I believe in alternative measures.

Instead of using a metal measuring tape to figure out how long or how wide or how deep something is, I use other methods.

Like string. Not long ago I used a piece of string to measure the length of a fluorescent light that needed replacing. I stretched the string out until it equaled the length of the tube, then marked the string.

When I arrived at the fluorescent lamp section of the hardware store, I unraveled my string and searched for the right size replacement.

I know the sure-fire way to find the correct replacement part is to cart the broken part with you to the hardware store. But experience has taught me that carrying a 22-inch piece of string in my pocket is easier than driving with a 22-inch glass tube rolling around in the back seat of the car.

I also use string to measure lengths of pipe, being sure to mark the string where the elbows or bends in the pipe begin and end. Again, string is much lighter than metal pipe. And measuring bends in the pipe is tricky. For example, a 6-inch piece of pipe with an interior diameter of 3/4 inch, running between two elbows is not really six inches long. It is really 4 1/2 inches, the two elbows make up the additional 1 1/2 inches. All these calculations are easier for me when I buy pipe in string-lengths.

I do not have anything against retractable metal tape measures. It is just that I can rarely find mine. "Visitors", usually family members under 4 feet tall, borrow my measuring tape and fail to return it.

Years ago, it infuriated me when I couldn't lay my hands on mmeasuring tape. But now, two kids and countless measuring tapes later, I am mellowing.

I think of the words of Art-the-Alligator-Catcher. Art is a gator retrieval man in Jefferson Parish whom I met years ago during a trip to New Orleans. Down there when some worried parent spotted an alligator in a subdivision that used to be a swamp, Art was sent out to transfer the critter to safer waters.

The only real threat presented by these suddenly suburban gators, Art said, was that a big one might want to snack on small dogs and children. Dogs, Art said, can be taught to stay clear of gators, but not kids. As Art said, "There ain't no way you can keep a boy away from a gator."

I feel the same way about measuring tapes, there ain't no way to keep kids away from them. Kids are drawn to them, the attraction is almost as strong as that of M & Ms. And just like the candy, once the kids get their hands on them, measuring tapes disappear.

I have already gone through the routine of buying a new measuring tape and hiding it. This has two drawbacks.

First of all, by making it inaccessible to the kids, it is harder for me to use. Once I have carried my tool box to the third floor I don't want to tramp back down to the basement to retrieve my newly secreted measuring tape.

And secondly, I sometimes hide things so well I can't find them myself.

So I often improvise the measuring process. I've found that the pencil scratched at two points with a nail is an adequate way to measure the distance between two screw holes.

And there is always the old "one finger, two fingers" method of measuring how wide a hole is. While other parts of my body have expanded, my fingers have retained their boyish width.

Alternative measures are not for everyone. Some workmen scorn such measures as "imprecise." Maybe so. They are about as precise as the measurements of a two-by-four, which is really 1 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. It is still called a two-by-four, because in theory those were the dimensions of the rough lumber, before it was smoothed out or "planed" into shape. Rough lumber is like the gross on your paycheck. Finished lumber is the net, what you have to work with after your gross has been "planed."

Moreover, I've seen some pros use unorthodox measurin techniques. Like the last time I bought a fluorescent tube at the hardware store. It was an impulse buy and I had not brought my string along. But I did know the lamp should be 22 inches long.

I grabbed one tube that looked like it would fit and carried it over to a hardware store clerk. I asked him if it was 22 inches long. I expected him to pull out one of those turbo-powered measuring tapes. Instead, he put the fluorescent lamp down on the store's tile floor. Seeing that the tube was exactly two tiles long, he announced it was the correct size.

He was right. So the next time I need a fluorescent light, I won't even have to bring along my string. I'll know what I need is one of those two-tile tubes.

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