Privilege Blog

Failing Gracefully Is Success, Or, Saturday Morning At 8:49am

It was a relief to finally get my drains fixed. The water first started to run slowly on a Thursday, nothing at all was working by Monday morning, and the plumber cleared everything up Tuesday afternoon.

By then I had used drain cleaner twice, plunged thrice, gone to the hardware store, bought a pipe snake from an adorable young man with a strong Southern drawl, and deployed half a bottle of bleach trying to disinfect and deodorize my poor house. The drains taunted me, appearing to function, and then backing right up into my shower.

At least nothing overflowed onto the floor. We take what we can get, in these situations.

Afterwards, given that none of my efforts took, I wondered whether I should be angry that I’d tried so much in vain. I don’t think so. By the time I called the plumber, all that work convinced me that my ignorance was mostly likely not at fault. That there wasn’t some super secret trick known only to Plumbing Superman that I could have tried.

As a woman living alone, I hate feeling that I’m being taken advantage of. I want to believe that taking a reasonably traditional female course for my life, motherhood, cooking, gardening, running a product management department, (well, that should be traditional by now) hasn’t left me unable to perform simple maintenance.

I was happy to have made all those failed attempts. That’s the good part of getting older. When you know that some failure is inevitable, you pride yourself on failing gracefully, second only to succeeding with fanfare. Given failure, better to fail noticing and learning, than in a great grand flail of despair.

Next time my drains stop up, as they are almost guaranteed to do, here’s my plan.

  • Plunge any recalcitrant toilets, once
  • Use the pipe snake to see if there’s anything I can pull up. If yes, it will most likely be hair.
  • Try baking soda and vinegar, in a non-toxic chemical attempt to dislodge any unreachable clogs
  • Resort to drain cleaner, last, only in the showers. That stuff is not good for toilets, especially gaskets
  • Call the plumber. I have one I can trust, now.

I hadn’t realized what a toll the experience took until everything was working again. What a relief.

In the end, the process had benefits. I went back to the hardware store yesterday. The Deep South hardware guy helped me again. You know, I’ll remember his drawl, and the tentative pleasure of conquering my fear of widgets, much longer than the concomitent plumbing distress.

I bought a shower drain strainer to keep my long hair out of the pipes. I bought a new aerator for my son’s bathroom faucet, which I replaced, myself.

I even bought a new switch for the garbage disposal. The old one’s broken, and I have to use the circuit breaker to turn the disposal on. I took the switchplate off myself and looked inside. Scary wires, that refused to behave as they were supposed to. No, I couldn’t do this myself. Oh well. But I failed pretty gracefully. I used pliers, I learned stuff, I made progress. I will call the electrician without shame and I’m proud of that switch, hanging out of my kitchen wall.

Consider the concept of small repairs.

30 Responses

  1. Bravo! Both for what you did and what you delegated! There is nothing like having trustworthy people available to help with the house.

  2. the drains in China are very fragile-my plan has been no paper in the toilet so no need for plumber-so far so good
    being an older single foreign woman can be challenging

  3. Good for you! And what a relief to have the plumbing working well again. I’ve had to contend with similarly horrid issues when Paul’s been out of town (indeed, there seems to be some direct correlation) and I know exactly what you mean — that balance between maintaining some independence, developing skills. . . and knowing when to delegate and trust someone more skilled. Something like that AA prayer — wisdom enough to know the difference. . . You’ve acquitted yourself very gracefully and now have a bundle of knowledge tucked away for next time. And probably a very hygienic, much-scrubbed home. Time for a glass of Prosecco, I’d say!

  4. I am impressed with your can do attitude…really impressed. I am not handy at plumbing and such things. Sadly because of my lack of skill in these areas, neither are my children.

  5. I dislike any worker in my house so it is hard to get things done. There is just something about a strange guy walking in with a tool box and saying, “I don’t hear anything” that I can’t stand. It sounds like you were successful on many levels. Good for you!

  6. Not a failure at all! You did everything an intelligent, practical person could reasonably have tried, and then you called in a professional. And now you know what to do next time. Well done.

    If the odor persists, try the Bad Air Sponge, by the way–I’ve had luck with it after the occasional household catastrophe.

    I think you’re right to leave tasks involving wiring to an electrician, at least for now. X, who can fix most things himself, has taught himself how to replace switches and ventilation fans and even outdoor lighting, but even he admits that it’s a complex task and that he did a lot of studying up before he began. Anything more involved he wouldn’t touch himself.

    A few years ago, my mother got an electrician to come in and repair some faulty wiring. He took one look at the tangle of wires in the basement ceiling and said, “Did an engineer do this?” She said, yes, my father was an engineer and had insisted on doing all the wiring, but he no longer lived there. It took the electrician quite a while to locate and fix the problem, and he untangled the worst rats’ nests of wires and replaced a lot of frayed and spliced lengths, and then he said, “I won’t work on engineers’ houses. They insist they can do it all themselves, and they create all kinds of safety hazards.” More evidence that some things really just need to be left to the professionals.


    But I am also a woman alone, living with plumbing issues—I rent, but I call the super as a last resort, preferring as well to exercise my self-reliance muscle. And I am currently staying with a woman who is usually a woman alone, and a homeowner, who went through the exact same thing you did, and executed the same steps.

    What she learned, finally, from the coolest plumber on Earth. (Sorry—he’s in Portland.)

    1. Avoid caustic drain cleaners: they are hard on pipes.

    2. This includes baking soda and vinegar. (I know; as a member of Team Vinegar, I was surprised, too.)

    3. Buy yourself a container of this and use it once monthly:

    He said if she did, she probably wouldn’t have to call him again. And then he sent her a Starbucks gift card in a handwritten thank-you note after a referral she gave. And he’s Irish-from-Ireland. See? Greatest plumber ever.

    BTW, that’s totally an affiliate link up there. Figured if I can get people to help fund my own container, why not? But I love you, so also feel free to change it to your own Amazon affiliate link so that *you* can fund your own container.

  8. I am in awe of your attempt…I have no knowledge of such things but should I find myself living alone in the future i would google help and try my hand at the fixing things as you have done.

    Often the professionals are faster at repairs at any rate I think it
    is worth it to call them when necessary.

    The shower strainer sounds like a very sensible purchase.

  9. Having been through the entire mill with pipes to the point where we finally ended up buying an industrial snake from Sears (which paid for itself within six months), if you are surrounded by trees, roots might be your culprit. Unforunately, we didn’t really solve our problems until we replaced our aging clay pipes, because chances are your clay pipes have cracks in them, and the trees are hunting for water. If you can’t afford to replace your sewer (and who realistically can), then I suggest using Root-X every six months. We used to use it right before we went on vacation. It really helps.

    Also, if you are tossing your dental floss in the toilet, stop immediately. It winds arounds and “knits” with other debris (like hair) and basically creates gigantic floss-ish balls of crap that plug pipes. My sympathies.

  10. Our friend, the plumber, advises boiling hot water as a first resort for all drain problems (though would do naught for your root issues). Also says never use drain cleanser, esp in an older house. One of the best books I have is a big yellow Readers Digest book on household repairs.

  11. Oh yes, it’s so much better to give it the old college try first. You’d be kicking yourself if it turned out to be something you could’ve done.

    Way back in college I took a basic mechanics class and learned how to do simple electrical wiring projects. I replaced all of the light switches when we moved into our house and was SO proud of myself. But plumbing is beyond me.

  12. You go girl, it is amazing what we can accomplish when a challenge presents itself!!

    Art by Karena

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  13. Glad you got it worked out – yes, give me an honest mechanic, plumber, HVAC person and I am feeling secure. :-) Xoxo

  14. I am impressed you got so far with the plumbing situation and good for you for trying all. Now its good that you have a reliable plumber (and the delightful man in the hardware store too!) x

  15. You are a better woman than me- I have my plumber on speed dial. He once had to come out at 6am on a Sunday when my cistern fell off the wall. I loved this post x

  16. Good for you! I just could not have done all the tricks you tried, only Mr. Muscle, and if it would not have worked, then a call to a plumber.
    However, I clean the shower drain regularly. Not a pleasant job. Ugh!

  17. Men get taken by tradesmen too, they just refuse to admit it. My husband, the Network Architect, is clueless. His main “tool” is the neighborhood list-serve. They’re always a quick source of names for people to call to fix things.

  18. Oh I’m impressed with the attempt. it speaks to something sigificant in the psyche to be able to attempt the repair, and even to make some progress before recognizing our limits. Also good for you for recognizing when to call in the experts. That balance between self sufficiency and admitting to the need for help is the critical factor.

    I’d be proud of that switch too.

  19. I am too lucky to have a partner who is an all around Mr. Fix-It, but I notice among my younger colleagues at work (the females) that many of them are the Fixer-Uppers while their partners cook. It sounds to me that you are doing better than I would have done in similar circumstances.

  20. Wow, I cannot believe you attempted electrical work by yourself. In Australia it is a licenced trade, and it is illegal for a non-licenced person to do electrical work. Please please be careful, we don’t want to read about how you nearly burned the house down, or nearly electrocuted yourself.

  21. One of my favorite things about small town life is the ability to call our (plumber, carpenter, painter, electrician, car mechanic, etc.) and have them come over any time. We know & trust them all, so we don’t have to be there or worry that we are being taken for a ride.

    Glad you are clog-free!

  22. Meg – I agree, it removes a worry you might not even have known was there. Thank you.

    Betsy – I cannot IMAGINE doing this alone in China. How is your Mandarin?

    HHH – I do have a picture of what I wore throughout these attempts. It might be really funny to post. The rest of the experience? Did not make for good photos:).

    Belle de Ville – Thank you. I’d say it wasn’t so much of a Can Do attitude as a What So Bad WIll Happen If I Can’t:).

    Pink Martinis – Hahahahaha. I don’t hear anything indeed:).

    Staircase Witch – If X had to study up on electrical tasks, clearly I made the right decision to back away from the switch. I suppose bad DYI is as problematic as bad Get Someone Else To Do It And Pay Them. Thank you for the additional piece of thinking.

  23. Colleen – Totally affiliate away! I’m on board. I will investigate this product and see what happens. So sad, as a member of Team Vinegar, but so be it.

    Hostess – I think you’d do exactly as I’ve done, being a fairly practical sort:).

    Claire – Impeccable reasoning. My plumber found no roots. Just a narrowing of pipe from the 60 years of its life, and various mineral deposits and irregularities. No dental floss. I promise. Just toilet paper, hair, and life. At least now I KNOW.

    Loretta – OK. That’s good to know. I will add it to my steps to take. I wonder if that book is still in print.

    Une Femme – That’s what I want. I want that class you took. Exactly so I can make the old college try first.

    Karena – :).

  24. Preppy 101 – It is about the security, I agree, most of all.

    Allison – Hair. And people. Just have to take care, going forward.

    Sarah – The hardware guy was so adorable. The drawl.

    Faux Fuchsia – The true Grandes Dames, and I count you among them, would never touch plumbing. I bow to you.

    Mette – Ugh. Exactly.

    RoseAG – I wish I had a neighborhood list-serve. When my kids were in grammar school, that list serve would have been the perfect resource.

  25. Valerie – Kind of makes me miss apartment living:). Is there a site somewhere, home repair for single women? If not, there should be.

    Mardel – Thank you. It felt significant, to the psyche. And to follow the entire course of the event without shame, if that makes sense.

    Terri – Well hooray for Mr. Fix-It! And for the younger women who can do it themselves too.

    Shan – Oh gosh. Don’t tell me I also almost got arrested! I made sure to switch off the circuit breaker. And wore rubber shoe soles:).

    Patsy – That must be so comforting. Even hearing you talk about it has me breathing a sigh of relief.

    Mater (sorry missed your comment at first) I remember your house repair mishaps. And can you believe I’ve never had Prosecco? Must remedy the situation.

  26. Good for you Lisa!

    Like Terri, I’ve got a sweetie who can apparently do everything, so I’m spoiled. However, I am the one re-staining and weather proofing the patio furniture this week, so I guess that counts for something.

  27. Golf claps for replacing that faucet thingy yourself!

    And you’re so right – as I get older, I appreciate the graceful fail far more than I would have 10 years ago. Not entirely – there’s enough Type A angst in me to strongly prefer the success with fanfare – but I no longer dismiss the former, and that’s a start.

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