Unbelievable excitement ensues as two Seattleites prepare for a baby!

Friday, July 29, 2005

Overdue, but Fine

Leigh is still geared up and ready to birth.

I've made the point before that pregnancy and childbirth are beautiful processes as long as you don't look too hard at some of the specifics. As we near Go Time, that is becoming more and more true.

For those who want to maintain their sepia-toned view of the process, just be aware that thanks to the indication of some recent events, we are likely within 24-48 hours of childbirth. Leigh is in good spirits and feeling fine and ready (actually, more than ready) for this to happen.

This is a good thing, since due date was several days ago and we are starting to go a bit batty. Perhaps the weirdest part of the process (to this point, anyway) is that so far we're a bit bored, waiting for the inevitable moment when Huge Groundbreaking Events begin to take place. There are few things more annoying than having to wait to panic.

Romantics (and those in the middle of a meal) might want to skip past the italicized Region of Harsh Reality.


For those of stout constitution, I will elaborate. Last night Leigh lost her "mucus plug" and encountered some "bloody show." No, these are not offensive terms - they may not be particularly appetizing, but these are natural processes and part of the miracle of childbirth.

In normal, non-child-bearing life, losing a mucus plug and having some bloody show is not something to celebrate - unless you normally celebrate weird bodily secretions. However, in this situation, it means we're close - losing the mucus plug normally indicates that the pregnant mother is within a week or less (usually much less) of birth, while the bloody show normally indicates that birth will be in the next 24-48 hours.

And yes, I know you're all thinking it - "Mucus Plug and Bloody Show" would be an excellent name for a rock band. Or an extremely poor-selling video game.


Everybody back? Actually, was anybody reading in the first place?

No matter. The upshot is that we appear to be close and will provide further updates as events warrant - at least within reason. I doubt Leigh would be pleased if I was blogging while she was starting to push. It's okay, honey - remember childbirth is like hiking, and everything will be fine.

Milestones in Automotive History: Chrysler-Maserati TC

The Chrysler-Maserati TC upon its debut in 1989.

Today's spotlight shines on a car that was so thoroughly compomised, so obviously a cynically mediocre car, that it embarrassed everybody involved even four years before it debuted. For those reasons and more, the Chrysler-Maserati TC is truly a Milestone in Automotive History.

When rumor began to circulate that the long friendship between mid-1980s Chrysler potentate Lee Iacocca and Maserati honcho Alejandro DeTomaso might result in the fruit of a collaborative automotive project, everybody sat up to take notice - who would have guess that one of Italy's most prominent luxury/performance automakers would deign to make a car with the beleaguered American automaker?

It was, of course, a brilliant idea - why not combine all the frumpy styling sensibility of a mid-1980s Chrysler with the legendarily spotty reliability of a Maserati?

The Chrysler-Maserati TC failed to meet even those rock-bottom expectations.

The plebian Chrysler LeBaron - an embarrasing clone of the TC.

AutoWeek put the car on its cover in late 1985, with the cover blurb, "Let's hope it comes in more flavors than this." The first line in the article was, "Maybe we expected too much."

The automobile unveiled the press was based on Chrysler's creaky and flexible K-car chassis, which underpinned all of Chrysler's vehicles at the time. The K-car chassis had debuted on the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, two compact economy cars which combined to begin bulldozing the already smoking wreckage of Chrysler's reputation. The styling was a lightly massaged version of the soon-to-debut Chrysler LeBaron convertible - but with saucy portholes in the rear quarter of the hardtop! Powertrain choices included Chrysler's 2.2-liter turbo four (which in the rare cases they are still running on today's roads advertise their presence with long clouds of white smoke) or a mysterious Maserati four-cylinder (more about that later), packaged with either a manual transmission or a three-speed automatic.

Minus the "Maserati" engine, these were the same underpinnings used by Chrysler's economy cars and minivans; definitely not the stuff of a $30,000 sports luxury roadster. Making matters worse, Chrysler touted the TC as a competitor to the Mercedes-Benz 560SL - one of the finest cars on the road.

Maserati's DeTomaso was already distancing himself from the project in the AutoWeek. When asked about the "Maserati" engine Chrysler representatives described, AutoWeek quotes DeTomaso as saying, " 'It is not a Maserati engine. Who told you this?' When we told DeTomaso that a Chrysler-supplied specifications list identifies the engine as a '16V Maserati,' he expressed anger and disbelief."

The Chrysler representative defended the TC's styling, saying, "Styling is very subjective - everybody likes something different. I think there are very legitimate statements one can make in a reasonable period of time ... and obviously, additional products can come forward at a future date that have different characteristics."

The TC was already a debacle - and this was four years before the TC even hit the market in a vastly more competitive and advanced 1989 market.

All told, Chrysler lost a reported $500 million on the project, and most of the owner sites honoring the TC today are also subtly offering their cars for sale.

The Chrysler-Maserati TC's thoroughly uninspiring rear view.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Big News Fails to Happen!

Seattle--Today, at Swedish Hospital, Leigh Miller did not give birth to a girl, Sophia, roughly eight pounds in weight.

Today, Miller's due date, was not spent in labor, giving birth to her long-awaited and much-loved child.

"For a little while, nothing was happening," Miller said. "Then, after that, nothing continued to happen."

Miller's husband, Chris Hafner, shared his wife's joy and excitement - or, rather, the exquisite lack of same - at the day's thoroughly excitingly anti-climactic events.

"The day of childbirth is always full of wonder and euphoria; pain and beauty; joy and wistfulness," Hafner said. "It is a day that changes you forever. Today is just like that - except without the childbirth."

When asked for her comment about how she's handling the waiting process, Leigh said, "AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!111!!!1!!!!!"

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Storming Ahead

The Storm Win! The Storm Win!

Since we figured there was no better way to anticipate the birth of a child than to attend a professional basketball game and watch a marching band in the same evening, Leigh and I did just that. Our friend and Leigh's former co-worker Thomas is a member of the Rainbow City Band , which performed at halftime of the Seattle Storm/New York Liberty WNBA game last night.

First off, Thomas and the band did a great job - unfortunately, none of my photos of the band came out even reasonably well. That's what happens with a digital point-and-shoot, without a tripod, when shooting a subject that is in constant motion.

Secondly, we didn't see a game so much as we saw a furious parking-lot beatdown in which the defending world champion Storm jumped all over the Liberty until a slight fade towards the end of the game. Storm star Lauren Jackson suffered a sprained ankle and left the game with several minutes left, but a career night from Izzy Castro Marques and late heroics from Suzy Batkovic kept the game out of reach. The Storm won with a final of 87-78.

Prego Leigh at Seattle Center, shortly before she suited up for the Storm and dropped 40 points on the Liberty.

This wasn't our first WNBA game - we'd attended a Charlotte Sting game or two - but even after being jaded by 13 Sonics games and a playoff run, we had an awful lot of fun. Great seats are cheap, there were lots of enthusiastic kids at the game, and the level of play was extremely high. I've never really thought of things this way before, but with a daughter of our own on the way, it's awfully nice to be able to have the Storm around to show her that sports aren't just for boys.

The most difficult challenge of the night was getting Leigh to and from the arena - she'd chug along with arms furiously pumping trying to keep pace with the flow of traffic. Key Arena's comfortably padded seats didn't treat her all that well, either.

There may not be a baby yet, but evidently things are shifting around in there - I would not be surprised if Sophia joined us soon.

Suzy Batkovic shoots free throws late in the second half.

Milestones in Automotive History: Yugo GVX

Feel the power of the Yugo GVX!

Yugo introduced its unreliable, underpowered, hopelessly antiquated GV hatchback in 1986 to worldwide jeering and derision; a level of scorn that only grew as people became more familiar with the intrinsic problems with an ancient FIAT design assembled with all the meticulous disregard and thorough apathy of Yugoslavia's Zastava auto group.

The GV's carbureted, 61-horsepower four-cylinder engine, its antediluvian suspension desion, and four-speed manual transmission were part of the problem. The remainder of the car constituted the rest of the problem.

In response to the deafening lack of demand for a performance variant of the GV came the GVX - a hot-rod Yugo that in thoroughly failing to meet even the dimmest expectations became a Milestone in Automotive History.

The extensive revision and customization process added alloy wheels, a stripe of metallic paint along the bottom of the side rocker panels, a sport steering wheel, and a dizzying array of engine revisions that boosted available power from 61 horsepower to, well, 61 horsepower. These modifications had all the enhancing effect one would expect from spraying Lysol into a vat of raw sewage.

According to Kelly Blue Book, a 1987 Yugo GVX with 180,000 miles and in "Fair" condition (an iffy proposition since most Yugos didn't leave the factory in "Fair" condition) is now worth $400.

One quasi-enthusiast has set up a hilarious page in which he claims his Yugo GVX "ownz joo."

Yugo eventually withdrew from the U.S. market in the early 1990s due to both poor sales and, according to one site, the fact that the EPA was on the verge of forcing Yugo to recall every car sold for failing to meet emissions standards.

What has been so far left unsaid in this sordid tale is that part of me thinks the Yugo is actually not a terrible looking car.

This modified Yugo GVX "ownz joo."

Monday, July 18, 2005

Dilation Nation

Why is this pregnant woman smiling?

I'll start with the graphic personal details - as of last Thursday, Leigh was at 1 centimeter dilated, 50-percent effaced.

What does this mean? Well, it means that Leigh is one centimeter down, nine to go - the bulk of which will take place during labor. She only has to be four centimeters dilated to be admitted to the hospital for birthing. To phrase an indelicate concept in a quasi-delicate fashion, the parts that need to open are beginning to open.

Practically speaking, the doctor told us that Leigh has a 30-percent chance of giving birth before this Thursday - and that odds are good that she will give birth the week after that. This adds a fair amount of immediacy to the edgy not-quite-panic that we've been feeling for a month or so now. The theory of it all - the preparation, the pain, and ultimately, the payoff - is about to become awfully concrete awfully quickly.

We are well and truly in the home stretch now. The bags are packed, the car is fueled, and the baby seat and mirror are mounted. I just made it through deadline at work, so my desk is clear.

Stackson, our cat, of course has no idea of the madness that will soon be descending. He is still petrified of the balloons in Phia's crib and is pretty leery of the whole thing - no doubt crying and screaming will further erode his patience and goodwill (two resources in extremely short supply).

This obligatory Stackson photo shows him completely relaxed - but for how long?

Actually, I think it's about time we have this baby. For one thing, Leigh is starting to use her belly as a weapon. Just a few minutes ago, I was sitting here and updating the blog (which I realize was long overdue), when she came up behind me and started battering my head with the firm elasticity of her baby-belly.

For another, the house is about as clean as we can possibly sustain it. Leigh's Aunt Linda came over this weekend to help clean the floors (again) and to help us reorganize the kitchen. The place is spotless, and I'd hate for us to slide back into filth and pestilence before the kid arrives and we can call in the reinforcements.

In all seriousness, we're pretty keyed up. We just hope and pray everything goes well.

Further updates as events warrant - or, more realistically, when I feel like it and have the time.

Linda didn't want her photo on the blog. Hi, Linda!

Doing Grass

Those of you who ever drove past our house in Charlotte know that I was perpetually locked in battle with our lawn - an implacable, inexorable enemy that knew not defeat. Every week I would struggle out into the impossibly hot, wretchedly muggy North Carolina summer air to fetch my loyal, battered gas mower. Together, we would quixotically tackle the broad, coarse weeds that pass for grass in North Carolina. Several hours, one severe case of dehydration, and at least one gas refill later, the grass would be (generally) shorter - but I would be beaten in both body and soul.

And then, three days later, the lawn would need to be mowed once more - a vegetable insurgency that refused to accept my claims of ultimate rule.

There are men (and women, no doubt) in suburbia whose lives revolve around the pH balance of their lawn. Those people would be crushed if their once-green lawn wound up brown and lifeless - for me it would be a crowning triumph. People used to laugh when I told them I was trying to kill my lawn, but what they didn't realize was that I wouldn't just like my lawn to die; I would welcome its death in the style of a hip-hop mogul, with celebratory bottles of Cristal, powerful handguns, and the purchase of SUVs with improbably large rims.

When we moved to Seattle and bought a house with a tiny postage-stamp of wispy, feeble grass, I immediately forgot the lessons of Charlotte. We wouldn't even need a gas mower, Leigh and I reasoned - why not buy one of those old-fashioned push rotary motors that would take up less space in the garage and wouldn't pollute or require us to store gasoline?

On the left, beauty; on the right, madness.

If the idea was to be environmentally friendly, the rotary mower certainly accomplished the task. It was positively chummy with the various flora that make up our lawn. It would greet each tuft of grass, gently caressing it and perhaps rough-housing it a little before moving on. Never did it actually, you know, cut the grass. Why, the very thought!

All of which, of course, explains why we stuck with the rotary mower for more than a year. I would go out for periodic but ineffective mowing sessions that invariably ended with the gently massaged wildflower stalks waving goodbye to me on my way back in. To achieve any success at all, I would have to approach a given meter square of lawn from five different directions and at varying speeds. I wasn't so much mowing the lawn as I was trying to give it a particularly ragged haircut.

Now? Ah .... now things are different.

Leigh's father Lyle, a kind and gentle soul who was no doubt weary of my unending assaults on his daughter's ears about the utter worthlessness of our mower, recently decided to give us a gas-powered mower as an impending baby present.

This isn't just any mower - it's a big-engined, self-propelled Toro. This is a ridiculous degree of overkill for our lawn, but I can't pretend that I don't derive a great deal of satisfaction from it. It's a bit like nuking the Sorth Pole to eradicate a slightly disgruntled penguin colony. And I love it.

Thank you, Lyle - not only have you aided me in my grim struggle with lawns everywhere, but I'm sure the neighbors want to give you a medal.

Driving with Chris: Audi A4 2.0T Avant Quattro

Audi A4 2.0T Avant Quattro - Avant means "Station Wagon" in Meaningless-Marketing-ese.

Audis fulfill the same role today that BMW established in the 1980s - a symbol of status and discriminating taste among those who set themselves apart by eschewing the gauche standard of the time (Mercedes in the 1980s, BMW today).

"Huh?" you say in rebuttal.

The point is that Audi has moved well past its former position as mid-level scrapper and fully embraced its role as an even competitor in the marketplace with Mercedes-Benz and BMW. In the form of the new A4 2.0T Avant Quattro, that has manifested itself in two forms - a grossly engorged front grille and an even more bloated bottom line.

More on the price later; but yes, Audi has moved away from its slick, trim, sleek lines towards a chunkier, more substantial look, headlined by angry-looking headlights and taillights and the most substantial schnozz since Streisand. Actually, though I'm still not sure it's a step forward, I've become accustomed to the look and think it looks much nicer on the A4 than on the larger A6.

The real beauty of the A4 Avant - Avant meaning "Station Wagon" in Meaningless-Marketing-ese - is that it adds the utility of a wagon to what has always been one of the slicker sports sedans around. What this means to the much-coveted parasailing-and-rock-climbing demographic is that the Avant can hold a fair amount of outdoor gear while, unlike most SUVs, actually being a lot of fun to drive.

What the A4 Avant is not good at is carrying large numbers of people. The back seats are surprisingly small for a car that is actually not that much smaller than its stablemate, the Volkswagen Passat - to say nothing of much less expensive but similarly capable family cars like the Honda Accord V-6 and Nissan Altima.

The A4's front seats, on the other hand, are a good place to be. The Volkwsagen/Audi group does some of the best interiors in the business. Our tester's black-and-silver motif was classy and stylish; many of the interior pieces are actually made of metal, not shiny plastic. German ergonomics can leave something to be desired, with bits of curiously inexplicable hieroglyphics scattered hither and yon, but after an adjustment period everything makes perfect sense.

The A4 has always been one of the better mild sports sedans around, if not generally a dynamic match for the somewhat less stylish BMW 3-series. As usual, the chassis on the A4 Avant was solid, buttoned-down, and very capable - thanks partially to the Quattro all-wheel-drive system.

One note - Audi's marketing gurus decided a year or two ago that "Quattro" didn't really need to be capitalized. Hey, Audi - that's really stupid. I'm not doing it.

The 2.0T turbocharged four-cylinder engine is a slightly larger version of VW/Audi's ubiquitous 1.8-liter inline four, with variable valve timing and direct injection. What that rigamarole means is that this is an extremely small engine for a car this size and with its performace pretensions and still provides 200 horsepower. That's remarkable for the size of the engine, but in absolute terms it's not that impressive. The new Hyundai Sonata has a 230-horsepower V-6 available, for example.

Although this means the A4 2.0T Avant isn't the fastest car on the road - or even as quick as much of the competition - the 2.0 engine, like the 1.8, is still one of my favorite four-cylinders around. It's a sweet honey of an engine that, after a half-second of weakness, gives a satisfying surge of torque that, combined with the distant whine of the turbocharger, makes the car feel as if it's moving much faster than it is. It feels great in the Volkswagen Jetta, Golf, New Beetle, and Passat, and it feels great in the A4. For the price, I'd even prefer it in most cases to the optional 3.0-liter V-6.

Ah, price. Unfortunately, this is the A4 2.0T Avant Quattro's Achilles Heel. Our tester stickered at $39,750 - an astronomical price for a compact wagon that does many things well but nothing extraordinarily so. A completely stripped version retails for closer to $32K, but odds are that most examples available for sale will be closer to the higher price.

The problem with the A4 sedan is that while it is better in almost every way than the Volkswagen Jetta, the advantages over the larger and less expensive Passat are harder to discern. Add in competition from BMW, Volvo, Infiniti, Lexus, and Acura, along with Volkswagen/Audi's declining reliability record, and it becomes hard to make a case to purchase an A4 sedan for a mid-to-high $30K price, much less pushing $40K. This is especially true when considering the strength of the sportier-than-ever family sedans inhabiting the $25-$30K range.

The A4 Avant Quattro, likewise, is more expensive and less powerful than the slightly smaller Subaru WRX Wagon and the much larger Dodge Magnum Hemi, to say nothing of the wagon variants of the sedan competition.

The Audi A4 2.0T Avant Quattro is a very nice car that would nicely fit a niche at $30,000.

Driving with Chris: Kia Spectra SX

Kia Spectra SX - "But it's a POS!"

I'm going to lead off this report with a vignette that will have Kia's marketing and PR people rushing for the nearest sharp objects upon which they can impale themselves.

Leigh's Aunt Linda came over this weekend to help us prepare for childbirth. When she came in the front door and the requisite hugs were exchanged, she asked me if the Kia parked out front was my newest text car. When I confirmed that it was, she said, "But it's such a POS!"

Yes, Kia has a bit of an image problem. The 2005 Kia Spectra SX is a decent-enough-looking small car - smooth and inoffensive in the Honda Civic mold, with a thoroughly unnecessary spoiler on the trunklid. But the best you can hope for from onlookers is studied indifference; once people start to notice the Kia badging, their lips start to turn up into a sneer. Our friendly neighborhood panhandler almost took pity and threw cash at the car when I was on the way home last night.

The thing is, for a $15,800 car, it's not that bad. Damning with faint praise, perhaps? Possibly. But in an age where a Honda Civic can easily top $20,000, the Spectra qualifies as an excellent buy for the price.

One thing is for certain - the Spectra is not an inspired engineering exercise. Our example had a pretty typical 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine, a long-throw five-speed manual, skinny tires, and a non-sporting "sport" suspension. Applying power out of a turn, the Spectra displays lots of torque steer - pretty remarkable, considering torque is an extremely limited resource in this car.

After sampling a bunch of high-end sports luxury cars, dropping into the Spectra feels at first like being shunned to the penalty box. The seats are hard, and the dashboard is pretty plain. It's all enough to make one pout like a wronged schoolgirl.

What's remarkable, though, is that the more time I spent in the Spectra, the more I liked it. The hard seats actually give quite a bit of support. There's not much on the dash, but the two-tone color scheme and simple but clean layout is actually quite handsome. The air conditioner works very well, and the Spectra hums along fairly quietly at highway speeds. The six-speaker CD stereo system is passable, if slightly tinny. Everything feels solid, well-built, and smartly put-together.

And, if you put in some effort, the Spectra is not thoroughly dull to drive. It's light enough to be tossable in the turns and actually has decent power when you're frenetically stirring the gearshift.

Sometimes, driving a slow car quickly is more fun that driving a fast car slowly. Thrashing along in the Spectra, I was reminded of a classic trip in which I frightened the bejeezus out of Kevin and Brian in Kevin's raggedly 1983 Honda Prelude on the mountain roads outside Leavenworth. That was a demonstrably slow car, with a shifting action reminiscent of moving a knife around inside a jar of peanut butter - but I don't know that I've ever had a better time than airing out everything that car had to give.

The Spectra has that same sort of infectious eagerness - it's not very capable, but if you put in the effort, it will too.

The one nearly fatal flaw is the Spectra's clutch. The Spectra's clutch is possibly the worst of any on a new car I've ever experienced. It's so terrible, in fact, that I'd consider going with an automatic instead - except that giving up control over what's happening in the drivetrain would probably sacrifice the small flashes of spirit that make the car so endearing at times.

The problem is that the clutch engagement point is right at the top of the clutch pedal's travel - which makes it abrupt, extremely awkward, and difficult to get used to. It felt remarkably like some joker had stolen the clutch out of a 200,000-mile 1973 AMC Gremlin X and bolted it into a brand new Spectra with only 1,800 miles on it.

No doubt a new owner would get used to the clutch - and now, after four days, I'm to that point - but it's still ridiculously poor. I'd hate to try this clutch out with another 50,000 miles on it.

Overlooking the clutch (with difficulty), the Spectra is a thoroughly professional, handsome small car for a relative pittance. While it would be tempting to buy a five-year-old used BMW instead with that same $16,000, that BMW would probably have upwards of 60,000 miles on it and wouldn't have a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

All you need to know is that by the time she left, Aunt Linda had come around and said the Kia was "really pretty nice." Now that's high praise.

A Spectrum of White

Two virtually worthless Chevrolet Spectrums (Spectra?).

For some unknowable reason, a collector in West Seattle has brought together two generally white, thoroughly knackered, Chevrolet Spectrums (Spectra?). The Spectrum was the late and completely unlamented re-badge job of the notably unremarkable Isuzu I-Mark - a relentlessly mediocre Japanese compact that was completely undeserved of a rebadging. Heartbeat of America, indeed!

It seems a bit odd that this man would invest this much effort to collect two virtually identical examples of a particular low point in automotive history - though I suppose it is remarkable that these two examples, unlike the rest of their bretheren, have not yet decomposed into their component atoms (though they appear to be on the way). Think about it - how many Chevy Citations, Ford Pintos, or FIAT Puntos have you seen recently?

I'm just waiting with bated breath to see whether spinners and "Mugen Power" stickers appear on these cars. If so, I heartily approve.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Keeping pace

Leigh on bedrest - hard at work, of course. Is she working on a blog post? Actually, no.

Well, we're a little less than a week into this grand experiment, and already I'm re-learning how difficult it is to keep pace shoveling content into the Great Maw of the Internet. Of course, "shoveling" is actually a pretty decent word to use when discussing the organic matter I've spewed so far on this site. I've already had one comment that the content was too old. While that feedback is from a reader who I've since learned is a clinically insane and homicidal 95-year-old woman, it's still good to know.

We'll have to see how all this works out. I've seen entirely too many blogs which detail the prosaic information of everyday life with the expectation that readers are breathlessly interested in the events which even those experiencing them find dull.

"Oh, look at this! They had Cheerios this morning. Honey Nut Cheerios, no less! Sassy! And let's see ... check this out, honey! They laid around and watched TV tonight!"

So it will all be about finding the right compromise, I think. If I have to work too hard to come up with something interesting, I may drift slightly farther towards the fiction end of the spectrum - perhaps concocting multi-week hot air balloon trips for Leigh, while placing myself in the center of armed insurrections in Guam.

One easy way to provide more interesting content would be for Leigh to offer some thoughts. After all, she's the one who's pregnant, and the person everybody really wants to hear from. But no - she's going to continue to play coy - while continuing to pull various strings to run the world while she's on bedrest.

Of bedrest, labor, and white doves

Here's a collage of pregnant Katie (who is due a few weeks after Leigh), pregnant Leigh, and unpregnant Erica today right before they took off for Katie's (low-key, compared to ours) baby shower:

I'll start with the news and then backtrack to provide an explanation - Leigh is on bedrest starting immediately, and Friday was her last day before her leave. So now, instead of overachieving and pushing herself too hard at work, she can do the same at home. Evidently she hasn't taken enough notice of my example in how to properly relax and not push oneself hard at all.

Now for the backtracking.

Society as a whole has an image of carrying and birthing a child that is so heavily weighted with sentimentality that one could easily imagine a birth in which the mother (in sepia-toned soft focus) lays tired but triumphant, her hand resting lightly on her swollen belly, smiling as the final stage of labor plays out; a flock of white doves fly through the room at the triumphant moment as the baby arrives, who is cooing happily. All is bliss.

I'm not wholly innocent of this charge. I'm a sentimental sort of guy, and there is magic to the process - the slow maturation of the parents as they realize the extent of their impending responsibility, the wonder that is inspired when they feel their child kicking and moving around, the excitement of seeing the kid in ultrasound.

But nowhere is it written that carrying or birthing a child is much fun. Just think about the grace and beauty with which the human body carries out its other natural functions.

So far, Leigh has dealt with hives over half her body; painfully swollen feet and ankes (as she calls them, her "bloody stumps"); acid reflux and a variety of other strange and unprecedented digestive issues; a massive spike in hormone level; engorged breasts that have rapidly outgrown all of her bras, and the bras she bought to replace them; and now, a blotchy right arm. The right arm is what prompted the bedrest - the blotches are spasming veins due to elevated blood pressure.

Like everything else, this isn't a serious medical problem - at least, if addressed and maintained at its current level. Hence the bedrest, and cheery advice from our doctor that if Leigh had a feeling of "impending doom," she needed to report to the hospital right away.

Yes, "impending doom." If she starts speaking in tongues, I'm really going to be freaking out.

To be honest, Leigh would be a bit nuts to not have a sense of "impending doom" after the childbirth class we took at Swedish.

Here's the happy-go-lucky condensed version: "Labor is going to hurt. It's going to hurt bad. Actually, it's going to hurt worse than anything you've ever felt in your life. You're going to feel like you're going to die. You can try some mental exercises that may or may not help with the pain. Now, to lighten the mood, we're going to show you video of women convulsing, screaming, in cold sweat. That's before they even arrive at the hospital. Oh, and we encourage you to not take pain medication."

Not that I helped much. At lunch, I began musing about the mental exercises meant to help distract from the pain, and the breathing patterns that give the mother the oxygen she needs - it all sounded vaguely reminiscent of strategies that helped me when I was hiking and climbing a great deal, especially at high altitudes, such as on Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier.

Husbands, take note - don't even take the first tiny step towards comparing childbirth to hiking, unless you're eager to hear about it for many weeks (or longer).

Leigh, to publicly answer your seemingly rhetorical question after I made the comparison - no, I've never had any part of my body dilate to 10 centimeters or pop out something the size and shape of a watermelon while hiking. Glad I could clear that up.

Happy Birthday to Leigh!

Well, the annual four weeks in which I snidely remind Leigh to respect her elders has come to an end - as of Saturday, July 9, she has joined me in the crusty age of 29.

We, of course, celebrated by going to a memorial service, and then on to visit the birthing suites at Swedish Hospital. During the tour, we learned that not only are the birthing suites comfortable, palatial, and tasteful, but that we will only be in them for a short time - to start with, we'll be in triage, with Leigh propped up on a cot in a cubicle, for a period of time ranging from 45 minutes to three hours.

Yeah, that'll be good. Leigh in labor, me freaking out, with her on a cot in a cubicle for three hours before they determine we are ready to go to the birthing suite. I don't see any problems in that scenario.

The picture here is of a Swedish birthing suite - though not from the actual hospital in which Leigh will be giving birth. In fact, it is in no way related - this photo is from the Swedish Covenent Hospital in Chicago, which as far as I could tell is in every way unrelated to Seattle's Swedish aside from its evident nationality.

But, since the tour guide took a dim view of me telling Leigh to get up on a birthing bed and acting like she's in labor so I could get a photo, this is the best I can do. It looks pretty much the same and was available through Google Images - so here you go.

Not the suite in which Leigh will give birth.

The Youth are our Future!

Not a Ferrari.

I was in a Portland Texaco buying a bottled water and some Apple-Os, when the 20-something gas attendant noticed a DeThomoso Mangusta at the local stoplight. Obviously trying to impress the rather cute 20-something cashier, he burst through the doors and carried on the following conversation with her:

Dude: "Hey, I think that's a Ferrari out there!"

Chick: "Awesome!"

Dude: "Maybe it's a GTO or something!"

Chick: "That's phat!"

After pondering for a moment, she decided her superlative had fallen slightly short of the mark and decided to revise her statement.

Chick: "That's hella phat!"

Our nation's future is in excellent hands.

Driving with Chris: 1986 Volvo 240DL

Our family Volvo 240DL.

After driving the Mercedes-Benz E350, switching over to our secondary car, a 300,000-mile Volvo 240DL, was a bit of a letdown.

The Volvo is Leigh's car, and basically a member of the family, so I won't savage it too badly here. Here, dear reader, are the facts:

- The Volvo is "painted" burgandy, which after six years exposed to the pollution, heat, and humidity in Charlotte, mellowed into an ashy, shadowed, scabrous color.

- The transmission is leaking fluid in about four different places; Swedish Automotive has sealed a few, but the Volvo still serves as a rather expensive transmission-fluid-to-nature distribution system.

- The heat shield on the engine is slightly loose, so it resonates at a variety of frequencies in sympathy with the long-suffering engine, giving the drivetrain the civilized sound of a two-stroke lawn mower running on rubbing alcohol.

- Leigh's brother Bryan and/or his friends took the opportunity to break just about every plastic interior piece during college, giving the interior a warmth and atmosphere matched only by that of a supermarket in a paticularly rough part of Moscow.

- For a time, the Volvo was our sole vehicle in Charlotte. This, combined with the fact that its air conditioner is a device that provides no cold air but overheats the engine rather efficiently, means that the front seats have absorbed untold gallons of sweat apiece over the last seven years. This is exacerbated by the fact that the seat heaters are placed directly under the cupholder, meaning they are switched unobtrusively on much of the time.

- Brand-new, the four-cylinder engine pumped out a fire-breathing 114 horsepower. Now, after 300,000 miles of abuse and without an overhaul, I'd wager it is fortunate to put out something like 95. This, when powering a two-ton steel safety cage with four seats in it, provides the disconcerting effect of attacking modest hills full-throttle and still steadily losing speed. It is almost, but not quite, able to pull the hat off one's head.

- Some low-life decided to break a window (worth a significant percentage of the worth of the entire car) to steal the low-buck economy CD player in the dash. Stealing a high-bucks Blaupunkt out of an Infiniti or Lexus, that I can see. But stealing the generic CD player out of our ancient Volvo ... that's a cry for help. I'm not angry so much as I'm consumed by pity for that thief.

Now just think - when I owned my 1983 Chevy Malibu Wagon (the 'Bu!), the 1986 Toyota Celtica, or the 1993 Saturn, the Volvo was the sophisticated, reliable transportation in the family. And in truth, if you can forget about the recent 5-degree list evident in the once-rock-solid steering response, it drives really nicely after it has been warmed up.

In fact, it has done very well for us. For a car we couldn't unload for $1,000 in Charlotte before the move, it has transported us safely and unreliably. In fact, it even got me off of a ticket. Once, when cruising along I-205 outside Portland, in a spot right when the speed limit changes from 70 to 60, I was pulled over for going 70 mph. However, the policeman took pity on me when he got an eyeful of my ride. He gave me a warning; in fact, he may not have even believed that I could have been traveling 70 mph in the Volvo.

It's been a great car - but stepping back into the Volvo after the E350 was a bit like getting off a Learjet and onto a tractor.

A warning - this post may disappear and/or undergo significant modification once Leigh sets eyes on it.

The hole where a cheap CD player used to reside, before some low-life stole it.

Impressions of the Nate McMillan press conference

From l., Portland GM John Nash, Head Coach Nate McMillan, Owner Paul Allen, and President Steve Patterson greet the media and Portland fans.

One helpful comment here suggested that, since I was in Portland, I should pee on the side of the Rose Garden. I didn't want to do that, necessarily, but I did the next-best thing - I crashed the Nate McMillan press conference, put on my best Serious Journalist Scowl, broke out the digital audio recorder, and joined the press in the front row for the formal conference and other members of the Seattle media for informal one-on-ones afterwards.

I also considered taking a hot dog - take that, Portland!

Here's my report:


After 45 minutes meandering around downtown Portland looking for
Washington Park, a curiously coiffed young man with head-to-toe tattoos
finally pointed me in the right direction of the Portland Trailblazers'
introductory press conference for head coach Nate McMillan.

It had to be the most bizarre setting for a press conference I have yet
encountered. Instead of the drab, cheerless, beige room de rigueur for
media events, this was a full promotional event, held in brilliant
sunshine, in an amphitheater ringed with 200-300 fawning Trailblazers
fans. Hot dogs and frozen novelties were on offer; the throngs of fans
waved "WELCOME TO PORTLAND, NATE!" placards, and McMillan was delivered
to the park in a bus with a sign on the side saying the same thing.

As I descended into the bowl of the amphitheater, I felt a bit like the
proverbial Christian walking voluntarily in among the lions.

Having the public in attendance for an otherwise fairly typical press
conference was a bit awkward. The crowd would roar in approval to a
McMillan response to a serious question, and people began visibly
fidgiting during a long stretch in which the Seattle media in
attendance kept grilling Nate on his reasons for leaving and asking
Seattle-specific questions - especially ones that called into question
the Blazers organization and the quality of the roster.

The audio of the formal press conference has evidently been on Seattle
radio, so I'll just summarize some of my impressions and
information gleaned during informal one-on-ones afterwards, during
which I wedged in with Steve Kelley, John Levesque, and Dave "Softy" Mahler while trying not to draw the attention to the fact that I'm not actually media in any way
that was relevant to the event.

The Portland fans were waving these mildly nausea-inducing placards.

This is long; for more, go here:

Thursday, July 07, 2005

McMillan leaves Seattle

Nate McMillan says hello to Portland as Paul Allen looks on.

Ironically, I was driving to Portland tonight when, after switching the radio away from the Mariners being pounded by the Royals, the broadcast of the Seattle Storm being devastated by the Phoenix Mercury was interrupted by the news that Nate McMillan is leaving the Sonics after being drafted by the team 19 years ago to be the new Trailblazers head coach.

Even hours later, I'm still a bit in shock - this is news that I totally didn't expect. I expected Nate to flirt with the Blazers and use any offer from them as a bargaining chip - not to actually sign with them.

As I'm beginning to come out of shock, I find that I'm juggling a bunch of emotions. I'm going to try to sort them out here.

Nate's time as a player and/or coach in Seattle had to come to an end sometime. All coaches eventually move on (with the evident exception of Jerry Sloan), and rarely are the circumstances pretty.

So really, this opportunity is no worse than any other to recognize Nate's role in the last two decades of this franchise. Nate was never a star, but his heady, intelligent play, his tough defense, and his hustle made him an important contributor from the beginning right through to the end of his career.

It's easy to overlook the job he did mentoring Gary Payton from a brash and unpolished rookie into a likely Hall of Famer; or to lose the fact that for most of his career he was an underrated playmaker and a terrific defender; or to forget that McMillan's do-everything versatility at three positions helped the Sonics achieve great success in the mid-90s (and was greatly missed when hobbled); or to ignore McMillan's solid record as a young coach in coaxing success out of a rebuilding team with a transient roster - at least until 2003-2004.

Throughout it all, he's been classy, upstanding, and an example of what is possible for those willing to work hard. As a player and a coach, he has embodied and demanded effort, hustle, and good defense.

When I'm in this frame of mind, I'm happy for Nate that after a good season and a job well-done that he's getting a very nice contract.

At the same time, I just can't get over the thought - what exactly is Nate thinking?

This is long - the rest is here:

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Only 180 miles away ...

Mom and her beautiful Portland view.

Since there's nowhere an expecting husband would rather be than 180 miles away from his extremely pregnant wife, I'm just thrilled that I'm heading to Portland for the next few days on business. I'm going to make Leigh swear up and down that she won't go into labor while I'm gone; if she reneges on that promise, I'll be extremely disappointed with her.

Actually, as far as business trips go, my Portland trips have become vastly more enjoyable since my folks moved to Camas, Wash. - which, for the uninitiated, is right across the Columbia River from Portland and, thus, Oregon.

Not only is it great seeing the folks more often than, oh, once every year or so, but it's nice to see friendly faces at the end of the day, Mom's cooking humbles and destroys that of any local eatery, and their new house could be described as palatial and beautiful if those two words could be squared, multiplied against each other, encrusted with jewels, and dangled from a gold chain. It's, you know, a half step or two beyond what I'd get at the local Super 8. Their view of the Columbia River Gorge and Portland from the two-story deck is also something to behold - check out the photo.

We always have a lot of fun, but at the same time I'll be wondering about the goings-on with my beloved wife and the small human marinating head-down within her uterus.

Besides a potential birth, I will also be missing another important event. Derek and Rod will be staging a "Being Bobby Brown" TV marathon on Thursday - an event that I am deeply chagrined to miss. Grrr! Hiss! With all the garbage on TV, it pains me to miss out on one of today's more thoughtful and enriching options.

See you all in a few days.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Blast-off imminent?

Leigh and Sophia - on the "outs?"

The infant miraculously embedded within Leigh's body appears to be growing more and more eager to escape her biological prison. According to the estimable Dr. McDermott, Sophia has pointed herself in the "Action Position" - head-down, and ready to roll. At 37 weeks into the process, she could really come at any time. Other news from the good doctor - Sophia is roughly six pounds at the moment and kicking up a storm. While she is not the gargantuan baby we were warned about a few months ago, she is big enough to be a fully functioning baby when she chooses to emerge.

Given Leigh's two quick-but-notable contractions that woke her up last night, we are going to be packing our bags tonight so that we are fully ready when the time comes - and I finally get to engage in the much-awaited Seattle Grand Prix (also known as driving Leigh to Swedish at white-knuckle speeds).

Ray Allen re-signs with Sonics

Ray Allen has reportedly agreed to a new contract with the Seattle Sonics.

Several media sources are reporting that free agent All-Star guard Ray Allen has agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract to re-sign with the Seattle Sonics. Allen had been one of the most coveted free agents on the market and had been wooed by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, L.A. Clippers, and, had they lost Michael Redd, the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Sonics had initially offered Allen a $75 million, five-year deal; the extra $5 million is reportedly in the form of incentives.

For the Sonics, this represents the first and most important piece of the free agent puzzle falling into place. Avoiding a sixth year for the 29-year-old Allen also allows the Sonics to avoid carrying an aging guard well past his prime with a compounding yearly salary.

Assuming that Allen receives the maximum 10-percent yearly raises available under the NBA's new Collective Bargaining Agreement:
Year 1: $12.3 million
Year 2: $13.5 million
Year 3: $14.9 million
Year 4: $16.4 million
Year 5: $18.0 million
Total: $75.1 million (all above figures rounded, so totals may not add up exactly)

Plus, $5 million worth of incentives.

Driving with Chris: Cadillac, Mini, and Mercedes

The 400-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V

One of the small but satisfying perks of my job is to borrow, thrash, and then return various expensive and shiny vehicles.

Some (such as the Audi S4 convertible, Pontiac GTO, and BMW 645Ci) are more exciting than others (Kia Spectra5, Suzuki Grand Vitara), but all are interesting in their own way.

This week, I'll discuss the last three cars to pass through my greedy little fingers - the Cadillac CTS-V, the Mini Cooper S convertible, and the Mercedes-Benz E350.

The CTS-V is Cadillac's hot-rod compact - think the ill-fated Cadillac Cimarron with better build quality and a Saturn V rocket bolted onto the roof. With a stiff chassis, suspension tuning tested by Germany's legendary Nurburgring circuit, a six-speed manual transmission, and a 400-horsepower small-block LS6 engine borrowed from Chevy's Corvette, the CTS-V is a world-class performer. Even with the traction control on, I found it difficult to avoid smoking the tires at every opportunity - perhaps because I wasn't trying all particularly hard to avoid it. The car handled very well, and had enough torque to give the car right now throttle response. What's amazing for a GM product, the seats were both supportive and comfortable - although Leigh didn't think so, as she tried to haul her pregnant frame out of the car.

So what could be wrong with a European-tuned sports sedan with a rumbling high-horsepower V-8? Unfortunately, a few niggling annoyances mean that GM isn't ready to take on the BMW M-series cars or the AMG Mercedes offerings just yet. GM's oft-lamented 1-4 skip shift, in which under all but full-throttle situations the gearshift directs the driver from first to fourth gear, makes the car seem almost mulish in its unwillingness to follow the driver's lead. Frustration almost invariably ensued when the car tried to force me into fourth - a gear in which I most assuredly did not want to be.

The ergonomics, while better than most GM cars, were still a weak point in comparison with this car's competition. The operation of the center console computer system, with its integrated navigation and audio controls, is as opaque as any system I have yet used. Trying to enter a new destination creates a level of frustration equaled only by that incurred by the recalcitrant shifter. Fie upon you, GM! Fie!

Niggling details like that are all that is necessary to take such a great package - an all-American buttoned-down four-door with a grin-widening, fly the flags small-block V-8 - and make it into a slight disappointment.

The Mini Cooper S convertible could hardly have been more different from the Cadillac. From a serious, overpowered four-door to a cartoonish, tinny convertible, the adjustment was rather drastic.

Once that adjustment was made, however, the Mini was fairly endearing. The engine was short on ultimate horsepower, but after zinging the four-cylinder into the upper registers of the tachometer, it was sufficient to move the little Mini fairly rapidly. The degree of attitude adjustment possible with a convertible on a beautiful Seattle summer day is also rather remarkable. The Mini provides a reasonable approximation of a road-going Formula Vee car - all eagnerness and reflexes, no muscle - and what could be more entertaining than that?

The Mini is without doubt a fun car; but the open-top version doesn't make a lot of sense as anything other than a weekend toy or a fair-weather commuter. The interior, though attractive and novel at first blush, becomes a bit garish upon close examination and is put together with a poor grade of plastic that will likely warp and fade with age. The back seats are suitable only for quadruple amputees; the trunk would have difficulty accommodating anything more voluminous than, say, two briefcases stacked on top of each other. What's more, with the top up, it's noisy, not particularly fun, and - a cardinal sin for this car - heinously ugly.

My friend Rod and I also learned another lesson about the Mini - when two males drive around in a convertible Mini, certain assumptions are made about both their proclivities and the nature of their relationship. We put hip-hop on the radio in a feeble attempt to counteract the effect, but the skeptical glances thrown our way as we drove through Seattle let us know that we were doing more harm than good.

In moving from the Mini to the Mercedes-Benz E350 , we made a shift from a wide, irreverent grin, to a cool, measuring stare - from an eager, bouncing puppy to an emotionless, detached hit man.

Aside from the price (more than $50,000), there are few downsides to the E350 - it is not as quick as the CTS, not as nimble as the Mini, not as overtly sporting as a BMW 5-series, but it is roomy, effortlessly smooth, aggressively quick when called upon, and sumptuously comfortable.

While it's not a sports car, tromping on the throttle elicits smooth shifts from the seven-speed automatic and muted aggression from the E350's 272-horsepower V-6 as the midsize sedan effortlessly leaps up to extra-legal speeds. The interior is just as nice - driver and passengers are swaddled in premium leather, and the instrumentation is easy to read.

It's my pleasure to note, however, that despite the E350's muscle, our Honda Accord V-6 (240 horsepower!) is only a tenth of a second or two slower to 60 mph.

Happy Independence Day!

Seattle on July 4 from Kerry Park

There are few better places to be in the world than Seattle on a beautiful summer day - and so it was yesterday. Of course, only in Seattle would an 85-degree day be considered ridiculously, unconscionably hot.

We had the best of both worlds yesterday - it was a cloudless, brilliantly blue day made for spending time with friends, reconnecting with what's really important, and, for some, getting mind-numbingly intoxicated and blowing up a variety of military-grade fireworks.

We spent the morning with our new friends Chris and Kim, who were in town for a wedding, and had a terrific brunch with them at the Alki Cafe in West Seattle. Chris is not only impressively named, but he is a Sonics fan with whom I've chatted for several years and also enjoys Chevy muscle cars. Good man. Plus, he's built in such a way that he could tear me into four roughly separate but equal pieces, so I treated him with a great deal of respect.

That's me with Kim and Chris.

Following that, we ran over to have a barbecue with Kim, Chavi, and various other friends. As usual, those two decided at the last minute to stage an event, and they didn't disappoint. We all hid from the sun while dining on their succulent barbecued treats and wrapped it all up with homemade ice cream.

All in all, I hope others had as terrific a July 4. God Bless America.

Some of the kids at the barbecue had ... perhaps a bit too much sugar.

Monday, July 04, 2005


Pregnant Leigh - isn't she lovely?

Well - we have finally taken our first steps into the brave new world of blogging. We hope this site serves as a portal for our beloved friends and family into all things Hafner and Miller. We hope it will offer informative and entertaining insight into everything going on in our lives - our thoughts, dreams, and interests.

More realistically, however, this will be a site where everybody comes to get the latest news and photos of Sophia and then ignores or outright ridicules the rest. That's not just OK - it's great.

Welcome to the one or two people who stumble in here over the next year or two - and have patience! I'm new to this blog thing. You know, because the technology has only been around for several years.

- Chris