Archive for May, 2011

Photo by Dave Gretschman of The Los Angeles Times

Even though they didn’t win the award, they still made history. In March, television cameramen Mark Allan of Inverness Park (left) and his son Stephen of Memphis (right) were both nominated for a sports Emmy as a result of their work on Showtime network’s NFL Shots of the Year.

Despite the HBO program Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals winning the Emmy when the awards were announced May 11, the joint nomination had still been quite an honor. “As far as I know,” Mark told me, “this is the first time a father and son have been nominated for a national Emmy in the same category, same program.”

This was Stephen’s second national nomination and the ninth for his father. Mark previously received an Emmy for HBO/NFL Films Inside the NFL in 1991 and has won 46 other national awards.

Tim Page on my deck photographing horse riders in a neighboring field.

Famed Vietnam War-photographer Tim Page paid a surprise visit to Mitchell cabin a week ago. A British citizen now living in Australia, Page’s 1988 book about the combat press in Saigon, Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer, was made into a 1992 television series called Frankie’s House.

It’s a story about Page, photographer Sean Flynn (actor Errol Flynn’s son who disappeared while covering the war), photographer Dana Stone (who went also missing in action), UPI reporter Joseph Galloway, UPI photojournalist Steve Northrup, reporter Martin Stuart-Fox, and numerous other journalists.

Frankie’s House takes its name from a bar-brothel where they hung out — with drugs, sex, and rock’n roll providing a respite from the fighting.

Detail from one of Page’s iconic images of the Vietnam War.

Page was definitely a war-torn photographer, having been injured four times while covering the war.

In the last incident, Page lost a hunk of brain almost the size of an orange to shrapnel after a soldier running ahead of him stepped on a land mine.

Page had been a freelancer on assignment for Time-Life when injured, and I first met him 30 years ago when the old San Francisco Examiner had me cover a trial in which Page sued the corporation for compensation. He won the case but did not get much.

Page was in part the inspiration for the journalist played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, later worked with the Vietnam Veterans peace movement, and was a caregiver for wounded veterans.

Although he no longer covers combat, Page told me during his visit that he had recently worked for the UN in Afghanistan. Nothing bad happened to him, but with the threat of bombers ever present, Page said, just being stuck in a Kabul traffic jam was extremely unsettling.

And now for some writing tips. The late reporter George Dusheck of The San Francisco Chronicle and KQED’s Newsroom once pointed out to me that “the lion’s share,” which is often used to mean “the majority,” really means “all.” At least it did originally. Aesop, who coined the term in a fable, used it to refer to a lion that took all the spoils of a joint hunt.

Another confusion arises with the phrase “forlorn hope,” which we often use to mean a doomed cause. In fact, it started out as a Dutch expression verloren hoop, which means “lost troop.” It referred to the first wave of assault troops, who were considered expendable.

When the phrase was picked up in England, the words didn’t mean anything to the common people, so through a process known as folk etymology, they transformed it into forlorn hope, which at least sounded understandable.

Likewise, the town of Shotover in England had been named Chateau Vert (Green Chateau) by the Normans. But here too the foreign words meant nothing to the English common man, so thanks to the process of folk etymology, the name became Shotover.

Finally, I am indebted to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins for an explanation of the phrase “funny bone.” According to the dictionary, “Actually, what causes the painful tingling sensation when you bump your funny bone is the impact not on any bone but on the ulnar nerve.

“However, the term funny bone has been part of the language for many a long year and is apparently here to stay. It results from a rather learned pun on the name for the bone running from the shoulder to the elbow, the humerus. Get it?”

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Well over 100 people showed up Sunday at a memorial for Jonathan Rowe of Point Reyes Station, who co-founded the West Marin Commons project. Mr. Rowe died unexpectedly March 20 of a rare streptococcal sepsis infection at the age of 65. He leaves a wife, Mary Jean Espulgar-Rowe, and son, Joshua Espulgar-Rowe.

Jonathan Rowe could often be seen writing on an open-air table next to the coffee bar at Toby’s Feed Barn.

He had been a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly and YES! magazines and had been a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Rowe also contributed articles to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Readers Digest, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Point Reyes Light, The West Marin Citizen, and many other publications.

A 1967 graduate of Harvard University, Mr. Rowe also earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. In the early 1970s, he was one of Ralph Nader’s “Raiders.”

He served on staffs in the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he was a long-time aide to US Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota). He also served on the staff of the Washington, DC, city council.

The memorial began in Toby’s Feed Barn where friends and community members paid tribute to the late journalist and economist. Elizabeth Barnet (left) and Gary Ruskin (right) acted as masters of ceremony. Barnet and Mr. Rowe co-founded West Marin Commons. Ruskin, who once shared an office with Mr. Rowe in Washington, spoke of the man’s major importance as an economist. He drew a round of applause when he suggested naming the new commons after Mr. Rowe. His son Joshua, a third grader at West Marin School, told about having Mr. Rowe  for a father.

Joshua also circulated through the Feed Barn, unobtrusively keeping his classmates orderly. When some youngsters sitting high on a stack of hay bales became a little noisy, the eight year old climbed up to them and whispered, “Guys, you gotta get off the hay bales.”

Providing music for the occasion, Joyce Kouffman playing a bass led the crowd in singing This Little Light of Mine.

Mr. Rowe’s younger brother Matt Rowe and Charlie Morgan (right) both talked about Mr. Rowe’s obsession with the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

Morgan noted that Mr. Rowe and he were both programmers at KWMR community radio, with Morgan’s show being aired immediately after Mr. Rowe’s.

By invitation, Mr. Rowe would often stick around the studio after his show and take part in Morgan’s show, expanding upon comments he had made in the preceding show.

Morgan said he was always impressed by Mr. Rowe’s ability to calmly discuss controversial issues.

Others who spoke included: journalist Todd Oppenheimer, who described swimming in San Francisco Bay with Mr. Rowe; Sylvia Oliver, who like Mr. Rowe had worked in US Senator Byron Dorgan’s office; Emily Levine, who described giving an economics talk based almost entirely on a cover story by Mr. Rowe in The Atlantic Monthly; writer Russ Baker, who described Mr. Rowe as “my intellectual partner”; Nancy Bertelsen, who read her own poem; and Michael Cohen, who said that 40 years ago he had been Mr. Rowe’s yoga teacher and considered him part of “the company of the wise.”

Joshua told the crowd his father accompanied him when he walked to school and liked to tell jokes. He himself joked that the reason he liked walking with his father was just to hear the jokes.

After school, they went swimming or bicycle riding or played sports, he added. Joshua drew a laugh from the crowd when he described his father as “a good soccer player for his age.” Joshua noted that his father had catered to his fascination with trucks, and “I still remember when I was little he used to write stories about trucks.”

At the new commons, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey reported that county supervisors had adjourned in memory of Mr. Rowe to honor his community work.

After the tributes in Toby’s Feed Barn, the crowd walked two blocks to the new West Marin Commons at Highway 1 and Fourth Street to hear more speakers, see the dedication of a large bench in Mr. Rowe’s honor, and enjoy a potluck luncheon.

Creating the massive bench was Rufus Blunk of Inverness (at microphone). He is the husband of Elizabeth Barnet, who with Mr. Rowe co-founded the West Marin Commons project.

When the crowd arrived, the bench was wrapped in the tarpaulins piled at the left. Once the bench was unveiled, people sprinkled it with pine needles and flower petals.

At different times, speakers’ words brought tears to many people’s eyes, but the overwhelming sentiment was how fortunate West Marin had been to have had Mr. Rowe helping guide community affairs for 15 years.

A minister bought a parrot from a pet store, as the story goes, but after he took it home was dismayed to discover the bird had been taught to cuss a blue streak. The minister liked the bird but not the cussing, so every Sunday he would drape a cloth over the parrot’s cage to simulate night and prevent the critter from stirring.

The scheme did a pretty good job of keeping the Sabbath holy, but it broke down when a group of church ladies dropped by on a weekday to discuss the parish’s annual potluck dinner. As they arrived at his door, the minister quickly threw the cloth over the parrot’s cage, only to have the bird squawk as the ladies came into the room, “It’s been a damned short week.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s been a damned short spring, summer and fall. Winter weather is back before the end of the school year. On Sunday, snow fell on Mount Hamilton near San Jose. In West Marin, the story was not snow but rain.

On Monday night alone, 0.59 inches of rain fell in Point Reyes Station. Just down the road, Olema picked up 0.85 inches. Marin Municipal Water District this week reported that as of Sunday, its seven reservoirs were at 98 percent of capacity — compared with 87 percent at this date in an average year.


I was sitting at the desk in my loft a week ago when a raccoon looked in my second-floor window, hoping to attract my attention so I would go downstairs and give it some peanuts. I immediately went out on my deck to take a photo of the raccoon on my roof but couldn’t see it in the dark. So I did what I could. I pointed my camera toward one end of the eaves, and was lucky enough to catch the raccoon illuminated by the flash.

The rains on Monday night were accompanied by high winds, which blew over my garbage container before Redwood Empire Disposal could empty it, so raccoons volunteered to do the emptying themselves. I discovered the mess Tuesday morning when I went to the bottom of my driveway to pick up the morning Chronicle.

My timing was fortuitous. No sooner had I put all the garbage back in its container than the garbage truck came along. If I’d waited another five minutes to retrieve my newspaper, I would have been stuck with a full container of garbage and not enough room for another week’s worth.

Before the recent rains started, the fields around Mitchell cabin had been getting pretty dry, which raised fire-safety concerns, so my friend Terry Gray of Inverness Park agreed to take a Weed Whacker to the grass immediately around the house on Monday.

But it turned out to be an exercise in futility. While Terry was cutting grass, a drizzle started, and it soon turned into rain, which drove Terry indoors. Not a lot of fire danger for the moment, we concluded.

My oldest stepdaughter Anika Zappa Monterroso (left) and Lynn Axelrod at Nicks Cove in January. On Saturday, Anika, 24, received a bachelor of science degree in Retail Merchandising from the University of Minnesota’s College of Design.

One project that did get finished before the rains began was digging up and cutting down thistles. My lady friend Lynn Axelrod and I spent four days doing this, both on my property and on four neighbors’ properties. (Their thistle problems can quickly become my thistle problems.) In all, we filled 19 contractor’s bags with thistles — enough to keep outgoing green-waste containers full for the next three months.

Anika, who grew up in Guatemala, worked her way through college at Best Buy stores in the Minneapolis area. With her in my dining room two years ago is Janine Warner of Los Angeles. Janine was a reporter at The Point Reyes Light when I owned the newspaper, was later the editor of all online editions of The Miami Herald, was subsequently on the faculty of USC, and now works as an internet consultant and author.

Janine, who is scheduled to visit here next week with her husband Dave LaFontaine, has written more than a dozen books — many of them in the computers for Dummies series — and has sold more than 500,000 copies.

As a former college English instructor, it occurs to me that Herman Melville in contrast sold only 3,000 copies of Moby Dick during his lifetime and earned a mere $556 from the novel. Most of his other books sold 1,200 copies or less. Melville’s writings while he was alive brought in just over $10,000, and at one point he was forced to declare bankruptcy.  When he died in 1891 at the age of 72, he was a mostly forgotten author.

Obviously, what’s selling in the publishing world has changed drastically in the past century. Ironically, it appears that books geared to readers who consider print media passé are now among the best sellers.

Perhaps if Melville had written Harpooning for Dummies, he would have had a larger following during his lifetime. “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly, November in my soul,” to borrow a phrase from old Herman, I long for May, but this year come May, we’re instead getting another dose of November.

This is the 300th posting on, 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.


“What do you think of that Osama deal?” a guy passing through Point Reyes Station asked a couple of us in the barbershop Tuesday. I was a bit surprised by how he phrased the question but said the death of Osama bin Laden should over time make the world a safer place.

“It might have been a big deal if it had happened in 2002 or 2003,” the traveler said. “Now it’s a matter of: ‘So bin Laden’s dead, how ’bout those Giants?'”

The other two of us saw the death as more momentous, insisting that bin Laden (at left) was a ruthless fanatic who would have continued to order terrorist attacks were he still around to lead al Qaeda.

However, neither of us thought bin Laden’s death would put an end to all terrorism.

Probably most Americans are relieved that the mastermind of 9/11 has finally been brought to justice. Governments of  several Muslim countries have also expressed approval of the raid that killed him. The the man on the street in much of the Muslim world, however, is as indifferent as the traveler in the barbershop to bin Laden’s demise.

In the Middle East, bin Laden and al Qaeda have been overshadowed by rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Bin Laden had become a relic from a bygone era.

So the stranger was unquestionably right about one thing: during the 40 minutes that justice was catching up with Osama bin Laden, billions of other people were going about their lives as always. To most people, change is inevitable except from a vending machine.

On my hillside, Sunday was the start of the thistle-pulling season, but thanks to a fortnight of prickly eradication a year ago, there are far fewer thistles in my field this year. Little did my girlfriend Lynn and I know that as we labored, President Obama was preparing to announce that the biggest prick of all had been eradicated halfway around the world in an Abbottabad, Pakistan, mansion.

He was a meglomaniac who liked to blow things up and who had inherited millions of dollars by the time he was 14. Despite advocating asceticism for others, Osama bin Laden was found living in luxury with three wives, a stash of pornographic magazines and videos in his bedroom, and hundreds of marijuana plants growing in rows among cabbages and potatoes just outside his walls.

He died when shot in the eye and chest during an incredibly precise, 40-minute raid by Navy SEALs. (If you’ve ever wondered about the acronym, it stands for Sea, Air, and Land Navy Special Warfare Unit.)

When I published The Point Reyes Light, I editorialized in favor of the US going after bin Laden in Afghanistan and against our going after Saddam Hussein in Iraq. During the buildup to the Iraq War, I tried to warn then-President George W. Bush, but did he listen? Noooo. Presidents are notorious for ignoring small-town editors, and as I predicted, we ended up in a war from which we still cannot extricate ourselves.

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” — Winston Churchill


Eradicating thistles was a bit tricky Sunday because many were hidden by unusually tall grass, the result of a wet winter. Here a fawn and a doe are barely visible as they graze below my deck.

Far from the turmoil in the Middle East, evenings around my cabin are still filled with foxes, raccoons, and the occasional possum. Here a gray fox carefully approaches a raccoon eating peanuts outside my kitchen door. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod)

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” —  Groucho Marx

The raccoon isn’t happy t0 have the fox share its dinner, but it would rather go on eating than waste time fighting over the bounty. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod)

Watching two competing species learn to accommodate each other started me musing. Bin Laden with all his money and religious fanaticism was less civilized than a pair of wild animals. Merely attending a mosque hadn’t made him a true Muslim any more than standing in a garage would have made him a car.

The possum at right, like all the other animals in this posting, were photographed around my cabin during the past week.

Caught by surprise in Inverness Park. On Monday I stopped by Perry’s Delicatessen to buy a couple of pouches of Captain Black pipe tobacco.

“I always buy it here rather than over the hill because I want to patronize a local merchant,” I told owner Dan Thompson, only to have him correct my pronunciation. “You pat-row-nize merchants,” he said. “You don’t pay-trow-nize them.”

Regularly buying from a merchant is obviously different from condescending to him, but it had never before occurred to me that the pronunciation changed with the meaning. Might the difference be a matter of British versus American English? One point for the deli owner, as well as West Marin wildlife. Zero for bin Laden, as well as thistles.