Friday, December 10, 2010

Rockin' Rio Nido: December Column

Below, please find the column my neighbor Elena Chronis and I wrote for the Sonoma County Gazette's December issue.

Rockin’ Rio Nido

by Elena Chronis and Elisabeth Parker

Where does the time go?

November flew by like a gust of autumn wind, and suddenly winter is upon us! The scents of fresh rain, tannic redwoods, and toasty smoke from neighbors’ (EPA-compliant) fireplaces fill the air, as we cozy up at home and prepare for the upcoming festivities.

It’s a “Wonderful Life”

Holiday cheer is alive and well in Rio Nido, as Pegasus Theater brings the beloved classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the Rio Nido Lodge. Harking back to the glory days of radio – and the Russian River’s heyday – Pegasus’ production adds authentic details from the 1940’s Big Band era and (rumor has it) Rio Nido’s colorful historical past. Come young and old, and ring in the Christmas (or Chanukah, Kwanza, or Winter Solstice) spirit. The performance runs from Dec. 3rd – Dec. 19th. Fridays are “pay what you can.” For more information, visit

Happy 100th Birthday, Rio Nido!

November marked Rio Nido’s 100th anniversary, according to the Russian River Historical Society (at . The Eagles Nest Lodge purchased the land comprising our town back in 1908, set up a post office, and named the town “Eagle’s Nest.” They divided the land into smaller lots for its members, and later renamed the town “Rio Nido” (Spanish for “River’s Nest”) in 1910.

[UPDATE] Since this column was published, the Rio Nido Task Force, Home Owners Association, Roadhouse and Lodge have organized a special Centennial Celebration! Join Neighbors on Sunday, December 19th at 3:00pm at the Roadhouse and Rio Nido Lodge for a Potluck. Bring your favorite dishes for dinner at the Roadhouse, followed by dessert at the Rio Nido Lodge. There will also be a collection of non-perishable foods for the Redwood Empire Food Bank. A gingerbread contest and marshmallow roast will be held for the kids, and Santa Claus will visit the Rio Nido Lodge at 4:00pm. All neighbors, including folks from neighboring communities are welcome!

RRROC the vote

The Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee elected Rio Nido resident and community leader Kim Holliday to their vacant Residential Property Owner seat. Members gathered feedback from our communities and voted during the Nov. 18th meeting at the Guerneville Veterans Hall. RRROC has had no direct representation from Rio Nido since founding member John Uniack resigned last year. RRROC was created in July, 2000 to ensure that Russian River residents have a say in the redevelopment process.

Rio Nido Roadhouse

Once again the THUGZ rocked a full house on Nov. 20th, and a great time was had by all. If you want to stay local on New Year’s Eve, the RNR plans a swingin’ bash. $25.00 buys you appetizers, midnight dinner, champagne toast, and dancing all night with the Poyntlyss Sistars. If you can’t make it, check out the Roadhouse’s brand spankin’ new menu and daily specials. We recently enjoyed a fantastically delectable and fattening special of Southern fried chicken and waffles. Special thanks to the RNR staff for rolling us home in a wheelbarrow.

Task Force meeting

15 neighbors gathered at the RNR on Nov. 14th to discuss future projects for Rio Nido. Also present were Redevelopment Manager John Haig and Rio Nido Lodge owner Dennis Judd. The Infrastructure, Beautification, Safety and Security, and Business/Economic Viability Committees reported on their accomplishments. We then discussed the County’s project priority analysis and re-branding efforts for the Russian River. The consultants’ recommended slogan, “where the mind and spirit rejuvenate,” met with a positive response.

Signs of change

Has anyone noticed the new Neighborhood Watch signs? Richard Grace from the Safety & Security Committee has purchased and strategically placed four of them in visible areas around the neighborhood. More signs are on the way, thanks to Dennis Judd, Fred Beeler, Marsee Henon, Adam Flaherty, Matt Malik, J. Mullineaux, Larry Tocmakidis, and your two faithful columnists.

This spring may also bring new Yield signs and other improvements, thanks to last month’s meeting with the Infrastructure Committee and the Department of Public Works. After a productive walking tour and discussion of traffic-calming measures, signage, culverts, and drainage, the folks from the DPW agreed to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

Speaking of signs …

The Beautification Committee plans a volunteer work day on Saturday Dec. 4th to clean up our dingy street signs. If you want to help, come to the RNR at 10:00 am with a bucket of soapy water, scrub brush, towel, and truck (if you have one). We also applaud the County for re-funding the Graffiti Abatement program. Now our beauty vigilantes can take a break. If you see any graffiti, call 565-7397.

For up-to-date information about Rio Nido, visit the Web site at

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Some fond memories of winter holidays on the River

I can’t believe we’ve been living here long enough to reminisce about holidays on the River. It’s easy to do since we have so many wonderful community traditions, including the ones below (I’ve been so crazy-busy, I didn’t have time to write things up in advance this year -- though my neighbors and I did list them on the Rio Nido Web site at Information is also available from the Russian River Chamber of Commerce at ).

  • Annual Pasta Dinner/Fundraiser: The flurry of festivities kicks off on the first Wednesday of December with the Gonnella family’s annual pasta dinner/fundraiser for Bob Burke’s Kids at the Union Hotel in Occidental. This year, my daughter’s choir group, the Russian River Choir, and other groups performed holiday music while the adults enjoyed a hearty dinner of pasta, assorted sauces, salad, garlic bread, and dessert. It’s free to attend, but this event gathers enough in donations to help fund Burke’s numerous gatherings and recreational activities for children with cancer and their families. Although the eponymous and much-loved Bob Burke passed away this year, his family keeps the traditions and foundation alive. This year’s event was well-attended, as hundreds of people gathered together to celebrate and show their support. We saw folks we haven’t seen in ages!
  • Annual Tree-Trimming Downtown Guerneville: Not even the winter rains and recession Grinch can keep the holiday spirit away. Every year, on the first Thursday of December, our merchants decorate their storefronts and the street with lavish holiday lights and the Russian River Chamber of Commerce gathers folks together in our little town square to light the festively decorated Christmas tree. Okay, well, this year, the tree was a tad smaller than usual … but as I always say to my petite daughter who sometimes complains about being one of the littlest kids in her class … “good things come in small packages.” About 14 girls showed up from our wonderful Russian River Children’s Choir with Sonia and Ashley to sing Christmas carols and Chanukah songs. Since things were running a bit late, Sonia and Ashley took the girls around to go caroling throughout downtown, and in the Fire Station, and were rewarded with way too many cookies!
  • Holiday Parade of Lights in Downtown Guerneville: On the first Saturday in December, Guerneville closes off Main Street and everyone on the River converges for our celebratory Annual Holiday Parade of Lights, in which local businesses and other organizations display their creative talents and strut their stuff with a magical assortment of elaborately-decorated floats. Alas, the Triple R’s float was sorely missed, but the 5&10, Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and a host of others kept everyone happy and entertained. This year’s theme was “World Dance Celebration” and folks definitely seemed ready to celebrate!
  • More to come: Check out Pegasus Theater’s new production of “It’s a Wonderful Life at the Rio Nido Lodge, local New Years Celebrations at the Rio Nido Roadhouse, Village Inn (in Monte Rio), and other venues, and more.

I also wanted to share the following personal holiday memories from a few years back. It always amazes me how quirky, eccentric, and kind people can be out here on the River … especially to children.

From the trunks of babes ...

Seven holiday seasons ago, we were still living in Berkeley, my husband got a bonus at work & we decided to take a mini-vacation from our total wreck/fixer of a house & booked a little cabin at River Lane here in Guerneville for a couple of days. On top of other stresses, our daughter was in massive exploratory toddler & potty-training mode, & the remodel for our rotting, mildew-ridden, antiquated bathroom was NOT going well (probably because we had no money & had to re-do the entire thing ourselves ASAP before the floor caved in).

River Lane was a tad shabby (it has since been refurbished), but affordable & possessed of a cozy, rustic charm … plus it had a lovely deck with a view of the river. We noticed a tall, striking-looking woman in high-heeled patent leather red pumps and a sparkly, red feather boa with her daughter (approximately aged 8) struggling in the parking area with a battered old car which refused to start, & my husband chivalrously offered to give her a jump-start. Meanwhile, my daughter played with the older girl & they got along famously.

The woman & her daughter seemed nice, intelligent, & stylishly dressed. I was also struck by the warmth and affection with which they treated each other and our daughter. But it soon became apparent that they were homeless & had been taking a brief respite from car camping, courtesy of the low, off-season hotel rates. This horrified & saddened us, because my husband & I have gone through rough times & still often struggle financially despite our making a good income. There but for the grace of G*d go I … We teeter precariously on the crumbling precipice of middle-class respectability & it seems frighteningly easy to lose footing & tumble over the edge & into the yawning abyss.

We invited them to have dinner with us, but they said they needed to move on because they visiting with friends “up north” that evening & were supposed to be there already. My daughter’s erstwhile playmate then reached into an over-stuffed garbage bag in the trunk of her car, retrieved a small, plush Simba toy (the Lion King was all the rage back then) & handed it to my daughter, saying “I want you to have this.” My daughter’s eyes widened with delight as she grinned from ear-to-ear, danced a happy little caper, & launched herself into the older girl’s open arms, crying, “I don’t want you to go!”

We don’t know what became of them, but Simba remains one of daughter’s prized possessions & we will never forget this act of spontaneously generosity from this slender, pretty girl with the fluffy ponytails & large, sparkling eyes framed by enormous eye-glasses. We still wonder what became of them and wish them well.

First Christmas home on the River ...

We bought our house & moved in during the following holiday season. Flush with cash from the sale of our previous adventure in sweat equity & an overly-frothy housing market (sigh, how we miss those days now that our current home is WAY underwater), we set about doing our little part to support local businesses and decided to do all of our holiday shopping in downtown Guerneville.

After purchasing some unique and attractive gifts from Etcetera, Wayne Skala’s funky jewelry shop, and Jennifer Neeley’s wonderfully eclectic Memories that Linger (we still miss the latter two stores), we wandered into Hemp and Chocolate. I indulged myself with a couple of new, fabulous outfits (the owner designed them herself – she’s quite talented), and my daughter and I picked out a couple of soft, plushy, gauzy fairy-dolls for her friends. Since she was only two at the time, she threw a fit when she realized that she couldn’t keep them. Of course I had discretely set aside one for her, but how could she know that?

Suddenly, the door opened, and my daughter stopped in mid-tantrum and exclaimed, “Santa Claus!” Then she joyfully ran up to hug the handsome, portly, older gentleman who had just walked in. Sure enough, he sported a red flannel shirt, silver spectacles, rosy cheeks, and full silvery white beard! I apologized profusely, but he cheerfully waved me off and asked what my daughter wanted for Christmas.

While paying for our purchases, this lovely man smiled, handed my daughter the fairy doll, and said, “Merry Christmas!”

… And our first flood

There’s nothing like moving in during a flood year to initiate you into the ways of the River awfully danged fast! It rained and rained over the following weeks through Christmas and New Years. My daughter and I enjoyed all the fabulous recreational puddle-stomping available, until one morning, we woke up to the amazing sight of neighbors kayaking down our street! Apparently, this was one of the legendary floods we had heard so much about. The floodwaters had stopped just short of our property by our town’s little Post Office. We were perched high and dry above the flood line, but we couldn’t get out for several days. Luckily, we had plenty of food, a full propane tank, and had somehow avoided losing our electricity.

Since my parents had sent us two boxes of luscious pears from Harry & David, and my aunt and uncle had sent us a crepe pan with crepe mix, we invited our neighbors (who were all gathered at the Post Office) over for brunch. This proved a lovely way to get acquainted.

I was impressed with how everyone helped each other. Neighbors with electricity stored food in their refrigerators for those who had lost their electricity. Volunteers checked up on elderly, sick, and disabled neighbors to make sure they were okay and to see if they needed to be evacuated (in some sort of huge, amphibious vehicle parked in front of our Fire Station). And afterwards, everyone pitched in for all the big Spring Clean Ups in Rio Nido, Guerneville, and Monte Rio.

Guerneville School launches new Web site

For those of you who've looked for information about the Guerneville School and not found any on the rarely-updated and now-defunct former Web site, you're in luck. The new Guerneville School Web site at has everything a parent or prospective parent could wish for, including an attractive and easily navigable layout; lunch menus; contact information; schedules; forms; and more.

Thank you Faith Omenique-Affonso -- Sequoia and Phoenix's mom -- for taking on this immense task! To help with the school's Web site or with anything else, contact the school principal, Elaine Carlson, at 869-2864. The Guerneville School is always in need of classroom volunteers and all sorts of experience and expertise.

Friday, December 3, 2010

NIMBY goes BANANAs in Western Sonoma County

Has anyone noticed that here in Western Sonoma County, people are constantly objecting to having things near them? Seriously, this place is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) gone totally BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything)!

The following things come immediately to mind:

  • Fire station sirens: Neighbors in Graton keep suing their own Fire Department because the siren is too noisy. Never mind that the loud siren is the only way to effectively summon their volunteer fire fighters in that far-flung, rural community.
  • Homeless shelters: Yikes! Let’s not go there.
  • Skateboard parks: Our fear of sullen, pimply-faced teen-agers hanging around smoking dope ensures that they’ll continue using abandoned homes and secluded riverbanks for these nefarious purposes. The same goes for youth centers and additional neighborhood “pocket parks.”
  • Cigarette smokers: Sorry, but the smoking area is located in Nevada. Pot smoke’s okay, though.
  • Electro magnetic fields: Cell phones, cell phone towers, and Smart Meters cause cancer! Pot smoke’s okay, though.
  • Wineries and vineyards: Um … but we don’t we live in the wine country? Medical marijuana farms are okay, though.
  • Vacation homes: We definitely need to place restrictions on the more egregious activities that go on in some of these places, but we also need to remember that our economy depends on tourism.
  • Convenience stores: The new owners of Guerneville Food & Gas (formerly known as Russian River Gas) want to install a delicatessen and sell beer and wine. Many of us folks in Rio Nido and along Old River and Riverside Roads would love to have a full-service gas station and convenience store within walking or biking distance. Unfortunately, the County will not give them a license to sell beer and wine due to objections from just ONE OLD LADY who doesn’t even live here year-round. Despite GF&G’s location on River Road and the proximity of hotels and vacation homes, the area is zoned as “residential” and hence liquor sales can be prevented by a single resident or property owner. The previous owner spoke with this lady personally, promised to install a security camera, prevent people from drinking on-site, and install a fence to screen the noise … but alas, no go.
  • Music venues: Despite Rio Nido’s long and fabled history as a music Mecca, some neighbors have caused hassles for the Rio Nido Roadhouse with the County. Most of us folks here in Rio Nido absolutely love the Roadhouse as a music hall, restaurant, summer-pool hangout, and general gathering spot. The RNR also serves as our unofficial community center, hosting numerous meetings and fundraisers benefitting important programs and services. Besides – unlike many of the wild parties held in River vacation homes – the RNR’s music ends at 10:00pm at the latest.
  • Multi-unit housing: Despite our chronic housing shortage, lack of year-round customers to support our local businesses, and the desirability of walk-able neighborhoods and better public transportation (which require high-density housing in order to be viable), nobody wants these large structures blocking their sunlight and views. But … where will our children live when they grow up?
  • Gravel quarries and asphalt plants: I agree with people on that, but could change my mind if these businesses created enough well-paying jobs to make the visual and environmental impacts more palatable, and if the people driving those ugly, obnoxious slow-moving gravel trucks would (a) paint their trucks to look nicer; and (b) let motorists pass them when passing is safe & legal, instead of deliberately changing lanes to prevent us from passing.
  • Tattoo parlors that sell sex toys: I wrote about the neighbors protesting in front of Red Spaghetti last year, but after receiving comments and talking with nearby residents, have concluded that we should "live and let live." In general, they're a positive presence in the Hacienda neighborhood, plus their coffee is AMAZING!.

Can you think of anything else you don’t want near you? If so, please feel free to add your comments below.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The intractability of homelessness here on the River

It amuses me to discover that local homeless advocate Jan De Wald supports housing projects for mentally ill, homeless people in downtown Guerneville, yet opposes a housing project for mentally ill, homeless veterans on Merry Lane off of Drake Road. Coincidentally, De Wald happens to live two doors down from the proposed site. Heh heh. The proposed "Veterans Village" project is sponsored by the Patrick McCaffrey foundation, a non-profit founded by bereaved parents, and dedicated to creating nurturing, transitional housing for recovering veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They also seek to build similar facilities in such far-flung locations as Humbolt, CA; Charlotte, NC; and Oak Ridge, MN.

As some may recall, De Wald and her colleagues from formerly the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC) attempted to use the Rio Nido Fire Station as an emergency homeless shelter in 2008 (see my blog postings, “An emergency homeless shelter in the Rio Nido Fire Station?”, “Rio Nido residents clash over proposed homeless shelter during contentious meeting” and “Homeless update” from November and December, 2008). Shortly after enraged neighbors held a public meeting (and DeWald narrowly avoided being pelted by rotten fruits and vegetables by having the good fortune of not being informed of the meeting), RRRIC changed its name to Community Housing Opportunities West (CHOW).

To be fair to DeWald, she and her cohorts, the folks at CHOW seek to create transitional and permanent housing facilities built to code, with appropriate staffing, supervision, and access to treatment and social services (through Russian River Health Centers, West County Services, County agencies, and other reputable organizations) for vulnerable people who already live here on the River. The proposed Veterans Village facility, on the other hand, is a hulking monstrosity that violates numerous zoning and coding laws, to which neighbors objected long before Veterans Village came into the picture (See Andrew Eckers’ and Mike Dick’s letters to the editor on pages 7 and 8 of the November 2010 issue of the Sonoma County Gazette).

The neighbors have reportedly received no assurances that the Veterans Village facility will be appropriately staffed and tied in with available community services. It is also unclear as to whether this organization would provide housing to local veterans with PTSD, or move them in from elsewhere.

Nonetheless, I find it highly ironic that most people – including myself – support housing for mentally ill, homeless people. We just don’t want them living anywhere near US! No matter how many studies come out in support of main-streaming mentally ill, homeless people and housing them within our communities (see the National Coalition for the Homeless Web site), the majority of us remain skeptical.

It makes me wonder how we can ever solve the seemingly intractable problems associated with homelessness on the River.

The sad thing is that mentally ill people can come across as difficult and even scary at times. The majority of them are odd, possibly tormented, but generally harmless. I also must say that personally, I’ve had friends and acquaintances with severe mental illnesses who make many positive contributions to their communities (they often seem to be artists, writers, and musicians) and who largely succeed in their daily struggle to get help and lead productive lives.

Then again, the dangerous ones often wind up in the news for crimes we wouldn’t want perpetrated on us, our neighbors, or our loved ones. When you hear that crazy lady meandering down the street loudly spewing curses upon some unseen entity (unfortunately, I've never heard anyone wandering about loudly spewing praise and delight) , how can we tell which category she falls into? Most of us won’t take any chances.

My following two personal experiences explain why:

  • A woman who moved down the street from me seemed a bit off-kilter but okay at first ... even kind of sweet. Then, she stopped taking her medications and tormented my entire neighborhood for months of sleepless nights as she engaged in loud arguments (sometimes with her boyfriend sometimes with apparently no one); ran around in the street screaming curses and chasing after her poor little Chihuahua who was obviously desperate to escape; engaging in high-speed car chases in her dreaded maroon Saturn up and down the canyons with some guy in a green truck; and hanging out in front of her apartment building accosting passers by. It took forever for her poor elderly landlords to evict her because they were terrified of her; we kept our kids on lock-down; kept calling the sheriffs (who couldn’t book her because she hadn’t committed any obvious crime); and had no peace until she was finally arrested for smacking a 14-year-old kid across the face who was only returning her escaped dog to her (though I’m amazed that the poor dog didn’t bite him for doing that).
  • I also used to provide In Home Support Services to a nice lady with rheumatoid arthritis who lived in a nice, well-managed Section 8 complex in Santa Rosa. When her increasingly unstable neighbor caused disruptions by playing loud, Christian heavy metal music at all hours of the day and nights, yelling insults and threats that could be clearly heard through their shared wall, and began stalking her (he actually knocked on the door when I was there and said he was the maintenance guy), it took the complex’s management several weeks to resolve the issue. We don’t even know how it was resolved … was he evicted, or did his social worker put him back on his meds?

Of course, the above paragraphs are merely anecdotal and have no statistical validity. Nonetheless, I’m sure some of my readers have similar stories to tell. After all, we do live in an place where -- at a recent community meeting -- a neighbor complained about the Sheriff's slow response to complaints by telephone, and another neighbor brightly responded, "when machetes and propane are involved, the Sheriffs come right away!" Ummmm ... okay.

A big part of the problem is that … As far as I can tell, the law makes no distinction between mental and physical disabilities for individuals protected from housing discrimination by the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Providers of social services staunchly (and correctly) believe that most mental illnesses – even severe ones – can be successfully treated as long as the individual continues treatment and keeps taking their medications. Unfortunately, patients often discontinue their treatment and medications due to lack of access and/or intolerably severe side effects. Google "mentally ill, medications" and you'll get pages of results featuring the word "non-compliance."

A 1997 study published on Psychology Online estimates that 50% of patients with schizophrenia do not take their prescribed medications. After placing a group of 77 homeless people with schizophrenia in an “assertive treatment program” (i.e. the sort of compassionate, highly supervised type of program our social service providers can no longer afford in today’s economy -- after all, this was back in the halcyon days of 1997), the compliance rate only increased to 57%! Yikes!

No wonder residents and business owners howl whenever anyone attempts to set up a homeless shelter, treatment facility, or transitional/permanent housing complex in their neighborhood. Advocates for the homeless and mentally ill need to understand: We fear for our safety, the survival of our already fragile businesses, and our general quality of life. Alas, homeless advocates cannot provide us with satisfactory answers ... or persuade us to actually hear any.

I also believe that our lack of affordable Section 8 housing results from these fears. The twin specters of wraith-like tweekers and crazy people prevent us from providing affordable homes for single moms, low-wage working individuals and families, and people with debilitating illnesses and physical disabilities who struggle daily with chronic housing insecurity. The County prioritizes the most vulnerable (if you're a "Liberal") or most desperate (if you're a "Conservative") cases for Section 8 ... but if more Section 8 housing were available, many more of us would qualify for assistance. After all, we live in Sonoma County, a magical place where the median income is supposedly $70K for a family of four and STILL most of us seem barely able to make ends meet.