Our Dyspeptic Septic Epic, Part 3: Endgame


I woke up on Monday morning, as often happens after I fall asleep on Sunday night. Almost immediately, I shifted gears away from the previous day’s helpless anxiety and into a kind of protector-provider-problem-solver mode. This is the mode I would inhabit for much of the week, both for worse and for better, as you’ll see. As is often the case with these things, this initial gear shift was born solely out of pragmatic obligation, not some high-minded ideal. But that doesn’t make it any less valid or, in the end, any less helpful.

Necessity, as it turns out, is not only the mother of invention but also the father of taking care of your shit. (Literally in this case.)

I’ll spare you the full chronological blow-by blow account of the phone calls, texts, private Facebook messages, and internet research I grinded through over the next few days. But I think I spoke to 6 different septic experts at 5 different septic companies for a grand total of over 3 hours between Monday and Wednesday that week. Some of the information I was given turned out to be entirely wrong, even though most of the people I spoke with were quite willing to offer help, and a few of them proved to be warm and patient in a way you don’t often see in the realm of customer service — especially when you haven’t yet pledged your business to the company in question.

Despite this, the trajectory of my 72-hour quest for the solution to our problem was convoluted to a mind-boggling degree. You may recall that we bought our house without a working knowledge of our septic system, due to the previous owner having no knowledge of it. As a result, trying to gain even a basic understanding of where everything was located underground proved to be a fairly herculean task.

Because of the pervasive ambiguity around a lot of these questions (and especially before I managed to find a great septic company who could finally come out and formulate a game plan), there were moments of what I can only call darkness that afflicted me during these endless — and endlessly confusing — phone calls. Here are a few of those moments, which stemmed from various theories and verdicts I was given along the way:

  • A plumber came by on Monday and after sizing things up, postulated that our septic tank was probably full and needed to be located (a very crucial step) and then pumped out. He gave me a whopping $690 estimate just to snake and scope the pipes in an attempt to confirm his full-tank hypothesis. The catch? He said it was possible, and indeed reasonably likely, that this procedure would not actually yield a verdict. So we could very well spend the better part of a grand and end up exactly where we started. I turned him down, paid him $70 for the service fee, and moved onto the next thing. A little bit of darkness settled over my beleaguered mind.
  • I visited our tiny, un-modern, barely staffed rural township office building to see if I could locate the documentation from when the original owners of our home installed the sand mound system. But my tentative hopes were quickly dashed on the rocks of an archaic, non-digitized filing system that yielded nothing but close calls. (“Here’s one for the guy down the road from you! Oh and here’s one for your next-door neighbor!”) A bit more darkness crept in.
  • A septic person came out on Wednesday and after scoping things out — both metaphorically and, well, with an actual electronic scope — concluded with some degree of certainty that our septic tank was directly below the asphalt of our back driveway. A fact which, as you might imagine, would greatly complicate our quest. But for reasons that are too convoluted to explain, I was skeptical of this theory. (Fast forward a bit: Weirdly enough, given my almost complete lack of septic expertise, it turned out that my skepticism was valid.) But in that moment of being given a verdict that would have made everything more complicated, my mind balked again. Yet another moment of darkness.
  • A different person, from a septic company that was recommended by two different people, advised me over the phone that I “should probably just have $4,000 on hand” given what needed to be done. That estimate included an eye-widening $2,100 just for the use of an excavator. And thus a little more darkness burrowed into my beleaguered brain.

So there were moments that week when my mind felt submerged in shadows — both at the theoretical prospect of my aforementioned worst-case fear being validated, and at the tangible prospect of needing to unravel the maddening mystery of the invisible septic tank which 2 septic companies in 3 years had failed to ever locate for us.

The darkness in those moments threatened to asphyxiate my mind and overcome me by blunt force.

But my mind was not asphyxiated. And I was not overcome.

I am a person with a deep well — a full underground tank, if you will — of jittery anxiety. I place too much pressure on myself in even the most low-stakes social exchange, and I place far too much pressure on myself in higher-stakes matters involving health, finances, and homeowner crises.

But here’s the thing: Each of us is not merely the sum of our component parts. As I said earlier, we are not doomed to be the most anxious, fear-propelled version of ourselves. It is eminently possible to stand up boldly under the low ceiling of our neuroses. And that’s what I did, each day more than the previous one, even before any notable progress had been made in our quest.

There are numerous entities I would resoundingly credit for making this possible — Danielle, my resolutely level-headed confidante and best friend; my parents, who put us up at their house and showed nothing but warm support; Rosenberry’s, the superbly helpful septic company I hired to fix our problem; God, the underlying source of all mental clarity (I know this sounds like an Oscar acceptance speech, but I can live with that); and my own lucid resolve and free will, which doggedly insisted that I would not drown in fear or panic. Any psychological audit of that week which doesn’t account for each and every one of those vital entities would be incomplete.

It takes a village not only to raise a child, but also to unravel a nerve-racking septic mystery without unraveling your nerves in the process.

And I have an unusually close-knit village.

In the interest of time, and because I imagine my very small contingent of readers will violently revolt if I turn this into a bloated 4-part quadrilogy, I’ll wrap up this final chapter with an aerial view of final day of our septic saga.

It was Thursday, 4 days after the plumbing backed up and we moved in with my parents. On Wednesday, the third full day of phone calls and internet research and township research and private messages with knowledgeable friends, I had booked an appointment with Rosenberry’s for the next day. The co-owner, Karen, had talked me through our problem for well over an hour on the phone and had been nothing less than a saint in the process — a hyper-competent saint, at that. I’ve rarely experienced that bend-over-backwards-without-any-monetary-commitment kind of customer service, and I had no intention of using any other company, even though several others had been helpful too.

So on Thursday, my dad generously and enthusiastically acted as my surrogate, allowing me to work and support my displaced family, and keeping me posted while Rosenberry’s diligently worked to unravel the mystery over a 6-hour period of time. Here’s the short version of what was discovered during those 6 hours.

Our central operating theory, which we had labored under since Monday when the pessimistic and pricey plumber had imparted it to us, is that the backup was a result of the underground septic tank (i.e. the solids tank) being full and thus unable to accept new deposits. This theory seemed compelling since I had never been aware of the location of the solids tank in nearly 4 years of living in the house. I only knew of the liquid/dosing tank, and that’s the only tank that had been emptied by the two septic companies that had charged us for a full septic pumping.

So it made an unsettling amount of sense that our solids tank would be full to overflowing by this point, especially since the previous owner told us she also hadn’t been aware of the location of the solids tank during her 5 years in the house. Pardon the graphic image, but who knows how much poop can pile up over the better part of a decade?

Our other operating theory during most of this process was that our septic tank might very well be under the asphalt behind our house. But when Rosenberry’s came out that Thursday, they determined — to my great relief — that the electronic transmitter which had seemed to confirm this hypothesis had simply been impeded from moving all the way to the tank. They cleared the impeding clog with an augur, freeing the transmitter to move through the pipe to a point which was not under the pavement after all (*deep exhale*). So that saved us the hassle of tearing up a bunch of asphalt in order to access the hidden septic tank.

[SIDEBAR: I must confess that I may have spoken ill of the dead when I was given the wrong impression about the tank being under asphalt, since it would have meant the original owners foolishly paved over their own septic tank. My sincere apologies extend beyond the grave to Glenn and Vivian Albert, who in 1952 industriously built a sturdy brick house for themselves, the edifice in which my family now resides. I have learned that while they built the house, they lived in what is now our (small, one-story) detached garage. For this and other reasons, they — and the rest of the greatest generation — deserved better than for me to come along decades later and cast aspersions on their decision-making skills without full knowledge of the situation. I humbly retract my ill-informed derision. Rest in peace, Mr. and Mrs. Albert.]

But along with the other realizations that Rosenberry’s made that Thursday, it was determined that the tank was somehow not entirely full, and thus that the backup must have had another cause. So what was that cause, you might (or almost definitely at this point will) ask?

Here is the final discovery that Rosenberry’s made that Thursday. Once they at long last located the septic tank, and once they used their mini excavator to dig down to it, and once they pried off the lid and determined that it wasn’t full (although it still needed to be pumped), they used a scope and an augur to root around in the nearby pipes. And they kept rooting around in the pipes until they discovered that the pipes were being impeded by…

Roots. The underground anchoring system of every tree, which for a septic system owner is the equivalent of a subterranean boogeyman.

While that might sound ominous, and does to me as well, what mitigates it a bit is that the roots in question are tiny and almost hair-like. So it’s pretty easy to have a septic company clear them out, as Rosenberry’s did that afternoon. The broader issue is that they will keep creeping in and impeding the safe passage of our waste if we don’t get to the (*wheezy cough*) root of the issue in the months ahead. And what that means is that we need to remove the offending tree. So that’s our summer project.

But for now, the mystery has been solved. It was solved first and foremost by Rosenberry’s Septic, but valuable insight and assistance were also provided by Associated Products, Young’s Septic, Dillsburg Septic, the Franklin Township office (who patched me through to a local sewer company), my septic-savvy friend Darryl Betts, my everything-savvy cousin Kevin Miller, and my always-there-in-a-pinch dad. As I said before, it takes a village to solve a problem this confusing and layered.

After one last relaxed and rejuvenated night at my parents’ house, we moved home again on Friday, 5 days after our pipes had backed up. Based on my rough calculations, I estimated that the total for the job Rosenberry’s performed would be somewhere around $2,500, maybe even closer to $3,000.

They sent us an invoice for $1,707.

My stunned sigh of relief could probably be heard by every neighbor within half a mile.

What a rare gift it is to locate a contractor who is not only immensely competent, and warmly empathetic, and very responsive, but also willing to out of the sheer goodness of their hearts discount your bill because they recognize the epic struggle you’ve been through. Or at least I think that was their motivation. Maybe they just aren’t very enamored of bottom-dollar capitalism. Either way, I admire them for their sheer generosity — and either way, I’m immensely grateful.

These days, my beautiful wife and I flush our toilets with confidence. With abandon, even. With no sinking sense of apprehension.

And that, as it turns out, is no small thing.

Our Dyspeptic Septic Epic: Part 2

“It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one.”

~ Wendell Berry

Living in an affluent society such as ours, we don’t realize how connected our peace of mind is to our plumbing until the latter stops working, causing the former to also go belly-up. But it’s even more connected when you live, as Danielle and I do, with an intricate and self-contained sand mound septic system that has little documented paperwork and zero connection to local utility infrastructure.

Since we bought our house in 2015, I have shouldered the following wearying mental burden: I am cognizant of the fact that if our sand mound fails as an overall system, we will be on the hook for a nest-egg-crushing $20,000 to $30,000 repair. So each time our toilet has refused to flush — and this has happened more than our fair share of times — I’ve immediately, reflexively, neurotically leaped to that worst-case scenario. My mind reels.  I picture a decade’s worth of methodical frugality utterly negated in one gut-wrenching fell swoop.

I think if I rewatched The Money Pit, that ‘80s movie with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a couple who buys a home in the countryside only to watch it quickly hollow out their life savings, I’d probably have a panic attack.


So you can imagine the churning of my stomach when on a lazy Sunday afternoon in February, something happened that was even worse than a non-flushing toilet: While the washing machine was draining, our plumbing backed up. Water came up out of the shower drain, rising almost to the top of the nearby 4-inch ledge. Water also seeped out of the bottom of the toilet onto the floor and dripped into our unfinished basement.

Oh, and then the toilets stopped flushing. So there was that too.

It’s hard to fully articulate the hollowed-out nausea and panic this created in my mind almost immediately. It’s well-documented that I am a fairly neurotic fellow, prone to anxiety at times and in possession of a hyperactive, hyper-vivid imagination. When there is a worst-case homeowner scenario that can be reasonably — or unreasonably — conjured up, my brain is more than up to the task. So rather than carefully thinking through the options at my disposal, assuming the best (or at least not the absolute worst), and taking one thing at a time, I did the next best thing: In the confines of my reeling mind, I braced myself for the utter desolation of our life savings. Even though outwardly I was tending to the problem at hand, cleaning up and making the requisite phone calls, inwardly an embittered mental paralysis quickly set in.

Danielle could see the panic in my eyes, but as has always been the case for the last 10 years, she remained calm and grounded, carefully helping me to think through our first steps. Once I realized that I had no skilled friend available to look at the plumbing that same day, and that we would have to pay a steep premium to have a septic company come out on a Sunday, we did the only sensible thing we could.

We moved in with my ever-loving, ever-accommodating, salt-of-the-earth parents.

For me, the move was daunting because my imagination was playing cruel tricks on me, telling me we might not be able to move back into our house for weeks, or months — or ever — pending the septic verdict. After all, my careening mind told me, a full-on sand mound failure would either hollow out our savings or fully render our house uninhabitable, if a viable alternate sand mound location couldn’t be found on our cozy 1/3-acre lot.

For Danielle, the move was a challenge; but in her steady and sturdy mind, worst-case scenarios are bridges to cross once you arrive at them. She is a wise woman, and possessed of stronger emotional stuff than her hubby.

And then there’s Greyson. For him, the move was cause for excitement — an unannounced visit to Grandma’s house! Ahh to be 2 years old again.

We packed up the minivan and drove 12 miles to our home away from home, the place where we spent the first 5 months of our Pennsylvania tenure, 5 years ago. As we settled in at Casa de Wingert I tried with mixed results to tether my mind to the ground, like a hot air balloon during a hurricane. After all, I couldn’t do anything until the next morning. Between the warmth of my parents, the whimsy of my children, and the wonderfulness of my wife, I managed to partly stave off my creeping panic for one night.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — owning a home is not for the faint of heart, or the jittery of mind. The thin of skin need not apply [for a home loan] either.

But if you are any or all of these things, as I decidedly am, it is still possible to stand up with confidence under the low ceiling of your neurosis and your fear. We are not each doomed to be the most fearful, anxiety-addled versions of ourselves.

I drifted to sleep that Sunday night with a mind that was restless — a mind that was not yet fully confident or convinced of these things.

But the week ahead would have a mind of its own.


To be continued as soon as possible… unless I’m waylaid with another pressing blog topic this week. But I’ll do my best to wrap up this saga by the end of March.

Please support my post directly on Facebook with a like or a comment, since that platform is my primary way of disseminating my musings at this point.

I am grateful for your interest and your solidarity! And for the time you took to read this all the way to the italicized end. 

Of Mice, and Men, and Felicity Huffman

With Felicity Huffman, Lori Laughlin, and dozens more in the news for college admissions fraud, it suddenly occurred to me that I have a small Felicity Huffman anecdote from my own life.

In early 2005, during my first winter in Colorado, I worked a 2nd job at Paradise Bakery & Cafe in Snowmass Village. The ski town was close to Aspen, the Hollywood of the Rockies, but Snowmass had the much more noteworthy ski mountain. As a result, vacationing celebrities visited our cafe with surprising frequency. That winter, I spotted and/or chatted briefly with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, famous humor columnist Dave Barry (he cracked a skiing-in-Florida joke to me and only me!), the now-deceased director Harold Ramis (I told him I adored ‘Groundhog Day’), and even world-famous supermodel Cindy Crawford — yes, seriously — who was there with her young daughter, and who somehow didn’t look a day older than she did in her 1992 Pepsi commercial.

The one other celebrity sighting I had was a 2-for-1 deal: Felicity Huffman and her husband William H. Macy. They visited the cafe with their two daughters, who at the time were 5 and almost 3. The 4 of them sat down in the corner of the cafe, next to a window, and it seemed to me that Huffman and Macy, more than any of the other celebrities I’d seen, were anxiously trying their hardest to keep a low profile.

"Jurassic Park 3" New York Premiere - July 7, 2001

Unlike the soy latte I made for Harold Ramis or the hot chocolate I made for Cindy Crawford’s daughter, I didn’t get to serve food to Huffman or Macy, even though I would have enjoyed doing so and might have told Macy how much I admired his work as Jerry Lundegaard in ‘Fargo’ — if he had come up to the counter alone, that is. But something about this being a celebrity family made me solidly averse to the idea of approaching either Macy or Huffman while they were with their kids. I had made a point of chatting with Ulrich, Barry, and Ramis, but parents with young kids felt decidedly off-limits for manufacturing a starstruck encounter that I could regale my friends with later.

I don’t have specific impressions of Huffman and Macy beyond the fact that they were intent on feeding their children, and even more intent on protecting the girls from the glare of their parents’ fame. That much I could pick up on from their body language.

I’m quite certain that neither Huffman nor Macy at that moment would have remotely fathomed the possibility that they would eventually pay someone a large sum of money to alter their then-5-year-old daughter’s SAT scores so she could unfairly gain admission into an elite university.

But 13 years later, that happened.

Parenting is hard. It brings with it all sorts of anxiety, and pressure points as far as the eye can see. I can’t yet personally speak to any of these pressures that extend beyond the toddler years. Danielle and I have a hundred different ironclad resolutions about things we will absolutely do as parents, and another hundred resolutions about things we will absolutely never do. In that vein of utter moral certainty, I could very easily offer a self-righteous, finger-wagging sermon about the perils of wealth and helicopter parenting. But I won’t.

Just know this: We are, all of us, capable of far worse deeds than we tend to give ourselves credit for. As poet Robert Burns once said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and that assuredly applies to parental resolutions.

If 2019 Felicity Huffman could go back in time and talk to her 2005 self, the one who sat with her husband and little girls in the café where I worked, I’m sure she would have a lot to say, with furrowed brow and the lucid, feverish moral certainty that comes with hindsight.

But we don’t get the benefit of receiving pep talks and dire warnings from our future selves. So we just have to somehow find a way — day by day, week by week, year by year — to cling as tightly as we can to our best intentions and best-laid plans as parents (and as people). The stakes are high, and the consequences of losing our grip on our moral bearings are all too real.

Just look at Felicity Huffman.

Or better yet, look in the mirror.

Our Dyspeptic Septic Epic: Part 1

It’s largely invisible to me. Its exact origins are shrouded in mystery. It looms over me, despite being underneath me. It has kept me up at night, feverishly worrying that it will someday crater our life savings. It’s like an underground meteor, and though it’s inanimate it seems hell-bent on sabotaging my peace of mind as a homeowner and, at worst, bankrupting my family.

Also, it’s full of poop.

Other than my 2 precious children, the most high-stakes and nerve-racking thing I’ve ever been entrusted with is the sand mound septic system buried under our rural property. It is an intricate subterranean system of tanks, risers, and pipes leading up to a carefully constructed mound in our backyard. Plus one very crucial pump that studiously works — day after day, year after year — against the constraints of gravity.

No one who is neatly connected to city sewer can imagine the unique mental burden of knowing you’re at the mercy — financially and mentally — of your very own underground, self-contained, privately owned septic system. Especially when you not only didn’t install it yourself, but have virtually no knowledge of who installed it, or when they installed it, or whether they had any idea what they were doing when they installed it.

Right before we bought our home in 2015, I spent close to a week strenuously grinding my mental gears and losing sleep over this one aspect of the property we desired. While the rural Cape Cod-style house we were interested in buying greatly appealed to us in many ways and was at our desired price point, I’d never had well water before, and I’d never even heard of a sand mound. Heck, I’d barely ever even pondered how septic systems function. When plumbing works as intended, it has the wonderful effect of keeping your mind blissfully unencumbered by how it works. You just do the laundry and take a shower and wash the dishes and flush the toilet, then go about your day as if some plumbing fairy is magically making your wastewater and solid waste — poof! —simply disappear.

During that brow-furrowing week of septic research, I learned a good bit about sand mounds. But somehow not enough to realize that hiring a cut-rate company to do the septic inspection is a bad idea. So a (now defunct) company came out to the house, performed an incomplete inspection in which they didn’t even find the primary underground solids tank, and charged us full price to “pump” and “inspect” the system without even determining where the most crucial part of the system was located. We didn’t realize at the time that anything still needed pumped; we just knew it had passed inspection. So we bought the house.

I had a lot of waking nightmares that fall and winter — visions of septic money-pit horror that I carefully shielded from Danielle’s knowledge since she was pregnant with our first miracle baby. But other than a few manageable (and un-connected) plumbing issues, everything appeared to be going fine.

It was 2 years later, during our next scheduled pumping (with a different septic company), that I finally learned this crucial fact: There is a solids tank somewhere underground that needs to be located at some point. But the man doing the pumping didn’t make it seem like an urgent necessity, and the idea of excavating a large chunk of our yard looking for something that might be 4-6 feet underground was an easy job to procrastinate.

Furthermore, just like the first company had done, this one pumped out our liquid waste, charging us full price to do something that I’ve now learned doesn’t even qualify as a true pump job since solids were not involved.

I repeat: The poop people — the people who pump poop — pumped our property, but pumped out no actual poop.

So to sum up this lengthy prologue, mistakes were made in the lead-up to our moment of septic crisis. But make no mistake: I was one of the mistake-makers. I failed to know what I needed to know about our septic system, or to ask the right questions, and I failed to follow through and locate the solids tank once I was informed in 2017 of its existence. Two different septic companies also made mistakes, possibly knowingly. And the previous owner of our house made a mistake, which she now readily admits, in that she waived the right to any inspections when she bought the house from the original owner in 2010. This money-saving decision denied her any even basic knowledge of a system that would later be bequeathed to us — sight and site plan — unseen.

Fast forward to a Sunday afternoon in late February, when a certain (heretofore un-pumped) substance hit the fan. Causing a certain family of 4 to hit the road in pursuit of temporary housing.

Part 2 of our septic saga is coming soon… I promise I’ll keep it to 3 parts max.

Thank you for reading!

An Ode to Storytime

Every night, when Greyson is sleepy-silly and headed to bed, I read him 3 or 4 books. And every morning right after he wakes up, when he’s groggy-calm and bedheaded, I read him another 3 or 4 books. (That is, unless the weather allows me to take him out for a sunrise walk to mingle with the local farm animals.) In addition, throughout the day Danielle reads him another 6 to 10 books.

So on an average day, Greyson is serenaded with at least a dozen stories.  And that doesn’t include the numerous pages he leafs through on his own, sitting on the hardwood floor with a book resting on his lap as he identifies with his sweet little sing-song voice every animal, insect, vehicle, toy, and household object on each page.

This reading proclivity, as with everything good about our kids (or yours), is surely due in part to sheer happy luck. It’s possible, I begrudgingly admit, that Violet will not share her brother’s avid affinity for storybooks. But I’d like to think that our efforts were part of the equation. Since our early months as new parents, a central pillar of our parenting philosophy has been: Smother our kids with stories. Wire them for sound — not the sound of the TV, or the sound of some kids’ iPad game, but the sound of the written word being read aloud from the comfort of a warm lap.

We have unwaveringly prioritized this, just as our parents thankfully did from the time we were toddlers. And now every time we ask Greyson, “Do you want me to read you a book?,” he smiles and says “Yes!” as he runs over to the book bin to pick out his favorite. Then he climbs up into our lap (or at this point, since he’s getting so tall, next to our lap), nestles himself against us, and settles in for a story.

In most cases, he’s already heard that story several dozen times. Yet despite the repetition, there are very few diminishing returns. Greyson somehow seems to enjoy books even more if he’s used to their flow and can identify everything on a page as soon as we flip to it.

Greyson Pointing at Earthworm

On a side note, it’s uncanny to me how adeptly he can remember the names of even fairly obscure vehicles and creatures — a grapple skidder, a crayfish, a red-winged blackbird. Heck, he can identify the caddisfly larvae that Kate Messner charmingly introduced him (and me) to in Over and Under the Pond. Greyson clearly inherited his razor-sharp memory from his mama.

For all the likely intellectual benefits of parental reading, its greatest selling point is that it promotes an emotional and even a physical bond between parent and child. The moments I spend with my arm around Greyson, his oddly redolent head resting against my shoulder as I regale him with some animal-based tale of whimsy, are moments when he knows beyond question — beyond words — that I love and value him.

And that I’m here for him, and with him.

Right here. In this moment.

With nowhere to go.