Archive for February, 2009

Stuff I Like: “Dogs 101”

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

A blog provides a forum for expounding on what is wrong with the world but it also gives me an opportunity to share information about a really great find ““ whether it’s a product, TV show, or service, or place.

So with that in mind, I’m going to occasionally write about “Stuff I Like.” It’s those things you happen upon that you find yourself thinking about later, or that you mention to your spouse or friend. “You know, that was a really great”¦” fill in the blank.

Here’s my first entry in the “Stuff I Like” category:

We really enjoy a show on Animal Planet called “Dogs 101.” As the name implies, it’s a primer on the basics of dog breeds. Every hour-long show covers five breeds and briefly describes the characteristics of each regarding grooming, exercise, health issues, trainability, and temperament.

For example in the segment on German shepherds, they summed up the breed in these ways: “Grooming ““ they shed heavily and you’ll find clumps of hair everywhere. They have good adaptability to living in smaller areas, they are loyal family dogs but are protective. They are generally healthy but they are notorious for hip problems. They like to please and are easy to train.”

As the owner of a German shepherd, I think they did a great job of giving concise yet accurate information about the breed. Our dog sheds a pound of hair a week, has a bad elbow and hips, has been overprotective of our kids”¦there was that incident with the UPS driver”¦but overall, she is a great family pet.

We appreciate the straight-forward approach to the show. The goal of the show is more about education and helping people make informed decisions about what type of dog would be a good fit than entertaining us with stupid pet tricks. There are brief interviews with veterinarians and dog trainers but these people aren’t included because they are celebrities or have clever comments; but instead are there to give us more information about a particular breed.

And even if you already know everything you ever wanted to know about dog breeds, there’s one reason to watch the show that has universal appeal: it has lots of video footage of romping puppies!

“Dogs 101″ doesn’t seem to have a regular slot on Animal Planet so unfortunately, I can’t tell you when it will be on next. I’ll keep on the lookout for it.

And for those of us who also love cats, Animal Planet has shown one episode of Cats 101 but I don’t think it will have nine lives. Cat breeds just don’t have the same dramatic differences that are found in dog breeds.

Here’s what one episode of “Cats 101″ and every episode thereafter could teach us: “Trainability: forget it. Health concerns: some cats are healthy, some aren’t. Temperament: some cats like people, some don’t. Shedding: Count on it.”

I think you get my drift.

Reason to Rejoice

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

I’m grateful that an incident last week that could have been a calamity instead had a happy ending. And in tough times like these when good news is hard to come by, it’s especially meaningful.

It was a few minutes after 9pm when my cell phone rang and I saw that it was my daughter, Valerie, calling. Hmmm”¦I wonder what the news on the other end of the line is going to be; she’s only had her driver’s license one week and this is exactly the time she should be in the car and driving herself home from her tumbling class.

“Mom,” I can tell already there are tears. “The car won’t start.” We’ll, that’s a little puzzling since it was working fine when she left, but since I was afraid that she was calling to tell me about a crunched fender”¦or something even worse, if the only thing wrong with the car is a dead battery, I feel like I’ve been given a gift.

But wait, there’s more.

“And I dropped my arm and it rolled down the storm drain.” She can barely choke out the words. I thought maybe I had misheard what she said over my cell phone. “You dropped your arm in the gutter?” I heard her answer “yes” in between sobs. “Dad and I will be right there,” I answered.

Let me pause here and fill in some blanks. Valerie has worn a prosthesis on her left arm since she was six months old, so in our household, seeing her plastic arm lying on the floor or wedged in between the sofa cushions is not anything out of the ordinary. Just like people often can’t find their keys, she sometimes misplaces her arm and there is a frantic rush to find it before she leaves for school. “Mom, do you know where my arm is?”

Losing her prosthesis around the house is not uncommon, but losing it down a city drain”¦that was unusual. Since we had fairly substantial rainfall that week, I was imagining her arm surfing the tide of runoff on its way out to the Petaluma River.

When Steve and I arrived on the scene, we picked Valerie up from the gym and circled around to where the car was parked on the street. The poor kid was so upset. She explained to us that she tried to unlock the car with the remote but because the battery was dead (she had left the headlights on) it wouldn’t unlock. Then she tried to unlock it with the key but it was dark and she was flustered and that’s when she dropped her arm. She prefers to drive without her prosthesis so she wasn’t wearing it, but was holding it along with her gym bag, purse, and keys, when it slipped out of her grasp and rolled into the drain.

When we bent down and looked into the drain with a flashlight, I was expecting to see her arm sticking out of a foot of really gross, wet trash like the sewers they show on “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel.  Perhaps Petaluma has exceptionally clean drains because when we looked in, the only thing in there was her arm lying on a slab of wet concrete.

Unless I suddenly turned into Elastigirl there was no way I was going to be able to reach it because of the angle and depth of the drain. However, there was a concrete disk right above the storm drain and we could see that if we could pry that open, we could get to her arm.

Steve jumped into action with a plan: he would go home and get a crowbar while Valerie and I stayed with the car and waited for AAA to give us a jumpstart. AAA was there within minutes. The car started right up and Steve was back shortly after that with an armful of tools to retrieve the arm.

By now, we all felt like the crisis had passed. The car was idling, confirming that all that was wrong was a dead battery, and we felt confident that with persistence, we would reunite Valerie and her arm. In fact, the humor of the situation ““ trying to extract a prosthetic arm from a storm drain at 10:00 at night ““ was becoming apparent.

But we still had to lift up the concrete cover”¦and it wasn’t budging even with help from the AAA tow truck driver. Figuring that there has to be some 24 hour emergency number for the Public Works Department, Valerie and I left Steve watching over the arm and we went home to make some calls.

Apparently after hours calls to Public Works are routed to the Police Department. The gal who answered the phone was great; she took my information and responded as if she handled calls about lost prosthetics all the time. After putting me on hold for a moment, she told me the fire department would be there shortly. I relayed the message to Steve.

Within about 20 minutes, Steve walked in the door and he was not empty-handed. He said three wonderful firefighters showed up with some really serious tools and in no time, popped off the concrete cover and pulled out Valerie’s arm.

So to Capt. Kevin, Engineer Greg, and Firefighter Blake from the D Street station, thank you. You have made a friend for life.

A Thank You to The Chic’s Nest

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Last fall, I had some lightly worn clothing and rather than automatically donating the items, I decided take them to a consignment store. Anything I got for them would be like found money and probably yield more cash than rummaging through the sofa cushions. There are several consignment stores in town, but since I drive past the Chic’s Nest Consignment Boutique on Petaluma Boulevard several times a day when I am out running errands, that’s where I headed.

When I took the clothes in, I filled out their consignment form and made a mental note that I should check back around the first of 2009 to see if anything had sold because after that, it would be donated.

Every time I went past the Chic’s Nest around the holidays, I kept thinking I should stop by but I was always running short on time so I never went in to see if I had “earned” any money.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the Chic’s Nest had gone out of business. I’m always sorry to see a small business close; my guess was that there wasn’t very much foot traffic that far north on the Boulevard so it was a tough retail location.

I wondered if any of the clothes I had brought in had sold which would have meant a few dollars to me. If I missed out on any money, it was my fault; I should have stopped by when they told me to. The store was closed now, so the point was moot. I hoped all the merchandise got donated to a good cause and then pretty much forgot about it.

Then a couple of days ago, I brought in the mail and in a hand-addressed envelope was a check for $16.40 and a note from the owners saying that the enclosed amount was for any credit remaining on my account.

I was so surprised. There was no way I would have ever known if I was owed money. They certainly could have just kept whatever amount was due to me and anyone else. Instead they took the time to write out a check, address an envelope, put a $.42 stamp on it, and mail it to me. I wonder how many other $10, $15, and $20 dollar checks they wrote and mailed.

I tried calling the number stamped on the envelope to thank them and tell them how much I appreciated their honesty but the line was disconnected.

The enclosed note was signed “Jenny, Jon, Hazel, & Baby H.” To these good folks, I say thank you. You are a wonderful reminder that the true measure of a person’s character is what you do when no one is looking.

DMV Snapshot

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

The DMV was closed last Friday, so when my daughter and I were there on Monday for her behind the wheel driving test, the joint was jumping.

I actually don’t mind going to the DMV. The kind of transactions handled by the DMV cut across all economic and social lines so it’s a great place to people watch ““ moms and their teenage kids, seniors, construction workers, and professional types.

Many DMV transactions can’t be handled through the mail so eventually everybody ends up having to go there. For example, Steve just got his driver’s license renewal and since he had already renewed it twice by mail, this time he has to appear in person at the DMV office. This got me wondering if celebrities have to do appear in person too. Can they send a stand in or are there paparazzi hanging around the Hollywood DMV waiting to snap a photo of Tom Cruise or Pamela Anderson?

When you walk into the DMV, the atmosphere swirls with tension. People are scared that they won’t be able to accomplish what they came there to do”¦whether it’s a senior who is worried they won’t pass the eye exam, a teenager afraid of failing the written test, a workman who doesn’t know if he has the right forms to change the ownership of his car, or a parent like me who is praying that their child doesn’t forget to signal and check the bike lane before making a right hand turn.

However, I think the DMV system does a great job of reassuring people that if they are patient, they will be taken care of in due time. The continuous announcements about what number is being served at which window gives everybody who’s waiting hope that things are moving and it will be their turn soon. I think some doctors’ offices could take some lessons from the DMV about how to treat people who are waiting anxiously.

Perhaps I am feeling especially positive about the DMV right now; my daughter passed the test and got her license.

My Starbucks Idea? Bring Back Decaf-ternoons

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Corporate cost cutting measures are all around us. One that just doesn’t make any sense to me is Starbucks’ new policy to stop brewing decaf coffee after noon.

I’ll say this upfront so anyone who wants to trash me for being a corporate sellout can: Starbucks is important to me and not because I can’t live without a $4 no-whip Frappucino. Starbucks has become our standard spot for lunch when our 144 square foot home office starts closing in on us and we need to get out for some air and perspective. Lunch at Starbucks is relatively inexpensive, predictable, and the atmosphere is better than In-N-Out Burger.

Steve always gets their Protein Plate and a non-fat cappuccino. However, in this economy I definitely don’t need any chemicals that are going to make me more anxious, so I always get a tall decaf. But now I can’t.

Starbucks has a policy that baristas are not to serve any coffee that has been sitting longer than 30 minutes and apparently low demand for decaf in the afternoon meant that they were pouring a lot of coffee”¦and money”¦down the drain so they’ve done away with the decaf.

But if a place is going to serve coffee, shouldn’t offering decaf ““ especially in the afternoon when people are more likely to be concerned about the caffeine keeping them awake ““ be a standard option? When our church puts out the coffee cart, there is a choice of regular or decaf. It seems odd that I can get the coffee drink I want at my church but not at the Starbucks up the road.

Didn’t Chairman Howard Schultz demand that Starbucks refocus on its coffee culture? However, Starbucks coffee culture doesn’t include the 15-20% of coffee drinkers like me who prefer decaf. Howard, I feel so betrayed! How about being less of a bakery and reducing the pastry options as a way to eliminate waste while staying true to the brand?

Starbucks says they have alternatives now that they are no longer continuously brewing decaf. They suggest a decaf Caffe Americano which is decaf espresso and hot water and it costs more than drip coffee. I’ve given it a shot but it’s just not the same as a cup of decaf. The Americano tastes watery because it is watery.

They will reluctantly brew a small amount of decaf which they tell you takes at least four minutes. On a good day, by the time I’ve had this discussion with the barista, Steve has already gotten his non-fat capp and in another four minutes will probably have eaten most of his petit déjeuner so getting decaf doesn’t seem worth the wait.

Maybe doing away with decaf is just a ploy to get customers who would normally get decaf in the afternoon to trade up to the more expensive Tazo Tea Lattes which Starbucks is heavily promoting as “Tea Time” in their stores.

But I’m not buying into it. Since I don’t want the calories, cost, or caffeine of any of the drinks on Starbucks’ menu board, I’ve been getting water. So instead of buying a $1.55 tall decaf, I’m not spending any money but I am costing Starbucks the cost of the plastic cup. I wonder if I’m the only one doing this. If so, Starbucks might find that their cost cutting measure has unintended consequences.


A Visit to the California Academy of Sciences

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

When I looked at the high school calendar, it said that Friday, January 30 was a “Non-Workday.” We don’t usually take what it says quite so literally, but taking the day off with our daughters sounded like a great idea.

So what would be a fun outing for our family on a beautiful day? How about the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park? It’s probably been ten years since our last visit and now that it has undergone a major renovation, we were curious to see what the experience was like.

However, we had our doubts that we would even be able to get in”¦or even want to. The new Academy of Sciences has only been open since September so it has drawn a lot of attention and crowds. When our daughter and some friends recently made a trip to San Francisco with the plan to go to there, they found a long line of people circling the building and a minimum 45 minute wait to get in. They decided not to bother.

And when Steve pulled up the map online and started reading the comments on TripAdvisor, we were even more apprehensive. People were saying things like: “Warning: Read all the negative reviews”¦They are TRUE!!!” or “A Waste of Time and Money.” People who had gone also said that due to the crowds, you should buy advance tickets and get there when it opened at 9:30 ““ neither of which we had planned to do. We thought a contingency plan might be a good idea. “Do you think they’ve finished rebuilding the tiger enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo?”

However, we decided that we would take our chances on the Academy. The first pleasant surprise was that we made it over the first hurdle of any trip into the City”¦finding a place to park without any problem. The underground garage was well marked and had plenty of spaces when we got there at about 1:00.

“Could this be true? There isn’t a line to get in?” We walked right up to the window, bought our tickets and headed in. I’m sure it helped that we went on a weekday.

I guess I was expecting the prices to be what I remembered from a decade ago, so I was a little surprised when the credit card receipt showed $89.80 for the four of us ($24.95 for adults and $19.95 for students). I had spoken with a friend who had visited the Academy on the third Wednesday of the month when admission is free, and she said it was mobbed. Now I know why.

Close to the entrance is the Philippine Coral Reef where we spent a long time watching the manta rays wave to us every time they lifted their fins, flippers, or arms”¦what are those”¦as they circled their tank. We had a good time looking at the amazing colors in the reef fish and deciding which one was our favorite. I particularly liked the fuchsia one with the neon orange square on its middle.

There was a short wait to get into the Rainforests of the World dome but once inside, the effect of walking through the hot and humid rainforest with birds and butterflies flitting past you was pretty cool. The only problem is that is that my frame of reference for the experience was when we ate at the Rainforest Café so I kept looking for the animatronic gorillas and wondering when the programmed thunderstorm was going to start.

We left Steve sketching by the dinosaur”¦he said he felt right at home”¦and the girls and I continued onto the Aquarium and African Hall. I think everyone who remembers the old Academy building is glad to see they kept the taxidermied zebra and lion dioramas. It made me feel like I was visiting an old friend.

We had been there four hours when the announcement was made that it was 4:45 and the Academy would be closing in 15 minutes. We had seen all the exhibits except the Planetarium and the Living Roof which from the photo on the website looks a lot like my front yard”¦it needs to be mowed.

So would I recommend a visit to the Academy? When you consider that admission to Marine World is $44.99 for adults, the Academy of Sciences seems like a pretty good value for your entertainment dollar. And our expectations weren’t to be wowed, but just to expand our world for a day beyond our computer screens. It succeeded beautifully.