Saturday, June 30, 2007

Curse You, O'Rourke

When we lived in Boston, we bought a house that was 60 years old. I know it’s a cliché, but they don’t make them like that anymore. It had a foot-thick granite foundation, lath-and-plaster walls, red oak flooring and a full walk-up attic. However, in 60 years it had gone through a lot of owners, and one of them was named O’Rourke.

I knew this because most of the people living in my neighborhood had lived there all their lives, and they all knew O’Rourke. In fact, even though we lived in that house for 9 years, the neighbors always referred to it as “the O’Rourke house.” O’Rourke had been dead and gone for over a decade when we bought the house, but everyone remembered him fondly as a Good-Time Charlie who always had time for a drink with his neighbors. In other words, he was an alcoholic.

Whenever the house needed maintenance of any kind, O’Rourke always chose the cheapest, quickest solution. If cracks appeared in the plaster walls, O’Rourke put up crappy paneling. If the oak floor was damaged by a water leak, O’Rourke pulled up the boards and replaced them with plywood. Then he covered them with linoleum. The basement was a maze of crudely-arranged piping and dangerous wiring.

We spent years undoing the mess that O’Rourke made of the house. Weekends were spent chipping up linoleum, patching and sanding, sweating and straining, and most of all, cursing O’Rourke.

Now we live in Florida where homes are newer, so we inherited fewer problems. One problem we did inherit was the hedge alongside the pool enclosure.


The previous owner, a guy named Fouts, was not an experienced landscaper. He planted the hedge too close to the enclosure, only 14 inches from the screen. Once those plants grew, they grew up against the screen and pushed against it so strongly that they pushed the screen right out of the frame. When I moved in, one of my first and worst jobs was to cut the hedge back from that screen.

Almost anything will grow in Florida, so Fouts had the choice of dozens of species of hedge plants. In a fit of stupidity, he chose a kind of holly. Holly makes a nice thick hedge, but it’s full of thorny leaves. With only 14 inches to squeeze between the hedge and the screen, I was soon covered with deep scratches. Every few months, I have to squeeze through and cut back anything trying to grow towards the screen. I say terrible things under my breath about Fouts.


As I treat my bloody scratches, I have to ask myself what kind of things I’ve been doing to the house that the next owner will hate me for. Maybe I’ll leave them a drippy faucet or an unfortunate choice of paint, but those are all easily remedied. The thing is, no matter what I do, I’ll be remembered for what I did wrong, not for what I did right. I’m starting to think O’Rourke had the right idea – find time to make friends with the neighbors, and don’t worry about who will own the house after you. No matter what you do, you can’t please everyone, and Karma is cumulative. It’s OK for one person to hate your guts if everybody else remembers you as that nice guy who always had time for a drink and a joke.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Grill of Victory

Cooking is traditionally considered women's work in the United States. But in the summertime, men take over, hauling large slabs of meat outdoors to cook it on primitive equipment. I suspect this is all a conspiracy concocted by women who don't want to work in a hot kitchen during the summer months. So they used their feminine guile to convince men that it's "masculine" to build a fire and grill their meals, just like our hairy ancestors used to do, while they sit inside drinking frozen daquiris, just like their hairy ancestors use to do.

I'm no different than any other man, sipping beer and burning off my eyebrows while I fuss with burgers, brats, chicken and steaks. On Father's day, the day I should have been relaxing in front of the TV, my wife handed me a plate of meat and sent me out to the grill to earn my keep.

Men, here's a tip. Turn on the grill before you buy the meat, just to make sure there won't be any technical problems. I turned on the propane tank, opened the valves, and hit the igniter. Nothing. No hiss, no smell, no poof, no fire. My brother stood helpfully next to me holding a beer and said, "The burners must be clogged." Then he went inside where it was air-conditioned. I dug out a screwdriver and removed the greasy, slimy burners, then cleaned them with a wire brush. By the time I got them back on, I was filthy (but the grill worked just fine).


Recently, I've been having a weird intermittent problem with my grill. The regulator valve on the propane tank makes this loud, irritating squeal when I turn on the gas, which persists throughout the cooking process. This doesn't happen every time, just occasionally, and it's really annoying. It sounds like the brakes on a logging truck hurtling down the side of a steep mountain.

So I looked it up on the Internet, where it's referred to as a "hum," rather than a maddening squeal. Apparently, this problem is caused by a combination of temperature, humidity and barometric pressure, which causes the diaphram in the valve to vibrate. It's described as "harmless," because it only causes mental illness.

After about 15 minutes listening to the howl coming from my grill, I was struck with an idea: I can't change the humidity or barometric pressure, but I can change the temperature. I ran into the house and grabbed an ice cube, then balanced it on the throat of the valve.


In less than 30 seconds, the squeal vanished. It was a defining macho moment. My hairy ancestors would be so proud.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Million Dollar Ideas, Part 1

The cartoonist who does the Dilbert comic strip has an excellent blog that covers politics, philosophy, science and the mundane stupidity of daily life. He recently posted an entry on the subject of soap, and how he hates to waste that last little sliver that remains when the bar is nearly exhausted:

I have a similar issue, because in my opinion, soap is poorly designed. No matter how you use it, you will always wind up with a nearly useless, limp soap core that is hard to pick up, hard to hold, and in constant danger of being washed down the drain, where it will succeed as a drainage obstruction for weeks.

To solve this problem I came up with the idea of a plastic soap core, inserted when the bar of soap is manufactured. When you reach the core, you throw it away. But this is wasteful, even if the core were made of recycled plastics. Plus, it adds cost to the soap. So I came up with the following design:


The soap is made with a hollow core, open at one end. When your bar of soap gets small enough, you open a new bar, slip the old piece into the slot, and go about your business. Nothing is wasted, and the cost of manufacture isn’t any higher.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Bulgarian Hold Music

I'm trying to change the Web Host used by my company to another provider, and like all technical endeavors, there are some glitches in the process. I'm able to move files to the new hosting server, but I'm unable to view them using a Web browser. Instead, I get a message that says, "Service Unavailable."

I called my account representative who is a typical friendly, outgoing guy that is delighted to sell me services, but knows absolutely nothing about how those services actually work. I explained the situation, and there was a long uncomfortable silence. Then he told me he would transfer me to Technical Support.

Now, most Americans cringe when they hear this, because it usually means the call will be routed halfway around the world to some Indian sweatshop where the sleep-deprived Technical Support rep is confined to a stall smaller than those used to house veal calves. The Technial Support rep will introduce himself as "Nick" even though his name is actually "Jagadeesh," and the two of you will struggle with the language barrier for an hour until you give up in frustration. "Nick" will check the box that says "user satisfied with solution." Within a month, he'll get promoted to Assistant Junior Support Group Supervisor for a salary of 8 dollars a day, which will enable him to pay for 4 hours of electricity in his home per week.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when a man with a Slavic accent answered the phone. I asked where he was from, and he told me "Bulgaria." So the call had gone only a quarter of the way around the world to a Bulgarian sweatshop. I started to feel better immediately. I described the problem, and the Bulgarian Technical Support rep said, "Led me luk up yur aggount. I wull put you on holt."

The phone went silent, and then swelled with some unidentifiable symphonic music. It was a welcome change from the Kenny G cool jazz I'm forced to listen to normally. After a minute or so, the music stopped and the phone was silent for almost a full minute. I suspect that my Technical Support rep had to run over to the record player and turn the album over.

After a few more minutes of music, the rep came back and told me, quite seriously, that the Web site gives him the message "Service Unavailable." Then he just waited for me to respond.

After a moment, I replied, "I know. "That's why I called, remember?"

"I wull hov to open a tigget," he said. Then again, he paused. It was like I had to throw a switch to get him to move on to the next thing.

"OK, why don't you do that?" I prompted.

"Ya, someone wull call you wuddin 24 hourss," he said. He sounded peeved, as though I had disturbed him with my call, and had forced him to perform an unpleasant task.

Now I'm worried that the Bulgarian Technical Support contractor is in fact a front for the Russian Mafia. The guys who answer the phones are button men who solve problems by eliminating the complainers. If my Technical Support rep is able to shut me up, he can advance to Assistant Junior Extortion Group Supervisor, which will enable him to pay for American cigarettes and Polish vodka. I'm dreading the phone call.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Busted by a Crip

I've been taking this medication that causes my hands and feet to dry out. It's weird, but it's easily remedied with a tube of hand lotion. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring any with me on this trip. I was starting to get that creepy dry finger sensation on Friday morning, so I knew I'd have to pick some lotion up somewhere.

The weather turned ugly on Friday, thanks to Tropical Storm Barry, and so we had to find non-beach activities to amuse ourselves. We played some cards, watched some TV, then decided to go see Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End.

As we parked the car in downtown Sarasota, I realized I would be very uncomfortable sitting through a nearly 3-hour special effects epic with dry hands, so I told the girls that I would meet them at the bookstore across the street, and I toddled off to a drugstore.

I'm amazed at the sheer number of "youthful skin" products available on the market. You'd think by now there would have been an accident, where a tanker of hand lotion runs aground and thousands of sea birds are coated in a product that makes them look like young chicks again.

While I was in the checkout line, I picked up a couple of candy bars to enjoy during the movie, because they were a fraction of the price I would have to pay in the theater. I met the girls in the bookstore, and we crossed the street to see the movie.

The ticket-taker was a woman in her 20's, confined to a high-tech wheelchair, her limbs contorted by some dystrophic illness. I've been noticing that there are a lot more severely handicapped people working in movie theaters these days as ticket-takers. A decade ago, people with serious mobility problems would have been confined to their homes or nursing facilities, unable to participate with general society in any meaningful way. New electric wheelchairs have empowered these individuals with an amazing degree of independence. But of course, they're people, and that means some of them are assholes.

As I presented my ticket, the ticket-taker took it and eyeballed the transluscent plastic drugstore bag in my hand. "You know, you can't bring outside food in here," she said. Oh crap, I had forgotten about the two candy bars. "I had to buy some lotion," I stammered. "I forgot about the candy bars."

She held my ticket, looking at my face, trying to decide how far to abuse the little authority that life had permitted her. Apparently, she decided not to confiscate the candy bars, which I was prepared to wolf down in front of her, rather than let her have them. "OK, but don't let this happen again," she said.

My daughter and her friend were delighted by my embarassment, teasing me about it all the way down the long hall of the multiplex. It didn't help that the movie sucked, a huge mess of nonsense presented as wretched spectacle. If you view it as a comedy, there was one good joke. If you view it any other way, it was tedious.

The next day, we woke up to a raging sea, quite the contrast to the placid Gulf waters we had seen on arrival. Those aren't rocks you see in the foreground, that's the edge of the beach, which is being eroded away by the action of the wind and water. Vacationers in Longboat Key later this summer may not find much beach to enjoy.


The beach was covered in sea foam, and the wind was howling so hard, you couldn't sit on the beach without being stung by blowing sand. We may leave today, because conditions just aren't appropriate for a beach vacation.


Friday, June 1, 2007

Chardonnay-Sipping Sunset Junkies

Last night, my wife suggested that we take the girls out to "our favorite restaurant" here on Longboat Key. By that she means "her" favorite restaurant. It's a ramshackle place right on the beach, with tables set up on a big deck looking out over the ocean, where you can sit and watch the sun set, except that they've put something hideous in the way. I'll get to that in a minute.

This time of year, brush fires are a huge problem in Central Florida, as the vegetation has dried out during the winter months. During the day, the winds had changed, blowing clouds of smoke over the beach areas from fires on the mainland.

So it was with a sense of ugly foreboding that I rode in the car, expecting an uncomfortable meal out on that deck, inhaling the smoky air, with Love Bugs plopping into my clam chowder every 30 seconds.

However, you can't argue with a sunset junkie. For them, sitting on a patio watching the red sun sink into the sea as they sip on a glass of Chardonnay is pure magic, and never seems to get old. So I knew I couldn't say anything until I was proven right, and the situation became intolerable for her. I was prepared to suffer for my wife, but a man has limits. The moment we walked onto that deck, I knew I wasn't going to eat there.

Between the diners and the water, a small stage was set up, and a Hemingway look-alike was playing the guitar and singing jazzy, easy-listening chestnuts that set my teeth on edge. The waitress led us past several tables occupied by Chardonnay-sipping sunset junkies, and seated us at the table directly in front of the performer. He was warbling something about "wasting away in Margaritaville" at a volume that made conversation impossible. Plus, the smoke had settled in to the point where the sun was no longer visible.

We ordered drinks, and in the middle of "Sloop John B" I picked a Love Bug out of my beer and expressed my extreme displeasure, expecting to be shot down. But the lack of a visible sunset had broken the spell, and the girls were completely uncharmed by music from a prior generation. To my relief, we moved indoors and enjoyed the meal completely.

Afterwards, the women wanted to walk in the shallow water and look for shells.


Without a word, they all removed their shoes and handed them to me, as though I was a pack animal. They took off and I found a comfortable beach chair, where I waited, holding all of the shoes, while the women waded away into the smoky air, hunting for something you could buy in the souvenir store across the street from the restaurant for fifty cents. But you can't argue with a shell junkie.