A Belated Mother’s Day Reflection

I think it was seventh grade when I told my mom that I wasn’t very fond of classical music because I felt like it was too repetitious and predictable. This was the same year that I spent hours in the car on the way to or from school repeatedly listening to Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey”.

The fact that I lived to eighth grade is ample evidence of my mom’s character and restraint.

Christmas Letter 2013

(This is the non-illustrated semantic HTML edition. Also available: the fancy photos-included PDF edition.)

Dear family and friends,

It has been quite a year for our family. We’ve enjoyed some great times together  with family and friends, a few promotions, a terrific (though slightly bittersweet) family vacation, a visit with alligators, an eviction from our house, a repatriation, and a new addition to the family. Read on for all of the details!

Kathy began the year working at Horizon Bay, an elder care facility around the corner from our house, as a caretaker. While she has a fantastic affection and gift for interacting with older folks, this was not a completely ideal appointment: it demanded a fair number of overnight shifts and other times that were inconvenient for her and the family, and it didn’t make much use of Kathy’s Therapeutic Recreation degree. After proving her worth and presenting her case to her boss, he appointed her Program Director for Clare Bridge, the Alzheimer’s community at Horizon Bay — a role that hadn’t existed before. She has received a number of accolades in her new position and, more importantly, loves it.

Emily continued her schooling, taking a few more art classes at ACC where she turned in some excellent work and continued to expand her artistic skills. In the middle of summer, she completed a long-planned move to Baltimore, which has the dual attractions of an art school that she’s interested in and portions of her family that she wanted to spend more time with. Her first few weeks there were a trifle rough: her car was broken into the first day she was there and the rougher sections of the city had her feeling a bit ill at ease. After selling the car and moving to a better section of town, she began to feel much more comfortable with the city, and is now enjoying it a great deal. She’s taking classes there and has been working a job at The Pratt Street Ale House for several months now, and has enjoyed the opportunities to visit with family and friends up in that part of the country.

Abigail is now in her Senior year at the high school. She’s taken up swim team this year, and has done quite well. She is turning in solid times on her events and enjoying her team and teammates a good deal. She has also been learning ukulele (it’s easier on her fingers that guitar was) and continuing to do some singing. One of her favorite classes at school has been a Special Education PE class, where she helps the kids there to stay fit and engage with others. Her plans for next year are still a bit murky, but we’re talking about and weighing the advantages and expenses of work, travel, college, etc.

Liam is halfway through his Freshman year. He has found the transition to High School easier than he expected, though the demands of marching band came as something of a surprise to him. In the month before school started, the band would arrive at 7:30, march until noon, and then practice inside until 5:00. During the first week of that, he would come home, eat a bit, sit in a chair in the living room answering questions in monosyllables, and stumble off to bed around 8:00. His playing is excellent, and he earned second chair among all the French Horn players at his school, beaten out only by one senior. He’s pulled straight A’s so far, and has also been learning some programming in his spare time, writing a few iPhone apps with a little coaching from Dad.

Maggie is now in 7th grade. She continues be a great favorite of her teachers thanks to her sweet nature, generosity, and willingness to work hard. She loves animals, and was delighted at the opportunity to have a lengthy horse riding lesson over the summer thanks to some friends of ours. (It was accompanied by a shooting lesson as well, at which she did startlingly well.) She also continues to enjoy art a great deal, and created several lovely pieces for family members at Christmas. Stories are also a favorite of hers. She’s enjoyed reading and rereading Maximum Ride and Harry Potter this year, in addition to reading through Jurassic Park, Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and All Creatures Great and Small with her Dad.

Sean is finishing up his second year at Mutual Mobile, where he has been writing iPhone and iPad apps. He recently moved to an Associate Director role, which means less day-to-day programming and more strategic work and caring for people there. He’s also playing music with O’Malarkey, a local Irish band, whenever he can squeeze in the time, and has been enjoying cooking for family and friends more this year. The building of a 25′ tall trebuchet, some delightful long hikes, and a train trip to Chicago with Liam and Sean’s brother rounded the year out nicely.

Over the summer, knowing that Emily was planning her move to Baltimore, we pulled together a last big family trip: a week in New Orleans, where we had spent a day as a family a few years back and all really enjoyed. The vacation was terrific. We stayed on the edge of the Vieux Carré, and enjoyed rides around town on the streetcars, trips to the botanical gardens, aquarium and insectarium, and one of the most memorable meals we have ever enjoyed. (At Jacques Imo’s — “Warm Beer, Lousy Service” and highly recommended.) A particular highlight of the trip was a boat tour through Honey Island swamp, where we met a family of friendly warthogs and saw a number of alligators up close.

Alas, when we returned to San Marcos, it was to a home with a broken toilet supply line which had flooded a good portion of the house. Some of our good friends were checking on the homestead while we were gone and discovered the problem before it got even farther along, but it still ended up causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. We moved to a three bedroom apartment for “no more than 45 days.” That ballooned to three months before we finally got home. Fortunately, USAA (our insurance company) was very helpful, one of our church friends was gracious enough to build us a beautiful new built-in bookcase, Kathy was able to replace the abhorrent pink tile that has lurked in our bathroom since we moved in, and the house now looks better than when the whole ordeal began.

During our exile, Maggie got stuck sleeping on the couch for much of time time which, understandably, became tiresome for her partway through our stay. As a thank-you for her forbearance, we (perhaps rashly) promised her a kitten upon our return home. Hewing to the family tradition of absurdly named animals (“Fluffy” the hermit crab, “Llama” the gerbil, “Hasenpfeffer” the rabbit), she christened her new black kitten “Mayonnaise”. He’s quickly made himself at home, and has even won over Liam, the most pet-skeptical among us.

 

As we review our year, it is apparent how blessed we are to have such terrific family, such wonderful friends — what a different year it would have been without those of us who give us regular support, and those we know are further off in the wings, ready to offer friendship when it’s needed. Thanks for being a part of our lives, and for allowing us to be part of yours.

May all the joys of this blessed season be yours in full measure. Merry Christmas!

The Clan McMains

(San Marcos Chapter)

 

1945: Our New Card Game

As some of you already know, Liam and I are designing a card game. It’s called “1945”, and is an easy to learn, fun to play, strategic game in which each player captures territories using a combination of armed forces, subterfuge, and special abilities.

We’ve been working on it since last summer, and have been getting enthusiastic responses and excellent suggestions for improvements from the folks who have graciously tried out our rough prototypes. We’ve recently enlisted Emily to do the artwork for the game, and after having received our first set of cards from the printer (with only 10% of the final art), are pretty excited about how it’s all starting to come together.

I don’t want to spam my personal contacts whenever we reach a milestone, but if you’d like to keep up on our progress, help test it, or have any ideas for the best ways to produce and promote such a thing, we’d love to hear from you. You can keep up on our progress through:

Big thanks to everyone who has played and supported us this far. We hope to release the game by Autumn.

Kids’ Day Out: 2011(ish) Edition

Each Summer, while the kids are out of school, I arrange a full day out with each of them. Sometimes that means taking a day off of work; on other occasions we squeeze it in on a Saturday. Regardless of when it is, it’s one of the things I look forward to a ton each year (and seems to be a highlight for the young people too).

This year, the first adventure was with Liam. Thanks to Kevin Huffaker, a friend of mine from the university who is not only an amazing polymath but also a tremendously generous guy, we were able to start our day with a SCUBA primer. Neither Liam nor I had ever been before. We both love being in the water, and found the experience utterly delightful. While the river was running low and water conditions turned cloudy pretty quickly as people upstream swam around, we had a great time learning how to control our buoyancy and seeing a bit of the river from a new vantage point.

From there, we treated Kevin to lunch at Valentino’s, Liam’s favorite pizza place in San Marcos, and then caught the then-current Harry Potter movie. A trip to the Blazer Tag center up in Austin was next, where he and I emerged 1st and 2nd in our game with 30 other people. (All those video games do pay off!) The center in Austin is one of the best arenas I’ve been to, and was a ton of fun. We finished off the day with a visit to the Nazi Pirate at Peter Pan mini golf, where I was able to salvage a bit of my honor after the thumping Liam gave me at laser tag.

Next up was my day out with Maggie. She loves nothing more than to be in the water, so Schlitterbahn has been the natural destination for us for many years. Repeatedly voted best waterpark in the country, it’s only 20 minutes away from our house, and is a much more agreeable experience than many amusement parks these days. (Free parking, bring your own picnic, and new stuff every year.) We were a bit disappointed to see that Family Blaster, a ride that uses high-powered jets of water to shoot a raft containing up to 6 people up a hill, had been retired, but we did spend a delightful day climbing on floating crocodiles, navigating our tubes down 20-minute long tube chutes, and slipping down slides. We even invented a word game while we were waiting in line that’s become a standard in-car activity for our family.

I took Abigail out next. Our first stop was Tacodeli, a vegetarian-friendly taco joint that’s both delicious and a quintessentially Austin experience. After that, we wandered Barton Creek mall for a bit, and then went to see Cowboys & Aliens, which I’d been looking forward to since seeing the first preview. Our next stop was Mozart’s, a wonderful coffee shop on the banks of Town Lake. We got tasty beverages, I introduced Abby to cannoli (one of my favorite treats), and we both pulled out guitars and played and sang together down by the water while the turtles looked on appreciatively. When our fingers tired, we moved on to Pinballz (the best arcade I’ve ever visited) and played Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and other pinball classics. Our last stop for the day was at the Alamo Drafthouse for Abby’s first Master Pancake Theater show: Twilight! She was a fan of the books, and had been disappointed by the first movie, so I figured a lampooning would be the ideal way to enjoy the second. She agreed.

In addition to the goal of simply having a grand time, I also set Abby and I the task of both taking lots of photos along the way, and picking out our favorites along the way to edit and post on Facebook as a record of our day together. Here are the 8 shots we deemed best.

Unfortunately, I had a dreadful time coordinating Emily’s and my calendars, but in March of the next year, we finally managed to find a day we both had open. After hearing of Liam’s mini-adventure, Emily was keen to try SCUBA as well, so we rounded up Kevin again and my friend Jason and set off for a larger-scale run: near the headwaters of the San Marcos River down to the whitewater course at the other end of town. Since we’d finally had some rain after a tremendous drought, the water was running clear and fast, and we had beautiful visibility as we swam under waterfalls, through valleys of endangered Texas Wild Rice, and past a variety of water creatures. Emily filled a bag with treasures she found in the water, and I reveled in the opportunity to see the river as we never had before.

After our swim, we regrouped at the house while eating big Subway sandwiches, and then Emily and I went north for her first Master Pancake Theater show: Back to the Future. The lads did a terrific job with it, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and laughing our heads off. We even got the surprise treat of getting to overhear some of a Young the Giant show as we walked past — a favorite of Emily’s that she hadn’t even known was playing that night.

I had a terrific time getting to enjoy each of our kiddos individually, and treat them to some unique experiences they all enjoyed. Thanks, squirrels, for the great time. Now, let’s get cracking and plan this year’s adventures!

My Standoff with the Police

Last Saturday, I took three hostages.

I had gone to the apartment where my ex-girlfriend lives with her parents to find her and get her back. After four months of living together, she had moved out a couple of weeks earlier, and I was desperate to find her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there, and as things got heated with her parents, her dad stepped up on me, so I shot him in the shoulder. Shortly thereafter, the police showed up. I guess I should have expected that, but it took me by surprise.

The police had a negotiating team with them who called me to try to sort the situation out. They kept trying to get me to release her dad. I probably should have let him go, but I was scared, and felt like I’d lose my leverage without him there. Besides, they kept promising me things and then going back on their word, so I wasn’t too inclined to cooperate with them. About four hours into the standoff, my girlfriend’s sister escaped out a window, and I panicked for a while, boarding up the apartment and trying to make sure that nobody could get in the same way she got out. But I guess I knew at that point that it was only a matter of time. After repeated requests, they finally put my lawyer on the phone, and after talking with him for a while, I decided to surrender. I stepped out of the apartment with my hands above my head about 6 hours after the whole ordeal began, and was immediately arrested. I’ll be going to trial in a few weeks.

None of this, of course, actually happened.

This was all part of a training exercise for various police negotiating teams, and I was only playing the role of a hostage-taker. My dad is an expert in such matters — he literally wrote the book on crisis management– and helped to organize this training exercise. When he was looking for participants, he sent me and my brother a note saying “I need actors to play emotionally unstable, biploar, hostage-takers on the 10th of December (Saturday). Of course, you two came to mind, immediately.”

While I wasn’t actually holed up in an apartment, I did spend about 6 hours on a phone, talking with various negotiators from the New Braunfels team and giving them a chance to exercise their skills. It was fun, but exhausting, to play the role of a frightened, intransigent, irrational man-boy for that long. The negotiating team did a great job, maintaining their cool while I was being quite bellicose and disagreeable at times, and working hard to establish rapport and empathy without validating the destructive actions my character had taken. I was nasty enough that I felt the need to, once the exercise was done, apologize to them all and individually shake their hands. To their credit, none of them took advantage of the opportunity to shoot me — a homicide that, under Texas law, I’m pretty sure would have been considered justified at that point.

Thanks to Dad for the opportunity to be a part of the shenanigans, and to the whole crew involved for putting together such an interesting day. It seemed like the teams got something good out of it, and my siblings and I certainly got a fun story to tell. And delicious breakfast tacos. (Ironically, feeding me tacos is just about the best way to keep me from taking hostages in real life, so the crisis would have been pretty short-lived in reality.)

My Wife, The Bag Lady

Today I want to brag on my wife a bit.

Kathy is great at trying to meet the needs of people she meets. One group which has always tugged at her heartstrings is the homeless. Austin has a large homeless population, and we’re up that way often enough that we encounter them regularly. On our anniversary weekend, we spent Sunday morning at the Church Under the Bridge, a worship service cosponsored by a group of local churches for the benefit of the street people of that city.

The most common encounter we have with these folks is at traffic lights, where one will often be holding up a cardboard sign, ranging from the plaintive (“On the road, my dog needs food”) to the tongue-in-cheek (“Why lie? I need a beer.”). Of course, we have all of the usual concerns about handing out cash to people we don’t know. We have done so at times, but it’s always been with a measure of unease, not knowing whether that money will help or ultimately fuel some destructive downward spiral.

It was with these concerns in mind that Kathy hit on a brilliant idea: why not have the essentials for life packed up and ready to go whenever someone asks? She brainstormed, planned, visited the dollar store, talked with others, and soon had her first batch of large plastic bags filled with water bottles, nonperishable foods, shampoo, washcloths, hand sanitizer, soap, and often a small New Testament. We stashed these in the van, ready for our next stoplight encounter.

Now, when we come to a halt and spot someone in need, there’s a mad scramble to find a bag and to hand it over before the light turns green. The recipients have been almost universally excited to receive the bundles, and it’s been great fun to actually be able to help in such a tangible, immediate way.

As time has gone on, she’s started making larger batches of these bags, not only for us to carry around, but also for other interested people to have available. She’s distributed them to others in our church, to family members, and to a variety of friends. She’s had a couple of bag-making parties at the house, where the attendees will work together to assemble 100 bags in a couple hours. And she’s assembled and organized donations from a variety of sources, as well as found the cheapest and best places to get all of these essentials.

And now she has discovered Bags of Grace, an organization up in Austin with a similar mission, run by a dynamic woman named Rita with whom she shared a lunch and great conversation recently. I expect they’ll be meeting up more in the future to share strategies and combine efforts.

So if you’re interested in supporting some of “the least of these” in our society and want to help assemble or distribute these bags, give Kathy a call. She’ll be glad you did, and so will some people you’ve only ever met at a stoplight.

South Padre Family Vacation

Last week we all took a break from our usual goings-on to head down to South Padre Island, the southernmost beach town in Texas. This was a big deal for me, as Emily is now 19, graduated from High School, and is making plans to move out before long. Thus, this would likely be the last time we would all be under the same roof, doing a trip together as a family, and I wanted it to be a special time.

On our way down, Emily’s boyfriend Andres joined us. The extra vehicle gave us more space for packing, and we all enjoy Andres’ company and were glad to have him along for the first few days of the trip. (Unfortunately, he had to return to San Marcos for work, and wasn’t able to stay longer.)

One thing we did this time that worked out well was to designate an “Entertainment Committee” that was responsible for taking the money that we budgeted for fun on the trip and deciding the best way to spend it. This had a couple of important benefits: 1. Everyone on the Committee got a chance to work together and have a good voice in how our money would be spent. 2. I didn’t have to be on the Committee.

The biggest single expense that the Committee decided was that we would all go parasailing. (This was not something I would have chosen, but the pleasure of not having to be responsible for making the decisions far outweighed any angst I felt about the outcome.) After we signed the terrifying liability waivers and set out to sea, our boat’s crew immediately managed to dunk the parachute into the water, expressing their bafflement as to what was going on in the strongest (and bluest) terms. They eventually got it up in the air properly, and Liam and I mounted up for the first ride.

We soared above the waves, able to see miles in any direction, buffeted about by the gusty wind until I got motion-sick. While I generally have decent sea-legs, and the boat had given me no trouble, the bouncing about we received up in the air was more than my stomach wanted to deal with. Fortunately, it didn’t get to full-on, reverse peristalsis, fish-feeding revolt, but it did diminish my enthusiasm for the time aloft. Abigail and Emily went up next, and both had a grand time. Maggie and Kathy brought up the rear, and were promptly dunked in the water as soon as they were off the boat, nearly submerging Maggie at the same time it pulled her swimsuit askew. Once they were in the air, however, they had a great time as well.

Another highlight of the trip for us was a visit to Sea Turtles, Inc., a rescue center for various sorts of Sea Turtles that nest in the area. Favorite bit of sea turtle lore learned: the leatherback turtle, which weighs up to 1,500 pounds, must eat approximately its own weight in jellyfish each day to survive. As we enjoyed the jellyfish-free beach, we were grateful to these reptiles for their diligent culling of the less-pleasant sea denizens.

The best part about the sea turtle experience, however, was probably getting to see a nest of about 70 Kemp’s-Ridley turtle hatchlings released into the ocean for the first time. Kathy took some great photos and video, which I later edited together to show friends:

(See it here if the embedded video doesn’t work.)

Other highlights:

  • Body surfing with the whole family.
  • A visit from my cousin Tanya.
  • Watching a movie projected on the side of the Port Isabel lighthouse.
  • Gathering shells on the north beaches where the sand dunes are steadily subsuming the roads.
  • Playing “Fortress”, where we build sand castles imprudently close to the waves and then see how long we can keep it from crumbling by building levees and moats around it.
  • Browsing the art galleries and import stalls in Port Isabel.
  • Delighting in the fact that, for the most part, the kids really got along well and even enjoyed each other.
  • Playing lots of games and reading together.
  • Watching “True Grit”, one of my favorite movies of recent vintage, as a family.
  • Playing guitar by the pool with Maggie singing along.
  • Designing, creating, and play-testing a new card game with Liam.

It was a terrific time, and a great start to the summer. Thanks, family, for the splendid vacation!

My Wife: A Titan of Industry

I just got back from three weeks in Switzerland as part of my new job with Magnolia. (You can see some photos on Facebook if you’re interested.)

Now, when Kathy travels and I’m in single parent mode, I consider myself as having accomplished quite a lot when I end a day with the same number of live children as I started it with. Actually getting anything done during that day is lagniappe.

Consider, then, then awe with which I walked into our house and saw that, while I was away, Kathy had accomplished a huge list of tasks: painted our bedroom, cleared out a gigantic pile of brush from our backyard, painted our front porch, bought and installed (from Craig’s list) a new bed and mattress in our room, painted all of the shutters on the front of the house, cleaned out our shed, weeded and groomed our decomposed granite paths, bought and planted a big pear tree, went out into the hills and come back with a two loads of limestone for landscaping, cleared a bunch of scrap metal out of our backyard, sold our decrepit Ford Escort, re-stained the back porch, and a host of other things I’m probably forgetting at the moment. (She did get some help from Bobcat Build, though that added “fed 25 college students” to the already impressive list.)

With all of this on top of usual business of keeping a family running while taking college classes, it’s no wonder she finally took the opportunity once I was back to sleep much of the day!

Thanks for all you did and do, sweetheart. You’re a champ.