Happy Birthday, DC-3

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In the rush of Christmas, I’m a little late with this post. I had hoped to have it ready for December 17th, when one old friend turned 75 and another turned 108.

On December 17, 1935, at Santa Monica, California, test pilots tried out the first DC-3. Exactly 32 years earlier, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilber Wright piloted their Wright Flier 1 to what is generally considered the first sustained flight by a self-propelled and pilot-controlled aircraft.

I’m not a pilot, but I enjoy being a passenger. I love both the arriving in some exotic place and—under most conditions—the process of getting there. Maps fascinate me, as does the world they represent. (Ask the two generations of students to whom I have assigned map learning.) Having the earth stretched out beneath me is like enjoying the map in its purest form. I have pressed my nose to the window of multiple crossings of the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, and on flights that puddle-jumped across four continents.

I remember all the places I visited, but some of those airplanes I got on, got off, and forgot. By far, my favorite flights were in the airplanes that carried me during the nine years I lived in Colombia. In 1984, I moved my family to Lomalinda, a small Bible-translation and linguistics center on the Colombian
llanos, or eastern plains. When I arrived, the center had three single-engine, Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) Helio Couriers, and an unusual looking plane called the Evangel. In addition, twice a week, the community was served by a DC-3 flight from Bogotá. Primarily, the small planes connected us to the state capital (Villavicencio, a.k.a. “Villao”), or remote areas where indigenous languages were still spoken. Through Bogotá, the DC-3 connected us to the rest of the world.Loading the DC-3, Bogotá, Colombia, October 1985

Lomalinda was 35 miles from the closest paved highway, miles that were always difficult and sometimes impassable. I remember one rainy trip where buses and trucks lined up on both sides of a thousand-yard mud pit while two Caterpillar tractors sloshed back and forth, towing a single vehicle each trip. In good weather, the road trip to Bogotá took 12 hours. The DC-3 could do it in just under an hour.

Cockpit of the DC-3, with seats for pilot,
co-pilot, a third crew-member, and to
offer one passenger a remarkable
vicarious experience.

When the DC-3 went into production in the mid 1930’s, it revolutionized passenger airline service. It cut the New York to Los Angeles trip from 38
½ hours (beginning with a train ride from N.Y. City to Cleveland, and then 13 more stops to L.A.), to 17 ¾ hours, with just three stops. In four years, as one airline after another went to DC-3s, the rate of passenger fatalities per million miles flown fell by four-fifths. Over the same years, the cost of airline tickets fell by half and the volume of passengers more than quintupled. DC-3s had captured 90% of the world’s airline traffic. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Douglas Company had built 507 of the DC-3s. War brought a military version, the C-47, and production that reached 4,878 in 1944 alone.

The DC-3 assembly line shut down in 1945. That means the airplane that carried my family that last leg to Lomalinda could not have been less than 39 years old. It might have been closer to 48. By comparison, I was 35. Before we left California, we junked the Dodge Dart we’d been driving. It died at 19.

It is difficult to pick a date in automotive history as dramatic as Kitty Hawk, but by 1903, motorcars had almost a century of experimentation behind them and were in production in both Europe and the United States. Still, by 1984, most pre-1945 models saved their public appearances for car shows. Few pre-’45 buses had regular runs and few pre-’45 trucks hauled freight. The DC-3 arrived 32 years into aviation history, and then served widely for roughly 50. This would be like the common-place usage today of a 1940’s telephone, or a 1980 photocopier.

My daughter, earning
her wings as a stewardess.

After World War II, cheap military surplus DC-3s made possible the beginnings of many new airlines, or fell into private hands. From Lomalinda, it was 35 miles in one direction and 60 in the other to find airstrips capable of handling a DC-3. Therefore, when storms sealed off either destination, airplanes landed on our strip to wait out the weather. I remember once counting 13 aircraft crowded in our little parking lot, half of them DC-3s.

In many ways, the DC-3, at age 50, was more comfortable than airplanes fresh off the assembly line today. For one thing, seats seemed roomier, aisles wider, and windows larger. True, the cabins were noisier, and unpressurized. At high altitudes (like over the Andes, to reach Bogotá), passengers sipped oxygen from tubes. I remember one painful flight with a head cold, descending into Lomalinda with the pilot circling the airport an extra two times to give my ears additional time to adjust. But more, I remember the spectacular views of Andes and Llanos.

Sipping oxygen at 16,000 feet
Colombians pass down a story that when God created Colombia, the angels came to complain that no place should be allowed such beauty. God is supposed to have replied, “Yes, but wait until you see what else I will do to it.” In many ways the country has suffered a torturous history, but its landscapes are breath-taking, and to fly over it is dazzling. Few places on earth display as many shades of green, or as wide a variety of clouds, sunsets, or rainbows.

The Colombian Llanos,
under the wing of the DC-3.

I might have ridden the DC-3 eight or ten times. It brought my youngest son home after his birth, brought my in-laws for a visit, and carried my wife and me to a second honeymoon in Bogotá. For part of one flight, I sat in the cockpit’s fourth seat and the pilot pointed out the unremarkable peak of Nevado del Ruiz. On November 13, 1985, a small eruption of the volcano melted the snowcap and sent a wave of boiling mud across the town of Armero, killing some 23,000 in the worst recorded lahar in history. The disaster sent our DC-3 into full-time relief service. Even at fifty, this veteran was not an air-show classic. It was still a workhorse.

For this reason, it came as a shock when the government decided no longer to allow DC-3s over the Andes. Ours had superchargers on the engines that gave them extra power and safety, and our pilots trooped to government offices looking for an exemption, but to no avail. Unable to use it for the Bogotá run, we had no choice but to sell it. My last photographs of the DC-3 are from 1987. I was told the plane had been purchased by a company that flew tourists over the Grand Canyon. It continued to serve.

This year, aficionados celebrated the DC-3’s three-quarters of a century with a formation flight across Wisconsin. Twenty-three DC-3s landed together in Oshkosh; of 26 that had had gathered at Rock Falls, Illinois, to attempt the flight; of the hundred or so still operational in the United States; of the some fifteen thousand made during the decade of their construction. Would you like one? I see this one advertised for only $299,000.

I found some of my history for this here.

Merry Christmas to All!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

For many people, "Christmas Tree" means an evergreen with fancy glass balls and strings of lights. In Colombia, it was leafless stem and branches, wrapped in cotton and decorated with ornaments. I'm coming to appreciate the persimmon tree in my back yard, which hides most of its fruit until the cold weather strips it of its foliage. Then the bright orange ornaments stand out against the gray sky, each one a sweet gift. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted by Brian at 10:44 AM 1 comments  

新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le!), 2011 Rabbit Version

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When is Chinese New Year? The calendar tells us the Year of the Rabbit doesn't begin until February 3, 2011, but my scientific study shows that the anticipation of it started about a week ago.

It has become a peculiar annual pattern here at
Capers with Carroll that in mid December, Sitemeter reports that my February 1, 2008 New Year's greeting becomes more popular than anything I have written before or since. Throughout the year, a smattering of visitors arrive by Googling either "新年快乐" or "Xin Nian Kuai Le," but suddenly, a week ago, it became a torrent. The Capers archives store 148 entries on a wide variety of topics, but over the last nine days, a full third of the traffic has come for this single, two-year-old post. How can that be? The last ten hits have come from Poland, France, Germany, Thailand, Italy, Canada, and two each from Singapore and Vietnam. Perhaps these place-names define the Chinese diaspora. I do not understand this phenomenon, but like other mysteries in life, I can enjoy it without knowing how it works.

And so, I send my New Year's greetings in advance, to all the Chinese (and other Asians) spread around the world: Xin Nian Kuai Le!

(P.S., This post received such heavy traffic, especially from Singapore, UK, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, UAE, and the European continent, that I wrote about it here.)

Christmas with Huckabee

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Can't Wait Till Christmas

by Mike Huckabee

  • Reading level: Ages 4-8
  • Hardcover: 32 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399255397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399255397
With back-to-back best-sellers about Christmas, one might believe that Mike Huckabee was an active candidate for Santa Claus, rather than an unannounced candidate for President of the United States. The two roles have several similarities.

For starters, both Santa and presidential campaigners come with fictions that everyone recognizes, but with which all participants play along. In this case, we have the fiction that Huckabee has not decided whether or not to run. Like sports seasons, campaigns break down into practice gam
es, league play, and a national championship. During preseason play, candidates romance the voters with the fantasy that they have not made up their minds about running. For Huckabee to say he’s not running is comparable to the San Diego Padres saying, “It hurt a lot last year to get beat in the play-offs by the Giants, so we’re coming to Spring Training this year, but we haven’t decided yet whether we will play any regular season games.” While it’s true that candidates may drop out at any time (and at a rate of about one every-other week during primary season), about a dozen Republicans could now be described as running until-they-are-forced-to-drop-out. In this pack, Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich stand out as the leaders.

In 2009, I supported Huckabee in the primaries and waited for him to make a local appearance, if not in Visalia, then in Fresno or Bakersfield. When he never came, I realized he had chosen not to contest California. Huckabee has now worked Visalia twice in 20 months (he spoke at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in May, 2009). We may be a city of only 125,000, but we’re the commercial center of a red county in a blue state, and a link in California’s Bible belt. This time, it’s safe to say Huckabee plans to do battle in the California primary.

After writing several books on public policy and a couple of exhortations in favor of weight loss and building a legacy, the pair of Christmas books might seem a little innocuous. Not so. The C
hristmas season follows immediately after the November elections and allows Huckabee to hit the stump before the last recounts have been decided from the midterm contests. It also quietly plays the nostalgia card for Huckabee’s base. There is considerable resentment that Winter Holidays have supplanted Christmas Vacations. It certainly wasn’t that way in the 1950’s, when these autobiographical stories took place.

Last year’s A Simple Christmas told 12 stories from Huckabee’s childhood. They stress the influences and events that built his character. (And certainly character is one of Huckabee’s long suits: there will be no intern embarrassments or Watergate burglaries from a Huckabee presidency.) Each story teaches a lesso
n, and some express Huckabee’s Christian faith. This year’s Can’t Wait Till Christmas takes just one of those stories, adds pictures, and reworks it as a children’s story.

The plot is simple. Young Mike and his somewhat older sister cannot resist sneaking a peek at the Christmas presents wrapped under the tree. One thing leads to another until Mike is re-wrapping a dirty football to return to the pile. His sister is re-wrapping a slightly used chemistry set. They are discovered. Parental wisdom and mercy prevail, but a lesson is learned about the importan
ce of patience.

Or has it really been learned? This two-week, “non-political” book tour started at the Richard Nixon Library (how’s that for an icon of non-politicosity?), and runs to Seattle, with multiple signings each day. Huckabee appears to be chomping at the bit to launch a campaign that technically won't start for another year. Notice the transportation being used for this tour. I ask my author friends: have you ever traveled to a book-signing in this kind of style?

Or has your publisher hired personal assistants to travel ahead, to organize the crowd before your arrival, and then to open and hold the books for economy of motion as you sign and give handshakes as well? (The guffaws some of you may hear are my writing friends exchanging book-signing stories.)

I was about 12 when I attended my first celebrity autograph event, Sandy Koufax coming to a local bank to sign souvenir plastic bats. At 14, as a re
porter for my junior high newspaper, I went through the reception line twice in order to interview Nelson Rockefeller in his primary contest against Barry Goldwater. I’ve attended presidential campaign rallies with Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Shirley Chisholm, and George McGovern, and author signings by Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Randy Alcorn, T. Davis Bunn, and Jerry B. Jenkens. All of my experience tells me this was a campaign stop, not a book signing.

Yet it was very impressive, and scrupulously clean. There were no sign-up tables, campaign buttons, or literature handouts. The press release said he would be at Borders in the evening, from eight until nine, and sign 400 books, signature only—no personal inscriptions. Borders distributed numbered tickets throughout the day, and began organizing the line at 7:00. The candidate author arrived four minutes early (Clinton would have been 90 minutes late), as personable and at-ease as I have ever seen any person at the center of attention. Perhaps 250 people stood ready. (For a children’s book, reading level four to eight, surprisingly few of the attendees were under voting age.) When people asked for anything extra, he politely told them he needed to get signatures for everybody first, but they could try coming through the line a second time. I had him sign his 2009, Do The Right Thing, and then went and got a second book. As the numbers thinned, he began posing for pictures. When Pictures slowed, Borders employees rolled out several carts with another couple hundred books, which his staff fed him assembly-line style. Finally, at six minutes past nine, he was out the front door and back on the bus. At each step in the process, as people encouraged him to run or promised to vote for him, he graciously thanked them for the comment, but stated that he hadn’t made any decision.

So does any of the imposture put me off? No. Two years ago Huckabee was my favorite candidate based on issues. Now I’ve seen him up close. He is the most talented politician I have ever seen, winsome, easy-going, yet remarkably self-disciplined.

In a manner of speaking, I can’t wait till Christmas.

Try a Feijoa-Colada

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Later today I will harvest this year’s last feijoas (a.k.a., pineapple guava, or guavasteen; Acca sellowiana, syn. Feijoa sellowiana). A few I will spoon out and eat fresh, but most I will puree and pour into ice trays. The fruit comes ripe in October, but I find its robust flavor most agreeable on hot summer days, and then iced and diluted with coconut juice.

Most gardeners allow their feijoas to fall to the ground, unused. As a shrub or small tree, it makes a nice hedge or stand-alone ornamental. The fruit falls while still hard, and then needs a day or two before it softens to the touch and is ready to eat. Left on the ground, they go bad quickly, but I set mine in a box indoors until I can process them.

The fruit packs a burst of unique flavor, sometimes more than the uninitiated is prepared for, and especially when left in the skin. It compares to a citrus zest, with uses in salsas, chutneys, or sweetbreads, but even diced small in a fruit salad, I have seen plates come back to the kitchen with the feijoas pushed to the side.

However, almost daily throughout this past summer, I enjoyed a frothy mug of iced feijoa-colada, from cubes I froze this time last year. When pureeing the feijoa, skin and all, I use canned coconut juice for
any necessary liquid, and then use chilled coconut juice to blend the drink on the sweltering summer days when I am ready to enjoy it. The two flavors balance well, zesty but sweet, and require no additional ingredients.
(Note: I once offered a taste of feijoas to a class of students and two members of the class experienced minor reactions, passing about an hour in drowsiness. I searched the web for some mention of this, without seeing anything, but two students was eight percent of my sample, and their drowsiness came on rather quickly after tasting the fruit.)

Thanksgiving Salad: Persimmons, Pomegranates, and Kiwis

Monday, November 22, 2010

Many Novembers ago I came home from a farmers’ market with a collection of persimmons, pomegranates, and kiwis. I mixed them in a salad and was so pleased with the results that it became my default offering for any potluck or party between Columbus Day and New Years’. Now I have all three planted in my yard. I’m a devotee of local fruit.

I like the colors in this salad, as well as the flavors and textures. The kiwis are soft, sweet, and gently tangy. The fuyu persimmons add crunch like a crisp pear and hint at cinnamon with their flavor. The pomegranates explode between the teeth and turn to a winsome juice. (Some varieties can be a little tart, but the one I grow is wonderful.) Occasionally I’ve thrown in late-harvest grapes (a purple-black variety is available in my local farmers markets), or fresh pineapple if I’m willing to cheat and add a yellow import.

The slicing and husking for a large bowl of this salad takes about an hour. Most varieties of kiwis require peeling, while pomegranates must be carefully coaxed from their shells. Persimmons can be eaten in the skin, but for salads I prefer to take it off. Both pomegranates and persimmons are long-lived in a fruit bowl (and longer with refrigeration), but the kiwi presents itself with a shorter window of readiness. I have kept them in a frig for up to ten weeks, but I’ve learned to put soft ones in cold storage and hard ones out on the sink four to seven days before I will need them.

The photograph shows the version I made tonight. I had three helpings at dinner, and may have another bowl before bed. Enjoy.

Right Place at the Right Time

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

God's Guest List: Welcoming Those Who Influence Our Lives
by Debbie Macomber
• Hardcover: 208 pages (also available for Kindle)
• Publisher: Howard Books (November 2, 2010)
• ISBN-10: 143910896X

It’s always fun to be anthologized. It means an author interested in a subject surveyed the available literature and found one’s offerings noteworthy. That kind of complement puts an extra zest into sitting down at the keyboard for one’s next efforts.

Debbie Macomber has had a career in fiction that proves the power of plodding. I heard her tell her own story at the Mount Hermon writer’s conference, where she was the keynote speaker in 2008. A dyslexic with only a high school education and toddlers to care for, she yearned to be a novelist. Macomber tells the story with humor, but what I took away concerned a tenacity that eventually paid off with over 150 novels published, and over 60 million copies sold. Within the industry, people also mention her stunning accomplishment in maintaining a mailing list with every person who ever expressed an interest in her writing (begun in a shoebox, before the advent of computers), and her use of that list for a steady output of thank-you notes and personal invitations anytime she would be appearing in an area or releasing a new book.

Macomber was fun to listen to, and some of her modules show up in this volume, one of her rare ventures into non-fiction. Of course, that’s not why I’m plugging her book on my blog. However, the explanation begins with that same 2008 conference at Mount Hermon. It's a right-place-at-the-right-time story about getting into an anthology of right-place-at-the-right-time stories. There, at a meal, I briefly met Janet Kobobel Grant, of the
Books and Such Literary Agency.

After the conference, I put the agency blog, Between the Lines, on my reader. The agency’s members rotate the duties and host one of the better daily conversations about writing and the publishing industry. Over these 30 months, I have joined in when the topic brought something to my mind.

A writer is only a writer if he or she writes. My problem is that teaching junior high school is an extreme sport. After running 7:30 to 3:00 on adrenalin, trying to stay one step ahead of 120 teens, the kids leave and I go brain-dead and drowsy. Sometimes in the evening I write tests or worksheets. I don’t have the oomph to work on my novel. But a couple times a week I might have the energy to craft one good paragraph and leave it somewhere on a blog.

So when I returned to Mount Hermon for this year’s Christian Writers’ Conference, I made a point of searching out the
Books and Such table at lunch the second day. Wendy Lawton was already seated and was asking people’s names. I gave her mine and her eyes dropped immediately to my name badge, “Oh,” she said, “I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you.”

For an unpublished author, that kind of opening line from a respected agent is about as good as it can get. But it got better. Wendy explained that she was working with Debbie Macomber on a book project and they wanted my permission to include an anecdote I had posted on their blog. It’s an account from my 2004 trip to China. I’d already reported a variation of it here, but it was a rich enough experience that it could be told from a dozen different angles, each supporting a different thesis. In this case, I offered it in response to comments Wendy had posted about literary pilgrimages.

The upshot is, this week’s mail brought a signed copy of Debbie Macomber’s new book,
God’s Guest List: Welcoming Those Who Influence Our Lives. (I'm sure I've also made it onto her prodigious address list.) She asks the reader to look at those times in our lives when we were at the right place at the right time and to acknowledge that these weren’t coincidences. Some of this overlaps the keynote addresses she gave at Mount Hermon, other parts of it are new. Some of it is her own story. Some of it comes from others. And page 72 is all mine.

Before her career got off the ground, Macomber made a list of famous people she wanted to meet and began pecking away at it. However, as she began to actually meet some of these people she found herself disappointed. Up close, some of the famous turned out to be unimpressive or even unpleasant. That caused her to begin looking closer at the non-famous, the people all around her whom she had previously looked right past. Then she began to examine those "coincidental" moments that she had previously not focused on, and to gather similar experiences from others. From those examinations came this book.

Like any anthology, it can be read straight through, or in small doses. I’ll admit: I skimmed through until I found page 72. Now I’ve gone back and read some of the passages I skipped over, and others beyond. There’s some interesting stuff. It’s a book I can enjoy being a part of. I was at the right place at the right time, and I'm glad for it.

Savoring a Tiny Dragon

Sunday, November 07, 2010

It wasn't very big, but neither was it going to get any bigger, so today I clipped my little dragon fruit and split it with Vicki. That works out to 46 days from hand pollination to plate, and puts an end to the fun little episode that began here. It was delicate, sweet, and everything I could have asked for, except bigger. The main suspense came with the first slice of the skin, since I had been hoping for the variety with white insides rather than purple. The dragon gratified even that desire. Ah, the little delights of life.

Actually, for a garden that gets very little attention after school starts in August, I continue to find delights anytime I can get out there. It is a full week into November, but rather than calling it quits for the year, two varieties of passion vine seem to be accelerating their bloom. The red Passiflora vitifolia opens upward, while the lavender P. amethyst (amethystina?) wants to hang its blossoms downward.

Today I harvested both the lingering summer crops (cherry tomatoes and a handful of Italian Honey Figs), fall crops (persimmons, pomegranates, and pineapple guavas), and a winter crop (one freak navel orange).

Oh, and one tropical fruit t
hat shouldn't even grow in our area . . .

. . . a delightful little Chinese dragon.

My Dragon Fruit at 39 Days

Sunday, October 31, 2010

If we can pull away from the California elections, long enough to focus on more important things, the most profound question of the moment is whether my Chinese Dragon Fruit is at its peak of ripeness. I reported September 22nd about the first blossom I've ever had on my several-year-old vine, and about hand pollinating it. I'd read that these fruit ripened at 30 days, but this one didn't start showing color until about five days ago. Now the big question: When will it be at perfection?

Okay, back to my election endorsements.

(P.S., the delectable continuation of this saga can be found here.)

Election 2010: Beware the Gerrymanderati, Props 20 and 27

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Few things in legislative craft are as easy to dislike or as difficult to eradicate as the gerrymandered district. A basic tenant of the American democratic ideal is that the last safe seat should have been the one held by the Kings George, First, Second, and Third.

It is not so in practice: safe seats—oftentimes gerrymandered—are the norm, at least in California. In California elections since the last redistricting (2002), there have been 692 races for state senate or assembly or federal congressperson. An astounding 687 (99.3%) resulted in a return of the same party to the seat. Although term limits denied reelection to some individual officeholders, one party was able to wrest a seat away from the other party only 5 times.

This was never supposed to happen. When the founding fathers designed our system of government, the legislature was supposed to be so close to the people that it would shift with their every mood, even if turbulent or Tea Party-esque. Alexander Hamilton feared this and wanted senators appointed for life (he also wanted a king), but was overruled by the majority.

A few years ago I attended a Visalia forum for candidates who hoped to represent California’s 34th Assembly district. One candidate came from Lone Pine. As the crow flies that is only about 80 miles, but no respectable crow would fly it and no road braves it, for it requires going over the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with its passes between here and Lone Pine up at about 12,000 feet. The candidate from Lone Pine had to drive some 235 miles and travel through two other assembly districts to get here.

When I study the outlines of my district, its geographic center seems to be in empty desert, about 20 miles north east of Calico Ghost Town, roughly 220 miles from my home, or four hours by car. I believe
half that distance would take me to the center of four or maybe five other assembly districts. I am disenfranchised because my assemblyperson must drive for seven hours to get from one end of her district to the other, while some of her peers can do the same in 45 minutes. This means that my representative is left with less time to devote to representing me, simply because of the gerrymander.

But worse, if 99.3% of elections serve to maintain the status quo, every voter is disenfranchised, because every legislator is allowed to get comfortable, unless they so anger voters from their own party as to bring on a contested primary.

Voters thought they had changed this for state races with Prop 11, in 2008. Many voters hoped this year’s Prop 20 would extend the correction to congressional districts. The gerrymanderati countered with Prop 27, which would undo Prop 11 and save the safe seats.

Any reader who has come this far knows where my sympathies lie on these two propositions. However, in poking around on the Web, I first got swept away by websites devoted to the weird shapes of gerrymandered districts, and then by a couple of names that jolted me back to some foreboding memories from my youth.

In 1971, I took a part-time job as a custodian for a rundown strip-mall in Van Nuys. It was the perfect set-up for a UCLA student, $200-a-month for odds and ends I could fit around my class schedule. The downside was the creepiness of the people I was working for. I never passed by my boss’s office without wondering if I was working for Mafia dons. I never saw the boss and his brother together without the feeling they were plotting to take over the world. I stuck out the year, graduated, and quit.

It turns out I was half right. They were not Mafia dons. They
were plotting to take over the world. And they have been remarkably successful at doing so. Before I had ever even seen a computer, Michael Berman understood that it could be used to assemble mailing lists of niche interest groups that would allow politicians to target a large collection of small audiences with sometimes contradictory promises. Then, computers could facilitate the otherwise tedious process of drawing gerrymandered districts. His methodology became the fountainhead of Democratic successes from Willie Brown to Nancy Pelosi, and propelled his brother Howard to chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. As one article explains, by following the money, it becomes evident that Prop 27 is largely inspired for protecting Howard Berman’s funny-shaped (my Rorschach results: Frankenstein on skis) district, to the larger end—through his chairmanship—of protecting Israel. (Full disclosure: like many Evangelicals, I am highly favorable toward American support of Israel, though I would like to see it accomplished by way of honest elections.)

I do not get to vote in Mr. Berman’s district (though my assembly district nearly curves around to the other side of it). But I do get to vote against this kind of districting. In an earlier endorsement, I said I would support Prop 25 (to pass the budget by simple legislative majority) only if it came as a package with Prop. 20. As it stands now, the two-thirds majority is necessary because 99.3% of our elections serve to protect safe seats.

I will watch the polls until the last minute. If Prop 20 looks like it will win, and Prop 27 looks like it will lose, then and only then will I vote for Prop 25.

Note: Connie Conway is the assemblyperson in my safe-seat Republican district. I’ve followed Connie since she succeeded her father as county supervisor. I am happy with her and would probably vote for her even if she had a serious challenge.

*These numbers come from a Visalia Times-Delta editorial that gave no further source.

Map of Howard Berman's district

Try this for fun.

When the morning commute looks like this . . .

Thursday, October 28, 2010

. . . it must be getting close to the end of Daylight Savings (I think we have nine more days).

A quick word from our Sponsor: "My mercies are new every morning."

Election 2010: Marijuana turns me into a Marxist

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

By my title, I don’t mean that smoking it (never have, never will) sends me scurrying for my Mao cap and Ché t-shirt. Rather, in puzzling out how government should treat marijuana, I am very sensitive to social class differences. The Haves with whom I attended UCLA could close their dorm rooms Friday evenings, toke up, and still graduate and go on for their MBA’s. But among the heavily Have-not population where I teach, hop-heads have neither such security nor such safety net. They often fail to graduate from junior high. They become parents while attending a few years of continuation high school. By young adulthood, too many are on to harder substances, in prison, or dead.

Thus, as I come to a study of California Prop 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, which seeks to relax marijuana laws, I need to make it clear that my sentiments are middle class and my sympathies are for kids growing up in poverty. Rich kids will hire lawyers and avoid jail time. The rich and upper middle can afford to indulge in the so-called “victimless crimes,” while those same behaviors create victims to the third and fourth generation among the poor.

Secondly, I need to point out the sorry history of Nullification. Pennsylvania farmers announced they would not pay the whiskey tax, and Washington and Hamilton stomped them. Jefferson and Madison toyed with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, and lost. Calhoun said South Carolina would not collect the federal tariff, and got swept aside. The Civil War should have settled this question for all time, but for good measure, Orval Faubus stood in the school-house door to block federal integration, and Eisenhower sent the US Army to escort the incoming students to their classrooms. Drug policy, like that for immigration or marriage, needs to be set on a national scale. A single state may set more stringent rules (for example, California’s laws on greenhouse emissions), but can never set the bar lower than the federal laws. Federal policy should never be set by an initiative in California, the legislature in Arizona, or the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Passage of this proposition on Nov. 2, will open many years of litigation on Nov. 3. Californians would be setting themselves up to forfeit untold federal dollars by drawing a marijuana Mason-Dixon Line at the Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona borders.

The practical purpose of this proposition then must be seen as leverage: California, a state with 53 congressmen, goes on record in opposition to the federal law. California, owner of a 10.2% share in the Electoral College, will now have the right to ask any visiting presidential candidate what he or she plans to do to remedy the situation. Maybe we would start a bandwagon effect. Maybe down the road we would see change in the federal law. There may or may not be merit in this argument. California voters have twice passed defense-of-marriage initiatives, with the total number of states that have passed traditional marriage constitutional amendments topping 30. Thus far, however, I see no congressional momentum for national legislation. This would seem to undermine the argument in favor of leverage. Any readers who have come this far looking only for my recommendation on Prop 19 may stop here. Proposition 19 is rejected as out of order.

Nevertheless, the subject having come up, I have a few additional thoughts over a full, federal legalization of marijuana. The best reasons have very little to do with California, at all.

Personal experience #1 – I walk into a restroom and the twelve-year-old is quick enough to flick his joint into the toilet tank, but a little too tipsy to correctly manipulate the handle. The ten year old is blurry-eyed and can only stammer bad answers to my questions.

Personal experience #2 – I discuss Prop 19 with five classes of 7th and 8th graders, and ask midway through each what it probably costs in our area for a kilo of marijuana. Five consecutive classes each settle quickly in the $450 ballpark. I have no way of knowing if they were correct, but the agreement was startling, and every class knew whom to turn to as the in-house expert.

Personal experience #3 – Juan, teacher in a thatched-roof jungle school house and a friend from my days in Colombia, is pulled from his classroom by drug-financed revolutionaries, taken to the village square, and shot, only because he serves in a government school.

From the first two experiences, I learn that whatever we’re currently doing has only limited success among the 12 or 14-year-olds I care about and can put faces to. The truth is, most of my students are clean. And for the minority who are using, the marijuana is probably a symptom—not the origin—of their pathologies (though it may serve as an accelerator). Even, though, at some $450/kilo, and
when we know it will be a curse on their lives, we are currently incapable of keeping it out of their hands.

But I have experience at both ends of the pipeline. As Haves, our buying power has the ability to destabilize any number of Have-not nations to the south of us. I can remember life in Colombia during a couple of years when drug cartels assassinated a judge, on average, every other week. Over the last decade and a half, Colombia has reestablished a fair degree of order, but the price has been a government willing to overlook thousands of extrajudicial killings of mostly Have-not peasants by mostly Have “self-defense” forces. For two decades, the US has been funding one side of the civil war with military aide and the other side of the war with our appetite for “victimless” recreational highs.

Proponents of Prop 19 argue that decriminalizing marijuana will save us enormous sums of money, redirect police attention toward violent crime, and provide a windfall in taxes. I believe all three claims rest on doubtful assumptions, but we have been suckered by such promises before. The state lottery, we were told when we voted for it, would dry-up illegal gambling and insure great wealth for our schools. Instead, it has saddled
Have-nots with a massive regressive tax, trained up a clientele for a vibrant-but-untaxable underground gambling industry, fostered a get-rich-quick mentality that helped fuel the housing bubble, and left us with schools that are starved for basic necessities.

However—and I offer this very tentatively—a reevaluation of our entire national drug policy (not a substance-by-substance approach) might make sense as an act of neighborly concern. Our Have drug appetite today is financing war in Have-not Mexico between over-funded thugs and an under-funded government. Legalizing marijuana (and thus reducing its price [and then you would also have to consider the likes of cocaine]) might take the lifeblood away from a criminal element that has become a force unto itself inside our closest neighbor.

I know, I’m talking like a Marxist.

Election 2010: Why this Republican will vote for Jerry Brown

Saturday, October 09, 2010

It has been some thirty years since I last voted for a Democrat. I’d just about concluded I might never do it again. After all these years, my memory is a little foggy, but I’m inclined to think I voted to elect a young Jerry Brown for governor of California in 1974 (over Houston Flournoy), and maybe again in 1978 (over Evelle Younger). I know I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and liked him even as I grew more disgusted with his party. I know my last vote for a Democrat was in 1980, when I supported Rose Ann Vuich, my local state senator. She had given me almost two hours for an in-depth newspaper interview on California issues, and I came away so impressed that I could not vote against her, even if she was a Democrat.

But I have now gone 30 years without being seriously tempted to do it again. I told myself to watch for and support Pro-Life Democrats, but I saw a pattern develop. The Democratic Party took Pro-Life individuals like Ted Kennedy, Jessie Jackson, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore, and subverted them to the Pro-Abortion mold. I watched them marginalize Pro-Life voices like Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey, Sr., and Bob Casey, Jr. The party is inextricably captive to Big Abortion
America's most unregulated industry—necrotrophic and eugenicidal, extending its corruption into our national fabric in countless hidden ways. Yet it has only to clap a “Choice” riff with its forceps and scissors and the Democratic Party leaps to form a conga line.

Even so, this year I found myself inching closer to voting Democratic again. Inching until I could no longer ignore where I stood.

I will not vote for Barbara Boxer. Every once in a while during Dianne Feinstein’s 18 years in the Senate, I’ve opened the newspaper to read some statement she has made, and had to admit, “Yeah, much as I dislike like her, she is probably right on that one.” But during the same years, I have never had to make a similar comment about Boxer. She is the politician I would most like to send into retirement this year. I may still harbor some reservations about Carly Fiorina, but if I had a thousand votes, she would get them all.

I am thinking instead about Jerry Brown. I am free to do that because no matter who we vote for, the next governor of California will be Pro-Abortion. (Note: I realize the self-referential term for this is “Pro-Choice,” but I find that disingenuous.)
The Pro-Life contenders all fell away during the primary. I have looked at all the third party candidates. None has a chance to win, and none deserves one. I am left to choose between Brown and Meg Whitman.

I go way back with Brown. I attended L.A. Pierce College while he cut his political teeth serving on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees. Later, while attending UCLA, I discovered him standing at a little podium on the Free Speech Lawn. I joined six or eight other students to listen until my next class. He was thoughtful and engaging.

Brown served four years as secretary of state and eight as governor. He earned the moniker “Governor Moonbeam” for a certain zen goofiness, but the nuttiness in Brown’s administration was hope in the jojoba bean, or roller-skating with Ronstadt under the rotunda (full disclosure: one of my all-time favorite albums is Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre). We chuckled over his personal frugality. Brown paid more to mothball the extravagant Reagan-built governor’s mansion than he spent to rent an apartment and sleep on a tatami mat. But his penny-pinching carried over to government finance. When California passed Prop 13, Brown carefully cut the state budget to what we could live on. He earned the endorsement of Howard Jarvis. (Yeah, wrap your head around that one.)

An ex-governor at age 45, Brown became something of a Harold Stassen, running three times for president and once for senator. But in an age when ex-presidential candidates golf, peddle their memoirs, or do talk-shows for FOX (okay, bad image, for Brown it would be NPR), Brown ran for mayor of Oakland. This is akin to ex-president Jimmy Carter nailing shingles for Habitat for Humanity, or ex-president Theodore Roosevelt serving in Liberia with the Peace Corps (I may have that one wrong, but I know he was doing something in Africa). Mayors of Palm Springs do photo ops with starlets. Mayors of Oakland do middle-of-the-night triage. And by all accounts, he did it well.

Then Brown moved on to become California’s attorney general. During these three years, what I notice is Brown’s commitment to carrying out the law as it is written, even when it may disagree with his personal inclination. I happen to agree with Brown on Capital Punishment: the death penalty is wrong, but needs to be enforced until the voters prohibit it.

Meanwhile, Meg Whitman was acquiring her personal billion-some dollars and finding it too inconvenient to get over to her precinct voting booth to perform the most basic duty of citizenship. (She was, however, free with her checkbook: apparently paupers vote while billionaires buy. She is on record donating and even campaigning for, um . . . Barbara Boxer.)

When Whitman decided to enter politics herself, she quickly hired as adviser the best ex-governor money could buy, Pete Wilson. By coincidence, it is Pete Wilson I hold personally responsible for the current sad condition of the Republican Party in California. AWOL where Republican instincts are best (Life), Wilson had to demagogue where they are worst (immigration xenophobia, deregulation of historically dangerous businesses and industries, and guns). In the process he permanently alienated the ever-growing Hispanic community, ripe with its Family Values voters. For short-term political gain, Wilson was willing to sacrifice the future of both my state and my party. Yet now, every pirouette in Whitman’s dance bears Wilson’s choreography.

However, the greatest difference between Whitman and Brown may come in the fine print of their position statements. For starters, Whitman doesn’t have much. Her pronouncements skim along the surface with well-vetted platitudes. In contrast, Brown’s come loaded with the kinds of minutia gleaned over a lifetime of trying to solve the Gordian knots of public policy.

Take one area that matters to me: Education. As a teacher married to a teacher, I’d come to the conclusion that testing corporations do not so much serve the teachers, students, or parents of our state as hold them for ransom. California pays these corporations enormous sums of money and then submits itself to the corporations’ convenience. Rather than have the summer to digest test information and make reasoned decisions about how to improve a program, the corporations deliver scores for April tests in mid August, after most schools have spent June and July designing course offerings and student schedules. It is an annual ritual in my home for my math-department-chairperson wife to start the first day of school exhausted from a series of all-nighters reworking the program after the last-minute delivery of four-month-old data. With that in mind, let me quote just one short section of Brown’s education proposal, as a representative sample that demonstrates the quality of the whole:

Our current State testing program costs over $100 million, is more than 10 years old, and is not as helpful as it could be to parents and educators. It is time to make some basic changes to improve our testing system.

Typically, tests are given in the spring over a 3-day period and results come back in August. Final school accountability scores aren’t ready for almost a year.

  • These tests should be reduced in scope and testing time, and results need to be provided to educators and parents far more quickly.
  • These year-end tests should be supplemented by very short assessments during the school year. The assessment goal should be to help the teachers, students and their families know where they stand and what specific improvements are needed.
  • Tests should not measure factoids as much as understanding.
  • Finally, state tests should be linked to college preparation and career readiness, but current tests were not designed to do this.
(Full text here)
(Um, Meg, this is it?)

Do I resent the way Meg Whitman has used her money to buy my party’s nomination, water down or erode its core values, and stifle intelligent political discussion?


Is that the main reason I will be voting for Jerry Brown?


Much as I disagree with Jerry Brown over the issue that has most animated my political decisions over the last 30 years, when the abortion issue is neutralized, Jerry Brown really is a fine candidate for governor.

Election 2010, My Endorsements

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

With the November 2 election day just three weeks away, it is time to pull out my sample ballot and make some decisions. It is also time to celebrate political freedoms that allow every citizen to speak out and let their opinions be heard. Today I’ve been looking at California’s Prop 25.

Officially described as, “Changes Legislative Vote Requirement to Pass a Budget from Two-Thirds to a Simple Majority. Retains Two-Thirds Vote Requirement for Taxes. Initiative Constitutional Amendment,” Proposition 25 is an attempt to change a system that habitually fails to deliver a state budget when it is due (June 15). It has only been on time once in 24 years. In 2008, California went without a budget until September 16. In 2009 it was later. Today, 93 days into the 2010 budget year, the governor and legislative leaders have a plan they have mutually slapped backs over, but it won’t have legislative approval for at least two more days. In the meantime we maintain skeleton services by rotating one-size-fits-all unpaid days off for state workers. Clearly the system is broken.

Even so, until today, I was hesitant to support Prop 25. What changed today was a California Supreme Court unanimous decision that our governor does, indeed, have a line item veto. Hypothetically, the duties of a governor should be, in this order: 1) administer legislation passed by the legislature, including the spending of money allocated in the budget, 2) supply information and direction to the legislature on necessary course-changes, and 3) veto legislative nonsense. California’s recent history, however, has necessitated a reverse in that order. First, the nonsense has been preponderant, spending us into a hole from which we cannot climb out. Second, when there is no money, its administration is impossible. For all practical purposes, however, it has been left up to the legislature’s minority party to supply the necessary veto. Today’s ruling returns the veto to its proper place with the governor.

Prop 25 also penalizes all members of the legislature by eliminating their pay during any period the state is without a budget. This is good, but I hope later changes will go even further. Producing a budget is the number one job of the legislature, yet even during these 93 days without a budget, the legislature has divided its attention along a wide variety of rabbit trails. First, I would like to suggest that one week before the deadline, if preliminary versions have not passed each house separately, all work on other legislation be suspended, unless the governor declares an emergency. Then, once the state enters the budget year without a budget, no non-budgetary vote by either house would be valid, unless declared emergency by the governor. Second, I would suggest that if the budget becomes one month overdue, no member of the current legislature would be eligible for re-election. I would even balance this last suggestion with a partial relaxation of term limits. No one can argue that California has better government today than we had before term limits. We have only asked lots of freshmen legislators to try and outfox lots of veteran lobbyists. Third, we should pass Prop 20 so that no party in legislative power can so gerrymander the districts that a minority party has unfair difficulty maintaining a reasonable presence in the capital.

Today I received a scare-mail saying Prop 25 would end Prop 13 and raise the taxes on my house to 1.14% of Fair Market Value. However, I find the following in the text of the bill (section 3: Purpose and intent, paragraph 2) "This measure will not change Proposition 13's property tax limitations in any way. This measure will not change the two thirds vote requirement for the legislature to raise taxes." If I am reading that wrong, or somehow missing some insidious fine print, I will reconsider. But otherwise, I am going to vote for both Prop 25 and Prop 20.

One-Night Stand with a Chinese Dragon

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some twenty-five years ago in a Bogotá market, I met my first yellow pitayas, a fist-sized fruit with a bumpy rind and delicate white flesh. I rummaged through the pile and found one with enough of its cactus stem attached that I could try rooting it. It grew but never thrived nor blossomed. I brought a cutting from that plant through customs in 1990, but lost it to a freeze. By the time I tried to bring another cutting through customs, the Hylocereus megalanthus was protected as an endangered species and I lost my sample to confiscation.

Eventually a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers offered me cuttings of both the pitaya and its near cousin, the Chinese Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus), but I’ve never had the right place, or the right climate, or the right touch. They grow best in places like Thailand. I’ve waited in vain, watching for my first blossom.

Last night it came. My potted and trellised vine sprawls in a hard-to-reach corner of my sun-porch, but I noticed a tiny bud last week. It grew at a rate of over an inch a day until it reached eleven inches. I lived in fear of missing its brief appearance. The Hylocereus blossom only opens once, for seven or eight hours, in the middle of the night. When I found it open, I was most surprised to see an off-center pistil overlooking a mass of delicate stamens. Its smell was noticeable, though drab, but the flower was stunning. I quick snapped some pictures, brought my wife out for a viewing, and plucked some stamens for hand-pollination.

Now I must wait to see if my efforts will pay off. My reading tells me the Dragon Fruit needs thirty days from blossom to mature fruit. I’m counting.

The picture at left is from a Dragon Fruit I enjoyed in Kunming, China.

Update: Almost ripe at day 39.

A Passion for Passion Vine

Saturday, September 18, 2010

One of my delights this past month has been a new hedge of passion vine along my back fence. My impetus was new construction on the vacant lot behind us: I wanted some quick privacy. Since I had developed a fondness for the genus Passiflora while living in South America, I decided to try several species, some for their spectacular flowers, some for their fruit (a "sweet granadilla" and the sour "maracuya") and one for its cold hardiness.The first to bloom has been this P. vitifolia. The blossoms last only from sun-up to sun-down, but new ones appear almost daily. So far, none have set fruit, even with my attempts at hand pollination, but I’ve noticed a sudden influx of hummingbirds, fritillary butterflies, and even a swallowtail. Such fun.

Of Time, Setbacks, and God’s Good Gifts

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I have been reminded lately that every day is a bonus, and that gifts sometimes come in strange packages.

In January, after I posted a review of Malcolm Magee’s book on Woodrow Wilson, we became Facebook friends and discovered how much we have in common. Recently he noted that next week he will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of an automobile collision that severed both of his legs (doctors were able to reattach one of them) and twice stopped the beating of his heart. From the distance of ten years he writes, “the accident has been a gift to me.”

His story caused me to count back and realize that this spring marked the thirtieth anniversary of a similar experience in my own life. And yes, it was a gift.

In the spring of 1980, I was enjoying marriage and parenthood, but undergoing trial-by-fire at the hands of my junior high students. Combined, my responsibilities left me exhausted, yet I sensed there was something more I should be doing. I just couldn’t puzzle out what that might be.

I decided to fast and ask God for some direction.

For four or five days I took only water. I had fasted that long once before, without distress, but mid-morning on a Tuesday, I began to feel horrible and decided to order the school lunch. That lunch hit my stomach like an anchor catching mud, but I figured I deserved it for so awkwardly ending a fast. I came back to teach the next day, wondering if maybe I had some kind of flu. Midday Thursday I told the kids not to kill each other, and put my head down on the desk. Finally, Friday, I called for a sub.

Over that weekend, I decided to take a full week off. Sunday I drove to school to lay out lesson plans. The copy machine malfunctioned, so I stretched out on the floor to try repairing it, in more pain than I had ever been in my life. Monday I saw a doctor. Wednesday morning I got an X-ray. Wednesday afternoon I got the results: a large mass in my abdomen could either be a ruptured appendix or colon cancer, more likely the latter, as the appendicitis would have already killed me, several days previously. I went into surgery Thursday, thinking I had advanced cancer.

But it actually was the appendix. I suspect I was alive because my fast had shut down my intestines, slowing the spread of the infection. I came home from the hospital to six weeks of forced rest.

They were good weeks for sitting and thinking. To begin with, I had the joy of knowing I had received a powerful and direct answer to prayer. I had asked God for something more, and for direction, and now He was at work to give me that, and to teach me some valuable lessons.

During my three years of teaching, I had banked nearly six weeks of sick leave because . . . well, I would work even with a ruptured appendix. My primary motivation had been fear. I knew what my junior-high students could do, even when I was there. It terrified me what they might do when I was gone. After my surgery, I realized how much I needed to let go of that.

I also tried to calculate how many Sabbaths I had passed over to do school work: probably something near the number of days I was confined now at home. It struck me that God will collect His Sabbaths one way or another.

Magee notes the “odd progression from suffering to hope” that Paul speaks of in Romans 5. Before the accident he had been “wrestling with the conflict between faith and reason,” so much so that the denomination in which he had pastored expelled him. He reports that after the accident, “for whatever reason those two quit fighting in my head.”

I had been looking for that “something more.” We had already been looking for a new church, one that did a better job of teaching the Bible, but with time to sit and talk with my wife, we realized that we needed to accelerate the effort. Once we did find a church we liked, we experienced the greatest burst of spiritual growth in our lives. Our marriage grew stronger. Our parenting grew more effective, as did my teaching. I had already been considering teaching overseas with a mission organization. After my six weeks at home, it became my passion. It took four years to reach Colombia, but the decade that followed provided both the most fascinating and fulfilling years of my career, and the richest family years. By coincidence, Magee’s father had served as a pilot on the same Bible translation center in the years just before I got there, and his sisters had attended the same little school where I came to teach.

In these ten additional years since his injuries, Magee married off all of his children, watched them spread around the world, and welcomed five grandchildren. In my own additional thirty, I added my last two children, raised all five, watched them spread around the world, and sometime in the next week expect to welcome my fifth grandchild. These have been rich years for both of us, every day a gift.

I am trying to be a novelist, and for each of the stories I have in mind, I already know the endings. I also know how my own story ends: Someday I will leave this body behind and step into the presence of Christ, wearing a new body. In crafting a novel, the protagonist often suffers one big set-back about one-third of the way through the story, and a second major setback at the two-thirds mark. Yet oftentimes, these apparent setbacks turn out to be gifts. My appendectomy came at age thirty, and was a gift. This month, at sixty, I have started treatment for prostate cancer. If this is my second setback, I still have a third of my earthly story ahead of me, if not in actual number of days, at least in narrative content.

But even if I have another thirty years, I get them one bonus day at a time. And I’m going to watch and see how God turns this cancer into a gift.

(Note: I have a daughter who works for Joni Eareckson Tada and Joni’s ministry to the disabled. At the same time I learned of my cancer, Joni went public with hers. On her website I found a link to a very helpful article by John Piper, “Don't Waste Your Cancer.”)

My Three Most Important Life Goals

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

(A couple of weeks ago, over on Facebook, my daughter-in-law asked respondents to list their top three life goals and report on whether these had been accomplished. I like Facebook, but it has the problem of dropping things off the bottom of the page. I put some serious thought into my answer, so am reposting it here with some minor reworking.)

One goal I had from youth was to see if I couldn't leave the world a better place than when I found it. That is not the kind of goal one finishes and checks off, but I think I can look back on some places where I have exerted some energy in that direction, and on some accomplishments that give me satisfaction. My years in Colombia were very well spent, and whenever I see a public bus in Visalia, I have the satisfaction of knowing my efforts—thirty years ago—were important in getting that system started. I also recognized from a young age that one aspect of this goal would mean finding the right person to marry, and making her life richer for having married me. Another would be raising children who would also leave the world better than they found it. Many of my friends either put off having kids, or had no kids at all, partly on the idea that the world was too crowded and each additional child would be a negative. I felt the total number of people wasn't the problem, but rather the ratio of givers to takers. I think, by God's grace, that Vicki and I have managed to improve on that ratio.

Another goal was to get a well-rounded education. My early heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. They were interested in almost everything, and not just knowledgeable, but contributors in almost every area where they had interests. Again, no one with this kind of goal can ever say they have arrived. There is always something else to learn. But I deeply enjoy the wide variety of interests and fields where I have some understanding. For me, a broad education requires travel and familiarity with foreign languages. I have traveled extensively, and not just the superficial organized tours or cruises, but going places and involving myself in the lives of the local people. That has added enormous richness to my life. I have a rudimentary reading knowledge of all the major Romance languages, and general use of Spanish, but I still want to learn some Chinese, some Japanese, some Turkish, and better Portuguese. If I continue to lose my hearing, I may have to settle for only reading knowledge, but I don't ever plan to be done.

I also wanted to know why I was here on Earth in the first place. That involved the question of whether or not there is such a person as God, and if so, what God's nature might be, and what this God might expect from me. Again, this is not a goal which one completes and then moves on to something new. I have come to a certainty that God does exist. I reached that conclusion 38 years ago, and each passing year has added to my certainty. But finite creatures can never completely understand an infinite God. There is always something else for God to reveal about Himself. I believe I understand the most important thing God expects of me, and that was settled 38 years ago. But again, when God is finally done expecting new things of me here, He will graduate me to eternity and I can really start learning why He made me in the first place.

Of my other goals, the most important was that I wanted to write. I've written lots of little things, and I'm getting to the big ones. It is an important goal to me, but the other things have all ranged above it. I've also enjoyed teaching, but mainly for the way as it has allowed me to pursue the more important goals. During each era in my life, there have been special, short-term goals, but these have been the goals that I carried with me for the journey.

A Little Memory of John Wooden

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Many people who knew John Wooden much better than I are recounting stories of him today, and I have no original pictures. But I can’t let his passing go completely unmentioned here. Wooden graduated to Heaven yesterday, at 99.

The last time I saw John Wooden was spring of ’72. He came out a side door at Pauley Pavilion, just as I approached, and he gave me a little smile and nod of his head. It was the same door I’d seen Haile Selassie exit from four years earlier, but I’d gotten neither a smile nor a nod on that occasion. Selassie was the reigning emperor of Ethiopia. Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood,” was the reigning king of college basketball. He’d just won the 8th of his eventual ten NCAA National Championships. At UCLA, his genius was more recognized than any of our Nobel Prize winners. If it had been his nature to be as imperial as Selassie, he had earned the right.

Wooden had given a guest lecture a few weeks earlier in one of my kinesiology classes, but I can’t imagine he still recognized me. I was just one of 35,000 students at UCLA., but more than anything else, Wooden was a teacher. All 35,000 of us were his students, and I got a smile.

I’ve read that after ten national championships he was most proud that his teams ranked highest in number of athletes who actually graduated. I became acquainted with some of those young men, Terry Schofield, Sven Nader, and Keith (later, Jamaal) Wilkes. He recruited athletes of fine character, not just physical prowess. Among his many personal accomplishments, he was proudest of winning the Big Ten Academic Achievement Award (during the year he also led his team to the conference championship) for the highest GPA. He was a remarkable man, a gentleman scholar, and a servant of God, and I was blessed by the little bit he touched my life.

(In poking around on the web, I find this interview with Wooden, in which he quotes a poem written by Sven Nader. Nader lived in our dorm during my sophomore year [as did Wilkes, Bill Walton, and the rest of the freshmen team]. I remember Sven's beautiful singing voice. Seven-footers have a lot of lung capacity.)

AmGen Tour of California

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The AmGen Tour of California's fifth stage (Visalia to Bakersfield) passed about half a mile from our campus today, so I walked a group of 7th graders over to watch the race. It was about twenty-five minutes each way, with another thirty minutes wait once we got there, for about 20 seconds of bicycles, preceded by three minutes of police cars and followed by three minutes of team vehicles. If someone can recognize or label individual riders, I would appreciate it. I'm told Lance Armstrong is is wearing #2, but I couldn't see any numbers, and he certainly didn't stop to chat. They were about seven miles into a ride that will go about 125 today, and finish on Sunday. After the racers blurred past, my students asked, "Is that all of it?" I tried to tell them ahead of time it would be over pretty fast, but it may be one of those things you have to see to understand.

Now we've seen it.

Breaking the winter hiatus

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The poppies are telling me the Capers winter hiatus has extended unbecomingly into the spring. That leads to a problem of surface tension. How does one return to blogging after a twelve-week absence without unleashing all the stored up thoughts? This, in turn, becomes self-perpetuating. When one does not know where to start, one rarely gets started.

I did not mean to leave-off posting. Life happens. Weeds infiltrate. Laundry accumulates. I spend my days teaching junior high: six performances a day in the center ring. Stare them back to their seats, find new ways to entertain them, keep records of everything, hope they don’t call one’s bluff, grade the papers, and pray they’ll somehow pick up what they need for the state tests. Whistle while you work. Collapse in front of the computer screen when the kids go home. There may be energy for Facebook, but not for much else.

This year’s distraction is that a third of the teachers at my school got lay-off notices, me included. I expect that most of us will be hired back by August, but it is one more example of amateur-hour at the highest levels of California government. There are other current events I want to write about, most noticeably the issue of immigration reform. I attended a Tea Party on Tax Day, but I am a party of one, searching among strange bed-fellows for someone to whom I can feel comfortable granting my vote.

I attended the four-day Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference over Palm Sunday weekend. I had attended twice before, and was accompanied this time by my daughter Rebecca. We took a ten-hour class in writing narrative non-fiction from Lynn Vincent. I appreciated Lynn’s work during the ten years she wrote for World magazine, and her recent books have included NY Times bestseller The Same Kind of Different as Me, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. She taught an excellent class, and it has seeded much of my thinking over the last month. Some of those thoughts may turn up here on Capers over the next few weeks.

I also renewed friendships from previous conferences and made new ones. Among the former was Randy Ingermanson, who taught the workshop I participated in two years ago. Among the latter was Dale Cramer. Referring only to the “L word,” Randy pointed Dale out as an author who writes in the same Literary Fiction category where my stories seem to fall. I came home from the conference with a tall stack of books to add to the stack I’m picking up at the Perspectives course I’m taking Sunday nights. Is it just a coincidence that I stopped blog-posting right when the Perspectives course began? I tend to read several books simultaneously and finish a bunch at the same time. The next few weeks may see a slew of Capers book reviews.

I also hope to get back to a series I was running two years ago, on the history of my novel. I posted fourteen episodes and then got interrupted. Fortunately, in the interim, I have made significant progress on the novel itself, and I came home from Mount Hermon with some encouraging feedback from a couple of well-respected agents. If I’m not teaching in the fall, I will be busy finishing the current novel and starting the next two. Capers will also stand to benefit. I wouldn’t expect to see a three month winter hiatus next year.