Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Death to the Moth

Oh that Virgina Woolf. Such a sentimental softie. There she is in a room of her own, sitting at her writing desk but obviously procrastinating by looking out the window. (I procrastinate by doing the laundry.) The scenery before her provides exquisite pastoral beauty of a September day in the English countryside: fields being ploughed, birds swooping to and fro, horses gamboling about. Yet she gives all her attention to a moth fluttering at her windowpane, seemingly “content with life” before it keels over, and she is “conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.”

Well, I don’t have much pity for the moth fluttering around my kitchen. The pantry moth, the Indian mealmoth, the Plodia interpunctella. If only our moth seemed to be just “content with life.” Our moth isn’t content unless it gets into every box of Triscuits, every partially used package of baking walnuts, every minuscule crevice of a bag of flour.

And while the moth might be as diminutive as the one that charmed our Ginny, it is definitely not frail. It zips around the kitchen, surviving a certain death blow between two hands clapping, eluding the grey cat who leaps to bat at it with outstretched paws, and cannily avoiding all of the traps, with their alluring red squares and sticky surfaces, that have been placed strategically up high, down low, and any place in between that we have seen the moth alight.

At the end of her musings, Woolf admires her now dead moth, “most decently and uncomplainingly composed.” If only our moth would be so decent as to die off.  Even if one of us manages to squash the thing against the wall, we know what lurks in the corners of the cabinets. We know it has left behind its eggs, and like the offspring of the Alien of sci-fi horror filmdom, those eggs will grow into larvae, then into pupa and finally to adulthood. We may be lulled into a short period when we think we have escaped the torment, when we can open a bag of granola without groaning “Oh gross!” But no, there they are again, and our only recourse is to take everything out of the cupboards; to throw away masses of what had been perfectly good cereal and crackers, nuts and other nibbles; and then to wash down the shelves and any containers that had been on those shelves.

So Woolf rhapsodizes about her moth: “as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”

I don’t know about day moths in rural Sussex, England, but pantry moths in suburban southeastern Pennsylvania are nothing but pests.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Halloween

Yes, it’s decorative gourd season again.

Halloween is nearly upon us. But you wouldn’t know it from our house. Outside, no pumpkins, no mums, just baskets of impatiens still hanging on with some periwinkle petals. The front door does not boast a bundle of dried corncobs. Inside, the same empty ceramic bowl has sat in the middle of the dining room table since the poinsettias were retired in January. No cornucopia overflows with fall’s bounty. I won’t even be here the evening of October 31 (although Jon may have to dole out some treats). Without kids in the house, Halloween has become a non-event.

But when the kids were young, Halloween definitely was an event. In fact, the event that heralded the beginning of the holiday season. At the first chilly night, the family went into seasonal overdrive. Off to Linvilla Orchards for piles of pumpkins, pots of yellow and orange mums, and a bale of straw to be turned into stuffing for our “fall tableau”: we each would contribute a worn shirt and pair of pants to be stuffed. The straw-stuffed bodies would be propped up on a bench in the yard and topped with pumpkins for heads. Voila! Mom and Dad and Jay and Annie in scarecrow form.

The heart of Halloween, though, was costume-planning. Well before the nights turned cold, sometimes at the first sign of summer's fading, husband Jon and daughter Annie would go into caucus over their costumes. Jon was not a big fan of trick-or-treating, but he joined in Annie’s planning with good-hearted gusto (and also with the hope that he might get a couple Oh Henry candy bars out of it for his trouble).  These costumes weren’t purchased at a Halloween pop-up store at the mall. These costumes were made by hand by Annie and Jon (mostly Jon) and were eagerly anticipated each year by the households they visited on their rounds. One year Annie was a maiden from Camelot who traveled with her own Merlin, she in flowing medieval wear and he majestic in long cape and outsized wizard’s hat. Another year, Annie was a Southern belle and Jon her charming beau.

As Annie got older, the costumes evolved from cute to clever, like the time they went as “Coke with a Straw.” Annie wore a silver cylinder of poster board with accurate Coke graphics, and Jon made a flexible tube by basting a series of hula-hoops into sheets painted with red stripes. This contraption was then worn in such a way that he could make it bow at just the right place for a bendy straw. And there was the time they went as “Partly Sunny.” Annie wore grey sweat-pants and -shirt with bunches of white balloons somehow attached to the sweatshirt so that she looked like a walking cumulus cloud. Jon fashioned a mask of yellow rays flaring from around his head, like the pictures of Old Sol in children’s books. Strapped around his head beamed a kind of miner’s lamp. As they walked through the neighborhood, there was no doubt that the day was sunny with some clouds. They always came home with bags bulging with sugared booty – and if Annie was happy and there was an Oh Henry in one of those bags, it was all worth it to Jon.

Many harvest moons have passed. Both kids are out of college and out of the house. Less than two months ago we were all together for Labor Day weekend, just about the time that Jon and Annie used to get down to serious Halloween costume business. Sitting out on the deck, Jon smiled and said to Annie, “So, what should we go as for Halloween this year?” Annie turned a pitying eye on her father and replied, “Oh, Pops. I never liked doing all that Halloween costume stuff. I only did it because it was so important to you.”

Now, there’s a taste of O. Henry for Jon.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Watered Down Coleridge

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink

“I thought I should let you know before you got home. When I came in this morning I found a hole in your hall ceiling and a pile of plaster pieces on your hall rug, which is also soaking wet.” So ran our cat-sitter’s voicemail message that I picked up while we were driving back from July Fourth weekend on the Cape in the middle of the hottest summer ever.

After a flurry of phone calls from the car, our plumber guy and our home-repair guy pulled into the driveway minutes after we did. Plumber Guy figured out what happened first. The condensation draining tube from the central air conditioner’s condenser on the third floor had gotten clogged and backed up into the overflow pan. The sensor that should have sensed water in the pan and should have shut down the air conditioner did not sense the danger because the pan had cracked. The air conditioner ran and the water drained down inside two stories of walls to end up saturating the hall ceiling, which gave way, landing in a sodden mess on the hall carpet. Plumber Guy expressed surprise at the problem. We expressed surprise at Plumber Guy: he was the one who had installed everything eight years before and had been doing the plumbing in the house ever since. Plumber Guy put in a new overflow pan and charged us $500. Home-Repair Guy cleaned the wound in the ceiling, with plastic for a bandage, and didn’t come back until Thanksgiving to re-plaster. One bright spot: the hardwood floorboards threatened to warp, but then changed their minds.

And the coming wind did roar more loud...
And the rain poured down from one black cloud.

Two months later we again arrived home from a Cape weekend to another water event, this time in our TV room: a waterfall cascading down the inside of the window and a shower sprinkling from now visible seams in the ceiling adjoining the window. A freak storm (part of which we had driven through) had dumped four inches of rain in less than an hour. The drainage of the flat roof over the TV room could not cope. So in came the water, leaving behind a 2’x3’ section of ceiling a mottled mustard shade. We did not call Plumber Guy, nor did we call Home-Repair Guy. The mottled mustard remains.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around.

In January – yes, when we arrived home from a New Year’s visit to the Cape – we found a frozen facade coating the fieldstone that is the outside wall of our house. After several weeks of head-scratching and consulting with various experts, it was Home-Repair Guy’s turn to solve the mystery: the old pipe to bring water from the third floor bathroom, which had been installed several generations back with no insulation up the inside of the exterior, had cracked under the onslaught of arctic temperatures. Water escaped once more down two stories and this time found crevices to come out and pour down the outside wall.

Given that all three of these wet messes were discovered on returns from the Cape, you might think if we just didn’t go to the Cape, our water worries would be over.

But no…

In March I noticed puddles and pools around the base of our gas heater – and we hadn’t been to the Cape for two months! The water dripped from a narrow copper pipe suspended from a jungle gym of pipes and valves that make up the transportation system for our gas heater and radiators.  It was Plumber Guy’s turn again. He diagnosed a faulty water tank and replaced it. Yet the puddles and pools not only remained, the drip graduated to a steady trickle. Plumber Guy came back and re-diagnosed the problem: a faulty lever on one of the valves. He replaced that. (I know, with all this replacing, we should also think about replacing Plumber Guy.)

And yet there is no relief. Two weeks ago the water company began an “upgrade,” replacing all the pipes underneath our road. Of course, there was some malfunction (although at least not at our house this time), and a small river rushed down the street. The water company chose to repair the problem at 2:00 a.m., with the glare of the work lights, the grinding of the drill through pavement, and the shouts of the various workers encouraging each other, making for an interesting sleep environment.

I have had enough. Tomorrow I’m sending around an email to the neighbors: “Okay, which one of you did in the albatross?”

Water, water every where…