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.

Donuts for Dads – Wait! It’s a trap.

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This morning my daughter, now in fifth grade, informed me that tomorrow is “Donuts for Dads” day at school. I will pause a moment to allow for the collective “Uhhhh.”

I was taken a little by surprise because normally I’m on top of this. The reason being, it’s not really about having your dad come by your school and seeing your class. It’s really about getting your dad to come by school and, “Oh by the way we’re having our book fair so why don’t you grab a donut and head over and buy some books.”

And I love to read and have always wholeheartedly supported my kids’ desire to read.

The principal usually sends out an email to remind us all, but either she didn’t this year, or I’ve started ignoring her email after her last ridiculous-fest where she tried to play off her stealing two “learn from home” school days and forcing kids to come to school instead, calling it an “Opportunity.” I called her on her Public Relations-like bullshit, accusing her and the PTA of catering to the needs of the few (for the free meals) and ignoring the will of the many who would rather give their kids a break and let them be home a couple of extra days. She wasn’t thrilled with my rebuttal.

But, I’ve never really minded the book fair; though, I could do without the donuts. For one, I never eat one. But more importantly, it’s a bunch of guys, all dressed and ready for work, standing around a classroom that took all of two minutes to take in, killing time before the bell rings and we can all escape away to our day jobs. And in this day and age, isn’t it just a little sexist? Presumably, it was created as a way to get dads involved because, you know, we’re all NOT involved in our kids’ lives enough and thank GOD the school is making sure we are.

It’s surreal and uncomfortable. And I’m going to miss it terribly.

Of my three children, my daughter is my youngest. This is her last year in elementary school which means a lot of things, not all of them terrible.

On the plus side, it’s the last year I’ll have to walk her to the bus stop at 7am every day. When she moves to middle school, she’ll be able to walk with her older brother to the bus at 8:10. That also frees me up to not get up at 4am to go to the gym in the morning. I’ll be able to stretch it to 5 or 5:30.

But the cons far outweigh the pros. For instance, she normally gets home at 2:45 in the afternoon and since I’ve been working from home for several years, that means that most days I get “me” time with her every day. I know that as she gets older, her desire to do anything with me will wane and I will look back on these times as precious, even as I huff and sigh about having to stop working and walk the 2/10 of a mile up the street to get her every day.

She will be with her older brother one year in middle school, and then he will join HIS older brother in high-school for a year. She will then join him for two years in high-school, and so on and so forth.

And before I know it, she will be my only child still at home, and even shorter still, she’ll be gone.

I will be lost. I imagine I will dive into my work with a zeal I’ve not known for a couple of decades, just to kill time between my kids’ visits. I’m not sure what my wife will do. We aren’t social enough to fill our lives up with other people, which means me puttering around here, falling back on my solitary habits, and her doing…well, I’m not sure what exactly. Probably working as well, and neither of us talking to each other much.

Or maybe, it will be just what our 20-year marriage needs; sparking more “us” time. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll hit the gym at 4:30 tomorrow so I can get to school by 7:15  and hope it’s early enough to get a parking spot. I’ll smile and nod and talk about how great the classroom is. All the while, the Joker’s poem running through my head:

I’m only laughing on the outside; my smile is just skin deep.
If you could see me on the inside; you might join me, for a weep.

 

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Raised On Demand

There is a part of me that is both horrified, and gratified, by the knowledge that television is a big part of my kids’ lives. I honestly don’t know what my kids would do at the end of a long day without it…or what I would do without it. Image

There are days, that one or more of my children will come home from school or daycare, and pretty much watch TV from the moment we come in, through dinner, and until we put them to bed. Now granted, often that’s really only like, two hours, but still…right?

And as much as it makes me want to gag admitting this, there are many a day when I’m more than happy to relegate my parental obligations to our 46” family friend. He’s a good friend.

But I don’t know…Lord, I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid and I’m pretty OK. I get as much exercise as my schedule will allow. I don’t eschew my job, family or other responsibilities in favor of watching “my show.” So I don’t know…I guess as long as your kids aren’t lard-arses and when you do pull them away from the tube to interact with other people, they aren’t complete Asbergers, then it’s OK?

Remember when…

1. Being sick meant you felt quasi-bad for a day, but by the end of the day, you were second guessing whether or not you actually had felt well enough to go to the gym?

2. A million dollars sounded like a LOT more money than it does now when you really break it down in your head (taxes, mortgage payoff, etc.)

3. The one child that you had seemed like the hardest job ever.

4. You weren’t going to be one of these people who never travels overseas. After all, there’s plenty of time for that…

5. Vacations actually felt like vacations? Mostly because someone else was paying for it and you could just relax rather than busily trying to ensure the kids make a memory.

6.  Sex was REALLY exciting.

7. Your current job was simply a means to an end, and not a definer of you as a person to everyone else

8. You could stay awake at night (in bed) through an entire prayer.

9. Aerosmith was a fairly young band (you can also insert “U2” here)

10. Cold weather didn’t bother you and the beach was NEVER too hot.

11. You had friends that you could spend time with.

12. The cost of gas for your car was the most important expense you had.

13. You could eat an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts and not notice the result the next day (uh huh, you know who you are)

14. Choosing between getting some sleep, or staying up and watching THE most important sporting event of the year on TV was a no-brainer.

15. You didn’t get mad when the fireworks went off on New Year’s Eve and July4th (thereby waking you and the kids up)

16. You thought reading a story to your kid(s) at night was going to be a wonderful and precious thing, rather than just another chore you have to do before you can get some quiet time.

17. You had time to actually cook…using knives and other fun utensils.

18. ANY alcohol at all–even cheap-o Mad Dog 20/20– tasted good to you.

19. Your parents looked young(ish)

20. You felt young(ish)