Friday, January 3, 2014

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Broken Furnace (Why Home Repairs Make Me Feel Like A Failure) Part II



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Once I got home it was about 60 degrees in the house. Mel met me at the door wearing a pink bathrobe. Below, she was in jeans, wool socks, slippers, and a sweater. A space heater was in the living room on high. Strangely, though, Tristan (my six-year-old) was running around in Avengers underwear. 
            “Why is he in his underwear?” I asked.
            Mel shrugged. “He says he’s hot.”
            “I am,” he cried.
            Tristan was a strange kid that way. Regardless of the season, he always wears shorts. On Sundays, I have to fight him into pants. And as soon as he gets home, he strips down to his underwear. And I will admit, it did make me feel a little better about the whole thing.
Never the less, it felt freezing in the house, and I felt responsible. As the father, I was supposed to know how to fix things. My father always seemed to know what to do, like he was blessed with some magical mechanical ability. I don’t recall him ever calling someone for help. He just got shit done. And I suppose I assumed that I would somehow inherit that ability. In fact, as I stepped out into the garage to work on the furnace, I wondered if I would somehow have a divine moment. Perhaps the heavens would open up, like they must do with all fathers, and God himself would show me how to fix my furnace. 

Something like this. Only I wouldn't be naked.

Derek spoke with a bit of a southerly twang. He always has, which is strange considering he grew up in Provo, Utah. In high school, he was the kind of kid that wore tight Wrangler jeans, boots, and sported a curly blond mullet. He was the silent cowboy type, soft spoken and mysterious. And some of that western masculinity never left his disposition, even as he approached forty-years-old.
I wanted to sound competent, so I told him that we tried to light the pilot.
He laughed. “Well…  I don’t know what you lit, but most furnaces don’t have pilots anymore. Good thing you didn’t blow yourself up.”
I felt like a dumbass.
He asked questions about the make of the furnace, the age, what it was doing, how long it had been happening, and how it sounded. I felt like he was drawing a profile of the furnace, and for a moment I felt like he was doctor. Eventually he made a diagnosis.
            He made some clicking sounds, and then let out a long whistle with a downward trajectory. “Sounds to me like your sensor is dirty,” he said.
He talked me through a number of steps; starting with how to identify the sensor: “Don’t touch the glowing rod. You don’t ever want to touch that. Big problems there. You want to take out the one that looks like a copper colored meat thermometer.”
I found it, unbolted it, and then he told me how to clean it. “You’re going to need something with a some real grit. I usually use an SOS pad, but some light grade sand paper can work.”
As I worked on the sensor, Derek and I seemed to be bonding a little. This I really enjoyed. Surprisingly, I happened to have an SOS pad unpacked. I scrubbed it for some time, reinstalled it, and turned up the heat. The furnace glowed, chugged, a fan turned on somewhere, and then it lit. I felt really satisfied. It felt like a coming of age. I started to understand how it felt to see a mechanical problem, understand it, and then whip it into shape. I’ve never been the kind of man to fix things, or really give a damn about how things work. But this felt really good. Was this feeling of satisfaction the reason men spent so much time fixing shit? Did Derek feel this every day? Did this make me a man? A father? A provider? Perhaps that’s why he was so quiet. He didn’t need the satisfaction of conversation. He got his satisfaction from fixing things. I thought to myself, I. Fixed. My. Furnace. I did it with these two hands. I am a man!
 
Mel came to the garage door. “Sounds like you fixed it.”
She smiled. She wanted me. Clearly I’d chosen the wrong profession.
I recall hearing a study on NPR about how men that engage in traditionally masculine activities such as gapping spark plugs, chopping wood, laying foundations, and so on had sex more often with their wives. I did none of those things, and I wondered if all those times I’d been told that the sexiest thing I can do was wash the dishes was a lie. Perhaps the sexist thing I could do was fix shit around the house.
Then it shut off. The fan blew, but the blue flame that glowed so magically went out, and the glowing rod that ignited the flame went dull. There was no heat. My heart sank.
Derek was still on the line.
“What the hell,” I said. “It just shut off. Should I clean it again?”
“No,” he said. “It must be something else. It’s hard to tell without a meter. You’re gonna have to call someone.”
I couldn’t believe how quickly I went from champion to failure.
           
I went back into our cool house feeling frustrated. It was getting late, time to get the kids ready for bed. Mel had found more blankets and the kids warm pajamas. Although Tristan still insisted on sleeping in his underwear. Perhaps this was a result of him spending most of his young life in Minnesota. We lived there three years before Oregon while I was attending graduate school.
As I wrestled the kids, I felt really nervous. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that we’d be fine that night, but how long could we go without heat? How long could my family handle it? How would I get money to pay to get the furnace fixed? I had no idea how much something like that would cost. I’d never had to pay for something like that, so naturally I estimated on the high side. The numbers floated around in my head were anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000. Then I started to ask myself questions like, “What if the furnace guy is crooked?” and “What if he knows I’m a moron and takes advantage of me?” 

Mel was at the table, going through some files.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m looking for information on the home warranty.”
“We have a home warranty?” I said. “What are we living in, a MacBook?”
Mel rolled her eyes. Then she mentioned that our real-estate agent insisted that we include it in the closing costs.
“I didn’t really want it, but she was very insistent. Don’t you remember?"
“Not really.”
I thought about how chaotic it was buying a house. There were so many papers to sign, lines to initial, people to meet with and negotiations to manage. Once Mel mentioned the warranty I vaguely recalled discussing it. But I also recall not understanding what it was, so I just said, “yes.” Saying yes when I’m confused is a problem that I developed in my youth. Bad policy, I know…
By the time I had both kids snuggled up in three blankets each, Mel had found the warranty information and filed a claim on the website. And I recall marveling at how quickly it had come together. I was proud of her for remembering the policy and making the claim because I wouldn’t have remembered it. Despite how cold it was, I recall sleeping well because I assumed that the problem would be fixed sometime the next day.

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University. 



6 comments:

Duane Simpson said...

It's okay. Not everyone's good in fixing things. If we all are, there won't be a need for professionals to do these works for us? Hahaha! Seriously, you were doing the best for your family. You were concerned about their welfare and that's what matters. I think just by that you were already THE man. Fighting for them was just a bonus.

Duane Simpson @ AccuteMP.biz

Clint said...

Duane: Thanks, buddy! I think you really nailed what I feel I learned from this experience. From your profile, it looks like you are a handy guy when it comes to furnace repair. But not all of us are that handy. And sometimes the best we can do is be supportive and find a creative way to solve the problem.

Levi Eslinger said...

Don't fret. This kind of stuff are the ones you can study and learn to DIY from Youtube and stuff like that. Though you can pick really good ones of the store that will cover a lot of your furnace problems or help you in repair.

Levi @ Capital Plumbing

Clint said...

Levi: I did just that a few weeks ago. I totally fixed my toilet by watching a video! I felt like a champion.

Rosa Nelson said...

There is a great sense of pride a person can feel when he or she comes up with the idea to fix a furnace. Actually trying to do it leads to quite a bit of frustration. The aftermath is always disappointing and costly. Leave a job like this to the pros or else a host of troubles are going to turn up. Furnaces can only be fixed by experts!

Rosa Nelson @ HVAC Services Philadelphia

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