Thursday, February 18, 2010


When I bought this house I was so excited about owning a whole HOUSE that I invited everyone to come visit. I figured the shed made a good extra bedroom and had all kinds of improvements in mind so vividly that I could see them already! It took a while to realize I’d gotten myself into hot water. I’ve always lived in decrepit old rentals and improvised a lot, but it soon became apparent that my guests have not.

The only guy who seemed perfectly okay was the “worm man,” an expert who came to look for extinct worms in the Sweetgrass Hills but got stonewalled by everyone up there who had been telling me about them only a few months earlier. In fact, even the guy he was supposed to stay with turned him away. So he stayed in my shed and liked it. When I asked him, he said that he’d stayed in plenty worse. I asked him where and he said “the Philippines” where lizards were everywhere and the bathroom was just a hole in concrete. He even understood about the hot water.

The hot water heater is in the crawl space -- a crawl space is just the dirt under the floor. Someone previous to me had dug out this crawl space so you don’t have to crawl -- you can stoop and it’s tall enough to put the hot water heater there, which is evidently why they dug it out -- so there’d be more space in the kitchen.

This water heater is gas and fairly modern but I keep it turned low to save money. It has some kind of electronic programming but evidently not for this time zone. Maybe a time zone on the moon. One shouldn’t just bop into the shower without testing the current “hot” water temp to see if you’re in sync with a bearable temp. If it’s too cool to suit, one runs a lot of water in a sink about an hour in advance, which will cause cold water to run into the water heater (VERY cold since the water is off the Rockies). That will make it turn on and get plenty hot. But you don’t want to forget that you’re waiting for hot water and go shopping or something, so that the gas to heat the water is wasted.

In the house where I grew up in Portland, which was built about the same time as this one (Thirties), though times were more advanced in the big city. The hot water heater was in a proper basement but was not automatic. The tank was the regular kind but the heating part was old-fashioned gas that looked like a whiskey still. One went down to the basement, opened a door in the side of a tube-shaped chamber with a coil of copper inside, struck a match, and held it to the bottom of the coils where the gas came out, propping the door open with your arm, while turning a key to let the gas in.

What I never got straight was whether to strike the match and turn the key, or turn the key and strike the match. The wrong order meant an explosion and since I had trouble propping the door, once enough gas accumulated to make a big enough explosion that it blew my eyebrows off. I was about ten. After that I refused to even go into the basement again until my mother got tired of my cowardice and forced me to go light the heater, smacking my legs with the yardstick when I balked. It was also important to remember to turn the water heater OFF because otherwise it kept cooking away until the tank was in danger of a REAL explosion, one that would blow the house apart. People lived dangerously in those days.

Here in this little house I put a “telephone” head in the shower to avoid the kind of shocks (either hot or cold) that makes a person leap out the door (it’s a glass booth) scattering water in every direction. The idea is to unhook it and point away from one’s body until the temp is known. I also use three kinds of soap: Irish Spring for the bod, Oil of Olay for the face, and funny slurpie stuff in a tube that smells like veggies or flowers just for the fun of it. So when my company heads for the shower, I give them a little explanation. The worm man loved it. (“Wait until I tell my wife!” he said.) My great uncle said, “Well, it’s just like a motel, isn’t it?” And his partner, who worked in a hospital, wanted to know whether I bleached the shower stall daily. (Ulp. Nope.)

I did NOT give them the pitch I got from friends in upscale Hollywood who were up on one of those spectacular ridges in a time of drought. Guests were asked to lather up from a bucket, then rinse as efficiently as possible because there was little water available and the septic tank (hacked out of rock) filled up so quickly that once everyone had to be sent home from a party until the honeytruck came.

Luckily, my cleanliness standards are very low and I’m among those who finds body odor interesting. (No pee please.) My cousin the gardener hates to be sweaty and in summer can take as many as five showers a day. These are teenager-type showers lasting a long time. Her bathroom counter sports more kinds of lotions and creams than my shower has soaps.

My real passion is soaking in the bathtub, preferably with a book. I never worked up much interest in the battalions of candles shown in movie bathrooms, because you really can’t read in the bathtub by candlelight. In fact, since I started to develop cataracts, I would need a good strong reading light in a bathtub, which is a bit of a problem, since electricity and water don’t mix. It’s not a problem in this house because I took the bathtub out in order to find room for the shower. The bathtub is out in the backyard now and I grow tomatoes in it in the summertime. But sometimes I’m sorry about that. It would feel so good to soak my butt in winter. When I’m rich, I’ll get a hot tub. With grab bars.

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