Death of a Mortuary

mortuaryintroWe moved to Fort Bragg 26 years ago when our children were very young. Our house is across the alley from Chapel by the Sea, the town’s only mortuary. It was the summer between kindergarten and first grade for our older child Harrison. He had no friends and a limited capacity to interact with his three-year old sister (and his parents). At the time, Larry Blair was a partner in the mortuary and lived in the upstairs apartment with his wife Shirley and teenage daughter Charla. Older daughter Charise was married to Nathan who worked for Larry. They lived in the alley apartment.

That summer, Nathan and another employee were often involved in outside work activities. While taking walks with the kids, we eventually got to know everyone on the other side of the alley. Convinced these were trustworthy people, my husband Gary and I consented to let Harrison hang out with the guys when they were outside. As the summer wore on, this happened a few hours each day. It also became a bargaining chip whenever Harrison misbehaved. “That’s it, buddy. You’re grounded.”

Imagine the deep sadness of a cherub-faced six-year old as he stood at our alley gate howling like a wounded hound dog, “Nathan, I can’t come over to the mortuary today. I’m grounded.”

At times, Charla graciously consented to tossing a baseball around with Harrison, honing throwing and catching skills that carried with him into Little League.

When Harrison discovered the casket room, he chose one for each member of our family. Older sister Jennifer recalls him describing hers as having pink satin lining and a white pillow. She felt honored. When his dad and I told him our plan was to be cremated, he scoffed and said, “Nobody wants to be buried anymore.”

From first through third grade, he aspired to become a mortician. However, he was conflicted. He also enjoyed ocean fishing and was enamored by our commercial fisherman friend Jared Williams. Whenever anyone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he’d reply, “A fishing mortician.” The inquirer flinched like someone splashed cold water in their face.

Over the years, our families socialized, celebrating birthdays and other events. But mostly, we visited across the alley, getting to know one another in a casual small town kind of way.

Eventually Larry and Shirley moved into their own home and later out of the area, but to this day Shirley calls me “Neighbor” whenever we meet. I have a deep and abiding affection for this lovely, kind woman.

Charise and Nathan divorced. She later married John Reynolds and they moved away. They had two children and returned to live in the mortuary alley apartment when Katelyn was nearly five and Jacob one and a half. This planted the seed of a deep, lifelong friendship where we shared many joys, including the birth of son Nick, and one major sorrow—John’s sudden death in 2010 when the children were 13, 10 and 7. Over the years, they moved to various places, but we remained close. Throughout it all, the looming red mortuary stood as a monument to these relationships.

And then, on Saturday afternoon January 12, 2019 there was a fire.

***

I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but later learned it was about ten minutes to two o’clock. I walked by my kitchen window and glanced, as I often do, at the mortuary. A work crew had spent the morning installing new windows in the upstairs apartment. This was part of a lengthy renovation project to a space that hadn’t been updated since the eighties.

I saw a large puff of what I thought was mist coming from the open door. Within seconds, the mist turned dark grey. I hollered at Gary, “The mortuary’s on fire!” I grabbed the phone and rushed outside while dialing 911. It had already been reported.

mortuaryonfireA flurry of law enforcement arrived to cordon off the street. Neighbors gathered, some inside my fence, all of us sharing looks of horror and tears. We watched the smoke grow in volume and black intensity. I cried for it to stop. This stately building stood for over 100 years, the past 26 years as our neighbor. This couldn’t be happening—STOP!

The fire had other ideas.

Within minutes, huge flames erupted from the door. Seconds after that, the newly installed windows exploded with fireballs. Our amazing volunteer fire department arrived and set to work, spraying the building with thousands of gallons of water. I held hope they could contain it at the upper level.

The fire had other ideas.

The violence of a structure fire is terrifying to witness. Despite the copious amount of water sprayed with extreme velocity, the fire spread to the lower level, eventually forcing those windows to explode.

Within a few hours, our beautiful mortuary was in ruins. The freshly completed apartment renovations had gone up in smoke. Julie, the manager who had moved in two weeks previously, and her dog Pillie had been out of town for the day. She had anticipated returning to new, draft-free windows only to find she had lost virtually everything—most devastating were her two young cats, two canaries, and a fish. When she arrived, she stood next to her friend Amy, tears rolling down her cheeks.

mortuaryfirefightersAbout 4:30pm, the fire department had contained the blaze and began wrapping up. I am in awe at how, despite the chaos of the fire, they maintained their professionalism and focus. Heavy hoses had been dragged about the property, yet they did not damage one plant of the major landscaping project that was completed this past fall.

mortuarysemifinalAfter a fitful night of little sleep, I rose the following morning worried about Julie. I didn’t want to, but couldn’t help, looking out our east windows to a sight I’ve always revered. It was horrible—a burnt out shell of a once stately building. My sadness runs deeper than I could ever have imagined. I can’t fathom how I’ll face this mutilated scar in the coming days and weeks.

mortuarysemifinal1For now, I try to find consolation in the fact that even though the monument is gone, the love it symbolized remains. Charise, Charla, Katelyn, Jacob, Nick, the Blairs and my family share a common grief, but we also share a special bond that will carry us through.

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A Go Fund Me account has been set up for Julie who lost nearly everything in the fire:   https://www.gofundme.com/julie-and-pillie-start-again-fort-bragg-ca

To read about the most common causes of house fires and how to prevent them, go to:  https://www.realinsurance.com.au/home-insurance/home-safety/the-most-common-causes-of-house-fires

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Jessica Morsell-Haye

Jessica Morsell-Haye 2018 headshot 2- BigFor over 130 years, the Golden West has stood tall on Redwood Avenue in Fort Bragg. Apartments occupy the top two floors and there’s a retail space at ground level, but the building is most noted for its popular saloon.

Jessica Morsell-Haye and her husband Mikael have a shared nostalgia for that saloon. In the summer of 2000—in the early years of their friendship which eventually blossomed into romance—they often hung out there, surrounded by the massive oak bar and artifacts from the glory days of logging and fishing that adorn redwood walls. They dreamed  how cool it would be to own the place.

“We both loved the gorgeous, unadulterated interior,” Jessica said. “You could feel and see its history when you walked into the room. We also respected the previous owners. It was a point of pride if they tolerated your presence and we felt honored that they welcomed us. Mikael and I both worked in bars over the years and we felt like the Golden West was the ideal combination of beauty and dive bar.”

Fifteen years later, the building went up for sale, giving them a chance to fulfill their dream. There was only one problem—they didn’t have any money.

***

Jessica grew up in a variety of areas along the coast—Mendocino, Albion and Comptche. “I liked Comptche the best. We had no electricity and I loved living off the land. We didn’t have television. My brother and I used our imagination for entertainment.”

She attended Mendocino Community High School and was on the basketball and track teams at Mendocino High. In 1997, she entered UC Santa Cruz and played basketball her first year. She majored in Fine Arts and chose to do her junior year abroad at the Art Academy in Bologna, Italy.

Jessica&MikaelThe following summer, she returned to the coast where became friends with Mikael. “We were together for a year and then broke up for a year. After I graduated from college in 2002, I came back and we got together.”

In 2003, Jessica entered the visual communications program at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in Los Angeles. “Mikael and I moved on April Fool’s Day, which made us laugh. Our goal was to make it for a year. We ended up staying for ten.”

That same year, Jessica was hired by Marimar Textiles, to organize and file artwork. Marimar is a company that converts artwork to make it production ready for fabric. Six months later, the head designer quit. “The owner asked if I knew how to use Photoshop. I barely did, but said, ‘Sure!’ She hired me as their in-house artist. I jumped in and worked my tail off until I figured it out.”

During their years in LA, Mikael worked as a bartender, an occupation perfectly suited to his warm, gregarious personality.

Jessica finished her program and went on to have a number of jobs in the fashion industry. She dressed celebrities at Giorgio Armani, and was promoted to stylist at Marimar Textiles, coordinating half of the company’s accounts which included Anne Klein, Michael Kohrs, Quicksilver, and Speedo Girls.

Three years later, she was recruited as a textile designer for BCBG Max Azria, a billion-dollar international clothing company. “It was a pressure cooker. Working all day until three in the morning wasn’t unusual. As the director of textile design, I was getting to put three separate lines down the runway each season, which was thrilling and unheard of.”

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, she escaped widespread layoffs. She continued to work long hours until she gave birth to her son Caspar in 2012. She returned from maternity leave and stayed eight more months. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice time with my son for a company.”

In 2013, they moved to Petaluma. Mikael stayed at home with the baby while Jessica commuted to San Francisco to her job as a fabric designer for the Banana Republic Factory Store. She also did freelance work for the clothing company Tart Collections in Concord. Tart offered her a job in 2014, and she took it.

jessicagoldenwestinsideb&wThis was when she and Mikael learned that the Golden West was for sale. They lamented they had no money to make their youthful dream of owning it come true. They heard that the Hospitality House was looking to purchase the building to use as a homeless shelter, and felt an urgency to save it and preserve its history.

“History gives a place soul. The old materials and aesthetics were made to last. We love that we can see where an old wall was built to section off the bar during prohibition. Stories come alive when you can see the marks they left on their environment.”

With her typical canjessicaoldyellowbldg-do attitude, Jessica went to work figuring out how to make it happen. “A financial advisor helped me put together a business plan that turned into a three-inch thick document. After pushing hard, it was clear that traditional financing wasn’t an option. The building had 30 years of  deferred maintenance. Private investors also turned us down. We made an offer anyway and went into escrow. At the eleventh hour, the sellers agreed to do owner financing and we got it.”

Within the first year, Jessica and Mikael gave the building’s façade a facelift by changing  the crumbling yellow paint to a dark charcoal with red trim and replacing the roof. The bar soon became the go-to spot for young people. “We wanted to make it more inviting without changing its essence. We expanded our liquor offerings and found there’s a desire for more variety and top shelf alcohol.”

jessicagoldenwestnewpaintThe rooms above the saloon were at different times a hotel, boarding house, and brothel. “There are 26 rooms, some of which are used for storage. We have about 16 tenants. When we took over the building I cleaned out a bunch of rooms. It was fascinating—ancient silk curtains, boudoirs, layers of wall paper telling a chronological history.”

Jessica proudly reports that they have not raised the rent on existing tenants. “Once someone is in a home I think it’s critical not to price them out of it.”

For the next three years, Jessica worked for Tart remotely from home, commuting to Concord one day a week. In March 2017, daughter Magnolia was born.

This past spring, they opened the General Store in the building’s retail space. “We wanted an outlet where we could sell things we make as well as items from other artists.” As part of this effort, Jessica and another local designer started The Blue Collective on McPherson Street, offering shared workspace for artists.

In April of this year, Jessica was laid off from Tart, although she continues to do freelance work. “It seems every company in the fashion industry is contracting due to skyrocketing manufacturing costs from China.”

jessica&kidsWhen she was approached with the idea of running for a seat on the city council, it ignited a passion. “The decisions made in the next four years will affect this town for decades. The future of Fort Bragg is critical to me and my family. It’s important that the town’s growth with the mill site and subsequent expansion of infrastructure be done mindfully, in a forward thinking, responsible manner that keeps the soul of our city intact and leverages its natural and historic beauty.

“One of my main strengths is seeing the big picture and finding the points of connection. As I connect the dots, my focus is on actionable steps that usually lead to alternative solutions. This can be leveraged as we try to create more jobs, housing, industry, a healthier hospital, and tackle problems like homelessness. They’re all related and each decision will affect multiple sectors.

“I love how our windy roads give our area a filter and prevent urban sprawl. Mikael and I decided to buy the Golden West because we feel there’s life in this building, on this street and in this town. It’s an exciting time for Fort Bragg.”

That excitement is due, in large part, to the efforts of young people like Jessica and Mikael who are pumping new life and energy into our beloved area.

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Going, Going, Gone

hoarding1On the morning of January 20th, I was alerted to a fire at what I called the Hoarder House. I’d never witnessed a fire in real time. It was equally fascinating and disturbing (see January 31 blog post). When the burning finally stopped, the property was surrounded by barricades and crime scene tape. Eventually, a chain link fence was erected to keep passersby safely away from the crumbling mass of charred rubbish.

rubbleMonths went by. Winds and rain caused the waterfall of junk to precariously shift. People started asking me why the City hadn’t torn the place down. I’m flattered they have the impression that I’m privy to the goings on around town. I actually know next to nothing, and often stifle an urge to make things up.

Due to my years-long obsession with this house and people counting on me to know stuff, I recently took precious time and energy away from watching “Judge Judy” and launched an investigation. City Manager Tabitha Miller eased the burden of this task by sending a press release dated July 9, 2018.

Apparently, the City had a heck of a time getting someone to take responsibility for clearing the property. None of the parties involved—the owner, mortgage holder or insurance company—would cooperate. In April, Nationstar (the mortgage holder) received an insurance payout of $175,000. In May, they foreclosed on the property, which made them the official owner.

House2bSo what you think Nationstar did?

  1. Acted like grownups, admitted their liability, and offered to immediately clean up their property that stood like a gaping wound on the edge of downtown just off Main Street.
  2. Acted like juvenile delinquents, stuffed the money in their pockets, and ran.

Sadly, they chose number two. The City diligently tried to contact Nationstar, but they would not return phone calls or respond to letters.

On June 8—nearly six months after the fire—the Community Development Director sent a certified letter to Nationstar informing them that they had until July 10 to start cleaning up the property. For each day of delay, they would be assessed a $1,000 fine.

The threat of $1,000 a day seemed to catch the attention of the suits at Nationstar. By July 3rd, the contractor hired for cleanup applied to the City for a permit.

House3aA few weeks ago, black tarps were draped over the chain link fence and the demolition began. Within a couple days, the dumpsters supplied by Waste Management were filled to capacity and work paused until they could be hauled inland and emptied.

As the process unfolded, I finagled my way around the tarps to snap photos. For decades, this house stood as a shameful monument to hoarding. Within days, it was no more.

I find it hard to say goodbye.

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Heather Sears

HeatherHead2Heather grew up in Morro Bay where she learned commercial fishing from her dad. “I moved here in 1999, and immediately began a flaming love affair with Mendocino County.” By 2001, she had saved four thousand dollars and bought a small boat, the Julie. “My idea was to have a floating fish market—to sell fish right off the boat.” She admits that running her own boat was a different experience than crewing with her dad.

“I made a lot of mistakes. The first time I took the boat out, I went on the wrong side of the red can [at the entrance to the harbor]. Kelp got tangled in the wheel and killed the engine. I was able to reverse the boat a few times and got untangled. Another time, on my way to Eureka, I ran into bad weather. I thought the boat was going to roll and I was going to die.”

HeatherDogsHer dad tried to help her, but she was intent on doing things her way. “At one point, he threw his hands up and said, ‘You’re going to kill yourself,’ and went back to Morro Bay. Bless his heart, he must have been so worried. This strained our relationship, but a few years later, we fished together in Alaska.”

As she worked towards saving money for a larger boat, she took classes at College of the Redwoods. “In 2001 a friend said, ‘You can go to college anytime, you’ll never see fishing like this again.’ I literally walked out of my English class, went down to the boat, and started fishing.”

The local commercial salmon season closed in 2006, and she fished in Alaska. “When the season reopened in 2013, I came back to Fort Bragg and vowed to do whatever it takes to stay.” After living on her boat for years, she bought a house that same year, anchoring herself to the area.

HeatherCrew2Along the way, she sold the Julie and bought and sold two other boats. In 2009, she purchased a larger vessel with a blast freezer named Princess. Given that she has an all-woman crew, it’s the perfect name. “Because we’re able to freeze the fish on board, we can stay out for 18 days and catch up to 11,000 pounds of salmon. When we return to port, the fish is unloaded into a freezer truck and taken to storage in the Seattle area. After the glut of fresh caught fish is over, we can sell our sashimi grade fish at a higher price. The process we use makes it better than fresh.”

Heather was so excited about her ability to provide the market with this type of seafood that she caught 44,000 pounds of fish her first year. “I started direct marketing and thought people would be knocking down my door, but I didn’t have the connections the other boats with freezers had. I was scared I’d lose my house. I started selling at the Fort Bragg and Ukiah farmers’ markets and off the boat. Most of it went to San Francisco. It took me a year and half to sell it all.”

For four years, the Princess was the only boat in Noyo Harbor with a flash freezer. Recently, another fisherman purchased a boat with this capability, but he only freezes tuna. The Princess is one of only five boats in the lower 48 that freezes salmon at sea.

The life of a commercial fisherwoman is often rugged and demanding. “When I go to Alaska for king salmon, it takes 15 days and $3-5,000 to get there. Once there, I only have four to six days to make 80 percent of my income for the year. I’ve always managed to find fish, but because of the stress and long hours there’s no joy in it.”

HeatherCrewAs a woman in this field, Heather is not unique, but rare. “There are a lot more women in Alaska.” She admires her crew which includes Maia and Anna—graduates of Humboldt State. “The salmon season lasts about six months. It requires a great deal of endurance. We get only five to six hours of sleep a night and are away from home so much. I got a crab permit last winter. Catching crab is easier and is a lot more fun.” Maia and Anna also sell the fish at the farmers’ markets.

She’s grateful for the comradery she’s developed among the other fishermen and women who travel up and down the coast. “I can look out and see a boat a mile away and know we have each other’s backs if there’s a problem. Even if we don’t like each other on the dock, we put those differences aside on the water.”

Heather is passionate about educating the public to support sustainable fishing. “All fisheries in the United States are sustainable, which means not harvesting past the point of the stock being able to replenish itself. Since the seventies, the 4000-boat California salmon fleet has been reduced to 100. Our port went from 20 draggers to six—and these are managed very carefully. Every boat has a tracking system that is monitored by a team in Washington DC. All fish stocks are rebounding, but many of the seasons that were closed have not reopened.”

Between seasons, Heather does maintenance on the boat. “A woman once told me we have to repay the boat for the service it gives us.” In 2016,  she received a grant from the Mendocino County Air Quality Board and spent that winter installing a clean-running motor.

Heather has recently expanded her business by partnering with friend a former crew woman Wendy Holloway to reopen Nemo’s Fish Market as Princess Seafood Market and Deli in Noyo Harbor. “Wendy was my first crew member back in 2004. Our goal is to make our amazing, west coast wild seafood more accessible to our local community in the most delicious way possible. Sustainably caught sashimi grade fish and shellfish will be our specialty. We also offer healthy cooked food, local beer, wine and a selection of seafood-centric prepared food for take out.”

Despite the challenges of a life at sea, Heather can’t imagine doing anything else. “I love being my own boss and being out on the ocean. The Lost Coast around Shelter Cove is stunningly beautiful. The upsides of this business are so great—like seeing a rainbow at the same time a gray whale leaps out of the water. I love it so much.”

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***

Heather offers wholesale and retail sashimi grade king salmon, coho salmon, albacore tuna, lingcod, rockfish and black cod. Live Dungeness crab is available in the winter. You can find her crew at the Ukiah Natural Food Coop, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, Santa Rosa & Sebastopol farmers’ markets and on the boat at Dock A in Noyo Harbor. The food at Princess Seafood Market and Deli is fresh and delicious. If you’re busy, you can get it to go. Better yet, take some time to enjoy the patio and soak in the unique ambience of Noyo Harbor.

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Karina Becerra

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Karina loved growing up in Fort Bragg and, unlike many of her contemporaries, never longed to escape. “People here are good to each other. The setting is amazing.”

The second oldest of 16 grandchildren of her mother’s side, Karina was also the second in her family to go to college. “I chose Saint Mary’s in Moraga because they offered a good financial aid package, and my second cousin Mimi was going there.”

Karina has a passion for language and chose to major in Spanish. She took a second major in International Area Studies where she focused on Latin America. She also minored in Italian.

“My first language was Spanish, but my parents stressed literacy in both Spanish and English. I love studying language.” She spent the second semester of her sophomore year in Cuernavaca, Mexico. “I took classes in Spanish and the history of Mexico.” Growing up, she spent a lot of time in Mexico with her family. Her experience as a college student allowed her to delve more deeply into the culture.

The second semester of her junior year, she was able to study in Rome. “I lived in an apartment along the Vatican Wall,” she said with a smile.

karinafamilyAfter college, she moved home to Fort Bragg in 2012 to regroup and figure out her next move. She was 22. “I picked up some shifts at Los Gallitos, worked for Carol Millsap for a year, and took on overnight shifts for Andersson Caregiving, caring for elderly and terminally ill people. This was one of the most significant jobs I ever had, getting to care for people in that way. Each experience taught me something and made me a better person. It reminded me we’re all going to grow old and die. It caused me to be less self-centered.”

Karina also became and remains a volunteer after-hours crisis counselor for Project Sanctuary. “I’ve been blessed with an amazing family and this has given me a different perspective on the human experience. It allows me to step into the shoes of another whose life is in chaos because of sexual assault or being controlled by another person.” Project Sanctuary eventually hired her as a part time bilingual advocate.

In February 2013, she was returning from spending the day in Santa Rosa. “It was ten o’clock at night and I hit a patch of black ice. My car flew off the road, rolled 300 feet down a hill and landed on the roof. I had a gash in my leg and a head wound. I was able to get out and crawl up to the road. Eventually a man in a pickup, returning to Fort Bragg with his young son, stopped and helped me.”

She’s grateful to have survived the ordeal. “The accident made me realize how our lives can change or end in an instant. I used to think I had to stick to a timeline in terms of academic and life goals. I had hoped to be home for a short while, return to the Bay Area, and try to get into grad school. I realized it’s okay for plans to be out of order as long as I’m moving forward and doing things that help me grow.”

When her friend Katrina Caukwell suggested they take a trip to Asia that summer, Karina to readily agreed. Since her time in Italy, she hadn’t done any traveling. “It was a perfect time in my life to spend nearly two months in a faraway place completely out of my comfort zone. It was another amazing look at how people in other countries live.”

karinamexicoShe returned in the fall of 2013 to take a full time position at Project Sanctuary as a client advocate and counselor. When the organization received a sexual assault prevention grant, Karina was hired to conduct community outreach with other agencies—Safe Passage, the Children’s Fund, Gang Awareness and Prevention. “We disseminated information about healthy relationships, especially among teens. I provided in-service to groups like the Catholic church’s youth groups and held lunchtime meetings at the middle school and high school. At Fort Bragg High School, I organized the Youth Leadership Team, a group focused on teen education and awareness, which still exists today.”

Katrina also helped develop the Latino Coalition, an organization that provides a community forum for Spanish speakers. “Our goal is to empower and educate the Latino community and share our beautiful culture with the rest of our community. The Jewish community has guided us in organizing. We eventually want to become a service club. As of now our fundraising efforts support five to seven college scholarships for Hispanics each year.”

In 2016, Katrina was encouraged to apply to establish and teach Spanish and World Culture classes that would be offered at the middle school that fall. She was excited to get the job, but overwhelmed with the idea of creating a curriculum. Her mentor and friend Gail Porcelan came to her rescue. “Gail was my middle school history teacher and my parents’ ESL teacher. She basically handed me everything I needed from materials she’d used over the past 20 years.”

karinasillyHer first year entailed teaching a World Culture and Language class to sixth graders and a couple of Spanish classes to seventh graders. “This year, I had to add a second level Spanish class for the eighth graders. It’s the equivalent of high school Spanish I.” She teaches separate Spanish classes for native speakers. If all that isn’t enough, she also teaches a seventh grade AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class on critical thinking and study skills.

“My first year, I felt like a blind person, feeling my way around. Thankfully everyone was very supportive. This second year I’m more relaxed and the experience is more rewarding. I love that I get to be silly with the kids—they keep me young. I also love that I can be creative  and make engaging lessons. ”

Karina continues her involvement with the Latino Coalition and is also a Partnership Scholars mentor. “I’ve been matched with three girls since they were in seventh grade. They’re sophomores in high school now. I offer them enrichment experiences by taking them on trips. Last year, we went to New York City.”

She attributes her drive and ambition to her upbringing. “My parents instilled in me the sense of doing my best. My dad reminds us that anyone can be average and we should never be content with being mediocre. I was raised to be an optimist who finds beauty and value in every experience.”

Karina has recently been given the opportunity to expand her skill set and gain further education. Unfortunately for us, this means leaving the area. “This summer, I’ll wrap up my Master’s in Spanish at Sonoma State. My alma mater Saint Mary’s granted me a scholarship to get my teaching credential and I’ll start that in the fall. I’ll also teach Spanish at Saint Mary’s College High School in Berkeley.”

She hopes to one day return to Fort Bragg. “That’s the beauty of home—it will always be here and there will always be something for me to help out with. Ideally, I see myself teaching but we shall see where the road leads.”

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Lucy – A Year in Review

I originally posted this on our one-year anniversary with Lucy. That was before we knew of her extensive orthopedic problems, before her two complicated knee surgeries, before she’d learned to sail over fences to discover places a lot more interesting than our yard, before we spent many, many dollars to repair her body and erect taller fencing.

Today, Lucy turns five. We celebrate a life we didn’t anticipate sharing, a life we’ve become grateful to share.

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When our adult children came to town Labor Day weekend 2013—two weeks after our fifteen-year-old dog Wilson died—they despaired at our empty nest and gifted us with what they felt was the perfect “filling”—a puppy. My husband Gary was elated. I wanted to curl up into a ball and be taken to an asylum.

When Lucy was brought into the house, all I could think of—as I pasted a smile on my face and screamed with what I hoped sounded like excitement—was how much work she was going to create.

destructionOver the course of thirty-five years, we’ve raised four puppies. Gary might have forgotten, but I knew the drill. Even with obedience training and supervision, Lucy would learn about life mainly through the destruction of property—sofa pillows, socks, underwear, plants, holes dug so deeply in the yard that a visitor asked if we’d had trees removed. Given Gary’s disabilities, the majority of transforming her into a “good” dog would fall on me.

My obsession with wanting to skip the puppy stage of her development caused me two weeks of insomnia and vertigo.

559798_10152017172491844_2118415971_nThank God I found Puppy Kindergarten where every Saturday morning for ten weeks, Lucy had the chance to play with other puppies and sweet Elaine Miksak gave me direction on how to calm the hell down and enjoy my baby girl. For the first month, both Lucy and I returned home after class to take naps. After an hour, I’d awake to find my open mouth drooling on the pillow.

By January, Lucy had grown too large for the class (forty-five pounds), and we found Julie Apostolu, who convinced me Lucy was ready for AKC Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) training. I had no idea what that was, but hoped the eight-week course would help me continue to learn patience and understanding.

The CGC class was held in a clearing in the woods next to the Mendocino Coast Humane Society. The first day, Lucy kept tugging on the leash and gagging. She thought she was at a new Puppy Kindergarten and wanted to be free to play with other dogs. When that didn’t happen, she discovered the pine needles covering the ground hid buried cat poop that could be rooted out while pretending she was deaf to the command, “Leave it!” (She waited to come home to vomit on the carpet.)

The first few weeks of class were brutal. Lucy would not listen, jerked at her leash, and when she got tired, rolled onto her back and refused to move. Julie offered encouragement and direction, but I felt inept and humiliated.

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After a particularly rigorous digging session in the yard.

One afternoon, as Lucy headed off for the fiftieth time in one direction while I tried to coax her into another, Julie’s assistant, DeeDee, came to my rescue and took the leash. Her expert handling and swift corrections got Lucy’s attention. I watched in awe as my dog looked at her and obeyed commands. Tears filling my eyes, I wanted to get into my car and drive away.

Eight weeks after we started CGC training—Lucy was nine months old—came the test. The dogs had to do things like heel (yeah, right), sit and stay (maybe), down (Lucy liked to lie down because it put her closer to the cat poop), and remain calm when left with a stranger (this would be easy—she loves everyone). All of this had to happen without benefit of treat reinforcement.

We were doomed.

My anxiety grew as I watched others go through the course while Lucy jerked on her leash and gagged. While we were on deck, she calmed down to watch the dog being tested. I looked at her sitting with such dignity and my heart surged with love. I crouched and hugged her, petting her neck and chest, and whispered, “I don’t care if we pass. I love you and am so proud of you. Let’s have fun with this.”

Lucy rose to the occasion, messing up on only a couple of things. At the end of the course, I had to hide behind a crop of redwoods while she stayed with a stranger for a couple of minutes. When I was called back, Julie held out her hand—“Congratulations, she passed.”

Shortly after the photo was snapped, she tried to eat her ribbons.

Shortly after the photo was snapped, she tried to eat her ribbons.

“What? Really?” I grabbed Julie in a hug and howled with laughter.

I looked at Lucy who sat wearing her calm snowy fur like a halo. “Good girl! Good, good girl!”

I wish I could say from that moment on, Lucy sprang from puppyhood to maturity, but no. She’s a work in progress, a spirit we enjoy despite or maybe because of her quirks (pretending she’s deaf to commands, the ability to destroy any toy in less than twenty-four hours, and a need to prune fuchsia bushes).

Since CGC, we’ve taken at least 30 weeks of other classes (Rally Obedience, Jumps and Tunnels, Nose Work) where we learn, have fun, and meet wonderful people and dogs.

I’m happy that our empty nest has been filled with fresh, rambunctious life and grateful to our children who filled a need we didn’t know we had.

Rally O class picture. After hundreds of dollars spent on enrichment classes, this is how Lucy interpreted the command "Sit!"

Rally O class picture. After hundreds of dollars spent on enrichment classes, this is how Lucy interprets the command “Sit!”

Jason Fruth

JasonFheadshotSometimes the inspiration to move back to the place you love arrives in the most random of ways. An email sent by your wife, added to the hundreds you received that day, nearly lost until a couple weeks later when you find it and ask why she sent you a link to a house for sale in Fort Bragg. She knows how your long work days often spill into late nights and take a toll on your personal life. Since leaving the Mendocino Coast over 20 years ago, you’ve always said you’d move back. Maybe now is the time.

Thus began the journey of Jason Fruth and his wife Cate who uprooted their lives in the Silicon Valley to create a new, fulfilling one here.

***

JasonF&momJason was born in Houston, Texas and moved to Elk with his mom Laurie Graham when he was seven years old. “My mom’s whole life was her children, but she was always willing to open her home to a friend in need. She loved nothing more than spending time with family and friends.”

He loved growing up in the tiny coastal enclave. “Through the fifth grade, I went to the Elk School which only had about 20 kids. My friends and I had the freedom to hike the bluffs, roam the beach and camp by the river. I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. It shaped who I am. I didn’t realize how special it was until I went to college and met kids who went to school with 2,000 or more students.”

He graduated from the Mendocino Community High School in 1995. “I grew up in a working class family. I wasn’t college oriented, but my paternal grandparents in Texas insisted I go. I applied to San Francisco State, San Jose State and Cal Poly Pomona.” He was accepted by all, did some research, found Cal Poly Pomona was the most highly rated, and decided to go there. His grandparents and father paid for tuition and housing.

When asked to declare a major, he asked, “What’s a major?” He laughed at the memory. “I had no idea. I was fascinated by airplanes and watched the NASA channel a lot so decided on Aerospace Engineering.

“I’d never heard of Pomona. I’d been to Disneyland once when I was a kid. I packed my two huge stereo speakers into my old Mazda 626LX and stuffed the rest of my meager belongings around them. A friend from high school made the trip with me. When I dropped her off at the airport a week later, I broke down crying.”

JasonFcollegeThose were the days before cell phones, when a homesick kid had to pay for long distance calls if he wanted to talk to his mom. Jason didn’t have this luxury. He got an on-campus job as the audio visual tech manager at the student union. He eventually became the building manager.

In 1999, friends who were riding the dot-com wave encouraged him to join them in the Silicon Valley. He moved into an apartment in Palo Alto with Joseph Huckaby, a friend from Elk. “I got a job in tech support with Connectix. When I looked at my first paycheck, I thought, ‘Are you serious?’ I’d never made this much money at one time in my life.” After a year, he was promoted to quality assurance engineering. In 2000, the dot-com bust began and Jason survived numerous rounds of layoffs. The company was bought by Microsoft which laid off 90 percent of the employees. Jason remained.

At Microsoft, he spent two years as a quality assurance engineer. “We tested code for the Mac Business Unit—the unit that creates Word, Excel and PowerPoint.” He was promoted to lab manager where he remained for eight years before becoming a regional information technology (IT) manager—a job that required long hours. “I’d work all day and go home to spend hours answering emails. I was part of a global team and often on conference calls in the middle of the night.”

JasonFCateHe bought a condo near San Jose State and rented out a bedroom, usually to a college student. “In 2009, a friend told me her friend Cate—who lived in Willits—was planning to go to San Jose City College and needed a place to stay. I rented her the room.” They began spending time together and slowly became a couple. They married in 2013.

Cate earned a degree in Anthropology from San Francisco State. She worked for a number of companies before becoming a business manager at Stryker, a medical technology company.

“My fourteen years with Microsoft was a good experience, but intense. It was a great company to work for in my twenties and thirties, but it kept me away from home.” Over time, he and Cate grew more stressed and less happy with living the city corporate life.

They hadn’t talked about moving until Cate emailed him that link to a house for sale in Fort Bragg. It turned out to be the catalyst that put in motion his desire to one day return to the coast.

Jason contacted a friend since middle school—Sage Statham—who had recently become the manager of Mendocino Community Network (MCN). There were no openings at MCN, but this didn’t deter Jason and Cate’s decision to move. “I called my sister and asked if we could live with her and her husband until we got settled. She was thrilled.

“We moved in late 2016. A month later, Sage called to say a guy at MCN had decided to retire. He encouraged me to apply for the job of field technician and I got it.”

The house Cate found on the internet was still on the market. They made an offer, but the deal fell through. They looked at many others, but none appealed to them. Three months later, they made the same offer on the original house and it was accepted.

“Cate and I kept going back to this house because it was newer, well-constructed, in town, with city utilities. It had a serendipitous feeling given that it popped up so randomly in our lives. It was meant to be.”

As he settles in to his new life, Jason contemplates how he might become involved with his community. Growing up, he attended Camp Rubber Soul, which brought groups of able-bodied and disabled kids together for a week at a time in an effort to foster understanding between the two. “It gave me an appreciation for not judging people.” By age 11, he became a camp counselor. “I used all my vacation time to return each summer until I was 28 when the camp shut down due to lack of funding. I’d love to see something like that again.”

Jason enjoys his job at MCN, which is far different from what he did before. “There’s a nice mix of being out in the field to fix problems and doing office work. At the end of the day, I leave it behind and go home to spend time with my wife and play fetch with our dog Cassie. It’s a pretty good gig.”

Welcome home, Jason.

JasonFFamily