Saturday, June 22, 2013


What I meant to post in January, I'll post now: a time-lapse video of the construction of our house on January 9.

Just a small, fun update. Even if it's completely out of date.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Life, Not at Patience Corners

"Isn't it great that Uncle Jim is out of the hospital now?"

I know. It's annoying when someone starts in on a story in medias res, without the (usually rather important) back story. (In my family, the common example is the enigmatic, "Isn't it great to have another 'A' in the family?" that appeared on a postcard from an aunt.)


Uncle Jim is fine now, and we're looking forward to getting started on rebuilding Patience Corners, hopefully sometime this month. We've got the plans all drawn up (those drafting classes did come in handy, after all!), a contractor we like, and a place to stay nearby so we can be involved in the demolition and construction. At this point, we're waiting on the bank to cross all the ts and dot all the is on the financing.

But, wait, you say. What happened?

Well, this happened.

On June 29th, the trees that had made me uneasy ever since we bought the house 14 years ago made good on their threats when a sudden, powerful storm blew through. The whole storm lasted seven minutes, but that was enough.

I was at work at the time, keeping an eye on the radar as the storm approached. I gave Deborah a quick call to tell her to bring the clothes in off the line, and joined the crew rubbernecking at the storm once the power went out.

Meanwhile, Deborah had just gotten the clothes in when the storm hit. With the rain pouring sideways, she tried phoning me to ask if the storm was bad. The phone was dead, and she yelled to the kids to get into the bathroom, screaming as the house shook and started to crack as the tree came down right behind them.

I hadn't heard my phone ringing, but Marti found me and told me my mother had called: There was a tree on my house, and I needed to go home right away. I went. I got there in time to meet the firemen asking me if there was anyone inside. I stammered the directions to the bathroom, and waited in shock until they appeared a few minutes later, carrying the kids out, barefoot and shaking. Deborah walked herself out, no less shaken.

My parents showed up.

My insurance agent showed up. She handed me a bag containing five bottles of water, two notepads, a handful of business cards, and a packet os State Farm branded tissues. The rest made sense, so I asked what the tissues were for. Linda gave me a look I don't see too often, and informed me that most people she visits under these circumstances were sitting on the curb, bawling, not sitting there matter-of-factly asking what happens next. She also handed me a check for what I thought was a ludicrous amount of money, informing me that she expected that to last me a day or two. (Later, once we'd picked up minimal set of essential supplies and groceries—$250!—I conceded she had been right about the costs involved.)

My church called. Would I like to use the missionary residence? Why, yes, I would. I arranged to meet the church secretary a bit later, and as we hauled mattresses over, I spied a box of Legos and asked if we could use those, as well. Little details had been escaping me in the larger scope of things, and I realized that the kids had nothing to play with until that point. As I would learn over the coming days and months, those little things added up, and were, in some ways, more important than the big things. Happy kids who thought this was all an adventure was a huge blessing.

The firemen let us in tot he house to grab essentials; I grabbed our PC, and the basket of clothes by the back door. For once, I was extremely grateful Deborah had not folded and put away all the clothes, and we were both amazed that it contained a at least one complete change clothing for each member of the family— one of many little "coincidences" that did not escape our attention.

As we ordered dinner (a rather boisterous affair, given the circumstances) some of the reality started to sink in. As phone calls rolled in and we told the story over and over, it became more and more obvious that life was going to be very different for a while—but that it was going to be all OK.

There are more stories to be told, but some will have to wait for another day.

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Embarassment of Riches: Race Day 2012

You know, it's not every day you see a Conestoga wagon going faster than the space shuttle. — Gary Sibert

So, how'd we do?

What I can tell you is this: we did well. We did very well.

We did so well I kinda felt bad about it, actually.

What I can't do is show you a lot of pictures of it. That was the day my new camera and my new high-capacity SD card decided that they really didn't like each other, and I was too busy clicking away to notice the little red telltale that said "Demo Mode" — only the most recent photo was stored in memory. By the time I'd realized this, all the heats with Fiona and Aiden had passed.

One picture will remain etched in my memory for some time, though: The shocked look Aiden had on his face when Time Machine crossed the finish line, well in first. He was not expecting that. (Neither was I, for that matter!)

Aiden getting a good look.

What I was not expecting was to win on speed. I hadn't really set out to compete in that category; I figured I had no chance. Turns out I was wrong. There were Fiona and Aiden, being called up to the podium, again and again, not just for the categories we'd been working towards, but for speed, as well.

Taking the podium — again — this time in the "family" category, for speed.

I can think of only three reasons for our sudden jump to the top in this category:

  1. The new rules prohibited some of the more esoteric means for achieving speed.
  2. The Siberts weren't there.
  3. The McKeevers weren't there.

The last two, I think, were the main reasons. Both had large families, were exceptionally creative, and knew how to get the last hundredth of a second out of their cars. And, both families decided to skip the derby this year. Suddenly, the simple speed mods I'd made (polishing the axles, mostly) stood a chance. It took me a minute to realize I'd been counting on their competition. I'd hated that a lot of the good work we'd done in previous years had gone unrecognized, while certain families dominated. Suddenly, we were that family, and I was extremely conscious of it.

It got worse as they started calling out the prizes for the "family" category, because very few people had entered. I even saw the judges' sheets, where they tried to distribute the prizes more evenly, but we still walked away with a lot of the top honors for creativity and speed.

Our enormous pile of loot.

So. Um. Sorry, other families. We'll try to do worse next year....

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

All That Non-Wasted Time

At this point, I should probably point out that I'd been working on Fiona and Aiden's Pine Derby cars, off and on, for nearly a year. Given the last-minute nature of the previous year's entry, I'd vowed to get an earlier start. I bought some extra kits, and we worked on them leisurely throughout the year.

Then, three weeks before the actual race, I picked up the rule sheet for this year's competition. I knew I was in trouble.

See, the previous years had been something of an arms race, with dads doing their best to outdo each other. There were lathed wheels, alignment tools, and plated axles. This year, they'd joined up with the local Cub Scout pack, and were using the stricter rules that mandated a lot less technological warfare, and a lot more child involvement. I'd spent 10 months of quality time with both Fiona and Aiden, and both their cars were disqualified, right out of the gate.

The saving grace here was a provision for a "family" category, where serious parental involvement was allowed. If we raced, both Boot Monster Big Rig and Great Endeavour would have to go in this category. Fiona could have raced in the main, but I'd moved the axles, which was verboten. To claim Aiden had done the majority of the work on his would have been quite a stretch. So I put the question to them: Did they want to race just the cars we'd made? Or did they want to race in the regular heats, against everyone else, using the stricter rules, and new cars? Or . . . both?

To my surprise, even though we just had a few weeks to go, they chose "both." So, once again, we were making cars from scratch, right down to the last minute. I handed them each a sheet of paper, and told them to draw what they wanted for their "regular" cars.

Aiden drew a wobbly wedge, and said he wanted to paint clocks on it. Fiona went over to the fishtank and drew the lobster.

We got right on that.

First step, of course, was getting our model to pose for us.

Modifying the design for the block.

I did the tricky cuts, but Fiona stood there for an hour, sanding, sanding, sanding until she got the shape she wanted.

Ready to paint. We had to pre-heat the shed for an hour to get it warm enough for spray painting.

I'm glad we had a practice run before starting to paint. There's a few lessons to be had here on technique and, well, keeping paint out of your eyes.

Lobstery the Lobster, ready to race!

Aiden's car needed a different approach. I smoothed out his lines a little, and cut pretty much exactly what he had drawn — which took all of two minutes. Painting it didn't take much longer. What could we do to make it really cool?

Aiden found this really cool paint, which dried to look like hammered gold.

Aiden just wanted to paint clocks on it, but I thought this might be a bit difficult for someone who was still learning how to write. After mulling it over for a while, I asked if he would like to put some real-looking clock hands on it. Aiden enthusiastically agreed. So we went on-line. Google Images is a wonderful thing: thousands upon thousands of clock hands, right there, isolated, and ready to use. We picked some out that we liked and his "print."

A little glue and a hair dryer later, and the designs were stuck to some small scraps of wood.

Guiding Aiden's hands as we cut out the ornate shapes on the scroll saw.

Once we'd cut out the hand, a few seconds on the sander removed the original paper, leaving us with the scrollwork. A little black spray paint and a dowel finished the look.


We called it "Time Machine."

Next up: Race Day: An Embarrassment of Riches.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Boot Monster Racing

Many, many years ago — so long ago I don't know when, so far back I don't know who — someone gave me a large block of balsa wood. Up until then, I'd never seen a piece thicker than 1/8 inch. This one was enormous by comparison: 6 inches to a side! I wanted to make something out of it, but not just any old thing. I felt like I needed to save that piece for something special. I didn't know what, but . . . something.

It mocked me for my indecision until, finally, I stuck a sign on it that read "POTENTIAL." It was a fixture on my desk all through college, reminding me to make something of the time I was given.

I finally made something out of it.

But first, I need to tell you about boot monsters. Boot monsters are a figment (and, as often as not, pigment) of Fiona's imagination. They are among the many marvelous beasts that make their way out onto paper when I'm not watching, and show up on my desk, marked "TO DADY FROM ?" (I've never had to guess who they came from.) They are great, gentle creatures who crunch up trash and sticks in the yard (they make great pets if you have a yard to mow) and used to be hunted for the warm, sturdy footwear that grew naturally on each of their four large paws. Fiona would ask me for tales of the great boot monsters of old, Paul Bunyan-sized creatures enlisted to build highways simply by shuffling their great feet along, two to four lanes at a time. Marvelous creatures.

So it wasn't surprising that, when I sat down to ask Fiona what she wanted for her pinewood derby car, her answer was swift and sure: A BOOT MONSTER!

A certain amount of negotiation followed.

Boot monster fur fades from purple and green down to brown furry boots. I didn't think I could pull that off. Fiona considered this, and returned with a request for a boot monster big rig, complete with trailers and stripes, and fades from purple to green and . . . it was a very detailed specification!

I OK'd the big rig part, but pointed out that the trailer would certainly put it over weight and over length. So we settled on a boot monster bobtail, and got to work on a design.

Yeah, we swing for the fences around here. This is what I love about this girl: she knows what she wants, she's got great taste, and she doesn't mind the work necessary.

. . . and that's about where I blew it. We made the pinewood base of the truck, redrilled the axle slots to accommodate a design with three sets of axles, rather than two, and . . . stopped. We'd made great plans and I totally dropped the ball. Busyness reigned, despite Fiona's regular reminders. I felt terrible about it. (Still do.)

A month before the race, we picked it up again. And I reached up to the shelf and got down a certain balsa block — one I'd been saving for a special occasion.

Test-fitting the cab around the pine block. It took several tries to get the shape of the fenders right.

Balsa is light, and cuts very easily. It also dents, splits, and cracks just as easily, and absorbs paint like a sponge. It didn't occur to me until recently that I'd always used balsa for internal structure — never as an exterior surface. On the other hand, Fiona loved sanding it, because it felt "furry."

Checking against the source.

Because of the way the track is set up, I couldn't do the full ten wheels. The "inside" wheels, here are actually cut in half and glued in place to give the appearance of duallies from the top.

The black part is the mandatory pine block that came with the kit; the purple is the cab Fiona and I built out of balsa.

I had enough warning on this one that I actually found an axle drilling tool so that I could reposition the axles and modify the wheelbase. The middle axle is lifted by about a millimeter, as well, so that, despite the appearance of having ten tires, it really only has six — and only four of those actually touch the track.

Does the shape of the grille look familiar? I had a metal outlet cover, and everything lined up right. It's the last-minute details you're proud of.

Speaking of last-minute details, check out the suction-cup fifth-wheel...

Fiona and I were pretty happy with it. We were all set to race. And then they made the announcement . . .

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Worm's Eye View

One of my favorite memories from my senior trip was of someone making fun of me.

We were trundling across the countryside on our way to Prague, being about as rowdy as you'd expect a bus-full of high school seniors to be. In between rounds of Beatles sing-alongs, one of my classmates climbed up on the seats and suspended himself, spread-eagled across the aisle between the luggage racks. "Look guys, It's Andy Kerr, taking a picture!" he called, before tumbling to the floor in a heap. I laughed—not at the instant Karma, but that my reputation was cemented even then.

I thought about that memory a few weeks ago, as I was crawling through the grass, stalking the ever-elusive Perfect Photo. As an ant crawled over my arm, I decided that, once I got the photo I wanted, I would stand up in that exact same place, and show you the photo I didn't take.

What I was after. Looks like a nice spot for a picnic...

What I wasn't after.

Any questions?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Great Endeavor

Yeah, OK, I'm a Derby Dad. The shoe fits; I'm wearing it. Those of you who have been around for a few years have seen the lengths I went to for Fiona's cars the last two years. Well, this year, it was Aiden's turn to get the full treatment.

Trying to make up for the last-minute nature of last year's entry, and, realizing that I had to er, got to make two cars this year, I bought a couple of extra kits and decided to get an early start. (There's an enormous amount of irony here, but I'll talk about that later.)

So, I asked Aiden what he wanted to make. Sky's the limit, I said — I figured I'd let him choose, and I'd worry about how to implement it. Well, Aiden went beyond the sky, and said he wanted a space ship. I heartily agreed, and we started sketching.

Well, I started sketching, anyway. Where Fiona can't do enough on projects like this, I was finding it hard to keep Aiden involved past the first five minutes. I don't know why; I just haven't figured out how to connect with him and motivate him yet. He's a mystery to me in so many ways. So I did this largely in five- to ten-minute segments, as long as the attention held out. Maybe I'm a bad dad, I don't know. But I'm trying.

Around the beginning of July, we watched the final flight of Atlantis, and something clicked in my mind. Instead of making up a spaceship, I asked Aiden, would you like to make a model of a real one? Aiden liked it, and the plan fell into place.

Fortunately, the details of shuttle design are well-represented on-line, and some quick calculations showed that the whole thing, tank, boosters, and all, would fit very neatly into the required pine car sizes at 1:300 scale. Better yet, there were plenty of patterns at that exact scale for people that liked to build paper models. A few printouts, and we had our blueprints. We could start cutting.

One of the non-negotiable rules is that you have to use the block of wood that came with the kit. Here, I'm cutting the initial guides on the lathe.
Getting the shape...
...and cutting the shoulders down on the places where the wheels attach. There's a lot of sanding left to make this look good.

Fortunately, Aiden enjoys sanding. This is something I have a hard time explaining; Fiona really enjoyed sanding, too, both of them way more than I expected. Maybe it's the "hands-on"-ness of it, which isn't there for the cutting or painting. Not sure. Another thing I learned? Emery boards are perfect for kids and sanding. you can get all kinds of little details, in sizes just right for little fingers. A few bucks for a pack of 50 is a bargain, too.

The appropriate attire is essential to your pine-car building experience.

The orbiter went together in several pieces:

Then it was time for painting. One of the things that has always frustrated me about the pine car derby is the fact that the weeks and months preceding it are almost without fail COLD. Spray paint doesn't dispense properly below about 50°F, and it's hard to get a really smooth finish without it. Fortunately for this car, we got the main painting done back in August. The rest of the cars had to be done indoors, in the shed, with the little wall heater running full blast for at least an hour ahead of time.

I made some special holders for both the painting and the drying. It let me (or the kids) hold the piece, while the other person did the painting. I'll be using these for many, many years, I think.

Hand painting, believe it or not, is more work than all the prep necessary for spray painting. Aiden got a lot of coaching on technique.

Checking against the source.

The final product went together the night we had to turn the cars in.

It's the last-minute details you're proud of. I needed to add a few tenths of an ounce to bring the weight up to the 5.00 oz. maximum. I was about to unscrew the brass fitting I'd set into the back of the tank, and add lead shot, when I noticed a bullet tip among the weights offered at the last-minute pine car workshop before we turned them in. A little drilling, a little super glue, a perfect rocket nozzle.

I'm pretty happy with how the final product came out. Aiden was, too.

I left the remains of the turning on the front of the tank, but cut it down to serve as a rest for the car to sit against the starting pin.

Andy to Aiden: We are go for launch!

Friday, March 09, 2012

....and it's ours.

I've been twitching all week. I'll look at the date, and suddenly panic: ay ay ay ay, I forgot to pay the.... oh, wait. And then I remember.

It's been a habit over the last 14 years, dutifully plugging away every month, sometimes more as finances allowed. But with our latest tax return, one little long-term goal finally came to fruition.

Patience Corners is ours. All ours.

If I've never explained it before, Patience Corners is the name of our house — our little cottage down by the lake. It's common here to have the name of the house out front; Shamrock, Wawataysee, Hannah Harbour, Tailwind, Aspir-Inn, and many more. We just never got the sign made.

Yes, it's the name of a quilting pattern — Deborah named it — but in our minds it pointed to the four (now three...) towering maples at each corner of our property, and for the odd resignation that we were settling in here for a while. For someone who has moved, on average, once per year until that point, buying a house was like merrily wrapping ourselves in chains; like dropping the balled roots of a tree into the soil and filling in the hole. It seemed so reckless, a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

But here we are. The longest either of us have ever lived in one place. Stable enough that other people have moved to be closer to us. Long enough to stretch out into the loamy soil, and find that it's not bad to be rooted.

* * *

We told the real estate agent what our price range was. She laughed. And then she looked at us with amused pity, loaded us into her Cadillac, and took us all over Warsaw to look at houses that fit the bill.

Most of them were awful. Huge, gaping holes in the floors. Huge, gaping holes in the roof. Bedrooms that wouldn't even fit a bed. Dark, dreary places, filled with the stench of cigarette smoke and littered with old Penthouse magazines. We were pretty discouraged as we rolled up to a little white house down by the lake.

"I saved this one for last," our agent told us. We walked in. It was bright and airy, with big windows, fresh paint, and new carpet. There was plenty of room for us and our stuff. "We'll take it," we told her, and she whipped the paperwork out of her purse, already half filled out. We wrote the offer on the kitchen counter. Deborah wanted to wheel and deal, lowballing the offer. I fixed her with what I hoped was a steely gaze. "Which of those other places do you want to live in if we don't get this house?" We offered the full price with a sage nod from the realtor. "Now, if you don't mind, kids, I'm going to leave you here. I'm going to take this directly to the seller." We gave a happy shrug, and she was off. Good thing, too: while the sellers were signing to accept our offer, a competing offer was coming in on the fax machine.

We got this place by five minutes.

* * *

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. — Psalm 16:6