Monthly Archives: November 2010

A Tale of Two Dressings

My mother didn’t learn how to cook until after she married. (Dad said it was a little hard the first few years.) She and her mom lived in an apartment on Belmont near where the college is now and rode the bus to and from work downtown. By the time she got home after work, dinner was ready. But my mom was the accountant in a doctor’s office so she had access to magazines with recipes in them.

I don’t know where she found the recipe for dressing I grew up with, but I always looked forward to the holidays so I could get the dressing. It’s a sausage dressing with half corn bread and half regular bread with just celery, onions, parsley, poultry seasoning, egg and broth to hold it together. I mostly use turkey sausage now, which adds no drippings, but it still tastes great and has less cholesterol.

I thought everybody had dressing like that until I hit the first grade and saw my first example of bread dressing. I even tried it, and remember the enormous blandness of it, soggy, white bready goop. It was unremarkable in taste and texture.

It was almost a quarter if a century before I’d try bread dressing again. But when it’s your future mother-in-law you have to try it. Unlike my mom, my mother-in-law learned to cook from her mom, who ran the cafeteria at the local school and catered meals during the summer. And, to my surprise, her dressing was edible and then some. It was an unexpected surprise.

The dressing I don’t understand is dressing with oysters. If we were another six hours closer to the ocean I could understand it, but here? Makes no sense to me.

Why Are We Failing?

When my wife and I were in school, education was different – we learned. And it wasn’t the impending fear we’d get smacked by teachers, although that was a possibility. Schools were just more effective and more rigorous. And we studied everything back then – art, music, math, history, science, nothing seemed left out of the curriculum. When I was in the 7th and 8th grade, our math curriculum changed and we were suddenly taught math based on set theory. That was a dramatic change from normal methods and content, but we learned it and it didn’t seem to hurt our math skills. There was less testing for competencies but nobody got promoted unless they passed, period. We can’t seem to do that now.

Some people blame the tenure system, but there are valid reasons for and against it. There is nothing so political as education politics and there are few superintendents (or whatever the title is for your school system) who aren’t deeply involved in politics in their counties. It can be the same with principals, too. Without tenure, there would be more turnover in teachers as a new superintendent or principal brought in people who think like they do at every changeover in administration. And political- or philosophical-based appointment as a method for picking teachers is a poor way of ensuring students excel. Tenure protects both the good teacher from this as well as the bad one. It removes patronage as an aspect of education at the same time that it protects the below average or the burned out  teacher. That’s good and bad, yin and yang, and ending it may be necessary, but it isn’t going to ensure qualitative improvements, in and of itself. Don’t kid yourself that it will.

Some people think that paying a teacher more for advanced degrees is wrong because that doesn’t correlate with student achievement. Gaining a master’s degree generally gives a teacher another $6,000 or so a year more income and lots of school systems assist in paying the cost of the teacher getting that master’s degree. According to Public Radio last night, that cost is a $6 billion hit each year. But it can help them learn new ways of teaching and continuous learning isn’t a bad thing, it can be very effective. Why isn’t it?

Nothing we’ve tried recently to increase accountability for the schools, and the teachers and administrators in them, seems hugely effective, at least not yet. All the standardized testing we now do seems to have had the effect of teachers teaching what’s minimally necessary to get through the testing rather than excelling in general. But the real surprise to me is that nobody seems tohave actually sat down to take a hard look at what actually works, with hard data and research to back it up. I remember hearing this year that Peabody College was going to do a study to see if they could figure out what actually worked (and I’ll add a link to it if someone else finds it for me).

Vouchers are prominent in the news as well. If you want your child to go to a private school, you get a voucher to help defray the costs. (My parents didn’t have that. They had to save the money for my schooling and do without, an uncommon concept these days.)But, if schools have to hold all sorts of sales to be able to gather up enough money to buy things like school supplies for the classrooms, it doesn’t seem logical to assume that taking money out of the system for vouchers would be an improvement.

So how do the countries that are at the top of the educational scale do it? Well, many have year-round school for their children, and that’s a possibility. We don’t currently because way back when, kids were an important part of bring in the crops during harvest season, AKA summer, so schools would close pretty much out of necessity because few kids would be there. They’d be out bringing in the sheaves, so to speak. But doing this doesn’t explain Finland. Except in math, where they’re slacking along in the #2 spot, Finland is number one in their students’ prowess in reading and science and their students spend less time in class than other nations. Even their slow students are kept in the regular classrooms but they have a second teacher to help them learn. Their schools are considered lower key than most. In Korea (#2 country in reading and science and #1 in math) the regimen is stricter and longer.

Even though I spent four years or so working in education as an administrator, I don’t pretend to have a clue to the answer. But I do know it’s not a one-shot cure by any means. Yes, boosting the accountability of teachers and schools is probably one part, but I’m not convinced that testing is a solution as long as it brings with it teaching to the test. Our children’s futures aren’t going to involve a lot of standardized test-taking as part of their employment, no matter what they end up becoming. They’re going to actually have to think and reason and read well and write intelligently. Businesses have said for decades that our students don’t come out of high school with the skills business needs them to have and colleges also complain that they don’t have what it takes to succeed there. We’re obviously failing the grade, and like our kids, we’re getting passed along to the next grade, regardless.

I thought it might be that we just weren’t spending enough per student, but that’s not the case, either. We’re near the top in per student spending along with several other countries that aren’t doing anywhere near as well as Finland and Korea and Japan at educating our students. Anyone else have an idea?

Hi, My Name Is Jim

And I’ve bought Fiats. Yes, I did it twice, knowingly. Now, there’s really not a Fiats Anonymous organization although starting one might not be a bad idea. FIAT is unfortunately an acronym and the Americanized version is “Fix it again, Tony” with some rationale for this.

Fiats have always been fun to drive. They handle really well, they’re generally speaking peppy, for the four-cylinder small car genre, and, in the sedan versions, they’re somewhat practical. But their quality control has always been, well worse than Chrysler. Now, the ones I’ve owned, a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe (’70) and a Fiat Strada 3-door (’78) never had major problems all that often, just profoundly irritating small ones.


Remember vent windows? Before the side windows of cars got bigger and more complicated in shape, they were basically rectangular with a separate, moveable triangular addition along the front edge of the side windows. These vent windows would pivot in and bring fresh air in without it blowing on the driver. The vent wondows. My 124 coupe had vent windows that rested on a stylish, well-designed pivot that was basically half of a cone in shape, with a flattened bottom that the glass sat on as it turned. The glass was glued to this cone-shaped pivot. The first time I used the vent window, while moving from Nashville to Chicago during the service, I opened the vent and, to my surprise, still had the glass in my hand as I moved my hand back towards the gear shift.

The glue failed. The window had pulled down out of the socket at the top as the glue had separated from the glass and that nice, stylish half-cone of a support at the bottom of the window was still sitting there patiently waiting for its glass to return. From this point on I entered into a world where I discovered that attaching differing materials – such as glass and metal, was actually nearly impossible to achieve – this was before super glue had been invented. I just learned to live with the limitations of the window (the passenger one came unglued too before too long). The closest dealer was in the process of going bankrupt, had inconvenient hours and really could care less about my problems.

The second one really only needed service once, blown head gasket, but that led to other issues with it. The 1970s were the last few years Fiat had dealers or parts suppliers in the U.S. While my car was being repaired at Import Auto Maintenance, it and every other car in the vicinity, was broken into by vandals to steal the radio. They busted up the dash, the door panels, windows, etc, in their attempt to clean out the radio. That’s when I discovered that the few remaining dealers had difficulties getting parts. I could only get a door panel that was the wrong shade, for example, or door handles in black, not brown like the other door. That car ran and ran and ran. It was M&M Green. You could park it in a sea of cars at a mall and NEVER lose it. It glowed green.

And, as a hatchback, you could plop the back seats down and put all sorts of stuff in it and carry all sorts of stuff on the luggage rack on the top, including 16′ 3/4″ rebar, which barely missed hitting the ground both in front and in back (we were building a house then). That car was our truck and we used it like one until one day when I pulled out of an electric supply house with $2,500 in breakers, breaker boxes, heavy wire and everything needed to wire our house. (It may have been a little overloaded.) As I tried to accelerate up the hill back to 12th Ave. S., a puff of white smoke came out from the dash – I’d set it on fire. I quickly shut off the car and started pulling fuses to things I could spare and then I was off.

Unfortunately, by then the car had almost 150,000 miles on it and the fire seemed to have fused a few circuits together. The heat and fan were out as were the wipers. But the lights and turn signals worked. And, by  then we were deep into house-building and the little green car was our home-building vehicle. Every night we’d load up the hatch with tools, materials and whatever we’d need, and then set off on the house trek 20 miles farther away. Most times I didn’t rain, but when it did, the combination of Rain-X and removing the wiper arm from its shaft and storing it conveniently on the dash where I could get to it was Plan B. Then I’d roll the window down, stick my left arm out the window and wipe off the windshield as I drove merrily out Hwy. 70. But (aside from the one head gasket incident) that car always ran and ran and ran.

After the house was mostly built, we stored it in the barn and hardly ever used it. Two years later, when I bought a truck, the salesman asked if I had a trade in and I got $500 for it. He asked if it ran and I told him it did, but it looked like hell. He asked if it was worth $500 and I said no, not even if he was blind. I don’t think, as a car salesman, he was used to honesty, so he gave me the $500 on it while in shock. So, on a day with no rain forcast, I went down to the barn, put in the key and fired it right up (after sitting for two years, remember) and drove it to Madison. (By the way, that dealer with the Push, Pull or Drag deal thing — it is a scam. They hard line the retail sticker price plus dealer packs and refuse to drop two cents off that. I tried using the Fiat for that and had never seen the price of a basic Toyota truck that high before. It was like they’d tacked an extra two grand on there.)

So why all this posting about Fiat Anonymous?

red Fiat 500

I’m in trouble.

Two Hundred and Thirty Thousand

That’s a pretty good number, depending on what you’re counting with it. If it were dollars, that would be multiples of what I make and a better salary than 97% of the people in this country. If it were pounds, that would be a lot of weight to move around or more cars than GM has sold in a while. If it was megabytes of data, it’s still a big spreadsheet or text file full of data. But it’s not.

It’s people. That is the number of people (net) that need to get hired into full-time jobs each month for the unemployment rate to drop to 5% (considered by economists as “full employment”) by Christmas of 2015. (Source – BLS data for October, 2010)

That’s right, five years from now. Every month we don’t put a net of a quarter of a million people to work adds another month to the length of this recession before it’s over.

This month there was a net of 60,000 jobs created, around the same as last month. So those of you who voted for a change in politics because the economy still sucks need to get a longer term view. Way longer.

In Case You Didn’t Already Know

When it comes to elections, the only time it’s not about the economy, stupid, is when the economy is running fine. When the economy is down and unemployment is high, no amount of political pandering or advertising will help a whole lot.

Elected officials failed because they failed all through the economic crisis to help the people understand clearly why what was done was necessary before they did it. Not everyone wold have been convinced, but all it would have required was 15% of the independents.