Sunday, September 30, 2007

Happy 6th Birthday, Michael!

A week ago Friday, Michael turned six. This was the year, as it was with Kelly before him, when the birthday party became a more intimate gathering of good friends rather than a swarming mass of all children known to Michael or us. After two years of Thomas the Train Engine, followed by two years of Star Wars, this year's theme was Legos. Cheryl managed to pull off a very effective Lego party, all the way down to Lego-shaped mini-cakes and Lego-shaped ice cubes (in appropriate colors, even).

Lego kits comprised a significant portion of Michael's birthday gifts.

As much as I wished for but never received Legos when I was a kid, those blocky houses had nothing on the elaborate, specialized kits available these days. Michael spent the rest of the weekend, as well as this past weekend, working on his kits, which included Star Wars ships, a medieval carriage, a gas station and carwash, and two airplanes and an airport. A large apartment building waits in the wings as next weekend's project.

He needs very little assistance assembling these several-hundred-part kits, which can only mean good things for the development of his spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination and organizational skills.

Hey, we have to justify the cost of those kits somehow.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mr. DeMille? We're Ready

It's official: the house is on the market. Not only that, it is on the cover of the local insert to the LA Times Real Estate section for this weekend.

Step right up, step right this way.

Soon, please.

[Incidentally, I agonized over whether to post any details about this, other than the fact that the house is on the market. In my family, you see, money was nearly the taboo of all taboos, or at least it felt that way to me. As a result, I am irrationally cagey when it comes to discussing anything of a personal financial nature. Thus, it wounds me a little bit to bring attention to the ad that necessarily has the asking price on it. However, anyone who wanted to could easily look up the MLS listing for the house and find out all about it (including more pictures -- the house has never been this clean!). Plus, nobody (except the real estate agents) is getting rich off of this deal; it's just as expensive where we're going. Owning California real estate is a bit like being a floaty toy in a filling bathtub. Once you get in (which, admittedly, can present a considerable challenge), you just rise up with the water level. That doesn't make you a bigger or better toy, you simply find yourself at a higher level than you started, through no effort or merit of your own, with a whole bunch of other equally bewildered bathtoys.

So, for my family and friends who are horrified at the disclosure of the selling price, get over it, even if I have trouble doing so. And forget about the final selling price; I'll never tell!]

Thursday, September 27, 2007

New-Kid Syndrome

I have a theory about human social interaction that, I fear, may only apply to me. It was true in childhood, and has remained irritating faithful into adulthood. It seems that if there is ever a time when I am going to trip over a threshold and scatter several hundred pages of carefully collated documents over an office floor, or have a waiter dump soup in my lap, or be the recipient of a seagull’s potty break, it is when I am a recent arrival among the people who are the unfortunate witnesses to such disasters. As an established member of a social group, I can remain neat, tidy and embarrassment-free, but as a newbie, I feel that I am doomed to suffer some kind of inexplicable humiliation.

I had my moment earlier this week. While at lunch at a local lunch grill, I was in the process of dressing my cheeseburger when I dimly sensed that I had stepped on something with my heel, which was coupled with a rather loud “pop.” Looking down, I saw that I had stepped on a ketchup packet. Irritating, but no big deal.

A moment later, after locating pickles for my burger, I looked down again. Usually when you cause a ketchup packet to explode (and who hasn’t done that on the schoolyard at least once), there is a satisfying fan of ketchup arrayed outward across the floor. At first glance, I did not recall seeing any ketchup. Looking again, I confirmed that there was not the spray of ketchup that I would expect to see. I returned to applying condiments to my burger when the awful truth hit me.

Look down yet again, but not as far as the floor this time, I saw that the ketchup had somehow slipped the surly bonds of earth and leaped up, depositing many generous globs of ketchup up the inside and back of my left pant leg. It then dawned on me that I was in full view of a dozen or so people. If random spots of ketchup blotting the walls in my immediate vicinity were any indication, it was possible that some of them not only watched me soil my light beige slacks, but also suffered the indignity of being sprayed as well.

I did what any normal person would do. I scurried as swiftly as I could to a table in the corner to disassociate myself from the scene and survey the damage. In my haste, of course, I neglected to pick up napkins. Thus, I found myself at a raised table in the corner of a busy lunch grill examining my inseam for blobs of ketchup (which is not a dignified process under the best of conditions), one hundred yards across a busy city square from my office and privacy, armed with nothing but a magazine and a single Kleenex.

I dabbed at the ketchup as best I could and ate my lunch calmly. I then scurried back to my office while holding my magazine in unnatural positions in a futile effort to hide the evidence of my mishap, hoping to spend the rest of the day seated in my office until everybody went home for the evening so that I and my shame could slink away for home in peace.

This could only happen to the new guy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

End of an Era

It is Barry Bonds' last home game as a member of the San Francisco Giants tonight. The weather is beautiful here in the Bay Area today; it is tempting to drop by Pac Bell Park SBC Park AT&T Park to watch the most accomplished hitter in the history of the game say goodbye to the team and city where he spent the bulk of his career.

Bonds is obviously a controversial figure, as he is Exhibit A of the Steroid Era. I feel oddly detached from that debate, however. I moved away from the Bay Area the year before Bonds joined my beloved but frequently inept Giants. He became an immediate force on one of the best teams I’ve ever seen, which was involved in one of the best season-long pennant chases in baseball history.

(ESPN has a good summary of the 1993 season in which the Giants won 103 games but did not make the playoffs because the Atlanta Braves fleeced the blankety-blank San Diego Padres, giving up a sack of potatoes and some pocket lint for slugger Fred McGriff. The Braves went 51-17 the rest of the season, finishing one game ahead of perhaps the best Giants team ever.)

Now that I’ve moved back to the Bay Area, Bonds is leaving. I appreciate that Bonds always managed to keep my favorite team from being horrible, so I have never hated him the way most of the rest of the sporting world does. However, because I was not in town during his entire tenure, I also did not soak up the irrational local loyalty that leads otherwise sane people to say that he’s a good guy who never did anything wrong. I am left ambivalent about Bonds’ departure, and concerned that the Giants to come will closely resemble the Giants I knew and loved from years ago, perennially mired in the lower half of their division.

This area will be sad to see Bonds go. It is time, however. Although his bat is nearly as dangerous as it always has been, he is 43 and a liability as outfielder. The franchise will also probably benefit from the absence of his clubhouse ego and the media sideshow that followed him everywhere.

So I pick right back up where I left off, looking for the next Will Clark.

Friday, September 21, 2007

I Am Easily Amused

As I work my way through a file, typing furiously, I have been known to make a typing error or two. Sometimes they provide a felicitous glimpse at the true nature of the thought I am trying to express. These caught my attention today (with the fun parts accented for clarity):

poollution; and

Okay, so maybe that was only funny to me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sporting Espionage

The sports pages these days are atwitter with concern about the NFL's New England Patriots getting caught videotaping the opposing team's coaches during a game two weeks ago in a attempt to steal the other teams play calls and signals. The sports world is shocked -- shocked! -- that a professional sports team would go to such lengths to achieve a competitive advantage. The NFL struck back, swiftly and decisively. The coach has been personally fined $500,000, and the team loses its first round draft pick next year if it makes the playoffs this year (which it certainly will), or its second and third round picks if it does not make the playoffs.

Although the use of recording devices makes the offense more repugnant by its obvious premeditation, relatively benign forms of "cheating" are a part of competitive sports. Baseball teams try to decipher coaches' signs, basketball players lean on each other in ways that go unseen by referees, golfers use clubs built from exotic materials that are beyond the scope of the game's rules. The essence of sport is competition, and the more fierce the competition, the more motivated the practitioners will be to probe the limits of the rules. It has always been thus, and will always be so. As long as the "cheating" derives from the spirit of competition within the lines, rather than an external influence designed to take the fate of the contest out of the hands of the participants (i.e., gambling), it will not irreparably harm the league in which it occurs.

While the American press frets about one team videotaping another coach who stands in full view of thousands of spectators, and millions more on television, it has largely missed a much more dramatic story affecting one of the most glamorous and wide-followed world sports.

A $500,000 fine? Small potatoes. Try $100,000,000 on for size.

That is the fine imposed against the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team last week. The team also lost all points it had accumulated over the course of the 2007, dropping it from the lead and sure championship to dead last. McLaren did not commit so prosaic an offense as spying on its competitors at a race. Every team in Formula One spies on every other team as a matter of course; the cars are out there for everyone to see. The effects of this conventional spying are obvious. Whenever a leading team comes up with a new aerodynamic device, it is usually pops up on other cars in the field within weeks.

McLaren's sin was considerably more sinister. The essence of Formula One is that each team is required, by the regulations that govern the sport, to design and build its own cars. This sets it apart from nearly every other racing series anywhere in the world, in which teams typically buy cars from a limited number of race car manufacturers. Because the teams must design and build their own cars, the intellectual know-how possessed by key engineers is crucial to the very existence of the series and jealously guarded. Earlier this year, however, Ferrari's designer gave McLaren's designer a 780-page Ferrari technical manual. This is espionage on a grand scale, no different that large companies stealing intellectual property from each other (which is precisely what happened).

When the disclosure was discovered, Ferrari fired its man, and McLaren suspended theirs. The governing body initially cleared McLaren of any wrongdoing, believing that the team had not made use of the information. In a twist that revealed just how deeply a rift between the team's lead driver and his bosses had become (a different story I should have blogged about before, full of intrigue, petulance, revenge and doubletalk), it was eventually revealed that two of the team's three drivers had communicated with their engineers about the technical data contained in the Ferrari documents, and sought to make use of the information during tests and simulations. The World Council of Motorsport convened a hearing last week and imposed the astounding penalty.

The fallout from these developments are manifold. McLaren will likely lose its lead driver, two time defending world champion Fernando Alonso, as he is expected to find another team next year that will treat him like the prima donna he has become. McLaren may still be barred from earning championship points next year if it is determined that the use of the Ferrari information was more widespread that already revealed. Teams throughout Formula One are more concerned about the movement of engineers between teams, heretofore a common occurrence; if one team acquires an engineer from another team, will the old team accuse the new one of stealing trade secrets? And McLaren, second only to Ferrari in success and sheer glamour, has taken an enormous public relations hit from which it may take a very long time to recover, which may manifest itself in fewer sponsorship dollars. In a sport in which the leading teams such as McLaren spend close to a billion dollars for a single season, these considerations carry serious weight.

See what you miss when you don't get up at four in the morning every few weekends to watch a bunch of Euros you've never heard of parade around in bright, noisy race cars?

Monday, September 17, 2007

So Far

A brief progress report:

Life in Oakland is off to a good start. After a week and a day, the job is exactly what I expected it to be. I am doing the kind of work I wanted to do, which is what they told me they needed. The people are good-hearted and smart, the staff is extremely capable, and the firm management is, refreshingly, competent (high praise, considering my most recent experiences).

Although I am back in the Bay Area on a permanent basis for the first time in nearly 20 years, it doesn't really feel like home, since I did not spend much time in San Francisco as a kid, and never went to the East Bay back then. I only entered mind-warp territory when I met Andy for dinner in San Jose, although so much has changed there that even that area didn't feel too much like home.

Some random observations based upon my first few days as a returned Bay Area resident:

There is weather here. Clouds, which sometimes make an appearance in SoCal on a quarterly basis, are a fact of daily life around the Bay, even if they burn off completely by the afternoon. Plus, the daily temperatures are about 10 percent cooler (not counting San Francisco itself, which is a microclimate unto itself).

I still unconsciously pat my pockets as I approach the office building, my muscle memory recalling that I used to be required to run a key fob over a security sensor.

I have to remind myself from time to time that I am not hearing by former boss's voice in the hallway outside my office.

Northern California drivers, at least those trying to cross the Bay Bridge, are the most aggressive shoulder-drivers I've ever seen. If there is a patch of open asphalt as wide as a car, they will use it, regardless of whether it is actually a lane.

Kin of the computer that gives Stephen Hawking his voice have found work as platform announcers in BART stations. One might reasonably think that in this area of the world's greatest technological leaps forward, state of the art computerized vocalization would have advanced past the garbled Casiotone level.

The NFL is not just a theoretical proposition here. Of course, SoCal is not without professional football. USC could probably give the Raiders a pretty good game.

I love the buzz of working downtown, even if the downtown is Oakland. My office is one of several such buildings in a large complex across the street from city hall, with restaurants and shops in abundance.

So far, so good.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Opening Day

Soccer season has arrived. After several weeks of practice, both kids had their first games today. Kelly is newly arrived in the Under 12 division, so she is the youngest on her team. She is also the smallest (as reflected by her jersey number 2), as the Under 12 girls are starting to really grow. The size differentials can become substantial. However, Kelly has impressed her coaches from the first minutes of the first practice with her ball handling and passing skills (a soccer academy she attended just before the practices began probably helped), and she has performed well in practices.

Although she is small, the coaches played her at right wing for three quarters of the game today, and then at left back guarding the other team's best player when she was scheduled to be out because one of her teammates, a strong defender, fell ill. The field is full size now, although they also now play with eleven players instead of seven. Remarkably, although there are a couple of stars on the team, Kelly scored the lone goal, which won the game.

Predictably, of course, I missed it, because I was dashing back to the car to retrieve the post-game snacks I had inadvertently left behind. I heard the excited cries of the parents, though, so I suspected somebody had scored (much like the roar that arises from Dodger Stadium as we proceed through the parking lot in the eighth inning as one of the Dodgers hits a home run, except on a much, much smaller scale). As I headed back to the field I could see that the other team was kicking off, so I knew that at least our team was the one that scored. I knew there was a chance Kelly had been the one to score since she was playing forward, but I was still surprised and, obviously, pleased to confirm it.

Scoring and winning are fun for the girls and coaches in the short term, but I suspect that Kelly will derive longer-term benefits from her performance today. The coaches have recognized her abilities and heart, but now her teammates and their parents see her with a new appreciation for her consistently high level of play all game long. She has been a bit of an outsider at practices; I imagine that will change. Soccer in general has been a profoundly useful socialization tool for Kelly; she connects with kids she would never approach otherwise whenever a soccer ball makes an appearance. She identifies herself as a soccer player (among other things), and the sense of confidence that comes with it is priceless.

Michael also had his first game, playing a split-squad three-on-three format like last year, although this year the team has ten boys instead of five, and they have a weekday practice. Michael has no problems with socialization, and soccer is just one more opportunity to play with some new friends. Although most of the boys on his team already knew each other from other activities, Michael has jumped right in and made a lot of friends. He also plays well, uses both feet well, and generally has a good time.

My relocation means that I won't be able to attend their practices any more, which is a significant loss for me, especially with Kelly. I have become a personal coach for her, not because I insist on it, but because she constantly seeks advice on how to get better. It is great fun, as a result, to see her play so well in the games. Fortunately, I will be around for all of the Saturday games. Saturdays in the fall would not be the same without them.

As I Start To Put Flowers In My Hair

I leave for San Francisco tomorrow, to start work in Oakland on Monday. One might think I would have spent the last week out of work basking in the late summer sun while fretting about the new job.

One would be wrong.

We have been consumed, in thought and action, with the preparation of our house for sale and figuring out how to buy a new house in the Bay Area. We have boxed, painted, pulled carpet, made phone calls, and lost sleep. I have not spent any time worrying about or even thinking about the new job. I'll have time enough to be stressed about it once I get there. Until then, we have an endless list of tasks to complete and not enough time to do it.

I'll share more details in the coming days. Until then, I'll tide you over with a shot of Michael at the edge of Lake Superior in Duluth, where we spent a great weekend participating in the wedding of a dear friend.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Turn Out The Lights, The Party's Over

Yesterday, my last day at work gave form and substance to T.S. Eliot's proclamation, "This is how the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper." Without going into imprudent detail in this quasi-public forum, just in that one day I was given ample reminders of just why it is that I'm leaving this job. Ironically, it cleansed me of any impulse I may have had to be sentimental in my departure. Managerial incompetence and arrogance: the no tears formula!

The first half of my day was spent finishing up actual work; the latter half was spent writing memos about where all the bodies are buried and cleaning out what remained of my things. Surprisingly, I was utterly exhausted by evening, finally falling asleep in the middle of Survivorman at 9:30 after nodding off briefly before the kids went to bed two hours earlier. Since the tension of the last many months have conditioned me to about five hours of sleep, I got up at five this morning, an unemployed man.

Who has a tee time at 7. Onward and upward!