Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Loosely paraphrased - 'Stuff Gets Broke'.

This past week has been a tad. . . frustrating.  And I don't always deal well with frustration.  God's approach to me in this regard sometimes comes to seem like, 'Just keep sending him more of it, until he figures out how to do it right'.  Which could account for all sorts of ways my life has gone that I wouldn't exactly have planned. . .  But, I digress. . .

Last week, I was overdue for a tire rotation on my car.  When you drive 40k+ miles/year, like I do, getting an extra 5k-10k miles out of a set of tires is non-trivial, so I try to be pretty punctilious about doing tire rotations.  I used to be able to get them done at the oil-change place that I visit roughly monthly (and those regular oil changes are a major factor in the fact that my car has 267k miles on it, and still going strong; just sayin'), but the oil-change place broke their lift, and they've subsequently decided that the money they stand to make from things like tire rotations, for which they need a lift, doesn't outweigh the cost of a new lift.  So tire rotations suddenly became significantly more complex in my life.

No matter, though; Jen and I worked out a pretty satisfactory arrangement, whereby, every couple months or so, when I'm due for a tire rotation, we swap cars, and she takes my car to the tire place where we bought the tires, which just happens to be around the corner from her job, and they do the rotation as part of the 'tire maintenance plan', at a greatly reduced cost.  So, win-win.

This arrangement has the side benefit that I get to drive Jen's car at least every couple months, so I can loosely keep track of how her car is doing, and identify any maintenance needs that she might not notice.

Anyhow, last week, we swapped cars, and my tires got duly rotated.  I was driving Jen's car down the freeway toward home at the end of my work day when, for whatever reason, I reached for the clutch pedal (both our cars have manual transmissions).  And it wasn't there!  I mean, when my foot went to the 'clutch-pedal-space' under the dashboard, there was no pedal there.  I did a quick inventory of pedals, finding the accelerator and the brake, but the clutch pedal was missing in action.  I felt around a bit more, and found it, flat against the firewall, and totally useless.  Uh-oh. . .

Fortunately, I made this discovery pretty early in my homeward commute, so I had the better part of an hour to work through in my mind what might be going on, and how best to handle it.  We had replaced the clutch in that car just a couple years ago, so it seemed unlikely that the problem was in the clutch itself, and was probably in the pedal mechanism.  As long as I was on the freeway, without any need to change gears, I was fine.  The problem would come when I got off the freeway and had to stop, or change gears.  So I planned, if necessary, to pull the car off to the side of the 'surface road' and call for a tow, if I needed to.

As I got off the freeway, I could see ahead that the traffic light was just turning red.  Dang it!  So I braked, slowing to a virtual crawl, trying to hit the light while I was still rolling.  But the car was still in 5th gear from the freeway.  So, I made some attempts to drop into a lower gear, shoving the shift lever around, hoping it would clunk in to one of the lower gears.  Just as the light turned green, I got it to clunk into 2nd gear, which allowed me to speed back up from a near-standstill and continue on.  So, I turned on my 4-way flashers, and limped on down the road in 2nd gear.  Eventually, I was able to clunk it into 3rd gear, which was a little better for limping down the road.  I adopted a strategy of alternately coasting and accelerating, trying to leave a good long distance between me and the car ahead of me, so I could hit as many traffic lights green as possible, knowing that, if I ever had to come to a full stop, I was probably done.

I managed to limp the car all the way into my own driveway like that, and then from our house to the mechanic, three blocks away.

So - yay, and all that.  Pat myself on the back for being so clever.  But, we still haven't had the use of Jen's car for the past week.  And, it being a nine-year-old car with 252k miles on it, it was an open question as to whether or not this was even a repair worth doing, or whether it was time to say farewell, and thanks, to a car that had served us well.

Turns out the problem is in the slave cylinder in the hydraulic clutch system, which was part of the clutch replacement from two years ago, and it's under warranty.  So, the replacement will end up costing only $300 or so, instead of the four-figure numbers that flash in my head every time I hear the word 'clutch'.  And even better, one of our neighbors (who is also a member of our Christian community) has given Jen more-or-less free use of their 'spare car'.  So, while it's been a significant disruption, it hasn't been nearly as bad as it might have been.


For years, Jen has gotten by with buying a rebuilt vacuum cleaner every few years, rather than buying a new one.  And it's been OK, but we do end up spending a fair bit of time with our vacs in for repairs.  For most of those years, I've been hearing ads on the radio in my car for Oreck vacuum cleaners, and how light they are, and how powerful, etc, etc, etc.  And they've seemed to have good customer ratings, when I've checked them out.  So, every few years, I've asked Jen if she might rather get a new Oreck, than buy another rebuilt vac, but she's always waved me off, and said she's just fine with the used ones.

This past spring, though, for whatever reason, when our most recent used vac went to vac-heaven, she told me she was ready.  "Let's just go ahead and get that Oreck you keep trying to get me to buy."  So, we went on-line, and it turned out that the model we were most interested in was on sale.  So, we bought it, and vacuum-cleaner life was good.

Now, these most recent hot summer days have induced our kids to spend more of their time indoors than they might normally do in the summertime.  And our family room shows the effects of their modified strategy, mainly in the form of a copious coating of crumbs, from various and sundry chips, crackers, slices of toast, etc, etc, etc.  So, late last week, as I walked through the family room upon returning home from work, I noticed the remarkable abundance of crumbs, grabbed the first kid I saw, and told him to vacuum the family-room carpet.  "I can't," he said.

What?!?  You CAN'T?!?!?  Why not??

"Because the vacuum cleaner is broke."

I looked for Jen.  "The vacuum cleaner is broken?"  She nodded sadly.  The belt had snapped, rendering it virtually useless for cleaning carpets.  So, we had to take the vac in to get fixed.  And we, um, had a bit of trouble locating the warranty papers, which did nothing to ease the stress/frustration levels.  At least, we could borrow the neighbor's vac to get rid of the carpet crumbs. . .


Finally, Sunday morning, after church, we were preparing for our semi-regular Sunday Brunch.  We were having a few guests in, since we were having our 'family observance' of 5M's 20th birthday (we hardly ever observe birthdays on the day itself; sometimes the observance can lag the actual birthday by weeks; it's a big-family thing; you wouldn't understand).  Somewhere along the line, we discovered that the kitchen sink wasn't draining.  Which was actually a mildly catastrophic situation; Sunday brunch is by far the biggest generator of dirty dishes of any of our family meals, and a plugged drain takes the dishwasher out of service.  I spent an hour or so poking and prodding at the pipes under the sink, finally determining that, whatever was causing the clog, it was beyond my meager powers to unclog it.  So, we ended up doing a couple hours' worth of dishes by hand, carrying basins of water from the bathroom to the kitchen, and dumping the dirty water in the back yard.  And then we got to pay a plumber to come and unplug our pipes (although, he was also able to address the problem in more permanent fashion than I could have, so it works out OK, even if our wallets are a tad lighter than we'd prefer).


So, it came to feel a bit like a 'perfect storm' of broken/disabled machines.

I never cease to be amazed at the ways such disruptions, uh, disrupt our lives.  Losing a car is a fairly big deal, with both Jen and me needing cars to get to work.  And even just the knowledge that, sometime in the relatively near future, we'll be car-shopping again, causes me to break out in a sweat (mostly just wondering where we'll get car-shopping time from).  The vacuum cleaner and dishwasher are less major, but the time it takes to deal with those things is precious.  The dish-washing actually turned out kinda fun - the whole family gathered in the kitchen, doing the old assembly-line like Jen and I did when we were kids (Jen wanted us to sing, but the teenagers were in a more surly mode, so we just accepted such 'family togetherness' as we could muster, and called it good).

But, my goodness - how did people live, before they had vacuum cleaners and dishwashers?


  1. Those things are unbelievably stressful when added all together. I've never driven a manual, so I had no idea what you were talking about there.....but I'm in charge of the keeping track/taking them in for service on our four cars. Our place does free tire rotations when you buy tires there, so I religiously take each car in at 6000 miles. And yes, I'm there a lot!

    While I'm not super handy, I can replace a vacuum belt. Just how much does Jen vacuum though? Ours usually last at least five or six years. But I always buy the bottom of the line Hoover or Eureka, so not much to break on them. I vacuum 3X/week, which I think is average use.

  2. Yeah, for sure, rotate your tires regularly ...even if you have to pay.

    I really admire those kind of miles on cars in Michigan. Nice going!

    We have a Dyson. It really sucks ...literally it doesn't miss a thing.

  3. Ya know, we've been having a similar stretch recently and it's really getting to us as well. I mean I am kinda a handy guy and am used to doing nearly all my own maintenance and repairs but work has been beating me up so, well, I've had to break out the pry-bar on my wallet and actually pay someone else to get 'er done. What a stinking pain!

    and then there's: "Please prove you're not a robot" ;)

    Flat tires, well pumps, clogged septic, overheating vehicles, oye.

  4. Bijoux - You manage the maintenance schedules for four cars? I salute you!

    Jen knows how to replace a belt; there was actually more going on than that. Our kids are not exactly, um, careful about their vacuuming chores. . .

    Skip - Ah, yes. . . the old 'vacuum cleaner sucks' joke. . .

    As to the miles, every workday is a 165-mile round trip for me, so the miles pile up pretty quickly. I know we do a lot of salting in the winter, which will tend to shorten vehicle life. But they must be making 'em better than they used to. I remember those old Chevy Vega's that would be total rust-buckets in 50k miles. . .

    Xavier - Well, misery loves company. . . so, thanks!


    Hmmmmm. . . Seems like there's some kind of entropy epidemic going on, or something. . .

  5. And the list goes on, naturally. Two dead chickens (heat frustration we suspect), Sweet corn decimated by squirrels, an $1800 bill from the IRS bcause I mistakenly checked box A instead of box B ......

    But it's all good. We be having fun now!

  6. I have, on occasion, attempted to make sense of shifting without clutching/matching rpm or whatever. It's worked for me enough that if my clutch went out I think I could do all but start out from a full-on stop. However, I've not had the level of success with it that makes me think I have any career in trucking or racing or what not. :)

    Have fun vehicle shopping!

  7. Xavier - Obviously, you have displeased the gods; two chickens and a corn crop is probably gettin' off easy. . .


    And geez, those IRS guys just can't take a joke, can they?

    Flutter - Well, we got a reprieve, for now - the slave cylinder was under warranty, so we got it fixed for only $300.

    But, lesson learned - we're puttin' our radar out for a new vehicle now, so we don't end up scrambling when it finally does die. 2F has been making noises like she might wanna buy the old one from us, which might work out well, as long as she understands what it means that the car has a quarter-million miles on it. . .

  8. I often wonder if I would have survived during the recent past, without air conditioning, dishwashers, laundry machines, and all of the other innovations I use daily. The answer is "Yes, but miserably."

    You're right about God using troubles of one kind or another over and over in an attempt to get us to finally do it right. Acknowledging the fact doesn't stop it from happening, though, so having the knowledge hasn't been helpful for me. I could always make the effort to do better, but that's so much work!

  9. Suldog - See, that's the thing; I grew up without a dishwasher or A/C, and my grandma still had an old wringer-style washing machine. So, it's not like I don't know how to live without those things. Heck, my older kids can remember when we got our first microwave. . .

    And yeah. . . I'm used to thinking of myself as a fairly smart guy, for whom learning comes fairly easily. You'd think I'd pick up on the lessons God throws my way a little better than what I do. . .

  10. wood floors and horse drawn carts :)

  11. Lime - Of course, you're right. . .

    Actually, that's one of the things I enjoy about Mackinac Island, aside from the history, and the sheer profligate natural beauty of the place. No motor vehicles (except emergency vehicles). So, you get around by walking, riding a bike, or a horse-drawn carriage. And everything that goes with them, like road-apples (and the need to hire workers to clean them up. . .) (sorta the ultimate 'what I did for my summer vacation', eh?)

  12. My first car, an AMC Pacer, was notorious for having clutch issues so I learned how to hot-shift pretty quick. As a college student I couldn't often afford to pay someone to do the trick and didn't have time until the weekends to do it myself.

    I did find out, though, that in 1st gear the starter had just enough gumption to restart the engine while in 1st gear so long as I wasn't on an up-hill. Though, um, after 2 years the starter had to be replaced. Go figure?

  13. Yeah. . . Go figure. . . That little trick would be a tad rough on yer starter, wouldn't it?

    An' I'm guessin' you weren't pushin' 300k on that Pacer, either. . .

  14. You betcha.

    it was pushing 200k but that was back in the day when 100k was more novel than it is now ..... now it's hard to imagine when 100k was considered the beginning of the end for a car