Saturday, May 26, 2007

Them's the breaks

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I'm the opposite of King Midas lately. Everything I've touched this week turns to crap.

It's crass but true. Ask my water heater.

I knew it was old. It didn't much life left—within the last few months, it had been sort of idly dropping into conversation how Florida sounded nice this time of year, and it would thumb through albums of old photographs all afternoon, pointing out all its dead appliance friends. Also, my hot water was thick, cold and brown.

But I dreaded replacing it. Whenever I have to buy something that I can't pay for by cashing in empty Heineken bottles, I get testy. So to its credit the water heater hung on like a real trooper, dispensing into my shower what looked and felt like iced tea for a half hour, until some gently couched threats of violence muttered down the drain coaxed it into making with the clear stuff.

I went into the basement to look at it more closely—I peeked at all the valves and pipes, to pretend like I have the slightest idea what any of that stuff does.

Then I touched it. Patted it.

The next day, the water heater was incontinent all over my cellar floor.

I rushed out and bought a new one and had some guys install it. They took the old water heater away—to a farm, they assured me, where it would be able to run around in a paddock with other old water heaters.

My car was next to go, a day later. Right at the start of my 40-minute commute to work one morning, the little orange "Check Engine" light came up on the dashboard. Nothing felt wrong with my car—it still drove, so I was stumped.

I popped the hood and looked under it, to pretend like I have the slightest idea what any of that stuff does. There didn't seem to be any flames or live animals gnawing at the tubes under there, which ruled out the only two engine problems I can recognize. It otherwise looked more or less like car engines I've seen in cartoons.

Then I touched the engine.

I took the car to my mechanic, just to be safe, and they told me it was something to do with the Electro-Confabulator, or maybe the Hydromagnetic Spelunker Coil. I don't really know— they're very honest and helpful there, but mechanic-speak sounds like Norwegian to me, and my Norwegian-English/English-Norwegian dictionary was at home, balancing out a wobbly table leg.

I understand Norwegian math, though. The bill was 200 bucks.

Later, I drove the car home from the shop gingerly, steering with my elbows. Everything about the car seemed more or less as it had been before, except the "Check Engine" light was off. It occurred to me that I had, for all I knew, paid somebody $200 to turn off a little orange light. I could've covered it for 3 cents worth of electrical tape.

I know usually I'm paranoid, but this time it's true. There's a definite pattern here: something works fine, I touch it, and then I pay several hundred bucks to fix it.

And my little dog, too—my wife took one of our dogs to the vet this same week with the water heater and the car. I won't use the dog's real name here because I don’t have legal permission. Anyway, Octavius was feeling fantastic earlier that morning—before I petted her goodbye.

My wife brought her back home with $240 worth of injections and prescriptions and special treats, and I saw on the bill there was an $18 charge to examine her feces. Think of it. Somehow, the veterinarian figured out that $18 is the exact price point for poking through dog shit. She sat down one day with a calculator and a green eyeshade and determined that at $17 she was losing money on the deal, and $19 was ripping people off.

So I don't touch the dog anymore—or, if I absolutely must pet her, I use a broom handle with a glove Scotch-taped to the end.

The worst mess I caused this week has to be the burst water pipe. Right after I had the heater installed, I came to the sad understanding that I know virtually zero about how my water supply works—I'm familiar with the water nymph who lives under my house in a magical ever-flowing spring replenished by her own tears, but how it gets into the tub after that, I'm lost.

So I crept into the basement and traced the labyrinthine path of my water supply. I have old lead pipes—and out of curiosity I touched one, instantly recoiling at the horror of what I'd done.

Hours later, I had a leaky pipe and another basement full of water.

I bought goop at Home Depot to cover the leaky pipe. Spreading the goop on the pipe with my fingers made the leak bigger and, as I watched quart after quart of water arc gracefully through the air onto my pants, sort of prettier, too. I tried turning the water off and the valve sprang a different leak. Then I did what any utterly non-handy person who makes a living off writing would do: I spoke to it. Very calmly, very rationally. I said, "Come, pipe—let us reason together." I explained that I need water to bathe and drink and make pasta with, and I was at the moment very hungry, thirsty and smelled bad. I tried existentialism, hoping to tie it up with philosophy. As the cold water rose to my shins and pooled into my Chuck Taylors, I noted that as an inanimate object, its purpose is to do what it was meant to do (viz., carry water without leaking) until such time as I chose it to do otherwise, as I was the master of its destiny.

Long story short, there's a plumber in there now. He's replacing my water line, and making a pretty nice living at it, too, from the ache in my checkbook.

My wife is saving a piece of the old stuff. If I touch any other appliances around here before my luck changes, there's going to be a crime to solve. The answer? It was my wife, in the basement, with the lead pipe.

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