Crime reporting distorts your perspective.

Last week, I wrote or edited three major crime stories. I’m working on two more for next week’s Sun and I’d not be shocked if another came my way between now and Monday evening when I must file the last of my stories.

I’ve covered a number of crimes since I wrote my first Crime Log in July 2005: aggravated assault, arson, burglary, hate crime, murder, robbery, embezzlement, fraud, rape, physical child abuse, incest, etc. I haven’t covered espionage or terrorism yet, but seeing as we have two military bases in our circulation area I’d not be surprised if such crimes came across my desk one day.

That list would lead visitors to this Web site and this town with the impression that the Sun Region is a rough place. Yet it’s worth remembering that we’re talking about crimes spread out over four communities—Seal Beach, Sunset Beach, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos—spread out over nearly six years.

In that context, it is obvious that crime is as low in this area as it can be. As long as human beings live in this area of approximately 50,000 people, you’re going to have a certain amount of crime. Some of it will be quite ugly crime, too.

As a reporter, I have to remind myself of that context. Certainly other communities see more ugliness—I know, because I subscribe to the Orange County District Attorney’s press releases. I hear about all the prosecutions the DA’s Office deems newsworthy. Some days, I hate opening my e-mail. It’s full of sad, ugly news about rotten people in communities I have never visited. Fortunately, it takes seconds to determine if a case is related to the Sun Region and one second to hit the delete button.

All in all, the Sun Region is a pretty quiet and safe place to live.

It’s amazing, really, when you realize that we are sandwiched between Long Beach and Huntington Beach—two communities that are nice enough, but which have significant problems with gangs and violence. Freeways and surface streets connect those two communities with our peaceful little Sun Region—yet the thugs generally don’t seem to care for the Sun Region.

Mind you, I expect a few gang bangers to visit our beaches during the summer months. Gang bangers, college boys and CEOs share one thing in common: they like to look at girls in bikinis. Yet I’m not aware of any significant gang activity in our area in the summer months. Maybe Seal Beach is just too boring for them. Maybe Rossmoor is too much like a maze—it is too easy to get lost driving those streets. It probably helps that OCSD, Los Al PD, Seal Beach PD and even the California Highway Patrol can frequently be seen driving Seal Beach Boulevard.

Yet I can’t help wondering why it is comparatively safe to walk these streets. (It will never be perfectly safe. If you want a guarantee you’ll never be mugged, move to Chernobyl. I doubt you’ll find much competition for housing.)

Why are these streets so seldom mean? I want to identify, if I can, the cause of our good fortune so that we can protect our good fortune. It’s a question worth asking. So I’m asking: what do you think? Why do you think Seal Beach, Rossmoor, Los Alamitos and Sunset Beach are safer places than Long Beach and Huntington Beach?

I like Seal Beach. Good thing, since I live and work here. But I seldom know what to do with my weekends. I’ve been known to work simply to have something to do. I don’t like sand between my toes, so I don’t go to the beach. (Just as well. The sight of me in a swimsuit would traumatize half the population of Orange County.) I almost never drink alcohol and I never drink coffee, which limits the appeals of restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

Maybe if Seal Beach had a farmer’s market on the pier now and then, or allowed life music at Ruby’s every night, there’d be more to do for the solitary bachelor to do while visiting Main Street. The far end of the pier ought to provide enough distance to minimize disturbances to Old Town residents. The city could restrict activities like a farmer’s market or live music to daylight hours to protect residents from noise.

Then again, the library is always a nice place to hang out on a Saturday. And I can always find work to do.

A class act

I recently ran into a problem downloading staff reports from the city of Seal Beach Web site.

No matter what I did, staff reports would not download. No matter what I did, only the first page of a given document would print out

Nothing I tried worked.

Enter City Clerk Linda Devine. It’s her job to make sure all members of the public have access to public records. It is not her job to walk over to the Sun Newspaper office and personally assist a befuddled assistant editor. Yet that’s what she did Thursday, April 14. I’m sure she had more important things to do.

The problem wasn’t solved right away, but after she returned to her office she apparently discussed the matter with Deputy City Clerk Anita Chapanond and phoned me back.

Ms. Devine asked if my browser blocked pop-ups.

My browser did indeed block pop-ups. I reset my preferences and tried again.

Problem solved.

I thank both Ms. Devine and Ms. Chapanond for their help. People like them are part of what makes Seal Beach a special, unique community. I’ve worked and lived in a number of small towns and big cities. (There is one big city and one small town that I will never return to—but that’s a subject for another day.) I can’t think of another town of any size in which public officials would give public service a touch that is both personal and professional.

Reporters are supposed to serve as watchdogs on government. It is nice to know that sometimes government works and that public officials and reporters can work productively.

For a month or so now, Sun Newspaper Editor Dennis Kaiser and I have played chess daily. Not a game a day, mind you, but a game that lasts a week to 10 days before one of us wins. Dennis usually wins. I confess this wounds my pride since I’m the more experienced player of the two of us. However, Dennis has a significant advantage over me.

No, I don’t mean the fact that he’s my boss. I grant you that playing a competitive game with your boss outside the workplace—or inside it—can be a risky venture. I wouldn’t play the game if I thought for a moment he was a vindictive fellow. I’ve met vindictive people in my time. I try as best I can to avoid them. Besides, I wouldn’t rent a room to a vindictive person. (Yes, I’m my boss’s landlord. No, I am not under psychiatric care.)

No, Dennis has the advantage of knowing me too well. The thing about chess that people don’t realize is that the game is played as much in your head as on the board. Dennis and I met in January 1986 and after a quarter of a century, Dennis has learned to put himself inside my head. I never quite got that knack.

Incidentally, if you want to master politics I strongly urge you to take up the game. Chess is one of the few games that you can apply to real life. When I cover political issues, I try to look at the contest as a chess contest. I try to see what each side’s moves tell me about their plans and the wisdom of the political leadership. It’s a useful way of looking at an emotionally-charged issue, if only because it allows you to detach from your feelings and focus on what’s actually happening.

But, getting back to my chess games against Dennis Kaiser, I’m not so sure Dennis is defeating me as much as I’m defeating myself. He plays a cautious game. I, on the other hand, tend to be hyper-focused on my immediate goals and when I’m winning hyper-confident. That can lead you into thinking you can’t lose. If nothing else, the chess games have taught me that if you think you can’t lose, you’re at high risk to lose.

It also doesn’t help that Dennis plays a maddeningly slow game. He will literally take 24 hours to make a single move. I like to make a move as soon as possible after my adversary has made a move. Dennis hates risk, at least on the board. I’ll take risks—knowing full well they may cost mere dearly. I take the risks because if they pay off, I can devastate the other player. Since I don’t know anyone else willing to play at all, I’m stuck with an opponent whose pace drives me insane.

However, I’ve devised a plan. I’ve started reading books by chess masters—men who’ve actually earned money playing chess professionally. (The opportunities for earning a living in chess are actually worse than the opportunities in journalism, but they do exist.) I’m taking fewer risks and planning my chess attacks with greater care. This last game out, I had my first eight moves planned before the game started. Dennis is predicting defeat before he’s lost. Between us, he could use his knights more aggressively. They’ve been sitting on the sidelines doing nothing.

Unless Dennis pulls a rabbit out of his hat—and he might—I think I’ll win this game. Of course, that hardly matters. The only thing we’re playing for is a fleeting feeling of pride—followed by another game.

I’m not a nature guy. My definition of “natural beauty” is an empty parking lot. I hate bushes—the big ones provide criminals with places to hide while waiting for easy victims to pass. I never swim in the ocean. The closest I ever got to a dolphin was at a place called Marineland.

I went camping once in my teens and attended a church camp in my childhood, but those experiences convinced me that nature isn’t worth the absence of a heating system or decent sidewalks.

Yet lately I find myself thinking about the time I saw a rattlesnake. That fleeting glimpse is burned into my brain and will stay there until death or Alzheimer’s disease erase it.

Background: When I was 12, I met two teachers who would become life-long friends named Jack and Liz Prohaska. (Jack recently turned 65 and I’m days from 50. Man time flies.) The following year, Jack and Liz moved to Tucson, Ariz. They built a house on the edge of the city, nestled between two hills and surrounded by desert. There were no paved roads. Cactus plants were everywhere. Visitors had to check their bedrooms for little scorpions before retiring for the night. (Did I mention I don’t like nature?) For many years, I visited each summer. It was a chance to hang with pals and escape my occasionally annoying family for a couple of weeks. I wouldn’t trade life in Seal Beach for anything, but sometimes I miss Tucson.

One summer night when I was 13 or 14, I went with Jack and his infant son Arron while Jack picked up a load of water for his house. They didn’t have a connection to the city water system. When we returned, Jack’s dog Adobe—and Afghan hound/German shepherd mix—started barking and acting strangely. Adobe had seen something. I mentioned it to Jack.

Jack shined a light on the coiled garden house. I saw the outline of a snake with its head raised about a foot off the ground.

Jack said one word: “Diamondback.”

The coiled garden house was just outside the enclosed patio where the children and the puppies played. Jack and Liz were trying to start a new business, a private school called Sunset Hill. Rattlesnakes and private schools are not a good mix. Patios and rattlesnakes are not a good mix.

Jack handed me his infant son. I carried the baby by his armpits—I was 14 and had never touched an infant before in my life—and rushed into the house. I told Liz about the rattlesnake. Liz was on the phone. She had to firmly explain to the other party that she really had to go now.

Liz got Jack’s shotgun and took it to him.

The shotgun jammed.

The snake went straight to the patio.

Liz got the .22 rifle.

The rifle jammed.

The snake started working its way into the patio, having found a weakness in the wall.

If my memory serves me correctly, Liz held down the snake with a hoe while Jack beat it to death with a shovel.

The next day, Jack was philosophical about the whole thing. He could afford to be—the danger was gone.

Jack said that if he encountered a rattlesnake in the wild, he wouldn’t try to kill it. The surrounding desert was the rattlesnake’s home. But when the rattlesnake came near Jack’s home, that was a different matter. The snake had to die. Jack took no joy in the killing. Part of respecting nature is understanding that nature is dangerous—and that while we are all part of nature, we are very small parts of nature.