Dozer, the Bulldog

Dozer, the Bulldog
Feeling the "Bern"

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
No time for gates...

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
My cooking assistant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother


38 years on this mountain, come May 31st...



Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby


Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

My first portrait

My first portrait
"Mr. Farmer"

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ocean in Motion

I am doing the A-Z challenge.  Today’s letter is O  for ocean.

Ocean in Motion

My father hailed from Michigan, but when he came out to California, he developed a deep-seated reverence for the ocean.  Over the course of my childhood/youth, I also embraced the ocean as one of the most important elements in my life.  The power, beauty and serenity of being at the coast, has always moved me like no other natural setting on earth.

My earliest memory of the ocean is camping at Tin Can Beach, in the mid-fifties.  Papa would pound two six-foot long poles into the sand, string a rope between them, and place a piece of canvas over the rope, spread out on either side to form a pup-tent.  Around 1959, two-year-old little brother Matthew, excited at the prospect of the upcoming camping trip, lowered his head and ran straight into the 2nd to the bottom pane of glass on the front entryway door to our home in La Puente, requiring a trip to Dr. Miesel’s office for stitches.  It did not dampen our enthusiasm, merely delayed it.

Tin Can Beach was the name given to what later became known as Bolsa Chica.  At the time we were camping there, we would park at any point along the expansive emptiness, lug our belongings across a three hundred foot stretch of sand, and pitch the tents.  As we gazed up and down the coastline, there was no other vestige of humanity visible, except for the incessantly bobbing oil-drilling machines, omnipresent along the coast.

Beginning around 1960, we began migrating northwards, first to Santa Barbara, only to be told the campground was filled, and then on up to Jalama, located in the vicinity of Lompoc.  The campground at Jalama never filled up, because it was quite an adventure to get to it, including traversing the last five miles over a dirt road.  Once there, we found it windy, rough and quite chilly at night.  But it served the purpose of allowing our family to be able to enjoy the annual summer vacations, that always involved camping.  Jalama is the site where the tradition of the evening candy bars came into existence.

Mama would go to Sav-on Drugs store, where candy bars were a nickel apiece or three for a dime, and bring home a grocery sack filled with goodies.  Then, while sitting around the campfire at night, she would pass the bag around and each of us would make a selection from the bag.  As out-of-character as this was for our family, it was established early on as a tradition that would extend into the seventies. 

Beginning in 1964, we turned our sights south to Baja, California, and brushed up on our Spanish to be able to communicate with the locals.  It cost fifty cents a night to stay in the campsite just south of Ensenada.  We would use the campsite as a base for excursions out and about the countryside.  

Papa would take us older boys out fishing at least once each trip, going out in a small motorboat, to catch bottom fish, including red snapper and rock cod.  Papa would then make the most delicious fish chowder, or fry it up on the Coleman stove, together with onions and potatoes.  I know that motion sickness is a common enough phenomenon for many, but I never had this misfortune befall me.  The secret for me was to always go out on a full stomach and pack a sack lunch with three or four sandwiches.  I was never all that successful with the pole and reel, but that was not important.  Going out on the boat was. 

When I got into my mid-teens, I acquired a ten-foot long Chuck Dent surfboard, and hit the beach in Orange county as frequently as I could.  Later, when I moved up to the Bay Area, to live in San Jose, it was just a thiry-five or forty minute ride over Highway 17, to Santa Cruz.  The water was much colder up in NorCal, than in the south, but the rays were just as plentiful.

Once Annie and I made the move up to Mendocino County, it took a bit longer to make it over to the coast, about an hour and a half or so, but that was because Branscomb road was still unpaved.  We took the boys over when they were smaller, but once they got old enough to swim in the ocean, we were more inclined to go up to the river, where it was safer.  Ironically, we can see the ocean in three different places each morning, as we walk along Bell Springs Road, because of the high elevation.  As the raven flies, (We have ravens up here, not crows.) I guesstimate it is twenty miles to the water.  

Annie and I still venture over to the coast for a two or three-day trip, at least once every year.  We have talked forever about getting a little camping trailer, no longer than twelve feet, but it hasn’t happened yet.  There’ll come a time, when getting up off the ground, after sleeping all night, will not be possible.  Then we will find the way to make the trailer happen.  Until then, a tent and an air mattress will do.  Oh, and by the way, we still like to have a sweet treat at night-make mine a Snickers Bar; Annie will take a package of peanut M&M’s. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Sporting Green

I am doing the A-Z challenge; today’s letter is N  for newspaper.

The Sporting Green

I grew up in a household where newspapers were the norm.  We got the daily San Gabriel Tribune, and the Herald-Examiner on Sundays.  I remember being chastised by Mama for reading Ann Landers.  At some point in my high school career, I began arriving at school at 6:45 because Papa dropped me off five minutes’ walk away, on his way to State Steel.  As I walked through campus, on my way to the library, I retrieved the morning edition of The Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper expanded my view of what a daily paper should be.  The San Gabriel Tribune had a front page, which covered national and world news, but it was like a comic book compared to the Times.  I started warbling the praises of the LA Times to Mama, trying to convince her to include it in the family household budget.  In a full-out effort to implement this plan, I offered to pay for it out of my own pocket, convinced that she would eventually agree that the Times was worth the extra dinero.  

Lo and behold!  It worked, and it didn’t even require that much time to effect the desired change.  The Times sold itself, especially from the vantage point of the sports enthusiasts in the family.  I remember brother Brian emphatically endorsing the coverage of the Dodgers.  Even though I have [thankfully] subsequently abandoned the Bums in favor of their rivals to the North, at that time I still bled Dodger Blue.

When I moved up to San Jose,  I found the glorious San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, and Company, together with the illustrious Sporting Green.  Additionally, I found the San Jose Mercury had (and still has) one of the best sports sections in California.  One anecdote Annie loves to relate, has me out in front of our spot on Grand Avenue, waiting for the Sunday paper.  When the little red-headed boy arrived with the paper, and saw me standing there, he looked askance and squeaked, “What?  WHAT?!  I’m NOT late!”  

When we moved up on the mountain, there were five of the O’Neill clan families altogether.  Someone who went to town, thirty minutes away, and brought back the paper, would be sure to pass it on to the next guy, who in turn...  It was a marvelous system, especially when it came to the Sunday paper.  We had it on reserve so that there was no way we could go all the way to town, only to find there were no papers left.

All of those years I taught in the school district, it was standard operating procedure, to stop in town to grab both the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and the Chron.  I used to put both in the rack for students for sustained silent reading, in the hope that there would be at least one student, who would follow in my footsteps, and come away with a lifetime habit established, of reading the daily paper. 

Ironically, in the past couple of years, my passion for the paper has dwindled, probably because I am able to get the news/sports online.  I still will go for the sports section first, (small minds=small pleasures) and caress it and cherish it, until I have devoured it, but the rest not so much.

And no one chastises me for reading Dear Abbey any longer!

Monday, February 25, 2013

It's a Mystery!

I am doing the A-Z challenge.  Today’s letter is M  for mystery.

It’s a Mystery!
I will be the first to admit that my current reading agenda is extremely one-dimensional.  I like mystery stories, and so I indulge in them.  When I make a comment to that effect, Annie reminds me, that after a lifetime of reading the classics, and ingesting that which was assigned to me, I deserve a break.  Whereas that makes sense to me, I also feel a little out-of-the-loop when others wax on eloquently about their lists of to-read books.

When I was a kid, and trudging back and forth from the Vine Street Library, lugging an armload of books (Where were those handy backpacks then?), much of what I read consisted of biographies and autobiographies.  I wanted to discover what others had said and done.  At different times in my life, I have taken on specific authors, and read everything I could get my hands on.  

I have been a lifelong Charles Dickens fanatic, having been assigned four of his novels to read as a freshman at Bishop Amat High School.  We were given two weeks to read David Copperfield, a feat I accomplished with time to spare.  At the time I was of the opinion that I was the only boy in our honors English class (there were no girls) to have accomplished this task.  In addition to David Copperfield,  I was required to read Hard Times, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol.  

Altogether, we were required to read twenty-six classics that year.  My favorite on the list?  Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.  As a junior, I was introduced to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Camus, and Shakespeare.  I always felt that the education I received as a high schooler was the best money could buy.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I discovered John Steinbeck, and devoured every one of his works, my favorite being The Winter of Our Discontent.  When I revisited Steinbeck, sometime during my attendance at San Jose State, I reread the ten assigned books, and argued vehemently as Professor Cox asserted that Winter was not one of his better novels.  I couldn’t figure out where this woman was coming from; after all, Steinbeck earned the Nobel Prize, after it came out.

When I was a senior in high school, I discovered Robert Heinlein, the only excursion into science fiction I have ever experienced.  I read Stranger in a Strange Land  with fascination, my Catholic upbringing taking its first serious hit.  Later, long after moving up here on the mountain, I scoured the used bookshops of Willits, Ukiah and Eureka, keeping my list of Heinlein books with me on these ventures, trying to complete my collection.

I attended Cal Poly, Pomona and San Jose State for the entire decade of the seventies, not counting the two years I spent in the military.  At some point in the late seventies, I realized that I had taken more than a dozen English classes, including four semesters of Old English, a semester of Chaucer and four semesters of Shakespeare.  Though my major was Humanities,  I had enough for a Minor in English, without having to take a single additional unit. 

Now I am perfectly happy to read Robert B. Parker.  His protagonist, Spenser (with an “s”) is one of my all-time favorites.  I also read Elizabeth George, John Sanford, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill, Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, Dick Francis and a host of others.  I remember my mom introducing me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original mystery writer, with his fictitious protagonist, Sherlock Holmes.  I couldn’t get enough.

If I vary from the mysteries, it is only to read isolated authors such as John Grisham or Nelson DeMille.  I can’t seem to motivate myself to read non-fiction these days.  Maybe it’s because my little pea-brain is shutting down.  Well, it’s a mystery to me, but one that I am not interested in solving.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Latte-Reason to Smile

I am doing the A-Z challenge.  Today’s letter is L  for Latte.

Latte-Reason to Smile

I pulled into Pour Girl’s Coffee shop recently, right behind a little, black sports car, to get my usual sixteen ounce, regular latte.  I waited a minute or two, before I decided to grab the sporting green, and see what the pundits had to say about the Giants.  So engrossed was I that several minutes passed before I realized that this was taking far longer than I had imagined possible.  Exactly what was that guy in the sporty little number ordering?

Just as I was reaching the conclusion that he was probably ordering some sort of fru-fru drink, a coffee container was passed out the window, and off he sped.  As I pulled alongside the shop, the gal inside opened the window, and asked, “Your usual latte?”  As I gave her a big smile and said, “All right.  You already know,” she handed me my latte, already made!  Now I really had reason to smile.  That’s what I call efficient.

Yes, I am a frequent flier, when it comes to this particular form of coffee.  I mean, when I am at home, I still utilize an old-fashioned percolator and brew my own pot of goodness.  But when I am on the road, which occurs quite often these days, as I travel back and forth between the mountain and Willits, I opt for the latte approach to life.

Yes, it costs in excess of three dollars a pop, plus a well-deserved tip, but it is one thing I regularly splurge on.  I made the mistake of pulling into the little coffee shop on the north end of Willits, and saying, “I’d like a twenty ounce Vente Latte, please,” and then watched as the person looked at me blankly, and said, “Is that a large?  You see, I’m not up on the StarBucks lingo...”  Oops, I had done the unthinkable, and requested a latte using the term that applies only in StarBucks.  My bad.

I guess StarBucks is the biggee, when it comes to supplying Californians with the liquid gold, that comes in a coffee container.  I do appreciate the consistency that StarBucks exhibits; it’s just that whenever possible, I like to patronize the little guy, especially when I remember that the above-mentioned Pour Girl’s is owned by a woman who was a seventh grader in my very first homeroom, when I began teaching in 1990.  Great success.

A latte in the hand is a sure-fire way to get the day started.  I never indulge after nine in the morning or so, but up until that point, I am all about it.  There was someone at the middle school, a million years ago, who got a latte-maker for Christmas one year, so she brought it down to the school.  There was great excitement at the next staff meeting, as we gathered around the precious machine, and watched the process of having lattes made, on the spot.  

It was all too exciting for words.  It was also rather complex, with the measuring of the expresso, and the preparation of the steamed milk.  We actually only had staff meeting lattes twice, before the thrill disappeared.  After all, staff meeting were so exciting, in and of themselves; who needed lattes?

It’s not actually a matter of needing them; it’s more like wanting them-desperately.  If you don’t drink coffee, then you probably bailed out from this piece long ago.  If you do, then I say let’s hit the StarBucks down the block.  Make mine a regular, if you please.  I’ll buy, if you’ll fly.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Kitchen Calisthenics

I am doing the A-Z challenge; today’s letter is K  for Kitchen.

Kitchen Calisthenics

Kitchens are all the rage these days, with JT renovating hers, Casey adding on to his, and Annie decorating the “cutest kitchen in Willits.”  I am even planning to add on to mine, in order to get ready for this summer’s push to provide gluten-free baked goods for Casey’s Community Sponsored Agriculture program.

I enjoy cooking; it’s a pastime I learned from my father, not because he took me aside and taught me, but more because I found myself conscripted as a child to peel the potatoes, dice the onions and bell peppers, or peel and slice the carrots.  I think the process of osmosis came into play, and I absorbed much of what I was introduced to.  I remember my father dipping a tablespoon into the stew, or soup, or chowder and lifting it up in the direction of Sunrize (sic) Market, and intoning “To the North,” [about-facing] “and to the South,” [90 degrees to the right] “to the East,” [about-facing] “and to the West, and to all the gods of the universe...”  His statement might take any of a dozen different directions, at this point, as he acknowledged those entities that applied on that specific occasion.  By the time he was done, the sampler would be cool and he would indulge.  “More salt,” he would opine, and life would proceed forth.

People who enjoy cooking take pleasure in one of the most fundamental of life’s necessities.  I live on a mountain, and have done so for the past thirty-one years, making trips to the local fast-food eatery not only impractical, but undesirable.  That’s not to say I do not enjoy eating out with Annie, on one of our many sojourns down to Ukiah, Santa Rosa, or to the City.  I enjoy these meals immensely.  I go into a restaurant with a huge smile on my face, expecting not only quality food, but excellent service.  I am never disappointed.

So I understand why folks take the steps to improve the place where so much creativity takes place.  JT wants a brighter kitchen; Annie wants a carefully-decorated kitchen; Casey wants a bigger kitchen, to make room for the new cabinets, for which Amber has been saving.  I don’t really need a bigger or better kitchen, but Annie wants the one in which we will be working next spring/summer, to be removed from the part of the house in which the dogs roam, or the dust settles.  (When you live just off a dirt road, dust is an inevitable reality.)

Coming back from Ukiah, the other day. we stopped at a little shop featuring new and used items, and the first thing we both focused on, in the window, was a pair of ceramic canisters, with the cherry motif.  Reasonably priced, we snagged them within the first five minutes we were in the shop.  It was a small thing, but it made Annie’s day.

I love cooking with Annie, not only for the shared experience, but for the things she can teach me.  I am endeavoring to modify my diet to better eat right for my blood type.  A-negative blood types would do best to eat vegetarian, which explains why so much of my life, I have followed this pattern, way before I ever heard of Dr. Peter J. D’Adamo, who wrote so much on the subject.  I have always struggled to digest red meat, so for the vast majority of my life, I have avoided it.

Fish is far better for me, so the other night, when Annie and I were preparing our dinner of artichokes, salad and salmon, I was all eyes and ears.  Taking a six-ounce salmon filet, Annie put a small tab of butter on top of it, included some lemon thyme, dijon mustard, salt and pepper, wrapped it in foil, pre-heated the oven to 375 degrees, and baked it for fifteen minutes.  It came out so moist and tender, I thought I’d died and gone to culinary heaven.

There are also countless techniques for improving the taste of the most basic of dishes.  I have always enjoyed doing the dicing of the accompaniments to pasta sauce, including the herbs from the garden, but I never paid that close attention to the finer points, such as the addition of red wine, early on in the process.  I certainly knew it was included, but always figured it was just a glug, or at most, a glug-glug.  The other night I brought a glass into the living room, with the intent that she should show me how much to add.  She said she couldn’t tell me; she had to show me.  Wonderingly, I followed her back out to the kitchen and watched her upend that container of cooking wine and let it flow!

Really?  THAT much?  We’ll be staggering after this meal, I thought to myself.  However, as the sauce bubbled merrily on the stove top, and I inhaled the fragrance of the simmering sauce, any doubts I had dissipated, at the same rate as the alcohol in the sauce.  It was the best I had ever tasted, and I knew it was because I had been shown one of the inner secrets of the kitchen.

What can I say?  Teach me more, Annie, teach me more!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Jeffrey Street-House of Confusion

I am doing the A-Z challenge.  Today’s letter is J,  for Jeffrey Street.

Jeffrey Street-House of Confusion

I moved to Jeffrey Street, in San Jose, in September of 1975.  I had been living on War Admiral Avenue, with four other family members, but the whole thing dissolved, along with the summer, and so it was time to move on.  I had been working with a fellow named Jimmy, since September 11, 1974, and we got along pretty well, so since he was also looking for a place, we decided to rent this four bedroom place, and see how things worked out.

Jimmy was working at United Auto when I started there, and he was always so patient with my questions, that I relied on him, as a go-to guy.   He was married to Sue and I was then married to Nancy.  The four of us were all going to San Jose State, so we figured we had enough things in common, that this living arrangement should turn out to work just fine.

But the best laid plans do not always work the way we expect them to work, and so we encountered a few technical difficulties along the way.  I admit, mistakes were made.  I had been out of the service since October, of 1973, but I had brought back a few mementos from my days in The Land of the Morning Calm, South Korea.  There was my Sansui 2000X amplifier, my Akai reel-to-reel tape-deck, my JVC turntable (what’s a turntable, again?) and my two 80 watt speakers.  

You see, the amplifier was a 140 watt amp, so the way I figured it, there was not enough power to blow up the speakers, no matter how loud the volume.  So I never worried about that particular element of my stereo system.  In hindsight, maybe I should have.  Jimmy seemed to worry about it quite a bit, and if I had to do it all over again, I think I would have paid more attention to his requests to keep the music down.

I just don’t know.  We were in our early twenties, there was so much music recorded on those reel-to-reel tapes, and so much inclination to party, that I never did completely understand Jimmy’s unreasonable demands.  After all, one of the reasons I figured we would all get along, is because I had been to the same parties as Jimmy and Sue, and everyone seemed to enjoy the same music as I did, at the same loud volume.  But maybe that was at parties.  I just don’t know.

Besides, there was that darn teakettle, the one that Sue used to fill with water every morning, on her way into the bathroom to take a shower.  I’m sure she always planned on getting finished before the water boiled, but somehow, it never worked out right-at least not for me.  That whistle would go off for the umpteenth consecutive morning, and I would fume.  Maybe there was some payback there; it didn’t occur to me then, but it sure does now.  Anyway, the whistle in the morning, penetrated my little pea-brain, in the most insistent way, and even the sound of Sue, racing down the hallway to shut it off, did nothing to shut off the steam that was exiting my own head.

Well, by April, Jimmy and Sue had decided enough was enough, and left for another living arrangement, leaving me with a four-bedroom house, and a lease that was not up for a full year.  Luckily, my sister Laura was looking for a place, so that worked out well.  Next brother Matt moved in, and then our friend Paul showed up for a weekend visit, and ended up staying for a year and a half.  

None of them seemed to have a problem with the stereo, so we all lived together in harmony-four-part harmony, if I remember correctly.  Eventually, the landlord informed us that he was planning to sell the Jeffrey Street house.  What?  Sell our house?  How much, we asked?  He said, $63,000.  The next thing I knew, Nancy and I  had thrown our hats into the ring, and made an offer.

Here comes the strange part.  At the same time we were trying to buy this house, things between Nancy and I were falling apart.  By the time we actually ended up with the house in our names, we were separated.  As it turned out, we did end up splitting up.  Nancy got the house and I took the parcel of land we had purchased the year before, and continued making the $67.00 monthly payment.  As luck would have it, the housing industry blasted off, and when Nancy and her partner, Brian, decided to sell the house, a scant year after we had bought it, the house sold for $93,000, a nice profit of $30,000 for them.  

It all seems so surreal now, but the fact is, I always felt it was kind of a push.  Thirty thousand seemed like a lot of loot back then, but when I think about my twenty acres of land up here on the mountain, I know it would cost about ten times thirty thousand to acquire a comparable piece of property now.  

Jeffrey Street, the house of confusion.  We all do crazy things when we are young, but sometimes it still works out just fine.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Insomnia or The Sleep Train

I am doing the A-Z challenge; today’s letter is I  for insomnia...

The Sleep Train
I see the comments on FaceBook, every time I ever check in.  Many people struggle with insomnia, in one form or another.  I too battle the inability to sleep, but per my agreement with Annie, I do not go to my computer, for any reason.  I used to wake up anywhere from eleven to one, not be able to get back to sleep, and end up in front of the computer, writing-always writing.

I was suffering the effects of mania, and the last thing a person should do, if he or she can’t sleep, is immerse one’s self in front of the blue light of electronic gadgetry, including the TV, a computer monitor, or a “smart phone.”  I know one friend who simply posts a series of times, indicating that his battle progresses over a long period of time, every night.

According to Dr. Sherry Heffle, my VA psychiatrist, I should never lie in bed for more than fifteen-twenty minutes, trying to get back to sleep.  What I should do, is get up, go to another room in the house, and engage in some form of quiet activity, such as meditation, yoga, or reading, so long as the reading material is not something that will stimulate my brain any more than minimally.  Even the mystery stories, that I am inclined to prefer, may provide too much in the way of mental gymnastics, to allow me to return to sleep efficiently. 

The flaw in this strategy is simple.  My home is heated exclusively by wood-burning stoves, which I allow to die late in the afternoon or early evening.  That means I would have to rekindle one of the two stoves, in order to be able to stay up for any length of time.  It is just too cold up here on this mountain, from October through May, to realistically spend any more than the length of time, it takes me to amble into the bathroom, to make use of the facilities, and return to my warm bed.  

The act of lighting the stove would not only take more time than I am willing to devote to the task, but it frequently proves challenging to the point that it gets me all fired up, no pun intended.  Often the wood is not one hundred percent dry, or the fact that I do not have unlimited starter material, creates a sense of anxiety that would not seem to promote a mellow environment, from which I would emerge in the proper frame of mind to return to sleep.

I have asked one after another health care provider for sleep medication, and have been rebuffed each time.  Well, that’s not completely accurate; the one psychiatrist willing to prescribe sleep medication, also prescribed medication for bipolarism, with the most hideous side-effects imaginable.  And as a crowning achievement, the sleep meds he prescribed, did not work for me.

And so I struggle.  One of the unfortunate results of waking up in the middle of the night, is the train of thought that inevitably sallies forth from the station that is my mind.  Actually this train has two baggage cars: the first is the fact that I suffer most when I am by myself; the second is that my resentment towards health care providers, who won’t acquiesce to my request for sleep meds, soars.  So I lie awake and stew.

Unlike some, who cannot fall asleep when they first retire to their beds, I normally drift off the minute my head hits the pillow.  Unfortunately, I have to rise two, three times-or more-each night to make use of those facilities, and thus the problem surfaces.  I know I can attribute this to being sixty, so I do not worry unnecessarily about it, but that doesn’t help my problem.  Dr. Heffle would have me stay up later than my normal eight o’clock time that I retire.  Unfortunately, the nature of my very physical lifestyle, make me so tired, that staying up past eight is impossible.  Even on a night when I do drift back to sleep upon awaking in the middle of the night, I find myself unable to sleep past three in the morning.  

Heavens to Murgatroid!  No wonder I am exhausted by eight in the evening.  It is a vicious circle, and one from which I do not seem to be able to emerge.  Included in this vicious circle is the strategy of drinking a nice, soothing cup of tea.  You see where this is going.  If I drink tea, I wake up shortly afterward, so the effects of the tea have the proverbial double-edged sword.

Maybe that double-edged sword will eventually dull.  I hope so; otherwise I will continue to do what I have been doing, and write these A-Z challenge pieces in my head, prior to sitting down in front of my computer, and bringing them to life in front of my eyes, the next day.  It’s better than lying awake, stewing.  The only problem is, what am I going to do after I hit Z?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Health Care or Die-in-the-Hallway Insurance

I am doing the A-Z challenge.  Today’s letter is H,  for health care [or hallway].

Health Care
Die-in-the-Hallway Insurance
I drove down to Santa Rosa, yesterday, with Annie, so that I could have my eyes examined, and to have the glasses I currently wear, which are being held together with Scotch tape, replaced.  I could have had this done for free, had I not wanted my bifocals to be without the telltale line, and had I chosen to settle for glasses that did not tint in the sun.  As it turned out, I paid $179.00 out of pocket to obtain the glasses that I desired.

Why did I drive two and a half hours from Bell Springs, just to get glasses?  Because that is the closest place my health care provider could present to me.  I have health care supplied by the Veterans Affairs agency, and I couldn’t be happier.  All those years I taught for the local school district are forgotten when it comes to health care in my old age.  My insurance “ran out” five years after I retired, a fact that still boggles my little pea brain.  When a person needs health care the most, the rug is pulled out from legs, already unsteady enough, due to age.

Next Tuesday I will travel down to San Francisco, an hour south of Santa Rosa, to have a non-malignant, cancerous growth removed from my chest.  Again, I am pleased as punch to go the necessary distance to have this surgical procedure performed.  My association with the Veterans Affairs agency has been, for the most part, very positive and very inexpensive.

My experience has included one bad situation, involving a psychiatric professional on an egotistical power trip, but the facility in Ukiah was more than happy to furnish me with an alternative doctor, once I wrote and explained my situation to the very sympathetic director of the clinic.  Who could ask for more? 

Annie has had to also seek alternative health care, since our insurance evaporated.  She has what she laughingly refers to as “die in the hallway” insurance.  All that means is that her insurance only covers catastrophic illness or accident, and that we have to pay for all the rest.  Well, cancer of the kidneys is pretty dire, and of the $190,000.00 tab for her surgery and the five-day stay in the hospital, last September, her insurance picked up all but that pesky six thousand dollars that was the deductible from her policy.

How about her medication that she takes daily, to fight her illness?  When she looked it up online the other day, she informed me that were she not been involved in an experimental program, the cost would be $7,500 per month, or $250.00 per day.  At that rate, I would have to work eight hours and twenty minutes a day, thirty days a month, in order to pay just her medication.  When I think about that piece of information, I cringe.  Annie’s insurance does not pay for medication of any kind.

Health care is a real issue for all people, particularly as they age.  Whereas I thought Annie and I had it all under control, at some point along the path, the members of the school district obviously authorized the limiting of health care for retired members.  I am sure it had to do with the cutting of costs, but what a short-sighted plan of action.  We are talking about a serious issue for everyone who gets to retirement-age; how do you go about obtaining health care when you are already sixty years of age, or close to it?  Very unsuccessfully, for most.

I never gave it a whole lot of thought, other than to assume my school insurance would cover it.  I sure would not have thought about the Veterans Affairs agency, had it not been for the fact that one of my brothers is the chief-of-staff of the Veterans Hospital in Martinez, and he assured me that I qualified.

As it is, I am a happy guy.  I hated being in the military, and have resented being drafted in 1972, all of my adult life.  But, as the bard said, “All’s well that ends well.”  At least I will not die in the hallway.  As for Annie, she accompanies me to my appointments, and I accompany her to her appointments.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?

If nothing else, we get a nice lunch out of the deal, on our way home from our appointments, and that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grand Avenue

I am doing the A-Z challenge; today’s letter is G  for Grand Avenue.

Grand Avenue
As grand as it sounds, Grand Avenue was actually just a block-long side street, approximately a mile down the main drag from San Jose State University, in downtown San Jose.  I moved into the upstairs floor of this little duplex, in November of 1980.  I had spent the previous year, living first in a big house on the south side of San Jose, with my sister Laura, sister-in-law, Charley, and Charley's two daughters, Katrina and Rochelle, and the previous month or so, in a house owned by my sister JT and her then-boyfriend, Ken.

I had never lived in an apartment or home by myself, but after more than a year of no dating or seeing anyone socially, I had decided that the time had arrived.  I figured I would be better off living by myself, than living in a home with others, so with JT’s help, I started looking for a suitable apartment.   

The place on Grand Avenue was perfect, with one bedroom, a bath, a living room and a kitchen.  It was probably built in the thirties, or thereabouts, and it was a cozy little spot, with an upstairs balcony that ran across the front of the apartment, with room for about fifty or more plants in pots, all more than capable of surviving in the mild San Jose climate. 

Looking down from the balcony on the next door neighbor’s back yard, I could see the most beautiful ornamental garden I had ever laid eyes upon, complete with night blooming jasmine, which filled the night air with the most exquisite scent imaginable.  I always thought, should I be lucky enough to ever have a daughter, I would have liked to have named her Jasmine. 

I had just spent my first Christmas of my life by myself, and was taking stock of my single lifestyle, when the sister of a guy at work, happened to drop him off out front of United Auto Stores one day, because there was some sort of transportation issue.  When I asked him how he’d gotten to work, he said his sister had given him a ride.

“Joe?” I asked, “Is she good-looking?”

Looking at me as if I’d just asked the stupidest question in the world, Joe replied, “Hell, she’s my sister.  How would I know?”

When Joe’s sister arrived back at United that afternoon, promptly at five, Joe was still out on a delivery run.  When she walked into the store, and up to the counter, I asked her if I could be of any assistance.  A woman, let alone a pretty little thing like this cutie, was a rare event in the Story Road complex, which housed an auto parts store.  Men frequented this business, usually grease and grime-encrusted men, with short tempers and caustic comments.

“I’m here to pick up Joe,” she said, demurely, giving me such the fleeting, come-hither glance, while I tried to calm my pounding heart.

“Oh, you’re Joe’s sister,” I exclaimed, wondering to myself why Joe had been hesitant to tell me what a stunningly beautiful sister he had.  I figured I was a good judge of these matters, and hastened to invite her back, behind the counter, where she could wait more comfortably for Joe.

“Why don’t you come back here, Joe’s sister, where you can wait?  I’m off work, so I’ll just wait with you until Joe gets back.  I’m Mark, by the way.

“Oh, I figured that out already.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, surprised.

“Because he’s always talking about you.  Oh, by the way, I’m Ann, but everyone calls me Annie.” she replied, and we carried on our conversation, around the side counter where the dealer trade took place.  Having gotten off at five, I could afford to relax and take in the view.

When Joe returned, Annie and he soon departed, but not before I had culled her phone number from her.  I called her the next day, and asked her out to dinner at a local restaurant, and she accepted.  The thing I remember most is telling Annie about the twenty acres I owned in Mendocino County, and how fascinated she was.  The thing Annie would remember is the fact that after dinner, she had to pop the clutch on my '62 VW bus, while I pushed it.

The rest is history.  We saw each other every day for a short period of time, long enough for her to locate an apartment of her own, and move out of her parents’ place, and then we began spending the majority of our time in that little duplex on Grand Avenue.

I was in the first year of masters work at San Jose State, and it was the most incredible time of my life.  One of the first things Annie did for me, was to listen to a tale of woe I told her about receiving a B+ in an English class, when I was certain I had earned an A.  

“What you need to do,” she had advised me, “is go back to Dr. Hagar, and tell him what you just told me.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because, that’s what you do when there is a mix-up with grades,” she explained, as if it were the most common thing in the world.

“You don’t understand.  Dr. Hagar is not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy.  He just isn’t the sort of professor who makes this kind of mistake.”

“Listen to me-just do it.”

And she was right.  Dr. Hagar looked as though the earth had just moved when I told him why I was in his office.  He produced his grade book immediately, and told me he was certain that the grade he had given me was correct.

“But,” he added, “I shall double-check.”  Mumble, mumble, he ran his finger from left to right, checking each of the entries with a clearly restrained motion.  “Well, there does seem to be some sort of mistake,” he concluded.  “It seems you do deserve an A.  I’ll notify the school office, and have them change their records, and send you a copy.”

And that was that.  I was jubilant as I told Annie later what had transpired.  “Let’s go out to celebrate,” she suggested.  

And we’ve been doing that ever since, celebrating life together for more than thirty-two years.  Annie was right.  I just needed to do it, and all would be well.  

Grand Avenue, I miss you.  You were the start of it all, and with the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine in the air, you ushered in the best time of my life.  I can’t go back to that magical time-nor do I wish to.  I just need to continue to listen to Annie and all will be well.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Farmers-Caretakers of the Earth

Though it’s not April, I am doing the A-Z challenge.  Today’s letter is F,  for farmer.

“And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise
and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’  So God made a farmer.

God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows,
work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of school board.

I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt, and watch it die, and
dry his eyes, and say, maybe next year.

I need somebody who can shape an axe handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make  harness out of hay wire...

Who, with planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, and then paying his tractor back, put in another 72 hours,’ so God made a farmer...”

Farmers-Caretakers of the Earth

I took the above excerpt from a commercial by Paul Harvey, aired during this year’s SuperBowl.  When I first heard it, I was in the midst of eight or ten boisterous football fans, who paused in their raucous behavior, to silently absorb the words being spoken.  There is more of the commercial, that I did not transcribe, but there is enough here to get the general idea.  Farmers are a tough breed and they work interminably long hours, every day of their lives.

Though I have grown a vegetable garden, practically every year of my life since 1974, I have never farmed.  I have worked in the auto parts industry, I have labored in the trades, and I have taught in the local school district.  When someone farms, he or she does not work in one industry, and also farm.  No, when a person farms, as Paul Harvey indicates, it’s a full-time occupation, and then some.

My son farms.  He grows vegetables and fruit organically, and he works the hours described above.  I have known him to work from dawn to dusk, and then don his head lamp, and work until midnight, while I stumble off to bed around eight o’clock, wondering to myself how anyone could have that kind of drive and ambition.

He and his partner run a CSA, a Community-Sponsored Agriculture program, supplying Northern Mendocino County with fresh, organic produce, on a weekly basis.  From May through October, he orchestrates his produce being available at three different farmers markets.  Even now, in February, with the temperature currently resting at 28 degrees, he has a tremendous amount of produce, happily growing, the more tender varieties housed in eight greenhouses of varying dimensions.

Though the earth up here consists of rolling hills, with almost no flat area, he has carved his farm out of the land, by using a technique more often associated with the ancient Incan culture.  He has carved steps out of the sloping land, the earliest ones done by hand, removed many of the pre-existing manzanita groves, sifted through the soil to remove the rocks, and planted his crops.  This is all back-breaking work, and exceeds my limited capabilities.  Of course, I am not thirty years old anymore.

Whether you pay attention the the politics of labeling food, and are aware of the travesty of GMO production, you must be aware that food grown organically is superior to food grown otherwise.  It not only tastes better, it is free of the harmful additives that allows corporate farming endeavors to produce the vast amounts of produce that stock the Safeway and Alpha Beta markets of America.    

Growing organically means that a certain percentage of what’s grown, becomes dinner for the insects, birds and rabbits of the area; think of it as a toll tax on the highway of healthy eating.  Certain crops do exceptionally well up here on the mountain:  garlic, brassicas (that would be broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, etc.) beets, carrots and a plethora of different salad greens.  Other crops do not fare as well, such as corn, and potatoes.  

In the summer, our hot-weather crop season starts around June first, maybe a tad later than desirable, but extends well into the fall, often into November, because the higher elevation (3,300 feet) keeps the frost away until later than in the valleys.  It’s all good, as Casey would say.  He keeps his customers supplied all year round.  

I should know, because I am his biggest fan.  Both Annie and I are thrilled to have one of our three sons up here on the land; it was one of the most significant reasons why we pulled up stakes in 1982, and moved out of San Jose, to settle up here in the rugged country of Northern Mendocino County.  Twenty acres is a lot of land to farm and Casey’s not there yet.  However, I have two other sons, both involved in the fire-fighting industry.  There may come a time when they decide to engage in a little less exciting field than fighting fires.  If so, then there is plenty of room and plenty of opportunity.  Until then, at least we know that when it comes to wildfires, someone’s got our back.

Meanwhile, help yourself to the salad greens, why don’t you?  Just remember to bring your own salad dressing.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013


I have been mired in a writing slump for the past several months.  The reason is diabolically simple: I only want to write about Annie.  However, I have made an agreement not to do so, because she is uncomfortable being the subject of my prattling.  Therefore, in an effort to snap out of my [writing] funk, I have decided to adopt the strategy that many bloggers employ during the month of April, and begin an A-Z adventure.  Today’s letter is E, b for eggplant.  What?  It’s not April?  Sue me.

Growing up without eggplant in my life was perfectly OK with me.  I had no experience with this fruit, and never expected to.  However, Annie changed all that, not overnight, but over the course of many years.  She began growing it up here on the mountain, sometime in the mid-eighties.  She would prepare it, offer it to me, and I would politely decline.  

However, one of the dishes she prepared was eggplant fritters, which consists of combining the eggplant with mushrooms, garlic and cheese, and other key ingredients, and then lightly frying them in oil.  As set in my eating habits as I was, when I first met Annie, the fragrance of this particular dish, wafting through the late summer afternoons, drove me to set aside my reservations, and sample it.  Ambrosia of the garden!

The nightshade, Solanum Melongena, also know as aubergine, brinjal eggplant, eggplant, melongene, brinjal or guinea squash, is a member of the plant Solanaceae.  As a nightshade, it is closely related to the tomato and potato.  This fruit is botanically classified as a berry, and contains numerous small, soft seeds which are edible, but have a bitter taste because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids; this is unsurprising as it is a close relative of tobacco. *

When eggplant is raw, it can have a somewhat bitter taste, but becomes tender when cooked, and develops a rich, complex flavor.  Annie always slices it up, salts it, rinses it off and drains the sliced fruit (known as de-gorging), to soften it and to reduce the amount of fat absorbed during cooking, but mainly to remove the bitterness.

Eggplant can be stewed, as in the French ratatouille, or deep-fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane.  You can also batter and deep-fry eggplant and serve it with a sauce made of tahini and tamarind.  Annie has found some extraordinary ways to prepare eggplant, including one of my favorites: eggplant enchiladas.  She also grills it over the barbecue, and cooks a mean eggplant Szechwan.  

There are so many different varieties of eggplant, it’s ridiculous.  Annie has grown many of them, starting the seeds in pots, eight to ten weeks before the frost season is over, in a greenhouse.  Including the heirloom varieties, eggplant has to be one of the most beautiful of all fruits.  One normally thinks of eggplant as being purple, but also comes in white, and variegated (white and purple).  It is not difficult to grow, but does need rich soil and plenty of water.

One of the most common ways of cooking eggplant is eggplant parmigiana, often served in Italian restaurants.  I have had it served, and it usually seems to be mushy and drenched in some sort of marinara sauce, and not all that appealing.  When Annie cooks this particular dish, which can be the main course, or an accompaniment to other entrees, she  prepares it as I described above, and fries it lightly in oil, and serves it with either a home-prepared tomato sauce, or with a different topping, such as a ranch dressing, or even a blue cheese topping (sorry, JT).  The crunchy exterior, combined with the smooth texture of the interior of the fruit, is exquisite.  

I’m not going to try and convince you to rush out and start indulging in this often misunderstood fruit.  All I will say is, of all the different foods that I have grown to love, after having Annie convince me I should try them, eggplant remains the crown jewel!

* I took this word-for-word from Eggplant, Wikipedia.