The Invisible Hotel

The highlight, the hidden gem as it were, of downtown Sebastopol these days surely must be our Invisible Hotel. In 1994, Alex Baldwin starred in a movie called The Shadow, based on the radio play series of the same name. The movie featured an invisible hotel. If I remember rightly, a grand hotel had been demolished and the lot now stood empty, only it really didn’t. The place had never been taken down, it was merely hidden from the eyes and minds of most people by the mind control of the devious villain, who used it as his supervillain lair.

I don’t know why the city of Sebastopol chose to emulate this feature, but it, and Piazza Hospitality Corporation, surely have.

I mean, look at that photo. You wouldn’t think a hotel was there, would you?

The crows are not fooled by the invisibility. They routinely fly down into the hotel’s invisible courtyard, waiting for the invisible guests who are sipping their invisible gourmet coffee to toss them scraps of invisible brioche and invisible croissants. They come back at lunch to get bits of the invisible specialty sandwiches or invisible avocado toast. (Crows aren’t big on invisible organic-greens salads, at which I hear the hotel kitchen excels.)

I’ve heard that the invisible rooms are beautifully appointed in a craftsman style, with invisible flatscreen TVs that cover one complete wall. The invisible parquet hallways smell faintly of nutmeg. The invisible fitness room has the latest equipment, a spa and an invisible lap pool that embraces you in warm invisible water scented not with chlorine but with roses. The invisible bar/tasting room prides itself on serving the finest Sonoma County wines during its “wine and bites” tasting from 4:30 to 7:00 each evening. While all of the rooms have wifi, because you can’t not offer wifi these days, the hotel offers a well-appointed invisible business center as well.

I’m told that there is no sight more lovely than an early spring sunset viewed from the invisible rooftop garden, surrounded by the bouquet of the invisible kitchen herbs and the invisible early-blooming flowers.

The Invisible Hotel’s concierge service and valet parking are impeccable; the concierge can get you anything from a two-hundred-year-old bottle of port to reservations for glamping on the Sonoma Coast.

One complaint has been registered; the artists who rented invisible Maker Space/studios within the Invisible Hotel have been disappointed by the amount of customer traffic they’ve experienced… none. Some are talking about banding together to break their leases.

Nothing is perfect, after all.

I’d recommend you come stay at our beautiful downtown Invisible Hotel. You won’t find it on the internet. You won’t find a phone number for it. The Chamber of Commerce can point you to its address. Good luck finding the lobby and the registration desk. When I say it’s a hidden gem, I’m not joking.

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Television Tuesday: Counterpart, Season Two

The second season of the STARZ original show Counterpart is off to a solid start. This portal fantasy (because that’s basically what it is) works best when it’s drawing on its spy story roots, or raising philosophical questions about identity and existence. With five new episodes under its belt, the story is getting deeper into the existential, and more suspenseful with each hour. Good work!

Before I discuss what I’m liking this season and what concerns me this season, I’ll lightly recap. Counterpart takes takes place in (supposedly) present day Berlin, at a UN office with a super-secret purpose. Back in 1986 a physics experiment in what was then East Berlin created a split — a separate, identical universe. Since 1986, the two worlds have grown farther and farther apart. Nobody except a handful of people on either side know about each others’ mirror-world. There is one passage between these worlds, under the UN’s building.

(One of the best parts of Counterpart is this passage, which does not rely on special FX, CGI, flashing lights or anything. It’s just a mundane basement tunnel. You may have walked through one from your hotel to a convention center, for instance. Yes, this is borrowing heavily if not stealing from China Mieville’s The City and the City, but it’s well done.)

For purposes of clarity, “our” world is called Alpha and the mirror world is called Prime. Season One focused on a conspiracy against Alpha world by highly placed operatives from Prime. They call themselves Indigo. Their scheme included sleeper cells and a Body-Snatchers-style plot that involved replacing Alpha world people with their Prime doubles, who were agents.

The second season has focused more on the aspects of Emily, the complicated wife of Howard Silk. Alpha Howard is a Decent Guy. Prime Howard is a Shriveled-Souled Badass. In Season one, the Howards changed places, presumably temporarily, and now Decent Guy Howard is not only trapped in Prime world, he’s been imprisoned.

In Alpha world, Emily was a battle-hardened field operative who hid that fact from her husband. She was in a coma through 80% of Season One, the result of an assassination attempt on her. Prime Emily is a battle-hardened field operative whose husband was well aware of her work, with an adult daughter and a pill habit, which may or may not be behind her. In Season Two, Alpha Emily, out of her coma, struggles with an injured brain and attempts to make sense of her life, most specifically why she doesn’t quite trust the man who seems to be her husband. In Prime world, field operative Emily follows the trail of breadcrumbs of Alpha Emily, who secretly came to Prime world more than once. The plot is deeply convoluted and morally ambiguous.

The Indigo conspiracy was inspired largely by a belief among the residents of Prime world that an influenza virus which killed 7% of their world’s population came from the Alpha side, and was perhaps planted deliberately. In Season One, a few highly placed people on the Alpha side indignantly denied this. Now, in Season Two, it seems as if Alpha Emily found some evidence that the virus did come from the Alpha side.

Much of Season Two’s time, though, is spent wondering what it would be like to meet yourself, a different self. The show has done a gorgeous job of giving us two Howards and letting us see the “other” in each of them. The same with the Emilys — and there is far less distance between the Emilys. A new Prime character, Yakov, insists that it is “natural” to hate your other; that it should be “war” between two people who are the same person, but whose life took different turns. The show then comes up with ways to refute this. There are the Alices, who live quite happily in a menage a trois with the man they both love. While he is an awful character, Lambert – or rather, the Lamberts — are another example; a shallow, hedonistic, self-centered man who finds, with another him, that “the more’s the merrier” when it comes to sex, drugs and booze, which after himself are his favorite things in either world.

Alpha Peter Quayle, Howard Silk’s boss, is a mess. Prime Peter Quayle is a mess, too.

These are the things I’m liking about the show, along with the lovely, moody cinematography and the full use of Berlin, the perfect city for this story. There are a few things that worry me.

Because the show has resorted to cliche plot points time after time in subplots, I was seriously worried that the “twin worlds” were going to be revealed at the end to be some kind of virtual reality; probably not as hokey as “we’re trapped in a video game,” but something similar. The intentional weird creepiness of Management, never seen or heard directly, fed this fear. Now I don’t think it’s going to be that, exactly, but I fear that we will discover that there is only one group called Management, not two as we’ve been encouraged to believe, and that, even if the worlds are “real,” Management is conducting experiments (for example, releasing the influenza virus). If that’s what transpires, I will be disappointed.

When I think of a show or book that Counterpart is like, I’m split between The City and the City (although those cities are nothing alike) and a TV show called Fringe. I’d go so far as to say that if you liked Fringe, you should check out Counterpart.

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The Samurai of Fountaingrove

The most noble character in the history of Sonoma County’s Fountaingrove commune is Kanaye Nagasawa, the samurai who came to the USA from Japan as a youth and stayed to run the Fountaingrove vineyards and winery. While not as flamboyant or weird as either commune founder Thomas Lake Harris or his spiritual-heir-turned-adversary Laurence Oliphant, Nagasawa quietly shepherded the winery for decades, kept it alive throughout Prohibition and basically god-fathered the county’s wine culture.

The book by Gaye LeBaron and Bert Casey, The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove, gives Nagasawa his fair share of attention, even though the behaviors of Thomas Lake Harris and the hedonistic adventurer, Oliphant, are more dramatic and crazy. Nagasawa was thirteen when he left the Satsuma Prefecture of Japan in 1865, along with fourteen other youth from samurai families, to come to the west. In doing so, he was obeying the orders of his daimyo, and committing treason, because the shogun of Japan had forbidden any contact with the west after a number of serious misunderstandings and at least one naval attack on a Japanese city.

That attack had taken place in Satsuma, and the daimyo there realized that Japan’s survival depended on understanding the mentality, and the war technology, of those in the west. The “young students” sent on a visit to Britain would be given tours of factories and plants, and would send home detailed letters. Because they were committing treason, each of the boys changed his name, to protect his family from dishonor and execution. Hikosuke Isonaga, the youngest of the fifteen, changed his name to Kanaye Nagasawa.

The story of Nagasawa’s journey from Japan to England, and then Scotland where he met Laurence Oliphant, to the USA and upstate New York and finally Sonoma County, California, is a fascinating one, but ultimately Nagasawa is a supporting player, although a vital one, in the book on Harris’s utopian commune. Partly this is because Nagasawa hews to the code of the samurai throughout his life. He demonstrates loyalty, mastery and adherence to duty. Nagasawa never forsook his Shinto beliefs and he never participated in the eccentric antics of Harris’s belief system. In his journal, while he always referred to Harris as “Father” (all the commune participants did) he is always a spectator, never personally involved in the growing disputes and emotional tangles of the place.

Harris believed that once humanity became enlightened enough, humans would become immortal – kind of a hard sell since he himself apparently struggled with tuberculosis and a couple other health conditions that were never explained. He also believed that every person had a celestial counterpart. To remain true to that celestial partner, on the earthly plane, people should practice celibacy. For example, he was very quick to separate Laurence Oliphant from his wife Alice, putting a continent between them by keeping Alice at Fountaingrove and sending Laurence back to the original commune in New York. A deeper examination of Harris’ practices, particularly celibacy, though (which LeBaron provides) led me to a reaction more like that of Inigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Harris’s personal celestial counterpart was called the Lily Queen. He communed with her during long stretches in a trance state. (Harris also used these trance states, entered by a series of peculiar breathing exercises, to fight off the demons that tried to attack people on the earthly plane.) Frequently, the Lily Queen would take over Harris’s body in order to offer physical comfort to various women in the commune. Hmmm. Harris also designated certain women, like Laurence’s wife Alice, to join him in the breathing exercises and travel to the etheric realms. Um, okay.

Was Harris a complete con man, delusional, or truly some kind of spiritual visionary? LeBaron, historian and journalist, stops short of expressing her personal opinion directly, but the book leans towards “opportunistic but delusional.” To be fair, the answer is not a slam-dunk. Both in New York and California, Harris ran economically successful communes that stayed in the black financially. Part of that success came from the fact that while many people petitioned to join the commune, only people who were wealthy were somehow worthy to join the “inner circle,” and members of the group turned over their wealth to Harris’s control. Still, the several businesses that ran out of Fountaingrove were successful.

One of these was the winery.

Nagasawa kept the vineyard thriving and the winery alive throughout Prohibition, when other Sonoma County wineries either faltered of turned to some form of bootlegging. The winery remained active and was ready to start selling wine as soon as Repeal was enacted. After the death of Harris, Nagasawa successfully fended off several legal attempts to wrest the property away from him (Harris had left it to him.) Unfortunately, the harsh anti-Japanese laws of the 1940s robbed Nagasawa’s USA-born nephew of his inheritance. Still, beyond the circumference of the rich eccentrics who inhabited Fountaingrove, Nagasawa achieved acknowledgment within the county and the wine culture for all he contributed.

Sadly, the firestorms that destroyed so many homes in Santa Rosa in 2017, and also destroyed the historic Fountaingrove round barn, burned Paradise Ridge Winery to the ground and with it the in-house museum they had on Nagasawa. His legacy is ash but it isn’t blown on the wind. When the owners of the winery were cleaning up after the fires, they pulled from the cinders one artifact; Nagasawa’s samurai sword.

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It’s 2019 and I Have a Mission

My mission for 2019 is to bring excellent stories into the world.

Some might be wondering, “Why is that a mission? Why not a resolution or a goal for the year, like everybody else does?” This is a “mission” in the sense of a “mission statement;” not the quantifiable action-goal or measurable result we all got suckered into tailoring our dreams to in the 2000’s. My mission is not to “send out (X) stories each week,” etc. I may choose to write some action steps that read like that, but that’s not the mission.

A mission statement is a short statement of purpose, usually an organization’s purpose. It should be aspirational and inspirational. Honest Tea’s mission, for example, is “to create and promote great-tasting, healthy, organic beverages.” Ikea’s is, “To create a better everyday life for the many people,” which is kind of stripped-down, like Ikea itself. I am disappointed to note that the Ikea mission statement does not include a mention of meatballs. Would it have been so difficult to write, “To create a better everyday life for the many people, with meatballs?”

The preceding paragraph might make it sound like I meditated, contemplated, read up on mission statements, reflected on my life, my talents, my passions and carefully crafted a statement that sums all that up. Um, yeah. Right. That’s just what I did, except for that part where I wrote a bantering tweet to someone which said, “Well, my mission is to help bring excellent stories into the world.” And I thought, “Oh, wait. That is my mission.”

Excellent stories do not have to be mine. I might help bring excellent stories into the world through critique and acting as a “first reader.” I might also “bring them into the world” by review, or by a signal boost on Twitter and other social media; or by dragging friends by the hand to the book’s spot on the bookstore shelf and pointing to the book. In light of the Feast of Epiphany, which is something in the nature of a presentation, bringing something into the world can mean more than birthing it or even midwifing it. It can mean introducing it to the world.

Of course a large part of the mission means producing excellent stories myself. And, since I just committed to it in the paragraph above, it means more than getting a close-to-finished draft done and then saying, “Well, there. It exists in the world.” It means bringing stories forward to be introduced and presented. And that means sending them out or seeing them available to readers in some fashion.

The mission will have goals and an action plan, more like the conventional New Year’s “I’ll get more exercise, cut back on refined sugar and eat healthily in 2019,” except that I hope mine will last longer than those do. And it will start tomorrow, except I could fudge and say that I already started because I sent out a story right at the first of the year. I’m counting that.

So that’s my mission.

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Boomtown by Sam Anderson: A Biography of the American Spirit

I had an idea for a long, self-involved post about me for New Year’s. I’m still going to write and post it, but I’m scheduling it for January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

So here’s a short rave – not quite a review—of a great book I read over the New Year’s weekend, Boomtown by Sam Anderson. This is not exactly a disclaimer; I met Sam Anderson when he was a teenager, several times, at holidays at his grandmother’s house. While I would love to say “I know him,” (as in, “Oh, yeah, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Sam Anderson, I know him), that is stretching things a bit. My original interest of the book did come from that fact that I recognized his name, and I’d read other shorter works of his.

Boomtown is nonfiction, and it’s about Oklahoma City.  If you’d told me a month ago I would love a book about Oklahoma City, I probably would have choked on my coffee laughing. The book is not about the worst act of domestic terrorism in the country’s history, although it’s in there; it’s not about a city routinely devastated by tornadoes, although they are in there, it’s not about the OKC Thunder’s 2012 basketball season, although that is the through-line Anderson uses; it’s about a city that shouldn’t even exist, a wild, inventive scam of a city, a perennial boomtown that regularly busts, and invents itself again.

Through the lens of a midwestern city in a state once called “the reddest in the nation” (politically); a state where teachers fled in droves to neighboring states because they couldn’t live on what they were paid, Anderson writes a biography of the colonial American spirit, in all its imagination and inventiveness and all its blood-soaked injustice. And, oh yeah, basketball, starting with a team once named the Seattle SuperSonics, which OKC basically stole and carried off to their “small market” city; a team that, in 2012, had three superstars; Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James “the Beard” Harden.

Anderson thoroughly and meticulously researched Oklahoma City, even while he was covering the 2012 roundball season and its attendant drama (the general manager traded Harden away with little warning when Harden wouldn’t re-sign). The writing is so smooth and approachable, the book so gracefully organized that the research never intruded. Anderson’s conversational, funny narrative voice never intruded either. He has the discipline of a journalist; he is in this book, but he is not the centerpiece. The city is. Anderson’s unflagging curiosity brought him to strange stories and strange corners of a place most of us on one of the coasts would dismiss as “flyover country.”

From its inception the city is based on cheating. First of all, having taken over the entire continent of the native tribal people, the Federal government then broke (another) treaty with them and took away the land that became Oklahoma City. The men who became the city’s Founding Fathers actually cheated at the Land Run. That’s the city’s history. They cheated at a race. If you wondered where the term “Sooner” came from, that’s it; they sneaked into the Land Run territory sooner than legally allowed, and when the bugle sounded to start the race, they came out of hiding and claimed the prime land.

While looking at the racism, corruption, and power-mongering of “city fathers” (and they are all male) for slightly more than a century, Anderson still respects the spirit of the place and the people who live there, and it shows. From a meteorologist who became a regional celebrity to a zany alt-rock recording star, several important civil rights figures as well as prominent writers, he finds people who represent the spirit of OKC beyond the short-sightedness and the inequality. There’s something slightly delusional about the spirit of OKC, and something kind of glorious. Boomtown captures both.

Anderson spent his childhood on the west coast and he now lives on the eastern one. It would be easy for someone with that background to approach a city like OKC with a sense of smugness, superiority and disrespect. Anderson does not.

If you enjoy Sarah Vowell’s books, you will love this one. It’s a testament to Anderson’s skill and hard work that the research, the diligent organization (I want to say “plotting”), and the fluent narrative voice weave together seamlessly. Underlying the talent and hard work, though, is a spark of what makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer. That spark is curiosity. Anderson has it and he fanned it into life here. Read Boomtown.

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The 2018 Annual Post-Christmas Art Stroll

RelaxMost of this year’s walking around Santa Rosa’s art-colony neighborhood South A Street was done by Lillian and me. Kathleen joined us for our usual brunch at the Spinster Sisters, but needed to leave after that. We missed her!

While many of the murals and artworks, like the Prince and Bowie mural, remain,there have been changes in Art Alley. Notably, the floating woman being drawn into a flying saucer by a tractor beam has been painted over. I wonder what will appear there next.

We both paused to take pictures of the lush vegetables and flowering plants growing in Avalow’s self-watering, contained metal plant beds. Lillian took the opportunity to talk to one of the co-owners and get some tips for the small greenhouse window in her apartment.

Flowering sweet pea from one of the beds at Avalow.

Flowering sweet pea from one of the beds at Avalow.

We stopped at Jeremy’s Photographer’s Corner, a studio and camera supply store. I bought some Blackwing pencils, a notepad and two enamel pins. None of those is particularly photography-related, but one of the pins is a camera. That counts, right? After that we checked in at one of our favorite spots on South A, the Jam Jar studio. This small storefront is filled with original art work, locally-made jewelry, cards, small vintage homeware, glassware and an eclectic mix of other objects. It’s been a tough year, said Kelly, one of the owners. Several businesses in Sofa District (“South of A,” get it? Not exactly accurate, but cute.) have moved out, including the Criminal Bakery, which has moved to the West End. Kelly says the fire continues to have a ripple effect on Santa Rosa’s economy… and, she says, many people come look but few buy.

Cubism Sliced

Cubism sliced

Then we walked through the alley. At one point an SRPD car pulled in, drove the length of  they alley, U-turned and drove back. That may have been because of us, or it may be part of their routine.

Golden Poppies

Golden Poppies

This manga mural tells a story in the length of one wall. (It the photo isn’t good enough, ask me in the comments and I’ll recap the plot.)

Ramen Manga

Ramen Manga

Above the head of the ramen-loving boy, birds on a wire discussed the pressing issues of being a bird.

Detail from the bird frieze.

Detail from the bird frieze.

Book covers of banned and challenged books comprisesthis mural. Lillian was startled that some of the covers showed movie actors, and we realized that in some spots  the artist had used the novel-tie-in book cover.

Fear No Books

Fear No Books

Some of the most attractive images occur naturally.

Shed and Shadow

Shed and Shadow

Once through the alley we stopped at Chroma Galley and Studios, an art collective. A couple of artists had open studios (although some were working but not open to the public). Simmon Factor was covering the front gallery. He uses mixed media in an interesting technique that incorporates decorative paper, paint and maybe even wallpaper, building up an intriguing texture.

Elaine Greenwood’s artist statement grabbed me with her opening sentence; “Art Heals.” Greenwood is a practicing psychotherapist as well as a painter.

"...Art heals."

“…Art heals.”

Of course Cat Kaufman’s found-object collages captivated me.

Found object piece by Cat Kaufman.

Found object piece by Cat Kaufman.

Chroma Gallery has regular open studio hours and lots of scheduled events, most free or donation-only. Check out their website for some details and more into about the artists.

Speaking of places that are gone; Atlas Coffee closed! their wonderful steampunk scultpure/mural now graces Chroma’s parking lot wall.

I love the way the colors on the bird and the circle recapitulate the tone of the two stubbed pipes in the lower left corner.

I love the way the colors on the bird and the circle recapitulate the tone of the two stubbed pipes in the lower left corner.

There were two small glitches in the day for me. The first was simply that Kathleen couldn’t join us for most of it. The other glitch occurred first thing. I had called Spinster Sisters to see if they were going to be open, and to make reservations. The woman I spoke to was definitive that they do not take reservations for groups of fewer than six. When Kathleen arrived first, she was told we’d need to wait, but there were several empty tables (for fewer than six). The host told her that those were reserved, and that of course they take reservations. No mention of a table minimum. They got us a table, but, seriously, people. Spinster Sisters has good food and cheerful wait-staff. They are building up a good reputation,but this kind of indifference borders on disdain for loyal customers. It’s not a good look for you guys. Maybe staff need some more training on your policies, whatever they are. Let me stress, though, that this was a glitch. We got a table and our friendly cheerful server added a bit of sparkle to the day. I came home relaxed and inspired.




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The Books We Got For Christmas; 2018

Except for a couple of restaurant gift cards, Spouse and I got each other books for Christmas. That works great for me and if it doesn’t work for him, he isn’t saying.

Here is the “master shot” of the books we took in. I’ll provide a couple other photos to provide more detail.

Back left to right: City of Broken Magic, Putting the Science in Fiction, The Wonderseekers of Fountaingrove, Front row: left to right, The Crusade tThrough Arab Eyes, The Worst Hard Time, The Last Templar, Squire Throwleigh's Heir

The card is an acknowledgment of a Heifer donation, and the squirrel drapery was a gift.

Spouse got:

The City of Broken Magic: A 2018 debut fantasy novel by Mirah Bolender. I don’t know much about it but it got good reviews. Of course my evil plan is to borrow it once he’s finished. By the way, the tagline for this book? “If it’s all magic, which wire do you cut?”

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, nonfiction about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era.

The Last Templar and Squire Throwleigh’s Heir. Two history-mysteries, both by Michael Jenks. The Last Templar has the virtue of being the first book in the series (for once!) introducing the former crusader who becomes a de facto detective in 14th century Britain. Squire Throwleigh’s Heir is a much later outing in the book.

That’s all he got! Don’t feel too bad for him, though; he’s got $50 worth of gift credit split between two stores, one of which is Second Chances Used Books. He’ll do all right.

Detail of two history-mysteries by Michael Jenks

What I got:

The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove, by Gaye Lebaron and Bart Casey. This book has more than one meaning for me. The idealistic commune of the late 1800s/early 1900s in Sonoma County, founded by Kanaye Nagasawa and Thomas Lake Harris has always fascinated me. More emotionally, the red Fountaingrove round barn was a visual landmark for my whole life, until October 2017 when it burned to the ground. LeBaron has written a lot about the ranch’s commune days and I’m looking forward to this work, which includes images and documents from Casey’s large collection.

Putting the Science in Fiction, edited by Dan Koboldt, was recommended on Fantasy Literature by Bill Capossere. It’s probably a bad idea to ask for reference books as gifts, since I should buy them and take them as a business expense… but I don’t care.

Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich. There’s a story behind this one. Well, it’s more of a scene:

Me: (Enters house, returning from Second Chances)

Me: (Hands spouse the book.)Here. You just bought me this book for Christmas. Give me nine dollars and eighty cents.

Spouse: (reaching for wallet) I suppose you want it wrapped, too?

Detail of The Cursades Through Arab Eyes

A closer look at some of the titles.

Heinrich wrote The Mind of a Raven, one of my favorite nature books, and Ravens in Winter was the book before that one. I am delighted to finally have it.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Malouf, is a “house book,” one we will both want to read, so I got it for both of us.

Those should be enough to keep us busy through the end of the year, right? And then, there are the gift cards.

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Light in Winter: The Gifts of the Kings

“Dark is the hour, long the night.” –Walter de la Mare, Christmas Eve

In the northern hemisphere, Winter solstice is the longest night of the year. In northern and middle Europe, it is a time of dark and cold. “Solstice” comes from two Latin words meaning “sun stays,” and describes the day when, from an earthly perspective, the sun seems to pause in its journey along the horizon and begins to retrace its steps. Winter nights grow steadily shorter, and days longer.

Solstice is a holiday that reminds us that even though we’re deep in darkness, and it seems endless, the days will get warmer, lighter. It’s the holiday that reminds us to have hope, even if we’re feeling despair.

December 25 is Christmas in the tradition of the Latin/western Christian sects (it’s celebrated on a different date in the Eastern Orthodox ones). Christmas is the story of a couple who are second-class citizens in their own land, occupied by an imperial nation, oppressed both by the might of the invaders and the powers of their own co-opted religious leaders. Poor, without rights or privilege, the woman delivers a child who is considered divine.

In the belief system of the nation that ruled them, Rome, December 25 was the birthday of the sun god, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

Christmas is a holiday about the appearance of wonder; the spark of the miraculous.

On January 5, twelve days after the birth of wonder, the mythology tells us that three wise kings from the Far East came to where the mother and baby were. The offered the impoverished family gifts of incense and gold. This is Epiphany, or Theophany in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

The common definition of epiphany is “revelation,” a discovery or a moment when something is acknowledged. “Theophany” means the manifestation or appearance of God (usually to a person).

Epiphany is the holiday of acknowledging the wonder that has been brought forth.

What spark of wonder will you allow to come forth this dark, cold month? And how will you honor it, or acknowledge it, on Epiphany? What gifts will you pledge to bring, to honor your own spark of the miraculous? Will you decide to speak of your own creative work, your connection to the divine, unapologetically, with pride? Will you set aside some time to honor it, each day? Will you share your creativity at open mikes, by submitting your work to publishers, by displaying your art?

The mythical kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. What will your three kings bring?

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Around Town; Shuttle 24

A sign designating the walking paths

One sign that designates the walking paths.

Sebastopol is a great town for walking and cycling. The Joe Rodota Trail comes in from the east, stopping just southeast of the post office, and picks up again north of town on High School Road. A dedicated walker/cyclist can go all the way to Forestville on that trail. Due east of town, just beyond the Barlow complex, the Laguna de Santa Rosa trailhead is a lovely walk with plenty of bird-watching opportunities. Within the town itself, the Plaza makes a nice landmark and staging area, and the two shopping districts, Main Street and the Barlow abut each other there.

When I write “shopping districts,” I don’t mean Rodeo Drive. Each one is two square blocks at the most.

Recently the city council made changes to the bike lanes on Main Street, which runs south through the center of town before going back to being a two-way state highway, and Petaluma Ave, which runs north before doing the same thing. This should improve conditions for cyclists.

The city is not friendly to cars. The one-way street configuration and a lack of adequate parking actively discourages driving in town. While I prefer walking in town anyway because it’s fun, I worried about what this meant for people with mobility issues. Certainly the city has the required number of spaces for handicapped people; it’s not clear whether their location is convenient for people and whether they truly provide access.

Shuttle 24 goes a long way to addressing this issue and providing transport for people who are frail, have mobility issues, or just don’t have a car. This great collaboration between Sonoma County Transit and the City of Sebastopol got a face-lift last week when they unveiled the latest bus for Shuttle 24; it’s 100% electric. And, for the riders, 100% free.

The shuttle’s route stops at major interest areas; three of the five grocery stores (Lucky’s, Safeway and Community Market) downtown Main Street which includes banks, clothing stores and bookstores. Rite Aid pharmacy is one parking lot over from Safeway. The shuttle swings through the Barlow, stopping at Community Market, and the hub which is a kiosk next to the Rialto Cinema. On the west side of town it stops at the Senior Center and Burbank Heights Senior Living Apartments. On the south side of town it stops at the post office and the Fairfield Inn south of town, where you can connect with a bus to take you to the Cotati SMART depot. That’s very cool, actually.

If this were better publicized, the SMART/shuttle connection might be a draw for shoppers. Frankly, while the idea is good, the number of pickups available right now doesn’t give a shopper much choice, but maybe, with the advertising and word of mouth, and a couple more runs to the train depot, a SMART ride up to Cotati from San Rafael or Novato, a short bus ride to Sebastopol and a fun day spent cruising the shops and eating good food (or wine/beer tasting!), heading home without the hassle of driving, can become a reality.

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The Way the Landscape Changes

A Finnish man used to come into the store, about once a week, usually Tuesdays. His English was so faintly accented that I didn’t know he’d been born in Finland until he told me. He was a burly giant, somewhere between 6 ft-4 inches and 6 ft-6 inches, and he wore a faded blue bandanna headband. Sometimes, not always, his partner Susan came in with him.

He would browse the store gleefully until he found a book to buy, and he bought a book every time.  And he would tell stories; stories about his various motorcycle jaunts back and forth and up and down across the American continent; stories about being a volunteer firefighter; stories about his relatives in Finland; stories about his mother, a soldier in WWII who was decorated for heroism. Sometimes he told stories about the ravens, the squirrels and the gray foxes on his property in west county. He brought Brandy shopping bags full of concord grapes when they were ripe, and jars of concord jam when the season had ended.

I always imaged him meeting Spouse, and the two of them trading firefighter stories. I told Spouse about him, prefacing those tales with, “The Finnish guy, I don’t know his name, came in today…”

Today a man named Tom came into the store. He bought a couple of books and said that his friend Kari had told him to come there. When we both looked blank, he said, “He’s Finnish.”

So we learned his name, and we learned that he passed away Thanksgiving night, in his sleep. He died peacefully with no previous symptoms, and the cause is unknown at this time.

The landscape of the store is different for me now– the landscape of the whole town has changed. He wasn’t a close friend; literally, I didn’t know the man’s name. But I would feel my face muscles shift into a smile when I saw him come in. He was vital and filled with a kind of light. He wasn’t a bleeding heart; many of his Finnish stories, while funny, dealt with the awkward Russian-Finnish relationships, and the realities of war. He made merciless fun of the Quebecois in Canada (and by extension the French). But I felt happier when I saw him. My day was brighter.

Today, it is just a little darker, and a generous landmark has disappeared from view.

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