Category Archives: Can we build it?

Making it, or making it better.

Higher and higher

When I went to vote on Tuesday, I brought Nate with me. As we walked through the parking lot, we heard singing. A woman was singing. A black woman was singing. She was singing a spiritual—a song of hope and faith. And she was walking slowly towards the polling place.

I stopped to let her go by. I turned to Nate, tears in my eyes, and said, “Remember this. Remember that woman, and her song.”

Of course, he asked why, but I didn’t want to explain the historical significance of the moment. He is five years old, and he lost a big chunk of his innocence when he lost his mom. I don’t think he needs to know about slavery just yet. I don’t know if he could understand. I don’t know if he would believe me.

We have done so very many things to be ashamed of.

He will learn history, in time. But for now, I am proud that Nathaniel has no idea why a black woman voting for a black man should be at all noteworthy. For him, this is the way things have always been.

And I am terribly, terribly proud that I lived to see this day.

It gives me just a little bit of hope for the future.

Spinning into glory

Q: What do you call it when you decide to wash your son’s snow boots in the washing machine, which not only completely destroys said washing machine, but also shrinks the boot liners, necessitating the purchase of new boots and a new washing machine?

A: A total wash.

Honorable mention goes to Nancy, who responded, “Taking yourself to the cleaners.”

With old-fashioned flavor in every bite

Please enjoy this classic post from the previous incarnation of my website, circa 2000.

Twinkie Lamp

“Are those Twinkies in there?”

Yes; yes, I’m afraid they are. They’ve been in there for over ten years now, I think. I have the dated receipt around here somewhere. When this picture was taken, it was closer to five or six years. But they still look pretty much the same. I mean, you can tell they’re old; you wouldn’t want to eat one. But then, a lot of people wouldn’t want to eat one even if it were fresh.

I got the lamp out of the basement of an apartment building on Highland Street, where it had been abandoned. I claimed it as my own, to furnish my first college apartment. The lamp was empty then, of course, but it was obvious we would have to put something in it. The guidelines were simple:

  • It had to be relatively light, because it was sitting on a flimsy table.
  • It couldn’t involve water, since it is after all an electric lamp and I didn’t feel like making the effort to do it safely.
  • It couldn’t be anything that would require attention, such as an ant farm, nightcrawlers, or food, which would rot or mold or attract pests.

We got a lot of suggestions. Colored sand or marbles were popular; both would have collapsed the table. Potpourri or scarves were deemed too girly. And M&Ms or other colorful candy… well, I suspect that would have become an ant farm in very short order. Finally we put it as the outgoing message on our answering machine: What should we put in the lamp?

My friend Tom left a message later that week. “Twinkies, man, I told you. F—in’ Twinkies.” *beep*

So Tom, Tim and I went to Crosby’s and bought six boxes of Twinkies. That turned out to be way too many, so after we were done cramming them in there, we ate the ones that didn’t fit (almost two boxes). I haven’t wanted to eat a Twinkie since then.

We took it next door to the Kitchen Witch to show Becky. She just laughed and said we were crazy, which was pretty much what she said every time we said or did anything.

Then we took it next door to show Bill at the convenience store. A girl was walking out as we were walking in, and she said, “Those things are gonna mold.”

I said, “They’re not going to mold. There’s nothing in them that mold would want to eat.”

She said, “I know mold, and those things are gonna mold.”

Tom laughed out loud. “You know mold? What does that even mean?” She stormed off, but I knew I was right. They’re individually wrapped, after all, and I’m pretty sure if they haven’t grown mold by now, they aren’t going to.

Feed me, Seymour

I actually enjoy working on our little house. I was inordinately proud of myself when I fixed the leaky faucet in the kitchen, for instance, or when I replaced the fugly chandelier in the dining room.

Sarah was always my cheering squad; she just loved that I was so handy. When she moved in with me, I noticed that her bookshelf was about to fall apart, so I laid it on its side, glued it back together and piled some weights on it to help it hold until the glue dried. It wasn’t much, but she was just thrilled by how matter-of-fact I was about it. It was busted, I fixed it, no big deal.

That said, there are a few things about home ownership that I do not enjoy. One of them is yard care. When we bought the house, it came with what is euphemistically known as “mature landscaping.” The wisteria had swallowed the back fence and was working on the maple tree. It had torn down the gutter downspout and was working its way into the bedroom window.

Wisteria, for those of you who may not be familiar with it, is insidious. It grows inches a day and can span great distances by twining around itself. I saw it reach up a good six feet into thin air to climb back into the maple tree after I cut it down. It will strangle you in your sleep if you aren’t careful. Sarah insisted that it was beautiful when it bloomed, but after three years, it never did. Last summer, she was no longer around to defend it, and I cut it to the ground. It’s still there, but I think I have the upper hand. I just can’t countenance a plant that requires twenty-four hour supervision to prevent it from killing all the other plants and lifting my house off its foundation.

We have a glorious star magnolia in the front yard that just finished its annual florgasm. We have many healthy hostas. We have an extremely enthusiastic honeysuckle that has almost completely devoured the yew bush on the corner. We have a bunch of nearly-dead rhododendrons that I am not sure what to do with. (I didn’t even know that rhododendrons were supposed to flower until I saw a picture a few weeks ago.) And we have at least a hundred other plants, bushes and flowers that I cannot identify, to the extent of being unable to tell whether they are weeds or not, or even whether they are alive or not.

One of my neighbors is a gardener, and he was kind enough to point out that I had some six-foot milkweeds growing out front: “Those are weeds, by the way.” Good to know. I ripped them out, and darn if they didn’t grow right back. Last summer, every night, as soon as we got home, we would go over to the honeysuckle corner and search for milkweed shoots.

A little research revealed that milkweed is a rhizome. I picture it as an evil snake that lurks far below, sending up shoots but never revealing its true self. I don’t know how it manages to survive with no sunlight, because I get those shoots the second they break the surface. But they keep coming.

So, I am slowly learning what I don’t like: plants that will take over my entire yard if I don’t pay close attention to them. Milkweed, bad. Wisteria, bad. Hostas I like, because they stay where you put them. I know enough to uproot maple seedlings before they get too big. But I don’t even know what else is thriving in my yard, plotting to destroy me.

Finally, we have a little garden out back. Strawberries, tulips, maybe some chives. Raised beds, a fence. It was beautiful, once. It could be again, but it needs a lot of work, and someone to care for it. I can take direction, but Sarah was the gardener of the family. She fed and watered; she nurtured and pruned; she sang little growing songs. Now termites have eaten the fence, and the weeds grow up to the sky.

The Drops From The Faucet

House-hunting is a very strange experience. I believe that this is because people are strange. We looked at some truly ugly homes with some truly inexplicable furnishings, and had a wonderful time mocking the sellers.

When we first looked at the house we would eventually buy, the bathtub faucet was dripping. When we came back for a second look, it was dripping more. When we came back for the home inspection, the inspector naturally turned on the tub faucet to see how quickly the water would drain. He had a great deal of trouble getting the water to shut off.

After our first night in the new house, Sarah let me know that she would quickly go insane if she had to listen to the dripping for very much longer. My first project would therefore be to repair it.

Now, my actual first project whenever I move into a new place is to remove the existing showerhead and install the Waterpik Hand-Held Shower Massage unit. This only took me five minutes, and I turned my attention to the tub faucet. I discovered that there was no cutoff valve for the tub, and so I was forced to turn off the water to the entire house in order to disassemble the faucet.

There were no identifying marks on the faucet, but I could clearly see the source of the leak. One of the rubber seals in the cartridge was worn. Off I went to Home Depot, where their motto is, “Our prices are so low, we can lie to your face and you’ll still come back for more!”

The indifferent Plumbing Sales Associate obviously had no idea what brand my faucet was. He didn’t have any seals that would fit, but he sold me some new springs and told me to use the worn seals with the new springs. The springs were just a bit too big, so naturally when I installed them, the forty-year-old rubber seals disintegrated. The leak was now much worse; in fact it was closer to a gush.

Taking a shower was now a team effort: one person in the basement at the master cutoff valve, and the other person in the tub, yelling OKAY TURN IT ON NOW.

Off I went to the local plumbing supply store. Lots of plumbers were queued up at the parts counter. When it was my turn, I held out the cartridge. The Counter Sales Associate looked at obviously-not-a-plumber me, and said, “What the hell is that?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

“No idea. Next!”

One of the plumbers who was waiting for his order to be pulled took pity on me. He said, “I think I have an old part like that in my truck; you can have it if you want.” We went to look. It was exactly the same part, and it was worn in exactly the same place.

“Thanks anyway,” I said. “You don’t happen to know the make and model?”

He grinned. “I sure do. It’s Price Pfister, the pfaucet with the pfunny name. And I got a pfeeling you’re probably pf*cked; nobody carries these parts around here.”

I laughed and thanked him again. I might not be a plumber, but I do have some specialized knowledge of my own. It took me about five minutes on Price Pfister’s web site to track down exactly which faucet I had (The Bodyguard), two minutes to find an exploded-view drawing with part numbers, five seconds to sneer at the idea of ordering parts through the friendly neighborhood plumbing supply store, and three minutes to order a new cartridge from a plumbing supply house in Pennsylvania.

I was feeling pretty proud of my elite Internet skills, until I happened to look under the sink in the bathroom for a bar of soap. I saw the showerhead that I had removed in Chapter One, which clearly said “Price Pfister Bodyguard” on the face.

In due course, the new cartridge arrived and was installed. The leak… continued. I looked more closely at the valve plate, and discovered that the previous homeowner had allowed the worn seal to leak for so long that it had etched a good-sized hole in the solid brass plate. It must have taken years.

I went back to Minnesota and ordered a new valve stem assembly, complete with washers and O-rings. Finally the leak stopped, along with the constant stream of curses. Sarah was most relieved.

We thought that was the end of it, and set about our myriad other home improvement projects.

Almost a year later, there came a knock at the door. It was a friendly young man from the town’s Department of Public Works. He said that his office had happened to notice that the average water bill for our address had dropped significantly, from about two hundred dollars a quarter to just over thirty dollars a quarter. He wondered if we would mind terribly allowing him to examine our water meter for signs of my having jammed a piece of coathanger wire into the impeller, possibly in an effort to lower my water bill. I showed him the worn valve plate, and we both marveled at the strange and wonderful variety of stone-cold crazy people in the world today.

Update: Apparently this post is now the number-one result on Google for people with leaky faucets. Hi there. How are you? I’ve added a couple of links so you can get your own Price Pfister parts. If you have a leaky Water Pik hand-held shower massage, for Pete’s sake, just buy a new one. They’re only twenty bucks.