Saturday, October 21, 2000

One Month Later


Last week marked one month of my residence in the US of A. Though I am becoming more accustomed to life in California, the homesickness still nags in the back of my mind. I do appreciate all of you writing and calling. It means a lot.

In this me-first, eat-or-be-eaten society, I find it ironic that people here tend to be much more friendly in some situations than Torontonians. How many of you would think nothing of it if a complete stranger said hello to you on the street, or started a conversation with you on the bus ? In Toronto, if someone had done this to me, I would have thought they were crazy. Here, it is almost a status quo.

Travelling to work on the light rail one day, a fellow [my company] employee saw my badge and started talking to me. His name was Scott, a newly-married resident of the apartment complex near ours, and a recent hire. We had a spirited and enjoyable conversation on the way to work. We had entered the trolley strangers, and exited as acquaintances.

Given all the prosperity, millionaires and booming technology companies in Silicon Valley, it is commonplace to see BMWs, Mercedes, Ferraris and other such high-class vehicles on a regular basis. Less than 20% of all residents take any form of public transit, preferring to crawl excruciatingly slowly through the notorious traffic gridlock, some for hours a day.

The abundant riches from the "dot-com" explosion are a trademark of this area. Soaring rents and a vaulted cost of living, however, is a debilitating side-effect. There have been stories in the newspaper about teachers and public service workers who are finding it increasingly difficult to pay the rent and make ends meet. This fact is blatantly obvious on my walk to the light rail station in the morning.

To save time, I habitually take a shortcut through the Home Depot parking lot. One particular older-model Caravan, with California license plates, has been parked in the same area for the past two weeks. One morning, I observed blankets through the open window. Under these blankets were two people. They were sleeping in their van. Not just one night, but every night so far. On one occasion, I saw a teenager, approximately 15 years old, sitting sleepily in the front seat.

What could have happened ? A single mother, abused by her husband, escaping only with her child and a few clothes ? A working mother and child, forced on the streets by the unattainable rents ? Teenagers who ran away from home ?

The van's bumper stickers tell their story. One from Wild 94.9, a local radio station. Another says "My child completed the DARE program" - Drug Abuse Resistance. The third states "Girl scouts go places." May God will it to be so.

It has been raining off and on for the past few days, which I am told is a characteristic of the Bay Area's winters. Still, it has been warm enough to go without a jacket during the day. The nights are cool, but not cool enough yet to require a closed window. My first softball game was cancelled due to inclement weather.

My second trip to the Social Security office was an adventure. As instructed, I showed up very shortly after 9am, to avoid a long wait. I arrived to take my place behind four people. Forty-five agonizing minutes later, I was finally at the front. Instead of having my file processed on the spot as usual, I, and others, were told to wait, as the computer systems were experiencing difficulties. Luckily, I was able to pass the next 45 minutes of idle time chatting with the nice 20-something gal beside me.

I went wall climbing again on the 13th. By this time, I was more comfortable with the slightly difficult courses. There was one stubborn climb I attempted twice, but could not complete. The handle was upside-down. I must learn a new skill, which is sticking my lower half against the rock, and leaning back into the rope. Pretty scary for someone who's still a big chicken of heights. I'll try it again this Friday. I will not be beaten by an upside-down handle, mark my words !

The outing was very entertaining however; Jerry climbed a particularly difficult course for a beginner, and proceeded to honk the hidden horn at the top of the rock. When I was lowering Jen down from approximately 40 feet up, she decided to tie her shoe in mid-air. It was quite a spectacle.

Saturday the 14th was Scott's birthday. We attempted to go out for dinner, but every single restaurant we visited had over an hour wait for a table. Instead of waiting, we stayed in and ate frozen dinners and slices of Snickers cake, watching police shows on television.

On the 15th, we celebrated by visiting the Paramount Great America park. It is an amusement park much like Canada's Wonderland. This day was a day for an old car show and a pre-teen cheerleading competition.

As usual, we parked WAY far in the back of the parking lot, a full 100 foot radius from any other cars. As we walked closer to the entrance, we noticed numerous vehicles with graffiti on them. "Go Mustangs ! Tigers #1 !" and so on. We started freaking out - was this the work of an overzealous artist preying on the unsuspecting patrons of this park ??? If so, we were turning around and driving away ! Then it hit us - the cars belonged to the parents of the cheerleaders. The girls had written removable graffiti on their parents' cars, vans and SUVs to show their dedication to their teams. Cute.

This day was the last day for public use of the park. All the flags flew at half-mast, mourning the loss of another summer/fall season. Approximately 1/4 of the rides, and some games were closed, including those games that Scott and I are best at. Obviously, we didn't win anything.

We went on the James Bond ride, which was a video accompanied by seat movements, much like Days of Thunder. This ride was much rougher however; we exited feeling like frogs in a blender.

The bumper cars were REAL bumper cars - not that lame one-way-traffic stuff they have at Wonderland. The floor was HUGE, and the ride lasted several minutes. Many collisions were high-speed and head-on.

Later, we watched a popcorn vendor make popcorn in a large open vat, stirring it with a canoe paddle. It was quite a sight - kernels were flying all over the place, sometimes bopping patrons. We also ate our first caramel apple.

Scott insisted we ride a water log ride, which had ominous signs stating "YOU WILL GET WET - you may get soaked !" I have always avoided such rides, never having liked walking around in soaking wet clothes. I went along with it on Scott's assurances that the soak-factor would be very, very minor. Sure enough, my butt was wet from the seat even before the ride started. The ride itself, along with the kamikaze drop, was hair-raising, finishing off with a huge splash, completely drenching me. Scott, seated behind me, was the recipient of only 1/4 of the tsunami. The lady that worked on the ride remarked to me, "You really got it bad !" Yeah, no kidding.

The park overall was good, however it wasn't as big as Wonderland. Hopefully it'll grow in size. Our tickets are discounted by [my company], so it was worth it.

That evening we went to the Olive Garden for dinner. When I called for reservations, the receptionist answered the phone with "Buona sera !" I wonder if he knew what that meant. Of course, they didn't take reservations, so we had to wait approximately 20 minutes. You never would have guessed that Olive Garden had flopped in Canada, as this one was teeming with prospective diners. The food was as delicious as we remembered - as it can be for chain food.

My first softball game was played on the 18th at the Twin Creeks sports complex in Sunnyvale. This complex was beyond description - *10* lighted softball diamonds, 4 soccer fields, restaurant/bar and batting cages. The parking lot had 1200 spaces. Everyone must pay $1 to get in, even players, but they do receive a 50 cent token for the onsite services. A security guard was checking bags at the entrance.

As I did not know anyone on my team, I had to ask around as to who they were. They all seem like very nice, friendly people. When I asked what inning the previous game was in, I was pointed to the scoreboard - yes scoreboard - which showed the inning, score, number of outs, and amount of time left in the game. Each game was 70 minutes. Exactly 70 minutes.

The pitching style was underhand, however the strike zone was similar to fastball. When you go up to bat, you already have a 1-1 count. You can slide into any base, and must touch home plate. I found myself getting under the pitches, as I was used to the ball dropping as in slo-pitch. I played a decent game overall.

I was very impressed by the skill level of the players on my team. One guy whomped the ball over 200 feet and casually lumbered to first for a single. A girl on the team was cracking at least 150 feet consistently. We lost the game by one run, 13-12.

When I looked at the schedule handout, I saw "Team: COED Level: A". Now that explains why everyone was so darned good on this team. This will be quite a challenge, but I'm up for it.

On the 19th and the 21st, Scott and I headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles to register our cars and to do our written tests. We had heard of long lines and equally long waits at this establishment, so we were certain to make appointments beforehand. When we arrived on the Saturday, we found the parking lot completely full. We had to park on the street. Inside, there were separate lines for appointment holders and non-appointments. The line for non-appointments stretched around the snaking barriers, through the office, out the door, and all the way around the building. I was dumbfounded. There must have been at least 150 people in this line. In contrast, the appointment line consisted of two people.

At least they don't turn non-appointment people away at the end of the day.

We registered our cars, wrote our written tests, and ordered our custom plates. My driving test is on November 15th.

Effective last month, a new law was passed requiring all foreign cars to visit the California Highway Patrol for a VIN verification. Off we went to the CHP office.

The officer went over my car meticulously, looking for VIN number plates and ensuring that they matched. I only had one plate intact, however he accepted it. We had to show him the manufacturer's letter indicating that the vehicle design conforms to environmental standards, along with a smog test.

Another officer offered assistance, took one look at Scott's car and said "That one with the illegal tints ?" It appears that tinting the passenger and driver side windows is illegal in California. Cars can have their back windows tinted, but not the side ones (and those that conform to this rule look pretty dumb.) Scott was visibly upset at having to deface his car by scraping off the tints. I observantly pointed out that there were two cars in the CHP's own parking lot that violated this rule. The officer remarked offhandedly that they do give out tickets when they see transgressions. If this wasn't enough, we were instructed to remove our tinted plate covers. No plate covers are allowed here, not even clear ones.

We took the acceptance form for my car and left in a very bad mood.

This story does have a happy ending however - this past weekend, Scott went to a CHP weigh scale with the windows completely down and wearing a Toronto Police t-shirt. The officer signed the forms without asking to look at the windows. Woohoo !

One of the big perks of living in California is the level of taxation. My income is taxed at approximately 26%. Compare this with 35% or higher in Canada, and it is obvious the take-home pay is higher. However, my experiences with government offices such as Social Security and DMV, along with the complicated process of obtaining health care coverage, are glaring indications of shortfalls within the system. I can honestly say that I enjoy the lower tax rate, but this comes at a hefty price.

That same weekend, we headed to San Francisco, this time to the Haight district. For those of you who are old enough to remember, the Haight-Ashbury intersection was the birthplace of the hippie generation. This legacy still lives on, in the quaint, colorful stores which sell vintage clothing, tie-dye t-shirts, and a kaleidoscope of marijuana pipes. In one store called Positively Haight Street, we saw a nice-looking young woman browsing the dresses. Her hands were spotted with small scabs and healing wounds, right above her veins.

The area is both vibrant and fascinating. There are a multitude of restaurants, offering all kinds of food, from New York pizza to Thai. Each storefront has its own personality, and all seem to be competing with one another for the funkiest display window. All types of clothing, from Vans shoes to formal wear, is sold on this strip. Some of the best sightseeing is the people - some with colored hair and piercings, and others in business suits, neither of whom look out of place.

Our journey took us to Amoeba music, a CD store at the end of Haight street which carries both used and new CDs. We bought a number of used CDs for less than $5 each. We walked out of there with a sizable stack, enough to last us several months. If we know what is good for our bank account, it will be several months before we return.

Poor planning lead us to park very far away from our intended destination, up and down a massive hill at a grade hitherto unheard of. We got our week's worth of exercise just hiking up this thing, never mind walking about a half a mile from the car to the store and back. We returned home, exhausted, but enjoying the pounding the beats of our new music along the way.

Tiger has been her usual self these past couple of weeks. I have found her to be extremely frisky in the morning, more so than usual. She got upset at me one morning because I went to the bathroom before feeding her. To show her displeasure, she jumped up and grabbed my butt.

This past Thursday, I organized a get-together for a few people (Defector crew included) at Dave & Busters. All appeared to be on track, with the exception of some rather inclement weather. Little did I know the horror this would cause.

I told everyone we would be meeting at approximately 6:30. Scott was to arrive at my work, and we both were to drive to the place, approximately 5 minutes away. When the phone rang at 6:25, Scott was still approximately 5 miles from my work, stuck in some rather nasty traffic. He had travelled two blocks in the last thirty minutes. I headed to the restaurant on my own, not wanting to leave anyone waiting.

I showed up approximately 20 minutes later than the posted start time, however there was nobody else to be found. The roadway leading to the parking lot was completely flooded in one spot, up to a foot deep. Scott reported similar flooding on Highway 87. I guess the planners didn't feel it necessary to install a proper drainage system. I could have done the backstroke through it.

I put my name in for a table of 6. 40 minutes later, when our table was available, there was no sign of anyone. I asked the hostess to put us back in the queue. At around 8:30, an hour and a half later, I spotted Mike, who had spent a total of over two hours in traffic. Scott arrived five minutes later, having spent two and a half hours in traffic. He observed NINE broken-down cars on one stretch of road, most of which had dim lights. Obviously, their alternators were not able to recharge during the excessive idling, and their batteries had been taxed to the limit. The other would-be attendees spent two hours in traffic, gave up and went home. The three of us had an excellent dinner, and Scott and I attempted to forget the events of the evening by indulging in some high-paced video games.

Next time I plan an outing, I'll check the forecast first.

This past Saturday evening, Scott and I embarked on a journey to the Oakland Arena for a Freestyle Motocross competition. For those who don't watch the X Games or Gravity Games, Freestyle Motocross is an event where competitors ride motorbikes around a course, zoom up massive jump ramps, and perform tricks in mid-air. The clientele at this event was mostly skaters (teens-20s), and some parents with children. There were many wild and wacky hair colors observed, and one patron who donned an entire grip reaper costume for the event.

One of the coolest tricks was called the "Superman seat grab." The rider speeds up the ramp, becomes airborne, gets off his bike, and grabs the end of the seat with two hands. Simultaneously, he extends his legs fully in the air like Superman. He then pulls himself back onto the bike and lands cleanly.

Two riders performed this trick with only one hand on the bike instead of two.

The best trick of the evening was a guy who put his legs up on the handlebars in mid-air. As I was watching him, I was waiting for him to put his feet down and land. Three quarters of the way down, I thought "Hey, is he going to put his feet down ?" Nope. He LANDED WITH HIS FEET ON THE HANDLEBARS. He looked into the crowd as he rolled into the tunnel and out of sight. The entire stadium exploded in boisterous approval.

Sunday, we travelled to Brentwood to look for houses. We saw many nice domiciles, however none which met all our criteria. Some were nice on the inside but ugly on the outside, and vice-versa. Some were very nice but with the added bonus of an extra 20 minutes of commuting time.

We came across one house which had been a rental. The walls were in terrible shape and required repainting, something the owners promised to do. The carpets had been steam-cleaned, yet the house still smelled like dog. We dubbed it the doggie house. It was nice inside, however the outside was adorned with rough, peeling wood siding. Not quite what we had in mind.

We are continuing our search this weekend.

Yesterday was Halloween. In my past job, wearing costumes was neither encouraged nor discussed. At my new company, employees who dressed up were offered a $2 lunch (entree, soda AND cake.) I donned Scott's Goodwrench mechanic's overalls and baseball cap, and armed with a pen and screwdriver in my pocket, boarded the light rail for work. Nobody on the trolley noticed.

Only one of my coworkers dressed up. He wore traditional Indian clothing, complete with sandals and scarf. Two of my coworkers, boss included, initially did not NOTICE that I was dressed up, and commented that I looked "normal." Hey, I dress casually, but I'm not THAT bad !

Scott joined us for lunch, sporting his matching overalls, and gratefully consuming the $2 lunch. A raffle was held at one table, tended by an Arabian princess. She allowed us to appropriate as many small chocolate treats as we could. Having extra-large pockets in these overalls, Scott and I filled them all up. We returned to my desk with a stash comparable to an 8-year-old's Trick or Treat collection.

Overall, my experience at [my company] so far has been both rewarding and challenging. I have completed a round of testing, filing over 10 bug reports and making adjustments to the test plan. This week I will be working with Nick to train some new hires. I have been told that I am free to sign up for a Cisco training course if I wish, funded by the company. Perhaps I will take one of the CCNP courses.

Today is my second softball game, as we did not play last week. It will occur at 9pm PST, a rather brutal schedule for a work night. Cross your bats and gloves for me !


Saturday, October 07, 2000

The Continuing Saga


As I am writing this note, I am nearing the end of my third week in sunny California. The highs have been no less than 78F/25.5C every day,

with only 10 minutes of rain in total. There is very little humidity here, so it is comfortably warm.

I have noticed a vast range of temperatures depending on one's geographical location. A weather forecast usually consists of a statement similar to "60s on the coast, 70s at the Bay, low 80s inland". How strange is it to have a 20F difference in temperature depending on which town you happen to be driving through ?

I have noticed a few strange and interesting quirks about this area now that I've been here a little while. During my second week in this lovely state I attempted to change my last $120 of Canadian money at two banks - both of which refused my request. One of them, Bank of America, instructed me to call their customer service line, and MAIL THEM THE MONEY. Actually put it in an envelope and mail it. They must think I am a raving lunatic or something. Mailing money is right up there with running with scissors - you just don't do it !!!! I ended up driving back to the airport to do the deed.

Some more quirks I have noticed:

- It is illegal to write post-dated checks.

- Peek Freans cookies are imported, and a small container of them is roughly double the price of a bag you can get at Loblaws.

- Danone yogourt is spelled "Dannon" here. I guess the Americans couldn't get their heads around the pronunciation.

- Because we are from out of country, we must take a road test to obtain California drivers' licences.

In my last email, I mentioned that people here were said to be very laid-back, and that it is a difficult feat to get anything done. After dealing with numerous situations with my relocation officer, I have found this to be so, SO true. In addition to my relocation woes, I have received run-arounds from the Social Security office, the cellular phone company, the grocery store and the hotel I was previously staying at. You literally have to sit on someone's head in order for anything to get done, and yes, you should ask at least twice. The first person who told you something was probably just trying to get rid of you.

These past two weeks have been both busy and challenging. I have already found one previously-unnoticed bug in the software my group is testing, and have found an extention to an existing one. My coworkers are all great - very laid-back, yet very hard-working at the same time.

Thursday (the 28th) was a get-together for all the software testers in our functional unit. Approximately 25 of us headed off to Dave & Busters for an evening of food and gaming. [My company] was generous enough to give us all $5 worth of games as well as a satisfying meal.

The gaming experience was fiercely competitive. On several occasions, I found myself pitted against 3 or 4 other guys in Daytona USA, in a no-holds-barred match of speed and brute force. It was a common occurrence to be run off the road at least once every game. Every single one of our cars were battered all to pieces as we crossed the finish line.

Saturday (the 30th) I hung out with Torea and her boyfriend for a day of dog talk and seeing the sights. They have two rambunctious but well-trained Jack Russell Terriers. For those who have ever owned or met a JRT, you know full well that these dogs are incessantly hyper and demanding of attention. I swear these dogs were on nitrous. They would play fetch for an hour straight and beg for more. I'm not kidding.

We had a nice lunch in Palo Alto, a ritzy, high-class area with hip overtones. Not far away was the Stanford Shopping Center, a mall with no ceiling. The main mall walkway was paved, and trees and flowers were abound. The stores were high-class and very expensive. I saw numerous BMWs, Mercedes and even a Ferrari in the parking lot. Parking at this place was almost non-existent, and do you think anyone would stop for you when you're trying to back out of your space ? Hah ! I have learned a new skill in dealing with the driving down here: pushing my way into traffic. It's the only way to change lanes, exit a freeway or get out of your parking spot.

Scott arrived here on Sunday, after taking a two-day layover to visit his friend in Dallas. I forgot where I'd parked the car (actually, I remembered the section number wrong), so there was about a 20-minute delay while I walked all around the place looking for it.

Tiger is adjusting to her new home well. She's adopted the spare room as "her room", and often sleeps under or on the bed in there. I often let her out on the balcony to birdwatch and hang around. She meows at the birds when they get too close.

Thursday was the arrival of our designated apartment belongings. We tried to keep the apartment stuff to a minimum, and the storage stuff to a maximum, however this was not too successful. There are about 10 boxes here waiting to be unpacked, mostly clothes, food and CDs.

There were a few things that didn't make it (paper towels, etc.), however the most upsetting and heart-wrenching no-show was the Canadian chocolate. Mom had given us a box of Halloween chocolates from Costco which included 90 small pieces. Before I left, I had eaten two of them. Before Scott left, THEY WERE ALL GONE, in the mouths of family and friends. 90 PIECES !!! And the big king-sized Crispy Crunch and Hazelnut bars I'd bought at Wal-Mart ? GONE !! EATEN !! You can't get Cadbury chocolate here. I was heartbroken. (Hint: Send us Cadbury chocolate !)

Thursday also marked the arrival of our cars. The transport truck used to bring the cars here was unbelievably huge - SIX cars fit in this thing, three on the top, and three on the bottom. The other cars in attendance were a 1944 Willy's, a 1970 Charger, a Mustang and a Mercedes. The Willy's and Charger had both been ordered over the Internet and were being shipped to their new homes. The Mercedes belonged to a 70-year-old lady and her 50-year-old daughter who travel all over, and habitually spend a month or two in places like the Beverly Hills Hilton. ($2,000/night).

Our modest GM economy-class cars were driven onto a hydraulic ramp and lowered gently to the ground.

Since our apartment is less than a 10-minute walk from a light rail station, the same light rail that transports to the company campus, I decided to try public transit on Friday instead of fighting traffic for 45 minutes each way.

This particular transit system works on the honor system, and expects that people pay their fare before boarding. The greatest perk for me was that [my company] pays for unlimited passes on this light rail for its employees. Apparently this is in exchange for [my company] funding the extension along [company's street], which is populated almost exclusively by [my company] buildings. Instructions in these trolleys were written in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Friday night, we joined Torea, Jerry, Mark and a few others at the Planet Granite, an indoor rock/wall-climbing warehouse. Now if you had told me a month ago that I'd be wall climbing, I would have said you've completely gone bonkers. I'm so afraid of heights it's not even funny - Diana will remember that I wouldn't go up the Eiffel Tower in Paris because I was too afraid.

We started off with lessons. I donned a helmet, even though I was the only person in the place to do so. On my first climb, I got about halfway up, then looked down. Big mistake - I started getting short of breath and had to be lowered. On my second climb, I simply shimmied all the way to the top without looking down. That made it a bit easier. :) Scott's feet were too big for even the largest climbing shoes they had for rent, so he had to climb in his running shoes. Regardless, he did remarkably well. We both had a fun time, but after a couple of hours, the muscle fatigue was hampering our progress.

Yesterday was our fabled trip across the mountains, and then down Highway 1, along the California coast. The scenery was unparalleled to anything I'd ever seen. Scott and I made our way to Monterey, which houses the expansive aquarium.

In the aquarium, we saw playful sea otters, the biggest seagulls you could possibly imagine, beautiful birds (most of which found their homes at the aquarium after being injured) and all sorts of marine life. There were some bins where you could actually touch the sea creatures. I felt the slimy, rubbery fin of a sea ray. There were also starfish petting tanks. We saw jellyfish that were 1-2 feet long, and some that were no bigger than a pea. In the kids' area, there was a huge exhibit of penguins, some of which bobbed in the water facing the crowd, as if smiling at it and enjoying the attention.

On our drive back, we observed some surfers at one of the beaches. They all paddled out and waited for a wave, and when a large one came, they caught up with it and rode it till it died away. There was one guy there in a Volkswagen bus from Washington, hanging out in his underwear while his wetsuit dried. He was probably living in the bus for the surfing season.

Today we headed off to San Francisco to the tourist trap of the west coast, Fisherman's Wharf. We picked a great day to visit; it was Navy Fleet Week, complete with large vessels opened for touring. We waited in line for one hour, and then boarded the largest, most expansive naval vessel you could imagine - an aircraft carrier !

This boat was long enough to allow planes to take off, and expansive enough to house 5,000 people at one time. To load the planes (and the tourists !) onto the main deck, a huge moving floor moved up and down. The main deck was peppered with aircraft of all kinds, from propellor-based to jet fighters. It was purely fascinating.

There were plenty of naval officers around answering questions, some who did not look a day over 18. The enlisting booths were strategically placed on the way back to the Embarcadero from the vessel.

From the pier, we walked to Fisherman's Wharf. We had seen the Naval air force flying around, however we were in for a treat - it was an air show ! The blue-and-yellow F-18 Hornets were out to strut their stuff. These planes were in formations so tight you would swear they were touching. They pulled off manoevers hitherto thought impossible, all the while coming dangerously close to one another. The final move was all five planes doing a close fly-by to the crowd.

We continued our touring of Fisherman's Wharf by walking around and visiting the touristy shops. We bought little and walked a lot. We really only sat down for a few minutes the entire day, and by the time we returned to our cars, we could barely feel our feet. I'm sure we'll be paying for this tomorrow, but we'll worry about that when it arrives.

Next week will be my second trip to the Social Security office and my first game of the fall/winter season. Wish me luck on both parts !!!!

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