Friday, March 28, 2008

BEST OF: We don't fight. Really.

When Husband Richard and I owned the bakery, lo all those years ago, another husband-and-wife team who worked with us asked a question. The two, who had spent years in the bakery industry, clearly were embarrassed to ask.

"You don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but we're curious," they said. "When do you fight? We've never worked with a husband-and-wife team who didn't rip into each other every so often. We never see you fight or argue."

Husband Richard, replied, "We don't. We don't have time to fight."

And that's true in more ways than the obvious.

He and I were in our middle-age years when we married, old enough to sense that the clock was ticking, even then. The gut-level knowledge that time's passing quickly puts a different light on a relationship, the realization that we don't have forever to spend together, so we'd much rather enjoy what we've got.

We do, and we have, for more than three decades now. It sounds like a lot of years, but it's not long enough when you're married to the right spouse.

That statistic puts us in the minority, for sure, which is sad.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, a new marriage has a 43 percent chance of ending in divorce. I've been there, too, and it's a miserable place to be.

But for the last 30 years or so, Husband Richard and I have been sharing love and laughter, children and grandchildren, smiles and tears, good days and bad breaks, hospital stays and vacations.

We've worked side-by-side in a half-dozen business ventures, shared fire and flood, survived various serious surgeries, dealt with births and deaths, built a house under duress, and vacationed in a motorhome with my mother, two teenage boys and six tiny poodles.

Is our marriage always easy, passionate and exciting? Yes and no.

First, define for me "exciting."

If exciting is jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, keeping a python in the bathroom, running for political office or safari-ing in dusty, bug-laden air so thick you could polish it like a piece of lapis, the answer is no. Emphatically.

If exciting can include dashing off to take photos of a breaking story or a special event, being among the first to learn the latest on something that interests us, standing together arm-in-arm to watch the ocean at sunset, seeing caribou plod across the tundra, giggling as we try to find a cab in the rain on Market Street, playing with grandchildren ... then definitely, yes.

Husband Richard and I are both adaptable to a point (but if I'm honest, I'll admit he's more flexible than I am).

And we don't like to argue, so we don't do it.

Really, we don't. We may discuss our differences, but it's never with anger or by disparaging each other. Disagree, sure. But never battle over why I bought those socks or why he forgets to put them in the hamper. We don't arm-wrestle for custody of the TV remote, and we never argue over where to put the sofa or where we're going for the day.

When we've hurt each other's feelings, it's been entirely accidental. We both know that, and it's an important point to remember.

A long relationship brings with it the knowledge of the time already invested. Whenever we disagree, each of us remembers to ask ourselves, "Is this an important enough argument to risk ruining this relationship?"

The answer always has been "no."

As an e-mail I got a while back pointed out, no matter how long you live, you've only got a certain amount of time to spend together, whether on exciting and romantic vacations or chopping veggies for a salad, reading the paper over the cereal bowl at the breakfast table, or waiting at the doctor's office.

Each moment is a treasure, if you let it be.

Count 'em up. Calculate your probable lifespan. Figure out the number of weekends you've got to spend together. Not many, is it?

No matter how young you are now.

If you could know now how little time there really is, wouldn't you spend as much of it as possible doing the things you really want to do together, even if it's just cuddling on the couch instead of mucking out the junk drawer or watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?

Do you really want to spend all that weekend time cleaning the garage, doing chores, shopping for things when you could be making memories together?

Or even worse, given the finite amount of time you've got, do you really want to spend any of it kvetching about something so minor you won't even remember it in a week or a month?

When you think about it, the same thing holds true for many relationships — with other family members, with friends, with co-workers and associates. It should even be true for people embroiled in Cambria's legendary political differences of opinion.

Think about it. Do you want to argue, or do you want to solve the problem?

At least at the Tanner household, life's too short to sweat the small stuff. Trust me: Having fun sure beats fighting over who has custody of the damnable remote.

This column ran first in The Cambrian on May 15, 2003.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Accidental volunteers

The Proctor Lane alleyway was blocked, so the delivery driver couldn’t get his truck where it needed to be, when it needed to be there. The traffic clog could have produced a nasty confrontation.

We regularly read about tragic results from similarly simple but irritating situations, especially in metropolitan areas.

Think road rage.

However, this was Cambria on a beautiful Saturday, March 8, and good-natured North Coast kindness was about to trump tight schedules, testosterone and anger.

Someone was about to become an accidental volunteer.

Mike Rice, landscape wizard for the Cambria Historical Society’s restoration of the Guthrie-Bianchini House and garden, had parked his overloaded truck on Proctor Lane (the alley between the house and the backs of businesses facing Main Street, including Soto’s Market).

Rice, Jack and Jeanette Breglio and other volunteers began unloading thousands of used bricks donated by Ecotones Landscaping from Rice’s truck bed, bricks that soon will become part of the house's garden.

Then Ed Esquivel from Glass Farm Organic Citrus Fruits, on his way to make a delivery to Soto’s, pulled his truck into the alley.

The brick-filled truck was in his way.

Sure, he could have parked elsewhere (if he could find a spot) and carried the fruit further. Or, he could have ranted, raved, stomped, yelled, cursed or worse. Much worse.

Instead, Jack Breglio said, the kind-hearted Esquivel “got out of his truck, put on his gloves and proceeded to help us” unload all the bricks.

The story gets even nicer: Esquivel “went back to his truck and brought us a sack of his organic oranges” for an after-the-unloading snack, Breglio said, and then, “best of all, he offered to be on our volunteer list!”

Fortunately, that heartwarming story of serendipity and kindness isn’t an unusual one in the warm, fuzzy world of North Coast nonprofit agencies.

For instance, according to Ann Grossman of Friends of the Elephant Seal, part-time Cambria resident Geoff West is “our angel” and another accidental volunteer.

After stopping to see the seals one day, West, who lives in Costa Mesa, fell in love with the massive mammals. He took docent training and became the group’s only “honorary docent,” complete with his official blue FES jacket, even though he doesn’t fill shifts on the bluffs.

West regularly contributes time, money and his significant knowledge. He also “donates money and gifts … and always attends our fundraisers” and other events. Grossman said, “We were truly fortunate when Geoff found us.”

Want more?

Some time ago, a young New York couple was hiking the full length of California. Brock Carter, county parks worker from Cambria, found Matt and Sarah Buchwalder camping in the willows near a local park.
Carter called Chris Cameron, director of Camp Ocean Pines, to “see if I would put them up for a couple of nights. I did.”

The couple wound up staying at the camp for a couple of months, in exchange for painting cabin interiors and other tasks, and the director later hired the two college grads as naturalists for a season.

The camp is the frequent recipient of such unplanned, fortuitous instances, Cameron said. “‘Accidental volunteers’ is how Camp Ocean Pines runs!”

He said Bill and Jean Carter of Cambria found the camp and later, “he made every cabinet and bunk-bed, and she sewed all the curtains in the cabins.”

The late Bobbie Monroe of Cambria attended a string concert at the camp’s amphitheater and soon thereafter gave a large donation toward rebuilding the facility.

Cameron also recalls when a “couple came with their church for a weekend,” but then asked if they could return as volunteers. The husband was a skilled woodworker, so the camp director showed him an Adirondack chair and “a pile of wood we had left over from milling our winter-felled trees.”

The man then built 20 chairs for the camp.

I’m sure every Central Coast nonprofit, school, agency and group has similar tales about “accidental volunteers” and the confluence of good timing and good hearts.

Isn’t it great? Once again we’re reminded how lucky we are to live here — where the temporarily blocked alleyways of life can be seen as good things.

If you have an “accidental volunteer” tale, please post it as a comment here or e-mail it to

Friday, March 14, 2008

BEST OF: Confessions of a Peep killer

My name is Kathe. I’m a Peep killer.

I’m abjectly sorry, your honor. But there is no hope for me. I know that now.

It all started at a really serious meeting where the discussion — for some obscure reason — turned to making S’Mores in a microwave. There wasn’t one of us in the room under 40 years old, so you’d have thought we’d have better things to talk about.

Once the odd topic had been broached, I piped up, “It’s fun to watch what the microwave does to a marshmallow. It looks like a mutant float in the Macy’s parade, or the before photo in a Gas-X ad.”

Your honor, it was all downhill from there.

A friend who shall remain anonymous said that, “If you think S’Mores are fun to watch, you should try a Peep.”

You know what Peeps are, don’t you? Those biliously colored mouthfuls of oddly flavored fluff, marshmallows in drag as chickens and bunnies. They show up in rows in their tidy little yellow boxes on variety-store shelves a month or so before Easter, to be snapped up by basket-building parents and gobbled up by youngsters with no taste buds.

I thought I’d outgrown Peeps at the age of 3.

But no. It’s obviously an obsession that’s been latent all these years.
Right after that fateful meeting, I did what I haven’t done in years (sob, sob).

I bought some Peeps.

That’s all it took. Instantly, I sank into the depths of degradation.
And husband R. came with me. Two of us, together on the road to Peep Hell.

Yes, we did kill the Peep. Several of them in fact. And what’s even worse, we enjoyed it. We're so bad.

What did we do as soon as we got home? Did we put the ice cream in the freezer? Did we put the car in the garage? Did we even stop for an after-the-trip-to-San-Luis pit stop?

We did not. We senior citizens ripped open the box, grabbed a plate, and plucked out a vividly yellow chicken Peep.

Yes, we stood before the microwave and pondered what we were about to do. No, you honor, it was not a last-minute reflection before our transgression. We just couldn’t figure out how many seconds to key into the timer.

“We’ll try 10,” said husband R.

Your honor, it was spellbinding, addicting, depraved. The Peep just grew and grew, got rounder and rounder, until I was afraid it would explode.

(Would have served me right, too — I’m not sure the resulting culinary Super Glue would ever have come off the sides and ceiling of the microwave.)

“Not enough time,” said husband R, with a demonic look in his eyes. “Five more seconds.”

It had come to this. Counting down the demise of a helpless little marshmallow chick (which, by the way, was pretty chewy by the time it cooled off. The microwaves don’t do a thing for the flavor, either).

Oh, I know we are not alone. Others also obsess about the popular kiddie treats from Just Born Inc.

There are even Web sites that discuss the atrocities visited upon Marshmallow Peeps. One site lists various vile forms of torture: laser-exposure endurance, slow application of heat, flame tolerance, electrocution, oxygen deprivation, radiation tolerance, coyote test and hot-tub test.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. And I am repentant, honestly I am.

I’d throw myself on the mercy of the court, but I’m still so sticky, I’m afraid I’d never be able to pry myself off again.

So, keep me away from the Peeps. Help me save myself and those ghastly little globby blobs of goo. I am resolute, I shall not harm another Peep.

But even a reformed sinner has her limits. Just don't get me close to any chocolate-covered marshmallow bunnies, or they're goners.

This column ran first in The Cambrian in April, 2000, and in The Tribune in April, 2001. It got a lot of attention and comments. In fact, one reader presents the columnist with a gift of Peeps each year in honor of the piece.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Microwave good buy

It’s inevitable: If there’s a difficult or expensive way to learn a lesson, that’s the route I’ll take.

Say, for instance, our microwave oven.

We’d had the $450 unit for more than a decade. The sleek black-faced oven had survived the usual slings and arrows of appliance life — a couple of blown fuses that needed to be replaced, a chip out of its glass turntable, a bag of micro-popcorn left to pop on high far too long.

But we liked the microwave. It was a favorite cousin in the kitchen family. Familiar, friendly. Easy to use, even at 5 a.m. when my synapses hadn’t yet started synapping.

We knew how the oven worked, how it chimed when it was done, how long it took to perfectly reheat coffee in husband Richard’s favorite mug.

Besides, the countertop unit fit perfectly into its cubbyhole in the cabinet.

So, when the microwave suddenly stopped, we did what we’ve always done. We called for appliance repair. Through the decades, John of John’s Appliance Repair had patched up and glued back together various pieces of equipment in our original house.

For a time after we rebuilt following the fire in 1994, we hadn’t needed John’s services for a time – everything was under warranty. But this seemed a good time to enlist his aid again.

John looked at the oven and said, “Gee, if I’d known it wasn’t one of the over-the-stove microwaves, I could have saved you some money. You can buy a new countertop microwave for about what my service call costs, not counting repair parts.”

Bless his heart, he felt so guilty at not being able to fix the oven, he spent the rest of his service call checking out our other appliances.

Are microwave ovens really that cheap these days? To say we were skeptical would be vastly understating the case, rather like calling August weather in Palm Springs pleasantly warm.

After hitting the Internet and the phone, we were open-mouth astonished.

While the cost of other kitchen appliances had skyrocketed since we rebuilt the house — just try replacing a Sub-Zero refrigerator, buying a front-loading clothes washer or getting a dishwasher that runs quietly — we could buy a new microwave for under $100, although some were priced at more than a thousand bucks.

We headed into the shopping fray, tape measure in hand, to discover that not only were the ovens much less costly, they came with new features and accessories that had only been hinted at a decade ago.

There were convection cycles, to produce nicely browned surfaces, or “keep warm” features so your entrĂ©e doesn’t turn into a hockey puck.

(I wonder what happens to popcorn on a “warm” cycle?)

One unit even had a built-in toaster!

Eventually, my head began to swim the way it does when I go to a big box store during the week before Christmas, or try shopping for an entire afternoon at a gazillion-square-foot antique mall.
It was TMI — way too much information, when all we really wanted was our old microwave, or as close to it as we could get.

In the end, we paid about $150 for a new oven, plus the service charge for John’s helpful advice. The microwave fit in the cabinet and works just fine.

But it’s like having a bossy new dog in the house.

This oven chides me on a rolling screen of green print, reminding me I haven’t yet set the clock or told the microwave how much chicken I want to cook.

And the new unit nags. It beeps three times when the cycle’s done (the old one beeped once). Then, if you don’t open the door after a minute or so, the microwave beeps again. And again. And again.

But I will be strong. I will not take a sledge hammer to the new microwave, no matter how irritating it is.

I don’t want to have to go through this again. I’ve learned my lesson, the hard, expensive way. As usual.