Monday, February 27, 2006

#117 - Air! We Have Air!

Back in November I groused about our air conditioner being on the fritz. Only in California would we complain about not having air conditioning in November, but there you are. Appended to my "Autumn in California" post were several helpful suggestions along the lines of going out, looking at the fuse box, and making sure there were no dead bugs preventing contact.

I actually allowed myself that snarky feeling that, ha!, I had already done that and verified that the contact was clean. The fact that I checked that same fuse several times had less to do with paranoia and more to do with a growing desperation that I was going to have to call out the repair guy before I was good and ready. "Good and ready" in this case is defined as "having received my tax refunds for the year."

So once my refunds showed up, I felt that we could tackle some of the more annoying things that we've been artfully avoiding all winter long.

To understand what happened next, you need to get better acquainted with my home owner skills. Like Dave Barry, I was born without the Mr. Goodwrench gene that magically allows guys to undertake nearly any home improvement project - up to and including adding additional rooms to the house and making them look like they belong to the house - without fear of having their beloved spouse gently pull them to one side and whisper softly in their ear, "Honey, time to call a carpenter."

Well, calling a carpenter would probably be a much faster solution, but it can be an economically challenging one. The average house call for a carpenter (the one where he comes out, looks at your project, and actually chuckles in anticipation of his next Caribbean cruise) costs about as much as your next three car purchases combined. So it is that you find yourself wandering the aisles of Home Depot, hoping that something will jump out at you that says "we gotcher floor-under-the-toilet repair kit right here!" And, of course, it never works right. You try so hard to follow the instructions that were written by bitter college students that just found out you have to pass tests and everything just to graduate, and still it looks like something that London would pay good money to put in front of their government offices as art. This is not a compliment.

The bottom line is that my home improvement skills are measured not in terms of acumen, but rather in terms of criminal malfeasance.

With that in mind I am happy to report that I have fixed our air conditioner problem. I know you're curious as to how, exactly, I managed it. You might be interested to know that it was, in fact, my washing machine that led me to the solution. I was all set to do a load of darks yesterday. I don't normally do laundry on the Sabbath, but this was an emergency. I had no dark socks that were clean and had passed their smog certs. Can't go to work like that, so I dropped a load into the wash and pulled the timer out. This is usually the signal the water is waiting for so it can begin filling the tub, which is my signal to close the lid and get out of its way.

Except that, this time, it didn't happen. I must have diddled with that darn'd timer for five full minutes before I finally figured out that, somehow, the washer wasn't getting any electricity. (In my defense, I was fooled by the false positive given off by the light in the laundry room, which was working.) Having broken the code, I immediately went outside to check the circuit box because that's what we highly trained home improvement savants do when the electricity isn't working on one of our major appliances. Sure enough, I noticed that the circuit marked "Washer" had been tripped, and I reset it. Just before closing the circuit box, however, I also noticed that, directly across from the "Washer" circuit, there was another circuit labelled "Air Cond" that - funnily enough - also appeared to be tripped.

Huh. Whattayaknow.

At this moment in time I was feeling more than a little sheepish. After all, a couple of weeks earlier Mrs. Woody and I were sitting down and budgeting our tax returns. Under "heating and air" we had budgeted something like $1500 in case we had to replace something major. With that firmly in mind, I tiptoed across the kitchen to the thermostat, set the temperature down a few degrees, and threw the "Cool" switch. I tiptoed back across the kitchen to the floor vent that we use as a flash freezer whenever we're feeling really warm and need to have icicles instantly appear on our foreheads, which is what happens whenever the air conditioner is working. Yep. Sure enough. Ice crystals began forming on my upper lip.

"Um, Honey? I think I solved our air conditioner problem."

I have rarely been more embarrassed in my life.

Fortunately, Mrs. Woody looked on this as a direct answer to prayer, and I am content not to disabuse her of that notion. Although, I sure wish the Spirit had acted on me sooner so we could have avoided all these warm days we've had in February. As it turns out, the miracle - such as it was - had a limited shelf life. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. It's wonderful knowing that we have our air conditioner back, and we look forward to using it again just as soon as this freezing rain stops in a few days. On the other hand, our dryer won't work now.

Yes, I already checked the circuit breaker. You think I wouldn't check that first??

#116 - The Ball is Back

I've mentioned The Ball before. This is the primary conveyance for my elder daughter when she wants to get from one end of the house to the other in the least possible efficient way. She literally bounces up on the ball, scoots it forward with one hand, using the other hand in a sort of ride-em-cowboy posture while destroying everything in her path.

The Ball, you see, has grown.

You know that old cult classic starring Steve McQueen wherein something that looks like chocolate pudding with an attitude begins oozing out of buildings and threatens to eat an entire city? I think The Ball has been watching that movie. Last I saw, it was a relatively small yellow ball, such as you might see on a playground being tossed around by a bunch of third-graders. Then I blinked, and the thing expanded by roughly 200% of its total mass. It also turned white, which I explain as being the result of its newly acquired appetite for white meat.

Charlie Brown had his kite. Calvin had his bicycle. Woody has The Ball. You may laugh, but I know it's out to get me. It waits, silently, in darkened passages of the house. It knows that sooner or later I have to get up and visit the restroom. Then, WHAM, it will knock me down and begin kneading me like three-day old sourdough. And when one's bladder is already painfully full... well, you get the idea.

I also believe it has somehow acquired the ability to chuckle. It does this very softly, and only when I'm close by. But I can hear it. I also believe it has eyes. Why else would it turn to follow my movements whenever I walk past it?

The sound it makes when my daughters bounce on it is particularly blood-chilling. Whang-a, Whang-a, Whang-a, Whang-a! I think this is where ancient African tribes first learned about battle rhythms and war dances. This sound is enough to make me curl up in a fetal position on my bed and whimper under the covers until it goes away.

My daughters, it goes without saying, think this is highly amusing. Funny Daddy! How could he be scared of this wonderful Ball of ours? See his face? Did you know it could turn that funny color?

Just wait, though. One day they will grow up and get married. They'll have children of their own. Then, one night, they'll be navigating their way to the restroom when they'll suddenly hear a soft chuckle. And they'll know it's too late.

The Ball will have won another round.

Monday, February 20, 2006

#115 - The Inner Dad Suffers Cosmic Thoughts

The Inner Dad is all about the idea that, grump though we might, most of us actually enjoy the idea of being a dad.

Bill Cosby talks about having five children, and that the reason they had five children was that they didn't want six. And those they had they wanted to get out of the house, preferably before he and Camilla grew old and died. That's the public Cosby; the funny one. Privately, though, he's been through more than a few joys and heartaches with his brood (not least of which is losing his son in a tragic incident), and I feel certain that he does not begrudge any time he may get to share with those kids today.

My own Dad was enough of a curmudgeon that we kids spent most of our childhoods not understanding him. At all. We all knew at some level that Dad loved us. But I also harbored a sneaking suspicion that, given the chance, he would have shipped me off to military school for a nickel. Now, of course, I recognize all of that as absolute hogwash. I have since revised my estimation of the man to an understanding that it would have taken more like a fifty-cent piece.

Really, once you figured Dad out, he was a great guy. My brothers-in-law have both stated (and their wives have secretly groused) that Dad always made them feel more than welcome in his home. Mrs. Woody was also made to feel that way. In fact, Mrs. Woody is probably why Dad never got comfortable around my first wife - one of those signs I should have been reading so early in my adult life. Mrs. Woody was always one of Dad's favorites from the time we were both in high school and I had all the social acumen of roofing tar. Dad, as much as anyone, was largely responsible for the fact that Mrs. Woody and I had one (count 'em! One!) date while we were still young enough to know everything. If not for Dad we might have never gotten past my own ineptitude. Thankfully I grew out of that after my divorce. Anyway, having harbored hopes that I would eventually get a clue, any female in my life that wasn't the accept-no-substitutes Mrs. Woody just wouldn't have cut it.

You can imagine that I have expended a lot of energy trying so hard to be a different sort of dad than my own father was. It probably also would not surprise you in the least to understand that every passing year brings me that much closer to precisely that image of him. Except...

I do try harder to maintain an open line of affectionate communication with my kids. I have so few regrets with respect to Dad now, but this is one of them. When I reach waaay back in my dusty bag of memories, there's one that actually is rather endearing. It involves being a squirt, not much older than my Doodle Woodyette, and being able to nestle up against Dad's arm in church. I even remember feeling drowsy and, perhaps, dozing a bit. Sacrament will do that, sometimes, to a young boy who knows that Dad will shorten his life expectancy if he so much as blows another spit wad at the girl sitting in front of him. But, interestingly, it is Dad that resides in this memory, not Mom. Oh, I had plenty of snuggle time with Mom when I was little. I suspect Mom felt I grew out of that all too quickly. But in church, on a sleepy Sunday, I remember Dad. And then our relationship evolved.

It probably happened in conjunction with the formation of my personality. As my own opinions and tastes were formally articulated, it placed me on a higher level, I believe, of expectation. Dad expected me to assume greater responsibility as I passed through my adolescent phases, and I would interpret that expectation as being unreasonable in the extreme. That's about the time I believe I stopped understanding Dad. And this I regret.

Still, I am who I am because of Dad, at least in part. I have inherited more than a little of his dry, often ironic sense of humor. I have also inherited more of his physique than I feel comfortable with. But I am comfortable with the image of Dad that I have become. The peculiar swagger with which he walked I seem to have assimilated. The hairline, the horizontal tie... I have become like my Dad.

Somehow, I think, he's happy about that.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

#114 - Another Homeschool "Discussion"

Interesting post over at Splendid Sun. Craig describes his own experiences with homeschooled children and finds them largely to be socially challenged. Aside from quoting the usual tired statistics and anecdotal evidences, it is the comment section that tells the real story.

It sometimes reaches a point where we begin to think that perhaps we should lobby to become a minority group along the lines of the gay rights bunch. We need some sort of protection so we can claim that someone is "homeschoolophobic" whenever they disagree with what we're doing.

To Craig's credit, he insists that the discussion remain civil. Most of the commenters are abiding by that rule (including, I hope, myself), but there are definite prejudices on display on both sides of the argument.

Really, folks. We freely admit that there are kooks out there who happen to homeschool and shouldn't. But please, please, please don't impugn the rest of us based on that kind of evidence. We homeschool, and our girls are thriving.

What other evidence need we present?


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

#113 - Home(land) Security

(Note: I struggled over whether this was more appropriate for the Woundup or the Inner Dad. I finally decided that this was important enough to cross-post on both. Another first for Woody.)

So what do the Patriot Act and your own house rules for kids and internet access have in common? Hopefully, more than you might expect.

This morning during the commute I was tuned to our local news blatherers, hoping for some sort of update on the fire situation here. (For the record, the so-called "Sierra" fire is growing, but seems to be staying on the unpopulated side of the freeway for now. A couple of hot spots flared overnight, but firefighters beat them down quickly and the evacuated areas are still relatively unaffected.) One of the things the talking heads have been salivating over for the past few days is the sting operation recently undertaken to catch sexual predators as they tried to rendevous with kids they thought they were meeting over the internet.

Aside from a minor discussion regarding whether or not this constituted "entrapment," (it didn't, according to the folks who sponsored the operation) I was once again struck by the need for people to state the obvious: kids cannot be allowed to freely wander the internet in today's society. And it has nothing to do with any federal, state, or local statutes that may be on the books. It has everything to do with parents protecting their children by enforcing stricter controls over their access privileges.

I've had this discussion before; most recently in a couple of lessons at church. One of the most obvious ways to enforce appropriate access to internet resources is for that access to be strictly supervised by the parents. Liberal (sorry... the word works here) use of parental control software would be considered a bare minimum. The suggestion I liked best was having all computers out in open traffic areas, where there is no expectation of privacy. I understand that some folks get a little queasy about invading their teenagers' rights to privately communicate with friends, but the internet is precisely where that privacy often gets those kids into trouble. Trouble they are ill equipped to handle. Far better to encourage open communication at this stage of life, rather than risk having them stalked by predators who may end their childhoods (if not their lives) prematurely.

In fact, this is where this sort of policing is not unlike the Patriot Act. It has its fans, to be sure, but I can't think of anyone who enjoys the need for the Act. I'm sure we'd all like to be back in our relatively safe and secure pre-9/11 world. I can't think of anyone (excepting perhaps the FBI and other law enforcement types) who really wishes we could have regular wire tapping all the time. But the reality is that we are (as the White House is suddenly fond of reminding us) a nation at war, and war is a mitigating circumstance. We would love nothing better than to trust everyone living within our borders, but we simply can't. We need vigilance, and the Patriot Act allows a higher degree of vigilance than we might normally have.

Likewise, we are also a society at war. The enemy, for purposes of this discussion, is everyone "out there" who feels that their sexual appetites make our children legitimate targets. And one of the larger battlegrounds is no farther away than your computer. There is no "safe" age at which a child may have unrestricted, unsupervised access to that battleground. Even with all the legitimate uses for which the internet was created, the margins of safety are too slim to allow kids to use it with impunity.

Does this sound overly restrictive? Perhaps. In fact, yes, I admit it, I plan on being just that restrictive where my girls are concerned. They are far too precious to me to not take every precaution I reasonably can. Mrs. Woody and I have a deeply vested interest in both their upbringing and their safety. They will simply grow up to understand that there are, in fact, secure ways to communicate with friends. They will understand that, unless some major changes occur between now and "then," the internet is not one of them. I sure wish this were 40 years ago when such things were virtually unknown, but it's not. I wish I could trust even my closest neighbors with my precious daughters, but, with few exceptions, I can't. Not yet, anyway.

Do I have a solution? Well, for as long as the technology exists, a phone call and the price of a stamp still work for me. For pretty much everything else, Dad plans to butt in. There is, after all, no expiration date for my Patriot Act - Home Edition.

Friday, February 03, 2006

#112 - Potter Watch: Order of the Phoenix

Being, as I am, in touch with my Inner Dad, I am not ashamed to admit that I am a hard-core Potter-phile. Since Mrs. Woody and I first became acquainted with the series we have followed it like religious acolytes waiting for the next saintly image to appear in someone's breakfast food. We breathlessly join the multitudes who beg J. K. Rowling to for pity's sake hurry up and write Book Seven. But not too quickly, since we know this is the last of the Potter story and will then have only the seven books to hold our interest. So drag it out, but hurry, ok?

Yes, I know, this makes me a pathetic old man. Deal with it.

Anyway, for good or evil I also happen to be a big fan of the movies. Say what you will about each director's style and technique, I find that I can easily transition from film to film without skipping a beat. The stories still hold my interest even after multiple viewings, just as the books can still entertain me after about the twentieth read-through. I even thoroughly enjoyed Goblet of Fire, even though many fault the film for trying to cram too much into too little time. I may not let the Woodyettes see it for about ten more years, but I'm sure they'll enjoy it when I ultimately give in and remind myself that they really are growing up faster than I care to admit.

Thus it is with great interest that I read today of the casting of key roles in Order of the Phoenix. Actors who will portray Nymphadora Tonks, Bellatrix LeStrange, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and even the batty Arabella Figg have been announced. I've seen photos of most of them now and they look like they'll fit their characters just fine, thank you. The one that makes me most nervous, however, is the actress who will portray perhaps the pivotal character of the fifth book, the hideous Dolores Umbridge.

Here's my dilemma. As a fan of both the books and the movies, I quite naturally visualize the characters using the actors who portray them as I go back and re-read the books. I even try to use some of their vocal characteristics whenever I read the books outloud, as Mrs. Woody and I are wont to do when we want some together time. (Once an actor, always an actor.) For example, I use Robbie Coltrane's gravelly delivery whenever I voice Hagrid. My voice gets sore quicker when I do that, but Coltrane is my visualization of Hagrid and always will be. Likewise, I can use some of the characteristics of Dame Maggie Smith's Minerva McGonagall, as she will always be whom I envision as that character.

This is not to say that my mental/vocal images from the books always synch up with the casting of the films. I use the voice Richard Harris gave to Dumbledore (in the first film, moreso than the second) when I read aloud, even though I appreciate the visualization of Michael Gambon more in the films. Gambon's voice even matches more closely the description Rowling herself gave the character, but I still use the somewhat breathy delivery that Harris used.

In other words, for the pivotal characters of the books, the actors cast to play them on film become extremely important to my later enjoyment of the books. I need to visualize Alan Rickman as Snape (even if I use my own "oily" voice) in order to properly assign my anger to his actions. It helps, anyway.

So hopefully you will understand my nervousness over the casting of Dolores Umbridge. Firstly, it has nothing to do with the actress herself. I am certain she has the chops for the role, and I'm equally certain (after seeing a publicity shot from Nanny McPhee) that she can look the part. But that will depend largely on the people who will create that look for the film, such as the makeup artists and the director himself, and I won't know how they did until the film comes out. That means a whole year and half to sweat while the film goes through its production phases.

The role of Umbridge is, moreso than other characters, a true caricature. Her description in the book is such that any deviation from it in the film will instantly destroy that characterization for me. She needs to look short and squat. She needs to have the simpering, faux little girl voice, right down to the pronounced "hem, hem!" that so annoys all who hear it. She needs to have those silly black bows in her hair. She also needs to be cold-blooded and ruthless; the epitome of the calculating career politician. If she is not all of these things, I will be sorely disappointed.

Past experience tells me I'm probably worrying over nothing. I was just as nervous over the casting of Aunt Marge for the second film, and she turned out to be the perfect embodiment. Other shortcuts or mis-castings from the films have not affected the major characters, so they have no real bearing on my ability to visualize when reading.

Speaking of which, if everything goes right we'll have both the next film and the last book coming out in roughly the same timeframe next year.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

#111 - The Mighty Fridge

There's a scene in "Sleepless in Seattle" that always cracks me up. It has nothing to do, really, with any of the primary characters, or even the plot of the movie. It's all about the refrigerator.

You know the scene... Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) arrives at his latest project. The owner of the house (who also happens to be enthralled with Sam) is genuinely concerned about the space available for her new refrigerator. Must be able to hold those catering trays, after all. To accomodate, Sam the Architect informs her that they'll have to knock out a load-bearing wall and set the project back by another six months.

I laugh because I realize that I will never, ever have a refrigerator quite that large. And it has nothing to do with capacity. I have, what, 17 or so cubic feet in my current fridge, and that seems to be adequate for our food storage needs. It fits neatly in the space allotted for it by the manufacturers of my manufactured home. So what's funny?

Surface area! I need surface area. I have two elementary school-aged daughters, and they have a combined annual artistic output equivalent to a small rain forest in Central America. I have a revolving account with my local paper distributor. It's ironic, really, given my work in creating paperless environments for my customers at work. But the need for children to draw, paint, color, and otherwise create pictures is deeply rooted in their psyches. Along with that need is the need to have their work displayed so that all who see it can acknowledge the genius of their work. And the refrigerator is the logical place to display their masterpieces.

It's so simple. They draw a picture in which they take considerable pride. We have plenty of magnets. All that's required is to decide which previous magnum opus to take down to make room for the new one. The fridge also has an array of magentized toys with which the girls play on occasion. These take away from the potential display space on the fridge, but it's a relatively minor inconvenience.

So what I have, in my kitchen, is a large, magnetic art museum. It may have food on the inside, but it has priceless works of art on the outside. I feel no need to upgrade this display case. For one thing, my kitchen space dictates how large a display ca... sorry, refrigerator I can have. For another, why should I pay $2,800 for a display case?? You didn't know you could blow $2,800 on a fridge? Go visit the refrigerator shop. And that's the sale price.

To be honest, I'm not entirely certain just what color our refrigerator is. I haven't seen it for a couple of years now. I think it's white. I know it's white on the inside because I just had to clean every surface of it the other day. But I don't dare disturb the layers of art on the outside. Indeed, it's not altogether uncommon for the fridge to regurgitate an occasional picture when it gets too full. I can always tell... I'll either open one of the doors, or brush up against it when walking by, and a picture will float gently to the floor. I will look in vain for a clear space that might indicate its original position. Ultimately I give up, and file the picture away in a drawer where we stash all such things that we just can't bring ourselves to toss.

Probably we'll end up getting a new fridge before we get rid of the art. Then we'll heave the sigh of parents who realize that their daughters aren't their little girls anymore.

I hope that day takes its time getting here.