Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Home Improv

So, after two years of living in apartments and/or some form of corporate housing, we once again have a Magazine Mansion.

The previous Magazine Mansion readers here came to know was never a house I was entirely at home in. To be sure, it had its fine qualities: lots of room on a spacious lot in a neighborhood full of families; a basement capacious enough to store all manner of CRAP, a secret room (the famous Foxhole), that sort of thing. But it was a new house, built in the let’s-throw-some-plywood-and-Tyvek-up-and-sell-it-as-fast-as-we-can frenzied heyday of the 90s housing boom. And it showed. A brochure for our housing development breathlessly promised that these homes were “built to last a century,” but the builders must have meant only the 20th century. Eight years on, there we were fixing roof leaks, eroding masonry, rotten siding and leaky plumbing. A few of the rooms and all of the closets were paneled in ¼-inch drywall—a good sneeze would put a hole in them. The bathroom tubs and sinks looked as aged and yellowed as the teeth of a confirmed smoker. It was our home, to be sure, and my two older kids will have nothing but fond memories of the place. But that’s because they didn’t spend their weekends with a can of spackle in one hand and a caulking gun in the other (oh my God, the caulking! I can’t tell you how many tubes of the stuff I sunk into that sponge of a house. My house, it was a real caulk-sucker).

If I’m being honest, the constant home repair didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the fact that these constant repairs were required of an eight-year-old house. “If I have to do this much maintenance on a place, every single weekend,” I once remarked to Her Lovely Self, “I’d much rather do it on an old house.” I had grown up in old houses, see, every one of them at least a century old—two of them over the 200-year-old mark. Now there, you expected to do some maintenance. But you had good bones to work with: real brick and stone, beams, rafters and studs made from good, hard wood, not the yellow sticks of balsa wood the local home improvement store passed off as 2x4s. You work on a house of good, venerable age (for this country, anyway), you feel that you are contributing something, that you are extending the life and beauty of something that isn’t around much anymore. Expend the same amount of effort on a house that’s the same age as your son, and that effort feels cheapened, foolish, and wasted, like installing a toilet in a tent.

And it was in that frame of mind that Her Lovely Self and I, eventually, and after much searching, settled on a 70-year-old wood and stone edifice as the Magazine Mansion Mark III. It sits on a leafy lot, surrounded by trees of towering majesty, and facing the lush and attractive expanse of the back nine of a golf course. I don’t play golf, of course. With my luck, I am precisely the sort of guy who would be struck by lightning the moment he picked up a club, or get brained by some errant, slicing ball from nowhere. Still, the view is nice, and infinitely preferably to, say, my neighbor’s front windows, or a shopping center. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I pulled into the driveway for the first time as this house’s owner. I got my wish. I got an old house.

And immediately, I rediscovered what it was I’d really been missing about owning a house, old or new. Not the thrill of gathering and unpacking all your far-flung possessions from various storage units and relatives’ basements. Not the joy that comes from arranging furniture and slapping on new coats of paint and in all other ways imposing your personality on an impersonal space. Strangely, perversely, what I really enjoy is the opportunity to fix things.

Now I freely grant you, I take no joy in the unhappy moment of discovery that presages those opportunities, as in the case of two recent examples. Staggering down to the basement at some pre-dawn hour to check out a suspicious sputtering noise and discovering that it is the water pump running full borewhen no faucet or toilet or water-bearing appliance is actively engaged—yeah, that’s no one’s idea of fun. Nor is finding out that one of the towering majestic trees in your yard harbors a ginormous dead branch in the canopy some 50 feet above and that a really good breeze or some sharp, unexpected impact—from an errant golf ball, say—would be enough to bring the thing crashing down like the sword of Damocles on the heads of your unsuspecting children or (more likely in my specific case) on your own tender noggin.

But once the problem cannot be denied, I do enjoy puzzling over it, and bringing to bear whatever improvisational, problem-solving skills I have when it comes to meeting and vanquishing a domestic challenge. No doubt I get this from my parents, who were both intensely—one might even say pathologically—self-sufficient. If there was a mechanical problem or some other urgent issue at home, they never called in the professionals if they could help it. I’m sure part of it was that we never had very much money when I was growing up, but that was only part of it. They took great solace knowing that, in an ever-changing world, they could count on themselves, on their own ingenuity and resourcefulness, to solve most any problem.

In fact, in the whole of my childhood, I can only think of one time my mom phoned for help, and that was when I was about seven and we had water in the basement. We lived near a rather large and freely flowing brook—a small river, reallyand we often got water in the basement, especially during the spring thaw. When that happened, my mom simply fired up the sump pump—a stupendous contraption that my dad built using parts from an old lawn mower, an industrial vacuum cleaner, and whatever spare lengths of pipe he had lying around the garage that day. But this was a lot of water. In fact, the basement was entirely submerged. Closer inspection of the brook revealed that a dead tree and huge chunks of ice had redirected the entire flow of the brook, and we were mere hours from the whole house being swept off its foundations. So mom was right to call for back up.

But that was the sole exception. Otherwise, my parents gave off a clear vibe that, between the two of them, they could cope with just about any other contingency. Thus it was that, when the fuel line from the heating-oil tank froze in the middle of one frigid winter night, my mom, wrapped in two bathrobes and a parka, went out and thawed the line herself (with, I’m aghast to inform you, a propane torch). When a lightning strike set the garage ablaze one cold spring morning, it was my dad who bolted straight out of bed, grabbed a ladder, and yelled for the rest of us to start filling buckets. He wasn’t wearing a parka or bathrobe eitherDad slept in the nude. I can tell you, watching your father clamber around on a rooftop, fighting a fire naked, a one-man bare-assed bucket brigade, is not a sight you forget in a hurry. It changes you. It makes you realize that, whatever fate and the elements throw at you, you’ll be able to handle it. Preferably while wearing pants.

In my own specific examples above, the pump was running because the kitchen’s water filtration system—a dizzying array of pressure tanks and looping plastic tubes and valves that dates to the Reagan administration—was leaking from multiple places, as though someone had taken a shotgun to it. Naturally, the system was hopelessly obsolete and I had no way to acquire replacement parts, not without the aid of a time machine. I couldn’t see spending thousands on a new system—I just bought the damn house!—so I shut the whole thing down and put it under observation for a few days.

We had running water to the rest of the house, but the lack of filtered drinking water did not go over well with the family. For one thing, we’re on a private well. For another thing, our well (we discovered belatedly) harbors a little microscopic something known as sulfur-reducing bacteria, which, according to the scientific literature, oxidize naturally occurring sulfur present in the soil, reducing it to hydrogen sulfide which, while present in nontoxic levels in our well, is nevertheless detectable through basic human olfactory perception.

Translation: Our well is home to an organism that eats sulfur and poops out something that makes our unfiltered tap water stink like rotten eggs.

So, not as pressing a danger as, say, having a flood wash away your house, but still not an ideal situation. And with my parents five years in the grave, I wouldn’t be getting much advice from that quarter. Still, I had grown up with their example. If they could apply open flame to live fuel pipes, if they could fight fires naked, surely I could handle a collection of tubes and valves filled with water.

In the end, I took the system apart, figuring that the worst that could happen is that I’d never be able to put it back together, let alone identify the cause of all the leaks. In which case, I’d have to spring for a new filtration system, which was what I was facing anyway. So I dissected the thing. And wouldn’t you know it? Almost immediately, I identified two or three cracked plastic valves (easily fixed with super glue), as well as several rotted or broken gaskets. The gaskets proved harder to replace (they were in custom sizes, of course, made exclusively by the now-defunct manufacturer of the filtering system), until I found a bag of exceedingly tiny rubber bands at my local hardware store and discovered that they fit perfectly. Drinking water restored! Hail Dad, the bringer of water!

Sadly, my track record when it comes to dealing with tree branches has been less than stellar. Lacking a ladder with sufficient height—and more to the point, lacking any kind of enthusiasm or courage when faced with the prospect of working 50 feet in the air, I fashioned my own rope saw.


 (Like this, only I substituted a broken chainsaw blade, attached to two lengths of clothesline, and instead of a throwing weight, I tied one end of the clotheslines to a tennis ball full of bolts. Otherwise precisely the same.)

I tell you, the old man would have been proud. While I stayed safely at ground level, I worked that saw until it cut the branch like a hot knife through butter. 

And then the branch in its turn parted the high-voltage power line just below it, separating it with a startling snap, crackle and thwang! before plunging my new home into darkness.

It was no flood, and there was no fire (not at first), but I thought it was time to call in the professionals anyway. Improvisation can take you only so far.

Friday, August 03, 2012


Rhymes with Comet

This is not something I expected to be writing, but it’s on my mind, so better out than in.

Which incidentally, is what my mom used to say whenever my Big Brother or I were sick, and indeed it’s the same mantra I’ve been employing for the past three or four hours, when the Éclair awoke some time after midnight and was extravagantly sick. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say it was like the aftermath of a natural disaster in her bedroom. She had not called out to her parents for assistance; it was pure Daddy Sense (well, and probably my nose) that woke me. I found her trying to mop up the mess herself. With Kleenex.

“Why didn’t you yell for help?” I asked.

“I don’t know!” she cried, as I rolled in her into a couple of towels and carried her at arm’s length to the shower. “I thought I would get in trouble,” she said. Oh yeah, no parental guilt there. “I just don’t know the rules for throw up!” she added. And then she threw up some more.

I suppose that’s a fair point. When it comes to some of the less glamorous bodily functions, there’s all kinds of self-help literature out there, but most of it’s focused on potty training, or voiding your bowels. When Everyone Poops dominates the market, it’s hard for vomit to make a splash, as it were.

And, on reflection, I guess there isn’t as much need for rules and guidelines for something that we don’t—or at least shouldn’t—do every day. But as I sit here—it’s about 3 in the morning, and the Éclair can’t lie down because her tummy hurts, so we’re propped up in bed, watching Looney Tunes on DVD—it occurs to me that I have evolved a few simple rules, which I was inclined to share with my youngest child, but right now she’s more interested in the antics of Wile E. Coyote than she is in Daddy’s sleep-deprived ruminations, so I shall store them here for posterity.

Embarrassment? Forget it. To paraphrase that popular excretory tome, Everyone Pukes. It’s nothing that most people in the modern era do for fun, but sooner or later it’s going to happen, and when it does, you might as well own the experience. You might even write about it. Many times. Perhaps too many times.

Pick a euphemism. Your first step to owning the experience. Naming the act gives you a sense of control over what is, to a large degree, an uncontrollable act. The word “vomit” just isn’t enough, and “throw up,” well, that just sounds defeatist, doesn’t it? I think we as a species know this, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many colorful synonyms for the act of emesis. Barf, puke, yak, yark, hurl, ralph (and his girlfriend edna). My people have always eschewed the longer metaphorical forms—making the Technicolor yawn, driving the big white schoolbus, parking the tiger (parking the tiger?)—they try too hard. Brevity is the soul of ‘mit, and I have tended to favor short, emphatic onomatopoeic forms. My brother and I never lost our lunches nor tossed our cookies, not when we could “blurp” or even, occasionally, “mump” (the sound our cat Stanley made, repeatedly, to announce the arrival of a hairball).

Go loud. I’ve known too many people—Her Lovely Self in younger days, to pick one shining example—who came to the inevitable act with a certain amount of timidity. To this day, if I happen to hear her coughing in the bathroom, I have no way of knowing—not without visual confirmation, and my interest only goes so far—if she’s clearing her throat or her whole upper digestive tract. I realize this is not a biological event most people look forward to, but if it’s going to happen anyway, you might as well get what you can out of it. Go for the Oscar, I say. Open wide and roar. (As a practical matter, the more the mouth is engaged, the less likely it is that the nose will be called into play as an avenue of egress. And that’s a good thing. Nasal vomiting is an act against God, I’m sure. Also, it changes forever your relationship with chicken noodle soup.) Live like the Romans. They had vomitoriums, you know, and I imagine they were built to maximize sound effects. If I have to give my food the old heave-ho, I’d just as soon everyone know it. No coughing or throat-clearing for me, boy. I roar, head as deep in the bowl (or sink or tub or garbage can) as anatomy will allow, for maximum acoustical effect.

(Incidentally, I sneeze the same way. No namby-pamby little “achoo” for me. I want people in the next room to think I’m Bruce Lee, about to split a stack of bricks with his bare hand.)  

Know your place. In my experience, there are two types of vomiters: sprinters and sprayers. At first, everyone starts out as a sprayer. When you feel sick to your stomach, wherever you are—in bed, in a high chair, standing in a park, staring at your shoes—that’s where it happens. But when you get a little older, you have to make a choice: stand and spray, or sprint and spew. This may require a bit of soul-searching, and an honest appraisal of how long you can delay the inevitable in hopes that you can reach a proper receptacle. My Big Brother realized early on that his size and general disinclination to physical activity marked him for a sprayer. And spray he did, sports fans--couch, bed, school desk, even right at the supper table, a moment during Thanksgiving 1977 that will live in infamy for all who were present (except the dogs).

It almost goes without saying that I was a sprinter—as much to show my brother up as anything else. I have a 35-year unbroken record as a bombardier who always reached his target before releasing the payload. During one particularly bad flu season, I remember beaming with pride when my harried mother remarked with a whoosh of relief that she never once had to clean up after me.

What you want to avoid, of course, is trying to be a sprinter if you’re a sprayer. I myself think it’s next-to-impossible to cross over. In my experience, shame can be the only result. I’m thinking in particular of an unfortunate fellow named Wyatt, a friend of my college roommate. Wyatt was clearly a sprayer, which my roommate found to his dismay after one night of hard drinking in which Wyatt ended up crashing back at our place. On my bed. (I was sleeping elsewhere). Some time during the night, Wyatt apparently awoke and decided that maybe, just maybe, he could be a sprinter too. He was wrong. I wasn’t there, but I imagine the look on my roommate’s face when he encountered the meandering trail—a trail of tears (and beers!)—leading out of my bedroom, down the hall and to the bathroom must have been one of the great all-time looks. To their credit, they cleaned up the mess by the time I got home. Wyatt never showed his face at the apartment again, but he lingered on in infamy, initially as an unpleasant smell of malt and disinfectant, and more enduringly as the man we came to call Wyatt Urp.

There are more rules. But it’s rounding on four in the morning and I think we’ve both had enough of the subject.

Besides, my daughter is asking for the bucket. Better out than in.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?