On the Side: Takin’ Care of Business

Marginally profitable side businesses are the stock-in-trade of young families.

The ongoing race between month and money always comes down to a nose, so we cheat, dressing the one up like a halloween witch and hoping the judges don’t notice.

At different times this has taken the form of landscape design (me), editing college papers, resumes, and sundry writings of others (me, though usually quid pro quo), summer daycare (Rachel), non-profit office temporary help (Rachel), tutoring in a homeschool co-up (Rachel, also quid pro quo so our kids can attend), selling insurance (Rachel), and selling books (Rachel, currently). Whatever it takes to pad the bottom line so the bills don’t outpace the savings.

My latest venture came to me by a friend’s suggestion. He found a service that does (for a small feFlower Checkere) what I can’t seem to stop doing everywhere I go–telling people just what kind of plant they happen to be looking at. A few e-mails later, and I found myself working ad hoc on the back end of a Czech web business: FlowerChecker.

The basic premise involves a purchased app (there is also a free version now) in which users buy credits to redeem for positive ID from uploaded images of plants they’ve encountered. The fun comes in from the fact that there is no sophisticated, algorithmic database analysis running the show. Rather, FlowerChecker is a good old-fashioned mechanical Turk, with dozens of botany nerds (like myself) on the back end debating IDs and resolving requests. Each of us gets a small cut of the company’s earnings for completed requests weekly. Seriously, try it out sometime.

Beyond that, through a friend of a friend, I’ve been engaged in editing a medical text for missionary/rural doctors in the developing world. Freelancing will land you in all kinds of projects. This one has plenty of long words, grotesque illustrations, and helpful information, but it’s a privilege to help out with ministry in this way. Getting
paid a little for my time and effort is nice as well.

The blogging and other writing work are footing the bill for all this fun, sacrificing their Dollartime for the good of the group, but balance and routine will return in their season.

So the march goes on, and every little bit helps. Momma dollar and Poppa dollar are hard at work on the multiplication process as we speak.

Peeling Back the Clock: Adventures in DIY-land

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I share this update on life in our home.

Few experiences can shake your faith in life’s “settledness” than repair work. Tinkering with everyday items taken for granted is a trip down a rabbit-hole of complexity, confusion, and the shoddy work of handymen past.

It’s always this way. When have you ever started fixing something on your car and finished without at least two trips back to AutoZone? When have you attempted a plumbing tweak that resulted in something other than a flood or a week of “doing without” that faucet? I rest my case.

I’ve heard it said that homeownership is the best teacher of basic craftsmanship. This is incomplete, on two levels. First, only homeownership in the absence of disposable income accomplishes this. If I could easily afford to pay someone to waste their time battling corroded pipes and shoring up the remains of last month’s termite buffet, you think I’d do this myself? Second, owning and desiring to repair something are not the complete set needed to learn new skills; making your own mistakes is a must. I can watch YouTube videos all day long, but until I break it myself, I don’t really understand how far in over my head I am.

I am not Mr. Fix-it...well maybe this one.

I am not Mr. Fix-it…well maybe this one.

The car is somewhat a different matter, if for no other reason than that tomorrow morning’s commute to work always imposes a strict deadline to put it all back together. Even then, I’m embarrassed to tell how long it’s taken me to break down and buy the basic tools needed to make simple repairs as simple as they should be. The same two principles apply to learning in this realm: Lack of funds and lack of expertise must converge before you can reach a sufficient level of despair to actually internalize the lesson.

All this is floating to the surface because my wife and I recently looked around our house (ca. 1960) to realize how little we’ve done to keep the place up since moving in in 2007. Sure, we had the windows replaced, but that was when we had the spendthrift ways of a young couple with two decent jobs. We did the roof too, but that was a DIY debacle in its own way (racing to dry in before the rain, spending all Thanksgiving picking nails out of the driveway, and still dealing with one persistent drip years later). The inside is unchanged since our flurry of painting just before we occupied.

We started with what we knew. Drawing on my past life as a landscaper, we took out an ugly shrub (read: rangy 15′ tree) and put in a small retaining wall to liven up the front entrance. So far so good.

Then, we got the bright idea to take out all the clunky light switches and put in the flat-panel “decorator” models. Halfway through that project, the garbage disposal is no longer connected to a live circuit, we broke some tiles in the bathroom, disabled the dual switching to the hall light, and uncovered enough bad wiring to (hopefully not literally) make one’s hair stand on end. So that’s going well.

Next on the list, touching up the bathrooms, examining the plumbing, redoing some insulation and sheetrock in the garage, and more. At least the planned yard sale should go off without a hitch (“He said, black clouds filling the sky behind him”).

As an exercise in irony, a look back makes it clear to Rachel & me that we overpaid for this house–precisely because we did not want a “fixer-upper” to deal with. Of course all houses eventually become fixer-uppers. Time and nature play no favorites, and it positively astonishes to see how small children and entropy work together so well on so many things. To an outsider, it probably seems like cheap farce (Oh, who are we kidding? No one ever notices), but I doubt this is a very different tune from whatever most of you are playing.

There is wisdom to be had in knowing your limits. Nobody is good at everything. I’d spend more money eating out if I didn’t enjoy the savings and control of cooking at home. Someday, perhaps, I’ll figure out that I should stop whipping up burned biscuits in the home repair department and pay someone who enjoys doing it right. In all, value is what you make of it. There are some things I’d shell out for if we lived in a different part of town, but for our neighborhood, clean and functional is luxury in itself. Life goes on, and we’ll certainly be much the wiser next time we buy a place to live, but what the heck, it’s home.

To paraphrase a rather “earthy” quip from a friend, there’s not a thing wrong with us that a good night’s sleep, a hot shower, and a half-million dollars won’t fix.