Off The Record

by AVA News Service, April 20, 2011

LAST WEEK, as the rest of us scratched our puzzled noggins, the Board of Supervisors concluded what they called their “decision making matrix,” a process steered by a volunteer “facilitator” from Ukiah named Steve Zuieback. Zuieback apparently helped the leadership rank its strategies as how to reduce the County’s ever-increasing deficit. After hours and hours of hand-wringing and opinionating, guess which “option” ranked highest? Cutting the lush salaries and benefits of the highest paid County employees? Nope. Option Numero Uno facilitated by facilitator Zuieback was “reducing labor costs through wage concessions.”

SUPERVISOR McCOWEN said the ranking process “will add objectivity to our budget decisions, I would hope.” Exempting the highest paid people from sharing everyone else's fiscal pain is a peculiar form of objectivity, but then this is Mendocino County where words tend to have flexible meanings. McCowen went on to compliment facilitator Zuieback as an “excellent mediator who works well with the board. … That's probably why he's in demand internationally.” International demand? Ukiah? Something doesn't compute here.

RICHARD HARGREAVES, “the old union bum” as he calls himself after years with the IWA out of Fort Bragg, and going strong at age 80, called from his home in Willits to correct a statistic. Richard says five million board feet of local logs are being shipped out of Humboldt Bay to China. Used to be the value-added work stayed home. Not now. The tree-based economy is a mere sliver of what it once was.

DITTO for the fishing economy out of Fort Bragg, Eureka and Crescent City. As a fisherman friend of mine said of the news that there would be a salmon season this year, “Well, with the historically best month of June closed and limited fishing time and fish quotas north of Point Arena, and the price of fuel at five bucks a gallon and the price for fish who knows? But fishermen being eternal optimists we're hoping for the best.”

AN OLD LOGGER on how to save the big redwoods at the Mendo-HumCo line where Caltrans wants to widen Highway 101: “Make 'em living monuments to war heroes. Put a plaque for a local kid who got killed or maimed in Vietnam or in Iraq or Afghanistan. No logger would touch the tree, and Caltrans is going to have to get a real logger to take down trees as big as those are. There are living monument trees at the Girl Scout camp in the Sierras. A bunch of those trees were saved that way.”

RECOMMENDED READING. Or listening, which is the way I'm absorbing Keith Richards autobiography, much of which is read by the man himself. (He's a very good reader.) The book is not only smart and informative, it's often hilarious, and I speak as a person who barely knows the Rolling Stones from Molly Stone's, but I've found every part of the book interesting, even the purely technical parts where Richards talks about how he learned to play from this or that master and how he and Jagger write songs. There are no dead spots in the book's five hundred-plus pages, and lots of laugh-out-loud interludes one of which occurred for me when Richards, in a deeply soulful voice, said “The better groupies are kind of like the fucking Red Cross....just so very, very helpful.”

NOT SO RECOMMENDED is the freshly released Mark Twin stuff, the work of academics, of course. Most of it Twain wisely didn't publish while he was alive, probably because he knew a lot of it should be permanently 86'd. The only thing I found in the entire collection that didn't put me to sleep was a long piece Twain wrote about some castaways he encountered in Hawaii, and Twain wrote that one for a newspaper, so it had to be, well, readable.

WHILE WE'RE ON the general subject of American lit, necro-division, the moribund book section of Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle featured a highly irritating review of a committee-assembled posthumous novel from the notes of the suicide, David Foster Wallace, a young guy who hanged himself because, who knows? The lit-crit brigades say he did it out of a crippling angst that he was finished as a novelist. He was done for me long before he did himself in. I found the kid not exactly unreadable but not worth the effort of a thousand cutesy footnotes for a story hardly worth telling in the first place. The only thing he ever wrote that I can say I enjoyed was his hilarious account of his adventures on a cruise ship.

MY THEORY is that smart young people like Wallace get dragged down by the writer's workshops and the weird tea cup academic sequestration they live in, that they spend so much time with other neurotics looking inwards they don't look up long enough to see all the interesting stuff going on around them. Imagine a life with people who write sentences like this: “…Wallace offered several reasons for this divide: postmodernism's mandatory self-consciousness, pop culture's corrosive irony and the literary tradition's valuing of difficulty over real belief.” The immediate reference here is Dostoevsky and Wallace, about whom Wallace had said the obvious: “He wrote with passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we — here today — cannot or do not permit ourselves.” Well, Dave, whose fault is that? What's stopping you?

THE REFERENCES to Dostoevsky in the contemporary American context are especially annoying because there are zero parallels. Mr. D was imprisoned then internally exiled by the Czar after being put up against a wall for execution, faux execution as it turned out. Blindfolded and awaiting what he assumed was the end of his life by firing squad, Dostoevsky, still not 30 years old, was then packed off to Siberia. He was also an epileptic and a compulsive gambler who several times lost everything he had. The only American writer I can think of who even comes close in the pure terror of his personal experience is Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of all the major Civil War battles. The only thing Dostoevsky had in common with David Foster Wallace is that they're both writers.

BUT IF ALL you had to look forward to was sitting around in pasha-quality circumstances alternately talking about Dostoevsky and peering into your own linty navel, you might off yourself, too. The problem here would seem to be comfort level. Maybe if Wallace had to struggle some he might have been emotionally tougher and a better writer, too.

BUT LOOK at the quality lit out there these days! There's very little, and what are your qualifications, big boy? None, except I'm a life-long consumer, which entitles me to comment. I've read exactly two pieces of fiction in The New Yorker over the last three years that I really, really liked — one by the veteran Alice Munro, the other by the truly wonderful Sherman Alexie, and Sherm's story might be five years old by now, and how he got it got past the Swarthmore graduate students who edit the literary mags these days remains a minor miracle. Those are the only two writers in that particular venue that I can remember who told interesting stories in artful ways. Two consecutive issues of Granta have been so awful I read them just to see how much worse they could get as I went. You get more to read — really read — in one week of this newspaper than you get in a year's worth of English language literary magazines, and the fact that I can make a statement like that without fear of careful refutation seems to mean that American lit, like the American economy, has hit the wall.

STATE SENATOR NOREEN EVANS, D-Santa Rosa, “represents” much of the Northcoast. She's in the Wes Chesbro political tradition —middle of the road extremism — and the Kendall Smith travel tradition. The instant a state commission took away taxpayer-financed vehicles for state reps and gave the people's tribunes a flat $300-a-month payment for driving their own vehicles on the public's alleged business, Evans complained that she'd be travel-kneecapped. “My average is 2,000 miles p/mo on state business. $300 p/mo works out to 15 cents per mile.” She makes $110,000 a year plus perks plus the $300 a month travel cash for... well, basically doing what Chesbro and Mike Thompson do — keeping herself in public office and pretending not to be a Republican. Evans was last in the news for claiming that a fat cat-funded junket to Hawaii was also the public's business. (My rule of thumb for local political people is fairly simple — if they're supported by Joe Louis Wildman and Val Muchowski they're major enemies of the people until they prove otherwise.)

SPEAKING of middle-of-the-road extremists, the Caspar Community Center, a graceful old structure that began life in the 19th century as a schoolhouse but now functions as a rec center for the rural rich, is about to get a million dollar add-on. Odd place Caspar, and an ongoing reminder that the Mendo demographic is just as odd, with its large population of “liberal” trustafarians who, after their hippie interlude, ensconced themselves in the beauty spots like Caspar, converting them, essentially, to gated communities without the gates.

MARY MILES of Potter Valley, Ukiah and San Francisco, once drew cartoons for this fine publication. Then she went off and became a lawyer, soon joining my brother, Rob, to defeat Frisco's massed city attorneys as the two former AVA stalwarts beat back expansion of The City's bicycle lanes. They picked up a cool three-quarters of a mil for delaying the bike menace and are now gearing up to sue The City to stop the revamping of the residential area of Stonestown, another non-issue for most people. Before my brother became the Emperor Norton of Bay Area bikes, and before Ms. Miles struck it rich mining flawed environmental impact reports, no one had been aware that bicycle had become such a problem in this country. Myself, I'm still not convinced, and I continue to ride a bike. Just the other morning I was pushing my bicycle up Wedemeyer at the west end of the Presidio when the healthiest-looking coyote I've ever seen and, as a rural guy, I've seen a few, trotted across the street maybe twenty-five yards in front of me and a car coming down the hill from the opposite direction. I'd stopped to admire this unexpected visual bonanza as had the vehicle, which contained a youngish woman driving her teenage daughter to school. The coyote jogged west into the several sand dunes on the west side of the street where, atop one, he stood looking back at us discussing him. “Is that a baby wolf?” the lady asked. Mr. Wildlife, slipping into Boonvillian, explained, “That thar is a coy-oat, Ma'am.” I said I was not only happy to see him I was happier still to see him thriving, especially after some neighborhood hysteria about how coyotes could carry off unattended infants and chow down on the smaller household pets which out number children in San Francisco by about three to one. “He's beautiful, isn't he?” the lady said. The coyote was still looking at us as she drove off and I resumed my uphill trudge. Note: Most wildlife biologists assume that San Francisco's coyotes had to have reached town via the Peninsula, The City's only contiguous land mass. But when a blood sample was taken from a Frisco coyote, it was discovered that his DNA matched a Marin County coyote family, meaning he or an ancestor had either jogged south across the Golden Gate Bridge or someone had trapped him in Marin and driven him to San Francisco. Both scenarios seem implausible, to say the least, but the evidence that the cunning little critter was from Marin is irrefutable, and irrefutably mysterious.

THE NORTH COAST Railroad Authority squelched the dreams of Eel River rail-to-trail activists as quickly as it had stoked them. Reporting from the authority’s meeting in Novato, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reports that the board heard from the same trail advocates and ranchers that they did in Eureka last month, and decided, fairly definitively, that a trail just wasn’t in the cards at the present time. So why did the authority agendize this item in the first place, making sure to include findings that placed on-record a statement that there would be no trains down the Eel River Canyon anytime soon? Time will tell. Some kind of bureaucratic jujitsu going on here, one may reasonably suspect. (— Hank Sims)

THE MENDOCINO COUNTY Grand Jury has released a critical report on the Ukiah Gun Club which seems based almost entirely on the unsupported claims of a disgruntled neighbor. The Club pre-dates the nearby subdivision containing that neighbor who claims he found a bullet in his swimming pool. But anybody's who's ever been to the Club's range will have noted that there's simply no way a stray round or ricochet could have found its way to a swimming pool a half mile away. The sub-division developers, and we're talking forty years ago, signed off on the presence of the pre-existing shooting range, aware that it would be the source of occasional gun fire from the police agencies and private citizens who comprise its membership. It's not like swimming pool man didn't know a gun range was in the neighborhood when he bought in. The Club, historically considered, has been a good thing for Mendocino County. It holds regular fundraisers for good causes, as a recent trap shoot for a cancer fund demonstrates, and the Club and has always been a good neighbor, as many neighbors of the facility would attest if they'd been asked. But among the Grand Jury's findings were “Metal targets and metal-framed targets are used at the ranges,” and “the ammunition rounds impact a rock-ridden hillside,” leading to “ricochets [that] have been reported and a gunshot wound from a ricochet bullet has been documented in the press.” (We're trying to find that press account alleging a gunshot wound from a ricochet. We suspect it doesn't exist.)

THE GRAND JURY recommended that the Board of Supes bar the use of metal and metal framed targets, and that hay bales or sand bags be placed behind the targets and that metal jacketed rounds not be used for target practice. These modifications aren't asking much, but to make them mandatory to ensure “range safety” is a big stretch because there's no hazard in the first place.

OUR FIRST REPEAT man beater? If Miss Brogdon thinks she can drive all the way over here from Rocklin and resume thumping on our Mendo males, well, Miss Brogdon has another think coming, doesn't she? In fact, what seems to have happened here is that Miss Brogdon either (1) punched some dude in Rocklin but got caught for it in Mendo or (2) Miss Brogdon came back to Mendo on a mission to punch Mendo Dude again! Myself, I don't believe she hit anybody who didn't have it coming, and I hope the DA, old school guy that he is, will see it that way, too.

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