Invisible dotted lines on invisible (punctured) pipes

I’ve been a fledgling furnace-fighter for two or three months, now — our 167,000-BTU Bryan hot-water boiler system in the basement is about thirty years old (it has an operating life of about twenty years, so it’s on borrowed time), and is a source of nostalgia and amusement to the contractors we’ve had in to price a replacement. One contractor laughed fondly when he saw it: “Ohhh, one of these! and (I’m not kidding) patted it like a toothless old dog. “Yeah, you’ll save a lot of money with a new boiler.”

The problem was that our boiler was losing pressure. It’s supposed to stay steady at about 15-20 PSI, but it held at about two or three. Our fill valve (green; cast iron; kind of looks like a Korean war fragmentation grenade) isn’t working, so the system wasn’t filling itself with water. I’d add water through a hose, after being instructed how to by the Chuckling Contractor, but about four hours later, the pressure would be back down to five PSI. Overnight, back to two. I’d try to bleed the upstairs radiator (because that’s what every website tells you to do when you have a heating problem; it’s like medieval doctors and their leeches), but since the pressure was so low, the upstairs radiators sucked air instead of blowing, and I managed to quickly take several radiators out of commission.

The loss of pressure seemed like the Mystery of the Ages to our furnace contractors, since if the pressure was dropping that quickly, they’d expect us to see a massive water leak in the house. But there was no leak. “Maybe you’ve got a crack in the boiler, and the water is boiling off. Yeah, you hear that noise?” “Um, I think that’s the TiVo fan upstairs.” “Oh”, they’d say, crestfallen.

After several heating contractors, in a spirit of optimistic experimentation, tried filling the boiler again (and quoting a price to replace our amusing museum piece), I finally came to a realization. Heating contractors’ sphere of influence extends only as far as the actual boiler unit. The rest of the system — pipes, valves, radiators, is the Domain of the Plumber. I called our plumbers, and we quickly located the problem — a massive leak under our powder room, which is external to the foundation, and so the leak hadn’t been easy to spot. Every time I’d add ten gallons of water to the system, ten gallons would go merrily flooding into the crawlspace.

the smoking gunThe smoking gun, as it turned out, was a hole in the heating pipe that our flooring contractor had put there only four months ago, when we had the old kitchen tile removed, a new floor laid down, and new vinyl tile laid over that. The floor-er had driven down the half-inch plywood with massive three-inch nails, probably left over from some kind of federal highway project. Of course, we had to rip up the vinyl and the floor to find the problem.

I’d love to make our flooring contractor out as the villain of this story, but our plumber told me that there’s two kind of floor-ers; those who have already put a nail in a pipe, and those who are going to put a nail in a pipe. This opinion was borne out the next day by the carpenter we hired to re-lay the floor, who told me his own war stories about sawing through pipes (and about having to rip up freshly installed floor at the end of the day after hearing meowing sounds coming from the subfloor, on one job.)

So, if this is a morality play, it’s hard to know what the message is. To err is human, but to really fuck up your house in a hurry, you need a contractor? The re-work is… galling, but I suppose you win some and you lose some. If the powder room floor had been laid as part of a contracted and guaranteed job, I’d be asking for my money back, but it was done as a quick “might as well” for cash under the table, so I think I’m just going to cut my losses, and hope that the money wasted here will turn out to be a cheap education later. Or something.

Incidentally, I found out that my theory about spheres of influence in the house was right. Troy, our plumber, commands a body of knowledge both broad and deep — but, to him, our boiler is just a gray box with a gauge on the front. The dotted line separating worlds is a very visible bolted flange about six inches above the boiler box, where one specialty ends and another begins. The same is true of roofs and gutters, of chimneys and chimney liners, of painting and plastering.

Invisible dotted lines on invisible (punctured) pipes

…aaand a Vespa in the drive-way!


It’s freaking cold here in West Chester the past couple of days: in the mornings, there’s frost on the inside of the storm windows (which means something less than good about the condition of our weatherstripping, I’m afraid.)

Christmas morning, Kate and I bundled the baby up in a blanket and dashed, in our slippers, past nine burned-out luminaria next door to her parents’ house, where there’s a fire in the fireplace and a big plate of english muffins and bacon in the kitchen. Kate’s brother Matt and his girlfriend Kristen descended from the hipster stratosphere (he’s in a mod band, she manages a store in Soho) to find that Bob had fixed up a wonky clutch cable on Matt’s Vespa and put it, with a big red bow, just outside the door. When Matt saw it, he whooped, hollered, and took it for a ride around the block, shag haircut streaming out in the sub-zero temperature, Kristen riding gamely on the pillion. It’ll make the trip to the East Village, where it’ll become a cafe racer (well, cruiser) once again.

The three days around Christmas have been a whirl of family activities, and I find myself saying the same things I’ve heard a million times at family functions coming out of the mouths of other new dads: “oh, she’s a little cranky because she’s missing her nap.” Life is wonderful, and exhausting, and holiday meals are now consumed at higher speeds, in shorter bursts, usually because of the reach-y baby sitting one one knee.

…aaand a Vespa in the drive-way!

Sharpless Street Luminaria

the house across the street

We received our Christmas Eve luminary kit from our block captains this morning; eleven white paper bags, eleven white candles, and two quarts of sand in plastic bags. That’s one paper bag luminary for each square in the concrete sidewalk outside our house. Around four o’clock PM, all our neighbors were out folding bags, scooping sand, and setting candles. Around five o’clock, wooden matches were getting inserted gingerly down into the mouths of the bags. It’s not a windy night, so the candles will still be burning early tomorrow morning.

It’s difficult to describe the luminaria’s effect, just as it’s difficult to describe the sense of community on this street. The bags are pretty, and the flickering effect of all those candles stretching in an organic line up and down the street is… well, real, in a way that six foot inflatable snowmen aren’t. I don’t want it to sound like I’m in the middle of a Thomas Kinkaid painting — though the line of luminaries are easily pretty enough to be the subject of entire stores’ worth of mall art. And I don’t want to make it sound like this prettiness only comes at the expense of crippling small-town fascism, though every sitcom writer working for the past fifteen years would find it easy to imagine that plot. The captains are low-key, the luminaries are pretty in a way that makes you sorry they’ll be gone tomorrow, even while you’re looking at them right now. This is just a really, really great street.

Kate’s parents live nine luminaria away, and in March, my dad and stepmother will be moving in to a house just fifty-nine luminaria from our front door. That’s a short tricyle ride, or a medium-length pogo-stick journey; we know, because there are several pogo-stick experts in training within ten luminaria of us. We are all very, very lucky. Merry Christmas!

Sharpless Street Luminaria

Christmas trees, Christmas trains, Christmas antlers

The new house has enough room for a proper, tree-sized tree, and the three had enough room for three long strands of colored lights, and so I did something I hadn’t for maybe twenty years: I put the lights on the tree, turned out every other light in the house, including the stove light, nightlights, and everything else, and basked in the rosy, diffuse, multicolored light. It was almost as good as I remembered, though the new pink lights included on colored strands are jarring. I think that we might become a White-Light-Only family next year, though I have no intention of switching to pinecone-only wreaths and other trappings of yuletide austerity.

There’s a Secret Santa program at work; kids from inner-city PS 111 turned in letters asking for (with astonishing uniformity) Xbox units, Gameboy Advance units, and a short list of GBA games. I had to compose and distribute a company-wide email explaining what the kids meant by asking for “leaf green.” Colleagues expressed concern: “should we really be getting these kids video games for Christmas? Aren’t they awfully violent?” and I tried to advocate for the kids: “Game Boys are great! Training and trading Pokemon are training these kids to take part in the new information economy!”

But then I choked when I did my own shopping, and I bought my kid — young 9-year-old Yusuf — a copy of the Smithsonian Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of American History, and a starter Lego set that allows kids to build cool geared machines. It’s not a terrible present, though probably not what Yusuf was hoping for. I’m kind of surprised at myself for getting such a… teacher-ly present. I hope Yusuf understands, and that the encyclopedia actually comes in handy. Hell, at the very least, he can use it as a level surface for arranging GameBoy cartridges.


We also visited the Christmas display at the Brandywine River Museum over the weekend, and we got to see the train exhibit — a darkened room with dozens of model trains, including a freight train with 67 cars that loops repeatedly in, over, under, and around itself through all kinds of hills, over bridges, and around embankments. This was one of the Wonders of the World when I was a kid, and still remains… fairly decent, though sadly somewhat diminished, just like the glowing colors of the Christmas tree. I wonder if I’ll ever get that feverish Christmas excitement back, or whether I’ll need to do it vicariously through the little baby in the reindeer antlers pictured above. Frankly, either way is fine. Merry Christmas, y’all!

Christmas trees, Christmas trains, Christmas antlers

My mom’s a photographer; when

My mom’s a photographer; when I was growing up in Austin, Texas (this was when my dad was hunting UFOs), I remember when she covered a national Frisbee competition. I usually get this stuff all wrong, but I have very distinct memories of lean Texans in bandannas hurling Frisbees over huge distances, and their lean Texan dogs (also in bandannas) leaping impossible distances into the air to catch them.

Austin was a cool city. There were many Frisbees and many dogs in bandannas. So my archetype of coolness, imprinted from childhood, is composed of equal parts dogs in bandannas, and motorcycle sidecars. Not sure how the sidecars got in there, except that they are obviously inextricably linked to dogs in bandannas. And Frisbees.


So now that I have a little baby, it’s time to start looking at sidecars and bandannas for her. Lydia won’t be ready for frisbees for a few years, and my commuting schedule rules out a dog, but that’s just a matter of time. A sidecar she and I can start on now. At the Turkey Pro a few weeks ago, one fellow Airheads Beemer Club member arrived on his sidecar rig named “Lucifer’s Taxi.” It’s a R100/7 — the same model as my bike — except with a sidecar rig, tricked out in desert tan and with some iron crosses and Airhead logos. The iron crosses aren’t my thing, but converting an R100/7 to a hack rig is VERY MUCH MY THING INDEED. Especially if you can strap all sorts of interesting things to the sidecar. Like a mount for the Commando Projector next summer. At which showing there will be frisbees. And dogs in bandannas, if I’m lucky.

I’m now trying to find sidecar rigs from the late seventies that will look good with the bike. I’ve seen some really cool stuff — like this Chinese BMW knockoff with a jump seat and some other outlandish stuff — but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be your basic big, blocky, German Seitenwagen rig. Then, according to the best advice out there, I have to practice driving it for a couple of thousand miles before even considering carrying a passenger. Scroll to the bottom of this page, and you can see a Turkey Pro Slow Race contestant from 2001 doing what I’ve since learned is called “flying the sidecar.” Cooooool.

My mom’s a photographer; when