Photo of the month

Ben takes a break from a hard, cold January afternoon spent raking leaves in the back yard. He's about done with the job after bagging at least four sacks of the debris of another autumn. Meanwhile, Dad has been busy pruning trees and our daylight is about as spent as we are. Photo by Glenn.

January 2007

Christmas morn has dawned and it's time to check out Santa's booty. Ben digs into his stocking on the living room floor. Photo by Glenn.

The Christmas bread turns out a bit different every year. This one was very bready and a late riser in the oven. A bit much vanilla in the icing added a stronger flavor and darker color than usual, but overall perhaps a 7.5-out-of-10. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn poses with the movie-lover's gift basket that was a gift from Ben and made up by our friend Kathy at Video Cinema in Oakley. The basket contained a DVD of "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." Photo by Roni.

How does a man get through nearly 19 years of marriage without a tool box? Roni saw to it that Glenn at last received his rite of passage into handyhusbandry. Photo by Roni.

This shirt begs the obvious answer where Ben's passion is concerned. The Gehlke Family's number-one gamer did OK for himself on Christmas Day, scoring a new Playstation 2 and several game titles. Photo by Glenn.

No, it isn't storytime theater for kitty cats, but Eevee is curious about the origin of one of Roni's many books that appeared under the tree. This hardback once resided on the shelves of the New York Public Library and came scented with that unmistakable used library book aroma. Photo by Glenn.

In what was likely the worst kept secret of the holidays, Roni smiles after opening her gift pack of Mo's BBQ sauces. We mail ordered it from Pismo Beach, but she intercepted the package when UPS left it on our doorstep. Doh! Photo by Glenn.

Ben and Glenn enjoy a game of ping pong in the garage late Christmas morning. Glenn assembled the table the week before Christmas, and because it was too big to hide anywhere else and too awkward to move often, in the garage is where it will stay until better weather in the spring. Photo by Roni.

Ben was already a seasoned ping pong player before receiving the table, having played the game in his P.E. class at school. We had a ball chasing lost balls about the cluttered garage. Photo by Glenn.

"Yeah, yeah. You guys get all the cool presents and what do I get? This dorky catnip toy." Photo by Glenn.

We jump ahead to New Year's Eve. Actually, it is a few minutes after midnight and we are taking part in our tradition of eating sour cream herring — something about it being bad luck to eat anything else before it after the start of the new year, if you believe all that. Resolutions don't usually have a good track record, but Glenn accomplished at least one of his in 2006, losing 23 pounds. Of course, he put about 10 of them back on with that first bite of herring... Photo by Roni.

Roni's sister Jacki and her family came to visit New Year's Day. It isn't every day we get these two together, so here they are. Smile, girls. Photo by Glenn.

Ben attempts to repair the damage that fowls and foul weather have wrought on the protective tree wrap we installed on our ailing mulberry back in October. This year will be the test of whether our efforts to revive the tree are successful. Photo by Glenn.

The evergreen ash tree has come of age and is now littering leaves like the big boys. This is a closeup of the fallen foliage that covered our back yard before Ben took a rake to the mess Jan. 7. Photo by Glenn.

Ben makes his first foray into cooking by mixing up the ingredients for meatballs. Yeah, gotta get your hands dirty for this task, son. Photo by Glenn.

If you don't like it, you gotta complain to the chef. Of course, that's difficult to do when you are the chef. No complaints tonight! Photo by Glenn.

With our new TV on the way, we spent Jan. 14 rearranging the furniture in anticipation. Here we have already disconnected the old RCA 36-inch set from the living room and are trying to figure out what to do with all this stuff. Photo by Glenn.

And here is our new TV... er, actually this is the interim solution to our TV viewing needs. The bench will be part of the new display, but the 19-inch set will be going away shortly. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn goes about the tricky task of adding the mounting brackets to the back of the new Hitachi, which was delivered early the morning of Jan. 16. Photo by Roni.

And here it is all finished. The bench is more than merely decorative; it serves to mostly hide the video component cables, which we elected not to route through the wall. By the way, nothing quite like watching Conan O'Brien in widescreen HD. Photo by Glenn.

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Changing channels: A case for more space

January 23, 2007

Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas? We did, but it took us a bit longer than Santa's tight schedule allowed during the latter days of December. In fact, we were into the third week of what has been a frigid January before the last of the presents showed up on our doorstep. More on that momentarily, but first back to the weather report.

We don't generally do winter here in the Bay Area, and when we do we're usually stuck in the 50s. It's not like other parts of the country where they routinely get snow and ice and have to cope with miserable driving conditions, etcetera and so on. No, here we like things mild. So when the mercury dips below 40 degrees we start to panic. And there's been a lot of panic the past couple of weeks. California got blasted by some arctic cold front that sent our temperatures plummeting into the upper 20s on at least a couple of nights and reminded us what it is we usually like about where we live — the fact that such events don't happen very often. It probably has to do with global warming, yet seeing as we're all bundled in sweatpants and sweaters and shivering, you'd have to work pretty hard to sell us on that theory right now.

A lot of farmers are hurting in the wake of record cold that destroyed their citrus and field crops. For us, the biggest impact was ice on our car windows in the morning and a couple days of having to run the heater because we simply couldn't stand doing without. When your fingers are too cold to type and actually start to turn blue indoors, you know it's time to break down and use the heat or hide under several layers of blankets. We've been seeing a lot of low-30s, and on the morning of Jan. 16 the temperature in Roni's car was a chilling 28 degrees — cold enough that the garden hose was frozen solid when she attempted to use it to water down the car before taking Ben to school.

Yeah, we know, all you Easterners, Northerners and Midwesterners are getting a good chuckle over us whining about how cold it is. Probably about the same as the gales of laughter we experience when y'all fly into a tizzy over 2.0 earthquakes in your neck of the woods. Hey, it's okay; we all have our limits of endurance. It just happens that our thermal layers are a bit less conditioned in these parts, so as long as you're willing to share some of that excess heating oil you haven't been burning this winter we'll do just fine until we reconnect with the 70s sometime in March.

Wish we could have had some of this winter chill a month ago, when we were in the midst of the holidays. It just doesn't feel like Christmas when the only snow on the ground is in the form of foam packing peanuts that escape from the garage while you're trying to liberate a tangle of Christmas lights and other decorations from the bottom of a pile of stuff. Yep, even though we rented that huge debris box back in July and eliminated some of the mess in the garage, it seems to have found its way back during the past six months. This becomes painfully obvious around Christmas time, when it seems that everything comes packed in cardboard, Styrofoam and plastic bags. All that packaging eventually ends up in the garage until spring when the garbage company takes pity and sponsors a semi-annual cleanup day. In the meantime, we have to get creative about the way we store it all.

Part of the reason we are having garage storage issues now is because for Christmas we decided to buy Ben a ping pong table. This was not something we planned to do, but once the idea popped into Roni's head it suddenly seemed like the perfect gift. We liked it because we knew he'd never expect it amid his collection of video games that found their way under the tree. So we shopped around until we found a great sale on a ping pong table at K-mart. The reason the sale was great was because all the required labor to assemble it fell squarely on our shoulders, or more specifically Glenn's shoulders.

We had this plan to surprise Ben with the table Christmas morning. We'd get it all assembled and then stash it away in the den where we'd let him "discover" it, then we'd move it to the living room where everyone would have a grand afternoon batting the ball back and forth across the net. What actually happened was that the table came fully unassembled in a box that weighed perhaps 100 pounds. The Tuesday before Christmas we unloaded it in the garage (when there was still space there to unload such things) and Glenn vowed to begin work on it that night after returning home from work. There were at least two problems with this plan: first, working in a cold garage at night with poor lighting isn't much fun; second, there wasn't enough floor space available to spread out the pieces. This meant all the assembly work would have to be done indoors, which meant we could only work while Ben was at school.

The other thing we quickly discovered was that the table came in four sections, two sections that had to be joined together for each half. An assembled half was too large and too heavy for one person to move. Glenn attached the hardware, then Roni helped move the two halves into the den to hide them until the following day when we did the final assembly work. On Thursday before Christmas — the last day of school before Ben's winter break — we feverishly worked to finish the table. When it was done, we folded it up like the instructions showed and prepared to wheel it back to the den for safe keeping until Christmas morning. Oops! Didn't realize that it would be so tall — too tall to fit through the den door! The only remaining option was to roll it out the front door, down the porch, around the front of the house, and into the garage. Of course on the day we had to do this it was pouring rain. Yet that was a minor setback compared to fitting it into the garage. We tossed aside as much junk as we could and then spread the table open, having realized already there was no way it would fit in the living room and not relishing the idea of moving it again for a while.

On Christmas Day, in addition to his other gifts, Ben received a package with a bucket of 36 ping pong balls. Then later, he opened a box with a couple of paddles. He'd been learning how to play ping pong as part of a school P.E. class and was curious about the gift. "Now all we need is a table," he said. We tried to throw him off the trail. "Well," Glenn said, "we thought we could play on the dining room table." "What about a net?" he asked. "We could get some wood blocks and make a little wall in the middle," Glenn said.

That was the last of the conversation until after all the other presents were opened, when Glenn made an excuse to venture into the garage and waited there for Ben to follow him. After some coaxing from Roni, he eventually did find his way there and said he expected something like this might be up. Still, he was delighted to have the table, and we spent perhaps an hour out there in the cold and clutter playing ping pong. It was a good thing Roni decided to get him the bucket of three dozen balls, because with all the junk in the way we were going through a ball every few minutes. We went through at least half the bucket on the first day.

Come late spring we plan to move the table outside to the back patio and store it under a tarp to protect it from the elements when not in use. Then, we'll likely retrieve the many balls the garage has eaten. Until then, the table sits ready but mostly unused while we wait out the end of the cold weather.

The ping pong table, while perhaps the most unusual gift under the tree this year, was not the one Ben most eagerly anticipated. What he really wanted was a Sony Playstation 2, and thanks to the hype over the just-released Playstation 3, we were able to find the older model on sale. He received a couple of games to get him started, but lately has been happily making his way through the catalog of titles available at our local video rental store.

Meanwhile, the rest of us had to content ourselves with mostly delayed gratification. Which is not to say that the holiday was a bust. Roni was happy to receive several books on her wish list, and Glenn got a new larger hard drive that he'd wanted for the computer — a gift that consumed all of the following week performing hard drive upgrades for all the computer systems in our home. But we'd already decided that this would be the year of the family gift, and the gift we'd set our eyes and hearts on was a large screen TV.

We'd been talking about high-definition televisions for the past year, and casually looking at them for the past four or five months, not seriously expecting to buy one because the prices were still out of sight. But as the technology has improved, recently so has the price. After a lot of research to figure out what we really wanted and what our room could accommodate, we set our sights on a 55-inch plasma set manufactured by Hitachi and kept our eyes open for sales. There were some great prices on the Internet, but because we were leery about making such a large purchase from a mail-order company we waited until it came on sale at Best Buy last weekend and jumped on it. The tax and delivery added a couple hundred dollars to the price, but it was worth it for the peace of mind when the TV arrived at our home two days later in the arms of a couple of muscular delivery men. At 130 pounds, the set isn't something we wanted to move too far on our own.

The thing that attracted us to the plasma screen is its narrow profile — just 4 inches deep — and the ability to mount it out of the way of foot traffic. Because of its weight, however, we had serious reservations about attaching it to the living room wall on our own. But Glenn, being a do-it-yourselfer, was up for the challenge. We bought a wall mount bracket from Home Depot and used a stud finder to make sure we anchored the mounting plate securely. Then, sweating bullets and praying we didn't mess up, we carefully lowered the set face down on the carpet so we could attach the bracket hangers to its rear. Once that was accomplished and we'd plugged in most of the cables we thought we'd need, it was time to hang the puppy on the wall. This was not a job for the faint of heart! Even with both of us lifting, raising the set three feet to reach the bracket was a challenge. Somehow we managed to get it in place securely, and after a few tweaks we were watching our first cable broadcast on our new set.

We upgraded our Comcast cable box to receive the high-definition channels and wow! Once you've seen programming in HD you'll never want to go back to standard definition again. Problem is that most of the programming out there is still broadcast in standard definition, which on a plasma set doesn't look as good even as on an old tube TV. Eventually that will change. But for movies, the picture clarity of HD and wide screen capabilities can't be beat. The Hitachi set dominates our wall and really gives the sensation of sitting in a movie theater, especially at night when all the lights are out. It's got great sound right out of the box and even though we plan eventually to add a home theater speaker system, there really is no pressing need for one. We're all dazzled with the experience and have been watching a lot more TV the past week. OK, so maybe becoming more couch potato-ish is not entirely a good thing, but it sure the heck is fun.

And don't worry about us putting on a ton of weight lounging around watching the tube, because we earned that right; We got all the exercise we needed beforehand, simply trying to figure out what to do with all the furniture that plasma set displaced. You don’t realize the huge impact adding things to your home makes until something comes along that forces you to rearrange everything. In order to hang the Hitachi on the wall, we first had to clear out the old RCA 36-inch set and its accompanying stand, as well as a torchiere lamp and four-tier bookshelf that had sat nearby. No problem, we thought, we’d just move the RCA and stand into our bedroom. Except that in order to do that, we first had to relocate an entertainment center that housed a defunct 27-inch tube and the 19-inch portable we'd brought in last year to replace it. But hey, the writing sanctuary was in want of more bookshelf space, so we'd just move the entertainment center there and put the dead TV out to pasture. The 19-inch set we'd set up somewhere in the living room for Ben so he could play his games on it.

Great idea. Except that in order to put the entertainment center in the sanctuary, we had to find a home for the old two-tier bookshelf already there as well as a two-drawer metal filing cabinet. Not a problem. We'd simply shift it to an out-of-the-way corner of the sanctuary and all would be well... once we cleared the corner of the obsolete computer equipment and several boxes of business-related documents that occupied it. Where to put them??? Of course, the GARAGE!

Which brought us back to the original problem of having no space in the garage because it was taken over by the ping pong table. Not to mention the boxes of Christmas decorations we hadn't returned to their proper storage areas, or the heaps of cardboard boxes, tools and discarded junk that had found their way there since July.

So on Sunday the 21st, while most people sat in front of their large screen televisions watching football championship games, we crawled through the garage in search of ways to create more space. Through Roni’s creative rearranging we managed to pile things a bit higher and more neatly so that most everything fit — even the old dead 27-inch TV — and we actually wound up with some bonus space on either side of the ping pong table, so we can actually walk from one end to the other without having to crawl underneath on hands and knees. That's a weekend in the garage well spent, we'd say!

Such is what we do for kicks in the cooped-up winter months, when it's too cold and wet to be outdoors and the newness of home luxuries hasn't yet lost luster. Well, for most of us anyway. Ben is at the age where "I'm bored" is somewhere in the top-five of most-uttered phrases. Finding a new activity or two certainly doesn't hurt, so when he expressed dissatisfaction with Mom's dinner menu once too often — another of those top-five utterances — Roni decided it was time for him to experience cooking from the perspective of the chef.

His first effort was spaghetti and meatballs. Having already learned how to boil ramen noodles, this seemed a natural progression. Things turned out okay and no one came down with food poisoning, so now Ben is starting to look forward to weekend menu planning. He goes on the Food Network website to find interesting recipes, then Roni helps him figure out which ones are simple enough for him to make and what ingredients he needs to buy — or rather SHE needs to buy, for the grocery shopping is still her domain. The Chef Ben evenings have gotten the whole family involved. This past weekend we made hamburgers, so it was Dad who provided instruction on the finer points of how to squash the patties to the proper size and how to use the spatula to turn them before they burned to a crisp. We are hoping one day to progress to dishes that do not involve ground beef. More on that later, we suspect.

We took advantage of a break in the cold weather a couple weekends ago to get out in the back yard and prune our mulberry tree. We wrote back in October about how the tree hasn't been doing well, and it is our hope that pruning will save it. The problem is that without leaves it is difficult to distinguish the dead branches from the live ones, so with every cutting of a green, healthy limb we cringed. There are still more branches to remove, but we'll wait until spring to see whether any of this has been helpful.

Meanwhile, Ben made himself useful on pruning day by bagging the carpet of leaves that had fallen from our mulberry and evergreen ash trees. He figured out that if you hang those 30-gallon Hefty bags from a low-hanging branch it will help keep them open so you can feed them with your rake. He went through nearly a half dozen bags this way. Now we have to figure out how to transport them to the garbage can, lest they find their way into the garage and consume what little space we just liberated.

Hopefully you will find your own liberating adventures until we visit again next month.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Monday, February 26, 2007 at 00:02 hrs.

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