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 ragĂș.

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