The  Complete Guide  to  Home  and  Auto  Disrepair

Ben  strikes  (out)  again

Copyright  ©2009


Why did I combine home and auto repair into one book? Because I know so little about each. Merging my limited knowledge of both was the only way I could come up with a decent-sized book. Sure, my opinions could fill volumes, but when it comes to providing anything that could actually help someone, I’m about as useful as the United Nations.

My ignorance extends beyond repairs and maintenance; I can’t even decorate. For example, when I was a bachelor I lived in a typical bachelor pad, which is defined as “an enclosed space that looks like an Iraqi prison cell, except not as pretty”. I had no sense of décor. My walls were covered with rock band posters, food particles, and dirt from the Pleistocene era. The furniture layout could be best described as early American Goodwill, and no two pieces matched. When I let my dog in he would put a paw over his eyes. I tried to arrange the furniture pieces, but my sense of style is so negligible that I would have done better if I had simply left them where the moving men set them down. My car was no better. It had so many rust holes that it whistled on the highway. As I drove I could actually hear the theme from Sanford and Son.

This book will not be very technical, because in order to write a technical book, I would have to know something. It is a very easy read (unless you went to public school). I hate those confusing repair books that tell you to use complicated equipment that for all I know they’re making up, such as a “crescent wrench”. And what the hell is a T-square? I’m still baffled by Harvard Square.

Hey, I just thought of something. This foreword counts as a page, so that’s one less page about the subject matter that I have to write. And even if I fill only half of this page, I get a full page credit! Boy, writing is such a scam. All you have to do as a writer is type a bunch of words, and some people will pay you! Unless you’re me, in which case you don’t get paid but at least you can delude yourself that you’re doing something worthwhile with your life.


A man's home is his hassle.

Whether you're a building professional or a complete moron who can't even operate a dishwasher without getting an electrical shock, this section is for you. Even if you rent rather than own, you should know how to fix, clean and build things.

As you read each chapter, note how simple my instructions are. I keep my household jobs as simple as possible, probably because I'm a government employee and I'm used to doing brain-dead work. I have trouble when a task involves any equipment more complicated than Scotch tape.

One reason I wrote this is that maintaining and living in a modern home gives men like me a chance to show that we are not as flawed and unpleasant as we appear. Men do bad things only when they involve themselves in stupid stuff like corporate takeovers, politics and religion. When you give them something fun to do, such as installing a light switch or watching the Three Stooges, they are perfectly harmless creatures who wouldn't even think of doing some of the unsavory things women do, such as buying houseplants and bearing children.

I'm constantly working on hobbies and household projects. This need to stay busy probably stems from my German heritage. The thing that Germans are most known for – besides genocide and rudeness – is hard work. Dedication, stick-to-it-iveness and precision are the hallmarks of German workmanship. This is why they make the best cars. Another German trait I possess is honesty. Not just the basic honesty of not lying to people; I'm brutally honest. I've pissed off a lot of folks by speaking my mind. I can't just sit there and be quiet and thereby avoid creating an uncomfortable situation; I have to tell people what I think, whether it's about politics, religion, or any other topic that they might be sensitive about. For example, on numerous occasions when I was married I communicated to my former wife how I felt about her spending, her weight, and how uninterested I was in what she was saying. Needless to say I endured a lot of criticism and sexless nights as a result of my honesty-at-any-price habit, but I can't help it – it's a compulsion. Which is another trait I've inherited: obsessive compulsiveness. Or maybe it's compulsive obsessiveness. I've lain awake many nights trying to figure out which.

Chapter 1


Little Billy comes down the stairs crying.

Mother:"What's the matter?"
Billy:"Papa hit his thumb with a hammer."
Mother:"That's not so bad. When that happens, you should laugh."
Billy:"I did."

You should have a workshop in which to store tools and perform work. It can be your basement, garage or shed. It should have some sort of table to work on, but who am I to make such a declaration? I don't even have a work table, so when I cut a piece of wood in the garage, I rest it on the nearest available object: a trashcan, a bicycle, my knee, etc. Those stains on my garage floor aren't oil.

I'm frugal in my workshop. Well, perhaps "frugal" is not the right word. Cheap. Yeah, that's it. Almost everything I build in my garage is made out of scrap wood. Why buy lumber when the thing you make is only going to be used for storing things or perhaps sitting on? I'm so cheap that if I accidentally bend a nail, I'll bang it straight and use it for fear that I'll go broke if I spend $1.79 for a box of 200.

You don't need a lot of sophisticated equipment in order to take care of most household projects. In fact, my tool box contains only the following: a hammer, pliers, a 6-foot measuring tape, a Phillips screwdriver, a flat-head screwdriver, a center punch, assorted nails, bandages, antibiotic ointment and hydrogen peroxide. The latter three items are absolute necessities for me, as I am the sort of person who could injure himself with a sponge. My ineptitude helps me remember which projects I've completed, however. For example, if I can't remember whether I hung a picture yet, I have only to look at my swollen thumb.

To illustrate just how low-tech you can be in your household endeavors, the following table shows typical tools that you can use to fix a broken appliance:

If you are a...You can use...
regular middle-class guypliers, a screwdriver, and two Band-Aids
yuppiea phone and the Yellow Pages
football playera hammer and duct tape
Jewish American PrincessDaddy
rednecka screwdriver and three beers

Don't worry if you can't do advanced projects like those featured in magazines such as The Family Handyman. Once in a while I browse through these publications. They have articles about various home projects that are "easy to do", but when I read them I just get confused. For example:

To repair a hardwood floor, just take a runge plouter and cut out a piece one metric foot wider than the damaged part. Drill 23/64 inch holes around the area with an impact drill. Then get a gangplank of Brazilian mahogany, cut with a miter saw to fit the hole, bevel the edges with a reciprocating lathe, and fasten it to the floor with guar gum. Secure the area with Langerhan screws. Next, fill any cracks with a 2:1 mixture of wood cement and Silly Putty. After it dries, smooth it out with 167½ grit sandpaper. Varnish to match existing floor color, and seal with Cranson's oil-based micturating polyurethane.

This type of literature is only for professionals and die-hard hobbyists, not idiots like you and me. The people who write it make numerous assumptions, such as that you own an arc welder and an angle grinder, because, after all, who doesn't?

Chapter 2


How is Dan Quayle like a Swiss Army knife? He's a complete tool.

When driving a screw into any material, it is wise to first drill a "pilot hole" that's slightly thinner than the screw. This will help to prevent splits and cracks. Hold the screw up and look at its core, not the threads. Then select a drill bit whose size most closely approximates that of the core. Drilling a pilot hole is not very effective if the drill bit is too small, because screwing a hole that's not meant to take something that size will result in damage. Ask any man who's been to prison.

A power screwdriver will save you lots of time and effort, so it is well worth the cost. Just remember that the typical model is meant only for screws that go in fairly easily. If a lot of torque is required to drive a screw in or to tighten it, you should use something that was made for this purpose, such as a drill with a screwdriver bit; using a power screwdriver could overwork it and burn out the little motor. Remember that screwing shouldn't be a struggle.

To prevent a drill bit from splintering the wood where it exits, place a piece of scrap wood underneath and drill into it. Scrap wood is an object you don't need, like George W. Bush.

When attaching a heavy or weight-bearing item to a wall, try to find a stud. No, I don't mean Brad Pitt - I'm talking about one of the vertical support beams behind the wall. In most homes these are pine two-by-fours spaced 16 inches apart. A neat little gadget that can help you locate studs is a stud finder. It's a hand-held device that you slide along the wall. When it detects a change in wall density (wood is denser than air), it beeps. Unfortunately it will beep at anything that changes the wall density, even if it is not a stud. One time I was drilling a spot where my stud finder had beeped, and when I removed the drill bit, water started to trickle out of the hole. I had drilled into a PVC drainage pipe, and one of my kids had been showering upstairs at the time. Having water leak into the wall every time my kids showered would have been unacceptable, so I did the only logical thing: I stopped letting them shower. No, I mean, I cut out a small square of the wall so I could get to the pipe, and I plugged the hole with PVC cement. Then I did what I consider a great job of fixing the cavity in the wall: I hung a picture in front of it. And I've got the discolored thumbnail to prove it.

Magnetized screwdriver bits are great for klutzes like me who keep dropping screws. Just put the screw on the bit, and it will stay there until you screw it in, without having to use your other hand to hold it and possibly get injured. This way you have a free hand for other activities. (All right, guys, I know what you're thinking. Stop it.)

Is friction making it difficult to drive a screw? Rub soap on it beforehand. All of us at one time or another need some lubrication in order to screw.

When buying lumber, remember that the actual width and depth of a board is not what its name would suggest. For example, a "two by four" is really 1½ inches by 3½ inches. Why? Because this is America, and people just accept the fact that they don't always get what they bargain for. For example, you know damn well that politicians are full of shit when they make campaign promises, but you vote for them anyway.

You can cut costs on some wood projects by using cheaper wood products. Plywood is made of softwood, usually Douglas fir, and consists of thin layers glued together to make sheets that are ¼, ½ or ¾ of an inch thick. It is produced in 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets and can be cut into smaller pieces for shelving, table tops, or just about anything except structural support. Particleboard is an even cheaper wood alternative. Oh sure, it might not be wood, but it is engineered to look like wood as long as you're standing far enough away (say, in Sri Lanka). I'm not sure what particleboard is made from, but I suppose it's stuff that falls off of actual wood when they process it, e.g., sawdust, wood chips, bark, fingers, etc.

There are different types of glue for different types of materials. Wood should be glued with wood glue (also called carpenter's glue). If you're gluing fabric to wood, use contact cement. Metal should be glued with epoxy or instant glue. Instant glue is also appropriate for rubber, plastic, ceramic and glass. I learned all of this from a fascinating book called The History of Glue. I couldn't put it down.

Use common sense when doing household projects. Don't do anything while you're either very tired or under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Well, I suppose it would be okay if it's something you can do while sitting down. One time in college I sat down on a Sunday afternoon, drank two pitchers of beer from a keg that was left over from the previous night's fraternity party, and wrote a video game in assembly language for my engineering class's semester project. The following day I went to the computer room and typed it in, and it worked on the first run, despite the fact that at the time I wrote it I had so much booze in me that Ted Kennedy wanted to drink my urine.

Chapter 3


Why can't blondes install light bulbs?
They keep breaking them with the hammers.

Heating and cooling units are our biggest energy users. Well, besides our kids, that is. It is no secret that our children suck the lifeblood out of us. This is why single people seem to be able to party all the time, whereas a parent's idea of a big evening is to watch 60 Minutes without falling asleep.

Anyway, older heaters and air conditioners should be checked regularly by a professional. The interval between inspections depends on how much they cost versus the value you get. Minor adjustments can increase efficiency and decrease energy bills. Oil burners need periodic filter replacement. Gas burners have an ignition system that must be in good shape or else you could have a gas leak or even an explosion. Leaks in air conditioners can severely reduce efficiency.

A home's second biggest energy user is the water heater. For this reason it should be wrapped in some kind of insulating medium in order to reduce heat loss. Not every home has a water heater. My first house had an oil burner that heated water instantly as it entered, so it didn't need a reserve tank. The problem was that the burner serviceman always set the maximum temperature to 180 degrees. One time I turned on the shower and had a nude awakening that felt like I had spilled McDonalds coffee on my manhood, so I called my doctor immediately.

Me:"My penis is burning."
Doctor:"That means someone is talking about it."

Another place that needs insulating is the attic. Attic insulation is a material with the consistency of cotton candy that greatly reduces heat gain and loss. It's made out of fiberglass and should not be allowed to contact skin because it's as irritating as Louis Farrakhan. You can tell how good your attic is insulated by looking at your roof on a frosty morning and comparing it to your neighbors' roofs. If your frost has melted and theirs hasn't, then you might have more heat escaping into the attic. Also look for melted patches – these could indicate inadequate insulation in just those areas. Insulation is not very expensive, so adding more to your attic is a cost-effective way to keep energy costs down.

Hot water pipes should be wrapped in pipe insulation. It slows the rate at which the water in them cools so you don't have to run the faucet as long to get hot water. This means less wasted water and less energy used because there is less cold water entering the water heater. You get the greatest benefit when hot water has been in the pipes for less than an hour, because it eventually becomes room temperature despite the insulation.

Weatherstripping prevents heat gain and loss. Doors and windows have small gaps that might not seem significant, but over the course of just a few days can waste a lot of energy. Cover door jambs, door bottoms and window frames with weatherstripping, which comes in both tack-on and adhesive. Windows can be done on their exterior so the material is not visible from indoors. I used to think weatherstripping would prevent all unnecessary thermal exchange until I realized that some people have a habit of standing in doorways with the door open. I can actually see money flying out the door as these ignoramuses let my cooled or heated air escape.

Your attic should have vents and an attic fan to prevent moisture and heat buildup. Just be careful if you install the fan yourself. When I moved into my first house, the attic fan needed replacing. I went up there on a hot day in the middle of July when the attic was approximately 650°, removed the old fan and started wiring up the new one. I was sitting cross-legged, glazed with sweat, wearing nothing but shorts and sneakers, with the wires laid out on my thighs, which were coated with a conducting saltwater medium. I don't know what I did, but the result was startling pain as electricity shot through the inside of one of my thighs, and for a split second I contemplated how long it would take the authorities to find my body.

Ceiling fans are a cost-effective way to cool your home. Studies show that an average person can remain comfortable in an ambient temperature of up to 86 degrees when a ceiling fan is used. (Of course, the same can be accomplished with a glass of lemonade, but who am I to question the experts?) Fans work because they circulate air that has been warmed by your body away from you and replace it with cooler air from another part of the room. Without this airflow, you must cool the room further with the air conditioner, thus shortening its life and raising your energy bills. I have six ceiling fans in my home, and I am able to set the thermostat to upwards of 80 degrees in the summer without feeling too warm. Meanwhile a lot of people – either fanless or extremely overweight – keep their houses so frigid during summer that I swear you could hang meat in there.

Minor, everyday measures can be taken that will save energy. Cooking small amounts of food in a microwave or toaster rather than heating the oven – and consequently the kitchen – minimizes energy use. If you have a gas stove, adjust the flame so that it does not come up around the sides of the pot, because much of that heat will just be lost into the air. Turn off ovens and electric burners a few minutes before cooking time is over so you can use the residual heat. And for chrissake don't stand there for five minutes with the refrigerator door open looking for something to eat. God I hate that. How long does it take to look in there and realize that you don't want any of it? Some morons stare in the fridge long enough to curdle the milk, then search the cupboards, and then look in the refrigerator again as though a new food item will have magically appeared.

I have no idea if my energy-conserving techniques save me any money at all, because Baltimore Gas & Electric always sends me cryptic bills that the National Security Agency wouldn't be able to decipher. For example, one time I got a bill that looked like this:

   Peak                         86.14
   Intermediate                 34.92
   Off peak                     47.16
   Delivery charge              12.50
   Distribution charge          56.48
   MD Universal Svc Prog          .43
   State surcharge                .35
   Franchise tax                 1.28
   Beverage                      2.95
   Tip                           5.00

   Therms used: 0
   BGE Gas Delivery Service     13.00

Total due by Aug 1 2009:      $260.21

The first three charges refer to my home's "time-of-use" electric meter: I pay more for electricity that's used during "peak" hours (daytime and early evening, Monday-Friday) and less for electricity that's used during "off peak" hours. This way the electric company persuades people to run their air conditioning only in the middle of the night or do laundry at 3 in the morning in order to save money. At least I do.

Now let's look at the other fees. I've already been charged for the kilowatts I used, but BG&E adds a "delivery charge", as though an employee had to drive the friggin' electricity to my house in a truck. Then they slap on a "distribution charge", which as far as I can tell is the same as a delivery charge except much more expensive. And I don't even want to strain my brain trying to figure out what the hell the "MD Universal Svc Prog" is. Probably a government program to fund public schools or some other nonsense.

Note that I did not use any gas that month, because the only thing I use gas for is heat, and this was a summer bill. Nevertheless, BG&E charges me $13 a month for "Gas Delivery Service", whether on not they actually deliver any gas. They make me pay for the privilege of having a gas line hooked up to my house, which is kind of like a gardener charging you a monthly fee for the privilege of having grass in your yard.

Chapter 4


After a plumber spends ten minutes fixing a leak at a brain surgeon's house, he says, "That'll be $150." The surgeon exclaims, "$150 for ten minutes?! I'm a brain surgeon, and I don't even earn that!" The plumber says, "I know. I used to be a brain surgeon."

If you have a leaky pipe, there is a type of material you can buy that you soak in water and then immediately wrap around the pipe. The material hardens, much like a cast for a broken limb, and the leak is contained, at least for a while. Plumbers claim that this dressing will eventually fail, but there is an easy solution to this problem: move.

Slow or clogged drains are a frustrating problem. Drano and Liquid Plumr yield marginal results. Environmentally-friendly enzyme products don't work. I've found that the only way to clear drains is to use the nasty acidic stuff with the skull and crossbones that displays a cautionary message such as, "WARNING: DO NOT USE THIS PRODUCT, EVER! PUT IT DOWN AND RUN AWAY!!" A plunger might also work: partially fill the sink with water to create a seal, and work the plunger up and down like Pee Wee Herman at a porno flick. If this doesn't work, then go under the sink, remove the plug from the bottom of the sink trap, and clean the trap with a coat hanger. If there is no plug, remove the entire trap with an appropriate wrench (as if I'd know which one). If the clog turns out to be located further down the pipe, use a drain snake to find and dislodge it.

Cooking grease can accumulate in and clog pipes the way cholesterol accrues in arteries. Instead of pouring it down the drain, put it in a container, store it in the freezer or the refrigerator (to harden it), and throw it out on trash collection day. Just remember to label it. One time when I was a kid I reached into the refrigerator for what I thought was a bowl of vanilla pudding. What followed was one of my more traumatic childhood experiences, but I'm happy to say that today I am able to eat pudding again, thanks to 31 years of therapy.

Leaky faucets can often be fixed by disassembling them, cleaning the various parts and replacing some O-rings. However, if you're an imbecile like me your best bet would be to replace the entire faucet. It can be quite frustrating to take a faucet apart and be unable to put it back together and go for days without use of that sink and get into a big fight with your spouse because you didn't call a plumber. I'm not going through that again.

You know those blue discs you can put in your toilet tank that turn the water blue and make it smell good? Don't use them. They dissolve into a gel that can clog the little holes that fill the bowl. Use the white discs instead.

Perhaps you've had this happen: you flush a toilet, and you know how the water rises a bit before it goes down? Well, this time it just keeps on rising, and you experience the horror of realizing that THE TOILET IS GOING TO OVERFLOW. Being a resourceful person, you apply the one procedure that might prevent the impending catastrophe: pleading. Leaning down toward the bowl, you look at the water and say, "Please don't do this to me!" This event is especially poignant at a party, because you know that the other guests are going to label you the Toilet Clogger and the owners will never forget that you dumped raw sewage into their home.

Often toilet problems can be remedied by removing the tank lid and replacing either the stopper ball or the flapper ball. I'm not even sure what these things are; I read about them in a Reader's Digest book. Basically if you're depending on me to help you fix your toilet you're shit out of luck (pun intended), and the only way to get it fixed while avoiding a hefty bill is to call a friend who knows what they're doing, preferably someone who you can pay with food or sex.

Prevent water damage to walls behind bathtubs by applying silicone caulk around the edges. You didn't need caulk around your bathtub in the 19th and early 20th centuries because the typical bathtub was a freestanding item rather than being attached to walls. Of course, only a fraction of homes even had bathtubs, so perhaps home maintenance wasn't people's biggest problem. Nowadays virtually every American home has at least one bathtub or shower, so we are more hygienic. I know that I for one shower religiously (Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur, etc). Anyway, caulk wears out or recedes over time and should replaced. Scrape away the old caulk with a putty knife and apply a new bead, running your finger along it afterward to make a nice seal. Caulk should be applied with a caulk gun; do not merely squeeze it out of the tube with your hands as if it were toothpaste. Speaking of which, they recently came out with wine-flavored toothpaste. You get 88% more cavities, but who cares?

Make sure you drink healthful water. If you have a well, get your water tested for metals, chemicals and microbes. Public water is filtered and chlorinated in order to remove pollutants like dirt, bacteria and Natalie Wood, but even it could be contaminated, plus the chlorine doesn't taste very good. Therefore I definitely recommend a water filter. There are different types of filters, each one removing certain types of contaminants. The most popular type of filter uses activated carbon. Those of you who drink the beer I make will be happy to know that every drop of water that goes into my homebrew is run through an activated carbon filter beforehand. (Unfortunately it does nothing about the dandruff and dog hair that find their way in afterward.)

Bottled water has been popular for many years. It used to be that drinking water wasn't fashionable; people used water mainly to cook, bathe, flush, wash their cars and hydrate their lawns. Now it's considered very fashionable to pay $5 for a six-pack of water (while a six-pack of soda costs $1.49). Bottled water labels always display the name of some nonexistent water source, e.g., Fecal Springs, in order to fool you into thinking that it's somehow cleaner or better for you than Pepsi. In reality, many brands of "spring" water come from municipal reservoirs, i.e., straight out of the tap. Furthermore, some brands taste horrible. The water that comes out of my garden hose tastes better. Offered these brands of bottled water, my dog would rather lick his ass – and he does.

Conserve water by not wasting it on unnecessary things. For example, I never water my lawn or wash my car. I also don't flush every time I pee because it doesn't make sense to use almost two gallons of perfectly good filtered, chlorinated water to get rid of half a pint of urine. Urine itself is a valuable resource: it's a key ingredient in some skin lotions and Coors. (Just kidding. I do not in any way intend to slander Coors Brewing, inasmuch as it is a large corporation with access to hundreds of lawyers, and it pretty much soils its own reputation with its products.)

Rain water that runs off your roof can seep into the ground around your house and cause your basement to leak. This is why rain gutters are necessary. Put splash blocks at the bottoms of downspouts in order to prevent gutter runoff from causing dampness in the foundation and unsightly bare spots on the lawn. Unfortunately gutters get clogged with tree debris so they need to be cleaned regularly. If you hire a professional to do this, get several estimates. One company quoted me $75 to clean my gutters, while another wanted to charge $365. Why? Because the latter company wanted to sell me “gutter guards”. For only $575, they would install gutter guards and give me a “free” cleaning. If people think that it costs $365 for a cleaning, then $575 for a cleaning plus gutter guards seems reasonable.

There are a lot of companies selling gutter guards with the promise that they will never clog. Here’s a little secret: none of them work. They might keep large leaves out, but not smaller debris such as tree flower buds, seed pods and evergreen needles. Any gutter company that has been in business for more than a few years has certainly had irate customers call them to report that their product failed. Do the gutter guard salespeople tell you this? Of course not. They will lie to you by promising that their product “cannot clog”, even though they know that it has clogged. Remember, the world is full of people who will lie to you in order to get what they want, whether it’s your money, your vote, sex, or whatever. The only person who doesn’t lie is me, which is why I never got laid when I was young and everyone thinks I’m weird.

If you clean your gutters yourself, then for safety reasons make sure that your ladder extends at least three feet beyond the roof edge. I use an even better safety measure: I pay someone to do any job that involves climbing higher than my navel. Why risk life and limb for something as unimportant as a house? My theory is that if God had meant me to do home maintenance, he wouldn’t have made me such a bungling idiot.

Chapter 5


A poor man rings the doorbell at a fancy house and asks for a handout. The woman says, "I don't just give handouts. Here's a bucket of paint. Paint my porch and then I'll give you dinner." About two hours later the doorbell rings again. She answers it, and the man is standing there. He says, "All done, lady. But that's not a Porsche, it's a Ferrari."

Decorating isn't really repair, but it is a form of enhancement that keeps women happy, and if men want to be happy too, they will go along with whatever adornment their wives want and they will help with this process if asked. I've learned from being in a relationship that while men might have more technical know-how, women have more taste. Guys, let the wife/girlfriend design your home's décor. You might be better at wielding tools, but unless you want your home to look like a fraternity basement you should probably let your other half pick out the furniture, shelving, flooring and paint. Especially the paint. I used to think that there were basically nine paint colors: white, black, blue, yellow, red, green, brown, orange and plaid. Not so. Go to any hardware store and you'll find little sample cards with every shade of color in the visible spectrum (and a few outside of it). The difference between one color and the next is discernible only with a spectrophotometer or a woman's eyes. For example, after we had our sunroom added, my ex-wife decreed that we would paint the walls "Swiss coffee" and the doors "Georgia peach". According to her, these are two completely different colors. After the room was painted, I looked at the finished product and saw: white. Nothing looked like a cup of coffee or a piece of fruit. The walls and doors were, as far as I could tell, white. To this day I cannot tell the difference. Whenever a wall or door got scratched, I'd grab a random can of paint and touch it up, and everything was fine. That is, until she came home.

Cathi:"What happened here?"
Me:"Oh, I touched up a scratch."
Cathi:"This wall is supposed to be Swiss coffee. You used Georgia peach, didn't you?"
Cathi:"Oh really? What color did you use?"
Me:"Uh ... white."

Latex paint is very popular because it's easy to apply, it cleans up with water, it dries easily, and it's long lasting. It even bonds to masonry. It comes in different sheens: flat (dull), semi-gloss (somewhat shiny) and gloss (shiny). Glossy paint is easier to clean dirt and food off of and has more of the resins that give paint body and hardness, but it's too shiny for well-lit areas. There's also blonde paint, which is not too bright but it spreads easily. Whenever I use latex paint, I find it hard to believe that condoms are made out of the same stuff. I've often wished that buying condoms were as easy as buying paint. The first time I bought condoms I didn't know what I was doing. I asked the cashier where the fitting rooms were.

Can someone please tell me why paint companies use metal rather than plastic cans? Prying the lid off takes the better part of the song "Stairway to Heaven" as I pry it up at about eighteen different spots. Then, in order to put it back on, I have to bang it with a hammer at all of those same spots. This usually causes the sides to crumple so that the can looks as though it was used in a polo match. This is probably a good reason for you not to take anything in this book seriously – it was written by someone who can't operate a friggin' can of paint.

When painting a room, do all the edges with a brush, then paint the main areas with a roller. Buy modular roller handles that screw into each other so you can make any length handle you need – your back will thank you. A tarp or newspapers will protect floors and carpeting. Masking tape can be used to protect areas that you don't want painted, but keep in mind that pulling it up afterward might take the paint or polyurethane underneath with it. It might be better to hold a piece of cardboard over the area to be protected. You can tape glass, but it might be easier to scrape dried paint off the glass with a razor blade or putty knife. Always keep leftover paint for future touch-ups, or at least remember both the color and the brand name. Remembering the color alone is not sufficient, because one company's Swiss coffee, for example, might not be exactly the same as that of another company. Just ask my ex.

When painting the exterior of your house, it is essential to scrape off old loose paint first. Two coats are usually necessary. Remember to buy enough paint for the job. A friend of mine was painting his house and saw that he was going to run out of paint, so he added water to it in order to stretch his supply. A few days later it rained and the thinned paint washed off his house. He looked up and asked, "Why, Lord? What must I do?" A voice said to him, "Repaint, and thin no more."

Polyurethane protects wood surfaces and gives them a nice shine. Wooden floors are difficult to protect because of the extra wear and tear. The steps in my sunroom are wooden, and I coated them with polyurethane whose can said “Great for floors!”. I had two dogs at the time, and it took about two weeks for their nails to tear through it. I called several flooring places and found some stuff called Zar, which they told me is the strongest stuff they know of. It lasted longer than the other stuff, but the dogs' nails eventually ripped through that too, so I took a staple gun and attached some carpet pieces to the steps (as well as a few of my toes).

Another problem with polyurethane is that it makes floors slick. People were slipping on my sunroom stairs, so I searched and found a product that you add to paint or polyurethane in order to make the surface rough. It's a gritty substance with the consistency of fine sand. I added it to my polyurethane and put a coat on the stairs, and the lawsuits stopped.

The right furniture can make your home look pleasant. Whenever my ex thought we needed a new piece of furniture, she'd drag me to a place called "Ikea", which is a Swedish home furnishings outlet where every item they sell, from sofas all the way down to individual pieces of silverware, is given a unique name that sounds like a Viking warrior, e.g., "Verkborg". So we'd look at dressers and sit on chairs and lie on beds, and she'd make pseudo-plans for all the stuff we'd end up not buying anyway: "Okay, we can put the Yakhorn and the Ramskull in the playroom, and the Broadsword in the kitchen, while Hammerfist and Thor can go next to our television."

Floors can be protected from furniture by nailing felt pads into the bottom of table and chair legs. They come in two fastening types: adhesive and hammer-on (with a blade or spike protruding from the non-felt side). Unfortunately these pads tend to wear out on frequently-moved items so they need to be replaced periodically. I've thought about using them on my dog so he'll stop nicking the sunroom stairs, but I don't think he'd like me hammering spikes into his paws. I think I'll wait til he's asleep.

Do your walls have holes that need repair? No problem. Most modern homes' interior walls are made out of wallboard (also called drywall or gypsum board), which is a layer of gypsum sandwiched between two sheets of manila paper. Filling holes in wallboard is so simple that even I can do it. In fact, I filled a lot of holes in college: at the end of every school year, when I would remove nails that formerly held up posters, jackets, my bong, etc, I would fill the nail holes with toothpaste. I have since learned that there is a cheaper and easier compound to use: Spackle. Spackle is a white paste that's very similar to tofu, except that it tastes much better. You smear it on the area to be filled, flatten it with a putty knife, wait for it to dry, sand it smooth, and paint over it. Then no one knows the blemish was even there. Tammy Faye Bakker used this method for her entire life. For a very large hole that can't be fixed with Spackle, use a technique that I devised in college the morning after a particularly rowdy night: tape a piece of newspaper over the hole and paint it. Nobody will ever know there's a hole there. Until they lean on it.

Chapter 6


Man #1:"My son is in college."
Man #2:"What's he taking up?"
Man #1:"Space."

Some folks like to have large empty spaces in their home that serve no purpose other than to look nice, while others like to fill every available nook and cranny. Some live in hovels that afford little storage space; while others live in huge multi-room houses the size of Rhode Island where several of the rooms are never used, like the old historic homes you pay money to tour, with ropes across many of the rooms' doorways because septic organisms like you are not allowed to enter. In this chapter I hope to assist you in making efficient use of space, so that your home will look like neither a mosque nor a Goodwill store.

Stand-alone shelving units are good forms of storage, the drawback being that since they are located on the floor, they take up some space. These items are best for garages, basements and sheds. I prefer plastic shelving units to metal ones because plastic ones are easier to assemble; metal ones have more screws than Bill Clinton got during his first term.

Wall shelving can be space-efficient if those shelves are situated so as not to encroach on living space, e.g., above head height or over tables. The sturdiest wall shelving I know how to make involves attaching wooden planks to L-brackets and then attaching the brackets to wall studs. The only drawback is that the shelves are fixed; moving them is a nontrivial task. For adjustable shelving, try standards, which are vertical brackets that have many slots into which you insert shelf supports. The supports have "teeth" that go easily into and out of the brackets so that it's simple to move them up or down. The problem with this system is that the shelves are not very sturdy: the supports can be moved from side to side a few inches, and the shelves simply lie unattached on top of the supports so it is possible for them to fall off.

If you have a garage, then hang your rakes, mops, brooms, shovels and bicycles on long nails or hooks. If your garage's studs are exposed you're in luck, but even if they aren't you can still find them with your stud finder.

Parking a vehicle in a garage is a huge waste of space. Cars were designed to get wet, so they don't need shelter.

I like my garage. It has several plastic shelving units, a lawn mower, a beer fridge, trashcans, a Craftsman combination workbench and storage unit, gardening equipment ... you know, the usual stuff. Sometimes I envy my neighbors because they have two-car garages and mine is only a one-car. Ah, just as well. If mine were a two-car, I would just store more stuff with which to hurt myself.

A great way to make room is to get rid of stuff you don't need. Some people hold yard sales for this purpose, but I don't recommend it. You spend hours putting price labels on everything and placing signs in your neighborhood, and you envision that you're going to rake in big bucks for stuff that you find unworthy of garage space. Invariably some people will come by before the sale is scheduled to begin. These are what I call the "professional" yard salers: usually retired or at least old folks, mostly women, who find out where and when all the upcoming yard sales are and show up early in order to beat other customers to the bargains. A lot of people expect you to practically give your stuff away, which is what you're already doing, but somehow the deals you're offering aren't good enough. Your old but perfectly functioning piece of American Tourister luggage – for which you paid $75 – isn't worth the $3 you're asking. People will either turn their noses up at it as though it were a suitcase-shaped pile of excrement, or try to talk you down to $2. It's all about getting a deal. If you had been asking $9 and they talked you down to $7, they'd be just as satisfied. So if you're having a yard sale, don't set your prices too low because no matter how benevolent you are, people will still take advantage of you. My advice is to not waste your Saturday trying to sell your garbage to cheap strangers, but to donate it all to charity. This will serve two purposes: 1) it keeps dirty, slovenly miscreants off your property; and 2) it nets you more money through tax write-offs. For instance, you can claim a $75 donation for the aforementioned piece of luggage, which will net you a tax savings of anywhere from $15 to $30 (depending on your tax bracket), whereas if you were to sell it at a yard sale, you would spend hours in the hot sun dealing with lowlifes only to watch some troll walk away with it for $2.

Chapter 7


I used to have a job at the zoo feeding the polar bears, but I got fired. All I can say is those bears liked the penguins way better than smelly buckets of dead fish.

The easiest way to get anything done is to hire a professional* contractor. This has become my preferred method. I used to tackle major jobs myself, refusing to pay anyone for a job that surely someone like me with a college degree could handle. Invariably I'd accidentally start a fire or lose a body part, and I'd end up paying a professional more than if I had just called him in the first place. As I've advanced in my career and my income has grown, I no longer see any reason to risk life and limb in order to save a few dollars by doing dangerous household projects such as changing a lint filter.

*I use the word "professional" loosely because that word implies higher education, and virtually none of the people you pay to work on your home - builders, electricians, plumbers, exterminators, carpenters, painters - have a college degree. Usually a number of goons come to your home wearing rock group T-shirts and wielding heavy equipment, and they put you at ease with professional talk such as, "Where are the fuckin' tools, Charlie?"

I don't care how much contractors charge - I'll pay it. When I decided to add a sunroom, I immediately called a local business to have them build one. When it was completed and I decided to get the floor covered with ceramic tile, I went directly to Home Depot to order tile and have them send someone to install it. When all was said and done, the addition cost more than 40 grand. But you know what? I didn't care. Sure, I was already in massive debt and this was another big expense that I didn't need, but if I had attempted to build that room myself, I would have severely botched it and you would have had a good laugh about it at my funeral.

Sometimes it's difficult to get anyone to do a job if it's not big enough, because the amount of money to be made doesn't warrant the trip. When I wanted to get my driveway widened, I called about fifteen cement places, and only one guy would even lower himself enough to visit me and make an estimate. He did the job, and I was so grateful that any human being had agreed to stoop to my level by working on my lowly piece of real estate that it did not bother me in the least that he charged $1600 for a piece of concrete the length of a Nissan Sentra.

I understand contractors' predicament: they are usually very busy during warm weather, which is why most of them wouldn't even think of coming out to my home, except maybe to spit on it. But boy does their attitude change during the winter when business is slow. They hire telemarketers to call me in a shameless attempt to drum up business:

Telemarketer:"Hello, Mr. or Mrs. Dover?"
Telemarketer:"This is Florence Muckraker from Friggemall Services. We do any large job, from room additions to roof repair."
Me:"No thanks."
Telemarketer:"Perhaps there's a rusty pipe that needs replacement."
Telemarketer:"How about some dirty dishes that need washing?"

By the way, I love messing with telemarketers. For example:

Telemarketer:"Hello, Mr. Dover?"
Telemarketer:"This is Floyd from B.J. Finance. Would you like a home equity loan?"
Me:"I sure would! It's been hard to get credit since I filed for bankruptcy."
Telemarketer:"You did?"
Me:"Yeah, my parole officer said I should, what with the investigation and all."
Telemarketer:"Um, how much equity do you have in your home?"
Me:"Well, it wasn't worth much after the flood."

Some home maintenance manuals tell you to perform seasonal upkeep such as inspect/clean the chimney, renew caulking and weatherstripping, and inspect/repair roof shingles. This is all well and good if you actually have a clue, but if you ask someone like me to do these things, you might as well ask him to build a nuclear reactor. About the only periodic maintenance I'm capable of is making sure the light outside the front door still works. ("Honey, could you make sure the outside light works?")

For example, let's say I decided to inspect and clean my chimney. (Why I would even want to do this is a mystery, mainly because I'm not even sure I have a chimney.) They say that chimneys build up soot and creosote, which are highly flammable and are the leading cause of chimney fires. In medieval times, castle and manor house chimneys were large enough for men to climb into and clean; however, by the 18th century chimneys were narrower, so small children were employed as chimney sweeps, the result being that some of them got stuck and were suffocated by dust and soot. In colonial America, homeowners would drop a live chicken down their chimneys. The frightened bird would flap its wings, dislodging the soot and creosote. For larger chimneys the homeowner would use a goose. Eventually a group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had the practice outlawed on the grounds that it was a form of animal cruelty, and they demanded that chimney owners go back to using children. Anyway, my method of chimney inspection and cleaning would involve sticking my head in the bottom, looking upward, and saying something brilliant like, "It's dark in here," which would cause thirty-five pounds of soot to dislodge and fall on me, at which point I would emerge from the mess looking like Al Jolson.

So, being a mature individual who realizes his limitations, I have a different approach when it comes to tackling large household projects (defined as "any project more complicated than changing flashlight batteries"). For example, this is my method for fixing damaged roof shingles:

  1. Call local roofing contractor.
  2. When he arrives, greet him and offer him a beverage.
  3. Drink beer until he finishes repairing the roof.
  4. Write him a check.

Oh sure, I could go up there myself with a hammer, roofing nails, tin snips, a putty knife and roofing cement, but if I did that, the next number I called would be 911.

Chapter 8


Unfamous last words:
"Don't bother to unplug it - it'll only take a moment to fix."

I am the wrong person to ask about anything electric or electronic. When I was a kid, my bath toys were a radio and a toaster.

The thought of even buying, let alone operating, an appliance scares me. When I was buying my house, the owners wanted to keep the washer and dryer, and this alarmed me because I pictured myself at Sears trekking through acres of equipment trying to decide which contraptions I should get while a pushy salesperson tried to steer me toward the most expensive one. ("This model has the tetrahedric discombobulator. A bargain at only $17,659.") I finally figured out that the owners were just bluffing in order to keep me from haggling down the price. This is the only explanation, because the washer and dryer are each approximately four inches wider than the stairway, which leads me to conclude that the house was built around them, and if they ever break, I will never be able to remove them, which means that I will never be able to hook up new machines, which means that I will, for the rest of my life, have to do my laundry at Bob's House O' Suds.

Electronic devices have shrunk to an infinitesimal fraction of the size they used to be. In fact, the processing power of a modern handheld calculator once took an entire room. That room was filled with Japanese exchange students.

The average home has more processing power than all of NASA had when Man first walked on the moon. This is ironic because people are just as stupid as they ever were. Take me for instance. My microwave has a clock, a timer and ten different power settings, and about the only useful thing I can do with it is store my shoes in it.

Electronic components include the resistor, the inductor, the transformer, the capacitor, the amplifier, the oscillator, the diode, the conductor, the transistor, the instigator and the commode. I couldn't even begin to tell you which one does what, and I don't suggest you try either. As far as I'm concerned, all electronic devices work by magic, so I don't even attempt to fix them. Whenever something goes wrong with my computer, I leave it at the computer store where a pimple-faced adolescent fixes it for about the same price as an ounce of cocaine.

A lot of electronic parts are composed of silicon, which is extracted from sand by melting it at 2593°F, which, coincidentally, is the same temperature my ex-wife's head would go to when she was mad at me. Silicon is the second most abundant element on Earth. (The most abundant element is ignorance.)

The only useful thing I can tell you about electricity is that it hurts. (You will recall the attic fan incident from chapter 3.) I also know that 746 watts = 1 horsepower, but this information is completely worthless unless you can buy, say, a 0.1 horsepower bulb.

If you do any sort of wiring, make sure you prevent the wrong wires from touching each other by encasing them in electrical tape or wire nuts. Faulty wiring behind a wall can heat up and smolder undetected for a few days before it sparks a major fire, causing your entire home, and possibly even you, to go up like Michael Jackson's hair during a Pepsi commercial.

Extension cords should be the proper gauge. Gauge is a measurement of how much current a wire can carry. Generally, girth is a good indicator of performance (no, ladies, this doesn't work with men). If you operate a device with a cord that does not have enough electrical capacity, the wire can heat up and catch fire. The longer the extension cord, the greater the capacity you need, because distance increases resistance. For example, a 100-foot extension cord used to operate a lawnmower had better be pretty thick. Yes, there are electric lawnmowers, used mainly by blondes so they can find their way back to the house.

Make sure that pets don't use electrical cords as chew toys. I once had a girlfriend whose cat chewed through an electrical cord, which was pretty stupid when you consider that it was the only thing holding him to the balcony.

Chapter 9


Dear Tide:

I have used your product for many years because Mom said it was the best. One weekend I was at my girlfriend's place, wearing my new white shirt. Much to my chagrin, I spilled some red wine all over it. My girlfriend made the comment that I have a drinking problem, and one thing led to another, and soon I had her blood all over my now not-so-nice white shirt. I tried washing it with her detergent, and it just didn't do the trick. So, on my way home, I stopped at the store and picked up a box of Tide. It washed the stain so well that the DNA tests were entirely inconclusive. I can't praise your product enough. Thank you for saving my life, and my white shirt. I must go now - I also have to send my praise to the makers of Hefty garbage bags.

Gary Condit

A home needs more than repair. It needs to be cleaned now and then, preferably by your spouse or your kids or a professional house cleaner named Consuela. Sometimes, however, you need to get down and dirty, and I am not referring to sex. Okay, yes I am, but this doesn't make house cleaning any less necessary. Let's look at some of the needed techniques, chemicals and equipment.

Dusting is a fruitless activity in which you spend upwards of two soap opera episodes cleaning dust particles off of various household items, only to have them grow back the next day. A wet rag is preferable to a dry one, because all a dry rag does is disperse the dust particles into the air, your nose and lungs. On the other hand, a wet rag can leave streaks unless you use modern chemical cleaning agents such as Pledge. So be sure to support the cleaning industry by buying these products instead of wasting your money on food or your child's braces.

Vacuuming is a mind-numbing activity in which you run a fifty horsepower machine for an hour in order to pick up three ounces of dirt. The problem is that most vacuums only pick up surface dust and hair; heavier dirt particles and sand drop to the bottom of the carpet fibers and are nearly impossible to remove. Then when people walk on the carpet, the fibers get rubbed against the sharp sand, severing them, which is why your vacuum cleaner bag is light: it's mostly full of carpeting, not dirt. If your machine were picking up all the sand that people and pets track in, the bag would be quite heavy. Another problem with conventional vacuum cleaners is that the bags are porous – they have to be in order to let air flow through – and small dust particles can escape through the holes into the air, causing you to breathe them in. I own a RainbowTM, which uses water rather than a bag to filter the air, so the exhaust is almost perfectly clean. Believe it or not, I used to sell these things door-to-door, which was a pretty boring job, except this one house I went to. A woman answered the door and I asked her if the man of the house was in. She went and got him, and I asked him if that was his wife. He replied, "Of course she is. Do you think I'd hire a maid that ugly?"

The order in which you do things is important. Since gravity tends to bring things downward, you probably want to clean the furniture and appliances before vacuuming. It can be very frustrating to give the carpet a good cleaning and then have someone dirty it with droppings from other cleaning endeavors. When my kids first started cleaning the table after dinner, they simply wiped it off, letting the pieces of bread and mayonnaise fly in every direction, apparently in the magical belief that they would simply disintegrate before they hit the floor (I am referring to the food particles, not the children). I had to explain two concepts to them: 1) wiping the crumbs into your hand, and 2) washing the crumbs off your hand in the sink rather than wiping them on your pants.

Bleach is a great all-around cleaner/disinfectant. A one-dollar bottle can last you months, or years in my case. No, that's not true. I go through gallons of bleach every year when I brew beer. I use it to clean and sanitize my bottles. It works so well that when you drink my beer you can hardly taste the rat droppings. No! I'm kidding! I don't make Budweiser. (Wait! Only kidding again! There's nothing wrong with Budweiser. That is, if you enjoy the taste of alcoholic pond water.) Anyway, you can dilute bleach 10-1 with water and have a nice germ-killing cleaning solution which is great for dish drainers, shower walls, bathtubs, counter tops and sinks. In fact, many expensive sanitizing products (e.g., X-14) have bleach as the main ingredient. Read the fine print. If you see "sodium hypochlorite", that's bleach. My ex used to get the house spotless with bleach. The only problem was that she sang while she cleaned, thus causing me to go stand in the driveway. The singing didn’t bother me so much – I just wanted the neighbors to see that I wasn’t beating her.

Windows can be cleaned with nothing but a rag and water. You don't need Windex or any other glass product. For greasy spots use a 50% solution of rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol, which is cheaper than commercial cleaners. This mixture also helps keep fog from building up on bathroom mirrors, car windows, and your computer screen when you visit one-handed Web sites.

Floors are susceptible to scratches because of sand particles that we grind in. Sweep regularly to minimize this. Mop periodically, and apply a protective product that's appropriate for the floor's material. This is especially important for tile floors because they have grout, which is easily stained and difficult to clean. I use Future to protect mine. Grout stains can often be removed with sandpaper, but be careful not to scrape the adjacent tile. Depending on grout color, permanent stains can be hidden with paint or liquid paper.

Got an oil spot on your carport? Pour paint thinner on it, cover it with kitty litter, wait a few hours, and sweep up. You can also buy stuff that's made especially for removing oil from cement or blacktop. You pour it on, wait, and hose it off. The only problem with this product is that it kills vegetation. I learned the hard way not to hose it toward my ex's flower garden. It caused one of our worst fights, but we looked back and laughed about after I got out of traction.

Keeping order is as important as cleaning. Have you ever had the experience of walking barefoot and stepping on Legos? Whenever this happens to me I swear the Nazis invented these toys as a torture device. Stray items should be put away in boxes for several reasons: 1) it helps keep you from losing things, 2) it makes vacuuming and dusting easier, 3) it keeps the dog from chewing stuff, and 4) it keeps you from tripping and cussing and yelling at your loved ones and spending the next several months in court-ordered therapy. Take it from one who knows.

By the way, professional cleaning services do not necessarily clean very well. One time I hired a service called the Maid Brigade to vacuum, dust, mop, scrub the shower tiles, clean the toilets and mirrors, etc. Three people working two hours charged me $165 to do a worse job than any semi-retarded janitor could have done. They merely wiped around small items such as appliances and stove covers instead of moving them in order to get underneath them, missed some areas they were supposed to mop, left streaks on the mirrors, and completely missed one shower and the microwave. If I want that kind of incompetence in a domestic endeavor, I'll do it myself.

Be sure to read the labels on cleaning products. Usually they'll say something like:

WARNING: This product may cause dizziness, nausea or projectile vomiting. May trigger anxiety or menstrual cramps, especially in men. Prolonged exposure may result in color-blindness or rectum distension. Use only with proper ventilation and while wearing a radiation suit. And please, for God's sake, never – LOOK OUT!

I don't think the manufacturers really want us to read these warnings because they print them in tiny text that is impossible to read without an electron microscope.

Chapter 10


I quit smoking. Now after good sex I puke.

If your home has a ventilation system (vents through which air flows from an air conditioner or heater), it is a good idea to change the filter on a regular basis. Washable filters are the cheaper way to go because you reuse them, but they are supposedly less effective than disposable filters, which trap smaller dust particles. Some people say that disposable filters don’t do any good because the extra resistance they cause forces air to circulate around rather than through them. Of course, clean air is a moot point if you smoke at home or live in New Jersey.

Home repair manuals tell you to check for substances whose names sound like B-movie monsters, e.g., "Radon". I think that there are far more harmful materials that we should be on the lookout for, such as processed meats like hot dogs and hamburgers. People stand over a charcoal grill, eating nitrates and saturated fat, and they delude themselves that they're safe and healthy because they bought a radon detector.

In case you're curious, I'll tell you about radon. Radon is a product of uranium decay. It seeps into homes and contaminates them with radiation. As you breathe it into your lungs it releases radiation in the form of alpha and beta particles. The EPA estimates that radon is responsible for 7000-30,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Some epidemiologists refute this claim, saying that there is no conclusive evidence linking radon and cancer. These are probably the same epidemiologists who work for the tobacco industry.

So how does radon get into our homes? It seeps through any small opening it can find: foundation cracks, hollow cores of concrete blocks, sump pumps, and gaps around pipes. You can slow or stop this seepage by sealing cracks and gaps, filling block cores with cement or urethane foam, and fitting your sump pump with a cover. Additionally, a depressurization system (a network of pipes and an exhaust fan) can remove radon build-up. Don't ask me how to go about any of these tasks, because I don't know. Anyway, I'm not worried about radon. Between the automobile exhaust I breathe in, my high cholesterol, and the large quantities of alcohol I consume, I figure radon is the least of my problems.

Chapter 11


Why did OJ want to get Nicole cremated and spread her ashes on the lawn? So he could cut her once a week.

Siding can grow mildew in shaded spots. Hose it off with your hose nozzle's "stream" setting. If that doesn't work, sponge it with a mild liquid detergent, then hose it off. I personally don't care about siding mildew because the effect is merely cosmetic. Even mildew inside my house doesn't bother me, as evidenced by the fact that my bathroom contains so many fungal colonies that they have started to add another room.

When I was married, gardening was one of the easiest tasks for me because my only job was to dig holes. My wife did the rest. Every so often she’d point to an area and say, “Dig,” and I’d spend maybe an hour or two digging and sweating and grimacing in pain. Then I’d go inside, shower, have a mild coronary and take a nap. When I woke up, nice bushes or flowers had magically appeared, and I’d compliment my wife on her work between sips of beer.

Newspaper makes cheap, biodegradable mulch. Just put down one layer, several sheets thick, anchored with rocks.

If you want to grow vegetables, try to choose items that aren't a lot of trouble. Corn is easy to grow. This is why there are almost as many cornstalks in the state of Pennsylvania alone as there are corrupt politicians. Carrots, on the other hand, are difficult to produce because they grow underground where they are at the mercy of rocks and moles and you can't even check on their progress without a search warrant.

A compost pile is a good idea even if you don't plan to use the end result as fertilizer – it keeps vegetables, pasta, etc from sitting in your garbage can and stinking up the kitchen. Don't compost animal products such as beef, pork, poultry, eggs (but eggshells are okay), fish or dairy because they attract animals. In addition to the usual stuff, my compost pile contains spent grains and hops from brewing. I let it fester for a few months, then I sell it to Schlitz. (I'm not kidding this time.)

Keeping a lawn is an activity that's fraught with contradictions. People spread weed killer, grass seed and fertilizer, or perhaps pay considerable money to have someone else do it. They water diligently or buy expensive sprinkler systems. They worry that their lawn won't be green enough to make their property appear respectable. And what do they do with the lush green grass that they worked so hard for? They cut it down and throw it away. And people without a convenient place to dump it have to bag it up and drag it to the curb. I have a simple solution: stop being so vain. If your self-esteem is tied up in some three-inch-tall vegetation, then you need to grow up. I have never watered or fertilized my lawn, and when it turns brown from neglect, so much the better: it stops growing so I don't have to mow it. I couldn't have a decent lawn in my back yard even if I wanted one because my dog tramples and digs to the point where the ground looks like a tundra. I used to have a patch of semi-green grass back there, but thanks to the antics of my canine cretin, that little oasis has shrunk to the size of a buffalo nickel.

I think lawn chemicals are a waste, since no matter how much you feed and weed grass, the place it grows best is sidewalk cracks. But if you must fertilize, choose a product based on the nutrient formula, not the brand name. There are three numbers on the label that denote the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium it contains, respectively. For example, 8-9-5 means that it's 8% nitrogen, 9% phosphorus and 5% potassium. Men are familiar with this system because it's the same method we use when selecting female companionship. In our dating years we look for women with a 36-24-36 ratio because it encourages our hormones, but we end up marrying the 32-34-42 formula because it's the only one that doesn't drive us up a fucking wall. At least not at first.

I have an idea that could solve homeowners' lawn mowing problems and provide them with delicious food at the same time: a grass-eating species of lobster. Think about it. None of the herding problems of cattle. Just a bunch of cute little crustaceans crawling in your yard, scaring away neighborhood children, living on nothing but grass and the occasional toe.

Anyway, let's talk about mower maintenance. (I am referring to gas mowers that you push, not ride. It sickens me to see perfectly healthy people using riding mowers to cut a fifth of an acre of grass. These are probably the same indolent folks who drive their kids a sixteenth of a mile to the school bus stop.) Think of your mower as a very small car that you can't drive anywhere, yet still requires maintenance. You know, like a Yugo. It is an intricate collection of working parts and not merely something to be thrown in the shed or garage like pruning shears or Al Gore.

The blades should be sharpened every spring or when mowing causes the grass to have torn rather than severed tops. Turn the mower on its side, remove the mounting bolt with a wrench, and sharpen both blades with a medium-grade flat file. File in one direction, from the blade's body toward the cutting edge, and maintain the angle of the cutting edge (about 30°). Then spray the blades with WD-40 to help prevent rusting and premature dulling.

Scrape away accumulated grass from the underside. I always get large chunks of dark green matter that look suspiciously like my ex-wife's spinach casserole.

Change the engine oil once a year. Look for a drain plug; if there isn't one, you will have to turn the mower upside down in order to drain the oil. Check the owner's manual to see what kind of oil to refill with. Don't ask me - I wouldn't know motor oil from olive oil. It's one of the reasons my ex-wife didn't let me cook.

You shouldn't leave gasoline in your mower over the winter because it can evaporate and leave a gummy residue. Toward the end of cutting season, stop filling the gas tank so that on the last cut of the year, the mower can simply run out of gas. Which reminds me, you know that old trick that some guys have used in order to get women wherein they pretend that their car has run out of gas? What woman who is looking for a life partner would even think of entrusting the well-being of her children to a man who doesn't have enough brains to make sure his car has enough fuel to get them home?

Perhaps the most overlooked part of a mower is the spark plug. After a while the mower becomes more and more difficult to start because deposits build up on the plug. Remove the old plug using a ratchet-handle wrench fitted with a deep-well socket and look at the electrodes. Black deposits indicate a clogged air filter or weak ignition; chalky deposits indicate dirty cooling fins or a carburetor with too-lean settings; light brown or tan deposits are normal. Rather than clean and re-gap the plug, you might be better off just replacing it and keeping the old one as a spare – it'll save you time and trouble and cost but a few dollars. Of course, I'm a hypocrite. I own an electric mower, which doesn’t have a spark plug. When I had a gas powered mower, I never even looked at the spark plug, and every time I started it I had to pull the cord about 43 times, with increasing frustration and anger, so that by the time it started, half time was over and it was time to go back in and finish watching the game.

Speaking of watching the game, I find it irritating that the outcome of virtually every NBA game is decided near the end. This is why the "last two minutes" always takes half an hour. The network requires the referees to call a minimum of nineteen "official time-outs" during this finale so that they can charge sponsors the equivalent of your entire life's salary for each 30-second commercial. This disrupts the game's flow, but you have to remember that the purpose of any athletic competition is not to see who the better team is or enable you to obtain any enjoyment, but to sell you cars and hemorrhoid cream.

A yard should be more than just an endless source of work, expense and worry. You should also be able to enjoy it. One way is to have a cookout. When I was a kid, the way to throw a cookout was:

  1. Invite friends and relatives.
  2. Buy twenty pounds of charcoal "briquettes".
  3. Pile them in a concave metal bin.
  4. Douse them with two quarts of "charcoal lighter fluid".
  5. Attempt to set fire to them.
  6. Cook burgers on stove.

I don't know what those charcoal briquettes were made of, but they certainly weren't flammable. If your house is ever burning down, I suggest smothering the flames with charcoal.

Nowadays the only respectable way to cook food outside is in a gas grill, which uses a propane flame under either lava rocks or ceramic briquettes. It has a "piezo electric" lighter which ensures an automatic flame that will have no trouble cooking food and eyebrows.

Some people don't like gas grills because they want their food to have that smoky taste characteristic of charcoal fires. Actually that taste comes not from the charcoal but from food drippings, so food from a gas grill can taste just as good as food cooked over charcoal, and you don't have to wait seven hours for it to heat up.

Underneath the gas grill are venturi tubes that mix propane from the tank with air and carry the gas-air mixture to the burner. These tubes should be cleaned every year because they can become clogged with grease, butterfly cocoons and spider webs, thereby blocking air-gas flow and preventing the grill from lighting. A soft bottle brush will do the trick, but of course real men (i.e., macho schmucks) like me don't keep such girlie implements around so we generally use a screwdriver.

The gas orifices in the bottom of the grill can clog. Clean them with a wooden toothpick. Do not use anything metal, as that could damage them.

Test for leaks in the gas line and fittings by cleaning off the dirt and then spraying with a solution of soapy water. Turn on the gas but not the grill. Any leaks will cause the soapy water to bubble. Leaks in fittings can often be fixed by tightening or coating threads with pipe sealant, but a punctured line should be replaced. That is, if you're a woman. If you're a typical guy, you'll probably wrap it with duct tape. Hope your homeowner's insurance is up to date.

You can protect your grill with a grill cover, which is defined as "a large, vinyl, fitted tarp that is usually found on the ground several yards from your grill, especially after a storm". I've gone through about two or three grill covers, and each one covered my grill for approximately a week, after which they became puddle-filled lawn ornaments that kept my dogs entertained and ensured that my yard bred at least twice the FDA's minimum requirement of mosquitoes.

Chapter 12


A termite walks into a bar and asks, "Where's the bar tender?"

Cockroaches are ubiquitous insects that are about as welcome in your home as Trent Lott. There are almost as many cockroaches in the U.S. as there are lawyers. They don't destroy buildings but they are quite irritating. It is possible to "roach-proof" your home, but this involves sealing cracks and crevices, correcting moisture problems, and keeping your home immaculate – way too much work when you consider how much easier it is to just buy control systems that cause roaches to bring poison back to the nest. This is the only type of product that does the job; do not try sticky traps, as they do nothing more than trap the ones that happen to walk in there while the remaining insects continue to multiply. I once lived in an apartment with a bad roach problem, and I laid down several Roach Motels which in just a short time had no vacancies as dead insects completely covered the sticky surfaces and enabled all their relatives to walk safely across on top of their bodies. Meanwhile the population grew exponentially to the point where I had more bugs than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands.

Wasps and hornets love to build nests in your home. Some are wood boring and some aren't, but in either case you don't want these stinging creatures on your property. They find or make holes in your siding, foundation or eaves. There are convenient spray cans available that shoot poison 20 feet or so, enabling you to treat the nest without having to get up on a ladder. Find the nest entrance by observing where the insects go into and come out of. Spray it thoroughly. This will prevent traffic, eventually starving the nest. Wasps and hornets are not to be confused with bees, which tend to build hives in places other than your home and produce delicious honey. There's even one kind of bee that produces milk: the boo bee.

The most damaging of all pests are termites. Astronomical numbers of these insects live beneath the ground. In fact, the world's termites outweigh humans 10 to 1, which is amazing when you consider that our species includes Rush Limbaugh and Oprah.

Every year in this country, termites cause $2.5 billion in property damage (about twice that of storm damage). They damage more homes than fire does. They feed mainly on wood-based substances (lumber, trees, paper, cardboard). They live in large underground colonies that have 300,000 workers on average, with the queen laying 5,000 to 10,000 eggs per year. Workers will travel 300 feet (the length of a football field) away from the colony in search of food, and build shelter tubes in which to travel (they cannot travel very far outside the tubes because they dehydrate faster than Ted Kennedy after last call). Tubes are composed of particles of soil, wood or debris, and can be thinner than your shoelace or as thick as your arm. An average colony can consume the equivalent of more than two linear feet of two-by-four pine board annually, which might not sound like much, but it is quite a bit when you take into account that it's almost as much wood filler as you'll find in 35 Big Macs.

Termites work undetected due to remaining underground and inside your home's wood beams. Looking for "swarmers" in the spring is not a reliable detection method because colony growth is slow and it can take years before swarmers are produced. Tubes are dead giveaways, but they're usually hidden. There are products you can buy that supposedly help you discover infestation, but they're completely worthless. I once bought a kit that contained a few dozen small, plastic containers with holes in them and cardboard inside. The idea is that you plant them in the ground and periodically pull them out to see if any cardboard has been eaten. There are two problems with this: 1) rain water and bacteria get in, causing the cardboard to decompose into an unrecognizable mess; and 2) even if termites are in them, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're in your home. Of course, I found this out after I had paid $80 for fifteen cents worth of plastic and cardboard. But this isn't the biggest financial mistake I've ever made. For example, since the late 1980s I've lost so much money in the Stock Market that it would have been way cheaper if I had just developed a cocaine addiction.

While you can't do anything about the underground population of termites, you can take measures to lessen the probability of infestation. Don't place shrubs, wood debris, firewood, scrap lumber, or mulch next to your house. Don't affix wooden trellises to exterior walls. Remove infested trees and stumps. If you have a leaking water spigot on the outside of your house, fix it. Make downspouts from the gutters drain away from the house. Avoid having a sprinkler system that splashes onto your house. When house shopping, look for one with a soil grade that slopes (and therefore drains) away from the house. Having a house on a concrete slab doesn't protect you because termites can enter buildings through cracks less than 1/16" wide, and slab construction offers many opportunities for termites to gain entrance through expansion joints, cracks, and minute gaps around plumbing. Basically if termites want in, they're gonna get in, like Marlon Brando and an all-you-can-eat buffet.

If you have a termite problem, you should call a professional exterminator, who will drill large holes around the entire foundation of your home, spray them with poison, and charge you anywhere from $500 to $2000. Actually you could probably do it yourself by getting hold of a power drill, a three-foot bit, a spray gun and poison, but if you hire someone you usually get a year warranty and you get to sue them if they accidentally damage your home. In the old days (before the Dubya administration), the poison of choice was Dursban, which was just okay: it killed or repelled termites that came in contact with it, but if there were gaps in the poison barrier that surrounded your home (which was not an uncommon occurrence because the chemical had to spread out into the soil in order to make a seamless barrier, and underground things like rocks and clay could hinder this), termites could still enter. Nowadays exterminators use a product called Termidor. It does not repel termites (which would cause them to seek untreated areas). Instead, foraging termites ingest the poison and/or carry it on their bodies, and everyone they contact (termites feed and groom each other) will also be exposed. The active ingredient (fipronil) is slow-acting, which gives a contaminated termite time to transfer it to other termites before dying itself. (By the way, fipronil has been used since 1995 for flea and tick control on cats and dogs.) The chemical is made in New Jersey, which kind of figures. You know why they call New Jersey the "Garden State"? Because of all the industrial plants. (Get it? Garden? Plants?) Anyway, the manufacturer says that fipronil is not harmful to us (unless you consider vomiting, involuntary shaking, convulsions and uncontrolled pooping to be harmful).

Chapter 13


When I was a kid we couldn't afford a smoke detector, so we used to hang Jiffy Pop over the doorways.

You can put all the locks in the world on your doors and windows, but if a burglar wants to get in, he will. It is very easy to break a window and enter. Therefore a burglar alarm might be a wise investment. That is, if you have anything in your home worth stealing. In my case, a burglar alarm would cost more than the items it would protect.

There are two parts to a burglar alarm: the system and the alarm. The system refers to how an intruder is detected. The two basic types of system are a perimeter system and a motion detector. A perimeter system is activated by a break in an electric circuit that connects all windows and doors. It is relatively inexpensive and easy to install, but unfortunately expert burglars have ways of penetrating it. A motion detector is activated by motion registered by infrared beams, ultrasonic waves, sensitive microphones or pressure-sensitive mats. This is more difficult for a burglar to spot and elude, but it can be accidentally set off by pets, children, or even air conditioners.

The alarm refers to how others are alerted. A local alarm uses noises and/or flashing lights. This is not an effective system if you're not home and you live in a place where your neighbors are located too far away to hear or see anything. It also doesn't work if your neighbors are too apathetic to call the police. A central alarm sends an electronic signal. A police hookup sends a signal to a police operator, who dispatches a unit to your home. It provides fast assistance, but false alarms irritate the police and might result in fines. An alternative is to have the signal sent to a switchboard operator who first calls your home to verify that the alarm is not false, then notifies the police. It reduces the number of false alarms, but the added latency provides more time for intruders to pack your valuables and escape.

The most cost-effective intruder alert system is a dog. Size is not important. In fact, the smaller the dog, the more vigilant and loud it is. The problem is that some dogs bark even when you have a friend visiting. At the other end of the spectrum is my dog, who wouldn't make a sound if someone broke in. If he could talk he'd whisper to the burglar, "The silver's over here. Can I have a cookie?"

No alarm system will work if you're careless. You will probably have the system turned off while you're both home and awake, and this provides crooks with plenty of opportunities. Unlocked doors and open garages allow anyone to walk right in unbeknownst to you. Many people get robbed during the day while they're upstairs or gardening in the back yard. I read that Linda Tripp had an intruder in her home. She came in from the yard while he was going through her stuff, and the minute he saw her he handed her his mask.

By the way, light timers do not work. A professional who cases your house and notices that the same light comes on at 8:15 every night isn't going to be fooled. Remember the movie Home Alone? The burglars knew the exact second that each house would have a particular light come on. And of course we all know how realistic that movie was. I mean, every day parents fly away on vacation leaving their 8-year-old behind, not realizing that they have an extra ticket in their hands, and the kid successfully defends a large house from two criminals who get hit with heavy objects and fall twelve feet to the ground without breaking a single bone.

Every home should have a smoke alarm. Since smoke rises, alarms should be mounted on ceilings. Hallways, living rooms and other common areas are good locations. Do not put smoke alarms in the kitchen. At least my kitchen. My old house had one in the kitchen, and the sound of it going off merely meant that dinner was ready. What you should have in the kitchen is a fire extinguisher for putting out grease fires that morons like me accidentally start when they attempt to prepare just about anything, including fruit.

Smoke alarm batteries should be checked every six months. Most alarms have a button you can press that will sound the alarm, so you don't have to remove the batteries and test them. This is the easiest and most cost-effective way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your home from fire. And you know what? Most people don't do it. So their house goes up in flames and they end up calling the fire department.

Homeowner:"Help! My house is on fire."
Fireman:"Did you try pouring water on it?"
Fireman:"Well, we can't help you, 'cause that's about all we do."

Escape ladders are a good idea for two-story homes. These are chain ladders that normally sit on the floor in a heap. In the event of fire, hook the top of the ladder onto the windowsill, throw the rest out the window, and climb down. Every upstairs bedroom should have one. If you wake up in the middle of the night and smell smoke, feel your bedroom door. If it's hot, it means that there is fire in the hallway. It has probably consumed most of the oxygen, and if you open the door the fire will explode from the sudden addition of oxygen, severely burning you. Leave the door closed and use your escape ladder to get away. If you have children, teach them how to test their door and use their ladder. Have practice drills to make sure they can escape safely. I did this a few times with my former family, and while my kids had no problem getting out safe and sound, my getaway was akin to something you'd see in a cartoon. From the ground I looked like Wile E. Coyote trying unsuccessfully to operate something from the Acme Ladder Company.


How is it that a soda can will remain in a landfill for millennia, but my car rusted out in just seven years?

The disinformation I present here refers only to automobiles; I know nothing about motorcycles. Actually I once owned a small one (a Honda CT110, which I couldn't ride on the highway because it wouldn't go fast enough) and I was too afraid of dying to really enjoy it. Every time I started to get a little pleasure from going upwards of 45 mph, some asshole would tailgate me or stop short or cut in front of me, and within a few months I decided that the only way to feel even a little safe on the roads was to encase myself in steel. Several of my friends also used to own motorcycles, and I'm surprised that any of us are alive to tell about it.

How much effort a person puts into automobile maintenance depends on one's income, free time, age, health and coordination, as well as what kind of shape one's vehicle is in. As a young man with lots of free time and little money and an old American clunker that was literally falling apart, I spent considerable time replacing parts, changing fluids, and strapping dangling parts to the chassis. It was a labor of love, and I felt quite manly being so self-reliant in the automotive department. Now that I have a life, I just don't have the time to spend on any kind of automobile upkeep that involves anything more than removing the gas cap.

I am not one of those macho idiots who think that the inability to perform automotive maintenance means you're either a woman or gay (not both – gay women can fix cars). I'm not at all ashamed to admit that whenever I buy wiper blades, I very discreetly ask the salesperson to come out to my car with me and install them. I also tip very well.

Chapter 14


        Dear Mr. Mechanic:
             Something under my car makes an annoying rattle
             when I go over 40 miles per hour.  What should I do?

                                            Mike R. Stalls
                                            Oilleak, MI

        Dear Mr. Stalls:
             Turn up the radio.

There are several automotive procedures you can do yourself, without a hydraulic lift or expensive diagnostic equipment or a pair of overalls and a name patch.

Check tire pressure frequently. Underinflation causes the outer edges to wear out more rapidly. If you find that a tire is constantly losing pressure, you probably have a leak. Finding the leak is easy: drive into a lake and look for bubbles. If a tire goes flat, there are aerosol products on the market that will inflate it and temporarily plug the leak, so you should keep at least one can of this stuff in your vehicle just in case. However, this type of product works by coating the entire inside of the tire with goo, and this can make it difficult for a mechanic to find the leak, plus he has to clean out the substance and will probably charge you for this extra work. It would be better if you could replace the flat with your spare. However, there are a number of people like me who have trouble figuring out complicated instruments like a jack and a lug wrench. This is why we have AAA.

Preset all your favorite radio stations so that you can change frequency without taking your eyes off the road. Listen only to FM, unless you're over forty.

Inspect belts and hoses. Replace belts that are worn, glazed or frayed; and hoses that are bulging, rotten or brittle. Of course, I can't tell the difference. I wouldn't know a radiator hose from a garden hose.

Check the coolant level regularly. If it's too low, top it off with a 50/50 solution of anti-freeze and water. If your vehicle has a reservoir, check that rather than the radiator. If for some reason you must check the radiator itsel, then do not remove the pressure cap when the engine is hot! If you do you can burn yourself with boiling coolant, and you can't sue anybody because anti-freeze isn't manufactured by McDonalds.

Changing a water pump is a nontrivial procedure, but even this can be done at home, preferably with some help because it might involve, depending on what kind of vehicle you have, the positioning of belt pulleys and the removal of large parts. Once, during the Reagan administration, a buddy of mine helped me change my car's water pump. Actually he had all the know-how; the only mental input I provided was finding a radio station that played good music. My friend would remove belts and hoses and radiators, and have me hold various parts or apply gasket sealer, and to this day I couldn't tell you the first thing about changing a water pump or even a tire. We accomplished our task in just over half a weekend, which isn't bad when you consider that I did little more than buy the beer. When we were done we had one bolt left over, and we could not for the life of us figure out where it was supposed to go. I stood there looking under the hood - as most men do when they don't want anyone else to know that they have no idea what's wrong with a vehicle - and hoped that some car part would say, in a soft voice akin to the Pillsbury Dough Boy, "Hey doofus, it goes over here."

Brake pads eventually wear out and need to be replaced. If they don't get changed, then the result will be two kinds of noise: 1) the calipers scraping against the rotors, and 2) your car smashing into something. I once tried changing my car's brake pads. I had seen mechanics do it before and it looked easy enough, so I bought some pads and set out, my brain full of testosterone and ignorance, to achieve this manly feat. Within ten minutes I had managed to irreversibly jam the caliper into some other part, and I found myself on the phone with AAA. The driver and I pulled into the local garage with my crippled vehicle in tow and I explained what had happened. Then the mechanics - who between them had neither a high school diploma nor a full set of teeth - laughed and said, "You what?!"

Chapter 15


My mechanic couldn't fix my brakes, so he made the horn louder.

Probably the single most difficult and frustrating automotive chore is finding a trustworthy mechanic. The world is full of deceitful crooks who think nothing of ripping you off, and mechanics are no exception. They know that you are incapable of fixing your vehicle yourself – that's why you brought it to them in the first place – and it is very easy for them to lie about what the problem is and charge you lots of money to get your car running again. For example, if a mechanic told you that he was charging you $500 to replace the panchax, you'd probably pay it, unless you knew that a panchax is a kind of fish.

When you get your brake pads replaced, some mechanics will tell you that you need your rotors smoothed. This procedure can cost more than the brake pads. Ostensibly, the rotors develop sharp grooves and raised areas that can unevenly wear the brake pads or make them squeak, but this doesn't happen very often. Usually the mechanic is just trying to squeeze more money out of you. Machining rotors shortens their life, because there's a minimum thickness for any brake rotor to be useful, and any metal removed unnecessarily will bring your rotors closer to this minimum, requiring them to be replaced prematurely. So the next time a mechanic claims that your rotors need machining, grab your crotch and say, "Machine this!"

Even dealerships will rip you off. I once owned a Volvo that developed a sporadic and irreproducible problem wherein about half the time it wouldn't start. No regular mechanic could find out what was wrong, so I was forced to bring it to a dealership, which I had tried to avoid because of their high labor costs. I waited for more than five hours while they did a number of diagnostics and replaced a few parts, and the bill came to about $600. I paid them and left, and when I got into my car, it wouldn't start. After storming back into the dealership with righteous indignation, they somehow had an epiphany that led them to the real problem, which got the car running for only an extra $70. And of course they did not reimburse me for any of the unnecessary work. This is this sort of shady operation that gives the five percent of mechanics who are honest a bad name.

Another thing I hate about dealerships is that they tell you to take your car in for "periodic maintenance". Basically, every time your odometer hits a multiple of 15,000 miles, you're supposed to leave your car at the dealership so they can charge you $400 for a tune-up. They give you a list of all the complicated procedures they performed, such as rotating the lug nuts and checking the kiester valve, and you rationalize that these mechanics - who barely graduated from high school - deserve the $80 an hour they charge.

Some mechanics aren't dishonest; they're merely incompetent. This is why different mechanics will give you conflicting advice. In their defense, however, it should be noted that there are hundreds of automobile parts, and knowing how to maintain/repair/replace all of them constitutes a huge body of knowledge. Furthermore, there are hundreds of different vehicle models, and this greatly complicates things because, for example, the location and workings of a 1978 Camaro's transmission will be different from those of the transmission on a 2003 Honda Odyssey. Thus mechanics have more to remember than just about anyone else, including doctors. Think about it: your primary care physician has cursory knowledge about a number of body parts, but if any of those parts need repair or replacement, he sends you to a specialist because he can't possibly help you. We expect a mechanic – who makes about $45,000 a year – to fix anything he finds wrong with our vehicle, but if a doctor making six figures refers us to a dermatologist because he is unable to remove a wart, we excuse him because we understand that it is impossible for him to keep abreast of modern medical procedures or actually heal people while working to keep his golf score below 90.

The good news about mechanics is that there are some good ones out there. My ex and I took my Sentra on our honeymoon in Intercourse PA (yes, that's a real town). Now, this vehicle had never given me the slightest problem in the 8 years I had owned it, but as soon as we neared our destination - which was about 2½ hours from our home - the car started conking out whenever we came to a stop, which just proves once again that cars hate me. We had to sit at stoplights with one foot on the gas and the other foot firmly on the brake in order to remedy the situation. Finally we pulled into a service station that had just one guy working there. I explained the problem and asked if he could possibly take a look at it as we were on our honeymoon and we were looking forward to Intercourse. He took the hose off the engine's air intake area, stuck his bare hand in there and cleaned out some viscous black material. This of course showed what a wimp I am because I wouldn't even think of sticking my bare hand into any automotive part that doesn't have a light come on when you open it. Even that doesn't guarantee my safety, as I have injured myself reaching into glove compartments. Anyway, the guy must have read Zen and the Art of Fixing Ben's Car, because his little excursion got the engine running smoothly. He said that the engine had carbon buildup and we'd probably get home okay, but we'd need a full cleaning soon after we returned. We opted to have him do it, since he said it would only take about a half hour. He ran this stuff called "top engine cleaner" through the engine, which caused the exhaust coming out the tailpipe to look like we were sending messages to Chief Lung Cancer. This cleaned out all the carbon. He was so nice that he didn't even charge us for labor; all we had to pay for was the bottle of top engine cleaner. I tipped him $10, and I am probably the world's biggest jerk for not giving him more. At least that's what my ex told me.

Chapter 16


Customer:"I want my money back. I bought this tire here yesterday, and already I've had a blowout."
Salesman:"You must have ridden over a nail or some broken glass."
Customer:"I still want my money back. It blew out in my trunk."

If you do nothing else for your vehicle, maintain the engine oil. This is the most important and most cost-effective thing you can do to avoid automotive problems. Actually the best way to escape vehicle headaches is to not own one and take public transportation, but how many suburban and rural people are gonna do that? This is America, and the one thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world is that we are selfish, impatient, wasteful consumers who drive the biggest gas-guzzlers we can afford so we can drive our kids to soccer practice and ride to work alone. Even "environmentalists" burn gas and pollute the air as they drive to rallies, and frankly the rest of us are sick and tired of their hypocrisy. If you really want to do your part, go live in the woods and eat berries. But you know what? It won't make a bit of difference because the rest of us will continue to air condition our homes and run our lawnmowers, and we'll honk and laugh as we drive by you on our way to the mall.

Check the oil level by removing the dipstick, wiping it clean, inserting it fully and removing it again. If oil does not go past the "fill" line, add oil. Do this procedure on a flat surface, because depending on the geometry of the oil pan and which part of the engine block the dipstick is inserted in, checking oil on a slant can give an inaccurate reading. The oil level should be checked every month; do not wait until the oil warning light comes on, because by the time the oil level gets low enough to activate it, the engine is already being damaged by low oil pressure and flow. Furthermore, the light can fail completely. This happened to one of my cars. All my oil leaked out, but the oil light didn't come on, and the engine melted down while I was on the highway late at night in 15-degree weather. Isn't that always the way? Your car never breaks down when it would be okay to, like when you're on your way to your in-laws' house. Then you'd have an excuse not to show up:

You:"Hello, Mildred? This is Bob."
Mother-in-law:"Bob?! Haven't you left yet?"
You:"Yes we have, but we can't make it. The van broke down. It's too bad because I was really looking forward to spending the afternoon pretending to like you and listening to you tell Mary how successful her ex-boyfriend Winston has become."

You should change both the oil and the oil filter every 3000 to 8000 miles. Older models generally need more frequent oil changes. Additionally, frequent cold starts, driving in dusty conditions, very short trips and excessive idling shorten the mileage between oil changes. Cop cars need frequent oil changes because they do a lot of idling while police officers eat their donuts.

Make sure to use the type of motor oil specified in the owner's manual. Modern engines are engineered to run on thinner oils than what your father's Oldsmobile used, and applying a more viscous oil than what is recommended is not necessarily good. In order to increase oil's weight, refiners have to add a lot of viscosity index improver, which is a goo that looks like rubber cement. It's not a lubricant, and it can accelerate engine wear because thicker oils don't flow as well, especially during cold starts.

Changing oil is one of the easiest automotive tasks to perform. It involves unscrewing the old filter and screwing a new one on, removing the oil filler cap and drain plug, draining the old oil*, replacing the plug, filling with the appropriate amount of oil, and replacing the filler cap. I changed my car's oil once. I bought five quarts of oil and an oil filter and an oil-filter-getter-outer, and in less than two hours I had not only changed the oil and filter, but also brought the used oil to a local gas station, where they charged me a mere fifty cents to take it. While driving a few minutes later I noticed smoke coming from under my hood, and I knew that the Curse of Ben had struck again. I lifted the hood to discover – and this is why I work in an office – that I had forgotten to put the oil cap back on. Luckily it was still there, sitting on top of the engine block, and I managed to reinstall it, coming away with only second-degree burns.

*Used motor oil should be taken to a recycling center. Some gas stations will take it as well. Unfortunately some maggots pour it down the sewer or on the ground, thus polluting wells, rivers and other water sources. And let's not forget the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which contaminated a large area near Alaska. The company tried to clean it up, but its employees left after a short while because the nearest liquor store was ten miles away.

Chapter 17


German glossary of automobile terms

AutomobileDie honkenbrakenscreecher
HoodDie pullnob und knucklechopper
Windshield wiperDer flippenflappen muckenschpredder
Rear view mirrorDer follow tucklosen
Traffic jamDie bluddifukkink clusterfuk
BackfireDer lowdenbangenmekkenjumpen
JuggernautDer fukkengrett trucken
GarageDer heiway robberung
SkidDer banannan waltzen
Near accidentDer fukken ner schittenselfen

Your vehicle should be tuned up periodically. You can take it to a generic place that specializes in this sort of thing, but don't for a second think that they won't try to rip you off. I once took my car to Precision Tune. I was told that I needed new fuel injectors, which would cost an extra $300. Skeptical, I told them not to replace the injectors, and I went to an imported auto parts store, where the retail price would have been $130. Furthermore, the guy working there told me that Precision Tune buys their parts from him. I never did replace the injectors, and they never gave me a problem. Anyway, you can tune your vehicle yourself, although you won't catch me doing it because I have no idea what makes my car run – it could be powered with a blender and I wouldn't know it. If you don't know what you're doing, you can do more damage than good. For instance, each spark plug wire has to go to a spark plug in a specific hole in the engine, so you should label the wires before removing them so you'll attach them to the correct plugs later. If you don't label them, then your chance of replacing all of them correctly on a four-cylinder vehicle is 15 to 1. For six cylinders, it's 479 to 1. If your vehicle has eight cylinders, then you have about as much chance as Janet Reno has of ever getting laid.

A car's crash test rating is important these days. It wasn't always, because when automobiles were first introduced, the speed limit in most major cities was 10 mph. Nowadays, thanks to myriad assholes who run red lights and cut you off, frequently in large vehicles such as pickup trucks and vans and SUVs, you need as much protection as possible, preferably a firearm, but for those of us who live outside of Los Angeles, a steel box will have to suffice. Seatbelts and airbags help, but let's face it, those restraints don't do much good if you're in a Pacer; you're much safer in a vehicle that won't crumple like a soda can.

I believe in cleaning windows for safety reasons. Bugs, sap, pollen and dust can obscure your vision, so keep both the insides and the outsides of your windows clean. I also recommend products such as Rain-X that make rain bead off the windshield and help prevent the insides from fogging up. However, I don't believe in washing the bodies of cars: it does absolutely nothing to make them run better, it costs time and money, and spot removing compounds can strip paint and accelerate rust. You might wonder, then, why we should shower, when cleaning our bodies doesn't help them run better. Well, you have to remember that skin harbors bacteria and makes us smell, and this can severely hinder our chances for promotions and dates and invitations to parties. This is why I shower almost every day. For example, I almost showered yesterday.

Your air conditioner might need a Freon charge after many years. Freon, also known as R-12, is no longer manufactured, in an attempt to keep chlorofluorocarbons from damaging the Earth's ozone layer. The more environmentally innocuous R-134a is not nearly as efficient a refrigerant. When the industry moved over to R-134a, there was an across-the-board upgrade of evaporator, condenser and compressor capacities to make up for most of the performance loss. If you have an older vehicle, your air conditioning system was sized to use Freon, so if you get it recharged, it won't produce as many BTUs of cooling because it will be filled with R-134a.

Car having trouble starting? It could be a weak battery, and this is why you should always have jumper cables in your vehicle. I've heard stories about exploding batteries, but this happens only when ignoramuses hook up the cables wrong. Jumpstarting a battery is not dangerous provided that you do it properly. I think the correct procedure is:

  1. Find someone to donate their vehicle and their personal safety.
  2. Connect the two positive terminals together with the red cable.
  3. Connect one black lead to your car's negative battery terminal.
  4. Connect the other black lead to any thick metal protuberance in the donor car other than the battery terminal (for grounding).
  5. Start the donor car.
  6. Start your car.
  7. Run like hell.

Sometimes a car that's sluggish on a very cold morning can be started by keeping the accelerator pressed while turning the key. A lot of people think that this will flood the engine, and that might be true for a vehicle with a carburetor, but fuel injected cars don't flood. Depressing the accelerator assists in attaining proper airflow or something like that. I don't know. Maybe it works because it gives the hamster under the hood a food pellet.

What octane fuel should you use? Just like with oil, RTFM (Read The Manual). Using too low an octane can cause engine knocking, which will wear it out faster. There is also no advantage to going above the recommended octane because higher-octane gas has slightly less heat (energy) content, so it might actually reduce your mileage.

Don't worry if your brakes squeal. It might be annoying, but it's purely cosmetic, as the squeal has no effect on braking effectiveness or the life of the pads and rotors. Squealing has become more common since asbestos was removed from brake pad material for health reasons. I read up on brake squealing and found several possible remedies:

Isn't this information helpful? I don't know about you, but I'm going to run out right now and epoxy my pistons to my pads! Or insert Teflon shims (which of course we all have at home)! Or cut a diagonal hacksaw kerf through the friction material! As soon as I find out what a kerf is!


A lawyer and an engineer meet on a tropical vacation.
Lawyer:"What a beautiful island. You know, my house burned down, and I'm taking this trip with the insurance money."
Engineer:"What a coincidence. My house was washed away in a flood, and I'm using insurance money for my trip, too."
Lawyer:"How do you start a flood?"

Insurance is an interesting concept. You pay money to guarantee that you can’t lose the thing you insured. If a catastrophe happens, the insurance was well worth the investment; if nothing happens, you lose the investment. It’s like when primitive societies sacrifice a virgin in order to ensure good crops: they lose a valuable member of the community, but the rest of the community is saved. Or when religious folks give up 70-plus years of freedom and individuality on the off chance that the religion they’ve chosen to adopt (or been brainwashed into believing) is correct and that God will reward all of its believers while punishing everyone else. Lots of people gladly buy into this, spending their lives in unquestioning subservience because if they’re wrong, all they’ve lost is several decades of fun, but if they’re right, they get to live happily ever after while the rest of us have to spend eternity with Regis Philbin.

It is probably a good idea to get homeowner's insurance. In fact, if you have a mortgage, your lender will most likely require it. However, don't assume that every possible calamity is covered. There are always loopholes that can let insurance companies off the hook, so you should buy extra insurance for specific disasters in order to be sure that you're covered. For example, if you have small children, then you will want kid-puts-plastic-toy-in-the-oven-and-burns-down-half-the-kitchen-and-causes-smoke-damage-to-the-rest-of-the-house insurance.

Insurance is a big mystery as far as I'm concerned. I pay $1000 a year for homeowner's insurance, and I don't even know what I'm covered for. I once had a leak in my roof, so I called my insurance company to see if I was covered for water damage. At first the agent I spoke with didn't know, even though she had my file right there in front of her. So she asked someone else who told her that I wasn't covered. Then someone else said that I was covered for damage, but not for the cost of fixing the leak. What's ironic is that these people can't figure out a simple insurance policy, yet they call themselves "professionals". Don't you hate that? People who barely escaped from high school and have trouble deciphering something that has far less complexity than a VCR owner's manual give themselves a title that rightfully belongs only to people who both went to college and have triple-digit IQs. Perhaps these people aren't really as stupid as they seem. Maybe they just like to play jokes on us. For example, let's say you're driving and you hit a deer, so you call your insurance company on your cell phone:

You:"Hi. I just hit a deer and smashed up my car's my front end. Am I covered?"
Agent:"I'm not sure. Was it a white-tailed or a black-tailed deer?"
You:"I can't tell. It's covered in blood now."
Agent:"Oh deer. [snicker] Well, we're having a special this week. If you hit a male deer, you get an extra $50. Why don't you check?"
You:"Okay ... I just have to lift up this leg ... Hey! It's a male!"
Cop:"What are you doing?"
You:"Checking this animal's gender. Look – it's a male."
Cop:"Put your hands on the hood of the car."

There are three basic types of auto insurance: collision, liability, and comprehensive.

Collision covers you if you damage your own car. It's basically for people who care about their vehicle's appearance. If you're the type of person who can't live with a scratch or dent on your vehicle, then by all means add collision to your policy, because body work is very expensive. A one-inch scratch can cost over $200 to fix because the entire panel has to be painted in order to maintain color and texture uniformity. I'm glad I don't give a crap about my vehicle's appearance. As long as I get from point A to point B safely and timely, I don't care if my means of transportation looks like a triceratops or even Rosie O'Donnell.

Liability covers you if you damage someone else's vehicle or injure them. This is the one type of auto insurance that is mandatory in most states, the reasoning being that if someone sues you for a million dollars, you shouldn't have to pay it; all of your insurance company's other customers will pay it in the form of higher premiums. Actually it just makes good sense to cover your ass because "victims" are often awarded large settlements that they don't deserve, and you could become a defendant in one of these ridiculous lawsuits. Even if someone's injury has virtually no impact on their lifestyle, that person might still be able to collect lots of money. Let's say an old, fat, sedentary person is involved in an accident and gets moderately injured. His lawyer might persuade a jury to award a large cash settlement on the grounds that if the injured person suddenly, after 35 years of inactivity, wanted to climb a mountain or run a marathon, he wouldn't be able to.

Comprehensive covers you if your car is broken into or stolen. It's a good idea only if your vehicle is worth more than a few hundred dollars, because paying another, say, $100 per year in order to cover a $250 vehicle for vandalism and theft makes about as much sense as giving congresspersons pay raises every year in order to compensate them for the inflation that it is their job to keep down in the first place.


Ben couldn’t operate a screwdriver without a trip to the emergency room. It is a wonder that he managed to print this book without lacerations from the paper. The only reason he is still alive is that he has the local handyman service on speed dial; otherwise he’d be attempting life-threatening activities such as hanging pictures and raking leaves.