DIY Versus Calling in a Pro

What happens when one spouse insists on doing emergency holiday fixes himself, and the other wants to call in a pro?

illustration of Santa fixing a sink
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When my husband and I bought our circa-1920 home, I did a little creative visualization: As we signed away the next 30 years of our earnings, I calmed my galloping heart with thoughts of the wonderful memories we'd create in the house. The holidays—snow on the roof, wind rustling the pine trees out front, us warm inside with a fire crackling in the cozy wood-paneled living room—yup, that helped bring my blood pressure down into the subacute range.

So how, then, did last Christmas wind up like this: my husband, wrench in hand, trying to get at our misbehaving garbage disposer while I did my best to body-block him? A clog had developed in the disposer's digestive system, rendering it useless—and the sink full of greasy water showed no signs of draining before the New Year. Meanwhile, our uneasy dinner guests got an earful as I lobbied to call Roto-Rooter while my husband went to fetch his toolbox. So much for peace and goodwill at our house.

The timing may have been especially bad, but this is a battle we wage whenever a household repair looms or something mechanical conks out. I pull out the Yellow Pages, tuck myself into a corner of the kitchen, and begin to look up A...A-P...A-P-P...and almost make it to "Appliance Repair" when my husband enters. Busted! He asks what I'm doing, and I confess that I'm calling in reinforcements. And that's not an action plan he's likely to support.
When my husband and I bought our circa-1920 home, I did a little creative visualization: As we signed away the next 30 years of our earnings, I calmed my galloping heart with thoughts of the wonderful memories we'd create in the house. The holidays—snow on the roof, wind rustling the pine trees out front, us warm inside with a fire crackling in the cozy wood-paneled living room—yup, that helped bring my blood pressure down into the subacute range.

So how, then, did last Christmas wind up like this: my husband, wrench in hand, trying to get at our misbehaving garbage disposer while I did my best to body-block him? A clog had developed in the disposer's digestive system, rendering it useless—and the sink full of greasy water showed no signs of draining before the New Year. Meanwhile, our uneasy dinner guests got an earful as I lobbied to call Roto-Rooter while my husband went to fetch his toolbox. So much for peace and goodwill at our house.

The timing may have been especially bad, but this is a battle we wage whenever a household repair looms or something mechanical conks out. I pull out the Yellow Pages, tuck myself into a corner of the kitchen, and begin to look up A...A-P...A-P-P...and almost make it to "Appliance Repair" when my husband enters. Busted! He asks what I'm doing, and I confess that I'm calling in reinforcements. And that's not an action plan he's likely to support.
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My husband, you see, is a handy guy. He can fix things. He believes in the science of RTFM (Read The Frickin' Manual). He has a well-stocked garage workshop. So when he catches me guiltily clutching the Yellow Pages, he'll start in, "Wait a minute. Why call a repair service? It'll probably wind up costing $200 when I can fix this myself."

It's not that I don't believe he can fix the item in question. I'd bet he could—if he could find the requisite manual. Which could be in the broom closet. Or the junk closet. Or in an unlabeled box in the attic. Or in that file cabinet, the one that's locked but we can't find the key to. Maybe the key is in an unlabeled box in the attic with the manual. Or if he had the time, which he doesn't, with the job, the kids, the downloading of college-era songs from iTunes.

Of course, I could just wait until I have some privacy and call in the repair gods then. But the fact is, my husband has, occasionally, been right. There was a recent Friday about 6 P.M., during what the kids' school calls "lice alert" season, when I decided to wash every sheet, pillowcase, duvet, towel, and bath mat in as few loads as possible. About half an hour into this process, I started hearing that ominous, telltale thunk! thunk! thunk! that only 50 pounds of sopping-wet linens can make inside a washer. I went downstairs and was greeted by a large puddle creeping toward me from under the machine. I unplugged it and began leaving messages at every emergency appliance-repair service I could find, none of which were all that responsive.
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My husband managed to return my frantic message—before any repairman called me back. "Don't have anyone come over," he said. "I can fix this." And he did.

After all, he grew up with a handy dad who liked his sons to play helper. My husband can remember—not all that fondly, mind you—standing around the garage on many a Saturday afternoon and being told, "Now, son, hold those pliers right there until I say otherwise." Bookshelves were built. Plumbing leaks were stemmed. In his experience, when something breaks in your home, it's up to you to make a reasonable effort—and then some—to fix it yourself.

Which brings us back to last Christmas. We had 10 for dinner, and I decided I was going to take a year off from my usual plan of keep-making-side-dishes-till-you-run-out-of-serving-bowls. Instead, I found a one-dish meal: short ribs and winter vegetables with apple cider and brown sugar. My husband peeled many pounds of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and so forth; we threw them into the pot with the other ingredients and prepared for our uncharacteristically relaxed festivities. The dinner was delicious, and all was calm and bright—that is, until the disposer got indigestion, unable to swallow the deluge of peelings that had been forced into it. Every time we tried to clear the clog, it made an ominous rumbling—I'd say a 4.6 on the Richter scale—and began belching its own stew of half-macerated parsnip and Yukon Gold shavings into the sink. This really wasn't the image I wanted seared into my memory at the end of the holiday meal.
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So not only was the disposer shot and the sink clogged, but the dishwasher couldn't be run, since it drains into the same place as the disposer. Happy holidays to us! Perhaps you'll understand why I was eagerly pulling out the Yellow Pages that Christmas night, hoping to find a drain savior—evening and holiday surcharges be damned.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," my husband said, advancing two paces. "I can fix this."

And so the kitchen sink face-off commenced in earnest. Our guests began to vacate at the speed of shoppers rushing to the store on the morning of December 26. My parents said their good-byes—mumbling "Delicious…really!—and evaporated. I heard the familiar boop-boop as my friend's husband unlocked their car and she waved and fled, vanishing into the night. Our two sons, sensing an impending showdown, took their marshmallow shooters to the basement for a quick round of "I Killed My Brother" before bed.

"C'mon. It's not so bad. It's just a clogged disposer," my husband insisted. "Now move out of the way. I can fix this."

"When—tomorrow morning, when you need to be helping the boys assemble the Lego Death Star?"

"The Death Star can wait."

"Do you really want to spend your December 26th on your back, under the sink, with 10 pounds of grease-soaked potato peels about to fly into your face?'

Let's just say that the $238 we paid to get that sucker snaked the next morning was probably the best present we've ever given ourselves.
 
 

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