Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Californians and snow

(I'm writing this post for the benefit of my European readers, mainly. One just sent me a snowy postcard, figuring snow would be a novelty. Those who have lived in California will not find much news here.)

As I visited a friend's apartment across town this past Sunday, November 20th, I wandered past the pool. A couple of people were sunning themselves by it. Granted, they were pressed all the way into the one corner that had any sun in the November afternoon, but they were out at midday in swimsuits. The weather here this fall has been unseasonably warm. For November, it should be colder and wetter here than it is now.

Still, "sunny California" is partly a myth. If you visit California during the winter months, bring your jacket. It does not snow in most of California, but it does get cold and wet, especially anywhere north of San Francisco. If you visit San Francisco or any of the north coast in summer, bring your jacket, too. San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water, and it gets very cold and windy. San Francisco gift shops make a lot of money, no doubt, by selling sweatshirts to unprepared, chilly tourists.

Most of California gets little or no rain during the long summers, and most of it sees no snow. The mountains, especially in the north and east part of the state, do get summer rains and winter snows. I visited Truckee, California in late May one year and it snowed. The Donner Party, a group of early settlers to California, got stuck in snow over 20 feet/6m deep in those mountains.

The relative rarity of real weather has led to some peculiar behavior on the part of Californians. For one thing, we don't know how to drive in rain or snow. The first good rainstorm each season invariably brings many accidents and traffic jams. Another consequence is that many of us find snow so novel that we get in our cars and drive for several hours to go see it. After a winter storm, the roads leading from the San Francisco area to Lake Tahoe get clogged on the weekends with skiers and snowboarders headed that way.

I personally do not ski, but I did visit an uncle in southern California one year at Christmas. We all hopped in his pickup truck one day, drove for about an hour to a nearby mountain, collected a truckload of snow, drove back to my uncle's house, and built a six-foot (2m) snowman in his driveway in our short sleeves, beside his blooming roses. Our snowman didn't last very long, but we had fun.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A precocious youth

Scott's cousin* dropped by this evening with his two-year-old son in tow. I have a handful of things around the house that I use to distract the young children who occassionally visit. This child seemed mechanically inclined, pushing buttons and even unlatching the deadbolt to open our front door, though he could barely reach up to the deadbolt. Presented with a number of balls, the boy lined them up two or three times, before he decided to throw them around. He managed to unscrew the lens portion of my small flashlight entirely, and remove it.

Though he was quite interested in buttons, he failed utterly to discover the piano until I demonstrated it. Then he plunked and pounded on it briefly. After a bit of rousing twelve-tone, Dad asked him what that was, intending to have him name the piano. Instead the boy replied simply, "Sound."

Nobody corrected him.

*Not exactly, but I can never remember whether he's a second cousin or removed or just what.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lunch with engineers

My engineering team took one of its members out to lunch today, since today was his last day. We went to a pretty nice restaurant, tastefully decorated in coordinating colors that matched the theme nicely. One of my colleagues glanced up at our surroundings and commented, "Look at the bend in that metal duct. I wonder how they did that angle."

Just don't ask how many times our manager double-checked the cash we all tossed his way at the end of the meal.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A field trip

Countries do not summarize well. If you don't believe me, try explaining yours to anyone who does not normally share your continent. Go ahead. Take a day or two, if you'd like. Answer as honestly as you can, keeping in mind that your guest has little or no background in your history or culture, and that whatever you say is probably going to form the basis of his/her understanding of your culture for some time to come.

Just a sampling of the questions I attempted to answer today:

  • What is the difference between rock and jazz?
  • What do people do in a church?
  • What, exactly, is dating, and why do people do it?
  • Is it true that everybody here (insert any everyday activity you take for granted) and that everybody thinks that's okay?
  • What are Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween for?

I learned late Friday afternoon that one of the contractors in the office where I work will be here for only one more week before returning to his native India. His contracting firm has been putting him up in a long-term stay hotel (a studio apartment with a bed, chair, bathroom, and tiny kitchenette). This will be his last weekend in California. In the few months he has been here, he managed to get out once to see the Golden Gate Bridge. The other dozen or so weekends he spent working or staring at the inside of a hotel room, because he has no transportation here.

I have only worked in this group a couple of weeks, myself, so I barely knew the guy before today, but I picked him up at his hotel this morning and spent most of the day sampling a few of the things to see in this part of California. I toured the Winchester House earlier this year, so I waited outside while he took the tour, but there is no place else quite like that in the world, certainly! We looked around at the nearby Mission Santa Clara, on the Santa Clara University campus. The De Saisset museum there, which we visited briefly, had an exhibit of photography of Nazi concentration camps and their survivors, taken in the present day. Add to the list of questions above, then, to explain those to someone who didn't get that part of history in class!

For lunch, I took him to a small, vegetarian Indian restaurant nearby. I worried about that choice a little, because the one time I tried eating there, the food was much too spicy for me. It turned out to be a good choice. It gave him a chance to be the expert for awhile, identifying foods mild enough for me and spicy enough for him. (He picked at the food in an Italian restaurant a couple of weeks ago when a group from work went out, because he found it tasteless, at least before applying a very generous sprinkling of the red pepper flakes.) He also explained a painting on the wall to me, a scene of Krishna and his nephew riding into battle at the end of a war.

Had you asked me before today, I would not have guessed that yogurt and flatbread would make a good lunch, but with the spicy pickled something-or-other and the goodies in the bread, it was surprisingly satisfying and tasty. The mango drink was definitely the highlight of the meal, though.

After lunch, we drove into the hills above Los Gatos and Saratoga. I don't think there are natural spaces like that in India, at least not anywhere close to his part of it. I had intended a short drive and a short walk, but I missed a turn somewhere, so it turned into simply a long, scenic drive. Many of the trees in those hills are evergreen or hadn't yet turned their fall colors, but a few glowed in bright yellow and orange contrast and sprinkled glittering leaves across our path. The forested hills took on a magical quality in the fading light of a November afternoon, and I'm glad we saw some of them.

At the very end of the day, scanning the radio in an attempt to find an example of jazz, we instead found a song in Hindi, something I wouldn't have identified on my own. He speaks five languages (I hadn't even thought to ask!): Tamil, Hindi, English, Kannada, and one other I didn't catch. He thinks he'd like to learn French next.

I hope he enjoyed his day out as much as I did.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Seen in Silicon Valley

California has "Save our coast and ocean" themed vanity plates with a whale-tail motif. They offer them for an extra annual donation. I saw one last night that read "2BVEGAN", in a "Veganism saves lives" license plate frame. All this, on a very snazzy, light blue BMW convertible.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Cleaner banks

I almost didn't walk today at lunchtime, but I knew it was the only exercise I would get. I walk along a levee almost every day at lunch.

The bicycle sat there for several months, at least. I could see it from the road, from the bridge over the river, but only if I stopped and leaned over the rail. It was on the bank, almost completely submerged, and just out of sight of any of the trails, where other noontime walkers might see it. The tules and cattails in the creek hide egrets, jackrabbits, squirrels, snakes, butterflies, and huge grasshoppers and dragonflies. They should not be home to an abandoned bicycle.

I thought several times about fishing it out. Bicycles don't belong in fragile waterway ecosystems. Of course, it's only visible and in mind when I cannot do anything about it. I do not change out of my office apparel to go walking, and the bike was out in the water a bit. I had even thought of coming back on a Saturday with a broomstick and rope, or something, but what on earth would I do with a muddy bicycle once I extracted it?

Today, I saw a work crew at the top of the ramp. Whether because of recent rains or because of the work in the area, the water was lower today than it has been. As I approached, the workers were jabbering in Spanish too fast for me to take in. My high school Spanish is pitifully rusty, but I mentally composed an explanation of where this bike was. I'd like to say I used it successfully, but the guy I talked to spoke fluent English, too. Though puzzled, he agreed to send somebody down there to remove the bike.

I watched long enough to know that one of the workers, already garbed in muddy boots and a jumpsuit climbed down the bank and pulled the bike out. It was further down than it looked. I have no idea what they will do with a muddy bicycle. I hope they will toss it in the back of one of their trucks and dispose of it properly.

The river god scene in Hayao Miyazake's Spirited Away was inspired by his participation in a cleanup effort, in which Miyazake removed a bicycle from a waterway. I am relieved that I had a hand in freeing my local waterway of its own two-wheeled intruder.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Just for fun

I like to grow my nails long, but not usually quite this long. Since I did, I took a picture of them, just before I chopped them off.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Keeping the beat

Mr. Cantwell taught my junior high school band, and he did it very well. As you might imagine, junior high school bands frequently stray from the beat, generally by attempting to read the music without ever glancing up at the conductor.

To compensate somewhat, Mr. Cantwell developed a commanding and infamous ability to stomp his foot on the short, wooden podium where he stood to conduct.

As a flutist, I had the good fortune to sit in the front row when a thumbnail-sized scrap of paper found its way onto the podium, entirely by accident. I don't remember who spotted it first, but Mr. Cantwell struck up the band and began stomping, and the shard began to leap and dance enthusiastically alongside the stomping foot. Somebody noticed, and surreptitiously pointed it out to her neighbor, and soon the whole front row was giggling much too hard to sustain anything like an embouchure or a good tone. Mr. Cantwell stopped the band, waited for the front row to calm down, and then he started the music and the stomping—and the giggling—all over again.

Eventually, he regained some control. Then the scrap danced all the way off the podium and the giggling started all over again. I think we put the scrap back up several times that week, and even made a new one when it went missing one day. Mr. Cantwell never figured out what was so funny.