the man and his latte

Today while I was waiting in the starbucks line a very large man came in the door behind me YELLING into his cell phone.

“I know that’s what he told you,” he said, “but I’m sick of that shit. You tell him that he needs to get that work done. You tell him that he’s had three months now and that work isn’t done and he needs to get OFF HIS ASS AND GET THAT SHIT DONE. NO. NO. You’re NOT LISTENING.” The man was poking the air next to my head. I edged away nervously. The people in line behind him edged away nervously. “You need to get on the GODDAMN PHONE AND tell him what I’m telling you. Tell him I WANT THAT WORK DONE AND I WANT IT DONE THIS WEEK OR HE’S GOING TO GET A VISIT DIRECTLY FROM ME AND NO ONE WANTS THAT DO THEY. OK? OK? OK? GOOD.”

The man slapped his phone shut and moved up to the counter. “Hi,” he said to the barista, who edged away nervously. “I’d like a decaf pumpkin latte.”

o western wind

You may have heard we had some rain last week out here in California. At our house, it was ten inches of rain and 50MPH sustained winds. On hummingbird mountain nearby they had wind gusts at 127MPH before the meter apparently blew down. Big storm. Big one.

When Eric and I got up on Friday morning last week the rain wasn’t so bad but our internet connection was out. So we made the incredibly stupid decision to leave the house and go to work. Because, you know, having access to your email is so much more important than knowing that your house and your pets are safe and dry or having a familiar place to sleep that night.

The day turned out to be full of incredibly stupid decisions. My second stupidest decision was choosing to wear a long wool coat to work, rather than a nylon waterproof rain jacket. My logic at the time went thusly: the wool coat is just so much more attractive than the nylon rain jacket; I only have to go from my car to get coffee and back, and then from my car into my building at work; and I have an umbrella. How wet could I possibly get?

I contemplated that question for a good long while as I sat in my car in the parking lot outside the coffee shop near work, as my car rocked back and forth on its suspension while the wind tried to blow it right over. I was parked four cars away from the door but the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t actually tell if the coffeeshop was still there. I bravely picked up my umbrella, pushed the car door open and the wind forced it closed again, nearly taking off my fingers. I put down my umbrella, which was now quailing in fear, and had another long contemplative moment. While I contemplated the wind pushed my car another parking space away from the coffeeshop, leaving grooves in the pavement like the rocks in Death Valley. Did I really need coffee that bad? I took a deep breath and kicked my way out into the storm.

So the answer to how wet can one possibly get in a wool coat in a rainstorm is quite wet indeed, and the third stupidest thing I did on friday was wear tennis shoes. When you are dashing across the parking lot in a storm with your wool coat up over your head it is hard to tell that the wide puddle you are about to splash across is actually eight inches deep. And cold. Very cold. Did I mention the cold?

No, actually, I did not need coffee that bad. That was definitely the line right there.

But I got my coffee. And I got to work. Later on, my group went out to lunch. The wool coat was well and thoroughly soaked through after still more trips running to and from the car, and here’s something I never realized: a soaking wet wool coat smells kind of like a big wet dog.

It was such a peachy day.

on greed and apricots

It’s been a really good fruit tree year. We had a warm spring and for once it stayed warm rather than the usual pattern of being 80 degrees in February and then snowing the hell all over us in March. For California in particular this has meant abundant, delicious, and cheap stone fruit. The cherries especially have been spectacular.

I have a big Moorpark apricot tree in my garden; it was years old when we moved in and has only grown bigger ten years since. This area is actually unsuitable for apricots; with the cold springs we get the tree only gives me fruit about every fourth year, like the apricot olympics. When I get apricots, though, I get a LOT of soft, creamy, intensely flavored ‘cots. Cots up to my eyeballs. I adore apricots so every year I anxiously watch the weather hoping for a good fruit tree year.

Over the last few years I’ve been terribly neglectful in pruning the tree and this year I was regretting it. The tree hadn’t grown up so much as out with the branches stretching longer and longer on all sides. I would cut the lowest branches so that I could walk under the tree and the branches higher up would sag lower down to replace them. The tree had grown so wide and dense it was shading the vegetable beds I had in the garden next to it.

This was the year I was planning to aggressively prune the tree. Definitely this year. But I forgot to do it in the spring when it was dormant, and then we had a really good fruit tree year. The tree set hundreds and hundreds of tiny green apricots.

OK, I said. After the apricots turn ripe and come off the tree I’ll prune it.

Over the last month or two the apricots have been getting larger and larger, and the branches of the tree have been sagging lower and lower in my garden. I’ve been propping them up with sticks, worried that a branch might break off from the weight. With the branches hanging so low in the garden it was hard to walk around; I was always getting stuck in the arm and the back by wandering twigs. The shade from the branches was also causing problems with the vegetables in the neighboring beds. It may have been a good fruit tree year but it was going to be a terrible tomato year.

But every day the apricots got larger, and this last week they started to turn beautiful blushed pinky orange that my apricots have. Soon, I thought, coveting my apricots, squeezing the fruit every time I went by, testing them for goodness, and tasting future apricots in my mouth. Soon I would be able to start picking. Soon.

This morning I went out to the garden around lunch, and all was well.

This afternoon I looked out the kitchen window at the garden, and the apricot tree was gone. I could see all the way through the garden to the woods behind it. What? Hey! How…?

I had thought maybe worst case I might lose a branch. I didn’t expect the whole tree to split five ways right down the middle.

quel tragedie

I didn’t want those dirty sour old apricots anyway, said the fox.

i hate water. hate, hate, hate water.

Part of the reason I haven’t been posting here much is that we had a bit of a laundry room breakdown a few weeks back. I discovered that our washing machine had sprung a leak. Actually, it appeared to have sprung a leak a while ago, but it took us a while to find out because the previous owners of our house had carpeted the laundry room (note to budding interior decorators: don’t do that). Good appliance parts juju wouldn’t work in this case; the washing machine would have to be replaced.

Fortunately, we had a spare washing machine, due to bringing a washer and dryer with us when we moved and discovering that the previous homeowners had left their washer and dryer behind. We had intended to sell the extras and never got around to it. So I dragged the extra washing machine out of the barn where it had been sitting under a tarp for nine years, scrubbed the brown slime and rat poop off of it, ran a cycle through it out on the driveway, and it seemed to work just fine. Huzzah.

And then I ripped up the rotted laundry room carpet and put in vinyl. I had read in my home porn magazines that they were making nice looking vinyl these days but apparently not at my local home depot. All I could find was pinky-grey stick-on squares with floral patterns, or sheet vinyl with greenish-grey marbling and floral patterns. Barf. Finally I did stumble across boxes of vinyl planks, which are made to look like wood, in different colors and with a slight texture and everything. They stick to each other rather than to the floor, they’re easy to cut, and are waterproof once they’re down. This sounded like a terrific idea for a laundry room to me.

The planks went down fast and the result looked great (for fake wood the plank vinyl actually looks better than a lot of the pergo-style laminate out there). On friday we put the new washer and the old dryer back in the laundry room. With new baseboard and a quick coat of paint the laundry room was turning out to be the nicest room in the house. “Maybe we should have bought a new washer and dryer to match the new room,” commented Eric. Maybe in a few years. For now this was OK.

On saturday we ran four loads of laundry to catch up.

On sunday afternoon the washing machine I thought was OK seized in the middle of a load and flooded the laundry room, the hall, and a good portion of the bedroom.

Today I go shopping for that new washer and dryer after all.

the happy camper (2)

In the previous installment of this elaborate justification, a VW bus had followed us home.

big blue camper van

This is not the prototypical 60’s hippie microbus. For example, it was made in this century, and has things like airbags and a decent engine. Volkswagen continued to make this vehicle — in different configurations, and renaming it to the Vanagon, and then the Eurovan — all the way up through 2003, and in fact they are still making them in Europe. (They call them “multivan” there. Please resist making nerdy Fifth Element joke). But they stopped importing them to the United States a few years back for of lack of interest. Eurovans don’t really fit well into the typical American car lineup: they don’t compete well with normal minivans because they’re big, boxy and they don’t handle all that well, and they don’t compete well with commercial vans because they’re too nice inside. It didn’t help that when they were new they were also way too expensive.

Given all the changes over the years there really isn’t much hippie left in the Eurovan anymore, although there are still plenty of them around in hippie towns like Santa Cruz, which is where we found this one (through craigslist. of course). Ours is a 2002 Eurovan, and is the “Weekender” model, which means it is set up for casual camping. Permit me to show you around (some of this is duplication of what I wrote on flickr already):

big blue van

Yes, it is very very blue. We have a thing for blue cars. Note the blue truck right behind it.

There are hippie stickers on the windows which will have to come off. I’ve been debating painting skulls on the back to counteract the hippie effect.

come on in

The van seats seven. Two in front, two rear-facing seats, and a big bench seat in the back. I suppose you could stack a few more people up on the floor if you had to. All the seats are way comfortable. The folded up rear passenger seat comes out easily. All the others will come out with a little more work. With the seats out it’ll fit a motorcycle with no problem.

big rear hatch

This is a huge gaping maw of a back hatch. The shelf will hold about ten bags of groceries, and there is tons of storage underneath. The shelf itself lifts right out; Eric is going to fabricate some bike racks so that we can put bicycles sideways in back here. He thinks he can fit two bikes in, minus the front wheels.

The rear seat folds forward should we feel suddenly compelled to buy 4×8 sheets of plywood. (you never know. the space station might need a patch).

And more cupholders

There are cupholders and accessory power plugs all over this van. One would not want to have to reach very far to get to your beer or plug in your computer, after all.

Or for parties

Speaking of beer, there is a little fridge under this seat. The fridge and all the accessory plugs are driven by a separate battery, so you don’t drain the car running your stuff. (tidbit: the manual for the refrigerator is in german, and they call it Die Kuhlbox. From now on all refrigerators shall be Die Kuhlboxes.)

There’s also a little table, and lights, a separate heating system for the back, and curtains. Basically: it’s a small studio apartment on wheels.


This is the best part of the Weekender model Eurovan: the poptop roof. There’s a real bed up here, a mattress and everything. You can also prop the roof of the van into the poptop when it’s up, which lets you stand upright inside the van.

The bench seat in the van itself also pulls forward and completely flat — you can sleep two up in the poptop and two down below. In fact come to think of it I once had a studio apartment that was smaller than this van.

How does it drive? Well, a sports car it ain’t. It is a big, boxy, heavy van. The engine is a 2.8 liter VR6 with 200HP. It is tuned for torque, which means it can get out of its own way but it won’t really beat much of anything in a quarter mile run. On our twisty bumpy road it grips just fine but it’s not all that happy. It rattles a lot. On town roads or on the freeway it smoothes out and has no issues; it feels like just a large, slow, car. Maneuvering it around in parking lots is somewhat challenging; ironically it is much easier to see the back thanks to enormous mirrors and the square back end than it is to see the front which is pretty much invisible below the windshield.

Now we just have to decide where to go. Somehow the trip ten miles into town for breakfast once a week now seems somewhat…limiting.

the happy camper

A few years back we thought, maybe we should buy an RV.

Contrary to what you are thinking we have neither taken leave of our senses nor have we suddenly aged 40 years. We have no intentions of retiring early, selling the house, and spending the rest of our lives driving between the Koa Kampgrounds.

But we are the sort of people for whom there is no better vacation than to just point the car in some random direction and go out and explore for a couple weeks. A big stack of AAA maps and a full tank of gas: all we really need for big fun. An RV would mean we could go farther out without having to think, OK, time to go look for a motel room. We would be carrying our motel room with us.

We’re also the sort of people who occasionally load up the truck with bicycles or motorcycles and drive out to events or gatherings where typically there is camping. We can camp, sort of, in our current car, if you fold the seats down and don’t mind getting jabbed in the back by a tie-down. But it’s kind of tight. Not in the good kind of way. More in the ow you’re on my arm kind of way. There’s not a lot of room for both people and stuff in the car, and definitely not people and stuff and bicycles, or people and stuff and motorcycles and friends.

So we thought, hey, an RV.

But there are problems with RVs and other travel-type vehicles. Trailers of all sorts are difficult to maneuver and you have to go tediously slow on the highway when you drive them. Campers are top-heavy and hard to get on and off the truck. Full RVs are usable and comfortable but they’re expensive and…well, full RVs are just ugly. Insanely ugly. Good lord, are they ugly.

RV designers seem to be trapped in this strange time warp, a sort of Eisenhower-meets-Nixon design sensibility. Not the midcentury design that is cool and retro these days; it’s more the decor and panelling and textures you find in the suburban homes of old people who die alone and who are eaten by their cat. RV design gives me the willies.

And then there are the exteriors. In addition to a barge-like shape, RVs all seem to be decorated on the outside with some kind of inexplicable ocean theme, with blues and aquas and waves and names with “wind” and “foam” and “surf” in them. I’m not quite sure of the intention here. When I think of driving an RV I imagine other marine themes, for example, “I am driving a humpback whale,” or “the tide comes in faster than this vehicle climbs this hill.”

They do make a sort of RV called a Fun Mover which is not so bad, and happens to be an appropriate RV for our chosen lifestyle. With the Fun Mover, instead of the normal RV back full of bathroom or bed or widescreen TV they have an empty space and a big panel door that folds down into a ramp. They make them that way so that you can load up your ATVs or your motorcycles and go out with your RV into the unspoiled wilderness and, um, spoil it. And the RV manufacturers are, indeed, much better at designing the interiors of Fun Movers for people not on social security, or at least designing them for people like us — solvent and spoiled GenXers who seem to believe we have fun we need to move. They are less mobile suburban ranch homes than they are mobile garages. “Look,” said Eric, once, thrusting an RV magazine at me. In the magazine there was a picture of a Fun Mover, open in the back. “They’ve covered the ENTIRE INTERIOR WITH DIAMOND PLATE.” Now that was one cool RV.

Alas, Fun Mover exteriors still bear a strong resemblance to large oceangoing mammals.

At this point you will brightly point out the Airstream. Airstreams do have the significant advantage of being wholly not ugly. I actually know a few people who own Airstreams enough that it almost qualifies as an Airstream community. My sister Sharon has an airstream she actually lives in and drives back and forth to school. It is fabulous. She bought it for like $150, it is totally original, and for that we hate her. Jacob has an airstream he is restoring. Dori and Kathy have Airstreams they use as offices. I will point out however that airstreams are trailers and thus crossed off the list, and it would be tough to stuff a motorcycle through the door of an airstream.

After dithering about it for a while we were eventually dissuaded from the RV idea by a few significant issues besides the ugly part. First of all, we own way too many vehicles already. We have kind of a vehicle problem. There’s this thing? Where you have a big garage and a barn? Suddenly you find this really great deal on, well, anything, on craigslist? Cars, trucks, motorcycles, farm equipment, former soviet weaponry, submarines, space stations, it’s all just too cool and it’s cheap so you have to have it? We have this problem. Junk fills up the available space. It just happens. I can’t explain it.

Secondly, although we drive a whole lot, we don’t actually camp very much. Not much at all. Maybe once or sometimes twice a year. Most of the time we just find a motel at the end of the day. For a while we had this theory that if we bought a camper, we would go camping more often. This is the same sort of magical thinking that leads one to believe that if you sign up for a gym membership, you will go to the gym. Or that if you own a space station, you will of course instantly become an astronaut.

Then there is the RV gallons-per-mile problem which needs no further explanation.

But then in the last year so things changed. Eric has been doing more bicycle racing, and we’ve been traveling a lot more to farther away places. And we’ve been thinking in general of downsizing our vehicle collection, trading down the big vehicles from the cheap-gas-large-car-dotcom-exuberance era and getting smaller cars and fewer of them. So the thought of some kind of vehicle we could travel and camp in was becoming more appealing. Maybe not an RV. Maybe something smaller, maybe a camper or a trailer or…or…

Maybe a bus. A VW bus.

big blue camper van

(see Part 2)

it’s full of bits!

Last night I plugged in a new hard disk drive to store my increasingly large collection of stuff. I’ve done this a bunch of times before, its not hard. But then when I opened up Disk Utility to format the drive something seemed…kind of strange.


892.6 … PB? PB? That can’t mean…petabytes?

I looked down the screen to total capacity.


Holy crap! Thats a lot of bytes. I had to go tell Eric.

Laura: what does it mean when you plug in a disk and it says you have 900 petabytes of free space?
Eric: either the math is wrong or you’ve just opened up a worm hole in space.

Geeky explanation: It turns out that Maxtor drives do not jumper like the Quantum drives I’ve been using. I reset the jumper correctly and I got the normal .00025 PB capacity I was looking for.

under siege by the dogs of war

There’s a pack of coyotes that’s been hanging out at my house recently. They lurk on the edges of the lawn near the bushes and they watch the house. Shifty creatures. They’re after the cat.

A few weeks back it was just one coyote, and he would just pass back and forth on from one side of the lawn to the other or sit at a distance and watch the house. He was a nice-looking coyote, too, a younger one, silver and orange, with a black nose and black at the tip of his tail. Given that we don’t see coyotes that often I thought it was kind of cool. I was really naive.

Fierce Cat was not at all pleased with this new visitor. Fierce Cat was mostly wild when she showed up on our doorstep six years ago, and has had many fights with wildlife since then. As she’s grown older she spends more of her time indoors, but she still goes out to prowl the yard every day and hunt bunnies. She’s a big, tough, muscular cat with long claws; she has no trouble with any other cats, including the bobcats that are half again her size. But the coyotes are bigger and meaner than anything else in the woods, they hunt in packs, and they’ll eat her if they catch her. When the coyotes show up, she usually decides its time to come in NOW.

And then there was the confrontation. One day I came downstairs from my office for lunch and Fierce Cat was at the door wanting to be let out. I opened the door without thinking and looked out at the same time. The coyote was standing right in the middle of the lawn less than ten feet from the door.

OHSHIT, thought I, and stuck my foot out to keep Fierce Cat from going out. She darted right over it, out onto the porch and onto the stairs. There was a half a pause as Fierce Cat saw the coyote and the coyote saw Fierce Cat. And then Fierce Cat PUFFED up all her fur, HISSED murderously, and with a dark yowl from the depths of hell took off running down the stairs TOWARD the coyote.

OHSHIT, thought the coyote, turned around, and ran at full speed back toward the safety of the edge of the lawn. I ran after both of them, not really knowing what I was going to do or who I was going to be saving from whom. Fierce Cat’s show of force was actually short-lived and she stopped just a few feet past the initial charge, but I followed the coyote all the way past the tree and down the hill and called it bad names as it disappeared into the bushes.

Naively I thought perhaps we had chased the coyote away. But more and more the coyote appeared on the edges of the lawn. I would see him almost every day, becoming bolder, sometimes sitting right out in the middle of the yard, and he showed no fear at all when I went outside. I collected a bucket of pine cones and I pitch cones at the coyote if I see it. This actually has no effect whatsoever because I have terrible aim. Even when I do get close the coyote just jumps back a few steps and stops. He has no fear at all. And he’s watching, watching, watching the house.

One night the coyote got revenge on us for trying to chase it off by standing right next to the house at 3AM and howling. Coyotes don’t howl like wolves do; there are no melodic transylvanian howls here. Coyotes have more of a creepy barking yodel, a big doggy squeaky toy yelp that jars your bones. And It just goes on and on and on. We turned on the outside lights and the coyote wasn’t the least bit perturbed. He stood right out in the yard just outside the glow of the lights and danced as he barked, stuck his nose in the air like some kind of gibbering insane southwestern cliche and barked on for an hour or so. By the time he stopped we were fully awake, the cats were frantic and war had been declared.

We thought we had the upper hand in this war, after all there was just one of him and three of us (Well, four of us if you count George but George is kind of a noncombatant. If we are suddenly besieged by an army of wet rubber bands or sluggish house flies, George will be our man.) But then the odds changed. There was the barking one morning in the twilight and then we saw them: a second coyote, and a third. A pack of coyotes, all standing on the edges of the lawn in the bushes, and all of them watching, watching, as if to say “send out the cat, heh heh.”

Now sometimes I think I can see coyotes in the yard even when there are no coyotes, motions in the bushes, flashes of silver and grey out of the edges of my vision. I hear the barking, hear it repeated at dusk in a persistent cry all around us, a howl that swells menacingly like the first howl of a rising storm. Don’t you hear it? Can’t you hear it? Oh my god! The barking! The barking!

nice neighborhood, except for the dead people

This weekend on the road right near my house they found a body — human bones scattered in a ravine. The road is closed right now while the sheriff investigates.

This isn’t unusual for the mountains where I live. There have been a dozen or so bodies found in this area since we moved here eight years or so. Even as Silicon Valley inhales deeply with tech growth and expands out east and west the mountains to the south remain dark and impenetrable and mostly empty. Our road is the first mountain exit off the freeway so when people in the valley do bad things they come up here to get rid of the evidence. People also come out here to hide, to disappear, or to end their own lives. When they’re discovered — sometimes months or years later — their stories are unearthed with the bones. Sometimes they are famous. Sometimes they are ordinary local people who became locally or even nationally famous when they vanished. Sometimes we never find out who they were; the mountains swallowed up their identities as well as their bodies.

We don’t know the story behind these new bones yet, although there are rumors they are those of a woman who disappeared a number of years back. On the radio station they interviewed the local sherriff, who said: “We don’t have any information on whether the bones belong to anyone at this time.”

Call it a hunch, I think that the bones belong to someone.

the worst joke I’ve heard all year (so far)

You might want to be sitting down for this.

A frog goes into a bank and approaches the teller. He can see from her nameplate that her name is Patricia Whack.

“Miss Whack, I’d like to get a $30,000 loan to take a holiday,” said the frog.

Patty looks at the frog in disbelief and asks his name. The frog says his name is Kermit Jagger, his dad is Mick Jagger, and that it’s okay, he knows the bank manager. Patty explains that he will need to secure the loan with some collateral.

The frog says, “Sure. I have this,” and produces a tiny porcelain elephant, bright pink, and about an inch tall.

Very confused, Patty explains that she’ll have to consult with the bank manager and disappears into a back office.

She finds the manager and says, “There’s a frog called Kermit Jagger out there who claims to know you and wants to borrow $30,000, and he wants to use this as collateral.”

She holds up the tiny pink elephant. “I mean, what in the world is this?”

The bank manager looks back at her and says, “It’s a knickknack, Patty Whack. Give the frog a loan. His old man’s a Rolling Stone.”

(I got it from Cliff Johnson)