Monday, February 28, 2011

Master Class

This weekend I met a guy who fixes up houses professionally and who knows his stuff and actually seems to enjoy it, so I took advantage of his good nature and showed him the bathroom and asked every question I could think of (to the annoyance of his girlfriend and my wife, who just wanted me to shut up so that we could all leave for lunch)--probably a thousand questions or so, and today I've thought of another thousand that I wish I had asked and that I intend to ask in the future.

Otherwise, on Saturday I finished cutting and installing most of the furring strips for the shower; these strips of board, in various thicknesses, fit onto the studs so that the finished tile wall ends up inside the tub. Pretty important stuff.

I also installed the shower place-holder pipe, which I'll replace with the shiny, curvy pipe and the shower head once everything is done. Since I'm overly cautious about every single thing I do, the project is progressing at a painfully slow pace.

I remember back to my days in college, back when I spent hours and hours in the practice rooms working on piano and violin. A well-known violinist came to school to give a master class. She stood on the stage before 20 or 30 of us and played something really incredible and beautiful on her violin. Then she said, simply, "Playing the violin is easy. Playing music is hard."

Something in the pit of my stomach knew what she meant: "Until playing the violin is easy, you will never actually play real music because you will be too distracted struggling with your stubby fingers and little brains. So just give up, and quit wasting your time."

Fortunately I've learned to accept my limitations. And I try to keep an open mind and learn new things. Yes, home renovation is easy. Creating a new bathroom, one you can be proud of, is hard. But it is possible.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Finally, I'm Starting to Get It

By this time a normal person would have become suspicious or at least a little curious. What started out as a simple hobby for me has turned into a major corporate enterprise, with layers of bureaucracy and with me at the bottom, even though I'm just fixing up our house, just some minor remodeling, with no discernible financial interest to anyone else. A normal person would have wondered how this all happened.

Possibly it's because I've spent so much money at Home Depot that the store now considers me an asset, a sort of branch company? Maybe Willow and Berkeley are really here to make sure that I dump as much money as possible into Home Depot--but only so much as we can afford over time (considerating the recent financial meltdown) without going bankrupt.

Then recently (and again, a normal person would have seen this coming, but what do I know about economics?) this new corporation had become successful enough to attract attention and some investors, so that speculation over how much stuff I might buy in the future (or how much I wouldn't buy) is now fueling its own revenue stream.

It's no wonder that these corporate lackeys and professional gamblers are not interested in my opinions about how things should be done, even though I am the do-er of those things. Even more so, now they insist that my opinions actually poison the process, quick to blame everythng on me.

Notice how they pose with such sincerity for the cameras. Corporate dogs.

Yes, I have been naive, but this is not over.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Twittering the Project

Just like I thought, the recent flurry of news about demonstrations, social media, collective bargaining, credit crunches, etc., etc., have left our operation here in a state of flux, with management behind closed doors for a couple days until, finally, this morning they emerged for a press conference.

Normally they would have just called me into their office for a talk (or from my perspective, a listen), but this time Willow (the project manager) and Berkeley (who somehow is her boss now) went straight to the cameras and for a prepared speech.

Ever since my Power to the People diatribe the other day--which was said mostly in jest, as anyone would know--I've noticed an icy chill around here, so I should have seen this coming. I should have known that management would be on pins and needles worrying about what might come next, whether I might start Tweeting about them or Facebooking about them (even though I abstain from such technology) and bring about a collapse of their regimes, if such a thing a possible for two silly dogs who have no business being in charge of anything.

I'm listening to Berkeley now. She's very serious, talking about how it is no longer possible to negotiate with me directly. Instead, she says, in the interest of the project, in the interest of fairness (what she means is: in her interest), we will all be entering a new phase. From this point forward, they will do the telling and I will do the doing.

My cell phone rings. "Stop work now. We are with you," the voice says.

"Who the heck are you?" I ask.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Power to the People

It turned out that the triangular brace was in the path of the tub spout, so I had no choice but to remove it, gently and with some respect for its nearly 100 years of service. Here is it turned upside down, looking like some Medieval candelabra or implement of torture.

Instead of trying to salvage the existing shutoff valves, I just cut them off (they are the candles in the picture above) and I put in some new Sharkbite push-on valves--no adhesive, tape, flux or solder. They just press onto the pipe. To my mind this is most unnatural--witchcraft, perhaps. I had Cheryl turn on the main water to test it while I sat upstairs and watched.

Except for a small piece of drain pipe, all of the original plumbing is now gone, and because this achievement was a major milestone the project manager stopped in to celebrate and take all the credit (no surprise), through she did grace me with some stealthy looks of appreciation from time to time, which is what all of us worker-bees live for--to make the boss happy, right?

I have a sinking feeling that she's been watching the news and that my collective bargaining rights are about to disappear (just like Wisonsin).

With the triangle out of the way, I was able to position and install the shower faucet body today (it has a black plastic shield to protect it while I do the tile work).

Just for fun I turned on the water for a second, sending a gusher out the bottom. Ooops. Power to the people.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Matter of Trash

My antique triangular bracket provides a convenient way to hold up the supply pipes--the pipes fit through the nice sleeves in the back, supporting all the weight above. This probably will all be unnecessary after I get the new shower faucet assembly today, but for now I get some satisfaction in the sturdiness of my old plumbing.

Meanwhile, I hear the garbage pickup guys drive up and stop beside the pile of 50 garbage bags, which if filled with leaves and twigs would be a big enough job for them, but these heavy-duty bags are loaded with mortal and tile. My fear is that they will simply drive away without the bags after they discover what I've done, so I am peeking out the window and watching them like a scared little girl.

If I were a man, I'd go out there and take them some beers or maybe a fist full of 20-dollar bills. I'd apologize for the big pile, but I'd do it like a big man, explaining that big men do big work, etc. Instead, I'm squinting though a small opening in the curtain, craning my ears to hear. Chances are, if I did go out there, they would not be amused by me or my attempts to make things better, and very likely an argument would ensue, ending with them driving away without the bags.

And to be honest, I had put some of the lighter bags on top of the pile. Deliberate deception, I know. I hear voices but can't decipher them. Three or four men are in the crew, and they are discussing the matter. Not happy.

Then I think: why should I be sorry about this? I'd piled up the bags neatly. And isn't it their job to take the bags away? But I know the reason for my guilt. I should have gotten one of those big waste containers for the driveway, and they could have just driven it away.

Finally I heard a bag drop into the back of the truck with a loud bang, then another and then another. It only took them about 5 minutes, but it was not a happy 5 minutes. Maybe next week I'll take them some money.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Old Guys

My back feels a little better today but not so much better that I regret calling the plumber. I was pleased to see him use the same approach that I planned to take yesterday before springing my back--he cut into the drain basket just enough to loosen it, then was able to unscrew it.

The drain basket (the top part) screws into the piece under the tub, which then leads away to the drain system, all of which is very nearly impossible to access between the first and second floors. What I suspected was a rusty drain was just a tarnished one (made from solid brass). Oh well, it had to come out.

I explained about my blog to Doug, the plumber, who is a real pro with John's Plumbing. The idea, I told him, is that I will complete this project on my own, keeping a sort of journal as I go, only resorting to professional help when absolutely necessary.

Of course, I was trying to butter him up so that he would give me some advice and validation about other aspects of the project, about how I planned to support the pipes, install the new shower faucet, etc. This a delicate process because these guys don't have any real incentive to reveal the secrets of their trade, and they have no stomach for stupid do-it-yourselfers. So I didn't push it.

It turned out that the new drain assembly that I bought from Home Depot dips down lower that the existing tail piece, and this is a no-no for professional plumbers--water should not be sent up hill, not even a millimeter. I could reuse the brass tail piece but I need to find a new drain basket that fits into it. They exist on the Internet but take 4 to 6 weeks to deliver. Between the lines he let me know that the Home Depot drain was OK but not something he was allowed to install.

Finally he took some time to give me advice on several things and he let me know that I'm on the right track. Then he said that his bill would actually be less that what he estimated. Instead I gave him some extra money. "One day soon," he told me, "all of the old guys will be gone, and no one will know what to do."

As one of the old guys, I couldn't agree more.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Reluctant Drain

This morning I had a clear focus and a simple, or at least it seemed simple, goal: to remove the old rusty drain from the tub. And to this end, I have a cool little tool that fits into the drain, down between the metal crosspiece (the metal teeth that catch hair, not my hair of course but real hair) so that a person can twist the drain free and unscrew it from the plumbing below. In this particular case, the drain as been attached to the tub for nearly 100 years and is very comfortable with its present location.

I remember this drain from our first walk-through of the house. I remember how the house had all new toilets, sinks and faucets, but the bathtub drain was completely rusted. Why didn't they replace it, I wondered?

So this morning I took my tool and bent over the side of the tub, and I placed a big pipe wrench on the top of the tool to give me some torque. I pushed and pushed but nothing happened except I could see that the metal drain teeth were beginning to give way--if they broke I would be in trouble. OK, one more try. Careful. From what I've read, this is a delicate operation; too much force and the tub could crack.

Then I heard it give way.

No, not the drain. My back. I stood up, tried to shake it off with a few stretches. No use. It still hurts as I write this. So I drove down to John's plumbing, to the guy who helped me a few months ago by actually rebuilding my antique faucet as I stood there in the store. He would help me and, besides, I owe him some real work. But no, he is on vacation. Instead, one of his guys is coming tomorrow morning to take a look.

Coincidentally, as I was driving to the store, on the radio was a story about an 80-year-old woman in Egypt who was present during the demonstrations and who was nearly beaten last week, that is, before she was rescued by some young people. The woman has protested against the last 4 rulers in Egypt. She's been repeatedly jailed over the years, demonstrating when it placed her life in jeopardy. A brave woman, but now the young people protected her because, she said, "I look like a grandma. I guess I am."

I guess I am not a grandma, even if I do need some help with this @#@%$% drain.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Victorian Plumbing

It's on to the plumbing now, and I'm faced with a contraption from Victorian England, with flourishes and curves, supported by a sturdy iron triangle, something you might see on an old steam engine. Of course it all has to go, and I have just the tool to cut it out if it is not prepared to come along peaceably.

But no, it's a trick. The previous owners connected PVC pipe and some new shut-off valves to this contraption, and that thin plastic stuff is just hanging in air, poking up from the sub-floor below. If I'm not careful the whole mess of iron and steel will crash down and easily splinter the PVC, creating another gusher for the downstairs.

Starting at the top, under the cute curve of pipe, is a pulley system attached to a rod that goes into a plunder-like device that effectively was the stopper for bath water. And maybe it was common back then, but the spout comes out of the tub where we normally see an overflow hole and cap today, and this clever idea allows a full bathtub to flood the kitchen downstairs. All these pipes and pulleys are connected together, which explains why the previous owners never replaced the rusty tub drain (slackers).

Fortunately I have an access door on the other side of the wall, and I can see down into the crawl space, down where a twisted mass of curvy PVC elbows connect to the drain.
The PVC drain is coiled like a snake and is so tight that I won't be able to salvage it--I'll have to start over and create a completely new drain. Except there's just enough room for one of my skinny arms, at least until I can make some room.

Time for lunch.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I just finished pulling down the rest of the wall and bagging up it all up, taking a break now to write this paragraph before I carry it all outside--a total of 50 bags from several days of work, weighing about 40 lbs each, or about one ton of wall. Back to work...

OK, It took about an hour to carry out the debris and then to move all of the bags to the street--the pickup guys are really going to love me.

I like the look of the bare walls--peaceful and clean after many years of undisturbed rest. A bare room is always new, always full of potential, never bad on the inside (or at least never beyond redemption).

Inexplicably, at the rear of the tub area there is a stud cut at a very odd angle and fit into place with a cabinet maker's precision, a real work of art. These joints have been in the darkness for almost 100 years and with no one to appreciate them.

Note to the carpenter: thanks from brightening up my day--you are my friend. I hope your life was a happy one. Sorry I can't shake your hand and have you explain this mystery to me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sleep Thinking

At this point in a project, with so many tasks looming ahead, I find myself in perpetual background planning mode. At various times during the day, like when I first wake up in the morning or when I'm reading a book, I become suddenly conscious and realize that I've been sleep-thinking: doing one thing while thinking about another. And lately my thoughts keep returning to the bathroom sink (the custom Mexican sink that goes with the tile design) and how to design a structure to hold it and how to attach that structure to the wall, etc., etc.

Of course, I'm still in the middle of ripping out the old bathroom, and I have more pressing issues to consider, like the enclosure around the bathtub. The builders made the original walls 2 inches thick, but not just to annoy me or to show off. It turns out that the bathtub is about 5 feet long but the distance between the wall studs at the head and foot of the tub is about 5 feet, 3 inches. If I installed the backer board and tile directly to these studs, I would have a nice gap between the tile and the tub, and this would defeat the whole idea of having the water go down the drain. I'll probably need to feather out all these studs about 1 inch so that the tile walls fit within the tub.

And now the Egypt situation has taken an interesting turn--Mubarak is apparently going to step down today, so I'm compelled to follow this constantly on the Internet so that I am well informed and able to make critical decisions if Obama or the CIA or the State Department gives me a call and asks me what to do. That is, after I take a nap. And I have yoga later this afternoon, so anytime this evening... before 9:30 would be better.

As usual, too many things to think about.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Float Like a Butterfly

I have just one piece of wall remaining to be pulled down, but it's a delicate section, with mortar all attached to the plumbing, and I've reached a point where my patience and good sense long since gone. I'll finish up tomorrow.

The people who put in this tile years ago were a pessimistic bunch. They obviously could see ahead to some horrible cataclysm, some disaster of biblical proportions, a nuclear event maybe, so they used all their skill to build a sanctuary that would survive any possible earthquake or hurricane or supernova, with tile walls about two inches thick and laced together with wire mesh. Yes, we will need a place to shower in the scorched post-apocalyptic world.

A friend suggested that I try a carbide blade for my reciprocating saw, but it was no use. So I went back to my same approach, using rotating sessions of sledge hammer and crowbar, getting those meager-sized pieces.

I guess I knew what I should do all along but was too stubborn to see it. Each minor success with my hammer/pull approach propelled me mindlessly forward. Way back in my mind, though, I could see it--I knew the wall would almost fall off by itself if not for the corners.

So I took my hammer and tap, tap, tap I punched down the entire corner of one wall, tapping until I broke through the wire mesh from top to bottom. It took a while, but I got my zen thing going and tapped to a song in my head. When it was done, I took the crowbar to the solid wall and crack, the pieces just fell off, some of them on their own. What had taken a couple hours before was done in a few minutes.

I think I know how a punched-out prize fighter feels. With nothing left you try the rope-a-dope, you buy some time and look for the other guy's weakness. Then you pull out the hammer.

Now I have about a thousand pounds of wall to bag up and carry downstairs and outside...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Assembling Peaceably

Yesterday I had one of my computers run a live feed of the situation in Egypt, watching the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets, when into the scene rode several men on horseback and camel, whipping people as they went. Then several fights broke out--the square had been infiltrated with plain-clothes policemen determined to cause trouble. What had been a peaceful gathering of like-minded people suddenly was very angry and chaotic.

The first amendment of the U.S. constitution is a simple declaration of rights, one of which is the right to assembly peaceably:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
What's missing is any guarantee that the government won't interfere with an assembly, to make it less peaceable. Even so, the first amendment is an incredible statement of individual rights, especially when seen in contrast to events in other countries, and it's good to read it now and then.

Sometimes, like recently in Iran, a government can successfully shut down a popular movement by creating violence within demonstrations. The situation in Egypt is more visible to the world, and possibly that will make the difference.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Back in the Saddle

It turns out that we are all swimming in asbestos. It's everywhere: in the air, the water, the ground. I had an enlightening and entertaining talk with my local EPA guy about the depressing topic. Most houses built before 1970 have asbestos and it regularly gets released into the environment.

He pointed me to a lab that would analyze a sample of my wallboard. Yes, he said, my description of it sounded very much like asbestos, but one step at a time, and then I could shop around for an asbestos abatement company, an unnecessarily fancy word to let me know, up front, that none of this would be cheap.

Meanwhile, in yoga class, a friend of mine let me borrow his space-age particulate mask, suggesting that I should remove the stuff myself rather than being swindled by expensive guys in haz-mat suits. Oddly enough, the EPA guy said essentially the same thing--that it could be done with a little research and training and with the right equipment. Otherwise, I could be out several thousand dollars...

Do it myself? Why take a chance with my health? My lungs are not great--I've had pneumonia twice, and even now I have a cough that I can't shake. Just pay somebody and be done with it, you cheap Scottish idiot.

A few minutes ago, the lab analysis came in an email. NO asbestos!! I'm back in the saddle, baby.