Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Pictures of the Day: Baseball!

We went to a baseball game Friday night at the Giants ballpark by the waterfront. Note the Detroit flag flapping in the breeze.  

Pictures of the Day: Dark and Stormy

Two pictures today of Benny's other client kitties. Meet Dark and Stormy.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Picture of the Day: Benny and Marley

This is Benny the cat sitter and his new friend Marley. Benny and a good friend run a cat-sitting business called Tatesitter. It's really taken off, with eight clients already. Today Benny and his business partner had three separate cat-sitting jobs to complete after school. It's a real operation.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Picture of the Day

Hello, I'm back!

I'm easing into blogging again with a Picture of the Day feature.

Today's photo was taken at a cafe after I dropped Benny at his morning carpool. The letters on the white truck spell "Clutter." This startup stores your extra stuff in its secret warehouse. You can manage your "online storage unit" on their website, because they take pictures of everything they store.

Another high-tech solution to a low-tech problem. It also comes under the heading of "Startups That Do Things Your Mother Doesn't Do for You Anymore," such as driving around (Uber), laundry (Rinse), shopping (Amazon), etc.

Anyway, this is a really cute cafe (note the little heart drawn on the window) and a nice place to sip hot tea before the day gets crazy.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Benny and His Friends in Trees

I recently took a bunch of boys to Corona Heights after school.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

I Think I Need a Chainsaw

Working on my neglected project.
For anyone who's wondering, no, I haven't abandoned my financial memoir. I'm still plugging away at it, hoping to finish it by the end of summer.

It's called "Too Small To Succeed," and it covers the year our Ann Arbor house was on the market (March 2007-2008). That was also the year the Great Recession began (December 2007), plus the housing crisis, the subprime mortgage collapse, massive credit card defaults, and yes -- the year Ron and I moved to San Francisco. It is primarily a financial memoir, following how Ron and I made every financial mistake in the book and still managed to dig ourselves out of trouble. (And stay out of trouble -- so far.)

The memoir has been in hiatus, but now that I have a studio to write in, it's easier to keep the momentum going. One of my role models is Robert Caro, who writes enormous, meticulously researched books from his small office in New York City. His writing process is discussed here. In true Caro fashion, I bought my own big corkboard for my office wall and started filling it with index cards and printed charts.

As I return to this project, I have to admit: It's a mess. A big, overgrown, 50,000-word mess overrun with weeds and rotted undergrowth and nasty little critters. A big help has been the writing software program Scrivener, which I impulsively bought years ago and promptly ignored, writing my chapters in Microsoft Word. Scrivener reminded me of that horrid software I used in 2007-08 to produce the Business Times' Real Estate Deals of the Year. I can't remember the name of the software, (Yay! That means I've healed from the trauma, right?) but it was accounting software -- it wasn't designed to track multiple real estate deals and nominations. It had confusing fields and tiny type and the text always printed out with strings of strange characters, like the software was swearing along with me.

But Scrivener is different, I finally admit. It helped me break up this book into four parts:
Ann Arbor
Past Recessions
San Francisco
The Great Recession

 Each part begins with an intro, laying out what's happening. The book has a prologue (describing the morning we left our house to fly to S.F.) and an epilogue (describing what happened after we sold the house).

I doubt I'll keep this structure in the final draft, but this rickety scaffold at least gives me the confidence to keep going.

As I dig deeper into my messy memoir, I've been feeling a little deja vu. 2007 is starting to sound a lot like 2015, at least enough to make me nervous. I'll expand on this later, but for now, I'll end with a Stat of the Day:

April 2007: 
"The Fed’s news that Americans’ collective credit card balances rose almost ten percent in April to $900 billion."
-- from the memoir, NPR's "Marketplace"

April 13, 2015: 
"The Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that credit card debt increased by $17 billion last year, to $700 billion. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, put total revolving debt at $887.9 billion in January.

TransUnion puts the national average in the middle at $5,234 per person, which is still less than the pre-recession high of $6,276 in 2008. That debt has crept steadily upward, though, even as the percentage of U.S. households with credit cards carrying revolving debt has decreased from 44% in 2009 to just 34% today, according to the National Foundation For Credit Counseling."

-- from financial web site Main St.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Slackers make millions and other thoughts

You ever hear of It's a San Francisco dot-com with 100 employees. Founded in 2013, this bunch made a group messaging app that helps employees chat with each other about work stuff. Sounds neat, huh? How much do you think that's worth? What would you say if I told you that this baby company with the hip, casual moniker is worth $ 2 billion?

Yeah, that's right. $2 billion. That's worth more than the Detroit Tigers, valued at a shade over $1 billion. They raised $120 million a few months ago, and their website has a Help Wanted page a yard long. And there are a whole bunch of young, billion-dollar companies with cute names like Stripe and Cloudera expanding like mad in San Francisco, looking for pricey offices and more high-tech employees.

The city is full to bursting with tech firms, and San Francisco has the highest apartment rents in the country. A one-bedroom apartment in our neighborhood would cost $1,000 more a month than we currently pay for our two-bedroom. Yay, rent control!

You dirty birds

After years of searching, my newspaper moved into new offices in November — three floors below in the same building. Our new digs have taken our insurance-actuary vibe to a whole new level, as you can see here.

Appalling, really. To my mind, newsrooms should look like this:

Still, The Powers That Be feel we've spent the last four months tarnishing this gleaming space with all our newspapers and boxes and other questionable clutter. So we're having a cleaning day this Friday. Our office manager is worried that slobby newspaper people don't like to clean and don't know how to do it, so she sent this email:

The office cleaning has been rescheduled for Friday; Pizza/salad will be provided-granted you cleaned something. 
Things to clean:
-under your desk
-desk drawers
-around your desk
-top your desk 
If you have boxes/bags/unused “office equipment” please take this time to get rid of those things. Lets do our best to keep this office looking CLEAN and organized.

I don't usually work Fridays, but I'm going in to help put out a special publication called Outstanding Directors, where we honor people who join lots of boards. I'll have to make sure I throw out a few papers so I can get my pizza.

Drunk with power

Speaking of boards, I'm gratefully nearing the end of my tenure on the board of the after-school program at Benny's school. When I first joined the board, it was a pretty low-key commitment, requiring attendance at a monthly meeting in the library. The program director would review what was going on, we all nodded and said it sounded good, maybe asked a few questions, and that was it.

That all changed this school year as we transitioned from an advisory board to a governing board. Suddenly all the members started jumping on every tiny thing, necessitating long email strings debating the sign-out process or various snack options. Board business nearly ground to a halt as members asked for additional information on every decision.

It took us two months and numerous Doodle polls to pick a regular day to meet. The best day, of course, was Wednesday, which is the day my paper goes to press and I couldn't guarantee my attendance. Other members immediately started drawing up rotating meeting schedules involving complicated algorithms that made sure we never met on a day containing the letter R during a full moon. Or something.

Finally I had to send an email begging them to pick a day inconvenient for me. I'm not trying to demonstrate low self-esteem here or anything, but obviously my contributions are not worth creating a chaotic schedule with alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays and occasional Mondays. My crazy board is worth a post all by itself, but must wait until another day. That's not a Wednesday.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Burning Man: The Exodus

My alarm went off in the tent at 4:01. I could still hear music pounding throughout Black Rock City, but it was strangely muted. My nose was cold. I wiggled out of the warm sleeping bag and dressed quickly. My plan was to leave at 5 a.m. and avoid the inevitable traffic when tens of thousands of Burners try to leave the desert along a single access road at the same time. Holding my rolled sleeping bag, I stepped out of the tent and looked up at Orion in the clear desert sky. I stuffed the sleeping bag into the car, then put a quilt in the front passenger seat. Then I woke Benny and hustled him into the car and wrapped him up. He snuggled sleepily into the quilt. Quickly I broke down the tent in the dark, my hands lit by the headamp on my forehead. I shoved everything into the car, climbed into the driver's seat, said a short prayer, and turned the keys. The car started immediately. I almost cried with relief. The desert's alkaline dust can play hell with a battery.

Softly I drove toward 5:30, then turned left. The way was spottily lit in primary neon colors. I rolled past sleeping camps and turned right, and yes, there was the line. I followed the departing cars and RVs, creeping through the camp much like the way I entered. We easily rolled through the gate and crunched onto the graveled path. Soon I turned on County Road 34. I felt like bursting into tears again. I’d done it. I’d taken Benny to Burning Man and gotten safely out again. Now I just had to drive 90 miles through the desert to Interstate 80. Benny rolled toward the car door and slept on.

It was a quiet, dull drive in the dark, and I could only see the black outlines of mountains on the edges. I was nervous driving here, even with the long comforting red line of taillights before me. What if I got a flat or the car overheated or stalled? A million things could go wrong. We passed quietly through Gerlach, through the Pyramid Lake Indian reservation and after an eternity, we joined I-80.

I was so tired, having slept only a few hours, but neither Benny or I wanted to break our trip. We stopped for lunch at a little diner in the Sierra Nevadas, where the waitress admired our Burning Man t-shirts and asked for stories. Then we pushed on, joining surprisingly smooth-flowing traffic onto the Bay Bridge and then finally ... finally ... pulling into our own driveway. We were home.

Even now, nearly a week later, it's hard to sum up how I feel about this trip. It was so wonderful and so awful, so easy and so hard, so surprising and confusing and comforting all at once. I'm not kidding myself that I was anything more than a spectator; we were only there for two days, camping in Kidsville, tucked in our tent by 11 each night.

But we were there — we drove out there, just the two of us in our little Fit. I didn't bring one thing I wasn't glad to have and we lacked for nothing that we needed. By any measure this trip was a success. Those fussy, perfectionist tendencies that drive myself and everyone around me crazy came into their own at Burning Man. And I, Christine — a daydreamer who constantly misses her subway stop, a person who can't walk across the room without tripping, someone who practically needs a map to navigate her own neighborhood — brought a 10-year-old on her first trip to Burning Man and returned safe and sound. Not even a sunburn. It's tremendously empowering. And there's always next year. The Man burns in 364 days!

Burning Man: I Can See Clearly Now

(click on pictures to expand)

This picture is enhanced because it was so dusty on the playa.
So here I am, wrapped up with a bow.

I woke up Saturday feeling pretty good, considering. I unzipped a window and peeked out — clear sky, no dust, just sunshine. Benny popped out of his sleeping bag, his dust-plumped hair sticking up. I could barely talk him into getting dressed before running outside.

A half-hour later I emerged, ready for action, wearing a cowboy hat, goggles, a long pink sundress, sneakers and a leopard-print scarf. My tiny white backpack was stuffed with chapstick, sunblock, water bottles, eye drops, cotton swabs and lotion. I was ready.

We're ready for a big day!
Everyone at the camp seemed cheerier. Soon Michael was frying bacon and serving it on toast. An hour later we were gearing up for a long day out, packing food, water, fruit, spare goggles and extra face masks. Benny wanted to wear my Death Valley ball cap, so I tied a string around it and looped it over his neck. Then we tried to start off, but the delays were endless. Felix’s goggles needed adjusting. Milo’s chain fell off. Benny scraped his knee on his bike. I bungee corded an extra water bottle on Benny’s bike. Andrea couldn’t find her sunglasses. Felix’s laces needed to be tied. My hat blew away and I had to get it and tie it on. All this happened in front of our camp. Then we’d move forward a few feet and stop again. Benny’s goggles broke. My dress got caught in the bike chain. Andrea forgot the boiled eggs. Milo had to go to the bathroom. I finally figured out what was wrong with my bike — I needed my seat adjusted. Michael pulled it up five inches. So much better.

Benny, Milo and Felix.
We moved forward again and managed to round the corner, and in fits and starts we managed to make it to the edge of camp. By now the wind had picked up a little bit, forcing us to push up our scarves and bandanas, but it was still better than the day before. We rode along 5:30, dodging a huge octopus car and a pirate ship. Michael first, then boys, then me and Andrea in the rear. I could keep up easily now.

Milo, Andrea, Felix and the Man.
We burst out into the playa, wind kicking up a little bit. A red dragon rolled by, followed by a line of giant tea pot. Ahead, giant words emerged the sand — INSANITY and LOVE. We rode forward toward rising minarets. To my right the desert looked empty, like I'd landed on the planet Tatooine. Benny squealed as Jabba the Hutt's schooner drove by.

Benny rides toward the minaret named "Cosmic Praise."

The boys kept climbing.
Leaping into pillows. Burning Man definitely had a
10-year-old vibe.

We all stopped at a giant play structure, topped with a wide rope net with a stack of pillows in the middle. Everyone took turns leaping into the pillows, then retreated to a shady platform for lunch. We munched on boiled eggs, oranges, trail mix, potato chips and lots of water. I tried to pass around hand sanitizer but Michael just laughed. "We’re way beyond that," he said, and he was right.

The boys didn't want to leave the structure, so we adults just stood around in the shade and drank cocktails from a nearby party tent. Michael left to get ice for the camp, and the rest of us decided to ride closer to the Man. A giant metal rhino almost ran us over.

There's the dust devil in the center, left of the parasol
ferris wheel.
We were headed off the playa again when a dust devil sprang up, a mini volcano. I fell off my bike trying to take a picture of it, then got caught in the whiteout.  When the dust cleared (and now I truly understand that phrase), Andrea and the boys were gone. So I headed back to the camp by way of the Death Camp Barbie.

Hundreds of Barbies march to their deaths.

Back at the camp, we all rested and read books. After a delicious taco dinner, we started preparing for the Burn. They usually burned the Man at 9 p.m. and the wind had died down enough that it might actually happen on time. Going out for the burn required complex preparations. I inserted batteries into chains of LED lights for the bicycles. Michael wove some into Andrea's white fuzzy coat. I hung glow pendants around the boys' necks and snapped glow sticks on bike handlebars. I kept on the pink dress but topped it with a bright fuzzy-green cape. Felix wore a shiny blue cape. Andrea put on her tiara and we were ready. Unfortunately I misplaced my camera, so I have no pictures of the Burn. Here are some links to good ones, though.

An amazing panoramic from the feet of the Man by Michael Holden. That is just what it looked like.

More of Holden's absolutely beautiful photography of the entire event.

More incredible photography from the U.K.'s Daily Mail.

We arrived at the Burn and the playa was all lit up like Las Vegas. Music pounded, neon lights flashed and metal dragons and octopuses breathed fire. People shouted “baby burners!” as they saw the boys ride by. The music pounded in our chests. We put earplugs in our ears and moved closer. The man’s arms were raised high, which meant the burn was imminent. The crowd danced and cheered. Suddenly fireworks burst out of the man's chest, exploding in the wide sky. I lifted Benny as high as I could so he could see. Flames licked the mans legs and torso, then spread to the whole body. Soon he was an enormous, man-shaped bonfire. Despite the noise and the music, it was a peaceful scene. Everyone was happy, but many were quiet, even reflective. Nobody was screaming or throwing up or shouting that purple aliens were chasing them; nobody was performing lewd acts or cursing or starting fights. North Beach nightlife in San Francisco was more depraved than this.

I didn't want to leave, but Benny and I were departing Black Rock City early the next morning. So the two of us walked back first, and it was a nice quiet moment, emerging from the crowd and walking toward the glowing yellow galleon where our bikes were parked. It was surprisingly peaceful and a silver net of stars spread across the sky. We found our bikes and the two of us rode back to camp, me leading the way through the revelers with my headlamp glowing on my forehead and Benny close behind, ringing his bell to let me know he was there.

"What was your favorite part of Burning Man?" I asked Benny when we were tucked into our sleeping bags.

"Mmmmm," said Benny. That meant he was tired, because Benny liked nothing more than to rank things: his top five favorite foods, top 10 friends, top five cats, etc.

"What was that, honey?" I repeated. "What was your favorite part of Burning Man?"

"Everything," Benny said sleepily.

To be continued:

Burning Man: Exodus

Burning Man: How Can a Place be Radical Anti-Establishment if I'm There?

(Click on pictures to expand)

Benny rides through Black Rock City

I turned off the car. My heart was pounding. Dust swirled on my windshield. I wanted to sit a minute, take in the fact that we’d arrived safely and were actually at Burning Man.

"There's Milo!" Benny shouted, seeing his friend. He wrenched open the door.

"Benny, your goggles!" I yelled, but he was gone. I pulled up my bandana and donned my own goggles and pulled my protesting legs out of the car. After four hours of driving, they felt attached to the floor. I hobbled toward the camp, trying to smile although nobody could see it through the red bandana.

Milo, his brother Felix, and his parents Michael and Andrea had arrived two days earlier and had created a little home. Camp chairs surrounded a cluttered table, a small stove sat on a metal shelf.  Heavy black tarps shielded us from sun and wind. Milo was in no condition to play; he’d gotten in a fight on the Kidsville trampoline, which didn't seem to follow Burning Man's 10 principles. Now Milo was nursing a bruised head.

The first day: Check out Milo's military gas mask.
I left Benny to sit by his friend and set up the tent, gasping as I pounded the stakes into the cracked playa. As soon as I could, I scrambled in and zipped the door up, just me and a bottle of water sitting in a tent at Burning Man.

"Let's all go on a bike ride!" cried Andrea.

I tried to look enthusiastic, again a wasted effort, since my face was swathed in goggles and cotton cloth. I pulled Benny and my bikes off the car and we rode off.

I was glad to stop at a giant foam pit, covered with a metal cage. The boys scrambled joyfully up the cage and dropped one by one into the pit.

Benny at the foam pit.
While they played I drank more water and admired a large wooden catapult
swaying in the wind.

"They were throwing people with it," said a tall Laurence of Arabia lookalike beside me. "I bet it's a real rush."

"Are you going to do it?" I asked.

"Nah, they closed it. It'd be great, though, right?"

"Oh yeah," I said enthusiastically. "Too bad it's closed." I rolled my eyes. I was starting to like this whole wrap-up-against-the-dust thing. I could make all the faces I wanted.

I wanted to ask about other human-projectile structures, but Michael announced it was time for the crossbow range. So we hopped back on our bikes riding past a rolling Converse shoe. The line at the crossbow range was long, so Andrea and I headed to a party tent for a drink.

Playing Jenga.
"You need IDs," said a man wearing a Princess Leia hairstyle and a white thong.
Neither Andrea nor I had them.  I haven’t needed an ID in four years. I tried to show my age, but no dice. I never thought I’d be shopping my gray roots for a drink at Burning Man. So Andrea and I rode back to camp for our IDs and returned. I had the most amazing drink, a summer flower, with orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime juices mixed with vodka. This was the life, I thought, settling on a dusty couch in the shade to watch the boys play Jenga.

“We should see the playa,” Andrea called, referring to the large open space in front of the Man. “Let’s go!”

I gulped the last of my drink and tucked the paper cup into my backpack (“Leave No Trace!”)

Parasolvent: A mechanical expression of
loss, release, healing and decay.
With parasols.

By the time we reached the playa, the dust was really kicking up. We left the tents and RVs behind and rode among metal and wood structures rising out of the desert, nearly all in movement somehow: turning, spinning, waving, bobbing. A big dinosaur skeleton on wheels rolled by, then an Egyptian tomb steered by jackal-headed gods veered along in the opposite direction.

Resting in the library.
The wind grew worse, dust filled my vision. We rode to the “Library of Babel,” a lovely mosiac-painted and thankfully walled structure filled with handcrafted books. Burners took turns reading sayings and poetry out loud.  In any other circumstance I would have been fascinated and wanted to read the messages and write one myself. But instead I just sat and panted and watched the dust fill the doorways. Visibility was almost zero out there, and the wooden library rattled in the rising wind.

The wind died down just enough to tempt us out of the library, then hit again — even worse. We could barely see each other. I felt like I was choking. We kept having to stop — somebody would have to adjust their bandana, or would scrape themselves on their bike, or put their hat back on, or drop their water bottle or get dust in their eye. Felix cried out and when Andrea put a hand to his face it came back bloody. His nose was bleeding and drops of red fell on the sand. Benny and I were standing close together with his face against my shirt. At that point, I was pretty much done, but Andrea and Michael (these two could talk a fish out of the water) convinced to me to ride on, making one more circuit before we returned to camp.

I was looking forward to a few minutes resting in my tent, but everyone immediately seized on a new plan.

“The camp over there is making steak tacos!” Michael said.

“Can I have steak tacos, Mom?” Benny asked.

“Sure,” I said. “But why don’t you rest first, I’ll wipe you off.”

But nobody wanted to wait. Nobody wanted to rest. Nobody wanted to wipe off. Everybody wanted to dash off to tacos and I just wanted to go to my tent.

“Have a beer!” Michael cried.

“Don’t you want a taco? Should we bring one for you?” Andrea asked.

I repeated no thank you, no beer, no taco, just tent. I released Benny and they mercifully left. Heaven. I gathered some things and crawled into my tent, which was shaking in the wind, but it held. I poured an entire bottle of water over my head and sat there dripping. 

The rest of the evening was a blur. I don’t remember if we went out again that day. I remember putting a whiny and overtired Benny to bed. I wiped him down and put him in jammies and tucked him into his mummy sleeping bag.

Then I lay awake, listening to the revelry outside. What were we doing here? What would tomorrow be like? This was crazy. We didn’t belong out here. Actually nobody belonged out here. Humans didn’t belong out here. Why do these people host this amazing event out in a harsh, pitiless desert? Can’t they see how much nicer it would be in, well, just about anywhere else? But it’s not supposed to be nice. It's supposed to be radical and countercultural. I was trying to think of a way to be radical and countercultural in a pleasant meadow close to a Holiday Inn Express when I fell asleep.

To be continued:
Burning Man: I Can See Clearly Now