Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ripping out the Detectors

I maintain subscriptions of household consumables with Amazon. Here an Amazon box has been flattened and awaits my next trip out to the recycling bin Photo ©2016 Mason West.
I live in the house of my ninety-two-year-old mother, who is in an early stage of dementia. I take care of the bills and other paperwork. I do the heavy lifting, cooking, dishwashing, grocery list writing (my brother actually does the shopping), and coffee making. I order things we need from Amazon. I handle smoke detectors and other crises.

I have gradually taken on a great deal of responsibility, but I was an unreponsive mess when I got here three years ago. I spent a year doing, beyond the essentials of keeping myself alive, nothing but playing World of Warcraft. I was in a severe depression, and playing that game, which simulates the tasks and rewards of life to a limited measure, and which spreads the possibility of achievements before me, helped me put one foot in front of the other. Warcraft was my therapy, and I was surprised to hear one of the actors in the current Warcraft movie say that it had brought him through a depression as well. There must be more of us out there somewhere. I know a lot of people consider the game puerile, but it saved my life.

So I'm not now just hanging out in the basement playing Warcraft, waiting to inherit a house or collect my measly government retirement. In fact I have a corner office from where I watch all comings and goings as I manage our measly accounts.

My brother and I recently made use of a program administered by Meals on Wheels (MoW) to have some household repairs done here. The US has in recent years taken a cue from Britain of having NGO's administer programs for the poor (as opposed to creating government bureaucracies to do this). As a result, MoW not only delivers meals, but they receive government funding that they can distribute for household repairs.

The neighborhood feral cats. The Siamese cat is the mother, and the six black cats—both long- and short-haired—are her adult offspring. Only the mother and two of the black cats stay near the house, and the other four have broadened their horizons. Usually one or two will drop in at mealtime, but it's rare to see the whole litter in one place anymore.
Raccoons infest my mother's house. These masked bandits frequent the shallow pan just out the back door where we set out cat food for a clutter of feral cats, which is probably why they do so well here. But the general feeling among everyone is that we won't starve the cats to get rid of the 'coons. So it was probably raccoons that tore off a great deal of insulation around the attic duct-work for the central air conditioning and central heating system. This lack of insulation caused water to condense on the duct, and the water dripped onto the sheetrock of the living room ceiling. So suddenly one day a huge chunk of living room ceiling—about six feet (two meters) long and a yard (one meter) wide —suddenly dropped down onto the living room sofa.

The living room catastrophe led us to seek funding for repairs with MoW, yet one of the delightful things about the NGO is that once you're in, you're in. They looked over my mother's house and decided that they would replace the non-functional built-in gas range with a brand new General Electric stove. They also replaced the water heater, which was working fine, but I suppose they push for energy efficiency these days. They replaced the wooden front door, which in humid summer months warped so that it wouldn't lock, with a steal door. They replaced all ten windows in the house, and replaced the sliding glass door in back with a pair of double-paned energy efficient glass that has blinds between the two panes, which I think is really cool. I was glad to get new windows because the old ones were originals with this house, which means they were sixty-seven years old and hard to open. Some of them didn't open at all. There was an ugly patina of decades of bug life. Now the windows are new, fresh, and clean, and they open.

The most monumental project undertook by MoW was the tearing down of the chimney. My mother's excessive tolerance for animals meant that she tolerated chimney swifts building nests in her chimney year after year, and finally the chimney was so clogged that smoke couldn't pass up it. Then in recent years the chimney began to lean rather like the tower in Pisa, Italy.

MoW also repaired some damage to the roof overhanging the porch. Not more than a week later, when the Wagnerian storms of Spring are in full orchestration with heavy rains, deep floods, thunder and lightning, I just happen to look up from my work and out the window, and down comes a large limb real horroshow from the ancient elm tree in the front yard. The limb crashes into the porch roof, which splits open. The limb settles at the base of the tree it came from. I am lucky it didn't come crashing through my window, which it could just as easily have done.

One of the smoke detectors with its battery hatch open.
MoW installed three smoke and carbon monoxide detectors: one in my mother's bedroom, one in the hallway, and one in my bedroom. After they were installed, they sat quietly, inverted on their ceilings, waiting for the disaster that might never come. They waited quietly for weeks while the city inspector—He who must inspect all new wiring, for these are powered off the houshold current of 110 volts—said ludicrous things like he was here, but nobody answered the door; or he was here, but I refused to let him enter my mother's bedroom (I had asked only that he wait a few minutes while I woke her up). But finally everybody converged at this house and in good spirits, and the inspector looked up at the alarms and nodded. He asked the electrician a few technical questions, which the electrician answered to his satisfaction. Then they were gone, and that was the last of the comings and goings on behalf of the MoW contract.

That night in my wok I deep fried some tilapia and some shrimp, and the smoke detectors started going off. The noise of three smoke detectors in full scream was insufferable. I hated to leave my fish unattended because they cook very quickly in hot oil, but I had to silence the screaming beasts. Smoke detector buttons have always seemed idiosyncratic, so some of them required more than one push of the button. During the course of this drama, I noticed that these have sympathetic reactions to each other. Test one to hear it cry, and the others cry too. They are wired together on the same household current, so maybe they share signals. Ultimately I was able to eat my fish and watch my show, Aquarius, in peace.

I usually work until dawn—heavens, it's 5:03 now!—so when my mother pounds aggressively on my door with her anger knock at 10 a.m., it feels like the middle of the night. The smoke detector in her room was chirping. I told her I had to sleep some more before I could do anything, and that bought me an hour or so, but soon she was pounding on my door again. I'll spare you the gory details, but she gets very unpleasant and impatient when she wants something. What I've noticed is that, at this point, the dementia hasn't really changed her personality, but she now lacks the guile to hide her overreactions, her nastiness, her impatience with a world that she doesn't understand and probably never has. What she wants, she wants now. For me, at 60, it's the solution to the enigma of my mother with whom I have had to deal all my life. OK, I'm not one of these persons who goes around perpetually blaming their parents for their problems. My problems are my own, and I don't blame her for them. But there are scenes from my childhood that could have played out differently, but with the kernel of my mother's personality laid bare by the dementia, I see why things happened as they did.

So as the detectors chirped, I tried pushing buttons, but they worked in conspiracy against me. Putting one to sleep would wake another, so I went around in an endlessly maddening circle.

I consulted with my brother by texting him because he might know something I don't, but also because my talking about the problem to him sometimes helps me work through the problem myself so I reach the epiphany of solution. My mother, who hasn't quite figured out that smart phones are communication devices, yelled at me while I texted because she thought I wasn't doing anything but had abandoned the problem. I removed the batteries from all of the detectors, but that did not help since they are also using 110 volts A.C.

I used my phone camera to photograph the printed material glued on the underside of one of the detectors (the side that normally faces the bracket holding it to the ceiling), and that photograph let me find the model name and number, with which I was able to google for the instruction manual. Chirping, the manual said, is a signal of a low battery.

So I went to HEB. As I set out, it started raining, so I reserved a Car2Go, which was only ten minutes away, and drove to the store. I took my time because the far greater problem was my mother's raging dementia, and it was good to be away from it for a while. I bought comfort foods—chips and dip, candy, and beer. I bought two two-packs of nine-volt batteries.

There was a young woman giving away sample cups of a new wine spritzer, and not having talked to an astute human in a long time, I talked the poor girl's ear off about writing all night, blogging and vloggers, and television shows like The Americans, Tyrant, Aquarius, and Game of Thrones. This will give you a clue of the degree to which I am a hermit: she is the first person with whom I've discussed Game of Thrones in the flesh. I told her my observation about Gregor Clegane, The Mountain 2.0, as Cersei's Hodor, but she didn't seem that impressed. I was disappointed. That seems like a potentially useful idea to me. Anyway, for the pleasure of talking her ear off, I obliged her and bought a six-pack of her wine spritzers. Well, I say wine spritzer, it's actually an effervescent fruity concoction dominated by grapefruit that has a five percent alcohol content.

So I checked out and left HEB, swung by the house and dropped everything off, then went to the legal parking area for Car2Go and left the car there. It was another easy ten-minute stroll back to the house.

I opened a beer and inserted a battery into a smoke detector. It laughed at me. "Chirp chirp chirp."

So now it was time for the last resort. Something had to be done. It was the weekend, and it would have taken days to get the electrician back here, especially since he's slated for surgery Monday morning. Neither my mother nor I could have endured the wait.
The mounting bracket and loose live wires where the smoke detector used to be.
The removal in the hallway was not a graceful operation, but it is now sweetly silent.
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  • Game of Thrones seasons six finale happens tonight! I will share my insights on Monday.
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