Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pissing on the Highway

I knew it was a mistake as soon as it slipped out of my mouth. It was tempting fate and fate called me out. I should never, repeat - never, say my car is running well.

I had a date this afternoon to meet with some old co-workers on the other side of town for a couple of beers. One guy had come in from North Carolina which was the impetuous for the meeting. I took my time in getting there. I first went to a track meet at my son's high school, but it was over before I even got there as far as his performance went. So, I took a leisurely route to the southwest corner of the metro so that I would not sit there at the bar before everyone else got there.

I eventually arrived at the prearranged basic Minnesota sports bar, and it was there at the stoplight on the crossroads, that I saw the steam coming out from under my hood. Seconds later the warning lights on my dashboard lit up. Shit. I headed for the gas station across the bar where I was originally headed.

I took me a while after lifting the hood and adding coolant to the nearly empty reservoir, to see where the leak was occuring. It was a T-fitting just behind the engine block and it was pissing the coolant that I recently added in spurts like a bladder challenged octogenarian at 3 AM. Shit. This car was going no where without repair.

Well, there was nothing to do but buy a gallon of antifreeze at the gas station and drive across the road to the bar for a couple of beers while the engine cooled off and I was able to find a flat-bed tow truck to take my ailing baby back home. And that's what happened. Unfortunately, I had to leave before my salad came, but I did get in a nice visit with these guys I used to work with.

Now tomorrow, I need to try to source and purchase a replacement part and make the swap so that I can drive up north for a business meeting and to see the progress of the house project. Wish me luck.

Friday, April 25, 2008

It's a Gusher

The good news is the screaming has stopped.

The bad news is that it started about 2 AM.

This is not your every day screaming either. It's like a persistent dentist's drill right to your brain stem. It's like one might make as shards of glass are inserted under your fingernails and then said nails are slowly and inexorably pulled out of your fingers. It's a "wake the dead" scream. It's our septic alarm.

Now, those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might recall that sometime last winter during the last real cold snap (temps dropping into the minus 20's F, or minus 30's C) that the pipe that goes from the septic settling tanks to the drain field froze solid where the pipe ran under our driveway.

That was our first experience with the septic alarm - a marvelous piece of technology that has many interesting applications. For example, a perfect alternate use would be to mount one of these right under my son's bed and rig it to a simple push button control. Then instead of yelling at him every morning to get his lazy ass out of bed, I would just have to exert a slight pressure with my thumb and listen as he launched himself straight up, covers and all, and crashed into the bunk directly above him.

As it is, this little devil is mounted in a regulation outlet box in our utility room, behind a stout door on our lower level, one floor and many inches of wood and concrete away from where I lay my weary head, and it still screeches loud enough to raise me from a drug induced slumber. Most annoying at 2 AM.

My choices were simple. I could get up, go find some ear plugs, go downstairs, pull it out of the box, and disconnect the wiring to make it stop; or, I could get dressed, get a headlamp, put on my rubber boots, go outside and try to hook up the septic pump; or, I could roll over, put a pillow over my head and go back to sleep. What would you have done? Right, let it torture my two larvae who sleep downstairs on the same level as the torture device.

A few short hours later, after I made the morning oatmeal and tried to listen to the latest disasters on NPR over the background wailing of the alarm, I found my headlight, my rubber boots, a small socket wrench, and trudged outside and down the hill to the settling tanks. The pump and the alarm switch are both located in the third tank, which in theory contains mostly fluid - the chunky stuff having settled out in the two upstream tanks.

The tanks are protected from meddling by heavy cement covers weighing in at approximately 100 pounds (or roughly 45 kilos for you drug dealers out there), and to remove one, you must bend completely over, grasp two iron rings embedded in the cement, and give a mighty heave, accompanied by the same sounds one hears from those weight lifters as they try to lift things with the same mass as the Queen Mary. One day, I am sure, I will attempt this act only to hear pieces of my lower back ripping themselves clear of my body and launching themselves into the tree branches above - kind of like that scene in "Alien" where the little monster pops out of that guy's chest - only on my backside.

So there I am at six in the morning, in the dark, in the rain, preparing to engage in an unnatural act with a cement slab, and it occurs to me that the combination of the lift and slide movement of the cover and the rain slick mud upon which my feet were tenuously perched would produce certain motions that Newton's Laws would describe as action and reaction that could have the effect of propelling me head first into a deep, dark tank filled with unmentionable substances.

And who would know? Certainly not my little lovelies inside, filling up on hot oatmeal. I hadn't told them where I had gone. They would finish their breakfast, do the last of their morning routine, and head off to school with an over the shoulder "Bye, Dad" thrown through the garage door - never thinking that their loving father was already past hearing, just another piece of detritus in the waste stream of life.

With those thoughts running through my head, I executed what might be my final act and managed to get the cover off the tank without adding myself to the contents. Good I said to the dog who was patiently watching in a non-judgmental sort of way.

The next step was to connect the pump to the pipe that led to the drain field. This required laying down and reaching into the perfumed opening of the tank and trying to wrestle one end of a pipe that came up out of the roiling mass below to it's mating cousin which protruded from the side of the tank wall and traveled then uphill for about two hundred feet to the drain field. The actual connection was a rubber hose coupling covered by a flexible metal sheath with a hose clamp on either end.

The whole operation was made somewhat awkward due to the logistics. I was hanging partially into the tank with very little leverage, trying to keep my headlamp from sliding off and adding to the toxic mix below, trying to maneuver the coupling over the end of the drain field pipe and then tightening the hose clamp down before the whole thing pulled apart. This last bit required me to remove the glove on my right hand whilst holding things in place with my left, and somehow finding and using my little ratchet wrench without dropping that into the soup as well.

It took several tries accompanied by various comments to the Wonder Dawg in terms that I normally didn't use within her earshot. Eventually, the connection was made and I was able to return from Hades to the wonderful world of the living. Rain never felt so good.

There remained only one final step in this little experiment. That was to plug in the power cord that ran down to the pump and sit back to see if the pump was able to start moving the liquid uphill to the drain field. It was with a bit of trepidation that I carefully inserted the plug, hoping that the current would run to the pump instead of to me as I crouched in the rain - a rather good ground path for sure.

With a sigh of relief I heard the pump start to hum and I once again leaned over the opening, shining my headlamp down into the gloom, trying to ascertain whether the level of the tank was dropping. It took a couple of minutes before I was able to make out the top of one of the float switches just below the surface of the fluid. I was staring intently at this when it all let go and a huge geyser of effluent shot up around me as the connection between the two pipes parted with a bang.

A distant part of me admired the volume of fluid that the pump discharged out of the pipe that still held the rubber coupling on its end. It was an impressive amount that met its counterpart flow as whatever had been pumped up the hill now attempted to return to its source by flowing back down. The two streams met just below where my face had been a moment before, producing an interesting experiment in fluid dynamics.

Looking back on it, what seemed to stretch on over a interminable time actually lasted seconds as I was able to reach out and unplug the power to the pump, leaving only the gravity fed stream of liquid flowing downhill.

I squatted there on my haunches reviewing my options. I decided that it was time to go back in and pour myself a hot cup of coffee before attempting round two.

That's how I started my Friday.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Road Trip Redux

I can't remember much prior to last Friday night's poker game. I lost (braincells), but I am not sure how I came out moneywise. It was a good time tho.

I had gone north for a meeting with the guys who will be doing the rennovation on the house up there. That lasted for most of the day. Then there were the couple of beers at the brewpub and then there was the poker game. I suppose I should call the host and apologize for the pile of mushy grey stuff that he must have found on the floor next to my chair the next morning. It must of happened when I bent over to pick up the quarter that had fallen off the table.

Saturday was kind of a blur. So was the week prior to all of this which is a bit troubling. I know it was busy with important stuff because I haven't blogged in all that time. Let's see? There was Monday when I woke up with my right eye glued shut with some kind of eye-snot. That led to a doctor visit, a hugely expensive prescription for eye drops and a week of wearing my glasses which has evoked several humorous responses from those who did a double take on my wearing of sunglasses over my coke-bottle wire-rims. Very funny.

Oh, yes, tax day. How could I have forgotten that.

Three track meets which I did not get to.

Various attempts to see if the septic system is unfrozen (have to wait until the level of the contents gets high enough to trip the pump switch).

Then today, I had to drive up AND BACK to Duluth to empty everything out of the main floor and the upstairs of the house so that "deconstruction" can begin this week. Work! Work is actually going to start on this project. Woo hoo.

Now, I am really tired. Oh yeah, I getting a cold too. That's why I can't remember anything.

The frogs are singing though and the windows are open. Things could be worse.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Aftermath

I just reread my previous entry and decided it was clap trap. Where is my editor anyway? Someone should stop me from rambling on next time.

What I should have been writing about is the turning of the seasons and the return of the froggy chorus. One week ago, our pond was still iced over and the weather prognosticators were forecasting bits of snow, but slowly it started to warm. Yesterday and the day before saw the temperature hit 60 F (15.5 C).

The ice on the pond started to melt, refroze, then started to melt again. The ducks and geese started coming through in squadrons, and the frogs started to sing. How they can sit out there and sing when the water is still partly solid is beyond me, but it is certainly one of my favorite times of the year.

Whatever drives the birds to migrate and the frogs to sing, makes me clean. After a too long winter, there is plenty of things around here that need tidying. I cleaned windows for two days straight and vacuumed the dust off of the blinds in my bedroom. The screen porch got hosed down and the patio furniture set up. Last night was the inaugural BBQ of the season.

Today the sky is cloudy again and we might see 50 F if we are lucky, but the frogs are still singing. It must be spring.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

IRS Funnies

Needless to say, the past few days have been a mix of pathos, slit-your-wrist depression, amazement, and environmental apologies. It's tax time.

Sitting on my kitchen table are eight large manila envelopes containing enough paper to denude Oregon. Of the eight, six are fairly straight forward federal and state income tax returns. Two however could form the heart of a sitcom script. They are mine.

In the past, I would have had my tax forms filled out and mailed long ago. That was before my life became interesting. Now, I am a slave to other peoples work schedules and must wait for a few specific forms to come in before my taxes can be calculated. And since my life has become so interesting, I have given the job of calculating my taxes over to a highly regarded CPA who is a partner in a well respected firm hereabouts.

With that in mind, you will appreciate the rising tide of anxiety which was beginning to consume me last week as I awaited a call, fax, or email from the remaining entity that needed to send me (or previously introduced CPA), the last form needed to calculate this years donation to our efforts overseas (or if you cut out the middlemen - Dick Cheney).

Eureka, I shouted when the news came in that the precious information had been faxed to my accountant late Wednesday night. Shortly afterward (she works insane hours this time of year), my accountant emailed me that the numbers had been received and sent me an attachment with a PDF of the tax return for my review.

Due to other demands on my time, I didn't have a chance to look at the numbers until Thursday afternoon at which time (after picking myself up off the floor) I decided to either commit ritual hari-kari, or leave immediately for some far away land, sending for my children (maybe) at a later time. In short, my tax return informed me that I owed the US government more than GM has paid in the last twenty years. There was only one thing to do - mass consumption.

So, there I was on Friday, feeling a little owly, when I got in the car and headed into the big city to pick up the tax packet from the accountant and then proceeded to the bank to close out a savings account in anticipation of handing it over in its entirety to Uncle Sam so "he" could promote democracy around the world. Upon returning home I sat down to review this set of papers that ensured my future paupacy. I began to slowly go through them with the type of fascination one might see in a condemned man who decided to read his court records in the remaining hours of his life on this earth.

On the off chance that someone at the accountant's office had perhaps made a minor error in what my filing status might be, I sent off a halfhearted email detailing my question, framed as if I was a clueless idiot that needed a little gentle reassurance on the finer points of tax law.

While waiting for the response to my query, I continued with my inspection of my fiduciary death sentence and came upon another area that looked a little questionable. Knowing that my humble CPA was a bit over extended at this time of year, I gently composed a second email that questioned the result of the bottom line on the Schedule A form contained in the packet.

Now, I'll have to admit that when it comes to forms full of legalize and endless lists of numbers, I have a hard time paying attention. This stuff is like a narcotic for me, and I don't mean the fun type. I mean that my eyes glaze over, I loose focus and it is like I enter a hypnotic state that is like being wrapped in mental cotton candy. I am hopeless when it comes to legal forms. So going through the whole review of the tax process was like going through some slow, and not quite fatal, torture process.

Therefore, I found myself in a sort of trance, starring at the blurred tax documents stacked in front of me when I became aware of a niggling question that was forming somewhere in the recesses of my mind. Something was calling me from far away. "Look at the numbers" it was saying. "No, go away" I responded, but it was no use. The numbers stayed there in their neat little rows and columns. But wait - there were too many entries.

To make a long story short, it took me a while, but I finally decided that somehow my income had been entered twice in slightly different amounts and with different names for the source. That formed the essence of my third email to my accountant inside of thirty minutes. The result was that I went to owing something akin to a third world county's gross national profit, to getting a small but MEANINGFUL refund. It was at that point I tore off all my clothes and ran around the neighborhood shouting like a mad man. My children are in the process of sending me to a distant foreign land and coming to visit me later (maybe).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Old Man Winter Just Won't Leave

This is my son in his first track meet as a participant. His sister also competes in the pole vault. Who would have guessed? I never tried to encourage or move them into a particular sport. I figure this is something that you do out of passion. It was only after my daughter switched from hurdling to vaulting that I admitted that I had once done the same. We will see if this insanity continues to run through the family.

As I sit here and write this I am listening to the wind howling outside of my window. There is a late season winter storm cooking up that has the potential for heavy snow and blizard conditions for much of the state. The area where I am located will be right on the rain/snow border for the beginning of the party. It will probably be more intense to the north of us, but you know how those weather guys are. They build it up for everyone, and sometimes, they are right.

The only comforting thougth in this is that whatever falls in solid form will not stick around long as we are supposed to be up in the fifties and sixties next week. I think I'll just let it melt.

PS That's me in the red jacket up in the bleachers.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Hibernation Day

It's past noon and I am still in bed. Scattered around me on the spread are portions of the Sunday paper, read and unread copies of the International Herald, and a selection of books, mostly read. I am in my fuzzies with the laptop perched on my legs, listening to the sounds of the first real rain of the season outside my windows and the snoring of the old Wonder Dawg as she dreams her little doggie dreams.

I have been up several times to take care of the necessities - getting the paper, feeding the dawg, making the coffee, but I keep returning to the comforting warmth of the bed. Since it is not a school day, we all slept in and have greeted the day in our own fashion at our own times. Somedays, this place reminds me of a boarding house where the inhabitants pass through the common areas in their individual pursuits, avoiding unnecessary contact with the other denizens.

The girl is off at work and the boy can be heard rustling around in the kitchen eating whatever can be found that qualifies as appropriate and desirable to a teenage boy. He will poke his head in here when he gets bored with what he is doing.

Yesterday was the first track meet of the season. Both kids performed in the pole vaulting event. Neither one hit their goals so there was a bit of angst to be felt when they finally got home about 6 PM. I was there from 11 AM to about 3 PM. We went out for pizza to sooth the ruffled feathers.

I return to the Mayo Clinic on Tuesday after completing the first round of the experimental chemo I am undergoing. I am happy to report that I am not experiencing any of the more dire side effects that were so extensively detailed in the packet of consent forms that I had to sign before beginning the treatment. Of all of those listed, I can only claim some fatigue and a bit of joint pain on my left side. Indeed, these two things could also be completely unrelated to the treatment, but it is more comforting to be able to assign a cause. I have found this to be particularly true when it comes to lapses of memory. When I seem to have forgotten something, I simply write it off to chemo brain and feel ever so much better.

It sounds like somebody is pouring marbles down the drainpipe right outside of my window. I don't remember it sounding like that before. I spose I should put my slicker on and go out and investigate, but that would mean having to get out of bed, and then if I did discover something wrong, I would feel compelled to do something about it and climbing around on the roof in the rain doesn't sound appropriate for a day like today. So, I think I'll stay in bed for a bit longer.

So, there you have it.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

BD Present, But It's No Joke

As a personal birthday present to me, the universe left 8 inches of cement in my driveway. Thanks a bunch.

The good part is that I am not lifting a shovel. It's sposed to be in the mid fifties (that's the low teens for everyone else in the world) tomorrow and it will all turn to mud. Then I'll be able to tell exactly where the dog has been in the house.


Shortly after posting the above comment, the Wonder Dawg and I went for a nice loop walk through our little patch of the neighborhood before the sun and the wind began to relieve the branches and twigs of yesterday's candy coating. It was like walking through a hollywood set where every surface is coated in the purest white frosting. It is quite wooded here and the houses sit far apart on large lots so there are acres and acres of forest consisting mostly of oaks and evergreens with a lot of brush filling in. All of this was festooned with snow. It was a wet snow that coated everything. Quite magical actually.

About half way through the walk, I began hearing a strange call. It was one that I was not familiar with and was changing location swiftly. I stood there in the street facing a thick patch of forest and tried to track the sound with my ears. It seemed to fade and get stronger as it changed location. The sound was kind of like what you would hear if you were slowly strangling a 40 pound dove that was trying to coo at the same time. Then suddenly, I could see them. It was a pair of very large cranes that, like most visitors to this neighborhood, appeared to be lost. They meandered this way and that, all the time calling back and forth to each other in their strange yodel.

Upon our return to the house I did a quick repair on our mailbox which took a slight hit yesterday due to the slippery roads (wasn't one of us), showered, and then sat down to google crane calls. From my best guess, what I saw was a pair of migrating whooping cranes - the largest bird in North America. I have seen sandhills around here, but never whoopers.

Now that was a birthday gift.