The Final Telling

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In the 2003 film “The Last Samurai,” Captain Nathan Algren is asked by the young Japanese Emperor to tell how the titular character, the Samurai Katsumoto, died. Algren responds, “I will tell you how he lived.”

How do we spend our last days and hours, especially when we know they are just that? Do we die as we lived? Are deathbed conversions a spiritual revelation, or the chemicals of the mind and body boiling together in one final fire of life? Do these fading moments reveal our true hearts?

I have seen the last hours of family and friends who knew the show was about to close. The masks dropped away, leaving the bare face that is the soul. In the last light of life, they revealed who they were across all the days they lived.

Mother

My mother’s life was very confusing to me. I can recall moments of tenderness, of humor, of fleeting kindness. But never joy. She suffered from significant physical ailments that ruined her body and her mind. She seems, in retrospect, to have been an always-angry person, bitter from multiple children and the exciting life dreamed but not lived. The diseases that tortured her were mental, physical, and spiritual. She tried to cope with prayer and alcohol, incense and cigarette smoke, and always with rage, her constant accomplice. Her body twisted, and her mind followed along. Things meant to soothe her demons only excited them, letting physical and emotional violence rain down and run amok.

After many false endings, time wrote her final chapter. Facing the unknowable, she was in her last hours as she had been at her worst hours. Raging and loud, angry beyond reason, lashing out with more fierce energy than her rapidly failing body should have been able to muster. Her last breath, drawn just hours before her sixtieth birthday, did not call out to God but rather goddamn you all. So, for all the mercy and understanding, the darkness won.

Sister

My sister followed my mother a few short months later. Anne Marie was a funny, kind, beautiful soul who, at the young age of thirty-two, was stricken with an unusual and cruel illness that appeared suddenly and relentlessly stole her body but never her spirit. Her last weeks were a torture of desperate treatments and experiments intended to heal but instead just delivered more destruction. She fought as she lived, not passively but not with the outward rage shown by our mother. Her concerns were for her family, especially her two young daughters. She knew her passing would be unbearable for them. And for the brothers and sisters that stood by her bedside, fighting to make the right decisions. Though most did not believe in miracles, we wished for one.

Through it all, there were moments of great conflict, terribly unfair decisions asked of those tasked with making them, and pure dread. But from Anne Marie, there was gentle humor and compassion for we who suffered and mourned her passing.

In her last minutes, she lay peaceful, quietly breathing until there were no more breaths. I stood, with our sisters and brother-in-law, holding her hand, and felt her let go. It was devastating and beautiful. There was no darkness, just the light of a gentle soul. Nothing in my life, before or after, changed me more than that moment.

Father

My father, emotionally battered and broken by the loss of his wife and child, somehow managed to find a way forward, though his body, scarred from years of bad health, stuttered and faltered occasionally. He continued being a dad to me and pappy to his grandchildren, finding bits of happiness in the warm sun of his new home in Florida.

When his systems began to fail with greater frequency, he struggled to live in a way that didn’t upset the individual bonds that extended from parent to child. It was difficult, really impossible to do. So, in the end, he chose to fight no more and let the natural process come to him.

He lay sedated in a hospice bed, two of his daughters and I, his oldest son, sharing the watch, each of us urging him different things. I said in our last minutes alone, “You’ve done enough, so you decide when to let go.” His face, still handsome till the end, transformed from the one I had seen throughout my life into my brother’s face, revealing a familial lineage I had not recognized before. It was the only moment, aside from the sadness of the circumstance, that genuinely unnerved me. As he was shutting down, his brain, soul, spirit, whatever one believes, expressed his final protests in muted groans and fleeting grimaces.

I stepped out, realizing I needed to dash to the airport to pick up another sister who had flown down to be with him in his final hour. As I got to my car, my phone rang. He was gone. I drove to the airport, greeted my sister’s flight, and shook my head as she came down the jetway. It was over. Dad died as he lived, trying to make everything okay for everyone. He realized the impossibility and chose what was right for him. Not passive, not angry. Just accepting.

An accurate telling of how he lived can only be found through a kludged kaleidoscope of memories and interpretations. I saw, at the end, the person I always knew.

Friend

My friend and colleague Janice and I were not related, though our parallel Bronx Irish Catholic upbringings and shared values could argue that we were a part of a much larger family. Janice was smart, funny, bossy, and overly loyal to her co-workers. She was also one of the most tenacious people I have ever known, made so by the battles she fought in her unfairly short lifetime. A young widow raising three daughters, a breast cancer survivor left with lingering physical issues from that battle, Janice was ultimately thrown into an unwinnable war with pancreatic cancer. We often spoke as she underwent treatment and a brutal surgery that tortured her body and spirit. Her sadness and fears were not solely focused on her destiny. She was all about her daughters Denise, Susan, and Megan—her girls.

Janice fought on for what seemed like forever, moving from Connecticut to Boston to be with her family. On a cold and grey day, Denise, whose home became the gathering place, let me know the time was near. I drove north through an endless traffic jam and reflected on our unlikely friendship. Denise and her sisters welcomed me, and I joined them and other family members who had come together, as families do, to comfort and support each other in the fading hours. I was able to spend a very few minutes with Janice. We sped through ” I’m so sorry” and “I love you, my friend” and got to Janice’s core—her girls. She was worried for them but also sure that they would be fine after she was gone. She raised them with her spirit and courage and left them with us all after her eyes closed and her pain dissolved into the universe.

At her funeral Mass, I had the opportunity to give a short remembrance. I practiced my piece so I wouldn’t stumble too badly. I did okay until the end, when I looked up and saw her family, her girls, and choked up on my final line, “I will miss my friend.”

Unwritten Endings

In the years since these passings, I have experienced the loss of other friends, some gone quickly, others after great, almost heroic battles against an unbeatable foe. I found myself confused about my responses, often profoundly emotional for friends not seen in years. We shared a time when we couldn’t contemplate any of us dying, wandering through our lives intact until we were not so young. And then they were gone.

At the wakes, the funerals, the memorials, and the reunions, we squint to find traces of our missing friends and families in the faces and voices of the children they begat. Will they need someone to tell them how we lived? Or will they know us by how we passed?

In his last moment, surrounded by the horrors of war, the destruction of his tribe, and the end of the Samurai, Katsumoto attained the peaceful beauty of perfect cherry blossoms. Birth, death, beauty, and violence. He died as he lived.

RIP, Ordinary Guy

I woke to a sad message today. “Hi Mike. I want to reach out to you personally before we post on FB that Richard Dunne died last night. His heart gave out. Sumus was a joy in his life, as we’re you guys.”


This news was not unexpected, but still a bit tough to absorb. Richard and I go back to our very young days in the Bronx. We were passionate about the same thing – music. Richard was a gifted singer, actor, and guitar player with the look and charisma that made him the center of attention wherever he performed. In our early teens, we joined together with a couple of other local kids to form the band “Sumus,” where we all began our life-long habits/hobbies/professions/passions.

The band’s lineup changed a few times as we went through the joys and aggravations of learning how to make music together, and how to grow up in the changing era of the 1970s. We spent countless hours causing the living room chandelier to sway in drummer Richie Wood’s parent’s house on Loring Place. We enjoyed the good-natured bemusement of Mr. Wood’s New England – accented question, “how much more shit ya got in there?” as we struggled to load and unload band equipment, dragging it up the steep, narrow alleyway next to the house.


We spent a ton of time learning the songs of the day. Each member had a bit of a preference for different styles. Drummer Woody had studied under a jazz teacher, and his style of play showed that influence. Richard was a fan of the popular vocal groups of the time – notably Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. His pure tenor and great musicality gave him the flexibility to tackle even the most complex parts, and his stage training let him hide any vocal shortcomings with theatrical flair. As the band grew and changed, new members added new voices, colors, and musical skills to the collaboration. Singer Frank Roman, guitarist Michael Cunningham, guitarist/bassist Mike Monaco, pianist Jim Phillips, Hammond player Jim Tiernan, percussionist Allen, and maybe a few more that came and went. The band was always supported by the free-spirited and passionate Victor Ferrara, who never met a speaker cabinet he wouldn’t carry or a long drive in awful weather he wouldn’t make.


Some of our best times were summers spent in Fort Salem, New York, doing shows and playing gigs at the funky Fort Salem Summer Theater. So many memories, I think! Rich also included the band members in the productions he was involved in while attending Fordham University, another learning experience for us. He stayed close to many of the young actors he mentored and inspired.


Richard continued his theater career, performing across the region and later spreading to different parts of the country. He enjoyed a stint on the soap “Another World,” earning him the snarky but endearing title of “DDOG – Dick Dunne, Ordinary Guy.” Some of us still used that term over the decades, even though most of us only connected at funerals or reunions.


Over time I worked in a duo with Richard, he on guitar and vocals, and me on bass and bad vocals. We had some fun, made some pocket money, and met some new folks. One of the most consequential outcomes of this collaboration led to a life-changing event for me.

Richard was doing a show at a theater in Millbrook, New York. The theater had an after-show cabaret, featuring a great band led by singer Toni Glover. The group was looking to grow and expand, and Richard mentioned I might be a good fit. We played a few sets, and I auditioned for the band. I guess I passed because I was learning a whole new repertoire a short while later. I was also learning the names and personalities of the band members, which had grown with the addition of two female singers. After a rocky start and a lot of road time, I became close to the singer who, as I write this over forty years later, is upstairs, playing the piano. So, thanks, Rich.


I last saw Richard in person a few years back, playing at the LA dive bar The Oyster House with his group “The Drinks.” Over thirty years and three thousand miles from the dive bars of the Bronx, nothing had changed, at least not atmospherically. I walked into the bar while the band was on stage, dressed in a sport coat and slacks – not the usual attire for this establishment. I got the eye, the one we all probably gave to strangers who came into our local spots, and a very intoxicated and hostile guy asked me if I was “from the studio.” After talking to this odd dude, I decided to wait outside until the band took a break. I must note that I stopped drinking long ago and was out of bar shape. A few minutes later, a group of characters tumbled out the back door and approached me aggressively. Richard was among the mob and did not recognize me until I said, “I see nothing much has changed!” But in truth, a whole lot had changed. Me, older, fatter, balder. Richard older, balder, and minus a leg lost to diabetes.


He spent the last years of his life still singing and playing his heart out. The heart that finally gave out after years of illness and abuse.


Thanks for the music, the memories, and the friendships we share.

When we were young… Me, Richie Wood, Richard Dunne, Mike Monaco

PROS and COMMS

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One of Cambria’s biggest mysteries keeps me wondering: Where do people get their information? Not their opinions, but facts? There is quite a bit of chatter and an occasional swell of public participation in the things that local government organizations do. Still, active community participation through “official” channels is statistically negligible.


PROS

A discussion at the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (PROS) Commission meeting raised this question again. PROS is doing its best to move recreation projects forward and is looking for ways to get public input. The question is, how to do that effectively?

The PROS Commission faces some tough and unique challenges as it strives to meet its charter. The organization has little to no budget and authority yet keeps finding ways to move projects forward. Among the challenges, the East Fiscalini Ranch looms large. As it currently stands, the ranch segment to the east of Highway 1 has a dog park, a few picnic tables, a sizeable graded, gopher-holed open field, and a basic walking path around the perimeter. Under a covenant with San Luis Obispo County, which contributed $500,000.00 to purchasing the Fiscalini property, this section calls for developing “active recreation.” A devil’s bargain, perhaps, but a reality that needs managing.

Best Laid Plans

So, what is active recreation? A Master Plan developed in the project’s early days identified a range of possible uses, from baseball and soccer fields to golf facilities and more. For each project, a slew of regulations, studies, and permits need to be addressed. Moreso, there are environmental concerns for both the physical locations and the surrounding neighborhoods. In reality, each idea brings significant challenges and low probabilities for implementation. One hurdle to the further development of the proposed recreation area is the requirement for bathroom facilities. This condition is on the way to being met, with all the critical study, design, and approvals completed. Now, it needs to be funded and built.

The issues all add up to a nearly unsolvable condition. PROS has been struggling to either let go of or redo the original Master Plan, which doesn’t reflect the practical realities of today. Interestingly, the struggle to come to terms with today’s realities has surfaced another serious and weighty question – What are PROS’ Purpose, Mission, and Operating Principles? How can this unfunded, volunteer-staffed and led Commission effectively provide input to the CCSD Board?

Big Hearts, Small Steps

In the face of all these challenges, the good-hearted and committed members of the Commission have been pressing ahead. They have identified three simple, low-cost projects that will add incremental functionality to the park with little fiscal or environmental overhead. In simple terms, the goals are to better structure the existing paths that run around the perimeter, design and add several exercise stations adjacent to the course, and build a few additional picnic benches and trash receptacles to provide areas for people to sit and relax. Each of these projects will be examined by an Ad Hoc committee to identify the required next steps to bring them from idea to reality.

Contribute

This Ad Hoc committee and the PROS Commission are looking for public input. So how does that happen? Given the low level of participation in the process, it seems new avenues of communication are needed. Go to the PROS page, find a member, and reach out with your thoughts. Attend a meeting. Submit a comment through the Board Secretary. Think about what you are for, rather than what you are against.

Change the conversation from Action/Opposition/Outrage to Input/Discussion/Refinement/Implementation.

COMMUNICATIONS

Attendance at official public meetings is dramatically low. For example, at the PROS meeting today, November 1, 2022, there were two attendees from the public. The number of attendees over time ranges between zero and, on a great day, maybe eight attendees. Most participants seem to be “frequent flyers,” with the occasional surge of folks who log in to speak on a specific issue that they support or, more likely, oppose. The recent discussion around the leash ordinance on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve drew some passionate commentary from the public. Still, even that was limited to a tiny – one handful, perhaps, number. This pattern repeats at the Policy Committee meeting, with many of the same regulars in attendance.

Paying Attention?

The past year has been full of difficult and complicated discussions that cut straight to the core of an issue that touches every member of the community. Rate hikes upon rate increases have left many reeling, angry, and a bit fearful of what may come next. But why were so many people surprised by what happened? Why is the first reaction so often an assault on the honesty, integrity, and competence of our elected officials and the professional staff that keeps our agencies running?

Vote the bastards out! Give us all new heros! Wait a minute, those folks were our heros last time. They must have somehow gotten dumb, corrupt and greedy – no way they are honest! Really?
A quick roll call of the Directors who have served on the CCSD Board since 2012…Clift, Thompson, Sanders, Farmer, Wharton, Pierson, Rice, Robinette, Bahringer, Dean, Stiedel, Gray, Howell. All of these fellow citizens are no good SOBs? Really?

Transparency – A Shared Responsibility

Our local agencies provide very good access to information to the communities they serve. The Cambria Community Services District website is an public portal that leads to detailed current and historical data across the departments that make up the District. Navigation is fairly easy, though as with any information repositories, finding things sometimes requires careful consideration on how one forms a query.

The CCSD website offers a simple, consistent method for citizens to get information on meetings, agendas, relevant updates, and news releases. Users can opt into any or all categories offered and receive timely information delivered to their email addresses. Yet, the data shows that only a small percentage of the CCSD customer base utilizes this feature.

Email Subscriber List                           Subscribed 9/15/2022   Subscribed 11/1/2022
Board Agendas365369
PROS Commission Agendas290293
Finance Standing Committee Agendas304305
Resources and Infrastructure Standing Committee332336
Policy Standing Committee Agendas335336
Water Conservation417424
Annual Water Quality Report (CCR)335342
Affordable Housing Program291297
Fire Department News and Updates361366
Water and Wastwater News and Updates403407
Facilities and Resources News and Updates349353
Administration News and Updates319321
Emergency Notifications351355
Current News331336
Notices313317
Press Releases309 
CCSD EMAIL SUBSCRIPTIONS

Data Redeux

The Waste Management rate hike caught a lot of people off guard. Even though it received all the required public hearings, it did not generate much public involvement until the reality of the actual increase became clear. Much of the awareness was driven by active community members, who banged the drum and rang the bell to alert fellow community members. The resultant outcry, and poorly executed public hearing, was an epic example of a community in action, good and bad.

The CCSD website had a section dedicated to the issue. The statistics – 254 users, 311 unique page views.


I reached out through a Public Records Request to see how many ratepayers contacted the CCSD for information and feedback before the September 15th Protest date. In addition to my request, four other document sets matched the inquiry. One emailer asked detailed questions about the issue. A second ratepayer asked for a protest form; the third was a fellow citizen who, upon request of the clerk, provided said protest form. The fourth was a string of correspondence between the trash company, the CCSD staff and GM, and the consultant who did the rate study.

I also asked the Directors individually about their contact level with the public. Two responded; the first said, “Two people, and you are one of them.” The second replied, “One came to me through my participation with another community group.” The remaining three Directors did not respond.

I highlight these data points to illustrate how few community members use the official tools available versus how many voice opinions across the spectrum of channels that make up today’s Town Square. There are influential and trusted community members who do the hard work to gather and share information. Some approach issues as a hammer in search of a nail, and others have deeply held principles that frame their positions in support of those beliefs. Then there are the “fighters” who just like to go to battle—democracy in action.

Why is so little interaction with the people and resources best suited to provide factual information? What can the CCSD do to drive more fact-based dialog?

Making an Effort

Want more heated debate? I offer the Cambria Community Healthcare District’s ballot initiative – Proposition G-22. The ballot measure is a big ask for a community tagged with significant rate increases for critical services and infrastructure. In simple terms, the CHD is asking voters to approve a tax on properties within the District’s borders to fund a replacement for the existing Ambulance and District office complex. The measure seeks to raise $8.5 million to remove the existing buildings and construct a modern facility that will meet the current and future needs of the communities served by the CHD.

The documentation provided on the CHD website is more talking points than details, leaving room for interpretations and assumptions, and unanswered specific questions. Further exchanges have continued in the online Town Square, with little movement or resolution, and everybody is a little guilty of intractability.

To the District’s credit, Board members and Staff leadership have been out at the Farmer’s Market every Friday, ready to engage in discussion. A public information forum on a recent Sunday afternoon drew a small crowd to the Joslyn Center, joined by some Zoom attendees. While not a great success, an effort was made to have a fact-based dialog. Unfortunately, the dialog part was less than positive. Though less than totally convinced, I left the meeting as a public supporter of the measure.

Rust Never Sleeps

I have visited the existing facility twice to see the issues up close and spoke with multiple members of the Ambulance Corps. They walked me through the challenging logistics of living and working in the existing building complex. My view (and yes, my gut feeling) is that the conditions are pretty poor, the footprint does not lend itself to modernization, and the domino effect of trying to renovate will lead to significant and impractical hurdles. I am not an expert, but I trust the professionals who have put this project together. And I trust the employees who know better than most the challenges the existing facilities present.

I am reminded of a discussion with a friend about keeping an old car for a few more years versus replacing it with a new vehicle. Would the old car last for a while? Probably, but it would still be an old car that would require more and more service. 

VOTE!

We have three capable candidates running for two seats on the CCSD Board of Directors. Use your mind and your heart. Ask questions rather than make assumptions. Review their platforms. Call them. Email them. Challenge them. Encourage them. And remember, they are our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens volunteering to take what can be a very unpleasant yet rewarding four year ride. They all deserve our best wishes.

We also have a serious decision to make on the future of our Healthcare District facilities. A decision that will have real impact on all of the community, whether wealthy, poor, or just an average citizen doing the best that can be done to live a decent life.

Think about what you are for, rather than what you are against.

And eat your vegetables.

Veddy Scary, Boys and Girls!!!

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I’ve been challenged to write something funny about the Policy Committee meeting held on October 27th, 2022. Try as I might, I can’t top the first seven minutes of the session. Heck, the Daily Show could not have scripted a better segment.

GREMLINS!!!

Login gremlins ran roughshod over the proceedings. Every gag appeared, from the “I can’t see you, I can’t hear you, can you hear me?” bit to the reading of ghost attendees, resurrected from a previous PROS Commission meeting. As if in a Halloween Funhouse, faces appeared and disappeared randomly, mystery phone numbers popped up, and garbled voices bled into the crosstalk from a dental office in the great unknown. Spooky, boys and girls!

IMPS!!!

The merriment continued with a member of the public introduced as a “troublemaker.” Perhaps it was a mischievous prankster, turning the citizens into less severe attendees, or a clever Jester subtly winking to the gathered members. Nice one! It fit right into the day’s spirit, where several gender-based “compliments” were shared to acknowledge the leadership of two women on the committee. You go, girls, amirite?

SHADOWS!!!

The adventure continued. Shadows crept across the face of the host, darkening his countenance and sharpening every feature. The light struck so as to draw a dark symbol atop his face, not quite The Iron Mask nor the helmet of Sir Gregor Clegane. An homage, perhaps, to the days of Theatre Macabre? Christopher Lee smiles somewhere on the edge of whatever universe he now inhabits. Chilling!

WIZARDS!!!

As in any good Chiller Thriller, a scene of near-normalcy slid into the event. On the surface, calm and unthreatening. But wait, what is this we hear? No, it can’t be! Facts! Details! Strategic Thinking! Competence, no, excellence! How cruel to tease with these things. Thankfully, the spell of reality was broken with the ultimate sleight of hand – turning one thing into something it is not. The perfect delivery of the classic “Back To Ye Olde Tricks.” Brilliant!

BIG FINISH!!!

As the budget for the production ran out, the storyteller scrambled to tie up loose ends and set the scene for the sequel. Finally, stumbling, it ends. Not with a grand reveal or unexpected twist. Siskel would not be pleased; Ebert, maybe a little.

Happy Halloween!

(Policy B00-2022-HOWL)

The Last Father’s Day

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Father knows best? No. Father knows pain. His, theirs.

A sunny Sunday, surrounded by endless beauty, art, and family. Vista of the sky where mountains meet city and ocean kisses borders. Friends and lovers wander through impossible treasures, wordlessly turning to share their wonder. Father gazes toward the place where Son will arrive. He doesn’t know which one will appear, but he will accept him.

Father knows his Son and the tempest of angels and demons that rotate through him. His sense of when Son is struggling is almost spiritual. Father does not believe in God; he believes in the energy of the collective universe. Son believes in the heartache of a million screaming souls.

Father was once the Son. His angels and demons still drop in to remind him to pay attention. They offer no guidance, just awareness.

Son arrives alone, trailed by invisible murmurers. Today, they are unbalanced, with light struggling against a larger rash of darkness. Father feels the struggle as Son slowly moves towards him. And he knows, with no words, that this is the Last Father’s Day.

They try for normal. There is no normal. Son is generous, assuming the role of patron on this day. Father melts from the gesture and the halting words Son offers, thankful for Father’s love and support through the firestorms that seemed to dominate their lives. The moment is perhaps propelled by the last of the angels as demons tear at the light and summon the relentless cloud of darkness that would finally win.

The painful tension is undeniable as they say goodbye. Father holds Son for a moment, feeling the raging darkness beating against the desperate love, knowing there are no miracle words to say. There never are, except I love you, I am sorry, and I am here.

Soon enough, the last defenses fall, and whatever angels may survive have retreated. Blistering words, raging howls of hate. Shotgun blasts of denial and rejection. Darkness. This time, it feels like forever.

Are the last fusillades the demon’s victory, or a final blessing from the dying angels, turning them away so as not to share the ultimate abyss?

Father knows nothing but to remember the tortured slash of love on the Last Father’s Day.

Collaborations

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Ah, another musing on songs that touch me and trigger many repeat listens.

Two pieces currently have my musical attention. Both are collaborations, but in very different ways. One is pure lyrical genius, with flawless musical performances and a beautiful arrangement all leading to a powerful, emotional story. The other is an offering from a diverse group of artists intent of bringing hope and encouragement to a struggling world.

Dustland

Dustland, an older song by The Killers, is reinvigorated in a stunning collaboration with Bruce Springsteen. This combination is perfect in so many ways. I never dug into the Killers catalog, but always enjoyed their songs when one popped up on my music radar. Since finding this gem, I have gone a bit deeper into their music and have become a great admirer, particularly of the lyrical skills of Brandon Flowers. The song “Quiet Town” is devastatingly American – full of beautiful and painful images resonant to anyone who has looked honestly at the devastation of addiction and foolish death of our younger selves.

Back to Dustland. The opening lyric by Brandon Flowers immediately stands alongside my favorite Springsteen opening from Thunder Road.

 DustlandThunder Road
A dustland fairytale beginning
 Or just another white trash County kiss
 In Sixty-one, Long brown hair and foolish eyes
 He looked just like you’d want him to
 Some kind of slick chrome American prince
 A blue jean serenade
 Moon River what’d you do to me
 But I don’t believe you
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
 Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
 Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
 Hey that’s me and I want you only
 Don’t turn me home again
 I just can’t face myself alone again

Both opening lyrics are cinematic, with song references that evoke wistfulness and romance (Moon River) and the ache of loneliness and helplessness (Roy Orbison’s Only The Lonely.) Instrumentation is spare, leaving the lyrics to do the heavy lifting. Flowers takes the opening lines, setting the scene for the bittersweet story. It took a few passes for me to grasp the depth and complexity and realize, after a bit of research, that he was telling the story of his parents and, more poignantly, his mother’s impending passing. Mister Springsteen enters, in the voice of an older man – the father, perhaps? Or the older son, watching the ravages of illness stripping away everything. “Saw Cinderella in a party dress, but she was looking for a nightgown. Saw the Devil wrapping up his hands, he’s getting ready for the showdown.” Death? The final fight over her soul? So many potential ways to read that. The real beauty is in the ragged, slightly cracking, quavering vocal, high in Springsteen’s register, raw emotion. The drummer counts four, the tempo shifts, and the piece accelerates rhythmically and lyrically. A quartet of strings helps drive the arrangement. A powerful bassline compels the track from below, and guitars become more emphatic, adding percussive color. The relentless drummer is not letting anyone off the hook. The vocals are beautiful, trading between the two singers, then coming together in ragged unison, and it all just leaves me waiting for the release. Flowers voice quivers a bit, as he touches his heart and pleads,

“Now Cinderella don’t you go to sleep
It’s such a bitter form of refuge
Ah, don’t you know the kingdom’s under siege
And everybody needs you.”

And then, guitar playing a pensive, lonely finish.

It leaves me emotionally exhausted and artistically full. 

Running Out Of Tomorrows

The second song is an entirely different animal. Running Out Of Tomorrows, written by my friend and former colleague Ed Daniels, is a collaboration in the truest sense. Ed is part of a collective of musical artists aptly named “Collaborations.” The group of writers, singers, and players come together with a palette of styles and inspirations that range from pure pop to country, with flecks of R&B, Soul, show tunes, and singer-songwriter influences.

My first listen had me thinking of the musicals “Hair” and “Godspell.” Kind of bouncy, quite earnest. A few more listens revealed the true nature of the collaboration, with no influence left unturned.

It has components I usually find off-putting, from cliché lyrics to riffs borrowed from Van Morrison to Gloria Gaynor. And despite all of the things that make me go “AAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!” I listen to it over and over. Why? Because it takes all of those things and delivers an important message in a pure pop package.

Like its music style, the song’s message is a bit of everything. Climate change, racial and economic injustice, political divisions, and a society that struggles with fairness paper every phrase and verse. Many of the lyrics are couplets of common idioms, exhortations that if we work together – but, dammit, they are so honest and earnest that many sins are forgiven.

The song starts with an acapella gospel choir singing the chorus. Great tone, beautiful, tight harmonies, and smooth, effortless singing bring the listener to the front door of the song.

A short, spanky guitar intro blends with smooth, pretty bass playing, adding some needed consistency. Great horns fill the spaces nicely, not too much or too little. Similarly, the strings add color and smoothness that help sand off some jarring vocal goings-on. 

There are three primary vocalists – the ballsy, full-force female, the reedy, slender-voiced male, and the earnest, smooth-toned second female singer. When the first female sings the lyric “Everyone’s angry,” she sounds angry. The male singer slides all around his melodies. They seem to be competing soloists rather than a team blending together to deliver the song’s message. And that’s okay! It worked for “We Are The World,” and it works for “Running Out Of Tomorrows.”

So, for me, the true magic of Running Out Of Tomorrows is taking things I usually dislike, putting them all in one song, and turning out a piece that inspires, entertains, and takes its message to heart. 

Good on Ed, who donates the proceeds from the song to local charities. And good on the Collaborations team, including the artists, musicians, arrangers, and producers who work together to support individual and collective creativity.

Bonus Track

Tommy Emanuel and Mike Dawes. Two master guitarists blending together to deliver a beautiful acoustic performance of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” Each part stands alone, both parts together equal perfect, generous collaboration. You can hear them listening, supporting and appreciating each other’s contribution. Dawes passing chord at :45 seconds is delicious, and Emanuel’s smile sums it all up. This piece deserves some headphone time, just to hear all the nuance and skill of each player, from the slap and rattle of the bass strings on Dawes dropped tuning, to the almost- violinist vibrato of Emanuel’s single-line work. Beauty abounds.

And on the lighter side…
There is no doubt in my mind that collaboration is an ugly business. No wonder the word fell into disrepute during the second world war.

From “They’re Playing Our Song” book by Neil Simon, Music and Lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager.

Photographs and Memory

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For a person with minimal photography skills, I take a lot of pictures. Most will fall into the “so what?” category, filled with poorly framed generic shots of trees, clouds, people, the occasional animal, and shorelines that could be anywhere along the Central Coast of California. They will have little meaning to anyone other than myself. But still I snap away, not for any great artistic reason, nor as gathered testimony to a historical event of a searing moment. I do it to trigger my memory, tomorrow, next year, or whenever. I recently came across a series of pictures I took a few weeks before my wife and I began our transition from east coast to west.

Day Tripping

Over the years, we made day trips up the road to the Kent Falls area, a short drive from home. The Morrison Gallery was a favorite place to spend an hour or two, wandering the spacious, serene, and thoughtful spaces that homed fine art, contemporary painting, and sculpture. On this particular visit The Gallery featured playfully sculptured ravens hanging out on different pieces of discarded items, including old cans. For some reason, these pieces resonated with us. As we moved about the space, other, much larger sculptures, including life-sized pair of mountain lions and, outside in the garden, massive elephants drew us in . Many of the pieces, by artist Peter Woytuk, had been part of an installation around Manhattan.

I snapped away with my trusty cell, not holding out much hope that I would capture anything worthy of wall space in this, or any, art gallery. I remember the day, the feel of the wood floor under my feet, the room’s scent, and the colors and shapes of the art. I can retrace the route around the main hall, the small alcoves and rooms off to the side, and the never-failing streams of natural light shining in service of the artist’s vision. And I remember turning to speak with my wife and stopping, stilled by her beauty, equal to any display. She paid me no mind, her focus instead on the literature accompanying the exhibit.


Art and Craft

As weak as I am with a camera, I am equally good at being captured by the work of three artists who possess the eye, the soul, and the skills that force my heart to open and transport me to a place I may have never been, but through the grace of the artist, can easily imagine. I may not have stood where they stood or followed whatever spiritual beam led them to the perfect picture, but their art moves me personally.

I have sought and received permission to share a few examples of their work, and note the images here belong to them. As with all creatives, what appears in final form begins much differently. Art meets craft, imagination meets technique, and time, time, time is spent making what we get to see. Please enjoy the art, and respect the artists.

Nigel Paul

Nigel Paul represents a natural blend of Art and Craft. Nigel has an impressive history as a concert audio engineer, working with a roster of top-tier progressive rock musicians who compose and perform complex technical pieces, with virtuosos filling each position within the group. The audio engineer’s job is to translate the complexities into a clear output that delivers the breadth and depth of the artist’s composition and performance. Doing it well requires incredible technical skill, next-level focus, and a creative, musical mind that translates it all into the performance the audience hears.  

Nigel’s photography reflects all of those characteristics. The detail he captures in his wildlife pictures is stunning. The feathered breast of the burrowing owl, the life in the eyes of the weasel, the complete intensity in the bobcat’s posture and glare – they are life. Imagine the time and patience it takes to find the spots where these animals live, then the stealth and skill needed to stop, wait, and carefully bring the camera to bear on creatures that are not likely to stand still for too long.

When I look at his collection, currently featured as part of San Luis Obispo County’s Cambria Public Library, I see the beauty and mystery of life in this part of California. His backgrounds and colors are reflective of the environment. I can smell the sage, hear the rustle of the dried grass, and in the distance, the faint roll of waves rushing around the shore.

In addition to his wildlife photos, Nigel is passionate about classic and unusual automobiles, as seen in the picture below. Please visit Nigel Paul Photography and enjoy his galleries.

Click the images below for a larger view. Images ©Nigel Paul


Debbie Gracy

When I need a New England fix, I look to Debbie Gracy’s photographs to fill my heart with beautiful, classic, and unique images. From her home base in Hollis, New Hampshire, Debbie sets out across the northeast’s back roads and byways, capturing uniquely American landscapes that bring me back home.

I have been blessed to know Debbie and her amazing family for twenty years and have been an eager observer of her development as an artist. I proudly feature four of her pieces in my home, including a pair of winter scenes, heavy wooden gates half buried in snow, either opened or closed. They are the first images I see as I enter the front door. Down a short flight of stairs hang two more of her photographs; happy sunflowers against a brilliant blue sky.

Through her images, I feel the chill of Autumn and the scents of Spring. The grass, the trees, and the vast skies look, feel and smell completely different from California. Debbie seems to stand a step or two aside, giving her work a barely-noticeable offset perspective. Her work radiates wonder, happiness, curiosity, and always beauty. Which also describes Debbie’s artistic soul.

Treat yourself to the vast landscape of Debbie’s photographs at the  Debbie Gracy Collection

Click Images below for a larger view ©Debbie Gracy


Maureen Calderwood Wiltsee

I have known Maureen since I was zero. My sister has a passion for photography, building a cache of images that feature brilliant seascapes and coastal hideaways from her beloved vacation retreat on Cape Cod. I love the way she captures the light that blankets the scenes below. Always a line of color and a sense of connection to the sea.

Maureen has been a fixture among the community of photographers and visual artists that live in the Northern New Jersey/New York corridor, displaying and winning awards for her striking images. Every year, brothers and sisters would drive to a small New Jersey town to see her work standing tall amidst an impressive gallery of visual artists.

“The Peacock” featured below hangs in my home, cased in a classic white frame that keeps the focus on the subject. It causes people to stop and wonder at the depth and detail captured by the lens, an extension of the eye and artist heart of the photographer.

Click images below for a larger view. ©Maureen Calderwood Wiltsee

The Peacock

Thank you to Nigel, Debbie, and Maureen for allowing me to feature your beautiful pictures. And thanks to all the others who capture moments and memories, whether by luck, determination, or good fortune. The world is a beautiful place indeed.

Raising The Rates

Cambria’s difficult and upsetting process of raising utilities rates has run its course, ending with an unsuccessful Proposition 218 protest. The new rate structure goes into effect with the July 2022 billing cycle.

Increasing rates for the utility services require the Cambria Community Services District to follow concrete legal steps in the preparation, presentation, discussion, and approval of increases. It falls to the ratepayers to accept or reject the increases approved by the Board of Directors.

A Simple View

Over the past years, critical infrastructure, maintenance, and plant upgrades have been a challenge, with sufficient funding levels always difficult to obtain. Previous rate increases have allowed the water and wastewater operations to keep running, though each addition came with the caveat that it will not be enough to do all that needs doing.

The District contracted an outside firm, Bartle Wells Associates, to conduct a rate study. They looked at current and projected costs, defined by the District, and at the revenue available to support those needs. The rates need to meet operating expenses and cover the costs to finance more extensive infrastructure programs, particularly in the Wastewater Treatment enterprise.

Committee Work

The Resources and Infrastructure Committee did much of the heavy lifting. They worked with District staff and Project teams from PGE to drill deeply into the details, identify projects, build cost models, design and propose project approaches, and reprioritize tasks to develop a solid set of projects and the numbers that went along with them.

The Finance Committee kept pace, adding additional expert eyes to the process.

These citizen-staffed committees, formed after many rounds of public demand for more community involvement in the governing process, provided review and input on issues and opportunities within their respective charters. Each committee’s range of experience and expertise added richness to the inputs and outcomes. Their work provided additional opportunities for residents and ratepayers to have insight and input into the decision-making process.

District Finance Leader Pam Duffield was central to all the activity. Her rational voice and deep knowledge kept everyone on track and, most importantly, reading from the same financial fact sheets.

The output from these teams was foundational in providing Bartle Wells with the information needed to construct accurate and fair rate hike proposals.

The Recommendation

Bartle Wells proposed three years of increases for the Water and Wastewater funds. A third category – inflationary adjustments – would allow further increases under the Proposition 218 rules. These increases would be available in years four and five.

Proposed Water Rate IncreasesProposed Sewer Rate IncreasesProposed Inflationary Pass-Through Rate Adjustments (Years 4 & 5)
 6% effective 7/1/20227.5% effective 7/1/2022TBD* effective 7/1/2025 
 6% effective 7/1/20237.5% effective 7/1/2023TBD* effective 7/1/2026
6% effective 7/1/20247.5% effective 7/1/2024
Proposed Rate Increases

Protest

Ratepayers have the right to submit a protest against any proposed increases. A total of 50% plus one protest is needed to defeat the increases. The number of ratepayers or property owners responsible for paying the utility bill determines the actual numbers.

There were 479 valid protests. The spirited campaign fell far short of the required number.

On May 24, Board Secretary Leah Reedall responded to my initial Public Records Request and followed up, as promised, with this additional detail on June 2. 

In response to your May 24, 2022, request for a breakout count of protests by enterprise category, along with the number needed for the Proposition 218 protest to be successful, the following is the informal count:

  EnterpriseProtest CountRequired Count
Water4791975
Sewer4681923
Inflationary Adjustments4731923

This tally is not a tabulated, validated count of protests, but rather an informal count made by me and, for accountability, a department manager.” Leah Reedall, June 2, 2022.

Percentage of the required number for successful protests:

  • Water – 24.35%
  • Wastewater – 24.33%
  • Inflationary Adjustments – 24.59%

Extrapolating that to the total number of eligible protesters tells a bigger story.

  • Water – 12.13%
  • Wastewater – 13.42%
  • Inflationary Adjustments – 12.30%

So, nearly 88% of ratepayers did not protest the hikes.

Whether seen as a victory or a loss, my sense is there were a few very critical reasons ratepayers overwhelmingly allowed for the rates to go forward.

Good Communication

The process took place openly across multiple meetings, with the information and discussion available for all interested parties to review and challenge. The articulated need for the rate hike was supported by data and vetted over months by the District staff, Board, and standing committees.

The CCSD Board, under the leadership of President Donn Howell, did an excellent job of presenting the facts around the need for the increases. Multiple articles from Board members/Committee Chairs were published in the online community news publication (www.cambriaca.org) and clearly and succinctly addressed every aspect of the increases. This series provided additional information to help the public understand the District’s perspective on why rate increases are needed. I reached out to the Editor/Publisher of cambriaca.org for data collected on the articles, but they cannot currently track to that level. “To your question:  unfortunately, we cannot separate local/community “hits” from all other out-of-town hits.  This is a particular problem now that we are using the Newspack platform that distributes the cambriaca globally.” John Rohrbaugh, May 28, 2022

The CCSD website was well-stocked with information on the Proposition 218 process, and data shows that a relatively small number of visitors took advantage of that resource. Stats provided by District Analyst Haley Dodson on June 3, 2022, reflect that:

Warts and All

All of the committees and Board’s work took place in full public view. For as much of the public that chose to participate. It was all out there, warts and all. Mistakes were made, identified, and rectified. Intense public scrutiny and involvement were vital in ensuring issues were adequately addressed.

Transparency

There is a long-held, oft-repeated belief that the CCSD is not “Transparent.” I find this puzzling. My personal experience is that the access to meetings, staff, leadership, and Board members is reasonable, even exemplary. The District website is information-rich, and the openness of staff and Board members to engage with the public is very good.

Board Leadership – Great Staff Work – Rigorous Committee Work – Aggressive Community Outreach – Vigorous Community Involvement

Expectations

My expectations are, I believe, reasonable. I do not expect every action, engagement, issue, or discussion to be fed directly into my inbox. Nor do I wish every legal or personnel issue to be disclosed before resolution. As a citizen, it is my responsibility to determine the level of effort I need to exert to feel comfortable with my level of participation.

It would be wonderful to have every issue broken down to the simplest explanation and tailored to my personal preference, no matter how complex or fluid. That is an unrealistic expectation.

It would be lovely if our community would take a few beats, breathe deeply, and examine our approach to dealing with the people – yes, people – who we elect, hire and depend on to keep this challenging District running in these extraordinary times. Perhaps we might substitute a bit of kindness for hostility. Gee whiz, maybe this big defeat might mean many more people see things in a different light. Would it hurt to listen and maybe adjust? It isn’t the passion, the faith, or the cause that is in question. It is how we fight. To Each, His Dulcinea, I say.

The Great Gadfly

There is joy in watching Beautiful Cambrians in action. Technology allows us all to view, read, and comment on everything local from politics to parades, clean-ups and tear-downs, wind, waves and water. Always water.

While I enjoy the immediacy our modern technology offers, I miss the nascent days of emerging cable television, and the delight that is local Community Access. Yes, that self-produced, low-quality programming that features ordinary folks with passion and particular points of view.

Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth!

Glendora

Many cable companies across the United States devote airtime and technical facilities to community members who want to share themselves with anyone with a television and basic cable. Every week you can tune in and watch in amazement colorful characters who hold some, uh, unusual philosophies. Sure, there are notorious staples like Glendora, a behatted grandma-type whose fascinating life and career have spanned decades. But the fun ones were so predictably unpredictable that they became must-see TV.

Locals

Before moving to Beautiful Cambria, I lived in Danbury, Connecticut. My cable provider at the time, Comcast, provided an in-house production studio where citizen journalists and community activists could learn how to produce their shows. In addition to local government happenings, the operation featured a dizzying amount – close to forty hours a week – of locally created and produced programming on Public Access channel Twenty-Three. These weekly broadcasts were a perfect place to blend politics and prevarications, hobbies, and peeves, all under the banner of free speech. Well, mainly free. After all, there needs to be some modicum of decency even among the fringe.

Those Guys

There were earnest folks interested in sharing their knowledge of everything from Dolly Madison to doily making. They often made me go, “Aww, how sweet is that!” 

Channel Twenty-Three also hosted a cast of unsavory characters who were, to put it delicately, misogynist racist anti-immigrant anti-government anti-religion anti-civil discourse idiots. It was simultaneously appalling and hilarious as these knuckleheads spun their conspiracies and winked “you know what I’m talking about” plans to clean up this country. Want to know the “real” meaning of The Constitution? – Big T. was the guy, a mini Alex Jones before InfoWars. Sovereign Citizens loved John McGowan and Bones, though sadly, McGowan’s campaign for Mayor didn’t quite go as he hoped. Nor did his Sovereign Citizen defense during his trial and conviction for rape. Kevin Gallagher was Q-ish before it became a brand, sharing odd theories and interviews with odder guests, with the occasional musical performance by a local musician or group. More than once, one or the other of these shows would be disciplined and taken off the air for a few weeks while the furious host would do battle with the powers that be at the station. They too were fun to watch! The outrage! The indignation! The pinball logic! And finally, resolution. Until the next time… A quick peek at Danbury’s current broadcast lineup shows that some of these hosts are still on the air, merrily rocking and roiling along.

(Comcast’s Community Media Studios still offers these opportunities to intrepid citizens looking for an outlet. Here in Beautiful Cambria, Coast Union High School, under the guidance of Dan Hartzell, offers students even greater access to the technologies and education to take their talents far beyond the local airwaves.)

The Legend

For me, there is only one personality who stands atop the Gadfly Hall of Fame. The late, great Clay Tiffany and his masterpiece of Public Access Television, “Dirge For The Charlatans.”

Clay Tiffany’s unusual appearance and voice were the epitome of a smirk, underscored by his signature catchphrase “all right?” Standing tall, his blazing red afro, permanently scowling face, and wardrobe that always looked culled from the rack labeled “1950’s muckraking reporter” at the local community theater wardrobe closet. He was awesome.

Tiffany was relentless. His diatribes were part Perry Mason and part Perry White. A pugnacious fearlessness led him into constant verbal, legal, and, sadly, violent physical confrontations with elected officials and public servants throughout the small village of Briarcliff Manor in Westchester County, New York.

Recklessly Tough

Clay never let anyone intimidate him, sometimes to his detriment. Mayor, commissioner, judge, clerk, and police departments all exchanged shots with him. Even then-Westchester County District Attorney (and current FOX spectacle) Jeanine Pirro heard from him, loudly, publicly, and obnoxiously. Some of those shots were nearly deadly.

Briarcliff police officer Nick Tartaglione was often the target of Clay’s accusations of corruption, civil rights violations, violence and intimidation; pretty much anything a novelist or screenwriter might throw into the mix to create a character of “bad cop.” Nick did not like that and allegedly assaulted Tiffany several times, once beating him nearly to death. This attack triggered an FBI investigation, a major lawsuit with a significant settlement in Clay’s favor, and Tartaglione’s dismissal from the police force. (A dismissal that was later reversed, with Tartaglione being reinstated and receiving back pay.)

Tartaglione went on to bigger and worse headlines, including this one:

4 bodies found at home of ex-Briarcliff Manor cop Nick Tartaglione

And more recently,

Epstein told lawyers that cellmate Nicholas Tartaglione’ roughed him up’  

Yes, that Epstein.

Gone

Clay Tiffany passed away in March of 2015. Concerned neighbors notified police when they hadn’t seen him for a few weeks. He had no known family. His vast archive of videotapes of “Dirge For The Charlatans” remains unavailable. However, an effort is underway to convert them to digital and produce a documentary on the life of the most fantastic citizen journalist/Community Gadfly few people ever saw. I hope to see it completed and shared.

Buried Treasure, All Right?

To quote veteran Westchester journalist Phil Reisman in his piece “Dirge for a gadfly.”

“Tiffany told the truth as he saw it. Even crazy people can be right sometimes, but Tiffany’s problem was that it all got lost in the paranoid noise.”

Peace Out

I often think of Clay Tiffany while following the local cast of unique citizens here in Beautiful Cambria and mentally overlay his trademark smirk and incredulous “All right?” he would add for emphasis. 

Long live all the Gadflies, All Right?