Infrastructure in fiction–in the books we read–is usually deep background.  Characters drive vehicles…on roads, streets, trails, whatever.  If the writer sees the roads in his/her invented world as like the streets we have, then no reason to describe them…everybody knows what a street looks like; what matters is the person n a vehicle or on a bike or walking along. Older fiction often described more then modern fiction does, because readers weren’t bombarded daily with visual imagery of everywhere and everything kind of thing that’s there…for familiar foreign things (Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Scottish Highlands, tundra, glaciers, every kind of terrain from flat plains to rolling hills to canyons, to really BIG mountains on several continents, to swamps, to deep under the ocean) writers no longer need to construct detailed descriptions unless the plot relies on it.  So the infrastructure of a story is, on the one hand, the physical background depicted in quick sketchy fashion for the reader to fill in from what’s easily found in visual form.  You don’t have to describe every pothole, every building…just let the reader know whether potholes are common or rare, the buildings “what you’d expect” on an urban street or industrial hog farm, or unexpected in their setting.

But in real life, we come in daily physical contact with infrastructure that we walk on, sit on, put a plate of food on, drive on and drive past.  The sights, sounds, smells, tactile feel of *things* that impact our lives–the window that slides open easily (or cranks open) or the window that sticks….the smooth floor or the one with splinters or a sag on that side of the room, doors easy or hard to open, chairs comfortable or shaped just wrong for our bodies, colors that affect our mood, textures that reinforce or deny our importance, the feeling of safety inside one room or building, and the feeling of vulnerability inside another.  All infrastructure that (when our characters encounter theirs) needs to be shown or inferred from their reaction to it.  And in real life….infrastructures do fail, do require maintenance, or they fail faster.  Writers live in the real world, even if they get to be multi-millionaires with movie and TV deals and stuff, and so writers depend on infrastructure to undergird their writing and relieve them from the frustrations that beset lesser writers who have to clean their own bathrooms,  wash their own dishes,  diaper their own kids…all infrastructure tasks.  Most writers hope that either enormous success or a wealthy partner or some other miracle will relieve them from such duties (the infrastructure of Tolkin’s story “Leaf by Niggle” ) but plumbers make more per hour than most writers.

So yesterday, after a weather change and rain and more rain coming, our personal infrastructure took a dive.  We are fortunate to have a house with two bathrooms, so that if two people come down with a gut bug, each has an open toilet for their needs.  Yesterday…first one failed, the attempt to clear it failed, and then a later retry of flushing produced a flood in the shower.  And an ominous gurgle in the tub drain of the other bathroom.   I cleaned up the shower, which then didn’t want to drain normally, but at least looked more like a shower and less like a disaster.   For those who haven’t personally dealt with a drainage problem that resulted in regurgitation of toilet water…it’s doable, and one of those wand things with little disinfecting and bleach stuff on the stiff sponge you stick on the end…is really helpful.  Cleans the grout very well.  Apparently the stoppage when moved down the drainage system and blocked toilet #2, which at first had appeared unaffected, but by late afternoon couldn’t be flushed without flooding the shower in the first bathroom again.  (I cleaned that up.)   This stoppage didn’t *act* like a full septic tank (been there) but we were, after all, a little overdue on having it pumped out, for Reasons, so we called a plumber and the septic tank service after the usual attempts at amateur fixing (that often do work) didn’t work.   R went out to start digging away the dirt over the septic tank.  It was raining off and on.  We’re older.  It’s no longer an afternoon project.   Also…I had to find the photos of last time because he couldn’t remember exactly where the thing was.

Again, we’re very fortunate to have access to a toilet in the house across the driveway that belonged to my mother, was left to me, and that we’ve kept as a guesthouse and as a future resource for our son (who’s been staying there this past year and a month, instead of in his apartment in the city…saves us the drive back and forth to bring him home on weekends.   We used to have more house guests more often, and we may again when it’s safer to travel and meet up.  So back and forth we went for the calls of nature, but then…it rained more and was getting dark.  Our computers are here, and access internet with DSL off the house phone.  This–my desktop–is my writing computer.  So to get work done I need to be here.  OTOH, I could just take my current five unfinished knitting projects over there, but the reality is that I need to switch back and forth, knitting to keyboarding, multiple times in a day.  And it’s raining.  We need rain.  Comments about rain do not mean I don’t want rain.  I’d just rather be able to pee and poop in the house I work in. Infrastructure failure.  Could be worse.  Could be better.

As usual, real-life problems are also Material!  Material with a capital M for sure.  Because random infrastructure failures are like a spice cabinet…if you have experience with hurricans (I do), street flooding (I do),  storm-downed trees (ditto), nonworking toilets (ditto again and more than once), power outages, frozen pipes, leaking faucets, leaking roofs, flat tires, blow-outs on a freeway at high speed (check, check, check, check, check, check…) and many more (oh, yeah: grease fire in the kitchen, check) then you can ensure that your characters live in a realistic setting by tossing one of these, or a relatives of it, into their lives to ensure things don’t move too smoothly for anyone to believe.  Few things bring realism to the fore like a common domestic problem: the stopped drain, the kid who throws up or geysers out the other end, the dog who gets skunked or cactused or porcupined (or fictional equivalent.)  (Dogs in Elk is the larger version of dogs getting into a messy situation and anyone who doesn’t get the reference should hunt it down on the internet.  Literally Dogs IN Elk, and there is not enough almond milk in the world… is superb and there’s no way to describe it; you have to find the original.)  There are many, many flavors and sizes of infrastructure failures, from small mishaps to…well…Dogs in Elk.  You can have salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, turmuric, saffron, vanilla, cocoa…dozens of ’em.

So, as I’m doing today, when the sh*t hits the stopped drain and diverts to the formerly clean shower,  and the nearest functioning toilet is over there …when it’s raining…you can be glad it’s only rain, and not a deep freeze with the power off, and begin thinking where to put this in the current (or a future) book.  Do your characters have sewage treatment in that spaceship?  It could fail.  Or a country house, one of the big elegant ones?  (Did you ever notice how often some English writers mention a problem with the drains?)  What kind of infrastructure do you characters live with and what do they do when the bridge is out, the road’s under water/snow/a foot of muck from the hog farm up the hill, their pump fails (any pump will  fail and it’s usually at the worst time), pipes stop up or break…??  If you want to reveal character, call in the infrastructure failures.  They get the job done.

I need to go visit the other house.

17 thoughts on “Infrastructure

  1. I’m exhausted just thinking about all you are going through with your infrastructure, you are in my prayers!
    For an additional rain related event, I would like to mention the flashfloods and accompanying issues that often occur in the southwest deserts. I grew up knowing that in the summer, when the dark clouds gather, the wind picks up, and the temperature suddenly drops, it is going to rain. Go inside, and stay there! It doesn’t matter if all you need to do is run to the grocery store, stay home. The rain will usually stop within 20 to 30 minutes and the streets will clear in about an hour but in that 30 minutes, all sorts of dangerous things happen, lightning strikes, roofs of patios and homes blown away, trees down, vehicles washed hundreds of feet down an arroyo, and drownings. Arizona Revised Statutes 28-910 and the need for it is unfamiliar to people who visit our state but locals refer to it as the “Stupid Motorist Law”. The law says, if you go around a barricade and enter high water, you will be billed for the cost of rescuing you. If it rains, STAY PUT!

    1. Yup. Central Texas is also a flash-flood zone…Gulf moisture combined with sudden cold fronts. And people STILL drive into water. There are low-water dams you can cross with a little water running over them…quiet water, slowly moving water…but basically…turn around, and go the other way, even if it’s 40 miles longer. (This is if you get caught out in a storm.)

  2. I hope the plumber and septic tank person are able to sort it out quickly, I feel you have had quite enough infrastructure failures to use as material at this point!

    1. Frankly, yes. I feel that at our age, the common ailments of infrastructure should skip right over us and go hassle some 20-somethings who need to learn what to do but are healthy, agile, strong, and cheerful.

  3. Oh yes, infrastructure fails as material for story. A few weeks ago the water was turned off suddenly in our neighborhood. I was so grateful for the water bricks I had filled last year in my rush to deal with what-ifs during fire season, which has gotten horrendous here in Northern California San Francisco area.

    Elizabeth, I hope your infrastructure plumbing issues get resolved quickly!

  4. Both my husband and I grew up with septic tanks. It is noticeable that we use a lot less loo paper than those who grew up on main drainage! But living at the bottom of the stack (on the ground floor of our block of flats), if someone upstairs accidentally drops something they ought not down the loo, it is we who get flooded! So I feel your pain. Also, we have a motor home – and if we let the loo in there go a day too long without emptying the cassette – it’s not pleasant!

  5. Hi – hope you are still safe and sound and do not get lost going to the loo. I do not believe that financial success for an author is indicative of the value of his writing – and if you are not the literary millionaire, you have the true satisfaction that a lot of people care about your works. I feel strongly that good writing will outlast popular writing.

    In your last posting you decry the mundane happenings in your New Work that you are striving to adjust. Is not the failure of a vital pump such a happening?

    But you have my deepest sympathy with your plumbing situation. For a number of years I had my youngest of two daughters living with me along with her daughter. For some reason my toilets kept getting stopped up with call to the plumber and money shelled out. Finally I paid a larger sum to have a toilet installed with a bigger exit pipe to handle the larger quantity of effluvia from my offspring. And I won’t bore you too much with the tale of when the handle to my shower broke on a friday evening with the water pouring out – I had to turn off all the water in the house till the plumber arrived on a Saturday – extra costs.

    But even if it depicts some woes, your current blog reads extremely well.

    Stay safe and sane,

    Jonathan up here in wet and windy New Hampshire.

    1. When this house was built (around 1950-56, depending on who said it) the owners did not have an outdoor access to the main sewage line installed. Alas. Even though such accesses can cause their own problems (someone we knew who, when some critter got the covering off, had a rattlesnake trying to exit their toilet one morning. A large rattlesnake. An annoyed rattlesnake.) Anyway, we have no such access. Ordinarily a plumbing repair guy would climb up on the roof, put a snake (mechanical plumbing snake, not a rattler) down the stack, and attack the blockage that way. But it’s raining. So the metal roof is slippery. We agreed wholeheartedly with the plumber saying “I really can’t go up there in this…” We can get one flush to clear in about 4-5 hours…which isn’t really enough. The septic tank guys never showed up. Husband dug some more mud off the top of the septic tank for when they get here.

      So tonight I’m going to sleep at the other house and give husband all the access to the plumbing in the hopes that if he needs anything to go down it will. We were looking for the toilet seat my mother kept (an extra) to put on top of a 5 gallon bucket for when such was needed inside (in case of a hurricane w/bad flooding) but though I’m sure we have it “somewhere” it’s been years since we did an inventory. Back in the bad freezeup, power outage, and water outage earlier this year I went looking for the Sterno stoves I KNEW she had (and, it turns out today I’d guessed correctly where she would put them, but didn’t see them back then because there was no light in the closet but my little LED headlamp–not enough to see STERNO STOVE & FUEL on the dust covered box. We now have it. We will put it where WE can find it. Anyway, I know that toilet seat is there *somewhere.* We may have to take one off the stopped up toilet tomorrow after we vote. Or just keep hiking back and forth between houses.

  6. The plumbing on Russian fishing boats was challenging – once I encountered the proverbial hole in the floor with a very wide funnel leading down to it and no handholds in very rough weather. There were a couple of large bolt heads in the wall that I hung onto with my fingernails. And the toilet paper … often close to cheap sandpaper. Once it was the labels they put on the boxes of frozen fish – with a very waxy finish.

    1. Yesterday got quite interesting. R and I voted early. M wanted to go to the city (his official residence, though he’s been up here since COVID shutdowns started) to vote. Which meant finding a polling place and driving him 45-50 miles depending on polling place and route to it. Plus weather. It wasn’t raining when R and I voted in the morning. By the time we’d researched the polling places, and found M a sample ballot to look at, storms were coming closer. And…all the masks hadn’t made it through the washer and dryer. So we had to wait while they did. Then we took off for the city, which by now as being rained on for sure. And it was lightly raining when we got to the polling site, with a long line winding out of the building and around another one. But just a sprinkle, really. After he got in line (quite a distance from the parking spot I found) it started raining harder. And harder. And harder yet. I heard thunder. Then saw lightning. By the time he came out, it was “bottom fell out of the bucket” rain, gusty wind, etc. I decided we’d go to his apartment (only about a mile away) so he could get into dry clothes and we could use the bathroom, then decide when/whether to head home. Which we did, heading out again in rain slightly less heavy, but with radar showing a very large lump of heavier rain coming again. He also found an umbrella in his apartment. We started home. It was a nerve-wracking drive at times between the heavy rain, the gusty winds, the heavy traffic, until we got far enough out to be ahead of the worst of it as it grumbled and spat lightning bolts behind us. It was raining all the way home, but lightly enough that I could clearly see the lane markers, the edge of the road, and the road signs. We didn’t take the usual route from the larger highway to our town, because that one had three creeks to cross, all of them capable of flooding to the roadway. We got home, and I got the horses fed before the really hard stuff moved in. But of course, still no working toilets in our house, so I “moved” over to the other one, where M’s been staying all year. The really big stuff arrived after dark, and went on for several hours, though we only got about 2 inches of rain from it…the heaviest rain come in “blobs” of really hard, very loud rain, the last of which had the most thunder and lightning right around midnight. I couldn’t sleep until it had thunder-stomped its way NE. Woke this morning early as usual, but to silence until the first bird opened up, about 20 to 6:00.

      I am a tired, tired, cookie. Now we have a clear, deep blue sky scrubbed of dust, pollen, smoke, and sunshine and a gentle movement of air. The grass, which had been drying off, has responded to the days of rain, by recovering and growing taller by the hour.

  7. Praying today is better for you, that you, R&M got rest last night, that all the people who should arrive to work in the septic and plumbing will arrive, and that the cost won’t be prohibitive. Also that new book will be a joy today.

  8. I believe pirates (or rebels) taking out a comm sat has been used in this plot line already and counts, in one form or another, as infrastructure. With some not appreciating the threat as it was only an infrastructure inconvenience. That part of the plot line I thought was well done.

  9. Dogs in elk. Haven’t thought of that in years. I’ll have to look for it again. The first time I read it, I laughed so hard I cried. Thank you for the memory.

  10. how to chemically de-clog a septic system (reference for next time)

    Order matters.

    Start with the first device closest to the pipe that leads outdoors. Don’t just do toilets. Do the sinks and bathtub drains too. Work systematically to devices furthest away from the outdoor pipe.

    This methodology should help prevent unpleasant surprises.

    Of course, if you have a septic tank and septic field, remember to have the tank drained every few years. Inspect the drainage field for leads that may have failed (look for sinkage in linear patterns)

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