A couple of weeks ago young Emma smashed a pane of glass in the door to our back porch. I felt miserably qualified to make the repair, so I put it off as long as I could. (Which was until Kris couldn’t take it any more and we had a big fight about it. Aren’t I bad?)

On Sunday, I gathered my tools and set to work.

My first goal was to strip the paint from the wood around the broken glass so that I could determine how to remove the various bits of moulding. I believe the can of paint stripper was specifically designed for maximum spillage. As I stood at the kitchen counter, attempting to pour from the can into an old mug, none of the liquid found its way into the designated container. It all dripped onto the countertop. The painted countertop.

“Shit,” I said. I grabbed some paper towels and wiped up the mess. Fortunately, I acted quickly enough that no paint was stripped; there’s just a slight discoloration, one that’s not too apparent because these counters are old.

I read the side of the can: Do not swallow. Do not allow to come in contact with eyes. This substance is poisonous. There is no way to counteract the poison, etc. etc.

“Shit,” I said. I slathered the countertop with soap and water and crossed my fingers. (If you hear we’ve died from poisoning, you’ll know why.)

I decided the kitchen wasn’t the best place to be pouring paint stripper, so I headed to the utility room steps. (I might have gone to the shop but it was raining and I didn’t have shoes on and, well, I don’t really have a good excuse for not going to the shop, I guess.) This time I poured more freely. And still none — or very little — of the paint stripper made it into the designated container. It splashed all over my hand, splashed onto the steps.

“Shit,” I said. I held up the can again, re-read the warnings. This time I noticed: Do not allow to come in contact with skin. If contact occurs seek medical attention immediately.

“Shit,” I said. You all know how paranoid I am about my health. I started panicking, of course, sure I was going to die soon. (Kris once told me the heartbreaking true story of a woman working in a lab who had inadvertently come into contact with some substance (a heavy metal?) despite extraordinary precautions. The moment she came into contact with this substance, she knew she was doomed. She had only days (hours?) to live. After spilling the paint stripper on my hand, I felt I was this woman.) I scrambled around, washing my hands repeatedly, mopping up the spill, cursing.

When Kris returned from grocery shopping, I told her about my predicament, and asked her if I should be worried, if I should seek medical attention immediately. She glared at me (we were still angry at each other — this was the middle of our fight). “No,” she said. “You’ll be fine.” But the way she said it didn’t inspire comfort. In fact, I got the distinct impression that she might be lying to me. Never make a chemist mad!

Still, I returned to the task at hand. Eventually I found an angle that spilled less paint stripper than before (though it still spilled prodigious quantities). I filled my container and went to work.

I had set a piece of corrugated cardboard on the floor at my work area, and had gathered together a hammer, a chisel, and a flat paint spreader thingie. I brushed on a layer of the paint stripper. Then, slowly, carefully, I hammered out the broken glass. I was able to pull many of the pieces out by hand. (Most of the glass ended up on the back porch, to be shop-vacced later, but some of it fell inward — thus the corrugated pad.)

After removing the glass, I scraped away most of the paint on the moulding below the window. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any obvious place where the moulding connected to the frame. I began to fear it was all of a piece.

“Shit,” I said, not knowing what to do next. Eventually, I decided simply to dash ahead, trusting to blind faith that this really was a piece of quarter-round nailed to the frame. And so I chiseled and pried, but s-l-o-w-l-y. Eventually, a piece of wood began to loosen, or so it seemed. I pried more and the wood popped free! I pried with increased vigor and then the piece shredded in two before my very eyes.

“Shit,” I said, as the pieces fell to the ground. I picked them up to examine them. Even after prying them loose, I couldn’t find any sign of a seam. It was as if the entire frame, even the decorative parts, was a single piece, and I had just hacked off an edge.

I’m getting better at home improvement, but still I find myself intimidated by tasks I’ve never before attempted. When I fixed the faucet in the bathroom upstairs, I initially felt a great deal of trepidation. Eventually I figured out what I was doing, yes, and I did a fine job making the repair, but I started warily, unsure of myself. Here I had not yet reached the feeling that I knew what I was doing.

“Shit,” I said. I slumped to the floor, frustrated.

Kris came in, still angry.

“Why don’t you just call Jeremy?” she asked. When Emma broke the window, Jeremy had immediately offered to help me fix it. I wanted to try it myself, though, and so had declined his aid.

“Shit,” I said, but I went to the phone and called Jeremy.

Tonight, Jeremy and I will tackle the window. This kind of project requires sustenance, of course, so I’ve pulled some steaks out of the freezer (thanks, Ron!), and have set aside a bottle of wine. If we get very frustrated, the whiskey’s not far away — just on the shelf there by the back porch — and the tobacco supply is also at hand.

Kris is worried that we’ll be too busy debauching to get any work done.

As for our marital squabble: eventually we talked things out, as we always do. Neither of us is completely satisfied, which to me indicates we’ve reached a proper compromise (the definition of compromise requiring that neither party feel he or she has “won”). In the evening, we watched West Side Story together while I ironed clothes and Kris looked for Christmas cookie recipes.


On 19 October 2004 (09:47 AM),
Johnny said:

If it’s any consolation, the warnings on the paint stripper are designed for people who intend on a) drinking the stuff on the theory that raw alcohol smells like paint thinner and it’s cool stuff so why not drink this too, or b)bathing in the stuff and leaving it on their skin for an extended period of time. Any time I’ve stripped paint using that goopy paint remover I’ve gotten it on my skin in select places, wiped it off, washed it off and received nothing but a slight burn for my carelessness. Apparently my overall health hasn’t suffered any at ARRRRGHHHH

On 19 October 2004 (10:05 AM),
Dana said:

I decided the kitchen wasn’t the best place to be pouring paint stripper, …

Allow me, at this juncture, to offer an interjection: DUH!

When I was at LLNL there was an incident involving broken glassware and a glove-box. The upshot — someone stabbed themselves through the glove with a broken pipette contaminated with Uranium or Plutonium (I don’t recall which — probably Uranium).

Yeah. Not a nice way to go.

On 19 October 2004 (12:29 PM),
Anthony said:

Some people. As if you really expect whiskey to improve your problem-solving abilities.

Those steaks, now� if I was closer, you could definitely count on my help with that glass.

On 19 October 2004 (01:19 PM),
pam said:

true story my ass – nobody is poisoned from spilling things on their hands. now you can corrode off all your skin and then die from the infection that ensues, but that’s another matter entirely.

On 19 October 2004 (02:02 PM),
Kris said:

Hey, Pam– I don’t think Jd’s in danger, but it can happen. Please read below.

The News York Times
HANOVER, N.H., June 10, 1997 – A Dartmouth College chemistry professor has died from exposure to a rare form of mercury, first synthesized more than 130 years ago.

Karen E. Wetterhahn, 48, who also had served as an associate dean and a dean at the college, died on Sunday, about 10 months after accidentally spilling a few drops of dimethylmercury on her disposable latex gloves while performing a laboratory experiment. The substance, which has no practical application, is used in research on heavy metals.

Prof. John S. Winn, chairmen of the college’s chemistry department, said Professor Wetterhahn was a leader in the study of how heavy metals can initiate cancer at the molecular level. Dimethylmercury is so rare that it is only in use in perhaps 100 laboratories worldwide at any given time, he said.

Through a search of medical literature, the college determined that exposure to the substance killed two laboratory assistants in 1865, shortly after it was first synthesized, and a 28-year-old chemist in 1971.

“Karen Wetterhahn’s death is a tragedy for her family and for the Dartmouth community,” said Dartmouth’s president, James O. Freedman

After years of study chromium metal toxicity, Professor Wetterhahn had turned to the study of mercury in a sabbatical at Harvard University in September 1995, Professor Winn said. In the experiment at Dartmouth last August, she had used dimethylmercury to set up a standard against which to measure other mercury involved in her research.

The drops apparently spilled onto her gloves, passed quickly through the latex and were absorbed through her skin. After her illness was diagnosed in late January, the college had the latex gloves independently tested, and it was determined that the mercury could pass through in 15 seconds or much less.

Other types of gloves offer more protection, but she probably used latex to increase dexterity during the delicate procedure, he said.

In a letter to Chemical and Engineering News about the accident, Professor Winn and the other college officials recommended that heavier gloves be used during experiments, and that “medical surveillance measuring mercury concentrations in whole blood or urine” should be considered during extended use of these compounds.

Professor Wetterhahn’s symptoms, which initially included difficulty with balance, speach, vision and hearing, progressed rapidly and she was in a coma from late February until her death. Although treatments were administered to eliminate the mercury in her system, they began too late to prevent irreversible damage to the nervous syster, Professor Winn said.

On 19 October 2004 (02:05 PM),
Anthony said:

nobody is poisoned from spilling things on their hands.

That is a very broad statement. I might make so bold as to say that JD is highly unlikely to be seriously poisoned by pouring paint stripper on his hands, but skin is porous� well guarded but porous. I think it is fairly common knowledge that your skin can absorb many kinds of harmless chemicals, and poisons are no different.

I’m not saying you’re in any danger, JD. Just be sure your living will is up to date. 😉

On 19 October 2004 (02:37 PM),
Joel said:

Johnny said: “Apparently my overall health hasn’t suffered any at ARRRRGHHHH”
Apparently Johnny dictates his comments?

On 20 October 2004 (07:36 AM),
Dave said:

Isn’t there a St. Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh’s in Cornwall?

On 20 October 2004 (08:10 AM),
Dana said:

I think you mean St. Iiiiives.

On 20 October 2004 (08:11 AM),
Dana said:

I think you mean St. Iiiiives.

On 20 October 2004 (08:12 AM),
J.D. said:

Shhh. Be quiet. I’m composing a poem about the skunk under the trailer house. You’re distracting me.

On 20 October 2004 (08:35 AM),
Dana said:

My cousin was bit by a skunk.

(sorry about the double post earlier)

On 20 October 2004 (08:39 AM),
kool-azz rider said:

A poem? Sweet dude! Im teh best when it comes to riting poetry. Let me know if’n you want my help there, G. I can lay down some mad rimes about skunks.

On 20 October 2004 (10:08 AM),
pam said:

ok – i concede to kris. i searched the med lit and could find seven cases of death from contact exposure – all of them involved some form of mercury and a few may have had inhalational exposure as well. so what i should say is that no one is fatally poisoned from spilling non-mercury compounds on their hands!

interestingly enough, there are a lot more cases of husbands being poisoned by there wives (i’ve even seen a case – arsenic, caught before fatal) and in many cases the wife works in the field of science or medicine…so how bad was that fight??

On 20 October 2004 (11:39 AM),
Kris said:

I think that just goes to show you that both Mac & Jd should be on their best behavior!

On 21 October 2004 (10:26 AM),
Pam said:

Joel may have to start watching his behavior as well.

And I don’t think Mac noticed anything odd about dinner last night, did you, honey? 😉

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