Archive for April, 2007

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Despite not holding the reins on his team, the ever-political Sheriff Bob Doyle takes part in the Western Weekend Parade.

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As some of you no doubt read in The Marin Independent Journal, atty. Ladd Bedford on April 12 filed on my behalf a false-imprisonment lawsuit against the County of Marin and sheriff’s deputy Josh Todt.

The lawsuit also lists as defendants “DOEs One through Five” to be identified by “their true names [and] capacities when ascertained.”

In an incident which Sheriff Bob Doyle later blamed on my talking over the head of a “beat deputy,” I was chained and handcuffed on March 1 a year ago and taken to the psych ward at Marin General Hospital as supposedly being at risk of suicide.

Atty. Bedford in presenting a claim against county, which was routinely rejected, described what happened to me on that Wednesday morning while I was reading that day’s Chronicle and finishing breakfast:

“Without warning, a deputy from the Marin County Sheriff’s Department appeared at Mitchell’s home and asked to enter the residence. The deputy questioned him at length about his mental state and suicidal tendencies.

“Mitchell cooperated with the deputy and explained that he did not intend to commit suicide anytime in the near future and that he was not a danger to himself or anyone else.”

In fact, as atty. Bedford’s claim notes, I “was busy at home preparing for a court hearing scheduled for the following morning involving a civil matter and was preparing to receive two major achievement awards.”

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The Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter was about to present me with a “lifetime achievement” award during a ceremony in San Francisco, and I was in the midst of lining up rides for friends attending from West Marin. Presenting the award would be KQED radio host Michael Krasny (to my left above) and CBS-Channel 5 news anchor Ken Bastida (to my right).

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The second award was a Resolution of Commendation from the Marin Board of Supervisors on the occasion of my retirement. During the presentation ceremony, I would also receive US House of Representatives honors thanks to Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

I was hosting a reception in a Civic Center garden following the ceremony, and that week, I was working out the details with a caterer. Ironically, among the guests I had invited was Sheriff Bob Doyle, but after I asked him how it happened that I was mistakenly taken into custody, Doyle chose not to attend.

“Furthermore,” atty. Bedford noted, a windstorm Sunday night-Monday morning had ripped shingles off my roof, and I “had scheduled roofers to come and fix [my] roof in two days.”

After receiving my awards, I planned to spend much of the rest of the year taking “victory lap” to see cousins elsewhere in the United States and in Canada, I told deputy Todt. And, in fact, I subsequently did.

Well, what about next year — after my “victory lap?” Todt asked. Would I commit suicide then? I laughed and told the deputy it was a ridiculous question, mentioning a character in French literature who was about to commit suicide, but the national elections were that day, and he wanted to know who would win. By the time the results were in, I told the deputy, the guy was no longer interested in suicide.

You can’t predict how anyone will feel about much of anything in a year, five years, or 20 years, I pointed out with good humor. And if I were to someday kill myself, I twice told deputy Todt, “it would almost certainly take the form of smoking myself to death.”

Deputy Todt, who presented himself as having developed expertise in dealing with people in crisis, asked me a few more questions about suicide in general. Because of the generality of the questions, I told him what some important thinkers had written about it. Having taught college World Literature, I was familiar with, for example, what Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf and Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus had to say about suicide.

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The opening sentence of Camus’ famous essay, I told Todt, is: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” However, I stressed that Camus also wrote that even if one decides life isn’t worth living, that doesn’t mean he will, or should, commit suicide. I quoted Camus as pointing out, “The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation.”

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The fact that I was conversant on a topic Camus considered the “one truly serious philosophical problem” apparently caused deputy Todt to assume I must be ready to commit suicide. I was then handcuffed, chained, and hauled off in the cage of a patrolcar to the psych ward. I didn’t resist; there was no point; but I was mortified.

“Mitchell suffered much of the day in an austere sitting room with drunks and mentally disabled people,” atty. Bedford’s claim noted. “Later that day, Mitchell was eventually examined by personnel at the hospital. Those personnel determined that Mitchell was not suicidal, that he had no emergent psychiatric issues, and that he should be released to go home….

“The personnel at the hospital called a taxi for Mitchell and arranged for payment of the $70 cab fare from the hospital back to Mitchell’s residence in Point Reyes. Mitchell gave the cab driver a $10 tip.”

I later complained to Sheriff Doyle that I apparently was taken into custody for merely giving straightforward answers to an unsophisticated deputy who was posing as sophisticated in such matters. “What got you into trouble,” the sheriff responded, “was answering the door.”

Wow! I had always considered the sheriff’s deputies my friends, and now the sheriff himself was telling me I was putting myself at risk by answering their knock at the door. “Unless they have a warrant,” atty. Bedford has since added. Doyle’s response was as threatening as Todt’s had been humiliating.

Doyle bristled when I pointed out that the timing of the deputy’s arrival that Wednesday morning was suspicious and that perhaps his deputies had been deliberately misled.

As it happened, I had learned at midday Tuesday that I had a court hearing with the new owner of The Point Reyes Light, Robert Plotkin, Thursday morning. After talking with atty. Bedford, I discovered I had only a few hours to collect witnesses’ statements against Plotkin and had begun doing so. Todt’s action effectively sabotaged my ability to adequately present my side of the case.

100_0461.jpgSo why did deputy Todt come to the door that morning? Supervisor Steve Kinsey told me that, according to Sheriff Doyle, Lt. Scott Anderson, commander of the West Marin substation, sent Todt to my home in response to statements from Plotkin. In a deposition, Plotkin later admitted he’d told deputies I was suicidal.

The new owner of The Light Robert Plotkin lives well but currently owes former staff and his former printer thousands of dollars.

Before my lawsuit was filed, I told Supervisor Kinsey my main concern was to have government records cleared of my having been mistakenly taken into custody as supposedly on the verge of suicide.

In this age of Homeland Security checks and a few officers, such as Todt, who sometimes don’t exercise common sense, having a Sheriff’s Department blunder on my record could come back to haunt me.

Kinsey did his best to intercede on my behalf but got nowhere. Doyle and the County Counsel seemed to think I wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of publicly admitting what happened to me. That’s the way rape victims were intimidated from pressing charges until the courts stopped identifying them by name.

Because Sheriff Doyle refused to take an administrative action to clear my name, we now have a lawsuit that will set the record straight and inevitably cost county government thousands of dollars to defend.

I need merely to look out my cabin windows to see it all around me — among the deer, horses, and red-winged blackbirds, among the raccoons, steers, and bluejays. It’s the unending struggle by each species to maintain its pecking order.

100_0842_112501116.jpgThe pecking order — which is sometimes called “dominance hierarchy” or “social hierarchy” when talking about humans and other mammals — takes its common name from the fact that it was first observed among poultry.

As Wikipedia explains, “The top chicken is one which can peck any chicken it wants. The bottom chicken is one that lets all the other chickens peck on it and stands up to none. There are chickens in the middle, who peck on certain chickens but are, in turn, pecked on by other chickens higher up on the scale.”

Like other young animals foxes play fight to establish dominance. I photographed these red foxes across my fence on neighbor Toby Giacomini’s land. The fox described below was the locally more-common gray fox.

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You can observe pecking orders in prisons and schoolyards. In his 1960 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1935-2001) portrays a sane man, RJ McMurphy, who cons his way into a mental institution to avoid a short prison term for petty crimes. Once in the institution, McMurphy immediately asks his fellow wards America’s eternal question, “Who’s the head bull-goose loony around here?

Pecking orders are more pronounced among some species than others, I’ve observed. With red-winged blackbirds, for example, maintaining their chosen spot at the feast of birdseed on my railing is more important than eating it. Brown towhees and Oregon juncos, on the other hand, worry far less about who’s at the head of the table.

I once asked Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evans why some birds are more aggressive toward their own species when feeding than are other birds. Evans said he wasn’t certain but theorized that birds whose diets are limited to certain food would likely protect it more aggressively than birds that eat a wider variety of foods.

While social hierarchies are supposed to exist within a species, there are obviously similar hierarchies among species.

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The cutest little roof rat you ever did see stretched like a first grader at a drinking fountain to get a drink from my birdbath at twilight Thursday.

Last week, I was watching a towhee pecking at a scattering of birdseed under my picnic table when a roof rat ran out from behind a flowerpot and drove the towhee off. I’d never seen such a thing before, but the towhee seemed unfazed. It merely hopped three feet away and started in on another scattering of seeds.

To some extent size determines which species dominates which. A possum will scurry off if a raccoon shows up. But as I observed Tuesday night, a raccoon will flee a much-smaller fox.

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Usually, confrontations between raccoons themselves are limited to growling and — like blackbirds —fluffing up to look bigger.

But I’ve also seen raccoons fight, and they were savage.

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Although raccoons have fearsome canine teeth, the little gray fox I saw Tuesday clearly had a much-larger raccoon buffaloed — if you can stand the metaphor. And even if you can’t, this column is over. But if someone knows why a raccoon would be afraid of a fox, please send in a comment.

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Too many rainbows? The first week of April, it rained at my cabin virtually every day or night. A factoid reflected in this photo from my deck is that the sky is always darkest outside the arc of a rainbow. The reason is a bit complex, but if you want a good explanation, check the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research website: http://www.eo.ucar.edu/rainbows/

Rain having fallen almost every day or night since April began, the grass in my pasture is high, and neighbor Toby Giacomini’s stockpond is full. Water districts like late rains so their reservoirs are full going into the dry months.

All the same, I’m already ready for May. So are half the people in West Marin. The other half (apart from ranchers and water district operators) are a contrary lot; more than a few of them are here because they’re not wanted someplace else — or because they are.

mikedn_1_1.jpgIn any case, the minute someone mentions being tired of rain, someone else pops up with with Al Jolson’s (at left) 1947 lyrics: “Though April showers may come your way,/ They bring the flowers that bloom in May./ So if it’s raining, have no regrets/ Because it isn’t raining rain you know. It’s raining violets….”

On the other hand, April showers may cause some of us, who in school had to plow through the field of English literature, to instead recall the grim opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Wasteland:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

In the late 1960s, I taught English Literature, World Literature, and Journalism at Upper Iowa College. I liked teaching the poetry of Eliot (below right), but I prefer listening to Chaucer’s, the masterpiece of which is The Canterbury Tales written in Middle English during the late 1300s.

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So I was a bit surprised when almost 40 years after I left teaching for newspapering, it suddenly dawned on me last week that the opening lines of The Wasteland satirize the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales:

“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,/ And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour….”

In Modern English, that would be something along the lines of: “When April with its showers sweet has pierced to the root the drought of March and bathed every vein the moisture whose essence begets the flower….”

200px-geoffrey_chaucer_-_illustration_from_cassells_history_of_england_-_century_edition_-_published_circa_1902_1_1.jpgWith all this going on and the “smale foweles maken melody,” wrote Chaucer (right), “thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”

Eliot naturally saw April more darkly and went on in The Wasteland to ask, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?”

Personally, I am not one of those folk longing to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury or anywhere else (too much walking); my view of April is certainly less gloomy than Eliot’s; so I was almost taken in by Jolson’s advice:

“When you see clouds upon the hills,/ You soon will see crowds of daffodils./ So keep on looking for a bluebird/ And listening for his song/ Whenever April showers come along.”

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As it happens, I planted daffodils along my driveway last October. Five weeks ago, Dee Goodman, formerly a Point Reyes Station innkeeper and now living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, arrived for a visit. On her first day back in town (above), the daffodils I’d planted came into bloom.

Dee, however, observed that if West Marin residents were to follow Jolson’s advice and search the hills for daffodils following April’s showers, they’d miss them by at least month. “A better flower for April would be the Forget-Me-Not,” Dee suggested, having just noticed them in profusion along Nicasio Valley Road north of Moon Hill.

Eliot, no doubt, would have agreed.

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One of the odder events in this long-running saga called Nature’s Two Acres occurred Saturday night. (The two acres, of course, is my pasture surrounding this cabin in the hills above Point Reyes Station.)

It all began when Dee Goodman, who is visiting from Mexico, and I went out on my deck at twilight Saturday to enjoy the view. For a while, we sat on patio chairs drinking coffee, but as the evening grew chilly, we went back inside.

While outside, I had set a nearly full mug of coffee on the deck, and probably because Dee and I were talking when we went indoors, I forgot to take the mug with me.

As it happens, I drink my coffee with a fair amount of those sweet, flavored (hazelnut, vanilla nut, or crème brulée) creamers made by Nestle. I am not alone in enjoying coffee thus diluted nor — as I’ve now discovered — is my species.

Later last Saturday I was working at my computer when around midnight I went downstairs for a bite, and to my surprise, a possum was on my deck lapping up my forgotten coffee. Before long, he had emptied the mug. I wasn’t worried and laughed to myself that if a possum could digest roadkill, it could digest a mug of coffee.

Still writing in my loft at 2 a.m., I went back down to the kitchen, and as I headed toward the refrigerator, I immediately spotted the possum. It had returned and was now outside my kitchen door.

It’s fairly common to see a possum scurry when scared, but I can’t say that I’d ever seen a perky possum before. One mug of coffee, and this little guy was wired.

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The possum was pacing back and forth outside my door, climbing on and off the railing, and occasionally poking around my covered firewood (above). Again amused, I decided to give the perky possum a slice of bread. The possum started when he heard me unlatch the kitchen door, but rather than scurrying off, he made a dash toward the opening.

From what I’ve observed, possums don’t see diddly squat at night (although they’re supposed to) and depend almost entirely on smells to guide them. I’m not at all sure this possum even saw me, but he sure smelled food in my kitchen. I had to bean him with a piece of bread to keep him from running into the cabin.

As he ate it, I tossed out a few more pieces and he spent the next 10 minutes running around the deck, sniffing for crusts.

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The moral to all this, I suppose, is that if your neighborhood marsupial is too prone to playing possum, just serve him a cup of coffee.

SparselySageAndTimely.com previously quoted Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evens as saying, the “common opossum” is not native to California but rather the Deep South and was introduced into the San Jose area around 1900 “for meat, delicious with sweet potatoes.” By 1931, possums had spread as far south as the Mexican border but did not reach Point Reyes until 1968.

Luckily for possums, the Point Reyes National Seashore hasn’t any plans to exterminate the hundreds, if not thousands, of them in the park although like the white deer they’re not native.

When the National Seashore opened in 1965, possums were just arriving in the park while the non-native white (fallow) and spotted (axis) deer had been living on Point Reyes for 20 years. But unlike the white deer, the public hasn’t shown particular interest in possums, and the National Seashore administration in its perverse fashion targets its eradication programs on non-natives that appeal to members of the public.

Why? It’s simply a matter of Calvanism reminiscent of the Puritans’ ban on bear baiting (siccing dogs on a chained bear). The Puritans weren’t particularly upset by cruelty but didn’t like to have the public enjoying itself so much.