Speaking of Elephants

by Bob Sparrow

An American tradition that has lasted more than 146 years comes to a close next month. On Sunday, May 21 at Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus ‘Big Top’ will come down for the very last time. And with it goes the threat that any of your children or grand children will run off and join the circus.

It was called The Greatest Show on Earth, of course that was before Tiny Tim or Charo created their shows, but it was indeed a great show. I can attest to that personally, but first a little history. The circus as we know it today started in 1875 when Phineas Taylor Barnum (‘P.T.’ to his friends) was convinced to lend his name and his money to an existing circus that soon combined efforts with James Bailey’s circus and purchased the first elephant born in the United States and later purchased ‘Jumbo’ which was advertised as the ‘world’s largest elephant’ – a fact they couldn’t prove, but no one could disprove it either. That’s sort of the way old P.T worked. You may remember P.T. Barnum as the person that said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”. Actually it was never confirmed that he said that and in fact, he was known to be very courteous to his suckers . . . er, customers.


P.T. died in1891 and Bailey purchased the circus from his widow and continued to tour the east coast, until 1897 when he decided to take the act to Europe. A few years before that, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus in Wisconsin and when they heard that Bailey was taking his circus to Europe, they decided to head east, which apparently was circus-crazy. When Bailey returned from Europe he discovered that the Ringling Brothers were dominating the east coast, so he moved his circus out west in 1905. The next year Bailey died and a year later the circus was sold to the two remaining Ringling brothers.

As the circus gained in popularity and size, a train was needed to move the circus from city to city and it became a popular spectacle to see the train pull into town and watch the workers set up the tents and work with the animals.

In 1950 the train pulled into San Francisco when the circus was no longer performing in tents, but rather large permanent structure, so it set up shop in ‘the City’s’ Civic Auditorium. Our Dad and his Mom took brother Jack and me to the circus. I suspect that our Mom stayed home because she was pregnant with my co-writer. I remember a lot about that day and when I called Jack, who has the memory of an elephant, to ask him about his recollections, he happily filled in some of the details. We started recalling the things that we saw, the high wire act, the clowns (Emmett Kelly, the famous hobo clown was among them), a lion tamer, the ring leader in his top hat and of course, the ‘dancing’ elephants. We were amazed. To us, it was indeed the Greatest Show on Earth. You have to keep in mind that we didn’t have a television until a few years later.

The 5 Ringling Brothers

Through world wars, the Depression and various other wars and recessions, the circus endured and became part of our culture, part of Americana. But it’s easy to see why they are closing their doors, or tent flaps, now, what with their rising costs and dwindling attendance. With all the entertainment literally at the fingertips of today’s kids, the circus is too mundane, doesn’t move fast enough, too analogue in a digital world. I get it, but it’s still sad to see it go.

To Mr. Barnum, Mr. Bailey and to the five Ringling Brothers, you had an amazing run. Thank you for a great childhood memory.

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By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Stephanie, Dana and Kristin

My brother has a backyard that should be the envy of every tropical resort in Hawaii.  No further proof is needed when you see his new profile picture on Facebook.  There he is, sitting under his palapa, amid lush greenery, holding a drink that has an umbrella on it.  Perfection!  I know that he and his family enjoy their back yard immensely (and why wouldn’t they?!) but last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a baby shower there that was, by far, the best celebration I’ve attended in the “Sparrow Tropical Gardens”.  Bob’s daughter, Dana, is eight months pregnant with her first child.  For those of you regular readers, you may recall that Dana is the one that has had multiple heart surgeries.  Three, to be precise.  So this baby was not easily come by and is all the more precious for it.   Last weekend Bob’s other daughter, Stephanie, and their best friend Kristin, hosted a baby shower for Dana and turned that verdant backyard into a pink, white and gray elephant-themed wonderland that should be on Pinterest.   The theme for the baby’s room is elephants. I didn’t realize that elephants were so popular until I went shopping and discovered that they are a thing.  There are elephant diaper bins, pacifiers, wash cloths, murals and pretty much everything else imaginable.  In my opinion, the best elephant in the room last weekend was the cake, a magnificent confection of fondant and icing.  It was truly a work of art and I worried that no one would want to cut into it.  But luckily Stephanie is  a girl after my own heart, who knows that good cake always takes precedence over art, as she sliced right through it.

                The Elephant Cake

There is something about baby showers that is so positive and up-lifting.  Not that wedding showers aren’t also full of hope, but I have the say the last one I attended had a group of women off to the side taking the over/under on how long the marriage would last.  Babies, though, are their own little miracles so we are all very excited about the new baby girl that will be here in a few weeks.   I love these family events, especially because we don’t get together all that often.  Certainly not as much as we’d like.  I loved watching Stephanie prepare everything with so much detail and Dana laugh and have fun with each of her guests.  It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating them coming into the world.  How did they get older when I didn’t?!  The whole event was spectacular, and true to form, I celebrated by eating TWO pieces of the elephant cake.  Just to be polite, of course.

I suppose every family enjoys these milestone rituals, where we all stop to take stock of where we are in the circle of life.  Which brings me to the other elephant in the room – the realization that my brothers and I are now at the top of the heap, generationally speaking.  I’ve heard people describe this as being in the family “penthouse” or at the top of the escalator.  No matter how it’s described, being the oldest generation brings with it lots of memories and a great deal more sentimentality.  So between my heightened status and all of the comments I received last week about getting rid of things, I had a revelation.  It dawned on me that I would be seeing all three of Bob’s  children over the weekend.  I thought about the family heirloom jewelry sitting in my safe deposit box, earmarked for them upon my death.  How silly!  Why wait until I’m gone to pass these things along?  So I traipsed down to the bank, pulled it all out, and then wrote each of them a letter about the provenance of each piece, the oldest dating back to 1892 and the newest to the 70’s.  So once the shower was over and it was just family and a few very close family friends, I read each of them the letter as I gave them their pieces.  Although there was not great monetary value to any of them, the sentimental factor was very high and they all appreciated knowing “the rest of the story” behind each one.  On the flight home I felt such a sense of peace – seeing their reactions to receiving these family touchstones was a highlight of my life.  Their tears and smiles made a lasting memory that I will treasure forever.









Nationally Parked

by Bob Sparrow

Is that finger pointing at me?

Based on its popularity with our readers, Suzanne’s blog last week obviously got a lot of you thinking about antiques you have stuffed away somewhere that you inherited from your parents and haven’t yet tossed. Or you may be thinking about all the stuff you have that will become ‘antiques’ that your kids will stuff away somewhere until they get tossed. That old spinning wheel lamp of Mom’s got me to thinking about an old antique that I’m not quite sure what to do with . . . me!

You may have noticed that I’ve changed my photos on Facebook because I looked at them over the weekend and thought to myself, “Who is this guy?” He looks like a real adventurer, a regular Indiana Bob”. I think I vaguely remember someone like that, but lately he congers up California Fats. That person in the old pictures used to go on hikes to exotic places and travel to the far corners of the globe. Not so much anymore. As I sat and perused my previous blogs this year, I noted that I’ve written about bank robbers, sitting in the desert, watching the Oscars, walking (not running) on the beach, pontificating on heroes, eulogizing Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and proffering a ponderous philosophical tome on New Year’s resolutions. I haven’t gone anywhere!  I’m surprised I didn’t write about going to Nashville again, an adventure I wrote about last year, but didn’t actually go on. So I regrettably changed my photos.

Il Volo

Two weeks ago I did venture into Los Angeles, which in fact can be an adventure in itself, to see the singing group Il Volo. They are a trio of nice-looking, mid-20s Italian tenors, who made their U.S. debut on American Idol in 2011, not as contestants, but as guests, where they sang O Sole Mio. Their concert was awesome, possibly the best that Linda and I have ever seen, but the adventure to Los Angeles was without any muggings, murders or even traffic delays, thus my adventure consisted of simply sitting in a venue in another city.

My adventurous instincts were buoyed last week when I read that April 15-23 is National Park Week.  During those two weekends one can get into all National Parks for FREE. The 16th is Easter so there will be lots of tourists that day hunting for bear eggs and the 22nd is Earth Day, where we acknowledge . . . the earth . . . or something. The old me, or perhaps I should say the former me, which is the younger, thinner me, would have booked a hike in Yosemite or Yellowstone, but the new me is looking to Nationally Park my butt in an chaise lounge and watch the grandkids get frustrated trying to find the Easter eggs that I was too lazy to hide this year. I haven’t yet quite decided how I’m celebrating ‘Earth Day’, perhaps I’ll purchase a globe; on Amazon of course, so I don’t have to leave the house.

My newfound pastime of sitting also takes place when I’m plying my trade of selling Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (the old reverse mortgage, which I’ve heard had a bad reputation and my mother always said to stay away from things with bad reputations – I thus missed out on a lot of good times!) I really do enjoy working with my fellow seniors to help them with retirement financing when I can, although it seems to be making me heavier, but I’ve rationalized that it’s for a good cause. I have found that rationalization goes hand and glove with idleness.

The latest insult occurred recently when I stepped on one of those scales that print out your ‘fortune’, mine said, “One at a time please!”

But alas, summer is coming and my hip is fully healed (it’s actually been fully healed for about 5 months, but I’ve relied on it to limit my physical activity), so there are some adventures planned of which you’ll once again be coming along vicariously.   Once I’m feeling better about my increased activity level, I’ll post some more adventurous photos on Facebook as I’m not quite ready to go the way of that old spinning wheel lamp yet!


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By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Mom’s 1962 spinning wheel lamp

Four years ago when our mother died we had the task of cleaning out her one bedroom apartment.  We were so naïve we assumed that five of us could wrap it up in an afternoon and then spend the rest of the weekend partaking in some of Sonoma’s great food and wine.   After all, she lived in a retirement home where she received all of her meals – thus no laborious kitchen utensils, pots or dishes to pack.  We figured we’d just clean out her personal effects and arrange for someone to haul away the furniture.  Piece of cake.  Two days later we had filled 55 huge black garbage bags with stuff.   Our mom, who never struck us as a pack rat, had held on to every piece of paper she received and every photo ever taken.  Her five-drawer filing cabinet was crammed with both necessary documents and complete trash, the most striking of which was a drawer half-filled with address labels listing her former address.  She kept photos of undocumented scenery, made worse by fuzzy Polaroid technology, along with old pictures of relatives who were completely unrecognizable to us.  When the last of her 1962 maple furniture was mercifully taken away by her church thrift store, we fell into an exhausted heap and vowed to go home and immediately clean out our closets.

           Dust Collectors

Apparently we are not alone in this endeavor.  According to articles in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and several other publications, Baby Boomers are now dealing with getting rid of their parents’ possessions and simultaneously trying to downsize their own households.  The problem is…no one wants our stuff.  Our parents, shaped by the Depression and war, held on to everything.  They passed on those same values to us – to be grateful for anything that comes our way.  Especially if it’s free.  My first apartment was completely furnished with my grandmother’s furniture and I was thrilled to get it.  Now, the Gen X’ers and Millennials can cheaply outfit their living spaces with furniture from IKEA, Target or Walmart and achieve the clean, uncluttered look they desire.  Collectively they are rejecting knick knacks, sterling silver tea sets, figurines and power tools.  Instead, they take a picture of the item with their iPhone and keep it in the cloud.  Digital images don’t take up the space that old mahogany breakfronts do in a lifestyle that is mobile and  transient.  As a result, one of the fastest growing businesses in America is junk-removal services.  I shudder to think how some of my friends who collect things will react when their kids finally inherit their treasured accumulation of clowns, thimbles, and Corning Wear.  I hate to tell them that it’s all going to end up on eBay.

   Lenox Tuxedo for $5

So, back to my own resolve to keep the house clutter-free.  Last year I finally threw away my childhood scrapbook, a Junior Miss trophy, and my wedding dress.  I realized these items held sentimental value to me but were totally worthless to anyone else.  I’d rather throw them away myself than make someone else do it.  My latest idea is to get rid of my china, crystal and silver.  After all, my “good stuff” requires I cook a meal commensurate with its formality.  About a year ago I dragged it all out and had a sophisticated dinner party – beef tenderloin, hasselback potatoes, green beans almandine – the whole nine yards.  Between setting up the table and cooking the dinner, I ended up practically asleep in my soup, or wine – it all became a blur.  It was a bad night.  Clearly my formal entertaining days are over.  I contacted Replacements, the huge company that buys and sells fine china, about selling my Lenox Tuxedo.  They informed me they aren’t even buying the cup and saucers anymore but would give me $5 for the dinner, salad and bread/butter plates.  Not each – $5 TOTAL!  In turn, they are selling the same 1974 version of my pattern for $110.  That’s a profit that might even make the bankers my brother wrote about last week feel a bit like, well, bank robbers.  As for the crystal, a good friend just tried to sell hers and she told me not to bother.  She contacted a company that sells fine crystal on consignment and they admitted to her that they hadn’t sold ANY crystal in months.  “Nobody wants this stuff anymore”, he explained.  She’s now decided to use it everyday, figuring that if it gets broken or chipped it really isn’t worth anything anyway.

I do worry a bit about our collective valuables being so easily discarded by future generations.  I think the stories and family histories that are connected with these items should carry some weight.  I love that I have some of my grandmother’s crystal and think of her every time I see it.  But my brothers and I are the only people who remember her so the value to the next generation is not as dear.  I don’t know where it will end up but I will take a page from the millennials and capture it in a photo before I give it away.  After all, I love looking at the photo of our mom’s precious 1962 spinning wheel lamp, thinking about how proud she was the day she brought it home.  On the other hand, I’m glad it’s now in the cloud and not in my living room.

Bank Robbery

by Bob Sparrow

No, this is not about Jesse James, Butch Cassidy or Bonnie & Clyde, but you may better relate to them when you’re finished reading this.

I don’t typically spend a lot of time looking at my credit card bill; two reasons: usually it’s zero so there’s not much to look at, secondly if it isn’t zero I immediately pay whatever is owed and file the statement. For whatever reason, last month, I looked over my last bill fairly carefully and I noticed some scary numbers and several ‘warnings’ from the credit card company.

The first ‘warning’ was regarding the Annual Percentage Rate for various activities. For example, a regular ‘purchase’ or a ‘cash transfer’ had an Annual Percentage Rate of 13.74%. A nice return if you can get it. Oh, I guess they can! I thought that seemed rather high, until I saw what it cost for a ‘Cash Advance’ . . . 25.49%! I’m surprised there wasn’t a quote from Guido, the leg-breaker, telling me that they have ways of making me pay.

The other ‘warning’ I noticed for the first time was under the ‘Payment Information’ heading. I had paid for part of an up-coming trip (yes, I’m going to get off my fat ass later this year and go somewhere!) with my credit card, to the tune of about $5,000 and thus I was ‘warned’:

If you make no additional charges using this card and each month you pay only the minimum payment, you will pay off the balance shown on this statement in about 19 years! And you will end up paying an estimated $11,575!!!

It goes on to tell me that if there is a penalty, like a late fee, there is a limit on what interest rate the banks can charge us – 29.99%. Well thank goodness it’s not 30%!!!

I know this has been going on for a long time, but as I researched further, I realized just how the banks have been ripping us off for years and I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY LONGER! OK, maybe I am, because I don’t have any other alternative and that’s just the way the banks like it.

Here’s some historical data to chew on, or perhaps it’ll chew on you.

Stumpf: “You expect me to get by on $130,000,000 this year?”

The bank’s rate to borrow money (the discount rate) has dropped from around 14% in the early 80’s to its current level of 1%, while the banks have only dropped their credit card rate from 17% in 1980 to 13.7% today. Let me do the math for you, the bank’s rate to borrow money dropped by 93% during that time period while their credit card rate dropped by only 20%. But they certainly dropped their Certificate of Deposit rate quick enough; that rate in 1985, for a 1 year CD was up to around 12%, today it’s around .25%, yes, that’s  right ¼ of 1%! Have you noticed that virtually all the banks have about the same rate for everything?   That’s called ‘price fixing’ which, in effect has all the banks acting as one, which is a monopoly. Both price fixing and monopolies are supposed to be illegal! To support the price fixing argument, take a look at mortgage rates; in the 1980’s they were as high as 18% for a 30-year mortgage, today they’re in the 4’s. Why have they dropped so precipitously? Because there are institutions other than banks that make home loans, so there is honest competitiveness.  I can guarantee you that if banks were the only ones making home loans, those rates would be somewhere around 12% today.

But there is a reason that banks need to rip us off, they have some fairly high compensation packages to satisfy. Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America made $13,722,849 last year. J.P. Morgan Chase CEO, James Dimon made a hefty $28,000,000 in 2016. Wells Fargo CEO, Timothy Sloan made a paltry $12,830,000 last year, but Wells had to pay John Stumpf, their former CEO, who left amid the ‘fake account’ debacle, $130,000,000 in severance pay. Boy, I guess they taught him a lesson!

So the next time you see a bank advertisement on TV or see one of those ‘warm and fuzzy’ posters in your branch, just remember that they are just trying to find another way to rip you off.

Anybody want to help me rob a bank?  I would be honored to be in the Butch Cassidy Bank Robbery Museum.



By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Are you sober yet?  If you’re like millions of Americans you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last Friday by consuming some spirits in honor of the occasion.  Some of us are genuinely of Irish extraction but on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish.  Simply donning a green hat or sporting shamrock underwear gives the wearer some implicit permission to get toilet-hugging drunk.  There actually are a lot of Americans with Irish bloodlines – 37 million to be exact.  That’s 12% of the population, ranking just behind Germany in most frequently reported ancestry.  Heck, we have eight times the number of Irish than Ireland itself!   Which is probably as good an explanation as any as to why the holiday is so much more popular here than in Ireland.  Twenty years ago my husband’s cousin from Scotland came to San Francisco on business and we met him for dinner near our workplaces.  Unfortunately, the only night he had available was St. Patrick’s Day and to further the problem, we worked right around the corner from Harrington’s Bar and Grill.   We met at a nearby restaurant that required our cousin to walk from his hotel right by Harrington’s front door.  Or as close to the front door as he could get.  There are a lot of Irish in San Francisco and they seemingly all gather at Harrington’s each year to celebrate the patron saint.  When he finally navigated his way to the restaurant he was wild-eyed and I think just the tiniest bit shell-shocked.  He stammered, “What is with you Americans and St. Patrick’s Day?”  Well, it turns out, we practically invented the holiday.



Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast of St. Patrick on March 17.  But the first parade held in honor of St. Patrick’s Day took place in the United States.  On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.  The parade, along with their native music, helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots and fellow countrymen.  Over the next three decades numerous groups formed to celebrate Irish heritage, each sponsoring a parade on St. Patrick’s Day.  By the mid-1800s the groups combined forces into what is now known as the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the largest in the country and the oldest civilian-sponsored parade in the world.


Of course, all that marching is exhausting so finding a good pub to quench one’s thirst became part of the day’s tradition.  Some people take pride in finding good Irish pubs wherever they go, regardless of the time of year.  In fact, although I won’t mention names, someone I’m related to that also writes for this blog fashions himself a connoisseur of Irish drinking establishments.  He is the only person I know who could trek all the way to Machu Picchu and find an authentic Irish pub in which to have a Guinness.  But he is far from alone.  What is this obsession so many have with the Irish?  I’ve read more than one article claiming the Irish are the most beloved ethnic group in the world.  Of course, part of that affection is tied to the “happy drunk” reputation, but in fact it goes further than that.  The Irish are deemed to be some of the most sentimental souls on Earth.  One need only read the famous Irish poets to understand the truth of that.  The Irish are also known world-wide for their sense of humor and dry wit.  Oscar Wilde, the noted Irish writer, filled our world with his bon mots.  One of my favorites is:  “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious”. George Carlin was perhaps one of the funniest comedians ever with his wry observations of everyday life and Melissa McCarthy is a talented entertainer (come on, that bathroom scene in Bridesmaids is a classic!).  The Irish also have the ability to write lyrically and capture an audience, despite sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts.  One of my favorite sayings, told to me by an Irish friend who was wound-up in the middle of a fantastical yarn, is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.  My brother and I have at times adopted that as our motto.


There’s also the famous saying “Luck of the Irish”, although I have discovered that the phrase started as a derisive jab at the Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s.  It originated in the gold and silver mines to describe the Irish who found their “pot of gold” and became rich and successful.  The Irish were never given full credit for their accomplishments.  Instead it was widely believed that the “Irish fools” had gained fortune only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains and hard work.  Our only full-blooded Irish ancestor, Julia Stack Billiou, came to America during this period but as you might recall from my last post, she was not lucky in any sense of the word, having been shot by her Chinese cook.  Nevertheless, her immigration gives our family claim to Irish heritage and provides cover for our love of good writing, a stout beer, and a strong Irish Coffee.  I call that lucky indeed!




Stars in the Desert

by Bob Sparrow

As I was sitting out in the desert this past week, well I was not actually sitting in the desert, I was sitting at our Marriott Desert Springs timeshare, anyway, I recalled the first time I ventured out this way. It was in the early 70s and brother Jack had just started working as the restaurant manager at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert. Although I lived in Orange County, it was a particularly cold January and dark clouds hung in the sky as I traveled southeast on Interstate 10 to ‘the desert’. As I entered the Coachella Valley I could see that Mt. San Jacinto and the rest of the Santa Rosa Mountain Range was holding back those dark clouds so there was not a cloud over the entire valley. It was not only my first time in the desert, but it was the first time I could drive for an hour and a half from my home and find a totally differ ecosystem.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the desert; my impression of deserts had come mostly from movies where people were crawling on the sand dying of thirst, seeing mirages of palm trees surrounding a watering hole or of camels trekking across the wind-blown sand with nothing in sight as their destination but more wind-blown sand. This was not like either of those visions, Palm Springs was ‘Home to the Stars’

I learned that there were many famous people who had a second home in the desert, such as Bing Crosby (You can stay in his house today for $3,000 a night!), Frank Sinatra, with a piano-shaped swimming pool, Dean Martin, whose pool was filled with martinis (Just kidding . . . maybe), Sonny Bono (excuse me, Mayor Bono), Gene Autry, Liberace and many, many more. I subsequently found out why the stars back in the day made the desert their go-to get away place.

‘Interesting fact #1’: Most actors had a clause in their contracts, called the ‘2 hour rule’ where they could not be more than two hours away from the studio. Palm Springs was just under a two-hour drive, but a whole world away, so that’s where they headed.

But I digress; those aren’t even the stars with which I was first impressed. During that first trip to the desert, I certainly noticed that the weather was warmer, but the real ‘a ha’ moment for me came that evening, when I was sitting out on the deck of an Ironwood Country Club condo feeling a warm desert breeze, which hardly moved the umbrella in my mai tai, and I looked up to see billions of stars that sparkled as brightly as I’d ever seen them. The Big Dipper was bigger and dippier, the Milky Way was less milky and Ursa Minor looked Major. I could see half the planets in our solar system with my naked eye (the rest of me was fully clothed).

Aside from the spectacular stars, my other most memorable recollection was, ‘There sure are a lot of palm trees around here!” I did notice that these palms were a little different from the King and Queen palms with which I was familiar, these were Date Palms and there were thousands of them.

‘Interesting fact 2’ – This desert produces 35 million pounds of dates annually, that represents 80% of the U.S. crop. You may not have been aware that there are male and female date palm trees and you also may not know that they typically have trouble reproducing, so date farmers must climb the male date palm tree, collect the pollen then climb a female tree and pollinate its flowers. Caution: don’t try this with your date!

I learned more interesting facts about the desert, to wit

     #3: The 50,000 swimming pools are the most pools per capita in the country.

     #4: The thousands of wind turbines make it the largest wind farm in America

     #5: Over 100 golf courses make it the ‘Golf Capital of the World’

     #6: In 1980 the Cabazon Band of the Mission Indians opened the first casino in the U.S. on an Indian reservation; it is now called Fantasy Springs Casino Resort & Spa. I’m proud to say that my contributions (involuntary) have helped make it what it is today!!

For me the desert is truly an oasis, tons of beautiful and challenging golf courses within a few minute’s drive, great bars and restaurants, the Marriott Villas are a great facility and the weather rarely disappoints.

There was a bonus on this trip; I was introduced to some different stars – tennis stars. We attended the BNP Paribas Open tournament, which draws the top players in the world to the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden. I had seen this facility from afar many times while driving through Indian Wells, but never been in it until now. It is ranked as one of the finest, if not the finest tennis facility in the world.  Watching Djokovic and Federer win their matches on a beautiful desert evening was something very special.

The stars in the desert just keep sparkling.



By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Last week I was researching the history of Pulga, a small town in Northern California, for some copy I’m writing for their website.  As it happens, this town is very close to Willows, where our dad’s family settled in 1829.  Our dad was born and raised there and the land is still owned and ranched by members of our extended family.  When I wrote our family history six years ago I discovered that we had something of a colorful past – our great-great grandmother, Julia Billiou, was murdered while sitting at her dining table.  That’s not something you find on Ancestry every day.

When I was writing our history I was lucky enough to connect with a third cousin (I think twice removed but I can never keep that stuff straight) who had a treasure trove of information about Julia and her husband, Joseph Billiou, including copies of the newspaper accounts of her murder.  The local papers in Oroville and Chico reported that the Billiou’s 16 year-old Chinese cook, Hong Di, burst out of the kitchen on the night of April 7, 1887 and in a drunken rage, shot the ranch foreman, William Weaver, in the shoulder.  He then shot Julia as she rose from the table, striking her directly in the heart and killing her instantly.  Our great-grandmother, Annie, was shot at three times, but by that point Hong’s aim was a bit off and he missed her each time.  Hong ran from the ranch, hiding in the brushes near the local creek for three days until he was caught and brought to trial.  The jury found him guilty, but instead of the normal death sentence for a murder, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It would be a vast understatement to say that the verdict did not go down well with the local townspeople.  Before the judge and jury had even left the courtroom there was shouting from the gallery calling for Hong’s lynching.  The mayor called out the posse to guard the jail that night but a raucous band of 200 vigilantes stormed the facility.  They found the cell in the basement where Hong was detained and demanded a full confession.  This confession is what was reported in the local papers – that he’d imbibed in too much whiskey and that he didn’t mean to kill Julia as she had been kind to him.  Nevertheless, the vigilantes dragged him down the street to the train turnstile and hung him.  According to the papers, there was great celebration that night over the “justice” that was carried out.  None of the vigilantes were ever arrested for their actions.

Joseph Billiou – jerk or jilted?

Fast forward to last week when I was doing research on Pulga.  I decided as long as I was studying the local area I’d Google Julia’s murder to see if there was anything I’d missed.  It turned out to be a lesson in “be careful what you wish for” because there was new information and it did not reflect well her.  A recently published book about lynching in California has a full page devoted to Julia’s murder and Hong’s hanging. The author wrote that both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee published the FULL account of Hong’s confession while the local papers chose not to run the full story because it “impinged on the good character of one of the town’s most beloved citizens”.  To say the least. It turns out that a couple of months prior to the murder, while Mr. Billiou was in San Francisco on business, Hong stumbled upon Julia and Mr. Weaver in a “compromising position” up in the hay loft when Joseph was out of town.  Mr. Weaver threatened Hong with death if he told Mr. Billiou about the affair when he returned to the ranch.  Hong’s full confession also stated that his real target was Weaver and that he had great affection for Julia because she taught him to read and write English.  So in that spring of 1887 I think it’s safe to say that tensions were running a little high in the household.  Julia was cheating on her husband, the ranch foreman was fooling around with the boss’s wife, and the cook was scared of being killed at any moment.

These new revelations have me taking a second look at Julia.  Her track record for fidelity wasn’t so great to begin with.  Shortly after she arrived in Willows from Ireland she was engaged to Joseph’s brother, Michael.  When Joseph arrived in California to join Michael, Julia broke off the engagement and married Joseph.   That had to make for an awkward Thanksgiving.  Then at age 50 – which was like 100 in 1887 – she has a fling with the ranch foreman.  Maybe Joseph was a real jerk and she could only find true love with Mr. Weaver.  She took her secrets to the grave, not even leaving a photograph of herself behind, so she’ll forever remain an enigma.

All I know is that I will never again look at all those prim and proper women in my family tree in the same way.


There’s No Business Like $how Busine$$

by Bob Sparrow

Indeed, there is no business like show business when it comes to spending time, energy and money patting themself on the back   We have now just concluded what I call the ‘Actors’ Aggrandizement Season’; there’s been the Golden Globe Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and new to the party is the Made in Hollywood Honor Awards, because apparently Hollywood felt we were one awards show short of genuinely honoring actors and actresses. And now finally (I think!) we’ve endured the just-concluded Oscars – excuse me, the Academy Awards ceremony presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where winning an Oscar means . . . “I can ask for more money for my next movie”.

Watchers of the Oscars were subjected, ad nauseam, to the emotional thank yous from the beautiful people, to their agent, their psychiatrist, their current spouse and of course, us, the fans who they believe, wish we were them. We heard how wonderful the acting ‘craft’ is and of course we heard not what they were wearing, but who! Really?! Most of all, these thespians wanted to make sure they used their celluloid platform to express their banal opinions on domestic and world affairs – forget that most of them couldn’t find Syria on a map if they were adopting a baby in Damascus, much less understand the intricacies of our foreign and domestic policies. Yet, they have opinions and they are free to express them – unfortunately they all have the very same opinions. Where’s the diversity they so cherish?

Aside from similar opinions, one of the other things they have in common is a large, fragile ego. Do you remember when they used to open ‘The Envelope’ (which now cost $200 each!  Yes, just the envelope!) and say, “And the winner is . . .”? They don’t say that anymore, because saying ‘winner’ would imply that there are ‘losers’, so the presenters were asked a few years ago to change the phrase to say, “And the award goes to . . .”.  Now that is standard phraseology for ALL the award shows.

Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu Beach, Kauai

And under the heading of ‘all participants should get a trophy’, gift bags or ‘swag bags’ as those on the inside call them, are given to all of the nominees in the actor, actress and director categories. The bags include such things as a 5-night stay on the island of Kauai, a full wardrobe of women’s clothes from Belldini, a stay at an Italian hotel overlooking Lake Como, and while they’re in Italy they have a three-night stay at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria which overlooks Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast, the cost of a suite there is $1,800 a night. They’ll get another week at an exclusive spa, a Casper mattress for each nominee AND THEIR DOG, and many, many more items. The value of the swag bags last year was approximately $230,000 . . . that’s not for all the bags, that’s EACH! There is no business like show business!  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that $3.4 million could go to a better cause than 15 wealthy movie people.

Oh, I almost forgot, under the category of ‘any publicity is good publicity’, the Razzies, or more formally, The Golden Raspberry Awards, were handed out last week recognizing the worst picture and actors of the year. I didn’t watched them, but I wonder if they said, “and the loser is . . .” Nah!

My sense is that actors and actresses are generally not people that I would want to spend a lot of time with or have my children emulate. Their morals are questionable, they spend money foolishly, certainly too much on houses, cars, psychiatric help, and ex-spouses and wherever they are, it is always all about them. Going on location to shoot a movie always takes precedent over going to their kid’s soccer game. Generalizations I know, some do get it, but most don’t. Contrast these statements from two famous actors:

When is Robert Redford really acting?

Robert Redford said of the recent passing of Mary Tyler Moore, “The courage she displayed in the movie Ordinary People, taking on a role darker than anything she had ever done was brave and enormously powerful”. Really?? OK, I liked the character The Sundance Kid and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Mary Tyler Moore in her own show as well as The Dick Van Dyke Show and was saddened to hear of her recent passing, but I felt that Redford must have been acting when he said that, or does he really believe that playing a character in a movie is “brave and enormously powerful”?

Contrast that with what Denzel Washington said when he was sitting around the table with a group of fellow movie people and was asked how tough it was to make his latest movie, Fences. He said, “Making a movie isn’t tough, sending your kid to Iraq is tough! Making a movie is a luxury; it’s just a movie!”  Thank you!

Hidden Figures

As unimpressed as I seem with the acting profession, I have watched most of the aforementioned award shows. Why? The truth is, I love movies, I love a great story well told. I don’t know the political leanings of the three women who were in Hidden Figures, nor do I care, but the movie, told a great, true story of three incredibly smart and courageous women who succeeded in spite of having to overcome significant obstacles (There, Mr. Redford is bravery and courage . . . in real life). You don’t have to like Mel Gibson to recognize his performance as William Wallace in Braveheart, another great story based on historical events.

Good actors make good movies, and I love them.

But they’re just movies.


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

I have been knitting since I was 14 years old.  It is a passion that has held me in good stead through my youthful dating years (more sweaters knit for undeserving boyfriends than I can count), marriage, divorce, singledom again, and re-marriage.  I have turned to knitting in good times and bad and the craft has not only provided me warmth and some Zen-like moments, but a whole host of friends with like-minded interests.  Only someone who also has a passion can understand the joy of immersing yourself in a hobby and learning everything you can about it.  I came to that realization a few years ago when I hosted a dinner party with people who also had a passion for something.  One guest was having a long conversation with a man about her horse show experiences when she suddenly said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  I’m sure I’m boring you to death with this stuff.”  To which he replied, “No, I get it.  I love racing cars.  So while I don’t understand the horse show particulars, I can relate to anyone who has a passion.”  I’ve never forgotten that moment.  It was when I realized that it was less important what my hobby was than the fact that I had one, even if some people think of it as a “grandma” sport.

As I gave more thought to hobbies I decided it might be interesting to see how other people choose to spend their time – what tickles the imagination or gets people wound up.  I found the latest Harris Poll on the subject and the answer is so discouraging that I wish I could “un-know” it.  First of all, there is a wide definition of what constitutes a hobby.  For example, the number one hobby in the United States is reading.  Okay, I get that reading could be a hobby, especially if you are researching or have a particular interest in a subject matter.  But “reading” also included romance novels and magazines which, frankly, sound more like something one would do in the bathtub or while waiting for the clothes to come out of the dryer.  But at least “reading” has some virtue to it which was comforting because the second most popular hobby is “watching television”.  Wow.  Under that definition everyone who sits on a Barco lounger eating Doritos and drinking Miller Lite is taking part in their hobby.  I know people who have gotten divorced over one spouse spending too much time with their “hobby” during football season.

Gardening and fishing are also very popular, depending on the region of the country you live in, but “Computer” beat them both out.  I’d like to think that some people listed that as a pastime because they are learning about programming or graphic design.  I think the reality is that people are watching cat videos on You Tube or playing endless games of Candy Crush.  “Shopping” cracked the Top 15 in terms of hobbies but that also seems like cheating to me.  I think shopping falls into two categories:  1) things that are necessary like work clothes and groceries or 2) stuff we don’t need but buy because we’re bored/lured by a sale/haven’t hit the limit on the credit card yet.  Housework and sleeping were also on the list, which again, seem to be skirting the real definition of a hobby.  For many years my former company asked people to list their hobbies on the employment application and I can tell you that not once did anyone list “sleeping”, although we later found out the hard way that it was, in fact, their strong suit.

I’m glad that I have my knitting to sustain me.  I have a walk-in closet full of yarn and feel quite confident that in the event of a nuclear holocaust I will be able to remain in my home and entertain myself for weeks on end.  I have recently purchased a knitting machine which, despite how it sounds, is an entirely different craft and is keeping my feeble brain exercised in trying to master it.  Another reason I’m glad I knit is that I also golf.  As any golfer knows, the very act of swinging the club wreaks havoc on just about every body part.  So, as my knitter-golfer friends like to say, golfers who have no other passion are just one bad back – or rainy day – away from having nothing to do.  Maybe those guys on the PGA should learn how to knit.