Monthly Archives: August 2015

Uncle John’s Toupee

Flannel leaf caterpillar

This is not Donald Trump’s toupee, it’s the puss caterpillar of the flannel moth. But it does serve to remind me of a little family history.

My father went down to Mexico in the mid-1930s, looking for work, and fell in love with the country and the capital. His older brother John soon followed him. John always had an eye out for the main chance and (so the family story goes) very much liked it that he could choose almost any profession and practice it in Mexico without much training — and the licenses were cheap. He chose to be an optometrist and did fairly well at it. He married a woman named Virginia, who said that she was not Mexican but French.

An aside: At least at the time, this was a snobby ploy to separate from the lowly Mestizo. Having pure Spanish blood was okay, but if you could claim descent from the French who came over with Maximilian, you were at the pinnacle of the social pyramid — or so they thought. The family story says that Virginia’s folk were quite rich and, before the revolution, used to beat their maids with hairbrushes. This may explain why they emerged from the revolution far less rich than before, and in far fewer numbers.

Theirs was a curious marriage, John and Virginia, perhaps best summed up by a visit they made to California when I was a kid. Dad and John sat, for some reason, in the kitchen (probably because it was closer to the coffeepot) while Mom and Virginia chattered in Spanish in the living room.

Comes John’s voice from the kitchen: “Chachis!” (Accent on the first syllable — his pet name for her.

“Yes, Yonny!” she calls, and minces into the kitchen.

John is lounging in his kitchen chair, his jacket hanging on the chairback behind him.

“Chachis, give me a cigarette.”

“Yes, Yonny!” she says in dulcet tones. She slides her hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, the one that is hanging right behind him on the chair in which he sits, and extracts his pack of cigarettes and his lighter. She puts the cigarette between her lips, leaving traces of lipstick on it, and lights it, then puts it between his lips. She returns the cigarettes and lighter to his pocket.

Johnny puffs, approves of the cigarette, and says, “Thanks, Chachis.”

She twinkles and titters and minces back to the living room.

This act is repeated not only with cigarettes, but with coffee and glasses of water, while Dad and John sit in the kitchen.

It became a family joke. If you wanted something and were near it, you yelled “Chachis!” and the other family members laughed and heaped abuse on you.

Anyway, back to the wig.

Baldness runs in Dad’s family. It skipped my grandfather, but Dad started balding in high school and so did John. It never bothered Dad much, but apparently John hated it. On one visit to California, he and Virginia confided to my folks that their marriage had almost foundered. John had, he explained, bought a toupee and wore it while out of the house, and while wearing it conducted at least one illicit affair. It was the toupee’s fault, he said. It forced him into carnal relations with tramps.  Eventually Virginia found out, snatched the toupee off his head, and threw it into the fire, thus freeing Uncle John from its malign influence. They recounted this tale with great earnestness to my folks, and while they billed and cooed my parents struggled mightily to keep straight faces.

John thought of himself as a Jack of all Arts, and one of them was architecture. He designed the home he had built for himself and Virginia in Mexico City, a place where the building codes, at the time, were lax to non-existent. I hated the house. The stairs from the living room up to the second floor were polished stone slabs with only one side wall and no railings, and I was convinced that I would slip off them and break my neck and die. But John’s most famous innovation was the wall in his bathroom. It faced the street and was taken up by a floor-to-ceiling, side-to-side one way mirror, so that John could take a relaxing shit while looking down on his neighbors. Would have worked fine, too, except that it was put in backwards. I don’t know how many craps John and Virginia took before somebody alerted them to the problem. Instead of having it removed, they covered it with a curtain.

Some years after I became published, John loaned me a copy of a screenplay he had written and solicited my opinion of it. It was a pretty obvious rip-off of the movie RAIN, based on the Somerset Maugham story, but in John’s version the names were changed and People Actually Did It. Not on-camera, you understand, but there was some Hot Action going on, you can betcha. He pointed this out as the innovative factor, after I pointed out the connection with Maugham. I wasn’t particularly impressed, and John kept his literary efforts to himself from then on.

He had, in fact, come to California specifically to pester Barnaby Conrad with it. Conrad was currently in residence somewhere in Marin County, and he was pretty certain that Conrad would love the book and stake it financially, because after all they were both Men’s Men, into bullfighting and boating and other dick-waving events, although Conrad actually did them. In any event, he finagled a meeting, went off with his derivative screenplay in hand — and never mentioned it again.

Conversational farming.

The shack.

The Farm.

Back in the early 1970s my father and brother decided to get back to the land, and Dad bought a 10 acre spread in a small valley near Watsonville, California. The acres were diagonal. The farm was mired in the process of not becoming: in the last century it had not become a truck farm, not become an orchard, and most recently had not become a hog farm. The farm house started life in the mid- or late-1800s as a one room shack. At some later time later a room had been tacked to one side and another along the back, so the building resembled a frustrated letter L. Eventually a bathroom was added to one end and a kitchen to the other, but these weren’t improvements as much as they were accretions. Dirt crept up from the loose floorboards and god knows what sifted in from the roof; frogs inhabited the bathtub drain and lizards lived under the toilet seat. When I went down to visit, usually about twice a month, it amazed me that the place was still standing.

My dad, Dick, worked ten hour days teaching at the local continuation school and a night school ESL program to bring home the mortgage money, while my brother Rick and his friends spent their days sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and engaging in what I came to call “conversational farming.” They planned to put in a windmill, either in the valley where there was water but no wind, or at the top of a hill where there was plenty of wind and not a drop of water. I remember a short lived plan to hook a generator up to the septic tank in the hopes of producing electricity from methane, because somebody remembered seeing plans for such a device in a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog which they would get their hands on any day now. They decided to buy a plow horse and were very excited until they realized that they couldn’t afford to buy feed and they couldn’t graze the horse because the only grazing land was already scheduled to be a vegetable farm, which was going to go in any day now as soon as they figured out how to plow it which they couldn’t do because they couldn’t afford to rent a tractor and they couldn’t afford to feed a horse, but boy, when that vegetable garden went in they were going to sell organic vegetables down in Santa Cruz and make a bundle. I think the only thing these all talk and no walk back to the soil hippies succeeded in planting was a small dope garden up the hill amid the scrub oaks and dying apricot trees, until the deer discovered it and ate it down to the ground. Since deer apparently don’t get high, that was wasted too. My kid sister lived there for a short time, attending Watsonville High School, until she could take no more of farm, friends, or high school and returned to Berkeley.

The conversational farmers did help Dad put in a small kitchen garden and construct a chicken house, and somebody bought three ducklings, the big white domestic kind. Two were slated to be pets and so were named Admiral Sir Elmore Duck and Gladys, his wife. The third was named Dinner, just so that nobody would mistake his eventual fate.

Blau_Eier_05The chickens were a miscellaneous lot. I remember a couple of White Leghorns, and an Araucana which laid blue green eggs, and some scruffy brownish reddish hens, and a single rooster. The chickens were allowed to run around loose until the local foxes ate too many of them. Dad built a fenced chicken yard which worked well until a coyote came in over the top, so Dad put in a chicken wire roof and brought in more chickens.

I went down to visit one weekend when my son, the third Richard in the family, was about eight. Sunday morning, the conversational farmers suggested that I gather eggs for breakfast. I agreed. As I was on my way out, my father pointed out a stick leaning up against the chicken yard fence, and said it might be a good idea if I took it into the chicken yard with me. I’m a city girl, born and bred, and raised on books like Little House on the Prairie in which innocent and helpless young girls happily gather eggs from the farm’s chickens. I suspected nothing, even when the stick turned out to be more of a cudgel. I picked it up in my left hand and let myself into the yard. I locked the wire fence gate behind me and turned, already stepping toward the nesting boxes in the chicken house.

angry chickenChickens, it seems, fly, especially when city girls come onto their property looking to steal their eggs. I turned to find the flock flying up and down, yelling and shrieking and darting at my face. I edged toward the hen house, protecting my face with my right arm. They kept a clear circle around me which I maintained with threatening waggles of the cudgel as I reached into a nest with my right hand and groped around. It was nasty in there. I thought I felt an egg, so I took my eyes from the mob for a moment – sure enough, a speckled brown egg. I picked it up and turned to find an infuriated chicken screeching and flying straight at my face.

I panicked. Without thinking, I threw the cudgel into my right hand, forgetting that this hand already held a nice, warm, brown, speckled egg. It broke, dripping raw scrambled egg around the stick, over my fingers, and onto the floor of the house. The chickens stopped attacking me and started fighting over who got to eat the broken egg. It was appalling. Even more appalling was the sound I now heard from outside the pen. I looked up to see three generations of Richards rolling on the ground laughing at me, but by the time I got the pen door open and went after them they were long gone.

In time, the conversational farmers hired a dowser to find water in the valley. He came, he dowsed, he found an old cesspit, and he departed with half the farm’s stash in lieu of payment. An attempt was made to charm the neighbors into loaning the conversational farmers a tractor, but the neighbors (thick-necked farm types all) weren’t interested in having anything to do with the commie pinko dope smokin’ free love semi naked hippies who had invaded their little valley. I think they were most upset by the resident would-be Earth Mother, a chubby girl named Mayflower who dressed in fluttering rags and liked to dance naked under the full moon, to encourage growth in the crops that somehow were never planted. I didn’t care for her myself, nor did Dad, but she was the girlfriend of the only mechanic in the group and if they ever did get the money together to buy that windmill or tractor or generator or whatever they were going to need him, so Mayflower happily danced naked in the weeds while the conversational farmers stared, the neighbors peeped, and Dad revised lesson plans.

Neck_of_white_duck.The seasons passed, the garden failed and flourished and failed again, the ducks grew up and grew fat, and the day came for Dinner to turn into his name. The other conversational farmers became sudden vegetarians and my dad was at work, so my brother picked up the cleaver and went outside. I pause to say that he had named the cleaver “Eldridge” and horrified our sister by sitting at the kitchen table sharpening it and chuckling. So, he took Eldridge outside and caught Dinner (who thought he was a pet like the others, and would come up to you looking for food), stretched the duck’s neck over a tree stump, and – couldn’t do it.

You must understand that my brother is a very short man and has never come to terms with that. So far he had been able to blame the farm’s problems on others, who filled a long list that he would review periodically, re-ordering it depending on who he currently found most offensive or who had most recently witnessed his failures. Reprieving Dinner was a non-starter because he would have to explain why Dinner still graced the yard instead of the table, and he couldn’t blame anyone for his lack of nerve except himself. He had said he was going to kill the duck and by damn he was going to do it. So he went back inside, took up the shotgun, went to the yard, and blew the poor damned duck’s head off.

Dinner did what fowl tend to do in such circumstances: he ran around the yard with the remains of his head held on by a bit of skin and flopping against his neck, spouting blood like a fire hydrant. My brother went into the bushes and lost his lunch. After a while Dinner stopped running and pumping and fell down into the dirt, and a bit later my brother went over and prodded him. When Dinner didn’t move, he picked the duck up by one foot, carried it inside, and threw it onto the kitchen table. Plaster dust sifted over it like flour. He went back into the bushes and lost his breakfast. My brother was sitting on the stoop when Dad got home. He jerked his head toward the door and said, “I killed the duck.” Then he went into the bushes and lost his midnight snack.

My dad was also a short man, but he had come to terms with that years previously and was content with himself. He grew up in California’s wide Central Valley during the Great Depression, where he helped supplement the family dinner table with hunting and helped butcher the occasional pig or calf with which my grandfather was paid for his carpentry. So Dad had no problem gutting, plucking, and dressing the duck, and cooked it up a  l’orange with new potatoes on the side. Dad said it was one of the best ducks he had ever tasted. My brother said it tasted like shit. The conversational farmers, forsaking their morning vegetarianism, dug in anyway.

Eventually Dad got tired of supporting the conversational farmers and required them to be productive so they moved away, taking with them dreams of windmills on hills and generators over piles of shit, and horses that never happened and fabulous vegetable gardens that produced just enough food for the gophers. Dad met the woman who became my stepmother, who made him give up his long hair and earring, dressed him in pearl-buttoned Western shirts and Tony Lama boots, and moved him into town. I don’t think my dad had ever been happier. Dad rented the farm out to a series of bleary eyed slackers who did nothing to keep the place going except to dig a cesspit when the old septic tank filled up, and nail flattened tin cans over the leaks in the roof. The old farmhouse rotted so thoroughly that the window sills would fall off all by themselves.

AromasShackWhen Dad and my stepmom decided to build their dream house on the farm, they thought to get rid of the old place by offering it to the local fire department, who could practice their technique while burning the place to the ground. The fire chief came by one day, took a look, and refused – the place wasn’t even good enough for burning and he wouldn’t risk his crew in it. Dad hired guys to come in with sledge hammers and crowbars to take the house down.

To everyone’s surprise, the old place didn’t want to go. It had been built of clear heart virgin redwood which over the years had become one with the nails, except those around the window sills, and it took contractors close to a month to pull the place down. Then my stepmom took the place in hand, as she had taken my dad in hand.

Things that take a long time becoming leave ghosts.  The remnants of the old hog pens are long gone, as are the rotted apricot trees and most of the poison oak. In their place a cozy white house graces the valley floor, surrounded by porches which are, in turn, surrounded by my stepmom’s flower beds and the fruit trees she and Dad planted. It has become a home, and I like visiting. Sometimes, after the folks have gone to bed, I spend an hour in a rocker on the porch, sipping a little Irish whiskey and looking out over the valley. Sometimes, especially when the moon is full, I can almost see a chubby, naked Earth Mother dancing through the flower beds, and if I listen with care I hear the sound of windowsills falling off, all by themselves.

photo credits: “duck neck” By Ezhuttukari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

“Araucana eggs” By Penarc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

“Angry chicken” Olena Istomina/iStockphoto

all others © 2005 Marta Randall 

Native Plants of Ocean View: ‘Ohi’a Lehua

'Ohi'a lehua in blossom.

‘Ohi’a lehua in blossom.

The ‘ohi’a lehua[i] (Metrosideros polymorpha) is the most common tree in Ocean View and indeed in the Hawaiian Islands. Like OV’s human residents, it is tolerant of almost all environments and thrives from sea level to over 8000 feet, in conditions both wet and dry, from boggy soils to basalt — in fact, just about anywhere. It is usually the first tree to colonize lava, where its roots and leaf-litter help to create and increase soil.

Lehua blossoms.

Lehua blossoms.

The ‘ohi’a lehua takes many forms, from low shrubs in bogs or directly on lava, to majestic specimens that can reach 82 feet tall. Flowers are usually bright to medium red but orange-red, salmon, pink, yellow, or orange forms are also found. The flowers appear in clusters on the terminal ends of the branches. Masses of stamens extend from the flower and give the blossoms their characteristic pom-pom shape.

‘Ohi’a lehua are the keystone species of the Big Island’s native forests, and Ka`u is the location of some of the largest and most pristine native forests in Hawai`i. It has been called the ultimate nurse tree for our native species.

Disease threat.

‘Ohi’a lehua are at risk from a fungus called ‘ohi’a wilt or rapid ‘ohi’a death fungus. It is spreading from Puna, where it already killed half the `ohi`a on 6,000 acres. The fungus clogs the tree’s vascular system. A single `ohi`a dies of thirst in weeks. A stand of `ohi`a dies in three years. In order to help preserve the trees, anyone entering infected forests is urged to clean vehicles, tires, boots and clothing before bringing them back to Ka`u.

An 'ohi'a lehua growing out of the 1986 lava flow, near Kalapana.

An ‘ohi’a lehua growing out of the 1986 lava flow, near Kalapana.


The reddish brown heartwood of the ‘ohi’a lehua is hard and fine-textured. It was traditionally used in building houses and heiaus, and to make household objects, weapons, tools, and statues. The flowers were used medicinally to treat the pain of childbirth; it is one of the few honey plants that is native to the Hawaiian Islands and in the summer it is not uncommon to hear an ‘ohi’a lehua buzzing with honey bees.


ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were two young lovers. Madam Pele, the volcano goddess, fell in love with the handsome ʻŌhiʻa and approached him, but he turned her down. Pele’s temper is famously chancy. If she couldn’t have him, no one would, so she transformed ʻŌhiʻa into a tree. His lover Lehua was devastated. Out of pity the other gods turned her into a flower and placed her upon the ʻōhiʻa tree. It is said that when a lehua flower is plucked from an ʻōhiʻa tree, the sky will fill with rain  — the tears of the young lovers.

[i] It is a common misconception that the word ‘ōhi`a is used to refer to the tree and that the word lehua refers only to its flowers. The Hawaiian Dictionary (Pukui and Elbert 1986: 199) defines lehua with these words: “The flower of the ‘ōhi`a tree… also the tree itself [emphasis added].” Thus the Metrosideros polymorpha may be referred to correctly as a lehua tree, or as an ‘ōhi`a lehua, or simply an ‘ōhi`a

Photo credits:

“‘Ohi’a lehua in blossom” by © Marta Randall

“Lehua blossoms hawaii 01” by © CC BY-SA Thomas Tunsch, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Kalapana May 2009” by Brocken Inaglory -, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Drive with aloha, my ass.

We are urged to drive with aloha, aloha in the sense of care and respect for others. Generally I have no problem with this and, in fact, stop for pedestrians before they even think about crossing the street, wave other drivers into the traffic stream ahead of me, and behave like the patient, respectful automotive citizen that I am.

However. I find that I struggle with the spirit of aloha on the long hauls. For example:

Listen, Hyundai or Daewoo or whatever the hell you are, you are supposed to keep up, not behave like a tampon in the flow of traffic. Red car, too. Figures.

For the love of god, you brake *before* going up a hill? Ever heard of momentum?

I know the sign says “Nene 750 feet.” See how it’s in a yellow diamond shape? That means it’s a warning sign. Nene may cross the road here. It does not mean there are native geese in cages on the side of the road. Pay attention and keep up.

You’re a Mustang. You have a low center of gravity. You can take these curves faster than you do. Why, look at those two Jeeps pulling away from you. They have no problem with curves and they have no center of gravity at all.

Can you read? The sign says “40 minimum” not “40 maximum,” and here you are playing it safe by going 35 in a 55mph zone. Please read the Hyundai/Daewoo rant, above. I don’t like repeating myself.

Okay, 55mph. Listen up, tourist in the minivan. On most of this road, 40 is minimum, 55’s the speed limit, 60’s okay, 65’s okay if you look out for the constabulary (easy to see because they all drive high-testosterone SUVs with blue fezzes on top), 70’s pushing it, 75 your ass is toast. Got that? Good. Now speed the hell up.

What police cars look like on the Big Island: huge SUVs of any make and color, but the all have that little blue fez on top.

What police cars look like on the Big Island: huge SUVs of any make and color, but the all have that little blue fez on top.

Buddy, if the cop we just passed saw what you did with your finger, I will be delighted to pull over to let him by, and applaud when he pulls you over. By the way, your right tail-light’s out.

It’s a freaking Scenic Overlook sign, not the lair of some rock monster looking to eat you! Stay on the road!

Signal. Signal. Signal. Were you raised in pigsty? Signal.

I know you’re a tremendously expensive SUV, but that doesn’t give you rights over as much of the road as you’re taking. Get into your own lane and stay there.

If I slow down and wave you into the traffic ahead of me, do not sit there looking at me with your jaw hanging open. And wave afterwards.

It’s a school district, pilgrim! See the sign that says so, and the flashing yellow lights surrounding the “25mph when lights are flashing” sign? Slow the hell down!

There’s more, but you get the idea. I’m working on this, truly I am. Why this evening, I exercised restraint when an idiot in a light truck couldn’t decide whether to take the Pahoa turn-off or not or take it or not or take it … I just huffed out a world-weary sigh and soldiered on.