Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Spirit of Steamboat

Craig Johnson has been known to travel to book signings on his BMW R1100GS, a precursor to my trusty steed.  That would be good enough for me.  But, bonus upon bonus, his Walt Longmire series has proven to be good fun.  While, from one tale to the next, there may be some better or less better plot lines, the stories and the characters are quite engaging; many of whom the reader cares about more than the ultimate outcome.

Most of the Longmire series are traditional Who-Done-Its with subplots based upon cultural or societal issues played out on a vast and breathtaking Wyoming landscape.

Enter the novel “Spirit of Steamboat,” where the issue isn’t about catching some creepy villain, but rather how might the crew of an aging Mitchell B-25 (like what my dad worked on in WWII) might survive a 1988 life flight mission through the teeth of the worst storm the Rockies had seen in decades.

In this short piece we find the answer to tantalizing questions about characters Johnson introduced in his previous mysteries.  Because of the flashback nature of this composition, we should figure that we already know the outcome, but how the outcome is achieved is more than worth the price of admission. 

This is a marvelous use of twenty bucks and about three hours.  See your local, independent bookseller.


Spirit of Steamboat.  Craig Johnson. Viking Press. 2013. $20.

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, March 30, 2014


Nearly five years into a blissful retirement, I’ve been tapped to serve as in interim principal for the final eight weeks of the current school year.  So much to catch up on!  Working from home – because I’m not officially on site yet – I spent a day reviewing administration instructions for the trial test of the new Common Core Standards which will be given to my students later in April and May.  Recall that the Common Core curriculum was a result of several governors and state superintendents of schools efforts to ensure that kids in Mississippi moving to Oregon would not miss a beat in the transition. 

No Tea Party folks: it is NOT an initiative of the current presidential administration.  But even if it were, it’d still be a good thing.

My take?  The new assessment gets an undeserved black eye probably because it tries to accomplish too much.  Many of the test items are far better than the old fill in the bubble assessments of my day.  The new ones are an honest effort to measure student learning at a level on Blooms Taxonomy above simple knowledge.  After all, if we are to produce citizens capable of problem solving and creative thinking, we have to focus on understanding, application, analysis – all those higher-level cognitive skills.

The test is an attempt to measure those.  But it is probably asking too much, too soon for a couple of reasons: 

1) While many public schools have made major strides toward equipping all students with higher cognitive skills, until just the other day, we assessed kids (and ourselves) using the old spit-back-the-info assessment, largely because it is easy to score.  The sheer difference in the new assessment’s protocols is daunting, and

2) The use of computers to gather student responses may make the assimilation of performance data more efficient, but the means by which students interact with the assessment on line will be a stumbling block.  A teacher could take hours just to train kids how to take the test – and that’s time taken away from providing experience and exercise with the curriculum.  Add to that the fallibility of many school’s tech systems and we come to understand staff trepidation about the whole process.

So while we’re moving in the right direction, a meaningful assessment will take time to arrive.  We will have to endure the pain of this new model, hopefully only for as long as it takes for the education community to hone a revised one.

How might that revised assessment look?  How about fewer questions?  How about having questions be project-based in nature where students would have to access their knowledge-based learning and apply it to a scenario or circumstance?  How about an examination limited to ten (yep, only 10) in-depth questions or problems – five in English language arts/fine arts and five in math/science and allowing the student pick only three (at least one from ELA/FA and one from M/S – the third one being from either area)? How about providing the student with a time block to read about or research the problem (reading comprehension) and a time block to compose or construct a solution (written language)?  The quality of response would inherently indicate the student’s success with knowledge-based factoids like spelling, grammar, and computation.  By the way: Let’s allow kids access to the same tools they’d use in the real world: calculators, maps, charts, graphs, dictionaries…

While the results of such an assessment might be more difficult to get one’s political arms about – especially if one is bent on exposing the failure of the schools to teach students things like “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” – they’d certainly give a clearer picture of how students are progressing toward productive, thoughtful, creative citizenship.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to an improved test rests with many of our political decision makers who may lack the skills upon which we’d hope to assess our kids using such a test.  Just perhaps…

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review: The Crash of 2016

Those of us who are centrists – although judged by the far-far right to be leftists-liberal-socialists – can conger pretty compelling arguments that corporate America has seized control of the ship of state.  And we can back those concerns up with economic reality and historic reference. 

Many, on the other side of the divide, can’t or won’t.  Far too often, their pronouncements, when laid bare to scrutiny, prove to be little more than throwing crap against a wall and seeing what sticks.  Opposition to the Affordable Care Act, pillaring the IRS, demeaning the unemployed or under-employed, suppressing the minimum wage: all are examples that cannot withstand the weight of logical or historical or economic review.  Still we are bombarded with nonsense about “what the American people want” courtesy minions for an Economic Royalty that cares only for increasing their personal wealth.

Jurist: “How much is enough?”  Gordon Gecko: “More.”

Enter Thom Hartmann – a fellow I read years ago as I was introduced to ADD as an issue I would confront with students as a school principal.  Logic, data, research, reason and care defined the manner in which Hartmann viewed and invited discussion on this critical issue.

Twenty-five-plus books later, Hartmann is applying the same research and data-based approach to his views on our country’s economic condition.  What he sees is not pretty: the impact of big money, the coalition of Wall Street with a major media mogul, the sheep-like ignorance of too much of our populous.  And it is not new.  Hartmann posits that about four generations after a man-contrived catastrophe, that catastrophe will repeat itself.  Example: Market collapse 1929.  Market collapse 2009.  Cause?  The same.

“The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” – Friedrich Hegel

Hartmann would support Hegel presenting gripping data to back up his claims and concerns.  He leaves me to want more for my country, not necessarily more for myself and certainly not more for the Economic Royal-folk who – I agree with him – are, again, seizing control.

“The Crash of 2016” is a frightening look at where we are headed.  It is well worth our time, and our thoughtful consideration.

See your local independent bookseller.


“The Crash of 2016 – The Plot to Destroy America and What We Can Do to Stop It”; Thom Hartmann; Twelve (an imprint of the Hachette Book Group), 2013.  $28.

Monday, March 17, 2014


(Tidbit Number 1)

The niece of my long-time riding buddy is a restaurant critic in the Bay Area.  Dining with her is a delight not only because she is knowledgeable about food and wine pairings, but because instead of chowing down on one wonderful entree with associated sides, we generally taste a smidgeon of this and a dab of that until we’ve enjoyed the best of the entire menu.  Along the way we are charmed by her culinary impressions and delighted by an unexpected flavor.  We’ve learned to savor these adventures.
 California’s State Route 1 from Marin County, along the Pacific shore to its junction with US 101 near Leggett is a 213 mile feast of tide pools, ocean bluffs, quaint villages, lumber towns, fishing harbors and history.  Luscious curves and pretty good pavement make it easy to bat right through it.  I know, because I’ve done so.

Having a new home base closer to the shore, I took a tidbit the other day, instead of the full meal.

The springtime called me to head west on Westside Road out of Healdsburg.  The valley floor is scribed with vineyards and dotted with tasting rooms.  Up the hillsides, verdant coastal forests over a sublime counterpoint as they loom over the farmlands.

At CA 116, we follow the route of the Russian River through redwoods and quaint enclaves.  Liking, as I do, to celebrate a good ride with a good cigar, I stopped in at a “Smoke Shop” in Guerneville, but was informed that if I wanted to get a cigar, I should check the filling station’s convenience store right next door.  Welcome to the Emerald Triangle.

116 heads west to the coast through the charmingly tattered Monte Rio then along a broadening Russian River to its mouth.  About a mile inland, it joins CA 1.  South would be Tomales, Point Reyes and Marin; north (today’s route) would be Jenner, Fort Ross and Stewart’s Point: a mere 26 miles.  Just a tidbit.

I paused in Jenner to find that cigar – again, no luck – then continued north on CA 1.  Three or four miles up the road, the pavement begins to wind and switchback up the hill.   

The endless view beneath an azure canopy prompts a stop for a portrait of the Breva.   

I have pictures of two formers (read: "bikes") at this very point.

Back when our west was young and we were break-necking our way to the Pacific Coast, folks in Central Asia were doing the same thing.  Only they were heading east.  Encountering the ocean, they arced north finding their way to Alaska and its abundant population of otters for pelts.  They moved down the coast, but not so much for a bridgehead for further expansion.  Their intent was to farm the coastal bluffs in order to provide groceries for their far northern colony of trappers.

A bunkhouse, a cookhouse and an orthodox church were built.  Trade was established with the locals (and with John Sutter)... 

...but a Putin-esque raft of firearms was kept oiled and ready should relations falter.  A colonnade was built to encircle the Russian encampment we now know as Fort Ross.

I remember when CA 1 actually traversed through the parade ground – drove through in my VW – but in the 70s, the highway was rerouted in order to preserve this unique piece of California’s heritage.  An interpretive center has been erected and the .3 mile walk to the original site is paved and more than worth the effort.  Pack your camera and your imagination.

State Route 1 continues to spindle north, in and out of rivers’ mouths and up and around bluffs and hills.  The ocean is never far away.  Its mist often drifts across the highway.  The luckiest cattle and sheep on earth graze here – if beef or lamb on the hoof might be considered lucky.

At Stewart’s Point a general store sells gas and freshly prepared baked goods.  On a foggy morn a cup of their coffee goes down particularly well.  On this afternoon, a Stewart’s Classic Root Beer slaked nicely.

My coast tidbit ended here as I coursed east along the famed Stewart’s Point / Skaggs Springs Road.  It tunnels through redwood groves then rises to grassy ridge tops as heads past Lake Sonoma and back to US 101 at Healdsburg.



If you find yourself in San Francisco needing a dash of hipness with your dining, and you really want to impress those who are with you with your where-we-gonna-eat prowess, hook into the Tablehopper for good reviews on Bay Area places you might otherwise never know of.  Bookmark this one:

Info on Fort Ross:


Today’s Route:

From US 101 at Healdsburg, CA: west on Westside Road to CA 116. West on 116 to CA 1.  North on CA 1 to Stewart’s Point.  East on Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs to the Dry Creek Valley, Healdsburg and US 101.

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I’ll tell ya…

I retired from a 35-year career in education five years ago.  Thirty-five years in the classroom, the prinicpal’s chair and the district office?  Hell!  I thought I knew all about it.  

Today, however, I was called upon to conduct a 90-minute “Art Docent” lesson for my wife’s third grade class. It seems the regular docent volunteer was hired to teach in a classroom. (Good for her.)

I took thirty minutes the day I received the docent directional binder and thirty minutes yesterday to review the lesson and then another thirty more this morning. I visited the school yesterday to inventory necessary supplies (they were all there) and showed up about an hour early to prepare a few necessities.

The class of 29 second and third graders proved to be wonderful. For the first thirty minutes, we viewed and talked about six winter or summer themed masterworks that were printed up on hardboard. The objective involved having the learner identify warm and cool colors and interpret how they were used in the pieces displayed.

Eager and insightful to the last lad, it was difficult to cram the discussion into the allotted 35 minutes. Returning from recess – the ten minute period in which I laid out materials – I explained to the students the outcome they might expect, modeled some of the activities in which the kids would be engaged, checked for understanding through questioning, clarified, and along with the teacher and a couple of other adults, monitored the kids’ work.

The forty-five minute work period stretched to fifty and then fifty-five minutes. When time was up, students paraded past me with their finished “masterpieces.” We posted them on the board reviewing our discussion of warm and cool colors.

Soon the bell rung, the kids left and I sighed in relief and weariness. The activity lasted a little over an hour and a half and was quite successful, but I felt liked I’d been drug through a keyhole. I was done. I slipped into the driver’s seat of my Nissan Frontier and just sat there letting the bucketed upholstery caress my aching lower back. Ahhhhh…

The intensity of keeping a bunch of good kids engaged for ninety minutes will knock the pins out from under the most accomplished CEO, business leader, administrator, member of military brass, cop, doc, or postal worker. And yet our teachers do this for six-and-a-half hours. Daily. Five days a week. And outside of that six-and-a-half hours? They plan, correct, evaluate, answer phone calls and, if they're like my wife, probably enjoy a glass of wine over a stack of papers in a room illuminated by a single light bulb at 11:00 PM. 

Next time someone bitches about teachers being slackers sucking at the public teat, ask them to – NO: demand that they actively volunteer for just half a morning. If they respond that their taxes pay for all that needs to be done and that they shouldn’t have to supplement their contribution with their time – time being money and all – they will have exposed themselves as individuals unwilling to examine the weakness in the foundation of their opinion. Caution! This circumstance may precipitate one of those STFU moments you might later regret.

When they do volunteer, however, their tune will surely change. They’ll experience just how hard, how intense and how critical classroom work truly is. They’ll become advocates. And along the way, ALL of our kids will do better.

I’ll be back next month.

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, March 1, 2014


The sound was of the breeze blowing through bare winter trees – only much louder.  Like a huge, distant orchestra shrouded by a curtain of canyon wall, warming for a performance.  Blended notes.

Canyon wall, to be sure.  I was perched on a paved strip half way up and half way down.  Motorcycle cooling behind me. 

Over the edge I peered. 

The symphony was of water cascading over an ancient, gray concrete dam barricading the American River.  Built to halt debris from upstream mining or timber operations, but halting, momentarily, the river itself.  Rivers are only halted momentarily, if at all. 
Mist from this crashing water wafted up the canyon side and rested on the clear plastic face shield of my black Arai helmet.  I opened it.  Droplets, fresh and pure, coated my face and beard.

In washed the smell of the duff wetted in last night’s rainstorm.  Breathe deeply.
Standing in a nearly vertical shaft of sunlight – the only degree from which sunlight would ever strike this winter canyon ground, viewing the water thundering over the dam, smelling the history of last night’s storm and the history of this place:  Wherever I’ve just ridden is my favorite place to be.
© 2003
Church of the Open Road Press