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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Annoying Travelers Attempt to Catch Flights


Detroit Metro Airport is reproaching travelers for showing up for flights too early. The nerve!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Poor Verizon, So Misunderstood


A Verizon Wireless patsy (er, vice president) had to write a letter last week to the FCC defending its $350 early termination fee and its little “arrow button” cash cow.

She begins by saying those big early termination fees (ETFs) “promote consumer choice” because that way Verizon can offer smart phones at cheaper prices. Customers can pay through the nose for a month-to-month plan, but most (surprise!) choose to sign up for long-term contracts.

And after all, the executive writes, those smart phones are expensive to provide, so they get higher ETFs. It’s a risky business, the mobile industry, and Verizon needs to protect itself. All that technology and all those customers just spooks them out.

The FCC wanted to know how Verizon told people about the $350-and-up ETF. Well, the morons could look on the web site, answers the Verizon exec. It’s right there in teeny-tiny type. In fact, we put the ETF on ads, telemarketing scripts, sales receipts and letters. We do everything but stick it on billboards on Interestate 80! What is wrong with you people?

The FCC then presses Verizon about the rationale for the high ETF, and the Verizon exec gets upset. Do you have any idea, she asks, what a canceled contract does to Verizon? It messes up all our plans! It turns off a guaranteed revenue stream! We have to provide all that mobile broadband service and that costs money! If a customer cancels a contract, it destroys our entire business model. We can’t eat! We can’t sleep! The entire world economy could collapse! Do you want that, FCC?

The FCC also wants to know the cost difference between what Verizon pays for mobile devices and what it charges customers, but Verizon is too cagey to answer that. They just repeat that the difference is twice as much for smart phones. And remember, the executive says, we have to buy ads and pay salespeople. Who’s gonna pay for that? The company? We got shareholders!

At this point, Verizon feels that the whole ETF issue has been pretty much hashed out and turns to the second problem.

Customers are mad because if someone accidentally presses an arrow key on their device (which has been preprogrammed by Verizon for internet access), the customer is charged $2 even if he cancels the connection immediately. And those buttons are kinda small, guys.

The Verizon exec utterly denies that the button takes users anywhere but the Verizon homepage. Those hordes of doofus customers must be recklessly navigating elsewhere on the web, the executive writes. And we’re happy to credit their account if they feel they’ve been unfairly charged.

All in all, I think Verizon is a little bitter about how complicated and expensive providing mobile broadband is. It’s so annoying having to buy the equipment and build a network and hire sales reps and pay for office coffemakers and all. I think Verizon is feeling a little unloved for all their hard work. Verizon is probably wondering why it didn’t go into something easier, like banking.

Poor Verizon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Very Cold Paws

I'm a little link-happy today. Here's a picture of a cute kitty in the snow that was posted Consumerist.com, one of my favorite sites. Cat pictures and crabby consumers. These are my people.

San Francisco Photo Story

Here is a remarkable collection of pictures of San Francisco from photographers that love the city. Most of them were familiar to me: the redwood grove in Golden Gate Park, the hills of Twin Peaks, the beaches, the bridges, the buildings.

Beautiful pictures like these remind me why we're here and the how much I take for granted every day. This is especially good on days where the sky is gloomy, the car horns are blaring and the price of monthly bus passes are raised (again!).

See San Francisco

Saturday, December 05, 2009

I Don't WANT to be Special!


I just wrote this note to BIC USA:

"I just bought a pack of Comfort 3 Pivot razors. They were pink, they had three blades, good enough for me. I didn't realize they would smell like berries. Is this really necessary? Has Bic lost its mind? What makes your company think that American women LIKE their razors to smell like berries? It's nausea-inducing, really. I couldn't wait to wash the smell off my hands. I'm a working mother and now on top of everything else I have to think about, now I have to make sure my razors don't smell?"

Now these razors will join the no-sodium chicken soup, the celery-and-green-pepper diced tomatos and the garlic crescent rolls as yet another stupid special version I've bought this week. I have to check any product's packaging three times before buying it, lest I end up with diet tomato sauce or lime-flavored tortilla chips. Gross!

Friday, December 04, 2009

That's It, No More Sports

I think Benny's been watching too much sports on TV.

At dinner tonight:

ME:
... So It sounds like that poor lady has a real problem ...

BENNY:
Got a problem? Ask your doctor about FLOMAX!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

2009 Review


This seems like an appropriate time to review the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of 2009. It was a tough year for everybody, but we're still here at the end, reasonably secure and healthy. Compared to the train wrecks of 2007 and 2008, we're doing great.




BOO HOO
- The sale of our house last year resulted in an angst-ridden month working with our tax accountant and a $3,000 tax bill.
- Four credit card companies imposed giant APR hikes on our balances, requiring four letters to “opt out” and close the cards.
- Ron's workload went beyond heavy and passed into frightening,
- Ron and I got a 5 percent pay cut. (However, my hours are not reduced, and that's very good.)
- We still can't get a car. This drives me crazy.
- We can't go to Michigan for Christmas.


CELEBRATE!
- BENNY GOT INTO LUCKY ELEMENTARY! YAY! Logistically, financially and yes,
educationally, this is the best thing that could happen to us..
- Benny leaves the Dinosaur preschool, eliminating a $1,500/month expense. (yeah, I know.)
- I celebrated our improved cash flow for buying new, shockingly expensive glasses.
- First family vacation in three years to Mt. Lassen
- Benny and I read all three books of "The Lord of the Rings."
- I finished a big fat book about the Franco-Prussian War.
- I started sending my science fiction novel to literary agents.
- I started a new novel: "The Fred Code."
- Benny no longer has to meet with the endocrinologist after two years of a good growth curve.
- Ron finished a corporate Wellness Plan and received $500, which he spent on new work clothes and an iPhone. He's crazy about his iPhone. After two weeks, it suddenly went dead and he couldn't figure out why. So I did some Googling and found the answer. So Ron can thank me and some weird online guy named Hoof Arted for fixing his iPhone.
- I bullied AT&T into giving me a new computer modem for free after the old one died in November. They wanted to charge me $80!

How was your year?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Nice NaNo Moment

Ron and I started today with a nice moment. We're stumbling around the apartment half-awake, and suddenly I have a question.

CHRISTINE
Hey Ron, do Protestant churches allow funerals for suicides?

RON
What?

CHRISTINE
Do Protestant churches allow funerals for suicides. The Catholic Church calls it a mortal sin.

RON
Uh. yes.

CHRISTINE
Good.

(short pause)

RON
... WHY!!!

CHRISTINE
For my mystery novel.

RON
Oh.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Happy Halloween!






Festivities began Friday morning with a school parade down the neighborhood business district. I camped outside a Tully's beforehand and shot some pictures as they passed.

Then I stepped out with Benny Saturday night for some Trick-or-Treating fun. We started with a party hosted by Dinosaur Preschool parents. Then some of us refreshed our wine glasses and hit the streets with our kids. This is a big night for San Francisco and I only regret I didn't take pictures of random pedestrians.

Benny dressed as a ninja and his friend Quinn was a dinosaur. By the end of the night, their pumpkin pails were so full the boys could hardly carry them. Benny refused to let me carry any of his candy. (Probably afraid I'd eat some -- he knows me so well.) I asked him where he would put candy now, since his pail was overflowing.

"I'll stuff the candy in my pockets," he said matter-of-factly. And he did.

National Novel Writing Month 2009

In a fit of insanity, I've decided to write a novel in a month again. I've joined National Novel Writing Month and have begun my first murder mystery. Think "Da Vinci Code" meets "Our Town."

The working title is "The Fred Code" and you can track my progress and read the novel here:

Here's the synopsis:

Local historian and general nutcase Fred Stark has been found dead in his beloved, lovingly restored 18th-century courthouse in the small town of Winslow, Michigan. The suicide note beside his body is packed with obscure historical references, prompting beleaguered police chief Skippy Bronson to call for expert help.

Enter Leda Morris, part-time history teacher, closet organizer and organizing freak. She never could stand Fred, who was her ex-fiance's uncle and a self-described "sixth-generation Winslowite." But the note is intriguing— and almost completely incomprehensible — and she finds herself researching the clues despite herself. Leda and her ex, Jeffrey Stark, attempt to sort out the bizarre riddles and follow a trail of clues hidden in “historic sites” throughout the town.

So welcome to Winslow, Mich., population 4,947, barely limping along economically since the Dodge air-conditioning vent factory closed in '92. Meet Winslow's secret, ruthless Society and learn about this small town's most valuable historic relic.

Wish me luck!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Take an Aspirin

Ron's causing trouble over at Bayer Corp.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vacation Pictures!

Yes, at last, the long-anticipated vacation pictures from our road trip to Mt. Lassen. Here we are:

Here are some shots of Burney Falls, just north of Mt. Lassen Volcanic Park. Then we have Ron and Benny by Emerald Lake, a glacial lake near Mt. Lassen. The next picture is Mt. Lassen. Ron and Benny are beside King's Creek. Benny and I are next to a glacial erratic (a boulder that was carried a long way by a glacier and has no relation to the rocks beneath). We end with a weird feature near the summit of Mt. Lassen called the Vulcan's Eye.











Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Science of Interviewing

You'd think this tough economy would knock the stuffing out of the more obviously psychotic job seekers. I'm reading about job candidates rejected for minor typos and taking 10 minutes to return a call. But apparently some nutcases are still landing job interviews, and a few are using the opportunity to conduct elegant psychology experiments on their prospective bosses.

One of my favorite blogs, Ask a Manager, has this job search tip from a reader. This person likes to call a half hour before a scheduled interview, say he's running late and asks to reschedule. (After reading the post, don't forget to check out the comments.)

Once the rescheduled interview begins, this veteran job candidate will narrowly observe the interviewer's response. The best managers, in his worldview, will immediately gush about his thoughtfulness in calling to reschedule when he realized he was running late. Subpar managers will simply ignore his thoughtfulness, or worse, actually have the nerve to be annoyed that he was late.

Ask a Manager treats this suggestion with the disdain it deserves, and at first glance, I also wondered if this guy also expects a standing ovation for breathing in and out. But perhaps I'm being churlish. This is a whole new job-hunting paradigm, my friends, and the old habits of punctuality may be hopelessly passe.

So I've developed my own set of experiments for the discerning job seeker:

CASE STUDY ONE
- Interview for a job that is strictly on-site and in-office located 3,000 miles from your home.
- Bring a laptop.
- Whenever the interview mentions a duty you must perform, flip open the laptop and cry "Why, I can do that at home! See, I have headline-writing software right here! Look, I'm instant-messaging you right now!"
- A good manager will be instantly impressed and offer a telecommuting job and extra benefits. Subpar managers will insist you actually edit articles in the newsroom.

CASE STUDY TWO
- Arrive 40 minutes early to interview.
- Demand to receptionist that you be seen immediately.
- Deduct points for every minute you must wait for the interviewer to appear.
- Deduct points if there are no interesting magazines in the reception area.
- Deduct points if the receptionist does not offer you a lemon diet Snapple.
- Good managers will arrive instantly and apologize profusely for keeping you waiting. Bad managers will make you wait or worse, be absent from the building entirely 40 minutes before a scheduled interview.

CASE STUDY THREE
- Submit resume and land an interview.
- Arrive on time and professionally dressed.
- As soon as the office door is closed, announce that the resume you submitted is a "decoy." You are only comfortable releasing professional information in person. Hand out a copy of your actual resume.
- Allow interviewer 15 minutes to read resume.
- Eat resume.
- A good manager will value your discretion and prudence in these dangerous times. A bad manager will show you the door and thereafter refer to you as "Secret Squirrel" among his or her colleagues.

This mindset reminds me of a hilarious sales columnist who used to run in the Business Times. His mantra was "Don't sell, make them want to buy!" One of his cold-calling tips was to hang up halfway through leaving a voicemail message to whet their appetite. (Presumably he did this after saying his name and number.)

It's a brave new world. Feel free to suggest your own experiments.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Benny's First Day




Monday was Benny's first day of kindergarten — yay! We hopped on the No. 6 Muni bus and took a 10-minute ride to his Lucky School. He was very cool about the whole thing. All the kids were, really — the only ones crying that morning were the mothers. As you can see there's quite a difference between his freshly scrubbed, buttoned-up look before school and his wacky after-school chipmunk impersonation with his shirtails hanging out. The last picture is Benny telling his Aunt Cindy all about his day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moving On






Benny's Dinosaur School held its "Moving On Picnic" on Sunday. Benny has officially "graduated" from preschool and kindergarten is only two weeks away. Each outgoing child received a crown, a certificate, a big sunflower and a plate that he/she designed. It was a great event, mostly because it was so low-key. My hair stylist's niece's preschool had a big cap-and-gown event with printed portraits that looked better than my high school senior pictures. (Actually, I liked my cap-and-gown portrait; the mortarboard covered my big hair.)

Anyway, it's a big transition, and Benny's not the only one leaving a big emotional security blanket behind. I don't know how I'll get through life without chatting with his teachers nearly every day, not just about Benny, but about work and traveling and why parking just a tiny bit on the sidewalk warrants a $100 parking ticket.

I truly don't understand city life at times. On Sunday I boarded a bus with a new magazine and I found a seat near the back in the nearly empty bus. Then I started doing what I always do when I open a new women's magazine, tear out the 4 zillion two-sided advertisements. This reduces the size of an average magazine in half and there's something satisfying about thwarting the advertisers this way. (And I wonder why the media industry is struggling.)

Anyway, this lady a few rows up turns around and starts glaring at me. Repeatedly. I just couldn't believe it. I mean, just in the few weeks I've dealt with fellow Muni passengers scribbling on windows, sticking their legs across the aisle and holding loud conversations with friends sitting in another part of the bus. I've seen drunk people, homeless people, crazy people, people with no shirts, people with no pants (just some strange skirt-thing, do I really need to elaborate?) ... and this lady is offended by me?

So I did what any self-respecting Muni passenger would do. I ripped each page even more loudly. Sometimes twice. So there.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

AnnArbor.com: Managing Expectations




(Image of gluten-free acorn muffins from the Book of Yum.)

So what if I came to you one morning and said:

“I’ve got a great homemade muffin for you. I’m not going to tell you what’s in it or how big it is or whether it comes in a little paper muffin cup, but you’re gonna love it. Just love it. It’s like no muffin you’ve seen before. We’re throwing out the book on muffins. The old muffin paradigm is dead. What’s more, this muffin is going to be about you, you and the ingredients you care about, you and the ingredients your entire community cares about. Everyone, just everyone, will love this muffin.”

Well. I imagine your first response would be “Who are you and what have you done with Christine?” because I never talk that much in the morning, not until I’ve had two Snapples and three cereal bars.

But besides that, you’ll be drooling, right? You can’t wait. On the Morning of the Muffin, you skip breakfast and show up with your special Muffin plate, ready to be amazed. The result, of course, is predictable. The Muffin will never be as good as the glittering Muffin of Your Mind. You stalk off, disgusted, and eat a 6-month-old granola bar out of your desk.

AnnArbor.com has a Muffin problem. Touted as a “local news service and social networking site,” it replaces the daily Ann Arbor News, which closed in July. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I’m familiar with the Ann Arbor News. My husband was involved in launching business weeklies with this bunch and we know many of the players. So we’ve taken a lively interest in AnnArbor.com from out here in California.

Bless their hearts, they haven’t changed a bit. They still think you can generate excitement through breathless announcements: “We are pleased/proud/thrilled/practically hysterical to announce our fresh/revolutionary/molecule-changing way to present news/dialogue/rambling blog posts ...”

Look at us, they say. We promote ourselves relentlessly in the name of “transparency,” posting long, laudatory biographies of the lucky Ann Arbor News alumni we decided to hire at (presumably) fire-sale prices. We bury the city in an explosion of paper flyers. We draw kicky graphics on sidewalks. We are nothing you’ve ever seen before!

Maybe you can generate excitement that way if you’re the Cartoon Network. (Remember their little ad gizmos in Boston that looked like bombs on bridges?) But you can’t with something as vital as local news which depends on credibility above all else. It’s like going on a first date and raving the whole time how great you are. Actually, it’s like calling your date every day beforehand and raving about how great the evening will be. If your date has any judgment, he or she will run like blazes.

So there you go. AnnArbor.com hyped itself up to the nines leading up to its July 20 launch date. Then postponed the launch date. Then it launched July 24 and the whining began. Admittedly much of the whining was from the readers, who couldn’t give the site a full 20-minute read before blasting it about layout and comment moderation. But there were some serious concerns, prompting much whiny self-defensiveness from AnnArbor.com staffers.

Oh, you thought that was a real launch? AnnArbor.com asked. No, no, it’s just a beta launch. Wait a few weeks, let the reporters really know their beats, then you’ll really see something. Then the site went down.

I could list AnnArbor.com’s journalistic weaknesses all day (hey, why don’t you shorten the headlines and actually edit these stories?) but what’s the point. AnnArbor.com is trying to create something brand-new with the same tired old crowd they had before and that can’t be easy. They have to appeal to a readership still reeling from the loss of their daily newspaper and they had only four months to put the whole thing together. So why not admit it from the beginning?

So what if I came to you one morning and said:

“I’ve got a homemade muffin for you. It’s just a practice muffin before I make the good ones for Benny’s preschool. It’s a pumpkin-and-chocolate-chip muffin, but there aren’t many chocolate chips because I ate half the bag while mixing the other ingredients. My oven doesn’t heat evenly, so the muffin’s kind of lopsided as if it was trying to escape its pan. Oh, and I burned it a little too.”

With all those caveats in mind you might like the muffin. You might have some suggestions for a better muffin. You sure as hell will trust me to give you the straight dope about my baking prowess.

I wish we could say the same for AnnArbor.com.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Don't Skip Breakfast


So this wasn't the greatest morning I ever had. I woke up late, which meant I couldn't work out or eat breakfast if I wanted to get to work on time. And what happened then?

Well, I had trouble with my contacts, trouble with my hair dryer, trouble with my peanut butter sandwich, trouble with my earrings and as a a final note, trouble with the !@#$% computer when I tried to load my iPod. As you may already guess, it was a computer that finally sent me into a string of expletives.

Which got me in trouble with Ron, since Benny was right there.

So there I am at the bus stop, steaming. A fine drizzle falls on my badly blow-dried hair. I blame my contacts, my sandwich, my new earrings and the !@#$% computer. But then I identify the real culprit: I skipped breakfast.

When oh when will I realize that a bowl of cereal or two waffles improves the quality of life for myself and anyone around me? Why does it take my poor husband dragging me away from a computer at 8 a.m. to remind me that being hungry and hurried is Bad Bad Bad?

It took three cereal bars and two Snapples consumed at my desk to put me in the proper frame of mind to edit stories and answer emails. By 10 a.m. I was able to field a phone call about our upcoming Most Pompous Executives publication (not its real name, but should be) with some poise. This lady calls every two days for information about Most Pompous Executives, and my repeated answers that I know zero details, my editor knows zero details and our publisher has made no decision about the breadth and scope of Most Pompous Executives fails to satisfy her. She's convinced that we're hiding vital Most Pompous Executive nomination guidelines from her. This lady works for an accounting firm, which is apparently lousy with pompous executives eager to be honored. Sigh.

Anyway, the moral of today's post is Eat Breakfast, especially if you expect a phone call from a rabid CPA marketer.. Maybe an All Powerful Cereal Bowl of Light (above) would help.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Arrival Day 2009


Today is July 22. That's a big day for our family, and not just because it shares a month with Independence Day, Bastille Day and the Moon Landing. July 22 is the day this blog stopped being Lost in BabySpace and became California Dreamin'. Because this was the day that myself, Ron, Benny and Callisto the cat arrived in San Francisco.

July 22, 2007 began at 1 a.m. when I finally lay down on an air mattress in our Michigan house to catch a few hours' sleep before our flight to San Francisco. I tried to relax and think about California but the picture was dim and undeveloped. "Who gives up jobs, cars and Mackinaw Island fudge to live in a tiny apartment?" I asked myself. "Who wants to wait at bus stops, wheel granny carts to the grocery, feed quarters into washing machines?"

Well, we did. The next eight months passed in a haze of stress: a mad dash to our airplane flight; tense negotiations for a transfer to an acceptable apartment; a frenzied search for a preschool; my return to full-time work; severe financial problems; no heat over Christmas; and an insane work project called "Real Estate Deals of the Year." The culmination was the months-long process to sell our Michigan house, which we finally managed in March 2008.

But there were many large and small victories. We found a great preschool for Benny and paid shocking amounts of money to keep him there for two years. Ron won a national award for a feature he wrote during that crazy August 2007. I edited some big projects that came off well. We paid our fiendishly complicated California and Michigan taxes. We also guided Benny through important milestones such as toilet training, advanced Lego building and the ability to eat something other than pancakes, corn and Mac&Cheese.

I'd like to thank all the little people who made it possible -- Kathy, our beleaguered realtor, who never did get a commission on the house. And who can forget Ralf, our chronically depressed mover, whose unexpected delay in Kansas allowed us to transfer to another apartment before our stuff arrived. Or my friend Angelic Coworker, who arranged for a $1,000 freelance paycheck before I'd written a word of the story .

Happy Arrival Day!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moon Landing Anniversary





Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing of Apollo 11. Ron, Benny and I headed over to Nasa Ames near Mountain View, Calif., to celebrate on Sunday. I don't think NASA expected such a big crowd; the traffic was backed up to the highway. We parked in an enormous parking lot next to the airplane runways.

We watched model rockets being launched and I took pictures. The first three pictures are of a black-and-white model of the Saturn rocket that carried Apollo 11 to the moon. The last rocket picture is of a yellow model rocket painted like a crayon. Ron put Benny on his shoulders to watch.

We had a great time, but it was ungodly hot. The march from the rocket launch to the parade grounds was like walking on the surface of the sun. We never made it to the displays and activities; instead we collapsed under a tree and ate lunch (see picture). Then I dragged a reluctant Ron across the complex to the gift shop and indoor display center. The center's exhibits included 3-D pictures of Mars and a videotape of the moon landings, plus a moon rock brought back by Apollo 15.

Ron was able to attend a NASA event on Monday morning and got to ask a question of Buzz Aldrin and the other astronauts. (He asked about public-private partnerships to fund space exploration.) Benny's spent the last two days playing with the moon landing Toys his Uncle Greg sent from Florida and building a Saturn model out of Legos. This morning he stranded his little astronaut outside Jupiter with no more oxygen. "He held his breath all the way to Earth," Benny told me.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Random Thoughts


For those of you who'd like to know what I think about all day:

-- It was tough to pick out something to wear to work today. I think science fiction characters are kind of lucky; they can just wear jumpsuits. Of course, jumpsuits only work if you have a good body. That's why middle-aged guest stars in science fiction shows/movies always wear flowing robes.

-- One of Ron's magazines is requesting suggestions for another awful fee from airlines. I suggest: "In the case of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop from the ceiling above you. If you would like the mask to actually dispense oxygen, please pay a $20 surcharge at the check-in counter. Be sure to pay your own oxygen surcharge before paying others'."

-- Saturday night I had a filet mignon pot pie at a pub with the great name The Monk's Kettle. The pot pie was great, but it still seemed a real waste of filet mignon.

-- This weekend I was riding the bus and saw a young guy scribble on the window with a yellow marker. The writing was unintelligible (Elf runes? Sanskrit?), but he felt the need to underline important points. As I exited the bus, I told the driver "The kid sitting in the back in the plaid shirt just scribbled on the window." The driver looked at me in utter bewilderment. Oh well, I did my bit as a concerned citizen.

-- I'm still reading Benny "The Lord of the Rings." He thinks Gollum is a riot. I drew him a little map so he could keep all the places straight. He wants to know if Saruman could beat Elrond or if Galadriel could take the Balrog. Thoughts?

-- I think I've figured out why I keep getting carded for alcohol in San Francisco. There are a lot of strung-out 21-year-old women around here who look like a 40-year-old sometime drinker. A friend of mine says it's because the city's servers are required to card anyone who looks under 40. I like my theory better.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paycheck Liberation Day

Today is a day I've been dreaming of for nearly two years, since September 2007 when I wrote my first astonishingly large check to Benny's Dinosaur Preschool.

I am forever grateful to this amazing school. Those teachers have pretty much raised Benny during the week after I returned to newspaper work. This year it received 80 applications for a handful of spots for the 2009-2010 year. But it wasn't cheap. For two years, my first paycheck of each month has been the Dinosaur School paycheck. This year, the amount of that paycheck and the amount of monthly tuition has been eerily similar.

Until today.

Today I received my June 30 paycheck and clutched it to my chest, resisting the impulse to shout "Mine! All mine!" For last month's tuition payment was our last. Our security deposit will pay the July tuition and this August Benny starts attending public school.

I never thought we'd make it. Now I know how parents feel after they put a kid through college. (What I've paid the Dinosaur School would finance two years at a pretty nice college.) I spent $250 we really didn't have on a personalized tile for the school's new mural. The tile will include our names and the dates Benny attended. I wish we could put the total dollar amount there too.

So what will we do with the extra money? My plans are pretty dull. First we'll go on a short vacation in August to Mt. Lassen Volcanic Park. Then I'll buy Benny back to school stuff and go on a (controlled, I hope) spending spree. Then we'll plump up our savings. We also plan to move to a larger apartment next year.

Yay!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Clueless Business Timeline 2008

Sometimes families have a lot going on and don't notice the biggest economic events. We were no exception. I gathered a timeline of major financial events in 2007-2009 and added what my family was doing at the same time. My conclusion: yes, we really were that clueless.


2008
...

Jan. 11
Bank of America agrees to acquire Countrywide Financial.
-- Christine begins negotiating with her mortgage lender to sell the house in Michigan.


March 16
JPMorgan Chase agrees to acquire Bear Stearns at firesale price.
-- A week later, Ron and Christine sell their house. Hooray!


July 11
Mortgage lender IndyMac Bank becomes the third-largest bank failure in U.S. history.
-- Ron, Christine and Benny live the small life. “We've downsized our lives so drastically in the last year that I still have relatives convinced we sleep on straw mats and eat off a blanket on the floor. At the moment we have a small apartment and that's it. No deck. No car. No playroom.”


September
Lehman Brothers files bankruptcy; Bank of America agrees to acquire Merrill Lynch. Government takes control of insurer AIG. WaMu files for bankruptcy.
-- Ron and Christine hardly notice; we’re booking school tours for the Great Kindergarten Search.


Sept. 17
The government seizes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
-- Christine reads the Greek tragedy "Agamemnon" to boost her spirits.


Oct. 6
Dow closes below 10,000 for the first time since 2004.
-- -- Christine attends her newspaper’s Infrastructure Business Forum, still coping with the trauma from producing an infrastructure special section.


Oct. 9
AIG bailout #2.
-- Ron and Christine tour San Francisco elementary schools until they want to puke, until the very phrase “test scores” causes a PTSD reaction that involves excessive drooling and a fear of chalk. Who cares about AIG?


Nov. 10
AIG bailout #3.
--We buy Benny a snazzy TIE fighter toy and a little Imperial Engineer. Benny immediately sets the Engineer to chasing zebras on the African plains (seems a bit unsporting).


December
Automakers receive government aid.
-- We arrive in Detroit for the holidays. Merry Christmas!

2009
...

March
Dow Closes below 7,000 for the first time since May 1, 1997.
-- Benny is assigned to Lucky Elementary School in San Francisco. What stock market collapse? It’s a great day!.


March 30
Rick Wagoner resigns from his role as GM CEO.
-- Benny and Christine wander about Cole Valley to celebrate Cesar Chavez Day. Now Wagoner has time to celebrate too.


April 3
Unemployment report shows 8.5% of Americans out of work.
-- A San Francisco mother posts on Christine's mother's group looking for a desk job with no commute, no deadlines, no demands, nobody actually depending on her ... one that she can do only when she feels like it, and presumably requires no capitalization. Good luck with that!


Hmm, perhaps we’re not the only ones who were a little clueless in this economy.

My Clueless Business Timeline 2007

In the frantic pace of everyday life, it’s easy to miss business events on a national or even global scale. Even a huge bankruptcy or plunge in the Dow can’t compete with unpacking moving boxes, rushing for the 43 bus or touring elementary schools.

Ron and I moved to San Francisco in July 2007, and even two business journalists like us failed to notice that this financial, professional and personal leap of faith was executed against a backdrop of economic collapse. Looking back, our sense of optimism was stunning, and surely had no basis in fact. We did notice the mortgage crisis – um, our house wasn’t selling – but there was still plenty of work in San Francisco, retail stores were packed with shoppers and San Francisco office space was reaching $100 per square foot (seems incredible now). We fretted about friends and family in Michigan —a state which never did get the full benefits of the most recent boom and was visibly sagging – but considered ourselves well out of it.

Like everyone else, we were simply too busy. Daily life requires some tunnel vision: you can’t remember to pack lunches and pay bills if you’re fretting over hedge funds at Bear Stearns or executive bonuses at AIG. I was too busy dealing with our own red ink to worry about Chrysler’s. I was tracking kindergarten tours in October 2008, not the Dow, which plunged below 10,000 that month.

Were we really that clueless? I didn’t want to believe that, so I gathered a timeline of major financial events in 2007-2009 and added what my family was doing at the same time. My conclusion: yes, we really were that clueless.


2007
...

June
Bloomberg News reports on the linkage between increased foreclosures and localized housing price declines.
-- Benny’s wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains go on recall. Ron leaves for San Francisco.


June 14
Bear Sterns spends $3.2 billion to bail out two ailing hedge funds that invested heavily in subprime assets.
-- Two weeks of single motherhood in Michigan — filled with packing, potty training and house showing — and Christine’s ready for a padded cell.


July
The Boston hedge fund that manages money for Harvard University’s endowment and the Massachusetts state pension fund loses half its value.
-- Ron, Christine and Benny arrive in San Francisco to start a new life there.


Oct. 17
U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson calls the bursting housing bubble "the most significant risk to our economy."
-- Christine moans about her long to-do list. “I don't have a California driver's license. I can’t remember my new phone number. Benny's preschool needed a form filled out by a pediatrician, which required finding a pediatrician, making an appointment, finding the office, etc. Now I've finally got the damn form, but I keep forgetting to bring it to the school.”


December
The recession begins, although we don’t know it yet.

TO BE CONTINUED

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Franco-Prussian War: Revenge of the Paper-Pushers

“The Franco-Prussian War” by Michael Howard

I’ll confess that when I opened this book, I knew very little about the Franco-Prussian War. I didn’t even know who won until I read the front flap. (“Darn, now I know the ending!”

The author, Michael Howard, would be appalled by this, of course. He wrote this book for serious history students who know all the players, read French and German fluently (1), and can find Staarbrucker on a map.

But despite the language barriers, the Franco-Prussian War fills a vital gap in history for me. I’ve spent some time with Napoleon I and Clausewitz and the Civil War generals, but then it’s a long dark night until Franz Ferdinand gets shot in Sarajevo in 1914.

So it’s time for the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871, between a barely united north Germany under Prince William and France under Napoleon III.

SPOILER ALERT: The Germans win.

In the 40 years following the Napoleonic Wars, Howard says, big armies supported by mobilized nations went right out of style. European governments were back to running little armies as a side hobby. The emerging middle class was more interested in making money than going to war.

“Everywhere armies languished in unpopular and impoverished isolation,’ Howard said.

Well, isn't that so sad. Poor, peaceful Europe.

That changed when Prince William took the Prussian throne in 1858. In a few short years he and his buddy Roon remodeled the army, created a North German Confederation and won some victories. The French also reformed their own military somewhat, creating a bigger army, but they didn’t account for the changes science and industry had made to war.

The Germans did. They realized that army commanders needed a good general staff now so they could split up their big armies and move them around. “The Prussian general staff acted as a nervous system animating the lumbering body of the army,” Howard said.

The French, on the other hand, “huddled together in masses without the technical ability to disperse.” They had a good breech-loading system, but terrible artillery. (2)

In effect, the Franco-Prussian conflict was the first Paper-Pushing War. Its outcome would depend on organization, not skill in leadership or courage in battle. Armies had to be in the right place, on time and in adequate strength. That certainly didn’t bode well for the French.

But in 1870, France felt fairly good about their reforms. They had nearly 500,000 soldiers available and could scrape up 300,000 more. They had tons of supplies.

“By the standards of its last campaigns, the French Army was ready,” said Howard. “It was the tragedy of the French Army, and of the French nation, that they did not realize in time that military organization had entered into an entirely new age.”

____________________________________________________

(1) The book's footnotes are filled with long quotes in French or German that probably begin “Ha ha, you monolingual Americans have no clue what’s going on here! Ha ha!” Not that I’m paranoid.

(2) Howard makes a little side joke about the artillery in French here. Apparently France’s minister of war just filed away reports about some great steel guns with the comment “Rien a fair.” I think that means “Nothing to do.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Happy Memorial Day!



We attended the Memorial Day Ceremony at San Francisco Presidio. The military cemetery there is the oldest national cemetery in the West, beginning with soldiers from the Mexican War.

There was a short parade before the ceremony and we followed National Parks servicepeople mounted on horses to the cemetery. There we heard tributes to veterans and a 21 howitzer cannon salute as well as songs and hymns — including "Taps" and "Amazing Grace" performed by the 191st Army Band. Best of all, a talented speaker delivered the Gettysburg Address from memory.

Then we had a picnic on the Presido grounds near a cannon brought over from the Phillippines. A great Memorial Day.

Please God, Don't Let Him be a Golfer


Here's Benny at the Lucky Elementary School's annual festival. It was a marvelous event -- Californian people do everything with such style with a foodie flair. Benny threw bean bags, jumped in a jumpy house, ate hot dogs and popcorn, picked a lollipop tree and peeked into a kindergarten classroom. And, of course, got in a short round of mini golf.

Hiking California: The Miwok Trail


This is a nice little trail in the Marin headlands. After a brief spell in the woods, it winds around the hills just above the bay. It was an insanely hot, sunny day, so we couldn't hike it for very long.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Best Use for Credit Cards


I'm not usually a "make a kicky mosaic out of recycled materials" kind of person, but I'm totally making this picture frame after Ron and I pay off the credit cards.

By the way, when I clicked on the link for CraftStylish's instructions on making the picture frame, a big banner ad appeared. It said "Chase Bank: We're Here for You."

Yeah, Chase, you'll be here in my picture frame. Take that!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Military History Seminar: Fun with Chainmail Hoodies



The military history seminar is back! In fact, I've gathered my military history posts and formed a new blog called Pick Your Battles. It has a few new features and a picture of Benny and I at a Civil War battlefield. Check it out, if you like that sort of thing.

This will be my first military history review in a year and a half. I've been doing this since 2005 and read six books in Ohio State University's reading list. At this rate, in 40 years I'll be sitting in whatever nursing home Benny can afford, reading No. 32, "War and Imperialism in Republican Rome" by William Harris.


"The Face of Battle" by John Keegan.


This book is one of my favorites on this list and not just because it's one of the shortest at 342 pages. It's a nice little paperback with a cheery picture of the skull of a Swedish soldier at the Battle of Visby in 1561.

The publishers obviously chose the skull for its dashing, cocky air (complete with chainmail hoodie) since the book doesn't discuss the Battle of Visby. (That's a good thing, too, because I looked it up, and I'm not in the mood to hear about Danish troops battling peasant farmers. Guess who won.)

Instead, "The Face of Battle" analyzes three battles: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and The Somme in 1916. All great battles and surely worth 342 pages and a grinning skull for that alone, but Keegan writes so creatively and eloquently that I'm ready to look up his stuff on the Battle of Visby. He begins with one of my favorite history book openers (edited for length):

"I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath. I have questioned people who have been in battle ... have walked over battlefields ... have often turned up small relics of the fighting. I have read about battles, of course, have talked about battles ... but I have never been in a battle. And I grow increasingly convinced that I have very little idea of what a battle can be like."

This resonates with me, because I also have never been in battle (just some really mean editorial meetings). And it prompts me to consider why a 40-year-old wife and mother feels compelled to study military history. I have no military background, no ties except a brother in the Army. My paternal grandfather landed on the Normandy beaches as a combat photographer, my maternal grandfather and my father collected military history books. So there's some family precedent for this interest in battle.

Keegan says that some people read military history with the subjunctive question "How would I behave in battle?" I personally don't need a 100-book reading list to answer that question. I know exactly how I would behave in battle. It's like reading an airline pamphlet while flying over the Atlantic, the type of pamphlet titled "Your Role in a Water Landing." As author Jean Kerr wrote: "I know my role in a water landing. I'm going to splash around and sob."

So you see, I have no illusions here. At Agincourt, I'd be in the baggage park. At Waterloo, I'd be napping with the English 4th Regiment. (Where I wouldn't be at Waterloo is near Wellington, who apparently liked to be where the fighting was hottest.) At the Somme, I'd be the one wearing his gas mask in pouring rain. ("You never know!")

It's clear, then, that I don't read military history to learn about myself. I've done enough self-introspection and the results are rarely pleasant. Why then?

Well, reading military history helps me understand the world and how it came to be this way. Identifying patterns of human behavior is interesting. Most of all, I study the conflict and suffering of the past so it is not forgotten. My father and grandfather passed this interest on to me. Perhaps, by example, I will pass it on to Benny and the soldiers at Agincourt in 1415 live on nearly 600 years later.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hiking California: Corte Madera Ecological Reserve Trail

I suppose there's a reason why the authors of "Best Hikes for Children: San Francisco Bay Area" wanted my family to trudge along an exhaust-filled, traffic-choked roadway, but damned if I can figure it out. I'm looking forward to hiking the 90 trails in this book, but I hope the rest aren't like this one.

We had actually planned to hike No. 85, the Redwood Grove Trail Loop in Muir Woods on Sunday, but Sunday was Mother's Day, which meant I got to sleep in, which meant we didn't get over Golden Gate Bridge until 11 a.m. Apparently half of northern California also wanted to hike Muir Woods on Mother's Day, because the closest parking spot was a half-mile away along a winding road with narrow shoulders. Not the hiking ideal.

So we at a picnic lunch in the car and then found a nice little trail that wound around the hills and revealed great views of Sausalito and the Bay, But the hot sun was beating down on us, so we decided to try something with a little more shade — say, No. 86, the Corte Madera Ecological Reserve Trail, just a short drive away.

I should've guessed this wouldn't be a happy stroll through Marin County flora and fauna when I saw that this particular hike began at the parking lot of Larkspur's ferry terminal. "Head east on the path toward Remaillard Park," I read out loud to Ron as we stood in the nearly deserted lot.

"What, along the road?" Ron asked, pointing to the traffic whizzing by at 50 mph. That made no sense, so we piled back into the car and drove to Remaillard Park instead, where the book promised a duck pond restored by the Marin Audobon Society.

I suppose it's a very nifty pond for ducks and turtles and frogs, but we could see very little through the reeds as we circled the pond on a dirt path. Ron hoisted Benny on his shoulders so he could see the three lonely ducks huddled near a log.

"The book says we can go back to the terminal parking lot and walk to the ecological reserve," I said hopefully.

"What's there?" Ron asked.

Good question. The book said to climb stairs to an overpass, follow another busy road and turn left under the freeway. Included in the hike's description was a picture with the cheery caption: "The freeway is only a stone's throw from this catwalk."

I shut the book and tucked it into my backpack. "Never mind," I said. "Let's go home and eat cookies."

Prudent practices

So the American Bankers Association is getting all nervous now that the Senate has the credit card reform act. They've sent a letter to the Senate detailing how a financial apocolypse will scour the land if they can't switch due dates and hike APRs for no reason. They've been playing a fun game of "gotcha" with consumers, those credit card companies, and made tons of money off responsible people in the process.

Here's an excerpt of the letter also posted on consumerist.com:
__________________

ABA recognizes that the Senate bill contains a number of important consumer protections embodied in recent regulatory action, and acknowledges that change is forthcoming in the way the credit card industry and its customers interact. However, we strongly believe that any legislation in this area needs to achieve the correct balance of consumer protections and market flexibility so as to not jeopardize access to credit.

ABA remains very concerned about the contents of H.R. 627 (as amended), and believes that if it is enacted as it currently stands, it will have a dramatic impact on the ability of consumers, small businesses, students, and others to get credit at a time when our economy can least afford such constraints.

The bill contains various provisions that limit a lender's ability to manage risk, price fees, allocate payments, and otherwise prudently conduct business. We believe these limits will necessitate reductions in available credit given current economic conditions, while increasing the price of credit where it remains available.
______________________

Prudent? Prudent? The lenders dare to use the word prudent? They have been anything but prudent in their behavior. It's like the Wild West out there in the financial sector. They are the ones who so prudently gave tons of credit to every meatball with a pulse. They are the ones who are jacking up every APR in sight for good customers in the name of prudent business practices. Switched due dates, double billing cycles, these are not prudent business practices.

Rail all you like about imprudent consumers who run up credit card debt, the reality is these people have this debt now and many have stopped spending and are trying to pay it down. Will it really benefit the economy to smack these consumers around some more? These are the same lenders who needed a godawful amount of time to to adjust to new rules effective next year and instead used this time to shove through every nasty business practice they could think of before the deadline. They certainly moved quickly on that.

And as for the reductions in available credit they go on about, that's a GOOD thing. There's still way too much credit out there, that was the problem. I feel for small businesses who depend on credit to keep going, but since when did the economy require underhanded tactics by credit card companies to prop up healthy small businesses?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Opting Out of Life


I’ve got a new part-time job these days — opting out.

I opt out of daily emails, I opt out of telephone listings, I opt out of ad-targeting and personal-info sharing. It seems like every week somebody is presenting me with something nobody in their right mind would want (piles of junk mail, anyone?) and giving me the option to opt out.

Unfortunately for me, the procedure to opt out is rarely optimal. In fact, I would suspect that these companies design these processes so the maximum number of people never reach the Holy Grail of Opt-Outedness. They probably have studies and everything.

1) Put opt-out option in tiny type in the back of a pamphlet or in a letter that looks like an ad for DHL.
2) Couch the opt-out option in convoluted language.
3) Direct customers to overloaded 1-800 number, include an address to write to (but no form or envelope) or require a tortuous trip through the company’s web site.
4) If by some miracle a customer does reach a customer service rep or actually mail off a letter, ignore them.

Not that I’m bitter, but I just spent a good hour last weekend writing letters to four credit card companies so I can “opt out” of their giant APR hikes. I know some opt outs are actually a good thing; if I no longer want to receive Cute Kitten of the Day emails, I can opt out. This is okay. This is a mutually beneficial relationship with escape hatches on both sides.

But in most instances, offering opt-outs is not an act of respect, consideration or cooperation. It’s a power move, a bullying tactic. Somebody wants to do something to you, such as sell your information or raise your APR. Because of legal or PR concerns, they have to give you the option of opting out. So they craft it in a way so the opting out is easy to miss, forcing you to be hyper-vigilant about every communication you get from them. They are betting you are too busy/tired/stressed or all three to meet their opting-out requirements. This is not operating in good faith.

I can only imagine what would happen if I tried such tactics in my own relationships. I suppose I could leave a message like this on Ron’s cell phone:

“Hi dear, I’m planning to serve raw meat and unwashed vegetables for dinner tonight. If you’d like a cooked dinner, please call 1-800-HUNGRYS before 3 P.M. today. Please have your 20-digit meal account number handy.”

Given Ron's frantically busy schedule, there’s only a 50 percent chance he’d have the time to call to request a cooked dinner. But if he balks at eating hard broccoli and raw hamburger, I can say, “You had the chance to opt out!”

Or maybe I could send my editor an email like this:

__________________________

Date: April 20 at 5:33 P.M.
Subject: Trivial email-not worth your time

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am scheduled to complete the 40-page, exhaustively researched project “The Bay Area’s Most Exciting Business Plans” by May 29. Upon consideration I feel the best professional action I could take at this time would be to refrain from any type of planning, researching, assigning or editing of the subsequent project and pursue other courses of action, namely, the writing of long, whiny blog posts. If you would prefer that I thoroughly and competently complete the project, including the marathon sessions with FileMaker Pro software, please write me at 1234 Befuddle St., San Francisco, CA, to be received by April 21 at 6:33 A.M.
__________________________

My supervisor only gets about 200,000 emails a day. If he dares complain when I blow the May 29 deadline, I can say triumphantly, “You had a chance to opt out of a uncompleted project! Let’s put pictures of cute kittens on the blank pages! I have a bunch in my email inbox!”

Sounds great.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hiking California: Huckleberry Path Nature Trail



In the manner of all good used bookstores, The Overland in the Sunset knows what I need better than I do. Last week I entered the store to find a good mystery and walked out with a $5 copy of "Best Hikes for Children: San Francisco Bay Area." It lists 90 interesting hikes ranging from easy (strolling among the ferns near Fish Ranch Road) to the difficult (climbing ladders on Steep Ravine Trail in the North Bay).

We, of course, went for the former. The Huckleberry Path Nature Trail is a short hop from the City into the East Bay. Its a botanical regional preserve, and its heavy moisture and fog supports lots of big ferns. As we started the winding path down the canyon, I felt like I was walking back in time to the Jurassic. Ron and I were wondering how Benny would handle his first 2-mile hike, but he did great, tripping along the path, occasionally stopping to unfold his map. We don't have a car, so he needs tough little legs to get around San Francisco's hills. On the trail, he was surprisingly surefooted, keeping up a steady stream of chatter for more than an hour. ("I think hyenas are bigger than whales and the biggest number is infinity and I don't like red grapes, I like green grapes. ...")

This trail has some unusual plants because the soil doesn't hold water well. The shale and chert rock formation underneath was originally laid down on the ocean floor and later pushed up. Little numbered signposts pointed out the difference between the sword ferns (dark leaves, needs cool, shady moist spots) and wood ferns (light and feathery and tolerates more dryness). Benny looked out for the next number and I would read the little geeky description. Pictured above is No. 15, a Pallid Manzanita, which is now almost wholly confined to the preserve.

One down, 89 more trails to go. We're looking forward to hiking more trails in this book, now that springtime is here, hopefully moving from easy to difficult as Benny grows bigger.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Happy César Chávez Day!




Here are some photos of Benny out on the town on César Chávez Day — a school holiday. Holidays like this make me a little crazy, not just because I must take the day off and lose income, but because I think children would be better served by spending the day at school learning about César Chávez.*

Benny and I elected to celebrate by visiting his soon-to-be elementary school. There were no children there (see above), but we got to check out the student garden and play in the park nearby. Then we had lunch outside in the sun. I'm proud of how Benny has adapted to city life — he stops and takes my hand at every curb and identifies every bus. Some wild-eyed man came lurching by while we ate lunch, shouting about bicycles, and Benny didn't turn a hair, just sipped his lemonade.

* César Chávez, born March 31, 1927, was a Mexican-American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. (Thank you, Wikepedia!)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Somebody's being a little unreasonable

So I checked my online mother's group this morning for the first time in months and read this post:

Hi,

i am trying to figure out what options i have if i would like to start working part-time and am very curious to hear from moms who are doing the same, esp. if you are working from home, and started doing so AFTER you had your baby.

ideally, i would like a job that is VERY flexible, something i can do as i find time for it. i will still be taking care of my son full-time, at least for now...so the times i can work will most often be in the evenings after he goes to bed, with additional daytime hours during some weekends. it would be best if i can do the work at home, since otherwise, i may need to find a sitter...(my husband works long and unpredictable residency hours so it's difficult to depend on him) and jobs where someone else would depend on me/or ones with deadlines would be a bad fit, since my son will still be my first priority - and you know how that goes!

it would be great to find an option to help us bring home more income!!

all suggestions/input are welcome! thanks in advance!

best, Deena


Deena isn't asking for much here, is she? Just a job with no commute, no deadlines, no demands, nobody actually depending on her ... one that she can do only when she feels like it, and presumably requires no capitalization. She sounds like a great employee! Let's hire her!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

We did it!

Well, our long educational nightmare is over. Seven months, 20 school tours, 40 lost work hours, a dozen hissy fits and two parking tickets later, we have an elementary school for Benny. We have reached our Shangri-La.

The assignment process at the San Francisco Unified School District, is, of course, horrific. You spend your autumn touring every blinkin' public school in the stupid city and choose seven, which you rank in order of preference. The district's massive computer then processes everyone's requests according to some arcane criteria and spits out each child's assignment. The key is to find elementary schools that are good, yet not so terrifically popular that you have little chance of getting in. They call such schools "hidden gems," and sometimes those gems are hidden under layers of seedy neglect. (How about a little more school funding, Governor Terminator?).

This process is called, fittingly enough, "the lottery," and it does put me in mind of Shirley Jackson's famous short story, except in this case, 0-7 parents surround lucky Rooftop winners and pelt them with chalkboard erasers.

Because you can do all the tours, the applications, the documents, the whole thing, and STILL end up without one of your seven choices. Friday's post on a popular San Francisco blog, which is centered around the school assignment process, asks "Round one letters are out: what did you get?" As of 3 p.m. Sunday, there are over 500 comments from parents, many of whom are spitting mad. Blame and angst are thick in the air as parents who hate their school assignments face months of Round 2 and waitlist stress. According to statistics the district recently released, nearly 1,000 San Francisco families received none of their seven choices this year.

But back to us (cuz this is my blog, after all). The letter from SFUSD arrived Saturday, while Ron, Benny and I were at the St. Patrick's Day parade. I literally ran up the street from the bus stop, keys in hand, eager to see if we got our letter. Then I carried it upstairs like it was a paper time bomb, which in a way, it was. We have been in limbo for three months waiting for this letter, unable to plan anything. Everything depended on the school: Would we have to buy a car? Would we have to move? Would we have to go parochial and pay tuition? Would we have to do all three?

Well, Ron opened it and the news couldn't be better. Benny was assigned the Shangri-La school, our No. 1 choice, in Cole Valley. It's a short bus ride away, in a good neighborhood that actually shortens our commute to work. It's a very popular school (630 families requested it this year) and not too big. We'll probably move to Cole Valley next year to be even closer, but for now, we can stay put. And it's free!

Financially, this is a huge help. This means we can take the princely sum we've paid for Benny's preschool each month and put it towards debt. This means we can take a family vacation this May and visit our family in Michigan this June and put money into savings every month. As soon as the debt is paid off, we can start a college fund for Benny and save up to buy a car. All of this is possible because of Benny's school assignment, and so I feel we just won the lottery in every sense of the word.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The depths of despair in Indiana

Work has been a little weird lately, with some strange, random management moves that do little to help morale. But hey, at least I don't work at the South Bend Tribune.

The blog "Ask a Manager" has posted a recent management memo to reporters that nearly stops the heart. Reporters must send a detailed, daily summary of their activities — every phone call, interview, research effort and email discussion — to five editors. That way the editors know every little thing their reporters are doing, which apparently helps them evaluate people's work, plan the paper's content and know "your accomplishments and your struggles."

Let's ignore the massive time suck this would be for reporters, who could be spending that 20-plus minutes (it's really that detailed) actually working on stories. Let's ignore the even bigger time suck for editors, who must wade through a dozen of such summaries a day. I assume all summaries will be forwarded on to the design department, which can develop cute pie charts and bar graphs displaying reporters' activities for everyone's edification.

Perhaps there's a value to this process that I am stubbornly overlooking. Perhaps my editors would be assisted (if not inspired) by such a daily summary from me. So here it is: an open memo to the Internet world about my Monday morning activities. Now go plan your next newspaper issue.

MONDAY, FEB. 2

Arrived at nine. Chugged Snapple. Consumed granola bar. Surfed the web and found appalling memo asking for detailed summaries from reporters. Forwarded memo to a dozen friends. Read emails. Flagged two emails I didn't understand and deleted three emails I hoped to ignore. Went into kitchen and told coworker amusing story about my morning bus ride. Returned to desk and hunted for vending machine change. Gave up. Started editing a real estate column. Reporter asked me to post an article on the web. Dug through my files for my two-month-old, hastily scrawled cheat sheet. Tried to read my writing. Decided to wing it. Posted article. Returned to real estate column. Giggled over punchy headline I wrote. Started thinking about article I posted. Should I add a reporter byline? Was the article too small for a byline? My notes were silent on this, or perhaps I just couldn't read them. Dithered some more. All the editors were in a Monday meeting so I had no one to ask. Added byline. Finished editing real estate column. Reporter emailed me and asked why his story now had a byline and requested I take it off. Took byline off. Indulged in self pity. Editors emerged from meeting and I asked about web story bylines. Was told that all stories must have them. Put bylines on seven stories, cursing softly. Attended editorial meeting. Suffered. Went to lunch early. I plan to return from lunch in April 2012.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Federal Reserve hides its mighty super powers

Apparently it takes more than $800 billion to impress Ben Bernanke, who gave a speech in London saying, gosh, Obama's stimulus package is sweet and all, but won't do much good.

But fear not, because the Federal Reserve has mighty super powers in its arsenal, Bernanke says -- he calls them "powerful tools." Of course, the chairman won't share what those tools are, especially since the rate-cut well has run dry. Perhaps Bernanke will be happier if we give the whole $800 billion to the banks and ask them really nicely to lend out a little of it this time. He has a laundry list of solutions to the mess, solutions which require actions by other people.

Bernanke's word of the day is "stability," which apparently requires "stronger supervisory and regulatory systems" without squashing "financial innovation." Well, good heavens, we wouldn't want to discourage financial innovation, would we? Why, it was the financial innovators who brought us the Ponzi schemes and ARMs, after all. It's like me announcing that my family needs strict rules to keep Benny from eating Hostess cupcakes for dinner, but if Benny finds the cupcakes in the back of the cupboard himself, hey, that's innovation!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Benny hangs out in Michigan



During our stay at my brother Andy's, Benny had a chance to play his new board game and attend his old playgroup.

Christmas on a Michigan beach





Here are some pictures of Benny and his cousins on a cold, nasty, West Michigan beach in December. (Can you tell this was Ron's family and that I stayed in the car?) I'm glad that Benny isn't a wimp like his mother.