Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Rats on the Balcony

AS I start writing this, I realize that there will now be two posts out of a whopping 7 on this Blog that have to do with rodentia. Little furry creatures are part of my life, what can I say. Well here, take a look at this, a page made by my wonderful wife, Jasmine.
As you can see, having these wonderful little creatures visiting your doorway can be considered a responsibility. They are wild creatures, yes, but we have chosen to help feed and maintain them. Walnuts aren't cheap! Besides, who could resist this face?

Last night, we were watching "The Day After Tomorrow." It was late, about 10:30 PM, when I saw some movement over on the balcony. I saw two little ears sticking up out of a rodent shaped head. Squirrels at night? That never hapens. Squirrels curl up in little balls and sleep during the night. What was this thing? I looked again and saw a sleek body and long, stringy tail attached to this otherwise squirrel-shaped creature. A Rat! Yup, a dirty, stinking, disease carrying, babies-eyeballs-chewing rat! Like this one:

This was horrible! A rat on our balcony! Maybe not as bad as a rat in the kitchen, but terrible nonetheless. Unclean people have rodent problems, not us! Jasmine was freaking out even worse than I. Put the cat outside, she said. Insisting we keep the light on on the balcony (this would drive them away), she started to clean the apartment. Cleaning inside isn't going to do anything to keep rats away outside, but hey, if it makes one feel better. Naturally, we had to stop the movie to "deal" with this situation. If you haven't seen "The Day After Tomorrow," you probably at least know its an apacolyptic thriller about the sudden coming of an ice age. Last night was the coldest night of the year so far. Add the cold to the movie to rat appearing at the slding glass door, and it seemed as is the world was coming to an end.

But is it really all that bad? Why do we feed the squirrels and think they're the cutest things in the world, while cringing in horror at the sight of a rat? They both can carry parasites. They both live comfortably in trees in urban environments. I'm not the first person to think about this question, and there's one obvious answer: THE TAILS. A rat's tail is very useful to the rat; it may even be prehensile, I'm not sure. Squirrels tails, on the other hand are great for show. Falshy, bushy things, I've seen them use their tails to communicate with one another and us too many times to count. Squirrels know their tails are potent tools for manipulation. Their tails have also gotten them in a bit of trouble. Read this anecdote written by the Devil.

Despite the fact that I can intellectually grasp the concept that roof rats and squirrels are cousins and not really all that different from one another, I would never be able to feed the rats. Feed wild rats? It sounds inhuman! As it turns out, we have been feeding the rats. Jasmine has been putting out handfuls of shelled walnuts before going to bed so that any early-morning squirrel visitors would find food waiting for them. Sure enough, she reported, the nuts would be gone when she woke up in the morning. Something was eating them. We figure now that the roof rats have been making their way to our balcony and eating the squirrel food.

Should we feed the rats too?

Monday, October 18, 2004

Sho Ka Wah

I'm reluctant to begin a new post to this blog because doing so will move the "Anniversary Trip" piece out of the top position. Its not that I think that bit of travel writing is all that good, but it is at least attempting to be entertaining reportage. There are pictures. In that account, I described how wrong turns lead to Jasmine and I missing opportunities to learn about the indigenous Pomo Indians at Clear Lake State Park. My training is in history and sociology, so cultural tourism is an enjoyable thing for me. I like museums and historical sites. Didn't see any at Clear Lake.

We drove north away from Lakeport taking Hwy 20 to US 101 South. A couple hours later, we were ready to stop and stretch the legs and go pee. We saw the signs for the Indian Casino. I've never been in an Indian Casino. Lets stop there, I suggested. Have an iced tea. Jasmine was initially reluctant, but as we drew nearer she agreed. Maybe we could drop a few dollars in some slot machines.

The casino is on Hwy 175, just east of Hopland. The sign at the intersection of 101 and 175 says, "Sho Ka Wah Casino. Just Three Minutes Away!" We turned. Three minutes passed. No Casino. Three minutes? I hope they didn't mean three 1/60th of a degree of longitude away. I'm not sure how far that it is, but its been 5 minutes. False advertising! Three minutes on what? A race bike? There came a sing: Lakeport: 24 miles. We Left Lakeport 2 hours ago and we're 24 miles away again? Ack! Once again, I had made an incorrect driving decision. We coulda taken this very Hwy 175 from Lakeport to get to where we are now in less time. We did discuss coming this way, but since the road seemed a lot more squiggly, it would be a lot more hair pin turn stuff.

A sign at the Hwy marked the entrance to the "Cheap Smokes & Casino", a remnant from a time when avoiding state taxes on tobacco was more an incentive to visitors than the Vegas style gaming. Then the newer sign at the entrance: "The Hopland band of Pomo Tribe present: SHO KA WAH." Once inside, The Sho Ka Wah Casino seems just like any small Nevada Casino, except that there are fewer card games. No dice or roulette at all.

I had come to Clear Lake intending to learn about the Pomo Indians. The drive and companionship had been great, but no learning on this trip. I do know that slot machines are programmed to win a certain percentage of time. In Nevada,a state gaming commission establishes minimums for winning percentages. I wonder how "loose" the Indian Casino slots actually are? It sure didn't take those dollar slots very long to drain from Jasmine and I more money than we had spent on the entire trip up to that point.

Perhaps that's what the Pomo Indians finally taught me. Stay away from the Indian casinos if you don't want to lose money!

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Anniversary Trip

Yesterday, Jasmine and I celebrated our one year wedding anniversary. We can no no longer be called "newlyweds," and we greeted this morning (albeit a bit blurry-eyed) with enthusiasm and optimism. Our second year should be even better than our first.

For weeks, we have been discussing where we were going to go on our anniversary trip. Places like San Diego, Reno, Southern Utah and Washington state were proposed and rejected. Finally, we decided it would need to be someplace close enough to get to as a day trip, but not so close that it didn't feel like we were leaving the SF Bay Area. We decided we'd just get in my trusty Suzuki Sidekick and let it lead the way. Follow the nose of the vehicle to wherever it may take us! No doubling back! Just go one direction and stick to it!

Well, that may sound adventurous and romantic but it isn't all that practical. My truck might smell like a horse on occasion, but the Suzuki can't really decide where to go on its own. It has to be driven. On the night before the adventure, we sat down with the AAA Road Atlas and looked at the map of California one more time. Up north, about 150 miles away, was a big smudge of blue with green around it. From my experience reading maps, this indicated there lay a body of water surrounded by parks. Perfect! That's exactly the kind of thing we were looking for. Clear Lake, it was called, and neither of us had ever been there. Without any further discussion, we decided that come morning, we'd head off to Clear Lake.

When morning came, I thought I'd better at least Google "things to do in Clear Lake." I found out a few things. Clear Lake is the second largest natural freshwater lake in California. No one knows where it gets its name because its actually not all that clear. It claims to be the best place for bass fishing in the state, and at least in terms of the total quantity of bass pulled by anglers, it is in fact true. The terrain is dominated by Mount Tenocti, an extinct/dormant volcano that geologists believe had active lava flows as little as 10,000 years ago. The region still has lots of geysers and hot springs, indicating that there's still hot stuff flowing around down there. Wow. Volcanoes in the Bay Area?!? This place sounded exciting! Since we weren't fishermen, and the volcano wasn't likely to start rumbling again during our day trip, I still needed to find something for us to do. The California State Park website was helpful there, describing a level, modest nature hike in Clear Lake State Park, which lie on the southern shore of the lake (it's the star in the map above). The hike boasted that it would teach you about how the native Pomo Indians lived and actually take one through the remains of an old Pomo Village. That sounded cool. I also found out about a Clear Lake museum in Lakeport, a town on the west shore. It was in an old courthouse building and also looked worthy of visiting. Great. Now we had both a destination and things to do once we got there.

What I should have done next was reasearch the best way to get there. It seemed simple enough, just past the Carquinez Bridge was a road called Highway 29, it went pretty much straight through Vallejo, Napa and Calistoga and ended at Lakeport. My idea was take this highway up, and skip over to US 101 for the ride back. Again, no doubling back down the same roads. Unfortunately, for large parts of it, particularly in Napa Country, Hwy 29 is not much of a highway. It's actually more like a busy city street. Stoplight after stoplight. Strip mall after strip mall. It was tedious and boring driving. Finally, we got into the city of Napa, and by this point we needed to stop. Napa is a very "touristy" area, the "Wine Country" bring millions of visitors. I thought their visitor information center might have some stuff about Lake County, but alas, when we found the place and took our first break, they only had stuff about Napa County. Sheesh!

One good map (even the one above would have helped) would have saved us a lot of misadventure later.

We did find a nice candy store, and Jasmine got a piece of fudge. Given that she later called it the highlight of the trip, I guess its a good thing I snapped a picture of it.
I ended up making my second of several bad decisions that day by ordering a piece of chocolate covered frozen cheesecake. Sounds good, but before lunch, it just made me queasy.
The trees were changing color, and despite all the old tourists, obvious signs of horrible affluence and other distractions which made us envious, the town of Napa was quite pretty. Here I am along a walkway struggling to finish off my frozen cheesecake on a stick.

The rest of our journey through Napa County was scenic and interesting, but again, long and filled with stoplights and lots of traffic. If October isn't the busiest tourist season in Napa, I'd hate to have seen the place at its peak. Again we just crawled along Hwy 29, past vineyard after vineyard. Better than strip malls, but since neither of use enjoy wine all that much, it didn't hold that much fascination. In fact the abundant tourists we saw in other cars, along the sides of the road and in winery parking lots seemed pretty homogenous: old, pudgy white folks with big hats and white hair. Wine lovers. We were "escorted" along our journey by the famous Napa Wine Train. The tracks parallel Hwy 29, and we passed this locomotive and were passed by it several times along the journey. Kudos to Jasmine for tricky bit of digital photography: shooting a moving vehicle from another moving vehicle.

Finally, Hwy 29 started to become the Bay Area Backroad we had hoped for. The pass from the Napa Valley into the Clear Lake basin is beautiful. The flora is quintiscential Northern California: chapparal on the sunny southward sides of the hills, with shady and cool coniferous forest on the northward sides. The air was warm and smelled great. A slight haze from our regular October forest fires made for spectacular rays of sunshine streaming through the branches. The road itself was well maintained and curvy enough to make the driving fun without making the passenger car sick. Regular passing lanes accommodated drivers taking the road at different paces.

Everything was going great until I made a wrong turn. If you scroll upwards to the map at the top of the post you can see where Hwy 53 splits northward where 29 makes a left. At that intersection, things don't look like they do on the map. Hwy 29 looks like a little tiny road whereas this Hwy 53 looks broad and inviting. I actually left the turn lane for some reason and headed up Hwy 53. A few blocks later, I realized my mistake and thought I could make another left down something called "Old Clearlake Highway" and intersect 29 somewhere on the south shore. It didn't work out that way. Instead we found ourselves travelling through the backstreets of the town of Clearlake. Mobile homes and rusty cars lined a sidewalk-less road riddled with potholes. In our urban minds, we had stumbled into the horror that is Whitetrash Methville, USA. Worse off we were hungry.

If you again look at the map above, you can see a strip of green along the north shore of the lake. Thats the southern tip of Mendocino National Forest. Given that we had pledged at the beginning of the trip not to return the way we'd came, that became our new driving goal. As we passed food establishment after food establishment, each unappealing in its own way, "Good Eats," seemed unlikely. "Get me to the woods!" exclaimed Jasmine. I'm sure any of the possible restraunts we passed would have been fine, but a fresh coat of paint and the words "First Street Bar & Grill," finally assuaged us both into stopping for lunch.

Out the window of the car, I took a picture of the volcano. I thought at the time, it would be the first of several. Turned out to be the only one.

Here's a hint for other travellers who might visit the Clear Lake Basin: make sure your vehicle is air conditioned. The temp climbed into the high 80's with little wind. We travelled up the East shore of the lake, with its southwesternly facing, it started to get a bit uncomfortable in the afternoon heat. A stop at the Tourist information center in Lucerne revealed that the National Forest is not really something you can visit. Its just trail-less forestry land without accommodations unless you travel another 50 miles or so northward. Ack! What next?

We swooped around the north shore and decided to head down to Lakeport. At least we could see the museum I had read about that morning. In downtown Lakeport, we emerged from our vehicle to be greeted by a horrible racket. As I had earlier read, Lakeport is also home to a major racetrack. There was some kind of motorcycle race this afternoon, and the screaming engines spoiled any tranquility of the shady side of the lake. At least we had the museum. Here it is -

Hey, what's that sign in the window??

OMG - What time is it? 4:30?!?

We went down to the lake's edge, found a nice park bench, and relaxed. Over the screaming of not-too-distant formula one engines, Jasmine put her head in my lap. We talked about our first year. Happy Anniversay, honey. Maybe these guys on the pier will catch a bass.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Persuasive Pundits

It's two weeks from the election, and for the first time, some polls actually show Kerry a couple points ahead of Bush. As we discovered last time, however, who wins the popular vote means nothing. It's all about who wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona. I'd like to hear about a poll that projects a winner based on lots of polls in the swing states.
One thing polls do provide is hope or despair for the observer. Kind of like the score in a sporting match when its 3/4ths of the way through. It ain't over till its over, as a great Yogi once said. That's where I'm at this morning: I've got hope Kerry will win. After the debates (the 3rd one is tonight), as I'm sure was the same for many Americans, my stance changed in that I now support Kerry not just beacause he's "anybody but Bush," but in his own right as an intelligent, honest leader attuned to what most Americans actually believe and want.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Eastmont Mall

We have the most unusual shopping mall I've even visited right here in Oakland, CA. It's called Eastmont, a name it shares with the rather sketchy district surrounding it. East Oakland is notorious for being one of the most drug and gang infested neighborhoods in our great city, and this weird mall lies in the heart of it. Yet, in a way, it's thriving. You won't find a Macy's or Nordstrom there. Heck, there isn't even a Gap, Hot Topic or Starbucks. One finds none of the standard mall fare which makes all the other malls seem sickeningly similar. Instead, the marble floors connect 99 cent shops, beauty supply stores and the ubiquotous cellular phone dealers. The food court boasts soul food, authentic taquerias and Asian food in steam trays. Most unusual is the massive state presence there. Next to nail shops and check cashing places are outposts of the Dept of Health and Human Services, educational development organizations, child welfare agencies and the biggest police staion I've ever seen. Who ever heard of government organizations even at the mall, much less leasing half the available space to them? I was going there to drop off my cable box (we recently switched to satellite), as Comcast Cable is another of the unusual tennants to operate there.

I suppose it makes sense. Eastmont Mall is the dense commercial district (I've been playing a lot of SimCity lately) for East Oakland, and a mall reflects the economic needs of the community it serves. The difference being that these state organizations aren't out to make money, but to distribute it instead. In my retail industry head, this seems weird.

I've seen dying malls; places where there are more empty & deserted shops than open ones. There's one just south of San Francisco called Tanforan. Like Eastmont, much of the empty retail space has been absorbed by a big organization with financial stability. The highest volume Sears in the western USA makes its home at Tanforan, and they lease a lot more of the space than just the department store. That Sears is what keeps Tanforan alive. Whats different about Tanforan is that its been driven to the brink of closing by lots of new intense competition for the business of the more affluent community surrounding it. The space the government has absorbed at Eastmont, however, was created due to the poor economic environment of the area around it.

My question is whether its the actual crime or the perception of crime in the area which depresses the economic activity of Eastmont Mall? Based on the occasional comments I've heard from folks who are reluctant to visit my Sears store in Downtown Oakland, I suspect the latter to be more of a factor. A lot of ladies are reluctant to come Downtown because they're afraid, eventhough the nighborhood is actually quite tame. People come to Sears mostly because they have to. To get Kenmore and Craftsman, they gotta come to us. If we didn't have those advantages, it would be a lot harder to stick around. I suspect, however, if we suddenly moved eight miles south to Eastmont, we would not be able to draw the business we do now as a freestanding store, despite the addition of a mall surrounding us. Could Eastmont become Tanforan East? If I ran the place, thats what I'd shoot for.