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.

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 (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!

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. 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. 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 plumber 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.

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?

The Peanut is Back!

The peanut a.k.a. TiVo remote

March is National Peanut Month and tho we’re big fans of the lowly legume (not to mention Snoopy’s gang!), we’re celebrating an entirely different kind of peanut just now…

Nicknamed “peanut” by its adoring fans, the iconic peanut-shaped TiVo remote control is once again gracing our home. And we couldn’t be happier!

We’ve always insisted that TiVo was light years beyond all other cable company DVRs. No other cable box I’ve seen has a channel guide that’s as comprehensive and up-to-date. The WishList and Season Pass features are revolutionary! And of course, you can remotely schedule recordings online. And we had all of that with our original TiVo nearly 7 years ago!

So when our cable / internet / phone service provider Grande Communications began offering the TiVo Premiere DVR to Midland/Odessa customers a few weeks ago, we immediately jumped on board. I’m happy to say that this new TiVo goes to 11 with super sharp HD, multi-room viewing, even smarter predictive recordings, and boatloads more on-demand content than we could access on our old Motorola DVR. You can even remotely schedule and control your box(es) via smartphone app!

Debit Indebted

Next year, Bank of America (among others) will begin charging debit card customers a $5 monthly fee.

Banks are making the change because revenue from lucrative interchange fees paid by merchants (a.k.a “swipe fees”) is being cut in half by a new rule issued by the Federal Reserve Board that takes effect Oct. 1st. So, instead of an average of 44¢ per transaction, banks will only be earning 24¢. Bank of America estimates that it will lose $2 billion annually because of the change. So, what’s a poor bank to do? Well, they’ll negate their losses by shifting their costs onto consumers, of course.

Even beyond avoiding the aggravating new monthly fee, using a credit card has distinct advantages.

Federal laws protect credit card users from fraud much better. The Fair Credit Billing Act ensures that you bear no liability for fraudulent purchases, damaged goods, and products that were never delivered. And you generally have 60-90 days to report fraudulent or erroneous charges to the bank.

credit card mouse trapThe Electronic Transfer Act does provide debit card users some protection during a dispute or error but only if you catch and act upon the issue quickly. If you notify your bank within 2 days of a questionable charge, your liability is limited to $50. However, between 2 – 6 days your liability could increase to $500. Beyond 6 days, you may have no coverage. And to dispute a debit card transaction, you may be required to prove that the card has never been used online on an unsecured network.

And remember that with a credit card dispute, you’re questioning fraudulent or erroneous transactions before you’ve paid the bill. With a debit card, the money has already been withdrawn, so recovery is going to be much more difficult.

Given that debit cards are directly linked to your bank account, a thief who obtains or clones your debit card along with its PIN may be able to clean out your bank account, and you’d have little or no recourse.

By the way, many banks claim that their debit cards can also be used as a credit card. While it’s true that these transactions may take slightly longer to post to your checking account, they’re still a debit transaction. So, using your debit card in this manner does not afford you the same protections or deferred payment opportunity as a “real” dedicated credit card.

The biggest disadvantage of using a credit card over a debit card is self-control. You have to make sure that you’ve saved enough money to cover your purchases when the credit card bill arrives in order to avoid finance charges. Since the money is not being taken out of your bank account immediately as you make purchases, there’s a high risk of overspending and accumulating interest-bearing debt. But with a little self-discipline you can actually avoid the finance charges and earn money on your purchases.

So, do you use debit cards? And if so, will these needless new fees affect your debit card usage?