Saturday, April 5, 2008


("Golden light shines above" "Jin deng gao zhao" Chinese poster from 1978)

This week at the Jochild Corral, the story has been focused on trying to get my phone fixed. My line went dead last weekend, though I didn't discover it until Sunday night because my DSL and online connection was fine. When I did find out, I had a dilemma.

In order to request service online with AT&T, I had to have a registered account with them. In order to register, I had to request an account number which could only be delivered to me via snail mail or a phone call. (Whoops.) No use in an emergency.

I'm not able to leave my house, and I had no other phone available. So, I contacted some friends online. Two were able to help right away, and one of them, Liza, waded through the labyrinth of voice mail options to finally get hold of a live person and explain I was stranded, unable to leave my house, disabled and extremely dependent on the phone for emergencies. She explained that I worked nights and slept days. She also explained that my DSL was fine, so it must be the connection outside my apartment where the problem lay. They said they'd get right on it.

What AT&T did was to make an appointment for between 8 and 5 the following day (during my sleep hours) and inform me of that fact by calling my voice mail. Which I had no access to. When the technician came at noon the next day, I was sound asleep, with earplugs in which are necessary if you try to sleep during the day. He left a card saying the problem was inside my apartment, I'd have to make another appointment to let him in.

However, by the time I got the card, my phone was working again. This lasted for about a day, during which time I tried to catch up on the sleep and work I'd been missing by the stress. At 4:00 the next morning, however, my dial tone disappeared again.

This time, Jesse stepped up to the plate, making calls for me. (Though Liza offered again, I want to point out -- I was trying to share the burden around.) When he talked with AT&T, they insisted the problem was an interior line and again said they'd be there the next day. Jesse passed this on to me and gave me a suggested set of diagnostics, some of which I had already performed.

I didn't sleep at all that night. I did pull and replace every line, switch, modem and phone in my place (I had extras, some of which were brand new) and nothing restored the dial tone. But, again, my DSL was just fine.

The thing is, I know from 'lectricity. If a line coming into a place has a circuit that is live (and the DSL function plus the read-out on my caller ID proved the circuit was live), then the problem is NOT that circuit. I also deduced that since the DSL was only added a couple of years ago, outside my apartment would be a separate connection for that -- when the DSL was added, the technician did not come into my apartment and install a new or additional jack. Once again, this was proof it was the configuration outside my place.

At 10:30 the next morning, a second AT&T repair person showed up. This was an older white man, a little bit older than me from the looks of him which could well mean he's close to retirement. He shook my hand and said "I already looked at your hook-up outside and the problem is obvious. I can't imagine what the first technician was thinking." He went to fix it. Twenty minutes later, he returned and ran tests on all my phones, lines, and switches, declared them all good and the problem solved. He gave me a card with his supervisor's name on it, all but suggesting I call to complain about the first tech being a moron. We shook hands again and he left.

It was Friday, and I was too tired to sleep, if you know what I mean. I registered for online repair reporting with AT&T, got my magic phone call, then sat up and wrote for a while. When I finally did crash, it was for 12 hours.

So, I could go a few directions with this story. I could do some sort of Boomer rant about how competence is something we seem to have given up on in our service industry. I could make veiled references to experience and somehow, ham-handedly, tie this event in to the Democrat candidacy race, except I'd rather shoot myself than add to that insanity right now. (Just a tip: If you want to get a huge break as a political blogger, write an essay about how fucked up Hillary is about something, anything at all, make sure to use acceptable liberal white-boy language, and it WILL be posted at Daily Kos, where 50% of what goes up is about what Hillary did wrong TODAY -- even in their fucking science posts, for fuck's sakes. Guaranteed acceptance over there if you're infected with CDS.)

Or, I could talk about how Lily Tomlin's lesbian subversive sensibility helped bring down AT&T as a monopoly the first time and what will it take to stop them now, since they are aiding the Bush regimen in impeachable offenses.

But, that's not what I want to talk about today. Today, I want to talk about how it is that I know from 'lectricity.

When I was growing up, if something around the house broke (car, washer, TV, toaster), never once did we call a repair person. Not until I was in high school and my mother had a chance to take our car to the guy she'd gone through high school with, Glenn Funk, whom she trusted. But that was only the car. Everything else mechanical, electrical, engineering of any kind was left to my father to fix when he got home. Mostly, this was economics. If he could not fix it (as turned out to be the case one year with the TV, or another year with the washer), we did without for months until somehow the money could be scraped together to buy a used replacement somewhere.

However, my father also loved to tinker, and he was good at it. He claimed it as a chore, yet repairs were clearly endeavors he approached with relish and curiosity. When he was able to troubleshoot and restore working order to an appliance or a motor, he would be in a zippy mood for the rest of the day. His reason for existence verified.

As an aside, when he was in his 60s I began compiling the notes I intended to use for a biography of my family. My mother, the conduit through which we all flowed, was dead and my little brother had often been too little to recall certain events, so I was forced to consult my father about some things. It was disturbing how faulty his memory seemed to be. I'd prompt with what grades we were all in, where we lived, what childhood illnesses we had that year, birthdays -- no help. By accident, I discovered that if I could name which car we had, which washer (front loader or top loader), if the fusebox had blown during the storm season, or any other mechanical detail which had no personal attachment to our emotional life as a family, his memory would flood in and he could verify a few basics. Pathetic, but true.

And during all those repair episodes, my father felt it necessary to have what he called a helper, what we (behind his back) called a slave. An underling to fetch, hold something steady, shine a light, or, most likely, vent his frustration on. Mama was always busy and not interested in listening to his crap, anyhow, so Daddy would demand one of us dance attendance as he grabbed his toolbox. Well, let's be clear here: He'd demand it of one of my brothers. Because, you know, only a penis enables you to solder or hold open a butterfly valve.

But my brothers learned, very early, to absent the premises when a repair was in the offing. They could escape the house, and did, if only (in the case of my little brother) to hide in the bushes until the calling stopped. I, on the other hand, the asthmatic kept indoors most of the time, had no escape. And, to be honest, I was interested in repair, so I let him sigh, look at me twice with resignation, then say "All right, Margaret, I guess you'll do. Come over here and hold these electrical tape strips on your fingers without letting them stick to each other, can you manage that much?"

In the way of all Boomer girls, I learned to not react to the misogyny, the put-downs. It was just a fact of life. Instead, I craned my head to see what he was doing, and I asked questions. When he blew up at me for "bothering him", I went silent -- not sulking, because that would lead to further abuse. Just silent. A few minutes later, he'd apologize and answer my question. In this way, I picked up knowledge and skills. One skill Daddy had down pat was electricity, how it functioned, resistance, conductors, the difference between AC and DC, transformers, you name it. And I absorbed it from him.

When I graduated from high school in 1973, my parents' gift to me (completely my father's idea) was a piece of shit 1965 Pontiac LeMans with 100,000 miles already on it. He borrowed the money for it from people I cared about who could not say no because it was intended for me. He borrowed twice as much as he paid for the car and pocketed the difference. It required constant repairs to keep running, and I began doing them myself, with the aid of older dykes and idiot books. That same year, my little brother Bill began running around with a bunch of freshman hoodlums whose passions were drugs and car repair (rural Texas, what can I say). A couple of years later, when high school began to look like something he might not finish without a stint in juvie, he switched over to vo-tech and found a way to stay mostly sober, mostly focused, his hands and head buried in an engine. He became the head mechanic in the family.

I learned to lean on Bill with regard to car maintenance (he was brilliant and never once put me down), but continued to do other sorts of repair myself. Occasionally I hit a learning curve that was tough, like televisions where, when you took off the back casing, had dire warnings about messing around in the innards. Or the time I didn't realize the 220 circuit breaker in the trailer where I lived with my lover and our daughter was outside, not in the back closet with the 110 breaker. That day, I touched a live wire with my screwdriver. I woke up half a minute later on the floor across the room, my back still tingling from where I had slammed against the wall and my lover, who had witnessed the spark and catapult, screaming her head off. I drank a glass of water, went outside and pulled the breaker, and finished my repair, with her bitching at me the whole time to call in a "real" professional.

("Electricity", fractal art by Vicky Brago-Mitchell)

Three years ago, I had a breakthrough in genealogical research. I had managed to definitely trace one branch of my father's line back to Isaac Stafford, born 1823 in Moore County, North Carolina, my great-great-great-grandfather. I discovered research done by distant cousins on the Staffords, and found that in every generation from Isaac on down, the boys had invariably become mechanics, engineers, worked at hand-on jobs in the oil field, and/or been inventors. George Austin Stafford, my great-great-grandfather, listed his occupation on at least one census as "inventor", though his income was derived from farming cotton. He was co-owner of the Stafford and Robinson Straw Binder Harvester Manufacturing Company which sold shares in 1891 in Montague Co., TX. Some reports state this binder was in operation before McCormick started manufacturing their binder that mechanized agriculture, but McCormick got the patent first and my ancestor was SOL.

George's older brother Thomas W. (Tom) Stafford was a wheelwright who was also an inventor. Tom, a third brother, Parker, and a brother-in-law Bryant Williams spent much of their adult lives trying to perfect a perpetual motion machine.

A family record notes that George Stafford lost his left arm at "65 years of age, July 10, 1935, at 5:00" to a strawbinder machine. He refused to see a doctor right away from some mechanical injury, blood poisoning set in and he wound up having his arm amputated. I have a photo of a "knife/fork" he devised, forged into a blade on one side, tines on the other, that he used for eating one-handed.

When I called Daddy with the revelation about this family heritage, he immediately responded "You see? It's genetic. And you know who else was born with that ability?" I modestly said no, and he crowed "Your brother Bill!"

Well, here's the thing. It was George Stafford's daughter Estelle who is our link to that heritage. She married Sam Barnett, a cowboy, and neither Estelle nor any of their kids showed this mechanical aptitude. Their son Lorenza (my grandfather) married Villa Mae Basinger and farmed the 40 acres next door to her parents. And it was Tom Basinger, another man with a genius for contraptions and mechanical devices, who taught my father (his grandson) all he knew about how things worked. Daddy often told us stories about clever work-arounds created by Tom Basinger, stories filled with admiration for the man he trailed around after as a small boy.

So, I think it's just as likely that the reason all those Stafford boys, generation after generation, demonstrated a proclivity for tinkering is because they were raised in that environment, with that expectation. Until me, not a single female in the line has been found with a bent for mechanics. And unless you want to argue that genes only travel to those with testicles (those who do argue such idiocy are not readers of this blog), then it's nurture at play here.

A nurture I only received grudgingly, and without recognition from the parent who bestowed it still 40 years later. Or, to paraphrase Alix, "I didn't get it easy, but I got it." (guitar riff, and fade....)

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