Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A New Direction

Today begins a new direction for our family. We have accepted the referral of an 8-year-old Chinese girl through the adoption agency All Gods Children International. We received this referral October 18 via email in a message containing three pictures and a translated medical profile. Not really a lot to go on, but this appears to be typical with international adoptions. Now that we've accepted the referral, we have one week to fill out and turn in a bunch of contract paperwork and become official clients of this agency. This starts a rather lengthy process (9 to 12 months) after which we will have a new daughter as part of our family. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Acidic Eruptions

I hate plumbing. If you've read anything I've written previously about plumbing, you already know that. This could be reason number 235 why I hate plumbing. I have nothing against the profession of plumbing. It's a good honest way to make a living. It's a good honest way for somebody ELSE to make a living. Just not me.

This latest episode involves the house we bought last December. If you know about this house, you are probably wondering what ever possessed me to buy an old house that has six bathrooms and six kitchens. One where the pipes were all frozen a couple winters ago.

When I finally got the water turned on (which is a separate story all by itself), it began to rain in several rooms from the split pipes in the ceilings. I did what any good handyman would do. I hired a plumber. When it became obvious that this plumber would not finish the job in time because he was so busy, I hired another plumber. About four weeks later, when he was wrapping up the last details, I told him to replace a section of pipe in the basement that came from a second floor kitchen.

"When I turn the water on in the kitchen," I told him, "it drains for a while and then suddenly stops. I estimate from the amount of water that actually does go down that the blockage is in the basement."

He took a look at it and told me that they don't handle that kind of work anymore. "Roto-Rooter and the like has taken all that business from us," he said. "That line needs to be snaked out and we don't have the equipment to do that." He told me that he didn't think just replacing the pipe would do it.

I called Roto Rooter. They said they could be out there that afternoon. Later on in the day, he called me back.

"That one is pretty bad," he told me. "It's completely clogged with grease. I snaked it three times before it would drain at all. And it's still a little slow. I put a whole bottle of Pipe Shield down the drain. It should clear it out. It's an enzyme which will dissolve the grease. Just don't use it for 24 hours to allow it to work. If it doesn't work, I have some other stuff called EZ Flow which should do the trick. It's sulferic acid and should eat right through it. It's expensive stuff so we save that for the really bad cases. Let me know if the Pipe Shield doesn't work and I can come back."

Two days later I called him back. "The water doesn't go anywhere," I told him. "It just fills the sink up."

He came the next day. I received a phone call at work from him.

"I put a whole bottle of EZ Flow down the drain, and it is still stopped up. I think you are going to have to replace the section of pipe in the basement. From the amount of water that goes down before it stops, that's probably where the problem is."

Hmmm. It seems I told the last plumber that. An now I just paid another plumber to come out and confirm what I already knew. I told him I would replace the pipe myself. I had enough into this already. Time to roll up the sleeves and dive in. Tim the Plumber strikes again.

This past Friday, I came to the house armed with a new section of plastic pipe, a few fittings, and my odd assortment of plumbers tools. The fittings on the iron pipe were too rusted to take apart so I attacked it with a hacksaw. It dribbled a rather viscous solution of brown goo as I was doing so, but I soon had the suspect section down. As I suspected, it was completely full of gunk. The section in the ceiling was also full of gunk so I stuck an old paint stirring stick in it to get it out.

The pipe drooled brown every time I pulled the stick out and I soon had most of the gunk out of the exposed section. I ran upstairs and ran some water down the drain to see if it was starting to clear. When I got back to the basement, none of the water had made it down. It just dribbled slowly onto the floor. At this rate, it would take all day for the sink to empty out.

I found a piece of flexible tubing and shoved it into the pipe. The tubing was longer than the stick and flexible so it could go around the elbow in the pipe. More thick brown goo ended up on the floor every time I pulled the pipe out. It was also starting to smell pretty ripe.

After I probed as far as the tubing would allow, I ran up to the kitchen and ran a little more water down the drain. Back downstairs to see that none of it had made it out the open end of the pipe. Just a slow, steady drip, drip of dark brown sludge.

I studied the situation for a little while, wondering what to do next. As I sat there looking at it, there suddenly came from the open end of the pipe a gurgling sound. This sound rapidly rose in crescendo until all at once, with a hissing, splattering sound, a column of brown water erupted out the end of the pipe and splashed to the floor about eight feet away. In a couple seconds, this mixture of enzyme, sulferic acid, and water dwindled to a fast dribble, but not before the entire section of the basement, including my tools, supplies, and an old clothes dryer that happened to be in the line of fire was covered with thick, sludge-like substance. A big wad of stuff resembling a giant hairball also ended up on top of the dryer.

When the flow died away completely, I figured I would leave it until the next day, perhaps it would be more tolerable when it had dried out.

The next day, a Saturday, I waited until the afternoon to give it a good chance to dry. It didn't take long to put the new section of pipe in now that all the hard work was done.. Now when I fill the sink with water and then pull the drains, I get these cool little whirlpools in the water, and the water goes away fast. One more item finally checked off the to-do list. The other task that I did on the same day was to replace a sink in a third floor bathroom. More plumbing, more headaches, fit for another story.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This Old House

I've sometimes wondered how some families manage to keep everything together. They homeschool their children, run a family business, manage all the intricacies of modern life, and then they show up at all the homeschooling conferences looking like they have everything together. I'm sure you've seen them, they're the ones who have the booths at the shows with a bazillion books or other things for sale, their little cherubs are happily running the cash register, keeping the shelves full, or answering questions. I'm not condemning this in any way, in fact I'm in favor of it, I just wonder how they do it.

I've also thought that it would be cool to do this in my own family. Our family support comes primarily from my working outside the home, but, wouldn't it be great if I could bring that home and involve the rest of the family? Unfortunately, the field of electrical engineering doesn't lend itself very well to that sort of thing, so the family involvement would have to come from some other area.

We found that area a several months ago, in the form of a tired, 100-year-old house that was badly in need of some serious renovations. We decided to take this on as a family remodeling project. The boys are at the age where they can contribute to the project and it would provide a great opportunity for some life-skills learning.

We were grateful for the warmer weather in early January, because the place had no heat. The day after the heat was turned on, the weather turned decidedly colder. But now we could do interior work in relative warmth. We didn't have to protect the paint from freezing, and didn't have our heavy overcoats interfering with our motion.

Over the last several months, we have been spending several evenings a week, along with many Saturdays, working at this house. One of the first major tasks was patching and painting. Nearly everything needed painting, either because the existing paint was badly applied or because it was a weird color. None of us particularly enjoys painting, and David tends to wear a lot of it, but it's a task that needs to be done. This is one life-skill that the boys have had plenty of experience in, and they are always happy to move on to something else.

That "something else" has been a variety of tasks, including installing flooring, fixing plumbing, installing trim, changing light fixtures, refinishing hardwood floors, and a host of other things typical for an old house. It's been quite a challenge for me to keep four people busy doing productive tasks. Many times there's some training that goes along with it, and there are the invariable questions or problems that need to be addressed. These problems show up in a variety of ways, including a child standing beside me holding a broken section of pipe saying, "What do I do now?". Sometimes I just want to tell them, "Don't ask me, I'm making this all up as I go!" I have a new appreciation for a contractor trying to keep a crew busy.

Old houses tend to have a few surprises in store, and this one was no exception. One of those surprises showed up when we replaced a floor. After tearing up the old floor, including the subfloor, the boys discovered a trap door which led into a closet downstairs. They thought this was great fun; they could drop into the closet on the lower floor without using the stairs. We spent a while speculating on why there was a trap door buried under the floor.

Other surprises were not so benign. After sledge-hammering a hole in the basement floor to investigate a water leak, we discovered that the main water pipe into the house was made of lead, and needed to be replaced. Now instead of fixing a small section of pipe, we will be coordinating with the city with their lead abatement initiative and having part of the yard and the street torn up to replace the pipe. Maybe we'll get the water turned back on by next Christmas.

Surprises aside, it's been an overall positive experience. It has been encouraging to see the growth in the boys, from having to lead them through a task step by step, to just telling them to do a particular task, and having them come back a while later saying, "It's done." It's been a stretch for me as well.

We figured when this is all over that we will have a clothing-burning party. We'll throw all the paint-saturated work clothing we have been using into a bonfire and roast marshmallows. And then it's on to the next project.

You'll just have to stay tuned for that one.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dribbles and Dads

It can be a tough job being a Dad sometimes. It is quite a privilege to have two boys who look up to me and I would like to say that I always earn that respect, having led and instructed my children wisely. The trouble is, I am human and can really mess things up. Sometimes I don't deserve the respect I receive.

We have been restoring a 100-year-old house as sort of a family project. Having been vacant and neglected for three years, the place is badly in need of quite a few fixes. So we have been patching plaster, fixing doors and floors, and (of course) painting. Having gone through and painted several rooms, we arrived in the kitchen a couple weeks ago. This was the perfect place for practice painting. This kitchen was missing all the cabinets and the floor, so paint dribbles would not be a problem.

Painting is one of those tasks that none of us really enjoys doing, but it does dress the place up, so we will swallow our pride and pick up the paintbrush. David is no exception to this. Being the youngest, he has been assigned the job of taping and painting trim quite a bit, and was pretty sick of it by the time we started on the kitchen. He was pretty excited when I told him he was going to run the paint sprayer. Somehow the job is much more fun if it can be done with power tools.

Both boys had used the paint sprayer in other rooms, and this would be a great time for additional practice. David, however, had the least experience with the sprayer so I gave him some instructions on how to prime the sprayer and hold the gun and then turned him loose on a large blank wall.

He soon had the bottom half of the wall covered and started on the top half from a ladder. I noticed a few runs in the paint so I cautioned him on the correct distance from the wall. "Keep it about ten inches from the wall and don't pull the trigger until the gun is moving," I told him. I watched him do a few more swipes and then set about fixing up the paint runs with a paint brush.

After getting the runs fixed up, I started noticing more runs and went to fix these up. "Try moving the gun a little faster," I instructed. "I think we're still getting too much paint on the wall.

David continued the upper part of the wall and I continued to fix up running paint. I began to notice many more runs in the paint and scrambled to keep up with them. "Less paint on the wall, make sure you're holding the gun straight" I told him a couple more times, growing a little more impatient.

Now I was noticing that large sections of the wall were forming lots of little rivulets slowly oozing their way towards the floor. I was getting hopelessly behind.

"Hand the gun to Josh," I commanded. "Grab another brush and help me fix up these dribbles!" I was having visions of the entire wall drying to the look and texture of a frozen waterfall.

David quietly handed the gun over and Josh started on the next wall. After working a while on the rivers of paint, I noticed three things. David had disappeared, Joshua's wall was starting to flow in spots, and the areas I had fixed up were also starting their dribbling descent anew. I began to suspect that the paint was part of the problem. We had switched types of paint for the kitchen and it appeared to be going on differently than the paint we had used in other rooms.

I chased paint rivers for the rest of evening. Trying to fix paint runs as the paint is drying can make quite a mess, and this kitchen was turning out to be a big disaster. We managed to take care of most of the streams, but when we left, the texture was still looking rather tough.

We talked about it on the way home. I told David about the different type of paint and how it acted differently when sprayed on the wall. I also apologized for my rather rough demotion of my budding painter. I could tell almost immediately after I demoted him that he was hurt by it. I told him that we will just deal with the kitchen somehow and that he shouldn't worry about it.

The next day, we came back to find very little evidence that there ever was a problem. The rough lines from the paintbrushes had dried smooth and the walls looked good. I felt sheepish and relieved at the same time, sheepish because I had blamed my son for something caused by a difference in paint and relieved that I wouldn't have to do it all over again.

When we started trimming the floor, I instructed the boys on how to measure and cut the shoe moulding. This time, I was not so impatient when things went wrong. There were several pieces that the boys cut incorrectly in some very interesting ways. Instead of getting impatient about it, I bantered with them about creating scrap.

Sometimes I wonder who learns more when we instruct our kids. The kids may learn about handling paint sprayers and shoe moulding, but Dad is continually learning how to handle kids.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Life would be pretty dull if all our personalities were the same. Deb and I have commented on that many times. If we were like each other, we would probably drive each other nuts. As it turns out, the differences in our personalities add spice to our family. Many of those differences complement each other. It's the way God designed us. Opposites attract, and that's a good thing.

Personality differences can also be a source of strife. Statistics abound on the number of marriages split apart because of differences in how finances are handled, how each side communicates, and where the toothpaste tube gets squished, to name a few examples. Part of being married is discovering how to manage those differences.

In twenty-plus years of marriage, I have learned a lot about my better half. I have learned especially (and I am still learning) that God designed her to be her and not a carbon copy of me. It would be so much easier during a discussion or disagreement if she would just change her views and see things my way. After all, that's the right way ... right? But it doesn't work that way. She is who she is for a reason, and part of my job as a husband is discovering what that reason is, if she doesn't just come right out and tell me.

Deb is the linear-thinking worrier of the family. She is always thinking of contingencies and worst-case scenarios for every situation. If there are no contingencies or worst-case scenarios, she will invent one. If one of the boys climbs a tree, she is already planning the trip to the hospital, holding a child with every bone in his body broken. I am the random-thinking free-spirit of the family. I am always thinking of ... whatever. If I wasn't in the tree with my son, I would be pointing out which limbs could be used as good hand holds.

Now throw a couple kids into this personality mix. Stir well, then let stand. The result can be highly entertaining. The two kids that we have are definitely a blend of our personalities, but blended together in ways that can be surprising but are definitely unique.

Deb and Josh share the linear-thinking, task-oriented, driven personality. This similarity has prompted Deb to state many times in earlier years, "I could NEVER teach my own son. We're too much alike. We would drive each other crazy!" Now that we're homeschooling him, to some extent, that's true. Things are working, though. We're just learning what lines to draw and where. Deb doesn't teach math. We have a self-directed curriculum and I handle any questions or problems he may have.

Josh inherited my fascination with all things technical as well as my tendency to drift off topic if there's something more interesting to be explored. The latest issue of Popular Science is usually way more captivating than geometry or American Government.

One of the blessings of home schooling is the opportunity to celebrate and encourage those personality differences, and not to suppress them. Josh, when he is on task, excels at diving into the task and working steadily at it. David is more relationship-oriented and would rather spend time bantering with someone. And so the approach to teaching each of them is also going to be different and we as parents have to take this into account.

When helping out with their math, for example, I will naturally fall into a more logical explanation with Josh. If A then B then C. That's the way he is wired. Whether it's working through an algebra equation or a geometry proof, the logical progression works best. When we arrive at the logical conclusion, then he gets it and is good with it.

With David, the logic is still there, since math is inherently logical, but we will do things in a more back and forth, bantering manner. Story problems are especially good bait for this. They are usually some artificially contrived scenario with little basis in reality. The fun comes in exposing how ridiculous they really are while still benefiting from the underlying math practice. Who cares if Susan goes twice as fast as Jane in the opposite direction. One of them is going the wrong way.

Although much of the subject matter is the same, allowing the kids to express themselves in different ways when studying has helped keep their interest. Josh enjoys doing his reading and studying in the big easy chair by the window, David will be on the floor or at the kitchen table. We have figured out that some subjects work better in the morning, and Fridays are good for field trips and volunteering. David likes manipulatives. A wad of Silly Putty accompanies most lessons, or he will attempt to juggle several apples from the fridge while talking to Deb in the kitchen about his work. Josh complains about the bruises on the apples as a result of this juggling practice.

Other families may do things quite differently than ours, because the mix of personalities is different, but we do enjoy the flexibility of tailoring our schooling and our days around our personalities rather than the other way around.