Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Day seven hundred and ninety ... Batteries not included.

I learn something new everyday. Really and truly I do.

But I have to make a conscious effort to identify it when it happens or I run the risk of just letting it slip through the rusty colander that is my brain. I can tell myself that I'll "never forget that" and not write it down, and then the phone will ring, and the UPS guy will come to the door, and I'll break a string on my guitar and wonder in the middle of the day what the great revelation was that I had that was seemingly so important that I'd absolutely never forget it.

And that's why I wrote today.

I have more than a few things that run on batteries in my house. More and more these days the items that do, run from a battery or a charger pack that can be replenished with energy when it becomes depleted. They usually tell me that they're running down with either a light that changes color, by a system of gray bars that start to disappear, or by an auditory sound. Either way it's easy to see that I need to plug it back in to the wall or I'll run the risk of disappointment the next time I need them.

Not so with my clocks and radios.

They just run down.

And these are the things that I use the most in my life. I have a few clocks on my walls, and, as you know, hardly any wall clocks run from an outlet anymore. The cords are unsightly, running all the way down the wall. And it seems unnecessary to power them this way in a world where things are lighter, stronger, and use less power than ever before.

The same go for radios. I have an old 1930's "tombstone" radio I inherited which I've installed a speaker in from my home stereo. I like the irony of its use. That is to say that I enjoy the idea that a compact speaker from the digital sound system in the living room runs its sound to an 80 year old box which used to only get A.M. signals and was one day plugged into the wall by a cord that looks like a fragile mouse tail.

But today the radios that I use the most are two little ones that I have in the kitchen and bathroom, respectively. I have reached an age where public radio has become my "home of rock and roll." I do not like commercials and I do not like brash, boomy DJ's. That being the case I leave it on my local NPR station and just turn the "on" knob when I want to hear anything from the outside world.

Well, just the other day both my radios and my clocks started to give me trouble.

I had sent away for a cool Lexon radio that is covered in thin rubber. It's perfect for the bathroom and I don't have to worry about it getting wet if I bring it into the shower.

I had installed the generic Korean batteries that it came with, and it had been working just fine for a few weeks. But last week it started making a sound--a horrible rumbling sound. I picked it up and shook it as I do with most things that don't work (it's part of the caveman in me that just won't seem to go away). That did nothing. I gently banged it on the sink--nothing. I turned it on and off; I flicked its underside with my index finger; I squeezed it together at the edges for what reason I will never know. And then I put on my bathrobe to go downstairs and call the company that shipped it to tell them how upset I was that they would have the nerve to send me a defective radio!

And then I took a big breath ... and I went downstairs and grabbed four new AAA batteries and a screwdriver and replaced the ones that were in there.

I pushed the "on" button and it worked perfectly.

I have a clock that has been in my family for three generations. I remember my grandmother standing in the kitchen calling me to dinner from the living room and me looking at that clock to judge how long I would have to suffer through her delicious food before I could go outside and play again. I remember coming home at 1:30 am and seeing a parental figure sitting in that same kitchen under that same clock wondering what kind of trouble I had been up to and why I hadn't called.

Suffice to say that it's an important clock ... and it's powered by one little battery.

Just the other day I noticed it was out of sync by three or four minutes with my irrefutably accurate iPhone. I keep my iPhone charged up whenever it's not in my bag en route (and even then I sometimes charge it with an amazing portable power source called a "3G Juice" that Jodi gave me for Christmas. Thanks, honey). So anyway, I never do this but I was in a hurry and so I physically moved the minute hand ahead three or four minutes to where it was supposed to be.

And then the second hand just went insane and wouldn't budge. It kept lifting itself up in a valiant attempt at forward progress but it appeared to be devastated by some internal injury.

I couldn't believe it.

I developed a feeling in the pit of my stomach which I haven't felt in some time. I realized (or so I thought) that I would have to replace this family treasure of a kitchen clock. This was something that I wasn't prepared to do. And so I let it sit on the wall for the day in hopes that it would right itself. Perhaps it was just a bit worked up from being manhandled. Maybe it needed a dusting. Maybe it was telling me that it had done it's duty for forty years or more and needed to be let off the hook and set aside ... to let a new, more efficient guy take its place.

And when I came home that night at 9:30 and saw it sitting there--the second hand obsessively batting upwards with a faint "click" in an attempt to move around the dial--the minute and hour hands mired at 6:45--I was more than a little sad.

So I put down the bag of 9 volt batteries I had brought home from the store--the ones I had bought for the smoke detectors (which beep when they need a new fix)--and took it down off the wall. I laid it face down on the counter and inspected the back for, perhaps, an on/off button I had missed.

And then I saw the battery--the little AAA battery that had been in there for probably three or four years--the battery that had never asked for much and yet had spent its life informing me of my day's progress; telling me how long I had before company arrived; when the roast should be done; how late I was for work; or when it was definitely time for company to be thinking of leaving on their own--I saw that battery and I was filled with hesitant hope.

I delicately took it out and laid it on the table. Then I opened the box of AAA batteries that were on sale along with the 9 volts at the store. I inserted one of the slender cylinders in the receptacle in the back and turned the clock over. Just then I heard the stuttered "click, click, click" that could either mean success or frustrated stagnation. But when I flipped it back around I saw the workhorse of a second hand moving again! Heavens! "It's alive," I shouted! And then I put it back on the wall with a great and wide smile. I had repaired a priceless treasure from my life, and I would not have to begin the dreary search for a suitable replacement which would always pale in comparison.

I had fixed a great problem in my world with a most rational solution. But it was a solution which I had become conditioned to implement only by way of a visual or audible clue that was dedicated to its cause.

And once again, the analog world taught me more than any millions of digital signals could ever hope to.

These things that I do--these lessons that I learn--may just seem like a big deal over nothing. I thank you for reading my tales of progress in making life easier to live. Or perhaps you just finished this story and scratched your head and said, "Huh? Whatever."

But I must say that these two experiences--the radio and the clock--have taught me so much. We all have a power source. It's in every one of us. And every day and night we charge ourselves up so as to be able to tackle what may come next. We become better and better at knowing how much sleep we need, or how much food we have to eat in order to function properly. But those signs are the obvious ones: we feel hungry or we feel tired. But there are times when we start to malfunction and we can't figure out why. Sometimes we feel like there's a mechanism broken inside us. Sometimes we feel like giving up and looking for a new source of inspiration because the way we've been running has become compromised. I know that I did for more years than I care to remember. It's not easy to see when our insides tell us it's time for a change because they aren't as clear cut and obvious as we'd like them to be. Often it's something we used to do or something that used to be a part of our lives long ago that we've forgotten about. Perhaps it was something that we found from the world around us that gave us energy and hope at a time when we needed it, that has been overlooked for so long that we forget it was ever there to begin with.

So before you go banging your radio on the sink and doing real damage ... before you take the clock that your grandmother put up on her kitchen wall 40 years ago ... take a quick look in the space where the batteries go.

Make sure that the thing that is broken isn't the thing that you knew you'd have to change one day.

You may be surprised to find that it's an easier fix than you could have ever imagined.

Thanks for reading,


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