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Elementary California 101 on Highway One

I went to California at the age of twenty-one. I was a little late to begin my self-discovery journey, but picked a wonderful place for expeditious lessons, deep in the mountains off Highway One. I lived in Big Sur for eighteen months, six of which were spent in Willow Creek Canyon as caretaker on a four-acre homestead.

I had two dogs, seven cats, and a .22 pistol to keep me company.  The dogs and the pistol were for protection, the cats were for the mice. However, those dumb cats would never kill the mice. I had to kill them and feed them to the cats.

Each day I would fire a round of shots into a round of wood, to warn any possible intruders that someone was on the property; and they could be killed. One of the dogs, the Doberman, was loyal and sweet to me, but not the smartest animal. He thought target practice was a game and would run in the direction of the bullet. The German Shepherd was much smarter. He stayed at my side when we were out.

Interestingly, they had different ideas about running away. When we went for walks, we sometimes would hear the wild boar that lived in the canyon. I never worried about the dogs mixing it up with coyotes, because my dogs were mountain tough. But when Dobie the Doberman heard the boar, he would run into the woods to try to catch it. I always worried that he would be killed, but I guess the boar wanted nothing to do with him, because he always came back up to the trail.

Jerry the German Shepherd stuck with me when we were doing things, but on our ‘down time’, he would run far away, down the mountain pass and through the brush to the back of the school, about three miles away. All the children in our area attended Pacific Valley Regional Elementary School, in a one room but partitioned building.

Occasionally, a car would drive up the pass, the driver would open the front gate, and then carefully coast down our long and rocky driveway. It was usually the teacher who sometimes lived on the property when her boyfriend, the owner of the land, was back from his business trips. She would get out, open the door to her backseat, and let Jerry out. Then she would come tell me how much fun he had playing with the kids on the playground that afternoon. He loved the kids, and he loved the teacher, so I never wondered why he ran down there.

In rare instances, the visitor was someone the dogs didn’t know, and I hoped they would not get out of the car and try to be nice to the dogs. “Stay in your car!”, I would yell, and motion for them to stay put. Then I would walk out to their car with the dogs and introduce them. Dobie and Jerry were trained to be guard dogs, so I didn’t worry that much about my security. I had the dogs, and the gun, but relied much more on the dogs than my skill with a pistol.

Everything on the homestead was divided up by structures. There was a kitchen building, an outhouse, and outdoor shower, two cabins where the owners lived when they were there, and a trailer where I stayed. I cooked all day on a lovely old stove that ran on either propane or wood. I preferred wood. There was no one there to eat the homemade fritters and other yummy desserts that I concocted, and they would pile up. But cooking kept me from going stir crazy, while making me feel connected to the pioneers who had been on this land before me, so I kept at it.

Sometimes, Debbie the Bandit would drive her dirt bike down the mountain to see me. She lived about two miles up the winding road. I always knew she was coming because I could hear her popping off her .22 on the ride down, sort of aiming at, but mostly trying to scare the Blue Jays. As Deb got closer, I could hear her yelling, “Fucking Blue Jays!” She really hated those birds.

She was an eighteen year-old who lived with her thirty-three year-old boyfriend. He was gorgeous and kind, and I had a little crush on him, but I would never admit it to her, him, or anyone. Deb had grown up in Big Sur, and her parents still lived and partied there. Deb was a mountain girl, tougher than any coyote or even boar, but she was also hilarious and great company for a gal who was on her own most days. Plus, she would eat some of the fritters and tell me they were good. Since that was my life’s work at the time, the input was really appreciated.

We would smoke jays on the side of the cliff when she came down and get so high that I swear somedays I thought I could and should just walk right out onto the fog bed. Then we would climb up on the far side of the property and nude sunbathe in the warm grass on a hill. Hang gliders would illegally soar over our land and stare at us, and Deb would threaten them with her gun. It was scary but exhilarating. I always loved when she’d visit.

When I left Big Sur, I moved to Cambria, CA, where I was a cook, a cocktail waitress, a bartender, and a “bagger” at the local grocery store…these positions all ran into one another, working out my schedules between bosses who all knew each other. But in a town of 3,000, that wasn’t much of a surprise.

Sometimes my friends from Big Sur would come to town, and they were thought of by the townspeople as roughnecks. I thought of them as friends. Sag was a guy I knew from Gorda, where I lived the rest of my Big Sur days after the caretaking stint. He would come down to Cambria to party at the bar every few months. Once while I was working he was there and got completely hammered, and started some trouble, so he was asked to leave.

On his way out, he stopped and whispered in my ear to let his friend know that he would be outside, but the owner of the bar, who was always drunk and high (it was the ‘80s; I make no excuses) thought that he was hitting on me, and he and his friends ushered Sag out and started beating him up. I was screaming, “He didn’t do anything! He’s a friend of mine!” When the owner’s bloodthirst abated, they stopped throwing punches. Sag got up and walked around the corner. He was a mountain goat who took a beating as well as he gave one. It was a typical Saturday night.

I loved my time in Big Sur and learned so many lessons from her. But Cambria was like coming home, and it was there that I began to learn about responsibility, community, and growing up. Everyone grows at their own pace, and some faster than others. I was a slow learner. There were many more lessons to come. There still are.


The tub stands on the hill,
Just outside the kitchen building.
There is a hose attached to the faucet,
Which runs up the long metal tube,
And ends at the showerhead at the top.
It is a quiet, rainy day.
The well water and the rain fall on me simultaneously
From the shower, and from the sky.
Both come down softly, warming my skin and my mind
As I revel in this paradise of mine
That most will never know;
That most would never guess
Would be such a spiritual and thrilling experience.
Just taking my shower in the tub on the hill in the rain.





Before you know it

Monday morning, 6:51 am.

Work hasn’t even started yet,

And there’s a whole week to go…

But, before you know it, it will be Friday;

Oh man, before you know it,

It will be Monday again.

Before you know it, I’ll have been to Portland

To visit the kid next month,

And back here,

And the month will be over.

Before you know it, the pool will open,

Finally, we will be swimming,

Absorbing the sun’s warmth and kindness.

At some point, probably mid-July,

We will begin to complain that it’s just too damn hot,

It’s okay though…

Before you know it, the leaves will start to turn;

We will all plan trips to catch the best peak times.

Soon they will all have fallen though,

And winter will rush in behind, as always too early,

An unwanted guest that seems to never go away.

But before you know it,

We are back here again.


And it didn’t take long to grow up

And it didn’t take long to grow old

And before you know it,

It will all be over

And before you know it,

It will all be gone.

So I’m going to love it today, this minute

And I’m going to hope that I don’t ever lose it.

Until the end comes around.

And I don’t want to lose it.

I don’t want to lose you,

And I don’t want to be lost

I don’t want to be gone

But, before you know it…


Shore Memories Pt. I – Beach Theater in Cape May

Night of Dark Shadows” was released on August 3, 1971. It came to Cape May right after its release. I know that, because Beanie (my Best-Summer-Friend, from PA near King of Prussia, but a season-long Cape May summer resident) and I went to see it at The Beach Theater on August 28, 1971. How do I remember the date? I don’t, but history does, because it was the same night that Tropical Storm Doria hit the coast.

Every day when I got home from school, I watched the soap operas Dark Shadows and Edge of Night. Edge of Night was grown-up mean stuff. I didn’t understand it that much, but I thought Raven was so cool. Dark Shadows was another story. It was set apart by a mile from any other soap operas, or really any other television programming. Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas Collins, was taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and earned a  Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Directing from the Yale School of Drama. But he didn’t want to do “Night” because after the soap opera, and the first movie, “House of Dark Shadows” (which was released the year before), he felt he would be type-cast.

So “Dark” was about Quentin Collins, whom I had this weird kid-crush on. Quentin becomes possessed by his ancestor in the creepy Collinwood estate. It was a scary movie for two eleven year-olds to see by themselves in 1971, but we loved it.  Tropical Storm Doria was already kicking up her heels as we left the theater, in the form of heavy rains and winds.

This was the first time that we were going to have a sleep-over at Beanie’s. Her summer  home was around the block from ours, but you could cut through the yards to save time, which we did on the way there, running the whole way. We reached her house easily, had snacks with her little sister Tink, and proceeded to go to bed, all three of us in a double bed.

I had never wondered how Tink got her nickname. I always assumed it had something to do with Tinkerbell. Cute. Even as an eleven year-old, I knew that Tink was darn cute. But it turned out that was not the origin of her nickname at all. We were all lined up in bed, all scared, because now Beanie and I had regaled her little sis with scary stories of haunted homes and possession. Tink  was in the middle of the bed. We were all finally passing out, when I felt something warm and wet, and realized how Tink received her moniker.

I thought I was going to cry. I was wet with someone else’s pee, and scared, and wanted to be home. It was late at night, and the storm was going strong with 54 mph winds. I put my clothes on, and told Beanie’s mother I was going home. She tried to deter me from leaving, but I was adamant. She did not stop me, and I slipped out the door with my wet pjs in my overnight bag, and ran as fast as I could through the backyards and the wind and the rain, frightened and crying. It took all of two minutes, but I have never forgotten that wild night. I got home, cleaned up, dried off, and read books until the sun came up, happy to be home in my own haunted Victorian, where no one peed in my bed.

I woke up the next morning to find out that Doria was not only a tropical storm, but created a F2 tornado, which caused damage throughout the county. We went for a walk to survey the damage. It wasn’t a major tornado, but cause enough chaos for me to wonder if running home the night before had been a good idea.


The movie “Ben” was released on June 23, 1972. Once again, Beanie and I went to see it in August at the Beach Theater. Ben was a movie about a rat, and the man who was the friend and leader of the rats. I don’t remember that much about the movie (sequel to the 1971 killer rat film Willard), except that it was very creepy, and that the theme song, “Ben” sounded like a love song, and was performed by Michael Jackson, who was just thirteen at the time.

When we left the theater, we went for a walk on the boardwalk. A rat ran across the boardwalk and hit my foot. I jumped about 2 feet in the air, and I think the rat did too. I wasn’t scared because it was just so damn strange. I have thought about it often throughout my life. I wonder if the rat did the same.



Ode to the Woodpecker

Ode to the Woodpecker

Each morning as I wake

The birds sing their pre-work songs

But the woodpecker clocks in early

Rat-tat-tat, Rat-tat-tatting

Piercing­ my daily preparation.

I try to mentally filter his pounding

Into white noise,

But it’s as if he knows it,­

And works to drill louder and faster.

He is a lesson in suffering irritation;

A lesson I continually must re-learn.

Is the woodpecker a blessing?

As much as any pain in the butt, yes.

If you look at it like that.

So okay woodpecker, peck away.

It’s your job,

I can live with that

As I trudge forward to my own.

I’ll see you tomorrow morning.

The Woodpecker is Gone

The woodpecker is gone.

He probably met his mate

And moved on

Because she wanted to live

Further out in the country

And raise a woodpecker family.

He must have found a job out there

Pecking at trees, and disturbing the peace.

They had to move

The commute was just too much.

Music of a Life

Teenage girl in flowered skirt

Feathered hair and feather earrings;

Ahead of her time.

No one knows that of course,

She is just weird.

Not a hippie, not a greaser.

Not into the Dead.

Just finding her way through.

Beatles as a kid, and lots of cool things.

First the Monkees, then Joni, and John Prine. Linda and Emmylou too.

Bay City Rollers? Really?

Okay, it makes her happy.

Mostly as a rebellion against her Deadhead siblings.

Changes in the mind and thoughts and body:

A hard rock stage, a new wave stage

Bowie, Ramones, Joe Jackson, the other Elvis, Patti Smith

Changes in the family dynamic: ALS

Her mother is dying.

She cannot stay to watch.

When twenty-one arrives, she goes

Life as an experiment in California.

Drum circles and lots of Bonnie: Raitt and Bramlett.

Roseanne and Johnny sneak in with Neil

Because it is the Mountains of Big Sur

A melting pot of transplanted Northern and Southern Easterners.

Musical influences like frenetic foggy air infused with electricity

Bouncing off the peaks and back to earth

To the conglomeration of dream seekers and dropouts

Dancing on the edge, so high over the mist

Dancing so high all the time

Deciding at last to come down off the mountains, to come down

And head to the small town of Cambria

Where 3,000 people live everyday lives

While Big Sur transients wander in and out.

Good folks, many descendants of Swiss farmers who migrated there

Many still farmers, simple and opinionated, but kind.

She finds her way to Camozzi’s Saloon,

And makes a home there

In the little apartment above

And works and plays and exists in the bar.

Her friends are musicians and DJs

And everyone there

Except those who don’t like her

Because she is ahead of her time

And tragically forever from New Jersey.

Bands play each weekend.

The scene is life itself

For all who sway together

To the beat of the new sounds

Billy Idol, Greg Kihn, Huey Lewis, Eddy Grant

Donald Fagin on the beach and late night drives.

The mornings are waiting periods for the nights.

Add cooking as a second job,

Telephone Operator for an answering service as a third.

But that is a cool job; hell, it’s all cool.

It’s Cambria, and Joni has nothing on her with Morgantown.

Walking through the pines in the eucalyptus air,

Singing out loud

No one cares

Because they are singing out loud too.

The Christians slightly push for attendance

By being very welcoming and having lovely tunes.

She walks by their churches on Sunday mornings

And for a time, her songs change to theirs.

It’s peaceful and laid back being a West Coast Christian

They eat brunch at the Moonstone in San Simeon

After they build up the Holy Spirit during service.

Soon though, she turns away from their endorphin highs

And returns to the bar and the bands

And the sweaty dancing nights.

The rockers eat brunch in town en masse

They are hungover

But champagne with strawberries makes them feel better about

Who they are

And she is one of them

She has always been one of them.

Wrong turns keep bringing her back to Jersey

To the life she never wanted to live

Running running running back to the West

Bouncing back and forth across the country for years

Between happy poverty and comforting sadness

Until her father dies

And she doesn’t bounce anymore

But becomes resigned to her East Coast fate.

Her travels have yielded a bastard

A son who calls himself a bastard and laughs

He is dragged into and through it all.

After many drugged and drunken stupors

And abusive men

She sends the boy away


She must save him from her life.

A frantic foggy mind that cannot find its way back

And fears it all may dissolve

Lost child and childhood.

But when the fog lifts

She finds her sobriety

And keeps it.

A new start to her old life.

She is no longer weary and heavy laden

And doesn’t need that scripture to find comfort

The comfort is within herself.

The inside girl returns

And she realizes she has always been there

Waiting and singing.


Christmas is for Giving

I was the second to last child, and always begging for attention. “Mommy, watch this”, “Mommy, listen to my song”, “Mommy, listen to my story”. But Mommy was always busy with her work, with her church, and theater, and politics, and all the other children. Mommy never had time to listen to my stories and songs. She never had time to watch. She never had time to answer questions, or didn’t know the answers, so pretended the questions weren’t important.

Daddy was there, but he wasn’t. And I never felt like he cared that much, at least when I was little. Mommy was out a lot at night at rehearsals and church functions and political meetings. When she wasn’t home, I felt so uneasy. I thought that if someone broke in the house, Daddy wouldn’t care enough to protect me. I needed her there. She would save me.

Much later, I finally realized that Daddy’s way of loving was to go to work and buy what we needed, and what we wanted. For a family of twelve, we were very lucky. They were thrifty, for sure. But they made sure each of their children had a childhood.

We went on vacation to a large Victorian in Cape May for the entire month of August. Daddy came the first two weekends, taking public transportation to Atlantic City, where Mommy would pick him up and bring him back on Sunday nights. He stayed at home during the week, but those weekends were nice with our Dad. He couldn’t totally relax. He did a little though, and you could tell he needed it. The last two weeks he vacationed with us. He was so much fun then! He was the Dad I always wanted him to be. The one I dreamed he would be every day! The Vacation Dad! Approachable, impulsive, smiling.  I miss that Vacation Dad.

I got new clothes three times a year; when heading Back to School, on my birthday (which conveniently is in May, so my mother could get me summer clothes and call them my presents), and for Christmas. Christmas brought garbage bags filled with clothes. It was wonderful and we always did a fashion show for each other. We would also get one or two other presents besides that.

When I was nine and the youngest, Karen, was seven, we both got hot curlers that were made for children. They made a lot dangerous children’s toys when we were little, like Chemistry Sets and Power Tools for kids. One year we got a popcorn popper to share. We’d load it up with kernels and oil, wait for the popping to begin, then use the lid to aim scorching hot kernels at each other. It really hurt when they made contact. Then, yeah, yeah, we ate the popcorn that was still in the popper. But the most fun was the act that could have maimed us severely.

In 1967 I was seven, and Christmas was approaching, Kathy from down the street told me that Santa wasn’t real. She had just moved to our block.  She was different from the kids at school; like she was much older than me, but she wasn’t. She was the coolest kid I had ever seen. I had no reason to doubt the validity of her declaration, but needed proof.

On Christmas Eve, our parents went to Midnight Mass as always, and we went to bed and waited for Santa. I got Karen up when I heard their car drive pull in the driveway and we looked outside. “Kathy said that Santa is Mommy and Daddy”, I told Karen, but I wasn’t too sure about it, and my five-year-old sister did not believe it. So, we poked our heads over the windowsill and watched our parents get out of the car. They walked to the trunk, and took out a bunch of garbage bags that were stuffed in there. They both slung them over their shoulders and carried them up the driveway to the front of the house. We watched them walk until we couldn’t see them anymore, then ran for bed and got under the covers, so they wouldn’t know that we knew about the bags, and that the man in the red suit was a fairy tale. Karen was crying; I had devastated her. I was worried that Mommy would hear her and come up, but she and Daddy were too busy setting up our Merry Christmas surprises. I didn’t know why it bothered Karen so much; I wasn’t that phased by the revelation. Were seven-year-olds so much more mature than five-year-olds? Or had I been suspecting for a while, anyway?

I was a very nosy child. I wanted to be a spy like Emma Peel or a detective like Honey West when I grew up, so I tended to snoop in my parent’s things. I was practicing! Having gleaned this information from my spying made me feel a little smug. And I was fine with it. The creepy tiny old guy whose stomach shook like a bowl full of jelly was not sliding down our chimney while we were sleeping. It was just my parents. And presents. The presents were still there, and they were the important thing!

But we didn’t just love the presents we got, we loved the presents we gave, too. We had a present allowance to buy presents at Sears when we were very young. “We got you paints’ was a line that was often used as a joke about not being able to keep a Christmas secret. We all laughed about it as if it was a shared memory, but I didn’t remember it. Apparently, one of my brothers told another what they had bought for him while they were still in the Sear’s store, “We got you paints.”   A few years later, our Mom started taking us younger kids and Kathy from down the street to the Job Lot in New York. Mommy loved the Job Lot. It was one of the first of the deep discount stores. Among so many other gifts, I remember buying a lot of Yardley Soap products there, and Aziza make-up. Make-up for me, because I wanted to be a grown-up forever (until I was one), and Yardley Lavender Soap for Daddy. He always used it. Yardley began making Lavender soap in the 17th century, which was way before Daddy was born, so I assume he had always used it.

When we were ten, Kathy and I decided to buy each other boxes of chocolates while in New York. We got them cheap, and got cheap presents for everyone in our families too, using the money that our Moms had given us, along with babysitting money. When we got home, we wrapped our boxes of candy, put each other’s names on our gifts, and put them under my parent’s tree. Then we went to Kathy’s house and watched the premiere of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. We pretended to each other that we were too old for such baby shows, but secretly I loved it. I bet she did, too.

I got home two hours later, to find our presents were opened and eaten by an Irish Wolfhound. Our Irish Wolfhound. There was slobbery wrapping paper and candy cup liners everywhere. You would think after years of living in the same house that a girl of ten would know her dog had a penchant for Christmas candy. Well, all candy. Well, all food. WELL, everything he thought might be edible.

Some years were better than others in our lives, but no matter how much money we had, every Christmas was lovely. In the early years, my parents had big family parties with about 100 relatives and friends, and the adults would all drink and tell stories and sing carols and laugh and sometimes cry. It seemed like most adults smoked back then, and a barroom fog would fill the first floor while these parties carried on. Our parents didn’t smoke, but in the ‘60s so many did, and second-hand smoke was not a thing.

One such party, we had a piñata right in our hallway. There was a wooden bat that we children were supposed to swing at the piñata. A wooden bat. In a house with 100 people. That was the ‘60s. We swung and swung that heavy bat, but every child missed every time. The adults took over; they were impaired and had a hard time of it also. Then came Mr. Regan’s turn. Mr. Regan was my hero. What a wonderful man. What a character! What a drunk! He began swinging wildly and everyone had to run out of the way. He gave it a huge whack, and all the candy went flying, but we had to wait a minute for him to stop swinging to run and grab it all up.

When we were older and Mommy had passed away from ALS, my father continued Christmas in in similar fashion. One year when Karen was in college, she filmed a Christmas morning, and inquired what each of us thought Christmas was all about. She came up on Daddy making coffee, and asked, “What is Christmas all about?” He spun around and shouted, “GIVING! Christmas is about giving.” Christmas was when Daddy was his very, very best. I miss my Christmas Daddy most.

Story for Tom on the Passing of his Dad

I was going through “On This Day” on Facebook, and came across this private note to some friends seven years ago. I am not sure if I ever shared this story with you (this blog is getting to be the online version of spending time with your old Aunt, I think. I tell a story, you roll your eyes and sigh, “Yes Auntie, we know. You’ve told us.” If this is the case with this story, then just ignore me and go get us some drinks. I’ll have a Presbyterian.). If you haven’t heard the story of my Dad’s wake and funeral before, I hope you will stay for a few minutes and indulge me in my memories.

Tom was really down. He was not dealing well with his father’s passing. He felt his friends were giving him too much room, and he wished someone would talk to him, help him get out of his funk. I sent him this e-mail. I thought it was going to help, I hoped it was going to help him to smile a little. He wrote back. It did. Here is what I wrote:

“How can your dad’s wake and funeral make you smile, you say? Well, it makes me smile and sometimes laugh, every time I think about them.

My dad was the epitome of the cranky old man, and he didn’t like noisy children (except my son Zach, who could do no wrong in my dad’s eyes). Daddy passed away on March 7, 1994 in St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, NJ. I was holding his hand as he went, so I knew he was gone, but I still couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around my dad not being there. I was 34 years old when he died. That was a long time to have his constant presence…how could he be gone now? So, even at his wake, I just couldn’t grasp the reality. Until I realized, with all these people and children in the room, there was no way my dad would be sleeping soundly. When he didn’t get up and say, “You damn kids keep it down!” I finally accepted his passing.

Then we were at his funeral. My oldest brother wrote and read the Eulogy. My parents were very giving people, but they had 10 children to support. They had to be clever in order to share the wealth. So they did things to cut corners. And my brother incorporated this into his Eulogy. He talked about how Daddy could take rotten peaches and make the best ice cream and milkshakes, and rotten tomatoes and make the best stew. But, when he said, “Moldy ham…” in a church full of people, many of whom I didn’t know, well that just broke me up…into giggles! I was struck by the perversity of it! I was trying as hard as I could to suppress them. I didn’t want to appear the insolent child. At the exact same moment, the priest came by sprinkling incense on those congregated, and directly on my oldest sister, who was seated next to me. Unfortunately, she is allergic to the incense, and she started trying to muffle sneezes, so as not to make too much noise.

There we were, seated together, and both making sniffing, choking noises. I was so embarrassed, until people started patting me on the back, and saying, “It will be alright”, and I realized they thought we were crying! This made me laugh more, again at the perversity of it all, and it just sounded like I was crying louder. Of course, the thought of my Dad watching me threw a little fear into me. Daddy would have said, “Dammit, stop that laughing!”, and somehow, that made me laugh, too.

Of course, I miss my Dad more as time goes by, but I also think those incidents were really a gift, a way of laughing with my Dad.

I love you, Tom. I hope you have your precious memories to make you smile through this.