Thursday, September 25, 2008

BEST OF: Small world at a rest stop

Sometimes, by keeping open minds in unlikely spots, we can learn what a small world it really is.

This time, we’d paused at a Highway 5 rest area. The drive from Sacramento to Paso Robles is a long one, and when you’ve done it more than once …. well, you’ve done it. It doesn’t take long to lose the thrill.

The view doesn’t vary much along most of the way, only from brown back to green when the weather morphs from sizzling hot and dry to doggone cold, windy and rainy.

Heading for home, we’re old horses pointed toward the barn --- we want to get there, get unpacked (ugh) and get on with it.

So those rest stops are tiny oases of relief, in more ways than one.

We walk around and stretch, sometimes chatting idly with others. Lots of other folks are doing the same things. We may all march to a different drummer, but by gosh, we’re in lockstep parading around those picnic tables, getting blood flowing again to our frozen-in-position muscles.

Once in a while, there are delightful surprises, such as the virtuoso violinist practicing under the shaded canopy of trees, or a trio of identical tow-headed toddlers romping in the grass and giggling.

This time, as we strolled, we watched a mid-aged woman showing off her low-slung motor home to a couple of strangers.

We’d seen similar RV models and had mused whether 6’1” husband Richard would fit inside comfortably, or if he’d be forever condemned to walking around in a “Planet of the Apes”-style crouch mode.

“Can we see inside, too?” we asked. “We’ve always wondered about….”

“Come oooonnnn in,” interrupted a couple of other women who were busily slapping sandwiches together in the vehicle’s tiny kitchenette.

We browsed and chatted, but eventually, we had to get back on the road or we’d be unpacking at midnight.

As we turned to leave, the woman outside the rig stared at me. “I know you from someplace,” she said. “I wonder ….”

Richard began to guffaw. There we were, in the wilds of Merced County, where I’d have bet good money I wouldn’t have been able to find a single soul I’d ever met before. It gave further credence to the family joke that he can’t take me anywhere without running into someone who knows me.

Obviously, we all were completely out of context, so we started trading locations, times and occupations and names. We got back to the 1980s, and she began to laugh.

“Of course I know you,” she said. “I’m Rita Nunes. I was assistant to Deborah Weldon,” a former head of Hearst Castle and the State Park areas attached to it. “You two had the bakery then, and you did catering for us up on the hilltop,” Rita recalled.

Dick and I took a quick mental jaunt down a culinary memory lane.

Hearst Castle is historic turf, and before we could serve food there, we had to swear on a stack of Julia Child cookbooks that we wouldn’t do anything to harm, sully or make the castle even the slightest bit dirty.

Then, caterers had to carry everything up at least 20 steps to get to any place where they could conceivably serve food.

Equipment we took up full, we brought back down empty. But after a long day on your feet, somehow empty didn’t feel any lighter. And you took everything back out with you, including leftovers and the trash.

About 4,786 steps later, the night started to get incredibly long.

But, even with angry feet and aching backs, we shared an unquestionable thrill in providing fine food to beautiful people in that one-of-a-kind locale.

We served luxe luncheons in a guest house, appetizers at fund-raisers, desserts on the patio and more.

And Richard and I were proud-as-punch parents at one outdoor charity event, working hard ourselves and watching our chef-son Brian at the appetizer “crepe bar.” He chatted up the guests as his flying hands made hundreds of the small pancakes. He filled them to order with brie-almond pate or tiny shrimp and scallops in a lemony salmon cream laced with dill and fennel.

As the sun set that night, guests toasted their good fortune, and we blessed our own luck at being where we were, with each other.

But that was long ago, in another life, as Rita and I agreed. With a couple of big, shared hugs for good traveling, she climbed back into the motor home with her aunt and cousin.

As she waved a vigorous goodbye, she leaned back out the door and said, “Say hello to everyone for me.”

Rita, I just did.

This column appeared first Oct. 14, 2004 in The Cambrian. It is also available at and under the Opinion/Columns link at

Thursday, September 18, 2008

One "H" of a teacher

A few years ago at the San Simeon Chamber of Commerce office, a tourist gestured toward the chamber’s manager and said to me, “She’s such a lady! And she’s so smart. She should have been a teacher.”

Bingo! That manager is Helen Leopold, a beloved, legendary Cambria first-grade instructor.
Her 90th birthday is Sept. 30. This column is a happy-birthday surprise for her.

Helen is every inch a lady. For decades, she taught by inspiring her students, not bullying them. Even her gently pealing, oh-so-contagious laugh is ladylike, but it’s seasoned with a bell-toned twist of sparkly-eyed mischief.

That’s Helen, called “H” by her friends and family.

As a teacher, she used ground-breaking techniques, training youngsters how to learn, how to study and how to enjoy doing both. In her classroom, she required proper deportment, penmanship, study habits … and fun.

Carol Stoner, now the grammar school’s principal, said, “Her passion was reading, and teaching her students how to read.”

And Helen kept coming back, retiring two or three times before it stuck. Even then, she continued working as a substitute teacher, and tutored students through 2007.

Stoner said, “She’s such a vibrant person, and so physically active. She played tennis forever … She’s an inspiration and role model to so many people of the importance of staying active and continuing to contribute to your community.”

Helen has managed the San Simeon chamber office for 15 years.

She also taught other teachers. Christine, one adult student of some 40 years ago, wrote an essay about her master teacher and mentor.

School recesses would find Helen “exuberantly racing to kick a ball or gleefully jumping rope,” Christine wrote. “As long as Helen was surrounded by children and nature, she was happy. Pleasurable walks on the beach or through the pines ended in a collection of delicate kelp, unusually patterned bark or colorful leaves to be carefully displayed on the counter like a sacred gift from earth. She eagerly shared this endless enthusiasm and respect for the wonders of life with her fortunate pupils.”

Teacher Christine Leopold knows her subject well. She married one of Helen’s sons, Mark Leopold, now a San Luis Obispo dentist.

According to family historian Laurel Leopold of Cambria, Helen was born in Santa Maria, and “knew what she wanted to do … be a teacher … at the age of 6.”

Helen attended junior college in Fullerton while working as a waitress at the old Knott’s Berry Farm. At a big-band dance in 1939, she met future husband Warren Leopold.

In 1941, Warren enlisted in the Army. Helen, an English major, graduated from U.C. Berkeley. The couple married and moved to Carmel. Helen worked at Fort Ord. And when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that December, Warren’s regiment transferred to Alaska.

In 1948, home designer Warren built his first Cambria project, the “Crazy House.” Eventually, the footloose family landed in Big Sur, where Helen began teaching.

Laurel said, “From the beginning, she had an instinct about how to teach.”

Helen taught first through eighth grades at Pacific Valley from about 1957 to 1963. Laurel recalled the fun. “She’d put on dances and potlucks, and she got old reel movies from Hollywood, and we’d play them on an old- fashioned projector.”

The family included four children — Mark, Laurel, Eric and David, now a Cambria sculptor/carpenter. When Eric was diagnosed with cancer, the family moved to Cambria to be closer to hospitals and medical care.

A year or so after Eric’s death in 1963, Helen started teaching Cambria students. She created a first grade phenomenon, playing classical music in the classroom and customizing her curriculum to match her students’ needs using Cal Poly math techniques and the Fairchild Phonics Reading Program.

“That was her secret weapon, like a jet-propelled, perfect reading program,” Laurel said. “She couldn’t believe she was being paid to do what she loved so much. She was so rewarded by working with those children.”

Decades later, many of those young students describe their Mrs. Leopold with glowing testimonials. That includes our youngest son Sean. “She was my favorite teacher ever,” he said, “a really nice person who taught us a lot.”

Now that’s a testimonial. Happy birthday H!

Editor’s note: In June, Helen Leopold’s family honored her with a bench placed outside the Cambria Grammar School’s library. A plaque on the bench created by artist Terry Konczak reads, “Helen Leopold: She loved teaching and sharing the joy of learning with children.”

Thursday, September 11, 2008

BEST OF: Revisiting VCR fever

This column ran in The Cambrian Nov. 19, 1987, long before TIVO, iPods and widespread reliance on the Internet. Because we are modified Luddites to the core, we still use a VHS video recorder more often than the fancy-dancy DVD recorder that we keep forgetting how to program. I’ve never, ever downloaded a movie, perhaps because we don’t watch as many films or even as much TV as we used to when my mom was alive.

I must beg for your indulgence and understanding as I confess something awful. Maybe there’s hope. Maybe we can be saved, even though there’s no known cure and the disease is progressive.

We are VCR junkies.

We were OK at first. Mom only used the Sony BetaMax to tape shows we’d have missed, or that she wanted to keep for future reference. Innocent enough, but those are the first symptoms of decline, obvious to those who are aware of the addictive potential.

The next clue? After her first Sony machine died of microchip fatigue, Mom went right out and bought another Beta set. VCR fever had her in its grip, despite her protestations that we had to have it to play all those tapes she had accumulated.

A likely story.

She merrily continued to add to her collection of old movies, ice-skating performances and competitions, nature shows, political speeches and special documentaries.

The tape cartridges began taking over the world. We had to shift around two long shelves of books to make room for the vast array of videotapes, and some really good books wound up in the great book-graveyard in the shed. Shameful.

In the meantime, to add to the woes of a compulsive VCR user, the Cambria area caught up with the rest of the world, with its very own video rental stores and outlets, burgeoning with video tapes to rent.

All of them were on VHS format tapes.

It was a dilemma. Sure, we could have driven in to watch the movies at the theater. But my mother was in the midst of chemotherapy for her lung cancer, so watching movies at home was preferable. And, to be truthful, we had never gone to movie theaters very often before, so I can’t blame it all on her.

Besides, I make better popcorn than they do, and we can buy Milk Duds cheaper at Bob and Jan’s.

We were hooked and didn’t even know it.

Mom took the plunge, and got a VHS VCR, too, which then sat side-by-side with the Sony.
The video compulsion was in full command as she quickly racked up “Out of Africa,” “Crocodile Dundee” and “Running Scared.” Great stuff.

As bakery owner-operators, we found ourselves not getting much sleep. Late to bed, extraordinarily early to rise makes a baker cranky when he nods off, nose first into the pumpernickle dough.

Unfortunately, we could rent and watch the good movies a lot faster than the video stores could get in new ones, and the VCR compulsion was getting stronger.

In a burst of strength, we eliminated entire categories from consideration. Anything with Chuck Norris in it. Anything with a ghost, gun, motorcycle, dead body or blood on the cover, or the word “Porky” in the title.

After all, we were only sick, not crazy.

Still, we wound up renting third-rate movies, just to see if they had any kick to them at all. If it had a good star, a good writer, a great director or even an intriguing title, at $2.50 a hit, how bad could it be? Don’t ask.

It was sad to watch the compulsion take hold.

We watched Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier trying to rip off gangsters they’d already ripped off once before and been caught at. With that cast, it should have been wonderful. It wasn’t. We watched the whole thing, and to this day, we still don’t understand why.

We watched Michael Caine on some God-forsaken island with guerilla warriors who broke into a radio station and started singing their demands over the air. No matter how sick we were, 10 minutes of that was all we could take.

We tried to quit. Really we did. Still, we wound up watching five minutes of Dudley Moore as a psychotic psychiatrist with pretensions, five minutes of Sally Fields and a short-haired, pre-plastic-surgery Arnold Schwarzenegger and little more than the opening credits on five or 10 other loser films.

Mind you, all of these were movies we never would have driven 35 miles to see at a theater, or even tried to stay up to watch at 12:48 a.m. on cable.

VCR fever had us in its grip.

Finally, we were down to such winners as “Red Desert Penitentiary.” “Maximum Overdrive.” “Amazons in Jail.”

Looking back, were we really that desperate? Had our obsession progressed so far that there was no hope left?

Anyone for popcorn?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Politics on a gurney

There I was, flat on my back on a gurney at the doctor’s office, talking politics.

It felt really strange, as if I’d walked into the wrong movie and couldn’t read the subtitles.

Physicians usually shy away from conversational minefields such as politics — presumably for fear of scaring away a patient whose leanings and opinions are profoundly different. Other wise professionals also avoid discussing their opinions with clients: beauticians, sales people, motel clerks, contractors, mechanics. Reporters. Heck, even babysitters. As business people, we’re much better off keeping our traps shut and our preferences to ourselves.

Silence is golden.

The same thing is true in discussions with family members and friends. It’s a waste of time to argue when it can’t accomplish anything and could cause hard feelings. If you know your brother is a rabid fan of a candidate you hate, and you’re not ever, ever going to change your brother’s mind, it’s much better to talk about his work, his kids, the weather or, “Say, how about those 49ers?”

I’m sure the doctor knows all that. But he was intrigued by my job as a reporter, and that seemed to override his normal caution. He said, “I imagine this will be a really interesting year for you.”

“Every year is interesting in Cambria,” I said.

He replied, “No, I mean because the presidential election is this fall.”

I told him that, while I certainly follow national politics, I’m a community reporter and, as such, I cover localized issues. I leave Washington coverage to McClatchy’s national reporters.

As he examined my aching limb, the doctor asked me for my thoughts on presidential politics. It seemed rude to ignore him, not to mention risky. While my errant body part may not function perfectly, I’m fond of it, I need it and I don’t want it tweaked just because the rest of me seems to be impolite somehow.

However, reporters have to be even more careful than physicians about publicly stating their opinions. So I spoke in generalities: “I think we hire a president or any other candidate for public office to be our spokesperson, to speak for us when we cannot or talk to people we’d never have the chance to meet or confront.

“I feel the best candidates are people who speak well in all circumstances … one-on-one, in a group, in a debate or in front of an audience of thousands.”

The doctor said, “We haven’t had that for a while in Washington, have we?”

I mumbled and waffled a little, still not wanting to show my own preferences even though I thought I’d figured out pretty quickly where his loyalties lie.

I said, “For me, the right candidate is one who can take a bunch of people who disagree, talk with them until they reach some sort of consensus, and have everybody leave that room feeling as if they’ve won something.”

Without batting an eyelash, the doctor emphatically said, “No s—t!” Immediately, he caught his slip of the tongue, blushed scarlet and spent the next 10 minutes apologizing. I kept reassuring him that I share his passion about the topic, and not to worry about a minor mis-speak.

But the conversation seemed to underscore the intensity with which many voters are approaching this election season, whether on a national or local level.

Well, isn’t it about time? Isn’t it refreshing?

It’s so discouraging when voters don’t give a hoot, when they say they’d rather cast their ballots for “none of the above” and few people can name the candidates or what they stand for.

It’s so much healthier for us as a country and a community to care passionately about issues and candidates, and be willing to put our time, money and enthusiasm on the line to back up our mouths and our opinions.

Commitment of the electorate is the spine of the body politic. It’s what keeps politicians honest, or trips up those who are not. It’s what makes us different than a monarchy or a dictatorship.

We are the difference. We can make a difference. We must make a difference.

Just maybe not on a doctor’s gurney …

Friday, August 29, 2008

BEST OF: Feeding guests on the Atkins Diet

Soon, the Tanners will have guests for a week, all of whom are on the Atkins Diet. Since we dine closer to the vegetarian side of the dietary street, so to speak, this is going to be interesting.

As I understand it, Atkins' menus include protein, salad stuff and other skinny veggies, salad dressings, bacon and butter. Period.

I know that Atkins, the Zone and similar diets have different phases, wherein bits of carbohydrates are reintroduced — half an apple here, a spoonful of sweet potato there. And there are many new low-carb, sugar-substitute, phony-foods out there.

I’m not sure yet where my company is on the dietary ladder. So I’ll plan for the worst-case menu scenario.

My mind boggles, then starts winging its way around the calendar. Imagine a Labor Day barbecue on the Atkins diet. No garlic bread. No potato salad. No corn or shortcake. Sob.

I’d have to watch football on TV, because there wouldn’t be anything else left to do.

My mind and my doctor lecture me. We have friends who’ve lost significant weight on the diet. As a culture and individuals, we’re way too fat. If you can find a way to lose weight that doesn’t kill you in the process, do it.

But with no gall bladder, some kidney problems and a family history of osteoporosis, I’ve always talked myself out of going on Atkins, despite having fond memories of my life’s 15-minute “thin times” dancing in my head.

While there is some anecdotal and study evidence that the diet helps, rather than hinders, keeping cholesterol levels down, I’m not 100 percent convinced.

And while studies show your life is longer when you’re thinner, nobody’s been able to accurately quantify “longer.” How much more life will I gain if I lose? Would the deprivation be worth it now, while I feel good, to be a size six for a few more months toward the end of my life, when I may not?

Yes, I’m rationalizing, folks, and, awk! Time marches on. The guests are coming, the guests are coming. My hostess genes began wringing their little hands. This is not how my grandmother and mother raised me to feed company. No frills. No carbs. No fun.

Then my harried shopper peeked at ephemeral silver linings lurking in the fog bank.

Usually, I plan for weeks for company, then husband Richard and I shop like human hummingbirds. Clutching our computerized shopping lists, we scurry hither, thither and yon. Buying a week’s worth of meal ingredients can lead us a merry chase countywide to find the best, most exotic or unusual.

Hey, we’re former caterers. It’s a hard habit to break.

Buying for Atkins guests would be a snap. Eggs and meat for breakfast, plus protein for the other meals, nuts to munch, selected veggies, dressing. Easy. Yes, Atkinsers can have butter, but absent lobster or crab legs I can’t afford, what can they put it on?

Being a closet Pollyanna, however, I began taking the concept further, looking around our own kitchen.

Forget supposed health benefits. If we could adopt an Atkins-like diet, just look at the money we’d save.

Better still, look at the extra space we’d have.

The cereal cupboard would be empty, as would areas now stuffed with crackers, cookies, pastas, baking ingredients, mixing bowls and tools. Eight shelves worth of cookbooks would become obsolete, creating more room for knick-knacks we certainly don’t need. Even cans of fruit, Jello boxes, jam jars and slightly sweet sauces would vanish.

The bread drawer could hold whisks and spatulas, except I wouldn’t need them any more, either.

Somehow, using fancy, heart-shaped cookie cutters on hamburger patties doesn’t cut it.
What would I do with the ice-cream drawer in the freezer? Fill it with the extra ice we always need. Candy jars on the counter? Full of potpourri and unidentified found keys.

The breadmaker, blender, ice-cream maker and other specialty equipment would disappear into storage, joining other cobweb-draped, dusty relics. We’d relegate Richard’s 20-quart Hobart mixer to planter status.

There wouldn’t even be much need for a kitchen. Do it all with a coffeepot, hotplate and salad bowl. Almost everything else can be cooked on an outside barbeque.

I could live that way for a couple of weeks, even a couple of months, to make medical points with a primary care physician who tends to cluck a lot and make noises about set-points and cholesterol levels.

But never again to make homemade whole-wheat bread, a fresh-strawberry smoothie, blueberry pancakes, brownies or even freshly steamed brown rice just because they sound good?

What happens when we have visitors who eat normal meals?

What about Richard’s legendary chocolate truffles? Or grandchildren, who want to help make cookies, popcorn balls and Grandma’s traditional coffeecake?

No, this would never work at Tanner Manor.

So our company will arrive, and we’ll feed them Atkins while sneaking our bananas and whole-wheat English muffins on the side. Then we’ll go back to our rounded lives, menus and bodies, contemplating the dietary restrictions we’ll have to work around for our next batch of visitors.

This column appeared on Nov. 14, 2003 in The Cambrian.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The strait answer

“There are no gold medals, no loving cups and no elaborately inscribed certificates to laud David Yudovin's all-time world record” achievements.
Margot Smith, The Cambrian, July 19, 1990,

In Beijing, the world’s winningest Olympic athlete Michael Phelps has kept millions of people awestruck. His swimming accomplishments are flat-out astonishing. Just imagine winning almost enough Olympic gold medals for a game of checkers!

But in the Azores, on the North Coast and worldwide, people also are intrigued by the latest adventure for David Yudovin, Cambria’s world-class swimmer.

He and wife Beth left home Aug. 13 for Horta on Faial Island, where he’ll tackle more first-ever swims, this time across open ocean channels in the Portuguese archipelago.

The accomplishments of Cambria’s super swimmer are featured in books, magazines, Web sites and documentaries, and are enshrined in the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. Now, Azorean media is all over the story, and there’s even talk of a half-hour TV show about Yudovin and his swims.

His lifelong quest to be first across a strait doesn’t produce trophies, only pride for achieving his personal goals. “I don’t get medals, I get American Express bills,” he quipped, “and I don’t even have a Gold Card.”

Like Phelps, Yudovin not only sets and accomplishes his goals, he shatters them.

For instance, in about 6 hours and 20 minutes in April, the 56-year-old leukemia and heart-attack survivor swam 10 nautical miles between Papeete, Tahiti, and Mo'orea, French Polynesia. He powered through big swells of 80-degree-plus tropical water, under intense sun and in dicey weather.

Nobody of any age had ever swum across that channel.

He already had aced channel swimming’s “triple crown”: The English Channel, Catalina to the California coast and Cook Strait in New Zealand. He was the oldest athlete to complete the latter swim, at the age of 52 in 2004.

In each of eight other channels worldwide, Yudovin was the first to swim across.

This time, he aims to conquer the major channels between various Azorean islands, one after another. Nobody’s ever done that before, either, or even swum across one of them.

One really good reason why is the Portuguese man o’war.

Warm waters around the Azores are laced with the picturesque but dangerous jellyfish-like creature, more plentiful recently perhaps because of global climate changes.

Yudovin knows about jellyfish stings, having been attacked by thousands of them during his swim across the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. However, men o’war are world-class stingers and are in a pain-and-danger class all by themselves.

Fortunately, Azorean waters are cooler now than they were in February when Yudovin trained there for a month (and got stung twice). Men o’war don’t like cooler water, he said, so there should be fewer there now. He hopes.

Enthusiastic Azorean officials aren’t taking any chances. They’re requiring a doctor on board the accompanying boat for all swims, plus a wide variety of medical supplies to combat any emergency.

Yudovin’s swimming schedule depends on the whims of Atlantic tides about 950 miles from Lisbon. He has already powered across the first 5-nautical-mile channel (on Aug. 20) in 2 hours 20 minutes "under perfect conditions," he said in an e-mail. Next, he'll tackle a 10-mile swim about Sept. 6 and another 10-miler about Sept. 26.

His other Azorean target channels are even longer.

If he doesn’t accomplish it all this year, Yudovin said matter-of-factly, he’ll simply go back next year.

A year ago, Yudovin told Cambria Rotarians he’d reached “the pinnacle of my swimming career,” and was going to retire from his sport and his work. He and Beth would devote much of their time to helping fellow Cambrians, he said.

Some of us were skeptical. Not of his dedication to various causes, but of his ability to step back from the call of the sea. We were right. Recently, he acknowledged, “We have learned that the pinnacle keeps moving with us.”

Now, when he and Beth are home, they balance his rigorous training schedule with delivering Meals on Wheels to shut-ins, providing free transportation to seniors and others on the Cambria Bus, and being part of the North Coast Ocean Rescue Team.

So, as long as Yudovin’s body allows it, he’ll keep on swimming, looking like a human metronome as he churns through the sea that challenges him. In the process, he’ll continue captivating the imagination of those who recognize what an exceptional, world-class athlete he is in the Olympics of life.

For more on Cambria’s world-class swimmer, go to

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Try a little kindness

It was just a little thing--a shiny piece of heavy paper folded to about 2 inches square and sporting a perky photo of an otter. Under the sea mammal's mug shot is some golden cursive writing that reads "Cambria, CA."

It's a bookmark, complete with matched magnets inside each flap. To use it, I fold the marker over the top of the last page I read. Snap! Being a good little bookmark, it won't fall out and lose my place in the process.

I buy them five or six at a time at Cambria Drug & Gift, because they're handy for those of us who read in bed at night and don't want to have to scrabble around in the covers to find a lost bookmark at 11 p. m., when all we really want to do is close the book and, finally, go to sleep.

Husband Richard and I read lots of books. We buy some, but primarily we check them out at the Cambria Public Library.

Our tri-county library cards are good at any of the branches, which is a lovely perk when we're out of town with 10 or 15 minutes to spare. (September is Library Card Sign-Up Month, so you might want to beat the rush and do it early.)

Whenever I finish a book (or decide it's not worth my time and mental effort to read it), I take out my bookmark and move it to the next book on my nightstand.

It doesn't always happen, however.

So, before husband Richard makes his weekly library trek to trade in a bagful of books we've read for those we haven't, it's always our intention to check every book for left-behind, forgotten markers.

That doesn't always happen, either.

We're well aware of our failings and foibles. So, before we ever use a new bookmark, I label the back with a self-adhesive address label (from among the hundreds sent to us so often in the mail, along with fervent pleas for donations in support of good causes).

Fortunately, when our bookmarks stay stuck in books we've returned, Cambria's lovely library ladies and genial gents find the markers and save them for us, thanks to the address labels that tell them whose bookmarks they are.

Very rarely, that doesn't happen, either.

In mid-July, I got a note from Mary Flores of Nipomo. I don't think I know any Nipomo residents, let alone a Mary Flores. I studied the envelope, trying to exercise my ESP to divine who she could be.

It didn't work. Finally, when I opened the envelope, one of our bookmarks fell out.

On a perky greeting card, Mrs. Flores had written: "Hi! I found this in a book from the Nipomo Library. Since you have a return-address label on it I assumed you would like your cute little bookmark returned. I know I would like it back if it were mine. Mary Lou."

How delightful! I had just received an act of random kindness from a stranger, a thoughtful gesture that cost her a snippet of time, the price of the card and a 42-cent postage stamp.

Yes, it was just a little thing, but it made me smile for days.

So, of course, as soon as I could, I stopped at the drug store to buy more bookmarks.

I stuck one in a bright "Thank You!" greeting card with a note.

"How kind you were to send back my bookmark. I try not to leave them in the books I read, but sometimes I forget. One sweet kindness deserves another, so I hope you'll enjoy having your own bookmark, and it will remind you what a nice person you are. Kathe."

Now, I do know someone in Nipomo, and we have a common bond. When we look at our little otter faces, maybe we'll think of each other and smile. Perhaps one of these days, we'll even meet somewhere in between, over tea and scones, and talk about books we love and other shared interests.

It was just a little thing, you see, but you just never know what might happen because of it.

Contact Kathe Tanner at

Thursday, July 31, 2008

BEST OF: With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy ...

You might be from the coast of Central California in summer if ...

l. You know the state flower — Mildew (good one, Jeff!).

2. You’d shoot your cat before you’d throw aluminum cans, a Dasani water bottle or an empty “Two-Buck Chuck” wine jug into the trash.

3. You use the expression “sun break” and know what it means.

4. You know more than 10 ways to order coffee, even at Taco Bell.

5. You’d feel overdressed wearing a suit anywhere except to your own funeral.

6. You know how to pronounce Cayucos, Cuyama, Cholame, Pfieffer Big Sur and (last but certainly not least) San Luis Obispo.

6a. You can talk about towns like Buttonwillow and Shafter without getting the giggles.

7. You can point out the difference to wave-watchers between kelp and an otter, or between a swimming sea lion or harbor seal.

8. You know 52 kinds of birds, because they all come to your back yard to raid the cat-food dish.

9. You can identify at 100 yards whether the whale is a gray, humpback, orca or wishful thinking.

10. You know the different nuances between Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food, and you can cook all four very well, thank you.

11. You feel justifiably smug when the temperatures don't vary by more than a few degrees, night or day. “Better than 110,” you mumble as you develop mold in your nasal passages and grow kelp between your toes.

12. You break out the 50 SPF sunscreen and the Tilly hat any time the weatherman says there's a chance of partial sun through the coastal fog.

13. You put on your shorts when the temperature gets above 50, but still wear your hiking boots and parka. You switch to your sandals when it gets above 60, but keep the socks on.

14. You’ve been to Hearst Castle, Pozo, the Far Western, the Oceano Dunes, the missions and most of the restaurants in the county. Or at least you say you have.

15. You measure distance in hours or portions thereof, plus degrees. “It’s only 20 minutes to Morro Bay, but it’s 30 minutes and 40 degrees to Paso.”

16. You know the difference between an ag easement, a conservation easement and having land in the Williamson Act, and know they're all better than having another 650 homes in the viewshed.

17. You use a down comforter in the summer and a light blanket in winter.

18. You regard the other side of the Santa Lucias as “over there.” You know it's another country, because the terrain AND the people are sooooooo different.

19. You design your child’s Halloween costume in layers, thin enough so, if the weather's as hot as it usually is, the kid won't faint, but sized to fit under a raincoat or over a turtleneck, just in case.

20. You carry jumper cables in your car and know how to use them, whether you're a man or woman. You also know how to change a tire, because at 9:30 at night on Highway 1, that's probably your only way home.

21. You may be a blue-hair, but, by God, it probably looks black or auburn to the rest of the world, if they don't look too closely.

22. You know all the important seasons: Tourist Season (spring through fall) which coincides nicely with Visiting Family Season; Rainy (can be a day or six months); Dry (can be one day or all year); Windy (April through June, plus anytime there’s a big, special event with a tent); Road Repairs (summer); Brown Hills (fall); Shopping (winter or all year); and Holiday (very similar to Tourist/Family).

23. You know half the fun of going to “The City” (San Francisco) or “The Pit” (Los Angeles) is griping about it, before and after the trip.

24. You know your neighbors, often for blocks or miles in any direction. You don’t agree with all (any) of them, but if they’re sick, or in an accident, or there’s been a tragedy or death in the family, you’re there in a flash to do food, laundry, dusting, babysitting. You’ll make funeral arrangements, or call the relatives, the cops or the doctor. Then, when the crisis is over, you’ll all go back to kvetching at each other, just like always.

25. You are fully aware you’re among the luckiest of humans, because you live on the coast of Central California, the most beautiful place in the world, fog or no fog.

This column ran first in The Cambrian on June 26, 2003, and subsequently in The Tribune. Comments are encouraged here, or you can e-mail Kathe Tanner at

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Are Wii having fun yet?

I feel so stupid. I need to find someone who’ll teach me to Wii.

You don’t speak Nintendo? The wildly popular Wii game console is the über-interactive game that even the most frantic Christmas shoppers couldn’t find anywhere last year unless they camped out in a Costco parking lot at 3 a.m. For days. Or dashed to Best Buy at 7 a.m. as soon as they saw a telltale ad in the Sunday paper.

In Cambria, we’re many miles from the big-box or discount stores that were the only places getting large shipments of Wii consoles (if you can call a dozen units at a time “large”).

There was no way we could beat everybody else to the draw. By the time we had our Tribune in hand, all the other potential buyers who lived in SLO or Paso already were lined up, Visa cards in hand.

Fortunately, the granddaughters for whom we wanted the Wii hadn’t requested one, and didn’t know we were looking for one, so they weren’t disappointed Christmas morning when we weren’t able to produce one.

Discouraged, I announced that if we stumbled across a Wii for sale, we’d buy it. But continue my relentless, time-consuming search? Not a chance.

Then in April, Husband Richard and I were window-shopping our way through a Bay Area mall.

As we strode past a game store, he saw an overhead sign inside that said, “Wii games.” A few steps later, he mused, “I wonder if they have the consoles.”

I U-turned so fast, I almost spun us both like a top. I pranced in and asked if the store might possibly have Wii consoles for sale.

“You’re in luck,” the hip young game-seller said brightly. “We just got our biggest order yet, a dozen of them.” Before he could blink, I yanked out my credit card and said, “I’ll take two,” one for the girls, and one, by golly, for Grandma and Grandpa. The game looked like fun.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the salesman said. “Only one to a customer.”

I’m sure my face fell. “But we need one for our granddaughters in Davis,” I said dejectedly, “and we want one for us, too.”

The hip young game-seller looked at us and smiled broadly, perhaps struck by the ludicrousness of people our age determined to own a Wii. He stage-whispered, “If you can give me two different credit cards, I can make it work.”

Now, I suspect I’m better trained in Nintendo than most grandmas. The boys and I have played video games together since the 1960s, gradually progressing from the now venerable Atari consoles to newer, better systems.

I got hooked on certain classical programs … such as Pac Man and Tetris … never the shoot-’em-up, beat-’em-up ones or the games in which Mario chases his tail through 2,876 levels.

Did I say hooked? When our house was destroyed by fire in April 1994, my Mother’s Day gift (from a wildly giggling son) was a new Gameboy.

“I’ll bet I’ve got the only mom in the world who needed one of these for Mother’s Day,” Sean said as he gasped for air between hysterics.

Through the years, I’ve learned a lot from video games:
• Eye-hand coordination.
• Strategy — put that piece here and the next one there and I’ll get a Tetris!
• Patience, because the one piece you need doesn’t show up for a long, long, long time.
• Self-control, or I’d take a sledgehammer to the game when it’s just beaten me for the 15th time in a row.
• And, most important, when to give up and go read a book.

But this time, I’m stumped. The thick owner’s manual for the Wii is like cyber-Sanskrit.

To play, you transfer what you already know about, say, tennis, to a game that you physically play while also working the controller. Using your best tennis swings, you must keep a death grip on the controller, so you don’t wind up flinging it through the TV screen or out the window while you “hit” the cyber ball.

Tricky, yes?

Guess I’ll have to find a clever 6-year-old to teach me.

Just imagine how dumb that makes me feel.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribune

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wildfires forge bonds

Coming home from San Luis Obispo the other day was like driving into a Stage 3 smog alert in the Los Angeles basin. Smoke and ash melded with fog into a brownish-gray haze hovering over our usually air-pristine canyons, hills and beaches.

A remarkably early wildfire season surrounded us with disasters to our north, east and south. The only good, smoke-free wind was one from due west, and there were precious few of those.

Even so, we're all devoutly counting our blessings and keeping our fingers crossed. May our good, fire-free fortune continue.

With smoke filling our eyes, noses and lungs, and sticky ash blanketing our cars and homes, everybody got a little crankier than usual.

"It's probably our cavemen ancestry," husband Richard said. "Smoke means danger, which triggers the 'fight-or-flight' response. We can't get away from it, and most of us can't fight the invader, so our bodies are at war with our emotions."

We also were fretting about our neighbors in Goleta, Lake Isabella and, especially, Big Sur.

Cambrians are inextricably linked to Big Sur-ites by much more than the 70-some miles of gorgeous scenery between the two communities.

Both seaside towns are magnets for tourists. Each is laced with hills, canyons and trees, and has a Mediterranean climate subject to drought.

There also are shared attitudes all along that stretch of Highway 1, not the least of which is a "Please, Mom, I'd rather do it myself" mindset born of living on purpose so far from metropolitan touches like movie theaters, Starbucks and even an X-ray machine.

Paradise may not be convenient, but it's worth it. Until tragedy strikes.

Some Big Sur residents told Bob Putney, Cambria's fire chief, "We thought it couldn't happen here." At the time, he was leading a strike team as part of the defense against the Basin Complex Fire that, as of Tuesday, July 8, had consumed 23 homes and 80,474 acres, closing 20 miles of world-famous Highway 1 during the peak of tourist season.

The blaze got to the back door of the famed Henry Miller Library before firefighters fought it off.

Despite the best efforts of determined firefighters, National Guardsmen, homeowners, volunteers and complete strangers, the fire rages on.

Officials estimate it will be at least the end of July before the huge blaze will be contained.

Not stopped. Not out. Contained. But who expects lightning or a big wildfire in Big Sur on June 21, or for that matter, in its sister community to the south?

Since mid-June in California, more than 500,000 acres have gone up in smoke. Fire analysts already are calling the 2008-2009 fire season "a monster."

"It can't happen here."

Guess again.

Now some Big Sur residents are seeking help (especially from those adept with their own chain saws) in clearing wide swaths of land to create defensible space against the voracious fire-fiend.

As Jack Ellwanger of Big Sur said July 3, "We have so much incendiary dead oak around that the whole region is like a tinder box."

In Big Sur, "The steep canyons explode when ignited, fire jumps fire breaks and prances along ridges. The fire has accelerated at an unparalleled pace because of excessive fuel loads...brush that has not been cleared or burned to too long."

Defensible space. Hmmm.

Sounds familiar.

In Cambria, deadline for weed-abatement chores was July 1. Knowledgeable property owners and residents already have cleared away brush and grasses, downed trees and dead leaves to help prevent a wildfire from devouring all that fuel and heading for homes along the way.

Cambrians who skirted the deadline soon will find a services- district-hired contractor in their yard and a sizeable charge for the clearing on their tax bills next year.

"It can't happen here."

Don't bet the farm on that, Charlie. The cost to Big Sur and other areas has been huge, no matter how you calculate it.

As the lung-choking smog here gradually fades back to our normal, white summer fogs, don't let the memories, the fear and the fight-or-flee instinct fade with it.

Be grateful, be aware and be prepared.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

Monday, July 7, 2008

BEST OF: Exchanging karma

“Hello, Karma Assignment Desk? I’d like to request a change of destiny, please. Whaddya mean, you can’t do that? You gave me this karma by mistake, and I want a new one.

“Why would I want different karma? I’m a community reporter and photographer, you see. No, no, sir. That’s very different from paparazzi. Thank heavens.

“So, what’s my problem? Somehow, you got my karma mixed up with somebody else’s, and I want my own back again.

“Why would I think that? Because the strangest things keep happening to me, stuff you wouldn’t expect in a nice, small town like Cambria. Just ask the tourists who visit here: Things are supposed to be placid and calm on the North Coast, even though they rarely are.

" I’ve checked the employee manual, sir, and these kinds of situations simply are not in my job description.

“Yes, I can explain myself. First there was the calf. Yes, calf, as in bovine.

“How many reporters do you know who have had a hip head-butted by a recently branded-and-neutered, 500-pound, bucking and basically ticked-off calf? Came up behind me in a rush, lowered his head and tossed me tail over Nikon, he did.

“I’d have gotten a 10 for that somersault if I been on a balance beam instead of at a round-up. Why, I was so black and blue and pink and yellow, I glowed in the dark for a week.

“Then there was that sneaky, mean gopher hole. Gopher. G-O-P-H-E-R. How could a gopher hole hurt me? I was taking pictures of a downed airplane. In San Simeon. No, not at the Hearst air strip (Hey, for a karma dude, you know a lot about the North Coast!).

“Anyhow, this pilot had problems with his gas supply and tried to land his little plane on Highway 1. He missed. Landed in a field. Scrunched the plane a bit.

“To get the best picture, I had to go down this little slope … no, I know better than to run down something like that. Too much dry grass on the ground. Too slippery. So I sat down and scooted on my, um, butt.

“No, I didn’t get my butt stuck in the gopher hole! You’ve never seen my butt, sir. (Peals of laughter from Karma Central). Hummph. Well, maybe you have.

“Anyhow, as I slid down the slope, I’d just gotten going at a good clip and my heel got caught in a gopher hole that was hiding out under all that grass. My body kept going, but my foot stopped, and my ankle twisted six ways from Sunday. That was years ago, and I still limp every time I think about it.

“And then there was the time I got run over by a Zodiac.

“No, not the astrological signs. Yes, I know that’s more up your alley. But this was one of those big, inflatable boats. There I was, minding my own business, watching the glassy-smooth ocean, getting ready to climb into the boat to go take some pictures of a bigger boat.

"Well, without a howdy-do, along came this itty-bitty wave that nobody was expecting. That Zodiac, it just hung 10 on that wave, slid over and clonked me on the knee. Not only that, it tossed me face-down at the surf-line, and then — get this — that nervy boat ran over my leg!

“Yes, sir, it’s the same leg that’s attached to the ankle. No, I’m still not walking straight.

“What did I do? I got up, checked to make sure my camera wasn’t wet, limped over to the boat and got in. Yes, I got some good pictures. Thank you for asking.

“What? You say I don’t need new karma? What I need is a new job? But I love my career, sir.

“You’re telling me if I want to stay in my line of work, the only thing you can do is exchange the karma I have with one of my associates who also want to trade? Which one do I want, you ask? Do I want to be a photographer in Iraq or a reporter in Zimbabwe? Or I could be a political writer in Washington D.C. or Sacramento? In an election year? Not a chance, Charlie.”

Pause. Pregnant one, at that.

“Sir, can I change my mind and just keep my own karma, weird as it is? Yes, I’ll learn to deal with the cows and wayward Zodiacs of life. Even in the world of karma, I think Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like home.”

This column ran Oct. 2, 2003, in The Cambrian.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Semi-powerless in Cambria

For proof that things frequently aren’t as they seem at first glance, consider our recent electrical glitch.

I was working at my computer at 6:30 a.m. on May 22 when the lights went out.

Or so it seemed.

Yes, it did seem odd that the back-up power supply wasn’t whining, yelling and raising Cain, as it usually does when there’s no power. But I went into the kitchen anyway and grabbed our hard-wired phone to call Pacific Gas & Electric’s outage line. (A non-portable phone that’s directly tied in to AT&T lines works fine during a power outage, unless a falling tree took out the phone lines, too.)

As I dialed (800) 743-5000, I glanced at the coffee counter and saw a nightlight burning as brightly as it ever does.

Had the power gone back on, and I just didn’t notice?

I flipped the pantry’s light switch. Nothing. The refrigerator, toaster and coffeemaker worked, but the microwave oven and stove fan wouldn’t. Same in the living room, where the chandelier and fan worked, but ceiling lights and wall receptacles didn’t.

Husband Richard and I began to panic. Visions of melting wires and shorting circuits danced in our heads. Our former home burned down because of an electrical problem. So we tend to … um … react strongly, shall we say, when power sources are compromised in any way.

Finally, having determined that the off-and-on problem was consistently inconsistent throughout the house, I called our electrician. He promised to check it out.

It was a Thursday, so I wasn’t on deadline for The Cambrian’s weekly edition. But I was working on a story for The Tribune, due that afternoon. And among the powerless items in the house were my trusty portable phones.

Cell phones don’t work at our house under the best of circumstances, so I took my laptop and office chair into the kitchen, set myself up alongside our hard-wired phone and began to call my sources for interviews.

After several hours of that uncomfortable madness, the clock (battery powered) staggered toward noon. I hadn’t yet heard from the electrician, and I was getting increasingly antsy.

Then I heard a truck pulling up. Expecting the electrician, I headed outside. Surprise! It was a PG&E troubleman, driving down our street with a puzzled expression on his face.

Before he could pull away, I ran out to quiz him, asking how our house power could be half-on, half-off, and what we should be doing about it.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “We’ve got a bad trunk line along here somewhere, and I’m trying to track it down,” he continued.

“But. But,” I sputtered. “Half the connections in the house are working. How can the problem be in the power source?”

He tried to explain, but had to rush off to solve the problem. Soon, we had full power again, everywhere.

Later, I called Pete Resler, PG&E spokesman.

He said he’d never heard of that kind of problem before, but checked it out with Mark Srauenheim, distribution superintendent for the San Luis Obispo office.

Resler explained later, as power flows through transmission lines, “it’s at a higher voltage than can be used in your home. So the power goes into a transformer that steps it down to a proper voltage for your house.

When the power comes out of the transformer, it splits into two lines, he said. “Each home (unless it’s a really old house), has two service lines. Sometimes the lines will be in two separate cables, sometimes bundled as two wires in one cable.”

In the case of our neighborhood’s outage, he said, “one of the wires was faulty and you lost half the power to your house,” as did other homes around us.

The lineman “did some troubleshooting on the neighborhood circuit, identified the bad line and fixed it.”

So, if this weird thing ever happens again, I’m still going to call my electrician, just in case. But I will have finished that call to PG&E first, because things often are not as they seem to be, especially when you’re only half lit.

Friday, June 20, 2008

BEST OF: Hot times in a cool city

When summertime temperatures hit 97 in Death Valley, the full-timers there put on their sweaters.

In San Francisco (or Cambria, if the truth be known), when the thermometer hovers anywhere near triple digits, it’s as if the end of the world is upon us and we’re sinking into the fires of Hell.

When we got to “The City” for our vacation that day, it was 97 degrees at Market Street and Embarcadero. The air was going nowhere fast. There was not a breeze anywhere, nor even a half-cup of fog.

It was miserable and people were downright cranky. “This never happens here,” they said in a heat-glazed daze.

Machines were working slowly, if at all. One severely overloaded cable car thought it could, thought it could make the steep trek up Powell Street, but lo and behold, it was the little engine that couldn’t. The driver had to back down and make another run at it before he could continue his route.

The City’s customary aroma — a mystical blend of soy sauce, curry, seafood, espresso, cigar smoke, ocean brine and a few unmentionables — was far overshadowed by the stench of asphalt oozing and melting in the relentless sun.

Visitors, who’d been urged by their travel agents to bring sweatshirts and warm jackets to San Francisco, were puzzled and dashing for Union Square to buy shorts and tank-tops. And that was to wear to the Top of the Mark! In their hotel rooms, overheated tourists probably slept in the shower, with the water going full blast.

Unless they were from Death Valley, in which case, they were freezing.

We were lucky in one sense: Our hotel was air conditioned, a rarity in the town that produced Fog City Records and fog-tea. On the other hand, the a/c system was designed more to stir the air around than chill it down, so by 4:30 in the morning, our room was still considerably beyond cozy in the high 80s.

It was like sleeping in one of those trendy kitchen warming drawers.

However, even in the wee, small hours, the air outside was hotter still.

At 6:30 a.m., when the nearby Walgreen’s pharmacy-cum-variety-store opened, I dashed across the street and bought two small fans for our room.

Obviously, plans for our day of museum hopping weren’t heat-wave-friendly, not unless they wanted to use me for some exotic science experiment. “Premise: At what temperature does a human start to melt?”

In the end, we spent the day jumping on and off cable cars and trolleys, enjoying the gentle breeze of open-air travel, along with the changing scenery of gingerbread-frosted buildings and the San Franciscans who live and work in them.

People-watching in San Francisco is a true art form. The City’s residents — the real ones, not nouveau San Franciscans — don’t wear just wear clothes. They costume … even at 97 degrees.

That elderly little lady with her suit, pillbox hat and white gloves is living out her memories of social graces that have gone the way of the dodo.

The Gen-X day-trader heading for his power breakfast with the brass is equally as uniformed in his Polo shirt (the real thing by Lauren, of course), his crisp chinos, his micro-fiber messenger bag, his laptop/PDA/cell-phone and his Mephisto loafers.

The teen with purple-tinged hair, black fingernails and enough body piercings to qualify as a studded tire is wearing more fierce-looking stuff around her waist, neck and wrists than a SWAT team member. Heavy metal is her accessory, not a music style. Bumping into her would be like going 10 rounds with a forklift.

By the next morning, it had “cooled down” to a high of 92. We had an early breakfast at the Ferry Building’s farmers market, noshing our way from booth to booth. I’ll bet by noon, those beautiful fresh fruits had turned to jam and the veggies were instant ratatouille.

A ferry ride was just the ticket for our last day in The City. It was the only place to be even remotely cool.

One thing’s certain: The next time somebody tells me San Francisco’s a hot town, I’ll ask for context first, and then I’ll check to see if he’s a Death Valley native.

This column ran July 10, 2003, in The Cambrian.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Finding ancestors in unusual places

We came across "The Ancestors" again recently, and seeing the antique artwork revived all the old questions. The paintings of the stern-faced man and woman have been part of our family for as long as I can remember, always stuck in somebody’s attic, basement or shed.

The assumption always has been that they’re twigs on our family tree, somehow. We just don’t know which branch.

Not knowing their names or how we’re related, I’m certainly not inclined to hang them on the wall and look at them every day. But I can’t quite bring myself to consign the pictures to the garage-sale pile, not yet.

So there The Ancestors sit, stored in dusty archives alongside Christmas ornaments, boxes of clothes I’ll never wear again and the great blender for which I can no longer find parts.

Genealogy fascinates me, especially now that the Internet links us to such marvelous archives as those compiled by the Mormon Church. But I already spend too much of each day clicking and typing on my computer.

At the end of a long work day, the last thing I want to do is spend more time at my keyboard to track relatives … even if I’d like to know the cousins, aunts and uncles I assume are out there.
Sometimes, however, they find me.

For instance, when my aunt Kate came to visit recently, she left me a book to read and keep. "In My Blood," by John Sedgwick, is billed as covering "six generations of madness and desire in an American family."

That is our family, too, Kate said, through her mother (my grandmother). Fascinating!

We apparently are among the descendents of Major Gen. Robert Sedgwick, 1613-1656. Our lineage means Kate and me could join the Ancestors of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts (founded in 1637). That makes it the oldest Hereditary Society in the U.S., according to

Such ancestral one-upmanship matters to some people, but certainly not to Kate or me, especially since neither of us are joiners at heart. I’d rather have a relative I can hug than a plaque on my wall.

But it is nice to know our family’s been on U.S. soil for at least that long, even if they did have a whole tool-box full of loose screws, according to the book.

Of most interest to me is how many of the people John Sedgwick profiled were notable writers of their times, authoring books and contributing regularly to such periodicals as The Atlantic, GQ and Newsweek.

I’ve also discovered that the Internet can produce inadvertent genealogical treasures. Sometimes the joy just falls into your lap (otherwise known as the Inbox).

About two years ago, my cousin Lisa (on my father’s side), sent me an e-mail. "I’m checking this guy out," she wrote, "but it looks like we might have some Marsala relatives. YAY!"

The message she forwarded introduced Rosario Marsala. I have copied it verbatim. But keep in mind that Saro doesn’t speak English; his daughter translated his message before they sent it.

"I was born in Villalba (Sicily) in 1947, now I live in Catania. Our grandfathers were brothers and so our fathers were cousins. From a long time I tried to make contact with your family and finally I make it with notices in Internet. If you want to know me and your descentent better I’m disposed to exchange notices. With love to you and your family, Rosario Marsala."

For someone like me, with few blood relatives I can identify, write to and hug, that short e-mail was found treasure.

The three of us have exchanged intermittent messages since, along with wistful hopes that we can all get together someday.

In one of the more charming linguistic twists of translation, our newly found cousin often signs off his recent missives with, "Lovely, Saro."

Dear Saro, yes it would be a joy to meet you and yours. I’d love to have you teach me Italian, more about our family and Grandma Maria’s recipe for ragú.

But just knowing you’re there is such a warm fuzzy feeling, such a delight. Thank you for that.
Now, if only I knew who "The Ancestors" were.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

Sunday, June 8, 2008

BEST OF: A liver lover's comeuppance

When I was younger, one food that was touted as magic was … gulp … liver. It was packed with protein, iron, vitamin A, riboflavin and niacin. We were supposed to eat it once a week, assuming you could stand the sight, smell, feel and look of it.

In recent years, liver has lost its nutritional luster, so to speak, because of high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol.

It’s really satisfying to see it out of favor. Revenge is sweet, even if liver isn’t.

In my March 2, 1983, column in The Cambrian and the newspaper then known as the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, I explained my aversion to liver. “I had an acute case of childhood anemia in the days when Geritol was only for the Social Security set. So, I ate liver. And eggs. And spinach. But mostly liver. Once a day.

"And early in the treatment, I had to eat it … raw.”

My poor mother, who felt as I do about liver, fixed it for me. “Then she had to sit there and watch me eat it — not only for moral support and friendliness, but to make sure I didn’t slip it under the table to the cat.

“Mom manufactured numerous disguises, none of which worked. Grind liver up fine and bury it in a meatloaf, and you’ve got a liver meatloaf. Put it into a turkey stuffing, and you’ll ruin a perfectly nice bird. And chopped calves liver is nothing like the classical chicken-liver spread.

“Because it will still be beef liver.

“However, I survived. And that should have been that.”

Then I married a man who, for years, adored calves liver, with or without onions. Before husband Richard’s heart surgery, he actually was eager to order it in public, when we were at a restaurant.

“Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is?” I wrote. “Being in public with someone who enjoys beef liver? I’d almost rather he'd put a lampshade on his head at parties, or sang ‘Melancholy Baby.’

So, rather than suffering the indignities of public disclosure and paying restaurant prices for the honor, I found myself cooking beef liver at home.

This, naturally, meant I had to cook another entire meal for the rest of the family, who, not being willing eat it themselves OR share their dining table with a plate of liver, ate their meals in another room.

Over the years, I developed some culinary tricks. I used tongs when cooking liver. I chomped on aromatic gum. I squinted a lot, so I could almost convince myself that I wasn’t really seeing what I was afraid I was seeing.

And I came up with a combination of flavors that made liver almost taste good. For those who like liver to begin with, I understand the mixture is ambrosial.

“I’ll take their word for it,” I wrote.
And, for other liver haters, the combination is magical with boneless chicken breasts, pounded out a bit to make them an even thickness.

The recipe included crisp bacon (also verboten now, sob, wail) and sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

I salted, peppered and sprinkled the liver with nutmeg, paprika and thyme, then seared it on one side until it started to brown. Almost immediately after I flipped it, I poured over it a blend of teriyaki sauce and cream sherry, which simmered away until the liver was done to taste (not mine, Charlie!). I then reduced the sauce and stirred in some sour cream and a sprinkle of fresh nutmeg.

As I wrote at the end of the recipe, “Serve quickly. The only thing worse than hot cooked beef liver is cold cooked beef liver.”

Or raw liver.

But the column had a sequel.

We were in the bakery-and-catering business then, and a few weeks after the column was published, we prepared and served an oh-so-chic housewarming-party meal near the country-club golf course in San Luis Obispo.

The men clustered around husband Richard at the bar, and the women gathered around me at the appetizer station.

We chatted away, and soon they realized I was a Trib columnist. The women buzzed with excitement (and the results of a few margaritas), asking questions and advice.

Suddenly, one woman popped up out of the huddle, pointed her finger at Richard and said, loudly and accusingly, “And you’re the damn liver lover!”

Not any more, ma’am. And for that, I thank his cardiologist, nutritionist, the dawn of common sense and improving taste buds.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Seize the moment

I was logging my miles on a walk when I saw her, a slight, young girl sitting there on the rock at the beach. Her head was down, her hands were in her lap and her shoulders were hunched over a bit. Her long blond hair flowed over them and riffled in the breeze.

Her back was to me, but from my vantage point, she didn’t seem to be moving, even though other children nearby were running and playing in the sand. Other nearby adults, parents perhaps, glanced over at her occasionally but didn’t seem worried.

I stood and watched. Maybe five minutes passed. As far as I could tell, she still hadn’t looked up, wiggled, twisted or moved at all. Finally, I began to walk toward her to make sure she was all right. As I circled around to get a better head-on view, I saw what she had been doing for all that time.

She was looking at a shell … turning it over and over in her hand, running her fingers along the ridges and swirls. She was smiling with sparkling eyes. The child clearly was entranced. Relieved that she was OK, I continued my walk but kept the little girl’s wonder and joy in my mind.

And then someone turned on the memory light bulb over my head.

In another era, that little girl on the rock was me. That’s why the vision of her had captivated me so: I’d repeatedly done the same thing when I was her age, spending long chunks of time studying a treasured shell from along the Atlantic-Ocean shore.

Back in the present, I envied both little girls for their ability to single-track focus, for their unquestioning sense of wonder and magic … and for the spare time they had for studying those shells. I so wanted all that back.

How long had it been since I was that completely engrossed in and thrilled by something so simple yet so complex? Since I’d taken the time to really, truly appreciate the wonders of the world?

Too long.

We live at the edge of the sea, but do we really see it any more, or is it just a majestically moving-mural backdrop to our lives?

We live at the midst of a rare, historic forest, but how long has it been since any of us big people have really studied one of its pines or oaks, a cone or a root and felt the power of its ages?

Looking back toward my long-gone child again, I remembered lying on the ground, looking up through a tree’s branches to the blue sky and dreaming … probably for hours. Is that child gone forever?

These days, when we see the deer, the otters, the pelicans, we smile and feel false pride in our wisdom, because we’re smart enough to live here. But do we stop and really watch as a casually strolling doe stands stock still and stares back, cockily confident that we’re merely a minor irritant in the grand scheme of things?

How many weeks (months, years) has it been since we’ve sat on the pier at San Simeon? Or driven to Morro Bay and taken time along the way to park, sit on the car hood and absorb the beauty of the sweep of beach down to the rock? Or stopped on the way to Templeton to admire the twists and curves of an ancient oak tree?

There’s so much that we busy-busy adults see but don’t observe and appreciate. We drive through Cambria’s streets, but do we pause to enjoy the quirky diversity of the homes’ architecture and settings? To wonder, “Just who are those people who live in there?”

We dash downtown to grab a quart of milk or a prescription, but don’t take time to appreciate Cambria’s unique blend of charm and idiosyncrasy. How long since we walked through a mission, Hearst Castle or a museum … hiked through a forest, jogged down a shoreline or strolled along a meadow path?

Much too long.

So, see ya, folks. It’s past time. I’ve got a play date with Mother Nature.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

Friday, May 23, 2008

BEST OF: Fry attack

Most of us at least make a stab or two at trying to eat correctly, doing our low-cal, low-fat, high-exercise penance for past indiscretions. But sometimes, after an angelic breakfast of orange juice and cereal with fat-free milk or yogurt, I’ll get a major munchie attack about half-past lunch.

That’s especially true if I’m driving past JJ’s or the grill, and catch a whiff of crisp, hot French fries, right out of the fryer. Yes, I know they’re empty calories, coronary arrest lurking in a greasy little white paper bag. But that aroma can be so seductive that some days, it’s almost impossible to drive past the parking area.

When I’m really hungry and know I’ll be heading past those seductive scents, I’ve even tried distracting myself with peppermint lotion under my nostrils. Trust me: peppermint-laced fried potatoes will never challenge deep-fried Twinkies, which also sound like a culinary nightmare.

Recently, I gave in to the siren of the fryer, deluding myself with the thought that I’d avoided a French-fry binge for weeks. And, according to Julia Child (not to mention various dietary behavior-modification gurus), if you really, really want to eat something, you’re supposed to go ahead and eat it, in moderation.

“Don’t try to eat on the cheap,” they say, or you’ll wind up eating everything in sight to compensate for what you really want. It’s like a “Cathy” cartoon from hell, come to life.

You know what I mean. When you’re really craving a Linn’s éclair, Sugar-Free Jell-O just won’t do. Fat-free yogurt’s good, but it’s not a French Corner Bakery tart or one of Caren’s Corner’s sundaes. Celery’s a joke unless it’s filled with cream cheese or peanut butter, or sautéed in butter with onions for a rich turkey stuffing. And rice cakes make good building blocks for a tiny granddaughter. But lunch?

So there I was, decadence personified, searing my hands by snatching the first few blazing-hot fries out of the bag.

I dug around in the bag for the catsup packets, each the size of two plump, side-by-side stamps and holding a tablespoon or so of the spicy condiment. Aha! Found ‘em.

The trick is getting the catsup out of a packet.

“Tear here,” said the tiny printing near the ridged top edge of the packet.


I squeezed my grease-slicked right thumb and forefinger together at the “tear here” mark on the catsup packet. But the minute I tried to pull the other edge with my left hand, my right hand would lose its grip.

It was like trying to hold onto a raw egg white with your fingers spread apart, pry the pit out of an extra-ripe avocado, or grab a wary, soapy 2-year old out of the bathtub.

There in the middle of the sidewalk, my options were few. Those packets are made from well-disguised chain mail. I had no scissors in my pocket, no Swiss Army knife in the glove compartment.

Bite it open? Don't think so. I already pay my dentist far too much money to try that maneuver.

I had this vivid vision of having a catsup temper tantrum, putting the packet on the pavement and stomping up and down on it. But just think of the mess I’d have made and, what’s worse, there wouldn’t have been any catsup left.

By now, I was back at the office, and my fries were cold. Yuk. Cold fries rank right up there with chilled Cream of Wheat, or a warm Dove bar. So I threw the whole mess away, and stalked off in a hungry huff.

Later, I figured it out. The Zone Diet and Weight Watchers conspired to invent the catsup packet. It’s cut-proof, tear-proof and meal-proof … on purpose. It’s behavior modification, whether you want it or not.

I’d say thank you to them for their diet assistance, but I really, really wanted those fries.

Next time? I’ve got it all figured out. I’ll just take along my own little bottle of catsup. Have Heinz, will travel.

This column ran May 1, 2003, in The Cambrian.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bra-bbling about underwear

I say "grrrrrr" to anonymous writers, people who don't put their names on comments, letters or articles they post on the Internet.

If you've got something to say, by golly, then sign it. Take responsibility. Be proud of what you've written, so we know who to applaud or boo, depending on your stance and ours.

It's all there on the Net--somewhere -- politics, recipes, philosophy and, by the way, here's how my neighbor looks when he's half-dressed, half-smashed and half-witted.

And there are opinions on everything.

For instance, many aggrieved women have griped in print or online about that female-torture device known as a bra.

Fashion says there's no choice: We either strap ourselves into bindings to elevate our glands, sharpen their profiles and keep them steady, or we flip, flop and try not to catch our droop-boobs in the zippers of our jeans.

Bras are especially difficult after a certain age: As someone named Val wrote on a blog, "I used to wear a I wear a 36 long."

Some of the "bra-articles" surfaced first in newspapers or magazines, then migrated to the Internet, often because someone read the writing, liked it and wanted to share it with someone else.

For instance, Belinda Luscombe wrote an open letter, "Warren Buffet, Adjust My Bra," which ran in Time magazine Nov. 12 (,9171,1680142,00.html). Buffet owns underwear firms Fruit of the Loom and Vanity Fair (among many others), and Luscombe begged him to bring brassiere design into the 21st century.

I especially loved her tale of Herminie Cadolle, whom Luscombe said invented the bra strap about 120 years ago because "it made more sense for women's breasts to be suspended from above than cantilevered from beneath. So, instead of walking around wearing the lingerie equivalent of the London Bridge, women could slide themselves into a Golden Gate. This was a huge relief -- as anyone who has worn a strapless bra can tell you -- because the London Bridge pretty much always falls down."

Earlier that month, 52-year-old Lee Jackson of Auckland, New Zealand, responded online to the San Francisco Chronicle's "great bra debate" in the editorial pages.

Jackson said she wants to shoot the inventor who developed "an underwire to shove your boobs together for 'cleavage.'" If that inventor was a man, she said, he should have "paper clips wrapped around his testicles" and the clips "fastened to the waist of his BVDs with rubber bands."

Jackson wrote that she's tired of:
* "bras that fit wonderfully until I actually sit down, bend over, twist around or reach up for something";
* "so-called sports bras that make me wonder just what 'sport' they were designed for"; and
* "walking into a lingerie shop and having prepubescent, anorexic twigs advise me I might have better luck finding something that 'fits me' in the geriatric section of a department store."

Well done, Lee.

But we can't thank the woman who wrote of preparing for her high-school reunion with a quick diet and some fashion tricks ... none of which worked.

She battled with a slinky dress, body prep and makeup ("all-day, face-lifting, gravity-fighting moisturizer with wrinkle-filler spackle").

Then came a "black lace, tummy-tucking, cellulite-pushing, ham-hock-rounding" girdle and the matching "'lifting-those-bosoms-like-they're-filled-with-helium' bra."

The contortionist writer "pulled, stretched, tugged, hiked, folded, tucked, twisted, shimmied, hopped, pushed, wiggled, snapped, shook, caterpillar-crawled and kicked" her way into the girdle, then tackled the bra.

The saleslady had told her, "Put the bra on the way it should be worn -- straps over the shoulders. Then bend over and gently place both breasts inside the cups."

The writer groused that "the boobs weren't cooperating." After testing various techniques, she tried rocking back and forth to get her bosoms swinging. "Finally, on the fourth swing, pause and lift, I captured the gliding glands" and fastened the bra.

"Yes, Houston, we have lift up!"

She wrote, "My breasts were high, firm, and there was cleavage! I was happy ...until I tried to look down. I had a chin rest. And I couldn't see my feet."

She never did get to the reunion.

How I'd love to send her a fan letter, if I only knew who she was.

Friday, May 9, 2008

BEST OF: Popping-hot thoughts

Sometimes, my mind is like a popcorn kernel in a hot frying pan, jumping from place to place, but never really getting anywhere. That’s especially true when insomnia strikes. All I really want is an “off” button for my brain, so I can get some sleep.

In the middle of one recent night, I started mulling over some things I’ve learned in my life and how I’d define them.

For instance, I’ve learned that:

• If a jacket or dress in a shop window or ad makes the size 2 model wearing it look like a prime candidate for Weight Watchers, no amount of dreaming, wishing or squinting up my eyes will make the fashions look good on my generously proportioned body.

The phrase “high-style human Hummer” comes to mind.

• Running a vacuum cleaner over the same spot at least six times before I bend down to pick up whatever it is the vacuum isn’t catching is a waste of my time and electricity, and I feel profoundly foolish if somebody else sees me doing it.

Work order: “If you can’t suck it up, pick it up.”

• Cutting your nails over a shag rug will come back to haunt you.

Mantra: “Stepping on a rug of nails is no more comfortable than sleeping on a bed of them.”

• Buying a self-help book or listening to a do-it-yourself program doesn’t get the job done. If I want the results, I have to do the exercise, clean the refrigerator’s compressor, dig up the tulip bulbs or study Italian.

The title “’something for dummies’ means the dummy has to do the work herself.

• Once cupboards, closets and shelves are full, such pleasant occupations as window shopping, retail Web surfing, catalog-page flipping and going to garage sales can cause conflicts.

Having one mixing bowl is good. Two bowls can get me through a party. Having five identical bowls means I’ll never be able to get any of them into or out of the cupboard without a fight, and may not be able to close the cupboard door.

The dual phrases “Visa bill” and “But where are we going to put it, honey?” come to mind.

• Hunches are good things. Years ago, when county workers installed an all-way stop sign at Burton and Ardath drives, the concept made me nervous. It seemed to me then that having 99 percent of drivers stop at the busy intersection would make the remaining 1 percent is even more dangerous, because nobody would expect those drivers wouldn’t stop.

In a close call, I was nearly the statistic that proved my hunch.

I had stopped at the stop sign, ready to turn right on Ardath on my way home. As I began to turn the wheel and step on the gas, two commercial trucks came over the Ardath rise to the south.

A little voice in the back of my head said, “Those blankety-blanks aren’t going to stop.”

The big, heavy delivery truck, loaded with sheet rock and pulling a trailer loaded with an industrial forklift, sped through the intersection without a hint of stopping or even pausing. A second, smaller delivery truck followed behind.

If I’d made the turn, just because it was my turn and my right to do so, I’d be dead.

That first truck would have hit me right at the driver’s seat, and the second truck would have ploughed into the back of the first truck.

I recall a statement at the end of a public service message: “You may be in the right. Dead right.”

Now, if my mind would just quit popping so I could get some sleep, maybe I wouldn’t have such bizarre thoughts.

This column first ran in The Cambrian on April 3, 2003.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Follow the money

“You think there’s no good left in this world,” Mary Woeste of Cambria said. “You listen to the news and ask yourself, ‘Can it get any worse?’ And then something like this happens.”

Mary, a warmly caring woman eternally on the go, is a caregiver for seniors. She has more to do than time to do it.

I’ve known Mary for about a quarter century. Her brother and uncle, Keith Woeste and Pat Wade, were best pals with our sons Brian and Sean.

About a month ago, after a long shift, Mary was rushing to the post office to buy a money order, carrying cash in an envelope, five $100 bills saved up from Christmas and birthday gifts.

“I must have picked up the envelope upside down,” she surmised. As the money fluttered away, full-speed-ahead Mary was probably already a half-block away. She didn’t notice until, at the post office, she reached inside the now-empty envelope.

She went looking for the cash, but didn’t find it.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, it’s gone. I just hope the person who picked it up needed it worse than I do.’”

However, Henry Rodriguez, on his lunch break from Antiques on Main, had spotted two $100 bills. He thought, “It can’t be real. It must be play money. But then I saw someone else picking up paper in front of the drug store.”

Steve Johnson of Bend, Ore., had found the other $300 and was walking toward Henry. Once they figured out that the money didn’t belong to either of them, Henry gave his two bills to Steve and went to lunch.

Steve was puzzled. How to find the owner? He did what any smart guy would do — he consulted his parents, Loren and Jeanette Johnson of Cambria, telling them, “It was raining $100 bills downtown! I’ve just found $500, and I don’t know how to find out who it belongs to.”

He decided to check at the drug store.

Bingo! This is a small town. Chances are good that if you’re looking for somebody, somebody else you know will know that somebody.

Cambria Village Pharmacy clerk Mandy Ervin, recalls, “A man came in and asked Kris Morris and me if someone had lost some money. We said ‘yes, five $100 bills.’ He pulled them out of his wallet.”

Then he left, but the man who’d had a fistful of dollars wouldn’t be a man with no name for long.

Sue Patchen and Kay Ash were unloading their van in front of the antique mall. Henry came back to work. “I found $200, but we don’t know who it belongs to,” he told coworkers, including Debborah Patchen.

She told her mom and Kay, and they said they’d seen a distraught Mary going from store to store in East Village, asking if anyone had seen her $500.

Debborah called Anne Winburn, owner of St. Mary Mead, a shop across the street. By the time they called Mary, she already knew her money had been found. You see, the drug store clerks also knew Mary, and the pharmacist knew how to reach her.

Mary remembers, “The girl at the pharmacy called me and said, ‘I’m in tears. You won’t believe what just happened.’”

An amazed, grateful Mary “went right down, got the money and went straight to the post office.” But she was dismayed to not know who her Good Samaritan was.

That didn’t last long. Soon, Mary tracked down Good Guy Henry, just a couple doors down the block.

Mary didn’t need CSI Cambria to figure out the rest, because —surprise, surprise — it turns out Henry had known Steve when the Bend resident owned a store in San Simeon.

Mary called Steve’s mom, Jeanette Johnson. Jeanette asked, “How did you find out so fast?”

This is Cambria, Jeanette.

Mary wanted to send a “thank-you” gift. Jeanette checked with her son, then told Mary he wouldn’t take anything, “but you can send him a card.”

Mary said that, on the card, she told Steve that the next time he comes to town, “at least I hope he’ll let me treat him and his family to dinner … What a guy. I’m forever in his debt … and so is my American Express card.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BEST OF: Not-so-Iron-Chefs' ice-cream duel

When neighbors get together in Cambria, it’s often to share a meal.

We and two sets of our Marine Terrace neighbors added a twist to that equation, sharing a holiday weekend night as we made up quarts and quarts of homemade vanilla ice cream in a duel to determine who has the best ice-cream making machine.

The official competitors and their choice of weaponry were:

• Richard Greek, (then the county’s personnel director and former ag commissioner), with a wood-bucket, hand-crank, uses-salt-and-ice model ice-cream maker;

• Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman, with an electrified version of the Greeks’ machine; and

• Richard Tanner, retired baker-caterer and former pit boss for Harrah’s Club, Reno, with a self-contained, no-salt/no-ice, commercial-style electric ice-cream freezer.

The Greeks paid close to retail for their model. We got our machine on super sale/closeout/slight scratches/discontinued model and they couldn’t even find the original box. And the Tangemans got their ice-cream maker at a rummage sale for $5.

Serious competition? Of course not. Hilarious? You bet. Competitive? Oh, definitely. We’re talking some major A-type personalities here, and each was devoutly convinced that his machine was the best on the block, literally.

We all live within a few houses of each other, even one of our official judges Joan Wedbush, who doesn’t have an ice-cream machine, but is a former caterer.

That Sunday proved to be ideal in every way but one: the weather, which was cold, foggy and London-like. Not exactly ideal ice-cream weather, but I guess ice cream is a hit in any environment.

While the idea was strictly for fun, we did have to do things correctly, we agreed. To make sure nobody hyped their own mix to make it special, we made up a giant batch of rich vanilla ice cream, and ladled it into the side-by-side containers right before the machines started their magic.

There were the three contestants, three judges and eight ice-cream groupies in the bunch, ranging in age from 3 to 76. The “duel” was a hoot. Good fun and dessert were the only real goals. We all laughed so hard, our sides and cheeks hurt.

Marty made a big play of stretching his arms behind his head and saying over and over, “See how hard I’m working, checking the ice cream,” while Richard, Christine and son Kris Greek took turns churning the crank on their low-tech device.

Marty made sure he or his wife, Carol Tangeman, stood guard at all times over their machine, to protect against insidious industrial espionage, I suppose.

The Greeks kept needling Marty, noting the noise factor from the Tangemans’ machine. “It’s so loud. You’re drowning out the ocean,” Richard Greek said. “And what if the power goes out?”

“You should have solar panels just for this,” Marty countered to my husband.

In turn, my Richard raised his hands above his head, looked up into the dense, drippy fog and said, “And just what good what that do you? Or us … remember, our machine is electric, too.”

When challenged over his demand for a handicap because he’d been “forced” to use the Greeks’ salt and ice, Judge Tangeman said he’d review the legal precedents … until one of us asked if there’d be any ice cream left by the time he’d get around to handing down his ruling.

This went on all night long.

We’d set up a wine-style blind tasting, complete with official judging forms and palate-cleansing glasses of water. And were those judges meticulous! “All contestants clear the area,” said Wedbush. “Let’s not have any undue pressure.”

The judges studiously nibbled and sipped, rolled the ice creams around on their tongues and slowly filled in their judging forms — much to the consternation of the youngsters waiting to dig into the leftovers.

Then we all sampled the three ice creams, eventually adding fresh strawberries or blueberries, caramel sauce or my Richard’s truffle topper, nuts, M&Ms or sprinkles. In some of the kids’ dishes, it was hard to find the ice cream among the add-ons. Memories of ice-cream-parlor “suicide sundaes” come to mind.

There were distinct differences between the three ice creams. One was soft and smooth, another slightly grainy and homemade style, another firm, icy-cold and silky.

Who won?

The Tanner’s commercial machine took the honors, I think partially because the self-refrigeration unit got the mixture so cold, so fast.

Finally, the sated contestants and judges staggered home, grateful to the end that neighbors could enjoy such a fierce competition, and each other, so much.

Summer’s coming. Anyone for a rematch?

This column ran first in The Cambrian on September 19, 2002.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dye-hard egg hunt

Before I became a grandmother, I never knew it would be so much fun — or so complicated.

For instance, we hosted a houseful for Easter: granddaughters Caitlyn (12), Alyssa (9), Isabelle (8) and Georgia (5), plus our son Sean and his fiancée, Kim. What resulted was this family’s longest-ever Easter egg hunt.

The girls are each so different! And there were some special circumstances to consider: one girl is severely allergic to most nuts; another is fairly fussy about which candies she likes (such as peanut-butter cups); and a third was on crutches, with her leg in a cast after a sledding accident.

The fourth is 5.

So this hunt required some MBA-level pre-planning.

The holiday event began as soon as the girls awoke, with a nervous Easter Bunny (EB) fervently hoping the preparations would produce frolic and fun, but without any youthful hurt feelings, tears or temper tantrums.

At the dining table, each place was set with an egg-shaped place mat, a bunny mug, an Easter candy and a couple of little gifts to keep the girls occupied during breakfast. Meanwhile, EB snuck out, put four filled baskets on the front porch and hid 28 boiled hens’ eggs the girls had colored the day before.

Once the adults were up (if not yet Easter outfitted or even totally awake), the chant began. “Egg hunt! Egg hunt!”

When the girls opened the front door, the squeals began. Baskets! Candy! Trinkets! Chocolate bunnies (three of them filled with peanut cream and delightfully named “Reester Bunnies,” and one nut-free Cadbury)! The giggling gaggle of girls deposited their loot on the dining table, then dashed out the door in search of eggs.

“Halt! Wait!” EB said with nose twitching. “Rule time. There are seven eggs out there for each of you. Caitlyn and Isabelle — once you’ve found seven each, then go help Georgia and Alyssa,” who was limping around on crutches.

Caity and Izzy were done in a flash, of course, but they amiably played “you’re getting warmer … colder” with the other two girls as a couple of adults trailed along to make sure Georgia didn’t wind up stranded in a tree and Lyssie didn’t fall over trying to dig an egg out of a flower pot.

Meanwhile, EB and her two cohorts were inside the house, hiding candy-filled plastic eggs and other goodies.

Once the girls had found all the real eggs outside, the hunt was on in the living room, dining room and halls. It was like having four caffeine-amped monkeys playing “I spy” throughout the house, peering into vases, under couch cushions and behind pillows.

(I so hope they got it all. I remember my grandmother finding an overlooked chocolate egg in August one year — behind the radiator on a white rug that wasn’t white any more.)

Once our girls had ferreted out the goodies, the “Easter Banker” took over.

With a reserve of each kind of candy in another basket, the Easter Banker could exchange candies for another kind. That way, the fussy eater and the nut-allergic could redeem treats they’d found but couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. The other girls could exchange, too, if they wanted to.

Were we done yet? Not a chance.

After Easter Banker negotiations finished, the girls whooped and headed outside again.

Soon they were back, announcing that the adult Easter Egg Hunt was about to begin. They’d re-hidden the colored eggs, and now the parents and grandparents were to find them.

Devious? I ask you, how was I to know they’d hidden an egg under an upside-down abalone shell?

With a little coaching and a lot of hilarity, hooting and hollering from the youthful gallery, we oldsters finally found all the eggs (which by then were destined for the garbage rather than a deviled-egg tray or egg-salad sandwiches).

Whew! The hunt was over. We’d pulled it off. We’d made memories — and a huge, so-funny mess. A month later, in the most unlikely places, we’re still finding biliously pink and purple strands of Easter grass.

Could the Easter Bunny finally relax? Of course not. She’s already planning the 2009 hunt, playing “Can you top this?”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

BEST OF: Tour de chance

Imagine joining a group of strangers traipsing around on a shared vacation, seeing sights, having adventures, being taught new things.

Imagine us running rapidly in the other direction.

It’s called a tour, and for decades, we’ve avoided them like the plague. I'd protest that we’re too self-reliant, too stubbornly autonomous. We like to go our own way, make our own decisions, do our own thing at our own time.

On a tour, most of those choices are premade for you, about your room, your schedule, your activities, your menu and even the people with whom you sit and dine.

“Go, go,” our friends had told us. “Trust us. You’ll have a wonderful time.”

Finally, feisty as I am, I had to admit there was a lure in having somebody else making the decisions once in a while. I was willing to give up my tour-director hat, just for a little while. So, recently, we gave in and dipped our travel toes into the world of shared vacations.

Now as newbies, we weren't brave enough to sign up for a two-week group jaunt to Zimbabwe. We started small, with a close-to-home tour that began on a Sunday night and ended on a Tuesday morning.

Know what? We really did enjoy it. But we did our homework before we went, and that helped a lot.

Here are some things we did pre-tour, and one I shouldn’t have:

· We made sure that we were staying in a hotel we’d have chosen on our own. After you arrive is not the time to discover your hotel is a flea-trap in a red-light district. Fortunately, ours wasn’t.

· Ask dumb-sounding questions, such as “Do you have good water pressure there?” Why ask that, especially at a small hotel? Because on tour, everybody’s on the same schedule, which means most of them will hit the showers at the same time. It’s a bummer to bathe at 6 a.m. with cold water coming out of the showerhead drop by drop.

· Make sure the schedule matches yours. If you sleep till 10 every morning, and the group breakfast is served at 7, you’re going to be miserable.

· The itinerary also should allow you some down time. We had three walking tours in a row, one at 9 a.m., one at 10:30 a.m. and another after lunch. But we had a long sit-down meal, and time to rest before the beach barbecue that night. Even so, our tootsies would have appreciated a longer break.

· Conversely, if you have the chance, switch between types of activities. If you’re sitting on your duff being lectured in the morning, then go for a kayak tour or ping-pong competition in the afternoon. Otherwise, your scheduled evening stroll on the boardwalk may turn into a hobble.

· Make sure the prices you’re paying are, indeed, less than you’d pay if you were setting up the same activities on your own.

· Probably, you’ll be barraged with food. If you’re lucky, as we were, it will be marvelous. But it’s still different than your normal fare. So go easy. Don’t take that third skewer of shrimp or second piece of pie, even if it is included in the cost. Your tummy will thank you.

· And, for heaven’s sake, don’t do as I did and change purses right before the trip. It was plumb mortifying to hold up the line as I rummaged around for my pass in the 17 pockets that purse had suddenly sprouted. I must have looked like an aging bimbo as I smiled (aka grimaced) and apologized over and over.

So, go, go. Enjoy some group travel. If you plan ahead, it can work out to be more fun than you’d have had alone or as a couple. Trust us.

This column ran Sept. 18, 2003 in The Cambrian. And while we've only taken one other shared tour since then, we remain impressed with the concept.