Photo of the month

A pair of huge presents tower over the family as we pose for a Christmas morning portrait in our home. To find out what's hiding behind the wrapping paper, read this month's newsletter. Photo by Glenn.

December 2011

Roni checks out the offerings at the Walnut Grove Iron Works during the last of our vacation excursions along the Delta, Saturday, Nov. 19. Photo by Glenn.

Roni gets acquainted with the Iron Works' resident cat. Photo by Glenn.

The Delta Meadows River Park near Locke offers some up-close views of the Delta. We've left the main trail for an excursion along the sandy banks. Photo by Glenn.

The water is unusually calm at the Delta Meadows River Park. This boat belongs to one of the nearby residents, who keep it anchored just off shore. Photo by Glenn.

We don't have many woods like these in the Delta. The River Park is one of the best spots to check them out. Photo by Roni.

Oak leaves litter the ground along the River Park trail, which was created from a reclaimed railroad bed. Photo by Glenn.

This toilet garden is among the many odd attractions in Locke, which was founded by and for Chinese laborers back in the 19th century. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn gets ready to dig into his pasta lunch at Al The Wop's restaurant in Locke. Photo by Roni.

Many have taken the challenge of sticking a dollar bill to the ceiling at Al The Wop's. No point really, except for the bragging rights of saying you did it. We didn't attempt it. Photo by Glenn.

Delta farmers are hard at work in mid-November trying to harvest their crops before the rains come. A tractor labors on a Saturday east of Walnut Grove. Photo by Glenn.

Our trip back to Oakley took us through Isleton, which is home to the famous Hotel Del Rio. We like their old neon sign. Photo by Glenn.

This is one of the three pieces of metal art we purchased on our stop at the Walnut Grove Iron Works. We hung it on the BAP pergola. Photo by Glenn.

Santa Claus arrives during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which means that the monthlong Christmas season has just begun. Photo by Glenn.

We decided to get a jump on our Christmas decorating while the turkey was cooking. The cats are already exploring the spot where the tree will go. Photo by Glenn.

Roni is hard at work decorating the tree, which we succeeded in setting up by Thanksgiving night. Photo by Glenn.

The Dolphins-Cowboys football game plays on our plasma TV while we complete the tree decorations. Photo by Glenn.

It's time for Thanksgiving dinner. Here is our pretty bird, just out of the oven. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn and Ben pose for a photo in the dining room as they await dinner. Photo by Roni.

It's the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Roni is holding down the fort at the Ironhouse Sanitary District's turkey grease collection station. The collected grease will be turned into biofuel for buses. Photo by Glenn.

Roni stands with a 51-box load of 2012 calendars for the Delta Science Center. The calendars arrived the Friday before Christmas and are taking up space in our entryway awaiting distribution to local schools. Photo by Glenn.

Katy has discovered a sunny spot on Roni's Christmas town layout that was set up under the tree. We say was, because the cats basically destroyed it days after it was created. Photo by Glenn.

And what does Katy think of our concerns that she is making a mess of the Christmas tree and table decorations? Yeah, we thought so. Photo by Roni.

Following a Nabisco recipe, Glenn made his first attempt at creating an Oreo pie to serve as dessert for our small dinner party on Nov. 27. Photo by Glenn.

It took us until Dec. 11 to finally get the outside lights up. We kept the display simple this year, but it will still cost us a pretty penny when PG&E sends us the bill in January. Photo by Glenn.

Our various trips to Rio Vista inspired Glenn to create a replica of the Striper Cafe sign we showed you last month. The first step is making a template and tracing it to plywood. Photo by Glenn.

After the template is traced, Glenn cuts it out using a jigsaw. This is the first of the sign's two halves. Photo by Glenn.

Another template, only this time it is for Roni's Christmas present. This cowgirl, her arm outstretched, will stand 6 feet tall and is 2 feet wide. Photo by Glenn.

Our cowgirl makes herself comfortable for painting on the chair in the writing sanctuary. She seems a little stiff. Photo by Glenn.

We created our own hardback books to give as Christmas gifts. Here we are clamping the covers down after they have been glued into place. Photo by Glenn.

The finished books are all just a bit different, They were bound by hand, using materials mostly found at the local craft store. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn's iTunes collection provides the holiday music on Christmas Eve. Photo by Glenn.

While the music plays, Glenn puts the finishing touches on his mint Oreo pie, the dessert for our Christmas dinner tomorrow. Photo by Roni.

It's Christmas morning, and a Spare the Air day in the Bay Area, which means we can't legally light a warm and toasty fire for our chilly house. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy the ambience of a roaring fireplace, courtesy the video yule log. Photo by Glenn.

The Christmas bread makes its appearance every year, thanks to Glenn's dedication to keeping the tradition alive. This year's edition received a 9 for preparation, 7 for appearance, and a perfect 10 for flavor — one of the best tasting breads ever. Photo by Glenn.

Roni and Ben sit down to a lavish Christmas breakfast spread featuring bagels, eggs, sausage, bacon, cocoa, and the Christmas bread. Photo by Glenn.

I really don't get what all the fuss is about this Christmas thing. I mean, I could play with ribbons any day. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn shows off the mug that Ben made from clay and gave to Glenn as a Christmas present. Photo by Roni.

It wouldn't be Christmas without a few video games, and Ben was happy to get the Alice: Madness Returns game for the Xbox. Photo by Glenn.

And now it's time for the great unveiling. Roni attempts to remove the wrapping paper on the largest gift under the tree. Photo by Glenn.

Here's what Roni found inside her huge present. These cowboy and wolf cutouts will make a fine addition to our yard art collection. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn attaches a plywood cleat that will help hold the cowgirl silhouette in place on our BAP pergola. Photo by Roni.

All installed, the cow people and wolf occupy a good chunk of space under the pergola. Photo by Glenn.

We huddle around the computer for a Christmas video chat with our Hayward family. Photo by Glenn.

Roni is all smiles as she gets to use her new Nikon D5100 camera at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve near Lodi on Monday, Dec. 26. Photo by Glenn.

The new Nikon captures these sandhill cranes at the Woodbridge reserve. The area is a popular sanctuary for migrating cranes and other birds, and attracts an equally large number of nature photographers. Photo by Roni.

A flock of sandhill cranes soar overhead. They weren't actually going very far, but their flight was impressive. Photo by Glenn.

The end of our photo trip to Lodi takes us home once again through Rio Vista, where the municipal Christmas tree is proudly on display at the foot of Main Street. Photo by Glenn.

A winter sun sets over the Sacramento River as we head home. Hard to believe that another year has come and gone. Photo by Glenn.

We always enjoy hearing from our visitors. We welcome your comments.

Handmade holidays

December 30, 2011

Did you have yourself a merry little Christmas? We certainly hope so, and if you were expecting a present from us and haven’t yet received it, it could very well be that we haven’t gotten it to the post office yet. Yes, the holiday festivities are nearly over, but we continue to operate in Christmas mode, at least through the end of the year and the cleanup of the decorations on New Year’s Day. That is one of the hazards of trying to capture some of the spirit of an old-fashioned Christmas by making your own gifts in the digital age.

We were looking around the shopping mall in mid-November when we stumbled across a place that will let you make your own coffee table-style photo books for yourself or to give as gifts to people. The samples were beautiful — full color pages with full bleeds and professional photos to show off their full potential. Of course, the idea would be to replace their pro-quality pics with your own images, and Roni had just the idea for how she would do it. Maybe it is all the Delta travels we’ve been taking this year, but Roni has suddenly gotten more interested in photography and has been taking a lot more shots on her pocket Canon SX130. She wanted to take the best of these and pop them into one of the photo books so we would have them to enjoy for years to come.

Then we got this idea that the book might be a great gift for family members. We could make a dozen of them and send them out for Christmas. But the books we saw advertised were small — about 20 pages — and would be a pretty short read. That was when the idea for "The Gehlke Family Album" took shape, and before we knew it we were coming up with a plan to produce our own books from scratch. By making them ourselves, we wouldn’t be limited by small page counts or some pre-packaged design; we could have total control over everything, from content to cover.

As with all our creative endeavors, what started as a simple idea quickly mushroomed. We came up with a plan for a 64-page tome that would contain not only our favorite photos, but also stories, graphics, drawings and inspirational quotations. We’d throw in some favorite recipes, and we would provide a showcase for each of us to present the things we are most proud of. For Roni, it was her many photos. For Ben, it was his manga-style artwork and his original short stories. For Glenn, it was a chance to try out his book design and binding skills.

The 64-pages, set up in 8-1/2 x 5-1/2 inch format, seemed a daunting task at first. But we quickly discovered that each large photo would fill one page, and that Ben’s "short" story would itself occupy a dozen or more pages. Working as a team, we filled the pages in a weekend and had everything to the printer on the Monday morning of Christmas week. The copy shop cut the pages for us, and that turned out to be the easiest part of the project.

The next step found us binding the books assembly-line style. We picked up some scrapbooking supplies from the fabric store and, using some instructions found on the Internet, set about gluing the paper spines, cutting cardboard covers, plastering over the boards with decorative fabrics, and clamping each book together for several hours until the glue dried and they were together enough to drop in an envelope to mail.

We came away with a greater appreciation for how bestselling authors get their books published. The large publishing houses can probably run a few dozen books per minute off the assembly line. For us, each copy took about three hours or so, once you factor in all the X-acto knife cuts we had to make, the measuring of the pages, the waiting for the glue to dry. And in the end we weren’t even sure it would all hold together. Yet somehow the books seemed to. Good thing we had an extremely small press run of eight copies, one of which was ours.

Each copy looks a bit different. Some are a little prettier than other on the outside, but it is true what has been said about not judging a book by its cover. If you were one of the lucky folks to receive one of the completed copies, then you should know we thought a lot of you to take the time to craft your gift personally if not professionally. And if you haven’t received your copy yet... well, it just might be on its way to you as you read this.

* * * * *

This was definitely a handmade Christmas, as each of us crafted something to give to someone. Ben has been studying pottery in his art class, so he created a mug to give to Dad. It wasn’t a perfect effort, he says, as the handle broke off when it went through the kiln. But that was a minor problem compared to those of his classmates, whose bowls and mugs shattered in the heat because they had failed to remove the air bubbles from the clay as they were instructed. Ben’s mug (or now perhaps a bowl) came out nicely and found a place of honor next to Glenn’s computer. Ben also surprised Glenn with a self portrait drawn in pencil that Roni helped him frame. It was an impressive job by Ben, who has been learning many new techniques in his art class this year.

Roni put her efforts into making biscotti tins for people. They weren’t tins so much as glass Ball canning jars, but the effect was the same. She filled the small jars with pieces of candy, biscotti, cookies and tea or cocoa mix, then cut circles of fabric to use as lids. She discovered quickly that some of the cookies were too large to fit inside the jars, so for several days before Christmas we had a bountiful supply of sugary goodies tempting us on the dining room table.

For his part, Glenn followed his woodworking muse and carried on with a hobby he has been spending more time with since summer. Since building our large pergola a year ago, the structure has created many spaces to display yard art, so we have been dutifully adding new pieces every few weeks. We had talked about trying our hand at those large leaning cowboy silhouettes you see all over the place nowadays, and Glenn had actually come up with a plan for how they could be displayed. But he didn’t seriously think about about making the cutouts as a Christmas gift for Roni until a couple weeks before the big day.

Because making anything artsy out of wood requires a lot of sawing, keeping the cutouts as a surprise would require stealth. Glenn took advantage of one morning when Roni went to her office to race to Home Depot to buy a 4x8 foot sheet of plywood that had to be cut in three pieces there in order to fit in the back of his car. Each slice had been measured to fit one of three designs Glenn had planned: a 6-foot cowboy and a cowgirl and a 4-foot howling wolf.

That same morning Glenn got the wood home, he transferred the cowgirl design onto wood and cut her out, saving the painting until the dead of night when he locked himself away in the writing sanctuary with a foam brush and a pint of flat black latex paint. The problem was how to cut the other two pieces, because Roni didn’t plan on going out again except to bring Ben to school in the morning. Glenn ran some quick calculations and figured he would be able to make the necessary cuts in a couple of 10-minute sessions.

So the next morning, the second when Roni and Ben left the house for the drive across town to Freedom High, Glenn bolted out of bed, tossed on his shoes (he was already dressed otherwise) and pulled the cowboy out of the den. Within 90 seconds he was sawing, and by the time he had to stop, he had more than half of the cowboy cut out. He finished the job that afternoon when Roni went to pick Ben up from school.

He repeated the process for the wolf the following day, doing all the cuts in the morning and afternoon before tackling the painting at night. When they weren’t otherwise drying, the painted cutouts were tucked away behind the den door where they would be less likely to be discovered. The finishing touch was a set of bandanas that Glenn purchased from a local western wear business. These he tied around the characters' necks to add a little color.

The final challenge was how to wrap the cutouts without it being obvious what they were. Glenn broke down a couple of old cardboard boxes from the garage that just happened to be the right height, six feet. He packaged the cowboy and cowgirl together, using a bunch of packing tape and a full roll of giftwrap to cover them. Even then, the paper only covered the front of the package, leaving the back cardboard exposed. The wolf got its own package, which was considerably easier to wrap.

On Christmas morning, the two huge packages made quite an impression under the tree — or rather, to the side of the tree next to the fireplace, because they were too large and heavy to place under the tree. There was much speculation as to what was inside. Roni was delighted with her gift, and Glenn took some time that afternoon to cut a few scraps of plywood so the cutouts could be mounted to the BAP pergola posts. The life-size figures command attention. We have all been fooled a couple of times already, looking out the corner of our eye and thinking there are people standing in our yard.

* * * * *

Roni liked her western figures just fine, but what she liked even better was the new SLR camera sitting under the tree Christmas morning. Yes, materialism still rules the day. It wasn’t exactly a surprise though, as we picked it out together as a family gift. Roni, as mentioned earlier, has been getting very interested in photography again. When we first met, she was the one with the nice film camera. She worked in a 1-hour photo processing lab, had taken lots of photo classes, and was a photographer for our college newspaper. But since we got our first digital camera in 2002, Roni has spent less time behind the lens, and now it is Glenn who seems to take most of the shots. But recently Roni had a dream that she started taking pictures again, and so she asked for a Nikon SLR as one of her Christmas gifts.

Since Glenn wanted a better camera too, this wasn’t a hard sell. We compared the Nikons and Canons, eventually settling on the Nikon D5100. We got it as a kit with a couple of lenses and a large bag that resembles a backpack. We also bought a 16GB memory card with enough capacity to take about a year’s worth of photos before we’d have to clean it off, although we probably filled half of it the first few days we went out shooting.

Our first photo excursion, naturally, was up along the Delta, to a place outside of Lodi called the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. The place is well known to area nature lovers as the spot where sandhill cranes come to roost during the winter months. It is such a big deal that the city of Lodi hosts a Sandhill Crane Festival each fall, with guided tours of the crane habitat offered by appointment. We had never been to the reserve, so we hoped there would be a few places to get good photos with our 300mm zoom lens. Alas, the reserve is little more than a flooded field, and the small parking area just off the roadway is as much access as mere humans are allowed. There were plenty of other people around, too, which made it all the less likely that the cranes, coots, swans, seagulls, egrets or other birds would get anywhere close enough to photograph.

We soon discovered, like the rest of the paparazzi, that most of the cranes were not at the reserve at all, but had moved a couple of miles down the road to other flooded fields where they flew about and chattered amongst themselves in large flocks, probably cracking jokes about the fools with cameras they were evading. It was easy to tell the local residents from the tourists, as the folks with cameras crept along the roadway in an effort not to disturb the wildlife, whereas the locals flew past in their pickups, disgusted scowls plastered on their faces, obviously familiar with the habits of the nature lovers. Note to self: Don’t buy property near a wildlife refuge.

We spent a couple of hours taking our pictures, playing with the camera settings, ducking back into the warmth of the car and sipping hot chocolate. Then we made our way home via Rio Vista, stopping for a pleasant lunch of tortilla soup and salad at Lucy’s Cafe and a peek at the waterfront where the city’s Christmas tree was prominently on display.

We have been experimenting with the new camera all week and so far have mixed reviews of its capabilities. Being a true SLR, and our first in nearly a decade, it is a step up from anything we’ve owned. But the kit lenses that came with it are far from the best, and we both tend to be picky about such things. Pickier, perhaps, than our budget will allow for the time being. Maybe one day we will throw down a few grand for a single professional quality lens, but we can’t see that day from here, so for now we will enjoy our hobby within the limitations we have to work with.

* * * * *

We have likely made our last trek up Highway 160 for this year. It is too bad we didn’t have the new camera back in November when we were on vacation, because we surely would have put it through its paces the day we drove up to Walnut Grove and neighboring Locke. It was Saturday, Nov. 19, the final weekend of Glenn’s two-week fall break, and the rain held off just long enough for us to get in a walk at the nearby Delta Meadows River Park.

The park, such that it is, is actually a trail set on the former right-of-way for the Southern Pacific rail line that once ran through the region. Glenn walked another part of that line last year with his brother Sean and Ben, although that 7-mile stretch was not an authorized trail, nor had the old tracks been removed. The Delta Meadows trail is free of old rails, ties, ballast, weeds and other obstacles that might get in the way of a decent hike. The only problem is that it is owned by the state, which has run out of money to maintain some of its largest and most popular parks, let alone a forgotten rail-trail in the middle of the Delta.

We, like many others before us, pretended to not see the "trail closed" sign at the entrance near the Mokelumne River and ventured into an incredible greenway lined with oak trees, blackberry bushes and wide open spaces. The trail runs behind tiny Locke and hugs the shore of one of the Delta’s numerous sloughs. We had neither time nor inclination to follow the trail all the way to its end, but we did enjoy a relaxing stroll beneath the forest canopy, stopping periodically to appreciate the view or take in the sounds of birds calling out from the trees.

A bit into the walk we veered from the trail and followed the bank of the slough. Until then we hadn’t noticed a fisherman sitting in his boat, waiting silently for a bite. Other than that, the water was deserted, calm and flat, a giant mirror reflecting the trees and sky and the enormous radio towers that are Walnut Grove’s most notable landmarks. One of those, the KXTV/KOVR tower, is the tallest structure in California and sixth tallest structure ever built on earth. We drove within a few hundred yards of it while trying to find the parking lot for the Delta Meadows trail, this time content to heed the warning signs posted by the Feds to keep out.

After our trail walk we stopped for lunch in Locke, at a popular dive called Al the Wop’s. Al’s is an odd attraction, in that when it opened in 1934, it was the only non-Chinese owned business in town. The place is popular with bikers, well known for its steaks, and has some unusual traditions including jars of peanut butter at every table. We cracked up trying to figure out why a restaurant would provide peanut butter as if it were a bottle of catsup or mustard, until we discovered that Al’s is known for serving its patrons toast and apricot jam as a side dish. Hmmm. It was an odd combination with our dishes of spaghetti and meat sauce, but sometimes you just have to roll with it.

* * * * *

The holiday season has come and gone in a blur of activity. Roni's various jobs have kept her on the go all autumn, and our various crafting and Christmas decorating projects have made the final weeks of 2011 pass much too quickly. No sooner did Glenn head back to work from vacation then Thanksgiving was upon us. Roni did her usual fine job of preparing a lavish dinner for the three of us, While the food was cooking, we broke with our usual tradition of saving the Christmas decorating for the weekend and instead dove in on the tree that afternoon. We cleared our usual spot in a corner of the living room for the display table, then Glenn hauled out the faux tree, strung the lights, and Roni finished the job by hanging up the ornaments.

We didn't know what to expect from Katy this year. She and Rio were a couple of wild banshees last Christmas, but this being our first holiday season without Rio and with another year under her belt, we thought perhaps Katy would be calmer around the decorations.


We hadn't had the tree up more than a few minutes before Katy decided to use some of the bottom branches as a perch. Or maybe they were a ladder that helped her reach the round dangly ornaments that tempted her with their glitter. Whatever it was, we quickly learned that Katy would not let the decorations be, and that was before she got Eevee involved in her destructive antics. Even at 10 years old, Eevee has a bit of kittenish energy left in him, and it was on full display during December. There were some wild carpet-shredding chases through the house that involved the two cats smashing into doors, walls and each other before having it out in one final standoff at the base of the Christmas tree. Our poor Christmas tree, under which Roni carefully crafted her ceramic village with its collection of Victorian figurines and houses and model trees, most of which finished the holidays strewn on the floor behind the display table. In disgust, Roni waited until Christmas Eve and redecorated the tree — which Katy took as her invitation to attack the ornaments anew. Sigh.

We hosted one very casual get-together on Sunday, Nov. 27, when Glenn had one of his work colleagues over and Ben invited his girlfriend Alexis for an evening of conversation and dinner. Aside from that, we let others do the event hosting, most of which consisted of potlucks at work or a school party or two.

Christmas weekend was its usual marathon of baking and gift wrapping/unwrapping. Roni and Glenn orchestrated their kitchen time while she baked cookies, fudge and dinners and he prepared Oreo pie and the always popular Christmas bread. We kept the Christmas tunes playing all Saturday while we continued to work on last-minute preparations for Christmas morning. And what a great morning it was. Not very restful, but lots of fun.

And now it's time to say goodbye. Goodbye to 2011, which was definitely a year of highs and lows in roughly equal proportions. We cheered Roni's good fortune with her work with the Delta Science Center and her business during the first half of the year, then in the second half we mourned the losses of Glenn's Grandfather Henry and our dear kitty Rio amid uncertainty with the future of Glenn's job. Ben found a close companion with his girlfriend Lea, then endured heartbreak when they split up in September, only to rejoice in a newfound friendship with Alexis.

There was time for a bit of traveling, but not much money to stay anywhere long, and always another job or project around the corner to keep us occupied. We don't want to disappoint ourselves by expecting great things out of 2012, although we certainly hope for better times ahead. Any year where there is more positive than negative to remember is surely a good one by today's standards. Until we meet again next month, hope you have fun popping the champagne corks this weekend.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 01:43 hrs.

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