8.29.2008

As A Matter of Fact, I Am Ready For Football

The start of the football season brings the feel of crisp autumn air,
bone-crunching hits, and new footage to run on my treadmill to. My
beloved Raiders will hopefully make some noise on their way to 3rd
place in the AFC West and a respectable 6-10 record (hey, you gotta
start somewhere), and I'm otherwise rooting for an all-Pennsylvania
Super Bowl, homer that I am. Have fun watching the games and seeing
my predictions melt away by early October; since I don't watch until
the next morning, just don't tell me who won.

AFC W 3 San Diego 5 Denver
AFC N 2 Pittsburgh 6 Cincinnati
AFC S 4 Jacksonville
AFC E 1 New England

NFC W 1 Seattle
NFC N 4 Green Bay 6 Minnesota
NFC S 2 New Orleans
NFC E 3 Philadelphia 5 Dallas

WC Round: San Diego, Jacksonville, Green Bay, Philadelphia
Divisionals: Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Seattle
Super Bowl: Pittsburgh over Philadelphia

ORPHANS IN NEED

When Amy and I started adopting kids earlier this decade, it wasn’t out of a burning desire to save the world, or even to save one kid; it was simply our way of starting a family. But I do appreciate the sentiment in this article about evangelical Christians taking up international adoption as an important spiritual cause: "Defend the Orphan: An Age-Old Christian Lesson Gets a New Lease on Life".

The fact of the matter is that there are millions of children who become orphaned every year for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons tear at your heart, like abandonment, addiction, famine, natural disaster, and war. If we in America have in our national DNA that “all men are created equal,” it sure is hard to fathom how unlevel of a playing field many of the children in this world have to face before they’ve even reached their first birthday.

And if we as Christians adhere to Biblical exhortations to defend the orphan, adoption should become part of our congregational DNA as well. Here’s a telling quote from Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of a forthcoming book called "Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches": "In any given church, you rarely see only one family who has adopted. . . . It becomes part of the culture of the congregation."

So I’m all for national policies that make it easier for families to adopt children from other countries; and here’s hoping that Christian policymakers contribute to this effort. And here's hoping that Christian families respond in kind and step forward to bear the emotional and financial cost of raising a child as their own.

8.28.2008

Location, Location, Location

Choosing to raise kids in the city is, like all decisions, a matter of
trade-offs. The main pros would seem to be:

* The ready access to the world's finest cultural, educational, and
medical institutions. I mean, when you are within walking distance of
world-class museums, an Ivy League school, and a state-of-the-art
childrens' hospital, that's an embarrassment of riches.

* In terms of aesthetics and diversity, a richer experience than
you'll typically see in the burbs. People call the playground down
the street from us "the United Nations playground" because of all the
languages and nationalities represented; while Philly is particularly
varied in its architecture and form, a far cry from many visually
homogenous suburban developments.

* Mobility as a result of multiple modes. Whether being able to have
an Ethiopian restaurant right outside our house, being able to walk to
work, or being able to leave the car at home and take the subway to
downtown or the waterfront, people of all ages have far more freedom
to get around than in more auto-dominated places.

These are all huge pluses for raising kids, in terms of what they get
exposed to and what they have at hand to experience. On the other
side of the ledger, many families perceive the following minuses, so
much so that they can cause even the most ardent city-lover to stifle
their own urban preferences and move their young kids out to the
suburbs:

* Crime.

* Schools.

* Larger houses and lots.

Which brings me to the whole reason I started this post: to express my
thankfulness about what we bought and when we bought it:

* Crime has dropped precipitously in the last decade in our
neighborhood; although it's still an issue, we're only marginally less
safe than in the burbs, rather than a lot less safe.

* A new school in our neighborhood has gotten rave reviews, and we're
in its catchment area, which means that as long as I don't sleep in on
registration day, our kids will be able to walk two blocks to a really
good K-8 school.

* And West Philadelphia used to be the suburbs for the really rich
people in Center City a century ago, so the houses around here are
pretty huge; not including our semi-finished basement, we have three
floors' worth of space to work with for our family of four. (And did
I mention we paid five figures for this back in 2000?)

In other words, by dint of buying what we bought when we bought it,
we've gotten all the advantages of city living with very little of the
disadvantages. And while there are moments that make us roll our eyes
about urban life (your suburban street corner probably isn't
frequented by Crazy Screaming Guy nearly as often as ours), there are
many more than cause us to appreciate where we live (hey, there's a
new coffee shop with live musical performances right across the
street!). I don't remember to be thankful every day, but today I am.

8.26.2008

ANOTHER REASON WHY HIGH GAS PRICES ARE GOOD

Another link courtesy of Greg Mankiw's blog reminds us that conserving natural resources is just one reason high gas prices are good: "Traffic Fatalities Driven Down by High Gas Prices." Of course, less people dying is a pretty significant benefit; and so is less wear and tear on our roads, less space eaten up by streets and parking, and less time spent isolated in our two-ton steel boxes.

8.25.2008

LOVE AND MONEY

I'm about as free-market as they come, not to mention the last person you'll find joining a commune. All the more, I guess, to take to heart this finding by a group of researchers, that money can undermine community. (As linked to from Greg Mankiw's blog.) As currency, money allows us to be more independent, which is not a bad thing and is actually usually a pretty good thing.

But let's be mindful that while money is neutral, our sinful hearts are not. And so absent actively seeking to reconcile our thoughts and actions to the will of our Maker - interdependent with others, seeking kingdom outcomes, generously helping those in need - we will slide into a me-focused, me-alone lifestyle.

After 9/11 hit, we were told to keep on spending "or else the terrorists have won." Many of us responded to global terrorism by "cocooning," which retailers took to mean convincing us to pimp our kitchens, backyards, and garages. And as people have perceived the economy to be shaky, we've indulged in "stay-cations" in response. These were all times that we could have reclaimed a lifestyle that was more thoughtful about consumption. Instead, we spent ourselves into oblivion and isolation.

Consumption is neutral. But our sinful hearts are not. The faithful response is not to shun money but to master it; or, more accurately, to not let it master me, but rather to remember who my real Master is. My take-away from this recent study's findings is to remind myself to actively seek to use money and consumption for positive ends. Because, without thinking about it, we'll slide into bad habits.

8.20.2008

HERE'S THE REAL RED STATE VS. BLUE STATE DIVIDE

Thanks to Strange Maps, one of my go-to spots on the web. (For the record, I grew up in San Jose, and we said "Coke.")

8.18.2008

WHAT CHRISTIANS CAN LEARN FROM USAIN BOLT, SPIDERMAN, AND BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

I haven't had much time to watch the Olympics this month, but when even my mom is telling me stuff like, "How about that Michael Phelps," you know this thing has gone mainstream. Almost lost in the wake of Phelps' historic week was the record-shattering performance by Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who not only broke his own world record in the marquee 100-meter dash, but did so with elan, extending his arms and beating his chest well before the finish line.

Some stat-lusty watchers, such as myself, felt almost cheated; even as we relished in the indelible moment, we wondered what his time would have been had he run straight through the finish line. Never mind that that wasn't Bolt's own goal, which was to win and to have fun doing it; the public deserves him running to the tape, in our minds, for what we want is for him to run for history and not for himself. Never mind that we ourselves rarely hold ourselves to the same standard, extending ourselves for a cause bigger than ourselves rather than seeking our own comfort and pleasure.

And so I add Bolt to my list of people we Christians can learn from as it relates to exchanging personal comfort for eternal impact. I've blogged in this space before about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Spiderman both faced the temptation to trade in their unique opportunity to do good for the world, in order to lead happy and normal lives. And so Bolt's historic 100-meter run is a reminder of the trade-offs we face between our own desires and the opportunity to subordinate them to an even greater cause.

If I may induce a yawn by introducing an economics term, there is a very real sense of asymmetry here: people like Bolt, Buffy, and Spidey can do a little good for all of us, but at great cost to themselves. It's easy for an impartial observer, let alone one who benefits directly, to want that cost to be borne, since they don't have to bear it; and it's easy to see why the ones who have to bear that cost are reluctant to, since it can be such a heavy, thankless burden.

Let me be clear: God doesn't need our skills. The moment we think we're that important, we're well down the road of burn-out, pride, and numerous other attitudes that displease our Maker. Bolt is just as much of example to us Christians because of his carefree exuberance as he is because of his world-class training efforts. So we too must remember to balance self-sacrifice with self-feeding, and so we too must remember that the skills and resources and energy we expend are ultimately sourced not from our own selves but from the One who provides them to us.

Yet, having offered those counter-balancing comments, I have to think that the word we need to hear - the word I need to hear - is that the greater temptation is to trade in eternal impact for present ease. When the One we purport to follow marked Himself as the One precisely by making the ultimate sacrifice, so should we also live.

Here's hoping that after the Games are over and the athletes have gone home and the feelings of victory and defeat have faded away, that we will remember what sacrifices all contestants made for their own satisfaction's sake, for our viewing pleasure, and for history. And here's hoping we'll be similarly inspired to focus ourselves for glory - not our own, but a far greater, juster, more satisfying glory.

8.17.2008

DIVERSITY AND ACTIVISM IN UNIVERSITY CITY

University City's meteoric rise in property values in recent years has been well-documented. With my kids still a couple of years from attending the new neighborhood elementary school, it's still anyone's guess as to what the ethnic and income composition of their school will be. But if the front cover of this week's University City Review is any indication, it appears that our neighborhood still has some flavor to it. Here are the three stories that made the front page:

* "State, City and Civic Leaders Welcome Welcoming Center West." My dear colleague Anne O'Callaghan is up to some good here, opening up a satellite office for her agency, which provides resources to recent immigrants.

* "Saads: A Halal Tradition." This Middle Eastern restaurant just a block from our house is a great place to get a falafel with baba ghanouj and a side order of grape leaves, or at least that's what I order when I go there. And the article is accurate: Saad knows my name.

* "West Philadelphian Flies to Jordan for Peace-Building Conference." Don't know the people or organizations involved here, but glad to see locals working for global peace.

So there you have it: three snapshots of the goings-on in our neighborhood. At a time when a higher proportion of American communities are becoming ethnically, socio-economically, and politically homogeneous, I'm glad we bought where we bought when we bought. And at a time when there is so much bad news and such a temptation to be apathetic or jaded when it comes to civic engagement, I'm glad to be part of such an activated and optimistic crowd. Three cheers for University City!

8.16.2008

FELLOW PHILADELPHIANS

A nice piece on Philly Fellows in today's Inquirer: "Their Calling: Reinvigorate the Region's Nonprofits." It's a potent combination for Philadelphia: match talented do-gooders with local service opportunities. The young college grads develop a stickiness with Philly, its communities, and its issues; and the non-profits shore up their constant deficits in staffing and energy.

Fortunately, this has not just been limited to Philly Fellows. Most notably, the Nutter Administration is replete with smart young staffers who bring a public interest perspective and a start-up mentality to their jobs each and every day.

Demographically, we need more of this to happen, lest we lose young'uns to other, more glamorous cities, and lest our charitable institutions atrophy as top management ages out. Let's hope the young among us mature well, ever hoping for the best, willing to do what it takes to make it happen, not discouraged by the occasional (OK, perennial) instance of "that's not how it's done" frumpiness or progress-stultifying bureaucracy.

8.14.2008

THE RIGHT DIRECTION

For years, SEPTA was going in the wrong direction. Budget shortfalls cast a pall over the agency, and annually a doomsday scenario was trotted out that described fare hikes and service cuts that would have to be implemented if funding gaps weren't plugged. It was the opposite way you'd want a transit agency to have to go - higher fares and less frequent runs make it far less attractive to commit to using transit, which reduces ridership and causes even more financial pain.

So it is a happy day today, because SEPTA, on the heels of dedicated long-term funding for the first time in forever, is announcing service expansions all over the place. (See here and here.) It doesn't hurt that $4 gas has contributed to record-high ridership numbers. More service means more people will choose to ride, which means more revenues, which means even more service expansion possibilities. It's a virtuous cycle deserving of a victory lap.

8.12.2008

FEED THE WORLD

A nice piece on Philly-based Aramark in this week's issue of Business Week: "3.5 Million Meals in 16 Days." How's that for a logistical challenge: the sheer volume of food, the elite athletic condition of the consumers, and the diversity of cuisines leave you breathless just thinking about it. It's cool that a food services company from the land of cheesesteaks and water ice was plucked and picked for such a role. Go Aramark! Go Philly!

8.10.2008

ON THE MOVE, BEING STILL

For the third time in three months, my day of rest involved curling up with a good book or three while whizzing by in a train or bus. On this occasion, it was my vacation within a vacation: returning to Philly from Ocean City for two work days and one night, my wife and kids in the good hands of my in-laws, and me therefore able to tend to my things with no other family responsibilities.

In order to pull this off, I did have to wake up at 4 each morning, but that's hardly unusual anymore. The first day's early rising allowed me to hoof the 2 1/2 miles from our beach house to the bus depot in Ocean City, where a bus took me within blocks of the train station in Atlantic City, from which a train got me all the way to 30th Street Station and just blocks to where I work, well before 9 am. Wednesday afternoon, after starting my work day at 7 that morning, I reversed course and got myself back home in time to eat dinner and put the kids to bed.

The six or so hours of travel time were just enough for me to get through Joseph Ellis' "Founding Brothers," a delightful read for escaping the burdens of the modern day and transporting myself back to our nation's earliest and formative years. Equally restful were other books I toted on my bus ride to New York City last month to and from Yankee Stadium, and on my Amtrak ride to Washington DC two months ago to and from Nationals Stadium. More books wait for me on my nightstand; now I just have to negotiate with my wife for a day off next month, and figure out what vehicle will whisk me away while I sit still reading.
VULNERABLE

John Edwards was one of my least favorite politicians, both in terms of issues and image. So you'd think I'd be crowing along with everyone else at the news of his affair. You'd be wrong.

The sensational story merely serves as a warning to me of the temptation and consequence of infidelity. As a married man, one whose wife is a cancer survivor no less, I cannot in good conscience cast a stone in Edwards' direction because I know I too am vulnerable.

It is a theme my accountability partner and I sound all the time, he being a pastor and I an elder. When we hear of some prominent public or religious figure implicated in sexual indiscretion, we are reminded that we too are vulnerable, and we recommit to helping each other avoid temptation.

Let's consider, if briefly, the three things people are tsk-tsking Edwards about. First, how could he do such a thing as a person in the public eye? Edwards' confession was telling: politics feeds an ego that eventually assumes one can have whatever one wants. There are a lot of things a man can do, but the Bible is clear that many of them are not at all in bounds. We who believe in the authority of the Bible and of the God of the Bible voluntarily restrain ourselves from off-limits actions out of an understanding that those actions offer a false promise of pleasure and ultimately lead to ruin. So to me, Edwards' fall only reinforces my vulnerability to taking actions that will lead to such ruin, and strengthens my cry to God for help to resist and to stand firm.

Second, how could he do such a thing while projecting an image of being a family man? I don't know enough about Edwards to comment on the extent to which he is a family man versus the extent to which he has just created that image for political purposes. I do know that being a family man and wanting to be seen as a family man offer little defense against the temptation to lust and to cheat. Our vows to remain committed to our spouses are vows we must literally renew each moment, in the face of an enemy of our souls who seeks to wreak havoc on the strong partnerships that emerge from those vows. I am reminded by Edwards' infidelity that having made the vow before, and wanting to be seen as one who keeps it, is not the same as fighting to be true to it each day and each moment.

Third, how could he do such a thing while his wife was recovering from cancer? This is the one that gets people all riled up. And yet, I would argue that the fact that his wife was dealing with a serious illness made him all the more vulnerable to wandering. But, you might protest, the beauty of marriage is that two people commit to being there for each other; how dare he cheat on her at that very time? Yes, but what if your spouse is not available to be there for you? What if, for a very long season, your spouse is no longer your greatest source of comfort and support for you but your weightiest expenditure of your own comfort and support? It is still, just as and perhaps even more, inexcusable, agreed; but it is also a time of great exposure to temptation.

To be sure, there is a bit of moral outrage that I feel in this situation, and shame on John Edwards for what he did. But as much as I love my wife and as much as I fear God and as much as I keep myself on the straight and narrow, I respect the fact that I too am vulnerable. I understand that the evil one is lurking and looking, I understand that we live in a me-first, lust-soaked society, and I understand my own proclivities. I have written about this before, and asked for help then. In light of this breaking news, my first instinct is to write again, to ask for help from my friends again, to double down again on my own marriage vows, my love for and commitment to my wife, and my own allegiance to the Bible and to the God of the Bible.

You may be further along in shielding yourself from infidelity, and can scold John Edwards from a place of safety from temptation. But I warn you, even as I warn myself: until we are perfected, we are vulnerable. May we learn from another man's fall the consequences of sin, and remember all the more that there is an even graver consequence to sin than public humiliation and fall from power; and, ultimately, may we reclaim goodness and grace in our marriages, even when we have to work at it, and goodness and grace in our relationship with a God whose commitment to and love for us we can be assured of, even as we are sin-ridden and He perfect.

8.06.2008

Unsustainable

One of my very favorite books is Joseph Ellis' "Founding Brothers," a delightful look at the extraordinary group of leaders who shepherded our nation through its early years.  An entire chapter is devoted to the dilemma of slavery: almost everyone understood it to be morally wrong, and yet entire economies were based on its existence, and even a gradual cessation of the practice would almost certainly throw the new nation into chaos.  In this sense, the reason why the issue was effectively postponed until the Civil War was practical and not philosophical: no one argued in favor of slavery as a good thing, they simply said our nation and our economy would suffer irreparably if it was outlawed. 

I cannot help but think of, and encourage you to contemplate as well, the practices in our modern day that are unsustainable, whether environmentally, economically, or morally, but that are allowed to continue because we do cannot envision a world without them.  If we want to scold the forefathers of our nations for allowing the reprehensible practice of owning another human being, we ought to take a good hard look in the mirror - and at our newspapers - and do what we can to end any of our own reprehensible and otherwise unsustainable practices.


8.02.2008

SUMMERTIME

It was a long week, between work deadlines, parenting, and administrivia, that I hardly noticed the calendar flip to August. These are truly the dog days of summer: temps above 90, baseball heating up, football still weeks away, every other person out of town on vacation. So while I'm feverishly cranking out reports at work and trying to stay on top of responsibilities at home, I'm also trying to make a minute or three to chill. Here is some of the background soundtrack to get me there. (Yes, I stopped listening to pop music in the mid-90's.)

Paris - Mellow Madness [warning: explicit lyrics]

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince - Summertime

Bruce Springsteen - Streets of Philadelphia (as performed by the Tufts Beelzebubs)

Boyz II Men - End of the Road

Rich Mullins - Calling Out Your Name

Francis Scott Key - Star Spangled Banner (as performed by the Dixie Chicks)

Too Short - Life is . . . Too Short

LL Cool J - Goin' Back to Cali

Alphaville - Forever Young

Don Henley - Boyz of Summer

Bryan Adams - Summer of '69

TLC - Waterfalls

Update on "Dear Zachary" in New York and Los Angeles

Subject: "Dear Zachary" New York & Los Angeles DocuWeek tickets on sale online



Hi Everyone,

Sorry to send another email so soon, but a lot of folks have asked me to let them know as soon as Docuweek tickets for "Dear Zachary" went on sale, and they just went on sale in Los Angeles (Arclight Hollywood) today;  rather than cherry-pick the L.A./N.Y. residents from my email list and risk missing someone, I'm sending it out to everyone.  Thanks to all you  non-L.A. & N.Y. folks for understanding. :)

For Los Angeles:

You can go to the Arclight Cinemas website (www.arclightcinemas.com), look down the left column to "Special Programming" and click on "DocuWeek".  When the Docuweek page comes up, scroll down to the list of films.  "Dear Zachary" is the second one on the list.  Click on "Dear Zachary" and a page opens up with all the showtimes listed.  Click on the showtime you desire, follow the instructions and voila, you will have tickets.  Or if you want to go directly to "Dear Zachary"'s ticket page without doing all of that, you can do so by copying & pasting the following link into your browser:

https://www.arclightcinemas.com/ArcLight/faces/MovieDetails.jsp?movieName=IDA%26%2358%3B+DEAR+ZACHARY&pageInfo=IDA

I'm scheduled to do Q&A at the Saturday 8/23 7:20 PM show, the Sunday 8/24 2:30 PM show and also likely at the Thursday night 8/28 7:20 PM show.

For New York:

You can go to www.ifccenter.com, click on "Buy Tickets" at the top.  A movietickets.com page opens.  Choose a date (during August 8-14) from the "Showing on..." dropdown menu at right, and a new screen will come up with a list of available films for that day.  On any of the days August 8-14, "Dear Zachary" should be the first or second name on the list of options.  Click on the showtime you desire and purchase away.

Look forward to seeing many of you at the shows.  Thanks again so much for helping us get to this point!

Cheers,
Kurt

8.01.2008

TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT AT 46TH AND MARKET

At last count, I intersect with transit-oriented development activities at 46th and Market in at least six ways:

* I'm a pro-transit Philadelphia resident that wants to see more of this in our City.

* I live in this neighborhood.

* I used to work for the organization that is leading the development effort.

* I am now on the board of that organization.

* I co-authored a report last year on TOD in Philadelphia, which recommended this site as an attractive first site to move ahead on.

* I am currently co-authoring a report on how the City and SEPTA can come together to help move this project forward.

This is exciting to follow. Keep your eye out.
GREAT BEHAVIORAL ECONOMISTS THINK ALIKE

Greg Mankiw's blog links to an op-ed from a Duke behavioral economist who opines on why our blood boils over rising gas prices, something I also chimed in on in my blog. Of course, in addition to these unique ways in which we follow gas prices, I would also argue we've become addicted to cheap oil, and the thought of paying a more appropriate price gives us the shakes.

PS Let me append to this post a nice summary of the extent to which current gas tax levels do or do not cover the cost of building and maintaining roads, to say nothing of environmental externalities or the opportunity cost of dedicating land for roads.