January 2012
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Incremental Changes

Another sunny weekend here in the Bay Area. We got a good dose of rain last weekend, but now we’re back to the sun. Such a tough life, I know. I really would like to get some more rain, but at least the cats can enjoy the sun beams.

We went out running errands yesterday. Debbi’s boot camp, EmpowerFit, was having an event at the Road Runner Sports venue in Redwood City, so we swung by. Debbi saw some of her friends from camp, and I went through their shoe finder test to get some new workout shoes. The test was pretty interesting: I knew my feet pronate pretty good, but my right foot also lands pointing outwards a little bit. They also recommended that I go from my usual size 11 4E shoes to size 11-1/2 2E shoes. I tried on a couple of pairs, and bought some New Balance ones, which are ones I have favored anyway, but I did genuinely like them better than the other ones I tried. Plus I got some insoles for them to give me more support. I may look at getting some new insoles for my everyday shoes sometime.

We also went by Joann Fabrics where I bought a length of felt for our dining table, so I can host poker games once in a while. Our regular table cloth doesn’t really cut it, since it’s difficult to pick the cards up without grabbing a good chunk of cloth.

(We really need a new table cloth, too, but with both leaves in the table is so big that it’s hard to find ones that fit it. And yes, I’ve looked on the Interwebs.)

In the evening we drove up to Menlo Park where my team was having dinner for a departing team member (he’s just moving inside the company, though). It was actually just team members only, so Debbi had dinner at our usual Saturday night haunt, Cafe Borrone. Dinner was at Bistro Vida, which we’d walked by but never eaten at. It’s pretty good! I’ll have to take Debbi there sometime soon.

Having gotten most of the errands out of the way yesterday, I expect we’ll just hang out today. But wait, it’s warm and sunny out, and we bought new shoes yesterday! So maybe we’ll go out for a walk sometime…

Birthday Trip

I had a nice birthday today. I’d debated going up to San Francisco to Cal Academy, but I didn’t really feel like getting up early to get there before the holiday crowds rolled in.

So instead we got up at our usual time, and Debbi made scones. Somehow I forgot to open my presents in the morning – Debbi thought I was just waiting until this evening, but no, I just forgot. Blackjack and Newton were happily lying in the sun in the family room. A nice lazy morning.

Late in the morning we drove down to Santa Cruz for the day. We had lunch and did some shopping downtown. Then we stopped at the surfing museum (Flash required, lamely enough) – it’s fun enough, but we were mainly there for the views of the ocean:

Then we went to Natural Bridges State Beach. It’s one of several stopovers for monarch butterflies migrating through California, and I’d hoped we’d seen a bunch of them. We were disappointed to only see a few; perhaps February is better for swarms. We did have a nice walk around the park and a visit to the beach to see the natural bridge for which the park is named:

Did you know Santa Cruz has a natural history museum? I didn’t. But we didn’t visit it this time; maybe next time.

We had dinner at FJL, and are wrapping it up watching the premiere of Alcatraz, which is okay. I rather wonder what any of the last inmates of the prison back in 1963 – if any are still alive – think of the premise, that they all disappeared and are coming back in the present day. The show greatly exaggerates the conditions on the Rock, from what I understand, too.

A pretty nice birthday, really. Way too short, though!

Birthday Weekend

My birthday is tomorrow, and Debbi and I have the day off to enjoy a long weekend together. It’s not a “significant” birthday, so I don’t feel much older. 🙂 But it’s nice to have some extra time off.

I threw my usual birthday party last night, and it was nice to not have to worry about how many people would fit into our house, like it was in the townhouse. A lot of people couldn’t make it, but we still had about a dozen people show up over the course of the evening. I made a huge amount of Mai Tais, which were fully consumed by the end of the night, and bought a couple of cakes from the Prolific Oven which about half of which got eaten.

Our neighbor Juan came by. He teaches salsa dancing, and later in the evening we put on some of his music and he got both Debbi and my friend/cow-orker Kelly dancing. (I resisted grabbing the camera and taking pictures.) I also saw Trish and her boyfriend Jared for the first time in quite a while. Susan and Subrata came by with Ajay; I think Ajay got a little bored with the big-peoples’ party until I pulled out one of my Hot Wheels cars (yes, I have Hot Wheels cars) which kept him entertained for the next hour or so.

(At one point Susan suggested she and Ajay go explore the house. She asked him who had to go with him when he goes upstairs. He was being a little shy and hesitated, so she said, “You can only go upstairs with a g–?” He didn’t respond, so I said “Gorilla!” That sort of humor goes over pretty well with a 3-year-old and his parents.)

I often feel like my parties are kind of underwhelming, but everyone seems to have a good time, so I’m probably overthinking things. I always have a good time, anyway, and I’m glad people came.

We watched both football playoff games yesterday. While the Patriots’ victory over the Broncos was a laffer (all the pundits have made the expected jokes, but the long and short of it is that Tim Tebow is no Tom Brady), the 49ers victory over the Saints was memorable and exciting, and gave the home crowd some great memories. (And then today the hated Giants stunned the 15-1 Packers giving the Niners home field advantage in the NFC championship game next week. I expect “low scoring” will be the term for that game.)

(I’m a little disappointed that it won’t be a Patriots/Packers Super Bowl, as the “no defense bowl” might have seen over 100 total points scored.)

Today we went to the Moss Beach Distillery for brunch. We had an epic food coma afterwards and collapsed on the couch for a few hours before running some errands, but mostly we had a quiet day at home. Which the cats appreciated, of course.

State of the Newton

I’ve written about Blackjack and his cancer so much over the last year that you might have forgotten we have 2 other cats.

Newton is our elderly orange kitty. He’ll be 18 in April, and we’ve been together for over 17 years. He’s lived in 2 states, in 4 different homes, he’s seen Blackjack and Roulette join our household, and seen his brother Jefferson pass away. He’s been on meds for the last 3+ years because he has hyperthyroidism. Yet he keeps plugging away.

After his vet appointment in November the vet upped his meds by 50%. And then over the holiday break he came down with a kitty-cold, for which I took him in last week and got him some antibiotics. The vet said that in older cats sometimes sniffling and sneezing is just a respiratory infection, but sometimes it’s an indication of something worse, like a tumor. Fortunately, the antibiotics seem to have taken care of his symptoms (with 2 days of meds left to go).

Newton’s always been a small cat – I think he topped out at a little under 10 pounds at his heaviest – and he’s gotten smaller in his old age. He’s now at about 6-3/4 pounds, and he is definitely boney. I’ve actually been worried the last week that he hasn’t been eating enough, although he loves wet cat food when we give it to them, but I have seen him eating his dry food in the last couple of days, which is a relief. But he’s so small that I’ve been worrying about him. Fortunately, he hasn’t shown any indication of being unable to do things he normally does, like jump up on the counter, or have trouble going up the stairs.

What he has done is slowed down. He was a manic cat when he was younger, and now he’s sedate. He plays a little, but not very much. He used to run all over the townhouse, but he hardly runs at all anymore. He does sometimes get that old spring in his step when he’s trotting around, though. But he spends a lot of time sleeping, and he especially likes to sleep in the hallway from our bedroom to the master bathroom, which we think it because it’s warm – we have a thermometer in the closet there, and it’s consistently 2-3 degrees warmer there than any of the other places in the house where we have thermometers. I don’t know that Newton has arthritis, but maybe the warmer temperature is more comfortable to him. He’s never been big on purring, but it’s been a while since he’s purred, that I can recall.

It seems like he’s slowed down a lot in the last few months, so when I take him in to get his blood work retested later this month, I’ll ask the vet whether the increased thyroid meds may be slowing him down. The vet who checked him out for his cold said his heart rate seems to be under control due to the meds. I just hope it’s not too under control. He’s also been getting picky about taking his thyroid meds, enjoying pill pockets less than he used to. (He eats them more enthusiastically when they’re fresh. But since they come in packs of 45, they get less fresh long before they run out. I’m trying to figure out how to store some of them so they stay fresher.)

If all this sounds like I’m preparing for the worst, well, I guess I am. He’s an old kitty, most cats don’t make it to his age. And he’s slowing down. And I know he’s not going to be here forever. And after Jefferson’s quick departure, and with Newton showing signs of his age, I guess I’m steeling myself to not be quite so blindsided when the time does come. It doesn’t help that Blackjack’s condition makes me more aware of Newton’s age.

I’m trying not to think about it too much, though. But I am trying to give him more attention and affection, especially when I realize he’s been snoozing up in the hallway most of the day and hasn’t come down to hang out with us. I’m grateful that he’s still healthy and comfortable. I miss the little troublemaking cat he used to be, but I’m glad the old snuggly guy he’s become is still with us.

And I’m really glad that he seems to have given up on meowing his head off in the middle of the night!

Alien

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that Alien is his “favorite movie of all time”. This was coincidental, since during our lunch conversation the other day about Stanley Kubrick, someone asked me what I thought of Blade Runner, which of course wasn’t directed by Kubrick, but by Ridley Scott, who also directed Alien.

(Brief aside: Other than those two films, the only other film I’ve seen by Scott is Gladiator. While none of those films set my world on fire, I like them better than anything by Kubrick.)

I’m not a fan of horror; I don’t really like gore, or sequences calculated to make you jump out of your seat, or squirm, or worry about the worst that’s about to happen, knowing that it almost certainly is. I much prefer Alfred Hitchcockian suspense.

Still, despite not liking the genre, I do think Alien is a fine film, maybe the best horror film ever. It has a lot going for it:

  1. Setting: The universe of the spaceship Nostromo feels real, with details like the alien ship the crew discovers, and the sinister corporate masters of the ship. Those bits suggest that here’s more to the universe beyond what we actually see, and in particular the alien ship stimulates our imagination to wonder where it came from. (I understand director Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus was originally going to explore the alien from the derelict ship, but I guess it’s now turned into a different film.) Even the fact that the Nostromo is a commercial ship, not a military or other government ship, makes it feel a little more real.
  2. Characters: The characters are pretty well-drawn, and also feel real. They’re not supermen, they’re not even soldiers, and they all have opinions and agendas (and flaws). The fine cast helps here a lot, too.
  3. Story: The story is smart. Presented with the killer alien creature hiding in their ship, the crew is smart about trying to deal with the problem: They come up with plans, and execute them. Since they’re not supermen, and since the alien turns out to be even more powerful than they’d thought, their plans fail. But they don’t march to their deaths through sheer stupidity.
  4. Threat: The alien is of course one of the most memorable movie monsters ever. Beyond its appearance, it’s creepy (acid blood!), hard to find, hard to kill, and hard to survive. It certainly feels more alien than any other monster.

I appreciate craft in films, especially when it comes to plotting and world-building, and Alien excels on both points. I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been a horror film (much as I was sad that the great dinosaur animations in Jurassic Park were squandered on a horror film), but few films succeed so well at what they set out to do.

Why I Don’t Like Stanley Kubrick’s Films

At lunch the other day we somehow went from talking about Pixar films to talking about those of director Stanley Kubrick. Some people love Kubrick’s films, but I don’t, having seen five and not enjoyed any of them.

Whenever I think of Kubrick, I recall my high school film class teacher (who introduced me to my favorite film, North by Northwest) who said something to the effect that Kubrick was more concerned with where his electrical wires were going than with the script or acting.

Yes, Kubrick’s films do look great, but I realized over lunch that my basic problem with them is that they feel emotionless, even downright soulless.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example of this: The characters are flat and colorless. Dave Bowman is memorable only because Keir Dullea is an interesting-looking guy, and the orange spacesuits are distinctive. But the most human-seeming of the character is HAL, the computer. The film looks great, but it also feels lifeless, the direction and editing carefully constructed to make the whole film seem alien. It’s not about humanity’s encounter with the alien, it’s some weird zombie form of humanity encountering the alien, and evolving into something even more alien. The sequel film 2010 is a much warmer and more human film, and is more fun to boot. Not to say it doesn’t have plenty of flaws, but I’d much rather watch it again than its predecessor.

Full Metal Jacket, which certainly deals with powerful subject matter (the Vietnam War), felt decidedly bland when I saw it. Ironically, the IMDb summary of the film starts with the phrase “A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War…”, where it seems to me that Kubrick does a pretty good job of dehumanizing the characters in his films anyway.

Of the Kubrick films I’ve seen, I’d say I liked The Shining the best (and I don’t really care for horror films). The sense in Kubrick’s films that we’re seeing all this happen from a distance, that the people are just little chess pieces being moved around by the plot, perhaps plays better in a horror film, where the humans are often not the ones in control. I don’t think it’s a great film, I have no desire to see it again, but I thought it worked well enough for what it is.

(The other two films of his that I’ve seen are Dr. Strangelove, which I found neither insightful nor funny, and A Clockwork Orange, which I detest more than any other film I can think of.)

Overall my most charitable description of Kubrick’s films would be “well crafted”. But then, there are lots of directors who craft films well, and many who imbue their films with more humanity than Kubrick was able to. Usually I place a high value on craft in storytelling, but Kubrick’s films deploy his craft in the most superficial manner, completely failing to evoke any feeling in me as a viewer other than being impressed with the polish he brings to his settings. And that’s not nearly enough to make a great – or even good – film for me.

Looking Back at 2011

2011 was a mixed bag for us, with some big highs and big lows.

The main high was buying our new house (as well as selling the townhouse, no small accomplishment in this economy). It took us about 3 months of looking, and no small amount of frustration (bidding on and not getting a house we liked, and seeing many other houses we didn’t like) before we found this one at their open house. Debbi is a believer in things that are “meant to be”, and I’m not, but this house is a strong circumstantial argument for such a thing: It’s really perfect for us in location and layout, it’s just what we wanted. And the move went smoothly, even though it took weeks after the move to get the last few items moved from the townhouse

The other high was Debbi’s sabbatical and our trip to Hawaii, where we went to Maui and the big island. This was a great trip which we’ll remember for a long time.

The low, of course, was learning that Blackjack has cancer (lymphoma). He spent 5 weeks getting radiation therapy, followed by 6 months of chemotherapy. He was a good boy through all of it, even though he hated going to the vet. He seemed to be doing pretty well, until we got back from Hawaii when we learned that he’s gone deaf, and he was very wobbly on his feet. That seems to have been the low point for him, and he’s improved since then, almost back to his old self. But we still worry.

Those were the big points of the year. We finished out 2011 with a week off from work (both our companies closed down for the holidays). We spent most of it quietly at home enjoying the house.

We’ve just about got the last room in the house, the dining room, set up. For a while it was just the room with the big tables and all the boxes we hadn’t yet unpacked. Actually it still has 2/3 of the boxes we haven’t unpacked (by which I mean “2 boxes”, the third one is upstairs in the study), but now it has a buffet tables filled with our board games, and we bought a rug for it on Saturday, so it’s looking pretty nice. The cats are enjoying the rug, since it gives them somewhere comfortable to lie where they can look into both the living room and the kitchen.

Blackjack has been doing better this week. We’ve both seen him moving around more swiftly and even starting trouble with Roulette. He’s getting more comfortable jumping, and this weekend he got a little more affection towards Debbi, which she loved since he’s her special cat. But he also likes to go into the smaller spaces in the house (the bathrooms and closets) and meow his head off. He’s always had a really pathetic meow, so when he started doing this we’d go find him to make sure he’s okay, but it seems he just likes to do it. I don’t know if he can hear himself meow, or if he has a bit of tinnitis or similar phenomenon which makes him want to meow, or if he’s just frustrated at his condition and does it to let out some frustration.

Newton, meanwhile, has a cold, and I need to get some meds for him.

Thursday we drove over to Half Moon Bay for breakfast and then went up to San Francisco for ice cream sundaes at Ghirardelli Square. We also went to Borderlands Books, but the cats were not in residence, since they’ve connected the bookstore and cafe and the cats can’t be there until they have a door between the two. Oh well!

We stayed up ’til Midnight on New Year’s, mostly watching the NCIS marathon on the USA network, including many episodes from last season I hadn’t seen. We got visits from two sets of neighbors from our dinner party wishing us a good one and saying how they were happy we’d moved to the neighborhood. We’re glad to be here, it’s nice to have friendly faces around to chat with when we step out the door.

I have a bonus day off today (Debbi’s back at work), and I plan to just take care of a few things around the house and figure out what to make for dinner. And then it’s back to work tomorrow, trying to put back together all the code I tore apart and rewrote during December. (Ahh, nice big code-rewriting projects, always fun and satisfying. But this one has been larger than any of us had anticipated.)

While I can’t say I’m looking forward to figuring out my income taxes this year after everything that went on last year (but hey, that’s why I have a CPA), I’m hoping that 2012 will be less momentous than 2011 was. On balance things are good right now, but I hope we can go a few more years without that sort of disruption again!

Well okay, another trip to Hawaii would be acceptable.