Breaker Breaker

by wjw on May 28, 2014

There’s a Philip K Dick story which I read decades ago, and which I don’t remember very well, but I remember the key scene, so that’s okay.

In the key scene, the protagonist walks into a dark room and reaches for the light pull cord that he’s pulled many times before, but it isn’t there, and instead there’s a light switch on the wall.  And the protagonist comes to realize that all of reality has shifted since the last time he walked into that room, and the light switch is the proof, and that he needs to go on some kind of metaphysical quest in order to find out what’s really going on.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time, and I haven’t gone on an metaphysical quest yet, but the other day reality shifted for the first time with an actual light switch.

I had to replace a defective light switch in the kitchen, and this involved turning off the power at the breaker, which is in a room at the back of the house.  The breakers were labeled with a light No. 2 pencil in tiny lettering, and scribbled over several times, and often it’s difficult to decode them, and the house was wired in the first place by an amateur assisted by his teenage sons, so there’s no guarantee that throwing a breaker will actually turn off power where it’s supposed to, and not some other part of the house, or just turn off everything but the one switch it was supposed to turn off.

Which is all a way of saying that the foundations of reality are not very strong to begin with, at least where household wiring is concerned.

Turning off the correct breaker involves getting on my knees in a crowded corner, and turning on all the lights in the room, and sometimes using a flashlight as well, while also deploying a magnifying glass to better read the tiny print on the breaker box diagram.  And then there’s switch-flipping and a good deal of shouting back and forth from the breaker box to the place where I’m trying to turn the power off, to find out if the power is actually turned off, or if some other damn weird thing has happened.

This method actually succeeded, and then I replaced the broken switch, and I returned to the breaker box to flip the switch back to its normal position.  Which I did.

Only to discover that there was now no power at all in the kitchen, except for some reason the dishwasher, where the lights were still on.  And because one of the appliances that suddenly had no power was the refrigerator, there was a modest amount of panic happening, plus a whole lot of anger and frustration, because really I had so many better things to do.

Well, clearly the only thing to do was throw more switches.  Which I did.  And then, when I turned one whole bank of switches to off, all the power came back on.

See, there are two columns of switches in the breaker box.  And up till that moment, if you wanted the power on everywhere, you threw all the switches to the left.  But now, if you want the power on, you throw the left-hand switches to the right, and the right-hand switches to the left, so that the switches are sort of leaning toward one another.

Which had never been the case, until that particular instant.

The foundations of reality had shifted, and the breaker box was no longer following the rules it had followed for at least the preceding twenty years.

So it’s clear that the universe has put Philip K. Dick in charge of reality.  Which some of you may have suspected all along.

But as for me, I’m still wondering if I need to go on a metaphysical quest.  Because if so, I need a hint a little stronger than a freaking breaker box.

On the other hand, certain other hints are too strong for my purposes.  Rain of blood, nuclear meltdowns, plagues of locusts, etc.  I don’t need any of that, thanks.  A nice moderate-sized hint, thank you. (And if I can find the answer through Google, so much the better.)

Now the odd thing about this is that, though I replaced the switch, the light fixture still doesn’t work.  Which means the problem is probably the fixture itself, which needs replacing.  But when I try to replace it, will it be in the same place?  Will it be the same fixture? Or will it have shifted away, retconned into a new universe where it was always this way?

Stay tuned.  If, that is, we’re both still in the same place.

Lektu May 28, 2014 at 10:54 pm

“Time Out of Joint”, likely.

TJIC May 28, 2014 at 11:03 pm

I’m apparently not a viewpoint character in this tale, but just a background NPC, because from ** MY ** point of view, the left and right hand breakers have ALWAYS flipped in opposite directions, because they are the same item, but because the breaker box is left/right symmetrical, the ones on the right hand side are installed by rotating them 180 degrees.

Now, the question: did the old universe that you remember snuff out and get replaced by a new one (and thus I have false memories of having existed and dealt with breaker boxes, when I’m actually just a few days old), or was I hear all along, and my memories of breaker boxes were merely swizzled at the moment of change?

Karen Lofstrom May 28, 2014 at 11:03 pm

I think you need to hire an electrician to overhaul the breaker box and possibly the whole dang wiring system 🙁

Do they make handy little glow in the dark numbers for breaker boxen? If you could do that, you could make a handy number-fixture guide to be read with a flashlight if necessary.

Michael Mock May 29, 2014 at 3:30 am

“But when I try to replace it, will it be in the same place? Will it be the same fixture? Or will it have shifted away, retconned into a new universe where it was always this way?”

You know what would help? Vodka. Preferably polish, but in a pinch even rum will do. Time, you see, is a matter of perspective; and perspective is basically a matter of neural activity; and vodka is an ideoneurological quantum stabilizing agent. This is why everything becomes so clear and easy to solve (or at least cope with) when you’re drunk – time is, quite literally, on your side.

It’s also the reason that the Viking longship was still there in the morning. Go on, tell me that the bit about fans building it and sailing it around to conventions wasn’t just a clever bit of ret-con…

Clyde May 29, 2014 at 2:35 pm

OMG! Philip K Dick is in charge of the future? I had so hoped it would be Vernor Vinge.

TRX May 29, 2014 at 5:48 pm

I had thought it was a local thing, but everywhere I’ve lived, if breakers were marked at all, they were done with pencil on little bits of masking tape, long since illegible. Electricians must have some union prohibition against Dymo tape or felt-tip pens…

The house I live in was “professionally” rewired a few years ago, code gestapo sign-off and everything… but, other than two outlets of no particular utility, half the house is on one breaker, the other half is on another breaker, and the other five breakers don’t appear to do anything at all.

Wiring in my universe appears to stay put. Buildings, however, are subject to change. The most memorable time being when I went to a BBQ place in the next town, and there was an entirely different building there, with a hair salon. The surrounding buildings were the same, and the alien salon building had obviously been there for decades…

Jack Skilllingstead May 29, 2014 at 7:13 pm

That light switch thing is detailed in Divine Invasions, Dick’s biography.

Jim Janney May 30, 2014 at 7:23 pm

This is my new explanation whenever the facts turn out to be unfairly favoring someone else. I wasn’t wrong, I just got caught in a reality shift.

Ralf The Dog June 1, 2014 at 10:08 pm

As a profoundly lexdisic person, I have a word for that, Tuesdays.

You say, my last name no longer starts with the letter Z? No prob.

Jerry June 1, 2014 at 11:30 pm

I had to smile as I read your description of 1) access to the breaker box, 2) the state of individual breaker labels, 3) the process of calling out “Did the whatever connected to the light switch go off” and waiting for an acknowledgement, along with several bouts of “Was that ‘yes’ or ‘no?”‘ “What?” and so forth.

Ah, but then sadly – when I came to the part about arbitrary (if we’re lucky) or maniacal (if we’re not lucky) continuity of the universe – I recognized THAT stuff too.

“The Devil is in the Details.” Witty, until you suggest that the phrase might turn out to be literal rather than mere bon mot. Thanks a lot, WJW – let’s hope that Philip K. Dick stays in a good mood!

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