Monday, February 28, 2011


My poor innocent coat closet has become the focus of my attention lately.  It's one of those under-the-stairs closets, that goes back about three miles, with the ceiling getting ever lower.  Jon and I have often talked about hiring a carpenter to create a little door in the stair wall so that we can access the back end of the closet (i.e. the Christmas decorations) without having to dig through all the stuff in front of it.  But that's not what I'm doing now.  I am going to gut the interior, cover it with beadboard and paint the whole thing white, even the floor.  I may install shelves in the deep interior.  I might attempt a painted floor pattern, like black and white diamonds.  I have always wanted to do a painted floor.  When we lived in Michigan, I had a friend who painted all the wood floors in her old farmhouse a pale periwinkle.  I thought it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen.

Why fill my house with dust and get mouse droppings in my hair to fix up a tiny space that no one even sees?  Because cute closets are enchanting.  They're like a stunning silk lining in a coat or handbag.  You know it's there, even if no one else does. 

Today I took some photos and did some planning.  Jon thinks I should tack the beadboard on top of the drywall, which might be easier, but presents some problems.  I don't like doing anything half-assed. 

The photos:

From the outside.  The deadbolt has a toggle on the inside, so you can lock yourself in the closet, something Seamus has done many times.  There's no key.   Maybe this will become my happy place after the project is finished.

Look!  A picture of our coats on the internet.

The squeezed down place far behind the coats.

A previous owner slapped up some drywall.

Not very professionally.
One reason I need to gut this closet and not just put the beadboard over the drywall.

These cobwebs date all the way back to 1999.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Pointless Necessity

I'm reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. This post isn't really about that, although, if you have six weeks to devote to serious reading, you might want to try it.  It's not easy.  I'm having a terrible time keeping track of all the peoples--the Megarians, the Boetians, the Chalcidians, the wily Corinthians--and who is on which side.  I don't know who to route for.  I sort of assumed I'd be on Athens' side, but sometimes I like the Spartans.  The real beauty of this work is the elegant speeches.  The Hellenes argue, persuade and threaten in language that is as beautiful as poetry. These people had a way with words, which makes them fascinating and more than a little sexy, even after 2,600 years. 

Ian is a classics major, which may be why I turned to Thucydides.  When he still lived at home, Latin and Greek texts were piled on every flat surface.  Everybody says, "What's he going to do with a classics major?"  I always say "teach," because that is reassuring to people, but he might not teach.  He might wait tables and live in a drafty attic apartment cluttered with books, beer bottles, and overfilled ash trays.  It's cruel to take a kid who is passionate about something ephemeral and force him to be an accountant. It's sad that higher education has become glorified trade school.  Responsible people, we are told, major in something that is guaranteed to generate an income.  Is that so?  What losses would we suffer if everybody restricted themselves to business, law, or medicine?    

I was an accounting major for my first semester of college.  My father pushed me into it. I tried all kinds of arguments to persuade myself I wanted to be an accountant, but I knew it was a hopeless endeavor.  Accounting may be sensible, but to me it was pointless.  I began the process of joining the business sorority.  This was run by a truly dreadful group of girls who gave new pledges a list of tasks--a veritable cleaning of the Stygian Stables-- that we had to complete if we wanted to be allowed in.  These were mostly collecting the signatures--daily--of a long list of professors and members of a business fraternity.  I believe there was an absurd, prissy dress code as well.  I left the sorority office in a daze and ran into Jon--we were just friends then--and sobbed out the whole story.  He calmly took the paper on which I was supposed to collect all those signatures and scrawled FUCK OFF across it in huge block letters.  Thus ended my brief foray into the business world and also began a relationship of mutual loathing between myself and the girls of the business sorority.  I switched majors to English.

But I am forgetting my point.  Something about Thucydides and being impractical.  After college, my life plan was to have lots and lots of babies and be a domestic goddess while writing brilliant American fiction.  I had the babies, and if I wasn't exactly a domestic goddess, I practically invented shabby chic, long before Rachel Whatshername, and I baked all our bread myself and made little hand-smocked dresses and quilts and hand-knit sweaters, but the fiction never materialized.  I know, the same story as about 10 million other people.  I became a brief devotee of the practical and went back to school for something that guaranteed an income.  When I got my job, I actually thought that now, at last, I would be able to write.  My reasoning went something like, "I'll be divorcing 'source of income' from 'writing' and so will be truly free to write. Didn't Anthony Trollope write all those novels while working full time for the postal service?"  Hah!  Hah hah fucking hah. 

Now I am thinking that if I really want to write, I need to chuck nursing and wait tables.  Then my job will be mindless and stress-free.  Going to work will be like going to a party and I will pocket generous tips and then spend glorious mornings writing.  Or so it seems from the ugly world of running my ass off for sick people, twelve hours a day.

Am I seriously going to quit the job for which I earned a second degree and had to pass a national licensing exam?  To serve food and drinks?  Probably not but I do feel that by buying into the practical, I sacrificed something more important than a guaranteed income.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rubber stamp maker conveys!

Thanks to the input of Tiffany and my friend's husband, who emailed me off the blog, I now know that the mystery machine is a rubber stamp maker.  The "gas hook up" is actually a hydraulic oil line.

Here is my friend's husband's opinion. (I hope he doesn't mind me quoting directly from his email.)

The heavy bottom Thing is a hydraulic press, actuated by the levers on one side.   You crank the levers to force the two hot plates towards each other.  There's a pressure indicator on the front panel.  This functionality is what makes the thing heavy - you can increase pressure to probably thousands of pounds per square inch (the pressure dial indicates TONS!).  To withstand that pressure takes a lot of steel.

So this thing is made to press and heat something....

I doubt you can take apart the heavy part of this device - the frame and press and heating plates.  It's going to have to go in one piece.

You'll need to get down there with crowbars, come-alongs or winch, and some cable or chain, build ramps with some plate steel (thick and heavy in its own right), and pull it out of there with a jeep or something.  it probably weighs about 500lbs.
I imagined Jon, at the wheel of a jeep, the thing attached behind by a tow chain.  Then I saw a rubber stamp making machine-shaped hole in the side of the house.  Then I succumbed to a fit of the giggles.  In the wild ride that has been my marriage, massive destruction to our house's foundation fits in nicely.  I may try to freecycle it as Jocelyn suggested, but whoever takes it has to sign a waiver that I'm not responsible for any injuries caused by hauling it away.

Who knew that making rubber stamps is such a heavily industrial process?  And who ever thought of doing it at home?  

So the Thing will sit, until we can muster the materials and manpower to get rid of it, which I predict will be never.  Which means we can never sell our house.  Not that we were planning to, but one has to think of these things.  I don't want to live in Charlottesville forever.  The other day I imagined a chapter of my imaginary autobiography, titled "The Charlottesville Years" and I was comforted by the implication--even in fantasy--that my time in this town is finite, that some day I will live somewhere--anywhere--else.

Even before the problem of the Thing, I'd been apprehensive about putting our house on the market.  It's unthinkable to expose my sweet little vernacular farmhouse to the scrutiny of people who will wrinkle their foreheads and say, "Where is the master bathroom?"  "Where are the closets?"  "Why is the only shower on the first floor?"  (You get USED to it, honey.)

But now this piece is going in a different direction from which I had intended and I will use my mental winch to tear myself away from the "I hate Charlottesville" piece I've been writing in my head for years. 

So thank you Tiffany and Boris, and a special shout-out to bythelbs for the funniest comment:

It's obviously a time machine. Hook up the gas, plug those mangy stray wires in somewhere and warp yourselves back to the day before you closed on your house and tell your younger, more naive selves that when the sellers ask if they can leave their "printing press" in your basement, say "No effing way."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mystery Machine

The day we closed on our house, in 1999, we were very eager to move in and were somewhat nonplussed to discover, after driving directly from our lawyer's office to our new house, that the previous owners hadn't quite finished moving out.  In that last-minute, hurried transfer of ownership, the previous owners thoughtfully gave us a box of random helpful bits--the missing hardware to the bathroom windows, for example-- a stack of important documents, a list of helpful hints for settling in to our new house--"there's no key to the bottom lock on the front door and a leaping dog can lock you out of your own house" (which has happened to us, many times)--and then as an afterthought, said, "Oh, by the way, there's this ______ in the basement that's too heavy to move, do you mind if we just leave it here (forever)?"  We were so pathetically grateful to these people for selling us their house, that we said it was fine, no problem, whatever.

So the object was named to us, but Jon and I can't agree on what was said.  I remember hearing "printing press."  Jon remembers "engraver."  It doesn't matter, they could just as easily have said "ocean liner" or "nuclear bomb" or "bank vault" to name a few items in its weight class.   I noticed it has a gas hook up.  For years I thought (and sometimes said out loud) "Why would a printing press need a gas hook-up?"  And Jon would say, "It's not a printing press, it's an ENGRAVER," which begs the question:  why would an engraver need a gas hook up?  Just today, we had this exchange.

Me:  I need a photograph of that Thing in the basement, for my blog.

Jon:  It's an engraver.

Me:  Why does an engraver need a gas hook up?

Jon:  It's a power engraver.

It occurred to me that it might be an autoclave.  The previous owners were an architect and a writer.  What would they be doing with an autoclave?

Over the years, every time I scheduled a large trash pick up--at which times we unloaded all the other unwieldy items left in the basement by the previous owners, such as the superfluous, moldy, electricity-guzzling refrigerator--I would suggest we try to get rid of the Thing and Jon would say it was too heavy.  That someone actually managed to get it into the basement boggles the mind. It occurred to me that this tale of a "printing press" might be a lot of hooey and that the Thing is a UFO that the builders couldn't budge, so they built our house around it.

It sat there, right next to the doorway between the "new" basement and the "old" basement, a short six or seven feet from the outside.  We figured it wasn't doing us any harm sitting there, although I knew if we ever tried to sell this house, the buyers would insist that we remove it and would probably do something tiresome like charge us hundreds of dollars for every day it sat in the basement after closing.

At any rate, the Thing was only causing us theoretical harm until one day last summer when Ian and his friend decided they would haul it out of the basement and sell it for scrap metal. These two strapping boys were unable to get it out of the basement, but they did manage to knock it over and now it is lying on its side, blocking the doorway between the new basement and the old basement. If I thought no one would buy our house with the Thing standing harmlessly against the wall, would anyone buy it like this?


Isn't that fantastic?  Isn't that absolutely-freaking fabulous? It weighs ten tons, by the way and almost certainly cracked the basement floor when it fell, and possibly caused a small earthquake.

Since I have little occasion to descend to the basement, the blocked door went unnoticed until Ian was conveniently (for him) away at school. Since the business end of the basement is under the old part of the house, every time we need to access the furnace or the hot water heater or the old paint cans, or Jon's tool bench, or the circuit breakers,  we have to climb over the Thing.  It is slightly too big to straddle, especially because the old basement is one step lower than the new one.  The metal bit on the top is unstable.  Stepping on it is to risk a face plant into the mud-and-crickets that coats our basement floor.  The only light in the basement is one of those string-pull things, conveniently located on the far side of the Thing, forcing us to climb over it into pitch darkness and then go groping for the string.

Of course I have suggested taking it apart, but Jon seems to feel this would be impossible.  The one part that looks like it might come off easily is the flimsy bit of metal that we have to stand on to get into the basement.  When the previous owners said this thing is heavy, they weren't exaggerating.  It is staggeringly, stupendously heavy.  It weighs more than my piano but is less than half its size.  It rests on a heavy metal base--made of plutonium, I suspect--that is apparently one with, or at least welded to the rest of the Thing. 

Note the  levers.

The gauges and dials:

The gas hook up. (There is also a mangy power cord.)

The spaghetti mess of wires: (The orange extension cord is not part of the machine, but had the bad luck to be lying in the Thing's path when it fell.)

And we still haven't figured out what it is. If you, dear reader, can tell from these dark photographs, what this machine is supposed to be, you are a genius and I will honor your name by linking back to your blog or site or a charity of your choice or whatever.

Edited to add that I just realized that our Thing looks very much like the mechanical alien that terrorizes Wallace & Gromit in the short film "A Grand Day Out." Maybe my theory about an extra-terrestrial origin is correct.