August 28, 2017: There's a car sitting in our driveway with Ben's name on it. The tires are flat, the battery is drained, and it hasn't been on the road in almost three years, but that old 1998 Toyota Corolla has been waiting patiently for the day when Ben eventually obtains his driver's license and joins the legions of other Californians tolling our state's highways. The delay hasn't been for lack of trying.
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Ben took driver's education classes during his senior year of high school and briefly had his learner's permit. It didn't come easily for him, so it was an exciting day when he passed the written test at the DMV and got his first crack behind the wheel with his dad in the passenger seat. It was a short weekend lesson in a deserted parking lot, consisting mostly of how to start the car, pull out of a parking space, steer around in circles and stop. A weekend later there was a follow-up lesson, and then… nothing. That was the last time we went out, as schedules conflicted and motivation waned. Time passed, and eventually Ben's license to practice expired without him ever getting a taste of the open road.
In the five years since then there have been several failed attempts to reapply for his permit. We lost count somewhere after the ninth or tenth try, becoming all too familiar with the long lines at the DMV and the scheduling of appointment after appointment, only to have each one end in disappointment. Whether it was by a handful of wrong answers, or the most aggravating defeat of all — just one too many misses — Ben was starting to feel like Sisyphus rolling his boulder uphill. Giving up was starting to look like the best option.
But then along came his first job at Grocery Outlet, and with it the occasional need to work the closing shift at night. We live close enough to the store that he can walk there most days, but if it is particularly hot, or raining, or dark, then there is a real need for the convenience only a vehicle can provide. And so it was that the Mom & Dad Taxi Co. started getting quite a workout. Maybe too much of one. It became obvious that Ben couldn't rely forever on parents or the kindness of friends and coworkers to get him where he needed to be, and so the idea of getting his license took on new importance.
Ben started taking practice tests on the internet, quizzing himself until he could practically recite the answers in his sleep. Still, he was nervous about having to take the test for real, suffering performance anxiety every time he visited the DMV and had to endure the long lines and sullen clerks, the sounds of babies crying and people yakking on their cell phones. Too many distractions, too many "surprise" questions he hadn't anticipated. One more try, one more failure.
Then we decided to follow the advice of others who said the Pittsburg DMV — the office closest to us — was not the place to go. It might take a little longer to get to, but the Tracy office was rumored to be the better, quieter experience. So Ben waited until a Tuesday when he was off work and then we drove him there with great expectations. He studied his practice questions the entire 40 minutes we were in the car, confident he was ready. When we got there, we discovered that Tracy is not a whole lot different than any other DMV office we had encountered. The lines were just as long, the clerks were just as sullen, and the place was just as busy as the others. There was one notable exception: you can't walk in for a permit test without an appointment.
Ben waited in line for 30 minutes before he reached the counter, only to be turned away because he hadn't made an appointment. "Come on, we're leaving," he said to us as he stalked away from the line and informed us of what had happened. We were all scratching our heads a few minutes later over lunch at the Squeeze Inn, because we had never been told that an appointment was required for a permit test. Maybe this was something new. The obvious solution was to schedule an appointment and come back. We checked online and learned to our dismay that the earliest available appointment wasn't until late August.
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LAN B WAS to find another DMV with an earlier appointment, which is what brought us to Manteca a week later, on Aug. 8. The Manteca DMV is about an hour's drive from our home, and because of this we hoped there wouldn't be a need to return. As before, Ben studied the practice questions during the drive. He even nailed the one about which direction you have to face the tires when you park uphill without a curb (away from the road.) You get three attempts to pass the written test, but Glenn declared confidently that Ben wouldn't need more than one.
It was a typically hot summer day, so while Ben marched boldly inside for his 1:20 p.m. appointment, we loitered in the shade outside the DMV office with a couple dozen other people and chatted with the 26-year-old security guard about how we should go hiking at Pinecrest Lake up in the Sierra (the most beautiful place in the world, he promised us.) Roni poked her head through the door every now and then to report on Ben's progress through the line. He was already filling out paperwork at the counter by the time we'd found a parking place. They were taking his photo, she noted on another check-in. That's good when they take your picture, right? Why would they take a photo of you if you hadn't passed the test? If it seems like we were a bit anxious, consider that standing in the heat outside a DMV office with a lot of other anxious people is sort of like waiting in the maternity ward for news that your first child has been successfully delivered.
When at last the front doors opened and Ben emerged from inside, he had the coveted permit in his hand and a big smile on his face. "I passed!" he said. And he didn't seem the least bit embarrassed when we hugged him and made him pose for pictures.
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ASSING HIS PERMIT test was just the first hurdle to getting Ben on the road. And maybe the easiest. Ben was already making plans for how he'd get the old car out of the driveway and start practicing right away, but we reminded him that it would take some time to get it in running order. First there is the little detail of it having not been driven in nearly three years. The battery is dead, and we aren't hopeful it can be revived. There is the matter of it needing four fresh tires. The ones on it currently were the "rejects" from when Glenn salvaged the best tires for his own car, and now those tires are flat. What goes around comes around, so now those one-time rejects are in better condition that the ones Glenn is currently using, so our plan is to let Glenn have the best ones again and then buy a new set for Ben.
The car needs an oil change. It needs a new brake light to replace the one Glenn pilfered a few months ago. It needs a new interior door handle, because cheap plastic breaks and — you guessed it — Glenn "borrowed" one of the good ones from Ben's car. The list goes on, and that doesn't take into account that the car must still be smogged and registered as operational. It all takes money, and that's a bit in short supply at the moment, but we've promised Ben we'll help as much as we can. He has already looked into insurance and set up an appointment for professional driving lessons, and he has offers from several friends to help him practice.
But there is one other thing the old car needs before it can be used: to be freed from its present parking spot. When it was retired to make room for Roni's new car in September 2014, we moved the old car to the far edge of the driveway, off the pavement, where it has since been overrun with weeds and an oleander bush. Behind it is a pine tree that has grown about five feet in the past three years. That will have to be chopped down to make way for the car's egress and the widening of the driveway that we have been working on for the past year.
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ND WHAT OF that driveway project? Well, if you've been following these monthly newsletters then you know that we have been racing to get our front yard landscaped to avoid a visit from the city's code enforcement department. A key part of the landscaping involves widening the driveway by several feet using paver bricks. We are happy to report that the widening is done, as of Aug. 20.
Getting to this point took far longer than it should have, thanks to months of poor weather and lack of time and enthusiasm. But with Glenn out of work there has been more time available, and we received some new incentive when the city placed fliers on neighborhood doors reminding everyone that Big Brother is still watching. That notice of potential fines spurred us this month to make some decisions about the yard we had been putting off.
The first and perhaps biggest of those decisions was to install a sod lawn. We had left that part of the yard for last, planning to place fake turf there in order to cut down on weeding and watering. But turf is very expensive, and being short of funds we decided sod was the least pricey option for now. We purchased 28 rolls from Home Depot in several car trips, and Glenn cut and fit the pieces together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The result was a pretty green carpet that immediately started to die no matter how much water we dumped on it. With a lot of patience and attention, as well as fertilizer, we have managed to keep the grass going for three weeks, and just the other day mowed it for the first time. We have yet to see our water bill and are dreading it.
The second step was to landscape the island we created around the plum tree. Originally that was planned to be the second step, but after the driveway and before the sod. Being that the city hates sand and there was a lot of it on the island to cover, we decided to focus on that before getting back to the driveway. Big mistake, as to do so required both stepping on the newly planted lawn and tripping over the unfinished driveway.
The centerpiece of the island is a dry creek, which starts near the porch and runs the length of the lot down to the street. Glenn had ambitious plans for the creek, which he wanted to double as a working water feature with a pump at one end and a waterfall near the other. Budget again became a factor, so for now we have delayed the addition of the pump. But we didn't skimp on the creek bed. We placed a rubber pond liner in the bed, then built up the banks using rocks we had leftover from last year's front planter landscaping project. We visited a couple of landscaping supply businesses and bought more rock, including some larger flat pieces that we used to make steps along the route of the creek. Without the pump, we tested the display a few times to make sure we liked the way the water flowed through it. We've named it Plum Creek for the 30-year-old plum tree that grows in the middle of the yard and whose tiny plums littered the ground this year after the winter rains.
Being the more avid gardener, Roni selected and installed the plants we used on the island. She picked out some tall fescue and a variety of ferns to plant along the creek banks. While rummaging through the discount racks at Lowe's we found a couple flats of half-dead sedum that we brought home and nursed back to health. Roni planted those around the pottery jug that forms the head of the creek, finishing off the display with more rock. We have some decorative bark and more rock to add to the display, but it is really coming together and we're both happy with it.
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HE LAWN AND the island well in hand, it was time to return to the pavers. All that work to install the dry creek and plant around it had really messed up the pavers that had previously been installed. Glenn had been so careful to compact the base rock and screed the sand in anticipation of finishing the job quickly, but now he had to redo a good portion of that work. Still, that was minor labor compared with all the special cuts he had to make to complete the driveway pattern. By his own estimate that was at least 180 cuts, each one made painstakingly with a 4½-inch angle grinder and a diamond blade.
The cuts took a long time. He worked sporadically, doing about a dozen of them per session, favoring late afternoon and early evening to avoid the hottest times of the day. He used foam ear plugs to deaden the noise, and once he managed to damage his glasses with a bit of flying concrete, also used rubber goggles to protect his eyes. It was only after all the work was done and we observed the giant pile of cement powder covering the garage door, the driveway and the porch that we said he also probably should have used a dust mask. The neighbors inquired frequently as to his progress: "Looks like you're almost done?" they would ask hopefully. And they were always amazed (and probably really disappointed) when he said that it would be at least another week.
But finally the last cuts were made the morning of Aug. 20. We sanded the joints, mowed the new lawn, used our leaf blower to remove the dirt and debris, transferred the remaining piles of sand and base rock to the backyard, and sat back to admire our work. We are thoroughly exhausted, but in a proud way. Now we can move Roni's car onto the new pavers, move Glenn's car out of the way, and focus on getting Ben's beater on the road.
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UR PROPERTY IS not the only one in the neighborhood going through major changes. By a quirk of fate, both of the rental houses immediately to the north of us became vacant this summer and are now both being prepared for sale. Well, we've got our fingers crossed that they are being sold, and perhaps this time they will be purchased by families who want to live in them rather than as an investment to be mined for cash at the expense of the neighborhood.
We didn't actually have a problem with our neighbors immediately adjacent to us, except for their obnoxious dog we dubbed Numbnuts. They mostly kept to themselves and weren't home much of the time. Their landlord lives in San Diego, and dealing with him on the one occasion we had to, when their tree toppled onto our fence, was difficult. When the house was first rented more than three years ago, it came with a gardener who came around a few times a month to tend the front yard and clean up after the dog. But the drought brought about an end to the gardening service, and the lawn quickly went to sand and weeds — a big no-no, by the city's thinking.
The code enforcement department cited the property and required the landlord to put in a lawn. He evidently decided the fine was not worth the hassle, so the yard remained bare for months. It had the advantage of making our ongoing construction zone look not so awful. When the tenants eventually cleared out during the middle of July, it kicked off a parade of real estate people and contractors who have been coming and going, looking over the property and preparing to make changes. One of the first things they noted was the need for some front landscaping. In the uncreative way such makeovers for sale are handled, the decision was to roll sod. We are wondering when that will finally happen, and how long it will take for the seller to flip this property, which is estimated at nearly 50 percent more than when it was last sold.
The Bay Area housing market is constantly changing, but the one constant in recent years is that it has been getting more expensive, which is likely why folks are selling their rentals now, having squeezed out a decent profit. Our town continues to be a Mecca for those priced out of the more expensive urban core, so it's not hard sell starter homes here. Maybe we should sell ours and head somewhere more laid back and more affordable. The time could be right. Or not.
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UR ANNUAL TRADITION of visiting Courtland for the Pear Fair continued July 30 when we made our 29th appearance there. Officially it was the Pear Fair's 45th year, which means we've been to nearly two-thirds of them since 1988. The past several of them it has been just the two of us, Ben having reached an age when he was old enough to stay home and preferred to. But for whatever reason, this year he decided he wanted to come along. He went so far as to reserve the day off from work just to be sure he could go.
We were more than happy to have Ben along on what we assumed was a nostalgia trip for him, feeling somewhat nostalgic ourselves. You see, he attended his first Pear Fair in 1994 when he was not yet three months old, far too young to taste the delicious pear crepes and pear pie that have been our favorite treats there for so long. He was too young to appreciate the history display or the "Pear" contest where sets of twins competed for prizes in the main tent. But somewhere we still have the commemorative pin he took home from that festival, along with the photos and videos of that day. And perhaps that experience — along with the dozens of annual fairs that followed it — made an impression on him. We never expected him again to willingly choose to come with us, so we are somewhat proud and delighted he joined us.
We arrived around 10:30 in the morning along with a fairly large crowd. Attendance varies each year, and it looked like folks decided to take advantage of the good weather for a trip down the Delta from Sacramento. We still arrived early enough to avoid the lines at most of the food booths, so at Ben's urging we wasted no time getting our edible goodies. Roni bought two loaves of pear bread from the Lions Club booth while Ben picked up a yard glass of lemonade with unlimited free refills from which he was sure to get his money's worth with several return trips throughout the day. We of course had to get our pear pies from the Bates Elementary School PTA — one for us and one that Ben bought to take to work and share with his colleagues. We also got pear crepes, with us splitting ours to save on the cost as well as the calories. Then we took our treats under the shade of the main tent to listen to the entries in the duck-calling competition.
The place where we unexpectedly spent the most time turned out to be the vendor booths. We are usually able to cruise through them in a few minutes, touching base with our favorite sellers who come to the show year after year. But Ben lingered a long time at the places selling Pokemon cards, fidget spinners and anime drawings. We laughed that we might as well have been at the SacAnime convention, for all the places selling related items. But we also got hooked by the used book sale that the Sacramento County Library holds at the fair each year, and Roni busily loaded up a bag with titles she found.
While Roni and Ben browsed at the book tables, Glenn made his way over to Washington Avenue to grab a viewing spot for the 1 p.m. parade. This year's blink-and-you'll-miss-it lineup was heavy on classic cars and the royal court of pear princesses and queen candidates, and it was traffic jam time at the review stand as they all made their way past the judges. Glenn headed over there to take a few photos, and right in the middle of doing so his camera decided to die. The battery was still charged and it was still taking pictures, but they were coming out all black. Apparently the shutter is stuck and needs to be serviced, so for now it will be cell phone snapshots or nothing.
We wrapped up our visit by checking out the quilt show in the school auditorium and also stopping by the petting zoo in the kids area where Ben got his first close encounter with an alpaca. He's been a longtime fan of their fur, but he had never seen one in person. We splurged a couple of bucks so he could go inside the fence and pet them, although they seemed more interested in grazing and being left alone. Just another highlight to add to our growing list of fun Pear Fair memories.