Monday, September 19, 2011

A picnic with the new State Superintendent of Instruction, Tom Torlakson

"We have to be creative with our money," recently elected California
State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson
told The Point Richmond Voice.

Recently (2010) elected State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson, threw a healthy chili cookoff contest at the Martinez, CA, waterfront park Sunday, September 18, 2011.  About 150 people enjoyed hearing a short talk by Torlakson and tasting a variety of chili prepared by firefighters and private caterers. The chili was served by volunteers from alternative schools in the area.  Torlakson himself was present from beginning to end, greeting volunteers early in the afternoon, schmoozing with labor union representatives, elected officals and teachers, and giving an inspiring pep talk to the crowd. A former teacher who has risen from elected office in the Antioch City Council to county and state offices, and now this statewide position, he is obviously at home in the center of a big crowd, enjoying every minute of it.

The oak leaf is the symbol of a teacher.  
Though this may not be an oak, 
it's an appropriate place to put a sign 
for a teacher's picnic.  
His web site is  

Torlakson was there early to greet his volunteers who were wearing chartreuse green T-shirts.  I do not get a T-shirt because I am the press, and I try to maintain at least a pretense of objectivity about this local-boy-makes-good story.  Torlakson said hello to me as I introduced myself to him.  Torlakson told me, "We don't have much money to spend.  We have to be creative with our money."  I thanked him for his remark and retreated.  I am an art teacher as well as a journalist, so that was important to me.  I forgot to write it down because I was thinking about what he said about being creative, since I have a teaching credential in art and a master's degree in creativity and arts education, so I ought to know something about it.

Volunteers were happy to meet the new California state superintendent of instruction. Then I came to and remembered that I was a journalist and was supposed to write things down.    So I went back over and told him that I had forgotten to write down his remark and would he please say that again, so I could be sure I got his words right.   (I am usually not that nervous, but there I was, an unemployed teacher speaking to the top educator in California.)  He was very kind.  He said, "We have got to be creative with the money we have and at the same time fight for more money for our schools."

I forgot the exact words of the question I asked him.  I was speaking to the top educator in the State of California, so I am lucky to remember my name in a situation like that.  I think my question was something like, "Do you have something important you want to tell me about your first months in office?" or "Would you like to make a comment about this event?"  They usually have something they want to communicate to the public or at least to their supporters, that they have thought about ahead of time or even said over and over again to each visitor to Sacramento and each speech they have made to a civic group since getting elected.  That's what is so great about interviewing politicians.  I don't feel as though I am asking anyone to get any skeletons out of the attic for me or prying into their private lives, which I do not like doing for publication.  They usually have a message they are trying to get across and they are glad to find someone who will help them do it, like me.

Creativity means different things to different people.  In science it might mean inventing new things.  In art it might mean collaborating to make something original.  In math it might mean finding new proofs for old problems writing new word problems,  or new ways of explaining principles to children--that's a guess.  It might mean a teacher would teach art part time and journalism the rest of the time.  Generally speaking, journalism frowns on creativity, with the campaign trail books of Hunter Thompson being a noteworthy exception to that rule.  In literature there is plenty of opportunity for  creativity, exaggeration, embellishment, false memories and other kinds of creativity when writing novels. 
In advertising and design, there is plenty of room for creativity with digital tools.

Each picnic table was covered with a white cloth and 
held a hot plate and the bucket of delicious chili.  

The servers were wearing their white and black uniforms.  
They spooned out a couple of spoonfuls of chili into 
sample cups for us to taste.  We had been handed a 
ballot with the names of the preparers, as we entered the picnic.
The chili from Chef Laurie tasted a little like medicine, which
I wrote down on my ballot which I subsequently kept
because it had my notes for my story on it.  Luckily I had
remembered to bring a little notebook and a pen and
my camera.

This table had a few extra decorations.  
The person on the left is Nadine Peyruican, 
who works at many fund-raising events.  
She knows people's names and can tell me 
whom to take photos of.  But she was 
busy doing something else that day.
She told me she thought I knew who to take 
pictures of, and did not need her help.  

There were white canopies for shade.  
The weather was in the 80's, which 
was very pleasant for a picnic.  It's usually 
hotter than that in Martinez in the summer.

Here Torlakson is getting scrutinized by the press.  If you don't like a camera in your face, you probably should not run for public office.  You would not believe the hive of cameras that confront a statewide elected official at critical moments.  As cameras get smaller, it gets less obvious, but the networks and newspapers still have big equipment.  It's called scrutiny of a public figure.  Torlakson is used to it because he has been elected to one public office or another for many years.

Torlakson is tasting the chili along with Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, who was his master of ceremonies.  This photo has a tree growing out of Supt. Torlakson's head but because it is a news photo, I do not get to take that tree out in order to make it a better picture.  I can either choose to use it or not.  This was the only time I saw Torlakson actually eating something, so I kept it.  He's not a big eater.  

Someone put his February 2007 campaign brochure on the table in front of me.  It said, "to help publicize how important health and fitness are, this past year I biked to work from my home in Antioch to the State Capitol in Sacramento."  He founded and chaired the California Task Force on Youth and the Workplace Wellness to promote healthier lifestyles for youth.

About 150 people showed up for the event. Many were wearing T-shirts with the logo of their local union, like this person wearing a navy blue T-shirt for a firefighters local union.  Most of the chili entries were from the firefighters.  Some attendees are sent to a party like this along with a contribution check from a union.  The person might be in charge of the local union political action committee, or the person might just be a retired union member who enjoys going to this kind of event.  It doesn't mean that person himself, or herself, has that much money to give to a candidate.  

Here are Henry Ramsey, on the school board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District for many years, and Kathy McLaughlin of the Martinez School Board.

Tom Torlakson taught in the Mt. Diablo School District,
then was elected to Antioch city Council, then
the county Board of Supervisors, then the California
State Assembly, then the state senate, and most recently
the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  He is what is
called a "career politician."  They think of it as a career,
with steps in the ladder, and constant training, NOT as a fluke
that happens when things go wrong and you can't get what you 
want, so you have to do something drastic like run
for public office.  I am sure he thinks of it as a job
like teaching is a job.  You are still a teacher even
though you might work for several schools or
school districts in your lifetime.  You have a 
teaching career, not just  one teaching job.  
You have several jobs in the teaching field 
which add up to a career in teaching.  
That's an important difference because kids 
are always told to have a career 
and a lot of them don't know what it 
means to have a career, 
although they know what 
it means to have a job.

At the Richmond
Economic Summit, 
the ConnectEd company
spokesperson talked
about this, saying that the
youth wanted to know
the steps in the career
ladder from the beginning
of their lives to the end.  

I don't know what
the Superintendent would
say about this and
I did not think to
ask him this question.
He might not know
the answer.

If they
cannot even predict with
certainty whether
we will have
another recession,
how are we going
to tell a child
what his or her
entire life
is going
to contain?

Of course 
we want 
kids to have
good, productive,
happy lives, 
without poverty or 
illness. But 
what job they
will be working
at in 50, 60
years?  We
don't even 
know what 
the world 
will be 
like then.
We just
hope there
will be 
a world
for them
when they
get old.
So we
teach them
peer counseling,
conflict resolution,
healthy living,
and most of all,

Torlakson was introduced by master of ceremonies 
Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, who is also a teacher in the Mt. Diablo school district.  

Mae Torlakson is wearing a beige sun visor.

Here's a closeup of Mae Torlakson.

Superintendent Torlakson announced the winners of the chili cookoff.  The third place winners have green T-shirts.    They are students from A New Leaf school who were serving chili cooked by Corrine Christianson.  The second place winners from Serendipity School are wearing white uniforms and black caps.  They were serving chili cooked by Chef Kevin.  The first place winner was the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1230, Contra Costa County, Station 16, Lafayette.  

Superintendent Torlakson told the crowd, "We won the runoff race by ten percent.  That's a good margin.  We won 38 out of 68 counties.  The home territory took us home.  We got 69 percent of San Francisco and 67 percent of Contra Costa County.  You guys carried us.  

Then a train horn interrupted his speech.  Amtrak runs right next to the park, with a stop there in Martinez, the county seat. "Are we on the right track?" Torlakson asked.  The crowd roared with laughter.  

He told the group that he spent $3 million on the campaign.  The other candidate spent $180 million.  


"A year ago we were running hard and we were not sure
what the outcome would be," he said.

"The Department of Education has 2,500 employees.  They spend $80 billion a year."  He thanked Jennifer Peck for helping him make a strategic plan for his first months in office.  He said 900 employees were interviewed about what could be made better in the department.  He thanked Ted Radke, Jim Fraser, Rob Schroder and others.

Then he asked the group to raise their 
hands if they were optimists.  
Most raised their hands.

“We are optimists,” he said. “The kids need to be good at critical thinking and problem solving. Every student should be connected to a computer. We will call it, “No Child Left Offline,” (a pun on the federal law, “No Child Left Behind.”)

“The kids need to know how to know truth from 
fiction and distortion propaganda,” he told the crowd.

He said he is working on a ballot measure for the fall election. He said 18 percent got knocked out of the budget. CSU tuition has gone up. “A ballot measure will give the voters a chance to debate this. Do we want to be on top again?” He asked rhetorically. The crowd applauded. “Heck, yes,” he answered himself.  

“Are we still optimists?” Torlakson asked again. 
The crowd roared.
 “Let's do it together,” Torlakson said, a variation
on Congressman Garamendi's

comment, "Let's just do it," that he said when he got elected
to Congress and helped pass a comprehensive health act.
They are public figures. Their words have impact on many
people.  That's why they are scrutinized by the press.  If
one was speaking to a child, one might say, "Do it
now," but  giving orders to grownups is different
than giving orders to children.  Giving orders
to grownups is more like making suggestions
than demanding immediate obedience.  It's
not like me and my dog Westie, who
is always looking at me as
if he is trying to figure out
what I want him
to do. But
even a dog has
a mind of his own.
When Westie
finally figures
out what
I want, then
he has
to decide
whether he
is going
to do
it or
I tell
that I
I tell
he is
a very smart, very beautiful dog, and he is my favorite dog
and my one true love.  Then I pet him ever so gently.  He seems to
understand that, because then he comes to me when I call him.

If I keep saying "no" to him when he barks, he starts
hanging out in the other room instead of right by my side.  He doesn't like getting yelled at.  I have to be aware of my interactions with him.  Too many "no's" turns him off, especially when he doesn't get
much sweet talk.  Maybe I should sit down and read the AP stylebook out loud to him in a very sweet,
loving tone of voice, so I can get him back to liking being around me again.

These people were dancing, with him on a Segue. 
He was actually twirling around and twirling her around.
This seems to have possibilities for people with

What's wrong with this picture? 
This band was performing under adverse conditions.  
The canopy was so low that the audience
could not see the faces of the performers unless
we walked right up to them.  It was impossible
to get a picture of the whole band with one shot.

But the music was great.  
My favorite chili was cooked by Lesley Stiles.
She says the tomatoes are what makes the chili sweet.
She says she grows her own tomatoes.  
She helps three schools in the local area grow their 
students' gardens.   She told me a long list
of spices she grinds fresh for this spicy chili. They 
include cardamon and coriander.  You can
learn more about her food at

The other sweet chili was made by 
IAFF Local 1230, Contra Costa County 
Station #1, Walnut Creek.

This is a typical table decoration at a Tom Torlakson event

This is the sign-in table at the 
Martinez, CA, waterfront park where
people paid for their picnic tickets if they had not
already ordered them online, and received their ballots.
the looks of the shadow, the tree is
casting on the pavement, it was about 5 p.m. when the party ended.

Here are Phyliss Bratt, Jim Bratt, and Martha Parsons.
Parsons is from Antioch, Torlakson's home town.

Here are Patt Perlowe and Tony Suh of the 
Lamorinda Democratic Club.

Rob Morgan, father of Josie Morgan and Theo Morgan,
gave permission to use this photo of jump-roping on my blog.
There was a jump rope contest for grownups just
before the speeches, but they only lasted a couple of minutes.
We take photos of children because it is good for
their self-esteem, because we will be able to remind
them of the happy times in their lives, because they
will be able to look back on their lives when they
grow up and know that someone cared
enough about them to take a photo of them, 
and because they are beautiful.  

Here is Corrine Christianson with her servers
from New Leaf School.

The State Superintendent of Instruction thanked
people for coming to the chili cookoff.

Postcript: The press are expected to pay for tickets if can, and if they expect to eat while they are there. If the press cannot afford to buy an expensive ticket, the press can ask for a press ticket but it may not be possible to to get admitted that way either. Also, people get annoyed if a person asks for free stuff too much. Usually if they want the press there, they make a ticket available that the person can afford.

The press might have donated money to Supt. Torlakson's picnics in years past when he was just an assemblyman and state senator, and then not gone to it, so this time he was willing to talk to the press.

The relationship between press and politician is not necessarily an adversarial relationship. It can be an amicable relationship, without hostility, suspicion or distrust, just a little caution. It usually takes a while to build up a relationship like that. The press likes to get out and go to a picnic and the candidate likes to have his words heard by a larger audience.

One has to maintain some objectivity. The fact is that this reporter does not profit from this news story, but this reporter is also an unemployed teacher who would like a steady job in the education field. Can a person write an objective news story under those conditions? What do you think is the appropriate stance of an unemployed art teacher/journalist vis a vis the top educator in California?

If you become a journalist you are going to meet people from all walks of life, most of whom have some issue that is very important to them. They think that the journalist is going to help them by telling their story to the public. I'm sure they checked me out before they invited me. A teacher has to give so much information to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, to get that credential that it's not even funny. Also they are pretty sure I am not going to bring some friend whom they don't know anything about, to this picnic, because I usually go to these events by myself, not because I want to: it just seems to work out that way.

Most of the people I know do not enjoy going to political events. It's something you have to acquire a taste for. You see people going around shaking hands and patting each other on the back and generally making contact--touching base, as they say. To some people it looks phony and hypocritical and they resent the authority it represents to them. Maybe they don't know that perhaps the candidate had to give every last dollar he or she had to run for public office because something was that important to him or her, or all his business had dried up and he needed to do something drastic, like run for public office. And then that person found out that a lot of people agreed with those ideas and voted for him or her, so he or she won the election.  Maybe they thought their jobs and their lives depended on it. 

Rightly or wrongly they think that the journalist has more power than they do, and they resent it.  They want to be on top.  Maybe they thought that if a person who lived nearby was elected, the local schools would be more likely to get the money they needed to survive.  The Contra Costa County homeboy won the election so of course I was interested in what's going to happen next.  I didn't have all the curiosity beat out of me yet, after all. 

My son used to tell me that my newspaper was ruining his life.  So what did he want me to do for a living instead?  I went back to college and got a teaching credential but after more than ten years of college, and 4 1/2 years as a substitute teacher, I still do not have a job.  What a waste of the taxpayers money, just because a few people resented the authority they wrongly thought a journalist had.  I had enough authority to refuse to publish stories I thought were going to get  me and others hurt, so I had just enough authority to stay alive.  When you're on the street, that becomes very important. 

Some principals wanted me to teach the kids about the street, but I don't teach street.  I don't show videos about gambling if I can  help it.  They try to make me shows videos that they don't want to show themselves because they are R rated.  And I refuse over and over again to do that.   I don't teach the the kids to swear.  I teach them NOT to swear.  I teach art and journalism, I hope.  I teach for success, not for street survival.  If you swear at the boss you'll get fired.  You'll lose that good job the high school got for you.  You  might never find another job that good again.  The high school is giving you your big break, your best chance in life to have a good life.  Someone who teaches you to swear is not your friend.  He or she trying to get you to do something that is going to get you fired from your job. Then he is going to take your job or put his buddy in your job.  Don't fall for it.  That's what I teach the kids.#

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A visit to Tilden Park

Tilden park in the El Cerrito hills, is part of the East Bay Regional Park District, a very popular project supported by voters in this area.  All roads lead to Tilden park once you get up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard, but they are not very well marked.  So be sure to take a good map or GPS with you.  I prefer to drive a less direct route but if you have good brakes you can drive up and down Marin or Moeser Lane to get there.

Once on the ridge, Tilden goes down over the ridgeline to the east a little bit.  The photojournalism class started at the Botanical Garden in the southern Alameda County part of the park (Berkeley), where you can see some energetically blooming desert wildflowers even though it's mid September.  Then we went to the Little Farm, and hung out with the animals.  In case you didn't know it, if you hang out with pigs, you will smell like one when you get home for several hours afterwards.  So if you are expecting someone important to come over, it's best to shampoo and change clothes before dinner.

A Matje poppy is a tall, dramatic wide-spreading 
plant, which you will need only one of to fill your
front yard.

Sticky Monkey-flower is native to this area.  It 
grows wild on bushes all over the place at
Point Molate and Miller Park.

This Blue Grandma was a new plant for me.

I don't know what this one is.

It looks like best friends are checking the map
on their way into Little Farm.  Dogs must
stay on the leash.

The police are just around the corner if you need

It was a good idea to bring lettuce to feed the cow.

She put her head up so we could get a good
look at her.

Mama pig has her own mama-pig-sized
wading pool.  Piglets have to get along
without, until she decides she's had enough.

White roosters enjoy a dust bath.

The creek is still running, with overhanging
trees casting shadows from their branches.

The peaceful park is popular with moms and 
youngsters.  A large nature study center
is located in the Little Farm area.

In remembrance of 9/11

In remembrance of 9/11 here is a linoleum block print I made in 2002 that was published in a book of fine art prints to express our sorrow for the events of 9/11. I have changed the print a little for the internet--I put clothes on the woman.  The title of the print is "Penalty for turning her head the other way."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Refined By Fire gallery features jewelry by Jean Womack through September 23, 2011

The Refined By Fire gallery, which specializes in art made from metal which has been created using fire in the process, is featuring metal jewelry by Jean Womack this month.  The gallery is located at 105 West Richmond Avenue, Point Richmond.  The opening party will be Friday, September 9, from  8 p.m. to 10 p.m., after the free music festival on Park Place.  All are invited.  Also featured will be paintings by Geonni Banner and others.  The exhibit goes through September 23, 2011.