December 30, 2016

On a Winter's Day

One way to overcome the winter funk that's been keeping me off the bike is to persuade a friend to join me. My chief biking buddy has been in a similar funk.

Yellow wildflowers in a field leading to olive green, oak-studded hills, San Jose, California
My strategy worked: we wouldn't let each other down, so we both showed up. (I admit that I checked my email a few times before leaving the house, just in case she backed out.)

Cloudy skies and hills reflected on the surface of the Chesbro Reservoir, Morgan Hill, California
We did an abbreviated version of a club ride; I wasn't sure how well I'd get up the hills, and she's still coughing from a lingering cold.

Oak trees and a rocky hill, Morgan Hill, California
On such a gloomy day I feared there would be no photo-worthy scenes; I snapped the first photo early and expected it to be the last. (Silly me.)

Turkey vulture soaring above oak trees, Morgan Hill, California
At the base of the second hill, a pair of turkey vultures swirled as they were lifted by the warming air—the sun finally broke through.

For my 2016 season finale, I managed to bike 23 miles and climb a measly 665 feet.

End of year wrap: I climbed more than 140,000 feet and covered more than 3,725 miles on the bike. How much time did that take? More than 415 hours (not all of that in motion). Evidently I also walked (and hiked) more than 346 miles.

Somehow it all adds up.

December 25, 2016

Christmas Cliffs

It was a moody sort of day as we set off on our Christmas stroll.

Silvery waves and a black cliff under gray, overcast skies, Pacific Ocean, Half Moon Bay, California
I was happy to be spending this day, again, with a good friend.

Dry reeds flanked by bright green hills, with Pacific Ocean waves and a cloud-dappled blue sky, Half Moon Bay, California
Forsaking the tide pools at Pillar Point this year, we headed south along the cliffs. The overcast skies transitioned to blue, and some of the hills had turned emerald green.

Driftwood in the foreground, small waterfall in a stream passing under a bridge at the beach, Half Moon Bay, California
We descended to a few beaches along the way. One revealed a small waterfall that we would cross on the bridge above.

Breaking waves at the foot of golden cliffs, Half Moon Bay, California
With the sun low in the sky, the cliffs begin to glow long before sunset.

Acres of Brussels sprouts near Half Moon Bay, California
If you haven't visited coastal California, you might be surprised by the vast agricultural acres that often stretch to the end of the cliffs. Brussels sprouts were in abundance.

Heron in flight, Ritz-Carlton hotel in the background, Half Moon Bay, California
A rude woman with a small dog flushed a stately heron into flight, not content to admire the bird from a respectable distance.

By the time we returned to our car, guests at the Ritz-Carlton were clustered around their firepits. In one ground-level room, I spied an astonishing mountain of brightly-wrapped presents.

We celebrated an eight-mile hike, and more importantly, the gift of good friendship.

December 19, 2016

Sing Out

A holiday tradition in many communities is a choral “sing along.” In particular, at Christmastime, the popular work is Handel's Messiah.

When a friend learned, a few years back, that I had some ability to sing, he gave me a copy of an acclaimed performance on CD and invited me along.

(Yikes.) Apart from the famed Hallelujah chorus, I had no familiarity with the work. My choral career ended in elementary school; to my untrained ears, this piece was operatic. As an adult, I had once toyed with the idea of joining a chorus—until I found out that an audition would be necessary. Solo.

There is much joy in singing, though; and a chorus makes such a glorious noise together.

No auditions are needed to participate in a public sing-along. With some practice, and the generosity of a choir master leading free rehearsals, I came to appreciate Handel's masterful work.

This year, when I signed up for a local 50th annual Messiah Sing-along, I missed the memo that we would be performing the entire work—not just the usual popular selections. But that was okay, thanks to those free rehearsals over the years. And besides, if you don't feel confident about a particular piece, you could just sit it out and let others carry the weight. Many of the people who show up for these are members of regional choruses, and they know what they're doing.

I strategically settled into a seat in the section where sopranos would naturally congregate, and resonated with a confident and talented voice nearby. There is an orchestra, but there are no soloists: We tackle the solos, as well as the choruses, written for our voices.

There was at least one vocalist who had participated in all 50 events. “Let's make it 60!” he called out. Some seated near me held no scores; one woman spent the evening penning Christmas cards. That seemed odd, until I concluded they were friends and families of the orchestra members.

The lyrics are bits of Biblical scripture, rendered from two of the more poetic translations. When I read some verses at a funeral service earlier this year, the passage was familiar to me through Handel's music (No. 52); I had a firm grasp on those words.

As 2016 draws to a close, I was struck by two questions (Psalms 2:1):
Why do the nations so furiously rage together,
and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
Why, indeed? More than two millennia later, so little has changed.

Can there be any hope that we will work for the good of all in 2017, and beyond?

December 6, 2016

Shadows and Smiles

And the bikin' is chilly.
Trails are empty;
The sun is low in the sky.

Would this be yet another morning when I talked myself out of biking to work?

I haven't been on the bike since October 22 (not counting the handful of miles on my folding bike each weekday, to and from my commuter shuttle). I haven't biked to work since September 21. It's not the cold I mind, so much; it's the darkness. On that last commute, the traffic for the first three miles was worse than ever, earlier than ever.

Of course, once the foolishness known as Daylight Savings Time is behind us, the mornings are a bit brighter. But I still have to get up and get ready in the dark.

What's the big deal, you say? Turn on some lights. Sure. But I've just never been a morning person.

It was 39F out there; frost on rooftops, and—dare I say—on some windshields. Descending at speed, the cold air stung my face. With the sun directly behind me, I cast a long shadow. A really long shadow.

One lane of a major road was closed for a short stretch. The workers saw me coming and emphatically waved me inside the cone zone. I smiled and thanked them.

As usual, it's important to stay alert—especially at intersections—but ... all the time, really.

Wait for the drivers who run through the red lights. They're all very important people, in a very important hurry to get to very important places.

Wait for the elderly lady who's fixated on one thing: the pedestrian in the crosswalk. She's not going to look around for someone turning onto the road in front of her.

Whenever it's feasible, I stop well to the left of the bike lane at intersections where drivers will want to turn right on red. It's the courteous (and sensible) thing to do. One driver paused next to me, giving me a wave and mouthing “thank you.” I smiled and nodded. There are some nice people on the road.

Getting ready to shower at the office, another woman recognized me. “I rode to work with you once on Bike to Work Day,” she told me. I smiled.

My day ended on a particularly sweet note, at an appreciation party for those of us who teach orientation classes (in addition to our regular jobs). Impressive statistics were shared. (We taught a lot of new employees and interns, this year. I love the interns.)

“What do you teach?” asked one of my fellow instructors. When I replied, he said “I thought you looked familiar!” (One of my former students.) I smiled.

Our party was a teaching party, of sorts. The chefs had prepared a few stations for us. Grilling, appetizers, cookie decorating.

Cookies?! [Good thing I biked to work.]

December 4, 2016

A Walk in the Park

During my recent trip to Amsterdam, I developed a deeper appreciation for the bright colors and lights that are part of our winter celebrations. The days are short and often gray; when the sun does make an appearance, it doesn't rise far above the horizon.

Lighted figures framed by trees and bushes draped with colored lights, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
What better way to stave off the darkness than with a festival of lights?

Light display: Elves among the gingko trees, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
For many years, a nearby park gets decked out with elaborate displays of lights during the holiday season.

Visitors stroll through a tunnel of lights, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
The patterns and colors of this tunnel shift; I managed to catch it fully lit.

This used to be a strictly drive-through event, but three years ago the organizers experimented with a walk-through night.  It's a family affair, kids in strollers and wagons—even little ones on foot. Some visitors come bedecked in lights. We even saw one girl touring on crutches, her foot in a cast.

Light display: Rollerblading, hiking, bicycling, and strolling holiday vegetables, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
That first walk-through was a success. A new annual tradition was born—and has grown: they offer many more tickets, and this year added a second walk-through night. I persuaded a friend to join me.

Light display: Diving penguin splashes into the water near an igloo, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
Some of the displays are animated. Here, a penguin climbs to the top of the igloo and dives into the water.

Lighted inflatable snowman in a phone booth, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
It wasn't a particularly cold night, but this snowman was shivering (in an old GTE phone booth). I was surprised when one of the kids nearby knew what that was.

The kids have the upper hand in the un-traditional prehistoric zone, where a variety of dinosaurs romp and chomp (complete with sound effects.)

Light display, volcano erupting. Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
There are some snow-capped peaks, and even a volcano erupting.

Light display: Reindeer leaping with Santa in his sleigh, Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
I think there is no better way to see the displays; but if you've missed the walk-through nights, you can still pick up tickets to drive through.

Light display: Peace on Earth. Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos, California
Till next year ...

November 13, 2016

Zaanse Schans

My hotel room in Zaandam overlooked a square featuring a statue of Tsar Peter. Tsar Peter? As in, Peter the Great? In the Netherlands?

Tsar Peter statue, central square, Zaandam, The Netherlands
In the late 17th century Tsar Peter spent some time here, under a pseudonym, as he toured western Europe on a quest to modernize Russia. The monument in the center of the square features the young tsar practicing the craft of shipbuilding.

When I chose to finish my visit to The Netherlands in Zaandam, I was all set for an idyllic pedal through the countryside, including a visit to the charming historic enclave of Zaanse Schans.

Houses and boats along a canal, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The weather today, unfortunately, was more of the same. I could not get enthused about biking in the cold and damp, under more gray skies. The forecast included some afternoon sunshine; maybe I would rent a bike near Zaanse Schans later.

Prins Bernhardbrug (Prince Bernhard Bridge), Zaandam, The Netherlands
I set out to cover the 6 km on foot, through residential neighborhoods that turned industrial. The dramatic Prince Bernhard bridge is a modern drawbridge over the River Zaan, complete with separated cycling lanes and paths for pedestrians.

Piet dolls in shop window, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The streets were deserted on a Sunday morning; even the churches seemed quiet. Shop windows were decorated with Sinterklaas and Piet.

Maternity care clinic with picture of stork in the window, Zaandam, The Netherlands
What better advertisement for maternity care than a picture of a stork bearing its precious bundle?

The windmills restored at Zaanse Schans were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, which made the location seem particularly fitting as I passed modern plants. I picked up the scent of chocolate a few blocks before I passed some chocolate-related factories, and thought back to a video I'd watched on the plane that included a piece about an artist who builds “smell maps” of cities (including Amsterdam).

Houses painted in traditional deep green, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Zaanse Schans is for the Netherlands what Colonial Williamsburg is for the eastern U.S.—a place that re-creates and preserves an older way of life. At Zaanse Schans, there were artisans demonstrating the making of cheeses and wooden shoes. Some groups have restored the old windmills and keep them running.

Racks of colorful wooden shoes, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Like Colonial Williamsburg, Zaanse Schans was a bit touristy. But you can avoid that.

Spice-griding wheels at De Huisman, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
After walking through De Huisman, where I learned about spice grinding, I chose well in touring De Kat.

De Gekroonde Poelenburg (foreground), De Kat (background), Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
De Kat is set up to pound bark and other materials to create pigments for paint. This being Europe (not the litigious U.S.), it was possible to climb the steep ladder to reach the balcony for a close look at the sails. (And to descend, backward, its equally steep counterpart.) I was surprised to discover the outside covered in thatch.

Grinding wheel and ladder, De kat, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, the Netherlands
It didn't take much of a breeze to send the sails spinning. Inside, I watched the massive gears turn, catching and releasing a heavy post to pound the pigments.

Had I given much thought to it, I might have realized that the sails are not fixed in a particular orientation. To take best advantage of the shifting winds, they can be “steered”—rotated around the tower to catch the wind. These original windmills translated wind energy directly into mechanical force—to pound or grind, or even to saw logs into lumber. Ingenious.

Wheel used to control the orientation of the sails, De Kat, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The shop at De Huisman sold little bags of the button-sized cookies I'd seen Piet and his helpers hand out yesterday; no need to feel left out any longer! I sampled a few different cheeses at the cheese-making shop, and sat down at the bake shop to enjoy a warm waffle slathered with Nutella.

Cheeses in various stages, Catharina Hoeve Cheese Farm, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
I learned that it was once traditional for a man to carve elaborate designs into a pair of wooden clogs for his bride.

Pair of intricately carved wooden clogs, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Outside, I spotted a heron in the marsh and watched a cat skulking through the grass, its eye on a crow.

Grey Heron and American Wigeons, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
That weather forecast I mentioned above? Total fiction. There was no sign of the sun; in fact, my umbrella saw more action. I've come to think that they throw a little sunshine into the forecast just to give you hope.

Antique bicycle loaded with unfinished wooden clogs, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Cycling? Maybe some other time.

November 12, 2016


My Dutch adventure will wrap up outside Amsterdam's city limits. Travelers who were expecting to take the train to the airport were befuddled, as that route was not available due to some planned engineering work. Using mass transit in foreign locales is not as simple as the locals would have you believe. I managed to navigate the metro and a train (without incident!) to reach my next destination: Zaandam.

Shopping district along a canal with pedestrian bridges, Gedempte Gracht, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The main street leading away from the train station was a modern shopping district that was bustling with families. I overheard some kids asking about Sinterklaas. Sadly, holiday merchandise had begun to appear in the Bay Area in September, and mid-November still feels early to me. But the timing here turns out to be more sensible: St. Nicholas Day is a little more than three weeks away.

Sign announcing no through traffic on 12 November, for the arrival of Sinterklaas, Zaandam, The Netherlands
People seemed to be streaming purposefully across a bridge to another part of town, and I could hear a voice booming over a loudspeaker. I followed my nose. Families were gathering at barriers around a couple of blocked-off streets; I could see a horse-drawn carriage, and people in colorful costumes on four magnificent horses. Could it be?

Yes! Today was the arrival of Sinterklaas.

Children petting a horse bearing a costumed rider, Zaandam, The Netherlands
My timing was perfect—I got a ringside position before the crowd swelled. Many children wore colorful caps adorned with feathers, not unlike those worn by the characters on horseback. The announcer chattered away, occasionally leading the crowd in song. Riders led the horses over for petting (by adults as well as children); some children clutched drawings they'd made of horses, handing them to the riders.

Steamship, HMS Elfin, on which Sinterklaas arrived, Zaandam, The Netherlands
A plume of steam went up and a ship's horn sounded; this is how Sinterklaas arrives (on the HMS Elfin. No translation needed).

Costumed Piets skipping with their sacks of goodies, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Children were three and four deep at the barriers; Piet! Piet! they squealed as Sinterklaas's costumed helpers appeared—in traditional blackface—clutching sacks of goodies for the kids (little bags of cinnamon cookies). I did my part to point out little outstretched hands nearby that were easily overlooked, so I think everyone in the little flock around me scored at least one goody bag.

Costumed Piets distributing cookies to the children, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The kids were so excited! It was another cloudy, damp, cold day here (though at least it wasn't raining). My fingers felt frozen inside my winter gloves. Some of the kids had bare hands. One little girl received two bags stuck together; she pulled them apart and immediately held out the extra—rather than keeping it for herself. Having watched that play out, I smiled and passed the bag to a child farther back.

Partiers in wheelchairs being led front and center for the arrival of Sinterklaas, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Disabled partiers in wheelchairs were brought front and center.

Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas), Zaandam, The Netherlands
Sinterklaas worked his way along the barrier, while his helpers skipped along, high-fiving the kids and handing out more cookies.

Sinterklaas and all his helpers pose for a group photo, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The entourage assembled on the wide steps of a building before Sinterklaas rode off on an antique fire engine. I saw the whole brigade again, without the crowds: they happened to parade along a street I'd chosen to explore.

Sinterklaas parading through town on an antique fire engine, Zaandam, The Netherlands
No cookies for me. I guess I'm on the naughty list this year.

A stern Piet in a green cap and feather gives a wave, Zaandam, The Netherlands