Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's Even Worse than It Looks

It’s Even Worse than in Looks, Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein, Basic Books (2012) $26.

News items catch my eye everyday; the words of columnists, too. 

Recently, Vista Republican House member Darrell Issa trumped up yet another falsehood regarding the administration's much maligned roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.  This following his charges about the NSA, the IRS, Benghazi, and concerns that Fruit of the Loom no longer sews fabric tags into their briefs, which probably relates to some form of corruption coming from the White House.

Coincident to that, in response to a Southern California state senator’s travails, Sacramento Bee regular Bruce Maiman opined that the reason corruption is alive and well in the state capital is that the general public doesn’t care about it.

I think Maiman is on to something.  The reason folks throw up their hands in disgust has less to do with the Twitterization of America, reducing every piece of information into 140 character doses, and more to do with being fed up with obstructionist tactics.  Issa's actions are a prime example.

In Worse Than it Looks, (and paraphrasing from page IX) Mann and Ornstein report: On January 26, 2010 the Senate voted on a resolution to create an 18-member deficit-reduction panel in order to fast-track a sweeping plan to resolve our debt crisis.  The resolution was co-authored by Democrats and Republicans including John McCain and Mitch McConnell. But on January 26, the Senate blocked the resolution with McCain and McConnell joining the opposition.  Why?  Because President Obama was for it and its passage might gain him political credit.  That should frustrate the hell out of the average American.  I know it does me.

Initially, I was concerned that Worse was simply a tool by Mann and Ornstein to pillory the Republican Party.  But the further I read, the more I realized their premise was not simply an attack on the GOP – they frame Speaker Boehner’s position as unenviable rather well suggesting that no Speaker in history has had to wrangle with such a deeply divided majority.  Rather, the book is a treatise on how far the radicalization of politics has taken Washington away from its task at hand: Governance.  One-ups-man-ship, disrespect and obstruction has ground Washington to a halt and a weary citizenry, unable to discern information from misinformation, only shows up to vote.  And that’s only about half of us. 

Mann and Ornstein outline the problem, examine false solutions (third party rescues, balanced budget amendments, term limits) and then outline a better course.  And like those news stories and columnists comments, this concluding line caught my eye (paraphrased from page 201):  If the goals of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are sometimes amorphous, their hangers-on sometimes unsettling, and their means sometimes questionable, they still reflect a broader public desire to get America back on track.

From this I conclude: Somebody wins when those groups can’t find a middle ground.  And that somebody who wins ain’t us.

This is an interesting read; one that warrants a trip to your local independent bookstore.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Autumn 1965:  For an eighth grade PE class session, teacher/coach Smitty Jones “planned” an impromptu track meet.  Coach Jones acted the tough guy and I didn’t much like him.

My event?  The eighty-five yard dash.  Why only eighty-five yards?  The schoolyard wasn’t 100 yards wide.

Smitty paired me against Benjamin Dentz a husky farm boy of average or so wit who lived out by the river.  At high school graduation he would be recognized for never having missed a day of school starting back in Kindergarten.

“I’m gonna whup your ass,” Benny snarled as we lined up at the heavy, black garden hose that served as the starting line.  I’d heard that Benny could horse ninety-pound sacks of nitrogen fertilizer into the back of his pop’s Studebaker pickup and that he got to drive a jeep through the orchards on their property, while I hadn’t ever made it to the top of the fifteen-foot rope we were all supposed to climb in the gym, so I figured he probably would whup my ass.

I stood dope-like as Benny crouched like a cougar at that hose while Coach Jones, from across the field, hollered: “mark… set…”

When the pistol sounded, I threw my gangly body into motion.  Flailing through the November air, I didn’t look for Benny.  I just focused on another black hose, the one serving as the finish line.  It appeared to be bouncing on the grass, one bounce for each of my pounding strides.  I’m not sure if I looked more like a daddy long legs spider or a jackhammer as I charged forward.  I do think I felt a lung crack.

Smitty Jones was yelling something and seemed very agitated or excited as I neared the hose.  Crossing, I felt his hand pop me between the shoulder blades. 

“Hey,” Benny whined as he panted.  He’d finished a step or two behind me.  “My, my…  I tripped back at the…”

Smitty turned to Benny:  “Not what I saw.”  Then he slapped my on the back again.  “Didn’t think you could do it.”

Smitty Jones’s wife – or someone – had collected and painted some paper milk bottle tops of the day, fastening them to loops of fuzzy yarn to serve as awards.  I got a gold one.  Benjamin got a blue one.

I wore mine all that day and part of the next.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 11, 2013


Amador County Wine Country Edition

Our California riding season lingers into mid-November.  An hour or so away from the Sacramento area, nestled in the gold country foothills of Amador County, rests a growing-in-public-awareness wine-growing region.  A free morning with clear skies and moderate temperatures invites me to revisit the area.

East of Plymouth lays California’s Shenandoah Valley.  Drained by the Cosumnes River, the earliest Europeans dredged her waters for gold that would play out long before their dreams did.

In the intervening 160 years, agriculture – row crops, walnuts, grazing, berries and flowers – has given way to wine grape production. 

But remnants of those diverse agricultural days remain even as their wood foundations dissolve into the rocky soil.

Now, along Steiner Road and Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road, while old ranches have become quaint wineries, relicts of the former era stand as weathering sculptures honoring a not so long ago past.  An old caterpillar tractor (Ben Holt invented these not far away in Stockton)…

… a springtooth furrow, once used to till in anticipation of the next planting…

… another view of same…

… a disk rusts in the foreground of what once was a farmer’s field shanty turned into the tasting room for Story Vineyards.  Picnicking on this acreage affords a view of the Cosumnes.  From this vantage it is easy to see those grizzled sourdoughs looking back up the hill at us from a century and a half ago.

The autumn chill has turned the leaves to amber and gold…

… but at spots along the way, orchards not yet ploughed asunder for grape production still yield English Walnuts.

Old barns and old buildings fascinate.  A corrugated metal structure serves perhaps as a barrel room, perhaps as a workshop…

… and a red barn fronts a pasture still grazed by horses.

Glorious little roads twist behind hills and disappear.  They network in and out of stream courses and along historic fence lines.  This one leads me to a hidden gold rush era berg, one I wouldn’t have found if the road hadn’t beckoned as I crested a ridge.

I’ve visited the Amador vineyards many times since moving to the Gold County in the mid 80s.  Each time I return I find it’s been too long.  Each time I return I enjoy a relaxing rural environment that spans multiple generations; one that takes care to not depart from its historic roots.

Oh!  And the wine!

Twenty-nine years ago, I know because I just counted ‘em out on my fingers, we first discovered this region.  Living in Sonora, an hour or so south on 49, we had taken a Sunday drive, detoured off Steiner Road, up a gravel track to a metal building atop a knoll.  Amador Foothill the sign had said.  And it still does. 

In the tasting room one is likely to be greeted by either the vineyard tender (the husband) or the winemaker (the wife.)  It has been this way for 34 years, we were told yesterday as I purchased my usual half-case of Sauv Blanc – formerly known as Amador Fume.  I fill in the case with some luscious Zins and Italian varietals.  I put many of them in the “library” side of my wine rack at home.

Over the past three decades, many bigger-money wine operations have moved to the Shenandoah Valley with state-of-the-art tasting rooms, event centers, entertainment venues, bistros and paved parking.

But Amador Foothill, and a few others worth searching out, offer excellent wines at good value staffed by the farmer, his wife or one of the kids.  This is the place I seek out first.



Amador Wine Growers Association:

Amador Foothill Wines:

Story Winery:  (Cool URL!)


Aging cedar fence post
Today’s Route:  From Sacramento:  US 50 west to Latrobe Road.  South on Latrobe.  East (left) on Sacramento Road to Plymouth.  Cross SR 49.  Bear right toward Shenandoah Valley.  (Bearing left will land you in Fiddletown – a delightful blast from our gold rush past.)

Return:  Return to Plymouth and consider SR 49 north to El Dorado (ribs at Poor Reds) thence to Diamond Springs and Placerville (antiques, galleries.)

Or: Head east on Shenandoah Road to Mt. Aukum and on to Fair Play for some twisty pavement, river views and a case of Slug Gulch Red.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Bartender’s Tale

Ivan Doig.  Riverhead Books: 2012: $16.

I’d given up on fiction about a year ago.  Too much of what I’d been reading left me empty as if I’d just watched back-to-back-to-back hours of 80s era cop shows on TV, and rose from the couch feeling as if I’d wasted a perfectly good evening.  Prior to going cold turkey, I’d been caught up in either glitzy assembly-line novels where understory folks write for the James Pattersons and Clive Custlers of the world, or formulaic stuff that, into the third or fourth installment, I realized I’d read before.

Enter Ivan Doig.  I’d never read any of his work previously, but in July, a friend had mentioned this one.  Timid about getting burned for sixteen bucks and several hours of time, I didn’t bite.  Then, a week or so ago, “The Bartenders Tale” was displayed prominently on the “New in Paperback” table of the independent in Calistoga. “Well, what the hell,” I must have said aloud, because an older woman raised an eyebrow from behind the cash register.

Set in Montana in 1960, Doig’s novel lets me reenter that time through the eyes of narrator Rusty, a kid who was about my age in that year.  Within pages, I am sharing the curiosity, wonder, questions and angst of one exploring a barroom’s backroom stuffed with pawned treasures, experiencing our childhoods fade into the rearview mirror and the future unfold one overheard conversation at a time.  I laugh with the Twain-like oddities and incidents Doig creates and shudder at the truths – some real, some imagined – as divined by Rusty.  We’ve all been there.

In this story steeped in nostalgia and wisdom, Rusty, in need of his own place-in-the-world foundation, struggles to grasp his single-father’s past.  Immersed in the story, I am twelve again, right there with him and I don’t want twelve to end.  When it does, I find I must take ten minutes and a walk around the block to allow the mist to clear from my eyes.

Mr. Doig has renewed my interest in fiction as, perhaps, a most-viable vehicle for delivering truth.  Now I want more.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Lion in the White House

Subtitled “A Life of Theodore Roosevelt” by Aida D. McDonald (Basic Books, 2007, $16.99)

In school, we learn of (and teach) American history up until about the end of the Civil War.  Reconstruction may be about as far as we get.

Yet the tumultuous times of the United States are not framed by major “if it bleeds, it leads” conflicts.  Rather, they are part and parcel of the experiment we call democracy in the United States. 

To most of us, the turn of the twentieth century is an after-thought in our understanding of history.  Yet, the growth of the progressive movement in the face of a laisseze-faire then-Democratic party establishment speaks to one of the great David vs. Goliath periods in our history.

Standing tall was a young Theodore Roosevelt, thrust into the presidency at age 42.

Donald offers a rather fawning short biography of this monumental figure, one that, I wish, gave a more balanced view of his life and administration.  Yet, it provides a basic academic view of the cavalcade of events leading to worker rights, necessary strictures on banking and stock trade, protection of the environment and our evolution as a world power.  Throughout the narrative, I cannot escape the feeling that history is repeating itself today.

I need to read more – and perhaps a more objective look – at TR’s tenure in the spotlight, but this volume introduces me to those monumental and incremental actions of the early twentieth century that ushered the United States into it’s position as a world power.  It also reinforces the value of having a leader who embraces a vision and sticks to his guns as that vision sees its way to fruition. 

See your local, independent bookseller.

Beyond Fundamentalism

Resa Aslan, 176 pgs, Random House, 2010, $16.
Subtitled “Confronting religious extremism in the age of globalization.”  

Aslan outlines the historic similarities shared by extreme wings of major religions.   He illustrates that none have consistently occupied a higher ground where seeking peace and understanding might be the ultimate goal.  Exhorting themselves into Cosmic battles, extremists bolster their cause with the words “God is on our side,” or “We are fighting God’s war.”  Frequently the cause has been simply to emerge victorious.  The reward awaits in the next life: to hell with those we defeat.  Often there is no end game – no: “What shall we do on earth once we accomplish our mission?”

In the twenty-first century, America finds herself engaged in a so-called Cosmic War pitted against those whose motivation may not appear rational.  (What rationale for war is rational?)  Our strategy?  To fight such zealotry with zealotry of our own.

A better strategy?  Aslan makes a good case for refusing to engage.  History, he says, shows that the middle will win out over the extreme, so long as someone doesn’t stumble into becoming the extreme’s foil.  The book offers historic perspective to  present a balanced view of the hazards when veering too far to the left or right in our beliefs.  No religious group, no matter how righteous their underpinnings appears immune. 

Coincidentally, I read Aslan’s work as the shut-down debacle in Washington was playing out.  I couldn’t help viewing things happening in our nation’s capital through the lens Dr. Aslan provided.  Apparently political groups can fall into the same zealtrous traps.

Good read, although the occasional passage must be waded through.  See your local, independent book retailer.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” by Tim Egan (The Big Burn; Worst Hard Time).  In this biography (Mariner Books, 2012)

Egan tells the epic life of one Edward Curtis, sixth-grade educated photographer whose cause became recording the ethnography of the American Indian, circa 1900, before that entire way of life turned to so much dust.

Egan’s work unveils of the dedication, hard work and soaring triumphs of this man as well as the deep chasms of his despair at society’s inability to grasp his concept.  Egan shares Curtis’s at-whatever-cost efforts to record the passing of North America’s great cultures while selling the importance of his work to presidents, philanthropists, movie moguls and the general public – too many times coming up empty.

To me, and to many others, Edward Curtis’s life was that of an unsung man – someone about whom I would know nothing were it not for the efforts of a reporter such as Egan to bring his life to light.  I have spent the afternoon thumbing through the many volumes I have that tell of Native American Life in both words and image.  Many of those images are the work of Curtis, but because of the inability of turn-of-the century America to value his efforts, the rights to his most amazing work were sold for a pittance. 

That which we do this day may not be rewarded in this life. 

This is a good read that makes me want to walk further in the footsteps of a remarkable man.

Sacagawea’s Child: The Life and Times of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau

Susan Colby, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman) 2004.

Fascinating summer that it has been, began in May with a 4x4 excursion to the banks of Oregon’s Owyhee River in search of the resting place of J.B. (Pomp) Charbonneau, infant member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. 

July found me following the Clearwater and crossing Lolo Pass almost in the footsteps of that expedition.

August, and I’m at Fort Clatsop, their western most outpost at the mouth of the Collumbia.  There, at the bookshop, I secure Sacagawea’s Child: The Life and Times of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau.

Reading through the biography of this relatively unsung man, I realize his heritage, upbringing, character and strength was pivotal to our westward movement.  William Clark ensured his education.  Duke Paul of Wurttemberg – nephew of the czar of Russia – introduced him to an “enlightened” Europe.  But his heart belonged to the west where “…there is a charm in the loneliness – an enchantment in the solitude – a witching variety among the sameness…” (pg 117) never allowed him to settle in a city for long.  “The Indian lodge and his native fastness possessed greater charms than the luxuries of civilized life.”  (pg 115)

Having read the stories of those he knew and helped: Jed Smith, William Sublette, James Beckwourth, Stephen Watts Kearney, John Fremont; Having traveled now some of Pomp’s trails – across the Rockies, along the Powder and the Yellowstone, into the Black Hills, returning through the Tetons – and discovering that he spent 13 valuable years living a scant 12 miles from my home in Rocklin, I am impressed by this man’s forgiving character and service to others.

Colby’s biography moved me to eagerly turn pages yet to pause often in reflection of the land he embraced and the cavalcade he lived.

Pomp, it turns out, spent the thirteen years prior to a fateful departure for the Montana mines about 20 miles east of my home.  The Placer County Herald reported that Mr. Charbonneau and buckskinned compatriot James Beckwourth cooperated in the running of a hotel at Murderers Bar on the Middle Fork of the American for a short period of time.  I’ll be seeking that site soon.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Minutes ago, I finished Reza Aslan’s book Zealot subtitled “The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I came away with many thoughts, not the least of which surrounds the centuries of conflict peoples of that region have endured. In and about Jesus’ time, sectarian violence occurred not between Islamic forces – as the Prophet Mohammed was 570 years away from being conceived – but among various violent sects of Jews, among others. Overlaid on that was an occupying force from Rome. Sound familiar?

Is Syria and her surrounding environs a land of eternal conflict?

In the twenty-first century, we take great pains, apparently not to learn from history. If we did, we’d know that thrusting our values on existing cultures, exacting our economic reward, and trying to shape nations is a fool’s errand.

Aslan posits that Jesus was a charismatic figure who while working for justice from within did not eschew violence as a means to a political end.  This historic thread differs in many ways from the Christ in whom we are invited to have faith.

Either, Aslan concludes, is “someone worth believing in.” Aslan’s conclusion is justified. If more of us worked for justice from within, we’d be a better people. We’d be who we profess to be.  But beyond that, if we could promote revolution through words and not violent actions, so much a better people we would become.

Zealot is a good read: insightful, seemingly well-researched, well told, and one that leaves the reader wanting more.

Closed circuit to those who suggest that because Aalan is not Christian – he is a historian of (gasp!) “lukewarm Muslim and exuberant atheist” heritage – Reza Aslan is not suited to write a biography of Jesus of Nazareth – you’ll recall how the Fox News interview deteriorated: Congratulations! You are part of the problem. Shielding ourselves from history allows us to repeat our mistakes. Those who detract someone’s diligent work because that person’s faith are poster children for ignorance.

As an American people – people who believe in the freedom to believe – we simply must do better.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Branch Rickey: A Life

Jimmy Breslin, Penguin, 2011

A New York newspaperman named Jimmy Breslin wrote the second non-fiction book I ever bought. Being a Mets fan at the time, I was interested in his account of the Mets' first season in the old Polo Grounds as Shea Stadium was being built out in Queens. As a ten-year-old, I, of course, had no idea of how Breslin could weave politics, entertainment, scandal and mob bosses into a book about my beloved Mets.

Two weeks ago, I purchased Breslin's biography of Branch Rickey.  Breslin, who I thought had died years ago, brings to life the heroic vision and battles attached thereto fought by the then Brooklyn Dodger General Manager. Against 15 other GMs, many owners of Negro League teams, politicians, athletes and members of the public, Mr. Rickey became pivotal in the county's efforts to level the playing field by at least leveling one. Leadership. Courage. Devotion. Grit. The stuff we may find lacking in people in power these days; all delivered with the wry observations of an old-school newspaperman devoted not to a cause, but simply to telling the story.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Hobo Quilts - Based on the Secret Language of Riding the Rails

Debra Henniger; Krause Publications; Cincinnati; 2010.

A QUILT book!

I’d been dragged into the fabric shop fabric shop where, on the closeout table rested a copy of Hobo Quilts.  “Hmmmm…” thinks I.

In it, the author describes symbols used by the Knights of the Road, early in the last century to indicate where food was available, where it was safe or unsafe to bed down and where the railroad bulls might confront one.  She explains how to construct themed squares of the symbols and put together some pretty cool quilts.  But beyond that, the book includes historic photographs (think Dorothea Lange) as well as excerpts from memoirs and tales from those Depression Era folks who, out of necessity, hopped trains in search of the next job/meal.

This is really an interesting collection. See your local book or quilt store.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press