Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hiller Aviation Museum

"Last year on Martin Luther King Jr. day we had hundreds of people here. It was raining," says North E. West, Director of Volunteers and Exhibits at the Hiller Aviation Museum. Fortunately for us, 2009's Martin Luther King Jr. day was sunny and the hall looked pretty empty.

Somehow Mr. West was predestined by name to find a career in the sky. His sibling is called South West. Located in San Carlos, half an hour south of San Francisco, the Hiller Aviation Museum is a unique place dedicated to historic achievements in flight that are native to Northern California. While the early Wright-Brothers types of gliders are aesthetically fascinating and reminiscent of Leonardo's flying man sketches, the museum hosts lots of weird experimental machines far more interesting that operational ones.

Such is the Aerocycloid, failed ancestor of helicopters built by Mr. Irvin in 1908. His idea was to take off vertically by pedalling and setting in motion angled panes on two oval frames. Given the size of the thing, it would have required Lance Armstrong quality thighs to lift the bird. Needless to say, it did not make it past the prototype stage.

Another oddity is the 1944 one-man XROE-1 Rotorcycle, a co-axial helicopter so compact it could theoretically be dropped in a bag to a downed pilot who could assemble it without tools and fly out in five minutes.

While a friend and I admired sleek water planes and 1930s planes, our three children were "not taking turns" inside a helicopter's cabin, watching a simulated flight on a screen as they inclined the gearbox/shaft.

We kicked them out of this one to make room for other junior pilots and proceeded to another simulated flight cabin. It turns out the Hiller Museum is both a historical retrospective on 120 years of aviation and a would-be training ground for aspiring top guns. The second floor is all computer screens and mechanics.

There is a restoration shop on the first floor.

The best feature is a program called Young Eagles: the third Saturday of each month, children ages 8 to 17 get to fly free above the Bay Area, a flight that may take them as far as Carmel and the up the coast in twenty minutes before coming back to the museum. Just for that, I would almost turn back time ... if only I wasn't slightly paranoid when it comes to planes.

As we stepped out of the main exhibit hall, we walked out on the runway to find a clean cut Boing 747 lying there.

Our children spent the next half hour manning the cockpit while we "ordered" refreshments from a toddler stewardess. Pushing buttons, giving orders, pulling levers, checking windows, all of that was probably their favorite part.

After tiring the crew and the passengers, we all got down and watched small airplanes take off from the runway right next to the museum. It does make sense that an aviation museum would be next to a real runway with a real airport, doesn't it?

So to complete the experience, we headed to the Sky Kitchen Cafe, reputedly "one of the best airport cafes" to grab a bite alongside real pilots.

OK, they weren't all Tom Cruise cameos. Not even close. But the diner atmosphere, the smooth chattering of men wearing sunglasses sitting around round tables facing the planes, posters of planes and plane parts on the walls, all that was in fact as real as it gets.

The menu was a bit surrealistic. I ordered two sides of two eggs for my girls for $1.95 each. "Two sides of two eggs?" repeated the waitress three times. Yes, my girls like eggs.

We left with a wooden airplane model but I regretted not being able to find the light balsa painted airplane models we assembled as kids.

My brothers loved them and in retrospect, so did I. I couldn't find a picture of them online but they were lots of fun. Aren't all things that fly anyway?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hike in the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood in Berkeley

You'd think we were house-hunting and yet we weren't. We were just visiting the new neighborhood of our friends Christine and Martin.

They moved next to Solano Avenue in Berkeley last December, the up-and-coming neighborhood recently reviewed by Lisa Trottier for Sunset Magazine. When the East Coast suffers below zero (Farenheit) temperatures, we enjoy sunny days at 60s and above. I guess that's the reason for California's reputation.

So on that sunny Sunday we crossed the dreaded Bay Bridge and parked right outside of Christine and Martin's home. "Girls you've got two choices," we told our daughters after conferring with our friends. "We can hike to dome rocks and go to a playground or go on a miniature train and hike in the mountains." By 2/0, they voted for option one. We'll see Tilden Park another time.

So off we went through sinuous streets leading up to Indian Rock.

The Thousand Oaks neighborhood has been described by Red Oak Realtors as an idyllic Berkeley suburb in an inpiring nature setting. Their website writes that "early on, Craftsman bungalows and shingled lodges were sprinkled throughout the community. Later, between 1910 and 1940, Thousand Oaks saw period revivals in Spanish, Tudor, and French Provincial styles. These magnificent homes still remain and are now surrounded by mature oak trees and lush, landscaped walking paths, babbling brooks, and bucolic parks."

Actually, none of that is a lie. We did walk past babbling brooks, bent under tree branches on walking paths and admired stately homes on the hills wishing that the East Bay weren't quite so far from the Silicon Valley.

Surprisingly, it did not take us very long at all to reach Indian Rock, the biggest of several volcanic rock outcrops peppering the Berkeley hills. It is known to Bay Area climbers as having a short selection of bouldering problems. As we got to the top, the view on San Francisco downtown was amazingly ... smoggy. I wish I could say it was crystal clear and we could wave to our friends from that rock, but no. Here is the proof (see smoggy photo).

Indeed, I've noticed in the past few days that the coast has been fairly clear whereas San Francisco downtown has been fogged in at least in the mornings. Strange. I guess that's what you get for the weird local micro-climate.

On that rock, my girls realized they had a hungry stomach and wolfed down a half-quart of sugar snap peas as a pre-lunch snack. Christine told us that Martin and her sometimes bring their coffee to Indian Rock and just sit there, sipping their morning joe, admiring the view on the bay. I can't blame them, it's really peaceful.

Before our junior members got tired, we got up and marched further up the hill towards Codornices Park and Playground, the perfect birthday party playground.

Just set your tables under the trees and unleash the kids. The enclosed toddler area features a little train, swing sets and slides, whereas the area for bigger kids features climbing structures, a mulch ground and a big concrete slide just like the ones in Golden Gate Park (with cardboard bits to protect your bum from burning).

If you go through the tunnel (don't forget to howl or sing at full lung capacity), you access Berkeley's Rose Garden, a 1930s botanical garden including a terraced amphitheater and a long redwood pergola typical of the East bay's craftstman architecture. Of course in the dead of winter, there isn't much in terms of roses. However come back in May or June and the place must be a sensory paradise.

We returned through back alleys and landed at Solano Avenue, a very lively commercial area with a great bakery (Christine, the name please?), restaurants, tons of cafes, bookstores, toy stores and even a Xocolate Bar (understand, a gourmet chocolate store) in front of which my husband rushed me, concerned I might step in and never return. Sigh.

Now we do have to come back. It's for the good of small businesses, I swear!

Snow White And the Seven Dwarfs with the Children's Theatre Association of San Francisco

Last Saturday we took our girls to see the Children Theatre Association of San Francisco's production of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs with a musical twist. Based on the story by the Brothers Grimm, Carol Weiss - a Los Angeles performer - wrote a book, composed the music and then the lyrics to a one-hour musical play for children.

In her version, the Evil Queen has a Witch Wicked sister who's about to lose all her powers and asks the queen to provide Snow White's heart-shaped locket. Sir Pompous (on the photo sitting next to Snow White) is the sorry court chamberlain who's ordered to axe Snow White during a court picnic in the woods. Thanks to a wise-cracking mirror who keeps speaking in rhymes and only answers to questions in rhymes, the Evil Queen's plot is unmasked and Snow White is rescued fro a very deep sleep.

All the elements of the story are there plus a few. Now, what really surprised me (not in a bad way) was the age of the actors. I'm not saying all, but a good number were certainly grand-mothers and I'm not used to children's shows with grand-mothers on stage (again, not all of them). But boy do they rock!

You should see the ladies on stage, giddily dancing and jumping in coveralls with hard-helmets and lights on their heads as the seven dwarves. It just cracked me up. I wish my own grand-mother had done that for me. I would have attended every single show!

That said, my girls did not even notice that the Prince Charming was played by a woman and we all throroughly enjoyed the show. The sets and costumes were executed with an attention to detail (I especially enjoyed the dwarfs' log cabin in true West Coast style) and some lines were very funny. Kudos to Sir Pompous and Sir Silly, they were hilarious.

The man behind the keyboard mastered the tunes as well as special scary or sound effects which added another dimension to the play. No wonder, he's Bill Keck, the musical director of Beach Blanket Babylon.

My only comment would be on the sound system as it was sometimes hard to hear distinctly what the actors on stage said and it felt like some had microphones and others not. Therefore uneven volume. But what the heck.

It's an all-volunteer troupe and the ticket only costs $12. It's a lot of fun.

I need to finish with a praise to the CTASF as all paid performances fund performances for school children. Yes, the ticket you buy is a ticket you donate to help a school child attend the same performance on a different day. That, my friends, is a very worthy cause.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Stowe, Vermont, Quaint New England Ghosts and Covered Bridges

I was dreaming of a white Christmas. And a white Christmas I got. All the members of my family (eleven of us) were meeting half way through between France and the West Coast. Stowe was our place of choice. Stowe, Vermont, is a early settlers New England village tucked away in the mountains near Mt Mansfield. Average December temperatures are way below freezing level and our hopes for snowfalls were high. Naturally we were supposed to get there by plane but snow storms closed off all the North East coast airports right after we met at Washington Dulles. So from Washington D.C. we drove  to Stowe overnight. Thirteen sleep-deprived hours later, we finally made it to our rental house and unpacked.

Among the highlights of our Stowe stay, we went on a candlelit ghost walking tour by Stowe Lantern Tours to hear about local ghosts Emily and Boots Berry. The tales of local deceased haunting the presents tickled our curiosity, though the walking tour by 14 degrees (Farenheit!) outside froze our toes and had us rush to the Green Mountain Inn to hear more about the ghosts.

Berry Boots was an employee at the Green Mountain Inn. He worked there as a young lad, became a local hero after he averted a horse-stomping tragedy, became an alcoholic, was kicked out of the inn and toured the states. After a jail period in New Orleans, he came back to Stowe. Eventually the Green Mountain Inn employed him again.

One December night an eight-year old girl looked out the window of her bedroom at the Green Mountain Inn. She opened the window and set her dollie on the window sill. The dollie was blown away by the wind. Picture that. It's December. Snow falling. Freezing temperatures. The little girl decides to venture out on the steep slanted roof to fetch her doll.  Slippery as it is, she starts to slide and screams. Boots Berry is lodging next door. He hears the screams. Boots gets out on the roof, saves the little girl and falls to his death. The ghost of Boots Berry haunts that portion of Main Street and has been related to trees falling, steps in the inn, bedside table items moving places, tap dancing sounds and faucets turning on at night. Boo.

Emily is a romantic tragic figure who could well be part of Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. A sixteen year old girl is in love with a boy. Her family disapproves. One night she dies at the site of a covered bridge. Both her burial site and the covered bridge are said to be haunted to this day: hand prints, ghastly shapes on photos, visitors getting locked in their cars.

Spooky New England, who could have guessed from a white Christmas dream?