Bad Munchkins and Faulty Tacos: Not Nice to Have

There are certain “must-haves” when you look for a new house. In our case, we were primarily looking for a house with three bedrooms, and a somewhat specific location. After the must-haves, there is a somewhat longer list of “nice-to-haves” that every buyer has in mind, but this list has a tendency to change based on circumstances. For example, a large grassy yard might be on your nice-to-have list, but if you find a house that satisfies your must-haves, is the right price, and perhaps has some other nice-to-haves, you may begin telling yourself you didn’t really need that large grassy yard after all.

Having now bought two houses in my life, I know the nice-to-have list can change the minute you walk into a house. As in, hey, I never wanted a hot tub, but look at that hot tub over in the corner! Wow! Wouldn’t a hot tub be…nice to have? (The answer, it turns out, depends on how you feel about high-maintenance love/hate relationships that depend on chlorine.) Or: Wow! Is that a fish pond in the yard? You know, I’ve never wanted a pond, but now that you mention it that might be nice to have. (Answer: It’s ideal for quiet moments of contemplation and back yard fish kills.)

As we had our initial walk-through of the house we ended up buying in June 2009, it occurred to me that having a high-efficiency boiler with precisely-controlled heat zones would be nice to have. This happened shortly after I noticed the house had a high-efficiency boiler with precisely-controlled heat zones. It looked like something out of a nuclear submarine; the boiler itself was surprisingly small, about the size of an ottoman or Yao Ming’s head, and there were pumps to send water to the various heating zones around the house, one of which included a luxurious heated tile floor in the bathroom. (In Minnesota, that’s a damned-nice-to-have.)

When you buy a house, there are only so many things you can really do a deep dive on. You’d like to think the largest investment of your life would demand the ultimate in due diligence, but the reality is we spend about as much time sizing up the cars, dogs, guitars, or bikes we buy as we do the houses. Sure, you do a walk-through. You have an inspection. You make sure there are no obvious problems and you hire trained people to make that determination. But really, you’ve spent, what, a total of an hour or two in the house before you signed? When they hand over those keys after you sign the papers, there’s a whole world waiting for you that you have no ability to anticipate. Maybe that hot tub has a leak. Maybe the fish pond holds a dead cat in its depths. And maybe your fucking dream boiler is an expensive, complicated piece of shit that wasn’t installed correctly and nobody knows how to service.

The first sign of trouble was when I had my brother-in-law come take a look at the setup. He’s a licensed commercial boiler operator, my ace in the hole for boiler-related issues. When he opened the door and caught a glimpse of the Munchkin (that’s the name of the boiler…Munchkin, because it’s so small and stupid) he said, “Ohhhhhhhhhhh….kay.” He kind of pointed at the pumps and the piping and was like, “So…let’s see…that goes there…and…I’ve never really seen anything like this before.” Well, fine. To his credit, commercial boilers are a whole different deal. For example, they aren’t called Munchkins, are closer in size to the Ottoman Empire, and are usually installed by competent people. I should have known then I was screwed, but it was June, and after all, how could such an expensive, relatively new boiler have problems. Inconceivable!

November came and it was time to get my high-efficiency on; we fired up the Munchkin, and immediately there were problems. Some of the heat zones worked, some didn’t. Sometimes we had hot water for showers, sometimes we didn’t. (To be “efficient”, the hot water is driven by the boiler as well.) Sometimes we had heat from our radiators, sometimes we didn’t. Then, mostly we didn’t.

It was time to call the professionals.

Now, let me say straight off that I have high regard for the HVAC profession. Friend of Pipeline KevinD is just such a professional, and I have the utmost respect for his skill, integrity and beautiful eyes. (My mom once said “He should be in the magazines!” I didn’t ask which magazines she meant.) But KevinD is in Kansas, and the Munchkin is in Minnesota; thus began my tour of local jackassery in the HVAC business. Every time one of these guys would show up, they’d open the door, see the setup, and say something like “Oh, sweet Jesus!” Or, “Where’s the boiler? Oh, that’s it down there? That’s, um…I’m going to go out to my van and make a call. Just be a minute.” An hour later they were engaged in what I came to understand was exploratory surgery. Rather than be frank and say, “I have no clue what to do with that thing and you should call someone else”, they’d poke around, claim to have found this problem or that, order parts we didn’t need, and attempt to charge an outrageous sum. A sum I would have happily paid, had they actually ever corrected the problem.

Here’s a typical outcome, which happened more than once: “Well, sir, the problem is the igniter. That’s your problem, right there. We’ll just order you a new igniter and it’ll be good to go.” To which we’d say, “If it can’t ignite, why do we have hot water in some zones sometimes, but not in other zones at other times? How can we have hot water if the boiler can’t ignite?” They’d hem and haw and start to look around real nervous like the WCCO Fraudbusters team was going to jump out of a closet with their cameras rolling. “Uhh…I’m going to go out to my van and make a call. Just be a minute.” When you stump an HVAC guy, they go to the van. KevinD would actually go and make some calls; I think these guys just wept.

We temporarily solved our problems last winter by finding a regional sales rep for the boiler manufacturer. Thing is, he was also a regional sales rep for about 20 other companies as well. A real jack of all trades. He walks in and plugs a laptop into our boiler. No tools. Laptop. We had been calling Chevy mechanics to come deal with our Ferrari. He diagnosed all kinds of issues, got us up and running again, but had very bad news: Whoever installed this setup mucked it all up. The problem wasn’t necessarily the Munchkin, it was that the zones were piped all wrong, the thermostats were getting confused…basically our high-efficiency setup was very low-efficiency and would be prone to problems in perpetuity until we had things re-piped. (It will work with these issues, it’s just not efficient.) Then, as he left, he turned to me and said, in an apologetic but firm manner: “Listen—I’m not your boiler repair guy. I’ll recommend some people who might be able to help you, but I’m not your boiler repair guy. I’m just a salesman. Yes, I am a salesman who efficiently fixed your problem for a nominal, under-the-table fee. But I’m not your boiler repair guy. If you need some duct tape, industrial fasteners, or home security systems, though, give me a call.” And then he was gone. I called him later last winter when another boiler issue came up, but got his voicemail, which began “Hello. This is John. I’m not your boiler repair guy…”

Whatever John did got us through the mean season. The following spring, summer and fall were glorious as we enjoyed the hot tub, the fish pond, and hot water for showers. I may have even taken some naps on my heated bathroom tile floor. But November came, and it was go-time for the Munchkin. The things Jane said when the Munchkin did not respond…uglier words have never been uttered or contemplated in reference to Munchkins.

But this year, a twist-Rather than being the Munchkin, it turns out the problem was with the unit that controls the heating zones. This unit is called the Taco. Seriously, that’s the name of the company that makes it; I guess all the other logical heat zone control unit company names were taken, leaving them with the choice of Taco or Chile Relleno. I think they made the right call.

More service calls were required. Naturally, I was the one who had to deal with all of that, because I’m not having a guy come look at my wife’s Taco when I’m not around. To his credit, the guy who came was real up front. “I’ve never seen a boiler like that in my life, but I have seen a Taco unit like this before. Once.” He gazed into the distance as he recalled his previous run-in with the Taco, but his face and manner betrayed nothing about the outcome. Then he nodded resolutely and began taking the panel off the Taco. He managed my expectations beautifully by lowering them, but to his and my surprise, the fix was easy. He doesn’t know how it malfunctioned, which never inspires confidence, but he at least got it running. I have heat in all my zones, and the Munchkin and Taco are simpatico, for now.

And just in time—we got about six inches of snow yesterday. That is not a nice-to-have.

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Notches of the Lower 48

Friends of Pipeline DN and DW are going to the Northwest Angle, which I just recently learned is the name for that notch that sticks out of Minnesota and into Canada.  The Angle, is it’s known to the locals, is one of three places in the lower 48 that you can only reach by going through Canada, the others being some land mass out in Lake Champlain in Vermont, and a tiny island way up by Vancouver that is split by the international boundary and as recently as 1973 featured an ugly turn in American/Canadian relations.

But that’s not why I care about the Angle, so much.  I care because for all my life I’ve looked at that little notch that stuck out of Minnesota and wondered why anybody would bother creating a border like that.  As with most situations involving a border irregularity or dispute, lawyers were involved in the Northwest Angle’s creation, this time resulting from an interpretation of the Treaty of Paris.  Whatever the origin, the result is clear to anybody who looks at the map: We stuck it to Canada.  Well, Britain at the time.  But Canada ended up getting the shaft, as clearly the Northwest Angle (which is mostly part of the Lake of the Woods) should all be in Canada.  Alaska’s galling to lose, sure, but the Russians were also involved in some way there.  But the Northwest Angle?  That’s just embarrassing, to have a little notch of your country taken away like that.  A notch that doesn’t even matter; the U.S. just took it because they could.

Think that’s bad, though, look at Arkansas. Sure, you know Texas isn’t going to yield on the southwest corner.  (And boy, is Texarkana happy for that…)  But look at the way Missouri squeezes in up on the northeast corner.  Have some pride, Arkansas.  Even Oklahoma gets in on the act with that slanted border on the east side.  Oklahoma has to take what it can get, though, and that’s pretty much what it did.  You know you’re in rough country when you’ve got two panhandles beside each other, as with Oklahoma and Texas.  I crossed into the Oklahoma panhandle once from New Mexico at high rate of speed on a sunny day in a Nissan Pulsar T-Top.  Pipeline Person KR was at the wheel, Paul’s Boutique was on the stere, ere, o and for miles the sides of the highway were lined with deep green groundcover topped with bright yellow flowers.  As we crested a hill a valley sank from the gently rolling prairie, and inside the valley was a furry, shifting sea of black cattle and the deep brown soil of their immense stock yards.  Many cows, more than I thought possible.  But once out of the valley it was back to the rolling prairie, and then Kansas.  Sweet, sweet Kansas.

Clearly, though, no state has been so obviously wronged by another as Wisconsin has by Michigan.  What would Michigan be without it’s beloved Upper Peninsula?  Much smaller, for one.  It would be a hugely significant loss of real estate and character.  But anyone with eyes can see that the UP by all rights should be a part of Wisconsin, where it would be called Packerlander.  There would be a giant festival there called Sausage Fest.  And they would do Octoberfest for real, with the beer and the hearty serving wenches and the polkas.  But no.  It’s the UP instead.  Thanks, Wisconsin.

The most egregious notch in the lower 48 is that of Delaware, which is really just a part of Maryland that was carved out.  And yet Delaware was the first state, which makes it look like they didn’t know what they were doing the first time they tried it and had to go back for the rest to get it added on as Maryland.  I am aware there is a history related to how Delaware got created, but I’m just talking about how it looks today on the map.  And it looks to me like Maryland is doing Delaware a giant favor.  I don’t know where, but somewhere along the line Delaware’s founding fathers let the people of Delaware today down, as demonstrated by this dramatization.

Caesar Rodney: “I say, you mean we can just carve out any piece of this vast tract of land on the map and call it Delaware?  Jolly good.  And we get to be the first state?  Well, soil my knickers, Pierre, but what’s the right size for a state, do you think?  Whatever it is we’re to be the first state, which is a big honor, so let’s think extra big.  Not to mention, I’m going to ride 80 miles on horseback tonight, through a driving thunderstorm, to make all of this happen.  So let’s not hold back on how big we want to make Delaware.  Let’s go crazy.  Jolly good!”

Pierre Samuel du Pont de Numours: “Hail, Caesar!  There’s going to be hail in those thunderstorms; you’ll never make it to Philadelphia!”

But Caesar Rodney did make it, and as a result of large thinking today Delaware is the second-smallest state in the union and by the typology employed for our discussions here, a notch.  Now to be clear, I think Delaware was already laid out and Caesar Rodney’s midnight ride was only involved in Delaware being the first state to ratify the Declaration of Independence, which still makes his feat both historic and badass and thus perhaps an entrant to my human feat contest.  I merely used Caesar Rodney as an example of a famous Delawarian.  Fellow Delawarian Ryan Philippe will play him in the movie version of this midnight ride, if he hasn’t already.

I will post pictures of the Northwest Angle if they’ll send them to me.  Then we will debate which is better, the Northwest Angle or Four Corners.

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The Wild Turkey Party

Sure, Norm Coleman has had the database snafu, which is bad enough on it’s own terms.  But the most revealing part is his campaign’s laughable attempt to lay the blame for their error at someone else’s feet by claiming it was a “dirty tricks” campaign.  A parade of experts has made clear that Coleman’s camp not only ran an amateurish website and campaign finance operation, but they likely violated the law by not disclosing that they knew about the breach in January.

This reminds me of a story.  I once knew a man who ran for student body of a Big 12 school.  This man’s approach to the campaign was to mock the entire process and the people who took it seriously.  That said, he was a bright, large, charismatic guy, somewhat Keillor-esque, so he wasn’t viewed exclusively as a joke candidate; a lot of people knew him.  He ran on the Wild Turkey party because he found giant banners advertising Wild Turkey whiskey in a liquor store dumpster.  He then wrapped his mini-van in the banners and broadcast banjo music through a PA as he drove through campus.  At least, I want to remember it as banjo music.

His opposition, as a group, were Marmalard types who grew up on farms and had serious hard-ons for student government.  Election day comes and my friend wins by a slight margin.  Chaos spreads across campus as word gets out: the Wild Turkey Party has seized the machinery of student government!

But wait!  After two days, scandal erupts.  One of the polling places closed early.  Even worse, it was the one by the ag hall, which just happened to be a stronghold for the establishment party.  The campus newspaper devoted an entire issue to coverage of the election that hung in the balance and the decision to hold a new vote.  They also had extensive interviews with the losers of the first election, and the bitterness really flowed through the page.  Not only did they have some not nice things to say about their opponent, but they also predicted a handy victory in the next vote.  Well, the second vote came and they got their ass kicked by a much wider margin, because they really came off as jerks in the way they handled everything.

Now…I don’t know how my friend’s tenure turned out, because I left school.  It really may have been a disaster for student government.  Or, it could have been fun and productive, but gassy from too many cabinet meetings held at the Taco Slut.

But that’s not the point.  The point is that Norm Coleman reminds me of those guys who lost, and like them, Norm would get worked over much worse in his second–chance vote.

The fundraising’s probably not going so great right now, either.

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Unbeleivable Human Feat Synchronicity

That’s what’s happening here.  Late last night I issued a call to knowledge, for consideration of the greatest feats in human history.  I even suggested that going over Niagara Falls was a feat that bore consideration!  And today?  A distraught man leapt into Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls, plunged 180 feet into the icy water below, then resisted rescue and swam out into the river, weaving through ice floes to escape divers trying to save him.  It finally took a helicopter blowing him to shore with it’s blades (and severe hypothermia) to bring him in.  That is a feat.  But, I think you have to subtract points for the fact that he had a death wish in full effect.

So nice try, distraught guy.  Here’s a tip: If you want to drown, don’t swim.  But Philippe Petit is still the perpetrator of the greatest human feat, pending further considerations.

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Ted Williams in Cleveland

The other night I said to Pipeline Person CP, “I’ll bet the sports memoribilia market is really getting hammered in these tough economic times.”

CP: “You don’t think people are going to pay top dollar for those Brian Cardinal autographs?”

But some things retain their value, monetary and otherwise.  CP continued.  “My dad has a Ted Williams-autographed ball.  I’m pretty sure I told you this story before.”  It was true.  He had, but the only thing I could remember was that it was a great story.  No details.  I’m good that way.  But now I have the iPhone, and I take Notes.  Thumbs at the ready, the soft yellow glow of the notepad reflecting back on my face, I eagerly waited for him to continue.

“My dad grew up Cleveland, right, him and a friend go to an Indians game, hang around forever afterwards.”  (I forgot to ask CP what year this happened.  Is this the old, bitter crotch still tearing the cover off the ball towards the end, or the young, bitter crotch tearing the cover off the ball towards the beginning?) “Williams finally comes out, my dad asks him to sign his ball.  Williams kind of grunts or whatever, but he signs the ball and hands it back to my dad.  My dad’s friend holds out his ball and pen for his autograph.  Williams grabs the pen, hurls it into the street and snarls, ‘You get one fucking autograph!’, or something very close to that, and storms away.  Two guys, one ball, and it’s in a safety-deposit box right now.”

“Also, as the story goes, a car then ran over the pen.”

Memoribilia market or not, you can’t put a price on something like that.  Although perhaps CP’s dad’s friend could.

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What is the Greatest Human Feat?

After consideration of Philippe Petit’s feat of spanning the World Trade Center towers on a hi-wire, I can’t think of a single human feat that can top that.  Neal Armstrong doesn’t count, he had a lot of help.  Einstein coming up with the theory of relativity is debatable I suppose.  I guess I don’t consider that a feat.  I’m talking about things that make you go “Damn!”  I’m talking about feats.  Like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or Bob Beamon jumping 29 feet, or Lindburgh crossing the Atlantic.  Something that would generally impress the heck out of people from any time in history.

I haven’t seen the Man on Wire movie yet, but Linus and Lily watched an excerpt at school and I generally know the story.  It’s a pretty good story just to get the wire set up.

Nothing can beat Petit.  The tallest cliff dive ever?  The guy who held his breath underwater for almost 10 minutes?  George Brett hitting .390?  Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock?  Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie?  Rasputin?  Sadly, no.

What is the greatest human feat?

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Facebook Explosion!

From where I sit it appears that Facebook has reached critical mass in the last two months.  Not only are there more people from various points in my life coming online, but they are using more of the Facebook gadgets, something I absolutely did not foresee.  That, in turn, has me using the gadgets, and my wife, too.  For the first time last week Facebook started to feel like something more to me than just a portal to go play games on; there’s an actual conversation happening there.  It’s in very small pieces, and in some cases it’s just photos or a link or whatever, but there’s no question that it’s there.

Friend of Pipeline CC recently posted a review of two particular airlines there, the kind of thing that I ordinarily would have associated with a blog post.  Buy why not put that on Facebook, as he did?  More people will likely read it there, and it will be the people (in theory) who you most want to talk to anyway.  Targeted blogging, let’s say.  I can certainly see some advantages.  For one thing, there is site consolidation.  Maybe I don’t have to deal with WordPress and can just do Facebook, although WordPress is no problem to use.

But…there needs to be a Pipeline.  Facebook pages all look the same to me.  I like that blogs, even via a template like WordPress, take on their own character.  Also, I sometimes publish questionable material (quality and/or taste) that on Pipeline I can at least pretend has a certain anonymity to it.  I don’t think I could do that on Facebook if that was my sole outlet.

I’m told that I could do the same with Twitter, if I were a part of that deal, which so far I am not.  This may not be a fair characterization because I’m not familiar with Twitter, but I’m striving for longer-form content of decent quality, not shorter form status and spur-of-the-moment pith.  Reading people’s Facebook statuses, it’s clear many people can come up with a daily clever saying of 50 characters or less.  But how many people can take that same simple concept, stretch it out to 1200 words, add an average of 20 extraneous commas per post, and call it a blog?

One, at least.

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