Archive for August, 2009

Late summer stew: pork and hatch green chiles

Monday, August 31st, 2009

One year in college, I did a road trip to New Mexico with Jason and his friend Mikey. As we crossed the miles of west Texas, the guys talked about things they missed from home, including green chiles. We drove through the night, crossing into New Mexico in the wee hours. Around 4 or 5 am, we stopped at an all-night diner for a “breakfast” of green chile cheeseburgers. Being new to the southwest, it was the first time I’d ever encountered these savory peppers.

Late August is chile season, and for a few weeks, our Whole Foods carries hatch green chiles from New Mexico. My neighbor, Charles, works in the produce department and it’s his job to roast them in a big gas-fired drum in front of the store. Bill brought home a box of the roasted hatch peppers, and while we ate the first few straight up, the rest became a yummy new dinner.

J forwarded me a recipe that calls for pork, onions, garlic, green chiles, potatoes, and broth. To lower the glycemic impact, I omitted the potatoes and cut the broth by a third, to end up with a pork-pepper-onion slurry that we ate over quinoa instead. With just a dash of salt and some cumin, I thought it was yummy, and Bill said “it’s definitely a keeper.” Thanks, J!

green chile stew

Car Shopping: Near and Pharr, pt. 3

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Having driven the competition, our choice really came down to three models: the RAV4, the Forester and the Outback. I tried to bring the Tiguan into consideration, but I had misinterpreted some of Bob’s comments. What I heard was “it is less desirable”. What she meant, as I later came to understand, was “it would have to be free”. Ah, mawwiage and twue wuv.

For round 2, we decided to first give the Toyota a second chance. Keith at Sterling McCall had been responsive via e-mail, far more so than anyone over at Mike Calvert, and less annoying/entitled than the guy out at Fred Haas Toyota World/Country who USAA connected us with, so we headed over to Sterling McCall for a test drive. Unfortunately, they only had a RAV4 Limited in Black, so this was a “see if it can make a better impression” visit, rather than a “let’s buy this one” visit. It was also where Bob got to do her “Tour de Parking Lot” with the Venza. As an aside, the “panoramic” moonroof in the Venza has nothing on the Subaru, let alone the VW.

So we drove the RAV4 and poked and prodded it a bit, reconfirming the features we had liked and testing the ones we didn’t. Because its spare tire is on the rear gate, there is a ton of storage space underneath the “floor” of the rear cargo compartment. Also, and this may have been what made it our first choice, the rear seats are spring loaded with a remote release such that you can pull a lever in the rear cargo compartment and the seats fly forward and lie flat. No more having to set-up the seats if you are carrying long things or a lot of cargo.

After that, we wanted to test drive a third generation Prius, so we headed for the nearest place that had one of the three Priuses left in stock in Houston. I am not kidding. There were three Priuses left in the city. Along the way, however, we passed Gillman Subaru Southwest and decided to drop in to do an instant comparison vs. the RAV4. This time, I was able to find a comfortable driving position, though we didn’t leave the dealership, and the Outback was still as spacious on the x and y axes as we remembered, and the z-axis was “tight” with the moonroof. The Forester is improving its lot as a result of this “drive by”, but the Prius awaits (in Katy), after a quick stop at Panera Bread for dinner.

In order to understand Bob’s commitment to the process, one has to realize that the nearest Prius was in Katy. And there was only one. Well, technically two, but it passed us on the frontage road on a test drive. Or it had been bought, and the new owner was doing a “check ride”. It’s hard to say; we never saw it again. So, not only was Bob willing to go “really far” (i.e., beyond the 610 loop), but she was willing to go to “East San Antonio”, aka Katy, to see a car that wasn’t really in the running.

We got to the dealership wondering where we would find the Prius, and lo and behold, it was right there on the main show floor. Well, that was hard. So, I opened it up and sat in the driver’s side. Here I should mention that the reason why the Prius was never really seriously considered is that my thighs did not fit on the prior generation model. We had rented a second generation Prius while visiting Las Vegas a while ago, and I simply could not get the steering wheel and seat far enough apart for me to get my legs into the seat without having to squeeze under the steering wheel, scraping the tops of my thighs on the bottom of the steering wheel. Once I was tucked into place, the car was fine. Just ingress and egress were what was challenging. The third generation Prius has fixed that with a greater range of motion in both the seat and the steering column.

Beyond the improved driver’s side room, there is not a lot that seemed revolutionary on the interior of the car. There was a button to engage an “electric only” mode that will get you about 20 – 25 miles before exhausting a fully-charged battery. Don’t turn off your car, though, when you are filling up, or you may not be able to start it again. I’m not really sure how that hangs together logically (with the gasoline motor off and the battery seriously depleted), but the salesman said it, so it must be true!

About the time that we had done our quick “poke and prod” on the car, a salesperson finally showed up. At that point, I had gotten to the window sticker and learned that the tint job was $500 (typical retail for Toyotas is $200, despite almost all models coming with some basic “privacy” filter on the glass). At 2.5x retail, that tint job had better have been “no-E”, instead of “low-E” to even pretend to be worth the mark-up. The salesman was quick to inform us, though, that there was a $2,000 “market adjustment factor” on the invoice. So, take full retail, add the profit-padding tint job, and then quit pretending from there for another $2k. At least they could have called it “super ScotchGard” or some such. As Chevy Chase said in Fletch, “Do you have to use the whole fist, Doc?”

So, after our Prius adventure and being able to compare the Forester, Outback and RAV4 vaguely side-by-side, we settled on trying to find a RAV4. About this time, we started hearing rumors of the CARS program coming to a halt “soon”, as in, “don’t expect it to be around too much into next week.” Since the Obama administration altered the program’s rules to allow people to order cars, this shouldn’t have been too big of a deal, but you still needed an executed sales contract. To have a sales contract, you had to have a VIN. Apparently, Toyota cars do not get their VIN from the factory, but from the regional distributor. As a result, what was in Gulf States Toyota’s pipeline was it, and dealers were apparently scrambling to find just the right cars for their customers.

Anecdote: We got a call on Thursday about 1pm from Justin at Ron Carter Toyota (recommended). He had a modestly equipped RAV4 Limited that he was willing to knock $2k off the list price in Blizzard Pearl (I had submitted an offer about that price via their website the night before). We said, “we’ll take it, assuming it checks out. Can we give you a credit card to hold it?” He asked how long it would be before we could get down there, and I said mid-afternoon (I had to finish some things). “Wait, it’s out on a test drive; let me call you back”, which then turned into, “Sorry, it looks like it is being sold, but I can call you if the deal falls through.” Grr. Looks like we are now fighting serious availability issues.

Next up was Star Toyota in Bacliff (South of Clear Lake, North of La Marque). They had a Blizzard Pearl Limited that wasn’t too heavily optioned (my thoughts of RAV4 Sport models are right out the window). We headed down there, did the test drive, and then tried negotiating. “The price is what’s on the sticker” is about how it went down, though there were some ins-and-outs for the dance.

Lesson #8: To the extent possible, know exactly how much the car cost the dealer if you are going to negotiate. The salesguy, David Pham (definitely Not Recommended), tried to tell me that they didn’t have as much profit potential in the car as my counter-offer. It facilitates the discussion to be able to indicate otherwise. For those with limited negotiating interest, I highly recommend the book, Getting to Yes. It’s a practical guide on how to negotiate a particular way that should prove practical and reasonably effective for most people in a Western context.

After that, we went on a wild goose chase over to Baytown to find the dealership (Community Toyota) not only didn’t have the inventory we wanted to see, but also that both of the sales guys we were supposed to talk to had left for the weekend a while ago. Double-grr. Oh, yeah, CARS is ending on Monday. Triple-grr.

So, with RAV4 inventory looking depleted, except in the 4 cylinder models, it was time to work the Subaru angle. That night, I sent off a blizzard of e-mails to all five Houston and Austin Subaru dealerships. White Outbacks seemed non-existent except in $35k+ trim, but there were a couple of Foresters that seemed suitable (one local and a preferred one in Georgetown). Let’s see how the fish bite. Tiguans seem to be plentiful at Demontrond Volkswagen on 1960.

Friday morning, I went through the inventory at all 17 Houston area Toyota dealerships one last time. There was the RAV4 at Star, and then a couple of others popped up in various dealerships. Cool. We may have some bargaining power after all. If not, we are going to be happy Subaru owners. Maybe.

The first dealership to get back to us was Champion Toyota. The vehicle was optioned out a little more heavily than we would have wanted, but Brad was willing to take $2k off the sticker, which made it more than $1k less than the vehicle at Star. Again, “Can you hold it for us?” This time, the answer was “No problem, when can you be here?” It was noon, and we hadn’t eaten. “How about 1pm?” He said that would work, but they had to get the deal approved by 3pm and closed (funded) by 5pm, per corporate policy. A quick stop through a Wendy’s drive through for some lunch and the bank for the title to the car, and we were off.

It turns out that the car had just come recently on a dealer trade from a Toyota dealership in Pharr, Texas (down on the border, near McAllen). The car was driven the 350+ miles from the Valley to Houston, so it had more than 400 miles on it when we took possession. However, we did complete the deal and took possession of a 2009 RAV4 Limited in Blizzard Pearl.

Car Shopping, Near and Pharr, pt. 2

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Today’s installment comes fittingly comes from the Starbucks on Carillon Point in Kirkland, Washington. It seems that my little hobby company is doing well enough that my partners decided to hold a retreat for the employees and their spouses/significant others. Yes, employees. But more on that after we wrap up this thread on car shopping.

When last we left the intrepid Bill and Bob, they had rapidly researched the universe of “compact SUVs” and other cars that might be of interest, and they began road testing models. First up: the Toyota RAV4. Why the RAV4, and what the heck does “RAV4” denote? As mentioned previously, it was “only” Consumer Reports’ #2 rated model in the category, but in the reviews, a few key attributes stuck out:

  • Noise – The RAV4 was noted as being quiet in its class.
  • Power – The V6 version has more than 250 bhp, and does 0 – 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, that is as quick as a Mustang GT or Camaro Z28 was when I was in High School.
  • Fuel Economy – Despite the power of the V6, it only got 1 mpg less than the 4 cylinder (and its accompanying 10 second 0 – 60 mph time), while still getting 5 mpg better than the V6 was rated when new in the Jimmy (translation: the full $4500 credit and lower operating costs; almost 50% better fuel economy than the Jimmy’s current abysmal 14 – 15 mpg.).
  • Reliability – In Consumer Reports twisted logic, red is “good” for car reliability, and the RAV4 is a sea of red across all categories. No other model has anywhere close to this history of reliability.

So, despite the “Recreation Activity Vehicle, 4-wheel drive” no longer being limited to 4WD and a 4 cylinder engine, I had pretty good hopes that the RAV4 would be the benchmark for the category. It turns out that it was, but wow, what a circuitous route to get there.

Toyota RAV4 Limited in Classic Silver
We started out on Wednesday, August 12th, with Mike Calvert Toyota on the South Loop at Kirby. We started there because they were a) the closest Toyota dealer, and b) they seemed to have a couple of models “available” that we could drive. Important lesson #1 for buying a Toyota: on the dealer inventory, “in stock” means that you may have a chance of the product being on the lot; “available” means that the vehicle may be in the vicinity, but is definitely not on the dealer’s lot. Important lesson #2: big incentives from the government that focus on a few narrow vehicles combined with manufacturers’ incentives create significant stock outs.

We grabbed dinner, since I finished work later than I had wanted, and then got to the lot after 7:30pm. Robin wasn’t feeling well, and I had wanted to abort, but we troopered on nonetheless. When we got to the lot, it turns out that they only had one V6 left on the lot and it was a fully-loaded “Limited” edition, with a bunch of dealer add-ons. Important lesson #3: most dealer add-ons are low-cost ways to add extra profit in ways that are opaque to services like the pricing service Consumer Reports offers. We found out later that one “protection package” that includes things like ScotchGard and a “noise sealant” has a cost of $99, but a sticker price of $299.

Important lesson #4 applies more broadly, but seems to particularly afflict Toyotas: options can come in packages or a la carte. The “extra value package” for the “Sport” edition (middle trim grade) of the RAV4 has a retail price of just over $400. Three of its most costly components, the moonroof, the upgraded driver side seat and the upgraded radio, each have a “dealer invoice” cost of more than that. In the case of the moonroof, the “invoice” on the option is around $900!! If you are ever shopping for a car, be very clear about not only what options you want, but how they are packaged. Towards the end of the CARS charlie foxtrot, I found one RAV4 V6 Limited with fewer amenities than the one we ultimately bought, but that listed for $4,000 more than ours. You have been warned. Back to the test drive…

Mike Calvert has a reputation for poor service, and “Chime” (our “salesperson”) did not disappoint in this. He shot a photocopy of my license and away we went, sans Chime, for a test drive. From my perspective, the RAV4 basically lived up to my expectations. It had decent handling (especially coming from the Jimmy), very good acceleration, a good deal of room and was demonstrably quieter than the Jimmy (though through all of this, I forgot to bring my SPL meter to measure noise). Bob, on the other hand, was unimpressed. She thought it was “boaty” and too big. About the only thing that she thought was acceptable was that it was “white” (“blizzard pearl”, according to Toyota). She started talking about hatchbacks and “something smaller”, and I started thinking “looks like I’m getting a new radiator out of this”. After the test drive, we had to hunt down Chime to give him back the keys and to go on about our evening. At this point, I thought I knew WAY more about the RAV4 than he did, and I had just started researching. After much discussion, we decided to continue our search, though expectations were having to be refined along the way.

On Friday, we trudged up to Gillman North Subaru (I-45 at FM1960), where Brenda was the antithesis of Chime. We first drove a white 2009 Forester XT (“T” is for the turbo), and it drove reasonably well with great acceleration, as well. Pedal feel for the Subarus was distinct from everything else we drove, which was attributed to the all wheel drive by Brenda. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite find a comfortable position in the Forester and that particular model also had a bunch of options (e.g., navigation) that added significant cost without a lot of value to us. It also was short on gas, so we had a very limited test drive. The panoramic moonroof was a fun addition, though, and it was the first moonroof where I thought, “cool, it has a moonroof!”. (Lesson #5: If you want navigation, CR recommends a third-party add-on for the foreseeable future since the features are improving so much year-over-year.)

2010 Subaru Outback in Satin White
We next drove the 2010 Outback. Wow. The Outback is a few inches shorter than the Forester and feels a lot more like a wagon, but it still has almost nine inches of ground clearance to fly over potholes. The CVT (continuously variable transmission) provided good acceleration from Subaru’s basic 170hp 4 cylinder, though not in the same league as the RAV4 V6 or Turbo Forester, and it got even better gas mileage than the RAV4. The front seat was very comforable and easy to find a good driving position for me, though headroom was a bit cramped from the sunroof. Not unacceptably so, but I’m glad I’m done growing. In the rear seat, you had even more leg room than in the front. Really, it bordered on the absurd. The rear seat was adjustable fore-and-aft, and with the seat all the way back, my knees came nowhere close to the front seat. The only downside, again, was the infringement on headroom from the moonroof. If Gillman had a white Outback sans moonroof in stock, I suspect we might have been seriously tempted to call it a shopping trip right there. However, since the Outback was a brand new design for 2010, it was in short supply and the dealer gave no impression of being willing to negotiate.

Lesson #6: Subaru people really like Subarus. As a result, Subaru doesn’t have the same crazy incentives as other manufacturers and the dealers tend to stick more to MSRP (or beyond). The exception, vaguely in our area, is the internet sales manager at Georgetown Subaru. He ended up giving us a quote on a Forester XT Limited in White, exactly what we would have wanted in a Forester, for $500 under invoice. He just did it four hours too late.

After driving the Outback, and being surprised by the acceleration in the normally-aspirated 4 cylinder, I wanted to test drive a non-turbo Forester. While it would be fine for ordinary driving, it just didn’t have the acceleration I was wanting to combat Houston freeway traffic and the assorted “death merges” near our house. The downside of this perspective was that it limited us to a $3500 subsidy from the government for the Forester XT, and it would have doomed us to having to use premium gas. The latter isn’t really that much of a cost addition under most reasonable gas consumption usage scenarios (<=$200/yr.), but it is a bit of "insult to injury" should gas prices spike again. HONDA, NISSAN and VOLKSWAGEN
The other three manufacturers we consider don’t really merit too much discussion. The Honda CR-V “would not suck”, but it has flip-up (“rumble”) rear seats which just didn’t compare to the fold-flat seats from Toyota and Subaru. It did have the best integration of navigation system and back-up camera, but that gets back to the navigation system caveat, above.

CRV tumble seats
The Honda CR-V’s back seat “tumbles” forward

Forester fold-flat seats
The Subaru Forester’s back seat folds flat and out of the way

The Nissan Rogue was the least comfortable of the ones we tested, at least for me. Its interior styling was definitely geared more towards a “boom box” aesthetic that I really did not appreciate, and the fold-flat seats begged a definitional question, as Bob pointed out to the salesman. The up-side to it was the CVT mated to the four cylinder had good-enough acceleration such that it did not make me demand a V6.

The Volkswagen Tiguan and Jetta Sportwagen were the last of the models in our first round of test drives, and while I liked the Tiguan’s handling and driving position, Bob never could get comfortable. We both agreed that the panoramic moonroof was gorgeous. Seriously. This is driving in a “glass bubble” type spaciousness that did not really seem to infringe on headroom at all.

Tiguan panoramic moonroof

In SEL trim, the Tiguan also had the last of the major safety/convenience items I was wanting in a car: HID (high-intensity discharge) headlights (aka Xenon bulbs). These really do work better, especially when you start thinking to the decade entering the heart of middle age (yuck!). However, the SEL gets expensive in a hurry, despite dealers willingness to go below invoice. The SE version, with leather seats, includes a memory function that would be nice (and at a price that would be the cheapest among this field), but then there’s Volkswagen’s reputation for (poor) quality to consider. How soon before that broke? Hrmmm. Did I mention how pretty that moonroof was? (Then I started thinking of that much glass in a parking lot for two hours in August, rather than in a garage on a cloudy day — begs another test, if it had made the cut)

The Tig would have made me reasonably happy, but Bob hated the seats both for comfort and for “heaviness”. Folding down the rear seats required her to get in an awkward angle and apply some force, which twinged her back a bit. Looks like someone just got voted off the island. The Jetta Sportwagen had all of the downsides for Bob of the Tig, plus a less comfortable driving position for me.

Lesson #7: the parking lot of the Hobbit Cafe is a disaster. As a result, it is a GREAT place to test drive a car’s suspension. Ground clearance gets in important test here, too.

So, having driven the top-rated cars in the category, plus several others (Bob finally got to pop her illusion of the Volvo S40; I drove an Impreza Hatchback; Bob drove a Venza around a parking lot — it took that little time to disqualify), we were ready to start putting dollar figures against the tradeoffs. In other words, it was time to start Round 2, final selection and negotiation.

Car Shopping, Near and Pharr, pt. 1

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

As Bob mentions, below, about two weeks ago, we actually took the Jimmy over to Mark at Downtown Auto to see what was making a “gurgling” noise in the engine compartment. The answer turned out to be a small crack in the radiator that was leaking coolant as the temperatures got hotter.

cracked radiator

The cost of the fix, like so many before it? $500. New alternator? $500. New water pump? $500. Brakes? $500. New tires? $500. Engine? $2,000. Whoops. That last one was my bust.

$650 vs. $4500? Seems like a no-brainer.

About this time, we actually started paying attention to the newly-launched “Car Allowance Rebate System”, aka “CARS”, aka “Cash for Clunkers”. The idea behind this program was straightforward: car dealerships are sitting on five months of unsold inventory, many of the cars that people own get pretty poor gas mileage, so give people a fairly stiff incentive to trade in old cars for new, higher-mileage ones. You reduce emissions and energy consumption while helping to resolve the glut of inventory on dealers’ lots and provide a minor fillip to the auto industry that has received so much cash from the federal government. It’s actually a fairly good idea in concept. In practice, a lot was left to be desired, but that had more to do with the levels at which the incentives were set ($3500 and $4500) and its ensuing popularity, more than anything else.

Here are the qualifications for a “clunker”:

  • Had to have a combined EPA mileage rating of 18 mpg or less when new,
  • The vehicle must have clear title and have been insured in the buyer’s name for a year, and
  • You must drive the vehicle onto the dealer’s lot.

Seems pretty simple, so far, right? The entertainment comes when you try to find a qualifying new vehicle:

  • For a “category 1 truck” (like the Jimmy), the new car had to have a minimum EPA combined mileage rating of 2 miles per gallon more than the retiring vehicle,
  • In order to receive the full $4500, the trade-in vehicle has to beat the retiring vehicle by 5 mpg or more, and
  • You can’t move up a size class.

So, in other words, if we wanted to maximize the value of the Jimmy as a trade-in, we basically needed to find a fuel efficient small SUV, typically a 4 cylinder, or go with a car. One of the odd disincentives of the program, though, was that a car had to beat the trade-in by 10 mpg to qualify for the full amount. So, one was actually penalized a touch going with a more fuel efficient choice, but in a different category. Definitely not a perfect plan, but the spirit of the endeavor definitely influenced our thinking. The contenders:

  • Toyota RAV4 – I wanted the V6, which got only 1 mpg worse than the 4 cylinder. Consumer Reports #2 compact SUV.
  • Subaru Forester – Subaru spent enough money sponsoring the Tour de France on TV that I felt like we owed Subaru a look. It didn’t hurt that this was Consumer Reports’ #1 rated small SUV, Motortrend’s “SUV of the Year” for 2009 and a recommended small SUV from Car and Driver.
  • Subaru Outback – New for 2010 (read: no incentives), and the next size up from the Forester.
  • Honda CR-V – A perpetual contender against the RAV4. Honda’s reputation for quality seems to be slipping on some models, though this one generally gets high marks.
  • Nissan Rogue – A model I hadn’t known much about, but highly rated by both Consumer Reports and Car and Driver.
  • Volkswagen Tiguan – New for 2009, this is VW’s late-to-the-game small SUV built on the Golf/Jetta platform, all with 2.0 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder engines. Due to corporate relationships, we get VW cars at dealer invoice (or better). Uknown reliability, though.
  • Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen – A wagon version of the Jetta, much as it sounds. Cheaper than the Tiguan, above. Our nearest VW dealer is less than 4 miles away.

Because of the time of year that it is, August, many dealers would have been trying to clear out their 2009 inventory using discounted pricing and significant incentives from the manufacturers. Volkswagen, in fact, had not only a $1500 customer incentive on the Tiguan that was publicized, but also a $1500 dealer incentive that wasn’t. Subaru just put a straight $3,000 bounty on its top-of-the line 2009 Outback (there was one left in the State — in Georgetown!). So, combine model year-end silliness with an inventory glut with an overly aggressive subsidy scheme, and what do you get? Utter chaos, or Bill and Bob go car shopping, 2009 edition!

Don’t sweat* the small stuff…

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

*though sweating because it’s 95-feels-like-105 is okay.

My brother learned yesterday that his car chewed through its oil, and unsated, went on to eat the engine bearings as well. This is Not A Good Thing.

Since Chris and Shawn are a one-car family, I offered to loan them my tired old Mazda so they could have some time to ponder whether to sink money into a repair or seek a new car. I picked Chris up after church this morning so he could drive my car home. He pulled out six hours later. During the interim, I learned several things:

  • If one doesn’t drive a car for weeks or months, the battery will die.

dead Mazda battery
It’s dead, Jim.

  • If you cut off the corroded part of the battery cable, the cable that’s left won’t reach the battery terminal anymore.
  • Home Depot sells 1-gauge copper cable by the foot.

more copper cable
Bill picking copper at the Depot

aluminum connector
The connector we needed only came in aluminum, not copper.

Bill splicing
After stripping both copper cables, Bill connected them

  • If one gets the jumper cables backwards, the main fuse will blow.
  • If one doesn’t unscrew the secret hidden main fuse bolts, the fuse will shatter when you try to remove it.
  • If the socket falls into the fuse box, it’s a bitch to get it out (every time).
  • My Haynes illustrated guide to the Mazda 626 didn’t include remotely enough detail for these tasks.
  • AutoZone is open until 9:00 pm on Sundays, and Gloria rocks.

shattered main fuse
We’re going to need a new main fuse

hidden bolts
Gloria reassured us that people fail to unscrew the secret hidden main fuse bolts “all the time”

At some point, the heat and the endless string of obstacles became a little tedious, especially since this is not how any of us planned to spend Sunday afternoon. But Chris and I talked about embracing all of it, good-bad-indifferent, as part of life. Instead of getting frustrated, we all took a deep breath and chalked it up as quality time, which we haven’t had much of together in the last year.

And frankly, six hours of do-it-ourselves work in the heat and three trips to AutoZone were much more satisfying than calling AAA, waiting an hour for a tow, and paying NTB twice as much to do it for us. And Chris still went home with a functional vehicle. Yay team!

functional again
Chris heading home in the now-functional car

Raising money for charity? It’s FAAN-tastic!

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

As many people know, I have done a number of charity bicycle rides this year, most notably the “MS150” from Houston La Grange to Austin just outside Bastrop. Taking part in these events is a bit curious. On the one hand, I do respect the people whose heart and souls go into the organizations and causes which we are nominally supporting. On the other hand, I just don’t care that much about things like low-cost spay and neutering services in Galveston County.

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think that Paws and Puddles (the mascots of said organization and the eponymous ride) shouldn’t have free reign to create more little Paws and Puddles, but of all the things wrong in the world, this wouldn’t rise up to my level of consciousness if it weren’t for the fact that the organization put on a damn fine bike ride (cold, wet towels in 100 degree heat? Simply awesome!). So it goes. The more specialized the cause and the less I care about it, the better the event needs to be to draw my interest and my money. Apparently, some of my colleagues at Deloitte did not get that memo, since they sent me this one:

Are you interested in getting more involved in the community? What about networking with your colleagues? Getting some exercise? Then join the Deloitte team in participating in the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network’s Walk for Food Allergy: Moving Toward A Cure event on September 12, 2009, at Sam Houston Park in Houston, TX.

The more people walking and fundraising, the more we can help those who have food allergy. The event will raise funds to find a cure for food allergy and to educate others about its impact. Walk events are a fun, family-oriented way to raise support for FAAN, funds for research and education efforts, and awareness of food allergies. FAAN needs your support. Help make a difference in the lives of the estimated 12 million Americans who have food allergies. Join Team Deloitte!

If any of you food allergy suferers a) have ever heard of this organization, and b) would ever consider it swaying your decision to engage a professional services firm of any sort (let’s say beyond catering, that is), then I’d love to hear it in the comments.

So many things I could say, but just really shouldn’t.

Enjoying a peaceful baby-centric afternoon…

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Our friends Nicole and Brandon have new triplets at home. The boys are now four months old (after being three months preemie) which means Nicole and Brandon have already had a LOT of practice doing all the things new parents have to do.

Despite the inherent sleep deprivation, they are remarkably calm, cheerful parents, and the boys are sweet, too. All of which makes visiting to provide an extra pair of hands — to feed and cuddle a baby or change a diaper — a delightfully low-stress activity.

sleeping triplets
Sleeping Alex, Ben, and Teddy in no particular order

Nicole and Alex
Nicole feeding Alex

Bob and Ben
Bob holding a sleeping Ben

Nicole and Brandon claim that having an extra adult around is helpful, but I just know it’s fun!

Aunt Bob & Sierra’s day out

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Chris and Shawn are working on some home improvement projects, so I volunteered to take their girls for a day. Isabella woke up under the weather, but Sierra was still game to play. After a quick breakfast, we headed over to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Sierra cracks eggs
Sierra cracked her own egg for breakfast

We started in the Dinosaur hall, where a volunteer docent showed us several surprising fossils. Sierra wanted to show me a dinosaur mummy, but we didn’t find it. In the Energy hall, we were right on time for a cool chemistry demonstration. Sierra got to demonstrate how the heat in her hands would cause gas in a vessel to expand and rise.

chemistry demonstration
Sierra participated in a chemistry demonstration

Then we checked out the Cockrell Butterfly Center. What an amazing place! There were a wild and colorful array of butterflies everywhere we looked!

Sierra regarding butterflies

butterflies everywhere

Rice paper butterfly
Rice paper butterfly

Sierra and Bob
What happens sometimes when strangers offer to use your camera

In the afternoon, we took Sierra to get a new haircut for school. We went to see Andi, the same charming young woman who does Sharon’s and Sarah’s hair, and she took good care of Sierra!

Andi and Sierra
Andi and Sierra

After that, we went to Mai’s for a yummy Vietnamese lunch with spring rolls and pho. Then we came home to watch Wallace & Gromit while another summer thunderstorm rolled through. We had a good day!


In honor of my birth day…

Monday, August 10th, 2009

When Bill asked me how I’d like to celebrate my birthday, I thought about it for a while and I wasn’t sure. Somewhere along the way, the de facto answer to that question became “go out for a nice dinner.” But if you do that enough times, it stops feeling special or memorable. I wanted to do something different.

The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to start my day with a good workout and a healthy breakfast. While I was on the elliptical machine, I remembered something. The photo album of Polaroids from the first months of my life, which went under water during Ike, has been sitting on our porch awaiting recovery. So in honor of my birthday, I decided to disassemble the moldering albums, identify the salvageable photos, and scan them.

Flood recovery is perhaps a comparatively depressing task to tackle on a day of celebration. But I have been anxious over the fate of these photos, and I knew that getting them archived digitally would be a relief. And the subject matter seemed apt for the date. Here are a few:

newborn Robin

newborn Robin
Jean with newborn Robin just after 3:00 am on August 10, 1971

I obviously don’t remember my own birth, but mom says this:

For a sequel to conceiving in the first month that we didn’t actively prevent it, I had embarassingly quick and easy labor. It being summer and daylight saving time, I had been swimming every weekend, and walking 1.5 miles around our neighborhood every evening after supper.

On August 9, 1971, (a Monday, I think) I worked a normal day per UF computing center tradition. Sometime in the evening you “dropped.” We went to bed about 10:30.

At 11:30 I woke up wondering if I had dreamed a contraction or if it was real. Spent the next hour watching the clock, timing contractions. The interval persisted right at the threshold (5 minutes?) between false labor and real.

At 12:30 I woke Daddy and declared it time to go. We pulled on clothes and made the 15-minute drive to Alachua General, the county hospital in Gainesville. We had deemed that we would have more privacy there than at the University teaching hospital where Daddy worked.

On arrival at 1 am, I was already dilated 4 cm, they banished Daddy and prepped me minimally on the stretcher to spare us the cost of a labor room. It was during this interval that he observed the chalk board in the hall on which they were tracking the progress of the different women and made his atrocious pun about “box score”. Alachua General in those days did not allow fathers in the delivery room, but Daddy could have been with me in the labor room, except that I was then taken directly to the delivery room.

While I was not going for totally “natural childbirth”, I intended to be awake and watch in a large overhead parabolic mirror provided for the purpose. You were a long skinny baby – 6 lbs 13 oz, 21 inches – so once you had crowned, the rest was easy. You were born at 1:50am, August 10. We did not know until you emerged that you were you and not Christopher.

Daddy took the Polaroid pictures of you and me on the stretcher in the recovery room when you were 30 minutes old. The best one (top above) he posted on the bulletin board in the computing center office that morning, along with a punched card recording your name and vital statistics.

Thanks, Mom, for your account of my “debut” and to you and Dad both for giving me a birth day in the first place. Happy birthday to me!

newborn Robin
Newborn Robin around 8:00 pm on August 10, 1971

p.s. And despite my initial ambivalence, my honey did take me (and Sharon) out for a nice dinner tonight, anyway. Yum!

Lightning strike torches Midtown substation

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

An intense thunderstorm rolled in while I was at the gym this morning. (Bill was riding in another part of town and mostly avoided getting wet.) The rain pouring down outside contributed a pleasant hum to the ambiance and I enjoyed it. One particularly loud thunderboomer was followed abrubtly by the power going out. But the emergency lights came on immediately, and I stayed to finish my workout.

By the time I went outside, the rain had mostly passed but a thick black plume of smoke was emanating from Midtown. In a rare moment of rubber-necking, I decided to go see what was burning.

smoke plume
Something is definitely burning in Midtown

Apparently, lightning struck Reliant’s electrical substation on Tuam at La Branch. Transformers use oil and other VOCs as coolants, so the fire had lots of fuel to burn. (Yes, all this stuff is toxic, and I made a point to stay upwind.) The firemen taped off a perimeter to keep the gathering crowd at a safe distance. But even at ~150 feet, the air was decidedly hot. And the sounds of the blaze were punctuated by clanking as the metal structures wilted in the intense heat.

power substation burning
Reliant’s Midtown power substation burning

firemen must wait
HFD must wait for Reliant to cut power before fighting fire

What was interesting was the delay: HFD had secured the scene but was not yet fighting the fire. It’s not safe to fight an electrical fire until the power is shut down. But since substations like this one are managed remotely, that seemed to be taking Reliant a long time. In the meantime, HFD could only watch and wait with the rest of us.