Ponicsan’s Purgatory Is Full of Leaf Blowers

Novelist’s latest book channels Sonoma

Darryl Ponicsan hates leaf blowers. Detests them. Despises them. But maybe that’s slightly unfair. To Ponicsan.

Because maybe there aren’t words strong enough, obscene and perverse enough, laced with anger and hate enough, in English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Portuguese, Urdu, Norwegian, Japanese, Navajo, Dutch, Italian—maybe not even in Bantu, Tlingit, Swahili, Hausa, Shona, Yoruba, Warlpiri, Tiwi, Wagiman, and even Esperanto—COMBINED—to express how strongly Darryl Ponicsan feels about leaf blowers.

Ponicsan is a highly successful screenwriter and novelist, and he knows how to use words. He splits his time between Sonoma and Palm Springs, two slightly similar but very different cities—Palm Springs has more heat and 100 golf courses, Sonoma doesn’t. But both have had leaf-blower problems, and in both cities Ponicsan has gotten involved. And then, he wrote a book, a novel out this month, in which leaf blowers play a prominent part.

In a recent phone interview, he described leaf blowers this way: “They’re the invention of the devil. Literally. Here’s the thing, and it applies to all places: you can’t have a beautiful landscape along with an ugly soundscape. I saw that in Sonoma, I see it in Palm Springs, I see it everywhere where people are concerned with their landscape to the point of real fussiness, and yet somehow they tolerate a soundscape that renders the landscape unenjoyable. In Palm Springs, (landscaper hours) were seven in the morning until eight at night, six days a week!”

In Ponicsan’s latest novel, Eternal Sojourners, the protagonist finds himself unexpectedly living in a town not unlike Sonoma, with a giant, 10-acre, circular plaza and a passive acceptance of daily leaf-blower assaults. To his own surprise, the protagonist, DK, finds himself standing at a City Council meeting and delivering the following anti-leaf-blower soliloquy:

“Only by banning these destructive tools can you achieve any relief from the havoc they create. There is no responsible way to use a gas-powered mower. If you use one, you are committing an assault upon your neighbors’ health and well-being, upon their children and their pets and upon the air itself. You are responsible for blasting toxic dust into the air at hurricane force. Use one of these things and you make yourself responsible for unrelenting, deafening noise. You make yourself responsible for preventing people like me from working at home.”

Working at home is what drove Ponicsan to the barricades. He has a writing studio behind his Sonoma house, on property bordered by four neighbors, all of whom employed gas-powered leaf blowers. The noise, he has said, literally drove him to drink, meaning that he sometimes took refuge in the relative silence of a nearby tavern. He responded with a petition campaign signed by 301 Sonomans who supported a ban on gas-powered blowers.

The Sonoma City Council lurched back and forth on the issue, marched to the brink of a total ban when Councilmember and Mayor Ken Brown was the swing vote and had pledged support before reversing course at the last minute to oppose the no-blower ordinance.

Ultimately, after some five years of politically and civically exhausting debate, the issue wound up on the city ballot in November of 2016 when, by a 19-vote margin, voters adopted a ban on gas-powered blowers. Battery blowers were still allowed.

The law went into effect in 2017, the same year the Palm Springs City Council voted 3-2 to ban gas-powered leaf blowers after a single citizen addressed them on the issue for three minutes. That citizen? Darryl Ponicsan.

“I went to one council meeting,” says Ponicsan. “I took three minutes at the council meeting, and when I finished, there was a large audience there and they applauded. At the end of the meeting, a councilwoman said, ‘I think we have to take another look at this leaf-blower thing.’ They sent a memo to the Sustainability Commission.

The Sustainability Commission did research, they generated a 130-page report, they came back to the council and said, ‘This is a no-brainer. We should have done this years ago.’ And the council voted to ban them. It was that easy. The hard part was that they gave it a two-year phase-in. They had a year of buybacks, and finally they banned them. Everybody’s saying, ‘Wow, it’s nicer now. It’s quieter.’”

There’s much more to Ponicsan’s new book than the opportunity to bash blowers, but you can’t read it without suspecting a certain self-satisfied revenge, something Ponicsan flatly rejects.

“Please, no. I never try to write for revenge. Let us say, whatever the experience is, if you’re a writer, it’s grist for the mill. Certainly, that whole struggle took on a big period of my life, well over a decade of just that one struggle, so it’s only natural that I would try to deal with that somehow in dramatic terms, and this is finally what I came up with.”

Sonomans will, nonetheless, enjoy seeing bits and pieces of themselves and their town reflected in the book, which is something of an allegorical treatise on heaven, hell, and that gray, halfway space in between that Dante called  “Purgatorio.”

The mayor of Ponicsan’s fictional town (called “Maragate”) bears a passing resemblance to Ken Brown, although Ponicsan says the Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) was his primary inspiration. Still, he admits weaving threads of Sonoma into the plot.

Darryl Ponicsan

“I used some of the geography (of Sonoma) and tweaked it a little bit, and some of the local politics and tweaked that a little bit,” he says. “Then, I had some fun with the local product, making it gin instead of wine. I also made a point in the book of using something from every town I ever lived in. I have something there from Palm Springs, I have something there from Ojai, something from Seattle.

That’s just for my own amusement. In the case of Ken Brown, I needed a mayor, and I meant for the mayor to be William Burroughs. But I tweaked him as well; for instance, he didn’t wear socks.

But I certainly would insist that it’s not drawn on a real person, other than the late William Burroughs.”

Some elements in the book are purely autobiographical, Ponicsan admits, including a pivotal opening scene in which his protagonist eats what may be a poisoned piece of cheesecake in New York.

“This happened back in the ‘80s,” he says. “I was working on a picture that became School Ties with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. I was in New York working with a producer, and that very thing happened to me. I freaked out thinking, ‘God, am I a victim of random poisoning?’ Then, of course, I was fine the next morning, and 20 years later that incident pops up in the book and it becomes a very, very important incident. One of the questions is, was he truly poisoned?’

The leaf blower angle mirrors Ponicsan’s emigration to Sonoma, which was idyllic at first. But, he explains, “Once we were settled in, after a while I found I was living in an industrial zone and the noise was intolerable. At the time I thought, ‘Why would people want to live this way? There’s an alternative. You don’t have to live in the midst of all this noise and fumes.’ That’s when I took on the City Council and showed up at every one of their meetings for the next eight or nine months until they couldn’t ignore me. But it took that long just for them to say, ‘OK, let’s have a discussion on this.’ It was baffling me. I couldn’t understand how a town would permit a circumstance like this.

The truth is that the cities that have banned them are all destination cities, they’re all places that people want to go to. I can’t take credit for Sonoma because I finally was defeated and left, and it was Sarah Ford and her groups that really got it done. But the contrast between what it took in Palm Springs, which during the season is a city of a quarter of a million people, and Sonoma is incredible.”

Besides leaf blowers, the book also has an angel, even though, says Ponicsan, “I don’t believe in angels,” along with a missing wife and a second love interest and tasting rooms (gin, not wine) all around the circular plaza, and a demographic hovering in the mid-50s. Very Sonoma, a place Ponicsan still loves, but now more than ever.

“Sonoma is such a nicer place now,” he says. “It’s like night and day, for me especially. I’m thinking that, yeah, this is the way it should be, but obviously it almost wasn’t.”

Jackie Speier to Speak in Sonoma

Intelligence Committee Member will talk about impeachment

Story  David Bolling

It is instructive that, in the midst of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, Rep. Jackie Speier held a press conference on Veterans Day at City Hall in Daly City with Filipino World War II veterans to demand long-promised benefits for the soldiers many consider heroes. Speier’s bill, H.R. 2823, the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2019, would award veterans, their widows, and their children full VA benefits, as promised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Second World War, 250,000 Filipinos volunteered to fight with the United States, and played an instrumental role in pushing back Japanese aggression and winning the Pacific Campaign. But after the war, in 1946, Congress rescinded Roosevelt’s promise.

“A promise made must be a promise kept,” Speier told the Veterans Day assemblage. “Only about 11,000 of these veterans are still alive and many are over 90 years old,” she said. “We are running out of time to make their families whole.”

Speier took the time to stand with the Filipino veterans during perhaps the busiest and most demanding time of her 11-year Congressional career.

Prominent in the #MeToo movement on Capitol Hill, Speier has been a vocal supporter of gun control legislation, winning an ‘F’ grade from Gun Owners of America, and a 100 percent approval rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The issue is personal for her, because in 1978 she was shot five times during the massacre at Jonestown when Rep. Leo Ryan and four others were murdered.

But Speier’s visibility has risen in the past year thanks to her position on the House Intelligence Committee, which is now investigating possible Articles

of Impeachment against President Donald Trump.

About Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, Speier told The Hill, “The president broke the law. He went on a telephone call with the president of Ukraine and said ‘I have a favor though,’ and then proceeded to ask for an investigation of his rival … This is a very strong case of bribery … Because you have an elected official, the president, demanding action of a foreign country in this case, and providing something of value, which is the investigation, and he is withholding aid, which is that official act … And the Constitution is very clear: treason, bribery or acts of omission. In this case, it’s clearly one of those.”

The House Intelligence Committee hearings are expected to last through November, but Speier will be in Sonoma on Friday, November 22, for an appearance at the Sonoma Speaker Series, in conversation with Valley of the Moon magazine editor and publisher David Bolling.

The event is sold out, but for information about standby tickets, go to sonomaspeakerseries.com.