Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Plumb loco

I enrolled in a basic plumbing class a few months ago. Offered through Arlington County’s Community Learning program, the three-hour course was designed for homeowners who want to become minimally competent, or at least conversant, in plumbing essentials.

I have no good explanation for my decision to do this now, rather than 15 years ago when I bought my first home. Certainly my plumbing ineptitude has been around at least that long. It may even be in my genes. No offense to my dad, whom I respect and adore, but the entirety of his plumbing knowledge consisted of “jiggle the handle.” He dutifully passed that along to me, but it proved inadequate back in 2007 when tree roots grew into the pipes below my house, resulting in the kind of monumental sewage clog typically associated with Congress. I called Roto-Rooter back then, and I’ve called in the pros pretty much any time something’s gone amiss since.

Calling in the pros has never bothered me –watching Roto Rooter perform a colonoscopy on my house rid me of any desire to learn how to eliminate pipe polyps– but I’ve always wanted a better understanding of what they tell me. It’s like traveling to Italy and wanting to speak Italian not fluently but with enough proficiency to avoid accidentally buying a second class train ticket and, somewhere around Bologna, getting kicked out of your seat and into the aisle, into which you will be forced to squeeze with your luggage and stand for the next three hours, occasionally performing feats of contortion when a beverage cart rolls though, which they do with regularity on every form of Italian transportation. Not that this particular situation ever happened to me, or to my 6’3″ brother, who may or may not have had the misfortune of traveling with me.

Back to the plumbing class, which was scheduled for the evening of August 16, which also happens to be the Lawnmower’s birthday. I don’t have that date written down, mind you, but like the complete lyrics to every song I’ve ever hated, my brain just won’t let me forget it. So the class date wasn’t a great sign, nor was the fact that it was scheduled to last three hours (my childhood addiction to Gilligan’s Island has left me suspicious of any event of that particular duration), but I refused to let either omen deter me.

Which doesn’t mean I read the reference materials the instructor sent ahead of time, even though one of them featured a cute cartoon outhouse. Let’s be honest: even the most appealing graphic will have a hard time getting people excited to read about toilets. I resolved instead to arrive early so I could snag a seat in the back row and hide among what I assumed would be a sizable group of plumbing-challenged homeowners. I also expected mostly women, not because your average guy is a plumbing savant but because the men I know would rather fake it than admit ignorance in a public forum.

On the evening of August 16, I walked into the wood shop ten minutes before the class start time and saw only the instructor, who said, “Hi, I’m Rick. You must be Karen.”

Uh-oh. More disturbing than the loss of anonymity were the possibilities that I was the only student enrolled or I was already notorious in Northern Virginia plumbing circles. Or both. 

I asked Rick how he knew who I was and breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t say, “Yelp.” As it turns out, only four people registered for the class, and he’d met the other three in a recent class on household wiring basics. Moments later, two guys and one woman arrived, sending my gender stereotype right down the tubes.

Rick kicked things off with a history of pipes, a description of the various systems in the house, and an explanation of how they operate. I followed the evolution of pipe types just fine and was even able to earn some street cred by volunteering the story of my tree root invasion. But the subsequent foray into schematic diagrams, traps and vents lost me. Maybe tree roots have grown into the pipes of my brain, I don’t know. We moved on to basic hot water heater repair and maintenance, during which I learned that I could do things like flush out the tank and replace the anode rod myself but would most likely screw them up epically, thus reinforcing the wisdom of my current outsourcing model.

As we talked about toilet repair, we moved into the lab, a place Rick referred to as “the petting zoo.” It looked to me more like a plumbing morgue as we studied the detached upper half of a commode cadaver and other unappealing parts with inapt names like “spud gasket.” Rick explained how to fix a toilet that’s running–something every homeowner wants to know — but his advice didn’t include jiggling the handle, so I’m not sure I can trust it.

Then we watched as he joined two different types together with an adaptor and predicted water would flow through it “like shaving cream through a goose.” Like most of what went on in class, I didn’t understand that expression at all. Unlike most of what went on in class, I loved it immediately and unconditionally, and I won’t be afraid to use it. It may not help me solve any plumbing problems, but it’ll definitely improve the entertainment value of my legal advice. I just knew that class would pay dividends.