Oh My Aching Feet!

Quick!  What were you doing on Saturday, April 6?  I’m not likely to forget what I was doing soon — or at least until my feet stop aching.

I joined nearly 100 other people — mostly men — walking eight blocks in downtown Hollister as part of a fundraiser and awareness-raiser to combat violence against women.  “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes” wasn’t exactly as advertised, because we didn’t walk quite a mile.  But the trek was more arduous that I could ever have imagined.

ImageImageI showed up on my bicycle, and swapped my shoes for a pair of size 12 pumps.  I never would have guessed it, but these nondescript, rather ugly shoes would prove to be instruments of torture.

I like my feet.  They take me places that I want to go.  I’m not a very graceful person, but I seldom fall down, so things seem to work as well as I’d like them to.

But that short jaunt down San Benito Street — even with thick wool socks — produced some memorable blisters, and at least six toes bruised so badly that I’m still doing a short shuffle.

How do so many women tolerate these things?  I’ll certainly heal — eventually — but I’ll be left to wonder what it is that compels people to stuff their feet into these things.

I’ve never owned a pair of Birkenstocks, but I think that short walk down San Benito Street made me a believer for life.

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Where Raptors Vacation in Winter

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Please forgive the image.  I shot it with my iPhone through a spotting scope, but it tells the story as well as anything I can write here.  It’s winter, and just outside our small home town of Hollister is one of the greatest seasonal concentrations of birds of prey to be found in California.

It happens each winter, when raptors driven to move south find an open valley filled with squirrels and other groceries.  A quick trip last Saturday turned up the usual assortment of American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, Golden Eagles and several of the raptors like the one pictured.  This is a beautiful Ferruginous Hawk, named for the rusty color it wears on its back (Think “ferrous” and you won’t soon forget it.).  Other species are often seen in this area as well, but I’ll leave you to your own discoveries.

Ferruginous Hawks are birds of the open prairie, and many of them seem to find what they’re looking for each winter a few minutes’ east of Hollister and scarcely more than an hour’s drive from the Bay Area.

The greatest concentration of these beautiful birds is to be found in Santa Ana Valley, which hugs the Diablo Range.  The area is private hands, but a few quiet public roads — Santa Ana Valley, Quien Sabe and John Smith — allow leisurely exploration.  There are quite a few places to safely pull off the road, and the show isn’t limited to birds.  Deer are common, and the luckiest among us may spot an elk, coyote or a bobcat as well.

Why bother?  If you have to ask, I probably cannot explain.  But to see wild animals hunting and living their lives in close proximity ties me to something nameless and primal.  It’s a deep, abiding thrill.

Should you care to visit, the operating instructions could not be simpler.  Pack water, binoculars and a field guide if you have them, and drive with care.  Also, please respect the people who are fortunate enough to call Santa Ana Valley their home by not blocking driveways, stopping in the middle of the road or jumping fences.

And if you see a tall, middle-aged guy doing the same, that’d probably be me.  Good birding!

Don’t Blame Walmart

It’s been said so often that the assertion never seems to be in dispute: Walmart killed Mainstreet U.S.A.

The notion may go unchallenged, but it’s as ludicrous as it is wrong.  I was just referred to a thoughtful essay by a person I’ve never met and know nothing about, Scott Doyon.  He has a refreshingly original perspective on the Walmarting of America.  He reveals right away that he does not shop at the mega chain.  But neither does he begrudge anyone else the opportunity to shop there.  Scott does not enjoy the Walmart experience, and because he is lucky enough not to have to watch every few cents, he can afford to shop where he chooses.

“I believe that, everyday low prices aside, their net impact on communities — financial, social and environmental — is often a negative,” Doyon writes.  “And regardless of their phenomenal global success, I don’t particularly admire some of the tactics that have gotten them where they are today.”

Fair enough.  Doyon has the luxury, as he puts it, of being able to “vote with his wallet.”

I’ve been thinking about Doyon’s essay and about Walmart a great deal lately.  Walmart is considering opening a store in Hollister, you see.  My first reaction was a mixture of Chicken Little and a more sanguine desire to see some of the local sales tax dollars that have been pouring into Gilroy for the last few decades captured locally.

I think I’ve stepped into a Walmart two times in my life.  And like Doyon, I didn’t particularly like it.  But that’s my decision.  Please make your own shopping decisions with every confidence that you will not be judged by this consumer.

We organize history by eras, and all of us of a certain age have survived the end of one era and the beginning of another.  As we passed a new Panda Express outlet in Hollister over the weekend, we marveled at the line of people waiting to get a few scoops of generic Chinese food ladled out of steam tables, when a “real” Chinese restaurant waited just across the parking lot.  We both observed that many people — especially many of those lucky enough to be younger than us — gravitate toward the comfort and certainty of the homogeneous experiences that chain stores promise.

But Baby Boomers are the last to remember shopping in historic downtowns not dominated by chain outlets.  Just the other day, as I was talking about the changing landscape for local media, I reminisced about shopping in downtown Hollister, where in the space of a few blocks, one could buy a suit, some hardware and housewares items, a few yards of fabric, some work clothes, a bicycle and auto parts before mounting a stool at a genuine soda fountain for a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate Coke.

It’s a fond memory because it’s filled with more than the goods sold and bought.  We knew the gentlemen who repaired our watches and bicycles.  The guys at the hardware store sold screws and nails, but the advice was free.  A trip to San Benito Street was a way to enter a community, and to be with friends.

But we all participated in killing that main street, with every shopping decision we made.  Here’s what I’ve finally come to believe:  Walmart is Mainstreet U.S.A.  What we once had — the opportunity to visit with one another in the process of finding all the things we need and want in a compact, walkable area — is offered behind the welcoming doors of your nearest big box emporium.

And, it’s offered for a few cents less and often at the investment of just a little less precious time.  As Doyon said, we’ve voted with our wallets, and we’ve overwhelmingly voted for the big chains.

Certainly, the efficiencies of time and money figure into it.  But there’s more at work.  When I see people leave Nob Hill in Hollister, then get in their cars to drive to Togo’s or Papa Murphy’s across the parking lot, then drive to a spot closer to Target for their next errand — still in the same parking lot — I wonder at how cars have come to dominate our lives.  At downtowns everyplace, merchants and planners scratch their heads over parking solutions intended to solve sagging business woes.  It’s said that fully half of the land area in most American towns is now devoted to accommodating cars.  And that spreads everything out, making it a logical decision to drive from one part of a parking lot to another.

The downtown I remember disappeared from Hollister before any of the regional decision-makers at Walmart ever knew Hollister was anything more than a brand name for trendy clothes.  Once again, Walmart didn’t do it to us.  We did.

But what we have instead looks like a lot of other downtowns — a mix of restaurants, boutiques, offices and services.  It’s certainly not less.  It’s just different.

Can it be different again?  I think so.  But it takes a host of decisions, as Doyon notes: decisions relating to tax incentives, transportation issues, systemic obstacles and land use regulations.  In short, without a shared commitment to planning for the future of our communities, our communities will plan themselves for us — and often not in the ways we would most like to see.

Doyon urges us all to guard against the complacency that’s shaped so many of the places we live this way: “commit to the better mousetrap.”

I can’t say it better than that.

It’s Been Fun

It’s certainly premature to write the obituary, but I began to grieve at the loss of one of my oldest friends last Friday.  I shouldn’t be grieving, because my friend has been one of the most widely known figures in San Benito County for nearly 140 years.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Free Lance, the voice of San Benito County since there was a San Benito County.  There was no “thud” in our driveway last Friday, signaling the arrival of a publication that’s chronicled who died, who cried, who lied and who got pie-eyed as only small town newspapers can.

The Free Lance remains, both as a weekly newspaper and as a lively presence on the Web.  But that cruelest master — capitalism — dictates that the public pay for its supper, in the form of paid Web subscriptions and/or paid subscriptions for the paper version.  The free ride and my daily habit of checking the Free Lance out on line ended last week.

Paying for content seems only fair, but to be frank, I probably won’t bother.  It’s not that the handful of talented people who have elected to carry on as staff members are not continuing to do good work.  They are.  But we all swim in a media minestrone, and there’s plenty of information out there.  Moreover, past attempts at sustaining a subscription were plagued with difficulties too numerous to recount here.  That, combined with the looming advent of a free Web-based community news source that I’m committed to contributing to, means that I probably won’t bother.

That new media source — found on your friendly, local computer at http://www.BenitoLink.com — is populated with many of my former coworkers from my years at the Free Lance, along with some other people who know one end of a pencil from the other.  I began working in the Sixth Street office in 1978, left briefly a few days before 1998, and in the process earned myself the dubious distinction of having served longer as editor than any other person, living or dead.

Speaking of dead, one of the most lurid chapters in the early years of the Free Lance involves a duel fought on the steps of the County Courthouse, involving the editor of the Free Lance and a competing newspaper.  The Free Lance editor came up on the short end of the disagreement, and such was his standing in the community that his killer was subsequently acquitted.

But that was before my time, as this essay attests.

After I stopped coming into the office every day, I continued as a columnist, dabbled in a few other things, and returned to the fold as publisher of the dearly departed Weekend Pinnacle from 2005-2009, whereupon the newspaper industry’s well-documented contractions landed a pink slip on my desk.

But, really, I’ve never left newspapers, and I miss some of the most creative — and creatively interesting — friends I’ve ever had as the result of working there every day.  When I started, the newsroom was filled with tobacco smoke, and stories were assembled on antique typewriters loaded with cheap paper. The combination of paper, rubber cement and smoldering cigarettes resulted in so many blazing wastebaskets that office fires didn’t even rouse comment.  The guilty party would simply move the fire to the sidewalk and go back to work while it burned itself out.

Times change, and so did the newspaper.  Tobacco was banned, the typewriters junked.  The paper got better, and the community responded.  But it never got less interesting than those earliest days.

If I ever produce a novel, it will certainly be an almost entirely true account of life in a small town daily, located in the small town of Hollister, California.  An attorney will probably insist that I include a flyleaf that begins with something like “Any resemblance to actual persons or events is strictly …”  And know this now:  That will be a lie.

It’s hardly necessary to point out that the retail landscape in Hollister, San Juan Bautista and every other town and city in the world has changed.  As a kid, I could pick up a pair of Converse sneakers while my Dad bought a pound of nails down San Benito Street and my Mom shopped for fabric at Baughman’s Department Store.  Every afternoon, kids would hawk copies of the Free Lance up and down the street.

But that belongs to an era that included Norman Rockwell, and only two channels on our black-and-white TV sets.  We may miss that time, but we all participated in killing it as our own shopping habits changed.  It may or may not be time to thank nice Mr. Gutenberg for the moveable type that made printing newspapers possible, and then to move along.  Delivering the news on paper is both expensive and cumbersome.  But there’s something inescapably satisfying about holding a tangible thing, the essence of a community’s life.

Once, when we were experiencing some bumps in our circulation, a gentleman called to complain that the rhythm of his day was altered for the worse when he didn’t get his Free Lance.  We talked for a while, and he finally disclosed how essential the paper was to his daily well being.  The paper accompanied him to the bathroom each day, and without it, he suffered from bouts of irregularity.

That’s a weighty responsibility.

When it was announced that the free ride for the Free Lance online was about to come to an end, the staff at the paper was big enough not to take down a string of snarky comments from people complaining about the quality of the product they had been receiving free of charge.  I think it’s safe to say that they won’t pay for subscriptions, since they felt free to complain about the quality of a product they were not paying for in the first place.

Gathering the news of a community is time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, thrilling, emotionally draining and profoundly rewarding.  I think the community should be grateful for the decades of devotion from giants like Wayne Norton, Millard Hoyle, Vince Chan, Marian Pearce, Herman Wrede and countless others.

It’s been a good run, and I believe this latest development doesn’t signal the last lap of the race.

I hold the people who continue soldiering on, going to heroic lengths to deliver the Free Lance to readers each week, in the highest regard.  And I fervently hope that these thoughts will never be regarded as the prologue to an obituary.