The Delusional Homeowner’s Guide to Faucet Repair

My house was built in 1926, but I’m pretty sure the plumbing is older than that — the former owners appear to have found some ancient water pipes made of hollowed-out mastodon tusks and built a house around them. Some parts have been upgraded since then, but others haven’t, and the older ones have an unfortunate tendency to develop leaks whenever you sneeze on them, or breathe on them, or glance in their general direction.

What could be simpler?
What could be simpler?

The kitchen faucet developed some problems recently, and since it’s only seven years old, I decided I could probably fix it myself. The nice thing about modern faucets is that, according to approximately twenty thousand Internet sites, the solution to every faucet-related problem is the same: replace the cartridge (the cartridge is the heart of the faucet, or possibly the liver; whatever it is, it seems to be the only part that matters). And it’s easy! You just turn off the water supply, remove any non-cartridge faucet parts that are in the way, pop out the old cartridge, slide in the new cartridge, and then put back all the other parts and turn on the water supply. There are tons of instructional videos available; I watched one guy do the exact repair I needed to in six and a half minutes, and it only took that long because he kept stopping to explain things. Of course, I’m not a skilled plumber, so I estimated that it might take me as long as fifteen minutes.

I went out and bought a shiny new cartridge and then cleverly ate dinner and washed the dishes before starting on the repair. (I mean, it was clever that I did these things before dismantling the faucet, not that I ate dinner in a particularly clever way or came up with some new ingenious method for washing dishes). Then I took a picture of the new cartridge and posted it to my blog because, hey, I have a blog. Then I ran out of ways to procrastinate.

When I went to turn off the water valves under the sink, I noticed the hot water valve (or maybe one of the water supply pipes attached to it) was leaking. These are all old, original, mastodon-tusk parts. I considered giving up and calling a plumber at that point, but I decided against it because a) I’d already bought the replacement cartridge, so I was committed, b) I’d already posted on my blog about it, so I was even more committed, and c) the leak would probably fix itself, by magic.

I managed to remove all the parts in the way of the cartridge without too much difficulty. Then it was time to remove the cartridge. All the instructional videos say this is a two-step process: loosen the cartridge using the cartridge removal tool included with the new cartridge (this was actually pretty easy) and then pull the old cartridge straight out (this was impossible). So I googled some more, found out that there is such a thing as a “cartridge puller,” and rushed off to Home Depot to buy one (I got there literally 5 minutes before they closed). The cartridge puller works kind of like a corkscrew, except at the end, instead of getting wine, you get a corroded piece of faucet guts. But the important thing is that it worked, and I was able to pop in the new cartridge and reassemble the faucet.

Note that I didn’t say that I reassembled the faucet correctly. That took about half a dozen tries. Then I turned the water back on to verify that the faucet worked; I think it did, except that the hot/cold sides were reversed. But remember that leak I mentioned earlier? Somehow, it failed to magically fix itself (and I think I may have made it worse by jostling things during the faucet repair). So right now the water is off in the kitchen sink, and a plumber is coming to the house tomorrow. If he asks how the sink got into this state, I think I’m going to say that vandals did it.

Coffee Conundrum

I have a problem. The following scenario happens far too often:

I stop at Starbucks on my way to work, and  someone else gets to the door a few seconds ahead of me. They hold the door, I say “thanks” and walk through, and they walk through behind me. What should I do next? I have three options.

1. I can just go directly to the counter. This seems a bit presumptuous, like the act of a mouse who, having been given a cookie, demands a glass of milk. Maybe I should just run with it and point out that since the other person is stuck behind me in line anyway, he might as well do something productive with his time, like wash my car. It’s the blue one with the three giant tubs of kitty litter in the trunk. Well, not the trunk, obviously, but whatever you call the storage space in a hatchback. Yeah. The one with the pile of empty Trader Joe’s bags on the passenger seat. That’s the one. Thanks.

2. I can tell the other person to go ahead of me. This never ends well. It just results in an uncomfortable “after you — no, after you” exchange that negates any good feelings left over from the initial interaction and goes on forever, or at least until one of us eventually notices that the dozen or so people who’ve accumulated in line behind us are glaring with varying degrees of hostility, raising the very real possibility that if one of us doesn’t give up and place an order immediately, we’re both at risk of being bludgeoned to death by an angry, caffeine-deprived, iPhone-wielding mob, which would be a horrible way to die, because iPhones are pretty light, actually, so it would probably take a really long time to beat someone to death with one.

3. I can wander off to the side and try to look like I’m doing something else until the other person is safely in line ahead of me. This is my usual strategy, but it doesn’t always work. Once while I was pretending to read notices on a bulletin board, I blocked the path from the door to the counter — which I failed to realize because I was so focused on my performance that I didn’t notice that the guy who’d held the door for me was waiting patiently for me to finish. I should have said something like “oh, go ahead — I want to spend a few more minutes admiring the lighting and composition of the photo in this lost cat ad,” but by then I was just too flustered to do anything but slink forward to the counter.

You’re probably wondering what I do when the situation is reversed. I don’t know, because that never happens. I never arrive at the door first. I haven’t been keeping exact records, but my best estimate is that in the last year someone else has held the door for me approximately 22.375 times, and I’ve arrived in time to hold the door for someone else exactly 0 times. I think people must see me coming and hide.

That’s my dilemma. What would you do in my place?

This blog has a sad, lonely Facebook page that you can “like” if you’re so inclined.

The Five Stages of Realizing You’ve Written a Poorly-Worded Blog Comment

Sometimes I read other people’s blogs. Sometimes I leave comments on other people’s blogs. And sometimes that process goes terribly, terribly wrong.

Self portrait (assuming that, in a previous life, I was Edvard Munch and imagined this is what I'd look like today).

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but every time you write a comment, you run the risk that someone will misinterpret it. While everyone is different, most of us go through the same five stages when faced with this kind of emotional trauma.

Stage 1: Denial

You notice that a blogger has replied to a comment you left on his blog — but instead of engaging in friendly banter as you’d expected, he seems to have interpreted your comment as a personal attack. Your immediate reaction is to assume there was some glitch and that his angry response was intended for someone else, but then you notice specific details that could only have been directed at you. You decide he must be hypersensitive. Or crazy. No sane person could possibly have thought you meant that.

Stage 2: Apology

At the end of the denial stage, you read your comment once again and are shocked to realize that it really could be interpreted to mean that. Easily. By a sane person. You’re hit with an intense wave of embarrassment, which you try to alleviate by shooting off a combination apology and explanation of what you really meant. This will fix everything, you tell yourself. He’ll read the explanation, understand what I really meant, and we’ll both laugh about it. You just need to check back later for the friendly response you’re sure is forthcoming.

Stage 3: Stalking

You check back later. No response, but maybe he hasn’t seen it yet. You reread your apology. You’re not sure it’s clear — after all, you wrote it kind of hastily. You write another comment expanding on the explanation. Then you wait a reasonable amount of time (say, 90 seconds or so) and check back again.

Still no response. You look at your apology and your apology clarification, and even though you meant them sincerely, you realize they could look like the comments of someone who was initially wrong but is now backpedaling. So you post another comment explaining that that’s not what you’re doing. That just makes it worse, because denying it makes you look even more guilty. You post a comment explaining that.

You decide all these comments are starting to make you look like a stalker. You post a comment explaining that you’re not stalking him and that you’ve never stalked anyone. Unfortunately, you can’t resist ending that one with “but there’s a first time for everything”. You post another comment explaining that the last bit was a joke.

You begin to regret leaving all these comments. You send the blogger a tweet apologizing for the first one and asking him to ignore all the others.

You send another tweet explaining that you meant he should ignore all your other comments, not anyone else’s.

You send another tweet explaining that you meant he should ignore all your other comments on this post, not the two previous posts of his you’ve commented on, and that you remain steadfast in your opinion that his children and pets are adorable in their matching purple sweaters and that his brownie recipe looks delicious but could probably be improved by adding a cup or two of chocolate chips along with the nuts. Technically, you have to break this into three tweets because of Twitter’s character limit.

You send another tweet explaining you’re not a stalker, because you just realized that if he follows your instructions and doesn’t read all the comments you left on his blog, he’ll miss that very important bit of information.

You send him a friend request on Facebook.

You add him to your “People I Am Definitely Not Stalking” circle on Google+.

You realize there’s probably nothing more you can say to him at this point, so you start asking friends to act as character references. No one seems particularly enthusiastic about the idea. You can’t imagine why.

Stage 4: Depression

All your tweets and friend requests and comments go unanswered. The blogger clearly doesn’t believe you. You feel like you’ve lost all credibility. You start to wonder how many other people you’ve offended without realizing it — after all, lots of people just ignore comments they think are offensive, so how would you know? You withdraw from the Internet and resort to speaking to people in person. You realize you’ve hit rock bottom when you find yourself buying the print version of a newspaper.

Stage 5: Acceptance

You begin to put the situation into perspective and return to the Internet. You’re filled with something that you try to convince yourself is a sense of inner peace, but it’s really just numbness. And then a thought comes to you, bringing with it a shining ray of hope: hey, this might be a good topic for a blog post.

Another Reason Why You Can’t Take Me Anywhere: Dim Sum Broccoli

So beautiful. So delicious. So slippery.

I have a love-hate relationship with dim sum broccoli. It’s sauteed, but not too much, so it’s crunchy and sweet, crisp and fresh. It looks gorgeous, sitting there on the plate, a vibrant, shiny green that almost shimmers in the light. And I love the idea of it — I can tell myself that yes, I just ate three days’ worth of calories and five days’ worth of sodium and fat, but I also had some broccoli, so it all balances out.

There’s only one problem: I am unable to eat this dish and maintain any semblance of dignity. That gorgeous sheen is really a thin layer of oil that, combined with the smooth texture of the stalks, creates a slippery surface that makes them difficult to pick up with chopsticks. But I manage, and then I’m faced with a new challenge: taking that first bite. But from where? On one end, there’s a single, solid stalk, which branches out into three or so thinner, leafy stalks. The leafy end seems like the natural place to start, but the leafy stalks fan out just enough to make it difficult to take a bite of all of them at once, but not enough to allow me to take a bite of one without having the others hit my cheeks. And the leafy stalks are sometimes a little stringy and difficult to bite through cleanly. So that leaves the solid end. Taking a bite of that is easy enough, but it causes the leafy stalks to wave back and forth in front of my face like the arms of an overly-eager schoolgirl trying to attract the teacher’s attention.

Know your vegetables! Broccoli and rapini images via Wikipedia.

I wouldn’t have this problem (and, to be fair, it wouldn’t taste as good) if I were actually eating broccoli. Broccoli stalks are thick enough that they’d have to be sliced and not served whole. But instead, they use some other vegetable that’s more like broccoli rabe, which always sounds like it should be a character in a western (“There’s a new sheriff in town. They call him Broccoli Rob”) or maybe a crime story (“Robert ‘Broccoli Rob’ Tortellini stared across the table at Vinnie ‘Soft Serve’ Zamboni. By the end of the night, their two families would be embroiled in a war that would last for decades”). I keep hoping that someday, a real Broccoli Rob will emerge and teach me and others like me how to eat this stuff.

An Open Letter to the Nice Couple Who Didn’t Have Me Arrested When I Broke Into Their House


Remember me? I’m sorry to bother you again, but I just wanted to thank you for not calling the cops or shooting me or anything. I’d also like to explain how it all happened, and why it wasn’t my fault, really.

This is not a photograph.

It all started when I got an invitation to a housewarming party. I couldn’t decide whether  to bring a present — the invitation said “no gifts”, but that doesn’t really mean anything — and if so, what to bring. How are you supposed to pick out a house-oriented gift when you’ve never been to the house before? I hate this custom. I eventually decided to bring a bottle of wine, mostly because of its ambiguity — I could just say “here’s a bottle of wine”, and leave it to others to decide whether it was a housewarming gift or just a bottle of wine I brought to a party. And I probably wouldn’t even have to say that, because most of my friends have encountered bottles of wine before and recognize them when they see them.

I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s only a certain amount of mental energy I’m willing to spend preparing to go to someone else’s party. By the time I’d finished pondering the gift question and actually selecting a bottle of wine, my pre-party mental energy budget was almost depleted, so I decided to leave the navigation to my car’s GPS system. I knew I was taking a risk — my GPS hates me — but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

You know what happened next. I just want to say the following in my defense:

  • My friends live at 1200 Big Street*, and my GPS directed me to the corner of Big Street and Side Street.
  • The house on that corner — your house — has a big 1200 over the front door.
  • The housewarming invitation included a request not to wear shoes inside the house. There was a big pile of shoes on your doorstep.
  • Your front door was open.

So of course I walked up to the  door (okay, your  door), took my shoes off, and went inside. The first thing I noticed was that there were only two people in the living room, and that they were people I didn’t know, but that didn’t seem too unusual — everyone else was probably in the back yard, or the kitchen, or getting a tour of the house, or something. So when I asked “is this Bill and Kathy’s housewarming?”, it was really a rhetorical question. You were supposed to say yes, introduce yourselves, and tell me everyone else was out back. When you deviated from the script and said “no”, I thought you were kidding. What else would I think? That I’d wandered into the wrong house? A house that just happened to have the same house number, an open door, and a pile of shoes? At the exact spot that my GPS led me to? What are the odds of that? I think I took a couple more steps into the room (okay, your living room) before I stopped and said “really?”.

Thank you for giving me directions to my friends’ actual house. And thank you for believing me. It’s heartwarming to know that there are people out there who are so trusting — although, when I walked past your house on the way back to my car after the party, I couldn’t help but notice that you’d closed your door.

*Names and addresses have been changed, on the theory that it might not be the best idea to post “here’s the address of some people who don’t mind if their house gets broken into”.

Confessions of a Water-Spiller

I can’t deny it any longer: I am a water-spiller. I spill water. Not all the time, but more than most people. Not intentionally — but does that matter? If you’re sitting near me, and I have a glass of water, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Here’s what to expect, if you ever find yourself sitting across the table from me at a restaurant. One minute, we’ll be eating and chatting like normal people, and then, without warning, I’ll lose situational awareness* and make some random hand gesture that sends my water glass flying across the table, drenching you in the process. The entire restaurant staff will flock to the table with napkins and towels, and in a moment, the table will be dry, you’ll be somewhat damp, and I’ll be trying desperately to convince myself that no one noticed. Next comes the truly crazy thing: someone will bring me another glass of water, in what I assume is a wildly misguided demonstration of trust. Or a dare. Or some kind of test. Or maybe it’s an attempt at first aid — perhaps they assume that the water-spilling was the result of a loss of motor skills caused by severe dehydration**.

If you do find yourself sitting across from me at a restaurant, you may want to try one of these strategies:

  1. Switch seats with someone else (but not me, because that would defeat the purpose).
  2. Help me maintain water glass awareness by subtly working water-spilling into the conversation (“I love your blog. My favorite post was the one about how you’re always spilling glasses of water on people in restaurants. Oh, look! We’re in a restaurant! Ha ha. What a coincidence. Hey, did I mention that my spouse and I are considering having a baby at some as-yet-undetermined point in the future, and that if we do, we’ll buy several sippy cups for said baby? You know what’s great about sippy cups? If you knock one over, nothing spills out of it, which distinguishes it from a regular water glass — you know, like that one right there, just inches from your hand.”).
  3. Glare silently at me throughout the entire meal. This will make me so uncomfortable that I’ll refrain from making the sort of gestures that lead to water glass catastrophes.
  4. Preemptively spill your glass of water on me.

The vast majority of my water spills occur in restaurants, although I have spilled water onto laptop computers at home twice. And once, on an airplane, I forgot that I’d taken the lid off the water bottle I was holding and accidentally poured water onto the man sitting next to me. He was surprisingly nice about it.

*I first encountered the phrase situational awareness months ago, and I’ve been trying to work it into conversation ever since.

**According to the Internet, loss of motor skills is not a symptom of severe dehydration. But I don’t think you need to know that to work in a restaurant.

The Door

So this is it, I thought. This is how I’m going to die.

A few years ago, I was working on a project that involved visits to several earthquake engineering labs across the country. Earthquake engineering labs are dangerous places – huge, cavernous rooms with specially-reinforced floors and walls, where tremendously strong, often violent forces are applied to specimens constructed from thousands of pounds of concrete and steel. But I wasn’t facing near-certain death because I was trapped beneath a pile of rubble in an engineering lab; in fact, I wasn’t in a lab at all. I was at home.
Continue reading “The Door”