Sunday, January 10, 2021

We Have Lost Our Furry Little Minds...Again

No. This is not a post about the election. I'm trying to avoid discussing that dumpster fire until I have time to do a lot more research than I have the ability to do right now. Suffice it to say, I have absolutely no trust in what the media or various government officials are saying. Now, if you will pardon me while adjust my tinfoil hat, we can get on with the main reason for writing this evening.  

So, as attentive readers will recall from an earlier post, M&M's beloved bunny Taco was found deceased on fateful morning in April. M&M was heart broken. Despite that, it was not too many months before hints started dropping and eventually full fledged discussions were had about getting another bunny. Discussions turned into pleas for a commitments on when a bunny could be located and brought home. The pleas were not falling on deaf ears. I loved Taco as much as anyone else. However, the reality of life is a thing that has to be considered, and there were plans in place that had to be worked around. I suggested that a new bunny might be better brought home in during the new year when plans were no longer an issue and we could spend a as much time as needed getting a new bunny acclimated to the house and such. 

God heard my humble suggestion; and, as God is known to do, He laughed. Not only did our plans crash and burn for reasons which are not important, but God made sure that time and circumstance put us on a collision course with a bunny. 

One day in the middle of December, it was decided that The Queen, M&M and I would go out for a day of family fun. The Queen mentioned that she had never been to a local flea market where vendors of pretty much anything sell everything from cheaply made junk of Chinese origin to the finest in merchandise of questionable prior ownership. One of those vendors just happens to sell pets ranging from birds to snakes to baby rabbits.

Guess who wasn't quick enough on the distractions to prevent someone else from spotting the bunnies and immediately falling in love. A gasp of pure joy was heard and it was only dumb luck that the remaining bunnies available for sale were not exactly what M&M was looking for. For the next two weeks, all I heard was when can we go back and get a new bunny. Well, the Sunday after Christmas, I woke to be informed that the plan of the day was to obtain the necessary items to prepare the house for a new bunny. I was also strongly encouraged to make a return visit to the flea market to see the bunnies again.

No sooner did we arrive at the bunny vendor's stall than M&M began interviewing prospective bunnies for inclusion in the Castle menagerie. M&M indicated she had a particular interest in a Netherland Dwarf rabbit. It took several tries; however, M&M fell in love with one in particular. She already had a name picked out. A valiant effort was made to resist the cuteness; and, in a moment of weakness, there was brief consideration of bringing home a SECOND rabbit who had a striking black velvet coat with white accents around the eyes and chest. 


However, in the end, it was decided to bring Miss Tater Tot home to meet the family. She has settled in quite well.


Sunday, January 3, 2021

Lessons from an Amateur Shade Tree Mechanic

As I have written in these pages before, I love to tinker on things and work with my hands. I’ve been working on my own stuff since I was old enough to hold a wrench. Sometimes with amusing results. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, my efforts have become more successful and less amusing. More often than not, things actually work like they are supposed to and stay fixed until something else breaks. With that in mind, I thought I would share some insights and hard learned lessons I’ve picked up over the years.

1)     Use the right tool for the job – As tempting as it is to use a pair of channel locks or a blow torch on a stuck nut or an SAE socket/wrench on a Metric fastener (or vice versa), don’t do it. You will cause yourself needless aggravation and ruin the nut (and possibly more than that). Trust me when I say that it is cheaper to go buy the correct wrench or even a set of wrenches than to spend hours tracking down, ordering and waiting for some out of state parts house to ship that one bolt you need after you [insert stupid human trick here] and destroyed it.

2)    Get the best tools you can afford- Yes, good tools cost money, but you do not have to spend Snap On tool truck prices to build up a decent set of tools that will last you a lifetime. I still have the no name socket set someone gave me years ago, and it still gets work done. I have since added other tools including some Harbor Freight made in China specials and some “brand name” tools (also made in China ironically). Start with a basic set of sockets and wrenches and work your way up from there. Compare the cost of having your project “done by professionals” versus the cost of doing it yourself. Spend the difference on buying tools. Keep an eye on the big box stores around major holidays. They almost always run a sale on tool sets in the $75 to $150 range. Those are a bargain when you compare what you get versus what you’d pay for the collection separately. Check Craigslist, FaceBook Market, Offer Up, and local pawn shops for deals on expensive tools you want to have but for which you can’t justify paying full price. Also, remember that limited use and specialty tools can be rented or borrowed. Just remember that those tools are rented to sticky fingered nephews and Opas who don’t always take care of them. I had to borrow a harmonic balancer puller from AutoZone a while back. It was almost unsuable because some gormless ape had bent the freaking kit bolts I needed to mount the puller to my truck. We made it work, barely.

3)     Take care of your tools – This SHOULD be a no brainer really. Don’t leave your tools out in the rain to rust, make sure you wipe them down when your done with them, don’t use your combination wrench as a hammer, don’t loan your tools to people who don’t treat them properly (I’m looking at you Opa) or your sticky fingered nephews, etc.

4)     Start small and work your way up from there – just learning to change your own oil or change the brake pads on your car can save you a lot of money long term, give you a sense of pride and teach you valuable lessons in the process.

5)     Work smarter not harder – while diving right in, unbolting everything in sight and making a royal mess of things can be quite entertaining, it is not always the most efficient method or a guaranteed path to success. Take a few minutes to look at a manual, watch a YouTube video, etc. and learn a thing or two. A word of warning, paper manuals are good but have their limitations. Haynes and Chilton manuals typically address a range of model years and options and may not have the specific photos or description of the particular thing on which you are working. AllData is a bit better as it is year and model specific, but it also assumes a bit more experience and knowledge upfront. I used to have the full set of factory service manuals for the 1973 Ford Thunderbird from which it was possible to assemble a complete car. Factory manuals are probably the best option, but getting a hold of them is pricey and not as easy as other options. I would only do that for a classic car I was restoring from the ground up as a show car.

6)     A garage or shop space is a huge plus – in this day and age of everyone accumulating stuff and storing all the excess in their garages (if they even have a garage), I cannot emphasize enough how nice it is to be able to work on a vehicle in a place with a smooth, level concrete floor, out of the wind/rain/snow/sun, etc. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to put projects on hold because it was raining/hailing/the temperature of the sun’s outhouse outside. Since I do not have a garage at my current residence and the allegedly paved driveway could charitably be called “off road”, it makes for some interesting maintenance experiences.

7)     You have to be able to get the vehicle off the ground to work on it. A good quality jack stands and a 3 ton floor jack should be considered a bare minimum for working on your car. Ramps are helpful too. If you can afford a lift, they are worth every penny. I really wish I had one.

8)     Don’t trust everything you read on the internet – this also should be a given. Go on any car forum, and you will find contradictory information…sometimes in the same post as back to back comments. Setting gaskets is my favorite. Word of advise: do what the manufacture of the gasket says to do not what some hick on the internet says.

9)     If you have everything apart, it really pays to go ahead and replace other things in reach while you are already there. I’m mean you’ve done the work. Why would you want to do it twice or four times? For instance, when replacing the radiator on The Queen’s chariot, a smart husband would have gone ahead and replaced the AC Condenser/Power Steering Cooler while he was there. Guess who is not a smart husband? To be fair, you won’t always have the cash to do everything that needs doing; but, when you can, go ahead and save yourself some time and headaches. Especially if you have a higher mileage vehicle. For instance, the second time I had the front end of The Queen’s chariot pulled apart, I went ahead and changed the water pump, thermostat and thermostat housing while I was at it. On the truck (which has two fuel pumps one of which died), I went ahead and replaced both pumps since it was easier to remove the bed than it was to drop both fuel tanks. If you have to pull the transmission for any reason, you might as well go ahead and pull the flywheel too and change the rear main seal on the engine as that is a common failure point for oil leaks. 

10) Quality costs money – The old saying about buy once cry once really does apply to car parts and tools. I’m not saying don’t buy cheap parts (because sometimes that’s all you can afford), but I am saying that you will get better results by doing a little research and paying for the best quality parts you can afford. That $40 no name part from China you bought off eBay from someone with a poor grasp of the English language might last 5 minutes or 500,000 miles. You never know. What I do know from personal experience is that, when that $40 no name piece of junk craps the bed a month before the alleged warranty expires, you are out of luck getting a replacement under warranty from Uncle Chen and his goofy nephew Wang. I’d much rather deal with a North American company who will at least try to play by the rules.

11) Full Synthetic Oil and Extended Life Oil Filters are worth the money.

12) For modern OBDII cars, buy a scan tool. Even a cheap one. I picked up the Blue Driver scan tool which connects to my phone via Bluetooth for about $100. Best money I’ve spent on a tool for diagnostic purposes. You can spend insane money on these things; but, unless you intend to go pro or get deep into the weeds of reprograming your ECU, there is a point of diminishing returns. A good tool will tell you what the check engine codes means and the most likely fixes. They do have their limitations though. They can’t tell you anything for which a sensor is not connected. For instance, The Queen’s Chariot had, at one time, a distressing habit of shorting out the number 5 coil. That code is P0305 on the chariot. Okay, pull an electrical connector, remove one small bolt, pull the bad coil, insert new coil, reinstall the bolt and connector, and done. Until a few days later when the code pops again. What the…??? Now, we have to go digging deeper. Upon inspection, I notice the coil/spark plug well has liquid in it. Liquid and electrical components do not play Bueno together. My first thought was that The Queen had barreled head long into a deep puddle at speed. Problem was that it had not rained recently and she denied turning the chariot into a submarine. So, there are precious few sources of liquid under the hood, and the pendulum of possibilities swings over pretty quickly to the worst case and most expensive scenario which is a cracked head. Before panicking too much, I started the car to see if there were any obvious signs of a leak. Good thing I did as I discovered that the heater hose had a pin hole leak in it directly over cylinder 5’s spark plug well. It was spritzing a very small stream of coolant into the well but wasn’t a big enough hole to be a visible leak when the coolant system was not under pressure. Replaced the heater hose and the coil (again). Problem solved.

13) Corollary to # 12, work simple/cheap to hard/expensive. If you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras. In rare cases it will be cows or wildebeasts; but, generally, shaving with Occam’s Razor will get you better results than rebuilding the engine every time a check engine light comes on.

14) If you find yourself in over your head, stop digging. There is no shame in asking for help.

15) Take photos and notes as you go. You will thank yourself later when you forget how the alternator is supposed to be mounted or something simple gets misplaced. Being methodical about your work will pay huge dividends later. I tend to be pretty anal about laying out bolts in the order and pattern they came out of the car so I know how they are supposed to go back in. It’s not always possible when you are disassembling a lot of stuff to get to a $20 part with only 2 bolts holding it in the car. Do the best you can and go slow. There are no trophies for finishing a repair quickly if you have left over or buggered up parts.

16) It’s a good idea to double check your work to make sure you didn’t miss something small. When I replaced the AC Condenser/Power Steering Cooler on the chariot, I might have forgotten to tighten a hose fitting or two. Cleaning up a copious amount of power steering fluid that sprayed all over the engine bay was no fun but served as an excellent reminder to not skip over the small stuff.  

17) Engineers are sadists who get perverse thrills off making it difficult to work on cars. The design folks don’t help by insisting that everything “look pretty”. My mother had one of the first Hyundai’s imported to the US back in 1986. Engineers thought it would be cute to put the oil filter above the front sway bar, under the alternator and covered over with a splash guard that had a hole in it in the exact size and shape of the oil filter. Unsuspecting neophyte grease monkeys might think it possible to remove the oil filter by that particular orifice. Don’t believe it. It’s a trap. A monkey trap to be specific. Knowing what I know now, the secret is to remove the splash guard and create the room you need to access the things that need to be changed.

I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting, but this will do for now. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

2020 in Review

My Sister…The Devil wrote a 2020 retrospective post; and, not to be outdone, I decided I would take a look back as well.

As tempting as it is to declare 2020 a total loss, a glorious example of Turd Theater writ large, the sinking of the Titanic brought back to life, etc., that is not entirely fair to the actual performance of 2020 as opposed to any other arbitrary time period in history. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a repeat of 2020. I am just enough of a pessimistic realist to know that history/karma/The Great Spaghetti Monster is out there lurking in the wings waiting to say “Here, hold my beer and watch this!”

So, let’s start off with the really craptacular aspects of 2020 from the perspective of Castle Daddy Hawk.

January – Oma went on Hospice care due to her Alzheimer’s. This was really a good news / bad news situation. On the one hand, it was long overdue. On the other hand, I had to all but force it down Opa’s throat with him kicking and screaming. While I can’t say enough good about the Hospice folks and the things they were able to do for us, I really wish they could have done more for us. We were at the end of our rope by that point (which was no fault of theirs), and we should probably have pulled the trigger on that decision about 3 months earlier than we did.

February – One of our cats, Binky, was not feeling well. So, a vet appointment was arranged; and, silly me, I thought they would give him some antibiotics and send him home. Turns out he was positive for feline leukemia and anemia. The vet really didn’t even offer any other options beyond euthanizing him. He was not even 2 years old yet. So, that was a bit of a downer.

March 1 – As previously written here, March 1 dawned with Oma shuffling off her mortal coils. As expected as it was and as much of a blessing as it was, losing a loved one SUCKS no matter how you slice it.

The rest of March and into May – COVID lock downs and toilet paper hoarding. Need I say more?

Actually, I will say more. Opa, in addition to some chronic physical health issues (which he will do nothing about), has more than a few quirks. His most serious quirk, bordering on mental illness (actually I think he qualifies for full citizenship but I’m not a licensed mental health professional), is INTENSE germaphobia. One side effect of this issue is a profoundly wasteful use of paper products. Specifically, toilet paper and paper towels. He goes through about a roll of paper towels a DAY for various uses including touching anything that he thinks might have germs on it including the freshly washed dishes in the dishwasher, he tears off the first layer or two of toilet paper and flushes that down the toilet before using the next several layers of toilet paper to cover the seat (since he has to share a bathroom with others) not including the unknown amounts he uses to wipe his own bum,….you get the idea. He refuses to shower on a regular basis and instead uses baby wipes by the box full to wipe down with. So, despite repeated warnings that paper products were in short supply, it was a constant battle with him to keep the house supplied with TP and such. So, pretty much anytime we found useful paper products, we were stocking up and hiding it from him. No, I am not ashamed in the slightest for doing so.

One other side effect of Opa’s germaphobia is that he now refuses to go out in public for ANY reason because he is afraid of COVID. He refuses to go to the store, pump his own gas or pretty much anything else. He waits until the last possible minute to ask The Queen or I to get him what he needs and then acts offended when we get frustrated at him or advise him that his lack of foresight does not create an emergency on our part requiring us to change our plans. This will be revisited shortly.

April – if losing Binky was unexpected and unpleasant, waking up one Saturday morning to M&M’s beloved rabbit Taco being unexpectedly deceased was a whole new level of suck. M&M LOVED that bunny. To be honest, we all did. He was outwardly in good health, and it was a complete shock when M&M came in the kitchen sobbing uncontrollably. We all still miss him terribly.

May and June – Aside from the continued insanity of COVID restrictions, the stress of caring for and losing Oma caught up with The Queen causing her health to crash and burn. Among other issues, she developed Tinnitus which drove her absolutely mad.

July and August – DID. NOT. HAPPEN. They were the months that henceforth shall not be named nor discussed.

September – During August, Opa finally went to visit the home of my brother-in-law for an extended stay that lasted most of the month. It was a welcome break for The Queen, M&M and I (In addition to being generally stubborn and set in his ways, Opa has been having quite a bit of difficulty adjusting to life as a widower. That makes for many frustrating situations. He is, in many ways, trying to fill an Oma sized hole in his life and frequently crosses lines he should know better than to cross.). Sometime during that visit, Opa got sideways with my BIL’s wife and harsh words were said. The net result of that confrontation was that Opa, who had originally agreed to go with BIL and wife on the annual fall church festival trip and plans made by all accordingly, decided he was not going after all. He waited to tell us until less than 2 weeks before departure. He also started dropping hints, subtle and not so subtle, that he wanted us to invite him to go with us. Due to his health issues and the ongoing challenges with The Queen’s health, his going with us was simply not an option given the distance we were traveling and the limitations his physical issues put on his ability to travel. So, we managed to prep the house for him to operate solo before departure and bid him farewell while praying very hard that there would be no disasters upon our return.

October to December – more of the same more or less. I’m not going to discuss the election. I don’t even know where to start with that mess, and I’m not even sure how to sort out fact from fiction on that front. 

On the positive side of things, there is still much for which to be thankful.  

First, Oma is finally at peace and awaits God’s Kingdom. She had been gone (mentally) for at least a couple of years; however, her physical shell had deteriorated dramatically in the last six months of her life. As I mentioned earlier, it was a relief as much as it was sad to see her go. The Queen, while sad to lose her mother, has been handling the loss extremely well having had several years to get used to the idea that her mother was dying.

Second, with COVID, my company made permanent what I had been doing unofficially and unsanctioned already: working from home. It started with the company sending everyone to work from home in mid-March. Due to the year’s financial challenges, the company decided to radically reduce its real estate footprint. To that end, all small to medium sized offices in the company were closed including the one to which I was assigned. So now, not only do I get to officially work from home permanently, the company is picking up the tab for my internet too. That’s a nice little benefit.

Third, as suggested by the second, I’m still gainfully employed and didn’t have to miss any work because of COVID. That’s not nothing. The company was strong enough to finalize an acquisition of another similarly sized company too. So, while we missed some financial targets and there was a voluntary separation program offered to those above 55 and with at least 5 years with the company, the company should be around for a while yet.

Despite all the challenges with supply chains and hoarding, we were blessed to never miss out on any necessities. I will count that as a win.

Summing things up, 2020 could have been much better and could have been a lot worse. For 2021, The Queen and I are trying to finalize and implement some long discussed plans which have been on the back burner for far too long. Further updates as events warrant.