Trials, tribulations and our silver anniversary
April 27, 2013
Some months are so busy that it seems we can scarcely find a moment to tear ourselves away from the endless parade of activities to actually write about them. April has been such a month. If you want proof, this newsletter is being composed in the parking lot of the Ironhouse Sanitary District in Oakley, where we are taking part in the annual Oakley Science Week. Roni is doing double duty on behalf of the sanitary district and the Delta Science Center, which are co-hosting today’s show with the Diablo Water District. It’s the last day of the week-long event and one that is significant to the DSC, as it attracts hundreds of families from our community and provides an opportunity for them to see what the DSC has been up to. The answer is, a lot.
We’ve been teasing Roni lately that if she ever tires of her career in journalism and public relations, she might consider picking up a pair of clogs, donning a huge straw hat, and signing on as a rice farmer. The DSC recently launched a partnership with UC Davis to grow an experimental rice field on Jersey Island, so every day for the past three weeks she has been driving out to the island daily to monitor the project’s progress. The DSC purchased about $700 in supplies to build six greenhouses from PVC pipe and plastic sheeting beneath which the rice plants are being grown from seed.
How much water does it take to grow your own rice? Tons, apparently. The researchers provided Roni and her crew with explicit directions for how to construct the greenhouses and irrigate the field. Early this month, they braved fierce wind storms to dig trenches in the island’s peat soil and built the greenhouses with the help of students from Freedom High School. The trenches are supposed to remain filled with water while the rice seedlings mature. This has proved more difficult than it might seem. Peat soil is very absorbent, so each day Roni has had to maintain the water level by running a nearby hose to the project site. The Ironhouse Sanitary District is donating the water, as well as the 5,000-square-foot parcel on which the rice fields sit.
Currently there is just the greenhouse area. Once the seedlings sprout and grow large enough, they will be transplanted into two neighboring fields that Ironhouse workers constructed using a bulldozer, raising berms on all four sides of the fields to retain the water. Jersey Island is a 3,500-acre island wholly owned by the sanitary district for land-based disposal of its treated wastewater. The property is currently used for cattle ranching and hay production, but there is more than enough space available for the researchers. The project is designed to find out if rice production can combat a condition called subsidence, which is a process that occurs when peat soil is exposed to air, as it has been through decades of farming in the Delta. The islands were formed by the construction of levees, which exposed the peat soil that naturally is below the water surface to the atmosphere. The soil dries and becomes light enough that it is carried away on the wind. As more soil disappears, the land begins to sink and the levees must be built higher to hold back the river. It’s a ongoing battle landowners must wage against nature, and one that costs millions of dollars. If the rice project is successful, it could provide a cost-effective way for property owners to protect their land without having to build more levees.
The DSC project is being funded through a grant, and Roni has become obsessive about making sure it comes together well. The greenhouses were built during the second week of April, unfortunately right during the peak of a severe wind storm. The wind made construction more difficult, and did some damage to the finished greenhouses. But as the weather has calmed down, the main threat now appears to be from heat; the water levels must be maintained, and high temperatures dry out the soil more rapidly. Every day since mid-April, Roni has made the 7-mile drive from home to the island to check the water and run the hose when needed. There haven’t been any sprouts yet as of this writing, but the hope is there will be something growing (other than grass) very soon.
The last week of March is always a big time in our home as we celebrate Roni’s birthday and our wedding anniversary. It was even a bigger deal this year, as we marked 25 years since the day we exchanged vows at the Mt. Eden Presbyterian Church in Hayward.
Because your silver anniversary doesn’t come around more than once in a lifetime, we’d planned to celebrate in a big way. We talked about renewing our vows in front of family and friends, perhaps even renting a boat like we had planned to do instead of the church wedding in 1988. Then we got started contemplating ideas for a big vacation, just us two, recognizing that Ben is now old enough to fend for himself for a few days. We thought about a leisurely overnighter to Fort Bragg or Lake Tahoe, then we started talking about taking the train to Portland or Seattle. We turned the couple of days into a week. We considered throwing in a rental car, and maybe even ditching the train in favor of air travel for the return trip. We ran itineraries through the popular online travel sites, sought out deals, and were becoming more comfortable with our bold plans until... reality set in.
All those fancy-pants plans went out the window when we signed the receipt for our new TV in early March, and while doing so didn’t prevent us from traveling, it did take the energy out of our desire to do so. Suddenly we were back to looking into a short overnighter before we ultimately decided that even that was more ambitious than we wanted and settled instead for one of our favorite day trips Old Sacramento.
We took our Sacramento trip on Roni’s birthday, which conveniently fell on a Saturday. Just for fun, we booked tickets on one of the Hornblower excursion cruises that ferry tourists on a one-hour tour of the Sacramento River north of the city. We had always wanted to do it, and this seemed the perfect occasion. We considered it a dual birthday treat for Roni and anniversary gift to the both of us; it sort of made up for the romantic wedding-on-the-water we’d envisioned for ourselves.
The cruise was to depart at 1:30 p.m. We arrived a little past noon and picked up our boarding passes, then decided to grab some lunch while we were killing time before departure. Old Town Sacramento has a Joe’s Crab Shack adjacent to the Hornblower boat dock and we’d never eaten there. We decided to try it. We hadn’t counted on the long wait, however, so by the time we were seated, perused the menu, ordered our food, and listened to the wait staff break out in a spirited rendition of the B-52’s “Love Shack,” we were keeping a nervous eye on the time. It was already 1 p.m. And we were supposed to board the boat by 1:15. We’d be lucky to have 10 minutes to scarf down our meals before departure. In the end, we asked our waitress to deliver our meals to go and wound up feasting on shrimp and clams with plastic utensils from Styrofoam containers as we sat in the bow of our cruise ship.
The cruise was pleasant as well as brief. We lulled our way north under the I Street Bridge, passed the water district’s pump station that is designed to look like a giant concrete ship, followed the bend on the Sacramento River past where it meets the American River, and continued on until the we met up with several marinas and waterfront condos that line the banks at the north end of the city. Then we turned around and sailed back, this time continuing past our home port and under the iconic Tower Bridge, giving the passengers a rare opportunity to photograph the majestic gold-painted lift bridge from the center of the river before returning to the dock.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon checking out the downtown gift shops and buying soft-serve ice cream to tide us over until we returned home to celebrate Roni’s birthday with Ben. The three of us went to Olive Garden for dinner, then it was time to head home and open gifts.
We had been talking a lot recently about the idea of setting up a webcam in our yard to photograph the comings and going of the birds that visit our feeders and fountain. From this evolved our discovery of the GoPro line of video cameras, which we saw on display at Best Buy. Because the camera lets you record with a wireless remote control, we thought it might be able to do double duty as a webcam for the yard, and Roni quickly added it to her birthday list. When it came time to open her gifts, the camera was the premiere present.
The GoPro Hero 3 Black is designed with extreme sports enthusiasts in mind. It comes with attachments and accessories that you can get to hook the camera up in places ordinary camcorders would never be able to go. It can be mounted to surf boards and skis, on the hood or roll cage of a race car, on the underside of an aircraft wing, or on the helmet of a skydiver. We didn’t plan to use it in such adventurous ways, but once we had it up and running and realized its many capabilities, our minds began dreaming up uses for it.
We soon found ourselves back at Best Buy in search of different mounts to connect the camera to. We invested in a tripod mount, one for the frame of a bicycle, and a head strap that allows the camera to be worn over a hat or on one’s bare head. We considered a suction cup so we could stick the camera on the roof of the car, but we were both a little nervous about it falling off on the first day of use and losing it along the road.
We put one of the included mounting shoes on the dashboard of Roni’s car, angled the camera to look out the windshield, and took some test shots while we drove around the neighborhood. Then we stuck the camera on the head strap and drove out to Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley on Sunday afternoon so Roni could play with it. The camera does not have a viewfinder, but it does include a downloadable app for the iPad and iPhone so you can preview your shot. We found this very handy at Big Break. We walked up to the visitor center and stopped in to chat with Mike and Kevin, the East Bay Regional Park District rangers. They were both curious about Roni’s new toy, and Mike teased her about the unusual fashion statement she was making with the camera mounted on her forehead.
Sure enough, the camera drew some curious looks from folks we passed along the trail as we headed out to the fishing pier to gaze across the Delta. But those looks are likely the same ones people gave each other when cell phones were still an oddity, and now that they are ubiquitous in our world, no one ever pays a second glance. The same may one day be true of head-mounted camera gear.
The battery on the GoPro has a reputation of not holding much of a charge, but we were able to record for more than an hour before it died on us at Big Break. The secret seemed to be turning off the wi-fi connection the camera uses to chat with the remote; we’d view our videos when we got back home.
As for image quality, the camera is incredible. The extreme wide-angle lens captures incredible detail with its HD-quality resolution better than the optics in any of our traditional cameras. Mounting it on Roni’s head produced a video similar to how she actually viewed the scene through her own eyes.
We were having a ball with the GoPro, so on Monday we went back to Best Buy and dropped some more cash for a frame that allowed the camera to be mounted in the car while attached to a cigarette lighter. That way we could record without running down precious battery life. We then hooked up the camera for a drive over the Antioch Bridge and out to Sherman Island before continuing north on Highway 160 to the tranquil and scenic Delta Loop. We left the camera in record mode while Roni drove the entire loop past marinas, campgrounds and summer vacation homes. When we got home, we converted our trip over the bridge into a time-lapse video. So fun.
But despite all of this, we were unable to get the camera to do what we originally hoped for, which was to use it as a webcam. Despite its remote control capabilities, there are no programs or devices currently available to allow it to be used as a webcam, so we will have to remain content playing with its other features. We mounted it over the mourning dove nest on our back patio and got some decent shots of the baby doves. Glenn also mounted it on the handlebars of a bicycle for an Easter ride along the Big Break Trail, catching some spectacular images of a lightning storm over the Delta. Our next plan is to use the camera’s waterproof housing to take it for a dip in the Delta and see if we can photograph the fish.
Having packed so much into Roni’s birthday, it almost seemed anticlimactic the way we celebrated our actual anniversary that Tuesday. Glenn was in the midst of a week-long vacation from work, so we had the whole day to spend together reminiscing about 25 years of wedded bliss. The first thing we did after we woke up in the morning was to exchange the anniversary cards we’d made for each other. Roni surprised Glenn with a bouquet of silver balloons to which she attached a photocopied picture of our wedding portrait. Glenn compiled a list of songs that highlighted the years we had spent together, one song for each year from 1985 to 2013. We played the soundtrack while we were outside doing yard work in the backyard.
Say what? Yard work on our anniversary? OK, so it wasn’t as much fun as a train ride to Seattle, but it was necessary and worthwhile. We were tired of looking at the leaves leftover from fall, and the sand and exploded wisteria pods sitting all over the patio. With Ben’s assistance we swept, raked, pulled weeds and got the yard into a more presentable state. Now we’re ready for spring.
We talked about going out for dinner and a movie, but we decided that we had eaten out a few times already on this vacation and didn’t really want to go again so soon. We instead went shopping at Raley’s and picked up supplies for our own barbecue of shish kebabs. Glenn ran the grill while Roni whipped together a salad, and the result was a gourmet meal for a fraction of the cost of eating at some chain restaurant with the masses.
Our week of vacation went by much too quickly, and soon it was back to the reality of work and deadlines. For Glenn, it meant reporting for jury duty at the superior courthouse in nearby Pittsburg the morning of April 11. He’d never been called to serve on a trial before, and fully expected to go home that day in the clear for at least another year. But the odds finally caught up to him.
Glenn’s jury pool of 60 got called into the courtroom to be interviewed for a criminal trial, and Glenn’s was ninth person summoned to sit in the jury box. It was a chair he would have been happy to surrender, but never did. The jury selection process ran into a second day, held up for nearly 40 minutes when the bailiff couldn’t account for all the remaining members of the jury pool. There is a rule that no one enters the courtroom until everyone is present, so Glenn and his antsy fellow jurors mingled in the hallway while the court clerk tried to locate the missing juror. Glenn was mortified to find out it was him; for whatever reason, the bailiff had failed to mark him as present, prompting a series of frantic phone calls home. The judge apologized for the confusion.
There were no apologies, however, from the deputy district attorney and public defender, who both seemed satisfied with Glenn’s suitability to serve as a member of the jury, and so at the end of the second day he was sworn in along with 11 other jurors and two alternates.
After a weekend of finishing taxes, Glenn returned to the courthouse at 9 a.m. Monday to listen to opening arguments and three days of testimony in a domestic violence case. The defendant was accused of beating his girlfriend with a belt and threatening to kill her if she went to the police. The DA brought the charges despite the fact that the victim didn’t want to cooperate, and the defendant never testified during the trial. In the end, the jury found him guilty of domestic violence, false imprisonment and intimidation through menace or threat of violence. The deliberations began Wednesday afternoon and wrapped up Thursday before lunch.
Glenn, who normally works nights, took the week of the trial off and checked into the office from home. He decided at the end of six days driving to and from the courthouse in rush hour traffic that he is happy to work his night schedule, but he admitted that the experience of having served on the jury was educational. Not to mention that he earned $95 in juror pay and mileage. Time to party!
Well, as usual we are right up against the clock to get this month’s missive posted before the month is over, so we’ll have to wrap this up. We’ll return in May with an update on Roni’s rice project and perhaps some of the goings-on at Glenn’s office.