Sunday, December 26, 2010

Our 7th Ski Trip to Taos Ski Valley

Last week, we went skiing at Taos Ski Valley for the 7th time in 7 years! Due to dry weather and relative high temperature there, we nearly changed our plan. Fortunately two days before our scheduled departure time, a winter storm brought a foot of snow to Taos. We were also fortunately to have another family to go skiing with us.

On the Road

The 700 mile drive takes long time, but it is actually always a good twosome time for Lily and I. As Kids were quietly watching a movie, we had time to talk about topics other than kids' education and discipline, such as tax cut, health care reform, "dream" act, ...; we also spent time talking about our work, long term career plannings and expectations, exchange or re-exchange research philosophy, personnel management, team building ...

In this trip, for the first time, Justin actually stopped watching movie, stopped listening to MP4, he listened to our conversation with great interest for extended period of time.

In between movies, we sometimes play traffic related math games, other times we play Whiz Quiz type questions and answers. When we were tired of talking, watching and playing, we dosed off, of course except the driver.

The long trip was not boring at all, and it was not tiring either since Lily and I shared the driving responsibility.

On the Slopes

It was snowing in the mountains as we reached the ski resort for the first day. We all started at the novice slope to warm up. After a few runs, we headed into the mountains. Justin went alone - the rest of the family was too slow for him now; I escorted Lily and Nick. The puffy snow covered trails really helped to build up their confidence in their skiing skills. One run after White Feather ( a green trail), Nick wanted to go on to Porcupine ( a blue trail). I was worried about Lily on White Feather on her own, but she was confident that she could handle it. It was a pleasure to see Nick zigzagging down Porcupine with confidence, it was a even bigger pleasure to see Lily catching up with us at the trail intersection. Due to low visibility, we quit skiing by 3:30pm, but we had already made 5 runs. Justin skied until the last lift, made 8 runs.

The next day was warmer, windy and the cloud broke up from time to time, revealing the crystal blue sky above the mountains and letting in flashes of sunshine. We went to the slope early to catch the freshly groomed trails. We took lift #1, skied down White Feather a bit to lift #2, which took us to the top of the front side mountain. The view from top, ~ 11800ft elevation, was magnificent and beautiful under the sunny blue sky. The easiest way down was Bambi, a blue trail. It was Lily's first run on a blue trail. Nick was in the front leading the way, Lily in the middle, I was in the back so I could easily help them when they fell. We got to the base in 20 minutes or so, not bad at all. We went to pick up Michelle, the daughter of our friends,as planed, for her first run in the mountains. She was nowhere to be found. We went up to the mountains skiing and stayed there using lifts 2 and 8 alternately to avoid the crowds at the base, until lunch time.

It turned out that Michelle and family met her friend Celine and family. Michelle skied with them, and Justin skied with Harvey, Celine's older brother. By the end of the day we enjoyed all opened trails!

The third and last day Michelle skied with us in the morning in the mountains, her parents took ski school. Justin went alone until Harvey arrived. After lunch, Celine and parents, Nick and parents plus Michelle went up together, Justin and Harvey went their separate way.

The two girls, Celine and Michelle, and Nick really got along real well. They were considerate to each during downhill skiing, they had fun playing snow during break, later they rode the lift together not allowing any parents sitting with them. It was a plesant sight: the three of them on a white slope, one after another, in their colorful outfits. They also energized each other: Nick and the girls went up the slope one more time as the 4pm closing time was approaching. He had way more runs than he had ever had before. Justin and Harvey had great time skiing together as well. Even more amazingly, they talked to each other in French since both of them took French class in high school.

After a day at ski school, Michelle's parents skied down White Feather on their own during the last run of the day! I was really pleased to see them enjoy skiing and succeed in keeping up with their daughter on the slopes.

That night, the three families had dinner together at Song's Asian Restaurant at Taos. All 11of us had great time despite relative long wait for the table and food.

Side Trips

Due to the long distance from DFW to Taos, we took side trips from time to time to make the most out of the trip. We have been to Albuquerque to visit friends from our graduate school time, and many other places for sightseeing, including Santa Fe, Banderlier National Monument, Las Alamos National Lab, Palo Dura Canyon State Park, Petroglyph National Monument and Pecos National Historic Park.

This time we went to Rio Grande Gorge Bridge right outside Taos, and we stopped at Trader Joe's at Santa Fe. Michelle and family went to White Sand National Monument in southern New Mexico.

Concluding Notes

Some people were amazed that we could go to the same place skiing so many times. For us, every trip to Taos is different, from dramas on the road, to our improving skiing skills, to different companies we have had, to choices of slopes, to the ever changing magnificent and beautiful mountains at Taos Ski Valley. Even with so-so snow conditions this year, we had a wonderful time there.

We will visit other great mountains for skiing in the future. Even then, I am sure we will go back to Taos Ski Valley from time to time because of its enchantment, its closeness to Texas, our familiarity with it and our fond memories skiing there - We are enchanted.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Turtle and Kids' Education

Here is an interesting observation of our turtle Francis.

Every time I watch the turtle climb the stump in its water tank home, it fails except once. Based on this observation, I would assume that Francis is not able to climb onto that stump on a consistent base. But the matter of fact is that it gets on and off the stump a few times a day, it can scale the the stump consistently!!! It does all this when I am not watching.

The reason I relate this observation to kids' education is that similar situations occur during kids' development. Parents, especially highly educated parents, like myself, tend to rush to help kids at the first sign of failure or potential failure in whatever endeavors they are in. When parents react like this, it robs the kids' chance to work things out on their own; when parents consistently react like this, it may create kids' dependence on parents, make them not able to handle difficult problems, or tough situations on their own.

I know that I have this tendency to intervene when my children seem to struggle at their activities. I have been trying really hard via various approaches to refrain from intervening.

For example, when my children work on hard math problems, I am really prone to jump in to help at the first sign of their struggle. After a few protests from them, I learned to consciously step away from their desks when they work on their tough problems. Just like the turtle, they can successfully solve many difficult problems after some struggle. This doesn't mean I would not help - I would say "Show me how you solve the problem when you are done", "Try it first. Let me know if you need help". Even with this self imposed constraint, I still cross the line from time to time.

An interesting example occurred at Youth Engineering Fair this summer. Nick was in his grade group for a fun oriented competition - packaging a raw egg with Styrofoam cup and other provided materials and then dropping it from 10 feet height. Though tentatively approaching the competition area, he declined my offer to sit by him. Then the organizer announced that parents should stay away from the tables where kids would work on their projects. As the kids were instructed to start, a few kids apparently knew exactly what do, Nick was slow to start. He did not do anything, he checked the materials, looked around a bit and played the materials and egg a bit. I was inclined to help but could not due to the rule, so I walked away from the area. I watched older kids flying model airplanes, building bridges with candies.

I went back to the "egg" area when it was announced that the organizers would start to drop packaged eggs.

First the eggs were dropped from 3 feet height - everyone passed the first test except one. Nick's package passed the test as well, but a few foam balls fell out of the Styrofoam cup. I was trying to tell him to reinforce his package a bit using left over materials on his table. He declined to do anything except put all stuff back in place, maybe with a little bit rearrangement. Next the eggs were to be dropped from 10 feet height. When Nick's package was dropped from 10 feet height, the cup, which had a balloon attached to it, landed on the floor on one side of its bottom edge, it fell, foam balls rolled out, and then the egg rolled out without breaking!!

There were total of 4 eggs not broken after the 10 foot drop. The tie breaker was the amount of materials used - Nick used least amount of material for his package - he won the competition!

When I allow children to work things out on their own, they may succeed, they may fail. This is what I have been trying to do :

Give children time, let them try, allow them to fail and restrain from intervention.

However, it is easy said than done.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bass Performance Hall Ballet-The Nutcracker

On December 10th, I went with my family to watch the Texas Ballet Theater perform Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. The well known story of the Nutcracker begins as Herr Stahlbaum throws a Christmas party, and all the guests are arriving, and the children are receiving gifts. Herr Stahlbaum’s children, Clara and Fritz, spend a good deal of time chasing after each other and arguing with each other in this opening scene. Dr. Drosselmeyer, Clara’s mysterious godfather, suddenly appears, and entertains the children with a numerous number of magical tricks, as well as life size wind-up dolls. Dr. Drosselmeyer also presents a wooden nutcracker, which he presents to Clara. Out of jealousy though, Fritz breaks off the head of the nutcracker, but the nutcracker is quickly mended by Dr. Drosselmeyer. The party ends as the guests begin to leave, and the Stahlbaums retire to their respective rooms. During the middle of the night, Clara is woken by the sound of a mouse running across her room. Then, as the clock strikes midnight, giant mice appear and attack Clara. Dr. Drosselmeyer suddenly appears, and uses his “magical powers” to cause the Christmas tree to grow forty feet tall, and sends life size toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker, to Clara’s rescue. In the final battle between the Nutcracker and the Rat King, the Nutcracker is wounded, and Clara comes to his rescue by throwing her shoe at the Rat King. The Nutcracker then transforms into a prince, and the Nutcracker Prince transforms the house into a Land of Snow, where the Snow Queen and her Snowflakes send off the Nutcracker Prince and Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets in an enchanted sleigh, ending Act I. In Act II, upon reaching the Kingdom of Sweets, Clara is entertained by numerous dances: a Spanish dance, an Arabian dance, a Chinese Dance (two men performing acrobatics with swords), a Dance of Mirlitons (better known as Dance of the Reed Flutes), a dance with Madame Bonbonaire and her children, a Russian dance, and the Waltz of the Flowers. The Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince end the performance with a grand Pas de Deux (a dance for two divided into five parts: entrĂ©e, adage, variation for danseur-male dancer, variation for danseuse-female dancer, and coda). Following a Coda, Clara drifts to sleep and reawakens in her own bed.

I found the Texas Ballet Theater’s performance of The Nutcracker highly entertaining, although I altogether do not understand ballet very well. In Act I, I found Fritz’s devilish antics highly amusing; especially since him and his fellow mischief managers would get caught every time and reprimanded by their parents. Many laughs could be heard during Act I during the Christmas party as multiple hilarious events occurred. After the party, the clock, when chiming midnight, did not actually have its hands set to midnight, but to 11:30 PM to my amusement. The battle between the rats and the toy soldiers was entertaining, if not outright odd. Scenes from the battle include a giant rat waving a white flag when the cannon was fired, and rats and toy soldiers fighting while the soldiers did not really make use of their swords. Most amusingly however, the rats all seem to be afraid of shoes and pillows, and in the final scenes of the battle, when the Rat King wounded the Nutcracker, the Rat King appeared to have passed out or died from a girl throwing a shoe at him. Act II was confusing, for I did not understand the concepts of ballet and such did not understand the multiple dances performed. The music however, was very familiar to me, as it was music from Tchaikovsky’s score for the Nutcracker, among notable pieces included the March, Dance of the Reed Flutes, and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hitch and Bike Rack

Every time we went camping, I wished that we could have brought our bikes to the camp. Just by observing those who brought bikes to camping sites, I knew that I would need to install a hitch under a vehicle, and to attach a bike rack to the vehicle through the hitch.

After years of half hearted trying to install a hitch and bike rack, I finally did some serious research earlier this year on what I should do to buy and install a hitch and bike rack at a reasonable price.

Where to buy Hitch

Of course the first place to check is the car dealers. It is no surprise that the package price for a hitch at dealers' is extraordinarily high. For my van, the price for a hitch plus other required parts is ~ $1000! It would require ~ $1200 to 1500 to have the hitch and rack installed.

When I finally decided to take actions, I did more research on the hitch and I found two places that sell hitches and trailer package, "The Hitch Store" , "etrailer.com" at good prices. The two places have plenty of information on what other parts are needed, how to install a hitch to a given make/model of vehicle.
There are two common size hitches, 1 1/4" and 2" receiver tube size hitches. It appears that 2" size receiver is a more common size for bike rack, i.e. more bike racks for 2" receiver hitch.
Since the sole function of my hitch was for carrying bikes via a rack, I decided to purchase the hitches listed at the two sites though I believe that dealer's hitch would have better quality especially for trailers. Then we went to amazon.com to search for the exact same hitch I identified at the two sites, and found a even better price. We bought a hitch with necessary accessories for a price under $180!

Install Hitch (DIY)

After reading the installation guide at the thehitchestore.com, and watching a installation video on youtube.com, I realized that it was not hard to install the type of hitch with one possible problem - I need to move the exhaust out of the way.

During installation, Lily and I followed the installation guide step by step without any problems until the step of removing the exhaust from rubber isolator. I went online a couple of times to watch the video and studied the connection at the rubber isolator. We decided that we would damage the rubber isolator if we followed the instruction exactly. Instead of removing the exhaust, we slided the hitch side way into place, and installed it onto the frame of the car.

Where to buy Bike Rack


The two sites I listed above also sell bike racks which match the hitch of one's choice. Upon further research on bike racks, I decided to buy a rack at local sporting goods stores so I could have a look and feel at it.

The Dick's sporting Goods website has an excellent bike rack buying guide. Since I have a hitch, so the mount type of of my bike rack (bike carrier) would be hitch mount. The price for this type of racks ranges from $120 to $450. Two key considerations in selecting a bike rack in addition to price: 1) required receiver size should match the hitch's receiver tube size per bike rack manufactures - they recommend against using receiver adaptor; 2) the style of the rack - it is better to have a swing away or tilt back style which allows rear access to a vehicle without removing the rack. Again for my type of applications, I picked a low end rack priced at $120, which has tilt back mechanism.

There was an interesting episode during the purchase of the rack at Dick's Sporting Goods. We went there on black Friday, Lily and Kids went for sports apparels; I went to the bike section, and located the rack I wanted. There was no sale on the item. I talked to a sales person. I told him that I would like to buy the rack, but the box was kind of damaged. I told him I would buy the item with damaged box at a discount, or he should find another item with good box. He called the bike department manager, who offered me 10% discount!

Assembling the bike rack and mounting it onto the hitch was a snap.

When we tried to mount the bikes onto the rack, we encountered difficulty!! New style bikes don't have a horizontal cross bar, and the tubes on the bikes are not round. When the bikes are mounted, they would tilt. The new style bikes have been around for sometime, there must be ways to mount them on a rack. It turned out that we need false crossbars (British terminology) or bike rack adaptor bars, or bike beams, priced around $20 ~ 30. It would be another week before I could really mount the bikes on the rack for a test run.

Try it Out

I got the adaptor bars last week. Last Saturday evening, I finally got a chance to try the hitch mount bike carrier. With the adaptor bars, mounting of the new style bikes were much easier, and the bikes could sit on the bike holders straight up after mounting. It took me about 30 minutes to identify the best way to mount a bike, the best sequence to mount four bikes, and how to add additional securing mechanism. I believe that it would only take ~ 10 minutes to mount 4 bikes when we go on a camping trip next time

After I was satisfied with the mounting, I drove my van around my block for a trial run. I was really nervous at the beginning. The hitch was solid, the rack was sturdy. Quickly all the uneasiness vaporized. The bikes were steady on the rack during the drive over bumps and potholes, turns and slight acceleration.

We are ready to have more fun in our future family explorations of nature.