Wayback Machine: San Francisco, Feb 2007

Two years ago this weekend, Chelsea and I met up for a kid-free long weekend in San Francisco. I had business in Dallas one week and Los Angeles the next, so rather than going back home in between, I convinced my lovely bride to ditch the kids and meet me out west.

We saw the typical sights… here we are going for a cable car ride:

Chelsea on the cable car

Mike on the cable car

We also went out on a whale watching tour from Half Moon Bay. Some of you may know that high adventure on the open seas is not exactly my cup of tea. Chelsea prevailed upon me, and we ended up having a great time, though naturally we didn’t see a single whale:

Coming back from Whale Watching

Toward the end of our visit, we went exploring in Golden Gate Park and found this amazing labryinth on a plateau overlooking the Pacific. It was way off the beaten path – we had to cross a golf course and tromp through some bushes – and a heavy fog had moved in, making the whole scene incredibly beautiful:

Chelsea in the labryinth

It’s worth noting that we were ridiculously lucky with weather that weekend – temps during the day were in the high 60s and low 70s. Over the course of the weekend we also visited with some old friends, saw the redwoods at Muir Woods, and even got to have a romantic dinner at a cozy little restaurant in Sausalito.

Come to think of it, 2007 was a pretty good year – I got to visit India once and Germany three times for work. Chelsea came out to San Francisco in February and we went to Paris in October. Not bad!

Curing some cabin fever

We had a snowstorm yesterday – or, it would be better to say we had a mushstorm. It snowed for a while, then we got sleet, then we got rain. So in the end, we couldn’t do very much sledding or snowman-building. However, the kids all got a snow day for their trouble.

Our friends Greg and Aly have two younger kids, Julia and Ben. Aly called us late yesterday to say that they were heading to the YMCA to see if they could work off some cabin fever. They reserved a racquetball court for an hour’s worth of running around and playing. Brilliant! I took the kids over to give Chelsea some relief, since she had fended them off all day while I alternated between working and shoveling.

At the Y, we borrowed a parachute from the gymnastics room and played games with that for a while, which made both me and Aly deeply nostalgic for our grade school. Here are my kids playing some of our usual parachute games:

Nick under the parachute

Anna spins the parachute

Maria in her enigmatic French mime phase

Anna gets ready to get spun

Dar Williams in concert

Saturday evening, Chels and I got out to a concert at the Keswick Theatre. Dar Williams headlined, and there were two opening acts: Jesse Harris, who co-wrote some of the songs on Norah Jones’ debut album (and won some Grammys for his effort), and Joshua Radin. Chelsea said afterward that it was one of the best concerts she’s ever seen, and I agree. All three artists were just outstanding. Alas, I have no pictures to show for it.

Inauguration: Sunday

This is the story of one crazy family’s journey to see the Inauguration of… oh, what was that guy’s name again?

We drove down to Washington late Saturday night, and arrived at the hotel around 1:00 in the morning. We rolled out Sunday morning to the National Mall to see the big concert that was taking place at the Lincoln Memorial.

We walked toward the Memorial under grey skies:


The concert was scheduled to start at 2:30 in the afternoon, and we probably arrived around noon. We waited in a long security line that moved surprisingly quickly, and once inside we found a spot to set up camp:


With two hours to wait, the kids played their Nintendo DS handheld games and worked their way through our snack reserves. We treated this two-hour wait as a dry run for the longer wait that would take place on Tuesday. The kids waited in good humor, and we got our first taste of the happy vibe that would prevail throughout the week, as we struck up conversations with the people sitting around us.




We brought Nick’s friend Will with us, and he was an excellent addition to our traveling caravan – playing easily with Nick and Maria, and very sweet with Anna. Here I am with Nick and Will, trying to look tough and not really succeeding:


As we neared the starting time for the concert, the area around us grew more and more crowded. We didn’t have a direct line of sight to the stage from our position – too many people got there before us – so we had a Jumbotron view like this:


It was hard for Anna to see anything, so we took turns holding her:


The concert was amazing – Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, U2, Beyonce, Mary J Blige, Garth Brooks, and too many others to name. Most musicians played one song, often in tandem with others. In between, actors and luminaries came on stage to read historical passages. Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, and Denzel Washington were there, again along with too many others to name.

Midway through the show we decided we wanted to try and get closer. We found a spot at the end of a long line of portable latrines where we could stand all together, and it was very crowded there:



(The smoke in the picture is from a power generator that stood between us and the stage.)

At the end of the concert, we decided to sit tight for a while as the crowd dispersed. That gave us time for – you guessed it – a photo op:


When we started moving, we walked down the Mall to the World War II memorial, which I hadn’t yet seen:


I thought often of my grandfather, a Navy man who served in the Pacific theater during the war.


There are elements within the monument that commemmorate the contributions of every American state and territory to the war effort. We sought out Pennsylvania, of course:



Night fell, and we kept on snapping pictures. Here are Nick and Will, still better at looking tough than me:


Chels, Mike, and Anna at WWII Memorial

From the Mall we walked up to 9th and G to a restaurant called Ella’s, where we had a great dinner and watched the Steelers secure a berth to the Super Bowl. We didn’t get a chance to watch the Eagles lose to the Cardinals, and that was probably for the best.

(Continue on to Monday.)

Inauguration: Monday

Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and we had tried for several weeks to find a service project that could accommodate all of us. That turned out to be a tall order, and in the end, we decided to take the kids to the National Zoo.

We took the Metro up to Cleveland Park:

Maria and Anna on the Metro

On our way into the zoo, we stopped at an Irish pub called Nanny O’Brien’s for some lunch. The kids decided to sit at the bar:

Kids at Nanny O'Brien's

We walked down the street and found the Zoo:


We made a beeline for the panda exhibit – Maria has been studying pandas in school this year, and we don’t have any at the zoo in Philadelphia:





The pandas were a big hit all around. We also visited with the elephants, hippos, gorillas, orangutans, and the big cats.



The kids enjoyed themselves, and as always, they tolerated photography to varying degrees:



When we’d had our fill of the Zoo, we headed out to dinner. We had learned of a pizza and ping-pong place called Comet that was a quick hop up Connecticut Avenue from the Zoo. We tried to take the bus using our Metrocards, and discovered that you have to have either cash or an EZ-Pass style card. The bus driver was kind enough to let us ride for free.

The kids greatly enjoyed the ping-pong scene at Comet, while Chelsea and I enjoyed having a rare chance during the trip to sit together and chat without little ears tuning in.

Maria and Anna play ping-pong at Comet


After dinner we decided to head down to the Mall to scope out a spot for Tuesday morning. In the end we didn’t do all that much scoping, but we did walk most of the parade route in reverse, down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol. It was awe-inspiring to be out there among the police and the guys setting up barriers, thinking of what was to come the next day:


We managed to get very close to the Capitol, and just enjoyed taking in the scene, even though it was getting very cold out after sunset. We shuffled down Independence Avenue to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station and made our way back to the hotel for the night.

(Continue on to Tuesday.)

Inauguration: Tuesday

The big day!

We woke up around 5:45 in the morning and started getting ready. Our friend Bethany from college, who lives in Maryland, came and met us at the hotel. When making plans for the Inauguration, we had thought it might be necessary for us to walk from our hotel in Crystal City (Arlington, Virginia) across a Potomac bridge and onto the Mall. The walk would have been 2-3 miles – very manageable for us and the kids. On our way out of the hotel around 7:00, we checked on the Metro, and to our surprise found that not only could we get into the station, but we managed to get on the first Yellow Line train heading to L’Enfant Plaza just south of the Mall. So we hopped aboard.

L’Enfant Plaza was pretty crowded, and it took us 30 minutes just to exit the station:


The great thing about our time in the station, and in fact the whole day, was that the whole crowd was in a great mood. This was the happiest mob of people I’ve ever seen in my life. No drunken young men, no angry pushers, no protesters. Just pure bliss and some determination.

At length we made it to the street:


L’Enfant is at 7th St NW near Independence, so we walked west on Independence until we could get onto the Mall. Our opportunity turned out to be just west of the Smithsonian Castle. We ended up on the north side of the Mall almost directly in front of the Natural History museum. We were far from alone there, even at 8:00 in the morning:


This will give you a better sense for what we could actually see. We were within sight of the Capitol building itself, but could not make out the platform or the individual people. So like the folks watching at home, we were dependent on the television for our view:


Did that dim our enthusiasm? Not at all. Being out in the crowd on the Mall that morning was a wonderful experience. We chatted with people around us who had traveled from all over the country to be there – from Georgia, from Florida, and from California. It was hard for the kids to see what was happening, so we spent a lot of time hoisting them on our shoulders:


And by chance, we set up shop on the Mall right next to journalists from RFI, a French radio network. I got to chatting with them, dusting off my high-school French, and before the day was out I’d given three interviews. Two were with RFI and the third was with another French journalist (from France Info) who was passing by while I gave the second RFI interview and heard me:




The kids were tickled about all this, and I was too. Still, we had arrived on the Mall around 8:00 for a noontime ceremony, and it would be fair to say that the kids in particular went through stretches of boredom:


The excitement of the ceremony built up slowly. An endless line of politicians and dignitaries were seated on the platform. Then Vice President-Elect Biden took his oath. Aretha Franklin came out and rocked the house with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, which had me and probably a lot of other people misty-eyed in the crowd.

When President-Elect Obama first came on screen, the crowd went bananas. It’s hard to overstate the outpouring of joy that we felt and saw among us. When he took the oath, we stood tall, listened hard, waited for the last words, and roared.

After we got home this week, I was catching up on podcasts of Fresh Air, a radio interview program on National Public Radio. Monday’s program, on Martin Luther King day, featured Congressman John Lewis, who as a young man joined up with Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights, and then Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic magazine who is roughly my age.

Each man spoke eloquently about the ongoing struggle to make good the promise of equality for all in the United States.

John Lewis, describing how the civil rights movement convinced ordinary African Americans to stand up for themselves:

“We would say to people, ‘You know, you’ve been living here for 40 years, for 50 years. Your street is not paved, you have a dirt road. You don’t have clean water. If you want that to change, come to a meeting. Come next Monday. Your neighbors are coming. Your uncle is coming. Your children are coming. You should be there. We’re going to have a march for the right to vote. Don’t be afraid. You may get arrested, but there are a lot of other people who will be getting arrested with you.’ And some people would be convinced, and some would not.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, on what he came to appreciate about Dr. King:

“I don’t know that I had the highest opinion of Martin Luther King as a young person, because to us it looked like a kind of glorification of suffering. … But King believed in white humanity, the humanity of people we don’t necessarily see on a daily basis. And if you think about it, given how we live, Americans in terms of black and white are still fairly segregated. We don’t necessarily interact with each other too often.

“I always felt like it was an incredible leap of faith, as crazy as this sounds, to say, ‘Even though I’ve never met this guy, he still goes home to his family the same way I do. He doesn’t like cutting on his TV and seeing kids get water hosed. He doesn’t like seeing women being beaten for simply wanting to cross a bridge. He may have his little racial hangups – he may not want his daughter marrying a black man – but he can sympathize with the mere thing of wanting to cross a bridge, a simple human act.'”

The high point for me during this long election campaign was Obama’s speech on race relations, which he delivered here in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center. Obama spoke of what he called the “original sin” of our country:

“I can no more disown [Revered Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

To me, that love is the true promise of American equality – not sameness or perfection or unanimity, but a crazy patchwork quilt of a country that everyone claims as our own – the whole thing, frayed edges and all.

After the oath, Obama moved immediately to give his inaugural address:


About two minutes after the end of Obama’s address, the exodus began. It was like being at Times Square around ten minutes after midnight:


We went into the Natural History museum to get inside from the cold – while packed into the crowd we were warm and toasty, and as soon as it started to disperse, we felt the cold and wind again.

My cousin Colleen made it to Washington from Notre Dame, where she is going to school, and she found us at the museum. Family tradition dictates that we take group pictures in front of an elephant, so fortunately there was one in the main hall:

Elephant at Natural History


We decided to try and see some of the inaugural parade, even though the Secret Service had closed the parade route early in the morning because it was full. We walked west along the Mall, taking in a beautiful sunset along the way:


We managed to reach the very end of the route, just before the staging area, and we got a sampling of the groups that had marched in the parade:


Eventually we made our way back to a Metro station for the ride back to the hotel. We were tired, sore, sleepy, and very happy.

(Continue on to Wednesday.)

Inauguration: Wednesday

On Wednesday we wrapped up our trip to Washington with a visit to Mount Vernon, home of the city’s namesake. The estate is about fifteen miles down the road from where we stayed, and the drive is along a federal parkway that meanders alongside the Potomac River. The day was sunny, a bit windy and cold, but beautiful all the same.

Here’s our tribe in front of the mansion:


Anna works the map:


George Washington inherited the Mount Vernon property from an uncle, I think. When he first took possession of the land, the house on it was fairly small and undistinguished. Washington, an energetic remodeler, took care of that. He added onto the house several times, turning a small one-story house into a three-story behemoth with ten bedrooms and faux stonework finish. He also had a unique weather vane commissioned for his house – a peace dove:


The Ladies of Mount Vernon, who own and maintain the property, forbid photography inside the mansion itself, but you can take pictures everywhere else. This is the kitchen house, which stands separate from the mansion. We learned on a prior trip to Colonial Williamsburg that this was common practice among well-off families because, well, the kitchen used to burn down pretty often:


Mount Vernon is still a working farm, and our kids took the opportunity to harass a rooster:


As I say, it was cold and windy outside, and the gardens don’t amount to much in the winter. On the plus side, we nearly had the place to ourselves, and we were able to enjoy its sere wintertime beauty:


We left Mount Vernon a bit later than we had planned, getting on the road around 3:00 in the afternoon. Traffic driving home was rough – there had been an accident on I-95 north of Baltimore, and we sat for a long time in the Key tunnel. All in all it took us about six hours to drive home on what is normally a three-hour trip.

Soccer, a year-round pastime

Nick has been playing soccer for eight years now, and since he started playing with a travel team in 2007, we’ve been finding that more and more of our year contains soccer of some kind. His main season runs from August to November, and in the winter, he now practices once a week with his team, and also plays indoor soccer with his friend Will’s team.

The indoor team plays at Rocket Sports, a facility a couple towns over from us. It’s a synthetic turf field inside a big warehouse:

Soccer field at Rocket Sports

I’m endlessly fascinated by this building because it’s several stories high, and located right next to a rail line… I can only guess it was some kind of large-scale manufacturing facility at some point:

Rocket Sports

In last week’s game, the boys gave a resounding thumping to their opponent, and Will scored an absolutely beautiful line-drive goal. Getting game action is tough with my point and shoot, but I managed to catch up with the aspiring Ronaldinhos after the match:

Nick and Will after their indoor match

The indoor season is just about finished. They’ll have a hiatus for a few weeks, during which practices will continue, and then in late March they’ll start up spring outdoor soccer. Spring soccer runs until the end of May, and then it’s time to start conditioning for the fall season….

Toy trains and Littlest Pets

Recently my mom came across my old toy trains in the basement of her house, and was kind enough to clean them and give them back to me. They’ve been sitting here in my office ever since.

On Sunday, Anna found the box and asked if we could play. No track? No problem! Thus it came to pass that my childhood train collection got another chance to play with a kid… with one major difference: Anna thought we should combine trains with her Littlest Pet Shop toys. The results were both sweet and a little weird:

Anna and I get out my old trains

Littlest Pet goes for a ride on my trains

Lego robotics competition!

Nick broke the news below on our performance, so I’ll do color commentary here. We had an excellent day of competition on Saturday at Oxford Area High School in Oxford, PA. Our qualifier had 36 teams, of which about half will advance to the regional competition in Delaware later this month. We were not among the chosen, alas, but we had an impressive rookie year.

Many of you have been curious about the mechanics of the competition itself: How does it work? How are you competing? Each team’s robot has to complete missions on a competition field for points. Each robot has its own field, so you’re not sharing space with another team’s robot. The competition setup at Oxford looked like this:

Competition and practice fields

You can see four white fields at the front of the gym, with PVC tubing and lights surrounding the fields. Those are the competition fields – A through D. In the back on the right, you can see four more. Those are the practice fields that teams can use between rounds to tweak their robots’ performance. Here’s a closer view of fields C and D:

Field setup

During competition rounds, each field has an assigned referee, and a volunteer who assists the referee as directed, for instance removing stray objects from the field. (If your robot drops something during a run, or runs into a movable object, you can ask to have those things removed from the field while the round is in progress.)

Of course, during competition the fields are a little more crowded. Here’s a typical scene during a competition round… note that we are not pictured here:

Lego robot fields during competition

There can be only two team members at a time working with the robot during the competition, but the kids can “tag team” in and out of the driver positions as much as they like. Here is another team from SAP, the POSbots (#3493), during one of their rounds:

SAP POSbots during a round

The robots have 2 minutes and 30 seconds to complete their round. At the end, the referee reviews the final positions of everything with the kids in order to score the round. This is again a typical scene, with our team not pictured:

A typical scoring session after a round

Each team gets three rounds of robot competition, and your best score from the three rounds is what counts toward your performance total. Our three scores were 90, 120, and 85, so our best score on the day was 120 points. While we thought our robot could reach the range of 200-220 points, we encountered a lot of things during competition that we didn’t anticipate in training. That seemed to be true of other teams, too – the best score from our qualifier was 195 points out of a possible 400.

Before the robot competition began, we had three kinds of judging in classrooms – technical judging of the robot, a teamwork exercise, and a presentation of our research project, which came together beautifully. Brian and Jason did phenomenal work:

Jason and Brian present our research

Here’s our group at our table in the cafeteria, which is called “the pit” during competition:

The Green Monsters

Here is Nick just before the first round of competition. He admitted to me before we went to our competition field that he felt nervous and unready. You wouldn’t have known it from his work during the round – he was a stone cold Lego assassin:

Nick before the first round

Our performance in the first round led us to make some tweaks to the robot’s programming. Here is Nick at a practice table working the code:

Nick tweaks the programming

Throughout the day we were lucky enough to have the support of family and friends, including the POSbots, who were thoughtful enough to make a sign for us in addition to their own signs. Thanks so much, POSbots!

The other SAP team cheers us on

Maria, Nora, and Anna had a blast at the event, running around and socializing. They cheered for us with great enthusiasm, standing at the top of the bleachers for maximum carry:

Maria, Anna, and Nora cheer from afar

They also helped us hand out finger monsters in honor of our team name, SAP Green Monsters:

Maria and Nora model the finger monsters

At the end of the day we came up short in the hardware department, and we are not advancing to regionals. Yet I came away from the qualifiers with a feeling of great accomplishment for the team. We performed better than I imagined in the qualifiers, and we learned an enormous amount from the experience. We hope to be back next year, collecting one of these:

Hardware... none for us this time