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Outage

Django In Dark

Todd and Django In the Dark photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” Robert Heinlein

The power was out in our neck of the Mendocino woods for nearly five days last week. Can we blame PG&E? I do. With the money they’ve stolen charging millions of people ten dollars a month not to have stupid, er, smart meters, combined with the billions of dollars they spend annually responding to multi-day power outages all over the state, they could easily have afforded by now to bury all their power lines and be done with outages forever. But that’s not how monopoly capitalism works.

“Knowledge is power.” Francis Bacon

Marcia, prescient wonder that she is, long ago chose the first four of those five days of outage to go jaunting to Santa Rosa to visit her mother Opal, indulge in cuisine not to be had hereabouts, shop for things unavailable in these hinterlands, take a workshop on musical improvisation from Joe Craven in Ukiah, catch Joel Cohen starring on cello with the Ukiah Symphony, and visit various far flung friends—leaving me in the dark with the cat.

Marcia returned for the final twenty-four hours of outage and made the best of the absence of electronic distractions—email, Internet, lights, hot water—to clean her office. Intimidated by her sensible approach to our altered circumstances, I decided to clean my office, too.

Attacking a mountain (no exaggeration) of paper on one of my tabletops, the mountain wedged between a large round rock (who put that there?) and a large glass former peanut butter jar crammed with dubious pens (where did those come from?) I found most of the mountain made of material sent to me by insurance companies urging me to buy Medigap insurance from them, and several hundred more pages of material sent by various government agencies to help me make sense of the material sent by the insurance companies—further proof of why Single Payer (socialist) Healthcare would be such a better way to go.

“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” Edmund Burke

Weary of office excavating, I ventured out into our storm-ravaged yard and discovered a large redwood branch had fallen from on high and seriously compromised a stretch of our deer fence, while another much bigger branch had torn off a chunk of our woodshed roof. Not good. On the brighter side, a large section of old wooden fence bordering the western edge of our property had been blown to smithereens by the tempest, something I’ve wanted to do since we moved here.

As I cleaned up the fence fragments, our neighbor, a chain saw savant, came over to see if we needed his services (we often do) but this time, miraculously, we did not. I spent another hour clearing the driveway of fence shards and tree branches, then suffered an energy outage and went inside to take a nap by the fire.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

I was just drifting off to sleep when Marcia reported that a friendly recorded woman at the PG&E outage number said the outage would either be over by midnight or there would be a new guesstimate at midnight of the duration of the outage. Marcia then suggested we cook supper (on our woodstove) before it got too dark.

I’d been cooking on the woodstove (we also heat our house with wood) for four days, so I was up to speed in that department. I brought in a pile of small and medium-sized kindling to enhance temperature control while I cooked, and ere long, just as darkness fell, we were gobbling a scrumptious meal of sautéed vegetables, Basmati rice, and one of Marcia’s superb green and purple salads.

Sipping her wine, Marcia opined that a day without electricity was a welcome respite from the usual order of business, and I agreed that a day without electricity was not a bad thing, but that five days (unless one intentionally goes wilderness backpacking) was perhaps not such a good thing, though certainly profound.

“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson

There was a time when a power outage meant the coming of deep regenerative silence. Not anymore. Now a power outage means people around the hood fire up their gas-powered generators (without mufflers) and simulate the sound of a major construction site in downtown Manhattan. Ah country living.

At nine o’clock, the stars fantastical in the absence of porch lights, the phone rang and a nice recorded man said that PG&E hoped to restore our electricity late the following evening. I asked him if he would like to smell my armpits after four days without even lukewarm water for a shower (our hot water heater is electric) and he thanked me for my patience and said he was sorry for the inconvenience.

“Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.” William Gaddis

Marcia suggested we drive into downtown Mendocino, get some ice and potato chips and a chocolate bar at Harvest Market and see what was happening in our beloved burg. So we hopped in the car and coasted down the hill, noting various uprooted trees and bushes along the way, and found the amply stocked grocery store with lights blazing, only a few shoppers availing themselves of the cornucopia.

We bought our goodies and then toodled up and down the streets of Mendocino—every house and business sans lights, save for the town’s three drinking holes: the Mendocino Hotel, Dick’s, and Patterson’s. Those holy places were ablaze with light—their bartenders busy quenching the thirst of outage-weary sojourners.

And for some reason, seeing those booze joints jumping while everything else was shut down brought to mind that famous Sixties slogan: Power to the people, right on.

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See’s

sees

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles M. Schulz

Marcia and I are standing in line at See’s Candies in Santa Rosa, two days before Christmas 2014. See’s Candies is owned by billionaire Warren Buffet and has more than two hundred outlets throughout the west, most of them in California. Some of my earliest memories are of chocolate caramel lollypops from See’s. Hard as rocks and long lasting, those delicious teeth-rotting suckers were two for a nickel when I was a little boy—gateway drugs to a lifetime of chocolate addiction. Warren Buffet did not own See’s when I was a boy, and when he bought the business from the founders, he was wise enough to retain the winning formula: rich chocolate candies sold by matronly women in shops reminiscent of small-town bakeries.

We are in line here at this inopportune time of the year—the holiday season now synonymous with a mass fixation on buying warm clothing and useless crap—because Opal, Marcia mother, was given a gift certificate for one pound of See’s chocolate candy, all creams, please, and we said we would pick the pound up for her on our way to get takeout pizza for our supper with her tonight.

Santa Rosa, for those of us with weak psychic shielding, is a gigantic madhouse of malls and snarled traffic—a testament to stupidity, greed, and bad city planning, though people from Los Angeles find the place bucolic. And where is the pinnacle of madness in this insane city? See’s Candies.

As we wait our turn in the brightly lit shop with its black-and-white color scheme, we are accosted by a small hunchbacked lady in a blue granny dress with matching bonnet and thick-lensed glasses that magnify her bugging eyes and give her the look of an albino goldfish. With creepy urgency she asks, “When you leave here, if you’re going anywhere near the Flamingo Hotel, could you give me a ride?”

I defer to Marcia, not knowing where in Hades we are or in what direction the pizza parlor lies or that the Flamingo Hotel is only two blocks away.

“We’re going in the opposite direction,” Marcia explains. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” says the woman, turning to another recent arrival and repeating her request for a ride, to which the recent arrival says, “We’re not from around here. We don’t know where we’re going.”

The line is not moving. The three matronly women behind the counter are boxing chosen chocolates and wrapping the boxes in reddish orange wrapping paper that stands out like neon against the pervasive black and white. See’s is a full-service last-minute gift-fulfillment center for people who can’t think of anything else to get friends who already have too much of everything, but never enough chocolate.

An enormous woman is ordering large quantities of many kinds of chocolate candies. She tells her matron she does not want her candies boxed because, well, I only catch part of her explanation because she is speaking under her breath and glancing around furtively, ashamed to be so obviously ordering hundreds of dollars of chocolate candy for herself—helpless in the grip of her addiction.

Meanwhile, the weird gal in the granny dress keeps letting people go ahead of her in line because she wants to be waited on by a particular matron who clearly dreads the coming of the albino goldfish. When Goldie finally gains the counter, she makes a great show of buying four pieces of candy, demands a large handful of the club mix for her free sample, and writes a check for four dollars and fourteen cents before resuming her quest for a ride to her apartment two blocks away.

We finally reach the counter and meet our matron from whom we purchase four dark chocolate raspberry creams to go with Opal’s one-pound of mixed creams and a box of dark chocolate molasses chips. At the cash register Marcia says to our matron, “What a busy time of year for you.”

“Yes,” sighs our matron. “And I thought this would be fun.”

“I guess it could be,” says Marcia, “if the customers are nice.”

To which our matron responds with a sweetly sorrowful look that speaks of innumerable customers who are neither nice nor fun.

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Over pizza in Opal’s commodious apartment, I regale Marcia and Opal with the true story of how, if not for my great grandfather’s inferiority complex, I would be heir to a huge candy fortune. Here is the story.

My father’s mother’s mother, the novelist Katharine Grey, married at nineteen. Shortly thereafter, her husband left her pregnant in Oakland and ran off to join the Alaskan gold rush circa 1897. Nine months later, Katharine gave birth to my grandmother Helen, and not having heard a peep from her husband (who had vowed to come back rich within six months) bought a big sturdy wagon, piled it high with the fixings for making candy, and set sail for Alaska with her newborn child.

Upon her arrival in Skagway, she paid a man with two strong horses to pull her and her baby and her wagon full of candy fixings to Dawson City in the heart of the Klondike where she opened a candy shop and started making money hand over fist. Several months later, Katharine’s starving penniless husband came staggering into her wildly successful candy shop, and after partaking of a hearty meal, told his resourceful wife that the Klondike was no place for a woman (other than a prostitute) and insisted they return to Oakland. Katharine revealed her enviable profits to her hubby and suggested they would be rich if they kept the candy business going for another year, but her husband was humiliated by his failure to find gold juxtaposed to his wife’s remarkable success, so they returned to California.

Thus whenever I see a See’s, I imagine the sign says Katharine’s.