Fred the Christmas tree frog

Evidently I have an affinity for amphibians. Let me explain. Some early, early fond memories involve hiking up Aptos Creek with my various siblings and cousins. Mid-sixties and the creek was still a viable stream of life. Frogs, snakes, salamanders and even trout and salmon traversed this little waterway behind our summer house. On our summer stays our parents, Aunt’s and Uncle’s would expel the children in the morning with an admonishment, “and don’t come back until….”.

Our choices, as I recall were either to walk the creek to the ocean or head upstream and explore. The beach was beautiful and those stories should be told as well but a recent event makes me think of the amphibians.

Of course many of my stories would start with my sister Kathy, my protector and patron saint.

Kathy loves nature in every form. Plants, trees, rocks, animals, birds, snakes and amphibians. She was constantly adopting critters she would somehow capture and may have even coined the phrase, “it followed me home, can I keep it?”. My parents were never a match for her pleading and my father would often even help build some sort of home to hold whatever Kathy had brought home. I remember once her and my sister Susie tried to catch wild birds by placing food on the floor of our garage and then quickly shutting the door. Unfortunately the caught a wild rabbit that was quite angry and gave them a good scare setting him free. But the hikes up the creek were really special. The cool water, the sandy creek bed, the light through the trees, the logs to climb, the tunnels to holler in to hear our echoes and frogs, salamanders and snakes. It seems that was always the prize, to catch a garter snake. Sometimes they would be quite small but others would be pretty big and very beautiful with red markings. The little ones would slither and squirm around your hands and the bigger ones would actually coil around your arm.

So as stated, my affinity for amphibians goes back a ways. I have already written about my neighbor’s salamanders, ( and now I would like to tell you my latest amphibian story, Fred the Christmas tree frog.


My wife Amy was nice enough to go it alone on getting our Christmas tree this year. She found a small inexpensive tree and brought it home and put it on the front porch. It stayed there for a few days while she waited for me to get the ladder and pull down all the boxes of decorations. Once down, Amy avoided the usual yearly pain I provide when asked to help decorate the tree and put up the lights by recruiting our friend Dana to help. It was great, I came home from work and the outside lights were up and the tree was decorated and my wife and I hadn’t had a single silly argument. What a great way to start the holiday season. That evening after dinner Amy and I sat down in the family room with the Christmas tree lights twinkling and turned on the t.v. It was then we first heard it, ribbit, ribbit….ribbit.

Startled, Amy asked, “What the hell is that? ”

“I believe that would be a frog in your Christmas tree” I calmly replied.

“Well get it out of there” My wife shouted, her voice rising in concern.

“Um….how do you think I would be able to find a tiny frog on a decorated Christmas tree?” I replied.

“I don’t care. Just get it” Amy insisted.

This conversation continued and while I found it funnier and funnier that we had a frog in our tree and Amy was finding it more and more concerning. She insisted that we must find the frog and remove it and even enlisted young Thomas our tenant to get the flashlight and search the tree. But as previously stated, it is pretty unlikely you would ever be able to locate a tiny frog on a decorated tree.

And so Amy succumbed to the fact that we had a living ornament in our holiday tree and I of course named him Fred and he would greet us a couple of times a day with his boisterous croaking and we would respond in kind, “Hello Fred”.

Now Amy being Amy soon became concerned that Fred had been living in our tree for at least a week and wondered what he had been surviving on? He must be starving. We must provide for our Christmas tree frog.

I was now assigned frog food duty and found myself out in my shop wiping away cobwebs for dead flies and bugs to offer up as sustenance for our new friend Fred.

I was fine with this folly but realized it was a charade that we would actually be able to keep Fred alive.

But Fred the frog had one more chapter to tell.

It had been close to two weeks we had lived with Fred when Amy once again was alarmed.

“Michael” she shouted, “did you hear that? He’s moved.”


“Fred has moved. He is out in the kitchen. You have to find him. I was o.k. with him in the tree but he is now in the kitchen. You have to find him.” Amy’s voice finding the level of energy that makes me laugh but also impossible to ignore.

“Honey, once again, I am not sure if we will ever find Fred. He is a tiny little frog and could be anywhere. “

Luckily Amy was on her way to a Christmas concert at a local church so I knew Amy would probably calm down about Fred once she got home.

But after Amy left and I was in the living room watching t.v. Sure enough I heard Fred. Croaking loudly from somewhere across the kitchen. Now this is no little journey for a tiny frog, it is over the dinning area where our large lab Lucca sleeps and would be more than willing to eat a little frog should it hop by. So I get up and try to locate Fred and on the wall of the kitchen is a ceramic vase painted with roses, with a small round opening for very small bouquets. I peer inside and think I see something, I take it off the wall and shake it over the sink and out comes Fred. A tiny little frog. I couldn’t believe after all this time there he was, looking bright and healthy. I quickly captured him in a washcloth and took him to his new outdoor home in the backyard.

When Amy got home I told her the good news and was sort of sad I hadn’t kept Fred around so she could meet him. But the best part is, the next night Amy and I were in the backyard in the evening and all of a sudden we hear, “ribbit, ribbit. ribbit”.

Yes Fred the Christmas tree frog was still around.




Penny Wars

It was my dear friend Bob Samuals who introduced me to Penny Wars. Sam, (as he was known) was one of the bartenders at the Bayview Hotel when I started working there and became a mentor and wonderful friend. Sam was an acerbic, very funny man who I dearly admired and he explained how some of us fight these “penny wars”. I don’t know if Sam coined this phrase and I have yet to see it used in the same fashion again, but it seemed to fit my persona so well that I have used it ever since. “Penny War’s”, according to Sam are those minor issues we all deal with on a daily basis but most of you don’t think they are worth the effort to fight over. A person cuts in line at a theater. Someone parks in two spaces in a crowded parking lot. Parking in a handicap zone to “just run in to get a cup of coffee”.

This is, in my opinion, one of the sufferings in todays society. Basic courtesy’s being lost and the general populous afraid to confront those that ignore simple rules of etiquette. I am known to many as the person who will say something, to challenge the interloper, to get out of my car and ask someone why they are honking at a red light….my family is sure this will eventually be my demise. So in deference to my loved one’s concerns I have found other penny wars to battle. There is a whole world of online incompetence that is “bit by bit” becoming one of those thousand cuts that will eventually bleed us to death. Not many would concur, but I believe it is a battle worth fighting and find value and so much amusement in my version of “tilting at windmills…” or my “penny wars”.

Silly to most. Foolish perhaps, but never without sincere belief or trust of merit, that I wholeheartedly enter these worthless skirmishes.

So with that preamble I would like to share my latest penny war with the manufacturer of my stove/oven.

Last weekend my wife spent her day off cleaning our home and activated the “self-cleaning” function on our Frigidaire oven. When I got home in the afternoon I could hear the fan whirling away. Funny that the next morning the fan could still be heard whirling away. The door to our oven still securely locked. I asked my my wife if she knew what was the “deal”? She said she was “flummoxed” by it still being locked…(o.k., she never used the word flummoxed but I have always loved that word) So we came to realize our stove was locked tight and wasn’t planning on giving up without a struggle. We got out the manuals. No help. We looked up the problem on line. No help. I tried calling the 800 number and they had me put in my zip code so I could be referred to a “local” vendor 45 minutes away.

I think it was about this point I put on my armor for my next “Penny War”

After a day of trying to navigate Frigidare’s website and failing to contact any human I was so frustrated that this was my exercise in relief, (written to their online form)

Customer Information
Subject =
Message = your website is useless to customers needing help. your 800 number
directs clients to local vendors, not helpful at all. your service q & a’s are
useless at best and there is no form to actually add a question. my gas range,
(which by the way, the manual does not even list a model number) has been locked
in cleaning mode for two days and I can find no reference as how to cancel the
program. I am very frustrated with your product, your lack of service and your

and believe it or not my vent received a reply……

Thank you for contacting Electrolux Major Appliances.

To unlock the oven door:

· Press and hold the oven light switch located on the doorframe. While holding
this in, set the oven for self cleaning, following the instructions below:

· Press the clean pad. When “ CLN TIME” appears in the display, press the up
or down arrow pad to set it for two, three or four hours. Once the time is set
the self cleaning mode will begin.

· After the cleaningcycle begins and the timer starts counting down, press the
“CANCEL/CLEAR” pad. When the cycle stops, you will hear a click. This means
the door has become unlocked and the door can be opened. At this time release
the oven light switch and close the door.

If the problem persists, please contact a local authorized servicer in your
area. Thank you again for contacting Frigidaire customer service.


….now trust me…if there were a button to be pressed, held, accessed in any fashion what so ever,  I had already tried it. But what I really found amusing is their recommendation to “press and hold” an oven light button within the door frame that I had stated is locked. Once again, their default position being to contact a local vendor to assist…and so I did. I called the local vendor, Jim came out and proceeded to do his best to “jimmy” the door open, very much the same as trying to unlock a car door, but after that failed he deferred to his 800 number for the vendor. Next I checked, Jim had the unit away from the wall the whole back of the unit dismantled. After Jim had finally unlocked the door explained the issue and provide an estimate for repairs I thanked him for his service, declined to have the repairs done and after he left submitted my next salvo at Frigidaire’s customer service section on their website….

Sent: 01/23/13 20:08:38
Subject: Re: Customer Service Issues

Dear Electrolux,

Well I finally got my stove door open after two days of it being locked in
self-cleaning mode but it certainly wasn’t easy. I hired a local appliance shop
seeing as your warranty doesn’t cover much more than scratches to the cooking
surface. (seriously) The gentleman tried in vain to find a way to unlock the
door using his usual methods, slipping a stiff piece of wire to jimmy the latch,
(very similar to unlocking a car) but no such luck. He relented and called the
service center and spoke with Pierre who explained he would have to go through
the back of the unit. We slid the unit out from the wall, he proceeded to
dismantle the back of my stove and eventually concluded the linkage on the motor
that rotates the locking mechanism during the self-cleaning process was shot.
Well I thought, o.k., this sounds like a reasonable repair…until he explained
that the only way to access the area where the repair needed to be made would
take two people at a cost of over 500.00 in labor. The total estimate was close
to 700.00.
He also mentioned he noticed how one of my burners’s electric ignition seemed
not to be working. I said he was correct. He said that also was an easy
fix….other than the same issue applied, to get to the item to repair it
requires two men multiple hours of labor…….
Needless to say, we will no longer be using your self cleaning option and will
keep a box of matches available to light the burners.
I would seriously love to get a response from any person in management who has
the integrity to defend this ridiculous design but I am sure that is to much to
hope for.

Michael Burris
Aptos, CA.


I did enjoy this rant and certainly did not expect a reply but much to my surprise I got one. Even better the reply only reinforced my belief in the lunacy of the online service world. Here is the response,

Thanks for contacting Frigidaire.

We do regret that you are unhappy with the design of your product. We use some of the finest materials available and sophisticated assembly processes to assure manufacturing accuracy. Quality tests are continually conducted to provide the consumer with the best appliance possible in the industry. Each consumer may choose from a wide variety of appliances, each built to provide a quality product and various features to best suit their needs.

We do recommend having a different provider out to assist with diagnosing this issue as the amount that you have been quoted seems to be very extensive. To locate a provider in your area, please visit our website at We do recommend that they contact our tech line for assistance with getting these concerns resolved for you.

If you would please contact us back with your model number, serial number purchase date and full address so that we may create a file in our system and document the information you have provided.

Thanks for contacting Frigidaire.

Ms. Jones
Frigidaire Correspondence Specialist


At this point my penny war was won. I received a response from someone who’s job description is “Correspondence Specialist” and obviously completely missed the point of my frustration with their company. Ms. Jones offers defense of their “design” flaws by touting the materials used and manufacturing procedures. You can use the finest materials in the world assembled by the greatest craftsmen and still produce a useless product if the original design is flawed. She then indicates perhaps I had chosen the wrong product to suit my needs. Yes I should have chosen the one that wasn’t designed by knucklehead that didn’t think anyone would ever need to access anything under the range top. Also of great assistance from my “correspondence specialist” who had obviously neglected to actually read my “correspondence” was her recommendation I contact a local vendor, (which I had done) and they contact Frigidaire’s support staff, (as stated previously, we had called Pierre). And to conclude my amusement was her request I submit my contact information so they could create a file on me.

I think I will pass but thank you Ms. Jones, you have been most amusing.

Andy Boy

I think I am an artist, yet I am currently employed at an assisted care facility in Santa Cruz. I work in the kitchen. I would love to delve into this story further but will restrain myself at this point for a quick side note I found amusing.

The kitchen receives fresh produce daily, and one of the vendors is “Andy Boy Brand” out of Salinas. They provide a lot of lettuce and other fruits and vegetables. As my secret identity was completing another kitchen chore, my real identity, the artist was intrigued by the logo of this vendor.

This is their logo,

I decided that my boys, who are going to college and have grown up around my enthusiasm for odd imagery, would also appreciate the logo. Especially if I could get it on a t-shirt. I think they have embraced some of my ideas and then filtered them through their own punk ethos. So I decided to refer back to some tricks of the trade I learned while working sales and marketing in the high tech industry. If you know how to approach a company, express yourself properly and write a proper correspondence, you can usually get companies to send you free stuff. Companies spend money on marketing material that often ends up sitting in a storage room. If you can find the right person in the organization they are usually more than happy to see their brand further disseminated through any channel just to get rid of the excess swag.

I looked up the company online and called in.

“Hello, I am wondering if you might have any promotional t-shirts with your Andy Boy logo I could acquire?”

“Um, I’m not sure, let me transfer you.”

“Andy Boy Produce, may I help you?”

“Hello, I am wondering if you might have any promotional t-shirts with your Andy Boy logo I could acquire?”

“Um, I’m not sure, let me transfer you.”

Now this is where patience and persistence pay off. I repeated my request through seven transfers. And then I reached Claudia.

“Hello, I am wondering if you might have any promotional t-shirts with your Andy Boy logo I could acquire?” I proceeded to explain that I was hoping to get a couple of t-shirts for my sons as I was sure they would also really appreciate the company logo.

“Well, I am not sure. I know we have some items in the back room, not sure if there are any t-shirts but why don’t you send me your boy’s sizes and your mailing information and I will take a look to see what we have.”

Jackpot! I immediately e-mailed my contact information and thanked her again for anything she could offer. Claudia responded within minutes that she had taken a look and didn’t find any t-shirts but was sending us a couple of hats and a few other items. Wow, I was stunned at the response. How cool is this, that a simple phone call, an exercise lasting no more than 10 to 15 minutes of my time and I had funny stocking stuffers for my boys.

I couldn’t believe that a package arrived two days later. I was so excited. Not only at the idea of getting some cool “logo” swag for my boys but at the success of my venture. I tore open the box and pulled out the hats. O.K., so this was a bit of a glitch in the fun. When I looked up the company online I noticed, but didn’t take much heed to their prominent support of the “Breast Cancer Research Foundation”.

A fine and noble cause without doubt. And I am in no way disparaging this cause or community with this blog, but I am not sure my young college age sons will think it is quite as cool to wear this logo around San Francisco,

But I don’t know. Perhaps I am seeing presumptions my sons won’t. Perhaps they will wear their Andy Boy- pink ribbon hats proudly and confidently.

Wouldn’t that be great.

this time of year

my sister Kathy liked one of my poems so much she added great graphics using one of her photos from a recent stroll in Pogonip,

Death of a beautiful flower or beautiful death of a flower

I love orchids as house plants as their flowers last so long and are so gorgeous and exotic. For ten to twenty bucks you can have a month or so of daily delight. My wife Amy received a lovely little orchid as a gift from her students at the end of the school year and I was so sorry to come down yesterday evening to see all the blooms on the floor. As I picked up the two blossoms, they were still intact and I noticed my favorite afternoon sun shining through my kitchen and just had to get a few shots of this beautiful flower in the afternoon light and shadows it creates.

Creating an artistic environment.

As I look around my studio I realize how many of the odd assortment of items I surround myself with are gifts from friends and family. This is so flattering to realize how many times someone saw something that made them think of me that they decided to give me an item to add to my collection. And even more intriguing when I look around and see what people have contributed.

But perhaps a quick step back to explain a bit. I, as an artist have always found oddities and ephemera useful in fueling my creative juices. I am entertained by the bizarre or sometimes grotesque appearance of dolls, some whole, some in various bits and parts. I originally started using dolls in some of my early mechanical assemblage pieces. Combining small refurbished appliances with doll parts and clock motors and old christmas lights. I don’t make my assemblages anymore but my attraction to the oddity that many dolls or doll parts presents by their very nature still remains. And because of that, people like to give me doll parts. Big, small, action figures, bags of barbies, army men, rubber cancer-mouth teaching tool, (particularly creepy) and quite a few, “just heads”. Another fondness is for old books and magazines that I can peruse for ads or images I can use in my collages or articles and images from bygone days that are quite uncomfortable juxtaposed against modern sensibilities. Once again, friends and family seem to relish finding items to offer.

Perhaps it is because I am such a grateful recipient that everyone continues to donate items because I don’t believe they share my attraction but rather they enjoy my enthusiasm in receiving a new strange book or scary doll head. But the other idea that came to mind in surveying all that surrounds me in my studio, all the books and magazines I look through for fun, all the time I share with all of these items, is this. I try to surround myself with art. Not just in works of art but by creating an entire artistic environment to drive my ambitions. Now, some might not agree with my perception of what art is but it appears I have convinced quite a few to see things a bit differently. To try and see art in so much more than something framed and hung on a wall. And if I haven’t convinced them to broaden their own artistic visions I have at least convinced them of my beliefs and they support that belief by providing sustenance for my artistic needs.

So to all my incredible confidants I wanted to offer my sincerest gratitude for all my gifts. They really are gifts that keep on giving.

Happy BirthDay Dadso.

There are hundreds of wonderful thoughts and stories I cherish about my father but I was reminded of this episode recently and happened to jot it down so I am sharing it because today was my father’s birthday. I don’t know how he would have felt about our actions as he was such a kind and respectful man but I do believe he never thought of death as a solemn event as most people encourage. My father had lived an incredibly rich and rewarding life and when his time had come he simply told his caretaker we had hired to assist him at home that he was going to bed early. When she asked why my father said, “it’s a secret”. Went to bed and passed away. A simple, dignified end to a wonderful run.

But I am not saying it is ever easy when a parent or friend passes away and I had lost my mother, my mentor and then my father in a fairly short time span and was getting pretty fed up with losing loved ones.

One of the duties after someone dies is determining what to do with the body. In our family, cremation is our chosen option so unfortunately I had to deal with the same mortuary for both my mother Grace and my friend Dede and both times they somehow screwed up the procedure. It is a three-step process that one would think they would have down pat, retrieve the body, cremate the remains and have the ashes available for the family to pick up. But somehow both times there was some delay with the process and the remains were not available when promised. Now if you have made arrangements with family members for a ceremonial send off and some had to make travel arrangements this can really foul things up.

Anyway when my father Gerald died we once again had to deal with the mortuary to arrange his cremation. My sister Kathy, my brother Peter and I all went together. Now our family is known to have a fairly morbid sense of humor and as a group it tends to escalate. When we arrived we were met by Bob the smarmy mortuary sales guy, with his feigned sincerity and disingenuous empathy for our loss. He escorted us into a dark paneled room and excused himself to retrieve some paperwork. My siblings and I immediately started ridiculing his performance and decided to see how well he could maintain the charade. When Bob returned and gave us his pitch and then asked us if we had any questions. At that point we proceeded to each ask Bob a question but would call him by a different name.

“So Brad, how long did you say this process would take?”

“Um Ben, does this price include everything?”

“Yeah Bill, what are the regulations regarding disposal of the ashes?”

Bob never faltered, even with his nametag with gold lettering against his blue blazer background he never flinched as we continued to call him by different names. He continued his furrowed brow, head dipping technique and answered every question until we ran out of “B” names.

Here is a picture of my father, Gerald Francis Burris, when he worked as a busboy at the Ahwahnee Hotel in the 30′s. Just one of his many adventures.

An elephant for Amy

My wife Amy loves to read. She and her girlfriends have an informal book club, they don’t meet on any regular basis but whenever they are together they always manage to get around to discussing what books they are reading and offer each other recommendations on which ones they should read next. When “Water for Elephants” made the rounds it made such an impression on Amy that she got into an elephant theme in her choices. Next was “Hannah’s Dream” then “Modoc, The true story of the greatest elephant that ever lived.” then “An inconvenient elephant”. I guess like anything in popular culture, popularity creates a trend as there seems to be a rash of elephant themed novels out right now and my wife wants to read them all. She admits giddily that she is obsessed with elephants and wants to own one. The more she learns about their intelligence, loyalty and compassion the more obsessed she becomes. Amy isn’t serious about owning an elephant but she did conclude that she was determined at the very least to get a hug from an elephant, somehow, someway.

My sister Kathy is one of Amy’s confidants when it comes to books and as I have mentioned before, a true animal lover since a very early age. The old bit, “it followed me home, can I keep it” was never truer than with Kathy. Broken birds, abandoned cats and lost dogs were a regular part of her repertoire growing up. Kathy’s compassion is so great she has enough for people as well, I don’t know how she does it sometimes. So this compassion for others means my sister spends most of her time thinking of nice things to do for others “I saw this thing and it made me think of you so I bought it for you.” “I was remembering how much you like warm apple pie on a rainy day so I baked one for you and dropped it by.” If we could create a Kathy serum the world would be a better place.

So the other morning my sister is listening to the news and they mention a fundraiser at Vision Quest Ranch for E.A.R.S., Elephants of Africa Rescue Society,

and they were giving away some free passes to the event. Vision Quest Ranch is a 50 acre compound in the western foothills of the Salinas valley and is a refuge for retired exotic animals from the entertainment industry. As well as a kennel and equestrian center. Kathy thought, “I have to win those tickets for Amy.” She raced to her computer and sure enough won 4 passes to the event. When I answered the phone my sister was so excited she was having trouble getting the words out. When I gave the phone to Amy I moved to the other room because I knew it was about to get loud. I was right, there was some serious squealing. When they calmed down enough to discuss the adventure in detail they realized they had 4 passes and had to determine two other elephant worthy attendees. No easy decision for such a exulted event. Kathy’s good friend April and I were the lucky ones to make the cut.

The event was on Sunday, July 3rd and started at 2 o’clock. The day could not have been prettier. July in central California does not always present itself at it’s best. It can foggy and cold along the coast and then blazing hot and miserable in the inland valleys. Not on this day. The coast was crystal clear when we left Aptos about 12:30 and Salinas was just as clear and bright with a cool breeze blowing across the hills. As we drove onto the ranch we almost immediately could see a large pen below us to the left and there they were, elephants! We quickly counted six elephants, a zebra, and a couple of water buffalo. Oh this was going to be a good day. We parked and were directed to a large white tent like enclosure to get our wrist bands and food and drink tickets. While I was waiting in line Amy had already zeroed in on a women showing off a beautiful red macaw. I had to call her away to get her wrist band attached. As this was a wine/beer tasting event we sampled a few items and quickly decided we best eat something if we wanted to survive the day. April, Amy and Kathy grabbed a salad, I got a sandwich and went and found a picnic table on the lawn. We excitedly talked while we ate when April suddenly starts pointing behind us and unable to find any other words just repeats, “Oh! Oh! Oh!”. We all turn around to see a woman strolling by about 30 feet away followed by a huge African elephant. My sister shouts for Amy to go but I think Amy had already left the bench. We all got up and watched this enormous animal meander through the parking lot. Now I should also mention that part of this event is called “Ears and Gears”, which is a display of classic cars, hot rods and modern sports cars. So here is the elephant walking right past all these very expensive toys, which made me a bit nervous. So they walk the elephant over to a grass area, set up a two foot high chain perimeter and start the meet and greet. By the time I made it over Amy was already engaged in conversation with the trainer and Butch the elephant. It really was magical the way this whole event played out for us. Amy getting to meet and elephant, Kathy getting to provide the introduction by way of winning the tickets and me getting to see my wife in utter bliss. We also got to meet a spider monkey, a kinkajou, a white cockatoo being shown by trainers. We then took a stroll and could see down on the pens where they have lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

An absolutely wonderful day and memorable experience. The ranch does two tours daily and we will definitely be making another visit.

Here are some photos of Butch and all his new fans, (click for full view)

Marion and her salamanders…

Marion lives across the street from me . Her house sits on a slightly sloped lot and is painted brown and very tidy. Nothing out of place inside or out. The outside is clipped and cropped within an inch of its life, she mentioned that she doesn’t like or want anything to ever touch the house. The inside is dusted and dull and smells of the old family photos that fill the walls or sit in groups on top of the outdated furniture. It appears that no dust, dirt or sunlight is allowed to intrude. Marion is what I would colloquially call a spinster. Late 60′s or early 70′s in age who abandoned her career to care for her mother over twenty years ago. Marion’s mother passed away about a year ago and Marion has lived there on her own since then. I had always been cordial to her and her mother and when her mother passed I made the obvious gesture that most neighbors do, “I’m so sorry for your loss…if there is anything you need please let me know”.

It wasn’t more than a week after Marion’s mother passed that I got the first phone call. “Hello Michael, this is Marion….from across the street….” . (She has this very tepid voice as if she only has the strength for this last call) I tried to make small talk and offer my condolences and once again reiterate that I would be happy to run errands or go to the store if needed. Well that was why she was calling. She knew I went to Safeway most days and had a list she was hoping I could pick up on my next trip.  Marion also asked if I could please get her mail for her. (her mailbox is at the bottom of her driveway) I said I would be happy to and I would be right over to get the list.

Oh my.  I have never encountered anyone more specific in my life. She had color swatches to match the bananas she wanted. Copies of previous UPC codes from products that were unsatisfactory. The name of the last store manager she dealt with when she had to return a cup of yogurt. Specific expiration dates that would be acceptable for her half gallon of non-fat, two percent, non-lactose semi-milk-like liquid. Marion handed me 20 dollars and a pill bottle filled with change and asked that I make sure to use as much of the change as possible. I went to the store and returned thinking I had followed the instructions to Marion’s specifications but of course I had erred. This was not a good harbinger of how my good intentions were to be tested and strained. The phone calls started coming almost daily, “Hello Michael…this is Marion….from across the street…”. I loved how she would always identify which Marion was calling, the one from across the street, as if I receive calls from multiple Marion’s. I consider myself so lucky that I find humor and pathos in people like Marion and her eccentricities, otherwise her impositions would definitely become tedious and annoying. I would share my daily shopping failures with my family and how I actually had to return the last 3 bananas because they weren’t green enough. Not over ripe, but not under ripe enough. I guess I was getting a bit impatient as my family started to make suggestions on how to wean Marion off the daily trough of my generosity. I just wasn’t sure I had the heart to do that but Marion must have sensed it as her shopping request soon stopped and the calls I would receive were only concerning her mail. “Hi Michael….this is Marion…from across the street…did I get any mail today?”. My son would plead with me to shout into the phone, “I DON’T KNOW, DID YOU CHECK?”. He didn’t understand how she was not immobile, she drove and evidently now did her own shopping but was still incapable of walking to the bottom of her driveway to retrieve her mail. I would tell her I would go check right away and she would ask me to just leave it on the bench next to her front door.

When the winter season came and we finally started getting some rainy days I got one of my strangest calls yet. “Hello Michael….this is Marion…from across the street…when you pick up my mail today could you please check under my green garbage can that is at the top of the driveway. There is some big lizard or something underneath it.” Oh great I thought, now she is starting to hallucinate. So I walked over, grabbed her mail and walked up her driveway to where the green garbage can was sitting. It is sitting in the middle of a large blacktop section of her driveway, with at least eight feet of blacktop in all directions. At the sides of the driveway are beds of rock. I roll back the garbage can and there sat a large spotted salamander. Now where this salamander came from and how he ventured across this desolate terrain to end up under this garbage can was quite intriguing I thought. Almost as intriguing as how Marion knew it was there? Just then I heard someone tapping on a window and I looked up and there is a small window in Marion’s laundry room that is over the stairs leading up to the house and Marion’s face is peering down. “What is it?”, she shouts through the closed window. “It is a salamander”, I excitedly reply. I went on to explain that they are harmless and fairly rare these days and she should consider herself lucky to have one in her yard. “Oh, get it out of here, I can’t stand anything that crawls near my house.” I explained that we didn’t have to kill it to get rid of it, I could simply take it over to my back yard, as I would love to have a resident salamander. Marion was quite grateful and asked that I diligently check under her garbage can any time it rains to make sure no more of the creatures stalk her. I told her I would and for the next few days I did but no more salamanders appeared.

A few more days passed and I got another frantic call. “Hi Michael…this is Marion…from across the street, could you come right over, I think there is a bunch of them under the garbage can.” I explained that I had been checking and really doubted there were more but I would check. I roll back the can and there are two large salamanders and a baby. A whole family had moved in this time. I was amazed they were there and at the fact that somehow Marion knows when they are there. I gathered up all three and took them over to my backyard and put them back by my wood pile where it is dark and damp. In the next couple of weeks I retrieved two more singles from under the green bin bringing the total to six salamanders that have been compelled to crawl from somewhere to take up residence under a garbage can on a blacktop driveway. I tried to identify the type of salamander and I believe they are Arboreal salamanders, (if interested, ) and I hope they like their new home.

The weather is warming and it looks like the rains may be over for the season so I don’t know if I will find anymore but I will tell you this, first rain of next winter I will make sure to check under Marion’s garbage can for anymore salamanders looking to relocate to the other side of the street.

a mysterious death of a friend

(I started this blog shortly after this happened but only got through the first paragraph before putting it aside until six months later. This is my best recollection of a few very strange sad days last summer.)

Thursday July 15th, 2010, I had started my day as I do most, wait for my wife Amy to start the water and then come downstairs and make a cup of coffee. My wife Amy had an appointment in San Francisco at 11:00 am, which is about an hour and a half away from where we live and I had selfishly talked my way out of driving her. I had my Chronicle to read and was hoping to catch the tide correctly and get in a body surfing session. And of course any gaps in my day could be filled with replays of the British Open on ESPN. I took my first look at the beach around 9:30. I was way off on the tide and  bought a 2nd cup of coffee and drove home. When I got in the house there was a message on our answering machine. I worried it might be Amy as she was unsure of finding her way in San Francisco. I hit the button on the machine and was stunned by the message, “Hi this is Kim, Damien’s roommate and Damien is missing. I called his ex-wife and she contacted a psychic who said she thinks he might be in the gully behind our house, so I was wondering if you could help Kenny look behind our house. You know Kenny had a stroke so I was hoping you could help. Could you please give me a call at 222-2324″ I called Kim back and she was at work. She proceeded to give a very strange rambling story about coming home from work, speaking with Damian who said he wasn’t feeling well and was going to bed early, something about being in a small car accident earlier and then thought she heard him leave the condo out the back way in the middle of the night. In the morning her concern escalated when she noticed his bed hadn’t been slept in and his bathrobe, (the last thing she saw him wearing) was on his bed.

This is definitely not how I thought this day would go.

I quickly got dressed and drove over to Ken’s condo complex. I parked and started walking towards the back of the complex where the gully is. (Basically, a ravine lined with eucalyptus trees that works as a seasonal creek for rain run off. Untended and a jumble of eucalyptus litter.) Anyway, I immediately saw Ken walking towards me and he had obviously already been back there looking around. Ken confirmed he had stomped around behind the complex but saw no sign of anything. He said with the thick underbrush and tree droppings it would be fairly obvious if someone had stumbled through the night before. I asked for his take on the situation and he said he was working on the disadvantage of only having Kim’s story to go on. Kim is an old friend and roommate who tends to go off on jags fairly regularly. So her stories do not always maintain the sober clarity that would be useful in the actual situation we were dealing with, a friend who’s gone missing. But still it was all we had to go on so Ken and I reviewed what he knew, (or thought he knew) so far.  The only additional information I hadn’t heard is that Kim had found Damien’s car keys and cell phone is his room when she went in to check on him in the morning. Kim had to get to work and that is why Ken and I were recruited to see what we could figure out. Unfortunately, nothing. It really was strange if it happened as Kim remembered and we were now left with nothing to follow up on. We didn’t know the friend he supposedly met for lunch, we didn’t know who he might have gotten a ride home from and we certainly couldn’t call him as his cell phone was in his room. Ken assured me that there was nothing I could do to help at the moment but promised to keep me in the loop. Kim evidently had already filed a missing person’s report with the Sheriff’s office but there isn’t much they do as he hadn’t been missing that long.

The next day Ken calls and says that the Sheriff’s showed up to talk to Kim first thing in the morning as they had found Damien’s car on a side road in the old Fort Ord property. The fire department had responded to a vehicle fire and found his car completely ablaze. There still had been no information on Damien but the story was definitely getting stranger by the day. The torched car was quickly matched to Damien and prompted a heightened interest from the Sheriff’s department in his disappearance. They interviewed Kim and Ken and said they would keep them informed on any updates.

Ken called me early the next day. His voice was quivering and I immediately braced for bad news. They had found Damien’s body washed up on the beach a few miles from where they had found his car. He was naked but with no obvious signs of trauma. Ken said the police may need them to drive down to identify the body and wondered if I might be able to drive him and Kim. I assured him I was available day or night for anything they needed, just call. Ken called later to say the police decided they didn’t need to drive down but would let them know what the next step in this process was.

Now I personally never had any contact with any of the law enforcement personal involved in this investigation but at this point, there seemed to be more questions than answers regarding Damien’s death and from what I was hearing from Ken, not much concern on the part of the Sheriff’s department in answering any of them.

After a few days the Sheriff’s department told Kim and Ken they were going to list Damien’s death as an accidental drowning. As bizarre a story as you will ever run across and that is what they were going with, accidental drowning. Did his car accidentally combust? Did he accidentally forget to get dressed when he left the house the night before without his phone or car keys and then decide to go for a midnight swim in the Monterey Bay?  There was also some speculation that Damien may have taken his own life. It turns out his mother committed suicide but there was certainly nothing apparent in his behavior that would indicate he was that troubled. The saddest part of this whole situation, besides losing a warm, funny, intelligent friend, is that those that loved him, (and there were many as evidenced at his memorial) is that the question as to what really happened to our friend on his last day will never be known.