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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.

Yikes!
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.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Manure and Memories: 8 Easy Steps for a Great Winter Lawn

I really like family traditions. Getting out great grandma's roasting pan at Thanksgiving. Pulling out the LGB train at Christmas. Cuddling up to watch a great Christmas movie with the family while a fire is roaring in the fireplace. Yes, I love family traditions.

And nothing says "I'm ready for winter" like getting the kids outside to spread poop in the yard. This is the time of year that I get the winter lawn ready (something that we do in Arizona and that seems really bizarre to my friends in the frigid Midwest). Every year, I almost skip doing it. I almost skipped doing it this year. I wasn't sure if I wanted to spend the money. I wasn't sure if I wanted to mow the lawn throughout the winter. I felt mildly guilty about the water use to keep the lawn going. So many things that pointed me to skipping the lawn for the season.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Stop!: How My Thumb Injury Continually Saves Me

This is a picture of my thumb. Actually, it's a little more than half of my thumb. The rest of my thumb is long since gone.

In 2007, I retiled my entire house, and then replaced all of the baseboards and door moldings with solid wood trim. I was about 90% done with the job and was exhausted. These two things never go well together. I was attempting to fashion two pieces of trim together using my biscuit joiner, and instead of using a clamp, I held one of the pieces on the ground with my hand. As the high speed blade contacted the wood, it knocked the wood out of my hand and pulled my thumb into the blade. Ouch!

After a several-hour surgery, including a skin graft and a pin to help repair the shaved down, split bone, I was on a several month trip to PT and rehab. The result is a thumb that leaves my kids staring, asking questions, and saying, "Poor daddy."

And I wouldn't trade this thumb for a whole one.

Every time I use my table saw, my miter saw, or any other saw or power tool, I hold the material with my left hand. My mangled thumb stares at me as if to say, "Are you being safe with what you're about to do? Shouldn't you be using a push stick, or a clamp, or something else to keep your hand out of the way?" Some of the time, I continue on with what I'm doing because I am being safe, utilizing clamps and safe clearances. But some of the time I realize that I'm pushing the boundaries of safety and need to step up my safety again. Thank you, thumb, for the reminder.

Recently, my thumb helped me realize another dumb thing that I have been doing. I was driving home from work and was at a red light. I pulled out my phone to check my email, and when the light turned green I started driving, keeping my phone out. And there, holding the steering wheel, was my mangled thumb, my Jiminy Cricket, saying, "Is this really the best choice that you could make right now, or are you doing something that would be another momentary lapse of judgement with lifelong consequences?" Well played, mangled thumb. Well played.

So of my fingers, my half thumb still reminds me to be safe. It is there staring me in the face when I am about to do something stupid, and hopefully it will continue to keep me from cutting off anything else.

So please, use the clamps, put your phone down, be safe, and keep your digits!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

One Foolproof Recipe for No-Cry Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are one of those vegetables that people either love or hate. Some people see them as delicious, sweet leafy greens chock full of vitamins. Others see them as earwax flavored mini cabbages that are best for compost. Whether you're a lover or a hater, you probably have a vegetable like this in your family.

I am a lover, and my wife was a hater. When we first got married, I suggested that we have Brussels sprouts for dinner. My wife gave me a face that showed me that I may have crossed a line that a newlywed should not cross. I pressed on, and told her that maybe she didn't have them prepared the right way. She gave me my one chance. I steamed some Brussels sprouts, added a lot of butter and salt, and held my breath. She took one bite, and I knew that I had won her over.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Side Table for a Stand Up Desk

About two years ago I shared my inexpensive stand up desk plan. I have used this stand up desk for almost three years, and I still love it just as much as the first day I put it together. I feel much better after a long day in front of my work computer than I did when tasks like that required me to sit in an office chair.

However, I recently expanded to a second monitor, and the stand up desk wasn't cutting it alone. I needed a companion surface for my desk. If I had merely doubled my stand up desk, I would have been without any work surface, so a second table/shelf combination would not have worked. I could have looked for a pre-made alternative, but that wouldn't have necessarily fit in my work space. So it was time to bust out with the table saw, some plywood, and an afternoon with my son (the girls were at dance class; otherwise they would have been part of it as well).

Sunday, August 21, 2016

7 Cheap Homeowner Hacks to Keep You Safe, Clean, Efficient, and Happy



As almost any homeowner knows, finding shortcuts, cheats, hacks, or any other way to complete projects more efficiently is always welcome. Many times I hear about something that is so simple that I’m shocked I never thought of it. As I have been working on projects here and there, I have pulled together some of the hacks that I use. So here are seven home hacks to keep you safe, clean, efficient, and happy.
  1. Use long screws for safety and stability. Door hinges and

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Broken Irrigation, Tears of Disappointment, and a Chance to Fix Them Both




The other day I brought home some plumbing parts and left them on the counter. After dinner, my four-year-old son decided to put the two pieces of PVC together and pound them on the ground, wedging the much needed parts together. I scolded him, snatched the pieces, and went into the garage to try to pull them apart, leaving my son weeping. I was so irritated, but my frustration was more at the plumbing situation and not so much at my son.



You see, this plumbing issue has been ongoing. Before we got the house, some knucklehead installed a sprinkler system that includes seven sprinkler valves all stacked up on top of each other in an eight inch strip of dirt, with the house on one side and the driveway on the other. One line has broken numerous times, and each attempt at a fix is filled with frustration, scraped knuckles, and usually

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Great Camp Food and Other Family Camping Hacks



For those of you who do not live in Arizona, it is hot right now. Really hot. Like second-degree-burns-from-trying-to-touch-the-steering-wheel-to-drive hot. This makes it an ideal time to escape to the mountains for a respite from the heat. In just a short two hour drive, we can go from, “I feel like my brain has melted into my feet,” to, “I forgot what it was like to wear long pants and be comfortable.” Aside from the 40-degree temperature drop, camping has so many other benefits – clean pine-scented air, activities that do not involve electricity, time for kids to explore, and cooking everything over an open fire. I love camping, and especially camp food! 

Over the years, and through the dozens of camping trips that we have taken as a family, we have developed some great cheats, or things that make camping a lot easier. Some of these I have seen floating around the internet, but unfortunately do not have the original source. Some of these might be common knowledge, but they seemed like revelations to me. And some of these may be things that we have made up, so all royalties can be sent directly to us. Regardless of where they came from, use what works for you and get outdoors! 
    1.  Foil dinners. My wife and I have made foil dinners for almost 20 years of camping. The premise is simple – take a piece of foil and spray it with oil. Add ground beef, onions, carrots, and celery, along with some onion soup mix. Wrap it all up and seal the foil. Put it directly in hot coals and cook about 20-30 minutes, turning it halfway through. The problem – all of the good stuff on the outside usually gets burned. The solution – cabbage leaves. Add a layer of cabbage leaves on the top and bottom. They help the foil dinner retain its moisture, and they burn instead of your dinner. But that’s fine, since it’s cabbage, and I wasn’t going to eat it anyway.  
     
    2.  Doggie zip line. So I’m pretty proud of this one. We love taking our dog camping with us, but if we are in a campsite or need to keep the dog from running off, we need something other than a leash. We have tried a coil of rope, but the dog inevitably wraps the rope around the camp chairs or runs the

    Wednesday, July 6, 2016

    10 Tips for a Successful Family Road Trip


    Last year my family and I took a road trip from Phoenix to San Diego. We embraced the challenge that can come with having three young children, then ages seven, four, and three, in a car for an extended period of time. This year, we upped the ante by planning a road trip with our now eight-, five-, and four-year-olds, from Phoenix to Chicago. My wife and I have made this cross country trip several times, and can do it in about 27 hours. However, adding the energy of three children into a car was a feat of strength. Prior to the trip, everybody I talked to about the trip thought we were crazy for driving. However, we had a wonderful time and created some great memories. Based on this trip, I have compiled ten things that helped us have a successful road trip.  

    1. Take your time. For me, this is difficult. When I get in the car to go someplace, I want to get there. However, once we decided that we were going to slow down and enjoy the trip, I started to have less apprehension. We looked for stopping points along the way and made sure that we had plenty of time to rest, stretch, and have fun.
    Greetings from the Petrified Forest

    2. Look for fun things to do along the way. Because we slowed down, I started to look for fun things to do on our route.
    We stopped at some concrete teepees, complete with dinosaur statues (not really sure how those fit together), in northern Arizona. We drove on a musical road in New Mexico. We saw the Cadillac Ranch in Texas. We stopped in Holbrook, Arizona, which reminded us all of Radiator Springs from Cars. I enjoyed looking for those great sites that are normally missed when flying down the interstate.

    3. Have activities. My wife is the master of this. We used

    Friday, June 17, 2016

    The Best Graduation Gift Parents and Teachers Could Ever Give Their Kids



    One spring towards the end of my teaching career, I had a parent request a meeting. All educators know that when parents request a meeting, it usually means that they want to complain about something that you did. I didn’t know what this parent wanted to complain about, but I braced for it. She handed me a blank piece of paper and asked me to write a letter to her daughter. She explained that she had started doing this for her daughter in kindergarten. Every year she had the teacher write a letter to the daughter as an eighteen-year-old. She was compiling the letters in a binder, and as a graduation present, she would give her the binder with letters from her thirteen years of school. Anybody who knows me can guess that I shed a tear, both at the thoughtfulness of this mom and at the honor to be able to write a letter like that to a student. I decided then and there that when I had kids I would do the same thing.

    Somewhere along the line we decided that, instead of just doing letters, we would get a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! for each of our kids. I would have their teachers

    Tuesday, June 7, 2016

    How to Make the Most of Summer: A Guide for Educators

    Before I became an educational administrator, I spent 8 years teaching. Four of those years I had summers off without kids, and four years I had summers with kids. Before we had kids, I usually spent my summers doing some sort of house project. Summer was a time to re-tile the house, put in French doors, cut off my thumb. Yeah, I really had the summer thing down. Summers with kids were the same, except there were kids in the house. So essentially I would find time to get projects done around being a dad.

     But I learned several things throughout the years, both as a teacher and as an administrator. It is very easy to let a summer slip by. Summers can easily sail past rather quickly, and the last thing I want is to be starting a new school year feeling not rested. In fact, I have discovered that no matter how long a school break is, the majority of teachers come back to school stating, “I could have used just one more day.” 

    So here is a guide that I have compiled both through experience and through conversations that will help you make the most of the summer.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2016

    The Beginning of a Secret Garden

    I love gardening. I know that this statement is pretty obvious, but I'm not sure if you understand how much I enjoy gardening. Mowing the lawn is one of my favorite chores. I can get lost in time trimming trees. I start to get a little giddy in the fall, anticipating the hours that I get to spend spreading seed and shoveling manure to put in a winter lawn. If I go for a couple of weeks without doing yard week or gardening, I start to feel like I'm losing my soul.

    So when my eight year old daughter recently read The Secret Garden and then could not keep herself out of the garden, my heart beat with the joy of 1,000 angels singing. She has been weeding, digging, planting, watering, and doing whatever she can in the garden day in and day out. So of course a Renaissance Dad wants to continue to encourage this type of behavior.

    Behind this row of oleanders...will be a secret place.
    Enter the corner of my yard.

    We have a row of oleanders at the back of our yard, and behind them is my workshop. There is a small triangular hunk of wasted space sitting back there. I have always thought about this as a great place for raising chickens, if and when my city ever lifts their ban on chickens (don't get me started on that one). But my wife and I started talking about this little corner. What if we made it a secret garden for the kids? What if this became the area where they could dig and plant whatever they wanted? What if the kids had a place to make mud pies, look for worms, grow and pick as many flowers as they wanted. And what if I pulled out an oleander or two and built a secret door for their secret garden?

    So while the secret garden is merely in its infancy, I could not contain my excitement to share the early stages of this project.

    Stay tuned for the next phase of The Secret Garden project.

    Thursday, May 26, 2016

    Let It Go: Struggles of a Type-A Parent

    Like most educators, I have a type-A personality. I like things in order. They may not always seem to be in order to others, but my order makes sense to me. I like routine. I like plans, especially my plans. And like Hannibal Smith from "The A-Team", I love it when a plan comes together (hmmm, "Type-A", "A-Team". Coincidence? I think not...).

    I struggle with this when it comes to my kids. They don't like order. They like to throw wrenches into plans. They like chaos.

    This may be hard to believe for people who have read this blog, but for anybody who knows me, this probably comes as no surprise. I often get frustrated when my grand master plan starts to unravel.

    So let me tell you about last week. My three year old son was very sad because his sisters had a decorative cross hanging in their room and he didn't have one. So we decided to make one together. I have pieces from an old organ, and we searched through to find a piece of wood that we thought we could use. So far, everything was going according to my plan. And I was spending some great time with my son.

    We decided to plane the piece down to remove the old varnish, stain, and marks. And here is where the metaphorical wheels fell off. As I was straightening up the workshop, Little E decided that he was going to work on a project of his own. He found my bin of irrigation supplies, and his engineering spirit took over. He started constructing a machine. And he had a description of everything that this machine did. I started to get irritated. After all, he was the one that enlisted me to work on a project. I was doing this for him.

    And then he held up his machine, and my heart melted. He was having so much fun. So what if the cross did not get completed that day. Actually, the cross didn't get started that day. But Little E and I got to play with PVC pieces, build machines, and laugh. I was reminded, not for the first time and definitely not for the last, that my children will not necessarily remember our output, but rather the quality of our time together. There will be plenty of time for me to build things for and with my kids. But when their engineering spirit, or creative abilities, or gardening minds take over, I should embrace that. After all, parenting isn't just about bringing my kids into what I am doing. It's also about the time that I spend doing the things that they love.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2016

    From Cluttered to Classy - Organizing a Homework Station

    Before my wife and I had kids, we were really cool. We would regularly go out on dates, we vacuumed and mopped our house every two weeks whether it needed it or not, and we had a wine rack on which we kept bottles of wine. Yes, actual bottles of wine, stored on horizontal holders. It was fantastic.
    Cut list - good for four medium sized baskets

    And then the kids came. They just started showing up until we had three of them. The bottles of wine were apparently consumed, or just moved away from little hands that seemed to pull down everything below the three foot line. As the kids got older, that really cool wine rack started to fill up with baskets of kids things. Coloring books, pencil boxes, hair band kaboodles, and all kinds of kid things started piling up on our once-cool and appropriately-named wine rack. And the thing about kids is that, no matter how much things are organized, they have a tendency to undo it. I have a theory about this, something along the lines that they want to see if parents can get better and more efficient with their cleaning and organization.

    Then one day my wife and I looked at each other and silently decided that we were going to take back the organization in our kitchen. Actually, it sounded more like my wife saying, "What do you think about building a wall rack to organize all of this junk?" And so one of the easiest, quickest, and aesthetically pleasing projects took shape. As with most of my projects, this was done on the cheap. I used scrap pieces of 3/4" maple plywood to build the shelf unit. Twelve inch boards could also be used, or, if you need to buy the plywood, the size pictured can be cut from a half sheet of 3/4" plywood. The baskets were $5 each, and the paint was fairly inexpensive, resulting in an organization project that was less than $30.


    I started by cutting the plywood according to the diagram. I used pocket holes and wood glue to attach the horizontal pieces to the vertical pieces. If you don't have a pocket hole jig, you could also use screws driven from the outside into the shelves, with a little wood filler to hide the holes.

    Once the shelf was assembled, I attached a cleat to the back of it, under the top shelf. Since I was only planning on storing school supplies and hair do-dads, I was not anticipating too much weight, so one cleat seemed sufficient. The cleat allows the bracket (receiving cleat) to be leveled and hung without needing a helper or two.

    At this point, everything was ready for a coat of paint. Since all of our appliances are stainless steel and black, we decided on a black shelf with grey baskets. Once the paint was dry, the cleat was positioned on the wall and screwed to the studs (make sure your kids are around when you calibrate your stud finder - point it to yourself, wait for it to beep, and let your kids know that it has found a stud. This never gets old). With the wall cleat secured, the shelf cleat can slide into place, with two additional screws attaching the shelf cleat to the studs.

    The last thing to do was to transfer all of the junk from the wine rack into the new baskets. Actually, this is a great point to realize that you do not need 50 outlet covers, to find the missing shelf pin, and to put the 27 half burned tea lights in with the fireplace starters (we used to light candles when we had wine). Baskets organized and set up, and the kitchen goes from cluttered to classy.

    With a project this easy, I might need to design and build a wine rack that can be attached high on the wall. Maybe I'll even attach some candle holders. Time to bring back the class!




    Monday, April 25, 2016

    Grow Your Own Artichokes in Three Easy Steps

    As much as I hate to say it, I am a creature of habit. I like routine. I like normalcy. I like order. As a school principal, I deal with chaos on a daily basis, so I like to settle into my routine when I get home. Right now, you may be picturing Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins singing "The Life I Lead." It's not quite that extreme, and I never get a pipe and glass of sherry at exactly 6:02. But someday maybe...someday.

    Because I like routine, as I plant my summer garden, it is almost always the same thing. Some variety of cherry tomatoes (last year I went nuts and planted black cherry tomatoes, which were AMAZING), watermelons, strawberries, and some sort of pepper that almost never survives the Arizona summer. My heart wants me to expand what I plant in my garden, but my brain tells me that I have had success with the tomatoes and mild success with the others, so I should keep on that track.

    So I think my wife thought I was having a midlife crisis two years ago when I came home from Harper's Nursery with two artichoke plants. I knew nothing about how artichokes grew, but I spontaneously bought them and planted them in two areas of my yard. For those of you unacquainted with artichoke plants, they grow a little like broccoli. Out of the center of the plant one larger artichoke will grow, with several smaller ones growing around that one. Unlike broccoli or other vegetables, artichokes will grow year after year. In fact, one of my artichoke plants has sprouted several smaller plants that are growing in the fringes of my yard, so I carefully mow around those in hopes of gleaning some more artichokes.

    But let me tell you about The Beast. This is the artichoke plant that I put in the ground in a wasted corner of my yard. It was rocky, sandy, and the area has seen the death of two trees. The only reason I put the artichoke there is because I didn't know where else to put it.

    In its first year, The Beast provided us with three decent sized artichokes, and a couple of smaller ones. This year, The Beast has continued to grow. It now stands over six feet tall, has a girth of at least six feet, and has so far provided us with one enormous artichoke (think of a 12-inch softball, and then make it bigger), and 11 normal store-size artichokes. But you're probably asking yourself if they are any good. Surely artichokes that big are dried out, fibrous, disgusting balls of compost waiting to happen. Not true, my friend. It turns out that these home grown artichokes are so much better than the store bought varieties. My kids ravenously eat them, there are never artichoke leftovers, and we can't wait for the next crop after going through all of our artichokes for the year.

    Looking back, I really never felt like I had a moment where I thought, "Gee, I feel like my garden is just missing artichokes. I really should plant some." But I am really glad that I had that moment of gardening spontaneity. It has really added to the vegetable variety that we have in the summer, we eat a lot more artichokes now, and I feel quite successful although I do almost nothing to encourage the growth of the plants.

    So I promised "Three Easy Steps" to growing artichokes. Here they are:

    1. Buy artichokes.
    2. Plant artichokes.
    3 Wait, and then eat artichokes.

    My experience really was that simple. Who knows what my next spontaneous nursery purchase will produce...

    Sunday, April 10, 2016

    Six Reasons Why Parents Should Date Their Children

    I am really struggling with the knowledge of the high probability that at some point in my kids' lives each one of them will probably date a loser. That may sound too harsh, but I have really high expectations for my kids, and I know that at some point one of them will show up for a date with somebody that I won't be able to stand. My oldest is just 7 years old, so hopefully I will have at least a decade before I need to worry about this, but I am already preparing myself for this experience.

    From what I can tell, there are only a handful of possible solutions to this. I can either just accept the fact that this is inevitable and there is nothing that I can do about it. I can swing the pendulum to the other side and be the kind of dad who cleans weapons at the table when a date comes over (I'm not ruling that out). Or I can begin my preemptive strike now and help guide my kids to the point where they will look for people who will treat them with respect and recognize a good boyfriend or girlfriend before I have to give any input. Can you tell what my plan is?

    Before I move on, please remember that my oldest is only 7 years old. I have no way of knowing if what I am planning on doing will work or not. I'm also not arrogantly saying that my method of helping my kids avoid dating losers is the only way. I'm just getting my thoughts written down. For the entire world to see. So, world, here is my master plan.

    Milkshake date at a diner
    I am going to attempt to regularly date my children. I have blogged about dating my kids before, but I want to write about it again for two reasons. One, I really think that this is an important part of parenthood that often gets missed. It's something that I sometimes forget to think about until one of my kids looks me in the eyes and says, "Daddy, when can we go on a date again?" My dad regularly spent one-on-one time with me, usually walking either to the mall or to someplace with great happy hour food specials so we could watch football. This one-on-one time helped me get to know my dad and my dad to get to know me. More importantly, this quality time helped me to become a better husband and a better father.

    The second reason that I'm blogging about this is because I'm not that great at it. By sending it out to the world, I'm reminding myself of the importance of dating my kids. I also have to spend time with them to get pictures to put into the article. And by "have to" I mean "get to." So here are some of the things that I have learned about what a date with one of my kids should look like.

    Gummy worms and ice cream - his favorite
    1. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be fancy. I don't need to spend a lot of money to take my kids out. In fact, one of their favorite things to do is to go to an ice cream parlor for a milk shake or a sundae. This usually costs $5 or less. But it is fancy in that I dress up for them. I let my daughters pick out my clothes. I wear a tie, and sometimes a sport coat. Am I out of place in a '50s diner wearing a sport coat? Kind of. But I want my kids to know that I value our time together enough to dress up for them. My hope is that this will translate into my kids seeing that they are worth dressing up for, so anybody they date better do the same.

    2. I ask my kids what they want to do. This is a difficult one for me. Sometimes I have something in mind, and I bring the kids along. While I really enjoy doing this, and they usually do as well, I want a date to be something that we decide on together. I may give them a couple of choices, but I want them to help decide. Last week my three-year-old and I were going to spend some time together. I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to ride bikes to the frozen yogurt place. That was not my first choice, or second choice. But it was important to him, so it became important to me. Hopefully this will translate to my kids seeing that a healthy relationship is one in which both parties get a say.

    She set out her dress a month before.
    3. I model the behaviors that I want bestowed upon my kids. I open doors, I say "please" and "thank you", and I smile. I know that a lot of this seems like a given, but when I see young people out on dates, I don't always see these behaviors. I want my kids to expect these things when they begin dating, sometime in their mid 30's.

    4. I tip big. I want my kids to have a respect for everybody that they encounter. I waited tables in college, so I know how hard servers work. And whether it is a big tip, a kind word, a thank you, or all three, I want my kids to come to expect this kind of behavior in a restaurant.

    5. I ask my kids a lot of questions. I don't want our dates to be just me talking about me. I want to get to know them, and I want to teach them the importance of asking questions of the other person. Sometimes the questions are serious, like "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Sometimes they are silly, like, "What super power do you wish you could have?" or "If you could have any animal for a pet, what would you want?" We laugh a lot during the silly questions.

    6. I date my kids because I love them. It is a great break from the chaos of life to spend some time with each of my kids. I enjoy just being with them, being in their company.

    Parents, let's all challenge ourselves to take our kids out on a date. Let's spend time really getting to know who our kids are.

    Saturday, March 26, 2016

    How to Help Your Kids Sleep In: A Parent's Survival Tool

    When my oldest daughter was 18 months old, she would often call us into her room when she woke up. Initially this was around 6:00. Considering that she went to bed at 7:00 in the evening, 6:00 didn't seem too bad. Then she started waking up at 5:45. Then 5:30. Then 5:00. All of a sudden our great little sleeper was driving mommy and daddy crazy. No matter what time she went to bed, she was awake and ready for her day to start well before I had my first cup of coffee. We needed a solution.

    Enter Momo.

    Momo is our best friend. Momo is a life saver. Momo is a plastic monkey clock. We discovered Momo on Amazon as we were looking for solutions to help our little early bird. Here's how Momo works. At night, when you're putting your child to sleep, you push a button and Momo closes his eyes. We turned this into a "Say goodnight to Momo" ritual. You explain that when Momo's eyes are closed, it's still night. Then, at the time you set, Momo will open his eyes and your early bird can begin to gather her worms. There is also the option to turn on jungle sounds when Momo opens his eyes to help wake your little one.

    There are many child sleep aids out there - some with lights, some with colors, some with sounds. For us, open eyes and closed eyes were so easy to explain to our kids that we quickly grew quite fond of Momo. In fact, Momo is such a champion in our house that we have two - one Momo for each kid room. And Momo has been keeping Mommy and Daddy sane for the past five years. Our kids like the feeling of knowing what time it is before being able to tell time. Our oldest used to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and she would say, "Is it morning? Wait, I'll check Momo." And our youngest loves being able to announce to the family when it's morning because of Momo.

    Thank you, Momo, for all of your service! We want our early birds to get their worms, but not too early.

    Friday, March 18, 2016

    Tips for Keeping Kids and Parents Sane During Business Trips

    My wife has been in Thailand for six days. She comes home in two days. This is an annual occurrence in our house. Every Spring Break my wife has a business trip in Asia. It is typically scheduled around my Spring Break so we do not need to worry about full time child care for the week. This means that for one week every year I get to try to figure out how to do what my wife and I normally to do together by myself. With a seven-, five-, and three-year-old. BY MYSELF. Last year my cousins stayed with me since the trip did not coincide with my Spring Break. This year my mom watched the kids for a couple of hours so I could find my sanity. But business trips are taxing on kids and parents, and luckily, we have discovered some great things that work for us. Hopefully you will find them useful for your next business trip.

    Prior to the trip we bag and label some gifts for the kids, one for each day that mom will be gone. These do not need to be expensive gifts; we usually get some prizes from the dollar aisle at Target. We look for things that are not just cheap trinkets, but things that can help keep the kids occupied, which may or may not be cheap trinkets. Some ideas are coloring books, markers or crayons, bubbles, books, or sidewalk chalk. In the past we have had a new movie for a movie night. This trip we had some money for the ice cream man. He was accosted by my kids today and we all got an ice cream treat. That was a hit!

    Each bag gets a sticker with the day on it. This is a great visual for young kids to see how many days until mom returns. I have alternated in the past with getting to open the presents first thing in the morning and getting to open the presents after dinner. Every trip I change it up and I really haven't found that one works better than the other.

    Throughout the week I try to find things to do with the kids to keep them from missing mommy too much. They get treats that I normally wouldn't let them have, not because mommy isn't here to be the rule gestapo. It's not like I need her permission to spoil the kids (honey, if you're reading this from Thailand, everything is great and I didn't give the kids candy from Sweeties for the movie night tonight, so nothing to worry about). Sometimes I trick them into thinking they're getting treats. One favorite for this is the homemade Dreamsicle that I blogged about two years ago. The kids still think that they're getting dessert, when they're actually just getting frozen breakfast foods.

    Technology is wonderful and my kids get to Facetime my wife every day. With her in Thailand, our tonight is her tomorrow morning, so we can easily line up times that work for everybody. But she is extra sensitive about being alert to what is going on here in Arizona with the kids during the call. So if a kid is having a meltdown, she doesn't try to keep asking about their day or telling me about hers. Just a quick, "I love you guys. Don't bust daddy's chops," and we can get back to having the kids bust my chops. 

    Finally, for extended trips like this, bringing back prizes really helps. I still remember my parents taking trips when I was a kid, and the excitement of them opening their suitcases with a new stuffed animal, a book, or a shirt. Again, this doesn't need to be anything big or expensive, but just something for the kids, and spouse-left-at-home, to know that they were missed. We try to make the time with mommy gone filled with enough fun that the kids will not dread that time when the next trip comes around.

    I just noticed that there is one bag left for this trip. I know that I can survive one more day. Maybe next trip I will request goodie bags that I can open throughout the week.

    Monday, February 22, 2016

    Changing a Tire: So Easy a Child Could Do It

    Last week, as I was driving home from work, I smelled burning rubber and wondered if I had engine problems. Then I noticed that the car in front of me had a flat, shredded tire. I followed the car into a parking lot and got out to ask the driver if she needed help. She responded that she didn't know if she even had a spare tire in her car (note: almost every car has a spare tire of some sort up until the 2015 model year. Finding yourself stranded is the worst time to try to figure out how your spare tire works or if you have one. If you do not know where your spare tire is, go right now to find it, as well as the instructions for how to replace it. Go now. I'll wait to write more until you get back).

    Now that you're back, I can continue my story. While I was changing Kris's tire, she said numerous times, "I'm so glad that there was a guy around who knows how to fix a tire. This just isn't something that is easy for a woman to do." Any of my former Self Reliance students know not only how to fix a tire, but also how important it is for any driver to know how to do it. Some women may feel that it is hard to change a tire, but we can all do hard things.

    I was glad that I was there to help Kris, but I want my kids to know how to change a tire. I had a student last year who said that his dad never wanted him to have to change a tire. While it would be great, in principle, if we never had an emergency on the road, I want to make sure that my kids don't have to rely on a complete stranger for help and hope that he is a good guy. 

    Let's back up a couple of months. I got a call that my wife, with all three kids in the car, had a flat tire and needed help. Now before you jump on her and say that a Renaissance Mom should know how to fix a tire, she absolutely does. But this flat tire happened in our neighborhood. And it was 110. And she had all three kids. So I ran over and had a teaching moment with my kids. They helped with every step of the process. And in case you need a refresher on changing a tire, here are the 10 steps to changing a tire, ala Renaissance Dad.

    1. Move to a flat, safe location. Parking lots are great. If you are on a road, move as far to the side as you safely can. If you cannot safely change a tire, call a tow truck to help out.

    2. Get out the tools and the donut (small tire) or spare tire.These are usually found in the trunk of the car, the cargo area, or under the back seat. Of course you already know where they are because you looked for them after reading the first paragraph above.

    3. Loosen the lug nuts. This is important to do while the tire is on the ground (otherwise the tire will spin as you try to loosen them). Loosen in a star pattern. If the lug nuts are tight, thank your mechanic or tire person for keeping you safe. Then put the lug wrench on the nut and stand on it. Even my kids with their 40 pounds have enough weight to loosen lug nuts by bouncing a little.

    Big A raising the car like a boss
    4. Following the car manual directions, raise the car using the jack. Most cars jacks have two pieces to the handle, allowing you to spin the handle more easily. The jack should be placed on the car frame. Remember that your flat tire has no air, so you'll need to raise the car until the tire is completely off the ground.

    5. Remove the lug nuts in a star pattern, leaving the top lug nut for last. Make sure that if your kid is holding the lug nuts in the hubcap that you do not accidentally knock the hubcap into the air, thereby losing all of the lug nuts and causing your kid to say, "Fuuuuuuuuudddddggggge."

    6. Place the spare onto the wheel and hand-tighten the lug nuts, beginning with the top one and moving in a star pattern.

    7. Slowly lower the car to the ground. Slowly. 

    8. Tighten the lug nuts, again in a star pattern. You can again use your weight to make sure that they are tight enough.

    9. Stow your tools and flat tire, and go straight to a tire shop to get a replacement.

    10. If you have a donut, please DO NOT drive on the highway. Donuts typically have a speed limit of 50 mph, and a typical distance of 50 miles. If you drive for a couple of days, you will need a new tire AND a new donut.

    My good friend Stan once told me that the two most important things on a car were tires and brakes. And the two most neglected things on a car are tires and brakes. Keep your tires safe, and keep your family safe.


    Saturday, February 13, 2016

    My Test Scores Don't Define Me

    Spring is a time when most educators start to feel a little panic. In the education world, springtime is test-taking time. It's the time when most standardized tests take place. Whether they are state mandated, national, or school specific, tests are a normal part of the education world. And educators are often more nervous during these tests than the students are. Some of that pressure is what we put on ourselves, and often much of the pressure comes from outside.

    Beyond nerves, many of us feel angry or disillusioned. We think, "The stakes are too high", "The results are skewed", "Too much class time is taken up", and "The test results don't tell the whole story". Depending on your district or state, the tests may be more or less frustrating and flawed. I get that.

    I'm going to let you in on a little secret that most administrators know: there is no such thing as a perfect test. Even the ones you write yourself aren't perfect. And the standardized tests come with their own set of challenges. When I was a teacher, I quickly realized that our Arizona state-wide test was seriously flawed (it has since been replaced by an even more questionable test). It did not cover material that I felt was relevant to my class, and I found some questions to be confusing or poorly worded. How could I possibly hope for good results based on a flawed test?

    But then I decided that even a flawed test could help me be a better teacher. I looked at my results each year and came up with a game plan for how I would improve the next year, even though my scores were initially pretty good. I could improve from pretty good to great, and then great to outstanding. There were setbacks and years when I had difficult students, but what teacher doesn't have those? My goal was not perfection. My goal was improvement.

    In the school I now lead, teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves at test time. We are a highly competitive district, and some teachers, comparing their scores to others, end up feeling they don't measure up. After a recent round of testing, one of my teachers said the following. "I allow my scores to inform my instruction in order to improve my teaching - NOT define me." I feel like this sums up the whole point of testing. As educators, we should take the results of testing, diagnose areas for improvement, and look for ways to improve our instruction in order to better educate our students.

    However, we often do the exact opposite. We look at our scores and equate that to our value as a teacher. Our students average a 75% on an exam, so I am 75% of a good teacher. Instead of looking at the data and figuring out how we can enhance our instruction, we beat ourselves up when the results are less than what we hope for.

    Now, as an administrator, I don't look for perfect results. I look for progress. I look for teachers who take their test results and come up with strategies to gain ground. Not miracles, just successes.

    So as we go into the end of the school year, let's make a conscious effort to allow our test data to inform us in how we can improve. Let's look at the results of each test and determine the best way to better reach individual students and classes as a whole. And let's stop placing a self-value on our teaching based on an exam, but rather look at improvements that we can make year after year.

    Sunday, February 7, 2016

    Kale Chips: Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables

    When I was a kid, I had no idea what kale was. In fact, I'm pretty sure that kale didn't exist back then. The first time I saw it, I was an adult, and I thought it was some kind of lettuce. The first time I tried it, I thought it was pretty disgusting lettuce. Although I know it's an important source of vitamin whatever and pure essence of kale, I really wasn't sure why God decided that we needed it.

    But lo and behold, if you add a little salt and oil and bake the kale, it goes from disgusting to magical. It is so tasty that your kids will not want to stop eating it, and you will need to hide some away if you want any. Here's the recipe:

    1. Wash the kale and pat or spin it dry.

    2. Pull the leaves off of the stalk. Some pieces will be larger than others; that's okay.

    3. Drizzle oil over the leaves and toss them around. Spread the oiled leaves on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Do NOT allow the leaves to overlap.

    4. Sprinkle with salt.

    5. Bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes or until the leaves start to crisp.

    6. Allow to cool.

    That's it. As soon as the bowl hits the table, our kids dig in. In fact, here is a quote from a recent dinner of homemade pizza and kale chips.

    "Daddy, can I have more kale chips."

    "No, you need to eat your pizza first before you get any more kale."

    Yeah, after that conversation I realized that this vegetable was a winner.

    Enjoy!