Archive for May, 2013

We humans sometimes don’t know what we’re seeing and often don’t know what we’re hearing and saying.

Abandoned by its mother.

A couple of weeks ago, this bird’s egg suddenly appeared on the railing outside the dining-room window at Mitchell cabin. Although Lynn was sitting at the dining-room table, she didn’t see the bird that laid it, but the egg couldn’t have been on the railing very long. The day was windy, and shortly after I snapped this picture, the egg was blown off the railing and broke.

I later showed this photo to Dave DeSante, president of the Institute for Bird Populations in Point Reyes Station, but he couldn’t identify it. “Too many birds have white eggs like that,” he said.

Nor would he hazard a guess as to what the egg had been doing on my railing. My own SWAG (military parlance for “scientific wild-ass guess”) is that some bird went into labor before she could make it back to her nest.

Another mystery: Why is the National Rifle Association, which is dominated by southern white men, now fighting against federal gun-control legislation.

People need to be armed, they claim, to protect themselves from not only criminals but also from oppressive government.

The NRA seems to forget that in the 1960s, it helped draft some of the early gun-control laws. What has changed?

During the Civil Rights Movement, armed Black Panthers began patrolling the streets of various cities to protect blacks — sometimes from abuse by police.

On May 2, 1967, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he chanced upon a group of armed Black Panthers at the state capitol. Reagan became so frightened that he took off running and despite his political conservatism immediately began advocating gun-control legislation and garnered support from the NRA.

It sounds to me as if the way to get gun-control legislation passed is to bring back the Black Panthers.

Here’s an expression we hear all the time, but few people know its origin: “Leave no stone unturned.”

The expression, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, “goes back to a battle between forces led by the Persian general Mardonius and the Theban general Polycrates in 477 BC.

“The Persian was supposed to have hidden a great treasure under his tent, but after he was defeated, the victorious Polycrates couldn’t find the valuables. So he put the question to the oracle at Delphi (above left) and was told to return and leave no stone unturned. He did — and found the treasure.”

A “girl” in the Middle Ages: is the child really male or a female? Hard to tell. And, no, the kid’s not a hermaphrodite.

As the Morris Dictionary explains: “It seems hard to believe that in the Middle Ages [the 5th to the 15 century] a girl could be a young child of either sex.

“Indeed, such phrases as knave girl to designate a boy child were common. In Middle English the word had various spellings: gerle, girle, and gurle.”

By the way, there is no such thing as a true hemaphrodite, according to the Intersex Society of North America.

That would require a person to be both fully male and fully female. At most, some people are born with — or develop at puberty — ambiguous genitalia. Other people may look female on the outside but have typical male anatomy on the inside (or vice versa), but that doesn’t mean they are of both sexes, the Society says. Indeed, it adds, one percent of all human “bodies differ from standard male or female.”

We’ll close with a one last surprise from the Morris Dictionary. The term “filibuster was originally a Dutch term and had nothing to do with government. Indeed, it originally meant ‘freebooting’ — private citizens’ engaging in warfare against a state with whom their country was at peace, usually for personal gain.

“The Dutch word vribuiter literally meant ‘freebooter or pirate.’ And its derivative filibuster was first used in this country during the 1850s to describe adventurers who were running guns to revolutionists in Cuba and other Central and South American countries.

“However, the term filibustering has become so completely identified with delaying tactics in the Senate that the word is not used for gun-running or piracy anymore.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) filibusters for eight hours to block a vote on an Obama tax bill in 2010.

“The first use of filibuster to describe obstruction of legislation by invoking parliamentary delays and resorting to prolonged speechmaking appeared in 1853, when one member of Congress sharply criticized the tactics of his rivals as ‘filibustering against the United States.'”

So the next time some Senator resorts to a filibuster to forestall a vote, just remind yourself that he/she is tacitly behaving like a 19th century gunrunner.


When a Guatemalan court on May 10 found former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity while head of state, I like many indigenous Guatemalans was pleased. Officials in that Central American country had for decades committed atrocities with impunity.

The case has special interest for me because my stepdaughters are from Guatemala and because 30 years ago I reported on and photographed some of the Guatemalan civil war for the old San Francisco Examiner.

General Efrain Ríos Montt, who became president of Guatemala in a March 1982 coup, was kicked out of office in an August 1983 coup. (AP photo by Moises Castillo)

Unfortunately, the good news was not to last. Impunity again raised its ugly head. On Monday, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the conviction because of a dispute over which lower court judges should have heard the case. Now the trial will have to return to where it stood on April 19 — once the dispute over the judges is resolved.

General Ríos Montt had been clearly elected president in 1974, but blatant election fraud prevented him from taking office. Quixotically, he then fled to California and joined the Eureka-based Gospel Outreach fundamentalist movement.

After returning to Guatemala, Ríos Montt, along with two other military men seized power in a mostly bloodless coup in 1982 and formed a three-man junta. Less than three months after the coup, however, Ríos Mott dissolved the junta and became dictator.

Helping orchestrate the coup, according to the US liberal group Democratic Underground, were “gringo evangelical cronies [who were] co-founders of the Church of the Word, a Guatemala-based offshoot of Gospel Outreach.”

(Gringo, by the way, is slang but not derogatory. In Spain, the word has been around for more than two centuries. Initially, it was simply a way of referring to people from other places whose speech was difficult to understand. Gringo, in fact, is a variant of griego meaning “Greek,” as in it’s Greek to me.)

Estancia de la Virgen — A refugee stands in front of his former home, which was destroyed by the Guatemalan Army on March 31, 1982.

Well before Ríos Montt took power, the army had begun massacring indigenous villagers lest leftist guerrillas get food or recruits from them. A story I wrote for The Examiner made public for the first time that Guatemalan soldiers had massacred 180 residents of two Indian villages, Trinitaria and El Quetzal, near the Mexican border in February 1982.

In the destruction of Estancia de la Virgen, which occurred after Ríos Montt had taken power, the army ordered all the villagers to relocate to the less-remote village of San Antonio las Trojes where it could keep an eye on them.

Soldiers use the belfry of the San Antonio las Trojes cathedral as a guard tower.

The army had attacked the village of 1,800 previously, killing many residents including children who were beheaded with machetes. This time all but eight men fled, and soldiers shot them to death.

“The men had stayed in their houses, believing God would protect them,” a guide named Miguel told me. There was no road to Estancia de la Virgen, and getting there required hiring three refugees from the village to guide my translator and me through the steep terrain.

A soldier in San Antonio las Trojes assembles men from Estancia de la Virgen in order to count them and give out instructions. Barely visible at upper left is a nun who had shown up to distribute food to the refugees.

The refugees from Estancia de la Virgen were bewildered as to why their village had been destroyed. “We are all farmers,” one Indian said. “There are no guerrillas.”

Another said, “We hope this shadow will go from our village because we are innocent.”

A mother and daughter from Estancia de la Virgen in one of the tents distributed to refugees.

After taking a photo of this mother and daughter, I bought a dozen eggs for them at a tienda in San Antonio las Trojes, but when I went to deliver them, she cried out and ran away — apparently not realizing why I had returned.

Nor were refugees from Estancia de la Virgen the only survivors of massacres I interviewed. On April 26, 1982, I traveled to the village of Chipiacul where Guatemalan soldiers had killed 20 residents the previous night. The victims had ranged in age from 13 to 80.

Many of them were shot to death in the village’s small, cement-block meeting hall. The soldiers then used the books from the village’s one-shelf library to build a funeral pyre in an unsuccessful attempt to dispose of the bodies. The survivors I talked with were still in shock and were mystified as to why Chipiacul had been targeted.

The Guatemalan civil war was fought off and on from 1960 to 1996 and cost roughly 200,000 lives, most of them civilian. What was the fighting all about?

After decades of repressive governments, Guatemala enjoyed its “Ten Years of Spring” from 1944 to 1954 under liberal leadership. But agrarian reforms in the early 1950s outraged the United Fruit Company, and it prevailed upon the Eisenhower Administration to intervene. The result was a June 1954 military coup carried out by a group of CIA-trained Guatemalan exiles and billed as stopping Communism from establishing a beachhead in Central America.

Guatemala has never fully recovered. Indeed, at the very time the Guatemalan army under General Ríos Montt was massacring more than 1,700 Ixil Mayans, the White House endorsed him. “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” said President Reagan in December 1982. “I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Were he alive today, I’m sure Ronald Reagan would be pleased that Ríos Montt for the moment at least is still enjoying impunity.

Scene of fatal accident on the Rohnert Park Expressway. (Photo by Alvin Jornada, courtesy of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

My buddy Terry Gray, 54, of Inverness Park was struck by a car around 5:20 p.m. Friday in Rohnert Park. There was no crosswalk in the area, and my friend apparently stepped off the center median into the path of the Ford Escape at left.

He died instantly, police told his brother Mike McIsaac, and the woman driving the car immediately stopped. The accident closed the road for four hours.

Terry’s sister Debra had driven Terry and his granddaughter Tanisha to Rohnert Park to see a movie. Tanisha was already in the theater when the accident occurred and neither saw it happen.

From left: Linda Sturdivant, Terry, Lynn Axelrod, and me at Tony’s Seafood in Marshall, his favorite restaurant.

Terry and his companion Linda Sturdivant had lived together for almost 17 years, and as soon as she got the awful news, she called me sobbing: “Terry’s dead!” Lynn and I immediately rushed to their home.

Terry had helped Lynn and me with innumerable home-maintenance projects, and we enjoyed each other’s company. He had worked for various building contractors most of his adult life, and Lynn and I were always pleased with his workmanship.

We, of course, paid him something, but he inevitably tried to give back all or part of the money, saying he was just helping his close friends.

A perfectionist, Terry twice replaced shingles and fascia boards on the eaves of Mitchell cabin: first on the back side, then on the front side.

Terry was born in Costa Mesa, Orange County, and when his parents divorced, his mother Luella née Nichols brought Terry and his sister Debra Gray to West Marin, where she married Don McIsaac Jr. Don was a Marin County firefighter for awhile, and the family lived at the firehouse in Tomales.

Out of their marriage came two more children, Buddy McIsaac of Santa Rosa and Mike McIsaac of Inverness Park. All the children grew up together. On Friday evening, Mike told me their family had made no distinction between half and full brothers: “I can’t remember a time when Terry wasn’t there.”

He was often too shy to speak up in public, but when Don McIsaac died last year, Terry gathered his courage and spoke at the memorial service. Afterward, he prided himself at having found the strength to talk to the crowd about how much Don had meant to him.

Terry was basically a gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor. Despite standing 6-feet, 3-inches tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, Terry was never a fighter even when he’d had a few beers and was confronted by a belligerent jerk. Although physically strong in part because of his work, Terry preferred to just walk away.

Terry (center), Lynn, and me in the home where he and Linda Sturdivant lived together.

Not long ago he told me of a time when he was a student at Tomales High and a bully slugged him in a classroom. Rather than intervening, he said, the teacher told the boys to “take it outside.” Terry protested that he didn’t want to fight, but the teacher sent the boys outside anyway. Although he was a big kid, Terry was knocked down, punched and kicked.

“All I did was cover my head,” he told me. Afterward, adults told him he should have fought back, and the bully was never punished, Terry said.

One of the highlights of Terry’s recent life was going skydiving in Sonoma County two years ago. He took his daughters Laura Gray and Diana Baltzley along, and they jumped too. Until he and his instructor jumped from the airplane, he was terrified, Terry said, but once they were in the air and falling, he was thrilled. He talked about the experience for months.

Terry is survived by: his companion Linda Sturdivant, his sister Debra Gray of Point Reyes Station, his brother Mike McIsaac of Inverness Park, his brother Buddy McIsaac of Santa Rosa, his daughter Laura Gray of Reno, and his daughter Diana Baltzley of San Jose.

His grandchildren are: Tanisha Coleman of Santa Rosa, Isaac and Jayson of Reno, Niriah and Kia of San Leandro, Breyonna and Peyton of Eureka.

Also surviving him are Haley and Summer Cherms of Oroville; the sisters are granddaughters of Linda Sturdivant, and Terry considered them his granddaughters too.

All of us who knew Terry are stunned by his death. A memorial service will be held, but it has not yet been scheduled.

Where the computer age meets the Old West.

For several days I wondered if I would be able to put up a posting this week. A week ago, Horizon Cable upgraded the community’s Internet service, and for the next six days, my computer was able to get online only sporadically. In fact, while writing this I lost my Internet service temporarily.

I’m not knocking Horizon. The staff put in many hours getting me back online. The problem, I’m told, is that my hookup is “non-standard.” It long predates Horizon’s ownership, and the cable is mostly strung along barbed-wire fences. _____________________________________________________________

A toll-gate camera recorded a license plate, and this photograph of a Mercedes in Southern California was sent to me.

More computer problems. Last week I received a letter from Metro ExpressLanes in Gardena, Los Angeles County, informing me that I had violated express-lane regulations on Interstate 10.

“Welcome to the Metro ExpressLanes!” the letter cheerily began. “We noticed that you used the I-10 ExpressLanes without a transponder. As of February 23 at 12:01 a.m., all vehicles (including carpoolers) traveling in the I-10 ExpressLanes are required to have a transponder. The attached violation notice has been issued as a result of your travel without a transponder.

“We understand that the transponder requirement is recent, and the $25 penalty has been waived as a courtesy to you. However, the toll amount [75 cents] is still due.”

The license plate on my 1992 Acura. Can you “C” the difference?

Ever since my former wife Cathy and I bought The Point Reyes Light in 1975, I’ve had a “LIGHT” license plate on my cars. People around West Marin often recognize me on the road because of it.

Unfortunately, Metro ExpressLanes’ computers — which apparently use the Close Enoughâ„¢ operating system — proved unable to distinguish between “LIGHT” and “C LIGHT.”

I’ve now written Metro ExpressLanes: “I have not been in Southern California in several years. My car is an Acura, not a Mercedes, and my license plate is “LIGHT,” not “C LIGHT.” Whether that will lay the matter to rest or whether I have become mired in a bureaucratic swamp remains to be seen. _____________________________________________________________

Enjoying a sunny afternoon last week, this dragonfly, a male Red-veined meadowhawk, kept returning to one small twig on a branch next to Mitchell cabin.

Still seeing red. When flying, dragonflies and damselflies look similar, but once they land, they’re easy to tell apart. Dragonflies at rest keep their wings spread, as you see in the above photo.

When damselflies are at rest, they fold their wings over their backs, as this female Common bluetail is doing.

It’s good to have damselflies and dragonflies around because they both eat insects, primarily mosquitos and midges. ______________________________________________________________

The first camellia blossom of  spring at Mitchell cabin. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod)

Also in the red: the camellia is the state flower of Alabama although it’s not native to the Deep South or even to the United States. The flowering trees originated in Asia and have been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries.

They began showing up in England during the 1700s as a result of increased trade with Asia. Inventor Col. John Stevens, who had served in George Washington’s army, is credited with introducing them to North America in 1797. He is said to have imported some camellias from England to beautify his land in Hoboken, New Jersey. ________________________________________________________________

Male quail (Photo by Lynn Axelrod)

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) has been called one of the great poets of American literature, and when these guys (above and below) showed up on Sunday morning, they brought to mind four lines from the final stanza of Stevens’ poem Sunday Morning:

“We live in an old chaos of the sun,/ Or old dependency of day and night…. Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail/ Whistle about us their spontaneous cries….”

Of course, their spontaneous cries can’t begin to match mine when my Internet connection manages to get itself “lost,” as they say, while I’m using my computer.


Female Blacktail deer