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Holiday Letter 2013

December 2013

Friends-

Greetings from Elmira, New York where the interesting has hit the fan.  And we’ve gone paperless-ish.  That was not the intent when this letter started, but when it dragged into a second sheet of paper (after some initial concerns that there was not much to say about 2013) the scales tipped.  On the bright-side, it also lets us include pictures.  Here’s the one Eric wanted to include last year.

This is our fourteenth year of writing a form letter to accompany our holiday cards and you might think we would have had the hang of it by now, but that is not the case.  Early on this letter had a format . . . a short introduction, a paragraph or two about how over-rated home-ownership is, a short(ish) blurb on raking leaves in the yard and a closing remark wishing everyone an interesting year.  In 2001 we added Connor and a little something about him.  In 2003 we added Kate, and the letter pretty much wrote itself for several years after that, but our template broke down in the process.  The leaf clean-up became less interesting each year as we did get the hang of that, home issues are mostly anti-climatic after “The Great Roof Fiasco of 2008 and 2009 and 2010” and the kids have become a bit less interesting (for strangers, Eric and Ellen still find them almost as interesting as ever) as they have gotten older.

This year we attempted to turn to Facebook for help with this letter.  First, we reviewed Eric’s Facebook ‘status updates’ for the year 2013; there were twenty of those, and we found they weren’t very useful as a review of the year as most of Eric’s status updates had little to do with the family.  Many were along the lines of:

Let’s have a “National Freedom Day”. I propose the Saturday closest to Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12) because Lincoln knew a thing or two about freedom. On this day we all ignore government-mandated safety laws and make our own decisions about seat-belts, helmets, speed limits and large sugary sodas.

Coincidentally, February 12 is also Darwin’s birthday so we can also call this “Natural Selection Day”.

But a couple touched closer to home, like “ . . . in Williamsburg, VA, recovering from self-inflicted head trauma.” which, eerily, had been preceded by a post in which Eric disclosed he was writing his own obituary.  In an unusually lucky break for Eric, who is not known for getting lucky, the head trauma did not prove fatal.  The only other take-aways from Eric’s interwebs posts were that he went to his first parent teacher conference and was, briefly, the proud owner of twenty-some boxes of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies.  Late in the year he made his first ever trip to Connor and Kate’s pediatrician’s office.

Next, we examined Ellen’s status updates.  These were equally unhelpful, mostly because she only had three for the year (though she did share some pictures).  From Ellen’s internet sharing we learned that she went on Connor’s sixth grade class trip to Philadelphia (more on that later), went to a yoga class and entered the ‘texting world’.  Interesting stuff, certainly, but we had a word quota to reach and so we had to jog the old memory banks.

2013 will go into (auto correct really wants to turn ‘into’ into ‘intoxicated’, but it’s too early in the day to go there) the books as an interesting, if poorly documented, year.  We had significant progress on the home improvement front, added a dog, did a little traveling, bought a house so someone Ellen knows would have a place to live, made some unintentional career changes and tried some new things.  Ellen, Connor and Kate went to a funeral for Ellen’s grandfather (Eric had gone to a funeral in 2012 and skipped this one to let the rest of the family catch-up . . . we are competitive about such things).

Unquestionably, the big news of 2013 is that we now share our house with a small (extra-small? tiny?) dog.  The dog is named Teddy.  Teddy is a watch dog.  He barks loudly to let us know whenever a cat comes into the kitchen.  Ellen is smitten.  Connor and Kate are big fans.  Eric and the cats are reserving judgment.

The second biggest event of 2013 was Eric changing jobs . . . though technically that won’t even happen until 2014.  At the beginning of October, Eric received a phone call from the president of his company.  The short version of the story is that the company was unlikely to continue beyond the end of the year and Eric could spend his next three months looking for his next job, writing a novel, surfing the internet, hanging out with his brothers or any of a half dozen other things that had nothing to do with quantitative analysis or long term strategic planning.  Eric, who by the end of the conversation was looking forward to a three month vacation,  hung-up the phone and went to work on a novel (It opens: “There’s nothing that makes a man feel as alive as laying a body in a shallow grave he dug with his own two hands.”  It is not auto-biographical.  It is only partially a how-to manual.).  At some point in the next couple of days it occurred to Eric that he should tell Ellen about his happy situation, but was unsure if Ellen would see this marvelous stroke of good luck for what it was: a marvelous stroke of good luck.  (Eric rarely has those, so he’s not great at identifying them, but he was pretty sure this was one).  So Eric told Ellen that he was almost unemployed, but assured her that he had lots of options.  He could open a doughnut shop, sell things on eBay, write a witty blog, open a consulting business, write a novel, sell some of the software he had written . . . the possibilities were several.  Ellen listened quietly, paused long enough to be sure the list was complete, and said:  “What I’d really like you to do . . . is get another job.”

And so Eric began a search for another job.  Not immediately, and not in earnest, because this was a great opportunity to knock out some home improvements and to explore some additional options, but slowly and steadily.  The last time Eric looked for a job, in 1999, he put a resume on the internet, answered some phone calls, set-up two interviews and chose between two offers.  Things are going a bit different this time.  In any case, the likely ending to this is that when Eric gets to the office next he is unlikely to be the best looking guy in the room . . . he’ll have to settle for being the smartest.

Home improvement roared along into 2013, fueled by a contractor that showed-up regularly, but not everyone will be happy with the progress.  There is a small, but vocal, contingent of people that wanted a door (instead of a curtain) on the first floor bathroom.  That will not be happening anytime soon as Eric threw away the door Ellen was planning to refinish (and three others that he doesn’t actually remember the origins of) after tiring of moving them while working on the basement.

On the home front, we got a 95% solution on finishing off the basement (at least 35% beyond what we would have if those doors were still down there).    You’d have to have seen what we started with to truly appreciate the upgrade (but if you just assume a below-average 80 year old basement you’ll be close enough).  The whole solution is a bit over-engineered (four coats of epoxy on the floor, 3/4” plywood walls [with 6 coats of polyurethane on the edges and out-facing sides], LED lightning to 20 lu/sf on 6 circuits, blah, blah, blah) but what went right is never quite as interesting as what went wrong.  Among the surprises, do-overs, “wow, that took a lot longer than expected” and “seemed like a good idea at the time” moments were:

One contractor framing a bathroom . . . three times.  This one had some mitigating circumstances, like a concrete wall that had some irregularities and a floor with a pronounced slope toward a drain, but it was bad enough that we ripped it out and started over. Twice.

A different contractor plumbing said bathroom . . . twice.  Mulligans all around.

Pipes hidden in the walls . . . (almost) every wall we ripped out had iron pipes hidden inside it.  These were pipes that had been cut-off at both ends, but apparently it was too much effort to carry them outside.  In one case there was over 100 pounds of iron balanced on top of a built-in cabinet.  One more thing that can go wrong when using a reciprocating saw.

Installing a window . . . there’s a saying that goes “Good enough is good enough, and perfect is a pain in the ass.” which will be applied to future window installations.  Even in a not-quite-square concrete opening, how can installing a window take four hours?

Clear-coating the basement floor . . . is apparently not so easy when the clear coat is . . . clear.  In fact, it seems to be just about as difficult as framing a bathroom.

Painting rough walls . . .  Eric new this was going to be ugly going in and was going for the 70% solution.  Didn’t quite get there.

Gas lines to nowhere . . . at least the pipes look like they were meant for gas.  And to say they go to nowhere might be a bit of a misnomer as they look like they went somewhere . . . and then were cut off with the ends hidden beneath a basement floor.  It’s still a mystery.

Cutting slate . . . don’t try this at home.  Apparently at some time in the distant past there was a billiard table in the house.  The table is long gone, but there were three piece of slate 5′ by 3’4” by 1” that came with the house.  We’ve been working around them . . . which was easy since they were in the basement and we avoided the basement until the past year or so.  A little math will tell you pieces of slate that large are close to 300 pounds each.

Drywall sanding – Can take a week or more if you use a whole 5 gallon bucket of joint compound

Ellen, Eric, Connor and Kate all have office space in the basement now.   The kiln has been hooked (this is the kiln we bought for Kate in 2011, to go with the pottery wheel from 2010, with any luck 2014 will be there she makes something so we can turn the kiln on) up in the “studio”. . . which also got a new floor,  lighting and some  additional outlets.  The basement bathroom (with urinal and pottery sink) is running.  As is the sink in the rec room in the basement.   Side porch.  Drainage.  Gutters (bought, but still not installed).  Heat/ AC in the ex-husband apartment (almost).    New Kitchen door.  New trees.

There was also an uptick in efficiency.  For example, the “Christmas Village” layout in the living room for the 2013 holiday season was set-up in November . . . of 2012.

We ended up with a second house.  Eric isn’t exactly sure how this happened, but Ellen knew someone who wanted to rent a house so Ellen bought one and now, as far as Eric knows, rents it to these people.  Eric was skeptical . . . there seem to be plenty of houses out there that were available to rent and if they couldn’t rent one of them there was probably a pretty good reason why we should not be renting them one . . . but Ellen seemed to think it was a good idea and since Eric’s entire involvement was signing three pieces of paper (that he didn’t even have to read) he wasn’t going to argue this one.  Best to save the arguments for important stuff.

There were vacations for everyone.  Eric and Ellen to Chicago for a Geiger wedding (we got to see some world class photo-bombing here . . . we were never exactly sure how many bridesmaids there really were).  Connor, Kate and Teddy to Syracuse (to demonstrate how far from housebroken Teddy was in August).  Everyone to Williamsburg, VA and Sandy Swamp, SC (to remind us how much they love waffles in the south).  Ellen and Connor to Philadelphia (to watch middle school boys put all sorts of odd things in their mouths).  Ellen to Oregon (for the wedding of someone she did not know; somehow, she has managed to do that in back-to-back years).  Connor and Kate to summer camps (which is like a vacation except without Ellen telling you where to stand and when to smile for the pictures).

We still have two children.  Connor, 12, and Kate, 10.

Kate is getting closer and closer to normal.  It’s enough to make a father sad.   Or, at least, a little closer to bored; there’s nothing like a sociopath to liven things up.  Kate made the paper a couple of times in 2013, once for winning a poetry contest and once for accomplishing all of the things a girl scout can accomplish.  Oddly, ironing is not something they teach in Girl Scouts, because Kate was being taught that by Ellen’s mom later in the year.

In 2013 Eric and Connor had a conversation that began with Connor saying “This one time, when I was crank-calling myself . . . “ . . . what else do you need to know?  Every morning when Connor leaves the house Ellen tapes a note to his back that reads: “Free to good or mediocre home.”  When Connor leaves in the morning, it’s usually to catch the bus to the Alternative School for the Socially Awkward Math and Science.  He fits in well there.  As does Ellen, who has been a volunteer fixture since Connor started going there. 

Eric, who has been spending five hours a week with an after school science group there since October has also learned a lot, though mostly it’s related to what parents don’t want to know about their own children.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate