Saturday, June 15, 2013

PROJECT PLAY SET: Prep & Destroy (Or Preferably, Destroy Then Prep)

This past May, our twin daughters celebrated their 6th birthday. To celebrate this special occasion we got them a brand-new outdoor wooden play set, to replace the previous one, which was apparently left in our yard by a previous owner, who must have built it before they invented measuring tape and bubble levels, judging from the condition of the wood, and the craftsmanship.

My father has been helping a great deal on this project. We've just started building the new one, and this promises to be a massive project. So far, the manual instructed me to buy drill bit attachments that I didn't need, it failed to tell me to buy drill bit attachments that I would need, it has inconsistently labeled washers and bolts, and at least one diagram is drawn incorrectly. In comparison to most projects that my family works on, this project is going amazingly smooth.

Our 13-year old son proved to be quite enthusiastic and adept at dismantling the old playset.
The first phase of the project involved the deconstruction of the previous play set. Here is a word of advice. If you ever need something destroyed, you should go to someone who has a lot of experience at breaking stuff. This is why I put one of our children in charge of this portion of the project.

It took a surprising amount of work to fully eliminate the previous playground, considering that it looked like a strong breeze would have taken care of it.

The next phase was a little more work. It involved leveling and preparing the ground. Our backyard somehow has all the mud of a swamp, combined with all the solidity of a quarry. In fact, our yard seems to consists entirely of rocks, roots, ancient bottle caps, which makes it an ideal location for a children's play set. Also, our entire yard seems to sit at a 45° angle. So all in all, it was loads of fun. So far the ground is level. The base is built, and the previous play set is completely destroyed.

I plan to chronicle this project. It will involve 9,000 screws, chainsaws, and complex and inconsistent instruction manual, so I foresee many opportunities for hilarious disasters. So far I have learned:
1. Don't automatically assume the instruction manual is incorrect, but also do not blindly assume that it is 100% accurate. I have yet to find how to determine the exact point where the line between those two is drawn.
2. Barking dogs and excited children do not make the concentration process any easier.
3. The possibility of rain is directly proportional to how important it is for something to remain dry.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Oh, Christmas Tree

My latest entry is published in the Northern Virginia Daily. Find out how, or more importantly, why you shouldn't try to un-light an artificial tree.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

American Optimism: Storm? What Storm?

I’m not sure what was more exciting, 45 minutes worth of a fireworks display crammed into 10 minutes, or the mad 4-mile dash back to the car in a desperate attempt to outrun a ferocious thunderstorm.

Like most of the United States, we recently took the girls and our nephew (who is 6) to a nearby 4th of July event. Somehow word had spread to our daughters about the existence of fireworks, possibly the week-long build-up at daycare, so excitement was reaching dangerous levels. For days, the normal response to any question, comment or request was, “When are we going to see fireworks?” and if your answer was anything other than, “Right this instant,” they would reply, “But it’s America’s birthday!”

We decided to take everyone to the festivities in Strasburg, VA. By “decided,” I mean “were forced.” Not that there is anything wrong with Strasburg’s Independence Day celebration. We’ve been going there for years, and it’s always a good time. But this year we had wanted to go to a different event and try something new. We had it all planned out - arrangements had been made for my nephew to be joining us, dinner had been taken care of, and we purposely waited until close to dusk before we left so as to avoid outdoor temperatures that sounded more like they came out of a recipe than a weather forecast.

It was close to 6:45 when we prepared to leave, which was the perfect time for my wife to notice the fine print in the newspaper ad which said that the main gates closed at 6:30. Quickly revising our plans, we thought that maybe there was a fireworks display somewhere in Front Royal. After some quick research, we found out that of course there was...the day before. It seemed Strasburg had been chosen for us.

We arrived, and began the four-mile hike from the public parking lot to the park. Okay, maybe technically it was closer to a half mile. But, as all parents know, the amount of work it takes to get a child under the age of 10 to walk any given distance is at least double the amount of effort it would take to walk it alone.

When we made it to the event, there were dozens of food stands, pony rides, toy booths, and moonbounces (moonbounci? I’m not sure of the plural of that word) scattered around the park. When the kids noticed the moonbounce, it was like one of those cartoons where the characters disappear leaving a kid-shaped dust cloud behind. There was also a flurry of shoes. I somehow found myself childless, holding three pair of shoes with no idea what just happened. My wife had taken all our stuff and gone to claim a spot while I tried to keep track of three overly excited children amongst hundreds of other overly excited children. It seemed that the kids had figured out that it was too much trouble to take shoes off and put them back on every time they went in a new moonbounce. Even if they were wearing flip flops. But you’ve got to love a moonbounce. You can relax while the kids are relatively safely confined and burning off some of their seemingly endless supply of surplus energy. They may be bouncing off the walls (ha!) but at least they aren’t destroying anything.

Once everything was under control (and I use that phrase loosely) the first thing we noticed was how enthusiastically everyone was ignoring the ominous storm clouds and jagged lightning bursts on the horizon. No one ran screaming to their cars. Nothing got cancelled due to the severe thunderstorm warnings. Instead, they decided to start the fireworks early, and apparently all at once. Or at least at a much faster pace than originally planned, to try and beat the storm. Dangerous? Perhaps. Awesome? Absolutely.

Mother nature was not to be outdone that night, however. The lightning was amazing. Strange sideways and upside down lightning, heat lightning, all almost continuously, throughout the whole show. The massive storm was approaching us, in the direction we would have to go to get back to the parking lot, and literally hundreds of people decided not to run from almost certain doom. We instead chose to stay and celebrate our independence. Why? Because this is America! We have American optimism, confidence and faith. The United States didn’t become the greatest nation on earth by running from dangerous and difficult situations. When times look rough and a situation looks hopeless, we don’t run back to our cars like cowards! We stare a storm right in the face and say, “Psht. We can beat that.” It made me very proud of my fellow countrymen. God bless America.

That’s not to say that the minute the fireworks ended we didn’t all make a quick exit to our cars. America didn’t become great by being stupid, either.

I learned a few things this Fourth of July: 1. You know you’re at a fun event when shoes are an inconvenience; 2. Americans are some of the most patriotic people on the planet; and 3. You’d be surprised how much farther a destination seems when you have to walk towards a thunderstorm to get to it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I'm a Little Teapot, Scorched and Stout

Despite being specifically designed to withstand high temperatures, a metal stove top kettle can, in fact, catch on fire. This is one of the many valuable and useful lessons that ought to be taught in school, but isn’t.

Recently, I found myself wishing that I had been given this knowledge in a structured academic environment, instead of learning it the hard way in my kitchen. You might think that it is fairly impossible to ignite a metal teapot using only the heat generated from a standard stove top burner, but you would be vastly underestimating Ring Luck.

I don’t recall reading anywhere on the box that said that this sturdy water-boiling kitchen device wouldn’t catch on fire, so I guess it’s partially my own fault. My wife and stepson were away from the house at a Scouting event, and I was watching the girls at home. For some odd reason, I never considered boiling water to be particularly dangerous, so I started a saucepan of water to brew some tea.

I’m not sure entirely what went wrong, but my second mistake was to turn my back for half a second. That’s when all the catastrophes happen around our house. If you don’t believe me, then you should come to my house and stand in any of our children’s tidy bedrooms, then turn your back for half a second and see how fast it erupts into a massive disaster zone. All it takes is for you to turn your back for a brief moment. Catastrophes are amazingly fast.

My first mistake, if you were wondering about the mistake count, was to turn on the wrong burner, on top of which was sitting an empty teapot. I didn’t realize this mistake at the time, when I left the kitchen and went to another room to take care of one of the other hundred chores we always seem to have piling up at our house. The girls were in the living room, adjacent to the kitchen, and I briefly stepped into a bedroom when the fire alarm went off.

Frustrated, I ran out and silenced it, while simultaneously trying to calm my 4-year olds with expressions such as, “It’s ok, it went off by accident, it was just a test, the battery must be going bad, don’t worry,” etc., all while I was wondering what was causing that sudden strange melty smell.

Now, I’ve never mentioned it before, but I am very thankful for the girls’ wonderful day care center. They have done an excellent job for preparing the girls for the constant string of disasters that they are almost certainly going to have to face in the coming years, due to the fact that they are Rings, hence subject to Ring Luck.
So they knew that it was important to remain calm while telling me, “There is a fire in our kitchen.”

“What? How can that be?” I thought as I rushed into the kitchen, only to arrive and see the teapot inexplicably engulfed in flames. Again, I have to give the girls credit for realizing the situation and asking me, calmly, “What do we do? Do we need to run outside?”

I was amazed at how they were handling the situation, considering the normal mass panic that occurs when a Polly Pocket shoe has somehow ended up in the Strawberry Shortcake container. So part of my mind was pretty impressed. The part that wasn’t consumed with panic, of course.

Since I was still confused as to how it was even physically possible for a teapot to be on fire, I wasn’t sure what was actually burning. Therefore I was somewhat afraid to dump water on it. I hadn’t been using any grease that I was aware of, so it probably wasn’t that kind of fire, but metal doesn’t normally spontaneously burst into flames either, so I wasn’t ruling anything out.

The first thing I tried was to smother the flames, just in case. After destroying the dry towel I grabbed, I settled on the old standby of dumping water on it. Which worked, and the total damage only included one ruined towel, if you don’t count the destroyed teapot itself. Or the scorched drip pans. And our air filter wasn’t looking too good after processing all that smoke either. But still, the house was still standing, so I’m counting it a success.

That’s the story of how Hayley saved our house. It turns out that the plastic handle on the teapot is what caught fire. Apparently it’s not a good idea to put an empty pot on a hot burner.

I learned several very important lessons through all this: 1. If you’re child tells you that the house is on fire, it’s a good idea to double check, on the off chance that it’s not an exaggeration; 2. Make sure to only use a wet towel when trying to smother an oven fire; and 3. Our teapot might be a melted husk, and the stove burner might be coated with a thin layer of melted paint and plastic, but at least I can rest comfortably knowing that the smoke alarm in our house works perfectly.