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

Iterative Monte Carlo

Iterative Monte Carlo

This is the more interesting of the two machine learning programs I claim since grad school and the one for which I do not have a working version handy. It’s also one I wrote initially as a private project, and later converted to a work purpose, and as such am happy to describe in more detail. As far as I know, the process is not analogous to anything done elsewhere, but that is probably just a reflection on my lack of awareness of the state of machine learning since my daughter was born in 2003.

This one came about, oddly enough, to settle a disagreement over the proper pricing model for players in rotisserie baseball about ten years ago. I was later able to use it, pretty much unchanged, as a tool for adjusting market/system weighting in a portfolio. I’ll write in terms of the original use case as that seems less likely to add to any confusion.

I am going to make the assumption that whoever is reading this is familiar with rotisserie baseball and how an auction therein would work. A less than perfect explanation can be found here for those that have had more productive ways to spend their time.

The objective of the code was to assign an auction value to every player within a specific environment (here this would be the set of rules for the league). To do that requires identifying the players that should be selected in the auction and the player’s value to a team. This turns-out to be a more difficult concept then one might think and it has spawned some widely used models that fail horribly at the limit cases. Oddly, the limit cases where these models fail most spectacularly are the simplest ones (known player stats and leagues with no roster moves).

Because of the original use case there were some features in the program aimed at accommodating a variety of rule sets and I am going to omit them for now, but would be happy to discuss them later. The algorithm in play here is:

  1. Define the Universe of potential players. This would be anyone that could be reasonably expected to be rostered by one of the teams.
  2. Assign each player a value. For the first iteration this could be done randomly, based on some externally published values or set such that every player included in Step 1 had the same value There are multiple ways to do this, but I can only remember trying a variation where each player is assigned what would be the average value. Since we can normalize the values at any point using an average value is not necessary.
  3. Build (draft) each set (team), adhering to any constraints (for example, Salary Cap, roster configuration). The constraints will allow a small amount of variance into the selection; but, suspecting variance would be welcome, I set the process responsible for building a team to assign a player from a pool of similarly valued players at each draft slot. In other words, the team is built through a draft and with each selection a team was randomly choosing from a pool of players who were valued within x points of the highest-rated remaining player that could be legally rostered. This worked well, if I recall correctly, and I am not aware of any theoretical objections. There may be players left over each iteration, even at the end . . . unless that is the termination condition.
  4. Calculate team stats and score each team based upon the league rules. Some consideration here is given to “bench” scoring as that will be important. In general, and in the portfolio-optimization scenario, that will not be an issue.
  5. Make an adjustment to each player on each team based on the relative score of the team to other teams in the league. Specifically, players on teams scoring above the mean had their individual values increased proportionately (and players on teams scoring below the mean had their individual values decreased).
  6. Remove players from the Universe whose value falls below a threshold value. I used zero.

Repeat steps 3 through 6 until a termination condition (e.g., the difference in the score between the first and last place teams is under a threshold value) is met.

Genetic Programming Filter

Genetic Programming Filter

One of the last projects I worked on during my time at RMR was a program to evolve algorithms for trading future contracts.

A Genetic Programming approach seemed like a good fit because the search space was large, we had a fitness metric and, most importantly, multiple solutions that had low correlations for short duration returns and time-in-market were desirable (in other words, there was value to a process that could be run multiple times and produce a variety of results).

This process I came up with was a relatively simple twist on the basic GP algorithm (like you can find here) I used as a template in grad school to evolve an algebraic function to model the path of a cannonball in flight. The algorithm used then was the same as the one linked (though Pa would have been 0). I believe a sum of squares of the error, between a set of projected and known positions for a cannonball in flight at time t, was used as the fitness metric.

Because of certain constraints, I opted to evolve an algorithm for trade initiation separately from the liquidation. The only real trick was deciding on the appropriate form of the solution (chromosome). I opted to use chromosomes that could be translated directly into SQL statements to SELECT against a database of all possible market/date (possible initiation) combinations. The market/date key, which numbered around 540,000 rows, was used to map hundreds, potentially thousands, of Indicators as well as a value that could be used to measure the expectation of an initiation for the market/date of the row key (this did open the possibility of selecting later generations on a different fitness measure than earlier generations, but this was a road I was not planning to explore . . . the multiple metrics were present only as a convenience for changing between runs). The idea was that the Indicators, in various combinations, would be used as thresholds to select rows in the table. The selected rows would correspond to initiations and the count of rows selected and average of the potential measure for those rows would generate a fitness metric. A function using both the count and average is preferable to the sum of the potential measure because the higher count indicates less curve-fitting and the higher average gives higher confidence trades and better overcomes the costs associated with trading.

The end result was:

Chromosome

  • Methods: Constructor, BuildSQL, EvaluateSelf
  • Properties: Fitness,GeneList()

Gene:

  • Methods: Constructor, GetSQL, Mutate
  • Properties: ComparisonType, GeneType, Name, RangeMin, RangeMax, RangeType, TargetValue

Most of the methods and properties are, hopefully, self documenting. RangeType is a code that indicates how to to treat the range of potential values for the purposes of seeding and mutating.

The Population and GP objects are as expected.

 

Holiday Letter 2012

December 2012

Friends-

Greetings from Elmira, New York where what once seemed odd now seems normal (like parenthetical remarks).  This is our thirteenth year of sending out a form letter along with our holiday cards and looking back at older letters they seem to include items that are quite mundane.  We hope they seemed interesting at the time; but now many of them seem so . . .  uninteresting (not the old stuff about Kate, that was certainly odd, but most of the other stuff).   Of course, without these letters we may have forgotten how . . . difficult . . . Kate was until she turned six or that some people only get a single year out of a holiday wreath or that some houses have doors on their bathrooms.

This year will go into the books as a good year, provided disaster does not strike in the final few days (which is why we got the letter out early this year).   We got in a number of small and varied vacations,  saw some old friends, completed a few home improvement projects, went to no funerals (assuming you don’t count the one for our cat, Tripoli;  Eric did go to that, but he had to . . . he brought the shovel.), Ellen became completely self-employed,  Eric got a motorcycle license, Connor started at a new school, we adopted a new kitten and Kate did no permanent harm (and that is a best case outcome, because, as we have noted in the past, e.g. “Kate seemed very normal this year which is no small feat if you are Kate. When you match Kate’s complete lack of empathy with her rare mixture of initiative and decisiveness you have what some might call an accident waiting to happen. Of course, those people don’t know Kate like we know Kate. With Kate, it’s never an accident. “ (2010) and “Someday we will hear the phrase “collateral damage” . . . only the context will be a surprise.” (2009) events near Kate can be unpredictable, unless, of course, you are Kate.).

Among the vacations this year was a four day trip to New York City in April during which we saw a Mets game from the All-You-Can-Eat-Seats (yes, they really do have those at Citi Field).  It was a nice refresher course in the city of his birth for Eric (though we barely got with-in 90 blocks of the hospital where it all started for Eric [unless you believe that life begins at conception in which case it is unlikely Eric started in a hospital after all]).   We may also have visited some museums and such.  And Central Park.  And a store where they sell nothing but doll stuff (we kid you not).  In July we went to Martha’s Vineyard for the wedding of two people that none of us knew.  Seriously . . . we had never met the folks and it seems unlikely we will ever meet them again, but they seemed nice enough.  We stretched that road trip out a little on the front end by going to Saratoga Springs where we saw a horse race and ate a restaurant which made its own cotton candy (which it gave out in pillowcase-sized bags) and then to Plymouth where we saw some historical stuff (some Indian stuff and a big boat . . . and a rock).  We did manage to miss Elmira’s only tornado in recent memory during that trip.  We also squeezed in a weekend trip to West Point  to meet some old friends.  All of those road trips were done in Ellen’s MINI . . . because we all really like each other.  Ellen also managed a trip to Belize to visit her sister and a cruise in the Bahamas with some friends from college . . .  she likes vacations more than Eric.  Connor and Kate each got a week in at summer camp (which is like a vacation except without Ellen telling you where to stand and when to smile for the pictures).

It’s (almost) tradition for this letter to recount our annual battle against the leaves, but that looks like another custom that will pass by the wayside.  This year’s battle was anti-climatic and next year Connor will be twelve and theoretically capable of handling these things . . . which is why we had him in the first place  (Like his father before him, Connor was a product of convenience.  All available evidence suggests that Eric was only brought into the world to change TV channels and fetch beers from the fridge . . . once his parents bought a TV with a remote and switched from beer to Scotch [you can bring the whole bottle to the couch] he was only an afterthought.).  There is clearly value in planning ahead . . . many people are not far-sighted enough to take a course of action that will take 13 years to pay any dividends.
Home improvement  picked-up  the pace this past year as we left the roof fiasco a little further in the rearview mirror.  We still have a lot of projects with a status of “In Progress” and an estimated completion date of “Unknown” (some might even be “Never”); but we did get a few things off the list.   The year got off to a fast start when we installed heat in the attic (aka Eric’s Office) on January 2nd  (and then got air conditioning up there in July).   We also had the back patio and walkway redone and a new awning put up.  Of course, some projects didn’t go quite so smoothly.

Let us digress.  We suspect most home improvement projects begin innocently enough: someone asks a question like “How can I best use this space?” or   “What renovation will maximize the resale value of this house?”.  We are less practical.  Our questions tend to look like  “How can I make the rest of the downstairs match this $7 throw pillow I just purchased at Big Lots?”  or “What’s the reason I am most likely to leave the house and how can I fix that?” . . . it all depends on which of us is asking the question.  In fact those exact two questions have led one of us to purchase 34 (and return 33) different curtains and one of us to begin a basement remodel that includes a poker room, bar and home brewery.    Yes, while Ellen was in Belize, Eric undertook a basement renovation project  (the very-same project mentioned in our 2001 Holiday Letter: “Next on Eric’s list is converting the entire basement into a rec room.  A bar, pool table, race track, foosball, pinball, home theatre – the works. Ellen’s list may vary slightly .“)  Apparently, by slightly, we meant “by eleven years worth of projects” though even that may be an understatement as Eric started this when Ellen was out of the country and didn’t have her list to refer to . . . only his dusty list from 2001.

Unfortunately, the basement renovation was not completed in nine days so Ellen was back in time to overrule some proposed changes.  For example, Eric wanted a urinal in the bathroom.  Ellen argued that a urinal was redundant when there was going to be a sink and so a toilet would be more practical (That might not have been exactly the argument Ellen made, but it is close enough).  Eric pointed out that we already have four toilets in the house and a fifth would be redundant, but Ellen was not swayed.  Fortunately, some plumbing considerations resulted in a urinal being installed anyway  making this the first time Eric has  wanted to include a photo in the newsletter.   There is much more to say about this project, but since it seems bound to stretch into 2013 so we can safely save most of it for then.
Also under construction this year is the conversion of the garage into an “ex-husband apartment” (Eric isn’t an ex-husband yet, but like a Boy Scout he is always prepared some of the time; unlike a Boy Scout he has nothing against atheists or homosexuals.  Of course, occupancy of the ex-husband apartment is not imminent as just this morning Ellen told Eric: “You are my best husband ever . . .well . . . so far.” ) and the replacement of the screen porch at the west end of the house.  The screen porch replacement is looking a bit like a disaster in progress so I’m sure there will be more to say on this next year as well.  Sometimes remodeling is fun . . . and sometimes it sucks donkey ears.

We still have two children (From the 2009 Holiday Letter: Parenting, like home ownership, gets much easier when you decide to live with what you have instead of always trying to change something into what you think you would like it to be. (Oddly, marriage works the same way.)  ) and as the kids get older, Connor is now 11 and Kate is 9, they become less newsworthy.  Connor is still annoying, but in the same way he was last year.  Kate is still precocious, but a precocious nine year old is less interesting than a precocious five year old.

Connor, despite his best efforts, survived another year.  Mostly that means he has not talked-back to Ellen while she was holding something sharp; a fact we’ve been chalking-up to luck, but it would be nice if he was at least that aware (Connor has become anecdotal evidence against Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection).  Connor is doing surprisingly well at The Alternative School for Math and Science where he started in September.  Ellen thought Connor would benefit from the curriculum and the additional resources at ASMS but she was preaching to the choir when trying to sell Eric on it . . . he was sold on the idea when he found out Connor would be away from home an extra two hours each day.

Kate continues to be full of surprises (during our NYC trip we discovered that, given the opportunity she will put butter on bacon . . . we can’t think of a single person over 40 that does that) almost all of which were harmless this year.  In fact, Kate , who is still a ward of the public school system, has been such a model child this past year that it would be hard to believe we were once so sure she was a sociopath . . . but we have the old holiday letters to prove it.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate

Holiday Letter 2011

December 2011

 

Friends-

 

Holiday Greetings from Elmira, New York where “Holiday Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not meant as an attack on Christianity, but rather as a time-saving, super-natural-being-neutral, salutation. It really is a time saver compared to going through our recipient list and guessing everyone’s favorite flavor of religion and it saves a bit of ink compared to the interactive opening of “Happy Holidays / Season’s Greetings / Merry Christmas / Happy Hanukkah / . . . . (circle one)”. But, as a nice girl once said to Eric, “enough with the preliminaries”; it was a very exciting year here and we have highlights to share. And, of course, lowlights. Among the latter, our better-than-natural-green-spray-painted-genuine-pine-wreath, retired to the basement after nine years of service, has now moved on to a new home in a landfill. RIP Pine Wreath.

 

On both the home improvement and prognostication front Eric fell short in 2011. We will get to Ellen’s shortcomings eventually. In our 2010 recap, Eric included this attempt at predicting the future:

“In 2011 we doubled the number of bathrooms in the house from three to six. Well . . . this does depend a little bit on what you mean by “bathroom” . . . and “house”. We added a full bath to what was formerly the garage and is now a workshop. We’ll count this one, even though you have to walk outside (if you are in the house, you don’t have to leave the garage) to use it. The reasoning behind a garage bathroom is not clear to everyone, but it should be obvious by 2016. We also converted a closet on the second floor to a bathroom. This one takes a bit of “tricky accounting” as the conversion simply involved emptying stuff from the room. It was a bathroom when we bought the house, but it was never used as one and was quickly filled with . . . crap. Yes, we had been using a bathroom as a closet since 1999. We also use the back stairway as a closet, the pantry as a closet and a 7-by-10 room on the second floor that doesn’t seem to have any better reason for being there as a closet. But, we digress. Finally, the three to six change, also assumes you are willing to count the utility sink near Eric’s basement office as a bathroom. Eric does.”

That whole paragraph was not included just so Eric could make a joke about urinating in the sink . . . that was really the plan for 2011. And, as they say about the best planned lays laid plans this one went awry. Ellen and Kate did get the forgotten bathroom cleared out and in working order (and, while they were at their October version of spring cleaning, the back staircase). The garage bathroom may have been optimistic, though it could have happened if our plumber spent less time with his family and more time in our house, but we did make strides in that direction. Perhaps in 2012. On the bright side, we did get the garage insulated as Eric learned the (abstract) art of applying spray-on-closed-cell-foam. We also upgraded the electrical service in the garage and made some wiring improvements inside the house as well, including hooking-up Kate’s kiln.* The home data and phone networks were also improved prompting Eric to move back to the third floor (this has made the basement sink less convenient, but it’s good to know it is there when needed). Also, If our plumber can be trusted, the third floor should have heat by the end of this year.

*Part of what makes December hectic around here is the almost tradition of trying to make sure the preceding year’s gifts are used, in use or usable as appropriate. The kiln, for example, was a one-off project because Kate received a pottery wheel last Christmas and what good are half finished cat bowls?** So a kiln was delivered in July . . . and hooked up in December (there was no rush as the cats had plenty of bowls from when Ellen took a pottery class; plus, who wants to fire-up a kiln in the house in August?). Other various items that have been around between six and twelve months have recently been put into use (Eric hung some framed tiles he bought Ellen last year) or will be very, very soon (Eric will wear a sweater someone bought him last year to Ellen’s father’s house this weekend while Ellen will almost certainly read the instructions for that laminator someone got her for all the elementary school artwork around here). Of course, the biggest time waster in December is trying to use restaurant gift cards. We went out to dinner twice this fall which increased our total for 2011 to three (we go out to dinner on Kate’s birthday . . . apparently that is not negotiable. Connor can be bribed and is happy ordering out). We are not a family that likes to eat out. Eric doesn’t like to leave the house, wait in line, have chance meetings with people he knows, have chance meetings with people he doesn’t know or answer pointless questions.*** Ellen doesn’t like to spend money. So we eat in. But we have these gift cards that Ellen carries around wrapped in rubber bands . . . they look like a small plastic brick . . . so we try to use them every now and then. This means taking Connor to a restaurant. Apparently, our limit on taking Connor out to eat is twice in two months. I think the only gift cards we use reliably are to Dunkin Donuts.

** Thirty years ago those cat bowls would have been ashtrays. Kate, whose vocabulary is pretty good for an adult, had never heard the word “ashtray”. So she makes cat bowls. We hope, someday, she makes cocoa mugs.

*** For example, “How would you like that cooked?” That’s like an adult version of the game children play where they sit in a circle and whisper a phrase in the ear of the kid to their left and when they get full circle they all laugh about how “Ride a bike down by the lake” became “Put a spike in a birthday cake” . . . except there is a better chance the kids are trying to get it right.

In other news this year: Eric got tricked into another Outer Banks trip, but he has no one to blame but himself. Of course, a good time was had by all and we have now seen everything there is to see in the Outer Banks twice so we will be looking for a new vacation spot this year. Everyone is encouraged to make suggestions and/or join in. Also, on the news front, Ellen switched jobs when the company she worked for since 1999 went out of business (for reasons we can’t say). Finally, in one of the bigger surprises of the year, we received a call out-of-the-blue from Vin Geiger who needed help with his daughter’s math homework.

We still have two children. ADD and EDD. That is an A for attention and an E for empathy.

Connor has had a successful year to date. In 2011 Connor survived the second half of fourth grade, baseball season, summer camp, soccer season and half of fifth grade. All major accomplishments for Connor. When you view survival as victory you never see yourself as a loser (unless, of course, there really is an afterlife . . . and even then it is only once). To repeat ourselves from our 2010 update:

Connor made it through another year which is no small feat if you are Connor. To repeat ourselves from our 2009 update:

“He maintains a surprising level of inner confidence when faced with novel scenarios despite the fact that all of the history he has experienced should make new things terrifying.”

Connor handles new situations like a deer handles headlights. In a sense, the whole world is a giant obstacle course cleverly designed to trip him up in the most insidious of ways.

While Connor benefits from repetition more than most he still finds himself at a disadvantage because so much of life is new every day.**** As a parent we prepare him as best we can (well . . . better than some other parents would, at least . . . no one here is at risk of winning any Parent of the Year award) but we still know that his fortunes are sometimes dependent on the goodwill / competence / quick reflexes of others. In other words, no matter how many times we tell him to look both ways sooner or later his well-being will come down to someone hitting their brakes. He truly is an accident waiting to happen. We are oddly OK with that.

Still, he maintains a sense of humor that almost makes him worth keeping around. Here’s an example: “Watch and learn guys. If you cough into the ice cream container you get to eat the whole thing.” Which is funny . . . until he coughs. And here is another Connor-ism, in response to Ellen asking him what he is doing wandering to bed after being directed to brush his teeth: “I’m sorry My Darling but my brain isn’t processing right now.” Which would be cuter if he was joking . . . and “now” didn’t mean “always”. Boarding school remains a possibility.

**** So much of what Connor experiences is new; so much of what Connor does can be filed under SSDD.

 

Kate remains Kate. At 8 she is (usually) the most mature and responsible person in the house. She can come across as competent, sweet or shy. Eric suspects it’s all an act. Ellen is sure she is really changing into someone who may someday not be a threat to society.***** Of course, Kate-isms from 2011 still sound a lot like Kate-isms from past years. Here are two:

 

“Why does it always have to be ‘happily ever after’? Why can’t someone die for once?” – At the end of a Disney movie.

“People getting hurt.” -When Connor asked her, while watching Youtube videos of kittens, what Kate would like to see.

 

There is really nothing new to say about Kate. She is so efficient that she was effectively an adult at two. If you see her in 2012 and something bad happens nearby, just remember that with Kate it is NEVER an accident. Also, if you get the chance, ask her about the meaning of Christmas.

 

***** If you have a person who demonstrates a high level intellect, an ability to manipulate others and a complete lack of empathy and then that person, suddenly, begins to act with kindness and concern toward others is it more likely they suddenly gained a conscience or that they are acting in a manner consistent with self-preservation while they slowly nurture plans for world domination? Eric and Ellen seem to disagree here.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate

Holiday Letter 2010

January, 2011

Friends-

Belated Holiday Greetings from Elmira, New York where a new winter tradition (to go along with the better-than-natural-green-spray-painted-wreath and doing our Holiday Letter in January) seems to have developed: the home ice skating rink. An ice rink is the kind of do-it-yourself project that really invites the question: “What could go wrong?” The list is long and marriages have ended for less. More on that later.

This past year was a quiet one. No extended vacations in exotic locations. No long-term house guests. Not much at all to look back on from the safety of December that seems worth sharing at the cost of whatever a stamp costs these days. Which is why this letter is late. And short. We promise to collectively live more story-worthy lives in 2011 (collecting stories is, after all, the best kind of collecting).

So, what did happen in 2010?

On the home improvement front, 2010 saw the reintroduction of dependably hot water to our house. We are pretty sure “reintroduction” is the proper word though no one here can actually remember a time when we were guaranteed a hot shower. While our very nice, but time-challenged, plumber was adding a zone for the new hot water system he also added zones for the garage and the third floor. An old holiday letter, perhaps from 2003 or 2004, may have mentioned that Eric was going to get heat in his third floor office. Almost there. Also, when we wrote last, we mentioned that The Roof Project was still active, but was getting close to completion. We are happy to report that the roof is now complete. If you don’t count the gutters. Which we will not. So we can count the roof as complete.

With that elephant off the tracks the Home Improvement Express should be running again at its (modest) top speed. Look for a long list of attempted projects next year. Eric has already begun writing the December, 2011 Holiday Letter . . . “In 2011 we doubled the number of bathrooms in the house from three to six. Well . . . this does depend a little bit on what you mean by “bathroom” . . . and “house”. We added a full bath to what was formerly the garage and is now a workshop. We’ll count this one, even though you have to walk outside (if you are in the house, you don’t have to leave the garage) to use it. The reasoning behind a garage bathroom is not clear to everyone, but it should be obvious by 2016. We also converted a closet on the second floor to a bathroom. This one takes a bit of “tricky accounting” as the conversion simply involved emptying stuff from the room. It was a bathroom when we bought the house, but it was never used as one and was quickly filled with . . . crap. Yes, we had been using a bathroom as a closet since 1999. We also use the back stairway as a closet, the pantry as a closet and a 7-by-10 room on the second floor that doesn’t seem to have any better reason for being there as a closet. But, we digress. Finally, the three to six change, also assumes you are willing to count the utility sink near Eric’s basement office as a bathroom. Eric does.”

We still have two children, but on the bright side they are getting closer and closer to “boarding school age”.

There is a saying about the apple not falling far from the tree, but that does not seem to apply to Connor. In fact, the list of similarities between Connor and his parents is short enough to pass along in entirety:

 

1. Connor and Ellen both have a fondness for chocolate.

2. Connor and Eric both have a Y chromosome.

Connor made it through another year which is no small feat if you are Connor. To repeat ourselves from our 2009 update: He maintains a surprising level of inner confidence when faced with novel scenarios despite the fact that all of the history he has experienced should make new things terrifying.” Connor handles new situations like a deer handles headlights. In a sense, the whole world is a giant obstacle course cleverly designed to trip him up in the most insidious of ways. Fortunately, he has Ellen to properly motivate him when dealing which such hurdles as table manners and proper attire when showing up for breakfast. Underwear, at least, is mandatory and, as Connor now knows, when told to put some on the correct response is not: “Why doesn’t my penis amuse you?”. His sense of humor is good. His sense of when to display his sense of humor needs some work.

While novel situations can be tricky for Connor very few people benefit as much from repetition. What he lacks in decisiveness he more than makes up for with perseverance. And, of course, he becomes the most lovable person ever when he is sick.

And then there is Kate.

Kate seemed very normal this year which is no small feat if you are Kate. When you match Kate’s complete lack of empathy with her rare mixture of initiative and decisiveness you have what some might call an accident waiting to happen. Of course, those people don’t know Kate like we know Kate. With Kate, it’s never an accident.

As usual, it’s perhaps best to use Kate’s own words to paint the picture:

After the earthquake in Haiti, Kate offered her opinion on rebuilding after being apprised of the extent of the damages and the significant loss of life: “It should be easier to fix all of their problems now that they have fewer people.”

When someone commented during a card game how nicely Kate was playing: “I’d be ruthless if I had the proper cards.”

One day last year, out of the blue. Kate: “God doesn’t exist, does he?” Eric: “Why do you say that?” Kate: “There’s no evidence.”

While Ellen was trying to brush her hair before school: “Don’t fix that. That hair represents me. I’m a wild lady.”

The Reader’s Digest version of the rest of 2010:

January: Ellen decided we needed an ice rink. Ellen had fun skating. Connor had fun skating. Kate had fun skating. Eric hurt his knee. And his elbow. February: Kate admitted she had a “terribly stupid habit” of touching everything with both hands. Connor attended a funeral with Nerf guns, a pocketful of candy and a Soduko book. One of his parents advised him that any time you go to church you must bring your own entertainment. March: Eric considered giving-up his New Year’s resolutions for Lent. Connor turned 9. Kate turned 7. At Kate’s party, during a game in which one player draws something and the other guesses, Kate was shown a triangle that was then bisected. Her guess? “Line of symmetry”? April: Ellen instigated a trip to Washington DC and Hershey’s Chocolate World. We spent three days in Washington counting down the time to Chocolate World. May: Little League baseball took up the entire month. June: Ellen, Connor and Kate went to Atlanta for some reason. Kate retired from first grade. Connor finished third grade. July: Eric went to Massachusetts. Connor and Kate spent a week of days at vacation Bible school. Eric spent a week of nights deprogramming his children. The family got a kitten. Eric discovered how far from kitten-proof his office was. August: Eric renewed Ellen’s contract as ‘wife’ for another year. September: Eric was a nominal participant in a triathlon. October: Ellen went to Las Vegas for several days leaving Eric in charge of the children; this pretty much ended Ellen’s chances of winning “Mother of the Year”. November: Ellen was very happy and made cookies. December: Eric raised his estimate of his own parenting skills from Average-Minus to Average-Plus.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate

Holiday Letter 2009

December 2009

Friends-

Holiday Greetings from Elmira, New York where Eric once opened a fortune cookie that read “You are smarter than you think you are.”. Inconceivable, and yet, he was still not smart enough to replace the roof himself; or, better yet, have bought a condo. In Florida. There is a poster that some of you may have seen with a picture of a sinking ship and the caption: It Could Be that the Purpose of Your Life Is Only to Serve as a Warning to Others. This truly was a year of lessons learned.

The early draft of this letter touted the successful completion of the roof project, but this version demonstrates how much extra effort we are willing to go through to bring you the sugar-coated truth and nothing but. Our roofers have progressed about as slowly as possible without coming to a stop and, in so doing, have managed to stretch a six week job into fifteen months. While we are generally pleased with the work we are less pleased with other aspects of this adventure. Like the time-line. Even if you are concerned about quality paying by the hour may be sub-optimal. Since dragging out this story any longer would be painful, at least to us, and the roof fiasco pretty much put the rest of our home improvement plans on hold this year we have nothing left to say about the ongoing pains of home ownership except that the downstairs bathroom still doesn’t have a door.

During this past year Eric and Ellen have become reasonably adept at the 2009 phenomenon known as Facebook. Facile enough that much of what appears here is old news to some of you. For those that are unfamiliar with Facebook, it is a website that lets you share information. The quantity, and quality, of what you share is completely up to you. Let us say that we are amazed at what good sharers some of our friends are. Ellen checks in on her Facebook community every now and then to play catch-up . . . her favorite game. Eric checks in every day or three and sometimes shares what is on his mind. For example, those of you who checked in on or around March 15 saw John Eric Hanson is wondering how hard it would be to give up monogamy for Lent and those that stopped by on June 5 may have read John Eric Hanson is researching boarding schools for his children and counting down the days until he can send them there. Roughly 2269 to go. So, it came as a surprise to only a few that Ellen eventually asked Eric to stop bothering her relatives and remove them all from his little Facebook community.

We had noble objectives and big plans when Connor was on the assembly line. It became apparent early on that not all children are born knowing how to read and that home school, at least initially, would involve more than picking out a reading list. We decided that was a commitment we were not up to and that leaving our children in the care of the Elmira City School District for seven hours each weekday was not the worst choice we could make. Parenting, like home ownership, gets much easier when you decide to live with what you have instead of always trying to change something into what you think you would like it to be. (Oddly, marriage works the same way.) We actually figured this out a while ago, but the issue comes up every now and then, like when our kindergartner asks: “Why do they call them teachers? They don’t teach anything; they just tell you things you already know.”. Inertia, however, has now taken hold and our children seem destined to become at least the partial product of the local public school system. And, since we are going to live with what we have, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have so much variety packed into just two children.

Kate remains Kate, but has become a much more pleasant creature to be around . . . most of the time. Her primary playmates are sixth grade girls who hug and giggle a lot and whose mannerisms she has picked-up. These are strangely incongruous with her innate personality traits which lie somewhere between those of Steven Wright and Spock. Kate is the inquisitive sort, asking questions whenever she doesn’t know something, but as she learns more and more the questions become less frequent. Of course, if you want to interact with Kate you can ask her questions. She usually has an answer. Unfortunately, it is often an answer that makes you regret asking the question. For example, early this year Eric witnessed this exchange between Connor and Kate:

Connor : Kate, what’s the opposite of ‘smart’?
Kate: Not smart.
Connor : No, that’s not what I was thinking. Try again.
Kate: OK, then ‘disagreeable’.

The joke being: disagreeable = Connor = opposite of smart. Eric was there and he laughed, but not everyone will appreciate Kate’s sense of humor . . . and it’s not always that subtle. Kate’s sense of humor would be lower on our problems, but when you combine it with her complete disregard for the well-being of others. Imagine this exchange:

Kate (in her ominous monotone): Dad. Connor needs you.
Eric: Is it an emergency?
Kate: It is for Connor. Not for me.

Connor survived that one, but the local feeling is that he has been living on borrowed time for a while now. In 2005 our holiday letter included this passage: Connor, however, is consistently exhibiting one piece of behavior that indicates he may not be as bright as we once thought . . . he continues to tease his sister. Everyone else seems to recognize this as a bad idea for reasons other than it violating the inviolate rule “Don’t tease your sister”. The tables are going to turn here. Soon. And while Connor is a kind, gentle, considerate, polite, affectionate and caring person; Kate is not. The final version of our 2007 letter did not include the following story (Ellen actually edited it, and several other anecdotes, out of the letter because she thought they painted a scarier picture of Kate than some people, specifically neighbors with children, would be comfortable with) : Last summer, Kate and Connor are out of sight of Ellen and Eric, but we can hear Kate. “I’m tearing off the arms.” “I’m tearing off the head”. Ellen is curious. “Kate, what are you doing?” “I’m just looking at a pile of body parts mother.” Eric is amused. Ellen, not so much. “Whose body parts Kate?” “Jacob’s. He was mean to his little sister.” Subtle. Of course, Connor didn’t get the hint about treating little sisters well so he slept fine that night.

Someday we will hear the phrase “collateral damage” . . . only the context will be a surprise.

Kate has taken an interest in these letters, meaning next year you can expect to read about how wonderful she is. Perhaps we will focus on how smart she is (simple genetics, really, as she comes from a line of big-brained people – her uncle Brian has a hat size of 8 ¼) or her science experiments with small, furry creatures. Or, perhaps, her level of self confidence. Kate’s certainty in her conclusions, at least in comparison to Connor’s (who approaches every decision point as a multiple choice event with unlimited do-overs) is surprisingly strong; and as Kate moves confidently through life with an eerie certainty of her course (she has joined Eric’s father, who can’t stay on topic long enough for it to matter, as the only people that argue objective matters with Eric) our other child ricochets through each day like a roof project gone horribly awry.

Each year we mention that our house goes as Kate goes, but that is no longer true. Our house now goes as Connor goes. 2009 Connor was close enough to 2008 Connor that we can simply quote from last year’s letter: . . . Connor has shed his quiet and lovable demeanor at home and has spent the year unwittingly promoting Eric’s boarding school agenda. He, apparently, has decided to spend his time with his family auditioning either for the nickname “Spaz” or an ADD diagnosis.

The funniest home moment of the year came when Connor, after dripping gravy all over his shirt at dinner, uttered those far too appropriate words: “I’m a mess.”. With Connor nothing is obvious so in his mind we were laughing with him. He maintains a surprising level of inner confidence when faced with novel scenarios despite the fact the all of the history he has experienced should make new things terrifying. New things like a bike with a crossbar. Fortunately, the combination of obliviousness, confidence and enthusiasm leads to repetition and hundreds (and hundreds) of hours of repetition has worked in Connor’s favor in some areas of Connor’s life. And, by “some”, we mean “baseball”. It’s a start, and the skill set transfers well to kickball.

Connor is almost legend in our neighborhood for his inability to be sneaky. Even if you miss the trail of evidence (the spoon left in the freezer next to the ice cream container, the unwrapped, powdered jelly doughnut under the pillow) simply asking will usually do the trick. He doesn’t exactly have a poker face. His inability to either stop doing things that will get him in trouble or stop getting caught doing things that will get him in trouble would be worrying to us as parents if it wasn’t so often funny.

One new thing Connor did get to enjoy this year was the internet. You can find anything you want on the internet, especially if you what you want are pictures of naked people. Or movies of naked people. All you need to do is go to www.google.com and type in “nudies” as Connor explained while being grilled about the movie featuring naked people playing on his computer when Ellen walked in one day. Connor would not have been caught had he been a little more devious. Another child would have closed the door to his room and, perhaps, even turned down the volume on his computer. He might have even checked if his mother was just outside the door and waited a few seconds for her to wander away. Not our Connor; he was neither sneaky enough to get the full three minute show nor, apparently, experienced enough to appreciate exactly what he did get to see as this short excerpt will attest:

Ellen: What did you see?
Connor: Two people. I think they were married.

Santa Claus may live another year in our house.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate

Holiday Letter 2008

December 2008

Friends-

Holiday Greetings from Elmira, New York where adventures in home improvement continue to plumb new depths of absurdity. Before continuing on with what made our life interesting in 2008, like hiring an acrophobic to replace our roof, we would like to express our sincere hope that your year was at least as interesting as ours. As the saying goes, we appreciate the company. Of interest to some, our better-than-natural-green-spray-painted-genuine-pine wreath was retired after nine years of service, but we are hoping to get at least as much use from the new one.

Home improvement remains a focus here, and at the top of our to-do list entering the year was replacing our roof. The roof was also at the top of our list in 2001 and 2007 and it will be again as we head into 2009. You already know the short version (unless you skipped the first paragraph or were confused how someone’s fear of spiders might cause problems on a roof) so here’s the explanation for our hiring decision meant solely to alleviate any budding concerns you may have that someone here in a decision-making capacity suffered a head injury. Shortly after we moved to this house we determined the roof was not adequately accomplishing its primary task. This was not especially surprising considering Murphy’s Law and the age of the roof.

We called around, asked some questions, got some quotes and settled on a large roofing company which sent some very nice and knowledgeable people to our house to discuss the work with us. An important lesson came out of this: those competent people that discussed the project with us in our dining room were not the people on our roof. Repairing a slate roof is not rocket science, but it requires a bit of patience and an attention to detail. In short, it involves making a lot of easy decisions; most of which involve either conscientious attention to detail or a kindergartner’s grasp of the concept of gravity. Further, at least one person on the job site should have the ability to add AND subtract. While we didn’t get to chat much with the roofers while they were working on our roof in 2001, Eric did get a chance to speak with one at length (well, fifteen minutes, but that was plenty) shortly after. Eric was out one day just after work, when he spots a hitchhiker carrying a case of beer and gives him a ride. Turns out the guy works for our contractor and is living in a motel eight miles down the road (we mention the distance to underscore this man’s commitment to his case of beer), had made a poor choice or two in his life (understatement is the theme of this year’s letter) and is, apparently, willing to climb on a roof drunk. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that our roof needs work again.

After some thought, and lots of advice to the contrary, we decided to replace the entire roof. Replacing a slate roof is not brain surgery, but it is a big job and requires at least one person on site that can come up with a satisfactory solution to all the issues that will arise. And so, when we made the decision to get the roof replaced it was important for us to know who would be up on the roof. Finding a new contractor was a slow process that looked like it would drag into 2009, we were being careful after all, when someone was recommended to us to solve the roof situation once-and-for-all. Based on this recommendation of someone whose recommendations we used to value and a brief interview we hired our lead contractor. And so it is rather ironic that the person we hired, specifically because we wanted to know who would be on our roof, seems to have a fear of elevations in excess of eleven feet. Somehow, we forget to ask someone applying to do work on our roof if they were afraid of heights. It seems likely that there will be more to this story in 2009’s update.

In news from other parts of the house the downstairs bathroom and back hallway are almost (forgive us for stretching the definition of that word) done mostly thanks to someone who’s work, if not his recommendations, we still value. Of course, we still don’t have a door on the down stairs bathroom; but, on the other hand, it’s no longer clear to us why anyone would even want a door on a bathroom.

We still have two children. In another ninety seconds you may wonder why.

It has been brought to our attention that Connor remains an attentive and polite student at school. This strikes us as rather unfair, as Connor has shed his quiet and lovable demeanor at home and has spent the year unwittingly promoting Eric’s boarding school agenda. He, apparently, has decided to spend his time with his family auditioning either for the nickname “Spaz” or an ADD diagnosis. He is a second grader now and as a man of the world he is bound to learn a new word or two every day. Sometimes, if he is especially proud of a word, he likes to share that word. As often as possible; this can be a lot during, for example, dinner. Connor’s word for November was “vagina”, which Eric heard more times in twenty minutes one evening than in his entire life up to that point.

Despite an inability to focus on a specific task for more than ten seconds with anyone else in the room, Connor remains a motivated worker. He shows a willingness to do homework that must have come from Ellen’s genetic material. Connor took the year off from football and basketball, seemingly settling on baseball as the sport that will do him the least physical and emotional damage. Connor is a big fan of sports (gym is his favorite class at school) and in the alternate reality in which he lives he is quite good at them. While watching Olympic gymnastics on TV this past summer Connor said “I wonder if I can do that” and then made a tumbling approach run through the middle of the living room that ended badly. Connor apparently inherited not only his work ethic, but his athletic prowess, from his mother. And, like Ellen, he is also very good at sharing, especially personal space. On the brighter side, Connor spends less than half his waking moments teasing Kate. It’s a proclivity that we have warned him about since he was three and one that we think he is on the cusp of breaking.

Our house still goes as Kate goes and 2008 went pretty smoothly. Part of the reason may be that Connor was in trouble so often. That seems to be one of the few things that brings out the best in Kate. Given a choice between Connor being in trouble and Kate being in trouble, three out of four people in the house would prefer to see Connor in trouble as that can be dealt with confidently. Conflict resolution with Kate has always involved a measure of . . . uncertainty. While Connor was trying desperately for an ADD diagnosis, Kate blundered into an EDD diagnosis. Empathy Deficit Disorder. Eric immediately diagnosed Kate upon reading about the condition. He didn’t even need to know the symptoms. Kate seems to have an especially severe case of EDD where the discomfort of others actually cheers her up.

Kate is in kindergarten this year and rides the bus to school with Connor. She seems well-adjusted and says she likes her teacher (we never really know what Kate is thinking, so we just take her word for it). Kate exhibited extended periods of “normalcy” in 2008 which we have taken as a sign of her consciously trying to fool the rest of us into a false sense of security. At school this year Kate was asked what she wanted to be when she grew-up. Kate wrote “I wont two be president” which was a bit of a surprise to us as we had already penciled her in as a coroner. Perhaps that’s just a parent’s optimism, but it seemed obvious that corpses were in her future and coroner seemed the path to them with the fewest complications. This all seemed so obvious until Eric recently came across the following passage: “ . . . there seems to be curious evidence of a link between leadership and a form of psychopathology (the sociopath) that encourages the non-blinking, self-confident, insensitive person to rally followers.”

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate

Holiday Letter 2007

December 2007

Friends-

Holiday Greetings from Elmira, New York where the firemen still wear their clothes to work every day. We have grown a year older since we last wrote and hopefully everyone this is being sent to has done the same. Otherwise we have wasted a stamp. It was a year of change here but even as some things change others stay the same. For example, our better-than-natural-green-spray-painted-genuine-pine wreath has entered its ninth year of service on our front door.

We experienced progress this year. Well, maybe not progress, but we did experience change. Change is like progress if you’re billing by the hour. It’s the kind of progress you get when by cleaning a room you start by dumping the contents of every drawer on the floor or when you start the renovation of your house by taking off a bathroom door. And since we don’t see much progress here, we will happily take credit for anything close. What progress that does occur here comes in two flavors, Eric Progress (otherwise called ‘one-step-forward-sit-down-and–rest’ progress) and Ellen Progress (often referred to as ‘one-step-forward-one-step-sideways-spin-in-a-random-direction-and-go-go-go’ progress). Our sub-optimal approaches did, however, net some quantifiable gains. We completed the shed-to-playhouse conversion that, for a bit, looked as though it would eventually land on Connor’s to-do list. It wasn’t easy and required the drastic measure of Eric putting the rest of the family on a plane to Alaska, getting some outside help and then waiting on Ellen to get back to help finish things up. On the downside, power tools for Connor no longer seem the ideal holiday gift. On the upside the whole family enjoyed the Alaska trip. Especially Connor, who caught a shark while fishing in the Pacific, but we digress. The downstairs bathroom/laundry room/pantry renovation started in 2005 is moving along as a pace that should see it completed in 2009. Or 2010. We did get the door back on the bathroom. And then we took it off again.

The leaf battle took a nasty turn this year. Apparently Mother Nature was smarting from the lopsided defeat we handed her last year and dug down deep into her bag of tricks. The leaves, normally off the trees by late October, hung on the trees until early December and coordinated their descent with that of the first significant snowfall of the season. They peek insolently through the snow at us even now. We had been fans of global warming here but now with its apparent affects on when leaves fall we will have to reconsider our opinion.

Our house goes as Kate goes and 2007 could have been worse. Kate has evolved from ‘demonic’ to ‘odd’ in a way you simply have to experience. Since you probably weren’t paying close attention over the past year try and imagine an outgoing, well-adjusted and charming four year old girl . . . that will be our jumping off point. Now take away her conscience and throw in an unsettling level of comfort with dead things. You are getting warm. How comfortable is Kate with dead things? One day walking in from the car Ellen, Connor and Kate passed the remains of a small, furry creature that apparently made the acquaintance of one of our cats. Upon entering, Kate quietly took off her shoes, put on her boots and went back outside. Kate came back inside, “Mommy, can you tell me what this black stuff is?” That Ellen already knew that the “black stuff” was what was formerly inside the ex-rodent probably tells you all you need to know. We have a hundred other Kate anecdotes but space limitations here mean you’ll have to visit http://holidayletters.blogspot.com/ to see them.

As Kate goes through phases (or, perhaps, roles) Connor simply becomes a bigger Connor He remains sweet and naïve while also getting much, much louder. There are little changes. he didn’t spend this flag football season skipping around the field with a Winnie-the-Pooh-like smile on his face the whole game, but if you knew Connor last year, or the year before, or the year before you’d recognize him now. He remains polite to a fault as you can literally sidetrack an outburst by throwing compliments at him as he will meet every interrupting platitude with a “Thank you”. Connor presents the sort of dogged determination that is not side-tracked by lateral thinking nor found in his paternal ancestry. Not only is he as purposeful as Ellen, he’s also every bit as sweet and gullible as his mother was when she met Eric. When a neighbor sold his house this year and Connor was informed that a girl he knows from school will soon be moving into the house where Dr. Zama lives now, Connor’s response was “Dr. Zama will certainly be surprised.” When Connor recently did something very out of character and Eric asked the rhetorical: “Who are you?”. Connor, a little surprised but completely serious, replied: “It’s me, Buck. That was an easy question. You should know that one Daddy.”

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate

Holiday Letter 2006

December 2006

Friends-

Holiday Greetings from Elmira, New York where even the cats sleep lightly since our three-year-old, at her birthday party, hugged her mother and uttered these unforgettable words: “I squeeze your neck mama. Like the lion squeezes the zebra’s neck.” And now you know why we don’t keep firearms in the house. Also, for those of you who were worried that we had modernized, fear not; our better-than-natural-green-spray-painted-genuine-pine wreath has entered its eighth year of service on our front door.

The past year has seen progress on many fronts. For example, the average daily population of our house dropped to 4.2 from 4.8 in each the two preceding years. Yes, over the preceding two years we were the mythical average family with 2.5 children (if you conveniently ignore that one of those children turned 28 this past year and that average family is collectively dysfunctional while our family is individually. . . different). None of that changes the math that the average population of this house won’t reach the ideal population of 2 for another fifteen years or until Ellen buys into the idea of boarding school for Kate (which becomes an easier sell almost daily).

Another quantifiable advance has been made here in the annual battle between The Hanson Family and The Hanson Family’s Trees. In the not-too-distant past this was a brutal battle easily extracting eighty hours of toil from Eric in weather conditions a computer programmer rarely encounters (we won’t mention Ellen’s involvement in this as she has no complaints about outdoor work in inclimate weather). However, we are not the first family to face these hardships and we quickly decided to learn from the work of others. It became clear, almost immediately, upon researching the history of man versus tree conflict that the technological advantage that man possesses cannot be over-estimated. Once we came to understand this, the tide of the once epic struggle slowly, undeniably and inexorably moved in favor of the side possessing chainsaw technology. Each year a new technological advantage has been added to our arsenal and 2006 was no different with the addition of a zero-turn-triple-bagger-fifty-inch-deck-turbo-vacuum-equipped-leaf-annihilator. What was once an 80 hour undertaking that included the risk of blisters and cold fingers has now become a 20 hour commune with nature. With the leaves vanquished our little empire will now turn its attention to crushing the stubborn resistance of the gnats in 2007.

Finally, we did cross one entry off of our to-do list. The sand and gravel piles in the driveway that we previously mentioned in our 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002 letters are now gone. Don’t ask where. Eric hated to see them go as this only reinforces Ellen’s behavior of asking Eric to finish things. In a review of other old news: Eric’s 10 day office remodeling project which was in month 6 in December 2000 is now in year 6. The rec room in basement project, at the top of the to-do list in 2001’s letter has not yet been started. Nothing remains from our 2003 letter simply because we accomplished nothing in 2002 and so 2003’s letter had no new failures to offer . . . just old failures re-failed. The shed to playhouse conversion started in 2004 is going slowly enough that the kids may be able to finish it themselves at some point.

We still have two children (after last year’s letter we feared it may be too obvious if down-sized right away) and just love to share the pain interesting moments they cause us with others.

Connor had a good year. He learned a lot. Early in the year, while taking down last year’s holiday decorations, Ellen explained to him the reason for Christmas: to celebrate Baby Jesus’ birthday. She should have seen the next question coming from an inquiring mind that hasn’t been told it’s not polite to ask how old someone is: “How old is Baby Jesus?” Uh-oh, we all know what a quick thinker Ellen is. “Um, he lives up in heaven.” Yeah, mom. In the concerned and excited tone that only one of our two children ever speaks in: “Baby Jesus passed away?!” Poor Baby Jesus. Shortly after that he learned where ham came from. “Poor piggies.” In March he turned five. He wanted a sign on the door for the party: “You can’t come in unless you are naked”. Subtle. Clothing optional birthday parties may someday be part of Connor’s life . . . but not this year. In June we went down to the Outer Banks with too many other people (Eric was tricked into the trip again). Everyone had just come back from the beach and it’s dinner time. Five children are eating at the picnic table, one child is eating under the picnic table as if all the world is right. Afterwards, Ellen: “Connor, why were you eating under the picnic table?” Connor: “Laurel wasn’t wearing any underwear. I had a good view.” Very subtle. (Note to self: send a different version to Laurel’s mom.) Hopefully Connor will figure-out that honesty is not always the best policy at some point. He learned about fishing one day at Ellen’s mother’s. Ed comes into the cabin with a string of fish. Connor: “Those fish don’t look well. Are they passed-away?” Well, yes, Connor. They have seen better days. “I didn’t want to hurt the fish. I wanted to keep one in a bowl as a pet.” Poor fishies. Kate (in the deadpan, matter-of-fact way that only one of our two children ever speaks in): “I want fish soup.” Connor had his first season of (flag) football. Another learning experience (“They are blocking kind of hard.”). He learned about gardening. Ellen has a method for killing slugs that trouble her flowers. Poor sluggies. Connor’s thinking on the matter: “We have enough flowers to share”. Actually, that’s the short version . . . the long version involved Ellen getting a long lecture on the ethical treatment of animals. And, finally, Connor embarked on the ultimate learning experience: kindergarten. Kindergarten isn’t easy. First, there’s the getting out of bed at 7 a.m. (“I love this bed and this bed loves me.”) and waking-up after that (“Even the trees look sleepy.”). He’s learned how to tie his shoes and, with a little help, make it out the door to the bus stop on time. We assume he also learns things at school. Very soon we expect he’ll learn about Santa Claus there.

Our house goes as Kate goes and 2006 was better than expected. Kate turned three in March and entered what we like to call her “Happy Period” about that time as well. That seems to be over now and even during the Happy Period Kate could not be mistaken for a normal child. While she can be as sweet as Connor in short bursts her “default disposition” would not-exactly be characterized as that of a “people person”. For example: “Why are you squeezing my body mother?” “It’s called a hug, Kate.” Her social skills already rival Eric’s and that had Eric eagerly anticipating Kate’s entrance to Happy House pre-school this year. Eric had visions of teachers spoiled by three years of Connor ending-up in therapy after two months of Kate. So far her schooling has been amazingly uneventful and perhaps it’s the case that she only wants to torture those closest to her. More likely, though, she’s just biding her time. I’m sure no other three year can make the phrase “I’m just waiting for the right opportunity” sound as ominous as Kate can. While raising Kate provides a unique set of challenges there are some (minor) advantages. For example, no movie-induced nightmares. When asked if she likes movies, Kate replied “Yes, especially very scary ones.” Oh, why do you like scary movies Kate? “They just make me feel good inside.” She remains a big fan of “The Wizard of Oz” though for a while she was very unhappy with Dorothy (for bumping-off the Wicked Witch of the East . . . she thinks the movie would have been much better with two naughty witches) leading to the “Don’t Blame Dorothy” campaign here. The whole house-thing was an accident after all. Sometimes Kate, an avid dancer and optimistic vocalist, will put on her own shows. She will dress-up as a princess-ballerina and demand the attention of all. Just this week she gave a show, beginning with the opening announcement: “Ladies and gentleman, prepare to meet your doom.” We mention this hoping that someone can reassure us that she heard the phrase elsewhere. Kate seems to have developed a strange appreciation of dead things, whether it’s a dead fish, a dead butterfly (she keeps a collection of dead bugs on her dresser) or parts of dead things the cats leave about. Could an exorcism cause that? When given a piece of putty at Ellen’s office Kate described her sculpture to one of Ellen’s co-workers who was probably trying to humor the sweet little girl by asking her what she was making. Kate’s answer: “It’s a frog. A dead frog.” When asking Eric to hold one of her dolls, “You can have this one daddy. It’s not a doll. It’s a real baby that passed-away.” Eric didn’t ask how she passed-away, but if it was the same doll Ellen reported Kate punching in the kitchen he has a pretty good idea. Ellen tried to intervene on the doll’s behalf but Kate had a firm theoretical grip on the situation: “It’s just a doll, mommy.” Odd that she realizes that then wants to nurture one lovingly for 30 minutes before putting it in the oven. Corporal punishment has its place (Kate disciplines her dolls), but capital punishment, apparently, also has its place. This is probably a sign of something. So, while 2006 was better than 2005, leading indicators are mixed. Eric and Ellen, however, remain cautiously optimistic.

If you read this far you deserve a cookie. Or a beer. You can have either, heck, you can have both. 2007 Gathering will be Saturday, October 6th. Mark your calendars. You are invited.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and an interesting year,

Eric, Ellen, Connor and Kate