Sunday, January 30, 2011

Momentum Stopper

Life is a series of episodes and pulses, moving forward with fits and starts until something actually get accomplished, and sometimes we find ourselves moving with an ease and confidence and grace that we call momentum, that mysterious sense of being carried along, like riding a bicycle down hill and with a nice wind at your back.

I had a growing sense of momentum all week, and by Friday I pumped up like prize fighter walking to the ring, except I had a sledge hammer and crow bars waiting for me. Within a few minutes I'd freed the other water line and was well on my way to the second wall. I was unstoppable.

Then I noticed something oddly familiar on the upper part of the wall.

The wallboard there is very soft, with a thin white layer of plaster and a brown fiber layer behind. Cheryl was just on her way up stairs and I asked her to come in for look.

"Is that asbestos?" I asked her.

She didn't know but went downstairs to check the Internet. Sure enough, it looks just like the asbestos wallboard in some pictures online. Of all the possible problems I might face, I just didn't see this one coming. Nothing to do know except close the door and wait for a contractor to come in with a haz-mat suit and finish taking this out. The momentum is gone. Damn.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Shaky Start

With two new crowbars, and with my trusty sledgehammer eager to get back into action, I started demolishing the bathroom yesterday morning. I could never have guessed what was about to happen. Never.

I stripped away the door frame, then pried a section of tile away from the wall. Just like I had feared, the concrete backer board is reinforced with a thick wire mesh, which when broken is sharp. Oh well, I can get behind it all with my crowbar and pull it away from the studs.

I was working on the wall where the sink and mirror are located. Hot and cold water lines, made of galvanized steel, come out here about 18 inches from the floor. I didn't give them much thought--normally they are fastened to the 2x4s.

As I freed the tile around the hot water line I heard a shhhhhhhhh sound, followed soon after by Cheryl screaming from downstairs, "Water, water!" I flew downstairs and into the garage to turn off the water, but the kitchen, which is directly below the bathroom, was already flooding. Not good.

Back upstairs to diagnose the problem. I can see that the pipe disappears into the area between the first and second floors, but there's no way to see, much less get my hand down there. So I had to go around into the hallway, and poke a hole into the wall from that side. I could see a little better but still not very far down, so I chiseled away the oak floor to make an opening. Oak does not like to be chisled. Finally with the flashlight I could see that the steel pipe is attached to PVC about a foot below the floor.

I went to Home Depot to get the necessary plumbing stuff. But when I got back I realized the hole is still not big enough to get my hand down there, so I had to pry up one of the oak boards in the hallway and then cut away some of the subfloor. Cheryl and I tried a test--she turned on the water for 3 seconds, and this allowed me to see the leak coming from the connection between the PVC pipe and the steel pipe.

With such a tenuous connection, the workers (the ones who put in the PVC) should have secured the steel pipe to 2x4s. I have considered every aspect of their character and well-being over the past several hours.

On the other hand, I should not have assumed that the pipe was secure. I should have been more careful, and I will be from this point on.

Anyway, after two trips to Home Depot and about four hours from when the leak sprung, I finally got the plumbing capped and we got the water turned back on. It was time for a nap and some personal reflection.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Clue from the Past

The bathroom is now a shell of its former self. Cheryl helped me remove the sink and toilet yesterday, though the toilet did not want to go--one of its bolts refused to let go, so I had to cut it off.

While removing the sink I accidentally bumped a porcelain towel rack fixture and broke it, revealing a wad of crumpled newspaper, put there to keep mortar from entering the fixture. A clue, possibly, to the age of the tile job.

Because to be honest I've had mixed feelings about the demolition phase of the project. If this really is the original bathroom, one that's lasted almost 100 years, then how can I take my sledge hammer to it with any real pleasure? It's like slapping your grandmother a few times before taking her off to the old folks home.

So we pulled out the newspaper and found a piece of the upper right corner, which reads: TAMPA MORNING TRIBUNE, Friday, February 7, 1958

What a relief! If this crappy bathroom was remodeled in the 50s, I will take it apart with the full fury and joy of a drunken viking. Except... What if the towel racks were added later and the original tile actually is from 1924? It would mean that the remodelers would have cut out these sections of tile without damaging the surrounding sections. Seems unlikely.

Anyway, the newspaper fragments were mostly from the classified section. This one caught my eye--a small house for sale in Tampa, for $9,500. I was curious, so I looked it up and this one sold for $220,000 in 2007. But today it's in foreclosure and can be purchased for $39,900. Ouch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sight Unseen

The tile arrived yesterday, wrapped up tight in cellophane after its long trip from Phoenix. I got the call from the truck driver around noon, and he was the friendliest-sounding guy you can imagine, like he wanted to be my best friend forever, like he felt privileged to be able to come to my home and meet me in person.

It was one of those huge vans. As I went out, my new friend was lowering the pallet on a hydraulic lift. Oh gosh, he seemed to say, I'm so glad I'm here. When he got the tile on the ground I stopped him and said that I just needed to inspect the tiles.

OK, after talking with the tile company I knew there was a good chance that the delivery person would not allow this. And, sure enough, my new truck buddy said. "Oh, you're not going to like this, but I can't let you open this before signing for it." He went on to explain that I was free to inspect the boxes from the outside, which he said were as pristine and beautiful as any he had ever delivered. And anyway, his hands were tied, he said almost crying, since it was company policy, and he was just doing his job. If I wouldn't sign, he'd have to send it back.

"Alright," I said, "send it back. I can't accept it without taking a look."

"I completely understand," he said, fighting back some tears. He started up the hydraulic lift, then began pushing the pallet back into the truck, and I knew he wasn't bluffing. And I knew I wasn't about to let that knucklehead drive away with my tile. After all, the boxes did look fine. And who knows if I would ever get them back?

So I had him push all of it into the garage, and I signed the paperwork, but not without a few cuss words, which I'm afraid wounded him deeply. Fortunately the tiles look OK. And the new sink is cute.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Slipping Some Milestones

Of course Willow is excited about the new bathroom project. Here is she, posing for her new company portrait. Image is important when you are climbing the corporate ladder, and this will be her biggest project ever--never mind that I'll be doing all the work, as usual, while she takes the credit. (Notice that I'm not in the picture.)

My ongoing illness has been a thorn in her side, though, delaying the project start by one day and then another, and these delays reflect poorly on her management capabilities, so she is desperate to motivate me into action before the corporate bosses send in a new goon to shake things up (and replace her).

I do feel better today, but not nearly enough to get started, especially when you consider that the initial phase of the project will be the violent demolition and dismembering of the bathroom, down to the wall studs, followed by the tedious removal of those hundreds of pounds of broken tile and wallboard, with me lugging it all down the stairs and outside to the curb. And that's just to get started.

I'm taking my sick days, no matter how often Willow calls me aside and gives me the stink eye. Let the milestones slip.

In the meantime I'm reading possibly my favorite book ever: Mark Twain's autobiography, which was published just a few months ago, according to his wishes, 100 years after his death. It's given me an idea (more on this later).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tile Ordered

The tile has been ordered and should be here next week, never mind how much it will cost. By buying the tile from a store in Arizona, I've avoided the sales tax, and that savings almost cancels out the shipping charges. Let the hand-wringing cease.

I'm slowly, by inches and snail steps, getting over this flu, or whatever it is, but I'm still not quite right, so I continue to rest and wait. The tile will find a cozy spot to stay in the garage until I'm ready for it, until after the demolition, plumbing and carpeting prep work is done. But still today I'm a little dizzy. Not quite ready to pull out my favorite tool--the baby sledge hammer.

Also, I wrote a long, rambling, preachy post this morning about gun control, mental health and other issues, all related to the shooting in Arizona. I posted it, but it didn't feel right so I pulled it. The problem is that we have too many guns and too many crazy people, but I just haven't figured out how to fix it yet. The bathroom project comes first.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remembering the PC

The initial calculations are done, thanks to some help from Excel and no thanks to my flu-fuzzy brain that can't seem to perform simple math, like yesterday when Cheryl and I worked through some ideas for the bathroom mirror, which will be bordered in the smaller tiles and which presents a chicken/egg problem--but I will discuss that later.

Here's my spreadsheet. It reminds me of my days working for a big aerospace company. I was in the IT department, back in the days of mainframe computers, when PCs (personal computers--you don't hear that term very often any more) began to emerge slowly, with their primitive spreadsheets and databases on blue screens and white block letters, long before Windows or mice (or is it mouses?). No email, no Internet. At the time I was the only person in the department to program exclusively for the PCs, so I was pretty much a joke to the mainframe programmers, who considered themselves to be the true professionals, though I wondered if they ever did anything other than drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and stare into space.

At the time, PCs were painfully slow and data needed to be saved onto big floppy plastic disks. The PC network was a nightmare, rarely working, and very, very slow. But I was sure that Microsoft would take over the world. And I tried to convince Cheryl that we should take some money (and, boy, she hates for me to tell this story) and buy Microsoft stock, and we certainly didn't have much money to spare. So we didn't buy it. But had we bought $1,000 in stock in 1989, it would be worth about $250,000 today. I'm just saying.

Anyway. I've sent off for a quote (including the extra 10% of tile, may it rot in the garage), so we'll see about the shipping charges.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bathroom Project Planning (Scottish)

It seems that the flu-like symptoms that currently afflict me are pretty common out there right now, and one aspect of the bug is its resilience--some people have needed to return to the doctor twice, this according to my pharmacist. So I'm advised to avoid strenuous exercise until I feel well.

That's OK since the bathroom project is still in the planning phase. I took the initial measurements last night and began working on a tile layout plan, with all its borders and patterns, having a medium green as the background color and then a border and a lighter green reaching to the ceiling in the shower area (though it's hard to see the difference in this photo).

But the initial planning has already brought a few issues front and center so that I can't really ignore them--but more about them later.

My first goal is to determine the amount of tile that I'll need to order, allowing for the extra 10% that is generally ordered to account for cutting, etc., though this 10% already sticks in my craw like an undigested piece of animal cartilage, pressing against the full weight of my frugal Scottish ancestry so that I almost certainly will back away from it in the end, opting for a lower percentage if any at all, because what is worse than a box full of unused tile sitting in the garage, sitting there because I was scared and needed that precious extra 10%? (Ten percent?!? Have you lost your mind, man?)

We plan to create a tile border for the mirror. No problem. But our plan to tile around the window will need to be abandoned, and instead I will create a new wooden frame for it. The window is necessarily a flexible area. If we lived in a concrete block house, the area would be rigid enough for tile; but a wood frame opening, at least from what I've read so far, would eventually allow cracks into the grout if not the tile itself. And there would be a big mess. Oh, well, we can plan for a design on the opposite wall, in the upper area of the shower.

The remaining issue is putting ceiling tile in the shower area, which I promised Cheryl I would do, but now I wonder what possesses me when I make promises to her. Am I so eager for approval and admiration that I will claim any ability, any talent, any hidden knowledge or trick to impress her? So now I'm stuck with this final trick, setting heavy, oddly shaped, hand-made tiles upside down and with adhesive that's no stickier than peanut butter. We'll see...

Monday, January 3, 2011


It's been a week since our return from Arizona. What started as a scratchy throat on Monday moved up into my sinuses during the flight, and my ears are still popping today, just like I've spent the past 7 days in that awkward, stuffy-headed, ear-popping condition that I usually feel after landing and on the way to pick up my baggage. By Saturday Cheryl convinced me to go to the walk-in clinic (a much nicer place than I expected), and she drove me there like a sick puppy since I was and remain somewhat hazy and tired, extremely sleepy despite my frequent naps this week.

The doctor gave me some antibiotics like I expected. So I asked Cheryl (I really wanted to ask the doctor--except he seemed pretty tired and not in need of idle conversation) how it is that we've become so dependent on antibiotics. What would happen to me, I asked her, if this was 100 years ago? "You'd be dead," she said, which is probably true, though I might have been more happy to hear some regret in her voice. "People died all the time."

I used to have some stronger feelings on the subject--about allowing the body to heal itself without resorting to antibiotics and other extreme measures (sending a pill in to kill everything not nailed down is pretty extreme). But a few years ago I put this belief to the test and powered through a cold by simply ignoring it. One of our dogs broke a pipe outside and I went out there to fix it, in the rain and cold, and by the next day I became delusional with a fever, thinking all sorts of wild thoughts. In particular I entertained the notion that my illness was due to some sort of poisoning that I received while haggling for a tapestry on the dark back streets of a market in Grenada, Spain, all of which are historically accurate facts, except for the poisoning. I had a bad case of pneumonia that took a month to completely get over. So when Cheryl suggested the walk-in clinic this Saturday I was quick to go.

As it is, the human race is full of people like me, people who probably should have been thinned out a long time ago, like when I have pneumonia in the 6th grade. Too bad--I like it here now.