Coastal Drama Games

In 1972 I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz and piecing together my minimal living by working for three bucks an hour as a landscaper and house painter while playing guitar and singing for tips in cafés and pubs. So when a young lawyer offered me thirty bucks per meeting to attend California Coastal Commission meetings in Santa Cruz and write reports on those meetings for his law firm, I jumped at the chance.

The California Coastal Commission was established along with the Coastal Protection Act in 1972 through a state ballot proposition sponsored by environmentalists hoping to slow unchecked development of California coastal areas. The commission was a serious work-in-progress in those early days, and the meetings I attended at the county building in Santa Cruz were, in the vernacular of those times, trippy.

I was one of the only people attending these meetings not there to try to convince the commission to approve building projects theoretically verboten under the new Coastal Protection Act. Each supplicant made his or her case—sometimes it was a coastal city or town, sometimes a resort developer, sometimes the builder of a house—and most of these cases were made with the aid of slide shows projected on a big screen in the darkened room.

Approval or disapproval of these projects couldn’t have been based on what was revealed at these public meetings. By that I mean, incredibly destructive projects that never should have been approved often were, and projects that seemed benign were frequently not approved.


In 1973, having by then covered several of these Coastal Commission meetings, I got a call from a man I will call Mark who said he was a good friend of my uncle Howard and had just built a new house in Aptos. Mark wanted to invite me (and a date) to dinner with him and his wife and another couple. He said Howard had told him he had to meet me, that he and I would hit it off, and I would love to see his new house.

My uncle Howard was a big time entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. We were not close, but I always liked him and vice-versa. Mark sounded interesting, my girlfriend Nancy and I were paupers, and the idea of going for a nice meal in a snazzy new house appealed, so I accepted his invitation.

On the night of the dinner party, we donned our best hippy garb and followed the directions Mark gave us to his house. And the closer we got, the more perplexed I became because we were headed into what I thought I knew to be coastal land that was never to be built on, land the Coastal Protection Act was specifically designed to protect.

However, Mark had somehow gotten approval to put in a quarter-mile asphalt road just north of a state park and running right along the shore to a spectacular rocky point, waves crashing below his enormous modern house cantilevered over that rocky point.

We parked our jalopy between two dazzling new cars and walked on the beautifully lit cement walkway inlaid with ocean rocks and fossils through a gorgeous Japanese garden to the massive front door and rang the melodious doorbell.

Mark was a short wiry fellow in his sixties, his wife Maureen a gorgeous blonde in her twenties wearing a shimmery diaphanous dress I mistook for negligee, their friends Jason and Lisa in their thirties. I was twenty-four, my girlfriend Nancy twenty-two.

While Maureen and Jason and Lisa had wine in the living room, Mark gave Nancy and me a tour of the spectacular house. On the tour Mark explained that my Uncle Howard had been his attorney on a number of business deals, and then he, Mark, worked for Howard gratis for a couple years to learn what he needed to learn to pass the bar and become his own lawyer.

When we stepped out on the massive deck overlooking the ocean, I mentioned my Coastal Commission gig and expressed amazement that the Coastal Commission had approved the construction of Mark’s house, not to mention the road to the house.

And Mark said, “We found evidence of a former dwelling here.” Then he smiled wryly. “Several planks of old redwood.”

“Here?” I said incredulously. “There was a house here before this one? But there’s no level ground. This is jagged rock. Your house is an engineering marvel.”

“There was sufficient evidence of a possible former dwelling to warrant building here and on other feasible locations along my access road,” said Mark, sounding ultra-lawyerly. “And I’m on very good terms with a majority of the commissioners.”

“Wait,” I said, aghast. “You’re subdividing the land along the road?”

“Just on the ocean side,” he said, ushering us inside. “We don’t want to overbuild and put undue stress on the fragile coastal environment.”


 Following the delicious meal cooked by their excellent chef, Maureen asked us what we did, and Nancy said she was studying jazz piano at Cabrillo College and working as a waitress, and I said I was an aspiring writer working as a landscaper, and my trio Kokomo was the Friday and Saturday night band at Positively Front Street, a pub near the municipal wharf in Santa Cruz.

Then Nancy added, “And Todd leads Drama games.”

Everyone’s eyes lit up.

Drama games?” said Maureen. “Tell us more.”

I had learned a bunch of warm-up exercises and interactive Drama games from my friend Rico’s wife Jean while living near them for a time in Ohio where Jean taught Drama at Central State University and gave weekend acting workshops. When I settled into commune life in Santa Cruz, I orchestrated Drama game nights at our commune and a few other communes in town, and that landed me a gig leading Drama games for emotionally troubled teenagers in a local residential treatment program.

“Can we do some Drama games now?” asked Maureen, shimmying in her shimmering gown.

I was reluctant, the group insisted, we had an hour of fun, and the games ended with us standing in a circle with our arms around each other improvising tonal melodies and harmonizing rapturously.

When the circle broke, Maureen said, “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”

Lisa and Jason echoed Maureen, and Mark said, “Oh my God, Todd. You could make a fortune from this. You can franchise this, and for a modest percentage I’ll set the whole thing up for you.”

“But these aren’t my exercises,” I said, shaking my head. “They’re taught in Drama classes and workshops all over the world.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Mark, excitedly. “It’s all in the packaging and the marketing. This could be huge!”


Needless to say, I did not pursue packaging and trademarking and franchising and marketing of those Drama games, but my friends and I had fun coming up with names for the hypothetical venture, including The Walton Method: Drama Games to Liberate Your Inner Creative Child.



(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“One cannot write of ducks without mentioning water.”  Ernest Thompson Seton

Just when we thought the apex of human stupidity was a toss up between building nuclear power plants and waging wars for gasoline, here comes…

Marcia and I strolling inland along the shores of Big River, a cool breeze wafting in from the Pacific, the sun playing peek-a-boo with wispy white clouds, when suddenly Marcia shouts, “Duck!”

And I reply (hoping for a glimpse of a mallard or possibly a merganser or improbably a McGregor’s Cuckooshrike), “Where?”

“Not a duck,” cries Marcia. “Duck! As in Get Down!”

So I do a belly flop in the sandy duff just as a loud report from a big gun presages a swarm of buckshot flying overhead and ripping a humongous chunk of bark out of an innocent redwood tree.

Okay, so that didn’t actually happen. But if the dingbats (and I chose that word carefully) of The California Outdoor Heritage Alliance have their way, flotillas of duck hunters may soon be motoring around the Big River estuary, blasting away at…

Okay, so that is highly improbable, too. But for the last few weeks rumors have been flying around Mendocino about duck hunters descending on Big River to massacre the few and far between ducks and geese that seasonally splash down in the picturesque waterway just south of the economically distressed hamlet of Mendocino. These rumors came out of meetings of various organizations responsible for protecting or sort of protecting those few pseudo-wilderness coastal areas not yet or not anymore under the control of rapacious private interests who wouldn’t know a fir from a spruce and could care less about endangered salamanders let alone a bunch of ducks.

I will not bore you with a list of acronyms because you’ll stop reading if I do, but suffice it to say that The California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, i.e. a well-financed hunting lobby dedicated to keeping as much California ground open to hunters as quasi-legally feasible, has been exerting pressure on the people composing the boards of various acronymic organizations (MLPA, NCRSG, F&G, to name a few) to not make permanent the No Hunting status we all thought the estuaries of Big River, Navarro River, and Ten Mile River enjoyed and would continue to enjoy in perpetuity.

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Big River a state park? Yep. Isn’t it illegal to bring firearms into a state park? Yep. So what’s the problem? Well, the gun-toting dingbats claim that Big River estuary (roughly the first mile of the river inland from its mouth) though certainly born of the river and most certainly surrounded entirely by state park land, is itself something separate from the park. Huh? Yeah. That’s what I said, too. Huh? So your next thought, as it was mine, is how then are these duck killers going to get themselves with their guns onto the estuary if…

Well, they could kayak in from the ocean, or maybe ride the wild surf in those cool inflatable Zodiac rafts with big outboard motors, and then rumble up the river scaring the crap out of nursing mothers and little kids building sandcastles on the beach. And there is that little road off the Comptche-Ukiah Road that takes you down through Stanford Inn land to the bike and canoe shop. The duck assassins could drop their rafts down into the estuary from that dead end and…

There they’d be, heavily armed dingbats in rafts looking to shoot some ducks. True, they would be hunting under severe legal limitations because if they didn’t hit the duck they were aiming at, and their bullets or buckshot or depleted uranium projectiles happened to land onshore (state park land), they would then be guilty of a felony. And, of course, if they endangered someone’s life or actually wounded or killed someone…

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? The crazy gunslingers are not going to be allowed to hunt ducks on Big River or Navarro River or…so what’s this really all about? These trigger happy dingbats may be dingbats, but they must have some reason or reasons (however perverse) for calling into question the sanctity of these estuaries, and for even suggesting that heavily armed men should be allowed to wield their weaponry within range of people walking their dogs and families biking up the Haul Road and newlyweds necking on the bluffs.

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes

What, I ask, is the hidden agenda of these mallard murderers? I have two theories based on past experiences. One of my very first professional writing gigs (in the early 1970’s) was to cover the meetings of the California Coastal Commission whenever the commission met in Santa Cruz, and to write a detailed report of what went on at those meetings. My client was a lawyer who was frequently consulted by unscrupulous developers who wanted to know how best to manipulate the commission so they could effectively bend the rules, so to speak, and build mansions and resorts where such things were not, by law, supposed to be built. These meetings were remarkable for the displays of kingly power wielded by people, mostly men, who had gained their positions on the commission through political appointment, for the blatant and recurrent misuse of this power for personal gain, and for how easy it was for organizations with sufficient money and political influence to get whatever they wanted, no matter how illegal and destructive their plans.

So my first theory, based on what I learned at those coastal commission meetings, is that hunting lobbyists are employing the primary tactic of all special interest groups and corporations, which is to ask for the moon and settle for something less. Thus I theorize that the Outdoor Heritage Alliance (as opposed to the Indoor Heritage Alliance) is pushing for access to all our precious and heretofore off-limits estuaries with the expectation of being turned away at Big River and Navarro, but hoping to gain access to more remote estuaries along the coast; and not just estuaries, but inland areas currently closed to hunting.

My second theory is that this sort of bureaucratic maneuvering is both intentionally clogging and obfuscating—clogging the regulatory processes with bogus silliness that eats up valuable time and money the state and counties can ill afford, and obfuscating larger more insidious aims. I come to this theory through my experience in those same 1970’s in Santa Cruz when I helped launch the organization that eventually saved Lighthouse Point, twenty acres of coastal land just north of the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a parcel that was slated to become a resort hotel for the super wealthy, and is now all these decades later vacant land where Monarch butterflies share the fields with surfers and stoners and gophers and grass.

What became clear to me early on in the fight to save Lighthouse Point was that the developers of the Santa Cruz area, which at the time was still a sleepy and largely undeveloped town, were happy to engage our raggedy band of fledgling environmentalists in a long and costly battle to save a highly visible but not very important chunk of ground, so they could then blithely, and with little or no resistance, grossly over-develop every square inch of coastal property for miles and miles north and south of Lighthouse Point. We were too few and too inexperienced to know how to effectively fight them; and Santa Cruz swiftly became what it is today, a somewhat rustic Santa Monica north, a college town and bedroom community of ugly houses for the speedsters of Silicon Valley.

So…will the hunting lobbyists, a few years hence, proclaim that they will abjure from shooting up our paltry estuaries while they take control of everything north of Cleone? I don’t know. We invite anyone with any sort of understanding of this matter, or those with cogent intuitive hunches, to gift us with your insights. Special thanks to William Lemos and Wendy Roberts for their assistance, and to Bruce Anderson who thought, despite the apparent absurdity of the idea of duck hunters descending on Big River, that it would be a good idea to look into the matter.