Camping Season Officially Opens For Us

We ran off to the woods last weekend with Caveman of Ohio. We abandoned the idea of looking for a backpacking loop and ended up just car-camping at Cook's Forest State Park. They have a nice variety of short trails for day high-hiking and the forest up there is really pretty, older-growth with lots of hemlock. I would recommend hitting this park up before the season starts, because with the amount of miniature golf places and cabins for rent and ice cream parlors that line the country highway up there, I assume this area gets pretty packed come June. But it was relatively quiet in April, and the water was already turned on in the park, which was kind of nice, so we could take showers before we headed off for a quick stop in Saint Marys to visit the Frey clan.

I slept blissfully, both at night and after our hike on Saturday when I strung up my hammock. Caveman of Ohio was in charge of grocery shopping for the weekend and he really outdid himself. We made A LOT of mountain pies. The weather was really warm and sunny, and I am now definitely aware of my new limitations. The boys literally bounded up this rickety fire tower, while I took a more leisurely approach. We did sort of a loop down a steep trail to the Clarion River and then back up the hill through a lot of older growth groves of trees.

Yesterday I drove up to Slippery Rock to give a presentation on our thru-hike to this lunchtime lectures club. So much has happened in the past two years, it feels like forever ago. Around this time in 2007, we had just passed through Pearisburg, VA, where we met Caveman of Ohio for the first time, face to face, although we had been following his journal entries since the beginning (he started two days before us). We spontaneously ditched the trail for the weekend by renting a truck and driving to Pittsburgh to surprise Mary for her college graduation. I remember feeling homesick for the trail as soon as we got to Pittsburgh. The leaves were starting to come out, and Virginia was carpeted in wildflowers. It had finally warmed up enough so that we didn't leap into our sleeping bags as soon as we finished dinner. Katahdin still seemed a million miles away.

Yesterday they asked me if I would ever consider doing the AT again, and without hesitation, I said absolutely. I know at some point the circumstances in our lives will once again open up the opportunity to throw on some packs and wander. Until then, I'm pretty content to do some weekend hiking in Cook's forest.


What's the buzz about Flint?

I recently referenced an article I read in the New York Times about shrinking cities, and specifically some ideas that are being considered in Flint, MI.

A few citizens quickly jumped to Flint's defense. It occurred to me, that my statements could be interpreted as being a bit disparaging towards the city of Flint. I have to admit that my knowledge of Flint is limited to the aforementioned New York Times article, and this Michael Moore movie.

I did not intend to praise Pittsburgh at the expense of Flint. A real Yinzer doesn't insult other people's cities, as we are very sensitive to the widespread negative perception of our fair city. (Unless, of course, it is Cleveland, or maybe Philadelphia.) So, sorry, Flint.

However, I think these comments raised a very interesting issue about real estate. When people look for a place to live they are often attracted to recreation, universities, cultural activities, etc., but mainly they are looking for work. People move where there are jobs, and if your city doesn't have any, it's not going to attract a lot of people. However, one thing I learned from the housing boom is that if you live in one of these overinflated cities (Phoenix, Atlanta, San Diego) you are under a lot of pressure to keep a certain kind of job with a higher salary. What I like about Pittsburgh, and maybe what I would like even better about Flint, is that I can be much less picky about the job I take because even with a lower salary I can afford my house payment. Now, my standards and expectations for a high quality life are quite different from many people, I freely admit this. But hopefully what this so-called recession will teach us is that this constant drive for insatiable consumeristic satisfaction and fabricated safety in the form of shiny, new developments in the suburbs is not the American Dream. And there I just went insulting a whole other group of people. (Note to self, start composing an apology post to the Suburbs.) But I digress...

Flint, I have a question. I heard Michigan's Governor Jennifer Granholm this morning on NPR and things sound a bit tough for Michigan. Not that you are alone by any means. But if I move to your city, can I get a job that will pay me enough to take advantage of your cheap real estate and cultural opportunities?


Shrinking Cities...

We live in one. In 2007, Pittsburgh had the steepest population decline outside of cities hit by Hurricane Katrina. Ouch.

Pittsburgh's population peaked in the 1950's, hitting nearly 700,000. Today, it is around 300,000.

The list of shrinking cities is not surprising...Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Youngstown. Former industrial powerhouses that lost their livelihoods to cheaper labor markets over seas.

Pittsburgh, however, is often lauded as a shrinking city that doesn't let its shrinking status get us down. Business Week called it one of the best places to ride out a recession. We were named at the top of the list for Best Cities by Rand McNally in 2007. However, problems that plague shrinking cities are still on the forefront of our agenda, especially now that the mayoral race is heating up. Public services such as schools, police and fire have trouble adjusting when the geographic limits remain the same, but the population has changed considerably. The school system, in particular has been fighting this for a long time.

In addition, when cities shrink, certain neighborhoods tend to become blighted. Houses are abandoned, empty lots get overgrown and filled with trash. If you travel through Homewood or the Hill District you see a lot of this. I ran across this interesting article in the New York Times today about how Flint, Michigan proposes to tackle this problem...by essentially razing whole neighborhoods and returning them to their natural state.
View Larger Map

At first, I thought this was an awesome idea. But there are a couple of reasons why it may not work well here. First, people do still inhabit these blighted neighborhoods. And because of the blight, their property isn't worth so much. So even if you buy it from them to get them to relocate, they will have trouble finding anything they can afford in one of the still densely populated neighborhoods. Second, is it a good idea to have large woodsy areas in the city? Would these areas become more attractive to vagrants and criminals, and would they be difficult to patrol? And third, what are the environmental ramifications for letting nature take over? Alan Weisman explores this issue in his book The World Without Us.

The difference between Pittsburgh and Flint is that we may be shrinking, but we still have a lot of appeal. Pittsburgh is an affordable place to purchase a home, we have hospitals, museums, universities and an international airport. We are close enough to the beach to vacation there and close enough to New York and DC for business people to easily travel there. It may be premature to seed over our blighted neighborhoods....we may need them for the next population boom.



I'm on a mission to spread the word that the Internet need not only be used for messaging or posting photos of your vacation on Facebook. Indeed, it can give you access to thought-provoking, creative, and unusual stories produced in a variety of audio, text and visual formats. Formats, that, I dare say, might be very appealing to your students...if there are any teachers out there.

My friend Jack turned me on to Radiolab, self-described as a show about curiosity. It's a little like This American Life, but seems to focus on stories that are more science based.

The other day I listened to this episode. Here is the description:

The U.S. Census defines five races, and an "other" category. When the human genome was first fully mapped in 2000, Bill Clinton, Craig Venter, and Francis Collins took the stage and pronounced that "The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis."
Great words spoken with great intentions. But what does that mean and where does it leave us? It doesn't seem to have wiped out our evolving conversation about race.

Then, today when I was reading my blogs on Google Reader (yes I'm a total Google junkie), I came across a fantastic article on the genocide in Rwanda, as told by a survivor and the guy who chopped her hand off. Yeah, you read that right. Anyway, it's a pretty good article.
Read the full thing here.

Anyway, these are two good pieces on the construct and science (or lack of science) behind race, and I think they would make great fodder for a high school or college level discussion on the topic.


Is there a Luddite in your child's classroom?

I'm a bit of a computer junkie, I will admit. I can write my own html tags in my blog, I know how to create formulas in an excel spreadsheet, and give me five minutes and a search engine and I will answer your question. I am not a computer professional (that's M), but I use computers at a professional level in my work.

Nobody taught me these skills. I never took a class. As far as I recall, we didn't even have the internet in high school, and my first email account was set up when I went to college. Computer usage is a little like reading...the more you do it, the better at it you get, and there's really no other way to get better. You must browse and stumble, and sometimes barely understand what you are doing, but just keep doing it.

So I was a little blindsided by the comments from my classmates last night during a discussion of the Atlantic article Is Google Making Us Stupid? My classmates are all teachers, mostly under 30, and seemed to have a rather polarized view of the world of print media vs. digital media. Print media seemed to fall under the category of Things Much Smarter People Read and digital media under The Reason Kids Have Short Attention Spans and Possibly the End of Literate Society as We Know It.

Now, schools are often horribly underfunded in the area of technology, so there is a very good reason why teachers do not feel comfortable using them...they often get 30 minutes every other week in an aging computer lab, and that's it. But I expected more from the under 30 crowd. Haven't they all been online for a decade? Don't they all own a computer?

The Atlantic article was not so much about Google dumbing us down, as it was about Google altering the way that we read and interact with text. As one of the few rational classmates put it, "We all resist change. Even Socrates did not want to write his ideas down, as he believed in the superiority of the oral argument." Hmmm. Socrates. He was smart, right?

Anyway, my point is that the internet has changed the way we think and read and argue. It has vastly increased the body of knowledge we have access to. This increase in information requires us to be even more discerning.

One of the teachers in my class said that she thought the internet caused students to be less interested in reading good old fashioned books. Funny...because the internet is how I FIND books to read...book lists and recommendations and author sites, and even down to how to get my hands on a hard-to-find, out of print book. Another concern was that the internet limited or controlled the interests of students. My counter argument to that point is M and the topic on his mind this morning. Here is what we searched for: "how to brine ferment sweet peppers". Yesterday it was "ukelele chords". You really don't get much more interesting that M, and the internet has certainly facilitated many of his projects and interests.

Another student objected to the quality of sources on the internet, saying that "things like Google are free, but you have to pay for real newspapers, which have the better quality information." It's true, some newspapers like the Wall Street Journal require a subscription. But I read BBC and the New York Times almost every day, and most of their features are free. And for the record, Google doesn't make anything up. It is a SEARCH ENGINE. It looks for stuff that matches the phrase you type in. Articles from major, reputable newspapers come up in my searches all the time.

I also learned that it is a common school policy to require students to use .edu or .org websites and they are not permitted to use .com websites. This rule was clearly made up by an English teacher who didn't know anything about domain registration. Anybody, regardless of motive can buy and set up a website with .com, .net. or .org. ORG even urges commercial businesses to get a .org:
"Commercial businesses also benefit. Registering a .ORG lends credibility to the activities of a charitable arm, protects your brand name registered with other TLDs and gives customers another path to your website."

I guess my point is that, aside from hearing some opinions that differed quite a bit from my own, my classmates' arguments were based on facts that are Just Plain Wrong, and showed me that despite the fact these people can't put down their iPhones for the duration of class, they probably aren't using the internet for much more than Facebook and email.

Print media is not dead, and schools should continue to teach it. But when our students grow up and enter the work force, it might just be a little better for them to be able to format an excel spreadsheet or use a search engine while working on a project or update their departmental website. Schools need to step up and start teaching these skills. Teachers need to stop fearing this evolution of literacy. Schools of Education need to start creating coursework to teach teachers how to do this. And the public needs to start getting serious about funding our schools in a more 21st century way.


Youth, here and there

The New York Times has some really great audio/visual pieces, and I was especially struck by this one that I found this morning, about a platoon in Afghanistan. Warning: this story contains some of the stark realities of war.

War has been a constant background for most of my adult life...can you believe that? I continue to seriously question the motives of those who started these wars...the people who start wars are never the ones who actually have to fight in them. But the thing that really gets me is that so many of the people who serve are so very young. My undergrad tutors were a constant source of bewilderment and frustration for me this semester (did I really act like that when I was 20 years old?), but they also often amazed me with their insights and observations. Some of the soldiers portrayed in the NYT piece are just as young, and armed with guns instead of books, charged with making split-second decisions as they serve as front-line ambassadors of our country. I always told my tutors that it would be really hard for them to mess up one of their kids. Don't be afraid to take risks, I said. That's not exactly the case for a 20 year old soldier pinned down in a river bank in rural Afghanistan.

People who work with youth (up to age 35 in the organization where my mother works!) talk about "extended adolescence" and I myself am a vocal proponent of students taking a few years to work or volunteer with Americorps before starting college because I think they aren't mature enough for it at age 17. But really, when we look around, we entrust youth with our most precious tasks...caring for our children (I was watching infants when I was 14 years old), fighting our wars, responsible for our health and safety (who cooks your food and is responsible for sanitizing your dishes when you eat out?).

All this philosophizing about youth is probably a sign that my youth is slipping away, which it may well be. I'll be 30 in just about one month.


(Successful) Plumbing by M

Yeah, we are really getting into this homeowning thing. This is not our only successful project to date, but plumbing is one of those scary things that you aren't sure if you should embark upon on a Sunday evening, when calling a plumber for backup would cost a bazillion dollars an hour. But we did it. Well, mostly M did it. But our sink no longer leaks and has a lovely new (well, reused) faucet.

Camping Season is Coming Soon!

And everybody is "gearing up", including Lucy. Yes, this is a dog size sleeping bag, and she loves it. Caveman of Ohio called me yesterday from Oil Creek State Park, where there is a very nice 25 mile backpacking loop that M and I did a few years ago. Temperatures were a bit cold for his liking, but luckily, it's one of those state parks that provides fire wood at the shelter areas. M and I are hoping to get out a little bit, once our finals are over. I know my parents are looking forward to star-gazing at Cherry Springs again this year. And Pete and Meg and Lucy already have several trips planned out for the summer. Especially now that I have been living in the city for a couple of years, I am eager to get out and wander through the woods a little bit.

The Pennsylvania state park system has ample car-camping opportunities, and many parks have such amenities as hot showers and flush toilets. If you would like to try out backpacking, I recommend Oil Creek and Raccoon Creek State Parks, which both have loop trails - I found Oil Creek to be a bit more challenging in terms of elevation. If you can do a car shuttle, the 70 mile Laurel Highlands Trail is awesome, and amazingly quiet except right near the road crossings. And no, I'm not saying you should attempt all 70 miles at once! The shelters are nicely spaced about 8-10 miles apart, and aside from about 6 miles at the southern end of the trail, it's almost all along the ridge, and not too intense in terms of elevation. Go before the leaves come out to maximize the views. And a word of warning, almost all of Pennsylvania's state parks are open to hunting, so exercise caution, no matter what time of year it is.

Anybody else planning camping trips or can recommend a favorite spot?


The View from Above

Sometimes the view from my office is lovely, sometimes not so much. Today, I saw police cars from countless jurisdictions lined up along Fifth and Forbes Avenue. Traffic was stopped, buses rerouted, and people lined the sidewalks to watch the procession go by. Tragedy is often an overused word these days, but I think it's rather appropriate here. The truth is, not many Pittsburgh police officers die in the line of duty, unlike places like Philadelphia, who has lost over 200 officers in its history. Or say, Iraq, where estimates for police deaths start at 12,000. But the details of this crime are particularly unsavory, and I'm sure the city will be feeling the effects of this incident for a long time to come.


Onion Snow, Old guitars, OMG

This morning my daffodils are framed by the snow-covered garage roof. It's the onion snow, a lady in the elevator said. Or blackberry snow. Whatever it is, I want it to go away, so I can enjoy the magnolia blossoms again. I love Pittsburgh in the spring, and this snow does not fit into my expectations for this season!

M had an old acoustic guitar that's been lying around in his parents' basement for more or less the last decade. But he recently sent it to the Guitar Doctor (yes, that's a real job), and got it all spiffed up. Yet another great pleasure in life...sipping coffee in the morning to the gentle sound of a guitar. M and my brother are totally taking over the house with their instruments and guitar pedals and recording equipment. For instance, I am in the dining room right now, and I can see four guitars, an accordian, and a ukelele! I don't mind at all because they look so darn happy when they are making music.

And now for the final "O"...yesterday I was tutoring a kindergarten student, and as we brainstormed words with the letter "o" - he came up with OMG! I gave him credit for it.



There are few thing in life that give me more pleasure than sunbeams lighting up a vase of daffodils on my kitchen table on a Sunday morning. Then of course there's a really good night's sleep after a long bike ride that took us up and down Pittsburgh's scenic river banks. Really good friends. Warm apple strudel for desert. The first smile exchanged between husband and wife upon waking. And I am especially grateful for being able to say at the end of my twenties and feeling kind of old, that I am deeply satisfied with and grateful for my experiences so far. Certainly it has not been a full decade of pleasure, but pleasure doesn’t stand out very much unless you experience other emotions.


TFA and Union Debate Coming to a Head?

Is Teach for America's ambitious expansion plan leading to a showdown with teacher's unions? On the one hand, you could argue that there are plenty of places around the country TFA could go without stirring up such controversy. On the other hand, I say, good for you, TFA, for taking on the unions, who have a consistent history of blocking real reform in our failing education system. (I feel a little sorry for the bright-eyed TFA corps members who have no idea what they are getting themselves into, but hey, it's all part of the experience.)

I myself once took on a teacher's union, in a small, and ultimately not very productive way, by taking the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality. After the Arizona Education Association reps showed up at one of our school district orientation sessions and made a heavy sell for us to join the union, I found out that they spent a lot of time bad-mouthing TFA teachers. Not cool by me. So I got myself elected and joined their little party, showing up at meetings, and facing a lot of cold shoulders. The union isn't terribly powerful out in Arizona, and things could have gotten a lot more intense, if I had tried this tactic, in say, Boston. Anyway, just as I was making progress with the president of our local chapter, I found myself playing out the predicted scenario, by becoming one of those Ambitious TFA Kids Who Swoop In For Two Years and Then Leave. Never mind that I STILL work in low-income schools, teaching in a high-need area, and remain deeply committed to education reform, because Phoenix wasn't right for my family, I will always feel a little bit guilty about not giving it a few more years out there.

TFA is not and never has been an answer to teacher shortages. There are something like 6 million teachers in this country, and TFA alum total under 15,000. Drop in a bucket. But TFA places teachers in shortage areas...low-income, special ed., math and science. Why? Probably because they have no desire to compete with regularly certified teachers who are taking up all the good jobs. Because there are definitely really cushy teaching jobs in this country. (Not that I have every held one.)

It can be very hard to get a nice teaching job in many places in this country.

It is really easy to get one of the tough teaching jobs in many places in this country. You could do it through TFA, you could do it through Teaching Fellows, or you can just show up at a job fair with a bachelor's degree and they will hire you. Trust me...if you have ever been to a job fair, you have seen desperate rural districts from North Carolina begging anybody with a pulse to sign a contract.

The Boston union has presented a pretty weak argument so far, and while I do not embrace everything about TFA, I commend this step towards bringing the union problems into the spotlight. I will definitely be following this story to see how it plays out.


Shout out to Fire Marshall - we got your comment, but don't know how to get back to you!

We met Fire Marshall, where else, on the Appalachian Trail. Yesterday, he left a comment on our blog, but no email, so I just wanted to give a shout out and say, yes, we got your message, we're doing fine!

All this rain today made me think of tree branches dripping with raindrops, and woods that smell so earthy and fertile, as little wildflowers poke up out from under the leaf cover. It reminds me of getting sunburn before the leaves came in, and the endless rolling mountains of the south. Two years ago today I still wasn't confident calling myself a thru-hiker...with only 400 miles on my boots, I felt all at once like I had walked forever and a day, but was unimaginably distant from my goal. Two years ago today we were taking a break in Erwin, TN, where Ms. Janet, for years and years, fed scores of hikers at a big table in her backyard. (She even had a vegan option!) That hostel has since closed, but one image that will be forever burned in my mind is the row of discarded hiking boots, each planted with a flower, out in front of her house.


Education News

There's lots of exciting stimulus money flowing every which way these days. I know schools are gearing up to spend it, because I have already seen some job postings related to new stimulus programs. But I think the new Secretary of Education is just puffing out his feathers over this one, because all this data is pretty much available already. I am taking a class this semester on Assessment and Accountability, and trust me, the numbers are as dismal as they make it sound. Still, federal funding sources account for less than 10% of school budgets, so at the end of a long day, I am definitely leaning towards telling Arne Duncan to take his unfunded mandates and go shove it.