Comes a time in life when you realize that you can’t hang onto everything you have. Most of us have had that feeling sitting behind the wheel of the car. The odometer might say 65,000 miles, or it might say 149,000 miles (depending on how great a risk-taker you are with respect to cars), and a little voice goes off that the time is near to trade it in, before the next big expensive repair — or, worse yet, before the next big expensive repair that presents itself in the dark of night, 150 miles from home on the eve of some demanding workday.
I had the feeling recently with respect to my business, and I realized that it was time to take on some partners before I keeled over at the desk and left a dozen employees, several dozen deliverers and freelance writers, and 19,000-plus loyal readers without a viable business continuity plan.
Now, sitting here at the edge of Wrighter Lake, nearly 2,000 feet above sea level and a merciful 10 degrees cooler than the asphalt of central New Jersey, I am having that same feeling, this time about the now 50-year-old cottage, built by a professional builder named (appropriately) Steve Upright with considerable help from my father and brother-in-law, and some incidental assistance provided by a then 15-year-old first-born son.
My parents eventually sold the place to me. The recent years have not been kind to the cottage. My immersion in the publishing business and aversion to do-it-yourself handyman projects have only hastened its deterioration.
Relegating the family cottage to tear-down status is not done without some emotional considerations. The back screen door still has the outline of a message etched by my mother to my younger brother: “Hi Doug.” The rest of the greeting is lost to the ages. But reality sometimes trumps romanticism. As my father stated flatly a year or so before his death at the age of 92, as he inspected the 2-by-4s I had used to prop up a rotting section of roof above a deck: “Don’t you think it’s time to tear this place down?”
Yes, it is time. And I take advantage of the moment to think what I might miss most about the old cottage. It won’t be the 1960s architecture and its then trendy features — think of doors with louvered “jalousie” windows, also popular in mobile homes of that era.
The obvious appeal of the cottage has been its location on the edge of the spring-fed lake, rather than its physical plant. The only mechanical feature of the old cottage I am likely to miss is the shallow well pump that brings water up from the lake.
Getting the water running has been an annual challenge at the old cottage. This year I failed to get the water running on the opening weekend. The obvious problem: a leaking joint where two pieces of two-inch PVC pipe had been joined together years ago. Since there is no hardware store within 20 miles of the lake, I waited until the next visit to rectify the problem with two additional C-clamps.
That problem solved, I tried to restart the pump. This time I encountered a new problem. There was air in the system and it needed to be “bled,” an easy problem to solve if you just open the cap at the top of the pump and allow the air to escape. But the cap, tightened down on the previous weekend at the lake, was stubborn. I tried to open it with my largest adjustable wrench, a 12-inch “crescent” wrench made — in Japan — of “forged chrome vanadium.” I put all my strength to it and held the pressure for four, five, or possibly six seconds, thinking of my father’s advice for opening a difficult jar — it’s not just the amount of pressure but it’s also the length of time you apply the pressure.
Still no luck. No problem, I thought, this has happened before. The solution was the 16-inch Craftsman heavy duty pipe wrench (made in the U.S.A., I might add). With its 33 percent greater leverage the pipe wrench was a reliable problem solver.
Not this time. So I turned to my weapon of last resort: The hammer. Here the strategy was simple. Tighten up the pipe wrench and flail away at the end of it with the hammer. It was an inelegant solution but it had never failed me in the past. This time it did. Twenty or thirty flailings later I gave up, and began to ponder the prospects of a second weekend in a row without running water.
At that point, I heard a voice: My father, cracking a joke aimed at less-than-accomplished do-it-yourselfers. “Don’t force it,” the voice said. “Use a bigger hammer.”
That was a joke, of course. Resorting to a hammer of any size means you already are “forcing” it. But behind the joke was some logic. Try driving some nails with a 12-ounce hammer and then with a 16-ounce model. The difference is, well, striking. I looked at my hammer — it was 16 ounces. I began to rummage around the cottage looking for a larger hammer. All I found was another 16-ounce hammer.
Then came the idea, the kind of idea you get when you are both out of your comfort zone and facing the prospect of a second weekend in a row without running water: What if I taped the two hammers together, and used that 32-ounce weapon to flail at the end of the pipe wrench? Thank god for duct tape. The newly crafted tool gave me the force to loosen the cap and bleed the air out of the system. Sweetheart, you can flush the toilet now.
The new cottage will have a small basement, with a well, and a year-round water system that will probably require a visit from a licensed plumber when it needs repair. As the weekend ended, I jumped in the car and took a nostalgic look back toward the boathouse where the pump is located. I’ll miss it, I thought, but I also know it’s time for the change, just as I figured out it was time for the business to change as well.
One down, one to go. I started up the RAV 4 and headed off for the main road and the 150-mile drive home and a busy Monday at the office. The odometer, I noticed, read 66,000 miles. One down, two to go.