Breaking the TV Habit

They say it takes three weeks to establish a habit, although I suspect that’s a very optimistic estimate. Does it take the same time to break one? Tomorrow it will be three weeks since my Comcast cable detached itself, perhaps with the help of the vegetation shrouding the utility pole and preventing the Comcast tech from reconnecting it.

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I would have been a lot more aggressive about solving this problem if I had ever been convinced to bundle my phone and Internet connections into my Comcast account. Fortunately, those are provided by my phone company, Frontier, and work just fine, along with my Verizon smart phone. With Frontier’s wifi, I have full use of the Amazon Fire tablet I bought a few months ago. It’s not a full-scale tablet for writing and I’m not impressed with the browser, but it’s a great little entertainment machine, which is exactly what I wanted.

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So Cable TV is all I’ve been doing without. That’s not only a first world problem, but folks not far from me are still displaced from their flooded homes, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. I am not complaining.

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I’ve been surprised to discover how quickly I’ve adapted to the lack. (It helps that I’m not a rabid baseball fan and probably wouldn’t have watched any of the recent Astros games anyway, for fear of being a jinx.) I use the TV for background noise at least ninety per cent of the time, running marathons of shows I’ve seen dozens of times or listening to jazz on Music Choice. That’s easily taken care of—I have radios all over the house, including two HD radios that pull in the jazz and classical music stations that Houston seems unable to support over the air (a disgraceful situation in such a large metropolitan area, if you ask me).

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I have discovered that I actually watch very few current shows. I don’t watch reality shows, and over the last year the news has become the worst reality show of all. For what I do want to see, I’ve found alternative methods. CBS.com shows current shows the day after broadcast. (No, Star Trek fan that I am, I haven’t subscribed to their pay service.) The Xfinity Stream app I downloaded to my Fire tablet allows me to watch most cable shows live (I watched the return of Major Crimes on TNT the other night), as well as access to the Music Choice Channels. (Apparently one only gets full service and broadcast channels with an Xfinity home wifi network, but there’s the eggs-in-one-basket thing again.)

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On the Fire or the computer, there’s a lot to enjoy on Amazon Prime: movies, TV, and some very good Amazon-produced shows, and a wide range of music. And then there are the three shelves of DVDs, many of them as yet unwatched, in my living room. This week I’ve rewatched Topkapi and Heavenly Creatures.

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What I have escaped from, I now realize, is the schedule. I’m not planning my evenings by what’s on TV, or when some show starts. I’m not searching for something to “watch” (largely meaning ignore) while I’m getting it all together in the morning. I’m not staying awake at night to watch something I’ve seen a dozen times, just because it’s there. I’m not planning my lunch break to coincide with some show I’ve seen seven times, or hurrying home from something to catch another rerun. The next time my cable box gives me trouble, I’ll probably get one without a DVR.

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Yes, I will get the service reconnected one of these days. I have a new understanding of those who cut the cord with their cable TV providers, but I still like the convenience. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more, getting to sleep earlier, and not watching reruns (well, I have been keeping up with Deep Space Nine on Amazon Prime, but that’s it, honest). I’m going to try to stick with that. We’ll see if three weeks plus is long enough to change a rather mindless habit.

Nature vs. Technology

One of the hazards of living alone is that there’s no one else around to handle some task I don’t want to do. If I can’t do if myself, I pretty much have to hire it done. (The benefits include eating cereal for supper, knowing what’s in the refrigerator, and never finding the toilet seat up in the middle of the night.)

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Monday afternoon I came home from the grocery store to find the TV, which I had left playing the smooth jazz station on Music Choice, displaying the dreaded “One Moment Please” signboard. Well, once in a while, the channel really does come back on shortly, so I turned on the radio and waited half an hour to call Comcast. The mechanical woman who answers the phone there (and does her best to protect any human being from having to talk to a customer) assured me there was no outage in my area and offered to send a reset signal to my cable box.

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I have never ever had a problem solved by a reset signal, but it was worth a try. When I got a text message half an hour later asking if the reset had succeeded or failed, I replied “failed.” By then I had checked my other TVs and discovered that none of them were working. I tried to explain that to the thickly accented Comcast agent who called me back, but he insisted on trying to fix the living room box. The usual procedure of unplugging the box and plugging it back in resulted only in a total failure of the box to reboot. At that point the agent (in India, I’m sure) gave up and scheduled a tech appointment for Friday morning, the next day that I could be home.

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I use the TV for background noise ninety per cent of the time; I’m used to it, but not having it isn’t a great sacrifice (albeit, given Comcast’s rates, a rather expensive one). So for several days I listened to the radio, watched video on my tablet, read, and went to bed earlier than usual with no TV to distract me.

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Then the reminders kicked in: one email and two phone calls, one leaving a voice mail, on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, I was up early, in time for another phone call at 7:30 and a text message saying the tech was on the way. The next text message, at 8:23, telling me that the tech had arrived, was a bit disconcerting, since there was no tech in sight, but a nice young man did arrive at 9:05. He listened to my description of the problem—the TV box in the living room was out, the one in the bedroom had the right time and the program guide, but no programs, and the ancient TV in the sewing room had no video signal—he immediately knew that the problem was in the outside wiring, specifically in the line coming from the utility pole out back.

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And that’s where Nature came into the picture (or lack thereof). The utility pole is shrouded in bamboo. Wet bamboo, thanks to the overnight thunderstorm we’d just had. The Comcast tech couldn’t get his ladder close to it. He went around the block and approached it from the other side (the pole is actually located on the other side of the fence in a neighbor’s yard). He could see the disconnected line from there, but couldn’t reach it.

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Comcast, he told me, leases access to the utility easement and poles from CenterPoint, the company that handles all the electrical infrastructure around here. Hacking through the bamboo is not the cable company’s responsibility.

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So I called the local tree service that contracts with CenterPoint to trim trees. I had their phone number because they’d left a note on my door a few weeks ago, but as far as I can tell they never did any work in my yard. It seems to me that if Comcast can’t get to the utility pole, neither can the phone company or, more to the point, CenterPoint’s own workers. When the tree service supervisor called back, he seemed pretty unconcerned about pole access, although he did promise to send someone out to look at the problem next week.

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So I’m contemplating the thought of spending a chunk of this weekend hacking down bamboo myself, waiting to see what the tree service says, or looking for someone I can hire (spending a chunk of money rather than time) to solve the problem. And then calling Comcast back and finding someone to actually listen to what I need.

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I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was horrified by the thought of no TV—but she wanted to watch the Astros game last night. Missing that didn’t bother me—I’m glad they won, but I wouldn’t have been watching. I have radios, books, Amazon Prime, piles of DVDs, and the Internet. I can weather a few more days without Comcast just fine.

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But it makes me wonder just who really has jurisdiction over something as simple as utility poles (alas, my neighborhood was built up long before buried lines came into use). And maybe it would be nice to have a husband, son, brother, or nephew who would go out and cut down that bamboo while I read a book.

Bosch: Season One

Last night I finished watching the first season of Bosch. Wow!

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I joined Amazon Prime way back when, partly to access the video collection, but mostly for the fast free delivery of books and other random goodies. I was never really comfortable watching video on my computer monitor (although I have a good one), but until the nice tech from Frontier replaced my antique modem with one that supports WiFi (he was here to fix an actual phone line problem) I didn’t have much choice.

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With the WiFi up and running, I bought a little Amazon Fire HD8 tablet (on which I spend way too much time playing games), telling myself it would be great for videos and music. (Self, you don’t have to make excuses.) I watched the first episode of The Man in the High Castle (very impressive, and I will get back to it), and then I watched the first episode of Bosch. And I was hooked.

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I have not read any of Michael Connelly’s novels about LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, so I can’t talk about how well (or not) Amazon’s adaptation reflects the books, but from the reviews I’ve read, Connelly’s fans seem pleased (and Connelly himself is a producer of the show, whatever that actually means).

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Bosch posterAs a viewer—well, I’ve watched all ten chapters of the first season in the last week and a half, and I’m not a binge watcher, so that tells you something. The acting is excellent (of course, I’d happily watch Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch, in just about anything, including Comcast commercials), as are the writing and production values. Los Angeles is almost as much a character as any of the people. The serial killer Bosch is chasing is absolutely chilling (an amazing performance by Jason Gedrick). The mysteries (woven together from elements of three of Connelly’s novels) are intricate and take the whole season to play out.

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Bosch is not episodic, crime-of-the-week television. As I mentioned above, the sections are listed as chapters rather than episodes, and the season is, indeed, one long filmed novel. That feeling was emphasized by the way I watched it—in bed at night, with the tablet on my chest, almost more like reading a book than watching video. It is a much more intimate experience than watching something on the TV set across the room.

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Two more seasons of Bosch are already available, and the fourth will be out next spring. But I think I’ll wait a bit and savor the first season before I dive into the second (which many reviewers claim is even better). In the meantime, I believe I’ll go back to The Man in the High Castle, and that’s barely scratching the surface of the Prime library.

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And I bought four books on Friday, two on paper, two on Kindle. Maybe I’ll go read a while . . .

Keeping Up To Date

The other night I received an email from a reader (hurray for readers!) of my blog, letting me know that one of the links in my article Software for Writers led him to a Japanese porn site. He was interested in the software, so he’d found (and sent me) an active link leading to an innocent software site (if a bit old, referencing Windows XP as the program’s operating system).

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So I clicked on the link in my article and—oh, my goodness! That link did not go there when I set it up several years ago, and I apologize to anyone else who accidentally ended up there. My guess is that someone let their domain name expire and had to set up a new one. Apparently the vacated domain appealed to someone in Japan with an interest in things other than writers’ software.

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I wrote and posted that article nearly six years ago, so after I replaced the bad link with the correct one (Thanks again, Stephen!), I checked all the links, and was pleasantly surprised to see that all the programs I mentioned still have active web sites. I’m no longer using any of them, having switched almost all of my writing to Scrivener in the intervening years (see Introduction to Scrivener for Novelists), but we all process our writing differently, so another program (or combination of programs) may be just what you’re looking for.

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On the theme of keeping up to date, I read and replied to that email on my newest toy, an Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet. I knew I wouldn’t resist long after I had WiFi set up in the house. I’ve been an Amazon Prime member for years, but as much as I buy from the Zon, the free shipping doesn’t add up to the annual fee. So I thought I’d buy an Amazon tablet to use for music and videos. And, of course, because I wanted a new toy. The Fire is inexpensive (less than I paid for my Kindle Voyage) and simple to use. The Quick Start Guide is the size of a business card, mainly showing the location of the on/off button. I plugged mine into the charger and it sprang to life, walking me through the rest of the set up.

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I have barely scratched the surface of the App Store, but I have both my email accounts set up (and setting up my little-used gmail account brought my phone calendar over), along with Goodreads and Facebook. I promptly made the time-sink error of downloading three games (there are thousands available): Solitaire, Sudoku, and Flow Free, a totally addictive logic game.

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The Fire came with a six-month subscription to the Washington Post—that might not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m enjoying it, and I expect I’ll renew when it runs out in September.

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Of course the Fire comes with the Kindle app already installed (along with Amazon Video, Amazon Music, Amazon Shopping, and Alexa), and the e-reader function is very nice, including something called “blue shade,” which you can turn on to cut out the blue light that keeps some people (and I seem to be one of them) from sleeping after reading on a screen at bedtime. One of the joys of having my Kindle Voyage, my phone, and the Fire all on WiFi is the automatic sync—if I forget my Voyage, I can pick up where I left off in a book on my phone. And if I want to read in bed on the Fire, it takes me right to the page where I stopped on the Voyage.

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The Fire only connects to the Internet via WiFi, but once you’ve downloaded a book, a game, or even a video, you don’t need the connection.

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Any day now, I’ll actually sit down and start watching The Man in the High Castle. Maybe that could get me back on the exercise bike I’ve been neglecting.

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Lest you think I have been totally absorbed by the Cloud—I still do the crossword, the jumble, the cryptogram and the sudoku in the Houston Chronicle every evening (I actually read the paper in the morning), and I continue to add to my collection of paper books To Be Read (I have five on pre-order from Amazon even as I type, and there may have been recent trips to bookstores).

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There are not enough hours in the day.

Kindle and book

More Adventures in Technology

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the phrase “easy self install” going back years. When I first got a DSL line for my computer (after surviving dial-up Internet access far longer than I should have put up with it), it took me several hours, moving the entire computer set up to a different phone jack (and a different room) and a long conversation with a technician in the Philippines to get the little modem working. I avoided making any changes, even when I began to feel the lack of home WiFi, for fear of being told to self install another modem.

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Avoidance didn’t work with Comcast, as cable boxes over the years either stopped working or were declared obsolete. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to change my own boxes (sometimes including searching out the nearest Comcast store front and hoping they had what I needed in stock), and I don’t think I’ve ever done it without at least one phone call to tech support. On occasion even that didn’t help, and I’ve had to sift through multiple web sites and forums to solve a problem.

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So a few months ago, when I called Frontier Communications in frustration over the latest Internet outage, I resisted the idea that my (by now antique) modem was at fault. The woman on the other end of the phone insisted there was no general outage (although two friends in my general area had confirmed that their service was out, too), but she said she would send me a new modem, which I could easily self install. Yeah, right.

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My Internet service was back to normal before the new modem arrived. I put the unopened box aside, despite a growing suspicion that the modem hiding in it probably handled WiFi (these days does anyone even make a modem that doesn’t?). I wasn’t going to invest several hours of frustration trying to find out.

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Then a couple of weeks ago I came home to find that my land line phone was dead. Even with my spiffy smart phone, I’m too old and set in my ways to give up my land line, even if most of the calls I get are ones I don’t answer (thanks to Caller ID). And worse, the problem on the land line was making my Internet connection hopelessly unstable.

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The phone went out sometime on Wednesday. It came back on Thursday evening, and went out again on Friday morning. So Saturday morning I followed the troubleshooting instructions on the Frontier web site, took my one remaining corded phone (which works when the power goes off and my cordless phone system won’t work—useful for calling the electric company) out to the connection box and plugged it in. Perfect dial tone. So I called Frontier and arranged a tech appointment for the following Friday (the soonest both a technician and I could be here at the same time).

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When I got home from work on Wednesday, a week after the initial outage, both the phone and the Internet were working perfectly. But I wasn’t going to cancel that tech visit, knowing full well that the moment I did, the phone would die again.

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new modem

Yay! WiFi at last!

Fortunately, the Frontier technician, a very nice and very competent young man named Seth, agreed, and quickly traced the problem to a bad wire in the phone jack handling the cordless phone base and the computer line. Once he’d fixed that, he looked at my ancient modem (circa 2010) and asked if I wouldn’t like a new one, a decent one with WiFi.

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So I handed him the unopened box Frontier had sent me, and he had the new modem installed and the WiFi working perfectly with the computer, my smart phone, and my Kindle within ten minutes. I’m absolutely sure it would have taken me at least two hours and a phone call—if I was lucky.

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And I am no longer the only person without WiFi in my house. Just think of all the gadgets I have done (quite happily) without because I didn’t have WiFi. Maybe I’d better lock up my credit cards for a while.

Writer Wednesdays: Favorite Phone Apps

The Wednesday Writers are back, with a new list of slightly wacky topics for 2017. This month we’re asking one another “what is your favorite phone app?”

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WW 2017

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It was the prospect of phone apps that pushed me to move to a smart phone after years of carrying a basic Tracfone in my purse. I insisted for years that I didn’t want or have any use for a cell phone, until I started commuting to a job thirty miles from home. Shortly after I found myself marooned on the side of the freeway at twilight, waiting for a Good Samaritan to happen by and tow me to safety, I bought that first Tracfone.

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I seldom used it. Didn’t give out the number. Didn’t even turn it on very often. And then one evening, twilight again, about a year and a half ago, my car stalled on the way to an RWA chapter meeting. And I found out just how hard it was to contact AAA, and to punch in my account number, on that little phone (my sister-in-law swears I somehow called her before I got AAA).

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There must, I thought, be an app for this.

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phone apps 1So about a year ago, I finally marched into the local Verizon store, bought an expensive phone (an LG V10), and signed up for service. Among the first apps I downloaded were AAA and my car insurance company. Thankfully, I have yet to use either one of them.

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I still don’t make many phone calls with my cell phone, but I have learned to text. I give out the number now. I get robo-calls, which I have learned to recognize and ignore.

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But I certainly use the phone, the little computer I carry in my purse or park on my kitchen counter. I check my email and Facebook with it when I’m away from my computer (or my Internet connection goes down), but I don’t use Twitter or Instagram. I’ve never even opened any of the games that came with it. I don’t have any music on the phone, and I don’t watch videos. I use the Kindle app now and then, usually when I’ve forgotten my Kindle. Last summer I used the RWA Conference app quite a bit, and it’s still on the phone.

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I use the calendar all the time, and I’ve developed an obsession with the Google maps timeline feature, since the day I was startled to discover that the phone knew where I was. Most of the time. For some reason the maps app is convinced that my phone wanders off from time to time, usually at night, and apparently without me. But as long as I keep an eye on its roving, I find it a useful record of where (and when) I’ve been from day to day.

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My bank app makes it super easy to deposit my weekly paycheck from my kitchen counter. And speaking of the kitchen, I no longer keep a grocery list on the refrigerator door, where I all too often left it when I went out to shop. Now everything goes on the QuickMemo app as soon as I think of it, and I always have my shopping list with me.

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But I think my favorite app is the camera. My last Tracfone included a camera, but I never phone apps 2used it because I had no way to transfer the pictures out. (There probably was one, but the useless operating manual kept it a dark secret. It also claimed it could reach the Internet, but I never succeeded in making that happen.) The camera on my smart phone (far better than the digital camera I never remembered to carry with me) takes beautiful pictures and easily sends them to email addresses, Facebook, or someone else’s phone. I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured out half of what that camera will do. But I always have it with me, and I frequently remember to use it.

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What do you use your phone for? Any great apps I should know about?

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For more favorite phone apps, visit this month’s Wednesday Writers: Tamra Baumann, Pamela Kopfler, Priscilla Oliveras, T L Sumner, and Sharon Wray.

It all started with the dryer . . .

On August 20, my clothes dryer died, in the middle of the day’s last load of laundry. I wasn’t surprised. The dryer came from Montgomery Ward, years before they closed in 2001; it was at least twenty years old, probably older. I’d already gotten a couple of extra years out of it by replacing the main belt. The washing machine sitting next to it still worked, but it was just as old. Aha, I thought. My birthday is coming up shortly. I will treat myself to a new washer and dryer.

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I shopped around, but there really isn’t much of a price range on appliances. I picked out a pair of machines from LG (I already had an LG refrigerator and an LG smart phone, why not go for something in the middle?) and ordered them on August 26.

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Delivery was scheduled for the morning of Friday, September 2. After numerous calls and a long day of waiting, the truck showed up about 6 p.m. The dryer was installed without problems. The washer had a slight dent, but by then I didn’t care. Sending it back seemed much more trouble than a dent.

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Unfortunately, the washer wouldn’t drain, producing a puddle on my adjoining kitchen floor. The installers, whose competency rating was sliding rapidly downhill, blamed the problem on the drain hose. They chopped the end of it off and told me all would be well. It wasn’t. More water on the floor. The installers went out to their truck, made a phone call, and assured me someone would come fix it Monday morning.

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I didn’t believe them. The drain hose explanation made little or no sense. The next day I went back to the store and spoke to the saleswoman. She checked with the delivery company and the service department—no record of any call or any help scheduled for Monday. And no one thought the hose explanation made sense.

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So I went home and called the best appliance man I know, who said, “Nonsense. Your drain is blocked. You need a plumber.”

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I couldn’t argue with that. The house is sixty years old, and I knew the plumbing wasn’t in good shape. In fact, plumbing-5I’d wondered if I might come home one day and find the ceiling on the floor after a pipe broke in the attic. So I called the plumbing/electric/air & heat contractor that I’ve used in the past, and they sent a plumber out on September 6. The drain was blocked, all right, and he couldn’t do anything with it.

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On September 9, another Friday, three weeks after the demise of the dryer, a senior plumber came out with a pipe camera, and the project began to spiral.

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No hope for the pipes draining my kitchen and utility room. They would need to tunnel under the house and replace the broken sewer line, running a new one across the back yard to join the old one. The city inspector would expect all the plumbing to be in working order, so he’d better check to see that the water heater in the attic was up to code. Good news: the relatively new water heater was fine. Bad news: the ancient pipes were not, and looked ready to burst any time. Worse news: since the inspector would look at everything, that included the guest bathroom, where nothing had worked for years.

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Verdict: total re-pipe of the house, two tunnels under the foundation, two new sewer lines. The job would take a week or so. Not exactly the birthday present I was hoping for.

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The diggers started on Monday, September 12th. The contractor’s pest control guy came by and gave me a plumbing-4price for rodent-proofing the house (I didn’t want poison in the attic, and they don’t use it) and spraying for termites. Both needed, still on the to-do list.

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That night it rained, almost three inches. When I looked out the back door of the garage, the partially dug tunnel was full of water. Literally. Up to ground level. To my amazement, the diggers had the water pumped out and were back at work by mid-morning, but there was mud everywhere.

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Meanwhile the inside plumbers got started, Nutmeg the cat began her exile to the only room in the house that had no plumbing and a door that stayed closed, and the electrician came out to look at my sixty-year-old circuit box. A total disaster, everything in it fused solid. Along with several other problems, including new GFI outlets throughout the house, that job is also now on the to-do list, above the pest control.

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On September 19, the re-pipe was finished and the washing machine was hooked up and draining, through the sewer line that was laid but neither covered nor attached to the main sewer line. The diggers had moved on toplumbing-1 the tunnel on the other side of the house, and everyone waited for the city inspector.

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Still waiting for official word from the first inspector on Friday the 23rd, and now a second inspector, from the water district, wanted his turn, but not until next week because it was raining. And he only worked part time. Meanwhile the contractor’s office was asking the job supervisor about the rest of the money (we both said, “When it’s finished!”) and the sheet rock repair man came to cover all the holes the plumbers had made (and a few they hadn’t).

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Sheet rock guy was back the next day. So was the rain.

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On Monday the 26th, the painter came to tidy up all the sheet rock repairs, and the tile man came to repair the damaged tile where a new faucet and shower control was being installed in the hall bathroom (along with a new toilet—by now I was saying, “Oh, sure, why not?” to just about anything).

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More waiting until both inspectors gave their final approval—and posted it to the computer system where the plumbing-3contractor could see it. The diggers made quick work of refilling the tunnels and trenches (leaving my back yard awash in dirt, but some things can’t be helped. I’ve bought a pair of rubber boots), and on September 30 the plumber finished work on the hall bathtub and shower.

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On Sunday, October 2, a friend from out of town stopped in, and I was able to say, for the first time in years, “Bathroom? Down the hall and to your right.” It wasn’t decorated yet, but everything worked. I hung the new shower plumbing-2curtain and arranged the new towels, and I had a bathroom that functioned.

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On Monday, October 3, the job supervisor came out. We walked around the yard, looked at the indoor work, and I wrote another check.

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I figure when I’m finished (if one is ever finished fixing up an old house) I will have spent just about as much as the house cost us in 1976 (it was twenty years old then). I still have to have the electrical and pest control work done, and there’s still a lot of mostly cosmetic work I’d like to do. But my plumbing problems are over.

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And it all started when the clothes dryer died.

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