Turning dreams into Wii-ality
May 18, 2008
It's hard to be complacent about the state of the national economy when the signs of its struggles are in your face every day. You need only fill up your gas tank or your grocery cart for a quick reality check. Or if you live near Ground Zero of the subprime mortgage crisis, as we do, just take a walk down the street and check out all the foreclosure signs in your neighborhood. Looking for a steal of a deal on your next house? Come to Oakley or Brentwood or Antioch, where the real estate prices are deflating like a basketball caught in the jaws of a pitbull.
Our street is eerily quiet these days, with no less than four vacant houses and another two or three up for sale. A couple are in foreclosure, and another is on a short sale. The in color is brown, with weeds sprouting from the cracks of driveways and neglected lawns growing crispy in the mid-spring sun. Fences are falling down, back yards exposed to the world in all their disrepair. And if you long for the gaiety of Christmas, two of the vacant properties are still adorned in their holiday lights. It's quite a sorry commentary on the state of the market.
The house next door to our north isn't in foreclosure, but our neighbor Gustavo and his family picked up and moved to a new place somewhere in town a month or so ago. Rather than put the house up for sale at what surely would have been a tremendous loss, he planned to pass it along to his son and daughter-in-law. But it has been several weeks and it doesn't appear that anyone has moved in. We wonder what's up? Strange times indeed.
Like many, our property value has taken a dump in the past year. Fortunately we aren't in a position where we have to sell, and we decided a few years ago that we are in it for the long haul, with the goal of paying off our mortgage and one day owning our humble home free and clear. But recent events in the economy and with Glenn's work have left us thinking more seriously about the future and the need to expand our nest egg. We've talked about investments, both as a hedge against taxes and as a way to build some equity while we're still young enough to do it. What that investment vehicle will be we aren't sure, but it would be foolish not to keep an eye on the housing market as a possible option, even though we have little desire to be anyone's landlord.
Another thing we've thought about is upgrading our existing house by expanding the kitchen and adding a loft above the dining room. Fantasy, most likely, but it's fun to ponder the possibilities. Roni has long wanted a kitchen with an island and loads more storage space. Glenn has liked the idea of an entertainment room, or a larger home office that could look out across the beauty that is a four-way intersection and a shopping center. Okay, so the view isn't much to recommend it, but at more than 500 square feet it would make our house nearly 40 percent bigger while still leaving plenty of space in the yard. Ah, dreams.
We all have dreams. Even Ben, whose biggest dream the past many months has been to get a Nintendo Wii for his very own. There's nothing worse than being a teenager and feeling like all your friends have the hottest toy in town except you, which is precisely how Ben has felt since Christmas 2006 when the video game system debuted to unexpected raves and mass consumer shortages. Even if we could have found one, the Wii's scarcity inflated its price by hundreds of dollars. Fortunately he didn't catch on to the notion that he wanted a Wii until his 13th birthday last May. Mom and Dad, being the tight-fisted mercenaries they are, of course refused to pay the $1,000 asking price of Ebay racketeers and told Ben he would have to wait until Christmas when we were certain that the craze would die down and supply would finally catch up with demand.
But Christmas 2007 was a repeat of the previous year with Wiis in short supply. We endured the long face on Christmas morning and told him that maybe by spring it might happen. For a while we dangled the Wii like a carrot to encourage Ben to improve his math grade. "Get an A, get a Wii" was our mantra. Indeed he improved his math score, but not enough to get the coveted game system. Then came his birthday again. Would we finally pop for a Wii and be done with it?
At long last, finding a Wii on the store shelf wasn't such an impossible task. Still we resisted. There is such a thing as having not being as pleasing as wanting, and we feared that once Ben finally got his Wii that the mystique would quickly wear off and it would assume its place in the dust bunny corner with various other video game systems he has outgrown. His main motivation seemed to be that several of his friends had the Wii and he wanted to be part of the crowd. Besides, he has been much more interested in his iMac computer lately than in video games. We weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately decided the Wii was not to be.
There are few things more painful as a parent than seeing the earth shattering look of disappointment on your kid's face on his birthday, which is exactly what we got the evening of May 2 when that Wii wasn't waiting with a big bow on it. Was it truly the end of the world not to have a Wii? Most definitely yes, he informed us, so after some thoughtful discussion we reached the conclusion that he could have the Wii if he really wanted it, but he would have to come up with half of the cash and we would spot him the rest. That way, he would see the work involved in having to save up for a major purchase and would have a few weeks to think it over carefully, deciding if that was the thing he really wanted to spend his hard-earned money on. He had some birthday cash and allowance saved up, but we figured it would be a good couple of months before he had the rest of the money in hand. A valuable life lesson in economics.
Er, not quite.
Ben's birthday fell on a Friday, and because it's pretty tough to do a real birthday party on a school day he invited a number of friends to come over and help him celebrate the following afternoon. At 14, Ben and his friends have outgrown the party fare of younger children. What they're all into nowadays is video games and seemingly little else. So when the invitations went out, Ben and his buddies planned a gamers' delight: Cake, ice cream, a barbecue, and a room full of computer and video games on two TV screens.
The party was planned to feature a gaming competition, with each of the participants choosing a couple of games that everyone would have to play to determine an overall champion, sort of like an Olympic decathlon. Roni assembled a bin full of prizes ranging from chocolate bars to trading card game booster packs. There was plenty of hardcore video gaming action taking place in our living room that Saturday, and part of the fun for us was listening to the boys there were five in all haggle over the rules for the tournament and which games would be played. They seemed to work it all out fine amongst themselves, and the prizes got divvied up pretty equally, although the chocolate bars disappeared before most of the games had been played.
When it came time to sing happy birthday, Ben pulled himself away from a card game of Poké mon long enough to puff out his candles and receive the handful of gifts his friends had brought. It's not like the old days when you went to a party with a wrapped present in hand; nowadays money talks, and darned if most of Ben's birthday cards didn't come packaged with crisp twenties. The group excitedly called out the new tally with each bill an envelope revealed. And by the time he was done, Ben had another $80 in hand or rather, his "Wii fund" had another $80. In fact, he had assembled more than enough for both his half of the Wii console and nearly enough extra to afford a game to go with it.
So the teachable moment turned out to be ours rather than his. Not only did we learn how modern teens approach the concept of gift giving, but now we were honor bound to keep our promise to Ben that we'd match his funds. The very next day we were out the door for Toys R Us, where a couple of phone calls had revealed that they actually had a couple of Wii systems in stock. It was a good thing we got there when we did, because another customer in line ahead of us bought the next to last system that was in stock. Another woman who showed up after us was still contemplating, so we made sure to get in line as soon as we could and Ben hastily told the clerk what he wanted.
A few minutes later we were out the door with a bare-bones Wii starter system. Ben was a few more dollars shy of being able to buy the game he wanted, but his pleas for an advance were met with more parental logic: Save your allowance and in the meantime you can rent some games from the local video store to see which ones you might want to buy. He was good with that plan, which was good for all of us.
The basic game system comes with one controller and a program called "Wii Sports." It's the sort of game most kids quickly toss in the box in favor of the more graphically and strategically advanced offerings that are out there, but for less-hip players parents, for example the sports program can offer hours of fun. True enough, Glenn has been honing his bowling and baseball skills at night after Ben goes to bed, and creating avatars (known as "Mii"s) to use as teammates when challenging the computer.
It's too early to tell how long the Wii will hold Ben's interest as he has yet to buy another game for it. He is still exploring the console's online features and playing rental games. But there is also competition for his attention from a new computer system he found waiting on his desk the morning of his birthday. Remember the FedEx package we wrote about last month that sat on our doorstep for four days while we were on vacation? The computer was what was in it. We bought Ben a used eMac off Ebay to give him a speedier processor for internet connections and running his software. It's just like Mom and Dad's, except that it is a year newer and 25 percent faster. More significantly, it is better than three times as fast as the old iMac he had been using.
On the subject of speed, we've slowed down quite a bit this month on our backyard projects as the weather has started warming up and our enthusiasm for endless weeding has waned. We're still staying on top of the areas we've cleaned up, just not moving ahead with a lot of new projects.
The strawberries are coming into their element, and although the first crop is quite tiny we are encouraged that the plants will be more productive down the line if we continue to water them well. The berries are small but tasty. We've lost a few to wildlife and bugs who see the strawberry terrace as a giant salad bar. As long as they leave a few for us we aren't adverse to sharing. For now.
Our efforts to attract more birds to the yard through the addition of bird feeders and houses seem to be paying off as we have been seeing large gatherings of house finches and doves. We had a cheap plastic feeder suspended from a branch of the mulberry tree that Roni was keeping filled. We made the mistake of moving the feeder to a higher branch that Roni thought would be more visible from the patio door, and the branch snapped off. The feeder crashed to the ground and broke, scattering birdseed everywhere. This was sort of a blessing in disguise, because Roni had designed a platform feeder using a painted craft store birdhouse that she had positioned low to the ground near Summer's Garden in hopes of attracting the birds to eat there. Until the plastic feeder broke they showed no interest in the platform. But once they had finished off the seed under the tree they "discovered" the new feeder and have been making several trips there every day. They eat a lot for such little birds, and we joke that they are eating better than our cats, who watch them intently through the patio door.
The birds also like the water fountain in Summer's Garden, which is a mixed blessing. It's fun watching their antics when they hop over there to get a drink or take a bath after they eat, but in the process they leave a lot of seed and... er... guano in the fountain and on poor Summer's head. That and a couple of late April wind storms deposited a collection of gunk in our fountain that has thrice resulted in clogs of the pump system. The first time it happened we thought that the pump had burned out. We went so far as to disassemble the fountain (no small feat) and dig up the power cord so we could replace it. The way the fountain is designed, you have to unplug the pump before you can completely remove the bottom bowl from the base. It takes two people to lift the concrete bowl and we nearly dropped it.
It was only after we went to all the work of disassembly that we discovered the pump was working after all. It just had so much debris in the intake that the motor couldn't turn. After a thorough cleaning of all the fountain's components, we reassembled everything and it ran fine for a while. Then last week the same thing happened. We went to plug in the pump and nothing happened. Fortunately we didn't have to tear the whole fountain apart a second time because we wised up to making the pump's cord more accessible. After verifying the power cords worked we again cleaned the pump and it started running again. But the fountain is a slimy green mess at the moment, so it looks like another cleaning is soon in order.
One of the last big spring cleanup projects we did was to remove the weeds from the east side of the yard and clear a spot in what used to be the garden. Ben helped get the weeding started, and Glenn finished off most of the rest of it, getting back into the corner near the house where we set once up some shelves and cinder blocks to store our garden tools. We haven't used that side of the yard much for at least the past six or seven years, so it had become a repository for junk and the accursed spike weeds that we recently identified as sandburs. We don't want those sandburs growing back, so we've been meticulously plucking every seedling as they sprout, and rolling groundcover fabric in spots where we've seen them in the past.
Once all the weeds were out, we straightened up our old planter boxes and got them ready for planting. It's been years since we've grown a vegetable garden, but it looks like we'll have at least a small one this summer. We went a bit crazy in the seed aisle at Lowe's and bought about a dozen packets of various veggies. Roni planted them in peat pots April 20 and has been watering them daily in hopes that they will sprout so we can transplant them. So far we have cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, onions, dill, swiss chard, peas and sunflowers.
We also have tomatoes and corn that we purchased as seedlings from Orchard Supply Hardware. They are large enough already that we transplanted them into what used to be the train garden on the northwest side of the yard. We kept them in large plastic pots to discourage the gopher and are irrigating them ran one of those 25-foot black dripper hoses that smells a bit like recycled car tires. Roni fashioned "tomato teepees" out of bamboo stakes that she tied together at the top with ribbon. If the plants get up to the six feet they are capable of, the teepees will help support them.
We wrote about the "dove disaster" a couple of months ago in which the hanging planter basket our favorite mourning doves were using as a nest collapsed and destroyed their eggs. Darned if those doves haven't been back checking out the fallen basket as a potential nesting site. Poor, stupid birds. May is usually the month when the doves' first broods are fledging. We had another nest in the yard we weren't aware of until one of the eggs in it rolled off the top of our wisteria covered gazebo and got scrambled on the patio. The remaining egg hatched, but we're not sure if the baby made it. We saw what might have been that hatchling wandering through our garden one afternoon, being harassed by a scrub jay. Mama dove was close by and frantic. Doves have a fairly high mortality rate, something like 65 percent or worse.
A few days later, Roni saw another baby dove on the patio being pecked by a crow. She chased the attacker away and tried to help the baby, but the wounded little bird flapped away into the bushes. Everyone forgot about it until Glenn arrived home from work around midnight and startled the dove from its hiding place on the front porch. Apparently it had made its way halfway around the house, pausing for a time on the lid to the garbage can. We know this because it left behind a puddle of blood and several feathers. It was scared to death and cold. Glenn somehow managed to coax it into a box he'd lined with an old seat cushion, which made a good temporary nest. We left it on the porch for the night, but it was gone by morning.
The weather's been warming up this week as it tends to do suddenly this time of year, the quick transition from spring to summer. We enjoyed the warmth May 10 when we went down to Brentwood to visit the first farmers market of the season. We bought a couple large baskets of strawberries and cherries, and spent entirely too much money on artisan bread being peddled by a Santa Cruz bakery. It was all gone by the end of the weekend. Great food, but no way to stretch the grocery bill. That same night, Roni attended the Oakley Citizen of the Year Dinner at the new City Hall and soaked up the annual accolades that come with being a former recipient of the award, which she was in 1993.
That's about all the room for this month. Enjoy the rest of your spring and put those tax rebates to good use.