Two Very Small Victories and One Giant Defeat

24 Dec

Act I – The Gutters

The consensus among my blog readers, yard guys and community of friends is that 50-year-old women should not go climbing ladders to clean out their gutters.  But, Gentle Reader, I did it anyway.  Luckily for me, the one person whose opinion about my ladder climbing actually matters – my husband, Peter – seemed to think it was a fine idea.  He was even willing to schlep the ladder from the garage to the front of the house, and even hold on while I climbed up it.

The ladder, like the house, is quite old, and made of wood.  It has no safety features like tread on the rungs or hooks at the top.  It came with the house, and had been leaning against a wall in the garage for the entire time that we have lived here.  I had previously seen it as a sort decoration, along with all of the rusting garden implements – items that exist to make the garage, and by extension the house, seem authentically old.

Nevertheless, the ladder was solid, and Peter set it down near the left front of the house, and I climbed up it.  I wanted Peter to hold the ladder with both hands the whole time I was on it; he didn’t feel this was necessary, although he was willing to stand at the base, with his hands in his pockets and shout encouragements at me.

We have Yankee gutters on our house, a fairly common feature of older homes.  Yankee gutters are made of wood, then lined with metal and coated with a rubber sealant.  They are less visible than more modern, metal gutters.  They are also harder and more expensive to repair.

When I got to the top of the ladder I could see that the left end of the gutter had several inches of standing water in it, along with a lot of leaves.  At the right end of the house, I could see some leaves but no water.

Using that most important of home repair tools – my hand – I scooped the freezing wet and soggy handfuls of leaves out of the gutter and threw them down into the driveway.  The standing water didn’t budge, and it became clear that the real blockage was located in the downspout.  Luckily for me, I was able to lean a bit to the left to reach into the downspout.

“Don’t lean too far over,” Peter shouted encouragingly.  “The ladder could tip.”

We couldn’t move the ladder to the left any further, as we have two stone steps that lead from the walk in front of our house down into our drive, so leaning was really my only option.  I had brief visions of the ladder sliding out from under me, leaving me, dangling helplessly from the Yankee gutters, while Peter shouted encouraging words (“Don’t let go!”) but I had come this far.  I was determined to clear the stoppage.

I reached in and pulled out a handful of rotted muck, which I threw down onto the driveway.  Then another, and another, until my hand was numb from the cold and, finally, the water in the gutter began to gurgle and flow.

“I think I cleared it,” I shouted to Peter.

“I think we have a bigger problem,” Peter shouted encouragingly from the base of the ladder.  “Look under the gutter.”

I looked – and saw that the water gurgling into the downspout was dripping out along a three-foot section of the bottom of the gutter, rather than continuing in the downspout to the ground.

So the gutters – or at least the downspout – need repair that is way beyond me.  But I did have the satisfaction of climbing the ladder and seeing the gutters for myself, and even cleaning them out, which I consider a small victory.

Act II – The Power Drill

For as long as we’ve lived in this house, we’ve had the same toaster oven – a Black and Decker SpaceMaker mounted-under-the cabinet model.  When the “On’ switch started giving us problems, a few years ago, I tried to buy a replacement – and discovered that no one carried under-the counter models.  I was told at the time that these models were a bit of a fire hazard, so had become unpopular and then discontinued.  I felt like Elaine, on Seinfeld, when she discovered that the contraceptive sponge was being eliminated – except I didn’t have a chance to stockpile a case of toasters.

Because I wasn’t willing to give up any more of my already limited counter space, we hung in there with the persnickety one we had.

Then the upper heating element blew.

After weeks of heating pizza slices in the regular oven and making toast in a two-stage process – toast one side, then flip and toast the other – my sister Amanda gently suggested that I needed to move past my attachment to the dying toaster.  Besides, she said, she’d heard that there was a SpaceMaker model available.  I checked at Target, but no luck.  Amanda suggested that I check online. Which I did.

When the picture and description of the new SpaceMaker flashed on my computer screen, it was as though I’d reconnected with a long-lost friend on Facebook.  Except I don’t have any long-lost friends who mean nearly as much to me as my SpaceMaker.  I ordered it, and it arrived three days later.

In the division of labor in our house, Peter handles all jobs involving hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers and power tools.  Of which he has two, and they’re both drills – one that plugs in and one that has a rechargeable battery pack.  If a job involves something more advanced than these, we call someone.  Or, as I’ve described previously, we don’t.

Installing the new SpaceMaker required drilling four holes in the bottom of one of our kitchen cabinets: a job a power drill.  A job for Peter.  But, in this month of learning to take care of my house, I felt that I should do the power drill work.

Peter wasn’t immediately convinced.  I could tell he had doubts about my power drilling skills.  But I begged.  And maybe whined just a little.  He finally relented.

Basically, with a power drill, you mark where you want to make the hole, put the drill bit at the spot you marked, press firmly so that the bit doesn’t slip, and turn the thing on.  A few seconds later, you have a hole.

I made four of them.  It felt really good.

ACT III – A Really Big Mess

After cleaning the gutter and drilling four holes, there was a new swagger to my step, the kind of swagger you see on those tool-belt wearing This Old House guys.

Then, one dark and stormy night, we had edamame for dinner.  And, in a moment of sheer stupidity, I put the shells down the garbage disposal.  A lot of them.  Okay, I basically stuffed the disposal with edamame shells.  When I turned it on, the disposal whirred and hummed…and then it burped.  I turned it off and pulled the plug out, and it upchucked some ground edamame shells into the sink.

“That can’t be good,” I said to myself.  However, not knowing what else to do, I took the path taken by all idiots – more of the same.  I put the plug back in and turned the thing on again.

I have a triple-bowl kitchen sink that looks something like this, with the disposal connected to the drain on the left:

After a few seconds, ground-up edamame began burbling up through the other two drains like some kind of radioactive green sci-fi slime.

I turned the disposal off, and ran some water into the sink, but, sadly, it did not go down: I had clogged the drain.

If this weren’t the month of learning to take care of my house, I would have run immediately to the phone and called Stuart the Plumber.  But I felt I needed to at least try to solve this problem myself.

I turned to YouTube, where I found a video on how to fix a garbage disposal.  Following the video’s instructions, I turned the power to the disposal off, and, again using that most important home repair tool – my hand – cleared all of the green gunk out of the disposal, even manipulating the blades inside the machine to clean out the gunk below them.  When I was done, the water and considerably thinner green muck did not burble happily down the drain.  The video recommended resetting the disposal using the reset button on the bottom.  I located the reset button, but knew that my disposal didn’t need to be reset – it had never stopped working; it had just gotten clogged.   So clearing the gunk out of the disposal didn’t solve the clogging problem.

I went looking on YouTube for a “How to Unclog Your Drain” video. I found two.  One recommended using a mix of baking soda and white vinegar, which sounded lovely and gentle and not at all likely to work on whatever thick, green plug was somewhere way down in my pipes, with lots of water on top of it.  The second video explained how to use a snake to unclog a drain.  We actually have a small plumber’s snake, about a foot long, but I couldn’t figure out how to thread it through the garbage disposal and into the pipe.

So I called Stuart the Plumber.  The next morning, his assistant Oliver appeared at my door.  I showed him the kitchen sink and explained, sheepishly, what had happened.

“I love garbage disposals,” he said happily.  “The thing they’re best for is keeping plumbers employed.”

After carefully studying the bilious green water in my sink, Oliver asked to go to the basement.  I led him down, determined that, if I couldn’t actually take care of this aspect of my home myself, I could at least understand what it was that the professional was doing.

Because I kept shnozing him with questions, Oliver explained that he was going to snake the pipe out from below the clog.  He showed me the pipe that led from the kitchen, and pointed to a metal plug in the side of it.

“I’m going to take that off and snake it from here.  Do you have a bucket I can use?”

At that moment, I had a vision of what might happen when the pipe came unclogged from below, and I offered up a brief prayer of thanks and appreciation that I wasn’t going to be the one standing below it.

Oliver went to his truck and returned with a light and an electric cable augur, which is basically a really long plumber’s snake that is wound around a drum and can be fed automatically into the pipe.  Between the image of slimy green water gushing out of the pipe and the knowledge that this job required specialized plumber’s equipment, I began to feel much better about the whole calling the plumber thing.

Oliver hung his light, undid the plug, and fed his cable into the pipe.  After a minute, he stopped the cable, wiggled it a bit, and began withdrawing it from the pipe.  I watched from a safe distance through squinted eyes, but when the cable came completely out of the pipe…nothing.  No gush of green muck and water.

“What happened?” I asked.

Oliver shrugged.  “Didn’t work.”

He sealed the plug back up using special plumber’s tape and a joint sealant compound, and I again felt better really good about calling the professional, with his professional supplies.

Then we both went back upstairs to the kitchen.  Oliver studied the sink.  I studied Oliver.

“Be right back,” he said, and disappeared out to his truck, returning a moment later with…a plunger.  A plain old plunger, just like the one we have next to the toilet – wooden handle and red rubber plungery-thing.

He fitted the red rubber part over the middle sink drain.  And he began plunging.

He plunged the sink so hard I could see the entire counter area moving up and down.  After fifteen or twenty good plunges, he pulled the plunger off the drain, and the water began gurgling down.  Unclogging my drain, it turned out, required no special plumber’s equipment.  No actual skill even – just a little brute strength.

Why hadn’t I tried that?

It is all the fault of YouTube, I say.  If anyone had suggested plunging the clog, I would have tried it.

I am trying to move past my feelings of failure and the attendant bitterness and despair.  I found a really great YouTube video about how to replace a broken pane of glass.  I’ve watched the whole thing, and I really think I can do it.


15 Responses to “Two Very Small Victories and One Giant Defeat”

  1. Andrea December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    “Shnozing?” Isn’t it spelled “schnozing?”
    Have a great time skiing? Rain in Vermont this week —

  2. Karen December 24, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    I’m impressed! I would never have had the patience or even thought of going to YouTube for advice. Got any ideas on how to fix a very slow leaking faucet?

    • Cathleen Barnhart December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      Often, its a bad washer. How one goes about replacing a bad washer I have no idea. Try YouTube!

  3. Jennifer Lang December 24, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    Too, too funny. As of now, 46, I have no burning desire to learn to take care of our house but admire you for yours. That said, I do feel pretty ignorant and helpless, neither of which is good.

  4. Bear Barnes December 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Hi Cathleen!

    Wow that brought back a memory. I used to run a painting company and had 300 painters working for me, so I’m supposed to be pretty handy. We had our lights go out in part of the house and after checking the breaker box and seeing things looked normal I reluctantly called the electrician. He came out, went to the breaker box, and threw all the breakers off and then back on again. The lights in question came back on. “Sometimes when they go off they don’t move all the way over, so I just flip ’em to be sure. That was your problem,” he said.

    My “problem” was that I just paid somebody $95 to throw a breaker! Ugg.

    Thanks for your blog. I really enjoy reading it. Happy Holidays to you and Peter and the whole gang!


    • Cathleen Barnhart December 26, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

      We got your holiday card – amazing how quickly the kids grow up! Thanks for reading, Bear – and nice to know that someone who is MUCH smarter than I am about house stuff still can be made to feel like an idiot by the professionals.

  5. Dan December 25, 2011 at 3:11 am #

    Way to go to YouTube first!!! Almost everything is on there… It’s saved me thousands upon thousands of dollars. it’s like having free consultation service, 24 hours a day. “ask the builder” and “domonicdiy” are very didactic. Even if you have to call in a pro, you will at least be on the same page as him and not clueless about your biggest investment you own

  6. Louis Greenzweig December 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    As a former Industrial Arts Teacher and someone who has always done his own home repairs I am proud of you. It takes a lot of “MOXIE” to enter unchartered waters (even with the internet as your friend). Cheers! Remember what I said about ladders..I wasn’t kidding!

  7. Elaine Boyd December 30, 2011 at 1:06 am #

    So happy I skipped by 50’s crisis! Much easier to let Jack climb the ladders, clean out the gutters, unclog the sinks, hang the appliances. But, it is delightfully adventurous hearing about your efforts and being part of your “new you”. Thanks for sharing in such a delightful way!

    • Cathleen Barnhart January 3, 2012 at 10:37 am #

      If I had someone like Jack at my house, I probably never would have had any desire to learn anything about house repair/care. Alas, I have a wonderful husband with many fine qualities, and he does own that power drill, but he is not handy around the house like Jack!

  8. bronxboy55 January 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    Your smooth writing and gentle humor are a joy to read. I loved the entire post, but especially this:

    “I had brief visions of the ladder sliding out from under me, leaving me, dangling helplessly from the Yankee gutters, while Peter shouted encouraging words (‘Don’t let go!’)”

    Have you done anything about the broken glass yet? If not, please be careful!

  9. charlywalker January 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    Yankee Gutter’s? Do they have them in the South?

    Great Post!

    Spread the humor:

    • Cathleen Barnhart January 28, 2012 at 11:41 pm #

      That’s a really great question for which I don’t have an answer…thanks for reading!

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