When Helen and I first moved to Clacton I sent my parents a series of (perfectly true) letters dressed in the style of PG Wodehouse (if you have never read his books you should, especially the Jeeves series). This was particularly easy as our move to Clacton was fairly accident prone. I've had an 'inspiring' day today so I thought I would try penning one again. To get best value you need to read fairly slowing and (if possible) imagine an aristocratic English voice reading to you ...
It is strange how a seemingly innocent comment can unleash a chain of events which are completely disproportionate to the length of time which one spent making the comment, or even the length of time one spent thinking of the statement previously alluded to. For example, one would hardly imagine that a simple declaration of "Yes, sure" offered in a completely off-the-cuff manner late one Wednesday evening could lead to a Saturday so hellish and stressful that it would remain embedded in the memories of the participants long after the activity agreed to had ceased to be of effect. However there is no doubt that in the story about to unfold it was just such a brief, unfettered use of the positive that left your correspondent in a life threatening position, but let me start at the beginning.
We live in a small furnished apartment in southern Delray. The apartment is in many ways well appointed, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, windows to three aspects and a pleasant light decor. There is really only one significant defect to spoil what would otherwise be complete enjoyment, you can rarely, if ever see where you are trying to go. The place spends most of its time in pitch darkness. Were you to enter said apartment and notice this eery gloom your first response would undoubtedly be to reach for a light switch, and you would undoubtedly find one close to hand and eagerly reaching out your hand to manipulate said device you would find the crux of the problem, it didn't work. Further investigation and peering into the gloom would reveal the reason, whilst provided with many light switches and only slightly fewer light boxes the apartment has absolutely no overhead lighting.
The keener and more alert guest would at this point start scanning flat surfaces for table lamps, again one's hopes would be significantly raised as said devices are scattered liberally around most surfaces. A discerning eye would also spot the high quality of the stand and lampshade, the solid brass fitting and even the solid brass switching mechanism. That same discerning eye would no-doubt be jarred by a singular incongriguity, whilst the switching mechanism is made of solid brass, the switch that is attached to the solid brass rotating spindle is made of plastic, very cheap plastic. The makers of the lamps are clearly aware of this poor decision as they have endeavored to hide it from view, more specifically to rotate the switch you have to get below the lamp and slither your arm up the inside of the lampshade until it is just a half-inch shy of the light bulb itself (when the lamp is on you can detect you are in the correct position when the pain from the heat of the lamp reaches to your second finger joint). From this precarious and awkward position you then have to rotate the cheap plastic switch attached to the solid brass turning mechanism. Given the odds stacked so heavily against you it is a great sense of achievement that it actually works, the lamp goes on and off and you can even adjust the brightness levels, three or four times. By the fifth occasion ones juvenile glee begins to sour as one notices that the crispness of the click is not what it once was. By the tenth attempt the glee turns to dismay as the plastic rotates freely whilst the lamp retains whatever mode it was in when your arm slithered up the inside of the shade.
At this point the lamp will be in one of two states, permanently on or permanently off. The latter is quite quickly dealt with as the lamp joins the ever growing collection of junk discretely positioned in the corner of my dressing closet. The permanently on lamps present more of an opportunity. They can be left in position to give out their light and one can turn them on and off simply be connecting and disconnecting the power supply to the lamp. Note however the use of the word 'simply' and not 'easily'. The apartment has been designed for convenient and elegant living, as such all inelegant items, such as power sockets for example, have been tucked away well out of sight, and reach. An early morning Bible study thus involves kneeling down, grabbing a power cable, pushing ones arm under and around a side table, reaching up and wiggling a bare pronged power plug into a socket. Whilst this does wonders for ones humility, resolution and faith it does very little for ones nerves or attire.
Having spent a year being softened up by the inconvenience of this situation, and being tired for a multitude of other reasons I'm sure the reader can readily understand that when presented with an innocent sounding question such as "shall I get a light for the lounge" answering "yes, sure" was a simple and mindless response that allowed me to retire to bed without any idea of the nightmare that was to ensue.
In order to set the psychological scene for the action to follow it is also necessary for me to explain that yours truly has, of recent time, developed an unmerited reputation for being less than enthusiastic in the matter of home maintenance. Whilst some of this can be explained by longer working hours and a complete unavailability of the toolset I had spent years lovingly building the bulk of the reputation comes simply from the increase in competition. We now live in an apartment where those day to day breakages that are a part of living with Helen can be instantly responded to by picking up the phone and calling maintenance. Similarly, Helen's car problems she can deal with by calling the car dealer or, in warmer weather, by the simple device of donning a tank-top and driving down to the nearest gas station and looking helpless. The point being that when you build up an expectation that all problems should be solved instantly deferring to ones husband to put it on his list no longer seems like a satisfactory solution.
The other recent change is that Helen has become far more fond of home maintenance herself than she used to be. This is probably because of the element of control it gives her. No longer do issues have to be debated they can be purchased, fitted and (usually) broken, taken down and disposed of long before hubby gets wind of the event. Helen has also found that she can do these little jobs far more rapidly than I can, usually because she doesn't bother with those tedious little bits of preparation that take me so long. For example, on Thursday she wanted one of the electric wallsockets moved. Had I done such a job I would have wasted time turning off the power whereas Helen discovered that by unscrewing the wallsocket and the wedging a metal screwdriver behind the face plate and thus shorting the two wires you get a flash of light, a puff of smoke and the rcd unit in the fuse box automatically switches off the power without one having to go through the tedium of doing it oneself.
You can imagine therefore that I was somewhat flattered when Helen said that she would go and get the light because she was sure I would be able to put it up perfectly (the wallsocket incident having nixed the idea of her attempting this herself). If you are aware of the issues when dealing with womenfolk you can imagine the cold chill that then ensued when she followed with the statement that her confidence was based upon the fact that her friends husband had fitted a similar unit in less than an hour. After this cunningly constructed sentence I could now only loose, it was just a matter of degree. In order to ensure that I realized the precariousness of my position she then continued "and Lorraine said Richard could come around and give you a hand if you needed it, because he is good at that sort of thing."
A wise, humble person would have spotted the way out and invited Richard around and then sat back and watched the poor chump being heckled by the womenfolk. Regrettably the encoding for that form of wise humility is coded recessively in the DNA and is only found on the X chromosome. So my response was rather different, "that's ok, I can do it, no problem."
Now you need to consider the position I was in, I could either complete the task perfectly in an hour or I could fail. The former would lead to an avalanche of other 'similar' tasks which would lead to weekend after weekend of needless work. The latter would lead to general derision and ridicule and, at an extreme, a visit from Richard and Lorraine which would then get news of my inabilities retold around the office at inopportune moments. Thursday I retired to bed hoping that the whole light idea would slip into one of those vast cracks within which most good intentions seem to settle.
Friday morning I awoke to find my car keys had been replaced with those of the sable, evidently the SUV was needed for other activities. Driving a small fast car with zero all-round visibility is somewhat of an artform. With an SUV you can drive calmly and sedately, keeping an eye on what is happening around you and driving defensively. In the sable the only way you can see is forwards so you just put your foot down and rely on the idea that nothing from the side or rear is liable to be going fast enough to hit you. So I hurtled off to work.
Upon return I saw the SUV in its usual position and my wife struggling towards the house carrying what appeared to be a very heavy box. Inspection of the rear of the vehicle showed two further boxes, both pronouncing themselves to contain ceiling fans with lighting kit. The shock of noting that there were three lights rather than one was nothing compared to the sight of my wife struggling under the weight of the box. I greeted the children and changed from my work clothes, by this time the three boxes were stacked in the hall. I gingerly tried lifting one, just about liftable. Having had a tough week and feeling in need of a quiet relaxed weekend I made a mental note to tackle the lights any month now.
Preparing for the Friday evening Bible study my mind soon removed from the hum-drum of fans to the deeper truths of our spiritual state and by the time Pam arrived smiling at our door I was ready to be a warm and convivial host and was able to produce a smile myself of genuine warmth and affection. For about 3 seconds. Behind Pam was Jeff, carrying his Bible, a drill and a 6 foot high step ladder. The grimness of the situation was clear, not content with making sure she knew how long it took me to affix the lamps, Helen had cunningly arranged for the whole church to know if I was keeping up to speed with my husbandly duties. Further she had removed any hopes I may have had of deferring activities due to lack of equipment.
Despite the gathering clouds the Bible study was good and Friday night I went to bed prepared to meet anything the morrow could throw, or more accurately anything I could envisage the morrow throwing. Indeed upon awaking on that said morrow my spirits were lifted further, it was a bright sunny day. The sort of day upon which all right thinking families embark upon some interesting expedition leaving behind them the cares and woes of the week past and completely foregoing any wayward thoughts which might otherwise have strayed to the mundane ties of life, such as home maintenance. So it was with a spring in my step that I left my bedroom to meet my family who were seated upon the lounge floor together with a box containing a heavy looking fan and with the meager contents of my toolkit scattered across the floor. Today was the day I was going to do the fan.
Being a thorough and precise person I set about my task with quiet but steady vigour. First I undid the box to take out the fan, or fan kit to be more precise. The fan can apparently be used in three different configurations and depending on the configuration you prefer you get to arrange and re-arrange nineteen different pieces of metal held together by not fewer than 52 different screws. Then I found the instructions and although my grasp of Spanish is not strong with the aid of a few diagrams I was able to start assembling the contraption into roughly the expected shape. At this point came the first piece of external 'help',
"why don't you turn the book upside down and back to front? "
"and why precisely would I want to do that?"
"because then you could read the English version ..."
I naturally pointed out that to a skilled engineer language was not important, we went by diagrams and then I placed the book behind a box so that I could surreptitiously turn it over without being noticed.
One interesting list given in the English version of the instructions was the tools you would need to complete the job, I compared this list to my own collection, namely three screwdrivers, one adjustable socket wrench and a tape measure, there was little overlap.
The next instruction included unscrewing the ceiling plate to look at the mounting box provided in the ceiling.
Time to get out the step-ladder. Modern step ladders have all manner of encumbrance to ensure the safety and survival of the owner. Typically you will find rubber grips on extra wide wrungs, a safety rail, balance wheels and even step-over bars to allow one to straddle the ladder with squared hips and thus have a firm, strong, balanced foothold for doing manual labor. The present specimen had no such pretensions. Indeed, following biblical principle, it looked very much as if "even that which it had was in danger of being taken away". I placed the ladder under the ceiling plate and cautiously took my first step. The creaking noise was very audible but it did sustain my weight. Encouraged I took a second step, interestingly the creak was quieter but of a higher pitch. The third was by far the loudest but of a deeper note, being of positive temperament it occurred to me that I could climb this ladder without counting the steps as I could tell where I was purely by the sound of the wrung bending. And the degree of wobble. For there was no doubt that by step three any fears brought about by the up-down motion of the individual wrungs was outweighed by the fears brought about by the side-side motion of the whole contraption. Indeed this was so alarming that even my audience considered leaving their position (the couch) and running for cover.
With the benefit of hind-sight that would have been a jolly good thing. If there is one thing worse that attempting a difficult job, in the wrong state of mind with inadequate tools or preparation it is attempting a difficult job, in the wrong state of mind with inadequate tools and preparation, with an audience. Especially an audience composed of three fresh inquiring minds each one of which is certain it can provide just the required piece of advice to help daddy do the job as quickly as Richard.
So we undid the one screw securing the ceiling plate and returned to the instructions which said I should be careful to retain both screws as they would be needed to secure the mounting plate. Both screws. Hmmm... Whilst I had retained all of the screws it would be a bit of a stretch to describe it as both. My quick mind sprung into action, swipe a screw from the ceiling plate in the bedroom. Helen offered to carry the step-ladder through for me which I declined on the basis that the plate in my bedroom was over the bed so I could stand on that. Which was almost true. The ceiling plate was actually a foot off of the bed although I found that by standing on the edge of the bed and stretching to my full height with the screwdriver fully extended I could just about reach the screw. If you have ever wondered what happens when you stand on tip-toe on the edge of a springy bed and lean forward and up and try to impart a turning motion with your wrist then I can answer your question. You fall off and go next door to get the step ladder.
The next step was the fixing of the mounting plate. This is essential a small circle of metal with two fixing screws that form a bracket to attach the main motor housing. Fixing this was easy although the manual did warn that the fixing had to be extremely tight or the whole thing would fall to the ground, so I gave each screw three extra twists. Then came the fun part; the main motor housing had to be lifted and hung off of the bracket. The motor house weighed fractionally over thirty pounds and was round and shiny, it had to be carried in two hands. Carrying something around 20% of your bodyweight up a wobbly ladder without a hand to steady yourself is an awkward process but nothing compared to the task of the raising the weight above your head and hooking it to a hook which you now cannot see because the weight is occluding your view. On the third attempt contact was established.
Now came the part I had been dreading, the wiring. English wiring I am used to, American wiring was daunting but it turned out to be the easiest part. Clearly thought had gone into making it easy. All of the wires had been pre-bared and cut to the correct lengths.
Particularly impressive were the little plastic lids into which one may insert the two wires you wish to join. The lid is then twisted and the spring inside the lid binds the two wires into one. In fact I was so impressed that I informed my audience that this was an area where the Americans had a clear advantage over the Brits and with one final flourishing twist ripped the ends off of both bits of wire.
This presented a problem. The useful little lid now had two bits of wire jammed in it and I had to connect two bits of wire that needed stripping and I didn't have a wire stripper. Being innovative I called for the scissors which were duly presented, these could be used to cut the outer part of the wire casing. At least they could have been if they were not blunt. Plan B involved using a thumb-nail, these too proved to be lacking in sharpness and it became clear that my nail would give before the wire. So I switched to Plan C. Plan C involves the age old observation that the little gap that most men have between their front teeth is an ideal size and shape for stripping wire, and it works infallibly. The only problem in the present circumstance was getting my teeth close enough to the ceiling to produce the desired result. This involved perching on the fifth wrung with my head flung back and nose pressed up against the ceiling and pulling. A good hard tug did the trick, both of removing the wire cover and scrapping my head against the textured ceiling. That done the wires now yielded themselves fairly amicably and progress could be made.
The final phase of this section was described as "now unhook the motor housing and re-align it with the screws on the mounting plate and twist". To understand what follows you need to visualize the device in your mind. The mounting plate was now attached to the ceiling, it was a metal disk about 8 inches across. Protruding from the outside of this disk, on either side were two screws, each about 1/8 of an inch down from the top of the ceiling. In my hand was a 30lb motor housing with a disk at the top with two L shaped groves. The aim of the exercise was to offer the two grooves to the screws, lift further until the corner of the L was engaged and then twist so that the screw would go along the long part of the L. That would be enough to temporarily fix the motor whilst another 4 screws were inserted.
It is a general truth that lifting 30lbs above your head is tough. Seeing around a ball held above your head is tough. Seeing both sides at once is tough. Aligning a small screw with a small hole is tough, doing two at once is very tough. Doing all of these at once is almost impossible, after almost fifteen minutes of trying Helen offered to watch the other side for me. This way I could guide one screw in whilst receiving helpful instructions to guide the other ...
"you need to go left, no left, LEFT"
"I am going left"
"Oh sorry, I meant right, more, up, right, more, more!, why have you gone so far"
"You said I should keep going right"
"I meant up"
At this point the phone rang. I didn't hear any words and had no way of knowing who had called and yet somehow I could tell that Helen's guffaws of laughter were directed towards me. When the words "well he claims it's going ok but there are lots of little bits left over" were heard I knew it was directed towards me. When I then heard "about an hour and half and he's still going" I got the energy and focus I needed to jam that motor onto the mounting plate. And when I say jam I mean jam. I had managed to push the screws up the short side of the L but there was no way I could twist them down the long side. I tried twisting from the hip, the shoulder, holding with one arm and the jerking the other but they stayed fixed. Very fixed, both ways. I couldn't secure the motor into the correct place but neither could I remove it to plan another campaign. I was stuck completely out of breath with a thirty pound weight above my head that I couldn't let go of.
By this point the sweat was pouring down my arms, my neck, my back and just about anywhere else it could find, this was annoying. Worrying was the sweat that was beginning to grease my palms rendering the 30lb metal ball harder to hold by the minute. Time to go for broke, a few words of prayer and I grabbed the ball and tugged lifting my feet from the ladder. The motor housing came away and I was able to regroup.
Back to those little mounting screws I had turned so tightly. They held the plate close to the ceiling which was textured. The texturing stopped the ball turning so if I loosened the screws a little it should work so I did. We also decided that a wobbly step ladder was not a good thing to impart turning force from so we replaced it with a table. Able to walk around the ball and see what I was doing the short part of the L was quickly reached, now came the twist. Shoulder back, legs braced, twist. Jam.
Evolution is composed of many myths, one of the most obvious is that man got to be top of the food chain via survival of the fittest. If this were true it would suggest that the human race was somehow instinctively programmed to survive. If that were true it would tell us that a bright human male, having found himself stuck with a thirty pound weight in a slippery grasp above his head would do everything in his power to avoid a repeat performance. At the very least one would expect it would take months of healing and forgetfulness before he got back into the same situation. In took me fractionally under 13 minutes.
Time to do some stock taking.
On the plus side : I now have a table under me
Minus side : My arms are now very tired, my neck is strained, I have sweat stinging in my eyes and whatever happens I'm going to be an object of derision. Oh yes, and I have a thirty pound steel ball 30 inches above my head and my palms are sweating.
The other new feature is that the twist had been slightly more successful than last time so I actually was about 10% of the way down the long part of the L, not far enough for safety but far enough that my little 'take the feet off the floor' trick would bring down the ceiling.
I am often thankful for a British scientific education. A lesser individual in my position would have had to stand there wondering what would happen if he dropped the ball. With my lightening fast brain, I didn't have to wonder, I could work it out. A 30lb object falling under gravity a distance of about 30 inches would be traveling at around 2ft per second when it impacted my head which would give it sufficient momentum to be able to drive the downward facing steel ring about 1.5 inches into my skull.
At this point the audience decided it needed to try and help. Helen suggested that I needed to twist a little harder, Luke started chanting 'me help' and 'me scared' alternately. Matthew being and inquisitive sort wanted to know if I could explain how I had found it so hard when Richard had found it so easy. I decided we needed a less cerebral approach and should use brute force and ignorance.
One of the disappointments of my youth was that I could never work out how to disco dance in the way that many of my peers achieved. They could rock, and twist and jive and rotate in ways that seemed totally unnatural and I simply not fathom how they could learn such movements. Whilst I am too old to benefit now from such knowledge I think I have discovered the secret, for had a video camera been placed upon me whist attempting to get this motor into place I believe the performance seen could easily have come from a film of the Saturday Night Fever ilk. At the very least the sweat, which was now drenching my whole attire, would have attested verily to the Fever part of the performance. The only slight blot on the horizon being that the screws had not budged an inch.
At this juncture Matthew saved the day, in his innocent, matter of fact manner he said "it is a pity Aunty Kim isn't here, I'm sure she would be able to do this easily". The surge of energy that resulted was enough to twist the motor into place.
The rest of the attachments slotted into place with relative ease (albeit the stopwatch finally rested at two and a half hours). The power was re-applied and the lights came on, as did the fan and provided the fan is kept to a low speed the violence of the rocking back-and forth is not sufficient to wake the neighbors. There are, of course, two other fans to be fitted but they have been discretely tucked at the back of the wardrobe ....