The Point Reyes Light Newspaper

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.

The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday published the latest in a series of out-of-town-media reports on the dispute between The Point Reyes Light and The West Marin Citizen. The report ran under the headline: “Newspaper War Rages in West Marin.”

With many West Marin residents wishing the “war” would end, more than 300 people as of Monday evening had signed a petition calling for both sides to get together and work out their differences.

The dispute went public a month ago when Citizen owner Joel Hack published an “Extra” edition accusing Marin Media Institute, the nonprofit that had just bought The Light, of attempting a “hostile takeover.” The edition said that MMI was trying to take advantage of Joel’s personal financial problems to gain control of The Citizen.

Joel is married to Kathie Simmons, an attorney in Sonoma County. Kathie, who does business as a one-attorney law firm, had to dip into her IRA several times in recent years to cover business expenses.

The problem, Joel told me, was that because she was under 59 and 1/2, she had to pay penalties for the early withdrawals. Without the  funds to pay the penalties and failing to file some tax returns in a timely manner, the couple saw their initial debt of $4,000 to $5,000 to the IRS and the State Franchise Tax Board balloon to $26,000.

On Feb. 26, Joel and Kathie filed for Chapter 13 protection (from creditors) under US Bankruptcy laws. They then began paying off their back state and federal income taxes at the rate of $600 a month. Under Chapter 13, they could do this over 36 months without incurring additional penalties.

However, MMI’s attorney Doug Ferguson then notified the bankruptcy trustee that the nonprofit had negotiated unsuccessfully to buy The Citizen and would still be willing to buy the paper if the trustee liked the idea.

Citing attorney Ferguson’s letter, the bankruptcy trustee last month recommended the bankruptcy court convert Joel’s and Kathie’s Chapter 13 (individual bankruptcy) to Chapter 7 (possible liquidation) or Chapter 11 (reorganization).

MMI now says it later told the trustee — when he asked — that the nonprofit was no longer interested in buying The Citizen. But the damage had been done. Faced with either Chapter 7 or Chapter 11, Joel and Kathie have now voluntarily dismissed their bankruptcy protection, and Joel told me he will dip into his own IRA to pay off their debts.

[Corey Goodman, chairman of MMI, on Aug. 3 offered a “mea culpa” for letting attorney Ferguson send out a letter that indicated MMI was ready to buy The Citizen. Corey said he should have “proofread” Ferguson’s letter but did not. In reality, Corey added, MMI by then was no longer interested in buying The Citizen.]

[I’m willing to take Corey at his word on this, for he confirms what I’ve said from the start. In a June 23 posting about the newspaper war I wrote, “Whom do I blame? Attorney Ferguson, who seems to have been too clever by half…. Ferguson was clearly looking for the bankruptcy court’s help in getting Joel to accept MMI’s (previous) $50,000 offer for The Citizen.”]

The Wall Street Journal meanwhile quoted me as saying the dispute between the papers “is extremely bitter. We’re reaching the point where an awful lot of people would like everybody to just quiet down the fighting.”

Among those people is Nancy Bertelsen, who has long been active in West Marin civic affairs, especially those involving the arts. On Friday she emailed me a petition that was also sponsored by six other people who are likewise prominent around Point Reyes Station: Steve Costa, Chris Giacomini, Michael Mery, Claire Peaslee, Jonathan Rowe, and Murray Suid.

Prompted by the difficulties between our two weekly newspapers, those of us listed [above] met to discuss how we could encourage the owners of the papers to unite in some way for the good of the community,” the cover letter said.

“We’re writing to ask if you [the public] will support this effort by adding your name in support of the statement below. The intention is to bring the owners to the table to work out a solution that is acceptable to all. Use the following blog website to respond if you agree with the statement intent:

“We hope you will be joined by many other friends, readers and advertisers. The proposal along with all our names and the list of advertisers will be submitted to both papers, with a request that they publish the full list. If you support the initiative and would like to have your name appear with ours, consider signing by Tuesday, July 20th (we hope this will be published on July 22nd).”

The petition to both publishers reads as follows:

“There is broad interest in West Marin in the emergence of a single newspaper that serves us all. The current competition between two weekly papers is not working. It forces both to struggle—journalistically and financially — and it strains the loyalties and resources of advertisers, readers and contributors alike. We urge that you end this situation, which is depriving the community of the strong, stable paper we need.

“Both papers exist to serve the community. The owners of both are clearly committed to that purpose. But the current situation is working against what both papers want to achieve, and against the best interests of West Marin. Readers and advertisers are weary and do not want this fractured situation to continue. We want a unified community.

Specifically, we urge the owners of both papers and their representatives to begin an open discussion to work out a more positive relationship than is the case now. Using the services of a mediator would probably be helpful. A new relationship might include a merger of the two papers or any number of agreements that have not been imagined before now but that would be mutually beneficial.

“In any case, negotiations should be without conditions or preconceptions, and with neither recriminations nor need for apologies on either side. Instead, we call upon you to start fresh and seek a way forward, to restore the vitality and viability of West Marin’s local media.

“We know that resolving this will not be easy. But we feel that the task is important—and a responsibility of our local journalism establishment. We all look forward to supporting you and to helping in any way that we can. Something great can take the place of the current tensions: something can emerge that the whole community can support.”

The petition caught me by surprise, but I’ve signed it, and I urge other West Marin residents to do the same so we can quiet down the fighting. It’s easy. Just click on and type in your name and hometown. The web page includes a list of people who have already signed.

Update: On July 22, The West Marin Citizen printed the cover letter, the petition, the names of its sponsors, and the names of the more than 300 people who signed it. The Point Reyes Light the same day published the cover letter and names of the sponsors but neither the petition nor the 300 signatures.

In preparing this posting, I was able to interview West Marin Citizen owner Joel Hack on the record, as well as Marin Media Institute vice chairman Mark Dowie briefly. Other MMI directors insisted on talking off the record. Corey Goodman, chairman of MMI, promised to make himself available for an in-depth interview Tuesday but stood me up. Much of the information here comes from a letter sent by MMI’s attorney to a bankruptcy trustee and from the trustee’s response.

The ongoing dispute between The West Marin Citizen and Point Reyes Light has become remarkably bitter. The Citizen on June 14 published an “extra” edition to announce the new owners of The Light have “launch[ed] a hostile takeover” because they could not buy The Citizen in a normal fashion.

The Light on June 17 published a brief response, saying its owners no longer have any interest in buying The Citizen. It added that it would “publish a thoroughly documented chronology of negotiations in an upcoming issue.”

What’s occurred has surprised the staff and owner of The Citizen, as well as the staff of The Point Reyes Light and nearly all the directors of Marin Media Institute, the nonprofit which owns The Light. Here’s the story.

Citizen owner Joel Hack is married to Kathie Simmons, an attorney in Sonoma County. Kathie, who does business as a one-attorney law firm, had to dip into her IRA several times in recent years to cover business expenses.

The problem, Joel told me, was that because she was under 59 and 1/2, she had to pay penalties for the early withdrawals. Without the  funds to pay the penalties and failing to file some tax returns in a timely manner, the couple saw their initial debt of $4,000 to $5,000 to the IRS and the State Franchise Tax Board balloon to more than $20,000.

On Feb. 26, Joel and Kathie filed for Chapter 13 protection (from creditors) under US Bankruptcy laws. They then began paying off their back state and federal income taxes at the rate of $600 a month. Under Chapter 13, they could do this for 36 months without incurring additional penalties.

Meanwhile, Corey Goodman of Marshall and Mark Dowie of Inverness, who would later become the chairman and vice chairman of MMI, arranged for an appraiser to estimate the value of both The Light and The Citizen.

Out of all this came MMI’s purchase of The Light but no agreement with The Citizen. In fact, it appears the two sides never came close although MMI and its attorney tell a different story.

Initially both sides talked of a “merger,” but in the end it was clear that MMI wanted an acquisition. The staff and content of the two papers would not be merged; rather, The Citizen would be shut down.

Joel, in turn, claims the personal bankruptcy was disclosed at the appropriate time during negotiations, and the bankruptcy trustee reports that Joel and his wife did, in fact, list all of their assets when they filed  for Chapter 13. In essence, what they failed to do was place a value on three assets.

In their brief statement of  June 17, MMI directors called their offer to Joel “generous.” Their attorney, Doug Ferguson, wrote the bankruptcy trustee that it amounted to “$50,000, all cash for all assets constituting The West Marin Citizen, with this amount payable $40,000 to Mr. Hack and $10,000 to fund severance payments to key employees including editor Jim Kravets….

“Mr. Hack would be required to execute a non-competition agreement precluding for five years his engaging in the newspaper publication business in Marin County.”

As Joel sees the offer, it was hardly generous but ridiculously low. He said this week that at the time the offer was made, The Citizen had “good” accounts receivable of approximately $20,000 and had already sold $20,000 worth of ads for the next issue of The Citizen’s semi-annual Coast Guide, and would sell more.

“By giving me $40,000,” Joel said sarcastically, “they’d be giving me my own money that I earned.” The Coast Guide alone is worth several times that amount, he added.

In addition, Joel wanted to have a responsible position in a merged paper and for his daughter-in-law Shari-Faye Dell, who works for The Citizen, to get a job at The Light. Goodman rejected these conditions, and after a flurry of discussions, negotiations were dropped.

That might have been the end of the matter, but three weeks later, Ferguson, the MMI attorney, wrote the bankruptcy trustee, “The Point Reyes Light and The West Marin Citizen…appear to be finding it impossible to survive in what has unfortunately proven (in terms of necessary advertising revenues) to be a one-newspaper market….”

“I think it’s a two-newspaper town,” Joel responded with a laugh on Tuesday. “I’ve got advertising. I pay all my bills. My payroll is made on time. The newspaper is not anywhere near bankrupt.”

Citing attorney Ferguson’s letter, however, the bankruptcy trustee this month recommended the bankruptcy court convert Joel’s and Kathie’s Chapter 13 (individual bankruptcy) to Chapter 7 (possible liquidation) or Chapter 11 (reorganization).

Trustee David Burchard also noted that although Joel and Kathie had listed The Citizen, the Bodega Bay Navigator website, and her law practice as assets, they hadn’t put a dollar value on them.

Joel Hack in front of Toby’s Feed Barn.

Not to do so was a mistake even though, according to Joel, “[The Citizen] revealed everything to the trustee: payroll records, accounts receivable, accounts payable, bank statements. There was nothing concealed.”

As for the Navigator website, which is rarely maintained, it has virtually no value, and it would be difficult to set a value on Kathie’s law practice if she were not a part of it. She has no major clients, and many of the small ones she does have would probably follow her to a new office.

If Joel and Kathie had merely written “unknown” as the value of all three assets, it is unlikely the trustee would have paid much attention, he said.

As it is, the trustee’s recommendation that the court convert their Chapter 13 to Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 has already cost Joel and Kathie money for legal fees, and more costs are coming. “It’s costing me an extra $20,000 at a minimum that I wouldn’t have had to pay if [MMI] hadn’t f-cked with my bankruptcy,” Joel grumbled.

Joel said he and Kathie at this point have “several options, all of which will result in the debts being repaid and The Citizen standing free and clear from anything.”

As for The Light, I’ve yet to find anyone on its staff or board of directors who — in hindsight — thinks Ferguson’s letter to the bankruptcy trustee has done the paper any good. It’s needlessly given The Light a black eye and caused its staff to catch hell around Point Reyes Station.

From what members of the MMI board tell me, most were unaware that Ferguson’s letter was being sent. Editor Tess Elliott, ad director/business manager Renée Shannon, and front-office manager Missy Patterson knew nothing about it, Mark said. If the public is going to blame anyone, he added, blame Corey and him, not the staff or the rest of the board.

As for me, whom do I blame? Attorney Ferguson, who seems to have been too clever by half. While he did not explicitly ask the bankruptcy trustee to convert Joel’s and Kathie’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy to Chapter 7 or 11, he’s an experienced lawyer who should know how his letter could gratuitously muddle their personal finances.

I assume Corey and Mark signed off on his sending the letter, but I doubt they were in as good a position as attorney Ferguson to foresee the problems inherent in his gambit.

Those MMI directors who now defend attorney Ferguson say he was obligated to file a letter with the bankruptcy trustee because MMI was negotiating to buy an asset in bankruptcy. But it wasn’t. As Ferguson acknowledges in his letter, the negotiations had already been terminated. So why defend the attorney? Possibly because he was one of the donors when MMI was buying The Light.

Ferguson was clearly looking for the bankruptcy court’s help in getting Joel to accept MMI’s $50,000 offer for The Citizen. Sounding a bit too hopeful, the attorney wrote the bankruptcy trustee, “Should such an offer be of interest to your office, then upon so being informed, I will promptly submit a binding legal offer.”

“All it was,” said Joel grimly, “was an attempt to drive the price down. It was hardball negotiating.”

In our willingness to do anything to get a photograph, we wildlife photographers, like paparazzi, sometimes seem to have no shame. If you’d seen me on my deck in my shorts Friday snapping pictures of a coyote, I’m sure you would agree.

As it happened, I’d spent the afternoon using a Weed Wacker to cut back grass along both sides of my driveway, which is about a tenth of a mile long. Needing to wash up after the work, I had taken a shower and was just starting to get dressed when I looked out my bedroom window and spotted a large coyote in the field below.

Without pausing to pull on a shirt or trousers, I grabbed my camera and hurried outside as quietly as I could so as not to scare the critter away. By now, the coyote had crossed my field and was nosing around near my parked cars.

I wondered if it was sniffing around for this doe I’d spotted by my cars earlier.

The coyote stuck around long enough for me to take its picture before it disappeared into a clump of (appropriately enough) coyote brush. As soon as it did, I called my neighbor Jay Haas about the sighting, and from his vantage point, he managed to spot the coyote too.

A bobcat wanders around a car belonging to two guests.

I don’t know what it is about my parking area, but it attracts wildlife as if it were a watering hole in the Serengeti Plain.

I’ve been able to photograph both predators and prey hanging around my cars — coyotes and deer, bobcats and rabbits  — as well as wild turkeys, great blue herons, and countless other birds.

A brush rabbit, also known as a cottontail.

Near the bottom of my driveway is the top of my neighbors Skip and Renée Shannon’s driveway, and they have their own ecosystem of squirrels, crows, hawks, and owls.

Fledgling great horned owl. Photo by Renée Shannon

Renée, who is the business manager and ad director for The Point Reyes Light, last month told me Skip had been outside when a young great-horned owl fluttered down from a pine tree and landed in the grass. Skip quickly called to Renée to get her camera, and she was able to photograph the bird before it managed to fly a short distance and land on a woodpile.

Renée then phoned ornithologist Jules Evens of Point Reyes Station, and he caught the fledging owl and took it with him to a Tomales Bay Watershed Council meeting in the National Seashore.

“Someone at the meeting was on her way to San Rafael, so I gave the owl box to her, and she delivered it to Wildcare (Patient #488),” Jules told me later. “Apparently it had a fairly common blood bacterium [found] in owls and hawks.” The “prognosis,” he added, was “not good.”

Mystery skulls. Photo by Linda Petersen

My story took an odd turn a week ago when Renée’s counterpart at The West Marin Citizen, Linda Petersen of Point Reyes Station, discovered two animal skulls on the ground between her garbage cans and back fence. The immediate question was: what kind of animal?

Linda checked skull photos online and decided they looked like pig skulls. I emailed photos of the skulls to Jules and to Chileno Valley rancher Mike Gale, and both agreed Linda was probably right. “They appear to be medium-size porkers,” Mike wrote back.

That, however, doesn’t explain how the skulls ended up on the ground between Linda’s garbage cans and back fence. Did someone hold a luau and chuck pig heads over her fence? “Pretty rude of someone to toss them into her yard, eh?” Jules mused.

A group of mostly West Marin residents calling themselves Marin Media Institute last Friday bought The Point Reyes Light from Robert I. Plotkin, who had owned it four and a half years.

Having owned The Light for 27 of its 62 years, I’ve been following the developments closely.

The paper plans to incorporate as a nonprofit with scientist Corey Goodman of Marshall as chairman of the board and journalist Mark Dowie of Inverness as vice chairman.

Tess Elliott will remain as editor, and ad director Renée Shannon has been promoted to business manager. Missy Patterson, 83, who has worked at The Light for 28 years, will continue as front-office manager.

From left: Missy Patterson shows off the new look of The Light, which once again has the Point Reyes Lighthouse in its front-page flag; editor Tess Elliott; and business manager Renée Shannon, who holds an issue with the  flag Plotkin had used.

Eighty-six contributors ponied up $350,000 to: 1) buy The Light; 2) provide two years of working capital; 3) pay for a professional appraisal; and 4) cover the the legal costs of the sale, of incorporation, and of creating a nonprofit. Goodman said the price of The Light was confidential, but based on all this, I would guess it was in the $150,000 to $175,000 range.

In The Light’s Jan. 15, 2009, issue, Plotkin wrote that although he’d paid me $500,000 for the newspaper three years earlier, he’d been trying to sell it for $275,000 but had found no takers. It would be a “financial bloodbath,” Plotkin added, but “I was prepared to discount the price even more.” The Light at the time was “losing between $5,000 and $15,000 a month,” he reported.

Across the country newspapers were losing money, Plotkin wrote, so “this is not unique to The Light, although there have been some aggravating factors, namely myself….

My sensibility is at odds with many in the community.”

Of that there was no doubt. “During the first couple of years under the last publisher,” editor Elliott wrote this week, [The Light] lost one third of its subscribers; the effects of those years continue to reverberate. Our reporters still regularly hear complaints and flat out refusals to talk.”

In an article for The Columbia Journalism Review two years ago, Jonathan Rowe of Point Reyes Station wrote: “First, there was the braggadocio and self-dramatization. Most people in his situation would lay low for a bit, speak with everyone and get a feel for the place. Instead, Plotkin came out talking.

“We read that he was going to be the ‘Che Guevara of literary revolutionary journalism.’ The Light would become The New Yorker of the West…. [However] he soon showed a gift for the irritating gesture and off-key note.”

I encountered Plotkin’s “snarkiness” (Rowe’s word) almost as soon as I sold him the paper. When I tried to background him on a land-use planning issue in February 2006, he became abusive, and we had a falling out.

Plotkin (at right) then began publishing such malicious attacks on me that columnist Jon Carroll felt moved to complain in The San Francisco Chronicle about Plotkin’s “sleazy” editing.

I had been volunteering an occasional column after the sale, but I naturally stopped when Plotkin began maligning me. Joel Hack, who owns The Bodega Bay Navigator website in Sonoma County, then invited me to submit stories, and I did.

When I sold The Light to Plotkin, I had agreed not to write for another Marin County newspaper as long as he owned all the stock in The Light. Upset that my writings were now online, Plotkin then claimed in court that a Sonoma County website is no different from a Marin County newspaper. Now-retired Judge Jack Sutro, who appeared not to understand the Internet, agreed and issued injunctions against Hack and me.

But it was a disastrous victory for Plotkin. Hack would eventually respond by launching the competing West Marin Citizen, which cut significantly into The Light’s revenues. The Citizen quickly grew in circulation while The Light’s circulation was plummeting, with many of its readers switching papers. The Citizen likewise picked up a number of Light advertisers who were unhappy with Plotkin’s editorial “sensibility.”

In getting a court to bar my writing for Hack’s website, Plotkin — to paraphrase the Book of Hosea — sewed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

As for Plotkin, how does he explain his publishing debacle? “Sadly, West Marin did not want editorial excellence,” he told The Chronicle this week. “They wanted a newspaper that would record their births, celebrate their accomplishments, and habitually congratulate them on living here.”

Last weekend, the new owners notified the press of Friday’s sale but embargoed their news release until this Thursday. Nonetheless, the moment the sale occurred, word of it spread throughout West Marin. Jeanette Pontacq of Point Reyes Station told me she returned home Friday after a month in Paris and in less than 24 hours had been filled in on most details.

Technically, The Light is now owned by The Point Reyes Light Publishing Company L3C (a low-profit limited liability company). It is incorporated in Vermont, which is common for L3Cs. That company is, in turn, owned by Marin Media Institute, which is applying for nonprofit status.

Mark Dowie (left) and Corey Goodman with the sign that once hung over The Light’s front door.

Along with Goodman and Dowie, directors of Marin Media are David Escobar of Contra Costa County, aide to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, also active in Democratic, Latino and Native American politics; Chris Dressler of Marshall, former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Women’s Voices, Women Vote; Phyllis Faber of Mill Valley,  former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Jerry Mander of Bolinas, author, former ad agency president, and founder of an anti-globalization think tank; David Miller of Inverness Park, international-development specialist; Scoop Nisker of Oakland, Spirit Rock Meditation Center teacher and former KSAN newsman; Norman Solomon of Inverness Park, journalist and political activist.

There are too many contributors to list here. Contributions ranged “from a few dollars to $50,000,” Goodman said.

The question currently on many people’s minds is what will happen to The Citizen now that The Light is being revitalized. I had hoped to see the two papers merge, but a merged operation became difficult when the new owners of The Light decided to create a nonprofit.

However, both Hack and Goodman told me this week that the option of combining the two papers “is still on the table” although nothing is likely to happen right away.

Hack (above), who is justifiably proud of what The Citizen has accomplished in a little less than three years, isn’t interested in simply selling out and walking away. His paper’s hyper-local coverage of public gatherings and West Marin commerce, along with its publishing of innumerable submissions from readers, has been popular with many residents and merchants.

The Light, in turn, has made its mark with investigative reporting ever since Elliott took full charge of its newsroom.

For the past month, some people have been saying The Citizen is about to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and go out of business, but Hack insists there is no truth to the rumor. The only money he and his wife Kathy Simmons owe is about $25,000 in state and federal income taxes, Hack said. They have filed for Chapter 13 protection, which will allow them to pay off this relatively small amount over three years without incurring additional penalties for late payments.

That’s all that’s going on, and it in no way threatens The Citizen. In fact, the state and federal governments benefit from The Citizen’s staying in business because it gives Hack a source of income to pay the back taxes.

I have friends at both papers, and I hope both have profitable futures. Most of Marin Media’s directors are known to me, and I respect them. I also have a high regard for the contributors. I’m delighted they are reinvigorating my old newspaper and wish them well.

I also hope the community continues to support The Citizen. The changes at The Light have obviously changed the dynamics between the two papers, and I would be surprised if each didn’t find its own niche — which will probably require some adapting.

The Light and The Citizen have each invited me to periodically submit columns and articles, and I’ve agreed to write for both. It’s been a long winter, but springtime has finally arrived.

Former Point Reyes Light reporter Ivan Gale married Annalene MacLew Sept. 5 in Johannasburg, South Africa, and he is now briefly back in West Marin introducing her to friends and relatives.

Family gathering (back row from left): Ivan Gale, Annalene Gale née MacLew, Mike Gale, Sally Gale, Amy Culver née Gale holding daughter Izzy, Rohan Gordon, Katie Gordon née Gale. Front row: Brent Culver and daughter Sarah Culver.

After he left my newsroom in 2004, Ivan earned two master’s degrees at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. When he finished his second year at Columbia, Ivan was hired by The Gulf News, an English-language newspaper in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

A year ago, Ivan was hired away by a new daily newspaper, The National, in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

As it happens, Annalene works for Etihad Airways, which is based in Abu Dhabi.

The Gale ranch house in Chileno Valley.

Mike and Sally talk with Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey (right) during a party Saturday  for Ivan and Annalene.

Ivan is the son of Chileno Valley ranchers Mike and Sally Gale, and on Saturday a throng of ranchers, artists, local officials, journalists, relatives, and other friends showed up at Gale Ranch to wish the newlyweds well.

Of course, not everything at Gale Ranch has been warm and cozy of late. Today Mike told me it was so cold in Chileno Valley during the night that the cattle had frost on them this morning.

By noon, however, the day was sunny and getting warmer. At least Annalene can now understand the old West Marin expression, “If you don’t like the weather here, just stick around a few minutes, and it’ll be different.”

As for the rest of you, happy holidays and try to stay warm.


Last Thursday when I dropped by Linda Petersen’s temporary digs, Tim Weed and Debbie Daly were entertaining the recuperating crash victim with a mix of country and folk music.

The Point Reyes Station couple are among many people who have stepped forward to help Linda, ad manager of The West Marin Citizen, since her horrific wreck June 13 near Motel Inverness.  A dozen West Marin residents have been taking turns cooking meals for her, and several have provided her with transportation.

100_2628_1Linda suffered 11 broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, two broken ankles, a broken leg, a broken kneecap, a broken arm, and a punctured lung when she fell asleep at the wheel and hit a utility pole. The injuries required three months of hospitalization, including seven weeks wearing a steel-and-carbon halo that immobilized her head and neck.

Linda was released from the hospital Aug, 22 and has been temporarily staying in ground-floor quarters at Karen Gray’s place in Point Reyes Station prior to moving into an upstairs apartment.


For the past month, Linda has been living out of boxes and is excited about the prospect of settling into her new apartment as soon as she can regularly climb the stairs.

Linda, 61, who works at the front desk in The Citizen office, can by now walk short distances with just a cane, and West Marin Senior Services has loaned her an electric scooter to get around town.

100_0148By chance, Missy Patterson, 82, who works at the front desk of the competing Point Reyes Light, also uses a scooter to get around downtown. The coincidence has led more than a few townspeople to suggest the two have a race.

“Missy said she would beat me, which is probably true,” Linda told me with a laugh. “Her scooter is bigger and more powerful.” Missy (seen here in the 2005 Western Weekend Parade) had started out with a donated scooter but a few years back moved up to a high-performance model.

Linda during her hospitalization accumulated several thousand dollars worth of bills that her insurer, Kaiser Permanente, is refusing to cover. To help raise money to pay those bills, a benefit with food, drinks, and entertainment will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at Toby’s Feed Barn. More about this later…

Four years ago while I still published The Point Reyes Light, readers on their own gave birth to a new genre of first-person writing, Tall Tales of Intelligent Dogs.

The genre faded shortly before the grand old newspaper changed ownership, but the tales have now inspired me to try replicating with wildlife around my cabin what West Marin residents had reported accomplishing with their pets.

possum-with-placematGood table manners being a sine qua non for participating in polite society, last week I began teaching the local possum proper dining etiquette.

“I am teaching my dog to drive,” Ed Fielding of Bolinas wrote in a June 9, 2005, letter to the editor of The Light. “I am 81 years old, and my strength is ebbing, my reflexes are slowing, my vision is fading, and my hearing is deteriorating. The qualities I am losing my dog Juno possesses in superb degree. She is a 145-pound Rhodesian ridgeback – strong, quick, and very intelligent.

“I have made special metal cups and attached two of these to the steering wheel in the recommended ‘10-to-2’ position. The cups are well padded so that her front paws fit snugly, and she is able to steer the car with ease. I have also modified the accelerator and the brake pedal. With her long legs and great strength, she has no trouble operating these two mechanisms.”

It was an obvious spoof, but Fielding presented it with flair. “[Juno] just loves driving the car,” he wrote, “and the highlight of her day is when she gets behind the wheel and we go for a short spin. Of course, she drives with her head out the window, a habit I have been unable to break, but it seems to be no problem, and she handles the car with skill….

“If any readers of this letter have also taught their dogs to drive, I would appreciate hearing from you…”

The Light never heard from anyone else teaching his dog to drive, but the next issue carried a letter from David Miller of Inverness Park, who wrote, “I was pleased to learn from Ed Fielding’s letter that there are others who are training their pets to handle moving vehicles. In my case, I have been training my dog Bela to ride a bicycle.

“It all started when I would ride my bike and Bela would run on the path beside me on a leash. So many times I would hear angry people telling me I should get off the bike and let Bela ride that I decided that if I trained Bela to ride, we could mountain bike together and avoid the scorn of passersby…

“Bela is still on training wheels, and I have had to address a few mechanical problems. For example, I had to deal with her tail. It was always getting caught in the spokes of the back wheel. I solved that problem by tying a string to her tail and connecting it to her collar. I had to make sleeves on the handlebars into which she could comfortably slide her front legs for steering. Bela uses her mouth to manipulate the hand brake.”

Miller went on to say that his “real problem” is the policy of local parks to prohibit mountain bikes on certain trails and dogs on others, leaving Bela with few choices. This letter writer too asked to hear from others in his situation.

No other owners of canine mountain bikers responded, but Robin Bradford of Bolinas on June 30 wrote, “For quite some time, Frank and Winston, my Yorkshire Terriers, have tried to convince me to allow them free access to our Toro gasoline-powered lawn mower. Naturally, I refused….

“Recently, Frank and Winston brought me the letters to the editor from The Point Reyes Light written by Ed Fielding and David Miller. I can tell you, some fairly biting accusations were hurled… [and] I finally acquiesced.

“Much to my surprise, Frank and Winston operated the Toro as though they’d been doing it for years, which it turned out they had been. My teenage son had been taking the credit (and the allowance) for the job for an extended period of time, but it was actually Winston at the steering wheel and Frank running ahead to ensure straight lines on the grass…”

Through no effort on its part, The Light had suddenly become a weekly publisher of tall tales of canine cunning, all written in the form of letters to the editor.

Carl Dern of Stinson Beach on July 14, 2005, wrote, “I taught my dog Billie to weld. I realized that she had a great interest in welding when she was a pup because she would hang around my studio watching me weld. I made her a self-darkening helmet and a small leather apron so she wouldn’t hurt her eyes or burn her fur. As time went by, I noticed that she would try to nudge me away from what I was welding and try to take the welding torch from me.

“I soon caught on that she wanted to do the welding. I made her some small, padded cups for her paws to hold the welding gun. She worked the controls with her mouth and right-rear leg. I soon found myself holding the work while she welded it with beautiful precision and skill.

“Billie died last winter at the age of 16 and a half, which is 115 years human. I have not had the courage to disclose this information until now because I was afraid that I would be accused of exploitation. In my own defense, I paid Billie minimum wage and registered her as a Democrat. She voted for Kerry and missed Clinton very much. Our grandchildren inherited her estate.”

raccoon-bartenderBack in 2007, I myself taught a local raccoon to tend bar. Before long it could mix a margarita, Manhattan, or martini as fast as it could shake a tail. When government began enforcing a ban on smoking in bars, however, the raccoon quit to take an outdoor job.

As the parade of talented-dog stories continued, I was amazed not merely by the phenomena itself but also by their wit. “I think too many exceptional canines have gone unrecognized because the fear of low-cost dog labor is so prevalent,” Cory Griffith of Bolinas wrote on July 28.

“My confession was especially hard to make before now because it would have cost me my job. More accurately, my dog Rona’s job. I used to work as a dishwasher and occasional cook in an unnamed Stinson restaurant…. Rona always liked to follow me around the kitchen and beg for treats.

“After we’d been together for a few years, something strange began to happen; I noticed she’d alert me with a bark whenever the water was about to boil. From there it was just a few months of practice until a dog who couldn’t crack an egg transformed into one who was putting a shrimp on the Barbie. She’d grab a whisk in her mouth, and a few hours later we’d have a beautiful cake with only a few dog hairs in the frosting.”

For the same edition, Hawk Weston of Bolinas sent in a photo of herself and her pug Scrunchie. While practicing her guitar, Weston wrote, she noticed that “Scrunchie was spending an inordinate amount of time watching my fingers – especially the left-hand chord positions…

“I decided to teach her to play folk music, figuring if I could play it, how hard could it be? Actually, it wasn’t hard at all, especially after she suggested that I lay the guitar flat on the floor so she could play it like a Dobro with a flat-pick held tightly between her tiny teeth. She also developed her signature ‘softer sound’ by brushing across the strings gently with her little tail.”

Other tales came in from Kent Goodwin of New York City, who wrote that his yellow lab Trapper had developed expertise in corporate management while living in Stinson Beach. Scott Leslie of Point Reyes Station, however, growled, “Enough already.” He suggested that all the tales of canine accomplishments indicated a dog had taken over the editor’s desk.

But virtually all other letters were in the style of one by Inverness resident Laura Brainard of Planned Feralhood (the humane program for reducing the number of stray cats). Brainard on Aug. 4 wrote she’d read the letters aloud to cats in the program’s shelter to give them “inspiration.” The cats, however, “were not impressed,” she noted.

Cats, in fact, were beginning to creep into coverage that had been limited to a dog’s world. Sandra Wallace of Inverness on July 28 wrote, “I do hope someone is making a collection of the letters recounting the accomplishments of these exceptional dogs. One of my dogs – the one that reads – is fascinated and inspired by these accounts. The cats, however, remain incredulous.”

I’d would have been incredulous about all this too had I not seen it myself. In fact, now that I’ve tried it myself, civilizing the animal world doesn’t seem that difficult.

Editor’s note: The readers’ letters were previously summarized in my Aug. 8, 2005, Sparsely Sage and Timely column in The Light. The possum-and-table-setting photo was shot Wednesday.

What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And you were there.” That was Walter Cronkite’s weekly signoff in the 1950s when he hosted TV docu-dramas, You Are There, which reenacted historic events.

Here in no particular order are some of the events that altered and illuminated the past week or so in West Marin. And now, thanks to the wonders of photography and the Internet, you were there.


The little possum which almost every night drops by for a visit is often a bit intimidated by the larger raccoons which also show up. Last Wednesday the possum was particularly chagrined when a raccoon walked overhead on the railing of my deck en route to the birdbath.


A joyful Linda Petersen, the advertising manager of The West Marin Citizen, came home to Point Reyes Station Saturday after two and a half months of hospitalization.

Linda suffered 11 broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, two broken ankles, a broken leg, a broken kneecap, a broken arm, and a punctured lung when she fell asleep at the wheel June 13 and hit a utility pole in Inverness.

Linda’s left leg is still in a cast, and she continues to need a wheelchair to get around. However, she no longer wears casts on her right leg and left arm or the steel-and-carbon halo that had immobilized her head and neck for seven weeks.

Today she spent a few minutes in The Citizen office and expects to now spend a few hours at her desk most weekdays. Friends and West Marin Senior Services are providing her with meals until she can cook again.


Redwood Empire Disposal, which is franchised to pick up garbage throughout West Marin, this week held its “summer community cleanup.” It was a chance for us customers to stack up to 14 bags, boxes, or cans of bulky waste at curbside to be carted off.

On Campolindo Way, our friendly garbageman Víctor showed up today to haul away the neighborhood’s junk. I had just spent two days cleaning out the basement in preparation for his arrival. Every time the garbage company holds these infrequent events, I scramble to collect half-forgotten stuff I’m finally ready to get rid of.


Here Víctor uses neighbors Skip and Renée Shannon’s recycling bin to hoist their junk into the garbage truck.

Like many West Marin residents, I spend several days each summer trimming trees and brush to make my property safer from wildfires, and here too my personal schedule is regulated by Redwood Empire Disposal’s schedule. The garbage company picks up yard waste only every other week. That invariably leads to a lot of limb lopping just before each pickup.


Mornings have been foggy most days recently in West Marin with the fog (seen here over Inverness Ridge and along Papermill Creek) typically burning off before noon.


The view from my deck reminded me of the wildfires that have been burning elsewhere in California. But it was merely the sun setting behind a fog bank. Gracias a Dios por eso.

dave-dinsmore-homeWindstorm destruction. The historic house where Dave Dinsmore lives on Nicasio Square has withstood more than a couple of blows over the years from speeding southbound vehicles. Coming at the end of a long straightaway into town, Nicasio Valley Road’s 90-degree turn in front of the house has sent nighttime speeders flying off the road and into the  fence and porch. This week, however, the blow came from a gale that sent half a tree crashing down onto the porch’s roof. No doubt the resilient residence will recover from this blow too.

West Marin’s gales of Spring are back. In response to last week’s posting about Google’s inaccurate current-weather reports for Point Reyes Station, reader Linda Sturdivant phoned me around 3 p.m. Tuesday to talk about the weather.

Linda, who lives on Portola Avenue in neighboring Inverness Park, was concerned about the gathering windstorm, for she could hear limbs cracking in the bishop pine canopy over her home. Linda’s partner Terry Gray told me he too was concerned and then went outside to move his pickup truck. A large branch had broken and momentarily was caught in other branches, but it was hanging over the truck.

When the winds finally knocked the broken limb to the ground, Terry later told me, it turned out to be about 13 feet long and about 10 inches in diameter at the break. That’s enough to dent the roof of a truck’s cab or break a windshield or both.


Less fortunate were at least one or two birds that apparently could not get out of the way in time when branches snapped — or flew into something while trying to escape the chaos. Leo Gilberti of Woodacre, who was doing some cleanup work for Linda Wednesday, found two dead little birds on the ground outside her home.

One had a broken neck, which can happen when a bird flies into a window pane, but the right side of the other bird’s chest was crushed although there were no puncture wounds.

Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evans has tentatively identified the birds as pine siskins based on this bird’s “cleft tail, streaked breast, and finch-like bill.” I had emailed Jules the photo above, which he viewed on his handheld BlackBerry, leading him to caution that the bird was “kind of hard to ID on my phone.”


As it did elsewhere in West Marin, Tuesday’s gale brought down limbs all along Portola Avenue in Inverness Park, keeping part of the road closed throughout Wednesday.

Although gales blow through West Marin every spring, I’m not particularly fond of them. Wildlife and livestock obviously aren’t either.


Life looked pretty tranquil for cows along the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road until this week’s windstorm.

100_1840Reflected in the windows of neighbors Dan and Mary Huntsmans’ potting shed, a cat that could never have perched on their gatepost in this week’s gale could sit there nonchalantly last week.


In a gale, there is no such thing as “straight as the crow flies.” These feathered flying machines may not be as fast as fighter jets, but they’re even more maneuverable. Once the gusts built up, the crow approach to the birdbath on my deck resembled dogfight maneuvers more than a landing pattern.

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