November 23, 2014

That Sinking Feeling

Zen teaches us swamp-dwellers to value simplicity, austerity. That must be why karma dictated that I should now live in a hut. My home was built in 1948, at the height of Washington D.C.'s post-WWII housing boom. It's tiny and white, with a little crooked chimney and a little plugged up oil heater and a well full of noxious fumes out back. The previous owners told me it was built by a single, drunken contractor from West Virginia named George. As proof of George's intoxicated existence, they pointed out that no two windows are the same size and no two walls meet at right angles. They also referred me to the crawlspace, where dozens of George's empties still lie, waiting for future archaeologists to dig them up and conclude I drank myself to death. Intrigued, I immediately bought the place.

But indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!
- George MacDonald

Zen teaches us swamp-dwellers to value simplicity, austerity. That must be why karma dictated that I should now live in a hut. My home was built in 1948, at the height of Washington D.C.'s post-WWII housing boom. It's tiny and white, with a little crooked chimney and a little plugged up oil heater and a well full of noxious fumes out back. The previous owners told me it was built by a single, drunken contractor from West Virginia named George. As proof of George's intoxicated existence, they pointed out that no two windows are the same size and no two walls meet at right angles. They also referred me to the crawlspace, where dozens of George's empties still lie, waiting for future archaeologists to dig them up and conclude I drank myself to death. Intrigued, I immediately bought the place.

When you sign a deed, your Samsaric house of mirrors shifts on its foundations. You find you've acquired a new reflection, a new bit of Ego to deal with. Now you're not just some schmuck off the street. You are a Homeowner. For American men, at least, this new status implies success, independence, and superhuman abilities. I thought as much when I bought George's drunken masterpiece. Just a fixer-upper. Few coats of paint, etc., and it'll be good as new. Translated into Ego-Speak, this means: "I am Man, the Provider, the Tool-User. I have acquired this House. It is mine, therefore I can fix anything."

Looking back, I can see it was another one of those karma things - whereby Reality comes to teach me a Valuable Lesson that I can write little meaningful essays about later. This one seemed to have something to do with impermanence, or maybe the illusory nature of the Ego, or maybe just that writers should not try to be handymen. The fact is, karma dictated that I should take possession of George's shack at the exact moment it began to die of old age. The property deed didn't include a Living Will, so I have no choice but to keep this geriatric pile alive, using heroic measures, if necessary.

Last Sunday found the patient spewing bodily fluids all over the kitchen floor. Faucet leak. Code Blue. Being Zen-trained in emotional restraint, I told myself not to panic. It would be a simple procedure. I've done dozens of faucets. Well, two, anyway. But this one wasn't like the others. No.

I took the handle off, expecting to see the usual fifty-year-old valve of brass and rubber. Instead, there was little space-age plastic contraption with two little washers on the bottom. I turned it over and over in my hands. It was an infernal Thing, obviously designed by an engineer with a laptop, not by a plumber or anyone else who had ever come within screw-driving range of an actual kitchen sink. It was smooth, shiny, and inscrutable. The little washers nestled in their little holes, politely retreating when pressed and cheerfully springing back when released. Happy little washers, glad to be of service, but with no obvious connection to regulating the flow of water through pipe. The whole gadget could have been part of a bomb, an artificial knee, or a new contraceptive device.

The logical course to follow when fixing something is to replace the broken parts. But my faucet and the plastic Thing it had spawned looked perfectly sound. So I put the whole business back together again, hoping that the sheer randomness of the universe would cure the leak and allow me to go watch the game on TV. This only made the leak worse.

Being Zen-trained in forbearance, I took myself to Home Depot and patiently looked for a mysterious, white Thing replacement. It was not there, but I did locate two more happy little washers with happy little springs. They looked like they needed a home, so I brought them back and installed them in the old white Thing and stuck the Thing into the faucet. This only made the leak worse.

I repeated the procedure. Being Zen-trained in concentrated observation, I fondled the device, studying it until I began to discern a pattern.