Monday, October 5, 2009

Locked & Loaded

There are some things that aren't going to change the world, end world hunger, or bring peace to the Middle East. For instance, my ability to replace old, yellowed electrical outlets and switches in my kitchen with bright, shiny new ones.

I'm proud to say there is little in the DIY world that scares me off. Painting. Stripping off old wallpaper. Tearing down old tiles. Replacing door knobs. I've also amassed a pretty decent tool arsenal that even includes a Craftsmen power drill, a laser level, and a rockin' pair of tile nippers. But there's one thing I've steered away from and that's electrical. My fear of getting fried has far outweighed my desire to replace ugly old receptacles in every place I've ever lived. Who notices those things anyway, I rationalized?

But I had just replaced my 1970s speckled, goldenrod tiles in my kitchen with hip, new white subway tiles and somehow the dingy ivory ones just weren't doing it for me. I do have a tool master in the family. My brother, who earns a living crawling around all kinds of creepy places installing alarm systems, is always the one I call when faced with one of these, "I'm not touching this," projects.

But all the parts were sitting there--the receptacles, switches, outlet covers--and I have the patience of a juiced up celebrity on a delayed flight to LA. But that alone wasn't going to convince me I could tackle the hot wire. What it came down to was this: Was I going to let a little fear of 120 volts of electric current turn me into a jellyfish? Hell, no. It was time to face my dragons, so to speak, and grow a pair.

Not without instructions, however. I headed over to my nearby Lowe's and grabbed a book on wiring. It didn't look all that complex and my receptacles were pretty basic: no 3-way lighting; no fancy dimmer switches. Just your garden variety equipment. What complicated matters, was that there are apparently all these variations on the wires inside the box.Who knew?

The other thing I decided was a necessity was a voltage tester. I'd seen my brother use one to test if the lines were hot and figured I wasn't taking any chances. This turned out to be one of the top 10 best investments I've ever made, next to a flat iron and Estee Launder Undereye Coverup.

Like anything that scares the pants off you, the first one is always the one you dread the most. I lined up all my tools--my screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, my new switch and my new voltage tester. I shut off the breakers.  Piece of cake, I figured.  Getting the stiff copper wires into the right "J" shape to hook around the screws was no less a fete than trying to whip egg whites to just the right "stiff peak" consistency. And then shoving all these wires back into the box was a bit like trying to stuff the entrails back into a gutted fish. Having zilch experience in either of these "manly" tasks, it occured to me that we really should have Eagle Scout training for girls. You never know when you might need this stuff.

Finally, after I'd fastened the new switch in place, I stepped back and smiled. I'd done it. I threw the breakers back on and, with a little trepidation, plugged in the can opener and pressed the lever. There was the satisfying buzz. At that moment I felt like I should be doing some kind of endzone dance. I tasted the triumph that the first upright walking human must have felt when he discoverd how to make something combustible and thought: "I can control fire! I'm a god!" Anxiety, frustration, and relentless perseverance all paid off in one moment of glory.

By the end of the weekend, I'd replaced two switches and three receptacles. They look gorgeous on my new white tiles. The only problem with conquering a fear of doing something is that you no longer have a handy excuse for not doing it. There are all old, outdated electric outlets all over my condo. This is where the thrill of facing fear head-on and the realization that you've just added a new chore to your "to do" list have a pow wow. Yes, I will probably get around to replacing these outlets, but the desperate desire to do them all in one maniacal spree of electric rewiring is, for now, appeased.

Like a first date that you spend all day primping for, the thrill of taking a never-attempted risk fizzles rather quickly once you meet with success. If you're a regular risk-taker who thrives on adrenaline rushes, you turn such fetes into new hobbies. You climb Everest. Race marathons in the desert. Drive race cars at insanely high speeds. That won't be me. I won't be toting around my voltage tester asking people if there's an outlet that needs replacing just to recapture the high of thwarting death by eletrocution. A weekend of bliss is plenty for me.