Taking science to extremes
May 17, 2011
It has been a busy few months for Roni as she continues to evangelize the efforts of the Delta Science Center. Since becoming the organization’s executive director last fall, Roni and her small but hardworking board of directors have been going out into the communities of eastern Contra Costa County to educate school kids and the public in general about the little understood natural resource that is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Those efforts so far this year have taken us on a science boat cruise, on a drive up the Sacramento River to check out forgotten Delta islands, and this month to a pair of community awareness fairs.
On May 7 we all took part in the DSC’s “Extreme Delta Inland Voyage” event at the Ironhouse Sanitary District offices. If holding an information fair at a sewer plant doesn’t strike you as extreme, then consider that it was probably the only venue in Oakley that day offering the opportunity to pet a real live leopard shark. Which was just the draw Roni needed to attract a decent crowd to a location where few locals ever visit.
We had to get an early start that morning in order to have booths and signs in place by 10 a.m. Being old hands at event promotions, having worked on many an Oakley Almond Festival through the years, we had a pretty good idea of what was involved with setup. In other words, all hands on deck, and the more people involved the better. Ben was a reluctant helper until we told him he could bring along his girlfriend Lea, and they held up their end of the deal by lugging tables and chairs from the Ironhouse board room to the lawn outdoors where the booths were set up. Meanwhile, we drove out to the Main Street entrance and hung up balloons and a huge sign Roni had had printed the previous day at FedEx. There would be no mistaking this as the way to the show.
Roni fretted, as usual, that no one would come. But when 10 o’clock rolled around and all the booths were in place, people began to trickle in with their kids. Most were there to see the shark show, which was presented by the Marine Science Institute out of Redwood City, the same group that provided last winter’s Delta science cruises for area fifth-graders. We were all expecting to see a huge shark in a large tank, so when the guys arrived with their pickup towing a little trailer with a small aquarium on it, the first reaction we had was, “That’s it?”
Turns out that the tank contained two small sharks. Certainly not Jaws, but larger than the minnows one is likely to find in the shallows off our river shores. Because there were three shark shows throughout the day, the two sharks alternated appearances to avoid having them get stressed out at all the handling they receive. Each show was limited to 30 kids, and all “sold” out of the free passes the DSC was handing out. At the end of each show the presenter would bring out a shark, hold it up by the tail, and let the kids stroke its smooth body. Yeah, that might be a bit stressful for a small shark.
Roni was the one handing out most of the tickets. As the DSC’s director and principal representative at the event, she spent much of her time in the booth chatting with visitors and taking sign-ups for a prize drawing that the kids were able to enter. The top prize: a Mythbusters science kit. We had to explain to Ben why family members of employees weren’t allowed to enter the drawing!
If all of this didn’t seem “extreme” enough entertainment for one day, other booths joining the DSC included the City of Oakley, the Contra Costa Water District, and the Mosquito and Vector Control District. The Ironhouse Sanitary District also had information available, and true enough there were several people who showed up in hopes of getting a sneak peek at the district’s new wastewater treatment plant that is presently under construction. Glenn was able to break away from the festivities for about 45 minutes to take part in a guided tour of the plant conducted by none other than Tom Williams, the district’s general manager.
The new $55 million plant, scheduled to open in October, will use state-of-the-art processes to turn a couple million gallons of raw sewage a day into water that is safe enough to irrigate crops and return to the Delta. Construction is more than 90 percent complete. We’ve been watching it taking shape in a field north of town for the past two years, so to see it finally coming together is sort of exciting… for those who get excited about such things, which we do.
The “Extreme Delta” event was a comfortable four hours long and reasonably attended. We had thought it might take a couple hours to clean up when it was all over, but with so many people on hand to help out, the booths were put away in less than an hour. There was still plenty of time to go home and crash for the rest of the day.
One week later found Roni back at work, this time at the Community Awareness Day event at the Redman-Pocahontas Hall in Oakley. As with the “Extreme Delta” event the previous week, Roni brought her supply of brochures and foldout cardboard displays to set up at her table. Unlike the earlier event, there was about four times the number of booths for visitors to see, and six hours in which to see them.
Unfortunately, unlike the “Extreme Delta” event, Community Awareness Day had a small fraction of the audience. The presenters all got well acquainted with each other as there were few from the general public to talk with. Glenn and Ben dropped Roni off in the morning the Pocahontas Hall folks didn’t want presenters to park in the hall’s tiny parking lot and there was little street parking available and then returned a few hours later to bring her lunch. We all sat in the booth and chowed down on our sandwiches and salad. About the most workout Roni’s mouth got that afternoon, thanks to the small crowd.
The community events for DSC appear finished for a while, but Roni is still hard at work making presentations about the group to local city councils, writing grant proposals, and coming up with new ideas to promote the Delta Science Center’s mission. It hasn’t all been easy, but she’s making slow, measurable progress.
On the subject of slow progress, it was four and a half years ago that we unknowingly began collecting our Four Seasons garden statues when we purchased Summer on sale at Orchard Supply Hardware. This month, we completed the set when we brought home Fall and set her up in a corner of our patio.
We ordered her March 27 when we visited A. Silvestri Co. in San Francisco. We thought we would be bringing her home April 23, but Roni wasn’t feeling well that day so we postponed the pickup until the following Saturday. We had decided to make the drive to San Francisco ourselves rather than have the statue delivered in order to save the delivery charge, which was not insignificant.
April 30 turned out to be a perfect day for the drive, which we made together while Ben held down the fort at home. The weather was nice, traffic was light, and we reached the statuary dealership before noon. We hopped out of Glenn’s car and made our way through the acre of fountains and statues to the holding area where all the purchased orders are kept. We felt sort of like new grandparents in the maternity ward waiting for our first glimpse of a new grandkid. We both had our cameras and were shooting up the place, certainly looking a bit more conspicuous than the sophisticated urban shoppers Silvestri is probably used to.
It didn’t take long until we found Fall lying on a wood pallet, her factory fresh paint making her appear almost white in the bright sunshine. Which we debated as to whether that was a good thing or not; she is supposed to have a stone finish that tends more pink. Whatever. Each statue is considered a unique work of art, and no two finishes will ever be alike no matter what technique is applied. We were happy just to be getting her.
While the sales clerk went about drafting some workers to help move our statue, we picked out a square planter box we had seen on our previous visit. The box measures 18x18 inches and is around six inches deep, an ideal base for Fall. Being that it too is made of concrete, we were more than happy to let the workers add it to Fall’s pallet and move it for us. They chuckled to each other when they saw our small car. “You’re going to put it in there?” they said. “It’s how we got the other three home,” we replied. They laid some cardboard on the back seat and then together shoved Fall through the door. She fit perfectly, of course. The planter box went in the rear trunk, so by the time we left the store we were doing the low rider thing out of San Francisco.
It wasn’t until the following day, May 1, that we were able to get Fall out of the car and transport her to the back yard with an assist from Roni’s brother-in-law Kevin and our nephew Robert. They brought along a solid metal hand truck that made the process of moving Fall through the house and onto the back patio much simpler. They also provided the muscle power to lift the statue into place in the planter box. It saved us a lot of work and nervous sweat, so we were grateful for their help.
Fall is the only one of our four seasons that does not have her own garden. However, she sits under the BAP pergola in front of the huge chenin grape vine, which serves as a garden for her. It’s a good fit, since Fall is holding a large bunch of grapes in her hands. With the planter box under her she looks as though she could be taking part in a grape stomp. We thought it would be neat if we could find some concrete grape clusters to place at her feet to complete the effect.
It quickly became apparent that no one makes concrete grapes of the type we wanted, so we would have to improvise. At first we thought we could manufacture our own. We could take some inexpensive plastic craft store grapes and make molds from them, then cast the molds in concrete. After discarding that idea as impractical we decided on a simpler alternative. We went to the Dollar Tree store and picked up eight bags of decorative glass beads in various colors and mixed them together at Fall’s feet. Now it looks either like she is stomping on grapes or guarding a trove of precious gems. Whichever one it is, it is a colorful way to finish her display.
The other thing we did that day we visited the statuary to bring home Fall was to pick up supplies we needed to repaint our Summer statue. The little bit of paint we’d received for free in March to repair Winter was nowhere near enough to cover all four feet of Summer’s concrete contours, so this time around we had to buy a larger bottle of the terra cotta stain for $25. They mixed it up for us at the statuary store and poured it into an old Gatorade bottle, a lot less than you get when you purchase a gallon at the local Home Depot, but at least we were sure that the color and consistency would match what we were already using.
Having done the touch-up job on Winter, we were already familiar with the technique we’d need to use to transform Summer from her drab, weathered appearance back to her fresh-from-the-factory look. Glenn first scrubbed off all the spiderwebs and ivy barnacles that had rooted themselves in her surface, then he coated her from head to toe in the terra cotta stain on Ben’s birthday. We went out for a picnic lunch on that warm day, and by the time we returned, the paint was dry. Using the accompanying oil-based whitewash, Glenn used an old sock as a rag to rub the color over the terra cotta. He came back a couple days later with a small paint brush to touch up the statue’s details.
When she was done, Summer looked much cleaner than she had before. And darker. It takes a bit of getting used to, because we had spent the past few years seeing her much lighter as the original paint gradually faded away to her natural concrete gray. We still have some of the terra cotta stain left over and want to find something to do with it before it hardens inside its container.
The leftover whitewash may be put to use as we repaint our water fountain, which seems to be the next project. We bought the fountain at the same time we bought Summer in October 2006, and it too has been fading over time. That might not have bothered us, normally, until we discovered that the side facing the sun was exhibiting signs of heavy wear. The concrete was literally eroding to dust, and the decorative grapevine pattern was being ruined in the process. The best thing to do was to repaint it. So we picked up a can of primer gray from Orchard Supply Hardware and tested it out on a small piece of the fountain. We decided we weren’t happy with the color, so we went back and bought a quart of tan. This was closer to what we wanted. We are now tossed up over whether to give it a black wash and then rub on the white over it, or just use the whitewash as a top coat. Meanwhile, our fountain has been out of commission for a couple of months, disassembled with its parts scattered about the back yard. We are anxious to finish the project so we can again enjoy the soothing sounds of tinkling water on the hot summer days we know are just ahead. Aren’t they just ahead?
We are all the more anxious because on Mother’s Day we took advantage of a sale at Orchard and bought a small patio set to put underneath the BAP pergola. Roni had this idea that a couple of comfortable chairs with otomans and a side table where we could place drinks would be the perfect complement to the shady place created by our wisteria. Here we can sit and gaze out at the yard and see each of our Four Seasons statues. In theory, anyway.
We bought the set and had to drive around to the merchandise pick-up area, where the clerk gave us the familiar cross-eyed look when he asked if we were going to try to fit it all in Roni’s car. We were none too sure ourselves it would fit, but we replied confidently, “We’ve carried far larger objects in this car.” The set came in three boxes, and we wound up having to take the chairs out of their box so we could stack them in the trunk. The other two boxes we managed to fit in the passenger seat. Note to Toyota: You really need to design your sedans with fully retractable back seats!
After some simple assembly at home we had the set in place on the back patio, but it was unusually cold and windy that day so it wasn’t long before we retreated for the warmth of indoors. We took advantage of warmer weather during the week to share some lunches on the new furniture, but we were anxious for the weekend when we’d truly have more time to enjoy the new patio set. The weather, being unpredictable in May as it always is, didn’t cooperate. May 14-15 was cold and cloudy with a threat of rain. While Roni sat at her DSC booth in the Pocahontas Hall, Glenn brought in al the seat cushions to protect them from the approaching raindrops. As of this writing, the ground outside is saturated and more rain is on the way. We hope it will depart before NEXT weekend so we can try once more to enjoy our new patio furniture.
Ben turned 17 on May 2, and for him and us it will probably be a birthday we’ll always remember. It actually started the evening before, just as we were settling in for dinner after Kevin and Robert had helped us move Fall. Ben had read on Facebook that Osama bin Laden was dead, so we rushed to the TV to watch CNN. For the next few hours we watched as President Obama spoke to the nation and the newscasters tried to unravel the details of the raid that had resulted in the killing of the most wanted terrorist in our nation’s history.
Ben was just 7 when the Twin Towers fell in September 2001. He has grown up in a decade marked by fear and war, too young to remember the more innocent America that was lost that day. So while we hold no illusions that killing bin Laden will restore all that has been taken away, it was somehow a fitting birthday present to the people of Ben’s generation that the world might one day be a safer place in which to live and raise a family.
Ben, of course, had more material reasons to be thankful on his birthday. For starters, he got a new camera to replace his damaged one. Actually, it was Roni’s old digital camera that still had a lot of life left. Her little Canon wasn’t what she needed for work purposes, so she bought a better model and gave the Canon to Ben. We all went out for a picnic at the Big Break Regional Shoreline so the two of them would have an opportunity to test out their new gear. Ben has already been loading up his Facebook profile with pictures of his friends.
The other major gift Ben received was also a hand-me-down, but you’d never guess it from the way he has been spending time with it. His Grandma Gehlke recently upgraded computers, so she gave Ben her gently used HP Pavilion Entertainment PC laptop. Frustrated that we have long been a Macintosh family, he had wanted a PC because most of his friends have one, and because there are several websites he wanted to visit that aren’t compatible with Macs. Now his old iMac hasn’t been touched in two weeks and Ben is happily chatting away with his friends on the wireless network from his bedroom, so we figure we probably won’t see him again until his 18th birthday, or at least Christmas.