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Barney Brantingham retires

In this week’s Independent, Nick Welsh covers the retirement of everybody’s favorite Santa Barbara columnist, Barney Brantingham. When I started at the SBNP as an intern, people used to ask me all the time if I’d met Barney and if so, what he was like. I’d respond that he kept to himself in the newsroom but he sure did seem to know what was going on around town. It seemed like it was no big deal for him to churn out a column almost every day of the week while making it look like the easiest job on the block. I admired that work ethic and tried to emulate it. It was an approach that served me well in my newspaper days.

But the place where Barney really showed his true colors was when everything went to hell at the paper in 2006. He was much loved by the readers – he very easily could have hung on there for a very long time without too much strife. But he walked out early and covered the rest of us walking out for the Indy. That took guts, and it made me sure I was doing the right thing when I departed.

Barney was Santa Barbara’s Herb Caen, a name that probably doesn’t mean much except to us newspaper types. But he loved the town and he covered it through the eyes of the people who live here – the kind of writing that we don’t really get to read much anymore. Thanks, Barney, for being a mentor to me and a much-loved voice for our city.


We can’t forget

Last week I interviewed a real estate executive from Philadelphia, who is working to expand the city’s Holocaust memorial. His grandfather was a survivor of the Sobibór extermination camp, where his first wife and children were executed on arrival because they were Jewish.

More than 200,000 people were killed by Nazis at Sobibór during World War II. After managing to escape the camp, his grandfather fled to West Germany, where he joined the Resistance and was wounded while fighting against Hitler’s troops. In the hospital he met a nurse who would become his second wife. After the war, they moved to Israel and then to the U.S.

“My involvement with this project is to honor my grandfather and make sure my kids and someday their kids understand what people before us sacrificed and went through,” the executive told me. I’ll share more of this story when it is ready to run.

This story isn’t ready to print yet, but this just seems like a really important week to start telling it. Have we moved as far forward from the conflict of values that started World War II as we thought? Terrifyingly, perhaps not.

Victor, Colorado, 2017

Another stellar local sunset

Taken earlier this month at Hendry's Beach.

Taken earlier this month at Hendry’s Beach.

From the sports archives

I was reading an article today on the Daily Beast, about Wyoming’s best high school basketball team, Native American life, poverty, and growing up with ambition fueled by sports. You can find it here.

The story reminded me so vividly of one that I had written myself, about 12 years ago, while working as a sports reporter for a daily newspaper in Northern California.

It takes place in a little reservation town called Covelo, within Mendocino County’s Round Valley. Simply driving there – and back to Santa Rosa again – for this basketball game was an experience that will stick with me for life.

Like the writer of this Wyoming piece, the weather en route to the reporting was dramatic. It was a freezing cold January day, threatening to snow if any precipitation began to fall from the sky. As I returned from Round Valley to a deserted Highway 101 in the middle of the night, a work crew along the narrow mountain road had lit a giant bonfire, both by which to see to work and to keep themselves warm.

It was much later that I started reading CJ Box novels, but it now reminds me of one of his scenes, where the landscapes are often so still and black that you can disappear into them, and every headlight might draw attention.

Here is the story, called “Support on the Court.” I might have given it a different name. Basketball was this little community’s bright spot – and not just on a cold winter’s night.

(Originally published Feb. 5, 2002.)

COVELO – On a frigid winter night in Round Valley, the full moon illuminates snow-covered hillsides and barren farmland, but a brighter glow emanates from downtown.

The handful of businesses and shops that line Highway 162 as it runs through Covelo and onto the Round Valley Indian Reservation are deserted, but take a left on Howard Street and go down two blocks to the high school and things are jumping.

It’s an icy Tuesday night in January, but more than 200 people pack the round-roofed gymnasium, watching four basketball games back-to-back. They cram onto the four rows of bleachers across the north side of the gym. It’s the league home opener against Potter Valley for the varsity and junior varsity Mustangs, girls and boys, and their fans are out in force.

“This community loves these kids and it loves sports,” said school principal and counselor Renee East, who greets each of the high school students by name as they walk by her in the gym. “You’ll never find this gym more packed then on a night like this.”

Usually, it’s standing-room-only at Round Valley games, and people leave work early to get a good seat. The grandmother of one of the varsity boys arrives at 3 p.m. to find a place at the top of the bleachers, even though her grandson won’t start playing for nearly five hours, at 7:45.

The draw of basketball in Round Valley is not new. Many of the people in the stands played for the Mustangs when they were in school. But the teams have taken a different role in the community as of late, providing not just entertainment, but motivation for the athletes to explore a world beyond their tiny hometown.

The population of Round Valley, including the town of Covelo and the checkered reservation lands, is 1,057. The 2000 Census showed a nearly even split between those living on reservation property and the town of Covelo. About 85 percent of the school’s students are American Indians.

Varsity girls coach Kim Stillwell, who played basketball in Round Valley, said the sport gives kids a chance for recognition and realization. “Basketball helps them to realize the opportunities they have and helps them to go on to colleges and junior college,” said Stillwell, who graduated in 1981.

She’s the aunt of one of her players and spends early afternoon games watching over like a mother hawk, observing not just the athletes on the court but the flock of younger children who shoot around between halves.

American Indian scholar Greg Sarris, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now holds an endowed chair of English literature at Loyola Marymount University, said sports have become increasingly important to communities like Round Valley, for people of all ages.

“It’s one of the healthier ways men and women in Indian communities can distinguish themselves,” said Sarris, who serves as chairman of his tribe, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. “Playing sports and being focused is a shot in the arm as far as self-esteem and worth.”

Stillwell, who works at the Round Valley Inn when she’s not coaching, tries to get her team into as many tournaments as possible so the players can see new places and experience new things. Basketball and the Future Farmers of America, a program in which students raise animals and learn about agriculture, are the primary chances kids have to travel, Stillwell said.

A future after high school

Principal East, who played basketball at Santa Rosa Junior College, has seen a change in the mentality of the school’s student-athletes since she began teaching at Round Valley nine years ago. At that time, she said, only 15 to 20 percent pursued higher education after high school. On this year’s varsity girls team, all seven seniors are planning futures of school, work, travel and perhaps even more basketball.

The school has had success breaking the cycle of unemployment that often typifies reservation communities. Of the 2001 graduating class, everyone went on to a college, junior college or trade school program, joined the military, or got a job.

About 50 of the school’s 120 students are involved in athletics. More than 30 of those play basketball. Knowing they must keep their grade-point average at 2.0 or higher helps, East said, though four basketball players and a cheerleader were through for the season after semester grades came out.

“There’s a lot more focus this year as far as accountability for their grades. Most of them realize there’s not a lot of resources there and they’ve got to go out and get a job or education to pursue the resources that they want,” East said.

That mentality flourished on the girls varsity team. Five players returned from last year’s North Central League III championship team, an honor that has made their team one of the school’s premier athletic programs.

Senior forward Trista Freeman, a key player for the Mustangs who has been invited to play in a Las Vegas junior national game this spring, said fan support brings success. And fan support has grown stronger since last season’s league title.

“Half our crowd comes to our out-of-town games, too,” she said. That means the Round Valley fans usually outnumber the home-team fans.

In the blue and white home gym, though, which has a 12-foot high Mustang painted on the wall, the advantage is overwhelming. During the JV girls game, Round Valley is down by one point, 36-35, with 35 seconds remaining. The small Potter Valley crowd tries to start a rallying call of “de-fense,” but gets drowned out by the uncoordinated cacophony and bleacher banging coming from the Mustangs’ fans.

When the JV boys team runs out to warm up just minutes after the girls’ game has ended, it’s not to blasting rap music, but to the jarring screams of their fans. The younger the players, the louder the yells.

“It’s our boys playing,” said sophomore Patricia Cortez, who is watching the game from the unofficial student section in a corner of the gym. She and her friend Danielle Bettega come to every home game, even though they aren’t on the team. Being on the high school roster isn’t the only way to participate.

“Everyone here plays basketball, some just aren’t on the team,” Bettega explains. She has asthma that keeps her off the court.

Family atmosphere

Some fans don’t have children or grandchildren on the court, but an assortment of relatives they keep up with. Iian Hoaglen has four cousins on the girls varsity team and a niece who’s a Round Valley cheerleader. He and fellow retiree Hank Gonzales arrive at around 3:15 to see the games, bringing padded pillows to make the bleachers more comfortable.

“It’s the only team we’ve got here,” Hoaglen noted. He’ll go on the road for some games to cheer his cousins — leading scorer Liz Oliver, Freeman, Teresa Bettega and Monica Whipple.

Fans and the athletes speak of the basketball teams as ambassadors of sorts, spreading the word that Round Valley’s reputation as a place where kids run wild is not accurate.

The locals prefer to believe that incidents such as cars being egged and tires slashed are due to boredom, for which basketball is the primary antidote.

“It might be a nice place for older people to retire and stuff, but it’s not a town for young kids,” said Misty Watts, a senior on the varsity team.

Kept in line by basketball

East says that’s not a problem Covelo faces alone. “You’re going to have problems no matter where you go in this world,” she said. “There are aunts, uncles, foster parents and grandparents here. Native or non-native, it makes no difference. These families are supporting these kids.”

Freeman admits she has been kept in line by the sport. “If I wasn’t playing basketball, I’d probably be messing up,” says Freeman, who may attend Mendocino College after high school. “Playing basketball made me want to go to school, keep my grades up, and gave me something to look up to.”

Ken and Connie Watts have seen basketball give their daughter Misty a jolt of ambition. She’s planning to attend Butte Junior College in Chico next year.

If she wasn’t playing basketball, Watts probably would be home watching TV, she said.

“All the people on the basketball teams have a good attitude,” said Watts, whose father played basketball at Round Valley. She’s sitting in the bleachers before the girls game, visiting with friends and cheering on the JV team.

“We’re trying to rebuild our rep to be good.”



Millennials to bloggers: “Please stop accusing us of ruining everything.”

Millennials from around the nation descended on New York City today to protest the onslaught of virulent national blame they’ve been subjected to for “f-ing up the national economy, the real estate market, and failing to procreate,” summarized one protester, a man in his late twenties who gave his name as “Bueller Ferris.”

“Oh, and it would also be great if people could stop saying that Ryan Lewis/Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’ is our generational anthem,” added a woman standing nearby, clearly dressed in second-hand clothes from her grandmother’s closet. “I hate that song, especially the R. Kelly part. Gross! Also, that line about keyboards and kneeboards? It makes no sense.”

The protesters, who gathered outside independent coffee shops with the idea that most bloggers who’ve targeted their lifestyle choices and economic decisions probably don’t work in offices or patronize Starbucks (perhaps because they also happen to be members of Generation Y), passed out leaflets featuring some of the recent coverage they’ve found particularly insulting. Among the articles that generated ire:

Millennials hate money: Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World? – “The millennials’ relationship with money seems quite simple. They do not have a lot of it, and what they do have, they seem reluctant to spend.”

Millennials hate cars: Auto Brands Look to Woo Millennials with Entry-Level Luxury – “They’re proving to be the most elusive in terms of attaching themselves to brands and even to the idea of owning a vehicle.”

Millennials hate hamburgers: McDonald’s Brand Appeal in Danger Among Millennials – “McDonald’s will need to change its ways as young people are demanding healthier, high quality products from socially responsible companies.”

Milliennials hate religion: Celebrating Lent: Why non-religious millennials are choosing to sacrifice“Young people are disappointed with religion. They are not engaged, not connected. They do not feel part of the community.”

“Ouch!” said Stacey Jenkins, an Ohio graduate student who admitted that she’d love to own a home when her career path becomes more settled, but admitted that she hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s since she became a vegetarian/pacifist at the age of 11, and doesn’t own a car, preferring to take the bus. “But you know what they say: ‘one man’s trash, that’s another man’s come up.'”

It’s Friday, and this is how I feel about the world



Thanks, Snick, you conveyed that a lot more effectively than I possibly could have myself. Photo of Snickers the Wonder Dog by Will Etling, image copyright 2012 reused with permission. That’s her sister Andy’s tail sticking out on the right.

A beautiful book

I am only adding myself to the litany of people who loved the debut novel of Alaskan journalist Eowyn Ivey, but I don’t often find books that capture my heart as effectively as this one did. The Snow Child is a perfect read for the short cold days of winter. I dove into it during a Southern California cold snap, and cringed while imagining what it would be like to live somewhere like the frigid Alaskan wilderness homesteaded by the tale’s main characters.

If you loved the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder or the world of Caddie Woodlawn, you will identify with this fantastical (thanks for the word, O.S.) read that might make you want to revisit your favorite childhood fairy tales. It will also make you want to visit the wilds of Alaska – especially if the travel there could be in a time machine.

Whether  you are an emotionally open person or one with a fairly frozen heart, this book will grab you and not let go. It may not make you cry, but it will make you feel. I finished it two days ago and have still been thinking of the story since.  In a rare move for me, I will read The Snow Child again.