Home Repair and the Problem of Acclimation

By Shawn

There’s an old myth to the effect that a frog won’t jump out of a pot of boiling water if the water is heated up gradually. I’m told that this isn’t actually true about frogs (note: please do not test this), but the basic insight here certainly applies to human beings—introduce changes gradually enough, and you’ll be amazed what people will put up with. In particular, I am perpetually amazed by people’s ability to get used to shit in their house/apartment not really working properly and adapt to it in crazy ways.

And I am a perfect example of this. If something important in my apartment (e.g., a light, a chair, the dishwasher) breaks all at once, I will do something about it. But if something only kind of gradually breaks over a long period of time, there is absolutely no chance that I will do anything meaningful to fix it. What I will do is devise lazy workarounds that become increasingly convoluted as the condition of the important thing in question deteriorates further. And it won’t be until someone else comes over and points it out to me that I realize I’ve inadvertently worked up a system as complicated as anything Hegel ever came up with just to get the stupid toilet to work without calling a plumber.

Case in point—the overhead light in the kitchen. Here’s how things stood with the overhead light in the kitchen about six months ago:

Friend: Hey, I think this light is out.
Me: Nah, it’s fine; you just gotta flick the switch twice and it’ll come on.
Friend: Oh yeah, you’re right. Huh, you should probably get an electrician to look at that.
Me: Yeah, I’m probably gonna at some point. You know, if it gets worse.

And here’s how things stand with the overhead light in the kitchen as of the other day:

Friend: Hey, I think this light is out.
Me: Nah, it’s fine; you just gotta flick the switch ten times or so until you start to hear a buzzing.
Friend: That doesn’t seem to be doing anything.
Me: Well, you’re not really staggering it right. You gotta do it like, flick, pause, flick, flick, pause, flick, pause, and so on.
Friend: That’s—
Me: Also, turn off the other lights when you’re trying to get it going, and then turn ‘em back on once you’ve got it glowing steadily.  Except for the bathroom light, of course—if they’re on at the same time it trips the circuit breaker.
Friend: … You need to get this fixed immediately.
Me: Well, obviously, I’m going to. Just as soon as it gets worse.

I think what happens psychologically is that the object slowly trains you to revise your conception of what it means for it to “work,” up to the point where it gets a complete pass from you on the whole does-it-perform-its-basic-function question; then eventually, you find yourself making excuses for it like you’re in an abusive relationship, actually uttering sentences like, “Shut-up, that chair is great, you just can’t sit in it.” So my New Year’s resolution is to adopt a no tolerance policy. I’m fixing shit immediately, no matter what, just as long as it’s really broken, ‘cause if I can make it work without going to the store or calling somebody, I don’t see why I should since it only really affects me and I’m used to it this way and the toilet still works fine if you just pull the shoestring at the right angle.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Getting Sick, and the Problem of Acclimation con. « Sibling & Charybdis

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