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 Read more “Slices” online at

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