May 30, 2018: Welcome to May — the month when we go from winter to spring to summer in the space of about a week. The month when one moment we are enjoying the lush green of our front lawn and the color explosion of our poppies and rosemary and ice plants, and the next we are desperately trying to stave off their demise as we dump gallons of water on their withered stems and roots. It is the month of gardening fantasies, as we stare at the waist-deep golden weeds and imagine how it all would look with healthy fruit trees, a bountiful garden, and greener thumbs.
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Nothing good ever happens in May, where our yard is concerned. But that rarely stops us from picking up our implements of landscaping destruction as we try to reclaim a small part of what nature has laid waste in the preceding months of rain, wind and chill. And this spring, it seems, there is a lot more wasteland than some years. It probably has a lot to do with all the rain we had a year ago, sewing a vast crop of seeds that are just now sprouting. As with all things in life, you have to choose your battles, and so we focused on a section of our backyard that would give us the most gratification for the least amount of labor.
Roni wanted us to start with Summer’s Garden, because it is the most visible area of our yard when we look out our dining room window. We’ve had landscaping fabric surrounding the circular planter for years, but because sand and dirt are constantly blowing on top of it, the weed barrier was no longer stopping the infestation. We had a bit of leftover base rock and paver sand from our front yard driveway project, so we decided to put it to use around the garden, hoping to fill in the gaps where weeds like to take root.
We dug out all the concrete stepping stones and thoroughly weeded the pathway. That also meant pulling up the landscape fabric, which wasn’t easy even though we used the rake to hook it and yank it up. We smoothed down the sand and then placed some 18x18-inch concrete stepping stones around the garden, keeping them as tightly spaced as we could. What gaps remained we filled with the crushed rock. It may not be perfect, but it is much cleaner than when we started. Roni is excited because she can more easily access the bird feeders, which we rearranged a bit now that we no longer have the Wandering Webcam working and don’t have to take its position into consideration.
From the garden, we worked our way out to other parts of the yard that needed weeding. We pruned all the mock orange plants that line the kitchen wall, and we pulled weeds around what used to be our train garden between the kitchen and the neighbors’ house. That planter area is being taken over by a pine tree that started several years ago from seed. The tree is just now starting to mature and get taller. We hope that by removing the weeds and accumulated junk from its base that it will now have an easier time getting the water and light it needs. Behind the tree and next to the fence is an oleander that has also been competing with weeds. It started from the seeds of a huge shrub that some former neighbors removed — much to our dismay — so we’d like to help it get huge like its predecessor. We weeded the whole area, and then also cleared the ground near the dying remnants of our evergreen ash tree.
Slowly we are recovering the yard. It has been about a month and a half since we began, taking advantage of the bi-weekly green waste recycling schedule of our garbage company and making sure to put out full bins of weeds for them to take every other Friday. There is never enough room in that lone bin.
For Ben’s birthday he wanted to have a party and get our family together to help celebrate. But with conflicting schedules and the logistics of planning, it took until May 28, Memorial Day, to get everybody assembled, and by then we were also celebrating the birthdays of Glenn’s mom and sister. So because we were already in the process of weeding the yard, we took the opportunity of party planning to also clean up the patio areas. That was a bigger chore than either of us expected. It had been about six years since our last big family gathering here — Ben’s high school graduation party — and there were still remnants of that day strewn about the yard. The worst of it was the debris left behind by the wisteria, which each year deposits a new crop of seeds and dried up husks on the concrete, where they mix with the dirt and sand that blows in. It took us a couple of days to get everything pruned and swept up. We pulled back all the cinder blocks surrounding our barreled crepe myrtle tree and swept out all the dead leaves and spiders. We removed debris from the barbecue area and shoveled away sand that the gopher had deposited over the sides of our retaining wall. Hard to believe that all of this was transformed into a comfortable area for people to gather during the family party, which at final count saw 14 people in our house at once, on a day when the temperature topped 92 degrees.
That kind of heat may be fun for outdoor picnics and summer lounging by the pool, but it has literally been murder for our front lawn, which has been struggling ever since we planted it last August. It rebounded well during the winter, when rain and cooler temperatures prevailed, but since we mowed it for the first time this spring, fertilized it, then mowed it again two weeks later, it has been looking browner than ever. Roni has been diligent about watering the lawn, but perhaps it still isn’t getting enough water. We decided to try a liquid fertilizer and are now keeping an eye on the grass to see if it greens up.
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E HAD BEEN suffering a bit of cabin fever during April, thanks to the warming weather and Roni’s hectic schedule that hasn’t allowed for a lot of free days to do things. Glenn has been spending a lot of time writing, so even when the weather has been inviting he hasn’t gotten outside except to pull weeds. We needed a change of scenery. We have found several opportunities during this past month:
• On April 28, we paid a visit to the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction for the first time in several years. The place is devoted to the history of electric streetcars that once were a principal mode of transportation from the Bay Area to the sprawling countryside beyond. We used to bring Ben here when he was excited about trains, so it has been nearly 20 years. We had never seen the new visitor center or interpretive displays, so that was fun.
The museum is neat because you can ride the old streetcars all day if you wish. There are two excursions, one which takes visitors on a 15-minute ride around a small balloon track, and the other which heads south through the prairie for about six miles along a restored portion of electrified rail that once was part of the Sacramento Northern system. We started with this longer excursion ride, which lasts about 45 minutes. We paid a little extra for the upgraded seats in the parlor car, where for the price of admission riders can sit in comfortable lounge chairs and enjoy a glass of lemonade and some iced cookies. A motorman operates the three-car train while a docent explains the history of the area and points out landmarks along the way.
Solano County and the Montezuma Hills are one of the last bastions of rural land in the Bay Area, so much of what you see along this route looks as it might have a half-century ago. Except for the wind farms, which are now a dominant feature of the landscape. There is a display inside the museum that shows a 1:87 scale model comparing a streetcar to one of the gigantic 1.5-megawatt wind turbines that can be found in the nearby Shiloh wind installation.
At the end of the long excursion ride, passengers were invited to tour the inside of the museum’s car repair shop. This was another place we had never seen, but we decided that we didn’t want to get started with another hour-long guided tour and opted instead to check out the museum’s exhibits and gift shop before finishing the afternoon with one of the 15-minute excursion rides on the loop track. We also made sure to walk through the car barn where there are at least a couple dozen other streetcars and rolling stock on display, all in various states of repair. After our museum visit we drove into Rio Vista and enjoyed a tasty lunch at Tortilla Flats restaurant.
• On May 12, we traveled up the Delta to Locke to check out the Asian Pacific Spring Festival. Glenn had wanted to see the show since last year, when he missed the weekend because of a rare scheduled Saturday work shift. With no work to get in the way this time, we had all day to visit and take photos.
Locke is a tiny Chinese community that was established more than 100 years ago. Most of the original residents and their descendants long ago departed, and today there are just a handful of native-born Locke residents living here and operating some of the small businesses that line Main Street. The town was designated a historical landmark and the state parks division along with the Locke Foundation now administer its preservation and many of its activities, the Asian Pacific Spring Festival being just one.
The festival featured about a dozen booths selling authentic Chinese crafts, free tours of some of the town’s museum displays, and lots of multicultural entertainment. We arrived a bit after the start of the event, so we missed the Chinese lion dancers and karate demonstration, but we did get to enjoy a performance by the Stockton Bukkyo Taiko drummers and songs by the Capitol Chinese Orchestra of Sacramento. For lunch we had spaghetti at Al The Wop’s, a famous local dive known for its steaks and for providing jars of peanut butter as a condiment for spreading on toast. Some traditions die hard.
• On May 19, we attended the 70th birthday party for one of our longtime friends, Ginny Stemler. We met her nearly 30 years ago while Glenn worked for the newspaper in Antioch. She was one of the paper’s two librarians responsible for clipping and archiving articles from every edition, and for helping reporters research the old clips and microfiche.
The party was held at a private residence in Antioch and attended by perhaps 50 people. Ginny is Filipino, and many of her friends and relatives are as well, so it was no surprise that the menu offered a lavish spread of Filipino favorites including a roast pig that the hosts barbecued themselves. The pulled pork was excellent, as well as the noodle dishes and desserts that were served. We had the opportunity to visit with Judy Gutierrez, who is still Roni’s editor at the paper. We also made a couple of new friends, Richard and Miriam from Brentwood, with whom we share several common interests. It turned out that they had just returned from the same Mexico cruise we took last September, so we had great fun comparing notes about our travels.
We did our best to talk over the live band that the hosts hired for the event, unbeknownst to Ginny. We had only expected to put in a quick appearance just to congratulate her and say hello, but we had such a good time that we wound up being among the last to leave near the end of the evening.
• On May 24, in preparation for the birthday/Memorial Day party we were planning, we decided to take a drive to Lockeford to pick up sausages for the barbecue. The town is home to the Lockeford Sausage Company, which is known far and wide for the delicious smoked links it sells at fairs and festivals. We figured it would be more fun to grill sausages than the hamburgers or chicken we usually cook.
Apparently we weren’t the only ones with the idea of grilling sausages over Memorial Day weekend, because the line for the shop stretched down the block. We waited for nearly 90 minutes to get inside, order 15 pounds of meat, and haul it back to the car where it barely all fit in the cooler of ice we had brought with us just for the occasion. We bought 14 smoked Dakotas, four Hawaiian links, a couple each of jalapeno, cajon and bacon links, a Bavarian brat, smoked kielbasa, jerky sticks, and a slab of bacon. It was a lot of meat, but it provided more than enough for our party and we still have several left in the freezer for future meals.
From Lockeford we drove about 16 miles north to the town of Herald, which is home to the former Rancho Seco nuclear reactor. Why? Because Glenn had read about it and was curious to see it, and it was something fun to do while we were sort of in the neighborhood. The nuclear power plant was decommissioned in 2009 and stripped of its equipment. The spent nuclear fuel rods are housed permanently in a concrete bunker on the property. You can’t go inside either place, obviously, but you certainly can’t miss it if you are driving into the foothills along Highway 104. The towers are visible for miles around the area of mostly farms and ranches. The only reason they haven’t been torn down is that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District deemed it was too expensive, so they remain an ominous reminder to the region’s nuclear past.
Much of the land surrounding the reactors is still owned by SMUD and now houses a solar energy farm and a natural gas power generation plant. There is a recreation area to the east that includes a manmade lake and hiking trails. We had planned to check it out, but we balked at the $12 day use fee and decided we’d had our fill of the shuttered reactors. We headed for home on Twin Cities Road, which conveniently leads back to Highway 160 via Walnut Grove. It took us through the town of Galt, where we had lunch at the Squeeze Burger restaurant and then checked out the Tractor Supply Co. on the other end of the shopping center.
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N GLENN'S ONGOING quest to find a quiet place to write, he now has yet another option: a corner desk that he built for our master bedroom early this month. The idea came about on a lark, and was constructed largely from materials we already had available in the garage.
The concept was pretty simple. We cleared out a 3x3-foot corner of the bedroom that had been collecting clutter, then we screwed a pair of 1x3-inch boards to each wall to support the sides. The desktop itself was made from a sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood that we had bought for another project and never used. We measured out a diamond shape and then laminated the board with some vinyl flooring planks we had left over from our guest bathroom remodeling project. The planks are secured to the plywood with silicone construction caulk.
With the planks secured to the wood, we used a handheld circular saw to trim off the edges, then took the finished top and laid it in the corner on top of the support boards so that the surface is about 27 inches above the floor; that seems to be the ideal height for comfort. Glenn tested it out and realized very quickly that the top needed to be fastened down so that it wouldn’t move while typing on it, or worse, flip over! He added a 1x2-inch brace across the middle of the desktop for extra support, then used three angle brackets to anchor the top to the brace and the two wall supports. That did the trick.
The only part for the desk he had to buy was a strip of plastic quarter-round that he caulked to the front of the desktop to provide a smooth edge on which to rest his wrists. The remaining expenses were for computer equipment, but they weren’t directly related to this project. Glenn had wanted a larger monitor for his main computer in the dining room, so when he purchased a 24-inch LG monitor from Costco, it freed up the old 17-inch Dell to use elsewhere. He moved the Dell into the bedroom and purchased a couple of cables for it off Amazon so that it can serve as a dock station for his Chromebook, like the similar setup he made in the Writing Sanctuary the month before. He added a spare keyboard and his bluetooth mouse to control the dock station. We later picked up a portable rechargeable LED light that attaches magnetically below a bookshelf so that he can see more easily in the dimly lit corner at night.
The bedroom corner desk was supposed to be a supplemental option for times when the Writing Sanctuary dock station isn’t available, but Glenn likes it so well that he has been using it even when he could find peace at the other end of the house. With the pending arrival of summer and hotter days, however, he may soon prefer being in the Writing Sanctuary where it is much cooler.
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EN'S CIRCUITOUS PATH to earning his driver’s license continued this month as he tried and again failed on his second attempt at the driving test. This was not quite the heartbreak of his initial effort in April. Unlike that experience, in which he failed to make it out of the DMV parking lot before the examiner ended the test, he at least had a few minutes to drive through the streets of Pittsburg before encountering the obstacle that did him in — this one in the form of a traffic signal that he says went from red to green as he was slowing for a stop in traffic. The driver behind him leaned on the horn, and the examiner determined that it was a “critical error” and failed him.
Despite the disqualifying incident, the examiner allowed him to complete the course, which he generally scored well on. At least now we have an idea of what needs work before Ben makes his third try at the exam in late June. His learner’s permit expires in early August, so time is starting to become a factor if he doesn’t want to have to reapply and begin the process all over again. He is more than ready to be done with it, if for no other reason than we’re tired of seeing the inside of the Pittsburg DMV. Even though he had an appointment for 1:20 p.m., he didn’t get to go on the road until 2:45, and that’s a long time to have to sit in the heat with nerves fraying over whether you’ll do well on the test. We hope that the third time’s a charm and that he’ll be ready to fly solo behind the wheel before July.
Sorry if this newsletter seems more disjointed than usual. We’ve fallen behind with our many other activities and are racing a deadline to get it posted before the end of the month. Please send positive vibes Ben’s way so he can pass his next driving exam and maybe we’ll have better news to share in June.