Saturday, November 29, 2003

thoughts on foster parenting

Was it worth it to take care of someone else's child for nine months? Well let's see:

1) It took a heavy, bitter toll on our marriage. (A friend had asked me to do a story for the web site, and even promised me payment for it, but things were so bad I couldn't find anything to say that was remotely insightful or witty.)

2) Evangeline was unable to sleep for weeks, out of grief.

3) She also was convinced she was next to go, especially when we had to leave her with friends when her sister was born.

4) It's plagued me with bad nights like this one where I can't sleep because I keep thinking about him and feeling sorry for myself.

5) Other things I don't want to share.

6) Isaac learned how to talk, how to love, how to be loved, and started to develop properly.

7) This entire time has been a period of learning to lean ever more heavily on Christ and to reach a deeper understanding of his grace and what it means when he says, "Pick up your cross and follow me."

In light of 6 and 7, I would have to say it was worth it, and we've had our reward already. I also wouldn't mind doing it again, as long as Natasha is willing. In light of 1 to 5, I'd have to say someone would have to be nuts even to consider it.

the lord's prayer

I've been teaching Evangeline the Lord's prayer with some interesting results. Last Wednesday, after I picked her up at preschool, she and some of the other children were having fun playing with sticks in the yard before we left. Her stick was particularly large, and she grew rather upset when I wouldn't let her take it home. That night, the Lord's prayer went like this:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Daddy took the stick away from me,
And I said, "Daddy, that was a bad choice.
You're in time out."
In Jesus' name,

twenty-five cents' worth of trickle-down

Speaking personally, I think the only trickle-down benefit I've received in the 17 years I've been in the work force was the quarter I found in the parking lot back in '96.

The aggregation of wealth to an increasingly small minority is not a good thing, and it is not something we should cheer. True, the gospel isn't about money and it's foolish to argue that Christ's sole or even primary concern is that the poor become wealthier. That's Marxism, not Christianity.

Money is a spiritual force, not merely an economic one, and it is one that has twisted American society into unbelievable knots. There's nothing wrong with having money, but judging by our preoccupation with accumulating and retaining wealth, I'd say we don't have money. It has us.

Laissez faire is as destructive to a society as democracy. The one leads to a cutthroat mentality as robber barons rise to the top and crush whomever they want; the other leads to popular but ultimately ineffective officials who win on the merits of personality rather than actual ability. And try as we might, no regulation or amendments or legislative efforts will ever correct those problems. They'll just give us new opportunities to make things worse.

I don't know which is worse: Democrats who use the "class warfare" notion to advance their cause politically, or Republicans who just don't care, as long as their power base and interests are served.

'finding nemo'

So we got "Finding Nemo" on DVD when it first came out, I guess last week. Natasha's watching it with the girls in the living room, I come in and sit down next to them. It's a little odd, but pretty funny. I kept thinking of a fellow from Australia who I know, for some reason.

Then comes the clincher: The movie is about a clownfish named Marlin who is searching for his son, Nemo, who was taken by a tropical fish enthusiast to put into his tank. Marlin is swimming up and down the Great Barrier Reef, facing sharks and braving a water vortex -- risking everything, really -- just to get Nemo back.

Suddenly I start crying and can't stop. I have to leave the room.

And you know something? I don't think I'll ever be able to watch that movie with my girls, as much as I'd like to.

Thank God my wife understands.

Life is not beautiful at all; it's grotesque. I side with Flannery O'Connor: People who have never suffered have missed one of God's greatest blessings.

Friday, November 28, 2003

the electric company

Well, I've gone and done it. I have an interview at 2 p.m. Tuesday with an executive vice president at the Sesame Workshop about "The Electric Company."

"The Electric Company" was a tremendous show produced by the Children's Television Workshop for six seasons, from 1971-1977. It had features like "The Adventures of Letterman"; starred performers like Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno; and was aimed at boosting reading skills among children who had aged out of "Sesame Street." My brothers and I watched it religiously when we were little.

My kids are younger than the intended audience of "The Electric Company," and haven't even started reading yet; but I know the older one will love it in a year or two. Every adult I've mentioned the show to remembers it excitedly, and asks the same question I had a month ago, "Is that out on DVD? Where can I get it?"

When I first called the Sesame Workshop several weeks ago, I was told there were no plans at the moment to release the series on DVD. I started asking some questions for the column and was told someone higher up would have to get back to me.

Now I'm told the executive vice president is very keen on the idea of having it re-released. I have hopes that we've started something.

If not, well, my column about Toys for Tots went out to about 100,000 homes in Union and Essex counties. I'm hoping my anticipated column on "The Electric Company" will as well.

Copyright © 2003 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

why i do what i do

Every now and then, people ask me how much longer I'm going to be at the newspaper where I work.

I don't think they're asking from a wait-til-the-carcass-drops frame of mind, though perhaps I'm kidding myself in that regard. Usually the question comes with a follow-up about where my next destination will be, with an unstated assumption that I'd like to work for a bigger publication like The Star-Ledger.

No, thanks. Been there, done that, hated every last minute of it. Before I started at WCN Newspapers, I worked for eight painful months at The Times. What was missing? The chance to make a difference.

It's that sort of wide-eyed idealism is exactly what propelled me into community journalism back in 1996, and it's what has kept me in the business through years of being called a Democratic toady and a Republican stooge, through being demonized as a muck-raker and a trouble-maker, and through reams of vitriol poured out by people who have disagreed with editorial stands my newspapers have taken. (One of my most treasured journalistic possessions is a 1,500-word tirade to the editor from the Republican former mayor of Hillsborough after we endorsed his opponent and he lost re-election by a landslide.)

Recently in Quakertown, I was given a reminder of the way community journalists can affect the communities we cover if we stay faithful to our mission of reporting the news in a thorough, unbiased and professional manner.

I'm referring to a new computers-on-a-cart program that's coming to Frank K. Hehnly School, thanks to my coverage of the school district.

On Oct. 28, the Quakertown Board of Education was asked to decide whether to lease 24 laptop computers for Hehnly School at a cost of $6,912 a year for five years.

Only five of the 10 board members voted in favor of the program. Four voted against it, and one -- Garwood representative James Mattheson -- abstained, since Garwood sends students only to Arthur L. Johnson High School, and not to the district's elementary schools.

It was past midnight and I was back at the newspaper offices writing my story about the decision when it hit me. A majority of the Quakertown representatives had voted for the proposal. Even though his abstention was meant to keep him from influencing board decisions, Mattheson's mere presence on the board had raised the ante, effectively altering the outcome of the vote.

By this time it was much too late to call anyone, and I knew the explanation I would get -- five out of 10 is not a majority -- so I did what any responsible journalist would do: I filed my story, made a note to do a follow-up and went home to get some sleep.

On Thursday I reached out to Mike Yaple of the Iowa School Boards Association.

"There's nothing in the statute or code, but there have been commissioner's decisions that typically say the representative would be a nonvote," Yaple told me. "It's not an abstention; it's essentially a shifting quorum."

Yaple referred me to an Aug. 5, 1997, decision by then-Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz about school districts with a relationship like the one shared by Garwood and Quakertown.

The decision is small -- barely five pages -- but it was an earthquake where the board's vote was concerned. Klagholz essentially wrote that if the issue doesn't affect the sending district, then their representatives don't vote.

Exclude Mattheson, and the vote is 5-4. Motion passes.

I called Paul Ortenzio, the Quakertown superintendent of schools, to tell him about my discovery. Since he had been given different legal advice from a qualified attorney, he was skeptical.

"The way I understand it, it has to be a majority of the whole board -- and the whole board is 10," he said.

Karen Amalfe, a school board member who had been lobbying for the laptops since the start of the summer, also was surprised by what I had to say, but she welcomed the news.

"That seems to be contradicting what the attorney told me," she said. Then she added: "If I could get that overturned, that would be wonderful."

That's pretty much what happened. Michael Gross, the board attorney, had been unaware of Klagholz's decision, but he agreed with my interpretation and said he had let the administration know that he was amending his legal advice about counting votes. The official record is going to reflect that the board voted to buy the computers.

The irony to all this is that I'm not personally convinced about the need for a laptop computer program myself. A former teacher, I regard parental involvement and teacher commitment to engaging the students as far more essential than the bells and whistles that make us so enamored with technology.

That's not important, though; what does matter is that the Quakertown Board of Education voted a certain way, and the way that vote was interpreted didn't square with how it was supposed to be counted. I had a question, I knew where to look for an answer, I found it, and I reported what I found.

In another month or so, a few hundred elementary school students are going to have access to computers they wouldn't have had otherwise, due in some small part to me.

That's what it's about. That's why I've stayed in community newspapers while co-workers of mine have landed jobs covering professional sports teams for the Associated Press, reporting for The Los Angeles Times, and chronicling the daily shenanigans at the New Jersey State House for one news bureau or another.

A colleague at The Princeton Packet once told me she hopes to ride on Air Force One some day as a member of the White House Press Corps. Jennifer's good at what she does; I won't be at all surprised if she someday works for The New York Times or the Washington Post doing just that.

As for me, although I grumble sometimes about the hours I work and about the difficulty of feeding my family on what I earn, I couldn't be happier with my choice of careers. I make a real and identifiable difference for the people whose towns I cover. What more can you ask for?

I'm a community journalist. That's what I do.

Slogging on in Iraq

"Everywhere I've traveled recently in Germany I've run into Americans, ranging from generals down to privates, who ask perplexedly, 'What are we Americans supposed to be doing here? Are we going to take over this place and stay here forever?' "
— Demaree Bess, "How We Botched The German Occupation," in the Jan. 26, 1946, Saturday Evening Post

A friend of mine shared that with me in reference to the ongoing war in Iraq. The message? Sure, the occupation looks bad right now, but they always look bad. Look ahead forty years, and you'll see a much rosier picture.

The comparison, while it sounds good to those favoring the war in Iraq and hoping to downplay the situation in Iraq, is flawed. The difference is that in Germany and Japan, it was over. We had bombed them so hard their spirit was broken and they were ready to do whatever we said -- a fairly normal course of events after a war. There probably was some resistance after the war ended -- I don't know enough about WWII in Europe to say for certain -- but I rather doubt it was as organized and structured as the stuff in Iraq is becoming.

In more recent times, we've tried to sensitize war, with the result that the occupation is going to be more difficult. Additionally, I suspect we're not finding nationalist resistance in Iraq as much as we are ideological resistance, drawn from a broad range of states and held together by a religious hatred of America and what we've done there.

Gen. Eisenhower's intent with Germany was to return it to an agrarian state. The point of dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima and then on Nagasake was to break Japan so badly that its people would never want to go to war again.

Given the last 50-odd years of history in Europe and East Asia, I'd say both Eisenhower and President Truman succeeded in their respective goals. They beat the other nations down so hard that no one wanted to go through it again.

Was that moral? I don't think so. Some of our POW camps in Europe were as bad as or worse than Andersonville, and not much better than what the Nazis themselves dished out. The thousands upon thousands who perished in atomic fire were civilians, and they died in some large part because Truman didn't want the conditional surrender Hirohito was about to offer. War is hell, and I doubt very much that God likes it, even if he regards it as a necessity sometimes.

The morality of war has shifted. Nations that target civilians are viewed as international criminals, and when we have killed civilians during bombing in the last few wars, we've almost invariably apologized. As a result, we're not engaged in the total war that marked WWII, and resistance is likely to continue, and new insurgence is likely to rise.

About a year ago I said that I was against the war in Iraq. I felt -- and still feel -- that we lacked the moral authority to invade Iraq based on incidents 10 years ago and on a U.N. Security Council resolution that the U.N. did not want to enforce.

The news reports about what Saddam did to children and dissenters has me convinced more than ever that he needed to go -- but they haven't changed my view that this was the wrong way to do it.

Now, of course, there are those, such as our president, with a "Bring it on" attitude, that if the insurgents and their allies are spoiling for a fight, we'll take it. As I think others have said, I find that line of thinking disturbing.

First, that they are spending their energy killing American troops with increasing frequency and in steadily increasing numbers does not greatly comfort me. Parents are still losing their sons and daughters; husbands and wives are still being separated, often by the grave; and children are still becoming orphans.

The longer this goes on, the more emboldened America's enemies will be and the greater the odds are of the popular Iraqi sentiment shifting toward them. At the moment, the guerilla and terror tactics have been centered around Baghdad, but it's not hard to imagine that will spread as the militants see other opportunities to work their poison.

Secondly, that it has come to this -- people killing people -- is a cause for mourning and prayer, not moral posturing or an arrogant "Bring them on, we can take them" attitude. Somalia and Vietnam are two places where our superior military might failed to contain the situation and we essentially were defeated by a weaker foe (though I daresay the spin forces of the military will categorize it as something other than that).

I also could point to other places throughout history -- the Spanish Aramada against England, Napoleon against England, Edward I against William Wallace, Sennecharib against Judah -- where the strong have fallen to the weak. Some have claimed that God is on our side; from what I understand of the Almighty, that's just wrong. The best we can hope is that we are on his side, and in this case, that's more than I know.

Our best goal at this point is to win and win decisively, or it's just going to get worse. We have seen some successes in this war -- fighting is confied mostly to Baghdad and probably is mostly from extranationals not Iraqis themselves, and our victory there is almost certainly what led to the elections taking place in Saudi Arabia, the first time elections ever have been held in the Kingdom of Saud's history.

On the other hand, I'm not optimistic on our chances of winning a victory against religious extremists. The more victories we have, the more we're going to fuel hatred of us, which will lead to further attacks. It's a vicious cycle that no amount of politics or military might will break.