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Monday, January 30, 2017

The Secret Garden, Building a Secret Entrance

Last summer my kids and I began planning a secret garden (if you missed the first installment of this project, you can read about it here). The plan was to turn a junky, sheltered corner of my yard into a secret garden for my kids. Now I have to admit something. This was partly a selfish plan on my part. My kids love playing outside, and they love playing in the dirt. Digging, making mud pies, throwing dirt clods. As long as dirt is involved, they love it. So I figured if they have a corner of the yard to call their own, they will stop procuring their dirt from the yard and vegetable garden.

So we began with the question: What makes a secret garden a Secret Garden? The answer: a secret entrance.

After determining where the secret entrance would be, I started working on the door. The door frame consists of two four by four posts sunk in concrete, with an arch spanning the top. The arch was made with redwood fence panels, layered, cut in angles, glued, and then shaped into an arch. The gate was also made from redwood fence panels, glued and shaped to match the circumference of the arch.
Bushes out; time to set the posts

After all of the gate pieces were cut and assembled, it was time to dig out the oleander bushes. We needed to remove two oleanders to make space for the new door, so we got out the saws, loppers, and shovels, and we went to town. After numerous irrigation repairs (seriously, why would anybody run sprinkler lines directly underneath a row of oleanders?), we had our space.

So here is where thinking ahead really helped me. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew that I wanted to have something in the front of the gate that would undo the latch at the back of the gate. After all, it wouldn't be a secret garden if any old person could find a way in. So, knowing that something would eventually work out, I embedded a u-shaped piece of PVC pipe in the concrete when we set our posts in the ground. The concrete dried, the kids wrote their initials, and the gate was up.
First post in

The next step required trial and error. After installing the latch, I had to figure out how to secretly open it from the front. At first I ran a piece of chain from the top of the latch, through the u-shaped piece of PVC, and out to the front of the gate. The chain weighed so much that it would not allow the clasp to close. After various trials using different materials, I finally attached a spring to the thin wire that ran to the front of the gate. This spring allows the wire to release the gate closure to open the gate, but then snaps the closure back in place, ensuring that grownup riffraff  will not wander into the secret childhood space. The wire ran through the PVC and was attached to a small log. By pulling up on the log, the kids can secretly open the gate, and the grownups are none the wiser!

Helping with the concrete
After the gate was finalized, it was time to begin clearing out the space. Big A and I went to town, removing old yard waste, tree debris, a pile of dirt, and some roofing materials.

While the Secret Garden now has its secret entrance, it is still a blank slate. Be watching for the transformation to see what kind of magic my kids begin to make back there.

All smiles while digging
Sisters playing with concrete
Completed arch!
The Secret Gate

The secret log
Still all smiles!
What will this trash pile become?
Time to clean up
The magic spring

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Four Ways to Find Free Firewood

This time of year, there are few things that I like more than having a cozy fire in the fireplace on a chilly evening. Yes, I live in Arizona, and our chilly evenings are not the same as the frigid nights that we had when we lived in Chicago, but nonetheless, I like fires. Crackling logs, the fragrant smell of the wood burning, the flickering glow of the flames. It is the perfect background for reading a book, watching a movie, cooking, cleaning, or doing just about anything.

But I'm cheap. For years I would buy cords or half cords of perfectly cut and stacked firewood. This wood was usually more than what I wanted to spend on something that would just be burned up in my fireplace. Then I turned into Scrooge, putting as few logs on the fire as possible. Just enough to give me the glow and the smells and the feeling, without actually being a roaring fire. But this didn't satisfy my desire to have regular fires in the fireplace. So I started looking for cheaper ways to enjoy everything that comes with a fireplace fire.

Monday, November 28, 2016

We're Almost There, Even When We're Not: Lessons in Perseverance from a Hike

This past weekend my family and I went on a hike. My father-in-law was visiting, and we needed a way to work off our post-Thanksgiving sluggishness. I found a trail that, in all of my years living in Arizona, I had never heard of. It is called the Hieroglyphic Trail in Gold Canyon, Arizona, and the trail ends with many petroglyphs (and I learned something. Hieroglyphs are paintings or drawings on rocks, while petroglyphs are carvings into rocks. But I still don't know why a trail with petroglyphs is named after hieroglyphs). While I did not read anything about the distance of the trail, several hikers had written about this being an easy hike for kids. So we decided to fill up some water bottles, pack up the family truckster, and head to Gold Canyon to see some petroglyphs.

It was a beautiful winter day in Arizona. While most of the country was dealing with snow, we had an overcast 74 degree day with some wind - perfect for hiking. We started off, and the kids ran ahead, excited to see ancient Native American carvings. Since we had three adults and three kids, we divided and conquered, and I powered ahead with my eight-year-old, blazing the trail for the rest of the family.
Just keep hiking, just keep hiking...

After 45 minutes, the kids were done. We had gone about a mile, mostly uphill. They hadn't eaten in more than 50 minutes, and in my house that is when the kids begin to think about eating grass, leaves, dirt, or anything else they can get their hands on. I started giving shoulder rides, turning into daddy mule, trying to keep spirits up. I asked somebody walking back towards us how close we were, and she said that we were about halfway there.

Cool petroglyphs at the end

Halfway there, running low on snacks, kids wearing out. So when they asked me if we were almost there, I said what every dad in the history of fatherhood has said at some point in his life. "Yes, we are almost there. Let's keep going." We bribed with gum ("If you're positive for 10 minutes you each get a piece of gum."). We joked. We told stories. And the second mile, also uphill, felt like it went so much quicker.

When we got to the end of the two mile hike, the petroglyphs were amazing. There was fascinating detail, which I almost missed due to the constant near heart attacks from kids almost falling down the rocks. We sat and finished off our food while I wondered if my kids were going to resort to cannibalism during the two mile hike back. And we talked about how much easier heading back would be because it was mostly downhill.

During the hike back, I thought about what we would have missed if we had turned back when we were told that we were only halfway there. How would my kids have reacted if I had told them we weren't even close? We still would have had a good hike, but we would have missed out on some really cool history, as well as all of the great family time that we had.
A nap at the end...

We pushed through on the hike, and we got to see some really cool things. We continually tell our kids that they can do hard things. And the fact that my eight-, six-, and four-year-old all hiked four miles was definitely a really hard thing. I hope that my kids will apply this perseverance to life whenever difficulties present themselves.

So if you're ever in the Phoenix are and you're looking for a great hike, check out the Hieroglyphic Trail. Make sure to pack up plenty of snacks, plenty of water, and brush up on your cadence songs and knock knock jokes, because you'll need all of this on the hike.
...And a nap on the way back.

And remember, in the grand scheme of things, "we're almost there" can always be used, because any distance can be considered short, depending on what it's compared to.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Three Healthy, Easy, Frozen Treats for Kids

As a dad, I sometimes feel like the Batman character Two Face. He's the guy who got burned with acid on one side of his face only, conveniently forming a straight line down the middle. The natural side of Two Face is logical. The acid-burned side of Two Face is impulsive. That's the way I feel as a father, with the smooth-skinned side of my fatherly soul wanting to give my kids only good things, and the purple, acid-burned side wanting to spoil my kids with all kinds of treats.

That's why I love treats that can appease both sides of my battling soul by being both nutritious while also seeming like a treat. Parenthetically, I recently convinced myself that ice cream does not count as a nutritious, calcium-filled serving of dairy.

So here are three of my kids' favorite nutritious treats.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Arizona Railway Museum: Cheap Fun for the Whole Family

As a parent, I sometimes feel like I have stale ideas. I usually have the same ideas: take the kids to the zoo, take them out for ice cream, or go on a long bike ride with them. I find it difficult to stretch out and find new things to do.

And then a couple of weeks ago I was driving home from work and I noticed quite a few train cars off of the beaten path. I investigated and discovered the Arizona Railway Museum. I knew that I had to take the kids and check it out.