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Thoughts at water level

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In the end, they say, what matters is how one deals with pressure. With due respect to those who thrive on high-pressure living, I disagree. What matters is strength. That much I've learned from plumbing.

Not, I hasten to add, that I am anything but an amateur in this damp and grimy sport of pipefitting. But I have gone far enough to know its agonies and exhilarations, the despair of a pinhole leak and the delight of well-tightened threads. I have stood helplessly at midnight in a rainfall of my own making, with no parts at hand on a holiday weekend, and have cursed my unwillingness either to let well enough alone or to call in a professional.

But I have also hummed smug and happy tunes when, after hours of work among copper and hot solder, I have opened the main valve, heard the water go ''pssht!'' into the system, and found nary a droplet on the outside of my new-made, strong joints. I concede that, in a world that praises only the more visible crafts, plumbing is an art largely overlooked. Yet if satisfaction can be measured by one's ability to channel unruliness toward fruitful ends, plumbing is surely satisfying.

I came upon plumbing rather by necessity. I was a teen-ager when our family built, on a remote island in a Canadian lake, a summer cottage. We founded it on a ledge high above the water; we framed it with peeled balsam poles; we sided it with shiplap pine boards from a mill forty miles away; and we roofed its steep pitch with green tarpaper. And when it was done, we set about digging a well. But the rocky soil was so unyielding, and the lake so pure, that we gave it up. Why not, we reasoned, build our own water tower for lake water instead?


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