Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Rink and the Not-So-Great Flood

The PVC pipe rolled away, the tarp flattened, and a few hundred gallons of water began flowing toward the boy and I, our hands drenched, freezing, desperately trying to hold back the flood.

“Fuck!” I cursed out loud.

Failure. The big, dumb project had failed.

Have you ever had an idea that got stuck in your craw and you just had to get it out? That’s exactly how I found myself trying to build a backyard ice rink.

I’d thought about it for years, and would often Google cost for kits that are sold to do such a thing, like E-Z Ice. But those kits are expensive with mixed reviews. And we do not have extra cash for such a folly.

But this fall, with the second surge of the pandemic bearing down and a few cold months being trapped in our house on the horizon, I decided to make it happen.

After a bit of research, I found there were basically two approaches for the DIY rink: Wood boards and braces, or PVC pipe. The key being that if you go for the PVC pipe, you better make sure you have a flat, level area, because you only have a few inches to play with to get the thickness of ice needed for safe skating.

The first step, before deciding materials was finding the right area. With the biggest tape measure I own, I went into the yard and found a 20-foot by 30-foot rectangle that seemed fairly flat and level. PVC it was.

I swung by Lowes and Home Depot to price out PVC parts, figuring I’d need 10 sections of 10 foot 4-inch PVC pipe, along with 4 corners and 6 other connectors. I’d also need a tarp. The pipe and connectors priced out to be about $160. But neither store had the right tarp.

Thank goodness for the internet. A 24x36 tarp would set me back $125.

So, I spoke to the wife, who kind of shrugged, and said go for it. The next day, I dragged the boy (10) to the big-box stores and purchased the pipe. (I got the PVC at Lowes and the corners at the Depot to save a few bucks). The boy went happily, as this was for him after all -- (and his 12-yr-old sister -- as a replacement for the hockey they’d played in recent non-covid years. I also figure we’d all need a reason to get outside this winter.

The tarp was ordered that afternoon, opting for white – which was the right call – and 2-day delivery.

When it arrived, we began the construction, and it was the easiest darn thing I ever built. Of course, it still needed water. Which is important.

The temps we’re predicted to drop below freezing in the coming days, so we got the hose and started filling. This would be the moment of truth. Would the pipes hold? Would the tarp leak? Would the area be level enough?  I’m a worrier by nature, so of course, the hours filling were spent pacing and tinkering.

After a few hours of the hose running, we had four inches on one end, and nary a drop in the other. Not knowing a darn thin about what the future would hold, I was concerned that, if I decided to just let the shallow end be thin and be avoided for the winter, we’d certainly see a skate go though it and rip the tarp, spoiling the entire rink.

So, I decided to raise the pipe on the deep end, forcing the water to cover the entire area.

The boy and I jammed a few pieces of chopped wood under the corners – their shape creating a ramp that, with outward pressure on the pipes, would push them higher. I figured that seemed smart. Then I got some extra paving stones and went to put them under the long parts of the pipe, so the entire side was even.

I lifted the pipe and tucked in the paver.

That’s when the great breach happened.

The pressure from the building water had found a weak point when I was adjusting the pipe height, and boom, leaving the boy and I befuddled as the water rush past us, chilling our fingers instantly.   

I sat back on my knees and collected my thoughts.

“Stay calm.” I instructed.

And I grabbed the edge of the tarp and stood up straight. It wasn’t as heavy as I expected. “Hold this,” I said. The boy dutifully took the tarp’s edge. While I gathered the PVC pipe that had rolled away, and secured it again with a rubber mallet, this time as an inch of water sopped my shoes and the ground around us.

Pipe reattached, and securely placed on the pavers and wood, he let the tarp go, and the water again rushed toward the high end.

This time, the PVC wall held. About half of the water had spilled out into the yard. But, within minutes, it had absorbed into the thirsty ground.

Knowing what failure looked like, I began cautiously filling the rink again, while the boy worked to remove the leaves. 

By that evening, we had at least 3 inches of water throughout the rink. The pipes held. That tarp didn’t leak. And, after a few cold nights, we had skateable ice.

Now, we spend time most days skating and playing small hockey games.

The boy loves it. Though not nearly as much as my wife.

I also discovered a whole world of people who build rinks in their yard each winter. The Backyard Ice Rinks group on Facebook has 23,000 members. Apparently, mine was not such a novel idea. And some of these rinks are impressive – like full size hockey rinks.

Ours is a little small. But we enjoy it.

Though, next year, we’ll likely build a bigger one.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Many Ways I'm Not Superman

There’s a theory out there that claims the side of the head a man parts his hair on says all you need to know about his personality, his potential in life, and his success.

I heard about this “hair part theory” recently on a podcast, which is the new reading. It used to be that some schmo would have to write something down so others could begin sentences with, “I read recently that” blankety-blank. And then all the rest of us would automatically give it credence because the schmo wrote it down. Now, all anyone needs to do is say it out loud and everyone who hears them gets to begin sentences with, “I heard on a podcast that…” and they sound like Einstein.

Anyway, this podcast claimed the most successful and notable men always part their hair on the left side of their head. And that left-side-parters emit some sort of cosmic vibe that communicates their awesomeness to the world.

This theory isn’t new, apparently. It’s been around for some time. So long that the hairstylist for the movie Superman used this subtle difference in hair part to distinguish between Clark Kent and his Superhero alter ego.

Mr. Kent parted his hair on the right, and, when the big switch would occur inside a phone booth somewhere, Superman would emerge with his hair parted on the left. My own sub-theory is that, because Superman parted his hair on the left all those years ago, it further reinforced this notion of a dominant side on which to part your hair. But, what do I know? I don’t even have a podcast.

It just so happens that in recent weeks, I started parting my hair on the right side, like Clark Kent.

After years of parting on the left -- for no real reason other than I’d done it that way since ending my Tom Petty, part-in-the-middle phase in High School -- I finally gave in to the fact that certain cowlicks made me more naturally a right-side-parter. What a weird word cowlick is, by the way. I mean, how long did we have to share space with our bovine friends to come up with that one?

Oddly enough, since I made the switch to a right-side part, people have been complimenting my hair. Which is something that has never happened before in my entire life.

What it’s told me, however, is that – despite my visions otherwise – I am much more of a Clark Kent than a Superman.

This is the paragraph where I shift gears and head in a different direction, seemingly. You see, as this hair-part realization occurred, I unrelatedly but simultaneously came to the conclusion that the white whale I’ve been chasing quietly for the past decade might never get caught.

That was way too opaque. Let me try again.

I’ve got this affliction called writing. And I’ve got this dream about getting my writing published. But not published in magazines or major websites, as I’ve done that. But books. And not books like print them myself and sell them out of my van, but like lit-agent, publishing house type books. New York Times best-seller type stuff. Far-fetched, right? 

Well, with this in mind, I’ve written books: memoirs, and literary novels, and an MG realistic fiction. MG means middle grade, a genre I really liked reading these books to my kids. Heck, I even once wrote a picture book that I horribly illustrated about a kid who loses her balloon and imagines that it went to the moon. Balloonie Went to the Moonie. It was a metaphor for death and loss. It was cute. Way cuter than it just sounded.

These books were like my lottery tickets. One of them was going to be the answer to all our challenges. And the next one was going to change everything. My life’s dreams lived in each of them.

While everyone else has been waking up, or getting ready for bed, or pursuing their own hobbies that border on afflictions, I’ve been writing, and editing, and pitching literary agents. They call that querying. And the process sucks as bad as the word.

What querying means to most writers is random rejection. It’s not random in that it comes from nowhere, because you essentially ask for it. It’s just random in when it arrives. I’d be coaching a soccer practice and look down at my phone to see an email that says something like, “Thank you for sending your query. I read it with interest. Unfortunately, it’s not right for my list right now. But don’t fret, publishing is a subjective industry. Another agent might love it. Now, piss off.”

I may have embellished a bit. But, like that, rejection would arrive randomly: in line at the grocery store, or on a lunch break, or on a Saturday evening. Or on Christmas Eve. How cruel must you be to hit send at that point?

Anyway. The latest book I wrote was really going to be the one. It's good. And quirky. I had a bunch of agents ask for the full manuscript, which is like getting to first base in the publishing world.
Yet, in recent weeks, those full request have generated even more rejection. Deeper and more personal rejection. Quote, It didn’t pull me in. Your main character failed to grab me. The execution wasn’t what I’d need to see to champion this project going forward. Sprinkled in there were compliments, too. There's a lot to admire here. Your scene setting was commendable. Each rejection felt like the “it’s not you it’s me” kind of break up. And each makes you realize that you're not as good as you want to be.

 So, just as I’ve come to realize that my hair is of the Clark Kent variety, I’ve also begun to conclude that publishing might just not be in my future.

Another gear shift. In other news, my daughter this week went on her first college tour. She’s a junior, and ready to get out of Dodge and take over the world. She’s looking at big name schools with the perfect programs for all her dreams. I’m excited for her, but I can’t help but thinking about the cost.

It’s not just because I’m cheap, but rather, as my eldest gets ready to head off to school, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m still paying my own student loans. And there’s no way, with four kids, even with two decent jobs between us, that my wife and I will ever be able to pay for these types of schools.

I never thought that would be the case. I always figured something would break our way. Some big job would come along. Or some ship would come in. Or some book would sell. And it just hasn’t.

She’s not worried. She’ll borrow to make it happen. Which feels like defeat to me. Because, while I’ve rarely worried much about my own lifetime of student debt, I lose sleep worrying about my inability to prevent my kids from their own.  

It’s been a strange couple of weeks, all things considered. Realizing I’m not Superman, or publishable, or capable of paying for my kid’s college.

First world problems, if ever there were any. I know. 

Still, if you see me. Just tell me you like my hair. That it suits me.

I’m trying to embrace the fact that I’m not Superman and never will be.

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy: New Year, Few Expectations, One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, New Fish and Kid Quotes from a Family Hike,

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Unstoppable Car Meets the Improbable Branch

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a cocktail meatball, I think I know.

Let me start again.

My kids and I have a little game I call, “What are the chances of that happening?” It’s not so much a game as a question I always ask after something random and highly unlikely happens. It’s a game because it has a set answer. No matter the actual odds, we always say, “100 Percent.”

It’s a dad thing.

Last weekend, however, something happened that was so unlikely that…

One more try. I’ll just say what happened.

Here goes.

On Saturday morning, I was driving my daughter to get the bus at the High School for an 8:00 am departure to the CNY Model United Nations event at Syracuse University. Yes. She’s an MUN nerd. But let’s not get sidetracked. We still love her.

So, we’re driving, and chatting, and I’m thinking about the fact that I had no real plans for the day, in part because it was ridiculously warm out for January in Upstate New York and all the usual things, like skiing, sledding, skating, building snow forts, etc., were not possible. Apparently, I'm a large child during winter. 

I’d even just opened one of my cans of Diet Rite as I drove, which is this no calorie, no sodium, no caffeine soda I drink – even in the mornings – which is probably awful for me.

Anyway, driving and chatting and sipping a crappy soda, and BAM!

An explosion! (It sounded like one, anyway).

Suddenly there was glass dust everywhere, and my daughter and I were just like, “Holy Crap!”

“You okay?!”

“I’m okay! You okay?!”

“Think so.”

We looked up at the now-fractured-into-a-thousand-pieces windshield and saw a branch sticking straight into the glass a solid ten inches. It poked through about halfway between us, just down from the rearview mirror.

For some reason, I kept driving. Probably because she had to be at school within minutes, and I calculated that she would miss the bus if we stopped -- One of the many things I thought about as my mind raced and processed what had happened.

We’ve had a bad string of luck with our cars the last year and a half or so. A bit less than a year ago, this same car got hit as it was parked on our street. A neighbor in a much bigger vehicle slid on some ice and took out the rear left corner. It probably should’ve been totaled. Instead, it spent three months in the body shop while I drove a rental, racking up thousands of dollars for the other guy's insurance to cover.

That accident was on top of the general car troubles you tend to have with Jeeps of similar age -- brakes, tires, ball-bearings, the transmission, even a battery that stopped working because some piece inside of it broke. Add to that four other incidents with the van in the same time frame. Those included my wife ending up in a snowy ditch; my wife hitting a curb and blowing out a tire; my wife hitting an actual bear on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; and my wife hitting a landscaping boulder at a mini-golf course.

I thought about this string of bad luck – and bit of bad driving by my better half -- as we chugged up the hill toward the school, peering through a windshield with a spiderweb of crack and a giant branch sticking out of it.   

As we drove, the branch, standing straight up in the air, began to lean in reaction to the wind and our momentum. As it did so, the shattered windshield creaked, raising concern that it might fall in on us and cover the car and its passengers with thousands of shards.

I grabbed the stick to stabilize it and kept going.

“That could’ve killed one of us,” I said, reflecting on the falling branch, as my daughter agreed and laughed. The only proper reaction.

We were lucky, to be honest.

After we parked and she darted toward the waiting bus, texting her friends about her brush with death, I got out and stared at this seven-foot-long stick that had fallen into our lives, and thought about the unlikelihood of what just happened.

Think about it. A car moving at 30 miles per hour, the wind blowing just enough to knock a branch loose, the branch falling on the perfect angle and with the right speed to spear the windshield of the moving car like an expert hunter.

If the branch had tilted a bit, it may have bounced off. Or if we were 2 seconds sooner. Or two seconds later. 

The math. The odds. The impossibility of it all.

What were the chances? I thought to myself.

The answer: I'm guessing 100 percent.

Like the article? Here's others you may enjoy: New Year, Few Expectations, One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, New Fish and Kid Quotes from a Family Hike,