Looks like the gang's all here for our annual Christmas portrait as we gather around the tree the morning of Dec. 25 prior to the unwrapping of presents. It's a rare occasion when both of the cats cooperate for the photo session, and most years we can barely hold still ourselves for long enough to take a good picture. Photo by Glenn.

Dashing through December

December 30, 2015: It is a cold December night as we begin this month's newsletter. So cold, in fact, that we are content to compose it on the computer in the living room for once as opposed to the one in the Writing Sanctuary, which is not heated. The oscillating space heater we got a couple Christmases ago has been our savior on nights like this, so we'll continue to overlook the hit to our electric bill until at least early spring.

To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.

The holiday season kicks off with a bang with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, and thanks to the magic of television we were able to see the festivities. This being the 50th anniversary of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and the year we decided to theme our entire display around the Peanuts characters, it is perfect that they were one of the parade floats. Photo by Glenn.

It has been at least 16 years since we got our fake Christmas tree and it was high time for a new one. Glenn unboxes it for the first time on Thanksgiving morning. We were eager to get it set up to go with our Snoopy doghouse display. Photo by Roni.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with Glenn's folks in Hayward. Grandmother, Ben and Sean dig in as the feast is served. Photo by Glenn.

Everyone gathers around the banquet table to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with the fam. Photo by Norm.

Everyone gets a little nap attack after a huge Thanksgiving feast. Tom and Jenny cuddle up on the loveseat with Grandmother, who appears to be thoroughly enjoying the moment. Photo by Glenn.

Roni strings popcorn on the Saturday after Thanksgiving so we can add it to our Christmas tree. Photo by Glenn.

Because we were going for the Peanuts theme this year, for the tree topper we made a cutout of Woodstock and let him hold the end of the popcorn string. It looks like he flew around the tree to help decorate it. Photo by Glenn.

We have long enjoyed hanging Christmas ornaments from our vaulted living room ceiling. It really livens up the festive display, but it does take extra work moving the ladder around to get them all tacked up. Photo by Glenn.

Our front yard Christmas display got somewhat less attention than in previous years. We kept it confined to mostly the porch and front shrubs, and we subbed in a couple strings of LED lights, which we hope will save a few pennies on the electric bill. Photo by Glenn.

With the tree set up we went to work creating the Peanuts characters that would complete the scene. The first step was making paper templates that were later traced onto half-inch thick plywood. Photo by Glenn.

It took a couple of weeks, but the four characters we planned on making for this year's display — Lucy, Charlie Brown, Sally and Linus — were all completed and ready to display together for the first time on Dec. 12. Photo by Glenn.

The New England Patriots play in snowy Denver on Nov. 29. It may look cold, but our handy digital thermometer tells us the truth — it's a balmy 74 degrees. OK, maybe in our living room. Photo by Glenn.

Roni shows off some of her bling. These are the cocktail rings she receives when she buys candles from her favorite online seller. As a gimmick, they hide a ring inside each candle, and you find it once the candle wax melts. Some of them are supposedly worth money, although most are cheap costume jewelry. Photo by Glenn.

We are in the process of gradually switching from our old incandescent lightbulbs to more energy efficient LED lighting. Here is how the newer 40-watt bulbs (left side) compare to the old 40-watt bulbs. They are much brighter, and they are also dimmable using our existing light switch. Photo by Glenn.

Katy isn't waiting until Christmas to start opening presents. What comes in the package is much less interesting than the packaging itself, as far as she's concerned. Photo by Glenn.

It's Christmas Eve, and time for the annual baking of the Christmas bread. Some years the dough doesn't want to rise, while others, like this one, it wants to escape its container like The Blob. We always like when the yeast is in beast mode. Photo by Glenn.

The gifts are all wrapped and nicely displayed around the tree and fireplace. We've added a fresh layer of "snow" in the foreground. It all looks so inviting. Time for bed to rest up for the big day tomorrow. Photo by Glenn.

Here is the Christmas bread all finished and pretty on Christmas morning, displayed by its proud creator.The judge gave it decent marks: 8 for preparation, 8 for presentation and 8 for flavor; had to use too much flour and needed more cardamom. Photo by Roni.

Time for a quick family photo before we sit down to breakfast. We always have too much food, but we love our Christmas morning traditions. Photo by Glenn.

Animals just know that Christmas is a day unlike all the others, so they get into a festive mood too. Eevee isn't always so playful, but he was like a little kid amusing himself with this green plastic ball and rolling around in the polyfiber snow. Photo by Glenn.

Ben displays a couple of the books he received on Christmas morning. His gift haul was filled with anime and manga, which is just what he wanted. Photo by Glenn.

Roni was very surprised and happy to receive a 200-500mm zoom lens for her Nikon camera. She can't wait to test it out on her nature photography. Photo by Glenn.

That new lens is huge and will take some getting used to. Roni tests it out in the backyard on Christmas Day, but she is eager to take it out to someplace more interesting. Photo by Glenn.

Ben got a small refrigerator for his room, our gift to him as we prepare to have him buy most of his own groceries starting in January. He likes the convenience of having all his cold soda available without having to wander to the kitchen. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn didn't have a lot on his Christmas list, but he was happy with his gifts that included several calendars, a Bluray player and a fancy black Stetson hat. Photo by Roni.

We celebrated Christmas with Glenn's folks the following day by going out to lunch in Tracy. Afterward, we all opened presents outside the restaurant. Ben checks out one of his gifts as cousin Shannon, Uncle Tom and Grandma look on. Photo by Glenn.

At least we had good weather for an outdoor gift exchange. Sean opens one of his gifts from us while Ben and his Aunt Jenny follow the action on the bench nearby. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn's dad shows the packaging from one of his gifts. It was three bars of "radioactive" hand soap made up to resemble the chemical elements Krypton, Uranium and Plutonium. Photo by Glenn.

It's not every family that can say (or would say) they celebrated Christmas at the GK Mongolian BBQ in Tracy. But in an odd way, it was the perfect venue for our wacky clan. Photo by Glenn.

All the better to sit in the living room anyhow, as it affords the best view of our Christmas tree and the Peanuts display that we worked so hard to put together in time for the holiday, and now that we will be taking it down for the season in just a few more days, we want to enjoy it whenever we can.

It is hard to believe that Christmas has come and gone, and that a new year is fast approaching. The past month has been a blur of trying to beat deadlines, partake in family holiday traditions and socialize with business colleagues. Not an easy chore in this day and age.

Last month we introduced you to our plan to theme this year’s Christmas display around “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the Peanuts characters created by Charles M. Schulz. Glenn had already constructed Snoopy’s doghouse and was in the early planning stages for the character cutouts that would join the display as Christmas approached. But given all the other activities on our plate in December, he didn’t figure to have more than a couple of the cutouts done in time. But the act of building the doghouse proved to be the creative spark he needed, and roughly a week after Thanksgiving he had his patterns printed out and was ready to cut them out of the four 2x4 sheets of plywood we’d bought for the occasion.

Our original plan was to create Charlie Brown first, being that he is the star of the show, but somehow Sally wound up getting the attention and was the first character cut out and painted. Charlie Brown and Linus came next, followed several days later by Lucy. So worried was he that he wouldn’t get Lucy finished in time, Glenn wound up priming the wood, painting her individual colors and adding the black highlights all in one 6-hour session, working late into the early morning hours of Saturday, Dec. 12, to complete the task. The end result looked great alongside the doghouse that we’d had complete for more than two weeks already.

But the display was still missing a key component: the scraggly Charlie Brown tree made famous by the TV special. Fortunately this is the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and so there were more than a few Peanuts-themed decorations available in the stores. Roni discovered the Charlie Brown tree at ACE Hardware in Oakley, and we raced over there to check it out. It was a good thing we did, too, because the store had sold out of all their stock except for the one tree they had as a display. The sales clerk asked if we would want that one, and of course we said yes. They even gave us a little discount because it was a store display item. It was the finishing touch we needed.

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S FUN AS putting together our Christmas scene had been, it was a project that took time away from other pressing tasks. Each year we design a calendar for the Delta Science Center, and while we are accustomed to the job running late most years, this year we were considerably behind schedule. Roni had hoped to have the calendar in the hands of school kids by the time they went on Christmas break in mid-December. Glenn had wanted to have the calendar finished in early November so that it wouldn’t be hanging over us during the Christmas season. Of course neither one of those things happened, and we found ourselves designing the calendar right through the holiday season, at last finishing it and getting it to the printer two days before the end of the year. Uncertainties about funding for the project, a lack of photo submissions and distractions at home all contributed to delaying the production schedule. Despite all that, we think it looks pretty good and can’t wait to have it in our hands, just a few days into the new year.

In addition to that, Roni has been running a mile a minute between her work for the DSC, Ironhouse Sanitary District, and her role as a member of the Contra Costa County Fish and Wildlife Committee. Her two-year committee appointment expired this month, so she decided to apply for a second term. That meant going to Martinez to interview along with a dozen other people who wanted the seat. In the end, she and another incumbent were both recommended to the Board of Supervisors for reappointment, so it appears that Roni will have another two years of listening to grant requests and debates on the problems caused by feral cats.

On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 5, we took part in the sanitary district’s annual Christmas party, which this year was held at the Bridge Marina Yacht Club in Antioch. It was the district’s first big holiday party since the arrival in July of its new general manager, Chad Davisson, and was quite well attended. To add some entertainment value to what is usually a routine evening of dining and socializing, Chad set up a mystery gift exchange. Party attendees who wished to participate were asked to bring a small gift, then they all drew random numbers to determine the order in which people would get to select from the available gifts. The twist was that those selecting later could either choose a new gift from the table or “steal” one that had previously been opened. So it wasn’t too surprising that bottles of wine and movie tickets changed hands a few times, while gag gifts like the Potty Putter bathroom golf set remained with their original gift receiver. Roni brought a fleece blanket in a deer theme to give away, and in the end she took home a nice set of sugar cookie-scented candles.

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S FOR OUR own family holiday celebrations, we continued our recent tradition of alternating Thanksgiving and Christmas with Glenn’s family, this year making the trek to Hayward on Thanksgiving Day. While that may have saved us from having to do our own cooking, it left us without any leftovers to take us through the weekend. That felt kind of weird.

Ben, as an employee of Grocery Outlet, got to bring home a free turkey for Thanksgiving, but since we weren’t planning on being home for the holiday, we decided to stuff the bird in the freezer to haul out on Christmas Day, when we would be at home. Roni isn’t a huge fan of more than one turkey dinner a year, but she relented in this case because Ben was so excited about getting the freebie from work. Itwasn’t a huge bird; we guessed it weighed about 8 pounds, more than enough to feed the three of us, provide a few leftovers, and not leave a ton of meat to go bad in the fridge.

At least we had our Christmas dinner planned, if not the other aspects of the holiday such as shopping for gifts. Roni is usually quite efficient about rounding up presents for Ben, Glenn and all our families. But this year she felt hopelessly behind. One Sunday afternoon while Glenn watched his football games, Roni spent the entire time combing the Internet for gifts for his mother, father and siblings. You’d think that having the shopping mall at your fingertips would make life easier, avoiding traffic, crowds and things being out of stock like you experience shopping at the brick-and-mortar stores, but it didn’t seem to. We probably spent longer in the long run than if we had simply done our shopping the old-fashioned way.

The other thing that made shopping for each other a challenge was that neither of us could muster much of a list of the things we wanted. Aside from Ben, who had an extensive list he posted on Facebook of the gifts he hoped to receive, Glenn and Roni cobbled together some ideas (many of them unfulfilled requests from previous Christmases and birthdays) and presented them for consideration with less than 10 days to shop. Glenn managed to do most of his shopping through Amazon, taking advantage of their Prime two-day free shipping option to get all his merchandise delivered before Christmas Eve. Well, almost all of it.

Coming up with a main gift is never an easy task, and it isn’t any easier when the recipient doesn’t have a clear idea of what he or she wants. Aside from a completed backyard shed that he knew he wasn’t likely to receive, Glenn set his sights on a miter saw and a Bluray disc player. Roni put out her feelers for a weather station and lots of books she hadn’t read yet. She also floated the idea of a new telephoto lens for her Nikon D5100 digital camera, which she has been asking for since we got the camera four years ago. The problem is that good lenses are very pricey, especially when you get into the long zoom lenses like the kind she wanted. We had been disappointed with the low-end 55-300mm lens we had, finding it inadequate for taking crisp shots at long range of birds in flight on our various wildlife viewing trips. But $10,000 for something significantly better was out of our budget.

Glenn initially discounted the idea of getting her a good lens until he stumbled across a 200-500mm model that Nikon had just started shipping two months earlier. Not only was it the perfect focal length for wildlife pictures, but it was priced at an affordable level for amateur hobbyists like ourselves. It was also in very short supply. Glenn went back and forth for several days trying to decide whether to take the plunge and get it on backorder or leave it up to Roni after Christmas as to whether she wanted it. (Well, of course she would!) In the end, the prospect of having the lens sitting under the tree on Christmas morning won out, so when he found it available at Mike’s Camera in Pleasant Hill the Tuesday before Christmas, he had them place a hold on the last one in stock and ran out to pick it up on his way in to work.

It is a real monster when you see it in person for the first time. The 200-500mm is more than a foot long when fully extended, and the thing weighs more than 5 pounds. That might not seem like a lot, until you are out shooting with it handheld for any length of time and your arm begins to sag under the weight. Would Roni be able to handle such a beast? Glenn bought the insurance on it just as a precaution and took the lens home with a mixture of excitement and uncertainty about the most expensive gift he’d ever bought for anyone.

If there was ever a doubt as to how Roni would react to the whole thing, it was quickly removed the moment she opened the present on Christmas Day. “It’s my lens!” she exclaimed with both shock and delight. She quickly had the D5100 out and attached to the zoom and would have called off the rest of Christmas right there to go out on a photo trek had it not been for the turkey dinner she needed to tend. The true disadvantage of the small bird Ben had brought us was that it would only take a couple of hours to cook – not nearly long enough for a drive out to the Delta to shoot wildlife photos. That would have to wait for good weather on another day. For the meantime, Roni took the camera outside in the backyard and tested it out on the sparrows in our evergreen ash tree. She quickly learned two things: the lens is really heavy and you’ll have better luck using it with a tripod. For now, she’s excited about the prospect of taking it with us on an upcoming trip to look for bald eagles near the Oregon border.

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HRISTMAS WAS MOSTLY good to all of us this year. Although Glenn didn’t get his shed or his miter saw – a bit relieved he didn’t after sinking so much of our budget into camera gear – he did get the Bluray player he’d asked for along with a collection of movies to view on it. He also got a very cool Stetson hat that he had been eyeing since our trip to the Pear Fair in Courtland last July. Glenn has never been a hat person, but that could change. He has been wearing his new “gambler” style hat around the house every day since Christmas and can’t wait for an excuse to take it out in public.

Ben got a bunch of anime and manga items, as well as the new Mario Party 10 game he’d requested. He also got a small refrigerator that we picked up for him from Home Depot so he can start keeping his groceries there. We have worked out with him that he will start buying his own food after the first of the year, so this will give him his own place to keep it. We weren’t sure what he’d think of getting a refrigerator as a Christmas gift until he said that he had been thinking about getting one for himself. Call it good karma. We also gave him money to use toward the purchase of the new computer system he wants to buy, or rather build. He almost has enough saved up for the project and is hoping to purchase all the parts by February.

Perhaps the bigger gift for Ben was finally being able to afford gifts for the rest of the family, this being his first Christmas with a job, and he went to town. Roni was the recipient of several Peanuts-themed presents while Glenn got items themed around “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Perhaps the best of those was a coffee mug in the guise of Jack Skellington. Ben also bought gifts for the cats, or rather for the cats to give to us. Eevee gifted Glenn with a kit on how to teach your cat tricks, which if you know anything about the contentious relationship between the two of them seems to be a tutorial doomed to failure.

There were also more than enough calendars distributed between the three of us that we’ll probably have one for every wall in the house, and maybe two in some places. That doesn’t include the Delta Science Center calendars that will join the collection once they are back from the printer. We will have no excuse for losing track of time in the new year.

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ECAUSE WE DIDN'T plan to spend Christmas with Glenn’s folks, that meant we’d have to find another way to get their presents to them, and they to us. In past years we boxed everything up and sent it through the mail, but it was rightly pointed out that doing so gets expensive, and when we live less than 60 miles apart... well, it almost doesn’t make sense not to get together somehow, if only just to hand over the goodies.

So it was decided that we would meet sometime after Christmas, and as it turned out, Ben had off from work Dec. 26, a Saturday. As part of our Christmas night Facetime call to exchange video greetings we decided on meeting halfway at a restaurant. Sean suggested his favorite spot, the GK Mongolian BBQ in Tracy, so that was where we got together around 1 p.m. the following day.

The restaurant specializes in Udon noodle dishes you prepare a la carte and that they cook up for you to take back to your table. While the place wasn’t packed the day we visited, it still had enough business that we had to wait a few minutes to find a table that would accommodate the 10 of us in our group. As it turned out, we got two tables that were separated by another table that was occupied. When those people left, Glenn, Roni, Ben, Sean and Grandpa Norm slid over to the vacated seats so we could all sit closer together.

The meal over, we went back to our cars and returned to the front of the restaurant with several huge bags of gifts to hand over. Roni went through our two bags and carefully separated presents into two piles, one for the Fereirras and the other for Sean and Glenn’s folks. We exchanged bags of gifts like we were handing over ransom cash to a bunch of kidnappers. That might have been the point at which we hugged one another and said our farewells, except that our niece Shannon said she really wanted to open her gifts right there, and then Ben agreed that he wanted to see people open their presents from him.

So suddenly we found ourselves hauling out the sacks we’d just squirreled away in the car trunks and the present party was on – right there on the table and bench in front of the Mongolian restaurant with musical accompaniment from the jet-dry carwash across the parking lot. It was sort of like celebrating Christmas on the sidewalk outside a major airport, but we were all too into the festive mood to care.

It was like Christmas and a birthday party rolled into one for Glenn, who received a T-shirt from Jenny and Tom proclaiming his “Vintage 1965” status in honor of his 50th birthday nearly six months ago. We also got, among other things, an Apple TV streaming device, a magnetically levitating bluetooth speaker that kind of resembles the Death Star, one of Sean’s homemade calendars, and a plastic tub filled with Grandma Gehlke’s homebaked cookies. Our nephew Allen was beside himself with delight at the light-up building block set we gave him, and the Pikachu hat Ben picked out for him. Shannon was excited about the Audubon Society membership Roni signed her up for, as well as the bird feeder and bag of seed that went with the gift.

For Glenn’s sister there were Beatles books. For his brother, a football-shaped party hat, World Series of Poker action figures, and a small doll of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Grandma got a stained glass picture and a cat book with inspirational sayings. For Glenn’s dad, he received tickets to Chabot Planetarium and a collection of glow-in-the-dark soaps featuring the chemical symbols for three radioactive elements; we packaged them in a plain brown wrapper with an official-looking warning label.

There were so many presents changing hands and being opened so quickly that it was difficult to keep straight at times who was giving what to whom, but the collective energy was worth the spontaneous decision to open the gifts there rather than take them home and open them in silence. We might just have to make sidewalk holiday celebrations a family tradition from now on.

Well, that’s going to have to do it for this month. We wanted to get this edition posted before the end of the year, and it looks like we’ll just barely make it. Wishing everyone all the best for a bright beginning to 2016.


Glenn, Roni and Ben