Thursday, January 26, 2012

Being a Good Stranger

This week, I've learned to cut and help thread and assemble 2 inch cast iron pipe to outfit a new oil tank. This is not like other plumbing I've faked my way through in life. Cast iron pipe in a 2 inch diameter has about as much give as 2 inch cast iron pipe. Oh yeah. Right, so the pieces really need to meet up exactly. The threads are cut with a very serious piece of power equipment that can lift a large person off the ground if it becomes fetched up, misaligned, or there is not enough oil squirted on it. Nowhere in my farming, musicking, fishing, lawyering or home fixup have I done this before. My mentor can do it all asleep.

Installing circulation pumps. Cracking old very medieval cast iron drains. Rolling, documenting and dollying gas bottles. Refreshing my feeble knowledge of cutting, cleaning and soldering copper pipe. I've only torched a couple, but I'm watching a master and paying attention. Taking apart oil burners and learning the components. Many new puzzlers over how things work, where does that pipe go, what's this for, how long does it take for a soldered joint to cool down, what is that rash on my arm.

Being new at things is probably really good for the brain. In my rock hopping, I've had more than the usual middle aged man's share of being the new guy in the office, on the boat, on the construction site, in the school environment, at the bar. I sometimes feel envious watching masters, people who have long term devotion to a particular skill, being such a jack myself. More often, though, I love the buzz I get from adapting and integrating in unfamiliar places, groups and tasks. I actually think that this is a distinct skill set as much as being a master plumber or tax lawyer. I'm a master novice. It is a rich experience.

I'm still in my first month on a new street on a different island working a new job. Even tasks and tools I'm somewhat familiar with are challenging in a new context. The super fancy chop saw with the laser sight and automatic dust collector stymied me for a few minutes until I found the "on" switch. No chop saw I'd ever used had such a thing. I just plugged 'em in and pulled the trigger. Meanwhile, the plumber is waiting for a 15 7/8" piece of 2X4. A hundred of these challenges present themselves every day and there is a gradual sense of how to rapidly and quietly fit into the new niche.

A few pointers for any of you thinking about diving into the novel situation. Have big ears, big eyes and a small mouth. Talk and joke enough to assure everyone you're not a poorly programmed antisocial animatronic device, but watch, listen, breath in the details. Pay close attention to unfamiliar words. Memorize where things are. Don't be afraid to take on a completely new and alien task. Do be afraid of breaking things or making mistaken assumptions. Ask questions quietly, and don't ever, ever try to sound like you know something about something you don't really know about. Let people get to know you, but don't rush it. Take an interest in the interests of your new people. Smile. Absorb. Forgive your own awkwardness.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Temporary Normalcy Adventure

Today is Monday. I did not work yesterday. I did work today as a plumbing assistant. My work schedule is Monday through Friday 7 am to 4 pm. This is remarkable in my life. Work begins and ends at particular times instead of flooding into or eluding and thwarting me during every possible moment and configuration of days.

The furnace needed to go in through a bulkhead entrance. First puzzle: Bulkhead doors open approximately 3 inches- several feet short of the gap through which a boiler will fit- because two new decks and stairways were constructed too close on either side. Doors must be detached from their hinges. Having been detached from my hinges myself, I can say that the doors came through it a lot better than I do.

Second puzzle: cellar stairs have to come out, but are screwed into the concrete floor and fitted extremely snugly against the concrete walls. After undoing the anchor screws, the process of trying to lever the staircase out is unsuccessful. Taking off one piece at a time in hopes of removing only just enough to get the assembly out works great, except that "just enough" means every last piece gets unscrewed.

The furnace is lowered thanks to a hydraulic boom truck- very handy thing. I'm much more used to a bunch of guys shoving, swearing and in disorderly but effective fashion moving heavy things with only a grudging tolerance or complete indifference to the concept of planning for the effects of mass and gravity. The boiler and oil tank are in within 5 minutes. Preparing the way required an hour's action by the puzzle squad.

Puzzle three: test plugs that don't fit in bath tub drains. Another process I never gave any thought to was checking new plumbing for leaks. My method is to wait for drips from the ceiling or other incontrovertible evidence of leakage. The pros substantially complete the system and then put caps or plugs on all the pipes and drains and use an air compressor to huff and puff and stuff a lot more air in the pipes than would comfortably fit at sea level atmospheric pressure. As the air seeks somewhere less crowded to go, we watch the pressure gauge for nice dry evidence of leakage.

One little obstacle today is that the bath tub has both a drain and an overflow opening. Plugging the pipe far enough down to catch both air escape routes is not an option. Unfortunately, the tub drain is a wee bit too big for one plug and way too small for another. Solution? Not duct tape. Not a paper clip. Process of elimination leaves only one other possibility: Rubber bands. They provide just enough additional circumference to get a good seal, though the first time Rex charges the system...pop! goes the innovative hybrid plug. Next time, I twist a little harder on the wingnut. Not as messed up as it sounds. And it holds.

Thus goes the day. The day with a schedule. Not the coin flip of having to either go like buggery or be idled depending on sunrise, wind direction or when high tide is. Tomorrow the schedule will be the same. How about that? Two days in a row!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Generosity to a Stranger

New situations are usually invigorating for me. New locations, work, people. A new route to the grocery store. A different pub. Learning where lightswitches are, how to work different machines. Learning faces and names. I love traveling, especially when the adventure is shared with others who also enjoy the new.

Our first seasonal migration to North Haven was not immediately such an experience for me. After the first couple of days where I had the initial rush of experiencing the new house footprint, neighborhood, beer store, school, community center and airport, I had to go back to Matinicus because that's where work was, along with many, many hastily abandoned tasks to be completed.

I have also had epic amounts of financial stress, guilt and shame. Since the decision to move was made, there was not one minute of a day of the last 3 months when I wasn't pinched in the abdomen worrying about imminent bankruptcy. A new household to pay for. The old one to hold onto. Transport. Lisa and I both trying to get new businesses off the ground and neither having anything approaching full time work.

Things happened gradually, then suddenly. The biggest was that in the midst of up- all- night despair and thoughts off auctioning my body parts to research facilities and non stop door to door, phone and email begging for work, a kind soul offered me a job. It's work I enjoy doing and will keep me busy and help me catch up with the encyclopaedic sheaf of overdue bills I've been stuffing out of sight.

Now I'm back with a light heart enjoying the business of fitting in to a new community. I went bike exploring today up the South Shore Road. I came back well frozen. I am a child roaming a new place. Monday, I will try to honor the generosity Mr. Crockett showed in taking a chance on a stranger.