Friday, October 17, 2008


Occasionally, I'm lucky enough to be, ahh..., forced to travel as part of my job. Shockingly, I don't have to travel very often. Just enough that the next trip seems exciting and not an exercise in physical endurance, sleep deprivation and jet-lag.

This time, the trip was to Cape Town, South Africa. The story of why I had to go there are best reserved for another time. Suffice it to say that flights from Cape Town back to the United States are some what limited. Ours was at 7 PM the day after our last meeting. Being a collection of maniacs and hyperactives, we all decided that we could handle getting up at 5 AM, check out of the hotel, hit the road by 6 AM and endure skipping breakfast so we could see one of Africa's famous safaris, then drive frantically back in time to catch our plane. The nature of the meeting produced a plethora of MD/PhD's for our adventure and one of them, knowing lots about the deleterious effects of low blood sugar, had the foresight to run into the closed restaurant and purchase food from a rather surprised manager. It's called leadership and clear direction. That's why we pay him the big money.

We hit the road only a few minutes late. The two cars were packed high with our luggage. It would be an interesting return trip since we had one more passenger in the second car that was on the return flight but only one car going to the airport. Oh well, cross that bridge later.

It was a lovely drive. At 6 AM-ish on a Saturday morning, Cape Town traffic wasn't too bad. We made good time out of the city and onto the highway. The drive through the African countryside was fantastic. We were frantically shooting photos out the windows of the car. Some of us were already bewailing the antiquated technology in our three year old digital cameras. There was the sunrise, the mountains rising slowly in the horizon, the clear, crisp colors, the lovely banana, the soft and chewy muffin, the nice sugary somewhat fake tasting but still awesome juice box...even after devouring breakfast, our stomachs were growling away. Unfortunately, it was dinner time in California and our tummies were not to be fooled or placated by carbs. Nope, they wanted protein. Suddenly, we felt keen interest in the exact species of each of the Big Five. The Bigger the Five, the better. And more precisely, were they edible? Saute, fricassee or stew? Up until now, we'd hoped the Big Five would be giraffes, rhinos, elephants, gorillas and lions. Suddenly, antelope, wildebeest, elands, kudu, springbok and other delicacies of the South African braai (or barbecue) seemed like the Big Five we really really wanted to shoot.

Luckily, we were distracted when the road turned from asphalt to dirt. Nostalgic stories of Australian and New York driving, legendary potholes and old cars poured out. I was one of those college students so poor I had never having owned an old car and felt a little left out. Somehow, stories of me jumping the ferocious teeth-rattling speed bump outside of the Chemistry building on my bicycle just didn't cut the cake. We were so enthused by those old cars that we drove straight past our exit. However, something about driving over a mountainous pass when the game reserve was on a flat plain ignited our suspicions and we turned back appropriately. That's why they gave us them advanced degrees. Ayup.

Once back on the correct turn off, it was only a short distance to the game reserve. We zoomed into the reserve via the back gate and drove around without any clear sense of what to do since all the directions were located at the front gate. But all was corrected when we randomly drove by the front gate. We pulled into the carport and popped out of the car just as two cheetahs on steel leashes walked by. As well-trained tourists are wont to do, we all whipped out our digital cameras and started snapping. Once the trainer with the cheetahs disappeared, there wasn't a soul in sight. But the guest area was phenomenal. We excitedly wondered just how much would it cost to change our flights and stay here one night extra? But we all had appointments immediately after our return to California, so it could not be...

We took a short walk around the guest area. It was clearly a luxurious place to stay with spic and span bungalows, outdoor dining, the large fire pit, a swimming area, an intriguing area with wire fencing and cheetahs...

The trainers eventually came out and shooed us away very gently all things considered. She warned us the fence wasn't actually strong enough to keep the cheetahs from knocking it down and flashing cameras might annoy...

We wandered back to the central guest area. We were all gear heads and loaded up with memory for our digital cameras. Actually, we ALL had laptops and could download our photos off the cameras on the spot and start all over again if we ran out. So we started snapping pictures of everything: odd sculptures in the garden, flowering succulents, trees, sparrows that looked like they'd migrated to the Cape from New York, the fire pit, the bungalows, the reserve's tour Land Rover, the coffee...


Five seriously jet-lagged tourists for the day converged on the coffee pot ignoring the enormous tea selection. The owner of the reserve smiled. Les Americans.

After a continental breakfast of caffeine and sugar, we meet our guide. To get the day off to a good start, we had a group photo shoot with our guide and the Land Rover. Then up into the Rover with plenty of blankets since the vehicle was open.

We began with a wildly exciting view of a pride of lions. Big sleek lions. Our knowledgeable tour guide knew all of them and their personal histories. Turns out there are "canned safaries" for tourists who want to shoot big game. As in, with rifles, not cameras. The safari operators raise big game specifically for this purpose. It's illegal of course, but Africa is a big place and quite a lot of people there are desperate for jobs and money. Lions raised this way are, err..., kinda overfed and lousy at hunting on their own. They aren't too good at running away from people or defending themselves either. The owners of this game reserve had decided to purchase these "canned" lions rather than let them be shot. Since, there is a an over-population of lions, these canned lions had been fixed as well. Now, lionesses stop going into heat when they are pregnant or nursing but these lionesses were fixed which meant they went into heat... the day we showed up. And a gallant lion has got to do his duty... for all of the ladies. Oh my. I do have some x-rated lion videos.

After all that action...


Right, the cheetahs were pretty calm compared to the lions. The herd (cheetos?) of cheetahs was pretty large. Mostly, they lay in the sun and enjoyed showing us their noble profiles. Occasionally, one would get up, stretch slowly, take a few steps and settle down again, all in profile. I'm willing to swear these animals knew they were being photographed and were modeling for us. Our guide, perhaps unaware of our morning transgression with the cage, told us that cheetahs only hunted smaller prey and generally did not regards humans as prey. Except for babies. Thus, cheetahs could be somewhat domesticated.

From the cheetahs, we proceeded to the more open reserve. There were quite a large number of species but these were the more nomadic varieties and we'd have to drive around to find them.

The first one we ran into was Grandpa, the oldest giraffe in the reserve. He was the big one who'd done his share to ensure giraffe survival and continuity in Africa. Now, the younger bulls held the alpha positions and he munched his hay in peace. But not before he gave us all a lesson in bladder capacity. We all wanted to video the performance but for once our chip capacity was not enough. Either we got Grandpa performing and give up on other photos until we got back to our laptops or we delete the video. Darn. 15 minutes plus...

After Grandpa, our guide drove us around to find the rest of the herd of giraffes. Now, I'm sure by now, you're wondering "What is so special about going on this safari? So far, every single animal is found at your local zoo under much more convenient conditions." This though crossed my mind too, although I must admit x-rated lion videos and giraffe restroom breaks were not something I'd ever seen at any zoo. But getting close to the giraffes was really something. You don't want to get too close, they kick something ferocious. Even the little baby giraffes stood taller than anyone in the group and clearly their legs could pack a wallop, even if they did have the most adorable eyes and longest lashes you ever saw.. I really got the full sense of adventure (aka, personal danger) when I looked at one of those giraffes and decided there was no way I'd outrun this herbivore if it decided to knock in my noggin.

After the lions, cheetahs, giraffes, the animals started to blur in my memory. It is blurry because my camera had a grossly inadequate zoom and all I can see for this sequence of photos is a bunch of rather blurry blobs. I guess this would be where the dazzle of zebras sprang past us... or the flock of ostriches zooming by... or the herd of springbok as they bounded past gracefully. My advice, if you really want to view your safari from behind the lens of your camera, bring a good camera. Otherwise put the camera away and use your eyes.

Luckily, the rhinoceros and Cape buffalo didn't do anything as undignified as moving. They stood or sat as the driver inched the Land rover up to their favorite bush/tree and let us gawk and snap away. I managed to catch some good photos and some good looks.

It was a half-day safari but felt longer and very filled with excitement. Part of what made the experience special was the landscape. It was dead flat with mountains on the horizon, a very large, scenic pond and indigenous Cape plants including the finbos . Our Cape Town host always praises the flavor of the lamb in South Africa because they graze on finbos and produces a uniquely flavored and delicious meat. I had some and it was delicious. Apparently quite a lot of other people agree as we drove back from the safari past what seemed like hundreds of miles of sheep farm.

Then, we heard a bump and the car stopped running out there in the middle of nowhere.

But that's a different story.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What's in your back yard?

After my weekend vacation at Esalen, I was emboldened to try a weekend in Las Vegas for my next relaxation experience. This time I invited some friends to go along. Most of them are students so it was like a flashback to an earlier eon for me. No one even thought of catching a morning flight. They spent weeks combing the internet for value tickets. There was much sharing of rooms and sleeping on floors. Everyone got excited about eating at buffets. It was very cute. They were all very earnest and spent the night before the flight studying for Las Vegas by playing poker.

I had received an invite to Girls Night (different group of friends) some time back. Since the flight was in the afternoon, I could party with the girls the night before. Oh my! And I thought I mixed a strong drink! It was a merry guy-free evening spent discussing the merits of Sex and the City, the state of the economy, the hotels and shops in Las Vegas and shoes. Yes, Carrie Bradshaw has hit the nail on the head. Shoes are a staple item in a woman's life. I mourned my various foot ailments, from baby bunions to Morton's neuroma to plantar fasciitis which confines me to sensible shoes probably for the rest of my life.

We munched on delicious food, some homemade, some take-out (yes! chinese), all good for your diet, which beneficial effect, we promptly negated by washing it down with what tasted like 100 proof alcohol. Possibly higher. I'm glad a cop didn't walk by with a breathalyzer. I doubt the fumes in the room could have passed let alone me. I received awesome advice about what to do in Las Vegas, which hotels to check out, the gambling and, oh baby!, the shopping!

After hanging out for as long as we could all stand to do so to let the alcohol dissipate, I headed on home. I think it was about 2 AM. I'm a bit fuzzy about that. Maybe the alcohol dissipation wasn't as complete as I'd hoped. I reached home and stared at my empty suitcase. Time to pack! Fancy clothes for partying, swimsuits for frolicking, comfy clothes for flying around on planes. Don't forget the shoes. And the underwear...

I managed to toss all the necessaries into the suitcase and hit the sack at 3 AM. Time to get up bright and early at 7:00 AM. I needed to meet some friends and get to the airport in time! Since we were all a bunch of $$-saving students or, in my case, a tree-hugging, greenhouse gas conserving, why-pay-$12-for-gas-plus-$10-a-day=$30-for-parking-when-you-can-pay-$3.00-for-mass-transit liberal, we took the train to the airport. Unfortunately, this does mean, it takes twice as long to get to the airport. Mumble-mumble. Could have slept to 8 AM.

Getting to the airport went off without a hitch. We arrived promptly with plenty of time for lunch. Yum. Lots of acid in the coffee to cut through the grease. These guys sure know how to pair a drink with food.

All was well until we got to the gate. My cell phone was going nuts. Beep. The flight is delayed 5 minutes. Beep. Make that 6 minutes. Beep, beep, no 7 minutes. beep, beep, beep, how about 5 minutes, aggh, no, 15 mins. The worst part was without an internet connection, I couldn't figure out how to turn off the notification system. The group wasn't all booked on the same flight, so we had time to call each other and check up on our flights. In the end, all our flights were pretty much synchronized and we ended up in Las Vegas within 15 minutes instead of 1 hour apart.

We hopped a shuttle to the hotel, the new Hilton Grand Resorts on the Strip. Yes, this was a time-share deal, but that is a different story. It wasn't too long to the Hilton and we checked in and checked out the rooms. It was a 2-bedroom suite with 2 baths and a full kitchen with granite counter-tops, appliances, plus a few niceties like a washer & dryer, TVs hooked up to, well, something in every room. This place was nicer than my place by a mile. Except for the view. I gotta admit, I've got a grand view of the parking lot at my place but staring at a construction site is dismal. Plus, I usually think of the Hilton as reasonably restrained in decor but the Hilton logo or statuary or whatever that monstrosity was in Las Vegas was pretty tacky even by Las Vegas standards. It's time they renovated that casino. A short tour of the rest of the resort (not the hotel or casino) left us with a long list of things to try out the next day.

Since we were all wiped out by a long night's partying, we prepared ourselves for more partying by refreshing ourselves by using the luxurious baths and getting dressed up for a meal at a nice restaurant. The Strip in Las Vegas is marvelously simple, it's pretty much one long street and it's hard to get lost. Even with the 4 foot tall Margaritas for $20. I gotta admit my liver felt, um, satiated after the night before and I decided to drink diet Coke. It was clearly going to be a long night. We taxied down the Strip to the Venetian where I got my first impression of ... Venice??? The ceiling was painted and was supposed to look like the sky. There was a pool with fake thunder and rain every half hour. There were canals and gondolas with lovers. No one sang. Thank goodness. Well..., OK. We sang. But that was later. Much later.

It was quite a wait to get into the restaurant and well past 8 PM when we got around to the food. I was starting to fade but revived myself with more diet Coke. And many trips to the Ladies. After dinner, we headed off to the local shops.

I gotta admit, I wasn't too excited by the shops surrounding the canals and gondolas. I grew up in New York and with Fifth Ave. Window shopping is a blood sport there. And no, I usually don't buy the stuff. Maybe that's why I'm blase. But it was refreshing to accompany everyone else and listen to them oo... and ah... over some exotic merchandise. But sadly, the store with the Manolo Blahnik's was closed for the evening.

After strolling through the gauntlet of shops at the Venetian, we headed off to see the garden at the Bellagio. Holy smoke. Every plant groomed to within an inch of it's life. Fountains choreographed to music inside and out. Funky...ahh...artwork???!!! placed amongst the vegetation. Alright! A train set! Gnomes! Colored lights! Replicas of endangered birds. So rare that none of us had a clue about the species...

But the night called out to us and we had plenty to see. We went outside since it had cooled down to view the bright lights of the Strip.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Big Sur: Up close and personal

I'm not very good at taking vacations. The fine art of happily kicking back and doing nothing eludes me. However, being a classic ABC, I decide that I can fix this by taking a class. Luckily, I live in Silicon Valley where everything is taken very seriously including having fun. Classes on how to have fun abound and it's just a question of what, where and how much you'd like to pay to focus on relaxing.

Deciding that work is taking over my life, I planned out all my relaxation in carefully spaced intervals for the next six months. First, I'd start with a meditation class at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Luckily, I knew the instructor and was sure it'd be a great class. I wasn't so sure about Esalen. I'd heard some odd things about the place. After downloading the course catalog, the selection of classes and workshops only reinforced that impression. After careful perusal, I decided I'd signed up for one of the less "out there" classes offered by the Institute.

Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to check my calendar for other jolly good fun in the Bay Area and booked my weekend at Big Sur on the same weekend as the Bay to Breakers run in San Francisco. I was quite disappointed when I realized I'd be missing out on the dozens of Elvis', rolling kegs of booze, runners dressed as salmon (don't forget the lemon wedge) swimming upstream and, of course, the nude people all parading through the city.

Grimly determined to enjoy myself, I packed the fun vacation essentials, sunscreen, swimsuit, digital camera, cell phone and bluetooth headset.... but forced myself to leave the laptop at home.

It was one of the hottest days I'd ever experienced in Mountain View, 99 degrees when I left at about 2 PM in the afternoon. It got hotter as I drove off south towards San Jose, past Gilroy...104 degrees. I decided I was rather glad my car came with air conditioning after all. After I turned towards Monterey, it did start to cool down and I found myself shivering when the temperature dropped below 85 degrees.

Highway One, especially on the stretch between Monterey and the Esalen Institute hugs the cliffs where the land meets the ocean. It's memorable. I recalled advice I'd received from a friend almost 30 years ago, "If you ever get a chance to visit California, be sure to drive along Hwy 1, it's one of the most beautiful drives you'll ever see". I dutifully stopped at every vista point to snap some scenic shots. I promptly ran out of memory before I got to Esalen and realized that I couldn't save my photos without my laptop, unless I purchased a new chip. Needless to say, I hadn't a clue where the nearest Fry's was located, let alone how to get there, without my laptop. Kicking myself for not buying an iPhone, I drove on. But I kept stopping at some of the vista points to breathe the air and look at the ocean. Whether I needed to or not.

I arrived at Esalen and was promptly and courteously greeted at the gate with the announcement that dinner would be served shortly and my cell phone wouldn't be working by now. Cheered by this, I checked in at the front office where there was a wide selection of books, spa treatments, Institute tchotchkes, and the massage signup. There I was given directions to my room, my workshop location, the dining hall, the orientation session and the nude hot tubs which were fed by the hot springs...showers before and especially after soaking highly encouraged due to the sulfur content...




back up there.

nude hot springs???!!!


Were some of these tubs gender specific???


It's a free for all.



Nevermind, I'll cross that bridge when I get to it...

First settle in, then dinner.

As I walk across the institute grounds I realize there aren't any, ummm..., trail lights. As usual, the city girl in me has forgotten her flashlight in the glove compartment (Of course, I have a flashlight in the glove compartment, I'm not that citified).

I slowly approach the "Big House" where I'm housed. There doesn't seem to be a soul around, just a bunch of shoes by the door. I leave mine there as well and wander around where I think I'm supposed to be sleeping. It's not entirely clear except there is a towel in the room. And a lovely sprig of, umm..., some pretty plant.

As I unpack, I suddenly realize I don't have any toothpaste. Oh great, all my electronics are dead, there doesn't seem to be a store in sight and the walk back to the front office... nevermind, I have my choice of brushing with soap, shampoo, bath gel, foaming facial cleanser,... and I can safely report back..., there is a reason why washing your mouth out with soap is a punishment. Yech, mouthwash tastes good after that.

As I leave the Big House, there still doesn't seem to be anyone around. Walking slowly back to the dining hall, I'm fully aware that I'm in for one memorable weekend unless I find some toothpaste. At the dining hall, I find myself in what seems like a rustic college dining hall. Long tables, all you can eat buffet lines. I wander up to the one non-vegetarian option (lamb) among the 30 or so selections. It's delicious but not nearly as delicious as the mystery veggies. Yup, that was the name of the dish. Mystery veggies. Wish I had the recipe. Munching my lamb and assorted mystery veggie dishes, I float into a food fugue. Yum. This place could survive as just a restaurant. A high end restaurant. Not sure they should name their best dish, mystery veggies but what do I know about marketing? I wander out to the patio to eat dinner and watch the sunset over the Pacific ocean. I kinda wish I could take a picture but decide thinking about my family isn't sufficiently "vacation-y". Besides, you had to be there. After eating, I wandered around looking for the cash register to pay but then realize there isn't one. Apparently, all meals are included when you sign up to stay here.

Holy smoke.

Suddenly, the cost of staying here drops by close to one-third.

By golly, I think I'll have another glass of that honey-ginko-mint tea to celebrate.

Drat. I'm way too full to try any of the desserts.

Onwards to the orientation....

If it's your first time at Esalen, you MUST attend the orientation. Yes, you must. Just in case you aren't aware of the nudity at the hot springs issue. They also give some good history of the place and, err..., excellent details about their meal times, community, free classes, and environmentally friendly towel policies. But mostly, it's about the nudity.

After the orientation, which left me positively pixelated, we had our first class session. As usual, our instructor led a beautiful session. Unlike my last class experience where we meditated to the drone of power tools, the environment was incredible. The room had an enormous bay window overlooking a cliff next to the ocean. We meditated to the sound of the waves on the rocks below. It was immediately peaceful and soothing.

After the meditation, we spent some time discussing the experience and the reasons to be grateful. The one that sticks in my mind was the weather. How mundane. But it was about 75 at Big Sur and very clear. Meanwhile, in Watsonville, not so far away, it was 107. It was then I discover that I, who had signed up for sleeping bag accommodations (usually about 8 to a room) was all alone. Basically, except for the lack of a bed, I had the best room in the house.

Feel the gratitude!

And I did... since I stayed awake til about 4 AM. A little too much coffee...

I had the whole weekend planned by now and execution went beautifully. First thing, hot tubbing in the morning. After you brush your teeth in the morning with soap, facing down (?) nude people is a piece of cake. So off I tromphed to the hot tubs and a gloriously sunny clear day. It was well worth the decision. The showers at the hot tubs have some of the most exquisite views I've ever seen. Imagine warm breezes as you shower with hot sunshine and a view of the Pacific where there would be the fourth wall of the shower....Just close your eyes and keep them closed as you shower. Peek carefully only in the direction of the ocean. You'll be fine.

Now, I know you have burning questions about hot tubbing with a bunch of nude people. Just how bad is this? Well, I gotta admit, it was the beautiful people who drove me nuts. They know they have nothing to regret if they flaunt it and flaunt it they do. Grr.... Everyone else was most considerate with their towel usage. It was almost as if there was contest to see who could fling their towel toward the rack whilst sliding in the tub with the least exposure.

After a fine tub session, it was off to breakfast. I must admit I was more interested in my food and the view than my fellow classmates, so off I went to an isolated corner where I mediated intensely on breakfast. I heartily recommend the bread at Esalen. Forget your diet. Eat at least two slices. With butter. Later, I found out Esalen has five (yes, count'em 5) chefs trained by the Culinary Institute of America (the good CIA).

After breakfast, I was ready to deal with a full day of sitting meditation, walking, enjoying the sights, hot tubbing, eating, sitting, walking, eating, massages, hot tubbing. It was quite a continuous round of that the whole weekend interrupted only by shopping for cool meditation books. My goodness, I felt wiped out. Ermm, OK, maybe that had something to do with getting only 3 hours of sleep the first night.

For those of you who think that meditation requires sitting for hours on end while your mind is in some other plane of existence... You're thinking of some other school of meditation. I'm rather fond of the mindfulness-based school of meditation where you pay closer attention to your immediate environment while trying to keep your thoughts and judgment quiet. Just relax and soak it in. I totally recommend practicing this sort of meditation at Esalen. The institute works hard to attain self-sufficiency: they raise their own organic crops and livestock, water is supplied by local sources, waste is composted or otherwise treated so it can be returned, pollutant-free to it's source. But the community manages to do this with grace. Lettuces and roses grow side by side. Succulents grow in unexpected nooks, lovingly arranged in spirals. Goats...well, goats are goats. You keep them out of trouble as best you can.

By the end of the weekend, I felt calm in mind and body. It's been a long time since I felt both at once and usually it takes me about 4-10 weeks of time off to get there. What can I say? Any weekend that gets you that relaxed in 3 days & 2 nights with food included for only $370 is priceless. Why the last time I experienced something like that was my scuba certification class in Malaysia. That was little less expensive though.

Airfare to south east asia not included.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Way off course and right on target

It is well known that the Chengs don't travel in straight lines. We set off merrily and no one knows where we'll end up. It's a historical fact. There is a famous ancestor of ours who led the Chinese navy off to explore the world. He's one of the few Chinese who did much exploration in a culture that encouraged xenophobia. The Chinese acknowledge him for his contribution to society, his surefooted leadership and his keen sense of adventure. I wonder about the quality of navigational ability in the genetic material he passed down to us. Maybe he just kept getting lost.

Thus, when I set off for Fremont today, I was totally encouraged by 1) my armload of driving instructions showing multiple routes to get to my ultimate destination, lunch at the tastiest Afghan restaurant in the Bay Area, 2) my success finding this place (in the dark!) a little less than a year ago, and 3) three helpful navigators in the car. Passing out my plentitude of maps and driving instructions, we figured out the scenic, and yet, toll free route which Google Maps had refused to cough up. Score one for the humans! At that point, I was totally cheered by the sunshine as we adjusted the sun roof. I feel sure this solar overexposure was the critical mistake as I made 2 premature rights before getting onto the correct highway. Crossing the Dumbarton bridge, we noticed the view was scenic but the smell was less than pristine. Gasping, we closed everything and switched to re-circulating the interior air. Unnoticed, the sunroof was closed as well. All went well for a while, we were securely on highway 84.  Not that 84 stays simple. Navigating tricky traffic, I made a lighting switch swiftly and accurately onto 84 towards Fremont after the chorus of helpful navigators caroled out

"No! Go that way!"

"No, no! The other that way!"

"That other driver is just awful!"


Relaxing into the rhythm of freeway driving and realizing the air had cleared up, we opened up the sunroof again. 

How lovely to enjoy the sunshine! 

How great to breathe outdoors air! 

How come we're on highway 237 headed towards Mountain View?

My neurons fired up with great precision and accuracy as I realized 1) I'm on a freeway moving at top speed, 2) I don't have a map of Fremont, just driving instructions, 3) all my helpful navigators are visitors from overseas and 4) one of them just asked me if Fremont is a highway. Thinking furiously, I realize, it's OK. I've been lost here before and the right thing to do is just keep going forward because that will take me back to... our starting point. At this point, I'm starting to feel like I've been spun around. A second later, I realize,  I have been spun around, it was just a circle 15 miles in diameter. I decide to close the sunroof for good.  After reassuring everyone that I know what I'm doing because I've been lost here before, there was some sentiment to just do the trip over again but I just could not face driving in circles anymore. I'm sure the reduction in solar radiation did a lot for this common sensical yet dictatorial veto. Also, I had driving directions to a second restaurant, the tastiest pizza joint in the East Bay, if not the Bay Area. I've been told people drive for hours for this pizza. I hoped I didn't have to. 

Back in good old Mountain View, it was a simple matter to switch to 101 and enjoy some of the most boring highway the Bay Area can offer. Wow, look at that billboard, how scenic! Yikes, it's the old Excite building. Remember Excite. That used to be a company. No one else remembers. Oh, to be that young. Meanwhile, everyone is trying to figure out from the driving directions where 101 meets up with I-80 by reading the names of the bodies of water out loud to me. Suddenly, I experience a flashback (hey, it's been at least a year since I used I-80) and realize, my god, the Bay Bridge, oh no...we're going to San's the busy part of the day, we're doomed, Doomed, DOOMED to a traffic jam. My stomach reacts to this news with great alarm when it realizes lunch has been postponed bigtime

Gurgle, gurgle. 
This pizza better be good. 
Gurgle, growl, growl. 
No wimpy slices. I demand the deep dish. 
Grumble, mumble, mumble. 
Should have stayed home in Mountain View. We have excellent Szechuan.
Gargle, argle.
You just had to have Afghan food, didn't you.

I would like to make it known that my stomach is mostly Chinese. A very grumpy Chinese. The rest of me is Asian-American and wants some pizza.

Crawling through the traffic in San Francisco, we cross the Bay Bridge and find that it's not even a scenic crossing. My passengers are thrilled to see more of the San Francisco skyline. They are so excited, I'm a bit reluctant to inform them that once you cross the Bay Bridge, you're in Berkeley which isn't part of San Francisco. They sound quite disappointed with the news. However, things get much better as we roll into the city of Berkeley with real shops, restaurants, antiques, housing and streets and they figure out Berkeley is a town, not just a University.

Oops. I guess they thought I was bringing them to a University cafeteria that served pizza. 

We all decide we like Berkeley except for the part where 25 cents buys you 6 minutes of parking. My gawd, the parking meters take some kind of plastic. Do they take Amex? With 40 minutes showing on the meter we run out of change.

We troop over to Zachary's, the pizza Mecca of the East Bay. Hey, a few empty tables... well, it is 2 PM, we've missed the lunch rush. The menu is classic American pizza, thin vs. thick (chicago) crust. Your choice of toppings. Zachary's choice of sauce. Each pizza made to order which means you'll have to wait 20-30 minutes for the pie to bake. I had to think about that. The only time I've ever had a pizza made to order was when it was homemade. What a contrast to the "most authentic American" pizza place in Singapore. There they thaw your pie to order. Well, I guess that's another kind of authentic home pizza experience.

To amuse myself while the pizza baked, I pick up some more change and feed the parking meter. Then peek at an antique store. Hey, I have that pyrex measuring cup at home. Is this some kind of a garage sale???? Does this mean I'm an antique!!!! Either way I'm outraged.

You know what, my pyrex measuring cup is over 25 years old. Dangerously close to 30.

Dang, I need some food.

Luckily, my root beer has arrived. Ah, the bottomless glass. Gotta love the sugar rush. Better than meditation you know.

When the pizza arrives, it's amazing. The deep dish pizza looks like it's 3 times deeper than the regular pizza. The tomato sauce is so thick, it looks like a tomato stew landed on top of the crust. The toppings have sunk into the sauce, it's so deep. It's a great pizza. All the great flavors from the fresh toppings melded into a juicy tomato and cheese base.  Too bad it's not at all like the deep dish pizza served at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. Well, I just ended up driving for several hours for Zachary's Pizza, it is not impossible that I accidentally fly for several hours for Pizzeria Uno. 

After lunch it's now closing in on 4 PM and we're off to start the day by shopping at the Northface Outlet nearby. Several weeks ago, we'd all been to the Northface store and loved the products so much that we'd been paralyzed. Good thing too. The first purchase could have started a cascade of shopping that would lifted the entire American economy. Too bad I didn't know about this outlet several years ago. My entire wardrobe would look different. With great restraint, I stop myself from buying a pair of every type of shoe in the store. Sigh, maybe I should start a shoe museum so I'd have a reasonable excuse to do that. And I don't need anymore jackets, shirts, pants, socks, backpacks, sleeping bags, hats, scarves or tents...well, maybe a tent....

After escaping from the outlet store, we drive out of the area cautiously. No one knows what other dangerously discounted products are lurking nearby.

Back on the highway 580, we choose 880 to get back to Mountain View. Now 880 turns out to be an exciting highway.  First, we launch into a furious debate: is it 880 going North-South or East-West? Luckily, it doesn't matter. 580 merges with the head of 880 and we can't possibly choose the wrong direction. Whew. Lack of any navigational sense got us into this and lack of navigational sense just got us out. I have to drive snappily to stay in the just the right lane as multiple opportunities to head off to other parts of California pop up. The signage is amazing. I figured by the time I've read the sign and parsed the meaning, it's too late to make the correct adjustment. The traffic is too dense to allow lane changes that quickly. It's that or the signage was put up back when the speed limit was 55 and they've never bother to correct for the new speed limit. Thank goodness, we could multitask that problem. Then, we get an exciting view of the Oracle building and McAfee Stadium. Ah, yes. You've just figured out we're the bunch that's got laptops welded to our hips at all times. And we're experiencing the deep pangs of pain from being separated from the internet during this trip. 

Luckily, the view from the highway is pretty bad or the marquees from more office buildings would have gotten me right into a driving accident.

Daringly, we change the directions issued by Google Maps and decide to drop off one of the passengers on the fly. It is not too bad, after all I've been lost in that neighborhood before. What a pity it was dark during my previous experience and I can't actually recall how I got out because I couldn't see anything.  

But all goes well. I even resist the temptation to take the correct turnoff to the Afghan restaurant.

Let's not push the envelope.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

April Showers

Those interested in the facts and just the facts should scroll down to the section entitled "Technical Notes".

Living in California, you usually get the rainfall and snowpack readings as part of your nightly news. For the last two years, the newscasters have reported below average levels of snowpack, relentlessly reminded us to conserve water, reported on judge's decisions to rescue fish by reducing the human water supply and announced Al Gore's Nobel Prize.

I could wash my car a little less. Maybe once a year, instead of twice a year. This was working well until I noticed there was so much dirt on my car, I had to change my cloths after I smudged them first thing in the morning.

How about putting some mulch around my plants to conserve moisture. Less water is less work too. That should be good for about 1 quart per week.

I could also wear some of my cloths more than once. Like my jackets. Especially if I mince carefully around my car to avoid smudging...

I've tried to stay cool, calm and collected. I figured not sweating would reduce the need for personal hygiene and I could shorten my showers.

Then it occurred to me.

Without rain, there won't be anything to wash the pollen out of the air.

I am doomed to death by sneezing, aren't I?

Global warming must end. I have to do more. Action is needed.

I'll start by saving more water. Replacing the shower head with a low flow unit should do the job. Gooooooooogle!


Just what is the flow rate on my current shower head.

Gallons per minute. I need a flowmeter.

Also known as a bucket and a watch.

I already have a low flow shower head rated at 2.5 gallons per minute.

OK, I need an ultra low-flow shower head. Gooooooooogle!

It sure is confusing out here.

Aerating shower heads.
Misting shower heads.
Pulsing shower heads.
Mysterious shower heads sold in blister packs and no markings.
Mysterious shower heads without blister packs and no markings.

Wait a minute. A shower head with only 0.5 gallons per minute flow rate. Now that's low. Such a technical feat arouses my not-so-inner geek and I am moved to enquire about this shower head from an obscure company. The company webpages sport an equation to calculate shower head performance using such quantities as flow rate, water pressure and lots of engineer speak. It reminds me of the good old days when I was majoring in physics and had to solve equations like this before breakfast.

"We will need the psi of your shower." murmurs Marketing politely.


A vision of a mercury-filled barometer fills my eyes and I recall a lecture from freshman chemistry about Torricelli's experiment to measure air pressure. I identify some more with the company that will clearly never sell that many shower heads since many people might think this was a reference to a psychic rather than a pressure reading.

Never one to say no to a new gauge, I run around town until I end up at the plumbing store. The one that the plumbers use, not the public. The clerks are surprised to see someone swankly dressed for the office asking about this bit of esoterica but remain polite. I am surprised that such a cool widget is only $16. In the back of my mind creeps the thought that perhaps computers and electronics are overpriced...nah...

Gleefully, I remove my shower head to measure the pressure. It's pretty easy. I still feel great. Clearly, it's been too long since I've taken something apart. Also, I need to get a life.

30 psi.


30 psi

But this gauge is new

30 psi

Whap. Whap.

30 psi

Who'd thunk it?

I report back to Marketing, "One 0.5 gpm shower head rated for 30 psi. Please."

"30 psi?" replied Marketing faintly, "We have to talk to Engineering"

"30 psi!!!" stated Engineering. I can almost hear the laughter in the background. Even though we are conversing by email. " We can't sell you anything at 0.5 gpm. Buy the model rated for 1.25 gpm @ 30 psi. It will take us 10 days to build it."

They are going to build it? Doesn't sound like any of the shower heads sold in blister packs would have met the specs...

"The check is in the mail. Thank you"

The shower head arrives right on schedule. How lovely. Beautifully machined chromed metal. Trivially easy to install. I can toss....err... recycle or reuse my old one....

I turn on the shower.

Darn it.

It doesn't feel that much different from the old one.

Wait a minute.

It's using half the water and I barely detect the difference?

Wahoo! This is a great shower head.

Psst. It's the Bricor SuperMax 100. The current cost is $69.96 plus S&H of 9.95

I wish to state that my preference for the Bricor has nothing to do with the shininess. Like totally. 

Technical Notes

The water pressure gauge  (picture shown at the top of this blog) is commonly used to measure the water pressure for garden hoses and can be found at many garden and hardware centers. The part that was difficult to locate is the adaptor (pictured to the right in the photo) which converts the gauge to fit onto the shower arm. 

The Bricor SuperMax 100 rated at 1.25 gpm for 30 psi was compared to an old Teledyne Waterpik of unknown vintage. Both produced a "soft" spray with acceptable area of coverage. The Teledyne can be adjusted to produce a more vigorous spray but this narrows the water stream. Rinse time is slightly slower for the Bricor but the difference is less than one minute. The subject has shoulder length hair which she lathers 2x and conditions for a total shower time with the water on, of approximately six minutes for the Waterpik and seven minutes for the Bricor. Unlike the Waterpik, the Bricor is an aerating shower head. Such shower heads have been widely reported in the literature to reduce the water temperature after the water leaves the head. However, a very small increase in the hot water compensates for this effect in the Bricor.

It should be noted that the Bricor is a fixed shower head with a joint to control the angle of the spray. The Teledyne WaterPik is a handheld shower head and can be unmounted for free movement. Since the subject is completely average in height (5' 6") for a woman, this change required what she regarded as minor bit of extra effort with a washcloth. Others are sure to disagree.

For those who may not suffer from extremely low water pressure, there are other highly rated low-flow shower heads with lower prices. I relied heavily on the Metaefficient blog which offers a good series of reviews on shower heads and other devices for conservation and green living. The video on Green Gear was also very helpful. Be careful at the Green Gear site. The photo of the four men heading off to the showers offers much too much detail.

The Extinction of the Dahlias or Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Watching Nature in action as the seasons pass can be quite mysterious. Why does dirt disappear from my window box? Can it really be the forces of erosion at work? I didn't think California storms became that forceful. Why did my dahlias flower faithfully for five years and then just disappear? I thought after all that fertilizing and growth they would multiply instead. Are there raccoons in my neighborhood ready to raid my balcony once they figure out there is a whole, thriving colony of tasty well-fed little wrigglers out there?

And what on earth possesses a squirrel to eat the rubber tubing on my gas barbecue?

Is it ours to question why?

Or just ours to go out and buy those squirrel guards for rubber tubes?

Yes, they sell squirrel guards for this purpose. Mine looks like a large steel spring and cost about $5 (on sale). Don't forget the replacement rubber tube. Not on sale for $20. Ouch. So, when a barbecue salesperson gazes at you with pleading eyes to buy the squirrel guard, don't chalk this up as one for the funny farm. The salesperson is serious and so are the squirrels.

Just today, I was watching my balcony, tissues in hand, peacefully communing away when I realized I was under attack.

No, not an allergy attack. Already experiencing that.

It was the voracious squirrel.

Apparently, stainless steel barriers had only encourage him to delve deeper into a life of crime and he was attacking my window boxes. Dirt and my carefully planted seeds (?) went flying. That dirty Spermophilus mumble-mumble. Get away from my pollen producers! You're ruining my planned ecosystem. Hold still so I can hit you. And identify your species. Take that!

Breath in, breath out... you are one with the world.... calm.... calm...

Careful inspection revealed massive earthworks in progress. Clearly, he'd planned to get to the bottom of the the whole thing. That window box is at least six inches deep, or one squirrel height. Good grief, I'd interrupted something major. Like the heist of my dahlias!!!!!


Didn't I use to have a begonia?

Not anymore I don't.

This is war.

Military intelligence is called for. To the Google search engine...

Squirrel repellent = FOX PEE???!!!


all natural, huh.

How about I start by adding some soap to the water. Bugs hate it too. 

And put that five pound brick over the lid on the little wriggler's bin.

Let's hope the raccoons don't work out at the gym.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Party Crashers or maybe the party just crashes

Life has settled into a bit of a routine Chez Lindy's. It's a glorious Sunday morning, warm and intensely sunny. After an emergency dash to the pharmacy late last night, I'm freshly stocked up on my prescription antihistamines. I have that peaceful feeling from knowing all is right with the world. Usually, I try and eradicate my ignorance by reading the newspaper but inevitably I read the comics and the ads for the sales. I've canceled my newspaper delivery for the weekend so I actually have time to putter around. I spend a few minutes wallowing in the sensation of ignorance accumulating rapidly and just not giving a hoot.

I put on my fabulously purple guaranteed latex-free gardening gloves. I love these gloves. I'm allergic to latex. I'm allergic to a lot of stuff that grows in gardens. Like plants. And molds. And just about any insect that bites. Did I mention I'm allergic to soil (well, OK, I'm really only allergic to the dust mites living in the soil). I'm allergic to creatures with fur and feathers too but that's a different story. I feel like I'm ready to do anything with those gloves on. Except maybe take a deep breath. You never know.

So, I tackle the problem of transferring my root-bound impatiens plants to proper window boxes boldly. It's much easier picking out dead leaves and clearing dirt when you can use your hands instead of chopsticks. I feel enabled. Enthused, I plant some seeds too. I start to run out of pots and switch to filling soil and seeds into an old egg carton. Great for seedlings. Recyclable too. That just about cleared all of the planting chores and I can tidy up.

For my last chore of the morning, I collect the kitchen scraps to feed the little wrigglers for the day. It's pretty warm and they are probably active. Luckily, I fed them a hearty meal just a few days ago before the warm weather kicked in. I'm confident they're not starved or anything.

Lifting the lid and moving the top layer of bedding aside to bury the food scraps, I notice a cloud of black spots swimming before my eyes.

That's odd. Usually, that happens when I stand up, not when I squat down.

I breath calmly, rhythmically, not too deep, not too shallow. That usually takes care of the problem. I feel fine.

The cloud of black spots is still there. And starting to settle back down onto the remains of the last wriggler feeding.



Uninvited guests.

How do I ask them leave? My little wriggler friends prefer organic munchies. Garlic or lemon might have been effective but I've already had one escape attempt. I doubt fly spray can really tell the difference between friend and foe.

Clearly this is a job for the mighty Google engine.(Thank you Google) And by the way, I never did get the chance to congratulate Larry and Lucy before, during or even after the wedding. Congratulations! But I digress....

After much reading, the simplest least toxic solution seems to be to construct a vinegar trap. Fill a small container with vinegar at the bottom, place plastic wrap with a small hole at the top. Flys go in but they don't leave. Oh and one last thing. Use balsamic vinegar.

Dang, this is a yuppie neighborhood.

The Great Escape

Things are going well Chez Lindy's. The balcony has been swept, there are empty flower pots, a giant sack of potting soil, six root-bound impatiens plants and a package of impatiens seeds out there. Later down the road, I look forward to my new housemates, affectionately known as the little wrigglers, producing a bountiful crop of...well, worm poop to feed all my new balcony plants.

heh, heh. I might be known for my overly long-term plans. But it all meshes well, theoretically. Notice, I've got the ecosystem thing going. I eat my food, the scraps go to the worms, the worms supply castings for the flowers, the flowers produce pollen, I commune with nature and sneeze my face off. A closed cycle for life on the balcony.

After making tea and collecting the used tea and lemon peel, I dutifully feed the little wrigglers and head on out to do my laundry.

(Time passes....)


Huh...but it's daytime. The little wrigglers are very light-phobic. It says so in the instruction manual...


This is clearly a job that calls for latex-free nitrile-coated gardening gloves.

Well prepared, I approach the bin and lift the lid. Yargggghh!

Holy smoke! They are trying to crawl straight up the plastic and out of the bin.

OK, don't panic.

Umm, too late for that. Try calming down instead.

Right, I know about this. This is called catastrophic failure of the bin. The worms will die and little worm ghosts will haunt me unless I fix this.

I'm not panicking here...

Think, think, think

There are only a few variables involved, level of moisture and composition of food. The worms would want to escape if there was too much water, so I can fix that by adding more bedding on top and fluffing the stuff on the bottom. Done.

What about the food?

Well, what about the food?

Tea leaves, lemon and leftover lettuce. Seems alright. Hey, I ate it.

I send a guilt-stricken email to my local, friendly vermicomposter enquiring about details of worm diet. I can't believe I'm bugging someone about worms on a Sunday. He responds within minutes. This is soOoo Silicon Valley.

Wow, lemons are poisonous to worms. So, are oranges but less so. No salt, onions, garlic, spices, oil, meats, dairy either...

Gee, in order to get my table scraps to conform to the little wriggler's dietary needs, I better follow the American Heart Association's guidelines to the dot.

My heart drops straight into my shoes with the next instruction. Remove all of the offending, suspicious food scraps and surrounding bedding and replace with fresh bedding.

Don't I wish I used those tea bags instead of loose tea right now?

The garden gloves won't cut it. They only go up to the wrist. I need something that will reach in there. I raid my kitchen for utensils for worm rescue. Long tongs for reaching in. A plastic spoon to scoop the little guys/gals (they are hermaphrodites) back into their nest. Fresh bedding materials. Some chlorine-free water (let it stand overnight and it's chlorine-free).

After much rummaging, the bin is ready to go again.

But maybe not indoors?

Sorry, little housemates.

You're banished to the balcony.

Ahem, those barbecue tongs...they're yours now.

Eat your lettuce. I'll buy you a nice avocado treat if you all promise not to run away again.


The Party Crashers

How do I welcome several thousand new housemates?

After sweeping up the results of Big Brother's prolific and probably profligate social activities, I felt left out or just jealous that a tree might be having more fun than me. My place needed more... life. I'd enrolled in a class that taught how individuals could reduce global warming. I decided I'd fill the gap and reduce global warming at the same time.

I gotta admit, I'm willing to do things via Internet that I would never do in real life. Would I talk to a stranger in a bar? Would I really go out on a blind date? But I blithely signed up for a class on composting and paid the fee to purchase the, ahhh..., supplies.


The rest of this isn't for the squeamish.



I live in a condo. Spacious for a condo but still there is no yard.

My garbage goes into a collective bin and the HOA imposes the collection fee. I have no direct cash incentive to reduce my output.

I'm not exactly the kind of person who wants to sink several hundred dollars into composting equipment for tight spaces. The infinite wait time required for payback is too much for me (read - I am cheap).

There is only one type of simple, inexpensive composting system that can recycle organic material without a backyard.

Worms, worms, worms.

The only question is which kind of worms?

The composter offers red wigglers or the european night crawlers.

I look at the red wigglers. They try to hide.

My stomach quivers.

I look at the european night crawlers. They look back.


Those red wigglers are looking mighty cute now.

After listening to the instructions for the care and feeding of red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), I feel better about adopting several thousand new housemates and head on home.

Following the instructions, I sit and shred massive amounts of office and newspaper to make bedding material. After a while I start to run out. Luckily, I own stock in Citibank and haven't switched to the electronic annual report yet. (At the present time, that is the only good news about Citibank stock). It's barely enough material for the minimum bed. After dampening the bedding material, I add my new housemates into the bin. They all step lively and dive for bottom.

Excellent companions.

Topping up the bin with some more bedding material, I take a break to gather up some scattered supplies and to retrieve some of the food scraps I'd saved to get the bin started.

All in all, not bad for one day. I learned how to compost with worms, set up a bin and fed my new housemates.

Time to call it a day.

Rustle, rustle...

What's that?



I peek into the bin.

So that's why they call it night life.


The great escape

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Life on the Balcony - Adventures at the Edge

Hey, I'm a pretty cautious type. I don't live life on the edge unless it's the balcony with the nice safe railing in place.

Recently, I decided I needed to get out more. You know, commune with nature. In line with my attitude towards edges, I thought I'd do it by hanging out on my balcony more. Ever since the dry spell in California last summer, all my plants were withered and my barbecue had been bitten by voracious squirrels. "Big Brother", the cypress tree around the place had dumped it's leaves everywhere, no doubt in genteel horror over the seedy view and savage neighbors. I hadn't swept in months.

Armed with a broom and triply-dosed with allergy medications, I ventured out, swirls of pollen filling in my footsteps. Looking around at the number of tree cones, each one an eager tree fetus, I'd say Big Brother's social life was doing much better than mine. I managed to clear the place, tree fetuses and all, but I'd say it was a Pyhrric victory since I had to shower and then use one of those sinus rinses before I could speak in a normal tone after that. After washing the ole orbs with medicated eyedrops to deal with my reaction to communing with nature, my eyes stopped streaming long enough for me to notice the balcony is looking pretty spare. Barren.

Clearly, this place needs some color. Some pollen-generating flowering plants should do the trick. If I use enough decongestant, I should be able to smell some fragrance too. Off to the gardening center.

At the gardening center, I spot a real treasure right off the bat. A pair of nitrile coated gardening gloves for those with latex allergies. My gut tells me this is the right place for me. Clearly, they have dealt with my type before. Reassured, I march confidently toward rows of gloriously flowering shrubs, vines, trees...

Hmmmm. Just how big does nature grow these things?

Hastily, I return my 5 lb bag of potting soil and go for a bigger sack of soil.

A little more cautiously, I pick my way through rows of plants with high maintenance issues like "full sun", "six feet of soil for roots to spread", acidic soil, a need for ceiling heights greater than 8 feet. I work my way through the displays until I finally reach the dark, dank back of the garden center. Here, were all the plants that could live in Big Brother's shadow. Ferns. Moss. Yes, they'll sell you moss. Here's a leafy looking plant. Nevermind, those are it's flowers. By gum! Here are some plants that look like plants! They are... impatiens. Hooray! How about another plant to give the place some variety? Those are... impatiens...more impatients... Isn't there any other plant that likes shade and looks like a plant? Let's try the seeds...

Well, six impatiens plants and a packet of impatiens seeds later, the place is looking pretty habitable...


I acquire several thousand new housemates