Pruning Palms, Not Fingers

Hardly seems possible that it’s already been over 5 years since we cut down the oak tree in the back yard that was causing so many problems with the pool. But recently I went to battle with another tree back there—this time the Washington Palm in the opposite corner.

I had long since neglected the palm because I had no idea how to prune such a foreign creature. And the viral trumpet vine that’s perpetually laying siege to the flowerbed below had crept up the fence and lept over to the tree. While this made for a attractive mix, red trumpet flowers dangling between the fronds, the vines woven in and among the palm made the prospect of pruning the tree all that much more daunting.

But fed up, armed with good advice from Dave I., and with much more audacity than aptitude, I propped up the ladder, gloved up, and went to war:

Before
The palm tree before battle

After
The palm tree after battle

When the dust settled and after more than 2 dumpster-loads of debris, I not only cleared out all of the invasive vines, but also removed all of the dead palm fronds that were weighing the tree down. In the weeks since, the tree has responded with lots of new growth and appears to be more healthy than ever before!

Under the Gun

gun wordcloud

I’ve had a host of diverse, sometimes-conflicting thoughts about guns swirling around in my brain for some time but the recent shootings in Colorado & Wisconsin have kicked that into overdrive:

 

  • My late Father-In-Law learned to shoot a rifle (a simple .22 that he kept all of his life) as a child and used that rifle to hunt for small animals and birds. He knew how to clean and make the most of what he killed. It was often the only means with which his very poor rural family could add meat to their dinner plates. His rifle was, in a very literal sense, a necessary survival tool. But the time when guns were commonly needed and used as tools is long since gone. Guns now only serve to kill or destroy things.

 

  • There’s such rampant careless, neglectful gun ownership now that very few Americans really have to fear criminals. No, instead we have more to fear from our law-abiding neighbors. You know, the ones who have an unsecured, loaded .45 on their nightstand. Kids who take guns to school or playgrounds didn’t score those in a seedy back alley deal with some shady lowlife; children get guns right out of their parents’ bedroom or den!

 

  • Yes, I know of highly-skilled marksmen, for whom shooting handguns is a serious sport and their skill & accuracy are things of great pride. But by and large, I don’t believe most handgun owners fall into that category. Instead, I suspect that the vast majority of handgun owners would cite the need for possessing those weapons as “self-protection.”

 

  • If we’ve learned nothing else from the George Zimmerman case this year, it’s that while we may applaud the idea of “Dirty Harry” style vigilantism where some swift, finite—and preferably painful—street justice is doled out, our society doesn’t have the stomach for it. Sure, Zimmerman may still be alive because he took action and shot Trayvon Martin, but the event has undoubtedly destroyed his life and those of his entire family permanently. I wonder how many concealed carry zealots who fantasize about putting a hole in some would-be burglar are even remotely prepared for—or have ever even truly considered—the incalculable emotional, financial, and legal toll that their handguns could cost them and their families?

 

  • I believe there’s a strong case to be made that outlawing handguns would ultimately make us more safe, not less because of the lack of ease in concealing and spontaneously wielding a rifle. Wouldn’t the basic form factor—the size & shape of a rifle versus a handgun—make random, unplanned violence and/or accidental shootings (by legal gun owners) much less likely? Maybe it’s time that handguns be restricted to only military, police, or other civic groups charged with protecting their communities or country…

 

  • What does it say about our society when we don’t bat an eye at the prospect of restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter children’s cough medicines yet people march in the streets at the very mention of gun control?

 

  • 2nd Amendment supporters usually go berserk over the notion of limiting what they can possess, yet hardware such as sawed-off shotguns, fully-automatic firearms, rocket launchers, bazookas, and countless other “dangerous weapons” are already illegal to own. Why do they bristle so about new gun controls yet at the same time, calmly accept and willfully comply with those other restrictions?

 

  • Gun-rights groups argue that handgun prohibition would prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves, but I have to wonder what percentage of handgun owners have ever—even once—fired their firearms for the sake of protecting themselves or their families. Perhaps it’s more the idea of self-protection rather than any actual need for said, that drives gun supporters. But wouldn’t the far greater accuracy that most rifles provide or the greater sheer destructive force of a shotgun make either of these a far better choice for self-protection? If you’re going to claim to own a gun for protection, why wouldn’t you opt for the most effective tool for that task?

 

  • If we cannot tolerate the idea of placing any limits on guns themselves, why not at least place strong restrictions on the sales of large quantities of ammunition, large capacity magazines, and tactical assault gear to civilians?

 

  • And finally, I read a quote from Austin American-Statesman this past weekend that really summed up how short-sighted gun control opponents are being: “While [control] measures might not prevent the next Aurora, they would make it hard for the shooter to […] kill so many people in such a short period of time. The alternative—to continue to shrug off America’s outsize gun violence as an inevitable risk in a free society—is helplessness.”

 

What’s your take on this? Do you believe outlawing handguns could reduce senseless gun-related violence? Is there some compelling reason why citizens should be able to purchase tactical gear like body armor? Is it possible to put in place some limits without voiding our 2nd Amendment right?

No Trouble At All

Trouble board gameRemember the old board game Trouble with the “pop-o-matic” die-rolling bubble in the middle?

Dede bought Liam this game for his birthday back in April and we’ve been playing a couple or three times per week as time permits, and Dede is not busy with online games.

Initially of course, he moved his pegs (painfully) slowly around the board, stopping at every hole and often losing count. It was all new to him, so his plays were random and not goal-oriented. Honestly, it was a bit of a chore to get through a game.

But now…

Now, he jumps his pegs in increments around the board rather than 1 hole at a time. He’s always looking ahead to what his next optimal dice roll should be to land on another player’s peg, and putting some genuine critical thought into which piece is the best to move depending on each roll of the die. And of course, he’s talking trash to intimidate the other players along the way!

Sure, we’ve always been big believers in playing analog (not electronic) games and encouraging tactile activities, so ok, maybe this is nothing truly miraculous and shouldn’t come as such a great surprise to me, but it’s just such an unexpected thrill when you actually see firsthand how much this has boosted his math and decision-making skills. You can practically see synapses forming, his dexterity improving, and of course, the big confidence boost he gets when he wins.

All that, from playing a simple little board game. Genius!

There may not necessarily be anything wrong with digital games—Liam sure loves to play Angry Birds and Cut the Rope on the iPad—but I believe huddling around the table, playing a physical board game has to potential to be so much more enriching. It’s a shared experience with all sorts of social, practical, and cognitive lessons lurking just out of sight. It’s fascinating to watch as your child develops new skills and masters new concepts. And it’s just fun!

This makes me nostalgic for the days when all of us cousins would play board games at Pampaw or Uncle Truett’s during holidays. And it reminds me of Rich schooling me on Monopoly.

So, now it’s your turn… Are there board games that you’d recommend for those with young children? What were some of your all-time favorite board games?

Mango Mania

Until a couple of years ago, I had no idea how terrific the mango is. No, not that Mango.

I mean this mango:

Mango [mang-goh]: the oblong, fleshy stone fruit belonging to the genus Mangifera, consisting of numerous tropical fruiting trees in the flowering plant family Anacardiaceae (a member of the cashew family).

Right, the tropical, edible fruit!

However, I would never have bought, known how to prepare, or learned what I might use them for if I hadn’t discovered Erin’s Homemade Coconut Mango popsicles recipe on her $5 Dinners blog a couple of years ago. Once I tried ’em, mango popsicles immediately became one of our Summertime staples! Liam loves these cold treats during the often triple-digit Texas Summer days. And I feel great about being able to get more fresh foods into our diets, especially at a time of the year when we’re outside more and doing less from-scratch cooking. Mangoes are tangy without being overly-sweet, have a better than average shelf life for a fresh fruit, and are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and the powerful antioxidant beta carotene.

Mango Ice CreamBut I’ve been remiss and hadn’t even bothered to make these this Summer until I stumbled across Holly Baker’s Mango Ice Cream last week, realized how much we’ve missed ’em, and got inspired all over again. I also liked the idea of using our neglected electric ice cream maker, so I sorta combined the best parts of both of those recipes, doubled the ingredient amounts, and added about a half cup more heavy cream to make it freeze smoother. Really, you can tinker & adjust any which way you like and still come up with something that’s awesome, but I think the banana & coconut milk makes the tropical flavor soar!

Note: Mangoes are incredibly slippery devils! Cutting out the oblong seed in the middle with a knife can be quite a hazardous affair so even as much as I’m usually opposed to unitasker tools in the kitchen, I highly recommend something like the OXO Good Grips Mango Splitter for making that task easy. Once you’ve used the splitter to remove the seed, there’s still the trick of how to get all of the fruit out of the halves and here’s a crazy-simple & fast “inside out” technique for doing just that:


By the way, if you get a little carried away at the grocery store with those 3 / $1 mangoes, you can also use a leftover spare to whip up a very easy marinade for chicken. Mush up some very ripe mango with a little pineapple juice, a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, some sea salt, a splash of lime, sprig of cilantro a squirt of honey or agave syrup and a quarter cup or so of olive oil. Let your chicken marinade in that mixture for an hour or so and you’ll have a tangy, spicy but still subtle flavor. Again, this is just the sort of recipe that lends itself to endless individual interpretation—go crazy!

Master Bedroom Overhaul, Part 3: Odds & Ends

New Closet Interior

After the dust settled and the paint dried (in Dolphin Fin grey, per my earlier mention that all of our paint color selections have names that “speak” to Dede), I finally got busy with outfitting the interior of the new closet with a ClosetMaid shelving system.

I was able to make use of nearly every square inch of the space inside the new closet so I ended up with almost 20′ of angled shoe storage, about 20′ of hanging clothes rod space, and almost 14′ of open shelving. The shelves up top are a bit of a stretch to reach and only have about 12″ of clearance below the ceiling, but there’s a ton of storage inside that small space! Here’s a peek:

ClosetMaid angled shoe shelves   ClosetMaid hanging rods

New Fan Control Knob

One of the more bizarre things left behind by the previous owners of Kirkwood Manor was the big honkin’ circa 1970s ceiling fan control box in our Master Bedroom. Since we were going to have to do some re-texturing anyway with the new closet construction, I took the opportunity to replace that limping scrod (Thanks, Rich!). Extending and snaking the wires for this through the wall stud just to the left of the original switch was a real challenge, but the end result was certainly worth the effort:

new ceiling fan control knob

Landscaping

Knowing that our door project was coming up, I had intentionally neglected the flowerbed/planter off of the patio area just outside the Master Bedroom. Once things were wrapped up with the new door install, I was ready to spring into action to rehab this area:

flowerbed before planting

With some expert guidance (Thanks Dave!) I settled on a interesting mix of perennial plants that seemed like a good fit for the area, given its size and the amount of direct sunlight it receives. So here’s what we ended up with:

flowerbed after planting

Door Hardware

As is often the case, once I had found a terrific deal on a handleset for the new Master Bedroom patio door, I couldn’t just let it go at that single purchase…

brass handleset   new nickel handleset

nickel handleset detail photo

So since I had found the Kellington double-cylinder door hardware at HandleSets.com for a fraction of what the local home store charge, I opted to also replace the brass lever/deadbolt combo on the other patio door as I saw at https://dannydeck.com/ (coming out of the kitchen) and the brass handleset & kickplate on the front door with matching nickel handlesets so they’d all look and be keyed alike. And I got all 3 for less than what I would’ve spent for a single handleset at retail price!

I ran into a slight problem with the new brushed nickel kickplate looking much more “aluminum-y” than “nickel-y” and therefore not quite matching the finish on the handleset. But I’ve since seen some other homes where this is slightly off too, so that’s kinda comforting. And most people may not even notice the difference…

Be sure to also read parts 1 and 2 of our sprawling Master Bedroom overhaul project!

Want to find more ideas go to Elizabeth Gordon Studio.

Master Bedroom Overhaul, Part 2: New Patio Door

Although I mentioned the new closet first, that was really the lesser of the changes to be made with our overhaul of the Master Bedroom. No, the big ticket change, the driving force behind the whole thing, was all about a new door.

Our bedroom had a large 6′ x 9′ bank of old windows that looked out onto the patio. Since we spend a great deal of our time during late-Spring to early-Fall out back, we longed for direct access to the patio. The windows were original to the house (meaning they were the old, inefficient single-pane variety) and looked like this on the exterior (apologies for the late-night, low-quality photo):

Exterior view of Master Bedroom windows

…and on the inside they were covered with the same terrific Plantation shutters that the home’s previous owners had installed on the guest bedroom, den, and living room windows.

Plantation shutters on Master Bedroom windows

Earlier this year, we got kind of serious about this project and started calling around for estimates from “window and door” companies. We also decided to buy timber blinds online for the new windows we would be getting. But we ultimately discovered that we could get exactly what we wanted at a much lower price by purchasing the door independently and paying a contractor to install them using our friends at 740 Designs Staging. We had found a contractor thru our friend Donna P. who we felt we could trust to do the job right and I lucked into a great sale on a Jeld-Wen fiberglass-clad unit that featured two fixed panels and one hinged door in the middle (all with integral mini-blinds within the panes of Low-E glass) at Home Depot.

So 18 days later, the custom-ordered “triple” arrived—in one piece that was too big to even fit through any of our gates to get to the back of the house. So thanks to my contractor Roger, his helper Caleb, and two very cooperative & helpful Home Depot delivery guys, we brought the 81″ x 110″ door unit over the fence instead:

new patio door arrival

Once eased off the forklift and brought gently to the ground, we wrestled the behemoth to an area just beside the existing windows:

new patio door staged on site

In a single, action-packed day, the guys tore out the old windows and bricks, a plumbing contractor capped off the exterior hose bib that had been just beneath the old windows, and for a harrowing couple of hours, there was nothing but a huge hole in the side of the house:

hole in the wall

But by late that afternoon, the new door was tacked in place. The following day, they secured the unit, added casings to finish the exterior, and added tile to cap off the bottom row of existing brick and dress up the threshold area:

hinged triple patio door

What a thing of beauty! And we were especially pleased with the very budget-friendly and sturdy Kellington Double-Cylinder Handleset door hardware from HandleSets.com!

Finally, they trimmed out the interior in a regal fashion befitting such a king-sized door and I got busy with more Behr Azul Tequila paint:

Be sure to read part 3 of the Master Bedroom overhaul to see some of the odds & ends finishing details.

Also learn more from Arizona Door Store.

Master Bedroom Overhaul, Part 1: Closeted

Almost from the very first time we toured Kirkwood Manor in December ’09, one of the “somewhere down the road” wishlist projects was to convert the unused home office space (a.k.a. reading nook) in the master bedroom into some valuable closet space. As a part of another big change to that room, we’ve finally brought that little vision to life.

The reading nook had a built-in desk and bookcase that may well have been original to the house. So out those went…

And to make the most of the space, we opted to bump the ceiling in that area back up to the same height as the rest of the room…

A wall was built to box in the closet, complete with a pocket door that slides back into the wall so it doesn’t eat up any space within the closet nor does it swing out into the room.

(We used a Johnson Pocket Door kit that’s available via hardware stores or online retailers like Amazon.com or doitbest.com and a stock interior 6-panel door from Home Depot.)

Of course, with the new wall and texturing to blend in with the existing walls—and given the thoroughly-unmatchable custom faux finish that the previous owners had applied—I had to repaint the entire room.

But luckily, my ever-eager assistant was there to help with the painting…

Liam Painting

So here’s the end result, complete with trim and the new paint color (Azul Tequila) for the room:

You may be noticing a trend here—all of our paint colors at Kirkwood Manor have names that “speak” to Dede. (Just wait ’til you see the Dining Room re-done in “Dolphin Fin!”)

Keen observers will also catch that we dressed the room up with crown molding but you’ll see more on that in the next part of the Master Bedroom Overhaul!

Big thanks go to Donna P. for the contractor referral!

Be sure to read part 2 of the Master Bedroom overhaul to see details of the new patio door install!

Vote Smarter

Snoopy voteTuesday, November 6th, 2012 is really just around the corner. My biggest complaint during past elections has been that there wasn’t an easy way to get enough info to feel like I was making an informed decision at the poll. But that may be about to change…

Project Vote Smart, founded by former Arizona Senator Richard Kimball, aims to help. This free non-profit, non-partisan research organization collects and distributes comprehensive information on U.S. political candidates and elected officials. In particular, the VoteEasy tool can help you zero in on a candidate based on his/her official stance on a range of key issues or criteria. It even includes historical voting records so you can trend how candidates have performed in years past.

Especially interesting is the Political Courage Test that measures each candidate’s willingness to provide citizens with their positions on key issues. (Note that all of the 2012 Presidential contenders fail this test!)

I do my part and cast my votes but honestly, I’m still fairly skeptical about the real net value of individual votes in our electoral system (although I’m feeling slightly less iffy about this after some further reading). What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel your efforts at the polls are meaningful?

The Green, Green Grass of Home

lawn chairs in the desert

(Giving credit where it’s rightly due, this started as a response I was drafting to Eric’s “Water Musings” post
earlier this weekend but I didn’t want to hijack his blog with such a lengthy comment.)

 
Starting today, the City of Odessa has enacted even more stringent—some would say extreme—exterior watering restrictions for homeowners. That is, we’re allowed to water, via bubblers or by hand only, a scant 2 hours per week within a given 4 hour window. As you can imagine, area residents are doing a lot of hand-wringing over how they’ll even keep their trees & plants alive, much less their lawns.

Ah, the lawns. That’s the thing that’s really bothering me. Simply put, we have conditioned ourselves to an idyllic 50s-TV-inspired notion of what a home should look like. And it’s an unrealistic image that’s especially ultimately unsustainable when you live in the West Texas desert. We’ve convinced ourselves that a suburban home without a lush, green carpet of weedless turf is somehow much less cared about than those in the neighborhood that do have such. We’ve bought fully into the notion that the guy on the block with the best yard wins. And I’ll admit I’ve been as much a part of this problem as the next guy, having spent lots of money, time, and effort in years past to foster and maintain just such a showpiece front lawn.

Now of course, some locals are opting to have water wells drilled on their property so they can continue right on with the same watering practices, but that seems short-sighted at best and downright irresponsible at worst. Plus, there’s a reported 4 month average wait time now that so many are turning to this alternative source of water. And then there’s the considerable expense with little or no guarantee that a long-term personal supply of water actually does lie directly beneath your feet.

Perhaps it was inevitable that we’d run low enough on water that concessions would have to be made, but I think our civic leaders have done us a disservice in enacting severe water restrictions without first giving us homeowners some guidance on low-water (or no-water) alternatives. And likewise, the city officials should be offering some kind of incentives to those who opt for no-water solutions, as is common in many other areas of the country.

I certainly don’t want to concrete in the front yard and I’m less than crazy about crushed rock, and sadly, I’m not quite creative enough to visualize other, more attractive options. But certainly, I’m especially interested in alternatives that don’t negatively affect my property and/or resale value—and that’s something that a brown yard will almost surely do.

The artificial turf that’s available now looks and feels authentic, complete with little strands of dead thatch to complete the illusion. And it’s a long-term, nearly maintenance-free option. However, that plush, realistic synthetic lawn material must’ve been developed in a NASA lab, because they come with suborbital price tags! (Ya gotta wonder why the vendors offering this aren’t pricing their product more competitively to capitalize on the desperation of area homeowners.) And again, even if artificial turf were anywhere near affordable, that only goes to perpetuate the “lush lawn” stereotype that’s gotten into the jam we’re in.

So, if you’re in this area (or another with similar drought-stricken conditions), how do you plan to deal with the exterior water restrictions? And how does this shape your long-term home plans?

The Big Two Oh

Hard to believe, but today marks my twentieth anniversary at .

Yup, the big two oh. 2 0.

Twenty years.

Hardly seems possible.

Early into my working life, I remember worrying that “job-hopping” could make you seem risky to potential employers so I made a point of trying to establish lengthier stays at jobs. For a brief period, even having multiple jobs at the same time. In fact, when I started at MCH, I was only halfway through my 4 year stint at America Online and was still doing occasional weekend shifts for Washington Inventory Service auditing grocery stores’ inventory in the wee hours of the night—a mind-numbing job if ever there was one, but it taught me 10-key proficiency and the value of Mountain Dew: it had almost twice the caffeine of other soft drinks! Somehow I thought that all of this would make me look more attractive on paper to prospective employers.

But somewhere during the past 2 decades, there’s been a big shift in the value of job longevity. It used to be a much-admired trait. We used to marvel at hearing about friends’ Dads who retired from their companies after many, many years of service. Building tenure at a single company was considered a sign of dependability and fortitude. Accordingly, I’ve always been—and continue to be—proud of having been able to remain a productive, ever-growing employee for the long haul.

But these days, when I tell someone I’ve held a job—tho a number of distinct postiions—at the same company for so long, I’m sometimes greeted with a mixture of sympathy and thinly-veiled disgust. This is especially the reaction of “Gen Y” people, for whom self-loyalty is most often the focus. They seem to think of long-term employees as stagnant or non-ambitious. For this group, dependability does not equal consistency. For the newer entrants to the job market, job-hopping is practically required for professional development.

And maybe some of this is due to the job market quakes we’ve seen in the past decade. The ripples from downsizing and corporate disintegration may have forever changed the old rules. Where employers once promoted job security, corporate loyalty to employees seems almost dead. Employee loyalty still seems to be kicking, but it’s detached from the idea of long-term security and aimed more at skill-building and growth opportunities.

What do you think? Are your views on job longevity different than that of your parents? Or do you have a different outlook on job security now than you did when you were just starting your working life? And how much do your employment benefits (paid leave, insurance, etc.) play into this? Have benefits and/or security ever kept you at a job in spite of wanting a change?