That's Irrigation

On Friday, the mold abatement contractor unexpectedly kicked me out of the house, saying I couldn't be inside to breathe the fumes from the chemicals he was using to kill the mold in my basement.  So I had to make a bunch of Underscore-related phone calls from the patio and take my Mac outside.  Not a big deal, but as the day went by, it got hotter and hotter outside until I just couldn't stand it anymore.  I popped the computer back in the house a little after noon and started doing some work around the yard. For my birthday this year, my mom got me a year's worth of Scott's Lawn Service.  She told me they were coming by on Friday to aerate the soil and throw some seed down.  I just didn't know what time they were going to arrive.  Meanwhile, in the middle of the lawn, there's a pipe sticking up out of the ground from when I cut it a couple months ago.  Actually, I sort of yanked it out of the ground and it snapped in half.  When we had the Bobcat to take down the pool, I also pulled the old swingset out of the ground by grabbing it with the bucket and using the hydraulics to basically lift it out, concrete and all.  On the way, one of the concrete pieces snagged a sprinkler line and pulled it up out of the ground, too.

I figured it would be best to finish up fixing the sprinkler system and hopefully get that done before the Scott's guys got there.  Problem was, I knew that in driving the Bobcat all over the back yard and in spreading out 30 yards of topsoil, I had destroyed some heads and probably buried some of the lines down further than the 6-8" depth where they're usually found.

When my dad ran Greenway all those years ago and I was working there, I never really appreciated the no-nonsense nature of working on sprinkler systems.  Without rewriting that whole passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it breaks down pretty easily into a bunch of subsystems that are each pretty simple in and of themselves.  Under "sprinkler system" you have "water" and "electric."  Under "electric," you have things like your controller, valve wiring and valve solenoids.  Under "water" you have all your fittings, pipes and sprinkler heads.  Fixing a sprinkler system is much like the process of elimination described in Zen.  You try one thing - if that doesn't fix it, you move on to the next thing it could be and you gradually eliminate all the possibilities.  All those years working with Dad, I don't remember anything that ever truly stumped us.  (Although I do remember a problem we had with a rock that was just the right size that would tumble down a pipe and block off flow to several heads, but only when the conditions were right...  That one kept us occupied for the better part of a day.)

Anyway, I ran through all the zones, stopping to replace a head or a break or to dig up a fitting and replace it.  When I got to the zone with the pipe sticking up, I shut it off and then repaired the break.  Three hours went by and I was pretty much on auto-pilot, gradually getting the task of "repair sprinkler system" done without really having to think much.  As I was burying the last head and raking out the surrounding dirt to make sure it was level, the Scott's guy came into the yard and announced his presence.  I finished just in time.

The last time I worked with my Dad at Greenway was easily a decade ago, probably more.  Yet, all the little techniques come back to you within an instant - how you cut the pipe so that a coupling will fit in easily, how you light your torch, how you unfold your pipe cutters over your knee so you only have to use one hand.  And there's not really all that much to it.  Just a bunch of little tricks of the trade that help you do things a bit faster.

On Sunday I was babyproofing my kitchen while Lauren was out with the baby at her friend's house.  Someone knocked on the door.  It was a young kid who owned the sprinkler company who serviced my place when the prior owner was there.  He introduced himself and asked me if I had gotten somebody to take care of the sprinklers yet.  I told him about my dad and about Greenway and how I had just finished up running through the whole system to get it going.  Turns out this guy bought up a bunch of little irrigation companies in the area, and we chatted for a few minutes about the business.  As we were wrapping up, he asked me "Mind if I ask what you're doing now?"  I told him I was running an ad agency in Manhattan.  Then he headed out to his car.

Not long after he left, as I was babyproofing the umpteenth cabinet door, I found my mind wandering and soon I was in a full-blown fantasy about the lawn sprinkler business.  The guy who visited asked me what I was doing and instead of telling him I worked at an ad agency, I told him "nothing much" and he offered me a position running a crew.  And then I was going to work every day and not needing to use too much brainpower to get the work done, but could instead concentrate on using the business experience I've had since college figuring out how to make things run more efficiently and how to get customers.  And it wasn't rocket science.

Jolting back to reality, I started to think about why that was an enjoyable fantasy for me.  I think it's because the field I work in is equal parts art and science, and you can try all you want to drill into each variable of what constitutes an effective marketing program, but along the way there will be intangibles or unknowns that will take a technique that was successful in the past and make it fail, or take something that failed before and make it a success.  You can't isolate every variable in the system, quickly find the failure point and fix it.  You have to constantly ask yourself why something is successful or why it was a failure and try to isolate it, but you realize simultaneously that nothing really happens in a vacuum and that it's impossible to solve for every variable.

Sprinkler systems are not like this.  They're straightforward and you can quickly isolate what's wrong with it.  You fix it and you move on to the next broken system.  Sure, there are unknowns, but not in the day-to-day repair work - only in things like billing and in figuring out how to manage your supplies and whatnot.

I think I fantasize about things like getting into a struggling service business because "work" seems a lot more defined than it does in the marketing business.  You go out and you fix things and you come back to the shop.  You're not coming into things wondering what's going to happen next - Will a client cut their budget and suddenly you have to make a program work (somehow) on half the money?  Will a new opportunity force me to clear my schedule?  Will some new technology completely change the game and force us to reinvent ourselves yet again?

Don't get the impression that I'm looking for another line of work.  I love the business that I'm in.  It's just that sometimes I long for something that doesn't require constant tearing down and rebuilding - I long for the straightforwardness of knowing what to expect.

Or maybe it's just the humidity...

My dad used to have this simple little saying when we ran into difficulty on a sprinkler job.  "That's irrigation," he'd say.  I think it was because that was all there really was to it.