Decorating Christmas cookies with the family

My wife and I spend a happy afternoon baking, decorating, and sharing Christmas sugar cookies with our family. That being said, can you guess which of these cookies was decorated by me?


PS - My granddaughter chose the cookie that I decorated, so I feel vindicated. Of course, that cookie spoiled her dinner, so... my work here as a grandparent is done.

Winking smile

Tales of Christmas Past...

In ancient days of yore, constable Ioan McClane (of the clan McClane) routed the Visigoth Hans von Gruber from the prodigious citadel of Nakatomi...


The 12 Days of Paper Writing

As we rapidly approach the Christmas season, we are also reaching the end of my semester in Graduate School. With that in mind, I thought it apropos to post a version of the "12 Days of Christmas" for my fellow students who are bogged down with writing academic papers:

12 Pages Of Citations
11 Primary Sources
10 Cups Of Coffee
9 Hours Of Proofreading
8 Advising Hours
7 Rhetorical Questions
6 Quotation Blocks
5 Split-Infinitives
4 Supporting Arguments
3 Complete Rewrites
2 Illustrations
And A Thesis Statement In My Opening Paragraph


UPDATE: This post is one of several that I had written that I later discovered had never been set to "public."

Gaffes of the Galaxy

My wife was shopping for Guardians of the Galaxy toys to donate to charity, and the following conversation took place:

Kathleen: So, I was going to buy Star Lord, Groot, and Ranger.
Me: Ranger?
Kathleen: Yeah, you know - the squirrel.
Me: You mean Rocket? The raccoon?
Kathleen: Yeah, that's the one.
Me: o_O

Building a Faux Fireplace for the Christmas Season

My wife and I moved back to Arizona this past summer, and fireplaces are pretty scare here because it's generally warm for most of the winter. For example, this is the week of Christmas, and the temperatures are still in the high-60s Fahrenheit. Even though we're well into December and the rest of the country is contending with winter snow, I'm walking around in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. So it's pretty easy to see why a fireplace isn't a selling feature for most homes in Arizona; in fact, it's often more of a nuisance.

But that being said, a lack of a fireplace has a few drawbacks during the Christmas season - and a primary downside was voiced by my wife when she recently asked, "Where are we going to hang our Christmas stockings this year?"

I have to admit - I hadn't given much thought to that question before, and I certainly wouldn't have bought a house with a fireplace just to have a place to hang stockings for a few weeks each year. Just the same, I started thinking about a way to rectify our miniscule first-world problem. My wife had travel plans which would have her out of the house for the first weekend in December, and that provided me with ample opportunity to hatch a scheme where I could do something about our stocking situation and surprise my spouse.

In case you were wondering, you read that correctly - my wife left me alone for the weekend and I spent it building a faux fireplace for her. Some guys would relish the opportunity to watch non-stop sports or action movies without having to fight for the remote, while other guys would head off to the mountains for some quality fishing or hunting. But as for me - I chose to spend my weekend wandering the aisles of my local Home Depot, Lowes, and Ace Hardware stores while picking out various parts to build something that was kind of geeky. Yup, that's just the kind of guy I am - deal with it.

Why Build a Fireplace?

First of all - why not? It's fun to build something every once in a while. ;-]

That being said, there are many different kinds of artificial fireplaces that are available on the market, but none of those met the requirements that I wanted to address:

  • I didn't want the fireplace to generate any actual heat. Sure, most heat-producing artificial fireplaces will allow you to turn off the heat and simply enjoy the fake fire, but that would have denied me the opportunity to build something - and where's the fun in buying something when you can give up your weekend to build it? (Okay, I'll admit it - perhaps buying something occasionally works into your schedule a little better.)
  • I wanted a fireplace that would be four-feet wide by four-feet tall, yet shallow enough to easily allow pedestrian traffic to walk past it. Several store-bought artificial fireplaces were close to those dimensions, but I usually didn't like something or other about them.
  • I wanted a fireplace that could be disassembled at the end of the Christmas season so I could store it easily until next year. This was the clincher - none of the fireplaces that I looked at seemed to have a way to do this; all of the models that I looked at were designed to stay assembled forever. If a fake fireplace was on wheels, (and some were), I could push it into the garage for the next 11 months, but that would take up too much room.

In the end, building my own fireplace seemed to make the most sense to me. And if I ever decide that I'm done with it, I'm sure that I can donate to some high school's Drama Department. ;-]

Designing and Building the Fireplace

Once I had decided to build my own fireplace, the first thing that I had to do was get some fake fireplace logs. There are dozens of variations available, so that step was pretty easy - I just had to pick a set that seemed reasonable. Once I had purchased the fake logs for the fireplace, that gave me the dimensions that I would need to build the fireplace.

The next thing that I needed to do was to come up with a construction plan - which I didn't actually do. I had a general idea of what I wanted the end result to be, but it certainly wasn't a fully-formed proposal. I figured that I would wander into my local Home Depot or Lowes and wander aimless through the aisles until something a little more solid popped into my head, and that's pretty much what I did - with one exception: I called my dad and asked if he wanted to come along for what was undoubtedly going to be a weird construction project, and he agreed. ;-]

When we arrived at the hardware store, we headed to the lumber section, where I proceeded to explain the general concept that I had been pondering for the past few days. Between the two of us, we looked at all of our options based on the wood that was available, and we came up with a design that somewhat resembled what I had been thinking - albeit with some cool revisions.

The general design that we came up with was to create four rectangular boxes that stacked to create a square frame:

  • One horizontal base box: 48-inch wide x 16-inch deep x 5-inch tall
  • Two vertical left and right boxes: 9.25-inch wide x 12-inch deep x 34-inch tall
  • One horizontal crown box: 48-inch wide x 12-inch deep x 9-inch tall

Since we were basically making this up as we went along, there were a few "aha" moments where we realized that our plan wasn't going to work for some reason or other, so we changed the design several times during construction. One of the great ideas that my dad came up with was to use a single 48-inch  x 48-inch  x 0.5-inch  board as the backing for the entire project, and that worked out great; it gave support to the whole structure, and it allowed me to use textured paint it so that it looked the inside of a fireplace.

The construction was pretty straightforward - my dad and I hauled all of the raw materials to his house, where we measured the wood and we used his table saw to cut everything to size. We started by creating the base, and once we had that built, we created the left and right sides, and we followed that by creating the crown. After we put the boxes together to see what the general idea would look like, we came up with the idea of adding the facade around the crown to give it a more finished look, and we decided to add a single piece of horizontal wood as mantle, which would extend beyond the edges of the crown. Once we had all of the boxes created, I took all of the parts home where I painted everything before the final construction.

With that in mind, here are a few photographs from the latter part of the construction process:

These first few images are obviously from the painting process, and if you look closely you'll notice my ingenious use of my lead-pellet scuba diving weights to hold down the tarp. (I have no other use for those scuba diving weights since I can no longer bring those on dive trips due to TSA-induced weight restrictions, but that's another story for another day.)

This next photo is a close-up of the front and back views for the left and right vertical boxes.

These next two photos are before-and-after shots of the partially-constructed fireplace, as seen from the back. After I had the pieces stacked correctly, I drilled holes between the different parts and secured them together with lag bolts and wing nuts.

Parts List for the Fireplace

I used several two-by-fours  in this construction because the wood for the siding was fairly thin, so using two-by-fours inside the pieces allowed me to drill deeper holes and use 1.5-inch wood screws to bolt together the pieces. That being said, remember that a two-by-four is actually a 3.5-inch  by 1.5-inch piece of wood, so you need to take that into account when you are measuring for wood projects. ;-]

  • Backing Board:
    • One 48-inch  x 48-inch  x 0.5-inch board (plywood is fine)
  • Base Box:
    • Two 48-inch  x 16-inch  x 0.75-inch boards (Top & Bottom)
    • One 48-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 0.75-inch board (Front Facade)
    • Two 15.25-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 0.75-inch boards (Left & Right Sides)
    • Two 46.25-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 1.5-inch boards (Front Inside [behind Facade] and Back Inside); these are "two-by-fours" that are used for support
  • Left-Side Box:
    • One 34-inch  x 9.25-inch  x 0.75-inch board (Front Facade)
    • Two 34-inch  x 11.25-inch  x 0.75-inch boards (Left & Right Sides)
    • Four 7.75-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 1.5-inch boards (Top & Bottom Inside Front [behind Facade] and Top & Bottom Inside Back); these are "two-by-fours" that are used for support
  • Right-Side Box:
    • One 34-inch  x 9.25-inch  x 0.75-inch board (Front Facade)
    • Two 34-inch  x 11.25-inch  x 0.75-inch boards (Left & Right Sides)
    • Four 7.75-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 1.5-inch boards (Top & Bottom Inside Front [behind Facade] and Top & Bottom Inside Back); these are "two-by-fours" that are used for support
  • Crown Box:
    • Two 48-inch  x 12-inch  x 0.75-inch boards (Top & Bottom)
    • Four 7.5-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 1.5-inch boards (Top & Bottom Inside Front [behind Facade] and Top & Bottom Inside Back); these are "two-by-fours" that are used for support
    • One 43.5-inch  x 3.5-inch  x 1.5-inch board (Top Inside Back); this is a "two-by-four" that is used for additional support
    • Crown Box Facade:
      • One 48-inch  x 12-inch  x 0.75-inch board (Front)
      • Two 12-inch  x 12.5-inch  x 0.75-inch boards (Left & Right Sides)
  • Mantle:
    • One 55-inch  x 16-inch  x 0.75-inch board (secured to the top of the Crown Box)
  • Miscellaneous:
    • 8 x plastic feet (for the bottom of the base box)
    • 1 gallon of white semi-gloss paint (for the boxes and mantel)
    • 1 can of flat gray spray primer (for the backing board)
    • 1 can of rough-textured gray spray paint (for the backing board)

Creating the Grate

I could have bought an actual fireplace grate upon which to rest the fake fireplace logs, but those are usually made from wrought iron because they need to stand up to the heat of an actual fire. Using a real grate would also add a bunch of unnecessary weight to the overall project, and storing the grate would be a pain. With that in mind, I decided to create my own out of PVC pipe because it would be considerably lighter, and it afforded me the option to disassemble grate for storage later.

I chose to use 1.5-inch  PVC pipe to construct the grate, and here is the list of parts for that part of the project:

  • Lots of measured PVC cuts:
    • 36 x 1.5-inch  (for joining crosses/elbows and caps)
    • 7 x 4.5-inch  (between the front and back halves)
    • 8 x 4-inch  (for the legs)
  • PVC connectors:
    • 18 x 90-degree elbows
    • 14 x crosses
    • 10 x caps (three on the front and back, two on the right and left sides)
  • Miscellaneous:
    • PVC cement
    • 8 x 1.5-inch  rubber feet (for the bottom of the legs)
    • I can of flat black spray paint

It took me a long time to cut all of the PVC pipe, and I had enough materials for me to cut a few different lengths for the legs in order to see what the grate looked like at a few different heights. In the end I decided on a 4-inch height for the legs - this seemed to look the best to me. Once I had everything cut, I assembled it just to make sure that everything was going to fit together, then I disassembled it and used the PVC cement to secure the parts of the construction that I didn't want slipping over time (like the legs). Once I reassembled the grate and painted it, I could still disassemble several parts of the grate if I wanted to do so, but I'll probably store the grate intact just to keep the parts together.

Official Unveiling

Despite having worked the entire construction weekend, I still wasn't quite done when Kathleen was due home, so I assembled what I had without bolting everything together. (I still had some final painting to do, and I had some decorative trim that I was still considering for the project.) Just the same, it was far enough along that I could put all of the pieces together and surprise Kathleen when she arrived. She unwittingly gave me a great compliment when asked where I had bought the fireplace. ;-]

Still, I had some work left to do and some changes that I wanted to make - so after leaving the fireplace set up for a week or so, I disassembled it, changed out some of the wood, repainted everything with several additional coats of paint, and I reassembled it.

Here's what the completed project looks like:

This was a great project to build, and it's always fun to work on a project with my dad. But the most important result was - of course - that Kathleen now has a place to hang her Christmas stockings. ;-]

Who is this Santa, Really?

I spent the weekend in Leavenworth, Washington, with my wife, our kids, and my future son-in-law. It was a fun-filled weekend of bright lights, snow-capped mountains, hot apple cider, chestnuts roasting on open fires, and Christmas carols sung by choirs. But the more that I listened to Christmas carols, the more I started to get an interesting picture of Santa Claus.

Like many other people, I grew up with the concept of Santa Claus as a kindly old gentleman that brought gifts at Christmas to all the good children of the world. Santa was like the ultimate grandfather - with a bright red suit, a cheery disposition, a full beard of whiskers, and a sleigh that flew through the air by magic reindeer.

But this year the words to some of the traditional Christmas carols began to really sink in, and I started to see a different Santa. A darker Santa. A scary Santa. Let me give you just a few examples:

  • "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - Think about it: "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake..." Wait - Santa is IN MY ROOM and WATCHING ME SLEEP? Holy cow - I never realized that Santa was stalking me. I don't think that I can match eyes with him in the mall from now own; it's just too creepy.
  • "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - So Santa is breaking up marriages now, eh? Does DADDY know that Santa is spending a little too much time under the mistletoe with MOMMY? How does Mrs. Claus feel about this?
  • "Santa Baby" - That's obviously not MOMMY that's singing those lyrics, so Santa must be two-timing mommy with someone else. And she sounds well-taken-care-of. I wonder how many pretend Mrs. Clauses Santa has scattered around the globe.
  • "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - All those years of prejudice and abuse that Rudolph had to endure, and what did Santa do about it? Nothing. Santa ignored the whole affair, until a foggy Christmas Eve came around, and suddenly he has a use for Rudolph. That poor abused reindeer is nothing but an opportunistic tool to Santa.

My childhood illusion is finally shattered - this Christmas Eve Santa isn't filling STOCKINGS hung by the chimney with care, he's STALKING you by the chimney with care. That's why he's sneaking into your house like a burglar, and why he has so many aliases around the globe - even James Bond doesn't use as many pseudonyms: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Grandfather Frost, Yule Man, Sinterklaas, Дед Мороз, etc.

So this Christmas Eve I suggest that you heed the wise advice found in the "Here Comes Santa Claus" Christmas carol: "Jump in bed and cover up your head, Because Santa Claus comes tonight."