Sparky's Garage 2


My parents were big do-it-yourselfers. Upon reflection, I can’t say I know for sure whether it came from necessity (meaning if they wanted to have a nice house or a nice garden or a running car or a split-rail fence, they were obliged to perform the work themselves or do without, because we never had buckets of money) or from an actual preference for it. I mean, they took justifiable pride in the things they built for themselves, and I don’t remember them complaining about the work. Might be in part because they both grew up during the Depression and the Second World War, so they were in possession of a decent perspective about good times vs. hard times, and how complaining about a problem isn’t nearly as effective as rolling up the ol’ sleeves and fixing it. But I think they also enjoyed it. I had six siblings ranging in age from 20 years older than me to 3 years younger, and I was an uncle by the time I was seven, so we had plenty of family to enjoy, but my parents didn’t seem to have many actual friends. Not because they were antisocial as such, but rather I think because they just didn’t have much free time to cultivate outside friendships. They had each other, and they had us kids. Work (both outside and inside the house) filled most of the rest of the time. We’d occasionally go on vacations, but weekends were more likely to contain home improvement or gardening projects rather than, say, going to the beach or a ballgame.

I learned how to fix cars from my father. He always performed his own repair and maintenance, and was quite good at it since he’d done his own car repair since he was 15 or so. I always assumed he enjoyed it. I found out pretty late in his life that he didn’t particularly love it, but rather didn’t trust anyone else to do it right, and usually needed to save money by doing it himself. He was meticulous and methodical, which also served him well in his career as a machinist. All my best habits I learned from him (clean as you go, use good-quality tools rather than cheap ones, measure twice–cut once, etc.), and my worst habits I picked up elsewhere, on my own. My parents would occasionally refinish furniture, very methodically and quite beautifully. My sister still has a lovely dining table and hutch they restored in the late 70s, and I still have a bedside table of my grandmother’s which I refinished in 1985, under their instruction. They knew their shit, and valued a job well done.

Last week I said this:

This week was a little bit of a cheat, and I guess now I’m paying for that. My house has a decent-size back yard, with a concrete slab patio underneath a huge century-old avocado tree. What with the warming SoCal weather and the continuing quarantine, my wife and I figured we’d buy one of those above-ground pools so the kids and we would have something to splash around in. In previous years, we’d had a membership to a local pool, but it was godawful expensive, and since employment has been really sketchy these past couple of years, we couldn’t justify that expense anymore. So we spent about a grand on one of these guys here:

Normally they’re under $400, but demand has sent prices through the roof. Now, in terms of “new experiences,” this isn’t much of one. Strictly speaking, I have not actually set up my own above-ground pool before, but I have helped a friend set up a nearly identical one a couple years ago. My buddy Dan and his family got a couple of good years of use out of theirs, so my wife Sam and I figured we’d get something as similar as possible. And I figured, hey, I got that DIY gene from my parents (which is mostly true; I’ve done quite a lot of DIY projects in my lifetime), plus I remember Dan’s pool being a fairly straightforward enterprise; a lot of work, but not very complicated. So I figured I could do it myself, no sweat. Especially because I already had that slab there all ready to support it, nice and flat, so I wouldn’t have to worry about killing my lawn and leveling a surface.


I followed the instructions and put the thing together. The blurb on the side of the box said it would take around 45 minutes of assembly (and then however long it would take your garden hose to fill up a 4,400 gallon pool). That time estimate made a couple of optimistic assumptions: that you’d have two people doing the work, and I suspect that those two people had done it before. It took me a few hours working by myself, but it didn’t seem like a huge problem. Everything fit together, no parts were missing or broken or bent or difficult to fit. As I started to fill it with water, I thought about where to source the chemicals, and how much maintenance the thing would take, particularly as I watched every little breeze blow avocado leaves and pollen and twigs (and even a couple full-size avocados) into the pool as I filled it.

But then I noticed, as the water got a couple inches deep, that the slab was not in fact 100% level.

I reviewed the instructions, and it looked like a degree I could live with. I rolled the dice.

But as the pool got full, I found I’d rolled… well, not quite snake-eyes. The pool didn’t collapse or anything. But one side was fully 5" higher than the other, and that eventually would cause the low side to give way, most likely. I had stupidly assumed that whoever had gone to the trouble of pouring the slab had also gone to the trouble of leveling it. It just now occurred to me that maybe they did in fact level it, but at some point in recent years, the avocado tree’s roots might have pushed up one side of the slab.

Doesn’t really matter. The upshot was that this was going to be a more complicated and labor-intensive job than I’d expected. Plus I had to drain 4,400 gallons of mostly-wasted water (at least the lawn was happy).

My marriage has been somewhat rocky in recent years for various reasons, but one of the key ones is that Sam has ceased to feel like she can count on me. Part of that stems from career issues. I work in freelance TV post production, and when I’m on a hit show (like I was on both Will & Grace and The Mentalist), the money’s okay and the work is reliable. It’s nice to have a couple months off in mid-May to mid-July, and to know I have a job to return to in the fall. But the days of 24-episode seasons are largely behind us, and I’m out of work more often, and for longer stretches, than we’re comfortable with. And nobody seems to know yet when production is going to be able to resume on regular shows, post-quarantine.

But money isn’t the only issue. Sometimes I don’t follow through on what I promise to do. There are holes in the bathroom wall that DIY Donald wants to fix himself (since money’s tight and we don’t want to pay for a contractor for what should be a simple job involving drywall and paint, both things I’ve done successfully before), and yet those holes have been there for two years now. I have a plan to improve the lighting in the downstairs living areas, a fairly ambitious plan involving LED strip lights concealed within the plate rail about a foot below the ceiling, and yet… the plan seems to be on hold. There’s a porch area at the rear of our garage that has needed cleaning and reorganizing for ages… and it still does.

I will discuss the myriad reasons for these things later. But for now, the takeaway is that my failure to level the pool area before installing the pool has caused me to let the family down, and that kind of letdown has become… well, not rare enough. Sam has been unusually circumspect, but she did mention that I really should have ensured the surface was level before filling the pool. And the kids were disappointed, understandably. They were eager to begin swimming on Saturday, maybe Sunday at the latest. But it’s gonna be a while, kids.

So my plan is to create a new level surface atop the slap. A wooden frame around the perimeter, 5" tall at the low point, shrinking down to near 0" at the high point. I have marked where the pool’s legs will go once they are shimmed to a proper height, all plumb and level. I built most of the frame this afternoon. Now I have to actually move the damned pool (which I fear will require disassembly, but oh well), then acquire two cubic yards of clean fill dirt (which will necessitate the rental of a truck and probably a wheelbarrow), spread that dirt within the frame, re-lay the ground cloth atop it, then re-assemble the pool. And then it should be close enough to level that everyone can enjoy it.

Forty-five minutes my ass.

So yes, in a certain sense, this has been and continues to be a technically “new experience” for me, and lucky you, here I am sharing it with y’all. But in a very real sense, this experience is nowhere new enough. I turned 50 years old last December, and in February I discovered I have a heart arrhythmia (“atrial fibrillation”) that means my heart is generally beating too fast and irregularly, and also about half as efficiently as it’s supposed to. So I don’t have as much energy as I used to. And so I work much slower than I used to. I thought a half-day’s easy work would result in relaxing fun times in the pool for me and my family. Instead, it’s turned into a week of unexpectedly hard labor… I’m really looking forward to shoveling about 4,400 lbs of dirt into a truck bed, then driving it home, transferring it via wheelbarrow into my back yard, then spreading it on the slab. And this is all entirely voluntary. I don’t have to do this; it’s to have a pool in my back yard. Talk about a first-world problem.

But I remain hoist by my own petard. Had I measured the slab’s levelness first, I could have done this differently, and saved a certain amount of effort. And also, I wouldn’t feel like a failure. I don’t want to give the impression that my kids and my wife are giving me shit about this. They don’t want to work me to death so they have a place to swim.

But I’m supposed to be competent. I’m supposed to be able to do things. Ten years ago I built a handsome bookcase that was a perfect match for the foyer in our old Craftsman house. Lots of people commented favorably upon it. And I did it entirely myself.

But now I frequently find myself just standing there, staring off into space, trying to figure out what to do next, hoping I’m not forgetting anything, and generally feeling like I imagine an 85-year-old man is supposed to feel.

I did not intend this entry to be such a downer. It has more than one practical takeaway: Measure twice, cut once. Don’t let the projects pile up. Maintain good friendships–be willing to help out always, because sometimes you’re gonna need help, too. And don’t sell your truck if you have one. You may think you won’t need it again, but you will.

And the leaves and avocados and crap that fall into your pool are probably not a worthwhile price to pay for the shade. Put that pool somewhere else.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


P.S. Here’s something to cheer you up. After dying their own hair last night, my kids decided to dye Sparky’s ears as well. Poor ol’ Sparkleton McBarkleberg. No dignity whatsoever.


I’ve always done all the maintenance and upgrades on my bikes, just because, even at their most complex, they’re relatively simple machines and relatively easy to work on. the “I get how things fit together and how to make my hands do it” gene is also prominent in my family. my grandpa installed auto glass and built a small house on his vacation property solo: dug the foundation, bricked it in along with the chimney, framed it, roofed it–everything. his son is a contractor and a gun and motorcycle hobbyist. his daughter, my mom, and my dad met at art school. mom did painting and drawing but focused on ceramics and weaving.
like you, doing the work is at best fun, at worst a frustrating pain in the ass, but in any event, paying someone else to do it is not only against my principles, it’s against my budget. pre-internet-as-we-know-it, I would occasionally have a shop do something if I didn’t know what the fix was or how to implement it, but that hasn’t been in years.
getting back to the quote of yours I pulled, this hasn’t happened to me personally but naturally I’m on bike forums a lot and I regularly see horror stories about bike shops half-assing repairs, doing the wrong thing, not doing anything but charging, the whole gamut of Murphy’s law.
I think it has to do with small businesses not being able to pay real mechanics what they’re worth anymore, so everything’s done by non-mechanics that will take minimum wage. the internet making it possible for most everyone to DIY now and the rise of non-profit co-op bike shops has probably cut into the money that shops used to depend on, but still, the amount of outright bungling from shops I hear about is frankly scary.


I was frankly surprised to learn, toward the end of his life, that my dad didn’t actually love working on cars. Not only had he done it all my life, but since he was 15 or so, back around 1952ish when he first took auto shop in high school. His father marveled that he’d sometimes come home with a different car than the one he drove to school. I myself get a bit of zen-flavored peace by working on cars. For me, a brake job is akin to doing a crossword: a not-too-challenging puzzle that lets me turn off the parts of my brain that have been stressing me out. I have been known to do oil changes and brake jobs for my friends for the price of parts and a double cheeseburger. But though my dad did obtain pride in a job well done by doing his own work, he didn’t love it. Part of that could be that many of the cars he worked on were built in the 1950s-1970s, with build quality and maintenance schedules that simply meant more work for him. I feel lucky that I’m able to enjoy it, though I sometimes kind of lament the fact that now that I’m married with two kids, our daily drivers are, if anything, too reliable, which has led to some embarrassing moments of me forgetting to perform maintenance inspections like tire pressure and tread wear and such. On my older cars, I was always fixing something, so maintenance was always on my mind. When your car starts and runs flawlessly for too long, it’s all too easy to let maintenance schedules slide, even if you know better.


I’ve been working on cars all my life, and I’ve always hated it. But I hate dealing with car repair people even more. The best thing about not having a car is never having to work on them. Bicycles, now… I love them.