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!"