Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 events of note

Time is winding down on this year and while I don't have the time or mental stamina to put together a comprehensive list, here are my personal top seven events/stories of 2008:

7. Burgeoning pop cultural awareness. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and having a lonely desk job, I was able to expand my horizons -- watching new TV (I became a Doctor Who fan 40 years after the fact), movies and listening to new music. I'm not a cultural shut-in anymore.

6. The 2008 Baker Bash in San Diego. An excuse to celebrate my grandfather's 80th birthday, but also a chance to reconnect with family I hadn't seen in a decade and an opportunity for them to meet Ian.

5. Rob Roy's visit (late October). I haven't had much contact with my old, pre-Bay Area friends in a while. Rob's trip out here showed that friendships could continue without missing a beat.

4. Laura and Krista's wedding (June 28). A vindication of my belief that intelligent adults should be able to make their own decisions. Plus it was a nice road trip with Claire.

3. Suffering rejection (April, June, December). Not getting a couple coveted job offers (with the Dept. of State in the spring and the City of San Francisco in the summer) were low points, but hopefully they'll help refocus my future. Not getting into grad school on my first attempt hurt, but it gives me time to reflect.

2. Nasal Polyp surgery (Oct. 10). A relatively minor proceedure, but one that has greatly improved my quality of life -- I didn't know how bad I needed surgery until after I got it.

1. Australia trip (November). A great voyage that took in my loves of travel and history and gave me a deserved break from chaos.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Who watches the Magi?

Claire with her new book.

Unfortunately I had to work today, but Ian and Claire graciously got up early this morning so we could open some presents before I had to take off.

Ian got a ton of swag, as he is wont to do. Highlights include numerous Star Wars figures (including a Rancor!), a few movies and a lot of clothes (which Ian is just getting to the right age to be blasé about).

Claire had mentioned recently that she had never read "Watchmen" and I had mentioned she should. I think we both stoked an idea, for Claire bought me a nice hardcover edition. I, however, went a little overboard and bought her the super-sized 464-page, six-pound Absolute Edition. It's like an Oh Henry story.

It could have been worse, I very nearly also gave Claire Season 4 of "Lost" on Blu-Ray -- which she also bought me.

Below: Ian made out like a bandit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Supply of grades greater than demand

A few days ago, I worried that the "B" I got on my final would doom my chances of an "A" in my microeconomics class. Today I checked my transcript online and got the news:

I got an "A!"

Good news, and a small boost to my pride. In retrospect, I think it's because I may have gotten a 95 on my first midterm, instead of the 90 I recalled. That might have just put me over the edge.

While it may be a moot point, as I didn't get into the SFSU MPA program this spring, it might help my chances for a reapplication for fall 2009.

Speaking of economics, I'm off to wrap my meager output of presents (diminishing returns and such). I'm a lousy wrapper. And a bad rapper too.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cheapskate not in holiday spirit

Early this morning, I stopped by The UPS Store ("The" is part of the proper name, hence the capitalization) here in South San Francisco to send back a rented textbook.*

I had a pre-paid shipping label and an almost-perfect sized used box and just needed about 12 inches of tape to secure it. With no one in line despite the shipping deadline (due to it being 8:15 a.m.), I got right to the front and asked the clerk if I could borrow some tape. "For three dollars," he said. Figuring he was pulling my leg, I said "You're kidding." "Nope," he said, "everybody comes in and want to use our tape. Do you want to buy some?"

Figuring that providing a reasonable length of tape should be good customer service, or at least a business expense, I declined and drove home to dig some old packing tape out of a drawer. I returned to the store, sealed my package and turned in my box (after the clerk said "Just leave it on the scale").

But I didn't just leave the package and go. I again got the clerk's attention, handed him the quarter-roll of tape left and said, "Do me a favor. In the holiday spirit, the next person who needs tape, give them this instead of charging them $3." He muttered "Thanks" and I walked out.

Wanna bet he charges the next person $3 to use the tape I gave him for free?

* Textbook rental (mine was through Chegg) is a great way for starving students to save money. I got a used economics book -- which normally retails for about $85 used and $120 new -- for about $50. I just had to have it shipped by today to avoid paying full price.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Five years ago today

I guess there's a time in most peoples' lives where they can define almost everything as "before" and "after." Mine came five years ago today, when Ian was born and I stopped living for myself and started living for our family.

In commemoration of the tot's fifth birthday today, here's a partial reprint of my bloggish behavior on that date:

John's labor experience (abridged version)

My "day" so far:

6:47 a.m., Thursday, Dec. 18: Wake up (as one normally does just before the alarm goes off) and glance at the clock. I roll over to go back asleep, and notice Claire bolt upright in the bed. "I'm 99 percent sure I'm in labor," she says as she notices I'm awake. She's had contractions since 5.

7:30 a.m.: Initial phone calls are made to Claire's parents. No need to come over yet. I catch our downstairs roommate, Ceres, before she's off to work. "Guess who's coming over today?" I ask. She guesses it's a mutual friend, but then gets an amusing look of surprise, concern and excitement when I put my arms together in a rocking motion.

8 a.m.: I call out from work, and Claire calls her law school dean's office to say she's not going to make her civil procedure final exam today. I tell her that it's too bad she won't have the second brain when she makes the test up.

9 a.m.: Claire's mom comes over and I make a suggestion that we go catch an early show of the new "Lord of the Rings" movie, seeing as labor is at least 3 hours, 20 minutes (the length of the movie) away. I am stared down.

10 a.m.: Phone calls are flying and Claire's dad has now come over. Contractions are about eight minutes apart. I make Claire a bowl of applesauce.

Noon: No significant change, the nurse on the phone said to come to the hospital when contractions were five minutes apart. We pick up some sandwiches from the shop on the corner, and Claire has some chicken noodle soup -- after picking the chicken out with a fork.

12:30 to 2:30 p.m.: Claire picks "X-Men 2" out from the DVD stack to pass the time. It is happily distraction.

3:15 p.m.: We leave for the hospital after sending out an e-mail alert. Battling San Francisco traffic, we get to Kaiser Hospital about 40 minutes later.

4:30 p.m.: Claire is examined and is dilated 4 cm (she needs to get to 10). Contractions are hard and heavy.

6 p.m.: Claire's dad and I get something to eat from the hospital cafeteria, then switch off with Claire's mom. Claire is well beyond the point of eating.

6:45 p.m.: The doctor says Claire has dilated another centimeter. Everything seems well, the doctor and nurses compliment us on her progress.

But then,

8:45 p.m.: Still 5 cm. Claire laments the lack of progress and the doctor decides to manually break the water bag to speed things up. The doctor thinks the baby is "sunny-side up," which means the baby is facing front, which is more painful (especially on the backside) because of the forehead position.

10:45 p.m.: I know as soon as the doctor reaches and a slight frown crosses her face. STILL 5 cm. The doctor says using drugs to speed labor may be appropriate. More contractions -- we're all getting tired.

12:01 a.m., Friday Dec. 19, 2003: It is now officially the baby's due date. Claire gets an epidural and there is a centimeter of progress. It is decided, however, that if there is not even more significant progress in the next couple of hours, we'll use the drugs.

1 a.m.: With the epidural almost completely numbing her, and with time until anything is else is going to happen, Claire is finally able to get some sleep and I am able to type up this record. (Sounds like) Pitocin· is now being used to increase the contraction strength.

2:05 a.m.: More good news. The doctor says Claire is now at 10 cm. No need to push yet, and with her back pain subsiding, Claire is able to say "I feel much better than I did a few hours ago. I don't know why I was so discouraged."

3:05 a.m.: Claire is allowed to push, so she starts.

4:05 a.m.: Still pushing.

5:05 a.m.: Still pushing. Second doctor is brought in and says that if pushing and a vacuum doesn't work after three or four contractions, we may be looking at a C-section. Claire redoubles her efforts.

5:19 a.m.: Our beautiful, if slightly ashen and slimy at the time, son comes into the world. He seems healthy -- with great color, although he is "grunting," which means he is not breathing as easily as he should. He is taken into the intermediate care nursery for observation, but doctors are optimistic his lungs will clear up within the hour.
Nothing's been the same since. Happy Birthday, Ian!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Bacon Number is four (edit: THREE)

I used to live across the street from the Christy family, with whose sons Geoff and Kevin I used to sometimes hang out. I mostly befriended Geoff, to whom I am closer in age, and rarely saw Kevin after the late 1980s when his parents split up and Kevin moved in with his father.

Anyway, Kevin is a working actor, gaining some reknown (he's currently in a cell phone commercial with Ozzy Osbourne -- Kevin is the coffee barrista who can't understand what Ozzy says). Speaking with Geoff recently (and learning that Kevin has a role in an upcoming episode of a once-hot NBC series) got me thinking of that "other" acting Kevin: Bacon.

Which got me thinking of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." So I finally put together my Bacon number today.

I was in "The Point of Boxes" with Bruno Kanter, who was in "Hell House: The Book of Samiel" with Kari Wishingrad (no, I've never heard of these actors or movies either), who was in "The Californians" with Noah Wyle, who was in "A Few Good Men" with Kevin Bacon. Thus, my degree of separation is a mere four.

As for Kevin Christy, best I can determine, he only beats me by one. He was in an episode of "How I Met Your Mother" with the gorgeous Alyson Hannigan, who very early in her career guested on an episode of "Rosanne" with John Goodman, who was in "Death Sentence" with Kevin Bacon. I bet if I spent some time, I could cut that number down by one, but I gotta work ...

Update (Feb. 18, 2009 at 8:14 a.m.): Thanks to a website called "The Oracle of Bacon," I was able to knock one off both my and Kevin C.'s Bacon number. For example, I was in "The Point of Boxes" with Wayne Webb, who was in "Latter Days" with Jim Ortlieb, who was in "Flatliners" (which I saw twice in the theaters for some reason) with Kevin Bacon.

Kevin Christy was in "For Your Consideration" (I'm a fan of Christopher Guest mockumentaries, but somehow missed that one) with Steven M. Porter, who was in "Rails & Ties" with Kevin Bacon.

Just for a laugh, I also checked my degrees of separation from Kevin Christy. Not counting any old home movies laying about, my "Christy number" is also three. I was in "Boxes" with Webb, who was in "Candy Paint" with Kenan Thompson (of later SNL fame), who was in "Love Don't Cost a Thing" with Kevin. Small world.

Scarily, I'm only four away from Adolf Hitler. Hitler was in "This Happy Breed" with the great Laurence Olivier, who was in "Inchon" with Jacqueline Bisset, who was in "Latter Days" with Webb, who was in "The Point of Boxes" with me.

What's worse, a step that's not there or an unexpected one that is?

I came downstairs last night in the dark, needing to grab some clean clothes from the basement. Having lived in my house for six years now, I'm pretty good with it in low-light conditions.

But last night I misjudged and thought I had gotten to the bottom of the stairs when I hadn't. I took a big step forward with my left foot, fell forward into thin air and my trailing right big toe ended up hitting the floor straight down like a piston.

Not normally a "potty mouth," I was cursing so loud that Adalia opened her door to see if I was OK and Ian came downstairs in his PJs to see what was happening. I recovered well, but it's still sore. It's not broken, because I have full range of movement, but it does hurt whenever I go up stairs or get up from sitting but on ground (as I did at the BART station this morning).

In academic news, I got my microeconomics final back yesterday and missed three questions to get a straight B on the exam. One wrong answer was a stupid mistake on my part, another I'm still not convinced I was in error and the third was just a random guess on my part. In the end, it may or may not matter depending on the professor's whim. I got 90 and 90 on my two midterms (each worth 30 percent of the grade) and an 85 on the final (worth the remaining 40 percent). That gives me an 88 total for the class, which probably means I just barely missed an A.

Though I thought of trying to push on the one answer I thought I was right, it's not worth fighting over as I had only needed a B (and since I'm not going to SFSU this spring now, I didn't even need that), but it's still a small blow to my pride.

Speaking of blows to my pride, I shot an e-mail off this morning to the head of the public administration program at SFSU asking if she had any tips on improving my chances with another application. I used many of the same points I listed in this blog the other day. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Secret Invasion No. 8

Ian and I went on a quest today.

It was a very cold day when I picked the lad up after school and enthusiastically told him we were going to the comic book store (Comic Outpost on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco). Ian was quite pleased with the news, as he loves play the Spider-Man arcade game there, which is set on free play. In fact, Ian and I -- after almost an hour -- actually beat the game, something I could never do even when I worked at an arcade in the early 1990s.

A little disappointing, however, is that despite all the comics around, Ian -- despite being a great reader for his age -- rarely wants to buy one. Long ago, I got him his own longbox, and have been stocking it with a couple titles a month since he was one year old. But he rarely wants to read a comic, save for the occasional glance at a Simpsons mag or a Hulk book. At least the kid likes to read other stuff.

As for me, I was stocking up for the first time since before I left for Australia (save for buying four comics at a shop in Sydney when I ran out of stuff to read. It would have been more, but the Aussies charged a premium over cover price). I couldn't, however, find a copy of Secret Invasion No. 8 -- the delayed conclusion to Marvel's 2008 summer crossover, which came out almost two weeks ago. Not wanting to leave a story in the middle, I resolved to acquire the issue today (and not pay the $10 premium Comic Outpost wanted for a "variant edition" with a different cover).

Enter my iPhone. I first did a Google search for "San Francisco comic book shop" and came up with three hits on the map that were close. I touched the shops' entries, and the iPhone offered to call them for me. None of them had it. I then called my "back-up" comic shop in San Bruno, and they were out as well. Finally, I called the comic shop in Pacifica, near Ian's school (and by which I had passed about an hour before). That shop had a copy.

So I loaded Ian in the car. We stopped briefly at a McDonalds for a ice cream (and Ian played a quick basketball game with a little girl, left) and went to Coastside Comics, where I got what I needed. Total money spent on about 20 comics and a new longbox today: $80. Sheesh! My high school days of getting $3 a day from my parents for lunch, then going to Thrifty's to buy three comics -- and still have enough left over for a snack -- are over.

We drove home, just in time for a blackout. So Ian watched a Wiggles video on my laptop while I hunkered down next to a window and read.

The general plot and leadup to Secret Invasion seemed like a good mix between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Longtime Marvel alien baddies, the Skrulls, finally realized that their shape-shifting abilities opened up possibilities to infiltrate and take over the planet from within. Writer Brian Bendis did a good job notching up the tension over the course of a couple years before letting go in April with Secret Invasion No. 1.

Once the invasion stopped being so "secret," however, the crossover turned into a pretty generic slugfest, with a couple highlights (the Fantastic Four, Captain Britain and Hercules crossovers among them). It was a good, fun read but it seemed going in that there would've been a denser, more tension-filled story than what we ended up getting.

Secret Invasion No. 8 wrapped up the fighting pretty quickly, with a major Marvel character being a main casualty. But it ended so quickly that it was anti-climatic. It didn't help that the artist, Lenlil Francis Yu, has an art style more attuned toward crime books than full-fledged superhero action. His fight scenes were murky and foreground cluttered. I couldn't help but think a George Perez or Mark Bagley -- action artists who sport good, clean lines -- would've been been better suited for this.

In short, it felt like the Marvel writers spent so much time deftly creating a story's beginning that they forgot to plan a satisfying end.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Clutter causes a casualty

It's no secret that we have a messy kitchen, but usually it's not an issue. Last week, however, I couldn't find the chip clip.

Today I tried to eat some Baked Cheetos (which taste just like the real thing) but thanks to the fact that I couldn't find the clip, they had the consistency of chewing gum.

That is all.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rejection hurts

Yesterday I took my Microeconomics final, and I think I did rather well. An A in the class (I got 90s on both my midterms) is not out of the question. There were a few questions regarding distinguishing profit schedules between monpolisticly competitive and pure monopolies that I had issues with, but I think I solved them.

And it's probably well that I did, for when I got home I got news in the mail that would have preoccupied me and hurt my problem-solving skills: I didn't get into San Francisco State's Master's of Public Administration (MPA) program.

Early last summer, I was at a crossroads with what to do with my future. I had just figured out (thanks to a withdrawn job offer) that a return to public safety dispatching was not in the cards and was reminded that the only other job that I liked in my adult life -- journalism -- was a failing field. So I figured that it was time to do a "reset" and go back to school. I had worked with civil service workers in both my major career paths, learned to respect what they did and thought I would like to continue my history of public service. So I decided to look into getting a MPA.

So I applied to San Francisco State and even proudly posted about it on this blog. Both geographically and economically, the program at SF State made the most sense. Not only did I have a good history of community involvement, but having previously taken public adminstration courses at SF State, graduated from there with a BA in History and easily met the minimum academic requirements, I thought I was a shoo-in. But I guess the key word above is "minimum."

The rejection letter read something along the lines (I don't even want to look at it again right now) that "there were many more qualified applicants than available positions." I'll take that at face value for now, considering that the California State University system is cutting enrollment in the face of budget cuts. I was also probably hurt because I was applying for a spring semester admission.

So what next? I am considering writing the department head at SF State and asking if there's anything that I can do to strengthen my application for a possible try at the fall 2009 semester.

Obviously I can't do anything about poor marks I got in undergrad work 15 years ago when I was trying to both work and study full time (a 2.62 GPA at Glendale College in the early 90s, and that's including a semester I dropped out too late to drop classes). In fairness, that's not reflective of my academic ability -- I got a 3.5 GPA in 52 units taken since I got my journalism BA in 1998, but there's not much I can do about it at this point. I'm also volunteered out, and I can't take an internship somewhere because I've got a kid and he's got to eat. Anyone have any suggestions?

There's always other schools to try for the fall. The other local CSUs (San Jose State and CSU East Bay) offer public administration programs, but are too far away to realistically attend. Geographically close, but much more expensive (and probably harder to get into), are the private schools University of San Francisco, Notre Dame de Namur University and Golden Gate University. All would cost about two-three times as much as SF State. And with Claire having something like $70K of law school debt, that gives me pause.

(I'm also dreading having to go through the whole process of sending transcripts from five institutions again -- that gets expensive! To top it off, I think I owe City of College of San Francisco some money due to the fact that I may have paid for my last transcript set with a bad check thanks to Netbank failing and ING Direct taking it over, but no longer -- without my knowledge -- honoring Netbank checks.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Needless to say, I'm pleased

Say hello to my little friend!

If there was any doubt that I had readers of this blog, it was erased when today -- back at work for the first time in more than a month -- the first words from my co-workers (after a salutatory greeting) were "Did you get your iPhone back yet?"

And, thankfully, I could say "YES!"

The DHL deliveryman came to my door at about 2:30 p.m. on Monday with a package from Sydney. Inside was the little piece of technology that has led to such pain and joy the last two weeks, none the worse for wear. I had briefly, and perhaps insanely, worried that it wasn't my iPhone that was found in the Air New Zealand lounge, but rather some other unlucky traveler's. But as I opened the package and found my leather-covered iPhone with a picture of Ian and his cousin Ellie on the home page, I was ecstatic.

So special thanks to Linda Falardeau of Sydney, who -- based only on the recommendation that I was a friend of a friend -- trekked out to Kingsford-Smith International Airport*, found the United Airlines office, then took the time to go to a courier and ship my phone. And what reward did she want? Nothing, other than the costs of shipping the phone. Well, she's getting a shout out in this blog as well.

I thought foundly of her as I was checking my e-mail and watching an episode of Doctor Who on the bus ride home tonight.

* Speaking of Kingsford-Smith airport, I found out the other day that Charles Kingsford-Smith, the Australian aviation pioneer for whom the airport is named, was a great-uncle of Wayne Kingsford-Smith -- who was re-elected chair of SamTran's Citizen's Advisory Committee last week (over me).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mayors, libraries and buses

One of the best parts of living in medium-sized town is that one's not too far removed from their political representatives.

For example, I basically had dinner tonight with the mayor of South San Francisco, Karyl Matsumoto, one night after which she was selected by the council for her third (non-consecutive) term in the office. Matsumoto represents north county cities on the SamTrans Board of Directors and showed up at tonight's SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee for our annual "thank you" celebration. (Only Matsumoto and Shirley Harris attended our meeting, a disappointing one-sixth of the Board).

Matsumoto and I spoke about several issues in South San Francisco, including the decrepit Caltrain station and her selection as mayor the night before (a ceremony which I attended with Ian -- there was a great non-taxpayer funded food spread!). But we mostly spoke of the need for a new main library in South City to replace the current overcrowded 1960s-era facility. As a former South San Francisco Library Trustee, I am familiar with the fact that there is not enough room for all the library's books now, not to mention all the assorted DVDs, audio CDs and computers. The aisle space is limited and much of the building barely skirts ADA requirements. Due to a small property footprint, there is no room on the current site to expand and very little room in the city to build a new library.

The new mayor's idea to use the city's Redevelopment Agency to leverage funds for a new building intrigued me. As a redevelopment agency's mandate is to stimulate growth in blighted areas, I think a new library is a very appropriate use of such funds. New libraries recently built in Cerritos, San Mateo and San Jose have both improved their surrounding neighborhoods and helped keep libraries relevant in this modern era. Some have said that the library's day is past, but I disagree. Information is more important than ever, and libraries are still the information centers of many cities. They provide not only books, but DVDs, Internet access, homework tutoring and much more. Often they also serve as a community center as well. The time has come to build a new main library in South San Francisco.

(The mayor and I also discussed sites, including land the city recently bought from a defunct auto dealership, but I think that's supposed to be hush-hush for now.)

In the CAC meeting itself, we discussed a number of issues including the pending purchase by the district of new Gillig buses to replace some 15-year-old models. Apparently the technology in seat construction has advanced to the point where the seats can be made thin enough that you can put an extra row in a bus without reducing the pitch (or legroom) for existing passengers.

We also held our reorganization meeting, deciding on our chair and vice chair for the year. Besides managing our meetings, the chair is the public face of the CAC and briefs the actual board of directors on our activities and concerns. I had let the nominating committee know that I was interested in the post, not that I have any real problems with our current chair Wayne Kingsford-Smith, but I thought that I could be a little more visible before the Board and with the public. Then I learned that Kingsford-Smith was interested in another term and I had a dilemma: do I pursue my campaign or bow to Wayne's experience?

I put off a decision while I was in Australia, then -- when my name came up tonight and Kingsford-Smith and I were put into competition -- decided to defer. When offered the chance to give a statement, I endorsed Wayne and asked to be considered for vice chair. Wayne was elected unanimously.

Peter Ratto and I were the candidates for vice chair. In debates, I stated that I was happy that the CAC has over time better focused on its mission of advising the Board and that my platform would continue to focus on my pet issues of east-west feeder transportation in San Mateo County and connectivity between buses and trains. Ratto, to my gratitude, endorsed me for vice chair much as I had endorsed Wayne. I was also elected unanimously. After the fact, I wondered if I had violated some protocol by voting for myself ...

In other news, my iPhone has been liberated from the United Airlines office in Sydney and should at this very moment be jetting over the Pacific thanks to the folks at Australian Airborne Express. Let's hope Qantas' famed safety record (made famous in "Rain Man") continues at least until this weekend.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another day off

Ian on the Bayshore, at high tide, just south of SFO.

I haven't had a Saturday off in probably two years (not counting vacations, Comic-cons and other special circumstances where I was away from home), so today Ian and I had a boy's day out.

Ian's been a little bit clingy since I got back, and generally very happy to see me. The feeling's reciprocated, especially since I half expected him to be a little standoffish -- like a cat that reacts poorly when an owner returns from vacation.

So the little guy and I had Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast, got dressed and then piled in the Mitsubishi. We drove to the Burlingame/Millbrae border, where the Bayside Trail provides great views of San Francisco International Airport. I used to take Ian there when he was much smaller and was excited by the noise. Now that he knows about airplanes and their ability to take people places (and bring Daddy back from Australia), he has a more nuanced view.

We walked/jogged/chased each other down the trail to the Elephant Bar, where he had a corn dog and I had a burger. Ian put on his tiger mask (below), cut out from the children's menu, then insisted that I fill back in the popped-out eyeholes.

Following that, we drove to San Bruno's Commodore Park, where Ian finally was able to proudly scale the climbing rock on his own. He had a great time, and right before we left, I again encountered the dirty talking Scottish man walking his dog. His contribution today was:

Like my dog? It's a shih tzu. You know what it'd be if it was mixed with a pit bull? "B*ll Sh*t."

We grabbed ice cream from a rover pushing a cart, then headed home. After which Ian was Claire's problem.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Claire!

Mikey, more than two years younger than Ian, can push him around.

Getting back into the swing of things is taking no time at all -- thanks to everything happening all at once.

No sooner do I exhaust the gift-giving neurons of my brain than it was time to buy gifts again, for today is Claire's 31st birthday (but she's still young and perky!). I didn't have much time to shop Sunday or Monday with all the reunions, but I got Ian after school today and then popped over to Serramonte Mall. Despite being waylaid into Dairy Queen for ice cream and into Mervyns for the going-out-of business sale, Ian and I finally got into Macy's and got Claire a nice assortment of old-style games.

At the same time, my sister was on her way down from visiting my mom in Oregon with a friend of hers and her son Mikey (who turns three in January). They arrived in the late afternoon and Ian and Mike got along swimmingly. The kids are about the same size despite Ian having two years on his younger cousin. They took turns pushing each other around in Ian's trike.

Luckily, but disappointingly, I haven't gone back to work yet. Despite my reminding my "superiors" at Guardsmark regarding my return date, they hadn't yet put me back on the schedule. Not surprising that they dropped the ball, as this company doesn't yet have e-mail or direct deposit. So I have to essentially take a week of unpaid leave. Grrr. At least it's a holiday.

I haven't finalized the return of my iPhone left, but arrangements are still being made.

No real jet lag, although I have been going to bed a little later, which I might have done anyway had I not been working ...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Good news, bad news

I got a call about 7 p.m. tonight from the United Airlines representative for the Air New Zealand lounge, and it seems a cleaner found an iPhone in a black leather case under one of the chairs overnight! From all description, it appears my iPhone has been found! Thanks to my calling ahead and giving a "BOL" (A "be on the lookout" from my dispatch days), I may have just lucked out.

Now, here's the not so good part. The representative asked how I wanted to handle it. I suggested I send some money to have it shipped back to the States. "We can't ship. When are you coming back to Australia?" was the reply.

As much as I'd love to come back, it might have to wait -- especially since Ian is insisting that he come with me "next time."

So I've made inquiries with a friend in Adelaide, and she might know someone in Sydney who can help but she's waiting to hear from her. A happy ending may be in the cards, but we've still got a few pages to go in this book ...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Perfect, until the last 15 minutes

AIRBORNE BETWEEN NEW CALEDONIA AND THE SOLOMON ISLANDS — So the trip was spectacular, beyond my wildest expectations (alright, maybe not my wildest) and possibly one of the top-ten moments of my life.

Until it all came crashing down right before takeoff.

After getting to the airport and checking in with plenty of time, I retreated to the Air New Zealand lounge at the Sydney airport, enjoying free food and drink and taking advantage of the opportunity to charge my laptop and iPhone. They announced my flight was boarding and I hurriedly disconnected all the cables and packed things up. Maybe too hurriedly.

On the plane, I reached into my sweater pocket (my sweater was hanging loose) to switch my phone to “airplane mode” and to my horror, couldn’t find it. I quickly looked around my seat area, in my carry on bag and the bin. No joy. I paged the flight attendant to ask if she could call the lounge, but she regretfully told me they had already closed the doors and no communication was possible.

A more thorough check of my bag and belongings didn’t reveal any trace, so I’m therefore forced to conclude it was lost. Most likely it was in the lounge by the TV (where I unplugged it and thought I repacked it), but possibly also in the lounge bathroom. Either place gives me a decent chance to get it back, as the folks who work the lounge are professionals and those who patronize it are generally businesspeople who will hopefully be less desperate (and maybe a bit more understanding) than your average traveler.

Of course, if I lost it in the general pathway between the lounge and gate 60, all bets are off.

The worst part is the helplessness I feel right now. If they had been able to reach the lounge before we departed, we might have made that “golden hour” where the lounge staff could have checked for — and possibly found the phone. Alternatively, while I’m on the plane, I can’t do things I would otherwise do in this situation: call the phone or text it. Crap.

I can’t even check if my credit card’s purchase protection will reimburse me for the phone, or what the terms are. (I think it might have 30-day coverage, the phone is 36 days old).

I’ve fallen for the iPhone as much as one could fall for a small electronic device. I’ve used it to store docs, text my family, look at stars, find my way about town with its GPS, convert currency, etc. It’ll be horrible if I can’t get reunited with the iPhone and — what’s worse — I’m out beaucoup bucks. At least the phone’s password-protected, so no one can call around on it. But of course, that also means they can’t access the address book and contact me. Sigh.

And now that I’m in L.A., I can’t find a number for the Air New Zealand lounge and United Customer Service only works Monday through Friday. Arrggh!

Update: 4 p.m. (PST) SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — I finally got in touch with the Sydney lounge, but ... the iPhone has NOT been turned in. :-( I left my contact details in case it was, but I'm not hopeful. They gave me a general number for the airport lost and found, but I'm sure that's a madhouse, and it's not open Sundays. Hrrm. I did try calling (no answer) and texting the phone (it should display a preview without password) but it's a longshot.

I can't find any details about my credit card's purchase protection plan, and I'm scanning my travel insurance plan to see if it can help. Otherwise, I might need to buy a new, UN-subsidized phone!

Friday, November 21, 2008

One last time from Oz

Goodbye Sydney, goodbye Australia!

SYDNEY -- This is my last night in Australia and my mind's in turmoil. I've half a mind to "miss" my flight tomorrow, use my rail pass (still good for five months) and head off to Perth or Alice Springs.

On the other hand, I miss Claire and Ian terribly. Maybe if I sent them plane tickets ...

Oh well, I guess I've got get back to work. Damn me for not retiring when I got to 35!

Save for yesterday's side trip to Canberra, I've been exploring Sydney the last couple days in an effort to expand my experiances beyond just the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (although I've spent time there each of the past few days as well). For example, Wednesday night I attended a show of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical."

My one word review: "Faaa-bul-oussss!"

A scene from "Priscilla, the Musical." Apologies for the quality (or lack there of).

Manly-man I may be, I appreciate a little musical theater now and then and "Priscilla" did not disappoint. This wasn't some cheap, thrown-together production designed to remind tourists of one of the few Aussie films they remember. This was instead a well-acted, well-sung and well-danced polished, professional extravaganza, which expanded and updated the movie with new material (including good-natured Kylie Minogue and Bindi Irwin jokes)

Todd McKenney stole the show as Tick, finding a fine line between showing the character’s general acceptance of who he his now combined with worries about his past and what his son would think of him. Tony Sheldon also did well as Bernadette, but no one could take the role from Terence Stamp — whose fame from telling Superman to “Kneel before Zod” made his role in the “Priscilla” movie feel even more poignant.

But the highlight of the show for me was Bill Hunter, reprising his role from the film version. Hunter for a while seemed like he was in every Australian movie. Besides his Priscilla role, he was the father in "Muriel's Wedding," Barry Fife in "Strictly Ballroom" and the voice of the dentist in "Finding Nemo." He also has a role in Baz Luhrman’s upcoming “Australia.”

After my Canberra trip Thursday, I had a late (very late thanks to the air delay) at a restaurant at Circular Quay (which the locals pronounce “Circular Key”) with a nice view of the harbor and Harbour Bridge.

Friday, continuing with my manly theme I took a ferry to Manly Beach, a famous surfers’ beach on the north Pacific shore. While the water itself was closed due to “dangerous surf conditions” (it was indeed rolling), that didn’t stop me and numerous others from wading shin deep in the warm surf. A brief sunbathe (with lots of sunscreen) and a kangaroo burger later, I was back on the ferry to Sydney. Manly Beach.

I recommend a ferry ride to any Sydney visitors, with the Manly ferry being just $6.40 AUD (other ferries are cheaper) it’s the best way to get amazing views.

In the evening time, I took the bus to Sydney’s Kings Cross area, which probably has more restaurants per square meter along Oxford Street than anywhere on the planet. I eventually settled at an Italian place off Darlinghurst named “Fellini’s on Victoria.” My fettuccine gamberetti with a side of garlic bread was great!

Well, it’s now Saturday morning and my time in Sydney is sadly running down. I have some light packing left, have to score the Internet to finish some economics homework and actually have to drag my sorry butt to the airport. This has been a wonderful trip, both what I anticipated and needed, but it’s time to go.

Next, a 14-hour flight to Los Angeles, followed by an hour’s flight to San Luis Obispo, a short layover and then a short flight to San Francisco, then BART home.

Thanks to Australia for a great time and thanks to my readers for following, John.
Ah, Australia. I'll miss you.

Amusing Aussie Signage

As the trip winds down, there are a number of things about Australia that I could list as "amusing." One of the best visuals, however, is some of the funny signage I've seen about. Here's some examples:

Sydney, Nov. 1, 2008. Remind the tourists that cars come from different directions here, because we can't take their money if they're hit by a car coming from an unexpected direction.

Adelaide, Nov. 2. Four-and-a-half years later and we're still waiting.

Adelaide, Nov. 2. "Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?" To sell athletic gear in Australia! Funny because I doubt five people in Australia outside of visiting Americans could ID Joltin' Joe.

Cook, SA, Nov. 3. If's there any problem in this town, population 5, gather by the rock.

Perth, Nov. 5. Does the transit agency really think a window scratcher is going to understand the implicit irony?

Perth, Nov. 5. Of course, every bus but the one you want stops here.

Perth, Nov. 5. Barrack Street is modified in "honour" of the new president elect.

Perth, Nov. 6. When building namers working for the University of Western Australia got lazy ...

Albany, WA, Nov. 7. Just how low do these airplanes go that you can't stand on the highway?

Fremantle, WA, Nov. 8. A rail safety sign with a little bite.

Perth, Nov. 9. Let's hope somebody does something important so we can fill this spot on the train station platform with an interesting plaque.

(Right) Kings Canyon, NT, Nov. 13. An "only in central Australia" sign.

(Below left)Yulara, NT, Nov. 13. Matches don't cause fires, dickheads do (look at the label).

(Below right)Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, NT, Nov. 14. A sign wouldn't do in the States. You'd need to sign a triplicate waiver to make this climb in our sue-happy country.

Alice Springs, Nov. 14. You think a bar connected to a hostel would have more tourist-friendly signage.

Alice Springs, Nov, 16. This sounds more like a plea for litter.

Sydney, Nov. 20. Australians don't dream of White Christmases, they just hope not to roast.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A quickie in Canberra

Parliament House in Canberra.

CANBERRA — As I start this blog, from the gallery of the Australian House of Representatives (Parliament is not is session at the moment), I’m stricken by a number of things. My previously attested dislike of the Westminster System, for example.

But mostly, I’m stricken by the Australian parliament house’s lack of flair. Compared to the Capitol in Washington, or even Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canberra in general and Parliament House in particular, seems a simplistic contrast to its fellow capitals. Aside from a few pictures of old PMs (I couldn’t find Harold Holt’s — it seems to have disappeared) and notable MPs, there are only a few static displays in the building commemorating Australia’s history. Granted, the Parliament House was only occupied within the past 20 years, so it’s not very surprising. (One thing that is surprising is that former Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett, right, is Australia's culture minister! My high school friend Eric Russell could do a decent Peter Garrett impression.)

Washington and Ottawa (the other national capitals I’ve been to) owe a lot of their grandeur to past ages. The American Capitol brings back visions of Greco-Roman style, the Canadian Parliament reminds visitors of old London-town. Canberra — and the Parliament House in particular — seems to have started out new, with architecture that doesn’t remind one of anywhere else and perhaps suffers for it. (Right, the Australian House chamber.)

There is a place of genuine emotion in Canberra, the Australian War Memorial. I’ve previously noted the predominance of small war memorials in several towns, but the national memorial here in Canberra is a huge step above them. Not only is it an effective memorial, with the requisite marble, poppies and names of the honored dead, but it contains a great museum as well.

Australia lost a higher proportion of its fighting men to World War I than any other nation, even France. It’s a common finding down here that the Australian identity was forged on the shores of Gallipoli and in the trenches of France, and the Australian War Memorial reflects the impact that the “Great War” had on the nation’s psyche.

Besides the requisite uniforms, letters, planes and guns common in all such museums, this museum added an effective extra: the diorama. Huge models of the Somme, Paschendale, Gallipoli and other major battles give a sense of the scale and drama that governed the conflict and adequately reflect the difficulties the “Diggers” faced. (Australia's "Tomb of the Unknown," left.)

I had hoped to do more than the two sites in Canberra, but I had to get back to the airport for my 5 p.m. flight. So I rushed to catch my bus to the airport (or rather near the airport, as Canberra’s Action Bus stops in a business park about a five-minute walk away). I got to the Virgin Blue counter and tried to check in, but couldn’t — my flight was canceled due to flow-control restrictions in Sydney.

Virgin booked my on the next flight, two hours later, so just a little problem there. I would’ve bused back to the city on my day-tripper pass, but the last public bus back to the airport area is at 4:35 p.m. for some reason! Oh well, Richard Branson’s crew gave me a $6 voucher to use in the airport café (not quite enough to buy a meal of course, but it was $6 more than any other airline would’ve given me) and at least there’s free wireless Internet here (hence my post …).

Now, I just need to wait and hope for good weather on Australia's east coast …

Update: 6:47 p.m. (Canberra time). My flight has just been pushed back another 15 minutes and Canberra airport is not a place to get stuck. One café with actual food (outside security) and not much to do at all. It's a good thing I don't have anything planned for tonight -- I had originally considered trying a get seats to a show tonight.
Looking back toward Parliament through the pillars of the Australian War Memorial.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Through the Red Centre, Part III

My Red Centre tour group.

The last time I arose at 4 a.m., it was 1989 and I was a poor student working at a McDonalds in La Crescenta, Calif., and needed to warm up the grill before the restaurant opened. Thus it was with some difficulty that I arose Saturday so we could see Uluru at sunrise. It was even more difficult as the rain had continued most of the night and I knew it was still cloudy.

An additional source of disappointment stemming from the clouds was the inability to see the stars. From the time I was 11 years old, I had always hoped to examine the southern skies, and seeing a whole new set of constellations that can’t be seen from the Northern Hemisphere (in fact, I had usually imagined seeing them from central Australia).

For example, I had hoped to see the Southern Cross — which features prominently in the Australian flag. I had also hoped to see the constellation Centaurus, which features Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.

But the clouds were being frustrating. Moreover, the moon was nearly full — spoiling the view in the few clear patches. Luckily, I had a clear night the week previous (although also partially spoiled by moonlight) on my drive from Albany and had seen the unseen-from-the-north bright star Canopus and had gotten a glimpse at the amusing site of seeing familiar constellations (specifically Orion and Taurus) upside-down.

While I never did get to see the Southern Cross, the clouds finally parted enough to give me a glimpse of Alpha Centauri — my favorite star since reading an old Isaac Asimov book in 1983.

After a quick brekky consisting of muesli flakes, we drove to the sunrise viewing area at Uluru and, thanks to the clouds, saw the sight of the dark blob of Uluru become the bright blob of Uluru. A bit deflated, we drove to the Rock itself, and began a foot trek halfway around.

As I wrote before, it’s difficult to gauge the enormity of Uluru from pictures. When you’re up close, the former Ayers Rock presents a much more massive profile than you might expect. While I hadn’t planned to climb Uluru, I was a bit gratified to see that the climb was closed that day because of the storms in the area (it apparently gets very slippy when wet), frustrating some of the rather insensitive European boys in the group who very much wanted to climb. Below: A detail of some of the cracks on Uluru.
There were a number of sites around Uluru’s perimeter where one could walk up to the rock and lay hands on it. A surprising number of gullies went down the side, but the rain had broken briefly and there was no water flowing down. We found some more Aboriginal art sites, a water hole and — in a rare concession to Aboriginal beliefs — a couple areas of the rock where photography was absolutely forbidden (left), and enforced by a $5,000 fine, because those areas were considered sacred by the Aborigines.

We spent a couple hours at Uluru, where the flies were taking advantage of the refreshing rain to jump on anything resembling a spring flower — such as my bright yellow shirt (below). The group then headed off to nearby Kata Tjuta, about a half-hour away.
Kata Tjuta, also known as “The Olgas,” is a group of ancient giant rocks that have been eroded over the past 300-plus million years into an undulating series of hikable canyons, valleys and gullies. My tour group took the five-mile hike into the famous “Valley of the Winds,” where a sudden crack just below the summits of adjoining peaks creates a wind tunnel, difficult hike and amazing views of the valley below.
Exhausted, we hiked back to the van, had a short lunch back at the campsite, then began the long haul home. Most everyone, worn down by the two hikes and early rising, slept on the drive. I only awoke when Natalie swerved the van to avoid a kangaroo nonchalantly hopping across the road and when we stopped at a roadhouse to refuel.

Knowing that our group mainly consisted of poor university-age students, Natalie suggested that the group dine for the night at Annies Place, a hostel in Alice Springs that had a built-in restaurant where the meals were only $5. Sounded good to us. Arriving back into town, we were dropped at our respective lodgings. I checked in at my hostel, showered then walked across town, figuring I didn’t know anyone else within hundreds of miles so I might as well join them.

The restaurant was cozy, but served good food for $5 (I had the fish and chips). The deco consisted mainly of classic Italian movie posters and front pages of newspapers (below), usually highlighting some misfortune that happened to a tourist in the area — shoes melting on Uluru, dying of horrible diseases and pleas to “Help Bring Back Virgin” (Virgin Blue Airlines). With beer and tequila flowing amply, I learned a bit about my fellow travelers.
For example, Kirsten, the Scottish girl, did her thesis on geese counting on the Isle of Islay. Patricio, the Italian, drove a big fast motorcycle back home, but had to sell it. Matteo (one of the Swiss boys) and “Heidi” (aka blonde German) were in the process of “hooking up” (if you know what I mean … but why was I the one who felt pressured to let her wear my Montréal Expos jacket because she had decided to wear a white tube top in the rain?), etc.

After finishing dinner, we walked up the street to Alice’s most hopping nightclub, Bojangles, which seemed to hold everyone in town between 18 and 35. After a brief misunderstanding at the bar (I ordered “a midi of VB [Victoria Bitter]” but somehow ended up with both a VB and a Carlton Mid), we settled in front of the dance floor for some conversation.

I found a pair of off-duty Aussie soldiers next to us and (no doubt sounding buzzed as I was) thanked them for “helping us with (stuff) we couldn’t finish ourselves.” “We’re all in it together, brother,” was the kind reply, accompanied by a number for a cab company.

Returning to my travelling companions (right, at Bojangles), I ended up spending a lot of time with the Irish contingent of our group and found out two things: they considered all non-Guinness brew inferior and apparently Irish people have a secret hand signal or something, because my new friends from Cork were briefly joined by an unknown fellow from Dublin.

With the hour getting late (almost 2 a.m.) and my needing to catch a train the next day, I excused myself and exchanged very friendly goodbyes with folks I had known for less than 72 hours and would likely never hear from again, despite the sharing of a couple e-mail addresses.

That led to the surreal moment I mentioned in Part I of this tale — walking home at 2 a.m. in a residential area of Alice Springs in a driving rainstorm after a night of clubbing (all parts of that being atypical behavior for me).

The next day, after taking pictures of the rain-swollen Todd River (bone dry for something like 360 days per year), I caught the train to Adelaide, met my Internet friend Helen and slept at another hostel before catching the train on Tuesday to Sydney, upon which conveyance I write this entry.Me at Kata Tjuta.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Meeting old friends for the first time

Rundle Mall, Adelaide (my current location).

ADELAIDE, South Australia (Nov. 18, 2008) — A few years back, I joined a mailing list connected to a web camera focused on Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The list brought folks together from all over the world. Though the official mailing list is now off line, a group of us continue to talk frequently off list. Taking advantage of my unique geographical circumstances Monday (Australia time), I scratched another I-Cammer off my "To-Meet" list as I had dinner with Helen Potiris and her family in Adelaide.

Helen (with Chris and Amelia in the back) picked me up in front of my hostel in downtown Adelaide at 6:30 p.m. sharp (Helen was coming back after picking up Chris at work) and drove me to their home in the southwestern suburbs where I also met Helen's dad, Jim, and Chris' brother Adrian.

Amelia's third birthday is coming up in about two weeks so I took the liberty of buying her a kid's digital camera along with a Snow White card (what little girl doesn't like princesses?) and I made the card out as being "From John on behalf of Mom's I-Cam friends." No one on the list minded my adding that part I trust. Amelia (left) is a real sweetheart, and although she regarded me with a wary eye at first she warmed up later in the evening and regaled me with tales of flowers, ponds and how their cat, Musket, had been sick as she played with her new camera.

Helen was making pasta for us all (along with an ambitious anti-pasta side plate) when we were all surprised by the unexpected visit of Chris' sister Hazel and her husband Harry from Perth -- making their first visit in several years. Needless to say it was quite busy in the Potiris/Goodhall household, but Helen handled it with the grace of an air traffic controller and no one felt left out.

Me with the Potiris/Goodhall family.

After dinner, the bulk of us went to the shore at Glenelg and took a nice walk, culminating in a trip to the ice cream parlor. I had something called Jaffa Orange, basically a chocolate-orange mix. Quite tasty. We retired back to the house for tea, put Amelia to sleep and spoke about the US southwest (among other topics) before we called it a night and Helen drove me back downtown.

Thanks again Helen for dinner and an overall wonderful time.

(Part III of through the Centre will post later from Sydney. I'm off to catch the train now for a 24-hour ride.)