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 ├╝ber-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.