Dave Mitchell


I was raised by Christian Science parents in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School, but in the middle of my junior year I abruptly transferred to a boarding school in St. Louis. The story of how that came about illustrates what a teenager is capable of doing out of fear.

As a 16 year old, I often chafed at parental restrictions on my driving and staying out late, but at Berkeley High, I earned good grades in most subjects. Advanced Latin, however, proved to be a step too far. One afternoon in the fall of 1959, I went directly home after school in order to spend extra time studying for a Latin test only to realize the battle was lost. Given my grades so far, it was impossible for me to pass advanced Latin.

It was a frightening thought. I had never received less than a C in any class, and that alone had brought down my parents’ wrath. I had been grounded and had my allowance cut for a month. What might happen when I brought home an F was too awful to imagine.

It was obvious I couldn’t still be living at home when report cards came out. But what to do? Suddenly I remembered a Christian Science high school my parents had mentioned in glowing terms. It was called Principia and was safely located 1,800 miles away in St. Louis. I feared the school might be overly religious, but anything was better than facing my parents with an F in Latin.

I got up from my desk and went looking for my mother, who was in the kitchen cooking dinner. “I want to go to Principia,” I announced. My mother was startled, but given the pressures of trying to raise a headstrong teenager, she didn’t oppose my request. Instead, she took it up with my father, and a week before Berkeley High mailed home my grades for the fall semester, I boarded a train for Missouri, having no idea what I would find.

At Principia, where football players were generally smaller than at Berkeley High, I was big enough to play offensive tackle. I’m No. 74 in the middle of the back row. Because Principia’s sports program was far more modest than Berkeley High’s, I was able to letter in both football and track during my three semesters in St. Louis.

Principia Upper School had a newly opened, suburban campus on Clayton Valley Road, and the place had the pleasant charm of brick buildings and expansive lawns. Its religious atmosphere was about the same as in my home back in Berkeley.

A few days after I had been assigned a room and roommate, I got a call from my much-distressed parents. They had received my report card from Berkeley High and discovered I’d flunked Latin. How could I have done so badly when I’d been assuring them I was doing okay in Latin? “I’m as surprised as you,” I replied with feigned concern. “I must have blown the final exam. Everything seemed fine before then.”

My parents started scolding, but I interrupted to say I was being called away to Sunday dinner. Reluctantly, they said goodbye and hung up. In fact, there was nothing going on — other than my jubilation at being beyond their reach.

I sometimes practiced high jump barefoot. At Berkeley High, good jumpers were able to clear six feet. My best jump at Principia was five feet, six inches, but when I made it, that was enough to win the event, which was the last of the day in a track meet with John Burroughs Academy. When the high jumping finally got underway late that afternoon, each school’s total points happened to be the same, so my not-so-high jump won the meet for Principia.

Berkeley High had taught most courses a bit earlier than Principia did, so I frequently was already familiar with subjects when they came up in class. Nor did Prin offer any Latin. As a result, I was one of the top three students in my graduating class.

All this helped get me into Stanford University where circumstances eventually forced me to again take Latin. This time, however, my grades were three A’s and two B’s. Ironically, it was my best subject as an undergraduate. How could that be?

First, thanks to my classes at Berkeley High, I was already familiar with basic Latin. Second, the night before each final, I sat down with a Latin-English dictionary and practiced translating passages from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, The Aeneid, etc. The passages were typically ones the professor had emphasized in class, and I figured some of them were likely to be on the exam. That quickly turned out to be true. Three times I managed, with the help of a dictionary, to translate every passage on a final exam just before I took it. My flight from Latin was over.

This is the 300th posting on SparselySageAndTimely.com, and my friend Dave LaFontaine of Los Angeles has urged me to write something commemorating the occasion.

The first posting went online back on Nov. 28, 2006, and at least one per week has followed ever since.

Usually it’s been fun although on a few slow weeks I’ve felt like The Desperate Man (at right), a self-portrait by Gustave Corbet (1819-1877).

As was explained in the first posting, keeping a log on the web (i.e. a blog) is a bit like keeping a log on a ship. It includes both a journal of one’s trip through life and reports on significant events along the way. How a web log came to be called a blog, by the way, reflects the whimsy that has long characterized those who gambol on the World Wide Web of the Internet.

A blogger named Jorn Barger coined the term in a Dec. 17, 1997, entry on his site, jokingly turning “web log” into “we blog.” And who is Jorn Barger? Wikipedia reports he is editor of “Robot Wisdom,” has taught at Northwestern, and once lived at The Farm (Stephen Gaskin’s commune in Tennessee).

Some weeks my topics were obvious: major storms, the November 2007 oil spill along the coast, community celebrations, and the deaths of prominent people. Some postings, such as those recounting West Marin history, required a bit of research.

West Marin’s animal life, both wild and domestic, has been a constant of this blog. Here two horses in a field next to mine enjoyed a sunny day last weekend.

Naturally, so to speak, some wildlife adventures chronicled here probably aren’t as fascinating to all readers as they are to me. This past week I’ve been delighted that a new possum (seen here) has begun visiting my cabin in the evening. It’s younger than the one that had been coming around, and both are more skittish than the possum a couple of years ago that would let me pet her as she snacked on peanuts.

Regular readers know I am particularly intrigued when seemingly unrelated events turn out to be connected. My favorite such posting told how a grim, 1909 Hungarian play called Lliom led to the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, which in 1963 led to Gerry and the Pacemakers’ rhythmic recording of You’ll Never Walk Alone, with that rendition then becoming a worldwide professional soccer anthem.

Readers too seem to like following these connections.

My April 19 posting What does the Easter Bunny have to do with Jesus’ resurrection? drew readers by the hundreds.

The posting told how Gregory the Great (at right), who was pope from 590 to 604, unintentionally brought about the Easter Bunny’s becoming associated with Jesus’ resurrection.

Some 877 people dropped by here this past Easter — 308 on Easter Day alone — to read the story. I was struck by the fact that 270 of those visitors found their way here via Google.

While we’re on the topic of Google, are any of you old enough to remember the 1923 hit tune Barney Google? “Barney Google, with his googley eyes./ Barney Google had a wife three times his size./ She sued Barney for divorce/ Now he’s living with his horse.

“Barney Google, with his googley eyes./ Barney Google, with his googley eyes./ Barney Google, has a girl that loves the guys./ Only friends can get a squeeze./ That girl has no enemies./ Barney Google, with his googley eyes.”

Nor should we forget the comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, which is still going strong after 92 years.

Doesn’t all this make you wonder about the origin of the corporate name Google? In fact, it comes from a misspelling of “googol,” which refers to the number one followed by 100 zeros. Nonetheless, the verb “to google” (use the Google search engine) is now included in major dictionaries. But I digress….

This being spring (witness the iris on my deck), I’ll end with a poem composed for this commemorative posting.

With thanks to T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost for their contributions:

West of Eden

The hollow men/ Headpiece filled with straw./ Starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.

Who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world./ Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward,/ All in the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred./ To die, to sleep.

Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light./ I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Mass communications began after a German goldsmith named Johnannes Gutenberg in 1439 borrowed money to produce souvenirs to sell at a religious festival only to have the festival postponed for a year.

Unable to repay his investors, Gutenberg (left) offered to share the proceeds of a “secret” with them and during the next 10 years devised a printing press that used movable type. The invention led to the printing of the Gutenberg Bible and eventually mass-produced books in general, as well as newspapers and magazines.

The first newspaper in the American colonies was Publick Occurrences, published in Boston in 1690. Its first and only issue was printed on a hand-powered press like Gutenberg’s. The newspaper, however, had not been officially authorized, and it was immediately shut down, its press run confiscated, and its publisher arrested.

The first paper to survive was The Boston Newsletter founded in 1704 by the postmaster. In the 1720s, two other newspapers were launched in New York.

By the start of the Revolutionary War, there were a couple of dozen newspapers in the colonies. By the end of the war, there were 43.

Virtually all were weeklies with circulations of roughly 500. Using Gutenberg technology, that was about all that a print shop could produce in a week. When the First Amendment guaranteed Freedom of the Press, newspapers such as these were what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

By the 1830s, improving technology allowed for creation of mass-circulation newspapers, and by the 1890s, two New York City papers, The New York Journal and The World, were each selling half a million copies per day. The day after the 1896 election of President William McKinley, each paper sold 1.5 million copies.

Then along came radio broadcasting, which began in Holland in 1919 and in the US in 1920. Suddenly newsmakers and entertainers could speak directly to audiences everywhere. Radio, of course, was only the beginning. From 1928 to 1931, the first television stations began broadcasting in different parts of the US.

Back when I was studying Mass Communications in college half a century ago, the news media consisted of magazines, newspapers, radio, and television.

The next medium to come along was, of course, the World Wide Web, which was launched in 1990. Soon organizations ranging from small businesses to the news media were creating websites to promote themselves. Meanwhile individuals such as I began putting blogs online. (The word blog, by the way, comes from web log in the sense of a ship’s log.)

In 2004, a new type of website devoted to “social networking” went online when Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook. Facebook allows users to post vast amounts of text and photos online at no charge. The company makes its money selling advertising on the site.

It all sounded simple enough at first. Friends and relatives used the site to let each other see what they’d been doing and read what they’d been thinking about. But then some strange things started happening. For example:

Last August it came to light that a wife in Cleveland, Lynn France, had suspected her husband was having an affair with another woman, Amanda Weisal, so she logged onto Facebook and typed in Weisal’s name.

John France and Amanda Weisal France on the Today Show.

Not only did she find photos of her husband with Weisal, the pictures showed the two of them getting married. Lynn France then accused her husband of bigamy. John France, however, denied it, claiming his marriage to Lynn in Italy back in 2005 was invalid although he acknowledged fathering two children by her.

Now that’s social networking. Or how about this?

Last November, a 51-year-old Antioch man halted westbound traffic on the Oakland Bay Bridge for an hour when he stopped in the slow lane and told officers via a cell phone that he was armed with guns and explosives.

Craig Carlos-Valentino (at right in CHP photo) also threatened to jump off the bridge. Eventually he surrendered to authorities. No explosives or guns were found in his car, and his 16-year-old daughter, who had also been in the car, was unharmed.

Carlos-Valentino is now in jail awaiting trial, but what in the world was going on? The suspect told officers he was upset that his wife was going to leave him. And why did he think that? She’d revealed it on Facebook.

Nor is the issue merely a matter of indiscreet postings. Much in the news this past three weeks has been the 1987 kidnapping of Carlina White. A woman posing as a nurse had stolen White, then a newborn, from a Harlem hospital.

The kidnapping suspect, Ann Pettway (at right in a North Carolina Department of Identification photo), had raised the girl as her own.

But Carlina White came to wonder if she were really the woman’s daughter and eventually found her actual parents via a missing-children’s website.

With all the publicity over the girl’s being reunited with her true family, Pettway disappeared for 10 days, but on Sunday, she turned herself in to Bridgeport, Connecticut, police. And how was that arranged?

Sunday happened to be police Lt. David Daniels’ birthday, and when he logged onto Facebook to see who had wished him a happy birthday, he found a message from Pettway saying to call her.

Communications have come a long way since Gutenberg, but so far I’ve declined friends’ and relatives’ invitations to stay in touch with them on Facebook. To me it just seems like a waste of time since I have no plans for bigamy, leaving a spouse, or surrendering to Connecticut police.

It’s not that I have no interest in self-promotion. While talking with my friend Lynn Axelrod Saturday evening, I began balancing a cup of coffee on my foot. To my disappointment, she failed to notice, so after 10 minutes I finally pointed out my balancing act.

Lynn quickly snapped a photo with her cell phone, and now the world can see that I too have a story to tell. It’s not, however, sordid enough for Facebook.

Among the many friends and relatives paying tribute to Missy Patterson during her memorial reception in the Dance Palace was former Point Reyes Light reporter Janine Warner, along with me.

As we were  telling what Missy had meant to us, Janine’s husband Dave LaFontaine, unknown to me at the time, shot a video, which he has now edited. Here it is it for the benefit of those who were not able to be present, as well as for those who were.

Missy Patterson Memorial Service from Artesian Media on Vimeo.

Janine Warner and Dave Mitchell speak about their cherished memories of West Marin matriarch Rosalie (“Missy”) Patterson during her memorial reception at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.

An earlier posting describing the memorial reception and mass for Missy can be found by clicking here.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, we young men would warily watch our mailboxes for letters from the President. Too many friends had already received letters that began, “Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Today I received an official letter almost as chilling. In celebration of my upcoming 67th birthday, wrote California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I must renew my driver’s license “on or before [its] expiration date…. [of] 11/23/2010.”

Your last two renewals have been by mail,” the governor wrote on behalf of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “The law requires you to now renew at a DMV office. If your physical description or address on this notice is incorrect, please make the necessary changes.”

Clearly incorrect was the address the governor used to reach me, that of The Point Reyes Light. I’ll have to change it.

As for my height, alas I’ve shrunk a bit from my 6-foot, 4-inch days. I now have to stand really straight just to hit 6-3, and as for 185 pounds, I’ve lost more than 15 of them in the last five years. (To paraphrase General MacArthur, old newsmen never die. Their layouts just get tighter.)

Nor did it seem entirely fair that the DMV required me to renew my car’s registration just weeks before before determining whether I am eligible to drive it. What if I fail my vision test? Or forget when the speed limit is 70 mph?

All my life I have found driver’s license tests unnerving — perhaps because I flunked the first one I took back in high school. The man giving me the test directed me to drive through a construction zone, and when we came to an intersection, I stopped at the crosswalk rather than at a stopsign sticking haphazardly out of a pile of dirt. Wrong decision.

Luckily, when I taught college for two years in Iowa and then reported for Council Bluff’s daily newspaper, The Nonpareil, the State of Iowa simply issued me a driver’s license based on my having one from California. I guess the Iowa Division of Motor Vehicles figured that anyone who could survive the freeways of Los Angeles could handle the farm roads of the Hawkeye State.

However, when I returned to California and began reporting for Sonora’s daily newspaper, The Union Democrat, this state required me to take a behind-the-wheel driving test to get a new license.

I showed up for the test nervous as a cat. With a woman from the DMV directing me where to go, we drove all over Sonora. If we turned a corner, I used arm signals as well as blinkers. In fact, I used arm signals when I merely slowed down.

This time there were no problems, and we returned to the DMV office where I was told to sign more papers and have my photo taken. Next to a stripe painted on the floor of the photo area, a sign said it was important that my feet were exactly on it.

Still nervous, I bent over and carefully positioned my toes exactly on the stripe. However, just as I was straightening up, I heard a perplexed DMV photographer say, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to turn around and face the camera.” For the next several years, my driver’s license photo showed me with bright red ears.

Because few of us in Point Reyes Station have home delivery, the post office has long been the most popular meeting spot in town. On Monday, it was the scene of one of those happy little moments that make small towns great places.

As it happens, postal worker Erin Clark, who was helping out in Point Reyes Station for a day, is a volunteer with a wildlife-rescue group, Rancho Raccoon, headed by Megan Isadore of Forest Knolls.

About a week earlier, Rancho Raccoon received four newly born raccoons that were orphaned when a building was torn down in Oakland. Erin took over raising the newborns when they were less than a week old.

Like any mother, Erin has to periodically check on her young ones, so on Monday she brought them with her when she went to work. There was no risk of the baby raccoons getting into trouble at the post office where they spent the day sleeping in a back room. At 11 days old, their eyes had not yet opened nor were their ears fully developed.

Erin is the only mother the raccoons know, so whenever she picks one up, the baby tries to suckle on her fingers.

Equally picturesque but less cuddly were 15 western pond turtles I counted Monday on two logs in a pond off Cypress Road. The small pond at Anastacio and Sue Gonzalez’s home attracts a variety of wildlife, and on warm days, these turtles emerge to sun themselves.

California’s Department of Fish and Game has designated the western pond turtle a “species of special concern.” Because some pond turtles, especially fertile females, migrate, motor vehicles periodically kill a few. Pesticide runoff, loss of habitat, and introduced predators are also reducing their numbers. Around West Marin, a major threat is from non-native bullfrogs, which eat hatchling and juvenile turtles.

Western pond turtles can be found from the Canadian border to Baja California although in the state of Washington, they almost became extinct around 1990 because of an unidentified of disease. However, they are now making a recovery there thanks to government programs.

As I started down my front steps Monday en route to the post office, I startled a young buck that was lying down, chewing its cud. The deer jumped up and started to quickly walk away, but I began talking to it in a low voice, and it stopped to look at me.

When I stayed put and kept whispering soothingly, the buck relaxed and started scratching fleas. Before long it was grazing. Not wanting to disturb the deer, I had to wait about 10 minutes until it wandered off and I could get to my car and drive into town.

Italian thistles on my hill

On Sunday I completed a two-week assault on the thistles in my field. I even removed thistles on the edge of three neighbors’ fields since one neighbor’s thistle problem quickly becomes the neighborhood’s thistle problem.

As first described in this blog April 28, a fortnight spent pulling up and cutting down thistles was exhausting and sometimes painful. Several fingers sustained battle wounds, but I expect to fully recover. As of now, I’m storing enough thistles in plastic bags to keep my green-waste container full for another month of pickups.

Eliminating thistles is, of course, a bit like eliminating spiderwebs. Every time the light changes, you spot one you previously missed. All the same, I sort of felt a sense of satisfaction Sunday evening for having persevered in this unpleasant task for two weeks.

The cable guy, Jim Townsend of Horizon Cable

I would have felt even better were it not for one screwup. My cabin is connected to one of the oldest sections of the Horizon Cable system in Point Reyes Station. It’s so old that much of the cable was originally strung along this hill’s barbed-wire fences.

Ever since buying the old system, Horizon Cable has been upgrading it. However, at one corner of my fence, a short length of cable in relatively thin conduit still dangles beside the barbed wire. On Sunday while using loppers to cut down the largest thistles, I reached into a clump and instead cut the cable.

Immediately I alerted Horizon Cable, for although I didn’t much mind not having television, not having access to the Internet was a real drag. I felt cut off from friends and family in faraway places. I couldn’t get my nightly fix of al Jazeera.

Thankfully on Monday morning, Horizon technician Jim Townsend showed up and managed to get me back online despite having to dig up some old-style fittings for my old-style section of the system. I don’t mind being on an antiquated section with part of my cable running along a barbed-wire fence. To me it symbolizes the enduring rusticity of Point Reyes Station.

In 1979-80, “Trailside Killer” David Carpenter murdered one woman and possibly three others on Mount Tamalpais, as well as three women and a man in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Most of the women were also raped.

Carpenter’s arrest came the following year after he murdered two women in Santa Cruz County. He was caught when the companion of one Santa Cruz victim survived despite being wounded and was able to give lawmen a description of the assailant.

For years, Carpenter has also been a suspect in several other slayings, and this week San Francisco police announced DNA evidence has now tied him to the 1979 murder of Mary Frances Bennett, 23, of San Francisco. She had apparently been jogging near the Palace of the Legion of Honor when attacked.

Police said she had been stabbed at least 25 times in her chest, back, and neck. Bennett’s “butchered” corpse was found under a thin layer of dirt and leaves.

In 1984, a jury in San Diego County convicted Carpenter of the Santa Cruz murders, and he was sentenced to be executed. In 1988, a second jury convicted him of the National Seashore murders and one murder on Mount Tamalpais.

After he was placed on death row in San Quentin where he remains today, Carpenter (left) contacted me out of the blue, and this ultimately led to my interviewing him in the prison. Photo by Christopher Springmann

At the time of the interview in 1985, Carpenter, then 55, had spent more than 22 years in custody.

Carpenter was first incarcerated at the age of 17 for allegedly having oral sex with a three-year-old girl. He denied the charge but spent three months in Napa State Hospital.

Three years later — in 1950 — he was arrested on charges of raping a 17-year-old girl, but the charges were dropped. Ten years later, he was arrested a third time. A military policeman shot and wounded Carpenter when the officer found him using a hammer to beat a secretary who had rebuffed his sexual advances. He went to federal prison for nine years.

In 1969, ten months after his release, Carpenter sexually attacked two women in Santa Cruz County, stole a car, and drove to the Sierra. In Calaveras County, he robbed two women, kidnapping one of them. He would later be charged with rape in connection with the Calaveras attacks, but that charge was eventually dropped.

A few days after the Calaveras attacks, Carpenter was arrested in Modesto. Convicted of robbery and kidnapping in Calaveras County (where he escaped from jail briefly) and of rape in Santa Cruz County, Carpenter went to state prison for seven years.

When he got out in 1977, he was returned to federal prison for violating his parole with the Calaveras and Santa Cruz attacks. In 1979, Carpenter was placed in a halfway house in San Francisco while awaiting parole. Three months later, the first trailside murder occurred. Here are the murders to which he had been previously linked:

• Edda Kane, 44, of Mill Valley was shot in the back of the head Aug. 19, 1979, while hiking on Mount Tamalpais.

• Barbara Schwartz, 23, of Mill Valley was stabbed to death while hiking on Mount Tamalpais March 8, 1980.

• Anna Mejivas, a friend of Carpenter, was found slain in Mount Tamalpais State Park on June 4, 1980.

• Cynthia Moreland, 18, of Cotati and Richard Stowers, 19, of Two Rock were shot to death Oct. 11, 1980, off Sky Trail in the National Seashore.

• Anne Alderson, 26, of San Rafael was jogging at the edge of Mount Tamalpais State Park Oct. 15, 1980, when she was killed with three bullets to the head. Alderson’s murder was the only one on Mount Tamalpais for which Carpenter was prosecuted.

• Diana O’Connell, 22, of Queens, N.Y., and Shauna May, 23, of Pullman, Wash., were shot to death Nov. 28, 1980, also off Sky Trail in the park. Their bodies, along with those of Moreland and Stowers, were found the following day.

• Ellen Hansen, 20, a UC Davis graduate student, was shot to death while hiking near Santa Cruz March 29, 1981. Her companion, Steven Haertle, was shot four times but survived.

• Heather Skaggs, 20, of San Jose disappeared the day she was scheduled to go shopping with Carpenter, May 2, 1981. Her body with one gunshot wound to the head was found in Santa Cruz May 24.

As it happened, KQED television in 1985 taped a debate between Synanon attorney Phil Bourdette and me. After watching the debate from inside San Quentin, Carpenter wrote me at The Point Reyes Light, and we began a correspondence.

Before it ended, Carpenter was answering questions from The Light and its readers. How common is homosexual rape of inmates by inmates? Most rapes occur in large jails operated by counties, not in state prisons, Carpenter answered.

With so much money being spent on prisons, how well is it used? “Pre-1976-77, everybody was under an indeterminate sentence, and you had to earn your way out of prison,” Carpenter replied. “There was very little trouble in the prison system  because the men knew they had to keep their noses clean to have any chance at parole.

“Back then most of the work that was done in prison was done by the inmates themselves. Rehabilitation is dead in this state….. Virtually all of the jobs that were done by the prisoners and cost the taxpayers practically nothing are now all being done by civilian personnel at a very high cost to taxpayers.”

When I managed to schedule an interview with Carpenter in San Quentin, I was intrigued by the prospect but didn’t know what to expect. Would he seem to be a monster, a sadist? Carpenter instead seemed rather charming.

While admitting “my record sucks,” Carpenter stammered that he was not responsible for the trailside murders. Carpenter’s stuttering was, in fact, so severe I felt an immediate sympathy.

Carpenter acknowledged experimenting with pot after he got out of prison in 1979, so I asked if marijuana gave him any relief from his stuttering. “Alas,” he replied, “it really didn’t do anything for me speechwise. My stuttering stayed the same, but my attitude toward my stuttering changed. The more I smoked, the less I cared or let it bother me.”

Years later in conversation with a former member of the San Quentin staff, I speculated that Carpenter’s stuttering was so disarming it may have made sympathetic women more vulnerable to an attack.

The former staffer, in turn, said he suspected that Carpenter murdered his rape victims because a middle-aged, bald man with an extreme stutter would be easy to identify. That does make sense.

Christmas week was a roller coaster ride for me. Amid all the merriment, I hit a young buck a week ago while driving on Lucas Valley Road. The deer was fatally injured when it jumped in front of my car just as I passed. It’s an old story.

The only other deer I’ve ever hit was a fawn 30 years ago, and both times I’ve been saddened by the animals’ misfortune. This time, however, I also felt a bit sorry for myself. The collision did more than $400 damage to a headlight.

I hadn’t planned on having a Christmas tree this year, but one literally dropped from the sky and landed close to my front door. On Christmas Eve, I found a nicely shaped tip of a pine branch on the ground. It had probably been gnawed off by a squirrel high in a tree that’s near my front steps.

‘What the heck?’ I thought and stuck it in a stand almost as big as the “tree” itself. My little Tannenbaum had room for only a few ornaments, but that was fine. And when I took a picture of it, the camera’s flash serendipitously created a Star of Bethlehem on a window behind the tree.

Overheard at a party: A couple of modest means invited me to a boisterous celebration where one of the guests brought an uninvited man. After listening to the man hold forth about a recent trip to Europe and an upcoming return trip to Hawaii, the hostess sarcastically commented she wasn’t as “rich” as he.

“I’m not rich. I’m broke,” the man replied indignantly. “That’s just my lifestyle.” I wondered if his lifestyle might account for his being broke.

Early last week, I received a Christmas card from an older woman who once owned a business in Point Reyes Station. As of last fall, she was in an assisted-living facility over the hill.

The card, however, had been sent from the Cooperstown Medical Center. “I’m in Cooperstown, North Dakota,” she wrote, “but now I forget why.” It was a poignant admission, and I wish her well.

The day after Christmas is a public holiday in much of Northern Europe (where it coincides with St. Stephen’s Day) and in most of the English-speaking world other than the United States. Boxing Day, as it is called in English, originated in a tradition from the Middle Ages — perhaps from the days of ancient Rome — of giving gifts to household servants and the needy on a certain date.

Some people have theorized that the English name for the celebration originated in the practice of churches opening their alms boxes the day after Christmas and distributing the contents to the needy.

“What did you do for Boxing Day?” I wrote one cousin. “I spent mine celebrating Kwanzaa.” Also occurring the day after Christmas is the start of Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration of African culture. The celebration was launched 43 years ago by Black Power activist Ron Karenga.

The name comes from matunda ya kwanza, which is Swahili for first fruits of the harvest. The celebration, which has been commemorated with two postage stamps, has been becoming somewhat more mainstream, with a few million US citizens of diverse races and religions now observing it.

So I hope you enjoyed a happy Chanukah, or a jolly Winter Solstice, or a merry Christmas, or a beatific Boxing Day, or a convivial start to Kwanzaa — or all of the above. If you didn’t, there’s still New Year’s Eve to come, so get out there and party.

While in Sausalito Sunday, I watched as a sailboat race and a blimp glided over San Francisco Bay on the afternoon breezes.

100_3134_1_1

The lettering on the side of the blimp was difficult to read at a distance until I photographed the air ship, using a zoom lens. And even after studying the photograph, I wasn’t sure what was being promoted.

What was I to make of “23andMe.com personal genetics”? Or the slogan on the blimp’s nose: “Join the Research Revolution”?

100_3138

So I checked online. Turns out 23andMe.com is selling $399 “at-home DNA tests.” You supposedly can learn about everything from your risks of inherited ailments to your maternal and paternal ancestry, along with where on the globe where your strain of DNA is usually found.

Back in 1903, the remains of a man who had died approximately 9,000 years ago were found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England. For much of the next 93 years, “Cheddar Man,” as the remains came to be known, resided quietly in London’s Natural History Museum.

In 1944, however, the significance of DNA came to be understood, and in 1996, a researcher from Oxford University used one of Cheddar Man’s molars to check the old guy’s DNA. The researcher then had the bright idea to take DNA samples from 20 residents in the village of Cheddar, which is not far from the cave.

Apparently some families in southwest England really stay put — not just for generations but for millennia. Two Cheddar schoolchildren had exact DNA matches with Cheddar Man, and a teacher had a close match.

While many traits may be inherited from our ancestors via DNA, others can be passed down in unexpected ways. Here’s an example of a domestic accident that has affected four generations of my extended family.

Mother & grandmother001_1_1

My mother Edith Mitchell, née Vokes, born in 1906, sits on the lap of her mother Harriet Vokes, née Wheeler, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

Mom as a girl002_1When my grandmother was a girl in Canada back around 1880, she was slicing food in the kitchen one day when the knife slipped and cut deeply into a finger.

Bleeding profusely, she had to be rushed to a doctor.

The injury was sufficiently traumatic that when my mother (left) grew old enough to help in the kitchen, Grandmother repeatedly described the accident in warning my mother to be careful with kitchen knives.

I never met grandmother Vokes. She died in 1925, more than 18 years before I was born.

Mom with me c. 1945003_1 Mom emigrated to the United States in 1930, and my parents were living half a block from the Marina Green in San Francisco when I was born in 1943. As a result, many of my parents’ early photos of me were shot beside San Francisco Bay.

When I grew old enough to start helping Mom in the kitchen, she was so fixated on the danger of kitchen knives that she told me over and over how her own mother had injured herself by not cutting correctly.

The warning was drummed into my head to where even today at 65, whenever I slice food, I remember a finger’s getting cut — despite its happening 130 years ago in a foreign country to a person I never met.

100_2870_2_1_1When my stepdaughter Shaili Zappa, 16, was visiting from Guatemala last month, I told her this story and she was intrigued. (Photo of Shaili and me by Ana Gonzalez)

On Sunday, Shaili emailed me from Central America: “Every time I chop carrots, I remember the story!”

Think about it. A girl in Canada cut a finger with a kitchen knife during the 19th century, and although we are now in the 21st century, her direct and indirect descendants in the United States and Guatemala continue to wince. To my mind, that’s as remarkable as DNA.

It was one of those times I felt like the Country Mouse.

I’d been reading San Francisco Chronicle about the city police department’s wanting to clean up the Tenderloin. And I’ve been reading Chronicle columnist CW Nevius’ fulminations against drug use and sexual activity in the district.

mapdataBy the way, while most of us know where the Tenderloin is in San Francisco (see Google map at right), many people don’t know the origin of the name.

Other cities have also had “tenderloins” although New York supposedly had the first. The district had widespread graft and vice, so any corrupt cops who policed it could afford to eat well. At least that’s the etymology given by The American Heritage Dictionary.

Several major streets cross San Francisco’s Tenderloin, so I periodically drive through it. Saturday night, however, was the first time in years I’d traversed it on foot. Oddly enough, I was on my way to the Hilton Hotel which, as can be seen in the map above, sits squarely in the Tenderloin.

I was about to pick up a friend and drive him to Point Reyes Station for a visit. The friend, new-media consultant Dave LaFontaine of Los Angeles, had spent the previous three days conducting training sessions at an Online News Association convention in the hotel.

After parking my car on O’Farrell Street near Market, I’d begun walking back up O’Farrell when the odd mix of characters on the street started catching my eye. A large, somewhat-intimidating man called me over, but I kept walking and quickly crossed the street.

Up ahead of me I saw a small crowd milling around Johnny Foley’s Irish House, a fashionable bar. They’d apparently gone outside to smoke. As I got closer, I noticed another group sitting on the sidewalk next to them. These folks weren’t dressed like the more-stylish bar patrons, but they too were mostly smoking, and some were jovially drinking from bottles.

Just beyond these convivial groups, however, three cleancut men dressed all in black were wrestling on the sidewalk, with two of them trying to hold down the third. Having also been reading about bystanders getting caught in gang violence, I didn’t stop to watch.

By the time I’d reached the corner, however, the man who’d been on the ground caught up, brushing himself off. Almost immediately, the other two men rushed up, and the first ran out into traffic but was caught and dragged back to the sidewalk. At this point I heard someone say, “He stole a purse.”

“No I didn’t,” the man insisted.

A block and a half further and I was at the Hilton. A policeman was standing out front, so I told him what I’d witnessed. “I guess we’d better go down there,” he said, and I went inside the hotel.

The lobby was crowded with cheery people in their late teens and early 20s. It turned out they were USC football fans staying en masse at the Hilton, and they were celebrating because USC had beaten Cal 30-3 that afternoon.

Security guards were stationed here and there, but everyone in the lobby was behaving peaceably. The only thing out of the ordinary was the apparel of a few female fans. See-through and super-short skirts revealed that thong underwear is in vogue these days at USC.

When Dave and I met up, we laughed at the fashions of “kids today” and started walking back to the car.

handcuffed

Half a block from the scene of the scuffle, we passed the alleged thief sitting on the ground (left) in handcuffs. Half a dozen cops surrounded him while more stood around nearby. Dave shot this photo with his mobile phone, and we continued on.

Several well-dressed celebrants we passed on the sidewalk were noticeably hollow eyed, prompting Dave to mention that when he’d gone into a hotel restroom, he’d come upon a young man who appeared to be snorting a line of cocaine off a sink.

We eventually reached my car, which in my Point Reyes Station fashion I hadn’t bothered to lock. Notwithstanding several scary-looking folks wandering the street no one had touched it.

The Chronicle has written quite a bit about drug dealing sullying the streets of the Tenderloin. Its columnist Nevius has railed against a Tenderloin liquor store’s supposedly being a magnet for street crime and against a sex club’s moving into the district. San Francisco’s tonier neighborhoods certainly wouldn’t put up with a sex club, Nevius wrote on Sept 12.

But would they put up with a Hilton? From all appearances, there was a fair amount of sex and drugs at the hotel last weekend, along with street crime near a fashionable bar less than two blocks away.

Am I criticizing the Hilton? No, it seems to be a well-run hotel that gets a variety of guests. Rather I’m saying that it’s easy to wax indignant about low-rent sexual activity in the Tenderloin and about the drugs of its hard-luck street people, but there’ll never be an editorial campaign against USC fans exposing their G-strings in the lobby of a Hilton Hotel or snorting cocaine in a Hilton restroom.

Feeling discombobulated by urban perversity, this country mouse skedaddled back to familiar old Point Reyes Station.

« Previous PageNext Page »