Photo of the month

This is what happens when you try to stage a family portrait on Christmas morning, when folks are barely awake and just want to get to the presents. You set the timer on the camera, sit in the appropriate spot, and then just before the shutter snaps — surprise! — you pull everyone together. Eevee appears to have been caught most off guard. Photo by Glenn.

January 2009

The baking of the Christmas bread is an annual tradition in our home. As with last season, we had to chill the dough overnight and baked it Christmas Eve. Here it is fresh out of the oven. Photo by Glenn.

On a 1-to-10 scale, we'll give it a 6 for preparation and baking, an 8 for appearance (a little lopsided), and an 8 for texture and flavor (a bit much flour). Doesn't it look pretty all iced? Photo by Glenn.

As usual, it's the most ambitious baking project other than cocoa that Glenn attempts all year. Photo by Ben.

A small pile of presents awaits our attention early Christmas morning. We eat breakfast and wonder what surprises await beneath the pretty paper. Photo by Glenn.

We put the "pants" in SpongebobSquarepants. These flannel jammies from Bikini Bottom will keep Ben warm on many a chilly winter's night. Photo by Glenn.

Now that's more like it. This is the sort of gift Ben most wanted to see under the tree. Animal Crossing City Folk will give his Wii a workout in the new year. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn, the diehard calendar and lighthouse fan, sees all his favorites realized in these gifts on Christmas morning. Photo by Roni.

When reading her favorite werewolf and shifter romance novels, Roni will have the perfect mascot to snuggle with in this cuddly plush wolf. Photo by Glenn.

And speaking of mascots, this statue of a winged bulldog will soon be joining our menagerie in the garden once Glenn stops videotaping it and finishes the concrete. Photo by Roni.

In the meantime, the unfinished statue makes a fine addition to our living room, as well as the perfect prop for goofy holiday photos. No, the dog is not smoking a cigar; that's a leftover plug from the mold and will need to be removed in order to finish it. Photo by Glenn.

A final farewell to Christmas 2008 as we take a look at our light display in the front yard. The blue lights in the plum tree were our favorite feature. Photo by Glenn.

In case the guy's glasses didn't give it away, it's New Year's Eve and we are moments away from welcoming in 2009. Of course, we're watching the Times Square ball drop that happened three hours earlier, but it's all new to us here on the left coast, right? Photo by Glenn.

Roni toasts the arrival of 2009 with a glass of André Brut. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn is thinking that by the time he gets to the bottom of this glass of champagne he will have erased all memories of the disappointment that was 2008. Photo by Roni.

We greet the new year with a morning bird walk Saturday, Jan. 3, at the Big Break Regional Shoreline Trail. As you can see from Roni's attire, it was a bit chilly (low 40s). Our tour guide from the regional park district was supposed to have hot cocoa for everyone, but he forgot to bring the cups. Doh! Photo by Glenn.

There's not much color along the Delta in January, but if you like pictures of tangled tree branches, they are plentiful and easy to photograph. Photo by Roni.

Glenn stands at the eastern end of the new Big Break Trail bridge, which the naturalist was surprised to find open. The bridge was installed a few months ago, but was closed to traffic. The park district has had to delay completion of the trail because the state has run out of money. Photo by Roni.

Roni poses for a photo on the new bridge. She took the bird walk to learn about beavers that inhabit the Delta. We saw lots of birds; we saw no beavers. Photo by Glenn.

This is what passes for severe winter weather in the California Bay Area. (You Easterners can stop laughing now!) Roni scrapes frost off her windows the morning of Jan. 10 as we prepare for a day trip to the SacAnime convention in Sacramento. Photo by Glenn.

The SacAnime convention hall at the Scottish Rite Center is brimming with costumed fans of Japanese anime and manga. Photo by Glenn.

Hardcore trading card gamers engage in a tournament at the convention, one of several activities that were going on in the crowded main hall. Photo by Glenn.

Part of the fun of SacAnime was checking out all the people who came in costume. This is an actual wolf head this girl was wearing. Photo by Roni.

Another costume at the convention is patterned after the character of Sally from "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Photo by Glenn.

With so many fanciful costumes on parade at SacAnime, you can't help but want to get into the spirit. Roni lets her inner feline show. Photo by Glenn.

Crowds of mostly young people network outside the convention hall and check out the costumes of arriving "cosplayers," the name given to anime fans who come to the show in character. Photo by Roni.

Cosplayers dressed as the "Silent Hill" nurses were a major hit with the fans. They strike a pose for the photo line. Photo by Roni.

The costumes got more elaborate as the afternoon moved on. The characters of Midna and Wolf Link from "Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" were another crowd pleaser. We are still trying to figure out if whoever was in the wolf costume had to walk around on all fours all afternoon. Photo by Roni.

Ben and his friend John strike a ninja pose from one of their favorite anime shows, "Naruto." The pair spent the day at the show together and agreed it was one of the best events they'd ever attended. Photo by Roni.

On the drive back home, Ben displays a few of his purchases from SacAnime. Photo by Glenn.

Fai and Kurogane from "Tsubasa Chronicle" become window clings in Roni's car. Photo by Ben.

Mokona joins the party. This little plush rabbit character from the "Tsubasa Chronicle" series vibrates when you pull its string. Ah, the things the toy industry gives us. Photo by Ben.

Ben seems somehow changed by his SacAnime experince. We can't quite put a finger on it. Lately he's been answering to the name of Shadow... Photo by Glenn.

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Conventional wisdom

January 13, 2009

Ben got glomped this weekend. Don't worry, he's fine. It's one of those things that can happen when you look like a cartoon character and suddenly find yourself amid a sea of adoring fans.

For those who aren't hip to the current slang, a glomp is sort of like an unexpected bear hug. You're strolling along, minding your own business, when someone comes up and wraps his or her arms around you for no apparent reason. That's just one of the curious things we saw at the SacAnime convention at the Scottish Rite Center in Sacramento on Jan. 10.

SacAnime is one of a growing number of events devoted to the world of Japanese anime and manga, everything from comic books and artwork to video games, television shows and movies. It is like a giant costume party where attendees dress up as their favorite characters and socialize with others while strolling aisles filled with commercial vendors and over intense trading card game tournaments. There are autograph signings, live concerts of videogame music soundtracks, dances, and skit performances on stage.

We'd never been to an anime convention before and had little idea what to expect. Ben has recently gotten involved with the anime club at his school and had a grand time at a club party that took place at another member's home just before Christmas, so it seemed like a natural that he'd want to check out a big show like the one in Sacramento. We got the tickets as sort of a belated Christmas gift for him, and then he invited his friend John to join us for our Saturday trip to Sacramento.

We left Oakley a little before 9:30 a.m. and got to the convention hall just before 11. We were a little concerned because the show started at 10 and would probably be a mob scene, but we found lots of room to park. The first thing we noticed was other people in the parking lot donning wigs and makeup and fanciful attire. Ben and John were suddenly feeling underdressed. Roni and Glenn, on the other hand, were feeling very much like the Geritol generation among the crowd whose average age was probably 16. And as John astutely pointed out later, the girls outnumbered the guys by about 3-to-1.

Which could explain Ben's glomping incident. After we collected our convention badges from the registration table, he and John split off from us to go check out the vendor booths in the main hall. It was like setting loose a holiday bargain hunter on a Black Friday shopping spree. Still flush with Christmas cash, Ben burned through about $140 in an hour loading up on plush dolls, jewelry, video games, figurines and gifts for his less-fortunate friends who couldn't be at the convention. So proud was he of his purchases that, even when Mom offered to take the bags back to the car so he wouldn't have to lug them around all afternoon, he had a hard time giving them up.

Among Ben's purchases was a colorful cap that looks like the character Shadow from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. He put it on the moment he got it and spent the rest of the day walking around the convention with it on. This attracted the attention of a fangirl, who upon seeing Shadow's likeness bobbing through the crowd came up to Ben with a gleeful shriek and... *GLOMP!*

While the kids were busy enjoying themselves, we checked out all the booths and did some early birthday shopping. As Ben said, where else can you find so many of the things he loves under one roof? True. Considering that he has been interested in Japanese anime and manga since he first discovered Pokémon toys at Burger King 10 years ago, it doesn't look like the fad is going away anytime soon. He now watches several anime shows on the Cartoon Network, reads the graphic novels that are taking over the display shelves at Barnes & Noble, and spends hours adding pictures and serialized fan fiction to his DeviantART website, where he also chats with dozens of others with like interests. We found several items he will enjoy in May.

We had pre-purchased weekend passes for the convention and easily could have spent the rest of the day there, but John had to get home by 5 p.m., so we left well before the evening concert and rave dance, and before the "cosplay" performances in which people in costume act out scenes from their favorite shows on stage. As it was, we saw more costumed characters arriving when we left about 2:30 p.m. The front of the Scottish Rite Center was like a review line waiting to see the Hollywood glitterati coming down the red carpet at the Oscars. When someone arrived in a particularly eye-popping costume, the masses on the stairs would race forward with cameras to pose with them for pictures. OMG! (That's "Oh My God," for the non 'Net-savvy...)

At the end of the day, we all agreed that the experience had been worth the price of admission. If we go again to SacAnime when it returns in August, Ben will be sure to go in costume. We'll be sure to plan our budget accordingly.

* * *

Speaking of budgets, the start of a new year provides an ideal opportunity to take stock of your priorities, and we've been doing a lot of reassessing. For example, do you really need two phone lines? Well, yes, we do, but not at the cost AT&T was charging us each month for our old landline. After crunching some numbers, we discovered we could save money by dumping our old home line and getting a second cell phone to tag along on the minutes of our existing cell phone plan. The only problem was that Roni lost her thousands of rollover minutes when we changed her plan, so even though we now have a spiffy new Samsung on our table where the old cordless phone used to sit, we are afraid to use it until we build up some more reserve time.

We were a bit hesitant to dump the trusty landline that has been our home phone number for the past 17-1/2 years, but we won't miss the daily barrage of robo calls for car warranties, satellite TV and foreclosure rescue loans. But just in case you want to try to sell stuff to us, you are still welcome to dial the old phone number to your heart's content.

Having momentarily conquered the telephone monopoly, we shifted our efforts to the cable company. Comcast, bless its cold corporate heart, sees fit every few months to add new channels we don't watch as justification for raising our rates. With our combined monthly bill for cable and Internet service approaching $200, we decided to shed the premium movie channels we weren't watching anyway. Now on those rare occasions when we have a hankering to see "Star Wars" or "Back to the Future" for the two-hundredth time, we will have to run out to the video store, but that's probably worth a savings of almost $500 a year. Now if we could just figure out a way to spend less at the grocery store that doesn't involve starvation...

We're under no illusions that we'll actually save the money we're shifting from other places. Even with day trips like the one we took to SacAnime, the expenses add up. Plus we're starting to get cabin fever as the winter cold persists and it's been nearly a year since our last real vacation, to Southern California in March. The time is undoubtedly coming when we'll find a good excuse to pack up the car and go exploring again.

* * *

In the meantime there are still worthwhile activities close to home, such as the bird walk we took Jan. 4 at the Big Break Regional Shoreline here in Oakley. Roni does a lot of freelance work for the East County Times and Brentwood News, so when her editor recently put her up to writing a story about the beavers that inhabit the Delta shoreline, she thought the occasion of the bird walk would give her an opportunity to bounce questions off of our tour guide, East Bay Regional Park District naturalist Mike Moran. Moran is always entertaining and quite knowledgeable about the critters that inhabit our area. Unfortunately, he is not gifted at making beavers, which are nocturnal, come out of hiding on a chilly Sunday morning for curious journalists and their photographers.

We did see plenty of birds, however, and got a sneak preview of the continuing work on the Delta Science Center, which is slowly taking shape on what once was a field of Delta meadow to the north of our subdivision. So slow is the progress, in fact, that all construction has ceased while the state tries to figure out if it has any money in the budget for this year. Considering that Governor Schwarzenegger may have to issue IOUs instead of tax refunds come April, prospects aren't looking so good for a speedy resumption of work on the shoreline.

That fact didn't prevent the construction crews — or maybe we ought to call them "destruction" crews — from defoliating a large swath of shoreline as the park district transforms the area from its natural state into a park where people might want to visit. They brought in several tons of fill dirt, removed blackberry brambles and willow trees, then carved out a channel to invite the Delta wetlands to spread inland. It may all look splendid in a few years, but for now it looks like an ill-conceived effort to reshape the shoreline.

Moran pointed us to a devastated grove of trees where just six months ago Glenn and Ben had spent an afternoon taking pictures and picking blackberries. What remained was a half dozen native trees growing from the denuded landscape, orange wire cages protecting their well-gnawed trunks. "Unintended consequences," Moran explained. The goal of the project was to remove the invasive non-nantive plants to allow the native ones to thrive as the shoreline heals itself. Immediately, the elusive beavers discovered they could easily reach a free meal and began chewing on the trunks unabated. The park district had to wrap the trunks with wire just to save the trees.

More "unintended consequences" appeared at the water's edge, where workers had eliminated the green algae that clogged the water and riprapped the soft muddy bank. The goal was to let nature take its course and for plants to reestablish themselves along the bank. But recreation enthusiasts soon discovered the spot made an excellent boat launch, squelching any hope of nature making a comeback. The park district is giving in and will let the area become a permanent boat launch.

After our stomachs flip-flopped seeing what had become of one of our favorite Delta escapes, we settled down enough to enjoy the remainder of the walk, which took us off the paved trail and along one of the Delta's many uncharted footpaths in search of winter-weather birds. With temperatures in the low 40s, it was a perfect day for them if not for us. Moran had thought to bring a thermos of hot chocolate for the 14 assembled hikers to enjoy, but unfortunately he hadn't remembered to bring cups.

When eventually we rejoined the paved trail at the eastern end of the shoreline, we got to take our first walk across the new footbridge that had been installed over a slough a few months ago. The new trail segment eventually is supposed to link up with an existing trail about a half mile east, behind the sanitary district. The bridge is a long-needed addition and we're glad it's finally open for public use, but we do miss our unspoiled shoreline.

* * *

Have you checked out Roni's new blog? Long a fan of romance fiction novels, Roni has taken her passion to a new level with the launch of Romance Book Scene, a site featuring reviews of some of her favorite titles and authors. It made its humble debut Jan. 5, the day after we registered the domain name and she opened an account on Still a newbie when it comes to HTML programming, she found the templates at Blogger easy to use and had her site up and running before the end of the day. She has been posting new reviews every couple of days and hopes eventually to build a lively community of like-minded fans.

Roni is fast on her way to becoming an online diva, thanks to encouragement from Ben, who has been establishing his presence on the Web for more than a year through his DeviantART site. Almost daily, Ben can be found online posting his drawings and works of fiction, updating his journal, and chatting with his friends. He convinced Mom to start up a DeviantART account of her own so she could post some of her favorite photos. Roni not only took him up on it, she spent several days sifting through photos and uploading them with comments under the screen name luv2clik.

Ben, meanwhile, used some of his Christmas money to upgrade his DeviantART account. For a little under $30 he has a year to use all of the site's features, including making polls, dressing up his home page and eliminating the various ads that unpaid visitors have to look at. He has been putting vast effort into his manga drawings and his technique continues to improve. His comments on the photos we took at the SacAnime convention are a hoot.

* * *

Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas? We didn’t get everything, but what we did get certainly made for a nice holiday. With Christmas falling on a Thursday this time it meant that a lot of the preparations had to be done by the weekend before, so procrastinators like Glenn didn’t have the luxury of waiting until Christmas Eve to start their shopping.  Nevertheless, we found ourselves making the last-minute rounds will everyone else on Dec. 20. While Ben wisely stayed home, we braved the crowds at Slatten Ranch to scoop up some stocking stuffers and the like.

The true mark of an old married couple is when you shop for Christmas presents in the presence of the person you’re buying them for. We aren’t quite that bad yet; at Target, we shopped together for the generic items, then Roni turned the cart over to Glenn so he could finish his shopping while she ran across the parking lot to Barnes & Noble. The wisdom of this approach became evident to Glenn when he realized that not only would he get to shop alone for his lady love, but he would also get to stand in the long line at the checkout counter to purchase all the other stuff we’d shopped for. We repeated this tactic at the bookstore, then again at Orchard Supply Hardware, whereby each of us traveling through the check stand separately allowed us to get two freebie OSH train calendars instead of one. Sweet.

The nice thing was that Glenn didn’t have to worry about going back to the store later, which allowed him to conquer all his wrapping early and then focus on baking. Although Glenn had Christmas off, he had to work the three days prior. This meant that he had to make the dough for our traditional Christmas bread two days early, and leave it to chill in the refrigerator until he baked it late Christmas Eve after getting home from work. Roni, on the other hand, had plenty of time to do her baking, and she churned out two different cookies and a tray full of fudge that we spent all Christmas weekend munching on. We enjoyed her home baked roast beef for Christmas dinner.

With all the preparations out of the way early, we had little to do on Christmas Eve except sit around and enjoy the twinkling lights of our three trees. It felt… wonderful.

We all rose early on the 25th, as we typically do, just in time to watch a rerun of the KOFY-TV 20 yule log burning up an inferno on our plasma screen while our own endless rotation of Christmas tunes played on the computer. Ben tore into his stocking, which was mostly loaded with anime trading cards and some candy and magazines. Following breakfast, we gathered around the pile of presents in our living room and spent the next hour opening our gifts.

Ben scored big with video games for his Wii and Nintendo DS, as well as with a variety of art supplies — a couple of pen sets and sketchbooks. There were also manga books, some T-shirts, and the ever popular “Bad Cat” page-a-day calendar. For Glenn, it was several calendars, lighthouse-related gifts, and figures from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” He got a couple of games for the Playstation 2, framed enlargements of some of Roni’s photos, and a concrete statue of a winged bulldog. Roni was surrounded by wolves, both in the form of coffee table books, a calendar, and a 30-inch plush Cuddlekins wolf doll that has taken up permanent residence atop the living room sofa. She also got a DVD copy of Toby Keith’s latest movie, “Beer For My Horses.”

As quickly as it arrived, Christmas was over. It hardly seemed a week had passed before it was New Year’s Day and we disassembled the decorations and packed them in their boxes for another 11 months. The three live trees that served as our living room focal point for five weeks were put out to pasture along the flagstone path in our backyard, where they will acclimate to the outdoors until we finally plant them this spring. We said goodbye to 2008 with anything but fondness, popped our champagne corks, finished off the last of the eggnog and Roni’s gingerbread house, and turned our attentions to goals for what we hope will be a better 2009.

Hope you indeed have a Happy New Year.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Monday, February 16, 2009 at 15:24 hrs.

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