July 23, 2014: Summer vacations have changed a lot for us since the days when Ben was in school and we used to have to coordinate our plans around the time his class was on break. Back then it seemed we often had the time but not the money to travel; now we are in a better spot financially, but there never seems to be time. C'est la vie. Still, we always welcome the arrival of July and an opportunity to take the pace of life down a notch for some much needed R&R.
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Look up "staycation" in the dictionary and you will probably find our photos after the definition. We didn't invent the concept, yet we have done our part to live it for the past several years. This one was no exception, as our road less traveled frequently extended no farther than the borders of our own town, and occasionally not beyond the living room couch. But determined as we were not to repeat our spring break that found us confined to our garage, we succeeded in steering clear from house work for the most part.
With Roni still in the thick of this year's rice project for the Delta Science Center, the highlight of our week-long break came on Glenn's birthday when, as part of her gift to him, Roni kidnapped him for an afternoon adventure in Sacramento. Roni has lately been a fan of Guy Fieri's show on the Food Network, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," in which the celebrated Marin County restaurateur hops around the country looking for offbeat places that serve up great eats. It got to be a running joke between us that every Friday night when Glenn arrived home from work, Roni would have the TV tuned to Guy's show and all its caloric decadence. Nothing like trying to stick to a diet when some TV celebrity is tempting you close to bedtime with rich sauces, steaming plates of barbecue, and exotic dishes in towns you rarely get to...
Which was precisely the reason that Glenn finally broke down and put on his birthday list a request to be treated to a dining experience at a restaurant worthy of Guy's attention. Finding that place proved less difficult that it might have been, given that Guy has also written several books on the various eateries profiled in his show, including a few in the Bay Area and the Sacramento region. So Roni did some advance research, and on July 1 when she stole Glenn away for the road trip, she had already prepared a packet with the day's itinerary.
We were not far from Rio Vista when Roni had Glenn open one of his presents — a paperback book that turned out to be a copy of one of the "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" series. She had selected two of the Sacramento restaurants profiled in the book and included a printout of their menus and directions on how to find them. This was a no-nonsense outing for a serious gourmand, and given that cake and ice cream awaited back home later in the day, we'd have to be careful not to overdo it if we still wanted to be hungry for dessert.
Our first stop was Cafe Rolle, a French restaurant located on Sacramento's H Street. The first thing that usually comes to mind when anyone mentions French cuisine is tiny portions, outrageous prices and snobby waiters, so we were a bit curious as to how such a place would rate Guy's recommendation. Would it qualify as a diner or a drive-in or a dive? Judging from the aging strip mall we found it in, definitely dive caliber in appearance. That impression didn't change much once inside, where we were seated at one of the tiny tables decorated with old French postcards under glass amid wood paneled walls featuring large Art Deco style travel posters of various French destinations.
Thanks to the menu Roni had printed off the Web, we had already narrowed our selections by the time we walked in the door, but we weren't prepared for the specials that tempted us. Glenn finally settled on the Croque Monsieur, a ham and gruyere sandwich on homemade sourdough, while Roni ordered the duck pate that several others had raved about. As we waited for our order while sipping on French sodas, the staff was deeply engrossed in the World Cup soccer match taking place on a TV behind the counter. The Belgians and Americans were getting it on in an elimination game for the right to play in the quarter finals. Chef William Rolle, the cafe's namesake who is known to break out in song without warning, according to Guy's book, indeed began whistling as he bustled about in the kitchen. What a hoot.
The meal was amazingly delicious, and our one regret was that we had planned only on sampling the cuisine as an appetizer before our second stop on the tour; we could have made Cafe Rolle our one and only meal. We each traded bites of our dishes, not wanting to rush yet knowing we couldn't linger too long if we wanted to hit another restaurant and be home before night. We both got to-go boxes and saved the unfinished portions for our next-day's lunch. As we prepared to leave, Roni made sure to get a photo of Glenn in front of the restaurant so she could post it on Facebook. Then Glenn thought it was only right he get a photo of her under the awning as well. It was as we were framing the shot that Chef Rolle popped out of the front door with a big smile, came over toward Roni and said, "You want a photo of me, right?" Well, how could we refuse? He indulged our photo session and we headed off, convinced he was just as much the character as Guy had promised. What a fun dining experience.
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OUR SECOND STOP was a place called Dad's Kitchen located on Freeport Boulevard, convenient mainly because it was on the way home. Described as "American comfort food," the menu is packed with all the burgers, fries, steaks and shakes one might expect, with the twist that many of the ingredients are organically produced in an effort to appeal to today's health-conscious consumers. You will also find some less common items such as deep-fried garbanzo beans, which we tried, mac-and-cheese, and sliced apple pie that resembles a deep-dish pizza.
It was a good thing the restaurant specializes in comfort food, because there was a bar full of screaming soccer fans that would need plenty of it after the United States lost its soccer match by a final score of 2-1. We arrived just as the game was winding down, and for a moment no one noticed us waiting in the lobby because all eyes were on the TV. A waitress led us away from the noisy bar, thankfully, and we were able to sit outside on the covered back patio surrounded by espaliered fruit trees, yard art and misters. Given that the temperature was hovering in the upper 90s, sitting outside probably wasn't the most comfortable option, but at least we had the area mostly to ourselves. Glenn ordered a blue cheese burger while Roni chose a roast beef sandwich. We shared the garbanzo beans, but our appetites were already flagging having just finished up with Cafe Rolle a few minutes earlier.
We thought the food to be just average and a bit pricey for what we expected, although the atmosphere of the place certainly lended itself to fun for a late night of sharing a beer with friends or coworkers. We decided that perhaps Guy's taste in diners, drive-ins and dives is different than ours, and that we could probably do just as well hanging out at La Costa Taqueria in Oakley, which just might be one of the best kept dining secrets in Contra Costa County.
We were so full by the time we reached home that we decided to shelve plans for dining out to celebrate Glenn's 49th birthday. But that didn't mean we couldn't find room for cake and ice cream, which we had wisely picked up from Safeway the previous day. The gourmet cakes all looked so good that Glenn couldn't choose between them, so he picked out both a carrot cake and a sour cherry pomegranate cake to take home, along with two flavors of ice cream. The double-barrel cake salute was as practical as it was indulgent, being that the cakes were so small there was little room to write on them, let alone cram 49 candles. Roni solved the problem by splitting the birthday message across the two cake tops and placing half the candles on each one. We can't remember a time when we have done that before, but it worked just fine; Glenn had no trouble blowing out the collective blaze.
Having reached a point in life where his wants and needs are relatively few, and having had a thoroughly enjoyable excursion to Sacramento to celebrate the occasion, Glenn was fine with keeping the rest of the celebration simple. His wrapped presents were mostly token offerings expressing the love of his family – a colorful windchime to add to our pergola collection, a pair of terra cotta flying pigs, a chest mount for our GoPro video camera. Glenn also received a miniature resin replica of the Oxford University grotesque we'd purchased during our East Coast trip seven years ago that was stolen from our front porch shortly afterward. The figure represents Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He has been looking for a replacement ever since, and while this resin casting is about half the size of the one we lost, it matches the features of the original concrete figure in every other detail. This one will be displayed indoors, however, just to avoid a repeat of its disapperance.
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THE BIRTHDAY FESTIVITIES were just a few hours old when we awoke early the next morning for a return to important tasks. The Delta Science Center is in the midst of its second year of a three-year project to grow rice on Jersey Island as part of a research project through UC Davis and UC Berkeley. Wednesday, July 2, marked the long-awaited day for transplanting the rice seedlings from the greenhouse to the open field, and Roni had lined up volunteer help from the DSC's Summer Science Club along with anyone else she could muster to help out. Unlike last year's transplanting, she would not have access to a group of students on a paid summer internship; we hoped enough others would show up, or we might have to resort to hiring day laborers from the parking lot at Home Depot.
That seemed a greater possibility after we arrived at the greenhouse and were the only ones there. The field had been Roto-tilled but was still thick with weeds and hadn't been flooded yet. Roni dragged the hose over and turned on the tap, and we diverted our attention to removing plastic on the greenhouse while the field began to fill at a snail's pace. Just as we were thinking it might just be the two of us plucking rice plants and sowing them in rows, a couple of cars drove up and some Freedom High School students, members of the science club, joined us. More arrived as the hour went by, and before long we'd amassed a crew of about a dozen workers. Not as many as last year, but enough to get the job done.
At first few of the kids wanted to get dirty, so we had an over abundance of people in the greenhouse pulling up rice plants by the roots and carting them to the planting site in buckets. When it became apparent that supply was outstripping demand, most of the pullers shucked their shoes to become planters, wading into the mud that had been gradually deepening as the water expanded across the barren field. But the watering process was agonizingly slow, and if we hoped to finish planting before dinner time then we'd need a faster way of wetting the field. Some of the volunteers broke away from planting duties to help spread the water, using our lone shovel to channel water to the dry spots and loosen up the roots of weeds that hadn't been eliminated by the tilling. With so many barefooted workers tromping around in the mud, it resembled a giant grape stomp, but at least it got the job done, and everyone had a great time. The mud sticks to everything, and more than two weeks later we still have traces of it clinging to our toenails.
In the end, we managed to plant the entire rice field in about two hours. Unlike last year when we barely had enough seedlings to finish the job, there were so many leftover plants in the greenhouse that we could have planted a second or third field. Roni decided to let the greenhouse plants continue to grow and see what happens. If it's good enough for the commercial rice growers, then why not our little research field? Now all there is to do is return to the field every few days to check water levels and take air and soil samples to test for carbon dioxide and nitrogen levels.
For the former need, Roni purchased an electronic carbon testing device through Amazon that she got to try out at the DSC's science club meeting on July 16. That day the club met at Big Break Regional Shoreline, where we built a small campfire out of Scotish burning peat and tested the carbon dioxide emitted by the fire. Needless to say, the CO2 readings shot off the scale when she held the sensor close to the smoldering coals. The sensor will be much easier to use than having to collect the air samples in vacuum sealed tubes and send them to UC Davis for testing.
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OUR VACATION WEEK wrapped up with Fourth of July festivities. Antioch moved its fireworks launch from the waterfront to the fairgrounds this year, but Glenn was still able to go view them from his favorite vantage point in the DuPont railyard. The colors were still just as bright and the explosions just as loud from their new location.
On Saturday, July 5, Roni had to be at Freedom High for the annual Oakley Cityhood Celebration, where she was helping to run the booths for the DSC and the Ironhouse Sanitary District. The event is actually an excuse for the city's municipal fireworks display, but it still manages to draw thousands of people to the park where they lounge on the grass with their families, play carnival games, and browse booths from some of the local businesses and service groups.
Not wanting to spend the entire day sitting in the booths waiting for the fireworks show, Glenn decided to meet Roni later in the evening. Continuing a new commitment to improving fitness, Glenn opted to beat the traffic and walk the 4 miles to the park – not the simplest task in a town with few sidewalks. It took about 70 minutes to walk the route, and he arrived a little before 8:30 p.m., just as the food and game booths were getting ready to close for the fireworks display. The park was filling rapidly with people, many of them teenagers, looking to stake out good viewing spots.
The show met its usual high standard for excellence, with a finale so spectacular that the locals have continued talking about it for two weeks. If putting it on didn't consume the city's budget for the entire year then it seems a small miracle. We documented it through photos and video taken on both our cameras, the GoPro, and our iPhones. Yes, we even enjoyed watching some of the display without the cameras glued to our eyes.
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BEN CONTINUES TO experience the frustrations of adulthood in his quest for a job and obtaining his driver's license. On July 7 he returned to the Pittsburg DMV in an effort to pass his permit test, going in with both confidence and an appointment. But he narrowly missed the cut the first time around and did worse on the retake, so now he is out of tries until he pays the testing fee again for another three attempts. This makes eight out of nine times he has failed the permit test, which has drawn head-scratches and raised eyebrows from his friends and left him very discouraged. We have suggested that studying the material until he knows it cold might help, but he doesn't want to hear that. For now, there is a car waiting for him at his uncle's house and a parking space in our driveway should he eventually pass, but at present the DMV office is closed for renovations until September and Ben hasn't scheduled another date to take the test.
Finding a job has been equally challenging for him. His hours working for his aunt through the county In-Home Support Services (IHSS) program dried up and he has found nothing to replace them. He has managed to sell some artwork commissions online, but not enough to sustain himself. His cousin Robert introduced him to selling at the Antioch flea market on June 28, where he barely managed enough sales to pay for his booth. We think he might do better there if he had more products to sell than the handful of buttons and books he brought with him. At least IHSS contacted him recently to be added to the provider list in case a job becomes available in his area, and there is one prospect pending — an elderly patient who needs diapers changed. That might not be something he'd choose to do, but he's considering it.
In the meantime, we've set up a "rental agreement" for Ben in the hope that it will motivate him to get more serious about his job and education prospects. The contract we all agreed to has him doing more chores to help out at home and volunteer hours in exchange for credit toward room and board. It's tough starting out in the world, but we all have to do it sometime.
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MAYBE OUR FAMILY should take a lesson from the mourning doves that have been successfully churning out offspring into the world all spring and now summer long. Just this month the doves launched their third brood from the nesting basket hanging from our BAP pergola on the back patio. The two babies got good and ready to fly in the week from the time we first saw them to when they finally left the nest. It seemed as if mom and dad had to prod them a bit more than the others, but once on their own they quickly blended in with the rest of the yar's bird population.
This makes four doves this season from what we think is the same nesting pair — a veritable bird factory. We haven't spotted any of them on our bird cam yet, so they must be getting their food from the ground or in other ways, although we have seen dozens of photos with baby sparrows hanging out on the feeders. Maybe it's just a dove thing we don't understand.
That wraps it up for July. We're back to work now and will have more adventures to share next month.