Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Ballad of The Shower Handles

For a while, I toyed with the idea of setting the following tale to song, or maybe even iambic pentameter (verily, forsooth, etc.). Back in the early 90's, I gained quite a reputation as a wit by doing that sort of thing (among others) which my boss would post on his office door. Eventually, I was expected to crank stuff out at birthdays, going-away parties and the like. I was the poet laureate of the department. Ah, those were the days…

But I digress. Get yourself a drink, this is a long one.

Late last week I finally put the period to a saga that had been running, off and on, for months. Four months, in fact (or nine, if you want to count the VERY beginning. More, much more anon). I was at last able to make my shower handles stop when shutting the water off. You might think this was a fairly basic thing, here in the 21st century, a problem easily diagnosed and simple to rectify. You would be wrong.

Back when we were determining the things we wanted to change in this, our new-current home, one thing I decided I wanted was water faucets that used levers to control the flow of water instead of knobs. You see, just before we closed on the house, we went to LA on vacation, and while there we spent several days at Disneyland. The bathrooms at the Disneyland Grand Californian Hotel were equipped with levers, and I fell in love with them instantly. I realized I was really tired of knobs that you had to grab and twist to use, often when your hands were slippery with soap or raw chicken or mud or whatever. And then you had to grab them again to turn them off, getting whatever you had just washed off back onto your hand. I'm no germaphobe, but this still struck as not a good thing, especially the raw meat part.

So when we returned I spent a lot of time in Lowes, Home Depot, and plumbing supply stores until I found the right levered faucets for the shower, tub, lavatories, and kitchen sink. And eventually, just before we moved in, they were all installed. It was only while we were moving in that I stumbled across an odd problem with the controls to the shower.

It is easy to show but harder to describe. I shall persevere as best I can. Okay. The handle starts in the "off" position. You then move it away from off, water proceeds to flow. The farther you get from off, the faster the water comes, until the handle comes to a stop. You cannot turn it any farther and the water can't come any faster. Only my shower didn't do that.

I turned the knob, the water flowed, only there was no stopping point. It just kept on going around until it came back to where it started, and the water ceased. It moved through a full 360 degrees. I spun it round several times, watching the water ebb and flow like a bad cosine function until I found "off" and hollered for my contractor.

He "hummed" and went for the plumber. The plumber sort of hummed but said that was the way those controls were. I asked him to check further, to see what might be done, but I later decided he didn't really care. The controls were in, he was done, and he was not terribly interested in mysteries. Despite several attempts on our part, he never really did anything, and we had more pressing issues. The controls did work, after all, and despite lacking a stopping point it was not hard to find the "off" spot.

But it continued to bug me. It was possible to leave the thing dripping until the lever was moved another half-inch into the "off zone". I also didn't want Jacob to scald the heck out of himself by accidentally spinning the lever all the way through "off" and back into "full blast". And I got tired of having to place the levers just so.

Eventually, I had reason to call out another plumber, and I had him look at the shower while here. He said that without knowing the model and type of valve he couldn't do much. But he did say that changing the handle might be sufficient. This was possibly good news, since when we got the handles we had also gotten new valves (the anti-scald kind, which makes the yelping noises you used to hear while flushing a toilet during someone's shower a thing of the past), and it meant that I might be able to handle this myself.

Some weeks later I dug around and found the receipts for the valves and handles. I went to the plumbing supply shop where we'd gotten them and told the woman at the desk the troubles I was having with my PP03-61XA's and my PP07-81BC's. But she was only a salesperson type and said I should talk to this one guy who apparently was the only person there who knew anything about actual plumbing. But said guy was busy at the moment. I hung around for a bit, but he didn’t get unbusy, so I went to lunch. When I returned, he was at lunch. I ground my teeth and left my phone number with an explanation of the problem.

Later, a message was left on the answering machine from the plumbing supply place suggesting I call the faucet maker's 800 support number. I confess I found the idea of a faucet company having an 800 support line pretty funny ("Your faucet is stuck? Have you tried re-booting it?"). Anyway, a few days later I called them. I got a very nice fellow who sounded like he was from India but for all I know was in Topeka, KS. I explained the issue with the PP03-61XA's and the PP07-81BC's and he said he would send out a new set of PP03-61XA's to take care of it. No muss no fuss, no charge. They didn't even try anything to confirm that I'd actually bought the things before. It struck me that unscrupulous plumbers could garner quite a few free supplies this way before they caught on. Still, it had been much easier than I had thought, so I was pleased enough.

About 10 days later, the package arrived. In it were two six-inch long brass valves (PP03-61XA's), wrapped in heavy protective plastic. I confess I despaired a bit when I saw them. Was I going to have to summon another plumber? A handle I could…err…handle. The valves worried me. I might be a Tool Man, but some areas I left to the pros, and plumbing was generally one of them. The hard plastic covering was a bit confusing too. Was that stuff supposed to remain on? I finally decided it was not.

I set aside some time, and a another few days later took the stuff into the shower, where I removed the handles (PP07-81BC) and stared hard at the exposed bit of valve (PP03-61XA). A small flange was exposed at the end, perhaps three-quarters of an inch long. It rather looked to me like the end points of the flange coincided strongly with an "off" position and a "fully open" position. I took another look at the valves I had been sent. Fitted neatly over the end of each was a small piece of white plastic, rectangular in shape and maybe a half-inch long. Also at the end of each valve was a flange identical to the one already installed.

I removed the bit of plastic from the valve I had been sent, and placed it onto the valve there in the shower. It went on smoothly enough once I found there was only one way it could go on. I reattached the handle, and turned it part way. The water came on. I turned it the other way. The water stopped -- and so did the lever. I turned the handle as far as it could go, noting that now there was a point that was as far as it could go. The water came out full blast. I turned the handle back again. The water stopped again. So did the handle.

I repeated the process for the other handle, and tested it. It worked like a charm.

So, there it finally ended. Nine months from inspiration to planning to implementation to correction, who knows how much time actually spent in the project, and it all came down to a half-inch bit of plastic that might have cost a nickel. There's a moral in there, somewhere.

I decided to keep the rest of the valve. Who knows? I might need it someday.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

This Old Wrench

It can be very hard sometimes, as a SAHD, to feel masculine. And no matter how role models eventually come to adjust themselves, I feel that most men are never going to feel all that comfortable squinting at the "feminine hygiene products" trying to recall if their wives wanted maxis, minis, wings, wing-tips, or "turbo".

Nevertheless, one unexpected benefit of this sort of thing is a surprisingly enhanced ability to get to play with tools, the most masculine activity there is short of killing a wild animal and roasting it over a fire.

I certainly can't speak for every guy, but for the first several years after college about all I did with tools was hammer in a nail for hanging my pictures. I also unscrewed the case of my computer now and then. Woo.

But to be honest, as a single guy living in an apartment, I didn't have much need of tools. To really need tools, you have to live in a house (or be the sort who reassembles your radiator for fun on the weekend, which I'm not). Houses give you lots of opportunities to use tools. That is, if you try to take advantage of them. For the first few years of married in a house life, I didn't truly take advantage of the chance to work with tools.

Partially this was a function of time. We were very quickly new parents in addition to everything else, and projects of greater scope than assembling a crib were just not high on our lists.

But I realize now that a huge part of it was just not having the right tools. Any home improvement task will suck if you are trying to use a pair of needle-nose pliers to insert a wood screw (no, I never actually did that. I used a speed-wrench). Gradually, I came to realize this problem. The first step was a useful but not quite Nirvana inducing set of boxed-end wrenches and what my Dad always referred to as a "socket set" (i.e., a Snap-On tools style ratchet set).

Then, a couple of years ago I finally requested a cordless drill and screwdriver for Christmas. Wow, was that a big change. For ages I have been hand-forcing screws into the walls. I wasn't even pre-drilling the holes with the heavy drill I did have. But now I could just zing! zing! screws into wall studs all I wanted. I wouldn't have survived this last move without those cordless guys, and I really do wonder why I waited so long to get them.

I have since used my heavy drill's special masonry setting to bore holes into the bricks of our house so I could make a gate work better. Later I also used it to attach hose reels. I rescued a set of punches and chisels from my Dad's old workbench five years ago, and they say gathering dust until last month, when I used them to break paving stones in half to fill in gaps of a short walk I laid. I've put up shelves in Jacob's room, Trish's closet, and the hall closet. I've added a valve to my shower and fitted it with a detachable showerhead. I replaced a bad tire on the wheelbarrow, sharpened a lawn mower blade…

Okay, once in a while being more self-reliant is a waste of time. A couple of years ago, the lawn mower started acting up. It would run for a while and then die. If you waited a few minutes, it would restart, only to die again. I replaced the spark plug and air filter. No help. Then I took the carburetor out, took it apart and cleaned it. Still nothing. I gave up and took it to a small engine repair place. Turned out the gas cap had gone bad, and the thing was getting a vaccum lock after a while. So I wasted some time on that one, but if it had been something else, I could have fixed it myself. I am tool-man, hear me roar!

Trish talked me into getting an electric hedge clipper. I used it the other day, and it cuts through half-inch branches like butter. Yeah, baby!

I got a worktable for my birthday, and hope to eventually mount a vise with an anvil surface on it. I confess, I haven’t really had a need for a heavy vise yet, but it will be good to have one all the same. You never know.

And all this is without going on about how my tools helped rescue a little girl whose foot got caught in a bicycle wheel.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I Am SoccerDad

So, I am a Soccer Dad. Jake decided he wanted in on soccer this year, so we asked around and joined one of the local leagues. So far its been good. One practice and one game a week, and everyone seems pretty laid back. Oh, we want our kids to win of course, but no-one seems to be slipping steroids into the apple juice, and I have yet to see a gun pulled on a ref who made a bad call [ed. note, I wrote this before the most recent game. Still mostly true, but see below]. I will confess to occasionally being a tad overzealous in my encouragement.

Our team strikes me as decent, with a record 1-1-2, though the order of one win, one tie, and two losses strikes me as a bad trend.

Except for Jacob, this particular team is all girls. He doesn't seem to be too put out by this, which is what you might expect from an eight-year old. Trish noted this sort of thing is wasted on him now. In a few more years he'd kill to be the only boy on that soccer team.

With four games and about as many practices under his belt, I have to say that I think he's one of the two best players on the team. I know I'm a proud parent and all, but this is an easy call. After Jake and his partner in talent (actually, the gal might be better than he is -- I know she was better when the season started) you have an interesting trail downwards that would fit into almost any sports movie (the one with talent but not a lot of interest, the one who tries hard but isn't real good, the stolid plodders, etc.).

The biggest problem the team faces is a lack of aggression or assertiveness on the field. They do a bit too much of watching to see what will happen, as opposed to making something happen. Or at least that's what I think. We are trying to provide Jake with a few tips with that in mind, like always run fast etc, but I am doing my best not to try and say a word to the other players or to the coach. It ain't my place, and odds are she already knows. There are other suggestions I might be minded to make, but I'm not sure they would truly help or not.

On the other hand, they are starting to struggle against the 6 year olds practicing on the field next to them. I know the kids would like to win. I suppose I could start standing near our coach and make "innocent" observations like "You know, that pseudo-goalie thing seems to really help the other team" or "Y'know, when the other team gets the ball they always initially kick it hard and that keeps the ball down on our side all the time."

Or maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and let the team handle it. I dunno. I want to help, and I presume the kids want to win in order to have more fun playing, but I also don't want to get my ego involved. Take our last game. We had an unpleasant incident in which a boy from the opposing team threw the ball too hard after an out-of-bounds and painfully jammed one of our player's fingers. I didn't see it happen, so I don't know if the kid was overexcited or being mean or just frustrated, but they both took to crying, and both were out of the game. Then, we had a granddad of the hurt girl hassling the other kid's coach over the incident (the game did have a high incidence of hand-checking and stuff before this -- soccer is a rougher sport than most people think), well within earshot of the offending kid. The coach responded very defensively and not well at all. The boy's parents eventually took him over to the girl and he apologized, which I think was totally appropriate and good for both of the kids.

Anyway, the point is, I want the kids to do well, but I don't want to be either of those guys.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Gross Dog Tales

The following post should not be read by people with particularly weak stomachs, right before a meal, right after a heavy meal, expectant or nursing mothers, or those with immune disorders.

So I'm starting to think our middle dog, George, (75lbs) is a bit accident-prone. We hadn't had him six months when, on his first trip to the ranch, he cut a neat hole in his hind leg on a barber-wire fence. Last year, you may recall, he managed to get a bump on his face (possibly from a scorpion sting) and was forced to wear a cone. This also resulted in my having to get a new keyboard.

Late one afternoon about two weeks ago now, Jacob was on his trampoline and Trish and I were inside the study when we heard a God-awful series of doggie yelps. We rushed outside to find George dashing about with a BIG gash in his side. Skin, muscle, fat layers…no bones showing, fortunately. Eight inches long, I'd guess. Straight to the vet we went, where he got stitched up and had to stay overnight.

First day or two back went okay, but then he nibbled a stick or three loose and I had to take him back. Well, it was okay aside from the fact he had a big tube stuck in him to help drain the gunk out of the wound. Gunk which was dripping out on the floor, and the dog beds, and what-not. Most of the floors are tile, so, no big deal. It wasn't all that much, anyway.

So I took him back for the new stitches. While there, they removed the drain tube. So of course, he swelled up around his wound. Lotsa fluid. A few days later I took him back, fearing an abcess and an infection. While I held him, the vet made a small incision and drained a big pile of bloody gunk out. But the good news was that it was clean gunk. No infections. A few days later, though, we had to do it again.

This next paragraph is going to be particularly gross.

The doc seemed pleasantly surprised that I could stand there while this was going on. As I explained to him, I spent a lot of time on a ranch. While I didn't go into detail with him, what that meant was the following: Dad used to notch the ears of cattle we vaccinated with his pocketknife. I used to wield the syringe with the vaccine. We gutted birds with our bare hands, and I got to see deer guts, smashed snakes, etc. up close and personal. This latter stood me in good stead when Trish had to have a c-section and I looked over the curtain after the birth and saw the docs almost literally pouring her guts back into place. So dealing with a dog who had bloody serum squirting out of his side under controlled conditions was no big thing.

A few days later he lost some more stitches. I think it was an accident of some kind, and it happened on a walk. Yes, I took the dogs on a walk despite George's stitches. They all needed the exercise or they were going to tear up something, perhaps each other. So anyway, this opened a new hole, and we got more drainage. It never really stopped draining, this hole, so after another day I took him in again. The vet looked pleased, cleaned him up, and said he was doing fine. We'd just leave the stitches out there in order to allow the draining to continue.

This draining was a lot worse than the prior stuff with the tube (I hope I can get the stains off of the stuff he has been laying on). Thursday we went back for a scheduled visit. This time, the vet removed most of the stitches on purpose, but left a few in just to be safe. Still with the cone, still with the draining hole. Tuesday (tomorrow) is another scheduled visit, probably to remove the last stitches. I'm, betting he won't, but I wish he would plug that dang hole. I can put up with some fairly gross stuff; that doesn't mean I like it.