Let the games begin!
I’m right now watching the preliminary rounds of the First Robotics Competition regional event at the University of California Davis. I’ve never been to a robotics competition before, but was asked to help out with the team from my school, Carmel High School. Being a science geek, I was intrigued and agreed to come along. Plus, I am a little worried that robots are going to take over the world (I saw the Matrix and Terminator.).
I don’t think that I’m much help, however. These kids know their business. Many of them are seasoned veterans of hard robot battles and don’t need a novice like me getting in the way. I thought I was pretty handy with tools, but here I am a little out classed. So, I feel like a fifth wheel on a robot. Despite aimlessly walking around and trying to not mess things up, I’m really enjoying the event. Since the kids don’t need my help, I have plenty of time to watch and learn.
To say that these robots are impressive is an understatement. I had no idea that high school students could design, construct, program, and operate such sophisticated machines. Even more amazing, they are made from scratch in just eight weeks!
FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, the man that invented the Segway (those cool two-wheel electric scooter-like devices you see in cities around the world). It is a non-profit organization that partners with industry, universities, NASA, and others to promote STEM education since 1992. They host FIRST Lego League Junior competitions for children starting as young as six years old and continue through high school with FIRST Robotics Competition. In FIRST, there are over 3,600 active teams from 30 countries that send robots to battle in the arena during the three day regional competition.
The competition event is difficult to explain. Every year it is a different challenge to keep students engaged and thinking. They need to create a unique robot for a specific purpose while keeping within the rules of the competition.
This year’s completion involves driving your robot around the playing field to pick up cubes and place them in specific cubbies and on high and low balances as you maneuver around competitors trying to get cubes too and stop you. You are randomly assigned to a team with two other robots, so it is a three on three match. You get extra points if at the end, and before time is up, your robot can grab a bar and pull itself up off the floor. If it can lift one or more other team robots with it, then you score even more points. Confused? Me too. The match combines, technical ingenuity, operating agility, and team strategy. It is a blast to watch!
I love programs like FIRST! It allows students to engage in solving complex problems, applying knowledge, working together, and utilizing tools and technology in a fun event. Our students clearly are enjoying themselves. As an educator, I can see the wheels turning in their young heads, not just on the robots they build.
Of course, I do feel a little dated. These robots are light years beyond the Erector Sets I loved as a child. Maybe I can impart a little experience to the team. If not, I’m having fun and learning!
Hearst’s Castle on the Enchanted Hill
America doesn’t have any real castles. By the time Europeans colonized the “New World,” the age of castles was over, too bad. So, the wealthy elite in America never got to play lords and ladies of the land. All except for some uber rich during America’s Gilded Age who had the money to live out their royal fantasies.
Probably the most fantastic display of wealth can be seen at San Simeon, California. There, on an enchanted hill overlooking the Central Coast, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst built his very own castle. He employed architect Julian Morgan to make his dream a reality. She was one of only five female architects in the entire country at the time.
Hearst, fictionalized by Orson Welles in the film Citizen Kane, was a slightly eccentric and visionary billionaire. Even though mega-mansions are a dime-a-dozen in California, none compare to Hearst Castle. This historic landmark is open to the public. It is so big, that the 60,645 square foot main house requires three separate tours to see it all. The land is a staggering 260,000 acres! That’s bigger than some countries.
Our weekend family adventure took us south on California Highway 1 to San Simeon to see the famous castle. We chose the Grand Rooms Tour because it is recommended for first time visitors to the estate. Luckily, we purchased tickets online the day before ($25.00 adult/$12.00 child + $8.00 per ticket reservation fee, no wonder why Hearst was rich). At least they had free electric vehicle charging. Once we arrived, they were already sold out for the day. We walked around the visitor center for a while before boarding the tour bus to the castle. We learned that the castle was continuously being built from its inception in 1919 to Hearst’s death in 1951.
The ride to the top of the hill and castle is very dramatic. Apparently, William Hearst planned it that way to build suspense and awe in his guests. Guest he had indeed! They continuously arrived in droves to see the grand castle and meet the proud owner. They were some of richest, most powerful, and famous movers and shakers of the era. They included Hollywood socialites Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, and Greta Garbo; political figures like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt; celebrities like aviator Charles Lindbergh; and businessmen like Howard Hughes, just to name a few.
Normally, I have no interest to see gaudy demonstrations of personal wealth. Hearst’s unabashed and over-the-top display of opulence, however, is worth a look. Only during Hearst’s time could anyone get away with building such an estate. It is a testimony to another time, when the distribution of wealth was even more uneven than today and rules were largely non-existent, or at least not for the rich. No one could recreate Hearst’s castle today.
To add to the grandeur of his castle, Hearst imported exotic animals, like giraffe, zebras, and llamas to roam freely around the castle. He even had a small private zoo with polar bears on the grounds for him and his guests. If you got the money, why not?
Hearst was an avid art collector also. He was dubbed the “Great Accumulator” by one art dealer. On the grounds is a 3,000 year-old Egyptian statue. The outdoor Neptune Pool is framed with real ancient Roman columns and statues imported from Italy, which could not be obtained today. Inside are even more amazing artifacts. Mish was especially impressed with the elaborate ceilings and fireplaces, imported from cathedrals and castles in Europe of course. The indoor pool has real gold accents even!
I joked with Elijah that when he became rich and famous he could buy the castle for me. Fortunately for him, the castle is not for sale. That’s OK, I have my eyes on a few other castles in Ireland anyway. We are going there for three weeks in June, so I will have a chance to shop around.
As we travel the world on our family adventures, we have to come realize that…
these numbers are unacceptable:
Every day, 7 children and teens die from gun violence:
- 4 are murdered
- 2 die from suicide
Every day, 40 children and teens are shot and survive:
- 31 injured in an attack
- 1 survives a suicide attempt
- 8 shot unintentionally
in our home country, the United States.
What can we do?
Elijah helping me out in the classroom
Elijah really likes science, especially when he gets to blow things up! I was trying to determine the optimum ratio of hydrogen to oxygen in a balloon that would make the biggest bang. I think we found it. This is why I teach science instead of Literature. Seriously, could Shakespeare do that?
Mish and I are teaching at the same school again, which is wonderful! We are even in adjacent classrooms. So, she can keep me from blowing up my classroom, hopefully. I have been known to burn off my eyebrows and torch my desk on occasion. Oops!
We chaperoned the high School Winter Semi-Fromal together. She dragged me into the photo-booth for some not-so-serious pictures (Honestly, I don’t wear a captain’s hat and large glasses, normally.). At least we still put up with each after all these years. We will have a good time together!
After exploring and hiking in the Land of the Medicine Buddha, we went in search of food (and a coffee for me). Since the small seaside town of Capitola was nearby and we hadn’t been there before, we headed out of the forest and to the coast.
Capitola is regarded as the oldest beach resort on the entire west coast of the United States. It sits on the north shore of Monterey Bay just south of Santa Cruz. The historic and colorful Venetian Court on the beach just east of the pier is on the Register of National Historic Places as the first condominium beach community in the United States. It was built in 1924.
I really wanted an iced mocha, so we first went in search of a coffee shop. I’m always on the lookout for good coffee places. I keep a mental note of all of them. After all, you never know when you might need a fix. Luckily, my coffee radar quickly found one, Mr. Toots Coffee House.
Once I had my cup of chocolatey coffee goodness, we went strolling around to see the town. Capitola is only 1.6 square miles so getting around on foot is fairly easy. We walked out onto the pier and then downtown. We found several tasty looking restaurants, but passed them up for later. We wanted to see the sights before they closed.
Mish found several unique boutiques that she checked out. Normally, I follow along and just look around relaxing and enjoying the scenery, but in one store, Art Inspired, I found something that I had to have. OK, I’ll admit, I normally do not find candles very manly (no offense). They just are not my style. However, I found a candle that smelled of testosterone. It was scented coffee-bourbon-oatmeal! Amazing! I have it on my desk so when I get stressed I can breathe it in. I’ll let you know if it helps.
We also found a very interesting looking restaurant called Shadowbrook. Mish and I really want to check it out sometime. Instead we drove to another interesting place south on the bay called The Whole Enchilada. If you’re in the Moss Landing area, check it out. We highly recommend it!
Taking a Hike and Learning Dharma Along the Way
Every weekend we try to explore the beautiful Monterey Peninsula. We were looking for a new hike, so I searched AllTrails.com and found a very unique one. Less than ten miles northeast of Santa Cruz, California, is Land of the Medicine Buddha.
Land of the Medicine Buddha officially opened in 1991 as a Dharma center. I definitely am not an expert on Indian religions. However, I learned quite a bit about Dharma and Buddhist teachings during our hike. I’m not ready to convert, but it was enlightening.
Land of the Medicine Buddha is a 108 acre privately owned multi-purpose facility. It has fully equipped yurts and a lodge with guest rooms (pets welcome) and a dining hall (sorry, vegetarian only) for people who want to stay the night or weekend. There is even the Lotus Spa that offers massages, a spring-filled swimming, sunning, and an outdoor sauna. In keeping with the teachings of Buddhism with a simpler way of life, the accommodations do not have internet, phone, television, or even a clock so guests can truly relax and find quiet reflection time. It is free to all who come in peace. We left a 5-dollar donation as a thank you for the wonderful experience.
There also is a meditation room, bookstore, and meeting hall. We especially were impressed with the enormous prayer wheel, which we learned you should only spin clockwise.
We came for the hike, so after looking around we headed up to the trails. We took a short detour first to the Wishing Temple. This magnificent authentic Buddhist temple was open to the public. Inside was a 20 foot golden Buddha surrounded by offerings and lit candles. We respectfully walked around the temple admiring the artistry. Elijah has studied a little of Buddhism so was able to explain some of things we saw. After our brief cultural lesson, we started hiking.
The first trail is a short and easy 2-mile loop called the Eight Verses Pilgrimage Loop. Along the well-groomed trail are benches for quiet contemplation and signs with Buddhist verses that offer inspiration and promote peace and harmony. We stopped and read each one to get a lesson in Dharma teachings. The owners also are building a 50-foot tall stupa, which we learned is a type of Buddhist shrine.
The second trail is a longer 6-mile hike along a bubbling creek and through a serene redwood filled valley. As we walked, we unexpectedly came across shrines, prayer flags, statues and other Buddhist relics. Amazingly, nothing appeared to have ever disturbed them. I was very glad to see that people came and respected the area.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Land of the Medicine Buddha. We would highly recommend this place for anyone seeking to get away from the stress and chaos of modern life. Maybe a little of Dharma rubbed off on me after all.
First Time Visiting Pinnacles National Park
One of the neat things about moving to an unfamiliar area is that everything is new. When the seasoned natives go away during holidays, we stay local and play tourist. So, the Christmas break was a perfect time to explore the beautiful California central coast. With Aaron home for the break from college, we wanted to make the most of our family time too.
We each picked a different place that we really wanted to see and planned our family adventure. Our calendar quickly filled with new and exciting destinations. The first up on our list was Pinnacles National Park. This is a newer national park that was created in 2012. It also is a release site for endangered California condors that have been raised in captivity as part of the Condor Recovery Plan. These majestic birds became extinct in the wild in 1987. Today, you can see them effortlessly soaring above the Pinnacles casting their shadows on the cliff faces.
Pinnacles National Park is located along the central coast of California south of Monterey and approximately 5 miles east of Soledad. It sits in the California Coastal Mountains on the infamous San Andres Fault. It actually is part of a long extinct volcano. The eastern half of the volcano is just north of Los Angeles. The Pinnacles are the western half that has traveled north on the Pacific plate leaving the other half behind on the North American plate.
We arrived a little later in the afternoon, but still set out on a hike. We took the Balconies Trail that skirted the base of the main rock formations. We looked up in awe at the towering cliffs. Rock climbers must love this place! The trail took us to some talus caves. The boys eagerly dove down into the darkness, while Mish and I followed a little more cautiously. Being Scouts, we were prepared with flashlights. A few feet into the first cave I shown my light upward to reveal small brown bats hanging from the rocks above. Luckily, they seemed to be sound asleep despite the intrusion of light and noise into their home.
We made a loop and came back to the entrance. After a nice pic-nick, we headed out on another trail. This time we made for the summit of the Pinnacles. This relatively steep trail zig-zagged up the front of the rock formation to a high perch among the condors. The large black and white birds glided on the currents above us making it clear that this was their natural home. Us legged creatures were just temporary visitors.
Even though we had to work hard for the view, it was worth it. From the top of the rocks you can enjoy unobstructed 360-degree views of the surrounding area. Aaron and Elijah easily sprinted up to the top followed by Mish and finally me bringing up the rear. Even the turtle finished the race! I like to think that I savored the experience more. Ok, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so many Christmas cookies.
Our next family adventure was to an even more impressive rock formation, so check back!
Finding Tasty Treats in Carmel
Ok, I’ll admit it. I am a chocoholic. I do not, however, want to be rehabilitated. I’m quite fine coping with my addiction. I consider myself a connoisseur of fine chocolate. I love sampling new concoctions made from the magical cocoa bean. Traveling around the world has given me wonderful opportunities to indulge my habit, not that I need much help.
My wife and I were strolling down Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-sea taking in the feel of our new home. She was window shopping in the quaint boutiques and I was looking out for something chocolatey when we happened into a quaint shop called Kurtz Culinary (Ocean Ave And San Carlos Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921). She was intrigued by the unique wood furnishings while I was more interested in the abundant free food samples.
Sprinkled all over the store was an array of glass jars containing a variety of delicious spreads, jams, jellies, and butters. All of them were graciously available for sampling with crackers. The staff was very friendly and helpful too. They had flavors that we never heard of, like Champagne Jelly, Lime Mustard, Grilled Eggplant Mushroom Topenade, and Pumpkin Butter. Needless to say, we tried several of the offerings. After, all we didn’t want to be rude by not accepting. We quickly found the samples that we each had to have.
I found one sample that I really liked! It contained two of my favorite food groups, chocolate and peanut butter. This amazing creation is called Monkey Butter. It is dark-chocolate cherry peanut butter and wow it is amazing! You can put it on almost anything or eat it with a spoon right out of the jar. It is now one of my all-time favorite chocolate foods.
To be fair, Kurtz Culinary has many more savory items that are not chocolate infused. My wife loves the olive oil based spreads for breads and crackers. She picked four of them to take home and try. She even sent one to her mother. They were all delicious. I think that we will be visiting this place quite a bit now that we live in the area. The best thing is that I have another source for my chocolate habit!
Our Anniversary at Vision Quest Ranch
This September 11th marked our 23rd wedding anniversary! Who knew that twenty-three years ago we would still be putting up with each other? Ok, she puts up more with me than I do with her, but either way we are still happily together. To mark the event and celebrate our new family adventure to the Monterey Peninsula, I really wanted to do something extra special. Since neither of us are the material gift type, I looked for a unique experience. I found one!
Nestled in the Salinas Valley is an amazing, exotic, and wild experience awaiting us at Vision Quest Ranch. Vision Quest Ranch is also home to the newly remodeled Monterey Zoo. The ranch was formerly Wild Things Animal Rentals, Inc., which supplied trained animals for the movie industry. In 1994, law enforcement officer and animal enthusiast Charlie Sammut purchased the ranch and has been transforming it into one of the most unique and wonderful places in the region.
Today, Vision Quest Ranch hosts animal lovers for a one-of-a-kind overnight bed-and-breakfast safari adventure! As soon as I saw their website I knew Mish would be all in so I booked our stay. On our anniversary, I gave her an envelope with our reservation information. Her eyes gleamed wide as she read the brochure. By the look on her face, I knew I got the perfect gift. Unfortunately, we had to wait until November to go because the ranch fills quickly. The anticipation was almost too much for her.
Finally, the day arrived. We packed an over-night bag, pic-nick dinner, and bottle of Champagne and off we went on safari! I specifically reserved the Big Cat House bungalow because it offers the best views of the animals. We were given the magic code to drive through the secure gate and right up to our bungalow. From the outside, the bungalows look like unassuming giant canvas tents on wood decks. However, awaiting us inside was quite a surprise. Each of the eight bungalows are uniquely decorated in different animal themes and come with all of the comforts of a luxury hotel room, including large bathrooms, plush his and hers bathrobes, television, heated bed, complimentary snacks and beverages, and, of course, incredible vistas from the deck.
Mish quickly offloaded our gear and eagerly turned her attention, and camera, on the main event in front of us. Majestically strolling along in the open enclosure among the bungalows were four elephants. We watched them in awe as they casually went about their business completely unconcerned with us. No matter how many times we have seen elephants, they always impress us.
Later that evening, the keepers brought around an adorable capybara for us to ogle at. Next up was feeding the big cats. The keepers took us on a behind the scenes tour of the zoo and to feed the cats their dinner. The cats definitely enjoyed being fed a meal of raw ground meats and bones by adoring fans. Just when we thought that our safari could not get better, the keepers whisked us off to tuck the elephants in for the night with a bedtime snack of carrots.
The huge animals allowed us to pet their trunks and feel their tusks as they contently munched their snacks. One hungry elephant would not let anyone pass by without a toll of three carrots. Mish happily obliged by giving him her carrots and mine. I don’t think that I could have gotten my allotment of carrots from Mish anyway.
We went back to our bungalow completely overwhelmed and enthralled with the day. That night, we ate our pic-nick style dinner and toasted our incredible life together. Since we were married inside the San Diego Wild Animal Park, having an anniversary at Vision Quest Ranch seemed fitting. We went to sleep listening to the roar of a lion, hooting of an owl, yapping of coyotes, and laugh of a hyena. Despite the din, we slept fairly soundly. I think we both woke up occasionally when the lion let out a particularly loud roar to assert his kingship.
The following morning, we woke up eagerly anticipating breakfast. The breakfast itself was not very important, it was the fact that it was delivered by the elephants that mattered. As if to pay us back for our treats the night before, they returned the hospitality by giving us pastries and coffee. The keepers gave us some apples to thank the elephants with. Mish gave them my helping of apples too.
After breakfast, we strolled around the ranch to stretch our legs and look at more animals. As we passed along the main enclosure, an overly affection, and delusional, ostrich persisted in trying to court my wife with a mating dance. The large bird was obviously very confused. His dance was much more comical than alluring. Mish was impressed, just not in the way he intended.
We took a tour of the Monterey Zoo part of the ranch before we left. I got a chance to see the lion who woke us up. He didn’t seem concerned by our lack of sleep. We also watched some frisky tigers play with each other. When we went to move on, the big cat leapt up on the glass to play with Mish, at least I think it was a playful gesture.
Reluctantly, we finally left Vision Quest Ranch and headed home. Mish was so impressed by the facility that she bought a year family membership. I guess we will be returning shortly.
A New Adventure!
I apologize for not writing lately. Life got very chaotic for a while, but hopefully it has settled down. We are adjusting to a new normal.
After several rainy grey years in Western Washington State, we have moved, at least temporarily, to the sunny warm central coast of California. I remember 23 years ago, almost to the day, when Mishele and I honeymooned in San Francisco and drove down to Monterey. The area is still boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.
Here are some updates on our family. Elijah is now a junior in high school and trying to adapt to a new environment. Moving him mid-way through high school was a tough decision, but he is used to traveling the world. Aaron is now in his third year at the U.S. Naval Academy doing well. He came to visit us for two weeks over the summer break. He immediately became addicted to surfing, taco trucks, and cruising the coast. My truck was filled with sand when he left. Our four-footed fur-person, Albie, also is with us still. He seems to be adapting well, or at least not noticing at all (the couch, his food dish, and bed are all the same).
Mishele and I both are teaching at schools in the area, which is wonderful. We have not been in a school classroom in some time. I have been in higher education and the government and Mishele has been in online education. So, we are getting back into the rhythm of teaching. This first semester is especially rough as we adjust to new everything.
Fortunately, we are getting out and exploring our new surroundings. Monterey has many things to offer and is centrally located to San Francisco to the north, San Diego and Los Angeles to the south, the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east, and the Pacific Ocean right on our western front door. As we experience new and exciting places I will post them here, so stay tuned!