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At our house you musn't flush, or fill the kettle, when someone's showering. Or shower when the washer's running. Or water the lawn when someone's running a bath. At our house, the water can't be in two places at once. It just can't.
Our water entry pipe is about a hundred years old and cracked. Thousands of tiny tree roots have crept in through the fractures and become a dense mass, requiring use of a Roto-Rooter to shred some light.
Regular maintenance only puts off the inevitable, $20,000 job of excavating the front yard to a depth of about eight feet and putting in a brand new, oversized water line. Our new neighbours did that as part of their renovations. Now they have one of those fancy, plate-shaped showerheads, and I've decided that we're spending our next family vacation in their master bathroom.
I was thinking about this as I was filling one of our two Brita jugs for the fourth time the other day. A contractor had mentioned a great fridge we could buy, but warned us that it neither dispenses water nor makes ice cubes. He was like a real-estate agent listing a house with no parking (um, like mine) or a teenager explaining that no, we do have a TV, but no cable.
I thought of the expression "If you're going to do something, then do it right." What is right, then, in the land of more?
My in-laws urge us to accept that ours is an old house, like theirs, with a whole lot of charm. These houses were built in another time, to other standards, and you need to take the bad along with the good, they say. They recommend against fiddling with things.
My parents' mantra is keep it simple: avoid debt, stay in shape and make your own fun. Don't buy stuff you don't need, and when choosing appliances buy the one with the fewest doodads-that'll-break-and-you'll-never-use-anyway.
You might say my genes make it easy to be fiscally conservative.
Yet I don't believe in not renovating, and nothing about how I do things is simple.
Like my father I'm a perfectionist, but after a bout with an eating disorder in university I decided that real perfection transcends perfection. In other words, balance requires flaws, including contradictions, imbalance and junk food. A crooked house can be great. So can lousy water pressure.
There's something about filling the Brita over and over again that reminds me that each glass of water is precious. Want to drink another glass? Then you'll have to filter it, since I think our pipe is made of lead.
So I impose scarcity value where there is neither scarcity nor value. Maybe I need to pretend that I'm just like most other people on Earth: that my access to water is limited and the water I drink likely unsafe. One of many pointless, guilt-driven acts of solidarity in which I engage.
Or maybe I am rejecting the narcissistic self-absorption I associate with words such as pure, natural, rejuvenate, cleanse and detoxify. As though our bodies were giant sewer mains and water like liquid Drano.
I don't buy bottled water, except for San Pellegrino as a treat when guests are coming.
I will not be buying vitamin water – whether to drink or spray on my face – as I really don't want to live past my eighties, or look young when I'm not, as advertisers suggest I should.
I think of potable tap water as liquid gold – lead pipes and all. Canada is an aquatic El Dorado, but like the townsfolk in Voltaire's Candide, whose streets were strewn with gold, we do not value it.
Perhaps what it boils down to is that I really like drinking water, and I can still remember all the times when there wasn't any and I was desperate for a drink. The day camp bus ride to Upper Canada Village. The back of the station wagon on the unpaved road to Chibougamau. Hiking on the Lizard, in Cornwall.
I'll never forget the gas station owner looking puzzled when, at age 5, I had a meltdown because they had no water, just soft drinks. Or the times when I was too lazy to get out of the water so I drank from the pool, which was never quite as satisfying as I thought it would be.
One of my kids just did a class project on droughts. I was tempted to challenge the group not to drink during and after gym class as part of the lesson, but I feared legal and other sorts of reprisals.
My other daughter is involved in a school production of The Little Prince. I asked the students over how many days the story unfolds. Eight was the eventual consensus: At the beginning the narrator says he has just enough water for eight days, and at the end he has run out.
My kids have never heard Big Yellow Taxi, in which Joni Mitchell sings, "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/Till it's gone." But they do know that it's best to yell "anyone in the shower?" before filling the Brita.
And if some day they move to other parts of the world, they'll already know how to get by on less.