This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Great Drought of the 70s

            Stepping outside to start up the barbecue Sunday afternoon, enjoying the bright afternoon sun and temperature around 60, I had a flashback. If you’re from the Midwest or Northeast, you might want to stop reading right now.
            This has been an uncommonly dry winter. In fact since December of 2012, our last really wet month, there has been no rain to speak of. The average would be 5-6 inches each month from November to March, and it’s not unusual for us to get 20 inches for two months combined in a wet winter.
            Which got me thinking about the drought of 1975-77, the worst that Central California has experienced since they started keeping records not long after the Gold Rush.

Nothing Like It Before

            The winter of 1974-75 was drier than normal, but not by an alarming amount, and it had been preceded by two wet winters. But the 1975-76 winter was unreal: Day after day of sunshine and no rain. Total rainfall for the July-June rainfall year was just under 9 inches. An average year was 21 inches, and this was the first time in 100 years of record-keeping that the area had failed to register at least 10 inches. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
            Then it happened again next year. The 1976-77 winter generated a little over 9 inches of rainfall. Scientists checking the rings of the giant sequoias said something like this had happened a few hundred years ago, but not within living memory.
            I was covering the weather for the newspaper at the time, and it was an almost daily story. Watsonville was able to get by fairly normally by overdrawing its underground aquifer (at a price to be paid later), but Santa Cruz, which relies on surface runoff for its supply was on strict rationing.
            Entrepreneurs stepped forth. My friend John Bakalian introduced the Bakalian Brick. Put it in your toilet tank, and it reduces the volume per flush, at a fraction of the cost of retrofitting. Great idea, but it created more publicity than wealth.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Weathermen

            One positive story from all this was that Linda and I were able to have an outdoor wedding on March 19, 1977, normally an iffy proposition at that time of year. But by that time, after two years of unprecedented drought, all was gloom and doom. State water stories by the wire services and metropolitan newspapers were quoting expert meteorologists as saying it would take three years of above-average rainfall to fill the state’s reservoirs once again. We rarely have three wet winters in a row.
            The weather stayed mostly clear and dry into the middle of December, and the sky-is-falling crowd was going crazy with warnings about the shortages we would be facing next summer.
            And then, a few days before Christmas of 1977, a big storm moved in, dumping two inches of rain on our area. It was soon followed by another. And another. And another. And another. At one point the San Francisco Examiner reported that a “daisy chain” of storms was moving across the Pacific Ocean toward California.
            After six weeks of rain the state’s reservoirs were full, and the same meteorologists who had been saying it would take years to recover, were announcing that the drought was over, and doing it without a hint of irony or explanation as to how they had been so wrong before. I haven’t believed a weatherman since.

Originally posted February 26, 2013; revised January 15, 2014.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Three Days off the Grid

            There’s an ancient joke about the newlyweds who show up at a motel on their wedding night and ask for a room, but are told that the only one left is the honeymoon suite. Ecstatic, they take it, and as they’re checking out the following morning, the bride asks the motel owner what makes the honeymoon suite different from the other rooms.
            Scratching his head, he replies, “Well, it’s the only one where the TV set is broken.”
            Half a century ago, that was the extent of the unplugged world. Today there are so many things you have to get rid of to get to that state that it seems almost impossible. Nevertheless, there are a handful of places where one can make the attempt, and over the first weekend in January, Linda and I went up to Jenner, on the rugged coast north of San Francisco, to visit one of them: River’s End inn and restaurant.

The Pay Phone Was Necessary

            Jenner is a beautiful town of a little more than a hundred people, located at the mouth of the Russian River. River’s End advertises the unplugged experience, and whether it’s intentional or they’re just too cheap to put in the equipment, it’s no joke. We stayed in one of the cabins, which was clean, spacious, well heated and well furnished.
            But it wasn’t well connected. There was no phone, no TV, no wi-fi, and no 3-G cell phone reception — at least for our carrier. There was an honest to God pay phone in the parking lot by the restaurant, and it was by no means decorative. If you needed to make a restaurant reservation, you either used that pay phone or drove 13 miles to the nearest town where you could get a signal on the phone.
            On the other hand, who needs a TV when you can look out your window at a to-die-for view of the river emptying into the ocean. In this year of drought in California, we drew three straight sunny days, and the sunsets, taking place directly in our view path, were breathtaking.

Busman’s Holiday

            Unfortunately, Linda had a bit of work to do for a class she teaches, so she spent a couple of afternoons on that. Being a mystery writer, I read a couple of short novels in the genre, Andrea Camilleri’s The Track of Sand and John Dickson Carr’s Poison in Jest.
            Still, I found myself missing the cell phone and Internet after a while. I am far from being a compulsive user; in fact my usage is almost entirely purpose-driven. I go to the web to look up specific information, or to use email, which is the lifeline of my business. All I wanted was to do a quick check once during the day to make sure I wasn’t missing anything really big, which I wasn’t. But it was a lot of effort to get to a place where I could have the five minutes of time online that I needed.
            And while it was nice to know that I wasn’t going to be interrupted by an annoying phone call, it was also annoying not to be able to call our son, Nick, who had just reported to his new posting with the Army at Fort Campbell. Saturday night we drove around the nearby town of Guerneville, looking for a place with a strong enough signal to make that call. We finally found it in the Safeway parking lot.
            Despite the bother, I’d do it again, only plan a little better and head into it knowing what to expect. Three days of serenity is worth a bit of inconvenience.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bookstore Confidential

            When my biography, The Borina Family of Watsonville, came out last month, local historian Sandy Lydon, who had written the foreword, couldn’t wait for his free copy and rushed to one of the local bookstores to buy one. That was an eye-opener.
            He went to a local bookstore where I’d taken five copies a week earlier. When I signed the consignment agreement, they had told me they would have it in the computer and on the shelves within 48 hours. I’m sure they sincerely meant it, but that didn’t turn out to be what happened.
            Sandy got to the store and checked out the local books and local author sections, expecting to see it prominently displayed in one or the other. No luck. Then he went to the front desk and asked for the book by name and author. The employee on duty typed it into the computer and told him they had no such book in stock.

Look in the Back, Dummy

            Anybody else would have thrown up their hands and walked away at that point, but Sandy knew, because I had just told him, that the store had the books, so he kept pressing them. He asked the employee to check the back room to see if the books had been received but not yet entered on the computer.
            After some grumbling and saying that couldn’t be the case, the employee reluctantly agreed to do so, and after several minutes in the nether regions of the store, came out with a copy of my book from the original stack of five, which was sitting in there somewhere. All in all, it was a lot of work for a customer to have to do in order to buy a book at a bookstore.
            We hear a lot these days about how Amazon is destroying our beloved local bookstores, and there’s certainly some truth to that. But as this story makes clear, some of the wounds local bookstores have incurred are self-inflicted. Getting a new arrival promptly into the computer and on to the shelves where customers can see it is a matter of fundamental competence. If a bookstore can’t manage that simple task, it has no business grousing about Amazon.

Biography With a Shocker Cover

            That reminded me about another incident that occurred last year with my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. I dropped in at another local bookstore (not the one I was just talking about) to see how many copies they had. I found one in the mystery section and none in the local authors section, so went and asked if they needed more copies.
            The answer was no, because they had four copies in local authors and one in mysteries, and that should be enough for now. Puzzled, I went back to the local section, and after going through it carefully, book by book, found four copies of mine under M, for McHenry, instead of under W for Wallace. After further discussion, it turned out that an employee had apparently thought it was a biography of someone named McHenry and had filed it there because biographies are filed alphabetically by subject name.
            Now you would think that the lurid cover showing a fisherman in the crosshairs of a rifle would have tipped them off that this wasn’t a scholarly work, and what it shows is that an author can’t expect anybody else to be competent. He has to stay on top of everybody else’s business as much as his own. And it makes you wonder how many sales authors have lost over the years because of problems like these. I don’t have the heart to go there.