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

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

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 Read more "Slices" online at

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.