Finding Your Calling (Hint: It’s probably not behind a desk)

Growing up, my dad never sat still. Or if he did, it was only because he needed to be sitting down so he could finish sketching out the dimensions of his latest obsession. When we were building our house in Semmes, even before the house foundation was started, he’d built a shed for his tools. Later, that shed would become more of a storage unit than a shop, but I believe he would have spent more hours there than in the house if he knew he wouldn’t catch hell for ignoring the family.

When my dad got sick back in 2018, we all put on a brave face and told ourselves that he could get better. He had a great bunch of doctors and nurses and for a man in his early 80s, he was amazingly spry and active. But, deep down, I think we all knew the odds were against him.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more like him. Despite my being adopted, his “always stay busy” attitude, coupled with an innate need to create, are alive and well in me. If nothing else, of that I think he’d be proud. And I too have my own shop-slash-storage unit, but unlike his, mine is in the basement of my house and habitable throughout the year, impervious as it is to the heat of summer and the frigidity of the winter months. There are also a lot fewer cockroaches, which is nice.

Forty years later, I can tell you almost exactly how many steps it was from the door of my dad’s shed to his toolbox; I made the trip enough times. I can also tell you which drawer of my dad’s old toolbox he kept the screwdrivers in. It was the first drawer. Beneath that, his pliers. Beneath that, his electrical tools, such as his meters and soldering iron. I know because I organized my own toolbox the same way. If it works, and you remember what’s where because you had to “go fetch” tools from it a thousand times while working with your dad, why change it? Most of the memories I have of my dad involve some kind of work–either us working together, or me doing something he’d tasked me with. So, to say that I have a more than passing interest in preserving those memories, is a fair statement.

As dad got sicker–and my relationship with his girlfriend followed suit–I realized that unless I took preemptive action, when he passed, I wasn’t going to get any of these things. I even told him once that I would be surprised if she even let me in the house after he was gone, to which he agreed. Most of his “things” I couldn’t have cared less about; but, his tools were something else entirely. I grew up using those tools. I watched my father build our house and two dog houses with them. I can still remember trying to anticipate where he needed the flashlight or which screwdriver or pair of plyers he’d need next. I can still remember how dark it got on us the night he helped me rig up my car stereo amp (that was the days before they had prebuilt harnesses). And I can still feel the smooth surety of the hickory handle of that old ax I swung a million times while clearing out the back-five acres behind the house (btw – If you haven’t read that story, here you go). I have a million memories of those times working with him and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing it all to his girlfriend’s early-onset dementia and her paranoid belief that I was trying to take my father away from her.

And to be fair, my father had told me that he wanted me to come up and take some things back home. I think he too realized the truth about his partner, but was just too sick to care to do anything about it. So one Saturday morning, I drove up to his home in Mills River, NC and we went through some of his old tools. I didn’t take much really, just some odds and ends hand tools and some fishing poles. In truth, I left 10x as much as I took home with me. He’d become a bit of a packrat in his old age; finally able to afford the tools he’d longed for in his youth. And so, of a weekend, he would visit garage sales and pick up random tools, even if he had two or three of the same thing at home already.

I think we both understood the finality of my coming up to go through his tools. Up to that point, I would never have even broached the idea of him sharing some of his handyman largess with me. It would have been like asking to drive another man’s motorcycle–you just don’t do it. But as he so bluntly put it that warm Saturday morning, “I can’t keep up this place like I used to. I don’t have any need for most of this stuff now. I want you to have it.”

I made the trip in one day. I refused to stay in the house with his partner and, while her northern upbringing wouldn’t allow her to say it out loud, it was clear I wasn’t welcome anyway. He would pass about two and a half months later. It was a messy death–misunderstood and incomprehensible–like much of his life was to those around him.

His tools now reside in my own matching red and black Craftsman toolbox. His old claw hammer with the dark brown wooden handle, made nigh impermeable from decades of sweat and heat, now hangs from a nail inside my shop over the door. It watches over me with a critical eye, a reminder of a legacy of an insatiable desire to tear down and build anew, and a need to create from nothing. Every time I see it I’m reminded of how short my own accomplishments have fallen compared to his.

At 48, I still have a lot of good years ahead of me; though maybe not as many as I like to think. My manual labor Saturdays end earlier and my joints ache more every year. All of these tools and memories I have will one day be someone else’s to make decisions about. And as it stands now, none of my own kids seem headed in my “handy” direction, so it will probably be the Estate Sale for most of my stuff; a headache for my wife and children. They will disperse it to someone else, never understanding how much I loved the ache and bone-tiredness resulting from many a Saturday and weeknight’s work.

All of this busy-ness is fleeting. Those projects I skipped soccer matches to finish, which seemed so important then, will be nothing more than part of an aggregate dollar amount on a real-estate sales contract when I’m gone–if I’m lucky I’ll be gone.

But the work made my dad happy, and when I’m busily working on a project, particularly one that will improve our house or the yard, I’m at my happiest. Maybe that’s all any of us can really ask for once we’ve had children of our own and our reason for existence changes from satisfying self, to providing for others. In many ways, my little projects offer a bit of both.

Towards the end, my dad expressed regrets. Regrets about the way he raised me, the things he said and did, or didn’t. He never talked specifics, but I always figured he knew how hard on me he was. There was only ever one way to do something–his way. There was no “down time” and had it not been for my step-mom, there would have never been anything but school and work, which was how he was raised, as was his father before him.

I’ve probably gone the opposite direction with my own kids and I wonder if it’s too late now to course-correct. Only time will tell, I suppose. But, if any of them find their inner handy-person calling late in life, I hope my tools–and memories–are still here for them.

The Best Laid Plans

Sometime back in the summer, when everyone in my family (but me) and everyone in my wife’s family (but me) were all at a house on the North Carolina coast (all 40-something of them), my two boys (MLI and MLE) conspirated with their two similarly-aged girl cousins from Texas, to get together before Thanksgiving.

Wanting to foster this “cuz-luv,” my wife tried to schedule a “meet in the middle” trip to Memphis, but her brother (father of the girl cousins) wasn’t going for it.

So, my wife, bowing to peer pressure from the boys, scheduled a trip to Dallas, leaving today and returning next Tuesday evening. I would stay home with the recovering dog, and generally enjoy some quiet time.

Seeing as how we also have a daughter who is a good bit younger than the rest of them, we kept trying to convince her NOT to go since “5” is always an odd-person-out, but she had major FOMO and was insistent on going.

So, you remember that part, back when I wrote, “Best Laid Plans”?

This morning, my daughter woke up with a bit of a scratchy throat and, fearing she’d get sicker on the trip, away from the comforts of home, decided to stay home and NOT go on the trip that was scheduled to leave in less than an hour.

OK then. Needless to say, I was mentally ready (OH SO READY) for several quiet days at home, doing catch-up projects, NOT having to cook for anyone, or generally tell anyone I was leaving the house and having to worry whether or not they were safe. There was probably going to be an adult beverage or two. But not now. When you’re home alone with a kid, you can’t ever really let yourself go. You have to always be in physical and mental shape to tackle any emergency–real or imagined.

I also had a massage scheduled (the gift card I’ve been sitting on since Father’s day) and a very large, DIY project. None of that is happening now and in fact, I’m reconsidering the days I took off from work next week to accomplish these things.

I was FINALLY going to tackle this disaster area. How I HATE metal wire shelving!

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I love my daughter y’all like nothing before, but I still haven’t mentally adjusted to weeks of planning to the contrary.

On the Art of Being Still – And Eliminating Moles

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I learned how to be STILL in church. I also learned how to be sneaky and get away with being touchy-feely with girls in church, but that’s a completely different story for another time.

Church in the South is not to be taken lightly. It happens multiple times per week and if you’re “lucky,” a traveling preacher will come to town and he (it was always a “he” then) held a revival, often in a tent, outside. Revivals lasted a minimum of three days and if the fervor was strong enough (or I suspect, the donations), it could go on indefinitely.

Our pastor liked the youth to sit in the front rows. No doubt, it was so he could adequately instill the fear of God in us. But, kids are nothing if not inventive and we turned sitting in the front row into a social status symbol rather than a burden. Anyone who was anyone sat in the front row and if you were “going with” someone, you sat with them and maybe you could hold hands without your parents being the wiser.

Whatever you did however, it had to be done quietly and with a minimum of movement. Limbs were moved slowly. Notes were passed on the down-lo’ from hand-to-hand while each human-child link in the note-passing chain kept eye contact with the pastor, never looking directly down at what was being passed. If you were the final recipient of said note, it was only under the most careful circumstances that you opened and read the note. That circumstance being that the pastor had turned away from you and was striding across the stage to address the far side of the church.

Experienced church-youth could recognize when the pastor’s voice was moving to a crescendo and it was only then that you could unfold your paper–or candy wrapper–so as not to be heard doing so. That was the only safe way to open and quickly scan what was so secretively delivered. Surely it was something juicy?

But over the years, I became adept at stillness. I could (and can) sit extremely still for long periods of time, as long as my environment is comfortable. I also developed this interesting “tunnel vision” whereas, if I stared ONLY at the preacher pacing across the stage, moving ONLY my eyes, everything else faded to black.

Little did I know how that training would benefit me as an adult. To this day, I use this technique in meetings at work when they last far longer than usefulness would dictate.

And I’ve found a new purpose for my abilities; “I’ve Got Moles.”

Moles/Voles, whatever you call them–they are, in fact, a bit of an epidemic on my street. As you walk along the sidewalk, you can’t help but see the tell-tale meandering, raised tunnels of slightly dead grass  where the moles have burrowed and the grass roots have begun to dry out and die off.

In the past, I have used varying methods of mole-control. I have the spike traps that you insert just over an active mole trail. The idea being that as they burrow under the trigger plate, it trips the spikes which slam down into the ground, spearing the mole.

I’ve never actually caught/killed a mole with one. I’ve come out of a morning and found them triggered, their spikes jammed into the soft earth, but upon pulling them up, found them empty as usual.

I’ve tried water hoses in their trails trying to drown them out (CaddyShack style). I’ve tried baits and poisons, to no avail.

But, I have a Weimaraner. Her name is “Shiner,” and as it turns out, she is the consummate mole hunter. In this picture, she’s happily sniffing the mole she killed. I’ve erased most of the gore, but you can clearly see the little feet. Like most hunting dogs, her natural instinct is to catch it and juuuuust bite down enough to break its back/neck. And then she’ll just carry it around, or put it down so everyone can admire her kill and praise her for her prowess.

(This is one of her kills. I erased the gore.)
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Her only flaw is that she drools when she is close to her prey. This is particularly troublesome when she’s standing over a chipmunk burrow waiting for them to pop up. Her drool tends to fall straight down into the hole. Jig’s up.

But Shiner taught me how to use my ability for stillness, to take care of my mole problem far faster, and more simply, than any product on the market.

Here’s what Shiner and I developed.

  • Once you see mole tunnels, go ahead and tamp them down. You’ll typically find them in the morning, and more often after a good rain. Moles are looking for worms and wet soil makes for easier digging.
  • Now that you’ve tamped down the tunnel, periodically re-inspect the area for fresh tunnels. If you have the ability to check hourly, more the better.
  • As soon as you see a fresh tunnel, get a pitchfork.
  • Slowly and lightly approach the area and then squat down. This gives you a better view of the ground when it moves. And I firmly believe moles sense the vibration of you walking, and will freeze in response.
  • If the mole is there, after a few minutes you will see the ground heave slightly. Now, before you pounce, be sure and note the direction of the tunnel because you will need to move quickly and precisely.
  • As sure as you’re certain it’s there, jam your pitchfork as deep as it will go. Make sure and align the teeth of the pitchfork in the direction of the tunnel. Assuming you don’t pull up a stabbed mole, immediately begin poking your pitchfork into the ground to the right and left of where it was. They will run and you have to be quick.
  • IF you got it, one of three things will happen; either you pull it up on the end of your pitchfork and you’ll know; it will die quietly underground and you’ll never know it other than a lack of new tunnels; or it will come out of the ground some time later and die and you’ll find it.

It’s not glorious, but it works.

If left to her own devices, Shiner will sniff out the moles and dig until she finds them, destroying the yard in the process. Since moles can move quickly, I’ve abandoned trying to dig them out when we “find” them and instead, just try and kill them underground. Even if I were to get him out of the ground, I’d just have to later bury him anyway to prevent the dogs from rolling in it its decaying remains, so why not just kill it underground?

As I got older and moved away on my own, I often reflected on this ability I developed as a child, to remain so still. I thought about how I might have used it in the military, or the CIA. And then I remember how I have no composure when it comes to ant bites and I realize I would never make a good sniper where a pretty important skill is the ability to ignore everything happening to your body in order so you can remain perfectly still

No, I suppose I’ll have to be content using my powers in the lawn-maintenance realm and be satisfied. May what I’ve learned, help those who follow behind.

 

Building a Backyard Batting Cage

A couple of months ago, my oldest casually mentioned in a Thank You letter to his grandpa, that he was saving up for a “batting cage,” (wait…wha?) and that the money they sent him for his birthday was going to that.

Now, I’m certain he made that up, having neither had that conversation with his mom or I, and having no idea how much room they take up or how expensive they are. But before I knew it, I had in my grubby little hands, a check from said grandpa. A very generous check to be sure, but not near enough to buy a pre-built batting cage large enough for two Big Leaguers.

And thus did my adventure to build a backyard batting cage begin. Like all great adventures, it began with painstaking research into batting cage. Should I buy a kit with everything you see here necessary to build a cage, or should I buy the pieces a la cart? There are pros and cons to both and I’ll outline them here:

A Kit Cage:
Pros:

  • It’s all there
  • Yeah, that’s pretty much the main benefit and it’s a biggie.

Cons:

  • Unless you can afford to spend upwards of $2,500, you’re going to get something sub-par. To keep costs down, most manufacturers give you a lower quality net since generally speaking the frame poles have to be of such and such quality .

DIY Cage:
Pros:

  • Less expensive probably by at least a 1/3
  • Yeah, that’s pretty much the main benefit and it’s a biggie (see what I did there?)

Cons:

  • Good luck finding one vendor who sells everything at the lowest price. What you’ll find is that one vendor sells the net cheaper, but their connectors are more expensive, etc.
  • You will need to find, purchase and transport the frame poles yourself. Yes, your local DIY megamart may have them, but I’m in Atlanta and the closest HD or Lowe’s that had them was about an hour away.

Being frugal and trying to stretch the funds from grandpa, I spent days finding all of the things necessary to build a batting cage. Some of it I got off Amazon.com, but most of it was just random suppliers both online and locally. Here’s a list of everything you’re going to need and you’ll see that it’s much more than just a net and poles. I’ve included links to the products I purchased and as of right now, they are the cheapest, for the same quality, that I could find (and I’m not getting paid for this…hint hint…)

  • A quality net. Many online vendors sell a #21 weight net with their cages, which is probably fine if you’re not sure your kid will play ball more than a couple of years. If you have a real player, you’ll want to upgrade to at least #36
  • Galvanized frame poles. Some people use PVC pipes, but I think you really need galvanized “Top Rail” fence poles, either in 1 3/8 or 1 5/8 inch. A 45′ net made of #36 material is only about 60lbs, so you don’t need a super duty frame. I found my poles at a local fence supply company at about $4 cheaper per pole than the DIY megamart. Course…I had a truck to transport them home so that saved some $$.
  • Frame connectors. Here’s where you need to be careful. Many vendors sell these in “kits” based on the size of your cage, but what some don’t consider is how your frame is designed. For instance, I bought a kit designed for 40-45′ cages (mine is 45′). But they assumed I was building my frame using 15′ poles, so I only needed “x” number of 4-way connectors. But not so! I can’t transport 15′ poles in my truck, so i bought 10.5′ poles, which necessitated two additional 4-way connectors (which I’m still waiting on!). You also need 3-way connectors for the frames on each end.
  • Don’t forget about “anchors” because you don’t want your nice, new net blowing away. There are several ways you can go about this. You can pour concrete footings and stick your poles in there, but that’s really permanent. Optionally, you can purchase tie downs and that clamp to your frame bolts. You can also purchase anchors that you nail into the ground and then stick your poles into.
  • A tensioning kit that includes wire to string up along your frame to keep your net from sagging.

OK, so you have a net and frame, so you’re done right? Nope. You also still need:

  • A home plate so you can reference where to pitch to
  • An L-Screen to protect yourself from  your 14-year old when he’s hitting balls back at you in a 10×10 foot tunnel
  • A backstop so that you don’t put holes in your net from plunking junk pitches at the batter
  • You’ll probably want to put down some kind of ricochet dampening mulch to keep balls from popping back up and killing you.

All told, I’m in for probably $600 more than expected and after more than a month after I started down this path, the cage still isn’t built. But, once it’s up, it’s up and we won’t have to drag out to the local park and hope no one is in the cage.

If you’re looking to build a backyard batting cage, I hope this helps.

batting cage diagram