Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Long and Winding Road

This week, I've been helping small person build a fort. Not just any fort; the instructions from school are that the fort must be "authentic" and based on factual information. It's to be a fort that the pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail would have encountered along the way. Let me just say I'm totally against the whole parent doing the kids' homework projects thing and yet I'm finding there is a slippery slope one steps upon the moment we begin helping out with things there is no way a nine-year-old could possibly do.

Let's just start with the research. There were sufficient parameters placed on this project (yeah, I'm a literalist too - why do you think I work with the people I do? the other parents are probably shaking their heads at how overboard I've taken this thing) that finding an appropriate fort to copy and have enough information to actually do something with it was next to impossible. At least at the beginning when I couldn't have listed more than a half dozen forts by name - most of them, as it turns out, not military.

This, of course, was one of the early stumbling blocks - according to the instructions, it's supposed to be a military fort. Guess what - it turns out that a lot of the forts the emigrants came to on their journeys westward were actually private sector trading posts. More than a week into the project, a handout surfaces with information on several forts, some of which we've already discarded as possibilities because we'd written them off as Hudson's Bay Company forts and the like. Ahh well, at least I know I have a problem being too literal at times.

After much internet search help from Parental Unit Mom (me), we settled on Fort Laramie. I tend to like to be a bit different than everyone else and this seemed way too obvious a choice, but it has its advantages. As a major stop on a section of trail that was shared by just about everyone heading to just about anywhere in the Pacific Northwest all the way down into northern California, there is a lot of information about Fort Laramie. Almost too much, given how much it changed over the years. Hey, on the good side, that means our model is bound to be semi-accurate for some relevant period of time... and even if it's not, it'd be tough to prove that!

Uncle Doug had the best idea ever - start with a cereal box. With the cardboard we cut from the sides, we made blockhouses and then made a run to the craft store for $40 or so worth of supplies. Small person found a package of horses about the right scale, dowels sized about right for tipi poles, little pompoms he figured would be great for bushes and just the right color of textured spray paint to make a cereal box look like whitewashed adobe. Oh, and not being a glue person so much except to know I've run across lots of kinds of glue that don't do what I want, I probably spent half of our budget on several different kinds of glue. Actually, I think we've used almost every kind so far except for one and we may still get to that one yet. Thank goodness there's a scrapbooking craze on.

I did the design work trying to figure out how to turn a cereal box into a believable rendition of a pioneer fort and small person cut everything out and folded up the sections making the blockhouses. He blacked in where the windows and doors would go on the blockhouses and the interior apartments and together we taped it all into place.

Spousal/Parental Unit Dad took spray paint duty (do you think he'd object to being referred to as SPUD?). Seriously - you're not going to let a nine-year-old wield a spray can, are you? The last time one did in our household, it resulted in significant patches of blue carpeting in the junior member of the partnership's bedroom and the loss of our damage deposit. Fortunately, I can report that he survived that incident and seems to have rehabilitated his penchant for destroying his surroundings. And if not - well, it's his damage deposit now and being able to afford that is presumably part of the motivation for graduating from college.

Similarly, the X-acto knife action needed to delicately remove bits of masking tape from the doors and windows was my job. To my credit and the horror of better mothers everywhere, I did let him use the awl to poke holes in the catwalk so he could put toothpicks in for a palisade. No blood was shed and I didn't even feel the need to hover over him after the first five. The carefully applied spray paint is still even (mostly) in place. Spousal/Parental Unit Dad will be happy about that.

Along the way, we also took apart the latest rocket ship probe (though we were able to save the control panel) in order to make the base. And we only got a minimum of blue river glitter all over the floor. Happy Days. Small person decided that we really needed ladders in this fort too and they do make a nice touch. We have yet to put together the corral and the tipis but hopefully there will be time for that around everything else that's going on the next couple of days.

The net result so far is that this project is looking way cool and is "done enough" even if we don't get to the remaining finishing touches. Small person has had help, yes, and yet a lot of the work has been his own. He chose the fort. He read all the materials I helped find and made a list of things he wanted to include in the overall display, found a lot of the supplies needed to make his vision a reality, and he has done most of the gruntwork that didn't involve spray paint or digit-severing implements. Especially with the size constraints placed on this project, it may be just as well that the Fort Phil Kearny that he built with his grandfather recently (and saved all this time just for this project) was not found intact.

I have to say I've definitely learned (or at least was reminded of) a lot too. Among them, things like... Spousal Unit is still better than I am at recognizing when we're at the point where it's advantageous to remember the enemy of good is better... how a tipi goes together... how stinkin' many people paraded west during the mass emigration that occurred in the mid- and late-1800's and how short a time window they had to make the trek... the value of making note of where we've been for future reference... how many of our skills get pressed into play in ways we never anticipated... different styles of leadership are needed from one moment to the next, even working with a single individual... and perhaps most important of all - kids (just like employees) often are capable of far more than we give them credit for.

Are you working on any cool projects you'd like to share or have some comments on parents doing schoolwork for kids - it's really about the equivalent of managers doing work for employees, isn't it? Send them to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - till then, Happy Trails!

In what new ways are your past skills and experiences still relevant?

Kimm Viebrock is a Certified Professional Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organizaion, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.