Sunday, December 30, 2012

A White Christmas

After spending our Christmas holiday on the road several years in a row, we stayed home for Christmas this year. The kids were excited to open their presents under the Christmas tree on the morning of Christmas day. It was a cold day, grey and rainy outside. We lit the fire inside and just played games and read books.

Sometime in the afternoon the raindrops turned into snowflakes. The snowflakes kept falling, and soon our backyard was coated in snow. A white Christmas in Texas is really special. Last time it happened here was in the 1970s.

As I stared out of the window watching the dancing snowflakes, my memory wandered back to the best white Christmas I had years ago. We were still in Ohio, where winter and snow are inseparable. In that year, snow fell silently all night on Christmas Eve. When we got up early on Christmas morning, the outside world was all covered in pure thick virgin snow. The sun was up, snow encapsulated tree branches glistened under the bright winter sun and clear blue sky.

After breakfast, we decided to go out sledding. The snow was totally undisturbed, not a single footprint within our sight. The air was crisp and refreshing. It was quiet; we could only hear the snow crunches under our feet as we walked toward a slope in front of our building. 

I ran the sled a few times at the slope to compact the snow and to form a track for 3 year old Justin. Justin was thrilled to sled - every run, his crisp, sparkling laugh and Lily's cheer broke the tranquility of the Christmas morning. It was quite a lovely sight as well - he was in an orange coat, red hat, and riding on a green sled. We were immersed in the sheer joy of sledding. Then we heard a loud voice above us, from a second floor window, "What a beautiful day!"  An old lady opened her window to greet us. "Yes, it is". "This is the best Christmas card I have ever seen, the picture of your little boy sledding there J Merry Christmas!” “Oh, thanks! Merry Christmas!”

I smiled at the vivid memory of that “Christmas card” and realized it was turning dark outside. I turned on our Christmas light and went outside with my camera. The snow stopped, gusty wind turned to breeze, it was calm, and I raised my camera to capture this special white Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Family Holiday Letter

We received first family holiday letter about 10 years ago from my graduate school professor. As I understand that family holiday letter is an American tradition that people use to reconnect and get back in touch with friends and family. I thought that it was a very good idea, and we started our family holiday letter the next year, and have been practicing it ever since.

Though family holiday letter has been a staple of December holiday activities in America, it is still relatively rare in my circle of friends. So we are teased from time to time: some friends call our holiday letter an annual report of our family, or annual summary.....sort of, it is. Our family holiday letter typically highlights major events in our family for the year - mostly positive things, occasionally with reflections . 

Writing a good family holiday letter actually takes more efforts than sending out a Christmas card. When Christmas is approaching,  Lily and I will talk about writing family holiday letter. I will then recollect what happened during the year, checking our calendar, photo albums, and in recent two years our blog, to see what events are worth sharing in the letter. Each year I try to identify a major theme, and draft the letter around the theme - one year it was about very interesting or funny events, another year it was about the reunion with our friends from graduate school, last year the theme was travel and this year it is about change. What ever the theme is, I will always have a section on our travel and outdoor activities in the spirit of "explore nature have fun". When my draft is completed, I will send it to Lily for polishing. She is a good editor, improves my writing, deletes  or adds some contents. I will then go through the final draft, always take her version as the final, making changes only to typos :). So it usually takes about two days to come up a decent family holiday letter for us!

Over the years, the format of the letter also evolves - initially it was in the format of a letter with a family picture on top, then I changed the format, making it more like a composite news story with 3 or 4 pictures accompanying the text. In recent years, I used this format with the addition of a row of 5 selected pictures at the bottom of the letter highlighting some events mentioned or not mentioned in the main text.

I feel that holiday letter can make a special personal connection with family and friends that social media cannot. The accumulated family holiday letters have become a chronicle of our family life, fond memory of good times. So we continue our tradition of family holiday letter in the era of online social media.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Random Thoughts: Sandy Hook Elementary

Last Friday's Sandy Hook Elementary massacre gripped me, and saddened me.

Issues of gun control is front and center of a national debate, discussion of mental health intensifies. As a parent I think more about what parents can do.

The killer killed his own mother first! The anger and hatred he had toward his mom must had simmered for some time to reach the boiling point. He then killed 20 6-year old innocent boys and girls and 6 school teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Why did he kill them? unfathomable! I will wait for official discovery of his motives.

For teenagers and youth, because of their developmental stages,  they tend to be easily frustrated with parents, authority and society, they tend to be easily stressed out due to various reasons, they might be easily irritated and be angry .....

Channel of Relief

First and foremost, we should consciously and purposely provide teenagers a channel of relief - allow them to vent, listen to them, help them to identify causes of frustrations, anger and stress. It is actually a good thing that teenagers vent in front of parents.

More often than not, they don't talk to parents at all, they let their frustration simmer - but parents should be able to tell from their easy irritation, anger over trivial things, and tantrum. We need to probe the causes of the symptoms via whatever communications we can have. The communication to identify the causes of frustrations is a channel of relief - sometimes merely talking through the issues help teenagers to resolve their problems.

Mental Health

Mental disorder is a taboo for most parents. Many parents don't even want to speculate about the possibility of mental disorder even when extreme behaviors persist. When we can not resolve issues for our children, we need professional helps.

Be persuasive, Not pushy

In my circle of life, many parents have great expectation of their children. Many times, parents push their children, especially middle schoolers, high schoolers, very hard for academic excellence. This is a major stress for teenagers.

My position has always been that parents should help to plan, to organize, to improve, to ...but the drive to excellence has to come within. Otherwise the journey to excellence will be a stressful, frustrated process, and the force-acquired excellence will not last long.

My other opinion is that let them be what they can be, not what we want them to be, set realistic goals and expectation. When children do not reach their potential, parents should help to connect their goals/expectation to their current efforts, persuade them to work harder, not to push.

My Sympathy 

I could maintain my emotion when news of massacre came, be it be Virginia Tech, Oregon Mall or movie theater at Colorado. But this time when I watched the news on TV, read the stories in the newspaper, that 6 year old school children were killed in their classrooms made my tears flow, my heart broken. I could not bare to imagine the sorrow of their mothers and fathers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fix Leaking Outdoor Faucet

We noticed that our outdoor faucet at backyard leaking during mid summer, we put a bucket under the faucet, every evening we used the accumulated full bucket of water to water Lily's tiny garden or the grass. We did nothing more until late November when the temperature at North Texas dropped the first time. Lily worried that the faucet would freeze and break water line. I told her not to worry, leaky faucet actually helps prevent waterline freezing J  But I told her I’ll fix it if she does some preparation work. So here’s my “order” of action:

1) find out what's wrong with the faucet so I know what to do: replacing the faucet or washer or seal;
2) find out if I can turn off the water main since there is no local shutoff valve to the faucet;
3) once above two steps are completed, the faucet can be fixed in the following steps:
a) turn off the main shutoff valve at curb side;
b) fix the faucet;
c) turn on the water.

I did a quick investigation. I checked the book "home improvement 1-2-3" by home depot, which I use when I need to fix something in the house. But there is no description of outdoor faucet. Concurrently Lily did some online search about fixing leaking outdoor faucet, and found plenty of information:

The structure of the standard frost free wall faucet 
How to fix a leaking outdoor faucet

Leaks in outdoor faucets usually occur in two places – the handle and the spout.

To fix a leak coming from the handle, try tightening the nut behind the handle with a wrench. If that fails to stop the leak, or if the leak is coming from the spout, you’ll have to take the faucet apart.
Start by turning off the water supply at your shutoff valve and unscrewing the screw that holds the handle in place. Behind the handle, you’ll find a packing nut. Using a wrench, turn the nut counterclockwise and slide out the valve assembly.
Older valve stem assemblies have two washers – one behind the packing nut and one at the base of the assembly. If the washer behind the packing nut is worn, use a wrench to loosen the nut and take out the washer. Take the old washer to a plumbing supply store to make sure you’re replacing it with the right one.
To replace a worn washer at the base of the valve stem, unscrew the screw that holds the washer in place, remove the worn washer, and replace it with a new, matching one.
Leaks in long frost-free valve stems are more difficult to fix, especially if the leak is inside your wall or if your valve stem is soldered onto your supply line.
We also watched online videos on fixing leaking outdoor faucets.

Fixing it!

Knowing what to do, we were half way through. This one looks especially simple. But as it turned out, shutting off the main water valve was the most difficult part of the work.

We tried to use wrenches large and small to turn the shutoff valve, we borrowed a wrench like key designed for turning the shutoff valve from a friend, we tried with all our might, it just wouldn’t budge. We called the city for help. A technician showed up with a T-bar, and turned the valve on and off multiple times like a toy. Knowing that we did not have a T bar, he tried to show us how to use a wrench to turn it on and off. He had a hard time to turn the valve as well. As it turned out, the T-bar has a much better grip on the valve and provides a much bigger torque than the smaller tools we tried.
I bought a T bar after work. It was dark after dinner, I told Lily that I would fix the faucet next day. But determined to fix the faucet quickly, Lily used her extra hour of the day in the morning to work on it.

She had no problem turnoff the water main. But she did not have enough strength to unscrew the screw that holds the handle in place. She decided to try the power drill. Proceeding with great caution and following instructions and trying to remember what I taught her before about using the drill, she finally unscrewed the screw after several tries. She took out the valve assembly, unscrewed the screw from the other side of the tube, and replaced the seal. After putting everything back in place, she turned the water back on. And there was no dripping at the faucet any more.

Satisfied with her work, she called me triumphantly to let me know that she fixed the faucet using her extra hour!

After thoughts

Handyman job should be easy, on paper at least. With proper training, almost anyone can do it. Whether we can do it or not depends on our interests, determination, resourcefulness, tools and strength. Whether we want to do it or not may depend on the amount of time needed.

For us we will let contractors do the big jobs or more dangerous jobs, such as roof repair.

We will work on smaller jobs like this one. They are more like challenging games for us, we get a kick out of completing this type of work.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Foliage in the Yards

Due to the big swings of temperatures this fall, the foliage came quite late and irregularly. It was not until Thanksgiving that I could observe some wide spread beautiful fall colors. I noticed that my block actually had the best foliage around our subdivision from jogging around the community on Thursday to Saturday mornings - Thanksgiving week.

On Sunday morning, Lily and I went out to exercise and to capture some autumn splendor.

It was a sunny, crisp Sunday.

Standing in front of our house, we took in the splendor of autumn right in our own yard. 

On the right, the golden yellow leafs just brightened a few more shades over night; on the left a mocking bird was sunbathing in the evergreen tree full of red fruit.On the west side of the house, the tree leafs displayed layered colors of red.

Looking down street, a huge volume of  bright yellow stood out in the block. It looked golden when I took a picture of it in back light.

Walking down the street,  I checked on the persimmon tree in a neighbor's yard  - I took some beautiful pictures of matured persimmons there several years in a row. This year it showed me its peculiar side, it had 4 pairs of double persimmons - each pair like twins joined at bottoms! I have never seen this before

Looking back at the direction of my house, under direct light, I saw this contrasting and complimenting colors under the blue sky.

Instead of the usual route of jogging in our community, we went to a neighboring community in hope of capturing some different feels of Autumn. It was a good decision.  An older community than ours, and more matured trees, a distinctive feeling there was that the streets were full of autumn splendor!

Autumn splendor in my front yard
The mocking bird who lives in my front yard
Varying colors 
The brightest foliage on the block under morning Sun
double Persimmons

Contrasting and Complimenting Colors

Purple flat bean and flower

A Colorful Street
Red in Yellow