Photo of the month

Fair or foul weather, it's going to take more than a few storm clouds to stand in the way of our having a good time at the Contra Costa County Fair on Saturday, June 4. Roni joins Ben and his girlfriend Lea for a picture in front of food vendor row. Photo by Glenn.

June 2011

Uh oh, looks like another construction project in the making. We bought 77 retaining wall bricks from Lowe's to extend the retaining wall along our back fence. Here we have stacked the blocks on the patio after moving them from the front yard. Photo by Glenn.

The area framed by the pergola posts is where the new wall will go. The section currently being held back by a long board is what we will be replacing. Photo by Glenn.

We'd say that Ben is resting up to gather strength to move the heavy retaining blocks. But that wouldn't be true. He's just sacked out on the patio on a warm afternoon. Photo by Roni.

Here is what the wall looks like all finished. The blocks weren't meant to be installed with gaps, but we did it that way to mimic the plantable wall below. Our goal is to fill the gaps with dirt and grow flowers or ivy. Photo by Glenn.

In the meantime, the wall looks pretty naked. We tried to give it some character by inserting crushed lava rock into the gaps. Photo by Glenn.

We spent most of May repainting the water fountain in Summer's Garden. This is the bottom bowl painted in wheat. You can compare that with the original black-on-gray color that is still visible in the center. Photo by Glenn.

Disassembled fountain pieces sit painted and drying before receiving their faux finish. Photo by Glenn.

Back together and pumping water once again, the water fountain sports a new look on May 31. It is sort of an antiqued white. Photo by Glenn.

Roni takes advantage of nice weather the last week of May to plant her tomato garden. Photo by Glenn.

We've made some changes to what used to be known as The Farm behind Summer's Garden. We removed the broken windmill and farm animal sculptures and Roni planted the area in various grasses. They need little maintenance and are nicer than looking at weeds, although we still have plenty of them too. Photo by Glenn.

One thing that didn't move with the planting of the grass garden is the iris barrel. The iris, seen here with Winter in the background, was in full bloom at the end of May. Photo by Roni.

A closer look at the iris blossoms. Wish they would stick around longer. Photo by Glenn.

This is Roni's first attempt at a water garden. She started with canna lily and a parrot feather. We keep the bucket watered and the plants seem happy. Photo by Glenn.

Roni applies a coat of paint to two of the cinder blocks used as plant stands on our patio. Eventually we want to have all the blocks painted in different colors. Photo by Glenn.

The fireplace mantel is decorated for the patriotic holidays of Memorial Day and Independence Day. We try to change the display every few months. Photo by Roni.

Lea and Ben engage in a form of computer dating, which is they got together at our house on May 29 for a Sunday barbecue and an afternoon of playing computer games on their laptops. Photo by Glenn.

Outside, Glenn has the grill fired up and is preparing a tasty rib dinner. Our first cookout of the year after getting the propane working again. Photo by Roni.

It's a great day for the fair. Ignore the dark clouds above and the giant mud puddles in the parking lot. Step in that and you might never be seen again. Photo by Glenn.

It's a Big Fat Sausage. Or a Really Small Bun. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn is bundled in his jacket, but apparently it wasn't cold enough outside to keep the ice cream from melting out of his chocolate dipped cone. Photo by Roni.

One of the art exhibits at this year's Contra Costa County Fair was these lifesize human figures sculpted from plastic wrap. They twisted slowly on fishing line suspended from the rafters. The effect? Creepy. Photo by Glenn.

Roni visits the sheep at the animal pavilion. Photo by Glenn.

This cow seems to know that everything goes better with a smile. Give him first prize! Photo by Roni.

Swift Country lead singer Kaylee Starr does her tribute to country musician Taylor Swift during the fair. Photo by Glenn.

A young audience member gets to hold a ferret during a wild animal show at the fair. Photo by Glenn.

Breathe deep the gathering gloom... It's getting late in the day and the clouds haven't let up any. A tower on the fair's commercial building would make a great lightning rod in the event of a thunder storm. Photo by Glenn.

Katy and Rio are extremely curious about what's in the huge box we got in the mail on June 9. Photo by Glenn.

Fresh from the box, our new 27-inch iMac sits on the desk beside the 17-inch eMac it is replacing. The size difference blew us away at first. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn goes about setting up the new computer in the wee hours of the morning of June 10. Now it's time to figure out how to put it to work. Photo by Roni.

Not to be outdone, Roni shows off her new iPad 2 as she sets it up on June 12. If Apple's stock takes a dive this summer, you won't have us to blame. Photo by Glenn.

Time for this month's obligatory cat photos. This is Katy trying to look cute under the dining room table. She doesn't have to try very hard. Photo by Roni.

Rio has the longest legs of any cat we've ever owned. If he ever grows into his body he's going to be a huge cat. Photo by Roni.

On June 18 we took a drive up the Delta to Happy Harbor. This is the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. Photo by Glenn.

Ben and Glenn wait at our table inside the Happy Harbor Bar & Restaurant. Roni used her iPad to snap this image. Photo by Roni.

It was a postcard perfect day on the Delta. A couple of boats glide through the San Joaquin River with Mount Diablo in the distance. The blackberry brambles in the foreground won't be ripe for a few more weeks. Photo by Glenn.

Ben and Glenn pose for a photo on a visit to Big Break Regional Shoreline on June 15. Unlike earlier in the month, the temperature this fine Wednesday was hovering in the 90s. Photo by Roni.

Roni is back at the shoreline park June 22 for the unveiling of the new Delta map, which was constructed over a period of several months. It is made from concrete and tile with the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and their tributaries carved into the display. Visitors can pour water onto the map to see a simulation of how the rivers flow. Photo by Roni.

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An Apple a day

June 27, 2011

We’re not sure what it takes to get on Steve Jobs’ Christmas greeting list, but surely we would qualify for all the years we have been loyal Macintosh users, going way back to our very first family computer, a Mac Plus, purchased in 1988. We’re a few computer systems down the road since then, as well as a couple of iPods and an iPhone, so it is no surprise that when we found ourselves in the market for our latest system that we looked once again to that famous computer maker in Cupertino.

In fact, we had been looking for nearly three years, lusting over the larger screens and faster processors of the current iMac line. Our trusty eMac, purchased in February 2004, had long since been maxed out by more modern software and Internet applications. But life kept getting in the way and the funds never seemed to be available to get the system we really wanted and also put food on the table. So we kept putting it off until this year. We finally set our budget and made a plan to upgrade the computer by July, if not as a business expense then as a spiffy new birthday present for Glenn.

As it turned out, Apple did a huge overhaul of its iMac line in early May, boosting processor speeds and lowering prices. We shopped around for a few weeks and wound up ordering a 27-inch iMac i5 from Amazon on June 1. The online retailer shipped our computer to us from Harrisburg, Penn., and it arrived the afternoon of June 9. We weren’t quite sure why it was shipped all the way across the country when Apple’s headquarters is barely an hour’s drive away from us, but for no tax and free shipping we weren’t about to question Amazon’s wisdom.

We knew the new computer would be large, but we were still a little awestruck once it was unpacked and sitting on our desktop. “That’s a TV,” Roni said skeptically. She didn’t quite see the need for such a large machine, even after Glenn explained that its 27-inch monitor provided more screen real estate for such things as web design, photo editing and page layout. The fact that it also is a pretty cool way to watch Netflix movies in HD was not lost on either of us. Ben popped in to see the new system and said, “That’s the largest computer I’ve even seen.” He isn’t about to give up his HP laptop for a Mac, but he admits to being a tad envious.

The computer is, in a word, awesome. It’s lovely to look at, pin-drop quiet, and runs circles around even the fastest computers we have owned. It took about a week for Glenn to get all our files moved over from the old eMac, but the transition has been mostly seemless. This newsletter is the first major project we have composed on the new machine.

But we were far from done boosting the value of Steve Jobs’ stock options. Roni, who has become quite the mobile executive this year, recently discovered that her lack of an Internet connection while traveling was preventing her from getting much work done at the office. She has been putting in a couple of days each week outside the house doing work for the Delta Science Center, and she really missed having access to the web to conduct research for grants. So after some lobbying on her part, we found ourselves at the AT&T store checking out iPads.

Our original idea was that she would upgrade the service plan on her iPhone to allow her to “tether” her MacBook laptop computer to the phone’s data connection. This proved to be almost as expensive as our home Internet connection, so we quickly decided that the iPad, with its cheaper data plan, was the better way to go. With the difference in price for the service, the savings would pay for the tablet in about 20 months.

Barely two days after we got our new iMac unpacked and into service, we walked out of AT&T with a 16GB iPad 2 and the cheapest data plan we could purchase. The only thing missing was a physical keyboard Roni could use in lieu of the virtual keyboard the iPad provides. Doing a lot of typing of reports or surfing the web could become unpleasant in a hurry otherwise. Fortunately this turned out to be a win-win situation. The iMac came with a wireless keyboard that Glenn didn’t really want, so we decided to purchase a separate wired keyboard for him and give the wireless one to Roni. Problem solved.

* * * * *

Roni put the iPad through its paces on Father’s Day weekend when we hit the road for a short drive up the Delta. A few days before, Roni had been to a place along the Delta Loop to give a presentation on the Delta Science Center. She discovered a restaurant and bar called Happy Harbor and wanted us all to check it out for lunch. She brought along the iPad, and we used its GPS tracking capabilities to help guide us along the backroads to our destination.

Not that finding Happy Harbor took any great skills beyond following Brannan Island Road, which leads you only in one direction past ranches and fields and meandering waterways teeming with boaters and fishermen. It was a warm late-spring Saturday and, for a little bit, reminded us of some of the summer vacations we had taken to the East Coast and the South. Just a bit of humidity to season the laid-back country atmosphere.

We stopped at various spots along the way to take pictures. Unlike around home in Oakley, Mount Diablo looks quite majestic when surrounded by vacant fields and orchards instead of subdivisions. We have toyed with the idea of buying property out here one day, and there is plenty for sale if you don’t mind the prospect of a levee break leaving it all under water some day. On this trip we were content to live vicariously through the vacationers and weekend revelers out camping or boating. Delta Loop is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the central Delta, a place close to the suburbs where folks can still get away from it all.

Happy Harbor was about what we would have expected out of a resort dive. The building is up on stilts along the levee road, and the bar was busy even at noon. The restaurant was empty until we got there. Breakfast served all day for $4.99. Ben instantly took in the collection of video game consoles. Glenn took note of the NASCAR posters on the wall promoting Budweiser. Roni busied herself playing with her iPad, taking photos and looking up things online — because she could. There’s something about watching an iPad user try to take a photo with it that is instantly entertaining and a little pathetic at the same time. It’s too huge to be a convenient substitute for a digital camera, and the quality of the pictures it takes can’t compare. It’s sort of like the early days of cell phones when they were the size of brick. We laugh today, but once upon a time they were cutting edge technology. The food turned out to be pretty decent. Roni and Ben ordered hamburgers and fries while Glenn had a tuna melt and potato salad.

That turned out to be a combination Saturday getaway and early Father’s Day dining excursion. We don’t typically go overboard to celebrate “Hallmark” holidays, but Ben really wanted to do something with Glenn to acknowledge the day, so on Sunday the two of them walked up to the store to pick up a box of doughnuts for breakfast. Never mind that it was already noon by the time this happened, as neither one of them managed to get out of bed much before 11 a.m. Glenn has always been a night owl and Ben is rapidly on his way to becoming one now that he is 17 and school is out for the summer.

After the doughnuts we all went out to Best Buy, which Ben had decided would be a good place for a father-son excursion. Roni left the two of them there and went off to the nearby Target store to look for a case for her iPad. While she was doing that, Ben and Glenn looked at just about every item at Best Buy, comparing features of digital cameras, computers and TVs, checking out the latest video games, and counting how many times salespeople stopped to ask if they were finding everything all right. (Eight, but who was counting?) By the time the shopping trip was done Roni had her iPad cover, Ben got a cash card to use for one of his favorite online games, and Glenn got… well, Glenn got to say that he had a good time window shopping with his son.

That evening Ben got his first lesson in how to use the barbecue grill. He thought it would be fun to cook Dad a nice Father’s Day dinner of hamburgers, but seeing as he had never done this before, he needed a bit of fatherly guidance to accomplish the task. Glenn guided him through all the steps, from turning on the propane and lighting it to separating the frozen hamburger patties and knowing when to turn them on the grill. It was a well orchestrated effort, and at the end of it he had produced some darn good barbecue burgers. Now he will most certainly want to apply those newfound skills to cooking for his girlfriend Lea.

* * * * *

Speaking of Lea, we’ve been seeing a lot of her lately. Ben has taken her to the movies a couple of times and invited her on several of our outings, including our trip to the Contra Costa County Fair on June 4.

We’ve attended the fair off and on over the past 22 years, but never can we recall a time when the temperature wasn’t at least in the 70s and the sun wasn’t a constant companion. That wasn’t the case this year, as the fair had the misfortune of falling right in the middle of a late-season storm. It had been cold and gloomy most of the week since Memorial Day, and there had even been some rain leading into fair weekend. We hoped that the clouds would part for us by Saturday afternoon. Roni attended a meeting of her Black Diamonds Romance Writers club during the morning, which meant we didn’t even get to the fair until after 1 p.m. Our plan had been to arrive late and hang out there until the evening so we could enjoy the carnival lights. But the weather wasn’t going to cut anyone a break.

Gray skies and chilling winds prevailed all afternoon. We considered delaying our visit until Sunday on the hope that the weather would improve, but there was also the chance things might get worse. At least as long as the rain held off there would be the opportunity to see the show. The only advantage of the crappy weather was that it kept the crowds down, which made it easier to stroll the grounds and avoid lines to buy food. Bundled in our jackets, Ben and Lea headed off one direction while we decided to get lunch first — a semi-forgettable meal that included a very dry Philly cheesesteak and what the same food vendor advertised as a “big fat sausage.” We determined that the sausage actually only appeared big because it was seated on the world’s smallest bun.

After our meal we ventured inside to look at the kids art exhibits and then the livestock barn. Then we decided it was time for ice cream. Last year we had attended the fair on a typically hot day, so when we purchased some chocolate dipped soft-serve cones they mostly wound up dripping down our arms. We were convinced that the cooler weather would mitigate that problem. We were wrong.  Not only did we fail to consider that ice cream melts anyway when dunked in a vat of hot liquid chocolate, but we made the mistake of buying the large cones thinking we’d have plenty of time to enjoy them beneath the overcast skies. The liquefied ice cream was already sweating through the chocolate even before Roni had paid for the cones, and by the time we grabbed seats on a nearby bench, there was little chance of holding back the vanilla river. We burned through a handful of napkins, and by the time we’d crunched down on the last bite of cone our hands were coated in sticky goo.

We made our way to the entertainment stage for something to do while we licked our fingers clean. We were just in time to catch the middle of a concert performance by Swift Country, which was one of three tribute bands playing that day. This particular one was running through the musical catalog of pop sensation Taylor Swift. Forget the fact that Taylor Swift’s career is far from has-been status, which is usually the sole criterion for having a tribute band in your honor. These guys weren’t bad, even if the sparse audience didn’t reflect that. It’s tough to draw a crowd for tribute bands in good weather, let alone beneath threat of rain. Ben ran out of cash and had to come find us while we were enjoying the concert. Taylor Swift not being one of his favorite musicians, we gave him a good ribbing after he made his way through the pavilion with his fingers in his ears.

We didn’t stick around for the carnival lights, but we still managed to put in a full day at the fair, leaving around 7:30, nearly five hours from when we’d arrived. The jackets and puddle jumping notwithstanding, we all had a great time. And as it turned out, going on Saturday was the right move, because on Sunday it rained for a good chunk of the day. Sometimes you do get lucky.

* * * * *

That little late season temper tantrum on Mother Nature’s part turned out to be the last hurrah for our soggy spring. Just days after the fair the heat kicked in and we were wishing just to be indoors under the ceiling fans. Although thankful to finally have nice weather again, it meant we would be spending less time doing the yard work we couldn’t tackle with all the rain and wind.

After Glenn repainted our Summer Season statue in early May he moved on to tackle the water fountain. What should have been a two-day job wound up taking all month as we went back and forth on paint colors and faux finish techniques. On the few warm days when we could have been painting we instead found ourselves at the hardware store examining paint chips or buying supplies. We started out painting the fountain gray before we decided we preferred it in “wheat,” also known as beige. Because the fountain is extremely heavy we had to disassemble it in sections and paint them individually, letting them dry a day or two before putting on a black wash and then sealing them with polyurethane clear coat.

Glenn managed to get all the painted parts reassembled and the water back on before the end of the month, turning on the pump for the first time on May 31.

Meanwhile, our patio living room continues to take shape. Roni got her lounge furniture for Mother’s Day and has been spending her afternoons there reading her Kindle and listening to music on her iPhone. When the freight trains aren’t rolling and the neighbor kids aren’t having sword battles in their backyard, it’s actually quite peaceful. She decided she wants to add a water garden, so while our idea for a pond continues to languish in the side yard, Roni set up a plastic bucket under the BAP pergola, filled it with water, and added a couple of water plants — one an canna lily with stunning red flowers and the other a delicate green fern called parrot feather. Eventually she plans to set up one of our wine barrel halves with a pond liner and a pump to make a proper water feature.

* * * * *

Our plan to convert the old spa into a pond isn’t dead yet, but that project has taken a backseat to some of the others of late. As with all projects, completing one part of it usually entails finding another part you weren’t aware of. In the case of the pond, Glenn dug out a 7 cubic yard hole and left the soil piled along the edges of the hole. While some of the sand will be used to backfill the spa liner once it’s in the ground, for now there is way too much sand in the way. We decided to transfer the sand to other spots in the yard that might benefit from it, and the most likely place was along the back fence.

About 11 years ago we built a retaining wall to hold back the slope of the railroad right of way that is just on the other side of the rear fence. While the wall has been trouble free all these years, it was never tall enough to retain all the dirt along the back fence. Wind, gophers and the passage of time have caused piles of sand overrun the wall and spill into our garden and onto the patio. We built a second tier to the retaining area using boards left over from the original retaining wall that failed in the late ’90s. The foot-wide planks were a help, but they still were not tall enough to prevent soil erosion. In recent years the base of the concrete pillars that support the back fence had become exposed in places, making us concerned that if not corrected we would eventually lose the concrete posts and then have a serious problem on our hands.

The answer was to bulk up the slope with the sand from the pond excavation. Unfortunately, before we could do that, we first needed to raise the upper portion of the retaining wall. As it happened, Lowe’s had a sale on retaining wall stones as we were contemplating this project, so we made several trips to buy about 100 blocks. We used 77 of them to construct a 13-foot wall, replacing the boards we’d been using. This raised the upper wall to about three and a half feet, plenty deep to retain the sand we wheelbarrowed from the pond project to along the back fence.

Although the keystone retaining blocks are designed to be packed tightly together, we built our new wall segment with three-inch gaps between every block in an attempt to make the new upper wall look similar to the original lower wall, which employed a different style of plantable concrete block. Now we have another place that we will need to plant if we want to see something other than weeds there by next spring.

Because this upper wall is an experiment in progress, we only bought enough blocks to complete a small segment of the 103-foot span of the back fence. If we like the results we’ll probably do a bulk order of the remaining blocks we need from Lowe’s. Hopefully they’ll be on sale again by then.

* * * * *

Ben is on summer vacation now, having completed his junior year of high school on June 2. He earned a little spending cash by doing some odd jobs for his Aunt Jack, and is trying to save up for his upcoming trip to SacAnime later this summer. But summer for him is all too short; he is already preparing to sit for his senior portrait this week, then will return to class by the end of July. Those lazy summer days sure aren’t what they were when we were kids.

Hope the rest of your summer provides plenty of relaxation and adventure. We’ll see you next month.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 09:58 hrs.

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