Friday, April 16, 2010

Change a smoke alarm battery by myself? I think I can, I think I can...

My work day was just hitting its stride at about 10 yesterday morning when I heard the chirp. Then silence. Then another chirp.

Springtime has arrived at the farm this month, with the animals out grazing, the mud drying up and the peepers peeping on the pond, but the chirp I was hearing – every fifteen seconds or so – was no bucolic hint of springtime. It was the sound of a smoke detector that needed a new battery, and though intermittent, the pitch of the chirp was ear-splitting for the millisecond that it sounded each time. I jumped. The dog jumped. Even the guinea pig jumped.

Normally when smoke detectors start chirping, you get plenty of warning. Usually it happens only a few times an hour to start with and gets progressively more frequent long before you actually have to take action. Rather like contractions before childbirth. And also like childbirth, it usually happens in the middle of the night. We hear the chirps in the dark hours before dawn, ignore them, and change the batteries sometime later the next day.

But this was in full daylight, which was good, but also in full volume and frequency, which was irritating. For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting the usual gentle reminder that I’d need to change the battery in the next day or two. My choices were to listen to the chirp every fifteen seconds all day long or find someplace else to work. And I’m fond enough of my usual workday routine that I really didn’t want this to be one of those days that was memorable because I worked in one of the kids’ rooms or at the dining room table all day due to an unexpected disruption. So I did what I always do when machinery isn’t doing what I want it to do: called my father.

In all fairness to myself, as unimpressive a reaction as this may be, I’m not the only 40-something-year-old woman I know who calls her father whenever a car, electrical component or household device isn’t working right. I know of at least two others, though admittedly they’re both related to me. No, that’s not true. Plenty of my friends call their fathers when anything goes wrong, and those who don’t wish they could.

Yes, we’re a little old for this frequent fallback plan. And yes, our husbands sometimes take offense that we consider them strictly second-choice when it comes to advice on how to fix things. But old habits die hard. My younger sister called my father from Colorado last month to ask for advice on how to get the car out of a snowbank. “Is it in four-wheel-drive?” my father asked her. “What’s four-wheel-drive?” she responded. He described the placement of the button she needed to push, and no matter that her husband – a Ph.D. and tenured professor – was less than thirty feet away at the time. From across the country, Dad fixed the problem, as he so often does.

Yesterday, though, no one answered when I called. I should explain that I do know how to change a battery; I’m just not fond of tinkering with smoke alarms. I grew up in the 70’s, when house security systems and car alarms were new technology and utterly unreliable: back then if you breathed on something wrong, you’d be treated to thirty minutes of clamor for your efforts. I can easily change the batteries in my camera or flashlight, but I suspected the minute I tried to unscrew the smoke detector from the wall, something would go terribly wrong and it would end up with the fire department arriving in full uniform with ladders and hoses out. Plus I had to stand on a tall chair to reach the detector. And lastly, my parents live next door. As I say, it’s not that I can’t change a battery; I just thought some reinforcements would be nice.

But no one answered the phone, and the frequency of chirp wasn’t slowing down any, so I found a battery, carried the footstool up the stairs, and while the dog and guinea pig watched admiringly, I went to work. Unscrewed the alarm cap, pried out the old battery, plugged in the new one, screwed the cap back in place. Done. No more chirping.

I felt empowered, but I knew it was really no big deal. So many tasks like that are just a matter of believing you can do it, or getting out of the habit of assuming you can’t. They don’t make smoke detectors with the goal of consumers not being able to use them, I reminded myself. Chances are if most of America can use this technology, I can too.

It’s a good rule for me to remember, and it worked well this time. Don’t think you can’t do it; just think of all the people who can, and ask yourself whether they’re really all more capable and smarter than you are. Some of them, probably. Most of them, maybe. But all of them? Not that likely.

Now the alarm is silent again, and I’m grateful. And I’m ready for next time too, knowing it won’t be a big deal. My father being out for the day gave me the chance to see what I’m capable of. And what I’m capable of is changing a battery. Not exactly life-changing, but not a bad lesson, either.

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