Friday, December 22, 2006

My plane, my child

I ordered my RV-7A slow-build kit in the spring of 2001. Like many airplane builders, I wasn't sure I had the skills to build an airplane. I wasn't sure I had the money either. As I get started on the finishing kit five -- almost six -- years later, I'm still not sure where the dough is going to come from for my pay-as-I-go project. It's a balancing act to make sure there's not more "go" than "pay." But so far, so good, so slow.

What intrigues me about the slowness of the project is how many life forms it has taken on. I talked a few weeks ago about how the project is building me too, but the project has also been quite transformative.

When I first contemplated a homebuilt, I thought it would be a great way for my kids to be involved in something with me. At the time, they were 15 and 12 and, looking back, I probably should've started it earlier. But, of course, there wasn't the money to do so because, among other reasons, there were two kids who were 15 and 12.

Long-term, I viewed an airplane as the way to visit the kids when they went off to college in the far-flung corners of the universe. I saw the plane as the magic carpet for Dad.

The kids were as excited as I was when the tail kit arrived. They enjoyed helping to unpack everything. But as I started the project, it was rare to find more than one of us in the garage. The 12-year-old made a few more appearances during the original construction of the "H" jig to build the HS (at that time), probably because 12-year-olds are more "Dad-friendly" than 15-year-olds, who are starting to discover girls, TV, sleeping late, videogames, and one-word answers to any conversation the old man should initiate.

So the project became an occasional solo act. By the time the wings came along, things had changed. We realized one of my sons had some special needs at the time and it was a difficult time for all of us. The annual trip to Oshkosh with him, and his occasional bit of help on the plane turned the project into "therapy" for a short time, and between it and me, the strings that connect a father and son, though frayed, never broke. Never.

When things got worse, however, enthusiasm for the project waned because life was getting in the way. It's hard to be excited about flying, when your child is in pain on a near daily basis. And so, in a fit of my own desperation, the project was put up for sale. Fortunately, it didn't sell and I listened to someone on a bulletin board who said, "just roll it into the corner." Since it was a pay-as-you-go project, leaving it alone for awhile didn't cost me anything. And so, my project became an abandoned project.

As a few months went by, the ups-and-downs of family life started to stabilize a bit and work resumed on the project. From time to time, my youngest boy, then 15, helped me buck the rivets on wing skins. And my oldest son would take a crack at it too, and proved quite good at it.

I started treasuring more, those times. I started treasuring more, the dings or dents that they helped me make in my wings (OK, I made most of them by myself!). When they would help me with a particular section, I would have them "autograph" the inside of the part with a Sharpie pen. I have quite a few autographs and messages that will be there forever. I'll never erase them. And so now, my project was a father's scrapbook.

Just this morning I was downstairs finishing up putting some nutplates on the wing skin (where the fairing attaches) and I started looking over those wings that have sat in the family room for the last 3 years. I cringed at one bad rivet on the rear spar doubler, and then started looking inside the skins and finding the messages from both kids on the days they helped shoot some rivets. "World's best flush rivet," one said. Another just said, "Sean," in his barely-legible signature that didn't mask his pride at mastering something. Anything. Something propelled him on his road to adulthood, past the minefields of adolescence. I think a few well-shot rivets deserve credit.

When the fuselage kit arrived, both of my lads were becoming young men -- fine young men. I realized as I looked back on the project, that there's a parallel between building an airplane and raising children. Plenty of people tell you it can be done with patience and a lot of money. That you'll start out trying to get the hang of it, make your share of mistakes, but pressing on and doing the best you can, you'll get better at it. And by the time the finishing kit arrives, you'll realize you were better at it than you sometimes thought, often wishing that you could go back and do the parts again, armed with the knowledge you didn't have before. Sometimes you'll look at other builder's projects and wonder why theirs are so perfect to the naked eye, but then they note that they made mistakes too, and you feel better. Your project is another of your children.

And then the first flight comes and your project is a finished airplane flying on its own power, and you burst with pride -- and maybe some tears -- at your accomplishment and the beauty of your project. The folks who said, "it'll get better" when you were folding over rivets, were right. It does. It gets darned near perfect and the occasional poorly-executed task in the past seems insignificant, no matter how much sleep it caused you to lose at the time.

My sons are out of the house now. They're flying on their own. My oldest son, now 21, isn't pounding rivets with me anymore, but he is working with me at my place of business, and it's been a great time. My youngest son, 18 and counting, shares an apartment with the brother he used to battle on a daily basis, and is Minnesota's youngest EMT, working on becoming an advanced EMT and paramedic. He's going to school and working full-time. I didn't build them by myself, but I did some of it.

And so now my airplane project is my youngest child; keeping the old man company and reminding me on a daily basis that when I'm gone, it, the dings, the dents, the autographs, and the eventual flying magic carpet, will remind someone that I was once here. Doing the best I could, making my share of mistakes, and loving every minute of it.

I dream of the day my project will be fully grown, and we can go flying with its siblings.

(This article originally was written for the RV Builder's Hotline)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Video Bob

I'm late getting to this but when MPR did its election-night party in November, a talented gentleman named Bo Hakala produced three segments on how blogs have changed the way we cover politics (yeah, I know, the header says I don't cover politics here.).

I wasn't aware they'd been subsequently posted online but here they are. I'm discussing Polinaut, which I started last December, and how, ummm, it was accepted -- or not -- by a mainstream newsroom.

Here's the segment on the blog's spot in history.

And here's a segment called "Putting the V in blog."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dance of the Sugarplum Idiots

My wife and I have a lot of stuff; we don't need any more stuff. So this year we're not buying a bunch of Christmas presents for each other. And the kids are grown now, so for the most part they'll get one big present each. And my siblings and I have never exchanged Christmas presents. So our stress when it comes to shopping is at a very low level.

Instead, this year, we're buying as much stuff as we can for the kids in pediatric mental health facilities. You know, the places where the athletes with TV cameras in tow rarely visit. We're also buying Christmas presents for a man and his little girl that my wife knows that barely has enough money to keep the lights on.

Every year, we've both always taken a day off from work and gone shopping at the Mall of America, mostly because we like to watch people, and it's usually a nice time with a relaxing lunch to boot. This year was no exception.

At every turn there was a good memory. One time we took my mother and father there. Dad was in a wheelchair and he'd wave his cane (jokingly) to clear people out of the way.

Today, we stopped to watch some kids in a band set up and play. I like kids in bands. Don't ask me why; I was never in one. But I do remember the first time I saw my son, Sean, play at one of those elementary school band nights. He played the trombone and, I guess, he played it well, even though I don't recall hearing him practice. But the particular night I went -- it might've been 5th grade or 6th grade -- it was the first time I saw my son as someone other than my son. It was the first time I recall seeing him master something I never mastered and realized this kid really was his own person.

The same is true for Patrick. He played the trumpet, although -- again -- I never heard him practice. Now, you have to understand elementary school bands. First, they have too many clarinets and, second, because they have drums... everything they do has to have drums in it. So if they did Beethoven's 5th... it always comes out as Beethoven's 5th march.

And you can also sort of hear the kids saying "1-2-3-4-" in their heads as they played. Patrick was different. He grooved on the trumpet thing. He'd swing his head back and forth, the way a trumpet player should. For all I know, he couldn't play a lick. But it doens't matter. Band is like golf. It's not important to be good; it's only important to look good.

That's what I was thinking about as I watched the kids get ready. And then they played the theme from the Nutcracker and Carolie remembered stuff too. One time she was decorating a tree at home and listening to the Nutcracker CD. Carolie being, well, Carolie, she started dancing as if she were a ballerina. Patrick, quite young at this age, was astonished. "How do you know all the steps?" he gasped.

"Dare me to start dancing," she said to me today when the kids started playing.

"Yeah," I said.

So she did. She walked up to the front of the atrium hall where a huge Christmas tree was and started the whole "ballerina" thing. I was laughing so hard I couldn't get my camera to work right (picture is a re-enactment). And because we were laughing so hard, we had to excuse ourselves from the concert and continue our shopping.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Instant karma

There are times, I guess, when we're embarrassed by our children. I know when my oldest son was very young and learning how to talk, my wife was embarrassed because he couldn't say "truck" quite right and he'd take him with her to the town square Post Office, which, unfortunately, has a fire station next to it. When the fire truck would go by, Sean would point and say "fire truck," only it was one syllable and didn't sound like truck.

Then there are times when you want to scream, "this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."

Such a moment occurred just a few minutes ago.

I work for a large corporation; a corporation which pays its employees well and gives them all the benefits they can eat. This afternoon an ice cream social was held for the company's annual giving campaign; basically, throw some money out of your paycheck each week to a charity, such as a homeless shelter, or a food shelf, or a community health organization.

I was not quite surprised to find a near-empty reception area, but I was delighted to see my son, Sean, eating some ice cream, and filling out a form to contribute some of his money.

Sean is an intern here, gets no benefits, is not well paid (but he's not complaining), and, like any kid just out on his own, there's usually too much month and not enough money. And yet, there he was, giving it away.

"You make me proud," I said to him, reminding him that karma will surely come into play.

Of course he was reminded that when he gave up his place in a line for concert tickets because there was only one left and a girl really wanted to see the act, the ticket-seller told him he will be rewarded via karma.

"I went back to my car and it was towed away," he reminded me.

"He didn't say you'd be rewarded today," I said, even though I was.