Monday, July 24, 2017

Project House Update: Hitting Pay Dirt

This is a story that has been in the works for months. And only like half of that is because of my laziness in telling the story. I'll start at the beginning.

I follow a lot of blogs. My favorites are the DIY/home improvement/design ones. And in following blogs, I will enter just about every contest one of these bloggers' posts. If it's a Rafflecopter contest, I am in.

And being decent at math, I should have realized that, eventually, odds would dictate that I would finally win something. Back in Oct, Sarah of Ugly Duckling House posted a story about leveling her backyard along with an entry for a free power tool rental through Home Depot, her sponsor for her post. I entered and didn't hear anything, like normal, so I didn't think twice about it.

Cut to several months later in December when I received an email from Sarah saying I had won. She had chosen someone else randomly first, but they never responded so I was second. I had won a $500 credit to use for some sort of power rental at Home Depot! Yay! And she needed a response by the following Monday of what I'd be using the rental for. Boo!

Dan and I immediately started going through our project list to figure out which ones would benefit from power tools and which ones we were ready to tackle. The front runner was the drainage around the shop. When it was originally built, the contractor didn't bring in nearly enough fill dirt and it had been an 18 month fight to keep erosion at bay. Dan had always talked about assembling some friends, buying tons of dirt, and moving it with shovels and wheel-barrows. My thought was that we could save a bunch of time and friendships with using the rental towards a small Bobcat. He didn't believe there was enough space to maneuver a Bobcat around the shop to get the dirt where it needed to be. He wasn't convinced easily, but we drove to Home Depot, measured one of the little Bobcats and he was finally on board.

I worked with the company who was sponsoring the rental and scheduled for the Bobcat to be dropped off for a Friday and Saturday in February. This gave us some time to get our ducks in a row, mainly ordering dirt, and for the weather to warm a bit.

Turns out, as that date approached, my in-laws wanted to swing through town and stay with us to visit some friends and they were quickly roped into sticking around through the weekend to help out. Free labor is awesome.

Here are some 'Before' pics. It's hard to grasp the angle of these slopes in pictures, but most of them weren't walkable. You could see the paint line at the bottom of the walls where the dirt had eroded, leaving the unpainted concrete underneath. In some spots, this unpainted line was several inches thick.

Once things got going, they went fast. Dan ordered 21 tons of dirt. It sounds like a lot, but 21 tons only translated to 21 cubic feet. It was still a lot of dirt, but in the end, we wouldn't have minded more. But when it's piled up on a (too small) tarp in your driveway, it's a lot. There's a tarp hidden somewhere under there, I swear.

I made Dan and his dad come up with a plan first so we could all be on the same page. We needed agreement on priorities and which areas needed the most dirt and which things needed to not get run over. I worked from home since all the rental stuff was in my name and I let those two men have at it. We were lucky because the man who dropped off the rental told us that we were free to keep it until Monday morning for no charge since no one else was planned to use it before then.

Dan and his dad got into a rhythm very quickly. Dan drove the Bobcat and would pick up a load of dirt, drop it approximately where he wanted it, and his dad would spread it around with a shovel while Dan went to refill. In the span of four to five hours, they managed to move and dump almost all of the dirt.

With one day down and the in-laws gone, we had made all the progress we had planned to make. However, we had the Bobcat for two more days so we went going to let it go to waste. In spite of the rain that began, Dan and I set out to landscape all this dirt that we had moved. Over the course of five years, we had formed a large pile of river rock that had been removed from random places around our property. This pile was huge and we've tried to move it by hand before and it's so incredibly taxing. I'll get two buckets into it and give up. But we had a Bobcat, which changed the game.

In order to keep all this new dirt in place, we covered it with a layer of river rock. Dan would bring over a load of rock and I would fit them, interlocking, over the dirt. I was pretty helpful at first but lost steam quickly. In hindsight, I was battling the beginnings of a cold which I am claiming zapped my energy.

Dan did a great job, though. When he too was out of energy, he at least had the foresight to move extra loads of rock to spots around the shop that we could place in the future. I mean, it's kind of a tripping hazard right now, but that's just more motivation to work on that sooner rather than later, right? He even made friends with a rattlesnake that had built a home inside the rock pile.

Here are the 'After' pictures. We've had several big storms over the past few weeks and it's held up well. There will be some additional work that needs to be done, but we'll do that at the tale end of monsoon season. The best part is I can now walk the exterior of the entire structure without sliding down an incline!

Dan even had the skills with the Bobcat to not run over my little plants.

I'm really glad things worked out this way! Big thanks to Sarah and Home Depot for hooking me up with this prize! Sometimes Dan and I over-complicate things, but being able to use this little Bobcat saved us so much time and sanity. I would highly recommend it!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Project House Update: Easier the Second Time Around

The great thing about finally completing a project is that you understand how easy or hard it is. That way, when you need to do it again, all the uncertainty is gone and you can jump right in.

When we installed blinds in our workout room, the hardest part of the process was finding blinds that would work for us. But once we had ones that we liked, there was no reason to hesitate on pulling the trigger on the ones for the den.

To recap, since the window is arched, we need blinds that can be side-mounted.

Here's what we started with. After Dan installed the window and the windowsill over a year ago, the little finishing touches never got finished.

Once we installed the blinds in the workout room and loved them, I had Dan immediately order matching ones for the den. They arrived remarkably fast and I was all gung-ho to get them installed. Dan brought me down to Earth with the list of things that needed to get done before they could be installed. It was simple stuff like spackling, painting, and caulking, all things I could do.

It took me longer than it should have, but it got done. From there, Dan popped in the blinds. Word of warning (and praise): Dan hung the blinds level, but the window itself apparently wasn't, so it looked really bad. The nice thing about these blinds, though, is that they come with extra installation stickers so we could try again.

I love the look of these blinds! You can't tell they are there unless you're looking for them.

Blinds, with cat for scale.

Seriously, you can't even see the blinds in the up position because of the thickness of the cross-member.

When the full list of house projects gets to be too overwhelming, it's great to cross them off little by little.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Project House Update: I'm Finally An Expert in Something

One thing is for sure: Dan and I are getting much better at building houses for Desert Tortoises. The first time we built Turtle a house (at our new house), it had only survived two years before needing to be renovated. However, once we rebuilt it, we got almost four years out of it. However, between a pack rat, a bunch of lizards, a tortoise, and the elements, his house was definitely looking more shabby than chic.

The pack rat really made a mess of things again. It dug tunnels under the back of the house under the cinder block and compromised the integrity of the structure. We tried to patch things with additional bricks and rocks, but it wasn't enough and it continued to collapse on itself. With monsoon season less than a month away, I didn't believe the house would survive the daily thunderstorms.

This time, we made a plan, a very detailed one. That's what happens when you have two mechanical engineers who really don't want to have to keep rebuilding a reptile house. The plan was multi-layered.

  1. Add more cinder blocks so it would be harder for the pack rat to dig tunnels out from under it.
  2. Stake the cinder blocks with rebar so they would be less inclined to shift if tunnels did form.
  3. Fill the centers of the cinder blocks with cement to help keep them in place.
  4. Once the roof was placed back on, add another protective layer on top of the wood with tar paper or sheet metal roofing material. 
  5. Cover the top and sides of the structure with chicken wire and stake it into place. This would help keep the dirt in place on top of it and also hinder the pack rat from digging through it.
  6. Add a layer of non-smooth river rocks.
  7. Fill in all the gaps with dirt.
  8. Eventually, add some desert plants around the structure to prevent erosion. 

The huge fly in the ointment was the weather. With monsoon season only a couple of weeks away, we needed to rebuild his house ASAP. However, did you know it gets hot in Arizona? Not only hot, but we had a record-breaking heat wave. The temperatures were supposed to hit 115F and stay there.

It. was. miserable.

We were prepared and woke up bright and early on Sunday morning to beat the heat. It was still 90F by 8AM, but it could have been worse. We drank plenty of water and had sunscreen and protective clothing, but it was still brutal. We tried to work as fast as possible to get out of the sun.

Let me be real here: Dan did almost all the work. He was all the muscle. My contribution was planning and keeping this cheeky, little bastard out of the way. Turtle was incredibly interested in hat we were doing and kept trying to crawl into the middle of it. My job was to, about every 30 seconds, pick him up a couple of inches from the ground, move him five feet, and watch as he turned around and crawled back over. He is a very determined little reptile.

Most of the build went according to plan. Dan thought he had tar paper hoarded in his shop, but he didn't, so we used an insulating automobile fabric instead. I couldn't get the chicken wire to stake down as cleanly as I wanted so it will probably poke out through the dirt eventually. And lastly, the layer of river rocks under the dirt was maybe a half-dozen rocks. It was just too damn hot to try to collect and carry rocks. Turtle was itching to get back in his house so we shoveled dirt back on top and let him in.

His little pack rat buddy will probably move back in soon and try to cause trouble but it should at least be harder for him this time. I'm hoping that planting some creosote bushes along the base of the dirt mount will help keep things neater, too.

We'll see. If this one last five years, it's an improvement over the last design.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Space Turtle!

Have you ever done one of those 'Drink and Paint' classes? It's the new trend to go to a studio, have a couple of glasses of wine, and have an instructor walk you through a step by step canvas painting. I've always wanted to try one, but I either didn't like the painting subject or couldn't herd my friends into an organized group to try it.

I mean, it wasn't something I was losing sleep over, but it seemed like a fun thing to try. It probably would have never happened until the opportunity was thrust upon me. My sister found a 'Paint Your Patronus' paint party and strong-armed my mom and I into signing up with her. As much as I wanted to try one of these classes, I had some concerns. First, I'm not a big 'Harry Potter' fan. I couldn't care less about my patronus. Secondly, I don't drink so I was conscious of wasting money if drinks were included. And lastly, my mom is an artist. A professional, awesome artist. You can see her work here. My sister inherited the artistic gene from our mother and I got the engineering gene from our father. I didn't want my sister and my mom's paintings to be amazing and awesome and mine just be crap.

But I was signed up, so I picked a patronus, clearly Turtle, and sent a picture of him in to be sketched out in advance.

Typically, these sorts of events happen in a proper painting studio, but this one-off happened in a bar downtown. The other difference between this patronus event and normal events is that everyone had a different painting, a different patronus. Typically at these paint parties, everyone is painting the same sunset or the same tree with little heart leaves. But you really couldn't expect everyone to have the same patronus, right? There were a lot of deer, rabbits, and owls, but I had the only tortoise and one woman had a glass of wine.

It was a fun event, but it was definitely chaotic. Fortunately, each canvas had their patronus pre-sketched onto it so we had some guidelines. Without that, mine would have been a complete mess.

The bar wasn't set up well for the event and I couldn't see any of the sample painting as we went through the steps. It became a weird sort of telephone game of interpreting what I was supposed to do by words only. 'Paint wavy lines starting at your patronus' became 'a background of wavy lines', not what it was supposed to be, smoke coming off the patronus. I didn't have a clue what I was doing most of the time, but that didn't stop me. In hindsight, a tortoise shell had way too many details on it to fit into the painting techniques we were being walked through. My Turtle painting is definitely more 'Space Turtle' than 'Patronus', but I think I like it better that way. Like something from Terry Pratchett, he drifts slowly through space, watching over the galaxy.

And speaking of watching over, I hung him in front of the toilet in the guest room, so he can watch over and judge anyone using the bathroom.

In the future, I'd still like to try a class where we all paint the same thing. My next masterpiece won't be as close to my heart as my Space Turtle, but maybe it will be more along my skill set.

If you are in the Tucson area and would like to try one of these classes, check out Tipsy Picasso.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Fan of Friday: Week of 6/2/2017

This week I am a fan of the website, Shapeways. It's a 3D printing website that lets you upload your own designs and have them created in a variety of mediums. While I haven't uploaded any of my own designs yet, I have fallen in love with many things, especially DnD dice.

When we started playing DnD back at the beginning of the year, most of my group went out immediately and bought cute sets of matching dice. I couldn't find any that really spoke to me until I started looking at the custom ones on etsy. They were expensive, but oh so pretty.

I went without dice for several months, borrowing them from people. Over time, I realized two things: 1) I don't like matching sets of dice because I can't tell them apart. They all look too similar and I don't want to worry that I've picked up the wrong one, and 2) I don't really like the plastic, molded conventional dice.

I was ready to break down and buy a bunch on etsy when I stumbled across the website that produces the fancy ones, Shapeways. I probably spent more on dice than any reasonable human should (except for maybe Dan who for some reason bought thirteen sets of dice, no exaggeration), but they are so pretty that I carry them everywhere with me in my purse. Because they are 3D printed, they are great to show off to just about everyone I know, one of the perks of being a mechanical engineer.

The majority of my dice are gold colored steel. This is my six sided die, or as us nerds call it, a 'd6'.

This is my eight sided die, also in gold colored steel.

I meant to just buy one of everything, but I couldn't choose between these two ten sided die so I just bought both. My house may be a fixer upper and my car may be sixteen years old, but I make it rain when it comes to dice. This 'd10' is gold colored steel.

This 'd10' is my only die that's not gold colored steel; it's polished brass. It meant that it cost more, but it was just too pretty to pass up.

This is my gold colored 'd12'. As a Goliath fighter, I haven't had much reason to use it yet, but when I get more powerful, it'll do some damage.

This is the die that started the love affair. My beautiful 'd20' that I lusted for on etsy. I expected it to be a beast, but it's hollow so it shouldn't destroy as many tables.

And again, it was a one percenter's 'Sophie's Choice' and I couldn't choose between these two insane 'd20's. While the other one was my first love, this one wouldn't leave my heart either.

My only die that isn't from Shapeways is my 'd4'. I really wanted a rectangular 'd4', rather than the traditional triangular design. This one is hand-forged by a partner of 'Critical Role'. Again, I don't have much reason to use it, but that doesn't hinder my love for it.

I will say, for as much as I love Shapeways, I have had a miss with it. I ordered these 'd20' earrings as a gift for a friend and both arrived damaged. I have had great luck with the printed metal pieces, but these 'Black Strong and Flexible' ones did not live up to their material name.

Lastly (I've rambled a lot about my little trinkets), Shapeways is the 3D printing company that produces all the Hero Forge minis, like my beautiful Goliath.

As an engineer and designer, I'm excited to design and upload some of my own pieces in the future!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Confessions of a New Zumba Teacher

My Zumba career has been a bit of a weird one. To sum up briefly, back in 2015 I started taking a Zumba class through my work. After several months of consistently taking the class, my teacher asked if I would be interested in getting my certification so I could cover classes for her when she went on vacation. So I did.

Going through my blog, I now realize I have failed to tell you about how this all has gone off the rails. I covered my first class in April of last year and managed to survive. Between April and June, I covered a few more times, but it wasn't anything I didn't expect.

In mid-June, my teacher got a blood clot in her leg and was bed-ridden for 6-8 weeks. Two months. The class was mine for two months. I went from being the occasional sub to being the long-term sub. Although it was definitely more than I ever thought I would have to do, there was an end in sight so I managed.

Cut to the end of those two months. There was a bunch of drama behind the scenes that I was unaware of and suddenly the teacher had quit. The people who organize the class knew I wasn't ready to take over the class so I continued to cover while they found a new teacher.

It wasn't long until they did, but she was not a good fit. She screamed and shouted and pressured us into participating in ways we didn't want to and attendance dwindled. I started taking a different class on the weekends just reducing the number I took through work. Fortunately, I don't think she liked us either so she quit in October.

The coordinators tried to find us a replacement, but they didn't expect anyone before the New Year so the class was mine for almost three months. In that time, I started to improve as a teacher, but attendance never really rebounded from all the teacher-switching.

In the New Year, they did find a new teacher, but she also wasn't a good fit. She didn't really teach Zumba. It was more aerobics to pop songs, and attendance dropped even further. In April, she quit, too.

So for the last month or so, the class is officially mine. Not mine while they try to find someone else. Mine. It's been an uphill battle. Attendance has never really recovered and I have to cancel class too often due to lack of bodies. I've got ideas to increase it, but most of that stuff is out of my hands. All I can do is focus on getting people to come back once they've shown up for the first time.

I've spent a lot of time and energy working to become a better teacher and have a better class and here's what I've learned.

- Be the first person in and the last person out of the room. It comforts new people that they have the right place, it lets you get to know the people in your class, and it makes people believe that the class is a priority to you. You aren't running over late from something more important or rushing out the door to something else at the end.
- Don't choreograph to a song you enjoy. This one is really hard not to do, but don't incorporate songs into your routines because you like to listen to the song. Between choreographing, memorizing the steps, and teaching it in class, you will probably hear the song over a hundred times. According to my Itunes, I've listened to 'Cheap Thrills' by Sia 34 times and "Never Be Like You" by Flume 26 times. By that point, you can't enjoy the song anymore. So how do you find songs if you can't use songs you would listen to?
- However, Spanish covers of pop songs bring a familiarity that people enjoy without being overplayed. We dance to a cover of "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5 called "Quedate Mas" and it's one of my classes favorites. They already know the tune so they are familiar with the transitions and they feel less lost.
- Over time, you'll develop a fondness for particular artists you never knew existed before. Between the songs Zumba provides, songs you hear in other people's classes, and random earwigs that you Shazam, you'll find artists you like. You may never understand a word they say, but they release songs that fit a certain style of dance and end up a staple of your routines. For me, those are Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam.
- There are two types of students: 1) the newbies who need fun, simple songs to pick up quickly and 2) the returners who will get bored of the doing the same simple songs repeatedly, and you need to be able to cater to both. For a while, my solution for this was a mixture of simple and complicated songs. This would work in theory if you are a really good teacher. Once you start to lose the new people in a complicated song with poor cuing, it's very hard to earn their trust back. No one wants to feel lost. My favorite Zumba teacher has found a way around this. He has a library of simple, fun songs and constantly rotates between them. He'll either change their place in the song list or alternate between two salsa songs week to week. It means that the newbies get the simple songs they need while the returners are kept on their toes. I'm working to develop my own library so I can better use this strategy.

- Keep taking Zumba classes as a student. It's important to keep learning and exposing yourself to new songs, moves, and teaching styles.
- Avoid teaching a song that you dance to in another class, if possible. The common practice in Zumba is to direction students to start movements on their right side. Step with their right foot first, move to the right first, etc. This means as a teacher, facing your students, you start with your left. And while a good, experienced teacher can switch between a right-hand and left-hand routine easily, it's a veeeeeeery hard skill to develop. Muscle memory will screw you over if you are trying to teach a song you like to dance to. If you really want to teach a song you've done in another class, try to wait until the other teacher has phased it out of their routine so you can override your own muscle memory.
- Do your own math on ZIN. I've now taught both ways: before and after ZIN. My first year of teaching, I didn't have ZIN and I was fine. I was only covering other people's classes so getting paid for teaching was very inconsistent. Also, because of this, I didn't need to churn my routine very often because it was fairly fresh to people in the classes. I had time to find and learn new songs at my leisure. However, now that I'm teaching the same class twice a week, it's much harder to find or develop choreography on my own. ZIN has been very helpful in finding good songs and choreography and learning it faster.
- Develop good and consistent cueing. This is the make or break skill of a good teacher. Good cueing makes the transitions smooth, keeps people engaged and on beat, and earns you a level of trust and respect with your students. They need to trust you to feel comfortable and the easiest way to drive students away is for them to feel lost and uncomfortable.
- And lastly, make it an all-around fun experience. Make it social, not exercise.

I'm still learning. I feel like I will be learning for a long time to come, but it's getting easier and more fun and I can only hope that my students feel the same way. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fan of Friday: Week of 4/28/2017

The thing I'm a fan of this week is my little, hanging herb garden!

It was a gift from my in-laws several Christmases ago. I haven't had good luck with plants in the past, so it sat in our closet for a bit while I worked up the courage to try to not kill plants.

This batch of plants is actually my second attempt. Over a year ago, I tried for the first. I killed cilantro and oregano and basil and rosemary. The rosemary was the most impressive one because of how long it took me to realize that it had died. Oops...

I'm having much better luck with this crop of plants, though!

The top plant is a habanero pepper plant. When I brought it home, Dan said, "You know pepper plants get huge, right?" No, I didn't know that. It's quickly out-growing it's small container and I'll probably move it to another pot this weekend. I'm scared to move it, though, because it's got flowers so I might get some peppers out of it soon!

The middle plant is basil. The first time I stocked this little hanging herb garden, basil was the longest surviving. I don't think I watered the first attempt enough, but it still held out for several months. This second one has been living happily for about six weeks, getting plenty of water. I love having a basil plant because we eat a lot of pasta and adding fresh basil makes it instantly classier. Dried pasta from a box and sauce from a jar? Chiffonade some basil and throw it on top for an upgrade on a lazy Monday evening.

The bottom plant is a strawberry plant. Trust me when I say it's doing better than this picture makes it look. I need to trim back some of the dead leaves and the old strawberries. You know what's hard? Determining when teeny, tiny strawberries are ready to be picked. I still haven't figured it out yet, but I will. I'll keep it alive and I'll figure it out.

So when I swap out the pepper plant, what should I put in its place? I'd like some cilantro, but I've tried to grow it several times now without any luck. Is there something easy and useful I could try? I cook a lot of tofu and rice. Is there something from the Asian palate family I should try? Or maybe something Mexican?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Project House Update: Period Cart

This is a weird little project I've been working on for a while, but I think it's quite unique and I'm pretty proud of it.

Back almost three years ago, I did a mini re-do on the 'toilet room' in our master bathroom. I removed the old, built-in toilet paper holder, patched it, and painted the room. Because this was meant to be a hold-over project until we did a full bathroom re-do, some details were put off. No new toilet paper holder was installed and I was tired of just setting the toilet paper on the back of the toilet, so I assembled the Ikea cart we had purchased.

Over time, I realized it was a great place to store all my period stuff. With a toilet room, any time I needed something meant the forethought to grab it from under my sink before heading into the toilet. Now, I had all this space to store stuff and it was great.

Then along came Dan. In his traditional masculinity, having all of my period stuff out made him uncomfortable. He wanted it hidden away.

So what did I do, as a good wife?

I ignored him completely and put everything on display instead.

I took a bunch of empty candle containers and small cheap vases and organized my tampons by size.

The part of this project that took the most time was finding and gathering the right size containers. Bath and Body Works three-wick candle jars work really well for this.

The last little bit of my display is my new art. These images are both from my work calendar last year. I think the fog one was May and the starry night was December. Something about these images, especially when paired together, is incredibly peaceful to me. The fog image seems to be of a doe in the morning fog, unsure of the day that lies ahead. The starry night is the same doe, surviving her day, and relaxing at the end of it. And, because we're being honest here, I use this bathroom in the morning or at night so the beauty of it isn't lost on me.

I need to come up with a catchy term for whatever the hell this set-up is, so suggestions are appreciated.  I can't come up with anything punny involving periods or carts.

I am quite proud of it, though. It's nothing special, but too many people treat periods like some sort of curse. Something we don't talk about or acknowledge. But as a woman who annoyingly bleeds from her vagina for a week each month, this set-up has proven to be incredibly handy.