Photo of the month

It may not be leap year, but don't try to tell that to Glenn when he's out on his annual blossom walk. He is always enthusiastic when he finds one of the few remaining almond trees around Oakley in bloom. Photo by Glenn.

February 2013

To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.

After a few shots of Liquid Wrench, all four of the spark plugs from Glenn's Toyota Corolla have been successfully removed. Photo by Glenn.

Experts can tell a lot about an engine's performance just by looking at the old spark plugs. It doesn't take an expert to see that this plug was long overdue for a replacement. Photo by Glenn.

Hope you like animal pictures, because this month's newsletter is full of them. Raccoons are not an unusual occurrence at our home, but seeing one during the day is. This little guy explored our front yard before lumbering off across the street. Photo by Roni.

The Bay Area waited 18 years to see the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl again. Unfortunately the red and gold came up short against the Baltimore Ravens in the "Har-bowl." Photo by Glenn.

Super Bowl XLVII wasn't the only party down in New Orleans in February. We would have loved to be at Mardi Gras, but because we couldn't, we celebrated in our own way. Photo by Glenn.

The mask and beads looked better on Roni, but Glenn also gets in the Mardi Gras spirit. Photo by Roni.

Mardi Gras would not be complete without the traditional King Cake. We opted to bake our own this year, from a mix we bought at Cost Plus Market. It was very tasty. Photo by Glenn.

February is in one of the worst months of cold and flu season. Poor Asis looks like she is suffering a nasty case of postnasal drip. In reality it's only a winter rain storm. Photo by Glenn.

Roni ascends the steps of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum at Larkey Park in Walnut Creek on Feb. 9. It was our first trip to the museum. Photo by Glenn.

Lindsay is known for its wild bird displays. Glenn plays with one of of the interactive information boards. Photo by Roni.

Raptors perch above display cases at the wildlife museum. All of the birds were treated at the museum and were too disabled to return to the wild, so now they spend their days entertaining and educating the tourists. Photo by Glenn.

One of the most popular attractions at the museum is this bald eagle, which was injured in 1993 when it flew into an electrical wire and had to have its wing removed. It has been at Lindsay ever since. Photo by Glenn.

A great horned owl has been at the museum since 1999. He looks ferocious, but is not shy around visitors. Photo by Roni.

Roni visits with Ken, one of the museum docents, who speaks fondly and knowledgeably of the five owls that are on display. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn spreads his wings on the flight simulator, designed to provide a bird's-eye view of what it's like to soar over mountainous terrain. Photo by Roni.

Glenn appears to have his hands full fending off the attack of a ferocious brown bear. This would be a mismatch in the wild, but fortunately there are no more brown bears in California, and this particular specimen is stuffed. Photo by Roni.

A rare white-tailed kite rests in a tree on Brannan Island near Highway 160 in the Delta on Feb. 16. The kite is on the threatened species list, but was among three we saw in this location on the same day. Photo by Glenn.

It's going to take some time to get over our anger at having our rear fence painted by city public works crews. We preferred the natural redwood look, but some government bureaucrat thought all the fences in our neighborhood needed to be painted this ugly brown color. Too bad the project isn't anywhere near completion and there are many fences that are in worse shape than ours that have yet to be painted. Photo by Glenn.

February brings out the blossoms, and with them our urge for a nature walk. Glenn made his annual trek to the DuPont rail yard on Feb. 17. Here are some almond trees abloom with Mount Diablo in the distance. Photo by Glenn.

A self portrait always looks better against a backdrop of almond blossoms. Photo by Glenn.

The arrival of the BNSF work train dropping off empty container cars means it's time to hustle out of the DuPont yard. This train unfortunately is an almost daily visitor to these tracks, either to drop off or pick up cars, usually spending a couple of hours each visit shunting cars back and forth near our home. Photo by Glenn.

This pink ribbon isn't a remnant from Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It represents an almond tree along Highway 160 that is condemned to be cut down by Caltrans work crews. Many of the trees along the highway embankment are slated for removal, unfortunately. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn nicknamed this the "Danger Tree" for the huge red "danger" ribbon that blew into its branches like Christmas garland from some unknown source. The only danger here is to this tree's longevity. It is among those scheduled for removal. Photo by Glenn.

Swallow nests constructed of dried mud cling to the underside of the westbound Highway 160 connector bridge. Photo by Glenn.

We're near our objective. Barricades be damned. We're taking this hill!. Photo by Glenn.

The path to the top of the hill is flanked by a vast field of wild mustard. This is one of the highest accessible spots in suburban eastern Contra Costa County. Photo by Glenn.

The view from the top of the hill makes the trek worthwhile. This is looking northeast over the San Joaquin River. The train in the middle of the frame is about two miles away, traveling on the mainline tracks through the DuPont property in Oakley, where we were at the start of the walk. Photo by Glenn.

A cricket clings to a wire fence on top of the hill at the junction of Highways 4 and 160 in Antioch. Photo by Glenn.

We promised a lot of wildlife pictures, didn't we? This very scrawny coyote is a familiar resident of the DuPont property in Oakley. We saw him twice on our walk — once heading out and the second time returning. Here our wiley coyote makes his way into the nearby Cline grape vineyard. Photo by Glenn.

The mourning doves have returned to nest on our patio pergola, building a new nest in the exact spot of last year's nest. Fingers crossed that their eggs will hatch uneventfully Photo by Glenn.

Eevee appears to be guarding our Hitachi plasma TV, which hasn't moved from the spot where we left it in mid-January while awaiting delivery of a replacement part it needs. The good news is that the part should be arriving any day now. Let's hope it works. Photo by Glenn.

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Global search takes on new meaning

February 27, 2013

If at first you don’t succeed, find a different way to fail. We realize this is not very inspirational, but occasionally it is true, as in the case of our ongoing repair projects. Last month we regaled you with the sad saga of our broken plasma TV, which at that point had been out of commission for about three weeks. We’re approaching the two-month mark as of this writing, but it appears that the odyssey of trying to find our elusive repair part is about at an end, thanks to our new Chinese friends. We’ll explain.

In January, we ordered what turned out to be the wrong part for the repair of our 55-inch Hitachi and discovered there were two other boards we needed to buy. We ordered them off the Internet from the same place where we had purchased the original wrong part, an electronic parts company affiliated with Best Buy. The boards we needed are known as upper and lower “Y buffer” boards, and as we sadly discovered, they are no longer being manufactured. Best Buy came through with half of our order, and in a few days we received the lower buffer board in the mail.

But without the upper board there was little we could do to restore our TV to working condition, so it was back to the Internet on a needle-in-a-haystack quest for the missing part. Success appeared at hand when Glenn finally tracked down a merchant on Ebay who claimed to have more than 10 of the elusive boards in stock and ready for delivery, and for a price that wouldn’t force us to take out a second mortgage on our house. The only catch was that the part would take two weeks to ship from Iowa. We decided that we’d already waited at least that long, so another couple of weeks wouldn’t make much difference.

The days passed, and when we still hadn’t heard anything about our purchase by the date the board was supposed to be delivered, Glenn contacted the Iowa company and was told that the part was no longer made and there were none available to send us. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. In this case, it definitely was. The merchant refunded our money without hassle, but we were back to square one on a search for a part that we were beginning to think didn’t exist.

A company in Salinas, Calif., claimed to have the part available for more than $300, which seemed excessive. Then we encountered a place in Indiana that also advertised the new part as being in stock and ready for delivery. Could it be? Having been twice burned by similar promises, Glenn continued to hunt around the Internet for other options, finding a fellow in Texas who would gladly repair our broken part for a mere $90 plus shipping. We bookmarked his address. Most of the companies we researched, however, said the part we needed was out of stock and wouldn’t be returning. For whatever reason, Hitachi used several different model numbers for the same part, and we searched under all of them. A couple of places were trying to sell the part used, but we passed on those assuming that a used part might fail at any time, just as our own had; these boards apparently have a known history of failure, so we wanted at least a refurbished one.

The Indiana option was looking more promising, given the alternatives, so Glenn decided to bite the bullet and place his order. But when he returned to the website where he had seen the part for sale, he was greeted with the dreaded message that the part was no longer in stock. Someone had purchased it in the hours between the time he first found it and the time he returned. Discouraged and about ready to give up, we stumbled across a parts company based in Hong Kong that claimed to have the board for sale. Suuuuure you do. By now inured to such promises, Glenn fired off an email to the customer service department seeking reassurance that the company had the part physically on hand and not just in some fantasy database. He received a reply in something that approximated English confirming that it did. The one catch was that it couldn’t be shipped until Feb. 18 — about 10 days — because the warehouse was closed during the China Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year.

Given that we were flat out of options except for the Texas repair guy, we crossed our fingers and placed our order with the Hong Kong firm. They were even nice enough to give us a 5 percent discount for being patient with the Spring Festival holiday delay. And at $85 for a new board we were getting a serious discount over the other places we’d been looking at. How could this be? Oh yeah, we’d forgotten about shipping — only another $31 for FedEx. Several days after Feb. 18th we hadn’t heard anything and were beginning to suspect that we were on yet another wild goose chase, but then on Saturday morning we received an email letting us know the part had finally shipped. Woo-hoo!

So now we have a FedEx tracking number in hand and are counting down the days to March 1, when the package is supposed to arrive. We are hitting the refresh button on our web browser about once an hour to see where the part is on its international journey. Think good thoughts for us, and we’ll let you know next month how it all turns out.

* * * * *

Our luck might be turning, if the recent replacement of Glenn’s spark plugs is any indication. Last month we reported about the unsuccessful attempt to change the plugs in his 2001 Toyota Corolla. Twelve years of use had left the plugs welded to their sockets, and no amount of wrenching on them was going to accomplish anything aside from damaging the threads in the engine head — a very bad outcome. Rather than risk that, Glenn put the project aside until he was able to research the situation a bit more thoroughly.

The solution to the stuck plugs came in the form of a can of Liquid Wrench we picked up at Raley’s. Glenn popped off the engine cover, removed the electrodes, and gave each socket a few squirts of the penetrating oil before reassembling things so he could drive the car around a few days and let the lubricant do its job. On a Saturday morning, he lined up his tools and returned to the scene of the crime. Surely the Liquid Wrench had been given enough time to do its thing.

Glenn went into the first cylinder and carefully slipped the deep socket over the old plug. He connected the ratchet and tried to give it a good crank. The plug still wouldn’t budge. Now maybe it really was time to call in the expert. But before he admitted defeat, Glenn moved on to the second socket to see if he’d have any better luck, and this time the plug loosened up easily. Maybe all he needed to do was hit the first plug with another blast or two from the Liquid Wrench. He let the product work while he proceeded down the line and successfully removed the third and fourth plugs, replacing them with the fresh Denso iridium spark plugs he’d purchased from Amazon. Following the instructions he’d found online, he spread some anti-seize compound on the threads of the new plugs before inserting them, in an effort to make future removal an easier task than this time had been.

Now it was time to return to the first socket and see if the penetrating oil had done the trick. It didn’t budge as easily as the other three plugs, but finally the problem plug released its grip on the engine block and Glenn worked it out to his great relief. All four old plugs successfully removed, it was time to examine their condition to see what might be learned about the car engine’s performance. They were well past their prime, with heavy buildup of deposits and corrosion visible. One of the plugs also had a chip missing from its ceramic electrode, a sign that one cylinder might be “pre-detonating,” which isn’t a good thing.

The new spark plugs made an immediate difference in the engine’s performance. It now idles smoothly again and doesn’t hesitate in traffic. Glenn is actively seeking out his next commission for Dad’s Garage, so better hide your car if you don’t want him to start tinkering with it.

* * * * *

We haven’t been quite so lucky when it comes to our fences lately. Longtime readers will recall that we replaced both our rear and north-side fences in early 2006. The neighbor fence suffered catastrophic failure during a storm in March 2011 and never was repaired; we propped some 2x4s on either side and prayed. Now those neighbors are preparing to move, so it appears that any fixes will be between us and their successors. We’d just like to keep the fence standing for a few more years before it has to be replaced again.

We’d had no such difficulties with our back fence since its replacement, aside from a graffiti incident this past October. The redwood planks are showing their age, and apart from some expected weathering have been holding their own against the forces of nature. But they were unable to withstand an assault from stupidity.

Last summer, some well intentioned folks from the City of Oakley decided that all the fences in our subdivision needed “beautification.” Most of the homes here were built more than 25 years ago and in many cases the original blue-gray fences have been replaced with materials and designs of the homeowners’ choosing. Those that weren’t replaced are mostly falling down or rotting through, and the original paint job has peeled away. In short, we had become a rag-tag collection of fencing that was deemed unsuitable for the main roads leading to the new visitor center at the Big Break Regional Shoreline. In order to create a more attractive entrance, city officials decided to paint all the fences bordering Big Break Road and Vintage Parkway. This past September they organized volunteers who showed up one morning armed with brushes, rollers and spray guns to paint all the exterior fences brown and the concrete posts a pristine cream. Being these were volunteers, their work was somewhat inconsistent.

We were not excited about the prospect of having our back fence painted, mainly because we were unimpressed with the results we had seen on the other fences and because we had shelled out our own money to replace it in 2006. As much as we would have liked to share the cost with the railroad or the city, neither one claimed responsibility for the fence’s maintenance or replacement, so technically that meant we owned it. Shouldn’t we have some say as to when and how it gets repainted?

Others might have used the same logic, and there were several properties whose owners posted notices on their fences warning the volunteer crews not to paint them. We didn’t go that far and had resigned ourselves to the fact that ours would be painted along with the others as part of the weekend work party. So we were both surprised and relieved when we discovered that the painters had passed us by. Apparently they were concentrating on the fences along the city-owned streets, and since we are backed up to the railroad tracks, adjacent to railroad-owned property, they decided not to bother with us. Or so we thought.

About a week after the painters had moved on, one of our fence panels fell victim to a graffiti attack, the first time in all the years we have lived here that our fence has ever been tagged. We thought this meant we’d have to paint it ourselves to cover over the damage. But being determined not to let the bad guys win, Glenn purchased a pressure washer from one of the home improvement stores and spent an afternoon blasting the graffiti off the fence. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it erased about 98 percent of the tagger’s work and restored the fence panel to its original redwood appearance. One of our friends remarked that it looked like a brand new fence, which it did. We were very proud of that.

We had pretty much forgotten about all of this by February, moved on to new challenges and adventures, confident in the belief that city’s fevered painting frenzy had subsided now that the new visitor center was open and most of the other fences had been covered in uniform brown. Then, two days before Valentine’s Day, Glenn decided to walk over to Raley’s to pick up cards and candy and got a rude shock. He opened the back gate to find it painted brown. Stepping through, he discovered that sure enough, all the panels of our back fence had been painted sometime early that morning. Talk about feeling violated. It was as if a vandal had chosen to spray paint 6-foot-high curse words across a 100-foot-long canvas. Nothing to do now but swear and deal with the disater. It was cold comfort that the neighborhood’s other conscientious objectors had also had their fences painted that morning. At least they were on the public road. And what annoyed us more was that the fences further down the railroad tracks had been left untouched. Ours didn’t look bad compared to the others, yet now there is stark contrast between them. Will those eventually fall to the ravenous rollers of the city public works staff? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

* * * * *

We’ve had some beautiful weather this month as spring attempts to make its early entrance. Our ornamental plum tree is in full bloom in the front yard as we write this, its pink blossoms making a fragrant show of color that is a great distraction from writing. This is also the time of year we love to get out for walks along the local trails, both official and unofficial.

Glenn took his annual blossom walk Feb. 17 along the unmarked paths that run through the former DuPont property and along the Highway 160 embankment. The 5-mile trek has been a longstanding tradition that in the past has been a father-son bonding time for Glenn and Ben, although this year Ben decided to pass. The 5-hour journey began at 10:30 in the morning and took Glenn through what has become a dwindling crop of almond trees.

A sad moment came when he headed south along the southbound Highway 160 embankment, which has one of the best remaining groves of almond trees, and discovered most of them marked with pink plastic ribbons. In construction industry parlance, such ribbons are used to designate trees for removal, so this will probably be the last time we get to enjoy those trees in bloom. It was a bit of a puzzlement as to why these trees will be cut down, other than that there is lots of road widening taking place on nearby Highway 4 and perhaps these plants are in the way of progress there.

The final objective of Glenn’s walk was to reach the top of a small hill overlooking the Highway 4-160 connector. The hill, which is considered state property, commands some of the best views of the Delta and surrounding Antioch and Oakley communities short of having to make a more involved hike up Mount Diablo. It was also a good spot to get an aerial look at the new eBART station that is being constructed to the west along Highway 4 at Hillcrest Avenue in Antioch. Glenn wanted to venture closer to the construction zone, but it was too difficult to reach and he had already been walking close to three hours by then, so it was time to head home. Another year in the books and more good memories made.

* * * * *

The memories of Super Bowl XLVII won’t be so pleasant. The San Francisco 49ers marked their return to the NFL’s big game on Feb. 3, where they looked awful for the first half before a would-be comeback came up short as time wound down in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens. We had the added challenge of trying to enjoy the game on our small bedroom TV. Not that it’s not a nice screen in its own right, but sitting on the bed isn’t quite as comfortable as sitting on the living room sofa in front of the Hitachi.

We had our own little Mardi Gras celebration at home this year, thanks to the goods supplied by Cost Plus World market. We went and raided the store one day, scooping up packages of pralines and multi-colored tortilla chips; green, purple and gold plastic beads; boxed mixes for bread pudding and king cake; hurricane drink mix; and the all-important feathered mask. Glenn got to do the honors of baking the king cake, seeing as he has made them in the past and has plenty of experience preparing the annual Christmas bread. The mix was very good, if not a little shy on the frosting. Roni found the baby in one of the last slices, so looks like she’ll be on the hook for next year’s cake. At least, that’s how they do things down in N’Orleans.

Roni has been running several directions at once this month, which isn’t too unusual given all the hats she wears in her professional life, but February was especially busy as she prepared for several presentations on behalf of the Delta Science Center. The biggest of those was a two-day science fair at Freedom High School in Oakley where she gave a series of 20-minute talks on the history and importance of Delta levees. The event featured speakers from several environmental and science groups, including members of the California Striped Bass Association and graduate students from UC Davis who are involved in an experimental rice growing project on Twitchell Island. The lectures were designed to introduce students to potential careers, and there were a number of good questions asked during the presentation. The DSC is currently working with the Ironhouse Sanitary District in Oakley to provide land where students from the high school can grow their own rice crop and learn how rice might help alleviate the problem of land subsidence that commonly occurs in Delta island agriculture. Pretty bookish stuff, but Roni is excited about the prospects it offers for attracting research grant money.

Another of our activities this month was semi related to the DSC. Roni had for months been wanting to visit the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek after seeing their displays at some of the festivals we’ve participated in together. So we drove there on Feb. 9 to check the place out. Lindsay is a working wild animal hospital that treats hundreds of critters a year that are brought to the facility. Those that can’t be returned to the wild after receiving care are permanently housed at the museum, where visitors can see them up close and in person.

We had fun looking at the bird display, where more than a dozen raptors were kept in glass cages or perched above them. A bald eagle, a pair of red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, barn owls and others didn’t seem to mind at all having their pictures taken. There were an abundance of stuffed critters as well, including three varieties of bears and an adult mountain lion. We lingered for a long time in the gift shop afterward, where Roni scooped up items she hopes to incorporate in her own educational displays for the Delta Science Center. She already has plans for an interactive information display that she wants Glenn to build.

As usual, we could write more, but we are approaching the end of the month and still need to get this posted. We’ll see you again in March as we make plans for our 25th wedding anniversary.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Monday, March 18, 2013 at 00:22 hrs.

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