Friday, December 24, 2010

Your Transport Is Ready, Mr. Jetson

We have finally joined the crowd and added a rooftop storage unit for the car, now that the dog's crate takes up half of the luggage compartment.

The thing looks like one of NASA's experimental flying wing space planes. If only our suitcases were so swoopy. It's soft-sided luggage for us from now on.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Early Season Basketball Report

Michael's basketball team of runts and wallbangers compiled a 2-3 record before the Christmas break. The most recent game was both typical and fascinating. The other team, while not much more talented, jumped out to a lead early as our boys could not put the ball in the basket for the entire first quarter. They play tenacious defense and run interesting offensive plays, but they can't shoot a basketball to save their lives. By halftime, they had clawed back a little bit of the deficit, but Michael was the only one of our players to sink one of the halftime freebie free throws.

The second half was a completely different story. Most of the story, as it turns out, was written by Michael. He turned a steal into a fast-break layup, turned another steal into a fast-break pull-up bank shot jumper, and in the late stages of the fourth quarter, finally put our team ahead on a jump shot off a pass from teammate. He was fouled as he shot; the shot was a perfect swish and the foul call on top of it nearly brought the crowd to its feet. Michael knew the importance of what he had done, raising his fist in the air and grinning like any other veteran basketball player would on the receiving end of an "and one." (He has picked up the nuances of basketball astonishingly quickly.)

Sadly, that was the end of the scoring. The other team sank a basket nearly at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, and they scored a couple of buckets to put the game away. Seconds after the buzzer sounded, Michael appeared at the scorer's table where I was keeping score, crying, devastated to lose after working so hard to come back and take the lead. For his part, he had played exceptionally well, scoring seven of his team's 14 points. He became philosophical later in the day, commenting on how frustrating it was to have a great game personally and still lose as a team. Immediately after the game, most of the other boys felt the same way, initially disappointed to lose, but heartened by their comeback and near victory.

I love Michael's competitive spirit. It is not accompanied by poor sportsmanship, it is pure love of competition. Failure drives him to work harder to prevent failure in the future. We spent the next afternoon in occasional rain showers on the junior high playground shooting baskets and playing games with the basketball for more than an hour... at his request, not my direction.

I have said it before, but I become more convinced of it as time goes on. Competition, and understanding that you have to take initiative to look out for yourself because the world won't do it for you, are tremendously valuable experiences for older children. There is perhaps nothing kids need more than a sense of confidence and self-responsibility as they lurch toward adolescence. In our case, sports have provided those lessons for both kids, and very successfully so. It isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it works well for us.

What Is The Opposite Of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"?

'Cause I just did it.

We live in suburbia, but only just. We are surrounded by beautiful open hillsides even as we live close to the densest urban complexes of the Bay Area. Wildlife of all description ranges through the local fields. Deer, in particular, are sufficiently numerous as to nearly constitute an annoyance, particularly for those who try to cultivate roses in their yards.

As in other parts of the country where deer live and breed in abundance, roadways can turn unexpectedly hazardous in a moment. A few months ago, returning home late after visiting a friend, an odd sense of foreboding washed over me as I zipped down the very familiar (and very dark) canyon road near home. At work, we had recently discussed how deer are both numerous and functionally suicidal when it comes to roadways. Not five seconds after I slowed my pace out of the sudden and unprompted concern that a deer could jump out of the brush into my path, a deer did just that. I had just enough time to slow down to allow the deer to have its "deer" moment of staring stupidly at me bearing down on him before he dashed into the brush on the other side of the road.

I wish my deer encounter stories stopped there. They would have until last night.

After spending an evening out, we were returning home on the freeway, cruising along in moderate traffic at normal freeway speeds. Without any warning, my headlights picked up the prone figure of a deer lying in our lane. The car ahead of me, an SUV with better than average ground clearance, had not swerved or even hit his brakes to give me any warning that something bad might be coming.

I had no room to maneuver out of my lane, and insufficient time to do so even if I had. All I had time to do was adjust my trajectory slightly so that I would not hit the already dead animal with my wheels, and pray that the car was big enough to clear it.

It wasn't.

The sickening thud right under where I was sitting told me all I needed to know about whether we would clear the animal unscathed. In the mirror, I could see that the collision with the deer had ripped a plastic undertray off the bottom of the car. Otherwise, though, the car seemed to be running normally, with no problems with oil or water temperature to indicate broken engine components.

We arrived home without further incident, and I inspected the undercarriage of the car. Other than losing the plastic cover, nothing appeared to be broken. On the car, that is. The deer did not fare as well, judging by the bits of fur stuck to various cross braces. Toward the back, sadly, it looked as though someone had dragged a very wide paintbrush dipped in red enamel lengthwise down the underside of the car.

At that point in my inspection, we realized that the garage smelled horrible, like... a dead animal. I immediately pulled the car back out of the garage, and the smell went away. I found myself praying for a continuation of the heavy rains we have had for the last week so that I could drive the car to work and get a free undercarriage wash along the way. Today dawned sunny and beautiful, of course.

Reflecting upon what happened, I realized there were a few lessons we could draw. It could have been far worse. We could have been the car that killed the deer, which would have inflicted tremendous damage on the car and put us at risk of injury to ourselves. (The deer was in the middle lane of five lanes on a busy freeway, which makes me wonder how it got there in the first place and what kind of chaos it caused.) We were lucky that the deer was not lying at right angles to the lane, which would have caused me or, more likely, someone before me to hit the animal in a way that would have disabled the car and caused a traffic accident. Other than losing a plastic panel, the car was not damaged, and it did not leak any fluids overnight. I kept my cool and did not take drastic evasive actions that were unnecessary and dangerous; I did what could be done reasonably within the second or so I had to react.

What I should have done, on the other hand, was to call the CHP to alert them to the problem and have them send somebody to clear the animal from the road. I engaged in the assumption that I think most of us make in this day of 99% cell phone ownership, that somebody else surely had already reported the problem, or that somebody immediately after me would do so. In the moment, I was more concerned about assessing the status of our car and giving thanks that it was no worse than trying to figure out how to contact the authorities. Later in the evening, I checked traffic condition sources, but there was no mention of the hazard. The positive I took from that was that the hazard did not create a traffic accident.

I don't think I have ever taken the life of an animal with a car, and I hope I never do. Last night's encounter was traumatic enough, not necessarily because of the gruesomeness of the event but because of the realization of how suddenly a seemingly innocuous drive can turn unexpectedly dangerous. I console myself with the knowledge that I did everything I could to minimize harm to my family and others around me; it is knowing how little I could actually do that worries me.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Non-Standard Deviation

On my way to pick up Michael from his basketball practice earlier this week (because really, all I do with my time is leap from sporting event to sporting event), I came upon an unusual sight in our town: the brightly flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks. Oddly, they were just in front of our nearest fire station. It became clear that they were attending to a car accident of some sort. As I drove by the scene, I could see that the firemen were working on extracting someone from the car, which had overturned just about in the driveway of the fire station.

The story in the local virtual newspaper reported that the 83-year-old driver suffered only minor injuries, thankfully. The story also contained this curious tidbit: "Investigators said the crash was caused when the driver violated the California Vehicle Code section for deviating from the roadway without signaling."

Interesting theory, but I have a feeling that failing to signal when "deviating from the roadway," a straight and level double-lane street, was not the cause of the accident. I have a suspicion, although I must emphasize this is only a theory, that "deviating from the roadway" was the more likely cause of the crash.

But ring him up for failing to signal, too, boys. We can't have scofflaws like that in our town.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Hoops, Anyone?

Until baseball restarts in February (not counting multiple clinics and camps between now and then, and the player evaluation day in early January), and indoor soccer starts sometime after the start of the new year, Michael is down to one sport: basketball.

Basketball has never been high on the list of sporting priorities for us. For one thing, it is a sport that is not well suited to young kids. It requires an amount of strength and coordination to get a ball into a 10-foot hoop that most kids younger than eight years old simply don't have. Michael's first exposure to the sport was in a low-key summer league two years ago. As it turns out, that was a fortuitous activity because the father of one of his teammates became Michael's baseball coach last spring. At our party for the end of the baseball season, the coach referred back to that basketball team as giving him the idea to draft Michael for his baseball team because of the spirit and athleticism Michael showed on the basketball court. Last winter, Michael played basketball in a slightly more formal league on a team populated by people we knew from baseball, soccer and swimming (an increasingly common occurrence). We all had fun, but it was still a fairly rudimentary introduction to the sport.

The word around these parts is if you want to continue to play basketball, you need to play in the local Catholic Youth Organization league. Back in September, Michael participated in the tryout along with just about every third-grade boy we know from all the other sports teams. Michael gave an accurate accounting of himself as a basketball player: he is short, not terribly strong, and couldn't make a basket.

He looks stylish warming up, though

CYO creates teams based on the ability of the players on each team. In our area, that means there are three teams of third-grade boys, each of which will play teams from other churches on the same level. Michael, unsurprisingly, is on the lowest-ranked team, along with all the other kids who couldn't shoot straight. Coming into this season, it looked like we were headed for a very long, tiresome winter of bad basketball. The players are not particularly gifted at the sport, and the team existed at all only because one parent, a Russian immigrant who has never played basketball, stepped up to be the head coach.

As happens so often in life, the content of the book should not be judged by the quality of its cover. Another parent answered the call to help with the coaching, someone who lives in the next town, doesn't have anybody playing on the team, but knows basketball and loves to coach. His knowledge and enthusiasm have turned a ragtag bunch of kids for whom basketball is perhaps the fourth or fifth priority sport in their lives into a surprisingly cohesive unit that plays hard, is starting to understand the nuances of the game, and even runs designed plays that lead directly to good scoring opportunities. If these boys could shoot at all, they would be pretty dangerous.

Dunks are not going to be part of the game plan

In the first game, they played what was rumored to be a team one level up. The game certainly played out that way, with the other team overwhelming our boys on defense, collecting every rebound and scoring from all over the court. However, in that blowout loss, I could see a kernel of ability and ambition coupled with good coaching that suggested things might turn out okay. Michael was our team’s high scorer with four points, but that only tells part of the story. One of those baskets came on a designed play that the entire team worked to perfection. With our offense arrayed with two players down low, two players at the elbow of the key and one point guard up top, the coach shouted out the play. Michael, the player on the left elbow of the key, ran around the post player on his side, under the basket, and looped back up around our post player on the other side of the key, dropping into an unguarded space on the right side of the key between our post and wing players. The point guard fed the ball to Michael who turned, shot and scored. Our little team of undersized nine-year olds had just run a double screen scoring play that Mike Krzyzewski would've been proud of. The fact that we lost by a score of something on the order of 39-11 really didn't matter. They showed that they were starting to soak up what they were taught.

Planning the next move

The eye of the tiger on defense

We were out of town for the next game, but we heard afterwards that our boys won the game by a score of something like 24-15. Clearly, something is starting to click.

The boys had their third game this past Saturday morning. It was a good match of teams with comparable abilities, or lack thereof. The score was 2-2 at halftime. However, our team was by far the better coached squad, working the ball around with multiple passes to find the open man. It was primarily our inability to shoot effectively that kept the game close. In the second half, we finally made a few baskets, continuing to work hard on defense and play relatively disciplined offense. Michael got another good look at a shot off a double screen (he didn't score this time). He also made a nice dribble penetration to draw the defense, then kicking the ball out to a teammate who buried a jumper. In all, everybody on the team contributed to the 13-5 win (yes, we found a team that had fewer shooters than we do). It is inevitable that our boys will lose some more games, but they are also learning some very good basketball strategy that will serve them well both this year and in the future.

Working on basketball with Michael is a new adventure. We have spent hours practicing and talking about baseball, soccer and swimming, but we have never taken any time to work on basketball. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we made a couple of trips to the schoolyards where, in addition to just goofing around, we got some good shooting practice in. Michael is also very comfortable on the strategic aspects of the games he plays. When we were playing on the schoolyard, when Michael was dribbling, I set a pick on Kelly who is pursuing him. We all got a good laugh out of it, but I reminded Michael of it the morning of his most recent game. I told him that if the other team played man-to-man defense, he should try what we did at the schoolyard. I told him he should run right at one of his teammates to run his defender into the teammate to get open for shot. I have no idea if any of that would get through, since I'm not sure he necessarily recognizes when the defense being played against him is zone, man-to-man or free-for-all swarmball. At his height, the game is a swirl of arms and legs anyway. Yet he got it. Late in the game, he dribbled the ball toward his teammate in the post. If his teammate had recognized what was happening and simply stood still, it would have been a perfect pick leading to an open shot. Unfortunately, his teammate didn't recognize the play and moved, which allowed the defense to follow the ball. Even so, after the game, Michael asked me if I had seen what he did, referring to that particular play without me prompting him first.

These kids are sponges at this age. They are just getting to the point that they can handle both the physical and mental requirements of the game. We are fortunate to have a good coach who knows how to give these kids enough instruction to make them competitive. Kids know when they are being coached as opposed to when they are being babysat. Kids will accept losses if they know they are being coached well. Kids will be bored with wins if they perceive they are simply being left to participate in an activity. We have experienced a mix of both ends of that spectrum over the last few years. Since basketball season runs until early March, we're very glad, for Michael's sake as well as our own, that it seems that boredom will not be a hallmark of the season.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fall Sports Review, Girl Child Division

Being an eighth grader with very high academic achievement did not keep Kelly from adding on to her schedule with two sports simultaneously. Building on the enjoyment she has found with volleyball, Kelly played on her school's eighth grade "B" team. The tryout was immediately after Labor Day and she was too rusty to show her full capabilities, so she did not make the "A" team, but the blessing in disguise is she was always on the court.

The team was a mixed bunch of good players and novices. They did not receive much in the way of coaching, but they practiced three days a week (including a pre-dawn Monday practice), and played a lot of games against other schools in the area. There is something qualitatively different about playing for your school, and I think they enjoyed it. They won several matches to end with a record somewhere around .500. They were swept out of the season-ending league finals tournament, but they played with spirit, had fun and might have learned a little volleyball along the way. Kelly played well, improving all parts of her game, and developed a dangerous serve that saved the team many times.

Even though she does not play on a club volleyball team like many of her peers (especially the players on the "A" team), she is looking forward to continuing her volleyball career in high school. At a minimum, we expect that she will be able to make the freshman team. With regular practices and good coaching, maybe she will be able to continue on beyond that level. If nothing else, she will always have a sporting skill she can enjoy on beach trips, at picnics and with her kids for the rest of her life.

One sporting career that may be coming to a close is soccer. Soccer was our first team sports venture as a family. It was the only point of reference I had for youth sports, so the many, many afternoons I spent watching Kelly practice, or the collective hours we spent after practice kicking the ball to each other, reverberated across years for me. Soccer also gave Kelly a sense of identity and pride when she really needed it at times during elementary school, when the vicious society of girls bared its sharpened fingernails from time to time. I have been dreading this year, knowing it would represent the closing of a major chapter in her life, and my life as well.

Kelly's team, unfortunately, had an overabundance of seventh graders and just didn't quite have the skill to keep up with the other teams in the league. They did manage a win against an Orinda team, a game in which Kelly scored twice, and forged a draw with an archrival Moraga team that was as thrilling as a win. For her part, Kelly had a good year, scoring most of the team's goals and putting in lot of time as goalkeeper as well. She hated playing goalie, but she had good instincts for closing down opposing breakaways (which she faced too often), and the coach needed her back there as much as he needed her offensive skills. To his credit, the coach also put his own daughter, the best player on the team, in goal as well. Because of volleyball, Kelly missed most of the practices, as did several of her teammates, which probably contributed to the poor showing on Saturdays. Overall, the girls played good soccer, better than their record indicated, and they had a good time together.

The bonus to the season was that Kelly was selected to play on the All-Star team for the second year in a row. The game was again played on the football field at the local high school. Kelly played well, offering several dangerous crosses to her fellow strikers, although none turned into goals. Also for the second year in a row, our Moraga girls beat the team from neighboring Lafayette. That allowed all of our eight graders to finish their soccer careers on the highest note.

Kelly rediscovered her love of the game of soccer by the end of the season, and was reluctant to let it go. As with volleyball, Kelly never played soccer with the local club team, which will probably keep her off the high school roster. Still, she is thinking about trying out for the high school team next year. Every time I surprise my kids with my few stories of high school track, I think about all the stories Kelly will be able to tell, amazing her own kids with tales of her All-Star days and afternoons spent in gyms and on fields.

Kelly's achievements in the sports arena are praiseworthy, but it is the self-confidence that sports have brought her that make me glad we gave these opportunities to her. Selfishly, the hours Kelly and I have spent together working on her skills, when she willingly sought out and soaked up my guidance, will be what I will miss the most. It's what I miss already.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fall Sports Review, Boy Child Division

There is no time of year more hectic that the fall. Forget spring and its lazy rhythms of winding down of the efforts of a school year and the carefree summer to come -- autumn has become the foremost season of renewal and growth. School resumes and proceeds with as much focus as it will ever have. Church and community groups restart programs with fervor. And youth sports dominate the landscape, at least in our town.

Of the many sports available to him (including swimming, lacrosse and flag football), Michael played soccer and fall baseball. Playing up in a new age division, Michael's team played on a dramatically larger field with full-sized goals. Nine-year-old boys are growing fast, but they still look very small when they are dispersed on a soccer pitch usually used by junior high students. Michael's "Brazil" had a good season, coming in third (one of their losses was to a good team they had beaten in an early season game that did not count in the standings). The coaches were great, somehow convincing the rambunctious group of boys to sit still for several minutes of chalk talk at every practice.

Unfortunately, I saw fewer than half of his games because they usually overlapped with Kelly's games, which took place a couple of miles away. They games I did see I usually observed at a run, since I somehow became the go-to guy as a side judge. I would spend the game sprinting up and down the sideline with a small flag, indicating which team would take throw-ins while also keeping an eye on offside positioning. I was happy to help, but it rarely allowed me the luxury of simply observing the game and cheering for the team. After all, I had critical throw-in judgments to make.

Michael's baseball season was less focused but perhaps more instructive. October was a tough month; because of his own outside commitments or rain, we was not able to play in any of the games, returning for the last game at the beginning of November. A relaxed attitude can sometimes be a welcome break from the relatively intense focus of the regular spring baseball season, but there comes a point at which casual becomes apathetic. The Saturday practices were rarely attended by the best players on the team, which meant that the younger players only played against their best peers in the games. That was not an ideal system for fostering skill development. Michael, like all of the players, needed experience facing kid pitchers, who, unlike the coaches, rarely throw strikes. Worse, the umpires call a very broad strike zone, so that balls that are barely hittable are often strikes anyway. Coming out of the coach-pitch system, the boys learned to lay off anything but a perfect pitch. As they enter the kid-pitch realm, they will have to learn to be less selective. Michael, who has a very well-developed eye for the strike zone, worked many walks and was reluctant to swing the bat. His biggest challenge in the spring will be to learn how to be aggressive at the plate while still retaining a sense of which pitches he should not hit. The fall ball season was not as exciting as the spring season was, and Michael was rarely put in a position to have much of an impact on the games, but the season was valuable for the insights into the new difficulties of batting. It will give us plenty to work on over the next couple of months.

The fall sports season flows seamlessly into winter. In the middle of the soccer and baseball seasons, Michael went through tryouts, first practices and a first game for his new basketball team (more on that later). At the end of the soccer season, his coaches also approached him to play in an indoor soccer league with a bunch of the fourth graders he played with this season. That season will overlap the end of basketball and the beginning of baseball.

We would be utterly lost without multiple sports going at the same time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At Last

Against the predictions of just about every "expert," the San Francisco Giants not only made it into the World Series, but won the title. For the first time in its 52-year tenure in San Francisco, the Giants franchise brought the trophy home to the Bay Area.

The buzz around these parts was unlike anything this area has seen since the first Niners Super Bowl season in 1981-82. Even the success of that team, though, did not carry the deep resonance of the Giants' World Series win. A franchise that generates numerous Hall of Fame players, sets up an entire generation of loyal followers (from the 1960s) thanks to superior players and perennial second-place finishes, and tantalizes its fans with occasional but not frequent visits to the postseason develops and loyalty among its followers that is both broad and deep. The outpouring of joy was astonishing in its intensity and purity, and continues to reverberate more than a week after the clinching game. Anyone who says that baseball has been supplanted by football as the nation's pastime has not experienced the intense concentration and outpouring of joy of a World Series championship.

The fan bases in Boston and Chicago receive a lot of attention for the perceived "curses" on their baseball franchises as they went decades without World Series titles. The media never tire of telling stories of the fans' misery, and the fans never tire of serving up the stories. The Bay Area is different. The fact that the Giants franchise also endured a decades-long championship drought was seldom noticed or remarked upon, even by the team’s fans. Maybe it is a matter of an easygoing California vibe, but Giants fans never regarded the failure of the team to win championships as some kind of cosmic referendum on the team or its fans.

Speaking as a relatively long-term fan (more than 30 years at this point), it is, frankly, baffling to think of the Giants as the World Series champions at all. I am conditioned to expect the Giants to get very little attention nationally. Growing up in an era when the team was bad and the only national sports programs were This Week In Baseball and the George Michael Sports Machine, it was a huge thrill when the Giants would get so much as 20 seconds of airtime each week. They almost never appeared on NBC's game of the week or ABC's Monday Night Baseball, so the Giants felt like our little regional team. The got all the attention of a minor league team, and during most of my youth, played like one.

When they made their run to the World Series this year, it never failed to catch me up short to see the Giants discussed by the same talking heads that routinely spend most of their time (especially in October) talking about the Yankees or the Red Sox. My astonishment often turned to amusement when the national media folks got their facts wrong or tried to create a clumsy narrative (“they’re a bunch of cast-offs!”) to explain the team.

In the end, winning the World Series was a fantastic experience for the team and its fans. The parade through San Francisco was an unprecedented outpouring of civic pride. One of the attorneys in our office went into the city that afternoon; it took him an hour and a half to get across the Civic Center Plaza, so stuffed was it with orange and black clad, deliriously happy fans.

It will be impossible for next year to live up to the excitement the Giants gave us this year. In fact, it will almost certainly be disappointing since expectations for the team have changed so dramatically after the last few rebuilding years. We will have no cause to complain, however. After 52 years in San Francisco, and 56 years in franchise history, the Giants are the World Series champions.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pinch Me

I cannot stop being surprised that the San Francisco Giants are the focus of national attention at this time of year. At a time when the sporting world, and its eastern seaboard media base, routinely turns its attention to the New York Yankees, it blows me away that our local team, usually ignored nationally, is the lead story for all baseball coverage.

The Giants have been to the World Series three times in my lifetime. The first time in 1989, the series was not only limited to the two Bay Area teams, killing national interest, but the series itself was interrupted by a catastrophic earthquake.
And, in 2002, the Giants were at the height of their (evil) powers with Barry Bonds, the player everyone, including his own teammates, loved to hate. That team got within two innings and a five-run lead of winning the World Series, but lost it anyway.

I did not live in the Bay Area when the Giants went to the World Series the last two times, and could only agonize from afar. This year is different. Not only have I relived my childhood by living and breathing Giants baseball all summer, but I have infected my son with the same virus as well. There is no way for these national media folks to know more about this team than I do. Even Michael could give you their lineup, their pitching rotation, and a good imitation of each hitter's batting stance. Astonishingly, in an era when only the most prominent teams are expected to reach for the biggest prize, our crew (who have been lazily pigeonholed by national media as a ragtag bunch of castoffs) is four games away from the title, beginning with the first game tonight.

We won't be going to any games, I don't expect, which is just as well. I watch Giants playoff games the way a teenage girl watches horror films -- through my fingers, often followed by dashing out of the room. I was so worked up during the Giants pennant-clinching win in Philadelphia on Saturday that it took me most of Sunday to bleed off attention.

During the latter stages of that game, I left the TV in the family room and listened to the game on the radio with our hometown announcers. I absently scrubbed surfaces in the kitchen that may or may not have needed scrubbing while I listened to the game, just to keep the tension at bay. Because the television is on about a 10 second delay, anytime anything interesting happened I would dash down the hallway to see on TV what I had just heard on the radio. Just before the game ended, Michael joined me in the kitchen, but decided he really needed to watch the game on television. He made me promise not to yell or come down the hallway, no matter what happened, so that the result would be a surprise to him as he watched it on TV. I agreed to this wholly reasonable request. When Brian Wilson struck out Ryan Howard on the last pitch of the game, I jumped exultantly but silently around the kitchen in joy and disbelief. Ten seconds later, a great whoop emanated from the family room as what I had just heard was shown on TV, and then Michael sprinted down the hallway to give me a great leaping hug.

We all have our ways of celebrating success. Being one of 50,000 people screaming in the stadium could not have been better than that.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Talkin' Baseball

The Niners, doing their best to tarnish the image of a great franchise, are off to an 0-5 start, the Warriors have not yet started their latest losing season, and the Sharks – well, that’s hockey, so nobody cares. This could have been another dismal October for Bay Area sports fans, but not this time. After seven years, filled with Barry Bonds drama and bad, no-name teams, the San Francisco Giants have returned to the playoffs.

Sometimes the experts are right. Even as the Giants fell into the massive hole left behind by Bonds, his ego, and his roster-draining contract, most knowledgeable baseball pundits looked ahead from the miserable 2007 and 2008 seasons toward a successful future for the Giants. The conventional wisdom was that once management shed itself of Bonds’ declining skills on the field, his dour presence in the clubhouse, and its own compulsion to surround him with veteran players (i.e., old, cheap and deferential), the franchise would be able to devote itself to finding and nurturing good young talent. The first fruits of this were already in place in 2008, as Tim Lincecum came from nowhere to win the first of two consecutive Cy Young awards. Lincecum joined a staff already anchored by youngster Matt Cain, as well as bad-old-days holdover (but former Cy Young winner) Barry Zito. Over the next two seasons, the Giants drafted and brought to the majors stars in the making such as Pablo Sandoval, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez, Brian Wilson and likely rookie of the year Buster Posey.

Adding to this outstanding core of youngsters capable veterans such as Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez and local boy Pat Burrell, the Giants now field the most energetic and likable team they have put on the field since their last Will Clark playoff team in 1989. The team is loose, happy, and skilled. The rebirth of the franchise came to fruition this season, after the team played meaningful games into September last season. This year, the Giants chased down the San Diego Padres, finally surpassing them in late September by taking three of four games in a series in San Diego. The Giants won the games they had to win, including the very last game of the season at home to finally eliminate the Padres and win the National League West title.

There’s something unique about to hold a baseball team has on the region. The Sharks have been one of the best teams in hockey over the last several years, going deep into the playoffs every season. You would only know it, however, if you pay close attention to the evening news. The Warriors can capture the area’s attention if they make it to the playoffs, but that happens so rarely that it is truly a unique and exciting event. Plus, nobody pays attention to the Warriors during the regular season. The Niners, thanks to their history, bring attention to themselves once a week each fall, but the season is too short to hold the attention and capture the imagination of the area for long. The Giants, on the other hand, have a way of riding momentum from the spring through the summer and right into the fall.

On the day of the last game of the season, we were at one of Michael’s baseball games. The parents in the stands are paying as much attention to reports coming out of San Francisco on the Giants game (on our mobile phones – someone should have brought a transistor radio for old times’ sake) as we were to the game in front of us. Soccer moms were knowledgeably debating the relative strengths of the Padres speedy lineup, and grandmothers were sagely opining on the remarkable maturation of Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez as he looked to pitch the Giants into the postseason.

We got home for the last couple of innings of that game. Predictably, it was a close game, but there was true joy in the stadium and at our house when Wilson struck out the last Padre batter. I watched every minute of the clubhouse celebration that the local cable network broadcast. Ever since then, the whole area has been abuzz with excitement over the Giants making the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and for only the sixth time since the franchise came to San Francisco.

The Giants dispatched the Atlanta Braves in for extremely tense games in the first round of the playoffs. Thanks to a historically great pitching staff and a still-anemic offense, each of the games was decided by a single run, and the Giants scored a total of only 11 runs in the four games. They now draw a matchup against the Philadelphia Phillies, which can boast a pitching rotation equal to the Giants, and a much more formidable offense.

None of the national baseball experts, who foresaw the eventual rebirth of the Giants, have picked the Giants to beat the Phillies. Well, what do they know?

This season has been tremendous fun for me, and reconnects me with how excited I was in the late 80s when the Giants made the playoffs twice in three years after many years of mediocrity I’m probably no fun to be around in the late stages of a close game, but it is nice to be rewarded for all of that worry with little success for once.

I suspect that my strong emotional ties to the Giants just might rub off on the kids (even Kelly, who gleefully remains loyal to the Dodgers, her own team for most of her life). Michael still enjoys playing baseball; we have marked out the distance in the backyard for the regulation mound-to-plate distance so that he can practice pitching to me. He probably will not have too many more opportunities to pitch during the fall baseball season, as the coach has said he wants to give the majority of the innings to the older kids who will be depended upon by their spring teams. However, Michael wants the ball to prove what he can do. Batting against other kids and their erratic picthes has been the biggest challenge this fall, but he enjoys the challenge and pressure of being the pitcher, and he still plays every other aspect of the game well. We love watching him do it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Airport Levity

Broadcast over the San Diego airport PA just now:

"Will the owner of the lime green Ford Pinto parked curbside please move your car immediately. It is not being cited. It is not being towed. It's just really, really ugly."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Time's Up ... Someday

A group of physicists from our local UC Berkeley has delivered a chilling bit of news: time itself has a 50% chance of coming to a halt. This conclusion is based on what they term the "measure problem" of an infinitely expanding universe. As the report states,
If the universe lasts forever, then any event that can happen, will happen, no matter how unlikely. In fact, this event will happen an infinite number of times.

This leads to a problem. When there are an infinite number of instances of every possible observation, it becomes impossible to determine the probabilities of any of these events occurring. And when that happens, the laws of physics simply don't apply. They just break down. ...

The only way out of this conundrum is to hypothesise some kind of catastrophe that brings an end to the universe. Then all the probabilities make sense again and the laws of physics regain their power.

Really, that's the argument. Douglas Adams is dead, so despite all appearances, it didn't come from him.

There is good news, though. Time is not expected to stop for another 3.7 billion years.

So go ahead and buy the green bananas.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Michael's 9th Jamboree

Michael thoroughly enjoyed his extended birthday celebration. He had a party for a few friends on Saturday, and we celebrated his actual birthday last night. Like most soon-to-be nine year olds, he was very focused on these events, and the gifts he hoped to receive.

He and his friends had a good time at the party, which was shoehorned into the only free hours we could find among all the soccer, baseball and football commitments he and his friends had. Most of the time was spent in a noisy wiffleball game in the street. The game brought smiles to our neighbors, who noted that it had been a long time since kids played games in the cul-de-sac. Pizza and cake followed, along with plenty of boys being boys (i.e., burping and uncontrollable laughter).

Last night, we provided Michael his chosen dinner: microwaved cheeseburgers from Costco. I feel that I have failed somehow. We also got him the chocolate cake from Costco that he points out every time we go there. You know the one: deep, rich brown, and about eight inches tall. He was overjoyed to find it in the fridge. He was also overjoyed to receive the specific Pokemon videogame he requested, and was so intent on playing it that he didn't focus carefully on the last gifts we held back. First was a baseball game for the Wii system; he was disappointed because "we don't have a Wii." We assured him he could play it on his cousin's system. Then he unwrapped a spare Wii controller. His brain must have still been on his new Pokemon game, because he didn't pick up on the clues. Finally, after he had fully unwrapped the last gift, he understood with a shout that his longest-held gift request (going back years) was finally realized:

We have received many spontaneous hugs over the past few days. He's a blessed kid.

We're even more blessed to be his parents.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Early this morning, an asteroid zipped past Earth, at a distance of just over halfway from the earth to the moon. This afternoon, another asteroid will do the same, at about 20% of the distance from the earth to the moon. Astronomers figured out on Sunday morning, three days ago, that these hunks of rock would be coming. And impressive hunks of rock they are, both estimated to be about forty feet across.

In the vastness of space, we manage to avoid direct hits from full grown asteroids most of the time. The impact from something the size of a small cottage would almost certainly be locally devastating. Monitoring for potentially dangerous asteroids has apparently only been in practice for the last couple of decades. I imagine the astronomers on Sunday got a bit of a fright until they were able to calculate that the asteroids would miss us.

What about the day when the calculations say we will get hit? What purpose will knowing the invitability of the impact serve? If an asteroid were expected to hit somewhere in a 100 mile radius of a heavily populated area within the next three days, would people take to the roads, skies and waterways to escape, as before an incoming hurricane? Would that do any good? It would depend in part on how precisely astrophysicists could predict where the asteroid would hit, presumably based on the trajectory and velocity of the asteroid, the rotation of the earth, and a bunch of math that uses more letters than numbers. It would be fascinating to know what sort of procedures and contingency plans are being developed by scientists and, presumably, government and military leaders to prepare for this unlikely yet potentially catastrophic event.

I fully expect Bruce Willis to be part of those plans.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Heavy Machinery

I hate vacuum cleaners. Not vacuuming; the OCD part of me has always found the patterns vacuums make in low pile shag carpeting very soothing. The devices themselves, though, confound me.

In seventeen years of marriage, we have owned two vacuum cleaners. (Did I own a vacuum cleaner before I was married? Don't be silly.) Both were light weight uprights, constructed almost entirely from plastic. The more recent is one of the bagless, HEPA filter equipped machines that are so popular these days. It also comes with an automatic retractor for the power cord, an excellent way to take out an eye.

Both vacuums offered multiple height settings, various attachments to enable the removal of schmutz from crevices nobody ever sees, and the new one even had a light, perfect for those times when you are vacuuming at night with the lights off. They also shared another, damning characteristic: they can't pick up a darned thing. They both sported stiff-bristled brushes that whirled noisily and made those nice patterns on the carpet, but whose purpose appeared to be mostly to collect hair, string and carpet fiber until the accumulated mass choked the machine to a smoking halt. Or wound up the entire hall carpet from one continuous fiber, whichever came first.

Even more vexing was their propensity to clog their innards with whatever it was that they were supposed to be removing from the carpet. The dust, hair, hole punch circles, glitter and bread crumbs that were supposed to be deposited neatly in the bag or cannister routinely gave up their journey somewhere in the middle of the various hoses that connected the business end of the vacuum with the bag. In machines that moved air as well as an asthmatic kitten on a good day, ten minutes of vacuuming closed down the airways enough to render them capable of little more than indifferently relocating life's sloughings from one part of the room to another. Leaving behind a satisfying pattern in the carpet, granted, but that is only a mild comfort. More than once, as I blindly probed the vacuum's intestines with screwdrivers or repurposed coathangers, searching for the last clot of debris, I wished for something to just suck all the dirt out of the hose. Like, a good vacuum. Too bad I didn't have one handy.

The really don't make them like they used to. I grew up with my Mom's Electrolux cannister vacuum. It required a team of horses to haul it through the house, and imprecise aim with the metal extended tube could rip the curtains off a wall. I was a church janitor in high school, where I wrestled with an fifty pound industrial upright every day. Not only could it inhale inattentive cats from across the room, it toned my pecs as well. When it came to actually doing the job they were purportedly designed to do, our recent feature-laden, plastic vacuum cleaners couldn't hold a candle to these beasts.

With the new dog in the house burying us in a cloud of sheddings, I finally could take it no more. Our vacuum cleaner hid in the front closet and refused to come out (I know this is true because when I did force it to go to work on the carpet, it spit the dog hair everywhere, just for spite). We gave up, and resolved to do what so many other defeated homeowners have done: we bought a Dyson.

Buying a Dyson vacuum cleaner is a little like going to the hospital with a splinter and insisting on seeing the world-famous heart transplant specialist: you don't really know if he's right for you, but everyone says he's great -- at least, you're pretty sure that's what you've heard -- and he costs orders of magnitude more than anyone else, so he must be perfect for the job. We went with the biggest model Dyson makes, with the additional "Animal" features. That screams of marketing hype, but it does come with a handheld powered head for cleaning upholstery in houses where pets are allowed on the furniture. Ours is not such a house, so that's clearly money well spent.

After one usage, I have to admit that the carpets did look noticably better. The garbage can was also full of several cannister-loads of grit and hair, one of those things that we are sometimes better off not thinking about. Best of all, the machine has not burned out a motor or flung paper scraps everywhere. Yet. After three days of ownership, I consider that a victory.

Begin the Begin, Again

If it's almost Labor Day, the kids must have been in school for a week already. It's a mildly momentous year. Third grade is often a pivotal year, when students start to develop their intellectual skills beyond the most basic primary tasks. It was a year of tremendous growth for me, and for Kelly as well. We anticipate the same from Michael. He is excited about the year because as a third grader, he now has access to the larger part of the school playground. It is important to have priorities.

Kelly has started eighth grade, our last pre-high school year. Her schedule worked out well; she was assigned to the English teacher that everyone has recommended for two years now, she is a last-period teacher's aide for her sixth grade language arts teacher, and, well, she's an eighth grader. That alone is cause for celebration. The first week of school has brought a slight shift in her lunch and brunch social groupings, and a new level of confidence that comes from being at the top of the school food chain. The homework load has not hit yet, but it cannot be any greater than what she has had the last two years. Academically, this year will be a step up, especially in English and math (algebra). Kelly has proven that she can handle anything the school can throw at her so far; we will do our best to give her the same support as she tackles this year's challenges.

School volleyball for Kelly starts soon, community league soccer for both kids will begin this week, and Michael has already started fall league baseball, with basketball to follow in a couple of months. The now-customary fall frenzy has begun.

These are the days we'll remember.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Swimming 2010 Finale

The swim season finished on a dramatic upward trajectory. Our four youngest divisions (6-and-under boys and girls, and 7-8 boys and girls) dominated the league finals; our swimmers won three of the four high point awards, and the fourth came in third while setting a league record along the way and finishing behind the high point winner of the entire meet. Our young guns lifted our team to a highest-ever fourth place finish, just ahead of our rival, the local country club. We were a very spirited group, and it was a tremendous feeling to be a part of the historic effort the kids achieved.

Michael did his part. He improved his times in each of his events (free, back and fly). Butterfly was his last event of the year. At the beginning of the year, his goal was to do a "no-breather" in free (no breaths for the entire 25 yard race) and earn "bronze" times. By two thirds of the way through the season, he had achieved those goals, consistently improving his times as he went. As we prepared for the league finals, he announced that his final goal was to earn a silver time and do a "no-breather" in fly, something almost nobody attempts. I normally guide him toward lofty goals, but the morning of his final swim I let him know that one strategically taken breath would be just fine, and a bronze time would be just fine, too. Michael insisted on a silver with a no-breather.

For his heat, he had an outside lane, so I found a good spot to take pictures as he swam toward me. I snapped pictures as he steamed toward me, but it dawned on me, as he approached the flags (about five yards from the end of the pool) that I had not seen him take a breath, which he ordinarily would have taken by then.

I watched in disbelief as powered full speed into the wall, finishing his no-breather. Incredible. Try it sometime. Try taking even four butterfly strokes without pulling up in exhaustion. Michael, barely four feet tall, went 25 yards without a breath.

On top of that, he won his heat, from the disfavored outer lane (indicating a lower seed time), by .02 of a second.

Oh yeah, and it was a "silver" time, by a good margin. He swam nearly four seconds faster than his prior best, earning his silver just like he said he would. Like us, his feet hardly touched the ground for days afterward, he was so proud of himself. Last year, his name would appear very nearly last on the list of 140 or so swimmers in his division. This year, he was solidly mid-pack for free and back, and 43rd in fly, appearing on the first page of the leaders as posted on the board at the meet. Not a bad way to finish a great year: three "popped" times, no-breathers in free and fly, two bronzes and a silver time, and a heat win in the league finals.

But it wasn't over. At tonight's awards ceremony, Michael won the "Coaches Award" for the second year in a row. The award is given to a few kids in each age group who work hard, swim well and are generally good kids. Kelly and Michael have won these kinds of awards in soccer; as a parent, this is a nice award to see your child earn this kind of award. It tells you that your kids act the way you always hope they will act when you are not there to monitor them.

Any reservations we may have had a year ago about joining a swim team have long since been abandoned. Michael has learned a crucial life skill (and Kelly has as well through swim lessons, even though she is not on the swim team itself), and has developed another athletic skill, while we have greatly enlarged our social group. The experience has been nothing but satisfying, even without meet wins, "gold" times or any other indicia of superior performance. Mere participation truly is enough to be fulfilling.

But we're pretty proud anyway.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


This post is for the benefit of anyone who, like me, was driven crazy by dust that got under the glass of their iPhone. Welcome, Google travelers.

Not more than a couple of months after I got my iPhone 3G (nearly two years ago now), a large speck of dust settled into residence under the glass. It was soon joined by another similarly sized speck. As time passed, many more flecks of dust made their way under the glass. After I dropped the phone one time, an entire cloud of tiny dust particles lightly powdered half of the screen, as if I had bumped a bottle of talcum powder. The last straw for me was a relatively huge chunk of dust that found its way to the very middle of the camera aperture. At that extremely close focal length, the dust did not prevent me from taking pictures, but it caused some unwanted shading and coloration problems, and killed any hope of low-light (i.e., indoor) photography.

My exploration of Apple message boards on this problem was less than satisfactory. Few people seemed to have experienced the problem to the degree I had, and fewer still had a definitive confirmation of the cause, which seemed obvious enough to me. The data/charger port is a large rectangular opening that collected a ton of dust. I suspected that it was not sealed off from the rest of the innards of the iPhone (since dust seemed to be gathered more heavily at that end of the glass), but nobody online confirmed it. Some speculated that dust could get in around a rubber seal that runs around the entire screen, but that seemed unlikely. The tightly fitting screen or a gaping wide hole? I had a pretty well developed theory about how the dust got in. All it would take was actually opening the case to know for sure.

Opening any Apple product designed in the last decade is a difficult exercise, and one that will almost certainly void any product warranty. The design of Apple’s products has become one of the company’s hallmarks, but with the fabulous form comes an almost complete prohibition on tinkering under the hood. Other than the motherboard and the box that contained it, almost no original parts of my first PC remained by the time I finally discarded it. I frequently changed video cards, sound cards hard drives and monitors as the technology improved, and replaced a hard drive and power supply when they broke down. Modern day Apple devices, in contrast, are not intended to be opened by the consumer. It can be done, however. I have replaced the hard drive in our iMac, and after getting to the point that I could hardly take pictures and could barely see the screen in normal sunlight because of the layer of dust under the glass, I was finally determined to crack open the iPhone as well.

To all those who have had the iPhones for a long time and have become frustrated with the dust: you can solve the problem, if you are willing to open the case. Opening the case and the components inside is not difficult, if you are willing to accept a little cosmetic imperfection on the case thereafter.

To open the iPhone case, I followed the clear directions found here. Everything is as described. Undo the two screws at the base, insert a knife between the top surface and the silver rim (this is where a small amount of cosmetic damage may occur), pry up, and you are in. Disconnect three leads near the top of the phone, and the phone splits into the glass/LCD portion and the battery/phone portion. Great care should be taken when working with the glass and LCD screen. Don’t lose the tiny screws that hold them together, for one thing. Also, the LCD must be pried out of the glass casing. It does not take much pressure, but it must be done delicately. Finally, use extreme care when handling the exposed LCD screen itself. I did not touch the screen with my fingers; I only lightly wiped a lint-free cloth (the kind specially made to clean LCD computer monitors) across the screen. I supplemented that with a blast of compressed air. I cleaned the underside of the glass thoroughly, then mated the glass and LDC together again to prevent any ambient dust from returning. I took on the slightly trickier task of removing the camera lens to clean the aperture, but if you are deft with tiny screws, it can be done relatively easily. Putting the phone back together was as simple as reconnecting the leads and squeezing everything shut again.

Remarkably, the iPhone worked after I put it back together, but not without some drama. For some reason, the screen did not turn on again, even though it made the same noise it always did when I put it on the charger. I stewed on that overnight, and had to shut the phone down using the hard reset technique when my alarm went off the next morning (without a screen, you can’t tell the alarm to stop). When I plugged it back into the iMac, the startup screen reappeared, just like normal. Although I had already started to investigate replacing my phone with a 3GS (I’m going to wait for the next version of the 4G), I was delighted to get my old phone back. Even better, the newly cleaned screen was a revelation. I did not realize how obscured it had become until I saw again how bright and clear it could be. If you are out of warranty and reasonably adept with small screwdrivers and knives, recommend this bit of maintenance highly. Also, back up the phone before you start.

In poking around the case, my suspicions were confirmed. The dust flooded in through massive openings around the charger port, as well as smaller openings in the SIM card dock and perhaps the headphone jack. I consider this a design flaw. There are a couple of solutions. One would be to seal the openings somehow. A simpler solution would be to use something that Apple appears to favor in its machines: black electrical tape. I found large quantities of it in the iMac to seal seams, which is a problem for the do-it-yourselfer because tape does not return to its original position the way a screw will; every invasion weakens it. Very thin strips of the stuff were also inside the iPhone, but not one place it could do some good: the seam between the outer glass and the LCD. If I get inside the phone again, I will lay in strips of tape along the top and bottom edges of the glass to prevent anything from getting between the glass and the LCD. Unless the glass itself were to crack, there would be no need to separate the two in the future.

Poking around inside Apple products is not necessarily recommended, but it can be done, with significant benefits to the user.

Friday, August 06, 2010

"Cheese Clogs Major Artery"

That should have been the headline on this story: a truck carrying 39,000 pounds of shredded cheese caught fire and blocked traffic on Interstate 10 in Florida for five hours. If only a Tostitos truck had rolled through at the same time ... mmm, nachos.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Front And Center

One of the Silent Auction items available in the swim team's fundraisers was a set of four tickets to a Giants game. We won the tickets and went to the game this week. It turns out that the seats were pretty good.

We were in the third row of regular seats (behind the section of crazy-good special seats behind the backstop) almost directly behind home plate. It was a terrific place to see the ballgame. You could see everything that happened in the field, and the players seemed larger than life rather than the distant tiny figurines you see from our usual seats in the bleachers or upper deck. It didn't hurt that food was delivered to us in our seats, either.

Being close means you get a good look at the players.

Giants starter Matt Cain:

Rookie of the Year candidate Buster Posey, who got a hit for the 20th straight game:

Local product (Bellamine HS) Pat Burrell:

The game was exciting, with two top notch pitchers playing well, several home runs, and an eighth inning comeback by the home team (fueled by two home runs) to earn the win.

We don't get to too many games, but we try to make them memorable. This one is right at the top of the list.

Swim Season In Review

The regular season for the swim team has come to a close, with only the massive nine-team finals swim meet to go. It has been a terrific season for Michael, who has achieved nearly all of his goals, becoming a pretty quick swimmer along the way.

The swim league has "bronze," "silver" and "gold" time standards for each event. A "gold" time is the ticket to the County meet and the measure of a truly fast swimmer. The "bronze" and "silver" times are great targets for all the other swimmers. Last year, as a truly beginning swimmer and in the bottom part of his 7/8 age bracket, Michael improved over the course of the year, but only got to the point by the last meet that he could start to think that maybe he would get a "bronze" time. He came into this year with the firm goal of earning "bronze" times in his main strokes of free, back and fly.

Before the season was half over, he earned his first "bronze," in fly. A couple of meets later, he earned his "bronze" in free by a solid margin. Just last weekend, in a 25-meter pool (a bit longer than the more common 25-yard pools), he finally earned a "bronze" in backstroke.

Another one of his goals was to do a "no-breather," in which he swims the length of the pool without taking a breath. After achieving the goal in practice, he accomplished the feat in a meet about halfway through the season, and has done so in every free race since then. The first time he did it, the coaches were ecstatic, giving him a ton of praise, recognizing that he met one of his most important personal goals.

Over the course of the season, Michael also had the opportunity to participate in several freestyle relays, including one with three of our top swimmers (Michael filled in for a faster swimmer who didn't get to the meet). He also took part in medley relays (swimming the fly leg), and on one memorable evening, the individual medley. He nearly got a "bronze" time in the IM, even though he was dead tired by the end.

The season culminated in a nearly perfect meet this week. Michael won two of his three heats and set personal bests in all three, including finally breaking the 20 second mark in freestyle. Last year, he always placed at the bottom of every group of swimmers. This year, by the last meet he was solidly in the top 40%. He is not big enough to have a ton of speed, but his strokes are technically correct, and he has learned a lot this year about competing across the whole length of the pool. He has a drawer full of first place ribbons, which represent many come-from-behind victories since his starts are always the weakest part of his races. In all, he has become a faster swimmer and a mentally tougher competitor.

Through it all, Michael had fun with his friends, swimmers of all speeds.

But how could he not be faster ... the kid is ripped!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Subpar Day

When I started the day in a dentist's chair, I thought the day could only get better. I was wrong.

On my way into work, my teeth and gums still aching from the determined attention of the hygienist, I heard and felt a fluttering from the back tires, then the whole car squirmed a little bit. Luckily, I was coming down a hill toward a small park, the only level, open area in my commute (anyplace else, and I would have been faced with a steep, winding road with no shoulder, or a freeway). I pulled straight to the side of the road and got out, expecting to see a flat tire. For once, I was disappointed that my diagnostic skills were so sharp:

I have taken the wheels off the car on multiple occasions to engage in the seemingly pointless pursuit of cleaning them thoroughly. As a result of my vanity, I was well versed in how to jack up the car and remove the wheel. What I was not so sure about was the spare tire. It looks like this:

In typical Germanic fashion, the spare tire system is unduly complicated. Also in typical Germanic fashion, it worked flawlessly. The spare tire is deflated; Porsche considerately includes a small air compressor designed to inflate the tire. Porsche also includes a full tool kit, a huge plastic bag perfectly sized to carry the bad wheel to keep the interior clean (there is no way to fit it in the trunk), and plastic gloves to keep your hands clean. My only concern is whether the thirteen year old, unused spare and compressor would work.

They did.

The car looked a little humiliated.

Complex though the spare system was, it worked perfectly and got me home safely.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Set The DVR

Although our television is usually tuned to Giants games, news or the Disney Channel, we make a little bit of time for series television. For instance, we watch Burn Notice on USA, a breezy crime/spy program, because one of our friends is a writer on the show.

When we lived in Southern California, nearly everyone we knew was connected to the entertainment industry somehow. Some were very successful, whether on screen (such as the Little Mermaid) or as part of the vast army of busniesspeople, cameramen, technicians, scenery and makeup artists and the like. We knew just as many people who spent year after year trying to gain a foothold in the industry, whether as a writer, actor, editor or some other capacity. When the dream of Hollywood takes hold, it does not let go. The tenacity of these people in the face of daunting odds is inspiring.

Our friend the Burn Notice writer lived the dream. Not long after he and his wife arrived in Hollywood, he managed to meet the right people and intern for the right projects so that he was in the right place at the right time when Burn Notice came along. He started off as a writer's assistant, and as the show became a hit, he worked his way up to become one of the senior writers, with at least a couple of the episodes to his credit. The show is enjoyable in the manner of a summer movie -- fast paced and witty, with explosions. It has an honored place among Mythbusters and Top Gear in our DVR's schedule programming.

Another show that we will add to our DVR roster starting this weekend is Mad Men. We arrived late to this party. Over the past three years, Mad Men garnered enormous critical acclaim even as it toiled in the far reaches of most cable lineups on AMC. We finally gave it a shot a few months ago, Netflixing the series DVDs. It quickly became one of those shows that we could not turn away from. The next disk could not arrive in the mail fast enough. The show expertly evokes the look and feel of the early sixties, or at least the early sixties as we imagine they were. The smoking, drinking, casual sexual harrassment ... it's all there. They even use these glasses, which I grew up with, and I'm pretty sure still live in Dad's cupboards:

The show plays like a long movie, with multiple story arcs given plenty of opportunity to live and breathe. The story payoffs are satisfying, and there is a depth of character that can only exist in long-form TV series, of which Mad Men takes full advantage. The lead character is one of the most intriguingly flawed figures in recent TV history; you find yourself questioning why you like him so much and pull so hard for him. The show is highly stylized, yet it is the imperfection of its lead that gives it deeper roots in humanity than almost anything else on television. Sure, it's a soap opera with moodier lighting and better clothes, but it is produced with great care and expertise.

We finished going through the first two seasons just as the disks for Season 3 were released, which we dashed through quickly. Season 4 begins on AMC Sunday evening. Now that we have caught up to the broadcast schedule, we will have to suffer through weeklong delays as each episode is released. The horror.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summerime, And The Livin's Easy

We have enjoyed a summer that has felt as pleasantly aimless as we imagine summers ought to be. With the exception of occasional bouts of morning gloom, the weather has been sunny and warm without being uncomfortably hot. Our new resident has added a dimension to our activities without overwhelming us. Most importantly, from my working-guy perspective, our weekends have been relatively open and stress-free.

The Fourth of July weekend was about as perfect as one could hope for. The weather was great, sporting events were on hold for the holiday weekend, and we did not use up hours of our free time traveling. We love to visit family and friends, but sometimes using all of the available hours in a holiday weekend to simply be at home is as refreshing as a week in Hawaii.

(Okay, that’s crazy talk, but spending the holiday weekend at home is pretty nice.)

I started the Fourth of July weekend right by finishing a light remodeling of our guest bathroom. My household projects tend to happen on three-day weekends, which is why the spackling and repainting that I started on Memorial Day weekend did not conclude until the Fourth of July weekend. After pulling the last piece of masking tape and hanging the last towel rack, I found myself contemplating something I don't often face: a fully completed project.

We maximized our fireworks exposure, too. On the 3rd, we went to an event in Concord that has been going for more than 20 years. In a large public park, a local church sets up what amounts to a small county fair, with games for kids, food, and a concert/fireworks show. The stage backdrop is a 30 foot tall American flag which doubles as risers for a choir. From our ideal seats on a grassy knoll under a cloudless sky, we enjoyed a show with dancers, soloists and funny characters to entertain the kids of movie and musical numbers, worship songs, military service academy anthems (including Taps) and American patriotic songs. The evening ended with a suitably energetic fireworks display.

The next night, we went up to the hillside parking lot of our church to see the fireworks show that would be set off from the golf course immediately below. For being such a small town, Moraga puts on one heck of a fireworks show. Many years, including two years ago when we rolled into town in our first moments as residents, fog creeps over the hills to put a damper on the fireworks display. This year, the weather was spectacularly perfect. Not only were the fireworks visually enjoyable, but the sound they made, reverberating in rolling thunder up and down the little valley, was stunning (and possibly frightening to anyone who has dealt with explosives in a less festive context).

We closed the weekend on the holiday Monday by fulfilling one of Michael’s long-term ambitions: a lemonade stand. Lemonade stands are a frequent sight in our neighborhood; we had three within five blocks this past weekend. Michael and his good friend Lily had agreed to run a stand together, which meant their parents found themselves bound to get the venture off the ground. We all helped with the materials, but the kids did great job. They positioned the stand across the street from Lily’s house at a wide spot on the main road at a four-way stop. Lily put together a great sign, mixed lemonade and made rice crispy treats, while we supplied ice tea, ice, brownies and a cooler. They kept at it for more than three hours, doing brisk business and pulling in more than $70.

That, right there, is Americana.