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Off the Record 7/01/2009

WHEN GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER proposed closing 220 state parks to help ease the $24 billion (and deepening) state budget shortfall, the federal government said that if the state shuts its parks, the feds will take them over. The feds say closing state parks violates two laws that require state parks receiving federal funding (most of them) to remain open. The feds could re-take Angel Island and Mount Tamalpais, to name two nearby landmarks presently managed by the State of California that would become federal property.

WHICH WOULDN'T be a bad thing considering that federally run parks tend to be a lot better managed than state and county-owned parks. One only has to look at the Presidio in San Francisco as a strong argument for federal takeovers. If the City and County of San Francisco had gotten its fumbling mitts on the Presidio its gracious old buildings would now be teeming with drunks and dope heads much as Golden Gate Park is presently overrun with criminals and the deranged, forcing semi-respectable part-time residents like myself to run a gauntlet of nose-ringed pot salesmen and pit bulls every time I visit that sector of the city. As a federal park the Presidio has not only been preserved and restored for a variety of uses in ways most of us probably didn't think possible, the feds have beaten back the Fisher Family's monstrously out of place modern art museum, a hideous neo-Safeway structure to house Andy Warhol's renditions of Campbell Soup cans in an otherwise architecturally proportionate area at the south end of the parade grounds. And the feds have kept the bums out, even accosting me one night just after dark as I pushed my bike uphill to Arguello. “Do you have a destination?” the federale asked. “If I didn't have a destination young man,” I said, “would I striding energetically and purposefully up this hill?” He looked at me long enough to see that I didn't seem dangerously 5150 and drove off.

WHEN THAT YOUNG mother and her daughter were pulled into the ocean and drowned at Montara last week, it was one more terrible instance of people not being able to tell the difference between the beach and the surf line. Here in Mendocino County you see toddlers playing in the surf all the time at dangerous places like the little beach at Mackerricher, to name one particularly perilous ocean venue. And we all remember the sleeper wave that reached out to pull the visiting Italian scholar off the rocks at the Mendocino bluffs, his frantic wife and two weeping sons watching as the doomed man drifted farther and farther out to sea until he finally disappeared. At Ocean Beach in San Francisco I've seen the cops forced into compelling people out of the water for their own safety during high surfs, and we read regularly of the unwary being carried off from Sonoma County beaches. Without making a total agoraphobe out of your kid, at a minimum he ought to know that life hangs by a thread, and that the thread often looks benign, like a sunny day at the seaside.

LOCAL SPORTS fans will remember Jim Mastin who coached basketball at Mendocino High School in the early 1970s during the Dan Doubiago days. Mrs. Mastin, a renowned chef, founded the Ledford House Restaurant near Little River. Jim died in Seattle early this year at age 73. He'd coached basketball for many years at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington where he landed after Mendocino where, to put it mildly, he'd been a controversial figure, mostly because he, an old school guy, took a bunch of hippie kids and made them into a local small school powerhouse, kids unaccustomed to having a strong male authority figure in their lives, especially onc who got right in their organic faces with blunt assessments of their work ethics. On one memorable occasion when his Doubiago-led team finished second in a tournament they should have won, Mastin, seizing the second place trophy and hurling it against the locker room wall, shattering it into a thousand pieces, shouted, “Here's what I think of second place.” A third place trophy might have gone through the wall. And a couple of times Jim got kicked clear out of the gym by irate refs. (Mendocino County's refs were spectacularly incompetent in that era; I remember one guy calling out to the scorer's table, “That's a fragrant foul on number 11.”) Mastin looked and talked like the tough guy actor, Lee Marvin, though Jim was a tough guy and a very good athlete. He'd played on the legendary USF national champ teams of Bill Russell, and he played in Boonville on my softy-wofty men's league team where he more than held his own. Jim's son Randy went on to play in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers as a linebacker, and his other son, Dave, became a state legislator in Washington. After his college days at USF, Jim became a high school coach at Paso Robles High School, which is where I first met him through my brother, Ken, who was then a student teacher under Mastin. This was maybe '62, '63. Mastin mentioned to me that he was trying to get a huge kid confined at the nearby Atascadero State Hospital released to his custody so the huge kid could play on Mastin's Paso Robles high school basketball team. Even that far back, Mastin's teams were known for their hustle and their intensity. He'd often beat teams with better talent by simply out coaching them. Mastin liked to win, needed to win. Which is where the big kid in the looney bin, Edmund Kemper, came in. Kemper, a 7-footer, had gotten himself a berth in the state hospital by murdering his grandparents. “Hell, he's only a kid,” I still remember Mastin saying, “I can handle him.” Mastin's efforts to become the lad's foster parent were unsuccessful, and Kemper went on to become an All Star American adult serial killer with his base of operations in Santa Cruz. He'd pick up hitchhiking coeds and, well, they never hitchhiked again. Kemper's own mother described her son as “a real weirdo,” a remark which may have caused Kemper to decapitate the old girl as his last act before being returned to Atascadero forever. Mom's head was left on her kitchen table for the arriving police who'd figured out that monster man was the guy responsible for the sudden reduction in the area's hitchhiking population. Jim Mastin probably could have handled Kemper, he was that determined, that passionate. Born in Oklahoma to parents driven to Salinas by The Great Depression, Mastin knew the only way up was work and more work. He made himself into a superior athlete, got himself a college basketball scholarship, and went on from there to a successful coaching career at the college level. He was a great guy, the kind of guy schools need more than ever in these flabby, mommy-dominant times. Just thinking about him after all these years still makes me smile.

MY MICHAEL JACKSON story? Stop me if you've heard it before. It isn't my story anyway. It's a nurse's story. I know the nurse. She told me that she and the rest of the staff directly responsible for Jackson's care whenever he checked into Mount Zion Hospital in LA, he brought his chimp with him. The chimp shared Jackson's hospital bed. The big secret was that the chimp wet the bed. Jackson told the nurses that it wasn't him wetting the bed, it was his monkey, and the nurses weren't to think otherwise, and they certainly weren't to breathe a word of Jackson's anthropomorphic sleeping habits. These special nurses were to whisk Jackson's sheets from his bed as soon as he and the chimp arose with not a word to anyone. My friend said Jackson was not difficult and he always left the nurses extravagant tips for keeping this particular confidence.

THAT WAS A STARTLING piece in a recent New York Times about the John Birch Society. Called “Holding firm against plots by evildoers” by Dan Barry we learn that the Birchers, who I thought were as extinct as the commies whose futile and mostly non-existent machinations the Birchers were on perpetual red alert against. Nope, according to the NYT the Society is alive and thriving with headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin, valiently trying to warn the rest of us inattentive fools that just because the commies are gone there's still plenty of conspirators out there putting in a lot of OT to destroy the American way of life. There are the Rockefellers and the Trilateral Commission to name two evildoers intent upon establishing The New World Order. Ukiah used to have a John Birch Society but it seemed to consist only of Mr. and Mrs. Heady. They'd show up at liberal demos and at inland Earth First! events where they were politely regarded as comic relief, an elderly couple with quaint placards and leaflets railing against groups and conspiracies of positively museum quality. I believe the Headys have passed on to their reward which, for their sakes, I hope doesn't involve mandatory contributions to the United Nations. The Headys erected and maintained those big billboards at each end of Ukiah, the north one urging the U.S. to get out of the U.N., the one to the south boasting that the Headys' 20-acre farm was free of government subsidies. I went to the Bircher's website where I tried to find “like minded people in your area, but the nearest Bircher was in Santa Rosa. Not a one in all of Mendocino County. They must be secretly rejoicing, though, what with everything coming apart, and them telling us, “We warned you.”

FROM 1992 through 2002, fly ash from the powerhouse boilers at the G-P plant in Fort Bragg was hauled to the McGuire Ranch northeast of town at Bald Hills. It was long rumored that all sorts of unhealthy stuff was used to stoke G-P's boilers under the cover of foggy nights, with hypochondriacs for miles around claiming the mill was poisoning them. But the confirmed toxics in the form of construction site wood waster were permitted by the Regional Water Quality Control Board for use as a soil amendment at the McGuire site, and only tardily discovered to be a contaminent requiring its removal from 2.5 acres of the 256-acre ranch. The clean-up will take three weeks and will commence in late August and be completed late in October. People as far from the cleanup site as Mendocino are being notified of the remediation effort in an expensive brochure that cost $1.05 per envelope, prompting at least one recipient to wonder, “Budget crisis? What budget crisis? Note fancy brochure, postage and description of probably a largely ineffective cleanup at that. Why they sent it to me seventeen miles away, I dunno.”

PETER LIT of deep Greenwood Road, and Bobby Markels of Mendocino, will perform a reading from Mr. Lit's poetry, Ms. Markels' prose -- at what Mr. Lit describes as “that bastion of capitalism,” the Mendocino Hotel, 45080 Main Street in Mendocino, Friday July 10 at 7:30pm. 937-1732. You could say that Mr. Lit sounds a lot like Leonard Cohen, but his poetry is different.

A READER writes: “I just finished reading 'Mendocino Papers Vol. I” when I should have been doing other things. I found it fascinating. I previously sent it to my father for his birthday, but he has been unable to complete it as my mother keeps stealing it from him. She is in the middle of it and finds Mendocino County fascinating. Good work!”

WHY, THANK YOU, Madam. You may be interested to learn that volume two of The Mendocino Papers will be out very soon, available in local book stores and from Amazon. It's called Mendocino Noir and consists of 16 crime stories, all of them true, all of them having occurred in Mendocino County. To quote myself from the introduction, “....when bad people and civic irresponsibility coincide, as they often do here, vast Mendocino County becomes a dangerously unpredictable place.” Volume three, containing a few more crime stories among a general collection of, I hope, vivid depictions of life in this odd place, was tentatively scheduled for a Christmas release. But last weekend, the computer housing it was stolen. Security cameras captured full-face the 2am thief as he lugged the machine to the door, revealing him as a tall, bearded white man of about 50. Much as I admire the man's enterprise, I want the computer back. But if a book about Mendocino County appears in the next few months with someone else's name on it, please call the police for me.

DO YOU know why health insurance rates, particularly Blue Cross and Blue Shield, went way up over a period of a few months in the mid-2000s? Pick your reason, but one or all they don’t explain the near doubling of Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the relatively short 2004-2005 time frame. According to former Aetna PR exec Wendell Potter, “Health Insurance giant Wellpoint, the ambitious for-profit company, began gobbling up Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans from coast to coast in 2004. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Wellpoint CEO Ron Williams was subsequently hired by Aetna based on his performance at turning Wellpoint into a highly profitable company. At Aetna Williams promptly did the same thing he did at Wellpoint: he promptly ordered a $20 million revamp of Aetna's data systems. Health care analyst Joshua Raskin told the Journal that the new system that emerged from that ‘investment,’ which Aetna dubbed the Executive Management Information System (EMIS for short), was ‘the single largest driver of the Aetna turnaround.’ Why? Because it helped Aetna ‘identify and dump unprofitable corporate accounts.’ How did it do the dumping? By jacking up premiums to unaffordable levels. By the time the dumping — or purging, as it is frequently called in the health insurance industry — was done, Aetna had shed 8 million of its 21 million members. It shrank so much that by the time it emerged from the Ron Williams-led turnaround, it had fewer members than when the company started out on its multi-billion dollar buying binge.” In other words if you couldn’t pay the CEO’s hugely and arbitrarily jacked up Blue Cross/Blue Shield rates, you were discarded as a worthless customer. And critics of Medicare-style single payer healthcare still have the gall to claim that such a system would involve “rationing.”

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