Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Call of the wild

About Thanksgiving, I began hearing the strangest, most eerie sounds that seemed a blend of honk, moan and call of the wild. The long, loud, repetitive noises seemed to come from the ocean.

What were they like? To me, they sounded like the unlikely cross between a mournful moose and a thoroughly ticked-off goose.

Quickly I scanned the sea from horizon to shore, ready to summon paramedics and North Coast Ocean Rescue volunteers if a stranded or injured human was yelling for help. Hmmmmm. No people in distress. No marine mammal fighting for its life. Just waves, kelp, birds and an otter bashing his chest with an unlucky crustacean-cum-dinner.

The cry of a dying crab? I don’t think so.

I heard the sounds off and on that day, always in sets of consecutive, separate cries. But I never had any luck in seeing what I was hearing.

After days of these occasional sounds, I sent out my own cyber-cries, using e-mail to get help identifying the noisemaker. Perhaps some of the marine and wildlife experts who live nearby might have heard the same thing.

Some had.

Margaret “P.J.” Webb of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Advisory Council and The Marine Mammal Center said the sounds might have been alert calls from a “sea lion asserting his ‘King of the Rock’ status.”

But don’t sea lions bark? We hear them all the time from the so-called “Seal Rock.”

Michele Roest, marine sanctuary staffer, suggested that at night, such sounds might be from a black-crowned night heron, a day sleeper. “At dusk, when they wake up, they emit very loud, harsh raucous shrieks, one at a time for a series of a few minutes — truly very unpleasant sounds.”

But we heard the noises during the day.

Don Canestro lives on and manages Rancho Marino. He, too, thought the sounds might be from a sea lion. But each time he and wife Miranda heard the loud, mournful moans, they had also seen the blow, or steam-laden exhalation, from a humpback whale.

So he suggested that maybe we all were hearing above-water vocalizations of a humpback — certainly the most romantic idea so far.

Others had different explanations, but nobody seemed to know for sure. Then, about 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16, I heard it again. This time, the noisemaker sounded really angry or anguished. Looking at the ocean again, I saw two stand-up paddle surfers, heading out to catch the waves.

Had that been the source all along? Had surfers been yelling at each other? I didn’t think so, but when you’re stumped, you grasp at straws … or paddles, as the case may be.

When husband Richard and I saw the surfers coming in for the night, we walked down to talk to them.

Kevin Barrett, who lives between Cambria and Highway 46, and Treve Jones of Cayucos explained the lure of their sport.

It’s the beauty of the area, the Zen of competing with the ocean … and “I do it for exercise, to help my injured back,” Barrett said. “I can’t pull myself up” on a regular board any more.

I didn’t know enough about it to argue with him, but paddle-surfing with a bad back? I was skeptical. It’s a mighty athletic sport, and I had seen a big wave wipe Barrett out pretty thoroughly.

I asked if the surfers had been yelling to each other earlier.

Barrett said, “Yeah, sure.” Then his eyes widened and he asked, “But did you hear that sea lion we saw out there? It was LOUD!”

“We thought maybe it was being eaten,” Jones said, “or it had lost its baby, but this isn’t baby season for sea lions,” and the mammal they saw seemed OK.

Later, Don Canestro confirmed it, having watched the same sea lion as it issued those weird, eerie noises.

I guess the mystery was solved. So, why was I disappointed that my moose-goose calls were just ongoing gripes from a grouchy sea lion with mutant vocal cords and good lungs?

Or, as P.J. suggested whimsically, perhaps our ocean-going noisemaker is a “reincarnated opera singer.”

Give us your aria again, baby. At least we know you’re OK out there.

Note: P.J. Webb suggests listening to recorded animal sounds (sorry, no moose-goose) at www.dosits.org/gallery/intro.htm.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

BEST OF: Christmas is for sharing ... and cookies

For years, magazines have presented us with options for Christmas dinner. Turkey or roast beef, goose or ham? Or maybe something quirky and unusual?

The options seem endless, until you consider that, in many families, the Christmas menu is almost sacred. To change it would cause mass revolt, which wouldn’t be very festive.

Sometimes, however, the periodicals would focus less on Christmas Day, and try instead to convince us to change our Christmas Eve repast.

My grandmother “Ganny” and her maid Aino, from Finland, had that covered with tradition, too. Every year, they’d serve an elaborate adult-only Christmas Eve buffet. After the children were asleep, the grown-ups would nosh as they put up and decorated the 12-foot-tall tree and did everything else Santa’s helpers do.

Realize, however, that my grandmother didn’t work outside of the home, so she had time for such elaborate endeavors. Also, Aino did the drudge chores, like dusting, changing sheets, cooking the usual meals and washing dishes.

And, since all the holiday menus were cast in bronze, so to speak, Ganny didn’t even have to worry about complex menu planning. There was no pressure to change it just for the sake of change.

So, her gift shopping was complete by Dec. 15; her elaborate package wrapping done by the 20th. She had a wonderland of time to devote those incredible Christmas cookies, which were her specialties. (But I’m willing to bet Aino chopped the pecans and ground the almonds in those pre-Cuisinart days!)

For weeks, the house carried a warm smell of almonds and cinnamon, ginger and anise, brown sugar and butter.

It was paradise for us kids. Even now, all those aromas remind me of my childhood and Ganny.
Memories are the cornerstone of Christmas. Maybe that’s why holiday traditions are so important.

I remember tiptoeing down the long staircase and peeking behind the archway screen to see a huge, dazzling tree that hadn’t been there when I had gone to sleep the night before.

Youngsters were required to eat cereal and milk before we could dive into our pile of gifts. That quarter-cup of cornflakes made the biggest, most unmanageable bowl of breakfast you can imagine when the 5-year-old at the table didn’t want to be there at all.

After we’d dismantled the gift wrappings, we sat down to the official Christmas breakfast: scrambled eggs, Jones sausage links, fruit, orange juice and other appropriate beverages … and coffeecake.

Since we lived in New York, you’d assume that Ganny could have selected from Danish kringles, Italian panettones, German stollens and other classical Christmas coffeecakes.

She could have. But she didn’t.

Our homemade Christmas coffeecake always was a simple cinnamon-crumb cake that bears a striking resemblance to the one of the Bisquick box. And we loved it.

Ganny also managed to very neatly solve the Christmas turkey-ham-or-roast-beef dilemma. She simply invited SO many people to the dinner feast that she had to serve all three to have enough food for all.

Her dining table was extended to its fullest 14-foot length, and I do mean full. When anybody talks about the “holiday groaning board,” I know they mean my grandmother’s Christmas dinner table.

But, of all the traditions, the ones we loved best were about Christmas cookies. Making and decorating them. Giving them as gifts. And, of course, eating them.

Christmas was Springerle and macaroons, fruit bars, meringues, sprintz, mailanderli and speculaas. Thick ginger cookies and thin, crisp gingerbread men. It was sugar-cookie cutouts of trees and wreaths and Santa Claus, all decorated by loving hands. It was cookies made with walnuts and almonds, pecans and hazelnuts, candied peels and glace├ęd cherries and plenty of spices.

My favorite memories of my dignified, society-matron grandmother are of her laughing as she wielded her rolling pin over some sort of Christmas-cookie dough … wearing a dusting of powdered sugar on her nose and an apron bedecked with flour, butter and cinnamon.

I miss Ganny most of all at this time of year. She was the heart of Christmas. It was her season, the one time when her sophisticated lifestyle allowed her to be a kid again.

So, I do things her way. I wrap as she did, writing special, funny tags. I give gag gifts. The menus stay the same. I make the same cookies. And I share Christmas dinner with as many people as possible.

That way, it’s almost as if she’s still with me during the holiday season.

I guess that’s what Christmas traditions really are all about.

This column ran in December 1982 in The Tribune and The Cambrian.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

That’s a wrap – almost

As I write this at 5 p.m. on the second Sunday in December, I’m trapped in my own house, held hostage by dogs, dragons, a goofy moose and a rattlesnake.

They’re among dozens of unwrapped holiday presents — most of which needed to be in the mail last week.

I love giving gifts, but I’ll swear I didn’t buy that many.

The presents and the stuff to wrap them with have commandeered our living space, inch by inch, couch by chair by countertop until there is no room left for us.

I must wrap, wrap, wrap — or sleep standing up.

I, too, have been decorated by the glitzy uprising, but Ralph Lauren would not approve. Glue remnants on my fingers, elbows and nose have attracted a frosting of Styrofoam pellets and slivers of gift wrap. Ribbon is jauntily draped over my left ear. I have pens and scissors tucked in the top of my bra (my shirt doesn’t have pockets). And I look like I’ve been playing cat’s cradle with Scotch Tape.

Few of the presents were expensive. In fact, most are gag gifts. But each was carefully selected for the recipient. Now we want to get all those boxes where they need to be, quickly … so we can sit down again.

The dining table is the chaos epicenter. It’s buried under scraps and strips of wrapping paper, twists of curling ribbon, stray tags and enough tape to hold the International Space Station together.

But Lord knows where we’ll eat dinner.

We can’t even dine standing up at the kitchen counter. Empty shipping boxes are stacked there until I figure out if any of them are big enough to do the job.

Our front hall is packed with stuffed cartons that need filler, tape and mailing labels. The plan had been to get them in the mail by Dec. 5.

Whimper, whine. The delay isn’t all my fault. Some gifts I ordered in early November are still on order, lurking out there somewhere, floating around in a virtual shopping cart on the World Wide Web.

It’s decision time: Do I mail the in-house presents tomorrow, so recipients could at least get some of their gifts by Christmas? Or can I wait a few more days on faith that the deliveries will finally arrive?

I feel like a bit like young Winthrop in "The Music Man," waiting for a mythical stagecoach.

So now it’s 9:30 p.m. and about half the gifts are wrapped. But many don’t yet have their ribbons or the time-consuming tags that, according to family tradition, must include customized puns or word clues.

In the meantime, well-placed Post-It Notes give me hints about what’s inside each package. If those fall off, I’ll have to start over. Not a happy thought.

My self-imposed Monday deadline looms.

For most people, the gnarliest part of sending gifts happens later: waiting in long lines at the shipping center. But we who mail things from a North Coast post office have three lovely choices.
There’s rarely a line at two of them.

We frequently ship from the tiny Harmony post office in the middle of the block-long downtown area. Officer in Charge Tracie Fischer keeps the office open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

But if we’re heading north for any reason, we’ll stop in to see Postmaster Kathy Wilson at Old San Simeon Village’s post office, on the northernmost edge of historic Sebastian’s General Store. The store’s still closed for remodeling, but the post office keeps chugging along, and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

It’s such a warm, fuzzy thought: We can send our packages without wasting three hours standing in line, and our annual shipping charges could help convince postal authorities to keep the tiny rural branches open.

Back at Chaos Central, the still-unwrapped dragon and the snake are on guard duty over there.

And I’ll swear the stack has 10 more gifts on it that I’ve never seen before. Where’d that plastic angel come from?

But for tonight, it’s a wrap, no matter how you define it.

And, by the way, Merry Christmas!

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com. Read more "Slices" online at www.sanluisobispo.com.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

BEST OF: Silly season clean-up

When I get to the stage where I really enjoy seeing a used-car commercial on TV, then the election “silly” season has been too long.

From the nearly universal grousing I’m hearing from the electorate, I assume I’m not alone in being fed up.

Now, I’m a dedicated voter. I’ve never missed an election since I was old enough to cast ballots (back in the dark ages when we voted with quill and ink, no doubt).

Yes, I have my preferences. I can be as passionate about given causes as anybody else. But I don’t need 18 months to make my decisions, especially when so much of that time is dominated by hammer-and-tongs charges, counter charges and enough “spin” to make the earth start turning backwards.

This pre-voting process is a circus, and I leave it to you who I think the clowns are.

It’s the unintended consequences of all this that worry me the most. Sure, some voters will get disgusted with this candidate or that ballot measure, and that’s fine. But some people — especially the thousands of recently registered first-time voters — will be so revolted by the election season’s endurance mud bath that they’ll give up on the whole process.

That’s not fine. In fact, it’s not acceptable.

I want to tell the candidates “don’t tell me what’s wrong with your opponents. I’m not dumb. I can figure that out for myself. Just tell me what’s right with you and what you can do that nobody else can or will do.”

Faced with another weekend of non-stop political negativity, we tuned out. Rather than spending our time listening to and reading about the latest week-before-the-vote polls, interviews and ads, we chose one of the optional evils.

We decided we’d really rather spend our Saturday-Sunday doing a once-in-10-years cleaning of our jammed-to-the-rafters, two-story, 40-foot-by-22-foot storage garage. Really we did.

The garage is a big gray building my parents built in 1974 to house their fifth-wheel trailer, the truck it came in on and all the things Mom and Dad wanted to store. Some 30 years later, youngest son Sean decided it was time we relieved ourselves of a lot of “barn stuff.” In the process, we wound up creating minor circus of our own.

In mid-cleanup Saturday, we were faced with a VW-bug-sized stack of pure, unadulterated trash, and a Lincoln Navigator-sized heap of things too good to toss but not good enough to keep and store any more.

The thought of giving a garage sale sounded worse than watching the political news coverage. So, some of it went to Achievement House … on Monday.

In the meantime, the stuff was stacked, piled and tossed in front of the house, and looked absolutely awful.

Caught between a chaotic rock and the decidedly hard place of dragging everything back into the barn for the night and back out again to load into the truck, I grabbed a piece of scrap wood and began lettering.

“If you want it, take it NOW! FREE! The truck will haul it away on Monday.”

In garage-sale-happy Cambria, I’m sure your imagination fills in the blanks of what happened next.

Until dark on that day and dawn-to-dusk on Sunday, most people walking or driving past stopped and picked up a couple of things, at least. Some returned with a bigger vehicle, or with friends. Others said something to the effect of “Sam sent me.”

Several curious Georges peered into the barn, saying, “I’ve always wondered what was in here.” Many wanted to know if we were moving, and if not, then what in tarnation were we doing.

We were amused and amazed by the array of stuff that people seemed so overjoyed to take home …. including fishing lures, doors, rusty tools, a hippie-style crocheted top, an inner tube, a small inflatable boat that just passed the quarter-century mark and 25 pairs of my late mother’s 1970s-era Beachcomber Bills flip-flops (which went to children in Nicaragua, we understand.)

By Sunday night, we were stiff, sore, grubby, grateful for all the help and euphoric over the weekend’s work.

And one of the best parts? We had absolutely no idea what the candidates and pundits had said about the election during the entire weekend.

This column ran Oct. 28, 2004, in The Cambrian. Since then, another political season has gotten into full swing, and with the return of our middle son to the household, we’ve managed to fill up the barn again. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You can go home again

We’re delighted to have son Brian back in Cambria where he grew up. It’s wonderful to have the third voice in the house, along with his laugh, strong back, willing heart and so much more.

And thanks to so many of you for asking how the move in has worked out.

We’ve survived but, no, we’re not finished. At this rate, everything should be where it’s supposed to be by 2015. If we’re lucky.

When you add another person to a household that’s been established for decades — even if he lived in the house before — a couple of things happen.

First, there’s the physical act of bringing his belongings into the household.

It’s been 12 years since husband Richard and I moved into the sparsely decorated abode we built after a fire destroyed the family home. Since then, our feeble attempt at living as minimalists has been firmly buried under all that … um … stuff.

Our entire house, “barn” and shed were crammed full long before we began rearranging one bedroom to make space for Brian’s belongings.

It’s an immutable, Einstein-esque law: Everything has to go someplace. Even when you run out of available someplaces.

Make a game out of it, Kathe. To play “Home-decorating Dominos,” move Item A (probably into a box in a storage area) so you can put Item B into the space formerly occupied by Item A.

Simple sounding, yes. But, since each space already was full, nearly every item switch took us all the way to items F or G. Some moves required the entire alphabet and then some.

By the time we found new homes for, say, 38,592 items, we had permanent backaches, crossed eyes and a total lack of recall about what wound up where.

For instance, I know the sewing machine is now on a desk in my office/guest room, because I can see it. But the box of patterns? The basket of mending? The lidded tub full of fabric? Oh, mercy, I haven’t a clue.

They’re probably in the barn. Somewhere. Sigh.

Beyond the physical readjustments, each of us also is dealing with some wildly fluctuating emotions.

Elation about our reunited family. Angst about making the arrangement work long term. Even an occasional twinge of depression, which often accompanies any drastic change.

Brian, of course, has had physical and emotional stress times two, because he moved out of his old place, lifestyle and job and must adapt to the new ones. He left a host of friends (and free rounds of golf) there to further his career as a chef here, while reconnecting with Cambria buddies and forming new bonds at work.

Psychologist friends tell us those normal emotion swings will fade as old routines are replaced by the new ones.

And there sure have been a lot of the latter.

For instance, we no longer have a guest room, just a Murphy bed in my office. So when a large group arrives for a visit — as happened a week or so after the move-in — a lot of people wind up sleeping on couches.

Imagine a three-night slumber party in a living room paved with four girls from kindergarten to preteen. Or when they hijacked Uncle Brian’s television remote so he’d have to watch “High School Musical” with them in his room ... instead of football.

It was chaotic, high-spirited fun.

Bingo. When husband Richard and I lived alone in the house, it was quiet, mostly tidy (yeah, sure), usually predicable.

I’ll stop short of calling our lifestyle dull because, as a reporter, my life is filled with the unexpected.

But now, the house and our lives are vibrating with variety, hilarity and the unexpected. We all catch up with each other at breakfast or dinnertime. Our excited chatter zooms around the table like the hummingbirds jostling each other at the feeders outside the windows.

Of course, the changes have been hectic and exhausting. We still have a lot of adjustments to make, rearranging and unpacking to do, and keep-don’t keep decisions ahead.

There’s a garage sale to follow, no doubt.

But once again, we’ve learned that family makes a house a home.

And that, yes, you can go home again.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

BEST OF: Thankful for politicians (most of them)

On a day set aside for counting our blessings, it can be a stretch to include being thankful for politicians.

For most of us, gratitude is rightfully reserved for those who love us, like us, save our lives or our money, entertain us, keep us safe or fix our plumbing when it overflows at midnight.

The only people apt to be overtly thankful for politicians are those who are indebted to or courting the commissioners, supervisors, senators and governors of life. The rest of us are more likely to samba with an alligator.

The emotional distance between the camps is no surprise. By job descriptions and basic inclinations, most politicians aren’t warm, fuzzy, cuddly types, no matter how much baby kissing they do — although when you consider changed connotations for the political phrase “pressing the flesh,” maybe some politicos have been a little cuddlier than they ought to be.

And it’s tough warming up to people who must cut our services and benefits while searching for new ways to wheedle more money out of each wallet.

But maybe we ought to say “thank you” anyway.

Put yourself in their shoes. Would you be willing to put up with all the dreck that goes along with the titles? Uh huh, me neither.

Most political jobs fall into the “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it” category. Somebody’s got to serve or our system of government could collapse.

“Of, for and by the people” means some of us have to be willing to step up and sign up.

As some have said about being a candidate for, say, the Cambria Community Services District, “You have to be smart enough to do the job and dumb enough to take it.”

For good, honest, hard-working politicians (which covers a lot of them, I have to believe), being in office must be a little like being in the military. You sign on for two or four years to work with or for people who often don’t like you much and some of whom may be inclined to shoot at you.

Oh, there are perks to elected offices and appointed jobs. Some politicos are treated to exotic meals, elite functions, junkets and special tours of exclusive places.

And the word “power” comes to mind. But for members of smaller or more obscure commissions and councils, such influence is ephemeral at best, imagined or nonexistent for most.

Some upper-tier political jobs pay pretty well, but to get them, you have live in Sacramento, Washington D.C. or other charming garden spots. City council-folks and county supervisors get a nice salary, but most other government leaders on a local level are paid a pittance or nothing.

Said Cambria services district directors, for instance, are paid $100 per meeting, with a maximum of six meetings per month.

And, as a reward, most politicians spend most of their “personal time” studying agendas and staff reports, going to extra-curricular evening and weekend meetings or functions on the creamed-chicken-and-peas circuit, listening to people kvetch or answering phone calls at midnight from irate constituents who want them to fix something — now.

There are lots of long days, thankless tasks and being nice to people who aren’t.

And the process of getting a job you probably won’t get to keep can be costly, egregious and occasionally painful.

So, one wonders why those good, honest folks are willing to put aside their lives and run for office at all, let alone spend their own money to battle for the right to win those elections or get those appointments.

Yeah, there are some politicos I’d love to introduce to the toe of my pointiest cowboy boot.

To all the others on this home-family-and-hearth holiday, I say, “Thanks for being there.”

This column ran first in The Cambrian on Nov. 27, 2003.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Iron & sparks in DNA

This holiday season, more than ever, we find ourselves immersed in the blessings of being close to family.

Eight days after Halloween, my Aunt Kate arrived from North Carolina for a week to help me celebrate my birthday. Our youngest son and his family will be here for Thanksgiving. We’ll split Christmas between them and his ex. And our eldest son and his wife will visit from Reno for New Year’s Eve and our 30th wedding anniversary Jan. 2.

In the midst of all that, our middle son has moved back home to start a new and exciting job in Cambria.

The latter, of course, means massive renovation in our back bedroom. Where to put winter coats now? Is there room somewhere for my sewing machine? And the Christmas gifts I haven’t wrapped yet (which is nearly all of them)? Arrgh.

Frenzy doesn’t begin to describe it.

But what a perfect season for it, because it’s all about family.

Husband Richard has nine siblings and enough other relatives to fill a metropolitan phone book. I, on the other hand, have few blood relatives, especially on my mother’s side. I cherish every one of them, if for no other reason than they’re … um … individualistic.

I get to share ancestral DNA with strong-willed, offbeat women who purposefully crafted the lives they wanted and needed.

My ancestor, British Major Gen. Robert Sedgwick, arrived in 1621 to the land that would later become the United States. The family established one of the first ironworks foundries in the Massachusetts colony.

When one of my great-great grandmas left home, she was the only young, unmarried woman on the wagon train heading west. She had a wonderful, somewhat X-rated time, thank you, as documented in her diary that’s kept under lock and key by a circumspect historical society.

Indiana (yes, that was her name) was the first white female teacher west of the Rocky Mountains. She married Richard Sopris, the first elected representative to Congress from the Jefferson Territory (Colorado) and later, mayor of Denver and parks commissioner.

Their daughter (my great-grandmother) Elizabeth Sopris Brown studied surveying and astronomy during the Victorian era, when few colleges even accepted women students.
Her daughter, Katharine "Kitty" Inglis Suydam, was the most conventional twig on my family tree. Even so, she took flying lessons in 1922.

Of course, my primary role model in eccentricity was my mom, Andy, who was strong-willed enough to ditch a name she hated (Betsy) and legally rename herself Andrew to honor the grandfather she adored.

When Mom was 16, her widowed mother married a man who Andy didn’t like much and with whom she didn’t want to live. She left home, moved to Greenwich Village and became a jazz critic.

Mom toured nationwide on a bus as a publicist with the Chico Marx Band, then met and married my father, a great jazz musician but an erratic, alcoholic husband. They divorced when I was five.

Mom made another life for herself and me, working at everything from selling freezers to writing and performing commercials and radio shows. That was in a time and place where divorcing just wasn’t done, the woman of the house stayed home to tend house and kids, and you were judged by how much money and status the man of the house had. Fit in? Guess again.

When I was 13, Mom, Kate and I were on a cross-country vacation when my unusual mother met my equally unconventional stepdad, a lifelong bachelor and resort chef. They fell in love and married 10 days later. No, that’s not a typo: 10 days.

About 17 years later, he died suddenly. Mom dealt with her grief in a motorhome, touring the U.S. alone for several months, revisiting places they had been during their all-too-brief life together (I had been in 13 high schools in three years.).

Is it any wonder I’m a genuine kook? It’s all in those blessed genes, the elusive DNA links we celebrate so enthusiastically every Thanksgiving, and all year long.

Thanks, ladies, for giving me such an unusually strong heritage. May I carry on and always make you proud.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Friday, November 9, 2007

BEST OF: Nutcracker redux

Imagine 9-year-old and a 79-year-old celebrating their birthdays together by seeing a ballet on stage, each for the very first time.

Husband Richard’s birthday is the week before Christmas. Our granddaughter Caitlyn’s birthday is in September. Last year, she told us that rather than getting toys or trinkets for her ninth birthday, she’d much rather see “The Nutcracker” as her birthday gift.

We suspected more than a little parental influence in her decision, but Cait was obviously delighted by the prospect of seeing the dance in person, so we were pleased to comply.

She lives with her mom and sister in a small town northeast of Sacramento. So the obvious, easy solution would have been to take Grandpa and his girl to see the ballet corps in the state’s capital.

Tanners never do easy.

Instead, we decided to host Cait for a holiday weekend in San Francisco and take her to an all-new production of the famed dance at the San Francisco Ballet.

If we could get tickets. Big if.

By a fluke of timing, Richard and I were in The City on the day tickets went on sale. We’d heard it’s always a mob scene, so to make sure we snagged good seats, we headed out early that morning to stand in line at the Opera House.

We arrived about an hour before ticket sales began and were startled when there was no line of potential buyers.

Maybe they forgot? Not likely. Hmmmm.

We studied the lovely old building until a kindly soul opened up the front doors and let us in, about 15 minutes before ticket sales were to begin.

Then we saw it — a sign at the ticket window itself (which we hadn’t been able to see from outside) informing us that all sales would be by phone or over the Internet, and the ballet office itself wouldn’t open for another month.

Well, phoo. So that’s why nobody else was there. They obviously knew. We didn’t. Once again, I felt like the outsider dummy kid at the new school.

And we still had to get tickets, somehow. We’d promised.

Unfortunately, time was racing by and my cell phone wasn’t working well (the downtown buildings are too high and block reception, I guess. It’s almost as bad as trying to call from Cambria!)

Every time I actually got past the busy signal to the ballet-ticket order line itself, the signal would fade and I’d get disconnected.

It was 10:30, and I know those gusty winds I felt were from all the good tickets flying out to all those other people who’d known we couldn’t buy them at the window.

Our options were running out. There are no pay phones any more (casualty of all those cell phones that don’t work). It would have taken us another half hour to get to the hotel for internet sales.

By then, if we could have gotten tickets at all, I was sure we’d have been banished to the hall’s cheap seats, up in the cashew gallery (even further up than the peanut gallery).

Finally and desperately, I called a dear friend at work, begging and pleading. Bless her soul, Linda took time on a hugely busy morning and snagged us seats in the front row of the first balcony. Whew!

On ballet day, a beside-herself-with-excitement Cait dolled up in velvet and chiffon headed for the Opera House. As we all walked through the doors, a light sprinkling of man-made snow drifted down in wisps at the doorway. Magic!

Helgi Tomasson’s newly revised production of “The Nutcracker Suite” had fresh choreography, costumes of unusual colors and stage sets depicting San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies” Victorian houses, rather than London.

Cait was enchanted by the swirling dance, the costumes and the joy of watching it all through a tiny pair of opera glasses. Most of all, she loved a charming young Clara, who captured hearts and wove magic spells. For those few moments, children in the audience could imagine they were just like her.

Richard marveled at the athletic feats, the huge talents and the beauty of the ballet. “Don’t they understand the concept of gravity?” he mused.

And there were extra benefits for a nearly deaf hearing-aid wearer who quickly figured out the music-only language of ballet. With a big grin, he said, “I certainly know the melodies already, and I didn’t have to strain to hear the dialogue.”

What a joy it was to provide such memories for birthday gifts that needed no shiny box or big bows.

There’s only one downside — how will we top it this year?

This column ran in The Cambrian on Nov. 10, 2005. Continuing the tradition, we'll take Caitlyn, younger sister Alyssa and their mom to see the same ballet in December. It will be a first-time treat for Lyssie, too.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Time and time again, doggone it

It was about 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27, and I was still huddled under my quilt, because it was so dark and chilly … and Elvis had stopped wiggling.

It must be time to change time again, a task which rates right up there with cleaning toilets, filing for unemployment or having a tax audit.

Staying in bed sounds better and better.

In past years, you see, we’d already have gone through this agony by now. We’d be on standard time and the sun would be up by 6:30. This year, the time change won’t kick in until 2 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4.

To prepare, we’ll twist those stem-winders and button-push on every clock and coffeemaker, microwave, telephone and thermometer, printer and pocket watch in the house.

It could be worse. We could be on 24-hour military time … or each of our clocks could have calendar mechanisms. If either of those describes your household, I hope you weren’t planning to do anything else this weekend.

But back to Elvis.

We have a campy Presley clock, a gag gift that’s supposed to shake its booty 24/7. Twice a year and regular as clockwork, so to speak, the King keeps on ticking but his hip-shimmy mechanism quits.

I suppose dust mice, lint fragments and an occasional deceased spider clog the rock star’s wiggle-works. So, once again I’ll beg Jay Foreman at Once Upon a Tyme to give Elvis the clock-equivalent of a colonic.

Searching for a time-changing short-cut recently, I bought two self-setting atomic clocks. They’re linked via radio waves and voodoo to a Big Daddy that keeps them marching in clock-lockstep from Colorado, about 1,200 miles away.

I went online and learned that millions of devices worldwide are regulated from afar by a system of four ultra-precise, control-freak Master Clocks. How bizarre.

According to http://science.howstuffworks.com/atomic-clock.htm, atomic clocks are super accurate. “Without atomic clocks, GPS navigation would be impossible, the Internet would not synchronize and the position of the planets would not be known with enough accuracy for space probes and landers to be launched and monitored.”

So how do my little clocks work, you ask?

HowStuffWorks explains in part, “oscillation frequencies within the atom are determined by the mass of the nucleus and the gravity and electrostatic ‘spring’ between the positive charge on the nucleus and the electron cloud surrounding it.”

Got that? Great. Now explain it to me. In English, please.

But if the Jedi Master clock remotely tells all our little clocks exactly what time it really is … then why, on Oct. 27, did the atomic clock in our living room read 8:57 while the one in the dining room said it was 8:54?

Is one of them a black sheep that merrily clocks away to an alternate rhythm, perhaps in rumba time? Great. Just what I need, an inaccurate atomic clock that’s ready to debut on “Dancing With the Stars.”

I rationalized that maybe our atomics were on the same wavelength, but I was slow. I dashed back and forth between the two rooms, trying to catch both clocks with the same time.

Didn’t happen, but I wound up feeling like the spying mother of quarrelsome twin teenagers.

Then on Oct. 28 — the Sunday on which we would have “fallen back” if this had been 2006 — I arose to find the dining room atomic clock correctly on daylight time … but the living room atomic clock had somehow reset itself to standard time. A week early.

Totally confused, I went back online.

The notably unreliable Wikipedia.com, said in part, “typical radio ‘atomic clocks’ require placement in a location with a relatively unobstructed atmospheric path to the transmitter.”

This is Cambria, Wiki. Nothing has a relatively unobstructed path to anything here.

So, Tanner Manor now has self-setting clocks which work (or don’t) in the same manner that all Cambria cell phones do (or don’t).

I give up. I’m going back to bed. Elvis can meditate all he wants. The atomics can disagree. And I don’t even care what time it is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BEST OF: After a fire

A longer version of this column first ran in a special section in the San Luis Obispo Telegram Tribune in July, 1994, following the Highway 41 fire and three months after Kathe and Richard Tanner's home burned to the ground.


An open letter to fire victims from someone who’s been there

Our hearts go out to you. We do know what you're going through — our home burned down several years ago. That single-house incident didn't have the magnitude of the inferno that wiped out your home or business, but we did have our own little firestorm with high winds, fast-moving flames and backdrafts. It's terrifying, and the anguish is something you really can't explain to someone who hasn't been there.

If these tidbits of information we learned after our fire can ease your situation a little, that's all we ask.

1. Rely on others during this time of adjustment. Now is not the time to be independent. After our fire, we learned that people really wanted to be helpful, giving and supportive. We wound up accepting kindnesses from folks we didn't even know then, but do now. We were, and still are, very grateful for their help.

And it’s OK if you don’t want to be around someone’s candles, campfire, barbecue pit or fireplace. We still don’t.

2. Don't give up too easily or too soon — keep looking through what's left, even though it can be terribly painful. There may be some amazing things buried in those ashes.

We found remains of sculptures my mother did, a little sapphire pendant my husband gave me on our first Christmas together, undamaged photos, some antique silver that was my great grandmother's — absolutely astonishing finds.

And cherish the bizarre and humorous: The fire reduced our furniture to a pile of charcoal and ash. However, in what had been one drawer, we found a pristine bag of absolutely dreadful gag gifts and a cellophane sack of rubber balloons. Go figure.

3. Don't assume the remains of things will be right where you left them. We found items 100 feet away from where they'd been before the fire, blown there perhaps by the exploding fire, or maybe by the force of the water from the fire hoses.

4. If something you retrieved from the ashes is intact but absolutely nasty looking because it's coated with hard-caked soot and gook and grime, don't despair. We'd gone through literally hundreds of dollars worth of specialty cleaners, scrubbers, cleansers and soaking liquids before we discovered that a simple engine cleaner from the auto parts store worked best of all for us. You can soak things in it straight from the bottle, or dilute it a bit to scrub with. It’s not toxic. It removes the gunk on hard-surfaced items (but won't work on fabric). Wear gloves only because it will dry out your hands.

We used Super Clean to retrieve dozens of items encased in glop, including a set of ruby-flashed, cut-crystal highball glasses that belonged to my great grandmother.

5. The sheer magnitude of trying to remember everything you had in your home is enough to make anybody want to play Rip Van Winkle for a few years, no matter how helpful your insurance agent, adjuster and other official types are. But hang in there. It's worth it.

6. Before listing the entire contents of your house — including every pair of shoes and each paring knife — call anyone to whom you might have sent photographs of family gatherings in your home. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, even pictures you took because Cousin Willie looked so dumb sound asleep upside down on the sofa.

Say what you will about the photo, it proves you had a sofa and what it looked like. Other things in the photo will jog your memory.

Compile the pictures, make color photocopies for the insurance company and then start getting your list down on paper.

7. Talking to an agent in another office helped. He was totally uninvolved, extremely nice and deciphered several things in the policy that just didn't make sense, because they didn't seem to be in English.

8. Insurance companies sell you “contents replacement value,” and charge you extra for it. After the fire, they'll give you the depreciated value of each item you had after your list is approved, but only pay you the rest once you've bought your replacements.

9. Replacement value on the house itself means they give you actual cash value (their calculations, not yours) for the house at the beginning of construction, then pay the balance at the end of the reconstruction.

10. Rather quickly, the insurance company paid us for immediate living expenses, then gave us an advance on our contents insurance. First, we bought another set of underwear (drying a bra with a hairdryer is useless) and jackets so we wouldn’t freeze at night. The next check we received, quite a while later, was reimbursement for things we had on separate insurance riders.

11. Take your time. Keep your options open. Don’t let people rush you. If you set your mind to it, the search through the ashes can be a treasure hunt and plans for rebuilding are a new beginning. But getting to that point emotionally can take time.

12. If you have willing, helpful listeners in your immediate support team, you're in good shape. We had wonderful friends, including a former co-worker who’d gone through the same thing four months earlier. His advice and love were invaluable.

If you're short on listeners, find a trauma support group and go to the meetings. Let out your anger, hurt and frustration or they will make you sick, literally. And, if you need us, call. We're in the book.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Less planning, more fun

It was a glorious fall day, warm, sunny and with only enough clouds in the sky to provide a lovely photographic backdrop. I was restless and determined to do something about it. When husband Richard staggered out about 7 a.m., groping for his first cup of coffee, I allowed him a sip or two, then asked him pointedly, “Wanna go somewhere?”

After looking startled for a moment, he realized what I meant, and with eyes twinkling, he quickly said, “Sure!”

Less than two hours later (including taking showers and eating a quick breakfast), we were on the road. Two hours!

Those who know how we usually agonize about packing and preparing the house will realize that’s a land-speed record. Our usual pre-travel process can take hours and hours, if not substantial chunks of several preceding days.

What to wear? Does the weather forecast there call for rain or wind or snow? Should we fix breakfast in the hotel (requiring supplies) or eat out? What are we going to do when we get wherever it is we’re going, and do we need to take anything special to do so?

All that deciding and then packing the selections can be so tiring and stressful, it takes some of the fun out of travel.

That’s frustrating, because there’s something special about just … going.

Saying, “I want to go somewhere,” and then going. Tossing everything you need into a backpack, locking the door and taking off for points unknown about 15 minutes after the decision was made.

That’s the essence of freedom, of youth and being happy and carefree.

We wanted that back. So, like an aging Peter Pan and Wendy, we went.

And for the first time in a long time, our travel felt spontaneous.

It really isn’t about the destination, you know. It truly is about getting there … together.

No phone (unless I turn the cell phone on). No computer. No chores. Nothing but the two of us. It’s such a gift.

Sure, sometimes we talk about serious stuff — health, the kids, global warming, the future.
Or we can choose to be quiet, or listen to music.

Sometimes, our chatter borders on nonsense. For instance, we saw a big, long, deluxe fifth-wheel RV being pulled by a commercial truck, the kind that would normally be hauling substantial cargo of some kind.

They didn’t seem to match.

Was the driver on vacation? If so, why use that kind of truck?

Hmmmm. Maybe he was delivering the RV. Maybe he was a retired truck driver who only felt comfortable in that kind of vehicle, or a chauffeur driving somebody important.

We spent about 20 minutes trying to solve the puzzle before acknowledging that we’d never know the answer, unless we and the rig stopped at the same time and place, and we got bold enough to ask (you bet I’d do it!).

But it was fun wondering.

In talking about our trip on the way home, we figured out some reasons why husband Richard so looks forward to traveling (me, too, of course):

• Now that I’m the primary driver, he’s forced to rest. But, finally, after all those years at the wheel, he can finally sightsee for himself. He loves to give me a running commentary about what he’s seeing.

• I’m his captive audience … with a steering wheel in my hand and a road to watch, yes, but with nothing else competing for my attention but traffic.

• When we chat in a car, my hearing-aid-wearing honey usually can hear me.

Back home again at the end of our 36-hour vacationette, we were tuckered out. After all, we’d gone about 600 miles in two days. And we’d had lots of activity in the middle.

But amazingly enough, travel felt young again. Our drop-of-the-hat, mini-trip had been a huge success. It hadn’t really mattered where we were going. We were together, just the two of us. Going someplace different.

Whee! Let’s do it again!

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com. Read more “Slices” online at www.sanluisobispo.com.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

BEST OF: Short-sheeted ghost story

He lurched through the house, totally enveloped in white, encircled by a twisting, turning being that was devouring him, inch by painful inch.

In a panic, the terrified man fought to free himself from the evil, to contain the monster. But it was no use. There was no safe haven, no protected corner in which to hide.

A nightmare? A horror movie? A Stephen King novel?

No, no. Nothing that dramatic. It was just my valiant husband, Richard, trying one more time to fold a fitted sheet for a king-sized bed.

Hide in a corner? He can't even find the corners, let alone hide in one of them.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. Heavens no. At least I'm blessed with a husband who'll try to fold the sheet, instead of automatically assuming such a task is women's work.

We've been married a long time now, so his sheet-wrestling matches don't startle me anymore.

But now that I'm doing most of my work for The Cambrian from my home office, we have declared his faux-folding high-jinks off-limits during business hours, just in case I happen to be interviewing an unsuspecting someone here.

I do try to be empathetic to my husband's predicament. But, try as I might, I still don't understand the problem. I'm not one to boast, mind you, but I can take a fitted sheet and, in mere moments, fit it into a neat-and-tidy rectangle that would slide back in its original package with room to spare -- if I hadn't had to shred the original package to get the sheet out in the first place.

And tidy? When I fold a fitted sheet, the edges are even, the corners are flat and so is the sheet.

Please, no applause. I embarrass easily.

Besides, it's not perfect. You can't bounce a quarter off my folded sheet.

I couldn't even make that trick work when I was a motel maid, and the quarter-test was the final measure of a well-made bed. Now, when I go to a hotel and climb into a bed made up that snugly, all I can think of is that nasty motel supervisor (a true Sergeant Major if I ever saw one) when his coin landed on my freshly made bed and didn't bounce right back up.

I'll bet he can't fold fitted sheets, either.

My poor, sweet husband tries so hard. He looks at my tiny, tidy, package of sheet. He sets his shoulders, then works and wrestles and fights ... and winds up with a questionable art form that looks like William Calder fought Quasimodo's ghost, and both lost.

When he asks for help, I've showed him how I do it.

"Fold the sheet in half, and lay it on a bed. Then tuck the corners tightly into each other. Do it again, folding the sheet into quarters, with three corners tucked into the fourth. Fold the edge with the corners on it to the middle, fold up the other edge and..."

By then, I've looked up and realized that I've lost him somewhere in the neighborhood of corner tucking (which, by the way, sounds vaguely racy).

Now, this is not a dumb man. When he worked for Harrah's Club as a pit boss, he could watch 24 tables, chat up the high rollers, take over and deal a game ... all at the same time, and never miss a beat.

As our head baker at The Upper Crust, he'd watch four ovens, three mixers, 25 employees, a roomful of customers and still have enough gray matter available to remember that the chocolate custard was ready to refrigerate, the choux paste was ready to cook and the van's tires needed to be rotated.

These days, my "retired" honey reads three newspapers every day in search of items The Cambrian might need. He cuts gorgeous opals from the ugliest rocks you ever saw. He is the Tanners' CFO. And he's a backstop photographer for the newspapers, having had years more experience with a camera than I have.

So, what's with the fitted sheet? Is it in his DNA, a regressive folding gene? Is it a mental block? Is he too tall to do it?

Or are all men defeated by large pieces of material with elastic in the corners? Is this a guy thing?

Until he figures it out, I'll keep giving him comfort and reassurance, and then I'll go and refold the sheets myself. Hey, I have to sleep in that bed, too. It's not very restful when it's 60-by-80 inches of crinkled, wrinkled, fold-ridden cloth. It's sort of like trying to catch 40 winks in a crisp origami project.

So, we'll give husband Richard credit for trying, time after time after time. And I promise, I'll try not to laugh when he lurches into the kitchen, wrapped in yet another sheet that's defeated him, crying, "get me oooouuuuuuuuuuuut of here!"

But there could be another silver lining to this. Maybe I'll just rent him out for Halloween.

This column ran in The Cambrian in October, 2002. That year, after submitting this and two other columns, I won a California Newspaper Publishers Association award as columnist of the year for weekly newspapers with circulation under 4,500 a week.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Results of canine cupids, 30 years later

Love in this branch of the Tanner family means going to the dogs.

On Monday, Oct. 8, husband Richard and I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of our first date.

We never should have met, you know. The odds were against us. I was a 33-year-old divorcee with two children living in Cambria. He was 18 years older, a widower in Reno.

Coincidences, a newspaper and five Shetland sheepdogs intervened.

Earlier in the summer of 1977, my two sons and I were on a weekend trip to Santa Barbara with my mom. As was her habit on arrival, Mom bought and read the local paper cover to cover.
This time, she held out an ad in the classified section. "Free to you, two Shetland sheepdogs," said the life-changing ad.

I had wanted Shelties since I was a little girl in New York, and Mom knew it.

So, sons Brian, Sean and I adopted the two previously abandoned dogs, naming them Bonnie and Bambi.

Then the boys wanted to know more about Shelties, and so did I. Catch-as-catch-can canine research done on our next vacation eventually led me to Richard in Reno. Really it did. (We tease each other that it took five Shelties, 429 miles and 27 phone calls for us to find each other!)

While stuck in a phone booth at 98 degrees, my marathon research call to the Reno American Kennel Club produced a referral to the collie club, for some odd reason. That person sent me to Richard, who had three Shelties and lots of experience with them.

Early the next morning, before all of us left for Cambria, Richard and I talked about dogs for an hour or so, despite his having just ended a graveyard shift as a Harrah’s Club pit boss. During our conversation, Richard took a stab at mapping Bonnie and Bambi’s heritage.

A few weeks later, I was able to confirm by mail that his hunches about the dogs’ ancestry were correct. Concurrently, he invited me by mail to a Bay Area dog show, where a national authority was to judge the Shetland sheepdog class.

Of course, I went. In the name of research. Yup.

Mom drove the motor home into Oakland, and headed for a nearby fire station to get directions to the show. (FYI: firemen, cops and medics are most apt to know exactly where a given building is and how to get there quickly.)

She and I didn’t know Richard was right behind us and had spotted our motor home.

I saw him when we both got out of our vehicles. Astonished, I gave him a hug and turned to get directions from the firemen. He swears that’s when he fell in love … "There I was on a clear day in Oakland, and I felt like I’d been struck by lightning." Such a romantic.

When my traffic-frantic Mom firmly announced she was getting out, out, out of the city, and would wait for me in Santa Cruz, Richard volunteered to drive me down there after dinner … in San Francisco!

He and I went to the dog show, then got trapped in the Columbus Day parade traffic in San Francisco. We had lunch in what turned out to be a gay deli in San Francisco (the menu listed "fresh canned fruit salad," so we’re not talking high cuisine).

We had dinner with two of his longtime friends who spent the evening trying to figure out how old I was. They were charming, but about as subtle as a mini-skirt on a gorilla.

We pulled into Santa Cruz way too late for him to drive back to The City, so he camped out in the motor home’s other bed. And whaddya know? He was on vacation, and he’d never been to Cambria. So it was both polite and natural to invite him down for a visit.

The rest is family history. You can never call Richard Tanner a slow mover.

Two days later, he proposed. Well, sort of. He said, "It may be next week or next year, but I’m going to marry you."

Three months later, he did just that.

In this case, going to the dogs was the perfect thing to do. Happy anniversary, darling Richard. Here’s to at least 30 more.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hydrophobia's new meaning: Fear of water use

Water, water everywhere … Are you feeling overwhelmed by watery problems? We are.

Where will Cambria get the extra water we all need? Will any of us be able to afford it?

How to use less of it so we don’t get clobbered by surcharges … and because conserving it is the right thing to do?

Not only is my work filled with stories about Cambria’s watery problems, so, it seems, is my life.

How long a shower can I afford this morning?

Is my ice-maker wasteful?

What about our water filtering system?

Should we turn our hot-water recirculating system off or leave it on? It supposedly uses less water when we try to get warmth out of the tap. But in the past, a couple of pipe seams have blown apart, and our plumber says that’s because of the constant heat and pressure in the pipes.

Of course, some water-conserving methods are no-brainers.

We leave our cars dirty or clean them at a car wash that recirculates the water.

We don’t wash down sidewalks or what little pavement we have.

We wash windows with a bucket and squeegee and save shower water in buckets for watering potted plants.

We avoid using the garbage disposal (maybe we’ll start donating our veggie waste to a neighbor’s composter).

We only wash full loads of anything.

We flush … oh, never mind.

Our house has a large yard (I won’t dignify it by calling it a garden) paved with African daisies that are, quite frankly, looking scruffy. We have a basic drip-irrigation system, but we use it rarely. Some plants have died from lack of water and attention.

So be it.

But when I start obsessing about other people wasting water in other towns, then I figure I’ve gone over the edge.

Recently in San Francisco, I saw a woman turn on the faucet in a public restroom, and then she left it running while she wandered away to get her child.

I almost went ballistic.

That said, mastering the art of water conserving in a public restroom is … tricky.

To prevent illness, public health folks urge us to wash our hands frequently, thoroughly. They say that, when we’re done, we must dry our hands, rather than using a blower which can recirculate germs, but we shouldn’t touch handles or buttons that others have touched.

Awkward, isn’t it?

I finally figured it out.

First, I pull off two sets of paper towels, and stick one under each armpit (probably not sanitary, but at least the germs there are MY germs. And fortunately, I’m fully clothed, because this is in public, right?).

At the sink, I turn on the water, dampen my hands and turn the water off.

I soap and lather my hands, silently singing the "Happy Birthday to me" song twice to make sure I’ve washed long enough. I take one paper towel from under my arm, use it to turn on the water long enough to rinse my hands and to turn off the water. I throw that towel away.

I use the other towel to dry my hands and open the restroom door, after which I fling the paper into a nearby (we hope) trash can.

Paper basketball is not my strong suit, so sometimes the plan falls apart there.

Of course, there are other problems … when blowers are the only hand-drying option, other than the slacks covering my own rump … when the restroom only has those awful, germ-filled cloth towels that go ‘round and ‘round in a metal container on the wall … when the paper-towel dispenser is empty.

And then there are the soap dispensers. I wish manufacturers would get together and decide where the soap is supposed to come out, in front or near the wall.

Unless I bend over and peer under the dispenser, I don’t know where to put my hand to catch the soap. And if I make the wrong choice, I wind up with soap on the floor or the sink … goo I have to clean up before I leave, which means I have to start over again because my hands aren’t clean any more.

Grrr.

The Purell and Handi-Wipes in my purse and car are looking better and better — and they don’t require water.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

BEST OF: You have to Pik your spot

This column ran in The Cambrian on Aug. 18, 2005.

Our dentist maintains if we're dedicated about using our “dental irrigator,” we might keep our teeth a little longer.

(Did you ever notice that medical types always spout cryptic equations like that? For instance, my doctor tells me if I exercise more, I'll live longer. So, check this with me: By exercising for weeks and months now, when I feel relatively good, I might add more hours to the end of my life when I'm feeling crummy. I'm bad at math, but there's something wacky about those calculations.)

Anyhow, if a dental irrigator sounds like I'm hooking my mouth up to a power washer, you're not too far off. Water blended with a bit of bleach flows from a plastic reservoir through a pump to a tube that has a spray nozzle on the end. The resulting strong stream of water should buff each tooth clean, massage your gums and blast every little leftover piece of spinach or Snickers bar from between your molars.

It's like trying to chew gum and gargle at the same time.

And have you tasted Clorox lately?

To learn how to use our dental irrigator — which we nicknamed “Pik” — I opened the manual. Now I know better than to do that, having learned the drill from having two computers, a laptop, a PDA (personal digital assistant, a hand-held computer gizmo), three cell phones and two digital cameras, none of which I've even begun to understand.

Of course, the manuals just make things worse. I can do basic things with the electronics — find an address, write a story, take a picture or make a call (if I'm in range, but that's another problem). But the exotic stuff? To me, a “Blackberry” still is something that that bites back if you try to pick it and eventually evolves into jam or a pie filling ... not a trendy pager/e-mail/web browser that fits in the palm of your hand.

Even my new $89 microwave is smarter than I am.

So there I was with Pik and absolutely no idea how to use it. I stood at the sink and pondered.

I have a tooth or two that already are somewhat annoyed with me. I'm supposed to take something that could launch a small satellite, put the device into my mouth and turn it on.

Riiiiight.

I looked up at my reflection in the mirror, and my face reminded me of that wonderful old ad for rectal thermometers. You remember — a darling baby with a horrified expression and the headline, “You're going to put that thermometer WHERE?”

I sighed and went back to where Pik's manual showed the little tip firmly planted in the handle. But the booklet never showed exactly how I was supposed to connect them.

After several tries — during which I chased the tip around the bathroom like a manic grasshopper playing handball — I finally figured out it was a pushme-pullme and got the diabolical devices connected.

The manual also shows a sliding bar that controls the water's velocity, but didn't explain that, when you slide the bar while Pik is pumping water into your mouth, the pressure changes instantly from tickle to sandblast. It's like getting acupuncture from the inside out.

The manual also forgot to mention how tightly or loosely I should keep my lips closed once I turned on the spray. In my usual mode, I learned the hard way.

Using Pik with my mouth sort of open, I managed to spray down the sink, the mirror, the shower, the tub, the windows and the flower basket in the next room.

With my mouth slammed shut (a position with which I'm basically unfamiliar anyway), I almost drowned.

Finally, I learned the half-and-half lip-pursing move that is the requisite balance between blast and glub. Some water has to dribble and drip out of your mouth as Pik is blasting more in. It is not a Kodak moment.

Having semi-mastered the routine, here's some advice:
1) Don't wear nice clothes while you're Pik-ing.
2) Don't try to talk, either.
3) Laughing can be purely hazardous.
4) Clorox water tastes like old socks.
5) Be careful where you aim. Do not, repeat, not point the super sprayer at the back of your throat, especially right after breakfast.
6) And don't bother with the manual.

BEST OF: You've got to pik your spot

This column ran in The Cambrian on Aug. 18, 2005.

Our dentist maintains if we're dedicated about using our “dental irrigator,” we might keep our teeth a little longer.

(Did you ever notice that medical types always spout cryptic equations like that? For instance, my doctor tells me if I exercise more, I'll live longer. So, check this with me: By exercising for weeks and months now, when I feel relatively good, I might add more hours to the end of my life when I'm feeling crummy. I'm bad at math, but there's something wacky about those calculations.)

Anyhow, if a dental irrigator sounds like I'm hooking my mouth up to a power washer, you're not too far off.

Water blended with a bit of bleach flows from a plastic reservoir through a pump to a tube that has a spray nozzle on the end. The resulting strong stream of water should buff each tooth clean, massage your gums and blast every little leftover piece of spinach or Snickers bar from between your molars.

It's like trying to chew gum and gargle at the same time.

And have you tasted Clorox lately?

To learn how to use our dental irrigator — which we nicknamed “Pik” — I opened the manual.

Now I know better than to do that, having learned the drill from having two computers, a laptop, a PDA (personal digital assistant, a hand-held computer gizmo), three cell phones and two digital cameras, none of which I've even begun to understand.

Of course, the manuals just make things worse.

I can do basic things with the electronics — find an address, write a story, take a picture or make a call (if I'm in range, but that's another problem).

But the exotic stuff? To me, a “Blackberry” still is something that that bites back if you try to pick it and eventually evolves into jam or a pie filling ... not a trendy pager/e-mail/web browser that fits in the palm of your hand.

Even my new $89 microwave is smarter than I am.

So there I was with Pik and absolutely no idea how to use it.

I stood at the sink and pondered. I have a tooth or two that already are somewhat annoyed with me. I'm supposed to take something that could launch a small satellite, put the device into my mouth and turn it on.

Riiiiight.

I looked up at my reflection in the mirror, and my face reminded me of that wonderful old ad for rectal thermometers. You remember — a darling baby with a horrified expression and the headline, “You're going to put that thermometer WHERE?”

I sighed and went back to where Pik's manual showed the little tip firmly planted in the handle. But the booklet never showed exactly how I was supposed to connect them.

After several tries — during which I chased the tip around the bathroom like a manic grasshopper playing handball — I finally figured out it was a pushme-pullme and got the diabolical devices connected.

The manual also shows a sliding bar that controls the water's velocity, but didn't explain that, when you slide the bar while Pik is pumping water into your mouth, the pressure changes instantly from tickle to sandblast.

It's like getting acupuncture from the inside out.

The manual also forgot to mention how tightly or loosely I should keep my lips closed once I turned on the spray.

In my usual mode, I learned the hard way.

Using Pik with my mouth sort of open, I managed to spray down the sink, the mirror, the shower, the tub, the windows and the flower basket in the next room.

With my mouth slammed shut (a position with which I'm basically unfamiliar anyway), I almost drowned.

Finally, I learned the half-and-half lip-pursing move that is the requisite balance between blast and glub. Some water has to dribble and drip out of your mouth as Pik is blasting more in.

It is not a Kodak moment.

Having semi-mastered the routine, here's some advice:

1) Don't wear nice clothes while you're Pik-ing.
2) Don't try to talk, either.
3) Laughing can be purely hazardous.
4) Clorox water tastes like old socks.
5) Be careful where you aim. Do not, repeat, not point the super sprayer at the back of your throat, especially right after breakfast.
6) And don't bother with the manual.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

BEST OF: "Stick to your ribs" has new meaning

It’s a Friday afternoon. We’re tired from the long week, and we’ve shopped at the grocery stores and farmers market. We unload and put away all that food and then are too weary to fix and eat it.

It’s a familiar syndrome: “I just bought $200 worth of food, and there’s nothing to eat.”

Planning ahead on a recent Friday, we bought take-out from Linn’s barbecue booth and then ate our meal at the Cambria Community Cemetery.

It’s a peaceful, fairly private place in which to immerse ourselves in a delightfully gooey meal of glazed chicken and the sticky, saucy barbecued pork. (Get thee behind us, Satan — with a cardiologist-triggered guilty conscience, we took the leftovers home and froze them for another indulgence.)

Bless Handi Wipes.

As I mopped barbecue sauce off far-flung sections of my body (how did I get it on my ankle?), I wondered what makes sticky foods so special, so decadent.

Yum. Toffee apples and grilled cheese sandwiches, caramel-marshmallow sundaes and chocolate fondue, and yes, the barbecues of many nations. There’s even a highly celebrated breakfast roll called a sticky bun.

My teeth and hips may pay the tariff, but all that goo enriches my soul somehow. Must be a throwback to our cave-person days. Maybe fire-glazed mastodon was sticky, too.

Making gooey things at home has its hazards, as anyone who has ever fast-flipped a pan of fresh-out-of-the-oven sticky buns can attest.

While pastries, cakes and breads require some precision in measuring and following recipes, other sticky recipes often do not. Toss together a dab of this, a splash of that. If it’s not exactly as the recipe laid out, it’ll probably taste just fine anyway.

A few successes at such culinary improv can do wonders for a cook’s confidence. From there, it’s dangerously easy to jump over that fine line between capable and cocky.

The results of such self-assurance can join the ranks of other family food disasters, like Aunt Maude’s oven-forged pot roast or the too-liquid cake that boiled merrily in the oven, instead of baking.

At this stage in this report, the unkind in our family would nod knowingly and recall my infamous Chinese-style sticky ribs.

These lusciously sticky baby backs simmer in an ever-reducing sweet/salty liquid, rather than baking in an oven or being barbecued on a hot grill. The soy/sugar/chili flavor steeps into the meat during the course of a half-hour or more on the stove, eventually forming a spicy, caramel-like glaze on the outside of the ribs.

The process requires a stirring schedule that dawdles along for what seems like forever, and then accelerates from zero to 60 mph in the frenzied twist of an overworked wrist.

When the ribs are done, the glaze is thickly gooey like no other food. It’s sticky enough to fill cavities — or cause them. It’s slightly spicy, dark and richly laced with thick soy sauce, not the wimpy supermarket stuff.

For our party, I couldn’t find the recipe, but felt I remembered it well enough to wing it.

Bad move.

Everything smelled and felt right until the too-late-to-switch, critical-mass stage of the last five minutes, when the stirring regime is like Irish step dancing for the arms.

By then, all our guests were hanging around the kitchen, watching my frenzy.

I thought the rib mixture felt denser than usual, but mentally wrote it off to some weather condition rather than my own stupidity.

One of our friends grabbed a rib as soon as I took them off the stove, said “It smells wonderful!” and bit off a big bite.

His eyes widened a little, and then I noticed he wasn’t chewing. He wasn’t swallowing. He was … stuck.

“Cnnnnttttoppppppnnnnnnnmmmmtttttttttthhh,” he said, hands waving around, but teeth firmly clenched together.

In fact, firmly doesn’t begin to describe it.

Once we translated (“I can’t open my mouth”), we frantically started dreaming up remedies, none of which were workable.

Prying his jaw open wasn’t an option, as he had some pricey implants and bridgework.

Sipping hot tea through a straw sounded good, but anything hot enough to dislodge the stickum would have burned his mouth AND melted the straw.

Other ideas — like using my kitchen torch, dynamite or chisels — seemed a tad over the top.

In the end, we let time and saliva work their magic on the culinary Super Glue. The molars stayed put ... but the ribs went into the garbage.

Dinner was a little late. Thank heavens the rest of the menu was soft stuff.

I’m assuming that wasn’t the end of the incident. I can, however, only imagine what happened a night or two later, when neighborhood raccoons raided the trashcan.

This column was published March 6, 2003, in The Cambrian.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Hearst's Monarch was a real bear

After our recent five-hour stroll through the San Francisco Zoo, husband Richard practically skipped out to the car. Granddaughter, Alyssa, 8, however, was dragging.

She whimpered, “Mommy, my knee pits hurt."

But that was at the end of our story.

Our latest family adventure was triggered by a wonderful 1889 tale about William Randolph Hearst’s stubborn streak, a California grizzly bear and a how-to for starting a zoo.

According to historians, media magnate Hearst and reporter Allen Kelly had a prolonged argument over the status of California grizzlies in the wild.

Hearst was convinced the bears were gone and challenged the reporter to find a grizzly in the state’s mountains. But to prove the point, Kelly had to bring the bear back alive.

Five months later, a triumphant Kelly returned to the city with an enormous caged grizzly, enchanting more than 20,000 people waiting at the train station.

There’s no record of Hearst’s reaction.

But what do you do with a big bear in San Francisco? If you’re banker Herbert Fleishhacker, you start a zoo.

Monarch the grizzly captivated the city for 16 years, but never made it to the zoo’s present location.

Husband Richard and I did, however, with Alyssa, her sister Caitlyn and their mother, Lori Tanner.

But first, there was the electric scooter. Now, Richard has no trouble walking, but long sessions of standing and gazing at this or that really magnify his aches and twinges into full-fledged pains in the … whatever.

Honoring his dignity surely would cut short the zoo visit. The scooter could embarrass him, but would also help him enjoy a longer day. No contest, honey. Swallow that pride.

I certainly wasn’t going to push a wheelchair up those hills, and the zoo only has two scooters to rent. So we arrived early. Side benefit: We got a good parking spot for our tailgate lunch.

Quickly, we learned how much the zoo has changed! Serpentine paths wind among spacious natural habitats laced with animals, plants, trees and ponds.

But it sure is easy to get lost. Distracted people constantly bumped into us and others, because each person had a camera in one hand, mandatory site map in the other, and a puzzled expression.

Lori said she was “surprised that the zoo was so hilly, so green and big, and that there were so many habitats rather than cages. The animals didn’t seem at all stressed out.”

Our favorites?

The stately giraffes posed for glamour shots. You could almost hear them say, “Get my good side, now. Focus, girlfriend.”

Ever watched a giraffe get up? From a spread-eagle position at the pond’s edge, the animal literally had to jump up and pull in all his legs at once.

From an elevated path, we were within a few feet of a giraffe’s head as he used a tiny branch for dental floss and, as Caitlyn put it, “picked his nose with his tongue.”

And we loved the Hearst Grizzly Gulch, funded by the Hearst Foundation.

Stephen Hearst, vice president/general manager of the Hearst Corp. and W.R.’s grandson, told the San Francisco Chronicle it was “the fastest million-dollar grant that ever went through the foundation,” taking a mere three weeks to arrange. “I called the president of the gift committee, who happens to be my father,” George R. Hearst, Jr., chairman of the corporation board.

Monarch would be so proud.

During our visit, grizzly sisters Kiona and Kachina wrestled, romped and chased each other around, climbing on a rocky, waterfall-enhanced hill.

Kachina frolicked in the pool like an otter, then cuddled up in the water near a glassed-in patio where we stood. At one point, she leaned her paw up against the glass, close enough so we could inspect her manicure!

Grandpa Richard frolicked, too. On that unusually sunny and warm day, he scooted around, giggling, taking pictures, quacking like an aoogah horn and captivating every other little boy in the place.

We left the zoo with overworked tootsies, sunburned noses and lovely memories of another family escapade.

A great day? You bet. After all, whether you’re writing about a grizzly bear named Monarch, a scooter ride or aching “knee pits,” every good story needs a good ending.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

BEST OF: A peachy predicament

I told husband Richard that if he’d really wanted me to wash the pantry floor, all he had to do was ask.

The crash was the kind of sound that bodes serious ill from the get-go. My husband’s plaintive appeal floated out of the pantry. “Katheeeee! Helllllllllllp!”

Dashing into the kitchen, I saw him standing very still, the victim of a misguided culinary swan dive by a 26-ounce glass jar of peach sauce, which had jumped off a shelf from 6 feet up.

The noun “splashdown” has a new definition in this household.

“I’m sorrrrrrry,” Richard moaned, sounding like the 7-year-old that always hides inside his senior-citizen body.

I’ve always known I have a peach of a husband, but this was over the top.

In his defense, our pantry is a registered hazard zone. A series of wire shelves fill the entire 14-foot height to the ceiling. Each shelf is stuffed full. Some rows of cans are stacked four or five high (with little squares of non-slip rubber stuff in between).

With enough fresh water, we could survive for months off what’s in that pantry.

Yes, we’ve talked about doing a redesign, or even just a giant rearrange. But as tasks go, that one rates right up there with cleaning out our barn or digging up the entire yard, the home-repair equivalent of knee-replacement surgery or a root canal, a minus 20 on the desirable-task scale of one to 10.

First order of the peach cleanup was to make sure Richard hadn’t been hurt or cut by flying glass. He was fine, but he was masquerading as human flypaper.

I scraped peach goop off his legs, tennis shorts, socks and shoes, so he could move without spreading the misery even further.

It’s plumb astonishing how far the contents of that jar went. I haven’t seen that kind of splatter job since one of our granddaughters decided that she really, really didn’t like baby-food squash any more.

The fragrant glop had flown from the wood-floor impact zone and landed as far as 7 feet away, into the kitchen itself, and about 5 feet up in a spatter-shot pattern. It could have been considered interestingly artistic, if it had been done in acrylic paint by a blindfolded gorilla.

In the cleanup process, I found peach goo and glass bits on two ladders and a stepstool, two party-sized cutting boards, one large cooling screen, four stacked dishpans, one recycling container, seven ingredient bins, a bottle of Mexican vanilla, a jar of pickled garlic, about eight onions, a small vacuum cleaner and all available surfaces of the bi-fold pantry door.

The broom was a disaster. The potatoes looked like they had an exotic tuber fungus from Bangladesh. Glass slivers nestled in a throw rug near the stove, waaay on the other side of the kitchen.

Every time I turned around, I saw more peach-colored blobs dripping from and sticking to corners, walls, shelves and more. I went to work.

Finally the splashes, dashes and dribbles were gone, but the gumminess remained.

I knew I couldn’t leave the absolute clean-up for later. It’s summertime, and we’ve been dreading possible military maneuvers by this year’s crop of ants. So every tacky spot or residual sugar dab had to be found and eradicated, lest it trigger ant radar.

Finally, I was finished (in more ways than one). The glass, peach and sticky were gone (I think). The soapy water had been replaced with more soapy water, then Simple Green, then clean H20. We sprayed off the ladders and the stepstool.

But the saga wasn’t over yet. This was Tanner Clumsy Day, and I had a box to take up to the loft of our barn.

On the way back down, I accidentally kicked another box, which proceeded to bibbidy-bobbity-boo its way down the 11 steps to the ground floor. As the unlatched, otherwise empty box flew, it spewed hundreds of Styrofoam peanuts hither, thither and yon. It was as if I’d tossed a beanbag chair into a ceiling fan on “high.”

I hate Styrofoam, especially those pellets our kids always called “ghost poop.”

I looked at the mess I’d wrought, walked over to the light switch, flicked it off, walked out the door and slammed it shut.

At least time was on my side in this go-round. Ants don’t like Styrofoam, either.

This column was published Aug. 8, 2003 in The Cambrian.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Love, compassion and hugs for depression's victims

North Coast residents have been reeling for more than a month since learning that two people they knew and loved had committed suicide within two days of each other. The deaths happened a hundred miles apart and were linked only by timing and the victims’ ties to Cambria. Their families have already suffered too much, so I won’t mention their names.

Suicide is an act of personal despair, an individual release from pain that shifts the agony into the hearts of those left behind.

From the outside in, those two wonderful people seemed to have had everything for which to live. Instead, after battling clinical depression for most of their lives, each made the conscious decision to die.

Why? Nobody can answer that. And nobody could have prevented it. As the priest said at one of the services, there was nothing, nothing any of us could have done. We could not have stopped the suicides, no matter how ready and willing to help we were.

Shirley Bianchi understands. Her adopted granddaughter, a clinically depressed preteen, committed suicide in 2000. “You know the ‘what if’ in your mind is a dead end, but still it haunts you. You ask yourself, ‘Could I have helped?’” the former county supervisor said. “No. There’s nothing you could have done.”

Most of us are deeply sad or depressed at some time in our lives. Usually, it’s short term and triggered by events, not chemistry.

Clinical depression, however, is a disease like diabetes, cancer or heart disease. Nobody is to blame, so there should be no stigma, only love and compassion.

Local psychologist Steve Brody likened clinically depressed patients to diabetics, because both “have been biochemically hijacked.” Simply stated, depressives’ brains have short-circuited.

Economic, social and educational levels don’t matter. Neither does age, although healthy, active seniors seem more immune. Children can be clinically depressed. So can elderly people, teens, young mothers, hearty grandpas. Anybody.

Deep depression is so much more than a permanently broken heart or spirit. It’s not something you can ignore, fix with a pep talk or wish away. You don’t “get over it.” It’s insidious, agonizing to watch in someone you love and difficult to diagnose and treat.

Are you depressed because you’re tired or ill or stressed to the max? Or are you stressed, sick and exhausted because you’re biochemically depressed?

Brody’s clients often ask him “Why am I depressed?” and “How long will this last?” Even specialists have a tough time answering such questions.

People can take do-it-yourself “depression inventories,” quick and simple questionnaires that can help identify what’s happening. However, because it’s so easy to self-diagnose incorrectly, it’s wise to have a professional interpret the test.

But “people with biochemical depression don’t have to tough it out alone,” Brody said. “You don’t have to go to a psychiatrist or psychologist — they handle the tricky cases. First talk to your primary physician or your minister, or ask for referrals from friends who’ve battled depression.”

Some medical-insurance programs have mental-health hotlines with strong privacy protections. The county’s “Hotline also is a great resource of information and referral. They’ll listen,” and then refer the caller to others who can help, Brody said. He also recommends the Community Counseling Center in San Luis Obispo.

Brody said patients also shouldn’t shy away from anti-depressive medicines, which can be “tremendously helpful, a good biochemical alternative.”

All that help is available, but the depressive person must be ready to take those steps and stick with treatments. Some simply can’t cope.

When such tragedies strike, caring Cambrians know what to do. They cry, hug, reach out and then go on.

We heal by talking about our late friends and sharing activities that made them smile while they were alive. We remember their passions — in this case, classical music, bicycle racing, 4-H, ocean sports, children.

We also can honor our friends by giving … to Jim Ellman’s “Bikes for Tikes” drive, for instance, or Allied Arts Association so a child can learn to play a musical instrument. Sponsor a youngster for surfing camp. Help a kid with a 4-H project.

Or take your children or grandchildren to the beach, a concert or on a bicycle ride. Think happy thoughts about your friend. Smile and remember the good times.

Then be grateful for the goodness of life you have.

Help is available
• Hotline of San Luis Obispo, 549-8989 (toll-free at 800-549-8989)
• Community Counseling Center, 1129 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo, 543-7969
• National Crisis Hotline, 800-SUICIDE

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

BEST OF: Vacation planning's half the fun


This column first appeared in The Cambrian Aug. 24, 2006. This year, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

People tease me because I like to plan ahead for vacationing. But sometimes it really pays off.

For instance, a recent trip sounded simple enough: meet our two youngest granddaughters and their mother for a fun-filled weekend in Santa Cruz.

But there were lots of reasons not to do what we were about to do.

1. It was high season, two weeks before Labor Day. Did we understand the concept of seasonal rates? We certainly do.

2. Anybody who hadn't yet had their vacation-for-the-summer was on the road, too, trying desperately to be someplace else.

3. As if all that wasn't enough, the other end of Monterey Bay was packed with people and their vehicles, most of which cost more than houses. Yup, it was Car Week, culminating in the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance (150 bucks per ticket to stroll through the Lamborghinis and Daimlers).

4. If you haven't spent time in Santa Cruz, as we hadn't, it's a shock to discover you can't get from Point A to Point B without first going to Point Q, which isn't close to anything you want.

5. Put a whole bunch of impatient people on those narrow, meandering streets, add the results of an overzealous stop-sign salesman and you've got a recipe for traffic jams.

6. Our group ranged in age from 7 to 80, some of whom have a severe aversion to putting their bodies on Boardwalk rides that a psychotic weather wonk accurately named as "Cyclone," "Tsunami," "Tornado" or "Typhoon."

We knew all this. We still wanted to go ... silly us.

I had to plan ahead. Spur of the moment doesn't work on in mid-August in California's oldest seaside resort area.

A month before, we managed to snag the last two available rooms at a fairly new Best Western hotel in Capitola. It's on one of the only straight-line streets from Highway 1 to anywhere near the beach, and is a block from the county's only shopping mall.

After neighbor Christine Greek forwarded details about a lovely-sounding Capitola restaurant, we made Saturday-night reservations online.

Super! Two big decisions made.

But planning ahead is more than pouring over touristy literature or making sure we could lay our weary heads on a clean pillow each night. I believe in travelers' espionage.

Arriving a day early, husband Richard and I did area surveillance. Good thing, too. Remember Items 4 and 5?

We learned that, to find a decent parking place at the Boardwalk, we'd have to arrive at least an hour before it opens at 11 a.m. We knew weekend lines would be long, so we bought passes and tickets early Friday for Saturday. We even located some rare benches with shade where weary grandparents could park for a rest.

We also drove up Highway 17 and back so we could give precise instructions to a direction-challenged driver.

We toured Capitola's beach areas, finding stunning shorelines, more parking crunches, narrow one-way streets and neighborhoods that would fit right into a Greek hillside. We tracked down the Shadowbrook restaurant, tucked high on a hill and accessible only by lots of stairs or a perky little red tram.

We found Gayle's, a delightful bakery, and brought back to the hotel an ethereally light orange chiffon cake and snickerdoodle muffins, dredged in cinnamon sugar. And a clerk alerted us to a popular, funky pizza-and-pasta place right around the corner from our hotel, so our travel-weary family could get out of their van and walk to a tasty dinner.

There! Not only were we confident we'd done everything possible to make our one-day adventure together a success, we had a great time doing the strategic reconnaissance.

The best successes were:

* Strolling to a nearby restaurant the first night together to share pizza, salad and a lovely bowl of Italian wedding soup. No pressure, no parking hassle, no more driving.

* Getting to the Boardwalk early, finding a super parking space and letting Caitlyn and Alyssa frolic on the breathtaking beach until the rides opened.

* Taking a quiet, kickback lunchtime-out in the van, using fixings from our cooler.

* Finding truly wonderful doughnuts from 41st Donut House, about a block from the hotel. "The best I've had since I quit making them myself at our bakery," Richard told the pleased-as-punch owner.

* Booking Shadowbrook reservations online, which netted us a waterfront table in the sold-out restaurant. The setting and meal were spectacular and exquisite.

* And most of all, by figuring out where we would be going and how to get there, we spent our sun-drenched, all-too-brief time together having fun instead of getting lost.

Will we meet them again in Santa Cruz? Here's a clue: We bought the girls season tickets to the Boardwalk. They may get me on that "Hurricane" ride yet, if I can't preplan my way out of it.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Getting a line on Follies tickets


A chamber-of-commerce employee wandered out of her Main Street office into a minor mob scene at a time when most of downtown Cambria usually is still asleep.

“What are we selling here, Harry Potter books?” Rody Salkeld quipped shortly before 9 a.m. Aug. 1.

Not quite, but more than 60 people had queued up to buy reserved-seat tickets for Pinedorado Follies 2007. The show runs Wednesday through Sunday, Aug. 29 through Sept. 2.

Guaranteed seats are so coveted that Cambrians line up for hours to snag some. General admission tickets are also available, but front-of-the-hall reserved seats have the best sight lines.

Seeing a show up close can be glorious. I’ll never forget being in the front row and watching the chandelier come down in “Phantom of the Opera.”

But premier seats can have risks attached. We were in the second row at “Tap Dogs” when ushers urged us to don rain slickers before hyperactive, work-booted dancers started skipping and stomping in a water-filled tray.

On Aug. 1, Mark Kramer started the Follies queue before dawn, although sales wouldn’t start for another three hours. Kay Luthi and Dorothy Prychoda soon lined up behind him. By 6:15 a.m., eight people were in place.

Those who really planned ahead brought folding chairs.

This year, each buyer got a numbered slip denoting a specific spot in line, so people were free to wander around a bit, get a mocha latte or take a quick catnap in a warm car.

However, most stalwarts stayed in the line-up, chatting, laughing, shivering and enjoying the annual coffee klatch for early birds.

Prychoda cuddled into her blue camp chair. “It’s worth it to get here early. Yes, you get reserved seats, but we also come for the camaraderie and companionship.”

Each person could buy only six tickets. No batch buying of 25 tickets, no sirree. We’ll have none of that nasty ticket scalping at our Follies.

But Bud Goff needed seven tickets, so he could see the Follies with six family members. So friend Susan Detweiler, there to buy a few tickets of her own, snagged two for Goff in one row, and he bought five in the next row back.

All income goes to Pinedorado’s 59-year sponsor, the Cambria Lions Club, which spreads funds around to other community causes.

And how the shows have changed over the years!

I remember when Pinedorado’s show was a melodrama. Lots of fun, but amateur night, for sure, rather like first-round, citywide tryouts for “America’s Got Talent.”

Follies concepts and performances have evolved, but shows took a giant leap forward this century with direction by Bobbie Monroe, Ruth Fleming and then, starting in 2002, under Peggy Christianson’s professional-quality (though still volunteer) direction.

It takes a full year to create a Follies show. When the final curtain call rings down on the 2007 version, Christianson, co-producer Teela DePond, the Zaragosa family and others already will have begun planning the 2008 edition.

Combine Christianson’s writing, directing and dancing skill with her Disney background and perfectionistic “we’ve got to add something new” attitude, and singers and dancers shine in the spotlights.

Part of the success is technical innovation, including black lighting, a fog machine, wireless microphones and professional lighting equipment borrowed from Cambria resident Ted Fowler, whose firm does entertainment lighting worldwide.

Christianson said, “Every year, we have to add something we don’t know how to do — yet — and then we have to learn it fast.”

So, look for new gadgetry, video and other special effects. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I won’t say what more than four dozen cast members of all ages will be doing. But seeing Kirk Henning with “goats” and Jerry McKinnon as a centurion ought to be worth the cost. And hearing Cody Pettit and John Ruml singing in English accents should be priceless.

First-in-line Kramer said it’s been years since he stood in a queue for tickets for anything other than the Follies.

“It’s the only show in town, babe,” he explained with a chuck-le. “You can’t miss this one.”

By about 10:15 a.m. Aug. 1, lined-up people who shared that sentiment had already bought more than $7,000 worth of tickets.

(For more Follies ticket information, log onto http://media.sanluisobispo.com/archive/cambrian.pdf, and scroll to Page 19).