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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving Tree: Helping Kids (and Parents) Learn Gratitude

Fall is a wonderful time in Arizona. The temperature finally shifts from surface-of-the-sun to absolutely perfect. We are able to open our windows and go outside. And while most of the country is raking up leaves and preparing for snow, we are getting ready to enjoy our sunshine for the next six months.

But, just like the rest of the country, as we move into November, we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. As parents, we look for ways to teach our children thankfulness. Enter our Thanksgiving Tree.

Every year, we crumble up brown packing paper in the shape of a tree and cut out dozens of paper leaves. Each evening, before dinner, each member of the family takes a leaf and writes down something that we are thankful for. The one rule is that whatever it is cannot be repeated. We get things like, "I am thankful for family" (sweet), to, "Vitamins" (weird), to, "Quesadillas" (who's not?). But as we move through the season, and the tree gets more and more leaves, our kids are learning to be grateful for all of the things that they have.

And I've come to realize that my gratitude increases. On the bad days at work, I am still thankful for my job. When breakfast is a half-warm piece of toast because I didn't have time to let it actually toast, I'm thankful that I have something to eat. When I get cut off by another driver on my way to work, I am thankful that I have a car, and thankful that my horn works (yeah, I'm still learning). The fact of the matter is that the Thanksgiving Tree is just as much for me as it is for all of us. So whether it is leaf shaped papers taped to a crumpled paper trunk, a notebook with a list, or a stack of index cards, I encourage you to practice gratitude for the next couple of weeks.

Oh, and by the way. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Termites: A Metaphor for Life

I am a total know-it-all. Well, maybe not a total, but I definitely inherited a great, staunch, German,
self-reliant, I can do it myself attitude from somewhere (probably from both sides, with a little sprinkling of marrying into it). This is great for the most part. I like to get things done. I like to research. I like to figure it out. But it recently bit me in the backside.

About a year ago, we were having our bimonthly organic pest control service from Blue Sky Pest Control (Phoenicians, I highly recommend them if you're having pest problems - contact me below or through Facebook and I can get back to you with information) (also, doubly parenthetically, did you know that bimonthly is defined as either two times per month AND every other month? Talk about confusing). Our pest control professional found a termite tube and let us know that we should get an extensive termite inspection. We did, and the inspector, while not finding any other termite tubes, recommended getting our house treated for termites.

And my self-reliant, know-it-all self kicked in. I thought, "Eh, it's just one tube. Probably just an exploratory tube. We're not going to have a termite problem." I listen to Rosie Romero, of Rosie on the House, almost every Saturday. And Rosie says, "There two types of homes in Arizona. Those that have had termites, and those that are going to get them." But somehow that did not sink in, and I ignored the termite problem.

Fast forward to this past August, and our bimonthly (meaning every other month) service technician again found a couple of termite tubes and recommended a termite inspection. This time, the termite inspector found six termite tubes. We went from a small problem to a big problem.

The good news - it was treatable, and much easier than what I had in mind. The bad news - because I had let the problem go for a year, there was much more work to be done, which meant that the cost almost doubled from the initial proposal. But I'll focus on the good news - it was treatable.

Here was the treatment. We did not have to empty our house of all living things while a giant balloon was inflated around our house with toxic gasses slowly killing the soul of our home. Instead, the technicians from Blue Sky drilled holes in the driveway, patio, and interior of the garage every 16 inches. They then sprayed Termidor HE, which is a termite barrier, into the hole. The Termidor goes under the foundation and spreads out, creating a barrier to keep the termites away.

So now our home had dozens of holes around the foundation. But the holes are then filled, and not just filled, but color matched, so that unless you're looking for them, they cannot be seen. And anybody who looks at my driveway or garage that closely has way too much time on their hands and should probably get a hobby.

My initial termite problem was ignored, and instead of going away, it got worse and worse, mostly unnoticed, until a bigger problem was recognized. Maybe my termite problem is a great metaphor for life. If I had addressed the problem when it was first identified, the cost would not have been as high. However, because I let it go untreated for so long, it not only didn't go away, but it became much worse.

Could the same be said for an apology that goes unspoken? An unkind word that is not forgiven? A government policy that is outdated but ignored? Is this too philosophical for a blog about termites? Well maybe I'm just in a philosophical mood. After all, I just put up a barrier that termites cannot get through, which means that they will be heading to one of my neighbors' houses. So maybe I will need to get that apology ready.


But instead of ending on that, I want to end with something about my kids (this is Renaissance Dad after all). After all of this, Little E, my kindergartner, found a termite tube at school. He was telling me about it one day, and I asked him if he showed it to anybody. His face lit up and he said, "YEAH. I showed all of my friends." I asked him to tell his teacher the next day. And then I got an email from the teacher, thanking me for Little E's termite inspection. She said that she didn't think anybody would have noticed it where it was.

I think we have a future Renaissance Dad in the making. With maybe just a little bit of a know it all thrown in.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Remodeling Stairs with Decorative Risers

When my family and I decided to redo our floors, I knew that our stairway would be a challenge. Do you remember the scene in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, when Pee Wee Herman came across the pet store that was on fire? Pee Wee ran in and opened the puppy cages. Then he ran by the snake terrariums, gave a look of disgust, and continued to save the kittens. On and on he went, passing the snakes, making a face, and saving other animals. Finally, he knew that he could no longer pass the snakes, so he grabbed two fistfulls of them, ran outside, and passed out.

That was how I felt about the stairs. I would walk by them, shake my head, and move on to some other part of the flooring project. I worked in the kitchen, looked at the stairs, and moved on to caulking. Then I looked at the stairs, and moved on to the living room. Then the laundry room, bathroom, dog, and ceiling fan. I floored things that should never be floored. And then I had to face the stairs.

Carpeted stairs - they look happy in spite of the old carpet.
The first thing I had to do was pull off the carpeting, the tack strips, and the 3.7 million staples that were used to attach the carpeting to the stairs. Next, I had to cut the bullnose off of each stair (this is the overhang that would have interfered with the flooring on the deck [the horizontal surface]). Finally, in preparation for covering the stairs, I had to cover the risers (vertical surface) with pieces of plywood, just to give some evenness to the stairs for our covering.

Here is where I had a wonderful conversation with my five-year-old. My son was working with me and helping in the fantastic way that five-year-olds can help. He would take staples and put them in a bucket. He would use the pliers and try to pull staples out. And then, when we pulled off some carpeting, he discovered a knothole.

I wonder what's going on in there.
That boy sat there staring at the knothole for minutes. He looked at it from so many different angles. He poked his finger into it. And then he said, "Daddy, please don't cover that hole. I think it's a knothole like Ralph (from The Mouse and the Motorcycle) lived in." We then had an entire conversation about what the mice that lived in that knothole might do. Did they ride around on his motorcycles? Play with his Legos? What did they eat? How many were there? He was so fascinated, and I loved watching him and listening to his imagination spinning and thinking and creating. It was great! I almost forgot that I had stairs to work on.

Back to work... After the risers were covered with plywood, I laid the new floor on the deck. Because they are stairs, the pad had to be removed and the flooring had to be glued down with a construction adhesive. Finally, a few nails with the nail gun to keep everything in place, and we had new stairs.

The finished product!
For the risers, we didn't want to install more of the flooring. I thought this would be too dark, and between the flooring and our furniture, we have plenty of wood around. After spending irretrievable hours on Pinterest, we decided that it would be really cool to wallpaper the risers. We found a wallpaper store (yes, they still exist), and after getting several samples, settled on two different colors of the same wallpaper, alternating them in a 1-2 pattern. Installing the wallpaper was a breeze.

The result is a wonderfully light and classy stairway, which really highlights the banister that need to be replaced and the walls that need to be painted. But at least the snakes are safe! And the mice have their hole underneath the wallpaper.

Now on to the next project.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Renaissance Dad Product Test: GreenWorks 60V Self Propelled Cordless Mower

I have many bizarre quirks, and one of them is that I really love research. When I am in the market to purchase something, or when I am just interested in finding out about a new product, I love to read reviews, look at specs, got to stores to fiddle, compare, and push Google to new limits with the amount of comparison that I do. In fact, this is one of the reasons that I started Renaissance Dad. After extensive amounts of researching, I wanted to share what I had learned with the entire Interweb.

That being said, I spent years researching lawn mowers, purchased and owned several different brands and varieties (battery, corded electric, gas, self-propelled, push). Three and a half years ago I fell in love with the GreenWorks G-Max 40V Lion mower. And in three and a half years my love for this mower has not wavered.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Homemade Nachos: A Healthier, Tastier Alternative

Our family life is filled with traditions. One of my favorites is Friday Family Movie Night. It starts when I get home from work and yell at the top of my lungs, "IT'S FRIDAY!" That is the signal for family time.

We usually begin with either a family swim (still loving the remodeled pool - thank you Above & Beyond) or a rousing round of Just Dance on the Wii. After we have spent what little energy we have left from the week, the kids get into their pjs, dinner and popcorn are made, and the movie of the week begins.

For Family Movie Nights, there are only two options in our house for dinner - pizza and nachos. Of course, being the pseudo-health nuts that we are, both of these are homemade. While the pizza came fairly quickly and somewhat easily to perfect, the nachos took some finessing to get the perfect recipe. But as we perfected the recipe, we quickly discovered that all other nachos left something to be desired.

Warning!!! If you try these nachos, you will most likely lose all respect for any other nachos,

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Carton of Eggs, a Gallon of Milk, and a Scoop of Poop: Quality Time with My Daughter

A couple of years ago I started occasionally helping my friends Bob and Sheri on their farm. I learned to milk cows, take care of their chickens, and do all of the fun things that take place on a small farm in the morning. For the past several years, when they were out of town and needed somebody to take care of the critters, I jumped in whenever I could. It is something that I really enjoy, and it keeps me on my toes, since the only thing constant on a farm is change.

Two weeks ago, Bob and Sheri asked me to milk for the weekend. My two girls were in the play Annie, school was getting ready to start, and I was in the middle of a sizeable flooring project. It was quite hectic around the house. Nevertheless, I jumped at the opportunity to work at the farm.

Then my nine-year-old asked me if she could help. My initial response was to tell her that she needed to sleep in (and I use the term "sleeping in" very loosely, since my kids are almost always awake by 6:00). I needed to leave the house by 5 a.m., and I didn't think that Big E would be able to handle this on top of everything else that was going on. But the softie in me said that this would be a great Daddy-Daughter memory, and I told her that she could help me one of the days. I woke her up at 4:45, asked her to get dressed (and found out that she slept with her clothes under her pajamas so she would be ready more quickly), and we headed out.

Big E helped get the cows ready to milk. She carried their food. She scooped the poop from the pastures. She fed and watered the chickens and checked for eggs. And not once did she complain. It was hot and humid, even at 5:30 in the morning. There was a rain storm the night before, so everything was muddy. And yet she kept a smile on her face all morning.

As we were cleaning up, and then driving home, we started talking about the time on the farm and her experience. She expressed her desire to someday live on a farm and have horses and cows and chickens. Her face lit up as she dreamed her wonderful nine-year-old dreams.

And I thought to myself, "Am I Tom Sawyer? Did I just dupe my child into doing work by making her think that it was fun?" I don't think that I tricked her, but I do think that I showed her how much fun the work is because of my enthusiasm. And my enthusiasm was even greater because of the one-on-one time that I got to spend with my daughter in the midst of an extremely busy time in our house. I love taking my kids on dates and spending time with them. But for Big E, spending time scooping poop with daddy was just as great as a date.

Do you think it will work if I pretend like I really enjoy folding their laundry and make that a date?

Friday, July 7, 2017

What Type of Flooring is Best? A Stress Test of Bamboo, Laminate, and Engineered Floors

We love our current house, but we are still in the process of making it our home. As you may have read in one of my previous posts, the addition of kids really slows down the home project process. However, one of the biggest advantages of taking projects more slowly is the amount of time I can spend researching products before deciding what I want. This is my gift. This is my curse... All of that to say this: I hate my floors. Our carpets are so old and worn that we have stopped cleaning the stains. The tile is standard builder's grade beige with hints of beigeness, with beige grout. We have been fine with this for the past four years, but I say to these floors, "No more!"

But back to the process part of the project.

So before we tackled this project, we had to decide what to replace it with. We knew that we wanted something that was wood or wood-look, and we needed something relatively inexpensive (Remember, I'm an educator. We're famously underpaid.). So we had four contenders.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Inexpensive Home Comfort Fix: So Easy a Six-Year-Old Can Do It

This past week, we had a whole house energy audit. If you haven't heard of these, they are pretty cool. We had ours done through a Rosie-certified contractor (all Arizona homeowners should know who Rosie is). The purpose of a home energy audit is to find out how energy efficient your home is. Here's the process.

First, a big fan is hooked up to the front door. All ducts are tested with a pressure sensor, the AC unit is tested, windows and doors are

Sunday, June 11, 2017

DIY Stained Glass

Three years ago I wrote an article about being a real life long learner. The two skills that I had recently learned at that point were milking cows and making stained glass. At that point, I had only made a turtle after one session of stained glass work, but I really enjoyed it. My mom had supplies, a friend had several boxes of glass, and I had a table in the garage that just needed a future project to sit on it. And sit on it the supplies did, for three years.

Then, this past spring, my wife and I were looking at this ugly curtain that covered a south facing window above our sliding glass door. The curtain came with the house, I think it had once been white but was so covered in dust that its color was indescribably filthy, and the window was just screaming for some class. We had talked about doing something with stained glass for that space, but the window is about five feet by two feet, and the turtle that I had previously made was about four inches by three inches. I didn't know if I was ready to

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stained Glass and Coffee: What to Do When It's 3 A.M. and You Can't Sleep

It's 3:30 a.m. and I can't sleep. I've been laying in bed awake for an hour, and while I know I'm exhausted because it's the end of a school year, my mind just won't shut down. We've all been there before. When I was a kid, it was the Tetris dream. You know the one. You have a game of Tetris playing in your head, and you have all of the pieces perfectly stacked. Then you get nothing but random zig-zag pieces that don't fit and you wake up in a cold sweat. Please tell me that I'm not the only one who has had these Tetris dreams before.

Is this random? Yes it is. Remember the part where I said that it is 3:30 a.m.?

I'm not having random Tetris dreams now. I have school schedules running through my head. And kids birthday parties. And gardening and house projects and date nights and banking. So while my body is tired and in need of sleep, my mind is like a three year old at a birthday party. It just won't stop.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

DIY Bathroom Remodel: Whirlwind-Speed or Slow-and-Steady?

In my life BK (Before Kids), I loved doing whirlwind weekend projects, especially when my wife was out of town. One time, when she was gone for three days, I drywalled in a doorway to the family room, cut out an opening between the living room and the family room, and installed french doors connecting the two rooms. During another trip, I gutted our bathroom, refinished the walls (pulling down salmon colored wall tile and drywalling significant portions of the walls), painted, and installed all new fixtures and a new vanity. It got to the point where I had set myself up for some amazing project completion when she was gone, so that I had to find something to do with each trip.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Spicy Oil: Add Some Kick to Your Food

I like spicy food. I REALLY like spicy food. One time in college I entered a jalapeño eating contest. I won first place, eating 33 jalapeños in 2 minutes. While I haven't repeated that experience ever (although I still proudly talk about the t-shirt that I won), I often find that I can't get enough spice in my food.

Enter the pequin.

"What is a pequin?" you may be asking yourself. It is a small pepper that looks like an orange tic tac, and it is 13-40 times hotter than a jalapeño. This little guy packs a punch.

My older brother had a pequin bush in his back yard. I took a clipping from his plant and now have my own pequin bush that is more than six feet tall and six feet wide. I have more spicy orange tic tacs than I can use.

Dried pequins

Sunday, March 26, 2017

DIY Disasters: What to Do When a Project Goes Wrong

Every year during my Spring Break my wife goes out of town for a work trip. For the week that she is gone, I get to be on full-time daddy duty. I look for fun things to do with my kids, but we also look for home projects to do to surprise mommy when she returns. This year we filled our time with a train park, the zoo, irrigation, electrical work, and painting.

And here's what happened...


I wanted to run an irrigation line for my kids' Secret Garden. Seeing where the water pipe ran into my workshop, I trenched 15 feet for the placement of the sprinkler valves, including two feet under a walkway that I had built. Having laid out everything in preparation for the waterline, I then cut into the water pipe. There was a sizzle, some smoke, a pop, and then a clean cut through the pipe. Apparently when my workshop was built, instead of running the electrical through in-the-ground-approved conduit, they cut corners and used sprinkler PVC. So now I had a cut line that needed to be repaired, no electrical going to my workshop, and the trenching that I had done was useless. The rest of my day was spent repairing the electrical line, so at the end of the day I had accomplished exactly nothing towards the completion of this project.
Whoops. That was live electricity.

The next day I shifted gears and did some trenching to replace and re-run sprinklers in my yard. I added five sprinkler heads, so there was quite a bit of trenching that I needed to do for that, but I knew that I was running it from actual water lines, so I had that going for me. I had to stop before completing the project, knowing that I could finish it up the next day.

Early the next morning, I awoke to the sound of rain. I was a little confused, since there was no rain in the forecast, but I listened for about five minutes, just enjoying the sound of the rain. Then, as I gradually woke up, I realized that I wasn't hearing rain. I ran outside, only to witness water shooting up 20 feet in the air. Apparently, as I was trenching for the new sprinkler line, I nicked an existing line for another part of the yard. That small crack created enough pressure to give us our very own Old Faithful in our backyard. I suspended the irrigation, and the next day was spent digging out and repairing the broken irrigation line.

And these used to be my PVC cutters.
At times like this I ask myself, "Why do I DIY?" I have so many stories of projects that were less than ideal. But for me, those less-than-ideal situations are way overshadowed by the times that things go right. The Secret Garden is something that I can't stop looking at. Not because everything there is perfect and I am an amazing builder. But because my kids love the time they spend there. I can't stop looking at it because of the joy it brings them.

Before you go thinking that I'm some sort of altruistic giver of joy, I need to tell you that I'm not. Unfortunately I don't just do things to bring other people joy. I build and garden and DIY because, when I don't, I feel restless. I'm like Roger Rabbit in the recesses of a bar, trying to stay quiet while Shave and a Haircut is being tapped. When I don't DIY, I start to go crazy.

When mishaps, blunders, mistakes, or catastrophes occur, I become BATMAN. Here's what I do:

Breathe - I take a deep breath, or twelve, and calm myself down. No matter what I've done, it could always be worse (I'm the guy who cut part of his own thumb off once).
So much new trenching, I was bound to nick an existing pipe.

Assess the situation - Look at what has happened. See if it is as bad as you think it is. Make sure that it won't get worse (turn off water, electricity, or nuclear power if necessary).

Take a break - Often, after assessing, I need to take a break from what I was doing. I need to clear my head. The opposite would be to go into the situation with guns a-blazing, and that will typically make things worse.

Make a list - Check on the supplies needed for the unexpected repair. There may be something that you already have, or you may need to run to your local hardware store. Take pictures of the problem to make sure that you cover all of your bases.

Now there's another repair in the books.
Ask for help - You may need to turn to the internet, somebody at a hardware store, or a friend for advice or help. The internet is a wonderful resource, but some of the DIY advice out there is a bit shady.

Nod at a job well done - This is after you have tackled the repair, but give yourself the satisfaction of looking at the completed repair/job and relish in the fact that you made it happen.


 So while I prefer to have projects completed with no disasters and nothing but pure perfection in the end, I will gladly take the broken water pipes and severed electrical lines over not getting to do a project. I prefer fighting with uneven floors or paint spills over letting my hands be idle. I DIY because that is what is inside of me, and I embrace it. After all, I am BATMAN.

But I would still rather not destroy a hand tool with live electricity in the future.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

My Pool Remodel: To DIY or Not to DIY

As an avid DIYer, I like to take on any project around the house. If it's something that I am not familiar with, I will read up on the process, talk to pros, and estimate the cost savings of doing it myself versus hiring somebody to do it. So as our pool surface began to slowly crumble over the past two years, I looked into what I could do to make the repairs myself.

How did I know the pool needed to be repaired?

The plaster in pools is extremely porous. Over time, it becomes more and more porous, and the chemicals have a difficult time killing algae that attaches to the plaster. We had some black algae that I could not get rid of, and as I asked several experts, they stated that it was time to resurface. Additionally, there were areas where the plaster was falling off, especially around the stairs. And finally, our waterfall had developed some large cracks and holes, rendering it completely unusable, and in the final days, somewhat dangerous. It was time to do something.

To DIY, or Not to DIY? That's the question

Old rocks, old tile, old surface
I started looking at ways to DIY the surface of my pool. The process would have been to drain the pool, clean the surface, and use a multiple step epoxy to coat the pool. At first glance it seemed quite doable. In fact, I started staging myself for the project, going so far as to purchase a pressure washer for the surface prep (like I needed an excuse). But then as I looked at the cost of a surface coat, and as I read reviews of people who had used them, I started to realize that this process was quite finicky and rather expensive. It would have cost more than $2000 to DIY the pool surface, and I read enough reviews from people who ended up having to surface again after only a couple of years because of an epoxy coat that did not adhere. I realized that this was probably a Not DIY project.

Not to DIY. What next?

Chipped out pools are fun to run in!
Whenever I look to hire a professional, I turn to the most trusted source that I have found in the state for home improvement - Rosie on the House. Rosie is a local contractor, but he has a contractor network with vetted professionals that cover every area of the home. Going through the network, I found a veteran-owned local company that I decided to call.

Above and Beyond

I figured it wouldn't hurt to get a free quote, so I called Above and Beyond Pool Remodeling. I was fully expecting an astronomical cost for a pool resurface, based on the size of our pool, but I was pleasantly surprised at what it would cost to resurface our pool. In fact, we ended up upgrading to a mini pebble surface compared with our plaster surface, which bumped our surface warranty from 5 years to 15 years (interesting tidbit - plaster pools don't last as long nowadays as they used to because they no longer have asbestos in the plaster. I can only imagine what I absorbed through my feet all those years playing in the pool as a kid). A second company that I had previously contacted was working on our waterfall, but Above and Beyond (AB) was the company that we felt most comfortable with for our remodel.
The slide added to the waterfall

The Process

I expected the pool remodel to be a several month long process. I was extremely surprised at how quickly our pool went from run down and broken to pristine and new. The short of it is that the pool was worked on for a total of 7 days. This doesn't take into account the rain delays (yes, we do occasionally get rain in Arizona), or the time that work wasn't happening because we were out of town.

Preparing to spray in the surface
Days 1 and 2 - Drain and chipout. Little E loved this day. He thought it was awesome watching the plaster and tile being broken out. In fact, he asked the AB crew for a piece of plaster, which they gladly shared with him. He was so happy with how sparkly it was. And then I threw it away when he wasn't looking (because, asbestos).

Days 3, 4, and 5 - Waterfall repair, addition, and painting. Our waterfall was in bad shape. It was hollow and falling apart. As we looked to repair it, we saw some pictures of waterfalls that had built-in slides. As we figured out how we could add this, we were able to cut costs by utilizing the waterfall itself as the steps to the slide. The forms were built, the concrete poured, the texture and outlines added, and the stain applied. This was also the day that the kids saw that they were getting a slide. Big excitement in the house!
Surface cured - filling it up!

Day 6 - Tile. Our old faded tile was replaced. This went in rather quickly, and I couldn't stop looking at the pool, anticipating many wonderful family gatherings (and hoping that Cousin Eddie realized he couldn't swim and didn't come).

Day 7 - Mini Pebble. This day blew me away. I was so intrigued by the process that I worked from home this morning. Watching the guys spray in the surface, smooth it out, and spray on the pebbles was absolutely enthralling. It was truly like watching artists at work. Within a couple of hours, the entire pool was coated and left to dry. Yet again, when I came home I continually went to the door to look at the pool, amazed at how quickly everything had transformed.
Look at that beautiful new tile and surface!

Day 8 - Acid wash and filling. So I initially didn't count this as one of the days, but it was an important one to make sure that everything was clean before we started filling the pool. The hose was turned on, and by the next day the kids were already in the pool (it happened to be 55 degrees that day, but the kids didn't care. They had a new pool that needed to be christened, and they were up for the challenge).

While the water has still been quite cold, I did make it in the pool once, just out of sheer stubbornness of wanting to enjoy the new pool. The kids, on the other hand, have been in daily. I can't wait to join them when the weather warms up a bit. And I can't recommend Above and Beyond enough. I am always amazed when I have an experience with a contractor that ends up being so positive that I want to refer everybody I know to them. Wonderful company, wonderful owner, wonderful process.
Looks inviting!

In the end, this was a costly repair, but because of the avenue we took, we will have a pool that will not have to be resurfaced again for close to 20 years or more. Our backyard is back to its enjoyable self, and we don't have to worry about inviting the family over to swim in algae water with possible asbestos chunks at the bottom. Not to DIY was a great choice, and Above and Beyond is a highly recommended company for those in the Phoenix area. 

But now I'm ready for some kind of DIY... This itch needs to be scratched.




And it is inviting...
...but cold.




Tuesday, February 28, 2017

13 Tips and Tricks for Your Next Disneyland Vacation

Disneyland, in California, has got to be one of my favorite places in the world. For those who know me, this may come as a surprise. I don't like crowds, and I don't like lines. If you have never been to Disneyland, let me fill you in. They have both of these things there. So why do I like it?

It is magical!

Unlike other theme parks, Disneyland is filled with magical wonderment, which I can enjoy as an adult, and I enjoy even more with my kids. When Big E was 2 and we took her to Disneyland for the first time, I wept when, as we got off a boat ride, "Captain Emily" said, "You dropped something, princess," and proceeded to give her a plastic "glass" slipper. Magical! For me, this kind of magic overcomes my dislike of crowds and lines.

But Disneyland can be a daunting undertaking. I consider myself somewhat of a seasoned pro when it comes to making the most of a Disneyland vacation. So here are 13 tips for a wonderful Disneyland vacation.

Planning/Pre-Trip

1. Hotel - When it comes to staying at Disneyland, I love staying at a Disney hotel. Sure, it is less expensive at other neighborhood hotels, but if you can, spring for a Disney hotel. There is something magical about being close to the park, getting into the parks early (see #2), and having the "We will do whatever it takes to make your day magical" attitude. I spend several weeks watching the website for the lowest nightly fare that I can find. The deals come and go, so when you see something that you think can't be beat, lock it in right away. If you find a better deal within the Disney hotels you can change your reservation.

Rain gear is a must...
2. Magic Hour - Part of staying at a Disney hotel is getting an extra hour in either California Adventure or Disneyland just by showing your room key. This to me is the main reason to stay in a Disneyland hotel. Four years ago we got on six rides in the first hour without waiting in line for any of them. Be sure to check the list of rides available and days of Magic Hour.

3. Rain gear - Check the weather before heading to the park and pack rain gear if necessary. It is also important to make sure that the rain gear works. Our most recent visit was the storm that ended California's drought. Our rain gear was not sufficient. But if you are in the park with no or insufficient rain gear, head to the nearest shop and pick up a Disneyland poncho. $10 is well worth staying dry for your day in the park.
...but bring it if you can.

4. Comfortable clothing - this is a given, but I would like to plug one of my new favorite articles of clothing. For Christmas I got a pair of Duluth pants (http://www.duluthtrading.com). They are the most comfortable pants I have ever worn, so I decided that they would be my Disneyland pants. Not only were they comfortable, but, since they repel water, I stayed perfectly dry from the waist down on our trip. Dads, these are well worth their weight in gold. Moms, you should make sure the dads out there have at least one pair of these.

5. There's an app for that - There are many Disneyland apps that all claim to be the best. Two that I like are the Disneyland App and RideMax. The Disneyland app is a free app that shows wait times, character locations, restaurants, shows, and (important for any parent) restrooms. You can also store your tickets and reservations in the app, keeping everything handy in one place. RideMax is a paid app ($15 for 90 days). You enter in the rides that you want, the pace you want, and the number in your party, and they give you an itinerary that is remarkably accurate and minimizes your time in lines. It's Walt Disney meets MIT.


Character breakfast - personal jumping lessons
with Tigger
6.Character breakfasts - We first discovered this a couple of trips ago. There are character meals throughout the day with characters walking around greeting the guests. The food is really good, and, while the meal tends to be a little expensive, this is usually our one big meal of the day (breakfast is buffet style). The kids love meeting all the characters, and I love not waiting in lines to do it. My recommendation is to shoot for a between meal time and supplement with snacks (Plaza Inn in Disneyland around 10:30, or Ariel's Grotto in California Adventure around 4:30). Reservations need to be made ahead of time. Just like with the hotel, if your preferred time is taken, keep checking back up until the day before.

In the Parks

7. Dole Whip - This is a must. If you do nothing else at Disneyland, you must have a Dole Whip. It is located by the Tiki Room in Adventureland. Dole Whip is a really refreshing whipped pineapple soft served heaven on a cloud. Plan on getting a couple of extras to share, because one is never enough. The line is usually long, but if you go into the Tiki Room waiting area, there is a second line there which is usually about a quarter of the length. If you have little kids, ask for an umbrella for their Dole Whips and relish in being the hero.

8. Fast Pass - Fast Passes are available for most of the rides that typically have longer lines. Send one member of your group (with everybody's tickets - required for obtaining a Fast Pass) to get the Fast Passes. These allow you to move to a much quicker line, usually less than 10 minutes. Look at the time to obtain another Fast Pass, and keep them coming. The less you wait in line, the better.

Big E is a Jedi now!
9. Jedi Training Academy - We almost missed this one with our kids. This is an opportunity for kids to lightsaber fight Darth Vader. You need to sign your kid up for it first thing in the morning, and you will be given a time for the academy (make sure your kid is with you when you sign him or her up). If your kids don't get in, sign them up for an alternate slot. Big E was an alternate and got into the academy the second time we checked in. She said it was the highlight of her day.

10. Rider Swap - If you have multiple adults, you are eligible for Rider Swap on any ride with minimum height requirements. One adult and any eligible children go through the line and onto the ride. They then ask for a Rider Swap pass. This can be given to the other adult and/or eligible children, who can then skip the line and have a turn on the ride. This is a must-remember for any families going to Disneyland with younger children. 

11. Cheap Souvenirs - It's Disneyland, so technically nothing is cheap. However, while we were
Nothing but smiles and cartwheels
waiting for my wife and one daughter to ride the roller coaster in California Adventure, which Little E couldn't ride, we looked at the carnival games. While most of the games are typical, favor-is-not-on-your-side carnival games, the Goofy About Fishin' game was not. It cost $2.50 to hook a fish with a magnetic fishing pole, and every fish was a winner. Granted the prizes were little stuffed animals, but nowhere in Disneyland can you buy a stuffed animal for less than $15. Little E was so thrilled with his starfish and whale and turtle and another whale, that he didn't care that he was too short for the roller coaster.

12. Gluten Free Eating - If you or a family member happen to be gluten free, there are many things to eat in the park. In fact, I found Disneyland to be one of the most gluten free friendly places that I've ever been. We had no problems finding gluten free buns, gluten free waffles, and many other things that made our kids happy.

End of day 2 and still smiling
13. Disneyland City Hall - Know where this is, because this is where lost items are taken, including but not limited to lost cell phones and lost kids. Yes, I admit it, we have lost our kids at Disneyland. One at each of our last two trips to Disneyland. The first time we found Big E right away because we were wearing matching shirts and a Disneyland cast member located us right away (they have a highly efficient way of reuniting kids with parents). The second time Big A was gone for about ten minutes. She wandered away on Main Street. We looked for her for about a minute, and then my wife and kids stayed where we were and I headed straight to City Hall. While they were contacting security, a cast member walked up with my daughter. It was scary, but because I was waiting at the right place, we were reunited fairly quickly.

Disneyland is a magical place. A place where crowds somehow do not affect me the way that they do at the mall or in Costco. It's a place where I get excited buying a $5 chocolate covered frozen banana, because it tastes so much better in the park (I think they sprinkle them with pixie dust). I can't wait for my next trip, so I can hopefully bring you some new tips and tricks.

Walt Disney said, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." I think he was referring to not only surviving but completely enjoying a family trip to Disneyland.


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