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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hello Andromeda!

On Dec. 30, 1924, astronomer Edwin Hubble announces that Andromeda is not a funny gas cloud, but actually a galaxy, and that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies in the universe.

First we thought the earth was the center of the universe, then the sun, then the Milky Way. Now many people reasonably believe that the center of our universe is the center of the universe (although NASA is telling kids there is no center of the universe, that the Big Bang happened everywhere at once).

But last month some guys at Oxford University and Yerevan State University in Armenia proposed a new model for universe. They found some cosmic microwaves (wouldn't the Cosmic Microwaves be a good name for a rock band?) with cocentric circles. Their conclusion:

This, they say, is exactly what you'd expect if the universe were eternally cyclical. By that, they mean that each cycle ends with a big bang that starts the next cycle. In this model, the universe is a kind of cosmic Russian Doll, with all previous universes contained within the current one.

Random side note: We've got one of those Russian Dolls by the way. Actually it's a Christmas snowman with smaller and smaller snowmen inside until the last one holds a tiny penguin. Benny finds it endlessly fascinating.

But on to science. The beginning of all this speculation was Hubble's identification of the Andromeda galaxy, which remains my favorite galaxy. (Yes I have a favorite galaxy - I am a dork.) It used to be called a Nebula before Hubble promoted it and is the furthest object visible to the naked eye. I saw it through a planetarium telescope once, but I can't claim any real acquaintance with it. If I met the Andromeda Galaxy at a cocktail party, however, I'm sure it would be polite. ("Of course I remember you, and how's Rick?")

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Torture at the Voting Booth

Despite a hectic day yesterday, I managed to scurry out of work at 2:30 p.m. to vote. I took a bus to my voting precinct, which in my case was a tiny garage down the street from my apartment building. Four voting booths and a single table were crammed among hanging tools and bicycles. Kind of dangerous, actually, since a frustrated voter might conceivably snatch a wrench hanging from the wall and go on a rampage. I personally considered it, anyway.

For I was trapped behind a woman who was obviously The Dumbest Voter in San Francisco. I knew we were all in trouble the minute she approached the table and opened her mouth.

DVSF: My name's Nelson, ___ Nelson, but you won't find it on your list.
ELECTION WORKER: You're not on the list.
DVSF: Why not? I voted here last year!
EW: You're not on the list ... let me ...
DVSF: I've lived in this neighborhood for four years. I can't believe I'm not on the list!
EW: Let me give you a provisional ballot. Fred, where are the provisional ballots? Provisional ballots! The ones in the red folder. Provisional ...
(He leaves table. Line behind me lengthens.)
DVSF: I've lived in this neighborhood for four years.
EW: (returns) Now here is a provisional ballot. This is what you fill in, then ...
DVSF: I know what a provisional ballot is. I used one when I voted here last year.
(Crowd groans.)
EW: That doesn't mean this is your precinct. You can vote by provisional ballot anywhere in the city.
DVSF: I looked it up. The computer told me that I'm supposed to vote here.
EW: May I ask your address?

Then (this really happened) the Dumbest Voter in San Francisco's husband turns up.

DVSF: You're here!
EW: Name?
DVSF husband: ____ Nelson.
DVSF: You won't find his name on the list. We're not on the list, can you believe it? We've lived in this neighborhood for four years.
EW: May I ask your address?
DVSF husband: _____ Clayton.
EW: This precinct only goes to 1000 Clayton. You might be in another precinct.
DVSF: But the computer said 265 Fake Street Name.
(crowd groans)
EW: This is 147 Fake Street Name.
DVSF: Oh. I was walking down the street and this was the first polling place I saw. Does this mean I can't vote here?

Oh, we should have been so lucky. Instead she and her husband took copious time filling out a provisional ballot while I went into a booth and wrestled with a 10-page ballot with a zillion propositions.

Maybe next year I'll adopt her strategy: Leave my apartment on election day and walk down the street until I find a polling place. Then, when my name isn't on the list, shout, "But I've been in this neighborhood for two years!"

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hiking California: Angel Island

As with most parents, it's obvious that I Need to Get Out More. Just meeting up with our friend Doug at a tapas bar Friday night took two weeks and numerous emails to arrange, plus a very good friend offering to take Benny for a few hours.

The tapas bar was, of course, worth all the trouble. I found myself surrounded by teeny plates of meatballs, tomatoes on bread, corn and mushrooms, and a pile of chard and it was all amazing. San Francisco will not stop trying to make me a foodie. (Ten years from now I'll be debating sauces with waiters. Shudder.)

This post, however, is not about food (sorry) but about the geology hiking group I joined. I'm not one of those people who happily dives into new things, especially if said things are full of total strangers. But San Francisco's geology is really interesting and yes, I Need to Get Out More.

Now I've taken those online personality tests and they keep giving me labels like "Lively Center of Attention", but that doesn't mean I can march up to a group of 20 total strangers and start jamming about rocks -- even metamorphosed Franciscan rocks. So I was a little nervous, which either makes me very quiet or neurotically chatty. Fortunately for the group I chose the former and ended up near the back of the pack, scribbling in my notebook and trying not to look winded on the steeper slopes.

Angel Island rocks are kind of neat. They're Franciscan rocks, like most of the rest of the Bay Area. The Franciscan complex is a group of basalts, granites and serpentine along with cherts, sandstones and shales. The whole bunch is cracked up with faults and looks pretty much like a mess.

Angel Island's Franciscan rocks are different because they're metamorphosed. That means they've been exposed to enough heat and pressure to change their chemical makeup. So they look different, and in some sandstones the dark spots that are usually round are elongated.

The reason Angel Island's rocks were metamorphosed is because they ended up in what's called a subduction zone. In a subduction zone, one plate of the earth's crust is shoved under another plate. After Angel Island's rocks were pushed down and cooked up, another crack in the earth arrived. Called a thrust fault, it shoved the metamorphosed rocks over a big sandstone block called the Alcatraz Terrane. So at Angel Island, you can see the old, weird, metamorphosed rocks on top of the boring sandstone.

And there you have it. So off I went on a week ago Sunday, carrying my lunch and my notebook in a backpack. It was, of course, Fleet Week, which meant the Blue Angels were scheduled to loop-de-loop over the Bay that afternoon.

I took the ferry to the island and met the group. We trudged over to the first stop, which promised metamorphosed sandstone with flattened pebbles in it. Here it is. Yeah, it looked that exciting in person, too.

Our leader passed around little lenses, but we couldn't find any of the fabled flattened pebbles. Oh well. We hiked down to the beach, looking for pillow basalts, but the tide was too high and we found ourselves squabbling about whether a few wet, black, suspiciously round boulders were in fact pillow basalts or just wet sandstone.

Now pillow basalt is one of my favorite rocks. These basalts are formed at a crack in the seafloor when new seafloor is spurting out. Once the molten rock hits the icy seawater, it forms blobby, shiny shells like the chocolate shells on Junior Mints. Blobs pile on blobs until the whole thing looks like a bunch of black pillows. Then the molten rock inside slowly cools. So when you're looking at a pile of pillow basalts, you're looking at rocks from the ocean floor, frozen as they formed. Love that. There are places where you can see pillow basalts far away from any water and it's mind-bending to consider how they got there.

Since the rocks weren't that riveting, I shot a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in fog:

But the real show happened on the ferry ride back to San Francisco. The Blue Angels started cork-screwing all over the Bay. They even buzzed the ferry with an ear-splitting boom.

Here is one of my favorite pictures ever with Alcatraz, a Blue Angel and a masted ship:

And here are some more Blue Angels:

All in all, I consider my hike a success. This Sunday I'm meeting the group to hike Ring Mountain in Tiburon. I'm told we'll see much more dramatic examples of metamorphic rocks associated with subduction zones. But sadly, no acrobatic jet planes are planned.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

D is for Dense

(The letter grade for Drake University's new logo)

Sometimes there's nothing I like better than reading about a bunch of government or academic types trying get all creative with marketing. Longtime readers of this blog might remember my post about the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau's weird logo.

The DMCVB (yes, they really do that) gave up on silly slogans ("It's a Great Time in Detroit!") and reduced its gritty, struggling city to a single letter: D. The Detroit Free Press chimed in with a fawning article ("Whatever happens in Vegas can stay there. This is the D.") Then the editors presented a montage of D's through history.

Well, D is the letter that Will Not Die, because the bright folks at Drake University in Iowa decided that their admissions recruitment literature needed a giant D+ on it. Drake officials said they wanted to attract students who would appreciate the irony. And, they'll have you know, “D” stands for Drake, while the “+” represents the opportunities the school offers students. Sounds a bit like that girl on a flying carrot, no?

("It's a rocket! And the orange is the glow of the Jovian clouds. And the green is the path to Earth ...")

Drake tested its D+ logo on 921 high school students, and three-quarters said they loved it. Only 3 percent were turned off by a giant D+ on school stationery. Obviously, they didn't appreciate the irony.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Transit First San Francisco, Part 2

Last month I ran a series of dull errands using my car. I left my apartment at 12:55 on a Friday afternoon and returned at 3:25.

I couldn't help but wonder: How long would it have taken me to do those identical errands using Muni and my own two feet? Lo and behold, on a recent Friday afternoon, I had a list of nearly the exact same errands to do: go to the drug store, drop off dry cleaning, mail bills, get quarters for laundry, visit a bookstore, use the ATM and visit a West Portal business.

So I decided to use public transit rather than drive and leave at the same time, 12:55 p.m. Because San Francisco is, after all, a transit-first city. At least that's what the politicians say when asked why our parking meter rates are some of the highest in the nation.

12:55 p,m.
I leave the apartment sporting a backpack, a bag of dry cleaning, a bag of wire hangers and an iPod loaded with three episodes of "NPR: Marketplace." I give my shiny Honda Fit a wistful look, but walk by to the 37 bus stop. At least I didn't have to haggle with a construction guy to let my car out this time.

1:02 p.m.
I miss the 37 bus by seconds. (I know that driver saw me!) The next one isn't for 17 minutes, so I walk down to Cole Valley.

I arrive at Walgreens, dodging a car backing out of the parking lot. On the day I took the Fit, I was at Walgreens at 1:07. I'm already 17 minutes behind, red-faced and out of breath. I buy an envelope to mail a program from my brother's flight school graduation (It's on its way, Mom!) and a Milky Way Dark.

I'm waiting at the bus stop outside Walgreens, watching three UCSF shuttle buses roar past in a row. Since Muni is so unreliable, UCSF has a big fleet of buses for its personnel. Transit first, San Francisco!

I arrive at the dry cleaners and gratefully surrender my bags. Ron's suit is ready, but I can't pick it up because I don't have a car with me. I am now a half-hour behind.

Like my day with the Fit, I did some walking around: walked to the post office to mail bills, walked to a laundromat to get $10 worth of quarters from the change machine. I check out my favorite used bookstore and buy a biography of Queen Mary I of England, otherwise known as Bloody Mary.

On my day with the Fit, I had 10 minutes left on the parking meter. So I sat in the car, eating my Milky Way and reading.

Today, I'm sitting on a filthy concrete island in the middle of a high-traffic, exhaust-spewing street. N Trains rush by, rattling and squealing their way downtown. I check my phone to see when the next outbound N trains will arrive: 13 minutes, 14 minutes and 16 minutes.

A packed N train arrives, with an empty one right behind it. I board the second train, then transfer to a 28 bus.

I arrive at my credit union. I'm now 41 minutes behind.

The 28 bus dropped me off at 19th St. and Taraval and I'm waiting for an L train to take me to West Portal. The street is pretty dirty and noisy. One of the challenges of taking public transit in San Francisco is that the streets are often dirty and there are few places to sit. So if you're tired (and by now I've taken three buses and a train so I'm starting to flag), the only place to sit on a litter-strewn curb.

I arrive at West Portal. On my day with the Fit, I was here at 2:34. Last time I had an appointment at a salon; I decide to get a pizza instead. My salon appointment took 23 minutes, so that's how long I have to eat a pizza. Which is good, because I'm kinda cranky now and need a beer.

I leave the West Portal pizza place and hop on an L train.

I arrive at Church and Market. Another exciting -- but dirty -- traffic island, but a 37 comes in 2 minutes.

I'm home

So basically, running these errands took an extra hour. And let me tell you, there are other things I'd rather have done with that extra hour than sit around on dirty traffic islands as cars, buses and trains race by. Plus, on the day I used the Fit, I returned full of energy and ready to tackle some household jobs.

Today, I was wiped out, even with the brief pizza interlude in West Portal and ended up playing Civilization for 40 minutes before I could drag myself off the couch and pick up Benny from school.

As I've said before, my little Fit doesn't use much gas, so my daily decisions whether to drive are based on two criteria: amount of time and level of aggravation.

My judgment, therefore, is:
CAR 1, BUS 0.

This result illustrates Muni's biggest obstacles to increased ridership. Muni isn't going to get more riders from the working poor -- they already have no other choice. The system can't get more riders from the destitute, who can't pay anyway. Muni can't get more riders from San Francisco truly affluent; they wouldn't ride a bus if it had gold-plated hand rails and butt-warmers on every seat.

So the only demographic they can target is mine -- people with cars who are willing to take Muni if it's convenient, reasonably priced and somewhat stress-free.

I don't mean it has to be perfect -- a bus will be occasionally late and a driver will sometimes growl. I mean free of the soul-sapping, blood pressure-raising, white hot rage-inducing screwups and delays that riders routinely tolerate.

Transit first, San Francisco? Right now, I don't think so.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Transit First San Francisco: Part I

Now that we have a car, I have a choice when I leave the apartment for any reason -- do I walk, drive, or take the bus? I'm glad to live in a place where I have different transportation options but it means I must walk that fine line between conserving resources and wasting time, between efficiency and outright laziness.

Our need to conserve resources vs. our need to pick up our kid on time is an issue many Americans are grappling with, and often the pocketbook has the last word. Whenever gas prices spike, people watch their driving habits more closely and sometimes that amounts to a permanent change in habits.

My little Fit doesn't use much gas, so my daily decisions whether to walk, ride or drive is based on two criteria: amount of time and level of aggravation. If I can do something quickly and calmly on foot or by bus, I'll probably do so.

Or will I? Am I just being lazy? To help answer that question, I'm conducting an experiment.

A few weeks ago I ran a series of errands on a Friday afternoon. I left the apartment at 12:55 p.m. to do the following things: go to the drug store, drop off dry cleaning, mail bills, get quarters for laundry, visit a bookstore, use the ATM and get my eyebrows waxed (ouch). So I climbed into my new car and sped away.

Well, not really. I couldn't, because there was a big old pickup truck blocking my driveway. I had to cross the street and shout to the guys piling wood into a rusted-out dumpster: "Is that your truck?" No, it wasn't, but they knew who it was, and a man in his sixties with a shock of white hair came dashing out to move it. Actually, he didn't move it right away, he came up to me instead.

MAN: I can move the truck really quickly. You just tell me when you want to get out, and I'll come right over.

ME: Well, I'd rather you didn't block my driveway. I come in and out a lot. (Actually I'm at work most of the time, but I wasn't telling him that.)

MAN: It's no trouble -- I don't mind moving it. So I'll park it here, all right? It's just while we're doing the work. (He points to the scaffolding on the house across the street.)

ME: How long will the work take?

MAN: Two months.

At that point I started chuckling, then saw he was really serious. "No," I said, glaring. "Please don't block my driveway."

The man went off in a huff. Apparently this is what it's like to own a car in San Francisco. Hmmm.

So it's 1:05 before I even back out of the garage, but I'm soon on my way and the Walgreens in Cole Valley has a parking lot. I pick up batteries and saline solution and add a Milky Way Dark to reward myself for not screaming at the Truck Man. I had to drive the car in reverse out of the Walgreens lot and back out into the street, but that was okay.

1:16: I pull into a meter spot right outside my dry cleaners in our former Inner Sunset neighborhood. Even though we've moved, we remain faithful customers. The meter already has 7 minutes on it! Yay! I add enough change to bring it up to 40 minutes. The dry cleaners are devastated that I didn't bring my son — they often make balloon animals for him.

Then I did a little walking: walked half a block to the post office to mail bills, walked another two blocks to a laundromat to get $10 worth of quarters from the change machine. Then I use the quarters to do laundry in my apartment building. The laundromat at 9th and Irving are surprisingly nice about this; they ask only for an extra quarter. Nobody is there; the staff booth is shuttered and locked, so I slide two quarters under the locked office door.

Across the street is my favorite used bookstore, Overland, where I buy another book from the lady who wrote "The Three-Martini Playdate." My kind of person. When I get back, the meter still has 10 minutes left, so I eat my Milky Way in the car and start my book. I pull out of the spot at 1:57.

I need cash and I'm too cheap to use another bank's ATM, so I drive to a Patelco branch in the neighborhood. I've never been to this branch and my scrawled directions are woefully inadequate, so I pull into a empty spot (plenty of parking in this area) and call my husband at work. While he's explaining the location, I see the branch across the street. Oops.

By 2:34 p.m., I've found a meter spot in West Portal, only four blocks from the salon. A man sees me feeding the meter and asks me about the Fit. He just bought his wife a Scion. We jammed happily about small compact cars with wussy engines and then I walked to the salon.

I was pretty early for my 3 p.m. appointment, but they took me anyway. I'm back at the meter spot by 2:57. It's a little bit of a drive from West Portal to our apartment, but I finally pull into my truck-free driveway at 3:25.

All in all, I think it went pretty well. At 12:55 today I will leave the apartment to run the same errands, but I'll walk and ride instead of drive. Let's see how I do.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Driving to the mailbox next door

OK, maybe it's not that bad, but I can't deny that I've been driving our new Fit around on the slightest excuse. Yes, I know it's more environmentally sensitive to walk down into Cole Valley to get Benny from school and then catch a 37 bus back home.

Oh, but that car ride is so insidiously ... predictable. Two minutes to get into the car, 10 minutes to drive down and park the car. Once we're back in the car, it's five minutes back to the apartment. Two minutes later, we're walking through the door.

If I walk, it is admittedly a nice 10-minute walk to the school (when it's not raining). Then I get Benny and we walk to the 37 stop. The bus might come in 2 minutes. It might come in 20 minutes. Or 30 minutes. 20-30 minutes is crucial chunk of time when you're on the dinner-homework-bedtime march.

Frankly I'd rather spend it at home than on a bus stop bench telling Benny "No, we are not buying madeleines while we wait. I know you're hungry. Listening to you is making me hungry. What did you do today? Nothing? You sat in total silence for eight hours? Hookay then. No, we are not buying madeleines while we ..." Finally, we lapse into sullen silence and I check my phone for the next bus. 17 minutes.

Whereas if I drive him home and get started doing something else, Benny becomes a fountain of information. He'll follow me around, scattering graham cracker crumbs, and tell me about his kickball games, his teacher and that weird 2nd grade girl who chases him.

If I sound a little guilty and defensive, well, maybe I am. But you can't change people's behavior with abstract expectations. You change people's behavior by offering a better alternative that suits their needs. Or maybe it's the Midwest girl in me; I simply feel more relaxed and comfortable behind the wheel.

For three years City CarShare has suited us well. If anyone asked us about it, we praised it to the skies. But neither Ron nor I fully appreciated how much mental work this system required. Every decision, every errand, had to be parsed out: "When should I reserve the car? Which car can I get? For how long? How much will it cost? Should I cancel the other reservation? Should I make it a Freedom Trip ($50 for 24 hours)?

Then, once you were out and about in the car, you had to make the most of it. Time was money. Yes, this reservation was for grocery shopping, but maybe I should swing by the dry cleaners, too. And take in the vacuum cleaner for repair. And pick up that new book by Robert Reich about how the middle class is doomed.

OK, maybe I'm a little defensive.

Friday, September 24, 2010

We have a car!

Last month we leased a 2010 Honda Fit. Look out, world!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fly, fly away

Benny and I flew out to Ft. Rucker, Alabama, last week to attend Greg's graduation ceremony from Army flight school. My sister Cindy and brother Andy, along with my mother and her husband Paul, drove down from Michigan.

It was a rare reunion for me and my siblings — the four of us haven't gathered in one place since Christmas 2008. The ceremony was great and we were so proud of Greg. After everyone else left Friday morning, Greg took Benny and me to the local AdventureLand, where we hit baseballs, rode go-carts, played video games and played 18 holes of miniature golf.

Flying home was a bit of a pill, though. I had to beg the cook at the only restaurant at Pensacola Municipal Airport to keep the kitchen open long enough to cook us hamburgers. (It was 5:20 p.m., apparently too late for dinner.) We changed planes in Dallas and boarded a night flight to San Francisco. The plane was chilly and we didn't have sweaters. Benny was tired and wanted to sleep. I asked the American Airlines stewardess for a blanket and she said it would cost $8. "It comes with an inflatable neck pillow!" she chirped. Well, I thought $8 was an enormous ripoff for a blanket during a night flight, so I literally gave Benny the shirt off my back. He curled up under the frilly blue blouse and I shivered in a very revealing camisole for the whole flight. Good thing the plane was dark.

Anyway, here are some pictures:

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

I feel fine. Thanks.

Ann Arbor is a little nervous about sustainability. They wouldn't want to offend anyone with their new-fangled streetlights.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

My Boring Brain

I've always been a terrible multitasker. I can't drink a bottle of Snapple and walk across the kitchen floor without tripping over my feet. This was a huge problem when I started working in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, when many of my colleagues could talk on the phone, edit a story, send an email and answer my question all at once. Some people still do that and tweet and IM as well. Amazing.

I just assumed I was hopelessly old school with my single-minded ways, missing train stops while I'm reading and walking into light poles while talking on my cell phone. For a while it looked like web surfing would change my ways as I bounced from site to site. But after 10 minutes I'd get tired and cranky with all that information at my fingertips and go find a nice book.

But today I read a May 24 Wired article called "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains." It's been sitting in my inbox for more than two months, waiting for me to read it. That's my lastest strategy to manage the web; I'm always finding interesting articles to read while surfing, but that doesn't mean I want to bring everything to a screaming halt and read one article for 10 minutes. So I send myself an email with the link and it sits there until I'm ready to truly read and think about it.

It works pretty well. Often I'll start an interesting article or blog post or comment thread and I find myself impatient and skimming, not because the information isn't interesting, but because I'm not in the right frame of mind to read it. I need to check my work email or Benny's school website or reserve a car right then. I'm not prepared for the latest Muni weirdness or 65th anniversary of the atom bomb.

So, back to that Wired article. See, I'm not easily deflected from point (sometimes to Ron's dismay). A UCLA professor discovered that experienced web surfers developed distinctive neural pathways due to their Internet use. He also found that if novice web users spent six days surfing the web, the Internet use rewired their brains too. At first everyone cheered: Hey, Google makes us smart! But, said the UCLA guy, more brain activity doesn't mean better brain activity.

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

When schools started bringing in computers, everyone thought all those documents with hyperlinks would increase learning. But the work involved in navigating all the different documents disrupts concentration and weakens comprehension. That makes sense to me: who can read a Wikepedia article straight through?

The article goes on:

A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse.

I totally agree. I'm reduced to clicking on the print-only version of long articles just so I can read them without being distracted. Sometimes I print them out. The article also points to constant computer distractions such as those little envelope icons that pop up on your desktop. Yes, you're busy reading my blog post but look! You have an email! Are you going to look at it? Look! Someone sent you a tweet? Don't you want to know what it says? Yeah, it's probably trivial, but it's new, it's compelling, and it distracting you RIGHT NOW.

Finally, the article aims a long, pointing finger at those ultra-efficient multitaskers:

Last year, researchers at Stanford ... gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.” Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

This society seems to value the ability to skim rather than read, a quick glance rather than a long look. Is reading comprehension a lost art? I just read a blog post on the Consumerist titled "I Can't Afford Cable Anymore. How Can I Revive My Analog TV?" One commenter said:

Nowhere does she say her TV is analog. Without the most basic information such as her TV model and specific hookup needs, it is next to impossible to give the needed information.

To which another commenter said:

Nowhere except in the headline of the article.

Reading is hard!

So what can we do? Well, if you've read this whole blog post, you're obviously pretty good at staying on task. Here's what I do so I'm not overwhelmed when I'm web surfing:

- I make a conscious effort not to get distracted. When I went to to get the above example just now, it was tempting to click on the post about the guy who called 911 to get a drive to the liquor store, the couple who named their baby Adolph Hitler and the latest vile behavior by Chase. I read this blog about every other day, so I reminded myself that the post about Dell's imaginary shipping time trap isn't going anywhere. Doesn't always work, but I try.

- Don't leave the original site you're working with. When I'm on wikepedia, for example, I keep a window of the original article on my desktop, so that even if I'm clicking madly on hyerlinks, the main article is still the focus and I don't end up wandering in new territory. I always come back.

- If I hit an interesting article or blog or page, I email myself the link so I can come back to it later. That way my main goal isn't derailed.

As you can obviously tell, I like to think things through. At my favorite lunch buffet, I tend to pile up a few types of food when others are scooping up a little bit of everything. I miss out on some interesting food that way, but who says I have to take advantage of every opportunity out there? Sometimes I just want to eat lunch.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hiking California: Muir Woods

Last year I picked up 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).

Ron, Benny and I have done a few hikes from this book:

Huckleberry Path Nature Trail
Corte Madera Ecological Reserve Trail
The Miwok Trail

On Monday, Benny and I knocked down another one: No. 84, the Redwood Grove Trail Loop in Muir Woods.

(We tried to hike this one last year on Mother's Day, but by the time we arrived at the national park, the place was mobbed and parked cars lined the road practically back to Hwy. 101. So we instead walked along an exhaust-filled, traffic-choked roadway, otherwise known as the Corte Madera Ecological Reserve Trail.)

So I had Benny tucked into the car yesterday by 8:30 a.m., even though it was a non-holiday Monday. It was a good thing I did, because we we were lucky to find a place in the first overflow parking lot. Tour buses in front of the entrance were disgorging hundreds of tourists every minute.

This, of course, is not a hiking trail, but a wooden sidewalk curving along the line of Redwood Creek. You don't really walk, you shuffle along in a crowd. The tourists were mostly foreign, thank goodness, so the kids were well-behaved. The trees were lovely and Benny liked to have me read the descriptions that matched the numbered signposts. I'm raising my own little vacation dork right here.

But I was feeling a little stressed out; I mean, I left San Francisco to get away from people. TIme to take a side trail. Since Muir Woods does not have many picnic sites, my only option was to take Benny on the Camp Alice Eastwood trail, 3 miles round-trip, where we could eat our lunch. That, or buy an $8 organic salad at the gift shop's cafe and watch Benny spit out the leaves.

(Option 3, which was to find a secluded spot somewhere and eat really fast, wasn't an option because Benny's absorbed all this California environmentalist attitude and wouldn't allow it. Sigh.)

So we headed up the trail. Hiking makes me nervous because I'm terrible at reading trail maps and have a deep-seated fear of wandering in circles until the trail mix runs and I finally collapse and become part of "the nurturing decay of the forest understory." The first crossroad blessedly had a little signpost which, as is my habit, I read out loud three times to make sure I was going the right way. The second fork had no signs. I then blindfolded Benny and spun him around three times to point the way. No, I actually puzzled over the map, chose a fork and trudged up another couple of switchbacks. When we arrived at a dusty, bare clearing labeled "Camp Alice Eastwood," we started cheering and slapping high-fives.

The walk back was much easier, but Benny was getting tired. Back on the main trail, confused tourists kept asking me which way was the visitor's center. Honestly, how can anyone get lost on a wooden sidewalk? When I told Benny I couldn't afford to buy him a combination compass/magnifying glass/telescope/egg-beater/barometer, he burst into tears and cried all the way to the car. I dosed him with Milano mint cookies and he slept all the way home.

All in all, Muir Woods are very nice and the side trails could be spectacular, for all I know. But Benny and I think the redwoods further up the coast, which we saw on the Skunk Train from Fort Bragg, were much more impressive.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Save our serpentine!

Some fiend of a senator in Los Angeles named Gloria Romero has introduced a bill to pull serpentine from its throne as California's state rock. Advocates of the bill claim that asbestos fibers found in some forms of serpentine can be hazardous, and therefore that nasty, slippery little rock doesn't deserve the honor.

First of all, serpentine is a seriously cool rock. It forms when rock in the earth's mantle (below the crust) are smushed and heated up. It's totally unstable and very hard to build on and, of course, is all over earthquake-prone California. But I love it, and I sent Senator Gloria Romero the following email, which I copied Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on:

Dear Senator Romero:

I am surprised that with all of California's pressing problems, you are spending time and money on bill SB624. I am not a geologist, but I do like rocks, and serpentine has a deep, rich history in California.

I know some types of serpentine contain asbestos. So what? Nobody's telling people to go around sniffing crushed serpentine because it's the state rock. It's a naturally occurring mineral, not manmade insulation. People put aspects of the natural world to bad uses all the time. Is oil a bad thing because it's gushing into the Gulf of Mexico? Is sand a horrible thing because it could be made into glass, which can be broken and used to hurt somebody?

There have got to be better ways to raise public awareness of the dangers of asbestos than wasting time, energy and resources on SB624.


Christine Iloveserpentine


Here are some great links from Garry Hayes, Professor of Geology, Modesto Junior College, who's getting wiggy on the issue:

Garry Hayes’ blog
The history of SB624 is available here.

A good summary of serpentine with links to news and the debate can be found here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Good Grief!

(Click on pictures to enlarge)

We took a day trip on Monday to the Charles Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles from San Francisco. We've been reading Benny a lot of "Peanuts" books lately, so we thought he'd like the trip.

It turned out to be a very relaxed, undemanding outing. There were no crowds and the museum felt like somebody's spacious home, complete with a little Video Nook, where people could watch films on beanbag chairs. We ate lunch in the sunshine outside the Warm Puppy Cafe and watched the Zamboni circle around Schulz's ice arena.

The day before we went to Golden Gate Park and listened to a local band play Fourth of July favorites play Gershwin and other old-fashioned favorites. We sat on the grass and ate ice cream bars and listened to John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Little Norman Rockwell outings like these are nice because they remind me that traveling doesn't have to be a Huge Big Deal all the time. Not even in California.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Vacation pictures!

(Click on the pictures to make them larger)

Top: Benny and his cousin Ian.

Bottom: Kris, Jackie and I in South Haven.

So we've returned from a great two weeks in Michigan visiting family. We rented a Kia with a messed-up rear window that made strange flapping sounds whenever we drove on the highway. We flapped all over Michigan, back and forth along I-94.

We started at my brother Andy's in Ann Arbor. Andy bought the house from us in 2008 and heavy rains in early June meant he had water on the side of the basement that didn't have the $4,000 drainage system Ron and I installed three years ago. I spent two days mopping the basement and playing "Civilization" with Benny on Andy's PlayStation 3.

Benny: "You're going to make me eat a pie?"

Then we hit the road to Kalamazoo, where Ron's brother and his family lived. Benny learned to play "Sorry" and beat everybody 10 times in a row.

We stayed at my sister Cindy's for a week. My mother came up from Indianapolis and my two college roommates visited with their families.

On the Friday before we flew back to San Francisco, we drove back along I-94 to Ann Arbor, trying to ourun a huge line of thunderstorms. The radar's yellow, black and red blotches covered Lake Michigan at one point and was heading east at 50 miles an hour. The weather in front of us was blue skies and sunshine. Then we'd look out our Kia's rear window and the sky was completely black.

We barely made it to Ron's brother's house before the deluge hit, where we waited out the worst of the storms. Then it was a long, tense drive home. I'm kinda happy to be home in San Francisco now, with its watercolor weather.

Top: Charlotte and Madeline.
Bottom: Benny and Sophie.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Goodbye Kindergarten

Benny and his teacher Miss Cathy

Benny's last few weeks of kindergarten were a bit — ahem! — lively: Ron and I ran around baking cakes for Funfest, writing checks for summer camps, chopping fruit for picnics, decorating teacher gifts, going to fundraiser parties and attending Miss Cathy's World Tour Slide Show.

On Benny's last day, I stayed at work until 8:30 p.m. to put a major project to press and prepare for vacation. The next day, we flew to Michigan.

I shouldn't have been surprised, because the craziness attending a child's last month of school is well-documented, most hilariously in Judith Warner's 2006 column "My Last Day of School." Moms were showing up at her daughter Emilie’s last-day-of-school party sobbing with stress. (“I hate this [expletive] time of year,” one mother said.)

But still, I was blindsided by the sudden activity. It was like the school took all the events they didn't have time for during the year and stuffed them into the last month. And I have little reason to complain, since I was the slacker mom who rarely helped in the classroom and didn't attend the School Talent Show OR the Parent Assembly (mostly because both events were on a workday morning).

I reason, however, that Benny has five more years at Lucky Elementary and the low standard I set last year should be easy to surpass. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying our summer schedule -- without an ironclad 7:50 a.m. start time, I've been late to work nearly every day.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Biking in Detroit

Here's an awesome article about bicycling in Detroit. The photos of the excited kids watching Critical Mass are my favorite, but there are also bits about Detroit's bicycle history. Nice to read something about Detroit that doesn't mention Kwame.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Weekly Update

This is an idea I'm stealing from a nauseatingly cheery blog. It's a good way to get posting again after a long hiatus.

Outside my window … I'm at work. I can't look out the window. The glass isn't dripping with moisture, so it must be an okay day.
(Cheery blog: "I can see the forest, all sunny and warm ...")

I am thinking … evil thoughts about our office vending machine vendor because all that's left in the machine are jalapeno-flavored potato chips.
(Cheery blog: that I might have been all wrong about what I needed in order to be content.)

I am hearing … Ron conducting a phone interview. Glad one of us is working.

Some highlights from the week … We returned from vacation last weekend, started Benny at summer camp, baked a cake for Father's Day, attended a Dinosaur Preschool festival and saw the visiting Russian battleship from Vladivostok.

I am thankful that … I didn't have to go anywhere in the city on Sunday, because the Gay Pride Parade messed up all the transportation.
(Cheery blog: "A place to live.")

From the kitchen … Ron and I did four sinkloads of dishes apiece and we still have dirty pots on the counter. Grrr.
(Cheery blog: "Had to restart my sourdough starter, and have that working again. Doing water kefir still ...")

I am reading …
"War in European History."

I am hoping … that the vending machine vendor comes tomorrow. That Benny will like his summer camp better this week. That I'm not catching a cold, because I feel sniffly.

One of my favorite things … Junior Mints. (Still hungry here.)
(Cheery Blog: "My sweet child.")

A few plans for the rest of the week … I have Friday off and plan to do some writing. We are also making plans for the Fourth of July weekend.

Have a good week

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Still Golfing

Here's Benny golfing at the Lucky Elementary Funfest last year ...

... and again this month.

Hole in one!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Yes, We're the Creepy Family

So my husband and son are apparently determined to get us on some List of undesirable people at the local elementary school.

Benny brought home a chunk of wood and a large metal screw from the park on Monday. While I was lying down in the bedroom reading People magazine, he borrowed a rubber band and fashioned this:

He's planning to sell the prototype to the U.S. Army so they don't have to use real guns, "just scare people" instead. I told him that while I'm sure his little friends would love to see this homemade weapon, he was NOT to bring it to school for ANY reason.

He also told me "I know more about weapons than any of my friends." My coworker reassured me that little boys probably all say that. But I suspect his little friends went home that day and told their parents "Benny knows more about weapons than anyone else in school."

The following morning, Ron volunteered to drop Benny off at school and meet a Kindergarten mom in the courtyard who has my sunglasses. (I'd left my sunglasses at her house last week during a book swap/wine and cheese thing.)

Ron didn't know the woman — he just had my fuzzy description ("skinny, with glasses and hair that does this ...") So he stood around the school courtyard by himself after dropping off Benny, looking closely at the passersby.

The results were predictable. The principal came over to make sure he wasn't some sicko stalker and was relieved to hear he was Benny's dad. ("You look just like him!") Ron helplessly explained his mission and they walked over to room 101, where a flock of moms were chattering outside the classroom door. One of them handed over the sunglasses, and Ron fled the building.

"I'm not going back to the school for the next five years," Ron declared to me later at work. He's convinced that from now on, whenever he's at the school, people will point and say, "there's that guy who was hanging around the courtyard."

Creepy guy, violent kid and lazy mom — we're the All-American family.

Monday, May 24, 2010

You Don't Know Me

So I did something today for the first time I'm quite proud of: I mailed off an opt-out form from a privacy notice.

Like everybody else, I get these baffling little notices and leaflets describing a company's Privacy Policies: "Weirdo Financial Services will not sell, rent, share, or otherwise disclose personally identifiable information from customers with other companies, unless of course there is an affiliation, such as doing business in the same hemisphere ..."

Opting out is easy, the privacy notices say. All I have to do is call a number and wait on hold forever, get online and click a dozen boxes ("Are you really sure you don't trust us?") or fill out some wretched little form, make a copy, find a stamp and mail it off.

The outcome is predictable. I add the privacy notice to a little stack of similar notices on my desk and there they stay unless I spill Snapple on them or move to a new apartment, whichever comes first.

But not for Comerica. I'm a little cranky about Comerica, and Ron and I are in the arduous process of closing our bank account there. We're in a new relationship with a credit union and have adjusted our direct deposits and automatic bill pays and received our new checks. Now I'm just waiting for PG&E to get its act together and start pulling our monthly bill from the right account. I know, the way PG&E works, it might be Christmas before we can close our Comerica account.

However, I am optimistic. I can't wait to get out of Comerica, which has annoyed me mightily with its minimum balance requirements, piddly ATM network, giant fees, credit card rate hikes and refusal to issue money orders. There are other reasons, but that's enough to go on. "It's not me, it's you," I look forward to telling them.

So I'm happy to inconvenience them in any way, and this morning I checked the boxes that said "NO, don't share my credit info within the Comerica familly or market to me based on my transactions" and "NO, don't share my credit info with any fool company you decide to contract with." AND — this is the important part — I actually dug up a stamp and mailed the thing.

And maybe next time I get a Privacy Policy notice, that one won't get buried on my desk either.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ron in Chicago

Ron made this cool video while attending the annual BIO national biotech conference in Chicago, showing many shots of the city. Check it out!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Too Busy to Fail?

You find me on the field of defeat, not victory, and yet I feel all right about that. It’s Tuesday, the second day of my week off. Yes, you read that right, I have a week off, a little five-day gift card of time that I still can’t figure out how to spend.

Yesterday was very successful, except for a squabble between Benny and myself as he rejected jacket after jacket in the morning and we were late as hell and I finally snapped, tossing his spurned hoodie into the waste basket and announcing it would NEVER be worn again. Benny looked shocked and I fished it back out again, feeling not guilty (I don’t seem to have the quick-to-flick guilt switch that most mothers have), but pretty damn stupid.

So we finally left, and I sat Benny down on a little stone step and we talked it over a bit so that we’d feel good again and Benny wouldn’t smack some kid with a paintbrush or do something else at school to release his emotions. And while we were late, we weren’t Tardy, so I didn’t have to go to the office and get a Slip.

Not an auspicious start, I know, but things perked up after a round of shocking self-indulgence: a manicure, pedicure and half a bag of Ruffles. Then I talked to my sister for a mind-bending amount of time. Then I slathered on a layer of Hawaiian Tropic and headed out into the sunshine to eat a donut, buy some used books and drop off dry cleaning.

Muni buses being what they are, this took all afternoon and I barely made it to Benny’s aftercare on time and had to feed him hot dogs and tater tots because I’d forgotten to take the stew out of the freezer. Then we played videogames and I put him to bed.

So I felt I was on a roll here today. I woke up to a fairly clean apartment and Benny and I had a serene morning. I just missed a 37 bus heading back home, so I went to Cole’s Hardware with the grand ambition of buying drapery sash rods to install over our bedroom window. Our blinds do a poor job of blocking out the enormous streetlight outside our apartment building. (Longtime readers of this blog might remember our neighbor Big Foot back in Ann Arbor and his 1,000-megawatt light shining right into our bedroom. The Fates just don’t like me sleeping in a dark bedroom.)

I found find some drapery rods and mountings that were fastened with nails, per the rules on our lease. Just to make a party of it, I went next door and picked up a newspaper and pound of ground beef for tonight since I’d forgotten to take the stew out again. As I was paying, I watched the 37 go by again.

The next one wasn’t coming for 25 minutes (according to NextBus), and the day was turning warm, so I asked the meat guy to hold the beef in his fridge for 15 minutes or so. He agreed enthusiastically, sounding very relieved that I was going to be responsible with the ground beef he’d sold me. I think he was happy it was going to a good home.

Then I tried to make the best of it by going to the café across the street and spending Benny’s inheritance on a cup of lemonade. My drapery rods and I took a sunny table outside. I checked NextBus … 17 minutes … read how our Mayor wants to rename Third Street after Willie Brown … 15 minutes … read the funny pages … 10 minutes … pondered if going to see “The Ghost Writer” would mean tacit approval of Roman Polanski’s criminal activities … about time to go and get the beef … and watched the 37 go by again, 7 minutes early.

Well. I didn’t have the heart to tell the meat guy the truth, just picked up the beef and glowered at a the bus stop for a solid 18 minutes before the next one came.

Once home, I installed the drapery rods. It was an irritating process, and my God, they looked awful. Obviously I had not treated the thin rods with the delicacy required as I carried them from hardware store to grocery store to café to meat guy to bus top and then on the bus. Both were bent. I tried to straighten one, and made it look worse. Disgusted, I pulled out the mountings and now had little holes around my window, lined up in little pairs, like vampire teeth marks. I didn’t have any spackle, so I busted out my acrylic paints and mixed up a little beige paint to dab on the holes. So now there are spots around my window that look oddly, subtly discolored, like tiny water pipes in the wall had leaked.

And how did I feel, after wasting $15 and two hours of my precious vacation time to end up with weird spots on my bedroom wall? Strangely OK with it, at least after drinking a restorative Snapple and eating the rest of the Ruffles. I’ve realized that in the frenzied activity of most modern families, we don’t have time to fail. Not that we don’t fail – oh boy, do we fail. Late pickups, forgotten lunches, missed deadlines, temper tantrums, really bad hair days, things we shouldn’t have said, emails we shouldn’t have sent … the list goes on.

But we rarely have time to consciously embark on a risky project, knowing it might not turn out, feeling confused, embarrassed or incompetent (or all three). Trying new things takes time and energy. It’s easier not to make the attempt. I realize I’ve been spending my minutes like a little miser, looking for maximum ROI. Looking at things that way, wasting time and failing spectacularly can be very liberating.

Now I’m looking at the kitchen doorway. What if I found a little teeny tension rod to put on it and hung some thin drapes to cordon off the kitchen …

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dancing with the Doofuses

I try not to do this often, because if I were to post all the clueless emails I get from PR folks, I'd have no time for anything else. But it's deadline day and I have no time for anything, so of course I'm posting one today.

My current work project (let's call it The Sustainable Oscars) involves badgering green companies and their PR flacks for nominations. Here's an email I received this morning:


Hi Christina,

Quick ?- can you tell me when winners in the solar category will be
notified? I submitted my client Doofus Solar and I'd like to tell them when we
can expect to hear.

P.s. We no longer represent Weirdo Biofuels for PR. Sorry I could not enter


Ima Nitwit


Well, dear readers, you can see three problems here right off the bat. First, my name's not Christina. Secondly, telling me to do something Quick actually slows my response time. And thirdly, I wish Ima had told me earlier that she no longer represented Weirdo Biofuels, like before the deadline for nominations had passed.

In other news, Ron left for Washington, D.C., yesterday to beef up our sister paper's reporting staff. I vowed to go to bed early every night while he was gone to keep my energy level up. So of course I stayed up until 11 last night watching the History Channel's "How the States Got Their Shapes." I knew about the War of Toledo that gave Michigan its Upper Peninsula and how West Virginia split from Virginia. But did you know that Missouri has that weird little notch on the bottom because some big landowner didn't want to be part of Arkansas? Or that there was this little phantom state called Franklin that now only lives on in State of Franklin Insurance signs? Or that the border between Colorado and Kansas was set because Kansas didn't want any gold so they wouldn't have to deal with sex-crazed prospectors? It was a great program.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me ...

Here's Benny singing "Happy Birthday" at his own party. What a ham.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Killer Robots Never Work

... And don't turn into a snake. It never helps.

The first piece of wise advice above is the name of my as-yet-unpublished science fiction novel. I just submitted a synopsis and the first four chapters of "Killer Robots Never Work" to a contest, and the effort inspired me to start a writing blog. There are a lot of writing blogs out there, all of them so earnest, with writing goals and Muses and much fretting about the moral Core of their writing. My writing, of course, doesn't have much of a moral Core. I subscribe to the "This guy's boring, let's give him purple eyebrows and a shovel collection" style of character development.

So now I have a third blog, called "Killer Robots Never Work." There I maintain that every story needs a killer robot. Life is hard enough without taking your writing seriously.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Benny's 6th Birthday Party

Well, we threw a 6th birthday party for Benny at a neighborhood park on Saturday and lived to tell the tale.

The planning was pretty intense, involving multiple trips to Target, repeated phone calls to a nearby Asian bakery emphasizing "DARK green frosting", and online ordering and delivery angst.

In keeping with the football theme, I decorated the cake to look like a football field. Cakes are a lot easier to decorate than cupcakes. Ron's idea to line the edges with colored sprinkles to represent the spectators was pure genius.

The timing of the event was a little tricky — I reserved the park clubhouse from 1-4 PM and set the party time for 1:30. So I packed all the party supplies in labeled plastic bins except for the cake, ice cream, tables and chairs. (One of our friends brought the bunches of balloons, thank heavens.) I fit almost everything in the car, although Benny had to ride to the park with a card table on his head. Then Ron and I carried the first load to the door of the clubhouse and he and Benny stood guard while I went back for the second load. I struck gold with a nearby parking space and arrived with the cake at 1:05. Yay!

After all that, the party itself was a breeze. My ritual goat sacrifices to the weather god at dawn obviously paid off, because after spitting rain on and off all morning, the skies cleared on cue at 1:00 and the sun shone down. Benny and his friends played on the playground, ate cake and ice cream, threw footballs and batted balloons.

We broke with San Francisco tradition and had Benny open his presents at the party. People don't do that here, probably because kids' birthday parties in this town average 20-70 children. But we had a small group, so I told Benny to go for it.

Happy Birthday Benny!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Can't Wait to be Part of the Problem

I'm thinking of a magic number — can you guess what it is?

The number is 220. It's a very nice number, and not just because it's in my address. 220 is a common voltage in many countries. It's also divisible by the sum of its digits. The Goths invaded Asia Minor and the Balkans in the year 220. It also saw the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period in China.

But my affinity for the number 220 is not so historic. My magic number is actually 220 dollars, as in $220 a month. $220 is the most I'm willing to pay for a monthly bus pass for my family.

Right now, we pay $120 a month for our Muni fast passes, which allow us to ride any Muni bus or light rail in San Francisco as much as we want. We should be buying a youth pass for Benny as well ($15), but so far we've been able to sneak him on the bus for free. (Yes, apparently I am willing to compromise my morals for $15 a month. That's a whole other magic number.)

So the current cost of Muni transportation for a family of three (if they're not thieving cheats) is $135. Which would be completely reasonable, if San Francisco's public transportation system was a well-oiled machine, with consistently reliable, safe and pleasant service.

Ha ha.

Muni is well, pretty bad. The buses are dirty, the schedules are a joke and the drivers hate everybody. (These same drivers are guaranteed the second-best salaries in the country. Seriously, guaranteed. It's in the city charter.)

Still, we have made our peace with Muni, rarely venturing from the No. 6/N Judah cow path we take to work. I take other buses as little as possible, preferring to use City Car Share. Last night I took the 43, and a fellow rider pounded a rear window until it gave way, then leaned out and shouted at pedestrians.

This year, we plan to buy a car. Then we'll use Muni even less, probably only to commute to our jobs downtown.

Unless ... Muni hits the magic number.

The SF Municipal Transportation Agency is proposing cuts to every Muni bus line to close a $16.9 million budget gap. Just a month ago, the SFMTA made a ton of service cuts and raised the price of monthly passes from $55 to $60. The cuts will reduce frequencies on every Muni line and increase fares for historic streetcars, express buses and cable cars. They also want to increase the Youth monthly passes.

When Ron and I arrived in San Francisco in 2007, the cost of a monthly pass was $45. Now it's $60. Obviously Muni is gunning for the passengers and the cost of the passes will keep rising. Quickly.

Hence the magic number. I figure that if adult monthly passes hit $90 each, and the youth pass is $30, the total cost is ... wait for it ... $220. The SFMTA is already talking about raising youth passes to $30.

So what will Ron and I do if monthly passes total $220? The answer is simple: Climb back into a car.

For $250-$300 a month, we can get a nice parking spot downtown near our jobs. Then we can ride into work every day in our car, dropping Benny off at school on the way. A nice, relaxing ride with the family twice a day. If Muni keeps raising its fares, while providing substandard service, why not drive?

Then we will be part of the problem, spewing carbon exhaust every day while adding to traffic congestion in this "Transit First" city.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My essay lives on

An essay I wrote for the SF K Files about Benny's Lucky Elementary has appeared on a San Francisco Chronicle blog. Click here to check it out.

The comments following the last parent essay on this blog are um ... vivid. Check out "crotch fruit," the newest hip phrase for "children." I know I should feel demeaned and offended, but I can't quite stop giggling. I can imagine introducing myself: "Hi, I'm a breeder and this is my crotch fruit." I guess I'm immature.


Benny at the Park

Here's Benny on the swings at the park near our apartment, courtesy of Ron's iPhone.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Christine Takes It to the Streets

The blog "Muni Diaries" posted my experience on a Muni bus this week. Check it out here.

I am outraged that a transit operator would treat customers in this matter. Think of that woman passenger who initially complained. How is she going to feel riding Muni every day, knowing that a whole bus heard her called an awful name? How is she going to feel knowing that if she speaks up about anything or stands up to herself, she's asking for abuse or name calling? Is this what SFMTA wants for their passengers? Is this what San Franciscans want for their city? And worst of all, no other passengers stood up in her defense — in fact, another passenger called her an obscenity. Is this the city we all want?

By the way, the comments are fun, too. One reader is having trouble making the intuitive leap required to connect this example of Muni's unsafe, unreliable and uncivil service and Muni's plan to cut service and increase fares. Why would one driver's behavior lead me to oppose drastic service cuts? Because if Muni can't provide safe, reliable and civil service now, what will the system be like after new layoffs and service cuts?