When terror meets terroir

How do you sleep at night?This much we know: a somnambulist, conventionally speaking, is a sleepwalker under the control of another for what are usually nefarious purposes (see the murderous title character of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”). A sonombulist is the same as above, who lives in Sonoma. Often spied wanly wafting through cocktail parties or just as likely between taverns, the sonombulists come in every shade and hue of the social spectrum with concentrations toward the topper-most of the popper-most and the nethermost of the whatever-most.

If you’ve ever been at a function and suddenly snapped- to ask yourself, “How in the world did I end up here?” you may be a sonombulist. At this juncture, I advise that you put down your drink and call Vern’s Taxi (or, “for a good time” as it says on the paper’s restroom wall “call Lenny”). Sonombulism is not merely the result of over-imbibing, however, to many it’s considered a state of mind – or lack thereof depending on how catty one’s feeling. This is not meant as an insult – some of my best friends are sonombulists, which is why I’m always skulking around their parties.

The signs: If you’re hosting a shindig and you find yourself asking “How in the world did Daedalus Howell end up here?” you’re probably a sonombulist. If you’re hosting a party and know how in the world I’ve ended up there, you’re likely my puppet master and I’m you’re sonombulist. If you’re not a sonombulist but received a call inquiring “where’s the good time?” you’re probably Lenny.

My gang (a loose collective colloquially known as “the cooperative,” later shortened to “coop” and misspelled recently as “coup” in some watchdog blog rife with spurious conjecture about our intentions) worried we might have drifted into early onset sonombulism when we tailgated the Blessing of the Olives at the Mission a few weeks back. Mimosas in hand, we loitered at the landmark in an attempt to jumpstart our holiday spirit only to realize what cads we had become. We should have brought mimosas for everybody. Sonombulists often forget the needs of others.
The moment was sobering , but that was soon remedied by a visit from Gloria Ferrer.

Outbreaks of sonombulism, of course, run high during the holiday season and have for decades. I met a chap recently who recounted how his parents had attended a sonombulist party in the ’70s and were asked to put their keys in a bowl upon entering. I suppose this was an effort to put the X back in X-mas as much as it was an attempt to curtail drunk driving. Since hearing the tale, my pal openly frets issues of paternity.

“Listen, Lenny,” I say, trying to sooth his jangling nerves, “it’s not how you started but that you started. The rest is up to you, man. You can be anything you want to be.”

“Even a sonombulist?”

“Why, yes, Lenny, even a sonombulist. Now, let’s finish these mimosas before everyone else wants one.”


At night, as sleep drifts in and dreams beckon just beyond her pale veil, I sometimes spy the face of the lunatic who lurks within me, the nocturnal whisperer who encumbers my slumber with the simple command: “Dance, dance, dance!”

Yeah. I’m probably a sonombulist.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream with the Fishes?

Wake me when it's over.My rockstar kid brother phoned from NYC to chide me about my holiday plans, which, prior to his reprimand, included locking myself in my home office and knocking out a chapter or two of my second greatest American novel. He could sense the agitation in my voice, which I explained came from the fact that I was on deadline. He replied with the facile, if mildly brilliant retort “You have to get off the deadline and onto the lifeline.” Mind you, this is coming from a man who has spent his entire professional life unconscious until noon, so the lifeline, like the L train into Manhattan, apparently runs late. I mentioned this to him. He defended his hours by pointing out he’s a Californian living on New York time, meaning it’s operationally 9 a.m. when he’s groping for the snooze button at lunchtime. If I were to use a similar cover for my chronic oversleeping, I’d have to claim being a native of, oh, say, Japan (this is fitting, seeing as I’m big in Japan according to my Web stats, despite my lagging action-figure sales). If this was the case, I could wander into the office at 2 p.m. and simply say “Konichi wa, suckas!” and all would be understood.

In point of fact, I did this for the private thrill of irritating Lenny, an ambitious intern that managing editor Omarzu and I forced out in a power block once he started showing up pre-9 a.m. and openly criticizing our need for R.E.M. sleep. When he started filing our assignments before we did (and in better English) we decided to upgrade to his attitudinal status officially from “chutzpah” to “hubris” to facilitate his ouster in accordance with the tenets of Greek drama, which still rules the hearts of the Occident. At one point, we considered creating a twilight attitude we called “chubris,” but, alas, neologisms aren’t AP style and Omarzu fears the gods of the Associated Press more than fear itself. The notion perished in a flurry of backspaces. Now, we sleep on guiltless pillows.

In a dream: I was overseas as an embed for the Lumaville Daily Echo and I roomed with a chap who claimed his doctor recommended that he drink a full cup of black coffee before he hit his bunk because he was such a deep sleeper he otherwise risked slipping into a coma. On the last night of our junket, some of us journos thought it would be a hoot to substitute his “meth mud,” as he called it, with a decaf. He not only slipped into a coma, he apparently slipped into the light. We spent three weeks in an Absurdistan pokey before the autopsy exonerated us on account of a brain aneurism. I still feel a bit cheeky about the incident, despite the fact that it occurred only in the recesses of my unconscious. I’ve tried to incite the dream again so that I may rectify my actions and spare my phantom colleague his decaffeinated death. The dream never comes – I’m simply left pining for sleep, writhing in the twilight and inevitably oversleeping within a hair’s breadth of my deadline. I wrestle myself awake and arrive panting and unkempt at the office only to be greeted a moment later by Omarzu, who saunters in and greets me with “Konichi wa, sucka!”

Nomaville: Download in case of Death

Where stars go to die.When I was a cub reporter at the Lumaville Daily Echo (in the last century, as I like to say to burnish the recollection with a sense of antiquity), a frequent request made of me by Old Editor Hedgebrow was a form of slave labor he quaintly called “outputting the obits.” Writing obituaries is meticulous, mind-numbing work, more akin to arithmetic than writing seeing as accuracy was of paramount importance, unlike these hazy recollections that are often rendered in gauzy soft-focus (buoyant as my memories be, they float on a sea of wine).

Prior to craigslist, copy-editing classifieds was the newsroom’s bane of choice, but since the late ‘90s it’s been obituaries – literary tombstones, whole biographies in 500 words or less wherein even the slightest typo is construed as disrespect. This happened to me once: I inadvertently left an asterisk at the end of a write-up which sent survivors trawling for its mate before realizing the lonely star was an empty promise keyed by a slapdash young hack. In retrospect, I think that all obits should end in an asterisk – it admits to the mystery of an individual life cannot be known in its entirety, and just as often, not even by the individual in question (there I am again, taking the “art” out of Sartre). Of course, I would prefer a question mark rather than an asterisk – better to fake one’s death a few times to get it right. I once knew an old daredevil who strove all his life for an exclamation point, but instead slipped away, quietly with a schwa. His last word was “huh.”

Between humiliations in the screen-trade, I would kill time at the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, where, I suppose, dead stars eventually turn into either white dwarfs or black holes depending on the currency of their waning star-power. The cemetery proffered an attraction dubbed “Library of Lives” in which one could peruse video of the deceased prepared by one of their “professional LifeStory specialists,” dedicated to gathering images, audio and ephemera to be “captured and stored permanently in our unique LifeStory theaters.” I ventured into one of these multimedia mausoleums, closed the door and pushed the button that activated a private viewing screen. Through speakers, a pleasant voice cooed “Hello, welcome to forever.” I clicked through half a dozen lives, theretofore unknown to me, before realizing I should be out living my own.

Writer and blogger Clive Thompson recently profiled Microsoft Research Labs maven Gordon Bell, who, for the past several years, has been recording every piece of his life into a surrogate brain – images from a miniature camera worn around his neck, audio recording of every conversation he has, e-mails, web pages read, everything from the mundane to the meaningful. This proactive (or preemptive) effort makes LifeStory theater seem like a puppet show by comparison and obituaries mere haiku. In the very least, Bell seems to be fulfilling the promise of a pre-bubble start-up I was once sent to profile, which was proffering a similar service, though theirs was then considered the forefront of neuro-technology. As the publicist explained, “We’re going to scan your brain.”

“For what?”

“For its contents. Think of it as a back-up drive for your mind,” the publicist explained, tapping a little black box the size of a thimble.

“That’s kind of small don’t you think?”

“You’d be amazed at how little you know.”

A couple of lab techs strapped a skullcap festooned with wires to my head and put a bite-block in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite my tongue, or talk, or both. They were a dour duo for whom the novelty of the procedure was long gone. One flipped a switch and the other shook his head. For a moment, the back of my head felt vaguely warm, then it was over.

The publicist beamed and tossed the data-cube to me.

“What do I do with it?” I asked, smoothing my hair.

“Nothing,” the publicist said. “But your biographer is going to love you.” *

SonomaWino: Ernie’s Tin Bar

Beer on a hot tin roof.To cleanse the palate between wines, tasting rooms often offer taste-bud-neutralizing wafers and tap water. Here’s a better idea: a cold one pulled at Ernie’s Tin Bar, the best kept secret in Sonoma County. Located in the no-man’s land where Lakeville Highway and Stage Gulch Road connect like a wishbone (linking Petaluma and Sonoma with a hairpin turn worthy of a rally race), the unassuming tavern’s credo is rather brusquely summed up by its signage: “Beer, Soda, Etc.”

Google offers only passing references to the bar in the form of a few concise approbations on homemade travel blogs. Finding no trace of “Ernie’s Tin Bar” in their databases, 411 operators will either connect seekers to Finbar Devine’s, a paint-by-numbers Irish pub in Petaluma, or the tony Tin Barn Vineyards over the hill in Sonoma.

The bar’s ability to remain outside the reach of modern information technologies should be studied by the CIA for purposes of counterintelligence. The joint is invisible. It might even turn into a pumpkin at midnight. The Tin Bar is like the Sasquatch of local bars: legendary but seldom seen except by true believers and the occasional passing wine writer and his editor. Open nonstop since 1923 (except for three days when its namesake passed away), the Tin Bar isn’t a roadside attraction in the conventional sense. It hasn’t fossilized into kitsch or been unduly fetishized by acolytes of, say, midcareer Tom Waits.

Which is to say that the bar isn’t sufficiently self-conscious or ironic for those inclined to artful slumming. The patrons are genuine salt-of-the-earth types (unlike fleur de sel ninnies like myself, who roll down Stage Gulch Road after a day in the tasting rooms and then get suddenly sentimental for the smell of cowshit). By contrast, Ernie’s Tin Bar is a drinking room, a ramshackle ode to corrugated tin and cheap beer, where one can crack complimentary peanuts and interject into any conversation so long as it’s not on a cell phone (at least two signs warn imbibers: “Use a cell phone, buy a round”). Some concessions have been made to the times. One will likely see more bicyclists than bikers at the pit stop, and the recent appearance of Eel River organic amber ale–a hoppy, caramel-hued concoction marketed as “good karma in a glass”–is likely a nod to changing tastes, though Budweiser (in both its original and “lite” varieties) remains ubiquitous.

To sop up the beer, organic or otherwise, microwavable grub of the frost-bitten, convenience-store ilk is available. The rubberized hamburgers and Hot Pockets may put the “ble” in edible, but as the bartender Chuck’s grandfather used to say, “It will make a turd.”

Go with Uncle Chuck’s homemade beef jerky instead. Try the homemade chutney provided by a customer. Dare you to spend $20 in an evening. And then go home and keep your trap shut.

Like Brigadoon, Ernie’s Tin Bar appears to those who believe, located in an auto-repair shop at the corner of Lakeville Highway (Highway 116) and Stage Gulch Road, south of Petaluma, on the way to Papa’s Taverna and Keller Estate Winery. Damned if we could find a phone number. Closes at 7pm–we know that for a terrible fact.

Nomaville: Drowning in a Fishbowl of Love

Don't tap the glass.In the early days of being a writer loosed in the Wine Country (which is to say nine months ago), I would often tell tasting-room attendants that I had a new-ish palate. Some would reply, “Funny, you don’t look new-ish,” and make a nod to the reporter’s notebook I had conspicuously placed on the counter. Though not a professional oenophile then, I was and remain a professional writer (I went pro in ’96 after walking out on a college creative writing class) who has long believed it a courtesy to reveal my secret identity in such situations. I’ve found doing so inspires a certain generosity amongst the staff and causes tourists to vainly search for something recognizable in my face so that the may report home that they’ve met “someone.” When I tell them I’m “no one” they insist the opposite until I’ve pronounced my unpronounceable name for the nth time and they finally turn away disheartened. (Mind you, putting a pall over someone’s Wine Country weekend is not the endgame of my antics, nor is getting the tasting fee waived, though both have been known to occur.)

The Contessa and I dropped into a popular Point Reyes eatery last weekend and oddly, my identity issues came up again. Twice. I was recognized, I’m assuming, from that grubby mugshot up top (I was trying to look smoldering, but only got as far as “moldering”). A kind gent – Norman, as he introduced himself – said he had recognized me from the paper and identified himself a fellow Sonoman, the latter of which was salient in our exchange as it seemed he is not an avid reader like your brilliant selves. The other encounter, however, was a tad bit disquieting. A grey-haired man just stared until the Contessa and I felt the faint breath of social discomfort fogging our glasses. I made various friendly gestures and nods to acknowledge the man’s apparent interest and invite an introduction – anything – but alas, his furtive glances continued until he finally exited, craning his neck.

I conjectured that he, too, may have been a Sonoman and knew me from the paper. Or perhaps he spotted me in my only other public appearance of late – the History Channel’s “Man, Moment and Machine.” In the series I’ve played a slain Macedonian messenger and most recently an Iraqi soldier circa Episode One of the conflict in the Middle East (I’m usually pigeon-holed as a Mediterranean mutt but the producers thought I could skew about as far east as Bahrain with the help of their wardrobe department). In the scene, I’m in a bunker that’s about to be turned into a crater by a stealth bomber. There’s general panic and some frantic business with a telephone before the scene cuts to file footage of an explosion. My total screen time is about four seconds if you count the footage of the back of my head. Then I die. No wonder the man was staring. It must have been like seeing a ghost for him.

“You thought I was dead, didn’t you infidel?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Now you have learned the power of television. Perhaps you want my autograph, or my Web address?”

Sometimes, while sifting through the volumes of invites and fawning e-mails I receive daily, I’ll uncover an angry little missive, usually handwritten in smudgy pencil and decrying this or that of something I wrote. Let me re-phrase that – something I was paid to write, which is likely what stings these aspirant scribblers of invective in the first place. Example: “We know you know that you know too much. If you know what’s good for you…[expletive]…[coffee stain]… [illiterate misspelling] …then because!” signed by the Order of the Golden Star. I hate these guys. Another type of correspondence I’m loath to receive are these official-looking letters that open with the line “This is an attempt to collect a debt.” Now, that dude has to get a life.