The Polar Express

I’ve spent the last six months remodeling our family room. You can see the progression in my photo album. But the culmination of all of that work is a model train that runs around the perimeter of the room. Here’s a quick video showing the final product.

 Using All Of The Space

Butler's PantryIf your house has more than one floor, chances are good that there is a lot of wasted space above and below your stairs that is just crying out to be filled with stuff. Shelves underneath the stairs are easy, and something that I added when we first moved in. But after years of climbing up and down the steps and staring at all of that empty white space up there, I finally had to do something with it, so as a side project to my current family room remodel, I’ve conjured up an entirely new room right off the kitchen that I’m calling a butler’s pantry.

floorThe floor is a piece of 3/4″ plywood made just a bit beefier with some 1x4s, connected with some heavy duty hinges to a 2×4 attached to the wall with lag screws into the studs. It rests on a matching 2×4 on the opposite wall, and I cut a notch out of the wood to allow room for the handrail. This was designed to hold a single person, but we’ve already tested it with two adults (300+ pounds) and it had no trouble holding us.

stairwellOnce the floor is in place, you can assemble whatever kind of shelves or hanging storage containers you like. I used 3/4″ pine boards that will easily hold 50-100 pounds on each shelf. Add a few hooks to the underside of the shelves and you have a place to hang pots and pans, or dry herbs from your herb garden. Mmmm… smell the rosemary. For just a couple hundred bucks in lumber and hardware, maybe you should add a new pantry to your house too? Eat your heart out Pinterest!

 Great Stories

I’m taking something of a sabbatical from Facebook – I’ve only posted there a handful of times this year.  I don’t check it obsessively,  like I once did.  In fact, sometimes an entire 24-hour period will go by without me even logging in (gasp!).  But this post isn’t about Facebook.  It’s about what I do now when I find something interesting that I deem worthy of sharing with others.  It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, I come across a great story and I feel compelled to talk about it.   This is one of those times.

I read a fascinating account by a American newspaper editor living in Brazil who met an elderly couple who represented the last vestiges of a population of expatriated Americans who fled the South immediately following the Civil War.  Some 7000 people who were actively courted to bring their knowledge of cotton farming to Brazil at a time when it was struggling to grow its own population.  The most striking part of the story was that they maintained a separate and distinct culture, resisting assimilation for a century, right down to their quirky southern drawl.  Simply amazing.  You can read the whole story here.

Great stories like this should be shared. But not on Facebook.  It can’t do a story like this justice.  And yes, I realize that you are probably reading this on Facebook (because I’m still mirroring my blog there, but not for much longer), but if you got this far, it means your attention span hasn’t been permanently damaged.  And if you actually clicked the link above, and read the story, big bonus points for you!

Because if we can’t share great stories, then what is the point of this internet thing, anyway?

 Coming ‘Round The Mountain

I’m pretty proud of our little boy. His skills on the piano are getting better and better, and he nailed his rendition of the classic American folk song at his recital. Good job, Noah!

 The Family That Crafts Together

What started out as an impulsive addition to my son’s list of Christmas presents, has morphed into an addictive and all-consuming passion for crafting.  I’m of course talking about the insanely popular video game for the PC called Minecraft.  I must admit I didn’t fully grasp what the game was all about before I bought it. But after watching my son play it for a couple of hours (while I read the wiki and gave him pointers), I realized why the virtual world of the game is so compelling. I started having flashbacks to my college days, and the countless hours wasted in “deathmatches” in the early days of games like Doom and Duke Nukem.

But despite the similarities of its deliberately crude bitmaps, which give the graphics an odd retro feel, Minecraft is so much more than a first-person shooter. (In fact, we have chosen to play with the monsters turned off, and the game is no less compelling.) At its core, the game celebrates the creative rather than the destructive, and being able to easily mine the raw materials, and carry large quantities around with you, inspires no end of creativity. Want to build a castle on top of a mountain? That feat can be accomplished in an hour or two. And then it’s time to move onto the next challenge.

It is also, dare I say it, educational. It is a lesson in engineering, chemistry, and economics, disguised as a game. There are also some valuable moral lessons hidden there. For example, when my son decided he would loot one of the neighboring villages, and attack its inhabitants, the consequential hit to his own individual popularity meant that he could not trade with them when he later discovered that there were things he needed.

After just a few hours of solitary gameplay, I decided to up the ante a bit, and set up my own server so the two of us could play in a world that we could shape together. This is where the real addiction begins, as we collaborate on certain tasks, like planting a garden or raising livestock, while at the same time choosing our own projects to tackle, periodically sharing our progress with each other.

After a couple of days, a new rule emerged at the dinner table: no talk of Minecraft. Our incessant discussions of what we accomplished “in the mines” each day were leaving little sister (and mommy) feeling left out, and it wasn’t long before I was cobbling another PC together from spare parts, so the entire family could join in the fun.

Our daughter is just starting to read, and hasn’t had a need to write. Until now. We have been amazed at how well she is able to string together sentences when using the chat function to talk to rest of us playing in the next room or downstairs.

So, in the end, while this new hobby can be a bit obsessive at times, it does provide some unique opportunities for learning, and bonding as a family.

 Birthday Girl Grabs Magic Ticket

There’s only one magic ticket swirling around in the booth — and it’s worth 1,000 tickets — but Josie made it look easy, snatching it within seconds. She was so thrilled, and just as surprised as the rest of us!

 More Basement Woodworking

Earlier this year, I started building a cabinet in my basement on the wall opposite my new bar. As usual, I used Sketchup to draw up my plans, and I neglected to post these at the outset of the project. Sketchup is a powerful tool, and fairly easy to learn. Using it to create models of things you want to build is a great way to save time and money. If you take care to make precise measurements when you draw your model, you can use it to figure out the cost of materials, and later as a blueprint to verify your measurements are accurate. I am currently working on some new plans for a major project in 2013 — stay tuned for more on that.

I did post a couple of photos back in June when the cabinet was nearing completion, but I had to take a break for a few months to work on other things. Its main purpose was to replace the hideous drywall box the previous owners had built to hide the water meter on the wall. It now serves as some extra storage space, and a decorative place for Sir-Drinks-A-Lot to stand. I am happy to announce that the cabinet is now complete!

 Garden Irrigation Project

In late April, we had a pretty impressive hailstorm, which led to us getting a new roof and new gutters. The timing was somewhat fortunate, however, since I had already started putting together a system for catching rainwater that we could use on our garden. I found a 300-gallon plastic tote on Craigslist for $100, and had the gutter company reroute the gutters on the back of the house and combined three downspouts into one that drains into the tank. I really had no idea how long it would take to fill up, and I was astonished at our first hard rain when it took less than an hour for it to fill to overflowing. Now I wish I had bought more than one.

The next phase was intended to avoid the hassle of dragging a hose out to the garden to water it everyday. So instead I buried a “perma-hose” consisting of one hundred feet of 3/4″ PVC pipe from the house to the garden, with splitters on both ends. At the house, short pieces of hose connect both the rain tank and the faucet, so we can easily switch between them depending on whether or not the rain tank is empty. At the other end, another splitter means we can leave the soaker hose in the garden attached all the time, and still have an open faucet for watering our other plants. Because our yard slopes away from the house, the garden is about six feet below the level of the tank, so we have a pretty good head of pressure — not bad for only being gravity-fed.

Stay tuned for the final phase, which is to hook up a 55-gallon rain barrel on the upper patio that we can use to water our herb garden and some other potted plants.

 Bird Versus Bird

I’ve mentioned before how much we like all of the wildlife we see on our property, but yesterday it was the source of some dismay as we watched this Cooper’s hawk try to make our chickens into a breakfast buffet. It is times like these that I am glad I used hardware cloth on the coop. As they say, chicken wire keeps chickens in, but doesn’t keep predators out.

 The Boys of Summer

Two years ago, I took Noah to his first baseball game, and now he is playing coach-pitch himself. Here’s a quick video of a hit he got in his last game of the season. Dixie took some good photos too. We’re very proud of our little slugger.

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