Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Hills Are Alive, With the Sound of Unorganized Hancock

My two little human noise machines will be appearing on The Breakfast Club on Z 105.5 in Auburn, Maine this morning. That means we have to get up a half an hour before we go to bed in order to get there in time. This is the third time that Unorganized Hancock has brought their unique blend of not-uniqueness to the Matty in the Morning show. Everyone at the station is always really nice to us, and we're grateful for their friendship. The boys will be performing at a benefit event run by the station later on in the Spring, which will be announced on the show.

Unorganized Hancock has added their original song, Go, Go, Go, to their Bandcamp page. It's the official anthem of the 21st Century, because I said so. You can listen to it by pressing the Play button on this-a-here embedded player, and you can download a hi-def copy for just 99 cents, if you've got an iPod and 99 cents.

If you want, you can listen to the show live over the Intertunnel on Z 105.5's feed. If you don't happen to be glaring at my webpage when they're on, and you miss it, never fear. You can hear an archived copy almost immediately on the radio station's TalkShoe page.

[Update: Here's a direct link to the Talkshoe recording of the show]

[Another Update: Many thanks go out to Sam from Astoria, Oregon, for his constant support of of our children's musical efforts. It is very much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to Donald B. for overpaying for the boy's song on BandCamp. It is very much appreciated]
[More Update: Many thanks to longtime friend Kathleen M. from Connecticut for her generous support of our children's musical efforts. It is very much appreciated]

Monday, March 28, 2016

Interestingly, 'Byzantine Forest of Metal Columns' Is the Name of My Supertramp Tribute Band. But I Digress

    This is Sippican, tattered and torn
    That kissed the missus all forlorn
    That flushed the toilet one fateful morn
    That flooded the floor and smelled like scat
    That filled the blog with a monologue
    About fixing the house that Jack built.

I don't know who built my house. I imagine it was constructed by a great big crew of rough-and-tumble guys. In 1901, power tools were scarce, and 'strong backs with weak minds' were plentiful. I'm sure any number of them were named Jack.

Of course the old expression about 'strong backs and weak minds' doesn't really hold in this case. When I began working in construction, back in the dark ages of the '70s, that appellation was reserved strictly for young people fresh on the job. The old guys knew plenty, and could do more math in their head than you can manage with a calculator.

The jobs reserved for we newcomers, luxuriant of hair but challenged in all other areas, were always pretty simple : Dig a hole here. Roll this wheelbarrow full of concrete over 100 yards of rough ground and dump it in the form by the back door. Take the bundles of shingles off the truck and put them on the roof. Don't fall off the roof, it makes a mess. That's the only sort of direction you'd get.

The payoff was that you got to work with people who knew their arse from their elbow. You would receive a certain amount of instruction. This instruction was supplied in the form of abuse, delivered in vibrant Anglo-Saxon, accompanied by a threat to be fired if you did whatever it was you did again. For the most part, you were required to be cautious, quiet, and "steal with your eyes" if you wanted to learn things. You would work right next to men who were very accomplished carpenters, painters, roofers, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, stonemasons, concrete finishers, or skilled at various other trades. They were also very accomplished drunks, and could show you a thing or two about getting yourself outside a quart of Four Roses while still being able to show up early for work the next day. They accomplished marvelous things, if you loved single-family houses the way I did, and if you paid attention, you could learn how to do it yourself.

In theory, this monkey-see, monkey-do method is how home and garden shows on TV are supposed to work. There's a problem. The people featured on shelter shows are chosen because they are most likely to be entertaining to the viewers. The work is an afterthought. Even the venerable and useful This Old House has succumbed to this affliction. They spend fifteen hours picking out drapes, and fifteen seconds placing the foundation. The actual work happens in a blur in the background. You can't steal with your eyes by watching competent people, because there aren't any in front of the camera. If you watch Home and Garden TV, you might learn what is required to become a host on Home and Garden TV. That's about it.

The 'steal with your eyes approach' eventually cultivates an ability to puzzle things out when confronted by a construction and maintenance problem, if you don't fall off the roof holding a bundle of shingles before you learn everything. If your view of the whole thing is informed by a long series of small glimpses of the underlying structure, you get a much clearer understanding of what's truly going on overall. This is also the basis of my interest in Victoria's Secret catalogs.

So we've wandered hither and yon in the thesaurus talking about my clogged sewer pipe. It's long since time to cap the thing off and take stock of the whole megillah. I promise I won't exaggerate, and as I've said a million times before, I never resort to hyperbole. Anyway, here goes: I believe that the recalcitrant sewer line is the entire reason I was able to buy my home for less than 25 grand a few years ago, even though it seemed to be the only thing in the house that functioned, at least a little. It was not one of many things wrong with my house. It was THE thing wrong with my house. My house is a hovel, so that's saying something. Here's the theorem, proved:
  1. It has obviously been many decades since the sewer line functioned properly. It's possible it never did. The vertical Drain-Waste-Vent line went directly into a clay pipe 'Tee' fitting underground. That's not a deal-breaker, but a sweep (a gently curved pipe) would have been better.
  2. The Tee had a cleanout a few inches from the spot where the vertical pipe meets the horizontal tee. This cleanout couldn't be accessed because there was a solid granite foundation wall in the way. 
  3. Some former owners dug outside the foundation when the pipe didn't work, only to discover the pipe didn't exit the house that way. That excavation required the demolition of a ground-level rain gutter made from concrete. That allowed rainwater from the roof to filter down into the ground, where it makes a damp spot along the inside of the foundation wall. That made the basement perpetually damp, and it masked the water leaking out of the sewer pipe under the slab.
  4. There was a clean out pipe for the sewer. It was on the opposite side of the basement. To my surprise, that's the side of the house where the main house drain actually left the building. In the mists of antiquity, someone broke off the clean out pipe underground, plugged it with a series of small fittings, and then installed some sort of sink. Then they buried all their piping in concrete. This made it appear as though the (long abandoned) sink location was at the end of a drain leading back to the main DWV vent pipe. Even if you weren't fooled, (I was) there was no way to use this clean out anymore. That means it was a practical impossibility to clean out the house drain and sewer line outside the house for forty or fifty years.
  5. Once I dug up the sewer clean out, I used 70 feet of drain augur cable to clean out the pipe, and there was twenty feet of house drain before you got to the clean out. A 4" diameter pipe that's 100+ feet long will hold a lot of water (and other stuff). Lots of water would mean lots of weight pushing on an obstruction. If the obstruction won't budge, that much pressure will blow out all the oakum or tar or whatever was used to seal the joins between the 4-foot sections of sewer pipe. Given enough time, all the water leaked out of the pipe without pushing the 'solids" along.
  6. The solids continued building up in the pipe. I think the pipe filled from the bottom up at first, with water flowing over the top a bit, and then eventually the only way for water to get by was to seep through the entire 100-foot run of muck. Not very efficient.
  7. The entire sewer line became a defacto septic system. Almost nothing made it past the obstruction to reach the town sewer.
  8. The leaky seams in the sewer pipe let water run out quickly enough so that the house could limp along for decades with the solids slowly building up in more and more of the pipe. 
  9. Once the unsuccessful exterior excavation ploy failed, someone dug up the pipe where the vertical DWV pipe entered the floor (and joined the clay Tee pipe). They broke the clay pipe, and they also lost or broke the plug that went in the unused end of the pipe.
  10. They couldn't get another clay pipe to replace the one they broke, and Ferncos might not have been invented yet, so they put a wooden disc in the plug end of the Tee fitting, then stuck the broken bits around the DWV pipe, and covered it up with a concrete patch. 
  11. The wooden disc plug didn't last for long, and tree roots flourished at the now open ended pipe. 
  12. Lots and lots of water escaped the pipe right where it entered the floor. 
  13. The foundation and cellar floor was undermined by the water.
  14. In the winter, the temperature reached 20-below-zero regularly.
  15. The water froze, then heaved the foundation and the floor. 
  16. The original walk-out barn doors in the basement no longer worked as the foundation in the back of the house slumped. 
  17. Someone tried to fix the problem by pouring a makeshift concrete foundation on top of the sinking granite blocks that made up the foundation walls. The water just kept undermining the now taller wall.
  18. The problem accelerated, and the foundation wall in the back of the house between the 8-foot-wide barn doors completely crumbled to dust.
  19. Someone propped up the back of the house with a byzantine forest of metal columns, makeshift wood beams, and a few I-Beams that didn't do anything. 
  20. They also boarded up the entire back of the house, then insulated it, blocking out almost all sunlight and keeping heat out, while thinking they were keeping heat in. Where they thought the heat they were keeping in would come from is unknown. This accelerated the freezing, heaving, and subsidence of the remaining foundation walls and the floor. 
  21. The forest of hollow metal columns rested on the thin concrete floor, with no footings underneath, and the floor was constantly being undermined, so the columns punched holes in the slab instead of holding anything up. 
  22. This elicited the installation of ever more columns, all accomplishing not much. This coincided with the installation of ceiling fans, a hot tub, and a tanning bed in the house, because people think a house is for adding to, not for taking care of.
  23. Eventually the back of the house dropped between 6 and 8 inches. 
  24. Because of the unusual framing technique used on the house when it was built, (thanks, Jack) the back wall of the house basically became detached from the rest of the house.
  25. When the back wall of the house slumped, the rear roof eave slumped a lot, and the rest of the roof only slumped a little. 
  26. This pulled open the neglected roofing about 3 or 4 feet up from the roof edge.
  27. This allowed water to enter the attic, and flow freely inside the four-story back wall of the house. 
  28. Water flowing inside the back wall destroyed the windows, so they boarded some of them up, too. This made it colder inside, prompting the owners to -- you guessed it -- install more ceiling fans. 
  29. The rain and snow entering the holes in the roof made the house's structure even worse. Leaks in the roof became big holes in the roof, which let in bees, hornets, carpenter ants, chipmunks, birds, squirrels, and bats. The holes never got large enough to let in any competent plumbers, however.
  30. Once the owners ran out of light fixtures to replace with ceiling fans, and it was raining indoors regularly, they folded their tents in the night and stole away, leaving the local savings and loan holding the bag holding the mortgage.
  31. Because a bank can't enter a house while they foreclose on it, all the plumbing pipes in the house froze solid, and were ruined. They were no great shakes anyway. The heating plant was an oil-fired boiler with hot water baseboard heat. All of this was full of water, froze solid, and was destroyed. 
  32. I came along looking for a cheap house. The banker realized there couldn't be two people as dumb as me walking the Earth, so they sold it to me before I sobered up.
So, there you go, your honor. I hereby testify that someone flushed an unmentionable down the toilet, back when Eisenhower was president, probably, and it got stuck, and that little thing destroyed the sewer system, the foundation, the back wall of the house, the roof, the plumbing, and the heating system in the house. And I bought it. I plead insanity.

So if you've been reading right along, you know that my son and I were able to repair the main house drain. If you're new around here, press on this Plumbing label and read the posts in reverse order.

I've been struck by the interest in this project from many corners of the Intertunnel, and the outpouring of support from people near and far, for which I am immensely grateful. It would seem to me that people want to hear more about fixing my house, so that is what I'll write about every chance I get. I definitely owe Jerry and Michelle a stirring conclusion to the tale of jacking up the back of the house. By gad, I'm going to do it.

My son and I cleaned off the nasty cables we used to augur out the sewer line, and then tromped over the snowbanks to load the rented tools into my truck to return them to the tool rental yard. We backfilled all the excavations and compacted the soil. We burned half our clothes, and my wife washed the rest. Twice.

A week or so later, we got a generic notice in the mail from the town government, appended to a utility bill. It read:

If you experience a sewer backup, please notify the Public Works Department before you hire a plumber. After hours, call the Police Department. 

But, we didn't hire a plumber, so I guess we're all set. Life sure is a lot simpler when no one imagines anyone like you even exists.

[Update: Many thanks to Robert B. from Chicago, Ill. for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to William O from Bandera, Tejas for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Yet More Update: Many thanks to James H. from Lees Summit, Missouri for his kind words and generous contribution to our TipJar. It is very much appreciated]
[Still More Updates: Many thanks to Jerry and Michelle V. from Everson, WA for their unflagging support and friendship. It is greatly appreciated]

Monday, March 21, 2016

Interestingly, 'Unified Field Theory of Neglect' Is the Name of My Left Banke Tribute Band. But I Digress

My house, just as I found it. The bad news was that Winter was coming
You know, I've been talking about this sewer line fix for three weeks or so. One of the reasons I found the whole thing so durn interesting is because the exploration and repair of one problem solved a zillion other problems I'd been turning over in my mind. This busted sewer pipe really was the key to life, the universe, and everything -- at least everything to do with my house.

My house cost less than $25,000 when I bought it. I wasn't expecting a rose garden. As it turned out, I got a lupin garden, but that's a story for another day. There was a lot wrong with my house, and I knew it. I even knew that the sewer wasn't likely to be first rate. There was a patch on the concrete floor around the sewer pipe. There's always a reason why the floor has been patched around a sewer line. All the reasons are bad reasons.

I needed a house six years ago or so after catching the poverty. It was my own fault. I foolishly went to the early-bird special at the Honest Work Buffet, but Wall Street had gotten there before me and sneezed on the warming tray with the regular economy in it. Lyme Disease didn't help any, either, although I still find ticks less loathsome than politicians.

I believe that a house is the chassis of a competent family. We were broke but it was important to keep us together in a house where we would have some control over our affairs. I looked for a house that was as cheap as the chrome on a Kia, but didn't have anything wrong with it that I couldn't understand or fix myself. Our house fit the bill. It had been abandoned, and the bank wanted to get rid of it, badly.

The house was owned by a local bank that held the note from the prior owners, a real rarity back when the real estate leverage world was desolating the landscape. People kept predicting that housing would fall an additional X percent, and then they'd buy. They didn't realize that the big banks holding the leveraged debt had no interest in the real real estate. The financial institutions were being made whole by logrolling the government. The houses were abstractions to them, and only the paper was real. The local banker had his tit in the wringer over our house. I could reason with him. Either I could live in it, or he could. No one  in their right mind would want to live in my house.

I didn't want an abstract house. I wanted one with real problems. Mission Accomplished. I tried in vain to make real estate agents understand that I wanted to buy a house nobody else wanted. They kept trying to show me houses that looked like Home Depot had exploded inside them. The current owners wanted me to pay for the privilege of ripping out all the silly stuff they had inexpertly selected and installed. What I really wanted was a neglected house. Neglect is easier to handle than active malice. That applies to real estate and elections, now that I think of it.

Our house had been neglected, that's for sure. There was a hole in the back roof that I could stick my head through. The wiring was still partly knob and tube. It takes a long time to foreclose on a house, even if it's abandoned, so all the pipes had frozen and burst while the bank went through all the legal steps to foreclose on an empty house. When we bought our home, it was essentially a poorly constructed shell of a house, not a dwelling.

That's exactly what I wanted. I've stood in the middle of plenty of poorly constructed house shells. I'm certain some were poorly constructed, because I constructed 'em. A half-built house holds no terrors for me. It was a fully-built house that looked like a Kardashian picked everything out and cost a bunch of spondulicks that I had to avoid. I didn't want to pay for someone else's ceiling fans.

I didn't. I bought this house for about five grand more than a plot of land costs around here. It's funny, but the price of land never seems to change, no matter how much a house costs here. That's because you can plop a trailer on a house lot in these parts, and no one will bat an eye. My big Victorian house had to compete on price with a house that gets built by a tow truck. The dirt underneath it had no opinion.

So, the roof had big holes, and the plumbing was totally gonzo. Anything might happen when you turned on a light switch, except light. There was no heating appliance in the house that functioned. Heating matters in western Maine. The back of the house was in danger of collapsing. The foundation underneath it was completely gone, and the weird props that had been installed to hold it up were only good at collecting cobwebs, which were the only things actually holding up the building, I think.

These all sound like separate problems. I thought any one of them could be handled by a successful convenience store robbery and some elbow grease. I was wrong. I've been banging on this house for nigh on six years now, and until this whole sewer line debacle, I had no idea that there was a central theme to these problems.

I have an unusual disposition. Some people call that being a jerk. I don't like not understanding things. I notice things. Noticing things isn't encouraged much anymore. See: Twitter. I must admit, however, that it was almost worth the very real fear of being unable to fix the sewer to finally figure out that there was a central theme to my house's problems. For the first time since I bought it, my house made sense. I had come up with the Unified Field Theory of Neglect. I understood everything that had gone wrong for the last 75 years or so. It wasn't a disconnected series of problems. The sewer line had wrecked my roof, and everything in between.

[to be continued]

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Interestingly, 'Synapse Drippings' Is the Name of My Andrea True Connection Tribute Band. But I Digress

Honestly, this is the "before" picture.
Our clean out was capped, so we moved on to reworking the transition from the vertical DWV pipe to the sewer pipe under the floor. Blessedly, we could throw away seven feet of concatenated strangeness that came with the house, and we replaced the whole mess with plastic pipe. I'm not a vice president without portfolio for any of the large tech companies that litter the Fortune 500 these days. I have no plans to freeze my head when I die, or upload my synapse drippings into a computer. When I'm dead, I'm gonna get buried, and let you lot worry about the plumbing in my house for a change. I'll be perfectly happy to perish if I don't have to dig my own hole. The plastic pipe we installed will outlive me, so as far as I'm concerned it's a permanent fix. I fixed the whole world in the same way by having two kids.

After we removed the busted Tee pipe under the floor, we were presented with the bell end of the next pipe. Fernco fittings only fit on the spigot end of clay pipes, so some sloppy surgery was in order. We cut off the bell end using the diamond blade on the sawzall. We did it right in place. We stuffed a rag in the pipe in the usual way, and I showed my son how smart people cut pipe. In a ditch, smart people look lazy. If you've ever driven past a crew of construction workers and excoriated them for leaning on their shovels, you've probably mistaken being smart for being lazy. You also probably did all that excoriating with the windows rolled up.

It's not possible to work flat out all day, every day, when you work in the manual arts. You have to work smart or you won't last. And don't give me any horsehockey about going to the gym, either. I once employed an ex-Marine bodybuilder. I was building my own house at the same time, and sent him to help my uncle build the chimney. My uncle was getting along in years, and had a bad heart. My bodybuilding minion was somewhat cavalier about picking up measly 35-pound blocks instead of the giant useless metal disks in the gym. My uncle wore him out in about four hours. He refused to go back the next day.

I held the sawzall in place with the blade on the pipe, and I instructed my son to get a length of wormy 2x4 from the pile of wood I keep around for lever emergencies. He stood the 2x4 on end in the hole and pushed against the frame of the saw, which put pressure on the blade as I held the trigger. It took a minute or two to get through the pipe, but we were both fresh as a daisy when we made it to the other side. Just like a daisy, we were covered in fertilizer, but we weren't exhausted from the effort. That's what I mean about working smart. Work smart, and you really can work all day, every day.

We put together the pipe like a tinkertoy. Working back from the clay pipe, we put on a Fernco fitting, a short length of straight 4" pipe, a sweep, which is a term for an elbow with a longer radius, a tall piece of pipe, a wye to match the angle of the pipe descending from the floors upstairs, and then a cleanout plug on the other opening on the wye. We put it together dry to make sure it fit, and then cemented all the pieces together and installed it in two tranches in one trenches. The only thing left was to join the new pipe to the old cast iron monstrosity, using the wrong Fernco fitting.

I know it's the wrong fitting. You can not tell me in the comments it's not the not the right fitting, thanks. Officially, Ferncos that are installed above ground are supposed to have a metal halo that resembles Messala's braclets wrapped around them. Don't ask me why. All the ones that are buried in the ground are just rubber with a clamp on each end. I was thinking of re-using the correct one that was already in place on the old setup, but it was such a mess I decided to use the wrong thing instead. Sometimes the wrong thing is the right thing to do. You know, like prom night.
[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks go out to my PayPal-averse friend Sam from Oregon for his generous gift via the regular mail. It is very much appreciated]

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Cork Shows Through

SHE CALLED IT the piazza. I'd been to the library and it isn't a piazza at all, but she says it just the same.
    I didn't say that, but it's not like I know what to call it anyway. I wouldn't say it to her face if I did know because she is so fierce. The doctors, like bad farmers, pulled babies and other things you’d think were vital out of her and all sorts of bits off of her as the calendars repeated themselves, and father says when they bury her there will be an echo inside. She carries on like the turning of the earth, and everyone loves her and fears her no matter how much of her is left.
    She never went leathery; she got adamantine. She was a basilisk to a stranger and a pitted madonna to her own. We make a pilgrimage, no less, to visit her. Which one are you again is the name she uses to prove she loves us all the same amount. She presses a quarter in my hand like a card trick when we leave.
    The piazza is just a rotten porch that leans drunkenly off the building and she sends me to get the food that cooled out there. It’s thirty rickety feet above the jetsam of a thousand lives gone bad, surrounded by chainlink and crime. She’s like a one-woman congress, overruling all sorts of laws of man and nature, but you can’t help feeling she can’t keep a lookout for gravity forever on your behalf, can she? Everything is only a matter of time in this world.
    It’s always hot and close when you return, breathless from fear and hurry and the whip of the wind, and you notice she has only two colors: grey and the pink of her cheek. There are always things I don't understand, boiling. Everything on the plates is grey and pink, too.

    The rooms are in a parade. The triptych of the parlor windows shows the sack of a forgotten Rome through the tattered lace. No running in the hall! Her daughter lives down stairs so there was no one to bother but… the very idea!
    But how could any child linger in that tunnel of a hall? You had to get past it to the kitchen table. The bedrooms branched off, dim caves that smelled of perfume bought in stores forty years closed by men thirty years dead. The indistinct whorls on the wallpaper reached out to touch your hand like a leper.   
    At the table, the lyre-back chair groans and shifts under even my little weight, and you sit transfixed while she spoons the sugar and dumps the milk into the tea until the saucer is a puddle, and you wondered in your head how many times the bag could take it. There’s cinnamon and laughter now and then and blessed sunlight that turned the battered battleship linoleum into a limpid pool. The cork shines through the scrim of the coating, a million footfalls revealing more and more of it over time.
    And Catherine? The Cork shows through there, too.

Interestingly, 'Sewer Pipe Diamonds' Is the Name of My Brewer and Shipley Tribute Band. But I Digress

Cover me; I'm going in.

So we had this plumbing thing on the run once it went Sploosh. We were all jazzed up on Ferncos and plastic plumbing and fumes. Ferncos require you to give them a clean end to attach to. Don't misunderstand. Clean is just an expression. Even if you bought everything brand new, by the time you're done mucking around in the ground, it's all dirty. Like an HBO series, our only obligation is to make sure it remains a certain kind of dirty.

We can't allow the pipes to get filled with dirt, or rocks, or anything else the sewer won't like. Our problem begins with the fact that our plumbing predecessors busted up the pipes pretty good to work their micturating magic and poopy prestidigitation. The cleanout featured in this picture was sheared off at a very funny angle. Ferncos don't do funny. The pipe would have to be cut off squarely.

I rented a pipe breaker along with the drain auger. The moment I asked for it at the rental place I knew I was making a mistake. If the pipe is out and about, you can wrap the chain around it and perform the required lever action with its big handle. The chances of all that being possible in a ditch are vanishingly small. Home Depot had my Plan B on hand, however: Sewer pipe diamonds.

I have a sawzall. It's a lower-case Sawzall. A real Sawzall is made by Milwaukee Tools. I have a Porter Cable version because it was ten cents cheaper or something. The blades are interchangeable, and so is the tool, really. It's a reciprocating saw that's perfect for demolition, and for deboning large prey and unwary door-to-door salesmen. I bought a blade with no teeth. It had a frosting of industrial diamonds on the business edge. It's great for cutting through glazed clay sewer pipe. The pipe is really tough, like baked concrete, so you don't want any teeth. You want to abrade your way through it. It's like dinner at a nursing home.

The sheared-off end of the cleanout pipe would be buried more than a foot deep if we didn't extend it. We needed to cut it off square so the Fernco would slip over the end and transition to a length of 4" plastic pipe. We had a Fernco end cap to finish it off for now. I'll put a fitting with a cleanout on it later.

I took a piece of twine left from the packaging of the drain pipe and tied it to a rag. I stuffed it in the pipe and stepped on the loose end of the twine. Then I sliced off the clay pipe cleanly. If this had been any of the jobs I've ever supervised, the plumber would have explained to me that he had broken the pipe, the shards of pipe went down the drain, followed by the rag, trailed by the twine, and could he have his check please, it's almost four in the afternoon. Because I am totally unqualified to be a plumber, the pipe was cut cleanly, we threw the cutoff pieces aside, and we pulled the rag out and threw it away. Very far away.

The Fernco went on the clay pipe without any fuss, and the plastic pipe was easy to cut with a metal-cutting blade chucked into the lower-case sawzall. Top it off with the rubber cap, and throw the soil back in the hole to support the pipe. Done deal.

The other end was going to be interesting. That's the end where the main, vertical house drain went down into the floor and took a ninety-degree turn towards the opposite wall. This transition had been made with a "Tee" fitting instead of what's called a "sweep.' A sweep is just an elbow with a longer radius. The idea is that the, ahem, solids would get to the bottom of the pipe and get a head start on heading down the horizontal run of sewer pipe under the floor. I can never see a picture of the tubular slide at a water park and not think of a plumbing sweep. You know what that makes the swimmers. In case you're wondering, I don't go to water parks.

The extract of a drunkard's nightmare plumbing setup couldn't be salvaged. That made things easier, really. From about eye level to two feet below the floor, we nuked everything. We pulled out the busted Tee fitting. That's when the craziness of my plumbing predecessors really came into focus. A Tee makes a crummy sweep. Everything lands at the bottom of the pipe, and it can cause a logjam, if you will. It was bound to cause trouble, and it obviously did as the decades rolled by. Everyone tried everything but something smart to deal with it.

Whoever dug it up back in the mists of antiquity must have broken the bell on the Tee, rendering it leaky forevermore. The Nobody's Looking Plumbing Company, Inc, then proceeded to break or lose the plug that fits into the end of the pipe to turn the Tee into a crummy sweep. The Nobody's Looking Plumbing Company then checked to see that nobody was looking, and fashioned a circular plug out of a piece of a 3/4" pine board, and stuck it on the end of the clay pipe. Brilliant.

[to be continued]

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

You May Not Believe This, But 'Weapons-Grade Nuts' Is the Name of My Psychedelic Furs Tribute Band. But I Digress

I like modularity. I feel like I'm pretty much alone in that nowadays.

Everyone seems to be dreaming of some kind of unitary system for everything. The best example of this phenomenon I've seen lately is the quixotic quest to automate light switches using phones. To a person like me, that idea lives 167 miles past stupid in the land of Moron. I've installed every kind of light switch in a house. The house I currently live in still had some rotary switches hooked up to knob and tube wiring. I think Edison installed it when he was still moonlighting on the weekends trying to make a few bucks. Those are interesting, but they're honestly lousy light switches. They arc like you're turning on the lights in Dr. Frankenstein's parlor, and if you turn them counter-clockwise they do everything except turn the lights on. Some of the switches in my house have two buttons. Top one on, bottom one off. That was an improvement on rotary switches. I've replaced most everything with single-pole switches at this point. To turn lights on and off, the design cannot be improved upon. Period.

A box of switches like that costs maybe five bucks. You can take an aborigine from the Amazon and plop him in your living room (this is the current immigration policy of the United States, by the way) and tell him to turn on the light and he'll be able to figure it out with no prompting. A toddler only needs to see you turn the lights on once to understand it forevermore. I'll go further. A person that has never seen a light switch can be taught to install one in less than a minute:
  • Turn off electricity in the house
  • Find the "hot" wire, which is black
  • Interrupt this black wire on its trip from service panel to fixture
  • Attach black wire coming into the switch box to one gold screw
  • Attach the black wire leaving the switch box to the other gold screw
  • The green screw is for the bare copper wire. It's the ground. The switch works even if you forget this step, but you might get a tingle now and then
  • The only other wire is white and passes right through the box to the fixture
  • Turn the power back on
That's it. Flick the switch up, the light goes on. Flip the switch down, the light goes off.

Controlling your lights with your phone is one of those ideas that seems futuristic, but it's not. It's a futile attempt to make unitary systems from things that work better as modular components. It's like building a supercomputer to play chess against Gary Kasparov. After seventeen billion dollars is invested, it finally beats him once. Now tell Gary to turn off the lights on the way out of the room. He does it. Tell the supercomputer to turn off the lights, and you're in for another seventeen billion in startup costs. Humans can keep track of tens of thousands of things like operating light switches without much fuss. A computer is dumb, dumb, dumb, and no matter how smart you make it, it will always be dumb. Every woman who has sat in the dark in a public bathroom stall, waving her hands wildly over her head to reactivate the motion detector light, can testify to this.

I was able to repair my sewer system because everything in it was modular. The pipe leading out of the house was made up of identical sections of fired clay pipe put together like legos. They were made of durable stuff, and they were installed to work using gravity alone. They worked for over one hundred years despite the efforts of dozens of people to screw them up in the interim. If they were a unitary system of some sort, and they failed, I would have been forced to replace them as a unitary system. To translate, that would have meant moving into a cardboard box behind a strip mall dumpster.

I could fix the broken components, and leave the others alone. Don't underestimate the importance of this concept. In housing, everyone desires everything to be unitary, and wants it to be brand new forever. I can't fix a modern house. I'm a dolt, but that's not why I can't fix it. In general, everything to do with a modern house can be replaced, but it can't be fixed. If your hardwood strip flooring is worn, you can sand it and refinish it and get another fifty years out of it. If someone puts a coal out on your Pergo floor, you can lump it, or you can replace it. It's sold as permanent. In real life, "permanent" really means "disposable." The word "sustainable" is similar. It really means "in need of massive, permanent subsidy."

When I traveled to the faraway Home Depot to buy things, I had a very limited budget, and no exact idea of what I would find underground, and what I would do when I found it. I bought a bizarre assortment of modular things that would give me the best chance to solve the problems as I found them. Don't get me wrong; the assortment wasn't bizarre to my eye. The clerk in the aisle and the lady in the orange smock at the register thought I was weapons-grade nuts, however.

[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks to a person who wishes to remain anonymous for their generous donation to our PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]
[Further Update: Many thanks to (Sloop) Jon B. in Colorado for his generous contribution via the PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Continuing update: Many thanks to the Pope of the Internet, Gerard at American Digest, for his unrelenting support of this blog, and his very generous contribution to our tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Yet More Updated: Many thanks to Fred Z. from Calgary for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]

Monday, March 14, 2016

It's Funny, But 'Increasingly Gargantuan Tranches' Is the Name of My Ellery Bop Tribute Band. But I Digress

Sippican: Excuse me.
The Internet: Hello Mr. Sippican.
Sippican: Come on with me for a minute. I want to talk to you. I just want to say one word to you, just one word.
The Internet: Yes, sir.             
Sippican: Are you listening?
The Internet: Yes I am.               
Sippican: Fernco.        
The Internet: Exactly how do you mean?             
Sippican: There is a great future in Fernco. Think about it. Will you think about it? 
The Internet: Yes, I will.
Sippican: Enough said. That's a deal.

That's a bit of a strained metaphor, I know. It lacks verisimilitude, which is a writing term for plagiarizing people who have actually visited the place you're writing about. Anyway, as you know, I have never uttered the phrase, "Enough said," and I'm not starting now. When I lay my head on my pillow at night, I look at my wife and say, "But enough about me. What do you think about me?"

Let's move on and talk about what to do with your sewer line after you've given it a proper cleanse. Or more to the point, what I did with mine. I fixed it, lickety split. That's because I know about Fernco fittings.

Let's have a show of hands here. Name the important company: Apple or Fernco. It's a trick question, I realize that. One company was briefly the largest in the world by market capitalization. The other one is important.

If Apple was wiped off the face of the Earth tomorrow by a meteor strike or a Chinese slave labor strike, take your pick, I wouldn't notice. They don't make anything useful to me. Don't get me wrong, a computer is a useful thing, but Apple doesn't make computers. Apple makes Apple computers. Not the same thing. They manufacture the vinyl siding of the tech world as far as I'm concerned. I like clapboards and paint.

I would certainly notice if Fernco wasn't there tomorrow. If it wasn't for Fernco, I'd be pooping in a bucket right now and dumping it in the nearby river every night when no one was looking, like a wild animal, or the Dave Matthews Band. I was introduced to Fernco twenty years ago or so. People who hang out in trenches call every flexible coupling "a fernco." It's become the equivalent of calling any brand of facial tissue a "kleenex" or every refrigerator a "frigidaire." Of course, everyone calls every MP3 player an "iPod," but I call them a "Walkman" just to piss them off. When I call their iPhone a Palm Pilot, they come at me like a kamikaze.

I don't know how big a company Fernco is. It's a privately held company. A privately held company is this weird type of business that makes useful things and turns a profit. That's why you never hear a word about privately held companies on the business pages. Today's average business plan is to borrow money in increasingly gargantuan tranches without ever even trying to turn a profit, and then selling out to Marissa Mayer for a billion dollars before you run out of Ramen noodles and she runs out of board members who think she's cute. Then you read about it on Marketwatch on your Speak N Spell. Whoops, I meant iPad.

In the misty halls of antiquity, you had to seek out a commercial plumbing supply house if you wanted to speak Fernco with a fellow Ferncomaniac. Only hardcore plumbers go there. You could end up in a leper colony just by shaking hands with everyone waiting at the counter. That type of supply house used to scare me, because I was just dabbling in plumbing. True plumbing believers could spot a plumbing dilettante like me a mile off.

There was a counter with one giant, filthy catalog on it, and a gruff face glowering at you across the Formica. They'd ask you, "What do you want," and if you didn't immediately answer, "Gimme tree-four of the one-tousand-tooz dash fordyfors if ya got 'em," they'd know you were a civilian and give you directions to the nearest Ace Hardware. Oh, the walk of shame to the truck is seared, seared in my memory.

Fernco is now a multinational business and you can buy their fabulous doothingies in any Home Despot. My life is improved by this, but somehow made modestly more ignoble, too. When everyone knows about your secret weapon, you've lost the ability to dazzle people with your inside information. I can no longer casually drop a mention of Ferncos at swanky dinner parties, and expect everyone to give me the John Houseman treatment. Oh, Ferncos. They have those at Lowe's. The conversation drifts back to Mr. Darcy's linen shirt supplier, and I'm left out in the cold.

When I regaled you earlier with the tale of desecrating the men's room in the Home Depot, and desolating the stock in the plumbing aisle, I could have saved time and simply reported that I'd bought every permutation of a Fernco I could find. It's more or less what I did. Fernco makes this fabulous rubber boot with two compression rings on it that's used to connect the spigot end of a 4" clay pipe to a piece of 4" hubless PVC pipe. What, you've never heard of it? Jesucristo, errybody knows they're one-tousand-tooz dash fordyfors.

[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks go out to Barry B. from Adkins, Texas for his generous and thoughtful donation to our PayPal tip button. It is very much appreciated]

Saturday, March 12, 2016

You'd Never Guess as Much, But 'Stopples From the Silurian' Is the Name of My Plasmatics Tribute Band. But I Digress

I was no longer speaking to my son.

We hadn't had any sort of disagreement or anything. I like him a lot. If I didn't know he was my son, and I met him, I'd probably like him even more than I do. Because I know he's my son, I can espy resemblances to me, and that makes me discount his good nature a little, I'm afraid. I don't like myself as much as I like him.

No, it was simple weariness that had set in. It gets boring saying, "Go. Stop. Go. Stop." It's tiresome to say. It's tiresome to consider how tiresome it must be to hear. I slowly began to simply grunt, and after a while I just jerked my thumb this way and that to get the message across. He's perceptive, and he anticipated things once we got going, so even my thumb got a rest.

Most of construction is logistics. Shelter shows demonstrate very little construction. They show a host that's not a real worker pounding the last nail. They never mention that getting to that point is the real work. It's easy to nail off a sheet of plywood on a roof. Get that thing up there in a 10-MPH breeze, by yourself, and I'll be impressed. If you've ever done real construction, you quickly learn how to arrange your surroundings to make the work go easier.

Well, I know a little about construction, but that just added to my annoyance. I was in no position to bring ergonomic calm to my construction chaos. I was working below my feet, the absolute worst way to get things done. I knew enough to sit instead of crouch, but my back was screaming at me. Reversing the cable feed in the sewer auger was a kind of relief. I could sit up straight a bit.

Of course that relief comes at a price. The cable was going to come out of the pipe, and it was going to bring things out with it. You don't visit Beelzebub's Disneyland without exiting through the gift shop. Over one hundred years of other people's foolishness could appear from that pipe. I jerked my thumb to indicate REVERSE, held on to the whipping cable to avoid a proper drenching, and prepared to be surprised.

Out they came. The feminine pennants snapped in the breeze from the yardarm stay of my drain augur cable. Dracula's teabags. The things no man is supposed to buy at the Rite Aid. Tampons emerged like an army on the march.

Now, it's not up to me to decide exactly how tough a tampon should be. Smarter men than I have determined that feminine hygiene products should be able to withstand a shotgun blast and an acid bath at the same time. It's a given that they should be more durable than space shuttle tiles. Fall protection harnesses and parachute cord should be made from the little strings, if you want them to last. Kevlar? Pfffffftt. That's OK for stopping a high powered round and all, but if you need real protection, head to Walgreens and sew a vest out of these babies.

Every length of the sewer cable is ten feet long, and each one appeared from the poop soup with twenty-five or so little Tampax ornaments whipping around from it. I took a pliers and grabbed each one as it emerged from the pipe, but they held on like grim death. Some were tangled four or five in a bundle. I was required to return the machine as clean as I'd found it, so they all had to be yanked from the cables. They fought like Japanese army holdouts in a cave.

We pulled out fifty feet of cable, and the little devils made a substantial pile at my feet. I shoveled them aside, and we sent the cable back down the pipe. The second round brought out more than the first trip down the pipe. I could have stuffed a futon with them. I've slept on a futon, if you can call that sleeping. I just assumed that's what a futon is stuffed with. I could be wrong. It could be dead cats. 

I quickly realized I wasn't playing Current Events. The little pillows were ancient history. They didn't say Johnson and Johnson on them. They just said Johnson, talk to the Old Man. These were bungs from the Baroque, Always from the Jazz Age, postwar Playtex, Tampax from the Tang Dynasty, Ottoman Empire occlusions, Seleucid sanitary napkins, and stopples from the Silurian. This was a museum, not a sewer system. I wondered if I could get some kind of grant to look them over and catalog them.

I began to suspect that hunter-gatherer societies had been flushing these things down my toilet. The former residents of my house must have invited people over to join in the fun. They probably ran ads in the Grover Cleveland Craiglist to come on over and flush your troubles away. It seemed like a determined effort to my eye.

My son and I went back and forth, fifty to sixty feet of cable at a stretch. I don't remember how many times it took. When we were properly lulled by exhaustion and repetition, it finally came. The magic sound. It was the sound a nurse hears while walking down the hall in the nursing home late at night. A horrible gurgle, as the whole organism lets go and slides away to a better world. The poop in the pipe was gone.

[I'll tell you how I put Humpty Dumpty back together again tomorrow]

[Update: Many thanks to Henry S. from Ontario, Canada for his generous contribution via our PayPal button. It is very much appreciated]
[Additonal Update: Many thanks to Jonathan C. from Shrewsbury, Mass. for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Still more Updates: Many thanks go out to Andrew C. from Blacksburg, Virginia for his generous donation to our tipjar. We are very grateful]

Friday, March 11, 2016

In a Fascinating Development, 'Promise of a Perpendicular Rebirth' Is the Name of My Gentle Giant Tribute Band. But I Digress

Why yes, I do use an overturned rowboat for a workbench while mucking out my sewer. Doesn't everyone?
It is an odd feeling to push all your chips into the middle of the table. Sitting in that frozen pit, holding on to a squirrelly cable while watching it spin in the pipe, I realized that everything that had come before meant nothing if this was as far as I got. I was to be judged solely on the outcome. There was no extra credit. No make-up tests. An "Incomplete" grade would be a notice to move out of my house or dig up the sewer line using money I don't have and couldn't get. The ground  was frozen solid anyway. Money can't cure that. The whole thing had been win or walk the whole time.

I don't know what my son thinks about me. I am not my son's friend. I am his father. I know what that means. It's fatherly malpractice to be your son's friend. It's an abdication of responsibility and an imposition. You can't be king and hail fellow well met at the same time.

He helped me without a murmur of complaint. He was really helpful, too, like a real man. I stopped thinking of him as a kid, my kid. I was in charge because I was Stanley Baker and he was Michael Caine and I had a few days of seniority in an arbitrary system that decides who's who and what's what. We'll both get exactly the same pincushion treatment if we don't fight and win.

I said nothing about my doubts. I pictured the crazy iron flail grinding dumbly round and round in the dead end of one pipe, with the promise of a perpendicular rebirth in a world just beyond its reach. My life is like that a lot. Grinding blindly around and covered in excrement is no way to go through life, son.

By some miracle, it made the turn. Now, I know luck when I see it. Well, I would know luck if I saw it. I guess I would. How would I know? At any rate,this was just like luck, so I didn't push it. There was no power on Earth that would make me pull that cable out of the pipe until I'd gone all the way to Glory Land.

When the snake gets going, it basically pulls itself into the hole. My son advanced with the machine, we'd stop, unhook the end, back up the machine ten feet, hook on another length of cable, and let it rip again. It went fast. We had eight, ten-foot lengths of cable.

I knew that high-level analysis wasn't necessary. We were boring a hole (and my readers) right through the center of the clog. If I made it to the end of the clog, the level of the ooze in the cleanout pipe would get lower. The slop made noises like an endomorph at a Sizzler, but it hung in there. We kept adding cable until we had seventy feet in the pipe. I was already twenty feet past my meager estimate. If the clerk in the tool rental crib hadn't thrown some in for free, I would have held a busted flush, and I mean that every which way.

My son advanced on the hole with the auger, and I looked longingly at my pis aller, or piss aller, I guess -- the last bent, dirty, rusty, nasty length of cable lying on the floor. When I turned back, the poop sauce in the pipe was two feet lower.

I know you're expecting huzzahs and hosannahs, but we weren't home yet, and I knew it. The head of the cable must have found air at the other end, and the thinnest part of the gruel made it through. It could close back up and I'd be back at it again. We needed to back the cable up, then perform the back and forth action over and over until water ran free through the pipe. When we put it in reverse, I discovered what was plugging the pipe.

[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks to Chapman G. from Virginny for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]
[Up-Update: Many thanks to Russell D. in the Land of Mary for his very generous gift along with an uplifting sentiment. It is much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to Victor P. from the Nutmeg State for his generous contribution to the PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

You Won't Believe This, But 'Impromptu Metal Snake' Is the Name of My Black Oak Arkansas Tribute Band. But I Digress

Sewer 101: Wear all the gloves in the house. Then drink the bleach.
And so now we must get on with it. We sent an impromptu metal snake down the cleanout we'd discovered. It's just a metal wire we use to "fish" electrical cable through wall cavities. I have a metal snake that's made especially for sewer drains, but it's much bigger, so it's harder to clean off after you pull it back out. The wrong thing is often the right thing under the right circumstances. The poopoo porridge showing in the pipe was vile, and I wanted to keep it under control until I made it go away completely.

The metal snake hit a solid obstruction at seven feet in. I knew immediately what that was. The vitreous clay pipe must make a 90-degree turn just outside the house, where it went either left or right and headed off to the town's sewer main. At this point, it really didn't matter which way it went. I had to make the turn and keep going. There's no sense worrying about things that don't matter. There are more important things to keep you occupied when you're mucking about in what amounts to a toilet that saves everything like a demented Christmas Club. I still don't care where the poop goes. I just want it to go there and leave me alone. I have the same opinion of the guys that sell frozen steaks door to door.

The first ten-foot section of sewer auger cable will easily reach the T fitting where the pipe turns and runs away. I know it's a T fitting, and not a sweep, because that's probably the only fittings the pipe installers had back in the day. Vitreous clay pipe is great stuff, and it's plenty durable, but it's like a Model T. It comes in one color and a few different shapes and sizes and that's it. I've never even seen a sweep fitting out in the wild. They probably used the T fitting to allow a cleanout at the turn, which is good plumbing practice, but someone's buried that one, too, sometime over the last hundred years. Or maybe they knew that putting the cleanout inside the house, just before the tee, was smarter for winter work. Whatever. I can deal with it.

The sewer drill came with a battered metal case filled with medieval torture devices disguised as end fittings for the sewer cables. I chose the goofiest-looking one from the bunch. It was a bendy one-foot spring with a nasty-looking spike on the end shaped like a spade on a deck of cards. I clicked it onto the first length of auger cable, and then shoved it by hand into the pipe until it hit the turn. Then we hooked it up to the machine, said a poopy prayer, and turned it on.

The machine is quiet, which I appreciated. I sat on a pilfered plastic milk crate next to the pipe while my son operated the machine according to my various grunts. After a while I just pointed. The machine is so simple as to defy description. It has a switch right on the motor that reads FORWARD and REVERSE, and a button on the end of a cable that you depress to turn it on and off. That's it.

I was unable to wear any form of waterproof or insulated glove, because I was the man in the hole. The cable consists of an outer, spring-like sheath, and an inner cable that looks like BX cable sheathing. Both the inside and outside cables spin when the motor runs, and if you don't hold onto it it begins to whip around like a robot that wants you to jump rope. If you wear any sort of rubberized, form-fitting glove, the outer spring cable will immediately grab it and crush all the fingers on your hand that it can't remove cleanly before you can tell your son to lay off the button. You're required to wear leather-palmed, loose fitting gloves, and let the cable lay in the crook between your thumb and index finger. When things are going well, you can tuck the cable under your boot in the void of your arch. I've been writing for two weeks about mucking out a blocked sewer line in my frozen basement, so if you don't mind, I'll just skip over any mention of things "going well' for the foreseeable future. Thanks for your understanding.

While you're advancing the cable, you need to hold on to the cable or the whipping motion will knock out a tooth or two, which wouldn't be so bad, I guess. I'd finally fit in at the checkout line at the Walmart if that happened. However, when you put the machine on REVERSE and start backing it out of the primordial soup, the simple dentistry it offers comes with a hepatitis shower instead of the complimentary lollipop that most DDS offices hand out. I held on to that cable like grim death while it spun, I can assure you.

The vitreous clay pipe pipe is like baked concrete. It's really tough stuff. I wouldn't have been able to use the nasty-looking flail attachment if the pipe was made of less durable material. After the cable bottomed out at the T, we hooked it up to the auger and let it rip.

The Electric Eel is like a lawn mower. You turn it on, the cable spins, and you and push the machine forward to keep pressure on the line. The cable just spun for a good long time, flopping this way and that inside the pipe. My son kept even pressure on it while I tried to hang on to the cable. It was another of those moments when I knew that I'd be beaten if it didn't find its way around the corner. My sewer repair was like trying to hit on a roulette wheel seventeen times in a row. This was something like the thirteenth successful spin at this point, and I began to wonder if the big croupier in the sky was going to reach under the table and press the "you've won enough button" that casinos seem to install on all the tables.

Waiting to see if that cable would find its way around the corner was as nerve-wracking as any procedure that doesn't end in uttering, "I do."
[to be continued]

Monday, March 07, 2016

In a Fascinating Coincidence, 'Tool Rental Faux Pas' Is Also the Name of My World Party Tribute Band. But I Digress

I nimbly recovered from my tool rental faux pas. I asked the rental dude how business was going, and he unloaded on me like a Home Depot toilet. Winter is the wrong time of year for construction in Maine, but that was the least of his woes, apparently. No one was doing nothing, he said, and I understood the grammar and the sentiment. I could have said or done any number of unpleasant things to him, accidentally or not, and he still would have been nice to me. I was renting something when no one else was, and by asking about his livelihood I was saving him big money on psychotherapy.

I rented the Electric Eel, and signed up for 50 feet of cable. The cables for a drain auger come in 10-foot sections. They have a simple, durable, and foolproof mechanism for joining them together. There's a spring-loaded button you depress, which allows you to push two fixed pins in slots on the end of the last section. When it's fully inserted, you twist it to lock it in, and the spring-loaded pin pops out to make it impossible for it to come loose unless the pin is depressed again.

If a section of cable became detached in use, you'd be totally boned. There would be no practical way to retrieve it, short of excavating the pipe and busting it open. The ground around here can freeze four or five feet deep in the winter, and I knew that if I lost a piece down the pipe, I might as well put the family in the car and drive away from the home forever. A tool rental house is like a weird, useful version of a Blockbuster Video. Remember paying $79 for an overdue VHS tape that cost $9 to buy outright? Yeah, it's like that.

I marveled at how simple the coil attachment device was, and wondered about the engineer who must have designed it. Now there was a person who knew how the world worked. There was a man who knew that increasing complexity rarely improves outcomes. There was a fellow who knew that most tools will be operated by personnel who aren't going to read the instructions. There was a guy who knew that performance in a laboratory doesn't equal performance in the field. There was a dude who was probably dead, I thought. Nobody who walks the Earth thinks like that.

For listening to his tale of rental woe, the clerk, who I suspect was also the owner, gave me three extra lengths of cable for free on the way out the door. He had no fear that anyone else would rent it, because business was a-mouldering in the grave. He figured he might as well have one satisfied customer, because he was only going to get one shot at a satisfied customer all day. I was.

We had to get cracking the minute we got home. I couldn't really afford a two-day rental. Also, my eyes were turning brown. We were immediately confronted with one of the reasons we didn't call a plumber, besides pauperism. There is easy access to the sub-basement through big double doors in the back of my house. All that was necessary was for me to remove a five-foot-deep, glaciated pile of snow from the driveway that leads down there. We abandon that part of our parking area in the winter because we shovel by hand, and it would be stupid to even attempt the steeply sloped, long driveway. We park in front of the house, and we throw the snow over the railing onto the pavement leading down to the back. I might not be able to budge the pile with a front end loader after it's been sitting in subzero temps for a while. I don't even have a front end loader. I've been meaning to buy my wife one for her birthday, and then borrow it from her, but I've never gotten around to it. So with some slipping and sliding and Anglo-Saxon words, we managed to carry the tools up and over the arete of snow, and set up shop in the basement.

First things first. Let's stop the bleeding. I had purchased a big long length of corrugated drainage pipe. It was one of the long list of things the Home Despot clerk told me was the  wrong thing for what I was doing. I then took a plastic fitting that the clerk nearly pulled out of my hand when I picked it up, because that didn't fit in with his plans for my project, either. I almost had to shoplift it to get it out of the store, but eventually he relented and decided to let me, a damn fool if he ever saw one, buy the thing. It was a step-down fitting designed to attach plumbing pipe to drainage pipe. I turned it around backwards, and put the corrugated pipe over the small end instead of inside the large end like it was intended to work, an approach that I was led to understand wouldn't work because you're wearing an orange apron and I'm not.

Then I took two big hose clamps that are totally wrong for my situation, and put them around the outside of the pipe and the fitting, and I socked them down hard, which I realize is all wrong because reasons. Then I disconnected the sewer main about four feet above the floor, and I slipped the large end of the wrong fitting the wrong way over the wrong kind of pipe, which fit perfectly. Then I ran the coil of drain pipe across the floor, out the doors, and across the parking area to the grassy area in the back yard.

Then, I can assure you, I did not instruct my lovely wife that it was OK to run the washer and flush the toilet full of piddle if she needed to, because that would have totally turned the back yard into a Superfund site. That kind of groundwater pollution would have been totally unlike washing a car in the driveway and having six of your neighbors' dogs take a wiz on the lawn.

[to be continued]

Sunday, March 06, 2016

No Word of Lie: 'Rest Room Snickers' Is the Name of My Haircut 100 Tribute Band. But I Digress

You know what they say: Heir today, gone tomorrow.
We didn't really drive through a blizzard to go fetch plumbing stuff. It was a garden-variety snowstorm for February. There was six or eight inches of snow, followed by rain, with a subzero chaser. The snowy porridge it produced on the road was worse than ice. It was like icy grease. I drive an old van. It doesn't weigh enough in the back when it's not full of stuff, and it likes to skate. My son and I skated all the way to to the store.

I never understood why Einstein insisted on all that Red Shift nonsense back in 1923 to prove his Special Theory of Relativity. He could have proved that certain circumstances could make lengths appear to contract and time seem to slow down by standing on the side of the road while watching me drive sideways two miles for every one mile I went forward. I can assure you that when you're looking out the windshield at the sidewalk, then look out the side window to see the road ahead, time isn't an important constant. Whee!

By the time we made it to the Home Despot, we were in another weather zone where it had been raining all day and the ground was bare. My Number One son and I went into the store looking like a couple of overdressed ragamuffins. I called him my Number One son because no one was allowed to deposit any Number Two in the toilet for two days now. While we were wandering in the plumbing aisle, he got a notion. "I'll be right back, Dad." No further explanation needed. I picked out all the plumbing stuff I needed well before he returned, even though I needed a lot of oddball things and it took some hunting around to find it all.

When he returned, he had a combination beatific/confused look on his face. I knew he had downloaded all his data on Home Despot's porcelain hard drive, hence the beatific look. He explained the confused look. "Dad, I was in the men's room, and another man entered at the same time as me, and he went into the other stall holding a Snickers bar. When I was washing my hands, he came out of the stall without the Snickers bar. Dad, I don't want to live on this planet anymore."

Son, we're dirty, but that's only because we've been working hard in a tough spot. Our clothes have no style, and are threadbare, but that's only because we're poor, not because we spent all our money on getting high, takeout pizza, and cable TV. We live in a hovel because it's all we can afford, but it's still a home, and a home is an important engine of salubrity for a family. It's not because we don't know Martha Stewart from Paula Deen. You're dressed like a clown in the septic circus, and I look like the ringmaster. But I can assure you that it's perfectly OK for you to say to yourself, in a very snobby interior voice, "Well, we're one step from being street urchins, but at least we don't eat Snickers bars in public toilets."

Back in the plumbing aisle, the clerks kept coming over to help. I hate help. I'm too polite from years of nuns whacking at me with rulers to say no thanks. I blurt out what I'm looking for, and wince, because I know what's coming.The clerks tell me, "That won't work. That won't fit, you want this other toy thing that costs a lot and breaks when it's dragged over the scanner during checkout. It's very eco."

No, I don't. Just once I'd like to tell them what I'm thinking, but honestly, that's a poor reflection on me, not them. They're just trying to help. I'm afraid that someday I'm going to snap and say, "Why don't you go eat a Snickers in the public bathroom." I'm only human.

After stocking up on the oddest assortment of plumbing supplies you could conjure up, we went to the rental yard, where I promptly insulted the desk clerk. I didn't mean to. He had done nothing to deserve being told to eat a Snickers bar in a grotty place. I said something self-deprecating, but managed to get deprecate all over the poor fellow by accident.

I was at the counter filling out the forms to get my Electric Eel and pipe breaker. During a lull in the action, I looked around the showroom and noticed that I knew, intimately, what every single piece of equipment was for, even though it was all unlabeled. This was a rental house for commercial construction jobs. It had big hammers and pavement slitters and various other tools of destruction that have chapped my hands and my ass at one time or another. I noticed my son looking around the place, and caught him wondering what the hell all this weird stuff was for. So in my ignorance, I said to him, "Son, if you know what everything in this room is for, you've had a very bad life."

The clerk was not amused.

[to be continued]

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Amusingly, 'The Electric Eel' Is the Name of My B.W. Stevenson Tribute Band. But I Digress

Notice: This tool will look this clean and shiny until it has been used for fifteen minutes. Then it will look like the inside of King Kong's adult diaper forevermore.

No, "getting an electric eel" is not a euphemism, although it has the makings of a great one. What I'm referring to is a tool that is known by many different names. Some call it a drain cleaner, others call it a drain auger. Some refer to it by the manufacturer's name, the way Kleenex or Google or iPad is used to refer to any version of a thing, not just one brand. Electric Eel makes good sewer augers. I wanted one.

It doesn't make any sense to own a real drain cleaner unless you're a plumber. The number of times the problem comes up is so small that buying one outright will never pay off. If you have a snake and a plunger, you can take care of the occasional Chipotle overload in your toilet, or a tub drain that's got a Trump in it. If your sewer needs help, you need a great, big, powered thing to get anywhere. I needed a great big thing.

Where to get one was the question. I live in to-hell-and-gone Maine. The nearest Home Despot is over an hour from here, and I don't even consider Home Despot a good hardware store. It's more like a bad department store. I guess it's kind of snobby of me. If you ignore the Levelor blinds, the New-Jersey-mobster-patterned area rugs, and all the clerks, you can find what you need to fix most anything among the weirdness. Home Despot even rents sewer drills, or says they do. Unfortunately, the one closest to me still isn't close enough to actual civilization to bother renting them. I'd have to drive two hours, one way, to get one. They rent it by the half-a-day, so I'd be forced to turn around and return the tool as soon as I got it home. I'm not too bright, but I assumed I'd have to turn it on for a few minutes to get any benefits from it. I looked for another solution to the problem.

I checked the Intertunnel. Maine's funny. Almost no one has a functioning website. If they do have one, it looks like a MySpace page from 1995. It's got glitter fonts and a beckoning finger and the little stick figure with the shovel that says COMING SOON. A lot of businesses are simply a phone number on one of those dot biz websites that Google defaults to if you're searching for someone in the witness protection program and there's nothing else to show you.

I found a rental house not too far from the nearest Home Despot that had large-scale sewer augers. They also had a medieval-looking tool that you can use to break off vitrified clay sewer pipe cleanly. It's a massive chain on a steel bar that you wrap around the pipe and then tighten until the pressure shears the pipe. It works on cast iron, too. I sat down and pictured everything pipe-ish we might need to finish the job, and made a list for the Home Despot. We'd get everything in one trip, or die trying. That turned out to be less of an exaggeration than I'd prefer.

I know I've been writing about this sewer clog so long that the first few installments have turned yellow and fallen out of copyright, but I fixed the whole thing, soup to nuts, in two days. Day one was figuring out what was going on and planning for day two, when all the work would be completed, or else. Planning is important.

If you are required to drive for hours in a car to get what you need, and you can't afford to buy anything extra, it focuses your mind, or it should, anyway. Having things handy breeds laziness. I have next to no money and no time available, and I absolutely cannot fail or we'd be homeless in the winter. I had to make sure I didn't forget anything.

I was a construction project manager at one time. I've managed many more of that type of critter as well. The job teaches you to form a mental picture of the entire process for any assigned task in order to list the money, time, material, and labor that will be required to complete a job. That's why experience is so important in a job like that. The world has to be fundamentally, physically, measurably different at the end of the day if you're in the construction biz. How many jobs in today's economy require that?

My current construction jobs are very easy to project manage. I have no time and no money and no help available except my son. That cuts down on paperwork. All I need to figure out is how to pinch what few pennies I can scrape together (by begging) until they scream. My Gantt chart has one bar: Fix sewer. The bar is one day long.

With the cleanout pipe discovered, it was time for my son and I to head off in my truck, directly into a blizzard.

[to be continued]

Friday, March 04, 2016

Don't Laugh. 'Light Dawns Over Marblehead' Is the Name of My Moulty and the Barbarians Tribute Band. But I Digress

Why did someone call me a genius in yesterday's comments? Is this like when you choose the ugliest girl as the homecoming queen, and then snicker behind her back? Yeah, sure thing, "genius." I may not be a sooper gene ee us like Sippican, but at least I'm pooping indoors.

My behavior didn't feel very genius-y to me. I found it to be an example of something we used to call: Light dawns over Marble Head. 

I was born in Massachusetts. That means that if I live in Maine for the next 140 years, I'll be from Massachusetts. That's the way they roll up here. I'm a Massh*le, and will never shed the mark of Cain, and Cain's potato chips. I can bear up under the shame of it. Eventually maybe they'll soften a bit, and say, "He ain't half bad for a flatlander, I tell you what." I'd settle for that. But I'll probably say some Massachusetts-grade thing like: Light Dawns Over Marble Head, and they'll reset the clock.

Marblehead is a town on the North Shore in Massachusetts. It fronts the Atlantic, and it's full of boats and people with whales on their pants. When I was younger, and worked construction with the kind of guys you see depicted banging nails on Mr. Blandings dream house, they'd often say, "Light dawns over Marblehead," after they figured something out. It wasn't a self-compliment. It meant you had been a bit dense for a while, but eventually, light dawned over marble...

Explaining jokes ruins them, doesn't it? The point is, eventually even I catch on. Let's look at someone smarter than me. Look what Matt had to say in the comments. It smacks of figuring out something unseen:
The ear worm in the room is the sudden realization this main appears to be intended to drain in the direction of the street, out the front of the house, beneath a pile of dirt that is some two stories higher than the Igor-spec basement slab. No way. This thing has to make a 90deg turn somewhere uphill of the clean-out and sensibly make its way back downhill once clear of the side of the house. When the old girl was built, the toilet must have been "too close in the summer and too far in the winter". Where would the presumed retrofit have emptied? Is there a creek out back? So many questions.
Well, like any good MacGuffin story, I think Matt has stumbled on the answer by following a false trail that leads to clear thinking. He's assuming that the sewer drain wouldn't be buried that deep in the street out in front of my house. My house is two stories high in the front, and four stories high in the back, so that makes a lot of sense. Making sense will get you into trouble in these parts. There was a problem with the sewer main a quarter-mile or so down the street a year or two ago, and they dug a hole thirty feet deep to fix it. Anything is possible, as Colonel Steiner says in another good movie where you're supposed to root for the bad guys a little.

When I bought this house for a little under 25 grand, I got a free house lot. No one intended to give me a free house lot. The realtor said it wasn't included. It was on the deed, lady. You should totally read those things. Totally. Someone had intended to build a house in my back yard about fifty or sixty years ago. Unlike real estate agents and wedding photographers, I perform due diligence when a house is going to change hands. They had plotted out a street that would have been punched through to make the landlocked lot in my backyard a viable houselot. Of course, the mill town I live in has been in an inexorable decline since the day the ink was wet on that plan. No one has built a house in this town since disco. They didn't put in a street, but I bet they put in the sewer main, and I bet they hooked my house up to it. Out back.

So I'm incredibly lucky. The sewer line is made from really durable stuff that I understand really well. Vitrified clay sewer pipe is awesome. It's really strong, and it's impervious to all the really dumb things I assume have been sent down the drains over the years. I'm trying to picture why someone would want a sink in the sub-subbasement so badly they'd bury the sewer cleanout to get it. I doubt they were pouring Perrier down it. People will dump anything into a town sewer. A lot of looped and loopy people have lived in my house before I wandered in, so their imagination is certain to trump my experience in these matters. I may find out they flushed a mattress or a Buick or a chesterfield or a gallon of roofing tar or forty gallons of goat's head soup down the drain over the years.

Whatever the problem, I'm bound to find it. I'm off to get an electric eel.

[to be continued]

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Charles Calthrop MacGuffin School of Plumbing, the Universe, and Everything

Everyone in my comments is quite wonderful and I love you dearly. I know many more people read and say nothing, and I love them just the same. There is no unifying theme in my blog, just like it says on the masthead. There's no way to know what you're going to find here when you visit. For long stretches, it could be nothing. But some people stick with me, and enrich my life with their attention, and for that I am grateful.

I feel as though I need to take a small detour (there's a surprise), from plumbing into cinema. Well, not exactly film making, but storytelling, I guess. I'm enrolling you, without asking you, in the Charles Calthrop MacGuffin School of Plumbing, the Universe, and Everything.

The news gets worse. I enrolled you two weeks ago, and didn't inform you. Yesterday was a pop quiz. I always hated those. I skipped school 9 days out of 10, so I always got an "F" on pop quizzes. I wasn't there to take them. Don't worry, you didn't fail your plumbing pop quiz. Everyone gets an "Incomplete." You said friendly, intelligent things about my problem. Unfortunately, intelligent things don't have anything to do with it.

You see, intelligent people believe that genius is the ability to know fact from falsity. It is not. Genius is the ability to see important relationships in seemingly unrelated things. Genius can choose between competing true things to find the only important true thing. If you have a hard time telling the difference between true things and false things, you can't even play in that league. If you become fascinated by minutiae that you think is true, but wouldn't matter even if it were true, you're likewise not playing genius checkers. You just end up calling everybody sheeple, and instructing them to WAKE UP about the gold fringe on the American flag in courtrooms, or breathlessly misremembering a misreported statistic about the number of icebergs remaining for polar bears to commute over.

In storytelling, a MacGuffin is a something that seems important but isn't, but becomes important because everyone mistakes it for an important thing. Don't bother trying to look up MacGuffin on Wikipedia. The definition they offer is a MacGuffin. The writer, and the persons they quote, -- except Hitchcock -- don't seem to understand what a MacGuffin is, but they sure are fascinated with it. From what I read, even Steven Speilberg doesn't understand what it means. It's not a red herring, which serves as a distraction only. A MacGuffin can't turn into something important later on in the story after being mundane for 400 pages, either. Making a MacGuffin magical or useful at the end of a story is a deus ex machina -- god from the machine. Make up your mind what kind of story you're telling, will you?

The best example of a true MacGuffin I can conjure up right now is Charles Calthrop from the superb movie The Day of the Jackal. An assassin has been hired to kill Charles de Gaulle. All the authorities know is his code name: The Jackal. The French police ask around Europe, and a security officer in England tosses out the name Charles Calthrop, an arms merchant suspected of being mixed up in another assassination. He then makes a supposition: In French, jackal is chacal, and he wonders if chacal was chosen by Cha rles  Cal throp as a sort of inside joke. The coincidence is too juicy to ignore.

The authorities discover a Charles Calthrop who is away from home without explanation, and they figure it has to be him. They put themselves in his place, and try to figure out how he'd go about getting false passports and all the other accouterments necessary to kill a foreign dignitary. They follow the trail wherever it leads, hunt down the Jackal, and kill him at the last moment. The movie ends with a detective sitting in Charles Calthrop's flat, musing over the case, when Charles Calthrop enters and angrily asks what the hell is going on. The perfect MacGuffin, that.

I stood in my basement -- cold, tired, under incredible pressure -- and sort of turned my nose in the air like an animal. Not smelling anything, thank God. Aware all of a sudden. In Hitchcock's original explanation of what a MacGuffin is, it's a suitcase. It's a real suitcase, and everyone's fascinated with it, but there's nothing important in it. My plumbing project didn't have a MacGuffin. It had the equivalent of an airport baggage carousel of MacGuffin suitcases going around in a circle.

I had a moment of clarity. I knew that in 1901, people didn't act like idiots the way people do now. They did the best they could under the circumstances they were in. People being people, they would have acted insane if they were allowed to, but back then, there was no way to get others to subsidize your idiocy. In today's world, you can believe any damn thing and get away with it. Back then it was instantly fatal, sometimes literally so. I decided to rely on the fact that the people who built my house knew what they were doing, but had limited resources. I believed that everyone that had taken a crack at my house between the builders and me had no idea what they were doing, and they had comparatively unlimited resources to indulge their foolishness, which would throw me off the, er, scent.

I went to the opposite side of the basement from the main sewer pipe, where the tiny pipe had geysered excrement all over the concrete floor and started our story. I took the sledgehammer and went at the floor with everything I had. My son watched me and thought I had gone crazy, I imagine. He began to lift the broken concrete out while I hammered away like Ben Hur at an oar. We took out maybe 20 square feet of concrete. "Dig!" We excavated next to the insane Rube Goldberg piping contraption someone had installed to put a stupid sink in a stupid place in a stupid way. We followed it down, down, down. All the while, I did the arithmetic in my head, the same arithmetic a grammar school dropout in 1901 did in his head when he built my house. One-quarter-inch of slope per foot of run, twenty-five feet of run, it's going to be deep, this thing, SHOVEL!

There it was. I didn't have to dig all the way down to the sewer pipe, the one leaving my house on the opposite side of the building from where I thought it did. I found the broken-off remainder of a sewer cleanout after digging down a few feet. Some mouthbreather had dug it up, broken it off, plugged it with a crazy concatenation of fittings, and then used it as a sink drain. Then they buried it under two feet of soil and covered it with a concrete floor like a cretinous icing on a cake of foolishness.

The odor wafting out of that 4" cleanout pipe was staggering, and it was filled to the brim with a substance that resembled the contents of the communal hot tub at an overcrowded leper colony. It looked and smelled like Perrier and rosebuds to me.

[to be continued]