Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What Happens When the Smog Lifts in So. Cal?


I was reminded of this very old Cal joke when I flew into LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) this afternoon. Today was so clear that I could see the mountains that ring the Los Angeles basin--and which often trap the smog that then obscures their view.

I always request a window seat on the landward side of the plane when I can. I enjoy watching the landscape below, trying to recognize landmarks from this unfamiliar perspective and determine where I am. And I am always amazed at how much open space there actually is in California.

You wouldn't think so, driving around the greater metropolitan areas near San Francisco or Los Angeles. But much of the center of the state (and much of the north) is farmland or undeveloped. Some of the mountainous regions--and there are several besides the Sierra Nevadas--are unsuitable. Some are protected.

I thought about bringing a camera but didn't want the hassle of having to remove a fourth electronic device from my bag, turning it on, sending it through Security Screening, reclaiming it, turning it off, and repacking it along with putting my shoes back on and repacking my one-quart ziploc bag of toiletries.

And then there was the approach. Rows upon rows of tract homes, as far as I could see. All with generous and green front lawns. Some had swimming pools, but not many in this neighborhood. This neighborhood looked so familiar--and then I realized I had seen it in countless TV shows, though seldom identified as Los Angeles. We came in over parking lots and I wondered what the damage would be if a plane landed short of the runway, on top of all those cars.

The irony of a flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles is that it often takes longer to get from the airport to your destination in the city than the actual flight time. Today was no exception. Because this is a quick business trip, I'm not able to do any sightseeing. Just what I can see from windows as I roll by...

Satisfying a TechnoGeek's Lust

We've had quite a few technical upgrades this summer here at the Warren, mostly due to critical failures on the part of what had been fairly reliable, if outdated, hardware. And once outdated hardware starts to go, there's no fixing it.

The failures started with my PDA, a Handspring Visor Deluxe. Based on the entries in the Calendar, I've had my Visor for 8 years. It did what I needed it to do--mostly keep track of things like phone numbers, addresses, appointments, birthdays, and such. But then the cradle, which synched the Visor to Outlook on my computer, became temperamental. I would fuss with the connections until the Visor finally would relent and synch. This is critical, as I am the Keeper of the Calendar in our family. I use the "Invite Attendees" feature on Outlook to send copies of Important Dates to Hubs' computer at work, his Outlook at home, my computer at work, the children who Need to Know, and my PDA--which I carry everywhere with me and refer to as "my spare brain." If one part of this process breaks down, chaos ensues. So a balky Visor just would not do.

However, DS#1 had the brilliant idea that my Visor should be replaced with a Tablet PC. Not only could I keep track of the family's schedules, but I could use it to take notes at all my different meetings. I could send e-mails. I could quit bugging him when he was in the middle of the game and I needed to use the computer he was on.

I am delighted with my Tablet PC. It's small. DS#1 set up a wireless network at home so I can connect to the Internet from any room in our house--even the backyard. I can even print remotely. (There's nothing like starting a print job from upstairs and startling the person sitting in front of the computer next to the printer. We all have done it and we all get a kick out of it. It's so juvenile, so petty, so perverse. And, therefore, so much fun!) The problem is, of course, that the Tablet does not fit into my purse and is a tad cumbersome. I still needed a PDA.

But DD#2 needed a camera for Japan. Hubs suggested we send her with disposables, but I pointed out that, first of all, she would need a lot of them, and, secondly, we sent the other kids off to Japan with decent cameras. We had one film camera that was bought for DS#2's trip to Japan and one digital. I found my old Pentax K-1000, still in working order (there's much to be said for simplicity and a metal body), that I was more than happy to use. The solution was obvious, I thought: buy another digital camera for DD#2. So we did. It's actually the newest upgrade to the digital we currently owned, with a few more bells and whistles. But the software to download pictures is the same and the new camera fits on the docking station. Then DS#2 actually found a 2GB card, lying on ground at his high school campus. So he took the 2GB card for his camera and gave DD#2 the 512MB card for hers.

Everyone was happy. The time came to make photo albums of our families and friends to share with our Japanese families. The scanner died. Which meant the printer wouldn't work. With three days to go before DD#2 and I left, I did not have time to do much comparison shopping or to go online. Off we went to the local Electronics Store. Found a printer/scanner/copier on sale. Bought it. Brought it home. Set it up. Uninstalled it and set it up the correct way (it's amazing what happens when you follow the directions!). The printer worked fine. The scanner and the copier worked as long as we wanted solid black images. Uninstalled and reinstalled the driver yet again. Checked all the troubleshooting sites. We (meaning Hubs and I) ended up going back to the Electronics Store where the Professional Troubleshooter there confirmed that, yes, Something Was Wrong With The Printer. We picked up another one and had the PT check it out before we left the store.

Photos were scanned and copied, business cards were printed, and we were Off to Japan. I left the Tablet PC at home because I figured it would be more hassle than it was worth and I didn't want to risk having it broken or lost or stolen. I did bring the Temperamental PDA because it did have all the addressses and such I needed. It also has a World Clock function, so I could keep track of the time both in Japan and back home.

Shortly after Hubs and DS#2 returned from Japan, I sat down at the PC I normally use and discovered the monitor wasn't working. I checked the connections and rebooted. When it still didn't work, I concluded it was broken. When I mentioned it, DD#2 said, "Oh, yeah. DD#1 said she thought it was broken a couple of days ago."

Oh. On his way home from work, Hubs stopped by the Electronics Store and picked up a new monitor because with school starting soon, we're going to need to have both computers running. DS#2 saw the new monitor and figured it was perfect for his gaming needs. So he plugged the new monitor into the computer with the souped-up graphics card and put the working monitor on the computer that does everything else quite well, thankyouverymuch.

However, while he was buying the new monitor, Hubs saw the digital picture frames. And he bought one. "For you, dear," he said.

"That's nice," I said. "Why?"

"So you can load your pictures from Japan on it and put it on your desk at work."

"Oh." Pause. "But I don't have room for the frame on my desk at work. I would just put the pictures on my computer and have it as a slideshow."


"Why don't you take it to work?"

"But I bought it for you!"

The frame sat for a couple of days. I figured we could always set it up and give it to Hubs' parents. But then Hubs brought it up again.

"What you really need is an iPod so you can carry your pictures around with you." Turns out one of the other Boy Scout leaders brought an iPod to Japan and regularly downloaded the pictures from his camera to his iPod, thus freeing space on his camera. Hubs was quite impressed with that idea.

However, I am on a quest to simplify my life (although you'd never know it looking at my house) and I'm starting with my purse. An iPod is nice. A PDA that lets me download pictures and music would be even better. A cell phone that is also a PDA and that lets me download pictures and music is the Holy Grail. Except that Holy Grails are not cheap.

Back to the Electronics Store to return the digital picture frame and to see what I can find that is the Next Best Thing to the Holy Grail that's in our price range.

I ended up with a Palm Tungsten E2. Bought a 2GB memory card for it because you can never have too much memory. Once home, proceeded to charge it, per the instructions, and then tried to install the software. Got an error message. Discovered that this particular Palm product does not support the Tablet PC version of Windows XP. Oh. Tried again on a different computer. Same error message. Went online to download the installation software, in case the problem was with the CD. Same error message. Went to the troubleshooting site and found someone who was having the same problem, but no solution was listed. E-mailed Customer Support and went to bed.

When I came home from work, there was a message from Janice in CS. I had to completely uninstall the old version of Palm OS (the version that came with my Handspring Visor), and then install the new version. And wonder of wonders, it worked. In fact, after I uninstalled the old Palm OS from my Tablet PC, the new version installed on it and I was able to synch with my Tablet PC as well as with my stand alone. However, it would not recognize the 2GB card.

Discovery #2: Palm Tungsten E2 does not recognize cards over 1GB.

Not to worry--I took the 512MB chip from DD#2's camera and swapped it with the 2GB card. PDA recognizes the smaller chip; DD#2 can now take some absurdly huge amount of pictures.

I told Hubs and he said, "You can do that? The cards are interchangeable?"

Ah, the marvels of modern technology.

DD#2 wants to use my old Visor. She doesn't care if it synchs or not.

I haven't downloaded any pictures yet or music or e-books, even though I can. I have downloaded several other features and I'm amazed at how quickly the memory filled. And I'm not using it to download e-mail or to connect wirelessly to the Internet. I'm also amazed that it didn't come with a better case. Fortunately, it fits in the case that came with the Visor.

But what good are portable TechnoToys if you don't have a way to carry them? TechnoToys need a TechnoCase--especially because I was going on a business trip. And my everyday briefcase was not up to the task. So I have a sleek new briefcase with pockets specially designed to carry the Tablet PC, the PDA, and the cell phone, as well as the papers and folder I need. As this is an overnight trip, I don't need much in the way of clothing--my TechnoToys weigh more than my overnight bag!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Book Review: Lisey's Story

I bought this book because it was paperback, long (653 pages), and by an author whose work I know I like (Stephen King). In other words, it was perfect for a trip that involved sitting in an airplane for 19 hours, plus assorted time riding on trains, subways, and general waiting-around. And if I inadvertently left it behind somewhere, my heart would not be broken.

What I rediscovered is that Stephen King may be weak on his endings, but he absolutely nails everyday life. He's been married to the same woman (novelist Tabitha King) for a long time and it really shows in this book. He nails the quirks of a long-married couple: the special vocabulary couples develop over time, the shared memories, the knowing what will make the other person laugh.

Lisey (rhymes with "CC") Landon is the widow of Scott Landon, a best-selling novelist who died too young. Two years have passed and Lisey is finally ready--she thinks--to go through Scott's papers in his study.

Lisey's oldest sister, Amanda, shows up to help. Amanda has a tenuous relationship with reality and Lisey is concerned that her sister might be going over the edge because Amanda's long-time boyfriend has come back to town with a new wife. At the end of the day, Amanda hands Lisey a list of all the articles where Lisey is mentioned or where there is a photo of her and Scott. This simple act causes Lisey to start going through the wall of books and journals and discovers a newspaper clipping with a note in Scott's handwriting: Must show Lisey! How she will LAUGH. But will she understand? (Our survey says YES) To the best of her memory, Scott never showed this to Lisey. It's a picture of a police officer and a startled looking young man. And the heel of Lisey's loafer, leaving the frame.

This picture brings back memories that Lisey would rather not recall. Memories about Scott's near death and how, that time, she was able to call him back. Memories about the dark areas of Scott's soul that she would rather not remember, but that were essential to his genius.

Scott Landon, it turns out, is a complicated man with a complicated family history. And he understood Amanda's pain, better than any of her sisters could.

Add to the mix university professors who are drooling over what might be revealed about Scott's writings if only they were allowed access to his papers. But Lisey is the executor and Lisey will release them when she is ready. One person, however, is not willing to wait.

To save herself, and to save Amanda, Lisey must confront Scott's demons. The clues are buried in the past, in her relationship with Scott. Does she have the strength to face her memories?

Mr. King writes beautifully about the relationship between husband and wife, about the relationships among sisters (he credits watching Tabitha and her sisters), and about the dark place where stories are sometimes born. He writes about the complicated relationship and love a dysfunctional family can have for each other. He is eloquent about literature and the relationship readers have with authors. In fact, the only part where he falters is near the end when Lisey finally has to confront Evil.

I'm not surprised and only slightly disappointed. Evil and Wickedness imagined is much more powerful than Evil and Wickedness named. I've always found Mr. King's visions much more horrifying when they were abstract than when they finally became concrete.

But until then, and in the denouement, what a glorious ride!

On the March Hare scale: 4 out 5 Golden Bookmarks

Friday, August 24, 2007

While I Was Gone...

One of the advantages to being on vacation in a foreign country is that you can't understand the news--or much of it. The other is that they are concerned with local politics and, other than the actual President of the United States, don't spend much time with the rest. So I didn't see or hear much about Hillary, Obama, Mitt, Rudy, John, Mike, Fred, and Dennis.

Besides, there was a major election going on--the party of the current Prime Minister was struggling to retain their power in the Diet.

They did cover the trapped miners and the collapsed bridge in Minnesota.

Brings a new perspective to what is truly important.

I find myself reluctant to rejoin the fray. I haven't read many of the political blogs or websites that I used to. I don't know whose ahead in the polls or what President Bush's approval rating is or what the current body count is for American soldiers in Iraq. I know I can find out. If I want to. If I need to.

The only thing I really wanted to know about when I got home is if Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's home run record. Only because it's a very local story to me.

Speaking of baseball, one of the best gifts I brought to Japan were copies of pictures I took of some American League players during the All-Star Parade for one of the leaders who is a real baseball fan. And the All-Star shirt that included Ichiro and Alex Rodriguez.

Sometimes the simplest things bring the most pleasure.


Japan is an interesting mix of ancient and modern. Everyone has a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone can take pictures and video and access the Internet. In fact, according to our tour guide, many Japanese teens have two cell phones: one number for mom and dad and the other for friends.

However, Japanese housewives still prefer to hang their laundry out to dry. Nearly every house, condo, townhouse, and apartment has a balcony. And laundry or futons or tatami mats hanging in the "fresh" air (how fresh can the air be next to a freeway in Tokyo?).

The best part of the trip was staying with Japanese Girl Scout families in the Osaka area. We were there for nine days, including two days of camping. Two of us leaders stayed with a Japanese leader I've had the pleasure of meeting when the Japaneses Girl Scouts came to the U.S. Her English is very good--unless I talk too fast (which I have a tendency to do when I get on a roll). We had some interesting discussions, especially over beer at the end of the day. Many of the problems we have here in the U.S. are also in Japan. They have homeless who sleep in public parks during the day and live in shelters made of blue tarp under bridges and overpasses. Students are apathetic about their studies, preferring to spend their time shopping and texting each other. They are ignorant of history, due in part to the American Occupation of Japan, when Japanese history was suppressed as being "too militant." We didn't discuss WWII much, but her perspective was a surprise to me--Japan liberated Southeast Asia from the colonial (European) powers. I wish we had more time to discuss this.

At the Edo Museum in Tokyo (I needed a whole lot more time there!), there was a whole section about WWII and the postwar Occupation. Again, I was fascinated by the opportunity to see a familiar event through the lens of the "other side." The exhibit also included the Articles of Surrender, signed by General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito. Someday scholars will study WWII dispassionately--but we're not there yet.

The weather was hot and humid. Very hot and humid. My feet and ankles were swollen for most of the trip. I learned to carry a bottle of water and a small wash cloth with me. Except for ice cream, the Japanese do not eat on the sidewalks. Nor did we see them chugging from water bottles. That rule we violated, but the girls were very good about not eating in public.

I made it to the top of Mt. Fuji. The Japanese have a saying, "A wise man climbs Fuji once. A foolish man climbs it twice." Yep. It's an endurance test: both ascending and descending. My legs were sore for a week--which made using a squat toilet a challenge--and I ended up losing the toenails from both big toes. I ended up wearing my sandals most of the time, including the trip home. I can check Mt. Fuji from my Life List of Things I Want to Do.

Hubs and DS#2 climbed Mt. Fuji a week later--during a typhoon. Hubs didn't make it to the top, but DS#2 did (for the second time. But at 17, you're allowed to be foolish!).

The food was incredible. The peaches were extraordinary: huge & juicy. But the Japanese peel them and slice them. They also peel their grapes, which we found to be just like the red and the Flame grapes we get here in California. The local specialty is "takoyaki"- octopus, green onion, and cheese baked in batter--served with mayonnaise, a special sauce, and seaweed bits that move and curl. I like octopus and squid, but some of the girls heard the word "tako" and thought "taco." Oops. Every good household in Osaka has a takoyaki maker, which looks kind of like a waffle iron, only with small circular impressions so the batter bakes into a ball.

And since we were visitors, we were excuses for parties and dinners and barbecues. Many of the women involved were themselves part of the Exchange twenty and thirty years ago. I met DS#2's Japanese "mom" and discovered that she had met a friend of mine and the aunt of one of our girls during her exchange trip. (My Girl Scout friends here are some how less surprised by this than I was!) DD#2 and I met DD#1's Japanese family and reunited with the young woman who stayed with us in 2001. She's a mom now, with a daughter and a son. I had hoped we would see her, so I had brought a board book about San Francisco--"so they will be ready when it's their turn to come!"

We were invited back, with or without the Scouts. :) There is so much I still want to see: the National Museum in Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka Castle, Hiroshima, Miyajima. The best weather is in the autumn, when the leaves turn color. My host family has a home in the mountains and would love to take us hiking there. (And they promise me it's considerably cooler!) Their daughter saw my pictures of the Embarcadero Center lit up for Christmas and the fact the weather is so mild--she wants to come here then! (Of course, we'd love to have her.)

We had a grand send-off at Kansai International Airport. Many of the families came to see us off. After we checked in our luggage, we formed a huge Friendship Circle in the lobby, sang a couple of songs, cried a few tears, exchanged the last few gifts and pictures, took a couple of more group photos, promised to keep in touch, and encouraged them to come visit us in two years.

I can't wait!

Back in the U.S.A.

Actually, we've been back about two weeks. The first week I spent catching up at work: not too bad; apparently it was rather slow. Only one report didn't get sent out, which I took care of. Fortunately, the customer is not too demanding. I also spent that week catching up at home: unbelievable! And not in a good way.

DS#1 moved most of his stuff to his new apartment but left behind notes on the message board of what items he still needs. One of the items was socks. Now socks are a sore subject with me because unwashed socks are plentiful in this house. Clean socks neatly stowed in drawers are, in fact, scarce. But tackling the socks issue meant going into The Boys' Room.

Cue spooky music.

After doing three loads of just towels found in their room, I then washed everything that was red. It's our Boy Scout troop's color, so we have an abundance of red t-shirts, red-sweatshirts, and red jackets. That eliminated about 60% of the detrius on their floor. It was time to go sock-hunting.

I drew the line at actually going underneath the bunk bed. I did search the gap between the bed and the wall. I found, in addition to men's socks, some women's socks, and a pair of my pants that have been missing for six months and that all four kids swore was not in their room.

Now everybody has socks. DS#2 has more t-shirts than he can use. My plan was to finish and fold all the laundry in the room before Hubs and DS#2 came back, but they returned on Friday and not on Sunday as I had originally thought.

Not that The Boys' Room was the only room to get that treatments. I also went through the clothes scattered on the floor of The Parents' Room. Among other things, including socks, I found Hubs' swim trunks--all three pairs! I also found one of the legs of his cargo pants that zip off.

And then there was the kitchen... Neither DS#1 nor DD#1 felt the need to run the dishwasher. Their excuse? They weren't home much.

However, the house was still standing, all automobiles were in operating condition, and the neighbors haven't mentioned anything.

DD#1 started classes at the local community college. DD#2 registered for classes and made some friends at Freshman Orientation (she's the only one from her parochial school attending this high school). DS#2 is already sweating about his English teacher. DS#1 is home for the weekend because he's bored--classes haven't started and he doesn't know anyone in town yet.

We've also gone clothes shopping. DS#2 was done in 30 minutes. DD#2 took much longer. Thank goodness there was a Home Depot nearby.

Life is settling back into September routines. We're trying to enjoy these last few days as well as prepare for the coming onslaught.

How many shopping days until Christmas?