Every Kid Should Learn How to Build

My friend called me in a panic because her husband, a surgeon, had just attempted to “fix” their toilet and water was going everywhere.  She told me that while he was a brilliant surgeon, that’s where the brilliance ended because he knew nothing about common sense things.  Wow!  Today it seems that we are labeled and categorized to fit into specific places. We are neither expected nor taught to expand our understanding of basic survival skills.

Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve become a society of assembly lines. We specialize in one skill, and then that’s all we do.  If we were robots, that would be the logical and practical way to utilize our time.  But we live in homes that have electrical and plumbing hidden behind sheetrock, and walls built with 2” by 4” on 16” centers.  We’re never officially taught how houses are built so when there is a plumbing problem, we call the plumber.  Electrical problem, an electrician.

Not knowing how things work around your house can make you feel incompetent.  Having to call in a contractor every time you need some minor work done is time consuming and costly. I think all students should spend a summer working with a building contractor to learn the inner workings of a house or building.  It would help students build a sense of independence and confidence.

For Christmas one year, I gave my girls tool kits complete with electric drills, Dremel tools, hammers, screwdrivers, measuring tapes, and anything I could fit in the tool box. While they weren’t thrilled with these gifts back then, I’ve noticed that they keep it handy in their homes today, and I’m glad to see that they know how to use their tools.

When they were in high school, they built their own vanities for their bedrooms one summer.  They learned how to use a saber saw to cut the shape, a router to round the corners, and a belt sander to smooth the surface.  Rob showed them how to wire 7 light bulbs around the mirror. 

I learned how to build furniture by getting tips from the guys at San Lorenzo Lumber.  I buy all of my materials from them because their staff (Mario and Craig are my favorites) are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful.  I’ve built 90% of my home and office furniture since 1976.  I love to design furniture because I get exactly what I want with the safe materials I prefer (no particle board or Masonite!).

Wouldn’t it be ideal for students to learn how to build a house and how to use power and hand tools before they move out to live on their own? Most students barely know how to handle a hammer and certainly don’t understand how to build furniture or any phases of building construction. We certainly want our kids to be able to troubleshoot problems in their future homes, right?

What Kids Should Know Before Getting Behind The Wheel

I remember when I got my first car.  I learned how to tune it up, change the fan belt, and change the oil and filters. I even rebuilt my 4-cylinder engine just to make sure I understood how the internal combustion engine worked – my father had one of his mechanics guide me through the process. It gave me great satisfaction to know when the carburetor needed adjusting and that I could maintain my car by myself.  Of course that was back in 1973 when cars were much simpler than they are today.

Remember when schools had auto shops? Schools have stopped offering these courses for several reasons: (1) to save money on building shops and outfitting them with the equipment and materials needed for these specialty classes; and (2) students (or their parents) are more interested in taking rigorous academic classes to stack their transcripts with AP courses to impress college admissions officers.

When my girls got their first cars, I created an auto shop class for them at Merit Academy where they learned everything they needed to know before they got behind the wheel.  They learned how to change the oil and filter, rotate tires, and check fluids and lubrication.  They also spent the day with an automatic transmission specialist to see the inner workings of a transmission. Other field trips included watching a car get smog tested, talking to a woman from Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and visiting a rehab center where they met with paraplegic and quadriplegic teen survivors. 

At the end of the class, they met with a CHP officer to see what happens if they are pulled over for being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  The officer actually handcuffed them after making them walk a straight line wearing vision-altering glasses.  Each student took CPR and First Aid at the American Red Cross as the final requirement for the course.

Driving a car requires maturity that most 16 year olds don’t have, but giving them an education and hands-on learning experiences so they know how to handle their cars gives them the foundation to make smart decisions. Since everyone drives a vehicle, shouldn’t schools offer classes to teach the students more than traffic rules?

Why Kids Don't Cook or Sew - And Why This Has to Change


Remember when students used to be able to take classes that they enjoyed, instead of taking classes because they “look good” to college admissions officers?  Remember when schools offered home econ classes where you learned how to cook and sew?  Somewhere over the past 50 years, schools have stopped offering courses that all students need to lead healthy, productive lives today

I learned how to make Potato Boats in 7th grade Home Ec.  It was simple: It’s just a baked potato that is gutted and mixed with butter, chives and chunks of cheese, and then baked again.  Today it’s always a hit at dinner parties. A real foodie, I love to whip up dishes using Indian spices and create healthy, yet delicious meals.

Maybe because it’s so easy to grab a burger or take-out food, that we don’t cook at home anymore.  Or, is it because we’re so busy that we can’t justify the time it takes to shop, cook and clean. But then, we put our nutrition in the hands of corporations who are more interested in bigger profits than our good health.  So we’re eating foods that aren’t even real foods.  When fast food chains claim that their burgers are “All Beef,” they actually can have meat from hundreds of animals including horse meat and chemical fillers.  So let’s get back to feeding our children good home cooked meals and get them in the kitchen to help!

I also learned how to sew in a sewing class in 8th grade.  My teacher showed me how to make my own patterns, sew zippers, and create just about anything with a sewing machine and a good pair of scissors. While my girls were into dance and theater, I made 6 tuxedos, 8 lederhosen, and 100s of costumes.  I even won a costume award for one of Jaclyn’s dance competition costumes.  But more importantly, it was fun as I designed and showed my girls how to create something out of a bolt of fabric.  They both took sewing classes at Merit Academy during the summer and made dresses.  Just yesterday, I sewed cushions and a custom cover for my dogs’ crates. Both cooking and sewing are skills that I am so grateful to have.

It used to be that sewing clothes was less expensive than buying them, but when you can buy clothes made in 3rd-world factories by slave labor, it’s cheaper and easier to just shop at Target or Ross. Do a little research about where your clothing is produced and who is doing the sewing, and I’ll bet you’ll reconsider where you buy your clothes. You might even start sewing simple outfits like skirts, shirts, and dresses.

Instead of indulging our children’s every wish for new electronic devices every time something new hits the market, buy them a sewing machine. It’ll probably last them their whole lives and it’ll give them the ability to hem pants, bring clothes in or let them out, and make fun things like pillows.  With just one sewing class, you can open the door to more independence and creativity.  And, they’ll have a skill that their peers don’t have. I’m surprised that so many people don’t know how to sew today. It’s really a lost art.

Rather than force students to study US History for years or to take biology, chemistry, and physics when they might not be interested in STEM, let’s give students the opportunity to learn skills that they’ll need when they grow up.  EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW HOW TO COOK AND SEW. 

Rain on a ski trip!

What do you do when it RAINS on your ski trip?

Make rain gear out of kitchen supplies!

How would MacGyver stay dry while skiing in the rain?

It was pouring RAIN when we arrived in Tahoe for Nicole’s annual birthday ski trip.  Really? For 5 days prior to our arrival it dumped over 5 feet of fresh powder. We were so excited to hit the slopes and ski the powder. Our ski gear and powder pants are water RESISTANT, which is not the same as waterproof.  We could ski in any conditions (subzero temps in Spain, blizzards at Northstar), but NOT RAIN.  So what do you do when you’re in your condo and the roads are closed due to FLOODING? Ask MacGyver… Plastic and duct tape!

First I grabbed some oversized kitchen dishwashing gloves and placed elastic on the wrists to keep the rain out.  I placed duct tape over the seams to seal the elastic in place.  Then I placed my ski gloves inside the large dishwashing gloves so they would keep my hands dry and warm.  When Nicole woke up, she liked my design so I made her a pair too.  I thought she would think they were too embarrassing to wear, but she was intent on staying dry, too.

Then I took Nicole’s pair of plastic pants to use as a pattern to make plastic pants for me.  I wasn’t about to wear my ski pants and get soaked.  I grabbed 2 trash bags and duct taped them together.  I cut out the pant legs with a scissor and then duct taped them together.  I even put elastic to create a waistband!  They certainly weren’t a fashion statement, but I stayed dry all day! 

While indulging on overpriced burgers and fries at the lodge, Nicole commented on how everyone was soaking wet and wringing out their gloves and parkas. Then some young guys gave Nicole a thumbs up and said, “Those are great pants!  We thought our stuff was waterproof, but they’re not!”.  Everyone loved our solution to skiing in the rain!

Handmade Gifts

When my girls were young, they collected little pins from the places we traveled to.  It gave them something to search for on the trips, and it became a memento to remind them of the trips after we returned home. 

Jaclyn started putting her pins on a hat that she got in Venice, and Nicole put them on a long velvet ribbon that she hung in her bedroom.  When they headed off to college back in 2003 and 2007, they left their pin collections behind. 

I just found them and created little displays. As I attached each pin to the frame, it brought back great memories of adventures from their youth. 

So glad they loved receiving them on Christmas morning!  

Bonus Blog: Gift Tags!

Continuing the recycle and reuse philosophy from the last post about satin gift wrap: we make our gift tags out of recycled Christmas cards from the previous year.  Yup!  

I love all of the beautiful, funny, and clever cards we receive every year. After the holidays, we save the colorful Christmas cards (after we cut off the backside).  Then the following year, we hole punch the card, pull a hair tie through the hole, and simply tie the card around the fabric bow.  With a thick marker, we write the receiver’s name on the front of the card.  

Each gift tag is unique and exquisite!  And, we don’t cut down any trees and we don’t spend a penny on gift tags!  It's a win for us AND the planet!



Smart Wrapping Paper

Did you know that wrapping paper is a 3.2 billion dollar industry? With Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa around the corner millions of pounds of paper will be used to wrap gifts just once and then be piled up in trash cans that line every street around the world. Wasteful! I didn’t realize how much this bothered me until I had a dream about it.  When I woke up, I knew exactly what I needed to do.  This was kind of like my Eco-Xmas tree dream.  So here’s what I did:

I drove over to Fabrics R Us in San Jose to buy 20 yards of red and green satin.  Then I went to the Dollar Tree to buy 100 hair ties and scrunchies.  I added a few curtain rods to my Wrapping Room to hang all of the satin squares that I had cut in various sizes.  And voilà!  I was all set for a paperless Chistmas.

I grabbed a satin square and placed the gift item right in the center of it.  Then, I pulled all of the fabric up around the gift and tied it off – just like a girl’s pony tail.  With the extra fabric, I would pull it through another loop of the hair tie creating a beautiful “bow.”  It took 5 seconds to wrap!  No cutting wrapping paper, folding edges, taping ends, or adding ribbons.  The best part, after gifts were opened, we collected all of the satin sheets and then tossed them over the curtain rod for the next holiday.  We even put all of the hair ties in a Xmas box to be reused again.  


Those Who Can't Make Gingerbread Houses Make Pretzel Log Cabins Instead

My solution to the failed attempts at making a gingerbread house was to make pretzel log cabin instead.  While it is supposed to be edible just like a gingerbread house, I used a glue gun to hold the pretzels and the pounds of candy in place.  This was so much easier than making a gingerbread house!  I wouldn't advise eating it, though.

After heading out to the Dollar Tree and Lucky’s to buy giant pretzels and every bag of hard candy that I could find, I cleared the table to make a mini-workshop.  First, I made the log cabin the same size as the large pretzel sticks to save time.  Using an Xacto knife, I cut out the 4 sides and 2 roof panels out of cardboard.  Then I hot glued the pretzels on the cardboard and the candy on the roof.  It was surprisingly easy and quick to do.  No winter log cabin is complete without a fireplace so I stacked hard candies to make the chimney. Then I made a pathway out of cinnamon hard candies, and lamp posts out of candy canes and gum drops.  Using extra pretzels, I made a park bench. After everything was in place, I sprinkled coconut flakes over the whole scene.  I finished just in time for it to be Jaclyn’s centerpiece for her Christmas party.

I hope to preserve this with Varathane so next year I can add on to it.  If it doesn’t work, I’ll start over again next year!

DIY DNA Test Kits

Remember when the first human genome was mapped in 2000? I took my girls to a seminar at UCSC to learn more about where the future of medicine might be heading. The Genome Bioinformatics Group at UCSC claimed to be the first to complete the genome in 2003. It was an exciting and hopeful time for the future of human DNA mapping.  Nicole was selected to join a group of accelerated biology majors to study with some of this genome team. A 10th-grade Merit Academy student at the time, she loved seeing how medicine was amidst a paradigm shift and scientific breakthrough. 

Today, I’m thrilled to see how many private companies are offering DNA test kits to the public.  Just 5 years ago, I tried to get my DNA mapped but the cost was prohibitive.  Now, for under a $1,000, you can get specific DNA tests to help you navigate your own health plans. Check out this article by April Long of Elle Magazine to see how a blood test can give you a snapshot about how your genetics can tell you what you can’t change, but might be able to suggest alternative treatment options.  

While the Elle Magazine article focuses on DNA test results for exercise and diet decisions, there are DNA tests that focus on diseases and more serious health issues. Many people prefer not to know what their DNA may tell them about their possible health and medical issues down the road.  If you’re curious like I am, this is the first step that gives individuals more control over their health.