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

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

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.