Category Archives: Married life

The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.


Tree topplers

Ever since I was a kid helping decorate the tree (and the one year where my toddler sibling and myself had the misapprehension that ornaments were meant to be stomped into the carpet for fun and noise; our parents issued correction), tree toppers have struck me as stupid. Not because the idea is stupid, but because none of them fricking work. They all assume the top of a tree to be ramrod-firm and straight, capable of supporting an ornament. I call them tree topplers because what they mostly do is fall over and piss me off.

This year, I finally did something about it.

We use a plastic tree (we don’t really need to kill one and clean up a lot of fir needles) and it already has integrated lights. Just like a real tree, its tip sucks for a tree topper. This year I threw away our old one, which I remembered only as a source of pissing-me-off; it was the kind where the insertion hole was a sort of spring, which sounds like a great idea until you try to use it for real.

First, I went out and got a new topper–I didn’t even care how heavy it was–with a straight-up hole in the base rather than a spring. I then bought a dowel that fit the hole, and cans of spray paint: black, forest green, and flat clear. I already owned spring-loaded clamps in great surplus and could easily dedicate two to solving this annoyance for me forever.

Then I spray-painted dowel and clamps green, let it dry, and added a mottling of black splotches. On the clamps’ rubber tips and handles, the paint was very tacky even when fully dry. The flat clear coat changed that. I sprayed every cranny I could hit with it.

When it was all dry, I brought the dowel in, put it on the back side of the ‘tree’s’ ‘trunk’ with the top near where I wanted the topper, and clamped it to the ‘trunk’ from behind. On with the topper. It fits perfectly, stays straight, is at zero risk of falling off unless the whole thing goes over (for example, someone sets off fireworks and our miniature schnauzer decides that his fate depends upon burrowing into its lower branches), and looks great. The clamps and dowel blend in well. You have to look twice to notice anything special about the topper.

Nearly fifty Christmases of irritation, problem at long last addressed. If you have experienced the same irritation, this post is your Christmas present. Happy topping.

Ho ho ho.

This, by the way, is available for $100 at Gorilla Goodies.

Dear Ophelia, part two


I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar (in Leitir, about ten minutes’ walk from our cottage), which is only open from 6:00 PM to midnight daily. Friday night is traditional music night. Daniel Elliott, the pubkeeper, was a friendly young gent who for whatever reason seemed to like us very much. He explained that in some pubs, particularly hotel bars, the Guinness might spend a long time sitting in the lines. It never sat for long in the lines at Elliott’s. The craic (banter) was always strong at Daniel’s establishment, with a motley assortment of locals glad to engage us at any given time. Turf (peat) fires produce an unmistakably Irish smell (think rich burning earth, which of course it is), and for a Gaelteacht pub in west Donegal it would be the norm. It is at Elliott’s. Daniel’s father founded the pub one year before I was born. Considering how few people live within easy walking distance, its prosperity speaks volumes. I’ve never been to a better.

It can happen this quickly: on the first night, we were somewhat novelties: down-to-earth tourists with in one case some slight proficiency in Irish, and the locals got to take their time discovering us. Over those days, Daniel hinted rather often that I might be called upon to sing on Friday, when there would be traditional music and an open mike. I gave all the expected and quite truthful evasions: I have a lousy voice, I tend to forget the lyrics, I’m not good at singing at all, I could clear out the pub in half a minute of atonal wailing. All dismissed, of course. It’s one of those cases where you know you will be had, but at least you are given fair warning.

Friday came, and most of the band was German (plus Daniel’s mother on the accordion, and now I can see where he gets his kind heart). After a few of those in attendance gave us some rather pleasing renditions of traditional Irish and American rock tunes, Daniel arranged somehow for my dragooning in the direction of the mike. (Yes; MIKE. I don’t give a damn who spells it ‘mic’; that in my view is pronounced ‘Mick,’ and I refuse to do so. People need to learn their phonics. It’s a damn MIKE-ro-fone and the short form is MIKE—thus, ‘mike,’ and I hope we won’t have to have this discussion again.)

Perhaps a few days of unease got to me. I started with a southwestern American number originally from the Kingston Trio, but faltered a pint too far on the lyrics. I figured that was the time to retreat in modest disgrace, but the crowd would not have it. I wasted a lot of their time looking through the songbook for something Irish to which I could do moderate justice, then gave them the first three stanzas of Back Home in Derry, a lament with at least neighboring historical overtones of Ireland’s past anguishes. All good, except that the songbook page misplaced the final verse, and by the time I found it and tried to continue, I had the tune misplaced with regard to the lyrics. I prepared to get back to the bar and let a competent entertainer take over, but again they would not have it. I looked about the pub, and they were shushing one another, not a scornful face to be seen.

All right. I knew one short song I could get right, one from my own homeland, the state song of Kansas: Home on the Range. I told them what it was, then delivered it as well as I can ever deliver a song. The assembled gave me a lusty round of applause. I got up, thanked everyone, and let an actual musician take over. I saw nothing but smiles. At first I didn’t understand. Not even two more pints of stout helped.

At first I felt like a flop, but over the next couple of days I came to see that for what it had been: an initiation, however voluntary, into the society of Elliott’s Bar. What mattered was not how well I sang, but that I kept after it upon request until I managed at least to sing up to my own modest level. In the days after, I could see a change in the locals’ approach to us; no longer novelties, we were as near to regulars as any tourist could ever be. The patrons began to tell stories of ways in which other tourists acted: either marveling that rural Ireland had things like electricity and flush toilets and Internet, or braying in the typical American outside voices, or very uptight and unsure what to expect. “Yous’re genuine,” said Daniel, a kind word I’ll treasure along with every other memory of Elliott’s.

Two days before we prepared to head south, the word was all out: Ophelia was coming. Ophelia, an Atlantic hurricane, looked to centerpunch the western Irish coast (Leitir included) come Monday. Forecasts varied, but in general the forecast called for sustained 40mph winds with gusts up to 80. It would slug Counties Cork and Kerry, then Limerick and Clare, then Galway and Mayo, then Donegal and Derry and Antrim. The whole country would be hit, on one level or another. Bus services, flights, and schools were canceled. Gardaí (‘gar-DEE’, guards; the national police) asked people to stay indoors if they possibly could, and off the roads unless urgently necessary. We let the local small shopkeeper (the town’s only one) know that if fate and fortune deposited any scared and lost tourists on them, our rental cottage could easily take four more people, and to send them up. I could just imagine a couple of terrified young tourists guilty of poor situational awareness having fetched up at the shop in a panic about where they might shelter for the night. If there were nothing else we could do to help our new friends, we might lift one small worry from their ready supply of concerns about life and property.

It is the Irish way to commiserate with the traveler about any bad weather or inconvenience, apologizing as if they’d had personal responsibility for designing the weather. In the first place, what mental defective would go to Ireland in October unprepared for wind and rain? We tried to tell people that they needed not worry about us; while we understood that the disaster potential was real for a country not built to stand winds clearing 80 mph, we had spent a good portion of our married life somewhere that weather like this could be expected about thrice yearly. Our ‘holiday’ was not spoiled. If the power went out, we’d light a candle. If the satellite TV went down, we’d use the radio if it were operational. In the evening, we’d at least go down and see if the pub was open, and join in the usual fun. Whatever happened, we’d battle through.

The satellite TV stayed up into early evening, giving us some news of what Cork and Kerry had experienced. Trees down, roads blocked, over 300,000 people without electricity. Ministers on TV taking media questions. Government acting like adults (in the US, we are beginning to forget what it felt like to be governed by honest adults who at least felt the obligation to make a show of desiring our best interests). Only two reported fatalities by the time it began to grow dusk, rather miraculous in a country unused to such a storm.

In the end, it was exhilirating to be shot at without result. By the time the eyewall reached our latitude, it had veered out to sea. We got high winds and plenty of rain, but didn’t lose power. The worst thing that happened was I aggravated a hamstring pull from before the trip, and it would slow me for the rest of our time in Ireland. It could have been far worse.

Our second week was less adventuresome, mostly due to illness: first Deb’s, then mine. This was worsened by our unfamiliarity with available cold remedies, as well as the inability of Irish pharmacists to adapt recommendations to our situation. Everything they had was probably great for someone who could take a few days of paid vacation and let the disease run its course. They were not equipped to help people who would be glad to suppress as many symptoms as possible and save up the suffering for later. We had to buy a random assortment of medications with which to experiment. By the time she began to feel better, I was feeling horrible, and that’s how it was when I entered the airport for the twenty-two-hour trip home. (Fourteen hours in airplanes, four in a layover, three at the airport before, one riding home with our house-sitter back in Portland.) Our second town had more amenities than Leitir, but much less charm, and pubs are less fun without your wife. She felt up to some exploration a couple of times, so we had to settle for that.

In future installments, I’ll get to some of our other observations, and Ireland’s peculiarities for the traveler.


Dear Ophelia, part one

The trip was, in a way, misbegotten.

Maybe it fits well that I drafted this account in a hurricane that appeared destined to centerpunch our location.

Like most people in the modern age who are comfortable with computers and the Internet, Deb and I handle our own domestic travel arrangements. It isn’t that hard, and a travel agent can’t offer much value helping you plan your dream trip to Wichita. We knew the travel agency industry was in decline, but for a trip to Ireland using some unfamiliar means through an unfamiliar entry point, we felt it was of value to consult a specialist.


We went to one of the longest-established travel agencies west of the Willamette (the river that divides eastern and western Portland, Oregon), and contacted the individual billed as their Ireland/England specialist. On everything we could as easily have done ourselves—flights, car rental, hotel nights at the airport—she seemed to perform fine. All that remained was to pick out two cottage stays, a week apiece. We had given her a three-week window and asked her to time our two weeks of travel so as best to fit the cottage schedules.

That seems logical, right? Flight day, jetlag airport hotel stay, then pick up rental car and head for cottage. Week later, transition to next cottage. Departure day, drive to jetlag hotel, drop off rental car, enjoy last day in town using mass transit, fly out in morning.

She sent us three options for cottages. In all three cases we thought perhaps we could do better, and asked for more options. What naïfs we were. We waited patiently, and time marched on. Options were disappearing daily as places booked up. After a week’s strained patience, we contacted her and asked could we please move this forward. She made a number of unverifiable excuses, the kind of plausible deniabilities one usually hears from people who have learned how to lie by habit, including that she had not forgotten about us. I grew uneasy, but presumed that she would not simply cease to bother helping us to complete our plans. A blistering review online—and if I may say so, when a professional writer wants to blister someone, he or she knows how to make sure the marks hurt like hell—would be exactly what she did not need.

It is a weakness of mine to underestimate human stupidity, laziness, and shortsightedness until nearly too late. I show no signs of improvement.

After another week, she sent us a batch of .pdfs of cottages, nearly all without prices. A rather important bit of information, one would think, and I contacted her to explain that this was hardly workable. She ignored me. I went over and over in my head: had I done something wrong, somehow alienated her? Or, more likely, had she just decided she had gotten all the money she cared about, and that we could now fuck off until her convenience allowed her to deign to finish booking our trip?

I was sure I had been very restrained and non-alienating to this point, but in case I had somehow been socially ham-handed, I asked Deb to take over the interface. Deb got no better response, not even with a message for the owner. Now we saw that the firm’s rot seeped from its leadership. After one full month since first meeting and arrangements, and with barely that long to go before departure, and no further anything from the agent or her chieftain, we realized that we must book our own cottage stays. All right; go to hell, lady, we’ll muddle through without your expertise.

We soon learned that she had botched the flight dates. Irish cottages typically run on the calendar week with Saturday as the beginning and end, and she had scheduled our flights so that the two weeks did not fit calendar weeks. After checking dozens of cottage prices, we learned was we were welcome to book an available cottage any time that suited us, but that each cottage stay would mean paying the equivalent cost of two full weeks. It would transform about a $650 experience into well over $1100, exactly the sort of blunder we had expected a travel professional to avoid. As I’ve often said to errant vendors (especially contractors), if I wanted it all fucked up, I could have done that all on my own without professional assistance.

It was either change the days off, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars, or swallow the cost. The flight alone would be problematic to change without a large cost.

Nothing for it but to pay up and hope, and we did. Our plan was to fly into Dublin (mistake #1; we saved a lot of money we later wished we had not, as Shannon is far easier to deal with), hotel stay, then pick up the rental car and take it deep into the wilds of County Donegal. That part at least went well enough, and after overcoming the lunacy of getting out of Dublin with right-hand drive, we were free and making for the village of Leitir mhic an Bhaird (in Irish; say it, LAY-chur WICK-a-word, in English, Lettermacaward pronounced LET-er MACK-a-word).

Ireland doesn’t have much freeway kilometrage, but most of the roads have good enough surfacing. There often is no shoulder, so there’s the rock wall or dropoff to avoid, and oncoming trucks can be harrowing when their right tire is over the line and won’t move. It took about four hours to reach Leitir, as locals call it, complete with confusion over directions to the cottage. This being a Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking area), some of the signs are in Irish alone, some bilingual. Our turnoff was at a place called Dooey Beach, and had I not seen the sign saying ‘Dumhaigh’ (roughly, ‘Dooey’) and figured out that part, we wouldn’t have known where to go.

The cottage had a number of disappointing aspects; no Internet (I admit that failing to note this in advance was my bad; I had been very flustered), an odd mixture of interactions between electrical devices (where you had to turn on this switch over here to make that device work, but please kindly turn it off as soon as you are done), an absentee owner, and a local caretaker who seemed put upon, leaving us to figure out much of the house for ourselves. We gave serious consideration to just leaving and finding B&Bs, but we decided to buck up and make the best of it. There we were, on a one-lane country road without Internet service, a forest behind and north of us, a pasture to the immediate south with rooks (think of a crow with a light gray beak) scavenging all around the livestock, and not much of anything in near walking distance except an elementary school. Oh, and an obviously closed-up bar. There had been a bar just after the Dooey turnoff, though, which looked like about a ten-minute walk. Fine.

One way you know you’re in a Gaelteacht: the school zone signs are in Irish alone. Just south of our cottage, painted on the road in big letters:

AIRE (AR-rah)



“Attention, slow, school.”

Over the next few days, we explored western Ulster by day. By night, we became part of the scene at the local pub; we’ll get to that later.

One of our trips was to the southwest Donegal coast, to visit the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (‘SLEEVE LEAGUE’; I am not going to render all the Irish names in English as well, but I will help you say them right). Great slate-layered rocky upthrust headlands gazing down talus slopes and sheer faces into the North Atlantic, with coppery sheen in the broken black stones at your feet, astonishingly white quartz chunks here and there, and of course Ireland’s ubiquitous grazing sheep. One might say, with justice, that any attraction where there is no risk of stepping in sheep crap isn’t very Irish. True to form, one had to pass a gate posted with a fógra about keeping it closed in order to avoid letting the sheep out.

I had better explain about fógraí, which means ‘notices’ or ‘warnings’ (depending on how one chooses to take them). At antiquities, the Fógra advises one in Irish and English that the site is under the protection of some state ministry, and requests visitors’ aid in preserving them. It then advises that there are severe penalties for doing the opposite. Last time we visited, Deb and I picked up the habit of giving each other ad hoc fógraí as we perceived each other’s demeanor and actions demanded it.

Another day, we took a drive up to Ros Goill (ROSS GULL), a narrow rocky peninsula sticking out of north Donegal. On Donegal’s coast, which is part of a long drive called the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s hard to find an ocean view that does not offer some kind of holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-see-this scenario. That happened to be my birthday, a fact which my treasonous wife revealed of course to our waitress during a wonderful early dinner in Dunfanaghy (dun-FANN-a-hee). Irish food has gotten a lot better since the early 2000s, though hotel bar pints are still the soured monstrosities they once were. Guinness does not travel, and responds badly to long supply lines not merely between keg and tap, but brewery and delivery.

Other trips took us to Beltany Stone Circle near Raphoe, the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim, and Killybegs, an important port for the North Atlantic fishing fleet. The latter had delicious seafood, eaten in sight of the giant looming trawlers. We will have a lot to say about the Causeway later; what has been done to it, and to other Irish signature sights, deserves its own cross-hairs.

Back in Leitir, I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar… (To be continued)


[The title is a stupid self-indulgence. Stupidly self-indulgent titles are a peeve of mine, and I deal with them in clients on a regular basis. The client thinks she has just come up with the coolest title ever. She should kill this Faulknerian darling, but she will not, so she ends up with a garbage title. In this case, the title is stupid because it barely says anything clever about the story, and in fact is just a lyric from an Abney Park steampunk song. It’s like the author had only heard two instances of the word ‘Ophelia’ in his life and decided that somehow they deserved connection even when every reader would be left asking: “and what was the point of this?” However, I went through a lot to bring you this story, so I am stupidly indulging myself in this, covering the privates of my indulgence with the fig leaf of intellectual honesty.]


Narrow gauge, open mind, numb nuts

There haven’t been any posts for a couple of weeks because Deb and I went on vacation. We drove to Colorado via Utah, then back to Oregon via Wyoming and the Teton Valley (Idaho). Part of it was to celebrate our anniversary, part just that we needed a getaway and one can rely upon Colorado for natural beauty.

One thing we did, which I had never done, was take the narrow gauge train from Durango (Colorado) to Silverton and back. One would never do this for practical means: it costs about $90/each round trip in economy, and it’s three and a half hours to go about 45 miles each way. But for those of you who have heard of this excursion, and wondered what it was like, I can now tell you.

We could have paid double for what presumably would have been a more comfortable ride. Our rather spartan coach car had padded seats, but they weren’t very pleasant for three hours of sitting. In fact, to my alarm, I lost all sensation down below. It took a couple of days for it to return, which is not something I had envisioned. If you are riding in coach, my advice is to bring some pads.

The train pokes along at about the speed a cyclist might ride, so there is lots of time for photography. If your seats are on one side headed for Silverton, they will be on the other during the return to Durango, so you will get both sides’ views. You will also be treated to a few steam expulsions, because the coal-fueled train has to stop and blow off steam to both sides. I hope there are never any animals over there to get scalded. The train also stops at a zipline adventure place and a couple of other locations, in addition to three watering stops from pipes rigged up to stream-fed catchbasins. While its public presentation is as a pure tourist line, the train serves communities along its length for some freight and milk-run passenger service.

The coal smell isn’t as strong as I expected. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but for a finite period I found it immersive. A brakeman gave us instructions (mainly, don’t stand on the platforms between rail cars) and warnings about cinders. The combustion kicks off small cinders that tend to get into riders’ eyes. He assured us he carried eyewash materials. I got a couple cinders, but nothing serious. They weren’t hot.

By late September, Silverton (never a thrill a minute at the best of times) isn’t a very big attraction. It’s mostly tourist traps and dirt roads (no pavement), and there’s nothing there you couldn’t get just as easily in Durango, plus half the shops are closed up for the season. The purpose of this trip is not to obtain two hours in Silverton; the purpose is to ride an old school train through the mountains. We had a nice time, except for the wasp moment. As our car sat in Silverton half-boarded, with all the windows open, a wasp entered the car and buzzed Deb. She is not allergic, but is highly apiphobic. As the wasp headed for the car’s rear, she ran for its front, commanding me to slay the creature. I am not apiphobic, but I hate being the center of a bunch of strangers’ attention. Didn’t matter; what mattered was my wife expected me do courageous battle against the marauding insect. I radiated resignation and ennui as I heaved my numbed regions out of the seat and followed the wasp to the back of the train; one swat with my Thor Gasket cap and it was on the floor, one smoosh of a sneaker and it was no longer among the living.

Upon my return Deb questioned whether I had truly slain the beast. She finally accepted my insistence that I had observed its smashed body. In hindsight, I should have offered to go get the corpus delicti and show it to her, as that would have made her cease to question me.

Overall impression: it’s a beautiful if very lengthy and uncomfortable ride, and in late September the aspen are in full fall color mode. Just remember that it’s a seven-hour round trip sitting on a train, and be sure that you want to spend seven hours on a train. And that you brought cushions to sit on.

Deb got hundreds of great photos, and we both appreciated the novelty of the trip (me especially when sensation returned to all suitable parts of my body). On top of it, when we got back to Durango, we had a great dinner at the Strater Hotel in spite of the fact that some nincompoop had just ruptured the gas main to the entire Durango area. How could this be?

How it could be was that we knew the Strater from our anniversary dinner the night before. It had been phenomenal, as near to dining perfection as one is ever likely to experience, but we wouldn’t normally go back to the same place the next night. We did not have much choice. When the gas is out, most of the restaurants have no real choice but to close down. Not the Strater, which is made of sterner stuff. They reviewed their menu, came up with an abbreviated version, set up a grill behind the establishment, and the show went on. And it was just as good as the night before. If you’re ever in Durango, and you don’t hit the Strater at least once, you should have stayed in Ouray (pronounced your-EH). I admired the way the restaurant combined business opportunism (thinking of a way to be open for a whole townful of tourists with dinner money to spend and very few places to spend it) and a high standard of food and service. And no, they didn’t raise the prices of those menu items. The Strater would be a success in downtown Portland. In Durango, I doubt it has an equal.


Scarf pythons and ruined sweaters: doing women’s laundry

If you are a man married to a woman, and your wife is not 100% the jeans and t-shirt type, and you have any sort of a conventional modern marriage at all (i.e. you are under seventy), you probably now and then have to do women’s laundry.

Well, a woman’s laundry, anyway. If there’s a chance that any other women’s laundry might show up in the laundry, and you do not have adult daughters living at home, you will soon have (and deserve) greater problems.

Nothing is so calculated to showcase for a man the complexities of women’s lives. Our laundry? Shirts. Pants. Shorts. Socks. Maybe a few other things. None of it is complicated. At most, we might once in a while need to exert ourselves with an iron. Women’s laundry?

Good lord.

My first challenge is always to determine what part of her body it goes on. Key discovery: where does the head go? My wife turns all laundry inside out by reflex, and if it’s the kind with some hidden liner, that part is sure to hang out. It can take me a minute or two to locate the head-hole. If it has a head-hole–and that has to be it, because I know her legs would not fit through those holes on the side, and in any case I’m pretty sure she would not want a large opening in her clothes right down there–then it could be a blouse or a dress or a tunic. None of it can be folded, as it is all sheer and comes in odd shapes. All of it must be hung up, and no matter how many hangers we buy, there are never enough. Women’s laundry includes an invisible creature that consumes clothing hangers, not enough to ruin us, just enough to inconvenience us. She also breaks a few over time, or rather, those inferior pieces of crap fail to give proper service.

The scarf python: a phenomenon of the dryer. Each scarf placed in the dryer increases the chances of a scarf python by 10%, so at ten scarves, a scarf python is automatic and certain. The scarf python, usually twisted together with whichever item of head-questionable clothing is most susceptible to wrinkling, is a combination of all the scarves in the load, braided as if to make a low quality battleship anchor rope. They do not get dry, and in a wet climate like ours (Portland’s annual rainfall is measured in fathoms), must be hung up to dry or they will mildew. One’s wife does not like mildew, thus one must disentangle and hang up the scarf pythons and their victims.

Bra hooks: if you put her bras in the dryer, you soon learn that bra hooks are as good at seeking out sweaters and knitted materials as she is at seeking out your porn cache no matter how you camouflage it. (You can zip it up and rename it as a Windows .dll, bury it in the system files, and she will find it.) If permitted, the bras will destroy all her sweaters, and it will be your fault. Just hang the bras up. Think of the pleasant thoughts they inspire.

Socks: you, of course, will either have ten pair of socks that match precisely, times three, or perhaps a lesser number, but your socks will always have matches and be easily told apart. Hers are unique, hand-selected because they were ‘cute.’ She would rather hang herself than own two identical pair. However, she is fine with having seven pair that are identical except under 10x magnification, or by use of a tape measure. Each load of her laundry will contain one of each pair, but never two.

Putting it away: you will only be asked to do this once. That’s because, despite every good intention, you will fuck it up so catastrophically that she will never, ever, ever want you to do it again. It won’t matter how honest your effort is. You will fail to understand her basic clothing categories, folding methods, where things go. It will take her longer to unfuck your work than it would have for her to put them away herself. So yeah, go ahead, step up, man up, put it all away and do your best. Even dump out her whole sock drawer, which is 80% singletons whose partners are long gone, and attempt to match up every loose one. This is the best way never to be asked to do this again. Since you will not learn from experience, at most, she might correct you, then ask you to do it again. She will soon learn that you are incapable of learning how she does it, much less keeping up with her monthly changes in organization, and will just be happy you ran laundry.

Fabric softener: I was once talking with a platonic female friend about my wife’s habit of using four fabric softener sheets at the very minimum. I did not see why this mattered. Her rejoinder: “You obviously have never worn a skirt.” Well, couldn’t really argue with that. Anyway, just give in on this and use however many sheets she wants. Never take the spent ones to the trash until you are done with all laundry tasks, because spent ones will continue to crop up to the very end. If you have one sock left to go, there will be a fabric softener sheet stuck to it. If you need a hose filter, or some other shop or yard filter, spent dryer sheets are pretty good for that.

Lint screen: this may vary, but if I didn’t clean that thing, all our houses would have burnt down at some point. Happily, the lint screen meets all of our masculine criteria for a desirable task: it needs frequent doing, it means not bugging her about it, it’s easy, the dust can be mopped up with the lint roll, and it counts as a silent, helpful thing that you just do, take care of, solve, without ever bugging her. It’s a thing she appreciates even when it never comes up. Just do it, glad to have this way to contribute, bearing in mind that you could instead be trying to identify one of her odder garments.

Colors: this is laughable, because she is not like you. You have clothes that are white, gray, blue, or black. At the very most, three color categories; more likely two. Biracial laundry. Hers is the U.N. Hers has all colors, and the instructions for each are kept on carefully hidden tags, all of which you cannot possibly be expected to read. Simple guess: if it’s real cloth, it matters. If it’s plastic cloth, not so much. Anyway, do your best, mainly avoiding putting white things in with dark things made of real cloth.

Folding: you will never fold anything correctly. Try anyway. Look at it this way: of all the things she could get mad at you about, she will get the least mad about your valiant effort to decipher her incomprehensible regulations as to clothes folding. You tried. Sometimes, wives even sort of find your clumsiness, stupidity, and learning disabilities endearing, as long as they don’t happen in the wrong situations. Folding laundry wrong = okay. Paying bills wrong = not okay.

Doing women’s laundry is like a syndrome. The best you can hope to achieve is a sort of high function. Even that will help you, because at the very least, you tried. And she will pardon one hundred errors before she will pardon a single bout of apathetic, entitled sloth.

And when you find yourself confronted by a scarf python twined together with four indeterminate garments, with singleton socks falling loose everywhere and towels that somehow never get dry, know that you aren’t the only one. Stay strong, brother.


Spar treatments

Deb and I can be very juvenile. I’m talking ‘mocking Phil Keoghan’s accent’ juvenile.

For those unfamiliar, Phil is the New Zealander who hosts The Amazing Race. He’s balanced, entertaining, and has a reality show that is intriguing without appealing purely to vicarious sadism (Naked & Afraid) or glorifying the stupid (Jersey Shore). His accent isn’t heavy, but it does append an R to all words ending in an A sound. Thus Uchenna and Joyce became Uchenner and Joyce, etc.

On each leg of the race, the first team to finish gets a special prize. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s a Productplacementmobile from Uncle Henry’s Car Company, but usually it’s a trip for two from Travelocity. Not all the trips are to someplace stupid like Nassau, either. Some actually go to interesting places, and all the trips seem to include a spa treatment, so Deb and I start heckling as the racers hit the mat: “Ready for your spar treatments?” Phil begins to tell them what the trip entails. “Shut the hell up about the ziplining, Phil, get on with the spar treatment!” Phil actually omits the spa treatment. “No! This is fake! It isn’t a trip from Travelocity without a spar treatment!”

We suck. But now that we have our own spar, we can give ourselves spar treatments. And I’m learning to maintain this spar, which is a process. I’m going to present what I’ve learned in mock softball Q&A format.

Q: Is it a lot of work?

A: Nah, except that draining it and refilling it is a little involved. Sometimes I’ll close some of the jets for more pressure on the rest, but that’s easy.

Q: My cousin had one and they all got a rash.

A: Let me guess: your cousin is one of those braying donkeys who ridicules anyone who takes time to do things exactly right. He fell down on the maintenance, didn’t think he had to worry unless he could see floating green things, and met cautions with derision. Now his whole family is on antibiotics. Right?

Q: Is it that risky?

A: Not if you stay on top of the maintenance. If you don’t, it changes from a chemistry project to a dermal immune biology project. If the water doesn’t get treated, it will develop an algae ring. We found that out when we first moved in and took a look before starting the treatment process, and I had to scrub that crap off.

Q: What is the maintenance?

A: Weekly, run a test strip and add chemicals as necessary. If the water level has dropped enough that the filter intake is rasping, add some water. Every four months, drain the whole thing and refill it.

Q: Can you put bath salts in it?

A: I’m told you can, but haven’t tested it myself. I may test it one day just before it’s drain/refill time, just to see what it does to the chemical balance.

Q: Is it spendy to operate?

A: Between the electric bill increase, water bill bump, and the chemicals, I’m told $750 per year is typical. So yeah, kind of spendy to do right.

Q: Do you have to leave it on all the time?

A: Yes. If you’re going to take it out of service, you shut off the breaker and drain the water. It runs on its own cycle for heating and filtration.

Q: Aren’t you worried that people’s kids will pee in it?

A: No, because no minors are allowed in it, ever. Age seventeen and your eighteenth birthday is tomorrow? Sorry. Tomorrow you can. But your child is special and mature and wonderful? I agree, and when she is eighteen and a young woman rather than a girl, we will welcome her. Hot tub = adults place, at least under the lodgepoles.

Q: You expect me to believe you’ve never done it, when you were by yourself?

A: It would immediately cloud up the pool. Therefore, since there are only the two of us, my wife would know. But even if it were just me, no, in fact I would not add urine to a large reservoir in which I planned to soak several times a week for four months, nor would you. I have learned that it is wise to take a leak while changing into one’s bathing suit. It would be horrible to have to get up, go all the way inside, and come back out. Especially in winter. But adults would do that, whereas kids might be too embarrassed, and just hope to get away with it, figuring they can always say they’re sorry and adults aren’t allowed to hold things against them. Problem: no matter how sorry they are, I still have to drain/refill it, and sorries won’t help reduce the cost or headache of that.

Q: But that’s unfair to my snowflake, who is more special and mature and wonderful than all others! Yes, she’s only six, but she would never do that!

A: Here’s the situation. Yes, your snowflake is wonderful, a joy to know. However, children will go to absurd lengths to avoid embarrassment. An adult will make an adult decision (and trust me, there are adults I wouldn’t let near the thing). If the water gets contaminated, I will have to spend a lot of time, money, and effort that need not have been. No, it wouldn’t cause me to hate your snowflake. Yes, I understand that snowflakes make mistakes. All the understanding in my soul will not eliminate my sudden requirement to do a full water change, well before I would otherwise have had to. So, since I recognize that children are children–yes, even yours–and since I do not want to have them learn a life lesson at the cost of me having to pretend not to be very angry while doing an early drain/refill, no kids in the tub. It’s much easier that way than explaining to Parent A that Snowflake A Jr. can’t get in when we let Parent B’s Snowflake B Jr. in. No discrimination, no exceptions, no kids, not even your special angel.

Q: It must be great in winter.

A: In some ways, yes. The only drag in winter is the interval between getting out and getting back in the house. Nothing like standing outside in freezing weather, in your bathing suit, trying to wring as much water out as you can. I think we will get enormous thick terrycloth robes made from actual towels, so that people can dry off by putting them on.

Q: When you go to drain it, do you just siphon out all the water?

A: It’s easier to buy a cheap sump pump attached to a long hose. My drain hose burst this time, oh joy, so I need a stronger one. I want to send the water right into the eave-trough drain, not into the yard. Once I drain it, I climb in with a turkey baster and slurp out any residual sand or dirt or crud. Then I refill it, put in a new silver nitrate stick, change the filter and put the dirty one in a bucket of horribly caustic filter cleaner, and flip the breaker on. Once the water hits about 85º F, I can start the treatment process whenever I’m ready. No spar treatments until I’m happy with the balance.

Q: What do you treat it with?

A: The test strip checks for chlorine level, alkalinity, pH, and calcium hardness. It gets an ounce of chlorinator (which will boil off each week), however much baking soda it takes to raise the alkalinity (which will typically raise the pH as well), some more calcium if it needs it (shouldn’t, except when refilling), and three ounces of shock sanitizer. Thus, we are hitting biology with silver nitrate, chlorine, and shock (potassium peroxymonosulfate). On the first treatment, it’s a gradual process that requires several tests to get the alk and pH where they belong, without overshooting the sweet spot.

Q: Does it get gross when it’s time to drain and refill it?

A: Not with regular maintenance, but it will get sudsy. This is caused by the amount of total dissolved solids plus whatever action has happened on skin oil, stray pine needles, and so forth. If it starts to look like a bubble bath, it’s time to replace the water.

Q: Do you have to shower before you get in the spar?

A: No, but if you’re filthy, it’s the logical thing to do.

Q: Is it worth all that?

A: The expense and effort amount to about $60/month, five minutes once a week, and a couple hours of work three times a year. The payoff is when your whole body aches from a lot of lifting or hoisting or driving or walking, and you can get into a place that will dissolve the pain away. The payoff is when it’s freezing out, and you gaze up from your little amniotic cocoon through lodgepole boughs at the stars and moon, hoisting a libation with your best friend in a non-glass container. The payoff is the ability to make guests feel welcome and relaxed. Yeah, I’ll make that trade.

Q: Any advice for people thinking of getting one?

A: Spend a weekend at a resort where your room comes with a hot tub. Go hiking and get really sore, then come back and hit the tub. If you find you love that feeling, that’s a good sign. If you find you never want to go anywhere else but in and out of the tub, that’s also a good sign you would like and use one.

Get one with a lot of jets and enough pump to power them; pointless to get a tub with skimpy jets. Don’t get it from Costco, because everyone who sells them through Costco seems to go broke, which means no one to call with questions down the road. Look into buying a used one, because quite a few people don’t like them as well as they’d imagined, and wind up selling them at just-get-rid-of-it prices on Craigslist. (Don’t buy one without a manual and a copy of the original receipt, so you know the model, manufacturer, and store that sold it. Or if you do, make sure it’s very cheap.)

Make sure your electrical system can handle a new breaker, because there needs to be one hardwired and probably dedicated solely to the tub. Fairly sure it gets its own circuit, so spring for a professional electrician. Needs to sit on a very sturdy surface, such as a concrete pad; hope you have one. Plan to have a pro come out and walk you through it the first time, so s/he can check out its operation, answer all your what-does-this-dial-do questions, and tell you how to maintain it.