A daughter helps to raise a dad

Believe it or not, some people move into a house before it's finished. As long as you wait until it's completely done before you hook up the TV, building as you go and paying out-of-pocket is a good idea. If you're tough.

Early in our marriage, Kerry and I observed the Alaskan dream: Build a cinder-block basement, start your own landfill in the yard, live there for three years, then get divorced. Sally, one of my moms, said she'd rather live in a wall-tent (those white canvas stand-up-inside jobs you see in movies about pioneers) than in a cinder-block basement. You're more likely to keep working to make things better if you live in a wall-tent.

As I said, the build-it-yourself thing is good only if you're tough. In the end it worked out fine for us. Have you ever sold a house you didn't owe anything on? But one day in the trenches, framing walls for a bathroom, my daughter Robin taught me a good bit about being a dad.

When Robin was an infant, living in a big unfinished shell of a house wasn't too bad. We would never, ever have used disposable diapers, those planet-fouling inventions of modern society. No, by golly, cloth diapers were the only thing on our baby! So we'd toss the dirty diapers in a bag to freeze on the front porch. We'd take them to the laundromat once a week. It took one cycle to thaw them, a second to wash them.

Then came outhouse training. Again, no big deal. Kids don't mess around when it's minus 40 degrees F. When the second kid came along, I hung up another blue tarp so Robin could have her own "room" and Holly could have a "nursery." I'd promised Kerry some stairs instead of having to balance atop an eight-foot ladder to reach the second floor, nine feet away. That hadn't gotten done either.

But a bathroom! Kerry and the kids were tired of heating water on the wood stove, pouring it into a No. 10 fish tub, and calling it proper bathing. Or were they tired of the fact that I thought the whole thing was too big a bother? At any rate, I hauled all of my carpentry tools home one Friday and set to ruining a three-day weekend building a bathroom.

In our part of town, water was delivered. The water table was about $20,000 and a well-driller away, so most opted for the "Water Wagon," a retired milk-tank truck that delivered for five cents a gallon. Six cents a gallon if you bought and buried the standard 1,000 gallon polyethylene tank. If you bought a whole truckload, 3,500 gallons, it was five cents a gallon. So I built a room in the basement, lined it with that clear-plastic sheeting that we now use for terrorist proofing, and filled it with cheap water. (Are you getting an idea why this "build it yourself and save" stuff can be hard on a marriage?)

When I finally got around to framing the bathroom, I was in a pretty foul mood. It's tough to be a carpenter at home. My pattern has usually been long days at work, short fun evenings at home. I work six days a week, and lie around on the seventh. It's a great way for an ambitious guy to build a business, but it's rough when you're trying to build a house in your spare time.

So I was in that horrible zone, working at home, spending money instead of earning it, making sawdust and noise inside the house, and pretty much hating the whole project. Being a professional carpenter, I travel with lots of nifty tools that help you get a lot done quickly. Or, if you're in a foul mood, you can make lots of mistakes quickly and spray nails like Rambo to hold it all together - knowing the whole time, of course, that there was going to be plenty of grief later when I'd try to cover this mess with drywall. But I had my head buried in it and wasn't thinking about anything but the miserable now.

Then sweet Robin came over to watch. She was about 4 years old. She'd heard that kind of language before and was not impressed. After surveying the scene for a few minutes, she said. "Daddy, you do such good work. You're a good carpenter." Caught red-hammered. I sat down on a bucket and contemplated the larger scene. I was a dad. Golly, what a responsibility! Kids learn from their parents, I know. But me, the parent? Aw, man. What a loser.

So I got out the wrecking bar and began doing a good job, tearing things apart and starting over. I felt bad - most of the lumber wasn't reusable. Doing bad work, wasting lumber. Maybe that's why children start off slightly gullible, to give parents a chance to get it right before kids notice much. It's worked pretty well: The girls think I'm OK, even now when I can't get anything past them.

I've asked Robin if she remembers some of my very rough edges from when she was little; bad carpentry is not the worst of my misdeeds as an early dad. She says she's cool with things. She remembers, for good or bad, everything I've done wrong. I've never been sneaky, and she's never been unobservant. Then she squints slyly and lets me know that she'll forgive those things because we were both young then - but I'm being held to a higher standard now.

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