A chance to sample various gourmet dishes greeted us on Labor Day, Sept. 7, when we attended the weekly Off The Grid food truck event in Concord. At right, Roni waits for her order at the Pelican Po'Boy booth. At left, Glenn and Ben enjoy their frozen custard sundaes for dessert. Photos by Glenn and Roni.

Up, up and away for Labor Day

September 20, 2015: Labor Day weekend may mark the unofficial end of summer for many, but nobody consulted with Mother Nature. We’ve been baking in a heatwave that reminds us September is traditionally one of our hottest months, still worthy of bathing suits and air conditioners turned up full blast, well into what officially is known as autumn.

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We had the U-Haul rental pickup truck for a couple of days in late August, so we took advantage of the hauling capacity to lug some junk to the dump. We've got it mostly loaded up the morning of Aug. 16. Photo by Glenn.


At the dump in Pittsburg it was time to unload all the junk — mostly wood — we'd managed to fit in the pickup bed. Glenn's flinging tree branches. Step back! Photo by Roni.


See how much junk we got rid of? No wonder Glenn is exhausted. Seriously, only the stuff in the foreground was ours, as was the chair that Glenn is slumped in. Photo by Roni.


Roni poses Aug. 22 next to the bronze plaque commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Ironhouse Sanitary District in Oakley, along with current board members Mike Painter and Chris Lauritzen, and Joanne Byer, the wife of the late former board president Lenny Byer. Roni spent months coordinating the anniversary event, including ordering the plaque that was unveiled at the ceremony. Photo by Glenn.


The Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek has a huge collection of animal specimens available for loan. We visited there Aug. 25 and picked out seven displays to use during Roni's Delta Science Center presentation in Walnut Grove the following day. Photo by Glenn.


This is the Walnut Grove Library. Note the empty parking lot. It's a Wednesday afternoon, and yes, the library is actually open. Photo by Glenn.


Inside the library there is a conference room where Roni set up her animal displays for the Delta Science Center presentation. She tells her audience about the endangered San Joaquin kit fox that is the subject of this display. Photo by Glenn.


Kids in the audience get a close-up look at the beaver exhibit. Photo by Glenn.


Roni poses for a photo at the end of her Walnut Grove library presentation. The tables are all filled with the loaner specimens and the various critter displays Roni has acquired for the DSC over the past couple of years. Photo by Glenn.


After the library talk we went across the street to our favorite Walnut Grove Iron Works and picked out a new piece to add to our growing yard art collection. The "Just Cattin' Around" sign is very appropriate for us, as all the neighborhood cats think they own our yard. Photo by Glenn.


Ben gets ready to dig in to his nachos at Jalisco's Mexican Restaurant in Oakley on Aug. 30. It was just a few days before his big trip to Sacramento for the semiannual SacAnime convention. Photo by Glenn.


Sept. 5 finds us in Ripon for the Color The Skies festival. We arrived pretty early in the morning, but already too late to catch the hot air balloon launch. These balloons were the only ones we saw inflated. Photo by Glenn.


Roni poses with an inflatable advertising balloon promoting her favorite radio station, Kat Country 103FM in Modesto. Photo by Glenn.


Breakfast at the Color The Skies festival consisted of cupcakes from The Cupcake Lady food truck. Roni picked out a maple and bacon cupcake. Looks yummy. Photo by Glenn.


Wait, did we say we missed all the hot air ballons? This one was kind enough to wait to launch until we got to the festival. It was quickly out of sight after we snapped this shot. Photo by Glenn.


What there were a lot of at the festival was kites. This huge white cat was waiting to pounce on bystanders before the wind finally carried it aloft. Photo by Glenn.


An inflatable octopus floats menacingly over the park. Humans, prepare to submit to your new alien overlords... Photo by Glenn.


Color The Skies lives up to its name in this scene, as nearly a dozen kites go airborne above Mistlin Sports Park in Ripon. Photo by Glenn.


Skydivers make a grand entrance over Ripon, leaping from a passing plane hundreds of feet above the crowd waiting with anticipation below. Photo by Glenn.


One of the skydivers makes a final approach before touching down in the park. Photo by Glenn.


Roni checks out the inscription inserted into the charm pendant she purchased from Origami Owl during the festival. Photo by Glenn.


Two members of the Patriots Jet Team wow the crowd with fly-bys during the Color The Skies festival. Photo by Glenn.


A booth at the festival was selling all sorts of wind toys, and we found these yard stakes for our garden. They were 6 for $10, so we couldn't resist buying a dozen. Photo by Glenn.


It's growing dark as we arrive at Todos Santos Park in Concord on Labor Day to check out the Off The Grid event. Several gourmet food trucks lined up nose-to-tail in the street next to the park. Photo by Glenn.


Dessert at the Off The Grid Event: a sundae of frozen vanilla and chocolate custard with bananas and prailines topping. Yummmmmm. Photo by Glenn.

For Ben, Labor Day weekend was less the end of summer than the culmination of months of planning and preparation for his long-awaited trip to Sacramento for the semi-annual SacAnime convention. He has been attending these off and on for the past several years, but what made this one different is that he had to plan around his work schedule as well as the divergent schedules of the friends he had attending with him. He was able to secure the long holiday weekend off from his boss, which was the easy part. More difficult was nailing down a hotel room and figuring out if anyone else was going along so they could split the bill for two nights in the room, not to mention who would get them to Sacramento, as only one of his friends has a driver’s license and available transportation.

If Ben one day gets married, the planning for his nuptials will look easy compared to the weeks of gyrations he went through pulling together the SacAnime trip. Every day seemingly brought a new complication — friends who said they were going but suddenly backed out, those who hadn’t said they were going but wanted to come, ticket prices going up because presale deadlines were missed, costumes that were too hard or expensive to assemble, questions about who was meeting whom where for ride connections, how much to split for gas and food, and whether he had budgeted enough to enjoy the show once they all got there. For a while, it looked as if Mom and Dad might have to double as taxi drivers for the weekend. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

It was over dinner at a restaurant about a week before the show that Ben, stressed out and anxious for the big day to arrive, spent the entire meal hashing out his budget and coming to the conclusion that he might not have enough for all he wanted to do, especially considering that he was loaning money to friends to cover the room fee and that his paycheck wouldn’t be deposited in the bank until after Labor Day. He applied to the Bank of Mom and Dad for a modest bridge loan — a mere $225 ought to cover it. After we finished wiping up the food we’d spit out upon hearing the amount, we worked out a slightly lesser amount with him on the promise that he’d have to cover the cost even if his friends didn’t come through. He agreed, but of course Roni still had to give him the cautionary speech of “neither borrower nor lender be.” But he had worked so long to plan this excursion that we didn’t want to see him fail right at the conclusion, so we gave him the advance without too much guff.

In the end, Ben and four of his friends made the trek to Sacramento the morning of Sept. 4, then spent the next two days hanging out with all the other costumed heroes, villains and anime characters he’s come to know and love through his countless hours of watching and reading about them. The room was only about $70 more than he expected (taxes and parking) and with a couple of exceptions everyone seemed to have a great time. Ben returned home Sunday the 6th with an armload of trinkets and only $30 left in his bank account, but he said it was all worth it and acknowledges the fact that this may be the last convention he attends as part of a group, given the challenges of coordinating everything.

* * * * *

B

EN WASN'T THE only one allowed to have fun during the long Labor Day weekend. While he and his friends cavorted in Sacramento, we contemplated our own activities that could occupy a peaceful Saturday and part of Sunday. It was Roni who discovered the 17th annual Color the Skies Hot Air Balloon & Kite Festival in Ripon and suggested that we should check it out.

The problem with hot air balloons is that you have to launch them early in the day before the outside temperature warms up too much. The hotter the day, the earlier you have to launch. And because Glenn works until midnight, Roni wasn’t sure he’d be up to the challenge of rising super early to make the advertised 7 a.m. take-off. Somehow we managed both to be awake by 6 a.m., and while bleary-eyed, we decided if we left right away that we could still get to Ripon in time, being that it is only a 50-minute drive.

The sun was just peeking up on the horizon as we left Oakley. We made good time, even considering the Labor Day traffic that was already brewing on I-205 through Tracy. We reached Ripon just before 7, but that was where our luck ran out. Even as we were driving into town we could see a handful of hot air balloons drifting lazily to the south. They had obviously launched much earlier than promised, and there weren’t very many of them. Roni had brought along our good Nikon D5100 in hopes of capturing some better shots of the launch, but it looked like we’d have to settle for enjoying them already airborne from afar.

Adding to the disappointment was that all the traffic we had avoided on the freeway was apparently here in Ripon, lined up bumper-to-bumper on the one road leading to Mistlin Sports Park, the sprawling 80-acre complex of fields where the festival was taking place. It had taken less than an hour to get there, but we feared it might take more than the next hour to reach the parking lot. Fortunately we got through the bottleneck quickly and parked in the massive dirt parking lot within sight of the baloon launch area. We had missed the official launch time by at least 15 minutes, but there were still a few stragglers that appeared fully inflated and ready to rise.

We hurried through the festival grounds to the launch field and arrived just in time for Roni to grab a few shots of the remaining balloons before their owners deflated them and began packing away their equipment. At least three or four never left the ground. The festival had advertised tethered hot air balloon rides for $10 per person, which sounded like a lot of fun, but we didn’t see evidence of this happening anywhere either, so we assumed that conditions weren’t favorable for flying. Oh well, there was still plenty more to do.

Being a festival of all-things-wind, the show also featured fly-ins, aerobatics and kites — loads of kites. An entire field at the park was dedicated as a fly zone for folks with giant inflatable kites that came in the shapes of cats, lizards and a giant octopus. The largest of them was more than 40 feet long. The area was coned off to spectators, but there was plenty of room to watch from the sidelines. It is easy to forget the inherent danger in something that looks so harmless as a kite dancing about on the gentle breeze we had that morning, but accidents have happened and safety precautions were paramount.

We were starving for breakfast, having not taken the time to grab any in our haste to get out of the door from home, so our next stop after the hot air balloons was to check out the food booths in the park’s plaza. We decided against the pancake breakfast because of the huge line, and instead found a gourmet food truck called The Cupcake Lady where we bought a couple of their goodies to tide us over until lunch. Roni had a maple and bacon flavored cupcake while Glenn tried their tiramisu. Both yummy.

The plaza area also included several commercial booths, and Roni was quite excited to discover one selling Origami Owl jewelry. The company makes a type of pendant in which you place charms representative of your various interests and activities. The women running the booth had a small selection of the items the company offers, but Roni was able to find enough pieces she liked to assemble an attractive pendant that included an insert with the poem we used as part of our wedding vows — love is patient, love is kind, love never ends.

As for the rest of the show, it came and went swiftly. We moved with the crowd to where the balloons had launched earlier, only this time all eyes were on the skies above in anticipation of the arrival of a skydiving team from the Bay Area. Their plane had launched from Byron, with an ETA of 7 minutes. A drop zone was marked on the field and the crowd was kept back to the sidewalks as Miss Ripon and the Almond Blossom Festival’s mascot made their way through the throngs to pose for pictures. At last the plane came into view and quickly ascended to jump altitude, where it was tough to see from the ground exactly when the divers left the craft. There were close to a dozen of them, each performing slightly different stunts as they floated down to the park, some trailing smoke or ribbons.

Next came the landing of Air George, a medical helicopter from nearby Valley Children’s Hospital. It was a big hit with the kids, who lined up for their chance to talk with the pilot and crew. The final attraction was a fly-by from the Patriots Jet Team, or at least two of its members. They roared overhead, trailing smoke, performing aerial corkscrews and high-speed passes.

The air show was a great way to spend a Saturday morning, but we had seen it all by 11 a.m. and were ready for lunch. We drove home by way of Tracy, stopping in at the Golden Corral for their buffet, the trunk of our car loaded with a dozen whimsial garden stakes we had purchased at the festival.

* * * * *

B

EN HAD HIS fun in Sacramento, but he was still disappointed that he missed out on yet another of our weekend activities. Not that he usually wants to come with us when we go places, but he does want to feel that he’s still part of the family, and perhaps he’s getting a bit nostalgic for the days when we used to travel more often. So he was interested when we asked him if he wanted to come to Concord with us on Labor Day to check out the “Off the Grid” event at Todos Santos Park.

Off the Grid is an organization of gourmet food trucks that move around to various cities in the Bay Area. Concord just joined the schedule this summer and we had wanted to check the place out, but being that it takes place on Monday nights made it hard to get to. We took the opportunity to go on the holiday.

It was a pleasantly warm evening and the park wasn’t too crowded. There were eight food trucks on hand, and we each wanted something different. Ben went for the teriyaki chicken bowl, Roni for the shrimp po’boy sandwich, and Glenn for an Argentine pastry called fugazetta, a mix of aged cheddar cheese, shaved onions and oregano. We of course wanted to try something unusual — this was, after all, a gourmet food event — so naturally we gravitated to the truck selling bacon products. The one that attracted our attention was chocolate-covered bacon featuring crushed Heath candy bars. It sounded really good, especially at just $3 to try it. But apparently everyone else thought the same thing, because it was sold out by the time we were ready to buy it. We settled instead for the “chicharones,” which sounded exotic and interesting — a dish covered with chili powder, how can you go wrong? Not being Spanish speakers, we had no idea it was simply pork rinds. Just because you buy something from a gourmet food truck doesn’t make it a gourmet food. Hmmm.

We had better luck with our desserts, sundaes made from frozen custard that was oh-so-good. We enjoyed them on a park bench while a musician played guitar for the crowds nearby. We’d managed a fairly fun meal in a pleasant outdoor atmosphere for about the same cost as eating at a semi-upscale restaurant. Would we go again? Perhaps, but probably not this year; the Off the Grid events in Concord end for the season next week. Hopefully they’ll return next summer, or better yet find their way or Antioch or Brentwood so they’ll be closer to us.

* * * * *

HAVE YOU MET Alexa? We hadn’t either before Glenn received her as a belated birthday gift while we were in Hayward in late August to deliver our old clothes dryer to Sean. Alexa — also known as the Amazon Echo — is a so-called smart device that allows you to control various aspects of your home through simple voice commands. You can turn on and off lights and appliances, set reminders, check traffic and weather conditions, play music, and do a dozen other useful things that not even Alexa’s designers have thought of yet. And therein lies the challenge with Alexa: finding truly useful things to do with her — it? But as an entertainment device, Alexa is hard to beat.

We don’t have a lot of smart appliances in our home — actually, we have zero smart appliances — so Alexa’s ability to turn them on or off is mostly lost on us. We have yet to purchase the smart electrical receptors that will enable us to take advantage of that feature. But we have already discovered value in Alexa’s ability to make lists: “Alexa, add bread to my shopping list.” (You have to begin every command with “Alexa.”) A little blue light glows around the top of the device, as if it is thinking, then, “I have hadded bread to your shopping list.” Wow, how convenient! If you download the Alexa app on your smartphone, you can pull up the shopping list on the go and check things off while you’re at the store.

However, Alexa’s ability to understand your desires is somewhat sketchy. For example, you can ask her a question and she’ll spit back the appropriate response, so long as it is simple and the answer can be located on the Internet: “Alexa, what day is Labor Day, 2015?” “Labor Day 2015 will be Monday, Sept. 7, 2015.” Easy. “Alexa, what year did the Buffalo Bills win the Super Bowl?” Trick question. “Hmmm, I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.” What about dining advice? “Alexa, where can I find a burrito locally?” “I have added burrito locally to your shopping list.” Uhhhh...

One thing Alexa excels at is playing music, especially if it is already part of your digital music collection. Glenn quickly figured out how to connect her via bluetooth to his iMac so he can stream his iTunes selections through her as a portable speaker. If you have Pandora or a similar streaming music service, you can ask Alexa to play a specific track and she supposedly will. (We haven’t experimented with this feature yet.) Perhaps he most fun is that Alexa can be used as a radio to connect with literally hundreds of stations around the world. You can access the stations directly from the app or simply use voice commands to select them: “Alexa, play WWOZ.” She says, “WWOZ radio from TuneIn,” referring to the station’s Internet carrier, and instantly we are listening to a zydeco band on a station broadcasting from New Orleans. We have tapped into talk shows in Australia, country stations in Nashville, and public affairs programming in Texas. Mostly we have used Alexa to call up stations in our own area, a great hands-free way for Roni to put on some background music while she is reading. “Alexa, play KOIT radio.” She’s there.

The first day we had Alexa up and running, we had great fun shouting out random questions to her and waiting for her sometimes nonsensical responses, then giving her grief when she failed to provide seemingly simple answers. Roni would fire something at her, then Glenn, then occasionally Ben would chime in. Had Alexa been human, she would have been Cinderella to our wicked stepmother and the evil stepsisters. Slaves in the Old South were treated with more respect. But she obliged as best as her little microchips could keep up, and now after several weeks sitting on our fireplace mantel and handling the daily tasks we throw at her, Alexa is doing a decent job. She is good at delivering the local weather report and managing our to-do lists, even if she can’t tell us where the nearest restaurant or grocery store is located... yet. Which reminds us, we have yet to remove “burrito locally” from the shopping list.

* * * * *

I

T HAS BEEN a busy summer for Roni, but at last it appears work is quieting down for her again. With the arrival of the Ironhouse Sanitary District’s recycled water fill station in June and preparations for the district’s 70th anniversary celebration that took place Aug. 22, it was endless days of making plans, preparing publicity, purchasing products, and putting out logistical fires.

Initially the recycled water station was open three days a week — Monday, Wednesday and Saturday — and was staffed by two temp workers, only one of which was reliable. Because the other position was literally a revolving door for people who would show up one day and not return for the next shift, Roni found herself out at the station every day either training someone new or providing relief for the other employee. When that worker also eventually left for a better, permanent job and the station’s hours expanded to six days a week — all but Sunday — Roni feared she might continue to have staffing issues. Fortunately she was able to land another temp who has proved reliable, and the station’s crew has been supplemented by folks who are part of a community college program that trains people to work in the sanitary and water treatment industry. So for now, she hopes to make it to the end of the station’s season — possibly November — without any more crises.

As for our personal involvement with the recycled water program, we continue to rely on 5-gallon buckets to transport Ironhouse’s free water back to our yard. We added another eight buckets to the eight we already had, which in theory allows us to always keep some water in reserve for the next time we need it. We can only comfortably transport eight buckets at a time, and we were going through those quickly during the hottest days of August. This hasn’t actually increased the frequency at which we do our watering, but it has enabled us to get to all the plants that need attention whenever we do; we only were using eight buckets at a time because that was all we had to work with, whereas we really need about 10 or 11.

Meanwhile, Roni’s other major activity, the Delta Science Center, has also occupied her time. On Aug. 26 she took part in what has become an annual appearance as a guest speaker at the Walnut Grove Library. Her previous two visits were both well attended, so this year she decided to spice up her presentation by bringing along more examples of the various animals that can be found in the Delta region. The day before her talk, we drove to the Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek where they keep a large collection of taxidermied animals that are available to the public on loan. One of the staff members let us spend about half an hour walking through the museum’s storage room while Roni selected the critters she wanted to bring with her to Walnut Grove — a San Joaquin kit fox, riparian brush rabbit, beaver, river otter and a great blue heron, among others. The menagerie, most of which came in plastic display cases, barely fit in the back of her car.

The day of the talk, we left a little early so we could stop and grab lunch at Alma’s River Cafe in Walnut Grove before we headed over to the library. We were greeted by a couple of members of the Friends of the Library who had helped coordinate the monthly afterschool speaker series. They had booked the DSC presentation months ago. Unfortunately, there had been little promotion of the August event beforehand, and to complicate matters school had only been back in session from summer break for a couple of days. The librarian who had been in charge of the program had recently departed, and the new librarian had only been on the job less than a week. It was a perfect storm for a disappointing event.

The volunteers helped us set up a trio of tables in the library’s conference room, which was large enough to hold an audience of a couple hundred kids. Not that we had anywhere near that many. In fact, we had an audience of exactly zero before the volunteer couple rustled up their two grandkids to come watch the presentation and a couple of other kids straggled in as the talk proceeded. It was a very cozy group, and fortunately the kids that did arrive were inquisitive. The stuffed animals we’d picked up from Lindsay definitely added to the presentation, although we were disappointed not more kids showed up to see them. Still, Roni told the volunteers that she wouldn’t mind coming back againin the future, although next time we’ll probably try to arrange a date that isn’t so close to the start of school.

 

Glenn, Roni and Ben