Sunday, November 25, 2007

Uplifted

On Thanksgiving morning, I checked out of the motel early. Any idea I had of having breakfast at some nostalgic location fell through due to the passage of time. For example, while I had thought I might have breakfast at Ken’s House of Pancakes, I discovered that Ken was now dead and the House of Pancakes was now a seafood restaurant. Other choices had similar fates. So I left Palo Alto and crossed over the Bay via the Dumbarton Bridge. I don’t particularly care for the East Bay (just endless San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose suburban sprawl) so this portion of the trip was just “slogging north” to get to my sister’s. It wasn’t until I had completed the counter-clockwise circumabulation of the northeastern portion of the bay (across the Carquinez Strait with its $4.00 toll) and approached Vallejo, could I exit this region by turning right at the Napa and Sonoma turn-off and enter into Wine Country on Highway 20.

Pretty soon, driving through Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga, everything was amazingly beautiful. My heart has a yearning for lovely agricultural regions and while this area is mainly devoted to wine, probably my least favorite thing to drink, one can’t help but be overcome by the shaded lanes of immense spreading trees, rolling hills covered in neatly planted and tended grapevines, and impressive stone-built wine estates. It’s more like the Loire than it is typical California.



While I had never been down this route before, I understood that normally there would be quite a lot of activity, such as busloads of people going wine-tasting from one estate to another, but as this was Thanksgiving Day, virtually everything was closed. It seemed that there were hardly any cars on the road and therefore it was quiet and peaceful and other-worldly.

I amused myself over thoughts about how such a culture (indeed, such a snobbery) had built up around the growing and fermentation of this one particular fruit. Nobody cares where their orange or apple juice comes from, for example, but with grapes fermented into wine, the tastes can be narrowed down to particular geographical locations, years, varietals, and vintners. It’s not something I ever got into much beyond “probably shouldn’t have red wine with fish”. Maybe I should come back here to this region for a vacation, stay in one of their lovely country resorts, go tasting from winery to winery, and come away learning something.

Seeing how it looked like everything was closed, I was kicking myself for rushing so quickly through the Bay Area without having stopped for breakfast when there were so many choices. However, I lucked out in Calistoga (where for sure I would like to go back and stay in one of their hot spring spas) and found a cute and quaint café that was open for Thanksgiving Day. The waitress seemed none too happy about having to work that day, but my hungry self verbally expressed my sincere appreciation that they were open and after my meal, I gave her a 25% tip.

A little after Middletown, the landscape changed from sheltered agricultural valley to mountainous and the road rose up out of Napa County into Lake County. This, too, was beautiful country, with spreading oak trees and isolated mountain cabins. Around one of the corners, a highway patrolman hid in a nook off the road, hoping to catch speeders, or perhaps just to take a nap. He, like the waitress, had had to work on Thanksgiving. One of the things I was thankful for was that I had this little vacation to enjoy.

Ultimately, I arrived at the little town of Clearlake, itself, and then began to follow my sister’s detailed step-by-step instructions so that I could find her lakeshore house (the kind of directions where you have to reset your odometer to help you count miles between visual landmarks).

My sister, negatively conditioned by some of her snobby friends (who feel that if it isn’t at least Lake Tahoe, it isn’t worth a visit), self-deprecatingly apologized for the town as being “seedy”, but the one place I have been that it reminded me of was the little village near Cook’s Bay on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. I wouldn’t describe Moorea, one of the loveliest spots on planet Earth, as “seedy”.

My sister had also always apologized that her lake house was “small”. Well, I suppose if you are thinking of the multi-million-dollar houses springing up all over the place in our former “home town” of Atherton, this house on the lake might be considered small. For example, it only has two bedrooms so that my niece and nephew have to share. But I don’t hear them complaining; they have cozy bunkbeds and the two are quite into closeness, anyway. This is their weekend getaway house, so they might even be happy with a sleeping bag on the floor (which was my own accommodation!).

No, the house is wonderful and beautifully decorated with gorgeous furniture and wonderful art on the walls and appropriate sculptures of pelicans, egrets, cranes, and fish. Much of the art is actually depicting the lakes region of Italy and Switzerland (Lake Como, the town of Bellagio, and so on) and yet looks perfectly at home on these walls. The clear water of the lake spreads out in a fascinating complication of shore and cove below your feet, and across the waters of this particular bay or cove you can see two matched “Teton” mountains and when the sun begins to set and golden light skims across the water’s surface, golden fireflies of light can be seen coming from the houses across the lake.



Naturally in a house like this there is a lot of tall glass for taking in the view (except on one stone wall that has a fireplace), but the most beautiful room in the house was the “sun room” that my sister had added, which has floor-to-ceiling glass on the three sides that are exposed to the lake, and the ceiling even has clear-glass skylights. This room (larger than my apartment) served as the dining room for our Thanksgiving dinner, and also my bedroom for the two nights I stayed there.

Outside beyond all the glass are a couple of layers of large over-water sundecks, and over in the corner of one of the decks is a four-person hot-tub, always piping hot and ready for soaking! What a magnificent spot that was, to be soaking in that hot-tub late at night with a drink in our hand, a bright moon overhead, and the sound of the waves lapping against the shore beneath us!

Beyond the sundecks is a long “pier” type of walkway that extends further out over the lake, taking you over to the built-in roof and pier of the boat house, which is a motorized dry dock and is surrounded by a swimming deck so that when lowered down to the waterline, allows the water skiing boat to be taken out, and the deck with its ladder gives swimmers easy access to and exit from the lake.

In addition to the motor boat, which my sister’s fiancé bought for them to have at the house, there is also a small sailboat on a trailer (which can be launched via the house’s boat launch), which my sister bought as a gift for her fiancé, and several kayaks. However, during this short trip, we did not go out onto (or swimming into) the water. We’ll save all the water sports, for, for sure, a summer-time visit.

As my brother said, “What more would you want?” And in a way, its only disadvantage is that it is too far for my sister to commute to work, but its very isolation is actually one of its main assets. We’re all aware of the potential for various national or local disasters, although each one of us seems to believe strongly in some of them and just as strongly disbelieve in others—such as “peak oil”, “global warming”, “collapse of the dollar”, “World War III”, domestic race war (“Civil War II”), “terrorist attack,” “martial law,” and various other assorted “earthquakes, landslides, pollution, brush fires, running out of water” and so on. I kept noticing that if my sister and her kids really had to, they could actually survive out there—they could catch fish in the lake and terrace and plant the land she owns up the hill across from the road (Lake County is a very good agricultural county) and therefore have food to eat; they could purify the lake water for drinking, and so on.

It’s perhaps odd that I even think in such terms (I DON'T believe in “peak oil” and “global warming”, am about 50/50 on “World War III” and feel that “Civil War II” is about 25% likely, and further terrorist attack a little more likely), but the two that actually DO worry me as more than likely are “economic collapse” and “martial law”, so yes, I do think of such things and I am deeply aware at how terribly dangerous my own personal situation is, living like I do in a place and circumstance where I most likely would NOT survive any of these things. But THAT is soon to change.

Thanksgiving dinner was all about good company and good food and drink and for me it was especially wonderful to be among people who, while we lovingly disagree over things like politics (my brother and his wife are Hillary supporters; my sister and her fiancé are Edwards supporters, and I am way over on the other side supporting Ron Paul), deep down inside, we all come from the same root stock and fundamentally understand, support, and love each other. We’re way more alike where it really counts than we are different. All except one sister who was not present except for one miserable period when my brother’s wife, in a moment of loving compassion, called this sister to tell her we were thinking about her and “wished” she were there with us, and put her on speaker phone, during which we were treated to her unique brand of obsession and insanity, which soon enough degenerated into evil and finally the necessity of hanging up on her.

But after that, the fun resumed.

Being together with these people always helps me to remember (to feel more deeply) who I really am, and I greatly appreciate that. And in fact, that was the kind of thing I was most thankful of this Thanksgiving. I know who my parents were and who our extended relations were (and by this I don't mean their identities, but their value); I understand how proud I can be of my heritage and background and can appreciate the immense quality of the people that I am a part of. When I find myself surrounded by, listening to the din of, and being brought down by the hordes who are NOT that and wouldn’t come CLOSE to even imagining that level for the next two thousand lifetimes, all too easily I can feel alone and shipwrecked on a charred and burning planet, overrun with trilobites. But then I get together with these good people and I am uplifted once again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sort of Feeling Out of Sorts



(The above photo is John Travolta's house and his parked jumbo jets, NOT our parents' house!)

My brother's plan to have the "Grand Opening" show-off of our remodelled and beautified parents' house fell through. He called me at work Monday to tell me that he discovered some damage in the new carpet that carpet installers had come to install and there would be no replacement carpet available until December. Besides, the outside of the house hasn't been painted yet, so the house is not ready.

I was having a terrible day at work and frankly, had so much to do that day and the next that I couldn't see how I'd be able to leave right after work the next day, anyway, which had been my plan. If I get to leave right at four, I will reach my destination in Sonoma County by midnight, but if I leave work at six or seven P.M., it's crazy to drive all night. So if we had no official "festivities" until Thursday, I decided to not push myself to leave Tuesday night, but work as late as necessary in order to get things done by their deadlines.

I ended up working to 6 P.M. both days.

Things at work on Tuesday were worse than they were on Monday and the only good thing that happened that day mostly occurred in my head, but here it is:

One of my co-workers has a good friend who is good friends with the wife of actor Patrick Swayze. Patrick Swayze's wife is also an actor, or at least a dancer (Patrick met her due to her being a student at his mother's dance academy in New York--thus because of this famous dance-teacher-mother, you can get an idea why "Dirty-dancing" Patrick became a dancer, himself!), but I just don't know her name. So this makes my co-worker a friend of Patrick's wife via one-degree of separation.

Sometimes a new establishment of some kind will publicize their existence by throwing a party for celebrities and then the word, cache', and coolness factor spreads. For example, when Mammoth Mountain, the large Southern California ski resort, opened in the early 70s, the resort threw a huge celebrity ski weekend, inviting a large list of celebrities who, in turn, were asked to invite their publicists for a multi-day skiing bash. Actor Robert Stack and his wife Rosemary were among the celebrity celebrants, and the Stacks invited their good friend, my uncle (the one who was the celebrity photographer), to come take pictures of them, and my uncle, in turn, invited my sister the ski freak (not the one who is having us for Thanksgiving tomorrow).

Well, some new hotel is opening in Las Vegas and the hotel was throwing a celebrity opener to which the Swayzes were invited, and Patrick's wife invited her friend and my co-worker. My co-worker is one who rarely takes a vacation, but this four-day Las Vegas trip with the Swayzes was too good to pass up. They were going to fly to Las Vegas in the Swayze's private jet, ride a limousine all around Las Vegas, and yack it up in this new hotel (my co-worker loves to gamble, so this whole thing really was right up her alley).

When she got back (Tuesday), the one thing I wanted to hear about was the private jet. My co-worker did not know what kind it was, but from her description I guessed it was bigger than a Lear Jet, for example. She said it seated more than four people.

But to me the VERY COOL thing was that she told me that both Patrick and his wife are pilots. Patrick flew the plane to Las Vegas, and his wife flew it back home to the Van Nuys airport!

I don't know why that excited me so much, but I thought that was so great that I wasn't even envious of them; instead, I was just filled with admiration.

Now I know that other "Hollywood types" are also pilots and some are very accomplished, such as John Travolta, who has a couple of huge jets that he parks next to his house in Florida. Tom Cruise is another accomplished pilot who owns several planes, including a serious acrobatic plane in which Tom loves to fly loop-the-loops, upside down, and other acrobatic tricks (SCARES his companions who come along for the ride!). I think Harrison Ford owns planes that he flies, also, but I'm not 100% sure about him.

As fate would have it, one of my projects that took me up to 6 PM to finish required mailing out that night, so I took the envelopes to the Van Nuys post office on Sherman Way, because it will accept mail up to 8 PM. That post office happens to be quite near one of my favorite restaurants, 94th Aero Squadron, which is right next to the Van Nuys airport and you can watch planes taking off and landing right outside your window as you eat. So, since I was in the neighborhood, and in honor of the two Swayze pilots, I decided to have dinner there and sort of "dream" about the planes.

The dinner was great and afterwards, I went out to their patio and stood by the chainlink fence and watched several executive jets, some taking off, others coming in to land, two helicopters take off, and one single-engine prop Cessna take off. Each type has its distinctive engine sound, the jet's shriek, the helicopter's stacatto, and the Cessna's roar, but all of them are exciting. I was impressed at how many people were perfectly secure flying late at night, but I guess if they know what they are doing, the darkness doesn't matter.

I wonder how hard it would be, how long it would take, how much it would cost to learn how to pilot a jet? One thing for sure, I think that would be quite a thrill.

Oh well, as for me, I better finish learning how to sail, first! That is much more practical and useful for now.

* * *

I left bright and early this morning and did not encounter heavy traffic, which was a pleasant surprise. The car was smooth, fast, and beautiful, and I filled "the cabin" with gorgeous sounds from my iPod piped through the car's stereo system. I did not leave L.A. with a full tank, reasoning that I might just encounter lower gasoline prices outside of the city, which sometimes does happen. However, that did not happen this time. When I needed to fill my tank, I went to a brand-new Union 76 station and then had trouble getting the pump to work. I'd slide the credit card in and put the nozzle into my gas tank and the pump would shut off before dispensing a drop and nothing I could do would make it work. So I cancelled the transaction, tried the whole thing again, and the same malfunction repeated.

I went into the station to get help from the manager, who came back outside with me to see what was going on. He couldn't get the pump to work, either, so I suggested that perhaps I should move forward to the pump just ahead of me that was now vacant.

"Oh no, I don't think you want to get gas from there," he cautioned, "that's racing gasoline and costs $7.00 a gallon."

"Racing gasoline," I asked, "what's that?"

I had never heard of this, but it is 100 octane gasoline for high performance engines such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Honestly, I had never known there was such a thing, or that they required special gasoline, and to think I'd first see it practically way out in the middle of nowhere on I-5.

So instead I went to yet another pump and the manager determined that for some reason, none of them were going to work with my card, but that I had to go inside the station, instead, and run the card through there. And yikes, this place cost me $50.00 to fill my tank, that was the highest I have paid in my whole life, and I only had 91 octane Super!

* * *

I got to the motel in Palo Alto (where I had decided to stay tonight) in record speed, I felt. Tomorrow I will then drive the rest of the way to Clear Lake for Thanksgiving.

I checked into my motel (where I am now, writing this on their free wireless network in the room, something I HAVE to have now wherever I stay), went shopping for some wine to bring my sister, and then went to dinner.

My sister might think this is cute--I bought the wine at a liquor store where she had her first job. She worked there in their gift-wrapping department for the Christmas holidays when she was in high school.

I hope her kids will think this is cute (and I hope that this isn't something that has been done before)--I bought "wine" for each of them, too, but their "wine" comes in perfect champagne-looking bottles (complete with cork that you have to pop) but is sparkling fruit juices, one is peach and the other is mandarin orange. The labels are painted with very beautiful "botanical" drawings of the fruit.

After that, I went for a drive through my old neighborhood in Atherton, which was where we lived during most of my life.

Yegads, the name of the game in Atherton is Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires buying $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 houses, tearing them down, and building $6,000,000 to $8,000,000 (maybe more) houses. Our house was torn down a couple of years ago, and that house which is taking its place is only now nearing completion.

I've gotten used to seeing all those immense monster houses peppered around in the neighborhood, by now, but it no longer feels like the neighborhood it was when we lived there, and I guess it isn't. These houses aren't just tall, such as what you get when you replace rambling one-story ranchers with houses that are three-stories high--these houses are rambling three story houses.

I guess if I had that kind of money, I might want to live in something like that, too. But somehow, with me NOT having that kind of money, today I really felt as though something major had happened when I wasn't looking and the world split into two different dimensions, with me stuck down in the old, backward one and having no possible hope of ever being in the new, elevated, "rich" one (and being depressed with what is going on at work doesn't help). People flying their own jets, filling the tanks of their Ferraris with 100 octane $7.00 a gallon gasoline, and tearing down beautiful multi-million-dollar houses (that most people would view as their dream house) so that they can replace them with something with five or six times the square footage--I guess Mars attacked when I was asleep and our world was taken over by aliens. Aliens with a LOT of money (hauled in from some uninhabited "mining planet", rich with gold, diamonds, uranium, or whatever it is that is valuable to a Martian).

Tomorrow I'm going to be thankful, but tonight, I'm just a little...sigh.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gross Polluter


I guess I’ve now had my car for six years, based on the number of smog checks I’ve had to have which come every two years after the initial registration. I’ve been rather arrogantly smug about those tests, as the car handily passed the two previous tests with scores well below the average levels (low is good, high is bad). I blame the DMV for my smug attitude, as each time they require me to go to a “Test Only” facility, instead of “Test and Repair” facility, claiming that certain “likely to be polluting cars” are assigned to “Test Only” facilities, so when I handily pass, I mentally flip the DMV the bird.

Why do they think my car is “likely to be polluting”? Yes, it’s old by some standards (it’s a 1993, and so now is 15 years old), and has 108,000 miles (but its engine is made for 300,000 miles), and it’s big (it’s a full-size American freeway cruiser). But it’s also extremely well-maintained by the best mechanic I have ever had, and as it is essentially the flagship of what was once the world’s largest auto maker (but sadly, is no longer), it’s extremely well-made. And even now that I have had it for six years, I still marvel over how well-made it is, a quality that transfers itself to my hands on the wheel, feet on the pedals, and body on the seat. For what it is, there is nothing quite like it, and as near as I can tell nowadays, nothing being made anymore that is quite like it, not even its own brand, which has given itself over to primarily making SUVS and, gasp trucks. (Not that I have anything against trucks, but somehow a Cadillac truck is just a bit too much “Texan Big Hat, No Cattle”.)

I think the DMV is being cagey or dishonest about these types of facilities, “Test Only” versus “Test and Repair”, because all of them are licensed by the state and are supposed to be entirely honest and above-board. So why should a car “more likely to be polluting” be sent to one kind of facility and not another? It’s as if they are telling you without really telling you that they expect the “Test and Repair” places to be dishonest and will somehow pass you even when you are a polluter, whereas the “Test Only” facilities will “tell it like it really is”. Actually, what makes more sense to me is that a car more likely to be polluting should to be sent to the places that can fix the car, too, which the DMV seems to feel is inevitable, but that’s not how it is.

For these tests I have been going to a man whom I call “Mr. Moneybags”, because he has a little Walt Disney Scrooge McDuck figure glued to the top of his testing computer. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to read comic books for reasons I never fully understood—it’s not that I wasn’t already a reader and therefore was in danger of being dumbed down by comics. But somehow there was just supposed to be something “bad” or “trashy” about comic books, not something my fine brain should be subjected to (so instead, I read them at my friends’ houses or at the barbershop; otherwise, I might have grown up never knowing a thing about Archie and Veronica, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, or The Silver Surfer). However, my mother finally decided that maybe a subscription to a Donald Duck comic would be okay—even that I don’t fully understand, because it wasn’t as if I were begging to get some kind of comic book (after all, as I said, I was reading them elsewhere anyway). Anyway, I was “allowed” to receive Donald Duck and I must say that I did enjoy the various adventures of Donald, Daisy, Huey, Louey, and Dewey, and Scrooge McDuck, the very rich “uncle” Duck.

So I was rather surprised, but pleased, that somebody else even KNEW of Scrooge McDuck and liked him even to the point of making him a mascot of his business. I pointed the figure out to this smog-test-only man, who was from India, and said “Oh, is he going to make you into ‘Mr. Moneybags’?”, and he giggled and said, “Yes, I hope so, that’s why I came to America!”

There was something inspirational about that and I have always loved the idea of people coming here from a foreign country, becoming assimilated into the culture, and making it financially—understanding the opportunities here perhaps better than most of our natural-born citizens do, and having the courage to take advantage.

I don’t know if this man is making more money than I am, but somehow I imagine that he is and I think what he did was so easy and so much smarter than what I am doing. How hard would it be, as I imagine it, to take a course on state-approved smog testing, pass a test, become licensed by the state, rent a little garage, lease (probably) the testing equipment, and voila, you’ve got a simple-to-run business that people HAVE to come to periodically. How this man stood out and kept me as a repeat customer for six times was (a) he was very nice, (b) he gives you a $10 discount if you get a coupon from the Internet, or if you, like me, tell him you’ve come back to him, he’ll give you the discount as an “appreciation”, and (c) he has a nice little “comfortable waiting area” set up outside on the parking lot with an umbrella, two outdoor chairs, and a table. Anyone could do those thoughtful little things, yet I’ve not seen anyone anywhere else doing them.

Not that I would want to earn my living with a smog testing facility—that was just an example. I just feel that this represented a relatively easy and quick creation of a money stream that didn’t carry a whole lot of risk and I think all of us need to understand the possibilities of that kind of thing. Who knows what will happen with our jobs in the future (outsourced to India!) or how long we can stand “working for the man,” as they used to say in the 60s.

To be honest, I wasn’t so secure about the test this time. I had noticed lately that I was getting worse gas mileage than normal, averaging a pretty terrible 9.5 miles per gallon around town. I was due for an oil change and figured that when I went to Harry, my mechanic, I would discuss it—maybe it was time for a tune-up.

And sure enough, I did not pass. In fact, I failed big time.

Mr. Moneybags was nice about it, though. He didn’t say “You didn’t pass,” or “You failed”, instead he said, “You didn’t make it this time.” And then he showed me how much I hadn’t made it. The computer had printed across the testing sheet “GROSS POLLUTER”, which means “We the people of California want you to get this car off the road!” On one measure, for example, the maximum allowed was 0.48, but I had 10.11, and on another, the maximum allowed was 82, and I had 414. Even though what was coming out of the exhaust pipe was invisible, it was many time times the level of smog-producing material than the standard allows. I thought I saw Al Gore standing off in the background, grinning a devilish grin, although I can’t blame Al Gore for this, as this standard has been there for years.

A friend of mine at work told me, “California will buy gross polluters from you, not for a lot of money, of course, but it’s at least better than simply junking the car.”

Junk the car? What’s this talk of junking the car?

Mr. Moneybags was relatively positive, however. “I think it must be something like the oxygen sensor,” he said, citing something that didn’t sound very expensive to fix. Oh, just replace a sensor and all will be well, right?

I took the car to Harry, who looked at the smog test readings and I repeated the hopeful “oxygen sensor” idea. “Well, that could be part of it,” he said, but he pointed out various other failed sections of the test and said, “There’s a lot of other things going on.” Well, we would just have to see. I left the car with him that night so that he could work on it the next day.

The next morning, I walked the few blocks over to Enterprise Car Rental and got a rental car for the day. There is absolutely no more riding the bus to work for me; when the car is in the shop, I get a rental car. (This is me finally seeing that I am a big boy, now.)

The car I rented was a Ford Focus, and while I didn’t like it as much as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Chevrolet Malibu, my two previous rental cars this year, I did have fun driving it. It felt almost like a sports car to me and wasn’t too uncomfortable once I figured out how to get the seat back reclined out of the “yoga pretzel kiss your crotch” position. I especially liked its radio (which in that small car was practically in my face, not three arm lengths ahead of me like mine is in the Cadillac), which seemed to clearly pull in about twenty more stations than the radio in my car does. I also liked the idea that it not only scrolled across the screen the names of the radio stations (not just the frequency numbers), but also the names of the artists and song titles. Having a car fifteen years old does sometimes cause me to be surprised to see what new “technology” there is!

Later at work, Harry called me to discuss what he found. Basically the way he described it was that when one smog control component went bad, it ended up causing other ones downstream to go bad, too. He’d have to replace the oxygen sensor (Mr. Moneybags was right!) and the EGR solenoid relay (whatever that is), reset the ignition timing, and probably replace the catalytic converter (but he would do that only if the other repairs didn’t get me to passing). He told me that I had been burning a very rich mixture of fuel, which meant that a good portion of it was spewing (invisibly) out the exhaust pipe. “You’ve probably noticed your mileage had gone down,” which, yes, was particularly noticeable now that gasoline costs $3.60 a gallon.

It would cost something like $600 to $800 to do all that. “Do you plan on keeping this car?” Harry asked.

Well, my only reservation would be that the only other time I had a car that had been declared a gross polluter, I had spent over a thousand dollars in repairs in order to pass the test, only to attempt to drive it to work and discovered that the car didn’t even have enough power to go up a hill. I took it back to the shop and the very same mechanic who had collected all that money in order to get it to pass the smog test then declared to me that I had a cracked engine block and that the car needed a whole new engine. So that car went from “gross polluter” to the junkyard, with all that “smog test passing” money wasted inbetween.

“What kind of car was that?” asked Harry.

“A 1982 Chrysler LeBaron with a Mitsubishi engine,” I said, knowing full well that in that phrase, I had given Harry no less than three code words for “that car was a piece of junk”: “1982”, “Chrysler LeBaron”, and “Mitsubishi engine”.

“Aw,” ejaculated Harry, “that car was a piece of junk! What you have now is a Cadillac, this is an entirely different animal! Believe me, if you have a cracked engine block or whatever, I will see it!”

So I went ahead and approved the repairs. It ended up costing me in the neighborhood of $700 (Harry ended up having to replace the catalytic converter, too), which all-told, I thought wasn’t too bad. Harry got it smogged for me at the “Test Only” shop right door to him, who electronically transmitted to the DMV my passing scores. The California State-approved print-out said, “Congratulations! Your vehicle passed the enhanced Smog Check inspection, which helps California reach its daily goal of removing an extra 100 tons of smog-forming emissions from the air. Thank you for keeping your vehicle well-maintained.” You’re welcome. I felt as though that 100 tons of smog-forming emissions had come from me, but now no longer!

Harry said, “You will now experience a considerable improvement in gas mileage!”

As usual, driving the car away from Harry’s felt like I was driving a brand-new car (I had also had the regular oil-change and so on service). And sure enough, after two days of local driving, my average mileage was revealed to have increased to 15.5 miles per gallon. Well, that is more like it!

I also got the car washed (at a place whose work is the closest thing to auto detailing without actually being auto detailing), so now I am driving a beauty to be proud of again. Ready for my upcoming trip north to Petaluma and then to Clear Lake for Thanksgiving.

My brother said that all the extensive repair and upgrading of our parents’ house (in Petaluma) is now complete and the house is ready to be sold. On Wednesday morning, I will be meeting my brother, his wife, one of our sisters, and her two kids at the Petaluma house for the “Grand Opening” and then will put the “For Sale By Owner” sign out. May that beautiful show-place of a house sell quickly and bring us the price we think it deserves! (Fortunately, this much-in-demand area seems immune to the recent San Francisco Bay Area housing bubble crash.)

Then Thursday, we will be driving two more hours north to Clear Lake where our sister owns a house on the lake, which is where we will be having Thanksgiving dinner. This will be our first family Thanksgiving without any parent attending, and it will be the first family Thanksgiving that will not be in the house of our parents. We’re the oldest generation, now, and it is at holidays like this where you really feel that.

So Happy Thanksgiving everybody. It’s been a very hard year for a lot of people I know, including me, myself, but we all still know that we have a lot to be thankful for and that is what will be uppermost in our minds.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dead Tired



Yesterday (Saturday) was a beautiful day for sailing, although even I would have wished for more wind. I've gotten much more secure out on the ocean, and by that I mean less afraid than I was at first.

It wasn't so much that the experience, itself, was scary, but whenever I was at the helm, I'd begin to think back to the few flying lessons that I took and also the boy's book, Hatchet, by the very popular children's author, Gary Paulsen. In my flying lessons, it was just me and the instructor and I kept thinking while up in the sky that I had no idea how to land this thing or even find my way back to the airport; I was entirely in the hands of my instructor. What if the instructor had a heart attack, or in some other way became incapacitated, what would I do? In Paulsen's book, the hero of the story, a young boy, is being taken to stay with his divorced father (who lives in Alaska, I think it was) for the summer, and is being flown there in a tiny two-seater plane, just the boy and the pilot, who DOES have a heart attack. Dealing with the terror of that ends up being the least of the boy's problems. The plane more or less lands safely (although the pilot dies from his heart attack) and the boy now has to survive alone in the Yukon. It's really a great book, one of my favorite children's books, but I wouldn't want any of it to happen to me.

So out there on the ocean on a sailboat, even though I wasn't alone with the instructor, it was me and three other equally-inexperienced students, if something happened to our instructor, we might be bobbing about "in shit's bay" (my for-the-occasion alteration of "up shit's creek"). Also, I'm not taking these courses to just tootle around the Marina del Rey marina, or maybe have an occasional three-day weekend cruise to Catalina or Ensenada (although those do make great beginnings). Currently, I don't really consider the possibilities of local cruising in this area to be all that exciting (although as I learn and experience more, I may change my outlook on that). Having a boat in an area with much more to offer, such as, say, the Florida Keys, which as a location just itself is worthy, but also having the entire Caribbean is at ones doorstep from there, is more like it. Even our sailing instructor doesn't have his boat docked here. As I think I wrote before, he has it in La Paz (in southern Baja California), because the Sea of Cortez is his favorite sailing area and it's an easy flight from here to there. I could conceivably see docking a sailboat in a harbor in Fiji or Tonga (or any other place in the world--how about the Mediterranean, or the Stockholm Archipelago, or Indonesia?) and flying there to then explore by sea the regions around those locations.

But anyway, I hope and expect to sail whatever boat I get in oceans other than the local coastline, so if I can't imagine feeling comfortable sailing to Tahiti, then I shouldn't consider pursuing this activity at all, and so I have viewed the experience as telling me, "Gee, can I stand this? Can I stand it for months between here and somewhere else across a whole ocean?" At first I had begun questioning that, but now I don't think I do question it. I am getting much more secure with the prospects, and my understanding and ability.

We were lucky it was so nice, as just the day before, the manager of the sailing school had telephoned all of us to warn us that the class might be cancelled because the conditions could become too dangerous. As it was, they evened out and the day was quite calm--so calm, in fact, that on the return leg of our trip northward in Santa Monica Bay (up to the buoy opposite the Santa Monica Pier), the wind was too light for any but the most patient sailing, so we returned by engine, instead, and even then just barely got back before dark.

And today, Sunday, was dark, overcast, and quite cold (by California standards). In fact, I kept the heater on all day in my apartment, so I'm glad we didn't have a day like today when we went sailing yesterday.

The first portion of the day was in class, though, not out on the water. We were learning about spinnakers, the alternative second sail that you can use in place of the jib when the wind is behind you for any period of time. Spinnakers are the glorious, multi-colored "chute-like" sails that you see when sailboats are racing; they pull the sailboat forward and therefore operate somewhat differently from the other sails that act like an "air foil". Boats pretty much can't win a race without properly using a spinnaker (unless none of them are), and any failure of the crew to quickly and correctly set the spinnaker will for sure lose the race (so the pressure is on them!). An improperly set spinnaker will twist around like an hour glass and therefore be useless, but too much time is wasted in dousing it and then resetting it correctly. Also, these sails are fragile and easily torn when in inexperienced hands.

We practiced on land how to pack this kind of sail in its container that is called a turtle. Packing a spinnaker wrong makes it all but useless to the next crew that hopes to use it. You might not think that such a thing is hard, which it isn't once you know how, but if you DON'T know how, you are subjected to a huge pile of chaotic cloth that is equal to about forty loads of laundry! And in real life, packing that forty louds of laundry is done single-handedly on the bow of a racing yacht out on the ocean on the waves and in the winds and that is moving as fast as it can!

As we were practicing this, I kept thinking of "pack your own chute," which refers to hang gliding and parachute packing.

Using this sail out on the ocean is not practiced in these basic sailing classes, because the liabilities to the school are too great. This is the kind of sail that could pull a person right off the boat if they aren't extra careful. Also, the sail, itself, which costs several thousands of dollars, is too easily shredded by inexperienced students. The last time use of this sail was taught in a class like ours, the group managed to bend to uselessness the spinnaker pole, which is like a "boom" that is installed for use with the spinnaker. So that ended that.

However, use of the spinnaker on the boat while sailing IS taught in the school's racing course, so students do have a chance to learn it if they wish and sign up for that specific class.

The sailing component of yesterday's class, in the afternoon, was mostly to fine tune our sailing experience, to this time explore north of the marina (as last week we explored south), and to have a chance to sail a boat that had an outboard motor. Up to now, when we had a sailboat that had an engine, it was the inboard diesel engine. These two types of engines operate differently, of course, diesel inboard versus gasoline outboard (and then there would also be a third type, gasoline inboard; as to whether there is a diesel outboard, that I don't know).

At first I thought learning about the outboard was a step backwards as, "of course" I would want an inboard engine, but outboards do have some advantages, particularly on a smaller boat that a person like me is more apt to end up getting. The bigger the boat, the more expensive, of course, but also the more difficult to handle without a crew (30 feet is offered as a possible threshhold--a boat longer than 30 feet on deck is probably more than a single-handler can handle). As I don't expect to have a crew, there definitely is a size consideration even if money were no object (which is not the case with me). An inboard engine, of course, takes up interior space that otherwise could be put to other use, whereas an outboard can be simply hung off the back of the boat. With an outboard engine, you don't necessarily have to have (to buy and to carry) another engine for your dingy; whenever you are anchored off-shore and are "tendering" in to land, you could use your sailboat's outboard on your dingy (involving perhaps the unscrewing and screwing of about four bolts, I think). An outboard engine is lifted up out of the water when you are under sail in order to reduce drag; the propellers of an inboard engine will always produce that drag.

Anyway, I enjoyed the outboard motor as much as I enjoyed the inboard. I was the first one at the helm, yesterday, which meant it was my job to start the cold engine. It started with my first pull; none of that tiring, frustrating wrestling with the outboard that is sometimes shown cartoon-fashion as a typical frustration (which had previously soured me on this kind of engine). So I liked it from the start! We took the boat by engine out of the marina and into Santa Monica Bay, at which time we raised the jib (the main sale had already been hoisted out in the marina) and shut off the engine. The wind took us north at a reasonable and enjoyable speed. I had never seen the cities of Venice (California) and Santa Monica from the ocean side before; it was a beautiful view. There were two piers, the Venice pier, and the Santa Monica pier (with its ferris wheel and other amusement park rides). It is tempting to a boater to want to go close to those piers, but we were warned to stay at least 50 feet out due to the underwater dangers closer in. Our instructor told us that once Santa Monica had a small marina, but that was destroyed a couple of decades ago. There is still wreckage from that underwater and there are tiny white floating markers in a line across the water that delineate for boaters that hazardous zone. There is no safe anchorage in Santa Monica Bay north of Marina del Rey until Paradise Cove north of Point Dume (beyond Malibu) or south of Marina del Rey until Redondo Beach, neither destination were we able to make in an afternoon's sailing. So unless one leaves early in the morning with stopping for lunch in either of these two spots, there is really nowhere to go and anchor in one day of sailing out of this marina.

Catalina is even further away, and generally is reserved for a three-day weekend (or longer).

What I enjoyed most about yesterday's sail was seeing the dolphins (!) and the sea lions. I had never seen dolphins out in the wild before; I had only seen them in marine parks such as Marineland or Sea World. I was extremely excited to see them, first one, and then four more swooping up out of the water quite near us. Our instructor said that he sees them all the time in the Sea of Cortez, and many, many whales, too, who come there to winter. I would really like to see that someday, and I imagine I will! Of course, there is also the possibility of seeing whales in our area during their twice-yearly migrations.

The sea lions, of course, were, in their own way, fighting over the Santa Monica buoy just like they had been fighting over the El Segundo buoy last week. This buoy was loaded with sea-lion-flesh, yet one more wanted very much to get up there, too, but not having much luck when we first saw him. He would poke his nose up out of the water, attempt to lift himself up onto the buoy while growling at whichever sea lion was in his way, which already comfortable sea lion would "shout" or scream back at him and snap at his nose, making him fall back down into the water. The poor sea lion would then swim around the buoy and try again at another section, with the same bad results.

Finally, he found a sea lion who seemed compassionate and welcoming; instead of screaming at him or snapping at him, "she" (I am only guessing at their genders) sniffed at him and they rubbed noses. Norman on our boat said, "Ah, now he is making love, not war," and sure enough, after we came about the buoy, which we had chosen as our turn-around spot, we found our sea lion, now comfortably ensconced on this buoy. Some other sea lion was now standing up and barking his displeasure to the skies, I guess he resented the increase in crowding, but all the others ignored him and continued to "snooze" peacefully, including "our" sea lion. Both Norman and I said simultaneously, "Persistence...it pays off!"

I kicked myself or not bringing my camcorder.

The most beautiful time was when we were back inside the marina and heading due east up the channel, the just-setting sun was directly behind us and cast an amazing transparent light blue glow over the waters of the marina and reflected a myriad Christmas-like lights from the glass of all the buildings. It made me want to go sailing out there during the Christmas season when many of the boats decorate their riggings with Christmas lights.

It takes a while to get up the channel and then into our slip. The instructor and Norman rushed off to the bathroom (as this boat did hot have a head) and left me and Shay to cover the mainsail and fold up the jib (the sail in front). We covered the mainsail fine enough (this will be the sixth time I've done that), but when it came to the jib, I realized I really didn't remember how. I had never actually folded it before, but had only watched other students do it while I had performed other tasks. As for his part, Shay was no help, offering only that I should unclip all the whatever-the-hell they are called (jibhanks), clips that attach the jib to the headstay (the rigging that the jib is attached to), which I dutifully did, but then as I attempted to somehow fold up the sail, I was left holding an embarrassing mess just as the instructor returned (sails are much bigger when you have them in a mess on the deck than they look all nicely hoisted).

"You unhooked all the jibhanks!" he chastized, which ended up being the LAST step in the process, not the first. So now it was dark, and Norman, who was standing there on deck at the bow of the boat, hooked them all back on again so that then I could fold the sail properly. The instructor guided me into doing what I was supposed to do (NOW I know how!) and then, additionally, showed me how to properly gather and tie together the sheets (ropes that control the jib), which he does leaving a perfect "skein" of ropes (that's how it looks to me), whereas mine was, well, as the instructor said, "getting better".

Then I, too had a chance at the bathroom, and then got in the car to go to dinner. Along the long route from Marina del Rey back to Hollywood, I went to Cora's Mexican restaurant in Culver City, which I discovered last weekend. Cora is a real sales person for her restaurant, knowing immediately who is a first-time visitor, a repeat vistor, and an old hand. For my now being a "repeat" visitor, she treated me to a complementary guacamole, which was quite delicious. I also happened to quite enjoy the "Pacifico" beer that I asked her nephew, the very-cute-but-hardly-knows-a-word-of-English nephew, Lalo, to bring me, in honor of my dreams of sailing on the Sea of Cortez. I'm not loyal to any particular brand of beer (there must be close to several thousand different brands), but will choose whatever seems to match my mood, memories, or yearnings (advertising, logos, and packaging go a long way with this). Then, after dinner, I hit the road for home.

This ended up being, possibly, potentially the most dangerous road journey I had taken in years, and I am maybe revealing myself to be an irresponsible driver for continuing it. I wasn't drunk, not by a long shot, but in a way it almost felt like I was. What I was, was absolutely incredibly tired. I'm not quite sure why. Although like most everyone else these days, and especially in these stressful, crushed-by-work times, I never get enough sleep at all, and certainly not quality refreshing and rejuvenating sleep. People like me, people I know, often wake up more exhausted than they were when they went to bed.

But I thought the night before I had a reasonably good night's sleep, perhaps longer, and better quality, than I had for the several weeks before. But for sure I still have an immense "sleep debt" that would never be repaid even if I slept as long as Rip Van Winkle. Is there any court in which one can declare bankruptcy from their sleep debt?

But anyway, perhaps it was a combination of my normal sleep debt, and the activity of sailing out there in all that fresh air, and then the cold weather that came in on us that required me to put on a heavy jacket, and then the one bottle of beer, all conspired to make me as suddenly sleepy as all the people in Sleeping Beauty's palace. It was weird.

I felt more or less okay whenever I was actually in the process of driving; my mind was engaged by that. But when I stopped at a red light, oh boy, for a moment or two, I would actually fall asleep and then wake up. It wasn't enough to incapacitate me, but it WAS enough to make me very, very concerned.

I am in the process of trying to read a book about sleep by a major sleep scientist who reveals more things about sleep, the benefits of it, and the dangers of not getting enough of it, than a person could imagine. Most people (me included), thought that going to sleep was a gradual process and you therefore have some conscious awareness and control over how close you are to actually falling asleep. But this is not true.

In one of the author's experiments, he had a test subject who had been kept awake for more than 24 hours. A bright light was put so that it shone directly in the subject's eyes. The light would flash at random moments, but at least several times a minute. Whenever the light flashed, the subject was supposed to press a button. After quite some time of this, there was a flash and the subject did not press the button.

"Why didn't you press the button?" the scientist asked.

"Because the light didn't flash," responded the test subject.

But it DID flash; everyone saw it, except for the test subject. The scientist then realized that the test subject had fallen asleep, which is why he failed to see the flash. When they questioned him about it, they had awakened him.

What they learned from experiments like that, and others, was that there is no "gradual going to sleep". The brain will suddenly shut off and the person will be instantly asleep, and this will happen without any control of the individual, but will be done involuntarily BY the brain when the person is so sleep-deprived that it the brain feels it is necessary. This presents an immense danger on the highways, because fatiqued drivers will instanteously fall asleep at the wheel. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a trucker who inexplicably lost control of his rig very early in the morning going through an underpass (a tunnel, really) on the truck lane of Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles. He smashed into the side of the tunnel and was trapped inside the cab of his truck as the resultant explosive fireball consumed him. When I read about that, I immediately thought that he must have suddenly fallen asleep...and if so, I hope he was asleep as his body was incinerated in the cab of his truck.

This could happen to any of us.

And it was happening to me, one stop light after another, as I made the tortuous way back home. It seemed that as long as I was actually moving, I was okay, but doing nothing at each light was just too much "nothingness" and I would basically black out. Fortunately, this also meant that the car was stopped each time, not moving. Then, as the light would change and the cars ahead would move forward, I would suddenly wake back up again and see that I was now five car lengths or so behind--maybe not quite far enough for the cars behind me to start romping on their horns, but ALMOST!

I wondered if this were bad enough that I should actually find some place to pull over and rest in the back seat of my car. Well, it wouldn't be impossible to do that, but I just didn't want to. This was a VERY crowded (and not very safe) urban area, moving in agonizing slow motion, and all I wanted was to just get home and get into my own bed.

Instead, I turned the radio on and made myself sing or talk along with every word that I heard. This seemed good enough to keep my brain engaged even during the stop lights, and in this way, I managed to get home. I told myself that the minute I got inside my apartment door, I was going to drop everything I was carrying, throw off all my clothes, and get right into bed without even brushing my teeth (I have NEVER gone to bed without brushing my teeth before) and that is exactly what I did. It wasn't late, only about 7:00 or 7:30, and yet I fell right to sleep and didn't wake up until about 5:00 in the morning. Even then I didn't get out of bed, but went back to sleep and never did rouse myself from bed until later this afternoon. I didn't even have a bite to eat until 3:30.

I don't ever want anything like that to happen to me again. I am really, really, really going to have to get enough good quality sleep somehow. I don't know if that means going to bed earlier and earlier each night in order to ensure it, going to bed at 8:00, say, or even after I get home from work, but I HAVE to do something. This is fundamental.

But one thing for sure that I can say--I understand the phrase "Dead Tired." "Tired" is bad enough, but it could make someone "Dead".

Right after I post this, I'm going to bed.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Coastal Navigation Day


Yesterday I had the first half of sailing intensive course number 3. Normally, these courses fill up an entire weekend (about sixteen hours worth, each), but scheduling constraints divided this one up into one half yesterday (Saturday) and the second half next Saturday. I am happy it was this way, because with all that is going on at work, it is too exhausting to give up an entire, should-be-restive, weekend on intensive learning. Additionally, I could have signed up for the three-day Catalina cruise (course number 4) which would have followed the Saturday after next, but I would have had to take a day off from work to do it (which I can’t really spare) and also I felt like it was just too many given-up weekends all in a row. I need time to process what I am learning, plus I feel behind in my learning. I still need to take the first certification test, which normally would have followed the first course, but you sign up for it whenever you are ready and I notice that most taking these classes really procrastinate on taking that. For me, the issue has been finding time to study all the materials, which would use up yet another weekend. Then there is another written test that is supposed to follow the course I am in now, plus a two and a half hour “solo” check-out. So it all seems like just too much right now.

Full time work (MORE than full time work) really gets in the way of the rest of your life, you know? But without it, how would I be paying for all this?

I’d probably be ready for course number 4, which really does sound like a lot of fun, in about a month or two, but apparently they don't come up all that often (I think the next one will be Februaruy 2008). I wonder if I should have pushed myself a bit more?

Did I already write before about the four of us who took course number 2 agreed that we would "try" to take course 3 together? (These courses come up on a hit or miss basis.) It seemed to me that it would be a miracle if that managed to happen, since everyone is on a different time track, so to speak. Melissa, for example, as near as I can determine, is more or less "independently wealthy" (or at least has some kind of income that isn't dependent upon a standard full-time job) and it is apparently her immediate goal to head on off to Tahiti as soon as she and her husband get their boat fully outfitted. She lives right across the street from the sailing school. Anyway, she took the course before any of the other of us even knew one was being offered.

Norman, who plans to buy several boats and open up a sailboat chartering business, is also pretty much in a hurry, although he is on a serious Captain's licensing track which will take him approximately a year to complete. Norman already wrote us that he was signing up to take a mid-week course 3, which had become available. Since I work Monday-Friday, a midweek course was not a good option for me.

Paul, the movie producer, director, and script writer, has an availability dependent upon his production schedule. He, apparently, had not yet taken course 3 ahead of the rest of us.

I got a phone call from the sailing school's manager who told me that she was putting together a course 3 and indicated that she was trying to schedule Paul; since I said I was available for it, I figured Paul would be in the class. So hooray, I thought, at least one of the other three would be in the same class.

As it turned out, there was no Paul there, yesterday, but there was Norman--the mid-week class had fallen through! So I was very glad to see him there.

However, unfortunately for me, Norman will be taking the upcoming course number 4, so he will be ahead of me after that. But it was good to meet somebody new, Shay, who was in this class. Norman had taken course number 1 with Shay, so Norman got to take this class with two other previous course-mates. But, alas, Shay will also zoom ahead of me, as he has signed up to take the upcoming course number 4, also. But Shay told me he was more interested in flying than sailing. He considered sailing a slow way to travel, plus sailing gets to only water-edged destinations, but I considered sailing to be a great platform from which to enjoy beautiful destinations. Sure, you're not going to sail to Colorado or Albuquerque, but you're not going to enjoy "anchoring" your Cessna at the Papeete or Nadi airport!

Ideally, one would have both. Probably the ultimate travel arrangement, in my view, was the one enjoyed by the late Malcolm Forbes and his yacht "Highlander IV" (his fourth yacht in his "Highlander" series). Malcolm Forbes, as you may know, was the publisher of Forbes Magazine and he lived, as they say, very well. I may have missed an estate or two, but Forbes owned an island in Fiji, a chateau in France (along with a hot-air balloon made in the shape of his French chateau), a penthouse across Fifth Avenue from Central Park in Manhattan, and an estate in New Jersey. And this immense yacht, which was probably as large as, if not larger than, a Seabourn "boutique" cruise ship. Carried on the deck of the yacht was a pontoon helicopter, so Forbes was not limited to whatever port he went to; he could fly the helicopter inland and land on either land or water. And as if that weren't enough, he had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on top of each pontoon, so that he and one other traveller could "fine tune" their land-based adventures.

For his part, fellow student Shay is in the process of building his own airplane.

We also had Peter, the man who had been our instructor in the previous two courses. Peter has what I think of as a great and romantic vocabulary for the joys of sailing and he really makes you look forward to what you can have once you are competent enough to have the world's seas open to your adventures. He keeps his own forty-foot sailboat, not in Marina del Rey, but down in La Paz on the Sea of Cortez, in Baja California Sur. He and his family fly down there whenever their sailing months arrive. For shorter day or weekend local sailing, I guess that Peter has all that he wants via the sailing classes he teaches.

The sailing day was quite fun, I thought. The more I learn, the more fun it gets. The growth curve is quite steep (which means you learn a lot quite quickly), although I sure don’t feel anywhere near competent enough to take a boat out and sail by myself out there on the ocean. But I suppose I am not too far from that, though.

As a quick aside, Norman is seriously in the market to buy a sailboat right this minute and he found two for sale (that he decided he didn't want), “fixer-uppers”, that were right there a few slips over from us—one, I kid you not, for $100, and other, for $1,000. He showed them to me on the outside (and I peeked into the windows), very dirty and very much in need of reconditioning. Neither one had working galley equipment. The $100 one had a gasoline engine, which would have to be replaced (gasoline engines are too dangerous due to the explosion potential of gasoline fumes), the $1,000 one had a diesel engine that needed a lot of engine work (I definitely want a diesel). The main reason these were being offered at such low prices was that the slips they took up were more valuable than the boats, which meant that if you bought one of them, you’d have to find a place to put it. Peter said that if you knew how to refurbish these boats yourself with your own labor, you could end up with boats worth in the tens of thousands of dollars, but if you had to pay somebody to do it for you, it would be more cost-effective to buy a boat that didn't need so much work.

Emotionally, I wasn’t the least bit tempted by these boats, even though it looked like a person could “get a boat right now!” for virtually no money. But I don’t really know enough to even know exactly what it is that I want in a boat. Intellectually, though, it seemed stupid to pass them up. For that little amount of money, it would be cool to have a “knock about boat” while you were still learning (you could go out as often as you wanted and not have to rent a charter boat), and then, as Shay said, you could “simply sink it when you want to get rid of it.” Oh well, I think I’ll pass.

The main point of yesterday’s lesson was an introduction to coastal navigation, that is to say, sailing on the ocean within sight of the coast where there are recognizable landmarks that are shown on the sailing charts. You need to be able to do this so that you can know where you are, how fast you are going, how to plot a course to get where you want to go, and how to figure out how long it will take you to get there. I really enjoyed the navigation. One of my favorite "things" in the world is maps--every kind of map. And yesterday was the first day I had ever used an "ocean" map.

You use a scoping compass—you sight the object you want to scope (in our case, we used a particular buoy) and look through the lens and read the compass bearing; this will tell you on which compass point that object is from where you are on the water. You find that same compass bearing on the chart and then draw a line that conforms with that bearing from the object on the chart out to sea. Then you do the same thing with another charted feature (in our case, we scoped a smokestack on a power generating station on the coast way up ahead in the direction we were traveling) and draw a conforming compass bearing line on the chart from that object out to sea. Where the two lines cross, that is where in the ocean you are. You write down the time you took your position.

Then to figure out the course you need to take, you draw a line from where you now know you are on the chart to where you want to go. Then see what compass bearing that line is, and that is the course you need to take. When you have the helm (are steering), you can follow the compass that is right there in front of the wheel. When I had the helm, I had to keep our heading between 172 and 180 degrees. It’s not as easy as that, as the boat is bobbing all the over place due to the waves and the swells, but that’s the general idea!

After you have been traveling for an hour (or some other period of time), you repeat this exercise with two other objects (we did this with that same smokestack, behind us now, and then a church spire up ahead), and the two new crossed lines will show you where on the chart you are an hour (or however much time has passed) later. Using the distance scale on the chart, you can measure the distance between the two points in nautical miles and that will tell you how fast you are going, which in our case was 5.4 knots, which means 5.4 nautical miles per hour. (Not very fast, really, but the winds were light and the day’s sailing was very pleasant!)

Nautical miles, by the way, are different from land-based miles. Nautical miles are based on the meridian line around the earth's equator. The equator meridian is divided into 360 degrees, which is divided into 60 minutes per degree. One nautical mile is one of these minutes, which I think is pretty cool.

Once we knew how fast we were going, we could figure out how far down the coast we could manage to get in the time we had. We had hoped maybe we could make it down to King’s Harbor at Redondo Beach, but we could see that if we did that, we would not be able to make it back to Marina del Rey by 5:00. So we just enjoyed the sail for itself, not for any particular destination.

You could, by the way, figure out your location with a GPS, and it is highly recommended that you have a GPS, as well. But you need to know how to navigate without one, in case yours stops working. The woman who manages the sailing school told us that a recent former student actually got a job as a navigator on an oil tanker sailing out of the South China Sea, where they specifically wanted an old fashioned manual navigator, not someone who could read navigational instruments. I'm presuming that was actually a highly paid job.

"There aren't many available who know how to do that," she said, "since nowadays with so many instruments, ships have become dependent upon them." But apparently this shipping company had some problems with the instruments going out or having some inaccuracies, so they wanted a manual back-up. I kept thinking Valdez oil spill, although I have no idea how that particular accident happened to happen. Anyway, it is much better to understand how things work even if you do normally use modern technology to do all the work for you.

Going on this sail took me out into a whole new world. There are serious dangers in Santa Monica Bay that I never would have known about, or guessed. For example, there is an immense underwater sewer pipe that is shown on the charts, but otherwise invisible to sailors. If you didn’t know about this or didn’t have a chart, you could run into this pipe and damage or break off your boat’s keel. There are also areas with rocks and sunken boats (honestly, I wouldn’t have known that there were sunken boats out there—maybe that would be quite fun for scuba divers to explore). Decades ago, there was an amusement park, POP (Pacific Ocean Park), now gone, but there are still underwater pier pilings in that area, another danger for sailboats.

Our instructor was seriously filled with warnings about the danger of fog (we had to start late yesterday, due to heavy morning fog)—how can you safely sail when you can’t even see, and of course, all this compass scoping and taking bearings on coastal landmarks would be impossible in fog. But the biggest potential danger for a boat following the route we were on was what our instructor called “the Mine Field”. Dangerous, yes, but quite fascinating, otherwise. The “Mine Field” is where there is a long line-up of oil tankers and cargo ships, waiting for their turn to enter into port to unload and load. There is a travel and tie-up corridor reserved for them. I don’t know how long a ship has to stay there in that line-up, but I gathered it could be several days, because they looked “well-tied-up” to me. They not only are heavily anchored with two anchors, but are also tied up to several white-painted tie-up buoys with numerous cables (six or eight or so) that are spread out in all directions. These cables are longer than the ships themselves and not easy to see if conditions aren’t good, and this ship tie-up corridor spreads out for miles.

You not only want to keep away from the ships and the cables, but you also need to watch to see if they are getting ready to move. When I was at the helm, we were going up and then around the first ship in the line, a very long oil tanker. When we got so that we were in front of it, the instructor said to me, “How would you like it if this were coming at you?” I looked at it, this time we were where we could see its bow, and I burst out laughing, this thing was so FAT! We could see that the ship was long but it wasn’t until we were looking down its bow that we could see how WIDE it was, too! I said it was almost as if the ship were a ROUND tank instead of elongated. It really was very funny and yeah, I wouldn’t want it coming toward me!

Since that ship was at the head of the line, there was also a bell buoy there, marking the head of the ship tie-up corridor. That place was sea lion heaven! You could hear them barking about twenty minutes before we actually got up there and then when we were close, it was a three-ring-sea-lion circus with maybe twelve or fifteen sea lions all swimming around there. They’re among the cutest of animals anyway, but their antics were amazing as they played “king of the mountain” on that buoy. Some of the bigger, stronger, or more dominant sea lions had found places for themselves on the three stacked “shelves” of that buoy, but that didn’t mean that others weren’t attempting to replace them. Lots of barking and growls and sleek black bodies slithering up and down the metal of the buoy. It’s impossible to imagine how they managed to get up to the top layer of the buoy—can they leap up shelves like cats?

Shay, one of the students on the boat, wondered out loud exactly what I had been thinking, “what did the sea lions do before mankind invented buoys?” I think sea lions are mammals, which means that they are air-breathers. They definitely seem to like to climb up on objects that are above the surface of the water, where they can rest and relax and breathe. Shay wondered if they simply had to come to shore, instead, to do that, yet we don’t have hordes of seal lions resting on the shore in Santa Monica Bay. I’ll have to do a little bit of research about sea lions; they’re an amusing figure out there in our waters and I realize that I know far too little about them!

Another part of this “different” world our sail yesterday took me into is a clear view of how extremely crowded our coastline is. You can’t quite imagine it when you are driving on the streets in the middle of it (can’t see the forest for the trees), but out there on the ocean and looking inland, houses piled upon houses, it’s very sort of “Chinese” or “HongKongesque” in my view. The kind of off-shore view I crave is not Hong Kong, not a termite-hive of houses and humanity, but the Marquesas—lush, verdant, volcanic islands in the South Pacific.

Well, someday!