Monday, November 26, 2007


In Which We Get the Engine Going Again...

At any given moment, I have this idea that my life is not really my life, but some kind of skin pulled over the actuality that is my life. Sometimes I think my actual life is that of television show filmed before a studio audience, complete with popular supporting characters who get spontaneous applause whenever they walk on (although if that is indeed correct, I can only guess the show has plummeted in the ratings recently and the network decided to shake things up--like, a lot--and so have handed my life over to a writer known more for drama than for comedy). Other times, I just tend to imagine my life as a kind of ship with a personality and my consciousness and everything I think and feel is represented by passengers and crew and I rarely have to descend below decks to do anything intricate or substantial.

I was living life in the ship mode this weekend, I think, because I spent most of the Sunday before Thanksgiving vaguely aware that something was off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but there was something, some tremor at the wheel, some vibration of the railing, some strange current at work, something that was taking us off-course.

By early evening Sunday, it finally dawned on me what it was: the thrum of the engines.

Specifically, I could hear the blower in the furnace. More specifically, I hadn't once heard it shut off, as it usually does when the furnace heats the house up to whatever temperature I have the thermostat set. It had been running all morning.

It was then that I realized I was just a little cold. I went to the thermostat and checked: sure enough, it was 67 degrees in the house. And falling.

So with flashlight in hand I descended to the, er, engine room. As you may recall from previous writings about household repair, I am not the handiest fellow, but I know enough about household mechanics to spot a problem without (usually) electrocuting, drowning, or immolating myself too much.

In this particular case, I had a pretty good idea what the problem was already. I removed the access panel from the furnace and shone my light into the guts of the thing. There, by the nozzle where the gas comes in, was a little ceramic fork-like object: the furnace igniter. Normally, it conducts current to heat up and ignite the gas that makes my house so toasty in cold weather. But I could see immediately from its blackened, cracked state that it wasn't going to be conducting current or anything else ever again.

I said I had a pretty good idea what the problem was because in over five years of living at the Magazine Mansion, this is the fourth igniter I've gone through. Two of them, I'm not kidding, failed one year to the day from the last time they were replaced. This last one had lasted about two years before it conked out, but come on! As I've since learned, ceramic igniters are one of those parts built on the principle of planned obsolescence so that heating and cooling companies can stay in business. The last time a repairman came to replace the thing, I cornered him with my previous invoices and got him to admit that, yes, this was a fairly common repair for him (in fact, he'd done more than 20 in that month alone).

Now I sat on the basement floor, cursing. How many times had I promised myself I was going to buy an extra one of these at a supply place, just to have handy in case it went out on a Sunday? On at least two occasions, see, I'd had to call repairmen out on a weekend, incurring emergency overtime charges and paying in excess of $150 for the plug-and-play replacement of a part that costs around 40 bucks.

I went upstairs and delivered the dismaying news to Her Lovely Self, the captain of the ship (if we're continuing the analogy). After some thought, we agreed to wait til Monday, at which time I'd head to a local supply house, buy a fresh igniter and replace it myself. It wasn't the dead of winter, after all. The kids and we could bundle up a bit, put extra comforters on the bed, and all would be well. Worst-case scenario, I could always light a fire in the hearth and run the oven to heat up the place enough that no pipes would freeze.

That was that. I shut the furnace down so as not to burn out the motor on the blower. And so we went to bed.

Well, everyone but me.

I spent most that night tossing and turning. Not because I was cold; it went deeper than that. On some primal level, it was obvious to me that I had dropped the ball. I mean, I'm the man. It was incumbent on me to provide a few fundamentals: food, shelter, and fire. Well, where was the fire?

Eventually, I hauled myself out of bed and began roaming the dark, cold house. At length, I found myself on the computer, reading up on ceramic igniters and other secrets of the heating/cooling industry. At one point, I chanced upon a reference to someone manually igniting their furnace. This got my attention fast. Apparently, the way the furnace worked was that the gas jet would emit a little squirt of gas. If the igniter wasn't hot enough to light it, it would emit little squirts at periodic intervals until the igniter popped on or someone shut the furnace down. So all one needed to do was wait for the gas to come on, strike a match and poof! The furnace would ignite, at least long enough to heat the house through one cycle.

I looked at the clock: it was 2 in the morning. I checked the thermostat: it was 63 degrees in the house. If I jacked the thermostat up to say, 75, it would take an hour at least to get up to that temperature, and good little while for the temp to drop. My family could at least be warm as they slept.

So, resolved to my course of action, I went into the garage to find the butane lighter I usually use to ignite our gas grill. Then I headed back below decks.

It was really cold in the basement, like a meat locker. I could see my breath by the light of the flashlight. I carefully inspected the guts of the furnace again, this time identifying the small opening of the gas nozzle, just below the broken igniter.

And I waited.

I was waiting for the hiss of a gas jet. But I wasn't hearing it.

I reached in, feeling around the gas nozzle. It didn't seem blocked. There was a tiny lever next to it. I fiddled with it, thinking maybe it was closed so tightly that I couldn't hear the gas. Still nothing.

Time passed there in the cold, close darkness. I slumped against the hot water heater, waiting, listening, eyes drooping. Eventually, I dozed, deeply enough that I started dreaming. In the dream, I was on the phone with my Dad and he was walking me through the replacement of the ceramic igniter which, in the dream, I was smart enough to have purchased an extra one. But then, I became self-aware in the dream, which was really too bad.

"Hey," I said into the phone. "I just realized I can't call you anymore for stuff like this."

Then I snapped awake and was instantly aware that I was probably going to call the heating guys in the morning, after all. Because I didn't trust myself. What if more than the igniter was blown? Once upon a time, as my dream reminded me, I would have called my dad and he'd have talked me in for a landing. But now? I just didn't trust myself to do it, especially since we were hard against a holiday and I didn't want to delay getting the thing fixed by even a day. It's one of the hardest truths I've had to face in the past six months: I may be lucky enough to have a family who loves and supports me through tough times, I may even be starting to get over my parents' death a little--how else to explain that my usual sad thoughts of them are starting to be tinged with nostalgia? But in all sorts of ways, I'm painfully aware that, even at 39 and a half, I still wasn't finishing needing them.

And as I lingered on this thought, one other realization came to me, totally unbidden: I remembered that I had shut the furnace off earlier, thus shutting off all the automatic functions of the thing, including the sensor that would trigger the gas jets to open. Duh. No wonder I wasn't hearing the gas!

Stiff from the cold and from resting my ass on the hard basement floor, I struggled to my feet, then lurched upstairs to the thermostat. I flicked the switch from "off" to "heat," then raced as fast as I could--which wasn't very--back down the stairs.

I bent to the furnace and cocked an ear. From inside, I could hear the faint hissing of a gas jet. I reached in with the butane lighter, sparked it once, twice. Nothing.

I bent my head so I was eye level with the furnace jets. I flashed my light around to make sure I was aiming it at the right thing. Yep, there was the nozzle. I reached in again and thumbed the switch on the lighter.


The world briefly became an orange and blue light as my whole head was enveloped in a moist, odorous ball of fire, like a burp from the mouth of God. In a half-second I was scrabbling backwards across the basement floor up over the top of the chest freezer, and up the underside of the stairs using only my toes and fingernails. I hung there for a brief moment, heart in my throat, smelling a high, sweet smell I couldn't place, seeing as I was too busy assuring myself that I was still alive. So was the furnace, which was now a blaze of light. Quite a blaze in fact: flames were roaring out of the access panel. Evidently I had opened that gas nozzle all the way.

I detached myself from the stairs and shut everything back down, fiddled with the gas nozzle a few more times, then, finally, and with head turned fully away and my hand in a fire-proof, elbow-length welding glove, reached in once more with the sparker and brought the furnace sedately to life.

It was almost dawn when I went back upstairs, listening to the ticking and creaking of the house as it warmed to life. In the hall, I bumped into Thomas, my early riser.

"Dad, I can feel heat in my room. Did you fix the furnace?"

I opened my mouth before I was sure of the answer. Finally I said, "For now." Then I yawned hugely and trudged back to bed.

"Hey Dad! Wait!"

I stopped and looked at my son. I wasn't sure what he wanted, but I hoped he was going to say something meaningful, like wondering how I knew how to get the heat back on (if only for a while) or lamenting that he'd never figure out half the stuff I knew. Something to make me feel better, you know?

Instead, Thomas simply pointed at me.

"Where did your eyebrows go?" he asked.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

A POLL FOR THE READERS: How many paragraphs did it take before YOU said to yourself, "Oh, this is not going to end well"?
paragragh 4 - at the mention of the furnace

Welcome back, MM! And, yes, photos please!
Thank God it was only his eyebrows. I knew when he mentioned getting up in the middle of the night that it wasn't going to end well.
#4-just like not supergirl said.

I had a lucid dream of my own recently. Nasty violent bloody things were happening, though I've been lucky enough to forget the details.

At some point I knew I was dreaming and did my best to scream "wake me up! Wake me up!" Though I've been know to mumble, groan, and even shriek in my sleep, this time I was unable to make a sound. Eventaully I woke up anyway.

Or maybe I did say it and Mr gator failed to hear me. We both use CPAP(those lovely gadgets that allow us to sleep at all even thought we both have sleep apnea) and they do make some noise, plus he can sleep through almost anything.

I'm very glad you're back, and mostly unsinged.
seriously, we need PHOTOS!!

glad it wasn't more than eyebrows!
All I kept thinking was, "Tim the Tool Man, meet MM."
I've gotta admit, it took me until para 7 to get that dawning sense of dread—specifically the first mention of the word "gas."
Well, it may not have been the perfect repair job, but at least it didn't end super-tragically. Eyebrows always grow back. You can tell everyone at work you're trying the "singed" look.
The part where you said that for everything else you are and have, you're still not finished needing your parents... that really hit home. That was heartbreakingly touching.

On the other stuff - I'm with Michelle. I actually was picturing Magazine Mansion as the Taylor household in the old show. And... paragraph four. I was expecting Blaze to make an appearance, though, and maybe pull MM to safety before he got singed or burned the house down. Blazey must have been cold, too.

Positively thrilled that you're back.
Poll Answer:

The mention of the word "gas" for me, too.

I actually LOLed once Thomas made his comment.
As soon as I read "little squirt of gas" and then "light."

Glad you're ok!
Been there, done that, now have a spare hot surface igniter in the workshop.

Another kind of problem you can run into is the plenum overtemperature sensor goes bad: it reports that the plenum above the furnace still contains hot air, so the furnace runs the fans, trying to clear the plenum before restarting the furnace. And the fans run. And run. And run.

So: you can stock up on a spare of that part too.

Or, if it happens, you can short across it with a piece of wire. But that - in theory - allows the plenum to become dangerously over hot.
I lost my Mother in August and I have picked up the phone no less than 10 times to call and ask her things especially when I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I am 37 and need her more than ever.

Glad everything turned out OK and you only sacrificed your eyebrows.
paragraph 4 as well...

Glad you're back MM!
I got worried in paragraph 4 as well - that impending sense of MM Doom. I'm glad it was only your eyebrows.

It really hit me when you mentioned still needing your parents, especially about your dad talking you through it.
A burp from the mouth of GOD?


Welcome back. As to life, I don't use the ship analogy. I, as a child, wondered if I was a rat in a maze while God was watching and laughing.
4th paragraph for me too. I read the first line and actually said to myself "This can't be good".

I haven't laugh that hard in a while, thanks MM.

I'm 43 and boy do I ever need my Dad. I don't think that ever stops.
That was funny. Good story.
I also vote that this is prime photo time. So glad to have you back!
Yeah, I agree with everyone. The mere MENTION of the word Furnace made me think "Oh oh..."

This post is useless without photos! LOL!
Great story; well worth the wait.

I second... uh, third... no, fourth... wait a minute, fifth... OK, sixth the call for photos!

As for the poll question? As soon as I saw "butane lighter", which was the 16th paragraph. I guess I'm willing to suspend disbelief a bit more than some of you :-)
I think I got that feeling in paragraph 3.

I'm glad things worked out okay. Yes, eyebrows do grow back, TG, but it could have been worse.
Hang in there, MM, and the next time you get ideas in the middle of the night, put it in a memo, and go back to sleep. ;)
I know it has prolly been hard for you to write but I am glad that you are back for a little bit...

hope those eye brows grow back soon...

take care MM
You are very brave. I can do many house repair things, but I have a fear of gas. As for missing your parents, it has been nine years since my Dad died and I still want to call him and ask him things. I don't think it ever goes away. I guess we are supposed to remember everything they told us.
I can't seem to find the words to tell you what a wonderful opening paragraph that is.

To coin a farkism, this article is useless without photos. :)

But, for me, the impending sense of doom happened almost as soon as the word furnace was mentioned. However, I was worried that you'd blown up the whole darned thing or something. Glad it was just eyebrows. You or someone you knew, probably lost those back in the drunken college days. So you know they grown back.
Welcome back, MM! We've all missed you!
It would only be MM that gets into a rucuss because he did something that every fiber in his body said he should never do.

Poor eyebrows .... :D

and yes ... Photos ... :P
I just learned that someone's taken hostages in Rochester NH.
Even though I live within 20 minutes of the NH state line and know many of its residents, you, MM, are the first person I think of.

I'd like to reassure all readers that this is not anywhere near MM's part of NH.

As for the hostage event-the news doesn't know much yet, so look it up later. Something to do with Hilary Clinton's campaign office.
Any chance of a picture?
I guessed the my mother in law had a similiar experience with hair removal..via gas... though her's was via a trailer stove pilot......
Achingly poignent and bittersweet. A beautiful essay. You write poetry in prose.
As for the Poll question: As you nodded off, that became my immediate worry - that the gas would leak and you'd be asleep and get sick or die. I know it's silly to have become aware of a fear that you'd died, as you were alive enough to tell the tale, but that's where the fear crept in.

As a homeowner and husband and father, I am totally there with you - I feel that need to make sure my family is safe, at any cost. The furnace is my domain and I take it seriously. That's why, at the first sign of trouble, I replaced her. Turned out she was 30 years old, so I don't feel that bad about shelling out the money for a new one, when the old one wasn't quite dead. And it saved me many sleepless nights, wondering if my family was warm enough. So I feel ya dog, I feel ya.

And for me it was paragraph 1: I had an inkling at the "my life is not really my life" bit and confirmed at the "I rarely have to descend below the decks to do anything intricate or substantial" bit.

I feel your pain! My hot water heater died a few days before Thanksgiving . . . amid sucking the water out of my basement with a shop-vac and waiting for Lowe's to deliver my new water heater (which was magically delayed to after Thanksgiving once I canceled the installation piece of the order), I realized how much I needed to have my step-dad around. He would installed the thing himself and we wouldn't have gone 7 days without hot water (because I refused to pay emergency fees).

Glad you figured it out - condolences on the loss of your eyebrows . . .
I've been looking for a good hair removal salon! Good to know you're an expert!

Great story! Glad to see you back at it!
OMG~ so happy I came to visit.

In an old house I once lived in I used to have to crawl under it and lay on my back to light our furnice when it decided to go out. And it always happened in the middle of the night when I couln't see the spiders, etc... It was always a little nerve wracking when I flicked my bic~ I feel you :)
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