Fixing things

This evening, I fixed a box fan that was at least 20 years old. Heck, it was so old… “how old was it?” …It was so old, it was sold by K-Mart… And made in Chicago, not China!

The problem was that the blades turned only very slowly when it was on High and not at all on Low. So the first thing to check was whether the blades spin freely. Not very.

It wasn’t a difficult job: take out 16 screws to remove the front and back grids, vacuum out a lot of dust (and apparently my daughter had already vacuumed out a lot), and take out the motor. When I took out the motor, I noticed a small opening, with a lip, just above the shaft. Hey, I thought, that looks like a place to add some oil. So I wend down to the basement workshop, grabbed the 3-in-1 oil (and another beer), and oiled that sucker. Yay, some improvement. I couldn’t pull the plastic fan blades off the front, but I saw there was another hole in the hub of the plastic. It was at an awkward angle for a set screw, so I figured it was maybe for oiling the front part of the shaft. I dribbled a bit more 3-in-1 in there, hey presto, it’s pretty free now. Then, spin it by hand a bit to distribute the oil and add a little more.
Plug it in, fire it up, and it works fine. Yay, triumph. Reassemble the 16 screws for the grids and put away the tools. Really the most annoying part was discovering that the nuts on the motor mount were 11/32, when I had originally grabbed a 3/8 and a 5/16 nut driver. Metric is good, people!

Which is all by way of introducing tonight’s topic: Fixing. Or more precisely, understanding a basic level of how the material objects in your life work, and what to do if they malfunction.

A couple weeks ago, I went to visit my sister in Fort Wayne. One task I tried there was to fix a dripping faucet in their upstairs bathroom, which was vintage 1940s post-war colored porcelain. Well, I began composing a blog post about that but it got very boring, even for this egocentric writer. The tl;dr on that is: Four or five trips to the hardware store, and it still dripped. But at least I fixed the drain. Plus I disturbed the sediment in their hot-water heater enough to cause a bad drip from the pressure relief valve, which happened right before we had to go back home.
However, it struck me just how separated from mundane physical reality a lot of people are. It was a fairly straightforward problem, but you’d think it was Albus Dumbledore swearing away under the sink, not chemprofdave.

Important update!
I neglected to link to Bonnie’s depiction of that weekend… She’s the pro writer of the family.

Much of what makes 20th century America (not necessarily 21st, mind you) is pretty simple stuff if you take a little time to learn about it. The mechanical components of your house, and most of your appliances, are more or less understandable. Engineering is not easy, but figuring out what engineers have done can be easy. Many years ago, Dad was grousing about how we’ve become a disposable society, where someone might trash a stove because one burner knob has failed. It’s easier now, with web stores, to get replacement parts. But how many people actually bother? A little time fixing that fan saved a $15-20 replacement, and the externalities of waste disposal. And the fixing time was no more than a trip to the store would have been.

Take a few minutes to trace your water supply from where it enters your house, to the hot water heater, and through the pipes to the various taps. Then look at your electrical box, again following the wires from where they enter your house to the fuse box or breaker panel, and off to the various switches and outlets. Do the same for your furnace and (if you have one) central air ducts. If anything looks corroded, or even significantly different from nearby areas, get help or try to figure it out.

If you want a money-saving tip, try this: Find your hot water heater. At the bottom, there will be a tap to which you can attach a garden hose. Run the hose over to your basement floor drain – it’s probably in the laundry area. At the top of the water heater, there will be two pipes connected. One will be warm (hot out), the other cold for intake. There will be a valve on the cold water pipe.

Close the cold water inlet valve, connect the hose from the bottom faucet to your floor drain, and open the tap. Let the whole hot water heater flush out and down the floor drain. Close the lower tap and open the top tap to refill it. Flush again to remove more sediment. If you live in an area with even moderately hard water, you probably are getting build-up in your tank that will cost you more energy to heat the water, decrease the amount of hot water you have available, and even cause early failure of the system. That was (part of) the problem at my sister’s, and it could save you a chunk of change.

Get to know the material things that surround you. Understanding your world is different than when we were in the horse-drawn plow era, but it’s not impossible. And it can give you great satisfaction to conquer that #&#%^ dripping faucet.


Snow Emergency!

Local friends: it will come as no surprise to you that Minneapolis has declared a snow emergency.

Let’s review the parking rules:

  1. Do not park on Snow Emergency Routes for the first nine days of a snow emergency.
  2. Do not park on trees, bushes, or other foliage in median lanes of boulevards ever.
  3. Parking on northbound non-snow-emergency routes is permitted on the left side for the first day of the snow emergency, and on the right side of southbound streets on the second day.
  4. Parking is permitted on the odd-numbered side of eastbound streets, and the even-numbered side of westbound streets, except boulevards, only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and odd-numbered Saturdays.
  5. If you are in doubt about whether your street is a Snow Emergency Route, check the color of the street signs on the corner. Blue is for snow emergency routes, green is for non-snow-emergency routes, and brown is for streets that will be abandoned to become impassable mud-holes.
  6. We leave the “Snow Emergency Route” signs up year-round because you just never know.
  7. All snow must be removed from areas surrounding your trash containers or you’ll be left a little note on brightly colored paper by your trash guys. This note will blow away, leaving you to wonder what it said, and if you’re going to be fined or maybe have garbage dumped in your back yard for the rest of the year.
  8. Alleys will be plowed no later than May 15th (May 16th if the 15th happens to be a Sunday.)
  9. Cars parked in appropriately may be ticketed, towed, or just buried by the plows.
  10. Excess snow will be deposited in that narrow walkway you’ve just shoveled out between the sidewalk and the streets.
  11. If you live in St. Paul, don’t park at night where it says “Night Plow Route”. That’s all.

Of course, it does snow elsewhere in the country. Apparently it snowed in Atlanta, causing terrible problems. One person had to survive on Mountain Dew and beef jerky for twelve hours while stuck in traffic. For twelve hours. If you live in Los Angeles, twelve hours in traffic is normal.

Of course, given what the media portrays as the usual diet of Atlanteans, that’s a step up.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

Apparently it’s gotten pretty cold out. This is big news. Hey, it’s January. It’s Minnesota. Yeah, it’s cold. The kids are getting one more day off school thanks to the weather.
<geezer mode>
Back in the early ’80s, now that was cold weather. In January 1982, I went cross-country skiing one night when the air temp was -30 F and the wind chill was in the -60 to -70 range. By the time I’d gone 50 yards, my glasses were completely iced over, so I had to put them in my pocket. That was probably a good idea, because the cold metal of the frames might have chilled my ears even more. (I did get a little nip of frostbite, not too bad).
In December 1983, there was a period where the weather was far below zero for a week or two. Two pairs of gloves, T-shirt, regular shirt, heavy flannel shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, hat. Long underwear, jeans, sweat pants, and still it was really cold walking four or five blocks. At those temperatures, it hurts to breathe, even through a well-wrapped scarf. That’s where the cold-receptor nerves just give up and send pain signals instead.
January 1986, first year of grad school, was pretty darn cold. Our Sri Lankan classmate gave up and transferred to someplace warmer.
</geezer mode>

And that was my introduction to seriously cold weather. I lived in upstate New York and Connecticut as a kid, so winter wasn’t a new phenomenon. But the multiple layers, the real frostbite risk, the feeling of truly bone-chilling cold, the point where a rapidly inhaled breath is cold enough to give you that ice-cream headache, that’s a Minnesota thing.

In the last thirty years, we’ve had enough global warming that our current cool weather is an unusual event. It hasn’t been this cold in 17 years. Now, I’m not going to do the climatology statistics, you can see that here and an analysis here. The take-home message is that, yeah, it’s cold, but it’s not as cold as it has been. Of course, the older I get, the more winters I’ve had and the more comparisons I can make. If you’re under 30, the 1980s are ancient history. I don’t remember the cold spell of December 1963, but that was a long time ago.

Now they are saying one good result of the cold may be a die-off of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer bug, which is chewing up our ash trees. Maybe a similar effect will help save the pine forests from their insect-related problems. But as very cold winters become the exception rather than a commonplace, we’re going to have more and more problems with these exotic species.

Take-home message: it’s cold, but not as cold as it has been. Buck up, weenies.

Holiday traditions grow up

In my family, there are a few holiday traditions that we do all the time. The Christmas Book Fairy, an invention of my mom’s, is one of the best. One present, invariably a book, is left in the children’s bedrooms. They get to open that right away, and it keeps excited little ones from bothering their parents too early. Naturally this tradition has gone on to the next generation, but a corollary to the rule was that you actually had to read the book. So, one year, home from grad school for the holiday, I found at the bottom of my bed, Tom Clancy’s tome Red Storm Rising, which is several hundred pages long. Oh, ha ha, Mom, very funny. Of course I started reading it, and of course I got completely sucked in to the point where I didn’t want to go join the family for presents.

A second tradition, both sentimental and valuable for parental sleeping-in time, is the homemade caramel rolls. Making these rolls is a family activity that my daughters have come to anticipate almost as much as eating them. The recipe is from the old Betty Crocker cookbook, and it lets you make them the day before and refrigerate overnight. Then, all you need to do is pre-heat the oven and bake. The rule, of course, is that no kids are allowed out of their rooms (except for the bathroom) until they can smell the sticky-buns. I expect that this morning in Indiana and in Vermont, my nieces and nephew are eagerly reading their book-fairy book and carefully sniffing the air every few minutes.

So this morning, the rolls are baking, the children are reading, and Sue is still asleep. The only drawback is that she is the only one who knows where all the stocking-stuffers are, and she was too tired out last night to tell me where she’d stashed them. Given her frequent insomnia, plus the fact that she takes the (rest of) Christmas much more seriously than I do, thus working her fingers to the bone, I’m just going to let her sleep in while I drink all the coffee, make a second pot and start on that, and maybe even let her go past when the rolls are done.

Our third and final tradition is that we have birthday cake at Christmas dinner. Not in honor of an ancient birthday, but a more recent one. My older daughter was born at 6:55 PM on December 25, 1996. She’s seventeen today. And we are careful to save the second half of the day for her, as well as making sure there are some packages under the tree with birthday paper.

There are a few more holiday traditions that I’ve done irregularly. One that is from when Dad lived in North Carolina in the late ’70s to mid-80’s were playing Santa for the poor. His church would take collections of toys, food, and cash through December, and they’d get names and ages of a few dozen needy families. The cash would be used to buy perishable groceries or special-request gifts, and we’d get together to sort out the gifts (girl, 12; boy, 9; boy, 7, mom, size 8 shoes), and load up the car with bags of groceries and presents. As a surly teen, I resented having to (a) do the chore, and (b) confront the uncomfortable reality of small-town Southern poverty. Until I saw how needy and how appreciative these families were. The other one, which was a lot of fun, was that the city would have a huge collection of Christmas trees on New Years Eve, and burn them in a massive bonfire in some public park at dusk. That was very clever of the city: it solved the disposal problems, gave people a reasonable date to take down their trees, it got the potential fire hazard out of everyone’s houses, it provided a community gathering, and it gave the Fire Department something to do.


And now, we all sink back, over-caffeinated, over-sugared, and read our pile of new books. Happy holidays, whatever they are and whatever your traditions.

Correction: the Christmas Book Fairy (or Santa doing it, when the population was smaller and he had more time) dates back at least to the 1940s and Grandmother Blackburn, according to family lore.

Crisis averted… For a while.

So, the latest news is that the Senate has passed a continuing resolution and debt ceiling bill which the House is also likely to pass, with both Democratic and (some) Republican votes. So there are still some grown-ups in the Republican Party, and Obama has found a spine. Generally good news all around, I guess. I’ll believe it when I see it, but I’m scared there’s still a monster in the bushes. It ain’t over yet. (Update: maybe it is, the NYT just flashed that the House passed it too, and with a strong bipartisan majority.)

In other news, WordPress iPad app has finally released a bug fix update that doesn’t crash when I try to add a link. Yay for that, it was a pain and a disruption to the train of thought. My train of thought is sometimes an express, sometimes a local, and occasionally gets derailed or just slowed down by a cow on the tracks. It’s been said that my train of thought doesn’t stop at all the stations.

It’s midterm break here, for both the public schools and for MNSCU. So hooray, more streaming video for the girls and maybe catching up on the horrible chore of grading lab reports for me. Older kid is exploring her first college visit this weekend, at Macalester. This isn’t really a serious visit as she’s only a junior. But it’s a chance for her to see a good small college and experience the “sell”. Of course her grandfather and I would be pleased and proud if either or both of the kids went to Carleton but really, what I want is for them to be challenged, stimulated, and cultured into an ethos of intellectual growth. I think one of the most memorable educational hours of my entire high school career was sitting in on a pre-finals review of Econ 10 with Prof. Will as a prospective student.

Not much point to today’s post, but feeling a bit apprehensive about next week. Stay tuned, faithful reader, for the next episode.

Is there “junk” in my life? Oh heck yes.

Daily Prompt: Clean House.

Is there “junk” in your life? What kind? How do you get rid of it?

Yeah, I jot junk. I got stuff, I got baggage, I got issues. Some people have more, some less. But we all have experiences that shape our personalities.
For some of us, that “junk” shows up as physical objects. I really don’t like getting rid of things. At the same time, I am also not that fond of tidying up. The result is clutter, and plenty of it. I don’t think it comes quite to this level, though. Are there “unresolved mental health issues surrounding loss”? Oh, probably.

It does sometimes feel like a humongous job. That sense of overwhelming ness And busy-ness, and feeling like time spent cleaning is less productive than “working” time and less relaxing than “vegging” time. I don’t mind cleaning the kitchen (as long as I’m not the only one to do it), because that’s public family space and because it’s a very finite job with visible, tangible results. So, maybe a goal would be to break the huge task of cleaning the basement, Tool Hoarder Central, into manageable chunks, allow myself time to do just one chunk, and appreciate that result. Oh, and crank up some Grateful Dead jams and/or Car Talk podcasts, while I’m at it, since that annoys the rest of the family.

As for the psychological junk? I try to cope, to maintain some stability. I’ve got the nagging thoughts most people do – the inner critic, the inner guide, and the inner defender. Sometimes that inner critic gets the upper hand. I do try to practice cognitive-behavioral and dialectical-behavioral skills. I try to exercise occasionally. I try to remember that, most of the time, people mean well and that a request isn’t (usually) a nag.

Recently, I was challenged by my daughter to clean off the top of my dresser, which had been an accumulation point for junk for quite a few years.

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It was far more painful to think about it than to actually do it. I actually got pretty upset that I was being ordered to do this (long story!)
A lot of stuff, yes, got thrown out. Several bucks in loose change got rounded up.

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Now, what kind of encouragement will it take for this….


You know, that actually looks both pretty bad, and kind of manageable.

Subsistence farming and gardening

Yesterday, Sue harvested the first crop of beans from our back-yard garden. A row of bean vines growing up a fence about eight or ten feet long by four feet high yielded a couple pecks of bean pods. (Woah, antique measurement units! Seems appropriate here…)


These aren’t the green beans that you eat fresh. These were pinto beans and black beans. Very pretty pods, mottled red and white while fresh on the vine. You can still see the mottling on the pinto pods.

She spent hours harvesting and shelling those beans. The net result is about 6 cups of lovely looking beans. We will get some great soups from those beans during the winter.


Do you remember reading stories like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s biographical “Little House” series? Food and farming were a frequent topic – not surprising, as Laura’s family were subsistence-farming (and hunting) pioneers. It was a damn difficult life. For many, it was too difficult and they starved or gave up and went back to the cities.

About a decade ago, PBS made a series called “Frontier House”about trying to live that lifestyle. I watched some of that. Basically they took some 20th century couples, gave them a little education, a wagon full of supplies, and a bunch of land, and turned them loose. Those families worked amazingly hard, with the goal of becoming prepared for a Montana winter.

We’ve sure got it easy now. Our garden is a source of tasty fresh vegetables, and a pleasant hobby for Sue. But to extrapolate from “We can grow some good salads, and enough beans for four or five meals!” to being able to truly support ourselves? I appreciate even more the lifestyle we live.