Tuesday, May 09, 2006


In Which I Get All Wiggy With It...

I don't know what kind of motor was in that ceiling fan, but at a guess I would have supposed it was something you'd find under the hood of a NASCAR vehicle. When the Brownie threw the switch that simultaneously turned on the ceiling light and fan, the first fan blade to hit me was only about ten inches from my head, but by the time it reached my left ear, it was already slicing through the air at about 30 miles an hour.

Suddenly, I felt like I was a whisker in a Gillette razor commercial, the kind where you see the close-up of a man's face being shaved while the narrator tells you how the first blade lifts the whisker, while the second blade cuts it off? That was me: The Human Whisker. Only instead of lifting me, the first blade boxed my ear and pushed my head to one side. I instinctively straightened out so as not to lose balance on the ladder when WHAP! the second blade caught me in the temple and my glasses went bouncing off into the blurry yonder. I think that was when I spit out the flashlight that I was holding in my mouth.

I ducked, whacking my chin on the top of the ladder as the third blade came round, not quite sharp enough to cut the hair on the top of my head but definitely powerful enough to part it.

Then I just sort of fell off the ladder and across the Brownie's bed, where I laid there, impaled by the blinding beam of the 100-watt lamp bulb and watching the fan blades begin their off-kilter wobbling.

"How about we shut off the light?" I said to the Brownie in a voice that I meant to be stern and commanding, but which really just sounded like I'd had a few shots of Everclear. She complied and came over to make sure I hadn't got any blood on her pink bedspread. Oh, and to see if I was all right.

Miraculously, I was. No cuts, just bruises (I mean, after all, it was only a ceiling fan. Not like it had the pureeing power of an airplane propeller). It was then that I had a very solemn talk with the Brownie about the power of electricity and how we can't touch that switch, especially once Daddy removes the old fan and puts in the new one. In fact, just to emphasize the point (not because I don't trust her) I taped the switch in the down position.

After I found my glasses and allowed the Brownie to put a Dora the Explorer Band-Aid on my ear (just the smallest scrape, not worth addressing, but she insisted) I mounted the ladder again. This time, The Brownie and her stuffed-animal pal Foxo sat well out in the hallway where they could watch the operation.

With much unscrewing and wrestling and profane grumbling, I finally yanked loose the world's heaviest ceiling fan motor. It looked like the guidance system of a Cold War-era James Bond doomsday missile. And as you might guess from my expression, no, I was not interested in making friends with it.


After wrasslin' with that thing for as long as I had, I half expected to see a sparking tangle of multi-colored wires tumbling out of the ceiling. But lucky me, there were just three simple wires. It looked easy.


Almost too easy.

I know from experience--and from watching experienced electricians--that as long as the switch is off, you're in no danger of electrocuting yourself while installing a new lamp or fan (and it's far more convenient than fumbling with circuit breakers out in the garage).

But no, dear readers, I'm not quite that stupid. After everything I've been through the past, well, life, I wasn't going to take it on faith that the switch was holding back electric death. I had to double-check for absolute certain that the power was dead to those wires. And I had just the tool to do it.

It was time to whip out my wiggy.

Which, by the way, is not the sort of thing you want to say out loud in the presence of a 5-year-old girl, because she will incorrectly associate it with her brother's innocent euphemism for a certain part of his anatomy.

When in fact, all I whipped out was this.


I cannot tell you how many times my wiggy has saved my life. I know that sounds like me engaging in my usual brand of hyperbole, because let's face it: at its most basic, electrical work boils down to correctly identifying three wires--the black one (the one that's usually carrying the current), the white one (the one that isn't) and the green one (the ground wire, which is attached to some metal so that if I do something stupid, the electrical current will pass through the ground wire instead of, say, me. How could I possibly injure myself, you're wondering?

(Well, no at this point, you're probably not wondering that at all.)

In our first house, which was apparently wired by a mad scientist, any time I had to change out a simple outlet or, yes, install another ceiling fan, I was forever finding the oddest electrical configurations: fixtures with two black wires--one connected to the outlet or fixture, and one that was connected to...nothing. And often as not they were bare--no wire nut, not even so much as a snip of electrical tape covering it. Sometimes I'd find two white wires and no black wires at all. In such cases, typically one of the white wires is carrying the current and is supposed to be marked by a black stripe or something to warn you. Not in my house. And of course, 90 percent of the fixtures I worked on in that old house had no ground wires at all.

What's more, it was sheer folly trying to find the right circuit breaker to throw in order to cut power to the room I was working on. For example, if I shut off the breaker marked "kitchen," some of the kitchen lights and any appliance that had a clock in it went out, but all the outlets--and the garbage disposal switch--stayed live. The kitchen breaker did, however, cut power to our guest room, while the breaker marked "guest room" controlled the lights in the garage and one or two lights in the dining room. Which is why I adopted the quite sensible policy of shutting off every goddamn breaker in the basement before performing the simplest of electrical jobs. Problem is, before you can do that, you have to find out which wires are carrying current and which aren't so you can correctly reinstall them in your new outlet or fixture.

In other words, for a few minutes, you have to be working in uncomfortable proximity to live electrical wires.

Trust me, it's times like that when a man is glad to have his wiggy in his hand.

When we moved to our new house, the electrical system made A LOT more sense. At the old house, if you wanted to install, say, a ceiling lamp, there was no guarantee that turning off the light switch actually cut the current to the lamp like it's supposed to. But in our new house, by God, when you shut off a switch, it's off baby. And so instead of plunging the entire house into darkness every time I wanted to change a simple light, I just made sure the switch was off, then--just because it's me we're talking about--I double-checked the absence of electricity by prodding the wires with my trusty wiggy. Which is what I did now.


Having confirmed once and for all and for good that power to the fan wires were absolutely and totally and completely off, I began the process of installing the new--and considerably smaller--ceiling fan, capping wires with wire nuts, bolting propellers onto motors and installing a lamp attachment that offered quite a bit more available light. For you, the conclusion of this process was nothing but completely dissatisfying anticlimax. But for me, it was a resounding success.

I stood proudly on my ladder and called the Brownie in. She oohed and ahhhed over her bright new fan.

"Go on," I said. "It's okay to turn the switch on now. See how it works."

I climbed down a few steps to get my head clear, then the Brownie yelled "GO!" and threw the switch.

An instant later, the fan made a ZZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAKKKK sound and a stupendous flash of blue light poured out of the top of the fixture. An instant after that, the entire upstairs was plunged into darkness.

"Wow!" the Brownie cried from somewhere below. "That was great. Can we do this again?"

To be honest, I wasn't even sure I wanted to do it again, but I still had my flashlight (and my wiggy, of course), and once I unscrewed the fixture, I saw the problem immediately--a small nick in the casing of the black wire (the hot one) exposed just enough bare wire to brush against the metal of the top of the fixture, causing a short that tripped the circuit breaker. I double wrapped the wire in electrical tape, put it all back together. Went downstairs with the Brownie and threw the tripped breaker back on. By the time got back upstairs, the fan was purring above a warmly glowing light. Not a puff of smoke or electrical flash in sight. Mission accomplished.

I set about putting my tools away and when I came back upstairs, the Brownie was sitting on her bed, reading a book, something she really wasn't able to do in bed with the crappy overhead lamp she had before.

"I LOVE my new light and fan!" she cried, hugging me. "Now I can read in bed. And write too. Look!" As she said this, she handed me a pink piece of paper.

It was, of course, another to-do list.

Maybe I was better letting that old fan cut my head off after all.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

The picture of your "tool" is most disturbing...

And now a riddle:

What's gray, crispy and hangs from the ceiling?

Go ahead. Guess. I'll wait.
*hopes Shafa hasn't been sitting around hitting "refresh" for two hours*

MM, I love how you offsetted Brownie's "incorrect" interpretation of "wiggy" with quite a few euphemistic uses. Especially the initial picture.

That Gillette whisker analogy was perfect. I actually saw you in the commercial in my head. (Your neck got really stretched out.)

With two very important characteristics from her parents--her father's assertiveness and confidence, and her mother's ability to cajole men into following to-do lists (don't protest! HLS does it to Papa!)--it looks like the Brownie is destined to be In Charge of Something.
...or one hour, then. Accursed CST!
Hey, good thing that bed was there for you to fall onto! I think your guardian angel was making up for lost time, there. You've probably kept him/her busy enough that he can react quicker than he/she used to.
Hi. I found your blog by way of another, hope you don't mind.
The mental picture I had of someone getting whacked in the head with the ceiling fan while reading your post had me chortling, nay, guffawing, out loud.
Thank you so much for the great story. I may print it out as reference material for my not very handy husband!
Thank you again.
I'm sure you learned most of your wiggy-stuff from your Dad, but I am beggining to think you and Tim the Tool Man are related- ;)
I was roaring at this one. Glad no one is in the office yet.

Tool man indeed.
I knew when I was reading this that when you first flipped that switch after replacing the fan that something had to go wrong...even if it was something that was easily fixable. It is just not possible in the MM world for any task, simple or not, to go without some kind of hitch. We love it, though I've noticed your follies are resulting in nicknames for you (tool man...Mr. Magoo..etc.) How bout Inspector Gadget...didn't things always go wrong for him and his trusty niece Penny always had to save the day?
Wood and I were reading this together (oh the intimacy of lapaops..) and when we saw the picture of you on the ladder Wood says "he's got a wiggy" and I said "oh look, he shaved". Then you come out with the Whisker-man. Oh, too funny.
My dad has a "Wiggy" of his own that dates back to his days as a Navy electrician. He knows, quite well, how to use it. However, there's not much else he can do in terms of home repair. But damn he's good with volt meter reading.
Wow, that was a close shave. ba dum bum.

/runs away
As an Apollo Mission devotee, I am honor-bound to remind you to always check your wiring's insulation thoroughly, no matter what. Fire is not your friend, ever.

G-d bless the Magazine Mansion and all who slumber in her belly.
I have a Wiggy. Unfortunately I have no idea what to do with it - it's more complicated than it seems.

I am occasionally jealous of you, Mr. Bona Fide Writer, for your creativity and way with words. And then I remember that the best of your stories involve you getting stuck in difficult, painful, or simply ridiculous situations, and remember that all things come with a price.
Yeah! No major, life-threatening, blood-inducing injuries this time.
Can't wait to hear about Brownie's latest daddy-do list.
as the daughter of an electrian, i was all set to give you 10 kinds of hell for just flipping the switch and digging into the wires. wiggy saved you that, although i was trained to only believe the volt meter completely when it said the wire was live. usually your escapades have a degree of randomness that i relate to, but if you HAD french-fried yourself on the fan, you'd have earned it. learn to love your circuit breaker - that's why it's there!!!!!
I would have paid someone to do it because I am forbidden to change any electical items in the house. They tend to blow up.

I am dead serious on the blowing up part. :(
*gets tired of waiting*

An amateur electrician.

*waits for laughter*
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