Friday, February 29, 2008

BEST OF: Tagging the hard way

As a reporter, I'm used to finding things in odd places -- a goat on a barn roof, a tree growing through the middle of a house, an elephant seal marching up Highway 1.

At home, I've found my cell phone in the refrigerator, my breakfast muffin in the closet and you don't even want to know all the places where I've eventually found my car keys.

But, even for me, it's a stretch to find a 6-year-old's birthday gift by the men's restroom at Wal Mart.

It all started with our decision to stop giving our grandchildren toys as special-occasion gifts.

Most kids already have enough playthings to stock their own Toys R Us branch. Some kids must host regular toy garage sales to have enough room to get into their bedrooms, let alone sleep there.

You've seen those compress-your-clothes bags that presumably make it easier to jam more stuff into your suitcase? That's what those youngsters need for their toy boxes.

So, in lieu of toys, we're trying to wrap up special experiences and family memories instead, taking them to shows and on vacations.

But the "experience gift" concept muddies a little with a younger child, who really does need a package or two to open.

No, not a toy. For a recent birthday, granddaughter Alyssa and her big sister Caitlyn each received a set of binoculars, for otter searches, tracking boats and birds, or even watching ballerinas on stage.

In preparation for the gift-giving, we gleefully bought two smallish pairs of Bushnells. Could I leave well enough alone?

Naturally not.

The girls need a way to differentiate between the two identical sets, I asserted. Labels would help alleviate the "Mine!" "No, those are mine!" arguments. And, with a name and phone number on each set somehow, a lost pair might -- just might -- get returned.

The tags had to be sturdy, but not too big, or they'd get in the way of little hands. The labels must be big enough to read easily or they'd be useless.

Luggage tags were the obvious answer, but way too big. So were wrap-around, business-card bands for briefcase or suitcase handles.

Little, round write-on key tags with the metal frames around them? Too flimsy. We purchased brightly colored, plastic auto-key tags. Clunky, but they'd work. It was a start.

We searched Cambria, San Luis, all over the Central Coast. I checked catalogs for camera supplies, office supplies, auto, gifts, travel.

The ideas got more convoluted. How about small plastic envelopes, into which we'd insert a printed card, and through which we'd punch a hole and thread a double-loop key-ring or leather strap? We bought them, came home to try them, and they screamed out "funky."

Later, we found some quarter-sized brass disks with holes at the top.

"I can engrave a name and phone number on this," husband Richard bragged. While I wondered if anybody would be able to read his engraving, I agreed to let him try.

We kept looking. "How about ...?" "Nah, won't work." "Maybe, if we ..." "Fahgedit."

In our three-day search, we accumulated lots of "not quites," sore feet, a massive gasoline bill and a lot of frustration.

Discouraged, we gave up. I left our last-resort stop, Wal Mart, heading for the van, while Richard stopped at the restroom. Moments later, he came bouncing back to me, like a golden retriever that discovered a Nerf ball. "Come with me! I found it! I found it!"

At the men's room? Sure enough.

He led me to a machine set up right outside the restroom -- a contraption we've all seen in hotel lobbies, amusement parks and tourist traps. The computerized device engraves tags for dog collars.


About 10 minutes, $16 dollars and four tags later, we had our solution: Little metal hearts, each engraved with the girls' hometown and phone number, plus "Alyssa, age 6" or "Caitlyn, age 9" (anyone who finds binoculars belonging to a 6 year old and doesn't feel guilty about not returning them should be deep-fried).

All this has been a lesson. We do want to share experiences with our offspring, but bullheadedness isn't one of them. Of course, we want them to have open minds while trying to solve problems, and to keep their eyes open for unlikely possibilities.

But this was absurd.

And yes, our next garage sale will feature the Tanner Spring Collection of rejected designer tags.

This column appeared originally on March 17, 2005, in The Cambrian.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Otter mother and child reunion

You look around frantically, but your child is missing. It’s a scenario that strikes terror into the heart of any parent.

We have no way of knowing if that’s what was happening to an otter mom in the surf off Moonstone Beach on Feb. 7. But we sure can guess.

According to rescuers from The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC), a baby otter was squealing loudly that day — not from the water, but from the rocks. Wisely, someone called center’s response hotline.

Trained volunteers P.J. Webb and Teri Woodhouse caught the call, and were soon joined by State Park Ranger Will Rushworth.

They couldn’t see the pup from the bluff. A witness showed the rescuers where the yowling otter was trapped, behind a rock in the rugged intertidal area just north of the boardwalk’s observation point.

Then the little otter stopped squealing — not a good sign.

By phone, TMMC’s rescue line and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation team told P.J., Teri and Will to attempt a rescue. P.J. and Will climbed down the bluff and found the pup trapped about 3 feet down in a narrow, twisted crevasse above a cave.

Ominously, the tide was beginning to turn. As it and the strong waves rose, water would crash down into the rock cave.

Time was getting short for the little otter. If the crooked crevasse filled with water, he could drown. As he fought to get out, he was falling further down toward the cave.

Protected by a towel and gloves because otters bite, P.J. reached for the pup and saw he already was showing signs of stress. He wasn’t happy about anyone trying to get him out of the cave, even though that certainly wasn’t where he wanted to be.

P.J. extricated him and carried the wriggling, snapping bundle up the bluff.

Teri, a trained medical staff rescuer, examined him very carefully. He was a male in good condition, of good weight and with a healthy appearance. Somehow, he had escaped injury in the jagged, rocky cave and rescuers had arrived soon enough to make a difference.

Otter veterinarians told the rescue team by phone to try reuniting the pup with his mother, a maneuver that’s rarely successful, unfortunately.

The eagle-eyed rescuers had spotted some adult otters swimming nearby, but didn’t yet know if one of them was looking for the baby. P.J. and Will loaded the pup into an animal carrier and headed for a protected tidepool. As Will and Teri scanned the sea to see if an adult otter would react, P.J. opened the carrier door.

Because the pup wasn’t yet making any noise to attract his mother, P.J. put him into the tidepool. Much to the rescuers’ relief, the little otter immediately began swimming and grooming in the water. As he became cooler and calmer in his natural surroundings, his physical condition improved and he started squealing those high-pitched, piercing sounds that baby otters use to connect with their mothers.

The pup struggled his way into and through the strong surf, making his way to where waves form. His benefactors stayed on high alert, ready to rescue him again if Mom didn’t show up.

The little swimmer was screaming up a storm … and finally an adult otter made a beeline for him.

The rescuers held their collective breath as the adult and the pup touched noses and greeted each other with cries and squeals. When the mama otter began grooming the pup, he stopped yelping and settled in for good bath … and maybe a “where did you go this time?” scolding.

The rescuers climbed back up the bluff “with an empty carrier and very happy hearts,” according to P.J.’s notes. She said it was a thrill to successfully reunite a mother and her offspring.

P.J. also was very relieved the rescued pup didn’t use his sharp teeth on her. “I credit good training (from TMMC) and fast reflexes in saving all 10 of my digits!”

Thanks to quick response from the public and the skill of trained rescuers, one tiny member of a threatened species had survived another day.

Thanks to P.J. Webb for sharing her memories of that wonderful reunion.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

Saturday, February 16, 2008

BEST OF: Building a castle and a school

It’s always a treat to learn more about people who helped shape our hometown.

When historical author Taylor Coffman spoke to about 80 people at the Cambria Historical Society’s annual membership meeting (in 2003), he introduced us to George Loorz, the man who built much of Hearst Castle, along with the Cambria Grammar School, the buildings that are now Robin’s restaurant, Fermentations and Heart Glass gallery, plus several others in Cambria and throughout the county.

Coffman also recalled that the current Robin's restaurant building, which Loorz constructed for Frank and Mabel Souza, had a “basement, which, on occasion, hosted merrymaking, both in the making of hooch and the imbibing of it. Even though I, no old-timer for sure, remember partying in that basement, which is built like a bomb shelter. Another young guy was living there ... and rehearsing his rock-and-roll band in the basement. That bunker did put out some decibels!”

Coffman could only share a fraction of what he knows about the dapper builder. Even his big book, “Building for Hearst and Morgan: Voices from the George Loorz Papers,” can’t contain all that the author has learned about the builder in a decade or so of intensive research.

In Coffman’s own words, from e-mails we exchanged, “Here's some ‘dope’ on George Loorz (that's a term he would have used):

“He was born in 1898 on a farm in Lovelock, Nev., northeast of Reno. The man left the farm to go into World War I, but the farm never left the man. Loorz was an earthy, manly, unpretentious guy all his life. However, he had ambition and an ego as big as a freight train, as his sons would be quick to say. Without that trait, he could scarcely have gone one-on-one with the likes of Hearst for so many years. Not to mention his knack for handling Julia Morgan so successfully,” Coffman conjectured.

“Loorz graduated from Cal Berkeley, School of Engineering (plus he picked up a degree in math for good measure).”

He had three sons, “Don in 1926, Bill in 1928, Bob in 1935. All followed their dad into the family business, namely, the F. C. Stolte Co., in which George held a half-interest. The involvement, and the continuation of Stolte Inc. (as it was renamed during World War II), lasted into the 1970s,” Coffman said.

Grace Loorz (they were married in 1925), also was a native Nevadan. “She briefly worked as a school teacher before becoming a full-time homemaker.” During the years the family lived on the North Coast, she attended Santa Rosa Catholic Church. ”

The Loorz family, based in Berkeley by the 1920s, was connected with Hearst and Julia Morgan beginning in 1927. The family lived fulltime at San Simeon from February 1932 through January 1938” (the six years covered in the book).

“Then they moved to Pacific Grove, and after that back to the Bay Area (Alameda). The ‘Hearst connection,’ in one form or another, lasted a full 20 years, from that first incident in '27 on through 1948. So it goes well past the six years of on-the-job residence at San Simeon itself.”

The book is filled with North Coast tales. For instance, on page 202, Coffman relates how Loorz and a buddy of his went to the Cambria Pines Lodge and got into a "confrontation" of sorts with the locals, some of whom thought W.R. Hearst was a villain.

“Loorz defused the crisis, winningly so, as he was so adept at doing time and again, situation after diverse situation. He was a diplomat and schmoozer par excellence: that's one reason Hearst and Morgan paid him as lavishly as they did: $5,200 a year, plus free rent, was nothing to sneeze at. It was big money, the salary alone being the equivalent of 65 or 70 grand in today's dollars, much of which Loorz was able to salt away for the good of his business partnership with Fred Stolte.

“In addition, Loorz was smart and hard working, not just slick and country-gentlemanly,” Coffman explained. “I've likened him to Jimmy Stewart in the book, that combination of shrewd homespun-ness . . . and native good looks, to boot. It made for a most winning formula, one that Loorz capitalized on to the hilt, but without a trace of cynicism. Today, such a guy would be PC-ed out of existence. He belongs to a bygone era of heroes, our small equivalent in Cambria-San Simeon of Paul Bunyan or John Henry.”

This column first ran in The Cambrian on March 20, 2003.

Note: On Saturday, Marcy, 15, the Cambria Historical Society's annual membership meeting and buffet lunch will be held at noon in Rabobank's meeting room, 1070 Main St. Tickets for members are $15, and $18 for nonmembers (sponsor and benefactor members get in for free). Reservations must be made by March 6. This year's topics are the the history of Highway 1 and the latest news on the society's restoration of the Guthrie-Bianchini house and garden, due to become the town's first historical museum. For details or reservations, call 909-0194 or e-mail

Friday, February 8, 2008

Central Coast get-away: a progressive picnic

What fun! We’ve found a different way to share our area with visiting family, enjoy a beautiful day and not wear anybody down or out.

After some hemming and hawing about what to do, we went on a progressive picnic. In the process, the four of us did a little shopping, dodged a bird-watching event, sightsaw and wandered on a 60-mile tour.

Son Richard and his wife, Robin, live in Reno. They had managed to beat the snow on Donner Pass for their first visit here in a long time and first ever without kids along.

Finally, they were here, but then they had to decide how they wanted to spend their two free days.

Friday was easy. While I worked, husband Richard showed off his elephant seals in all their snorting-birthing-breeding-fighting-and-sleeping January glory. After some Cambria browsing, we stopped at the farmers market to cap off a leisurely day … relaxing, interesting and not too hectic.

But they still had one more vacation day. The county was their playground; they just had to pick the sport.

They’ve toured Hearst Castle and driven up Highway 1 many times. They love both, but decided, no, not on this trip.

A movie? Are you kidding? Sitting inside a theater on such a gloriously sunny day just wasn’t an option.

More browsing in Cambria? Maybe, but shopping in San Luis Obispo sounded too determinedly energetic. We all wanted to do something different, an activity that would extend the relaxation of their previous day.

Adrift on R&R’s sea of indecision, I finally mapped out the afternoon. We’d go on a leisurely, multi-town shopping excursion, browsing and stocking up for a gourmet picnic.

With a menu in mind, I tossed some necessities into our picnic backpack and a cooler, and we were on our way, stopping first in Harmony to wander through the Pottery Works and the funky little town itself.

Then we hit Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos. The smokery is about the size of a double-wide phone booth and houses a closet-sized kitchen, the smoker, a menu board and a large refrigerated case packed with smoky lusciousness.

We picked up brown-sugar-smoked salmon, ahi jerky and a few laughs with “Smoker Jim.”

Around the corner, R&R did some wine tasting at Cayucos Cellars and met our longtime friend Laura Selkirk, who for years had groped around in our mouths as assistant to Cambria dentist Jill Poulos.

Our next destination? Morro Bay. On that annual bird-watching-festival weekend, the whole town was packed. Even so, we squeezed into the Embarcadero’s La Parisienne bakery (actually on Front Street) and snagged the last cream-frosted chocolate cake and an exotic-looking basil-and-tomato-topped baguette.

Our last shop-stop for the picnic was at Giovanni’s for fresh cooked-and-cracked crab and some sauces.

With our portable larder filled, we headed for MontaƱa de Oro … which R&R had never seen.

Now, we knew every square inch of the shoreline would be jammed with binoculars held by avid birders. No problem. We turned left instead, away from the bluff and into the nearly empty picnic area.

Total population? Just us, another small family group and a large covey of quibbling quail.

We spread plastic on our table, unpacked our lunch and relaxed under the bright sun in the relative quiet of our own little valley. We ate and talked. Sat and talked. Walked around and talked. It’s amazing what you can learn about your own children when theirs aren’t along.

Soon, we’d picked clean every crab, devoured the bread, emptied the slaw bowl (if you'd like the recipe, send me an e-mail) and demolished the small cake. Beyond replete, we packed away our crab tools (including the real essentials — disposable chopsticks!), rolled up all the messy stuff in the plastic table cover and tossed the detritus into the trash can.

Instant cleanup! It was almost as good as my private dream … a kitchen that flushes!

We ambled home and watched the sunset paint vivid shades on the sky and sea.

It had been a perfect afternoon. We’d meandered and relaxed, introduced our family to some of our friends, shopped a bit, had a gourmet lunch and enjoyed being out and about together on the beautiful Central Coast.

The key word is together, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at