Harmony, Population 18

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I know it sounds like the name of a show on the Syfy Channel, but Harmony, California, is a real town. Well, perhaps “town” is a misnomer… a real village. A hamlet? A settlement? It is a real place with people (as many as 18!) who will sell you stuff and take your money. It’s right off Highway 1, about six miles south of the town of Cambria, on the California coast.

All my life, by the way, I thought Cambria was “Came-bria.” It is actually pronounced so that the first syllable rhymes with “ham.” Cambria itself is about six miles south of the Heart Castle state park. 

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Harmony (population 18) has an historical connection with the castle because it used to have a creamery. William Randolph Hearst’s chef and kitchen staff ordered their milk, cream, butter and cheese from Harmony. The creamery, alas, is no longer there, although the building is. So what will they sell you in Harmony? There is a café, so they will sell you food. I wasn’t hungry when I was there, but I can you the food looked good, especially the salads. The café serves tea, coffee, coffee drinks, some natural sodas and bottled water. There is a pottery place and best of all, a blown-glass place where at various times of the year, you can come and watch the glass blowers.

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They have a connection to some Hawaiian glass blowers, although I didn’t recognize any names and I don’t remember them now. The Hawaiian artisans come there a couple of times a year to work.

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Hey, it’s Cthulhu!

I asked the young man who waited on me if he was one of the town’s eighteen. He said no, he made the six mile commute. He pointed out that the glass-blowers have a store in Cambria, in the east Village.

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The glass was stunning. Much of it, particularly their glorious octopuses and squid, were out of my price range, but I found some nice souvenirs for friends.

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The town is working to rehab a couple of the old building and expand into more art and craft goods. It reminded me in some ways of the refurbished mill in the town on Yountville, in Napa County, that offers crafts and galleries, high-end clothing and furniture. Harmony felt a little more friendly and homelike.

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Hearst Castle; the Pools

From the Hearst Castle State Park Visitor Center, which can’t be more than 50 feet above sea level, the bus ride to the castle climbs to 1600 feet in four-and-a-half miles. WR Hearst wanted the road to follow the tiny donkey trail he and his family used to follow to the top of the hill to go camping, and Julia Morgan designed it so that, at various points, the castle appears on the hill above you, then vanishes from view as our vehicle makes a turn. Alex Trebeck of Jeopardy fame shares recorded points of interest about the castle on the journey up and back.

One feature that’s discussed but not well-seen from the bus is the mile-long pergola, a row of matched columns with various fruit trees planted in between the columns, the top covered with grapes. WR wanted a place his guests could ride horses or walk. After a few of the sumptuous meals from the Hearst kitchen, a nice two-mile round trip walk sounds like just the thing. Hearst wanted a pergola tall enough for “a tall man on a tall horse with a tall hat” to ride through.

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The swimming pools get mentioned early in anyone’s discussion of a visit to the castle. Hearst had two pools; the Neptune pool, an outside pool named for the marble façade of the sea-god Neptune, which came from an actual Roman temple. While I was visiting, the pool was drained and they were working on it. This was a rare enough occurrence that two of the tour guides commented on it. The pool loses lots of water to evaporation; 7,000 gallons a week, one said. Another guide said that the filtration system was being improved. The pool will be refilled, because it will become a back-up water system for the working Hearst Ranch.

Even drained, the outdoor pool is gorgeous and imposing. It’s the indoor pool, though, that most people remember; the one with one million one-inch Murano tiles, blue and gold, with the gold being real gold leaf. The one with the intricately mosaicked diving platform. The one with the “wading pool” or grotto area, where, according to story, Errol Flynn boasted “he made many new friends.” The one with the floor-to-ceiling windows and the statues. That pool.

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I ran into Bev, our guide for the Grand Rooms tour, the second day I was there, at the pool. She was on a break, and I didn’t want to interrupt her, but I did thank her for her tour. It turned out she was willing to talk. She said that the indoor pool, as gorgeous as it was, was something of a failure at first for the castle, because many of Hearst’s friends didn’t like to swim. Errol Flynn and others did use the pool for their clandestine liaisons, but the place didn’t catch on until Johnny Weismuller came and stayed a few times. The tennis courts above it were more popular at first.

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A court-side table at the tennis courts.

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In their contract with the State of California over the castle, the current Hearst family has retained the right to use either pool whenever they want. The second day I was there, a diving board was in place (it hadn’t been there previously) and Bev said someone from the family had probably been in. I’m not a strong swimmer and it isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I’d force myself if I had an opportunity to float in the cobalt blue water, watching the reflections from the alabaster lamps.

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The Enchanted Hill

IMG_7059 Continue reading

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The Good Life

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An elephant seal cow spends most of her adult life (they live about twenty years) pregnant or nursing. When a cow gives birth, the newborn weights about 65 pounds. She nurses it until it reaches about 300 pounds.  During this time, she loses about one-third of her body weight. When the “weanling” pup reaches 300-ish, she mates with the dominant male and then goes back into the water to start her 2500 mile migration south. Along the way, all the beta males who didn’t get a look-in during mating season are going, “Hey, baby! You lookin’ fine!” and “You want summa this?” And “Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven?”

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This, along with unconscious bias, is probably why very few of the famous a capella-grunting elephant seal tone poems are composed by cows.

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It’s cool to be an alpha male. Yessiree. At about five years old, you turn on all the guys you hung out with as a kid, and fight until one or the other of you loses. You win. Dripping blood from the numerous bites and tears, you have sex with somewhere between ten to forty females. From then on, all those loser males you beat up come slithering up the beach with bottles of wine, going “Hellloooo, Laydeez,” every time you go into the water for five minutes to grab a snack. You lose half your body weight by the time migration rolls around. Of course, you’re sixteen feet long and weigh 1200 pounds, but still. So you beat up the neighborhood and had high-volume sex (I was going to write, “had great sex,” but how do we know that?). You get horribly run down, try to swim 2500 miles, and probably you die.

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On the other hand, by the standards set by elephant seals (mate or get out) ninety percent of seal bulls are just big old losers.

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Is there anything good for anyone in this existence? Well, you do get to lie on the warm sand, in the sun, for hours and days at a time. That’s got to count for something.

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Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland is another mashup by super-author Stephen King; it’s part murder mystery, part ghost tale, part coming of age story. There is more than the usual share of King-isms, the gorgeous girl, the cute but tragic child, and a heaped spoonful of Summer of 42, but King’s ability to bring to life a region that he loves, plus the basic decency of the main character, Devin Jones, carried this one for me. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The story is set in the early 1970s. Devin is a college student, in love with a girl who does not love him back, and is about to betray him. He accepts a job at an independent amusement park called Joyland. Devin is tall, lanky and naïve, and all of those traits have an impact on his success at the park.  King does a splendid job of creating the people who live in the neighboring town, like Devin’s landlady. I spent a few weeks in a seaside resort town in Oregon once, and I would swear that same woman was my landlady. There is a “carny” aspect to the park, and some of the regulars are carnies, but every summer they hire a bunch of college kids.

 

There’s the ghost/mystery; a girl who was found dead years earlier in the park’s only “dark ride,” who some people think they see, reaching out for help, on the last leg of the ride. Devin and his friends Tom and Erin grow curious, but after Tom rides the dark ride, he gets quiet and edgy and doesn’t want to discuss the mystery. It turns out he has seen the ghost and it has freaked him out. Erin, Tom’s girlfriend, has a different attitude, and when Tom and Erin go back to school in the fall (Devin stays to work for a year) she starts to investigate and discovers that there may be more murders than just the ghost girl in the dark ride.

Then there is Mike and his over-protective mother. Mike is dying of a rare disease; he is a strange boy and he and Devin develop a friendship. Then there is the park. Devin has a talent for “wearing the fur,” the name for dressing up in a head-to-toe animal costume. Devin becomes a local sensation when he saves the life of a child choking on a hotdog, and garners the park some good publicity. Where the writing shines, though, is when Devin is in costume and the children respond to his enthusiasm. The homespun wisdom of amusement park life – already being challenged in the southeast by Disney – and carny wisdom is touching.

Needless to say, all the plot elements converge at the end. Mike is more than a sick little boy; he’s a gifted one, and there is, perhaps, more than one ghost. The mystery is solved and Devin comes to several realizations about life. Devin gets some nice fantasy-wish-fulfillment sex, but it’s balanced by the brutal accuracy of the break-up (or drift-away) by his deceitful college girlfriend. The story ends on a bittersweet note.

Less a murder mystery or a scary story than kind of a love letter to a place and time, written by one of the best American storytellers, this was a superb read.

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We’re All All Right

Chris Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics, spoke as he does every year at the annual Sonoma County State of the County breakfast, hosted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. After the obligatory patting-self-on-back remarks by a couple of elected officials, Chris took to the podium to tell us, “We’re all all right.”

California is steadily recovering from the great recession, Thornberg says, and Sonoma County is actually better than the state overall. He predicts the following:

  • Even with the end of Quantitative Easing, interest rates will stay low
  • Housing prices are increasing
  • Wine production is good.
  • California is a strong economy; Sonoma’s is stronger than the state’s.
  • The labor market is heating up.
  • The stock market is not a “bubble.”

 

Sonoma County added 4,000 new jobs last year and our current unemployment rate is around 5%; the state’s is 7%.

Housing has not rebounded the way we all would have liked, Thornberg says, in part because there is still a surplus of single family dwellings. The flurry in home-buying a couple of years ago was investor buying, not family buying, and did not lead to a need for new home construction. Construction used to be 6% of the national GDP and it still hasn’t reached 5%. There is a lot of construction work, though; a lot of it is remodeling.

Even with the dry cycle and water shortage, agricultural jobs grew by 8% in the county and we added 29 new wineries. (I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.)

Thornberg says consumer confidence shows in increases in consumer credit, a 5% increase year-to-year from last year. This shows that people aren’t afraid to borrow. They think they’ll still have a job in a year.

County payroll gains are up $250 thousand per month year-to-year from last year, and the job opening rate is 3.5%. Incomes show an annual rise of 4%.

All of this shows that we are finding our way out of the dark woods of 2007 – 2010, but Thornberg warns that Sonoma County’s problem is “lack of growth.” He thinks the county should be an economic powerhouse, getting the benefits of the Bay Area’s growth, and that our problem (said humorously) “is Marin County.” He believes the SMART project, a commuter train from Sonoma County to the Larkspur terminal and BART, will make a huge positive difference. Housing costs are cheaper in Sonoma, but with gridlock on Highway 101, it is not easy to get to the city. SMART will definitely help; the continued widening of the highway will help some.

This time I really did get up at an outrageous hour; 5:30. It was just like the old days; stumbling about in the dark so I don’t wake Spouse, putting on uncomfortable shoes, etc. Ah, good times. I ran into several friends from the office, and learned a few more things that are going on in the county:

Art Wrangler:

The county has hired a half-time manager to work with Sonoma County’s “creative community” to put our arts on the map in as big a way as our wine and food is. Her name is Nancy Glaze (sp?) and they would never call her anything as disrespectful as an “art wrangler;” that’s all me. One of her first tasks is he “Creative Sonoma Forum” November 12 at 5:00 pm at the Wells Fargo Center. I might even go.

Microbusiness Help:

The Access to Capital project and its micro-loan component are up and running. Call (707)565-6428 to see how your microbusiness (five employees or fewer) or small business might benefit from this, or from other tools the EDB offers.

Roads:

The county has spent $91.1 million on road repair. This is good if you live near one of the 100 miles of road prioritized for repair. Most of these are in Santa Rosa or on the 101 corridor. Since those are the population centers, this only makes sense. The ongoing Highway 101 project, funded largely by federal dollars, will top $2 billion by the time it’s done.

Trains:

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is on target for 2016. It will run from Windsor to the Larkspur Landing ferry terminal.

 

 

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Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway; Tasty but Fails to Satisfy

A while ago I read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. It was a new experience for me; far from a standard detective story. Although it is set completely in this world, it felt a little like reading New Weird. Sara Gran, the author, sets up a detective story that takes place in the eddies and air pockets at the edge of the mainstream. Claire DeWitt, for example, is an actual detective, but she became one when a strange book called Detection, written by a French detective named Silette, comes into her hands. Detection can’t be found online or in a regular bookstore, apparently; people stumble across a copy of it; in some cases it falls off a shelf at their feet. If you find the book, and read the book, you have been initiated into a strange fraternity of detectives, who treat the work almost as if it has a… well, not exactly spiritual, but at least metaphysical component. There are, maybe, a double-handful of Silette detectives, and Claire DeWitt is the best one in the world. We know this because she tells us so.

City of the Dead was set in New Orleans, a few years after Katrina, and is a story of love, loyalty, corruption and neglect. Claire got clues from dreams and random occurrences. She also did a lot of drugs. It was New Orleans, and that didn’t seem so weird.

But I’m writing about the second Claire DeWitt mystery; Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. In this installment, Claire is back in the San Francisco Bay area, investigating the murder of an old friend and lover. Paul Casablancas was a gifted musician. It looks like he surprised a robber and was shot, but Claire doesn’t think so. This is the primary mystery, but the story also follows a mystery Claire and her friend Tracey (herself the subject of a mystery) solved when they were teenagers in Brooklyn.  Paul’s murder is not a who-done-it. Claire knows early on who pulled the trigger (and so, really, do we) but the story is about the how and the why. The backstory assumes much greater importance in this book.

And this book, really, is about Claire having another break with reality, as her mourning for her lost love takes her totally off the rails. Along the way the book is filled with interesting characters and strange after-hours clubs and “back rooms;” vintage clothing shops (all the women in the book wear vintage; we don’t know why). For, not comic relief exactly, but a lighter note, there is another mystery Claire is working on in Marin County, where a man who raises miniature horses is having them die. The horses are cute.

There was nothing really wrong with Bohemian Highway until the end. As she did in City of the Dead, Gran balances the backstory with the current mystery very nicely. Claire’s headfirst plunge into self-destruction is done very well, but I became bored with it after a while. And ultimately, because there was no real mystery about the killing, this book failed to satisfy on some level. Perhaps it was the final few chapters, which end on a cliffhanger and carried a miasma of desperation. “I know these aren’t selling well, but look! People will want to know what happens! Please, publisher, but the third one.”

I  recommend Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead easily. I say don’t be in a rush to pick up the second one. And we’ll see if there is a third.

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Food for Thought

I dragged myself out of bed at the outrageous hour of… okay, well, it was 6:45, fifteen minutes earlier than I usually get up. I showered, drank coffee, put on make-up and drove carefully through the curtain of ground-level fog to the village of Forestville, where Food for Thought was holding their Volunteers and Donors breakfast at the Oddfellow’s Hall. I qualify as a donor.

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From Calabash

The hall was a bit chilly, but the tables were set with festive green-and-white checked oilcloths and beautiful bunches of flowers, including cosmos. The coffee, from Sunshine Coffee, was flavorful. The Forestville restaurant Backyard, which specializes in “locavore” cuisine, provided frittata, field greens, roasted potatoes and fruit for breakfast. On our table, a little card gave us the name of the farmer whose eggs were used — and the names of the chickens who produced them!

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From Calabash, kale in the garden.

Diana and Fred, two Food for Thought board members, sat at my table, along with Rachel Gardner, and Shan Magnusson. Shan worked at West County Community Services for many years before moving over to Kaiser’s Community Benefit program. She says that it’s nice to be on “money-giving side of the desk for a change.”

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The breakfast served three purposes; to say “thank you” to donors and volunteers; to introduce new staff; and to introduce Food For Thought’s new direction. Since 1988, the program has provided groceries, fresh produce, and prepared meals to people living with HIV disease. As the treatments for  HIV disease have improved, people are living longer and dealing with the challenges of aging with a chronic illness. At the same time, funding diminishes as the public and policy makers perceive the disease as “taken care of,” because in many cases it’s shifted from “terminal” to merely “chronically life-threatening.” FFT plans to expand its services over the next five years; providing food and meals to people with other chronic illnesses.

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Amaranth, in case you were wondering.

In some ways, the program faces some challenges. FFT was born in the town of Guerneville, a town that had a high volume of AIDS cases in the 1980 and 90s and its office has always been in Forestville. It is seen, inaccurately, as a “west county program” because of its location ( 50% of its clients live in Santa Rosa). They want to be identified the countywide program they are.  Growth will have to be part of any expanded service.

The core of FFT’s clients are people living with HIV disease. Lots of them still face stigma and discrimination, and they are understandably concerned about an influx of people using what they see as their services, and judging them.

On the other hand, nobody else right now does what FFT does. When it comes to providing groceries and meals, they have it down. They will be adding a congregate lunch service at Food For Thought, beginning November 1. They are already reaching out to programs like Meals on Wheels (which has a 40,000 square foot industrial kitchen available) and Ceres Project to identify overlaps, gaps and places where they can help each other.

Ron Karp, the executive director of FFT, is a strategic thinker who will move forward thoughtfully and carefully into this new territory.

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Do We Need Libraries?

“Don’t get mad,” Spouse said, “but I have a question. Are libraries as important now as they were twenty years ago, with the internet and Amazon and everything? I know we love them, but do we need them?”

He asked this because we were discussing a ballot measure that would increase our county’s sales tax by .75 of a percentage point. That money is designated for library costs and staffing; the unspoken promise is that libraries countywide will reopen on Mondays if it passes. Since the town where I live as already added a topper to the sales tax, it could mean that in my home town, sales tax will meet (or break) 10%. That’s outrageous. It’s inconvenient for me and it’s painful for people who make, say, minimum wage.

Spouse’s question stopped me in my tracks. Instead of spouting off my immediate, emotional response, which would have been something like,”Of course we need libraries!” I said, “I’ll have to think about that. Then I thought about it, for two days. Really, with the internet at our fingertips, Google and Amazon ready to sell us any book some for less than a dollar, who needs a library?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. The Internet. Yes, it’s all right at our fingertips… unless it isn’t. Yes, there still is a digital divide. In west county, there are people who can’t afford the internet, and those who can’t get wireless or in rare cases even dial-up where they live.  With more offices laying off human staff and requiring people to do business with them online, the library is a satellite office for… well, everything. There is no other place where people can get access for free. (Another reason why libraries should be open on Mondays.)

2. Reference books. You want to talk about something that’s expensive? Reference books. While I know many of us have decided a quick skim of wikipedia counts as “research” these days, that is not a good thing. Even if, like me, you want to own your books, you might not want to buy every reference book on the American Civil War, steam technology, or Percy Shelley. And, speaking of unsung superheroes, reference librarians are awesome.

Once again you have a financial divide; it’s working people or fixed-income people, not hedge fund managers, who can’t afford to buy a $90 book because it’s got the best plates of Caravaggio’s work in it.

3.  About those books. Sure, Amazon will sell you a book for ninety-five cents. It’s just not the book you want. The best seller, in hardback, will still cost you more than $20 new. And more and more communities don’t even have the chance to buy that hardcover book because there are no bookstores where they are. Some of these are cities like Salinas, California, but many are small rural communities who count on the Bookmobile to keep them connected. Libraries are branching out and exploring digital documents and e-books, it doesn’t always have to be a hard copy. And it doesn’t have to cost you each time you want to read one.

4. Inter-library loan program. They can get you almost any book. Yeah, you might be on a waiting list, but they will get it to you.

5. Social meeting space with a purpose. Libraries have meeting space available; they often provide free programs about varieties of topics. They have roofs and heating. They are safe, comfortable places to go to read, to browse, to use a computer, even to visit.

6. Child care. Libraries and librarians hate this, and rightly so, but for some parents, in school districts that don’t have after-school care, the library is a safe place for their children to wait until they are off work.

Do we need libraries? It depends on our values. More and more, our values are shifting to a sort of eighteenth-century European style, where certain things; access, education, justice, and good health were available only to an aristocratic minority. The New World flavor of that is “a monied aristocratic minority.” If we are true to our stated values, as a democratic society, then some things should be available to everyone. A library is a delivery system for access, information, education; and a way to provide a voice for people who don’t have other avenues.

And let me spend one paragraph indulging my paranoid side. Large information corporations like Google and Amazon (and Comcast and Time Warner) would like us all to believe that they can meet our needs. We can all sit swilling fine wine at the local bar,  connecting with some scrap of data that we need from our smart device. We don’t need to talk to each other, we don’t need to ask questions, and we only need that tiny little scrap. For God’s sake don’t go looking for context, or follow some interesting point the first scrap of data makes.  Here, we’ll even funnel down your search options so you never see anything that might challenge you or upset you. They certainly don’t want you walking into a building filled with data storage devices that might shake up your view point or make you ask a question.

So, even though it does drive up our sales tax, I will vote Yes on Measure M. Do we need libraries? I’ve thought about it. My answer’s “Yes.”

 

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Update: Station Eleven

It’s nominated for the National Book Award, along with Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. Here is another great example of how the graphic technique can be used to tell any kind of story.

Anyway, Station Eleven. Go read it.

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