Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The pleasure of our gardens: Welcoming the spring equinox to our backyard garden

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. ~ Gertrude Stein

How lovely a rose smells when left on its stem.

Spring's recent arrival in the Northern Hemisphere offers all of us a chance for reflection as we begin our break away from winter and welcome the new season.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems as if the sun's just a bit warmer and the flowers are a little brighter than they were just a week or two ago.

Speaking of flowers ...

Springtime means new growth for our rose bushes. Our First Prize rose bush has been an early bloomer this year and, at the time of this writing, we have five First Prize roses blooming.

As a caretaker and devoted photographer of nine rose bushes that shine brilliantly throughout much of the year in our backyard garden, my appreciation for roses has grown exponentially over the 14-plus years I have resided in the foothills above Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Roses have become an everyday part of my life, and in photographing and sharing them with my friends via my Facebook page, I have gained a new appreciation for their colorful beauty and their fragrance, too.

Remember, it's always about how lovely a rose smells when left on its stem.

Photograph of First Prize rose by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A fast charging, cleaner solution

Electric cars are full of possibilities. From a pure environmental standpoint, they seem to make sense. Now, as interest and demand increases for electric vehicles, so does the need for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

EV charging station
at the Emeryville
Public Market in
Emeryville, Calif.
Recently, I came across a new EV charging station while driving into the parking lot of the Emeryville Public Market, a 14-acre mixed-use site that includes a popular international food court, shops, cafes and movie theaters. At first glance, what looked like a high-tech gas pump quickly grabbed my attention. Then, as I got closer to this EV charging station, it fueled my curiosity once I realized what it wasn't. I parked my fuel-injected, foreign-made automobile near the EV charging station and, immediately, began taking notes.

NRG eVgo (pronounced ee-vee-go) has created the nation's first privately funded, comprehensive EV ecosystem. The company's name is prominently displayed on its EV charging station pumps. According to the company's website, NRG eVgo provides "electric car charging solutions directly to electric car owners as well as businesses looking to serve the EV charging needs of their residents, tenants, employees or customers."

NRG eVgo wants to reframe the way in which Californians think about electric cars. Its goal is providing drivers with cleaner transportation solutions.

A Business Wire report last week noted that NRG eVgo, which is a subsidiary of NRG Energy, Inc., has partnerships and agreements in place to build more than 200 fast-charging "Freedom Station" charging sites throughout California. (NRG eVgo also serves EV drivers and businesses in Texas and the greater Washington, D.C. area.)

Currently, NRG has 46 electric vehicle charging sites operational, under construction or currently being permitted in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. This includes the one in Emeryville, which borders Oakland and Berkeley, that's located across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco.

"We are making great progress building a comprehensive infrastructure that will make owning an electric vehicle even more convenient and fun," Terry O'Day, Vice President of NRG eVgo in California, told Business Wire. "As this network is built out, it will make buying an EV attractive to even more drivers across California."

Electric vehicle changing station /
A faster charging, cleaner solution
that improves air quality.
By the end of 2016, the eVgo Freedom Station network is expected to support California EV drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as the Los Angeles Basin, greater San Diego and the San Joaquin Valley (which includes the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton) in central California. The company, which is investing over $100 million in California alone, is gaining the support of public, home and workplace solutions such as retail shopping centers and apartment complexes in expanding its marketplace of locations, which would add a lot of convenience for drivers with EVs.

With an expanded network, NRG eVgo envisions "improved air quality, less dependence on foreign oil, a lower total cost of ownership of vehicles and a better, cleaner California." On paper, it all adds up to a fast charging, cleaner solution to how we use energy and think about our environment. At least, seeing EV charging stations might help to foster how people think about, buy and use energy.

Photos by Michael Dickens, © 2014.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A year of being Pope Francis

Pope Francis / "A man who laughs, cries, sleeps soundly and
has friends like everyone else. Just a normal person."

We're a year into the Pope Francis era. It's been filled with much hero-worship and adulation. Francis has graced the cover of Rolling Stone and been named Time magazine's Person of the Year. He's greeted by adoring fans wherever he goes. Among American Catholics, the 77-year-old Argentinean pontiff, born Jorge Mario Bergolio, is enjoying greater popularity than Pope Benedict XVI did in February of last year, when he suddenly announced his resignation.

Pope Francis, often pictured smiling in his white cassock, has shown much energy and charisma in shaping a new tone around the Vatican. He's become more open in granting interviews to the mainstream media while also embracing social media as a viable means for spreading the message and values as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. 

Pope Francis waves at adoring
crowd in St. Peter's Square.
Noted for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to dialogue as a means of building bridges to between people of all backgrounds, beliefs and faiths, Francis "has dramatically altered the style of the papacy, making a series of symbolic choices that have solidified his persona as a plain-living, down-to-earth and genial head of the Catholic church," the London-based Guardian wrote earlier this month.

Now, a new poll out just in time for Lent reveals that a broad majority of American Catholics say Pope Francis represents not only a major change in direction for the church, but a change for the better. And yet, the poll conducted last month by the Pew Research Center suggests "his popularity has not inspired more Americans to attend Mass, go to confession or identify as Catholic — a finding that suggests that so far, the much-vaunted 'Francis effect' is influencing attitudes, but not behavior," The New York Times reported last week.

The poll, conducted between Feb. 14-23, included 1,821 adults. There was a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points for all Americans, and six percentage points for the subgroup of 351 Catholics.

"Francis, who draws giddy teenagers to his Wednesday audiences and generates Twitter traffic with every public remark, has clearly invigorated the church," The New York Times wrote. "But the poll finds that Francis has raised expectations of significant change, even though he has alluded that he may not alter the church’s positions on thorny doctrinal issues."

Among the poll's findings: Almost six in 10 American Catholics said they expected the church "would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry." Also, four in 10 said they thought the church would ordain women as priests, and "more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050." Further, "large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages."

Pope Francis / A mixture of
homespun personality and
As he reaches the first anniversary of his papacy this week, on March 13, among the priority issues that Pope Francis has faced during his first year include: addressing a clergy sex-abuse scandal, spreading the Catholic faith, standing for traditional moral values, addressing the needs and concerns of the poor, and overhauling the Vatican bureaucracy. He's tackling all the important issues of the day with a mixture of homespun personality and compassion. Seventy-one percent of those polled believe that Pope Francis represented a "major change in direction."

Finally, while the papal vestments include the wearing of a cape, the pontiff said he shouldn't be called a Superman. "To paint the Pope as a sort of Superman, a kind of star, seems offensive to me," Francis told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. "The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps soundly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person."

• • •

Note: To learn more about the first year of Pope Francis, I encourage you to read John Cornwell's excellent feature in the March 7 issue of The Financial Times.

Photographs courtesy: CNN.com, Telegraph.co.uk, theguardian.com.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Question time: Let's ask the 'Memo' blogger

Question time / Ask the blogger.
I enjoy the art of conversation with my friends on Facebook. It's a great way to get to know this diverse and inclusive group of people better, and I can do so from the convenience of home without having to worry about how I look or to shout to make myself heard in a noisy café.

Think about it. What's not to like about enjoying a cup of French roast coffee, creating an ambient music soundtrack to fill my chat room, and catching up on the world events around me that my Facebook newsfeed sees fit for me to read? And, best of all, I can learn what's on the minds of my friends near and far. It's the kind of multi-tasking I truly enjoy and derive a tremendous amount of benefit from.

Often, I am asked a lot of personal questions, especially by newer friends who want to get to know me better. Some of these questions are about my blogging or other writing I may be engaged in at the time. Others are about what I majored in at university (the answer: American History) and, especially from friends where English is their second or third languages, how to improve their English-language writing skills. I don't mind because I'm usually the one asking a lot of questions of my friends. I guess, it's the natural reporter's instinct in me. And, it's only fair to turn the tables every once in a while.

So, here are my answers to five questions I'm often asked:

The book currently on my bedside table is: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, published in 2011. The New York Times called it "part gossip, part philosophy, it covers a lot of the angles on literary travel." Like the author, I cannot imagine myself not traveling. I bought the softcover version of the book last year while visiting Seattle.

An unforgettable place I've travelled to in the past year is: Seattle. My wife and I have been regular visitors to the Emerald City since the mid '90s. We have longtime friends who live there and enjoy hosting us. Often, our visits are timed in conjunction with the annual Bumbershoot music and art festival that takes place each year over Labor Day weekend. We have a list of favorite restaurants and cafes we enjoy dining at when we visit; favorite walking trails; even a favorite bookstore, Elliott Bay Book Company, which is one of the country's outstanding independent booksellers. And, if it's clear enough to see Mount Rainier on a nice day, that's a magnificent bonus.

What kind of wristwatch I wear: I wear a Swatch watch I bought while on holiday in Amsterdam in 2003. I like the way Swatch watches look on my wrist and, over the years, I have bought several in different styles and colors. To me, Swatch watches are always fashionable and in style.

In my fridge you'll always find: A half-gallon carton of low-fat milk and a half-gallon carton of orange juice sans pulp, both usually purchased from Trader Joe's. I like to start each day at breakfast with a small glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal -- usually a mixture of oat squares with a dash of pecan praline granola served with milk. The milk also comes in handy when I have a cup of French Roast coffee, too.

Music that always leaves me in a good mood: Of many albums, one come to mind: 'Horowitz in Moscow' (Deutsche Grammophon, 1986). The piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz returned to his native Russia after an absence of more than 60 years, and he gave the recital of his life at the Moscow Conservatory in April 1986. It was broadcast live in the United States on CBS Sunday Morning. I remember waking up early on that spring Sunday morning to watch the lovely joy on the pianist's 82-year-old face as he played with both subtlety and with great power. "He gave the crowd pastel rainbows and crashing thunderstorms," wrote Charles Kuralt, the late host of CBS Sunday Morning, in the album's liner notes. And, indeed, a climax of memory and emotion, of pasel rainbows and crashing thunderstorms, could be found in Liszt's "Soirées de Vienne: Valse-Caprise No. 6". Lots of bravos and lots of tears everytime I listen to this album.