Archive for October, 2008

Getting ready for disaster is both anxiety-ridden and fun, as some of us in West Marin learned in the last few days. One particularly fun event was the West Marin Disaster Council’s annual pancake breakfast in the Point Reyes Station firehouse.

100_0757.jpg Retired County Administrator Mark Riesenfeld of Point Reyes Station watches Inverness volunteer firefighter Ken Fox pour batter at the West Marin Disaster Council’s  pancake breakfast Sunday.

100_0765.jpg During the fundraiser, oyster farmer Kevin Lunny (center) chats with Marin Magazine writer P.J. Bremier (in dark glasses). In the November issue, Bremer writes at length about the Point Reyes National Seashore’s desire to close down Lunny’s century-old oyster operation. Listening (left of him) is Dolly Aleshire of Inverness. Librarian Jennifer Livingston of Inverness stands in the foreground.

100_0766.jpg Marin County firefighter Tony Giacomini reads off the names of winners in the disaster council’s raffle. Assisting him are his wife Nikki, his son Brandt (who has just drawn a ticket), and Brandt’s brother Ryan (beside him).

Raising money for disaster preparedness, as was noted, is the fun part. The anxiety-ridden part was the drill we disaster council members held last week.

Here was the mock scenario. On Tuesday, a Magnitude 6.9 earthquake on the Hayward Fault (which runs from Fremont to San Pablo Bay) causes massive destruction. Some 2,000 Bay Area people die, and 5,000 more go to hospitals.

Marin County is mostly isolated from the outside world with Highway 101 blocked at Petaluma, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge closed, and the Golden Gate Bridge reduced to one lane. It takes until Thursday to get a comprehensive assessment of the damage.

So last Thursday morning, about 50 public employees set up shop in an alternative emergency-operations center at the jail while out here on the coast, neighborhood liaisons to the West Marin Disaster Council pretended to look for damage.

100_0787.jpgI’m the Campolindo Drive liaison to the disaster council. That basically means in case of a disaster, such as a major earthquake, I’m supposed to radio my area coordinator, Kate Kain of Point Reyes Station, and let her know if there are any serious problems on this road.

Thursday was the day to test our ability to use the high tech walkie-talkies we’ve all been issued. We’d received instructions from radio expert Richard Dillman (who also does technical work at KWMR), but most of us had never before used the radios, and I was a bit nervous.

What if I couldn’t remember which of the radio’s many buttons to press when I tried to speak on the air? If I pressed one wrong button, I’d change the band on which I wanted to broadcast. Another button would set off a disruptive beeping at Kate’s house. If I went on the air at the wrong time, I’d interfere with another liaison’s reporting in.

I set the alarm for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, which is early for me, and likewise took an early shower. (I was going to be sharp for this drill.) Methodically, I ate breakfast and read the morning newspaper. (I was also going to be full of energy and in possession of the latest information.)

At 11 a.m. as scheduled, I went out on my deck to radio Kate, whose house I can nearly see from mine. Although I could hear other people radioing in reports, it took me several minutes to figure out the correct button for talking on the air. (It’s under my thumb in the photo above.) Eventually, I managed to get through and report that all was well on Campolindo Drive. Kate thanked me for taking part in the drill, and that was that.

I went inside feeling mightily relieved. I’d passed the test! I’d managed to work that mysterious radio without making a fool of myself! To celebrate, I took the rest of the day off.

This has been an unlikely presidential campaign in many respects, particularly because new facts about the candidates keep coming to light. Here’s one that came to me in a strangely circuitous fashion.

The night before last week’s full moon, I happened to be outside at twilight when the moon rose over the hill above my cabin. The sight was evocative enough that I grabbed my camera and found a spot near my woodshed where I could record the moment.


A corner of the woodshed ended up in my photo, and I was immediately reminded of K-K-K-Katy, one of the most popular songs of World War I. In the 1918 song by Geoffrey O’Hara, a stuttering “soldier brave and bold” sings:

“K-K-K-Kathy, beautiful Katy,/ You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore./ When the m-m-m-moon shines,/Over the c-c-c-cowshed,/ I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.”

Although my shed is for wood, not cows, I was by now interested in the song. I looked up composer O’Hara (1882-1967) and learned he was a Canadian who left home and became a US citizen. For me, that was noteworthy because my mother did the same thing.

250px-porky_pig_thats_all_folks.jpgBut what about portraying stuttering as humorous? These days that would be considered politically incorrect even though Porky Pig (“Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-That’s all folks!”) has been one of Warner Brothers most loved cartoon characters.

Googling onward, I learned that the actor, Joe Dougherty, who was the original voice of Porky Pig, had a stutter himself. Like many other people who stutter, Dougherty apparently learned to deal with the problem.

180px-demosthpracticing.jpgA story many of us heard in school concerns the great Greek orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC). To master speaking clearly despite starting out with an impediment, Demosthenes, as we learned, put gravel in his mouth and practiced speeches at the edge of the ocean where the surf drowned him out.

When I checked a list of famous people who’ve stuttered, Demosthenes (at right in a painting by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy) was, of course, on it. But also, to my surprise, was Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden. In fact, the senator from Delaware turns out to be a sort of latter-day Demosthenes.

180px-biden_at_economic_forum_2003_crop.jpg“Biden suffered from stuttering through much of his childhood and into his twenties,” notes Wikipedia, citing a speech he gave to the National Stuttering Association in 2004. “He overcame it via long hours spent reciting poetry in front of a mirror,” Wikipedia adds, citing See How They Run: Electing the President in an Age of Mediaocracy by Paul Taylor (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).

Most of us have heard the tragic story of Biden’s daughter and first wife being killed, as well as his two sons critically injured, in a traffic accident. This happened just weeks after he was initially elected to the US Senate in 1972. It took many months, but Biden (at left) eventually recovered from his devastation, becoming an increasingly influential senator while commuting daily between Delaware and Washington in order to raise two sons by himself. Now it turns out that Biden had earlier demonstrated similar fortitude in overcoming severe stuttering.

This is a man who has risen above major adversities in his life. That alone doesn’t qualify him to be vice president or president, but it does say something about the kind of person he is.


Just what does that gull see?

One of the odder results of Senator John McCain’s choice for a vice presidential running mate is that Americans are learning about a previously obscure but medically recognized brain disorder. The disorder, which can lead to clinical anxiety, causes sufferers to see things after they’re no longer there.

Ironically, the name of the brain disorder is Palinopsia. This is true. “You could look it up,” to quote James Thurber. The all-too-apt coincidence of names was first brought to public attention in online commentaries by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker and Michael Daly of The New York Daily News.

100_4432_11.jpg For defense, the gopher snake frequently pretends to be a rattlesnake.

Snake bitten after Republicans, as well as Democrats, accused him and running mate Sarah Palin of rabble rousing that could lead to violence, Senator McCain is now trying to defuse his supporters’ fury toward opponent Barack Obama.

When a woman at a rally in Minnesota last Friday told McCain she didn’t trust Senator Obama because “he’s an Arab,” McCain responded, “No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man.”

It’s true that Obama is not Arabic. But since when are being Arabic and being “a decent family man” mutually exclusive? (Editor’s note: Less than an hour after this posting went online, Jon Stewart raised the same question on the Daily Show. In short, was out in front of the Daily Show on this issue — at least in the Pacific time zone.)

Western fence lizards come in many colors, sometimes looking almost red on their backs although males are typically blue on their bellies.

Another irony. Despite bogus claims about Senator Obama’s ancestry, if you go back enough generations, Obama through his mother is related to George Bush (11th cousins), Dick Cheney (9th cousins), two signers of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Henry Lee and his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee), a 19th century US Supreme Court justice (Edward Douglass White), and numerous other American statesmen.

To improve the public’s poor opinion of them, President Bush and Vice President Cheney may want to start stressing that they’re related to the much-more-popular senator from Illinois.


A male Western gray squirrel as seen from my bedroom window one morning two weeks ago.

I’d always thought of squirrels as basically benign creatures albeit a bit, shall we say, squirrelly. But then came a BBC report in December 2005: Russian squirrel pack ‘kills dog.

Quoting Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, the BBC reported; “Squirrels have bitten to death a stray dog which was barking at them in a Russian park… Passersby were too late to stop the attack by black squirrels in a village in the far east….

“They are said to have scampered off at the sight of humans, some carrying pieces of flesh. A pine cone shortage may have led to the squirrels to seek other food sources, although scientists are skeptical.”

Did the attack really happen? Whatever happens in Russia, to quote Winston Churchill, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” All I can tell you is that squirrels are omnivorous and will eat small birds, along with acorns. Moreover, Komosmolskaya Pravda reported that just a few months earlier, chipmunks had “terrorized cats” in the area.

Squirrels on this hill have plenty of pine cones to dine on, which could explain why they don’t bother to attack dogs (or cats). The squirrels, however, make their presence known in other ways. My neighbors and I are forever finding tips of pine branches lying on the ground.

Western gray squirrels (Scuirus grilseus) like to feed on pine trees’ cambium layer, which is immediately under the bark, the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program notes. In the process, squirrels gnaw off twigs.

One of the four species of tree squirrels in California is a particular problem for agricultural and suburban gardens, which is why Integrated Pest Management is interested in squirrels.

California’s native Douglas squirrels (found in the Sierra and on the North Coast) are seldom a problem. Native Western gray squirrels and non-native Eastern gray squirrels aren’t all that much of a problem either. “Eastern gray squirrels (Scuirus carolinensis) were originally introduced from the eastern United States into Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,” Integrated Pest Management reports. They’ve already spread out to San Joaquin and Calveras counties, and “may be expanding their range.”

By far the most problematic squirrels are “Eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), Integrated Pest Management notes. They “were introduced from the eastern part of the United States and are well established in most major cities of California…. In some cities, Eastern fox squirrels have moved outward into agricultural land, especially in the southern part of the state, where they have become a pest of commercial crops.”

Although you need a state permit to kill or capture most tree squirrels in California, the same does not hold true for Eastern fox squirrels. California is a free-fire zone when it comes to these rodents, which are also known as Red fox squirrels.

Some people have theorized that Scuridae, the scientific name for the family of rodents to which squirrels and chipmunks belong, may have the same root as our word scurry.

Whatever the case, it is known that the name squirrel comes to us from squyrel in Middle English (what Chaucer spoke in the 1300s). Squyrel, in turn, came from the ancient Greek word skiouros, which not surprisingly meant squirrel.