Friday, February 29, 2008

Coffee Rings, Boy Scouts, and Old Moss

Sorry I have been posting less frequently this week. My cup runneth over. So much so, in fact, there are new coffee rings on the newspaper of my life. The ring I am most excited about are my plans to go camping with D and his new Boy Scout troop. I'm looking forward to having some one-on-one time with him, watching him grow in responsibility and character, and building ridiculously large campfires. Last night M and I were waxing nostalgic and thumbing through my old Scouting Handbook. My handbook had been given to me as an award at one of my very first scout meetings. The inscription reads:

Winner of Uniform Inspection
Troop 283
February 19, 1979

That's 29 years ago this month! And if that didn't make me feel old enough, I spent over an hour filling out forms so D and I could join the troop. It turns out, if Dad is over 40 years old, he has to get his doctor to sign off on his medical questionnaire. Ouch! Apparently I'm on the mossy side of that tetragenarian milestone.

So I have decided to start expressing my age in a different numbers system to deny reality a little bit longer. Let's see, how about the binary number system, base-2 instead of base-10? That would be 101000. No, that sounds worse. How about hexadecimal, base-16? In hex, I am 28! Ahh... I feel better already.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Princess Sugar Pie

I have been a Star Wars fan since 1977 - fourth grade. When it came out I thought it was pretty much the coolest thing I had ever seen. I'm sure these movies had something to do with me becoming an engineer. Engineering was actually my second choice, however. Turns out it's slightly more marketable than my first choice, Jedi Knight.

The boys and I watched Episodes IV, V, and VI this weekend in a feast of science fiction. I asked Jono if he had ever seen it before. "No I haven't, but it is awesome!" he said.

Then today I came across this outrageously cute plot summary by a three-year-old girl. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mr. Green Jeans

One Saturday last spring, M and the boys returned from Wal-Mart with a couple of vegetable plants; one was a jalapeño pepper and the other was an eggplant plant. Eggplant plant? Why do we call it eggplant anyway? Aren't all vegetables plants? Isn't this a bit redundant and saying the same thing over and over? To highlight this oddity of the English language, I have decided that this week I am going to start speaking of all foods in this way.

To the waitress: "To start, I'll have a lettuce plant salad with ranch plant on the side, and for my entrée I would like the pork chop animal with a side of carrot plants."

To me: "OK, fine, that'll be ten dollar monies, weirdo person."

It reminds me of how the boys used to say things like "I would like to play golf ball." Why not? We play baseball with a baseball. We play basketball with a basketball. What do you do with a golf ball? Play golf ball of course! Duh!

Well, if it isn't obvious to you by now, I really don't have anything to say today. But "Blogging for Dummies" says I should post regularly so all my readers will keep coming back. So there you go. Good night to both of you.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Dad Video

My appologies for posting a video that has been posted many places before, but just in case you haven't seen it yet, I had to put it up. It captures the day to day joys and frustrations of being a parent of young children.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Battle of the Bald-sith-yetti

The two young jedi land in a sea of green. Verdeworld, the savanna planet. Their assignment: to stop bald-sith-yetti from amassing any more mass. Jedi D, the senior of the two jedi, delegates the surveying task to young padawan Jono. Donned with his purple galoshes and black jedi cape, Jono uses the force like a radar, searching for the bald-sith-yetti in the vast open spaces of Verdeworld.
But bald-sith-yetti is no slouch with the force. Sensing Jedi Jono's search for him, he himself sends out a confusing multitude of false signals. The jedi are temporarily confused as the force registers radar blips all around them like twinkle lights of pure evil. (Bald-sith-yetti had been reading about electronic warfare on Wikipedia.) The jedi cautiously assume a back-to-back defensive posture and await certain attack.
Their wait is short. Bald-sith-yetti appears from nowhere, rising up out of the savanna like the ghost of St. Augustine. The jedi must use their years of training to control the waves of fear and shock. Bald-sith-yetti is over 10 feet tall and stunningly powerful, not to mention ugly. He wields a two-bladed light saber like a chef at Benihana, its blades a blur of plastic and bald-sith-yetti sound effects. The light saber battle of a lifetime ensues.
Bald-sith-yetti gets his finger whacked by Jedi Jono, and in a howl of rage, uses a force-push to throw Jedi D to the ground, rendering him temporarily unconscious.
Then, with Yoda-like speed and accuracy, Jedi Jono does a fancy overhead move, his light saber catches bald-sith-yetti square in the prodigious girth! The shriek of surprise and fury is deafening.
Awakened by the noise, Jedi D rejoins the fight, and together they end the reign of terror known as "bald-sith-yetti".
The End.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jono Reads Dostoevski

Although this picture was taken a couple of years ago, it symbolizes the topic of today's post. To imagine what we look like today, add ten more pounds to me and use a Sharpie marker to draw a mustache on Jono. Go ahead, draw it right on your computer monitor. Then scroll up and down to make it jump from his upper lip to his forhead like a unibrow with teleportation abilities.

This is turning into a strange post.

Anyway, this morning M and I donned our parental hiking boots and strapped on our involved-parent water bottles to make the one-block trek to Jono's elementary school. I was a little nervous because we had a meeting with, gulp, the first grade teacher. We are concerned he might need to repeat first grade because his reading was not strong enough. But we were reassured today that he is now reading at a first grade, mid-year level. Just right. He has made tremendous progress since the beginning of the year. We are still thinking about holding him back, however. It would mean that when he did enter second grade, he would be more mature and academically stronger.

What are your thoughts? Have you held a child back? How did it go? It seems there is less stigma attached to this than there was when I was in school back in the 70's. Please share your comments.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Sunday morning, three Engineers with a Mission students spoke with me at another church in town. There were 54 folks in the audience, and they were engaged and interested and asked lots of relevant questions. I was pleased with the way things went and quite proud of my students. Let me tell you about one of them, Anna, in the picture below.
Anna is doing research with another professor on how to maximize the use of coconuts in value-added products in the developing world. You can use coconut oil to run a generator, or make biodiesel to drive a car! You can make erosion matting out of the husks, and particle board out of the shells that is harder than the hardwood you can buy at Home Depot! Gilligan would be so proud. Many of the world's poor live along in equatorial/coastal regions. And those areas typically have lots of coconuts. So instead of rotting on the ground like they do in Papua New Guinea, for example, businesses can be established to use as much of the coconut as possible, and bringing economic vitality to suffering people. Anyway, that's what Anna is working on. Is she cool or what?

In regards to Honduras, our engineering student teams are starting to solidify. One team is going to a small village on the south coast of Honduras. This group will be designing and installing a rainwater harvesting system to catch rain from the roof of the village school. The village, whose name I can't remember, and that you've never heard of anyway, has a shortage of potable water. I'm not going on this trip, but rather a new friend is taking the students. His name is Bryce Boddie and he has a small business installing custom rainwater systems for ranchers in the Texas hill country.

The second group will go with me to La Ceiba on the north coast of Honduras. My plan is to have students cycle in and out in two-week tours of duty. Our goal is to establish small hydropower producing businesses in rural villages. It's ambitious, but we've done it once before. Pray for us! Oh yes, if you would like to partner with us financially, send me an email!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Poop Power

Don't think I'm weird because this is the second post in a row on the general topic of feces. Hey, I'm just trying to live out a calling. My "engineering research" for the last few years is focused on finding ways to provide electricity to parts of the developing world. Sometimes that's with solar power, sometimes it's with wind power, sometimes it's with small hydropower, and now I am exploring poop power.

I have been reading up on the production of "biogas", the methane-based gas from rotting organic matter, and it is beginning to look feasible as an electricity source. But I need to learn more. Not having any livestock of my own, I asked M if I could build a prototype in the back yard and fuel it with, how do I say this, output from family members. She said no. Poop belongs in the toilet, she says. Not out in the back yard where it might spill or morph into the creature from the E. coli lagoon.

So my research is still in the "paper phase". By my calculations (yes, I've been running the numbers on pig poop) the manure from 40 hogs can provide a rural village with 1000 W of electric power for over 4.6 hours a day. This means, if each family has a single, compact fluorescent bulb requiring 27 W, we should be able to light 37 homes for two hours in the morning, and two and a half in the evening. This usage is consistent with families I have spoken to in rural Honduras.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Emptying

I awake at 2:00 a.m. to severe intestinal cramping. Bleary-eyed and somewhat annoyed at the interruption of my sleep, I stumble into the hall bathroom to take care of business. Sitting down was the last thing I remember.

I am paralyzed, my mouth hurts, and there is a tingling on my lips and tongue. I try to move my arms but they are frozen. I deduce that I must be asleep, but I cannot will myself to wake up. In my mind I am running around myself, yelling and prodding my immobilized carcass back to life. I begin to regain awareness and my vision clears. I lift my head off the floor and see blood. I manage to rise enough to look in the mirror and there is blood coming out of my nose. Fearing I have had a stroke or a seizure, I call out to M with fear in my voice.

She comes to my rescue, helps me to sit up, and isn’t too shocked by my absence of all human dignity. A moist towel dabs the blood from my face as I notice drops of blood staining the bath mat. A new wave of intestinal cramps break like a tsunami of diarrhea when I realize the truth: I have fainted and fallen, head first, off the pot.

Doing a face-plant on the ceramic tile may sound like an extreme sport to you, but to me it’s blog fodder. I have numerous facial cuts and I am fairly certain I bit off part of my tongue. Today my doctor confirmed that my nose is broken. You may wonder why I would put such an embarrassing and personal story on the internet. Indeed, I’m not sure I’m going to. Perhaps my hunger to entertain exceeds my distaste for humiliation. Perhaps my desire for approval-by-amusement exceeds my fear of disapproval-by-disgust. I must have issues.

If so, are these issues common to other bloggers? Could it be that we all suffer from this virtual exhibitionism of the soul? Are we crying out to the blogosphere, “I am here and this is who I am!!” hoping that quasi anonymous visitors will leave comments of assurance, convincing us that our experiences, our lives, are indeed normal?


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Breakfast at Leal's (con mi espousa)

This morning was a cool, blue skied morning. It was that peaceful time of morning after the kids had gone to school and the rush of nine-to-five commuters had subsided, restoring quietness to the neighborhood air. It was the time of day I used to cherish as a child on the rare occasion when I was home. These days were different than holidays. On holidays, everyone was home, and the quietness was less quiet. But on school days, if I was home for some reason, I had an awareness of the neighborhood emptiness, of row after row of suburban houses, evacuated of other kids, and I felt like I was alone in the world like the sole survivor of a nuclear war or planet-wide alien abduction.

Today’s morning was like that. Teaching college affords me the luxury of flexible work hours and today I had a breakfast date with my wife. We drove a few blocks to a little Mexican restaurant behind the Midway Shamrock. Midway Shamrock still looks and sounds like a gas station, but you can’t buy gas there anymore. Now it’s just a mechanic’s shop owned by Jim and Carl. They stopped selling gas a few years ago as the price of oil got higher and more and more people started buying their gas at Wal-Mart or HEB.

Locating a restaurant behind a used-to-be gas station that’s now just a mechanic’s shop is not a good location. But Cesar Leal has cultivated customer loyalty by serving authentic mom and pop Mexican food to a Central Texas crowd of blue collar workers, suburban soccer moms, and newspaper reading senior citizens. Today I had a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, potatoes, refried beans, cheese, and pico de gallo. The onions and cilantro were strong in the pico de gallo. I could taste them in the air as I exhaled through my nose. This awareness of vegetables made me feel earthy somehow, like I was Juan Valdez growing coffee on the side of a mountain in Columbia. It was delightful.

Martha and I enjoyed an hour of uninterrupted conversation which was as rare as, well, something really rare. Not quite Christmas rare, but more than, say, full moon rare. Talking with her like that reminds me of when we fell in love. We used to sit in each other’s cars talking for hours, not wanting to stop until wee hours of the night. Today was like that. When we got away from the house, away from the kids and the phone and the internet, away from the dishes and laundry and piles of stuff on my desk, we quickly reconnected. Our hearts and souls reintertwined like a vine and trellis or like our bare legs under the covers on a sleepy Saturday morning. We are reminded why we love each other and that we are great friends. Our worlds become three dimensional again.

Customers have to get their own coffee refills at Leal’s, but I don’t mind. The simple, brown, ceramic mugs have an almost hand-made feel which contributes to the whole Leal’s experience. Getting out of my well worn booth to pour myself a refill can punctuate breaks in our conversation like double spacing between paragraphs.

Walk to coffee pot, pour coffee, enter enter,

aging parents, enter enter,

funny thing the cats did, enter enter,

thoughts about God, enter enter,

our boys bring us joy.

After a while I can neither tolerate any more caffeine nor procrastinate going to work any longer. My time with Martha has been as nourishing to our relationship as Cesar’s burritos have been to my body. I can’t imagine a better way to start my day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thoughts about Writing

I got up the nerve to tell a colleague, who happens to be an English professor, that I want to write a book. I was having a pleasant lunch with him, and I didn't want to ruin it with a question whose answer might burst my bubble or tempt him to lie. But I asked him anyway, because I thought he could offer me some good advice. And he did.

He said the first thing to do was write regularly. Forty five minutes a day, five days a week, will get you a novel in a year, he said. Notice he didn't say it would be good.

Secondly, he said I should find a group to share my writing, and to share and receive feedback and advice. That, I do not have, other than my wife who loves everything I do, and this blog which receives scant, but appreciated, comments.

Third, he said to read a book called "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott. I bought it on Amazon and it came in today. I read three pages. It's hilarious.

Fourth, he said to identify books I want to emulate. I have identified the following:
1) Breath of Kenya by Charles Herrick,
2) A Man Called Daddy by Hugh O'Neill, and
3) perhaps Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. (The conditionality arises from the fact that I'm only a few chapters into it, but so far it's great.)

They are all non-fiction blends of serious events but with humorous observations. That's what I'm shooting for. As an example, I want to give you an excerpt from A Man Called Daddy. This is just one of many such chapters:

Daddy Loses Consciousness
Of Jellybean Epics and Glassy Eyes

Psychologists who've studied the conversational styles of men and women agree on just one gender distinction. Women enjoy the aimless burble of talk, while men tend to see the conversation as goal-oriented - as in, "What's your point, pal?"

Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know. But I do know that any male-female rift is nothing compared to the conversation Grand Canyon between men and kids. Conversationally speaking, men and kids are so far apart no psychologist has ever had the guts to study the gap.

Consider: Men are the strong, silent type. Kids are the small, chatty type. Men are cut to the chase. Bing-bang. Speak your piece. Lose the palaver. Kids never met a tedious detail they didn't like. They don't know you're supposed to skip the boring parts. Their stories go all around the cobbler's bench or the mulberry bush, whichever way's longest.
Over the years, I've tried to follow kid stories that made the Odyssey look like a one-liner, stories so slow and serpentine that I wanted to cry out, "Wrap it up! What the hell happened to the bunny?" Not only did my eyes glaze over, my higher brain function glazed over, too. Once, while listening to Rebecca tell me a story about how she found three pennies and two nickels in her backpack and then Brian took one of the pennies and ran down the hall, I actually slipped into a quasicoma.

For a long time I felt guilty about my feelings. I was pretty sure it couldn't help a child's self-esteem for Dad to drift off during the story of Daniel and the raisins and how Blair tried to tie her shoe but wouldn't share her snack with Kate who hurt her hand and then did her homework with David's pencil. But then one afternoon I saw the light and realized there was no reason to feel guilty.

Josh and I were driving around town on errands when, with great enthusiasm, he started to describe an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show he had seen last night... When I told him that I had seen the episode back in 1965 when I was his age, he merely said "That's okay, Dad," and plunged ahead...

That's when I saw the truth. I knew in a flash that his stories weren't supposed to interest or amuse or edify me. No, they were supposed to interest or amuse or edify him. Somehow, recapitulating a television show helped him shape his experience of it.

I don't presume to understand the psychological kick of telling a story that's boring your audience to death. But one thing was perfectly clear: As long as I was willing to sit there and play the role of audience, Josh was happy. I didn't have to actually pay attention. I just had to give him cover, be a warm body to whom he might conceivably be talking.
The point is that kids set out from day one to dismantle the logical man you have spent a lifetime becoming. I'd love to suggest you take a hard line here, stand by the idea of coherence, of making sense. Only one problem with that position. The guys who enjoy fatherhood are they guys who don't.

The guys who enjoy fatherhood surrender. Like a suspension bridge that sways in the wind to survive the storm, they go along to get along. They go with the childish flow, give up the need to understand in favor of an apprehension that is, in truth, deeper and, finally, more satisfying...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

We Got the Grant!

We received confirmation that our team is to receive a grant for $50,000 to develop a microfranchise test bed in Honduras over the next 18 months! I am so excited that I could spit in Spanish. This means my family and I will be spending about six weeks in Honduras this summer, that we will have multiple teams of "Engineers with a Mission" students come to visit and assist, and, most of all, that we can build out a few village-level hydro power businesses in an attempt to combat poverty in the name of Christ. These, with prayers and sweat, will bring income to franchisees, improve the quality of light the villagers have, and save each family a significant fraction of their current energy bill.

By our calculations, a typical village family spends about $1.70 per week on kerosene for lanterns (like the ones in the picture) and single-use batteries for flashlights and radios. We think we can provide a superior quality of light, eliminate the indoor air pollution, and bring an intangible hope for the future for these families for $1.08 per week. And at this rate, the system can pay for itself in 2.5 years.

Let me share with you an excerpt from the grant proposal we submitted that paints a little background information.

Many of the poor of developing countries live in isolated mountainous communities without access to grid-based electric power. This is true in Central America, Peru, Chile, East Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea, among others. The decentralized nature of the population makes it economically prohibitive to connect them to their national grids. “For those without access to electricity, lighting is derived from a diversity of sources, including kerosene, diesel, propane, biomass, candles, and yak butter.”[1] Fuel-burning lanterns, perhaps the most common alternative to electric lights, have been shown to be a source of respiratory disease[2], contribute to environmental problems associated with fossil fuels and deforestation, and put significant financial strain on the impoverished[3]. Evan Mills, an expert on rural lighting in developing countries, states in his 2005 Science article, “The Specter of Fuel Based Lighting”[4]:

“Fuel-based lighting embodies enormous economic and human inequities. The cost per useful lighting energy services... for fuel-based lighting is up to ~150 times that for premium-efficiency fluorescent lighting… [this means the cost to acheive the same level of light for the poor is much higher than it is for you and me]

“By virtue of its inefficiency and poor quality, fuel-based light is hard to work and read by, poses fire and burn hazards, and compromises indoor air quality. Women and children typically have the burden of obtaining fuel. Availability of [electric] lighting is linked to improved security, literacy, and income-producing activities in the home. Fuel prices can be highly volatile, and fuels are often rationed, which leads to political and social unrest, hoarding, and scarcity.”

However, in Honduras, Peru, Chile, and Nepal, for example, hydropower is considered a significant natural resource

[5], although its large scale production plants primarily serve urban areas. This proposal describes the creation of village-level “pico-hydro” (smaller than 5000 Watts output power) systems that harness small mountain streams to produce electricity services in remote communities. Furthermore, the energy produced by these methods can be sold to consumers through a variety of methods thereby making possible both electric lighting and entrepreneurial opportunities simultaneously.

[1] Mills, Evan, “The Specter of Fuel-Based Lighting,” Science, Vol. 308, Issue 5726, May 27, 2005
[2] Sikolia, DN, “The Prevalence of acute respiratory infections and the associated risk factors: A Study of children under five years of age in Kibera Lindi Village, Nairobi, Kenya,” Japanese National Institute of Public Health, 51 (1): 2002
[3] Residents of the Nairobi slum known as Kibera, for example, told a member of this proposal team (in 2006) that they were spending $0.28 per day on kerosene for less than three hours of light. With average incomes near $1.00 a day, this expense is significant.
[4] Mills, Evan, “The Specter of Fuel-Based Lighting,” Science, Vol. 308, Issue 5726, May 27, 2005
[5] CIA - The World Factbook,

I invite my readers, both of you, to comment on our plans. Specifically, please consider the following thoughts:

For many hours during each day, the power provided by the river will not be used. During daylight hours, the system will be used for some battery charging, but after that task is done the power will be wasted. This could be for as much as 12 hours a day. What are some other uses for which this power could be used? For example, how about a freezer that makes blocks of ice for "ice-box" style food preservation? Or how about a community water heater where people could wash their clothes in hot water, or take a warm shower? What about some argicultural process like a coffee bean drier or a rubarb deshucker? How about a chicken centrifuge that slings out eggs faster than hens could lay without it? Dang it Jim! I'm an engineer not a third-world subsistence farmer! A little help?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Stump Removal

You must be a fan if you are reading my post about removing a stump in the backyard. Check back later after I post about brushing my teeth. It's sure to be riveting.

Anyway, two years ago, almost, a huge storm hit our town and uprooted lots of trees. I had a lovely red oak in the backyard, over 40 years old, that was left leaning like the tower of Pisa after the storm. Fearing that it would fall on my house, I cut it down. But the stump remains...

Until now. Today the boys and I drilled 1-inch diameter holes, a foot deep, into the stump. We drilled three more angled holes from the side so that they intersected deep inside the wood. We used a huge drill bit that made me feel every bit of a man. Next we flushed the sawdust out with a hose and filled the holes with little granules made of kryptonite or something. They are supposed to make the wood more porous, so that in a month we can chop and/or burn in out. We'll see if it works.

The Boys in Cub Scouts

In a few weeks D will have his "crossing over" ceremony. The Cub Scout pack sets up a small foot bridge in the sanctuary of the church that sponsors it. On one side the boys line up and slowly, one at a time, walk over the bridge to meet the Boy Scout leader, the Scoutmaster. There will be three Boy Scout troops represented on the far side, and each boy selects one. The Scoutmaster of the chosen troop meets the boy, removes his Webelos neckerchief, and replaces it with one from his troop. They have great ceremonies and make the boys feel like big stuff. I love it.

Speaking of big stuff, Jono got his Bobcat badge at the pack meeting last week. Again, with much ceremony, they had him come to the front. M and I stood behind him, but no other boys were there. They said some nice words and made him feel very special. He beamed.