Switch Hitting: The Art of Letting There Be Some Light

I do not believe in poltergeists, any more than I believe in ghosts.

But something beyond coincidence is happening in our house.

Houses are like machines. Something is always breaking down. Lights go out. The sink clogs. The air conditioner ceases to function.

In any ordinary household there are dozens of fragile fixtures and appliances subject to failure at any moment.

This peril is all the more distressing at our house because I am not a handy man. I can screw in light globes, if I don't have to use a ladder. (I don't like heights.) Replacing burned-out bulbs has always been my one contribution to domestic efficiency. Beyond that I am helpless. I have no skills at all.

I love tools. Their shiny metal look. Their practical design. Their efficiency. I have a drawer crammed with tools. But I rarely pull it out.

My wife will often report some new malfunction. "The faucet over the kitchen sink isn't working. Could you take a look at it?" Sometimes I do take a look at it. Usually I conclude that we'll have to call the plumber. More often I say something sarcastic like, "I'm not a plumber. If you wanted a plumber around the house, you should have married one," which of course doesn't help to solve the problem and tends to add to the tension.

My wife generally has handled such problems herself. She is a truly efficient and handy woman. Sometimes I think I married a jack of all trades. In recent years, however, she has become something of a grand dame and prefers to hire professional help. But plumbers and electricians are expensive.

I am especially helpless when my computer goes wrong. I am utterly dependent on it now, but I am quite ignorant of its secrets. Since coming home from the hospital, I am especially confounded by it. I have actually forgotten some of the simple signals I used to give it for certain functions. My mind is wiped clean of them. I think that is probably because I am intellectually incompatible with computers.

Hardly a day goes by that I don't call my older son, Curt, to ask him how to make the damn thing do what I want it to do. I am also dependent on Bart Everett, a Times computer expert, to help me out of jams.

However, it's the humbler machines that are giving us the most trouble. When I came home from the hospital, the toilet in the new bathroom had stopped functioning, the kitchen faucet had indeed become impossible to turn, the new toilet in my bathroom was leaking at the base, the toilet in my wife's bathroom tended to flood, the refrigerator didn't make ice cubes.

My younger son, Doug, says the toilet problem is simple. All I have to do is go to a hardware store and buy a new float apparatus and install it. That is quite beyond me.

We usually rely on our sons to repair things. They are whizzes at making things work. I don't know where they learned their skills. Certainly not from me. Probably through trial and error.

Lately, however, they show a reluctance to repair things. Doug's suggestion, for example, that I could go to a hardware store and buy the parts for the toilet: I think they think it would be good therapy for me to do some of those things myself.

However, I did get Curt to repair the ice maker. Evidently it was a challenge. He had never repaired a refrigerator before.

The other day, though, something happened that completely destroyed my sense of worth. As I say, I have always prided myself on my ability to change light bulbs. It is something I have always done with confidence and panache.

I thought there would be nothing to it when the reading light over my bed went out. I got a new bulb from the closet, unscrewed the globe, removed the old bulb and screwed in the new one. It did not go on. It is a hanging light, with a switch in the cord. I flipped the switch. Still no light.

"The switch is probably out," I said, making one of my brilliant instant diagnoses. "I'll have to call the electrician."

"Have you tried the wall switch?" my wife asked. She had been standing by nervously, as she often does when I am repairing something. Of course the wall switch controls the fixture. I turned it on. The light went on.

An incident like that can do serious damage to a man's sense of mastery. My claim to expertise was compromised.

I called a plumber to fix the toilet in the new bathroom and to seal the toilet in mine. His bill was $95.

The kitchen faucet is still stuck, and my wife now informs me that the garbage disposal is backing up.

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