time goal--under 5 minutes in the mile, or maybe even under 8. For others, it's a school record or a state title. For others (like it was for me in '84), it's "nerd rehab"--striving to find a niche as an athlete in an environment where there are no cuts, no bench, and no ball. But in all cases, this is one area of teaching where no one doubts the correlation between effort and outcome. The outcomes are by no means guaranteed, but the striving is what it's all about. If I won the lottery, I'd still coach. (Of course, if I won the lottery, I'd do my winter coaching in a brand-new indoor practice facilty. Oh, well...)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

What a Weekend!

This morning, a mirror in our master bedroom fell to the floor and shattered into a zillion pieces. Superstition says that should bring 7 years of bad luck. Apparently that superstition is false; it's been one of the best weekends ever. Friday night our oldest son debuted in the middle school version of "The Music Man" as Marcellus, the sidekick to Professor Howard Hill. It was great. Then Friday morning I had to trek to Lexington for a PBC program team meeting. To do that, I had to beg off from my usual duties coaching Saturday Morning Basketball--this week, my team played our middle son, Jacob's team. On the way up the interstate, the phone rings--Jacob's team has won, and he has scored his first-ever basket. As soon as the meeting was over, I booked it back down the highway to the gym , arriving 30 seconds before tipoff of David's bantam game. He played well, and scored. Then, a quick shower and back to the auditorium for the second show of the play, followed by the cast party (which, incidentally, was the first meal I got all day). Then this morning it was off to church, where the weekend moved from merely awesome to unforgettable: Jacob was baptized following morning services! The fact that I got lunch at Fazoli's, a much-needed nap, and now an afternoon of playoff football is just icing on the cake. It's weekends like this that remind me how awesome parenthood really is--I'm so proud of both my boys, I could burst my buttons!

Ordering Your Private World, Week 3

Chapter 3: Caught in A Golden Cage
“In an explanation of the inner sphere of the person, one has to begin somewhere, and I have chosen to begin where Christ appears to have begun—with the distinction between the called and the driven. …He dealt with their motives, the basis of their spiritual energy, and the sorts of gratification in which they were interested. He called those who were drawn to Him and avoided those who were driven and wanted to use Him.” (p. 29)

“There are lots of driven people doing very good things. Driven people are not necessarily bad folk, although the consequences of their drivenness may produce unfortunate results.” (p. 31)

Symptoms of The “Driven” Person (p. 31-36):

A driven person is most often gratified only by accomplishment. (can be seen in constant “multi-tasking” and a concern for the results over the process)
A driven person is preoccupied with the symbols of accomplishment (status, titles, notoriety)
A driven person is usually caught in the uncontrolled pursuit of expansion. (Can be true even in a spiritual sense; never satisfied with self, others, church)
Driven people tend to have little regard for integrity (pragmatic, end justifies the means)
Driven people often possess limited or undeveloped people skills (a “trail of bodies” in their wake)
Driven people tend to be highly competitive (everything is winning and losing)
A driven person often possesses a volcanic force of anger (not just physical, but verbal)
Driven people are abnormally busy.

“…much of our world is run by driven people. We have created a system that rides on their backs. And where that is true in businesses, in churches, and in homes, the growth of people is often sacrificed for accomplishment and accumulation.” (p. 36)

The Biblical Example of A “Driven” Man: Saul

1 Samuel 9:1-2 (NLT)
Kish was a rich, influential man from the tribe of Benjamin. He was the son of Abiel and grandson of Zeror, from the family of Becorath and the clan of Aphiah. [2] His son Saul was the most handsome man in Israel—head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land.

Friday, January 19, 2007


What a week! It's hard to believe, but even with Monday off, I still could have gotten overtime this week... if, of course, I got overtime. So, limited (OK, non-existent) blogging of late. On the good news front, middle school play practice is over (performances tonight and tomorrow), so David gets his life back. On the other end of the spectrum, I start track season Monday, so it's out of the frying pan and into the fire, as far as long hours go. Still, things could be much worse. While on lunch duty today (and today was my LAST day of duty for the school year!! Whoopee!!), I made not one, not two, but three calls to people in the hospital:

First, my grandmama, doing very well, thanks, after brain surgery.
Second, my assistant track coach, who blew out his knee a day or two ago (did I mention that we start the season Monday? Oh, well.)
And third, a rival track coach who just had cancer surgery. He is a hall-of-fame coach who has handed me my head in the last eight state championships. I wish him a speedy recovery in the hopes that he can live long enough that one day I can beat him, fair and square.

So, it's even worse crazy for lots of folks. Maybe some pics tomorrow of the play. Best to all the PBC readers... see you tomorrow at Lexington!

Monday, January 15, 2007

MLK Day Trivia, and thoughts

We're off today, for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Did you know that MLK is one of only four people who have a federal holiday named after them? Trivia for today--name the other three. I'll post the answers later in this blog post.

I'm a big fan of Dr. King. My family had the opportunity to visit the Lorraine Motel, site of the National Civil Rights Museum, on a trip two summers ago. It is sobering to see the balcony where he died. The inscription in front of the room is a quote from Genesis 37 (the story of Joseph): "And they said, here cometh the dreamer; let us slay him, and we shall see what becomes of his dreams." One of the most exciting things about this holiday for me is to reflect on how progress toward Dr. King's dream has come in the past 39 years. Although we are still far from perfect (and in this fallen world, we'll never get all the way past our prejudices, I fear), I can see in the attitudes of my 7th grade students toward my lessons on the Civil Rights Movement that gradually, generation by generation, we are drawing closer and closer to the color-blind society that Dr. King envisioned. My great-grandfather witnessed slavery. My grandfather lived through Jim Crow. My father went to one of the last segregated high school classes in our state, and lived through the Movement. I personally am still AWARE of race, but almost as an afterthought--and even that awareness is something of an embarassment to me. But my children (and my students, who are the same age) seem to not even notice race, and they treat my lessons on the Movement as if they took place in the ancient world. I keep hoping that their generation will be the one that fully achieves the dream. One thing is for sure--we're closer than we have ever been.

Have you guessed the trivia answer yet? The other three are Washington's Birthday, Columbus Day, and Christmas Day. Most folks I have asked this question have hung up on Jesus--something about three figures from US History and one from 2000 years ago makes it tougher. But Dr. King is in very good company. Have a great day off!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ordering Your Private World, Week Two

For the second week, I'm just posting the notes I prepared for class on OYPW. Feel free to join in with your thoughts.

Chapter 1: The Sinkhole Syndrome

Our private world is a source of strength and stability, especially under pressure. If neglected, it will not have the strength to hold everything else up. Yet we can come to realize that we have spent “the majority of [our] time and energy establishing life on the visible level, at the surface.” (p. 14)

“Our public worlds are filled with a seeming infinity of demands upon our time, our loyalties, our money, and our energies. And because these public worlds of ours are so visible, so real, we have to struggle to ignore all their seductions and demands. They scream for our attention and action. The result is that our private world is often cheated, neglected because it does not shout quite so loudly. It can be effectively ignored for long periods of time before it gives way to a sinkhole-like cave-in.” (p. 15)

“One of the great battlegrounds of our age is the private world of the individual. There is a contest that must be fought particularly by those who call themselves practicing Christians. Among them are those who work hard, shouldering massive responsibilities at home, at work, and at church. They are good people, but they are very, very tired! …We are naively inclined to believe that the most publicly active person is also the most privately spiritual… Because we tend to think like this, there is the temptation to give imbalanced attention to our public worlds at the expense of the private.” (p. 15-16)

Ephesians 3:14-21 (NLT)
When I think of the wisdom and scope of God's plan, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, [15] the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. [16] I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will give you mighty inner strength through his Holy Spirit. [17] And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust in him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God's marvelous love. [18] And may you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. [19] May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it. Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
[20] Now glory be to God! By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope. [21] May he be given glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever through endless ages. Amen.

Chapter 2: The View From the Bridge

Proverbs 4:23 (NASB)
Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.

“What I call the ‘bridge,’ he [Solomon] calls the ‘heart.’ He sees the heart as a spring, and out of it can flow the energy, the insight, and the force that do not succumb to outer turbulence, but rather overcome it. …But what does it mean to ‘keep’ the heart? For one thing, the writer is obviously concerned that the heart be protected from influences outside itself that might jeopardize its integrity. …keeping or guarding the heart, the ‘bridge’ of human life, is a deliberate and disciplined choice a man or woman must make.” (p. 23-24)

Romans 12:2 (NASB)
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Monster Truck Jam

Last night, I attended my first-ever "Monster Truck Jam." I don't think it's the beginning of a trend. It was my nephew's birthday, and he had seen the commercials and wanted to go, so my boys and I went. The "monster trucks" are basically a chevy truck shell perched atop a giant chassis and 4 huge tires, pretty much a decorated go-cart with a huge engine. The trucks line up in front of a row of junked cars, rev the giant engines, then speed forward, crush the cars, and sometimes go airborne for a second. Then they back up, line up, and do it again. Judges rank which one did the best. For this, 10,000 people sat in traffic. Apparently there is a whole subculture of people who follow this "sport." At dinner, there were tons of people wearing t-shirts advertising the "Grave Digger" truck, which I guess is a superstar of the monster circuit; they were shooting t-shirts into the crowd throughout the show, but I can't say I would have risked life or limb to get one... somehow I just don't see myself as being on the front end of that particular fashion trend.

It was amazing to me how large and diverse the crowd was. Of course, there were an abundance of mullet haircuts and folks who looked like they would fall into the "them thar's big 'ol trucks" demographic--but there were huge numbers of just regular people: families, college kids, more men than women, but a genuinely broad spectrum. I had no idea this stuff was so popular!

The highlight of the night was "Draco the Dragonator," a jerry-rigged green backhoe decorated with scales, wings, glowing red eyes, and the ability to "breathe" fire. They rolled this thing out and it "ate" a compact car, to the delight of all the little boys (present company included) in the crowd. I'm pretty sure that in the next 24 hours there will be a similar device in my home made of legos.

The low point--being reminded again that even among rednecks, I'm a redneck. As we waited and waited and waited for traffic to clear up, I watched the Sal-mobile heat up, gradually reaching the point where idiot lights began to flash. Luckily, we rolled on and it cooled off, but you have to admit--sitting with your hood up, pouring steam, while traffic backs up behind you at the monster truck jam--that's a Jeff Foxworthy special waiting to happen.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Growing Older

When I started teaching, I was only 4-5 years older than my oldest students (some of whom were repeaters), and an average of 8 years older (and I could still race any of them at 100 meters and win). I also was 135 lbs soaking wet, and had maybe two chest hairs fighting for space on the vast expanse of my size 36 pectorals. I wanted so badly to be recognized as older, a grownup. (I even got locked out of the teachers' lounge once as a student teacher because they thought from a distance I was one of the kids). One reason I ditched my contacts and went back to the specs is so I might have a chance of being called "sir" without a double-take.

Fast-forward. Today a kid on my team--one of the upperclassmen, mind you--reminded me that I'm 22 years older than him. I'm TRIPLE the age of my students in the middle school. I've already posted about meeting a former student in his 30s a couple of weeks ago. Today I didn't run a pretty easy workout with the team because I'm "recovering" from yesterday, and because I got a shooting phantom pain in my butt after that supposedly "easy" one. And worst of all, the (still small, but slightly broader) chest now has hair. Hair that matches that on my shoulders, my back, and the ancient-guy stuff that is growing out of my nose. Every time I go to the barber, he clips my bushy eyebrows--without even asking! My GRANDDADDY had bushy eyebrows!

So I guess I'm a grownup. It's not all it's cracked up to be. Being "sir" to a 17 year old is cool, but when the faculty starts doing it... ouch. Where do I sign up to be 25 again (or at least to run like it?)

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Handicapping '08, Part 2: The Republicans

As I alluded to yesterday, the biggest problem with the GOP field right now is that there's nobody who seems "the annointed" for the next nomination. The Republicans are known for giving the guy who has been "waiting his turn" a shot. Both Bushes were "the next guy." So was Dole. So was Reagan, really. This year, there's no such guy. There are, however, the three front-runners:

John McCain gets the biggest poll numbers nowadays. I voted for him over Bush in the 2000 primaries. But he will be 72 if he wins... the same age Reagan, our oldest president, was... in his 2nd term. One of the best lines I ever heard about McCain (wish I remembered who to give the credit to) is: "He's a great American, an OK senator, and a lousy Republican." It seems odd that the GOP front-runner in '08 is a guy who is best known for sticking a thumb in the eye of the GOP base. I don't know, but it's hard to imagine that same base (the folks who actually show up at primaries) just letting him waltz in to the general election.

Next is Rudolph Giuliani. I think the last mayor to be president was Grover Cleveland (mayor of Buffalo, NY, with a brief stop as Governor in Albany first). Rudy also presents problems. His supprters say that in these difficult times, his leadership in NYC and especially after 9/11 will trump the social issues and personal (marital) problems that would otherwise resonate with the GOP base. I wonder if maybe they shouldn't poll different folks for primaries and the general: I could see a Rudy winning the election, but just not getting nominated.

Finally, Mitt Romney. Have you heard he's Mormon? Supposedly, that's the reason he can't win with the evangelical group. He's the one I'm intrigued with on the GOP side... I don't know if I'm a "typical" evangelical, but he seems to agree with me more on most issues than a McCain or a Rudy. The whole market-based health care system in Massachusetts is cool to me, as is his opposition to gay marriage as an example of judicial overreach, without coming across as a gay-hater (if ever I feel really brave, I may tackle THAT issue in the blog...don't hold your breath). He seems to me to be the Obama of the right--the guy who upsets the apple-cart and breaks the mold. He is a distant third right now, but I wonder if that might change. What could kill Romney is any candidate to his right (Brownback, for example) who hurts him in the primaries but himself can't win the general. We'll have to see how that plays out.

So, here's where we stand: conventional wisdom (at least at the present) pits Hillary against McCain. I'm out here on a limb saying Obama vs. Romney. Before you call Vegas and post your bets, though, you should know that no candidate I have ever supported in a primary has gone on to be president, so take my predictions with a grain of salt.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Handicapping '08, Part 1: The Democrats

I'm starting with the democrats because John Edwards was the last link in my stream of consciousness that led here. I also happen to think they are "easier" right now because they have several candidates I can actually picture winning their nomination (so far I haven't got that feeling about anyone in the GOP yet... their bench is shorter than a 7th-grader's attention span). But fear not, I'll come back and flay both sides with equal abandon.

Let's start with the obvious: Hillary Clinton. She has the best name recognition, has raised the most money, and she is the "one to beat" in almost everyone's analysis. I don't know, though. I can't think of anyone who would come in with more negatives. For me at least, it would be nice to have a president for the first time in 16 years who half the country didn't HATE with a passion. The only good news is that she would firmly establish a new dynastic principle of American democracy: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. All we need is Jeb Bush to run in 2012 or 2016, and by then Chelsea will be old enough....

Next, Barak Obama. He really intrigues me, for a variety of reasons. Not even a full term in the senate, and that by winning a race over a substitute candidate (Alan Keyes) who stepped in after the other guy had some sex scandal with an alien from Star Trek. (don't believe me? Look it up!) But rather than seeing him as an empty suit, he comes across as a blank slate. The lack of a record could be great for him (long voting records tend to kill senator candidates). And his bio is amazing. He could win. As a conservative, I would hope that his (admittedly short) 100% liberal record so far would give way to a more balanced stance in the oval office. But I'd have to see a lot more to get on board--it's early yet.

Then come John Edwards. Larry James (the poverty blogger I mentioned in my last post) says he has met Edwards, and believes that his passion for the poor is genuine. Since I haven't met either one of them, I'm in no position to say. If his plan were to include such things as encouraging marriage before children, I might even get on board. And he does have a nice head of hair. But I (and apparently many others) thought he didn't have the experience to be president last time, which is why he couldn't beat John Kerry (who I thought was a pretty woeful candidate) for the nomination. Since he hasn't gained any other experience since then (besides that of running, I guess), I don't see him beating a stronger field. If the dems choose a guy with no resume, I'll bet it's Obama.

What about Kerry himself? I just don't see the democrats rushing to re-nominate a guy who couldn't beat George W. Bush when there are fresh faces out there.

Then, finally, there's Al Gore. He's the wild card, I think. He did, after all, get the most popular votes in 2000, and he has been a senator and 8-year VP, so he wins the experience race hands-down. He was in my top tier of picks for the dems back in 88-92, when he was still a "moderate." But it seems like he is so very angry and extreme now. Maybe nobody else gets that same vibe from him, I don't know. Still, he's formidable.

So, I see it shaping up on the left like this: It will be Hillary vs. the "un-Hillary," who has yet to emerge from the pack. I'd like to think that the un-Hillary would be picked, as the candidate with the best chance in the general election. But of course, that pre-supposes that the folks who vote in primaries think that far ahead (remember Bob Dole? The base can do that on both sides). My best guess for the un-Hillary right now: Obama, if he plays his cards right, with Gore in the wings, ready to swoop in if he doesn't.

Whattaya think?

The Party's Over

Now for the not-so-happy part of the new year; teaching duties resumed today. On top of that, my track pre-season begins tomorrow. So the days of posting book-length blog entries at 9 AM while enjoying a 2nd cup of coffee are pretty much done. Now it will be shorter stuff (and the crowd goes wild!) posted later in the evenings, as time permits.

Thanks to those of you have taken time to post comments on any and all threads; hopefully there will be plenty of conversation-starters to come. My friend Philip in Samoa pointed me to a link to Larry James Urban Daily blog, which also deals with issues of poverty. I haven't read enough of it yet to know how well it dovetails (or not) with what I have written, and I don't want to comment on Larry James' posts here at my blog... if I feel strongly about anything he's written, I'll post it there. For what it's worth, my "poverty" series is a great example of the page subtitle... "what lurks in the corners of a cluttered mind." Reading the Will article a week ago spurred me to think "out loud" about the minimum wage, which in turn led to poverty, which itself led back to my students who demonstrate that, at least in some cases, "The American Dream" can work. The multiple posts and the length of them are mostly due to the fact that I'm a rookie blogger that had lots of time on his hands. But if you want the "all poverty, all the time" blog, looks like Larry James is the place to go.

Now seeing his blog (and a longish comment thread) on John Edwards, the declared anti-poverty candidate for president, leads me to think a different direction. My next post or two will be ruminations on the various (so far) front-runners for president. I'll try to keep them short.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Final Thoughts on Poverty

As promised, a couple of success stories from my days at my old school. The two poorest kids I knew were Odori and Antwan. I coached them both; coincidentally, both ran the 2-mile. Maybe that is significant, because a good work ethic and generally positive behaviors correlate rather strongly with distance runners. (Sprinters are usually the opposite—I was a sprinter.) Odori’s family was featured on a local TV station one Christmas as a family in need to “adopt.” On the kids’ Christmas list for their mom was a working fridge. I used to give Antwan a ride home from practice, as he had no other way to get home; his home was literally across the street from a crack house. Both took advantage of the opportunities provided by a free public education. Odori became one of my team captains, made good grades, and joined the US Marine Corps after graduation. Antwan excelled in the classroom, graduated at the top of his class, and won a scholarship to a local college. His goal: to be an elementary school teacher. I wish I knew, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story,” but I have lost track of both of them. But when last I saw them, each had, at least potentially, changed their family tree.

Now admittedly, these young men were (and are) exceptional. And some options (like the Marines) look a bit different now than then—the old, “join the military, learn a trade” sales pitch has taken a bit of a back-seat lately to actual warfare. But it CAN BE DONE. I would even venture to say that, in general, any American kid, even today, can choose to join the middle class.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many don’t even know how to begin to make that choice. Many will get a lot of resistance from bad role models, and even from the programming of society in general. Human nature being what it is (fallen and sinful), it should come as no surprise that it’s easier to be lazy and make excuses than to charge out into an uphill battle against the status quo.

So what about those who “choose” (actively, or by default) to keep on doing the things that keep them poor? I’m afraid there is no program that “we” can design that will solve that problem. Jesus did say, “the poor you will always have with you.” And therefore, we will always have the responsibility of charity. And that includes giving to those who really don’t “deserve” our help. That’s not natural, and of course it grates on us. It grates on me. But fortunately, I have an example Who is supernatural. God wants us to give, and not just for the sake of those who receive. Giving makes us more like God, who is himself a Giver of gifts to those who do not merit them.

For me at least, that means I’ll keep on voting for things I think actually work, and against those that I think are economically foolish or do more long-term harm than good. But at the same time, I’m going to keep on giving, and hopefully maintain an attitude of Christian charity, even at tax-time.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Ordering Your Private World, Week One

This is the first of a weekly thread related to my adult Sunday morning Bible School class. Anyone, whether in the class or not, is welcome to join in on the comments. The class is based on the book, Ordering Your Private World, by Gordon MacDonald. The hotlink is to a revised, hardcover copy of the book--it is not necessary to own one to be a part of the class. There are also older copies available at Below are the notes I prepared for this week's class.

“In Western culture we produce huge numbers of books to help us organize our work, our calendars, our production schedules, our studies, and our careers. I have not seen much that speaks directly to the question of internal, or spiritual, organization.” (p. 7)

MacDonald notes that the public dimension of life may be pretty-well organized, but there is an inner dimension of the spirit he calls “the private world” which relates to our spiritual life, and he says that the ideal state of this “private world” is order.

Ordering the private world is part of how the indwelling Christ chooses to “abide” in us, and us in Him (John 15:4).

“To bring order to one’s personal life is to invite His (Jesus’) control over every segment of one’s life.” (p. 9)

MacDonald divides his treatment of the “private world” into 5 parts:
1. Our Motivation—are we “driven” or “called?”
2. Our use of Time.
3. The development of our Minds.
4. Our cultivation of a Spiritual Center to our lives.
5. The principle of Sabbath Rest.

NOTE: All of this discussion pre-supposes that the reason we want to order our private worlds is because we already have a relationship with Christ, and that we are seeking to grow in that relationship. Although anyone who stumbles upon this topic online is welcome to get involved, the whole concept doesn’t make very much sense without at least a general acceptance of Christian principles.

FOR THIS WEEK: Think about your general satisfaction (or lack thereof) with the “order” of your life in the five areas MacDonald identifies. What do you hope to get out of the class over the next few weeks?

Thoughts on Poverty, Part 3

Let's review: I am conflicted about poverty. My conscience and my faith demands that I take (and support) action to help those who are poor, but my logical side demands that what I/we do amount to more than just "feel-good" measures; I want to really help, and certainly not to make things worse. At the same time, it seems that some significant proportion of poverty can be related back to poor behavioral choices--dropping out of school, unwed parenthood, irregular work habits. And I've already established that I don't want to blame the poor, least of all the children of poor families, for their plight.

So where does that leave us? I believe that we have in place the basics for what could be the greatest-ever anti-poverty program, if only we would use it as such. If, as I propose, some proportion of poverty is preventable at a root level by certain behaviors, then the trick is to TEACH those behaviors. In many non-poor families, those behaviors are transmitted as part of the family culture, by parents. Since one of the very root behaviors which breeds endemic poverty is fatherlessness (hence, one less parental role model, and the other overburdened by having to do two jobs), we cannot assume that such transmission is taking place in every home. But we have SCHOOLS. Public schools. Paid for by all of us, with required attendance, free transportation to and from included (the big yellow bus), where they'll even serve lunch and in most cases breakfast... for free, if you can't afford it! So, if the schools hammer that message (graduate, keep your pants up, get a job and work as much as you can), a blow can be struck right at those root causes.

But, "aha," you might say--schools DO that. Who hasn't seen the "don't be a fool, stay in school" posters, or heard ad nauseam about what is being taught in sex ed? To a certain extent, you've got me there. But I do think that parts of our effort are half-hearted. We especially fear offending people by pointing out the consequences of illegitimacy. Somebody (I think at National Review) wrote last week that anti-poverty presidential candidate John Edwards talks about two Americas. There ARE two Americas--one in which people get married before having babies, and one in which they don't. (Man, I wish I had written that. Sorry no link.) And sex ed class isn't the answer... these are, for the most part, not accicidental preganancies. There is a choice being made, rooted in a whole host of bad premises about sex, and parenthood, and family, and passed down from one dysfunctional generation to the next. Schools (and government) need to address that, head-on. Of course, there will be howls--how dare you push the "protestant ethic" on our diverse population? But that's what we need.

But what about "welfare" programs? Well, to a certain extent, I support them. For the most part, they are like Tylenol... they don't cure anything, but they can mask the symptoms until either the antibiotic works, or until the virus runs its course. Such a safety net is good, and necessary. But of course, as the old line goes, "it's a safety net, not a hammock." It is a basic law of human behavior that you tend to get more of what you reward and less of what you punish. So reasonable limits need to be set that limit the "enabling" power of welfare. The '96 welfare reform was a great example of this, and there are still steps that could be taken in the same direction that would be helpful. This is not to say that every limit or cut to welfare is good, or that every expansion is bad. But every change made should be evaluated in light of what long-term good or harm is done.

So, there you have it. Education reform and sensible welfare reform, motivated out of a genuine desire to help people. Sometimes the secret to saying "no" is to have a bigger and better "yes" right behind. So, "no" to the old model that's gotten us where we are now, because "yes" we want to try a new model. Tomorrow, a couple of success stories and some thoughts about what to do about those who cannot or will not accept responsibility.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Thoughts on Poverty, Part 2

So, why are people poor? Let's get rid of a couple of sub-groups of the poor, for starters. Some folks (I mentioned before, I once was one) are temporarily poor as a part of growing up, getting started in life, etc. Some significant percentage of those in the bottom 20% of income-earners will within a few years be in the upper half. Another group is "down on their luck"--a job layoff, a natural disaster, illness, or something similar. Both of these groups may need a leg up, in some way, but for the most part, they'll eventually be OK. Let's also exempt, for now, the aged and disabled (we may talk about Social Security some other day, but not now) as folks who cannot DO much of anything personally about their situation. I'll even stipulate that we (as families, churches, or even a nation) have an obligation to help them out.

What does that leave? A large class of people who are long-term poor, for some reason(s) at least partially within their control. I heard a statistic a while back on the radio. (I have no idea where to look for a link, so you'll have to trust me on the veracity.) It said that if you do three simple things, there is something like a 90% chance you won't be poor. Or, alternatively, that around 90% of the poor did NOT do these three things. They were: (1) Finish high school. (2) Don't have children out of wedlock. (3) Don't get married before you're 20. Of course, there are successful people who have managed to violate all three rules in various combinations--and anyone can make a mistake and overcome it. But that makes sense to me. Add another statistic to that--family units in that bottom quintile have less wage-earners and work less hours than those in the top four. Again, this is not to demonize the poor, and some of those situations cannot be helped. But it only makes common sense that a family with one or more people working full-time will have far more resources than less people working part-time. Consider the example of the "working poor" I used in my post on the minimum wage: 40 hours x $5.25 an hour = under $11k. Now take a guy who finished high school, who gets a low-skill job at a place like Costco, and stays long enough to get a raise or two. Say he makes $8. (Or, if you prefer, say that we raise the minimum wage as planned). Let's also say he works 6 hours a week of overtime. Now he makes over $20,000. If he and his wife both work like this, they make right at the national median income of $41k. So, stay in school, keep your pants up, get a job, and stick with it.

If that's all there is to it, then why is anybody poor? More on this later.

Thoughts on Poverty, Part 1

My post this morning on the minimum wage raises a couple of thoughts about poverty. I must admit, I am very conflicted in my thinking on the topic. You might think that, as a conservative (who just wrote today on why raising the minimum wage is a bad idea), I might be relfexively against welfare, social spending, etc. You'd be wrong--indeed, the caricature that conservatives in some way "hate the poor" irks me. My problems (and I've got a few) with such programs tend to be both practical and philosophical--questions of "does it work?" and "is it fair?" do matter.

I am VERY sympathetic to the poor, for a variety of reasons. My first teaching job was in a school that was more than two-thirds poor (I mean kids qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program), and some of my favorite students and athletes over the years there were terribly poor. Say what you like about the "root causes" of poverty, it's never the kids' fault. Like many people now in the middle class, I spent some time working through that lowest-quintile of wage earners. (As a newlywed, my entire monthly budget--most of which was based on student loans--was less than my current house payment). And even now, my family's means are limited; as my buddy Ken says, "we're not poor, we're just broke." Admittedly, my situation is one of choice--of career, home location, number of children, etc. I'll argue later that I'm not alone in making choices that have economic consequences, and that admitting that fact and making changes where desired is part of the solution. Finally, I know what it's like to be dependent upon aid from others. I teach at a very-expensive private school. My 3 kids all go there, thanks to very-generous financial aid policies. Not a day goes by that I don't think about the fact that we are "charity cases" (which also motivates me to work hard to in some way merit this charity). And that will certainly go a long way toward puncturing an "every-man-for-himself" attitude toward those even less fortunate.

Most importantly, Jesus said a good deal about true religion being defined by helping the poor, widows, orphans, etc. Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that there is a great deal of difference between "giving" of your own means (which I 100% support, and do) and voting to take money by force from someone else through taxation and giving it away to someone who didn't earn it. However, there is a reason I am a conservative and not a libertarian. To some extent, I support depriving individuals of certain freedoms for the overall "good of society" by my voting behavior; we conservatives don't mind telling someone they can't use drugs, for example. There is no moral reason why economic freedom can't be part of the same discussion. All that said, Jesus also said to be "as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). So doing something that makes us feel moral and upright if it is unwise and counterproductive is wrong.

All that only leads to more questions--Why is there poverty? What can we do about it? What should we do about it? My wife says I write too much ("That's not a blog post, it's a book" were her exact words). So I'll break this up and address those later.

The Minimum Wage

George Will wrote a column yesterday that laid out, pretty clearly, some of the arguments against raising the minimum wage. Whenever I am asked about it, my usual response is to say, "Cool! Let's raise it to $20 an hour!" Of course, that's stupid. Unless you want your $2.99 value meal to cost 12 bucks, you can't pay the fry guy at Wendy's $40k a year. But if the math works that way for a large increase, it works the same way (just less dramatically) for a small one. That's how math works. Let's assume for a minute, though, that a small and gradual raise in the minimum wage would increase prices by a small enough amount to be worth the trouble (although that's just for the sake of argument; if wages and prices rise by comparable levels, nothing really changes). Why would that be so? Well, to help the "working poor," of course. Some poor shmo making the current $5.25 an hour, putting in full-time (40) hours, and never taking a week off would make just under $11,000 a year. That stinks, and even a single person couldn't live like that. A married couple or roommates pooling two such incomes could perhaps barely scrape by, and that's not counting kids (or who would take care of them if both spouses had to work full-time).

But here's the catch--hardly anybody actually DOES that. Will gives the statistics, but think: do you personally know, or have you ever known, an actual, fully-functional adult who works full-time for minimum wage for more than a very short introductory period? I worked for the minimum ($3.35) when I was 16, washing dishes and bagging groceries. But even as a kid, by 17, I had earned a couple of raises. And that was part-time, after-school, and summer work (and, as an aside, the work I did wasn't really worth much more than that). The vast majority of people earning the minimum wage fall into those same categories. So in trying to help this hypothetical hard-working-but-terribly-unskilled fellow, what we really do is make it easier for a bunch of high school kids to gas up their clunkers and go to the movies. Why raise everybody's prices (and the entry-level unemployment rate) for that?

Now, here's a thought. If we absolutely MUST do something legislative to ensure that the working poor are not getting abused by evil employers, let's at least target the program. If you are still claimed as a dependent on anybody else's tax return, you could qualify for a sub-minimum rate. Of course, that just means that those greedy bosses will likely try to hire kids instead of adults, unless, of course, the adults' production is actually worth what they are being paid. Darn those laws of basic economics!

Not that any of this matters. This is a done deal. The new congress will easily pass a $7.25 wage, President Bush will gladly sign it (he's "compassionate," remember?), they'll phase it in, and most of us will not notice the gradual uptick in the cost of everything. Likely, other wages will follow in lock-step (the guy currently making $8 and happy about it will be less so when it's only 75 cents above what the rookies make), so we'll achieve pretty much parity with where we are now. But there will still be pockets of poverty, aggravated by very poor lifestyle choices (dropping out of school, having kids before or instead of getting married), and in a few years we'll be having the same discussion. Here's hoping teacher pay keeps pace.

Thursday, January 4, 2007


As I mentioned earlier, I have tried very hard to develop the spiritual discipline of daily Bible reading. For the past few years, I have used some variation of a Daily Bible plan (the link is to last year's version, this year I'm back to this). This week I began what I hope will be my 7th read-through. As an aside, if I could recommend any single daily activity to every Christian, this would be it. But one side effect of this discipline is that every January, I'm back in Genesis, and dealing in my mind with the issue of creation.

I know this is a touchy subject for many people. It provokes extreme reactions--for some of my Christian friends, failure to toe the line of 6 literal 24-hour days of creation is tantamount to heresy. For some of my friends in the academic world, to doubt even for a second evolutionary orthodoxy is an like saying you believe the world is flat. For both of these groups, taking (even exploring) a position different in any way from theirs cuts off all discussion, and marks the dissenter as someone who simply cannot be reasoned with. For the life of me, I just don't get all the fuss.

For starters, I believe the Bible is TRUE. All of it, including the parts (sometimes especially the parts) that step on my own toes. I am quick to admit that this requires faith; you cannot arrive there on 100% logic alone. But I'm a pretty nerdy guy--graph paper and DayTimer and spreadsheet nerdy, and my own "leap of faith" is pretty short... most of the reason I accept the Bible has been arrived at through cold-hearted analysis of the documents with my background as an ancient and medieval historian. I believe that the "chain of custody" of the translations we have of the Bible today is as good (far better, really) as most ancient documents, and I believe that the intersection of the Bible stories with secular history is accurate. The accuracy of this reporting, combined with the fulfillment of prophecy and the fact that 2000 years of hard work on the part of skeptics has not been able to shake the central message of Christianity, leads me to accept the whole 66 book-Bible as authoritative and inspired, and this includes the parts that I find difficult. If you've seen the Narnia movie, you may get the reference--when someone who you know to be truthful and sane makes what appears to be an impossible statement, then perhaps it's not so impossible after all. Therefore, my acceptance of everything from Abraham forward as "good history" convinces me that the creation, difficult though it may be, is a true story, too.

But there remains that fundamental friction between faith and reason. How, then, do we reconcile the evidence of science for a several-billion-year-old Earth with a true Genesis account? This is where I break from both sides' orthodoxy. Much ink has been spilled trying to work out this issue--the current incarnation of the argument is the "Intelligent Design" movement. Now many of the ID ideas are excellent... the "proof from design" or "proof from complexity" is one of the many reasons I believe in a creator. But I do not think that it is necessary to prove that the vast bulk of modern science is "wrong," or worse, a conspiracy, to accept the premise that Genesis is true.

Here's the thing: IT'S A MIRACLE. Therefore, the rules of science don't apply. Let's accept that on day six of creation, God made a full-grown man. How old would science tell you he is? 18? 25? Would he have been created with a belly button? All the scientific evidence might point to the passage of time, when in fact the miraculous creation took an instant. And if I can accept that, why not accept that God can create a full-grown universe? God transcends time, so trying to apply a timeline here just doesn't work for me.

I often think of God and creation in terms of the theory of relativity (as best as I understand it, which is at a very low level). I currently am sitting still at my computer. But if you back the "lens" up far enough, I (and all of us) are riding on an Earth spinning at phenomenal speed. And backing up even further, our whole galaxy is moving even faster than that, and so on, ad infinitum. It seems to me that the "natural world" explained by science is perfectly coherent when using what you might call a "normal" lens. But from God's "wide-angle" view, space and time exist within a much larger context, the context of infinity and transcendance.

Finally, there is the tiny problem of God explaining that to us. Let's not forget that the Genesis account was written down some 3500 years ago. Bronze-Age man wouldn't have had the tools, linguistic or scientific, to explain things as I might like. And we ultra-modern people don't have adequate tools to describe the infinite, either. So I'm fine with God giving us what we can handle. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Good enough for me. I don't worry too much about "young-earth" or "old-earth" creationism, or whether there were dinosaurs on Noah's ark. I'm fine with taking on faith both that God is the creator and first cause, and also that, relative to His completed creation, the rules of science apply (except, of course, where He intervenes miraculously, in which case all bets are off).

All that said, if my only two choices were a 100% acceptance of the modern scientific view (this is all a big cosmic accident) or 100% acceptance of the most closed-minded fundamentalist view (168 total 60-minute hours, 6000-year-old earth), I would have to take the one with God involved--He has earned my trust. But I'll make you a deal. You can do anything you personally like with interpreting Genesis and Revelation, and I won't make a peep. Call them myth or metaphor. But those 64 books in the middle, and especially the part about Jesus... that's a hill to die on.

Rocky Balboa and the sad state of modern manhood

A week ago, I took my boys to see Rocky Balboa. It was terrific--more in the mold of the original 1976 Rocky than III, IV, or V. There were parts of the movie where the theater erupted in spontaneous cheers. I'm sure that it won't get an Oscar, simply because the academy is too highbrow nowadays to admit that a Stallone film could really be "art (although 30 years ago, let's not forget that the original, written by Sly, won best picture). But that's not what's on my mind.

As I watched, I was saddened that this will be the last Rocky. Although the script placed Balboa in his "50s," Stallone is 61. Supposedly they are beginning filming on a new Indiana Jones movie, but Harrison Ford is over 60. Arnold Schwarzenegger is 63. Chuck Norris is 67. Clint Eastwood is near 70. Here's the question: if you were going to make a real kick-butt, testosterone-overload action film today, who the heck would you cast in it? Imagine an updated version of The Predator or Rambo. Who? And it's not about the bodybuilder's physique. I can't think of anybody today who could pull off Indiana Jones, or Death Wish, or Dirty Harry. What passes for modern machismo is a sad shadow of what used to be. That's one reason why my youngest son and I tune in many nights to watch Walker, Texas Ranger. I know, it's cheesier than the velveeta aisle at Bi-Lo. But Walker has a code. He doesn't start trouble, but he darn sure ends it. And right always triumphs over wrong.

I was worried when I heard there would be a new Rocky. I was afraid that an old Sly would tanish the franchise--sort of like Michael Jordan's last "un-retirement." But now I am happy he did it. I'm pleased my sons got to see what a real man's movie looks like.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Voices From the Past

One nice thing about a career in education is the connections you make. Some of these are with young people, who gradually turn into grown people when no one is looking. Twice recently I have had occasion to catch up with old students. At a high school basketball game I worked a couple of weeks ago (I do PA announcing), the ref said to me, "you look familiar." After a little mental digging, we figured it out--this 30 year old man, married 6 years with a couple of kids, was a junior in one of the first US History classes I taught. Today, a phone call came in--a fine young man who used to be my track team manager (best I ever had!) He wanted to let me know that he is finishing his college coursework with an internship with our local police force, and will enter the police academy this summer. It's a good thing--one way or another, Mike was going to drive very fast in the vicinity of blue lights; if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! I still keep in touch with my first-ever state champion (now a computer programmer in the UK) and the smartest 7th-grader I ever taught (now at Yale). It's a real blessing. On a similar note, I got a belated Christmas card today from a buddy from grad school. He recently published his book on Napoleon's Ministry of War and earned tenure and promotion to associate professor. If you've never been in the academic world of "publish or perish," you can't possibly grasp how VERY cool that is, or how happy I am for him. I guess that means that if I had followed that path we started together (many cups of coffee and games of Risk ago), I might now be Prof. Sal and not Coach Sal (or more likely, I would have the world's longest incomplete dissertation). But then I wouldn't have some of those other voices from the past I cherish so much. Thanks for the memories!

Where I'm Coming From

I'm not sure yet what direction this blog will take, nor who will read it (so far nobody has; it might help if I let a few friends and family know I'm blogging... this week is the end of Christmas break, so I'll be better able to spread the word when I get back to my computer at work, but also likely less available to do the blogging itself!). I do know that I plan on sharing this forum with my Sunday School class as a place to continue discussion of things that come up there, and I certainly hope that some of my less- or non-religious friends, and others, will pop in. Who knows--if I get to rambling about politics, I may even get my own "trolls!" So here's a primer on what I believe.

My world-view is unwaveringly and unashamedly Christian. That bedrock principle informs everything else--I wrote yesterday that I am "a Christian, a husband, a father, a teacher, a coach, and a nerd." Perhaps it is better to say that I am a Christian husband, Christian father, Christian teacher, etc. More on my particular "brand" of Christianity in a moment. I also am conservative (check out the blog list to the right... National Review and Hugh Hewitt are not exactly left-wing). But I utterly reject the twin falsehoods that one cannot be Christian without being a conservative and also that "Christian conservatives" are some kind of mindless, hateful, unenlightened bigots. I'm sure at some later point I'll get to those as topics all to themselves. Had I lived 100+ years ago, I would have been a William Jennings Bryan Democrat. Today I'm what you would call "red state."

As for my faith, that's interesting. I grew up in a nominally Christian home, the child of parents born Southern Baptist but converted to Presbyterianism. We went to church, Mom taught Sunday school, and Dad served as a deacon and an elder. But faith was not central in our home, and even the denominational switch was based slightly on looser social mores (Presbyterians wouldn't have a fit if you danced or drank). My parents complicated my upbringing by sending me to Catholic and Episcopal schools, and as a nerd with interests in the middle ages and the reformation, I became a church history buff. None of this percolated down into a well-defined faith of my own until I met my future wife, whose family had always been devout members of the Church of Christ (btw, Wiki articles are a mixed bag, but this one is GREAT.) It was a far simpler matter for me, the uncommitted ecumenical, to convert to my wife's genuine faith than the other way around. But I balked at my perception that CofC seemed rigid and exclusionary, and that many of the older CofC'ers I met seemed to think that their little platoon were the only "real" Christians, awash in a sea of denominational heretics. It's been 20+ years, and although some of those folks are still around, they are dwindling. Once I figured out that my new church was far more diverse than the caricature I had allowed myself to see, I "bought in." This included buying in to the idea that The Bible, and nowhere else, was the best place to determine how I would worship and obey God (and involved obeying his command to be baptized). This began a love affair with scripture which has continued until now. Like so many, I was spotty in my devotion when I was younger; as I grew older, and especially as I became a father, my faith became more and more central to my life. I try to spend time in God's word every day. The past several years I have done so with a goal toward reading the whole Bible each year; last week I finished for the 6th time and began a 7th. I teach adult Bible classes and serve as a deacon in my congregation.

All that said, guess you can say that I am theologically to the center-left within the larger context of a pretty hard right tradition. I see myself as an orthodox, evangelical Christian and a member of Jesus Christ's universal church who chooses to work and worship within the restoration tradition of the Churches of Christ. I personally hold some views (some of which will get explored here, eventually) which might be considered "progressive" within CofC circles, but to most of you, I'm your uber-conservative fundamentalist friend. Here's hoping that over time, we'll dispel some stereotypes about both.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Happy New Year!

To quote Admiral Stockdale (anybody remember him from the '92 Perot campaign?), "Who am I, and what am I doing here?"

To answer the 2nd question first, I'm fulfilling a resolution. I have resolved in 2007 to undertake the discipline of journaling. Part of that is private, and will be an old-fashioned pen-and-ink affair kept on my bedside table. Maybe some of those entries will find their way here as I loosen up--we'll have to see. But I've gotten hooked on a few blogs, so I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring and see what happens. This will be a place for dumping the clutter from my brain, and a place to pontificate (I do SO love to do that). Who knows--maybe somebody will even read it!

As for the first question, I'm a Christian, a husband, a father, a teacher, a coach, a runner, and a nerd, and that's just for starters. When I began my teaching career, the powers-that-be asked if I wanted the sign outside my classroom to say "Mr." or "Coach." I puffed up my chest and declared, "I didn't spend all those years in graduate school to be called Coach." An older and wiser teacher and coach (who would become a dear friend) walked up and said, "You'll never regret being 'Coach.' It's the nicest thing a young man can call you besides 'Daddy.'" Ever since, I've been Coach Sal.

Pleased to meet you. Happy new year.