Text Trail.    2011 - 2012.    ~mike gradziel.
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For six years I have seen the group of high hills that form Mt Diablo rising over the bay from our home, from my commuter train, or from the central valley. A geological anomaly with a great view, it rises higher than anything else nearby. I had never been to the top and with so many picturesque peaks within reach I decided we should set out to hike them all in pleasantly cool weather with bright green grass all around. At first light on the only sunny day this week Joy and I set out from her parents' back yard and ascended directly to Mt Olympia. From there we continued to North Peak, host to a thicket of communications towers, and made a traverse to the main Diablo summit where an auto road delivers crowds of drivers and bicyclists as well as at least one hang glider. There is a CCC-era light house up there, and a small visitor center. The climb took until noon, leaving us sufficient time for a descent via the beautiful Bald Ridge trail to Eagle Peak and then down into the valley again to return at 4pm after walking 14 miles up and then down 3500 feet.

Just after dawn Friday, having passed over breakfast hour in an attempt to get precious minutes more sleep after working half the night, I emerged onto the starboard deck of the navy cruiser I'd boarded the day before. Six or eight miles away I saw Cabrillo Point in the soft blue that was both sea and sky, colored by smudges of orange and pink pastel in the clouds. The light was really quite remarkable; an incoming winter storm had brought interesting clouds not usually seen in Southern California. Most of that day and the one before I was deep below working where it was loud, hot, and from an engineering perspective, fascinating. It is good to be back on dry land, where I prefer to be, and good to have a better sense of what it's like being on a five hundred foot long ship at sea. It took several days before my world stopped swaying side to side!

Joy and I flew to Boston for the weekend and returned late Sunday as the first rains of Hurricane Sandy were starting to fall, conveniently making our escape before everything shut down. In the calm before the storm, there was sunshine and the fallen leaves were crunchy and dry, perfect for lying in looking up at the trees and smelling the scent of birch and maple and moss and loam. Back on the other side of the country, the new grass is sprouting and I'm stocking seasoned almond wood for winter fires in the cozy fireplace I finally finished restoring. The garden has been graded and planted with fava beans, lettuce, beets, and peas, and potatoes are ready to dig. I just hung a dipole antenna in the attic and am thrilled with the new abundance of clear radio stations. Hardly any place sells these antennas, because most people won't run coax through the wall and hang a six foot wide antenna in the attic, so instead they buy powered, amplified boxes that sit beside the tv and struggle to match the quality of a well designed piece of wire. Or maybe it's because people who know about antennas just make their own. I have enough projects already.

I've always wanted to go to the Alameda Point flea market, so last weekend we went and took advantage of the cool but not rainy time of year together with the extra advantage of the Fleet Week airshow going on over the bay. The market, an "antiques faire" to be exact, occupies and entire aircraft runway at the old naval base on Alameda Island. Some of this is parking, but it took four solid hours for us to see everything and it involved lots of walking. Along both sides of the runway food trucks were lined up - tasty locavore food trucks from all over the Bay Area. There we discovered a new source of fantastic wood-oven pizza, though it is still native to the north bay as is all good pizza I have found around here. My mission for the day was to find a set of fireplace tools suitable for our living room, but in the end having seen five sets among all the masses of old things for sale none were appealing and instead we left with a large clay crock suitable for holding fireplace tools and newspaper and kindling and matches. It seemed more practical plus we now can use just about any old metal poker and ash shovel since they will be mostly out of sight. On the way home, we made a slight detour to the St George distillery to restock some items from their store.

I've been a long time away from a wood shop since I moved away from Pasadena, and the need to build something nice out of quality domestic hardwoods has finally got to me: last weekend I bought a beautiful 2-inch thick dark walnut plank rough sawn eleven inches wide and nine feet long. Its destiny is to be cut in half, hand smoothed, and set on heavy oak blocks to be a stand for our television. A guy I know, Paul, who does some woodworking sent me over the hills to a place along Hwy 92 where another guy, Magnus, saws big trees from city tree work into slabs, carvings, and firewood. For a great bargain price I got a piece of oak 8x10 inches and six feet long. It sure is heavy! good thing I have a truck. I have a bit of sawing and planing to do before this is ready for the living room. This weekend we also scored a great mid century danish sofa frame in need of refinishing and new cushions, just what we were looking for browsing craigslist daily for weeks. Again, good to have a truck. The painting in the living room is almost done and we are starting to imagine how the furniture might be arranged. Saturday night, however, I decided we should get out and do something different: we went to the ballpark in San Francisco to watch a simulcast of an opera being performed across town at the War Memorial Opera House. There, cultured people in their fine clothes watched the performance live. In the stadium with us, tens of thousands of people dressed in casual clothes appropriate for the cool night spread blankets on the outfield or sat in the stands, ate hot dogs and garlic fries and drank beer, and were strangely well behaved and silent while watching the show on a huge high definition screen with excellent audio pumping from columns of speakers suspended from the raised booms of high-reach forklifts at the edge of the field. It was a free event, a really great way to get folks like me to experience the opera. We watched the first hour and then took the train home, satisfied that ballpark dogs aren't all that tasty after all and opera is, with its fictional dramatic storyline, sort of like trashy television gussied up for high-style consumption. That's not to say it isn't a fine art in the classical tradition requiring great skill and accordingly worthy of respect and enjoyment; it's just that the storylines test my patience. Also, I think even if I understood Italian I still would have no idea what they were saying, if not for the supertitles!

Captain Barry came into Pillar Point Harbor after 1am early Saturday morning with a catch of albacore tuna from just offshore, and tipped off to the haul via email I was there at 8:00 to get a fish. The wet gray fog was blowing in thick from Half Moon Bay and it was chilly. With a small 13-pounder on ice in my cooler I hurried home and cleaned the fish (bonus squid inside, just caught!), sliced some tuna raw for snacking, and then put the rest in the refrigerator before making a trip to the farmers market. Finally at ten I started work on my latest home improvement project, sandblasting paint off the brick fireplace. When that was done, I made a fabulous ceviche for dinner with fresh squeezed lime juice, salt, sliced red onion, and thinly shaved spicy green peppers. For Sunday brunch I steamed tuna and made an excellent tuna salad for sandwiches, served with thick slices of tomato. Then we had tuna steaks on the grill for dinner, and I cut up the rest of the fish and put it in the freezer. The bones went into a pot to make broth for soup. That was enough fish to hold me over for a while; on Tuesday we ate beef.

At our campsite on a gray granite ridge in Yosemite, I made for the first time what Sean describes as the greatest food on earth: bacon wrapped marshmallows! He arrived at this by chance recently while camping with the required ingredients and some free time. You cook a pound of bacon at home, cut the strips in half, and pack them into the wilderness pausing along the way to snack on tasty morsels of meaty, greasy goodness. They soften a little in transit and can easily be wrapped around a marshmallow one layer thick and then skewered through. Once perfectly browned over hot coals, this delicacy is a perfect combination of salty and sweet, caramelized sugar and juicy bacon, crispness and crunch and soft marshmallow, with a hint of smoke. Enjoyed with stars overhead, in the cool mountain air steeped with the aroma of fir trees and earth wet from afternoon thunderstorms, this could be the secret to world peace. On the other hand, it might ignite war.

Landing night was much like last time NASA put a big new rover on the surface of Mars in 2004. There was the suspense, the signals coming back confirming successive events, the pandemonium upon safe landing, and moments later the first grainy black and white pictures of a distant world. Both times I have been fortunate to be at Caltech with colleagues and friends, but while my role at JPL on the 2004 missions was mainly test support, this time I designed and built the device that lowered the big Curiosity rover down below its flying rocket stage on three ropes, stopping at full extension and then retracting upon touchdown. This bold new landing system got the largest and most complex spacecraft ever built safely to Mars. Wow, it has been exciting! The people I've worked with know well the challenges of getting to Mars and the reasons to go there, but for everyone else I'd like to make clear why we do this: This is about exploration, discovery, and our basic human need to achieve. It brings together our best scientists and engineers who learn from one another and attain excellence beyond what they could as separate individuals, and they in turn take this out to industry and academia. These programs are incubators for technical knowledge and they yield fantastic discoveries for science and for our awareness of our place in the universe. And finally, I will repeat a comment made at the post-landing press conference: We don't fill the rover with money and send it to Mars; we spent that money in the USA. Space exploration is one of our nation's greatest endeavors and I hope these programs will continue and prosper.

Joy and I are back home after three weeks traveling in southern Africa - on safari in Botswana, and then driving the south coast to Cape Town; also, a short visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls, the big waterfall on the Zambezi River. One can't get much farther from San Francisco without leaving Earth, and it took us 26 hours of flying, not counting layovers, to get home via Singapore and Seoul. The safari was a mobile camping outfit with a guide, two camp staff, and private sites in the parks of northern Botswana where the land is cold, parched, and dry but water rushing in from rains upriver earlier this year has filled the swamps and channels, bringing the animals together at the water. We slept in tents in the bush for 8 nights, moving camp several times, spent mornings and evenings riding around in our guide Jane's land cruiser looking for animals, relaxed in camp and dined on excellent food prepared by our staff Victor and Hassie, and sat around the campfire at night admiring the galaxy sparkling across the crystal clear sky. We saw many kinds of antelope and buck, zebra, giraffe, colorful birds, dogs and cats big and small, hippos, crocodiles, and hundreds of elephants. The best part of all this was not knowing what we might come upon - a hunt, perhaps, or a new animal. Even just sitting still somewhere, we would be occupied for hours watching the scene before us. The concentration of animals at this time of year seems unreal. It also was a bit alarming to see how destructive the animals, especially elephants, are to forests and vegetation in general, and to realize that people today cannot really live among the animals. Agriculture is impossible; it is an interesting situation. Perhaps I'll write more about that later. By our ninth day in the bush we were ready for something new, and upon arriving in Johannesburg we got a luxury room at an upmarket hotel (all with club points!), ordered in-room dining, and thoroughly enjoyed the abundant water, silky sheets, and complete absence of sand. The next day we took another flight to the south coast and rented a car in a heavy rainstorm that continued for days as we drove across a wonderfully diverse landscape arriving in Cape Town five days later. There was lush forest of strange plants, desert scrubland like Utah but with ostriches running around, endless fields of emerald green wheat, a beachside town on a deep blue bay where we saw whales just 100 meters from shore and a furry pile of dassies, aka rock hyrax, a strange creature that looks like a groundhog, has hooves, and is more closely related to elephants than other cute furry rodents. We tasted South Africa's wines, admired the vineyards, slept in a thatched roof round-house (a really nice one), ate the finest cuisine, took the cableway to the top of Table Mountain, watched penguins on the beach, and met some interesting people.

Last weekend we almost made it to the Point Bonito Lighthouse, again. For a long time it was closed for renovations, and then when we decided to visit it had closed for the day and we couldn't even get close to see it because access is through a long narrow tunnel with a gate that is locked after hours. This lighthouse is on the northwestern side of the Golden Gate, perched on a cliff and accessible only via the tunnel and then by a small wood suspension bridge. The green waters where the Bay meets the ocean churn below and the big orange bridge is not far away and beyond it you see the spires of downtown San Francisco. Dressed for a wedding, Joy and I walked the half mile or so down through the tunnel and as far as the bridge, where we took some photos before we had to turn back to make it on time to the ceremony at the Headlands Center for the Arts a couple miles away. What a nice venue this is, carefully refinished by sandblasting and scraping paint to a casual post-industrial style of bare varnished wood, a dark hammered tin ceiling, and battered plaster walls all so different than the original military building as it was in the early 1900s, yet all original. They have a big kitchen where staff cook and serve fantastic fresh fare made from local ingredients and served family style on long tables. On the drive home, we admired the distant lights of San Francisco.

After the toasted almond ice cream was gone, Joy picked six cups of raspberries in the back yard and we blended them, strained out the seeds, added sugar syrup, and churned up a frozen raspberry sorbet that is absolutely perfect. Then we did the same with avocado, converting the essence of a creamy fresh ripe California avocado into a frozen sweet creamy dessert, just avocado and cream and sugar plus a little honey. This has got me thinking about a whole meal of ice cream - guacamole ice cream, mashed-potatoes-with-bacon ice cream, creamed corn ice cream, and so on. I had Friday off work and spent the day plastering holes in the living room wall, now that my electrical rough inspection is done. I just need to finish the plaster and paint and then we can move the furniture back in there but this involves sandblasting the brick fireplace, and scraping and masking about 120 linear feet of windowpane framing (all those small panes of glass add up). I also ran irrigation tubing around the back yard and put cages over the tomato plants. We went hiking on Saturday afternoon along Skyline boulevard, up in the redwoods, and got dinner afterwards at Alice's Restaurant. The food isn't spectacular, but there is lots of history there and it is an interesting place.

We have lots of welding helmets at work, so I got to see Venus crossing the sun today. I don't recall even hearing about the last transit in 2004, and it won't happen again for a very long time. Mostly what impressed me was the tangible sense of how far away Venus is, based on its size. I've been working a lot lately, at the office and on the house, plus a few fun projects. In Berkeley a couple weeks ago Joy bought a toasted almond ice cream. It was so good I set out to find a source closer to home, and having no success I resolved to make my own. This required a new attachment for the KitchenAid mixer, an ice-pack bowl and churn. The bowl goes into the freezer overnight and then has enough heat capacity to churn a quart or two of cold creamy goodness. Surprisingly, our first attempt at slicing and toasting almonds, infusing the cream, and cooking the egg custard very nearly recreated the exact flavor. I even bought waffle cones.

Friday Joy and I flew to Boston for dinner with friends at a little Italian place in Brookline where the seafood pasta is amazing. We had rented a little blue Fiat at the airport and found great satisfaction in parking it in impossibly small spaces. After some ice cream at JP Licks we continued on to Ipswich and checked into Kaede B-n-B, a Japanese-American fusion of decor and morning cuisine in a little New England town steeped in nearly 400 years of European-influenced history. Saturday we walked around town, waded through lapping waves at the beach, ate fried clams and a lobster sandwich from Farnhams at the water's edge in Essex, and downed a half gallon of apple cider and a half dozen cider donuts from a local orchard. We tasted some of their fruit wines, too. In the evening, dressed in formal attire for a wedding at Castle Hill, I imagined myself a high-society guest there in the opulent 1928 English style brick and stone manor house on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. Under sunny skies, on the lovely grass lawns, and later in the elegant great room, the wedding was perfect. Sunday morning we visited the newlyweds at the bride's family home, and got to see our occasional weekend pet Hinckley the golden retriever. Since they've moved to Boston, we have lost our dogsitting gig. Next we drove to western Mass and met my folks with their canoe at a pond in the hills to go out for an afternoon paddle. Back at the house we ate dinner outside on the picnic table like we always did on nice summer days. Dad and I split a few pieces of white ash from the firewood pile to supply one of my woodworking projects. Too soon it was time to leave on Monday morning, back to Boston for Joy's flight home and my journey to Philadelphia where with coworkers I discovered another fantastic Italian restaurant called Fiorino. It is the sort of place where the owner cooks and serves for his dozen or so tables, comes out to chat and offer an after-dinner taste of house made limoncello, and the food is out of this world. It would have been tough to top that on Tuesday, but we did well with local intel and ended up at a good brewery with typical pub food and decent beers. I flew back west on Wednesday night, ready for a long holiday weekend after one more day at the office.

Things going on recently: We went to the Saint George Distillery in Alameda last weekend, tried some of their beverages and admired the views across the bay. Those old shipyard and naval base neighborhoods evoke a strong feeling of a different era nearly 100 years ago. We went walking in the Oakland Hills too, taking in the green season which is about to end. I need to get the lawn sprinklers fixed up for the summer. Instead I'm working inside, putting up sheetrock, bending electrical tubing, and pulling wire; finally, the doorbell is powered and works, and for the first time ever with the flip of a switch the garage can be made bright as day - no, brighter - thanks to four T8 fluorescent bulbs. In a few more days, the back door will have switched outdoor lighting too.

Went to the beach last weekend - met up with Sean - and managed to get there before the thousands of would-be beachgoers also taking advantage of hot weather. They like it more than I do - I miss the cold. Stopped in the city for drinks and tasty burgers at Monk's Kettle. Most places I find that home grilled tastes better, but here they did an excellent job with the meal, just the way I like it. At City Beer I bought a bottle of beer aged in cabernet barrels with black currants. It was rather strange, like drinking beer mixed with a little wine and some Izzy fruit soda. I'll have those things separately, please. I installed our front porch light on Friday, just in time to get some use out of it before the long days of summer. One more thing checked off the to-do list! The doorbell should be working again soon; I've re-wired, painted the old mechanical bell, and just need to connect the transformer. I dug our first potatoes for dinner today. What a great investment: buy a potato at the farmers market (grocery store spuds are often treated to prevent sprouting), put pieces of it in the bank aka garden, and four months later gently unearth ten potatoes, maybe more. I wish my savings account worked that way. We've got fennel too, and broccoli, peas, greens, and beans. Mmmm pan-seared sliced fennel drenched in lemon juice, black pepper, salt, and drizzled with olive oil.

Fixing computers is not one of my favorite things to do. Actually, I dread having to do anything whatsoever to keep my pc running. I don't mind dusting it off once in a while, or even opening the case to clean off the cooling fans, but I expect the machine to last for years doing basic tasks (I do all my intensive computing at work). My last computer, a laptop, held out for eight years. The screen lamp burned out but I kept it going by sawing a hole in the back of the screen so I could position my desk lamp behind it to provide the necessary backlight. By then the battery was totally dead and the machine was confined to my desk anyway. That computer actually did need to be replaced, with my current machine which now five years later I just upgraded to Windows 7. The system is barely cobbled together, and it took a lot of work to get the new software to operate with old hardware that is no longer supported. I look forward to the day when computers are less like clothing and more like appliances. Wait, that sounds backwards. I remember those days. Yes I like the new compact, powerful devices. I just wish they lasted longer, and when they need new parts, it made economic sense to repair them. When China starts having to pay Western World wages, maybe I will get what I want.

Saturday last week Joy and I went to the East Bay to see her parents, and I drove the truck so on the way back we could stop at a friend's place and load up with 800 pounds of composted horse manure for the garden. Every year I add more, and every year it disappears. I think there are nine truckloads out there now, in the 14 by 19 foot raised bed. The lettuce is going nuts. Sunday morning the truck was still fully loaded parked out front, but as we were walking into town to meet a friend for brunch I saw an estate sale offering free lumber. It was one of those really good estate sales, a house full of decades of things and since it was Sunday they were picked over but what was left was almost free. After brunch we took Joy's car over and got a few things, and a few choice pieces of wood. There were beautiful clear old growth redood and fir planks, and sugar pine boards 16 or 18 inches wide from the days when big trees still were sawn into cheap 3/4" lumber for things like shipping crates. A man there said he hadn't seen lumber like that in forty years. Back home I got straight to work emptying the truck, hosed it down, and went back to pick over the lumber pile which was shrinking by the hour. After I had what looked to be a bit more than my fair share (though there weren't too many people interested) I offered a fellow woodworker and his newly acquired cabinets a lift to the next town over, since they wouldn't quite fit in his wife's car. Paul turned out to be a really great guy, a woodworker-sculptor with an amazing shop, a beautiful home, and a view of the trade more or less the same as mine. We both prefer hand tooling over machines, avoid metal fasteners as much as possible, and design without measuring or planning much, and just build things because we like having them around. I'm going to have him come over sometime and help me lay out my shop, to get some pointers on what machines I should put where in my limited space. That project will have to wait a while though - I am still battling with bubbling paint as I try to get the living room walls done so I can put up light switches and turn the power on. Somebody didn't prep the wall years ago and now no future paint will ever go on cleanly because several layers down, bubbles form from the moisture in the paint. I had to completely strip off what I'd done, re-plaster, and try again with a premium primer-sealer.

In San Diego for the weekend, I was reassured that I like San Francisco better. The sprawling metropolis down south has such a suffocating uniformity; every freeway runs past the same sort of shopping center surrounded by tracts of homes laid out irrespective of topography, covering every scrap of land and turning it into a different kind of desert. It seems to be the sort of place where, in broad terms, the popular consensus is that success is obtained when one has applied a disproportionate sum of money to an off road vehicle that seldom sees dirt, a boat that sits in the driveway, or a house trying to be better than the rest by use of quirky architecture. With no neighborhood identity, it just seems so selfless. Maybe I just haven't stayed long enough. We were visiting friends who have a nice place on the hill with a fine view out to the sea from the back deck, and we had a good time seeing the city and walking around in the big central park - Balboa Park. And a bit to the north, there are vineyards in Temecula where I took a liking to some caramel-butter tasting red wines. I wonder if it is the soil or the winemaker that created those subtle essences.

Most of California for most of the year is brown land beneath hazy sky, so I get very excited when I get to experience extremes in the opposite direction - things like fresh snow or a sky scrubbed clear blue by rain, or green plants and colorful flowers where usually there are none. It is the season for orchards to turn into clouds of blossoms over pillowy green grass, and there can be no better way to take this all in than to sit in the middle of Uncle Tom's almond orchard eating a fantastic pastrami sandwich from a cafe in Winters, watching the dogs run around at top speed making circles through the grass. I took hundreds of photos. That was the highlight of my weekend, visiting with family in such a beautiful place. Joy and I also did a little shopping at the outlets in Vacaville, and I got some work done on the house. Programmable thermostats are such a treat!

Packing as much as possible into a three day weekend, Joy and I drove to Yosemite leaving home at 4:30am and then hiked eight miles through the snow, camped overnight, came home, and took a train into the city where we dressed in formal wear and partied past midnight at a Jewish-Korean wedding that included traditional ceremonies, cocktails, dinner, dancing, and then a full-blown rock concert by a band out of Chicago, all in the atmospheric old Great American Music Hall. In the morning we met friends for brunch, then packed up and went home to San Mateo to trim the grass, clean the house, and wash some laundry.

Three years and two months have passed since I left Los Angeles, and this was only my second time back. Joy and I flew down for the weekend to visit friends and since I was in Boston all week for work it has seemed like an extension of that trip, a long time away from home. But Pasadena used to be home and being back in town left me mixed feelings. Many people I knew there have left the area. Restaurants and stores have changed but so many things are the same yet smaller and less significant than they once seemed. The weather was beautiful but a little too warm making me miss chilly San Francisco. Dressed for summer, people walked on the beach. It's winter! There should be snow. We saw ancient art at the Getty Villa (a museum), went to an interesting cafe for brunch, had drinks and dinner in Pasadena, visited with friends, and drove around my old neighborhoods. I knew this place before I knew a lot of things. Now eleven years later I'm not sure it can ever be more than a way to somewhere else.

Between trips back east for work - often on Sundays, lately - and long hours at the office I've been pressed for time. I got another electrical rough inspection a couple weeks ago, for our hallway and half of the living room, but I haven't had time to close up the holes in the walls yet. The kitchen is finally done, the walls at least though the ceiling and trim needs sanding and paint. And the first of ten truckloads of insulation is installed in the attic. I'm using recycled denim cotton batts, luxuriously soft rolls of pillowy blue fibers that are so pleasant to work with, compared to fiberglass, that they're worth every penny of the slightly higher price. Some people say that the material is hard to cut, and it is - but it tears like paper, and it couldn't be easier or faster to size the pieces to fit. I'd be going faster if I could get more of the bulky packages in my truck!

On New Year's Day, 2012, we managed to get up reasonably early and drove to Point Reyes to do a 9.5 mile walk out to the northernmost tip of Tomales Point, and back. There are herds of elk there, and nice ocean views. The only downside to the route is that once arrived at the rewarding land's end, you have to walk back for two long hours all the while looking across the narrow Tomales Bay at tasty oysters being barbecued on the far side of the water (ok you can't actually see the oyster barbecue, but it's there just across the bay almost within swimming distance). By the time we reached the car and drove 40 minutes around to the Marshall Store, the sun was about to set and the oysters were delicious - especially the ones with bacon and worcestershire, and others with spinach, cheese, and bread crumbs, hot off the grill.

We are back in California after almost a week back East, visiting family and friends. I finally took Joy for a walk up to the top of Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts which conveniently is about five miles walking from my parents' house, directly out the door and into the woods. This was also my first time up there with a digital camera (it's been eight years, actually!) so I came home with lots of great photos of the snowy trees and blue sky. The rest of the week was mostly gray brooding weather. We visited family in New York, then drove back to Boston to visit friends and eat pizza and other tasty things, wrapping up with a tour of the Sam Adams brewery where they develop new brews in small batches. They use Boston tap water, and then the large-scale production in Ohio and elsewhere has to chemically adjust the local tap water minerals, pH, etc. to match Boston water for a uniform product. Interesting, and tasty.

Joy suggested that we drive up to St. Helena on Saturday to see the Bale Grist Mill, thinking I would like it. Considering that I have a plot of wheat planted in the back yard, a hand-powered flour mill on my dining table, an interest in Old California, and a line of work that involves designing and manufacturing large gear-driven machinery, this restored and fully-functional water-powered grain mill was right up my alley. There was a big water wheel, several stages of 1880s-style gearing with oak wood teeth in iron wheels, belt-driven grain lifts, sifters, shakers, grain feeds, and twin millstones along with the equipment to adjust them and move them around. The thing still works, though the grain lifts and sifters aren't in use. I bought some flour and cornmeal freshly ground on quartzite millstones from France. While we were up that way, we stocked up on the new vintage of a favorite wine, ate chalupas and tamales at El Molino Central, and even managed to buy a bottle of white port at Prager an hour after they'd closed, which was really great since we didn't have a chance to stop in earlier. In the morning we checked out China Camp State Park, one of those slated to close next year, on the north shore of San Pablo Bay. It is a nice area of marshes and bluffs and mountain bike trails. If they really do close it, all that will mean is that trash will accumulate and the historic buildings will either fall apart or get vandalized, and then we taxpayers will pay even more to fix things up some day in the future. Not that the state actually has money now to do anything else... On Sunday, my greatest achievement was adding a third light switch to operate the kitchen light from the back door. It took most of the day to figure out which wires went where and reconfigure everything.

There are islands offshore from San Francisco - it's true. I saw them myself on Saturday morning, leaving on a plane for Boston, despite having arrived or departed by air about seventy times previously and seen nothing. Those winds that wrecked southern California must have cleared out the fog more thoroughly than usual. Flying out, I saw that there is not much snow yet in the high sierras. It's a shame I haven't been up in those mountains for almost a year and a half. As my plane came in for landing in Boston, I was puzzled for a minute or two by flickering lights all over the neighborhoods below. Could it be a power failure? Passing tree branches? No, it was just flashing holiday lights, thousands of them covering entire neighborhoods. The effect was like flashbulbs at a concert.

I didn't sleep well all night knowing that at about 7am that spacecraft mechanism I designed and built a few years ago, and all the other parts of our 2.5 billion dollar spacecraft, would be lobbed into the sky for a long journey to Mars. Wow, what a great opportunity to go exploring, vicariously via robot in this case. The real test of my work will come next August when the spacecraft catches up to Mars in its orbit, but I'm relieved that the launch is behind us. It was a normal morning thereafter, until I decided that Joy and I should go to Santa Cruz in search of wild mushrooms where we found them last year with the help of a local mushroom hunting club. Never mind that we would spend more on gas than we would have on the same mushrooms at the farmers' market! I wanted to go walk in the woods! Among thousands of fungi we only found one identifiable edible mushroom (without the help of the experts this time), a type of bolete aka porcini weighing half a pound, and though I cooked it and ate some I have a lurking fear that it might be some other kind of mushroom and that is interfering with my enjoyment of the whole thing. At least we had a nice walk and checked out downtown Santa Cruz with its beachfront amusement park, wooden roller coaster, and crowds of young people playing beach volleyball on Thanksgiving weekend. A few hours drive in the other direction, people are skiing. California is such a great place to live. It was turkey for dinner again: on Friday we noticed that thawed turkey was ridiculously cheap at the grocery store, so for dinner we had a stuffed boneless turkey wrapped in a lattice of bacon, all prepared and ready to bake. It was pretty good but disconcertingly was made from three half-turkey-breasts assembled together to look like one animal, which just seems wrong in a horror-movie sort of way.

To maintain my qualifications as a part-time foodie I decided to buy, prepare, and eat a fresh black truffle. First I had to wait for truffles to come into season, and then trained dogs or pigs had to locate my truffle where it had grown underground beside an oak tree in the northwest of Italy. It then traveled to the upscale grocery store here in my town, and I like to think it made this journey cloaked in secrecy, concealed from the tax man and exchanged quietly in unmarked brown paper bags. It cost a premium - fifty to one hundred times more by weight than wild morels or boletes, the equivalent of 1700 dollars a pound. The knobbly black ping-pong-ball sized nugget that I bought for $65 was only 0.6 ounces, just under seventeen grams, and at that price I figured it was like a restaurant dinner for two. I can afford that. So I made up some fresh pasta dough and cut noodles, infused a fantastic olive oil from Sonoma with thinly sliced truffle, and served the pasta tossed with a little sliced sauteed garlic just slightly warmed with the truffle shavings and olive oil, topped with grated parmesan cheese. It was tasty, indeed. Joy decided that truffle strongly resembles green cured summer olives in aroma and flavor, and I agree. It also has a lot in common with sauteed brown crimini mushrooms, along with the olive component, and a rich earthiness and nuttyness that was very pleasant. The crunchy texture and firmness (a lot like hard parmesan cheese) took some getting used to even with the thin slices. I saved a little bit for the next morning to make French-style soft cooked eggs with crumbled black truffle, also delicious. And before all this, I meticulously photographed, weighed, and studied the prized fungus. The intricately textured interior reminds me of whole nutmeg. Overall it was a satisfying experience, but I'm not sure I would go nuts for truffles if I found them growing wild. I would rather find a bucket of chanterelles.

November. There were fourteen inches of snow in Massachusetts, causing chaos where the leaves hadn't yet fallen; I arrived after the roads were clear but before the melting started, and took advantage of this opportunity to roll a four foot tall snowball in the back pasture. Dawn on Monday brought ice fog and a soft pink sunrise that filtered through ice-frosted twigs on every tree in the high eastern hills of the Berkshires, while I drove through on my way to work. A week of business meetings and hotels meant mediocre meals (where do people eat their vegetables? Do they eat any at all, besides side salads of iceberg lettuce?) and no progress on the laundry plumbing in the garage. I am running out of clothes, but this weekend I re-packed the old cast brass valves and faucet swivel and soldered in some new fittings. This better last another seventy years; I don't want to take it apart again.

Ah, the aroma of the farm! Right here in our own back yard, just for a few days until the new truckload of manure settles down to it's home in the garden which I am preparing for winter planting. Finally all my new buried pipes and electrical conduits are in place, and beneath the house all the old rusting galvanized steel water supply pipe has been replaced by new copper tube. I worked for twenty-six hours straight last weekend cutting out old pipe and then installing new pipe as well as Sheetrock in the garage and a new valve at the water heater. There is new gas pipe now too, replacing a cobbled-together bit of functional but scary piping, and I am connecting new laundry hookups and trying to work on fragile old cast iron drain pipe in the garage. I did some painting too, and strapped the water heater to the newly sheetrocked wall. But it hasn't been all work: on Friday evening we went to San Francisco for a chocolate and beer event at Pier 19. They are bold, kicking wine out of this pairing! Personally, I think that that a beverage pairing for chocolate better than both beer and wine is milk.

October already, wow. I returned to my usual routine of visiting the farmers market Saturdays early in the morning (we've been away on weekends lately), settled on a paint color for the dining room, living room, and hallway (as I hope to paint these walls only once in the next fifteen years, this was a big decision!), and spent a long time in dark and uncomfortable spaces weilding a propane torch and plumbing tools. Why, tell me contractors of the past, did you upgrade rusted old steel pipe under the house except selected six-foot-long sections? Why not just do a clean complete job? Anyway, now I've done it and added a long bacykard underground run of pipe to conveniently place new hose bibs and supply future drip line sprinkler valves. Come to think of it, I dug the trench that carries this pipe and the electrical run to the back shed in October last year. I should take a few days off and get some projects finished. Today: rigging rope from my chimney and using ascending gear to scale the wall to caulk the top two feet inaccessible with my rickety wooden ladder. The first rain is coming, this week!

I was driving southbound on Highway 1 past Pescadero early on Saturday morning, at about half past seven when the sun was just high enough to crest the seaside cliffs and illuminate breaking waves marching in from the Pacific. Fog stood offshore in darkness, shaded from the golden rays, and a strong wind from the south carried spray from each breaking wave northwards along the coast in a graceful curl that seemed wild, untamed, and gentle at the same time considering the warm colors of the low sun and the even lines of waves coming in. I really like wild-feeling coastlines for some reason. We left a car at the beach and drove inland to Park Headquarters at Big Basin, and then hiked about ten miles back down to the sea (camping overnight along the way) to complete the lower third of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail through ancient redwood forest where somehow streams still have flowing water five months after the last substantial rain.

On Saturday I finally made it to the annual firefighters' chili cook-off in central park downtown. After missing the day two years in a row, the third time worked out. About fifteen contenders were vying for the title, distributing tastes of chili in little plastic cups. Surrendering one's ticket cast a vote and yielded a bowl of the selected chili, while another ticket purchased with the entry fee could be exchanged for beer. What a great way to get lunch! There was texas chili, with specially smoked meats and no beans. There was black bean chili, and chile verde with pork, and sausage-and-tomato chili, sweet chili, spicy chili, and chili that tasted too much like canned chili. Our favorite was like my chili: beans, tomatoes, corn, meat, a little spicy, not too salty. There was live music, lots of people, and a herd of enormous pickup trucks which firefighters like to drive. On Sunday we went to Half Moon Bay to eat lunch and admire fine furniture in two upscale galleries there. Some day my wood shop will be done! This week's evening project: running duct in the attic and wire in the walls for the new kitchen vent fan. In the living room, my first attempt at making wine is bubbling away, fermenting. It smells like the barrel room of a winery in there. I picked almost eight pounds of blackberries in two and a half hours on Friday, in the Presidio park in San Francisco, and from that I'll get two gallons of wine and three quarts of rather seedy blackberry sauce made with the leftover pulp. This is very exciting, but I need to wait at least six months for the wine to mature.

Back when the boundaries of the known world stretched only from Quebec to Virginia, my family would gather for a week in the summer at my grandparents' house on Long Island. Later, the event moved to western New York, and this year for the second time everyone traveled to an inn in the Catskill mountains for a three-day weekend. Through all those years all the kids have grown up and started driving cars, and the boundaries of the known world now stretch all the way from India to East Africa, the long way around, leaving only a narrow strip of the Arabian Sea and parts north of there yet unconfirmed to exist. Last year Joy and I couldn't go, because we were in Taiwan at the other family reunion, but we made up for our absence by participating this year in all the available activities at the Winter Clove Inn: sitting in rocking chairs on the big white-painted wood porch looking out over the grounds and talking, playing badminton and shuffleboard and board games, taking a quick swim and waterfall-shower in the chilly swimming hole, waging a water war in the swimming pool, playing on the swing set, hiking trails through the hills, toasting marshmallows by a campfire, and otherwise having a good time.

Since we returned from India a month ago, I've managed to race ahead and get another electrical inspection covering the dining room and the new buried conduit running under the house and underground to the back shed. One of the neighbors (not sure which) is significantly overwatering and a couple times a week my two-foot-deep trench would fill part-way with water, which I had to bail out and pour on the lawn. I am seriously thinking about digging a well near the back fence and installing a small pump. I never imagined that pulling cable through plastic hose could be so difficult. Friction is an exponential function of the amount of spiral twisting and bends left in the conduit, and even with cable lube and a strong rope for pulling it was nearly impossible. I spent far too much time under the house. Aside from working, I went out with Joy a few times. We went with Doug to see the symphony play a free outdoor concert in San Francisco at Stern Grove, a natural amphitheater in redwood forest that seems a world away from adjacent city streets. We also saw a musical in Redood city, walked through Central Park during the Thursday evening concerts which attract a thousand people or more, and went to Half Moon Bay for lunch to celebrate our one-year anniversary. Yesterday, we took the bikes to Crystal Springs and rode the full length of the six-mile Sawyer Camp Trail that runs along the reservoir. It is so pretty there, with verdant woodlands and lapping waves and the fog rolling over the hill while the late sun lights the trees.

Joy and I went to Bangalore and Colombo for a wedding, and it was amazing - colorful, tasty, interesting, steeped in history and tradition, set among dramatic landscapes home to cute animals and diverse peoples, basically offering all the things for which I like to travel. If only we could have enjoyed it without being constantly targeted for sales and handouts! I have just about had enough of traveling to places where people overwhelmingly demand my generosity. It is nice to be home, where lettuce is safe to eat and traffic laws are normally complied with. Just posted: two hundred of our best photos!

Very few bands can fill a stadium with sixty thousand people and bring along a 150 foot tall stage that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie complete with several megawatts of lights, sound, and fog machines, but U2 can! set up in Oakland earlier this week, their outfit was an engineering masterpiece and this occupied my interest more than than the performance. What fantastic engineering! What suberb visual effects! As for the live performance, I might as well have been listening to a recording and watching TV because I could hardly see the musicians, except on their big three-dimensional screens showing live video and special effects mixed by genius programmers, and much of the music was muffled in it's ridiculous loudness to the point of being unintelligible to those not familiar with the songs. This was not about music or communicating meaning; it was about making a vast spectacle and it was immensely successful at fulfilling this purpose. It was a pure form of people doing something completely unnecessary for the thrill of the experience and the satisfaction of sharing it with each other. It was a great show, but I've heard the music before and it was Mark Fisher and his high-tech stage that dazzled me. His group did the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony too, another masterpiece.

Very few bands can fill a stadium with sixty thousand people and bring along a 150 foot tall stage that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie complete with several megawatts of lights, sound, and fog machines, but U2 can! set up in Oakland earlier this week, their outfit was an engineering masterpiece and this occupied my interest more than than the performance. What fantastic engineering! What suberb visual effects! As for the live performance, I might as well have been listening to a recording and watching TV because I could hardly see the musicians, except on their big three-dimensional screens showing live video and special effects mixed by genius programmers, and much of the music was muffled in it's ridiculous loudness to the point of being unintelligible to those not familiar with the songs. This was not about music or communicating meaning; it was about making a vast spectacle and it was immensely successful at fulfilling this purpose. It was a pure form of people doing something completely unnecessary for the thrill of the experience and the satisfaction of sharing it with each other. It was a great show, but I've heard the music before and it was Mark Fisher and his high-tech stage that dazzled me. His group did the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony too, another masterpiece.

We went to Utah on Thursday, arriving by air to Las Vegas, and made a weekend tour that included the beautiful slot canyon filled a foot deep with ice water in Kanarraville, the red cliffs of Kolob Canyon and Zion Canyon, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we watched the sun set, had dinner in the atmospheric and rustic Grand Canyon Lodge, and stayed the night. We visited Page Arizona and saw the Glen Canyon Dam, spent two evenings in the lively parkside town of Springdale, and saw lots of animals including a white-tailed Kaibab squirrel, a coyote, and many deer. Then there was the highlight of the trip, the reason we went: we hiked to The Wave and took hundreds of photos. Don't know of The Wave? This obscure and remote sandstone formation miles from anything can be visited only with special permits.

On Saturday we went over to Half Moon Bay and bought a fish. Prices per pound direct from the boat are fair, definitely not as low as you would get at a high volume supermarket but there is a difference: the fisherman will tell you exactly when and where he caught the fish (ours came from 20 miles offshore, the previous day) and it will have been handled only a few times in transit to your kitchen. Lastly all your dollars go to the fisherman himself, where they belong. Our nine pound salmon, deep orange in color and very flavorful, became steaks and succulent raw sashimi after a laborious process of slicing. I even managed to cut two decent looking fillets, and improvement from last time. Then the trimmings went into a pot with onions and carrots and herbs, and out came extra-tasty and not too salty fish broth. Along with some fresh sole, squid, more salmon, and dungeness crab, plus fennel, tomato, onion, and garlic, we had fish soup for dinner. Or "bouillabaisse", if you prefer the fancy French name.

Massachusetts in May reminds me of coming home from college at the end of the academic year, making the drive across from Albany into the hills where the progress of the season is a couple weeks behind on account of cooler weather. It is like traveling backwards in time, resetting the calendar. The new leaves are small, spring flowers are in bloom, pear blossoms fall like snowflakes and in the forest, at our secret spot, tasty morel mushrooms are pushing through the leaves. It's been a while since I was last home in spring. The mushrooms went into a pan with butter and ended up on buttered triangles of toast, and I ended up back in San Francisco after a meeting for work near Boston. I have two major projects under way: one, replacing the bathroom sink which involves plumbing upgrades, tile work (I was stunned how well a diamond blade cuts compared to a masonry wheel! Cutting porcelain tile was like sawing pine with sharp steel!) and life without a bathroom sink. The other project: saving the lawn, fixing the irrigation system and laying drip line in the back yard. Today's task: in search of straw mulch, I go West.

Wedding phase three is complete, satisfyingly so because no longer must I be concerned with the weather or the state of our contracts or whether everything will run it's intended course. It went by so fast! We would have had just three minutes of conversation time per person, allowing no time for eating, checking on our staff, taking photos, and so forth. I am sorry that I did not get to visit more and make more introductions among friends. Steve and I went back up to Kenwood on Monday morning and managed to fit all the furniture in one precarious truckload, even though it took two trips to deliver on Friday. What's more, we had several cases of beer in the truck too. After returning the load of furniture we set out on an adventure involving chalupas, more pizza, wine, ice cream, a search for the cows that yielded said tasty ice cream, then a search for the Pacific Ocean (successful!), an encounter with a car commercial film crew and (separately) with a herd of elk, and sunset by the sea, all the while caring for our haul of beer which diminished slightly in size by the time the sun had set and the elk had run off when Mike emerged from some shrubbery wearing his mountain-lion-colored fleece pullover.

It's been one month since I last wrote. What negligence! I've been painting and cleaning the house and planting the vegetable garden and cutting the lawn. We took a trip to Sonoma a few weeks ago and did some wine tasting and got lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Last week, with the bedroom all painted and the floor sealed, we finally moved the furniture in. I unpacked boxes from our moved a year ago, and hung pictures on the wall. It is so nice to be finished with something. It has taken more than a week, however, for me to not feel disoriented when I wake up in the morning.

I had no idea, before yesterday, that one could get an electric shock from a plastic vacuum cleaner hose. Not just a little zap like you at the doorknob when you've dragged your feet across the carpet; I mean a shock like you'd get from an electric fence, but more - with a flash of blue light and a loud pop, something that leaves your hand tingling for minutes. I understand all the physics but still it seems improbable, like alchemy, making something from nothing. I was wearing rubber shoes, standing on dry cardboard on top of plastic film, holding a plastic hose, I move my hand two inches up the hose, and pop! My vacuum cleaner hose is designed backwards - the hose fitting sockets are on the upstream side of the joints, so dust slams into the edge of the downstream fitting instead of flying cleanly through as it would if the parts were reversed. Evidently sucking in a couple gallons of plaster dust built up quite a charge there at the joint - it must have been thousands of volts. Thankfully that job is done now, and I won't need to vacuum plaster dust again for a while. Now comes the exciting and gratifyingly speedy process of painting; just today I washed and painted all the bedroom walls and the ceiling. Next week, it will all be done!

In a little over a month, I will surrender the title "twentysomething" and resign myself to being 30 years old. In some ways this has already happened: I am married, I own a house, and for the most part I have stopped doing things like sleeping in my car on road trips, bicycling down trails at twice the prudent speed, and working fourteen hours a day for the sake of a future career. I am a creature of habit now. I like to keep things a certain way, with an eye toward economics and little perks and enjoyments that fit into my plan. Like gourmet mac and cheese, for example, which I just whipped up from fontina and gruyere and milk and parmesan and bacon. Twentysomething me would have been ok with cheddar and milk. But now there's little room for extremes of action, and instead I am completely satisfied by a good meal along with some tangible evening progress on the home remodeling project and the prospect of the weekend coming in just a couple more days.

I've committed to a hard deadline: family is coming in April, and the bedroom remodel must be done by then. Not just usable, but walls painted, floor sanded and sealed, and pictures hung on the wall. I'm not sleeping nearly enough. But the wiring is in, the old wallpaper is mostly off, and the inspector is coming on Tuesday. Then I will stuff some insulation in where I can reach (those walls are cold!), nail back the lath, and plaster over the holes. The second half of the challenge will be transitioning from the old to the new panel in a single day so we will have power by nightfall. It should be no problem, but these projects have a way of growing in scope. It depends in a big way on whether the 10-year-old kitchen wiring meets new code and can be connected right away to the new panel. The installer took many shortcuts but the quality looks adequate. My sympathy goes out to the prior owners of this place, and all others who don't know what to tell their contractor. "Put a light switch by every door" would have been a good place to start.

My commuter reading is at least one solid hour per day, always nonfiction, usually from the library. Over the last few weeks I have been reading a book written in 1589 by an English gentleman by the name of Richard Hakluyt, titled "Voyages", edited in the 1970s so it is easier to read compared to the old Elizabethan style. It is a collection of mainly first-hand accounts from the age of discovery, of great sea voyages made all over the world. What fascinating tales they are - people venturing into unknown lands, meeting and trading with unknown people, taking as prizes such ships as they might come upon and overpower; losing men on shore and simply moving on, other times abducting natives and setting them ashore far far away or even back in England, and all the while seeking gold and silver first and foremost. Inflation must have been terrible in those days, with tons of metal coming back to Europe from the far corners of the earth. But what I find most striking from the book is that people simply have not changed in character or capability in these last four hundred years - indeed, they probably have not changed much in tens of thousands of years. It is so easy to think ourselves more modern, smarter, more aware, and forward thinking than our ancestors hundreds of years ago, with our fast communications and advanced medicine and computer tools. But I have been yet again reminded that we are not any smarter or more skilled now than people were then. Rather we must be meeker and less remarkable, for we would never today set out for the moon in a ship that could not make it home without repairs made on some distant land, while knowing that two thirds of us would die en route, all for the lure of adventure and discovery.

For the first time ever, on Saturday I played broomball. Alison hosted us at the rink in Palo Alto, as part of her birthday celebration. The sport involves ice, paddle-like sticks like brooms without bristles, ordinary athletic shoes, and two hockey goals. the rules: no kicking the ball, throwing the ball, etc. Two teams. Put the ball in the other team's goal. This turned out to be immensely fun, and tiring. Then we went to the Nut House where peanut shells lie an inch deep on the floor (do they ever clean it, I wonder?) and the abundant supply of salted peanuts no doubt boosts beer sales by a significant amount well in excess of the cost of peanuts.

Eastward we went, three thousand miles starting on foot in heavy rain, then by train, then by air, and finally by means of a small red Toyota that drives nearly twice as far as my truck on a gallon of gasoline, but cannot carry a sheet of plywood or a thousand pounds of dirt else I should be interested in owning one. The great snows of Saturday and Sunday had abated by Wednesday morning when we arrived in Massachusetts with no hardship and set about teaching Joy to ski cross-country. Also we went around on snowshoes for a short way, and built a snowman on a sunny south-facing slope where the warmth had made the snow suitable for rolling great snowballs. Friday we drove to Rochester to celebrate with now-newlyweds Mitch and Heather. Now I am back in San Mateo, embarking on another weekend of home improvement projects.

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