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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Skating at the Embarcadero

Ron, Benny, Andy and I went ice skating at the Embarcadero ice rink.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas with Benny

A happy Christmas with two presents, stockings, two leopards and one kitty.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Balancing Act in America

Feeling a little off-balance lately (have I ever been balanced?), I've been following a new blog called CW that's all about work-life balance.

And Chrysula — neat name — referred me to an intriguing column by NYT's Maureen Dowd, "Blue is the New Black."

But the more women have achieved, the more they seem aggrieved. Did the feminist revolution end up benefiting men more than women?

According to the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier.

It makes sense to me and generally, this can be traced back to one fact: Women put up with a lot.

A whole lot. They sigh and sign on and somehow feel that whether they actually want to do something is entirely beside the point. They constantly feel obligated, and guilty if they say no. Doing something just because they want to, or not doing something because they don't, is nearly unheard of.

Perhaps it comes down to control of your own life. So many women have utterly ceded control of their own lives to their husbands, kids, bosses and family. If you feel you have power and can make your own decisions, you're happier. If you feel yanked about by powers greater than you, even if you choose to be yanked, then you're not happy.

So maybe it's not so much a shock that men grow happier as they age and women grow less happy. As they get older, many men feel they have more control over their own lives -- their careers offer them more autonomy, they get more respect, they remain attractive. Whereas women get deeper into the childraising trenches, juggling jobs and family, which would be fine -- men are doing it too, after all -- except women don't make themselves a priority.

So women feel less powerful. They're spending their days on stuff that is important to others, not to them. (Experts don't think it's because women do most of the housework, by the way, men are working toward more parity.)

I agree with Dowd that it's because of this:

When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.

Yikes! No wonder we're miserable! Plus we have to look good doing it all too!

The key word here is, of course, judged. Women judge themselves -- hell, I judge myself -- under a powerful microscope. Every imperfection is highlighted. Do men live this way? I don't think so. They approach everything from an entirely different baseline. Let's say a school event comes up. I'd guess the first question an average guy would ask himself is: "Do I want to go?" The first question a woman would ask herself is: "Should I go?" See, totally different approaches here. Now maybe this guy and gal should go to the event, perhaps the end result is the same -- they go. And they go for the same reasons. But see how that first question makes a difference:

GUY: Hmmm, Back to School Night. A chance to see the kid's classroom and meet the teacher. Do I want to do that? Yeah, sort of. Might be interesting. Nothing else going on. (writes it down) Oh wait, there's a game that night. Well, I should go to this thing -- I'll tivo the game.

GAL: Oh, Back to School Night. A chance to see the kid's classroom and meet the teacher. I should really do this. It will be important to Kid, he'd be embarrassed if he was the only student there without a parent. Plus I'll look like a bad mother if I don't go. (writes it down) Oh wait, there's my book club that night. Well, I just don't have a choice, I'll just have to miss it.

So which one is happier about Back to School Night? The Guy, who has determined he wants to go and has made an independent choice to forgo the game because he feels it's important and he should be there? Or the Gal, who is crushed by the weight of Kid's expectations and other people's expectations? Deep down, she wants to go just as much as the Guy, but is it any wonder that she feels less happy about it?

In the end, this is rather abstract, because people don't fit into such tidy categories. And I think there is a very clear reason why I'm more content today than I was two or four years ago -- I feel more in control. I don't have to prove myself to anyone -- to the other parents or to my colleagues. I don't have to prove anymore that I can be a good editor after four years out of the newsroom. I don't have a toddler or preschooler any more. And now that our finances are more on an even keel, I feel less trapped.

So in the end, I think many women are feeling blue because they often feel powerless and trapped. But I also think that, in many cases, those women voluntarily give up their power and trap themselves.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ignorance is truly bliss

Reading the San Francisco Chronicle's web site is always an adventure. Today under the label WE RECOMMEND:

* Pregnant Pacifica woman killed by family pit bull
* Broadway actor who had teen sex drops Calif. show
* Giant rodent spotted on Calif Central Coast
* Woman dead in Caltrain collision -service halted
* Heart attack kills Philly cheesesteak stand owner
* Teen dies after falling on Yosemite hiking trail

Frankly, I don't want to read any of them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We attack Caturday, pass it on

Sadly, this product has been discontinued, but I'm scheming how to make one for Callisto.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

First Day of Second Grade

Here's Benny humoring his mother, standing outside his elementary school on his First Day. It was all very low key and non-drama. Maybe I'm getting the hang of this stuff. I could describe his attitude that morning only as "resigned." I think this year's going to be a little demanding for him, so I'm glad we got off to such an easygoing start.

Just for comparison, here are his First Day picture from kindergarten. Oddly enough, his expression is surprisingly similar.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Weekend for Grownups

Benny's worst nightmare.

We had a busy weekend recently, and not for the usual reasons. Looking back, it's clear that the schedule revolved around Ron and myself rather than Benny. That's rather unusual, because for many families the weekend revolves around kids' activities -- sports, practices, lessons, playdates, family outings with kids' activities and treats.

The weekend of Aug. 5 was a little different -- Ron and I pretty much set the tone and Benny was swept along, patient but a little nonplussed.

Friday was our company picnic. Benny spent the morning at the office playing "AdventureQuest" on the intern's computer before we all headed to Golden Gate Park. Ron and I had a very good time, sipping beer and wine and chatting with coworkers. Benny spent the first 90 minutes devouring mass quantities of hot dogs, chips, ice cream and cookies. He spent the second 90 minutes waddling around and moaning because his stomach hurt from the hot dogs, chips, ice cream, etc. By the end the day, he was exhausted.

Saturday was spent dashing around doing chores. Then at 5 p.m., we packed Benny's pajamas and drove him across town to the babysitter's. This was under protest, since he really wanted to stay home and watch TV and defeat the Americans in his "Civilization" video game. But Ron and I had plans to see a French movie and eat food that Benny hated, so off he went. We picked him up late and carried him to bed, wearing moose PJs from Yellowstone and wrapped in a Playboy bunnies fleece blanket.

But the fun didn't stop there for Benny. Ron was performing in a church bell choir Sunday morning, so he left the apartment early. Benny was allowed 45 minutes of cartoons before I made him put on his best sweater and drove him to a brunch.

A friend's parents were holding this 50-person buffet brunch at a beautiful home in San Francisco. There were children there, but most of them were babies and all of them were female. The food was amazing, with specialty breads and crackers served with a choice of eggplant spread or mashed chicken liver. Then there were fritattas and salmon and all kinds of confusing, delicious foodie dishes, all of which Benny hated. He wouldn't eat a thing, not even a muffin.

He spent most of the brunch drinking orange juice out of a champagne flute and trying not to drop things and knock things over. Benny is not a clumsy kid, but there was a lot of glass in this house. The poor kid couldn't even drink the orange juice at first because his well-meaning hostess put blueberries in it. He didn't say anything to her, just looked Eeyore-like at it until I fished the berries out. He drank it then, but not with enthusiasm. Then all the poor kid could do was follow me around until I took pity on him and found the dessert trays in the corner. Then I plied him with brownies until his stomach hurt again.

On Monday, he was stuck in the apartment while I worked from home. He spent most of the day re-enacting the Tour de France with his stuffed animals. I did take time out to make his stuffed camel a yellow jersey. Apparently he doesn't need water bottles because he has a hump. It was actually quite dramatic with Benny's commentary: "Does Horsey have the firepower to win? There's Chipmunk coming off the back end! And here comes Cow with everybody on his back wheel! Who will win the stage? Who? Who? ..."

But the fun didn't stop there on Monday. At 4 p.m. I knocked off work and we went ... wait for it ... Back to School Shopping. Yup, we went to four stores and a Target before he was rewarded with dinner at McDonald's. I really should have taken one of those giant carts at Target -- instead Benny and I walked around loaded down with stuff and poor Benny tripped and fell and dropped packets of underwear all over the cat litter aisle.

Things got much better for Benny on Tuesday, when Daddy Camp began. (It was the last week before school started and we hadn't arranged childcare -- oops.) They rode bikes, they played games, they ate hot dogs and played "Plants vs. Zombies." They also went to the grocery store, got haircuts, did laundry and vacuumed out the car. But at least Benny didn't have to eat chicken liver on toast.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Arrival Day 2011: Prithee, Peace!

Yesterday was Arrival Day, the fourth anniversary of our arrival in San Francisco. Ron and I try to remember that day each year, but generally can only celebrated with a nice lunch during the workday or a beer that evening.

This year's Arrival Day was much more fun. It was a Friday, first of all, and Ron and I drove to work that morning in our car (yay!) after dropping Benny off at Shakespeare Camp. Benny has been very cool about Shakespeare Camp, although he still contends he was lured into the camp under false pretenses. Two years ago we attended a summer camp expo and Shakespeare Camp had a booth full of toy swords and one of the "teacher artists" taught Benny swordplay. Well, after that it was all "I want to go to Shakespeare Camp." We couldn't afford it last year, but this year I laid out a shocking amount of money for the two-week camp.

Well, then Benny comes home the first day looking a little glum and I ask him how he went and he shook his head. "It's a lot of reading," he said. As the days went on, however, he started to get into his role as King Alonso in "The Tempest," making his crown and his sword and running around the apartment yelling "Prithee, peace!"

But he still feels like he was had -- he confessed to me that he always thought Shakespeare Camp meant you could shake a spear.

Yesterday we saw the result of all his hard work: "The Tempest". Ron and I worked a half day, and it was a good day for me. A special publication was going to press, called — and I swear I'm not making this up — Health Care Heroes. Thankfully, however, I was not the editor of that project, so I could bug out at 1 p.m.

We stopped at home to get Ron's Flip camera and went to the big Methodist church on Geary where the camp was held. We'd never been to any Benny performance except for Little League games, so I sat the whole time with my mouth half open while Benny said lines like:

"O thou mine heir
Of Naples and of Milan, what strange fish
Hath made his meal on thee?"

I must admit though, my favorite part was when Benny wore a mask and was a dog spirit — he hopped around the stage on his hands and knees and then crawled out the door.

After that, there was a cast party, where I met the amazing little girl who played Ariel. (She also plays the piano and the violin and does ballet.) Another girl who looked about Benny's age sat on a chair like a throne while her family surrounded her and gave her flowers and wrapped presents. Ron was immediately gripped with remorse because we didn't bring Benny anything, so we took him out for ice cream.

Then we went home and ordered Chinese for dinner and sat around watching the Roomba vacuum the living room and were happy.

It was a great Arrival Day.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Arrival Day 2007: How Far We've Come

Every year around this time we celebrate Arrival Day. It was July 22, 2007, when Ron and I loaded up 3-year-old Benny and the cat and flew to San Francisco. It was the culmination of 7 months of preparation, including six weeks of separation from Ron and five months of trying to sell the house.

It truly ranked as one of the most stressful periods of my life and every year I take a minute to see how far we've come. Four years ago on this day I was awake at 1 a.m. in our Ann Arbor house, our luggage piled in the empty living room. The whole house smelled like cleaning wipes, since we had a showing later that day.

By July 2008, I'd survived a year at the Business Times filling in for a senior editor, produced a giant real estate publication, negotiated the sale of our house to Andy and went with Ron and Benny on our first trip (a few days on the coast) since arriving in S.F.

By July 2009, we'd managed to to pay for Benny's fiendishly expensive school for two years and managed to score a spot in a good San Francisco elementary school. The recession was clamping down, with layoffs and paycuts at work, so we huddled in a tiny one-bedroom and concentrated on paying down debt.

By July 2010, we'd gone to Mt. Lassen — our first long family vacation since our RV trip to Shenandoah Valley in 2006. Four of our credit card lenders imposed giant APR hikes on our balances, requiring us to “opt out” and close the cards. We threw Benny's first real birthday party since he turned one and moved (finally) to a two-bedroom apartment that is walking distance to Benny's school. And July 2010 was a great month for us, even though Benny didn't like his summer daycare: we visited the Charles Shulz "Peanuts" museum, I joined a geology hiking group, and Benny and I went to Muir Woods.

Now here we are at July 2011. In the past year we bought a car (!)and I flew to Alabama with Benny to see Greg's graduation. We still miss Ron's dad, who passed away in November. In February we traveled to Death Valley and paid off most of our debt, thanks to an sum of money from Ron's dad. Benny joined spring Little League baseball and I wrote another NaNoWriMo novel. (You're supposed to write it all in November; it took me until April.) I visited Greg in Fort Hood, Texas, before he left for Afghanistan, and saw Cindy, Scott and Andy too. Then we topped it all off with a cross-country drive by way of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Yes, I'd say we've come pretty far.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Lego Helm's Deep

Benny didn't feel well yesterday, so he didn't go to camp and I worked from home. When I wasn't making photo assignments, reading stories and bugging reporters, Benny and I worked on a Lego project.

This is Helm's Deep, from the second Lord of the Rings book "The Two Towers." The orcs (red, yellow and blue bears) are attacking the mountain citadel while the soldiers of Rohan stand waiting on the walls. The mysterious Forest (green bears to the right) looms ominously, waiting to take its revenge on the orcs. Note the King's tall tower (complete with satellite dish) on the left, the little red orc preparing to scale the walls with a ladder, and another little red orc with a battle hammer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Home Again

The trip starts here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mad Dash Home

I must say, Idaho didn't quite live up to its hype. You may be wondering "What hype? Dancing potatoes?" I know, I know. For some reason I built up Idaho in my mind as a picturesque state, and perhaps it is in the north. In the south, however, driving along 86 and 84, it felt like a bit of letdown. However, this route did help us avoid Utah, which I've crossed at least three times already.

Unfortunately, Idaho couldn't help us with Nevada. We spent the night in Jackson Hole, and then pushed on through Nevada. Our original plan was to stop at Elko. But we were making good time and Ron was starting to think about getting home early so he could prepare for his Sunday flight to Washington, D.C. So we stopped at an underwhelming Mexican restaurant for dinner, then put Benny in his pajamas for some night driving.

We drove another 60 miles through a blinding, sinking sun on the horizon to Battle Mountain, where their one hotel was full. So we pushed on another 60 miles to Winnemucca, It was 10 p.m. and every hotel was full there, too. Well, not every hotel -- the Winners Hotel was only $50 a night and was never full, the helpful Holiday Inn desk clerk said. Did not sound good, so we reserved a hotel room in Sparks, just east of Reno. It was another 2 1/2-hour drive, and Ron groaned when I told him the news. We had to get more windshield wiper fluid, though, since we'd drained the minivan's supply washing away the battalions of squashed bugs during this drive. Ron entered a Chevron just minutes before it closed and we had a diverting 15 minutes trying to open the minivan's hood while Chevron's employees celebrated the end of their shift in the parking lot.

We woke up the next day groggy but determined to arrive in San Francisco that day. Benny was disappointed he couldn't see Lake Tahoe from I-80. Tahoe seems to be the vacation destination for the Bay Area. "Every week one of my friends goes to Tahoe," Benny said. "Sometimes three of them have gone. I think they meet up with each other." Certainly Ron's and my coworkers love to trade tips about Tahoe cabins and skiing. "The North Rim's the place to be," one likes to say wisely. Of course, Ron and I are so contrary that Benny will be lucky to see Tahoe before he's 18.

We emerged from the Sierra Nevadas and cross California's central valley, then enter the Bay Area. I found myself surprisingly excited to return to San Francisco. We found a parking spot for our Honda Fit across the street from our apartment and the parked the filthy, bug-splattered minivan in our garage space. Benny cheerfully toted bundles and small pieces of furniture up the stairs so we were settled at home in no time.

My last task that night was to check the trip odometer: 2,891.6 miles over 11 states in one week.

There's something satisfying about crossing a continent from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. We watched the whole panorama unfold: the waters of Lake Michigan, the congestion of Chicago, then through relatively flat Wisconsin and Minnesota to enter South Dakota's prairie. Then cross the Missouri River into the West, with mountains and monuments and the Rockies drawing ever closer. Then through the hills of Montana and Idaho down into the Nevada desert. A quick hop over the Sierra Nevada mountains, through the Central Valley and we find ourselves on the Bay Bridge, one minute after the toll goes from $5 to $6, but who's complaining.

I don't know what else to take away from it except this is the source of Americans' helpless obsession with automobiles and the lure of the open road. In Europe you want to throw a few stacks of cash in a carpet bag like Phineas Fogg and board the Orient Express to Paris-Munich-Vienna-Istanbul or the Trans-Mongolian Railroad to Moscow-Ulan Bator-Beijing. In America you want to point your car toward the setting sun and drive until you're too tired to see. Some writers say the last hundred years will be seen as an amazing anomaly, when ordinary people could just pile into a car and go anywhere, limited only by their money for gas. They say that era is coming to an end, and it is true such habits greatly harm the Earth. Twenty years from now, will Benny be able to rent a big minivan with unlimited mileage, fill it with his family and odd pieces of furniture and drive across the country? Has this trip passed on the precept that cars equal freedom to another generation?

Now I'm back in San Francisco, and tomorrow I'll take a bus to Benny's summer camp and then a train to work like the good tree-hugging liberal I am, but when I'm looking out the windows of the N-Judah, I'll probably imagine I'm driving through Yellowstone's Gallatin mountain range.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bison and Basement Rocks

Yellowstone Day! Ron had never been to the national park before and I hadn't seen it since I was 17. Benny spent the winding trip south to the park carefully ranking all the animals he wanted to see: "First bears, then bison, then antelope ... no, first bison, then bears, then antelope ... wait, there are moose? Okay, first bison, then bears, then moose, then wolves ... oh wait, the antelope ..."

I had cracked open my "Roadside Geology of Montana" again, since the route we chose took us through the length of Paradise Valley between two mountain ranges. I dutifully took pictures of mountains and moraines (those ridges left by the retreat of a glacier) and sandstone ledges, wondering why I bought the darn book. But then we came upon a great roadcut near the southern end of the valley. At Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone River, which we had been following for much of our travels in Montana, cuts through Precambrian basement rocks. These rocks are the oldest of the old, the rocks formed before life left any traces on earth. Basement rocks, as the name implies, are the bottom layer of the land, and generally considered the last rocks before the mantle (the plastic rock that the earth's plates float on).

Maybe it's the picky editor in me, but I always like to see the basement rocks of a region before I learn about all the mud and sand being laid down and then volcanoes barfing basalt all over the landscape. Montana's basement rocks are about 300 million years old.

Ron stopped the minivan so I could take some closer pictures. Fortunately there was a wide, graveled pullout opposite the roadcut, so I didn't have to take my life into my hands on a narrow shoulder the way I did in the Shenandoah Valley.

These Precambrian basement rocks are complexly folded gneisses (pronounced "nices").

We continued on to Yellowstone, grumbling slightly at signs warning us of a $25 entry fee, and had a nice surprise at the entry point. Since today was the first day of summer, all entry was free! What luck, to hit the most expensive park of the trip on June 21. We started twisting along to Mammoth Hot Springs when we saw a short line of cars pulled off to the side. Someone might have a flat, but generally pulled-over cars in Yellowstone mean one thing: wildlife.

We were not disappointed. Three shaggy bison were grazing by the roadside, unfazed by the vehicles.

We tried to have a picnic lunch at Sheepeater Cliff, but black flies clustered thickly under the trees, where the picnic tables were. So we ate in the minivan again. We haven't had much luck with the picnic lunches on this trip, really. Afterwards we climbed all over the cliff, which is actually basalt lava that broke into columns as it cooled about 500,000 years ago.

We arrived at Old Faithful just as it began its eruption.

And the park said goodbye with a final sighting of wildlife. Probably mule deer.

We stayed the night at a very nice Holiday Inn Express in Jackson Hole, which looked a little forlorn with its ski slopes bare of snow. Tomorrow we head to our ninth state: Idaho.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Little Bighorn

It was a big day today -- we went to see Montana and Little Bighorn Battlefield. I'd visited both when I was 17, on a trip with my family and grandparents before leaving for college. While I remember the Badlands, Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore from that trip, I'd completely blocked out Little Bighorn, coming near the end of a long road trip. I guess I was burned out after too many scenic vistas and big pancake breakfasts.

The rockies still lined the western horizon, touching the heavy gray clouds, as we crossed into Montana and sped north on I-90 to Little Bighorn. We all were a little grumpy -- the minivan was beginning to resemble an attic on wheels, what with the bundles of clothing and piled-up furniture. Benny had rediscovered the paper airplane kit my mother had given him and was complaining because we wouldn't let him cut paper during the drive. The rocks along this stretch were a big yawner, all sandstones and shales. We stopped at a market to stock up the cooler, planning a picnic lunch at the national monument. But there were no picnic tables or areas at Little Bighorn, so we munched peanut butter sandwiches in the minivan while Ron read aloud about Gen. Custer and the battle.

The fine displays at the Little Bighorn visitors center cheered us up. Five years after I last visited in 1986, the Custer Battlefield National Monument was renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Efforts were made to incorporate the Native American perspective and red granite blocks were added to mark spots where Native American warriors fell. We headed to the back porch where we listened to a mesmerizing talk that covered the geographic, social, military and economic causes of the battle. In 1868 a treaty had been signed giving the region to the natives, but gold was discovered six years later in the Black Hills and the army couldn't keep the settlers out. Although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war to protect their independent, nomadic way of life.

Ordered to attack the Indian encampment, Major Reno galloped down into this valley and crossed the Little Bighorn river. The attack failed and his shattered battalion retreated to the bluffs.

Benny with a red granite marker for Cheyenne warrior Lame White Man.

Soon we're on the road again. The sky has cleared and the Rockies are bigger now. We spend the night in Livingston, Montana, and plan to drive down to Yellowstone's north entrance in the morning.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

There's a Mastadon Following Us

Well, we missed the missile site, which was a shame, because I'd looked forward to a brief moment of contemplating the Cold War that had millions of 1950s schoolchildren cowering under their desks. But it was cold and rainy this morning, with ominous storm clouds spreading over South Dakota's enormous sky. We at fistfuls of Cheerios in our dreary motel room and scrambled into our clothes for an early start.

A light rain was falling as we drove into the Badlands. Benny hopped around on the Door Trail while I stood on the platform with my umbrella. Tour buses disgorged dozens of shivering tourists in shorts. A lovely family with three children tripped by, all dressed in shiny raincoats, rain hats and boots. I looked at my flip flops and Benny's wet t-shirt and ball cap and sighed.

We drove through a downpour to Rapid City and dashed into an Applebee's for lunch. Benny laid out his new plastic cowboys, Indians and Wild West animals (which included a buffalo and a giant meerkat). Ron studied the map and I ate a giant bowl of pasta. We decided to check out the nearby Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "World-Renowed!" the web site claimed, sounding like an 1880 Town billboard. But it promised to be dry, anyway.

Well, the museum was superb. It highlighted fossils in South Dakota and Wyoming: Oligocene mammals, giant marine reptiles, Jurassic dinosaurs. Benny was immediately taken by a giant Mastadon skull hanging 13 feet above the floor. We admired the skeleton of a 29-foot mosasaur, a reptile which swam in the shallow inland sea that covered much of North America. Back in the Badlands visitors center, we'd seen a lovely tableau of a big piglike animal ripping flesh off a little rhinoceros stuck in the mud while a small three-toed horse snuck away. Here in the museum we saw the bones of those three animals.

At the gift shop, Benny scored a toy mastadon and a sabre-toothed cat to threaten his plastic Indians and cowboys. I bought a copy of "Roadside Geology of Montana" and the woman behind the counter didn't look at me strangely at all. But then, she was wearing a T-shirt that said "Sedimentary, My Dear Watson."

We emerged from the museum and lo, the sun shone brightly. We dashed to Mt. Rushmore, which I hadn't seen since Ron and I drove a moving truck from Kalamazoo, Mich., to San Francisco in 1999, right after we returned from Prague. Benny clutched his mastadon while we hiked around the monument.

The four presidents are carved into the Harney Peak granite batholith, a huge expanse of continental rock that cooled underground, like the Sierra Nevada batholith in California. Mt. Rushmore's granite cuts across older schist, which was originally mud and dirty sand on an ancient sea bottom. You can see the color change below Washington where the white granite overlies the gray schist.

Then it was time to race the rain to Wyoming. There were the Rockies ahead, blue and distant, their swirling snowpacks blending with the overhanging clouds. We spent the night in Gillette, Wyo., and prepared to enter Montana the next day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

South Dakota and 5-Cent Coffee

I'm writing this post in a 1950s time warp in Kadoka, South Dakota, typing away to the creak creak creak of the rusted-out swings outside our motel room door. Touted as the "Gateway to the Badlands," the motel was probably cute in the 50s, rundown in the 70s and now edges toward the decrepit. But it's been a long drive from Sioux Falls and we're not inclined to be picky.

Checking in at the lobby was delayed by the woman in front of me, who counted out eight 10-dollar bills with painstaking care. Behind me were six motorcyclists in leather and little matching bandanas. They talked about some big motorcycle rally and when the motel clerk mentioned a motorcyclist discount, I immediately said, "My hog's out front," but I don't think he believed me.

We ate dinner at a restaurant/gift shop across the street, where I found a copy of the book "Roadside Geology of Southern Dakota." The cashier stared as I brought it to the counter. "That book's been here forever,” she said. “We wondered what kind of person would buy it.” Then she eyed me suspiciously.

We woke up this morning in a Sioux Falls Holiday Inn, where Ron let me sleep in and took Benny to its fairly extensive water park. As we barreled down I-90, I tried to distract a bored Benny by telling him the plots of the Little House books set in South Dakota. He was quite intrigued, so much so that we took a not-so-quick detour to De Smet, the setting of the last three books. Benny has decided that he wants a farm now, and bought some toys at the Laura Ingalls gift store and spent the next 60 miles enacting elaborate scenarios involving a stuffed chipmunk, a stuffed horse and a wooden gun.

Traveling by covered wagon

Benny's ready for school on the prairie

East and west South Dakota are quite distinct, divided by the Missouri River, East South Dakota is all prairie and pretty farms with lots of water and west South Dakota is hilly and rugged with a daffy western obsession.

Ron and Benny at the Missouri River in South Dakota

After we crossed the Missouri, the billboards became more aggressive and pleading, sprinkled with cheery Wall Drug signs touting 5-cent coffee. Then they turned positively menacing as we neared 1880 Town. 1880 Town was amazing, we were told, it was exciting, it was nothing we have seen before. We simply could not miss it. Bad things happened to people who missed it. It had dinosaurs! It was 40 miles away, it was 30 miles, 20 … 10 … 8 … 5 …. We pressed our noses to the windows, anxious to see this fabled place. And there it was, a tiny fake town attached to a big Shell gas station. As we drove on without stopping, I half-expected to see a billboard saying “Did You Miss 1880 Town? Turn Around Now!” I’m sure tomorrow we’ll see a billboard saying “Did You Skip 1880 Town? How Do You Sleep At Night?”

We officially started this cross-country drive from South Haven, Mich., to San Francisco on Thursday. The first week of our vacation was a rushed, pollen-induced haze of sorting papers, mopping basements, hauling carpets and chauffeuring an antique cabinet all over Berrien County. I also caught a bad cold. But there was lots of family time and cookouts on the grill. I saw only brief glimpses of Benny as he spent every moment with his cousins.

Benny in Ann Arbor, Mich.

At 1 p.m. Thursday we finally hit the road, with Ron in the driver’s seat, Benny napping in the back and me sneezing in the front. Chicago traffic slowed us considerably, but we made it to Madison, Wisconsin by dinnertime and spent the night at Ron’s niece Christina’s condo.

On Friday morning, I was still a sneezing, coughing wreck, but we piled into the rented minivan and drove across Minnesota with grim determination.

But life became all kinds of better after a night at a very nice Holiday Inn. This morning my cold was almost gone and Benny has adjusted to road life and no longer demands snacks every half hour. Tomorrow we see the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and quite possibly the Minuteman Missile Site. I simply cannot miss the missile site. It might have dinosaurs.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cover Letter

The Cincinnati Review recently received this brilliant cover letter. Who would ever have the nerve to reject such an applicant?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sipping the Texas Tea

Unless you're me, then you're drinking Kahlua Martinis in Austin. Anyway, here are some photos from my Texas visit a few weeks ago to see my brother Greg. He's an Army helicopter pilot and is heading overseas this week.

My sister Cindy, her husband Scott and my brother Andy arrived for the weekend as well. We took a tour of Fort Hood, had a great weekend in Austin, watched the Red Wings and stayed up Sunday night to hear the news about Osama bin Laden.

I really liked Austin and would return in a heartbeat. A great steak dinner, lots of cool bars and dressed-up girls wearing beauty queen sashes. Is that something young women do in Texas?

Here are some pictures:

Look out Andy! Tanks are coming out of the trees behind you!

A Soviet-built T-55 tank. It can lay its own smoke screen and has an infrared searchlight. The tank was captured by the 1st Cavalry Division during Desert Storm. Can I have one of my very own?

Cindy's hanging out with the PT-76, a Soviet amphibious light tank from the 50s.

Here we are in the lounge of an Austin Hilton.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Viewing my life through the funhouse mirror

Corporations attempting to appeal to women would be much more successful if they weren't so creepy and patronizing about it.

Here's a hilarious post about a Proctor & Gamble coupon book presumably targeting stay-at-home moms. My faves: The page where diapers and female products are displayed together and the picture of the woman feeding her man his dinner by hand.

This reminds me of a post I wrote long long ago about an issue of Ladies' Home Journal, which portrayed women as crazed insomniacs cooking artichoke hearts and fretting over nuclear winter when they weren't trying on culottes and putting salicylic acid on their face.

Not to mention a column about Franklin Covey organizers who assume if you're a man, you build infrastructure and buy swim goggles and if you're a woman, you make manicure appointments and plan the Collins' anniversary party.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Swinging with the Pendulum

I'm a little burned out on reading history right now, so I've selected a baffling novel called "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco. It was an international bestseller in its day, which means that people all over the world bought the book and pretended they knew what the hell it was about. "Endlessly diverting ... intricate and absorbing," Time magazine called it, but then they probably had fact checkers to help figure out the hundreds of obscure references packed into every page.

It's been a long time since I've read a book where I didn't know every other word, which means A. I'm brilliant or B. I've been lazy bum who reads too much Philippa Gregory. I suspect the second. Since FP is supposed to be a thriller, and it promises a fair amount of mayhem, I'm going to take it on.

But since I don't have a scholar versed in philosophy and religion in my pocket (or even in my life, which might be a good thing), I have to go it alone with the help of Google. So far this morning I've learned the definition of sublunar (earthly), chthonian (relating to the underworld), chelae (claws), archons (evil forces) and much more. And I'm only to page seven. I had to look up the first word in the book "Kester," meaning crown in Hebrew.

(One of the things, I've learned, by the way, is to use, NOT The second site is totally wretched, with skimpy definitions and appalling ads. When I'm trying to improve my mind, the last thing I need are gross pictures of yellow teeth to advertise whiteners, or cartoon women squeezing their stomach fat. Please Lord, bring back the dancing mortgage people!)

Ahem! Back to FP ( no, I am not typing Foucalult's Pendulum over and over). I'm not sure why I'm reading this book, which I picked up at a preschool yard sale for $3.50 two years ago and have been trying to ignore ever since. It looks intriguing, I guess, and I know very little about theology and philosophy and the Knights Templar. One could argue this is a good thing and I'm just taking a short route to a permanent headache, and that's probably true. But it's a challenge, and I'm always one for challenges that have no physical risk or practical use whatsoever.

Plus, those first few pages have been kind of neat. He's got a nice turn for imagery, this guy. His description of the swinging pendulum in a Paris museum of machines and inventions was striking. "Here the pendulum is flanked by the nightmare of a deranged entomologist," he writes, comparing the skeletons of early airplanes, bicycles, autos and other machines to mechanical insects. The museum itself, the Conservatoire National des Arts et M├ętiers or Museum of Arts and Crafts, is housed in an ancient priory, Saint Martin Des Champs, and seems to foreshadow the violent conflict between art, science and philosophy.

I don't plan to blog exhaustively about this little project (really - you can relax now), but I might mention it once in a while. I leave you today with a neat quote I found while searching for the definition of simulacra:

What we want is not freedom but its appearances. It is for these simulacra that man has always striven. And since freedom, as has been said, is no more than a sensation, what difference is there between being free and believing ourselves free?

E.M. Cioran (b. 1911), Rumanian–born-French philosopher. "Strangled Thoughts," sct. 3, The New Gods (1969, trans. 1974).

(Oh, and by the way, the Pendulum is no longer at Saint Martin Des Champs. It's in the Pantheon now. )

Friday, April 15, 2011

Well, that's done

You find me today on the field of victory, fresh from completing my National Novel Writing Month novel.

NaNoWriMo, as participants call it, issues a challenge each November to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. In 2002, I wrote a science fiction novel titled "Killer Robots Never Work." In 2003, I wrote a novel that borrowed heavily from Greek Mythology called "Escaping Olympus." Then I took a few years off, returning to start a goofball murder mystery based on the Da Vinci Code called "The Fred Code." I made it to 14,000 words before giving up.

Now I have another completed NaNo novel, this one so sappy and shamelessly derivative that I'm too embarrassed to tell you the title. I call it the Stealth Novel. The only person who gets to read it is Benny, who provided many of the plot twists and the bright idea to set the climatic final scene in a swamp. Every few days he asks me to bring it out and read it to him and I oblige, skipping over any scenes I deem too violent, sexy or laced with profanity. (Sometimes I have to skip entire chapters.)

My favorite scene in the novel is when my bad guy spontaneously combusts. Well, it wasn't spontaneous, really — I mean, the Really Bad Gal intended it to happen, but she hoped he'd end up as a charred corpse. Instead, she got carried away and he ended up as a pile of ashes, which really ticked her off.

Anyway, the paragraph above should make it clear why Stealth Novel will never be sent out to publishers. But I consider it a great achievement anyway, I mean, writing 50,000 words is always worth a pat on the back, as long as it isn't the same word repeated 50,000 times.

Now, you more astute readers will be thinking, "Hmmm, write a novel in the month of November, eh? But it's ... April."

Well spotted. Yes it is April, which means it took me five and a half months to write the thing. I was at about 25,000 words when Ron's father passed away, and I did not hesitate to put Stealth Novel on the shelf, with an earnest promise to myself I would finish it later.

But there is no harder goal to achieve than a goal without a deadline, and it was so easy to shove the novel aside whenever I was hungry, tired, stressed or simply anxious to get to the next level of "Metal Gear Solid." (I'm fighting some villain in Prague with a rocket launcher now.)

But as Tolkien once said about another fantasy novel that also has a swamp, "I felt that the story could not be wholly abandoned." Except in my case it wasn't because I was producing a classic loved by millions of readers, but because I had made that promise in November. And I, for one, am sick of breaking writing promises to myself. I've got a file drawer and computer hard drive stuffed with unfinished works: plays, stories, memoirs. I couldn't bear the prospect of having yet another half-finished draft cluttering my mind.

So now that I've finished my Stealth Novel and crossed one more item off my To Do list, I'm turning to my next unfinished project: a memoir about our move to San Francisco in 2007 as the housing crisis and recession hit. And yes, I will finish it. And no, I won't set the ending in a swamp.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Visual Aids

We plan to pay off all our credit card debt this summer, which is quite exciting. We've already eliminated some cards. For anyone unclear on how I feel about our debt I've included some illustrations:

This has been our credit card debt for four years:

This is our credit card debt now:

This will be our credit card debt at the end of the summer:

The last picture illustrates our debt once we're paying off our balances every month. Credit cards are mischevious, though, you have to watch them or they'll sink a little claw into you.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

SF Little League Upper Farm Royals with SF Giants World Series trophy

Benny and his Little League Team (plus team parent Ron) get to pose with the 2010 World Series Trophy.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Sunny day

Here's Callisto looking out our apartment window on a sunny day last week.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Good Life in Death Valley

I'm sitting in front of my computer today in a little sunstroke-induced daze after our four days in Death Valley.

Death Valley is a huge national park tucked between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the state of Nevada, about 530 miles from San Francisco. We planned to leave early Thursday morning, but it was 10 a.m. before we were all tucked into the Honda Fit and backing out of the garage. We were feeling pretty good about our frenzied, last-minute preparations until we passed Livermore on 580 and realized that we'd forgotten Benny's suitcase.

It was an odd time for a vacation, I know. This four-day weekend was provided courtesy of the San Francisco Unified School District. Thursday was the Lunar New Year and Friday was a Furlough Day — otherwise known as We Can't Afford To Educate Your Kid Today day.

So we decided to drive our Fit, which has logged only 2,000 miles since we acquired it in August, to Death Valley and see what the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America looks like. It looks like this (click to enlarge):


We made good time and stopped at a Bakersfield Target to buy groceries and clothes for Benny. But long hours in the car is tough on a kid and he had a major meltdown when we wouldn't buy him a pack of 24 Pokemon cards to go with the 230 cards he received for his birthday. We left Bakersfield with Benny red-faced and hiccuping in the backseat, announcing that he hated vacations.

View from Dante's Peak

After a peanut butter sandwich for dinner and a bathroom break on the side of a lonely highway, Benny fell asleep. We drove up the Panamint Valley toward the park and started climbing the Panamint Range to enter the desert valley. It was nearly pitch black as we climbed the looping narrow road. We couldn't see past the guardrails and I kept picturing a yawning abyss just inches away. There were hardly any other cars, so it was just us, the stars and dim shadows of mountains. Finally the road began to drop steadily and wind less and we drove through tiny settlements to Stovepipe Wells Village, checking in at about 9 p.m.

The morning, however, was glorious. A perfectly flat valley, 150 miles long, ringed by a wall of mountains up to 11,000 feet. Snow-topped Telescope Peak brooded to the south. We piled back into the car and drove to the nearby sand dunes, 14 miles of soft beachlike sand. Benny ran about and played Pokemon Chicken (don't ask). It was climbing to a high of 72, and the weather remained that mild for the entire trip. But the sun was still relentless and the air was bone dry — I spent the trip under a Death Valley baseball cap and covered in layers of lotion, sunblock and aloe chapstick.

Sand Dunes

But we didn't have all day to play Pokemon Chicken in the sand dunes. I had a List. Fans of the Elizabeth Peters novel "Crocodile on the Sandbank" might find my List familiar. In that novel, the 19-century heroine has hired a boat to cruise down the Nile, looking at the tombs. Most tourists simply rode straight along the river, visiting tombs along the way. The heroine wanted to visit the tombs in chronological order, which meant drifting down to one tomb, then forcing the locals to row her back upstream to the next, then back up to the next, then drift down to ... well, you get it. All so she could see 3rd Dynasty Old Kingdom tombs before the New Kingdom tomb of Tutmosis III.

Well, Amelia Peabody lived on in my List. There were 18 stops, from Precambrian to the Quaternary, and this meant starting with Badwater's 1.7 billion-year-old gneiss to the south and then dashing north to Titus Canyon's 500 million-year-old limestones. Let's just say that the sand dunes were not exactly first on my list, being very recent features. Benny hopped out of the Fit, shouting "The sand dunes! They're number 12 on Mommy's list, but we're gonna see them now!" A nearby retired couple heard him and cracked up.

We stopped at Furnace Creek, the central settlement in Death Valley, for lunch, where Benny found a map of the United States in the gift shop. This map's drawings of all the major buildings, monuments and features in the country captivated Benny and he spent the rest of the day hidden behind it, like a 1950s husband behind his newspaper at breakfast. Whenever I tried to point out a particularly fetching alluvial fan, Benny would just grunt.

He did like Badwater, though, elevation 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is very conscientious about keeping tourist updated about their elevation. Unless one lives in the Himalayas, a person's current elevation isn't something to be constantly checked. In Death Valley, though, green signs constantly update drivers on their elevation. "Oh look," I'd say. "We just gained another hundred feet." Yawn.

Badwater's contorted, ancient rocks

Still, it is kind of cool to stand in a sun-baked salt pan below sea level and look at the ancient, contorted, metamorphasized Black Mountains. Then we drove back to the hotel, where Ron, worn out from three crazy days of writing an entire biotech section, followed by an 11-hour drive, collapsed on the bed. So I took Benny to Mosaic Canyon, No. 2 on my list.

The history-minded might remember how Queen Marie Antoinette had a little pretend farm near Versailles, where she and her ladies could milk the cows with porcelain pails engraved with her initials. Well, if Marie Antoinette had suddenly decided she wanted to hike a canyon, she would have commissioned a Mosaic Canyon. Running water cut into a mountain made of Precambrian limestone and dolomite created when Death Valley was a tropical sea. The rock was transformed into marble, and the rocks and debris washed down the crack polished the marble to a smooth sheen. It was stunningly beautiful. Benny was in heaven, sliding down the smooth marble slopes on his butt.

Mosaic Canyon

After we woke Ron up and got some dinner into him, we headed back out to the sand dunes. One thing about traveling in February is that (and I can't be the first one to have noticed this) the days are short. By 5 p.m., any sightseeing is pretty much done. So by 7 p.m. it was dark enough for stargazing.

It was an amazing show, all the twinkling, flashing and shooting stars. The Milky Way banded the moonless sky and smudgy nebulae were scattered among the constellations.

Benny tore his shoe wide open on a rock, so the next day we stopped at Stovepipe Wells' general store to buy duct tape. I wound half a roll around his shoe and after he wallowed in some desert dust, it blended right in. Then we headed to No. 3, Titus Canyon a narrow slash in the mountains and impressive in a gosh-am-I-in-a-Hollywood-Western kind of way. After that, we departed from my list to check out Ubehebe Crater. The mile-wide crater was formed by an explosive basalt volcano, so the surrounding area was covered with black, volcanic debris, which clashed with the brown stripes in the crater itself.

Ubehebe Crater

We were standing around looking at a crater when suddenly a loud, jet-engine kind of rumble exploded behind us. Another eruption? No, merely a giant tour bus, stuffed with retired Asian tourists, who swarmed out, the women with big hats and the men in big cameras. They covered the area like locusts, snapping pictures of everything in their path as the tour bus idled and belched exhaust. We fled to the car to eat lunch. Then after 10 minutes, like there was some sort of silent signal, all 400 of them raced back to the bus. (And I mean raced, it was like the bus was going to leave without them and they'd have to hike to Las Vegas or something.) The bus' engine exploded into action, rumbled down the slope and disappeared.

Time to get back on the List again. We drove south to Dante's Peak, a splendid overview of the Valley, first stopping at Furnace Creek again. There we bought Benny another map (this one of the world) and saw our only wildlife at Death Valley — a road runner in front of a phone booth at the gas station.

View from Dante's Peak

We turned in early that night, because the next day we were driving home and Ron and Benny wanted to catch part of the Super Bowl. And by now we were a little tired of the bleak, brown desert. I just wanted to see a tree. We headed down the Panamint Valley again, passing a series of depressed, rusted-out little towns. One town was particularly desolate and its only remarkable feature was a big gleaming high school. "Why is it so messy here, Mommy?" Benny asked. Ron and I could only guess that the mining jobs that created the town had disappeared, leaving only boarded up buildings and hundreds of high-schoolers to educate.

I'm proud to say we arrived home for the second half of the Super Bowl and Benny and Ron cheered on the Packers while I lay in the bedroom and streamed "The Tudors" on NetFlix. I did emerge for the last quarter, however. Great game. Groupon mortally offended Ron with its "Too bad for Tibet, but hey they make great fish curry" ad and he emailed him and wrote a blog about it. Groupon, of course, is offended that anyone could be such a dip as to be offended.

So here we are home again, where we learned that while we were enjoying 72-degree days in Death Valley, it was 80 degrees in San Francisco. Apparently we went to the desert to escape the San Francisco heat. Go figure. We will definitely return to Death Valley, if for no other reason than that I have 12 more stops on my List.