Have you ever noticed that things in your house or in your car go to decide to quit on you all at once? My attempts to fix them are something Paulo Coelho should write about--there's always a simpler answer that never occurs to me until many repressed tears later. Perhaps, the ancient Mayans knew that one day, many thousands of years later, a blue-eyed child would be born, far to the North. And this child would be unique, for she would find order, and bring unto it chaos.
I believe this is why the Mayan calendar ends 24 hours before my 30th birthday (2012, for those of you who want to start brushing up on your post-apocalyptic survival skills).
Alternatively, I could just be an unlucky clutz and a dangerous DIY-er.
But I digress.
A few days ago, I heard my smoke detector chirping. It was a high pitched squeal that recurred every minute. Of course this means the battery is low and the chirping was annoying enough to get me to go to the grocery store that afternoon to buy new Duracell 9Volts.
Once home, I drag my striped ottoman (one of two that are a sort of velvet material that really isn't meant to be stood upon, but is all I have) to the spot directly under the smoke detector and the attic door. I pull down the cover of the smoke detector and see the two batteries. I pull one out, then the other.
I think, "Hey, this isn't so bad." I imagine myself bragging to friends at a dinner party about how I am pretty handy around the house. It feels empowering, like I am a pioneer woman baking cornbread in a wooden stove or making soap from lye and ash.
I pop in the first battery. "Easy as pie!"I say. Oh how brash and overconfident I was then! I should have remembered the lesson of the pie. What I think is easy, usually ends up being a debacle.
As soon as the second battery made contact with the smoke alarm, the alarm started going off. I felt a bit like a dog getting hit with a super high frequency whistle. I clutched my ears in pain and gritted my teeth to pull out the second battery. Had the alarm only needed one battery? Why then were there two slots? Was there a crossed wire somewhere? Was the alarm supposed to go off until you replaced the cover and hit "silence"?
I had no clue what the answer was so, like any dutiful scientist, I decided to try replacing the second battery again a few hours later to see if I got the same result. My ears regret that decision.
Meanwhile, I left one battery in the detector and, strangely, there was no chirping. Something, as they say in afterschool specials, was terribly wrong.
Embarrassed though I was, I called my neighbor Mr. B and asked him to take a look. He works at Home Depot and is a close family friend. Mr. B wasn't available for a couple of days, so while I waited I assumed that one battery was probably fine.
As I came to learn, however, from Mr. B's thorough examinations, I had shorted out the smoke detector upstairs and it was likely upon inspection that none of my other three smoke detectors were in working order.
On the one hand, I was glad I discovered this now, given I've taken up oil painting and chair refinishing and have multiple, highly flammable substances in the house. On the other hand, my stomach is hollow and my brain can't stop rummaging through all the various "what if" horrors that could have happened. I experienced a similar reaction after Barak Obama won and I couldn't believe that I really didn't have to face a future with Sarah Palin as vice president.
It being 8pm when Mr. B goes back across the street, I decide to pick up new smoke detectors immediately after work tomorrow. I can make it through one night can't I?
Sort of. I have to stay up half the night reading so I don't think about the odds of having a fire the one night that I am aware that none of my smoke detectors are working. I have to not think about the gas stove and the clutter in the garage that is near some weird wiring. I have to meditate so that I don't contemplate a scenario in which some hot sauce in my fridge drips upon the moldy gingerbread below it causing an intense release of heat that results in spontaneous combustion and a resulting fire so ferocious I am burnt to a crisp before you can say, "Bob's your uncle."
Of course, I'm paranoid--to a certain extent--for good reason. It's true that most fires occur at night and 2/3s of deaths from home fires could have been prevented if people had properly working smoke detectors. Sadly, its despicably natural to forget about regularly testing your smoke detector and changing the batteries when mourning the loss of an hour or celebrating the gain of one. And in my neighborhood, two houses have been completely destroyed by fires in the past 10 years.
At some point, I fall into an uneasy sleep and wake up late and go to work with globs of concealor over the dark bags under my eyes. I invest in four Diet Cokes (twice my rationed allowance) to keep me awake and as soon as 5:00pm hits, I'm out the door to the Home Depot.
I assume the choices of smoke detectors will be limited, but there, again, I am wrong. Perhaps its a symptom of our previously healthy economy that you can choose between 30 different types of smoke detectors.
You have your most basic, battery operated beeping devices to those that can warn you in English or in Spanish that there is a fire, to those that can be set up around the house and can send each other messages to warn people in English or in Spanish that there is a fire. And of course, there are combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors, carbon monoxide and combustible gas detectors, infared photosensitive detectors--it's a plethora of safety devices that ends up making you feel guilty by choosing anything less than the most sophisticated, and extremely expensive version you can find.
So, I buy three smoke detectors for $47 each plus tax. I feel good about my purchase. I've done the right thing by buying the best, the most sophisticated detectors. They're so advanced they might as well brew me coffee while they lie in wait like sentinels on castle guard. I sigh with relief as I drive home and listen to Delilah counseling a love-sick trucker.
I cook myself a delicious spaghetti dinner, without a care on my mind as the gas stove pops and crackles to boil water. I run the 19 year old GE dryer which has served my family well, but has a small problem with the lint catcher that makes it a bit of a hazard, and I blissfully rock out to Dolly Parton's "Jolene."
My belly full, and a couple of episodes of All Creatures Great and Small on "The Netflix" and I am ready to tackle my smoke detectors.
I put them on my bed in a neat little row and open the first box. It's wrapped like a Christmas present in a plastic bag and then a translucent red "shower cap." I open the owner's manual and start reading. My face falls. My dinner does backflips.
Apparently, I bought the wrong kind of smoke detector--correction: three of the wrong kind. This one requires some kind of electrical wiring to work. The "battery operated" bit displayed on the packaging is more like a footnote, a backup to the real deal.
They'll have to be returned, I whisper solemnly. I put everything neatly back in its wrapping, check to make sure I have my receipt, and go downstairs to check the gas stove and dryer one more time.
Another sleepless night.
By the end of the week, I've reached a reckless hysteria. I still wasn't sleeping well and I wasn't making time to return the smoke detectors either. I had given myself up to the benign indifference of the universe. I could be toast or I could be Taoist. But today, I found myself back at Home Depot, returning the smoke detectors and buying the second cheapest ones available--double-checking they needed no special wiring. I spent 10% of what I had the first time.
Of course, what I hadn't reliased was that, because they were new and a different size from the old detectors, I would need to drill new screws into the wall. More problems bubbled up like dinosaur victims in a tar pit.
I didn't have the right drill bits for the right size screw--and how are you supposed to know what size a drill bit is anyway if it's not written on the bit? The "minor" secondary concern of how to get the old bit out of the drill was also befuddling me.
Then of course, I was a bit unsettled by the idea of screwing things, unsupervised, into my freshly painted ceiling. To rub more misery into the mix, the first detector I put together wouldn't stop chirping after I tested it. So every few minutes I would hear a high pitched squeal that pierced my ear drums and set my nerves on edge.
It seemed a comedy of errors. Shouldn't installing a smoke detector be the EASIEST thing for a homeowner to do? It certainly is one of the most important. And yet, at every turn, I was thwarted. I thought I had brought order to find only entropy.
I resolved the chirping for the smoke detector by doing what any technologically challenged person would do. I pushed buttons, removed and replaced batteries, until some random combination of actions resolved the problem. I had to repeat this cycle for the other two detectors after testing them.
I'm now half deaf.
While I seemed so close to the finish line, I am sorry to admit, I gave up. I gave in to temptation and surrendered myself to asking my neighbors and friends for the name of a good handy man/woman.
For now, I have put the smoke detectors in places where they would be effective although not permanently installed and I have a couple of easy reading books next to my bed. Like my great-grandmothers before me, who settled in wild and dangerous lands centuries ago, I'm prepared to wait it out.