Friday, July 24, 2009

I Wish I Was A Muppet

Wouldn't life be better if our whole world was Muppets?

Mine would.

That's all I could think about this morning as I yet again wrestled with the downstairs shower handle, which was not working right again today. It doesn't work right almost every day. In the past four or five years, there have been about two days during which the downstairs shower handle worked right, those two days being the two days after I last fixed it, or thought I fixed it.

We have a downstairs shower that only I use, and because only I use it, it's a low priority on the list of things to fix up around the house, a list that grows longer and longer by the day, never really getting worked on because, first, we're kind of hoping that in the next year or two, we can just move to a newer house with fewer problems and a concomitantly shorter list, unloading this house and this list onto someone else who may enjoy the challenges it poses and not wish that everything in the house be a Muppet, and, second, because we've never actually worked "repairing things around the house" into our budget.

We have a budget; I know that we have a budget because 3-4 times a year Sweetie and I sit down, like Pip and Herbert, and do our accounts and look at the money coming in and the money going out, and we set up categories that we hope to live up to: mortgage payments, student loan payments, groceries, gas, and the like . We never include a budget line item for Fixing Things Around The House. Those get lumped into Surplus and Surplus has a lot more important things to take care of. Surplus has to do things like pay for the Netflix subscription, and crib tents to keep the Babies! from jumping out of their beds, and air mattresses for The Boy to take to football camp, an annual event that requires, annually, that The Boy get a new air mattress. I don't know what happens to the old air mattresses, and I've learned not to ask questions like that because the answer can infuriate or bewilder, but rarely illuminates.

So our budget, which does include polo shirts for The Boy, does not include things like "Fix the Grandfather Clock" or "Tune the Piano" or "Repair The Outside Garage Door Opener" or "Fix The Downstairs Shower," with the result being that when the downstairs shower needs fixing, it goes through distinct phases.

Phase one: The first hints of trouble begin with the downstairs shower. The handle appears loose or too twisty. Small dribbles of water become harder to shut off.

Phase two: The trouble worsens. The leak becomes constant. Hot and cold water control becomes erratic.

Phase three: Water pressure becomes random. Some showers are taken under a tiny trickle of water. Others pound at me with fire hose intensity.

Phase four: The handle no longer works. The water temperature cycles wildly. The soap appears to become upset over the problems and repeatedly hurls itself off the shelf to its doom on the watery grave of the shower floor.

These troubles, while predictably moving through those phases, are made worse because each morning, they present with a new twist to them, requiring a new solution. Some mornings, I will be able to adjust the temperature by holding the handle a certain way, pressing it, and slightly twisting it. Other mornings I have to adjust the pipe that holds the handle. Some mornings it's both. Sometimes I can't do either because I'm standing on the suicidal bar of soap and my footing isn't good.

I tackle these problems, each morning, with a renewed sense of vigor and hope, puzzling over how the shower handle will try to trick me this morning. Will it scald my eyes while I shampoo my hair? Or will I feel its icy hands pounding my back while soaping my shins? Will it turn off with a twist of the wrist or will I be required to use the pipe wrench again?

And when the problems get too bad, I go to the hardware store again, with Mr F and Mr Bunches in tow, and we pick out a new handle and install that new handle, watching the shower work for a day or two again until the cycle begins anew.

It will begin anew, because the cycle always begins anew at our house, where entropy is the true head of the household and rules with an unpredictable but still iron fist. When I am not wrestling with the shower head, twisting the pipe left while twisting the handle right while holding the central screw perfectly still, I am instead replacing toilet seats at a prodigious rate. I had to install a new toilet seat in the upstairs bathroom not two weeks ago. That's the bathroom I avoid using to shower because it's filled with a variety of lotions and hair supplies and shampoos and combs and washes and other things that I can't always identify; the last time I took a shower in that bathroom, I hunted around for something that appeared to be a bar of soap, but couldn't find anything that looked anything like soap amidst the clothes and sponges and weird apparati and bottles. So I looked around for something that appeared to be shampoo and couldn't find that, either. Stuck in the shower without any apparent way to actually clean myself (but with multiple options for smelling like almost any kind of fruit), I ended up using the Babies! shampoo-and-conditioner and hoping for the best.

(That night, Sweetie told me "You smell nice." So you men out there, forget cologne; just splash on some Johnson & Johnson's No More Tears.)

I had to install what by now must be the 37th toilet seat in the upstairs bathroom because the old toilet seat had become loose and cracked and unreliable, and I didn't ask what was going on in that bathroom that could loosen and crack a toilet seat. That question, like the question of what happens to the annual air mattress, is not one which I care to have answered, since some things cannot be unthought. I wouldn't have time to ask those questions, anyway, because it is never very long between fixes, and seemingly immediately after the toilet seat cracked, the spray faucet on the kitchen sink became inoperable.

I had known that the kitchen sink might be next on the list of things to fall to the disintegrating chaos of our house. I fixed the kitchen sink about two years ago, when the old faucet broke... somehow.

That's how things break in our house: somehow. I suspect that they break through the misapplication of force by children who do not understand that they are no longer small, that they possess a great deal of strength and power now. Middle and The Boy, the two older kids still remaining at home, are strong, powerful, athletic beings who don't seem to understand that they are those types of people, and who as a result continue to pull on handles and push on doors and walk and lift and sit as though they are 1/3 their current size.

The Boy, in particular, lifts weights and plays football and stands nearly as tall as me but is somehow broader, bigger, than he even seems to be. I accuse him of having not just the usual three dimensions, but an extra dimension or two. "He's FIVE dimensional" I frequently tell Sweetie or say to myself, usually as I'm tripping over The Boy's giant shoes in the morning, as I do every morning. The Boy puts his shoes in the front hall, and I've largely given up on that battle, and each morning when I go to pick up the newspaper and battle my way through the spiderwebs that have been strung across our front walk, I see The Boy's giant shoes there in the hall and I resolve not to trip over them, and I plot a course to avoid them, and each morning I trip over them anyway, because, like The Boy, they are larger even than they appear (and that's saying something, because the shoes appear quite large.)

I sit at the kitchen table with the kids, and watch as the table sways back and forth from the slightest touch of their elbows or hands, powerful giant appendages that barely nick the table but make it shake back and forth. And I watch the kids as they turn the faucet on and off, pulling it (they think) only slightly towards them but the application of their young, powerful muscles and their extra dimensions makes the faucet torque more and more, bending it a little more each time.

"Be careful," I say to them, constantly. "Be gentle!" I try to say to them, but it doesn't work, because moments later I am downstairs and I hear them trundling on the floor above me like thundering herds of children.

The Boy's room is right next to ours, with his bed up against the common wall. The other morning, at 5 a.m., The Boy must have rolled over or shifted slightly in his bed and bumped the wall. The bump was so light, so nothing to him that it didn't wake him up at all. But Sweetie and I were both awakened by a sound akin to a tree falling on the house. I thought at first that was what had happened, but the tree would have had to have fallen inside The Boy's room and then against the wall (which, I briefly pondered, could have happened, since I never really know what The Boy is up to and maybe he had brought a tree into his room and it had fallen over.)

So I knew that the kitchen sink would have its problems eventually, because I could see how the older kids were affecting the faucet, pulling it and twisting it unknowingly and causing the faucet to loosen, subtly, so that there was a lessening of water pressure through the faucet. I hadn't, though, suspected that the first problem with the new kitchen sink would be the spray nozzle that sits off to the side. That one crept up on me. It was only recently that I tried to use it and realized that sometimes the little handle that clicks it on and off would stick a little. And when I noticed that, I did what I always do at the first sign of those little troubles, which is to ignore them and hope that they go away.

It worked with the "check engine" light on my car, after all. I ignored that for a whole week and now it's gone off, so the engine is fine.

I couldn't ignore the spray nozzle anymore Tuesday morning when Sweetie came and got me and said she couldn't get it to turn off. The nozzle hung there, spraying and spraying into the sink, at 7 a.m. I fiddled with it, doing what men like me always do when confronted with a mechanical problem: We play with the thing.

We do that because we're not mechanically inclined and have no idea, really, how any of this stuff works. At least I don't. I have no clue how most things in a house work and I don't really want to know how they work, because if you know how things work, then people ask you to fix them. My brother-in-law, a carpenter, knows how things work, and I ask him to fix stuff from time to time. If he lived closer, I'd ask him to fix more stuff than I already do. My mother-in-law knows how to sew, and we're always asking her to hem my pants or sew our couch cushions back together... the couch cushions being another of the inexplicably-breaking-down things in our house. Once a month or so, the couch cushions spring a leak or tear themselves open or otherwise need mother-in-lawing, and nobody seems to know what happens. Whatever happens, it happens overnight, because when I turn off the lights and the TV and lock the windows to keep the serial killers at bay and then go to bed, the couch cushions appear fine, but then the next morning, I come downstairs to find the television set to ESPN or Gossip Girl, and the remote controls have been moved, and the couch cushions appear to have been savagely attacked in the night, maybe by bobcats.

I don't know how to fix things and don't want to know, but I occasionally have to fix things like the spray nozzle, and so I fiddle with them in the hopes that my fiddling will solve whatever problem exists. When Sweetie couldn't get the nozzle to shut off, I took it and looked at it and clicked the handle once or twice, noting that Sweetie hadn't lied: it wouldn't shut off.

Having independently verified the problem, I then shut off the water itself. That worked: The nozzle shut off. I set it in its holder and looked at it, then turned the water back on. The nozzle sprayed me and I quickly shut it off again, and stood looking at it, pondering what to fiddle with next.

While I did that, Sweetie turned the water on, and I got sprayed again.

"Hey!" I said, and jumped back. She turned the water off. "What'd you do that for, if you just saw me spray it?" I asked her.

"I didn't see it spray you," Sweetie said, but I'm not sure that she was being fully honest. Maybe I had it coming, like the time she put popcorn in my sock as a punishment.

My next step was to take the nozzle apart, something I did using the only tool I ever really rely on, a butter knife. I pried at the handle and unsprung it and looked inside, seeing... the inner workings of a spray nozzle, and they of course made no sense to me. So I poked them with the butter knife in what I hoped was an authoritative (and fixing) way, and then put the handle back together, set it down, and turned the water on. It sprayed me.

I took it apart again and poked other parts, then I unscrewed the whole thing from the hose and poked different parts, and then put it all back together and turned the water on. It sprayed me.

I was stumped, and running out of time, as I still had to get ready for work and faced my own battle with the shower downstairs, so I came up with the short-term solution of leaving the nozzle pulled down into the sink with the admonition that people turning on the sink should be careful not to spray the water all over.

I fixed that nozzle the other day, but then today was confronted with the ever-deteriorating shower handle downstairs, which came up with the newest twist yet, and the twist that finally caused me to wish Muppetness on my whole life.

I had finished up showering with a minimum of scalding and only two soap-hurdles, and turned the handle off, holding my breath to see what would happen.

To my surprise, the water shut off. Completely. Without even a drip. Just like that. Just the way showers are supposed to work, and the way I imagine showers in other houses, houses that don't require muppetization, work.

I stared at it for a second and then let out my breath. It worked. I didn't know what I'd done, but I'd clearly done something and the shower was working again. Cheered by that, I began brushing my teeth while listening to the talk radio. When I'd finished brushing my teeth, I noticed that there was a tiny little dripping sound coming from the shower.

I should have left it alone, but I didn't. I had, for a brief shining moment, been the repairer of the shower; I'd owned a shower that shut off perfectly and I suddenly couldn't imagine going off to work with a tiny little drip after that moment of perfection.

That, and I once read a news story about a guy whose toilet ran slowly-but-constantly, and he'd gotten a $10,000 water bill that had nearly bankrupted him. I can't remember where I left my keys on a day-to-day basis, but I never forget a terrifying story that I once read in some newspaper or magazine or maybe online, and that came to mind, too, when I heard the tiny drip, so I figured I could not only return to the nirvana-like state of shower perfection, but I could also save $10,000, and I went back to the shower and tapped the handle down a little to shut it all the way off.

That turned the shower on. Somehow.

So I tipped the handle the other way, and that turned the shower on more. I moved the handle down (which usually is off) and noted that the shower flow diminished a little while the handle was in the middle. Moving the handle up (usually on) resulted in the same thing: a torrent of water, but while the handle was precisely in the middle, it let up a little.

So I placed the handle there and then began twisting the pipe, which now was wet and required that I get something to get a grip on it. That something was the Lion washcloth I'd bought for the Babies! when they were little -- it's a handpuppet-like washcloth shaped like a lion that I'd appropriated to use in the downstairs shower because it is good for gripping the pipe.

Wearing my lion, I tugged and twisted the pipe this way and that while trying to observe the effects on the shower, which fought back by increasing the water pressure and by turning steaming hot, quickly engulfing the tiny bathroom in clouds of steam that made it feel like I was breathing a hot cloud. The handle, meanwhile, loosened and I could see the screw slowly falling out, requiring me to grab the screwdriver set I keep in the downstairs bathroom for precisely such an emergency, and begin twisting it back in, while gripping the pipe with my lion hand.

That went on for about 10 minutes, during which I got soaked down again by the steam that built up in billows and during which I twice took apart the entire handle and put it back together again in the hopes that the shower would appreciate my effort and shut off.

I didn't win. I eventually got it to a small trickle of water that was the best I could do, and I left well enough alone and went back upstairs to get ready, and that's when it occurred to me that my life would be better if the whole world was Muppets.

In the Muppet world, almost everything is alive, and talks, and has emotions and sometimes arms. Doors, cars, trees, maybe even shower heads and handles, are alive and can interact with people as if they were all Jimmy's magic flute. In the Muppet world, if you didn't like what something was doing, you could bop it on the head like the Muppaphone, or lecture it, or otherwise deal with it in some manner other than simply taking it apart and putting it back together.

If my world was Muppets, then each morning, I'd go downstairs and talk with the shower and tell it to be good that day. I'd go to the handle and say "Medium-hot, please," and the handle would twist itself and smile and chat with me about my day. If the Handle wasn't having a good day, and was recalcitrant, I could cajole it or simply bop it (bopping Muppets never seems to hurt them) and it would then cooperate.

Or, if it wouldn't cooperate, I could at least feel as though I had more options than taking it apart. After all, I'm used to interacting with things that react in inexplicable ways and don't cooperate with me: Mr F and Mr Bunches fill that role already, and they don't bother me, much, except when (as last night) they're trying to use some sort of Baby Pantomime to get me to do something but I can't tell what it is.

Last night, Mr Bunches got me to go into his room -- he still stubbornly refuses to talk much, even though I know he can, because he says things like car and canoe and even tries to say motorcycle -- by pulling me by the hand. Once I was in the room, he tugged my hand down, so I got down on my knees, but then he pushed me back up. When I was standing again, he tugged me again and I started to crouch down, at which point he stopped me. I crouched there, while he studied me, and I steadied myself with one hand on the floor, but he made me lift that up. While I stood there like a baseball catcher, he stared and then came forward and grabbed my arms, spreading them out. Then he stood against me and put one arm around my neck. I thought he wanted to be picked up and so I did that, standing up, but he grunted and tried to wiggle free, so I put him back down again. He then tugged me into a crouching position again and left me there to go watch TV.

So I'm pretty sure I could deal with a household full of living appliances and Muppetized furniture and shower handles. They couldn't be any more inscrutable than the Babies!, and couldn't be any more difficult to control than the older kids, and while I might still have a house made up of automatically-shredding couch cushions, and disintegrating toilet seats, but I could at least have the fun of talking to them while they shredded and disintegrated.

And maybe they'd break into song, too. That was always happening in the Muppet show, wasn't it? I could probably learn to like that, if my shower handle would refuse to work but would sing me a song about how it wasn't going to work for me.

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