Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Teachers have reason to smile

As a part-time teacher and part-time journalist, I have a lot to balance. One day I’m teaching 100 students how to craft a story and the next day I’m trying to craft a story of my own for the weekly paper for which I write. Half my week is spent lecturing and grading papers while the other half is spent researching, interviewing and writing for The Pinnacle. It can be stressful, but it’s a good stress. I like the pressure and the deadlines of reporting. I like that I have to be creative to come up with stories every week. I also like the pressure and deadlines of being a high school teacher and newspaper/yearbook advisor. Not all of the kids are excited about journalism, but most of them like expressing themselves, so the challenge of melding those two tasks makes my job worth going to every other day. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read that a Gallup survey released today showed that teachers registered the highest levels of well-being among 11 occupational groups – with business owners coming in a close second. The results, reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, showed that people with manufacturing or transportation jobs had the lowest level of contentment. Teachers posted a score of 71.7 out of 100 on the well-being scale, while manufacturing workers had a 60.6. Most of the teachers with which I work seem to really love what they do. Of course there are some who are in way over their head or who are just riding out the final years until retirement, but the vast majority enjoys imparting knowledge and interacting with teenagers, who are a challenging, frustrating, entertaining bunch. Journalists weren’t listed among the survey results, perhaps because of our dwindling numbers in the print world. Despite the low pay and deadline pressure, I consider myself lucky to be able to write for a newspaper, even though the industry is suffering.
Would I love to be making a lot of money? Of course I would – and I plan to some day. Until then, I’ll take the psychic income that my two part-time jobs pay. For me, well-being is worth more than being well paid. (photo courtesy of [etoile]'s Photostream at

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas can't loiter

Well, that was fast. Just more than 24 hours after the last present was opened and the last bit of packaging recycled, Christmas officially ended in the Breen house like it always does -- in a whirlwind clean-up that returns the house to normal. As much as we love the holiday -- you have to if you have a tree in your living room, family room, kitchen AND youngest son's room -- we don't want it to loiter. The tradition in our house is to put away anything Christmas-related on the 26th. Every indoor Santa, stocking, tree, light and card is gathered, packaged and returned to the storage unit, not to be seen until next December. It's not as much cathartic as it is refreshing. Putting away Christmas is like remodeling the house or getting a new wardrobe. The holiday spirit came and went and now the new year is looming, so the fresh start of shooing away Christmas is a perfect segue. It might seem to some that our family doesn't do the holiday justice because we let it go so quickly. But in reality, we aren't letting it go; we're just telling it "thanks for visiting, see you next year, we've got bowl games to watch." What's that dear? I haven't put away the exterior holiday decorations? I'll get to those right after the bowl games. Where's your Christmas spirit? (photo courtesy of Pescatello's Photostream at

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What's in a name?

My wife and I consulted one of those baby names books when we were considering monikers for our children 15 and 13 years ago, respectively. Ultimately, though, we chose names that we thought worked well with Breen, not necessarily what had the deepest meaning or was the most popular that year. Our oldest son, Michael, has a name that always seems to appear on the top baby names list. This year, according to, the name Michael was No. 18 on the top 20, behind such names as Caleb, Brayden, Caden, Jayden and the top name -- Aiden. There's something about the "ayden" sound that must appeal to today's parents. My grandfathers' names -- John and Raymond, are nowhere to be found (though "Jack," which my paternal grandfather went by, is No. 10. My dad's name, Tom, isn't on the list; nor is Adam. And I kinda like it that way. Our younger son's name -- Andrew -- doesn't appear on this year's top 20 either. If my wife was expecting a child in 2010, would we feel pressure to make sure our son's name included the "ayden" sound like four of the top 20 names did this year? Probably not. If one of our boys would have been a girl, however, our top choice -- Isabella -- is No. 1 on the top 20 girls' names list, ahead of No. 8, Chloe, which is the name of our cat. If we had a girl, the chances that our daughter would be in a classroom with other girls of the same name would be much greater and we wouldn't feel as creative. But alas, a decade-and-a-half after their names hit the birth certificate -- Andrew is not in the Top 20 and Michael is down to 18, though they're tied for No. 1 on Mom and Dad's list. For another look at the complete list, check out The Mommy Files blog. (photo courtesy of sashafatcat's Photostream at

Monday, December 21, 2009

A cheesy promotion

The word first came down in a text from my wife at around 10 a.m. today: "Round Table Pizza 2day 11 a.m.-11 p.m. ... $2.26 lg pep or cheese pizza ... Should get one for boys dinner." Her friend had seen the ad in Friday's Pinnacle newspaper and mentioned it to my wife, who mentioned it to me, knowing that dinner was my responsibility tonight. By 11 a.m., the newspaper's advertising rep and a couple of callers to the newsroom were talking about a line snaking from Round Table's door, around the sidewalk and over toward the Hi Outlet -- maybe 100 people deep. At 2 o'clock I interviewed Round Table owner Mike Sicoli about the promotion, which, it turns out, was originally a company-wide plan to celebrate the chain's 50th anniversary. No all of the restaurants decided to take the financial hit and participate, but Mike and his wife, Allison, thought it would be a great way to spread a little Christmas cheer -- and some tomato sauce -- to thank the community for their support over the past 32 years. In those first three hours, 600 pizzas had been sold. At 8 p.m., I was still getting reports of a huge line outside of Round Table. Check out Friday's Pinnacle for the full story on the clever promotion. It was an expensive one, it seems, but it's nice to see a local business give thanks to a loyal customer base by giving them a crazy discount on a really good product. (photo courtesy of The Pizza Review's Photostream at

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My first e-card of the holiday season arrived yesterday. The Hallmark E-Card featured an online slideshow of a snowy, bucolic setting, interspersed with the saying, "Through every moment of the holidays, every day of the new year, may peace and happiness be yours." As the slideshow played and the Hallmark-y saying flashed on the screen, holiday music played in the background. Then, a personal message from the sender followed. It was a nice sentiment that I truly appreciate. It was flashy and creative, particularly for someone who hasn't received one of these before. That being said, I'm pretty sure the same e-card was sent to everyone else on this person's e-mail distribution list, which seems a bit impersonal to me. Even though the only real difference between signing a store-bought card, putting it in an envelope, addressing it, putting a stamp on it and putting the whole thing in the mail is the effort and expense involved, the message lost some of its personal touch when I read it on the computer screen. I could hit the "Play Again" button and watch the slideshow and listen to the music again, but I can't put the e-card in my door-hanging Santa card holder in my living room -- though I guess I could try to print it out. Still, it's not the same. The part that truly bugged me was not the fact that this person sent me an electronic card -- I really do appreciate it. I don't like being told "Now it's your turn to make someone smile," which Hallmark's e-mail suggested I do. With one click, I could purchase photo cards, e-cards, paper cards and invitations and announcements. Now, I'm being marketed to while I'm being wished a happy holiday season. Bah humbug! A regular Hallmark card that comes in the mail doesn't include an ad suggesting that I be a good person and go to Target to buy another card for someone else. But on the Web, where everything is just a click away, I can't even receive a thoughtful holiday message without also receiving a sales pitch. Luckily, the delete button is just a click away. Happy holidays. (photo courtesy of Adam Buteux's PhotoStream at

Saturday, December 12, 2009

One degree of separation

Here's a snippet from my weekly column in The Pinnacle. For the entire text, click here.

Jack Frost doesn't just nip at my nose in the morning during the winter; he takes a full-on bite.
This week's freezing temperatures finally put me into winter mode, which inevitably leads to friendly heater battles with my wife. When I get home from work and it's as cold as it has been this week, I am fine with setting the heater at 65 degrees and getting the house relatively toasty.
I even throw some logs onto the fire and get the family room heated up so we can enjoy some family time in front of the television. So far, so good.
Then bedtime rolls around and I turn the thermostat down by one degree, to 64, figuring that we'll all be tucked warmly into bed and we can spare the extra degree and the extra expense associated with it.
If my wife gets out of bed before falling asleep and walks down the hall, it's safe to assume she'll bump the heater back up to 65. Since I usually stay up later than she does, I'll often make a second trip down the hall to push it back to 64. Wow, what a victory.
Since I also usually wake up first in the morning, I'll then bump the thermostat back to 65 because, again, that one degree really makes a huge difference, I tell myself. (see what happens next in The Pinnacle)

(Photo courtesy of EditorB's Photostream at

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Watch out, your plate is hot

Nearly every time I eat at a Mexican restaurant, the waiter or waitress tells me "Watch out, your plate is hot" as they place it on the table in front of me. I appreciate the warning, because I don't like burning myself. The trouble is, every time they say that I am compelled to touch the plate to see just how hot it is. It's like I'm a little kid who is told not to look under the Christmas tree at all the presents that are there for me. While in the server's mind he or she is offering a friendly warning, in my mind they are daring me to see if they are telling the truth. The touching of the hot plate has become such a ritual that my teenage sons now touch their allegedly hot plates when we are out to eat. They shoot me a knowing glance when they do this, full of pride that they took the imaginary dare and stared danger in the face -- with danger in this case being a taco and burrito combination plate. This week, as we ate at Jardine's in San Juan Bautista, the waiter gave us the standard hot plate warning, which I appreciated -- then immediately ignored. The plate was warm, for sure, though not hot. My son's friend's plate, however, was actually beyond hot. It was fajita plate hot, where the food is still bubbling or sizzling when it arrives at the table, even though he just ordered two burritos. To my shock and surprise, the hot plate warning actually was real. Since there were three teenage males in addition to my wife and me at the table, we all had to touch the plate. "Ow!" one of us said. "Wow, that is hot!" said another. We were impressed and undaunted at the same time. An actual hot plate at a restaurant; the first time the warning actually made sense. It wasn't the smartest thing to do, but again, 80 percent of our table was male. Had they warned us not to touch the candle in the middle of the table because it was hot, we probably would have tried to touch that too just to see for ourselves. (Photo courtesy of Beverly and Pack's Photostream at

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Christmas lights inferiority tale

If there were a Christmas Tree Lane in my town, it would be my street. Starting on Thanksgiving and gearing up in earnest this past weekend, our quiet, tree-lined residential byway becomes a slow-motion highway of holiday revelers driving 3 mph up and down the road to check out the cool holiday displays. It's really cool to live on such a festive street, as it makes every nighttime sojourn to the store or to basketball practice a trip through a (California) winter wonderland. Most of the homes on my street are of the two-story variety and three-fourths of them are strung with lights and festooned with every possible Christmas-y decoration, from mangers to wooden character cutouts to inflatable snow globes. On any other street in any other town, my house would be appropriately decorated. Our nicely-decorated living room Christmas tree fills the front window and two small, lighted Christmas trees border our garage door. Our gutter is lined by a string of lights that is simple, yet festive and we soon will drape some bushes with white lights and place a lighted snowman in the front yard. But compared to the rest of my street, my house is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree: simple, bare, sparse, yet symbolic of the season. Despite peer pressure from my sons that we add enough lights so that our home is visible to the International Space Station, we will keep it simple and modest, even if it means our driveway remains the turnaround point for holiday lights gazers. Simplicity was good enough for Charlie, and it's good enough for me. Good grief. (Photo courtesy of Ted Murphy's Photostream at

Saturday, November 7, 2009

They dropped a bomb on us, baby

The three-quarter-page public notice in this week's edition of The Pinnacle sounded a bit ominous on first read, using words like "Bomb Target No. 5, Hollister," "unexploded ordnance," and "discarded military munitions." It turns out that some rural property east of Hollister off Santa Ana Valley Road was used by Navy pilots as a practice dive bombing target during World War II and the government is in the process of checking it out to see if any clean-up is needed. I knew that there was a Naval Auxiliary Air Station at the Hollister Airport during the war, but the practice dive bombing info was news to me. A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is coordinating the investigation, said the advertisement was meant to help the government gather more information about the bombing site, though it has already talked to current and former owners. In next week's Pinnacle, I'll report in more detail on the bombing runs from 65 years ago and explain what the next steps will be in the investigation of the site. My dad, who grew up in Hollister and was related to the then-property owners, recalled to me how some family members collected the practice bombs, which, fortunately, were inert -- usually filled with sand. Unfortunately -- or maybe fortunately -- those weren't kept as family heirlooms. Check the Nov. 13 issue of The Pinnacle for the full story. (image courtesy of ezioman's Photostream:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Paper or plastic? Don't bother asking

The question "paper or plastic?" could be sacked in Hollister stores if rumblings from City Hall come to pass. According to minutes of the Oct. 5 City Council meeting, at least two councilmen mentioned what could become a hot-button issue locally; whether to ban the use of plastic bags at stores. District 4 Councilman Doug Emerson "requested information on what other jurisdictions are doing to ban plastic bags," according to the minutes posted on the city's Web site, and Councilman Victor Gomez "suggested talking to Mandy (Rose) at (the) San Benito County Integrated Waste Management Department regarding Styrofoam and plastic bags..." So, does that mean that the city is considering a ban on the bags, much like our neighbor to the north, San Francisco? It's too early to say, but this journalist and local shopper will look into the matter and offer an update within the next week. As reported today in the San Francisco Chronicle, the City by the Bay, which already bans plastic bags at large grocery stores and pharmacies, is now turning its attention to paper bags. Legislation introduced this week "would require those stores to offer a 10-cent rebate as an incentive for people to bring their own bags." The ordinance would include fines up to $500 for stores that don't offer the rebate. It'll be interesting to see if such a rule will fly or get bagged in Hollister. Stay tuned. (photo courtesy of evelynishere's photostream on Flickr)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shooting for the moon

I never intentionally wake up at 4:15 in the morning. A barking dog or earthquake or the necessity of a trip to the bathroom are all will stir me at that hour. Until this week, that is. Before I went to bed, I heard on the 11 o'clock news that NASA's planned lunar mission, in which it was going to crash a rocket into a crater on the moon, was going to be televised at 4:30 the next morning. I figured I didn't need to see that live, so I went to be thinking that I would catch the highlights on the "Today" show at 7 a.m. Then, for some odd reason, I was stirred awake at 4:15. Normally when this happens, I readjust my pillow, pull up the blankets, and let out a sigh of contentment knowing that I have a couple of hours left before I have to wake up. On Friday morning, however, my inquisitive side took over and I got out of bed and went to the family room to watch the lunar show on TV. As soon as the tube flickered on, I saw the camera feed from NASA, as the spaceship beamed back images as it neared the moon's surface. I made the right choice, I thought, even though it was dark outside and I was sacrificing valuable sleep time. Within a couple of minutes, scientists were shown celebrating the mission's success, as TV anchors on various networks wondered what had happened. There was no big explosion to see. The people back on Earth who stayed up all night to watch the expected explosion though telescopes saw nothing, except the moon looking the same as it always has. The 14 minutes I devoted to watching this historic mission wasn't the fascinating, spectacular show that was billed to be. And it took me more than 45 minutes to fall back asleep as I argued with myself about why my head was in the stars on this night/morning. The thing is, I'd do it again because I don't want to miss history -- or a chance at it. It was a gamble I took and one that didn't pay off. But sometimes you shoot for the moon and miss. (photo courtesy of Kevin Collins' Photostream at

Monday, September 14, 2009

Shaking things up

Residents of San Benito County are fond of saying, "Ooh, it's earthquake weather today." This either means: A. It's kind of muggy with high cirrus clouds; B. It's not muggy and there are no clouds; C. People just make stuff up because they remember that we haven't had an earthquake in a while. The United States Geological Survey says "there is no connection between weather and earthquakes," and I believe it. I also believe there IS a connection between me being in a deep sleep and the occurrence of earthquakes. Our most recent good-sized temblor occurred at 2:47 a.m. on Sept. 6. At a magnitude of 3.9, it was one of those shakers that felt like a sonic boom -- at least that's how I remembered it when it rattled me awake. As soon as it hit, I sat up, thought about jumping over my wife and running to my youngest son's room, then announced, "It's OK" as my wife was startled awake. I felt like the man of the house, telling everyone that everything would be fine in this time of danger. In fact, I laid back down with my heart pounding through my chest as I tried to fall back asleep. I couldn't, of course, so I checked on my son, who said "What was that?" and immediately fell back asleep when I said, "It was an earthquake, but it's over now." Why couldn't the quake have happened at 2:47 p.m. when I would have been at work ... and awake? My heart might have pounded just as hard after a daytime temblor, but the fear factor of the middle-of-the-night, wake-you-from-a-deep-sleep quake makes a relatively minor quake like that feel like the beginning of the end of the world. Being rustled by quakes is part of the cost of living in the earthquake capital of the world. I just hope the next one has the courtesy of shaking things up during waking hours. (photo courtesy of Brooke Anderson's Photostream:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The night the lights went out in San Benito

Power outages aren't that uncommon of an occurrence. In the most extreme cases, when the lights go out in a section of town, we wait half an hour or so, and the power pops back on -- with every electronic device that has a clock flashing a reminder that it needs to be reset. Tonight's power outage was different. Apparently caused by a wildfire in neighboring Monterey County, this outage plunged the entire county of San Benito into darkness, from what I could tell. It was a surreal scene. In my nearly 30 years of living in Hollister, I have never seen the entire town fall into darkness like this. Families on my street gathered outside as the sun fell. It was sort of a step back in time before there were televisions and computers and other such distractions. In my house, candles and flashlights illuminated our living room during homework time. When we realized that our sons and I were really hungry and we had no way to prepare food, I had the bright idea to drive to Gilroy for some Panda Express. The ride also gave my boys a chance to finish their homework by the inside light of the car. Nearly every business that had been open when the power went out had to close. A few traffic signals remained on, but the streetlights were out, making for hazardous driving conditions. As we pulled out of town and headed north on Highway 25, the view to the south over town was something I thought I'd never see. The only lights were the headlights of people either heading home from work or heading out to see if the rest of town was in the same predicament. After eating dinner in Gilroy we noticed the lights in Hollister pop back on, once again throwing off the familiar glow in our valley. The outage was inconvenient, but also an interesting occurrence. My kids thought it was cool and the four of us spent a nice night together, not staring at a television, but having a nice talk and dinner together in the car. In the end, the blackout was an illuminating reminder of how my family brightens my life. (photo courtesy of Crystl's Photostream at

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Historic parks may really be history

Friday's edition of The Pinnacle reports the somber news that Fremont Peak and the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park are expected to be among the 100 or so parks forced to close because of the state's budget problems. As I write in this week's column: "The periodic Friday closure of the Hollister DMV has been inconvenient; the upcoming one-Wednesday-a-month closure of the San Benito County courts will slow the wheels of justice; but news of the potential closure of Fremont Peak and the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is downright sad." The official news about specific park closures is expected to be released on Labor Day, which unfortunately will be Californians' last chance to enjoy some of our beloved parks before they are shuttered for who knows how long. The closure of Fremont Peak and the state historic park would be a double-blow for San Juan. My column references the impact park closures had on a small, touristy, San Juan-type town in Arizona. It foretells a scary scenario of lost revenue and diminished visitors. Let's hope there is a last-minute reprieve for our local state parks. It's a long shot, but we can hope. For a reminder of the value of the park, check out Tom Steinstra's recent story about Fremont Peak in the SF Chronicle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Short(s) and to the point

As I awoke this morning and turned on the television, I was so (not) proud to be a journalist when NBC's "Today" show broadcast a story about Michelle Obama's shorts. Not just that our first lady wore a pair, but asking the hard-hitting question: "Was it appropriate attire for the wife of a president?" Apparently, Mrs. Obama caused a bit of a stir when she recently de-planed from Air Force One wearing -- gasp! -- shorts! True, she's an active, fit, 40-something woman who was on vacation with her family at the Grand Canyon; but how dare she, really! Our country is used to its first ladies wearing shin-length dresses or ball gowns, not everywoman shorts. For goodness sakes, it's not like Michelle was wearing Daisy Dukes: they were mid-thigh jean shorts. The story, and the accompanying piece at, didn't actually name names of the people who were offended by the shorts, so this is one of those stories that is more about eliciting a reaction than reacting to a real issue. However, Today's Web site did run a poll asking whether people thought Mrs. Obama's fashion choice was "fine" or "inappropriate." As of the writing of my post, 83 percent of the nearly 203,000 votes cast chose the first option, which also used the words "People are overreacting!" What struck me is that 17 percent of respondents -- or nearly 35,000 people -- agreed that "the first lady should be dressed more conservatively." My guess is that they really were voting for the option: "The first lady and her husband should be more conservative, politically," though who's to know for sure? I like that we have relatively young, hip people in the White House. They dress up when it's appropriate, but they also dress down like 40-somethings with two kids do all around this country. Next week on "Today": President Obama spotted wearing sandals. Is impeachment next? (photo courtesy of collabratude's Photostream at

Friday, August 14, 2009

Where am I? Fresno?

"I love Fresno" is a phrase not many people who haven't lived in the Central Valley metropolis will ever utter. I spent my college years there; I proposed to my girlfriend there; my family goes back there a few times a year to play miniature golf and eat at one of our favorite restaurants. I'm a fan of Fresno. Trouble is, Fresno is foggy most of the winter and smoggy most of the summer. Days are gray when it's cold and brown when it's hot. There are a few in-between days, but the town is a place of extremes. I was reminded of the good old days in Fresno today as smoke from the 5,000-acre-plus Lockheed Fire blew into San Benito County on strong westerly winds. Within the span of an hour, a blue sky day became brown and miserable. My eyes were irritated and my throat burned. Football conditioning at San Benito High School was cancelled because coaches didn't want athletes breathing in the unhealthy air and dozens of calls to local authorities asked if there was a fire in our area. Driving home from school, I couldn't even see the Diablo Range. It was like being in Fresno again, where residents tend to forget they live at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range because its so often shrouded in fog or blurred by smog. The predictable afternoon westerly breezes off the ocean are nature's air conditioner for Hollister, but today those breezes became a smoke machine. (photo courtesy of Richard Flink's Photostream)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Drain the Ocean says Hollister is creepy

In case you missed it, or didn't stick it out through the first hour, the National Geographic Channel program, "Drain the Ocean," spends a good two minutes talking about how creepy Hollister is. Those of us living here already knew this. The program, which debuted on Aug. 9, is a fascinating look at the Earth's geology using computer animation to show what the ocean would look like if they were drained of water. Fifty-six minutes in, right after a discussion about the geology of Iceland, the narrator brings us to Hollister. "This small town straddles one the faults, so we can see its affects," he says as we see David Schwartz of the United States Geological Survey walk by a Victorian home just north of Dunne Park. "We're in Hollister, California. We're standing on the Calaveras Fault," Schwartz says, as viewers are shown pictures of sidewalks and curbs left askew by the creeping nature of the earthquake fault over which they lie. "We can actually see the affects of that slow movement on the streets of Hollister." Yes, things move slowly around here, but at least our townfolk aren't creepy. "This is geoglogy in action," the narrator continues, but is hasn't created any spectacular landscapes." They film crew obviously missed Vista Park Hill, the underutilized geographic feature on the north side of town. At least the program showed there are more things rumbling in our town than just bikers. (photo courtesy of Hitchster's photostream)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saturday's not alright for the library

As an update to a recent post, I learned today that the San Benito County Free Library is expected to soon stop offering Saturday hours as it tries to cope with a reduction in staffing mandated by a county-wide furlough edict. The irony is that the library is as strong and popular as ever, having added nearly 600 card holders this year and offering a place of refuge and resource to job-seekers and knowledge-seekers alike. Check out my story in this Friday's edition of The Pinnacle for the full story. Also in Friday's edition, I write about how the county courthouse will follow the state Judicial Council's mandate and close every third Wednesday of the month in order to deal with the state's budget crisis. Judge Steve Sanders says this means that a few unfortunate arrestees will likely spend an extra day in jail instead of having a preliminary hearing that could have bailed them out of jail or set bail.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lunch steals a pizza my heart

An easy way to get me to open an e-mail is to include the words "best pizza" in the subject line. That's what happened last week when a Pinnacle newspaper reader sent me a message with the title "Best pizza in San Benito County." Since I live in San Benito County and I love pizza, the e-mailer had me at "best..." The messenger may have a financial or familial interest in getting me to visit La Pizza Bella/Mama Cass's Kitchen in the tiny hamlet of Tres Pinos, south of Hollister on Highway 25. I didn't ask; and frankly, I didn't care. He took a gamble by recommending it to me, knowing that I could "pan" the thin crust pizza or give a "thin" criticism of the pan crust pizza in the newspaper or on this blog. Well, after bringing my parents, wife and oldest son to the joint on Friday, the e-mailer's gamble paid off. It was a unanimous five-for-five endorsement of the hole-in-the-wall joint, which I actually passed up on my first time through town because I missed the A-frame sandwich board that announces its presence. Owner Cass Spencer's menu features the standard pizza options -- Hawaiian, combination, vegetarian -- along with some unique varieties: Pinwheel (made-to-order with a choice of three specialty combinations on one pie); and taco, which features three cheeses, refried beans, seasoned ground beef, red and green onions, olives, red and green bell peppers, grated cheddar cheese, and diced Roma tomatoes. The menu also features sandwiches and hamburgers and create-your-own combos. Our choice on this day was the Pizza Lunch Special, which at a mere $5.99 included a very large side salad, unlimited beverage and a one-topping pizza that was closer to a medium than the standard personal size. After we finished our salads at our outdoor table (it was a little too warm inside), we sampled the deep-fried chicken raviolis, which, along with the marinara dipping sauce, were a crispy, warm, tasty treat. My wife, who often eschews garlic in her meals, loved the flavor the garlic bits gave to the raviolis. Then, when our pizzas arrived, we were surprised to see that each pie was encircled my more garlic bits. The hot pizza with the melting cheese and the aromatic garlic combined to a create a taste sensation that if it is not the best in the county, is right near the top. Mama Cass's Kitchen is located at 6851 Airline Hwy., Unit D in Tres Pinos (it's on the left side of the road just past the gas station). For details, call 628-3900. For another review of the menu, check out the Melissa Good Taste blog at (photo courtesy of

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Balancing the library's books

In a town with no bookstore, if you don't count the local Target, the San Benito County Free Library serves an immensely important role in Hollister. More than just a place to check out books, it is an education center, a community gathering place, a computer lab for residents who don't have such access at home. Like many other public entities, however, the local library is bracing for harsh cuts brought on by the trickle-down effect of the state's budget woes. In the most recent issue of the Friends of the Library newsletter, Librarian Nora Conte warns patrons of "the probability of cuts" as county supervisors discuss next year's spending plan. Conte encouraged library advocates to attend this week's county budget meetings to encourage elected representatives to spare what they can. "We may have to cut programs and days open to cope with cuts," Conte said, adding that ideas such as raising book fines "will have no significant impact" and employee furloughs have already taken a toll. Every department needs to bear its share of budget cuts in tough financial times like these, but let's hope the progress the library has made under Conte doesn't get shelved. Check out the Aug. 14 issue of The Pinnacle for an update on how budget talks may affect the library's services in the coming year. (photo courtesy of Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Yosemite offers the bear necessities

Here is a sample of this week's column in the Friday edition of The Pinnacle. The full column is available online.

My sons discovered a new kind of theme park this week, one that despite never really adding new attractions still brings people back year after year.
It’s called Yosemite National Park – note how there is no corporate sponsor before the name; crazy concept.
The park is about two hours closer to my hometown of Hollister than is Disneyland and only costs $20 per car to enter – that’s $5 per person in my family. There is no mall outside of its gates and no fireworks show at night. And darn it if my teens still didn’t have fun.
My wife and I were anxious for our boys’ first reaction to seeing Yosemite Valley, which becomes visible as you turn one of the many road bends leading to the park. Our first glimpse of the massive granite slabs of El Capitan on the right and Half Dome in the distance drew an astonished, “Wow, that doesn’t look real,” from our oldest son and knowing smiles from his parents.
When we jumped out of the car at Inspiration Point, just past the end of a long tunnel (in which I had to honk, at the boys’ request), we stopped to capture the iconic photos of the valley – huge granite rock faces framing a dense forest canopy that from our vantage point conceals the tens of thousands of visitors who scurry around its floor.
In my car, we’re always on the lookout for wild animals. It’s one of those car games designed to keep the kids occupied during a long journey. As we wound our way through the mountains and down into the valley, we only saw birds and squirrels – nice, but nothing too exciting.
Once in the valley, that all changed.

(Read what happened next by clicking on this link.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hollister bar makes Chron Top 5 list

When one thinks biker bars in Hollister, Johnny's Bar & Grill surely roars to the top, with its painted cutout of Marlon Brando at its San Benito Street entrance and its wall-sized mural of other biker scenes on its southern alley side. Legend has it that the rowdiness of Wino Willie and his Boozefighters led to an exaggerated report in Life magazine which then inspired the 1953 movie The Wild Ones, featuring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. But in a July 31 San Francisco Chronicle article titled "Five Great Biker Bars in the Bay Area," Johnny's wasn't mentioned. Another Hollister establishment, Whiskey Creek Saloon on Fifth Street, was ranked the third best biker bar in the region. The article notes that the "dive bar" is a "hopping spot" during the annual Hollister Bike Rally, which didn't formally take place this year. "Weekend karaoke nights are a huge hit," the article states, "with some patrons ZZTop-ping ZZ Top themselves." The story lets us know that Whiskey Creek starts serving flowing beer, if you will, at 6 a.m. and offers "one caveat: Even if you really have to go, avoid the restrooms at all costs." I guess that advice goes for any establishment in which patrons start drinking at 6 a.m. One caveat (from me) for Hollister residents and Whiskey Creek patrons: be on the lookout for so-called "Seensters," the apparently hip, young "see and be seen" party people who hit up cool spots like SF clubs and -- perhaps now -- Hollister dive bars, then Tweet about it. (photo courtesy of Andre Banyai)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'll drink to that, Mr. President

Tonight is the much-anticipated "Beer Summit" involving President Barack Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Massachusetts police Sgt. James Crowley. The three men are apparently hoping that the male bonding ritual of adding alcohol to a conversation to make it interesting will help soothe the tension caused when Crowley arrested Gates after police suspected he was robbing a house following a neighbor's 911 call. Turns out the house is owned by Gates, who apparently was more than upset that he was being accused of being a criminal on his own property. Obama jumped into the fray at a press conference, calling the actions of Sgt. Crowley "stupid." Crowley and his superiors claim the officer was merely doing his duty in response to a civilian's call, which, contrary to initial reports, did not mention that Gates and the man he was with are African-American. Since then, cooler heads have prevailed and now a cooler of beer will be the substitute for an olive branch as the men meet to straighten out the situation. When men get together over a beer (or two, or three) the conversation is not what you'd normally expect at a White House summit. If it's anything like the Beer Summits in which I have been involved -- mostly at pizza parlors -- the men will start off talking about that day's sports news, transition into a recap of the most recent recreation softball game, then proceed to make fun of each other. After a few more beers, one guy in the group will sit silently with a goofy look on his face while another will get really loud and obnoxious, drawing stares from other tables (or in this case, the Secret Service). At one point, I expect Obama to regale his guests with exaggerated tales of his high school or youth sports accomplishments while Crowley pulls out his stun gun to show off how cool it is. Gates might drop in a Harvard reference or two to remind the others how smart he is, then all three of them will check their cell phones to make sure their wives aren't sending them a text about "how late it's getting" and "shouldn't you tuck in the kids?" I hope the Beer Summit works. If we get reports that of Obama, Gates and Crowley buzzing the Washington Monument in the presidential helicopter during a post-summit joyride, we will know it will have been a success. (image courtesy of Mike Licht,

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I didn't even know he was sick

I've always said that I want my tombstone to actually say something, beyond the basic name, date of birth and date of death. "We didn't even know he was sick" is one idea. Or perhaps "If you can read this, you're standing too close. In fact, you're standing on top of me." I want people to smile when they pass the granite slab under which my remains will rest for perpetuity -- or at least I want them to not get too depressed. Hopefully, the dates on my headstone will show that I lived a long life and my survivors will rest assured knowing that I have moved on to a better place. The gravestone pictured here has intrigued me since I snapped the picture at Arlington National Cemetery a couple of years ago. Arlington is famous for its tomb of the unknowns, which is under constant guard as a reminder that many people have fought and died for our country without their remains being identified. So is this the tomb of the unknown journalist? I don't know. A quick Google search the other day didn't yield any answers, so if anyone knows, let me know. As a person who leads a double career as a high school journalism teacher and a weekly newspaper reporter and columnist, the journalist headstone picture reminds me of movies where the Grim Reaper is standing behind some dude who has no idea his time is up. It's foreshadowing; an image portending doom. As I wrote in this week's column in The Pinnacle, the noble profession of journalism isn't going away. Rather, our society's means of communication and preferences for acquiring news are changing. Any hack, present company included, can set up a blog and post his or her comments for the world to read or ignore. They don't need a journalism degree or an Associated Press Style Guide. They just need a computer, the Internet, and some fingers. And that's OK. Journalism is not a dying art, but rather an evolving one. Maybe my headstone will simply say "Breen," because my choice of dual careers will not leave my family with enough money to pay for any more engraving. I hope that when my time to pass comes many, many years from now that my wishes are respected. Put "loving father, devoted husband" somewhere on the stone if you must, as those would be reflective of a life lived well. But why not throwing in a zinger as well? Something like "Here lies Adam and all of his jokes that died as soon as he told them."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Oh baby, birthers are certifiable

This just in: Hawaii is part of the United States. Thank goodness, because if it weren't, we may have to go looking for a new president. If you haven't been following the latest resurgence of a wacko controversy about Barack Obama, the Hawaii State Department of Health (once again) confirmed that our president is indeed a natural-born citizen of the U.S. because he was born in Hawaii, which -- like Alaska -- still counts as one of the 50 states even though it's really far away. The Associated Press reported this week that people called "birthers" claim that Obama is ineligible to be president because he was born outside of the United States. They believe, citing pretty much no credible evidence, that Obama, whose dad was African, was actually born in Kenya. This charge ignores the fact that Hawaiian officials have confirmed that Obama's birth certificate is legit and presumably considers the fact that not one but two Honolulu newspapers ran the birth announcement in 1961 is actually a socialist plot hatched nearly 50 years ago to bring Obama to power in the 21st century. The logic of birthers isn't too far past the wacko scale of the people who said Obama's middle name -- Hussein -- means that he surely is a Muslim and a terrorist. I'm not really good at math, but Obama's parents gave him is name back in August of 1961, well before most people knew of or cared about the name Hussein. So birthers, relax. We agree, as our Consitution mandates, that our president must be a "natural-born citizen." Be proud that you live in a country that gave a U.S. citizen who happens to be a man of color and African heritage a chance to run the best country in the world. The best way to get Obama out of office is to follow another wonderful mandate of the Constitution -- vote. (photo courtesy of dno1967's photostream on Flickr)

Monday, July 27, 2009

No shirts, no shoes, no church service

My grandmother, Aileen, was as formal a woman as they came. Born in 1906, she wore a dress and nice shoes every day of her life -- I'm not sure she even owned tennis shoes. Why should she? She didn't play tennis. The first time I saw her wearing pants was during a visit my wife and I made to her in the nursing home late in life. I hardly recognized her.
Aileen was raised in a time when women wore dresses, men wore suits and kids did what they were told for fear of feeling the wrath, in whatever form that might take. Today's parents give our children time outs.
In Aileen's house, I doubt there was a time out chair. She was of the "fear God, fear your parents, fear sin, and everything would be OK" school of thought. A true woman of God, she and her sister, Bess, were the only two of 10 siblings NOT to join the clergy. Aileen did her part to keep the faith, however, by attending the daily 5 p.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Hollister.
The Catholic Church was everything in her life, though being the opinionated woman she was, that didn't mean it's messengers were above reproach. On Jan. 3, 1981, Aileen wrote in her journal that it was "Fr. Sanz again -- oh my" who administered Mass on that day. She respected him, as was her role, but she told her journal that she would've liked a little more depth out of the father on this day. "If he could just serve the meat instead of desserts for homily," she lamented. Hey, she made her daily offering, so she could offer some criticism -- even if the only one reading it would be her grandson 28 years later.
My dad, Tom, was a target in Aileen's diary as well, as he attended Mass with his mother on this day. "Tom took up collection -- very casual dress." Moms notice such things.
At the end of the day's entry, Aileen noted how her friend, Mabel, called to note that her husband, Abe, had been at Southside," the nursing home that would become Aileen's home late in life, "for 7 years -- a long time." Jack, my grandfather, "was only 3 years" in Southside before he passed away. In light of Mabel's lament, Aileen seemed thankful. "I dream a lot about Jack -- the young Jack," she wrote, no doubt before shutting off her light and putting down her journal to fall asleep. She, of course, said her prayers first, as she was nothing if not dutiful. Then she shut her eyes in hopes of seeing young Jack once more. (photo courtesy of Mark Levin's photostream)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Bare Mayor

Any tourist's visit to New York City wouldn't be complete without at least a quick glimpse at Robert Burck, better known as The Naked Cowboy. Wearing little more than white books, Speedo-like tighty-whities and a white cowboy hat, Burck spends much of his time playing guitar and singing for the masses in busy Times Square. Word came out recently that he would be throwing his cowboy hat -- and very little else -- into the ring as a candidate for mayor of NYC. During my family's visit to The Big Apple last August, we spotted The Naked Cowboy in downtown Manhattan, drawing the type of attention you'd expect a muscled, near-nude guy would garner in the world's most happening city. My mom and wife chuckled at the spectacle, and my dad and I couldn't help but smile as Burck posed for pictures with half-embarrassed tourists. Like the rest of us who wanted to take back memories of our trip to New York, they pushed any reticence aside and clicked away as the cowboy politely obliged. He is popular and recognizable, which are two traits any politician would love; though who's to say if a guy who doesn't wear a tie fits the mode of 21st Century politician. Then again, you get the feeling he's not a guy who would hide much from his constituents. And yes, I took the picture at right. My wife made me do it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cheese and crackers, quick!

San Benito County vintners are working hard to market the region as a destination for wine lovers. From comedy shows at Leal Vineyards and summer concerts at Guerra Cellars to wine tasting in the picturesque hills south of Hollister (see a complete list), grape vines are dotting hills that once were the sole domain of cattle and hay. But as of this week, the county can honestly say that wine is so plentiful here that it flows in the creeks. As reported by the Free Lance a truck hauling 6,400 gallons of wine overturned south of Paicines this week and much of its precious red cargo flowed into a gutter and drained into a dry creek. The county's environmental health division was dispatched to the site, reportedly armed with a tray of cheese and crackers, but quickly determined that the best course of action was to let the wine dissipate. No need to cry over spilled wine, it seems, at least when it returns to the Earth from which it sprung. A second party foul occurred early Thursday when the Columbus Salame plant in San Francisco burned in a four-alarm blaze, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Socialites are bracing for the inevitable completion of the triumvirate of stuffy party item disasters. A shortage of tuna tartare? A recall of pate? Some fondue miscue? I am so glad parties at my house are limited to beer, chips and salsa. (photo courtesy of Gunnar Grimnes)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Hanging at Johnny's

Downtown Hollister has a bit of the feel of an Old West town -- particularly after 5 p.m. when most businesses close up and the tumbleweeds blow down San Benito Street. But on Wednesday, Aug. 5, Johnny's, the famous biker bar, will hold a hanging. No, it's not vigilante justice at work. Rather, it's a smart bit of advertising. A flyer that arrived at The Pinnacle offices this week giving notice of "A HANGING;" or more specifically, the hanging of the "Behind the Bar" sign of the law firm Lombardo & Gilles LLP. From 5-7 p.m., members of the law firm will be on hand for this modern-day hanging at the San Benito Street establishment. Very clever. No word on whether the law firm will try to plea bargain for a better sign location before the hanging. For more info on Johnny's, check out

Monday, July 20, 2009

Farewell to Frank McCourt

Author Frank McCourt described himself as a late bloomer, having not published his first novel -- The Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes" -- until he was in his 60s. I was late arriver to the McCourt bandwagon, having worked backward through his books within the past two years; first "Teacher Man," then "'Tis." I still haven't read "Ashes," though I finished watching the 1999 movie just this evening -- 15 hours after having read of McCourt's passing in the morning paper. McCourt's tale of growing up poor in Limerick, Ireland before gathering enough money to pursue his dreams in America, hit home with me as my family on my dad's side came to North America in the 19th Century, hoping for a better life. McCourt's tales of desperate times in the Irish slums are tinged with nostalgia; certainly not because of a desire to experience that life again, but because it helped form the man he became. In "Teacher Man," McCourt details his time as a high school English teacher -- one who experimented with lesson plans and did his best to encourage students to find their voice. The best way to find that voice, he said, was to speak about one's own experiences. McCourt travelled a rough path in life, growing up poor in a broken home and having three siblings die at an early age. But he pursued his dreams in America and though he got a late start as an author, his words -- his story -- now will live on because he found his voice and let it be heard. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vino San Benito

The former San Andreas Brewing Company, which for years occupied the San Benito Street restaurant location that now houses AJ Sushi, is making a comeback of sorts in that owners Bill and Carole Millar are now doing business as Vino San Benito. Based at Bertuccio's, the business will market a variety of local wines through the Airline Highway produce stand that offers local, farm-fresh items throughout the year. Favorite Bertuccio's items in my household include the apricot and boysenberry syrups (great on waffles); and Baker's Busy Bees organic honey, which is reported to help moderate allergy symptoms -- and it's a great nautral sweetener for a cup a cup of tea. More to come on Vino San Benito as it gets rolling...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Grandmother's words of wisdom

I came across my grandmother's 1981 version of a blog a few months back when I discovered her 1981 diary -- or more specifically, her "Daily Reminder" book created by The Standard Diary Division of Wilson Jones Company -- in a box my mom gave to me. My grandmother, Aileen, passed away March 29, 1999 at age 92, a frail version of the still-spry 74-year-old whose flowing penmanship filled all 365 days of the Daily Reminder with her thoughts on life, her children, her grandchildren, her priest. She commented on how much her dog infuriated her with his child-like ways; and how much he meant to her as a companion since her husband had passed away years before. Aileen's diary entries have been my bedside reading on many recent nights. It's been my way to reconnect with her and reflect on a year when I was 12 and my sister was 10. Many of her entries are mundane and follow a distinct pattern: "Up at (fill in time); (comment on how she's feeling) "headache, my constant companion"; mention whether "the papers" (San Jose Mercury, San Francisco Chronicle) had arrived at her doorstep yet and whether Jake the dog had torn them up; recap her day, including what she at for lunch and dinner (shrimp salad was a favorite), how the priest "performed" (my word, not hers) at daily Mass at Sacred Heart Church; and who did -- or often didn't -- write or call her. On a day when she didn't give in to the temptation of having a cigarette, she proudly wrote "NO SMOKES" in all capital letters at the bottom of her daily entry. If she wanted to emphasize a thought, such as "The Holy Father was shot. Imagine!" (on May 13), she underlined her entry. Looking on the facing page, the day before, I learned that May 12 was the "first appearance of our Lady of Fatima" and that Aileen believed "Reagan's plan will probably take away (her late husband) Jack's pension -- what a shame." Shame, a word burned into the lexicon -- or at least the psyche -- of many a Catholic, is a word that makes a few visits to the pages of Aileen's ruminations. "Dinner: eggs, broccoli and carrots -- then ate 4 cookies -- Shame." Some days, like when her only daughter, Anne, was baptised as an adult, earned the joyous, "Anne's Baptism Day! Oh, Blessed Day!!" Others, like a Thursday in March in which she received "no mail, no phone calls" and finished her short, half-page entry with "no friends???" showed her loneliness. I felt a little better after reading this day's entry when she added "I do --" at the end of the "no friends" line, seemingly to remind herself that she was, indeed, loved; even if those in her life didn't always tell her. Enough for now about Aileen, who on this day in 1981 kept herself busy buying spray paint, visiting with her sister, and commenting on Jake, the dog: "a handful, but entertaining." She is missed, but her words live on, now for the first time in cyberspace.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

If teens are Superman, parents are their kryptonite

My weekly column in the July 17 issue of The Pinnacle newspaper discusses how my house now includes not one, but two, teenage boys. If you ask my wife, she'll say the number is actually three, if you factor me in. The story compares my boys to the dual personalities of Superman and Clark Kent. At home, I write, my 14-year-old is "in our own fortress of solitude; he is the mild-mannered Clark Kent. In public, my son is Superman, with his tough exterior (if not the Spandex tights and cape). Mom and Dad are kryptonite in certain situations; especially social situations like the movie theater" or local high school football game. Check out the latest installment of Breen Damage at

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day 1, Post 1

My venture into the world of blogs begins with this simple post, designed to help me figure out the site's toolbar. The first baby steps here will not feature TMI or include my comments on the world around me. I'll save that stuff for my weekly column at A new one posts every Friday; or you can check out my musings about life in the site's archives.