July 28, 2016: It's summertime, and the living is easy... when you're on vacation. Theoretically. But if you have been reading our monthly newsletters then you know we seldom do things the easy way, and so it is again this month as we do our best to reinvent the "staycation" for the umpteen dozenth time.
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We have usually looked forward to a week off around the start of July to coincide with Glenn's birthday and Independence Day weekend. But for the first time in several years, we rearranged our schedules to be on vacation during the middle of the month instead. The reason had to do with the annual Romance Writers of America convention, which Roni wanted to attend and this year was being held conveniently close to us in San Diego. But plans changed during the course of the year, and instead of meeting romance authors at a swanky hotel within spitting distance of the beach this July, we found ourselves with a week off to contemplate the sands in our own yard.
This was not an altogether bad thing, because our yard is very sandy these days and in desperate need of a landscaping makeover. But more on that in a few minutes. First, let's back up to the start of the month and that period known as "what would have been our vacation had we taken it around Glenn's birthday" week. We still managed to squeeze in a five-day weekend that included Glenn's birthday on Friday the 1st and Fourth of July on Monday. Glenn was able to tack on June 30 as an in-lieu day for working a prior Saturday, so the end result including the mid-month vacation was that he had 14 days off in an 18-day span. Not too bad.
It wouldn't be July without a good heatwave or two, and so it was that we had some warm temperatures to begin the month. We don't do air conditioning, so it's usually opening front and back doors to get some air circulation — if we're lucky to have a breeze — and to listen to the birds and the burbling of the water fountain in Summer's Garden. Occasionally it is to remind us that there is an outdoors to escape to in the evening when it has started to cool off but is still 15 degrees hotter indoors. It's far from cool indoors, but at least it is somewhat tolerable with the living room fan going and when we're focused on other activities such as watching TV or working at the computer.
This is what we were doing June 30 when the first fly showed up. We didn't think much of it, because we don't let flies in the house often and those that sneak in usually become quick fodder for our cat Katy, who loves to chase them. One of us will holler "Katy, save us!", and wherever she happens to be, she'll come racing into the living room with eyes wide, knowing there's a bug to pounce on. We let her chase them around until she catches them or becomes bored and we corner them near a screen door to let them out.
One we can handle. Two is seriously annoying. It had been a few hours since the first fly showed its ugly self and we were stumped that it was still alive despite Katy's best efforts. We finally took pity on it and let it out of the house, only to discover another one buzzing about the dining room. This one we also let out and thought nothing more about it until sometime late in the afternoon while we were relaxing and Glenn began hearing a crackling noise coming from the light switch in the dining room. Thinking it might be a short circuit in the wiring and not wanting it to be the cause of our home burning to the ground, he removed the wall plate and was surprised when a fly popped out of the electrical box and made its way into the kitchen. What the...?
As we prepared to sit down to dinner and noticed a couple more flies loitering by the screen door, we were coming to the realization that this was more than a few rogue flies that had managed to get into the house that day during the few times we had dared venture beyond the screen door. Clearly this was not coincidental. We reached the conclusion that the source of the fly invasion was somewhere in the living room area, perhaps inside one of the walls.
We shooed out our unwanted visitors and eventually shut the house for the night, Glenn deciding to watch movies in the dark on his computer. He hadn't been watching for long when a fly started dancing along the bottom of the glowing monitor. Attracted by the light, it refused to head for the screen door no matter how hard Glenn tried to coax it. It was soon joined by a "friend," and together they teamed up to make viewing movies an unenjoyable chore. Glenn gave up and went to bed early.
The next morning, Roni awoke early to begin a busy day of work and birthday party preparations for Glenn. She was greeted by a roomful of nearly a dozen flies, most of them congregating around the patio door and window. Our worst fears confirmed, we chased out the new crop of insects and kept our eyes on the window screens the rest of the day. We figured there was little we could do but wait out the hordes until they were done.
Our guess was that some rodent had found its way into the house and died in a wall and become the breeding ground for maggots. We never did figure out the location of the dessicated carcass, but after a nearly four-day siege things did eventually improve. On Monday the 4th — Independence Day — we declared our home free of any new infestations.
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HE REST OF our early-July vacation time was, fortunately, eventful in more enjoyable ways. We celebrated Glenn's 51st birthday on the 1st with dinner at CreAsian restaurant in Brentwood followed by a small party back at the house. We're both trying to diet right now, so Glenn didn't want a giant cake with a lot of leftovers to tempt us for days afterward. Instead, he opted for a container of brownies from the Raley's bakery and ice cream cups from Stone Cold Creamery, which we brought home to enjoy. Glenn didn't have a lot of gifts on his wish list, but he did receive the one he most wanted: "The Hunger Games" trilogy on bluray disc. It gave us something to do during the longer, Part 2 of our vacation a week later as we viewed the entire series from start to finish, Roni seeing the movies for the first time.
And although it wasn't officially billed as a birthday gift, Glenn picked out a new desk chair when we visited Office Depot. It is a WorkPro 15000 series "big and tall" chair with a high back and lots of padded leather designed for 8 hours of daily use. It can hold up to 500 pounds and is theoretically super comfortable, although in a couple weeks of use we have yet to experience that. The chair was delivered unassembled and took the both of us to get the box from the doorstep to the living room. It was a beast to put together, and even more of a beast to roll around, given that it weighs nearly 100 pounds. Even at its lowest setting, the new chair sits so high off the floor that Glenn's feet barely touch the bottom. He had to raise the keyboard tray on his desk to accommodate the extra height, and because the chair is so wide it doesn't slide under the desk. He wound up removing one of its arms to make it more comfortable to sit in. In short, he's decided it wasn't the best office furniture purchase he's ever made, but now we're stuck with it.
A better birthday gift turned out to be the Sealy Posturepedic pillow that Roni got to help him sleep more comfortably. It is made of memory foam and has a gel back that is supposed to help regulate the pillow's temperature throughout the night. It is quite comfortable, although the jury is out as to whether it will cure Glenn's insomnia.
Saturday the 2nd found us at Freedom Park for the annual Oakley Cityhood Celebration, where Roni once again had a booth up for the Ironhouse Sanitary District. For the rest of us, the celebration is a chance to go see fireworks with a few thousand of our neighbors, enjoy carnival rides, and chow down on food served up by a dozen vendors including the ever-popular "Big Ass" Sausage booth. Glenn and Ben showed up early in the evening as the crowds were descending on the festivities, parking half a mile away and walking back to the park. The crowd was in good spirits and the fireworks were awesome, with one of the best finales ever put together for an Oakley display.
By contrast, we didn't go out to see the Antioch fireworks display on the night of the Fourth the way we usually do. In previous years Glenn has watched the show from afar by standing along the DuPont rail yard. This year he decided he'd had his fill of the bombs bursting in air, thanks to all the locals setting off their own illegal displays, so we hunkered down in our bunker on the evening of the Fourth and listened to the show.
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Y THE TIME the second half of our vacation rolled around the following weekend, Roni already had plans for how we should spend it. Given that we weren't going to San Diego for the romance convention, she wanted to make sure we got some projects done around the house. And there's no shortage of projects.
The dangerous thing about home improvement projects is home improvement stores. Merely walking into one is an invitation to spend hundreds of dollars on things you didn't need or didn't plan on needing.
Roni has been seeing a lot of comments lately from folks in town that the city has been cracking down on homeowners with ugly yards, fining them and forcing them to put in acceptable landscaping. This is mainly a result of the ongoing drought that has led many people to forgo watering their lawns and other plants in the name of conservation. The city tolerated it last year, but with the addition of a new code enforcement officer and the easing of water restrictions this spring, the grace period has been lifted. We haven't received an official notice in the mail – yet – but our front yard has been looking mighty shabby, with a completely dead lawn area and weeds growing in the parkway that divides our home from the rental house to the north. Sadly, that rental looks better than our place.
The worst offender is our gutters and eaves, both of which have been rotting away from age and weather. We have talked about replacing the gutters for a few years. It's not an expensive or difficult job, but finding the supplies and a way to get them home has seemed to be the deterrent. Now with a few days of vacation and the fear of a possible abatement notice to spur us on, we decided the time was right to tackle some of the deficiencies.
But as we said, stepping into a home improvement store can be hazardous to your wallet, even when you have a plan and materials list. One of the things we want to do as part of a front yard makeover is expand the driveway so that Roni no longer has to park her car in bare dirt. Roni also has an idea for landscaping the yard that involves dozens of concrete edger blocks. On one of our trips to Lowe's to pick up supplies and gather information for the driveway project, we found ourselves lingering a little too long near the ceiling fans. No, ceiling fans weren't on our shopping list, but that didn't stop us from picking out a new one to replace the aging beast in our living room, nor did it prevent us from finding a pendant light we liked for the front entryway. And it didn't deter us later when we were at Home Depot from picking up another ceiling fan to install in our bedroom. We did manage to get a few of the edger bricks we had originally come for, but those were crowded out by a car full of fans and lighting fixtures.
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HE FIRST THING you need to know about ceiling fans is just because the box says you can have them installed in 15 minutes doesn't mean there's a ghost's chance in hell it will actually happen. We thought that changing out the old fan in the living room with the fancy 60-inch Hunter Douglas model we'd bought at Lowe's would be a simple matter of turning a few screws. It might have been, had it not been for the fact that the new fan didn't fit on the existing electrical box in our ceiling. It wasn't a matter of simply retrofitting the box with a new bracket – which wasn't supplied with the new fan anyway; the entire junction box needed to be replaced, or so we believed.
We quickly discovered that swapping out the box would be no simple task. First, it wasn't accessible from the ladder. That meant a trip up into the attic with its 115-degree temperatures to inhale dust and dig through ceiling insulation just to locate the electrical connection. It took Roni tapping on the box from below while Glenn followed the sound above before he finally found it, only to discover that it was affixed to a rafter with three nails, two from below and one from above. He had already removed the top nail with a cutoff disk on his Dremel tool, nervously watching sparks fly into the attic insulation as he did so, before realizing that he couldn't remove the box until the bottom nails were pulled.
We trekked over to Ace Hardware in search of a solution to our problem and found one in a proper bracket that would adapt to our existing electrical box. So back at home, Glenn replaced the nail he had sawed off, added the adapter, and spent another couple hours hooking up the new fan to the ceiling and attaching the accompanying light kit. Four days after starting the replacement project, the new living room fan was finally up and running.
With all that, you'd think the bedroom fan installation would go much easier, but it didn't. While we had to wait on completing the living room project, Glenn used the time to tackle the bedroom, where we were installing the 52-inch Hampton Bay fan from scratch. Having never had a fan in the bedroom, we had to install an electrical box in the ceiling and set up all the wiring first. We decided to go with a swag-style cord, rather than take the extra effort to run romex cable through the ceiling and walls, which you can't legally do without a permit.
Unfortunately the spot that Glenn wanted to drill the hole in the ceiling fell right on a rafter board, so he had to relocate the hole off-center. He got the hole drilled, but then had trouble installing the metal crossbrace from which the new box would hang. After solving that problem he thought things were going well until he discovered the downrod the fan came with was too short for our vaulted ceiling; the fan blades didn't have enough clearance and scraped the wallboards. Roni bought a longer downrod and the installation continued, only to be thwarted again when parts of the light kit didn't align properly.
In the end, after a day of toil the bedroom fan was installed and working properly. It is so much quieter than the clunky oscillating metal fan we used for years to keep us cool at night, an the light kit really makes the room a lot brighter. So far it hasn't fallen on us, so we are happy.
But the real purpose of our Home Depot/Lowe's excursions was to work on the front yard (remember?), but we'll tell you more about it next month when the project has had a chance to take shape a bit more.
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O MAKE SURE that our second July vacation wasn't all about work, we did our best to squeeze in a day or two for play. This included a July 9 visit to Martinez to attend a wildlife tour of the McNabney Marsh on the property of the Mt. View Sanitary District. OK, so perhaps there was a little bit of work mixed in, as the occasion for the tour was to see how the district has used grant money from the Contra Costa County Fish & Wildlife Committee to construct floating platforms to encourage nesting activity among the American avocets and black-necked stilts that inhabit the marsh.
For those unfamiliar with the area, the Al McNabney Marsh — named in honor of a longtime former leader of the Mount Diablo Audubon Society — is part of the Waterbird Regional Preserve wildlife sanctuary that is jointly run by the East Bay Regional Park District. We have visited Waterbird Park on several occasions, but had never been to the opposite shore on sanitary district property before this day. There isn't much to see there that you can't see from the eastern shore, but they do have a viewing platform that takes you close to some of the prime nesting locations.
About a dozen people, most of them seniors, got to listen first to a slide show presentation from the sanitary district's biologist, Kelly Davidson, who told us about the reasons for the construction of the floating nesting platforms. The marsh once saw larger populations of nesting shore birds before changes to it caused water levels to rise and made it more difficult for the birds to do their thing. The populations plummeted by the end of the 2000s, so Davidson and her crew came up with the idea for the floating nesting platforms to see if the birds would return. A couple years into the project, the rafts have proved to be a success and the district plans to build more of them.
We then got to drive over to the observation deck where, cameras in hand, we were able to see some of the birds and their chicks. Roni had brought along her Nikon with its 500mm telephoto lens, eager for the chance to use it again because she doesn't get a lot of opportunities to do so, given that it is so heavy and mostly suited for wildlife photos in bright daylight conditions. Davidson had directed everyone's attention to an American avocet chick that was wading in the shallows with its mother close by. Roni popped her lens on the camera and tried to grab a few shots, but the lens wouldn't focus. We thought that perhaps it was a fluke, that maybe something on the camera wasn't set correctly, but even after switching to manual and then back to automatic, the lens didn't respond. The autofocus motor sounded like it was trying to focus but couldn't. Needless to say, we were more than a little bummed.
As luck would have it, we were not far from Mike's Camera in Pleasant Hill where Glenn had purchased the lens as a Christmas present. We drove there and asked the clerk what we should do. He checked the lens on one of the store's Nikon bodies and confirmed that it wasn't just our camera; clearly it was a manufacturing defect with the lens. But it was barely 6 months old and still under Nikon's warranty, so getting it serviced would only set us back the cost of the postage to send it to Torrance, Calif.
We called customer service on Monday, boxed up the lens the next day and shipped it UPS, then crossed our fingers that we'd have it repaired and back in time before a planned wildlife viewing trip in August. Less than two weeks later a package showed up on our doorstep. Roni wasn't expecting anything she had ordered, so she was quite surprised an happy when she opened it to find her bubble-wrapped lens back from its service trip. She attached it to the camera and it focused right away, good as new. We hope that's the last time we have to have it serviced for anything more than a cleaning.
We had a somewhat less eventful visit to Old Sacramento on July 14 to do nothing more than take in the sights and enjoy a little of our state's history. We picked a hot day, with the mercury getting into the low triple digits as we walked along the blissfully uncrowded streets. It isn't often that we visit Old Sac on a weekday or during a time when there isn't some festival or street fair taking place, so this was a refreshing change. We enjoyed lunch at Fat City Bar & Cafe before strolling over to the California State Railroad Museum to peek at the gift shop and take advantage of the air conditioning. It was nearly 3 p.m. by the time we got there, so we opted not to go inside the museum for the less than two hours we would have had to explore it before closing time. Instead, we wandered over to the riverfront to look at the two steam locomotives on display there and take in the view of the river along with the small crowd that had gathered there.
What we realized rather quickly was that the other young "tourists" all had their heads buried in their cell phones. These folks weren't here to catch up on Sacramento history, they were here to catch Pokemon. It had been less than a week since the release of Pokémon Go, and Nintendo's free app had created an instant obsession nationwide. Ben was no exception, as he and his friends had also begun to play the enhanced reality game that turns the physical world into one huge map to hunt for Pokémon. Teens and young adults who until now had been content to game in their bedrooms were suddenly lured into the streets by the new app in search of characters for their collections. Old Sacramento was apparently a great spot to try to "catch 'em all."
Someone saw Roni with her iPhone out, trying to take a photo of the river, and asked her if she was playing the game too. It was not an absurd question, as many folks in their middle years have also been caught up by the Pokémon Go craze. Neither of us has been, nor is it likely that we will start anytime soon. But we did have to laugh at the number of people there playing that day. "This is a preview of what the zombie apocalypse will look like," Glenn said as we watched the players wandering obliviously through the streets, eyes affixed to their screens.
Things only got weirder as the day wore on. We had browsed for novelty items at Evangeline's, picked out some saltwater taffy at the Candy Barrel, and bought some soft serve ice cream cones and bottled water from Sacramento Sweets. As we were heading back to the parking garage about 5 p.m., we were passed by teams of gamers clad in matching T-shirts or similar costumes. One group of 20-somethings ran by shouting "Carp! Carp! Carp!" in reference to the Pokémon character Magikarp, which apparently you need to catch a lot of in the game to evolve them into the all-powerful Gyarados. It is funny to us to see the Pokémon craze capturing everyone's attention once again, nearly 20 years after we spent our days going to Pokémon tournaments and collecting toys from Burger King with Ben when he was still in preschool. Everything old is new again.