August 2014

The Blessing of Busted Plans: Part 2 – Puerto Ric-DOH!

In a previous post, we talked about how important it was for us to learn to go with the flow and follow our hearts when faced with changes in our plans.  Our experience with our trip to Philly for a Zac Brown Band concert was a good example of us making a conscientious decision to follow our hearts.  Sometimes though, changes to our plans are less intentional.  Sometimes those hard decisions are made for us.  It is in those times that it is equally important to be able to make the best of a “tough” situation.  Here is a story of that happening to us and how we reacted, not three weeks after our adventure in Philly…  

Maria and I really enjoy traveling together.  Unfortunately, with having a young family, it had been a little hard for us to do, especially anywhere that would involve flying.  In fact, the thought of bringing our three boys into an airport, getting them through security, sitting at the gate for an hour (or more), boarding the plane, and keeping them occupied for who knows how long gives me cold sweats.  I travel enough for work that I know the day we try to do that would be the day that the plane gets grounded on the tarmac for 4 hours or something ridiculous like that.  Anyway, I digress.  So our last really memorable “destination” vacation was to Belize for our honeymoon.  It was a really cool trip, where we split time between the rainforest (based from San Ignacio, where we hiked some Mayan ruins, did some cave exploration and waterfall diving) and the beach (based from Ambergris Caye, where we did some fishing, snorkeling, and lots of pina colad…I mean, relaxing).  That was almost 8 years ago. 

A "selfie" from our honeymoon, high atop the Caracol Mayan ruins in Belize

A “selfie” from our honeymoon, high atop the Caracol Mayan ruins in Belize

So, of course we jumped at the chance for another trip when the stars aligned for all three of our boys to be taken care of for a whole week!  This has NEVER before happened, and we were sure would NEVER happen again, so we immediately began planning for a trip that would be epic…a vacation that could stave us over for another 5-10 years.  Our minds wandered from a European walkabout to a tour of national parks in the Midwest to a wilderness trip to Alaska to a resort vacation in Costa Rica.  Unfortunately, as it always does, reality quickly set in to dampen our expectations.  Maria’s passport had expired, so we bagged anything international.  Alaska would have been cool, but we heard that it would be hard to see everything in just 8 days.  The National Park trip is something that we still very much want to do, but required too much moving around and coordination…we needed something relaxing, yet exciting, luxurious, yet economical.  Finally, a friend mentioned Puerto Rico…we had never been there before, as a US territory we could get there without a passport, prices looked pretty reasonable compared to other Caribbean locations, and there was a great diversity available for us to do both some adventuring and relaxing without too much complexity in planning and execution.  Sold!! 

We immediately set to planning our Puerto Rico vacation.  While I was looking forward to the trip, Maria was beyond excited.  She was ecstatic.  While I get a little break from the grind of the home life on a daily basis, Maria very rarely gets to disconnect for more than a few hours let alone an entire week.  She was fired up, and took on most of the planning and coordination. One big bonus of picking Puerto Rico was that I had enough frequent flyer miles from work to cover our tickets.  Since those miles were all under my account, I got the job of booking the flights.  Maria took care of the hotels, rental car, coordinating transport of the kids to their respective locations before the trip, and care of the homestead animals while we were gone.  After a few months of preparing and planning, we were all set.  We would be leaving from Philadelphia airport on Saturday morning, arriving at our island paradise by around lunchtime.  

The day before our trip, Maria took the two older boys to her brother’s house in Maryland (a long trip there and back in a single day with a car full of kids), and dropped our youngest off with her parents on Friday evening.  We both got home on Friday night and started to put the finishing touches on our packing.  For about an hour, our spirits couldn’t have been higher.  As I removed some items from my closet floor in an effort to find my favorite flip-flops, I noticed that some things were wet down there.  “This is odd”, I thought…”I wonder what series of events led to one of the boys spilling water in my closet…” Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was not a random spilled sippy cup, but rather a full-on leak from the hot water heater that supplies our bathroom/shower.  “&%$@#!!!!! I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!!!  OF ALL OF THE &@#$% TIMES FOR THIS TO HAPPEN, IT HAD TO BE THE NIGHT BEFORE OUR TRIP!!!  AAAGHHH!!!” Of course, I did not have the presence of mind at the time to realize that it is much better to find it when it was a small leak that I could manage before we left rather than finding it as a major flood on our new floors when we returned 8 days later, but I realize that now.  I was upset to say the least, but was able at least to cut off the breaker, drain the tank to avoid any further issues while were gone, and resolve myself to deal with the rest when we got home.  Fine.  We finished up our packing, and went to bed in anticipation of an early morning departure to our island paradise. 

We got up on Saturday morning at about 5:30, had some breakfast, packed up the car, locked down the property, and were out the door by 6:30.  We had a really nice drive down to the Philly airport, with almost no traffic and jamming out to some live island music (Jack Johnson Live at the Kokua Festival – awesome album!).  We parked the car, grabbed our luggage and I began my mental transformation into “airport mode”.  Like I said, I fly a bit for work, and have developed a bit of a routine that I have found gets me onto the plane with the least amount of complexity, hassle, and above all, human interactions (I am not at all anti-social, but airports, grocery stores, and malls are all places where I have found minimizing human interactions to be in my best interest).  

One big piece of this is checking in and printing my boarding passes online the night before, which I neglected to do because of the hot water heater debacle the night before, and besides I didn’t remember seeing the reminder email from the airline that would have otherwise triggered me to do it.  The next best things are the self check-in kiosks, which we opted to use that morning.  Having done this a million times before, I confidently stepped up to the unit, typed my info into the unit, and scanned my credit card…“Passenger not found” the unit responded.  “Hm, weird, that has never happened to me before”.  Normally, my flights are all booked by our admin, so I figured it must have been because I used my frequent flyer miles or booked by phone.  Maria tried as well, and got the same result.  Not a great start, and certainly not part of my standard airport routine, but we resolved to go down to the cattle chutes of customer service where the general population goes to check their baggage and complain about this or that.  This is normally a place that I avoid like the plague, but on such a wonderful day, my spirits could not be broken by something so trivial.  We were early, and still had plenty of time to wait, which we were graciously obliged to do as a result of the massive line growing behind the single unhappy attendant at the desk.  It was about now that I began to get an uneasy feeling about the whole thing…”it doesn’t make sense…that kiosk should have worked…I KNOW I booked the flights for the 29th…this must be some kind of stupid software issue”  After about a half hour of anxious waiting, increasing blood pressure, and brief discussion with some armed service guys heading out for deployment (for which I was happy to break my code of airport introversion), we finally got up to the desk.  It was here that my worst fears were confirmed.  “Sir, I’m showing that you don’t have flight reservations until tomorrow morning”.  “That can’t be possible ma’am.  I booked the flights myself.  Can you please check again?”  “SIR, it says right here, you are booked for the flight to San Juan, leaving at 8:30 on Sunday, June 29th”.

For anyone that has ever done anything catastrophically stupid, you might recall the feelings that started going through me in that moment.  That sinking feeling of realization that a bad thing just happened and it was definitely your fault.  That swimming feeling in your mind where you rehash whatever mistake led you to that moment (which for me was failing to realize that Saturday was the 28th, not the 29th), and the desperate urge to find some excuse, rationale or solution to the situation (for which I had none, as all other flights to San Juan that day were booked up solid).  Here we are sitting amid the turmoil of the check-in line at one of the busiest airports in the country, my wife longing for her only trip away with just the two of us in nearly 5 years, which she spent endless days and weeks planning and preparing for, and me, screwing up the one and only thing that I had been asked to do to.  I felt awful.  Accepting defeat, I slowly skulked away from the unhappy woman at the desk knowing that we were officially the only people in the airport less happy than she was. 

In this moment, Maria had a few options.  1) Kick me in the groin, punch me in the face, walk away, and catch a cab to the nearest bar, 2) Verbally rip me a new one, berating me for how stupid I was to get the date wrong for such an important task, or 3) Let it go and make the best of a bad situation.  Luckily, she chose the latter by asking me a simple question…”Joe, if it were me that had screwed up the tickets, would you be mad at me?”  “Mmm…no, I don’t think I would…I would probably recognize that it was a simple mistake and would try to find a way to make the best of it”  “OK then, that is what we will do.  Let’s go back home”.  God, I love my wife.     

So, that is what we did…we hopped back in the car and headed back toward the homestead, joking about what things we could do with our bonus day at home.  Naturally, we agreed that the most romantic thing that we could do would be to stop at the hardware store to research new water heaters (which we ended up ordering to be ready for installation when we got back).  Next up was a stop at a little local diner that Maria’s dad had been raving about (Bergy’s Mall in Wassergass) where we had a delicious and exceedingly economical lunch, listened to the locals trading the hottest gossip (who was buying the old golf course, the state of the local pipefitters union, etc…), and played a few games of checkers at the serving bar, unknowingly getting some tips from old man Bergy himself.  We then headed back home for a well-deserved nap (which we also haven’t had together in over 5 years!!), after which we strolled around the garden, fed the animals, shared a beer, and played a game of quoits (the slate-board style).  We made reservations for dinner at a restaurant in town that we had been meaning to try (Bella’s Ristorante), but left our house so early (accounting out of habit for the time that it normally takes to coordinate, load, and unload the kids) that we were more than 30 minutes early.  We used that time to stroll around downtown Hellertown, which we have never done despite driving through it countless times going to and from various school and family events.  After a while we found ourselves sitting in the shade of a tree next to a fountain on Main Street, enjoying the beautiful day, watching the clouds and the birds, and talking about all sorts of stuff in our life.  Finally, we roused ourselves to meander back to the restaurant where we had a great dinner (capped by a complimentary sample of the homemade limoncello with the owner, who had three girls about the same age as our boys).  We stopped at Maria’s parents house on the way home to drop off our leftovers and say goodnight to little Matty before settling in on our sofa for a nice movie (“About Time“, which was coincidentally about treasuring the moments in your life, accepting the tough times, and making the most of every minute…highly recommended, and a fitting end to the day that we had).

The next morning, we woke up, repeated our departure routine, but this time were actually able to get on the flight.  We subsequently had a wonderful trip, full of great memories, a few mishaps and adventures, and plenty of relaxation.  But of all of the beautiful days that we spent in Puerto Rico, arguably one of the best days of our vacation was that first day at home, where we took a mishap that could have been catastrophic for many couples and turned it into a really memorable stay-cation.  It was so much fun in fact that we decided the next time we have the chance for a vacation, we may just send the kids away and make a whole week of exploring the towns around us.  Certainly, there would be no chance of screwing up the tickets for that trip 😉            


After we finally made it...a relaxing memory from the rain forest

After we finally made it…a relaxing memory from the rain forest


A-frame level

Building Contour Beds: Part 1 – Introduction and Making an A-Frame Level

In a recent post, we talked about some things that we were doing to make the most use of our limited and imperfect property.  One of these things was the use of “contour beds” as a way to control erosion, effectively capture and retain rain water, and to make the most use out of some awkward strips of land on the north and south sides of the house.  We are just in the beginning phases of building some of these beds, so I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts to show how we are doing it.  In this first post, I’ll describe briefly what a contour bed is, and how to build an A-frame level (a tool that you can use to map the contours of your property).

So, what the heck is a contour bed?  Basically, it is a raised bed that is constructed on a slope such that the bed follows a line of constant, level elevation, or “contour line”.  The purpose of designing beds in this way are numerous, but typically have to do with controlling the flow of water.  As a rule, water always flows downhill (duh, right ;-), at a right angle to/perpendicular to these contour lines.  The idea is that as water flows downhill, it will run into the contour bed and effectively stop its downhill flow, being forced to move slowly along the level uphill side of the bed until it reaches the end the bed, at which point it will begin running downhill again (where ideally you have another contour bed ready to catch that water and allow it to be further harvested and controlled).  This provides multiple functions, including forcing water to penetrate more deeply into the soil in and downstream from the bed, preventing soil erosion and nutrient loss, and creating microclimates in the different slopes and faces of the typically curvy beds (depends on the shape of your contour lines).  Depending on how important it is to harness, retain, or control moisture in your environment, these can be built:

  • simply using fertile topsoil and compost (in areas like ours where there is consistent, plentiful rainfall through most of the year and significant water retention is not a huge concern)
  • with level trenches uphill of the contour bed (called a swale, used when large amounts of water need to be captured to penetrate soil and preserve moisture in dry climates)
  • with wood buried underneath them (“woody beds”, similar to a concept known as hugelkultur where the wood acts as a moisture sink or wick for the soil in the bed above it, adds to organic matter for micro-organisms in the soil to feed on, and stimulates fungal growth in the soil that is important for nutrient transfer with the roots of plants)
  • or any combination of the above. 

These have become fairly common and important techniques in the area of permaculture.  For our beds, we are mostly going with the woody beds since we have an abundance of dead wood around, and there are purported to be huge benefits for soil health.  Here are some more resources on contour beds and woody beds if you are interested in reading more:

The Survival Podcast – All about Contour Gardening and Woody Beds

TC Permaculture – Contour gardening with woody beds

Once we decided to use contour beds on our property, one of the first issues that I faced was how exactly I would go about mapping the contour of the land.  I thought that it might be pretty easy to eyeball a line that I thought was level, but it turned out to be harder than I thought, with many small dips and bends in the slope of our land.  I next thought about using the 4′ spirit level that I use for carpentry projects around the house.  Again, not the right tool for the job, as it kept getting hung up on rocks, grass, and other vegetation and was too long to actually connect to level points on our uneven land.  After doing a little research, it seemed like the most common tool for determining contour lines was a laser level.  Unfortunately, a good quality laser level costs upward of $100, which I wasn’t sure if I was ready to spend on something that I might only use a few times.  Finally, I came across the idea of using an A-frame level; a simple tool for determining levels in contour lines that I could build by myself for <$20.  I was sold…the boys and I found a few different sets of instructions online and set out to build our own A-frame level.  Here’s how we did it.


  • 2 – 8′ 2″x3″ pieces of lumber
  • 1 – 3′ 2″x3″ piece of lumber
  • Drill with screws
  • Spirit level
  • 6′ of string
  • A washer, large screw or something similar to act as a “plumb bob”
  • Marker
  • A level surface
All the materials you need to make an A-frame level

All the materials you need to make an A-frame level

Step 1) Take the two 8′ pieces of 2″x3″ and place them lengthwise on top of one another.  Drill a screw through both boards about 2′ from whichever end you decide to be the top of the boards. 

Two boards screwed together

Two boards screwed together, separated a little for purpose of illustration

Step 2) Rotate the connected boards so that the bottom of one board is about 3′ from the bottom of the other board.  (This dimension isn’t critical, but it will define the distance over which you will be measuring level…3′ felt like a manageable number to me based on the small distances over which the slope of our land changes.  For more flat land, a larger distance, such as 4′-5′, may be more appropriate.)

Bottom of boards separated by 3'

Bottom of boards separated by 3′

Step 3) Place the 3′ piece of lumber perpendicular across the two connected boards about 3′ from the  bottom of the boards.  Again, this dimension is not critically important, but will be approximately where you will be sighting in the level, so make sure it isn’t super low or too high for you to see.  Screw this small board into the top of one of the two long boards and the bottom of the other so that it is “weaved” between them. 

Small 3' lumber placed across connected boards

Small 3′ lumber placed on connected boards, “weaved” above one board and below the other 

Step 4) Drill a small screw into where the two long boards are connected to one another.  Tie one end of the 6′ string to this screw, and tie the weight or “plumb bob” of your choice (washer, large screw, etc…) to the other end of the string.  We chose a large screw that I found in the toolbox.

Small screw drilled partway into where two long boards are connected

Small screw drilled partway into where two long boards are connected

String tied to partially drilled screw

String tied to partially drilled screw


Step 5) Stand the A-frame level up on as level a spot as you can find so that the string hangs down perpendicular to the small cross-piece of lumber.  Place the spirit level on the top of the cross-piece of lumber.  Place thin pieces of material (cardboard, newspaper, shims, etc…) under one leg of the A-frame until the spirit level indicates a level surface.  Being careful to not move the A-frame, use the marker to make a vertical mark on the cross-lumber where the string crosses it.  Turn the A-frame around so that it is facing the opposite direction, and repeat the leveling/marking process.  This second step is important, as there may be small differences in how the pieces of wood were assembled that will result in minor differences in where the level line will be.

Spirit level on cross-lumber indicating a level surface with lumber marked to show position of string when level

Spirit level on cross-lumber indicating a level surface with lumber marked to show position of string when level

 Step 6) Pat yourself on the back…you’re done!  Have your boys hold the A-frame level up to show off their hard work for the camera 🙂

 A-frame level

Our finished A-frame level

To use the A-frame, start by positioning one leg of the level at the point where you want your bed to begin.  Keeping that leg stationary, rotate the A-frame slightly so that the other leg moves up or downhill until the string lines up with the marker line that you drew on the cross-piece of lumber.  At this point, the line between the legs should be roughly level.  Place a marker or flag on the ground directly below the plumb bob at the end of the string.  Now, keeping stationary the leg of the A-frame opposite of the leg that you started with (that is a confusing sentence, but hopefully you follow my meaning), rotate the A-frame 180°, then adjust slightly the position of the other leg until you find a level position (once again, indicated by string lining up with marker on cross-lumber).  Again, place a marker or flag under the plumb bob.  Continue in this manner until you reach the spot where you want your bed to stop, leaving behind you a series of markers or flags that map the contour line that is level with where you originally started.  You might be surprised from how different this contour line looks from how you might have eye-balled it…contours can be very deceiving especially where there is a lots of vegetation or subtle rolls to the land. 

I found contour mapping to be kind of addicting…after completing my first one, I proceeded to map out most of the rest our property until I used up the 200 yard flags that I had gotten online.  I was nowhere near ready to build the beds yet though, so it led to lots of questions from friends and family about what in the world those flags were for that have been in our yard for 2 months!  Oh well…it was a good opportunity to describe what a contour bed was to anyone that was interested in listening 😉

As you can see, building an A-frame level is super easy.  Hopefully, you can follow this to build one of your own if you are interested (lots of fun to do with kids that are just learning about drills, screws, and levels).  In our next post in this series, I’ll show you how we used this A-frame to map out one of our first beds!  Until then, enjoy the beautiful summer weather – it is a far cry warmer today than the day that we built this back in February, as you can tell from the kids gear…brrr!!!