Posted on August 19, 2010


Mr. Perfect singlehandedly building a three-million-square-foot shopping mall.

We’ve all come across fictional characters we hate. They’re the villains in the novels we read or the movies we watch. We know they aren’t real, yet they enrage us so much, we despise them with teeth-clenching intensity. We’d like to wring their necks.

The character I hate the most isn’t in a novel, a movie, or a story of any kind. He’s the illustrated do-it-yourself guy in our set of Time-Life home repair books, the one whose shirt is always clean and free of wrinkles, whose pants are pleated and smooth, and whose hands are unblistered and unbloodied. We have most of the books in the series, including guides for erecting outdoor structures, repairing walls and ceilings, refinishing furniture, and remodeling kitchens. He’s in all of the books, this perfect repairman who somehow manages to rewire houses, replace windows, build additions, and pave driveways — by himself, and all without breaking a sweat. Sometimes he disguises himself as a woman, but I’d recognize the crisp outfit and that blank look of calm confidence anywhere. As I said, I hate him.

My wife, on the other hand, has no idea what I’m talking about. For some reason, she has little memory of the time I replaced the gasket below the toilet tank, about fifteen years ago. Our Time-Life book, Plumbing, demonstrated this repair in four easy steps: “Remove tank. Remove old gasket. Install new gasket. Re-install tank.” I got a little hung up between steps 2 and 3, and we didn’t have a functioning toilet for six days. The book didn’t say a word about what to do when you can’t get the new gasket to stretch over the porcelain. It just said “install new gasket,” as though the thing would slip on like silk pajamas. And there was that creepy guy with the immaculate pants, staring serenely, his toilet perfectly re-assembled. And mocking me. Always mocking me.

My latest contact with this evil character came just yesterday, when I noticed that the bathroom sink was full of water after I brushed my teeth. I pushed down on the lift rod, but nothing happened. Now I have some experience with this complex water release system. In fact, I’m the one who installed it about a year ago, and I wasn’t too thrilled about it then, either. When I was a child, our bathroom sink had a rubber stopper on a chain. When you wanted to fill the sink, you inserted the stopper. When you wanted to empty the sink you tugged on the chain and it pulled the stopper, allowing immediate flow down the drain. We have since progressed far beyond this primitive arrangement. Now we have a seven-piece contraption that has to be assembled and installed in precise order, all in a dark space so confining that even spiders come out every night to stretch their legs. Given the number of components and all of the possible sequences, this ten-minute project usually takes me about four hours. It also leaves me cursing the invention of indoor plumbing, the discovery of water, and the pathetic excuse for a human being who designed our bathroom vanity. And of course, you-know-who.

Here’s what happened late yesterday morning and into the afternoon. I’ve included a few of the illustrations from the book to help you follow my explanation.

These illustrations are from "Plumbing," published by Time-Life Books, 1981. Notice how Mr. Perfect has all the room he needs, how the sink seems to be floating in space, how the parts bend to his will. His hands are clean and uninjured.

First, there’s a thing called a clevis, an unnecessarily technical sounding word that means strip of plastic with holes in it. The clevis catches and holds the lift rod with help from the strategically placed clevis screw. When installed correctly, the clevis raises and lowers a pivot rod, which in turn raises and lowers the pop-up plug. When you want the plug to go down (to fill the sink), you pull up on the lift rod. When you want the plug to go up (to drain the sink), you push down on the lift rod. It may not sound that complicated but it is to me. While trying to get this thing set up I can feel certain brain cells misfiring, just as they do whenever I look into a mirror and attempt to trim anything without poking out one or more of my eyes.

The problem with our sink is that the clevis and its screw are right up against the back of the vanity, so there’s too much friction when you pull and push on the lift rod. Over time, the screw loosens and the lift rod doesn’t do anything. You can’t fill the sink with water, and if you do, you can’t drain it. This is not a big deal for me, but my wife occasionally likes to soak things. I don’t know why, or even what the things are; I know only that I sometimes have to turn on the shower to wash my hands because there are mysterious items floating in the sink.

A spring clip holds the clevis to the pivot rod. The clip is a thin horseshoe of stiff, sharp metal. There’s also a retaining nut that holds the pivot rod in place, and because it’s facing the back, it has to be tightened by turning it in an unnatural direction, causing severe hand cramps. And it’s hard plastic, so it hurts after a while just from pressure. The pivot rod, by the way, also holds in place a round, white plastic ball that fits perfectly into the opening in the side of the drain pipe. The retaining nut keeps that pivot ball right where it should be, and prevents water from leaking out. This is a key piece of information, one of several I wish I had comprehended earlier.

Also, the pop-up plug has a loop at the bottom of it, through which the pivot rod slides in order to raise and lower it — but only if you remember. If you don’t, you have to take everything apart and start all over. I had to take everything apart and start all over thirteen times. By now, my fingers were bleeding from the metal clip and my knuckles were hurting from having to loosen and tighten the hard plastic lock nut, which almost never wants to go on straight.

Because of the way our sink and vanity are designed, removing and re-installing all of these parts requires me to sit on the floor with both arms under the sink and my forehead pressed against the front of it. In other words, I might as well blindfold myself, just to add to the fun.

At some point I experienced a flash of brilliance and decided that I didn’t have to put everything back together. Why did we need the pop-up plug to go up and down? I could remove it and leave the drain completely open. When we wanted to fill the sink, we could just insert the plug and push it down until it was seated snugly. Without the pop-up plug, there was no reason to put the lift rod back. In fact, why re-install the pivot rod? All unnecessary hardware! Relieved that I’d just avoided another hour of excruciating torment, I turned on the cold water full force and watched with great satisfaction as it disappeared with a whoosh down the drain. I had discarded superfluous ornamentation in favor of function, and the decision — along with the resulting whoosh — made me feel smart and efficient and happy. It also made me feel that my socks were getting wet. When I looked down, I saw water in places where it was not supposed to be. Specifically, it was running from the bottom of the vanity as quickly as it was disappearing down the drain. It occurred to me at this moment that the pivot ball was no longer in place, and that the water, given a new opening in the side of the drain pipe, was taking full advantage of this fact.

After mopping up, I did install the pivot rod and held it securely with the retaining nut. I could not get the lift rod to move the pivot rod enough to even get the pop-up plug’s attention, however, and did not attach it to the clevis. So now, when we want to fill or drain the sink, we have to reach under the vanity and manually raise or lower the pivot rod. When I mentioned this new arrangement to my wife she was less than pleased, and began to remind me that the faucet was still new and it was really better to have that lift rod working the way it was intended to work. I stopped her by holding up my right hand, the really mangled one (although also the one with surprisingly less bleeding and bruising) and pointed out to her that she might find herself reaching under the sink maybe once or twice a month. This was still not, I explained, any more inconvenient than a rubber stopper with a pull chain or sometimes having to turn on the shower to wash my hands. And if she thought it was, I suggested she need only think back to the toilet tank incident of 1995 to recall some real bathroom inconvenience. I also told her she was being unrealistic, with her expectations of perfect home repairs, especially considering the number of wrinkles in my shirts and pants. As usual, she had no idea what I was talking about.