Thursday, February 21, 2013


…also, middle-of-the-road takes on current issues in politics and education…
- from this blog’s banner

A distant riding buddy surprised me with a copy of Thomas L. Friedman (recall his book The World is Flat) and Michael Mandelbaum’s 2011 volume called That Used To Be Us.  It is subtitled: “How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back.”

“Great,” I thought to myself.  “350 pages of non-fiction to plow through.”  But, because “Buddy” and I get on the phone each Sunday evening for an hour to recap the week’s events in both politics and the personal, I figured, plow through was what I needed to do.  It would certainly provide fodder for some interesting long distance discussion over whiskey and a cigar.

My cynicism was quickly thwarted.  The book is based on a review of our country’s history, a look at the world in 2010 that is far different than the one in which I was reared, and discussions with educators, politicos and business leaders from the United States, India, China and a whole bunch of other places.  I found the volume to be a difficult-to-put-down portrait of America’s current reality.  Friedman and Mandelbaum identify four challenges we, as a country, face.  They are not gay marriage, the Second Amendment, larger-than-life sodas, or whether the President is a citizen. 

The challenges Friedman and Mandelbaum identify are:
  • Globalization,
  • The revolution in information technology,
  • Our chronic deficits, and
  • Our excessive consumption of energy.

A quick look at a week’s worth of headlines from the Sacramento Bee supports their contention.  Almost every article in the national news, world news or business news sections could be tied back to one or more of these challenges.  Causations identified by the authors are many.  Our shift from an ethic of investment and saving to one of consumption may have propelled the markets but isn’t the epitome of squirreling away nuts for the winter.  The polarized nature of our two-party system gets a good whack.  Even my beloved field of endeavor – public education – receives a well-deserved slap to boot. 

As I read This Used To Be Us – eagerly, it turns out – I began to reflect on the differences between the focus of Dad’s generation: we want to make sure our children have it better than we did, and my own baby-boom generation: “Cash or credit?”  “Why credit, of course!” and again realized those of us born between ’46 and ’64 might not have been the best stewards of the future.  Then I got to thinking about my kids and – although I sound much younger than a grandpa when I type – my grandkids.  I have five of ‘em.  What heritage, what legacy have we left to them? I asked myself.  Then, the life-long educator in me thinks:  What can I do to turn this around?

Here’s what I propose to do:  For my kids and my brother’s kids, I want to buy the paperback copy of the book.  I will give it to them with a book of tiny Post-It® stickees, a sharp pencil and a colored highlighter.  I will respectfully ask that each of them read the book with the following caveat:  You must highlight no more than twelve phrases, sentences or ideas that either reinforce something you believe or compel you to see something in a new light.  The pencils and stickees are provided so each can mark whatever strikes him or her in either of these veins before winnowing it down to the final dozen.

Then, in three to four months, I’ll cook the food and provide the drink with the proviso that we will engage in a 90-minute discussion of the points they each individually highlighted.

Middle of the road?  Isn’t that dangerous?
- from this blog’s banner

This indeed might be dangerous – or at least, quite interesting.  The group doesn’t get together all that often.  And for folks who are seemingly related by blood or marriage, their backgrounds and experiences vary greatly.  But isn’t that America?

  • One is employed with an independent insurance agency;
  • One has completed a business degree at a California State University;
  • One attends UC Berkeley;
  • One is underemployed as a trained diesel mechanic;
  • One is a pretty conservative Christian;
  • One is an outstanding percussionist and jazz and rock drummer;
  • One has recently gained a management position at a local McDonald’s;
  • One is an award-winning California winemaker;
  • One attends a community college in Oregon;
  • One - like his dad - can fix darn near anything mechanical;
  • One has attended – and may still attend – some local Tea Party confabs;
  • One has a fine eye and hand for drawing and art;
  • One is a mother of two;
  • Another will soon be a mother of three;
  • At least one owns more than one firearm;
  • One is attempting to establish residency out of state;
  • One might be classified as a bit of an anarchist – although I wouldn’t;
  • One works in a butcher shop;
  • Several might be considered conservative in the neo sense;
  • Not sure any are as liberal as others might perceive me;
  • Four are female;
  • Two are male;
  • Two are married – spouses are encouraged to participate – and yet:
  • All are going to have to make their way in the world we left them.

It will be interesting to see how many of the six (or eight) will be willing to partake, and how the discussion will play out over some ribs, chicken, salad and maybe some beer.

However it turns out, it seems to me that promoting middle-ground discussion about our nation’s history and how we got to where we are is the least one can do to move the country forward.  From such a foundation, perhaps we can find solutions…


Resource:  Friedman, Thomas L. and Michael Mandelbaum:  That Used To Be Us.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  New York.  2011.  Probably about 15 or 16 bucks in paper.  Please contact your local bookseller.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, February 11, 2013


…Holding Fast to the Personal Agenda

Here are some common reasons for pursuing a position on a local school board:

1.     The superintendent needs to be fired.
2.     I want to ensure that my kid gets the best education possible.
3.     The schools need fixing.
4.     I want to cut waste, fraud and abuse.
5.     This will be my ticket into the political arena where I can run for county supervisor, the assembly and, maybe, statewide office.
6.     I want to take care of the students and the folks we pay to take care of the students.

            There is a correct answer.  Yet, too many candidates for Trustee positions either don’t know the correct answer or, once they assume office, forget why they’re there.

Here’s a closer look at the varied rationale for seeking a seat on the Board of Trustees:

1.            The superintendent needs firing.  A Board Member friend I know opines, “The most important – in fact the ONLY important – thing a Board does is the hiring and firing of superintendents.  "But,” he adds immediately, “Trustees must do their homework about both the disconnect between the current administration and the needs of the students and the establish with as much surety as possible that the new supe can meet the needs better than the old guy did.”  It is painstaking and time consuming.  He adds, perhaps cynically, perhaps realistically: “At best it’s a crap shoot.”
            So you’ve got the perfect superintendent.  Now what are you going to do? 

2            I want to ensure that my child is offered the best education possible.  From that follows:  I will get my child into the classes of the teachers with the best reputations; I will have an avenue to be in the classroom monitoring that teacher’s work with my child; I will have access to the school site’s leadership so that my complains/concerns can move to the front of the line.
            A former Trustee and bicycling buddy tells me: “Once you become a member of the Board, you give up being a parent.”  Sage advice.  Ethical Board membership means Trustees do not throw their weight around on the school site or in the classroom.
            In practice, absent a quorum of members at a calendared Board meeting, a Trustee is elevated to the position of citizen with all of the privileges and limitations that any other citizen has.  Able and competent administrators will protect teachers from irrational demands of expectations of favorable treatment from parents who happen to be trustees just as they would protect staff from the unreasonable expectations of any parent.  Courageous educational leaders lose their jobs all the time because of this.  But it is the right stand to take.

3            The schools need fixing.  Yes, they probably do.  Unless “fixing” is simply replacing one unfavorable practice with one less favorable – not research based, not data driven, not practiced in buildings with similar demographics but better results, then the correct way to effect change is to engage in a collaborative process involving stakeholders with multiple points of view because of the varied experiences they bring to the table.  A Trustee really can have but one point of view and one set of experiences to guide him or her: his or her own.  In order to create measureable growth in a sustainable manner, a Trustee demanding a specific change or a particular program will only serve as a speed bump in the fast lane toward progress.  Better that the leadership takes input from the entire public and the educators engineer the change.  Trustees can scrutinize a recommendation and evaluate the information, data or process by which the recommendation is achieved – they can even participate as an individual member of the public on a specific committee – but the effective Board member will not demand some different outcome simply because he or she can.

4.            Waste, fraud and abuse: if we repeat it often enough, it becomes a false truth that can drive policy.  Are there instances of these three mismanagement stooges?  Certainly.  Are they the prevalent way of doing business?  Probably not.  If they are, the Board should taken action.  If the Board does not, the voters should by firing the Board.
            The truth of the matter is that school districts are highly legislated, adjudicated and regulated institutions.  Budget requirements are clearly defined.  Audits are frequent and rigorous.  Personnel actions are governed by labor law and education code provision, not Board action.  Curriculum material decisions are seriously limited – for better or for worse – by a state screening process.  There is little opportunity for local malfeasance.  And when malfeasance rears its unprofessional head, savvy boards take care of bid’ness by holding Superintendents accountable.
            “But you read about malpractice all the time in the paper!”  Remember the adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Along those lines: Schools following the rules do not make news.  In the scope of the decisions made in 1,000 different California school districts and many times that may California school sites, the percentage of bad-apple decisions is remarkably low.  Run for a Board on a platform of eliminating waste fraud and abuse and you’ll likely find yourself twiddling your thumbs quite a bit.  Or ill-advisedly meddling in items one, two or three, above.

5.            This is the ticket to my political future.  Because you what?  Twiddled your thumbs on a school board for four or eight or twelve years?  Sorry, if you’re not dedicated to the following, please find another avenue…

6.            I want to (1) take care of the students and (2) take care of the people we employ to take care of the students.  

Ding.  Ding.  Ding.  Ding.  Ding.  Ding.

            Through a maze of procedural, budgetary, experiential and, yes, political considerations, this is what educational leaders do and this is what School Board members need to ensure happens.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, February 8, 2013


Every day, if you’re paying attention,
you’ll see something you don’t see every day.
 – demonstrating the depth of my wisdom –
to Mom.

Years ago, I hiked with a group of friends along the north rim of Chico’s (CA) Upper Bidwell Park.  Among that group was a biology professor, Rayburn we called him, from the local state college.  About 10:00 AM this middle-of-March morning, someone spied a small dot, high in the sky, a mile or two away, traveling west to east, over the creek that had formed the canyon.  As the thing got closer, it revealed itself as a large raptor.
            “Well lookee there, boys,” Rayburn said, pointing.  “That’s a golden eagle.” 
            He quickly explained about how the wing shape and the tail differed from a hawk.  As we watched, the bird abruptly dived straight toward the canyon bottom spreading its wings like a parachute as it neared the grassy veldt.  Touching down with a tiny hop, the thing churned its great, feathered limbs and rose.  A wriggling little something was snared in its clutches.
            “Wow by golly!” Rayburn exclaimed.  “You just don’t see that every day.”
            This, I figured, is why we hike, bicycle, paddle, sail or simply hang out outdoors.

The other day, out on some numbered county road in rural Yolo County, I followed a farmer’s white Chevy pickup at a reasonable distance and at a reasonable speed.  The greening hills of the Coast Range captured a series of my westward glances.  The old barns and derelict farm equipment also interested me and there were plenty out this way.
           At a particular moment, at the end of one of those glances, a movement caught my eye.  A low-flying doglike creature was racing toward the roadway ahead of the truck.  He shot onto the pavement not seconds before the Chevy would cross its path.  Clearing the highway at breakneck speed, he continued about 100 yards into a freshly plowed field.  There, he stopped, as if coming to some mark visible only to him.  Craning his head he eyed both the truck and me on the BMW as we headed north on the paved route.
            I’ve never seen a road-kill coyote and I wouldn’t today.  But, then again, in my neck of the ‘burbs, I don’t see coyote that often.

The very next time out on a bike, while waiting at a stoplight on the fringe of suburban El Dorado County, a Norton Commando 850(?), black, restored to near showroom, pulled past in the adjacent lane.  The rider wore all the Norton logo apparel: jacket and helmet emblazoned with the classic script.  A neighbor kid, serving in the navy during Vietnam had purchased one of these babies, only yellow.  I remember distinctly his inability to kick the damned thing over using every ounce of his 148-pound frame.
            The light changed and I was expecting the Brit to roar away, but instead, I heard a mellow purr from the vintage conical pipes.  I followed on the Breva, hoping to catch up and engage in a little bike talk.  But up the road a short distance, our routes diverged.  He waited in a turn pocket to explore Salmon Falls Road and I was seeking Rescue (the town) up Green Valley.  I slipped by offering a wave to the rider and his rare and beautiful bird.
            I wish I had the skills to restore and maintain such a thing.

Living on the shoals of Sacramento’s urban sprawl, I don’t often see bald eagles, so spotting three of them on consecutive fence posts along a Sierra County route outside of Loyalton was a thrill.  The words I retrieved when I arrived home fell short of impressing folks.
            Likewise the deer in our valley stream courses tend to be scrawny little beasts teetering on spindly legs.  Thus, my breath halted when, upon rounding a corner outside of Pope Valley (Napa County), a massive buck with about two dozen points stood in the middle of the narrow lane checking his GPS.

The Austin Healy 3000 occupies a spot on the long list of things I covet but shall never possess.  Skills to maintain, again?  Growing up, a high school peer, the son of the county sheriff, raced about town in a souped up model with a Ford 289 that would have earned him no end of traffic citations had he not been the son of the county sheriff.
            On route 70, just south of Marysville, an early 60s example, pristine white, appeared in my mirrors, having just entered the highway at Olivehurst.  I slowed in order to take in the rarity.  (I used to engage in this clandestine spying upon spotting a pretty young maid.  But no more.)  The driver was older than I.  To fend off the 52-degree temps with its resultant wind-chill and yet still enjoy the top-down experience, he had a hoody tied tightly over a snap-brim cap and under his gray chin.  He sat on oxblood leather seats.  His right hand rested on the shifter.  A grin told me he was living a charmed life. 
            My jet black Guzzi, an ’07, is a bit of a rare machine and I keep it really clean.  I wondered if, in passing, the Austin pilot gave any thought to the rider of it. 
            Nah.  He was drivin’ his Healy.  What could be better?

My ninety-one year-old mother often expresses her displeasure with the fact that I drive motorcycles.  “Why do you do such a thing?” she asks using other, more direct and disdainful motherly terms and has since I was about aged 15.
            “Every day,” I say to her, “if you’re paying attention, you see something you don’t see every day.”
            This statement always only earns a dismissive sweep of her hand.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, February 1, 2013


A retired plough horse we all called Cricket used to stand behind a fence on a rise beside highway 108/120 monitoring traffic on the road to Yosemite.  One day she wasn’t standing there.  It didn’t take long for word to get out that she’d passed.   Within hours, a memorial of sorts sprung up on the fence.  The local paper ran a feature.  Even today – ten, maybe twenty years later – frequent passers-by wonder about the stories the old horse might have told.

Riding country roads one often spots old stuff looking back at you as you rocket by.  Sometimes, I suppose, the farmer may have retired an implement by the side of the road because its placement there would be out of the way of ranch operation.  Sometimes, I reckon, that’s just where the old thing died. 

A warm pre-spring day invited some saddle time.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d visited the lowlands of Yolo County.  Not long into the little circuit I’d devised, I began to see a pattern of derelict equipment in the rural farmlands north and west of Sacramento.  With no agenda set for the day, I decided to photograph a few.

First was a land plane.  A primitive sample rested in a thicket of choking willows.  After the area shifted from wheat production to rice, these blades were dragged behind a team or an old tractor.  The objective was to level the land, encircle it with small levees, flood it with river water and set the acreage to seed in rice.  Today’s models are bigger and more refined, able to smooth larger swaths in less time.  Loyal though this implement was, today it sits like a jilted lover – in no way past his or her prime – waiting for the rust to spirit it away.

Further down the road a piece, a heavy implement like this might have been used to tackle weeds, but more than likely it set tiny furrows for planting some sort of seed crop.  Cloaked in winter grass, it too, rusts. 

Both of these prompt me to think of the days before we recycled things; when we employed iron and steel instead of plastic.  Certainly, these could be lifted to the salvage yard, melted down and sent overseas to be reincarnated as a Hyundai, but I was rather glad to see them parked along side the road.  I wondered what stories they might tell.

The old farm truck replaced the horse drawn buckboard.  North of State Route 20 in the Bear Creek drainage, this example awaits the inevitable, its board bed checked, cracking and becoming dust while its sheet steel cab puts up a better fight.

Just off State Route 16, these three amigos – an International, a Ford and, I think, a Diamond Reo – discuss the state of things as only wizened retirees can do.  I suspect each one has more than a few tales of the glory days, hauling silage in the winter or produce in the fall or fording a swollen Cache Creek in the spring.

Almost any side road is an interesting thing.  This one is behind a locked gate, but its gentle curve invites me to wonder what might be around the bend.  And how many times did one of those three trucks drive it?

Barns, too, have stories they won’t tell.  Across the field from Yolo’s Cottonwood Cemetery, this old barn has weathered decades of blazing sun and stud chilling fog.  But the real stories may have something to do with that glorious hayloft, and what, after a Saturday dance and a bit of purloined moonshine, some strapling young hand may have coaxed from the farmer’s maiden.  Better still would be the story about what the farmer did with the boy once he caught up with him.

The catch of the day has to be this classic old 40s era Ford Ferguson tractor.  Whatever color it used to be, it is now just rust.  The sun has worked its way on the huge tires melting them to where a finger swipe will return with a helping of black, oxidized dust.  No telling how long this has been sitting next to the I-80 frontage road east of Davis.  No telling how it feels about the circumstance.

Seeing these derelicts reminds me of when we built things to last and we expected them to do so.  If it busted you could fix it with a monkey wrench and a ball peen hammer.  Strong as an elephant and loyal as a bird dog, these were the implements that tamed the land creating California’s unparalleled agricultural heritage.  I enjoyed my look back.

I “learned” to drive on a late 40s vintage Ford Ferguson tractor.  Dad had purchased it cheap, responding to an ad in the local paper.  He needed the thing to tend four-and-a-half acres of almonds he’d bought after his escape from LA.  Dad taught me how to shift gears using a clutch, accelerate and slow down using the hand throttle and how to avoid obstacles with the steering wheel.  The thing had no brakes.  Countless times I plowed through a fence or ran over a tree or crashed into something.  Dad never knew.  The old Ford wasn’t talking. 

Once, after watching the Indy 500 on TV, I decided a red racing stripe across the old tractor’s gray hood would look good.  Dad did find out about that one.
The property sold about 40 years ago and along with it the tractor.  I drive by my growing-up home occasionally to see if the thing’s been retired to the fence line along the avenue.  As of yet, it hasn’t.  Once it is, however, I’ll stop by and ask what stories it might remember from my youth.


Today’s Route:  I-5 to Woodland; north on E8 (county designation) to Knight’s Ferry; north further on SR 45 to Colusa.  Stop for an omelet at Tommy’s Market Street Café.  West on SR 20 through Williams to SR 16; south on 16 through the fabulous Cache Creek drainage to Rumsey, Guinda – stop in at the country store if only to say hello - then on to Brooks, Esparto and Madison.  South on old 99W to Winters; east on 128 and Russell Road to Davis; I-80 west to the bay or east to home.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press