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.

I just realized you'd started blogging again, read all the posts since July, and came to this one. I suspect you might be writing for us again because you're HOME again. I hope sincerely that this is the case. MM, I've missed you.

I read the last few paragraphs with great hesitation, and hoping you were wearing a helmet. And then, Blammo. Power line. You've still got it. ;)

You fixed stuff and no one got injured. As we all know, it could have been much worse.
No life complicating injuries? Sounds like success to me. Though, truth be told, the powerline, that's classic MM all the way. If you'd just cut down the branch, I would have thought you had started composing fiction.
For the record you can experience that sulfur-smell in Iceland, our hot water has a whiff of it when you take a shower. Just so you know if you ever fly over, you don't need to become a plumber, it's usually like this!
It's nice to know it's business as usual, albeit at a new stand. Did you, um, fabricate a story for the power company, one that didn't hold you liable? I think I would have tried, but you probably have more scruples than I do.
Ahhhh, I feel like I just got a major fix to my SOTM addiction. I'd been sober to long anyway. I'm very happy to hear you have found a "HOME" and look forward to more of you home repair disas...ehem, home repair stories.
In which we've changed our titling format........
Caulk-sucking....that made my day.
Oh and didn't I get on a ladder to clip two branches that were leisurely resting on the power lines a few weeks ago. These would be my corresponding lines to the feed to my neighbor's house which during a winter windstorm two years ago were merrily sparking "bzork, bzork, ka-thummm!" and throwing sparks like the fourth of July was now in December.

So after figuring the angle of the cut, I cut only to have them lay themselves down on the power feed lines while the last millimetric strap of bark held branch to tree.

I'm calling an electrician in to the downstairs bath which refuses to light. After replacing the SPST switch, the lines are hot but the light still won't light and both Thumper and I are scratching our heads I conclude:

I got better things to do.

Oh MM, how happy you have made me today as I read this piece! Actually how happy you have made me since you returned to blogging and have made my day turn into a great big old humor event after reading your stuff here! As the owner of a house nearly 110 years of age and it has a lot of original things (I think they must be that as they look pretty damned ancient to me) still operating, my theory there is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" -or think about messing with it cause my name is not "Hazel" which was my Mom's name and she -like your parents -could and would monkey around and fix anything -except things electrical of which she was terrified! I'm thinking you did darned good in your repairmanship and it's good too that you even confess to actually enjoying doing that too! (The thrill of the hunt, maybe?) But above all, please keep on sharing your stories and keep me smiling at the very least but often howling out loud and making the family wonder what's so funny about a computer screen!
Go MM go! This kind of event is why I like apartment living, although I do like fixing things once OK n a while.. .
ONCE IN A WHILE. Stupid tablet keyboard...
Just wanted to stop by & say I'm glad you're back. We missed you!
I'm hoping the guy in the rope saw picture isn't you. With that being said, thanks for including the picture of the guy with the rope saw.
I'm so excited that you're back to writing! I've missed your stories. After a year of checking monthly and nothing new, I was getting worried. Glad to hear everyone is doing well at the new Magazine Mansion. :)
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