Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Barbecues and Swimming Pools: Ban Them Now!

The weekend was fun.

Oh, wait a minute. No it wasn't. Mr Brain must have blanked it all out in a rare bout of humanity. I remember now. It was wall-to-wall, shag-pile tedium with a side order of inconvenience.

First of all, it was hot. Spring was non-existent this year and we went from cool weather characterised mainly by the aquatic nature of the air to roasting hot with no air at all. The weather did vary a little during the first five months of the year; the rain sometimes came in horizontally and on at least one occasion upward. Mrs Stevie took one good hard look at the sweating walls of Chateau Stevie and cancelled my plans of making myself scarce and getting some quality time in at one of the local bars (where they have air conditioning and ice-cold beverages for the tired man about town) for an alternate one in which I drove her around every Sears, Blowes and Home Despot in the Greater Metropolitan New York Area1 while The Stevieling moaned quietly at the injustice of it all. Thank Azathoth the Steviemobile has A/C. What a shame I had to sell a kidney in order to pay for the gasoline. I digress.

Sometime during the previous week Mrs Stevie had come into a) a small amount of cash and 2) the frame of mind in which nothing would suffice but to spend the spondulix on a new barbecue grill. I couldn't see the point since we didn't barbecue at all last year2 and we have a perfectly good two-burner barbecue already. Of course, the little swing grill that you use to warm stuff and cook hot dogs on has gone completely rusty and I haven't been able to replace it since the barbecue is about 12 years old and the hardware chain that sold it to us was driven out of business by Home Despot, the lavarock has seen better days4 and the piezo-electric igniter no longer works reliably at all5. I expressed my "we already have a barbecue, dear" viewpoint, but Mrs Stevie countered with her irrefutable and fiendishly reasoned "shuttup, idiot!" argument, so we set out on a four hour voyage of barbecue discovery.

Gas barbecues used to be fairly straightforward affairs. A metal box housing the burner assembly (a sort of "H" shaped thing of folded metal with holes drilled into it to let the flames out), a grate to hold the lavarock briquettes which the flames heat to provide a more diffuse area suitable for cooking and which catch the fat drips to provide flare (now deemed carcinogenic and a threat to democracy by the Barbecue Police but still highly prized in La Cuisine De Stevie), and a box-shaped lid with a lot of headroom for cooking a whole pig or a significant portion of a cow without propping the lid open and letting all the heat out. The whole thing was black so that the chef-de-barbercue could get an object lesson in black body radiation and an insight into what the pig/cow/whatever was going through.

Not now though. A paradigm shift has occured in Gas barbecue design aethetics.

Now, nothing will do but to have three or four burners. Mrs Stevie was agitating for four and it was her money and what did I know and would I please knock off the sulking before "someone" knocked it off for me, so four it was. All barbecues are now made of stainless steel, which looks nice until you touch it after which it needs polishing. Polishing materials are in aisle 5 next to the barbecue tongs. All barbecues now have low-profile, aerodynamically sloped lids, which is good if you wish to mount the thing on the front of your Lamborghini but gives you a bit less space for Mr Oink to sizzle into deliciousness. All barbecues now come with spiffy battery-powered electric spark igniters, removing the need to furiously crank the little knob or jab repeatedly the button that works the spring-loaded hammer affair that provokes the crystal into making a spark. In other words, they've ruined all the fun.

It was love at thirty-first sight for Mrs Stevie who was deaf to my bewildered cries of "but it doesn't have a window to watch the food cook like our old one".

"There is so much crap on that window that you couldn't see a magnesium flare cooking on our old barbecue" snarled the harridan, rolling up her right sleeve while maneuvering to get behind me for a cowardly rear-assault.

"Nonsense!" I protested. "A quick session with my trusty razor-blade scraper and it will be clear as a bell"

"For how long?" she sweetly insinuated

"About half a burger's worth is about standard" I said, simultaneously attempting to break her strangle hold.

There then followed a frank exchange of views that visited a wide variety of territory, mostly at my expense, and I agreed that a new barbecue would be a fine thing.

What could top the events of that Saturday for disruptive inconvenience and expense?

Sunday decided to have a crack at it.

It began with me deciding to open the swimming pool. Twenty four hours at a mean temperature approaching that of the solar corona had me hallucinating about floating in crystal clear, cool water, my hair turning slightly green from having jumped in the pool before the shock had burned completely off. I looked at the piles of wet leaves still drying on the cover.

I had raked the leaves out of the shallow layer of green slimy rain water (the majority of which I had siphoned off on Saturday morning) to dry on the black pool cover, but despite the torrid heat and merciless sun beating down all day they still were soaking wet and stinking up a treat. Apparently there is some science that is waiting to be done here. Smelly science, I'll admit. Very smelly. In fact, on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is odourless and 10 is sceptic-tank sludge wagon in high-speed collision with Ammonia wagon, this science is destined to be a good 8.5. But it will be worth it, for if the secret of deodourising can be gleaned and the mysteries of the limitless wetness under extreme dessicating conditions can be illuminated for all, not only is there a dead cert Nobel Prize for Extreme Science in the offing, but no-one need ever dehydrate in the lines at Universal Studios (Fla) ever again. Specially trained staff could apply a deliciously cool, damp layer of leaf mulch to each ticketholder as they enter in the morning.

Where was I?

Oh right. You may remember that removing the cover is problematic since the water level is down about a foot and a half (Approximately 0.75 Napoleons in metric) and it becomes impossible to get the cover off without dumping the filth into the pool unless the cover is squeaky clean before I start, which was about as possible as Federal Income Tax being repealed after the pool spending last winter and what passed for spring under the trees. During spring, as I have mentioned, there had been much rain. Indeed, every time I drained off the pool cover it refilled within hours.

I pondered, and Mr Brain suggested I connect the filter pump and fill the pool before I removed the cover. It was so brilliant an idea that I failed completely to spot the sneaky trap I was falling into. No doubt you can sense trouble looming, but I imagine that even you only have a hazy idea of what the nature of the fiasco in the making was, so cunning was the setup.

I got all the bits I needed out of the shed. The pump. The hoses. The extension cord with wire as thick as my little finger (and I have got fat fingers). The timer that plugs into the extension cord and drives the pump. Later that afternoon I was to search the garden from one end to the other several times without finding that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned timer. But I digress.

Around lunch time I was in a position to start the filter pump (sans timer) and add the shock treatment. During this operation Mrs Stevie arrived in theater and announced she had bought the barbecue grill she wanted, and would I please unload it from the car and put it together and I should take the bits out of the box first because it had taken four burly men to load it into her car and she didn't want me to drop it and damage it.

I wandered round to the driveway muttering some protective charms under my breath and casting humorous dark looks at my wife. There was the car, springs groaning in protest, with the largest, heaviest-looking box I've seen since Troll The Snowblower of Supreme Spiffiness was delivered. I pulled out my trusty Swiss Army Knife and hacked and slashed at the box. In a mater of only ten minutes I had managed to saw through the impervium ribbons it had been banded with and gained entry into the inner core of barbecuey goodness.

There were about six hundred bits in that box

Mrs Stevie went out "to buy groceries" leaving me to ponder the mysteries of barbecue construction in a World Gone Mad. I unwrapped panels, grills, grids, handles, and plastic bags with small parts in them. I also found the card with the screws, washers and a couple of tools bubble-wrapped to it. What I didn't find were the casters for the base.

I opened the instructions. Step 1: Fit casters

I hunted high and low for the damned things and eventually turned them up in an unlikely-looking flat box hiding under a pile of discarded wrapping and packing materials.

Screwing the casters into the base, a job a crack-deranged monkey could have done blindfold, was complicated by the special "caster wrench" they had supplied to snug the casters down with. It was machined so that it was impossible to get the wrench to reliably grip the hexagonal base and allow it to be screwed up against the stop. I ended up using my self-adjusting pliers and consigning the wrench to the bucket o' genuinely useless tools. This thing had to be the second most useless and pointless tool in exsistence (pride of place going to the contour gauge that was so monumentally unsuited to the task of transfering a contour that I walled it up in New Bog in disgust).

Then I fitted the sides and the front door. I was disappointed to find that after that the clearances were so tight I couldn't use Mr Battery-Powered Drill to drive the screws. It would have saved some much-needed time.

The most unlooked-foreward-to bit was the hoisting of the actual barbecue, lid and all, onto the base. It had been packed as a single piece and couldn't be easily broken down. It was supposed to be a two person job but I managed to get the damned thing in place and bolted down on my own with only a ten percent overspend on level four swear words. When I discovered that the washers I had fitted at this stage by means of turning myself into a human pretzel had stuck together causing me to double up the parts used which required me to undo everything and recover the extras I wandered briefly in fields of level three swear words I admit.

But I was coming along nicely and had only the side burner to fit when the heavens unexpectedly abruptly opened and we had some high speed vertical wet. Mrs Stevie had just re-appeared and so she, I and the Stevieling leaped around gathering parts and covering up the barbecue while soak happened and decorative lightning bolts struck all around.

It was at this time that some of the screws became separated from the card.

When the rain had stopped I recommenced the barbecue build, and was alerted to the possibility of lost fasteners by stepping on one in my bare feet. I found all the parts but one nut, which was used to secure a hinge and so could safely be left off for a bit while I located a new part, and I declared the barbecue open for business. I transplanted the gas cylinder from our old barbecue to the Silver Machine, and Mrs Stevie lit it up. It took about two minutes to reach 350 degrees Fahrenheit, something our old grill could manage in about five minutes, and I grudgingly admitted it was A Good Thing.

Leaving Mrs Stevie to turn groceries into dinner I went and examined the pool to find that the throughput of the filter had dropped to almost nothing. I pulled out the filter and could see even in the dim twilight that it was completely green.

Not good

I had lost six weeks of the hottest part of the year to a persistent green algae problem last year. Apparently it had not cleared up as I had thought but just lain dormant. What a shame I didn't actually look at the water before topping off the pool, eh?

I got out a Maglite flashlight and, prizing up the cover, shone it into the water.

I couldn't see more than a couple of feet.

That was it. I was done. I shut it all down and on Monday night, resolving not to get caught in an endless cylce of cleaning and filtering and sweltering but on no account swimming, I removed the cover and began syphoning off the thousands of gallons of green soup. A quick but thorough cleaning with extremely chlorinated water, followed by a complete rinse and draining with the wet-dry vac if necessary and I'll replace the water so carefully nurtured into a decent buffer over three years with new, untainted stuff from the tap and start over.

Stupid pool.

  1. Which, for the uninitiated also includes bits of New Jersey and Connecticut though they don't tell you that of course, just sometimes hint at it playfully with the euphamistic term "The Tristate Area"
  2. The first time that has happened since my happy union with the woman of my dreams3
  3. Mrs Stevie, you dolt! The fact that the dream became, as so many do, a nightmare from which I desperately wish to awaken is not germane to the story at hand. I wish you'd keep up
  4. But despite "expert" opinion to the contrary, that can be remedied by the simple action of leaving both burners on "medium" all night. In the morning the now grease-free lavarock will be coated with a fine ash, the barbecue wheels will have melted and the neighbourhood will smell absolutely delicious (and will continue to do so for hours). Not only that, the barbecue will be about as clean as it is possible to get it without a sandblaster. When gas came in at $17 a cannister that was an almost economical mistake plan. Now, I believe it is cheaper to buy a whole new grill than get the gas refilled
  5. This is common, and caused by hamburger grease, pig fat and gosh knows what else dripping onto the igniter for a year or so

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