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.

Inspirato: if you have to ask what it means, you can’t afford it

Today’s snail mail included a letter from Inspirato, a vacation club company, and it began as follows:

Dear Karen Yankosky,

Allow me to extend this personal invitation for you to consider membership with Inspirato.

All of my closest friends greet me on the street using my full name, so I knew right away I’d received a very personal invitation, but the bold print really brought the point home and made me feel special. The extension of this very personal invitation also sent me to Google, because I’d never heard of “Inspirato.”

For all I knew, Inspirato could be a reputable brand saddled with a name hatched by a focus group that had done one too many tequila shots, like Accenture, or it might be a benign-sounding name that conceals a more nefarious business purpose, like Amway.

Imagine my relief upon learning that “inspirato” is Italian for “inspired,” not “pyramid scheme.”

Why did I even waste my time trying to figure out what this was about instead of tossing the whole thing in the trash? Because the letter contained a plastic card with an alluring photo of an ocean and pool at sunset. My mind has a weakness for anything travel-related, so the minute it saw that card, its bags were packed.

See? How could I possibly resist?

See? How could I possibly resist?

Besides, I was intrigued by the letter’s claim that Inspirato is “a private vacation club for travelers who enjoy the luxury and amenities of a five-star resort and understand the value of simple moments with family and friends.” It sounded like a cross between the Four Seasons and Wal-Mart. I had to know more.

As I read on, I learned that Inspirato has partnered with American Express, which, for me, gave it a whiff of credibility. Further googling led me to customer reviews, which provided way more information than the one-page letter my pals at Inspirato sent. I found this entry on particularly helpful:

Just received a mailer from Amex inviting me to join Inspirato and pay no initiation fee ($17,500 savings), annual membership fee of $2600 ($400 discount) and one annual guest pass each year ($5000 savings). I have no idea what this is and whether it’s worth it or not, or what a guest pass is.

My personal invitation didn’t mention the potential for upwards of $25K in costs. This struck me as a salient omission, but maybe such unseemly money talk would’ve been getting just a little too personal. I also learned those fees just give you “privileged access” to the properties, which really means you’ve earned the privilege of paying still more to actually inhabit them.  Unlike the contributor, I don’t wonder whether it’s worth it or not, I wonder why in the world I got this invitation.

Inspirato really should have had a chat with AmEx before they sent me that letter. AmEx knows my biggest expense this year didn’t involve exotic travel and only got me privileged access to a new sump pump. And that wasn’t very inspirato at all.

But I like the way Brent Handler, Inspirato’s CEO, put it when he wrote, “There’s so much to see and do out there. It’s time to change the way you experience the world.” I’ll get right on that, Brent, just as soon as I get out of the basement.




A writer looks at 43

I turned 44 a month ago and, like Jimmy Buffett taking a pirate’s look at 40, I’ve decided to take a writer’s look at 43.

I considered doing one of those 360-degree assessments beloved by Corporate America, but since I’ve reached an age where I’d just as soon ignore the view from behind, I’ve decided to go old school and treat it like a standard six-subject report card. I’ve replaced math and science—subjects I excelled at but disliked—with subjects I like and actually encounter in daily life but perhaps do not excel at, such as “love life.”

  1. Health/Sports: 95. If the human body were a house, the major systems in mine are all still humming along after 43 years. If the body were Planet Earth, continental drift has not occurred…yet. And because my parents sprang for extended warranty coverage on my joints at birth, this year’s athletic pursuits included running the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler and doing the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim with four awesome dudes on a team called Capital Punishment. (Capital Punishment is poised to make its triumphant return, by the way, so stay tuned.) I continued to captain the hapless, but not entirely winless, Smash Hits. We even managed to soldier on when our beloved CeCe passed away unexpectedly, though that’s one loss from which we’ll never recover.
  2. House: 71. My home behaved like a high school senior whose college acceptances have already rolled in. It performed solidly for the first three quarters and then just gave up altogether, ending the year by leaving me with a basement that required major waterproofing and an oven that needs a neurologist.
  3. Writing: 100. I finally wrote a book, fulfilling my lifelong dream (and my family’s worst nightmare). Few things rival the joy of holding a bound volume of words you wrote, but pretty much everything beats the pants off of actually writing those words. The process stinks, and anyone who tells you it doesn’t is either lying or not really a writer. But just like going to the gym, if you do it with consistency, you get better (usually), and the results make the grueling, painful, sweaty agony worthwhile. Almost.
  4. Travel: 88. My book dragged me all over the lower half of the East Coast. It connected me with readers at a beer garden in Arlington and a book festival in Charlottesville, as well as bookstores in D.C., the Northern Neck of Virginia, and Elizabeth City and Charlotte, North Carolina. That last stop was a doozy for two reasons. First, it was the backdrop for a reunion with my beloved elementary school librarian, who just happens to live in Charlotte. It is one thing to hold a bound volume of words you wrote; it’s another altogether to read those words to a woman who helped you learn to love and aspire to great writing. My event at Park Road Books also created an unexpected opportunity to get in touch with my Jewish side. I expect to release Mazel Tov With That Thing You’re Doing any day now.
  5. Absurdity: 100. By any measure, Year 42 should have set the high water mark. Any year during which two single men materialize from the ivy in your fenced-in backyard is going to be very tough to beat. Not only that, but that same year I took a trip to Alaska with my parents, both of whom are in their seventies. Over the course of that trip, the three of us went whitewater rafting (referred to more accurately as “getting a glacial facial”), flew in a tiny plane that set us down at the base of Denali, and zip-lined in the treetops of Skagway. You haven’t lived until you see your parents outfitted in construction helmets and a harness that looks like a seatbelt diaper. It had taken some convincing to get Dad to go on that last excursion because he’s afraid of heights. (Every Yankosky fears heights, but Dad’s got it really bad.) Naturally, he was the only one of us to wind up stuck mid-zip, dangling like the lone grape on a vine. Against that backdrop, you’d think 43 wouldn’t have stood a chance, absurdity-wise, yet it met the absurdity challenge admirably. In August of 2014, I got ordained by the Universal Life Church and presided over a wedding. Not only that, but the blog post I wrote about the whole experience led the ULC to contact me. The ULC has a pretty great sense of humor as churches go – disorganized religions are smart enough not to take themselves too seriously –so a fun correspondence began, as a result of which I was featured in the ULC blog, keeping company with ordained elites like Lon Burns, “America’s Favorite Jewish Cowboy Minister.” (And High Priest of Niche Marketing, apparently.) I’ve made new friends in high places, at least latitudinally speaking. My other favorite absurdity from last year? A copy of the book I wrote that started out in the hands of my oldest sister wound up in a sewer, from which it was rescued by my 16 year-old nephew.
  6. Love Life: 53. A score like that would have led my elementary school teachers to dub me “remedial,” but it might not be as bad as it looks. I went on lots of dates last year, and many of them were even with the same person for a stretch. Though nothing fit quite right, articles like this remind me that my struggles in this area are far from uncommon and lead me to view this much like the scores I got on practice tests I took before the bar exam: anything over 50 is quite respectable, and nobody’s acing it.

My average? 84. Not bad, but it makes a pretty good case for staying in school.

karen and mom

I failed to mention that Mom, my #1 fan, was there to watch me get my Yiddish on at Park Road Books.


Basements: yet another reason why it pays to rent

I don’t mind that my house has a sense of humor. I really don’t. I just wish it were more like David Sedaris’s than Larry, Moe and Curly’s.

My house’s idea of a good time is to let long periods pass without incident. The minute it senses that I’ve let my guard down, it comes out of nowhere, pokes me in the eyeballs, and hits me with its best slapstick.

Case in point: For the past year, my house has required almost no maintenance beyond the occasional lawn cut. I should have known it was just biding its time. It made its move on a weeknight in April when I had invited my friend Tish over for dinner.

Just as Tish and I cut into our steaks, a storm moved in and the sky began to unfurl sheet after sheet of rain. The thrum of the downpour added pleasant ambience until my ears detected a beeping noise coming from the basement. I have no appliances there that beep, so I excused myself to investigate. The sound led me to my unfurnished storage area, home to the house’s major systems and a bunch of spiders.

The distress call was coming from the Verizon FIOS box mounted on the far wall, and I soon understood why: rain was streaming down the wall on which the box was mounted, leaving the box surrounded by water and with no life preserver. I grabbed a towel to staunch the flow, a move that diverted the water right into the path of the adjacent electrical box. Panicked, I reached for the nearest absorbent, which happened to be a wetsuit.

While combatting the stream with the wetsuit, I noticed the floor near the back wall was also soaked. This could only mean the ground was so saturated that water was coming into the house through the floor. My house has a sump pump, but it’s so ancient I swear it’s the same model Nero installed in his basement in case the aqueducts overflowed. I watched the pump go through the motions of removing water, but it was doing nothing more than gargling.

“TISH!” I yelled.

My dear friend, who should not have been asked to do anything more strenuous than lift a steak knife, suddenly found herself deputized and in charge of two-woman Towel Brigade.

When we got the basement under control, I went outside to determine whether a mis-aimed downspout might be the culprit. (I brought a cookie sheet with me, perhaps because I’ve watched one too many MacGyver episodes.)  That downspout sits behind dense hedges, diving into which felt like wrestling a wet porcupine. I got to the downspout and found that it had been buried underground, so it wasn’t the culprit. Because I was facing a situation that even a roll of duct tape and a detonating plunger couldn’t fix (you’ll have to read my book to get that story), I turned to the one thing that could: wine. Tish and I opened a second bottle and hoped for the best.

A few days later, I called in the pros, and in just a few weeks, I will be the proud owner of a new drainage system and sump pump. This is almost as exciting–and expensive — as when I got a brand new set of gums.

Thanks to the basement’s shenanigans, I barely noticed that my oven appears to have had a stroke. The digital keypad where you punch in the desired oven temperature is paralyzed with the exception of three numbers. If you have any recipes that call for baking at 789 degrees, feel free to pass them along.

In the meantime, I need to figure out how to get the last laugh around here without bringing the house down.

Sump pump or money pit? You be the judge.

Sump pump or money pit? You be the judge.