The heating in my Shanghai apartment went out the other day. Not a big deal, you think … its after Spring Festival so that means Spring is here, right? And who needs heating when it’s Spring, right? Not so. I guess the weather numpties here don’t have smartphones to look up “vernal equinox” on Wikipedia. The temperature in Shanghai has been hovering in the single digits Celsius, a system of measurement designed to make things feel much colder, farther and heavier than they really are.
So I called the building management on the intercom. The conversation went something like this:
Me: My heater isn’t working.
Voice on the Other End: Mphrp grrb fizzle brap
Me: Oh, OK. Thank you
It was good to know that Charlie Brown’s teacher was able to find employment after those annoying cartoons ran out. But I was no closer to having a solution to my heater problem
I have a box of tools here, so I took them out, hoping that inspiration would strike. Pliers, screwdrivers, a hammer, a thingamajig and a whosawhatsis, all critical tools for the mechanically inept. But I got a whole lotta nuthin’. They stared back at me as if to say, “Why are you disturbing us. Put us back, you might hurt yourself. And hey, its cold in here … fix the damn heat!”
I went back to stare at my thermostat to see if I could figure out the problem. That’s what my father always did. “Let’s take a look and see what we’ve got here,” he would say whenever something didn’t work. I remember looking up at him, awestruck, this Superhero with a toolbelt of Batman-like complexity and a look of steely confidence. He didn’t use the word “thingamajig” … he called things by their proper names. To me, a tape measure was something to pull out and watch snap back. To him, it was a tool that gave him useful information when he was taking a look and seeing what he’d got there.
So I stared at the thermostat, to see what I had there, but again, nothing. It turned out that I was staring at the water meter. No wonder I didn’t get anything. I finally found the thermostat and glared at it. I started to analyze it – small, beige box, squarish, a few buttons, some numbers that seemed to be changing, getting smaller. I pushed the “plus” button, assuming that it might adjust the temperature higher. It turns out that the thermostat was already set at a temperature more appropriate for firing pottery, so I shrewdly guessed that it wasn’t the setting that was the problem.
I remembered that my dad would always open things – the hood of the car, the back of the stove – and that seemed to get him where he was going. I looked for a little door or something. Nothing. That sucker was sealed up tighter that David Koch’s wallet at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser.
Dad used to talk to things, “C’mon, you stupid bolt, loosen up!” So I talked to it, “Hey … um, thermostat. This is Kent. Your renter. Um … I’m freezing my patootie off out here, how about coughing up some heat.” Nothing. Then I noticed that the thermostat was made by Siemens … so I tried out some of my rusty high school German: “Hallo. Hans geht ins Kino und Monika sind im boot.” (Hello. Hans went to the theater and Monica is in the boat.) Again, nothing. It seems I had the cheaper model of thermostat, the one without the human speech processor.
Maybe the problem wasn’t with the thermostat … maybe something was blocking the heating ducts. One time, when I was a kid, I remember my dad pulling a dead (and very dry) bird out of the dryer duct. Shanghai is decidedly lacking in wildlife. We’ve got some birds, rats, feral taxi drivers, but that’s about all. I decided that I did not want to find some mummified Shanghai taxi guy curled up in the fetal position in my heating register, so I didn’t bother looking.
So I did what I usually did when things didn’t work. “OK, two can play at that game … if you won’t work,” I told it, “I’m just going to shut you off.” I had to go out of town anyway so I just turned it off. Maybe it needed a vacation, some me-time; get away from the rat race, the constant demands to produce warmth and comfort for people, people who never thanked you, never said how much they appreciated the hard work.
I returned a couple of days later to an even colder apartment (concrete walls in China are constructed with some strange technology that radiates cold) and absentmindedly turned on the heat. It was about an hour later – when things were decidedly warmer – that I remembered the problems earlier and went back to the thermostat to check. Yes, it was warmer. I felt the air blowing out of the heating registers … yes, it was truly warm, almost hot (I then went back to the thermostat to turn down the setting to “turkey basting”). I had heat again.
Don’t you wish all of life could be this way? Something isn’t working, just shut it down and give it a rest. I look at my life today and there are areas where I could sure use a hard re-boot; press ctrl-alt-delete to restart things. But alas, I’m left only with more banal thingamajigs and whosawhatsis, a critical stare and a firm self-talking to. Maybe I should try it in German.