Nature vs. Nintendo, Treehouses, and a New Project

It’s not as high off the ground as it looks!

I’m a firm believer in outdoor time over screen time. I think many of our kids today suffer from NDD – Nature Deficit Disorder (a term coined by author Richard Louv).

Those who know me well also know that I’m an avid environmentalist — and that I fully embrace the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle principle.

With those ideas in mind, a few years ago I started building a treehouse with my sons — and we’ve been adding to it ever since. It’s not exactly pretty. It probably doesn’t meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s guidelines for playground equipment. But two out of two kids agree – it’s pretty flippin’ awesome.

So far, it has two tire swings. Two Hot Wheels tracks. A zip line. A slide. A solar light. A pulley hoist to get said Hot Wheels (and books, of course) into the treehouse.

And EVERYTHING — from the wood, to the slide, to the nails — was free. Some things came from the farm I grew up on when we sold it last year. Some came from the side of the road. Some of it was rescued from the trash.

But the best part? I get to work with my kids on this project. They’ve learned how to use a level, a measuring tape, a hammer and nails. They’re learning that there’s a better solution than tossing everything in the trash, then running out to buy shiny new things. And we get to spend quality time outdoors.

I realize not everyone can pull off a project like this. My boys and I are fortunate to live in the woods, and working from home gives me some flexibility (I have to meet client deadlines, so there are times I’m still working at 2 a.m.).

But all of us can make time to walk with our kids in the park, or play in the yard, or build a birdhouse or bird feeder from recycled materials. And that’s all it takes to introduce the concept that there’s life beyond a screen, that nature is our ally, and that everyone can help the planet in some small way.

It’s not always easy. As I write this, I’m also arguing with my oldest because he’s not respecting today’s screen time limits (spoiler alert: I’ll win, because there’s a power button). But it’s absolutely worth it.

I’m such a firm believer in helping our planet that I’ve made it the theme of a series of middle-grade novels I’m working on. They revolve around a young girl who loves even those animals that aren’t (to most people) exactly cute and cuddly— like bats and snakes. She’s passionate about helping them, and about helping the grownups around her understand that every animal has its place in the ecosystem.

I’m hopeful that I’ll be rolling out the first in the series sometime next year — but that all depends on our next treehouse addition. These construction projects take time, you know!

Washing the gunk off our found slide (though they should have done that before taking test slides — hope I can get the stains out of those clothes!).

Fanfare for an uncommon man

The night my Pop died, I knew it would be his last. I’d been working late, writing something for a client, when it suddenly hit me. I clocked out and started writing his eulogy instead. For the next several hours I wrote, revised, and rewrote, then went to bed, exhausted. I woke at 4:50 a.m. to a phone call confirming what I already knew.

I wasn’t “taken over,” a description I’ve heard others use for similar experiences. But I will say that the theme and the life events I described came to me easily — I’ll call it divine inspiration, or some sort of guidance. This fact became more clear to me when a cousin told me she had the same feeling while she penned a tribute to him a few days after his death — and when she realized that what she wrote mirrored much of what I went on to say in my eulogy.

What follows is what I’ll call Fanfare for an Uncommon Man — with apologies to composer Aaron Copeland (and Emerson, Lake and Palmer). I’ve changed a few of the words — I’m sure you can figure out which ones they are — because the language my Pop would have used isn’t exactly fit for the inside of a church.

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

My father was a hard worker. He was also a mechanical genius.

Some people know a little about everything — they’re a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

That was not my father.

My father was a master of all trades.

Carpenter. Electrician. Gas and diesel mechanic. Surveyor. Plumber. Mason. Fabricator. Welder. Farmer. Roofer. Machinist. Engineer. Architect …

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Over the course of his life, the man built more things, from the ground up, then it’s possible to catalog. Bulldozers. Tractors. Trucks. Cars. Houses. Barns. Farm equipment — he once built a gravity-fed seeder, for our corn and oats, out of salvaged parts that included an old bucksaw blade; a water tank, a driveshaft to transfer power from the PTO, and a gear unit that he modified to run the saw blade. Onto the blade, he’d welded metal stock to catch and carry the seed — fed through an adjustable delivery system. He completed it with a three-point hitch setup to attach to our Farmall tractors.

vintage bucksaw — my father used a similar blade to make a seeder for our crops. It wasn't exactly safe, but it worked!
My Pop used a blade just like this one when he made a seeder for our crops. It wasn’t exactly safe — especially for the person (me) who had to stand next to it, on a moving tractor, and adjust the rate the seed fell — but it worked!

And that was one of his simple projects (although not one of his safest — have you ever stood next to a spinning bucksaw blade to adjust a seed feeder?)

He custom-designed and helped build entire machines for one of the knitwear companies he worked at, saving them the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have cost to purchase those machines new.

He built two of the houses that he and my mother have lived in over their 57 years of marriage. And when I say built, I mean he did everything but pour the foundation (he dug them out, though).

His nephew, my cousin Rick, once said, “When your dad sees a toaster, he doesn’t see what everyone else sees. He sees the wiring schematic, the solenoid, the thermostat, the switch, the heating element, the lever — everything that makes it work.”

It’s one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of how my father saw things.

And he didn’t like sitting still, especially as a younger man. While other people were watching Sunday football or going to movies or taking vacations — all pretty pointless pursuits in my father’s eyes — he was working. He’d come home from his full-time job, eat the dinner my mother prepared, and go straight out into the field or the garage or the barn and stay there until long after the sun went down. All of our farm equipment had been modified with multiple lights — you could often find us plowing a field, planting seed, or harvesting crops well after everyone else was in bed.

That’s not to say he didn’t have fun once in a while. As a younger man, he was a bit of a speed demon. In England, where he met my mother, he rode a BSA Motorcycle and drove a jalopy he’d built on his Air Force base. Back in the states, he built and raced go-karts. He was a car enthusiast who rebuilt a 1928 Model A; owned his share of ‘50s Cadillacs, and once owned an MG purpose-built for racing.

He liked snowmobiling — our first was an antique AMC that he resurrected from a neighbor’s barn. In fact, he liked snowmobiling so much, he bought himself a vacation home in Upstate New York, land of the lake effect snow.

Of course, when I say he “bought a vacation home,” what I mean is, he bought land, cleared it, put in a well, a septic system, an electrical hookup, laid a pad, then bought a camper and “stored” it there permanently. (You see, my dad was also frugal – why the hell would you pay the taxes for a house when storing a camper is cheaper?)

As you might know, he was also a stubborn man, and he was never one to admit when he was wrong — or beaten. There was no arguing with my father — once he’d made his mind up, he did not change it. Sometimes I think that’s how he managed to get anything to grow at all during those lean years when the rains were few and the sun baked the rocks that served as soil on our stretch of the Blue Mountain.

That stubbornness was how he and my mother managed to face down a deep-pocketed developer who threatened to destroy not just their way of life, but that of anyone in Eldred Township and beyond. Incensed, he and my mother formed the Blue Mountain Preservation Association when a would-be race track owner made plans to deforest and degrade almost 500 acres of fields, woods and wetlands that border their home. After a 12-year fight, they won — and those peaceful acres are now permanently protected State Game Lands – free for anyone to enjoy, no motors required — or allowed.

That stubbornness is also how he faced his last months of life — at first refusing to even acknowledge the possibility that he was very ill, and then fighting like hell once he learned he might have a chance, no matter how slim.

He was a dedicated husband, father and Catholic, he lived a full life, and we will all miss him.

I’d like to thank you for coming here to celebrate the life of my father, Francis Z. O’Donnell, and for taking the time to mark his passing with us. And just so you know, somewhere right now he’s watching all of this and saying, “Hmph. Imagine that. They’re sitting around wasting time bullshittin’ about me when they should be gettin’ work done.”



On life, presence, the speed of childhood and the perils of rushing

Last night I had some rare one-on-one time with my oldest, who will be 9 in what seems like a heartbeat. 

As I tucked him in, he asked me to sing him a song – something he hasn’t asked for in a while. I was feeling frustrated, tired, irritable, and just wanted him to go to sleep, but then I took a moment to realize the importance of what he was asking. I don’t always do that, in many aspects of my day-to-day routine. I find myself too caught up in the rush of work, parenting, and navigating life, and I don’t take time to listen. 

So I asked him what he wanted. We settled on “Hey Jude,” and after that, he asked for the song I used to sing to him every night as a baby: “Moonshadow.” So I sang that, too, and tried not to let the lump in my throat get in the way. As I did, he relaxed, sighed, snuggled up to me, put a hand on me, and closed his eyes. When it was over, he opened his eyes again and asked me, “How old are you again, Dad?” “48,” I told him. He thought about that for a moment, and a troubled look passed over his face. “I don’t want you to get older, Daddy,” he said. “And I hope your voice never changes because I really like the way your voice sounds when you sing to me, and I don’t want that to change if you get older.”  
It was a bittersweet moment for me. It was a reminder that life passes quickly, and that we all get older, and that our children grow in an instant, and it left me with tears in my eyes. It was a reminder that if I don’t slow down and take notice of each moment, instead of racing from one to the next, I’m going to miss the most important things in my children’s – and my own – life. 

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” My son’s words last night illustrated that perfectly, and were a reminder that I need to be present for the journey instead of focusing on, and rushing toward, the destination. 

be present in the moment, and focus on the journey, not the destination
My oldest son at a time that simultaneously seems like an age ago, and also the space of a heartbeat.

As the holidays near, think about the children

The holidays are right around the corner, and although they can bring us great joy, they can also bring sadness and stress – especially if a family has been split by divorce. With that in mind, I volunteered for this story, Split Decision, in our latest issue of Inspire Health. If you or someone you know is in one of the more than 43 percent of families that the Pew Research Center calls “nontraditional,” I hope this helps you navigate the sometimes tangled web of blended families, custody schedules and holiday happenings.

Too often, divorced parents can’t rise above bad feelings to work together for what’s best for their children. As one therapist I talked to for this story told me, “parents need to put on their big boy/big girl pants and deal with it, because this is about their kids.”

Also too often, relatives of divorcees make hurtful remarks or are unwilling to be flexible over the holidays. Not only does that add to the stress of the parent trying to juggle everything, it makes it harder on the children caught in the middle.

It’s important that everyone in the family works together – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and step-relatives – to make the holidays happy for the children.