January 29, 2016: The arrival of January is sort of like taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling. After weeks of holiday hustle and bustle, we were ready for a long break from the madness and eager to get away from the house for a while. A wildlife viewing trip was high on our activity list, given that Roni got a fancy new lens for her Nikon for Christmas and we had yet to really try it out. But it seemed that the gods had other plans.
To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.
First came the court summons. Glenn opened his mail one day to find that he had been selected for possible jury duty starting Jan. 14 at the municipal courthouse in Pittsburg. The likelihood of actually being picked for a jury is always slim, but the chance of it interfering with our goal of a three-day weekend was much greater. We had been eyeing the 16th through the 18th, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend, as the perfect time to drive up to the Oregon border and look for bald eagles at the Tule Lake wildlife refuge the way we had done a decade ago. Jury duty on either side of that trip would complicate things.
Glenn’s boss at the paper reassured him that even if he did get picked to serve on a trial, the courts would likely be closed for MLK Day. That wasn’t the problem at all; the bigger problem was that MLK Day and Presidents Day are quasi holidays at the paper, meaning employees can take off one or the other, and the coworker Glenn covers for on the days she’s off had already put in for MLK Day. Glenn had hoped to take off Monday the 18th in exchange for having worked on Saturday the 9th as part of a weekend editing rotation, but someone had to work the 18th and he drew the short straw.
So our dreams of shooting eagles in the mountains (photographically speaking) on MLK weekend were already crumbling when Mother Nature dealt any remaining plans a convincing death blow. We hadn’t seen much of El Niño yet this winter despite promises the phenomenon was alive and well swirling off in the Pacific Ocean somewhere. But this turned out to be the week that the weather got serious, and there was plenty of gloom to greet us on Saturday the 16th — the day we had thought we might take a less ambitious trip up to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. A little rain wouldn’t have prevented us from going, but it would have made it more difficult to take photos, and the gloom would have made for very ugly light in our pictures.
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E COULDN'T EASILY get away for the wildlife safari we planned on, so we took it as a sign that maybe we shouldn’t go anywhere that weekend. We decided instead to be couch potatoes and check out what we could find on TV. Thanks to some generous gift giving at Christmas, we had both an Apple TV and a Sony Blu-ray streaming media player to experiment with. We had already figured out how to send our computer screens to the small TV in our bedroom using the Apple TV box that Glenn’s sister and brother-in-law gave us, but the most we had really done with the Sony box, which is hooked up to the big TV in our living room, was to check out the YouTube app and play a Blu-ray disk of the movie “Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For.” Sony had packed a few other goodies into its device and we were ready to put them to the test.
Best of all its features is the Sony’s ability to accept a USB flash drive, and it will play just about any content you care to feed it — music, photos and, yes, even videos. The Oscar nominees had been announced just a few days earlier and we were remarking at the fact we had seen precisely zero of them at the theater. In fact, we hadn’t even heard of a few of them. Clearly we were falling behind on our knowledge of American cinema. How would we know if “The Revenant” or “Mad Max Fury Road” deserved to be Best Picture, especially when they haven’t caught up with Netflix yet?
Fortunately Glenn knows a few unconventional resources and was able to track down all of the Best Picture nominees as well as some films up for other categories, so we embarked on a movie marathon that might have worn out Siskel & Ebert. Flash drive in hand, we started Saturday morning and plowed ahead until Sunday night, by which time we were thoroughly exhausted.
First up was “Ex Machina,” the story of a young computer programmer, Caleb, who wins a once-in-a-lifetime trip to spend a week with his firm’s visionary CEO Nathan (think Steve Jobs) at an exclusive Alaska mountain estate. What he doesn’t know is that he has been hand-picked to take part in testing the boss’s artificial intelligence project that is going to revolutionize human society. The prototype, named Ava, is designed to look and function like a human female. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with Ava to see how she responds, which will determine if Ava is ready for prime time. A nice bit of psychological suspense wrapped into an interesting plot. The movie, which is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, left us with a lot to ponder.
Next was “The Martian,” Matt Damon’s Best Picture-nominated performance as Mark Watney, an astronaut who has traveled to Mars as part of a research team when something goes terribly wrong. The rest of the crew bugs out to safety, leaving behind Watney, who they assume is dead. Watney is anything but dead, and after recovering from his injuries he takes stock of his predicament and figures out how to stay alive on an uninhabited planet until help can reach him. It will only be a couple of years or so. Some very strong performances and an engaging story make this one a serious contender for several Oscars.
Our third film for Saturday was “Brooklyn,” another Best Picture nominee that looked good from the trailer we saw. It tells the story of Eilis, an Irish immigrant who comes to Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1950s seeking economic opportunity. There she finds a good job working as a clerk in an upscale department store and falls in love with an Italian fellow she meets. Things are going great until a death in the family beckons her back home to Ireland. Eilis becomes torn between her new life in America and the one she left behind. Which will she choose? We both liked the movie a lot, but think it better falls under the category of sweet romance and doesn’t have that sweeping epic quality the Academy likes in its Best Picture winners.
Our screening party continued Sunday morning with “Bridge Of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the Cold War espionage trial of Rudolf Abel and how his appointed public defender, a New York insurance attorney (played by Tom Hanks), convinced the judge to spare his life. Abel soon became a valuable bargaining chip when it came time for the U.S. to negotiate the release of captured spy plane pilot Lt. Francis Gary Powers. This political suspense movie has many great moments as Hanks’ character uses his wits to negotiate with the Russians and Germans, and of course if you know your history then you already know how the movie ends. We’d give it four stars and suspect this one will be hard to beat in the Best Picture category.
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Y THE TIME we finished with “Bridge of Spies” it was time to meet Ben as he got off work at the grocery store. We had arranged, at last, for the three of us to go see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at the theater. It was our first Star Wars movie on the big screen since “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released in 1999; the second and third prequels were so universally loathed that we waited for them on video. For Ben, it was his first theater experience with Star Wars, period. He’d had no prior knowledge of the series before this movie came out, and his friends had encouraged him to prepare for it by watching the other six episodes, a task he managed to complete the night before this excursion.
We went to the 4:15 p.m. showing at the Maya Cinemas in Pittsburg, the only one that wasn’t in 3D. Given that the movie had been out for a month already, we didn’t expect a huge crowd in the theater, and we were right. We were the first three patrons. For a while it looked like we might be the only three, but we ended up with an audience of about 15 by the time the opening titles rolled.
If you are one of the half-dozen people on the planet who have not yet fallen for the hype and seen this movie, here’s a quick synopsis: It’s 30 years after the fall of the evil Galactic Empire, but the galaxy is seemingly in no better hands as the Resistance fighters continue to be hounded by the Empire’s successor, the First Order. Luke Skywalker has vanished among the stars and the First Order, under the leadership of the ruthless Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, is on a quest to track him down, but to do that they will need all the pieces of an intergalactic map that can pinpoint Luke’s whereabouts. It just so happens that the missing piece is in the possession of a Resistance fighter pilot, Poe Dameron, who when Kylo Ren and his stormtroopers pay a surprise visit to the Resistance hideout, hands the map piece off to his droid, BB-8, who escapes into the desert.
BB-8 eventually runs into Rey, a teen girl who makes her living scavenging space junk. She heads to town to sell what she has to the local junk dealer, and in the process encounters Rin, a rogue stormtrooper who has traded in his soldier credentials to help Poe Dameron escape capture aboard the First Order star destroyer. But by now the First Order is on to Rin and have tracked him down to the desert village, and all heck breaks loose as the dark forces pursue Rin and Rey and the droid aboard a decrepit spaceship they successfully commandeer. This ship turns out to be none other than the famed Millennium Falcon, once owned by Han Solo.
The young fugitives eventually find themselves face to face with Solo when he captures their ship with the huge smuggler’s cargo vessel he now pilots. What a coincidence. From there, the adventure kicks into high gear as Rey and Fin become embroiled in the effort to not let BB-8’s map piece fall into the hands of Kylo Ren. We get to see most of the cast members from the original Star Wars trilogy, including C-3P0, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and a grandmotherly Princess Leia. Leia and Solo were once an item and parented a son who gave into his dark side to become Kylo Ren. Leia hopes Solo can get the man-boy to redeem himself somehow by getting him to forsake his evil ways and come home. At the same time, the Resistance must figure out how to dismantle the new super weapon the First Order has cooked up since the demise of its Death Stars.
Predictably things don’t go so easily. There are numerous intense battles involving the super weapon and an eventual showdown between Rey and Kylo Ren, in which she goes all Jedi on him with her budding abilities in the ways of the Force. And then there’s that little bit about what became of Luke Skywalker. Enough spoilers already. We’ll all have to wait for Episode VIII two years from now to have our many lingering questions answered.
We generally enjoyed “The Force Awakens” and would give it three stars, but it is not a title that will endure well. Disney proved that it could make a movie in the spirit of the original Star Wars creator, George Lucas, but this one was so highly derivative of the original Star Wars movie that it felt more like an amusement park attraction than a product for the big screen. The plot seemed flimsy and recycled, the characters one-dimensional, the pacing rushed. As Glenn put it, “It was like ‘Star Wars’ remixed.” At least we didn’t have to shell out full price to see it; we still had three free passes to the Maya from two years ago when there was a power failure in the middle of watching “Iron Man 3” and they comped everyone out. Saved us $30 that we spent instead on popcorn and sodas and dinner afterward at the Black Bear in Oakley.
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HERE WERE STILL a few Best Picture nominees to check out, so following our return home from “Star Wars” we sat down to watch “Spotlight,” the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the scandal of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, an investigation that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize. The movie is more of a howdunit than a whodunit, with exhaustive attention focused on the three investigative reporters and their editor, played by Michael Keaton, as they track down the story. If you liked “All the President’s Men” with Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate scandal then you’ll probably enjoy this movie, but we had a hard time staying awake through it. Probably not the best picture to watch at the end of a movie marathon when we were already tired.
Our film festival carried into the following weekend, when on Saturday the 23rd we pulled up “Room.” If you haven’t heard of this Best Picture candidate then you aren’t alone; it was the least distributed of the eight nominees, but it received rave reviews. “Room” is told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy whose mother was kidnapped from an Ohio suburb at the age of 17 and held captive in a 10-by-10 shed and turned into a sex slave. Her son Jack is born during her imprisonment and grows up knowing nothing of the world but the inside of the shed that his mother has euphemistically dubbed “Room.” At last his mother cooks up a plan to win their freedom, and with Jack playing a pivotal role they make their way back to civilization, but their ordeal has only just begun as they both must adjust to life outside Room. This is an emotionally wrenching story that left us both close to tears. Easily the best of the movies we have seen, but so intense that it may not be for everyone. Brie Larson gives a powerful performance as Ma, and Jacob Tremblay is well cast as Jack.
After “Room” we needed some lighter fare, so we turned to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” How this movie got nominated for Best Picture is beyond us. It is nothing more than one long car chase across a postapocalyptic wasteland that is Australia, with costumes and characters right out of a comic book and a plot that was mostly nonexistent and difficult to follow. Basically, the good guys are trying to get away from a ruthless desert gang leader, whose harem is being smuggled to safety aboard a heavily armored tanker truck. The gang boss wants his women back, so of course he and his minions bring all forces to bear on the heroes. There are lots of fight scenes and explosions. We were thoroughly bored, but perhaps we are biased because we never liked the original Mad Max movie, but at least that one had Mel Gibson.
Sunday the 24th we saw “The Big Short,” which takes a humorous look at the 2008 stock market crash and the subprime mortgage lending crisis that led to it. It is the true story of how a group of small investors caught wind of the impending housing collapse and bet big against the greed and stupidity of the Wall Street banks, making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. There are some funny scenes in which celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain try to explain in layman’s terms complex financial lingo and concepts. It’s not an easy film to digest, but if you like seeing the little guys stick it to Wall Street fat cats, or you just like Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, then this is worth the viewing.
We have yet to watch “The Revenant,” which may be a case of saving the best for last, as many pundits think this will be the movie to steal the show at the Oscars next month. Hopefully we’ll get to watch it before then.
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E DID FINALLY get a break in the weather to take our photo excursion on Jan. 24. Roni rousted us out of bed early that Sunday morning when she saw blue skies, fearing that the clouds to the west would soon move in. We hopped in the car and drove to Martinez, where she thought we would get to see a lot of birds at Waterbird Regional Preserve off I-680. By the time we arrived, however, the gloom had already set in and there were no birds to be seen.
We hopped back in the car and drove a few miles west to the Martinez Regional Shoreline, where we had better luck with the birds if not the weather. It was quite cold, but there were still many people strolling on the muddy trails. Some of the best places to sit and take in the sights of the shoreline during the summer months were unfortunately surrounded by puddles on this visit, but we did manage to find a bench or two near the park’s duck pond, which is surrounded by a sand beach where geese, ducks, stilts, seagulls and other birds hang out in great numbers. Mostly we saw flocks of pigeons and several blackbirds. Not exciting, but nonetheless available subjects on which to test the capabilities of Roni’s 200-500mm zoom lens. (You can see some of the results in the photo gallery at right.)
After exhausting our camera batteries and ourselves, we ventured downtown and had breakfast at the Copper Skillet Courtyard, a friendly little family restaurant that was doing booming business for a late Sunday morning. Naturally by the time we finished our omelets and were ready to head home, the clouds had burned off and we had plenty of sunshine that we would have loved to have when we were taking our photos. Oh well.
The photo session was fun, but we still have our hearts set on looking for eagles up in snow country and realize that even this new lens won’t be long enough to capture those distant subjects well. We took the plunge and ordered a 2x teleconverter and a sturdier tripod to hold the camera. They should be in our hands by the time you read this, and hopefully next month we’ll have some eagle photos to share.
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LENN CELEBRATED HIS third straight championship in the annual Gehlke Bros. Football Picks competition this month, winning the title over his brother Sean by an impressive 20 games. The brothers have been picking the NFL’s regular season games for more than 30 years, and each season offers its memorable moments. This year was such a lopsided one that the end of the season was marked by Sean’s desperate attempts to come from behind using coin flips and random numbers generated by his cell phone. None of the gimmicks succeeded, so the coveted Surfy Trophy will remain on Glenn’s desk for another year.
We had less success trying to win the Powerball jackpot this month when it climbed to a record $1.586 billion. Like just about everyone else in America, we bought three tickets for the big Jan. 13 drawing, only to come away without a single number matched. We have plenty of company, so we don’t feel too bad.
It’s been a busy month for Roni, as she officially was reappointed to serve three more years on the Contra Costa County Fish & Wildlife Committee and embarked on a five-month appointment to the Delta Protection Commission’s Delta Leadership Program. As part of the leadership program class she must attend monthly seminars and workshops at various cities around the Delta. Her first meeting was Jan. 8 in Sacramento at the state Capitol, where she listened to prominent politicians and water policy experts talk about the challenges the Delta faces. It was a formal affair that included a country club dinner afterward. She hopes to learn a lot from the program and make some valuable connections along the way.
Glenn continues to deal with his ailing car, taking another stab at fixing the chronic check-engine light when he replaced the front oxygen sensor on his 2001 Toyota Corolla. The old sensor had never been replaced in 170,000 miles and was long overdue, but getting to it was quite the challenge. Glenn had to lean over the top of the engine just to reach the sensor on the exhaust manifold, then needed a very long extender bar for his socket wrench and a lot of patience to remove the two bolts holding the O2 sensor in place. Getting the old sensor out took a couple of hours, but surprisingly it took less than 10 minutes to put the new one in.
It seemed too good to be true, and of course it was. The first test of the engine with the new part installed seemed fine until Roni noticed smoke rising from the exhaust manifold. We speculated that it might have been the heat of the engine burning off some of the WD-40 Glenn used to loosen the bolts, or that perhaps he didn’t get the bolts retightened correctly. He made another pass with the socket wrench that seemed to improve things, but still there is an exhaust leak somewhere in the engine compartment. You win some and lose some. The new sensor seemed to have a positive effect on the car’s performance, but it did not cure the check-engine light, which illuminated anew later the same day. So it’s back to the drawing board in search of a car cure.