The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

30 September 2010

On The Verge Of Jubilation

A little over a month ago, I wrote of how fun it is for my favorite baseball team, the Giants, to be involved in a pennant race. Today they clinched at least a tie for their division championship and a playoff berth. Tomorrow they can win it outright.

The Giants have had a remarkable stretch run, winning 18 games and losing only 8 during the month of September. Not only that, but their pitching staff's 1.78 earned run average for the month is the lowest for a team since the 1965 Dodgers.

It's been an amazing run.

The Giants haven't won a World Series since three years before I was even born. And they may not even make it to the Series this year. But hope springs eternal...

29 September 2010

Another Reason Why Most Of Us Despise Bailouts

Buried in yesterday's Wall Street Journal is an article informing us that General Motors--the still bankrupt and now taxpayer-paid-for and government-owned auto maker--has resumed providing political donations to candidates for federal office. According to records released by the Federal Elections Commission, GM has paid $90,500 to mostly Midwestern politicians, predominantly Democrats.

While it's not at all unusual for large corporations to engage in political donations to candidates, what is both unusual and troubling is that the dollars GM is donating actually come from you and me--the taxpayers who bellied up to the bar last year to bail out GM in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown.

This is unconscionable. What is, in effect, happening is that taxpayer dollars are being funneled through a government-owned company to--predominantly--one political party. No wonder that, according to Rasmussen Reports, 59% of us think the government bailouts were a bad idea while only 26% support it.

The government does not serve the people. The government serves the government and those in power.

26 September 2010

Reward The Great Teachers

If you're lucky--as I was--to have been educated by more than a few great teachers, you know what a profound impact they have had on your life. The teaching profession is rightly revered and honored in our country, because teachers not only impart to us many of the building blocks of life but they also have the great responsibility and power of molding young minds in their fields of study. Teaching is not just a job--and no one who views it that way should be a teacher in the first place. In no other profession--with the possible exception of the family doctor--do parents willingly place their children in such a vaunted position of trust and influence, hoping their youngsters will be blessed with the guidance and encouragement of a few great teachers.

That is why I have a palpable contempt for the National Education Association, which also happens to be the largest teachers' union in America. The NEA does not believe in rewarding the great teachers. Instead, it's much more focused on gaining and preserving tenure for all teachers, including the very worst. The union never seems to have enough money allocated to public education; it advocates smaller student to teacher ratios primarily to strengthen the union with more teachers, not to improve the degree of personal instruction for each student; it values mediocrity over excellence; and it promotes liberal causes in the classroom that have no place in the classroom in the first place.

These charges may be debated, but the wave of public opinion over the abject failure of the NEA is gaining broader acceptance simply because the facts are immutable. Consider the following: among 29 industrialized nations, the USA ranks 24th in math--beating only Poland, Hungary, Spain, and Latvia. Of thirty industrialized nations, the USA ranks 16th in science.

Now, the NEA will tell you that the problem is lack of funding. And that is a complete fabrication. Consider this: Since 2001, the Cost Of Living Index in the USA has climbed 22.4% between 2001-2009. During that same period, the federal government has increased spending for public education by 76%, from $514 billion at the beginning of the decade to $904 billion in 2009. Lack of spending is simply not the problem. And the most damning fact is that while the US went on its spending spree, American youngsters continued to sink lower in comparison to their peers internationally.

So what's the answer? Of course, there is no magic bullet. But just like an alcoholic who can never begin to heal unless he at least recognizes he has a problem, the public education system will not begin to improve until the majority of us recognizes what a deep hole we're in. That may be happening. A new film titled "Waiting For Superman" was released last week, documenting the dismal failure of our educational system and pinning the blame squarely on the teachers' unions. One might rightly assume that this film was produced by some right-wing organization with a political axe to grind. In this case, one would be wrong. The film is produced by Davis Guggenheim, who also produced the Oscar-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth" which highlighted the effects of global warming. It's encouraging to see that those on the political left are willing to recognize the failures of the unions and of our schools--and that this film is attempting to issue a call to action for all of us.

Here's a second answer--both remarkably common sense but filled with political landmines: fire bad and/or ineffective teachers, train mediocre ones, and generously reward the great ones. I've had more than a few discussions of this ilk over the years with teachers, and their standard answer is "It's a simple and great idea, but how do you do it objectively? How can you guarantee fairness?" And my answer is always the same: you can't. What we can do is to try--and in so doing, do our best to be fair and balanced. But teachers have been pampered by a system that rewards mediocrity for so long that they simply cannot relate to what those of us in the private sector live with everyday. We get an annual performance and salary review, and during that review we learn what our boss thinks of our work--good and bad. We may not think parts of that review are fair, but all we can do is work harder to improve.

Teachers have to be willing to accept what we in the private sector live with everyday. Yes, there will be some mistakes made--especially in the beginning as a new system of reviews, rewards, and consequences takes shape. But over time, I am confident that such a system will reward the great teachers. Like the ones who had such a great influence over us. And like the ones who have such a great influence over the lives of our children and grandchildren.

23 September 2010

The Harvest Moon

Of all the full moons that occur during the year, the most famous and most anticipated is the Harvest Moon. It's the full moon that occurs nearest the Autumnal Equinox, usually a few days before or after. This year, however, the Harvest Moon occurred on the exact same night as the first day of Autumn--an event that has not happened in nearly twenty years and will not occur again until 2029. When this happens, it's known as a Super Harvest Moon.

Why is it called a Harvest Moon? In the 18th and 19th centuries, farmers took advantage of the luminous reflection of the huge Harvest Moon to continue to harvest their crops through the night. It was a bonus, as they worked the very long hours synonymous with the harvest to gather their crops in before rain might slow them down or risk ruining their bounty.

Last night at around 10 pm I walked outside and spent a few moments basking under the huge, bright full moon of September. I thought about all of those generations of hard-working farmers who had labored under that same moon decades and centuries before us. And I gave thanks to God for the beauty of the moment and the privilege of living close to the land, and truly understanding the meaning of the Harvest Moon.

22 September 2010

My Favorite Season

Today at 8:09 PM Pacific Time, the Earth's axis will be exactly aligned with the center of the Sun in the same plane as the Equator. That's a fancy description for the Autumnal Equinox, which is another way of saying that it's the first day of Autumn.

It is my favorite season. There isn't a close second.

I love the Autumn for so many reasons. The harsh heat of the Summer is past. I've never been a fan of Summer because I tolerate the cold of winter (and you're right--we don't have a real winter here in California anyway) much better than the heat of summer. So when the cool, crisp air of Autumn greets me in the morning, I kind of revel in quiet celebration.

It's not just the temperatures, though. I love the long shadows cast by the angle of the Sun. The light bends differently, especially in October and into early November. It's a dream come true for photographers--and it's both comforting and sublime. I love especially the end of an Autumn day. The days, of course, are shorter but it is during that gloaming in the half-light of those days that I find myself more reflective than perhaps at any other time of the year.

Perhaps best of all is the luminescent colors of the season. The hardwoods offered that bright green of the new leaves in the spring, provided shade through the heat of the summer, and now they offer their showy, spectacular finale in bright hues of crimson, ocher, orange, carnelian, and goldenrod.

I love pulling out sweaters and sweatshirts and jackets again--and feeling the coolness of the air when I can draw it down deep and savor the freshness after a fall rain.

I love the return of football season, especially--like this year--on those rare occasions when my alma mater (Stanford) actually has a team to get excited about.

Autumn is when we harvest our crops--a time when it's crazy busy, exhilarating, exhausting, rambunctious, and energizing all at the same time. It's like our once-a-year payoff for all of the hard work and planning and preparation of the crop. And God is a gracious and good God, as He faithfully brings us the crop each year at this time.

It's during the fall that my favorite holiday of the year happens: Thanksgiving. That's when families gather, and the demanding harvest season is over, and we actually get four days off from work to rest, relax, reflect, and give thanks.

It's the best time of the year. And now it's here and I'm celebrating.

21 September 2010

A Primer On Peppers

In my corporate days, I worked as a marketing jock for a large food processing company in their foodservice division. I remember attending a presentation by a research company who was involved in forecasting new trends in the industry. One of the things the presenter said has stuck with me: "As America's population ages, the Baby Boomers will be looking for more richly-flavored and spicier foods. As a person ages, their taste buds don't distinguish flavors as readily as they used to--so the aging Boomers will be looking for help from the spice rack."

Well, as one of those aging Boomers, I can attest to the validity of that prediction. I really enjoy well-seasoned foods, and more and more of my Boomer brethren (and sisteren--yes, I just made up a new word) are discovering the variety and versatility of the pepper.

The thing about peppers is that they come in a whole host of sizes, shapes, colors, and--most importantly--levels of spiciness. As a matter of fact, there's even an objective way of measuring the heat index of various types and varieties of peppers called the Scoville Scale.

The Scoville Scale was developed in 1912 by an American chemist named Wilbur Scoville. Scoville developed a method of adding sugar to an extraction of a pepper's capsaicin until the heat is barely detectable. The more sugar is added, the higher the Scoville rating for a particular type of pepper.

For example, sweet bell peppers have no capsaicin at all and have a Scoville rating of zero. That's not really an eye-opener, is it? What is an eye-opener, however, is how hot the peppers are that occupy the upper level of the Scoville Scale. Here's a look at the peppers and their Scoville ratings:

    • Bell pepper                             0
    • Pepperoncini                       300
    • Poblano                           1,500
    • Jalapeno                          6,000
At this point, I want to intervene with a comment. Before I had ever heard of the Scoville Scale, I thought the jalapeno was one of the hottest peppers around. It is certainly the hottest I've ever had the courage to eat. But as it turns out, the tear-inducing jalapeno is like a 98-pound weakling compared to the truly powerful peppers that follow:
    • Serrano                         18,000
    • Cayenne                       40,000
    • Scotch Bonnet             250,000
    • Habanero                    400,000
And the king of all peppers--the one that literally cannot be handled with bare hands--is the knee-buckling Naga Jolokia (also known as the Ghost Pepper) with a Scoville rating of an astounding 900,000 Scoville units! Think of that--the Ghost Pepper's potency is 150 times more powerful than a jalapeno.

I'll admit it: when it comes to spicy foods, anything more than a very small taste of the jalapeno is about as far as I go. Call me a wimp. But at least I'll only have to deal with bloodshot eyes when I eat my jalapeno. For those of you who are tougher than me, I want to know when you're scheduling your ulcer repair.

12 September 2010

The Day The Skies Were Silent

Nine years ago today, the skies over U.S. airspace were silent. It was the first time it had ever happened since the dawn of commercial aviation. In the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11, President Bush ordered all commercial aircraft in the USA grounded because of fears of another hijacking and attack.

I well remember walking outside on that sunny Wednesday afternoon and looking up into the sky for many minutes and hearing complete silence. We lived at the time in the flight path of Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport--the busiest airport in the world. But not on 12 September 2001.

It was a day unlike any in our nation's aviation history.

We pray there will never be a repeat of that sad and melancholy and uncertain day.

02 September 2010

A Word About Trees

I make my livelihood from trees. My brothers and I are fourth-generation farmers, growing walnuts in the San Joaquin Valley of California. We love caring for the orchards, and we take a lot of personal pride and satisfaction in making the orchards not only productive but aesthetically beautiful as well. Our part of California has been a farming Mecca for generations, but the face of the kind of agriculture being practiced here is changing. The dairy industry is in the middle of a long and deep downturn, and many dairymen are converting their land to almond, walnut, olive and cherry orchards. Cattlemen have been doing the same thing. Fewer cowboys. More orchards.

And I'm not complaining. The orchards are beautiful and they not only dot the landscape--they dominate it.

But it's not just fruit and nut trees that I love. We're blessed in this part of the Valley with an abundance of oak trees. There are White Oaks on the California coast. On the valley floor, we have Valley Oaks. And just a few miles east of here--as you drive into the Sierra foothills--you'll see Black Oaks, and further up in the high country you're likely to encounter Live Oaks, Canyon Live Oaks, and Blue Oaks. One of the biggest oak trees I've ever seen is at the end of the driveway where I grew up--a spectacular Blue Oak that is estimated to be around 150 years old.

Oak trees are fascinating because they have such character. They're gnarled, with limbs that twist and turn. They lack the symmetry of a redwood or a pine. They grow slowly. But they're beautiful and distinctive. And there are still parts of California--especially in the foothills--where one can drive past acres of old oak groves that were likely there when the Mi-Wuk Indians lived among them.

California is perhaps most famous for its Giant Sequoias. The Sequoia is massive. In fact, the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest tree in the world. It's estimated to reach 275 feet high, with a girth of 103 feet in circumference. It is estimated to be at least 2,300 years old. Nearby, the General Grant tree is nearly as big, but it's a relative youth at an estimated 1,600 years old.

Trees are a precious gift, and California is blessed to have such an abundance of beautiful and fascinating trees.