Category Archives: Family Stuff

General-interest stuff about our family

Check your id

Several years ago, I was at a three month professional development course that included intramural sports.  As we went through the first day orientation, the school director took a moment and asked each of us to pull out our IDs.  He then instructed is to look at the birthday printed on the card and ponder our age.  He then told us to repeat this exercise every time we entered the gym and keep that in mind as we competed with each other.  Apparently, students there had a track record of pushing too hard and getting hurt.  This was good advice, but advice that was rarely implemented.

I was reminded of this vignette when I was getting ready to go out on the gym floor with Isaac this last Tuesday.  Several of the other parents were commenting on the fact that I work out with the kids, and I mentioned this experience in passing as a way to laugh off the fact that I’m a whole lot older than anyone else who trains there.  That’s when karma struck.

After a brief warmup, I got ready to throw the first flip of the night.  However, the foam pit had a mat covering the foam.  I was doing well with many different flips, so I decided to just go for it.  Being over confident, I got a good run at it and launched into a side flip.  Now… I’ve had trouble getting enough vertical elevation of side flips, so I tend to stay in a tuck almost to the end.  But, this time, I got plenty of air and way over rotated.  I landed hard on my ankle, and was immediately aware that things weren’t normal.  The burning pain was all I needed to know that my night of training flips and flyaways was over.

It turned out to just be a sprain, but as I hobbled into work Wednesday morning on crutches my co-workers got no end of pleasure out of asking me how I got hurt.  A few only asked if I was with Isaac then laughed and walked away smirking knowingly.  Almost everyone knew the crux of the matter before they asked.  My track record of injuries resulting from me acting like a kid at the gym is almost a running joke.

Oh well… Another few days and I can start working my way back into training with Isaac.  It’ll be hard not to get hurt again given my tendency to recognize that something is risky and then promptly jump right in.   I guess I need to get better at following my own advice. Maybe this time will be different…  Or… Maybe not… But I’ll have fun either way.

Learning backflips

This year, I crossed the threshold of 40.  I understand that transition to be fairly traumatic for many people, but I must be in denial.  I don’t feel like 40 is much of a big deal.   I do, however, distinctly remember when 16 looked mature, 20 was fully fledged adult, 30 looked middle aged, and 40 was near death.  There didn’t seem to me much space for development between 40 and death.   Life and experience have taught me how warped my perspective was back then.

One thing I have loved about getting older is having kids who are old enough to have interests and hobbies I can share with them.  There is something pretty cool about having philosophical discussions about great books, or talking about some of the more interesting experiments from psychology with Sydney.  It’s a lot more rewarding than taking about fairies or random other “little girl” things I’ve never really understood or wanted to be a part of.  Those moments were precious, but I have to admit I like the more mature discussions better.

Lately, Isaac has started to cross that threshold where his interests and hobbies are more interesting and engaging for me.  For a little more than the last year, Isaac has been deliberately and diligently training in Par Kour (sp?).  True to form, I got tired of just watching, and for the last few months I’ve been training too.  Once a week Liz and I attend a class taught by Isaac’s trainer where we learn to do things like vault over obstacles, run up walls, and jump off of high things without hurting ourselves.  About half the class (Liz and I included) are parents of the kids who are in Isaac’s advanced class, so it’s almost comical watching a bunch of middle aged parents act like kids on a playground, but all of us old farts in the class LOVE acting like kids — even if we can’t jump as high or move as fast as the kids do.

One day several weeks ago as I was watching Isaac and his cohorts doing their weekly flips and areal training at a gymnastics gym, I got bored and asked Isaac if he would mind if I trained with them.  His smile said it all.  I informed him he was my coach for the night, and we walked out to the gym floor together.  Within a few minutes, he had me doing flips on the trampoline and into the foam pit.  By the time the night was over, I had tried my first backflip over solid (ish) ground.

Three weeks on, and I’m still working on consistently landing backflips.  They’re getting better, but it’ll be a while before I try one over concrete.  My body is old and broken enough that training sessions with Isaac or his coach sometimes get cut short.  But even when it hurts a little, it’s fun to see the look in Isaac’s eyes when I jump in and participate in something that he really enjoys.  He smiled as big as I did when I pulled off a flyaway (doing a backflip swinging off of an elevated bar) last Tuesday.

I have to say that I’m grateful I have the energy and strength to jump in and do these things.  I get a few odd looks from the younger crowd at the gym sometimes — I probably look like a dinosaur to them — but I’m well past the point where that will change my mind.  About the only thing that slows me down is when my neck, shoulders, or back get particularly angry about the renewed assaults on already worn out body parts.  For the most part, though, I’m amazed at the things I can do.  I’m also pretty stoked that my aggressiveness and stupidity haven’t made my broken body worse.  It helps to have a coach who learned how to do things right and do them without getting hurt.

I can’t say that I would have ever tried to do a backflip or vault a six foot wall had Isaac not started it all, but I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to spend time doing things with my kids for any of my self-motivated hobbies.  I only hope I’m still fit for enough to do the same with Michael – whatever hobbies he decides to get into.

It’s got to be common

It’s pretty clear to me at an academic level that many of the challenges I deal with on a regular basis are near universal.  Challenges with teenagers, dissatisfaction with work, being stuck for a season in the spiritual doldrums, health challenges, personal weaknesses, demands on my time that far exceed the time available, profound cognitive dissonance between what I want and the world I am stuck with, and many other challenges are surely common.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t generally make it feel any less lonely, any less troublesome, any less painful, or any less oppressive.   Failure, though common to everyone, is experienced on an individual basis.  The fact that failure is common doesn’t really make me feel any better about failing.  Sometimes I wish I cared less and were better at shaking it off.

Sunfounder Raspberry-Pi Camera Car

This Christmas, Isaac asked for a robot car.  We’d talked about giving him opportunities to begin experimenting with programming, and this seemed like a reasonable way to go.  Being the cheap guy I am, I trolled Amazon for the robot car that came with the most features for the least amount of money, knowing full well that it would probably be some cheap Chinese knockoff.  After looking at a wide range of offerings, I decided on a car marketed by Sunfounder knowing the instructions were probably crap, but confident in my ability to make it work without them.

Christmas day, Isaac and I sat down at the kitchen counter and went to work.  The kit assembled easily enough, but there were a few hiccups.

  1. The paper backing on the plastic is hard to get off.  I ended up sticking each of the parts to a piece of super-sticky duct-tape and tearing the tape off in order to get the backing off.  There is probably an easier way, but I didn’t bother looking for it.
  2. The plastic pieces that the front (steering) wheels screw into (the steering knuckle if it were a real car) is slightly too big.  If you tighten the screws all the way, the steering binds up.  I ended up filing down the top and bottom edges to open up some slack.
  3. There were a few missing screws.
  4. There is no power switch.  As soon as the batteries are installed, the entire car is powered up.  I didn’t like that approach, so I installed a small toggle switch I had in the workshop on the positive (red) wire between the battery pack and the power regulator board.
  5. There isn’t a way to cleanly shut down the pi unless you log in remotely and shut it down that way.  I’ll eventually add a pushbutton and write a code snippet to use that to trigger a soft shutdown on the pi — but that’s for later.

Otherwise, the hardware went together pretty well.  The design calls for screwing the Pi down on the chassis, but we opted to put the pi in a case, and used a rubber-band to hold it on the chassis.  We didn’t want to dedicate the Pi solely to the car.


A backup backup plan

If you ask my kids what I think about making plans for the future, they’re likely to say that I believe in having a plan, a backup plan, and a backup backup plan, then being ready to throw all of that away when the right thing comes along.  However, when it comes down to it, the plan and its backups seem to only really exist to make me feel a little bit better about the fact that I’m basically powerless when it comes to my future.  This point has once again been reinforced in my life.

When we lived in Texas, we made plans.  Plans that were cherished.  Plans that were detailed and intended for execution.  Some of those plans got put on hold when I got orders for New Mexico.  Some of those plans came crashing down in flames, destroyed forever.  The process of giving up on them was rather painful, and I made new plans in an attempt to fill the void.  Mostly, those plans involved getting back to Texas as quickly as possible and putting myself in a position where I could teach in a non tenure-track role and write without sinking my family finances.

As a part of those plans, I had made it clear to almost everyone within earshot that nothing could convince me to stay in the Air Force past my retirement eligibility date or take another assignment.  There wasn’t going to be anything that would entice me to move again unless it was to a place where I would be able to stay and start my post military life.  I also withdrew from a nearly complete professional development course to ensure I wasn’t going to be offered another promotion and put myself in a position where I might consider staying longer.  I was going to finish my time in my current job, retire, then go back to my place in Texas and learn to live the life of a civilian.  I had backup plans, and backup backup plans, but none of them included moving again with the military, promoting again, or staying longer than 20 years.

That changed a little over two weeks ago.  I was at work dealing with some admistrivia when an unsolicited email from someone at the Air Force Academy popped up in my inbox.  Attached to the message was a letter inviting me to apply for the position of  Permanent Professor and Department Head for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  The letter explained that this position should be viewed as starting a new career.  While the department head is still on active duty, they are not subject to many of the things I’ve grown tired of.  Whoever gets the position serves in the grade of Colonel, and never deploys or moves again until they die, voluntarily retire, or reach 64.

Now, this letter wasn’t uniquely targeting me, but rather it went out to everyone who was technically qualified.  However, it represents a scenario I hadn’t considered as even remotely feasible before.  I have always wanted to teach, but the options to do so were never viable.  Part of the drive to endure to retirement was so that I could afford to take a job teaching at a junior college or other institution more concerned with education than publications, grants, and prestige.  My best attempt to meet this need while on active duty meet with severe disappointment after finding out that AFIT (the Air Force graduate school) had fallen into the trap of publications and prestige at the expense of the students.  I was offered the position but had to refuse it, and I gave up on trying to teach while on active duty.

Unlike AFIT, the Academy understands that their reason for existence is to educate the upcoming generation of Air Force leaders.  They understand that the proper role of research in that environment is to enable the development of students.  They haven’t fallen prey to the siren song that has blurred the focus of almost every major university.  I truly believe the Academy represents an opportunity to teach, mentor, and focus on developing young men and women.  It’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been putting together the materials for an application, and yesterday before leaving work I officially threw my hat in the ring.  My odds aren’t great, but I’d forever regret it if I didn’t try.  Is this the new and unexpected plan I tell my children to be ready for?  Maybe.  I hope so, but I still have my backup plans.



Story Time: First Kiss

I don’t remember if I heard it first-hand, or if it was passed down to me by others, but my Grandfather was credited with saying “kissing a woman you aren’t going to marry is like licking the butter off of someone else’s bread.”  I don’t generally lick butter off of my own bread, not to mention off of other’s bread, so this image seemed a bit odd to me.  However, I’m pretty sure what he really meant was that you should reserve that act for when a relationship is pretty serious.  It seems odd to me that this came from my grandfather who was also reported to have kissed his future wife on the first date and was so impressed with the result that he had to come back for more.  In that case, that first-date kiss ultimately resulted in nine kids and over 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As a general rule, I disregarded this advice when I was young.  It rarely took long for me to finagle a goodnight kiss or two — sometimes following my grandpa’s example and accomplishing the feat on the first date.  However, somewhere along the line I stepped back, took stock, and decided I didn’t like where that trend was taking me.  I had experienced a series of bad breakups and relationships that had pushed to a place I wasn’t happy to go.  As a result, I basically swore off of dating and women with the intention of graduating college before allowing another girlfriend to get overly serious.  That intention didn’t last, though.  A few months after this I put this resolution into force, I met a striking young woman who captured my attention with a fierceness for which I was completely unprepared.  Swearing off of women all together was simply not an option with someone like her tantalizingly close.

This new development left me completely unable to stick to my initial resolution.  I was not about to pass up the opportunity represented by this amazing young lady, so the resolution to stay single had to go.  However, I was still motivated not to fall into the same trap I’d been in all too many times.  Since my original resolution wasn’t viable, I adjusted it to resolve to make this round different and be more careful about how I managed the relationship.  After the prior disasters I wanted to take things slower and better manage expectations on both sides.  Among other changes, there would be no first-date kisses.  After a few dates I was even more convinced than before that I wanted this relationship to progress differently.

Unlike many other plans of mine, this one seemed to work.  As time evolved, so did the relationship, and what started out as a fun date to keep the weekends from being boring quickly evolved to long evenings together as often as possible.  Frequently those evenings would close out with a long close stare into each others eyes, with me at least wanting badly to lean in and kiss those beautiful lips.  But I stuck to my guns, though, and would only squeeze her hand (or something along those lines) and walk to my car without giving in to those inclinations.  Sometimes our faces would be just inches apart for a very pregnant pause, but that’s where it stopped.  I didn’t want to ruin a good thing by moving too fast.

One evening Liz and I were talking in my driveway before she left to go home and I lost my will to resist.  She was amazingly beautiful in the moonlight and frankly irresistible, but rather than lean in and steal a kiss I did something I had never done before…  I asked.  She said yes, and I didn’t wait to give her any time to reconsider.  It was an amazing first kiss.  One that I’ll never forget.  However, my favorite part of this story happened later.

A few dates later Liz and I were talking and she smiled and almost started laughing.  She had something she wanted to tell me about that first kiss.  You see, there was a set of railroad tracks that crossed the road that connected her house with mine, and as a kid folks in my area used to have a tradition that if you touched a screw and made a wish while crossing the railroad tracks, your wish would come true.  Liz, wondering why I was taking so long to kiss her, touched a screw and wished for a good night kiss.  I suppose it worked, and I’m glad it did.  That kiss was the first of many, and set the course that would eventually lead to a very tender one across the altar.  To this day, I think about that story every time I cross a set of railroad tracks.

More to do than time allows

Time is a teacher, but many of her lessons are about herself.  One lesson time repeatedly and frequently tries to teach me is how fleeting, rare, and precious she is.  It always seems I am putting some project or another on the back burner to wait the day when I’ll finally have enough time to finish what I started.   In fact, as a college kid I would joke about what I would do when all I had was a day job and school was over.  After graduation, I joked about what I’d do when we had enough money so that I could quit my night job and just deal with a regular eight-hour shift.  Before that happened, a kid came into our family and complicated things.  About the time we could afford for me to drop the second job, I entered graduate school and we had a second kid.

Each new evolution saw me introducing slight variations on the theme of “when I have more time” without really changing the status-quo.  It was always a refrain with the same general theme.  However, one time sink was replaced by another (and sometimes two) as school was replaced by work that didn’t respect a time-clock, another kid was added to the mix, older kids got more involved in various activities, and so on.  After a while, I quit joking about what I would do when whatever milestone I was awaiting arrived and I would have more time.  Reality was screaming that I would never really have more time — at least not until my kids were grown, I was retired, and I had somehow lost my enduring interest in a wide diversity of things.  I don’t believe I’ll ever have much “free” time.

At this point in my life, I’ve managed to mostly accept the fact that projects I start may take several orders of magnitude longer than they should.  Even with the best of plans and intentions, something always seems to get in the way and force me to set it aside in order to deal with external pressures or priorities.  The net result is a garage and house full of things waiting on an afternoon or more of unallocated time — a rare event.  Just walking out to the garage to get a tool reminds me of work I’ve started but left undone.  That is an unpleasant experience for me.  I like to finish what I start.

From time to time, Liz will look at one of my projects and ask in a slightly exasperated tone of I’m ever going to finish it.  Earlier in our marriage, this happened much more frequently thanks to Liz’s anti-hoarder tendencies, and occasionally it boiled over into a request to get rid of something.  However, over the years she’s come to understand that I will use the stuff I’m clinging to, and almost always finish a stalled project eventually.  For the most part, she just rolls her eyes and tries not to look too closely when she goes into the garage.  She knows it’s important to my mental health to have projects waiting for me should I have unallocated time.

As a quick example of how long simple projects can take, I recently made a batch of soap.  In spite of the fact that the actual process is fairly quick once you have everything ready, I started it years ago.  The best way to make soap requires a stick blender, so for several years I would look through the small appliance section in every thrift store I came across for a stick blender.  It took probably two years to find one — in a thrift store half way across the nation from home while on a business trip.  I bought it, knowing I wouldn’t be able to use it for quite a while, and threw it in my suitcase.

Much later, I happened into a reasonably large quantity of beef suet that I didn’t really have a better purpose for.  Wanting to use tallow for making soap, I stashed it in the freezer.  It stayed there until one evening I finagled some time, pulled it out, rendered it, and put the now purified tallow back into the freezer where it sat.  It stayed there for a while waiting for me to find time to take the next step.

The lye I used had a similar history.  Thanks to it’s use in making methamphetamine, pure lye is much more difficult to come by than it used to be.  Most of the big box home improvement stores don’t carry it anymore.  However, one day as I was walking through the plumbing section of a small town Texas hardware store looking for something completely unrelated to soap making, I saw a few bottles of pure lye drain opener.  I added it to my cart, knowing that I would need it when I finally got around to making soap.  It sat unused in the garage collecting dust for a long time.

The fat, the blender, and the lye could have been viewed as a hoarders treasure.  Stuff kept just for the sake of having it.  Stuff without a real intended purpose.  Stuff that should be thrown away.  However, these things were acquired with a specific purpose in mind, and maintained for that purpose.  The illusion that they are a hoarder’s treasure, I suppose, comes from the fact that I have had to become comfortable with extended time-lines.   Most of the projects I do for myself have rather long horizons, and were I to demand fixed deadlines or quick turn-around times, I would give up on any and all of it and sink into a pretty dark funk.  There would be no point in keeping anything (not necessarily a bad thing), and no reason to work on long-term projects (a very bad thing).

This long term view does result in a significant amount of clutter, but I am willing to put up with the mess as long as I have a reasonable expectation I will eventually have a chance to finish a project.  I do periodically go through the stack and evaluate the feasibility of ever finishing a given set of projects and get rid of any that aren’t likely to ever bubble their way to the top of the priority stack.  Most of the time, the decision to get rid of them is a good one.  Sometimes I have regretted getting rid of something later when life conspired to shift my priorities.  As a result, I tend to err on the side of caution and have no shortage of productive things to fill unoccupied time.  I’m almost never bored unless it’s at work where my time is not mine.

Because I have so many interests and projects, I constantly wonder how people find enough time to spend it profligately on things like television and mindless entertainment.  I guess I’m just weird, but I simply can’t bring myself to watch time just blow by unused or abused with things that don’t add value to the day.  About the closest I come to wasting my time is organizing my thoughts to write something like this pointless post, plumbing my feelings to write a poem, or taking time to go outside and enjoy the world God made.  Even as “useless” as those things may seem, they are done with a purpose that has value to me.

I suppose in the end, though, that this last thought is the one that provides the best insight into how others justify spending time on things I find pointless.  I suppose the things I find mindless and pointless fill a need for those who participate in them.  While I don’t find anything particularly rewarding or worthwhile in spending a weekend drinking beer and watching two sports teams do what they do, I have to accept the probability that this activity fills a need.  Just not one I recognize.  I’m willing to bet that those who indulge in this kind of diversion also feel like they have too little time, and they probably wonder how I can spend the time I do writing useless drivel.

Petroglyph National Monument and Backpacking to TWA Canyon With Isaac

By way of special requests for more pictures…

I had Friday off of work, so Liz and I decided to take the kids over to Petroglyph National Monument to show them the ancient graffiti all over the volcanic rocks on the west side of the Rio Grand in Albuquerque.  The kids had a blast playing mountain goat on the large rocks.

I also got talked into going with the scouts on an overnight backpacking trip as Isaac’s hiking buddy this weekend.  The plan was to hike in two miles, eat and sleep, them hike to the top of the canyon to the wreckage of a TWA airline that crashed into the mountain in the 1950s before heading back to the trailhead.  Unlike almost every other scout trip I’ve gone on, this one went mostly to plan.


Ward camp out

Or ward organized a camp out this last weekend.  I’m not really in a state of mind where hanging out with a million noisy kids and a bunch of adults I don’t really know sounds like fun, but we had agreed to go and keep another family company, so after work Friday we packed up a bunch of crap and drove the 20 minutes to the camp ground.  Luckily for me, the family we were to spend the weekend with had similar ideas to mine, and had selected a site well off the beaten path and away from the main population.

Michael ran wild in a large pack of kids the whole time, enjoying the danger associated with being “off leash.” Isaac spent most of his time with a friend taking apart a rather large fallen ponderosa pine with a couple of hatchets.   I spent the day with our friend who liked crowds about as much as I do, and the evening watching a fire and the night sky in relative quiet and peace.  Liz hung out with her friend and talked homeschooling, and Sydney stayed home to sleep off a headache.  Not a bad weekend overall.

19 years!

Liz and I recently observed our 19th anniversary.   It’s hard to believe she’s put up with me that long, but she continues happy in her delusions.  Why should I undeceive her?  What a wonderful woman!  I’m more in love with her now than I was back then, and I would never have believed you if you told me then it was possible.