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 …