Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Post Thanksgiving, Pre-Christmas

Sorry for the lack of updates. We had a busy November, including a wonderful visit by Trish's sister Leslie and her beau, Mike. It was Leslie who helped us so much in decorating our house, and she also had good words on contractor choosing and how much work to try and get done before moving in.

They were here a week over Thanksgiving, and a heckuva week it was. We had enormous amounts of wonderful food and all kinds of great wine, trekked down to the ranch for stargazing, canoed, rode bikes, and generally had a blast. Mike was very patient with Jacob, and seriously earned his keep in my eyes by regularly making killer margaritas. Leslie also finished this massive paint job on the hall bathroom, this amazing undersea motif, with sea creatures of all kinds, sunken ships, etc.

As good a time as that was, I was a week recovering. I did get most of the Christmas lights up on the house. Most of the light gear is still out front, as I hope to do some more any day now, but any day keeps getting pushed back. Then there's the Christmas tree to decorate, and gifts to buy. I also need to send Jake's grandmother a list of suitable choices. And I have all of two things picked out for people to choose for me, exclusive of the stuff on my Amazon wish list. I always have a tough time picking out stuff for others to get for me. At least, stuff that is under budget and not of a technical nature. Trish refuses to buy me anything having to do with computers, for fear she will make a mistake. For my part, after the last fiasco, I avoid buying her any sort of clothing more complex than a scarf.

At least Jacob's Advent calendar is mostly filled with goodies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Various Ruminations

I think 90% of my hits are Google searches. Which means only 10% of them are actually people coming here to read. Well, when one updates at most once a week, you can't complain about traffic.

Its finally feeling like Fall around here. Despite a couple of prior cool snaps, today (as I write this) was the first time we had a truly blustery day. Leaves blew, a few branches broke off, the air chilled. It has also caused seed pods from our giant oak tree to fall onto the carport with a sound like guns going off in the street. Trish to remarked that it’s a good thing we don't have a metal roof over the whole house, or we'd be diving under the couch on a regular basis.

We had a tin roof on my grand-dad's old place. No nut-dropping trees, but I recall it could be kinda loud when it rained. Despite the noise, tin or other metal roofs are making a bit of a comeback. They are almost impervious to hail, and the lighter colored-ones reflect light and heat and so contribute to energy efficiency in hot areas (like here).

Next week is Thanksgiving, which means that soon after I need to put up the Christmas lights. This being only our second Christmas in this house (and since during the first one I didn’t even know where the lights were, much less care about putting them up), I have NO idea how they should be put up. Well, not quite NO idea, but very little idea, I can tell you that.

Huh. That reminds me that it is almost our first anniversary of moving in here. Amazing that it has been nearly a year already. Wowzers.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Bit of a Confession

I used to spend a lot more time reading blogs than I do now. Political blogs, the SAHD blogs, whatever. I kept up with everything, it seemed. Nowadays I don't do that. In fact, I realized that I hadn't even looked at the blogs in my link list in a very, very long time.

I finally did yesterday, and discovered that almost half of them have either vanished or quit updating months ago. Guess some housekeeping is in order soon.

I feel a bit guilty. I know some of those folks still pop in here from time to time, and occasionally they even leave comments. Sorry, folks. I'll try to pay more attention in the future.

Still, I think I can trace my decline in following other SAHD adventures pretty closely to the degree that being a SAHD evolved from being this strange thing I was learning how to deal with to…what I am. Kinda funny, that.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


It's funny being one of the Afterschool Moms. Well, I suppose I should say, one of the Afterschool Parents, but I'm pretty much the only Dad out there on anything like a regular basis, so…one goes with the name that’s already there.

I may have posted a long time ago about what it was like to wait for the bus with Jake, and how the moms there on our block seemed unsure what to do with me. I never really felt as though I were accepted. I was a dad hanging out in their mom-space, and no-one was comfortable.

It has taken a while, but hanging out after school almost every day so Jake can play for a while has literally gotten me a place at the table. The picnic table, to be precise (there are 2-3 picnic tables set up around the playground). There, school policies are dissected, teachers compared, summer programs evaluated, and world problems occasionally solved.

I mostly just sit and listen, though I do contribute. I am most uncomfortable, oddly enough, when things get silly, because, lets face it folks, guy silliness is not quite the same as gal silliness, and I'm afraid I might overstep the bounds were I to cut loose.

Its cool, though I am slightly disappointed that Trish gets the invite to the "Mom's Only" party instead of me. :-)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tripping the Lights Fantastic...

I eventually got that water filter for the ice maker installed. I had to stand in front of the tubing fixtures at Lowes for a good 30 minutes before finding the right ones, but they did the trick. No sprays, no drips. Gotta love that Teflon tape.

In the end, though, I also had to clean out the freezer and the refrigerator sections in order to get rid of all the stuff that was contributing to the funny-tasting ice. Probably should wipe down the freezer more often.

But anyway, on to the topic at hand...

So when we were working on this house I got into compact fluorescent bulbs. They've been around for a while, and what with the cost of oil and whatnot, they've gotten a real push here lately. I'm sure you've seen them. They are getting pushed because they use less energy, put out less heat for the same light, and last longer. They cost a lot more too (and have a bit of mercury in them, so recycle the suckers, don't just toss them), but the trade-off is supposed to be worth it. I bought an early one years ago for a lamp, but in those days, "compact" was relative. The thing wouldn't fit in the lamp, and I lugged it around for years before putting it into an outside light socket.

The first CFL's were a bit bigger than incandescents, and had a small but noticeable and annoying delay before they came on. Some of them made a buzzing noise, too. And, that little swirly shape just didn't look right. It was with these things in mind that I selected the first batch of CFL's for this house.

The initial ones were some brand called Bright Effects. They were enclosed bulbs that looked like slightly larger incandescents, and they advertised that they came on instantly. And so they did, but rather dimly. Over a period of a minute or so, they brighten to full. You can actually see the light coming up as they do that. Well, that wasn't quite what I was hoping for. I'm not sure I can describe it right, but somehow the initial dimness of a room with these lights made it a less pleasant place, even after the lights had brightened.

As a temporary measure, I mixed in some different brand swirlies that did the delay thing but came on full brightness. So the lights were mixed, but at least the brightness issue was dealt with. I wound up doing this in several places.

Recently, I had some old incandescents go out and got a bunch more CFL's to replace them. I stayed away from the Bright Effects this time, and decided just to put up with the swirly shape (how often does one look directly at a light bulb, anyway?). The next batch were Sylvanias, and I think some technological shifts had happened in the meantime, because most of these came on with no delay I could notice, and came on full blast as well. I noticed this because I was nearly blinded when the 150W equivalent CFL I put in the tool room blasted on as soon as I flipped the switch.

Cost or no cost, I might ditch some of those old Bright Effects for these new guys so I don’t have to worry about dim start-ups or mixed bulbs.

I have to say I like these things. Some people don't like CFL's because they don't like the quality of the light, but 1) I don't mind that much and 2) they have done a lot to make the new CFL's a lot less, err, fluorescent-looking than they used to be. They are also a LOT cooler burning. No doubt about that at all. You still wouldn't want to grab one bare-handed, but they won’t turn a closed room into an oven, either.

One oddity for me is that people are used to measuring their light's brightness in watts, which is a unit of power, as opposed to lumens (or even candela or candles), which is the light brightness measure. That sort of made sense in the old days, but now its making things confusing, because as you may have noted above, the CFL's are put out in "brightnesses" corresponding to the old wattages people are used to, 40-60-75, etc, even though a 150 "Watt" CFL only uses 37.5W to get the same amount of light. And most lamps and light fixtures are also rated in regard to incandescent bulbs. I'm certain you could stick that 150W equivalent CFL into a lamp only rated for a 60W bulb, because the CFL pulls only a bit over 1/2 the power (and heat!) while spitting out 2.5 times as much light as the 60W.

If you haven't done so already, I'd suggest making an investment in these things as your old incandescents give out. I think you'll be pleased.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Nobody likes funny-tasting ice cubes. And most city water systems, while perfectly safe, have a bit of a "flavor" to them that is not exactly pleasant. In some areas, the calcium buildup is bad enough that you can clog your icemaker, which makes a mess. It happened to my folks once. So we've always had a filter on the fridge icemaker. Well, the old filter is getting a bit long in the tooth, and I've been meaning to change it for a couple of months now, with no success.

The problem is that new filters are too easy too use. Yes, you read that right. All the ones I saw at a couple of hardware stores are so-called "tool-less" devices. Instead of having to screw the filter connectors on to the water lines, which might require such exotica as a pair of pliers (by the by, I personally feel that anyone who lacks a pair of pliers in their home and the basic understanding of how to use them should not be allowed to vote or drive a car), they use gaskets so you just have to push the tubing into the holes. Of course, our water feed is the screw kind. Copper, no less.

So in order to use the new, easy, tool-less water filters, I need to buy adapters that convert from screw-thread to push-in gasket, and, just to be safe, a mounted version of the filter so I won't obsess about the thing pulling the tubing out when it gets heavy with sediment. Oh, and drill holes for it, etc. Plus hope the copper line doesn't snap off at the nasty bend it takes coming out of the wall (no doubt part of our previous owners handiwork) or spring a leak at its connecting point.

Fortunately adapters look pretty cheap, and tubing is a whole $0.07 a foot (I need well under three feet). But if I can't make this work myself, I plan to buy a 10lb bag of ice from the gas station to tide us over until the plumber can get here and install the "tool-less" water filters for me.

* A little joke for all current and former residents of Houston, Texas.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Return of Soccer Dad

Jacob won his first soccer game this past weekend. It was a nice change. We'd already dropped the first two of the season and I was not looking forward to another semester of futility. Its funny, I almost typed "year" there instead of semester. I'm used to a sports season lasting its time and then ending for a year. But of course youth sports often run year-round, so "last season" really means "a couple of months ago".

But they won, which was good. It’s a completely different team this year. His old coach and all of the girls from last season's team elected to move into the all-girls league. So a new team. And really, a very different sort of game. At this age level, you now have actual positions (including goalkeeper), as opposed to having every kid out there chasing the ball. The field is much much larger. And they are enforcing more rules, like "offsides", which I looked up but still don't really understand.

Another change, and I don’t know if this is league-wide but I think that it is, is that parents and spectators have to be on the opposite side of the field from the players. Last season we all hung out together. I'm not sure why, though maybe coaches didn't like parents coaching their kids (I never did that ), or something happened last time around that

He and this team were completely new to each other. They aren’t a bad bunch. Some are in fact awfully good, including the two girls, a guy who seems destined to becoming a goalkeeper, another defender, Jacob of course, who loves being mid-midfielder, and another kid who would be pretty scary if he had longer legs. Most of the rest seem average to me, but I have seen another guy making some moves at practice, which if he can do that in a game, will make some noise.

I like the coach too, so I don’t think I'll have the same sort of troubles I had last time around when I felt like the coach was missing some important nuances. Now all I have to do is restrain myself when the other team scores a goal because a couple of defenders are standing around, paying no attention to the ball and talking about whatever 8-year-olds talk about in the middle of the game.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Doorbell of Doom

So the pixels weren't really dry on my last post when I finished up a little project that turned out to be a lot more trouble that I had thought, something that required a bit of Tool Man chutzpah, and partially restored my faith in my own abilities.

Yep, I replaced our doorbell button.

This was not my first foray into the world of announcement devices. I had attached a knocker to the door of our old house. Here, I had replaced the old chime mechanism with a new, louder one, and added a wireless extension to it to boot. But these matters were small beer.

The doorbell proper was a serviceable bit of white plastic. When you depressed the button the chimes would sound and when you let up they would stop, which is pretty much the least you can ask of a doorbell. But for reasons unknown to me, I grew to detest the thing. It was, frankly, far too utilitarian.

I like to think of myself as immensely practical, and sometimes I am, but not here. Here I was a slave to appearances. Here we had this gorgeous door and cool hardware for it, and the device people used to signal they needed us to come to this door was a hunk of ancient Bakelite.

So I looked around and nowhere in the regular hardware stores did I find a suitable replacement. Eventually I returned to the place where we got the door and the locks/knobs etc that went with it and it turned out that the lock manufacturer had a nice doorbell that went with our lockset. But they didn't keep that in stock, I would have to have them order it. So I did.

After a week or two it arrived. So then I got ready to install it. I gathered up my cordless screwdriver and drill, and set them down next to the front door. Then I went to the electrical box to see about shutting off the power to that part of the house, something you generally should do when working with electrical stuff. Only I couldn't figure out which breaker might do the trick. I could have eventually managed the feat, if only by trial and error, but I was frankly afraid to. The folks who did the electrical work on our remodel had kindly labeled all the breakers (yep, when we bought the house, the breaker box was a veritable tabula rasa), but none were marked "doorbell", and it was clear to me that, like much else that had been done to the house in the past, the layout of the electrical circuits could only charitably described as "eccentric". It was entirely possible that killing the power to the doorbell might also shut down the refrigerator, or even SAC/NORAD.

I knew though, that doorbells run on a low power circuit, stepped down by means of a transformer (which for some reason was installed in the HVAC closet). It was highly unlikely that it could injure me, though it would probably sting a bit if I shorted the circuit. So I decided I would simply have to be careful. After all, I wasn't rewiring a power station, all I would need to do was attach a couple of leads to some posts and tighten the screws. Nevertheless, I stopped by the tool room for some gloves. Don't try this at home, kids.

I picked up my screwdriver to remove the screws of the old button only to discover that the head of my cordless driver was too large. The screws holding the old button in place were tiny little guys. I went back into the house and pulled my jewelry screwdrivers out of my desk. I had never used them for jewelry repair, nor so far as I knew, had my dad (they had originally been his), but they were useful to have at times like these. With some effort (the screws were tight and screwdrivers small) I got the doorbell housing free of the wall. I then used the same screwdriver to loosen the post screws and detach the thin electrical wires from it. Halfway home, I thought.

Not so. I couldn't pull much of the old wire out of the hole in the wall, which meant it was going to be hard to attach the wires to the new bell; there wasn't much slack to play around with. The old wires were also stiff and a bit brittle, a bad combination.

That was bad enough. But the posts of the new doorbell were also small, and the screws for them did not come out very far before coming off. The wires were thin, all right, but not compared to these small screws. There wasn't much space for me to squeeze the wires in. There was also the issue of my trying to avoid getting an unpleasant shock.

Well, there was a simple trick for getting wire onto a screw post, and was to shape the end into a hook, and wrap it around the screw. So back to the tool room for some needle-nosed pliers. I made my hooks, and then spent a good ten minutes trying to get the old wires wrapped around the new screws, and then tightened down into place. It was maddening. I could get one on, but then struggle with the other. The wires were tight, as I said, so there was little slack. The screws were small, so I had to use the jewelry screwdriver, which allowed little leverage. And I was wearing gloves to avoid shocks.

At one pint, I managed to get both wires on and screws tightened. As I tried to ease the new doorbell into place, I discovered that its innards were not flush with its edges. They stuck out a bit, and the small cylinder that was doing the sticking was just a tad bigger than the hole in the wood from which my wires came from. And then the second wire fell off again.

At this point, I was beginning to get a little bit crazed. Without thinking, I grabbed my drill and stuck in the largest bit I had at hand, intending to drill out the hole so the doorbell would fit properly. I stuck the bit in, pulled the trigger, and watched as it spun slowly, then slower and slower.

The battery had gone dead. And since I had pulled the drill off the charging cord on my way out of the tool room, that meant it was really dead not just mostly dead.

It was at this point I decided I had better take a break for lunch in order to clear my head. I returned about half-an-hour later to try again.

With the benefit of food and some rest I could see that the drill option for enlarging the hole was a real bad idea. The risk of tearing up the wires I needed was simply too great. I was fortunate to my drill battery go dead when it did. The call to an electrician to fix my mess would have been more than a little embarrassing.

Not that I was out of the woods yet. I did need to enlarge the hole. So, back to the tool room, where I was able to find some woodworking gear I had picked up when Jacob was doing a science project on atlatls. With these carving gadgets, the names of which I don't even know, I was able to dig out enough wood without slicing the bloody wires.

Ah yes, those wires, the bane of my project so far. I needed another solution here as well. And with some time to think, it was actually pretty obvious. If the problem was not enough wire that was just a bit too stiff and thick, I should splice on some more, not so thick or stiff.

It took me a while to locate some wire suitable for splicing. I ended using some bits that were left over from a failed attempt to set up a pair of wireless speakers. Of course, even so basic an operation as this had its complications. For some reason, I was using my dad's old hunting knife. I was able to strip the protective covering off the wire okay. But when I went to cut off a small piece of electrical tape, the blade tip scraped across the underside of the middle joint of my left middle finger.

I stopped and looked at my finger. At first, I thought it had just been a literal scrape; the blade had hurt but not actually cut the skin. But when I pressed on it, a thin line appeared, outlined in blood. I sighed. It wasn't bad, but it was irritating. So cleaned off the wound and stuck a bandaid on it.

I finished the splicing job, being a bit more careful with the knife. And the thinner, more flexible wires were the answer I had been looking for. They wrapped nicely around the small post screws, and tightened down firmly. I eased them back into the hole, and held the doorbell up to its spot. I pressed the button and heard the chines ring inside the house.

One handed, holding the doorbell in place, I reached over and grabbed my cordless screwdriver, pulled a screw out of my mouth (where I had placed it just before finishing up the splice), and managed to get it started and in on the first attempt. I then inserted the second screw, tried the bell again, and I was done.

My fifteen minute project had ballooned to almost an hour and a half. But it worked! I had "adapted and overcame" as Clint Eastwood said in Heartbreak Ridge.

And, may I say, the new doorbell looks pretty darn spiffy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Requiem for a Geek?

For years now, I have gradually gotten more and more adept at taking care of the physical parts of my computers. I had a computer in high school, and I got another while in grad school. It was, of course, a gradual thing. I learned about adding memory, then swapping out video cards. Then I graduated to installing CD-ROM drives, then hard drives.

For a long time I wasn't quite ready to put everything together myself, but when the time came to change out everything instead of a part or two, I would spend weeks going over part reviews and pricing, trying to get the most bang for my buck and be placed so I could upgrade easily (for you non-hardware geeks, hardware upgradeability is the single trickiest part of building a PC). Then I would order from the outfit that could provide most of the gear I wanted, and I'd put the finishing touches on myself. I stayed at that level for a while, but a year or two ago I bought the parts and put together my current machine myself. It took a lot of fussing but in the end I was pretty proud of myself for pulling it off. I was sure I had a machine that I could just slot parts into as needed for years to come. Hah.

What got me was this: I was playing the recent RPG release Oblivion (not a bad game, BTW. It was technically very proficient, but ultimately a bit of a let-down) and decided I really needed to get a better videocard. I don’t mind running newer games with some of the visual bells and whistles turned down, but this time it was really bad.

So I start checking on newer mid-range cards only to discover Something Awful.

Pretty much none of the better mid-ranges would fit in my machine. In the two years since I built my current box, a new interface had arrived and pretty much taken over in the video world, an interface that as far as I can tell had not even been on the radar when I made my choices. Sure, I had read about the new interface as it came out, but what I was unaware of was the degree to which it had pushed the old one out. And yeah, I know two years can be an eternity in the computer world, but trust me when I tell you that interface changes don’t usually go that fast.

I eventually managed to find a video card that would serve, but it was still quite a shock to me, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was something similar to what my Dad felt as car engine technology advanced and got all fuel-injected and computery in the 80's. Dad had been a mechanic in the Army, as a teenager he used to soup up his cars to the limit, and he remained a fair shade-tree mechanic for a long time. But I noted as the 70's petered out and the 80's wore on he spent less time doing repair work himself, eventually stopping altogether.

I don't think I've quite reached that pass. And maybe this is more just one of those things, like buying a Betamax VCR, or a laserdisc player. You know, just a bad move. Still, it was startling, and not in a fun way.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lets Have A Round of Applause...

This is something I meant to write quite some time ago. Long time readers will know that we suffered long in searching for a new place to live, and then, having found it, spent another long while waiting for it to be fixed up the way we wanted it. Despite the struggles and frustrations that are part and parcel of those types of endeavors, I have to say that we were really very lucky, and that by and large things went about as smoothly as one could expect.

That sort of thing does not happen unless you have good people to help you out. And I have to say that we were blessed in our choices from beginning to end. This post is to name the names of the people that helped us out, and the recommend them to others who might be in a place to use them. Mostly then, this is a post that will apply to folks in the Austin, Texas area. But not entirely. You shall see.

I suppose one should start at the beginning. With the internet, you generally no longer really need a realtor to search the MLS listings for you. But a good one can give you information that no MLS will have on it, and can point out things about a prospective house you would never notice -- both good and bad. They can help you through the legal part of the process, plus do legwork on things like pricing that you could do yourself -- if you had hours and hours to spend looking at other houses in the area like yours. Save yourself some time and let a pro handle it. Better yet, let Barbara Hilliard handle it. She's also very patient, a good thing when on extended searches that go into double-overtime, like ours did…

Having bought the house with Barbara's help, we were then faced with the task of remodeling it. Replacing carpet with tile, repainting all the rooms, converting the garage, that sort of thing. In stepped Trish's sister Leslie Hamilton (not to be confused with Terminator star Linda Hamilton's twin sister). She flew in from Los Angeles, and we schlepped all over Austin looking at paint, tile, and other knicknacks. And she was a huge help. As goofy as it can sound sometimes, there really are a couple of million different colors of white paint, and the wrong one will look awful. She helped us get the right one, plus the floor tile, and for good measure painted our hall bathroom with a cool underwater scene.

Another thing she did was help us pick out a contractor. It's possible that we could have pieced the jobs out ourselves, but with all the back and forth going on, it seemed to make sense to have someone else who did this for a living handle the scheduling. We had talked with 3-4 different possibilities, and she pointed out one of them had some serious issues with the bid, and things to look for in the others.

We chose Bobby Zirkel of Shelter Design and Construction, a certified Green Builder. Bobby was not the cheapest, but his subcontractors were solid and he worked with us to get what we wanted within a reasonable cost and time frame. Here and there he also steered us away from boondoggles and towards things we might not have considered on our own.

The major subcontractors were Jan's Solar Heating and Electric, Forte (pronounced fortee) Rodriguez (tile), and Marvin Allen (paint and drywall). Jon Shannon of Concrete by Design did some concrete staining for us, and Mike Dunn sealed and stained our grout lines.

Ryan Gossen, a certified arborist, trims our trees and has provided much useful advice on taking care of them. Colleen Dieter of Red Wheelbarrow also gave us landscaping advice and improved the soil of a really dead area. Steve Nelson of Nelson Engineering provided a lot of useful information about foundations and foundation repair relevant to Central Texas. The folks at All Year Heating and Cooling provided suggestions on improving energy efficiency and installed our spiffy little one room AC unit for the study. Jaye Starke of Austin Mason Man took apart my grandad's old petrified wood fireplace hearth and jigsaw puzzled it back together again in our dining room, where it looks smashing.

Yep, all in all, we had some spectacular good fortune in the folks who made our house what it is now. I linked to those I know have web pages. For the others, if you can't find them in the phone book, drop me an email and I'll send you their contact information.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bicycle Agonistes

Last week, you read about why Jacob got a new bike. This week may be about why I got a different new bike. In returning from school Monday, I noticed that one of the pedals felt funny. After a short distance, it felt really funny, and I stopped to look at it. It was loose. Actually, it wasn't the pedal that was loose, but rather the little arm that the pedal is connected to. That arm (I believe bike people call it a crank) was itself coming loose from the drivetrain. I tried to tighten it up, but fingers are not really adequate to that kind of job. Still, it was just loose, I tried pulling on it and it didn't come off, so I figured I could make it home.

I got about 100 yards before it fell off.

I managed to gather everything up and tried to put it back on enough to get home. It fell off again (50 yards later), and this time the flange bolt that is supposed to hold the thing on managed to go missing. So I pushed it on home, muttering dark (and deeply unfair) imprecations about Trish, who had the idea about bike riding to school in the first place. Fortunately, I had passed through that phase before getting back.

I went to Lowes in search of the proper flange bolt. I found one that seemed right, but the fit was a bit funny. I was afraid to force the thing, and it was also looking like a special tool might be needed to do the job properly. So my attempt at self-repair was stymied.

The bike is maybe 2-3 weeks from the store. So I could return it. But we got it at a Toys R Us (spare me, oh bike experts. We didn't know if this idea was going to pan out the way it did), and the nearest one is a ways off. It was worth it to me to try a nearby bike repair place, if it would save time. But I wanted to avoid the place I went to a couple of weeks ago, mostly out of embarrassment. Would they recognize me as the guy who chose not to repair his son's bike, but never showed up to buy a replacement bike there? So I tried another place, only a block or two away (living on a street that is a major bike thoroughfare has some advantages). The guy took one look and said in a friendly, indeed, almost apologetic way, that he couldn't help me with that bike. The guys down the street might, though.

What he really meant was that the bike I brought in was way too cheap and crappy for him to mess with. He didn't bother to carry the parts for something like it. I don't think he was being superior or stuck up about it at all. More likely he felt sorry for me.

So I wound up at the place I had wanted to avoid. I wasn't so embarrassed I was willing to drive all over Austin. Besides, I liked the guys at the shop. They had been helpful and had not charged arms and legs for another minor job months earlier, and nothing at all for the recent aborted repair on Jake's old bike.

Turns out they couldn't help either. It was more than a matter of replacing the missing bolt. The socket on the crank the bolt threaded through had been scrunched out of shape by my pedaling it while loose. This is, no doubt, something a real bike person would know. Something akin to "don't run with scissors" or "never shave in the shark tank". I can now add "never pedal on a loose crank" to my list of wise sayings. You see, because of the scrunching, any new bolt would simply work itself loose again. The crank had to be replaced. And the shop didn't carry cranks of my length with a square socket, which is what my bike had. Nor did two other places the guy called. And with that, I was out of time to deal with the bike that day.

The next morning, once the traffic cleared, I headed up I35 to the Toys R Us, where I returned said bike. Then I drove around to various bike shops looking over their wares. I confirmed something I had suspected when shopping for Jake's bike, namely, that there are cheap bikes that most people use, the most expensive of which tops out at around $150. Then there are the better bikes from the bike shops, the cheapest of which (new) start at $250. And there are darn few of those. We paid $70 for the Toys R Us bike, so you can do the math. We could get three or more of those for what we might pay for the cheapest of the better bikes (unless we go used, which I have not yet checked into, but plan to). In short, we could completely replace the cheapo bikes three times for less than the cost of a good one. That goes against my grain. I'm not a throw it out type of person, I prefer to fix things most of the time. Of course, if the cheap one breaks a lot...

So there we are. Despite getting some advice from helpful people, we are still not fully decided on if I should just get a cheap replacement bike, or suck it up and get a more expensive bike that can be repaired by actual bike people. And which might also break less in the bargain.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Getting Schooled

School has started again 'round here, with all the changes that go with it. I have to get up earlier, but on the other hand, there's no worrying about keeping Jacob entertained all day. We're riding bikes to school, which necessitated getting a cheap adult bike and a less cheap new kid's bike. We needed an adult bike because, well, we didn't have one, and a kid's bike because his old one had a flat tire.

Well, okay, not just because of a flat. I can fix flats fer cryin' out loud (I am Tool Man, Grrrr). But there was also this odd problem with the steering wheel. It was supposed to be adjustable. But the pin that was supposed to hold the handlebars in place had an annoying habit of coming partway out and allowing the handlebars to flop around. Jacob didn't seem to mind, but this made me and Trish crazy. Me especially because I had to keep putting the pin back in place, and Tool Man or no, I couldn't make it stay.

So the flat tire on the first day of school caused me to bite the bullet and take his old bike to a nearby bike shop. Of course, it turned out that a problem that was essentially caused by a bit of metal I suspect cost a nickel (if that much) was going to run around $60 to truly set right, involving ordering a new steering wheel/handlebar assembly thing. So we got him a new bike instead, for about $30 more. He was truly getting a bit big for the old one, anyway. And now we can ride to school.

But that isn't what I am writing about, though in a way it makes for a potentially interesting metaphor. Read on…

Very near the end of the previous school year Jake was reading with Trish when he asked her if maybe he could skip a grade? Because he was bored a lot? "Oh, really?" She asked. Yeah, really.

So she told me and I was also very surprised, because while I had heard him getting a bit antsy as the summer approached, I hadn't caught anything about his being bored all the time. And we both felt that he a good and flexible teacher. Actually, he thought so too, as he said he liked her a lot, he just already knew a lot of the stuff they were doing. Rut-ro.

So we set up a meeting with his teacher and the principal. It was very helpful, and to me it seemed clear that in most cases, the decision to skip was as much as social/maturity thing as an academic one. We got the info we needed to proceed if we chose to, which involved getting some tests taken, essentially credit by exam for the third grade.

We talked to Jake about it next, explaining what skipping might mean in term of his friends not being in his classes, and he definitely lost some enthusiasm for it, but it was decided that he should take the CBE tests anyway, for informational purposes. I pursued that while Trish began talking to various people who had skipped, or whose kids had skipped, including several members of her family (her dad skipped TWO grades).

In the end, it was the interview process that Trish conducted that did us the most good. That was because Jacob aced the first three tests. Only the social studies one had a low score -- 59 out of 100. The tester suggested we re-test that one, given the other scores. Well, we did, and he aced that one as well. While Trish had her doubts about the ability of an hour-long test to gauge someone's knowledge of a year of course material, it was clear that Jake was well ahead of the game.

I confess, I found the whole thing pretty unsettling and was hesitant. I didn't know anyone who had skipped up a grade. In my town, you either went up one or were held back. None of this skipping business. Possibly I could have skipped a grade (Trish too, for that matter), but I lacked something Jake had; namely, two parents with graduate degrees. That and the History and National Geographic Channels on cable. Anyway, this was out of my experience. So it was very helpful that Trish had found these other people and gotten their stories. The upshot of their contributions was that some skips went great. Some were a bit of a struggle. Not skipping was both great and the occasional struggle. But everything turned out okay in the end. People still got in to Harvard Medical School. No axe murderers turned up. Which was a big relief, since it seemed to mean that even if we made the wrong choice, we weren't going to be Screwing Up Our Child's Life. Forever (dunt dunt DUH!).

So, with test scores in hand and double-checking with Jacob, we called the principle and told her we wanted him to skip. And so it was done. And so far, so good.

Last night, Jacob was complaining a bit with some math stuff he was trying to deal with. If he had gone to third grade he said, he would already know it, and not have to spend "fun time" trying to catch up. True, Trish replied, but then you would be spending months on this. He considered that for a second, and said that this way was better. So I think we'll be all right.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

In a Gadda Da Vida...

I 'm sorry, it been a long time since my last post, even considering the summer factor. I've been lazy about it, as well, I confess. I'll try and do better. As a partial recompense, this is a looong entry.

Now for my perspective of Trish's post on gardening.

I first conceived this post while recovering from injuries I received gardening. Frankly, I had not considered it possible to become injured while gardening without a power tool being involved somehow, but I managed it. This was, I think, the first yard-work injury I have ever had that required more than a band-aid and methiolate to deal with. And this was despite the fact that for most of my life, yard work pretty much instantly implied power tools.

When I was a kid, yard care consisted of mowing the grass when it got too long, with occasional edging. Even that wasn't too bad once Dad broke down and ditched the impossible-to-start-self-propelled mower with a riding mower (with electric start. Woo-Hoo!). At what seemed to me to be random intervals, mom would send me out to clear weeds from the flower beds, of which we had two. Sometimes Dad would fertilize the grass, and sometimes we watered it. I don’t know who did the watering, Mom maybe. Dad was gone during the day, and I never recall having to set up hoses and stuff myself.

While I was single I lived in apartments, so I didn't even do that much. Of course, when Trish and I got married, we bought a house, which had a lawn. I picked up where I had left off as a kid, mowing it when the grass got too high. I added watering to my chores, and even fertilized it once. At what struck me as random intervals, Trish would run out and plant some flowers. I didn't think about that too much, as I was too busy trying to figure out the right kind of water sprinkler to cover the most yard with the least fuss (not to mention where it should be placed), as well as how long to let it run so the grass wouldn't die.

I was only partially successful with the watering gig, but the lawn survived, despite being huge and oddly shaped (we were on a cul-de-sac, so the yard was shaped like a pie wedge on a hill). When we later moved to Texas, our yard became rectangle shaped. This was theoretically simpler, but I had spent the previous two years working on that pie wedge, so it took me a while to adjust.

Trish had a couple of flower beds put in, and again, at what seemed to me to be random intervals, would go out and plant things in them. Oh, and I had to periodically chop back some shrubs. Thus our lives continued much as before, except for the vegetable garden she eventually set up. The garden was a new twist, and threw me for a while. Finally, after killing several sets of herbs and vegetables, I gave up and took to watering it every day, just to be safe.

So then we moved here. It took quite some time to think about anything out of doors, but eventually, Trish did. Oh sure, while we were having the place worked on she had talked about planting some stuff here and there but to be honest with you I didn't pay it much heed. I was too busy worrying about water faucets and what-not. Perhaps I should have.

After some time passed and we had more or less managed to settle in, she got to work in earnest. Gardening books began to appear on shelves, and magazines popped up on the table. Diagrams with the outline of the house and shape of the lot proliferated, with notes and squiggles denoting potential locations of various flora. To be honest, it was a lot like the way I get when I decide I need to really upgrade my computer. Of course, eventually I either buy the computer with the stuff I've picked out or buy the stuff and spend a day or two getting it all in place, at which point I'm done, aside from firing up the latest, hottest game and playing it.

Oh sure, along the way we spread compost all over the front yard, and I built a raised bed for a vegetable garden. Between those things and managing to install a brick walkway from the driveway to the backyard gate I was feeling mighty pleased with myself. But Trish had just gotten started. And in all honesty things get kinda blurry at this point, because the transition from her sort of noodling around and putting in a tree here and there to her returning from various nurseries with the entire back of her car (I'm not kidding. The entire back of her car. With the seat down. And she drives a small station wagon) full of plants day after day is lost to me.

I had to dig the bigger holes, and the holes in the tougher parts of the soil (which is mostly this gooey clay stuff, except when its rock hard clay stuff). I put in edging and border fencing (okay, that was my idea), dug more holes, built and put in an arbor (this involved renting an auger for the 3' deep holes), dug more holes, weeded, dug more holes, put in a misting watering system for the new vegetable garden, dug more holes…

And to think my folks paid for 6 years of college so I could avoid heavy manual labor. Oy.

Have I mentioned we made a special trip down our old ranch so she could pick up some ancient implements to set plants on and around? And an old iron bedstead? Or the coal-burning stove our neighbor let us have as long we we would pick it up? Which weighed more than an old Volkswagen? Then there were these "hypertufa" planters we made out of concrete and peat moss and stuff…Okay, actually, they looked pretty cool. But still!

Oh yeah, those injuries I spoke of. They were a wrenched foot and bruised tailbone. I got them -- wait for it--digging a hole. I was working on a slope near the curb, and when I shoved down on the shovel with my weight to force it into the tough soil, the shovel blade hit a rock or something and jammed. My foot slipped off and I lost my balance, but not before giving my body a good push up and back, towards the asphalt. Yeah, it hurt a lot. My butt was sore for two or three days…

Well. With all that, I have to say, it does look nice. We get a lot of compliments from people walking by. It does help when I'm nursing my latest contusion to hear someone say "I just love what you've done to this yard!"

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

No Noggin, No Bloggin; Or, Why Jammer has not been blogging

I apologize for the lack of posts. I've basically had bloggers block. I've been staring at this piece about yard work for weeks now.

Luckily my lovely and talented wife has graciously stepped in with a piece of her own not unrelated to the one I was working on. So without further ado, take it away Trish:


In case you're wondering why the blog has been quiet, this is why.

At our previous house, we didn't do much with the garden. We put in a few raised beds to try to deal with problem areas--the line along the fence where the dogs ran barking at the neighbor dog (a continual source of muddy paws--a non-trivial issue when your dog poundage equals around 250 pounds); an area along the sidewalk right on top of limestone, so the grass was essentially being pan-fried; an area that would not grow grass under any circumstances. Gardening was basically unattractive for several reasons. Our neighbors all had two-story houses, so you're talking private as a fish bowl. There was no shade (although by the time we left the trees we had planted were beginning to help), so it was as pleasant to sit in the yard as the hot box in Coolhand Luke. I generally left the house at seven in the morning and got home around six at night, and night gardening is not really my long suit, whereas Jim was putting hundreds of miles on his car running errands (traffic flow is so badly designed in Cedar Park that even a short trip involved fighting major congestion). And, most important, we were always sort of camping in that house--it was not really explicit, but somehow we both knew this was not where we were going to stay. (So, for instance, we carefully placed trees so that the next owner could still put in a pool--when your planning is based on the next owner, you know you aren't thinking in the long-term.)

Then we moved to this house.

It's a classic sixties ranch-style house, although one of the nicest of that breed (dang close to Prairie Style, if you ask me). There is a magnificent, awesome, extraordinary, red oak in the front yard, but otherwise no real landscaping to speak of. The classic sixties Texas landscaping--St. Augustine grass, hedges against the house--had been only mildly modified by some previous owner, who tore out a bunch of hedges (yay!) and planted or allowed to grow various invasive exotics, including Chinese Tallow, Red-tipped Photinia, Ligustrum, and Nandina. I'm not criticizing them, as people still recommend many of those plants, including people who sell books with words like "Natural" and "Organic" in the title. (I am, however, criticizing the people who write those books.)

If you live in Texas, and someone recommends that you plant Nandina, cover your ears and sing Yellow Rose of Texas as loud as you can until they go away. Cast that person into outer darkness, perform a personal exorcism, and wash out your ears. (This is one of many reasons I think Howard Garrett's book is vastly over-rated--anyone who recommends Nandina to a Texan is a spawn of the devil.) It is not just that it sends up runners all over the place--that would be bad enough--but that birds eat the berries and then plant Nandina all over parks and preserves. And, it's a royal pain to try to get out of your yard. Okay, you think I'm exaggerating. Well, it took Jim (with some help from me) about an hour to pull out one Nandina plant about two feet big, which required, iirc, a pick, a shovel, and a saw. We had an entire fence lined with Nandina--something like thirty or forty feet. We paid people to pull that out.

I'll spare the long description of the next three months, but the short version is like this: the coffee table begins to fill up with gardening books, pamphlets, and magazines; I keep showing Jim pictures and asking, "What about this?" "Do you like that?" till he starts to get that hunted look; I arrive home with a car full of plants at least once a week; I start talking about selling blood in order to get more money for plants (I even used my book budget for plant-buying); I place them around the yard and Jim plants them; Jim digs up a fair number and puts them in the next spot I think will work better (not entirely my fault--the magnificent tree fills out and turns full sun spots into full shade); he builds me a raised veggie bed; he builds me an arbor (I painted it--badly); he assembles an arbor; he builds three more veggie beds; he puts out something like sixty bags of mulch; he spends hours digging grass out of an area that, when it was grass, wouldn't grow anything but dirt but, now that it is supposed to be flowers, is growing grass like a mofo.

This business of digging out grass and digging holes is no trivial exercise. The soil (I use that word loosely) around here is called "clayey," but that really isn't strong enough. It is not quite as hard as concrete, well, not really well-pored concrete anyway. I couldn't get anywhere with a shovel, so I have to use a pick to dig anything. After I took out a sprinkler head, my shin, and my elbow, I resigned as chief digger. Jim's tenure as digger has not been without incident--when he threw his strength into a particularly hard bit of dirt, the dirt threw back, and Jim lost. Once he picked himself up from the road, and assessed that he had not actually broken anything, he declared himself done for the day (Ibuprofen, a heating pad, and a Margarita helped the healing).

Jim never wanted to be a rancher, as he says he doesn’t like hard physical labor in the heat. But this isn't work, I tell him--it's a hobby!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Those old Houses

This has nothing to do with SAHD's so, if you are looking for that, move on.

We have, at long last, sold our old house. This was a long process, much longer than I had thought it would be at the time. A year ago, I was obsessively scanning the MLS listings literally morning and night, just in case something had been added in the time since I'd last looked. I fiddled with zip codes and price ranges, tweaked this and that, drove around neighborhoods looking for "For Sale by Owner" signs, and obsessed like mad over a house I never even had a chance to look at because it sold in like three days. We agonized over a couple of places that were almost right, and even made an offer on one (just this once I think it would be okay to breathe a prayer of thanks for crazy out of state siblings that don't belong to you). It would be early July before we found a truly suitable place, the end of July before it was ours. Long-time readers of these pages will know that the process of getting the place ready was a long one, and it was not until December we could move in. A month later began the job of getting the old house ready for sale, with new paint and carpet, clearing out the trash and detritus of the move, all that crap. A month later that was finally all done and we could go on the market. A month and a half later, we got a good offer (not without some other nibbles along the way), and a month and a half after that was last week. The process was a bit over a year from start to end.

I tell you what, that was a load off.

And on top of that, last week we closed a sale on an old house that had belonged to my grandfather. My family used it when working at our ranch near Tilden, Texas. Trish and I hung on to it for five years after Mom died, thinking we might be able to use it ourselves. In the end, we finally realized it would be better to put a cheap little hunting cabin on the ranch itself than to keep that house (in town, about 10 miles away from the land), and we put it up for sale as well. After many fits and starts, it went last week as well. We were there this past Sunday, clearing out the last little bits of stuff we wanted or needed to get rid of.

But now we are done with all that. Done. Finished. Kaput. And we can concentrate on polishing the one house we have left.

Monday, May 08, 2006

In Which I Channel Andy Rooney

…and I wonder how many people still know who that guy is.

I use my credit card a lot. Much more often than five years ago, and an insanely lot more than ten. And really, since you get the 1% (or 3%, or 4 2/3% or whatever it is) cash back and you were going to spend the money anyway, why not? Even for amounts I wouldn't have considered using a card for back when. Not quite "stick of gum" levels, but sub $10 ones, anyway.

This has caused me to notice odd quirks in how businesses deal with cards. In Ye Oldene Dayes (as late as 1992 or thereabouts) using your card would cause people to pull out this heavy mechanical thing with a lever or a runner and some special carbon paper. Then they would take your card, go klerchunk-unk, make a totally illegible copy of your numbers and you would then sign it. I forget now if you got to keep the good copy or the unreadable one. Then they got the electronic things where the clerks would enter your number and it would print a (usually) very readable receipt for you to sign. The next steps were the gadgets that read the magnetic strip on the back of the card.

There things stopped for a while, and all was good. But gradually new wrinkles have been added.

I first noticed it with gas stations, the whole "pay at the pump" thing. You just swiped your card. And you did it yourself. No clerk action required. Pretty much everyone seems to do it that way now.

Back to the gas stations. Used to be you always had to sign the reciept. No more. No matter how much you buy, you swipe and you're done. Actually, I suppose there must be some limit where they make you go into the store and show ID or something, but for your average gas purchase, that's it. More and more stores are doing this. A drugstore and a bagel place near my home don't require signatures for purchases under a certain amount. A different amount at each place, I might add. This messes me up, because I can never recall if its purchases under $20 or $25 and I never know if I need to reach for a pen or not.

All the grocery stores I trade at still require a signature, even if you're only buying that stick of gum. Some places have you do an actual signature with a pen and ink. Others use those electronic writing pad things. I'm not wild about those. They start out dutifully creating a decent copy of your signature but after only a few months devolve into reproducing a bizarre squiggle that might be a two-year-old's attempt to draw a cat or a reproduction of one of Picasso's doodles as rendered by an epileptic forger. I've pretty much ceased to care what shows up on the screen and just hit "okay" as long as something is there.

Probably the weirdest store policy for credit cards is the one used by Lowes, the giant hardware retailer. You swipe your own card, but then you have to tell the checker the last four digits on it. This makes no sense to me whatsoever. It can't be to stop fraud, you're standing there holding the credit card. Who couldn't just look down and read the four digits? How many people have those numbers memorized anyway? People who shop at Lowes a lot? It’s an utterly pointless extra step, and I'm certain the checkers hate it. Some day I need to ask if they have ever been told the rationale for this.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Ballad of The Shower Handles

For a while, I toyed with the idea of setting the following tale to song, or maybe even iambic pentameter (verily, forsooth, etc.). Back in the early 90's, I gained quite a reputation as a wit by doing that sort of thing (among others) which my boss would post on his office door. Eventually, I was expected to crank stuff out at birthdays, going-away parties and the like. I was the poet laureate of the department. Ah, those were the days…

But I digress. Get yourself a drink, this is a long one.

Late last week I finally put the period to a saga that had been running, off and on, for months. Four months, in fact (or nine, if you want to count the VERY beginning. More, much more anon). I was at last able to make my shower handles stop when shutting the water off. You might think this was a fairly basic thing, here in the 21st century, a problem easily diagnosed and simple to rectify. You would be wrong.

Back when we were determining the things we wanted to change in this, our new-current home, one thing I decided I wanted was water faucets that used levers to control the flow of water instead of knobs. You see, just before we closed on the house, we went to LA on vacation, and while there we spent several days at Disneyland. The bathrooms at the Disneyland Grand Californian Hotel were equipped with levers, and I fell in love with them instantly. I realized I was really tired of knobs that you had to grab and twist to use, often when your hands were slippery with soap or raw chicken or mud or whatever. And then you had to grab them again to turn them off, getting whatever you had just washed off back onto your hand. I'm no germaphobe, but this still struck as not a good thing, especially the raw meat part.

So when we returned I spent a lot of time in Lowes, Home Depot, and plumbing supply stores until I found the right levered faucets for the shower, tub, lavatories, and kitchen sink. And eventually, just before we moved in, they were all installed. It was only while we were moving in that I stumbled across an odd problem with the controls to the shower.

It is easy to show but harder to describe. I shall persevere as best I can. Okay. The handle starts in the "off" position. You then move it away from off, water proceeds to flow. The farther you get from off, the faster the water comes, until the handle comes to a stop. You cannot turn it any farther and the water can't come any faster. Only my shower didn't do that.

I turned the knob, the water flowed, only there was no stopping point. It just kept on going around until it came back to where it started, and the water ceased. It moved through a full 360 degrees. I spun it round several times, watching the water ebb and flow like a bad cosine function until I found "off" and hollered for my contractor.

He "hummed" and went for the plumber. The plumber sort of hummed but said that was the way those controls were. I asked him to check further, to see what might be done, but I later decided he didn't really care. The controls were in, he was done, and he was not terribly interested in mysteries. Despite several attempts on our part, he never really did anything, and we had more pressing issues. The controls did work, after all, and despite lacking a stopping point it was not hard to find the "off" spot.

But it continued to bug me. It was possible to leave the thing dripping until the lever was moved another half-inch into the "off zone". I also didn't want Jacob to scald the heck out of himself by accidentally spinning the lever all the way through "off" and back into "full blast". And I got tired of having to place the levers just so.

Eventually, I had reason to call out another plumber, and I had him look at the shower while here. He said that without knowing the model and type of valve he couldn't do much. But he did say that changing the handle might be sufficient. This was possibly good news, since when we got the handles we had also gotten new valves (the anti-scald kind, which makes the yelping noises you used to hear while flushing a toilet during someone's shower a thing of the past), and it meant that I might be able to handle this myself.

Some weeks later I dug around and found the receipts for the valves and handles. I went to the plumbing supply shop where we'd gotten them and told the woman at the desk the troubles I was having with my PP03-61XA's and my PP07-81BC's. But she was only a salesperson type and said I should talk to this one guy who apparently was the only person there who knew anything about actual plumbing. But said guy was busy at the moment. I hung around for a bit, but he didn’t get unbusy, so I went to lunch. When I returned, he was at lunch. I ground my teeth and left my phone number with an explanation of the problem.

Later, a message was left on the answering machine from the plumbing supply place suggesting I call the faucet maker's 800 support number. I confess I found the idea of a faucet company having an 800 support line pretty funny ("Your faucet is stuck? Have you tried re-booting it?"). Anyway, a few days later I called them. I got a very nice fellow who sounded like he was from India but for all I know was in Topeka, KS. I explained the issue with the PP03-61XA's and the PP07-81BC's and he said he would send out a new set of PP03-61XA's to take care of it. No muss no fuss, no charge. They didn't even try anything to confirm that I'd actually bought the things before. It struck me that unscrupulous plumbers could garner quite a few free supplies this way before they caught on. Still, it had been much easier than I had thought, so I was pleased enough.

About 10 days later, the package arrived. In it were two six-inch long brass valves (PP03-61XA's), wrapped in heavy protective plastic. I confess I despaired a bit when I saw them. Was I going to have to summon another plumber? A handle I could…err…handle. The valves worried me. I might be a Tool Man, but some areas I left to the pros, and plumbing was generally one of them. The hard plastic covering was a bit confusing too. Was that stuff supposed to remain on? I finally decided it was not.

I set aside some time, and a another few days later took the stuff into the shower, where I removed the handles (PP07-81BC) and stared hard at the exposed bit of valve (PP03-61XA). A small flange was exposed at the end, perhaps three-quarters of an inch long. It rather looked to me like the end points of the flange coincided strongly with an "off" position and a "fully open" position. I took another look at the valves I had been sent. Fitted neatly over the end of each was a small piece of white plastic, rectangular in shape and maybe a half-inch long. Also at the end of each valve was a flange identical to the one already installed.

I removed the bit of plastic from the valve I had been sent, and placed it onto the valve there in the shower. It went on smoothly enough once I found there was only one way it could go on. I reattached the handle, and turned it part way. The water came on. I turned it the other way. The water stopped -- and so did the lever. I turned the handle as far as it could go, noting that now there was a point that was as far as it could go. The water came out full blast. I turned the handle back again. The water stopped again. So did the handle.

I repeated the process for the other handle, and tested it. It worked like a charm.

So, there it finally ended. Nine months from inspiration to planning to implementation to correction, who knows how much time actually spent in the project, and it all came down to a half-inch bit of plastic that might have cost a nickel. There's a moral in there, somewhere.

I decided to keep the rest of the valve. Who knows? I might need it someday.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

This Old Wrench

It can be very hard sometimes, as a SAHD, to feel masculine. And no matter how role models eventually come to adjust themselves, I feel that most men are never going to feel all that comfortable squinting at the "feminine hygiene products" trying to recall if their wives wanted maxis, minis, wings, wing-tips, or "turbo".

Nevertheless, one unexpected benefit of this sort of thing is a surprisingly enhanced ability to get to play with tools, the most masculine activity there is short of killing a wild animal and roasting it over a fire.

I certainly can't speak for every guy, but for the first several years after college about all I did with tools was hammer in a nail for hanging my pictures. I also unscrewed the case of my computer now and then. Woo.

But to be honest, as a single guy living in an apartment, I didn't have much need of tools. To really need tools, you have to live in a house (or be the sort who reassembles your radiator for fun on the weekend, which I'm not). Houses give you lots of opportunities to use tools. That is, if you try to take advantage of them. For the first few years of married in a house life, I didn't truly take advantage of the chance to work with tools.

Partially this was a function of time. We were very quickly new parents in addition to everything else, and projects of greater scope than assembling a crib were just not high on our lists.

But I realize now that a huge part of it was just not having the right tools. Any home improvement task will suck if you are trying to use a pair of needle-nose pliers to insert a wood screw (no, I never actually did that. I used a speed-wrench). Gradually, I came to realize this problem. The first step was a useful but not quite Nirvana inducing set of boxed-end wrenches and what my Dad always referred to as a "socket set" (i.e., a Snap-On tools style ratchet set).

Then, a couple of years ago I finally requested a cordless drill and screwdriver for Christmas. Wow, was that a big change. For ages I have been hand-forcing screws into the walls. I wasn't even pre-drilling the holes with the heavy drill I did have. But now I could just zing! zing! screws into wall studs all I wanted. I wouldn't have survived this last move without those cordless guys, and I really do wonder why I waited so long to get them.

I have since used my heavy drill's special masonry setting to bore holes into the bricks of our house so I could make a gate work better. Later I also used it to attach hose reels. I rescued a set of punches and chisels from my Dad's old workbench five years ago, and they say gathering dust until last month, when I used them to break paving stones in half to fill in gaps of a short walk I laid. I've put up shelves in Jacob's room, Trish's closet, and the hall closet. I've added a valve to my shower and fitted it with a detachable showerhead. I replaced a bad tire on the wheelbarrow, sharpened a lawn mower blade…

Okay, once in a while being more self-reliant is a waste of time. A couple of years ago, the lawn mower started acting up. It would run for a while and then die. If you waited a few minutes, it would restart, only to die again. I replaced the spark plug and air filter. No help. Then I took the carburetor out, took it apart and cleaned it. Still nothing. I gave up and took it to a small engine repair place. Turned out the gas cap had gone bad, and the thing was getting a vaccum lock after a while. So I wasted some time on that one, but if it had been something else, I could have fixed it myself. I am tool-man, hear me roar!

Trish talked me into getting an electric hedge clipper. I used it the other day, and it cuts through half-inch branches like butter. Yeah, baby!

I got a worktable for my birthday, and hope to eventually mount a vise with an anvil surface on it. I confess, I haven’t really had a need for a heavy vise yet, but it will be good to have one all the same. You never know.

And all this is without going on about how my tools helped rescue a little girl whose foot got caught in a bicycle wheel.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I Am SoccerDad

So, I am a Soccer Dad. Jake decided he wanted in on soccer this year, so we asked around and joined one of the local leagues. So far its been good. One practice and one game a week, and everyone seems pretty laid back. Oh, we want our kids to win of course, but no-one seems to be slipping steroids into the apple juice, and I have yet to see a gun pulled on a ref who made a bad call [ed. note, I wrote this before the most recent game. Still mostly true, but see below]. I will confess to occasionally being a tad overzealous in my encouragement.

Our team strikes me as decent, with a record 1-1-2, though the order of one win, one tie, and two losses strikes me as a bad trend.

Except for Jacob, this particular team is all girls. He doesn't seem to be too put out by this, which is what you might expect from an eight-year old. Trish noted this sort of thing is wasted on him now. In a few more years he'd kill to be the only boy on that soccer team.

With four games and about as many practices under his belt, I have to say that I think he's one of the two best players on the team. I know I'm a proud parent and all, but this is an easy call. After Jake and his partner in talent (actually, the gal might be better than he is -- I know she was better when the season started) you have an interesting trail downwards that would fit into almost any sports movie (the one with talent but not a lot of interest, the one who tries hard but isn't real good, the stolid plodders, etc.).

The biggest problem the team faces is a lack of aggression or assertiveness on the field. They do a bit too much of watching to see what will happen, as opposed to making something happen. Or at least that's what I think. We are trying to provide Jake with a few tips with that in mind, like always run fast etc, but I am doing my best not to try and say a word to the other players or to the coach. It ain't my place, and odds are she already knows. There are other suggestions I might be minded to make, but I'm not sure they would truly help or not.

On the other hand, they are starting to struggle against the 6 year olds practicing on the field next to them. I know the kids would like to win. I suppose I could start standing near our coach and make "innocent" observations like "You know, that pseudo-goalie thing seems to really help the other team" or "Y'know, when the other team gets the ball they always initially kick it hard and that keeps the ball down on our side all the time."

Or maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and let the team handle it. I dunno. I want to help, and I presume the kids want to win in order to have more fun playing, but I also don't want to get my ego involved. Take our last game. We had an unpleasant incident in which a boy from the opposing team threw the ball too hard after an out-of-bounds and painfully jammed one of our player's fingers. I didn't see it happen, so I don't know if the kid was overexcited or being mean or just frustrated, but they both took to crying, and both were out of the game. Then, we had a granddad of the hurt girl hassling the other kid's coach over the incident (the game did have a high incidence of hand-checking and stuff before this -- soccer is a rougher sport than most people think), well within earshot of the offending kid. The coach responded very defensively and not well at all. The boy's parents eventually took him over to the girl and he apologized, which I think was totally appropriate and good for both of the kids.

Anyway, the point is, I want the kids to do well, but I don't want to be either of those guys.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Gross Dog Tales

The following post should not be read by people with particularly weak stomachs, right before a meal, right after a heavy meal, expectant or nursing mothers, or those with immune disorders.

So I'm starting to think our middle dog, George, (75lbs) is a bit accident-prone. We hadn't had him six months when, on his first trip to the ranch, he cut a neat hole in his hind leg on a barber-wire fence. Last year, you may recall, he managed to get a bump on his face (possibly from a scorpion sting) and was forced to wear a cone. This also resulted in my having to get a new keyboard.

Late one afternoon about two weeks ago now, Jacob was on his trampoline and Trish and I were inside the study when we heard a God-awful series of doggie yelps. We rushed outside to find George dashing about with a BIG gash in his side. Skin, muscle, fat layers…no bones showing, fortunately. Eight inches long, I'd guess. Straight to the vet we went, where he got stitched up and had to stay overnight.

First day or two back went okay, but then he nibbled a stick or three loose and I had to take him back. Well, it was okay aside from the fact he had a big tube stuck in him to help drain the gunk out of the wound. Gunk which was dripping out on the floor, and the dog beds, and what-not. Most of the floors are tile, so, no big deal. It wasn't all that much, anyway.

So I took him back for the new stitches. While there, they removed the drain tube. So of course, he swelled up around his wound. Lotsa fluid. A few days later I took him back, fearing an abcess and an infection. While I held him, the vet made a small incision and drained a big pile of bloody gunk out. But the good news was that it was clean gunk. No infections. A few days later, though, we had to do it again.

This next paragraph is going to be particularly gross.

The doc seemed pleasantly surprised that I could stand there while this was going on. As I explained to him, I spent a lot of time on a ranch. While I didn't go into detail with him, what that meant was the following: Dad used to notch the ears of cattle we vaccinated with his pocketknife. I used to wield the syringe with the vaccine. We gutted birds with our bare hands, and I got to see deer guts, smashed snakes, etc. up close and personal. This latter stood me in good stead when Trish had to have a c-section and I looked over the curtain after the birth and saw the docs almost literally pouring her guts back into place. So dealing with a dog who had bloody serum squirting out of his side under controlled conditions was no big thing.

A few days later he lost some more stitches. I think it was an accident of some kind, and it happened on a walk. Yes, I took the dogs on a walk despite George's stitches. They all needed the exercise or they were going to tear up something, perhaps each other. So anyway, this opened a new hole, and we got more drainage. It never really stopped draining, this hole, so after another day I took him in again. The vet looked pleased, cleaned him up, and said he was doing fine. We'd just leave the stitches out there in order to allow the draining to continue.

This draining was a lot worse than the prior stuff with the tube (I hope I can get the stains off of the stuff he has been laying on). Thursday we went back for a scheduled visit. This time, the vet removed most of the stitches on purpose, but left a few in just to be safe. Still with the cone, still with the draining hole. Tuesday (tomorrow) is another scheduled visit, probably to remove the last stitches. I'm, betting he won't, but I wish he would plug that dang hole. I can put up with some fairly gross stuff; that doesn't mean I like it.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brief Reading Comment

There are days (many of them) when Jacob's reading habits strike me as, well, totally weird. Maybe it's just because its him, as opposed to me, but one day he'll be reading Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings (yes, really), or Summerland (highly recommended) or Sherlock Holmes (yes, really), or some other book really written with the teenage audience (or older) in mind, and the next he's reading Horrible Harry, or Geronimo Stilton, or something written for, well, eight-year olds. For some reason, I expect him to keep reading the more mature stuff, instead of bouncing back and forth. I don't know why, he is only eight.

I'd swear when I was a kid my reading progression was a lot more linear (and with a lot more Richie Rich comic books).

Monday, March 27, 2006

NOW I remember Why I Quit Doing That...

Since moving I've felt I haven't got as much walking in. Two things have changed. Jake rode the bus to his previous school, and I'd wait at the stop with him and the dogs. After the bus left I would walk the beasts (they would get very excited when they saw the bus coming. They knew what was next). But Jake's "new" (we've been going there since last August) school pulls from such a tight area that it has no bus service. So I drive him in every morning. The second change is that very close by is an off-leash dog park. So, most mornings I put Jake and the dogs in the Highlander, drop him off, swing by the park, and let them run around like lunatics while I pace out the "Y" shaped pathway and try to decide what 4 things out of the 25 I have to do might get done that day.

Now, there isn't really anything stopping me from coming back to the house, leashing up the hounds and then walking down to the park, unleashing them, walk through it, re-leash, and come home. We actually did that a few times shortly after school got going again. That is a substantial morning walk. But for some reason, despite my occasional feelings of disquiet regarding the amount of aerobic exercise I've been getting, I've not felt strongly motivated to do it.

Well, if you read the Spring Break Report, you know that George tangled with a trampoline and lost. He's got a big line of stitches that should not get exposed to the icky run-off water that can usually be found in the park area. The beasties still need a chance to work off some energy, but the park is obviously out. So I've been putting on the leashes and taking them on a short circuit of the neighborhood.

Now I remember why I quit walking them down to the park. They yank. They pull. Hubert cuts in front of me or will stop dead to sniff something (and when 120 pounds of Great Dane stops or cuts you off, you notice). Usually at the same time, the other two decide to try and charge forward to sniff something, leaving me feeling distinctly like a wishbone getting pulled crosswise. And they always try and pass behind me, instead of alongside, forcing me to hop over the leashes like a demented ballet dancer in order to avoid getting clotheslined at the knee.

All this yanking around might be good for me in some awful fashion, but in order to avoid strangling the hounds and to keep my acid reflux down, I think the absurdity of driving them somewhere to go on a walk is the lesser of two evils.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Spring Break For The Family Man

Well, Spring Break was interesting this year. We really started on Friday, when some really good shit I had asked for came in.[1] We both got supremely buzzed off it multiple times, and were truly wiped when we finished[1.5].

Later, when that ran out, we dropped a few more c-notes on our other shared vice.[2]

Still, I was pretty grumpy when Trish threw me over and spent the whole week sleeping with another, younger guy[3]. What I was left with were real dogs, even if I often got to have two with me at once[4].

But to prove that its not a really good party unless someone gets in a fight, George managed to get himself pretty badly torn up (like, needing stitches tore up) close to the end of the week.[5] And naturally the big lunk wouldn't keep still like he was supposed to, and opened some of them up again, forcing us to take him back to the doc a couple of days ago.[6]

All in all, quite a time was had by all.[7]

[1] We bought 3.5 cubic yards of cow manure compost, which we spread out over the yard.
[1.5] We were stung by bees from the house next door.
[2] We went to Book People and bought a LOT of books
[3] The weather was mild, so our son Jacob and Trish slept out on the patio.
[4] I preferred the bed. The dogs came and joined me periodically.
[5] George the dog got himself caught on an exposed trampoline bolt. Ick.
[6] He nibbled on them.
[7] I'm not sure how to work in the brick pathway I started on.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Incredible Sameness of Being

Or, Where Jim Once Again Realizes Something Most Women Learnt In The Fifties. Or Earlier

I recognize the irony of this posting, coming as it does on the heels of this one, but it was what I felt.

I was doing something I had done a thousand times before. Unloading the dishwasher I think, but it could have been any one of a myriad of tasks. You know the kind. The sorts of things that have to be done, if not every day, then at least more than twice a week.

So I was doing this task, whatever it was, and I had this thought enter my head: "Gad, how many times have I had to do this? And how many more times will I do it in the future? I'm really sick of it, but tomorrow I'll do it again. And the next day, and the next day. Bleah."

It might not have been in so many words. It may or may not have had actual words at all, it might have been just a sort of feeling of incohate dread. This is your life now, pally, it seemed to say. Can you dig the drag it is?

Well. I'm sufficiently self-aware that when something like that happens, I can stop, pull the shrink-wrap off and look it over a bit more closely. My first thought was something along the lines of "Ah, so this is what those housewives were talking about back in the day." And that was true enough. But later I had more thoughts. After all, almost everyone has patterns, set tasks and so forth. In my former life as a computer programmer I followed the same pattern that got me to my desk every day. My specific task might vary, but it was all about setting up IF…THEN blocks and DO…UNTIL loops. Certainly my job had more variety than that of an assembly-line worker (how much change to they get now, anyway? Do you screw in spark plugs for thirty years, or do you rotate every week or two? Anyone?), but any programmer who has user support in their job description can tell you that every week you're virtually certain to get the same sort of help calls for the same sort of mistake. And there were days in front of the computer screen where I just shook my head and said to myself, "Cripes, this thing again?"

I recall when my summer job was unloading watermelons I would occasionally get the "unloading dream", where I would be working in my sleep. And when I woke up, I was exhausted because I felt like I had been pitching melons all night. Which I had, they were just in my head. You try moving watermelons from 10AM until 10PM (with lunch and dinner breaks) for days on end and see how easily you can get them out of your dreams!

Still later it came to me that the issue is not so much one of variety. Sure variety can help, but if your tasks go from pitching watermelons to washing dishes to shoveling manure or screwing in spark plugs, how much help are you going to be getting from that change, really? What really helps keep you from feeling oppressed is how much you enjoy what you are doing.

No job is perfect. There are always going to be aspects of your job that you could do without. In my case, I came to see that at least a part of what I enjoyed about being a SAHD was not that I got a charge out of doing the dishes (I don't) or sweeping the floor (that either), but because of the things it did allow me to do. Like write this blog. Or be in a movie. Or take acting class. And time of course. Time to do all those things and still be certain we have enough milk. And printer ink. Some things do change, I guess. I think this was stuff that many women once did in a search for a change, when what they really needed was to get to choose things they wanted.

[Side note -- When I started this post I really was trying to actively avoid anything that smacked of having an answer/solution. But then I had the following thoughts. So deal with it]

So I think we have to give ourselves permission to be sick of the dishes (or the laundry, or the vaccuuming, or whatever), and not worry about it. We don't have to like everything about this job in order to like it as a whole.

And one more thing: Maybe you don't actually enjoy this gig. That's okay too. Choose something else. Easier said than done, I know. But we have to allow ourselves freedom to make choices. Often its not someone else holding us back, but our own inhibitions. Go for it.

And if by chance you really like doing dishes, or laundry, drop me a line. I have a way to increase your happiness.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Last Roundup

Everyone's life has some odd things in that make for interesting stories. Mine does too, although unlike most people's it often gives me more than just some old stories. Like what, you say? Well, I'm glad you asked…

We own a ranch. Actually, wilderness preserve would be more accurate nowadays, but once upon a time the around 1300 acres were an actual working ranch, with cattle and everything. During the last drought, we kicked the person who held the lease off of it and continued the process of letting it go wild, aside from a few efforts to keep things from becoming completely overrun with mesquite.

Almost a year ago now, the two fellows who own the hunting lease reported seeing three cows wandering around. Trish and I even saw them for ourselves once. The dogs saw them too, and chased them off into the brush barking like mad.

After some false starts, I eventually got around to contacting the local sheriff, and had him ask around to see if anyone had some cattle missing. It turns out that at least one ranch thought they had. And then things got a little weird…

The sheriff gave me some phone numbers to contact the ranch owner (who I'll call M) in question. Only problem was that he was dead.

Yep, right around the time I finally began to try and deal with the mysterious mini-herd, the person suddenly took ill and died. I was only vaguely aware of this at the time I began trying to make my phone calls. I had three numbers from the sheriff. Two were non-working numbers, and the third never answered, no matter how long I let it ring.

Soon after, the three cows dropped out of sight. I presumed they had wandered back home via whatever hole in the fence they had wandered in through and let the matter drop.

Spring gave way to summer, and summer to fall. Hints appeared to suggest that the cattle had not left, or if they had, it had been just long enough to get a tall latte (or perhaps a moocha) and bagel before returning. So I tried the numbers again, with no luck. I called the sheriff again, and discussed matters with him. He said those were the contact numbers he had, and if after sufficient time had passed, I could simply have the cattle removed and sold, the proceeds to be divided up between my self and the owner.

I was hesitant about just doing that sort of thing, but my exasperation level was high. Finally, (and if memory serves, at Trish's suggestion) I got a mailing address from the tax office and sent a registered letter explaining that these animals were on my land and if I didn't hear from "To Whom It Might Concern" soon, I was going to have them removed and sold.

A few days later I got a phone call. It turned out to be from the widow of M. She (we'll call her S) had been very upset by my letter, appearing (it seemed) out of the blue, and she had fired a testy one back at me. But, she had thought about it, and decided to call before the letter arrived (I had included our phone number, of course) to see if things could be handled in a more amicable fashion. And since we were both agreeable folk that was accomplished.

Soon enough we had reached a modus vivendi, agreeing to split whatever proceeds there were from the sale of the cattle 50-50, and in the process I got a tale of family skullduggery and small-town snippiness that left my head spinning. As part of the whole discussion I arranged to send her a map I had made that showed who was paying taxes on different plots of land (and thereby probably owned it).

So then I had to call the sheriff again to get the name of someone who could help me round up the cattle. He gave me one, and it turned out to be a man who used to help my dad and me work cattle years ago, when Dad still ran the place himself. So that was cool, but he wanted me to come down and show him around and hopefully spot the animals in question. Lets call him J.

This happened right before we moved. I let the matter drop and concentrated on getting the heck out of Dodge, planning to pick up the thread sometime after we had gotten settled in the new place. Weeks later, with most of the boxes unpacked and something vaguely resembling normality returning to our lives, I made arrangements to head for the ranch and see the guy. By a happy coincidence, S was going to be in the area the same day.

So I got up at 5AM and drove two and a half hours to the south. I met the cowboy and we drove in. One of my hunters was there and we stopped to talk to him for a while. He had seen the cattle that very morning. I drove around with J and while we didn't see the animals we could see where they had been spending a lot of time. He said he would come back later in the week when his brother could help him. We settled on a price for the rounding up and hauling, and I split.

I managed to catch up to S in town. She thanked me for my trouble and regaled me with a tale of woe and small-town family skullduggery that left me dizzy. Thing is, I could well believe it. I was also as certain as I could be that I wanted no part of any of it.

At any rate, I eventually returned home, very tired.

A day or two later J called me up to say he had successfully retrieved the cattle and taken them to the auction barn. Great, I thought. I left a message on S's cell phone with the news and the dollar amount to send to him once we received our checks from the auction. A day or two later she called me up and said she thought J's price was too high. She had asked around. So I asked around a bit myself. I decided that it was high, but not overcharge high, and I told her so. She decided to go along with me.

Finally, I thought. It took forever, but the cattle were gone and all was settled.

Well, until today when I got a phone call from S. She hasn't received her money yet. She's convinced something underhanded is underfoot and…maybe she's right. How the heck would I know? Anyway, I found the check stub I had received and gave her the number of the auction barn plus some other information that might help.

This is the sort of thing I do in between loads of laundry.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The End of The Tunnel

Moving sucks rocks. Still, a month and a half from the beginning of this madness we have pretty much gotten ourselves settled in. The back yard no longer resembles a cardboard box graveyard. Our books may not be neatly arranged everywhere on the book shelves, but they are at least stacked near their eventual alphabetical position.

I've gotten used to new living space several times now, but this one is very different from all of the others. We had months to wander through, getting to know every nook and cranny. We spent lots of time thinking about where things should go and how best to arrange them. While Trish spent a lot of time thinking about where the furniture should go, I thought about how to arrange things in cabinets and closets. As a result, thing are far less haphazardly arranged here than they were at our prior houses. We're actually organized. It does help that the house is blessed with a surprising amount of storage space for something from the 1960's (my stereotype is that big closets and such came in the late 70's). The kitchen in particular has lots of cabinet spaces and drawers. Heck, we have two kitchen drawers and two bathroom drawers sitting completely empty at the moment and vague plans for only one of them.

We did need a storage shed to make up for the garage we turned into a study. That enabled us to clear off the covered back patio and make it pleasantly livable. I was getting pretty tired of staring at random boxes and the handle of the lawnmower while eating dinner.

There are of course, areas of chaos which remain. My tools are sitting in a large box until I can get a proper peg board in place for them. Two closets have stuff kind of just stuck in them until we can do some re-arranging. I need to put up some shelves in Jake's room (which will help empty one of those closets). A lot of paint left here by the previous owner needs to be hauled off to the hazardous waste dump. But all in all, things have progressed in a very satisfying way.