Monday, January 31, 2011

Illness Arrives, Chaos Ensues

I'm over at DadCentric today, so just click on the "read more" link at the end of this teaser, and learn all about the horrors we've been experiencing.


I knew we couldn't dodge the bullet forever.

Our twin girls have managed to go for nineteen months now without an illness worse than a mild case of the sniffles.  I've always attributed this to my particularly robust genes.  It may also have something to do with the fact that they have never been in daycare and are a bit standoffish during playdates, so don't come in close contact with many little purveyors of pestilence.

My smugness has now been replaced with abject despair though, as a series of insidious viruses have infiltrated our perimeter and made our (more or less) orderly homelife resemble nothing so much as medieval plague art.



And here's a bonus video.  You might want to turn down the volume on your computer if you wear hearing aids or if there's a dog nearby.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pain, Yes?

I've gotten a couple requests for more stories about being a diplo-brat in Moscow back in the Cold War days, when my dad was an assistant Army attache at the embassy.  We were there from 1978-1980, during which time I was in the sixth and seventh grade.

 Ukraina Hotel, Moscow 1979

I have to walk with a cane for a couple days now.  Maybe a week.  I blame it on my new boots.

We got to go to Helsinki last month, and my parents let me buy some really cool black cowboy boots with straps on the back, just above the heel, that have metal studs on them.  I was surprised that they let me buy them, and even more surprised that they let me buy the black vinyl pants.

It was my money, but still.  They don't always let me spend it on whatever I want.  It's kind of not fair; but on the other hand, they're the ones who gave me Finnish markkas at just under the official exchange rate for the worthless rubles I raked in selling jeans and stuff to Russians on the black market.  So I shouldn't complain, I guess.  I think they felt sorry for me because I got kind of depressed over the winter.  I mean, there were a lot of days when it was fifty below zero, and only light out for a few hours, and the heat kept shutting off in our cruddy apartment.  That stuff can get to you.  But mostly it was just boring. 

Helsinki is a capitalist paradise, in case you didn't know.  And every once in a while, a train goes out of Moscow with the "diplomatic pouch" from the embassy, and some lucky American family gets to go with it.  It was our turn last month.

They have this store in Helsinki called Stockmann, where you can buy just about anything.  And everything is clean and shiny and new there, and doesn't look like it's about to break, or is already broken.  Not like here.  Also, in Helsinki, they have a restaurant called Carol's that's just like a McDonald's back home.  I ate their version of the Big Mac every day that we were there.  They also have good grocery stores there, with fresh fruits and vegetables.  Not just wilted old cabbage, like here. We brought an empty suitcase with us and filled it with iceberg lettuce and bananas to bring back to Moscow.

So my friends and I were messing around at the Ukraina hotel the other day.  It's just down the street from our apartment building, called K-14, on Kutuzovsky Prospect.  The hotel is one of those big buildings that's kind of like a palace or a castle, with a spire on top and everything.  On New Year's and May Day and other Soviet holidays, they shoot fireworks from all seven of those buildings and we can see them from our balcony.  You have to hand it to the Russkies: they can put on a good fireworks display.  They have these big artillery trucks that they shoot them off with. The Russians call the Ukraina and the other buildings "The Seven Sisters."  We call them "The Seven Ugly Sisters," or "Stalin's Wedding Cakes."  I don't really think they're that ugly though, compared to the rest of Moscow.  Most of the other buildings, except for the old churches and the stuff in Red Square, are just big gray blocks.  They look like prisons to me.

Ukraina Hotel.  Kutuzovsky Prospect is on the right.

My friends and I sometimes go to the Ukraina or other hotels, just out of boredom.  We'll run around in the lobby, or buy useless crap from the gift shop if it's open.  That's one of the things about Moscow: you never know if a business is going to be open, or if it's going to have anything in it.  And sometimes it seems like they have stuff that you could buy, but they just don't feel like selling it to you.

When I run around with my friends, somebody always has a lot of money, either from selling Western stuff to Russians or because they're from a country that doesn't care if they use "soft" rubles.  Americans are only supposed to use rubles that they get at the official exchange rate.  I guess it looks bad if we go around spending their currency like it's worthless, which it is.  We never hang out with Russian kids, except maybe to play a pick-up hockey game or something, because they're not supposed to hang out with Western diplomats.

So even though we have a lot of "funny money," usually there's nothing worth buying with it.  The only places that sometimes have a lot of stuff are the hotel gift shops, and it's all decorative vases and lacquer boxes and those "nesting" dolls.  After your apartment is filled with that crap and you've sent souvenirs to your family back home, there's not much left to spend it on.  The restaurants are terrible, if they even feel like serving you.  There's a little coffee shop right next to our apartment, and it's had the same display in the window--a plate with a fried egg on it--since we moved here almost two years ago.  We got some pastries there once and they tasted like cardboard.  A while ago I had a bunch of rubles burning a hole in my pocket and I bought a full-length rabbit fur coat from a hotel gift shop, just for the hell of it.  I don't wear it all that much, but it sure was nice on those days when the heat didn't work.

Anyway, we were doing this thing that we sometimes do at the Ukraina, which was playing in the revolving door in the lobby.  There are never many people around, so no one tells us to stop.  The door is probably ten feet tall, and it's made of these thick slabs of wood with glass panels in them and big steel bars over the panels.  They're really heavy, and it's kind of hard to push your way through the door.  But if you get two or three guys in there pushing, you can really get it going fast.

We'll have a couple guys spinning the door, and everybody else stands around in the lobby, waiting their turn to jump into the...chamber, I guess you'd call it, between the panels of the door.  If you time it right, when you jump into it, the door kind of picks you off of your feet and spits you out onto the sidewalk.

So I was standing there like a sprinter, waiting to jump into the spinning door, watching it go around a couple times to make sure I went at just the right moment.  I made a kind of song in my head with a beat every time a door panel passed the wall: bum-bum-bum-bum.

I let it go around three or four times.  Bum-bum-bum-bum.

Then: bum-bum-bum--I jumped into the opening!

But because I was wearing my new boots, instead of my Adidas, my ankle turned just a little bit and I stumbled and had to recover.  My timing was way off.

Thud!  It sounded like someone had jammed the door with a big piece of lumber.

But it wasn't lumber; it was me.

The door stopped its hyperspeed counter-clockwise revolutions, and started slowly going the other direction until it hit my limp body and stopped altogether.

I couldn't move.  I wasn't bawling or anything, but I have to admit I was pretty scared.  I guess I was in shock or something, because I couldn't feel much of anything.

One of my friends who speaks Russian tracked down some grownups to help us as my other friends dragged me into the lobby, away from the door.

It seemed like the grownups weren't in any hurry to help me.  A couple people walked by and shook their heads.

Finally, a huge middle-aged Russian lady in a white dress and hat showed up, carrying a small brown suitcase.

"Pain, yes?" She said.

"What?" I said.

"Pain!  Yes?"

"Yes," I said.  "Pain."

She opened her case and pulled out a syringe that looked about the right size to tranquilize a horse, with a needle that was a good eight inches long.  Then she pulled out a glass bottle of clear liquid.

As she plunged the needle into the bottle, I suddenly found myself standing up.  I swear I don't remember getting to my feet, but there I was, saying, "Come on!  Let's get out of here!" to my friends.

My friends half-carried, half-dragged me back to my apartment.  My parents were both at work at the embassy, and eventually I was able to get in touch with my mom.  She sent a driver from the embassy to pick me up and take me to the clinic.

It turns out that I'm okay after all.  I just have a bruised hip, and there's nothing you can do about that really.  The doctor gave me a cane to use for a while, and aspirin for the pain.  It doesn't even hurt that much anymore.

Also, the cane makes a pretty cool accessory.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Unsustainable Cuteness Bubble and Resulting Photography Glut

Check it out: today I'm posting for the first time on DadCentric, the awesomest group dadblog ever.  Please read the excerpt, and then follow the link to what will soon be your favorite new hangout.  It's like being a fly on the wall in a locker room full of smart, funny dads.  I guess.  I don't really hang out in locker rooms, so I can't be sure. 


It should have been the happiest day of my parenting career.  I had just been tapped by Jason, the Don of DadCentric, to enter the inner circle of the most powerful group blog in the dad-o-sphere.  I was a made man.  The future was spread out before me in a pastiche of Scorcese-esque images: luxurious homes and automobiles, custom-made suits, diamond-encrusted chinchillas for my wife, and a small but swanky apartment for my brassy, psychotic mistress. And of course, only the best boarding schools for my 19 month-old twin girls.

But before plowing ahead with my new life, I had to get my proverbial house in order.  There were bills to pay, travel plans to be shuffled, long-time acquaintances to be snubbed, and tracks to be covered.  Fortunately, my wife takes care of all that shit.  All I needed to do was to back up the data on my iPhone.    
I had bought the phone back in August and blah blah blah boring blah exchanged phone blah blah didn't bother backing it up blah blah boring. So I plugged the phone into my ancient MacBook, and absentmindedly clicked on an option in the dropdown window that had the word "restore" in it, which, my wife later told me (repeatedly because I'm a slow learner), is a code word for "destroy everything you hold dear."


Friday, January 21, 2011

Get this Potty Started!

Hello!  Today I'm on Aiming Low, where I ruminate on the impending adventure of potty training.  I know.  Classic mommyblogging material, right?  But I also have uncovered (from a hallucination I had) some interesting literature about the topic--i.e., "Potty Training the Tiger Mother Way."  Please join me at Aiming Low, and leave lots of comments so my boss doesn't yell at me.


Get This Potty Started 

I have previously expressed my incredulity here and elsewhere at the idea that my kids will learn even more stuff about becoming real human beings than they know now.  They have already gone from screaming little wriggly red balls of unfocused panic to tiny proto-people who can walk, jump, dance, feed themselves, utter a handful of words, and use a mish-mash of communication techniques to let their desires and demands be known to their faithful manservant and his supervisor.

All this in just under nineteen months!  It seems crazy to ask more of them.

And now I'm told that that there will come a day when they will no longer do their dirty, sinful business in their diapers!


Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Pen Pal

It's Thursday, so that means it's another day that I'm posting somewhere other than my own blog!  This time, I'm at the Studio 30+ Magazine.  I'm sure you know all about Studio 30+, but in case you don't, it's a great site for bloggers over 30 to hang out, chat, post stuff, make friends, participate in forums about blogging issues, etc.  It's a really valuable resource, and I've lured in a lot of readers from made a lot of friends there.  I highly recommend joining as one more way for you to "find your people."

And once you've signed up, you might as well vote in the "Boomerang Awards."  I think I may be nominated for something.  I don't know.  I don't really pay attention to things like that.  Because of all my humility and stuff.

I'll get to this damn post eventually, but first, a question and an announcement.

Question: Is it annoying when you come here and find that I'm making you go to another site to read what I wrote?

Announcement: I'll be posting even more of these link-posts, because I'm going to start writing for DadCentric in the very near future!  Like Monday-ish!

I'm sure you'll agree that I'm not overstating when I say DadCentric is the best group dadblog on Earth.

Ever see those gangster movies where a guy is a good worker for years and years, loyal to the Don, whacks guys efficiently, keeps his mouth shut, and then one day they take him for a secret ceremony where he gets "made"--accepted into the inner circle of the organization?  That's what's happening to me right now.  Actually, I don't know if I'm supposed to talk about this stuff.  Better shut up.

Anyway, stay tuned for links to my posts on DadCentric, which will probably be pretty much like what I do here, except maybe a little better because of the peer pressure. 


Here's the beginning of my Studio 30+ post (oh--you might not be able to leave comments over there if you're not a member, but I'll definitely read and cherish them if you post 'em here):

My Pen Pal

Because I’ve moved around a lot throughout my life, there aren’t many people that I’ve stayed really close to for a long time.  But there’s one guy that I’ve been good friends with since junior high (some thirty years ago), and even though we haven’t always kept in touch during the stretches when we’ve been separated, when we see each other, we pick up right where we left off, which was:

Him: You’re like, all stupid and shit.
Me: No…YOU’re all stupid and shit.

Let’s call my friend “Bill” because that’s his name and there’s no way in a million years he will ever read this, so I can say whatever I want about him.  The reason he’ll never read this is because it’s on the Internet, which he doesn’t much care for.  When it comes to technology, he’s ambivalent at best.  He’s okay with cars and household appliances, but there are certain things he shuns due to his odd mixture of romanticism and cynicism.

Read more... 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Failing to access my inner Tiger Mother

I'm posting on Daddy Dialectic today, where I contribute when I want to act all serious and stuff.  This is kind of a comment on the Amy Chua essay and book that caused such an uproar, but don't worry, I'm not going to talk about how she's an abusive parent or anything.

Here's how it starts...


By the time you read this, the outrage caused by Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal essayentitled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," will have mostly died down.  A lot of people will read her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (#4 on Amazon's bestseller list at the time of this writing); but those who don't will remember her only as the crazy bitch who calls her straight-A, musically prodigious daughters "garbage," and violates a dozen articles of the Geneva Convention while overseeing their piano practice--all in the name of helping them achieve their potential.

And sadly, many who read the WSJ essay, or even just scan a few of the bazillion blog rants and Twitter freakouts it inspired, may have forever etched in their minds the stereotype of the hardcore Asian Mama who shuns affection always, and breaths the fire of shame when her kid gets an A-minus, despite Chua's subsequent backpedalling regarding her overstated claims and bombastic tone in the essay.

I'll probably never read the book (unless somebody wants me to review it, or gives me a copy when I'm caught up on all the other stuff I want to read or...who am I kidding?--I'll never read it), but I'll take her at her word that the voice of her essay represented her earlier, more confident attitude about her draconian parenting style, before her younger daughter's rebellion caused her to lighten up a bit.  She also explains in the essay and elsewhere that she uses the phrase "Chinese Parent" as shorthand for the tough-as-nails mentality any number of immigrants adopt as they strive to prove their mettle in their new country.  


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Project Trike

The family and I were at the fancy-schmancy kids' store in Fiercetown a while back for an Asian Mommies event, and among the many other beautiful, stylish, and unconscionably expensive items on display was a very sweet looking tricycle.  As a formerly passionate cyclist, and a sucker for cool design, my interest was piqued.

The machine was made of plywood.  Not cruddy old plywood like your uncle's tool shed, but sleek birch with sexy curves and a lustrous finish.  Like an Eames lounge chair on wheels.

My heart sang as I saw that the kids also gravitated toward it, wrestling for a chance to climb aboard.

It was a rainy day, and after the rest of the Asian Mommies left, we were the only customers in the store.  The woman at the till indulged us as the twins took turns crashing through the racks of high-end baby clothes.  They showed both enthusiasm and aptitude for propelling themselves on wheeled contraptions.  I could not have been more proud.

The genius of this trike's design is that it converts from three wheels to two when the kid is ready to have a go at riding a balance bike (that's a bike without pedals, thought by Euros and snooty Americans to be a better way than training wheels to prepare kids for riding a real bicycle).  And when the kid gets too big for the frame in its original configuration, you simply disconnect it from the fork and flip it over so it describes an upward arc rather than a downward one, providing another eight or so inches of stand-over height.  A child could ride this thing from under two years old until they were ready for a full-fledged bike.

The downfall of this rig, as I saw it, was its price tag:  $250.00 for the basic two-wheel bike setup, plus another fifty for the kit that allows you to use it as a trike.  And there's no way we could get away with buying just one.  So we were looking at a $600.00 investment on toys that the girls may or may not have had an enduring interest in.  Clearly, this was not going to happen.  But...

That thing is made out of wood, I thought.  I know how to make things out of wood.

It's not the first time that thought had occurred to me. 

Often, when I see some tasteful wooden toy set that's much more expensive than its garish plastic counterpart, I think:

I could make that. 

Then I consider the price of the material and the hours it would take me to make the toys, and I realize that it would make more financial sense to just pay the twenty bucks for the toy.  Or put it on a wishlist for a relative to buy for an upcoming birthday.  Or just buy the seven dollar plastic version.

That's one of my misgivings with the whole DIY movement*:  it seems oddly elitist.  It's like camping.  Very few people who ever had to sleep outside go camping once they can afford to live in a house.  Likewise, people who grew up unable to afford store-bought clothes or toys don't generally handcraft anything when it's available at Target for ten bucks.  They would rather earn money doing their jobs, and spend their precious free time hanging out with their families. Presumably. 

Nonetheless, I wanted to build something like these bikes for my kids.  (I also want to take them camping.  Because I'm an elitist who has never experienced real hardship.)  I figured that, valuing my time at the price I can command for a remodeling job, I could probably break even.  Plus, it would be fun for me and make me seem really, really cool if it worked out.

* Even though I'm in awe of people like Mike (Cry It Out) and Jim (Sweet Juniper), who make amazing things for their kids, mostly out of old junk


I've been building houses and parts of houses and remodels and additions on houses for a living since I was eighteen years old (a long-ass time ago), with some hiatuses for college and grad school, and an eventual blending in of a teaching "career" in the last seven years or so.  In that time, I've made a point of mocking the lily-palmed desk jockeys who so "admire" people like me who "work with their hands."

All the while, of course, I've secretly reveled in the romanticizing by others of my not-really-very-glamorous vocation.

And I'm at a point now, with my house mostly dialed in and my days filled with baby-wrangling, that I actually find myself gazing wistfully at my neglected table saw and nail guns.

So I decided that it was time for me to launch my first real dad project.

I felt (and still feel) a little weird about just straight up stealing someone else's design, lock, stock, and barrel. But this trike/bike was exactly what I wanted for my kids.  I didn't see any way I could improve upon it, and it wouldn't make any sense to sacrifice any of its features just for the sake of kidding myself that I was doing something original.

So I ripped off someone else's design.  (I'm not mentioning the company I ripped off; but if you've shopped for balance bikes, you probably know who I'm talking about.  If not, you can email me and I'll provide links for you, because they seem like an outfit that deserves your custom.)

I drew sketches based on my memory of the trike I had seen in the store, and tried to scale the dimensions and glean technical details off of the company's website. I'm not particularly proud of that.  But, if anyone from the company in question happens to read this, just remember that intellectual property theft is the sincerest of flattery.

I ended up deviating from their design in a few areas, notably the axles (I had to improvise since I don't have the machines necessary to make metal hardware) and the seats (I made mine like motorcycle seats to keep them as low to the ground as possible for our dinky kids).  But still, they are basically reproductions.  Okay, knockoffs.

I'll go into more technical detail here, for those of you who aren't already bored to tears.  But what follows is the quick and dirty overview of making the bikes.


Building toys is not exactly the same as building houses.  I have a garage full of tools, but they're all the kind that you can put into a pickup and haul to a jobsite.  I don't have any of the stuff that you used in Woodshop, if that still existed when you were in high school.  I don't have a lathe, or a drill press, or a bandsaw, or a bench sander--all of which would have been helpful for this project.  So I had to fake it sometimes, the way you do on a jobsite.

And my experience with woodworking doesn't always translate precisely into these smaller scale projects either.

For instance, the frame of the bike has multiple curves in it.  I've built curved things out of wood before.  Like the two-story turret on a house overlooking the Sebastiani winery in Sonoma, CA.  But to bend the plywood around the frame of the turret, I used a telescopic forklift called a Lull, with a twenty foot hydraulic boom.  While the principle is pretty much the same for bending plywood in walls, furniture, and toys, the techniques differ significantly.  So I had to do some research.  Thankfully, the internet holds all the answers.

I started the project during the second week of December, hoping to be done by Christmas.  Not like the twins knew jack about Christmas, but I thought it would be fun to include the trikes/bikes as part of the festivities.

Once I had a pretty decent idea of how to go about building these things, I had to find the materials.  It took a few trips to Home Depot, a specialty lumberyard, a couple industrial hardware stores, a few thrift stores, and some sketchy meetings with people who were selling their kids' bikes on Craigslist (I bought them just for the wheels) before I could get all the parts together.

I managed to get the frames built and most of the hardware installed before Christmas.  I ended up spending a little over a hundred bucks on material, almost half of which was on a sheet of birch plywood that I used for the forks.  The good news is that I still have enough of that sheet to build a baby gate out of.

As far as my labor: well--I would have had to charge about a five hundred bucks apiece to make building these suckers worth my time, financially. 

One of the bikes in two-wheel mode, and one as a trike

While building them, it occurred to me that bikes this cool deserved a custom paint job.

So I contacted a friend who happens to be one of the smartest and most talented people I've ever known, and she agreed to populate the bare plywood of the machines with paintings of adorable animals.

Dig the yellow naugahyde seat w/fringe.  Made from a thrift shop garment bag.

Giving the delicate artist enough time to create the mobile menagerie pushed the rollout beyond Christmas Day, which...really didn't matter at all.  The unveiling took place on New Year's Day, and looked like this:

Clearly, I was a little more excited than they were.


Since the great unveiling, we have gone out for rides in The Park every day except for the two times it has rained.  

As seems to be the case with everything, the girls arbitrarily try on different attitudes toward riding their trikes from one day to the next.  On Monday, Cobra will be indifferent, and Butterbean will be deadly serious about racking up piles of miles.  On Tuesday, Butterbean wants to be carried  while Cobra tears up the sidewalks.  Learning to ride trikes is one more exciting, sometimes stressful aspect of their worlds, and their reactions are unpredictable.

Butterbean cruising around the park.  She's very focused.

For the most part, though,  the bikes have been a big hit, and have become part of their vocabulary as well.  When I let them know that it's time to go play ("đi chơi!"), they respond by saying (approximately), "Bike? Bike?," quickly followed by "Hat? Hat?"  These girls are all about the accessories, so the pink helmets ("hats") are as important as the bikes themselves.

I could go on with a dozen or so darling anecdotes about the girls and their trikes, but I'll restrain myself and just share one.

We were doing a lap around the park, and both of the girls were happily cruising along as I coached them.  We came to a pretty good sized hill, and the girls charged right at it. I figured that I would easily be able to prevent them from getting into any trouble by descending the hill backwards, in front of them, ready to block them if they got going too fast.  I may or may not have been trying to capture it on video.

Anyway, Cobra made it down first, with a little assistance from father-of-the-year.  But meanwhile, Butterbean had veered off into a patch of iceplant and ended up pinned under the trike with the handlebar boring into her cheek.  I rescued her as quickly as possible, and looked back at my other charge, who had managed to topple her trike while I dealt with her sister.

Of course I was concerned primarily that both of the kids were all right; but I also was afraid that the episode would shackle them with a lifelong bike aversion.  I needn't have worried.  Cobra was unfazed, poking around in the dirt next to her overturned vehicle.

And Butterbean, sporting a perfectly circular abrasion next to her mouth from the rubber grip on the handlebar, started thrashing in my arms as she called out between sobs: "Bike!  Bike!  Bike!"

That's my girl.


We happen to live next to the coolest park in the world, which counts a velodrome among its many attractions.  A nice lady who coaches there said I should bring the girls one Saturday morning.  So we did.  Here are some of the pictures my wife took.

Sprint!  Sprint!  Sprint!  Stay on her wheel!  

Dude is totally jealous of the yellow rims
Cobra breaks away on the inside



Project Trike: Technical Stuff

This is an addendum to the saga I wrote here about building these trike/balance bike contraptions for my kids.  I wanted to include the technical details here for anyone who is interested, without causing regular folks to glaze over.

As I mentioned, I basically stole the design from an existing product, making some modifications as necessary, usually to remedy things I screwed up or miscalculated, or to make up for my lack of a machine shop.

Here's what my version ended up looking like:

The first thing I did was to figure out how to go about bending plywood into the shapes I needed so that the back end would open up to accommodate a wheel when it's in the two-wheeler phase (it just gets a spacer through which the axle slides when it's a trike), like so:

So I found some articles and videos online about making bent plywood furniture, and felt pretty confident that I could handle it.

I went to a specialty lumberyard that's mainly for furniture grade wood, and got a sheet of 1/4" mahogany cross-grain plywood that's specially made for bending applications.  I would have preferred birch, just because I like the way it looks, but all they had was mahogany.  It was cheaper than I thought--only about 26 bucks.

After drawing some sketches based on my memory of the actual bike I had seen in the store, and trying to scale the pieces off the images from the company's website, I cut out cardboard templates of the frame and fork, and tweaked them until I achieved the geometry that I wanted.

The one problem that plagued me at that point was wheels.  I have a friend who builds bike wheels and can get me components at his price, but he couldn't get me the tiny 12" wheels you see on little kids' bikes.  So I made my templates based on a plan to use 16" wheels, which are typically used on bigger kids' bikes, and which my friend could get cheap.  It would make the bike taller than I wanted, but I wasn't willing to pay the retail price of about 35 bucks a wheel (including tires and tubes) for these homemade hoopties that might not even work.  That would have been 210 bucks right out of the gate!

I made a mold out of 3/4" medium density fiberboard (MDF) I had left over from another project.  Using a jigsaw, I cut a bunch of identical templates in the shape of the curves that I wanted, and stacked them on top of each other, gluing and nailing them together with a trim nailer, until the mold was thick enough that I could clamp my pieces of plywood onto it.  Then I sanded the mold until the curve was nice and smooooth.


Next, I cut my pieces of 1/4" flexible ply into the arc that would form the frame of the bike.  I had to cut twelve identical pieces, since I was laminating three of them together to form one side of the two-sided frames for two bikes.

Then I glued them up, three pieces at a time, with regular wood glue, and clamped the hell out of them to the mold.

I ended up with an 11/16" thick (because 1/4" ply is slightly thinner than a quarter inch) piece that would form one side of one of the bikes.  The frame of the bike I was copying was only 1/2" thick, but I didn't trust myself to make it that thin and still structurally sound.  The trade-off for the extra strength and rigidity is, of course, extra weight.  But in the end, the bikes don't feel very heavy at all and they're quite sturdy.

I repeated that procedure three more times, and then sanded the bejeezus out of the pieces, using my neighbor's table sander and my random orbit sander.

For the forks, I used 3/4" birch plywood, which is widely available but a bit pricey (usually around $44.00 for one 4'x8' sheet).  The spacers that go between the two pieces of the fork, and through which the steering "tube" (just a threaded rod, really) would eventually run, was made of the same material.

One section of frame, the forks, and the spacers that go between the two sides of the fork

Around the time I was getting all the woodwork together, I wised up and decided to look for some cheap used bikes that I could scavenge the wheels off of instead of paying for wheels that were not the right size.  So I looked on Craigslist, and easily found a couple bikes for ten bucks apiece.

I made a couple adjustments to allow for the new wheel size, and then I started screwing the frame together and attaching the fork to the frame.  To attach the two pieces, I just ran a piece of 1/4" threaded rod through the spacer on the top of the fork, the frame, and then the spacer on the bottom of the fork.  I put fender washers and locking nuts on the top and bottom of the assembly, and nylon washers between all the wooden parts that were resting on one another.  I actually don't have a great picture that shows how that works, but I do have this dramatic shot of what the frame looked like once I bolted it all together.  I took the pic with my iPhone at about midnight, in the alley behind my house, where I was working under a halogen work light:


As soon as I got that part done, I slid the wheels on to see how everything fit.

I still hadn't figured out how to make the long rear axle for the trike configuration, but it looked like it would work as a two-wheeler anyway.  I also decided at this point to add the sissy bar.  The bike I copied had a seat on a plywood seatpost-ish contraption that slid between the two halves of the frame and adjusted to fit the rider.  I figured if I just made a little padded seat that screwed directly onto the top of the frame, I could keep the stand-over height a little bit lower for my dinky little kids.  The sissy bar was to keep them from sliding down the frame and onto the tire.  Plus I thought it looked cool.  When the kids get too big for this setup, I'll probably make an adjustable seat kind of like the one on the original.

Once I got the frame dialed in, I had to figure out how to build the rear axle so the machines could run on three wheels.  I used more or less the same idea as the bikes I was copying, which was a threaded rod running through a steel tube with the wheels held in place with various nuts and washers.  But I had essentially two different sized sets of three wheels, and and it took me many trips to different hardware stores to find the parts I needed.  I finally had to order some parts from an amazing industrial hardware outfit that a machinist/engineer/mad inventor friend told me about.

Oh...the wheels.  One amazing piece of luck I had was that when I went to REI to get some helmets for the girls, I struck up a conversation with a bike mechanic there, and told him about my project.  I asked how much it would cost to buy the wheels that came with the Skuut balance bikes that they sell there.  He proceeded to give me three of those wheels, which he happened to have in the shop on a couple of returned bikes.  So the spokeless plywood "aero" wheels that you see on one of the trikes are from that exchange.

Putting the axles together was one of the biggest challenges, not so much skill-wise, but just in figuring out how to go about it.  The trikes that I copied used sections of larger steel tube as spacers between the wheels and the frame, and in the center, between the two sections of frame.  I tried that, but the whole assembly seemed rattly and weak.  So I decided that I would use sections of wooden dowel as my spacers.  I drilled out my sections of dowel, and made discs out of the birch plywood into which I drilled impressions that would act as seats for the dowels.  I screwed the discs to the frame, slipped the dowels into their seats, and slid the steel tube and threaded rod through the dowels.  When I bolted the wheels onto the threaded rod, the whole rear end became very solid and tight.  And it looked cool.

Now I just had to repeat the procedure for the other trike.  But the wheels for the other trike were the ones I had scavenged off of used bikes.  They were quite primitive, with the most basic ball-bearing system ever.  That meant that I couldn't just slip them over a threaded rod (like a skewer on a grownup bike) and bolt them on.  For each side, I had to thread a bolt about four inches onto the rod, then thread the bearing cup on, then the wheel, then the bearing cup on the other side, and then another bolt; all the while making sure not to spill any ball bearings.  What a freaking hassle!  I almost regreted going the cheap route on the wheels.

Next, it was time for the paint.  My artist friend used a paint called "gouache," which she described as kind of like watercolor, but in a tube.  As you can see, she did a tremendous job, and my wife and I, and eventually the kids, were thrilled with it.  She lives in the Bay Area and did the work while she was visiting her family down here in SoCal.  If you are interested in contacting her, please email me and I'll put you in touch with her.  Anyway, after she got the painting done, I sprayed it with about five coats of polyurethane.

The last details I needed to take care of were the seat and the handlebar grips.  For the seat, I just cut a miniature version of a bike saddle out of plywood and screwed it to the top of the frame, shimming up the rear end of it to make it somewhere near level.  Then I cut out hunks of the yellow naugahyde garment bag I had picked up at the thrift store for two bucks and screwed it into the edges of the plywood, using a rolled up piece of old dog blanket for the padding.  I thought that I would try to tuck all the edges of the naugahyde under the plywood and hide the screws to make it look all neat.  But who was I kidding?  I can't even wrap a gift without it looking like the work of an unusually clumsy five year old.  So instead, I left the screws visible and allowed some extra fabric to hang down and then cut it into fringe.  The trikes had veered so far from the aesthetic of the sleek, somewhat austere original I was copying that a fringey cowboy saddle fit right in.  Finally, I slid on the bright blue grips that I had bought at the bike shop where all the hipsters outfit their fixies.  Et Voila:

The very last thing I did was to install footpegs right behind the front forks.  When we took the trikes out on their maiden voyage, the kids didn't know what to do with their feet when they were coasting, or when I was pushing them.  So I simply cut notches into 7/8" dowels so that they would seat on the undersides of the frame, and screwed them on.  Now the girls can put their feet up and relax while they cruise.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Exploding Brains!

I'm on Aiming Low again today.  I swear I'm going to publish an epic post right here on my own blog.  Like tomorrow.  Or maybe Thursday.  Anyway, the one on Aiming Low is pretty okay, I think.  You should go over there and read it and leave lots of funny comments.  Here's the beginning...

If there's anything more potentially tiresome than a parent-blogger whining about their fussy children, it's one who gets all geeked about their perfectly normal developmental trajectory.  That's why I'm writing this with more than a little trepidation: not because I'm not excited about the subject matter--I am--but because I can't imagine being interested in anyone else's account of how their amazing little angels are growing up right before their very eyes.

And yet, I feel compelled to write about how my 18-month old twin girls have been blowing my mind lately by being perfectly normal examples of humans their age.

So as a service to you, gentle reader, in the interest of not boring or otherwise rubbing you the wrong way, I will say what I have to say in three different "voices," and you can enjoy the version most suited to your taste and try to forget the others.

Read more, and funnier...

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Plot against Beta Dad

So Kristine, of Wait in the Van fame, kindly asked me to guest post on her awesome and very popular blog, along with a slew of other smartasses, for a little thing she did called The Twelve Days of Christmas.  Of course I jumped at the chance.  

My post appears today, as the grand finale of her great experiment.  I'm honored to have been asked to participate--doubly so to have been given the final slot.  It's exactly like being the headlining act at Lollapalooza*

[cue dream sequence music] 

The white hot spotlight sears into my pallid flesh as the feedback from the mountain of Marshall speaker cabinets evolves into the grinding opening chords of my signature jam.  The crowd roars with recognition and adulation.  The crotch of my sweaty leather pants strains as I hoist my alligator boot up onto the monitor and grab the scarf-festooned mic stand...  


I’m delighted to be here on Wait in the Van, helping to celebrate the Twelve (or so) Days of Christmas!  And as we all reflect on what the holidays have meant to us this year, I, as many of my co-guest posters have, would like to address one of the perennial themes of the season. 

The subject that’s especially close to my heart as I start taking down the neighbors’ ornaments and putting them in my garage until next year is both deep and powerful:  The Conniving Mother-In-Law.

I realize that you may think you’ve heard all there is to be said about this subject.  Or perhaps you even feel that your own mother-in-law is the most aggravating possible embodiment of this archetype. 

But I ask you: Is your mother-in-law actually trying to murder you? 

If you answered “yes,” then you’ll be able to relate to what follows.  If you answered “no,” then my tale may serve as a reminder of how easy you really have it, mother-in-lawwise.


*Not really.  I only ended up in the last spot because I was the last slacker to submit my post.  Still, that's pretty rock 'n' roll, right?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Most Attractive Couple in the Room

 I have a new post up at Aiming Low.   Don't be alarmed when you click on the "read more" link and wind up at a whole nother website. 

This is how it starts....

Over Halloween, I had one of those earth-shattering realizations that was probably completely obvious to anyone else who has ever bought a twenty dollar children’s costume from Amazon: we don’t dress our kids up primarily because they enjoy it, or even because we enjoy it.  We dress them up so that other people–especially total strangers–will squeal, “Oh my God that is so cuuuute!”

And the reason this is important is because it reflects well on us–partly as parents, but more importantly, as people with the ability to spew forth attractiveness from our crusty loins.


Monday, January 3, 2011

My Favorite Post from 2010

I decided to re-post this because a bunch of other people have done the same thing on their blogs for the New Year.  More specifically, I saw that Steam Me Up, Kid had done it, so I figured it was cool.  Also, I've been working on (by which I mean "thinking about") a bunch of other bloggy stuff, including an epic post about the toys I made for the twins for Christmas.

So here it is: my favorite Beta Dad post from the year.  It's not the most popular, pagehitwise, by a long shot.  It might have too many words in it or something.  Also, I wrote it really soon after starting the blog, so not many people were reading.  Anyway, I think it's pretty good.  Please enjoy.

Night in the Park

My wife, who I’ll call Mom or Dr. Mom because she prefers to remain anonymous, told me I should not mention the name of the city in which we live.  She says this is a convention of the mommy bloggers she reads.  I’m not sure why our city needs to remain anonymous, but I know what happens when I ignore my wife’s advice.  I end up getting a concussion or getting ripped off or losing all the data off of my computer or getting food poisoning or talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses for a really long time.  So, suffice it to say that we live in a pretty good-sized city somewhere near one of your major oceans and not too far from a country where everyone speaks Mexican most of the time.  Let’s call it Sunnyburg.

Sunnyburg is made up of many small neighborhoods, each of which has a distinct character and reputation.  Our neighborhood, let’s call it Hipster Heights, is known as the city’s bohemian enclave, although many of the locals don’t seem to realize that.  Even though the preferred attire here includes skinny jeans, tattoos, old-timey hats, and a kryptonite lock tucked into your belt that you can use to hitch your fixie to the rail outside of the coffee shop and brandish at drivers who honk at you during Critical Mass, there are also people obliviously walking around in broad daylight wearing Dockers and polo shirts.  It makes you wonder what the hell they are thinking.  I’m pretty sure I have even seen a few un-ironic mustaches.  We also get some spillover ambiance from the abutting neighborhoods, Keepinitrealville to the East, and Fiercetown to the West.  A typical block on the main drag of the business district in Hipster Heights boasts a coffee shop, a head shop, an adult bookstore, an art gallery, a dive bar, a tacqueria, another head shop, an extravagant dessert shop, a hipster bar, a really good restaurant, a bar for big hairy guys who like other big hairy guys, and a Supercuts.  So it’s eclectic I guess.

Another thing about Hipster Heights is that it’s pretty expensive to buy a house here, even with the real estate bubble busted like a piñata full of lead-tainted lollipops.  We bought our house about a year before the market peaked, and we paid more for it than my in-laws did for a brand new 4,000 square foot McMansion in the Houston suburbs.  But our house was a shack when it was built in 1910, and had only been slightly improved upon by the time we bought it.  900 square feet, no foundation, single-wall construction (no studs), no insulation, no a.c. or heat, one 5’x5’ bathroom, one 8’x8’ kitchen, all the cast iron plumbing stacks exposed on the outside of the house.  But we didn’t even care.  “This place is a gold mine!” I gushed when we first walked in.  And for the first year that we lived here—a year my mind’s eye sees as a reflection of my wife and me in a mirrored ball, clinking champagne glasses and throwing our heads back in laughter (except my wife is a white lady with a Dorothy Hamill hairdo…I think this might be an image from a documentary I once saw about Studio 54)—we did “make money.”  By making some mostly cosmetic improvements in our house and faithfully checking, we “earned” enough “equity” to invest in a rental property!   Oh, halcyon days!  But that’s a different story.  This is a story about tranny hookers.

One of the reasons Hipster Heights is so desirable is its proximity to the coolest park you have ever heard of.  Let’s call it The Park.  The Park, which someone told me is built on an old landfill, has nature trails, interpretive gardens, tennis courts, a dog park, a pool, a disc golf course, an archery range, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, bocce courts, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and a velodrome!  A fucking velodrome!  Do you have one of those at your neighborhood park?  I thought not.

The Park is home, or playground, or hunting ground to all manner of man and beast: raccoons, rabbits, coyotes, hobos, professional recyclists, hawks, squirrels, skunks athletes, etc.  I have visited the park almost daily since we moved to Sunnyburg, except for the brief time between the death of my last dog and the adoption of Fancy Dog Stella.  While the atmosphere at the park can be like an international carnival on weekend days, it’s the sights and sounds of the night that really fascinate me: the hoary owl eyeballing Stella and me from atop the backstop, the hair-raising chorus of coyotes, the punk rock band throwing a guerrilla gig behind a storage trailer, and of course the tranny hookers.

Now, I have to admit that I’m pretty sure I only ever saw one tranny hooker, but she was popping up all over the place for a while.  And by tranny, I just mean she was trans-something.  At least transvestite, maybe transgender, maybe transsexual, who knows.  That ain’t none of my beeswax.  I just remember the first time I saw her, walking down my street toward The Park at about 11:00 pm, wearing a leather miniskirt and knee high boots, her teased blonde wig shimmering in the moonlight.  I was all, “He-ey…there’s a tall drinka…oh…a tall drinka tranny.”  And, to be fair, I don’t know that she’s a hooker.  I would see her lurch bowlegged across the soccer pitch in the moonlight, her heels sinking into the sod, with some guy half her size.  Or she would pop out from behind an electrical transformer, scaring the bejeezus out of both Stella and me.  “Hush, Stella,” I’d growl from beneath my hoodie.  “Atta girl, c’mon girl [whistles], yep—just out walkin’ the dog.  Good girl, Stella.”  So I don’t really know what kind of business transactions, if any, the tranny hooker was involved in; but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t just bird-watching, and I don’t think she was collecting aluminum cans in her swap-meet Louis Vuitton clutch.

I had heard rumors about the cruising scene at The Park, and I had always noticed men (neither fierce nor hip for the most part) roaming around after dark without dogs or athletic footwear.  My instinct was to avoid making eye contact with these fellows, and to make it clear that I was with a dog, and later, with one or more babies (in the days before they had strict bedtimes of course).  This arrangement, although it made me feel rude, was fine and seemed to be acceptable to the cruisers too.  Except for one time when Stella was a puppy and I had to evade a guy who followed me in his car as I walked home, no one ever approached me.  Incidentally, I’m not one of those straight guys who thinks that gay dudes will be unable to resist molesting them: after 7 years of going to the gym in Fiercetown, I haven’t received so much as a salacious look.  This indifference both comforts and stings. 

I don’t think attraction is a huge factor in the cruising scene at The Park.  As I learned from a dear friend who knows about such things, it’s all about loneliness, horniness, and expedience.  In an email that included more technical detail than I need to repeat here, my friend explained that most of the guys who cruise parks are closeted, married, or for other reasons unable to participate in the thriving open market in our area (I think he mentioned the word “ugly”).  As to the etiquette of these encounters, my friend says they start with a stare and, if the stare is returned, move on to a grope, and finally culminate in a clumsy coupling in the bushes and a hasty parting of ways.  Phone numbers are rarely exchanged and dinner dates are almost never in the offing.  Or so my friend hears. 

One night when the kids were about two months old, I had taken Butterbean (who we were calling “Midnight Demon” in those days) for a walk to quiet her screaming.  Stella came along, of course.  As we rounded the bend toward the fountain Stella always drinks from, there was a rustling in the shadows by the scoreboard.  I put on my stern face and muttered something to Stella.  The tranny hooker came tottering into the streetlight on her clacking heels.  When I saw that it was her, I relaxed a bit and said “Oh—hey.”  She didn’t respond, and we just kept walking.

It occurred to me as we headed home, Butterbean snoozing away in her Ergo, that as a parent, perhaps I should be concerned about the unsavory characters and goings-on in our neighborhood.  I tried to summon up some outrage, but none arose.  For some reason, even though The Park is only patrolled by a lone grandpa in a Wackenhut truck, you hardly ever hear about bad things happening there (there was a fatal shooting there a few months ago, but that was between friends).  I wouldn’t go there alone at night without a big dog, and I don’t think Dr. Mom will let the girls hang out there after dark anytime soon.  But The Park is like the ocean or forest: a self-sustaining ecosystem, with every coyote and rabbit and vagrant and cruiser and bocce baller and trash-picker and yuppie parent contributing and extracting resources in just the right amounts; and as long as we respect the system and don’t demand too much of it, we shouldn’t have to fear it. 


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