I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.

I’m so sorry, but must pause the reading recap, slip a bookmark in it until next week.

Because this is a week of grieving in my community, and to the extent that a blog is a sort of ship’s log, there is an obligation to record the events that shape the journey. Even when the journey is a sad one.

(Santa Barbara News-Press photo):


Who could have known that for bucolic Santa Barbara, the real tragedy was to be not the fire, but the flood?  That a fiercely dedicated army of firefighters would save Montecito only to see it drown in mud a few weeks later?

By now you’ve probably seen a hundred shots of Oprah in her wading boots, surveying the damage to her Montecito mansion.

(TMZ photo):


Part of the long-time fascination with Montecito is its roster of celebrity residents. People who could afford to live anywhere in the world often choose to live in Montecito. Yes, Oprah, of course; I waited next to her for coffee once at Pierre Lafond, the iconic emporium in Montecito’s upper village. I also glanced up one time to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus rifling through the sale rack next to me at a dress shop.  Another day, I had a nice chat with actor Malcolm McDowell in a local antique store. Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, etc. etc. etc. live there. As do many people whose names you would not recognize, people who have simply had the good fortune to live in an exquisite setting betwixt the mountains and the sea.

The rains came Monday night. And as a freakishly intense storm bore down over the recently-charred mountainside, it triggered a debris flow that tore ferociously down the canyons into the heart of Montecito, just blocks from the chic little shops and restaurants on Coast Village Road. There were evacuation warnings, but the epicenter of the destruction was an area under only a voluntary rather than mandatory order. And there was evacuation fatigue. People had already been away from their homes for days or weeks during the fire. The worst was over, they thought.

They were wrong. The emergency alerts didn’t go out until after the mudslide had begun, and then it was too late. In the dead of night, more than half an inch of rain fell in just five minutes over the burn area. The torrent swept down Montecito Creek carrying boulders the size of automobiles. Crashing trees were grotesquely deployed as battering rams, crushing everything in the mile-wide torrent of mud and debris.

Here is a photo by Greg Villeneuve of what looks like a river, but is actually Highway 101, the only artery between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles:


And here is a Noozhawk photo of a damaged home. It is by no means the worst of what occurred:


 Debris flow is a new and wholly unwelcome addition to my vocabulary. For the definitive description of it, see John McPhee’s October, 1988 New Yorker piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”. Therein, he provides a description that became a prophecy for what happened here this week: “In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows.”

And in that flow last Monday night, good people died. At this writing, the death toll stands at 18; the number of missing has been mercifully revised downward to 5. It has been, at least for me, a faith-testing catastrophe.

In his excellent biography of Holocaust hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author Eric Metaxes wrote that Bonhoeffer’s mostly secular family gave a nod to their Christian heritage each year when his mother read Psalm 90 aloud as a New Year’s Eve tradition. I made a stab at memorizing the psalm awhile back and failed miserably,  but one remnant of it has stayed with me and has haunted me this week:

“He doth sweep men away; they are like a dream…”

That dream became a nightmare this week as so many were literally swept away.

(Montecito Inn photo by Gary Goldberg)output-19

We don’t live in Montecito, so we were spared the destruction. But we are not spared the grief. Those who survived are without power or potable water. It will take months, or more likely years, until there is any semblance of normalcy. Our hearts go out to everyone there who is on this sad journey.

“Return, O Lord! How long? 

Have mercy on thy servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 

Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us and as many years as we have seen evil.”

– Psalm 90, verses 13-15



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Reading Recap: A High Point and Some Lows

Another year has passed without turning on the television. Not even once. We just can’t seem to do it, sinking into our books every evening while the remote gathers dust. I believe the CE may have read 100 books this year and I hate him for it just a little bit.

My own reading moldered; I am a slow reader at best and I took on a few tomes this year that were worthy, but slowed down my reading challenge, which I failed to meet. I think my final tally was 58 reads, respectable certainly, but far behind last year’s achievement of 70. Hey, I read War and Peace this year, so back off with the arched eyebrows!

There were many transcendent reading epiphanies this year, most of them passed in solitude, but we got to enjoy one special moment of bookish communion with others. Son Taylor stopped through town with his friends Megan and Ashley, who astonished us by volunteering for a tour of the CE’s library and then proceeded to astonish us further by acknowledging that they had read a fair portion of the titles therein. They are less than half our age and have read almost as much as us! Yay for the Millennials!

Here they are with the CE admiring a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s:


But with the high points must also come the lows. So let’s start out the 2017 Reading Recap with my unfavorites. And yes, I know you will raise those eyebrows even higher, because there is some heresy in my list. Some of these books were considered hot reads and are by authors viewed as literary darlings. Just not by me. Sorry not sorry.

Five I could have done without:

Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life by Sally Bedell Smith. 624 pages. Published 2017, Random House. The author suggests that Prince Charles has lived a life of frustration, but not one moment of it could be more frustrating than the time spent reading about him. Let’s cut to the chase, he’s a ninny. A spoiled, indulged, ridiculous ninny. I wish him the best, but God Save the Queen!

My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One by Elena Ferrante. 331 pages. Published 2011. I’d read it – or rather, listened to it, as an audiobook – a year or two back and didn’t love it. When the novel of two childhood friends growing up in post-World War II Naples was chosen as a book club selection, I gave it a second try and listened to it again all the way through.  For me it did not improve with age. There is soo much love for this book, so much fuss and hype over Ferrante’s identity  and her work, but I will never make it to book two in the series.

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1) by Graeme Simsion. 295 pages. Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster. Mildly entertaining and somewhat instructive on the subject of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is dealt with mostly in broad humor. And which completely missed the mark for me. Can’t recommend it.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. 480 pages. Published 2001 by William Morrow. I know, I know, this book is considered a modern classic. “You HAVE to read it,” said someone whose opinion I greatly respect. So I did. And mostly wished I hadn’t. The genre is fantasy with a liberal sprinkling of Norse mythology and maybe it just isn’t for me.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain. 320 pages. Published 2012, Ecco. This book was a National Book Award finalist, but I would only vote for it if I could retitle it Billy Lynn’s Long, Miserable, Mud-Slinging, Cynical, Swaggering, Arrogant Trudge. It went on far too long and it was terrible. Billy Lynn is a sympathetic character held hostage by a bitter and mean-spirited author.

You think I didn’t like those listed above? They were manna from heaven compared to the WORST book I read this year:

My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. 372 pages. Published 2015 by Atria Books. Here’s how I think this happened. Backman’s (not that great) A Man Called Ove became popular and the publisher must have said “Quick – we need a follow-up to capitalize on your success!” and then Backman must have pulled this hot mess out of a file drawer in the back room and thus materialized the worst book of my reading year. My book club mostly agreed with me – I think almost everyone was thumbs down on this one.

It gets better, I promise. Next week we move on to better reads from 2017…


No matter how busy you may think you are,

you must find time for reading,

or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” – Confucius







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Eenie, Meenie, Miney and Moo.

An excellent feature of a large family is that half of them can decide to run off to the frozen tundra for Christmas and we still had enough of a contingent here to celebrate. The CE’s sister, Gail, decided to stay in Montana, not being in the mood for what she thought would be a smoldering campfire after watching news reports of the Thomas fire roaring through. Tina and family opted for a frigid trip to NYC, as did Angie’s boys. They may have gotten more than they bargained for, with temps in the low teens. Brrrr!

They all missed seeing Santa Barbara rebound from the latest natural disaster as only she can. The smoke has cleared, the weather has been fine and the holiday sunsets were spectacular. #nofilter needed:


We missed them all, but had a relaxing, mellow Christmas with three adult kids. Angie, Taylor and Daniel. Plus baby Moo!




Granny hosted us for a lovely Christmas Eve dinner at her retirement community before we went to church:


Christmas Day was awfully quiet without little ones getting us up at the crack of dawn. But then again, there was time to enjoy morning coffee:


The annual drama of unmolding the three-layer jello salad continued apace:


And it was disastrous. Ruh ro.  Might be time to retire this tradition:


We did manage to have a very civilized Christmas dinner, albeit with many fewer places at the table than usual:


There were some memorable gifts:



And visits from friends:


And lots of good memories to cherish of a holiday with these three; Eeny, Meenie, Miney…


And Moo:


Wishing all Polloplayer readers the best of everything in 2018! xo














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Thomas Fire: the Aftermath.

Why is it that on the shortest days of the year I have the longest lists?

Dawn arrives in the thinnest, milky colors these December days and then, it seems, dark falls again before I can get anything done.

IMG_1532 2

I am utterly discombobulated after the Thomas Fire – now officially the largest wildfire in modern California history – consumed two weeks of our lives. Of course, that is nothing compared with what it took from others. Hundreds of homes destroyed in Ventura County; only three, I think, in our community, but it’s always harder when you know the people who’ve lost their homes. Last night we dined a few tables over from a family whose home was destroyed; a friend of our son was also among those whose hilltop aerie went up in flames. Unthinkable.

There is a consensus that if the fire had begun here, and there would not have been time to assemble a veritable army of 8,000+ brave firefighters, the community of Montecito and perhaps much of the town of Santa Barbara would have been devoured by the fire.  We were told that each threatened home in the foothills of Montecito had a fire truck in the driveway and was individually and fiercely defended. The homes that were lost were simply subjected to a wind-driven inferno beyond what even the best firefighters in the world – which is who we had here – could defeat.

And even more mind-boggling, it seems, is that the smoke has cleared now that the beast is 65% contained and, unless you drive along the roads below the charred hillsides, it’s as if it never happened. For the sake of posterity, I did get this photo of the scorched hills along the northbound 101 freeway between Ventura and Carpinteria:

IMG_1472 2

But it did happen, and here it is December 23 and we are not even close to being ready to celebrate Christmas. The check-offs on the lists I made put me at about the December 7 mark. No way to time travel that gap. Many fewer packages under the tree this year. But we have a tree. And we have a home. And dark as the dawn may seem, a star will rise and wise men will follow it.

The darker the sky, the easier it is to see the stars. My prayer for those devastated by the fire is for this miracle: that somehow, amidst their grief, the good news of Christmas will shine more brightly for them and glimmer with hope for the future.

 “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” – Luke 2:9

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Praying for Santa Barbara.

Things have changed so quickly that since starting this post a few minutes ago I have managed to rather severely bury the lede. Bloggers are not reporters, as it turns out. Most of you reading are not in an emergency situation so you have the luxury of wasting time on the first paragraphs. If you are in Santa Barbara County, nothing matters except the last ones.

The Thomas Fire has thus far claimed two lives, 259,00 acres, 746 single-family residences with damage to more than a thousand additional residences and is now the third largest wildfire recorded in modern California history.

Last week, the fire was still in Ventura County and I was fatuously comparing it to my root canal. That night, the flames poured into Santa Barbara County, our power went out a dozen times and at 3 a.m. we had refugees from Carpinteria on our doorstep. There had been a knock at their door, and a shout to “Get out NOW!”. The last thing they saw as they rushed away was a sea of flames licking at the edge of their property.

For the past week, their fire became our fire, with several agonizing days of waiting to learn for certain that their home had survived. It did, thanks to a merciful God and the incredibly heroic firefighters who literally held a line in front of their home. Our friends were finally allowed back in yesterday and this is the photo they shared of their hillside:


It is a war zone. It is the longest ever duration of a Red Flag Warning, indicating extreme fire danger, since the warnings were initiated back in 2004. Air quality is so poor that people are wearing masks indoors and out.

Firefighters have doggedly set back burns, trying to stem the tide:


Photographer Jim Stoicheff (@studiostoicheff) captured this dramatic pic from the Santa Barbara waterfront last Tuesday evening:


For the past several days, the focus in Santa Barbara County has been a desperate attempt to hold the front end of the fire in the hills behind Montecito. This morning, the winds gusted to a reported 40-60 m.p.h. and all bets are off. Power and internet access are out in parts of Santa Barbara and mandatory evacuation orders have just extended all the way to Highway 154 to the west above Highway 192.  Local news station KEYT anchor Joey Buttitta (@Joey_Buttita) tweeted around 8:50 a.m. PST: “THIS IS NO JOKE. If you live in Montecito area LEAVE. EVACUATE. The #ThomasFire is moving fast. GET OUT.”

It has jumped San Ysidro over to Hot Springs and Cold Springs Canyon. Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara is next, and if this beast moves south of 192 it will be an unprecedented calamity. I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.


We are safe. We are actually a hundred plus miles to the south visiting adorable grandchildren and breathing some clean air, but ready to pack and leave at a moment’s notice.

And we are praying for Santa Barbara. If you are the praying sort, this – right now –  would be a good time to offer one up on our behalf.

The scene right now above Montecito, per KEYT:






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Up in flames.

I thought the worst thing that was going to happen this week was my root canal. Wow, was I wrong.

SoCal is on fire this week and not in any of the ways one might hope. At the moment, six separate blazes are aflame from San Diego up to the edge of Santa Barbara County. The Thomas Fire, the largest of all the conflagrations, has destroyed more than 400 structures and displaced thousands of people. It has been nipping at the edges of the greater Santa Barbara area the past few days, jumping the freeway at Ventura County’s Solimar Beach, burning at least one structure at La Conchita and prompting evacuations in the town of Carpinteria.

KTLA took this photo of La Conchita in flames:


It started in Santa Paula, but fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds, which are supposed to kick up again this weekend to the tune of 45 m.p.h., quickly spread, at one point burning at the rate of an acre per second, according to the Washington Post.

For those who have inquired, we are (for the moment, at least) miles and miles away from it all. Not a breath of wind in our part of town all week. But wow, it has been eerie. I took this photo at 1:30 in the afternoon yesterday. Early afternoon looked like dusk and smelled like the world’s largest campfire:


This morning’s sky looks even more apocalyptic, but according to the latest news, while the blaze has grown to 148,000 acres it is now 15% contained. We’ve had power outages, our neighborhood and house smell like eau-de-giant-ashtray, and like everyone else, we’ve been forced to see the 8,000 retweets of the guy who saved a bunny by the side of the freeway,  But thus far, this fire has passed us by. May we be so lucky the next time.

Oh, and the root canal? Every bit as awful as advertised. But not even a blip on the radar screen compared to what families in Santa Paula, Ojai and Ventura have suffered. I found this “confirmed burn” map on Google and it is heartbreaking.

How to help? My favorite option is the Ventura Corps of the Salvation Army. Other options are The Thomas Fire Fund, a hybrid project of Ventura’s United Way and Red Cross, and, remembering all the animals that have been displaced along with humans, the Humane Society of Ventura County.

And, as always, pray for rain…



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Chicken fever outbreak!

No, I’m not talking about avian flu, but it is an illness and most definitely contagious. It can strike at any time. Symptoms: repeated murmurings along the lines of “I’d really like to get chickens someday”.

Someday has arrived for our friend, Tammy, who somehow (the details are a bit murky) acquired a trio of hens (definitely not spring chickens – she describes them as “old and warty”) and the most darling (if not, ahem, the most secure) little coop. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.




She has a buff Silkie, a bantam Cochin and a Japanese bantam, all rather long in the tooth at six years of age and apparently still occasionally laying. How lucky they are to have their new home and such a good mama to take care of them!

And, of course, she has Oliver, the best chicken flock guard EVER!


I’m hoping that Tammy gets some hardware cloth in her Christmas stocking. And some sweet baby chicks come spring…








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