Jun

7

 I was washing the dishes today and thinking about the plumbing in my house. When we bought this place seven or eight years ago, it was a dump. Cracks in the foundation, termites, even rats (yes — hard to believe, but true). There were small trees growing in the gutters. The previous owners left crap everywhere. The light fixture in my daughters room consisted of a single bulb in a socket with the wires simply hooked over and dangling from the wires in the ceiling box. Every single drain in the house leaked — when I removed the p-trap under the kitchen sink it crumbled in my hand. The sheet rock on the soffit over the kitchen sink had been removed, exposing the horizontal cast iron drain pipes that had visible and botched patching attempts that leaked onto the kitchen counter. Christ.

The main soil stack had a ten foot long crack that you could slide your hand into — there were signs of raw sewage on the basement floor. The yard…well, let's just not go there.

Before I could get a contractor in to do the renovation, I had to make the place safe to live in — because we were going to have to be there during the process. I was discussing the litany of problems with a coworker who did construction on the side, telling him I needed a plumber immediately. He smiled and said "No, no, no. No you don't. Drain plumbing is easy. Go rent a chain pipe cutter and remove the cast iron yourself - -it's simple, just make the pieces small because its heavy stuff. Then buy a how-to book on PVC plumbing. Again, it's simple and MUCH cheaper than a plumber. Map out what you need, buy extra elbows and fittings and when you screw up, cut it out with a hack saw and do it again. Simple. I promise."

Now I had a mentor years ago — still a good friend, but far away now, who somehow managed to instill in me a willingness to find out how to fix things. I'm a curious cat anyway so maybe easier for me then most. He owned a small business and did all of the maintenance and repairs on his vehicles himself. Big trucks, not semis, but big enough. Replaced the engine on one of them in a parking lot in the middle of a knock down, drag out Oklahoma rain like God is pissed at you personally storm. The guy had work to do and he needed the damned truck. There was something about that that I just loved. No freakin' excuses. If it had to be done, it got done.

 So when we moved into this dump, I mean place, we put most of our stuff in storage and I shipped the wife and kids off to her mother's for three days and prepared to get dirty. Removing the old cast iron was, in fact, easier than I could have imagined — and fun too. It was very satisfying to hear it snap with a resounding CRACK! Don't get me wrong, it was disgusting in a way that is hard to imagine, but I'm not afraid of filth. So, good, done in about an hour, and I cut the remaining soil stack straight and pretty as you please five feet above the slab in the basement.

I pulled all the toilets up and began by setting the closet flanges (the first piece of plumbing under the toilet that connects to the drain pipe). From below I then mapped out what pipe and fittings I needed to get to the stack, fiddled and tinkered, cemented, joined and plumbed my way all the way up through the roof and down to the basement and joined the whole thing to the remaining iron stack with a rubber Fernco coupling. I only botched two or three joints and it was not a problem to cut 'em out and do 'em again. It took me three days — most of that time looking up, rubbing my chin and thinking — maybe four or five hours of actual labor. I was so damned happy with myself that I didn't want the real plumber to come replace it when the time came to move the soil stack into the exterior wall (it was in the way of the new kitchen).

I tackled several jobs — dug down to the footing and repaired the crack in the foundation wall with a hammer and chisel and hydraulic cement inside and out and on the exterior set a 4' x 4' sheet of cardboard whose flutes were filled with pelletized bentonite to make a water impermeable barrier. (Think clumping cat litter.) Basement has been dry as a bone ever since. I sistered the rotten floor joists with 3/4" plywood and some heavy bolts, cut out and replaced portions of the mud sill and plate, replaced the water heater and learned how to sweat copper pipe from a book. The list goes on and on.

The point of all of this, is that when I tell most people, they are simply amazed. "How could you do all that?", "How come you know so much about plumbing and electrical stuff?", "Aren't you scared to mess with the wiring? What if something goes wrong?" And I can see their points, what do you do if you get in over your head? And the answer is to do the thing that I was trying to avoid in the first place, pay a professional to come set things right. Yes, sometimes the only alternative is real, hard earned, specialized experience or skill.

 The thing is — people are afraid to fiddle with stuff they don't know about or understand. Okay, I get that. But the thing that really bothers me, the thing that Robert Pirsig so eloquently expressed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is that when you press people a little about that, the awful truth is that most of them don't WANT to know or understand. They really just don't wanna know. Or can't be bothered. That bugs the crap out of me. (This book, by the way, is not about motorcycle maintenance, it's a deep philosophical exploration of values — and it reads like an adventure story.)

Look, if you need brakes on the car and don't want to pay someone an arm and a leg to do them, then you have to acquire some basic knowledge — absolutely — if you screw up badly enough you could kill someone. But brakes are simple. They are SIMPLE to replace. But you have to get dirty, gain a little knowledge, maybe even THINK for a few minutes and then DO THE DAMNED WORK. And most folks just can't abide that. It's too much trouble. What if I screw it up? I don't like using a jack, what if the car falls? It's too dirty. It's tooo much work.

In Zen and the Art, Pirsig tells a tale about his companion's motorcycle. The thing has some valve chatter and, as was common on bike engines back then, the valves needed shimming. Not that hard at all, and look, here's an empty soda can — the aluminum is EXACTLY the right thickness to make shims — I'll take care of it here and now. But his companion would have none of it — he was afraid something would get messed up. Afraid. Just afraid. Pirsig goes into this in a very deep way that I can't hold a candle to and I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone involved in any endeavor that requires peeking under the hood, a little rolling up of the sleeves and some elbow grease. Perhaps trading especially.

Now get back to work.

(Some quotes from Zen and the Art)


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