My Manual Life


As a student of the world and a practitioner of The Manual Life it’s about making time to do things that you love and the things that need to be done, and allowing that process to take as long as it needs to, whether you’re changing a tire, making a drawing, or fixing a toilet.

As a kid, I painstakingly recreated surf, skate and punk rock band logos in pen, marker and paint. Capturing every nuance, I transcribed them onto backpacks, skate decks, t-shirts, book covers and hand-made patches.

The thought then was “I could just make that” and so I did, spending hours getting things to look right (at least in my mind). The time it took was secondary to the want of making it correct (and cool, if I’m honest).

Somewhere along the line, probably in college, I started trading accuracy for efficiency and began trying to get things done in the shortest amount of time possible. While my teachers loved me for getting things in early, it started a trend of taking the easy “A” at the cost of growth and self-discovery.

Now, I argue with myself that, because I now have kids and a job, and a dog that needs to be walked and a hundred other things that can be seen as time bandits, that I have to do things fast just to get them done, but that’s B.S.

The Loaner

There’s this toilet in the basement of our house; lovingly referred to as “The Loaner”, it sits as a reminder of this 19th century dwellings’ heritage. It’s also been in a continual and declining state of repair since we moved in nearly a decade ago.

As a basement toilet, it was only regularly used by one person: me, and I’m not hard to please. My “any port in a storm” mentality saw me through the declining state of flapper and valve, multiple chain breaks on the useless tank lever, and invariably having to dunk my hand into the reservoir every time I wanted to flush the thing (a task that BT Editor Gary B. can attest to).

Recently, this practice began to annoy me, having lived with the current, deteriorated state for over a year, so I decided to fix the damn thing. I went out and bought one of those Universal Toilet Repair Kits, the kind that comes with everything you need to outfit the top part of a toilet with all new stuff, from flush valve to fill tube, bowl gasket to tank lever. The time had come.

Things started off well enough: turn off water, drain tank, disconnect line from tank, unbolt tank, remove tank, dry out inside, remove tank lever, remove fill valve, remove flush valve… Remove flush valve… Remove flush valve…

In the decades that have passed since its installation, the flush valve seat nut on the underside of the tank had fused itself to the original copper flush valve. I sprayed it with silicone and took a wire brush to it, cleaned the individual threads leading to the nut, tried loosening it by hand, then with a bicycle chain whip to no avail. I hammered at it gently using a screwdriver like a chisel in the hopes of budging it just enough to get it going. I began rotating the whole assembly without loosening the nut at all, threat of cracking the tank and having to buy a whole new toilet seeming ever more inevitable with each thwack of hammer-on-screwdriver.

I reached a sort of “point of no return”, having damaged the original nut beyond being able to use it properly, while halting progress without being able to remove the damn thing.

After a few deep breaths and a walk to the garage I did what any red-blooded American would do: I went at it with my Sawzall equipped with a diamond tipped blade, cutting the nut away and removing the ancient flush valve from its porcelain home. I win!

I got all the new bits on the old toilet and got the thing put back together and working properly (anticlimactic, I know). I hesitate to use the term “surreal” when talking about a toilet, but there it is, having a properly functioning toilet in my basement is surreal.

This whole experience was a bit of an epiphany as well, despite being rather mundane from a spectator point of view. It made me remember that patience will see you through most things, even if those things present challenges. Also, that I sort of like doing things myself whether it’s drawing, painting, making musical instruments, or fixing a toilet.

That in and of itself might not qualify as an epiphany, but while reflecting I realized that at some point I traded doing things right with doing things fast. As a kid, I painstakingly recreated surf, skate and punk rock band logos in pen, marker and paint. Capturing every nuance, I transcribed them onto backpacks, skate decks, t-shirts, book covers and hand-made patches.

About the author

Stephen is art director of Bicycle Times when he’s not regaling his kids with tales of days gone by as a mohawk-sporting punk-rock bass player.


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